Wednesday, December 21, 2016

State of the Association pt. 1

Since the election (and since the Browns are bad even for the Browns) I've been mostly pretending that the only thing that exists in the universe is NBA basketball.

Given that fact, and the fact that I haven't been writing much, here's a post (or, fingers crossed, a series of posts!) about the state of the NBA, with a special focus on my beloved Lebrons, erm, I mean, Cavaliers.  I thought about starting a new blog called The High Post based on my love of the Lowe Post basketball podcast with the great Zach Lowe, but The High Post is already taken as a blogger blog, and also I have enough fallow blogs.  So here goes.

True NBA fans know that the "real" NBA regular season runs from Christmas day to the middle of March, a span of about twelve weeks.  Everything before that is too early to worry much about, and everything after that (late March and early April - the playoffs start on Tax Day) is garbage time since a big portion of the league isn't really trying to win games but rather to jockey for lottery position.  

Thus it's a good time right now to take a look around the league and see where things stand at the end of what we might call the post-preseason, aka the first third of the regular season when teams are still trying to figure out what they might have.  

Part One:  The Hopeless Garbage

30.  Philadelphia 76ers

Fans of the Sixers will probably chafe at this ranking, and indeed it gives me no pleasure.  The Sixers are fun to watch, and they have a lot of interesting pieces.  But oh my goodness they are terrible.  Their offense is basically what happens when you pick up a new basketball video game for the first time and you can't really figure out how it works so you're constantly making the wrong pass, jacking up bricky fadeaways with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, and dribbling out of bounds for no reason.

The Sixers are super-young, and they will get better as the season goes along and Joel Embiid works his way into a full-time job.  As many jokes as we've made about Embiid during his two-year odyssey to return from foot problems, he appears to be as good as advertised.  He's far and away their best player and if he stays healthy he's a lock to become an All-NBA fixture.  

That said, this team is a major mess, and it's hard to imagine them winning a playoff series with anything like this configuration.  The Process continues.

29.  The Phoenix Suns

Oh, the poor Suns.  Once the Moneyball A's of the NBA, the Suns pioneered many of the modern pace-and-space concepts that are now the accepted model for constructing an offense.  Then all those guys retired and left this... thing.  I can't say a ton about them because I don't watch them.  Neither should you.  Their niche is that they are a smallish team that doesn't shoot the ball very well and doesn't play very good defense.  That's not a niche you want to be in.  

Like the Sixers, they have a lot of young players who will get better.  Unlike the Sixers, they don't have anyone who particularly seems like a transcendent talent.  No franchise has a bleaker outlook at the moment, except maybe...

28.  Brooklyn Nets

Suns fans may be howling "how can you put us lower than the Nets?"  Honestly, you're probably right, and the fact that is the best thing that can be said about your team is a sign of something very, very sad.  The Nets STINK.  Worse, they're not even young.  Their situation is utterly hopeless, stretching endlessly out into the future.  They have been terrible for years after trading away their draft picks, meaning they haven't even gotten any young talent in exchange for their awfulness.

The only reason I can't put them lower than the Suns is that the East is so bad that it's possible the Nets could somehow stumble into a playoff appearance in the next couple of years and maybe even give some 3-seed trouble.  That will not happen to the Suns. 

Remember those pace-and-space concepts we were talking about?  Yeah.  The Nets two best players are Brook Lopez, who can't run, and Trevor Booker, who can't shoot.  They're also giving major minutes to Anthony Bennett, who can't do anything.  Do not watch this team.  That is all.

27.  LA Lakers

Another storied franchise that's fallen on some hard times, these Lakers, like the Sixers, are actually quite watchable.  They have a few interesting characters (Metta World Peace!  Jose Calderon!), a quirky, talented bench (Larry Nance, Jr!) and some veteran leadership (Timofey Mozgov!  Luol Deng!)  What they don't have is anyone who can credibly guard another human who is more than five feet from the basket.  

The Lakers are the bizarro version of the Warriors - they give up points so effortlessly it almost seems like a different sport.  Opposing dribblers get into the lane with such ease that someone watching their first basketball game might come away with the impression that it is illegal for the defender to be in the offensive player's way.  Their attempts to defend pick-and-roll have the appearance of a team that wasn't told before the game that the pick-and-roll is a thing.  

Brandon Ingram should improve, and that will make a big difference because right now he is absolutely KILLING the Lakers with a brutal 35/27/71 shooting split, and D'Angelo Russell seems to be developing into a nice shoot-first, pass-second, defend-last point guard in the Kyrie Irving mold, so there's some reason for optimism here.  But it has to be a concern that the Lakers are trying to develop young guards on a team where absolutely no one plays defense.  That kind of thing tends to be contagious.  

26.  Orlando Magic

By far the most talented of the truly hopeless teams, the Orlando Magic might be the most oddly-constructed team in the NBA.  It's as if someone started collecting interesting puzzle pieces that had been cast off from other teams...  and then just kept collecting those interesting puzzle pieces until the roster had 15 guys on it.  Actually that is basically how this team was constructed, and it shows.  

The Magic's best player is Serge Ibaka (and it's not close), who is a major asset because he can shoot and he can play the 4 or the 5 for short stretches (or longer stretches if the opponent goes small a la the GSW Death Lineup.)  Also on the roster are Nikola Vucevic and Bismack Biyombo, neither of whom can shoot threes (Biyombio can't shoot at all; Vucevic has a nice midrange game) or play any position except center, thus taking away some of Ibaka's value.  I cannot explain this.  I doubt Orlando can either.  

When teams let Orlando ground-and-pound with their bigs on the floor, they can beat you up and wear you down.  But it's not too difficult to put Biyombo in situations he can't handle (and that's being kind) at which point this becomes a team with no ideas beyond Elfrid Payton's sometimes-nifty drive-and-kick game.  The problem there is that other than Ibaka and Evan Fournier, the Magic just don't have the shooters to scare anyone away from just clogging the paint and forcing Payton to jack long jumpers that he has no prayer of making.  

There are enough assets here that you get the feeling the Magic could become something, but right now they're locked into this Island of Misfit Toys act and it's pretty excruciating.  

Next:  The Hopefully Mediocre