2017-2018 NBA Preview – Who’s Good, Who’s Bad, Who’s … Irrelevant – Part One

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In order to get away with having fewer of those dreaded back-to-backs in the NBA schedule, Commissioner Adam Silver decided to extend the season by beginning it two weeks earlier. That’s right, NBA basketball won’t be waltzing back into our lives on a Halloween, but on a mid-October Tuesday. Today, in fact.

Silver could have cut a few dates from the schedule of 82 games, but the loss in revenue for both the owners and players from losing a few games was a non-starter. Sure, having a team play a division opponent four times, a conference opponent three times, and an opponent from the other conference twice would be symmetrical and reduce the number of back-to-backs (under that format, it would be a 16-30-30 arrangement, which equates to 76 games), but there’s nothing on this Earth fiercer than businessmen and basketball players when they lose money.

Not that I’m complaining, for basketball is my favorite sport. And while the NBA season beginning now puts it squarely in competition with baseball’s playoffs, the middle of the college football season, and also means that they’ll have to compete longer with the NFL (or, as its ex-players ALWAYS have to call it, the National Football League, spelling it out nice and slow like the audience is all on the autism spectrum), it’s generally accepted that the real beginning of the NBA season is around Christmas, its first huge showcase day.

Still, there are plenty of games that count to be played between now and the holidays, and nerds like me are saying bravo. So, without further ado, here’s where I see the 30 teams of the NBA at the start of the regular season, including our beloved Portland Trail Blazers.

 

The Cupboard’s Lookin’ Pretty Bare, Bob

Brooklyn Nets: You have to feel for General Manager Sean Marks and Head Coach Kenny Atkinson. Two guys in their first major NBA leadership roles, and they have to resuscitate the most poorly-run franchise since Donald Sterling was ousted in Los Angeles.

To their great credit, they did the very best they could. The team they did have was the most harmonious 20-win team in NBA history last season, and they’ve traded their veteran All-Star center, Brook Lopez, to the Los Angeles Lakers for the talented yet troubled D’Angelo Russell. Whether they can help Russell grow up some and develop into the All-Star level of player the former No. 2 overall pick could be, remains to be seen.

Other than Russell, the roster is light on high-end potential. It’ll remain that way until the 2020s begin.

 

Indiana Pacers: I don’t care if these guys do have Myles Turner. Anytime you trade a top six or seven player in the NBA in his prime, and end up with a grossly overpaid Victor Oladipo and a box of Cheez-Its, you’re going to end up in this section. They did pry Domatas Sabonis (son of Arvydas Sabonis, of Trail Blazers fame) from the Thunder, but that kind of haul for Paul George, never mind the lack of leverage Indy had, makes me question whether Kevin Pritchard has lost his touch.

Then again, my team signed Evan Turner for $70 million, so…

 

Atlanta Hawks: Their rebuilding phase has just begun. While they will be a fun bad team to watch, because coach Mike Budenholzer teaches aesthetically pleasing styles of play, the apathetic Atlanta sports scene probably won’t care enough to shell out for tickets. One reason the Hawks are on a 10-season playoffs streak is because the fans typically don’t care unless the team is kinda good, or the team they grew up rooting for (Atlanta is full of transplants) is in town.

I will watch them whenever they show up, but if the inconsistent Dennis Schroder is your best player, your cupboard is very bare.

 

Chicago Bulls: They traded Jimmy Butler, a borderline top-10 player (some think he’s already there), for a few youngsters. Other than that, they have a heaping pile of nothing.

Lauri Markennen, the rookie the Bulls got in that deal, is a good start. Kris Dunn was terrible last year, but he was a rookie point guard; rookies that play point guard typically don’t succeed unless they’re in a very good situation, and the Wolves were not good in his one year there. Zach LaVine is the question mark here, since he’s coming off knee surgery, and his game is 100% about running and jumping.

At least three out of Markennen, Dunn, LaVine, and whomever the Bulls pick in the 2018 Draft (it’ll be a high pick, since this is a classic tankaroo here) need to be solid NBA players within three to five seasons, and one needs to be an All-Star, for the Butler trade to work out. Otherwise, all those arrows the Chicago fanbase and national media slung at GM Gar Forman will stick forever.

 

Under New Management

Orlando Magic: They belong just as much in the prior section, but the change in leadership is more noteworthy than the fact that they have an odd mix of veterans in their prime and youngsters trying to figure it out.

Elfrid Payton and especially Aaron Gordon could be good players, but they’ve been jerked around like a dog’s chew toy way too often. Gordon, in particular, was tried at the 3 in super-duper sized lineups that went nowhere. With Rob Hennigan now out as GM, and most of his weird decisions out with him, we’ll see who’s got the next best plan.

 

New York Knicks: Phil Jackson is done as basketball chief in New York, but I’m not sure if his former lieutenant and now replacement, Steve Mills, will end up being better. Mills is a very old NBA hand that is respected throughout the league, but his two big decisions so far were mostly panned. One was signing marginal wing player Tim Hardaway Jr., a player the Knicks gave up on before, to a four-year, $71 million contract. That contract was compared to the one Turner signed with Portland, a very bad sign indeed.

The second one was trading Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City for the grossly overpaid Enes Kanter, a bag of peanuts, and a watery $20 beer. Anthony absolutely HAD to go, as the situation at Madison Square Garden had become toxic, but you surely didn’t need to take on Kanter, guarantee horrendous defense, and be stuck giving up 120 points per game as you spin around a 30-win hamster wheel until 2021. Poor Kristaps Porzingis.

Porzingis, at least, will get the chance to truly stretch his wings, and he and teenage point guard Frank Ntilikina are firmly ensconced as the Knicks’ future.

 

Los Angeles Lakers: The Magic Johnson Regime is a full go. After taking over as head basketball honcho midway through last season, Magic shuffled the roster up, giving up on Russell (with some barbs to jab into his ass on the way out) in favor of rookie Lonzo Ball, another No. 2 overall draft pick, who brings transcendent passing ability and a loudmouth assclown of a father to Showtime.

Many of you know of Magic as one of the greatest players of all time and the most famous HIV-positive person on the planet, but he’s also become a legit business mogul. In 2012, he was reportedly worth $500 million in liquid cash and had over $1 billion in equity, numbers that have likely grown over the last five years. He also is a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, using his personality and uncanny business sense to turn the once sad-sack punching bag owned by the inept Frank McCourt into baseball’s version of the Lakers, except the Dodgers are actually good.

So why is a guy like Earvin “Magic” Johnson working for the Lakers? Loyalty, and an incessant need to please. He’s also likely been throwing up in his mouth watching his former team in recent years, when they’ve never been lower. The Lakers are off to a good start, but Johnson, GM Rob Pelinka, and coach Luke Walton still have a tough road to hoe.

 

Irrelevance, My State of Mind

Dallas Mavericks: It pains me deeply that the legendary Dirk Nowitzki, the best non-American basketball player ever and a top-20 player all time, is going to play his last season on a roster that might end up being the worst NBA team he’s ever played on. Dirk deserves better than this, especially after giving up tens of millions of dollars to give Mark Cuban and Co. more wiggle room. Nowitzki is the anti-Dwyane Wade, circa 2016, in that sense.

This season is Dirk’s swan song. The real work begins the moment No. 41 hangs them up for the final time, and rides off into the Dallas sunset.

 

Sacramento Kings: For once, this franchise seems to be on a bit of an upswing. Sure, they traded Demarcus Cousins, the best player they have had since Chris Webber, for young wing Buddy Hield and a sack of Cracker Jacks, but they also drafted De’Aaron Fox, a point guard who looks to be a really good one someday.

Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Skal Labiessere are young guys full of potential, and George Hill, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph (Z-Bo’s latest drug troubles aside) are consummate professionals; Fox and Co. could do much worse than learning from them.

So why is Sacramento down here? One, I don’t trust coach Dave Joerger to not play the vets big minutes in a futile chase for wins (especially since he coached Carter and Randolph in Memphis). Two, I totally trust the Kings to Kings this up somehow. The front office has a history of impatience and eccentricity, and those guys are all still there.

 

Detroit Pistons: Unlike the other two teams in this category with them, the Pistons stand a chance of making the playoffs because the Eastern Conference is a flaming pile of rat dung. Out of the other teams in the mushy middle of the East, however, Detroit is the least inspiring, to me anyway.

Reggie Jackson looks to rebound after a lost season, but I’m more concerned about center Andre Drummond. Unless you’re a DeAndre Jordan-type that jumps out of the gym and swallows shots like a python swallows rats, you’re not going to make an impact in today’s NBA if you can’t shoot from any kind of range, even as a big man. Drummond does rebound well, but rebounding is as fungible in basketball as the running back position is in football; it’s easily replaceable, and easily done by committee.

If Drummond can’t wrap his mind around NBA defense after five-plus years of relentless coaching, how long can the Pistons wait?

 

*Sigh* They’re So Young

Phoenix Suns: Even though the Suns will likely be the worst team in the brutal Western Conference this season, they are loaded with top prospects, led by human torch Devin Booker, one of six players in NBA history to drop 70 points in a single game. Booker needs to learn to be more efficient and that there’s more to basketball than, um, shooting all the time, but he’s also just 20 years old.

Dragan Bender, Josh Jackson, Marquese Chriss…they are very young, but Phoenix has guys with high ceilings on their roster. This year is about taking more steps towards reaching those ceilings. It won’t be this season, the next one, or even the one after that. But someday, if things break right, the Suns could be a top team in the NBA someday.

 

Philadelphia 76ers: This team, on the other hand, is on track to get there soon, health permitting (and that’s a HUGE qualifier). The Process is no longer about acquiring talent by hook and crook, it’s about making sure the fragile knees on these giant, immature human beings don’t spontaneously implode.

The Sixers, by dint of playing in the East, stand a solid chance of making the postseason in 2018, which would be a very positive step forward; they could channel the 2010 Thunder, a callow group of youngsters that would scrap and claw their way through a tough first-round series before getting dispatched. Some folks had them as high as fifth, but that’s insanity: young teams don’t win in the NBA. I see them making it at seven or eight, if they make it at all.

It’s more important, though, for the Sixers to make it through a full season without any major injury. That in itself would be a development as significant as any kind of playoff run.

 

The Gooey Middle (Eastern Edition)

Charlotte Hornets: The Dwight Howard gamble is a big one, but I’m more interested in what happened to Nicolas Batum. The former Blazers forward injured his elbow, and will be out for eight-to-12 weeks. This is huge not just because Batum makes massive amounts of Michael Jordan’s money, but because the Hornets have only one capable ballhandler in point guard Kemba Walker without the Frenchman.

The East, as mentioned before, is a tire fire, but Charlotte will be a crappier, older version of the Utah Jazz until Batum returns. If that return is closer to Christmas, the Hornets will be in good shape. If Batum doesn’t heal until MLK Day, the Hornets might be screwed, even in the East.

 

Miami Heat: The Heat are always better prepared, better conditioned, and hungrier than any other NBA team. If they had talent to match such drive, they’d be challenging Cleveland for Eastern supremacy instead of rotting in the middle levels of the Eastern dung heap.

The Heat can be described as solid. Solid, without the ability to be more than that, though I’d be shocked if they start 11-30 again, barring injury or a Hassan Whiteside meltdown.

 

Milwaukee Bucks: A qualifier: if Giannis Antetokounmpo takes yet another leap to top-five player and MVP candidate, the Bucks join the East pseudo-contenders. The kid known as the Greek Freak is coming off a season where he was in the top 20 in all five major per-game stats (points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals), and he lead the Bucks in all five of those categories (I think he was only the fifth or sixth guy in NBA history to do both these things)…and that was his age 22 season. Yeah, at an age where your typical NBA player is starting to find his way, the Greek Freak was setting records and butting his way into the fringes of the MVP conversation.

If healthy, Milwaukee is a playoff team. Whether they supplant the Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards for home court advantage will depend on many things, not the least of which is Antetokounmpo being the best player on the floor in at least 70 of his team’s 82 games, and playing like it.

 

Part 2 will be up on Oregon Sports News tomorrow.

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