With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.
Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.
Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.
But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…
The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.
Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.
Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.
The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.
Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.
I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.
The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.
Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.
The Milwaukee Bucks recently snuck into the number 8 seed in the East, but after today’s fantastic trade, they may have a few more spots to climb. The Bucks acquired Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown from Golden State and will send the injury-laden pair of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson to the Warriors.
For the Bucks, this is a fantastic trade at the moment. Although they initially struggled without their star big man Bogut, Milwaukee worked its way back into the playoff race thanks phenomenal elevated play from Ersan Ilyasova and Drew Gooden, consistently great play from Jennings, and the Knicks’ six game losing streak. All with Bogut and Jackson sitting on the bench. Can you imagine a starting lineup of Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Ilyasova, Gooden and Tobias Harris, with Mike Dunleavy (consistent bench scoring), Carlos Delfino (current starter averaging 9.0 ppg) and Beno Udrih (a semi-efficient guard) coming off the bench and giving decent minutes? Ignoring the Tobias Harris part, that sounds like a pretty decent squad! The biggest concern is how Jennings and Ellis will play together, as both are phenomenal guards who look to score first and need a lot of shots. The give-and-take at the guard position may take some getting used to if this team is to be successful. But if these two can learn to play together, you’re potentially looking at the NBA’s most dangerous backcourt. Kwame Brown and Ekpe Udoh don’t really bring much to the table, but trading Milwaukee’s two injured players for the Warriors’ scoring machine, especially when one of those players has a history of injury, is a great move for the Bucks.
On the other side of the coin, this move is perplexing if you’re a Warriors fan, as Golden State just gave up its best offensive weapon for two injured players who have been riding Milwaukee’s bench all season. Bogut has played in 12 games this season, spending the majority of his time on the sideline after fracturing his ankle against the Rockets on Jan. 25. Stephen Jackson hasn’t played since Feb. 19, sitting out with a hamstring injury, but even when he was healthy, he saw limited minutes as Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles didn’t like his attitude problem. Apparently the Warriors have given up on Mark Jackson and the Warriors for this season and look to rebuild for next year starting now. A healthy core of Curry, Bogut, Jackson, and David Lee along with Dorrell Wright, Brandon Rush and Nate Robinson is an interesting concept for next season, especially if Coach Jackson can learn to control the new Jackson. But as long as Curry continues to be riddled with ankle injuries and Mark Jackson continues to struggle as a head coach (you think Stephen Jackson’s attitude problem will improve with a first-year coach?), Warriors basketball may not be so fun to watch for the time being.
NOTE: Could the Warriors be setting themselves up to try and trade multiple pieces for Dwight Howard? They now have Bogut, Jackson, Curry, Lee and other role-player assets that could be packaged into a big deal for Superman. It would be interesting to see what kind of package would interest the Magic in exchange for Howard, but just a thought to keep in mind.
Brook Lopez – Lopez returned to the Nets’ starting lineup last night against Orlando and had 15 points in 28 minutes. Despite missing nearly every game of the season so far, Lopez had a solid outing in his first game with extended minutes, and should get better as the rust wears off.
Iman Shumpert – Shumpert, who has missed the Knicks’ last two games with patella tendinitis in his left knee, was forced to withdraw from the All-Star Slam Dunk contest. He will be replaced by Jeremy Evans of the Utah Jazz. The Knicks are missing one of their better perimeter defenders, but can survive without his presence for awhile.
Joe Johnson – Johnson was ruled out of the All-Star game because of left knee tendinitis. He missed last night’s game against the Knicks, who got an easy win over the Hawks without him on the floor. He is expected to return by February 29th for Atlanta’s game against the Warriors. Rajon Rondo will replace Johnson in the All-Star game.
Greg Oden – Oden had his fifth knee surgery in five years on Monday. He has not played in a game since the end of 2007 and no estimate for his return has been given. This is another tough break for Trail Blazers fans. Between Oden and Brandon Roy’s early retirement due to his deteriorating knees, “injury” has become a cursed word in Portland.
Al Horford – Horford tweeted on Tuesday that he has not even begun rehab for his pectoral surgery. He is still in the recovery phase, so his return will likely be mid-April after rehab. This news is unfortunate for Hawks fans, who are now missing him and Joe Johnson.
Ty Lawson – Lawson missed last night’s game against the Clippers with a sprained ankle. He may play tonight, but the Nuggets may decide to bench him until after the All-Star break and give him a little more time to rest.
Rip Hamilton – Coach Thibodeau said Hamilton will return a little before or soon after the All-Star break. He has been out since the end of January with groin and thigh issues, but his return is not necessary as D-Rose and the rest of the Bulls are rolling again.
Manu Ginobili – Ginobili is set to miss a few weeks after straining his left oblique on Saturday. The Spurs have been fine without him this season, streaking to the second spot in the West, but would obviously like to have him back and healthy.
Spencer Hawes – The 76ers are starting to miss this big man’s presence, especially in rebounding and scoring. Unfortunately, there is still nothing new to report. Hawes is still in the walking boot and slated for a return sometime in March.
Tiago Splitter – Splitter is expected to miss two weeks after sustaining a calf injury in the Spurs’ game against the Clippers on Saturday. He had been a solid contributor off the bench for San Antonio, but they should be okay for two weeks without him.
Zach Randolph – Z-Bo will stay in Memphis during All-Star weekend and work with the team’s athletic trainer. He is expected to start contract drills on Monday and is expected to return on March 7 for the Grizzlies’ game against Golden State. He has played in only four games this season due to an MCL tear.
Jason Richardson – J-Rich missed his third straight game with a chest inflammation. He will be getting a second opinion to make sure the situation isn’t serious, but he should be back after the All-Star break.
Stephen Jackson – Jackson has missed the Bucks’ last two games with a hamstring injury. His playing time has been very inconsistent this season due to Coach Scott Skiles’ problem with Jackson’s attitude. This injury certainly won’t help the situation.
Danilo Gallinari – Gallinari is still on schedule to return from the ankle injury after the All-Star break. He has limited to the exercise bike in practice, but he said he’s feeling better. If all goes according to plan, the Nuggets should welcome him back into the lineup for Wednesday’s game against the Trailblazers.
Andrea Bargnani – Bargnani is still set to return sometime in March after the All-Star break. No immediate timetable for his return has been given, however.
Brandon Bass – Bass is also set to return from his knee injury after All-Star weekend. The Celtics really could use the offensive boost off the bench.
Carl Landry – Landry, who has missed the last two weeks with an MCL sprain, is still expected to be out for another few weeks. His return will do little to help the Hornets improve their standing this season, but he should be set to return sometime in March.
Byron Mullens – Mullens sat out last night against the Pacers with an illness. He is listed as day-to-day right now.
Nene – Nene is still expected to sit out until after the All-Star break. Coach Karl said he will likely not average a lot of minutes again until next season given his conditioning.
Elton Brand – Brand’s sprained right thumb will keep him out until after the All-Star break. Hopefully this injury doesn’t become a recurring issue, as he missed two games earlier this month for the same reason.
Gerald Henderson – Henderson missed his 9th consecutive game for the Bobcats last night, but is expected to return after the All-Star break.
Eric Gordon – Gordon will be out until early April at the earliest as he revealed he has cartilage damage in his knee injury. This is another blow to the Hornets’ already catastrophic season.
Andray Blatche – Blatche is set to test his calf sometime this week. He has sat out for the Wizards since the end of January.
Drew Gooden – Gooden has a torn ligament in his right wrist and is set to get a second opinion on the injury. He said he hopes to be back after the All-Star break.
Emeka Okafor – Okafor has missed the last four games with a sore left knee, but should return for the Hornets right after the All-Star break.