2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

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.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 20

Here’s an update on the latest NBA free agency news via Reup Sports, including analysis on Jeremy Lin becoming a Rocket, updated Dwight Howard trade rumors and recent signings in Los Angeles. Check out the article here.

Fourth Of July Free Agency Wrap-Up

In a particularly dry free agency day, one piece of news immediately jumped out and turned the whole day on its head. Here are the major headlines from the Fourth of July:

Steve Nash Heads to Rival Lakers:

The biggest news of the day was Steve Nash’s decision to play with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix’s biggest and most hated divisional rival. Although calling what the Lakers and Suns have a “rivalry” might not be completely accurate since Los Angeles seems to get the best of Phoenix every time these two teams meet, Nash’s decision quickly dissolved the happy memories of his time in Phoenix into outrage over his decision to put on the yellow and purple colors. Nash explained that the decision was influenced by his desire to be close to his three children in Phoenix and wished the Suns organization nothing but the best for the future, but there’s no question his departure for LA is still a stab in the back to the city of Phoenix. Nash signed a three-year deal with Los Angeles worth around $25 million, instantly turning Los Angeles into title contenders once again. How Nash and Kobe will function on offense remains to be seen, as both guards need the ball to be effective, but there’s no question that having a quality point guard like Nash increases a team’s pick-and-roll game and overall success. Suns management continued to baffle fans with this trade, as the Suns only got four future draft picks for their beloved marquee player who will now leave to join Phoenix’s hated rival. Phoenix received first-round picks in 2013 and 2015 and second-rounders in 2013 and 2014. Not bad overall, but certainly not worth Nash and definitely not enough to raise a fan base’s faith in their management, especially considering Phoenix’s history of wasting draft picks in exchange for cash considerations. To make matters worse for his former team, Nash will try and talk Grant Hill into joining him in LA. Hill said he would either join the Lakers or retire, but considering the fact that he went to Germany for a knee procedure (the same one that revitalized Kobe Bryant’s knee), it doesn’t seem that Hill is ready to retire just yet. If Hill does head to LA to join Nash, the Lakers could be looking at a potential lineup of Nash, Kobe, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum with Hill, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill on the bench. Not bad at all, especially since the Lakers could look into Dwight Howard either next year or in a trade for Gasol/Bynum. Overall, it was a horrible day for Phoenix fans and a glorious one for LA supporters.

Nash will be joining Kobe in Los Angeles, much to the chagrin of every basketball fan in Phoenix.

Suns Sign Dragic and Beasley:

In a feeble attempt to compensate for Steve Nash’s departure for LA, the Suns signed Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley. Dragic was signed to a four-year deal worth $34 million and Beasley was signed to an $18 million deal for three years. Dragic was a very good signing by the Suns, especially now that Nash is gone. Considering how Dragic thrived in Houston as a starter when Kyle Lowry sat out, the Suns are getting a quality player who deserves a better contract as a starting point guard. As an added bonus, Phoenix was always particularly fond of Dragic when he backed up Nash and will be happy to welcome his back. Unfortunately, the signing of Beasley won’t get many (smart) Suns fans excited. Beasley is a decent player at best and considering how many of those are already on the roster, this isn’t the kind of quality player Phoenix needs, especially with Nash and possibly Hill leaving.

Nash is gone, but the Suns got a consolation prize in potential breakout star Goran Dragic.

Houston Offers Jeremy Lin a Deal: 

The Rockets have offered Jeremy Lin a four-year deal worth around $30 million. The Knicks can almost match Houston’s offer (four years, $24.5 million), but have made it clear they would have to think hard about matching other teams’ high offers for the breakout point guard. After losing Dragic to Phoenix, the Rockets could use a quality backup for Kyle Lowry in Lin, but keep in mind that Lin and the Knicks both want a reunion. What offer New York puts on the table could decide where Lin ends up.

Could Jeremy Lin be heading back to the Houston Rockets?

Jason Kidd and Mavs Close to Signing Deal:

Jason Kidd and the Mavericks are closing in on a multi-year deal that will allow the Dallas veteran to end his career where it all began. The amount is unknown, but it will likely be a bit higher than Kidd would normally be worth after the Mavs were unable to bring Deron Williams or Goran Dragic to Dallas.

Jason Kidd will most likely be ending his career in Dallas.

Spencer Hawes Signs Extension:

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philadelphia next year after signing a two-year, $13 million deal with the Sixers. Nothing much to report here other than the fact that the 76ers could be shaping up to be a pretty consistent threat in the playoffs for the next few years if they continue to keep so many pieces together (especially with so much youth).

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philly after signing a two-year extension.

Thunder Add Hasheem Thabeet:

The Oklahoma City Thunder signed former number two draft pick Hasheem Thabeet to a two-year deal. Thabeet has never really panned out to be the quality player with potential he promised to be, with career averages of just over two points and two rebounds per game in his limited time on the floor. This is a questionable signing by the Thunder, especially because Serge Ibaka’s return to OKC is not guaranteed at this point.

The Thunder signed Hasheem Thabeet. For some reason.

2012 NBA Draft Recap

In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:

Winners: New Orleans Hornets

No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.

Anthony Davis was taken first in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

Winners: Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.

Here’s a look at the young talent that the Houston Rockets brought in this year.

Winners: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.

The face of Portland’s new point guard: Damian Lillard

Winners: Golden State Warriors

Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.

Harrison Barnes joins Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green in Golden State.

Winners: Milwaukee Bucks

With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.

The Bucks needed a shot-blocking big man and they certainly got one in John Henson.

Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder

They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.

Perry Jones III may have been the steal of the draft, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 28th pick.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.

Was he really worth not getting any new talent in the 2012 NBA Draft?

Losers: Phoenix Suns

It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.

The Suns swear the Kendall Marshall pick wasn’t influenced by free agency coming up, but why else would they take a passing point guard unless they were worried Steve Nash might leave?

Losers: Los Angeles Lakers

I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.

Robert Sacre is heading to LA, but he won’t be able to replace Pau Gasol is he’s traded away.

Losers: Charlotte Bobcats

Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.

The Bobcats got Kidd-Gilchrist, but then spent their second pick on the similar Jeff Taylor.

Question Marks: Boston Celtics

There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?

The Celtics picked up two quality big men, but both are major projects for Boston to work on.

Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks

After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.

I still need to see how these draft picks play in to acquiring Williams before I pass judgment.

Question Mark: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.

You’re looking at the face of a coach who doesn’t have much to be excited about after the draft.

Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves

With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.

The Wolves have a promising future, but needed to do more in the 2012 draft.

Question Mark: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.

I don’t see any Kenneth Farieds in the Denver’s 2012 draft selections.

Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.

I can’t help but think the Cleveland Cavaliers could’ve done better with their picks in the draft.

In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:

  1. Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
  2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
  3. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
  4. Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
  5. Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
  6. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
  8. Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
  9. Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
  10. Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
  11. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
  12. Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
  13. Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
  14. John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
  15. Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
  16. Royce White – Houston Rockets
  17. Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
  18. Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
  19. Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
  20. Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
  21. Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
  22. Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
  23. John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
  24. Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  25. Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
  26. Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
  27. Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
  28. Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
  29. Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
  30. Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
  31. Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
  32. Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
  33. Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  34. Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  35. Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
  36. Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
  37. Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
  38. Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
  39. Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
  40. Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
  41. Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  42. Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
  43. Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
  44. Kim English – Detroit Pistons
  45. Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
  46. Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
  47. Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
  48. Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
  49. Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
  50. Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
  51. Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
  52. Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
  53. Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
  54. Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  55. Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
  56. Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
  57. Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
  58. Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
  59. Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
  60. Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers

Top 20 Players To Watch in The Playoffs

Now this list can’t technically be fully complete since the playoff teams aren’t determined yet, but I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on which players have had the most meaningful seasons for their teams and which ones will be the most essential to both their team’s success and a viewing audience. So even though Milwaukee is only two games back and Utah is only half a game behind, for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume they don’t make it to the postseason. The Suns currently hold the eighth spot, owning a tiebreaker over Houston, and since they’re both so close to the Nuggets and Mavs, I included a player from each of those four teams just in case. Spoiler alert: the biggest snubs on this list are Dwyane Wade, Andrew Bynum, Russell Westbrook, Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin. Now that that’s out of the way, without further adieu, here are the top 20 players you need to watch in the NBA playoffs this year:

20) Steve Nash – There’s no guarantee this guy even gets a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, but if Phoenix does somehow maintain their current playoff standing, Steve Nash is the one you want to pay attention to. The way he facilitates and runs the point guard is absolutely gorgeous to watch, and if he takes a decent number of shots, he can be pretty entertaining in close games as well. Don’t count this championship-hungry point guard out just yet.

Can Steve Nash give the Suns another playoff run?

19) Andre Iguodala – I’m not big on the 76ers. The numerous posts I’ve written about them this year should have gotten that point across already. I didn’t even want to put anyone from Philadelphia on this list, because they don’t really have anyone exciting on their roster anymore, but if anyone in Philly were to help the Sixers finally get past the first round of the playoffs, it would be Andre Iguodala. The new A.I. has seen better seasons, but he finally hit the 20-point mark for the first time in 40+ games. If he can somehow put up solid numbers in multiple categories like he tends to do, who knows? Maybe Philly will be worth watching this year.

Andre Iguodala will need to score for Philly to have a prayer.

18) James Harden – What? Russell Westbrook gets snubbed and somehow James Harden makes the cut? Let me explain. While Westbrook is certainly one of the top players to watch every night for his pure athleticism and entertainment value, James Harden is the definitive role player to keep an eye on during the postseason this year. We’ve grown accustomed to both Kevin Durant and Westbrook going for 40+, but few people realize how vital James Harden’s scoring ability is for this team. Harden has been the perfect sixth man and third-best player on the Thunder, and if he plays as well as he has all season, I still think the Thunder are favorites to make the NBA Finals. Plus, for the millionth time, you can’t ignore that ferocious beard!

I give you...the black King Leonidas!

17) Paul Pierce – Rajon Rondo is running the show down in Boston as the ringmaster, but Paul Pierce is the main attraction. Pierce is the one who puts up big points, take game winning shots and usually rises to the occasion when matched up with another superstar at his position (LeBron James especially). Rondo is the one with the pretty assists making critical plays for his team, but Paul Pierce is the one knocking down threes and somehow getting around younger defenders to the rim to fire the crowd up.

Pierce dropped 43 last night. Safe to say he's still got it.

16) Chris Bosh – Yes, I am fully aware the Dwyane Wade is probably the biggest snub on this list (Russell Westbrook is up there too), but from a team’s success standpoint, the Miami Heat always have the comfort of D-Wade showing up to play well. Saying Wade is going to play well in the playoffs is like saying the Bobcats are a terrible team; we already know that. But whether or not Chris Bosh shows up will be a huge question for Miami. If Bosh rebounds and puts up 20+ points a night, the Heat will be extremely tough to beat, but if he disappears, so will Miami.

Plus, come on, how funny is that?

15) Arron Afflalo – I wanted to give this spot to Danilo Gallinari, but with the way Arron Afflalo’s been playing lately, it’s impossible to deny that he is the player to watch on the Denver Nuggets this postseason. It’s hard to pick just one player on such a balanced team, but Afflalo’s been leading this team in scoring and playing very effectively. While I still think the Nuggets need Danilo Gallinari to play like an All-Star to win and even though Ty Lawson is prone to having big nights, Afflalo will most likely be Denver’s most consistent offensive weapon.

Arron Afflalo is leading the charge for a balanced Denver team.

14) Tony Parker – Someone from the Spurs had to make the list, and since Tim Duncan is so fundamentally sound that his dominance has become boring to us, I had to go with Tony Parker. Parker has had an All-Star season and is probably the most exciting player to watch on a very mundane Spurs team. San Antonio has never been the most entertaining team to watch, but if they want to avoid another first-round playoff exit, they will rely on Tony Parker to run the offense and pump up the fans.

Tony Parker is the Spurs most entertaining and essential player.

13) Goran Dragic – Now everyone in the NBA knows what Phoenix Suns fans have known for years: Goran Dragic is a quality point guard who should be starting somewhere. Now that he’s gotten that chance in Houston, he hasn’t disappointed expectations, averaging 19.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.4 rpg and 2.0 spg in April. He was a terrific replacement when Kyle Lowry was out with a bacterial infection and is keeping Houston in the playoff race as a starter even with Lowry playing again. Dragic is exciting, athletic, attacks the basket and has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the league. Keep your eye on this kid, he can score points in bunches.

Dragic has become the man down in Houston.

12) Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay is Memphis’ main main and can get a crowd on their feet extremely fast with one his signature high-flying dunks. Marc Gasol will need to keep performing consistently and I almost gave this spot to Zach Randolph because of how badly the Grizzlies need him to play well again, but Rudy Gay will be leading his team in the playoffs this year, for better or worse.

Rudy Gay is an exciting player on a surging Memphis squad.

11) Rajon Rondo – Paul Pierce connects better with the crowd, but Rajon Rondo’s tendency to rack up triple doubles and find the open man with fancy passing and dribbling makes him the show-stopper in Boston. Rondo doesn’t always put up big scoring numbers, but the way he runs the point powers this Celtics team and is worth noticing.

Rondo is one of the most exciting guards in the league.

10) Josh Smith – Josh Smith is Atlanta’s Do-It-All Guy. The Hawks really don’t look like they’ve improved much over the past few years and seem primed for a first-round playoff exit (again), but if they somehow do compete, it’ll be behind superhuman performances from Atlanta’s high-rising, all-around stud Josh Smith. Smith can score, rebound, block shots and do whatever else his team needs to win. Joe Johnson used to be the alpha dog in Atlanta, but Smith has taken over that role now.

Josh Smith is a high-rising dunk machine, but he's an all-around great player too.

9) Dirk Nowtizki – Don’t forget the guy who’s the main reason we refer to the Dallas Mavericks as “defending champs.” Dirk has struggled at times this season, but if he finds the right motivation, he can single-handedly keep his team in games down the stretch. Dirk is nearly impossible to guard, so when he’s starting to get hot, you can almost guarantee audiences are in for something special.

You definitely can't forget about the big German in the playoffs this year.

8) Dwight Howard – After a drama-filled season, Dwight Howard almost needs to come back and play. Herniated disk in his back or not, Superman has to show up and play his heart out this postseason to save his team and his reputation. The Magic have been on the steady decline with Howard sitting out, and after all he’s put the Orlando organization and fanbase through this season, the least he could do is come out and roll over every center unfortunate enough to cross his path. Dwight Howard flip flopped on staying in Orlando. He was involved in rumors that he wanted Stan Van Gundy fired. He mailed-in an awful, half-hearted performance the day those rumors surfaced. He owes the Magic everything he’s got and if he’s healthy (big IF there), we could be in for a treat.

Howard is currently questionable for the playoffs, but he needs to suit up and play some amazing basketball for the sake of his team, his coach and his legacy.

7) Danny Granger – Danny Granger never gets enough credit for being the superstar that he is; he didn’t make the All-Star team this year getting completely snubbed, yet he’s led the Pacers night in and night out. Indiana still isn’t getting credit as a tough postseason matchup, yet they’re third in the Eastern Conference and find a way to just keep winning thanks to Granger’s consistent scoring every game. The Pacers were my sleeper team before the season even began, and rightfully so after they gave the Bulls all they could handle in the first round last year (Chicago won in 5, but had to work for all of those wins). If the Pacers turn out as dangerous as I think they are, Danny Granger will be the guy to keep an eye on.

The Pacers are dangerous. Is it Danny Granger's time to move into the elite category?

6) Kobe Bryant – Kobe Bryant is always a player to watch come playoff time, but this year his story will be more interesting based on how he deals with that shin injury that has sidelined him for five games now. Make no mistake, Kobe has no problem playing through pain. So with him missing so much time, he is either in a lot of pain or he’s really making a commitment to being 100% for the playoffs. Either way, how Kobe comes to play this postseason will be worth following, especially now that the Lakers have established some chemistry and have been able to win without him on the floor. Andrew Bynum was a big snub, especially considering his temper and what he did in the postseason last year, but Kobe is still the biggest reason to watch the Lakers and that won’t change even if Bynum is still a head case.

Kobe Bryant is still THE player to watch down in LA

5) Chris Paul – There is one player you need to watch during the playoffs this year on the Clippers, and no, it isn’t Blake Griffin. I’m sure Griffin will provide us with plenty of Lob Alert specials on SportsCenter’s Top Ten, but Chris Paul is the player to watch for LAC this season. CP3’s complete control of the game has been quintessential of what a true point guard does: managing and facilitating, deferring to teammates for the majority of the game and taking over in the fourth quarter when they need it the most. If there’s a close game for the Clippers, notice how it will come down to Chris Paul’s heroics.

CP3 has taken worse teams to the playoffs before. How far can he take the Clippers?

4) Derrick Rose – The Bulls success this postseason is contingent upon one thing: how Derrick Rose fits in with Chicago’s new team chemistry. Everyone knows the Bulls won’t win a championship without D-Rose, but it’s also pretty clear they can’t win if he’s taking too many shots or not 100% up to speed. Because of all the time he’s missed with injury, D-Rose has to make sure his own skills and play are up to par as well as fit in with the team dynamic again. The Bulls are the best team in the league as of right now, so if Derrick Rose can elevate his game again and if Chicago’s supporting cast can play as well as they have without him on the court, the Windy City might get its first championship since the days of Michael Jordan.

Can D-Rose stay healthy long enough to give the Bulls more last-second, game-winning magic?

3) Carmelo Anthony – Here’s his recent resume: over 30 ppg and 7 rpg in the month of April, singlehandedly turned New York into the most dangerous underdog in the East, inspired the entire city’s hope in a Knicks team with an interim coach, finally started playing like the top 5 superstar he was down in Denver, played much better defense, looked like he cares about both sides of the court, developed into a leader for a team without Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, and finally looked happy playing the game again. I’d say that sounds like a player worth watching when the playoffs roll around. Based on how everyone in the NBA is playing right now, if I had to pick one guy to lead this Knicks team to a first-round upset over the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls (their most likely opponents as of right now), it’d be Carmelo Anthony. I told you Melo wasn’t the problem!

Carmelo Anthony has finally got his game face on. He dropped a triple double last night. What does he have in store for the playoffs? I'm excited to find out.

2) Kevin Durant – People have been saying it all season long: This is Oklahoma City’s year. This is Kevin Durant’s year. The Thunder have handled all that talk all year long and have done it well until recently when they dropped a few games. But OKC still sits atop the Western Conference and anything less than the Western Conference Finals would be a big failure for them. Kevin Durant has stepped up in big games all season long, can score from anywhere on the court and electrifies audiences and home crowds with elite crunch-time performances. Durantula is one of those players that you just sit back, relax and enjoy.

Is it finally Kevin Durant's turn? If OKC is going to win it all, Durantula is has to bring it.

1) LeBron James – LeBron might be the number one guy to watch this postseason. Not only because of his MVP season that he’s had this year, but because this year, LeBron NEEDS to win it all to save his name, his reputation, his Decision and possibly even his legacy. The fact that Miami didn’t win it all last season was disappointing, but not inexplicable; it was only their first year together. But this year, after having a whole season to improve with that thirst and anger after losing last year, falling short this year would be indefensible. So now everyone will tune in to watch LeBron James either finally succeed, score in the crunch time and prove everyone wrong, or they will watch as LeBron shies away from the fourth quarter spotlight, the Heat implode and revel in watching this misunderstood superstar fall flat again. Either way, you know you’re going to be watching.

Win or lose, choke or championship, you know you want to see this guy either way.

Western Conference Standings Update

For Easter, we focused on the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, there’s no clever way of saying today is going to be about the West, so let’s just jump right in. The standings have shifted dramatically night in and night out over the past few weeks, and though I’m confident my Western Conference playoff predictions will be close, win streaks by the Rockets, Grizzlies and now even the Nuggets need to be factored in. So here we go:

Oklahoma City Thunder – Despite dropping a home game against the Clippers, the Thunder should stay confident and cruise to the number one seed. After taking the top seed in the West, the Spurs had lost two straight before ending the Grizzlies’ win streak last night. So as long as OKC continues to do what it has done all year, the Thunder will remain the dominant favorite of their conference, even if they are only a half game ahead of the Spurs right now. Durant and Westbrook have been trading good games back and forth; once they get back on the same page there should be no problems. Also, keep an eye on James Harden; this Sixth Man of the Year has been extremely mediocre lately and the Thunder will go far if he can pick his play up.

The Thunder will need this guy to pick his game back up if they want to win it all this year.

San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs were looking like they could be a huge surprise and take the top seed in the West….until Gregg Popovich pulled a Gregg Popovich, resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, his three best players, and generating a huge discussion on whether or not resting starters down the stretch is “cheating the game.” While I didn’t exactly see it that way, it’s also true that this is the time of year for a team to be peaking and playing its best ball, so resting the starters kind of hurts that momentum (no wonder they came out flat against the Kobe-less Lakers). So even though they’re only a half game back, that’s why San Antonio lost those two games before beating Memphis last night. Knowing Popovich, he will probably rest his starters for the playoffs once it’s clearer what seed they’ll get. Which is why they won’t take the top seed and probably will fall flat in the postseason, Spurs-style.

Will Popovich continue to rest his stars and risk them not being in peak form come playoff time?

Los Angeles Lakers – Inexplicably, the Lakers keep winning without Kobe Bryant on the floor. Los Angeles squeaked out one win (why didn’t God punish Metta World Peace for that ridiculously stupid last-second pass against the Hornets??) and then had an impressive win over the Spurs. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are playing lights out right now, even if Bynum is still a head case. The Lakers have a one and a half game lead over the Clippers at the moment, and I think they will maintain that margin unless Chris Paul puts up 30 points a night for the rest of the season.

Bynum has been playing excellently without Kobe on the floor, but he's still a liability because of his temper.

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers lost to the streaking Grizzlies, but responded well with a win on the road against the West-leading Thunder and then again against the Timberwolves. It’s tough to figure this team out; they’re good enough to compete with anybody, but without Chauncey Billups on the court, Chris Paul is going to have to do too much down the stretch every night for me to give the Clips a ringing endorsement. LAC will need someone else to step up, and with the Grizzlies only one and a half games back, the Clippers could fall to the fifth spot. Either way though, they should be preparing for a matchup with Memphis in the playoffs.

Chris Paul and his continuing ability to be clutch for the Clippers will determine how far they can go.

Memphis Grizzlies – Memphis has won seven of their last 10 games and has succeeded in putting some temporary distance between them and the rest of the pack in the lower half of the West. Rudy Gay’s phenomenal play and Zach Randolph starting to find his rhythm is the reason for the Grizzlies’ win streak, which has put them in the fifth spot and only a game and a half game behind Los Angeles. Whether or not they overtake the fourth seed is irrelevant, because at this point, it looks like we will be seeing a Clippers-Grizzlies first round matchup.

Rudy Gay is the driving force behind this surging Grizzlies team.

Dallas Mavericks – The defending NBA champs have seen some struggles in the past few weeks and are now only a half game ahead of Houston and Denver, who are at 10 games back. However, Dallas owns the tiebreaker and is currently sitting precariously in the six spot. I’ve gotta give the edge to the Mavs here; they have the experience in Jason Terry and Jason Kidd as well as the leadership in Dirk Nowitzki. Unless Denver continues to play on another level for the rest of the season, the Mavericks are favorable to take the sixth seed.

Dirk and the Jet will look to make some noise in the playoffs with their championship experience.

Houston Rockets – The Rockets put a nice little string of wins together thanks to incredible play from backups Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee before dropping a game to Utah on Wednesday. Lowry surprisingly returned to the court on Sunday, but he’s not quite up to speed and I think it’s safe to say his return threw off the team chemistry a little bit. The Rockets are currently sitting in the seventh spot, but don’t be surprised if Denver and possibly even Utah give them a run for their money.

Goran Dragic is a huge reason why the Rockets are in the playoff hunt right now.

Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets haven’t panned out exactly like I though they would this year, but with Gallinari back, Denver is a completely different team. Kenneth Faried has filled in since Nene left, Ty Lawson is an effective point guard, Arron Afflalo has been on a hot streak and the Nuggets have an abundance of role players  who all consistently contribute. With Denver, Houston, Dallas, Utah and Phoenix all vying for the six, seven and eight seeds, I see Denver winning more games than everybody except Dallas the rest of the way.

Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo will try to show the world how good Denver can be.

Utah Jazz – It was easy to pick the Jazz as making the playoffs when they had a six-game win streak going, but I don’t think they can outwin Houston or Denver to make the postseason. They did just beat the Rockets and are only one and a half games back, but Devin Harris’ inconsistent play is going to prevent this team from reaching its potential. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are great, but only Gordon Hayward has been playing consistently well in the backcourt.

If only Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap could get some more help from the backcourt.

Phoenix Suns – The Suns are perfect at teetering between a playoff squad and a team that is going to come up just short. Unfortunately, Phoenix can’t win the big games when they need them the most and that fact alone will keep Steve Nash and company away from the postseason. It’s disappointing considering how dramatically improved this team has played in the second half of their season, but the Suns will probably come up short again, even with Grant Hill returning to action today.

Sorry Suns fans. It doesn't look like Nash and Hill will get a look at a playoff run this year.

Western Conference Predictions

The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.

1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of their supporting cast are too good to not lock up the number one seed.

2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.

The Spurs have added valuable role players recently, including Boris Diaw.

3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.

If Andrew Bynum continues to make a big deal about getting benched, there will be problems in Los Angeles.

The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:

4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).

Dirk has been putting up big numbers for the Mavs in March.

5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.

Can Chris Paul and Blake Griffin carry the Clippers any higher than a five seed?

6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.

Does Zach Randolph have any playoff magic in store for us this year?

7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.

Kenneth Faried has been a pleasant surprise for the Nuggets this year, but Denver needs Gallinari back.

8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.

The Jazz need Al Jefferson to just keep plugging away.

Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves

9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.

Sorry, fellow Suns fans. I just don't see it happening this year.

10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.

Dragic filled in nicely until he got injured. Houston is running out of offensive options.

11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.

So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?

One man. One beard. One playoff dream barely still alive.