King of the Mountain

by: Michael Shields

With a meager 19 days until the NBA 2014 season tips off, it’s time for Across the Margin’s preview. And it begins with ‘Bron and Co. with a bulls-eye painted upon their backs….

This season, much like last, it’s all about who can take down the King ((The pics used throughout this piece are by the artist Mike Farhat. Mike is a Los Angeles-based artist, whose professional brand is called Art Mobb, and he has already been commissioned by the likes of Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and even George Karl. Although his works resemble a CGI image, Farhat makes all the pieces by hand with plexiglass. Prior to his successes at Art Mobb he was story-boarding and animating for The Simpsons.)). The answer could easily be, no one. Yup, the champs are that good and everyone expects them hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come next June. The core returns intact, now motivated by the notion that they are on the verge of a three-peat and the beginning of the dynasty they so brashly promised. With them, comes the same key role players (Allen, Battier, Chalmers, Cole, Haslem) that have been getting it done, along with two shots in the dark, a couple of draft busts that the Heat are dusting off and parading out for a possible career-reviving mulligan in Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. So, the Heat are going to win it all and there is your preview ((Remember, last season, the Heat put together one of the most dominant regular seasons in NBA history. They won 66 games during the regular season, including 27 in a row from Feb. 3rd to March 25th while James turned in one of the best individual campaigns in NBA history.)). Good day to you…..

There is a reason we play the games however ((Although Miami dominated the regular season they were pushed to seven games in the playoffs by the Pacers, and the Spurs were seconds away from closing out the Finals in Game 6.)). And there are a horde of legitimate threats to Miami’s reign. I mean, what if Wade is back icing his knees night in and night out? Or if Bosh pulls a muscle in that ostrich neck of his? The East is no joke this year – and potential semifinal match-ups including Miami, Indiana, Brooklyn, and Chicago have me licking my chops, like I was watching commercials for Wendy’s new pub chicken sandwich on that beautiful golden pretzel roll. Got damn! It’s a long season, and plenty of teams are gearing up for a shot at the crown. Here is a look at the biggest threats to the throne ((Besides Gloria James’ compromising the situation with her latest love affair, Miami rapper Lambo of course))..….

10. The New York Knicks – Queensbridge native ((“So I come back home, nobody’s out but Shorty Doo-Wop/ Rolling two Phillies together in the BRIDGE we call ‘em “oo-wops.” – Nas)) Metta World Peace returns home to New York, bringing with him all his hilarious antics (“I Got Wheaties!) and a much needed spark to a team that fell just shy of the Conference Finals last season. Along with him arrive Beno Udrich and the under-achieving, yet highly talented (I can’t prove that – it’s just what I hear.), Andrea Bargnani. The team also re-signed J.R. Smith (Easy with the elbows young fella!), Pablo Prigioni ((I love the two-guard lineup that featured Felton and Prigioni in the backcourt, a set that was highly effective down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs.)), and Kenyon Martin. Trimming the fat off the oldest bench on the league, the Knicks return a core that was the second seed in the East last season. The fact that the Knicks, featuring an elite star such as Carmelo Anthony, who is surrounded by a slew of capable talent, are most likely the fifth best team in the conference – says much about the state of the East. It’s back.

9. The Memphis Grizzlies – I struggle with this one as I firmly believe in the power of the head coach, and I was continually impressed with Lionel Hollins aptness with the X’s and O’s. But wisely, the newly implanted front office didn’t look too far for Hollins replacement, employing the services of longtime Grizz assistant, and defensive specialist, David Joeger. Joeger essentially has the same crop of talent to harvest ((Besides Rudy Gay – a HUGE besides – and with the additions of Mike Miller (free agent signing), Jamaal Franklin (draft pick), and Nick Calathes.)) but the Grizz have struggled to make that next step to elite for years now. Joeger’s sound defensive reputation precedes him, so expect the Grizz to continue grinding out wins with hard nosed D, but word out of Grizz camp is that Joeger wants the boys to step on the gas some, and push the ball up the court at every opportunity. That puts the onus on the broad soldiers of Mike Conley, who the Grizzlies have been patiently grooming for just this moment.

8. Golden State Warriors – The blockbuster deals in Brooklyn and Houston stole all the shine this off-season, but Golden State did not sit idly by. The Warriors did lose key components in Jarret Jack and Carl Landry, but ended up acquiring Andre Iguodola, Toney Douglas, Jermaine O’ Neal, and Marrese Speights in the process. It makes no sense to me that Andre Iguodola gets passed around the league like a playstation joystick, as his addition makes the Warriors a legitimate contender. A starting five of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut ((That is assuming Barnes (Harrison not Matt!) is coming off the bench – a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.)) may just be the most balanced in the league. There are many reasons for high expectations in the Detroit of the West, but the most important one will always be baby-faced Steph Curry, who makes scoring just look plain easy.

7. The Houston Rockets – The only person not tired of hearing about Dwight Howard is Dwight Howard. Miley Cyrus even thinks the media needs to chill. But, anyone who has watched what has been going down in Houston recently is well aware they are one piece away from being a true contender – and that piece may in fact be Howard. I foresee James Harden running back his impressive performance from last season, and with Lin, Asik, Caspi, Brewer, and Brooks adding to that mean one-two punch of Howard and Harden, the much hyped Rockets could be the real deal.

6. The Oklahoma City Thunder – Obviously if the human velociraptor that is Russell Westbrook wasn’t recovering from a second knee surgery ((The timeline for his return is uncertain, but it appears as if he could return in late December, missing 13 to 18 games. But will Russell’s newly reconstructed knee allow him to be the same explosive player he was? We shall see.)) the Thunder would easily sit atop this list. They are that good, and have the second best player in the league, in Kevin “Kevin” Durant. With The Durantula there is always a chance, a reason to hope.

5. The Los Angeles Clippers – Let us take a moment in silence for the passing of Lob City. Because with Doc at the helm of the Clippers they aren’t going to be playing around anymore. The Globetrotter act is over, replaced by what really wins games – down and dirty defense. With Paul Paul, Griffin, and Jordan ((I recently heard these three refereed to as a “Big Three” – I got a hearty chuckle out of that.)) they have the talent, and now they have their leader. A great coach can make a difference of upwards of ten games in the win column any given year, and Doc is nothing if not a great coach. That should have the Clippers poised for a run come playoffs ((And, the Clippers, this season, provide us with that jaw-dropping moment in the realization that Anton Jamison is STILL in the league.)).

4. The Brooklyn Nets – I’m buying in. If a team were stock I’d be hoarding shares of the Nets and not cashing in until late next summer. Paul Pierce ((Jason Kidd was recently quoted as saying that Joe Johnson would be taking the final shot in close games. Has he forgotten what Pierce is capable of come crunch time? )) and Kevin Garnett have given me no reason to doubt that they got another run left in them. But, we have yet to see if this new starting lineup which features a combined 35 All-Star games ((PG Deron Williams (3), SG Joe Johnson (6), SF Paul Pierce (10), PF Kevin Garnett (15), and C Brook Lopez (1).)) is going to gel – especially under the guidance of first year coach Jason Kidd ((Who is suspended the first two games of the season after pleading guilty to driving while impaired.)). They have weapons, loads of them ((The bench features Jason Terry, AK-47, Andre Blatche, Mason Plumlee, C.J. Watson, and Reggie Evans.)), and if they remain healthy, a valid concern ((It’s funny to think that with Pierce, Garnett, and Terry on the squad – the oldest Nets is actually 38 year old Jerry Stackhouse.)), the Nets could possibly be much more than just Brooklyn’s Finest.

3. Indiana Pacers – Paul George’s quest to become a household name continues this year. After inking a deal on a max contract it is time to prove he is the real. It is easy to envision the Pacers clashing with the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, and George alone isn’t the reason to fear the blue collar, gold swagger. Somewhere in a dark room Tyson Chandler is still coming to grips with being the goat of Hibbert’s coming out party in the playoffs last year ((Chandler averaged just six points, and six rebounds in the series versus the Pacers.)) And now, throw Luis Scola and a healthy Danny Granger into the mix and the one thing that the Pacers struggled with last year – depth – is now right as rain ((No longer will the Pacers be forced to trot out Psycho T, Sam Young, and DJ Augustin – who have all been shipped out of town.)). I am hyping the Pacers chances as hard as John and Yoko hyped Bagism. I’m a believer.

2. The Chicago Bulls – There really isn’t much to talk about here beside the fact that Derrick Rose is back ((The Bulls also signed Mike Dunleavy Jr. through free agency and drafted and signed Tony Snell and Erik Murphy. Barely noteworthy.)). When the Bulls meet the Heat on opening night it will be Rose’s first game in 549 games, but the man is still the truth. He is the danger, the one who knocks. If he is healthy and ret-to-go it is game on in Chicago ((Although I demoted it to a side note, I am looking forward to tuning in for the continued rise of Jimmy Butler!)).

1. The San Antonio Spurs – Ya’ll can go ahead and count out the Spurs, but you must never forget  – “There is always money in the banana stand.” Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili are old, not real life – just NBA old, but these three continually spit in the face of father time. Maybe I am overestimating their powers, but every time I predict a fall from grace for these elder statesmen I end up with egg on my face, and I don’t like egg on my face. Pop can rest his boys all season if he likes, they will still be in the mix learning all the youngsters on fundamentals deep into the playoffs.

Best of the rest:

Los Angeles Lakers – Written off by most, I can’t help but think Kobe Bryant, after finally returning from the ruptured Achilles’ tendon suffered last May, will come out guns blazing and restore some hope to the struggling franchise. If not, the Lakers hope of one last run with Employee #8 will go the way of the Silk Road, gone but not forgotten.

Cleveland Cavaliers  – After failing to reacquire Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, and Hot Rod Williams, the Cavs offseason moves mainly consisted of adding Andrew Bynum, Anthony Bennett and Jarrett Jack to their roster. But Uncle Drew is a star in the making no more, his time has arrived, and it will be fun to watch that crossover shatter ankles for years to come.

Minnesota Timberwolves – Last season, Kevin Love played only 18 games (broken hand), Ricky Rubio missed the start of the season because of the ACL tear he suffered at the end of his rookie campaign, and Nikola Pekovic was in and out of the lineup all season. They missed a total of 109 games. This season, they are all healthy, and thus a viable threat ((The T-Wolves also signed Chase Budinger, Kevin Martin, and drafted the highly coveted Shabazz Muhammad with the 14th pick in the draft.)).

Atlanta Hawks – It is a foregone conclusion that the Hawks will make the playoffs, and also that they will get knocked out in the first round. That is how it works. The world is round, Danny McBride is the funniest motherfucker on the planet, and the Hawks are an average NBA squad. They also lost Josh Smith to Detroit ((What an emerging front-line Detroit boats, Drummond, Smith, and Monroe! The Pistons also acquired Brandon Jennings.)), which certainly doesn’t help their chances.

Portland Trailblazers – The reason we are only giving them a glancing blow of a look here is that atrocious 13 game losing streak the Blazers incurred as they limped their way to the close of the season last year. But Aldridge, Lillard ((I am convinced Trey Burke of the Utah jazz is this seasons Damian Lillard – a potential ROY candidate!)), Batum, and Mathews are gamers, and with the additions of an a much needed starting center, albeit Robin Lopez, they could compete. Could?

Denver Nuggets – It is a shame what happened this off-season to the Nuggets. I have enjoyed their undermanned efforts for the last half decade. They were all heart, a well-coached team that continually overachieved. Yet, with the loss of their GM (Masai Ujiri), their coach (George Karl), and a few key players (Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer) it will be an uphill battle for the Nuggets this season. I love Ty Lawson and the Manimal like I love Sundays with HBO, but when Nate Robinson is your best free agent acquisition (regardless of how great he looked in the playoffs) something is off.

Dallas Mavericks – It is hard to really believe that the Mavericks were 41 and 41 last year, mainly due to the fact Dirk Nowitzki missed 27 games to start the season. Dirk is healthy now, but after failing to sign the big-name free agent they were hoping for (Dwight), the Mavs settled for Monta Ellis, an unstoppable scorer who is inept in the ability to share the rock. Maybe I am just invoking some sort of legacy clause to even involve them in the conversation, as they have belonged in title talks annually, but realistically this squad as assembled today has holes a-plenty.

New Orleans Pelicans, Detroit Pistons, and The Sacramento Kings – Three interesting teams that are sure to be much improved, but not interesting enough to dive in deeply. The Pelicans should package their new embarrassing nickname with a couple players and attempt to get the Jazz nickname back ASAP. They have some young studs in Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, and Anthony Morrow. Maybe they can get a deal done before its too late.

And there you have it, the heavyweight contenders who will be butting heads all season long for a shot at the champ. The story-lines are varied and ample, much more than simply Miami versus the field, and like every NBA season we are surely in for a surprise or two. Off we go, NBA’s 2014 campaign kicks its tires on October 29th with a triple header, the main event matching the Chicago Bulls vs. The Miami Heat.

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