Monday, August 12, 2013

Theoharides and Domino: The 2013 NBA Offseason Breakdown, Part 1

Everybody is taking their August vacations, so that means it is the perfect time for Matt Domino and Alex Theoharides to discuss all the moves from the NBA offseason.

DOMINO: Alright, Alex, it may be hard to believe, but it’s already been a year since we were discussing the 2012 Free Agency period, the Dwight Howard Trade and predicting the NBA Title returning to Los Angeles. A lot has happened in that time, including me achieving total enlightenment, pulling off a long-form, multiple-level reverse jinx that helped the Miami Heat win the NBA Title, as well as finding one of the best, hidden-gem albums of all time. Don’t ask me what it is, because I definitely can’t tell anyone. Sorry, you know that I think you’re cool, but I just can’t.

In any case, as crazy as last year’s Free Agent Period was, I think this year’s frenzy was even more action packed. Especially when you factor in the fact that the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues became even more a thing to follow and pore over. There were a lot of big moves and also small, subtler moves.

Unfortunately, like the summer blockbuster season, we had to sit through another franchise installment called Dwightmare III, so let’s start there. We’ll work our way through the Western Conference moves and teams today, and then tackle the Eastern Conference next week.

Where do you stand on Dwight and Houston? What do you make of them? Some people are really buying into them as contenders while others still aren’t quite sold.

THEOHARIDES: The NBA Free Agency Period is a lot like a friend who refuses to reveal A) how he found enlightenment, or B) “one of the best, hidden-gem albums of all time.” In other words, it’s all about the show (and kind of a dick).

Last offseason, all anyone could talk about was how good the Lakers were going to be with the additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Smarter basketball writers than Domino and myself (such as Zach Harper, Matt Moore, and Royce Young of CBS Sports), went so far as to predict the Lakers would make the NBA finals. Obviously, the Lakers didn’t match those expectations. Howard and Nash dealt with injuries throughout the season and the team limped into the playoffs with the 8-seed.

Personally, I don’t love the move for Houston. This might be an overreaction to the Lakers’ limited productivity last season or I may be allowing my personal distaste for the way Dwight Howard plays basketball to cloud my judgment; however, I maintain that Dwight Howard is at his best when he plays for a defensive-minded coach, who knows how to feature Howard’s strengths and hide his weaknesses. Houston is relying on head coach Kevin McHale’s ability to relate to Dwight, big man to big man. I don’t think that will be a problem. McHale has both the basketball chops and the relaxed personality to connect with Dwight.

Instead, it is the Rockets' roster that will be problematic. Last season, the Rockets were at their best when they played an up-tempo offense, predicated on 3-pointers, pacing, and James Harden’s creativity. They took and made the second highest number of 3-pointers throughout the season, and, according to, they played at the second fastest pace in the league. The Rockets will surround Dwight Howard with quality outside shooters in Harden and Chandler Parsons; however, they’ll have to adjust their offense, slowing their pace and running more pick & rolls to accommodate Dwight’s limited offensive game.

Another consideration is the question of why you sign a player like Dwight Howard to a 4 year, $88 million contract. One answer would be because of his defensive prowess. However, in Omer Asik, the Rockets already had one of the league’s premier defensive centers. A second answer would be that you sign Dwight to persuade a third star to join the roster. Reports are circulating that Chris Paul heavily considered making just such a move. Of course, he ultimately decided to stay with the Clippers, which leaves the Rockets one player away from being a championship-level team. The final answer is because of Dwight Howard’s marketability, particularly in China, where the Rocket’s have a large fan base due to Yao Ming’s tenure with team. If that’s the case, I entirely understand their decision. At his best, Dwight is an incredibly marketable athlete.

Look, it doesn’t really matter what I think. Houston 'won' the offseason. They signed the best player available in free agency. I just don’t think he is the best player for their team. In a loaded Western conference, I still see them as being a few notches below the Spurs and Thunder and a notch below the Grizzlies and Warriors. If their goal is to win the NBA title (which it doesn't have to be) they will most likely fail. If their goal is to field a highly entertaining team, they will also fail. Dwight just isn't that fun to watch. But if their goal is to win regular season games, make the playoffs, and market a ton of Dwight Howard jerseys in China, then they will be successful.

What about you? Is Houston the team to beat? Did any other moves jump out to you as radically changing the landscape of the Western Conference? What teams do you see as rising or falling?

DOMINO: See, I feel as though I am part of the small group of people who actually liked the fact that the Rockets added Dwight. He’s never going to be the force he was from 2008-2011. However, last season was not a good indicator of where his career currently stands. He was playing for a dysfunctional (to be kind) Lakers team, coming off major back surgery and fighting through a variety of nagging injuries all while experiencing a level of media scrutiny that was possibly higher than that devoted to the 2010-2011 Miami Heat. Even in that environment, he still shot almost 58%, averaged 17.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. In a better team environment, after additional recovery time, and a full training camp and preseason with a more adaptable and less...shall I say...demanding second star in the form of James Harden, I think Dwight will improve on his numbers from last year. Like you say he will have better shooters surrounding him, a deeper all-around team, and much less media attention (though there will still be a lot because people want to see if Dwight will “get it” in Houston).

I actually think the Rockets are going to be better than people think. They have Asik to back up Howard. They can and should bring Lin off the bench and start Patrick Beverley at point guard, since he proved in the playoffs against the Thunder that he is far more capable than Lin of guarding the starting point guards in the league. Parsons will be a year better and Harden should feel fully comfortable in his role as the team’s go to perimeter scorer/option 1A. I’m not overlooking Dwight’s ability to disrupt chemistry, but I think people need to give Houston more credit and the team like the Clippers a little less credit. Doesn’t the idea of Ryan Hollins or Byron Mullens playing playoff minutes against Asik or Howard scare you?

THEOHARIDES: You mean this guy? And this guy? I foresee a rash of blog posts on Clips Nation calling for more playing time for the Bash Brothers 2.0.

DOMINO: Clearly, the Clippers are going to be one of the best teams in the West as well as in the entire league. They strengthened their floor spacing with the additions of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley and now have a MAJOR upgrade at coach with the much-discussed Doc Rivers signing. That being said, they are still perimeter-heavy and lack true, trustworthy depth in the frontcourt. Blake Griffin needs to take a major step forward this season or his worth and credibility as a true superstar are going to be seriously questioned. Plus, Doc Rivers was a great defensive coach with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo (gambling, but still savvy) anchoring his defense. Sure, Chris Paul is a good defender, but do Andre Jordan and Blake Griffin truly inspire you as defensive stoppers?

I know there is no such thing as momentum, but I just don’t trust the Spurs after the way they lost in the Finals. They were lucky to get to the Finals in the first place after Russell Westbrook got injured and submarined the Thunder’s chances, and their series with Memphis was closer than the final 4-0 outcome indicated. As we saw last season, a trimmed down Duncan seems to be ageless, but Manu is another year older and conceivably washed up, and some of the backcourt depth behind Parker makes me nervous. Is Belinelli actually an answer? A lot of people seem to think he is a ready made Spur, but I’m not so sure. Some people are saying that San Antonio pulled a typically Spursian move by drafting Deshaun Thomas out of Ohio State, who may end up being one of the steals of the draft. Kawhi Leonard will almost certainly take another big step forward this season and be a borderline All-Star, but is that enough to get by the Thunder or the Clippers? If anyone can motivate after heartbreak, it should be the Spurs, but I’m not sure the NBA has seen a crushing series loss like the one we just witnessed in the Finals.

But I want to talk about Golden State. Let’s talk about my sleeper team choice from last year as they enter the season with raised expectations. Then, we can pick our own Western Conference sleeper teams for this season.

What’s your forecast for the Warriors? Every NBA junkie’s favorite underdog franchise?

THEOHARIDES: I must say I am in the small minority of junkies who hated Golden State last year. Mostly, because everything I wanted to happen to the Wolves happened to them. Their management recognized the trends in the NBA and smartly placed high value on 3-point shooting and interior defense. Their young players, especially Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes all matured at the right time. And despite injuries to Andrew Bogut and David Lee, they were able to consistently win 47 regular season games and contend at a high level in the playoffs.

I “blah” their offseason. While Andre Iguodala is a superior wing defender, he is a limited shooter. On paper, he improves their roster; on the court, he will help cover for many of the defensive lapses of both Curry and Thompson. However, basketball is very much about momentum and the way individual players fit together. In the playoffs, the Warriors relied on their youth, hot shooting, and the ballz (yes, with a z) of their de facto captain Jarrett Jack to beat the Nuggets and contend with the Spurs. Personally, as a Wolves’ fan, I was always worried whenever Jack subbed in off the bench. For some reason, he killed the Wolves.

I expect the Warriors to be a slightly less entertaining version of the team they were last year. The Western Conference is so wide open that I could see them finishing as high as a 3-seed or as low as an 8-seed. Either way, I don’t see them getting out of the second round. Their biggest concerns will be keeping Bogut healthy and balancing their clusterfuck of wing players. In particular, I’d be worried about Barnes’ productivity. When motivated, he is their third most talented player. However, his minutes should drop with Iguodala on the roster.

Nice job picking Golden State last year. Even nicer job of patting yourself on the back about it. Who you got as your sleeper pick this year?

DOMINO: Hold on, I’m just reading about the Knicks working out former University of North Carolina standout Sean May.....

OK, now I’m ready!

I’m also worried about Barnes’ production now that they have picked up Iguodala. Though, I am much higher than you are on the addition of Iguodala after listening to Zach Lowe’s rationale on last week’s B.S. Report. Because Iguodala moves, cuts and passes so well, he might end up enhancing their offense despite his bad shooting.

However, the Barnes issue could be troubling. He absolutely played fantastic in the Dubs’ Western Conference Semifinals series against the Spurs. Just look at the averages. In the regular season, Barnes averaged 9.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.2 assists, while shooting a respectable 43% from the field and an average 35% from three point range. That’s not bad for a rookie, but it’s nothing to write home about (his per 36 minutes stats were slightly better, but his PER was only 11.0). However, against the Spurs? 17.3 points, 7.3 rebounds while shooting a  respectable 43% from the field. Add to the fact that he was the third most impressive player in the Team USA Under-25 scrimmage in July and it’s going to be hard to see him facing the same minutes limitations he faced last season.

But that is the dilemma facing Mark Jackson. We’ll see if he can duplicate their success without his best defensive assistant, with the league gunning for their good vibes, and with this possible rotation issue on the wing. They’ll still make the Playoffs and will probably be a sixth seed again, which is saying something considering the cap issues they were facing heading into the offseason.

What can I say? I’m an optimist and for some reason I just love the Warriors.

No, but my sleeper team, is the newly revamped Portland Trailblazers. It was no secret that the Blazers’ bench was their biggest weakness last season. And despite Damian Lillard’s fantastic rookie season, the trade rumors coming from LaMarcus Aldridge’s camp were enough to make the Portland (aka Rip City/Rose City) faithful full of dread. However, they have had an absolutely fantastic offseason. They drafted the buzzworthy (though he played terrible in Vegas) C.J. McCollum out of Lehigh, stole Robin Lopez (5.1 million next season for 11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks) on a Draft night deal with the Pelicans and Sixers, hijacked Thomas Robinson from Houston, and then just signed Mo Williams (and to a reasonable contact!) last week.

Their backcourt is going to be terrible defensively, but they can throw enough wrenches into the rotation to keep teams off guard and plus they can continue to bring Meyers Leonard (who may very well be a lost cause, but who knows) along while starting Robin Lopez, who is an above average rim protector. I mean, a starting five of Lilliard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Lopez is nothing to laugh at. Then you can bring Robinson, Williams, McCollum and Leonard off the bench—and that is more than respectable bench. Robinson for hustle, McCollum for explosive scoring punch, Williams for veteran leadership and steady playmaking, and Leonard for six fouls!

Am I being too overly optimistic? I like the Blazers as a sneaky 7 or 8 seed. Just tell me that I’m wrong!

THEOHARIDES: Let’s pause one moment for a bit of breaking NBA news… Apparently, the one and only, Shabazz Muhammad, the 14th pick in the 2013 draft, an ageless man of mystery and yes, a Timberwolf, was just kicked out of the NBA Rookie Transition Program for bringing a woman into his hotel room. Minnesota, here comes Bazzie!

DOMINO: That officially became my favorite move of the offseason. I wonder what base he got to before the NBA cock-blocked him?

THEOHARIDES: Ahem...back to your question. As a Wolves fan, Portland scares the crap out of me for a few reasons, only 1 of which has anything to do with basketball.

DOMINO: Are some of those reasons terrible weather, a shamelessly precious culture that pays way too much attention to donuts and not CRONUTS, and an overrated comedy show that then attempts to parody these things? 

THEOHARIDES: Yeah, more like Portlameia! Am I right? Crickets, crickets. Really, guys? Well, screw you.

But yes Matthew, you make an excellent point, Portland is the worst.

1) They have been whining for years about Minneapolis beating them in the race to be the nation’s best bike city.

2) They gave birth to David Kahn.

3) Last year, they spread their injury stank all over the Wolves.

4) Paul Allen tends to do douchy Paul Allen things. Like building the world’s biggest airplane.

5) Like you alluded to, they were sneaky good last year and have quietly spent the offseason balancing their lineup with talented young players and a few crafty veterans.

The Western Conference is going to have a logjam of teams between the 5 and 10 seed. Portland is right in the mix. However, I still see them as being 1 big man away from making the playoffs. I just don’t particularly trust Aldridge, Lopez, or Leonard.

Right now, I have the top 6 teams going something like this:

1) OKC Thunder
2) San Antonio Spurs
3) LA Clippers
4) Houston Rockets
5) Golden State Warriors
6) Memphis Grizzlies (who I actually think had a very shaky offseason)

The 7 and 8 seeds are almost impossible to predict. Obviously, I hope the Wolves can grab one of those spots. But there are still so many question marks. How will Kevin Love look after missing most of last season? With a full offseason to work on his jump shot, will Rubio grow into a more complete player? Can the team stay healthy? The team that is really giving me fits is New Orleans. Like you mentioned, Anthony Davis was the second most impressive player at the USA Basketball Showcase. Is it crazy to think they could grab an 8-seed?

DOMINO:  It’s going to be a tough call for the bottom half of the Western Conference. I was seriously impressed with Anthony Davis in the U.S. Basketball Showcase and expect him to take a huge leap in his second season. (Though you can’t argue with 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 52% FG and a 21.9 PER as a rookie) The key for Davis is staying healthy. He definitely has added some offseason muscle, but can he play the full 82 games?

I was also bullish on the ‘Cans’ (with all respect to Master Lowe, that’s the nickname I’m using) acquisition of Tyreke Evans. The contract is a little high, but he is an ultimate change of scenery guy. He was playing for a miserable team and franchise in Sacramento, so taking a risk on recent Rookie of the Year as well as a multiple position guy with career averages of 17.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and a fairly solid 45% shooting average seemed like a reasonable gamble to me. Under Monty Williams’ watch and surrounded by smarter, better teammates, I think Tyreke has a really good chance to win Comeback Player of the Year.

Still, though, this is how I see the Western Conference shaking out:

1. OKC Thunder
2. Los Angeles Clippers
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Memphis Grizzlies (I’m higher on their offseason than you are, though coaching is key here.)
5. Houston Rockets (Only 1-2 games will separate Memphis and Houston)
6. Golden State Warriors

7. Portland Trailblazers
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
9. New Orleans Pelicans

I created the separation between the top six and the bottom three because I believe that about two to three games will separate these last three teams. With Dallas right behind whoever finishes ninth.

Why don’t you take us out by giving your initial feelings on the offseason your beloved Timberwolves had, as well as your overall favorite Western Conference move? Note: I said your favorite, not the “best.”

THEOHARIDES: I am ambivalent on the Wolves’ offseason. On one hand, I applaud Flip Saunders for noticing the trend in the NBA toward 3-point shooting and going after players like Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger. On the other hand, I worry about spending $44 million on two players who don’t really play defense. Losing AK-47 will be more of a boon for Brooklyn than a loss for the Wolves. As strange as it sounds, AK is a great basketball player, with limited actual basketball skills. He is not a great shooter or ball handler, and although he is often mentioned as being a great defender, he is more of a superior help defender than a one-on-one “stopper.” AK’s best basketball skills are his ability to cut into open lanes, grab boards, and pass out of the high post. Last year, he fit in well for the Wolves because of the injuries to Love and Pekovic. However, in the few games he played alongside Pek and Love, the Wolves spacing was a mess because AK isn’t a true shooting forward. Corey Brewer, who the Wolves acquired via a sign & trade, will provide many of AK’s same skills, while also giving the Wolves an athletic wing to run the fastbreak alongside Rubio. What I am most worried about is the Wolves schedule, which has them traveling more miles than any other team in the league, and includes a nightmare start, in which they play 15 of their first 21 games against team that made the playoffs last year (also, the non-playoff teams include 2 games against Dallas and 2 games against Cleveland, one of the most improved teams in the league). If the Wolves can’t stay around 500 for the first two months of the season, I could see the team slipping into free fall.

Okay, I know, I know, enough gibberish about the Wolves, nobody cares.

Last thought time. My favorite move in the Western Conference has to be New Orleans name change from the borrowed Hornets to the ridiculously awesome Pelicans. I am all for mediocre teams changing names. As Lowe and Simmons pointed out on their recent podcast, the NBA is filled with teams with terrible names. For instance, what exactly is a Miami Heat? Or an Orlando Magic? What about Washington makes anyone think of Wizards? Is it even legal to listen to Jazz in Utah? Are there any lakes remotely close to LA? My favorite team names are those that truly represent the fans of their team and the history of their region. For example, names like the Knicks and Celtics describe the people who root for the team more than they do the style of play or the athletes who make up the team. And it’s the fans, not the players or owners, who deserve a good team name. No one wants to cheer for the Mighty Ducks in hockey, the Diamondbacks in baseball, or the Wizards in the NBA. Although it’s taken me a few years, I have finally come to appreciate the confusing Timberwolves/Twolves/Wolves trifecta. Basically, it’s just an excuse to sell sweetass tshirts and for fans to howl during games. I dig all of that. Still, I am holding out hope that the Wolves take notice of New Orleans and consider changing their name to the tried and true North Stars. If it pisses off the local hockey fans, well that’s all the better. No one in the Theoharides household likes hockey anyways.

DOMINO: OK, Minnesota Wild fans, now you know where to send your hate mail!

As for Alex and I, we’ll move our conversation to the Eastern Conference and provide you with our insights and fanbase insults on those teams next week.

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