The new season has finally arrived, and just like every year, I can’t believe I went four and a half months without it. The 2009-2010 campaign is shaping up to be a beauty, for so many reasons. Will we see the King finally crowned with his new Diesel-powered sidekick? Will Dwight get redemption along with the man they once called Air Canada? Will Tim Duncan drag his team to the Final round once more, as a final salute to one of the greatest careers of all time? Can Kobe get a fifth ring to cement his legacy as the most dominant player in the post-Jordan era? Will the Celtics squeeze one more title out of their aging All-Star cast? Or will a new contender rise to steal the thunder and remind us that nothing in this sport is a given?
Too many stories to unfold, but we know one thing for sure: they will unfold, over the next eight months. So on the eve of the 2009-2010 season, I thought we’d take a look at ten of the more intriguing storylines. Helping me out are a couple of fellow bloggers from the very excellent Two Sides of the Hoop, Paul and Ryan. It won’t be the last time you see them around on NBAMate.
1. Big Ben back is back in Detroit, and so is that chip on the shoulder
Maybe it’s because I’m a Detroit fan, but every single season preview I’ve read over the last few weeks seems to have completely overlooked, discounted, and downright disrespected the Detroit Pistons. Most ESPN “experts” tipped them to miss the playoffs. Sports Illustrated agreed. Kelly Dwyer over at BDL picked them to win 40 games, John Hollinger even less. The Season Opening Power Rankings had them at 18th, one spot above the fu**ing Clippers. How does this happen?
No really, how does this happen? Because I think everyone is forgetting some pretty simple facts. Let’s go through them.
A) The Iverson experiment was a complete debacle, and ignoring a two week period where Detroit looked great, AI only served to disrupt, distract, and destroy the once infallible Pistons team spirit – both on the court, and off. It screwed up Rip’s groove (a groove he had been in for pretty much seven years), messed with the rhythm of a young, impressionable Rodney Stuckey, and pissed off our new coach (see below).
B) Rasheed Wallace was but a shadow of a man last season, a completely uninterested and unmotivated waste of space. It was without doubt his worst season in Detroit.
C) The players never really bought into Coach Curry, who in fairness, had a dream job become a nightmare after the Chauncey-for-Iverson trade. Hard to win respect from the players in such a tumultuous season.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but A) Iverson is gone, B) Sheed and his laconic ways are no more, and C) Coach Curry was fired. In their place, they have added the unshakable Ben Gordon, a versatile X-factor in Charlie V, a much more experienced and offensively-minded coach, a promising rookie in Austin Daye, an old familiar face in Ben Wallace (who judging by pre-season is a lot more energetic than he was the last two seasons), and a serviceable back-up in Chris Wilcox. Yes they lost McDyess (that stings), but I’m struggling to see the real decline here. If you’re picking Detroit to miss the playoffs and/or end up with around 40 wins, you’re effectively saying they’re no better off than last year… but they clearly are. And in typical Pistons fashion, they will prove it to you. Pistons to finish 5th out East. Bank it.
2. Shaq Vs… The Cleveland Show?
I love Shaquille O’Neal. It’s as simple as that.
He brings a weird unpredictability to pre and post-game press conferences, pre-game rituals, reality TV shows and NBA seasons alike. However, Shaq’s latest work has got me thinking.. Shaq is actually extremely predictable, and always intriguing. Recently O’Neal was quoted as saying that this years Cavalier squad is "probably the best team I’ve ever played on, on paper anyway".
Now I’m sure a small percentage of narrow-minded Cleveland fans are rejoicing at this quote from the Big Revelation but let’s face it, this is Shaq’s normal routine. Every time he lands in a new city he has promised things and in most cases he’s delivered. But time is getting on and the promises are starting to rely a lot heavier on his teammates than on the Big Diesel himself.
In LA he stated that a new Dynasty was to begin, and it happened. In Miami he held a giant Super Soaker to the crowd and declared Miami to be Championship bound, and it happened. However, as the years have rolled on, the promises have fallen short. No more so than in Phoenix as the Big Cactus became the potential "Big Undoing" of Steve Kerr and the Suns.
Now the chance is here to resurrect his "Big Aristotle" moniker as he prepares to jettison LeBron James into the upper echelon of NBA Stardom. Only a Championship will do in Cleveland this year, and let’s face it, if they do claim the title, Shaquille O’Neal will claim it as majority his doing.
Will the Cavs rise to glory? Or will they and Shaq secure another sad chapter in the city of Cleveland’s disappointing sporting history?
3. Under The Radar Contenders
We all know the list of elite teams in the league for this year. It’s not long, with just the Lakers, Magic, Celtics, Cavs and Spurs getting a VIP ticket. The storyline that I’ll be closely watching as the 09/10 season unfolds is what other teams are going to step up and join this list. There is always a few every year who over-perform. Last year it was most obviously Denver with the Chauncey factor, but this year it’s wide open. Will Portland continue to ascend if Oden is for real? I like their team but they don’t interest me in this space because everyone is talking about them.
The real under-the-radar teams are the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and the Phoenix Suns. The Jazz can and probably will move Boozer to a team wanting to get a head start on 09/10 free agency and could get the multi-dimensional wing that they really need. This would be a double-win for them, since it would open up minutes for Kirilenko to move back to the 4 where he is most effective off the bench as a small ball 4. Then there’s the Mavericks who have a free-spending owner and a pretty sparkly trade chip in Erick Dampier’s contract which has a fresh soon-to-expire sticker. If they flip Dampier for a productive player who actually deserves court time, they’ll move up the standings considerably. The team I’m most interested in is Phoenix. They have a fantastic lineup for small-ball again, and if the nucleus of Nash, Barbosa, J-Rich, Grant Hill, Stoudamire and a long-time favourite of mine, Channing Frye, can click on all cylinders, no one will want to face them come playoff time. Or they’ll self-destruct and be a train wreck. Either way, I’m in.
4. Will anyone start to take the Atlanta Hawks seriously?
If I had a dollar for every time over the last few weeks I’ve read “After Cleveland, Boston and Orlando, Atlanta are clearly the leaders of the pack out East”, well… I’d have at least six or seven dollars. It amazes me how quickly people are willing to slap the “4th out East” sticker on Atlanta and move on. Like they have absolutely no bearing on how the season will play out. Like they’re just filling up space. Even last in last year’s playoffs against Miami a lot of people were tipping the Heat, despite the four-game difference in win record and Miami’s lack of home-court advantage.
The fact is Atlanta are better this season. Unlike Boston, Cleveland and Orlando they didn’t go screwing with their roster. They retained their core (Flip Murray is only fun for one year), drafted a promising scorer in Jeff Teague (really like the look of this kid), traded for Jamal Crawford (a seriously overlooked move – I don’t like JC, but the only players with more 50 point games and buzzer beaters over the last five years are Kobe, Lebron, Wade and Arenas – look it up), and they signed Joe Smith who will provide a calm head and help space the floor. They even picked up Jason Collins to throw at the really big bodies. All this to add to the solid line up of Bibby, Johnson, Smith, Horford, Williams and Zaza. In short, I love this team from top to bottom. They pack a punch, have depth, have size and athleticism, and they’re still young (Bibby is the elder statesmen at 31). The reason people aren’t taking them seriously has nothing to do with their weaknesses – it is because they are Atlanta, and because of the superstar factor (or lack thereof). I’ll predict them to finish 4th out East, like everyone else. But the “pack” isn’t from 4th-8th like everyone thinks. It’s 1st-4th.
5. T-Minus 60 Games…?
Tracy McGrady has never been an NBA player I’ve been that into. For a while I just thought of him as VC’s cousin, and I loved how he teamed up with Vince to make Jerry Stackhouse’s life hell in the 2000 Slam Dunk Competition. Being next in line to dunk after Carter that year was like being the next guy to date Paris Hilton. It was fun of course, but there was something just tarnished and busted about it.
Then McGrady went to Orlando and instead of blossoming, was rather one dimensional for mine. A gifted scorer and high flyer but somewhat lacking when it came to really interesting/intriguing me. Now I’m no Pistons fan at all, but for some reason I rejoiced rather mightily when T-Mac basically "looked beyond" Detroit in a 2001 First Round Playoff series while leading 3-1. The Magic and most importantly T-Mac promptly went on to lose three straight games to be eliminated. There’s that, and the fact that I’ve never really liked Orlando.
Then with McGrady’s move to the Rockets I felt nothing. No admiration of the new look, new uniform, nothing. I didn’t care that T-Mac was there at all. The only time since the 2000 Dunk Comp that I felt anything for him was when he destroyed the Spurs with 13pts in 35 seconds back in 2004.
I don’t like the Spurs. I respect them but I don’t really enjoy anything they offer. I hate Tony Parker with a passion and I’m still waiting for a feisty 12th man to split his or Manu’s nose on a Playoff "tear-drop" drive. Seriously, the tear drop is the Basketball equivalent of shaving your legs. Sure, guys can do it but when they do, they look like chicks.
So back to the question at hand… How is T-Mac intriguing? Well to me, I guess short of just wishing the guy luck regarding injury ala Grant Hill, he’s not. He conjures up very little to no emotion from me from a group of athletes that is littered with sub-plots, success stories, trials and tribulations. However, the greater Basketball community seem to love T-Mac and what he does, (or lately doesn’t) bring to the NBA landscape. With this in mind, he’s definitely an intriguing story for 2009/10.
Will he play 60+ games this year? No. Will he ever play 60+ games in a season? Probably not. I guess there’s always the possibility of Playoff games. Maybe he’ll make it beyond 60 if Houston includes another unlikely Playoff run like he missed out on last year?
6. Most Overrated Superstars
The term superstar is bandied about very easily now and that’s understandable since it’s pretty subjective. Every player in the League was a superstar on their AAU and/or college team for instance, but once they reach the talent pool of the league, it shifts and adjusts. There is a raft of teams for whom this shift hasn’t occurred, be it from not living up to expectations, only flashing their enormous talent, being past their prime, or just playing out of the spotlight.
- Allen Iverson is the obvious number one on this list. More past his prime than Hobie from Baywatch, Iverson’s public perception is way out of whack with his on court abilities.
- Chris Bosh is a player I’m just not a huge fan of (on-court that is, I love his comedic work!). I don’t see Chris being more than a Robin to a more talented Batman on a great team.
- Carmelo Anthony is talked about in hushed tones as if he belongs with NBA royalty like LeBron and Wade, but he just doesn’t. He is a taller Iverson clone who just doesn’t ‘get it’. The light bulb may flicker on eventually like it did for Paul Pierce, but he will never be a team leader on a great team.
- Tony Parker gets too much credit in my opinion. He’s fast, but why oh why won’t someone smash his face on one of those drives? He wouldn’t get away with that at a Rec. League game, so why does he in the NBA? And his anaemic assist rate and NBA Finals MVP both make me puke. I like his wife though.
7. Can Bogut finally establish himself as an elite center in the league?
That question is not supposed to sound critical. We (as Aussies) know very well what Bogut’s potential is, and how injuries have prevented him from being regarded as an unquestioned Top 5 center in the league. But will this be the season it actually happens? Before his injury last season the Bogey Man was comfortably averaging 12 and 10 on 57% shooting, with 2 assists and a block thrown in. This was all on less than 9 shot attempts per game, which as I repeatedly said last year, was an absolute crime (think about how many centers in the league can put up those numbers with such limited opportunities on the offensive end?).
More shots for Bogut this year, combined with a healthy Michael Redd and a spryly young guard by the name of Brandon Jennings, could mean Bogut’s numbers increase and he’ll start getting the recognition he deserves. Which is a good thing, because the Bucks as a team are pretty fu**ed. They lost Richard Jefferson for essentially nothing, lost Charlie V for precisely nothing, and they let Ramon Sessions go for, wait for it… nothing. All that means less W’s for the Bucks but should definitely see Bogut play a bigger part. Don’t get me wrong, basketball is all about the team. But as an Aussie NBA fan, I can’t help be a little selfish in wanting Bogut to have a fantastic (and healthy) individual year – even if the team success doesn’t come just yet. Of course, a Bucks fan would beg to differ.
8. Memphis passing me by…
With the additions of Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson, the Grizzlies have added two veterans with patchy behavioural pasts. Both are not particularly partial to the assist and when you consider the list of active players’ total career Field Goal attempts, these two sit near the top, with Allen Iverson in the number one spot! Now I’m no GM, and I’m not privy to Memphis’ ticket sales numbers, but it will be interesting to see what else this team offers other than a record low assist count and a record high Technical foul count. Maybe they’ll make a trade deadline move for Sheed if all is not well in Boston come February?
Obviously someone has to pass the ball around to get the job done in Memphis, and if you’re a point guard it could be the best possible team to play for. At any given time you’ll have four teammates on court with you that are basically void of any other knowledge other than to shoot the Basketball. Now, factor that in with the fact that Mike Conley and Marcus Williams are in the final year of their respective deals… and here comes the Intrigue Train! Who can inflate their value and maybe cash in on a statistically successful season?
Every pure point guard fails massively to distribute or even get the ball in the first place and OJ Mayo is given the reigns!
Either way, this gives us something to watch in Memphis other than AI’s demise/re-birth. Which is as over-hyped as Paul Pierce’s wheelchair.
9. Baby Bulls
The Chicago Bulls have gone through some rough times since the great one moved on from Chi-town, but that walk through the woods looks to be at an end. An all-time classic first round matchup should have given confidence to the ‘baby Bulls’ and have them poised to take another step towards respectability this year. On paper. The storyline I’ll be watching will be to see how much they ‘get it’. Will Derrick Rose play any defense at all this year? Can John Salmons resist the urge to pout when he isn’t the first option on offense? Will the Bulls get enough scoring inside to keep teams honest until they can add a bonafide post scorer with their wads of cash next offseason? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’ll be watching closely to find out.
10. At what point of the season will Hedo Turkoglu and Trevor Ariza look themselves in the mirror and realise they screwed up?
Probably around early April when the Magic are looking like a mighty road block to the Celtics and Cavs title chances, and when Houston look set to miss the playoffs. But seriously, you are looking at two guys who didn’t just leave Finals-contending teams for lower-seeded franchises, but two guys who left systems that were absolutely perfectly built for them. Hedo is in for a rude awakening when he realises the Raptor’s opposition defence isn’t sprawling to cover four three-point shooters and the league’s best center. I love Hedo, but the qualities he brought to the table in Orlando (ball-handling forward, outside shooting, clutch play) all seemed very complimentary to the larger scheme of what Orlando were trying to do – that is, 1) dominate with Dwight, 2) shoot threes. What made Hedo so special for me, was how he could waltz in and out of focus during a game (he literally waltzes sometimes) and then still deliver a dagger and do that cheeky tongue wag as if to say “hehe yeah you forgot about Hedo… now suck it”. Well no one is going to forget about Hedo when he lines up in that Raptors jersey. After Bosh, he gets the most attention. There’s nothing complimentary about it – he’s almost the headline act.
As for Trevor, I’ve already said enough about this in my spiel on loyalty. In LA he could focus on playing defense, nail the occasional three, and still get a pat on the back from his coach. A box-score of 9 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists would be seen as a worthy contribution (which incidentally are his averages from last season). In Houston, 9-4-2 isn’t going to cut it. Not when the guy he replaced was doing 17-5-3. How many times did you see Ariza get the ball last season and be expected to create a shot for himself? I saw it a few times and it wasn’t pretty. Unless he’s dramatically improved in that facet of his game, he’s going to find himself very sorry he left LA.
Sidenote: part of me wants to go overboard and tip the Rockets to win 30 games and plummet to the depths of the Western Conference. But part of me knows that is incredibly stupid because this has become the quintessential backs-to-the-wall club. The North Melbourne Kangaroos of the NBA. The Battlers. Which is why they’re number #1 on my list of most intriguing teams to watch this season. They could finish with 32 wins. Or 52.