2013/2014 Eastern Conference Preview

 

It has been the Heat's Conference recently, does that change in 2014?

It has been the Heat’s Conference recently, does that change in 2014?

 

Last week we previewed the (stacked) Western Conference and now it is time to tackle the East.  The Miami Heat look to make it not one, not two, but three conference championships in a row.  Can they do it?  Who can rise to the occasion?  Who is at the bottom of the barrel?  Let’s start there …

15. Philadelphia 76ers: I find it glorious that for David Stern’s final season, there is a team with enough charisma to say, “Here we are … tanking in all its glory” from the day the draft took place all the way through the trading deadline.  Where will Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young wind up?  I’m not sure they care, as long as it is out of Philly.  While I like what Philly did on draft night acquiring Noel and MCW, there is no hope for this team in 2013/14.  Zero.  Zilch.

14. Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo is very likely going to be a very good NBA player, but this team lacks talent across its frontcourt.  If they can find a taker for Jameer Nelson during the season, they might give the Sixers a run for their money on ping pong balls.

13. Cleveland Cavaliers: Dan Gilbert wants this team in the playoffs, yet continues to do the strangest things on draft night.  I love Kyrie Irving, I just wish he played almost anywhere else in the league.  Cavs fans have to hope that Michael Bennett doesn’t eat himself out of the league (not a ringing endorsement for the #1 pick of the draft) and rely on getting something from Andrew Bynum and/or Anderson Varejao.  This isn’t going to end well.

12. Boston Celtics: The Celtics are rebuilding but I can’t put them any lower than this, given what you just read.  In fact, I actually wanted to put them a little bit higher, but figure this seems about right if Danny Ainge wakes up one day and says, “You know what, we are too good to get enough ping pong balls, Rondo needs to go”.  Rajon Rondo and the supporting cast (Jeff Green, Courtney Lee) are good enough to stay ahead of the prior three teams.

11. Charlotte Bobcats: On paper, this is a pretty intriguing team that you might want to keep an eye on, but then you remember it is the Bobcats.  They have a serviceable rotation of guards, signed Big Al Jefferson, and I love MKG.  Then I remember that they are the Bobcats and just drafted Cody Zeller at #4 ahead of a handful of others that would have been a nice fit.  Would the real Bismack Biyombo please stand up this season?

10. Detroit Pistons: This is going to be fun, right?  Right?!  Chauncey Billups returning to Detroit and trying to lead the Pistons with Brandon Jennings, Josh Smith, and Andre Drummond.  At what point does Billups flat out retire?  It would be great if he just walked out of the locker room at halftime to never come back.  This is where we start thinking about teams that could sneak their way into the Eastern Conference playoffs … with 35 wins.

9. Toronto Raptors: Another team that is intriguing on paper and then you give yourself a reality check on second glance.  Do you want Kyle Lowry as your starting PG?  Is DeMar DeRozan ever going to turn it on?  How much of a leap is Jonas Valanciunas really going to make in one year?  Is Rudy Gay just going to shoot 33% from the field this year on 1,500 shots?  Sorry, no playoffs for this franchise.

PLAYOFF TEAMS                                                                                                                               

8. Washington Wizards: Relying on the health of an already injured Emeka Okafor may not be the wisest strategy, but there is too much talent here to not make the playoffs in the East.  John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. (another great pick from the Wizards front office?), and enough able bodies for big men.  If you go to their second unit, you have some defensive studs as well with Singleton and Ariza on the wing.  This could be a team to keep an eye on and is already on my League Pass watch-list.

7. Milwaukee Bucks: Every year I get sucked in and every year there is disappointment.  Where OJ Mayo goes, so does some bizarre allegiance to overrate the team he’s playing on.  That bus landed in Milwaukee this year.  I like their big men as a group, but not any particular individual.  You have ex-Wolf Luke Ridnour and Brandon Knight as the PG’s and Gary Neal as the fourth wheel in the backcourt.  It will be interesting to see what they get out of the SF position where the Bucks have two wily veterans in Caron Butler and Carlos Delfino.  This roster is good enough to make the playoffs.  (Until it isn’t)

6. New York Knicks: Look at how the NY Giants football season is going and that is what I would like to predict for the Knicks.  However, they have too much talent for the Eastern Conference to go any lower than this.  They will play .500 ball and get into the playoffs with ease.  Here’s what I like about the team: Tyson Chandler, from a few years ago.  That’s it.  There is nothing on this roster that I like.  Despite his gaudy numbers, there is virtually nothing Carmelo can do to not make me believe that he is an underachiever; outside of taking less than max money in his next contract and deferring to another star in order to win a championship.

5. Atlanta Hawks: This is my Eastern Conference “I have no idea where to put this team, so they are going here”.  I cannot give a team home court advantage in round 1 of the playoffs if that is my general feeling towards the team, so they land at #5.  Love the Paul Millsap and Al Horford combination, like Jeff Teague, but have no idea what to think of their rotation of wings.  The Hawks’ wings really just need to fill roles though, right?  That should be good enough for a .500+ record and another trip to the postseason, only to be quickly disposed by the …

4. Chicago Bulls: We’ll get to this when we go through the playoff brackets later, but I see the Bulls coasting through the regular season, monitoring Derrick Rose’s minutes, resting him occasionally, etc. This team is tough as nails and will do what is necessary to get to right around the 50 win mark.  It won’t be pretty, we won’t enjoy it when they beat up the Wolves in the paint, but this team will get it done.

3. Brooklyn Nets: Prokhorov’s tax bill is “a bit” much, but you have to love an owner that is willing to spend any and all money possible to put together a championship contender.  Unfortunately for the Nets, there are too many stronger teams that will grind this team out of the playoffs at some point.  Deron Williams has a lot to prove and I see this team putting together a very strong regular season due to all of the veterans in the locker room.

Best of luck to KG in Brooklyn and a big “kudos” for the Big Ticket in wearing the #2 jersey with the Nets – in memory of Malik Sealy.  I might have to drag myself to the Barclay’s Center to see KG one last time in person.

2. Indiana Pacers: The country finally got to see who Paul George was and what this Pacers roster is all about in last year’s playoffs.  I don’t expect them to digress whatsoever.  In fact, if Danny Granger can stay healthy and Luis Scola provides quality backup minutes at the PF/C spots, this team is very, very dangerous.  Quite honestly, I love this team.

(You didn’t think I would talk about the Pacers and not mention David Kahn’s selection of Wesley Johnson over Paul George, did you?  The worst lottery pick the franchise has ever made.  The worst … and the bar is pretty ‘high’ for that proclamation.  THE WORST!  Let’s move on before my blood pressure pills start wearing off …)

1. Miami Heat: The Heat won something like 75 games in a row (it was 27) last season and the NBA Championship.  You know the story and the cast of characters.  Until someone knocks them off the pedestal, it is hard to place them anywhere else.

Which brings us to the playoffs, based on the seeds above.  Here is how I see the Eastern Conference Playoffs unfolding:

Eastern Conference

The top four teams in the East are light-years ahead of the rest of the conference, so they should all advance pretty easily out of the first round – unless you like the Knicks.  Then things get very interesting.  As mentioned above, I think the Bulls take it “easy” in the regular season a bit but knock out the defending champs, which sets up a close to epic battle against the Pacers.  I simply believe it is the Pacers time.

The early exit for the Heat leads to about 15 million stories and rumors about LeBron heading back to Cleveland, to the Lakers, etc. etc.  That’s going to be a lot of fun!

What do you think?  Is it too early to dethrone the Heat?  Do they have another trophy coming?  What are your surprise or disappointment teams in the conference?  Let us know below!

Offseason Ideas: Timberwolves Needs + Monta Ellis in the Picture?

Could Monta Ellis provide the scoring the Timberwolves need to compete in the Western Conference?

Could Monta Ellis provide the scoring the Timberwolves need to compete in the Western Conference?

This season has been the definition of disappointing to say the least. The additions of Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Brandon Roy, and Chase Budinger caused a stir of excitement and optimism among Timberwolves fans to begin this 2012-13 season, and many basketball fans around the league even believed that this squad not only had the chance to achieve a postseason berth, but that the team also had the depth and talent to make a run in this years playoffs. However, all of that came to a violent halt when we obtained the bubonic plague as we call them… (Injuries). It was not comprehendible during our summer of optimism that nearly every player on the Wolves would ultimately fall to injury at some point during the season. The dream lineup of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Roy, Nikola Pekovic, and AK never had the opportunity to log big minutes together and create the necessary chemistry to legitimately compete for a bottom seed in the Western Conference. Oh, and our head coach, Rick Adelman, was gone for an extended period of time with family reasons. This season has been a catastrophe in the minds of Timberwolves fans alike.

As this season carries only future implications towards draft position and free agency, this team has A LOT of issues to address. To begin, Minnesota statistically has the worst three-point shooting in the NBA and the Wolves do not have a player that can help to alleviate some of the offensive pressure off of K-Love. In addition, we are still missing that shooting guard in our lineup that we all hoped Roy could be. Glen Taylor and David Kahn will need to dig deep into team funds and allocate money towards a marquee scorer who can create his own shot and knock down shots on the perimeter. Kevin Love, as we all know, is not happy about the current state of affairs within the organization. Adding to the frustrations, our once-smiley Rubio is having a very difficult time with all of the losing and the great pressure being exerted upon him to do virtually everything for the offense to work.

Considering all of these factors, I have considered three soon-to-be unrestricted free that would be excellent fits for the Wolves. The players I chose are Monta Ellis, JJ Redick, and Paul Millsap. Any one of these players would provide an instant upgrade in multiple facets of the game for Minnesota and would allow our team to elevate to a higher level of competitiveness in the Western Conference. In order to get over the hump and be able to match up against teams like the Thunder, Spurs, and Clippers, we need legitimate scorers to fill the holes in our roster. It is unreasonable to expect that Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will be able to carry us to the postseason in a very competitive Western Conference all by themselves.

The future 2013 free agent of whom I believe would provide the largest upgrade to our team is Monta Ellis. Before you roll your eyes, consider the fact that the Timberwolves currently possess one player that can create his own offense and that the team has a very difficult job doing the most important thing in the game: scoring the basketball. Although Monta may demand an inflated contract and may likely get overpaid this summer, he would provide tremendous value to our team in a variety of ways of which we currently struggle. The guy can flat out score the basketball, and that will never be a topic of debate. The addition of Ellis would help take pressure off Love in the 4th quarter and would keep opposing teams honest. Also when considering his ability to play off-ball, pairing Monta with a play-maker like Rubio could create for a very exciting backcourt.

While it can be easy to blame Minnesota’s inefficiencies on injuries and a lack of talent, there is no excuse for their fading defensive intensity and critical turnovers late in games. Both aspects have greatly hurt the team this season as they rank 24th in turnovers per game and 25th in opponents field goal percentage. The Wolves need to take care of the ball and be quicker on rotating on defense instead of allowing so many open looks by opposing perimeter players. These are basic fundamentals that Rick Adelman has undoubtedly preached this season, and the players need to put his words into a tangible product night-in and night-out.

Another important area for improvement is the team’s transition defense. If you go to the stat line of the Heat vs. Wolves games this season, we have had an enormous edge in the rebounding battle. However, the Heat destroyed us in fast break points and transition offense which led to us losing late in each game. The importance of success in transition cannot be stressed enough as it continues to separate legitimate NBA playoff teams from the lottery losers.

To reiterate, if we want to be a championship contender we have to have the firepower to be able to beat teams like the Heat and Thunder (elite teams). We won’t be able to accomplish any of this without an increase in talent and greater accountability from the players, the coaching staff and the front office. To be brutally honest, Minnesota right now is a LONG ways away from being a true contender in the NBA, although they possess the proper foundation to build a very good team in future years. Just like we saw with Rick Spielman’s genius drafting for the Vikings just one short year ago, a few good moves can fundamentally change the dynamic of a ballclub.

Minnesota Timberwolves 93, Utah Jazz 97

Photo Credit: Associated Press

Photo Credit: Associated Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Game Summary

Playing their last game before the NBA All-Star break, the Minnesota Timberwolves hosted the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night and saw big performances from second-year players Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams. Despite a near triple-double for the Spaniard and a 24-point, 16-rebound explosion from the streaky Williams, the Wolves dropped their 16th game over their past 19 games as they fell by a score of 97-93.

Still without Kevin Love as he targets a mid- to late-March return from his broken hand, the Timberpups went against a talented and deep Utah frontcourt without the services of Andrei Kirilenko as he recovers from a strained right quadriceps. The undersized Pups had a very difficult time keeping the Jazz out of the lane, and their overall lack of depth was too much to overcome against the 30-24 Jazz.

In the first quarter of play, the Timberwolves had their fair share of difficulty shooting the ball and had a tough time keeping Utah’s bigs out of the lane. Derrick Williams faced a difficult matchup opposite of Paul Millsap, and allowed his opponent to establish deep inside position in the paint. Despite giving Millsap (and Jefferson on switches) a positioning advantage, Williams did an adequate job in his man defense and even pulled down 9 first-quarter rebounds. On the offensive end, Nikola Pekovic was stymied by the interior defense presented by former Pup Al Jefferson, Millsap and substitute Derrick Favors. Ricky Rubio and Luke Ridnour were the catalysts to the Wolves early 17-10 lead, as they were matched against a smaller and less talented Utah backcourt.

Minnesota trailed Utah 42-40 at the half, with Ridnour and Williams leading Minnesota scorers with 12 points a piece. Despite a first-half line of 12 points and 9 rebounds, D-Will struggled immensely in one particular area: finishing at the rim. Perhaps the most overlooked area of his game around the time he was drafted, it has become evident that Williams is very poor at converting on what is to most players the highest-percentage looks. When considering his freak athleticism and good size, it is immediately confusing as to why the former number-2 overall selection shoots below league average from around the rim. It is not to say that these problems are a red flag and that the Timberwolves need to get rid of him, because I actually believe the opposite. However, it is going to take Derrick a lot of practice and dedication in order to become comfortable driving through crowded lanes while creating separation and body control in order to put himself in a position to score. At this point in the season, I strongly believe that his blatant lack of confidence when attempting shots in the interior is contributing to his poor respective shooting percentages. In the NBA, confidence is everything. It is up to Derrick to go out and continue to not shy away from these shots because he is going to need to fail over and over again in order to ultimately master that part of his game. If and when he is able to become a great finisher at the rim,  he will have an opportunity to be a threat to score from all over the floor, a skill that very few players in this league have.

The Pups did their best to hang with the much bigger and more talented Jazz squad in the third quarter and ended the quarter with a relatively small 5-point deficit. Utah’s decision to go with a bigger lineup that included Favors, Jefferson and Millsap paid dividends as they ran Millsap off curl screens and crowded the lane with the three natural power forwards. Minnesota’s inability to score on the low block or from beyond the arc was a large inhibitor from making a big run, and their lack of physicality on defense (with the exception of Rubio) kept the momentum in Utah’s favor.

After falling behind by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter, Tricky Ricky fueled a comeback that brought this game down to the last seconds. The Jazz were able to make their free throws in crunch time and Ricky’s dazzling passes were not enough to ultimately win this one. As cliche as this is beginning to sound, the Timberwolves are simply not big enough to compete with a number of teams as injuries have taken away much of their size and versatility.

Timberpups Notable Performances

  • Derrick Williams finished with his best line this season of 24 points and 16 boards. Not only did he finish with only 1 turnover in 37 minutes, but he was even +6 on the court despite his difficulties defending Utah’s frontcourt. All was not perfect for the former Wildcat, however, as he shot just 7-17 from the floor and struggled mightily around the rim. What I did enjoy seeing was how much improved he was at getting to the free throw line, regardless of if some of his shots should have resulted in and-1s instead of 2 free throws. The more Derrick can make the game easier on himself by getting more and more free trips to the charity stripe, the easier it will be for him to build his confidence and continue to grow as a professional player.
  • Luke Ridnour is so much more appeasable as a shooting guard than as a point guard, and I have been thoroughly pleased with his play as of late. Starting side-by-side with Ricky, Luke was a game high +14 on the floor and finished the night with 18 points on 7-15 shooting while turning the ball over once. Meanwhile, JJ Barea had a nightmarish performance on 2-10 shooting in 24 minutes.
  • Nikola Pekovic was initially overwhelmed by the interior defense brought on by Utah, but turned it on late in the game to finish with 19 points and 13 rebounds in 40 minutes. His inability to play above the rim helped the long and athletic Jazz frontcourt slow him down, but he did face more double teams and help defense without Kevin Love by his side. To his credit, Nikola had a strong performance and is starting to really get into a rhythm since returning from injury.

Keys of the Game

  • Points in the Paint - The combination of Millsap and Jefferson combined for 41 points and 19 rebounds, and as a whole the Utah Jazz scored 54 of their 97 points in the paint – the Timberwolves recorded only 30 in the interior. Utah took advantage of Minnesota’s lack of size and athleticism and did a very good job establishing inside position and creating second-chance opportunities.
  • Shot-Blocking - Utah out-blocked the Pups 9-3 with an astounding 7 different players recording at least 1 block. Minnesota’s most talented shot blocker, Chris Johnson, received less than a minute of playing time.
  • Bench Scoring - The Jazz bench outscored Minnesota’s bench 43-12. Yes, you read that correctly. Alexey Shved’s tailspin leading into All-Star weekend culminated in an 0-4, 0 point performance last night and he appears to have totally lost his confidence in his shot. Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors all provided important minutes for the Jazz in the second half and helped set the tone on defense and in transition.

Three Stars of the Game

  1. Paul Millsap - Surrounded with trade rumors for the past month, Millsap has kept his mind clear and was the key to last night’s W for Utah. Asked to play both small forward, power forward, and even center at times, the versatile 6-foot-8 tweener forward scored 21 points with 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks in 36 minutes. What Millsap lacks in ability he makes up for with a tireless work ethic and tremendous attitude. D-Will should take a page from Millsap’s book and realize that he does not need to be 6-foot-10 in order to be a very effective player in this league.
  2. Al Jefferson - The former face of Minnesota’s franchise continues to dominate on his old home floor, finishing last night with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals in 34 minutes. Jefferson, who is making $15 million this season, is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely demand top dollar from a number of suitors. The question remains if Utah will keep both Jefferson and Millsap (who will also become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end) before the trade deadline in an attempt to strengthen their postseason run, or if it will be more feasible to trade one of the two for young assets.
  3. Ricky Rubio - Good news in Wolves land: Ricky is getting his confidence back. La Pistola continues to play his best ball at the end of games, and last night he missed out on his first career triple-double by 1 rebound. Our favorite floppy-haired point guard finished the ball game with 18 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds, 4 steals and 1 block in a season-high 40 minutes on the floor. For those who watched the game, Ricky could have easily tallied 15+ assists if his teammates could have finished more layups and drained more open shots, but the important thing is that he is regaining his swagger and he continues to put his teammates, namely Ridnour, in more and more opportunities for easy success.