The Sixers and the Salary Floor

This is only interesting to salary cap geeks, but the Philadelphia 76ers are currently about $4.7 million below the NBA’s salary floor.

The penalty for not meeting the salary floor, according to Larry Coon’s comprehensive salary cap website, is that “the shortfall is distributed among the players on that team.” It doesn’t say how the money is to be distributed, but assuming each player receives an equal share, that would be a $300,000 bonus for anyone on the Sixers’ roster at the end of the season.

The Sixers are one of the better examples of creative general managing in the league right now. In addition to their salary floor issues (their highest paid player, Thaddeus Young, makes only $8.85 million, or to put it in perspective, less than the five highest paid Brooklyn Nets), they are actively tanking for the 2014 draft, and will probably hold two lottery picks in it.

If the NBA were interested in preventing tanking as a strategy, they might consider making a harsher penalty for failing to meet the salary floor. Personally, I have no problem with tanking. I have a bigger problem with bad teams who think they’re “one player away,” and spend like drunken sailors without tangible results (Hello, Knicks!)

Posted in NBA

The League Speeds Up, The NYC Teams Get Left Behind

I’ve been surprised by the terrible starts of the Knicks and the Nets, and I think pace explains a lot of what we’re seeing here.

Pace is simply the measure of how many possessions a team uses per 48 minutes, or to say it plain and simple, how fast they play.

Last season, the average NBA team used 92 possessions per 48 minutes. The Houston Rockets led the league at 96.1, and managed to win 45 games with James Harden, Chandler Parsons, and little else. The 57 win Nuggets were second, the Western champion Spurs were sixth.

However, there were six good teams in the bottom ten. The eventual champion Heat, the Pacers, Knicks, Nets, Bulls, and Grizzlies. The Grizzlies were dead last, averaging 88.4 possessions, and they won 56 games and reached the Western conference finals.

Memphis had the #2 defense in the league (after Indiana), and their offense fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. That’s how they were able to do it.

All of the six teams were legitimately outstanding on one side of the ball. The Heat combined an elite offense with a very strong defense. The Knicks had a great offense. The Nets had a pretty good one, despite what Deron Williams claimed loudly to anyone who would listen. The Pacers and Bulls were excellent defensively.

Something changed this year, though. The league’s average pace is up to 94.2. Six teams are playing faster than last year’s Rockets. Five of them play in the Western conference, by the way.

The Heat have adopted a faster style of play, and are now just below the league average. The other five slow teams from last year have stuck to their sludgy style, with mostly awful results.

The Pacers are once again the league’s best defensive team, and their offense, mostly due to giant steps forward from Paul George and Lance Stephenson, has improved. They have 17 wins against only 2 losses.

The other four teams have won 24 and lost 43, and most of those losses belong to the Knicks and Nets. Injuries have been a factor, as each team is missing a significant piece: Derrick Rose, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, and Deron Williams. The Grizzlies’ defense has slipped badly; the Bulls’ offense is barely functional; and the Knicks and Nets are simply no good at basketball.

The disadvantage of playing at a slow pace is that your opponent has ample time to set their defense. For last year’s Heat, this wasn’t a problem, since they had two of the league’s most unstoppable wing players, who are both elite passers. For the Pacers, it isn’t a problem, since their opponents never score.

For the Knicks and the Nets, it’s big trouble. And neither team really has a chance of changing the way they play with their existing personnel. The Nets are too old and slow. The Knicks are playing to Carmelo Anthony’s strengths (and, I suppose, Raymond Felton’s weaknesses as a point guard).

Both teams are also getting torched on the defensive end, and it starts in the backcourt. You can’t win in today’s NBA with slow guards. Joe Johnson, for example, would do significantly less damage at small forward. The Knicks were hiding Raymond Felton on shooting guards for the latter part of last season.

I don’t see it changing anytime soon, though both teams may figure out how to execute better with their current personnel. The Nets especially are in draft pick hell, as the next time they will pick in their own spot in the draft is 2019.

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NBA Opening Night Rosters

I know, I was supposed to preview the Western Conference. Here goes: Oklahoma City. Now, on to the more pressing business of final rosters, which are due to be submitted to the league this afternoon.

Atlanta (15):
Pero Antic, Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Cunningham, Al Horford, John Jenkins, Kyle Korver, Shelvin Mack, Cartier Martin, Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, Mike Scott, Jeff Teague, Lou Williams

Boston (14):
Brandon Bass, Keith Bogans, Avery Bradley, MarShon Brooks, Jordan Crawford, Vitor Faverani, Jeff Green, Kris Humphries, Courtney Lee, Kelly Olynyk, Phil Pressey, Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, Gerald Wallace

Brooklyn (15):
Alan Anderson, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Brook Lopez, Paul Pierce, Mason Plumlee, Toko Shengelia, Tyshawn Taylor, Mirza Teletovic, Jason Terry, Deron Williams

Charlotte (15):
Jeff Adrien, Bismack Biyombo, Ben Gordon, Brendan Haywood, Gerald Henderson, Al Jefferson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts, Jannero Pargo, Ramon Sessions, James Southerland, Jeff Taylor, Anthony Tolliver, Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller

Chicago (13):
Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Luol Deng, Mike Dunleavy, Taj Gibson, Kirk Hinrich, Mike James, Nazr Mohammed, Erik Murphy, Joakim Noah, Derrick Rose, Tony Snell, Marquis Teague

Cleveland (15):
Anthony Bennett, Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Matthew Dellavedova, Carrick Felix, Alonzo Gee, Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack, Sergey Karasev, C.J. Miles, Henry Sims, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller

Dallas (15):
DeJuan Blair, Jose Calderon, Vince Carter, Jae Crowder, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, Bernard James, Shane Larkin, Ricky Ledo, Shawn Marion, Gal Mekel, Dirk Nowitzki, Brandan Wright

Denver (15):
Darrell Arthur, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Evan Fournier, Randy Foye, Danilo Gallinari, Jordan Hamilton, J.J. Hickson, Ty Lawson, Javale McGee, Andre Miller, Quincy Miller, Timofey Mozgov, Anthony Randolph, Nate Robinson

Detroit (15):
Chauncey Billups, Will Bynum, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Luigi Datome, Andre Drummond, Josh Harrellson, Brandon Jennings, Jonas Jerebko, Tony Mitchell, Greg Monroe, Kyle Singler, Peyton Siva, Josh Smith, Rodney Stuckey, Charlie Villanueva

Golden State (14):
Harrison Barnes, Kent Bazemore, Andrew Bogut, Stephen Curry, Toney Douglas, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Ognjen Kuzmic, David Lee, Nemanja Nedovic, Jermaine O’Neal, Marreese Speights, Klay Thompson

Houston (15):
Omer Asik, Patrick Beverley, Ronnie Brewer, Aaron Brooks, Isaiah Canaan, Omri Casspi, Robert Covington, Francisco Garcia, James Harden, Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin, Donatas Motiejunas, Chandler Parsons, Greg Smith

Indiana (14):
Rasual Butler, Chris Copeland, Paul George, Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Solomon Hill, Orlando Johnson, Ian Mahinmi, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, Lance Stephenson, C.J. Watson, David West

L.A. Clippers (14):
Matt Barnes, Reggie Bullock, Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley, Willie Green, Blake Griffin, Ryan Hollins, Antawn Jamison, DeAndre Jordan, Byron Mullens, Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Maalik Wayns

L.A. Lakers (15):
Steve Blake, Kobe Bryant, Jordan Farmar, Pau Gasol, Elias Harris, Xavier Henry, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Chris Kaman, Ryan Kelly, Jodie Meeks, Steve Nash, Robert Sacre, Shawne Williams, Nick Young

Memphis (13):
Tony Allen, Jerryd Bayless, Nick Calathes, Mike Conley, Ed Davis, Jamaal Franklin, Marc Gasol, Kosta Koufos, Jon Leuer, Mike Miller, Quincy Pondexter, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph

Miami (15):
Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Joel Anthony, Shane Battier, Michael Beasley, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem, LeBron James, James Jones, Rashard Lewis, Roger Mason, Greg Oden, Dwyane Wade

Milwaukee (15):
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Caron Butler, Carlos Delfino, John Henson, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Khris Middleton, Gary Neal, Zaza Pachulia, Miroslav Raduljica, Luke Ridnour, Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh, Nate Wolters

Minnesota (15):
J.J. Barea, Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, Dante Cunningham, Gorgui Dieng, Robbie Hummel, Kevin Love, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad, Nikola Pekovic, A.J. Price, Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, Ronny Turiaf, Derrick Williams

New Orleans (15):
Al-Farouq Aminu, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Darius Miller, Anthony Morrow, Arinze Onuaku, Austin Rivers, Brian Roberts, Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma, Lance Thomas, Jeff Withey

New York (15):
Cole Aldrich, Carmelo Anthony, Ron Artest, Andrea Bargnani, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Tim Hardaway Jr, Kenyon Martin, Toure Murry, Pablo Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Chris Smith, J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Beno Udrih

Oklahoma City (14):
Steven Adams, Nick Collison, Kevin Durant, Derek Fisher, Ryan Gomes, Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Kendrick Perkins, Andre Roberson, Thabo Sefolosha, Hasheem Thabeet, Russell Westbrook

Orlando (15):
Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris, Solomon Jones, Doron Lamb, Jason Maxiell, E’Twaun Moore, Jameer Nelson, Andrew Nicholson, Victor Oladipo, Kyle O’Quinn, Ronnie Price, Hedo Turkoglu, Nikola Vucevic

Philadelphia (15):
Lavoy Allen, James Anderson, Kwame Brown, Michael Carter-Williams, Brandon Davies, Spencer Hawes, Darius Morris, Arnett Moultrie, Nerlens Noel, Daniel Orton, Jason Richardson, Hollis Thompson, Evan Turner, Tony Wroten, Thaddeus Young

Phoenix (14):
Eric Bledsoe, Dionte Christmas, Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, Archie Goodwin, Gerald Green, Slava Kravtsov, Alex Len, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Emeka Okafor, Miles Plumlee, Ish Smith, P.J. Tucker

Portland (15):
LaMarcus Aldridge, Will Barton, Nicolas Batum, Victor Claver, Allen Crabbe, Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard, Damian Lillard, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson, Earl Watson, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright

Sacramento (15):
DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmer Fredette, Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry, Luc Mbah a Moute, Ray McCallum, Ben McLemore, Hamady Ndiaye, Travis Outlaw, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, Isaiah Thomas, Jason Thompson, Marcus Thornton, Greivis Vasquez

San Antonio (14):
Jeff Ayres, Aron Baynes, Marco Belinelli, Matt Bonner, Nando De Colo, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Cory Joseph, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter

Toronto (15):
Quincy Acy, D.J. Augustin, Dwight Buycks, Austin Daye, DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray, Tyler Hansbrough, Amir Johnson, Kyle Lowry, Steve Novak, Terrence Ross, Julyan Stone, Jonas Valanciunas

Utah (15):
Andris Biedrins, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Ian Clark, Jeremy Evans, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Mike Harris, Gordon Hayward, Richard Jefferson, Enes Kanter, John Lucas, Brandon Rush, Jamaal Tinsley, Marvin Williams

Washington (15):
Trevor Ariza, Bradley Beal, Trevor Booker, Marcin Gortat, Al Harrington, Nene Hilario, Eric Maynor, Otto Porter, Glen Rice Jr, Kevin Seraphin, Chris Singleton, Garrett Temple, Jan Vesely, John Wall, Martell Webster

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Cut Day

With the NBA opening in less than a week, there are going to be quite a few players suddenly looking for work. Each team must carry between 13 and 15 players in the regular season, but preseason rosters can be as large as 20. Here’s a look at the remaining roster battles.

Atlanta Hawks
2 open spots
Mike Scott (F), Eric Dawson (F), Cartier Martin (GF), Royal Ivey (G), Shelvin Mack (G)
Mike Scott is having a strong preseason (10.8 ppg, 65% FG), and his contract is partially guaranteed. With rookie Dennis Schroder as the Hawks’ only other point guard, Shelvin Mack probably gets the other spot.

Boston Celtics
1 open spot
Chris Babb (GF), DeShawn Sims (F), Damen Bell-Holter (F)
Chris Babb has shown a nice three-point stroke, making 4 of 9 in limited minutes. The Celtics could decide to cut everyone, and keep the roster spot open, though.

Charlotte Bobcats
3 open spots
Jannero Pargo (G), Jeff Adrien (F), James Southerland (F), Patrick O’Bryant (C)
Jannero Pargo is partially guaranteed, and both he and Jeff Adrien spent last season with the Bobcats.

Cleveland Cavaliers
3 open spots
C.J. Miles (GF), Matthew Dellavedova (G), Henry Sims (C), Jermaine Taylor (G), Kenny Kadji (F), Elliot Williams (G), DeSagana Diop (C)
C.J. Miles is a lock to make the roster, though his contract has yet to be guaranteed by the team. The Cavs are high on Matt Dellavedova, and Henry Sims (6.5 points, 5.2 rebounds) has played well enough to get the final spot.

Denver Nuggets
1 open spot
Quincy Miller (F), Damion James (F)
Damion James has had a terrific training camp, but Quincy Miller has a partial guarantee. Miller is expected to get the last spot.

Golden State Warriors
3 open spots
Kent Bazemore (G), Dewayne Dedmon (C), Seth Curry (G), Ognjen Kuzmic (C)
This is an interesting one. Bazemore, Dedmon, and Curry all have partial guarantees, and Kuzmic, who signed on Sept. 27, was a 2012 second-round pick, so he probably has some sort of guarantee too. I’d say this doesn’t look good for the younger Curry brother.

Houston Rockets
2 open spots
Patrick Beverley (G), Greg Smith (FC), Ronnie Brewer (F), Reggie Williams (GF), Troy Daniels (G)
The Rockets might do the unexpected, and cut a guaranteed contract. Brewer is only $100k guaranteed, and hasn’t shown that he has anything left. Patrick Beverley is an absolute lock to make the team (and maybe even start at point guard). Greg Smith is coming off a strong rookie season, and should be a near-lock as well. Reggie Williams has a partial guarantee. So, what gives? Does Marcus Camby, who’s out indefinitely with a foot injury, retire? Does undrafted rookie forward Robert Covington get cut?

Los Angeles Lakers
4 open spots
Xavier Henry (GF), Shawne Williams (F), Marcus Landry (F), Elias Harris (F), Ryan Kelly (F)
The odd man out is probably Marcus Landry, who’s shot the ball badly in an extended look. The Lakers may not carry 15 to begin with, so Elias Harris may not be completely safe either.

Memphis Grizzlies
2 open spots
Tony Gaffney (F), Willie Reed (C), Melvin Ely (FC), Andre Barrett (G)
If I had to guess, I’d say Gaffney and Reed, though Barrett is a point guard and you can never have too many of those. It’s safe to say that the clock has run out on 2002 #12 pick Melvin Ely.

Miami Heat
2 open spots
Michael Beasley (F), Roger Mason (G), Justin Hamilton (C), Eric Griffin (F)
This is an easy one. Beasley and Mason, of course.

Minnesota Timberwolves
1 open spot
Othyus Jeffers (G), A.J. Price (G), Robbie Hummel (F), Lorenzo Brown (G)
The Wolves could open a second spot by cutting little-used center Chris Johnson. This is a tough one to call. Brown is the Wolves’ 2013 second-round pick, and Hummel was their 2012 second-rounder. Price has played well, and would be a fine third-string point guard. I think they take Price and Hummel, with Johnson getting cut.

New York Knicks
3 open spots
C.J. Leslie (F), Jeremy Tyler (C), Toure Murry (G), Ike Diogu (F), Josh Powell (F), Cole Aldrich (C), Chris Douglas-Roberts (GF)
Leslie and Tyler both have partial guarantees, though Leslie hasn’t been all that effective, and Tyler is out with a foot injury. Toure Murry and Ike Diogu have gotten extended looks and played well. I’d put my money on both of them, plus one of Leslie or Tyler.

Oklahoma City Thunder
3 open spots
Hasheem Thabeet (C), Ryan Gomes (F), Diante Garrett (G), Rodney McGruder (G)
Hasheem the Dream is a near-lock. Ryan Gomes has a small partial guarantee. Diante Garrett can play point guard, which makes him potentially useful while Russell Westbrook is out. So McGruder is the odd man out, and it remains to be seen if the Thunder think Gomes has any value to them.

Orlando Magic
2 open spots
Kyle O’Quinn (F), Solomon Jones (FC), Romero Osby (F), Manny Harris (G), Kris Joseph (F), Mickell Gladness (C)
O’Quinn has one spot locked up– like Pat Beverley and Greg Smith on the Rockets, guaranteeing his contract is all but a formality. Romero Osby is this year’s second round pick, so he might have the inside track on the last spot.

Philadelphia 76ers
4 open spots
James Anderson (G), Darius Morris (G), Vander Blue (G), Daniel Orton (C), Hollis Thompson (F), Khalif Wyatt (G), Gani Lawal (F), Mac Koshwal (FC), Rodney Williams (GF)
It looks like James Anderson has won the starting two-guard spot, so he’s in. Beyond that… umm… the Sixers are trying very hard to be the worst team in the league. Does it even matter? Darius Morris can run the point in an emergency. Vander Blue has shot the ball well. And Daniel Orton probably has the best chance among the big men.

Phoenix Suns
0 open spots
The Suns are carrying 16 guaranteed contracts, and several of them are extremely fringe NBA players. I wouldn’t recommend that Ish Smith or Malcolm Lee buy a house in Phoenix just yet.

Sacramento Kings
1 open spot
Trent Lockett (G), Hamady Ndiaye (C)
Lockett has a small guarantee. Ndiaye has gotten more preseason minutes. It’s not like the winner of this battle is going to do more than sit on the bench in a suit, anyway.

Toronto Raptors
1 open spot
Carlos Morais (G), Julyan Stone (G), Chris Wright (F)
Stone’s the heavy favorite here, because he can play point guard, and because of the Denver connection.

Utah Jazz
3 open spots
Ian Clark (G), Justin Holiday (G), Lester Hudson (G), Mike Harris (F), Dominic McGuire (F), Brian Cook (F), Scott Machado (G)
Clark has a partial guarantee, and you can usually play “follow the money” with roster decisions. Brian Cook is sort of a proven shooter– he made 43% of his triples as recently as 2011. Ordinarily, Scott Machado’s point guard skills would easily land him the last spot, but he’s shot 8% from the floor in four preseason games. Yes. Eight percent.

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Eastern Conference Preview Part 2

8. Detroit Pistons
Additions: Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Losses: Brandon Knight, Jason Maxiell

Why they’ll make it: Second-year center Andre Drummond is poised to have a breakout season, and any defense featuring Drummond and Josh Smith should be very good.
Why they might not: No one on this team can reliably make a jump shot, and Greg Monroe and Josh Smith will both be playing out of position.

They’re going to have to win a lot of ugly, low scoring games, but they’re talented enough. Joe Dumars deserves some credit for this offseason. He landed two good players in Smith and Jennings, without breaking the bank for either one.

7. Toronto Raptors
Additions: Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin
Losses: Alan Anderson

Why they’ll make it: Because there aren’t eight teams better than them. I’m not knocked out by the Raptors’ roster, but if Rudy Gay can bounce back from a disappointing 2013, and center Jonas Valanciunas continues to develop, that will be enough.
Why they might not: Their big offseason moves were to acquire some minor pieces from the Pacers’ and Knicks’ benches. Spacing is going to be an issue, even with Steve Novak on board. New GM Masai Ujiri may be tempted to blow up the roster if they start slowly.

6. Atlanta Hawks
Additions: Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Dennis Schroder
Losses: Josh Smith, Devin Harris
Key Injuries: Lou Williams (ACL recovery)

Why they’ll make it: Replacing Josh Smith with Paul Millsap is basically a lateral move. Millsap is steady and unspectacular, and the Hawks might not miss Smith’s erratic play on the offensive end.
Why they might not: The Hawks subtracted Joe Johnson before last season, and still made the playoffs. Can they get away with it twice? There is some doubt in my mind that Al Horford is capable of being a first option on offense.

5. Brooklyn Nets
Additions: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry, Alan Anderson, Shaun Livingston, Mason Plumlee
Losses: Gerald Wallace, C.J. Watson, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans

The Nets’ problem is old age and fragility. You’ve got Kevin Garnett (37), Paul Pierce (36), Jason Terry (36), Andrei Kirilenko (32), and Joe Johnson (32). Of the younger guys, Deron Williams didn’t play a single preseason game with ongoing ankle issues, and Brook Lopez had foot surgery over the summer. It seems to me that the Nets are going to have to sacrifice some regular season wins in order to be healthy for the playoffs. They’re a very dark horse contender to knock off Miami, but it’s going to take good injury luck.

4. Indiana Pacers
Additions: Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill
Losses: Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin

The Pacers took Miami to seven games in the conference finals last year, and they upgraded their bench in the offseason, and they’ll get Danny Granger back from knee surgery. It’s possible that the Pacers peaked last year, though, for a few reasons. There might be a ceiling on how far a team can go with a top-5 defense and no go-to scorer. They’re not getting the Danny Granger (or the Luis Scola) of three years ago; and Roy Hibbert might remain maddeningly inconsistent, instead of building on his postseason play in each of the last two seasons. If everything breaks right, they’re the 2004 Pistons… but usually, the lack of a superstar hurts you against teams that legitimately do have one.

3. New York Knicks
Additions: Andrea Bargnani, Ron Artest, Tim Hardaway Jr.
Losses: Jason Kidd, Steve Novak

The Knicks won 54 games last year despite injuries to several key pieces. Carmelo Anthony missed 15 games, Tyson Chandler missed 16, and Amar’e Stoudemire gave them almost nothing. The Knicks made a few modest upgrades in the offseason, though their moves don’t compare favorably to the Nets’ spending spree, or the Bulls getting back Derrick Rose. Their title chances depend almost entirely on whether Carmelo Anthony will ever “get it.” I think the possibility exists, but it’s slimmer than Kate Moss.

2. Chicago Bulls
Additions: Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell
Losses: Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli

Derrick Rose is averaging 20 ppg in the preseason, and it’s safe to say that he’s back. Besides Rose, the key to the Bulls’ chances is a healthy Joakim Noah. Also, look out for Jimmy Butler, who will become a full-time starter. This is a very well-coached team with a superstar player. They might have the second-best chance at the title after Miami.

1. Miami Heat
Additions: Michael Beasley
Losses: none

You don’t bet against the two-time defending champs returning almost the same roster. Everyone’s a year older, and a little more banged up and possibly bored of it all. But they still have the best player on the planet at present, and if Dwyane Wade’s legs hold up, they have the league’s best second banana, too. They’re still the favorite for 2013-14, even if they’re not quite as terrifying as the Jordan-Pippen Bulls teams were. Jordan’s six championship teams were never taken to a seventh game. By anyone.

Posted in NBA

Eastern Conference Preview Part 1

I’d be very surprised if the conference final isn’t Heat vs Bulls. Derrick Rose has looked terrific in his return to the court, and he could be worth 10 regular season wins (plus who knows how many playoff wins) to the Bulls. I’ve been beating this drum for awhile, but the Heat sure get taken to seventh games a lot for a team that’s supposed to be dominant. One of these years, they’re going to give away one game too many in the early part of a series, and it will cost them.

Below the Heat and the Bulls, as semi-serious contenders, are the Knicks, Nets, and Pacers. Whichever team locks up the third seed will at least have an easy route into the second round. Of the fourth and fifth seeds, one will go home early, and one will run into Miami in the semis.

There’s a large gap between these five teams and the rest of the conference. My personal picks for the last three playoff teams are the Hawks, the Raptors, and the Pistons. However, it could just as easily be the Cavaliers, Celtics, and Wizards.

Today we’re going to look at the lower half of the conference, though. Because it’s more fun (for me) that way.

15. Philadelphia 76ers
Additions: Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel
Losses: Jrue Holiday, Dorell Wright, Nick Young
Key Injuries: Nerlens Noel (knee), Jason Richardson (knee)

Last year was a disaster, with Andrew Bynum watching all 82 games from the bench. This year will be worse, with big minutes going to low-upside youngsters like James Anderson, Tony Wroten, and Darius Morris. Michael Carter-Williams might be able to run an NBA offense, but he cannot shoot. At all. The Sixers aren’t even trying to win, so the season will be a success if a few of the youngsters develop, and they land the #1 pick.

14. Orlando Magic
Additions: Victor Oladipo, Jason Maxiell
Losses: none

The Magic are adding #2 overall pick Oladipo to a solid core of young players, and they’ve done a great job of rebounding from the Dwight Howard debacle. The results probably won’t show in the win column just yet, but they’ve got Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless, and Andrew Nicholson already, and none of them are older than 23. Good times are coming.

13. Charlotte Bobcats
Additions: Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller
Losses: Byron Mullens
Key Injuries: Brendan Haywood (foot)

The Bobcats greatly improved their frontcourt by adding Al Jefferson (17.8 points, 9.2 rebounds for Utah last year) in free agency, and drafting Cody Zeller. Incumbent center Bismack Biyombo seems to have responded to the challenge– he’s looked a lot better in the preseason. The backcourt remains the same, and the Bobcats have to hope that Kemba Walker hasn’t hit his ceiling yet. The ‘Cats will be better, but they won’t be anywhere close to good enough.

12. Washington Wizards
Additions: Otto Porter, Eric Maynor, Al Harrington
Losses: none
Key Injuries: Emeka Okafor (neck)

The Wizards went 25-25 over their last 50 games, which has created a sense of false hope around the team. They lost starting center and defensive anchor Emeka Okafor indefinitely, and made no significant improvements to the rest of the team. It’s going to take a lot of John Wall and Bradley Beal to keep this team near .500, and Okafor’s potential replacements (Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely) are really uninspiring.

11. Boston Celtics
Additions: Kelly Olynyk, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Vitor Faverani
Losses: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry
Key Injuries: Rajon Rondo (ACL recovery)

I don’t think the Celtics’ plan involves contending for a playoff spot in the short term. The lower half of the East sucks so bad that they might just stumble into one, but for that to happen, Rajon Rondo has to make his way back quickly, Jeff Green has to develop into an All-Star, and young bigs Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have to contribute. It’s a couple too many “ifs” for me.

10. Milwaukee Bucks
Additions: O.J. Mayo, Brandon Knight, Caron Butler, Luke Ridnour, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Carlos Delfino
Losses: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Mike Dunleavy, Luc Mbah a Moute
Key Injuries: Carlos Delfino (foot)

The Bucks experienced a lot of roster turnover, and thinking about it some more, they’re probably going to be worse than tenth in the conference. O.J. Mayo will score a ton of points, Larry Sanders will block a ton of shots, and if Ersan Ilyasova’s ever going to happen, now’s the time. There’s some good young talent here in John Henson and Giannis A., but these guys might be another year away. However, the front office went out and got a lot of very mediocre talent to block the youngsters. Are you excited for Caron Butler and Luke Ridnour? Is anyone?

9. Cleveland Cavaliers
Additions: Andrew Bynum, Anthony Bennett, Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark, Sergey Karasev
Losses: none

Seems like everyone’s penciled the Cavs into a playoff berth, but not so fast. They’re betting a lot on the health of chronically unhealthy players. The center combo of Andrew Bynum and Anderson Varejao appeared in 25 games last year, all by Varejao. Their budding star, Kyrie Irving, has missed 38 games over his first two seasons. Beyond that, there’s a decent amount of talent (Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, Jarrett Jack), but I think it only works with a healthy Bynum. Ask the 76ers how that went for them.

Posted in NBA

The Nets and The Value of Roster Flexibility

A couple of years ago, I watched that “Moneyball” movie, with Jonah Hill, and that other guy… Brad Pitt? It was entertaining, as baseball movies go, but the basic premise of Billy Beane’s strategy in Oakland did, and still does, make a lot of sense.

You find the undervalued talent in the market, and sign it up cheap. Beane never came close to winning a World Series with that strategy, in large part because the big-money teams snapped up both his players and his playbook. When the Red Sox and Yankees are scouring the market for high-OBP players, the Oaklands of the world don’t have much of a chance.

The NBA is, in my opinion, a bit behind the Moneyball curve, in part because no one really knows where the statistical goalposts are. We’re getting there, but the best path to a championship is still “get a future Hall of Famer and surround him with complementary players.” If you roll snake eyes in the draft, or in the free agent and trade markets, you get stuck in either a loop of competence (like Atlanta) or a loop of incompetence (like Sacramento).

Consider the Rockets, one of the more statistically savvy teams out there. Maybe they realized the secret value of James Harden (because he shoots an insane number of free throws and has an excellent assist-turnover ratio for a 2-guard?), and maybe they know something about Dwight Howard that no one else does… but… two thirds of the NBA would have blundered into the same exact moves. Trade very little of value for a young rising star? Sign the best player in the 2013 free agent pool? Anyone but Isiah Thomas would have done the same thing if they had the cap room.

There are some GMs who are fantastically incompetent (see Thomas, or David Kahn), and some who are consistently great (Pat Riley, R.C. Buford). Then there are guys like Joe Dumars and Billy King, who manage to be both at the same time. King’s building of the 2013 and 2014 Nets is a fascinating example.

Last year’s Nets were holding out hope that Dwight Howard would be available in a trade. When it became clear that he wasn’t (to them, anyway), they handed out enormous contracts to Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, probably with the intention of exchanging those contracts for better players later on. These deals capped the Nets out for 2013, and they were forced to fill out the team with amnesty pickups (Andray Blatche, Josh Childress), and second-round picks (Tyshawn Taylor, Toko Shengelia).

It’s Tyshawn and Toko I’m here to talk about, believe it or not. These were good picks at the time. The best long-term use for a second-round pick is a foreign player like Shengelia. When the pick pays off, you get a Marc Gasol or a Manu Ginobili or a Goran Dragic. When it doesn’t pay off, you don’t ever have to bring the player over. College seniors, like Taylor, are also a smart way to spend your second-rounders. These guys can sometimes step in right away and play important roles on good teams, like Chandler Parsons, or to a lesser extent, Landry Fields and Lavoy Allen.

So far, so good. Both Tyshawn and Toko made the team last year, and got guaranteed contracts. Unfortunately for the Nets, Billy King gave them two-year guaranteed contracts. Neither Tyshawn nor Toko contributed much to last year’s Nets, and spent the year pinballing between the big club and the Springfield Armor.

Then the Nets swung a blockbuster trade to land Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. It might have been a good idea to include Toko in the trade, though perhaps King offered him and Danny Ainge refused. We don’t know. The trade, and the Nets’ subsequent signings, put them at 15 guaranteed contracts (the regular season maximum).

Tyshawn Taylor is currently the third-string point guard. Toko Shengelia is blocked at small forward by Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, and Alan Anderson. Both are taking up space that the Nets could have used to sign better players.

Yesterday, the Miami Heat signed former #2 overall pick Michael Beasley to a partially guaranteed minimum deal. Any NBA team could have made a richer offer, though none of them could have promised as good a chance at a championship. The Nets’ hands were tied*, because waiving Taylor or Shengelia to sign Beasley would have cost something like $5 million more in luxury tax penalties.

*Players with guaranteed contracts do get waived occasionally, but most teams are very reluctant to essentially pay a guy to go away. It’s happened to Quentin Richardson twice in the last two years.

The Nets also could have plucked sharpshooter Roger Mason out of free agency, if they had any flexibility left. Mason is my “Moneyball” pick among the remaining free agents. He’s a tremendous long-range shooter, in fact one of the league’s best from 15 feet and out. Yes, he doesn’t really do anything else. But neither did Eddie House. Mason can be had for a minimum contract, and he’s the kind of guy who can sit on the bench for a month and then drill a couple of big fourth-quarter threes for a team.

Again, the Nets aren’t going to be that team, because they guaranteed the second years of two very marginal players. Even though Mason’s skill set is infinitely more valuable than Shengelia’s to a team with championship pretensions.

The success of Chandler Parsons (and the bargain 4-year deal he’s playing on) has started a trend of guaranteeing second-rounders for multiple years at low prices. It’s good detail work, unless your team happens to be planning a massive power play like the Nets were.

Posted in NBA