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The NBA’s biggest surprises, halfway through the season–Part 2

Yesterday, we took a look at some of the biggest surprises for this half-NBA season, including the surprising mediocrity of the Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves (but perhaps not in the same context) and just how terrible the Brooklyn Nets are. Peep the second half right here!
 
Portland’s excellence despite their defensive shortcomings
 
Under almost any metric you can interpret, the Portland Trail Blazers are the best offense in the NBA. Led by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, they can beat you in almost any fashion. They are willing and accurate three-point shooters, deadly from mid-range and potent in almost every rotation with guys like Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and now C.J. McCollum. The numbers are all there—they have the most offensively versatile starting five in the NBA and a very good bench behind them. In that sense, it’s no surprise they have the fifth best record in the NBA.
 
But defensively they’re not very good. They allow the 4th most points per game, coming in 22nd in defensive efficiency. They are the worst squad in the NBA at forcing turnovers and 22nd in opponent’s offensive rebounding numbers. Luckily, this team scores so well that they’re not often penalized for their defensive lapses. In many ways, they’re the lucky versions of the Minnesota Timberwolves—high scoring, efficient but with two closers at the end of games instead of Minny’s one. Portland could very well continue to thrive during the regular season, but I’m not sure how well they’ll fare during the playoffs with such mediocre to poor defensive scheme.
 
The completeness of Lance Stephenson
 
“Born Ready” Lance Stephenson was a Brooklyn, NY playground prospect, whose legend and skillset earned him a spot as one of the most highly recruited teenagers in the country. After spending one very mediocre season at the University of Cincinnati that was marred with rumors of him being difficult to coach, Stephenson made the jump to the NBA. Unsurprisingly, he was drafted 40th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft by Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers. His per game numbers in his first two NBA seasons were extremely uninspiring (just 54 total games played with averages of 2.6/1.3/1.2), especially for two decent, but unspectacular NBA squads. There was no doubt that he could be a very good pro defender, but it seemed that a player like Tony Allen was his comparative ceiling.… Read more...

“The Veto” shockwaves, two years later

Almost two years ago to the day, I woke up on an air-mattress with my phone lighting up next to my head. Texts and e-mails were pouring in, unusual at 7am Eastern Time in the days following Thanksgiving. For anyone that’s received a barrage of telecommunications at that point of the morning, there is, quite frequently, a conversation of terrifying consequence on the other line.
 
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Friends and hoopheads from all over had let me know that the NBA Lockout was over. It was Christmas in November.
 
In the days that followed, my dormant Lakers fandom had sparked and sputtered like a dusty old car coming back to life. My mind raced with the thoughts of how the team–just 18 months removed from a Game 7 NBA Finals win over the Boston Celtics–would try and rebound from a tepid title defense and second round sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks. Kobe Bryant was an elite player, Pau Gasol one of the best bigs in the game and Andrew Bynum primed for a breakout season. There was no reason why the Lakers couldn’t win a title with some minor tweaks.
 
Minor tweaking wasn’t what GM Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family had in mind.
 
On Thursday, December 8th, the Los Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Hornets consummated a trade that no one saw coming. The Lakers had dismantled their three-time NBA Finalists, dealing the front court that had been on the floor when championship confetti had fallen from the rafters not once, but twice. In the agreed upon three-team deal, LA would send Gasol to the Houston Rockets and Lamar Odom, along with Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and a first-round pick would be sent to New Orleans. In return, NOLA would send Chris Paul to the Lakers. Additionally, the Show would end up saving nearly $40 million dollars in combined salary and luxury taxes for the upcoming season. It was an absolute heist, but one that was agreed upon by three general managers and two ownership groups.
 
(Read on at Silver Screen & Roll)

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“Time to get over it”: The conundrum of Dwight Howard’s departure

Dwight Howard isn’t the first All-star player to leave his team via free agency. He’s not even the first this decade.
 
LeBron James and Chris Bosh took off on Cleveland and Toronto three years ago. Two years after that, Ray Allen joined them, walking from the Boston Celtics to their chief rivals in the Miami Heat. Steve Nash’s situation wasn’t much different than Shuttlesworth’s when he happily joined up with a Kobe-Pau-Dwight Lakers team just last offseason. Guys like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony didn’t leave their teams via free agency per se, but were dealt to teams when it became apparent that they would depart their teams in a year’s time.
 
And what follows typically isn’t pretty. After James spurned the Cavaliers on public television in July 2010, Clevelanders took to the streets and burned his jersey to ash. There was never smoke in Denver like those number 23 effigies, but to this day, Carmelo Anthony gets booed every time he touches the ball in the Mile High City. Allen was considered persona non grata by his former championship teammates when he first returned to Boston, as Beantown repeatedly seems to forget his title contributions in their continual jeering every time he returns.
 
Fans don’t forget. It’s not in their fanatical nature. Leaving a team is akin to a lover packing his or her bags for the more inviting arms of someone with better abs and more money. People take it personally–and after all, how could you not? If you’re investing as much emotion into the game as most ardent fans are, is there any reason why we should expect anything less than a visceral reaction?
 
(More to come at Silver Screen & Roll)
 
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With Dwight in tow, are they title contenders? Houston Rockets Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Jeremy Lin, SG James Harden, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Omer Asik, C Dwight Howard
 
Key bench players: PF Donatas Montiejunas, PG Patrick Beverley, PF Terrence Jones, SF Omri Casspi, SG Ronnie Brewer, G/F Francisco Garcia, PG Aaron Brooks
 
Offseason additions: C Dwight Howard, SF Omri Casspi, PG Isaiah Canaan (34th overall pick), C Marcus Camby
 
Offseason subtractions: SF Carlos Delfino, PF Thomas Robinson, SF Royce White
 
FACT OR FICTION: Dwight Howard makes this team into a title contender.
 
FICTION. But he gets them a hell of a lot closer.
 
After years and years of collecting assets and waiting, GM Daryl Morey finally assembled the super team he always seemed right on the precipice of creating. With defensive specialist wrecking ball in Howard joining a James Harden-led 45-37 8th seed team with defensive shortcomings, it almost seemed like too perfect of a formula.
 
The problem is that as we’ve seen year after year, the NBA isn’t a plug and play league. As perfect of an addition as Dwight may seem on the surface, there’s several problems that he simply doesn’t address. And one of them isn’t “Aren’t you just a relentless Lakers homer?”
 
I might be. I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m not right.… Read more...

MAMBINO Roundtable: Best/Worst of the NBA Offseason

With the NBA offseason tied up with a little bow and training camp still weeks away, we decided to sate our NBA appetites by wrapping up a crazy couple months. I threw out and e-mail and polled a couple of our brilliant young minds, and this is what we came up with:

 
KOBEshigawa
 
Best offseason move: Houston Rockets sign Dwight Howard to a four year, $88 million dollar contract
 
After years of hoarding cap room and trade assets, the Rockets’ master plan has finally came to fruition in just 9 short months. The first part of this signing actually came at the end of October, when GM Daryl Morey got James Harden for three guys named Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams. In thirty years, will anyone recognize any player there besides Harden?
 
If Howard is healthy, which I don’t have any reason to suspect he isn’t, the Rockets got a complete game changer that will change the complexion of one of the league’s most porous defenses last year. Towards the end of the season, Dwight showed that when active and engaged he’s still capable of dragging a team of athletically impaired old men to being a respectable defensive squad. Even before we look at his offensive contributions as a devastating finisher at the rim, Howard is already the season’s most valuable signing.… Read more...

Dwight Howard’s departure makes a Lakers future with LeBron James harder to see

The short term ramifications of losing Dwight Howard in free agency are obvious: even the most fanciful dreams of returning as title contenders next season are officially dead. The Lakers watched a 27-year-old center–whose capabilities, when healthy, make him a top-5 NBA player–walk right out the door. Gone is a future face of a franchise, whose defensive dominance would have kept the Lakers competitive even in the most dire of injury situations. The Lakers have lost their starting center, the fulcrum of their D and a perennial All-Star.
 
Long term? The damage could be much more profound. The ultimate cost may be losing a significant advantage that could have helped sign LeBron James in July 2014.
 
As I’ve detailed before, next summer’s free agency class is going to be much more underwhelming than many are making it out to be. Aside from James, there no other players that stand out as potential franchise cornerstones. Young players like Greg Monroe, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George will be restricted free agents (if they aren’t extended before the season begins) whose teams are likely to match whatever contract terms they are offered. The crop of unrestricted free agents will be players like Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Danny Granger, Andrew Bogut and Luol Deng, each of whom is either incapable of carrying a team by himself or too old to be a more than one or two year solutions at best. Then there are the handful of players that can choose to terminate their contracts early, such as the aforementioned James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.
 
Out of those four, LeBron is the only player that has age, talent and a winning pedigree on his side to truly serve as the type of franchise savior the Lakers need. Bosh has proven in Toronto that he’s not quite equipped for that type of responsibility, while Anthony has won just two postseason series in his ten playoff trips. Now that the Lakers do not have Howard’s services and Kobe Bryant is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the self-stylized “Chosen One” could be LA’s best hope for a quick rebuild.
 
However, without Dwight Howard in tow, it’s going to be a tougher sell than ever before to get LeBron to sign on GM Mitch Kupchak’s dotted line.
 
(Read on at Silver Screen and Roll)

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Instant Trade Analysis: Dwight Howard to the Houston Rockets…and what’s next for the Lakers?

Houston Rockets get: C Dwight Howard
 
Dwight Howard’s quixotic journey out of Orlando, into Los Angeles and finally settling in Houston has mercifully ended its stranglehold on the fortunes of no less than six franchises across the NBA. The seven-time All-Star center chose the Rockets over the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks, citing his desire to win more than anything, and Houston’s proximity to making that become a reality. As the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan astutely points out, this is the first time a player of Howard’s caliber has willingly left the Lakers in free agency. The next closest example of that ever happening is A.C. Green almost 20 years ago–a true indication of how rare an occurrence a moment of humility is for the 16-time NBA World Champions.
 
Let’s get this out of the way: regardless of what anyone thinks about Howard’s attitude, work ethic, decision-making ability or on-court ability, he made a solid choice. He looked at the immediate future for all of the clubs in question, and selected the one with a budding 23-year-old superstar, a cutting edge front office and nearly $20 million dollars in cap room in just two years time. Meanwhile, the Lakers asked him to trust a front office that has made very recent, very shaky decisions, look past coach Mike D’Antoni’s shortcomings and believe that a 35-year-old Kobe Bryant and a 39 year-old Steve Nash could come back from injuries and compete for a title. Dwight deliberated all of this knowing the pedigree of the Lakers organization and mulling an extra $30 million dollars in purple and gold change, but ultimately chose what he could see in front of him versus what was promised. I can’t say I fault him for making that decision.
 
If healthy, Dwight Howard is an absolute knock-out of a signing for Houston. Despite a reputation to the contrary, the Rockets finished the year 16th in defensive efficiency and second to last in points allowed per game, all of which should improve with a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year in the fold. He’s a more active shot blocker than the incumbent Omer Asik, as well as a better scorer on every avenue (well…except free throws). Howard should feast off a much better three-point shooting team than the Lakers were last year, with James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and perhaps Jeremy Lin gunning from long. If spry and unencumbered by a recovery from surgery, Dwight should be able to mesh well with one of league’s best fast break offenses as well as improve defense on the run. The Rockets are young and untested with a coach that has won exactly 2 playoff games while holding a clipboard, so they’ll have much to prove before anyone considers them title contenders. But they’ve got all the necessary pieces in place to get there, and quickly.
 
Going back West, like every chapter in Lakers lore, whether it be a championship at the final buzzer of the season or on the receiving end of a sweep at the first round, the question is always “what’s next?” Let’s take a look at the hanging plot threads:
 

(Finish this one up over at Silver Screen!)
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NBA Playoffs: Western Conference First Round Predictions

On Friday, we took a look at our Eastern Conference predictions. Even though one game is in the books, better late than never. Let’s get right to the other side of the bracket, the Western Conference:
 
1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 8) Houston Rockets
 
Why OKC takes it in 5 games
 
KOBEsh: It’s a 1-seed versus an 8-seed. That’s reason enough right there. 
 
But going further? You’ve got the league’s best and most efficient offense playing a squad with a middling 16th ranked defense, though they’ve certainly improved over the second half of the season. You’ve got two of the NBA’s deadliest scorers in Westbrook and Durant, and no one on the opposition that is at all suited to slow them down. You’ve got an experienced OKC front line that knows how to work advantages against a bunch of first-time playoff virgins, including Serge Ibaka whose mobility and shooting touch should tear up whatever platoon coach Kevin McHale chooses.
 
This shouldn’t be a contest. No further explanation necessary. … Read more...

What’s at stake during Lakers/Rockets tonight in game no. 82

(My latest over at Silver Screen & Roll)
 

In Major League Baseball, it’s not uncommon for the season to come down to the last game of the season. After a 162 game marathon, divisions somehow have a way of allowing for two teams to tie going into the last days of September. Now, with the recent advent of a one-game Wild Card showdown with the postseason on the line, there’s a guaranteed “win and in” situation every single year. Thanks to a truckload of injuries, an early season coach axing, chemistry issues and zero breaks, the Los Angeles Lakers face a similar situation: one day with everything on the line.

 

With so many moving parts, let’s break it down piece by piece:

 

If the Lakers win: They’ll qualify for the postseason as the 7th seed and a first round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs are locked in as the 2-seed no matter if they win or lose tonight against Minnesota. Houston has clinched a playoff spot already, so if the Lakers beat them, they’ll finish as the 8th seed and face the 1-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. Even if the Utah Jazz win tonight, a LA victory sends them fishing.

 

If the Lakers lose AND the Utah Jazz win: The Lakers do not qualify for the postseason, while the Jazz will be the 8th seed. Houston will finish with the 7th seed. Everyone cries in Southern California.

 

If the Lakers lose AND the Utah Jazz lose: The Lakers finish as the 8th seed will travel to Oklahoma City this weekend. The Rockets will be the 7th seed. No matter who else wins or loses, a Jazz loss would put LA in the playoffs.

 

If the Rockets win AND the Golden State Warriors lose: The Rockets finish as the 6th seed and avoid both the Spurs and Thunder. The Denver Nuggets are no treat, but certainly a more appetizing match up than facing the first two seeds. The Warriors would be the 7th seed and IF the Utah Jazz were to lose on top of this, the Lakers would be the 8th seed.

 
(Read on at Silver Screen & Roll)… Read more...

Make or Break Month: What Are the Lakers Up Against in February?

(My newest from Silver Screen & Roll)

 

Thirty-six games is all that stands between the Los Angeles Lakers and either a merely disappointing season or one of the worst seasons in franchise history.

 

As our own Drew Garrison wrote yesterday, this Lakers team simply can’t be trusted with your emotions; like a mercurial adolescent, there’s little indication of which squad will show its face night to night, quarter to quarter, minute to minute. It’s been a season of teases for the Lakers and their fans, vacillating wildly between the gutty, persistent crew that defeated the best team in the West, the one that, just days later, lost to the worst team in the West in a ridiculous 540 second meltdown.

 

Regardless of which way you sway with this Lakers team–having written them off or blindly hoping for a miracle stretch run–there’s little doubt that by the middle of February we should all know there this team is headed in April.

 

The next 28 days are pivotal for not just the Lakers, but of course for their main competitors for the bottom two spots on the Western Conference playoffs bracket. The Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Portland Trailblazers, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks remain in a five-team scrum for the “honor” of facing destruction via superhuman Oklahoma City Avengers Thunder squad or a methodical, Batman-esque deconstruction by the San Antonio Spurs.

 

Just to be clear about what exactly the Lakers are facing this month, let’s break down team-by-team the four weeks of February:

 

Peep the rest after the jump!Read more...