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

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lebron steph

                                                                                                                                     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.

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Justin time: Previewing the first round of the NBA playoffs

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Kemba Walker

(AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

The Warriors broke the Bulls’ seemingly unbreakable record, the 76ers avoided matching their own seemingly unbreakable record and Kobe got to take 50 shots in a game. With another exciting regular season in the books, let’s look ahead to what should be a thrilling two-month playoff journey. Unless, of course, it’s interrupted by the pride and joy of the Canadian pop scene.

The matchup: No. 1 Cleveland (57-25) vs. No. 8 Detroit (44-38)

Offensive rating: Cavaliers 108.1 (4th), Pistons 103.3 (14th)

Defensive rating: Cavaliers 102.3 (10th), Pistons 103.4 (13th)

Net rating: Cavaliers 5.6 (4th), Pistons -0.2 (16th)

STATS primer: The Pistons rely on their starting five A LOT. The league’s most-used quintet this season (915 minutes) came from the Motor City, which is amazing considering that group hasn’t been together since Ersan Ilyasova was traded to Orlando on Feb. 16. Enter Tobias Harris, who joined Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond for 462 minutes over the last 25 games to rank second behind Minnesota’s starters since the All-Star break. A ludicrous 74.3 percent of Detroit’s points come from its starting unit, the largest figure in the NBA and just ahead of … Cleveland’s 73.1.

Can the Pistons win? Probably not. They did beat the Cavs three out of four this season, though one of those came without Kyrie Irving and another came Wednesday night as Jordan McRae took 29 shots and Joel Anthony played 25 minutes. The Pistons are one of a few teams that can hang with the Cavs on the boards, as their 52.1 rebound percentage was a tick above Cleveland’s for second best in the league. The Cavs are at their best when Tristan Thompson is grabbing alley-oops off the pick-and-roll and crashing the offensive glass to create extra possessions, but he’s been marginalized against Detroit. In Thompson’s 74 minutes in the series, the Cavs have been outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s an extremely small sample but the worst Cleveland has fared with Thompson on the floor against anyone in the East.

BAI (Bieber Affected Index): 10: Justin Bieber has a concert at Quicken Loans Arena scheduled for April 26 – the same date as a potential Game 5 – so if the Cavs can’t sweep, the teenage girl population of Northeast Ohio may be set for a mutiny.

The pick: Bieber gets bumped, which upsets Drake, creating additional hostility for a potential Cavs-Raptors conference finals. Cavs in 5


 

The matchup: No. 2 Toronto (56-26) vs. No. 7 Indiana (45-37)

Offensive rating: Raptors 107.0 (5th), Pacers 102.4 (23rd)

Defensive rating: Raptors 102.7 (11th), Pacers 100.2 (3rd)

Net rating: Raptors 4.3 (6th), Pacers 2.2(11th)

STATS primer: The Raptors have won the last three Atlantic Division titles and have a grand total of three playoff wins to show for the first two. Can Toronto finally win just the second playoff series in franchise history and first since Vince Carter could jump? It’s hard to look at the numbers and see a title contender here, but the Raptors can make some noise in the East.  DeMarre Carroll was supposed to be the big addition, but the former Hawks forward only played 26 games, and Toronto’s jump from a nice regular-season team in a bad division to a legit power boiled down to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan getting to another level. Lowry’s average rose from 17.8 points to 21.2 as his 3-point shooting hit a career-high 38.8 percent, while his VORP of 6.3 is ahead of Kawhi Leonard’s and Chris Paul’s. No player in the league scored more points per game on drives than DeRozan (8.7), who also drew 166 fouls when bolting toward the rim – just five behind league leader James Harden.

Can the Pacers win? Maybe. Only the Suns allowed opponents to shoot better from 3 than the Raptors (37.3 percent), and Paul George, George Hill and C.J. Miles are all capable of going off from beyond the arc. A league-high 48.9 percent of the Raptors’ field goals are unassisted, and while letting Lowry and DeRozan penetrate and create worked in the regular season, relying on refs to call contact consistently in the playoffs is a dangerous line to toe. It did work against Indiana during the season. Toronto won three of four and got to the line at least 38 times in each victory, ultimately hitting the stripe 51 more times than the Pacers.

BAI: 4.5. Biebs isn’t set to invade Bankers Life Fieldhouse until June 25, which is after the Finals, but a two-night stop in Toronto in mid-May could provide trouble in the conference finals. In the meantime, there are other issues. Mumford and Sons has already moved a concert scheduled for the same night as Game 4 in Indianapolis to April 24, with lead singer Marcus Mumford politely claiming “it was not your fault, but mine.” That’s not all. The Who are set to play at the Air Canada Centre on the same night as Game 5, so a retirement tour that makes Kobe Bryant’s seem expeditious will be pushed back a night.

The pick: George and Miles shoot the Pacers to a pair of wins, but the Raptors embrace their musical guests and decide not to get fooled again. Raptors in 6


 

The matchup: No. 3 Miami (48-34) vs. No. 6 Charlotte (48-34)

Offensive rating: Heat 104.2 (12th), Hornets (105.1, 9th)

Defensive rating: Heat 101.5 (7th), Hornets (101.8, 9th)

Net rating: Heat 2.6 (10th), Hornets 3.3 (8th)

STATS primer: We’ve entered the 48-34 portion of the proceedings with the Battle for Josh McRoberts’ Soul. The East’s middle four playoff teams all finished with the same record, and the way things shook out gives us a rematch of the last time the Hornets – who are 0 for 8 in playoff games since 2002 – were in the postseason. Things figure to be much more competitive this time in a series that Vegas considers the toughest first-round matchup to call. Charlotte was the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season (31.8 percent) on the eighth-fewest attempts. Now it’s the eighth best (36.2 percent) while jacking up more 3s than everyone but Houston, Golden State and Cleveland. Kemba Walker is no longer a sub-40 percent shooter who can’t make a 3, Nicolas Batum averaged a 14-6-5 on fewer than 13 shots a game (Draymond Green this season is the only other player to do that in the past 10) and Marvin Williams reinvented himself as a 40 percent 3-point shooter who’s actually willing to rebound and play defense. The Heat don’t take 3s (18 per game, 28th) and rarely make them (33.6 percent, 27th), but shoot better in the restricted area than anyone in the league (65.3 percent).

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win?: Steve Clifford has Charlotte playing like a team that’s greater than the sum of its parts – though the parts, as we detailed above, are pretty solid – while Miami is still heavily reliant on the offensive brilliance of Dwyane Wade and the game-changing interior presence of Hassan Whiteside. This is probably not a series for Al Jefferson even though the 12-year vet has shown flashes of his former self off the bench since returning from knee surgery. The Hornets were outscored by 12 points in the 49 minutes he played against Miami but were a plus-20 when he wasn’t around. How’s this for a starting point? In the 60 minutes Batum, Walker, Williams and Cody Zeller shared the floor against the Heat – easily the most of any Charlotte foursome – the Hornets were a plus-38. That’s significant. Stick Courtney Lee or Jeremy Lamb out there to check Wade and Whiteside might be hanging around the rim with nothing to do. For Miami to win, it actually might matter more how its young guys – Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson – perform as opposed to the veterans.

BAI: 1. The pride of London, Ontario, isn’t set to hit South Beach until early July and Charlotte was not deemed a worthy enough stop by His Biebness. Heat fans will have to make a tough call prior to Game 3, though: Watch their team play in Charlotte or attend something called “Miami Bash,” which features such acts as Alex Sensation, Ken-Y, De La Ghetto and Jacob Forever. D Wade or Jacob Forever? Now that’s a Decision.

The pick: Those touting playoff experience will favor the Heat, but many of these Hornets have been there before. If Chris Bosh were healthy, this might go the other way, but Charlotte gets the slight edge. Hornets in 6


 

The matchup: No. 4 Atlanta (48-34) vs. No. 5 Boston (48-34)

Offensive rating: Hawks 103.0 (18th), Celtics 103.9 (13th)

Defensive rating: Hawks 98.8 (2nd), Celtics 100.9 (4th)

Net rating: Hawks 4.1 (7th), Celtics 3.0 (9th)

STATS primer: On paper this might be the most interesting first-round matchup between two of the NBA’s best defensive teams, but on the court Atlanta exposed the otherwise brilliant, swarming system employed by Brad Stevens. The Hawks put up 110.4 points per 100 possessions in winning the final three meetings and Boston had no answers for Paul Millsap. One of the league’s best defenders was a nightmare at the other end for the Celtics, averaging 25.3 points, 11 rebounds and a pair of blocks in three games the Hawks won by a combined 43 points. Atlanta’s Spursian ball movement and Kyle Korver’s amazing accuracy were the big stories when it won 60 games last season, but the defense was good then and better than anyone this side of San Antonio’s in this one. Most of the Hawks’ best lineups come without Jeff Teague on the floor – they’re better defensively with Dennis Schroder – but what’s lurking behind either point guard allows for some leeway in non-pick-and-roll situations. It’s safe to say Isaiah Thomas will be able to break down either to some extent, but the Celtics are going to need more than their point guard running at an optimal level to beat Atlanta. This feels like a series Evan Turner could swing, but he could just as easily put Boston out of it as he could help it go the distance.

Can the (wait, who’s the underdog here?) win? These are two of the league’s eight fastest teams in terms of pace, but getting up and down the floor did nothing to favor the Celtics against the Hawks this season. The three Atlanta wins featured 106, 105 and 105 possessions while Boston’s lone victory back in December was a 97-possession slog they pulled out even with Avery Bradley sidelined. The Celtics are going to have to do a bulk of their work from outside the paint, as Atlanta is the best team in the league defending the restricted area (56.7 percent). Only the Lakers shot worse on catch-and-shoot 3s than Boston’s 34.6 percent, so that’s not going to be easy. Thomas, Bradley and Jae Crowder each attempt five 3s a game, but none is what you’d call a knock-down shooter.

BAI: 3. Add Boston to the list of cities Bieber could infect invade in later rounds, as he’s due for May 10 and 11 stops at TD Garden. Atlanta got its two shows out of the way on the last two days of the regular season, which is a total baller move by a team that knew it would be playing important games in late April and May. Or … that’s just how the “Purpose World Tour” worked out geographically. The Bruins conveniently missed the playoffs and the Thrashers haven’t been a thing for five years, so these arenas are wide open.

The pick: The Celtics are fun to watch, make the most of their talent level and are about to add a top-five draft pick courtesy of the Nets’ stupidity. But for now, this is a tough matchup. Boston probably beats either of the other 48-34 teams, but not this one. Hawks in 6


 

Halftime! Here’s a picture of Bieber pretending like he knows who Mark Wahlberg is.

Justin Bieber, Mark Wahlberg

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


 

The matchup: No. 1 Golden State (73-9) vs. No. 8 Houston (41-41)

Offensive rating: Warriors 112.5 (1st), Rockets 105.5 (8th)

Defensive rating: Warriors 100.9 (6th), Rockets 105.6 (20th)

Net rating: Warriors 11.6 (2nd), Rockets -0.2 (15th)

STATS primer: Yes, it’s a Western Conference finals rematch in Round 1 that features the league’s top two scorers, the two teams who fire up the most 3-pointers and two teams who were each coached by two men this season. That’s about where the similarities end. The Warriors are much better than last season’s title winner and the Rockets are much, much worse. Golden State was missing Steve Kerr as he recovered from back surgery while Houston waited only 11 games before showing Kevin McHale the door and never quite looked like they were on the same page for the next 71. What were once an assortment of enticing options around James Harden now looks like a rotating cast of question marks centered by none other than Dwight Howard, who barely took six shots a game over the final month of the season amid reports his teammates were freezing him out. So yeah, it’s hard to look at the Rockets and get excited about the fact that they took nearly as many corner 3s (799) as mid-range 2s (899).

Can the Rockets win? Wellllll….

BAI: 0. Beebs hit Oracle Arena on March 18 and the Toyota Center on April 9. Coincidence that Golden State went 39-2 at home and the Rockets haven’t lost at home since (they’ve played two games)? Yes. Actually, that’s not even a coincidence. Let’s move on.

The pick: Harden has a huge first half in Game 3 – think like 30 points – and the Rockets lead by double digits at the break. But they won’t win that, or any other game, in this series. Warriors in 4



The matchup:
No. 2 San Antonio (67-15) vs. No. 7 Memphis (42-40)

Offensive rating: Spurs 108.4 (3rd), Grizzlies 102.6 (22nd)

Defensive rating: Spurs 96.6 (1st), Grizzlies 105.4 (19th)

Net rating: Spurs 11.8 (1st), Grizzlies -2.9 (22nd)

STATS primer: Poor Memphis. The Grizzlies have played almost an entire NFL 53-man roster worth of players this season thanks to an injured list that looks like Jack Bauer’s body count, and they almost built such an insurmountable lead for the No. 5 seed when healthy that it looked like they’d get a somewhat reasonable matchup with the Clippers in Round 1. But their 3-14 tailspin ultimately dropped them to seventh and a matchup with a team that, in many ways, is BETTER than the one that won 73 games. No Marc Gasol or Mike Conley, but Jordan Farmar played in the Finals six years ago! Heck, Chris Andersen was there two years ago! And Vince Carter? Well, he’s no stranger to playing basketball! JaMychal Green, Xavier Munford, Raheem McCullough, Jarell Martin and Bryce Cotton? Four of those five guys are real! Dave Joerger has done an amazing job keeping this M.A.S.H. unit together at all, but the Grizzlies weren’t going to beat the Clippers. Or the Thunder. They probably wouldn’t beat a few non-playoff teams in a seven-game series right now. Yet, we have to ask…

Can the Grizzlies win? Ummmmm

BAI: -10. These are the only two playoff teams whose arenas will not be graced with JB’s presence. Therefore, this series means nothing.

The pick: Gregg Popovich gives Boban Marjanovic at least 25 minutes in at least one of these games. At some point, Pop trots out what will forever be known as “The Molasses Lineup” of Boban, Tim Duncan, Matt Bonner, Kevin Martin and Andre Miller, but that unit still goes on a 13-2 run. Spurs in 3. OK fine, 4


 

The matchup: No. 3 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. No. 6 Dallas (42-40)

Offensive rating: Thunder 109.9 (2nd), Mavericks 104.8 (10th)

Defensive rating: Thunder 103.0 (12th), Mavericks 104.3 (16th)

Net rating: Thunder 6.9 (3rd), Mavericks (14th)

STATS primer: The Thunder would certainly have preferred a matchup with the Grizzlies, but it’s not like the Mavericks should have them questioning whether they’ll survive to see the Spurs in Round 2. Oklahoma City swept four meetings with Dallas this season, twice winning by three points and twice cruising. That’s probably about what it should expect here, but the Mavericks can at least look to the sidelines for an edge. Rick Carlisle’s club gave the eventual champion Spurs their toughest test in the first round two years ago, and he’ll come into this series with a plan of how to contain Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. The odds are long, of course, that it will work. The Thunder have made a living crashing the offensive glass this season, with a 31.1 offensive rebounding percentage that’s easily the NBA’s best and a 54.7 total percentage that’s also far and away atop the league. The Mavericks are 26th overall at 48.5, and those numbers have bared themselves out head-to-head. Oklahoma City outrebounded Dallas 194-152 in the four meetings, with their 58 offensive rebounds leading to 72 second-chance points. Enes Kanter, a defensive liability in many ways, has helped the Thunder grab 42.3 percent of available offensive boards in the 80 minutes he’s played against Dallas.

Can the Mavericks win? It’s fairly amazing Dallas is even in the playoffs. There are game when J.J. Barea is their best offensive player, or at least the one most capable of creating his own shot. But he’s slowed by a groin injury and he’s not exactly been a positive presence overall to begin with considering the Mavs have allowed 109.7 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break when he’s played. There’s enough offense elsewhere for Dallas to be able to hang in most games, but Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and Deron Williams aren’t likely to all have it going at the same time. This is where the absence of Chandler Parsons kills, and he lit up the Thunder in three separate Mavs wins a year ago. It comes down to this, particularly given Oklahoma City’s rebounding edge – Zaza Pachulia has to stay on the floor, and has to control the boards when he is.

BAI: 0. Bieber made all the tweens swoon at Dallas’ American Airlines Center on April 10 and wasn’t invited to Oklahoma City. Amy Schumer played Chesapeake Energy Center on Friday, the eve of the series opener. Perhaps a sign of Trainwrecks to come?

The pick: Dirk has one of those vintage Dirk games where the fadeaways are falling, Matthews gets hot from deep and the Mavs steal a game in Dallas before going out quietly to allow the Stars use of the arena to continue their Stanley Cup playoff run. Thunder in 5



The matchup:
No. 4 LA Clippers (52-29) vs. No. 5 Portland (44-38)

Offensive rating: Clippers 106.5 (6th), Trail Blazers 106.1 (7th)

Defensive rating: Clippers 100.9 (5th), Trail Blazers 105.6 (21st)

Net rating: Clippers 5.5 (5th), Trail Blazers 0.6 (13th)

STATS primer: Terry Stott’s team lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum and somehow managed to win only seven fewer games, so if you’re wondering why he might win Coach of the Year, look no further. CJ McCollum picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoff loss to Memphis and became a 20-point scorer in more extended minutes, also showing that he could thrive as one of the league’s best 3-point shooters (41.7 percent) in a bigger role. Beyond him and Damian Lillard, who took a step toward superstardom now that the show is officially his, it’s tough to find a reason why these Blazers finished as high as they did. The rest of the rotation is mostly full of spare parts, and there’s no consistent secondary scorer to rely on. That’s a problem when they’re going up against a backcourt that’s at least similar offensively in Chris Paul and J.J. Redick and can get points from Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford just as easily. There’s no answer for Griffin or DeAndre Jordan now that LaMarcus Aldridge is a Spur.

Can the Blazers win? Portland was starting Noah Vonleh at the four from about mid-November to mid-March before Stotts inserted Mo Harkless in his place, and that move has paid dividends. The Blazers have outscored teams by 13.3 points per 100 possessions since Harkless became a starter and they’ve been outscored by 8.3 with him off the floor. Harkless, McCollum, Lillard, Mason Plumlee and Al-Farouq Aminu have posted a 16.0 net rating in that stretch, giving Portland a five-man starting unit it can feel good about, and the Clippers’ bench isn’t exactly great. The question will be if the Blazers can find a scoring option when the second units are on the floor.

BAI: 0. Bieber paid his respects to both the Moda Center and Staples Center in March. The Clippers have to share Staples with the Kings – and definitely, definitely not the Lakers – while the biggest thing happening in Portland besides the Blazers is something called the Pentatonix World Tour. I’ve been assured that’s an a capella group, so one more pitch perfect prediction and we’ll get out of here.

The pick: The Blazers are too good offensively and the Clippers too inconsistent for this to be a short series. The Lillard-Paul matchup alone should make this arguably the most entertaining first-round series, even if it doesn’t quite go the distance. Close enough. Clippers in 6

The Cavs, Andrew Wiggins and Love That Must Go Unrequited

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You know what happens when you go to the grocery store hungry?

You arrive with good intentions. You’re there to pick up a few ingredients to throw in that jambalaya you’ve been dying to make ever since you saw Emeril “bam!” his way through the motions on the Cooking Channel a few weeks ago. You like the way the HD captures the close-up look of his flared nostrils when he gets excited about garlic. You finally set aside an afternoon to clean the shrimp, peel the onions, make homemade chicken stock and just generally kick things up a notch.

But to get to the seafood counter and produce and poultry, you have to walk through the bakery. And man, that German chocolate cake looks good. Oh, is that the rotisserie? Wow, they’re roasting whole pork loins on there now? Hey, look, it’s the deli counter! Are those … are those miniature croque monsieurs they’re handing out to shoppers? You don’t mind if I take two? Or three? Of course, ma’am, I’ll be happy to wash those down with a blueberry passion fruit acai peach smoothie that contains enough antioxidants to fell a rhinoceros and is spiked with a little bit of your premium tequila!

Screw the jambalaya. You can make it tomorrow. Or the next day. What matters is you were hungry, and now you’re not. It’s not important that the brioche and pig and gruyere and that buttery, fattening, highly caloric rich, velvety cake and random alien berries and rogue liquor are all floating around in your stomach.

You rolled the dice on glory and gluttony. And the fact that you spent the next 24 hours unable to emerge from the fetal position with a bucket an arm’s length away proves it might not have been the best idea.

Were those first few bites worth it?

*****

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He's not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

One of these men enjoys playing defense. He’s not the one with the ball. (USA Today Sports Images)

Kevin Love is not a decadent ham sandwich (though if he were, he would certainly be the Jamón ibérico). He’s a basketball player who is, without question, one of the five or 10 best players in the NBA – an outstanding scorer, a practically unparalleled rebounder, an underrated passer and a phenomenally skilled shooter for someone who stands 6-foot-10.

After the initial shock of LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers died down, the logical next question was “How can this team compete RIGHT FREAKING NOW?” LeBron is 29, at the peak of his prime, but he has some serious miles on those tires that have been running non-stop since he was 18. Sometime in the first quarter of the first game of his second stint in Cleveland, he’ll pass the 40,000 minute mark – playoffs included – for his career. Only two players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone, have ever topped 60,000. He’s already played more minutes than Isiah Thomas, Dikembe Mutombo and Elgin Baylor. Sometime before Christmas, he’ll pass Allen Iverson and Magic Johnson. He’ll catch Larry Bird shortly after the new year. The two biggest preps-to-pros stars other than James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, are just north of the 54,000-minute mark. Kobe is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and a fractured knee, will be 36 by the time training camp starts and doesn’t seem to have much left. Garnett was pronounced legally dead sometime in late February.

Those precedents would figure to give LeBron, averaging 3,500 minutes per season including what figures to be fairly deep playoff runs, about five more solid years before he hits a wall. But he’s also a completely unique athletic freak of a specimen who has never missed more than seven games in a season. Think back to the most serious injury he’s suffered in his career. Tough, huh? It probably had something to do with this.

Love will be 26 when the 2014-15 season begins. He’s logged 11,933 regular-season minutes in the NBA and 11,933 total minutes because he’s never made the playoffs. That’s not a knock on the first guy to average 26-12-4 since Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo in 1975-76. The best teammate in his seven NBA seasons has been Al Jefferson, for the first two. The second is either Nikola Pekovic or Ricky Rubio. Fourth and fifth, in all seriousness, are probably Luke Ridnour and J.J. Barea. Umm…

The concept of a Big Three worked out pretty well for James in Miami. Two championships, four Finals appearances surrounded with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh surrounded by a revolving door of young, inexpensive role players and past-their-prime veterans chasing rings. It just didn’t look particularly promising once Wade and Bosh’s age began to show a bit, and LeBron got out as soon as possible when it did.

The idea sounds great, in theory. Kyrie Irving just signed a five-year extension worth $90 million. He’s 22 and the reigning All-Star Game MVP. LeBron, for all the overwrought calamity drummed up when he ONLY agreed to two-year deal with Cleveland – and with an OPT OUT! – is around for the long haul, according to sources named LeBron James. Throw in Love and there’s a younger, spryer Big Three for James to mold into a championship club.

Love is heading into the third year of a four-year contract that can pay him up to $62 million, but he can opt out after this season and become an unrestricted free agent. He’s made no secret of his desire to get out of Minnesota, and while prevailing wisdom is that the West Coast native had a strong interest in playing somewhere in California, he’s reportedly intrigued by the idea of teaming up with James and Irving on a team that would instantly be the favorite in the Eastern Conference.

The Timberwolves would be fools to let Love walk at the end of next season, so sometime between now and the Feb. 19 trade deadline, he’s going somewhere.

As long as the cost is Andrew Wiggins, though, it shouldn’t be Cleveland. Let’s run down the reasons why trading the No. 1 overall pick from an absolutely loaded draft that happened 27 days ago shouldn’t happen.

That smiles fades quickly if Wiggins goes from playing with LeBron and Kyrie to Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

That smile? Probably gone if LeBron and Kyrie become Rubio and Mbah A Moute. (USTSI)

1. ) The Timberwolves don’t have much leverage – and it’s dwindling by the day

Golden State is the other known, serious suitor for Love, and, like Minnesota’s apparent requirement that Wiggins be included in a deal with the Cavs, the Timberwolves want Klay Thompson as part of a Warriors package or else that’s seemingly a no-go. Golden State hasn’t budged, but it has much more reason to do so than Cleveland. Thompson, currently in the final guaranteed season of his rookie contract, is eligible for an extension after next season and wants a max deal that would start at $15.7 million – not far behind what Love would get paid in his new deal. While Thompson is one of the league’s better shooting guards in a league severely lacking at the position, the looming prospect of that hefty extension makes him much more palatable to give up.

The Cavs control Wiggins for the next four years at a total of approximately $22 million. No team has a more valuable asset that it would realistically be willing to offer for Love, and that won’t change in the next seven months. Cleveland can pull out that trump card if it wants, but there’s really no need to. The closer this gets to February, the better a package of Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and one or two first-round picks will look to Minnesota. Is it fair value for Love? No. Is 65 cents on the dollar the best the Timberwolves can hope for the longer this goes? Almost certainly.

2.) Defense

The last eight NBA champions ranked in the top seven in defensive efficiency, and you have to go back to the 2000-01 Lakers to find a team that finished outside the top 10. “Defense wins championships” is a cliché in the NFL, but it’s absolutely true in the NBA. Scoring has spiked in the NFL playoffs by an average of 4.5 points in the last five years compared to the 16-game season. You have to go back 12 years in the NBA to find the last time an average playoff game featured more points than one in the regular season.

This isn’t exactly breaking news, but Love is a below-average defensive player. There were 108 players who faced at least four shots per game at the rim in 2013-14, and Love’s opponents had the fourth-highest field-goal percentage (57.5) of that bunch. Defensive metrics are still very incomplete, but you don’t need numbers to tell you that Love doesn’t rotate well, provides nothing in the way of rim protection and often seems solely concerned with being in position to rebound.

Wiggins was a defensive stud in his one season at Kansas and was impressive in his four summer league (I know, I know, SUMMER LEAGUE) games with the Cavs, who badly need a defensive presence on the perimeter. Sure, LeBron will help in that regard, but remember that whole “miles on the tires” thing? Forcing him to stay in front of the John Walls and Derrick Roses of the world in crunch time and spending 35 minutes a night on the likes of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is not a way to prolong a career. The trickle-down effect with Wiggins will be palpable. His presence not only gives James a breather on an opposing team’s best perimeter scorer, but he can rescue the defensively challenged Irving from having to stay in front of some of the league’s best ball-handlers as well. Cleveland’s defensive efficiency rankings since James left in 2010: 29, 26, 26, 18. His return alone won’t make the Cavaliers a top-10 defensive club immediately, but with Wiggins providing some help, they might get there.

3.) Flexibility

Give up Wiggins for Love and your Big Three is set in stone, assuming Love signs a long-term extension starting at around $20M per year next offseason. That would put the Cavs on the books for nearly $60M committed to just Irving, Love and James in 2015-16, a year in which the salary cap is expected to be around $67M. That number is expected to rise above $80M once money from a new TV deal starts coming in a year later, but Love and James’ salaries could be significantly higher than $20Mish apiece if they continue to choose short-term deals.

Keep Wiggins and the Cavs might even be able to carve out enough space to add a big free agent next offseason in a class that includes Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and, likely, Love himself. If I can trot out Irving, Wiggins, James and one of those three big guys, I’m willing to fill in most of the rest of my roster with guys on veteran minimums chasing rings.

4.) Patience

Two months ago, the Cavs were coming off their fourth straight season finishing well below .500, had legitimate questions about Irving’s long-term future with the franchise, had just watched their other No. 1 overall pick loaf through a disastrous rookie season, had no indication James was serious about returning and were looking at getting the No. 9 pick in the draft. Now Irving is locked up long term, Bennett is in shape and looked like a legitimate NBA rotation player in Summer League (I know, I know), James is back and Cleveland lucked into another No. 1 overall pick and a guy who was one of the most hyped players to enter the draft since James 11 years earlier.

Don’t the Cavs owe it to themselves to watch the pieces they have, even if just for 40 or 50 games? To see what kind of effect James has on Wiggins, Bennett, Thompson and Irving. To see if Wiggins is ready to contribute to a contender now or if he’s really two or three years away from making a big impact. Aside from suffering a serious injury, Wiggins’ stock isn’t going to plummet by the trade deadline. If he plays well, it goes up. If he struggles somewhat, he’s 19.

5.) Bidding against themselves

If Minnesota decides to move Love elsewhere between now and then, it’s not getting a piece that’s more attractive than Wiggins. And if it does deal him, the Cavs should be thankful they didn’t overpay for a player whom the Timberwolves were going to see walk at the end of next season.

The absolute latest rumors surrounding Love have the Bulls entering the mix with a package that includes Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler – fine players, but yawn – and the Nuggets being a possible suitor as well. Denver has nothing on its roster that should be even remotely compelling to Minnesota save for rookie Gary Harris, who would only be one of a few pieces needed to get anything going.

On Monday, the stance was held that the Cavs had not offered Wiggins. On Tuesday, according to some of the most connected national reporters around the league, they all of a sudden were. Sounds to me like the Timberwolves trying to drum up that fleeting leverage that we covered earlier.

Again, look at the suitors. Golden State’s best offer involves David Lee’s albatross contract and Harrison Barnes. Gibson is a solid role player, but he’s 29 and finished 30th in PER last season – among power forwards(!). Butler is a fine defender on the perimeter, but he’s also a shooting guard who can’t shoot. Below is a list of players who shot less than 40 percent over a full season and averaged at least 13 points in the past five years. Butler may need to change his name to JaBrandon Crawfings with a few more of these.

jimmy butler

The Nuggets have nothing but spare parts, most of which are highly paid. The Celtics have a boatload of draft picks, but so do the Cavs. Minnesota president/coach Flip Saunders is said to want to acquire pieces to help the team win now should it trade Love, which, in the Western Conference, sounds about as improbable as losing your hair, gaining 50 pounds and then beating a bunch of 27-year-old hedge fund managers who moonlight as romance novel cover boys on The Bachelor.

You don’t offer Channing Tatum when everyone else is coming to the table with David Koechner.

*****

kevin love 2

James isn’t going anywhere. The Cavs fell ass backwards into the services of the best player on Earth and one of the most promising players to enter in the league in the last decade. James figures to age better than Bryant and Garnett, but that’s even more likely to be true if he’s surrounded by a young, talented core that can pick him up and limit his regular-season minutes when he’s 32, 33, 34.

This team can contend for a championship as it’s currently constructed, and although it probably won’t win one in Year One, that’s OK. The Cavs will have a season to see what they need, and then the resources to go out and plug those holes.

Does trading Wiggins, Bennett and draft picks for Love make them a team with a considerably better chance of winning the 2015 NBA title? Probably not. Cleveland is arguably the favorite to win the East as is, and adding Love at the expense of those two isn’t likely to tilt the scales in its favor against whichever team emerges from the West.

Let this play out. Let those flavors meld together. That immediate hunger will subside once you get a look at what’s simmering.

It’s easy to go for the quick fix in a city that hasn’t experienced a championship since the same year the Beatles came to America. It’s just not necessary.

Sometimes, you just have to wise up and listen to Meatloaf.

 

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

carmelo_anthony

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.

bradley_beal

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

lillard_damian

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

How to pick an English Premier League team for the rest of your life (or at least for this weekend)

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Dad and Son baseball

For most young boys, it was never a choice but an expectation. When you’re growing up, provided you’re not some sort of Satanic spawn that crawled out of your mother’s womb with frosted tips and a pair of sunglasses on backward, you want to do whatever you can to please your father.

You want to walk like him, talk like him, burp like him, swing a baseball bat like him, occasionally talk back to mom like him and most importantly – even more important than running naked through the house whenever possible – cheer at the large rectangular moving picture window on cue, whenever he does.

Generally, good ol’ dad is taking a keen interest in that magical electronic paradise whenever men in short shorts or helmets and shoulder pads are running into one another, and even for a kid who can’t yet pronounce spaghetti, it’s not hard to catch on. He’s happy when the white team does well. He’s upset when the team in blue scores a goal. He makes faces and points his tallest fingers toward the moving picture window whenever the men in vertical black and white stripes make sounds like birds.

Bonding with your dad over a sports team is something a kid can do before he even realizes what he’s doing. It’s not totally important what you’re watching. It’s that you’re there and he’s there, and soon enough you’re mimicking exactly what he does. You get a little bit older and you realize that the white team’s transition defense stinks or the blue team is getting carved up in the short passing game. Your disdain for referees is such that you won’t shop at Foot Locker on the off chance that the mall shoe store is a minor league training ground for officials who don’t call tripping penalties.

My dad and I weren't always playing soccer, but when we did, I imagine we always stopped in to Sears to pose for pictures.

My dad and I weren’t always playing soccer, but when we did, I imagine we always stopped in to Sears to pose for pictures.

The colors morph to nicknames, the nicknames are associated with cities and soon enough you start learning how to pronounce the names on the back of that uniform you got for Christmas. You’re watching your team on TV, you’re hanging on every pitch on the radio and you’re cracking open the newspaper every morning to check the standings. You’re even dreaming about the day someone will invent a cyberspace gathering place for you to read about your quarterback’s sexual deviance or your tight end’s propensity to murder people. (And now it’s here! The Internet is grand.)

The point is, this is all happening fast. It’s happening before you’re old enough to make real-life choices. Before you can decide who you’re going to be friends with, who you want to ask to a dance where you want to go to college or when you’re going to get married.

It’s possible that picking favorite sports teams is the earliest critical decision one can make. Choose wisely and you’re set for life. Choose poorly and there’s a good chance your life will be one miserable disappointment after the next.

(Or you’ll read more books. And probably be much more intelligent and well-rounded. And get scholarship offers to Ivy League schools and be choosing between Miss Oklahoma and Miss Colorado as your date to the dinner where you accept your first Pulitzer Prize. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about).

The thing is, you’re NOT choosing. If your dad has any sense of pride and self-worth, that man is choosing your teams for you. He’s buying you hats, shirts, gloves, bats, pennants, sweatbands, cereals, video games, notebooks and Gatorade bottles with HIS team’s logos on them. He’s taking you to games against HIS team’s biggest rivals, helping you get autographs of HIS favorite players and making sure you have no choice but to love exactly what he loves.

I was not hard to convince. My dad grew up in Pittsburgh and within 3 or 4 minutes of watching whatever my first baseball, basketball or hockey game was with him, I wanted to wear black and gold. No basketball team in the Steel City? Didn’t matter. I grew up near Cleveland, and I needed to root for at least one franchise that would teach me that there’s much to be learned from failure. Continued, unabashed, neverending failure.

The first moment when I realized the perils of being a fan of a Cleveland sports team. Thanks, MJ. (Chicago Tribune)

The first moment when I realized the perils of being a fan of a Cleveland sports team. Thanks, MJ. (Chicago Tribune)

I’ve never once wavered. Despite many dry spells and near misses from the Cavs, two decades of historic futility from the Pirates, enough home playoff losses to fill the Smithsosnian from the Steelers and a near relocation from the Penguins, I wasn’t jumping ship. The chance to watch LeBron James, see my team play in four Super Bowls since I was a teenager, root for Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby on their way to three Stanley Cups and have a team that plays in the Taj Mahal of baseball stadiums more than made up for anything bad that happened along the way. I’ve been on board with all four since I was in diapers and intend to stay on board until I’m in diapers again.

Still, there’s part of me that can’t help but wonder what if things had gone even slightly differently. What if my dad hadn’t cared about sports? What if he was merely ambivalent? What if he … actually MADE me choose?!?!

Would this have been me without a little guidance from the old man? Quite possibly. (Deadspin)

Would this have been me without a little guidance from the old man? Quite possibly. (Deadspin)

Would I have ended up being that guy who walks around with a Yankees hat and a Cowboys jersey all the time? Would I have moved to LA to stalk Jack Nicholson and con him into letting me sit courtside with him at Lakers games? Would I have sold my fan allegiance on eBay? Aside from a brief period of time when it seemed like the Penguins might be calling the Chiefs and Royals neighbors in Kansas City, these are never thoughts that crossed my mind.

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Manchester United

But in a way, now seems like the perfect time to do what I gladly never had to do 25 years ago. Soccer, once only associated with orange slices and suburban moms, has been gradually gaining steam, turning from a sport with a niche audience to one that’s at least in the same time zone in terms of popularity as it is in the rest of the world. We have one domestic league that’s finally starting to come into its own as a marketing force and as a destination for at least some top-end talent. The national team is beginning to turn out a bevy of impressive players and some feel there’s at least a chance for a deep World Cup run in 2018 or 2022.

That’s all a bit down the road, though. What’s here now, and on Saturday available in completely and utter oversaturation, is the Barclays Premier League, England’s top tier and by all accounts the most popular soccer league in the world. In October, NBC Sports won the right to televise the Premier League for the next three seasons for a price of $250 million.

The difference between NBC’s coverage and the coverage the league used to receive is that NBC plans on, well, actually showing the games. Fox held the previous rights to the EPL, and while the occasional game aired on ESPN, most were on Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer Plus, premium channels unavailable in many homes. Even in areas where they were available, both Fox channels typically showed only four to five games a week (in a league of 20 teams). Whether online, streaming or on NBC Sports or its alternate networks, every game in the 2013-14 season will be readily available for American consumption.

So that got me thinking. I like competition. I like information I can consume easily in quantities I choose, whenever and wherever I want. Most importantly, I like soccer. My dad coached at the high school level for more than 20 years.  I played it from the time I was mobile enough to walk until I realized in high school that my knees were made of equal parts plywood and orange Jell-O.

Look, I’m never going to be “soccer guy.” The guy who refers to everything as a pitch, calls his team a side, calls something other than a loss a result, refers to fixtures rather than schedules and tables instead of standings.

But what I can do – after all these years – is pick a team.

Joe Posnanski wrote a piece this week on how to pick a Premier League team, which is hardly like choosing where one’s NFL allegiances should lie. Four teams have won the last EIGHTEEN EPL titles, and believe it or not, those same four – Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal – are the four favorites again this year. If your team is bad – think Bobcats, Astros or Jaguars bad – it will be relegated to the second division the following year. Its games will then only be televised on closed-circuit, standard definition screens in British prisons where people who don’t know how to make a proper bubble and squeak go.

The winner of the league is simply the team with the most points, not the team who sneaks into that second wild-card and goes on an October run. There are no playoffs in most non-American soccer leagues, though  a top-four finish is highly coveted as it earns a team a spot in the following year’s UEFA Champions League. Up to three others will play in the Europa League, which is sort of college basketball’s equivalent of the NIT to the Champions League’s NCAAs.

Posnanski’s column gave an American comparison to each of the 20 EPL clubs, finding a domestic team that’s at least roughly equivalent based on history, style of play, location and financial situations.

It was easy for me to discount the four favorites and the six or eight expected bottom feeders, because A) who wants to root for the Yankees or Dodgers? and B) who wants to immediately have to worry about relegation? If I’m going to try to get into this, I might as well do it with a team that has a chance to stick around without already having a reputation as a free-spending Darth Vader.

Everton FulhamSwanseaTottenham

I narrowed it down to four clubs: Everton, Fulham, Swansea City and Tottenham, with a few reasons for each. Everton has American goalie Tim Howard, plays in London, is generally competitive and entertaining and has a penchant for using advanced metrics in looking at the game. Posnanski compared Fulham to the Pirates, in that they had success long ago, have a lot of tradition and play in a lovely stadium on the water. Swansea has been likened to a poor man’s, Welsh version of Spanish juggernaut Barcelona for its crisp passing and attacking style of play. Tottenham, also in London, has turned into an annual threat to the top four, plays a fun and open style and isn’t afraid to spend some money.

I threw out Tottenham, because they seem to have become somewhat of the hipster’s choice of EPL clubs. They’re on the rise but also threaten to be a sort of flavor of the week, and I have a few friends who are Tottenham fans. Remember, this is about me attempting to make a decision. Plus, if there aren’t friends you can hurl insults at in the name of true hooliganism, where’s the fun?

Swansea didn’t make the cut either. They play in the smallest stadium in the league, don’t have a whole lot of positive history, and although Catherine Zeta-Jones is a fan, there was no guarantee of being able to watch a game with her that I could find in combing over their website.

So I was down to Everton and Fulham. One in Liverpool, one In London. I initially thought Fulham might be the right choice. They supposedly have some of the friendliest fans in the league and a welcoming atmosphere inside their cozy stadium, Craven Cottage. Plus, who wouldn’t want to root for a team that plays in a place called Craven Cottage? It sounds like a log cabin vacation home in the deep woods of Oregon, not the latest corporate BestbuyMobileStaplesAirlinesCellular Center du jour.

Plus, Posnanski compared them to the Pirates. How could I possible turn down the chance to … wait, WHAT?!??! This year notwithstanding, the Pirates have provided enough angst over the past 20 years that even Taylor Swift could pen some sort of anthology (though I’ve told them we were never, ever, ever getting back together, I always cave). How could I do that to myself twice? Plus they finished 12th last year and are generally thought to be a middle-of-the-pack team at best. It’d be nice to root for someone who’s at least a threat to win something on occasion.

That means, as a result of my very limited knowledge and the extremely arbitrary process that helped me arrive at this decision, Everton it is! And really, it couldn’t be a better choice, for a few reasons.

This man isn't focused on killing his North Vietnamese captors. He's mentally preparing for Everton's next match.

This man isn’t focused on killing his North Vietnamese captors. He’s mentally preparing for Everton’s next match.

1) Sylvester Stallone is a fan

2) They’re nicknamed the Toffees, and I occasionally enjoy Heath bars

3) Paul McCartney is a fan

4) Their best up-and-coming player is named Ross Barkley. My dog, who’s basically the canine version of Lionel Messi – speedy, short, chases balls in open spaces, amazing at everything – is named Barkley.

5) Can’t dwell on the Sly Stallone thing enough. The consistent ability to say “We drew First Blood!” in a sport where one goal is often enough to win cannot be overstated. Sly Everton

So there you have it. It’s not just about rooting for the teams you were born and raised to love. You, too, can make a choice through not-at-all scientific and generally absurd means to find a team that you’ll pull for through thick and thin, in good times and bad, in victory and in relegation.

I’m on board. I’m all in.

Unless they lose to Norwich City on Saturday.