The 2016-2017 NCAA Basketball season starts this weekend. Here is a look at the top 25 teams heading into the season. Continue reading →
The Chicago Cubs are World Champions. That sentence still seems implausible even after they completed a powerful 103-win season and capped it off with the requisite three playoff series victories. Thousands of fans swore every year for a century that the Cubs’ time had finally come, projecting incorrectly year after year. Many others were convinced the Cubs would never win due to impalpable forces, regardless of how noticeably great the team actually was.
In the end, it was never going to be easy for whichever edition of the Cubs ascended the proverbial mountain. The 2016 postseason saw the Cubs live through a minor scare from the dangerous Giants, and comeback routinely from a 2-1 deficit against the Dodgers. But, in making their first World Series since 1945 there still had been no earth-tilting moment where the fate of curses and goats were hanging in the balance. Continue reading →
This team that won 73 games last season essentially replaced Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. They are supremely talented, they share the ball, and they are well coached. They can challenge their win record from last season, without even making it a priority. The bench could be a concern, but they still have Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, and they have some young, unproven players that the organization likes. Statistically, rebounding will be the major weakness, but few teams in the West can expose them there.
- San Antonio
The familiar Spurs signed Pau Gasol to replace the retired Tim Duncan which offensively could be an upgrade, but defensively Duncan will be missed. The Spurs believe Kyle Anderson can fill the role left behind by Boris Diaw. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are slowing down, but Kawhi Leonard is still one of the best players in the world. Wing Jonathan Simmons could breakout and give the backcourt a boost of energy.
Blake Griffin had a disastrous season last year; expect a bounce-back year from the All-NBA forward. The bench is still spotty, but coach Doc Rivers can squeeze a lot out of what he has. This team is getting very old, but perhaps some guys will sense that and create some urgency. On the floor this team might be the best matchup to take down the Warriors.
The Blazers are looking to build off their momentum from last year. The backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can play with anyone. The addition of Evan Turner could really strengthen the bench unit. The energy created by the young players and coach Terry Stotts is impressive.
- Oklahoma City
This is Russell Westbrook’s team now, and he says he likes his team. The addition of Victor Oladipo is helpful. Westbrook, Oladipo, and Andre Roberson have menacing potential as a perimeter defensive unit. Coach Billy Donovan will have to push them to reach that potential to make up for that group’s lack of perimeter shooting on the other end. Outside shooting will be a problem overall with the loss of Durant and Serge Ibaka. Rebounding will not be an issue, as Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are back to terrorize opponents. Rookie Domantas Sabonis has the ingredients to stand out.
The Rockets have a new coach in Mike D’Antoni, and they will try to run opponents out of the gym like his old Suns teams did. James Harden will lead the offense and put up incredible numbers. Despite all the focus being on the offense, defensively sound players like Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Corey Brewer, and K.J. McDaniels will try to keep the Rockets competent on that end of the floor. This team will be tough but they are built for the regular season more than the postseason.
The Mavericks still cannot seem to make the big offseason acquisition that they desire to leap back into contention, but the quiet additions of Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut will help. Those two round out a good starting five, but the bench is very suspect. Rick Carlisle is an effective coach making this team still playoff-worthy, but not a threat to win the West.
The Jazz are primed for a significant improvement, but the injury to their best player Gordon Hayward will stunt that improvement early on. The additions of veterans Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson will help this team climb into the playoffs, but the playing time carved out by their numerous intriguing young players will determine exactly how good the Jazz become.
The Grizzlies’ window may have closed. They employ a handful of injury-prone players, and they are counting on a few players well over 30 years of age. New coach David Fizdale will have to inject a new energy into this club for them to return to the playoffs.
This is the team of the future, but they are still a year away from making significant noise. Karl Towns is a force, and Andrew Wiggins is a great complimentary player. New coach Tom Thibodeau will have this team playing hard, especially on the defensive end. Thibodeau will have to figure out the guard rotation with rookie Kris Dunn, talented but oft-injured Ricky Rubio, and enigmatic Zach LaVine.
- New Orleans
Anthony Davis, if he can stay healthy, will return to form as one of the best players in the league. The absence of starting point guard Jrue Holiday will hurt, and it is only compounded by the injury to Tyreke Evans. There are a lot of good young players on this team, but experiments in the backcourt like Tim Frazier, E’Twaun Moore, and most of all Lance Stephenson could get interesting. Rookie Buddy Hield will have a positive impact.
The Nuggets have a lot of talented young pieces, but it is unclear if they all fit together. It feels like this team needs to make a trade, perhaps sending away Danilo Gallinari or Kenneth Faried for some more young talent. The inside combination of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic could eventually become monstrous.
This team will be vastly improved, although it may not show up in the standings this year. The West is tough to make a rapid rise in the ranks, and this team has a lot of inexperience that could cost them late in close games. Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and Brandon Ingram are all great pieces for the future. If D’Angelo Russell can figure it out, they will surprise a lot of people. Luke Walton is the right coach too, to get this team on the right track.
DeMarcus Cousins, when engaged, is still one of the best players in the league, an unstoppable offensive force. New coach Dave Joerger has a nice history of getting the most out of his players, but Cousins will be a new challenge. The Kings have some players who give off the vibe that they do not want to be there, and that is obviously toxic. Willie Cauley-Stein has the potential to make a leap, and now is the time. The Kings are looking at another transition year as they try to build some momentum going forward.
The Suns seem to have mortgaged the present for the future, hiring a new young coach in Earl Watson, and drafting two teen forwards in June. Devin Booker has the potential to be a great young player, but it is difficult to envision this team winning a lot of games this season.
A post-championship hangover seems imminent for the Cavs. They will also cruise through the regular season, but still have the talent to rack a win total in the mid-fifties and finish atop the Eastern Conference nevertheless. Their energy was plainly better when Tyronn Lue took over as coach, and that should carry over to this season. Depth will ultimately be a concern, as they are presently relying on a handful of thirty-somethings to bolster their bench unit.
At this point the Brad Stevens effect is obvious, and the Celtics signed Al Horford, who will easily be the best player Stevens has coached in the NBA. Horford will improve their frontcourt offense and backline defense. This team won 48 games last year, so 50 should be attainable this season. Rookie Jaylen Brown will make an impact, and the low-key signing of Gerald Green may end up being a steal once Stevens works with him.
The Hawks signed Dwight Howard after losing Horford, hoping Howard will be rejuvenated after a messy breakup with Houston. They are also counting on Dennis Schroeder to step up into the starting point guard role after trading Jeff Teague. There has been some major turnover on this roster, but they have a nice mix of veterans and hungry youth and the reins are still held by a good coach in Mike Budenholzer. They still have the potential to be a very good defensive team with Kent Bazemore and Paul Millsap in the lineup.
Optimism is high in Canada after a banner season, but this season’s version of the Raptors has some questions that last year’s version did not. Bismack Biyombo was a rebounding menace in the playoffs, but he left to sign with Orlando. Star guard Kyle Lowry wore down in the playoffs and, over 30 now, may be beginning a slow decline towards the twilight of his career. A regression seems likely, but this team will still comfortably make the playoffs.
Skepticism is abound for this team after a strange offseason, but it has created individual chips that collectively could make this a very dangerous team. Dwyane Wade is out to prove Miami made a big mistake by letting him go. Rajon Rondo is out to prove that he is still an elite point guard. Jimmy Butler is out to prove that he can lead a team. Outside shooting will be an issue, but Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott will both help by getting more playing time. The Bulls have the pieces to be a solid defensive team, Year 2 of Coach Fred Hoiberg should be much smoother than Year 1.
Health is the key for the Wizards, as the roster, when fully constituted is one of the best in the East. The primary health concern is Bradley Beal. New coach Scott Brooks will give the team new energy and a bounce-back season appears likely.
Paul George is still one of the best players in the NBA, and he will lead this otherwise unimpressive roster to well over 40 wins. The additions of Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young will allow the Pacers to play much faster, something President Larry Bird clearly wants as he split ways with former coach Frank Vogel. New coach Nate McMillan will have to prove that he is not a downgrade from the departed Vogel.
- New York
The Knicks’ major trade which acquired Derrick Rose may not have improved the team that much, but they were on track to improve anyway. The signing of another former Bull, Joakim Noah could easily have a greater impact. Bringing in veteran guards Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings will help their fight, and new coach Jeff Hornacek could be a major upgrade. Sensation Kristaps Porzingis should continue to improve and could make a major leap. The health of Noah and Carmelo Anthony is obviously paramount, but this team should be headed to the playoffs.
The Pistons have a lot going for them, not the least of which is the mind of coach Stan Van Gundy. But there are some obstacles keep them from maintaining their momentum from last season. Starting guard Reggie Jackson will miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season. There is a decided lack of perimeter shooting on this team. Overall they will be very competitive, but just miss the playoffs, perhaps because of the missed time with Jackson. Rookie Henry Ellenson is worth keeping an eye on.
It will be interesting to see how the Heat approach the season, but they have the pieces to challenge for a postseason berth. The offense can revolve around Goran Dragic, and new guard Dion Waiters is hungry to prove his worth after a season on the Thunder. Second year man Justise Winslow can improve, and coach Erik Spoelstra quietly always gets the most out of his players.
The Magic might have had the most interesting offseason in the league, but the premise is that athleticism and defense will be the focus of new coach Frank Vogel. New additions Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka will anchor the defense (Ibaka will also help with much needed three-point shooting). A healthy Evan Fournier will help in all areas. The Magic need third year point guard Elfrid Payton to improve. They may be relying too heavily on Aaron Gordon who is very talented, but whose role is unclear. Vogel could turn this team into a defensive monster.
The Hornets had a great season last year, but they lost Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee, and Jeremy Lin from that team. They will try to offset those losses with Roy Hibbert, Marco Belinelli, and Ramon Sessions. Their depth is still nice, but they seem due for a regression as the middle of the East continues to improve.
This team was primed to improve, but the injury to Khris Middleton has thrown everything off. They traded Michael Carter-Williams to Chicago for Tony Snell, and that will not net an improvement. A lot is on the shoulders of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and while he will produce, the bench is weak. The Bucks do have a lot of pieces to employ positionless basketball, a style they should experiment with because it will lead to a bright future.
The Nets have enough pieces to be much more competitive than last season. The trio of Jeremy Lin, Bojan Bogdanovich, and Brook Lopez will be a handful on offense, but they will not provide much defense. There are some interesting young pieces on the bench. If rookie Caris LeVert can get healthy he could make a splash.
The injury to Ben Simmons may set this franchise back yet another year. The start of Joel Embiid’s career will be intriguing, but there is obviously not enough room for Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor all in the post. A trade seems necessary, but regardless the Sixers do not figure to be competitive this year.
1) Washington 10-6
Something clicked for Kirk Cousins last year, and flanked by a great crew of receivers and a good offensive line, he should make the offense hum this year. The defense got better with the big addition of Josh Norman.
2) New York 8-8
The Giants will be able to stay in any game with their potent passing attack. The defense got better, especially on the line, but it will still hold the team back from the playoffs.
3) Dallas 6-10
The Cowboys cannot stay healthy or out of their own way. With a healthy Romo, and a fully-eligible defense including Randy Gregory, Demarcus Lawrence, and Rolando McClain, this would be one of the best rosters in the NFC. Dak Prescott will be serviceable, but not effective enough to put the Cowboys in postseason contention.
4) Philadelphia 4-12
The Eagles are clearly focused on the long-term future. Carson Wentz is talented, but the offense will be a mess at times, especially with a fragile offensive line. There is not enough on defense to get serious about contention.
1) Minnesota 10-6
The trade for quarterback Sam Bradford after the Teddy Bridgewater injury will help and shows the Vikings win-now mindset. All the ingredients for a run are there, including a top-notch defense.
2) Green Bay 10-6
The Packers will look more like their normal selves after a bumpy 2015. A healthy Jordy Nelson returning will allow Aaron Rodgers to work his magic. The defense is solid, but not great.
3) Detroit 6-10
The loss of Calvin Johnson will obviously hurt the offense. The Lions will see this year what Matthew Stafford is truly capable of. On defense, the front four looks great, but everything behind them looks concerning.
4) Chicago 5-11
A much improved offensive line should allow a healthy Bears offense to be very dangerous. The defense looks very questionable however.
1) Carolina 10-6
A lot went right for the Panthers in 2015 while they won their first 14 games. Their luck figures to turn negatively. The Broncos exposed their weakness on offense which is their pass protection from the tackles. On defense, the loss of Josh Norman makes the secondary look very weak.
2) New Orleans 9-7
The offense will always be fine, but the Saints could be much improved on defense. The addition of James Lauriniatis at linebacker will solidify the defense, and open up more plays for second-year linebacker Stephone Anthony.
3) Tampa Bay 9-7
The Buccaneers are ready to make a leap under Jamies Winston’s leadership. There are enough additions on the defense to expect it to improve, including rookies Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence.
4) Atlanta 5-11
The Falcons offense will be able to score enough, but the defense looks questionable all around.
1) Arizona 12-4
The most complete team in the NFL, the Cardinals will go as far as Carson Palmer can take them in the playoffs.
2) Seattle 10-6
The Seahawks have enough skill on offense to make up for the loss of Marshawn Lynch, but the offensive line should be a major concern. The defense will get back to their bullish ways, but the overall intimidation factor this team had two years ago is gone now.
3) Los Angeles 7-9
Not enough has changed on this team to expect different results. The passing game is still anemic. The defense is still stout but must be able to prevent big plays.
4) San Francisco 5-11
New coach Chip Kelly will have to take a patient, rebuilding approach. The 49ers have to figure out their quarterback situation. The defense is good, but not good enough to carry the entire team.
1) New England 11-5
The Patriots, when fully assembled, are the best team in the AFC. But the Brady suspension, and now the suspension of Rob Ninkovich on defense will hurt their record. Jimmy Garoppolo will be solid in Brady’s absence, but they will still probably lose a game or two in the first few weeks that they otherwise would not. Expect them to hit their full stride right as the playoffs approach.
2) New York 9-7
There are some sustainability questions for the Jets on offense. The addition of Matt Forte at running back is intriguing, but it gives the offense an overall aging look, so health will be a crucial factor. The defense will be stout again, but it has its older players as well. The Jets, much like last year, will just miss out on the playoffs.
3) Buffalo 7-9
The Bills have a lot of firepower on offense, but their three main players all have injury histories: Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, and Sammy Watkins. The injury bug has already hit the defense as first and second round picks from this past draft, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland respectively, have already been sidelined, the latter for the entire season. In the competitive AFC, especially in this division, being less than full strength is a death sentence.
4) Miami 7-9
The trade for Kiko Alonso and the signing of Mario Williams suddenly makes the defense look very imposing. There are nice pieces on offense, but with Ryan Tannehill at quarterback it is tough to envision the Dolphins making a strong move up the standings.
1) Cincinnati 10-6
The offense, and by extension quarterback Andy Dalton, flourished under coordinator Hue Jackson who left to take the head coach position with the Browns. Regression may occur on that side of the ball with the loss of Jackson and a couple of receivers. The defense is still very stout, the loss of Reggie Nelson may be offset with the addition of Karlos Dansby. Their record might not be as sterling as last season because it is doubtful that they start off 8-0 again, but this is still the team to beat in the division.
2) Baltimore 9-7
Everything that could have gone wrong last season did for the Ravens, mainly injuries. The luck figures to bounce back positively this year. Health for guys like Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, and Terrell Suggs would go a long way towards regaining a playoff berth.
3) Pittsburgh 9-7
The offense gets a lot of attention, but Martavis Bryant is suspended for the year, LeVeon Bell will miss at least 3 games, and tight end Ladarius Green is starting the year on the PUP list. How many games will Ben Roethlisberger play? No offense can sustain personnel losses like that. The defense is solid, but there are questions in the secondary. No team will look forward to playing the Steelers, but it is difficult to see them stringing an entire season together with enough wins for a playoff appearance.
4) Cleveland 5-11
The offense will be vastly improved. If Robert Griffin III can stay healthy, he will have a nice season. There is breakout potential among the skill players, and the offensive line has always been good. There is not much to be excited about on defense however.
1) Houston 9-7
The offense will have a totally revamped look with additions Brock Osweiler, Lamar Miller, Will Fuller, and Braxton Miller. How the Texans’ talented offense gels will be the key to their season. The defense is obviously talented, but it might not be quite good enough to carry the entire team.
2) Indianapolis 8-8
After a disappointing season, the Colts did not make enough personnel changes to prevent more disappointment. The only new piece on offense is a rookie center, Ryan Kelly. The secondary was overhauled, but is it that much better? Andrew Luck can only carry this team so far.
3) Jacksonville 8-8
A breakout season will come up just short of a playoff bid. The offense is ready to go. The addition of Chris Ivory will provide a nice complement to T.J. Yeldon and the passing game. The defense will be better, but it is still a little green, and has not caught up to the offense yet.
4) Tennessee 6-10
The Titans will be much tougher than their win total will indicate. Their commitment to the run with DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and Marcus Mariota will cause nightmares for opponents. The defense is not quite postseason-caliber, but this team is headed in the right direction.
1) Kansas City 10-6
The Chiefs roster looks a lot like last year’s, and the results will be more of the same. They will have a similar record, although it is doubtful that they will achieve it by winning ten straight games immediately after losing five in a row as they did last season. No reason to believe this team can get over the hump into the AFC championship game, however.
2) San Diego 9-7
The Chargers could surprise many after a nightmarish 2015; they lost nine of their twelve games by one possession, including five in a row at one point. Melvin Gordon should continue to progress and help the offense cash all their yards in for touchdowns, and the defense will be boosted by several upgrades. Philip Rivers has another run in him.
3) Oakland 8-8
The Raiders finally have all the tangibles on paper. The offense is ready to take another step after a promising 2015. On defense, the linebacking corps has gotten very good, and the addition of Reggie Nelson at safety will be huge. Can Derek Carr win games when something is at stake?
4) Denver 7-9
The Broncos have too many ingredients for a Super Bowl hangover year. They are breaking in a new quarterback and there was enough turnover on defense to cause concern. The defense will still be very salty, but last season they played almost unbelievably good, so it is difficult to imagine a repeat performance. Without Peyton Manning they will run more with C.J. Anderson, and the new strategy will pay off at first, but it ultimately will not be enough to keep them in the playoff hunt the entire season.
The United States enters as a heavy favorite to win their third straight Olympic gold medal, even though a handful of the best players in the world chose to stay home and not participate. There is a solid 12-team field in Rio, likely all chasing silver, but the U.S. cannot sleepwalk through the tournament as Spain, France, Argentina, and host Brazil have all brought their best talent. The field is split into two groups of six with a round-robin format. The top four teams in each group will advance to the quarterfinals of a knockout stage to determine the champion. To fit this format into the two-week period of the Olympics, teams will have to play every other day, so depth and fatigue will be factors. Continue reading →
It is time that Kevin Durant gets scrutinized for his decision. Durant’s choice to join the Warriors as a free agent is no better than when LeBron James decided to join the Heat as a free agent in 2010, indeed it might be worse. The mass media has been easier on Durant this summer than it was on LeBron six years ago, and I cannot figure out why.
LeBron was criticized for announcing his decision callously on a special made-for-TV event, but at least he was real with himself. Durant announced his decision on The Players’ Tribune – a fine platform – but his reasoning seemed disingenuous.
Durant said he wanted to challenge himself as a basketball player, and as a person. I cannot speak to how this career move might challenge him as a person, but it does not take a genius to see that he just made his basketball life a lot easier. Durant will not carry the burden of responsibility – be it marketing, dealing with the media, scoring points – like he had to in Oklahoma City. All of that can be shared with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. It is unclear how he will grow as a player with those guys demanding attention on offense that was normally focused on Durant in OKC.
This was hailed as a basketball decision, and basketball-wise it was a cop-out. When you are one of the best players in the league, you are supposed to affirm that status by making your team one of the best in the league. Durant, the 2014 NBA MVP, is good enough to be considered the best player in the world. But he never got the Thunder to the very top, so he will likely never be able to indisputably make that claim. He is leaving his mission incomplete.
Too much emphasis from society and the media is put on winning championships, and understandably so. This is especially true for NBA players; it is a rite of passage for their career. After all, there are only five players on the court for one team at a time, and players can play for 75-85% of the game, so one player can have a massive impact on the game. If one player is so good, he should be able to lead his team to a championship, the thinking goes. But the key word to that thinking is lead. Durant will probably win a championship with the Warriors, but it will not be because he alone led them there. It will not be “his” championship. It will be the Super Team’s.
Moves like this undermine the competitive nature of the NBA. The worst part is we will never know how good of a basketball player Kevin Durant can be, because as long as he is on the Warriors he will always have this safety net of a Super Team to fall back on.
It could be argued that the Thunder did not do enough to put a juggernaut team around Durant, but when healthy, they were always right there. After all, they were freaking five minutes away from reaching the Finals again. No team at the time of his free agency offered a distinctly better chance for Durant to win a title – other than the Warriors of course.
Durant certainly had the right to leave OKC. It would be one thing if Durant had decided to try his hand in the Eastern Conference, and joined the upstart Boston Celtics. But joining a team that won 73 games and was one win away from winning its second consecutive championship and saying you want to be the piece that puts them over the top is like being a multi-billionaire sports team owner and having public money build you a new football stadium. The excess is off-putting.
Durant is clearly a guy who should be a main piece, not the get-you-over-the-hump piece. The over-the-top piece for the Warriors was Andre Iguodala when he signed in the summer of 2013. Two years later the Warriors climbed over the top and won a championship. Now, because they came up just short of another championship and the salary cap historically spiked, they have added another “piece.”
In fact, the ending to the 2016 playoffs was the perfect storm for the Warriors to get Durant. Had the Thunder toppled the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals and then won in the Finals, Durant would have stayed as a hero. Had the Warriors finished off their historic season, they would have still tried for Durant, but all the reasons he had, albeit bogus ones, for joining the Dubs would not exist (Maybe he still would have joined them anyway, who knows).
Make no mistake this Warriors team will be fun to watch. All their best players are good and willing passers, Durant will fit right in. Their shooting could reach a historic mark, and they will challenge for 74 wins. They may have some problems clicking in the first ten games or so, but they should be good enough to still win most of those games. Barring injury, we will see the zenith of basketball at the highest level. And at some point a championship will be inevitable, the suspense will be gone, and we will all hate them again.
The NBA needs to push the Draft back a couple of weeks, there is not enough time to regroup after a Finals that goes to the limit. That said, here are my thoughts on this draft class heading into the Draft tonight.
Despite the universal agreement that there are two top players in this draft, I think time will show that this draft class will provide depth, more than it will provide superstars. I am not sure there are any players that will immediately change the outlook for an NBA franchise, but I think there are dozens of players who can eventually be starters on contending teams.
Continue reading →
Haters gonna hate, but the detractors have no ground to stand on now. LeBron James has cemented his legacy as one of the top ten players in NBA history with his third championship, finally leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to triumph over Stephen Curry and the Warriors. Curry may have won the league MVP for the regular season, but when faced with the task of winning one series, it is impossible to see how anyone could choose Curry, or anyone else, over LeBron for their team. Continue reading →