Friday, November 2, 2012

Early NBA season story lines

Things to Watch for during the NBA 2012-13 Season

I’m pretty excited about the basketball season, it feels like Christmas. In that thinking, Merry basketball to you all!
In anticipation of the season tipping off tonight, I’ve compiled some story lines that are worth keeping track of as we go through the season…


Always an issue every year, this season nearly every potential NBA Champion candidate is dealing with serious injury concerns before the season has even started.


The Lakers rebuilt in the offseason (adding 16 All-Star appearances between Antawn Jamison, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard) and are poised to reclaim their spot as the Western Conference’s best and make a run at the franchise’s 18th NBA Championship.  Their only concerns are chemistry (they are adding a lot of players on top of adding a new offensive scheme) and health.  Nash and Jamison are in their twilight years, and while he has played through injuries for years Kobe’s place in the starting lineup tonight is up in the air with an unspecified foot injury.  Add that to Dwight Howard coming off back surgery that prematurely ended his season last year, as well as 39 year-old Nash’s own back concerns and Coach Mike Brown’s paramount concern may be managing minutes. If this team has injury issues, it’ll also affect their ability to gel on both sides of the ball.

Vegas has The Heat as the most likely to win the NBA title this year, but that is largely depending on how D. Wade responds to offseason knee surgery.  At the end of the season last year, Wade was only capable of playing at half speed. It is a testament to his grit and the Heat’s talent that they were able to persevere and win the title. This year, with other teams reloading their rosters, Wade will need to be healthy come playoff time or the Heat won’t be able to defend their title.
All of the Thunder’s stars are healthy (at least physically, the trading of a third of their nucleus may affect the psyche’s of Westbrook and Durant), but the return of North Carolina native Eric Maynor from an ACL tear is essential to this team.  Maynor isn’t a crazy explosive athlete, but he gets wherever he wants to on the court, and is as capable on the run as he is in the half-court.  He will be charged with running the 2nd unit (and may appear in the backcourt with Russell Westbrook at times) and is essential for a deep Thunder run.
Spurs: No surprise this team is on the list.  The nucleus of the team (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan) has seen its share of NBA seasons between them. Ginobili missed large parts of last season with various injuries (which gave valuable time to surprising contributor rookie Kawai Leonard) and it looks like that trend will continue as he misses the opener with a balky back.  Coach Greg Popovich is deft and experience in parsing minutes and covering up ailing superstars in that lineup.  No real concern until late with this veteran squad, when they will need all hands on deck to combat the defending Western Conference Champion Thunder squad and revitalized Lakers team.
The Mavs missed on their shot(s) at Dwight Howard.  They dismantled their championship team from two years ago to be able to make a run at Howard and Deron Williams.  Coming up with neither, they did an admirable job of adding talent (Elton Brand, OJ Mayo, Chris Kaman, and Darren Collinson) and maintaining cap flexibility down the road.  What the front office could not have known was that Dirk Nowitzki would have knee swelling that kept him out of the preseason and forced him to have the first surgery of his career Without their star, this team will be an engine-less high-end sedan.  Their amalgamation of parts is not enough to compete with the near All-Star rosters of the Thunder, Heat, and Lakers.
The Bulls are Derrick Rose’s team. He makes them great.  Without him, they are a mediocre ball club.  For proof, one only needs to look at last year’s performance. After having the best record in the East, they lost to the star-less 76ers I don’t want Rose to play this season. I’m terrified about his recovery going “ahead of schedule” Noah’s recovery from his ankle injury is also key to anchoring one of the League’s best defenses. The only thing worse than a Bulls team without Rose, is a Bulls team without Rose and without it’s best defender. This may be a really challenging season for the Bulls.
The Pacers gave the eventual Champions all they could handle in the playoffs (albeit with an ailing Wade and without Bosh for a majority of that series). Now the Pacers are dealing with an injury to one of its stars, Granger has had nagging knee problems all offseason and he will sit out the season opener.  They will rely on Paul George and Roy Hibbert early, but this team isn’t immensely talented and therefore their margin for error is much smaller than for the bigger-named teams. No Granger, no return to their place in relevance this year.
This is one of the more interesting injury stories. Amare Stoudemire is out for a reported six weeks to start the season. Stoudemire (or STAT as he dubbed himself in High School) has a knee injury that will keep him out of the starting lineup for weeks…giving the Knicks the opportunity to put their most efficient lineup on the floor from last year (with Carmelo playing the PF position—a position usually occupied by STAT).  I never wish injury on anyone, but if this lineup continues its success from last year, Coach Mike Woodson will have a huge dilemma on his hands moving forward.
Ok, I may be stretching the “contender” label a bit thin, but the 76ers seemed to have dramatically improved from last year’s surprising playoff run by adding Andrew Bynum.  Bynum, notorious for his knee injuries that plagued him earlier in his career, is coming off his knee procedure in Germany.  Bynum was healthy enough and productive all year last year in a condensed and grueling schedule. If Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday make the next ascension to being really good, consistent players this team may surprise some people; but only if Bynum can play 70+ games.

Top 10 Rookie Selections 

1)      Anthony Davis: He’s averaged 13.4 points and 10 rebounds per game this preseason. Moreover, he has only had one poor shooting game (a concern given his limited offensive game).  His poor shooting game (vs the Mavs this exhibition season) was buoyed by the 17 rebounds that he put up that night.  While he has “only” averaged 1.4 blocks a game this preseason, he is still altering shots and looks comfortable protecting the cup.
2)      MKG: He’s struggled this preseason.  Despite the emotional lift he seems to be providing on the bench (he has been lauded for his exuberance for cheering on his teammates) his offense has been weak. During the summer league he showed flashes of his UK ability to score off of “scraps” (loose balls, offensive rebounds, deflections, in transition) before he was sidelined with a knee injury, but once the game slows down into a halfcourt affair he has shown his limitations.  He is averaging 5.6 ppg 4.3 rbs and 35.7% from the field. The Bobcats took Jeff Taylor with the second pick. If he performs poorly, itll be interesting to see how they treat Taylor given that he will most likely play the same position (Small Forward) that MKG will likely be slotted to play. Given the economics of the game, MKG will get every opportunity, but it could be an interesting subplot of a story to watch if MKG’s play doesn’t pick up.
3)      Bradley Beal: As advertised, he has been an efficient, quality player. While he has averaged 12.9 ppg 3.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists, he has done so without his future backcourt mate (and primary ball handler) John Wall due to injury. He has struggled to shoot the 3-pointer (30.4%), but it will be interesting to see if his numbers improve when the Raleigh PG returns.
4)      Dion Waiters: Waiters shocked a lot of experts when he was selected 4th in the draft this summer.  After not starting at Syracuse, he skyrocketed into the top 10. Always a streaky shooter, he has continued his hot and cold shooting (last game he shot a dismal 4-14 vs Indiana). He’s averaging 8.6 ppg, 2 rebs, and 2.1 ast.
5)      Thomas Robinson: Robinson is progressing steadily with his highest point output (17) helping to bolster his modest 7.8 points.  More disturbing perhaps is his 5.5 rebounds per game.  Obviously it was the preseason, but someone with this leaping ability should avg more.
6)      Damian Lillard: Lillard was fantastic in summer league (and my person favorite rookie to watch outside the UNC stable of guys) displaying playmaking ability for his teammates to accompany the slick the offensive game that he showed at Weber State University. He has only continued his torrid pace, averaging 17 points and 6 assists in the preseason.  What I may find the most fun about him? His combination with Lamarcus Aldridge could shot-put into THE top PF spot and an MVP candidate. I got burned picking the Blazers for a ddep playoff run last year, but they now have two fantastic players and are the definition of a sleeper team in the near future. He should be on everyone’s list for potential Rookie of the Year conversations.
7)      Harrison Barnes: He landed in the perfect spot for his game.  Harrison is a SF and has the green light in Mark Jackson’s system.  Polished even at UNC, he and Klay Thompson showed a dazzling display of chemistry at times (they both had 30 in one epic night in summer league). 39 NBA rookies were polled and asked who they thought would have the best career out of their class, Harrison Barnes finished second only to Anthony Davis. He’s currently averaging 10.4 pts and 3.3 rebounds a game. He finished the Preseason with his best performance with 16 points and 7 rebounds.
8)      Terrence Ross: Ross was a surprise pick this high, but hasn’t really lived up to the gamble.  Super athletic and a quality shooter at Washington, he has struggled in the preseason after showing flashes in summer league. He scored his most points in the final preseason game, but shot 33% and finished with 10 points on 12 shots.
9)      Andre Drummond: When he was drafted in Detroit, the Greg Monroe and Drummond prospective front court created tantalizing dreams of front court dominance for the Pistons.  Super athletic, but with a suspect motor at UCONN, he was a bit of a steal given his draft position and talent. He had his second double-double of 13 pts and 10 rebounds.
10)   Austin Rivers: On top of shooting 27% for the preseason, he’s had a nagging ankle injury that forced him to be carried off the court one night, and leave it early in another.  Hopefully he isn’t doing his best Stephen Curry impression and will be able to bounce back from this injury.

Dark Horses
Any pick outside of the Lakers, Heat, Celts, and Thunder is a dark horse pick as those teams finished as the “Final Four” of the NBA. My sleeper pick is the Grizzlies, I picked them last year and I will do it again. I am concerned that they don’t have a big enough scoring punch at the SG position, but their front line boasts Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph as well as a resurgent Marreese Speights. Mike Conley was lights out late last year.  If they can get points off their bench, they will be a tough out again this year.  If they falter early though, the rumors of a Gay trade could become a reality.

What are you looking forward to, and who is your Dark Horse pick?

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