Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Indiana Pacers

2012-2013 W-L: 49-32

New Places: DJ Augustin (Toronto), Gerald Green (Phoenix), Jeff Pendergraph (San Antonio), Miles Plumlee (Phoenix),

New Faces: Chris Copeland, Luis Scola, Donald Sloan, CJ Watson

Draft: Solomon Hill (23)

The Pacers were one win away from the NBA Finals last season.  That’s a fact.  How close – extremely, awfully or very – Indiana actually came to beating the Heat is open to interpretation.

Yes, LeBron James made a game-winning layup as time expired in the first of a series that went the maximum seven games.  But that line of thinking doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the how the Eastern Conference Finals played out in reality.  The Pacers pushed an injured Miami team farther than most anyone anticipated, but the champs responded with aplomb whenever their collective back was truly against the wall: they won games 3, 5 and 7 by 20, 11 and 23 points respectively.

So Indiana came close to dethroning the Heat, but “seven games” doesn’t convey the true state of that series.  Miami controlled the action not at will, but certainly something close to it.  Contrast that to the true ebb and flow of the NBA Finals: though each series went the distance, in which set of games did the Heat face real and consistent doubt?

It’s important going forward to put Indiana’s loss to the Heat in the proper perspective.  Why? The Pacers might be a much better team this season than they were in 2012-2013.

No coach has ridden his starters like Frank Vogel over the last two seasons.  Indiana’s opening quintet played the second-most minutes of any lineup in the league last year, and led the NBA in 2011-2012.  It’s no secret the Pacers have lacked a corps of reserves befitting the team’s status as almost title-contenders, and Vogel made up for it in the most straight forward way possible.

A quick glance at lineup data from last year’s playoffs shows that Vogel’s hand was basically forced. Of eight non-starter groups that played at least 20 postseason minutes, only two had positive net ratings. The remaining six were – only a crass adjective applies – slaughtered; the ‘best’ of those lineups managed a -12.7 rating, and four of them registered red numbers in the mid-20s.

Help was on the way next year even if Indiana mostly stood pat this offseason, but Kevin Pritchard wasn’t satisfied.  The Pacers used cap exceptions to sign Chris Copeland and CJ Watson, each of whom is a major boost off the bench compared to recent Indy reserves.  Copeland is a limited defender and a bit one-dimensional on offense, but gives Vogel an opportunity to experiment with small-ball, floor-stretching lineups.  History’s shown he’s reluctant to abandon the Pacers more traditional power forward/center post identity, but that another option exists is at least a nice ace in the hole.  Still, the on-court impact of Watson’s signing is likely bigger.  He’s no super-sub, but an upgrade on Augustin in most every way imaginable.  Indiana absolutely fell apart without George Hill on the floor last season, and that won’t be the case in 2013-2014.

But the biggest fish here is Scola.  The price Pritchard paid to get him – Gerald Green, 2012 first round pick Miles Plumlee and a future lottery-protected first-rounder – seems high on the surface, but needs proper context.  Green’s reclamation project flamed out by mid-January, optimistic projections for Plumlee suggest a player like Mahinmi, and a Pacers first-rounder – barring a major injury to one of their stars – will be in the 20s the next half-decade.  Scola’s clearly on the downside of his career, but still offers Indy’s second-unit a versatile offensive cog.  He can post-up, pick-and-pop and play effectively from the elbow.  Fulcrums like this can keep the bench afloat.

Pritchard’s summer activity is just icing on the cake, though; the Pacers were going to get better reserve play next season nonetheless.  The rise of Paul George and fun of Lance Stevenson made it easy to forget Indiana played last season without former All-Star Danny Granger, but the potential influence gleaned from his return can’t be understated.  He’s not Indy’s best player anymore and won’t be utilized that way, but that’s a good thing for the Pacers.  Granger was stretched thin as a primary offensive option in his peak years, and should thrive playing a more ancillary role with Hill and George doing the lion’s share of ballhandling.  In fact, there’s no reason he can’t be an ideal ‘3-and-D’ type should he commit to that identity; the Pacers need all the space they can get on offense, and allowing George time away from guarding the opposition’s best wing threat is prudent.  The biggest question now is whether or not Granger assumes his role as a starter.  While a reserve part seems the right one, Vogel’s bench will receive a major boon one way or another.  Stephenson, after all,  is poised for bigger things this season.

The Pacers are another year older.  They made offseason moves that improved on their biggest weakness.  And they have an All-Star returning from injury.  So they’ll be better this season, and considering the way last year ended – on the road at Game 7 – all that could mean Indiana should be favorites in the Eastern Conference.  But that wasn’t a typical seven game series, the Heat aren’t a typical team and LeBron James isn’t a typical MVP.  Context always, always matters, and it renders a prediction for 2013-2014 we’re all accustomed to by now: until proven otherwise, it’s Miami with a bullet in the East.

But there’s room for a real title contender just below the Heat in the conference pecking order, a team considered the favorite should things go awry in South Beach.  Boston, Chicago and the Pacers have been noted challengers the past three seasons, and New York’s teams long to hop in the ring.  If that separation comes this season, Indiana’s the one most likely to have emerged from the fray – this summer’s ensured it.  And until they meet Miami again, that should be enough for the Pacers.

Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matt Bonner’s Summer Time ShakeDown

Everyone’s favorite San Antonio Spurs power forward, Matt Bonner, is well known for his love of sandwiches as he detailed in his Sandwich Hunter blog for Spurs.com. I personally love to eat something crunchy with a sandwich like a heaping handful of Kettle Brand Chips but it seems like Bonner has a more healthier approach to the sandwich sides game, baby carrots.

Bonner has teamed up with the smoothie, juice, salad dressing and carrot powerhouse that is Bolthouse Farms  to create a series of YouTube ads for their new seasoned baby carrot snack, ShakeDowns.

What are ShakeDowns? From the company’s website:

ShakeDowns® are simple. They’re fresh cut and peeled baby carrots with natural seasoning. Just release the seasoning, shake the bag and get the flavor all over your carrots. Then enjoy ShakeDowns® in Ranch or Chili Lime. With single serving or multi-packs, you can feed your snack cravings, however big they get.

Since baby carrots are often thought of as baby carrots, the company has created fun ads in the past to market ShakeDowns. So teaming up with Bonner for their new ad campaign, a NBA player who has made comedy videos like the Coach B series,  makes  a lot of sense.

So how did this collaboration with Bonner come together? According to MarketingMag.ca , Bonner knows one of the other actors in the commercials, Canadian Idol winner Ryan Malcolm:

That morning was especially crunched because the basketball player Matt Bonner was on set and only available until noon. A former Toronto Raptor, Bonner was a last-minute get for Bolthouse Farms, which is testing Shakedowns in Texas where Bonner now plays for the San Antonio Spurs. Proximity secured a deal for him to appear in the videos after learning that Ryan Malcolm, the singer and Canadian Idol winner who appears in all the videos, was friends with the athlete.

Bonner’s final take – “Sharing is caring. I’m Matt Bonner and I approve my message.”

Back on set, Bonner reconvened with the crew after the final take is approved. “I’ve never shot five commercials in two hours in my life,” he said.

Hopefully, these commercials will serve as an audition tape for Bonner to finally appear in commercials for the Texan supermarket chain, H-E-B, like many of his Spurs teammates have already done. If not, let’s hope more companies seek out Bonner for his commercial acting skills as I think we can all agree that seeing Matt Bonner in a commercial is the ideal way to sell a product.

 Top image via Bolthouse Farms Facebook Page

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Atlanta Hawks

2012-2013 W-L: 44-38

New Faces: Pero Antic, Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Cunningham, Paul Millsap, Mike Budenholzer (Head Coach, San Antonio Spurs)

New Places: Devin Harris (Dallas),  Zaza Pachulia (Milwaukee), Josh Smith (Detroit), Deshawn Stevenson (unsigned)

Draft: Lucas Nogueira (16), Dennis Schroeder (17), Mike Muscala (44)

Danny Ferry did it again.

Just one year removed from ridding Atlanta of Joe Johnson’s contractual albatross and parting seas for the future, the Hawks were set to rebuild.  Josh Smith was leaving, Dwight Howard never coming and this franchise’s run of five consecutive playoff appearances seemingly over.  But Ferry had other plans, and in a fell swoop of prudent offseason moves improved Atlanta’s present and future trajectory by leaps and bounds.

This is what it’s like to have competent leadership, Hawks fans.  And though it might not pay immediate dividends on the court this season, Ferry’s ideal combination of patience and foresight surely will in ones to come.

It’s only fitting that Smith departs Atlanta the same way he arrived and endured for the past nine seasons – as a divisive lightning rod.  The market fought over Smith’s consensus value this summer before ever agreeing on it, and given his play for the Hawks it made sense.  For all his unique versatility and vastly underrated defensive impact, Smith’s aggregate influence has always been less than his talent suggests it should be.  The Hawks knew that first-hand, and seemed reluctant to retain him even before Smith made it clear he wanted a fresh start elsewhere.

But the question remained: was letting Smith walk the right decision for Atlanta? There was never a clear answer either way until both sides finally played their hand.  Smith agreed to a four-year, $54 million contract with Detroit on July 6th.  He won.  The Hawks came to terms with Paul Millsap on a two-year, $19 million deal on July 7th.  They won, too.

That swap in a vacuum is a boon for Atlanta; having to replace a cog like Smith is almost always a negative proposition.  But Millsap is a very good player in his own right, and savvy enough to know the extent of his game’s limitations.  If he’s not at or above Smith’s level, he’s just below it at the very least.  And considering the parameters of their respective contracts, Millsap could even be an overall upgrade  – certainly with respect to the cap and possibly on the floor, too.

The salary ramifications of exchanging Smith for Millsap are important, because Atlanta suddenly has the assets to make a major splash at the trade deadline or through free agency in coming seasons.  The Hawks drafted 19 year-old point guard Dennis Schroeder with the 17th pick in June’s draft.  Two weeks later, the precocious German maestro was everyone’s Summer League darling and had some suggesting Atlanta part ways with Jeff Teague this offseason.  While that talk was premature, Schroeder’s potential and Teague’s new, extremely reasonable contract – four years, $32 million – give the Hawks options at point guard.  Anywhere they go from here – trading Schroeder, trading Teague, playing it out – is a luxury of which teams always take advantage.

Schroeder’s summer play was was aided by his innate chemistry with Nogueira, a seven-foot bundle of arms, hair and energy.  The 21 year-old Brazilian needs weight and far more experience against elite competition, but he’s a very intriguing prospect.  Nogueira will eventually make his mark in the NBA; the question now is the scope of its extent and when it will actually come.  Ferry announced last week that “Bebe” will spend this season in Spain playing for Asefa Estudiantes Madrid.  Regardless, he’s another piece that makes Atlanta feel good about its future.

Even without Nogueira, the Hawks won’t lack for serviceable big men behind Millsap and Al Horford.  Atlanta signed Elton Brand in free agency and claimed Gustavo Ayon off waivers from the Bucks; each has deficiencies, obviously, but no doubt provide the Hawks with adequate post depth.  That both of them have enough size to play center – allowing Horford to play power forward on occasion – should not be overlooked, either.

Atlanta mostly elected to stay put on the wing.  The Hawks traded for seldom-used Jared Cunningham on draft day and signed versatile free agent DeMarre Carroll, but will mostly rely on those already on the roster to flank Teague and Schroeder.  Good thing for them, then, that Lou Williams is set to return after missing the second-half of last season due to a torn ACL.  He’s no star, but certainly offers scoring and playmaking punch from the perimeter that Atlanta sorely missed in his absence.  Sophomore sharpshooter John Jenkins is coming off a strong summer league and is primed for a bigger role, and Kyle Korver re-signed, too.

The Hawks don’t have a true impact player at shooting guard or small forward, but instead have a litany of established players that know their specific role.  That’s hardly ideal, but not every team can have a Kevin Durant, Paul George or even Gordon Hayward.  Atlanta’s counting on its whole to be greater than the sum of its parts on the wing, which is a microcosm for how the Hawks will have to win this season in general.

Horford’s a genuine two-way star, Millsap an underrated offensive crutch and Teague a solid lead guard, but they won’t push Atlanta to the playoffs alone.  Longtime Spurs assistant and new head coach Mike Budenholzer is known for his defensive mindset, but will likely implement San Antonio-esque offensive principles, too.  Basically, it’s safe to assume that what the Hawks lack in top-end talent will be somewhat supplanted by team-wide discipline on both ends of the floor.

There’s a ceiling to Atlanta’s success in 2013-2014.  They won’t win the East and are unlikely to gain home-court playoff advantage, either.  But another season of approximately 45 or so wins and a familiar first round exit won’t mean what it has the past several years.  So though this season might seem status quo on the surface, it’s really anything but; there are steps on the road to real contention, and the Hawks have finally begun to climb them.

 

 

 

 

 

Hi! How was your summer? Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets were one of the most entertaining teams last season, and before Danilo Gallinari’s untimely and unfortunate injury, a dark horse contender for the NBA title. Early exit aside, the Nuggets seemed well-positioned for the future, with reigning Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, reigning Coach of the Year George Karl, and a roster sporting a great blend of talent, youth, utility and veteran savvy.

Then came the offseason.

Exit Ujiri, Karl and Iguodala stage left, enter Tim Connelly, Brian Shaw and a host of role players stage right.

Teams usually enter the rebuilding phase after one too many seasons of mediocrity, or when their core of stars become too old to carry the team to a title. Rarely, if ever, does a team press the big red detonation button after one of the best seasons in franchise history. And while the Nuggets didn’t wholly blow up the team, they may have actually become worse by not doing so.

To replace Karl, the Nuggets hired the highly-sought-after Brian Shaw, formerly a disciple of Phil Jackson. However, despite his upbringing in the coaching world, Shaw claimed he wouldn’t install the triangle offense in Denver. Supposedly, Shaw will maintain the same principles as Karl, emphasizing an aggressive defense and an always moving, always running offense. But can that system be as successful with Iguodala gone and Gallinari absent for the first few months of the season? Ty Lawson was the key to pushing the pace, but the abilities of both Gallinari and Iguodala to successfully play and guard multiple positions were what made the Nuggets such a nightmare in terms of match-ups.

It will also be interesting to see how Shaw uses his younger players, a main point of friction between Karl and the ownership. In his introductory press conference, Shaw said developing young talent was an area of emphasis, which means JaVale McGee, Evan Fournier, Jordan Hamilton and maybe even Quincy Miller will see increased minutes this season.

In an effort to address last season’s achilles heel — shooting — the Nuggets signed Randy Foye, who shot 41% from beyond the arc last season and Nate Robinson, who was so hot in the playoffs he would have made the Human Torch look like Iceman. However, the additions of Robinson and Foye don’t balance the scale, they just weigh them in the opposite direction. Ty Lawson, despite his tremendous season, was exposed on defense in the playoffs when Steph Curry opted to just shoot over the much-smaller Lawson. Robinson obviously doesn’t fix those height issues, and Foye is no staunch defender himself, and certainly worse than Corey Brewer, now with Minnesota.

The worse and most puzzling signing of the Nuggets’ offseason can be found up front. Even though Denver already featured a front court of Darrell Arthur, JaVale McGee and even Danilo Gallinari, who can shift to the four in small ball situations, theyfigured one more wouldn’t hurt and added JJ Hickson. Last season, Hickson played with the Portland Trail Blazers, and while he did average nearly 16 points and 13 rebounds per 36 minutes, the team overall was better on both ends of the floor when he was on the bench.With Hickson on the court, Portland scored 105.2 points per 100 possessions while opponents scored 110.2. With Hickson off the court, Portland’s offensive rating rose to 106.8, and their defensive rating sank to 108.5, per basketball-reference.com. It’s not that Hickson is absolutely horrible — though, he’s not good, either — but a line up featuring him and McGee down low will be a calamity on defense, and an unholy sight on offense.

The signing of Hickson is even more baffling when considered with the Kosta Koufos trade. Koufos was Denver’s best interior defender last year, and was a plus/minus monster. Yet, in a draft night trade, the Nuggets sent Koufos to the Memphis Grizzlies for Darrell Arthur. Though Arthur is more talented offensively than Koufos, he’s worse defensively and injury-prone. Regardless, with Arthur on board, the last thing the Nuggets needed was an undersized forward/center whose expected value as a defensive stopper is as high as Andre Drummond’s as a free-throw shooter.

This brings to light the biggest issue with Denver’s offseason: the complete eradication of their former identity, and their lack of a new one in its place. Iguodala may not have been the team’s best player, but he was their most important player, nearly single-handedly elevating that defense to new heights. Karl, meanwhile, though not without his faults, was the ideal coach for the roster, implementing a system that took advantage of his player’s strengths and weaknesses (In fact, Karl’s ingenious machinations were apparently too successful, as the NBA Board of Governors this summer approved a rule change stating a team will lose possession if its player leaves the floor and doesn’t immediately return. Karl often had players such as McGee and Koufos stand out of bounds on offense, thereby creating more space and stretching out the defense). Ujiri was the architect of this hodge-podge roster, patiently building it in accordance with his vision. Losing Karl and Iguodala meant a loss of identity, while the loss of Ujiri meant a loss of vision and direction.

Connelly, Denver’s new Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, came from the New Orleans Pelicans, and was regarded as a swiftly-rising young executive. While it’s far too early to judge Connelly’s ability to build a team, his first offseason, aside from his coaching hire, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Hiring Shaw was a good move in a vacuum, but the assets at Shaw’s disposal aren’t enough to make this team more than low playoff seed.  Of course it takes time to find an identity, but a direction should have been set the moment Connelly arrived in Denver. From the moves he’s made so far, it seems as if he’s still trying to read the map.

 Photo by Fried Toast via Flickr

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Cleveland Cavaliers

2012-2013 W-L: 24-58

New Faces: Andrew Bynum, Earl Clark, Jarrett Jack, Mike Brown (coach, Lakers/unemployed)

New Places: Omri Casspi (Houston), Marreese Speights (Warriors), Shaun Livingston (Nets), Wayne Ellington (Mavericks)

Draft: Anthony Bennett (1), Sergey Karasev (19), Carrick Felix (33)

Dan Gilbert didn’t make good on his personal Comic Sans guarantee of three summers ago; it’s almost fall 2013 now, and the “self-titled former king” has two NBA championships compared to Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ zero.  But no matter.  After another fortuitous and prosperous offseason, it’s time that Cleveland finally forgets.

The future is here.

The Cavaliers won the draft lottery.  They signed two marquee free agents.  Their young core is improving.  And they still have Kyrie Irving.  This season could be the first of what should be perennial playoff contention in Cleveland, and the Cavs have the summer to thank for accelerating their pace up a steep developmental curve.

This team will be better in 2013-2014, that much is certain.  It’s the extent of improvement that’s unknown for now; perhaps no team in the league has a ceiling so high and a valley so low.  Health is of utmost importance across the NBA landscape, but its potential influence looms larger in Cleveland than anywhere else.

Why? Irving, Bynum and Anderson Varejao – this team’s three most accomplished players – combined to miss 162 games last season.  Their simultaneous absence isn’t a fluke or coincidence, either; each has been notoriously injury-prone throughout their respective careers.

To rely on such considerable impact from multiple players with shoddy health histories isn’t ideal, but commend Cleveland for taking a chance.  A healthy Bynum is worth far more than the incentive-laden two-year, $24 million deal he signed with the Cavs in July.  His physical and emotional status will always be tenuous, but Bynum’s juice – even as he gets back up to playing speed after missing all of last season – is easily worth the squeeze of his contract.

Best case? He and Irving form the best center-point guard pairing this league’s seen in decades.  Worst? Cleveland pays $6 million for a year of his service and moves on next summer.

When – not if – Bynum and Varejao miss time due to injury, the Cavaliers are well-suited to withstand their absence.  Third-year big man Tristan Thompson made major strides last season, and is primed for another leap this year after completely reworking his jumper this offseason.  It’s been easy to overlook Thompson’s unprecedented effort to change his primary shooting hand, and Bennett’s presence undoubtedly has something to do with it.  His unique talent is obvious no matter your position on his draft selection.  Few players combine Bennett’s size and athleticism with such a versatile offensive repertoire.  And while sophomore center Tyler Zeller is admittedly limited, he’s above replacement-level.

There are redundancies here.  Thompson isn’t big enough to play center for extended periods, and Bennet’s chance to play the perimeter likely won’t come this season.  Zeller can’t rebound or defend, either.  But the Cavs’ post depth is suddenly an envy of many.  Even assuming injury complications, the Cleveland frontcourt should be a strength this season.

And taking that into consideration is when it’s easy to get excited about the Cavaliers.  Jack is a middling defender at best and sometimes prone to confounding shot-selection, but his two-way versatility is a valuable asset off the bench.  Lightening Irving’s heavy offensive burden is important for Cleveland going forward, and Jack’s presence certainly helps in that regard; Irving will thrive as a scorer a la Steph Curry when paired with Jack in the backcourt.  Dion Waiters is still in the mix too, of course, and will also benefit from Jack doing a lion’s share of ballhandling when he’s on the floor.

And though a three-headed playmaking monster of Irving-Jack-Waiters obviously presents a laundry list of defensive issues, they’d make up for much of them on the other end.  This won’t be Mike Brown’s primary set of perimeter players, obviously, but at the very least offers a scary late-game option when Cleveland needs points.

The Cavaliers are at least a mystery now.  Seasons like last year’s and the one before it are a thing of the past, when Cleveland had no realistic aspirations aside from internal development.  So questions are a good thing; they mean progress and potential.  Will the Cavs stay healthy? Can they play league-average defense? What to make of Bynum? Where does Bennett fit? How much better are Thompson and Waiters? Are Clark, Alonzo Gee and CJ Miles enough on the wing?

The questions are endless and the answers are varied.  That’s not enough for some teams, the ones that deserve to dream biggest.  But dreaming at all should be enough for Cleveland right now, a mere three years removed from heartbreak and complete destruction.  Playoffs for the Cavs? It’s really anyone’s guess, but that alone means they’re headed the right direction.

 

 

The Future of Injuries in the NBA

Photo: Flickr/Joey KWOK

Last season injuries played a major role in the NBA. We saw key players like Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo and their respective teams have the courses of their seasons altered in just the blink of an eye. By the end of the season being healthy had as much to do with — if not more — determining a team’s success as things like getting the right matchup and sheer talent. The eventual champion Miami Heat happened to be both healthy and talented, but still struggled to put away the San Antonio Spurs until Tony Parker tweaked his hamstring.

It’s especially no secret that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 2012-’13 season was undercut by injuries. Kevin Love, Andrei Kirilenko, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy– you name a player and they probably missed some time. This was a team that many felt should have contended for a playoff spot, but had their potential limited by injuries and allowed teams like the Lakers and Rockets to sneak in.

As a response to this, new Timberwolves general manager Flip Saunders is taking an initiative towards preventing season altering injuries as much as possible. Speaking at a press conference announcing Nikola Pekovic’s (A player who missed several games himself last season) re-signing Friday, Saunders addressed the issue after Pekovic was pressed about his own durability issues.

“We are working with Greg [Farnam] our trainer and we are going to be very proactive medically,” said Saunders. “I’ve been a firm believer, I believe there have been times we’ve over trained players and there’s been a number of injuries we’ve had over the last five or six years and players continue to trainer harder and harder and harder. And there’s got to be a part where we can come to a meeting of the minds between the two.”

Saunders’ idea isn’t some new fangled, revelatory, abstract idea for preventing injuries — in fact, the idea is quite simple at it’s core — but it’s a very simple step that can get conversation about how team’s can protect their players headed in the right direction. Really, it’s just communication, but in any type of personal or working relationship, it’s an important aspect that cannot be overlook for the organization as a whole to eventually be successful.

Saunders told the media following the presser that, “Coaches work guys, they want to get ‘em working on the floor. They get done, the strength coach wants to show his importance, so he takes ‘em, gets ‘em into the weight room. They get done and all these guys have personal trainers. The personal trainers want to show their purpose, so they take ‘em out and they take them out.”

Essentially, Saunders looks to get everyone on the same page, as opposed to several different people with several different plans for one player to avoid overtraining players before they even play the game.

“So it’s where the players are almost working too much, continued Saunders. “I think there has to be a meeting of the minds of all, and getting all the people. Really getting a good plan or a good format so that the players are doing the right thing and they’re not over-training parts of their body.”

In doing so, the team hopes to get the most out of all of it’s players to ensure success on the court, and on the business end as well. Many may not think about it, I didn’t, but it makes sense that you have several coaches and training professionals who are all pushing their agenda on one player based on what they feel is best without knowing that someone else may have already told them something similar, risking overtraining and later injury. By getting together and putting their recommendations into an open forum, they can design training regimens that are not just safer, but more effective, which benefits everybody involved.

The process has already begun. Saunders noted that Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, two of the most devastating injury cases the team has had recently, had employed more full-body training than they had in the past. Ricky has spent his summer with his trainer by the ocean kayaking, and Love has incorporated a yoga practice into his basketball and weight lifting regimen. On top of that, Saunders sent each of his players — not just Love and Rubio — with homework from the coaches on areas they’d like to see worked on with their trainers during the offseason.

As HP’s own Andrew Lynch and Steve McPherson uncovered last month at summer league, other teams are also addressing the injury bug, albeit in a more advanced way. The Spurs have begun tracking their players’ exertion in practices with their D-League affiliate with biometric vests that measure their effort and intensity so the team can better monitor their players. In other leagues around the world, the technology has decreased injuries while increasing performance. Read the article in the hyperlink; it’s fascinating stuff.

These steps, both big and small, could be huge in changing how future seasons play out. We’re talking everything from swinging championships, to MVP races, to saving jobs of coaches and general managers by being able to keep their best players on the floor. As fans, we’re also a beneficiary of this. Think about it: no more teams playing the regular season through as a high seed, only to have their best player suffer an injury at the worst possible time as their opponent rolls them in five games, robbing us of what was once a promising series.

We’re also talking extending players’ careers. We’ve already seen through out the years how career-ending injuries have become fewer and fewer, but now we could see fewer cases like Tracy McGrady where a players injuries compound to the point that their bodies can no longer support their basketball abilities. You can think of several cases like McGrady, who are unfortunate casualties on our way to understanding why injuries happen and how they can be prevented down the road.

The true key will be prevention at the levels prior to the NBA, but that will take time. Rick Barry told me a few months ago that he felt that a rigorous AAU schedule was a part of the problem because the players’ bodies are too underdeveloped to take the beating, setting them up for potential injury hazards down the road.

Of course, the technology that the Spurs use is likely out of the budget for many college programs, no less an AAU squad, but a simple step like that in which Saunders is taking costs very little and could make a big difference.

“The players that came out to Chicago there were a lot of young players with the beginning of arthritis, you know, tendonitits and that at that young age,” Saunders added later on. “So I believe we gotta change it; we’ve got to be more proactive, find a way to be cutting edge.”

According to himself, the new Timberwolves general manager doesn’t believe he has all of the right answers at. However, it certainly seems like they’re moving towards finding them with even just a small step. After all, half of the battle of arriving at that answer is being aware that you have a problem and what you have been doing isn’t working. For a team like the Timberwolves looking to return to the playoffs after a decade, looking at the injury question differently may eventually bring them the right answer. And the more talented teams in the NBA, the better the viewing is, so everybody wins.

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Portland Trail Blazers

2012-13 W-L: 33-49

New Faces: Terrel Harris, Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, Earl Watson, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright

New Places: Luke Babbitt (unsigned), J.J. Hickson (Denver), Jared Jeffries (waived), Eric Maynor (Washington), Sasha Pavlovic (waived), Nolan Smith (unsigned), Elliot Williams (unsigned)

Drafted: C.J. McCollum (10), Allen Crabbe (31)

The Blazers hung around the fringes of the playoff race for far longer than anybody expected last season. LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum and Damian Lillard powered a starting lineup that was actually pretty decent for most of the year, but the bench unit was an outright disaster.

So Neil Olshey went to work this offseason acquiring pieces to supplement his starting lineup. He gave up two European stash prospects and two second round picks to acquire Thomas Robinson, who this time last year was a top-5 pick about to enter his rookie season. Sacramento gave up on him, and Houston just gave him up. Now he’s got a chance to really get some minutes.

Portland then inserted itself into the Tyreke Evans-Greivis Vasquez trade, and got a serviceable center who can actually play some defense for its troubles. The cost was just second round pick Jeff Withey, a future 2nd round pick, and cash. Lopez is a guy who finally allows LaMarcus Aldridge to shift to his preferred position of power forward pretty much full time (even if LMA and the Blazers have been more successful when Aldridge plays the 5), and also one who can both run and defend the pick and roll in equal measures. He’s solid, and that’s basically all you need next to an All-Star at the other big man slot.

The rest of the offseason was about adding firepower. C.J. McCollum was probably the best scorer in the draft. Allen Crabbe was considered one of the top shooters in the draft. Mo Williams and Dorell Wright are three point bombers. These guys will all get their chances to light it up from outside. LMA, Batum and Lillard are still the bell-tollers in Rip City, but now they’ve got some teammates who can actually make defenses pay for doubling off them.

McCollum and Williams figure to split their time between backing up Lillard at the point and also playing next to him some, and may share the backcourt without Lillard at certain times as well. Crabbe will swing between the 2 and 3 spot, Wright will do the same at the 3 and 4, and Robinson can soak up some front court minutes at either spot, if Portland decides it wants to go small when Aldridge is in foul trouble (for example). There’s a lot more versatility here than there was last season.

These moves, while impressive within the limited financial outlay with which Portland made them, do not push the Blazers over the top into the realm of contenders. But they should probably make the playoffs, which is a fine first step.

82 Games.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds via Flickr.

Nothing quite compares to following the day-to-day rhythms of a sport, save for following it so closely that the events, musings and ensuing “adjustments” of any given season feel overwhelmingly predictable. For fans and analysts, this process can become tiresome. Often, we watch sports to escape the mundane drudgery of our realistic lives with realistic goals and realistic setbacks but 65 games into an 82-game regular season, much of the once-magical narrative that fused an ebbing and flowing connection between our minds and our television screens turns into just that: mundane drivel.

You’ll often hear people say that sports are a metaphor for life. The NBA; that prodigal, apt product with no regard for the bothersome nature of back-to-back’s and holiday matchups, has mastered this fine truth in-so-far that it anticipates and mimics the boredom that haunts our lives even more effectively than it does our triumphs. For most of us, real-life victories are rarely, if ever, delivered with the same sense of menacing, instantaneous euphoria and jaw-clenching supremacy of a last-second block or a game-winning shot. Ours is a long-awaited, cerebral, calming success — the kind that, since it’s expected, simply soothes our souls and does away with our worries. On the other hand, in the sports world, success and failure are abstractions created for the purpose of being overblown and exacerbated.

Instead, boredom — even under the lights of the Garden — creeps in like a decidedly human beast. It teaches us that even in a subworld dominated by LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Kobe Bryant’s snark and Kevin Durant, anything with a circadian regularity feels menial after a period. We learn that it’s necessary to remind ourselves, really force ourselves, to do what we love. More importantly, we learn that doing so doesn’t undermine our love but that what we love is just another part of life and that life, in spite of what the #inspirational quotes tell you, is supposed to feel meaningless sometimes. Here’s the thing. Sports really are a metaphor for life. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that sentence and moaned since the first time I saw it but it’s true. 82 games remind us that the key to having a good game is to pick your spots. Let the game come to you. Don’t burn out too early in the season. Keep shooting, JJ. Keep going inside, LeBron. More than anything, it reminds us that the evidence provided by 82 games is really just the summation of one grand lesson: if you have even a fraction of a choice, play the long game.

So, this is a little crazy: it’s midnight in a foreign city and I’m only a few beats away from completely freaking out. Sure, there are triggers, but you don’t really get to choose a convenient time for this kind of thing to happen. Anxiety leaves me vulnerable to even the most weightless fear so it’s not often that anything can keep me calm in moments like these but today, by some means, basketball has that power.

“Regression to the mean. Regression to the mean. Regression to the me…”
“Defense wins championships. Defense wins championships. Defense wins ch…”
“There’s no such thing is an extended miracle. There’s no such thing as…”

Really, what the logical part of my mind is trying to tell the other parts is that no matter what happens, no matter what I think about for the next 20 minutes, “everything is going to be alright.” It’s hard to communicate that sort of a phrase in a way that resonates, however. Bubbling under the graceless, oversaturated use of clichés is an unsought truth: the phrases we’ve run dry through mockery and ill-use remain talismanic thanks to their necessity. Simply put, clichés, because we focus on the fact that they sound lame over how necessary they are, never really have an effect past semi-thoughtful, mostly hazy tweets at 3 AM, if that. It doesn’t matter what your favourite sport is (unless your favourite sport is going through articles and editing my Canadian spelling because that sport sucks and so do you, Jared). Every sport is nothing more than just a game. It’s unimportant. It’s menial. At the core, it’s super-human specimens dedicating their lives to arbitrary rules based on arbitrary boundaries for the sake of our entertainment. Writing about these things is fun. It allows me the means for creativity provided by a news cycle without the pressure of reporting real news, and sometimes it — wrongly, I might add — fuels a sense of worthlessness I feel within myself that compels me to attach that worthlessness to everything I do, including the words I create. That works, right? Sports aren’t mundane, just worthless. Unfortunately, that line of thinking is troublesome as well. Basketball is a metaphor for life and in being such a thing, it forces us to consider and take heed to the adages we so often take for granted. Keep shooting, JJ. Keep going inside, LeBron. Stay true. Try. Try harder. Just keep on keepin’ on. Sports are important, so much so that each inconsequential reaction is worthy of every gut-wrenching, mind-draining emotion or word I’ll ever spend on it.

The everlasting rhythmic qualities of a season are as such: to begin, a sense of hope prospered by the enchanting glow of two zero’s and with a dash in between them; in the middle, obscurity in the face of unanswered narratives, tiresome dialogues and diminished consequences and lastly, the end; that insatiably immortalizing answer to all prior questions, dangerously simplifying the frenzy and gleeful confusion of eight months past. That’s where sports and life differ the most. We never really get to see the end. Rather, we see the end of certain phases. And even then, we mock the seemingly trivial concerns of the past; adults disparaging adolescence, seniors offering their sage advice to those same 40-something’s. Still, there’s something to be learned here, like maybe we should take a step back in order to avoid overreacting to every waking moment. “In the grand scheme of things, does this really change anything?” “It makes no sense to worry about things you have no control over.” Again, it’s impossible to drill quotes from the internet into your head, useful and wise as they may be. Especially when you’re 19 and every mistake feels like it’s the end of the world. It’s a funny age to be, 19. We’re relaxed but at the same time, we’re constantly rushing for no reason. We want to feel a sense of achievement, often before we’ve felt the sweat and blood of real, damning work. We’re lost; consuming information more often than we’re actually learning anything and we’re overwhelmed. Luckily, over the course of countless two-and-half-hour intervals and hundreds of meaningless final scores, the clichés become easier to fundamentally understand. 82 games reminds me that one doesn’t matter and that no matter what I think about for the next 20 minutes, the sun will still rise the next day. We all pine for a deeper, omniscient kind of success — immortality in some form or another — 82 games reminds me that even in the world of sports, where literal immortality is an achievable end, the journey, despite what people tell you, holds the highest esteem in our memories.

My problem is I’m always sifting through things, compiling lists and looking forward to finishing them — trying to induce myself to reach the end. My mind races; I become very caught up in this stuff and it sucks because a to-do list is never really finished in that it never runs out of ways to discombobulate and speed up your thoughts. 82 games reminds me the journey is the part worth remembering and the end is just a conceptualized vision I have for a final, conclusive intersection between satisfaction and joy (or something to that effect) that’s never existed and never will. And it’s probably a good thing. The twists and toils of real life, while maddening, deafening and ultimately, tiresome will always be accompanied by greater rewards.

Slowly, you begin to realize that these games reinforce every cliché you’ve quenched with the same irony to which you eagerly retreat every time you’ve had to feel the brunt of being tested, although sincere deliberation could have saved your life. Because sports are a metaphor for everything. If you allow it to, a sporting match can put life’s most burdensome topics — death, war, love and struggle — into simplified, more finalized and answerable terms. As long as you remember these things aren’t exactly the same; that sports are still primarily entertainment and real life will always be accompanied by complications while bereft of endings, there’s a lot to take away when you’re paying attention for 82 games.

You learn what you like and what you believe in so you develop a certain value system. Some of these philosophies stay with you throughout your life, always stubbornly, while others make a quicker exit than the Nietzche-driven existential crisis you picked up during your first semester at the liberal arts institution of your choosing. You’ve learned that you have to make a few tough adjustments along the way — maybe trading a fan favorite — or else you’ll perish.

You learn that sometimes you have to shut your mind off and do what feels right; throw caution to the wind, consequences be damned. Just shut up and play. You learn that you have to let some things go because while games have final scores, life doesn’t. You learn that it’s okay, because some things are meant to be open-ended and some stories are better left unanswered. More importantly, you learn that life doesn’t provide you with a clear game plan for winning because life has no clear winners and no clear losers.

You learn that it’s important to be innovative and fearless in the eye of a challenge but that recklessness rarely leads to overblown triumph like the climaxes of movies would have you believe. Most of the time, the shot that starts the engine for Tracy McGrady’s 13-points-33-second’s marvel clangs off the rim and seals a victory for the other team. You learn that sometimes the climax becomes a crippling aftermath, all for the sake of decisions you never really wanted to make. You learn that history’s conquering acts of heroism often involve allowing someone else to take the role of the hero. You learn that Kobe usually won’t hit that shot. You learn that progress requires a fine balance between creativity, carelessness and predictability  that no one ever really masters.

You learn that the whole of life is just a gigantic struggle between deciding when to be selfish and when to be unselfish. When to shoot and when to pass. When to drive the lane with reckless abandon and when to set the offense. You learn that these things are as simple as they are impossible. It takes experience, it takes a cerebral, Chris Paul-esque sense of everything that’s happening around you. It takes the skillful ability and willingness to do both at the blink of an eye.

You learn that it takes a lot more than what 99 percent of us are given. You learn that you’re supposed to fail. Statistics suggest that on a yearly basis, 29 out of every 30 people fail.  If you’re not failing, you’re probably not even playing the game. You learn that sometimes the things you love force you to think about the final score, so you have to learn how to push back and force yourself to continue doing the things you love despite the unlikeliness of your dreams. Again, you learn that this doesn’t diminish your love but that this is simply the nature of things and that in life, even when it comes to matters of love, you create your own silver linings.

All in all, you learn.

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Utah Jazz

2012-2013 W-L: 43-39

New Faces: Ian Clark, Andris Biedrins, Richard Jefferson, John Lucas, Brandon Rush

New Places: DeMarre  Carrol (Atlanta), Al Jefferson (Charlotte), Paul Millsap (Atlanta), Earl Watson (Portland), Mo Williams (Portland)

Draft: Trey Burke (9), Rudy Gobert (27), Raul Neto (47)

These are exciting times for the Jazz.

That sounds nonsensical.  Utah let its two best players walk in free agency and completed a trade that nets them almost nothing of immediate consequence for the upcoming season but $24 million in guaranteed salary.  Burke’s draft-day slide was a major coup and Gobert’s longterm potential certainly intrigues, but neither is enough to offset the impact of Jefferson and Millsap’s departure.

The major roster overhaul foretold by the February 2011 trade of Deron Williams is finally here, and with it begins this organization’s first ‘rebuilding’ year since 2004.  The Jazz don’t have realistic playoff hopes in 2013-2014, have fully embraced a long-awaited youth movement, and emerge from a summer in which every move was made with the horizon in mind.

But Utah isn’t the Philadelphia 76ers or even the Boston Celtics.  There’s reason for optimism in Salt Lake City now and going forward, which puts the Jazz in a unique and enviable position among the teams that underwent offseason construction in anticipation of next summer’s loaded draft.

Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are the justification for Utah’s optimistic prospects, just as they’ve been for two seasons running.  But things are different with Jefferson and Millsap playing elsewhere; they’re suddenly this team’s future and present as opposed to just the latter.  That means more opportunity but more responsibility, too.  So while there’s a reason the Jazz aren’t on anyone’s short-list of potential playoff teams, there’s another they’ll remain competitive regardless: Hayward, Favors and Kanter might be really, really good.

That Utah’s three best players are valuable NBA contributors at the very worst is obvious; what isn’t is the slope of their career trajectories going forward.  We’ll finally get the proper opportunity to gauge that this season, though, and what we learn is paramount to this franchise’s direction going forward.  Are they merely starter-level? Is one of them an All-Star? Can Favors and Kanter play together? Is Hayward best as a shooting guard or small forward? There’s enough to suggest multiple answers to every question, and the hope is Utah will have enough real evidence after this season to narrow down the possibilities.

Point being, there’s talent here.  And it’s not just in Hayward, Favors and Kanter, either.

Burke, everyone’s darling of the NCAA Tournament, was once projected as the second overall pick in the draft.  He wasn’t a realistic option for Utah after March, but draft night’s wild lottery gave them a chance to acquire him.  Surrendering the 21st pick of a weak draft to swap the 14th for Burke – considered by many as the top point guard in the 2013 class – was an easy choice for the Jazz, long in search of a franchise lead guard.  Burke is hardly without deficiencies, but at the very least stops Utah’s revolving door of floor generals since being forced to trade Williams.  Noted physical limitations plagued him during summer league play, but Burke’s future is bright.

His potential influence – despite Burke’s limitations, he’s a likely upgrade on the departed Mo Williams and a certain one over Jamaal Tinsley – as an overall playmaking threat will pay dividends for the rest of Utah’s young core, and perhaps most notably third-year guard Alec Burks.  Despite flashes of two-way impact and a rare physical profile, Burks has struggled to earn consistent playing time over his first two seasons despite his team’s lack of viable options on the wing.  But he showed considerable improvement last season nonetheless, especially as a defender and three-point shooter.  He’s not a foundational piece for the Jazz yet, but this should be the year Burks gets a real chance to show he belongs as a fixture of Utah’s longterm plans.

The rest of this roster is made up of career journeymen.  But there’s a silver-lining here, with the contracts of Biedrins, Jefferson, Rush and Marvin Williams set to expire after this season.  Though the Jazz likely won’t make a major trade deadline splash unless the ideal scenario presents itself, they should be active as third-party facilitators; teams with so many salary, player and draft assets are always sought-after trade partners come late February.

Mediocrity gets you nowhere in the NBA, a fact Utah was reluctant to admit until this summer.  So instead of clawing tooth-and-nail for another chance to lose in the first round come spring, the Jazz are sitting that fight out with a longterm payoff in mind.  But their’s is a different rebuilding process than the rest, one as much about players already on the roster as those that might be this time next year.

A small step back makes it easier to take a giant leap forward.  The Jazz understand that now, and have as encouraging a future as ever because of it.  Don’t let the losses this season fool you; Utah should still be the force we’ve thought it will in years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hi! How Was Your Summer? Houston Rockets

 

Photo: Flickr/relucesco22

2012-’13: 45-37

New Faces: Dwight Howard, Omri Casspi, Reggie Williams, Aaron Brooks and Marcus Camby.

New Places: Thomas Robinson (Portland), James Anderson (76ers), Royce White (76ers), Tom Olbrecht (Also, 76ers), Carlos Delfino (Bucks)

Draft: Isaac Canaan (34th overall)

In short, this was the offseason Daryl Morey got his White Whale– Dwight Howard. For years, Morey had been amassing assets upon assets in hopes of being able to build a team appealing to a top free agent. Now, this season will be time for the Rockets to move on to the next part of their plan and see just how far this thing that Morey built will take them.

Acquiring Howard didn’t come painlessly. They gave up Thomas Robinson– a recent top-5 pick who could just never find the right fit for him to develop. Now he’s gone, and so is Royce White, who was also another first round pick, to the Sixers, joining about 87 other former Rockets in The City of Brotherly Love. However, the bulk of what the Rockets lost were expendable pieces. They were assets, meant to be disposed of in the name of acquiring a star and surrounding him with the best possible team. Guys like Robinson and White weren’t going to help them next season, so Morey sent them out east.

Joining Dwight, Omer Asik, James Harden and James Harden will now be Aaron Brooks, Marcus Camby, Omri Casspi and Reggie Williams. While they may not see tons of court time, we’ve seen with the Miami Heat how a championship team needs spot contributions from any given player on the roster for periods of time. Although, if your season comes down to playing Marcus Camby heavy minutes in 2014, you are probably more worried about where your drafting than what your playoff seed will be. It shouldn’t come to that. We think. We hope.

As for Canaan, he may not play a ton behind Jeremy Lin and Aaron Brooks, but the undersized point guard could provide them with some instant offense, should it come to that. But when you have Harden, Chandler Parsons (Woah. Forgot about him. This team is good.), Dwight…etc. offense shouldn’t be a problem.

The Rockets had an offseason that puts them right up there with the Spurs, Thunder and Clippers among the Western Conference’s elite. If Dwight is healthy and head coach Kevin McHale can put it all together, the Rockets could be a matchup nightmare on just about every night. Morey finally saw his plan through up to this point, now let’s see where this goes.