Saturday, April 4, 2015

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye 14/15 - Lakers vs Sixers

A few days ago I watched the Lakers vs the Philadelphia 76ers and time stopped.

I knew this was going to be a rough one on the schedule but yikes, it was rough.

When I say time stopped, I mean that the game went to overtime and I literally couldn't bring myself to watch another five minutes of these two teams playing each other.

Let's get right into it.


There are obviously a few noticeable absences from the LA squad, including elder statesman Kobe Bryant and young hope Julius Randle, still out from a broken leg.

The product that did make it onto the floor isn't an accurate representation of the team going forward, but that's probably a good thing with the franchise doing everything possible to avoid giving up its top-5 protected pick and having its highest draft choice since James Worthy in 1982.

Of the players that did suit up there were a few standouts.

Chief among them were former University of Missouri starting backcourt Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown - who was recently inked to a multi-year deal after the Lakers waived Nash's retiring contract.

Clarkson looked comfortable attacking the paint, running the offence and while he did struggle defensively he has enough length to improve on that end.

After generating lottery buzz early in his final year of college, Clarkson fell to the second round and was picked at 46 by the historic franchise.

While the team is likely to pursue Rajon Rondo and a number of other big name PGs in free agency, Clarkson has shown enough that whiffing on those older guards might not be the worst thing for the Lakers.

Clarkson was most impressive finding his college buddy Jabari Brown on the perimeter to knock down shots.

Brown showed the polished offensive game you'd expect from a 22-year-old rookie but his competence from beyond the arc is a welcome addition to a Lakers roster starved of shooting since Jodie Meeks bolted for Detroit.

Jordan Hill had a quiet game and despite the physical tools he possesses, he's probably never going to put it together.

Sacre is a solid back-up or 3rd string centre, but there wasn't much else to like on the court in this game.

With Randle presumably pencilled in at power forward going forward the Lakers (if they can keep their draft pick) should be looking for a young perimeter player with upside or a big man who can anchor their D.

Karl-Anthony Towns is likely out of reach unless they get the first pick, but his huge upside makes him  the perfect player to lead the next generation of Lakers alongside Randle.

D'Angelo Russell's versatility to play the point or shooting guard are attractive qualities given Clarkson's performance this season and Kobe's injury concerns, but his lack of athleticism makes him somewhat risky given the importance of this pick.

Justise Winslow is the best combination of upside, NBA-readiness and filling a team need for the Lakers.

His aggressive style on the court will endear him to Bryant and his ridiculous athleticism/confidence gives him a great chance to benefit from the Lakers legend's tutelage.

If they  decide to roll with a point guard then Mudiay has to be the pick as the best chance of a superstar PG in this draft with his athleticism, size and vision.

Really, it's more about free agency than the draft until Bryant retires but Randle and whoever they pick now will likely be left to pick up the pieces of this once-proud franchise once the Mamba moves on.


The abomination that is Sixers basketball the last two years might be coming to an end sooner than expected.

Nerlens Noel has proved himself far more capable on the offensive end than expected coming into the season and Embiid is approaching good health.

Noel showed soft touch on a few hook shots and has that DeAndre Jordan/Andre Drummond ability to elevate and throw down dunks in an instant, but his jumper looks ugly as hell.

His chemistry with Wake Forest standout Ish Smith is tangible and Philadelphia has to hope their future starting point guard can get along with their young big man equally well.

While he impressed offensively, Noel struggled to make an impact on the defensive end playing power forward.

With Ryan Kelly dragging him out to the perimeter and away from the paint he wasn't able to anchor the defence like he had done at centre earlier in the season.

The plan going forward has been for Noel to use his speed to guard power forward's next season with the bigger Embiid guarding Cs.

But although Embiid was very impressive defending the paint in college, it might be selling Noel's prowess short having him floating around on the perimeter with the stretch fours.

Minnesota castoff Glenn Robinson III showed his athleticism and decent offensive fundamentals, but the Michigan product might never be more than a minor role player off the bench for a good team.

Thomas Robinson, the former top-5 pick who has bounced around endlessly since 2012, was a hard player to get a read on.

I changed my mind about him several times this game which is fitting given consistency is his biggest issue.

He showed no interest in the defensive end early on, couldn't find a way to contribute offensively and just seemed to carry this air of entitlement, like rotating on D and passing the ball were beneath him.

But as the game wore on he settled in a bit more and by the end was directing the D and calling out player movement from the PF position.

The challenge for Brett Brown will be to keep Robinson motivated and manage his considerable ego.
Despite his journeyman career, Robinson still seems to be in denial about taking responsibility for his lack of consistent playing time before arriving in Philly.

Until the Kansas product can put the onus on himself to improve and drop his bad habits it's hard to see any team gambling on him as a long-term piece of their future, but there were glimpses of a useable skill-set in his performance in the game.

Like the Lakers there is a lot more to the Philly roster than what took the floor.

Injured players Tony Wroten and Joel Embiid are both key pieces going forward - although Wroten will need to fight to maintain a starting PG role depending on what player the Sixers draft.

However, a wing player with a defensive mindset, shooting and a relentless motor would be the ideal result of this year's draft.

Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson are ideal candidates in the lottery and D'Angelo Russell as a combo also makes sense.

There's a lot of talk that the Sixers should take Okafor if he's available, but with Embiid and Noel already on the roster, it feels like there'd be diminishing returns on another PF/C taken with a top-5 pick.

A guy like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would also make sense with one of their later draft picks as a defender too.


After baffling fans by trading away Michael Carter-Williams, the Sixers' public relations team has its work cut out for it keeping the Philly faithful on board, but the encouraging play of Noel this season is an indication that the plan might be working - despite the ugly basketball that has come from it.

Whatever happens with this team, you have to hope the Sixers keep Brett Brown around long enough to coach a roster that is ready to compete for the playoffs after he's suffered through these losing 

As far as the Lakers go, they'll always be a free agent destination, but there are big question makes surrounding their playing style, the role Bryant will play going forward and whether they are rebuilding or just a terrible basketball team this year.

If the Cavaliers don't make the Finals and Love cops the blame there's a chance he ditches the Lebron show to return to his college stomping ground in LA.

Worst-case scenario for the Lakers is losing out on their top-5 pick if a couple of teams leapfrog them into the top 3.

Follow @hardwoodlife on Twitter for the latest updates on blog posts other basketball-related tweets.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye 14/15: Sacramento Kings @ New Orleans Pelicans

After my planned post on Miami-Boston was put off by injuries to Wade and Whiteside, it was good to get a chance to review two young, healthy teams.

The Pelicans possess one of the hottest commodities in basketball in the form of Anthony Davis, who has risen from first overall pick in 2012 to the forgotten MVP candidate of this season.

Despite missing former All-Star Jrue Holiday and stretch-four Ryan Anderson, the Pels are still in the hunt for a playoff spot in the brutal West, with former Kings guard Tyreke Evans enjoying a bounce-back season, Eric Gordon staying healthy and a number of other good role players contributing.

It's been a feel-good season for the Pelicans coming into this game, despite OKC continuing to edge ahead in the standings.

Davis is considered the future of the NBA, along with Durant, but the Kings' franchise player Demarcus Cousins is right there with him in talent.

However, the franchise has still suffered through a muddled season after a promising start.

Former coach Mike Malone had the team above .500, firmly in the playoff race and playing a cohesive, team-first game in the half-court.

Then Cousins went down with an illness and although losses came, they held their ground in the standings, only for new owner Vivek Ranadive to give Malone the boot, to the dismay of Cousins, the Sacramento fanbase and basketball lovers the world over.

It seemed like the more things changed the more they stayed the same for the Kings, with ownership making the same impulsive decisions as the unpopular Maloofs.

The reasoning given for the firing was that Ranadive wanted a coach who could play with more pace, to make the game more exciting and draw fans ahead of the new stadium being built.

While winning would seem to be a bigger draw for fans, the decision was final.

Interim coach Ty Corbin was a nightmare, demonstrating the same lack of ingenuity and inability to develop young players that had driven him out of Utah.

Finally, after the Kings were able to secure a Hall of Fame coach in George Karl, pushing past the rumoured disapproval of Cousins.

The early signs are good for Karl's Kings with the team earning a few impressive wins.

It was against this backdrop that the two teams squared off.


When the news came out today that OKC Thunder superstar Kevin Durant would undergo surgery and miss the rest of the season, I immediately started rooting for the Pelicans to sneak into the playoffs.

As ridiculous as Westbrook's individual efforts have been, they're also a bit old-hat for fans and seeing a young team - and budding superstar Anthony Davis - test their mettle in the post-season appeals to me a whole lot more.

Davis had a quiet game for the Pelicans, struggling to get easy looks with Rudy Gay doing an excellent job defending him and generally being overshadowed by Evans and Cousins.

The Kings did a good job of reading lob passes for AD and intercepted them on numerous occasions, forcing him to work for his points.

However, AD showed the makings of an elite post game, using a soft touch on hook shots from the block to score over smaller defenders.

If he can continue to improve his scoring in the low post to complement his deadly face-up game then the sky is the limit for Davis.

He also made an impact defensively with six blocked shots, although he didn't have much luck containing Cousins.

While Asik was tasked with guarding Cousins for the most part, it was great to see Davis match up with him over the course of the game and it will be a real treat to see these two battle it out for the next decade.

Davis is the future for New Orleans, but it was all about Evans in this game.

Tyreke displayed his typical driving game, but also showed off his improved jumper, canning several mid-range shots with confidence in the face of hapless Kings defenders.

While he needs to expand his range to the 3-point line, Evans used this game to remind his former franchise that they made a mistake in letting him go.

After being moved to the shooting-guard and small-forward since his rookie year, Tyreke is thriving at the point guard position with Holiday out and is a good complement to Davis as a guy who can attack the paint while opposing PFs are lured to the perimeter.

Ajinca is solid as a big off the bench, Norris Cole is back at his role-playing best and Quincy Pondexter is the perfect SF to add toughness to the side.

Asik's performance can be summed up by a single stat: one personal foul.

He battled with Cousins and made him work for the whole game without picking up a second foul and that's a success for the Turkish big man.

The Pelicans are a talented team on paper and have no need for another lottery pick.

The big question mark is Davis' durability but the other question's about this team's potential have been answered.

A small forward who can defend and shoot the long-ball like Kelly Oubre would be a good fit in the draft, but any 19-year-old is going to be an afterthought at this point.


It was a tale of two halves for the Kings in this game.

In the early going Sacramento was erasing any doubts I had about their suitability for a fast-paced attack.

Cousins was using his handle and passing ability to lead the break himself and score before the D was set in the half-court.

With 23 points on 10-14 shooting at the main break, Cousins looked set for a monster night and it was easy to see why.

His shooting touch in the mid-range is excellent for a centre, he ran the floor with the best and used an array of face-up drives and post-ups to frustrate the Pelicans' D.

More than anything it was the incredible energy he played with that impressed as he hustled on both ends to set the tone for his team.

Rudy Gay was feeling it early, taking away Davis' face-up game and battling inside.

Casspi was at his crafty best, Ben McLemore was using that athleticism to get out in transition and drain jumpers - even rookie Nik Stauskas sunk a long-bomb.

It was easy to see that I had been wrong, Cousins' versatility actually made him the perfect fit for Karl's up-tempo style.

But then the second half came.

Cousins, and consequently the Kings, were gassed.

The visitors stopped flying down the court, Cousins couldn't get easy looks and the Pelicans built upon a great lead.

Despite a monster dunk from Nik Stauskas, the second half was miserable for Sacramento.

Cousins became increasingly frustrated (although he did finish with 39 points and 20 boards) and the Kings were helpless to slow down New Orleans.

The real test for Karl with Cousins will be whether he can find the right balance between pace and exhaustion to let his star stay consistent through four quarters.

Derrick Williams was a bright spot though, as he confidently drilled a three-pointer, ran like crazy on transition and didn't seem lost defensively.

The former #2 pick didn't work out early in his career as an undersized PF, but as the NBA has shifted towards small-ball, Williams has found himself in the perfect situation for his talents and is worth keeping around for Sacramento.

 Gay avoided his iso-heavy bad habits of the past to put up a respectable 18 points at just under 50% from the field and was engaged defensively.

At 28, he's an ideal second banana for Cousins and a Kings team pushing for the post-season.

As I mentioned, Stauskas had some nice moments and it seems we might have given up on him too soon.

While he still gets beaten defensively, he's gaining confidence off the dribble and I wouldn't be surprised if he made a big jump in his second season.

The point guard and power forward spots are the biggest question marks for the Kings, so D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay would be welcome, but otherwise Porzingis, Myles Turner or Trey Lyles would make sense as stretch-fours.


Both teams are built around superstar big men and with all due respect to Okafor, Drummond and any other young big man out there, they are the future of the NBA.

The Kings and Pelicans have languished in the lottery for too long but with good and a bit of luck, they could both make the post-season next year, their stars are just that good.

The first-half performance of the Kings was definitely good enough to make the playoffs even in the West, it will be a matter of sustaining that over the course of a season.

I have a lot more confidence in Sacramento with Karl at the helm.

The Pelicans just need to stay healthy and they're right there so don't be too heartbroken if they miss the post-season this season, because Davis is still only 22.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye 14/15: Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye returns with a look at the Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic.

I hadn't thought about it when I decided to cover these teams, but the two franchises have a lot of similarities in their past and present.

Both teams opted to trade their disgruntled superstars for a bevy of  young talent rather than let them hit free agency (Carmelo Anthony for the Nuggets and Dwight Howard for the Magic).

Both teams have seen their former franchise player struggle in their new surroundings.

Both teams fired their coach this season and went into the game with interim head coaches in charge.

Ultimately, the most pertinent similarity between these teams is that despite being loaded with young, talented players, neither one has a true star to build around and elevate them back to relevancy yet.

But let's see what they do have based on this game - which the Nuggets blew out 119 to 100 (but led by as much as 30 for large chunks of the second half).


The thing that jumped out at me about the Magic in this game was that this team can't guard anybody.

I've never seen a team so inept at defending opposition players both on and off the ball.

The rotations were slow or non-existent, the perimeter guys looked like pylons and none of the Magic bigs looked like any threat to protect the rim.

The Magic were missing a few key guys, including Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris and Channing Frye, but this was as sorry a performance as I've seen for a long time.

Unlike the Nuggets, the Magic have already bottomed out and have spent the last two years racking up top-5 draft picks and blooding their young players.

However, despite the opportunities given to them, it feels like they more or less whiffed on both picks in terms of securing a superstar.

Their #2 pick in 2013, Victor Oladipo, is an undersized 2-guard who lacks a consistent jumper, a tight handle and a knack for scoring.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about Oladipo in isolation, he passes well from the shooting guard position, he plays with intensity, he's a hard-worker who doesn't complain about all the losing and he has enough athleticism to earn the nickname Mr 540.

He managed to amass a decent box-score with 21 points on 8-15 shooting, but it's deceptive because he did most of his work in the fourth quarter against the end-of-the-rotation guys Denver trotted out once the game was already decided.

When the game was still in the air the Indiana product was a no-show, unable to get easy buckets, settling for pull-up mid-range jumpers and just generally looking overmatched.

While it's too soon to give up on Oladipo as a franchise cornerstone, they desperately need someone - anyone - who can be a first option offensively and ease the burden on the second-year guard to create his own shots.

However, Elfrid Payton - aka the guy who cost Orlando a future first-round pick because Philly wanted to be jerks - showed flashes of his potential at the point.

He made smart passes, gave effort defensively with active hands (albeit in vain mostly) and wasn't shy about attacking the rim - despite getting repeatedly blocked by Denver big men.

You have to feel bad for a pass-first guy who doesn't have many shooters around him, but it will get easier for him once his jumper develops.

Nikola Vucevic, a key part of the Dwight Howard trade via Philly, seemed to be a steal for the Magic early in his career.

He put up huge rebounding numbers, showed poise and polish in the post and had the body to bang with opposition bigs without breaking a sweat.

The problem is that he's a huge liability defensively.

Vucevic lacks quick feet, long arms, timing and defensive awareness - things that are pretty important for a guy who is supposed to anchor the D.

It's too soon to give up on him as the team's starting C going forward, but if the Magic get a chance to take a guy like Karl-Anthony Towns, they should almost certainly go for it.

However, I should point out that taking Okafor would be a huge mistake, as he possesses the same weaknesses as Vucevic.

Aaron Gordon, the fourth pick in the 2014 draft was reportedly battling an illness or sorts, but looked lost when he did play.

His shooting range remains extremely limited, he isn't quite big enough to thrive as a defensive player and while he's energetic, that's not really enough for such a high pick in this draft.

I always thought Gordon got a bad rep when people dismissed his upside in the NBA, but it's just hard to see how he fits in as an undersized PF without the jump shot, refined post-game or handle to really contribute offensively.

The league is moving away from post-up power forwards and unless Gordon can make huge strides in the off-season towards playing the small forward, it seems inevitable that he won't live up to his draft position.

Best-case scenario Gordon pans out like a Kenneth Faried, getting by on hustle, rebounding and athleticism.

Looking at the roster, it's hard to see where they are going to get better without giving up on their past investments.

A star small forward who can score in bunches would be ideal, but there isn't really anyone in the lottery that fits that description.

The only SF worthy of a top-5 draft pick is Stanley Johnson, but he's similar to Gordon and Oladipo in that he's a well-rounded player, not a scorer (which is their biggest need).

Finding a power-forward who can cover some of Vucevic's weaknesses and spread the floor seems like a more realistic scenario.

If Towns is out of reach, then Kristaps Porzingis would be an ideal fit.

He stretches the floor, can protect the rim and could co-exist with Gordon, playing PF defensively and SF offensively.

If they can sort out their scoring and shooting issues with Porzingis, then this roster doesn't look too bad.

Tobias Harris is a versatile combo-forward, Channing Frye is a great veteran to have and Evan Fournier is ideal as a sixth man.

The Magic could start make the playoffs soon, but it's still hard to see them competing for a championship with this group without a Hawks-like effort from everyone on the team.


Let me start by saying that the Nuggets were extremely impressive in this game.

However, it doesn't change the fact that the roster doesn't quite fit together.

Denver is loaded with players who are rotation guys on good teams and it was this depth that let them earn a 3-seed in the 2013 playoffs before they were bundled out by the Warriors.

But role players aren't enough without either an incredible system like the Hawks (who even then have Al Horford on the roster) or a star to bring out their best.

The problem to me is that the Nuggets are building around fundamentally flawed players in Kenneth Faried and Ty Lawson.

Faried was a great value draft-pick for the Nuggets and he looked amazing playing with the US National team last year, but it doesn't change the fact that he's undersized, lacks the ability to create his own shot, has no range on his jumper and can't protect the rim.

Faried has the athleticism to block shots, but because he needs to use his vertical leap to contest shots in the paint, it's easy to throw him off with a simple pump fake.

He wasn't able to use his quickness to play the passing lanes of his bigger opponents either and while Denver looked amazing, they were at their best with Faried on the bench.

He certainly has a place on the team, but the front office should be careful about putting too much faith in a guy whose intangible strengths can't make up for his tangible weaknesses.

Lawson went scoreless against the Magic and it highlighted his limitations when he's supposed to be a team's first or second best player.

He struggled to blow by his man, his jumper wasn't there and at his size, his ability to defend is a struggle.

He's not a natural passer, despite dishing out eight assists in this game and the offense just seemed to flow better with him off the court.

However, while most of the spoils from the Carmelo trade haven't panned out, Danilo Gallinari offers hope.

He was simply sublime tonight, using his sweet shooting stroke, surprising handle and toughness to drop 40 points on the hapless Magic.

He's the sort of player every team could use, with legitimate power forward size, both in height and build, but the offensive skills of a small forward.

He's not a great defender, but he's smart and works hard on that end.

After being hit with injury the last couple of seasons, it's great to see the Italian forward back on the court again.

Unlike the other Nuggets vets, his strengths won't fade with age or declining athleticism and at 26, he could be productive for another decade if he can stay healthy.

His contract is up next season and there will be plenty of suitors for his services, but Denver should do their best to keep him on board.

While the Magic draft picks have been low-value for their draft position, the Nuggets have done an excellent job getting the most out of their picks, with Faried and Lawson good examples.

But it's Jusuf Nurkic who has been their true draft steal.

The Bosnian rookie has the quick hands and nimble footwork to be a terror defensively.

While he fouled out in 21 minutes, it was easy to see why the team traded Mozgov to give their young C more playing time.

Despite his broad frame, Nurkic is light on his feet on both ends, with promising touch in the post for a player his age.

In a redraft of the 2014 draft it's hard to see Nurkic falling out of the top 10 now that NBA teams have seen his huge upside.

His foul count will need to come down, but he has great chemistry with Gallinari on the court and the pair make a formidable frontline going forward.

Will Barton was the other standout young player for Denver.

I've long been a fan of Barton's and kept waiting for Portland to give him a chance, but he seems to have found his niche in Denver.

The Memphis guard is the ideal sixth man, bringing energy, toughness and amazing vision.

He always seems to know where people are on the court and it was his playmaking for Gallinari in the second quarter that really broke the game open for the Nuggets.

His jumper is still a bit shaky, but certainly not broken, and his inability to put on weight is a concern, but he makes up for it with grit and surprising hops.

The 6'6 guard was a rebounding machine in college and he displayed that same knack for offensive boards against Orlando.

Barton is similar in a lot of ways to Lance Stephenson in Indiana, with similar court vision, rebounding ability, transition scoring and toughness.

But he lacks Stephenson's volatile temperament and if he doesn't get lost in the crowd of guards on the Nuggets roster he might finally live up to the hype he generated coming out of high school.

Looking forward, the Nuggets already have pieces that are critical for a rebuilding team - a centre who can anchor the team defensively and shows signs of offensive ability and a stretch power-forward.

Guards are a dime a dozen but the frontcourt is crucial.

Taking a small forward or a shooting guard with shooting range is the logical move for the Nuggets in the draft, with Hezonja, Winslow or Oubre possibilities if they don't win the lottery.

Finding a star player will remain the challenge in Denver, but if they find the right coach who can institute a more egalitarian offensive system then the team can fill the void when older teams like the Mavericks, Spurs and Grizzlies start to drop off.

Speaking of the right coach... Ettore Messina should be at the top of their wish list.

This one got away from me again, will try to cut it down next time, but I hope you enjoyed it.

Feel free to comment or disagree, I'm happy to defend my positions.

The next teams I'll be covering are Heat and Celtics on Wednesday (or Thursday for Australians).


Both teams are stuck in the NBA equivalent of no-man's land, but with the right draft picks in this year's draft, they could start building towards a Toronto Raptors level team.

In a pinch, I'd take Denver over the Magic going forward, simply because of the rarity of a player like Nurkic.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye 2014-15: Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz

Hi all,

After honing my craft for a year in an Australian newspaper I'm back at uni doing a Masters degree, which means I finally have time to get back to this blog.

What better way than by bringing back the "Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye" series I did a while back.

With the regular season rapidly nearing its end, the focus shifts to the serious business of the playoffs as we all try to forget that the Sixers and Knicks were part of the NBA this season.

But before that happens, this series will take a look at each of the lottery-bound teams set to miss out on the post-season, offering analysis, a review of their key players and outlook for the future based on my observations from a single game late in the season.

First up are the Utah Jazz and the Detroit Pistons, who played each other on Saturday, March 14, with the Jazz earning a 88-85 win at home.

Let's start with the road team.


The Pistons were a massive disappointment early in the season as Josh Smith stymied Stan Van Gundy's efforts to recreate the success he enjoyed in Orlando in his return to the bench.

At 5-23, the Pistons straight up waived Smith, proving that you can't put a price on chemistry (although you could argue it's around the $26 million Smith was owed in the final two years of his contract).

The run that followed instilled belief in fans that the team could deliver on its pre-season promise and find a place in the playoffs, until Brandon Jennings went down for the season with a ruptured achilles in late January.

With the trade-deadline looming, Van Gundy (also serving as GM) traded off a few pieces (including back-up PG DJ Augustin) to acquire Oklahoma City malcontent Reggie Jackson from the Thunder.

Jackson had been making rumblings about wanting to start since before the season and the Thunder traded for Dion Waiters as insurance.

After "Neon" Dion arrived, Jackson's production fell off a cliff and they were happy to let him go (and pick up Enes Kanter to boot!) rather than overpay to keep him in the summer.

So it was that the Pistons, after a tumultuous season with a fluid roster, prepared to face off against Utah.

From the outset, the difference between the two teams' mindsets was apparent.

Utah played with a collective intensity, moving the ball and savagely rebuffing entry into the paint.

However, Detroit seemed more like a collection of pieces that didn't quite fit.

Reggie Jackson learned his craft from Russell Westbrook, but seems to have picked up the Thunder All-Star's worst traits without realising the limitations of his own talent.

While Russ can afford to be in attack mode because he's a supremely gifted scorer and athlete, Jackson is far less capable of finishing in the paint or even getting past his man to get there.

It's hardly surprising that a bench player who wanted to compete against the best in the NBA played selfish basketball, but it was ugly to see him dribble the air out of the ball and take shots that were questionable to say the least.

What's worse is Reggie possesses none of the chemistry with Detroit's talented young frontcourt players Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe that Brandon Jennings had forged in Smith's absence.

Van Gundy is embracing the pace and space era, but in Jackson, he has a point guard who seems determined to resurrect hero ball in Motor City, bringing the numerous problems with OKC's offensive schemes with him to the new team.

As the game went on, the Pistons' starting PG was benched for Spencer Dinwiddie, who registered six assists to Jackson's zero and finished the game a +/ 10, while Jackson earned a -13.

With Reggie Jackson a restricted free agent after the season, it will be interesting to see if Stan the Man brings him back or forms a fucking wall to keep him out of Detroit and hopes for a speedy recovery for Jennings.

Going back to Drummond (who is one of my favourite young players), I didn't get to see much of him as he left the game with a concussion at half-time, but it wasn't a strong showing.

Matching up against the insanely long Rudy Gobert, Drummond struggled to keep him off the boards and couldn't find a rhythm.

Coming out of high school, Drummond wowed me with his ball-handling, lateral quickness and body control facing up.

So why is he being forced to play with his back-to-the-basket?

While he does have decent touch at the rim, he doesn't have the size of a Cousins to be able to just bully people in the post and it would be great to see him get an opportunity to face up those few big men who have him beat in sheer length like Gobert.

Defensively, Drummond needs to improve his awareness and team D, but his raw shot-blocking instincts remain and hopefully another year with Van Gundy at the helm will give him a better understanding of anchoring a team.

Part of the reason for Drummond's lack of face up opportunities and defensive struggles might be his frontcourt partner, Greg Monroe.

The Georgetown product arrived in Detroit as part of the 2010 draft, which also featured Utah players Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, and instilled hope in the franchise as a mobile C, capable of getting steals, scoring in the post and making smart passes.

But when asked to move to PF to accomodate Drummond, Monroe's defensive limitations because apparent, as he no longer enjoyed the speed advantage he had before and had less room to work in the paint, with Drummond also lurking near the rim.

Both players have different strengths, but a common weakness requiring them to stay near the rim makes it difficult for this duo to co-exist happily.

Monroe had a rough game against Utah, being out-muscled by Favors on several occasions and unable to use his post-moves to get a clean shot against Gobert's looming arms.

Moose's body language was appalling in the early going, constantly complaining at the referees for foul calls that weren't warranted.

After Drummond took a seat, Monroe was able to find a bit more success, but it's uncertain whether he'll be willing to return to the Pistons as an unrestricted free agent this season (especially if he's relying on Reggie Jackson to feed him in the post).

Another player who had a poor showing was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the 6'6" shooting guard from Georgia in his second year as a pro.

After blowing up summer league, it seemed like KCP was getting comfortable in the League and had some success early alongside Jennings, but he was struggling to find open looks for threes.

Despite a disappointing year, I strongly believe KCP will be a long-term started in Detroit and find his feet in the NBA.

He's a better shooter than his numbers suggest, gives effort defensively, has ideal size and doesn't seem to have an ego problem.

Dinwiddie looks to be another keeper for the rebuilding Pistons, with a good understanding of when to shoot, a willingness to make the quick pass and a humble approach.

He's an ideal back-up for this team once Jennings returns.

Overall, the Pistons have a lot of work to do before they are a legitimate playoff team.

Their ball movement needs work, the spacing was appalling and it was only through the efforts of proven vets like Joel Anthony and Anthony Tolliver that they were able to fight back in the 4th quarter, while Reggie Jackson watched from the bench.

With the playoffs out of reach, the Pistons need to address their spacing issues in the draft with a stretch-4.

Luckily, there could be a few options available in their projected draft range, including Kristaps Porzingis, Trey Lyles and Myles Turner.

Failing that, a small forward who can spread the floor and defend is a must, with Kelly Oubre the best candidate in their draft range.

After missing out on the first round of the 2014 draft, the pressure will be on Van Gundy to deliver this year.


As I touched on earlier, the Jazz were the polar opposite of the Pistons in terms of demeanour, chemistry and play style in this game.

The Jazz kept their man Gordon Hayward in the off-season, had Favors locked up already, another talented big in Kanter, a polished young PG in Trey Burke, an ideal sixth man in Alec Burks, a lengthy menace in Rudy Gobert on the bench and of course, lottery pick Dante Exum, the raw kid out of the Australian high school ranks.

On paper, this team had a promising young player at every position, enviable big man depth and just enough experience from Hayward and Favors to think about threatening for the playoffs.

Instead, the team struggled early, with Kanter and Favors suffering from the same issues defensively as Drummond and Monroe, Burks going down for the season after a promising start and Exum seeming totally overwhelmed by the play of the NBA.

However, after basically giving Kanter away at the deadline and moving Rudy Gobert into the starting line-up and Trey Burke to the bench, the team has been on a tear.

Although Favors and Gobert don't space the floor to the three-point line, Favors can hit the mid-range J and is quick enough to get out to PFs on the outside, while Gobert has been a revelation in his second season, dunking on everything, gobbling up the boards like m&ms and blocking so many shots that he earned the nickname Stifle Tower - or the French Rejection if you prefer.

This was the first time I watched a full game of Exum since the Nike Hoop Summit, where I fell in love with his amazing first step, great body control, end-to-end speed and defensive quickness.

Although he didn't wow me like he did then, it was clear that he was no bust.

Exum displayed sound instincts for making the right pass, knew when to drive and when to dish - in particular knowing how to get Gobert dunks - and despite not getting much lift on his jumper, he was able to hit a few open 3s.

Exum's shooting form reminds me of Jason Kidd in Dallas, it's very stable, has a fairly low release point, but it's effective.

Defensively, Exum was a big reason why Jackson struggled to get clean looks, using his length at 6'6" to threaten passing lanes and contest shots.

Like Harrison Barnes, Exum looks best in the starting line-up, as opposed to carrying the second unit and it's a credit to Jazz coach Quin Snyder that he recognised that.

Exum looks like what Michael Carter-Williams should have been, but will still need to tighten up his handle and get stronger.

Favors has come a long way since 2010, when he was taken third in the draft by the Nets before coming to Utah in the Deron Williams trade.

The Jazz under Ty Corbin seemed determined to turn the natural PF into a C, but he never had quite enough size to play the position effectively and seems much more comfortable alongside Gobert at the 4.

He has enough size to score over guys like Monroe and the length to protect the rim when teams try to drag Robert out of the paint.

There were a few notable instances where Favors flat-out annihilated Monroe's shot attempts in the post and he seemed a lot springier than he was last year.

Rudy Gobert took everyone by surprise this season and while I'd heard how well he'd been playing since the All-Star break, it's not until you watch him over the course of a game that you realise why people are saying he could have been the #1 pick in a redraft (even over guys like the Greek Freak).

He runs the floor extremely well, he's got quick feet for his size and, critically, he plays within his limits, rolling to the basket for finishes, setting enormous screens and getting boards.

Unlike similar behemoths Hasheem Thabeet and Roy Hibbert, Gobert has a strong enough base that he doesn't get pushed around on the block or boxed out for rebounds.

Utah found an absolute steal in Gobert and his chemistry with Exum is set to improve relations between France and Australia exponentially.

Gordon Hayward, the de facto franchise player in Utah, didn't have a great game, finishing with 12 points on 4-8 shooting, with 3 assists, 5 board and 6 turnovers.

However, his impact can't be measured in stats and he was a steady presence for this young team, not forcing anything, cutting off the ball and making quick decisions.

He was miscast as a first scoring option last season and while that hasn't quite changed, the development of the player around him has allowed Hayward to be more efficient.

He's bulked up considerably since entering the NBA and is a true mismatch at the SG position, with great size and quickness.

Although I was desperate to see Hayward reunited with Brad Stevens at the Celtics, it's hard to see him leaving when his contract is up now that Ty Corbin is gone and team chemistry much improved.

If the Jazz had a weakness in this game it was their bench, with Trey Burke and Trevor Booker doing their best to keep a second-unit lacking in talent afloat with Burks still injured.

Burke drew comparisons to Chris Paul early in his college career for his poise, polished skill-set and leadership traits.

However, after a solid, but unspectacular rookie season, the Jazz decided to upgrade at point with Dante Exum having a higher ceiling.

But to Burke's credit, he didn't complain when he was moved to the bench and he seemed content in his role as sixth man so long as the team was winning (which it has been lately).

How long Burke is happy to come off the bench is unclear, but if Utah can sell him on the idea of being a Jamal Crawford type then he'll be a valuable contributor for years to come.

There's also potential for Burke to start alongside Exum once Burks returns, as he possesses the shooting range to play off the ball, while Exum has enough size to guard 2s (allowing Hayward to switch to the small forward).

Looking to the future, there isn't much Utah lacks outside of a superstar wing scorer, but given the way the league is going away from hero-ball, they might not need one.

If they can find a 3-and-D wing like Oubre to either start or come off the bench or a power forward to stretch the floor when they want to go small (similar to Detroit), then it's not hard to see them making a playoff appearance as early as next season if some of the perenial playoff powers drop off in the West.

It's a shame this team won't get a chance to play in the post-season, but good things come to those who wait, and there's no shortage of upside on this roster.

Despite a long-held dislike of Utah stemming from the Jordan-era and my personal dislike of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, this young team might make a Jazz fan of me yet.


Detroit has talent but doesn't fit, whereas Utah has great chemistry but is lacking that potential superstar.

This off-season will be critical for Detroit with two key pieces able to leave in free agency, whereas Utah just needs to hold the course and add a few veterans to anchor their bench.

I'll try to make the next one a little shorter, but it's good to be back and congratulations if you made it this far.

Watch this space for the next edition of Lottery Teams We Hardly Knew Ye.

Monday, February 24, 2014

How to solve a problem like the Celtics?

As a Celtics fan, this season has been a grim awakening to the realities of the NBA. A team that took Miami to seven games in the 2012 playoffs now a shadow of its former self. There was chatter leading up to the trade deadline that Celtics stalwart Rajon Rondo would be traded, to better embrace a total rebuild.

However, the Celtics haven't been sitting idly by while their doom approached, and instead have stockpiled a number of draft picks, and young, talented players to surround their lone remaining star in Rondo. With the deadline passed and Rondo still in green, it begs the question, what now for the Celtics? Should they trade Rondo in the off-season, hope to land either Embiid, Wiggins or Parker in the draft and prepare for a few years of mediocrity? Or should they build around Rondo and their other pieces, using this draft to add pieces, not build a new foundation?

Before going into what they need to do, let's take a look at their roster as is, and what young pieces they have already.

First up is Jared Sullinger, a guy who was projected in the top-5 if he'd been healthy, but fell due to concerns about his back, allowing the Celtics to pick him up in the early 20's. Although healthy was an issue last season, Sully looks to have put his back problems more or less behind him and is having a solid sophomore year, exhibiting his shooting stroke, rebounding ability and high basketball IQ. However, he's average at best defensively, and is a far sight from the sort of rim protection the Celtics are accustomed to having from their big men. While I wasn't too high on Sullinger coming into the draft, I still believe he can be an excellent undersized 4-man in the mold of David West, but only if he improves his conditioning.

Backing up Sullinger was last year's draft pick Kelly "The Clinic" Olynyk, the Canadian 7-footer with a soft touch inside and out, and hair to make Bill Walton jealous. Like Sullinger, Olynyk gets by on his superior BBIQ and a solid shooting stroke from outside. However, Olynyk's T-Rex-like wingspan prevents him from protecting the rim effectively and playing the 5 alongside Sullinger; they would simply give up too much defensive ability to be a championship frontcourt.

In Avery Bradley, the Celtics have an undersized 2-guard with excellent defensive ability and an improving offensive game who excels at cutting off the ball to get easy baskets. Seemingly the ideal backcourt partner for Rondo, his shaky outside shot and a likely expensive extension to sign him long-term makes Bradley a question-mark for the future.

Jeff Green is another question-mark prospect for the Celtics, an inconsistent SF who has struggled to develop a left-hand or a more reliable jump-shot. He makes spectacular plays every other game, but is predictable with the ball in his hands, seemingly always driving to his right. While I was a big believer in Green as the heir apparent for Paul Pierce, given his age, he's a guy you could let go if he doesn't start delivering on a more consistent basis for a young Celtics team. That said, he's a solid perimeter defender and possesses the length and athleticism to worry the likes of Paul George, Lebron James and Kevin Durant.

Looking at that core group, and including Rondo (whose strengths and weaknesses are well-documented), there are a few glaring weaknesses in the roster; outside shooting, another shot creator and some interior defence.

If those needs are addressed with a likely top-5 pick and a mid-first round pick in this stacked draft, I strongly believe the Celtics can push for the playoffs with Rondo at the helm next season.

With their own pick, the Celtics should be desperately hoping they luck out in the lottery and have a chance at Joel Embiid. Getting Embiid would provide them immediate relief at the 5 spot as a rim-protector and low-post scorer who complements either Olynyk or Sullinger perfectly.

However, given Embiid's outrageously high draft stock there isn't much point planning for a no brainer. Similarly, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins will likely be off the board by the time the Celtics have their pick, so who do they choose?

With Embiid gone, there isn't a rim-protector worth taking in the 5-7 range in this draft, so taking a wing who can score and defend is the best idea.

While Australian Dante Exum has an aura of mystique and a lightning-quick first-step, his poor outside shooting and desire to have the ball in his hands makes him a bad fit. Instead, I think the Celtics should target another combo-guard in the form of Zach LaVine.

Like Exum, LaVine is extremely quick, has a good handle, size to play either guard and defends well. However, he possesses the excellent shooting touch and experience playing off the ball as a 6th man at UCLA. Although his scoring has dipped from the 16ppg he was averaging earling in the season, LaVine is still managing a respectable 10.6ppg on 47% from the field and, importantly, 43% from deep in about 25mpg.

Playing next to college superstar Kyle Anderson is hiding LaVine's immense potential as a scorer, not just a shooter. With Rondo giving him good looks while he finds his feet and already possessing solid defensive abilities, LaVine can be groomed to replace Avery Bradley as a starter while the Celtics make a playoff push next season.

Don't let a recent slump fool you, LaVine is the real deal and has the sort of body control and quickness that just can't be taught.

Assuming LaVine is taken, that still leaves the gaping hole at the 5 needing to be filled. 

Enter Meyers Leonard.

That's right, remember him?

Taken just after Andre Drummond in the 2012 draft, Leonard is a legit 7-feet tall with great length and athleticism, but a raw offensive game. While it might be too soon for Portland to give up on Leonard, Meyers has seen his minutes drop since the arrival of Robin Lopez, and might be available for the first-round pick the Celtics got from the Nets in the Pierce/Garnett trade.

I still believe in Leonard being a productive and capable NBA C, and he gives the Celtics the size they desperately need to pair alongside Sullinger/Olynyk, and an athletic finisher around the rim who runs the floor well in transition.

There simply aren't any big men available in the mid-first round who have higher upside or ability than Leonard. If Portland are willing to bite (Ainge could throw in an expiring contract like Bass to sweeten the deal), suddenly the Celtics' young core is well prepared for a playoff push in the short-tem, whilst retaining long-term upside.

The Celtics will be left with a backcourt of Rondo and LaVine, a big man rotation of Olynyk, Sullinger and Leonard, and Green settling into a role as defensive stopper and third-option scorer.

Could this team win a championship in a few years if these players reach their potential? I say yes.

Problem solved.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Prospect Watch: Kansas vs Georgetown

A lop-sided affair between a team packing two likely top-5 picks in the upcoming draft and one unlikely to have a player drafted this year, any game with Kansas is worth watching for draft fans regardless.

Andrew Wiggins - Kansas
Invisible for much of the game, Wiggins finished with a quiet 12 points on 3-10 shooting. He seemed half-hearted offensively, especially once the lead blew out to double digits. However, he was superb defensively, with a number of stellar defensive plays, including a blocked jumper after fighting around a screen, which gives you an idea of just how athletically gifted he is. He finished with 3 steals and one block, but as always, stats don't tell the full story on the defensive end. If freshman rival Jabari Parker's performance against UCLA was all O and no D, Wiggins' showing against the Hoyas was almost the exact opposite. 

However, there were some positives offensively. His shooting stroke looked good, and he managed 2-5 from beyond the arc. He gets up so quick into his shot that it's almost impossible to stop, he just needs to work on his consistency. He also managed 4 assists, usually off strong drives where he drew double-teams, and while he doesn't make spectacular passes, he often makes the simple - and correct - pass to the open man.

I've seen Wiggins play a few times now, and the trend that has emerged is that Wiggins plays a lot better when his team is down, his back against the wall. In games like this, where Kansas has the upper hand, Wiggins tries to fit in, doesn't seem to be in attack mode, and focuses on playing D. But in games where he's been down, he becomes much more aggressive and effective. After receiving a shove after the whistle on one play, Wiggins flashed his aggressive potential and buried a 3 in vengeance. If he played with that fire every minute, he'd be doing some special things.

That said, would you really want him to? Is it a bad thing that Wiggins tries to share the ball when the team is playing well and doesn't look for his own shot too much?

These are all questions Wiggins will have to answer if he wants to reclaim pole position for being taken first overall in the 2014 NBA draft.

Joel Embiid - Kansas
If you had to find another reason for Wiggins' quiet game, you would look no further than the sheer dominance of Joel Embiid in this contest.

The closest thing to Hakeem Olajuwon since the Dream himself, in both background and talent, Embiid earned that comparison and then some against Georgetown. I was intrigued to see how Embiid would handle the load on the block that is Joshua Smith. After struggling to keep him from establishing position early on, Embiid changed his strategy to front him more and did a superb job deflecting or bothering post-entry passes to the Georgetown giant.

Embiid finished with one block, but it was a doozy. Georgetown's Aaron Bowen was driving hard to the rim and elevated for the throwdown, but Embiid rose up before him and blocked it clean to stop the basket, and regain possession for Kansas.

However, players with Embiid's defensive potential are a dime a dozen these days. What really impressed me was his offensive arsenal. He showed excellent footwork against the bigger Smith, using a number of spin moves to lose him on the block. Finishing with 17 points on 4-4 shooting, Embiid also displayed both his toughness after finishing through contact a number of times, and his great FT shooting touch - the bane of many a great C (cough*Dwight Howard*cough). He also stepped out to the baseline to swish a mid-range J, which is a nice tool to have in his arsenal - although importantly, he didn't fall in love with it and went straight back to the low block.

While he could stand to gain some weight, the upside for Embiid is sky-high, and I'd have no problems taking him first overall for the same reason Houston drafted Olajuwon over Jordan.

- Josh Smith still needs to lose weight, but showed the soft hands and touch inside which draws the attention of optimistic basketball fans the world over. He has the size and skill, he just needs to little less of the former to show off the latter.
- Wayne Selden had a quiet game, but showed his shooting form is solid and had a nice dunk off the alley from Frank Mason. A likely lottery pick on upside alone, Selden could stand to return to Allen Fieldhouse for a second season to assert himself as the man and show scouts what he's capable of, instead of playing second-fiddle to Wiggins/Embiid.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Prospect Watch: UCLA vs Duke

This was a much anticipated match-up for an up and coming Bruins team against a Duke team chock-full of NBA talent. With 3 projected lottery picks (Parker, Hood, LaVine) in the mix, this was a game worth watching for draft fans. So let's breakdown who performed and who fizzled.

Jabari Parker - Duke
Parker leapfrogged his freshman rival Andrew Wiggins for the projected #1 spot a little while ago after a series of strong performances, and tonight's match-up against UCLA was no exception; Parker dropped 23 points on 7-13 shooting, and 4-8 from deep. He also made it a double-double with 10 boards and also dished out five assists. Looking at the box-score, you can see why scouts and NBA executives are so high on this kid.

However, when a player is projected #1 in such a loaded draft-class, you can't help but nitpick. Firstly, I still have my doubts about his release, while it's consistent, it also takes him a decent amount of time to get up into the shot and it might cause him some trouble getting free to shoot in the NBA next year. Also, while he does have a nice handle, I didn't see much isolation scoring from Parker on the perimeter. Rather, he moves off the ball, spots up for shots or goes to work in the post. While these are all valuable traits, you have to wonder whether he can carry the burden of an NBA franchise without better isolation scoring, especially given the expected decline in his post-up game once he makes the jump to the pros. This might account for an 8 minute stretch in the second half where Parker went scoreless until he found his way back to the FT line.

Athletically, he's not going to wow you, but he's no slouch and should hold his own. That said, lateral quickness appears to be a concern as Kyle Anderson took him to school off the bounce on numerous occasions and Parker appeared completely unable to stop him. There has to be some cause for concern when you're being beaten by a guy nick-named "Slo Mo".

Overall, Parker still has the makings of a franchise player in the NBA, but despite a polished skill-set and productivity, there are still weaknesses in his game he needs to address before I'd take him over a guy like Wiggins - especially on the defensive end.

Rodney Hood - Duke
There was chatter coming into the season that Hood would outperform Parker, but thankfully that has died down and expectations for the 6-8 combo forward have come back down to Earth. Hood showed flashes of a solid shooting touch, great work ethic and athleticism, including a few strong drives to the basket to put the Bruins away down the stretch.

However, he didn't quite seem comfortable creating his own shot and lacks the upside of his team-mate Parker and other projected lottery picks. Hood will play in the NBA and likely enjoy a long career, probably as a starter, but I didn't see anything from him which said "star player". Not a top-5 pick, but good value for a late lottery team looking to add an above average role player.

Zach LaVine - UCLA
This was the first opportunity I had to see LaVine play after hearing almost nothing about him until a few weeks ago, so I was surprised to find him coming off the bench. When he did come into the game, he was invisible through the first few minutes, and touched the ball maybe once, before passing it off to a team-mate. But the second time he touched it was leaking out on missed shot from Duke, receiving the outlet pass from Anderson and nearly grazing his head on the rim when he threw down the rock for a dunk. Ah. Now I understood why teams were so excited.

As the game wore on, it became apparent LaVine is more than just an athlete. He possesses sound form on his shooting stroke, even if it was a little off tonight, and his handle is at a high level. But what really impressed me was his body control and ability to hesitate before exploding past his man, seemingly at will. There was a particular drive where LaVine crossed over Hood (I think) twice on his way to the rim before dishing off a sweet no-look pass to Tony Parker, who unfortunately fumbled the beautiful pass.

While LaVine could certainly be taken in the top-5 in this draft, I think his career would benefit from another year in college refining his jumper and learning to be the man. If he came back he'd have a great chance of going 1st overall, but more importantly it would give him a chance to prepare for the pros properly and make sure he doesn't flame out like other players who made a premature jump to the pros.

Kyle Anderson - UCLA
This kid is almost night and day from the player we saw alongside Shabazz Muhammad and Larry Drew III under Coach Howland last year. He's more aggressive, shooting better, handling the rock more and fighting for rebounds more. He's proving this year that he has a role to play on the next level offensively; a point-forward with good size and vision.

That said, his complete inability to play on- or off-ball D will continue to hurt his draft stock. The kid's lateral quickness is non-existent and while he can play the PG offensively, you have to wonder who he could possible guard?

If Anderson puts on some more muscle and improves his conditioning and quickness he could carve out a niche role as point forward off the bench - a poor man's Boris Diaw, if you will - but despite what Dick Vitale says, Anderson just isn't all that special.

EDIT: Stay tuned for Prospect Watch: Kansas vs Georgetown in a couple of days.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hey team,

So as some of you may know I've been live-blogging the NBA draft on the blog for the last couple of years for people who can't get in front of a TV or are at work.

There were some issues with the live-blogging last time as the service I was using capped the number of people who could view it.

Instead, I'll be bringing the draft to twitter, offering insights, reporting picks and responding to any questions people might have for me.

I'm going to add a specific hash-tag to every tweet during the broadcast - which will be #hwldraft (short for hardwood life draft). Alternatively, you can just follow me on twitter - my handle is @hardwoodlife.

I hope to see some of you checking in on my coverage of this most unusual draft.

Cheers, omphalos.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hiatus over!

With a semester of Post-Graduate Journalism under my belt and the holidays officially started, I'm going to revive the blog and start posting content again.

The biggest announcement is that instead of the "Coveritlive" system I used to live-blog the NBA draft last season, I'll instead be switching to twitter for this year's draft - which should be an interesting one.

So please excuse the cobwebs that have accumulated, but watch this space for new (and hopefully better) articles.


P.S. My twitter handle is @hardwoodlife.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Team Preview: Portland Trail Blazers

Okay, I've been really looking forward to doing this one, so let's get stuck into it. Portland's tale of woe is well known amongst NBA fans nowadays, how they cleaned up their image and formed a core which had championship written all over it, but were cruelly struck down by injury and are now forced into yet another rebuild.

However, thanks to some questionable decisions by the Brooklyn Nets and some savvy drafting, the Blazers were able to retain pieces of their old core whilst adding high draft picks and one of the better incoming rookie classes of any NBA team. So let's see what Rip City can look forward to next season.

The guard rotation for Portland is a youth movement, with only Wes Matthews and Ronnie Price having enough NBA experience to be called veterans. Outside of these two, Damian Lillard, Elliot Williams, Will Barton and Nolan Smith are all more or less new to the pro ranks. Wes Matthews, the undrafted wonder, is the sort of shooting guard every team would like to have, he's a hard worker, can play excellent defence, shoots the long ball consistently well (career 39% from deep) and doesn't need the ball in his hands for half of the shot-clock to get his numbers. That said, he can sometimes fall in love with his own shot, and can force tough shots at times, so ego is a slight concern. He's in a position to be a starter for this Blazers team until his contract runs out, but he's a glorified role player at best, and if the Blazers are going to improve their lot and rejoin the West's elite teams, they will need to find scoring and play-making from other positions, because Matthews can't be relied upon to create off the dribble, and open looks are hard to find in the playoffs. The other vet, Ronnie Price, will play sparingly in this young backcourt, but will provide a role model for their young guards as a guy who's been there and done that. Surprise lottery pick Damian Lillard will be immediately handed the keys to the offence, with Raymond Felton departing for the Knicks this off-season. Although I'm hesitant about Lillard's ability to thrive as a scoring point in the NBA, he's made the right start by destroying Summer League competition on his way to Co-MVP in Vegas with Josh Selby of the Grizzlies. Playing against inferior competition in his college years, nobody knows if his play in the Summer League was a sign of things to come or an anomaly. Whether he can get his team mates involved, develop some chemistry with incumbent franchise cornerstones Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge will be a determinant of his future in the NBA; he could be a star, or just one of many athletic point guards in this generation. Either way, he's already done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA. Elliot Williams is also an unknown quantity for this team, despite two years already spent with the organisation. Unfortunate injuries have held him back from seeing significant time, but if he can stay healthy he'll likely be the first shooting guard off the bench in the early part of the season, but might lose out to second-rounder Will Barton if he doesn't impress early. Barton is a long-time favourite of mine and while I was stunned he fell as far as he did, Portland is the perfect situation for him; they have enough veterans to take the pressure off him and let him develop at his own pace, but the players ahead of him on the depth chart aren't cornerstones, and he certainly has the capacity to beat out any of their current off-guards given a bit of NBA seasoning. He was one of the best guard rebounders in college last season, despite his slender frame, and his competitive will to win is impressive. Although he's an unorthodox player right now, and needs to improve his jump shot, he's a battler who will put in the work to address those weaknesses. Most recently, Barton grabbed headlines by scoring 72 points against the likes of Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, Derrick Williams and other Under Armour athletes as part of the brand's promotional tour across the country. If you haven't seen the highlights yet, check them out, because although the defensive pressure wasn't NBA level, Barton clearly got under the skin of Jennings and simply scored at will, regardless of who tried to stop him. Nolan Smith is a combo guard who was surprisingly taken in the first round last season after a storied career at Duke, but he's best suited as a spark plug off the bench, and should backup Lillard at the point for lack of an alternate on the roster.

Small Forwards:
Although he tried to escape to the north this off-season, Nicolas Batum is once again a Trail Blazer after they matched his deal, and will take the lion's share of the minutes at the 3, with little depth behind him. Now that he's inked the new contract, the pressure is on Batum to improve his scoring output, continue his defensive excellence and provide leadership for the younger members of the squad. Batum should look no further than Luol Deng for inspiration; Deng has made a career of stingy defence and picking his moments to score with his smooth jumper, despite lacking a particularly tight handle. Batum has excellent size, a nice shooting stroke and great mobility, but he can be indecisive with the ball in his hands and lacks the confidence in his offensive game to take chances at times. If Batum wants to be a star, as he recently told the press, he can start by showing more self-belief. Backing up Batum will be Luke Babbitt. Babbitt was the 16th pick a few years back, but has failed to break into the rotation before now, with Batum and Gerald Wallace ahead of him on the depth chart, but with Wallace gone and Batum starting full-time, the position of backup SF is there for the taking if Babbitt has the drive to take it. He'll provide the outside shooting that saw him taken in the first round, but it's unlikely he'll bring much else to the table this season. Luckily, there isn't too much pressure and he can develop at his own pace. With Craig Smith off to Israel this season, there's a good chance the Blazers will sign another SF before the start of the season, and if rumours are to be believed, former 3rd overall pick Adam Morrison could be that guy. Morrison was supposed to be the second coming of Larry Bird, but a tough loss in college killed his spirit, and the fire that made him a star in college was never really seen in the pros. This is his last chance to stick on an NBA team, and for his sake I hope he can. If not, he'll just have to be satisfied with the two championship rings he earned while a part of LA's benchwarming unit.

The frontcourt is where Portland's future lies, with All-NBA power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, incoming rookie Meyers Leonard, J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries and new import Joel Freeland making up the rotation. Aldridge is the reluctant face of the franchise, a mobile seven-footer who has a smooth jumper, great defensive timing and a versatile offensive skill-set. However, while he flourished in Roy's absence recently, once the novelty of having all the shots he wanted wore off, Aldridge's intensity wore off, as the constant double teams and pressure got to him. That said, at his best, he's the best two-way power forward in the NBA, and with a new coach, a new aura of optimism in Rip City, Aldridge, now 27, will be entering his prime years at just the right time. Whether he can continue to elevate his game and embrace the pressure of being a franchise player will be a determinant of his place as the NBA's best power forward, or the most underrated. Joining Aldridge is Meyers Leonard. The freakishly athletic Leonard is extremely mobile for his size, has great length, and is surprisingly capable with the ball in his hands. That said, he is still raw offensively and has a tendency to coast, rather than assert himself on the block and use his size and strength to dominate games. Luckily, Leonard landed alongside a premier scoring big man, and his role will be to defend, rebound and run the floor, and if he can do these things in his rookie year it will be a success. As Aldridge ages and Leonard develops there's a good chance they can maintain a dominant presence inside between the two of them for many years to come. J.J. Hickson is an athletic beast, and despite bouncing around a few teams in the aftermath of Lebron's Decision, he seems to have found a niche in Portland as a scoring big man off the bench, with his ability to make tremendous athletic plays giving him an immediate edge against the majority of bench bigs in the NBA. That said, he's traditionally played his best in extended minutes, and whether he can produce in limited minutes will be a question that needs to be addressed before the season's end, when he'll be up for another contract. Jared Jeffries is a defensive specialist, and at the very least he'll be able to mentor Meyers Leonard on that side of the ball and provide minutes off the bench or as a starter without disturbing team chemistry. Joel Freeland was a player many thought would never make it to the NBA, but he's finally arrived, and while he's not going to turn the franchise around, he's a big body who's had plenty of experience playing professional basketball, despite being new to the NBA. The Blazers will likely take a "centre by committee" approach this season, with Leonard, Jeffries and Freeland all sharing minutes, as none of them is capable of extended play at the 5 for various reasons (age and offensive ability chief among them).

Interesting Storylines:
Whether the Blazers new point guard will put his License to Lillard to good use is going to be worth watching as the season progresses, but to me the most interesting storyline comes from the bench mob. With sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford gone to LaLa-land, the role of bench scorer is up for grabs, with a number of worthy candidates in Barton, Smith and Williams. However, only one of these guys will be given the responsibility of putting up numbers off the bench, and with no precedent to fall back on given the relative inexperience of the group, this is a role that will be determined solely by merit. If I were a betting man, I'd go all-in on Barton cementing himself as first guard off the bench by season's end, but only time will tell.

Season Prospectus:
The Blazers have bottomed out as much as they can afford to with Alridge's peak years beginning now, so tanking another season to secure a high lottery pick isn't an option. However, the playoffs are likely out of reach, so Coach Stotts needs to use this season to install his systems, teach these guys how to win and prepare for a serious playoff push when his young team has another year of seasoning under their belts. Aldridge is too good a player for the Blazers to go much lower than 10th in a deep Western Conference, but if they can develop their young players and win 35-40 games this will be a successful year for a franchise and city that desperately needs a win.

Next up, Phoenix Suns.