Derrick Rose. (Flickr.com/Keith Allison)
Here is the scene. I am curled up in a fetal position on my couch, shivering but still desperately fixed on the television screen waiting for some metaphorical hit that can tamper my long unsatisfied fix. The Dream Team documentary no longer has a qualifiable effect; learning there is not enough credible proof to deter the inexplicably non-existent conspiracy theories of whether Wilt Chamberlain
‘s 100 — or was it 101; see how this can get messy — does not tame the withdrawals; watching Charles Barkley
essentially say he is a power forward expert because he would not start a power forward who averaged only six rebounds a game invokes vomit instead of that glorious high we are so close to returning to (just realizing how well this metaphor works with this site’s name; also the league average for rebounds by power forwards is 4.4); and watching the Atlanta Dream overcome the odds and win the conference championship … OK, let’s be honest, there is no way in hell I watched the Atlanta Dream win the conference championship (I am not even sure the games were televised).
But as I held back the vomit and finished watching the (usually) enjoyable Open Court roundtable, the necessary respite from the beautifully torturous NBA season ended and preseason basketball graced the television. Los Angeles Lakers fans reacted to a Xavier Henry
— pronounced Zay-Vee-Ay
but strangely enough Hen-Ree
— 29-point performance the way Josh Selby
‘s fans (read: “family”) reacted to Selby’s Summer League MVP. Paul George
tried to split a pick-and-roll and failed (even with $90 to $108 million
, you’re still not allowed to do that, Paul). And Derrick Rose
made his glorious return to the Chicago Bulls. Speaking of Rose and the Bulls, that is as good as a place as any to start an NBA preview.
“The thing that drives me now is just winning a championship.” – Derrick Rose (HoopsWorld)
In the pilot episode of The Return, Derrick Rose actually looked a lot like the Derrick Rose of old. He was high volume — at least as high volume as you can get in the first preseason game — but equally high scoring. He was a decent passer, but an unsettling frequent turnover man. He looked fast, he looked explosive and the Chicago Bulls’ ancillary pieces quickly reverted to their “Oh no! The shot clock is running low, get Derrick the ball, quick” tendencies. For all intents and purposes, it looked like Derrick Rose is back.
The question becomes whether that means a championship, though. Look, I was not necessarily the biggest believer in Rose and the Bulls
pre-ACL injury, but you cannot deny this team is a “contender.” They were still stalwarts on defense last season — the logged a 100.3 defensive rating, good for fifth in the NBA — despite never being at full strength, even sans Rose, for most of last year. The two seasons prior when the Bulls were relatively healthy they managed league best (and freaking ridiculous) 95.3 and 97.4 defensive ratings. The problem last year came on the offensive end where the Bulls logged the seventh-worst offensive rating in basketball (100.4; all rating stats via NBA.com). That offensive number projects to get much higher with Rose and a healthy Bulls’ roster. During the 2011-12 campaign, when the team still struggled with injuries, they logged a very good 104.5 offensive rating which ranked fifth in basketball. During Rose’s MVP season, that number jumped up to 105.5 and ranked 12th.
Looking at those numbers you are right to assume the Bulls will be competing for that top spot in the East with Miami again this year. But again, I am not sure if that necessarily means they have real NBA title hopes. The last time a Bulls team of this caliber met the Miami Heat in the playoffs they lost, somewhat convincingly, in five games. That was the first incarnation of the big three; an incarnation that was still trying to fit into traditional positions and NBA offense. That incarnation of the Heat was actually pretty dismal on offense and survived the Eastern Conference on the back of their stellar defense and the rest of the East’s incompetence on the offensive end. The Heat, as they exist today, do not have those problems on offense anymore and have actually become something of an unstoppable juggernaut on the offensive end. This Bulls team is more than ready for prime time, but I am not sure they can compete with Miami, especially considering their bench is actually worse than it was the first time these two teams met (more on this later).
“There’s no uncertainty right now. Everyone’s healthy, everyone knows what’s at stake. … We obviously have a lot at stake. As a basketball player, I couldn’t feel happier and more excited coming into a season.” – Joakim Noah (USA Today)
Ironically, Noah will miss the Bulls first few preseason games with a groin injury
. In regards to the regular season, though, he does have a good point. This is the first time in a while the Bulls’ core is all at 100 percent. That being said, the chances that Noah, Rose and Luol Deng
make it through entire season with that status intact cannot be that high. And Tom Thibodeau may not have the resources to keep things in tact if the injury bug does bite Chicago. Nazr Mohammed
started in Noah’s place in Chicago’s preseason opener. Nazr is a good player and is perfectly capable of supporting the Bulls at the center spot for a couple of short stretches throughout the game and throughout the season. But if Nazr is the first guy you turn to when one of your top frontcourt players goes down, it is pretty obvious you are not as deep as you need to be. Right now it looks like Thibs has enough confidence in nine players on the Bulls roster. There is a chance a Marquis Teague
or Tony Snell can sneak into that group — not based on what we saw Saturday, though — but right now the Bulls are paper thin.
“It is a toxic relationship that I believe will ultimately derail them,” Unnamed NBA coach (Yahoo! Sports)
Which brings back to the drop in bench play and the general mismanagement of the Bulls roster over the past few years. Back in 2010-11 when the Bulls first matched up with Miami’s big three, Chicago had one of the best bench units in basketball. Only Taj Gibson
remains from that group and the pieces brought in to play with Taj this year are adequate but not necessarily equal replacements. Essentially C.J. Watson
, an at his peak Ronnie Brewer
, Kyle Korver
and a vastly undervalued Omer Asik
were replaced by Kirk Hinrich
, Mike Dunleavy
and Nazr Mohammed. The upgrade of adding Jimmy Butler
to the starting lineup dampens the blow to the bench a little, but the fact of the matter is this Chicago bench does not have the scoring prowess that old unit did. That scoring punch was crucial to Chicago’s success on offense in the past.
The Bulls’ front office is notoriously cheap, but it is not that hard to follow their logic here. Derrick Rose was hurt and even though no one wants to acknowledge it, there was probably never a chance he was playing last season. They were not going to venture over the luxury tax for a team that they, candidly speaking, did not want to be that successful. So they let some players walk and actively got rid of others. It all would have been fine, except they did not do an adequate job rebuilding the roster this year. They needed to, at least, be as good as they were in 2011 this year, and honestly needed to be better if they really wanted to dethrone the Heat. Instead, they are nine deep with the ninth guy being Nazr Mohammed. It is hard to qualify any of this as a failure, because this team just might finish with the best record in basketball this year. But it is just as hard to picture this team as currently constructed winning a championship.
A quick note on the motivation for the quote above. Tom Thibodeau and the people making the decisions in the front office do not like each other right now. Thibs’ lead assistant, Ron Adams, was let go because the front office “did not like Adams’ defiant disposition” (check out Adrian Wojnarwoski’s article, linked above, for more details) and it is hard to see that as anything other than a warning shot to Thibodeau to stay in line. There is a lot of room for speculation here — if I was the type to speculate I would say the front office may also be pretty mad Thibs dragged this team the playoffs when they wanted something more in the lottery range, but I’m not the type to speculate — but the least to be said is that there are some tense internal relations within the organization right now. Speaking of tense internal relations … .
“Honestly, I don’t really give a s***. It is what it is.” -Kobe Bryant (from Dave McMenamin via Twitter)
The amount of animosity that Kobe and Laker Nation are showing towards Dwight Howard
is comical at this point. They have legitimately convinced themselves they are better without Howard and that they never actually wanted him to come back in the first place (like honestly, they are getting excited about what Chris Kaman
is going to bring to the table). In reality, outside of Kobe, Steve Nash
, Pau Gasol
and, arguably, Kaman, this roster is a group of rejects that had almost worn out their welcome in the NBA.
When Dwight Howard was off the court last year the Lakers logged a putrid 107.8 defensive rating; only the Sacramento Kings and the Charlotte Bobcats were worse. They gave up 49.9 points in the paint per 100 possessions when Howard was off the court — which would rank second to last — and gave up 16.2 second chance points (worst in basketball). Howard will be off the court all the time for the Lakers now and considering age makes people slower and not a single player they acquired over the summer (besides Kaman) is known as at least an average defender, it is safe to assume the Lakers will be horrible on defense this season (also Mike D’Antoni
is their coach).
There only hope is a miraculously healed Kobe Bryant can carry them. And even then … wait what?
Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. (Photo by Scott Mecum/Flickr.com)
“I got out and jumped again. I just didn’t vine that one.” -Kobe Bryant (from Sean Deveney via Twitter)
I still cannot tell if stuff like this is why I hate Kobe or why I (begrudgingly) love him. Either way, despite Kobe’s base jumping escapades he is still far from 100 percent. He has yet participate in training camp and actually is in Germany right now undergoing another platelet-rich plasma treatment — more on that in a moment — which brings us to this … .
“(This Lakers squad feels) more like a team.” -Steve Nash (also from Dave McMenamin via Twitter)
This is a really weird thing for Nash to say. First, Nash is not necessarily the guy you would expect to take a shot at Howard like this. In actuality, it makes more sense that Nash genuinely is enjoying playing with this group of guys more than he did with last year’s squad. Which brings us to the second reason this is a little weird: Kobe is not out there and Gasol had been very limited at the time Nash said this. So do the Lakers feel more like a team when Kobe is not around? Maybe Nash is just enjoying being the alpha dog who can command his troops however he sees fit — in the nicest and most efficient way possible, of course. Or maybe he is just happy to be in a more traditional Nash-D’Antoni system. But then again.
“We’re not an up-and-down, run-and-gun type team by any stretch of the imagination.” -Kobe Bryant (again from Dave McMenamin via Twitter)
I think Kobe underestimates Mike D’Antoni’s imagination. This is another weird one because, again, Kobe has not necessarily been around a whole lot and I doubt he and D’Antoni are at the peak of their communication — Kobe did not tell D’Antoni that he was leaving training camp to go to Germany, for example. Look, the Lakers actually did play at a slower pace last season and it is not unfathomable to consider that this group may not look like a traditional “Seven Seconds or Less” team. But that just brings us back to the D’Antoni hiring in the first place and whether he is best fit for this particular Lakers’ roster. It will be interesting (and hopefully entertaining) to see how it all plays out for the Lakers this year. I have my front row seat to the potential train wreck. Speaking of potential train wrecks (last forced segue, I promise) … .
“Don’t rush to get back because this knee ain’t nothing to play with.” (from Michael Lee via Twitter)
Those are Eric Maynor
‘s words to his former teammate Russell Westbrook
, who underwent a second knee surgery last week. Westbrook is projected to be back in mid- to late December. The news of Westbrook’s delayed return took the basketball world by surprise, but I think we have to question whether it actually should have. Westbrook was never a lock to be back on opening night and as recently as a couple of weeks ago, he was unsure whether the end of October was a realistic return date. He tore his meniscus less than six months ago and the fact that he is not fully ready to make a return yet should not be that surprising.
That is not say there is no reason for concern, though. When I read about the post-op shaving that needed to be done, I was eerily reminded of the end of Brandon Roy
‘s tenure in Portland. Roy had severe knee problems leading into his meniscus tear that Westbrook is missing and in actuality there may not be as much to worry about with Russell. But we are still with dealing a lack of knee cartilage and that is never good for a player that relies on speed and explosion like Westbrook does.
(Flickr.com photo by So Max O)
“The main problem is, I think personally, since James has left I think everybody thinks we need somebody to fill that slot. The slot doesn’t have to be filled. We have a great team. If everybody does there job, we should be alright.” -Russell Westbrook (ESPN)
The bigger problem, though, is how Oklahoma City will cope with Russell’s absence. It is hard not to think, “This is a time where they could really use James Harden
,” because this is exactly the time where Harden will be severely missed. In an extremely small sample size the Thunder were horrible on offense after Westbrook’s injury — they logged a 100.3 offensive rating. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact they played the Memphis Grizzlies in five of those nine games, but it was rather obvious this team had issues on offense in Westbrook’s absence.
Those issues will be intensified by the absence of Kevin Martin
, which brings us back again to James Harden. Harden was traded for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb
and a draft pick. Kevin Martin is gone and the draft pick became Steven Adams. Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb, that is what the Thunder got back for one for one of the three best shooting guards in basketball. Because that is all they got back, the only support Durant has to help take on the scoring load is Serge Ibaka
. The problem with that: Serge Ibaka seemed incapable of scoring at a high rate without Westbrook creating the open looks for him — Ibaka shot 39.8 percent from the field in those nine games without Westbrook, after shooting 57.3 percent during the regular season. There is nobody else on the roster that has proven they can score the basketball consistently in the NBA — though Reggie Jackson
has the potential to be very good offensively.
This team has done absolutely nothing to significantly improve their roster over the past five seasons other than make good draft picks. Outside of those draft picks they have made two significant transactions, both which look horrible in hindsight. First, they traded Jeff Green
for Kendrick Perkins
and immediately signed Perkins to a pricey extension — the extension that “forced” them to cut ties with Harden. The trade was made mostly so they could defend the likes of Andrew Bynum
, Pau Gasol and potentially Dwight Howard in the playoffs. Since the trade, all three of those players’ dominance has been marginalized, Perkins has shown he is no longer capable of defending those type of players anyway and the last two games of the NBA Finals were played with Kawhi Leonard
and Tim Duncan
matched up against LeBron James
and Chris Bosh
at the power forward and center positions — I think the Jeff Green and Serge Ibaka combo would have worked. The second transaction was trading James Harden for, essentially, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams.
The Thunder still have three young, amazing NBA talents and OKC fans should still remain hopeful for their team’s future. They are going to have to make some moves if they want to stay relevant, though. The rest of the contenders are getting better. They are close to getting left behind.