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Screens should be big in Cavs-Warriors trilogy worthy of the big screen

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                                                                                                                                     USA TODAY Sports

The top of any list of great sequels in cinema could easily double as a list of some of the finest – and most financially successful – movies ever made. The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, The Dark Knight, Terminator II, Aliens – we could go on.

That’s typically where the creative juices stop flowing.

Sure, there are some noteworthy third acts. The Return of the King is the best Lord of the Rings movie, though that’s more properly viewed as one colossal installment instead of three smaller ones. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both made up for the weirdly terrifying Temple of Doom and was popular enough for Harrison Ford to keep playing the character as a senior citizen. Goldfinger was arguably the best James Bond movie and has inarguably the most sexually suggestive name for a character in pop culture history. Naked Gun 33 1/3 was … well, it was O.J’s last starring role in something less than nefarious.

There haven’t been many third acts in the sports world, which is just one small reason why Cavs-Warriors: Part III should be so compelling. The Lakers and Celtics have met in 12 Finals, but never three in a row. It’s a first for the NBA and just the fourth such threequel in American professional sports history, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Red Wings and Canadiens battled for three straight Stanley Cups in the 50s.

We’ve already detailed the lack of big-screen triumphs when it comes to third acts, but the success of screens could have everything to do with a Finals that’s rightly drawing as much hype as anything since the days of Jordan, Magic and Bird. Let’s take a look at what the Cavs need to do to repeat and what the Warriors can do to make these Finals more Rise of the Machines after last year’s epic Judgment Day.

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When you have 30 percent of the All-Stars from a few months ago in one Finals series, it’s easy to get excited about matchups. Will Steph Curry or Klay Thompson guard Kyrie Irving? Does LeBron have no choice but to spend most of his time checking Kevin Durant? We know Draymond can cause issues for Kevin Love, but can Love be matched up with him on the other end?

Those seven will all find one another at some point, but the winner of this rubber match figures to be the team that consistently creates, and then takes advantage of, the most opportune mismatches.

That the Warriors move the ball and move away from the ball better than any team in the league is no great secret. It’s what almost every team in the league dreams of emulating and one day building themselves. Setting screens is still a major part of an offense that hums like a Ferrari when it’s at its peak, but ball screens are a different story. Golden State set 3,324 of those in 2016-17, per STATS SportVU, its third straight season bringing up the NBA rear in the category. Orlando was 29th, yet the Magic set more than 4,000.

There’s less movement in Cleveland’s offense because it’s less necessary. Possessions can come to a screeching halt in the final 10 seconds of the shot clock and Irving and James can save the day as few individual players can. Irving was the best isolation player in the league this season at 1.12 points per ISO, and he’s been even better in the playoffs. James can’t blow by defenders 1-on-1 like he used to, but his 42 percent success rate from 3 in the postseason adds a more complicated wrinkle for opponents than Batman suddenly wielding an assault rifle would for Gotham miscreants.

The Cavs relied on ball screens to generate offense less this season than they had in the past two, funneling through around 57 per game instead of the 65 or so they’d used in James’ first two seasons back home. Whatever way you slice it – and given the overall levels of talent and execution, this shouldn’t be a surprise – both Cleveland and Golden State get a lot out of their screens. Individually, the Warriors were third in the regular season in points per play (a screen that results in a field-goal attempt, foul or turnover by either the ballhandler or screener) at 0.934; the Cavs were fifth (0.925). As far as team points per possession – this adds in the other three offensive players on the floor as potential factors post-screen – Golden State was fourth (1.12), a tick ahead of Cleveland (1.11).

But those numbers take into account Derrick Williams setting a pick for Kay Felder on a cold February night in Minnesota or James Michael McAdoo trying to free up Patrick McCaw on a November back-to-back in Milwaukee. Let’s eliminate some of the noise and concentrate on what both teams should be focusing on – and what they must work to avoid at all costs.

Golden State DO: Get Curry/Draymond rolling

There was no Love in the 2015 Finals and there was no Irving for the final five games, and while those two are a generally dubious defending combination on ball screens, the Curry/Green combo likely couldn’t have done much better if they were both on the floor. Those six games featured 85 Green screens for Curry, which resulted in the Warriors eviscerating the Cavs defense for an average of 1.26 points.

Fast forward to 2016 and it turns ugly for Golden State. Seven games, a total of 39 Curry/Green ball screens and just 0.78 team points per action.

Green is fronting for Curry 6.7 times per game in these playoffs with excellent results: 1.30 team PPP. If that number stays in that vicinity – like it did two years ago – start sizing up the Warriors for their rings, and perhaps 16-0.

Cleveland DO: Target Curry when he’s guarding the screener

Irving has been known to struggle when he’s checking the ballhandler in the pick and roll, often never finding his original man or the roller and easily providing the opposition with a 2-on-1 toward the hoop. But that Irving/Love combo we discussed a few paragraphs ago? They actually defended quite well when put on an island in the 2016 Finals. There were 19 ballhandler/screener combos that defended at least 10 screens last June, and Irving/Love was by far the MOST effective despite getting torched overall in the postseason (1.31 PPP). Irving fared pretty well in the Finals when paired with Tristan Thompson as well.

Ballhandler Screener Screens Defended Team PPP
Irving Love 39 0.59
K. Thompson Green 12 0.73
Iguodala Livingston 14 0.77
Livingston Green 11 0.78
Irving T. Thompson 41 0.85
Curry Bogut 18 1.00
kevin kyrie

                                                                                                                                   The Plain Dealer

As for Curry, Cleveland preferred to have whomever he was guarding set the pick for the ballhandler. With Curry already banged-up to some degree in the Finals, the Cavs were physical while guarding him and made him work overtime at the other end. Curry was involved in 88 screens as the screener, nearly 50 more than the Warriors made Irving take on. A look at the difference in how both point guards were attacked in the pick and roll in last year’s sequel:

Player Screens starting on ballhandler Team PPP Screens starting on screener

Team PPP

Irving 118 0.805 33 1.06
Curry 68 1.096 82 1.07

On Christmas Day in Cleveland, the Cavs ran Curry through nine more with him initially on the screener, scoring 12 points. Klay Thompson was the targeted on-ball defender – often on Irving – with Cleveland putting him through 28 screens and scoring 40 points. Overall, the Cavs celebrated their comeback win at The Q with 75 total points (1.19 team PPP) as the result of screens – 51 more than Golden State (0.71).

Cleveland DON’T: Let Iman Shumpert get screened into submission

The Warriors’ holiday in Northeast Ohio may have been dampened, but they took out seven months’ worth of frustration on the Cavs three weeks later in Oakland. Golden State used 46 ball screens in this one and particularly attacked Iman Shumpert on the ballhandler, often when he was checking Curry. Ten screens of Shumpert led to 22 Warriors points, further lending credence to this stat: In the 128 minutes Shumpert was on the floor in the 2016 Finals, the Cavs were outscored by 13.4 points per 100 possessions. In the 208 he sat, Cleveland enjoyed a plus-9.1 edge.

Golden State could drive Shumpert off the floor entirely in these Finals. In theory, he’s an ideal guy to stick on Curry or Thompson to hide Irving for a bit, but in reality he tends to get lost when he’s asked to do more than guard someone 1-on-1. Richard Jefferson played a key role against the Warriors last season and seems more suited to have a chance of defending Durant than Shumpert. With Kyle Korver a potentially vital offensive piece to stretch the floor, Shumpert may wind up a DNP-CD (can’t defend).

Golden State DON’T: Ignore Kevin Durant as a ballhandler

Let’s get to the elephant in the room of why many expect this series to be short. The Warriors added one of the three best players in basketball at the expense of Harrison Barnes, who went 5 for 32 from the field once Golden State went up 3-1 last year.

As we’ve covered, the Warriors aren’t going to rely nearly as much on the ball screen as the Cavs. But when things start to break down – particularly in the fourth quarter – there will be instances when it could be a necessity.

Logic tends to dictate that should a critical Golden State possession become bogged down, Durant will ISO, Curry will launch a 3 or, perhaps, Durant will come to the ball and screen for Curry. But there’s another option.

durant

                                                                                                                                                USA TODAY Sports

Durant has an awfully good handle himself. Curry screening for him should allow KD a moment to turn the corner and pop away from the secondary defender for an open 3. And if Curry can’t get free, Durant proved during the regular season that he was fantastic finishing in these situations. Of the 144 players who participated in 300 screens as the ballhandler, only Wilson Chandler and Paul George scored more points per individual screen than Durant (0.48).

It’s been even more absurd during the playoffs. Durant’s 0.66 average is a full tenth of a point better than any of the other 46 players who have participated in at least 50 screens. From a team perspective, the Warriors’ 1.36 PPP off screens with Durant as the ballhandler is second – and the chart below shows how infrequently that’s used compared to some of the other big names at the top.

Ballhandler Screens Team PPP
Stephenson (IND) 56 1.38
Durant (GS) 77 1.36
James (CLE) 271 1.35
Leonard (SA) 222 1.28
Curry (GS) 256 1.25

They’ve only broken the Curry-screening-for-Durant combo out 13 times during the playoffs but it’s led to 21 Warriors points, and frankly, there was no need to even do it that much. It’s a wrinkle that Steve Kerr and Mike Brown have largely been saving to unleash only when they need it, and that alone should terrify the Cavs.

Cleveland and Golden State DO: Get the big men involved

There have been 72 two-man combos that have run at least 30 screens in the playoffs, and the top two involve, as you might expect, James and Curry. But the other half of those equations probably isn’t who you’d expect. JaVale McGee has teamed up with Curry for 52 screens that have resulted in 1.47 Warriors PPP, tied with James and Tristan Thompson for the most effective in the league this postseason.

The James and Thompson combo has been a special kind of deadly on their 112 screens. James has hit 7 of 14 3s directly after Thompson frees him up, and the duo is 31 of 53 (58.5 percent) overall immediately after Thompson screens for James. Thompson is one of the league’s best at rolling off a screen and flushing an alley-oop from James or Irving, and he and James went for an impressive 1.14 PPP in last season’s Finals as well.

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There you have it. There’s no shortage of storylines in the most star-studded Finals since Lakers-Celtics was in its mid-80s heyday. Durant’s chasing his first title. LeBron is chasing MJ’s legacy. Curry and Green are seeking Finals redemption. Klay Thompson wants to prove his subpar playoffs so far have been a fluke. Love wants to show that he can play – and play effectively – against the Warriors. Irving wants a few more weeks in the spotlight to pepper America with his flat-Earth theory.

Golden State knows what’s coming. It’s up to the Warriors to keep Cleveland from catching them in bad ball screen combos while picking and choosing their own spots to use them in an offense that rarely does.

In a third act worthy of the big screen, we’re about to find out how big the screen can be.

Summer Sequel Starring LeBron Has Everyone Sucked In

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The summer blockbuster isn’t dead, but there’s no Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars or The Dark Knight flying into a theater near you in 2014. Our highest-grossing film is the third X-Men entry in the past four summers. Tom Cruise is starring in a well-reviewed action flick that finished $20 million behind a tearjerker about a cancer-stricken teenage amputee on its opening weekend.

Fortunately, there’s an even better avenue for entertainment if you’re into explosions, fantastic drama and money essentially being lit on fire. If sequels are your thing – and who ISN’T excited about The Expendables 3? – even better.

NBA free agency has been more compelling than its six-month regular season for a while, but when LeBron James is the centerpiece for the second time in four summers, it becomes a whole different animal. Superstars equal titles in the NBA far more than any other sport, and with the biggest one of all threatening to alter the league’s landscape again, it’s no wonder the rumors, sources and speculation of the sport’s insiders are spiraling out of control.

But, as Ian Darke so eloquently crowed after Landon Donovan’s stoppage-time goal that propelled the United States to the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup … you could not WRITE a script like this.

You know the background by now. Northeast Ohio boy drafted by local team, becomes two-time MVP, game’s most dominant force, global icon, can’t win city’s first championship in half-century, leaves for greener pastures in poorly designed, nationally televised display of narcissism, owner of local team pens childish letter of betrayal in childish font, ties severed for good.

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Two titles and four Finals later, he’s back on the market. And Cleveland, with the fewest wins in the league since James’ departure, is stunningly a frontrunner for a reunion that I dare say would be even more unlikely than Cory and Topanga getting back together.

Setting aside owner Dan Gilbert’s comic sans charade and Cavaliers fans – myself included – being quick to judge James as Mata Hari, the return would make sense on a number of levels. James has made no secret of his fondness for the area in which he was raised, and maintains a mansion in an Akron suburb. His wife, apparently allergic to the sun, ocean and drinks with umbrellas, apparently prefers Northeast Ohio to South Florida.

Most importantly, the Heat have little flexibility. The cracks began to surface in their NBA Finals no-show against the Spurs. Dwyane Wade isn’t getting new knees, and while a roster returning James, Wade, Chris Bosh and some spare parts may be favored to get out of the East, Miami would likely be swallowed up in subsequent Finals against five or six superior clubs from the West.

James and Kyrie Irving (USA Today Sports)

James and Kyrie Irving (USA Today Sports)

The Cavaliers have lucked into three No. 1 overall picks in the past four years, and can offer a core of Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, an offensive innovator in new coach David Blatt and a cache of draft picks and young, tradeable assets. Might some combination of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and picks be enough for Minnesota to let go of an unhappy Kevin Love? If James climbs aboard and Love lets it be known he’d actually want to play in Cleveland, the Timberwolves may have little choice but to comply.

But that’s all speculation grounded in some realm of logic. Let’s lay out exactly why NOTHING is more entertaining than NBA free agency. With James as the star, Bosh, Wade, Anthony as the supporting characters and Marcin Gortat, Kyle Lowry and Trevor Ariza lurking in the shadows, the following developments are what, in the past five days, have turned a James return from unlikely to possible. WARNING: Surprising levels of hilarity ahead.

Let’s start Thursday with a tweet from Cleveland sports radio personality Joe Lull.

Now let’s take a massive leap to one Friday from rapper and record producer Q-Tip, late of A Tribe Called Quest.

Is this getting crazy yet? No? How about this from a Cleveland-area personal trainer.

Or this, from someone within the Cavs’ marketing wing?

Now we’re on to Saturday, and a tweet from former Cleveland radio personality Kendall Lewis.

Then, perhaps in the ultimate sign that the apocalypse was indeed upon us, a Cleveland-area cupcake shop weighed in.

On Sunday, word broke of Gilbert’s private plane heading to South Florida, and predictably, Twitter connected the dots. Gilbert was on his way to make amends with LeBron, until he tweeted that he was enjoying the weather in his backyard in Michigan. Hmmm. No worries, the plane still arrived with general manager David Griffin and Cav-turned-Heat-turned-Cavs liaison Zydrunas Ilgauskas, surely there to bring James back home.

Until that, also, was debunked Monday afternoon.

Nonetheless, the whispers and angling and sourcing and silliness among those, um, LOOSELY connected to James were in full motion. We’d yet to hear from any of the key newsbreakers on the possibility of a James return drawing closer. Until …

The news cycle continued late Sunday night and Monday. USA Today reported that James was set to meet with Pat Riley this week to discuss his decision, and possibly, as Brian Windhorst speculated, to tell him he’d made one. Adrian Wojnarowski, the demigod of breaking NBA news, floated the possibility that James’ agent was pushing the prospect of LeBron-to-Cleveland Part II.

Later Monday, we learned the Heat – quiet up until now with Wade and Bosh non-committal about what salary cut they’ll accept to stay – agreed to deals with Josh McRoberts and a seemingly washed-up Danny Granger. It’s unclear if those were Riley’s desperation moves to keep James in an effort to recreate the 2010-11 Indiana Pacers roster – 37-45! – or merely the first transactions in a world in which he isn’t operating with the game’s biggest star.

By the time you read this, there certainly will be more layers off the onion. Perhaps Anthony will sign with the Lakers or return to the Knicks. Maybe Bosh jumps ship and takes the Rockets’ max offer of four years and $88 million. Gilbert’s plane could be dispatched to Canada to pick up Justin Bieber and Drake in one last-bit recruiting effort. Clam the psychic World Cup-prognosticating clam might make a prediction on where James will land.

I’ll join our bivalve buddy with one of my own: Whatever decision James makes will be better than your wasting $8 on 165 more minutes of Transformers.

2013-14 NBA Preview Part II: Breaking Bad

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Maybe I was being too optimistic in Part I of our NBA over/under preview yesterday. Eight of the 15 teams we looked at just had the look and feel of being better than what Vegas expects.

That’s certainly not the case in Part II, which feature 10 unders. Without further ado, the remaining 15 teams – including a few title contenders and a whole lot of awful.

15. Milwaukee Bucks

Over/under: 29.5

Well, four of the Bucks’ five leading scorers from last season are gone, but when the first two of those are Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, are we sure that’s a bad thing? Milwaukee won 38 games with those two, Mike Dunleavy, and, for the last 28 games of 2013, J.J. Redick playing prominent roles, yet they’re now a collection of spare – though hardly useless – parts. Think Denver lite. It’s Larry Drew’s job to figure out what combinations work, and that might take a while. I don’t see anything resembling a leader on this team, and I don’t like much about the two starting guards, Brandon Knight and O.J. Mayo. They have a pair of big guys in John Henson and Larry Sanders who can serve as rim protectors, but no one on this roster is consistently capable of scoring in the post. People are excited about 18-year-old Green rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, but at 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds he probably has a better chance of entertaining the Bradley Center crowd by being part of a halftime spanakopita-eating contest than getting significant run this season. This team might be fun to watch, but I have a hard time believing it’ll be very good.

The pick: Under

14. Atlanta Hawks

Over/under: 39.5

Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington and Toronto are all within four wins of each other according to Vegas, and the Hawks are the last of that fivesome that we’re getting to. There’s a good reason why. Atlanta could be REALLY bad. And you know what? They should be. This team has won between 40-47 games in four of the last five seasons and it’s made the playoffs in each of the last six, getting bounced in the first round three times and winning a total of two games in its three second-round appearances. GM Danny Ferry finally saw that path was leading the Hawks absolutely nowhere, and the days of Josh Smith jacking up 20-footer after 20-footer are gone. Ferry brought in trusted Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, who was so excited about getting to coach the likes of Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon that he was pulled over for a DUI after three months on the job. What’s left to work with? Not a whole lot besides Al Horford and Jeff Teague, the latter of whom doesn’t excite me and struggled greatly in Atlanta’s 2013 playoff loss to Indiana. The Hawks gave the versatile Paul Millsap a two-year, $19 million deal, but Millsap might be a more valuable trade chip than asset to a team that should be outside of the East playoff picture. Rookie German point guard Dennis Schroder has some upside and John Jenkins could eventually be a 3-point threat off the bench, but that’s not happening overnight. The Hawks should trade Millsap by February, and maybe even listen to offers for Horford. No one has talked about Atlanta being part of the Great Tank Race of 2014, but they should. It’s in the Hawks’ best interests to suck.

The pick: Way under

13. Brooklyn Nets

Over/under: 52.5

Nothing to see here, just a team that added Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Jason Terry to a group that went 49-33 last season in addition to bringing in former No. 4 overall pick and rejuvenated injury cast-off Shaun Livingston to help spell Deron Williams. Brook Lopez is still lumbering around the paint effectively and Joe Johnson is still a surprisingly effective closer – 13 for 23 from the field while getting to the line 20 times in 48 minutes’ worth of “late and close” situations a year ago. Really, what’s not to like? The only thing I can figure is that this may really be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. Pierce, Johnson, Williams, Lopez and even occasionally Terry have been their team’s go-to guy in late-game situations quite recently, and now Jason Kidd – the same Jason Kidd who you recently saw playing his final 189 minutes of playoff basketball without scoring – is left to manage those minutes and rotations. That will come somewhat quickly in the regular season, when Pierce, Garnett and Kirilenko may be taking some time off to rest, but would you want to be in charge of divvying up playing time among that crew and also dealing with Andray Blatche come playoff time? I sure wouldn’t. The Nets are, without a doubt, no worse than the fourth-best team in the East, but they might not NEED to win 53 games if the team in third is significantly ahead of them and the fifth-place team is far behind. Still, even with plenty of nights off for the stars and the requisite learning curve from their first-time coach, it’s hard to see this team not going over. Even if they might not care.

The pick: Over

dwight_howard

12. Houston Rockets

Over/under: 54.5

Houston won 45 games last season while coming just two attempts shy of hoisting the most 3-pointers in NBA history, a mark the shamelessly-gunning (and yet-to-be discussed) New York Knicks knocked down. The lone meaningful addition in the offseason was a big one, noted narcissist and pain-in-the-ass Dwight Howard, but is Howard’s chiseled presence in the paint worth an additional 10 wins? It’s possible. Houston was 17th in the league in offensive rebound percentage last season despite taking the most combined shots at the rim and behind the arc – the two areas where a team is more likely to get a chance at a second possession. Howard should lead the league in dunks off putbacks alone, and he seems to have rededicated himself and is in the best shape of his life, and blah blah blah. But this team, as is, doesn’t seem like a finished product. The Rockets may try to trade Omer Asik at some point, as he’s somewhat unnecessary with Howard in the fold, and they’d be wise to get back another point guard with Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin as their primary distributors. They don’t need a John Wall or Kyrie Irving considering James Harden will be handling the ball as often as possible, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to add a guard who can give them something between 3-point marksman and paint penetrator. Though I love the way this team values layups and 3s as basketball’s most efficient shots, I don’t like the team itself.

The pick: Under

11. Indiana Pacers

Over/under: 54.5

Same win total as the team above, much more complete group. The Pacers took the Heat to the wire in the Eastern Conference finals with a bench of Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young and Ian Mahinmi. Four of those five guys are gone, with only Mahinmi remaining. In their place are Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, a potentially-at-some-point healthy Danny Granger(!) and the underrated Orlando Johnson, who played for the Cal Santa-Barbara Gauchos in college and spent time with the NBDL’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants as a rookie last season. Playing for a team as lame-sounding as the Pacers must be a major letdown, but Johnson and the Pacers’ bench give this team a much better chance of not only getting back to the East finals, but possibly getting past whomever they might find there. More importantly for the sake of this column, they’ll take some of the heat off a starting five that’s as complete as any in the league. Granger’s hypothetical return – or a trade should he prove himself healthy – will take some pressure off Paul George, who played the eighth-most minutes in the league last season. One last thing: Indiana should be in a tight race for the Central Division race with Chicago all season, which means it won’t be taking nights off. The Pacers and Bulls certainly value home-court advantage more than the Heat and Nets, which means both should go all out to win the Central and avoid finishing fourth – thus having to beat two of the East’s other Big Three and facing a pair of potential road Game 7s.

The pick: Over

10. Los Angeles Clippers

Over/under: 57

Like Indiana, the Clippers already have a game under their belts, but unlike the Pacers, LA’s biggest attraction looked dreadfully apathetic in losing to the team that has been LA’s biggest attraction for the previous half-century. What concerns me with the Clippers isn’t that they were caught sleepwalking through the Opening Night debut of Doc Rivers. It’s that while their starting lineup added a pair of nice pieces in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley – despite the best efforts of Donald Sterling – the bench is an absolute disaster. Sure, Jamal Crawford is one of the NBA’s best-scoring reserves and has no issues creating his own shots (and even less of an issue taking so, so many of those). But beyond him? Woof. Matt Barnes is a 3-point specialist who specializes in missing 3-pointers, Darren Collison is a complete debacle of a backup point guard who defends like he’s in charge of the Fast Pass line at Disneyland, Antawn Jamison drew a DNP-coach’s decision in his Clippers debut, and Ryan Hollins – RYAN HOLLINS! – is their third big man. Who is scoring points with his back to the basket for this team? It’s not Blake Griffin, who still is overly reliant on Chris Paul and his own athleticism to get to the hoop. It’s certainly not DeAndre Jordan, who took 464 of his 488 field-goal attempts last season from inside 8 feet. The Clippers have the highest over/under in the West, and when they’re playing overmatched teams like Phoenix, Utah and most of the Eastern Conference, they’ll be just fine. But Memphis? San Antonio? Portland? Oklahoma City? Teams with an actual interior? Rivers will make sure this team makes a necessary move to put itself in the best position to get through a very winnable West, but that move needs to be made soon. Anyone above 6-foot-8 with a semblance of a post skill is welcome to apply.

The pick: Under

gregg_popovich

9. San Antonio Spurs

Over/under: 55.5

Let’s review the Spurs’ win totals in the Tim Duncan era, starting with 2012-13 and working backwards: 58, 50 (in 66 games), 61, 50, 54, 56, 58, 63, 59, 57, 60, 58, 58, 53, 37 (in 50 games), 56. That’s exactly three seasons out of 16 in which they wouldn’t have gone over this number in an 82-game schedule. Yes, Duncan/Parker/Ginobili are another year older. Yes, Gregg Popovich has zero concern with leaving those three, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, the team’s uniforms and his best bottle of Merlot home on certain nights. But if my choices are betting on or against this team losing 26 games, I know which way I’m headed.

The pick: Over

8. Utah Jazz

Over/under: 25.5

I like some parts of this young core, and boy is it young. Of their five primary assets – the currently injured Trey Burke, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter and Gordon Hayward – Hayward is the elder statesman at the ripe old age of 23. But the bottom line is that someone in the West is going to have to lose. A LOT. Every team except for Phoenix, Utah and probably Sacramento has some sort of legitimate playoff aspirations. The tankers, by and large, lie in the East. But Burke is out for at least a month with a finger injury. His backups are the 157-year-old Jamaal Tinsley and John Lucas III, who is on team number III in as many seasons and may, in fact, not retire until appearing in the media guide of all 30 NBA teams. I don’t think this is a terrible team. They’ll be competitive for three quarters on many nights, and they’ll steal some games against the West’s lower echelon and much of the East in Salt Lake City. But this is probably a 6-35 road team that might not be terribly interested in winning come March and April.

The pick: Under

7. Charlotte Bobcats

Over/under: 26.5

Al Jefferson has the worst contract in the NBA. There are worse players, for sure. Al can’t do much but score, and he does that one thing well. But three years and $41 million committed to a guy entering his 10th season in the league for a team that has won 28 games COMBINED over the last two seasons? It just doesn’t make any sense. Charlotte has drafted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller after finishing with the worst record in the league for the past two seasons, so maybe the organization is just bitter after bottoming out so completely and ending up with two guys who – in a best-case scenario – are the third- and fourth-best players on a legitimate contender. But why the hurry? Maybe this is the year the Bobcats finish with the sixth-worst record and land the No. 1 pick. Either way, they’re not good, even if they’re trying to be a little bit better. This is a roster full of one-trick ponys. Jefferson can provide points in the paint. Kidd-Gilchrist is a defensive pest on the wing. Kemba Walker can beat his man off the dribble. Ben Gordon can take lots of wildly unnecessary shots. Bismack Biyombo can miss free throws. I don’t know one thing this team does well, though new coach Steve Clifford will claim it’s “playing defense.” Sadly for Steve, an 86-84 loss is still the same as a 132-96 loss.

The pick: Under

6. Orlando Magic

Over/under: 24

We continue our look at the teams more interested in ping-pong balls than living, breathing bodies in the seats with the Magic, but Orlando is the one supposed tanker I don’t think will live up to that billing. If nothing else, this is a fun bad team. There are eight guys on this roster with two years or less of NBA experience, and I see five of them as being potential rotation guys for a really good team someday – Mo Harkless, Tobias Harris, Andrew Nicholson, Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic. Maybe not all of them make it, but that five is light years ahead of anything else the league’s tankers have to offer. The problem this team has, aside from employing too much dead weight elsewhere, is that it’s terrible defensively. Jameer Nelson is still around and couldn’t guard his own coach, Jacque Vaughn, in Vaughn’s current sideline state of a sharp suit and a clipboard. It’s hard to definitively say this team will win five more games than it did last season, but it won’t be for lack of trying. And that’s a lot more than some certain teams in the East can say.

The pick: Over

brad_stevens

5. Boston Celtics

Over/under: 27.5

This number seems to have built in some wiggle room for when Rajon Rondo returns – though no one seems to know when that will be – but this roster is bad. Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries are likely starters, so … yeah. The better question might be an over/under of how many games Rondo plays in a Celtics uniform this season, with the injury, a possible delayed return in case Boston wants to lose as much as it can and a potential trade all looming as factors. Brad Stevens is an excellent basketball coach who will one day be an excellent NBA coach, but he’s knows this isn’t an overnight process. He’s smart enough to realize that this team is going to take a lot of lumps for two or three years before it has a chance to build a winner. Maybe Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk are around when this group is an actual contender, but that’s likely it. This team will play hard but the talent just isn’t there.

Over/under: Under

4. Chicago Bulls

Over/under: 56.5

The Bulls are playing the wrong sport. If they were a soccer team in … let’s say England, they would have already won two titles and would be searching for a third. Tom Thibodeau values regular seasons wins. A LOT. This team feels like it has something to prove, Derrick Rose is back and allegedly better, Thibodeau won’t allow it to take nights off and treats every possession like it’s Game 7 of the NBA finals that’s being played at the peak of an active volcano with martian gila monsters circling the court. Did they look good on Opening Night in Miami? Nope. Does it matter? Not one bit. Assuming Rose stays healthy, this team is winning at least 57 games. No one wants to win more regular-season games than Thibodeau, and perhaps no East team values having home-court advantage as much as the Bulls. They can win in Indiana, they can win in Brooklyn, but they’re probably not winning in Miami.

The pick: Over

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3. New York Knicks

Over/under: 48.5

This total was at 49.5 as recently as two days ago, so apparently bettors are pounding the under. I couldn’t agree more. There seems to be no safer bet in the NBA this season than “the Knicks will be the East’s No. 5 seed,” which in a vacuum makes sense. They’re clearly not better than Miami, Chicago, Indiana or Brooklyn, yet they seem a step above Washington, Detroit, Cleveland, et al. But are they? The mix on this team, which set the aforementioned NBA record for 3-point attempts last season, didn’t quite fit then, and New York’s biggest offseason move was to add a big man who is allergic to rebounding and stepping near the paint. If there’s a moment when Andrea Bargnani, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire are on the court at the same time, Madison Square Garden may collapse in horror. Sure, there’s Tyson Chandler patrolling the paint and, at least at the outset, Metta World Peace standing in the corner shooting 3s and preparing for the release of his book detailing the Malice at the Palace. Oh, and J.R. Smith is involved, or at least will be in Game No. 6 after serving a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy. Oh, and Mike Woodson is probably going to be on the hot seat if this team starts out around .500 after 18-20 games. Oh, and Anthony is already talking about testing the free agent market next summer. Did I mention that Kenyon Martin, the artist formerly known as Artest and Smith are ON THE SAME TEAM? And will probably party together on the road? No city is safe when this team comes to town, no lead or deficit will be too big for it to overcome or cough up, and the 2013-14 New York Knicks will be America’s best reality TV show. Does that sound like a 50-win team to you?

The pick: Under

2. Philadelphia 76ers

Over/under: 16.5

There have been 16 teams in the NBA’s lottery era that have failed to win at least 17 times in an 82-game season. Many of those teams were in such dire straits largely at their own choosing, and the 76ers are about to be the next in that not-so-proud group. This team is AWFUL. A-W-F-U-L. Evan Turner is by far its best player. Jason Richardson will play a prominent role. Philadelphia traded away its All-Star point guard for a guy (Nerlens Noel) who likely won’t see the court this season. It will only be interested in winning the two times it faces New Orleans, whose pick Philly owns (top-5 protected!) in the 2014 draft as part of the Noel-Jrue Holiday deal. The bench? Tony Wroten, Lavoy Allen, Hollis Thompson, Darius Morris and Daniel Orton. New coach Brett Brown is going from the Spurs’ bench and coming within a whisker of winning the NBA title to coaching this train wreck. In the town that booed Santa Claus, this team is gonna need Jolly Old Saint Nick to drop more than a few gifts down the chimney if it plans to even sniff 17 victories…

The pick: Under

1. Phoenix Suns

Over/under: 19.5

… And yet. And. Yet. There’s absolutely no guarantee that the 76ers’ efforts to finish with the league’s worst record will even come to fruition. Because this Phoenix team may well be worse. Concerned that the Suns might be too far ahead of Philadelphia in the race to the bottom, GM Ryan McDonough dealt center Marcin Gortat – one of the team’s few legitimate NBA players – to Washington just days before the season for what could wind up being their FOURTH first-round pick in 2014. McDonough is only 33 and hasn’t even held his job for six months, but it’s like he’s been practicing to tank the 2013-14 season his whole life. The Morris twins will play heavy minutes for this team. Eric Bledsoe, a good guy to have in your rotation’s top 7 if you’re a contender, is by far their best player. Between him, Dionte Christmas, the Morris boys, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Alex Len and Ish Smith, the roster reads like something you’d see playing in the third-place game at an AAU tournament in 2005. Goran Dragic is easily Phoenix’s second-best player, but with the lone contract on the team that extends beyond next season, he’ll likely be gone by February. The talent here is just about equal with that on the 76ers’ roster, but Phoenix plays in what’s, top to bottom, the more competitive conference. You could have made this number 9.5 and I still would have taken the under.

The pick: Dreadfully awful

2013-14 NBA Preview Part I: Overly Underwhelmed

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stephen-curry

I could sit here and tell you that the Miami Heat are a budding dynasty. I could tell you that Derrick Rose’s return will help the Chicago Bulls return to being a bona fide title contender. I could tell you that there are at least five teams more interested in landing Andrew Wiggins eight months from now than fielding a competitive basketball team for the next six, that Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook’s recoveries from devastating injuries will impact the Western Conference playoff picture, that Dwight Howard is tall, Nate Robinson is short and that the Milwaukee Bucks could build a starting five of guys named Giannis, Miroslav, Zaza, Ekpe and Khris.

I could. But I won’t.

Every NBA preview you’ve read or seen over the past few weeks is something cut from the same cloth. There’s a lot of talk about how far Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and the Brooklyn Nets will go in the playoffs and certain people screaming into a microphone (or megaphone) about how THIS SEASON WILL DETERMINE THE LEGACY OF LA-BRAWN JAMES!!(!).

The reason that’s happening? Because most NBA regular seasons are borderline meaningless. Sure, occasionally we’ll get the mild surprise like the Lakers nearly missing the playoffs last season because they were coached by a guy who was more afraid of defense than a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper. But for the most part, it’s a six-month slog of predictability.

What’s at least a little bit less predictable? Turning it over to the fine folks of Las Vegas to estimate how many regular-season wins each team will finish with and going over or under that number. I’ll take a reason to care about that Tuesday night Pelicans-Kings game in mid-February over the 381,945th person on the Internet proclaiming that Steph Curry is the NBA’s best pure shooter or that Kevin Durant is approaching his prime.

In order of least to most confident, it’s time to tip this puppy off in the first of two parts. Part II will run tomorrow, and yes, I know there are three games tonight featuring four teams that are in the latter half of the list. You’ll just have to trust me that the list was completed early Tuesday.

To have the most up-to-the-minute lines, we’re using online sports book Bovada.

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30. Washington Wizards

Over/under: 40.5 wins

I have no idea what to think of this Wizards team. They just took advantage of Phoenix trying to be as terrible as humanly possible by trading for Marcin Gortat, so they can trot out a starting five of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Nene and Gortat. That’s a good group, but their bench is dicey at best, they’re coached by Randy Wittman, Al Harrington will get major minutes and they won 29 games last season. Is a projected Beal breakout season and a seemingly healthy Wall enough to get them 12 more wins? I’ll say yes, but I don’t feel good about it.

The pick: Over

29. Miami Heat

Over/under: 61.5

[Hubie Brown enters] [Hubie Brown is asked his opinion on the 2013-14 Heat] “Brett, I’m glad you asked. You’re the Miami Heat. You have just won the last two NBA championships. You have the best player in the world. You also feature two All-Stars on the tail end of their primes. You’ve added former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden to boost your defense in the painted area. But you also have no idea how motivated you’re going to be. You know that the impending free agency of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh may be a distraction. You also know that Oden’s knees are made of sponges, Elmer’s glue and pretzel rods. You also for some reason added Michael Beasley, who is a terrible teammate and is as allergic to passing the ball as I am to using the third person. You don’t know what to expect.

The pick: Under

28. Detroit Pistons

Over/under: 40.5

Any time Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith are involved in something, I’m skeptical. When they’re suddenly involved together, as the two best offensive playmakers on a team that’s been sorely lacking offensive playmakers in recent years, I’m even more skeptical. When they feel like they have something to prove to their former teams – meaning they’ll want to shoot more – I’m even more skeptical. When they’re asking 37-year-old point guard Chauncey Billups, who shot 37.8 percent over the last two seasons, to be they’re starting shooting guard, I’m even MORE skeptical. But then again, they have Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond inside, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should provide some help from the perimeter and there’s a man named Luigi involved, it’s hard not to be somewhat optimistic.

The pick: Under

27. Sacramento Kings

Over/under: 31.5

I like the point guard combination of Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas, which should be a welcome change after Tyreke Evans and Aaron Brooks were handling too much of the ball last season. But although those two knuckleheads are gone, there’s still a little too much knuckleheadness around for my liking. DeMarcus Cousins is uber-talented and also has a Rasheed Wallace streak that can appear at any time. Their small forwards are Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, John Salmons and Travis Outlaw, rookie Ben McLemore is talented but also 20 years old and they’re dealing with first-time head coach Mike Malone. Unless that schedule includes Utah and Phoenix approximately 24 times, I have a hard time picking the Kings to win 32 games. But they could.

The pick: Under

26. Denver Nuggets

Over/under: 45.5

George Karl is gone, Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri is off to Toronto, Danilo Gallinari is out for at least the first month, Andre Iguodala is in Golden State and starting center Kosta Koufos is gone to Memphis. The Nuggets were underestimated for being a collection of spare parts last season, winning 57 games, so maybe they’re being a bit underestimated again. Randy Foye can shoot and Wilson Chandler is a solid offensive sixth man, but the biggest factor to me in thinking the Nuggets can win at least 46 games is all about the geography. Denver went 38-3 at home last season, and while that’s not going to happen again, it’s hard to see them winning anything less than 30 games in the Pepsi Center’s altitude. Go 16-25 on the road – completely doable with as many bad teams are out there – and the over could be there.

The pick: Over

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25. Portland Trail Blazers

Over/under: 38.5

The Trail Blazers had a historically terrible bench last season, with their reserves’ average of 18.5 points the fourth-lowest by any team since 1985-86. The bench is worlds better this season, with Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, and after six weeks, rookie C.J. McCollum capable of providing a more-than-capable second unit. At the same time, Damian Lillard played a ton of minutes as a rookie last season and it’s hard to see him repeating that effectiveness level and staying healthy for 82 more games. A slow start also feels like it could mean the rumors of a LaMarcus Aldridge trade will grow increasingly loud. This team feels like a darkhorse to make the playoffs, but there’s much to be proven.

The pick: Over

24. Memphis Grizzlies

Over/under: 50.5

Coach Lionel Hollins is gone thanks to an odd standoff with management despite him guiding the team to the Western Conference finals, leaving assistant Dave Joerger – whose profile on his Wikipedia page is actually this – to take over. Joerger is more of an analytics guy, which sounds great on the surface for a team that was a shooter or two away from a possible finals appearance but may not play nearly as well in practice. What was Memphis’ offseason reaction to not having enough help from the perimeter? Well, they traded for Mike Miller, of course! Miller’s glory days, if those were actually a thing, came with Memphis in the middle part of the last decade, but his legs are currently being held together with state-of-the-art fishing rods and Big League Chew and he tends to have trouble keeping his shoes on his well-worn feet in big moments. Let’s just say a drop-off seems in order.

The pick: Under

23. Los Angeles Lakers

Over/under: 36.5

The Lakers, frankly, shouldn’t come within 20 wins of this total. They should have amnestied Bryant, saved themselves $30 million rather than pay the franchise icon for recovering from his Achilles injury, traded Pau Gasol and turned into the West’s answer to the 76ers. But, of course, that didn’t happen. Kobe will work his way back sooner than he should, look better than it should be humanly possible for a 35-year-old with 54,000 minutes on his NBA odometer to look, and keep this group of absolute garbage from completely collapsing. Which, again, is what they should do. Sports Illustrated picked the Lakers to finish sixth in the West, which raises the question of whether SI is aware that Howard signed with Houston. This team is terrible, but Bryant’s maniacal craving to compete may hinder it from bottoming out.

The pick: Under

22. Toronto Raptors

Over/under: 36.5

Toronto went 18-18 after the much-maligned Rudy Gay’s arrival north of the border, so it’s perfectly reasonable that the Raptors could be around .500 with Ujiri taking over the franchise, right? Not so fast. Considering our friends at Bovada have exactly one NBA coach prop bet currently being offered – will Dwane Casey be fired before the end of the 2013-14 season – and that the yes is currently -140, there’s still plenty of issues to solve in Toronto. The most significant? The bench resembles the Blazers’ from last season. A starting five of Kyle Lowry, Demar DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and the improving Jonas Valanciunas could get you to the brink of the lousy East playoff picture. A bench of Quincy Acy, D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Landry Fields, Austin Daye, Terrence Ross and Steve Novak makes it seem fairly likely that Canada’s only NBA franchise will have at least somewhat of a statistical shot to land Wiggins, Canada’s savior on the hardwood. To save themselves of the 40-percent shooting, .500-finishing purgatory that Gay brings with him, it’s exactly what they need.

The pick: Under

21. Golden State Warriors

Over/under: 51.5

I love this Golden State team, but considering this pick relies largely on the health of Andrew Bogut, I don’t love them too much. Bogut played an average of 75.3 games in his first three NBA seasons. In his last five, he’s played an average of 42.8. He also just signed a three-year, $36 million extension, which should result in me and every fan of the Warriors hitting refresh on the Twitter feeds of any Golden State beat writer until the words “Bogut just banged knees with David Lee under the hoop” appear. Malone got a lot of the credit for running things under Mark Jackson last year and is now in Sacramento, and third-guard extraordinaire Jarrett Jack is in Cleveland. But Iguodala should take a lot of the pressure off Klay Thompson and Curry, and Harrison Barnes could wind up winning the Sixth Man of the Year award. There’s a lot to like here, but there are also enough question marks to make this anything but a lock.

The pick: Over

anthony_davis

20. New Orleans Hornets Pelicans

Over/under: 39.5

Another caution due to health. By all accounts, Anthony Davis has looked like a monster in the preseason and is on his way to having an absolute breakout season. But Davis’ still filling-out frame is going to be an injury concern for a while longer, and Eric Gordon can never seem to stay healthy. They traded their Top 10 pick to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday, who was an All-Star in the watered-down East last season and should provide a calming influence to an offense that averaged fewer points than everyone in the West but Memphis last season. I’d keep Ryan Anderson in the starting lineup and bring Tyreke Evans off the bench, but it remains to be seen how Monty Williams will handle that. A 13-win jump seems like a lot, but this should be a much-improved team. But if Davis goes down for any length of time, they may have trouble cracking 30 victories, let alone 40.

The pick: Over

19. Oklahoma City Thunder

Over/under: 52.5

If Westbrook was going to be healthy all season, this total is somewhere around eight or nine wins higher. There’s no specific timetable for his return, but it seems as if he’ll be back by Christmas. The Thunder shouldn’t be lacking motivation early, and assuming Westbrook is close to 100 percent upon returning, he’ll have a lot to prove as well. A lot of the burden here will fall on Jeremy Lamb being able to develop into a consistent scorer with Kevin Martin gone and Westbrook M.I.A. for at least six weeks, and it’s hard to tell if that’ll happen. But OKC is another team, like Denver, where it’s hard to see them winning anything less than about 32 games on its home floor. Do that, go .500 on the road, and the over is as guaranteed as Durant’s silky-smooth mid-range jumper.

The pick: Over

18. Dallas Mavericks

Over/under: 43.5

There’s really no reason this team should be particularly good, and the Mavericks finished 41-41 last season. But that was with Dirk Nowitzki missing 29 games, Shawn Marion missing 15, and an offense that was left to rely heavily on O.J. Mayo, Vince Carter and Darren Collison. Dallas’ point guard play was horrific, but they brought in Jose Calderon, drafted Shane Larkin and brought back Devin Harris to make getting the ball to Nowitzki, Marion and Carter less of a chore. Of course, how much Harris, Calderon and Larkin get to handle the ball may vary depending on how often Monta Ellis is on the court – because if Monta has the ball, it’s headed toward the basket. This team has seemed to be biding its time and hording cap space in order to bring in a big free agent since winning the title, but after giving Ellis three years and Calderon four, it’s seemingly panicking into making a return to the playoffs. Bad move for the franchise, but maybe a good move for the over.

The pick: Over

17. Cleveland Cavaliers

Over/under: 40.5

I have no idea why the Cavs fired Byron Scott – they improved their win total in each of his three seasons on the sidelines! Who cares if that involved making a two-win jump from 19 to 21 in 2011-12 and a three-win leap to 24 in 2012-13? And who cares that last season’s win jump was actually a downgrade since it was a full 82-game season instead of 66? Cleveland is at a bit of a crossroads. It’s trying to show James that the franchise is headed in the right direction and has a playoff-caliber roster, hence the signing of Jarrett Jack and the gamble on bringing in the chronically injured Andrew Bynum. The Cavs have their star in Kyrie Irving, but the long-term effectiveness of the highly drafted pieces around him – Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters – remain unknowns. IF Bynum can give them 50 games and IF Bennett shows any flash of why he was the No. 1 overall pick last summer and IF Thompson develops into a 15-10 guy and IF Waiters shows that he can be more than just an out-of-control gunner on a bad team, this team could be as high as the fifth seed in the East. One thing’s for sure – it won’t be the defensive sieve it was under Mike Brown that it was under Scott’s cross-armed, stoic indifference. But if Bynum is a bust and Irving misses an extended stretch – he’s sat out 26 percent of Cleveland’s games his first two seasons – the playoffs are a long shot.

The pick: Over

16. Minnesota Timberwolves

Over/under: 41.5

We continue the health-dependent portion of the league with Minnesota, who had Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on the floor together for THREE games last season. They are good to go for at least the opening tip in 2013-14, but this is a team that also had a lot of turnover in the offseason. Andre Kirilenko and Luke Ridnour are the biggest names to depart, but new additions Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Ronny Turiaf should offset those losses. Minnesota used one of two first-round picks on Shabazz Muhammad, who seems to be more worried with hooking up with random chicks than developing any aspect of his one-dimensional game, but shrewdly grabbed Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng with the other. You can pick apart the length and dollars of the deals they gave Martin, Brewer and Chase Budinger – in addition to re-signing Nikola Pekovic – but as far as putting a competitive product on the field this season, they’re most definitely an upgrade. If Rubio and Love aren’t involved in some sort of freak golf cart or T-shirt gun accident before Wednesday’s opener in Orlando.

The pick: Under