By: Dan Grant, Daniel Reynolds and John Gaudes
The NBA season starts tonight! Hooray!
Yesterday we kicked off our NBA coverage with a preview of the Eastern Conference, where Russell Peddle and I (Dan Grant) looked at which teams we thought might surpass or fall short of expectations, as well as players to watch for 2016-17. You can read the whole thing here. For those up in arms about the lack of Raptors content from a purportedly Toronto-based blog; check out Raptors HQ later today for a round table of writers that will quench your thirst for all things Dino-related.
Today, Same Page Editor-in-Chief and Raptors HQ Manager Daniel Reynolds (@aka_Reynolds), as well as the Internet’s John Gaudes (@johngaudes — seriously though, this guy is everywhere) take on the West with the same vim and vigour as a mule trying to work his way through an oat bag on a cool autumn’s eve.
Grant: Guys, it feels like the Warriors already have this thing sewn up. A 73 win team just added another MVP in the prime of his career, and the entire core is returning. Sure, the Warriors will miss Andrew Bogut and his dirty picks, and I’ll defend his right to make the move all day, but Durant on the Warriors somehow feels unfair, doesn’t it?
Reynolds: If it works within the salary cap rules, whatever they may be at the time, then good luck and godspeed — I’m very much here for NBA chaos.
Gaudes: My agent didn’t vet this question.
Grant: Alright, let chaos reign then.
Anyway, I wanted to ask you guys — with the Warriors playing such front runners, are there any other teams you think might surprise in the West this season?
Gaudes: Definitely Memphis, for me.
Grant: Oh, interesting! Z-Bo off the bench, Conley with the new big contract, ‘Chanandler Bong‘ Parsons, Coach Fizzy Pop. You think there’s an interesting cocktail brewing down in Tennessee?
Gaudes: Not exactly.
If this is truly the year for some new teams to make it in the West, then I have to talk about the depressing side of the equation: who will surprisingly fall out.
Yeah, I’m here to write about the Memphis Grizzlies. Some are high on this crew, and there’s fair reason for it. David Fizdale is a revered coach and a solid replacement to Dave Joerger. He has the reputation of bringing along young guys, which this team will need – because the veteran pieces have so many question marks.
Grant: Oh no! RIP Grit N Grind? Say it ain’t so.
Gaudes: Marc Gasol is already dealing with a bone bruise in his foot. Zach Randolph is 35 and will be coming off the bench, with an unproven but springy JaMychal Green starting in his place. Mike Conley is paid, but has a history of injuries. Chandler Parsons hasn’t been able to get on the court since meniscus surgery in March. Tony Allen and Vince Carter are here.
Reading the names, it’s difficult to sell completely on Memphis. Conley is a stud and the back end of this roster has young, position-less talent. If health finally sides with their best players, they can push for 48 wins and maybe a playoff series at home.
Unfortunately, though, it’s just so much more likely that history repeats itself. 28(!) different men suited up for the Grizzlies last year. It may not get that bad in 2016-17, but people will be surprised with how this team underperforms.
Grant: I think there are just so many other teams knocking on the door– Utah and Minnesota are so young and talented, it’s hard to see either of them missing the playoffs again, which means that two of the eight teams from last year have to drop out, and Memphis, unfortunately, seems like one of the best bets, along with Dallas. A Western Conference playoff bracket without the Grizz and Mavs would certainly be a weird vibe.
Reynolds, any more positive news? Did I hear you’re enamoured with the Houston Rockets?
Reynolds: You heard right. Let me explain:
This is not how it is supposed to work in the NBA. Teams aren’t supposed to spring up to second place in the conference with 56 wins, then plummet to .500 and become a running punchline. They’re also not supposed to be built to scramble NBA defenses like few other teams have ever truly attempted. And they’re definitely not supposed to operate primarily through an insouciant bearded one-man jazz band, be-bopping and scatting all over any semblance of basketball tradition. This is the new shit: James Harden has the ball in his hands, everyone else waits for their shot, a big man collects as many misses as he can, and new coach Mike D’Antoni taps his toe and insists upon the tempo.
If the Warriors are the beautiful symphony of new age basketball, the Houston Rockets are the noisy disrupters. As devised, they’ve highlighted everything NBA teams now need — three-point shooting, agile big men, and a creative, relentless maestro. Last season was a bizarre tale of unhappiness and poor fit. Ty Lawson stayed a sad mess, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas were never healthy, and no one liked Dwight Howard. This iteration, with additional shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, and just the right mix of role players harnessed by the true mad genius D’Antoni, will spring back up the standings. They’ll go as far as Harden can take them — and you know what? I think it’ll be further than people think.
Grant: I get that some people are still calling D’Antoni a failure because of his horrendous stops in New York and Los Angeles, but I think that even when he was hired in those places, most thought they were terrible fits for his style of play. He was there strictly for the paper. A guy who thrives on ball movement teamed up with Carmelo and Kobe? Dear lord. D’Antoni is almost like a college football coach — a guy with one specific style that works only when he has the correct personnel. If he doesn’t get the recruits, he’s boned. Well, this year in Houston, he has the recruits, such as they are. James Harden is his new, 6’5, left-handed Steve Nash. Hold onto your butts.
The Rockets might thrust themselves into the top half of the playoff bracket in the West if they can play even mediocre defense, but there’s another team that’s been there for some time who might be ready to play a little ‘Forgot About Dre’ this season, isn’t that right John?
Gaudes: Everyone’s been talking about Kevin Durant joining the Warriors this summer, and with fair reason. The move both bolstered a 73-win team with the league’s best scorer, and stripped the Warriors’ biggest competitor in Oklahoma City. It was the definition of a heel turn.
With the Thunder undoubtedly taking a baby step back (don’t sleep on MVP Westbrook), the door is open for the LA Clippers to be the West’s main challenger to Golden State. After a devastating injury in the 2016 playoffs, my money’s on Blake Griffin to take the leap and sit in Durant’s chair – the last line of defense against the Warriors freight train.
After hurting his thigh and punching his equipment manager, Griffin ended up playing just 35 games last season. Over his career though, he’s a 21.5 point and 9.6 rebound per game player, perfecting a mid-range game that’s miserable for opposing defenses. He’s added to it too – finally stepping back and shooting the three-pointer with some volume. After averaging just half a three per game in 2015-16, Griffin is up to shooting 1.8 in four preseason games. Scarier still, he’s making 43 per cent of them.
Griffin has always been a rangy power forward, with his obvious athletic ability giving him the capability to drive and finish at the rim. Adding the extra five feet to his jumper makes him more efficient, and more dangerous.
Besides the three ball, there’s added heat under the fire: this a contract year for both Griffin and Chris Paul, and it might be their last drive for a title together. If Griffin can take another leap forward, they have a puncher’s chance of taking out Golden State.
Grant: I will absolutely sleep on MVP Westbrook — I don’t see OKC making the playoffs unless Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo somehow morph into borderline All-Stars. That’s a team that lacks shooting, length and defensive identity. The only power forwards on their roster are Ersan Ilyasova and Mitch McGary. Welcome to the lottery. As for Blake, if he’s dropping it in from deep, the Clips are going to be scary good, and the team against which the Warriors will most miss Andrew Bogut.
Speaking of big men, Daniel, you were mentioning there’s a young fella that caught your eye at a Denver barn dance?
Reynolds: Well I wouldn’t put it that way exactly, but hey, it’s the 90s. Love is love.
Please bear with me here: despite his name, Nikola Jokic is no joke. Here instead is what he is: a 6’10’, 20 year old from Serbia who somehow fell to the 41st pick in the draft and finished his rookie season with averages of 10 points and 7 rebounds for a bad Denver Nuggets team. Nothing special on the surface, I suppose. Ah, but he also shot over 30 percent from three, and exhibited some advanced court vision to the tune of 2.4 assists, and only played in 21.7 minutes a game. There is something emerging down in Denver, and Jokic is, no joke, at the centre of it.
If it hasn’t become clear to NBA teams by now, the requisite word for big men is versatility. You got a bruiser who can push his way towards the net? Cool. But does he defend the perimeter? Oh, your dude can jump real high? How’s his foot speed though? Can he shoot from distance? Protect the rim? How about double-teams, can he navigate through them? It would be nice if he had a post game and a drive-and-kick game. How’s his awareness of all this? The Nuggets rode as far as they could with a one-dimensional player like Kenneth Faried, who continues to be dangled as trade bait (with few takers). A player like Jokic meanwhile, still just 20 remember, has already shown some of these aforementioned skills, and delivered some of this promise in the context of the new NBA. Pair him with the ballerina bruiser Jusuf Nurkic, and suddenly things start to bend into shape. The Denver Nuggets are a bad team — and they’ll be only modestly better this season — but with Jokic in the middle, I wouldn’t laugh.
Grant: Jokic and Nurkic! The new Bash Brothers! Hopefully without the steroids and post-career unpleasantness, of course.
I just wanted to take a second to say the name ‘Karl-Anthony Towns, First Team All-NBA’, which is his full name now. Nothing more, nothing less. Put it in your pocket, unwrap it in June. You’re welcome.
Alright, let’s take this baby home.
Gaudes: I was told there would be no elementally themed question gimmicks.
Reynolds: I was told the opposite.
Grant: No, you absolutely weren’t. Either of you. Let’s fire it up!
Reynolds: Has somehow gone from underrated to overrated, back to underrated again. He’s an artist at this point.
Gaudes: Mike’s about to lead a renaissance and Lakers fans will be very upset about it.
Grant: I feel like everyone, myself included, is so high on Houston that we must be missing something. Oh wait, could it be that we’re counting on Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Patrick Beverley to stay healthy? Maybe that’s it.
Portland Trail Blazers.
Gaudes: I have a Blazers crush, and these guys are going to be a top five seed.
Reynolds: Had to look up most of the roster. Good luck in the West guys!
Grant: Yeah, adding Festus Ezeli and Evan Turner doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot for me either. You already had two ball dominant guards in Dame and CJ — why did you need Turner again? But hey, at least they gave Meyers Leonard 41 million bucks.
Reynolds: Doesn’t have it.
Gaudes: Come hither when Masai beckons.
Grant: The correct answer was ‘Not Tim Duncan’. We were looking for ‘Not Tim Duncan’. Tough one, guys.
Gordon Hayward’s finger.
Gaudes: Problematic, but moreso for those who pegged the Jazz to host a playoff series.
Reynolds: How’s he gonna play StarCraft now???
Grant: I like the Jazz, but even with Hayward healthy, I think putting them into the top 4 in the West was silly. They’re in a very competitive division that’s going to beat the hell out of each other all season long. I like them as a 7 seed and a tough out against one of the big dogs in the West.
Grant: Buddy Hield
Gaudes: Fun personality, will be a couple years before he’s making a serious impact in the league.
Reynolds: He will not save the long slow arc of Anthony Davis’ Pelicans career.
Grant: Both my fantasy teams are saying ‘Rookie of the Year’ is the right answer.
Reynolds: Has it.
Gaudes: My man, please learn to make a jump shot.
Grant: Let’s speed it up. Doc Rivers.
Gaudes: If he can beat the Warriors with Austin at the three, we all have to stop making nepotism jokes.
Reynolds: I see only this now when I think of Doc Rivers:
Grant: That literally never gets old.
Last but not least: Steph Curry
Reynolds: An unholy terror who has altered the course of the NBA, with a smile on his face.
Gaudes: I’m certain that “3-1” made everyone forget how phenomenal this guy is. Prepare for a lot of “oh, yeah” moments early in the season.
Grant: You want to talk ‘Forgot About Dre’? I mean watch out. Somebody edit this video and put his face over Michael K. Williams.
Steph is coming.
LIGHTNING ROUND OVER
Alright everybody thanks for reading! If we forgot and/or disparaged your favourite team, fear not. It’s only because we don’t care about or like them all that much, so you don’t need to worry. I’m looking mostly at you, baby Lakers. Call me in two years!
Dan Grant is an editor at the Same Page and a contributor to SB Nation’s Raptors HQ. He can be found on Twitter @SlamminDannyG.
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