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Posted on: June 1, 2012 5:52 pm
 

Ranking No. 1 Draft Picks of Draft Lottery Era

With the 2012 NBA draft looming and with it widely assumed that Anthony Davis will be the newest addition to the list of number one draft picks in NBA history, I figured I would rank the top number one draft picks of the lottery era; which happens to be where the Hornets are selecting.  The lottery was put into place in 1985 to prevent teams from intentionally tanking a season just so that they could get the number one draft pick.  Once put into place, the team with the worst record in the league has gotten the number one draft pick only four times.  It's hard to rank these players as some are very young in their careers and others still have years to tack on the achievements.  A lot of the last few draft picks will be ranked by potential and performance in their young careers so don't get upset if they're too far down or high on the list.  This is a list I've tried to tackle before that I've been able to adjust due to being a little bit wiser and with stuff going down between the players over the last few years.  So here it goes: ranking the top No. 1 Draft picks of the lottery era.

27) Michael Olowokandi, C, Los Angeles Clippers out of University of the Pacific in 1998 NBA Draft (500 Games, 393 Starts, 8.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 59.7 FT Pctg., 43.5 FG Pctg., 10.7 PER, 88 Offensive Rating, 104 Defensive Rating) - The Kandi Man receives the dubious honor of being ranked the worst No. 1 Draft Pick of the Draft Lottery Era.  Viewed as one of many abysmal Clippers draft picks, Olowokandi was drafted first overall after a fantastic senior season at the University of the Pacific.  Seen as a highly skilled 7-foot athlete, the Clippers drafted Olowokandi to be the anchor in the paint for the routinely unsuccessfull franchise.  Instead, Olowokandi mixed flashes of brilliance with long droughts and fought injuries in Los Angeles before eating up the Timberwolves salary cap.  He spent his final few years with the Boston Celtics before quietly leaving the league in 2007.

26) Kwame Brown, C, Washington Wizards out of Glynn Academy High School in 2001 NBA Draft (585 Games, 270 Starts, 6.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 57.3 FT Pctg., 49.2 FG Pctg., 12.6 PER, 102 Offensive Rating, 106 Defensive Rating) - While not being the worst number one draft pick of the draft lottery era, Kwame Brown does hold the distinction of being the first high school player to ever be selected first overall in an NBA draft.  Highlighted as the first of many bad executive moves made by basketball legend Michael Jordan, Brown struggled to display any production or maturity in his first few years as a Wizard.  In his third season he showed real signs of a breakthrough, but injuries and problems with his teammates cost him his job in Washington.  He had one good year with the Lakers before famously being traded to the Grizzlies for Pau Gasol.  Since then, Kwame has bounced around the league as a serviceable reserve big man and that looks to be his future for as long as he's in the league.

25) Greg Oden, C, Portland Trail Blazers out of Ohio State University in 2007 NBA Draft (82 Games, 60 Starts, 9.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 66.6 FT Pctg., 57.7 FG Pctg., 19.5 PER, 117 Offensive Rating, 103 Defensive Rating) - A huge seven footer with a personality that reminded some of Shaquille O'Neal, Oden had high expectations going as far back as high school.  Because of the NBA's age limit, Oden played one season with Ohio State before declaring for the NBA Draft.  He was met with high fanfare in Portland but struggled to stay on the court at all and has now had three microfracture knee surgeries since 2007.  The jury's still out on him as he still wants to play, but 82 games in five years is no great start.  It also doesn't help that Kevin Durant went to the Seattle Supersonics with the second overall pick directly after Oden.  He was productive on the court when he was on it but it looks like Oden's body will let him down.

24) Pervis Ellison, PF, Sacramento Kings out of University of Louisville in 1989 NBA Draft (474 Games, 245 Starts, 9.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 1.5 APG, 68.9 FT Pctg., 51.0 FG Pctg., 15.2 PER, 105 Offensive Rating, 106 Defensive Rating) - "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison was a fantastic colleigate player at the University of Louisville before entering the NBA with humongous expectations.  However, after being named the number one draft pick, Ellison immediately underwent surgery to remove bone Spurs from his foot and ankle in what would be a sign of things to follow.  Ellison didn't last long with the Kings before being traded to the Washington Bullets, where he showed signs of his lofty selection by winning the 1992 NBA Most Improved Player of the Year award.  However, knee problems resurfaced for Pervis and he spent the last years of his career as a reserve for the Boston Celtics.

23) John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards out of University of Kentucky in 2010 NBA Draft (135 Games, 130 Starts, 16.3 PPG, 8.2 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 77.7 FT Pctg., 41.6 FG Pctg., 16.7 PER, 100 Offensive Rating, 108 Defensive Rating) - John Wall came out of the University of Kentucky having grabbed every one of college basketball's big individual awards and as part of a team that produced five first round draft picks.  Wall has been known for his dance more so than his game in his two years in Washington as he's had to deal with a coaching change, ownership transfer and a true lack of talent in his two years in Washington.  The raw talent is there for him to be a very good point guard in this league and he's dealt with some unfair criticism in his time in the league, but the jury's still out on him.

22) Andrea Bargnani, PF, Toronto Raptors out of Benetton Treviso in Italy in 2006 NBA Draft (398 Games, 291 Starts, 15.4 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.3 APG, 82.4 FT Pctg., 36.5 3PT FG Pctg., 44.0 FG Pctg., 14.6 PER, 104 Offensive Rating, 111 Defensive Rating) - As a seven footer with fantastic range on his jump shot, Bargnani drew many comparisons to Dallas Mavericks great Dirk Nowitzki and was drafted first overall by Toronto in 2006 to couple with fellow big man Chris Bosh.  Bargnani, though, had seemed to be so infatuated with the three point shot that he didn't focus on any other aspect of his game.  For someone his size, his rebounding numbers remain poor and his defense has always been spotty.  After suffering a severe sophomore slump, Bargnani bounced back to have a solid third season with Toronto and eventually seemed to put it all together this past season.  He may never become an elite player but Bargnani looks like he'll have a really good career for the rest of his time in the NBA.

21) Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers out of Duke University in 2011 NBA Draft (51 Games, 51 Starts, 18.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.7 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 87.2 FT Pctg., 39.9 3PT FG Pctg., 46.9 FG Pctg., 21.4 PER, 109 Offensive Rating, 110 Defensive Rating) - Irving was drafted in another conspiracy fueled draft that followed the departure of LeBron James from Cleveland.  Irving stepped in and immediately had one of the better rookie seasons in recent memory; essentially running away with every individual accolade.  Coming into the draft following a freak injury at Duke that limited his freshman season, there were concerns about Irving and his durability (to be fair, he did miss 15 games this season as well) but the potential is there for Irving to be a very, very special player in Cleveland.

20) Andrew Bogut, C, Milwaukee Bucks out of University of Utah in 2005 NBA Draft (408 Games, 400 Starts, 12.7 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.6 BPG, 57.4 FT Pctg., 52.2 FG Pctg., 17.0 PER, 106 Offensive Rating, 104 Defensive Rating) - Bogut, being a seven footer with a fantastic skill set and equipped with a nice post game while being a very adept passing big man was a lock as the number one draft pick in the 2005 NBA Draft.  After playing for Australia in the 2004 Olympics, he got lots of praise from the Olympic Games and the expectations were huge for him in his sophomore season with the Utah Utes.  Bogut did not disappoint and then declared for the NBA Draft.  So far, Bogut has had difficulty staying on the court but his production has been solid when he is on the court.  He was the starting center for the Bucks during his entire stay there and has shown flashes of being a very good, pure center.  He was recently traded to the Golden State Warriors at the trade deadline and time will tell if he'll ever reach his full potential.

19) Joe Smith, PF, Golden State Warriors out of University of Maryland, College Park in 1995 NBA Draft (1,030 Games, 619 Starts, 10.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 1.0 APG, 79.0 FT Pctg., 45.5 FG Pctg., 15.4 PER, 107 Offensive Rating, 106 Defensive Rating) - Joe Smith turned two great seasons manning down the middle for the Maryland Terrapins into the number one draft pick in the 1995 NBA Draft.  After being selected by Golden State, he was solid for the Warriors for his first two seasons in the league but once it was evident he would never be great, he was shipped off in the middle of his third season.  Smith then spent time with just about every team in the NBA, nearly challenging Jim Jackson's record of teams played with in his career (for the record, he played with twelve).  Even though he's been a solid contributor and role player to playoff teams for the duration of his career, Smith will most likely always be remembered for costing the Minnesota Timberwolves five first round draft picks after being promised a multi-year deal in the future if he were to sign for below market value at the time so that the team could add more players.

18) Danny Manning, PF, Los Angeles Clippers out of University of Kansas in 1988 NBA Draft (883 Games, 398 Starts, 14.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 72.9 FT Pctg., 51.1 FG Pctg., 16.9 PER, 106 Offensive Rating, 106 Defensive Rating) - A legend for the Kansas Jayhawks, Manning seemed to be a slam dunk as the first overall draft pick in 1988 by the Los Angeles Clippers.  Manning, though, suffered a knee injury in his rookie season that would haunt him for the remainder of his career.  After a few disappointing seasons, Manning emerged as an elite scorer for the Clippers, even making the 1993 All Star Game.  However, injuries caught back up to Manning as he finished his career at the end of benches for his last few years in the league.  Manning did, however, win the 1998 Sixth Man of the Year award with the Phoenix Suns.

17) Glenn Robinson, SF, Milwaukee Bucks out of Purdue University in 1994 NBA Draft (688 Games, 668 Starts, 20.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 82.0 FT Pctg., 34.0 3PT FG Pctg., 45.9 FG Pctg., 17.5 PER, 102 Offensive Rating, 107 Defensive Rating) - Billed as a fantastic scorer, Robinson won two Big Ten scoring titles in his two years of eligibility for the Purdue Boilermakers before entering the 1994 NBA Draft.  Although he put up fantastic numbers throughout his career, Robinson largely went unnoticed in Milwaukee.  He achieved success during the early turn of the century when he, Sam Cassell and Ray Allen helped the Bucks make it to the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals but Robinson eventually fizzled out in Milwaukee.  He was traded to Atlanta and then to Philadelphia and his contract was once property of the New Orleans Hornets before finishing his career in San Antonio.  Robinson did win a championship as a reserve for the Spurs in 2005.

16) Blake Griffin, PF, Los Angeles Clippers out of University of Oklahoma in 2009 NBA Draft (148 Games, 148 Starts, 21.7 PPG,11.5 RPG, 3.5 APG, 59.3 FT Pctg., 52.4 FG Pctg., 22.5 PER, 112 Offensive Rating, 106 Defensive Rating) - Blake is certainly not the most popular player in the league anymore but let's not forget how insanely productive he has been on the offensive boards in just two seasons.  He joined a porous Clippers team and had to miss the entirety of his rookie season after an injury to his kneecap during a preseason game against this Hornets squad but bounced back just fine after that: winning the 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year award and then helping lead his team to the Conference Semifinals for only the second time in franchise history this season.  He still has room to improve defensively and in his overall game but Griffin has been insanely productive in his first couple of years in the league.

15) Kenyon Martin, PF, New Jersey Nets out of University of Cincinnati in 2000 NBA Draft (696 Games, 641 Starts, 13.0 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.2 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 63.3 FT Pctg., 48.1 FG Pctg.,15.2 PER, 101 Offensive Rating, 101 Defensive Rating) - Figured to be the best prospect in a very weak 2000 NBA Draft, Martin was taken by the New Jersey Nets after a successful senior season for the Cincinnati Bearcats.  Viewed as an injury risk when he was selected, Martin turned in four great seasons with the Nets, routinely picking up his performance in the postseason and being a part of two Nets teams that won Eastern Conference Championships.  However, when Martin signed with the Denver Nuggets, his injuries caught up to him and he was forced to undergo the dreaded microfracture knee surgery.  He's since played in China during the lockout before returning to play for the Clippers this past season.  His explosiveness that was his trademark has been limited but he still remains a formidable player in this league and a spectacular defensive power forward.

14) Larry Johnson, PF, Charlotte Hornets out of University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 1991 NBA Draft (707 Games, 699 Starts,16.2 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.3 APG, 76.6 FT Pctg., 33.2 3PT FG Pctg., 48.4 FG Pctg., 16.3 PER, 112 Offensive Rating, 107 Defensive Rating) - Johnson was a dynamic player at the collegiate level for the Runnin' Rebels before entering the 1991 NBA Draft.  Selected by the upstart Charlotte Hornets, the 1992 NBA Rookie of the Year would team with Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning to bring the Hornets out of mediocrity at the beginning of his career.  After signing an unprecedented ten year deal with the Hornets, frustrations grew between Johnson and Mourning which led to "Grandmama" and Big Zo being immediately shipped away from Charlotte.  Johnson went on to start for a New York Knicks team that made the 1999 NBA Finals, but was a shell of his former self in New York due to severe back injuries.  He's probably best known for an epic four point play during a crucial game 3 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals with the Knicks.

13) Derrick Coleman, PF, New Jersey Nets out of Syracuse University in 1990 NBA Draft (781 Games, 672 Starts, 16.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.3 BPG, 76.9 FT Pctg., 29.5 3PT FG Pctg., 44.7 FG Pctg., 18.0 PER, 105 Offensive Rating, 103 Defensive Rating) - Coleman was a fantastic player for the Syracuse Orange in college and was viewed, by many, as one of the best prospects in recent NBA History when selected in the 1990 NBA Draft.  Coleman would win the 1991 NBA Rookie of the Year award and many expectations were given to the bulky power forward.  Coleman was solid during his time in the league but never broke into that "great player" status that many envisioned he would.  Coleman had many problems with his weight over the span of his career and left on bad terms with all of the teams he participated on.  He's gone on to be a makeshift humanitarian of sorts since his retirement but had to recently file for bankruptcy.  His career will be looked at with an asterisk as he never was as great as he should have been.

12) Brad Daugherty, C, Cleveland Cavaliers out of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1986 NBA Draft (548 Games, 546 Starts, 19.0 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 3.7 APG, 74.7 FT Pctg., 53.2 FG Pctg., 18.9 PER, 114 Offensive Rating, 105 Defensive Rating) - A collegiate great for the North Carolina Tar Heels, Daugherty was selected by the Cavaliers in the 1986 NBA Draft and turned out a fantastic career with Cleveland.  As part of a draft class that also brought in Mark Price and Ron Harper, the Cavaliers experienced years of above average success, even making the 1992 Eastern Conference Finals.  However, as is the case with a lot of players on this list, Daugherty suffered drastic injuries to his back at the end of his career and was forced to retire at the age of 28 in 1994.  He's since joined ESPN's crew as a commentator for NASCAR.

11) Yao Ming, C, Houston Rockets out of Shanghai Sharks in China in 2002 NBA Draft (486 Games, 476 Starts, 19.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 1.6 APG, 83.3 FT Pctg., 52.4 FG Pctg., 23.0 PER, 112 Offensive Rating, 99 Defensive Rating) - Towering over competition at 7'6", Ming was a lock at the top of the 2002 NBA Draft when the Rockets won the draft lottery.  Coming into the league with much fan fare and expectations, Ming rarely disappointed when he had been on the court.  Skilled with fantastic shooting touch for a player of his size, Ming was one of the best centers in the league for the duration of his career but had many leg problems that prohibited him from achieving "great" status.  After continuously battling with his legs and feet, he retired last off season.

10) Elton Brand, PF, Chicago Bulls out of Duke University in 1999 NBA Draft (860 Games, 830 Starts, 18.3 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.9 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 73.9 FT Pctg., 50.1 FG Pctg., 21.3 PER, 111 Offensive Rating, 104 Defensive Rating) - A quiet but very effective low post scorer for the Duke Blue Devils, Brand declared for the 1999 NBA Draft after his sophomore season and won the co-Rookie of the Year Award with Chicago, an award he shared with Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis.  Brand was inexplicably traded after two seasons with the Bulls, and continued his stellar play with the Los Angeles Clippers.  A very talented and loyal competitor, Brand's career has been void of much success.  He made the conference semifinals in 2006 and with the 76ers this season but, aside from that, hasn't won a first round series in his career.  Over a two year stretch from 2007 to 2009, Brand only played in 37 games due to an achilles injury and it's limited him as a player.  Brand will probably never reach the elite level that he once was at but his career is still with great individual success.

9) Derrick Rose, PG, Chicago Bulls out of University of Memphis in 2008 NBA Draft (279 Games, 278 Starts, 21.0 PPG, 6.8 APG, 3.8 RPG, 81.5 FT Pctg., 31.0 3PT FG Pctg., 46.4 FG Pctg., 19.9 PER, 110 Offensive Rating, 107 Defensive Rating) - Drafted in 2008, Rose was a hometown boy who took Chicago by storm when he won the Rookie of the Year award and brought the team to the postseason in his rookie year.  Since then he's become the youngest player to ever win the NBA MVP Award in 2011, took his team to the Eastern Conference Finals last year and been the key player for a Bulls team that's had the best record in the league the last two seasons.  He suffered a tough ACL injury in the postseason and the efficiency in his individual numbers has decreased before then with his high usage rate (due to Coach Tom Thibodeau's poor offensive schemes) and it remains to be seen what kind of player Rose will be when he gets back.

8) Dwight Howard, C, Orlando Magic out of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy High School in 2004 NBA Draft (621 Games, 620 Starts, 18.4 PPG, 13.0 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 58.8 FT Pctg., 57.7 FG Pctg., 22.5 PER, 111 Offensive Rating, 98 Defensive Rating) - A fantastic athlete for a player of his size, Howard was a high school prodigy and was a surprise at the first overall selection in 2004.  After the Magic passed on the proven Emeka Okafor to select Howard, he immediately rewarded the Magic with flashes of brilliance in his rookie season with Orlando.  Howard has led the Magic to the playoffs the last six years of his career, saw the team make it to the NBA Finals in 2009 and has won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award three times.  He's rubbed people the wrong way with his antics off the court towards the Orlando Magic franchise the last couple of years, but there's no denying that the sky is still the limit for this big man.

7) Chris Webber, PF, Orlando Magic out of University of Michigan in 1993 NBA Draft (831 Games, 827 Starts, 20.7 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.4 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 20.9 PER, 104 Offensive Rating, 101 Defensive Rating) - A highly skilled member of the famed Fab Five Michigan Wolverines days, Webber seemed to be a lock for the number one overall selection after declaring for the 1993 NBA Draft following his sophomore season.  Originally drafted by the Magic, Webber was immediately traded to the Golden State Warriors for Penny Hardaway and won the 1994 Rookie of the Year Award with the Warriors.  However, Webber battled with Warriors coach Don Nelson during his rookie season and was shockingly shipped to the Washington Bullets after his rookie season.  Although he put up good numbers with the Bullets (then ultimately the Wizards), Webber's best years came when he was traded to the Sacramento Kings for Mitch Richmond.  Webber led the Kings to the most successful stretch in franchise history, even reaching the 2002 Western Conference Finals as a member of the squad.  Webber never did win a championship, though, and spent his last years with the Kings and 76ers battling through knee injuries before finishing his career with a brief return to Golden State.

6) Patrick Ewing, C, New York Knicks out of Georgetown University in 1985 NBA Draft (1,183 Games, 1,122 Starts, 21.0 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 2.4 BPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG, 74.0 FT Pctg., 50.4 FG Pctg., 21.0 PER, 106 Offensive Rating, 99 Defensive Rating) - Viewed as a can't miss player out of Georgetown, Ewing was the prize of the first ever draft lottery in 1985.  The New York Knicks would win that draft lottery and would immediately announce their intentions to select Ewing.  Ewing was a fantastic low post presence for the Knicks throughout his career.  For all of his success, Ewing's reputation changes based on who you talk to.  Being a tough interview his entire career in New York, he was often the subject of criticism at the hands of the New York Media for being unable to win a championship, although he made the 1994 NBA Finals.  Currently becoming recognized as a top assistant coach in the league (currently with the Magic), Ewing never did win a championship but continued to produce after winning the 1986 Rookie of the Year award, even being named one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players in history in 1997 and being enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

5) Allen Iverson, PG, Philadelphia 76ers out of Georgetown University in 1996 NBA Draft (914 Games, 901 Starts, 26.7 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.7 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 78.0 FT Pctg., 31.3 3PT FG Pctg., 42.5 FG Pctg., 20.9 PER, 105 Offensive Rating, 106 Defensive Rating) - An explosive scorer during his entire tenture in basketball, Iverson was the first overall selection in the famed 1996 NBA draft.  Iverson went on to take the league by storm, winning the 1997 Rookie of the Year award and successfully pulling off a cross over on the league's best player: Michael Jordan.  Iverson would take Philadelphia to unprecedented success, even making the 2001 NBA Finals with the 76ers.  Iverson, though, had a reputation of being a selfish and immature player and clashed with many coaches and teammates in Philadelphia.  After finally demanding a trade in 2006, Iverson was shipped to the Denver Nuggets where his reputation proceeded to take huge blows.  While in Denver and Detroit (and later in his return to Philadelphia), Iverson continued to show a huge problem playing with has not yet officially retired (although he's been out of the league the last two seasons with no offers to return) but his past success cannot be denied.

4) David Robinson, C, San Antonio Spurs out of United States Naval Academy in 1987 NBA Draft (987 Games, 985 Starts, 21.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 3.0 BPG, 2.5 APG, 1.4 SPG, 73.6 FT Pctg., 51.8 FG Pctg., 26.2 PER, 116 Offensive Rating, 96 Defensive Rating) - A fantastic athlete that came to national prominence with the Midshipmen, former gymnast David Robinson was a risky selection by the Spurs in the 1987 NBA Draft by account of his having to serve two years with the United States Navy after his graduation.  Because of this, there were rumors that he may sign with another team when eligible to play in the NBA.  However, Robinson joined the Spurs in the 1989 NBA off season.  A fantastic athlete, Robinson racked up many awards during his tenure with San Antonio: the 1990 NBA Rookie of the Year winner, 1992 Defensive Player of the Year award, an NBA Sportmanship Award, Citizenship Award, 1995 Most Valuable Player of the Year and two time Olympic Gold Medalist with the United States of America.  Robinson's career was overshadowed by a difficulty winning big games and a perceived lack of toughness.  After the arrival of Tim Duncan, though, in 1997, Robinson would win two championships with the San Antonio Spurs and play his entire fourteen year career with San Antonio, be named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players in league history in 1997 and also being elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.

3) LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in 2003 NBA Draft (689 Games, 688 Starts, 27.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 6.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 74.6 FT Pctg., 33.1 3PT FG Pctg., 48.3 FG Pctg., 27.2 PER, 115 Offensive Rating, 102 Defensive Rating) - A local Akron, Ohio, prodigy, LeBron James was met with ridiculous expectations during his high school days at St. Vincent - St. Mary's and eventually surpassed all of those expectations after entering the NBA.  As a raw eighteen year old prospect, LeBron won the 2004 NBA Rookie of the Yer award and in his third season in the league led the perennial doormat Cavaliers to the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons.  Over time, LeBron James eventually led the Cavaliers to their first NBA Finals Appearance in franchise history in 2007, has racked up three NBA MVP Awards (in 2009, 2010 and 2012) and shaken the NBA to its core when he decided to form the first super-team when he left Cleveland to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.  Still seeking that ever elusive championship ring, people can critique LeBron's game all they want (and, trust me, they will) but there's no denying how great he is and how great he still will be.

2) Shaquille O'Neal, C, Orlando Magic out of Louisiana State University in 1992 NBA Draft (1,207 Games, 1,197 Starts, 23.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.3 BPG, 52.7 FT Pctg., 58.2 FG Pctg., 26.4 PER, 113 Offensive Rating, 101 Defensive Rating) - O'Neal was an athletic seven footer entering the league with an abundance of personality, a skill set unmatched by anyone in recent memory and with high expectations.  O'Neal was a lock for the first overall selection in the 1992 NBA Draft and took the league by storm in his first season with Orlando, winning the 1993 NBA Rookie of the Year award.  O'Neal led the Magic to the 1995 NBA Finals in only his third season in the league before signing with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1996 NBA Off season.  The rest, as they say, is history.  O'Neal would team with coach Phil Jackson and a young Kobe Bryant to win three NBA Championships, three NBA Finals MVPs and the 2000 NBA Most Valuable Player award all with the Lakers.  Following a very public dispute with Kobe Bryant, Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat in 2005 where he teamed with a young Dwyane Wade to win the 2006 NBA Championship with the Heat.  O'Neal would eventually become a bit of a "ring chaster" near the end of his career, flailing in stops in Phoenix, Cleveland and Boston before finally retiring last off season.  Although he's achieved fantastic success in his career - winning on the court, selling platinum records and starring in major motion picture films - O'Neal's career is overshadowed by his squabbles with teammates and coaches and has left on bad terms with all of the teams with which he's played.  But don't let it distort your view of O'Neal as a player.  On the court, there's few who were as great as O'Neal.

1) Tim Duncan, PF, San Antonio Spurs out of Wake Forest University in 1997 NBA Draft (1,111 Games, 1,109 Starts, 20.3 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, 2.2 BPG, 68.8 FT Pctg., 50.7 FG Pctg., 24.7 PER, 110 Offensive Rating, 95 Defensive Rating) - A quiet, yet talented big man at Wake Forest, the former aspiring Olympic Swimmer from the Virgin Islands took the world by storm in college and was a lock as the number one draft pick once he graduated from Wake Forest in 1997.  One of the four four year collegians on this list, Duncan joined another number one draft pick in David Robinson and turned the Spurs into a championship team in only his second year.  Long viewed as a small market team seemingly always incapable of winning big games, Duncan went to San Antonio and has won four championships, three NBA Finals MVPs, two regular season Most Valuable Player of the Year awards, the 1998 Rookie of the Year award and has been the staple in the middle for the Spurs for all of their championship teams in franchise history.  Turning a historically underachieving team into a mini dynasty of sorts, The Big Fundamental, as he is called, is one of the most notorious players in the league due to his huge levels of success while being largely a quiet and private person.  But the fact that Duncan went to a franchise that had never won a championship and was able to be the centerpiece for four (and potentially five) NBA Championships during his run there is quite remarkable.  And it's led to him, arguably, being the best Number One draft pick of the draft lottery era.
Posted on: March 21, 2012 12:55 am
 

The Super Team Generation is Not Done

The most intriguing aspect of Dwight Howard staying in Orlando was neither loyalty nor his shunning of a presumably fiercer spotlight.  It was that Howard, whether through naivete or clarity, willingly surrendered the opportunity to surround himself with a stronger supporting cast.  To extrapolate from this reality and make sweeping statements as to his character is absurd.  Yet at the same time, Howard’s decision flew in the face of recent convention, of the allegedly crystallizing era of super-teams.  That market size and the chance to win titles might dominate super-team construction seemed a decent enough assumption.  But then, LeBron Jamesdismissed the former, and now, Dwight Howard, at least for a year, has ducked both.

There’s a fascinating symmetry to the Dwight Howard - LeBron James - Dwyane Wade - Chris Paul (arguably the four most valuable players of the past five years) axis, the first generation to start the phenomenon in earnest.  Due to the nature of their respective first extensions, James and Wade entered free agency together, and Paul and Howard were on schedule to do the same this summer.  But while James and Wade upgraded their supporting casts, it’s tough to make the case that either Howard or, strangely, Paul have done anything of the sort.

The concept of title “contention” is difficult to quantify, let alone accurately assess through the eye test.  Competition ebbs and flows, league trends emphasize specific skills over others, and overall quality of basketball is far from constant.  Nonetheless, efficiency differential (the difference between a team’s points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions) is a relatively clean method of separating the elite from the rest.  Over the last ten years, the average NBA finalist has had an efficiency differential a shade over +6.   It’s hardly a stringent requirement, and indeed, two winners from the past decade – the 2012 Dallas Mavericks and 2006 Miami Heat – fell short of the mark.  But the +6 efficiency differential plateau is empirically a strong indicator of title contention, and this is where it gets interesting for the pair of duos in James/Wade and Howard/Paul.

Wade went from post Shaquille O'Neal chaos to perennial title contention alongside LeBron.  James himself went from contending in Cleveland to contending, in a very disparate, far less risky manner, in Miami.  The color blue represents offensive efficiency differential here (difference from team efficiency to league efficiency), red represents defensive efficiency, and green represents the total.

(I've had problems posting pictures from photobucket and imageshack in the past so I'm just going to post the link to it here).

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Teaming up was a no-brainer for Wade.  The intermediate years between the Shaq and LeBron eras of Miami basketball seem a distant memory at this stage, but the Heat were truly a dismal team.  There’s little question that in the Western Conference, Wade’s Heat would have missed the playoffs every year from 2006 to 2010.  And this is neither here nor there, but it should at least make us question why so many hold Kevin Love to the “he’s not a superstar till he carries a team to the playoffs” line of logic when a player of Dwyane Wade’s caliber only accomplished it due to a massive assist from the frailty of his competition.

LeBron’s team efficiency differentials tell quite a different tale.

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They don’t necessarily suggest that moving to Miami was the wrong move; differentials, in themselves, don’t account for integral aspects like the diversification of attacking and defensive prowess.  They do suggest, however, that LeBron’s Cavaliers were legitimate title contenders towards the end of his tenure.  Were they overly reliant on a single player?  Absolutely.  But that single player was the best of this generation.

A confluence of factors ultimately prevented Cleveland from winning a title, but by no means did James leave behind a closed championship window.  With the Boston Celtics’ decline and Orlando Magic in relative disarray, it’s a little bemusing to consider that 2012 could well have been the Cavaliers' clearest shot at a title.  It didn’t happen, but James has the opportunity to win it now, alongside Wade and Chris Bosh.

The back end of the foursome – Paul and Howard – has fared quite a bit differently.

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For all of Orlando’s missteps in recent years, it’s easy to see why Howard might still associate the Magic with success; Orlando contended for the majority of his tenure.  Stan Van Gundy’s offensive and defensive systems were always far more reflective than supplemental of Howard’s talents on each end, but regardless, they were highly successful.

Surrounding Howard with elite shooters was never as proactive as, say, the Cavaliers’ repeated efforts to trade for complementary talents like Amar’e Stoudemire, but in some sense, it never mattered.  The issue now is one of player decline and talent misevaluation; the latter precludes remediary steps addressed at the former, and so Orlando’s title contention has ground to a halt.   Howard perhaps opted for an extra year in Orlando because, for many years, the Magic legitimately contended for titles in a way that neither the Wade Heat nor the Paul Hornets came close to, but the future looks dire without a massive free agent signing next summer.

That, naturally, brings us to Chris Paul.

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The Hornets’ 2008 run to Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals was supposed to be Paul’s grand first act on the national postseason stage, establishing the David West - Chris Paul - Tyson Chandler trio as a western power for years to come.  Instead, it’s been the pinnacle of Paul’s career to this point.  Injuries, bad luck, and mismanagement in New Orleans primarily drove the subsequent downward trajectory, but, most importantly, the bright lights and hype of Lob City and Blake Griffin haven’t changed that.

As it currently stands, the Clippers are a closer approximation of the tragically flawed 2011 or 2009 Hornets than the successful 2008 iteration, which wasn’t a legitimate title contender in the first place.  The 2012 Clippers are certainly the best offensive group Paul’s ever been a part of, but their repeated and often farcical defensive failures have been their undoing.  Teams don’t learn to play defense overnight, and the issues here are systemic.  Chris Paul is on no more of a contender now than he was a year ago, and less a coaching swap or personnel overhaul during the summer, that won’t necessarily change next season either.  Paul has his big market and fellow star running mate, but, frustratingly for the neutral basketball fan, serious title contention will ostensibly elude him for yet another season.

Orlando has minimal room to maneuver this  summer, its management firmly handcuffed, the key lost somewhere in the mountains of money still owed to Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Glen Davis.  The immediate future is perhaps slightly less gloomy for the Clippers, still awash in the new car smell associated with the acquisition of the league’s best lead guard.  But if it isn’t already, it will become clear soon enough: the Clippers’ lack of defense is absolutely crippling.

By diverging from one other prior to the first summer they could have joined forces, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, in some strange twist of fate, may just have aligned themselves more closely for 2013.

Posted on: December 25, 2011 2:44 pm
 

The 2012 Hornets and How to Win Long Term

The 2008 New Orleans Hornets won 56 games, boasted one of the strongest young cores in the NBA, and came within a game of the Western Conference Finals.  They won often, fortified the presence of professional basketball in New Orleans, and, given the right moves, were on the verge of vaulting into a multi-year championship window.

Two years on, not a single member of that team is still a Hornet.  In fact, only one member of the 2010 side (Emeka Okafor) is still on the team in December 2011.  Rebuilding efforts are obviously common around the league, but 100% turnover in a two season span?  93% turnover over a one year stretch?  Not so much.  The Hornets tossed away their future core (Darren Collison, Marcus Thornton) in an effort to keep their then current core (Chris Paul, David West), a move, which despite its ultimate failure due to a number of reasons, is still vaguely defensible.  In between, the team also happened to pick up a new "owner", a new coach, and a new GM (and arguably two new GMs).

And now, on the start of this, the 24th season in the history of the franchise, we're face to face with a roster about as unfamiliar as the one that represented Charlotte on November 4th, 1988.  What does it all mean?  What will this team look like this year?  In 3 years?  In 5 years?

The Goal

The goal is to win an NBA championship.

Its obviousness might make it a rather inane point.  But the circus that was New Orleans' offseason, the uncertainty that surrounds the purchase 10,000 fans made in the last five months, and the prospect of the first superstar-less season for the Hornets in seven years, makes it easy, and even justifiable, to forget this.  Do they desperately need team ownership resolved?  Absolutely.  They need a real owner, they need a new lease on the New Orleans Arena, and they need the NBA-generated fan and corporate momentum to endure.  On the court though, the goal, as ridiculous or as remote as it may now look, remains the same - the eventual goal is to win an NBA championship.

Let's go a step further and quantify that - how close did the Hornets actually get with Chris Paul, and how far does the team now have to go without him?

NBA Finalists from 2002-2011 (Efficiency Differential)

2011 Dallas Mavericks (+4.7)
2011 Miami Heat (+8.2)
2010 Los Angeles Lakers (+5.1)
2010 Boston Celtics (+3.9)
2009 Los Angeles Lakers (+8.1)
2009 Orlando Magic (+7.3)
2008 Boston Celtics (+11.3)
2008 Los Angeles Lakers (+7.5)
2007 San Antonio Spurs (+9.3)
2007 Cleveland Cavaliers (+4.2)
2006 Miami Heat (+4.2)
2006 Dallas Mavericks (+6.8)
2005 San Antonio Spurs (+8.7)
2005 Detroit Pistons (+4.4)
2004 Detroit Pistons (+6.6)
2004 Los Angeles Lakers (+4.2)
2003 San Antonio Spurs (+5.9)
2003 New Jersey Nets (+5.7)
2002 Los Angeles Lakers (+7.7)
2002 New Jersey Nets (+4.5)

Here, "efficiency differential" refers to the difference between a team's offensive points/100 possessions and defensive points/100 possessions.  It's semantics, but this is also the same thing as the sum of how far from league average a team's offense is and how far from league average the same team's defense is.

Over the last decade, the above list shakes out to an average around +6 offensive points per 100 possessions minus defensive points per 100 possessions.  Efficiency differential varies from point differential by removing team pace from the equation.  Between two teams with identical efficiency differentials, the team with the faster pace will artificially have the higher point differential.

There's yearly variation based on conference strength, "weaker" teams breaking through, etc.  But ultimately, if you get to the +6 differential plateau, you're championship material.  You obviously don't have to get there; things like tons of prior playoff experience (2011 Dallas, 2010 Boston) play a role.  How you get there doesn't really matter either - you can play exceptional defense and mediocre offense (2004 Detroit), exceptional offense and bad defense (2001 Los Angeles), or mix and match between the two (2006 Miami).  But ultimately, +6 is a sign of a contending team.  It doesn't guarantee a title or even a Finals appearance.  But it guarantees a team that has a damn good chance.

+6 is the goal we now build towards. For the next few years, +6 needs to become the mantra.

How Close Were the Hornets with Chris Paul?

In hindsight, the Chris Paul years were amazing; as Hornets fans we were phenomenally lucky to have him, and he'll forever be a part of our history.  Due to injuries, poor roster construction, bad luck, and poor foresight, the Chris Paul years are now over.  But, based on the +6 paradigm, how close did the team actually get?

Chris Paul Era, Sorted by Efficiency Differential

2007-2008 (+5.8)
2008-2009 (+1.7)
2010-2011 (+1.0)
2006-2007 (-1.7)
2009-2010 (-2.7)
2005-2006 (-3.1)

The efficiency differential of 2007-2008 gives credence to the idea that that particular team was a piece or two away from greatness (<insert James Posey joke>).  It's also very clear from the rest of those numbers that in Chris Paul's six year stay, the Hornets had just one team that even remotely looked like it could do much.  For all of Paul's greatness, his supporting casts were just never that good.

By definition, league average efficiency differential is 0.  With Chris Paul, the Hornets finished below league average three times, and above it three times; yes, +6 was nearly achieved once, and yes, with a new owner and new management, the future perhaps looked like brightening.  But looking at it from Chris Paul's perspective, I think it's completely reasonable he decided he wanted out and, specifically, wanted out to a championship contender.  Are the Clippers that?  It remains to be seen, but their current setup would certainly appear to be better than the Hornets' 2005-2011.

We can break down Chris Paul's own individual numbers here too (and this will provide a good reference point for the Eric Gordon discussion, next).

During the 2007-2008 regular season, Paul used approximately 1450 offensive possessions, producing 1.25 points per possession (derived from his offensive efficiency (ORtg) of 125, including points and created shots for teammates).  The average points per possession value in the NBA was 1.075 that year and generally hovers around that mark.  So Paul produced, offensively, 0.175 more points per possession than the average NBA player.

Let's transfer that over to the original scale we were discussing - the one in which the concept of "+6" exists.  Over 100 possessions, that's a +17.5 differential above league average.  To make another very obvious statement - Chris Paul was amazingly, amazingly good at basketball in 2007-2008.

Some more simple math at this juncture:

The Hornets had about 7372 offensive possessions in 2007-2008.  20% of those ended with a Chris Paul shot, free throw, turnover, or assist, and of those 20%, the Hornets had the aforementioned +17.5 differential.  Keep in mind that we're talking only offense here.  +6 can be achieved through any combination of offense and defense; it could be +3 offense above the league average offense and +3 defense above the league average defense, +7 offense and -1 defense, or +0 offense and +6 defense, and so forth.

By using 20% of possessions at a +17.5 clip, Paul contributed a net +3.5 differential to the team; in other words, Paul's offense alone in 2007-2008 took the team more than halfway to championship contention status.

Now let's say we know we have a +3 defense (or +3 above the league average defense), and we needed the team to be +3 on offense (or +3 above the league average offense) to reach +6.  We know Paul used 20% of possessions at +17.5; we can then find out what the remaining 80% of possessions need to be, efficiency wise, to reach the mark.  In this case, with 20% of possessions at +17.5, the remaining 80% would need to be converted at a -0.625 differential (or close to league average of 0) in order to have a highly functional +3 offense.

In reality, the 2007-2008 Hornets actually finished at a +4 on offense, buoyed by strong contributions from David West and Tyson Chandler.  The Byron Scott-led defense finished at a +1.8 differential, the 7th best mark in the league.

Chris Paul's offensive involvement declined tremendously in 2010-2011, post-surgery.  However, the main drop-off in his offense came not in his points/possession (which dropped from 1.25 in 2008 to 1.22), but rather, the total number of possessions used.  He used approximately 1450 in 2008, 1500 in 2009, but only about 1100 last year.

1100 possession was only 15% of the team's total, as opposed to the 20% figure of 2007-2008.  As a result, the burden of achieving a higher positive offensive differential shifted to other players on the roster.  By eschewing the ball as much as he did, Paul forced unfathomably worse offensive players (Willie Green and Trevor Ariza come to mind) into using more possessions at terrible differentials.  The passive Chris Paul disappeared in the playoffs of course, replaced by the amazing Chris Paul of old.  But his possession drop-off in 2011 is still worth remembering nonetheless.

In 2007-2008, the rest of the roster required just that -0.625 offensive differential amongst themselves to get halfway to the +6 mark.  In 2010-2011, that number jumped all the way to 1.6 due to Paul's passivity.

Where are the Hornets now?

Most statistical projections will have the Hornets floundering around the bottom of the Conference this year, in line to pick up an excellent lottery choice in the 2012 draft. To the "eye test," that may or may not be a reasonable assessment; because nobody's seen this team really play together, the "eye test" is a tough one to refute, whatever its conclusions.  So let's dig a little deeper than that. 

The Eric Gordon Effect

Of the current roster, Eric Gordon is far and away the most likely player to still be present on the next contender that New Orleans puts together.  Rosters don't remain static, especially when they're headed by a GM as active as Dell Demps; Gordon, barring complications with his rookie contract extension, is far too talented to be moved before the team has a chance to build around him.

Gordon has a chance to develop into a superstar player, though for now, his impact is obviously significantly less than that of Paul's.

Last year, Gordon produced 1.12 points per possession, using 1082 possessions.  That's an offensive differential of 4.7 above league average, obviously a far, far cry from Chris Paul's 17.5 of 2007-2008.  That's the difference between a sure-fire Hall of Famer and a player gunning for a future All-Star berth.

Gordon only played 56 games last year, so if we propagate Gordon's usage through a full year (an exercise which obviously raises questions of its own, namely can Gordon be this good over an entire season?), Gordon would have used about 20% of the Clippers' total possessions last year.  Bringing back the +3 offensive differential above average goal once more, that would require the rest of his teammates to be +2.6 above average on offense through the rest of their possessions - obviously a huge ask.  Where Paul's 2007-2008 season saw him add +3.5 to the +6 goal by himself offensively, Gordon's 2010-2011, if we projected it out to 82 games, would add about +1.0.

The fact is, the next iteration of the Hornets will need to be a far more balanced offensive side than the teams we saw during the Chris Paul era in order to have success.

The Monty Williams Effect

You'll notice that to this point, any discussion of defense has been completely excluded.  Paul was a great defender; so is Eric Gordon.  There's probably an interesting debate to be had about the relative merits of each as a team's primary perimeter defender.  But the more instructive discussion here is probably a more overarching one - a look at how the Hornets played defense as a team in 2010-2011 and what that means going forward.

In Year 1, Monty Williams had his team playing top-5 level defense for large stretches of the season.  Various injuries to Paul, Emeka Okafor, and others eventually pushed the Hornets down to the 10th best defensive team in the league.  But Williams clearly has an exceptional understanding of how to funnel playmakers towards defensive help; that, perhaps more than anything, was his biggest strength as a coach in 2011.  We saw Emeka Okafor become a strong defensive anchor in the paint as Ariza and Paul systematically fed him offensive players on their own terms, and Williams' frequent use of zone defense was another component of this defensive style.

The Hornets finished last year with a +2.1 defensive differential above league average (using "positive" as a plus here, and "negative" as a bad sign, though that's obviously flipped in terms of the scoreboard) despite a tremendous amount of roster shuffling, a season ending injury to a critical big, and the presence of a very poor defender (Marco Belinelli) in the starting five.

The big questions for the Hornets defensively in 2011-2012 will come at point guard (Jarrett Jack) and power forward (Carl Landry).  However, the team makes a huge defensive upgrade at the 2-guard.  The Chris Paul-Jarrett Jack combination was the Hornets' most successful backcourt last year (by point differential) in part due to Belinelli's shortcomings at the position.  Obviously, Ariza and Okafor return to the roster.  It's not inconceivable at all for the Hornets to finish in the top 15 of defensive efficiency this season.  Even if the offensive talent isn't there, Monty Williams will have his players defending on every possession.

A defensive differential ranging between 0 and +1 to +1.5 isn't at all unreasonable to expect this year.

More importantly, Monty Williams' defensive abilities are very important going forward, especially in light of the +6 goal.  The 2012 draft is absolutely loaded with defensive talent.  Our plus defense will ostensibly allow us to inch further up the positive point differential without requiring as much offensive talent.  So in that sense, even the most die-hard "tank" advocate should be rooting as hard as possible for the Hornets' defense this season.  Sure, we may be getting new players in the near future, but the value of the fundamental defensive base everything is built around will become more clear over the next 66 games regardless.

The team

I won't go too heavily into analyzing each individual player - just my quick notes on them and my projection, based on past value and current role.

Additionally, this is an offensive look at the roster; as noted above, I expect the defensive side of the ball to shake out somewhere between a +1 and 0 differential.

Jarrett Jack

Jack struggled tremendously in his first month as a Hornets, but eventually began to rebound.  It's key to note that Jack has been an NBA starter in the past, notably starting 43 and 53 games for Toronto and Indiana in 2010 and 2009.  In those seasons, Jack posted offensive efficiencies (points per 100 possessions) of 116 and 107.  With the Hornets, that figure fell to 104 in a backup role.

This year, I see him rebounding at least to league average (~107.5) again.

Projected Possessions Used: 12% (of team)
Projected Differential: 0

Eric Gordon

Gordon's health will be tracked closely; over the last three seasons, Gordon has actually played fewer games than Chris Paul.  The main difference we'll see from 2010 Gordon and 2011 Gordon figures to be overall usage.  Gordon's defense is excellent, and Monty Williams won't have the "Marcus Thornton" problem with him; on the other side of the ball, Monty will have very few creative options - Carl Landry (and Jarrett Jack on a good day) figure to be chief among those.

I conservatively don't see Gordon's overall offensive efficiency increasing too much - he'll be taking on a much bigger possession load, and defensively, opponents can focus in on him every single night without too many repercussions.  Gordon's ORtg was 112 a year ago (a differential of +4.7).  If he'd stayed healthy, he was on pace to use 20% of the Clippers' total offensive possessions.

Projected Possessions Used: 23%
Projected Differential: +5

Trevor Ariza

Oh, Trevor Ariza.  Long one of the league's most underrated players, then perhaps its most overrated, and now, just a depressing one, at least offensively.

Last year, Ariza produced a hilarious -10.3 differential (yes, that is NEGATIVE 10.3).  I don't see it being quite that bad this year, simply because his 2010-2011 was one of the worst offensive showings in the history of the NBA and, happily, doesn't seem that repeatable.  He used just 12% of Hornets' possessions though, a figure which looks to increase without Chris Paul.

Projected Possessions Used: 15%
Projected Differential: -8

Carl Landry

Tooth returns this year, for another year of great PaintShops and, hopefully, a year of shot attempts a bit closer to the hoop.  Landry is easily one of the NBA's best finishers with his array of hesitations and shot fakes so hopefully he'll eschew the midrange game for a more drive-heavy one this year.

In the last three years, his ORtgs have been 110, 117, and 123, with an obvious decline; I think he should be right in the 110 range (+2.5 differential) once more.

Projected Possessions Used: 17%
Projected Differential:+2.5

Emeka Okafor

There's been some discussion about who the starter will be at the 5; I think Okafor will almost definitely take it due to his defensive impact.  Despite the presence of two elite defenders last year in Paul and Ariza, Okafor was still the centerpiece of Monty's D.  Now that he's been stripped of his superstar (and, depending on who you believe, a much better offensive complement of players in Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, and Lamar Odom), Monty will almost assuredly hang on to the one thing he still has - his defense.  And that still starts and ends with Okafor, no matter his offensive shortcomings.

From a casual observer's perspective, Okafor really did seem to gel with Chris Paul last year on the offensive end; in actuality, his offensive efficiency stayed about the same.  Over the past three years, his ORtgs have gone 112, 110, and 111.  I do see it dropping a bit this year without a real creator at the point guard (Jack will be calling his own number quite frequently one would assume).  Even in 2010, Okafor had Darren Collison setting up shots for him; this year, he won't even have that.  So I'd estimate his ORtg dropping more in line with his career ORtg (107).  Let's call it 108 (+0.5).

Okafor also used 9% of possessions last year, a figure that may slightly drop without Paul and with the addition of Kaman; however, it's already a low total and can't drop much further.

Projected Possessions Used: 8%
Projected Differential: +0.5

The Bench

Between the starters, 75% of the team's offensive possessions figure to be used. This assumes relatively robust use of the starting five, perhaps a safe bet given the composition of the team's second and third units.

Chris Kaman

Kaman's an interesting player in that his offensive game looks relatively polished in a stylistic sense (his jumper and post jukes are all clean).  But he's never been an efficient offensive player in his career.  His career ORtg is a woeful 98, and he hasn't crossed the 100 threshold since 2008.  I simply don't see that changing in New Orleans; he'll be in that 99-100 range again, in addition to some very solid defensive rebounding.

Alongside Aminu and Belinelli, Kaman also figures to be one of the biggest offensive options for the bench.  His possession percentage assumes that he uses more than a quarter of the bench's possessions offensively.

Projected Possessions Used: 6.5%
Projected Differential: -7.5

Al-Farouq Aminu

Aminu's far and away the most difficult player on the team to project.  Everyone else has either been in the league a while or has given us a reasonable expectation level for their future (ie, Pondexter).  Aminu, on the other hand, is still very young (21) and has components to his game that could improve significantly through coaching.

I'll actually go ahead and project Aminu optimistically; he had an awful 94 ORtg last year, but it's quite possible he creeps into the high 90's range, so around a -9 or 10 differential).

Projected Possessions Used: 4.5%
Projected Differential: -9.5

Marco Belinelli

As I've noted multiple times, I'm really quite glad the Hornets brought back Belinelli; however, his role is definitely a bench one.  Hopefully we'll get much more flag waving this season regardless.

His ORtg the past three years has been 104, 106, and 107.  Less Chris Paul and less even Jarrett Jack as a "creator" from the bench, a mild decline seems reasonable.

Projected Possessions Used: 4.5%
Projected Differential: -2.5

Jason Smith

I observed many times through Wednesday's game that Jason Smith looks like a much improved player and athlete.  Without Paul running the pick and pop with him, Smith's offensive opportunities may be a bit limited, but his value as both a defender and a rebounder looks to be in line to increase.

Smith's career ORtgs have been 101, 101, and 100 (-7.5) and that's not likely to change.  I also don't see him using more than 15% of bench offensive possessions, or about 4% of the team total.

Projected Possessions Used: 4%
Projected Differential:-7.5

The Rest

All in all, that accounts for about 95% of team possessions so far.  The rest will be taken by guys like new signing Gustavo Ayon, Greivis Vasquez (who I haven't really gotten a chance to look at yet becuase he was traded for Quincy Pondexter yesterday), as well as the DLeague guys, like Squeaky Johnson, who may make the final roster.  Let's go ahead and toss that percentage in as well:

Projected Possessions Used: 6%
Projected Differential: -10

It's obviously tough to get a great estimate of their offensive differential; -10 may indeed be a little bit harsh, but it's a small percentage of the overall impact.

Overall

And that now leaves us at 100% of offensive possessions accounted for.

Multiplying and adding it altogether give us a grand total of -1.52 points/100 possessions below league average on offense.  Gordon, Landry, and Okafor play their roles in buoying the figure a little bit, but ultimately, there's one too many minus offensive player on this current roster.

For some perspective, a -1.5 offensive team last year would have been the Toronto Raptors, or Eric Gordon's former team, the Clippers.  Interestingly, last year's Chris Paul led New Orleans Hornets finished about -1 below league average.

That last one is actually pleasantly surprising to me.  Based on my initial eye test of the new roster, one of my first claims here was that the dropoff from Paul to Jack wouldn't be that much different than the upgrade from Belinelli to Gordon, offensively.  And that's borne out by the numbers.

Next, we can take those offensive and defensive projections and take a stab at a record.  Let's go with a defensive differential of +0.5 (again, positive being a good thing).

If the Hornets play at a typical Monty Williams pace (89 possessions/game), they should score 89/100 x (107.5 - 1.52) points per game, or 94.3 and they should allow 89/100 x (107.5 - 0.5) point per game or 95.2.  Using a Pythagorean wins formula (see Basketball on Paper by Dean Oliver), over a 66 game schedule, this should come out to 30.8 wins, which we can round up to 31 wins for a projection - so a record of 31-35.

The Western Conference's 8th place team posted a 56% winning percentage last year, which would be equivalent to a 37-29 record this season.  Overall, the Hornets may well be bit better than many project (John Hollinger has us last in the conference) but will likely fall short of a playoff spot by some distance.

The Future

As it stands now, this is a -1 to -2 efficiency differential team.  The goal is +6, and we've got quite a gap to make up over the next two to four years.  In the interim, we'll have multiple (lottery) draft picks, the development of Eric Gordon into a possible All-Star, and the evolution of Monty Williams' defensive scheme.

Will it be enough?  We shall see.  But we know quantitatively what our eventual goal is, and we know, quantitatively, some of the steps on the way to getting there.  Can Gordon, currently a +1 kind of player, grow into a +2?  Can Monty Williams' defense sustain a +1 efficiency despite the loss of so many components?  If both those things come to fruition, an elite 2012 draft could be what puts the team over the top.

As a fan, it's your right to root for a season of tanking (abject failure is, idiotically, what leads to small market success in the NBA) but there's a lot to look forward to from the 2011-2012 New Orleans Hornets from a basketball perspective as well.

+6, y'all. +6.


Posted on: December 25, 2011 2:40 pm
Edited on: December 25, 2011 2:41 pm
 

Hornets Sign Gustavo Ayon and What It Means

Opinion on Dell Demps as Hornets' GM, almost out of necessity, has no middle ground.

On the one hand, it's easy to point in hindsight to a number of his moves with a disapproving shake of the head.  The Thornton trade.  The Collison deal.  Even the move for Jarrett Jack.  The failed Lakers deal.  Each compromised the future of the franchise to varying degrees, and each transaction has been attacked many times in both national and local media.  Demps' detractors?  They all have a point.  In an alternative timeline, the Hornets have quite a few more intriguing pieces right now for their current rebuilding project.

On the other hand, the logic behind each move was definitely apparent when the deals went through.  This isn't Otis Smith trading Brandon Bass for Glen Davis territory in the slightest.  Monty Williams should take on a lot of the blame for the Marcus Thornton Affair, and Carl Landry was always going to help the 2011 Hornets more than Marcus Thornton.  Similarly, the old Trevor Ariza was always going to be more impactful on a Chris Paul-led Hornets side than Darren Collison coming off the bench.  Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Lamar Odom would have made for a competitive, exciting team in the short term, something that had to have been on Demps' mind given the state of basketball in New Orleans.  Dell Demps supporters?  They all have a point too - the specter of Chris Paul's departure loomed menacingly over Demps, impacting each of his decisions, and Demps made logical, informed, and highly defensible moves in spite of it.

My aim isn't to settle this debate here, nor do I think there's a meaningful resolution to this at all.  Instead, I call attention to the dichotomy of opinion on Demps to point out one thing we should all agree on - Dell Demps' most promising trait is his relentless, unceasing activity in the front office.  He's on top of every unheralded unsigned player, he's exploring trade possibilities with every member of his roster, and he isn't afraid in the slightest to move immediately when he thinks he has a move.  For a front office that has routinely been lampooned by A. Wojnarowski and Co. for its lack of employees, cubicles, staplers, or whatever else "normal" front offices are equipped with, it comes as a welcome step forward.

The signing of Gustavo Ayon is the latest example of this.

Ayon's a 26 year old power forward/center, hailing from Tepic, Mexico.  He signed on with Division 1 San Jose State in 2006, but instead opted to play professionally in his native Mexico.  After developing as a player and winning multiple league titles from 2006-2009, Ayon opted to head to Europe the next year, joining Spanish side Baloncesto Fuenlabrada.  The Spanish ACB is the best professional league in Europe; edging out Italy and Greece for top honors.

Ayon played a full season of Spanish basketball in 2010-2011, and had played 10 games in the 2011-2012 season before signing with New Orleans. Obviously, I haven't seen him play, but his line this year was about 16 points and 8 rebounds (over 3 offensive) on 66% from the floor and over 80% from the foul line.  Those numbers came in under 29 minutes a game.  It's clear, just from a statistical perspective, that this is a player that can play basketball.  And those that have followed his game extensively?  They're even more effusive in their praise.

Here are some tweets from Draft Express - perhaps the most respected international scouting service in professional basketball right now - last week:

@DraftExpress: In Spain. Arguably most productive player in league. RT @BKoremenos: Where did Gustavo Ayon play before NO nabbed him?
@DraftExpress: 6-10. Plays his ass off. Smart. Rebounds. Tough. Finds ways to score. Teammate. Perfect rotation big.
@DraftExpress: Most of the NBA was quietly tracking Gustavo Ayon. Everyone wanted to keep him a secret, hence the lack of hype/buzz. Clearly a NBA player.
@DraftExpress: Now its official I can finally say: Gustavo Ayon is a STEAL. Smart, tough, active, athletic 4/5. A young Jeff Foster. Well done New Orleans.

That's... a lot of praise.  From the description, is there any question at all that this is the quintessential Monty Williams player?

Dig around a bit more, and you'll find that the Spurs, Lakers, Nuggets, Suns and Pacers all made overtures for his services.  This, according to many analysts, is a guy that could help a good team immediately.  That a projected lottery team was able to pull this deal off?  That tells me a lot.

Whether Ayon will transition smoothly to the NBA remains to be seen, but the fact remains that this is a smart, cheap, resourceful signing regardless of how it all turns out.  You play the odds when you construct a team, and acquiring Ayon is a solid move regardless of the outcome.  The Hornets have reportedly been all over him throughout the lockout and will pay his Spanish side $0.75M to extract him from his contract there.

The Chris Paul section of Demps' tenure finishes to mixed reviews.  There was obviously an argument for going all out and trying to keep Chris Paul in New Orleans long term.  It didn't happen, and because of it, the alternative - keeping some pieces for the future on the roster - looks attractive in hindsight.  Whichever side of the Demps coin you fall on (I've supported every move he's made thus far, aside from Thornton), it's all in the past now.

The future began last week, and Dell Demps is, swift as ever, off to the races.


Posted on: December 6, 2010 12:20 am
 

New Orleans Hornets: In All Kinds Of Doo Doo

First things first, I won't gripe too much about the on court product which has been atrocious for the last ten or so games, I mainly want to talk about the collective issue concerning the team from a business standpoint.  As has been reported (and as Hornets fans knew about as early as Thursday night), the only owner the team has ever known, George Shinn, eventually decided to sell the team to the NBA today in an effort to just rid himself of the franchise.  All things considered, Shinn has been wanting to get rid of this team for a long time.  He and Louisiana native Gary Chouest, the team's minority owner at a 35% share, announced in April that a deal was finalized between the two.  A couple weeks later, Chouest, who owns and opperates an offshore oil business, saw the BP Oil Spill put a huge dip into his product and, as a result, started having reservations about the job.  Soon enough, the New York Times reported that the deal would never happen.  The New Orleans based Time-Picayune immediately refuted that, and nothign else was heard of until Friday not when Chouest announced that he was pulling out of the deal. 

Now Shinn, on the other hand, successfully survived a bout with prostate cancer and has since tried to sell the team to Chouest to do whatever else he wants to do for the rest of his life.  Because Chouest backed out of the deal, citing the impending NBA lockout as the huge reason why he wanted to back out, Shinn, desperate to get the team off his hands, decided to sell the team to the league.  David Stern found an executive with the NHL's Minnesota Wild to opperate the team while they try to bridge a cell to a prospective owner, but the prospects overall in New Orleans don't look solid. 

As has also been reported, and frequently whined about on my behalf for the better part of three seasons, the attendance in New Orleans sucks.  Basically, the NBA kind of forced the Hornets to return to New Orleans, saw horrible attendance followed by great attendance in the postseason, and agreed on a deal where if the Hornets maintained an average attendace above 14,000, then the Hornets would stay at the New Orleans Arena through 2014.  However, if the attendance didn't meet that requirement by January, the Hornets could file for relocation by March.  It's really tricky considering that the attendance numbers are taken during football season and this early in the season as well.  All in all, I don't like the way that's drawn up.  But facts are facts and the way it stands, the NBA themselves can choose in the forthcoming weeks if they want to opt out of their lease in New Orleans.

Now, this isn't a guarantee that the Hornets are leaving New Orleans.  David Stern is commited to keeping the team in New Orleans, or at least he has said so outwardly for the past five years, and there's still strong rumors that the NBA will simply hold on to the team until Chouest decides to reemerge as a candidate to purchase the franchise.  But there's a lot of uncertainty.  Fans in Seattle immediately have talked, but they must have forgotten that Key Arena still sucks and they didn't want to build a new arena to keep the Supersonics there, and after seeing how Charlotte has handled the Bobcats since the Hornets originally left there, I'm not sure Stern wants to replace one of his franchise to put one back in Seattle.  Early indications are, obviously, that if a deal isn't reached to keep the team in New Orleans, then someone will purcahse the team and move them to Kansas City.  Which I'd be more inclined to accept, as I'm a Hornets fan.  I'm not a Seattle Supersonics fan. 

Basically, the team is left at the hands of the owners.  It's easy to say that it's in the owner's best interest for the Hornets to completely suck and therefore trade away all their superstars, but that's only partly the case.  That would also be assuming that every owner in the league cares about winning.  When Oklahoma City was looking to take Seattle originally, only two owners voted against it.  One was Seattle's own Paul Allen and the other was Mark Cuban (who felt Oklahoma City was in Dallas' market).  Owners basically make more cash if the teams are all in huge markets, something New Orleans obviously isn't.  All that said, they'll basically sell the team to the highest bidder, who will be free to take the team wherever he wants.

As a last statement, this basically destroys the Hornets season.  The great start hasn't been followed by any encouraging on court play as of late, but any hope of the team getting better via trade is finished.  They're under the luxury tax now, and there's no chance that David Stern or the league agrees to pay the luxury tax and allow the Hornets to use trade exceptions or even some of the expiring contracts on the team (Marcus Banks, Willie Green, etc.) to get better.  The Hornets will basically stay as they are, or make minor moves that will keep them under the luxury tax.  There will be no moves being made to get better.  Not this season, and not until a new owner comes in either. 

I mainly wanted to get this off my chest, as I'm genuinely upset to see my favorite team suffer through two (three if you count Oklahoma City) relocations like this.  I'm 70% sure that this is it for the Hornets in New Orleans and while that may be good for the long term benefit of the franchise, it's still tough to see your favorite team suffer as it is.  Basically from on the court issues and all the implications this sale to the NBA brings with it, it's fair to assume that the Hornets are in deep, deep trouble.
Posted on: October 21, 2010 11:38 pm
Edited on: October 21, 2010 11:48 pm
 

New Orleans Hornets 2010-2011 Season Preview

I called this past offseason for the Hornets one of, if not, the most important offseason in franchise history for the team.  Coming off of a difficult collapse in 2009, injuries to Chris Paul forced the team to fall to 37 wins last season, resulting in the team's first appearance in the lottery in three years, signifying a dramatic fall from grace following the team's 2008 run to the Southwest Division Championship and to a game 7 in the Western Conference Semifinals with the defending NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs.  Just a few years removed from that, the Hornets are at a crossroads, even after this offseason, that will determine where the team goes from this point forward.  Gone from that 2008 season are former coach of the year Byron Scott, long time General Manager and former Executive of the Year Jeff Bower and soon to be gone is the only owner the Hornets have ever known in George Shinn.  The impending sale of the team to Gary Chouest, which may not be finalized until the end of this season, will finally solidify this past offseason of change for the Hornets front office.  When new head coach Monty Williams was hired, followed by the hiring of new General Manager Dell Demps, everyone of the assistant coaches, medical staff, scouting team, etc. were let go.  Some of them had been with the team since its inception in Charlotte.  But desperate to turn a new leaf, the Hornets made their moves with Williams and Demps, and the two are young, promising guys at their respective spots with the right people vouching for their abilities.  That change was followed on the court, as the Hornets engaged in a number of trades that will result in at least eight new players making the roster for this season.  It's still very much up in the air how all of these moves will translate on the court for the Hornets.  The team has seemingly had one of the thinnest front courts in the league for years now, and that will be the same case this season.  The team's ultimate success still depends almost entirely on Chris Paul, and Paul's' reported frustrations with the team are going to loom over the franchise until he's either traded or signs a new contract.  But that's still two years from now, and the Hornets still moved along as a team dedicated to winning now.  With pending cap relief coming up this offseason, how the team performs at the start of the year will depend largely on whether they're buyers or sellers at the trade deadline and will have a huge effect on how the team opperates from here on out.  If this past offseason was one of the most important for the Hornets, this actual season will be no different.  There are no guarantees it will be the most successful, but a lot is hinging on the performance of this team this season.

For the record, new additions will be italicized and rookies will have their college statistics, which will be denoted by an asterisk.

PG: #3 Chris Paul (45 Games, 18.7 PPG, 10.7 APG, 4.2 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 84.7 FT Pctg., 40.9 3PT FG Pctg., 49.3 FG Pctg.) – Coming off of his best season individually in 2009, the frustration Paul was showing at the beginning of last season was quite evident.  He had gotten into on court altercations with Al Harrington, was frequently showing discomfort on the court and was very vocal in his displeasure with Byron Scott being fired going as far as to say the team should have consulted with him before the move.  Two separate injuries followed, including one the day immediately following Scott’s departure, possibly creating the most frustrating season in Paul’s career.  A sprained ankle and a torn meniscus kept Paul out of 37 games, and the Hornets’ win total dropped as a result. 

A lot will be asked of CP3 again this season as he enters clearly as the number one player on the team.  The fact that the team traded Darren Collison, last year’s first round draft pick and Paul’s primary back up, to make attempts in improving the roster brings further emphasis on the importance of a healthy Chris Paul.  Before his injuries last season, he was displaying an improved three point shot and was correcting all of the holes in his offensive game.  Seeing him play a healthy amount of games this season should help the team’s defense improve as well.  Paul’s on court performance is crucial for the team, but he’s in a position where he shouldn’t be asked to do as much as he was in 2009.  How quickly he gels with the new teammates, how well he’s recovered from the knee injury and how well he handles adversity this season all deserve close attention this season.

#33 Willie Green (73 Games, 8.7 PPG, 2.1 APG, 1.8 RPG, 83.3 FT Pctg., 34.6 3PT FG Pctg., 45.7 FG Pctg.) – Whether Hornets fans like it or not, Green enters this season as the Hornets back-up point guard.  Green, in the final year of his contract, was picked up in a trade with Philadelphia and immediately became the team’s most trustworthy option as a reserve point guard.  Whether or not he’s a true point guard, whether or not he’s efficient enough to run an offense for an extended amount of time and whether or not the team hopes to deploy him in this role all season are questionable.  Even with Green on the roster, the Hornets had Jannero Pargo, Mustafa Shakur, D.J. Strawberry and, eventually, Curtis Jerrells all in training camp to compete for the reserve point guard job.  In my opinion, the team wants one of the young guards to step up and claim the back-up job, but is keeping Green as a safety net.  Green is a capable back-up in this league.  He shoots a decent percentage and he could, at the very least, provide veteran experience as a reserve to start the season.  However, I’d imagine the team truthfully wants Jerrells to claim Green’s spot by December or January.

#0 Curtis Jerrells * (39 Games, 16.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 4.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 77.1 FT Pctg., 36.7 3PT FG Pctg., 42.7 FG Pctg.) – Although last year was Jerrell’s first year in the league, he spent the majority of the season in the NBA’s D-League and therefore retains rookie eligibility in this season, his first with the Hornets.  Jerrells went undrafted in 2009 and spent last season for the D-League’s Austin Toros, which happened to be the team that Demps GMed while he was working for the Spurs organization.  About a week ago, the Hornets acquired Jerrells for a second round draft pick from the Spurs and he figures to be in the team’s future plans.  Former coach Greg Popovich has gone on record as saying Jerrells is a “real NBA point guard” and the team is high on him as well.  Whether or not he reciprocates those expectations right away remains to be seen, but there are high hopes for Jerrells in terms of his future as a reserve for the team behind Chris Paul.  His progression is something to keep an eye on. 

SG: #8 Marco Belinelli (66 Games, 7.1 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 83.5 FT Pctg., 38.0 3PT FG Pctg., 40.6 FG Pctg.) – No member of the Hornets roster is having as productive a preseason campaign as Belinelli.  Acquired from Toronto for the frustrating unproductive Julian Wright, Belinelli has also struggled with expectations throughout his career and really disappointed in Toronto last season.  But the team planned for Thornton to come off of the bench all along, and Belinelli has gone through a lot of the sets with the first team.  He’s shooting the ball really effectively from beyond the arc in the preseason and is showing capabilities as a ball handler that people expected of him when he was a lottery pick in 2007.  He unquestionably now enters the season as the Hornets starting shooting guard and can develop into a real wild card for the team.  If he builds off of his promise early, then the Hornets can have a surprisingly efficient starting five with an explosive Marcus Thornton as a change of pace reserve for the second unit.  At worst, Belinelli figures to be a three point specialist for the team, but all hopes are for Belinelli to remain as the team’s starting shooting guard for the duration of the season. 

#5 Marcus Thornton (73 Games, 14.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.6 APG, 81.4 FT Pctg., 37.4 3PT FG Pctg., 45.1 FG Pctg.) – Contrary to Belinelli, Thornton is having one of the most disappointing preseason campaigns for the Hornets.  Coming off of a surprising rookie season where the Hornets saw him emerge from second round draft pick to solid reserve to key contributor down the stretch, the team hopes to deploy him in a sixth man role similar to that of Manu Ginobili, Jason Terry or Jamal Crawford’s.  All hopes should, and most likely are, for Thornton to finish games for the Hornets but the team wants to use his playmaking and explosiveness to spearhead the second unit.  Thornton has struggled with his shot all preseason, and questions are already rising about the shin injury that forced him to leave the Summer League early.  But still, the team will take its chances with Thornton as the season approaches and his efficient shooting from last season will be expected and should truly benefit the team moving forward.  At only 23, Thornton is still in the team’s future plans.  He’s been vocal about his struggles with the team moving Collison to Indiana in an offseason trade, but I wouldn’t attribute that with his early season struggles.  He seems erratic out there and may be struggling with the added expectations.  I expect him to settle into his new role this season after a few games.

SF: #1 Trevor Ariza (72 Games, 14.9 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.8 SPG, 64.9 FT Pctg., 33.4 3PT FG Pctg., 39.4 FG Pctg.) – Coming off of a season where he was a key member of a Lakers starting line-up that won the 2009 NBA Championship, Ariza was handsomely compensated by the Houston Rockets last season and, with the injuries to Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, was quickly given the role of the go-to guy on the team.  Ariza struggled in that role, however, as his efficiency and his shooting percentages decreased across the board.  The Hornets still see his potential as a defensive specialist and fast break partner with Paul to trade All-Rookie First Teamer Darren Collison to acquire Ariza.  In doing so, the Hornets assume the remaining four years on Ariza’s contract and are vocal about him being in the team’s future plans.  In New Orleans, Ariza can return to being the third or fourth option on a team, a role he’s probably better suited for, and should be able to prepare for the shots to come to him as opposed to looking for them.  He may never shoot at that consistent three point rate that he did in the 2009 postseason, but he’s still a capable player behind the arc who the team can feel comfortable enough with to help spread out a defense.  Ariza is the big acquisition for the Hornets this past offseason and a lot is expected of him.  He’s shown before that he’s capable of playing off of a great player, and if he does so at a more efficient rate than he did with Houston last year, the Hornets will benefit greatly because of it. 

#16 Peja Stojakovic (62 Games, 12.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 89.7 FT Pctg., 37.5 3PT FG Pctg., 40.4 FG Pctg.) – Signed to a five year, 65 million dollar contract in 2005, Peja has seen his points per game average and a lot of his percentages decline every year of his contract with the team.  The Hornets see his expiring 15 million dollar deal as a huge trading piece should the team find another franchise desperate for cap relief, but also see his importance as a three point specialist with the squad.  Even with his declining numbers, the Hornets are a better team with Peja on the court.  Last year’s 14-23 record without Chris Paul should be viewed with an asterisk.  The team was 9-8 without Paul on the court while Peja was still in the lineup.  When Peja missed the final 20 games of the season, the team went 5-15.  He’s still a very important player for this team.  Peja was tried as a reserve last year when the team unsuccessfully attempted to make Julian Wright the starting small forward.  He was still efficient enough in his reserve role where the team should feel comfortable deploying him in that same spot this season, but his back still brings questions about how well he can come into a game and be effective after extended periods of rest.  Whether or not he’s a key contributor or nothing more than an expiring contract to either be traded or absorbed internally this season depends largely on how well he starts the season.  He’s played a sufficient amount of minutes this preseason and is still showing his range, but nothing is a guarantee in terms of his longevity of health. 

#20 Quincy Pondexter(36 Games, 19.3 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 82.7 FT Pctg., 35.3 3PT FG Pctg., 52.8 FG Pctg.) – Acquired in a draft night trade along with Craig Brackins for the draft rights to Cole Aldrich, Pondexter was supposed to enter this season with Brackins as two young, capable players in a new Hornets rotation.  Brackins was traded in the Willie Green trade with Philadelphia, and the Hornets soon acquired Trevor Ariza, halting Pondexter’s quick ascension to an everyday status.  Pondexter is still a capable player.  He can run the floor really well, is a good enough playmaker at his position and is a capable jump shooter.  The team also has high hopes in his defensive ability.  He showed a lot of potential in the summer league, especially with his playmaking and defense, and will be brought along slowly for the Hornets.  With Peja most likely gone either before the end of this season or by the end of this season, Pondexter figures into the Hornets future plans.  Monty Williams has had success with SF projects before during his tenure in Portland, and Pondexter will be exactly that for most of this season.

PF: #30 David West (81 Games, 19.0 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 86.5 FT Pctg., 50.5 FG Pctg.) – The Hornets longest tenured player (he’s the only player on the team that was with the franchise before the temporary two year relocation to Oklahoma City and who was with the Hornets when they still played in the Eastern Conference), West returns this season still as the Hornets second option.  For the past five seasons, Paul and West have been the go-to guys for setting the tone on offense and the same will be expected this season.  Despite a second consecutive season in terms of a decrease in his points per game and rebounds per game averages, West assumed a bigger role in the offensive execution once Paul went down to injury last season.  As a result, West saw a career high in assists.  Whether or not his game is ready for a steep decline is up for debate, and this being basically a contract year for West (he has a 7 million dollar player option for next season), one could assume that West will be at his best for one last pay day for his career.  West is still an efficient option in the offense.  He shot at a 50 percent rate last season and still has plenty of range on his jump shot.  His defense on the ball struggled big time last season and a lot of that probably had to do with Collison and Thornton’s inexperience on defense allowing so many easy drives to the basket last year.  But if West can hold his ground defensively in the paint, it would set the tone for the rest of the team.  A lot will be expected of West, again, this season.  I wouldn’t be so concerned with his missing games this preseason (Monty is said to be caution with minutes to his starters in the preseason) and I wouldn’t say he’s ready for a decline in production just yet. 

#14 Jason Smith (56 Games, 3.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 69.0 FT Pctg., 43.1 FG Pctg.) – Acquired in a trade that sent Craig Brackins and Darius Songaila to Philadelphia, Smith was seen as a disappointing first round project in Philadelphia but has been given new life in New Orleans.  He’s surprised many fans with his strong play in the preseason, showing a very unexpected rebounding rate per minute and still showing a good enough mid range game that the team touted when he was acquired.  Whether or not that carries over into the regular season is huge for the Hornets, as Smith is basically the only option as a reserve power forward.  His position on the team is very creaky for the Hornets, as he’s not done a lot to calm worries about his consistency and reliability in his two years with the league.  But the front office is praising Smith for his work this preseason and he’ll at least be given a clean slate in New Orleans this year.  If he struggles, the team will be left without many options for the front court, and could be forced to move Stojakovic for another option.  Whether or not Smith can prevent the team from having to go to those measures remains to be seen. 

#44 Pops Mensah-Bonsu (20 Games, 1.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 54.2 FT Pctg., 39.4 FG Pctg.) – With the team on a non guaranteed contract, Mensah-Bonsu will probably be retained due to the team’s thin options at the power forward spot.  Another D-League player for the Austin Toros, Pops has played well enough in the preseason to at least get a look in the regular season.  He’s struggled to stick with any of the teams he’s played with for his career but has shown signs of being a viable reserve big man.  Whether or not he can parlay that into a consistent run or even a consistent season with New Orleans is questionable at best and realistically unexpected.  But because Jason Smith is the only other option as a reserve power forward, I’d expect Mensah-Bonsu to make the roster and at least get a chance to establish himself in the team’s rotation.

C: #50 Emeka Okafor (82 Games, 10.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 56.2 FT Pctg., 53.0 FG Pctg.) – Acquired last offseason from Charlotte, Okafor came into New Orleans with a lot of expectations and didn’t deliver on any of them.  Whether it be because of injuries keeping him from training camp reps with the roster, him missing the entire preseason, him never developing a rapport with Paul, him being in and out of Jeff Bower’s rotations or any combination of those things, Okafor saw a career low 29 minutes per game last year and his production dropped as a result of it.  This offseason, however, Monty has said to be committing to getting Okafor the ball at a more consistent rate.  He’s still not going to blow anyone away as a low post option, but he’s durable and strong enough to where he can hold his own down in the paint and also be a viable defender around the rim.  He’ll never live up to his paycheck, but he is still an efficient enough option at the center position in the league and is arguably a top ten player at his position.  With Williams’ dedication to getting Okafor involved more with the team, we should see a more lively Okafor and, certainly, a more productive Okafor on the court for the Hornets.  A big season from him could make all the difference from this team being a fringe playoff contender to a very good Western Conference squad. 

#34 Aaron Gray (32 Games, 3.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 71.4 FT Pctg., 51.2 FG Pctg.) – Acquired from Chicago during last season for Devin Brown, the White Panther (as he’s affectionately known amongst Hornets fans), became the team’s best option as a reserve center immediately and did a fine enough job in that role to be given a new one year deal to keep the same position this year with the Hornets.  Gray is, at the very least, a big body down in the paint, although his lack of speed still allows elite centers that extra burst to the basket more often than not.  He lost a lot of weight this offseason (rumored around 30 pounds) and is still light on his feet and is good enough at holding his position around the basket, but Monty has been vocal in his desire for Gray to be quicker up and down the court.  Whether or not he can really change something like his speed remains to be seen, but Gray is still a good, if not very good, back-up center for the team.

#28 D.J. Mbenga (49 Games, 2.1 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 47.4 FT Pctg., 46.6 FG Pctg.) – Recently signed to a one year contract for this season, Congo Cash (the name his former Lakers teammates gave him), steps in as competition for Gray for the reserve center job.  Mbenga has had his cup of tea in the league.  He’s mainly a hustle guy, has never been a consistent player in a rotation, but at least has two championships with the Lakers to show for his stay in the league.  He’s 7 foot and he’s a decent rebounder, but I’m not sure how successful the team will be with Mbenga consistently getting heavy minutes.  At the very least, he’s a body to push Gray and keep him staying in shape and keep him competitive.  He’s another big body on the team, giving them three 7 footers on the bench.  Only problem is, none of the three seven footers are all that incredibly talented.

Head Coach: Monty Williams (First Head Coaching Job) – Monty Williams is the youngest head coach in the league.  While that’s pretty cool in terms of the potential stability he can bring to the team, realistically you have to expect some growing pains from a guy in his first year on the job.  He’s got an impressive pedigree.  After retiring as a player, Greg Popovich himself sought out Monty to be an assistant, and Monty won a ring as a member of the coaching staff for the 2005 Spurs team.  He’s done fantastic in terms of player development and defense for the past couple of years in Portland, and he’s a very young, very hungry, very promising head coach.  All things considered, he seems like a very good guy for the job.  He’ll have to deal with Chris Paul’s ego, he’ll have to deal with a roster that’s fairly young and inexperienced, and he’ll have to do it in his first year.  However, if everybody comes together really early, it’s nothing but a huge sign moving forward for the potential of this team.  I have faith in Monty’s abilities as the head coach.  But, being that it’s his first job, you still don’t really know what to expect.  Here’s to a promising first season.

Overall: The Hornets are bringing in eight new players this season.  Chemistry may be a very tough problem in the early stages of this season, but the team is young and talented enough to get past that.  If they hit a prolonged rough patch, we’ll see if anyone starts pouting, if Williams becomes inconsistent with his rotations, etc.  There are a lot of question marks with this team.  But the potential is there.  The way it’s assembled, this team isn’t a championship squad.  They simply don’t have the length to compete with the best teams in the league.  But they’re athletic enough to hustle on defense, talented enough to get the ball in the basket and, if healthy, they could really surprise teams this year.  People always write the Hornets off as some kind of one year fluke.  It should be noted that the only year the Hornets have not had any major injury problems in the past five years was that 2008 season.  Maybe that does or doesn’t mean that the team competes for the division title again, but there’s no reason that can’t be a realistic goal.  The Spurs, Rockets and Mavericks are obviously sexier choices for the division title, but the Hornets have the bodies to compete with any of them, and they have the best individual player out of any of those teams on their roster.  Paul’s attitude and commitment are huge, as is Monty’s ability to handle all of the new players on the roster.  But if this team gets off to a huge start, they could really do some damage.  Probably no more than a 5 seed or so, but definitely a playoff team none the less.  They’re most likely another year away from being serious threats, but that’s no reason that the team can’t be really good this year.
Posted on: October 21, 2010 12:42 am
 

2010-2011 NBA Southeast Division Preview

2010-2011 NBA Southeast Division Preview

There is no tried and true formula to winning in the NBA.  Most people, my foolish self included, believe in the sanctity of building through the draft and through cost effective moves in free agency to build around those great players you drafted.  However, it’s becoming increasingly evident that the most successful formula, is to stack your team to the best of your abilities and then follow by adding in a bunch of older players willing to take a veterans salary to contribute to a championship team (or coattail their way to a championship, if you will).  There’s been no more glaring example of stacking your team than what happened in Miami this offseason.  The Heat stayed away from improving their team through free agency for most of the last two years, traded away players this offseason with the sole hope of free agency and then watched it all pay off as both LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami to form one of the most controversial rosters in NBA history.  Whether or not this pays off is yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, teams like Orlando and Atlanta, the division’s two best teams the past two seasons, went the traditional route of building on their success by focusing on player development and keeping the core intact.  Orlando, already possessing one of the best players in the league in all world center Dwight Howard, were exposed in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston, and whispers of the team being soft were as loud as ever.  Meanwhile, those whispers against Orlando were shouts against Atlanta, as a second straight season ended in them being swept out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.  They’ve now dedicated a ton of money to a roster that many feel have already peaked, and this may be Atlanta’s last year to be seen as contenders in the East. 

Meanwhile, Washington drafted their hopeful superstar this past June in John Wall.  Lucking into the number one overall selection, Washington chose Wall and decided to ask questions later.  It’s still a mystery as to how Wall and Gilbert Arenas will play on the court together and Arenas’ insistence on not being seen as a distraction has already directly caused a distraction for the team.  And Charlotte, after buying big time to make the playoffs last year, got swept in their first postseason appearance in franchise history and kept the team together in hopes that they improve. 

So which method of management is best conducive to an NBA Championship?  We’ve seen both methods in the last few years, but the better bet is on Miami this year.  Ultimately, though, we’ll see come June which blueprint is truly the most successful.


1) Miami Heat
Incoming Players:
Dexter Pittman, Da’Sean Butler, Patrick Beverly, Chris Bosh, Eddie House, Juwan Howard, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, LeBron James, Mike Miller
Outgoing Players:
Quentin Richardson, Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley, Dorell Wright, Yakhouba Diawara, Daequan Cook
Team Analysis:
Easily the most hyped team in recent NBA memory (including the 2008 Boston Celtics), the Heat enter this season as a captivating story, polarizing figures and, most of all, a pretty solid basketball team.  Although not your traditional eight deep, in sync roster that you’d come to expect from many of the league’s greatest, the Heat feature three of the best players in the league in their starting lineup and did so after a humongous free agent coup by Pat Riley this offseason.  When the team did everything from passing up on free agents, trading away draft picks and letting players walk in order to clear the cap space for this summer, it was pretty evident that team president Pat Riley had gone all in and was gambling the franchise’s future on this offseason alone.  But his gambles paid off when Dwyane Wade resigned, Chris Bosh came over in free agency and then two time defending NBA MVP LeBron James, in a not so subtle manner, announced he was taking his talents to South Beach as well.

What sets these guys apart from previous players who teamed up to take over the league is that all of these guys are in their prime.  From a historical standpoint, most fans were upset to see three players in their prime basically take the “easy route” and join up to win championships.  But from a basketball standpoint, it’s a bold move that should pay off for the Heat.  After trading away Michael Beasley in order to resign Udonis Haslem and add Mike Miller in free agency, the Heat had every who’s who of past-their-prime role players knocking on the door to try and get that elusive championship before retirement.  Former all stars Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard were among the first to join the team and will probably be among the team’s most important reserves in the frontcourt.  Take that for what it’s worth.

The rest of the roster isn’t shaping up as anything beautiful but, honestly, they don’t need to be incredibly deep.  The talent gap between the third best player on the team and the fourth best player on the team is humongous, and therein lies the question of how this team is really going to perform this season if an injury is to happen, if one of the players struggles in adapting to a limited role or if dare the other starters like Mario Chalmers or Joel Anthony to beat them.  At the end of the day, the Heat will rely heavily on Miller and Haslem to bolster the big three and, if they stay healthy and perform to their capabilities, it could be more than enough for the Heat to reign as champions.  But with players like Wade, Miller and Bosh all having a history with injuries, the room for error is really thin.  There’s no doubt that just as Pat Riley was this offseason, this Heat roster better be all in to win a championship this season, or else the critics will be as loud as ever.

2) Orlando Magic
Incoming Players:
Daniel Orton, Stanley Robinson, Malik Allen, Chris Duhon, Quentin Richardson
Outgoing Players:
Matt Barnes, Adonal Foyle, Anthony Johnson
Team Analysis:
Lost in some of the hoopla surrounding this offseason was the 2009 Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic.  After making the NBA Finals in 2009, the team was bounced from the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010 in convincing fashion by the Boston Celtics.  Although the team had strong performances from Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, the rest of the team faltered as the Celtics closed out the Magic in six games.  Despite his strong performance, however, all of the criticism remained on Dwight Howard and his inability to will his team to victory.  Due to his frustration with the criticism, with teams playing him very physical and with consistently being in foul trouble during last year’s postseason, Howard is said to be a man on a mission this offseason, working with 2008 Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon on his still developing offensive repertoire and promising to cut down on the fan friendly, childish actions that most fans have associated him with.  If Howard is able to continue to progress offensively to already meet his fantastic defensive presence and capabilities, then the Magic could soon posses the most dominant player in the league.  But his development is key to how far Orlando goes this season.

Players like Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis struggled with consistency last season after huge years in 2009.  There’s no doubt that the team as a whole performed much better when Nelson played at a high level and struggled when he did, and his attempts to regain his early form of the 2009 season will be huge for Orlando if he’s to reach that level.  However, numerous offseason attempts to move Nelson to improve the roster probably don’t bode well for the team’s hope of him doing so.  Lewis on the other hand is finally being criticized for his ludicrous salary as his production, while never fully meeting his paycheck before, became a detriment to the team last season when his offensive numbers fell across the board.  A move back to his more natural Small Forward position would probably suit Lewis well, but the offense that Orlando runs gels better when Lewis is at the Power Forward spot shooting a high percentage from outside.  The team’s lineup, ultimate success and even fiscal future could depend a lot on how Lewis plays this year.

As far as the role players that surround the team’s most central figures, Quentin Richardson enters after Matt Barnes left to join the Lakers.  He can probably replace Barnes’ offensive production, but he will struggle to match Barnes’ importance on the defensive end.  Therefore, more will be asked of Mickael Pietrus this season in Orlando, and you have to wonder if he’ll be up to the task for a full season and postseason.  The team matched Chicago’s offer sheet for J.J. Redick, giving them three of the highest paid reserves in the league in Redick, Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass.  Bass, who barely played at all last year, is more of a traditional PF and his strong postseason play may result in a more traditional lineup at times for Orlando.  But whether Stan Van Gundy commits to him or Ryan Anderson as the back-up PF depends on whether or not he wants to abandon the system the team has ran the past two seasons.  Whether or not the system they’ve ran has run its course is still to be seen, and will play a large factor into whether or not the team returns to the NBA Finals this season.

3) Washington Wizards
Incoming Players:
John Wall, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Hamady N’diaye, Hilton Armstrong, Kirk Hinrich, Yi Jianlian

Outgoing Players:
Shaun Livingston, Mike Miller, Fabricio Oberto, Cartier Martin, James Singleton, Cedric Jackson, Quinton Ross, Randy Foye, Earl Boykins
Team Analysis:
Two years ago, Washington did very much the same thing that Atlanta did this offseason.  Even though the team had made the postseason four consecutive years, they had only one playoff victory in those four years to show for it and many felt the team had reached its peak.  Instead, the Wizards committed a combined 161 million dollars over 6 and 4 years, respectively, to franchise players Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison.  Arenas has played only 34 games in the two seasons since signing that contract while Jamison was traded to Cleveland at last season’s trade deadline in a moment where the Wizards decided to rebuild the roster.  Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood were all traded at last season’s deadline, but Arenas’ contract looks immovable, and the team will put him on the court again; at least for this season.  But after committed a huge chunk of cash to what many felt was an above average cast, the Wizards saw injuries and suspensions ruin the team’s reputation and overall winning percentage, as the Wizards have combined for 55 victories in the two seasons that followed that spending spree to keep the team intact.  And although 2009’s 19 win season was ugly, it hit rock bottom last year after Arenas was suspended for supposedly drawing a gun out towards a teammate in an argument over a card game in the team’s locker room.  What followed was a largely upsetting season where the team only won 26 games. 

But the team’s luck may eventually be turning around.  After the death of owner Abe Polin last year, the team was successfully sold to Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, they scored the number one overall pick in the draft and used it on Kentucky point guard John Wall, and had impressive second half performances from big men Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee after the trade deadline, giving the team a semblance of hope this upcoming season.  In John Wall, the Wizards immediately have a new face of the franchise and cornerstone player around whom the team plans to build.  Wall won almost every collegiate award in his freshman season at Kentucky and hopes to follow in Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans’ shoes as point guards under former college coach John Calipari who went on to win the Rookie of the Year award.  Rose and Evans have won the last two respectively.  That would be a welcome change of pace for Washington, who are trying to reunite with their fan base and shake the problems that hurt the team on and off the court the last two seasons. 

Gilbert Arenas has already caused problems.  Most media outlets are talking about his stern expressions, reluctance to give interviews and unwillingness to show any emotion as an act more so than a turning of the leaf, and he’s already been fined by the league for faking an injury to allow guard Nick Young more playing time this preseason.  How he reacts to this year plays a large role in how the team ultimately does.  Blatche performed very well as the go to guy in the second half of last season and McGee had an impressive showing at this year’s summer league and followed it up by being one of the final players cut from the final roster for the USA’s World Championship team.  If those two players team up with Wall to show a consistent production this year, then the Wizards, at the very least, will have something to build around for the future.  They could be one of the surprise teams in the league this year.  But a lot of that depends on whether or not Gilbert Arenas buys into the system, and also whether or not he can regain some of the magic he showed on the court prior to his first knee injury late in the 2008 season.


4) Atlanta Hawks
Incoming Players:
Jordan Crawford, Pape Sy, Josh Powell, Etan Thomas
Outgoing Players:
Randolph Morris, Mario West, Joe Smith,
Team Analysis:
For eight straight seasons, the Atlanta Hawks were a dependable team in terms of NBA Futility.  They routinely finished among the worst teams in the league, underwent numerous head coaching and regime changes and couldn’t convince any star player to capitalize on their infinite cap space.  Joe Johnson changed all that when he left for Atlanta in the middle of that run in 2005, and by his third season with the team, Atlanta had returned to the NBA playoffs and pushed the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round in 2008.  Two Eastern Conference Semifinals appearances followed, but both were convincing sweeps at the hands of Cleveland and Orlando.  Instead of figuring that the roster had reached its peak with those two consecutive embarrassing exits, the Hawks instead figured it to be head coach Mike Woodson, who oversaw a gradual improvement with the Hawks from 13 wins in his first season in 2004 to the 53 wins the team achieved last season.  Stepping into his place will be longtime assistant coach Larry Drew, who wants to run a more motion based offense instead of the isolation game that Woodson preferred.  Fully believing that it was Woodson, and not the roster, that had held the Hawks back, Atlanta committed six years and 129 million dollars to Joe Johnson this offseason in hopes that he can continue to lead the Hawks as they try and improve upon their past success.  Whether or not that contract eventually spells an early fall from grace or an eventual rise to glory is largely debatable. 

But Johnson’s not the only important player on the team.  The Hawks still have hope that Josh Smith, coming off a very impressive season last year, will continue his ascension among the most exciting players in the league.  Graced with natural athleticism and starting to finally develop a better feel for the game, Smith had his best year last year with new head coach Drew working directly with him.  His development could mean wonders for Atlanta.  The team does have two more contract situations to work out.  Reigning sixth man of the year Jamaal Crawford is asking for an extension as is All Star center Al Horford.  As of yet, neither have reached deals and Crawford has asked to be traded if he doesn’t reach an extension with the team.  With rookie Jordan Crawford capable of playing a similar role, there’s a good chance that Jamaal doesn’t finish the year with the team.  But we’ll see with how those contracts are worked whether or not the Hawks are truly committed to keeping this team intact.  And we’ll see in due time if that was the correct decision to make. 

5) Charlotte Bobcats
Incoming Players:
Sherron Collins, Kwame Brown, Matt Carroll, Shaun Livingston, Dominic McGuire, Eduardo Najera
Outgoing Players:
Raymond Felton, Theo Ratliff, Tyson Chandler, Larry Hughes, Stephen Graham, Alexis Ajinca
Team Analysis:
Ever since head coach Larry Brown came to Charlotte in 2008, the team has seen a plethora of bold moves made by team president and eventual team owner Michael Jordan in an attempt to remove Charlotte from the sea of mediocrity it had been in for the majority of its existence.  Those bold moves finally resulted in a playoff appearance last season, although the Bobcats were quickly swept by Orlando in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  But because of the major moves Charlotte made to become winners: namely taking on the contracts of big men DeSagana Diop and Nazr Mohammed, and also taking on the contracts of productive wing players Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson, the Bobcats reverted back to seller mode this offseason.  Since Brown came to the team in 2008, only Gerald Wallace remains from the team that Brown inherited, and the team has made so many moves that it reacquired Matt Carroll, a player the team traded in 2009, in an offseason trade that rid themselves of Tyson Chandler’s big salary.  Therefore, it could be said that the Bobcats won’t be afraid to wheel and deal again this season, although early indications would be that the team will be more in seller mode this season.

True to that, the team let Raymond Felton walk in free agency and the biggest question surrounding the Bobcats is who will play the point guard position.  2008 first round draft pick D.J. Augustin looks to be the early favorite, although he’s been pushed by former lottery pick Shaun Livingston for the job.  Neither are Earth shattering candidates to run the point, so we may see a lot of the offense being run through Stephen Jackson.  It’s fair to call Wallace the best player on the Bobcats team, but it’s no coincidence that Jackson’s midseason acquisition coincided with a run that got the team to its first ever playoff appearance.  More may be asked of Jackson this year, who saw his numbers dip a little bit last year after leaving Golden State’s offense.  He and Wallace are easily the team’s best players, and Wallace is still the face of the franchise, having remained with the team since its inception in 2004. 

The Bobcats downgraded the team in terms of talent when they traded disappointing center Tyson Chandler to Dallas for Erick Dampier’s non guaranteed contract and mainly hustle players in Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera.  Najera has been a fan favorite wherever he’s gone, but his skill set is better suited for a more talented team.  Carroll had his best years in Charlotte, and may assume a bigger role with the team this season than he had while in Dallas.  Dampier was quickly cut, leaving the center position about as uninspiring as the team’s outlook at point guard, with Diop and Mohammed being the early options at that position.  The Bobcats are a tough team to get a grip on, as they should be looked at as a team on the rise given their first postseason appearance in franchise history occurred last season, but the team is largely made up of veterans, and not all of those veterans are in the peak of their careers anymore.  In fact, it’s arguable that Wallace is the only one still in his peak.  So while the Bobcats built something last year, it’s hard to envision them building on that this season.

Posted on: October 13, 2010 3:12 pm
 

2010-2011 NBA Central Division Preview

2010-2011 NBA's Central Division

1) Chicago Bulls
Incoming Players:
Omer Asik, Keith Bogans, Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Brian Scalabrine, Kurt Thomas, C.J. Watson
Outgoing Players: Kirk Hinrich, Ronald Murray, Brad Miller, Hakim Warrick, Joe Alexander, Devin Brown, Jannero Pargo, Acie Law
Team Analysis: After mainly conservative fiscal moves on the part of the front office for the better portion of the last two seasons, the Bulls finally entered this offseason as players in free agency.  They finally began fully committing themselves to a championship.  The results weren’t staggering.  Regardless of what they try to sell the fan base, they cleared up that cash for LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.  Instead they got Carlos Boozer.  But the Bulls then decided to make the most of the available remaining money, and spent it on pieces that could come in and play parts for championship teams.  All great teams have particular role players and the Bulls seem to have them.  They have the defender in Ronnie Brewer, the three point marksman in Kyle Korver and the Bulls even brought in old, wise veterans like Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans to be mentors in times of trouble for the team.  But how will it all fit?

As is the case with any kind of massive roster overhaul, chemistry is a huge issue, and the Bulls will be dealing with this chemistry while also implementing a new system from a new head coach.  Tom Thibodeau was possibly the most famous assistant in the league after his noticeable work with Boston’s defense the last three seasons.  This can be seen as a blessing in disguise, seeing as how he shouldn’t have to get rid of any bad habits from the previous regime.  Thibodeau’s commitment to defense will be seen as a sign of hope in Chicago, but time will tell whether or not the players buy into or even execute that style. 

The Bulls do have nice pieces though.  Derrick Rose is an up and coming point guard, although nowhere near the superstar that the media portrays him as, Joakim Noah is a solid big man in the middle, although nowhere near the amount of money he just received, and Carlos Boozer is a very good low post scorer, although one who relied a lot on Deron Williams setting him up in Utah.  It’s fair to look at this team with a bit of reservation.  The Bulls have a lot of players that play certain parts without any guarantee that those parts will fit together.  Add in a new coach and new system, and the learning curve could be steep for Chicago.  Even still, the division is theirs to lose.  They spent their money on being competitive and at least will be more than they have in recent seasons.

2) Milwaukee Bucks
Incoming Players:
Larry Sanders, Tiny Gallon, Darington Hobson, Earl Boykins, Jon Brockman, Keyon Dooling, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Drew Gooden, Corey Maggette, Brian Skinner
Outgoing Players: Kurt Thomas, Luke Ridnour, Jerry Stackhouse, Primoz Brezec, Royal Ivey, Dan Gadzuric, Charlie Bell
Team Analysis: Undergoing just as big of an overhaul as Chicago’s, Milwaukee burst onto the scene last season as one of the biggest surprises in the entire league.  After years of mediocrity at best and futility at worst, the Bucks bought into coach Scott Skiles’ desired style of play and responded by making the NBA postseason for only the second time in six seasons before pushing the Atlanta Hawks to seven games in the first round, even without center Andrew Bogut.  Bogut is said to be recovering nicely from an arm injury that kept him out of the postseason and should be ready to man down the center position for the Bucks for a fifth consecutive season.  Long seen as inconsistent and a bit of an underachiever, Bogut routinely was registering double digits in both points and rebounds and was, by and large, the team’s best player last season.  But he was joined by the team’s most exciting player in rookie Brandon Jennings.  Jennings took the league by storm by scoring 55 points in a game versus the Golden State Warriors in the third week of the season.  His offense was erratic, at best, for a majority of the year, but his playmaking improved drastically over the last portion of the season.

Because the Bucks felt that they were close to becoming a great team, GM John Hammond was given the green light to make aggressive, costly moves in hopes of becoming among the NBA’s best teams again.  The results were nice.  After trading for Corey Maggette, the Bucks resigned John Salmons, a big reason why the team surged to the postseason last year, gave a long term deal to Drew Gooden and filled in the pieces with more small moves and with their draft picks.  Players like Maggette and Gooden come with recognizable names, but with games that haven’t hugely contributed to much success in the NBA.  Probably where Maggette will best contribute to Milwaukee is in his ability to get to the free throw line, something the Bucks as a team were the worst at in the entire league.  The Bucks are hoping that Gooden can slide in and play alongside Bogut.  He’ll give you a sold, if unspectacular, stat line on a nightly basis but teams like Orlando and Cleveland will tell you not to rely too much on Gooden’s consistency. 

Although the new pieces are nice, a lot of this team will rely on the improvements of players like Jennings, Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova and continued, solid production out of players like Jon Brockman, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Carlos Delfino.  In an ideal scenario, all of those pieces fall into place for Milwaukee and the team takes the entire league by storm.  But there’s great potential for a crash and burn here.  Skiles’ style has soured elsewhere before, a lot of the names they brought in haven’t achieved much before, and Bogut has still not proven he can have a consistent and relatively injury free year.  All needs to go right for Milwaukee to reach its full potential, but there’s a chance all could go right.


3) Indiana Pacers
Incoming Players:
Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Magnum Rolle, Darren Collison, James Posey
Outgoing Players:
Earl Watson, Troy Murphy, Luther Head
Team Analysis:
For the past two seasons, the Pacers have been in the dangerous “good but not great” category, making them one of the most bland and unexciting teams in basketball.  The best example of this is in their very own stadium, where the NBA’s finest venue and one of its most dedicated fan bases seem very much split apart.  In the beginning of this decade, the Pacers were among one of the NBA’s best teams on a yearly basis only to see the character of some of the guys they brought in result in the team being imploded from the inside-out, and seeing one of the most disturbing crash and burns in NBA history.  But the Pacers dedicated themselves to building a team full of good character, marketable guys and now they need to get dedicated to winning.  The moves they made this offseason showed there’s at least a direction towards being dedicated to winning.

One of the biggest moves made outside of the max free agents going elsewhere this offseason was the Pacers acquiring Darren Collison in a trade back in August.  The result hopefully will be the end to a revolving door at the point guard position for Indiana, who has unsuccessfully tried anyone at that position in recent years, including the uninspiring performances of Earl Watson and T.J. Ford last season.  Collison is coming off of a year where he subbed in for all world point guard Chris Paul in New Orleans and did an admirable job: putting up very inspiring numbers, showing consistency on a jump shot that was largely critiqued leading up to his being drafted and being rewarded with a spot on the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team as a result.  Also not to be overlooked is the Pacers acquiring James Posey from New Orleans in the same trade.  Although Posey’s contract causes people to negatively react towards his play, his personality, experience and play could mean wonders in terms of giving this team an identity or just giving this relatively soft bunch a bit of an attitude.

The Pacers return Danny Granger, fresh off of a first place finish with the USA team in the World Championships, and the improving Roy Hibbert as the main pieces in terms of how they will play this season.  Granger still seems a bit one dimensional, but it’s hard to truly evaluate his game until he plays with teammates who he genuinely should defer to in given situations.  Hibbert isn’t your typical seven-footer in that he’s not a dominant low post player nor is he even a consistently good player facing the basket.  But he’s a solid team defense guy and is a good enough low post player to where teams can’t leave him alone.  Although Pacers fans may have thrown their hands up and been dissatisfied with the conduct of second round draft choice Lance Stephenson this offseason, it’s really the most noticeable conduct issue in the past few seasons on a team that was routinely in the news for only that reason.  Pacers fans are still a long ways away from being truly happy with their team, but seeing what Larry Bird was able to do with Troy Murphy’s expiring deal in the offseason had to be encouraging.  Soon enough, the Pacers will have room to operate as well and then we can officially evaluate Bird’s job as a GM.  They’re still further away from that than the optimism created by the Collison trade would indicate, but there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel for the Pacers. 


4) Detroit Pistons
Incoming Players:
Greg Monroe, Terrico White, Vernon Hamilton, Tracy McGrady
Outgoing Players:
Chucky Atkins, Kwame Brown
Team Analysis:
After six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, two NBA Finals appearances and one NBA Championship from a largely successful run for Detroit, the Pistons made the decision a couple of years ago to blow up the roster.  Since then, the Pistons have undergone two head coaching changes, seen their win total drop from 59 to 39 to 27, and have only Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rodney Stuckey and Jason Maxiell remaining from that 2008 team that made its sixth and final trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.  When the Pistons made their initial decision to shake up the roster, much was made about the possibility of them being players in this past summer’s free agent market.  However, Joe Dumars spent the majority of that cleared cap space last offseason, being proactive in the acquisitions of players like Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.  The results, however, were not very promising.  Gordon and Villanueva both showed a lot of their bad qualities over the course of the season, and huge improvements need to be made by both players if the Pistons want to be competitive this season.

Stuckey is entering a make or break season this year with the Pistons, as is probably coach John Kuester.  Both have been praised for their performances in supporting roles, although neither have done extraordinary when much is asked of them.  In Kuester’s case, the Pistons could have been justified in firing him after only one season (they had just done so to Michael Curry in 2009 after a much better season than last year’s) but Dumars felt that Kuester’s potential and continuity would serve the team well this offseason.  While a lot of teams made huge roster overhauls this offseason, including two very publicized teams in Chicago and Milwaukee in their own division, the Pistons are banking that a continued year of growth and development will go a long way in determining their success this season.  Much of that is reliant on Rodney Stuckey, the player who once made Chauncey Billups expendable.  Stuckey has been largely inconsistent, but the team still remains committed to seeing him succeed in Detroit. 

But the Pistons roster is still divided between players who are young and promising, and players who are old and declining.  Some could see that as a nice bridging of the gap.  I feel that’d be a better sell had the team not just won 27 games last season.  The move to acquire Tracy McGrady this offseason probably does nothing to dispel the confusion in regards to Detroit’s roster, but the Pistons are hoping he can recover from his knee injuries to play a solid role at both backup guard positions.  There’s also confusion on what kind of team the Pistons will be.  After a unusually porous performance from the team’s defense last season, Dumars promised better results this year, but they return a lot of the same players.  We still don’t’ know if a lot of their players can fully succeed in a half court system either.  There are a lot of questions In Detroit; frankly, too many to say with any certainty how they’ll perform next season.  Optimists will point to last year’s injuries, pessimists will point to the contradicting roster moves in terms of players brought in, and the players ability to fit the team philosophy.  A lot is on the line this season in Detroit, and change will be on their horizon if they don’t get better and do so soon.


5) Cleveland Cavaliers
Incoming Players:
Christian Eyenga, Joey Graham, Ryan Hollins, Ramon Sessions
Outgoing Players:
LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal, Delonte West, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Sebastian Telfair,
Team Analysis:
No team was more largely affected by this offseason than Cleveland.  After two straight seasons of having the NBA’s best record and failing to reach the NBA Finals in either season, Mike Brown was fired as the team’s head coach, and after a very public flirtation with Tim Floyd (who turned the job down due to LeBron James’ uncertain status with the team), settled for former coach of the year Byron Scott.  Scott has been at the helm for two very impressive roster turnarounds in New Jersey and New Orleans and he’s about to be at the helm for another.  Because Cleveland had spent so much towards being competitive the past couple of seasons, role players like Anthony Parker, Anderson Vareajo and Mo Williams are now average shooters and average defenders, overpaid hustle-type guys and shooters who really aren’t comfortable in the lead role.  That doesn’t bode well for Cleveland entering this season.  Add to the fact that LeBron’s departure has placed the whole city of Cleveland in a noticeable funk, and you may have a recipe for disaster this season.

Mo Williams, fresh off of a public pity party which included him admitting that he recently contemplated retirement, returns as Cleveland’s best player.  He disappeared in both postseasons with the team and has been justifiably criticized for those faults.  He and Antawn Jamison are the only players on the team that have shown they can carry the load on offense and contribute on a nightly basis.  Only problem is, neither has done so for a good squad and both should be the subject of trade rumors all season.  The Cavaliers hope that improvements from players like J.J. Hickson and incoming rookie Christian Eyenga will be bright spots for the coming seasons for the team.  But with so much uncertainty regarding those players, it’s foolish to assume they’ll reach their maximum potential this season. 

Cleveland has been vocal in bracing for a youth movement, which is fine if the team has much youth to turn over the new leaf.  Unfortunately, they don’t.  They’re still a team of players that were brought in to win now and a few nice guys who can keep you competitive on a given night.  But the departure of LeBron James will be felt in the team morale, the attendance figures and, most of all, the on court production.  Cleveland is still a few seasons from removing themselves from the mess that was this offseason, and it will be a slow process.  It’s very possible Cleveland could find themselves right back in the bottom of the league this season.  In fact, some will say that’s in the best interest of the team moving forward.  With the whole city of Cleveland being personified by Mo Williams’ public cries for sympathy, it’s unlikely to expect much fire and retaliation from this bunch.

 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com