by: Michael Shields
With a mere thirteen days until the NBA’s 2014-2015 season, it’s time for Across the Margin’s season preview…
That was fast, wasn’t it? It seems like it was only yesterday that The Spurs were humiliating The Heat in five games, cementing the legacy of their Big Three and introducing us to the future of the franchise in Kawhi Leonard. An offseason whisked by in a blink of an eye, which is what happens when NBA’s summer break is as exciting as we beheld this year, one which included what is potentially the most significant draft in recent years, as well as King James’s return home. It’s impossible to truly dive into each team and the storylines that they carry with them into the 2014-2015 NBA season, but fuck it, let’s try – beginning with the West in an attempt to conceal my East coast bias’s….
Northwest (Note, anticipated division winners in bold!)
Utah Jazz – Forever young remain the Jazz. Since the death of the pick (Stockton) and roll (Malone) in Utah, The Jazz have been that young squad full of promise. Rife with hope. Year in and year out they appear to get younger (case in point – Trey Burke (21), Dante Exum (19), Derrick Favors (23), Gordon Hayward (24), Enes Kanter (22), Alec Burks (23), Rudy Gobert (22 – and I love this kid) and Rodney ‘Harry’ Hood (21)). Young is fun (remember college!), but nothing consequential ever occurs in the formative years, as will be the case with Utah’s 2015 campaign. But I’ll root for them, and hard, due to the signing of five-year-old J.P. Gibson. The NBA cares, you can’t tell me differently.
Denver Nuggets – In the NBA, as is the case with all facets of entertainment, star power is a big deal. Sure, The Wire was essentially an ensemble piece, but that sort of grandeur without a marquee name isn’t easy to come by. The Nuggets lack that star power, but they do have the Manimal (Kenneth Faried), who will get his without a single play called for him, and the most underrated point guard in the league in Ty Lawson. But this is far from enough. When The Playoffs commence, The Nuggets should be on the outside looking in, but never say never, as this season marks the triumphant return of The Rooster (Danilo Gallinari)!
Oklahoma City – Standing pat in the offseason is all good if you’re the champs. And if you’re young. Even then, it never hurts to improve where you can. Yet standing pat is essentially what OKC, a perennial contender with one of the games all time greats in Kevin Durant, did. In no way am I discounting the addition of Anthony Morrow and that butter long ball, but I am saying he isn’t going to put them over the top. Finding buckets outside of Durant and Westbrook (and Big Bad Chewlbaka) could prove challenging as there were stretches last season where The Thunder had to lean on a guy now coaching The Knicks for crucial buckets. With The Durantula, who is slated to miss about six to eight weeks because of a Jones fracture in his right foot, anything is possible. But it perplexes me why the effort to surround him with the type of role players required to win a title feels so temperate. The lack of urgency is daunting, fueling the talk of Kevin Durant’s eventual departure. DC or bust….
Portland – Since the days of Clyde the Glide, Kevin Duckworth, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams, and Cliff Robinson I have for some strange reason rooted for The Blazers as if I hail from the Pacific Northwest. This enigmatic attraction has carried over to today’s Blazers, who impressively won their first playoff series since 2000 versus Houston last year on the back of Damien Lillard (who made his first All-Star game) and LaMarcus Aldridge (who made his third straight All-Star team). In what was a dizzying off-season, The Blazers remained curiously quiet. They let Mo Williams walk and signed Steve Blake and Chris Kaman and that was that. But The Blazers finished fifth in a robust Western Conference and if they can build off that momentum they have a legitimate shot at making the Western Conference Finals.
Minnesota – It has been a decade since The Timberwolves last sniffed The Playoffs, and that isn’t changing anytime soon. That’s the straight dope. Real talk. The skinny. But the situation in Minnesota is laden with promise, for as Kevin Love made his inevitable departure, The Wolves were able to amass a heaping of young talent, including Andrew Wiggins, who is equipped with a sweeping wingspan and athleticism so exceptional Steve ‘Cap’ Rodgers would find himself envious. Ricky Rubio is only twenty-three and Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III are all under twenty-four years old, so in Minnesota the future…is….wide open.
Golden State – Chicks dig the long ball. It’s an expression fashioned for baseball of course, and the sentiment towards home runs. But said phrasing could also apply to sumptuous, high-arcing three balls that never so much as graze the rim as they rain down from above, perfectly splashing through the nylon net. It’s a vision Golden State fans are starting to get accustomed to. Stephon Curry and Klay Thompson are not just one of the better backcourts in the league (and now add Shaun Livingston to that mix!), but maybe best three point shooting tandem in the history of the league. The Warriors finished sixth in the West last season, yet if they are able to remain healthy, new head coach Steve Kerr could have been handed one of the better teams out West.
L.A. Lakers – The general position among basketball minds is that the 2015 campaign is going to be a rough one for The Lakeshow. But I am not so sure. The Black Mamba, even at thirty-six and coming off two serious leg surgeries, is a force to be reckoned with, as prolific and crafty a scorer as exists in the league. New head coach Byron Scott will demand excellence and defense from his squad, and new additions to the roster in Carlos Boozer and Ed Davis add depth and strength down low. Defense wins championships, and while The Lakers won’t be winning any titles anytime soon, I have them competing for a playoff spot in the West. And if Kobe is healthy down the stretch, getting it. Also, Julius Randle – my pick for Rookie of the Year – bequeths Los Angeles with something they haven’t had in many moons, some youth.
Phoenix – What a fun story Phoenix was last year. Eliminated from The Playoffs on the last day of the regular season, Jeff Hornacek’s Suns nearly shocked the world. Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic proved to be one of the most exciting backcourts in the league and out of nowhere The Suns were delightful to watch with their new run and gun offense. Yet, losing Channing Frye is a far bigger deal than one would assume, especially when he is replaced, in essence, by Isiah Thomas, a great player but whose talents are hardly needed with the likes of Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in the house. Flush with playmakers, my expectations are faint for The Suns, but they were also last year so who knows….
Sacramento – I’ve said it before and I am going to say it again: If loving Boobie (Demarcus Cousins) is wrong, I don’t want to be right, and it is a shame that his talents are being squandered in Sacramento. Cousins and Rudy Gay, entering a contract year, are sure to keep The Kings competitive, but it has been eight years since Sacramento has made The Playoffs and they are surely a lock to be make it nine. But that’s what happens when you let Isiah Thomas walk (making way for Ray McCallum to step into the spotlight, remember that name!), essentially appropriating his salary to the lesser talented Darren Collison. Ownership surely wishes to win in Sacramento, but if you were to wish in one hand and then shit in the other, as they say, which one gets filled first?
L.A. Clippers – I guess what this piece, this pre-season break down, reduces to is who is good enough to actually compete for a title. The short answer in the Pacific Division is, The Clips. Finally free of the ignorance and utter incompetence of Donald Sterling, The Clippers set their sights on the Larry O’ Brien trophy with the same core as last year with Chris Paul, Black Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. Jordan, it must be noted, led the league in both rebounding and shooting percentage last year, a feat of strength I could see him duplicating this year. Add to the mix electric scorers such as Jamal Crawford and J.J. Reddick, interior space fillers such as Glen Davis and Spencer Hawes, and there is no reason The Clippers won’t be in the hunt come next June. So you’re saying there’s a chance…
Houston – Sometimes I sit back and think: What if James Harden was an elite defensive player? Seriously, this is how I spend my time. Because there is no question he is one of the NBA’s most indefensible players, especially when he has the chance to play off the ball. He and Dwight Howard are one of the most impressive inside-outside threats in the game, so if The Rockets remain healthy they are surely playoff bound. But there are still questions that demand answers. I’ve made some lofty declarations on the future of Terrace Jones and is this year when he starts making me look good? And how bad will losing Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin hurt? The additions of Trevor Ariza and Jeff Adrien help ease the pain some, but I figure it will hurt like a swift kick in the groin.
New Orleans – The Unibrow is the truth. If given the opportunity to start a team today with one player in the league, you would still be wise to roll with LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but Anthony Davis would be in the conversation. He’s that good. But unfortunately for Pelican fans, Davis doesn’t quite have the help necessary to render New Orleans elite…..yet. Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Omar Asik, Ryan Anderson, and Tyreke Evans (four years at forty-four million is crazy for TE however, completely Looney-Tunes) are all able bodies, but Davis’s work will be cut out for him. And if New Orleans has a chance at making The Playoffs it will be on the back of The Brow’s MVP caliber season.
Dallas – Winners of forty-nine games last year, Dallas returns as that contender who just won’t stop…well, contending. They always seem to be in the mix, a tribute to the ceaseless talents of one Dirk Nowitzki. Joining him this year are Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis, as strong of a 2-3-4 punch you will find in the league. There is no reason that Gun DMC (their words, not mine!) won’t be one of the better teams in the Western Conference, once again.
San Antonio – The reports of the San Antonio Spurs death were greatly exaggerated. After dismantling The Heat in five games in The Finals, the conversation immediately turned to the question: Can they do it again? Making it seem as if age is an asset rather than a detriment to success, The Spurs have supplemented their Big Three with a young and talented foundation, one that allows the elder statesman to settle into role players of sorts. Simply put, The Spurs are a meticulously vetted squad of driven athletes that play together as if they were kin. I could go on an on, fawning over their superiority, and none of it could be considered hyperbole. They have earned that praise, and will likely add to their distinguished legacy by season’s end.
Memphis – I’ll be honest. For a moment I considered revisiting what I wrote about the Memphis Grizzlies last year at this time and simply cutting and pasting it here. Yeah, that little has changed. A healthy Marc Gasol might have Memphians feeling good, but the addition of Vince Carter is not pushing The Grizz up and over that hump. They will win. A lot even. They will make The Playoffs. They will win a series. Possibly even two. But it ends there. Same ole song and dance.
New York – Carmelo Anthony has lost weight. He’s been paid. He vows to share the ball and claims he is “the most underrated superstar in the NBA.” But can he win? Enter Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher, GM and coach respectively, with the answer to that question. An emphatic “yes,” they announced while instilling the famed Triangle Offense to get that ball finally moving around the perimeter in The Garden. But the fact of the matter is that no one’s had success working the Triangle without Jackson as actual head coach or without names like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant in the shuffle. Simultaneously, there is both hope and cause for concern in chronically bi-polar New York. As The Knicks adjust to a new system under The Zen Master’s reign, they should win enough games in the East to make The Playoffs, but I’d be shocked if they made any noise in said Playoffs. Either way, it’s going to be fun to watch the New York Post make puns with the use of the word “Cleanthony” all season!
Boston – Celtic fans have much to look forward to, just not this season. This season, they are set to win about twenty-five games (yet again), struggling with a roster ripe with potential, and finally bidding adieu to twenty-nine-year-old phenom Rajon Rondo, the lone holdover from the 2008 Championship team. Once that Rondo cloud hanging over the team dissipates, The Celtics can begin focussing on what they do have, a bevy of young talents such as James Young, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger who are sure to have Boston competing for a spot in The Playoffs, in 2017.
Philadelphia – I refuse to spend too much time on a team insistent on tanking, as they won’t be a factor this season and most likely the next. Nerlens Noel is likely their best player on opening night, and it’s been two years since he played in a full-speed competitive environment and he’s a rookie who will face the most defensive attention. Moving on….
Toronto – To say that The Raptors surprised people last year would be a momentous understatement. After a lackluster start they went on to amass a 48-13 record, the best record in their franchise history, finish third in the East, and nearly took down the Nets in the first round of The Playoffs. And in the meantime they let us in on a little secret, in that Kyle Lowry can flat-out ball. The Raptors won’t have the advantage of sneaking up on anyone this year, but with The Heat’s decimation, the East is once again wide-open. Look for Toronto to be knock-knock-knocking on The Playoffs door.
Brooklyn – Joe Johnson is thirty-three years old. I lead with that as I was perusing The Net’s roster and that number stood out like a sore thumb. Wasn’t it just yesterday he was a coveted young star, being courted by a plethora of teams in hopes of being their next franchise player? While thirty-three isn’t real life old, it’s basketball elderly. And with Garnett (38) and Deron Williams (30 and permanently injured) the core of The Nets is in rapid decline and the loss of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston surely doesn’t help. There are seven players on their listed roster under twenty-five, and although I am an avid NBA enthusiast, an addict really, I will attest to not knowing who four of them are. If Deron Williams can remain healthy there is hope, but if he is encumbered by another injury-plagued season then when The Playoffs commence I will be shocked if Brooklyn is in da’ house.
Detroit – There is a stunner of a movie that came out this summer called Edge of Tomorrow. It’s Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day for the Sci-fi set. So, the main character played by the overly-chastised Tom Cruise is reliving the same day over and over again, and most of the days are productive. But a particularly intriguing part occurs when he stops giving a fuck. When he starts allowing all those around him to die because, what’s the point really? I love Stan Van Gundy as a coach. I love Drummond’s potential which every day becomes just that more realized. I’m a sucker for Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Caron Butler. But I foresee them reaching a point in the season – that Edge of Tomorrow “fuck it” moment – soon after All Star Break. Playoffs, maybe. Title Contenders, na.
Cleveland – With the the rank smell of smoke from burnt Lebron jersey’s still wafting in the air, The King once again took his talents to a different city in the midst of a captivating off-season. This time though, it is a return home to right which he has wronged, and to finally bring glory to Cleveland. Although winning in Cleveland will be challenging, things became easier when they shipped number one draft pick Andrew Wiggins et al, to Minnesota for Kevin Love. Add in Kyrie Irving and there is a new Big Three in town, an immediate title contender and the most compelling storyline of the upcoming NBA season.
Indiana – These are dark, dark days in Indiana. With Paul George out and Lance Stephenson in Charlotte is it really possible The Pacers win about thirty-five or so games? Legitimate contenders in the East the last few seasons, The Pacers are now forced to rely on the C.J.’s (Miles and Watson) and the NBA’s version of the Energizer Bunny, one Rodney Stuckey (he keeps going and going and….). It’s been fun to watch the new look, Reggie Miller-less Pacers come into their own. And a shame that that period of time appears to have come to a blunt finish.
Milwaukee – Last year’s worst team (fifteen wins, for real) didn’t wallow in their misery. They didn’t drown their sorrows in a bottle or make excuses for their ineptitude. No, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, got a new coach (Jason Kidd), drafted their future (Jabari Parker), and acquired an underrated player and prolific passer in Kendall Marshall. Compliment those additions with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Larry Sanders, Brandon Knight, John Henson and Nick Wolters and you could say that there is something certainly brewing in Milwaukee. Sure, it will take some time before it is ready, but a sturdy foundation is being built.
Chicago – If you ask Across the Margin’s Co-Founder, Tommy Rau, about the outlook for the 2014-15 Chicago Bulls, it’s smooth sailing ahead. Not only are The Bulls poised for a title run, but they have troops in place in commencement of what is sure to be world domination. They also, this season, will cure Ebola, rid the world of the evil’s of ISIS, reverse the effects of Global Warming, and take over the writing on Homeland so it can once again be appointment television (Oh how the mighty have fallen….). Chicago will be good, and if Derrick Rose is anywhere as good as he was before the injury bug attacked, they could be incredible. A gargantuan “if,” especially considering that D Rose has played a combined forty-nine games over the last three seasons. The Bulls also added Pau Gasol, a consummate professional and former champion. The Bulls, a force to be reckoned with, “the greatest team in all of sports.” ( – Tommy Rau )
Atlanta – The Hawks don’t seem to get the praise they deserve. Annually they charge with a head of steam into The Playoffs, and although they hardly make the trip worth while at least they are there. Al Horford is back this season, an addition which bumps them from a six or seven seed in the East potentially a three or four seed. Korver is also back which spreads the floor, Johnny Salmons adds depth and scoring, and rookie Adrien Payne could have an instant impact. In fact, with his hulking and lanky frame, he looks like he has been in the league for a decade already. The Hawks have proven more pretender than contender when it mattered, and the Southeast is deeper than ever, but once again they will be in The Playoffs. Book it.
Washington – I have a soft spot for all teams from The District, and this Wizards squad is no exception. The Wizards have slowly and surely been building a deep and talented core, and now they have brought in a seasoned vet (Paul Pierce) to steady the ship. Wall and Gortat receive most of the credit for The Wiz’s come up but Beal, Miller, Nene, and now additions such as Martell Webster, DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries round out one of the most exciting and talented teams in the East.
Charlotte – Charlotte’s smartest move as of late might have been the decision to dump The Bobcat moniker reverting to their former nickname, The Hornets (reminding me of the glory days of Baron Davis!). As The Bobcats they lost a whopping five hundred and eleven games. Finally, Charlotte appears on the rise, winning forty-three games last season and making The Playoffs. With a young core of talent including Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson, Lance Stephenson, and Gerald Wallace, Hornets fans can finally hold their head up high.
Orlando – Something is happening down in Orlando. Something that NBA fans should begin to take notice of. The youngest General Manager in the league, a man named Rob Hennigan, who honed his talents with The Spurs and then with The Thunder, is quietly building a monster in Central Florida. Through shrewdly chosen draft picks (Oladipo, Gordon, Payton), crucial free agency signings (Frye, Gordon), and trading for a Montenegrin future All-Star (Vucevic), he is slowly building a conteder. That slow build continues this season as winning more than thirty games is unlikely. But prepare for The Magic to once again matter sometime in the near future, and remember that name – Rob Hennigan.
Miami – The Heat were certainly left with egg on their face when Lebron returned to his former lover, but they are somehow left with the pieces to still make a showing. Make no mistake about it, this is Chris Bosh’s team now, and it will be interesting to see how good he can be as “the man.” Luol Deng was acquired in the off-season, and The Heat moved up in the draft to grab University of Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier, a two-time collegiate champion and their point guard of the future. With all that said, the title runs have ended in South Beach, the division is just far too good, and they are ill-equipped without The King to make any real run at it.
Eastern Conference Playoff Contenders: Cavs, Pistons, Bulls, Wizards, Hawks, Bobcats, Knicks, Raptors
Western Conference Playoff Contenders: Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks, Clippers, Warriors, Thunder, Blazers, Grizzlies
Western Conference Champion: San Antonio Spurs
Eastern Conference Champion: Cleveland Cavaliers
NBA 2015 Champion: San Antonio Spurs (Fear not Cleveland, you win it in 2016. You are on the precipice.)