Only time will tell how things will work out for DeMarcus Cousins and the New Orleans Pelicans.
It’s still early in the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean we cannot begin to look at who’ll take home some hardware in the spring as the league’s MVP. And although that Christmas has not yet arrived, here are some players that are right now a cut above the rest.
DeMar DeRozan-Shooting Guard-Toronto Raptors
Since the Toronto Raptors made shooting guard DeMar Derozan the ninth overall selection of the NBA Draft in 2009, he has been a work in progress. As a rookie, DeRozan averaged 8.6 points per contest, but he would make a huge leap in his second season as he netted 17.2 points per game. And by 2014, DeRozan had elevated his game to that of an NBA All-Star.
Last season saw DeRozan help the Raptors make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, and he’s doing his part to help Toronto take that next step in order to win an NBA Championship.
This season DeRozan is averaging 28 points per game, which has included a pair of 40-point performances. In all but three games this season DeRozan has scored at least 21 points as he is the focal point of the Raptors offense.
DeRozan deserves a ton of credit as after signing a five-year, $139 million extension to remain in Toronto over the summer, his production has increased which goes against the norm as athletes tend to regress after agreeing to a mega deal. But DeRozan is mentally tough and as he has the Raptors poised to make a title run, he cannot be overlooked in regards to being the NBA’s MVP.
LeBron James-Small Forward-Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James falls into that rare air. James has been one of the best players in the NBA since he first came on to the scene in 2003 which is evident by him being a four-time NBA MVP. James is always in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP, and although that he’s only averaging 23.9 points so far this season, he is averaging 9.1 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per contest as he is still the game’s best all-around player.
Russell Westbrook-Point Guard-Oklahoma City Thunder
Since Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook made his NBA debut in 2008, he has been one of the league’s most explosive players. Westbrook is a five-time NBA All-Star in spite of the fact that he has spent his entire professional career playing out of position as he was always a shooting guard prior to joining the Thunder.
I expected Westbrook to have an increased role in the Thunder’s offense after small forward Kevin Durant left last summer in free agency and he has lived up to the expectations and then some.
In Westbrook’s first game this season, he dropped 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists on the Philadelphia 76ers. Westbrook follwed this up by torching the Phoenix Suns in the second game of the season for 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.
For the season Westbrook has 11 triple-doubles to his credit which includes recording one in his each of his last six games. Westbrook is currently averaging 31 points, 11.3 assists, and 10.9 rebounds as he is seeking to become the first player in the NBA to average a triple-double for an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1962. And if Westbrook is able to pull off that feat, he should receive very strong consideration to be the NBA’s MVP.
Kevin Durant-Small Forward-Golden State Warriors
Small forward Kevin Durant shocked many people last summer when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent to join the Golden State Warriors. And when Durant joined the Warriors, it was going to be interesting to see how he would play alongside point guard Steph Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson who are two of the premier scorers in the NBA.
But so far Durant hasn’t skipped a beat with his new team as he is averaging 26.5 points, 4.8 assists, and 8.4 rebounds which are a career-high. Durant has been consistent for the Warriors as he has scored at least 20 points in every contest in all but two for the Warriors. And as the Warriors once again find themselves in the title hunt, Durant’s contributions cannot be overlooked.
James Harden-Point Guard-Houston Rockets
Before this NBA season began, new Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he would be shifting James Harden from shooting guard to point guard. And whereas people such as myself laughed at the notion, D’Antoni has been right on so far.
Harden has still maintained his status as one of the better scorers in the NBA as he is averaging 28.5 points per game. But the amazing feat is that Harden has done this while he is leading the league in assists at 11.4 per contest. Harden has four triple-doubles on the season. And in those contests the Rockets are 3-1 which includes victories over the San Antonio Spurs, along with the Golden State Warriors.
D’Antoni has maximized the ability of Harden which is leading to victories for the Rockets and the elevation of the all-around game of one of the best players in the NBA.
Anthony Davis-Power Forward-New Orleans Pelicans
Being that the New Orleans Pelicans are not one of the better teams in the NBA, the exploits of power forward Anthony Davis could go unnoticed to the casual fan. Davis was the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft by the then New Orleans Hornets, and he has been as good as advertised. Davis is a budding superstar which began to recognized as he was named to his first All-Star team in 2014. That season Davis averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks as he helped the Pelicans reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Injuries limited Davis to just 61 games last season, but this time around he is currently averaging 31.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks.
On the season Davis has 10 games in which has delivered at least 30 points and 10 rebounds which was highlighted by going for 50 points and 15 rebounds in an opening night loss to the Denver Nuggets, along with a 41-point, 16-rebound barrage last Tuesday in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pelicans don’t have a good team around Davis which will hinder his chances as far as making the postseason goes, but what he is currently doing the season cannot be discredited.
X-Toronto Raptors 54-28 (3)
The past three years have seen the Toronto Raptors become the class of the Atlantic Division. The Raptors have focused on basketball fundamentals which has led to more wins and a growing fan base in Canada. The Raptors will begin the upcoming NBA season as the three-time defending Atlantic Division Championships, and after Toronto reached the Eastern Conference Finals last June for the first time in franchise history, the expectations around this team have increased.
Dwane Casey is set to begin his sixth season with the Raptors and in each of his campaign’s in Toronto, the team’s win total has increased. And after the Raptors won a franchise best 56 games last season, they are poised to once again be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
The backbone of the Raptors has been their All-Star backcourt of point guard Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan averaged a career-high in points last season at 23.5 points per game as he continues to improve as a perimeter shooter. Lowry’s numbers have continued throughout his NBA career as he is emerging as one of the better point guards in the league. Last year Lowry averaged 21.2 points and 6.4 assists per contest and as he intends to test free agency next summer.
Around Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors have developing players such as center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas has spent his entire four-year NBA career with the Raptors and his numbers continue to improve as he averaged 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds last season. Valanciunas is a prime candidate to average a double-double this season which could make the Raptors that more difficult to deal with. The Raptors signed center Jared Sullinger who could be a solid role player in Toronto after he spent the last four years with the Boston Celtics. And the Raptors first-round pick in center/power forward Jakob Poltl could give them another dynamic as a big man that can stretch the floor with his ability to hit he mid-range jump shot.
Size has been the one thing that has held the Raptors back in recent years, but as this team continues to get better in the front court, their chances of being a title contender are that much better.
Y-Boston Celtics 48-34 (4)
The past two years have seen the Boston Celtics become “The Little Engine That Could” of the NBA. The Celtics are not the most talented team in the league, but they scrap and claw on a nightly basis as they are a team that opponents are not excited to face. Brad Stevens is the Celtics head coach, and it is a post that he has maintained for the last three years. And in each year that Stevens has been in Boston, the Celtics win total has increased. The last two seasons have seen the Celtics make the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to advance past the first round. However will things change for the Celtics next spring?
Last year saw point guard Isaiah Thomas turn into a star for the Celtics. Thomas led the Celtics in points per game (22.2) and assists (6.2) as he earned his first All-Star Game nod. Thomas has solid ability as a point guard being that is able to penetrate, but for the Celtics to take that next step they are going to need a consistent low-post presence.
For the last nine years, center Al Horford has been one of the cornerstones of the Atlanta Hawks. With the Hawks, Horford was a four-time NBA All-Star as he averaged 14.3 points and 8.9 rebounds during his time there. But when Horford became a free agent this past summer, the Hawks signed center Dwight Howard which made him expendable. And when the Celtics offered Horford $113 million on a four-year deal, he jumped on it.
Horford gives the Celtics a dependable scorer in the post, and he has already been named as one of the team’s captains which gives you an idea of the respect that he commands.
The combination of guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley continue to pester opponents with their frenetic play at both ends of the floor. Both Smart and Bradley are two of the better defenders at the point guard position along with each player providing a change of pace on offense which gives Stevens more options as he preaches versatility with his team.
Veteran small forward Jae Crowder should be able to feed off of Horford’s presence in the front court as he no longer has to be the Celtics primary scoring option in the post. The Celtics have high hopes for their first-round pick in small forward Jaylen Brown. But a sleeper on this roster could be rookie forward Ben Bentil who averaged 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds last year in the college for the Providence Friars. Aside from leading the Friars in scoring and rebounds, Bentil also led the team with 52 made three-point field goals, and his scoring ability will be huge off of the bench for the Celtics.
Five of the Celtics first six games this season will be at home, and a fast start could be just what they need to push the Toronto Raptors for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
New York Knicks 41-41
When Phil Jackson became the president of the New York Knicks in March 2014, he brought excitement and expectations to the franchise. But in two seasons under Jackson’s regime, the Knicks have only managed to win 49 games, while the man that he was grooming to be the next “great head coach” in Derek Fisher was fired last season after the team got off to a 23-31 start. Kurt Rambis would be named as the Knicks interim head coach for the remainder of the season as New York went 9-19 under him. But what was even more surprising than the firing of Fisher was that Jeff Hornacek was hired to be the new head coach of the Knickerbockers.
The Knicks will be Hornacek’s second NBA coaching gig after he compiled a record of 101-112 in nearly three seasons as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. Hornacek was never able to lead the Suns to the postseason, and the highlight of his time in Phoenix was when the team won 48 games during the 2013-2014 NBA season. However it is really going to be very interesting to see how the marriage between Hornacek and Jackson will work since Jackson is notorious for hiring coaches that will solely run his triangle offense which isn’t a specialty of the Knicks new head coach who prefers a more uptempo style of offense.
The hiring of Hornacek smells of Knicks owner James Dolan once again putting his nose into the day-to-day operations of the team which makes you wonder if Jackson’s days at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue are numbered? And even though that the Knicks can be described as the best circus in town, this group must find a way to co-exist in order to make a roster that has individual talent work as a team.
The centerpiece of any potential Knicks success is small forward Carmelo Anthony. Anthony has been with the Knicks since 2011 and he has given New York a face of the franchise while helping them reach the postseason on three occasions. Anthony also led the NBA in scoring during the 2012-2013 NBA season, but since then his offensive numbers have dipped. Anthony is 32-years of age with a bad knee. And although that Anthony can still fill up the bucket, the clock is ticking on he and the Knicks to win a championship together.
The Knicks are hopeful that power forward Kristaps Porzingis will be able to build off of his solid rookie campaign. Last season Porzingis averaged 14.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks. Porzingis came into the NBA being compared to Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki, and he could be a player that could average 17 points and 10 rebounds this season under Hornacek.
This off-season has seen the Knicks bring in an array of veteran players. The Knicks signed former Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah to a four-year deal that is worth $72 million, while also signing guards Brandon Jennings and Courtney Lee. The Knicks would also acquire point guard Derrick Rose from the Bulls to complete their roster overhaul. But unfortunately for the Knicks, these are moves that should have been made five years ago.
In 2011, Rose was the NBA’s MVP as he was one of the league’s brightest stars. However since then knee injuries have derailed Rose’s once promising career. Noah was Rose’s teammate in Chicago where they helped the Bulls to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference when they were healthy. Noah was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 as his toughness and grit defined that era of Bulls basketball. But like Rose, Noah has been dealing with injuries as foot and shoulder issues have limited his effectiveness over his final two seasons in Chicago. The Knicks will be the fourth different team that Jennings has suited up for and he is seeking to find the explosiveness that he had earlier in his career. Like Jennings, Lee has bounced around the NBA as the Knicks will be his seventh different team. Throughout Lee’s career, he has been an underrated defender that should be able to provide a spark off of the Knicks bench for Hornacek.
The Knicks will look to push the pace of play more this season under Hornacek, but the most important thing for New York is to have everyone on the same page as it will be very interesting to see how this motley crew comes together as the season progresses.
Philadelphia 76ers 29-53
It’s no secret that the Philadelphia 76ers have become the worst franchise in the NBA. The 2011-2012 NBA season was the last time that the Sixers finished with a winning record and it was their only winning campaign over the last seven years. The last three seasons have seen the 76ers combine to win 47 games, and to give you an idea of how bad that it has been in Philadelphia, ten NBA teams won more games than the Sixers last year alone than they were able to accomplish over the last three campaigns. Last season was just about as bad as it could get for the Sixers as they managed to go just 10-72 which led to some wholesale changes.
Sam Hinkie was relieved of his duties as the 76ers general manager after he oversaw the worst stretch in franchise history. Former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo was brought in by the Sixers as an advisor and his first order of business was to name his son Bryan as the team’s new president and general manager. The younger Colangelo has a proven track record of putting a team together from his time as the general manager of both the Suns and Toronto Raptors as he was named as the NBA’s Executive of the Year in 2007. Now Colangelo is tasked with making the Sixers respectable once again and they could be a team on the rise.
Brett Brown is set to begin his third season as the Sixers head coach and although that the man who hired him in Hinkie is no longer running the show in Philly, he will still be calling the shots on the sideline.
The Sixers will begin the upcoming NBA season on the wrong foot as they will be without the services of small forward Ben Simmons. Simmons was the first overall pick of the NBA Draft this past summer after he averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in one year for the LSU Tigers. But a foot injury will keep Simmons out of action for at least three months which will postpone his NBA debut.
The inability for the 76ers to win games in recent years has led to selecting early in the NBA Draft, but Hinkie rolled the dice on players that weren’t healthy. In 2013, the Sixers obtained the draft rights to center Nerlens Noel from the New Orleans Pelicans, but he missed the entire 2013-2014 NBA season after he recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered in college. In 2014, the Sixers used the third overall pick of the draft on center Joel Embiid, but injuries have prevented him from participating in an NBA game. Last year the Sixers first-round pick was center Jahlil Okafor. Unlike Noel and Embiid, Okafor was able to suit up as a rookie for the Sixers as he averaged 17.5 points and 7 rebounds in 53 games before a knee injury cut his rookie campaign short. However all three players are healthy and it should give the 76ers a huge advantage in the front court.
The good things for the folks in Philadelphia is that it can’t get any worse than it has already been. Colangelo is working to bring a competitive team to the City of Brotherly Love and the 76ers should be an improved team this season.
Brooklyn Nets 22-60
Last year was a sign of things to come for the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets lost 61 games last season which was the third worst record in the NBA and the icing on the cake was that they didn’t have a first-round pick to show for their futility. The Nets are still suffering from the moves that were made by former general manager Billy King as most of their recent and future picks are now property of the Boston Celtics after the team’s failed attempt to become an instant title contender in 2013 when they acquired aging players such as power forward Kevin Garnett and small forward Paul Pierce. The Nets run at a title was short lived as they are coming off of their worst campaign since 2010 when they were still the New Jersey Nets.
Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov has finally realized that winning an NBA Championship is not an easy process and instead of the quick process, he has finally decided on the slow, methodical process. Prokhorov has hired Sean Marks as the Nets new general manager and he’ll be tasked with making Brooklyn respectable.
Marks played for 11 seasons in the NBA and he won a championship as a member of the San Antonio Spurs in 2003. Marks has spent the last four years working in the Spurs front office and he is looking to bring some of that winning formula with him to Brooklyn.
Marks’ first order of business was to hire a new coach in Kenny Atkinson. The Nets will mark Atkinson’s first head coaching gig in the NBA, but he has had stints as an assistant coach in the league with the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. And now that Atkinson is running the show in Brooklyn, you can expect him to preach ball movement for the Nets.
One of the few bright spots that the Nets have on their roster is center Brook Lopez. Lopez is coming off of one of his best NBA seasons as he averaged 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds in 73 games for the Nets. Lopez gives the Nets a solid presence in the post, but trading him to a contending team could return draft picks to Brooklyn that will be needed in order for them to turn things around.
Aside from Lopez, the Nets are a team that is mainly comprised of youngsters that are thankful to be on an NBA roster and veterans that are attempting to hold on. This past summer the Nets signed point guard Jeremy Lin to a three-year, $36 million deal as they are hopeful than he can give them a dose of “Linsanity” as he did when he suited up for the Knicks in 2012. Rookie shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead is a native of Coney Island and he won’t be fazed by playing in front of the hometown fans as he could have a positive impact on this team.
The Nets will be fighting an uphill battle all season long as they have finally come to grips of the reality that is their rebuilding process.
1. Philadelphia 76ers-Ben Simmons-Small Forward-LSU
Maybe this is the year that the Philadelphia 76ers finally get it right at the NBA Draft.
2. Los Angeles Lakers-Brandon Ingram-Small Forward-Duke
With selecting Ben Simmons out of the equation, look for the Los Angeles Lakers to select the second best small forward in this year’s draft.
3. Boston Celtics-Dragan Bender-Power Forward-Israel
If the Boston Celtics are right on with this selection, it could be the start of something special in Beantown.
4. Phoenix Suns-Ivica Zubac-Center-Croatia
If you watched the Phoenix Suns that much during this past NBA season, you could see the glaring weakness that they had in their front court.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves-Buddy Hield-Shooting Guard-Oklahoma
If the Minnesota Timberwolves don’t trade this selection, they could find instant offense at the shooting guard position in Buddy Hield.
6. New Orleans Pelicans-Jaylen Brown-Shooting Guard-California
In watching the New Orleans Pelicans play this past NBA season, it became quite apparent that they need more play makers around center Anthony Davis.
7.Denver Nuggets-Jamal Murray-Shooting Guard-Kentucky
The Denver Nuggets appear to have their franchise point guard in Emanuel Mudiay, now they need a running mate for him in the back court.
8.Sacramento Kings-Kris Dunn-Point Guard-Providence
I expect the Sacramento Kings to allow point guard Rajon Rondo to leave in free agency which opens the door for the arrival of Kris Dunn.
9. Toronto Raptors-Jakob Poeltl-Power Forward-Utah
The Toronto Raptors have proven that they can make a run in the NBA Playoffs with their strong back court of point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. But if the Raptors want to be serious as far as winning an NBA Championship, they are going to need more scoring up front.
10. Milwaukee Bucks-Deyonta Davis-Power Forward-Michigan State
At this point of the draft Deyonta Daivs is the best player available, while I also expect the Milwaukee Bucks to do some wheeling and dealing on Thursday night.
11. Orlando Magic-Timothe Luwawu-Shooting Guard-France
With a new head coach in Frank Vogel taking over, expect the Orlando Magic to be a more productive team.
12. Utah Jazz-Denzel Valentine-Shooting Guard-Michigan State
Denzel Valentine heads into this NBA Draft as arguably to most pro ready prospect.
13. Phoenix Suns-Domantas Sabonis-Power Forward-Gonzaga
The upgrade of the front court continues for the Phoenix Suns with the addition of the son of a former NBA big man.
14. Chicago Bulls-Tyler Ulis-Point Guard-Kentucky
The end of the Derrick Rose era with the Chicago Bulls could be coming to an end.
15. Denver Nuggets-Henry Ellenson-Center-Marquette
Henry Ellenson has top-ten talent, but if he falls here to the Denver Nuggets, he could be the steal of the draft.
16. Boston Celtics-Skal Labissierre-Power Forward-Kentucky
Size, size, and more size is the name of the game for the Boston Celtics this year at the NBA Draft.
17. Memphis Grizzlies-Marquese Chriss-Power Forward-Washington
There are several directions in which the Memphis Grizzlies can go with this selection, but they definitely need to get younger and more athletic in the front court.
18. Detroit Pistons-Brice Johnson-Power Forward-North Carolina
Rebounding and defense are vital for any Stan Van Gundy coached team which makes Brice Johnson a no-brainer here for the Detroit Pistons.
19. Denver Nuggets-Ante Zizic-Center-Croatia
The Denver Nuggets could be bulking up for a possible run to the postseason next year in the Western Conference.
20. Indiana Pacers-Malachi Richardson-Shooting Guard-Syracuse
If the Indiana Pacers want “small ball” to work for them, they are going to need more perimeter scorers that can compliment small forward Paul George.
21. Atlanta Hawks-Thon Maker-Center-Australia
The Atlanta Hawks could be rolling dice here, but if it works then they will look like geniuses.
22. Charlotte Hornets-Wade Baldwin IV-Shooting Guard-Vanderbilt
In losing in the first round of the NBA Playoffs this year, the Charlotte Hornets proved that they need more perimeter scoring.
23. Boston Celtics-Taurean Prince-Small Forward-Baylor
When the NBA season rolls around, the Boston Celtics could have one of the most athletic teams in the Eastern Conference.
24. Philadelphia 76ers-Furkan Korkmaz-Shooting Guard-Turkey
The Philadelphia 76ers are still going to be a work in progress, but under president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo, they finally appear to be headed in the right direction.
25. Los Angeles Clippers-DeAndre’ Bembry-Small Forward-Saint Joseph’s
DeAndre’ Bembry is a tough minded player that fits the mode of what Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers wants with his team.
26. Philadelphia 76ers-Demetrius Jackson-Point Guard-Notre Dame
Of all that the things that have held the Philadelphia 76ers back over the past few years, one of the biggest issues is that they’ve lacked a quality floor general which they can get here with Demetrius Jackson.
27. Toronto Raptors-Malik Beasley-Shooting Guard-Florida State
The arrival of Malik Beasley to the Toronto Raptors could allow head coach Dwane Casey to use DeMar DeRozan more at small forward.
28. Phoenix Suns-Paul Zipser-Small Forward-Germany
The front court transformation for the Phoenix Suns continues.
29. San Antonio Spurs-Ben Bentil-Power Forward-Providence
With power forward Tim Duncan hanging on by a thread, the San Antonio Spurs must get younger in the front court if they want to maintain their status as one of the top teams in the NBA.
30. Golden State Warriors-Damian Jones-Power Forward-Vanderbilt
Losing the NBA Finals this week showed that the Golden State Warriors must get better in the front court.
Y-Toronto Raptors 46-36 (7)
The Toronto Raptors are coming off of their best regular season in franchise history, but will they be able to take the next step in the NBA Playoffs? The Raptors have won the Atlantic Division is each of the last two NBA seasons, but it hasn’t resulted in success in the postseason as Toronto has been bounced in the first round each year. Under general manager Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have been a guard oriented team with their big men mainly focusing on rebounding. This philosophy is good enough for the Raptors to win Atlantic Division in the regular season, but the postseason is a different animal.
The Raptors two leading scorers recently have been shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and point guard Kyle Lowry. DeRozan is an athletic wing player while Lowry is a grizzled point guard. Lowry has shed a few pounds during the off-season in the hope of being able to endure the grind that is the NBA season. Together, DeRozan and Lowry have the ability to put the Raptors on their back which could lead to another division title.
The Raptors do have some size in their frontcourt in center Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Patrick Patterson and they’ll need to improve on the boards as they were just 26th in the NBA in rebounding last season while the acquisition of power forward Luis Scola and small forward DeMarre Carroll should provide Toronto with some extra depth and scoring options up front.
For Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, “small ball” will once again be in effect for his team which should lead to another division title, but they will more than likely be hung out to dry next spring in the NBA Playoffs.
X-Boston Celtics 43-39 (8)
It wasn’t pretty at times, but the Boston Celtics found a way to make the NBA Playoffs last spring. The Celtics went 40-42 to grab a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as the rebuilding process under head coach Brad Stevens is paying off. Stevens is set to begin his third season as the head coach of the Celtics and his squad in Boston is reminiscent of his teams when he was the head basketball coach at Butler University. The Celtics might not have the overall talent of other teams in the NBA, but they scrap, claw, and play as a cohesive unit on a nightly basis which is something that you’ll see from them once again in the upcoming NBA season.
Like some other teams in the NBA, the Celtics have become a guard oriented team. The Celtics acquired point guard Isaiah Thomas last season from the Phoenix Suns. And in 21 games with the Celtics, Thomas averaged 19.0 points per contest. This season it would not surprise me to see Stevens employ a three guard lineup at times with Thomas, along with fellow point guards Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley as they all possess speed along with the ability to score and facilitate.
In the Celtics front court, they are hopeful that this will be the season in which power forward Jared Sullinger will be able to remain healthy. Sullinger in entering his fourth season with the Celtics, but he has only appeared in 177 games. At 6’9″, 280 lbs., Sullinger gives the Celtics an imposing presence in the post, but he cannot help the team if he is not playing. This off-season the Celtics acquired power forward David Lee from the Golden State Warriors. And if Lee is healthy, what he’ll be able to provide the Celtics with is a player that is always active who doesn’t need many offensive plays called for him in order to contribute which will fit into Stevens’ system.
Swingman Evan Turner is a solid wing player while small forward Jae Crowder, power forward Amir Johnson, center Tyler Zeller, and center Kelly Olnyk give the Celtics depth and size in their front court; especially coming off of the bench.
The Celtics won’t be able to sneak up on teams this season, but a favorable schedule to begin the NBA campaign along with solid determination will have them once again contending for a postseason berth.
Brooklyn Nets 41-41
In their first year under head coach Lionel Hollins, the Brooklyn Nets posted a losing record, but they still were able to navigate their way to the postseason. And in the upcoming NBA season, the Nets are out to prove people wrong who are ready to write them off as far as being able to be a contender.
It was addition by subtraction for the Nets when they parted ways with point guard Deron Williams over the summer. Williams had developed a reputation in New York City of being a “high-priced diva”. And when your production doesn’t equate to your paycheck in the Big Apple, the fans and media alike there don’t have a problem in letting you know that. The Nets would simply buy out the remainder of Williams’ contract as they decided that it was time for them to move on from their former franchise player.
The Nets are the seventh NBA team that point guard Jarrett Jack has played for. Last season with the Nets, Jack averaged 12.0 and 4.7 assists per game as he was splitting time with Williams. But with Williams now with the Dallas Mavericks, Hollins is giving Jack the opportunity to be a starter which is something that he hasn’t consistently done in the NBA. What Jack gives the Nets at the point guard position is a player who is a veteran floor general that can get his teammates involved while staying within the realm of what Hollins wants to have executed on the floor.
After flirting with trading center Brook Lopez last season, the Nets have decided to keep their big man around as he has begun to display the aggression that Hollins consistently needs from him in the post. Lopez has always been a solid scorer, but not a superstar. And if the Nets are cool with Lopez hitting his career averages of 17 points and 7 rebounds per contest, then they’ll have a solid contributor on their hands. Whereas the Nets traded center Mason Plumlee to the Portland Trailblazers over the summer, they are raving about the potential that power forward Thaddeus Young possesses. Nets general manager Billy King drafted Young into the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers back in 2007. And even at the age of 27, we still don’t know how good that Young can truly be as a player due to the fact that he’s never had a solid opportunity to be a focal point of a team which we should see more of this year.
The Nets still have veteran sharpshooter Joe Johnson who is in the final year of his contract. Johnson is set to earn $24.9 million this season and if he or Brooklyn gets off to a slow start this season, I could see him getting shipped out of town. But Johnson is still a solid three-point shooter that could benefit from pick and roll action with Jack along with playing off of Young and Lopez in the post as he looks to join the 20,000-point club this season.
The Nets reserve players will consist of point guard Shane Larkin, swingman Bojan Bogdanovic, and veteran small forward Andrea Bargnani who all have something to prove this season after up and down campaigns last season to say the least.
The Nets will embark on a difficult schedule to begin the NBA season which includes games against the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls, but Hollins is a good motivator and he knows how to adjust as the season goes along which should allow Brooklyn to remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.
New York Knicks 30-52
For some folks it may appear that there is a dark cloud hanging over Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks. The Knicks have not won the Eastern Conference since 1999 and they have not won the NBA Championship since 1973. But in recent years, the Knicks have become a laughing stock in professional sports. The Knicks are coming off of their worst season in franchise history as they went 17-65, and to make matters worse, the ping pong balls didn’t bounce their way at the NBA’s Draft Lottery as they received the fourth overall pick of the draft. The Knicks would select forward Kristaps Porzingis which was welcomed by a chorus of boos in New York City. Porzingis is a 20-year old native of Latvia who Knicks team president Phil Jackson is classifying as a “project” and only time will tell will tell how good that he can be. But the problem is that the folks in New York City don’t want to hear about a player being a project as they are looking for a winner right now which is something that they shouldn’t hold their breath on with this current Knicks team.
When Jackson came on board as the Knicks president, he wanted to do things his way which meant him bringing his famed triangle offense to town. Jackson hired Derek Fisher to be the Knicks head coach last year due to his familiarity with Jackson’s system during his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers. But Fisher is the one who is coaching the Knicks and not Jackson and the message of the triangle is not getting across to the players in New York.
In Fisher’s first season with the Knicks, he appeared to be lost for the most part as their has been a steep learning curve for him as he made the quick jump from NBA player to being a head coach without any period of transition as an assistant coach. Fisher also hasn’t helped himself or the Knicks being that he is now embroiled in a saga involving himself and the ex-wife of current Memphis Grizzlies small forward Matt Barnes. And although the Ringling Brothers Circus no longer comes to Madison Square Garden, there is still plenty of circus action around 33rd and Broadway due to the calamity of errors that the Knicks have become.
Small forward Carmelo Anthony is the Knicks best player, but at 31-years of age, and coming off of knee surgery, can he be the same player that he once was? For his 12-year NBA career, Anthony has averaged 25.2 points per game. Anthony is a phenomenal scorer that doesn’t make the players around him better and with the triangle offense predicated on ball movement, it seems to be a marriage of oil and water between he and Jackson’s system.
With a team president that is out to lunch, a head coach that is searching for answers and a superstar player in Anthony that has a scorer’s mentality, fans of the Knicks don’t have a lot to look forward to in the upcoming NBA season.
Philadelphia 76ers 20-62
There’s bad and then there’s how bad that Philadelphia 76ers have been recently. During the 2012-2013 NBA season, the 76ers won 34 games. But over the last two NBA seasons, the Sixers have won a combined 37 games. And by the look of things, you can expect more of the same in Philadelphia from them during the upcoming NBA season. Sam Hinkie is entering his third season as the 76ers team president/general manager and even though he wants people to trust the process, it is time that he produces some positive results for this team.
The Sixers owned the third overall pick of the 2015 NBA draft which they used on center Jahlil Okafor whom they are hopeful will be a building block for them, but at the same time will they stick with him long enough to develop? Under Hinkie, the 76ers have a history of giving up on some of their young players quickly while they’ve also made turned the NBA Draft into a joke due to the fact that they select players that are injured as they’ll once again be without the services of center Joel Embiid for the entire season.
Under head coach Brett Brown, the Sixers have a young team, but they must find a way to become more competitive as they lost 23 games last season by at least 15 points. Right now the Sixers are not a respected organization around the NBA which means they are going to have to earn respect, but by the looks of things, they don’t have the personnel to be that competitive.
The Toronto Raptors are on the verge of their second straight Atlantic Division Title and with it another trip to the NBA Playoffs. But as the month of April is right around the corner, the Raptors don’t have the look or feel of a team that is ready to do some damage when the NBA Playoffs begin. The Raptors have lost 13 of their last 18 games. The Raptors still have a stranglehold on the top spot in the Atlantic Division due to the fact that it is by far the weakest division in the NBA, but they are fading in the overall standings of the Eastern Conference. For most of the season the Raptors were the second best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Atlanta Hawks. But now the Raptors have fallen into fourth place in the East behind the Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls.
This season the Raptors have been carried by their starting backcourt of point guard Kyle Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan. Fresh off of signing a new four-year, $48 million deal to remain with the Raptors, Lowry started real strong this season as in the month of December he averaged 22.3 points and 8.9 assists per game. Lowry was picking up the slack for an injured DeRozan and he kept the team afloat. And Lowry’s season was highlighted by him being named to his first NBA All-Star team. But through rest and injuries, Lowry’s numbers have now dipped. Lowry didn’t appear in the Raptors previous two games before exiting early this past Tuesday night in a 108-104 loss to the Detroit Pistons due to a back injury. Since returning from injury at the beginning of 2015, DeRozan has been valuable for the Raptors including his 23.8 points per game average this month. And depending on how long that Lowry will be out, DeRozan might be asked to do even more for the Raptors.
One of the things that is and will continue to hurt the Raptors is that they are built from the outside-in as opposed to the inside-out. The Raptors rely on Lowry and DeRozan along with other perimeter players such shooting guard Lou Williams and small forward Terrence Ross to do the scoring and creating whereas big men such as center Jonas Valanciunas and power forward Amir Johnson tend to grab rebounds and plug up the middle on defense. This philosophy for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey will win games in the regular season; especially in the Atlantic Division, but it won’t be as easy for Toronto against the big boys of the NBA where size matters. The Raptors lack of interior size is evident by the fact that they are currently tied for 26th in the NBA for total rebounding at 41.4 per game while being a middle of the pack team for field goal percentage at .454 as they tend to rely more on perimeter shooting.
Last season the Raptors won the Atlantic and they had home-court advantage in their first round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets. But it was the Nets that had more size on the interior along with veteran experience that propelled them to the series win. And if you look at the current slump that the Raptors are on they have lost to teams that have size and for the most part a post presence.
When the calender shifts to April, the Raptors will have eight games left in the regular season and all of those contests will be against teams that currently have losing records. The Raptors need to take advantage of the also-rans in those contests along with getting some swagger back as they head into the postseason. I don’t see the Raptors forcing the issue to rush Lowry back now as they’ll need him healthy and ready to go when the playoffs roll around. This season the Raptors are a combined 3-7 versus the Hawks, Cavs and Bulls who are the tops teams in the Eastern Conference as they lose the size matchup with each team. And due to this discrepancy for the Raptors, I see them struggling when the NBA Playoffs roll around; even with a healthy Lowry.
In 2006, it was a bit of a shock when guard Kyle Lowry declared for the NBA Draft. Lowry played college basketball at Villanova University for two years where as a freshman he was a member of the Big East Conference’s All-Rookie Team in 2005 along with being second-team All Big East in 2006. As a sophomore, Lowry averaged 11.0 points and 3.7 assists per contest as he helped Villanova reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the first time since 1988. Lowry was one of four guards that Villanova head basketball coach Jay Wright implemented in his starting lineup that season. Lowry would be outshined by guards Allan Ray and Randy Foye that season and with the duo set to graduate in 2006, all signs pointed to Lowry having a bigger role the following season.
But in 2006, Lowry would be selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. Lowry’s numbers have improved in every season; especially when he was traded to the Houston Rockets in 2009. By the end of the 2010-2011 NBA season, Lowry was averaging double-digits in points for the first time in his professional career as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.7 assists for the Rockets. However Lowry wasn’t on the same page with Rockets head coach Kevin McHale and in 2012 he was traded once more; this time to the Toronto Raptors.
With the Raptors, Lowry’s numbers have continued to improve as he averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists last season in helping Toronto win its first Atlantic Division Title since 2007. Other NBA teams noticed Lowry’s improved play. Last year teams such as the Indiana Pacers attempted to acquire Lowry, but Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri wasn’t interested in parting with the point guard. Last summer Lowry became a free agent and with teams like the Miami Heat vying for his services it would have been easy for him to leave Toronto, but he stayed with the Raptors after agreeing to a four-year deal worth $48 million.
This season Lowry has continued to improve his play as he is averaging 18.4 points and 7.1 assists which are both tops on the Raptors team. Lowry recorded a triple-double on November 7 in a 103-84 victory over the Washington Wizards which was just one of his highlights this season. Lowry’s improvement hasn’t gone unnoticed by the basketball world as not only did he participate in his first NBA All-Star Game last Sunday, but he was a starter for the Eastern Conference on the same squad that featured Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James and New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony.
At 6’0″, 205 lbs., Lowry brings that Philadelphia playground game to the NBA. Lowry is a physical guard that doesn’t have a problem with getting physical close to the basket along with providing speed as far as driving to the hole. Overall, Lowry is simply Philly tough. Lowry is the prime example of a player that has aggressively worked at his craft each day in order to improve and become not only a solid NBA player, but one of the better overall point guards in the league. A prime example of that was this season when Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan was sidelined with an injury for 21 games. DeRozan is the Raptors second leading scorer this season at 18.4 points per game and in his absence with Lowry leading the way, Toronto went 12-9.
At 37-19, the Raptors have the second best record in the Eastern Conference and they also have a cushy 13-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets for first place in the Atlantic Division. The Raptors are a virtual lock to make the NBA Playoffs this spring and they are looking to advance past the first round for the first time since 2001. For the Raptors to make some noise in the postseason they will rely on Lowry’s ability which he has displayed all season long as being a true floor general.