17: Chicago Bulls
Alright, I have bad news and terrible news for you. I was going to ask which you wanted first, but it’s impossible for you to answer that. We’ll go with the bad news first.
The bad news is Derrick Rose is out for the season with a torn meniscus. Actually, that’s terrible news too. Rose is a tremendous talent, a hard worker, a great face for the league, and he’s revered by his city and teammates. In the spectrum of notable Chicago sports injuries this year, Rose’s meniscus tear trumps every single Chicago Bears injury combined (and trust me, there have been a bulk of them). No player means more to his team AND city than Derrick Rose; a local kid who made basketball relevant in Chicago for the first time since 1998. Anyone trying to fill the void left by Rose will be greeted with the same enthusiasm by the Bulls crowd that Stan Podolak got out of MJ when he entered the game for the Toon Squad (That’s right, back to back write-ups with a Space Jam reference). But anyway, everyone keep your fingers crossed hoping Rose makes a full and speedy recovery for himself, for the Bulls, for the NBA, for us, and for the sake of competitiveness in the Eastern Conference.
The other piece of terrible news is that there are now only two true contenders in the Eastern Conference. Chicago didn’t look to be on the level of Indiana or Miami early on, but there was at least the belief that by the time the playoffs rolled around they would find their form and end up on that level. That scenario is now nonexistent. The Bulls’ season is essentially over (even though they still might be the 3rd best team in that sorry conference), and the Rose, Noah, Boozer and Deng core might have played their final game together. It’s a sad situation. When I broke the torn meniscus news to my roommate and Bulls fan Weston, he replied simply, “We just can’t catch a break. F*** man.” He knows he has to suffer through another season of ugly games and a hopeless postseason, plus Mike Dunleavy, his new least favorite Bull. He’s defeated. And so are the Bulls. And now, so are thirteen of the fifteen teams in the Eastern Conference.
16: New Orleans Pelicans
I don’t give advice related to the stock market too often, but allow me to interject for your own good. If you haven’t already, invest in some Anthony Davis stock. Seriously, don’t even hesitate. In three years we might be talking about Davis as a top five player in the league and you want your hands on some of that stock. It feels like he’s going to end up a Kevin Garnett/Tim Duncan hybrid, which is a beast capable of doing terrifying things in the NBA. The rest of the team worries me though. Eric Gordon probably has twenty games left before his body breaks down. Jrue Holiday no longer looks like an All-Star point guard out west. And why isn’t anyone talking about the incredible con job Tyreke Evans pulled off, somehow roping New Orleans into giving him a $44 million dollar contract? I hope for Davis’ sake Gordon stays healthy, Holiday pans out, and the Pelicans can find some sort of loophole that allows them a refund on the Evans contract. Even more than all of that, I hope Davis becomes that Garnett/Duncan hybrid I alluded to.
15: Atlanta Hawks
One of only three Eastern Conference teams in the top fifteen, and they don’t even have a chance of winning the conference. How pathetic. Damn Derrick Rose’s meniscus, Rajon Rondo’s ACL, the Knicks dysfunction and the Nets dreadfulness. The Hawks are the biggest beneficiary. They could somehow grab the three seed and host the certain-to-be stinky six seed in round one. They’ll win, and then get thumped in round two, keeping themselves on the vicious cycle of mediocrity. Someday when I’m a grandfather and my grandson is starting to fall in love with the NBA, he’s going to ask me about the history of the NBA. I’m so excited that at some point I will be able to tell him that for the last fifty years the Atlanta Hawks have been wildly mediocre. I get a little misty just thinking about it.
14: Phoenix Suns
An aesthetically pleasing team that has overachieved by just about anyone’s expectations but has little to no chance of making the playoffs. Still, the list of things I like about the Suns far outweighs the list of things I dislike. I enjoy the new uniforms and court design, Eric Bledsoe as a starting point guard, the small backcourt of Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, the prospect of watching enough Suns games where I can tell the difference between Marcus and Markieff Morris (they’re even similar statistically, it’s a nightmare), and more than anything else, I love that I can call an NBA coach “Horny” without it being inappropriate. Thanks, Jeff Hornacek!
13: Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers roster is one of the most random and oddly put together collections of players I can ever remember seeing in a major NBA market. Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Steve Blake, Wes Johnson, Chris Kaman, Xavier “Zah-Vee-Ay” Henry, a little bit washed up Pau Gasol and a version of Steve Nash that is so far beyond being washed up he’s actually completely dry now. What a murderer’s row of talent in the City of Angels! Somehow, the Lakers are still somewhat relevant in the loaded Western Conference and believe it or not, there is a slight glimmer of hope for Lakers fans going forward, and it shines in a tall glass of Vino. Kobe Bryant is presumably and hopefully making his return soon and what that means for the Lakers, I’m not totally sure. I didn’t expect them to tread water without Kobe, so I have no idea how he will change the team dynamic. Are they a playoff team? Title contender? In the lottery? Beats me. Regardless, getting Kobe back soon is a good thing. It doesn’t erase the pain of losing Derrick Rose, but at least it eases it.
12: Memphis Grizzlies
Did you hear that sound? Oh, you didn’t? It was the sound of the Grizzlies championship window being shut. I guess you could argue that it was already closed or that it was never even open in the first place, but when Marc Gasol suffered the dreaded “non-contact knee injury” that turned into an MCL sprain, the window was slammed shut a few times just for good measure. The Grizzlies were flawed to begin with. Not good enough offensively, not dominant enough defensively, and way too minutes being given to Mike Miller way too early on (the poor guy is going to end up in the hospital if they keep playing him twenty-four minutes per game). Now they lost the cornerstone of their offense AND defense for the next two to three months. It’s pretty sad. I have a soft spot for the Grizzlies. I love the Z-Bo/Gasol duo down low and they were the namesake of my intramural basketball team my junior year of college. The small market vibe of the crowd is fantastic and I’m the proud owner of a really cool snapback with the old school Grizzlies logo on the brim. It’s too bad that the sentimental stuff doesn’t really equate to NBA success. Even if the Grizzlies are likely to stumble, I still think they might be a playoff team. I like the mini-leap Mike Conley has made. I like the start to the season that Zach Randolph has had. Believe it or not, I actually like Kosta Koufos as Marc Gasol insurance. Above all of that, I like the system. The Grizzlies will keep grinding with Gasol on the bench. But what a grind that will be.
11: Denver Nuggets
Ten spots lower a week and a half ago, the Nuggets have recently surged winning seven out of their last nine games, toppling Dallas and Minnesota a total of four times in the last two weeks, and the pre Derrick Rose injury Chicago Bulls as well. We knew the Denver defense wasn’t going to stifle any opposing offenses this season, especially with Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer playing in Golden State and Minnesota respectively. Just like the past few years, the Nuggets were going to need to run and score and score some more and clean up on their home court to remain relevant. Right now it looks like they might be able to do all of that even though it’s their most questionable roster since the Carmelo trade. Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee are stocked away for the time being and should be vital contributors whenever it is they come back from injury. They don’t have a realistic chance to make serious noise in the playoffs without a top 35 player on the roster, but at least they can take solace in knowing that they rock my favorite alternate jerseys in the league—really, who doesn’t love those bright yellow mid-80’s throwbacks?
10: Minnesota Timberwolves
The last of the pseudo-contenders at the moment are the Minnesota Timberwolves, and like Dennis Green once exclaimed about the 2006 NFC Champion Chicago Bears, “they are who we thought they were.” In this case, that’s a tremendously fun offensive team that doesn’t play very good defense and gets limited bench production. Now if you want to crown them then crown their ass, but they are who we thought they were. And I can’t let them off the hook. I can’t consider Minnesota a realistic threat to win the Western Conference until the following things happen:
-Kevin Martin needs to continue do what he’s been doing now for a full season. 22.9 points, 43% from downtown… Man, he showed me. In case you didn’t know, I took some unprovoked shots at Martin last year as he was trying to fill the shoes of James Harden in Oklahoma City. I didn’t like his funky jump shot release or his ability to carry the Thunder offense for stretches of time like Harden was capable of. I just hated the trade in general, but I took out the majority of my frustrations on Martin. In retrospect it wasn’t justified, and he certainly looks good in a Timberwolves uniform. As you can see above, he’s scorching hot from downtown and providing the Wolves a vital second scoring option behind Kevin Love. But will it last?
-Ricky Rubio needs to stop shooting 35% from the field. Seriously, cut that shit out, Rick.
-The bench needs to be existent. Swapping Derrick Williams for Luc Richard Mbah a Moute might help, and whenever Chase Budinger comes back he should provide a bench boost, but right now only one regular bench player (Dante Cunningham) is shooting over 40% from the field. That’s not going to cut it.
-Kevin Love needs to continue to evolve. Look, I love Kevin Love. I love his swagger. I love his beard. I love his poor man’s Larry Bird potential. I love his work in the offseason to become a better passer, and I love his outlet passes a whole bunch. I love that when I play pick-up basketball he’s my most frequent comparison. But I don’t love the way he hasn’t figured out a way to score over length in the paint. I don’t love his mediocre defense and his appalling transition defense. As great as he is and as fun as he is to watch, he’s still got work to do before he’s capable of making a good team elite.
Part Three coming soon.