Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Theoharides and Domino: The 2013 NBA Offseason Breakdown, Part 2

After a slight delay, Alex Theoharides (@Minne_Pop) and Matt Domino continue their conversation about the NBA offseason.

(Editor's Note: Due to the demands of Wedding Season, Alex and I had trouble finishing the second half of our conversation on our scheduled deadline. However, we would not leave you hanging. So, just in time for the start of the NFL season tomorrow night, we have the second half of our 2013 NBA Offseason analysis.)

DOMINO: Alright, Alex, after a slight delay, it’s time to continue our conversation and focus on the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Based on how the offseason played out, when we talk about the East, there is only one real place to start....


You know I love the downtrodden Bobcats. It may be that they are owned by my favorite basketball player of all-time, or that they are just so bad I feel some kind of pity for them (or kinship with them), but each year I find myself rooting for the ‘Cats.

Believe it or not, I actually like the direction they took this offseason. As Zach Lowe pointed out in his column last month, the Bobcats have taken a different direction than the Philadelphia 76ers and the Utah Jazz in trying to re-build their franchise. Instead of blowing their team up and aiming for the lottery, by signing Al Jefferson this offseason, the Bobcats are looking to build in the same manner as the Pacers and Grizzlies teams of the past half decade. They are compiling decent, young, well-priced assets that they hope to develop into quality players/stars or flip for a savvy veteran like a David West or Zach Randolph or make a smart free agent signing like Memphis did with Tony Allen, which will push them over the top.

Al Jefferson is not that signing, but I am not as low on Big Al as a lot of experts are. I am inclined to believe that he will help the team’s perimeter spacing as well as give them a go-to offensive option. According to the quotes from Big Al in Zach Lowe’s piece, Jefferson seems to appreciate the fact that Charlotte sought him out so strongly and is embracing his role as the elder statesman, mature post-player. When you pair that mindset with his career skill set (9 seasons, 16.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 50% FG, 71% FT, 20.6 PER and terrible defense), it seems like a smart—albeit overpriced—signing for the Bobcats in an attempt to change their team’s culture.

I think that their young pieces will play well off Jefferson. Kemba Walker quietly had a solid season (17.7 PPG, 5.7 APG, 3.5 RPG, 2.0 SPG 42% FG, 80% FT, 32% 3PFG, and 18.0 PER). Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (I still believe in MKG!) can only improve off his underachieving rookie season (and 2013 Summer League) and has the attitude to do so—plus if he can hustle, give them rebounding and defense, he will be a fine wing complement to Big Al. I think that Cody Zeller will be neck and neck with former Indiana teammate Victor Oladipo for Rookie of the Year and I really like the progress that Jeffery Taylor made last year and over this summer. I’m a Summer League nerd just like you, and apparently Taylor and Zeller already have a nice chemistry that we may see on the ‘Cats’ second line.

Look, if everything goes right for this team, they could sneak in as an eight seed. But the last 3 spots in the East are up for grabs between about 6 teams, so that’s a long shot. That being said, I’m bullish on the Bobcats!

OK, now feel free to slap me! Your turn, what is your under the radar/slightly delusional Eastern Conference move that you’d like to wax poetic about?

THEOHARIDES: As you might know, I hated (and secretly admired) Michael Jordan the basketball player. Is it fair to say that where you seem to be most drawn to basketball played at its highest level, I am more drawn to the emotional connection I make with specific teams and players?

DOMINO: I have never thought of it that way, but you’re actually right. Growing up, my father wasn’t really a sports fan, so I had to educate myself. Living outside of Philadelphia, the streets bled Eagles green. I learned to throw a football with my neighbor’s Philadelphia Eagles green football. During that time, I had three formative sports experiences: watching the Dallas Cowboys destroy the Eagles in the 1992 Divisional Playoffs, getting to stay up late and watch the UNC/Michigan 1993 NCAA Title Game, getting to stay up late and watch the Triple Overtime Game 3 of the 1993 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Suns. To this day, I have balanced appreciating sport (and especially basketball) played at the highest level (Bulls, Heat, Modern Big 3 Celtics, Rajon Rondo at his most transcendent and unique), with an overwhelming sense of constant dread and torture (Eagles). What separates me from being a bar-screaming jackass, is that I don’t pretend to have any true investment in these teams, not do I take any true satisfaction in their success—other than to say, “Yes, that is the destiny they were meant to fulfill.” Does that make sense? I feel like in there somewhere is the reason why I’m drawn to writing fiction over anything else. Maybe you can explain it to me? How much am I paying you for this therapy session anyway?

THEOHARIDES: That makes a lot of sense to me and I believe the going rate is $120 an hour. What say you send me a check for $200 and we call it even?

The question of why people become obsessed with certain teams or players or even sports has always fascinated me. For instance, when you listen to Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe discuss basketball it’s obvious that they approach their obsession very differently. Simmons is a fan of his team first, a fan of storylines/drama second, and a fan of the game of basketball third. Meanwhile, Lowe almost always focuses on the nuances of basketball, on what makes basketball, when played correctly, such a beautiful game to watch. Personally, I find the concept of rooting for one team over another to be entirely arbitrary and nonsensical thought experiment; however, I also find it much more enjoyable to follow basketball when I root for or against a specific team. In fact, it is often just as much fun to root against a specific team, which is why the NBA has been so enjoyable since Lebron and Bosh joined Wade in Miami. Their union gave casual sports fans a reason to watch games in much the same way the Jordan Bulls were must watch TV throughout his career.

Of course, Michael Jordan (and to a lesser extent Scottie Pippen) routinely dominated the first basketball team I ever loved, the 1990 - 1994, New York Knicks. Therefore, I must say that I revel in the Bobcats misfortune and wish nothing more for their franchise than a century spent learning how to lose with grace. With that being said, I would like to plug the fine coverage of the Bobcats that Derek James puts out each week.

Oddly enough, I still resent Jordan but I have moved past hatred with his old team, the Chicago Bulls. I don’t think nearly enough attention has been given to Derrick Rose’s return this year. One of the underlying themes of the Heat’s championship runs is that they haven’t had to play an “healthy” Bulls squad. Basketball fans have missed out on the chance to see two highly talented teams that don’t like each other compete at full strength. What I like about the Bulls is that they are the one team left in the NBA that isn’t afraid to mix it up with their opponents. There has been a lot of talk that the Bulls haven’t done enough to surround Derrick Rose with the talent needed to beat the Heat. However, this spring we watched a very similarly constructed team, the Indiana Pacers, take the Heat to 7 games.

Which starting 5 would you rather have?

Last year’s Indiana Pacers
PG: George Hill
SG: Paul George
SF: Lance Stephenson
PF: David West
C: Roy Hibbert

This season’s Chicago Bulls
PG: Derrick Rose
SG: Jimmy Butler
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Carlos Boozer
C: Joakim Noah

Or for that matter, this season’s Indiana Pacers, which will be able to substitute out Lance Stephenson for Danny Granger. I think that both the Bulls and the Pacers are going be better than they were last year.

In particular, I think the Bulls have the depth to contend with the Heat. Jimmy Butler has a real chance to become one of the premier defensive 2-guards in the league, Noah should have been the Defensive Player of the Year in 2012-2013, Boozer is the starting power forward of the So Overrated He’s Now Underrated All Stars, Deng is a fantastic all around player, who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, and Derrick Rose is a former league MVP. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that IF the Bulls can stay healthy they will contend for the NBA Championship. Of course, that’s always been the Bull’s issue. Health is a legitimate concern for a team coached by Tom Thibodeau, who has a strange obsession with overexerting his starters in meaningless regular season games. However, IF the Bulls can avoid major injuries, they are the most complete team in the East. Plus, if they beat the Heat, the Bulls will give sportswriters an excuse to use up all the “Derrick Rose From Ashes” headlines they’ve been saving since he tore his ACL.

What do you think? As a Heat fan, do the Bulls make you nervous?

DOMINO: As far as those starting fives go, it’s basically a toss up in my opinion.

When it comes to Indiana and Chicago, you really have to look at the benches. The Bulls can bring Taj Gibson, the newly signed Mike Dunleavy Jr., steady veteran Kirk Hinrich, promising second year point guard Marquis Teague, and the perennially consistent Nazr “1996 and 1998 National Champion” Mohammed off their bench. Meanwhile, the Pacers have C.J. Watson (huge upgrade over D.J. Augustin), Lance Stephenson (potential Sixth Man of the Year), Chris Copeland (didn’t like this signing), Ian Mahimni (just a big body) and, their big offseason acquisition, Luis Scola. Scola will definitely add scoring (17.3 PPG, 47% FG, 78FT last season in Phoenix) and offensive diversity to the team’s second unit, and the Pacers’ overall defensive scheme and culture will help hide his shortcomings, just like in his Houston days under Jeff Van Gundy.

Wait, I was trying to make the point that Indiana’s bench is better, but, again, I think the benches are actually a wash and that Chicago’s might actually be a little better.

I think all we can hope for is that Chicago and Indiana end up as the #2 and #3 seeds and wage an epic war in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And to be honest, each of these teams should be scaring the living crap out of Miami right now. They are both deeper, younger, and may even be better than the Heat. However as the 1993 and 1998 Bulls both showed, that doesn’t always matter in the playoffs when you have the best player in the world and a team that knows what, to use one of the worst sports clich├ęs, “it takes to win a championship.”

But, let’s stop dancing around the elephant in the room here. What about Brooklyn? Since we were discussing sentimentality in sports earlier, are you still in mourning over the official end of the Celtics’ Big Three Era? Do you think the Nets have a legitimate shot at the Finals?

THEOHARIDES: The Nets are a fascinating experiment in the win now, build later mentality that dominates many professional leagues in other countries. Although I love when teams concern themselves primarily with winning as opposed to building, the Nets worry me because their roster seems a little thin to really compete for a championship.

Roster depth (listed in the order I think they will eventually play):

Point guard: Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Jason Terry

Shooting guard: Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson (a smart pickup, he was good last year for Toronto), Jason Terry

Shooting Forward: Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, Jerry Stackhouse (if he doesn’t retire)

Power Forward: Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko, Reggie Evans, Mason Plumlee

Center: Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, Andray Blatche

Looking at the roster, the primary issue that jumps out to me is the obvious question of the team’s health. Clearly, Pierce, Garnett, Terry, AK-47, and Stackhouse (again, if he doesn't retire) will need plenty of nights off. The Nets are already indicating that Garnett will not play in back-to-backs. Meanwhile, Williams, Livingston, and Lopez have all missed games throughout their careers due to fairly serious injuries. The most significant player on the roster is Williams, who is one of the top point guards in the league. If he has to miss games, neither Livingston or Terry are reliable backups. I expect it to take the Nets roster a few months to learn to play together, particularly with Jason Kidd learning on the job as a first time NBA coach. On paper, the Nets are built to contend in the postseason; however, if the team deals with injuries and missed games throughout the regular season, I could see them being as low as a 5 or 6 seed in the playoffs, which will make it difficult for them to have a realistic chance of beating Miami, Chicago, or even Indiana. So I guess the question is, what do you see as the Nets’ ceiling?

DOMINO: Wow, you have Terry barely cracking the rotation! You must hate the JET as much as I do!

THEOHARIDES: He was awful last season, and there are just some things that you can never forget.

DOMINO: I think the Nets’ ceiling is the second seed in the East and facing the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. To break this down a little more, I’m going to show you how I think the teams will finish in the East this year.

1. Miami - This is based solely on the recent news of Wade training with Tim Grover, Riley giving him a goal to be ten pounds lighter, and the fact that the Heat have Lebron

2. Chicago - Thibodeau always pushes his team to compete every night and even with Rose working his way back in, I think they’ll finish second

3. Brooklyn - Their depth is astounding no matter how old they are.

4. Indiana - Remember, they came on late last year and they have chemistry and rotation issues to sort out with Granger, Stephenson and Scola.

5. New York Knicks - Let’s discuss their moves in a little bit. I actually like their team and I think they’ll be a sleeper by the time the Playoffs roll around. Although, the fact that Ron Artest’s stand-up show at Caroline’s (which I had purchased tickets to attend!) was cancelled casts a dark shadow on their season.

6. Atlanta Hawks - The Hawks made smart, cost-effective personnel decisions (like signing Paul Millsap) that should keep them right in the middle of the top-heavy East.

7. Detroit Pistons - The most active offseason team now trots out an impressive starting five of Jennings-Billups-Smith-Monroe-Drummond. They can mix and match their second and third units with one of their big men and their variety of wing players and that should get them at least a seven seed. Anything else would be slightly disappointing.

8. Washington Wizards - The Wall-Beal-Porter youth trio mixed with their veterans should be enough for the eighth seed, just edging out the Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving.

9. Cleveland Cavaliers - The Cavs will be battling to the wire with the Wiz for the eighth seed. They do have Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and his left hand, as well as Jarret Jack and #1 Draft Pick Anthony Bennett, but I just don’t think that’s enough to get back to the Playoffs for the first time since Lebron left town in 2010.

Do you agree with me at all? Give me your Top 8-9 in the East and then tell me what you think is going to happen to everyone’s favorite NBA Franchise...THE NEW YORK KNICKERBOCKERS!!

THEO: Okay, the top two teams are easy:

1. Miami Heat - As long as Lebron is healthy (never mind Wade & Bosh) Miami will always be able to steamroll regular season opponents. Lebron is just too good and plays too hard on a nightly basis for opponents to really deal with. The only time you really see him struggle (albeit, just barely) is in the playoffs when teams have more time to focus on game planning for him.

2. Chicago Bulls - I expect them to bring Rose back relatively slowly. However, like you said, Thibodeau teams compete (perhaps to their long-term detriment) extremely hard in the regular season.

After that, it gets a little trickier for me. I respect the talent on the Knicks and Nets, but I think Indiana is deeper and more balanced than both of New York’s teams (at least in the regular season).

3. Indiana Pacers - The Pacers finished 3rd in the East last season with a bench made up of dudes Domino used to dominate on the streets of Brooklyn (mind you, they were 11 at the time and he was 22, but still)(fake story*). Other teams in the East have improved, but with the additions of Granger, Scola, and Chris “Don’t call me Aaron” Copeland, the Pacers should be able to string together an impressive regular season.

(*Editor’s Note: This is a true story. I once steamrolled a fourteen year old kid while playing full court press in pick-up basketball in Greenpoint. To be fair, he was talking A LOT of trash. I am not proud of this fact, but to maintain editorial integrity, I have to be honest.)

4) New York Knicks - You wanted my take on the Knicks? Here goes: Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Skinny Ray Felton are too good at basketball for the Knicks to fall below a 4-seed. The rest of their roster was built as if Guy Ritchie were writing a script about a hard luck group of aging ballers, who join forces to convince the dumbest owner in the NBA (also the lead singer of one of New York’s hottest bands, JD & the Straight Shot) to give them one last paycheck. Look at the rest of their roster: Metta World Peace, more like “James Dolan got Fleeced” (grimace). Two tall men who can’t play defense (Bargnani & Stoudemire). A wily Argentine (Pablo Prigioni) and a Slovenian Street Legend (Beno Udrih). Oh yeah, and just for kicks, they got that guy with the lip tattoo on his neck to join up too (Kenyon Martin). I don’t know, I’m kind of excited for this Knicks season. I haven’t even mentioned Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway Jr., who may have been the steal of the draft. The Knicks are a definite League Pass team for me this year. Unfortunately, I also see them losing in an epic first round playoff series to your ...

5) Brooklyn Nets - Too old to win much in the regular season; too gritty to lose in the first round of the playoffs.

6) Cleveland Cavaliers - Kyrie Irving is one of the biggest health risks this side of the entire Minnesota Timberwolves roster. However, if he plays a full season, the Cavs have more talent than any of the remaining teams in the East.

7) Detroit Pistons LEAGUE PASS ALL STARS - I can’t wait to watch this team on a nightly basis (somewhere Mrs. MinnePop is shaking her head and hiding the remote). Everyone forgets how good Josh Smith is at basketball. By far the best player of the remaining teams in the East.

8) Milwaukee Bucks - This was an interesting exercise because it revealed that the East is a little deeper-mediocre than most people realize. I could have pegged Washington or Atlanta into this spot. However, I feel that it is the Bucks’ Sisyphean destiny to always make the playoffs but never to advance past the first round. Plus Nick “The Quick” Van Exel is one of their assistant coaches so that has to count for something. Right?

DOMINO: Oh, you mean, this Nick Van Exel? OF COURSE that counts for something.

The East is definitely better than people realize. The Knicks and Nets jockeying for the fourth seed should be very interesting considering all the pointless trash talk that has already occurred between the two teams thus far this offseason. And, as we have both noted multiple times, the 6-8 seeds could really go in any direction. For instance, it was extremely difficult for me to slot the Cavs finishing ninth in the standings, and I could EASILY see them overachieving and grabbing the sixth seed as you so boldly predict.

Speaking of bold predictions, let's each make one crazy prediction for the Eastern Conference this season and then wrap this thing up.

Mine is that the Pistons have an underwhelming start to the season while they figure out their rotations and chemistry. However, after the All-Star Break they start to gel before going on a thirteen game win streak in the second half of March, cementing their status as the 2013-2014 league darlings. They enter the playoffs as the seventh seed and upset the Chicago Bulls in a thoroughly entertaining and nail-biting first round series. Along the way, they are compared numerous times to the ‘06-’07 and ‘12-’13 Golden State Warriors.

What you got?

THEOHARIDES: Rajon Rondo comes back a few games after Christmas. He struggles for a little while with his shot, before putting up his typical double-double stats. Meanwhile the Celtics hover around the 8 seed in the East, which puts them at risk to lose a top pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft. As a result, Rondo gets traded by Boston to the one contending team most in need of a quality point guard. That’s right, the Houston Rockets. I worked out a few scenarios on the Trade Machine, but the one that seems the most likely is Rondo for Asik and Motiejunas. What do you think? Doesn’t it seem like Houston is just one piece away from a championship? Doesn’t it seem like Boston just wants to fold this season? Doesn’t it seem like Rondo & Harden & Dwight could beat Miami?

DOMINO: I love this scenario. It puts one of my favorite players back in the thick of the title hunt and Rondo would give the Rockets a mean streak that I feel like they currently lack. You, my friend, know how to make a bold and slightly far-fetched prediction!

On that note, let’s wrap this little chat up. We’ll reconvene in about a month when we start getting antsy for the first game of the season on Tuesday, October 29th. Yes, it’s really THAT close.

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