Who You Should Cheer for in the NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference

I’m not going to go all analytical like I usually do with my NBA posts. To be honest, while I have been up to date with the NBA season thanks to League Pass, a swirl of coaching, job and other things have kept me from really being fully immersed in the NBA season as I have been in years past. That being said, I wanted to do some kind of NBA Playoffs preview, even if it was brief and more tongue-in-cheek and less “stats-based”. In fact, rare for one of my basketball posts, I am not going to use any stats at all. This is just a 100% from the gut, totally biased look in terms of who you should cheer for in the Eastern Conference first round playoffs. If you like it, great. If you feel my opinions are un-founded, I get it and agree with you. They probably are, but that’s not going to stop me from expressing them.

Enough with all that. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference First Round.

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons

I have a love-hate relationship with LeBron. I loved him when he started out his career, defended his Rookie of the Year award over Carmelo, and thought his performance against Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was one of the single-best playoff games in history. However, I hated him his first year in Miami for all that “Decision” hoopla, but I grew to love how he adjusted his game (mainly his back to the basket game) and truly became the alpha dog on those two championship Miami Heat teams. I liked that he came back to Cleveland, but I didn’t like how he used mainstream media again as his own personal PR firm (really when you think about it, the “Decision” and the SI “I’m Coming Home” piece really weren’t all that different, it’s just that we all liked the message more because we all resonate with that “coming home” feeling at one point or the other in our lives…more on that later). I really admired LeBron in the playoffs, especially in the Finals, as he pretty much won 2 games against the Golden State Warriors by himself.

And then Game 5 happened…and then all the “I’m the greatest player in the world” stuff…and then he got David Blatt fired mid-season this year, even though Blatt took them to the Finals and had them in first place in the East at the time and is a very good coach whom I liked from his Russia and Maccabi Tel Aviv days who didn’t sign up for the “LeBron circus” but adjusted anyways for the sake of his superstar and his team.

Seriously, Fuck LeBron. I am not questioning his talent or his hall-of-fame status. But he isn’t the player he once was, and he has gotten so into his own “persona” as Cleveland’s savior that everything he does both on and off the court just comes off as pretentious and disingenuous. And he hasn’t even been that good this year, as he is nowhere in the conversation when it comes to MVP, a rarity we haven’t seen in almost a decade. Add that with a supporting cast that includes a talented, but often-injured point guard (Kyrie Iriving), a post player who ransomed his old franchise to just become a spot-up shooter (Kevin Love) and a bunch of overpaid role players (Shumpert, Smith, Thompson…the list goes on) and it’s hard to cheer for this Cavs bunch. They’re talented, they deserve the No. 1 spot East, and when they are on, goddamn it they are tough to stop. But unless you’re from Cleveland, it’s hard to really get behind them and they don’t offer anything endearing except for the fact that they could bring a long-suffering city their first title in decades.

The Pistons on the other hand, really don’t have much of a chance. They lack a true point guard, and Andre Drummond, though a beast and one of the best “pure” low post players in the league currently behind Demarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, is so bad at free throws that you can’t play him in crunch time (as evidenced in their Game 1 loss). However, this is a Stan Van Gundy team and you can guarantee a couple of things:

1.) They are going to launch it. SVG made his bread in Orlando by surrounding Dwight with a whole bunch of shooters. The Magic went deep in the playoffs thanks to guys like Rashard Lewis and JJ Redick launching it from deep. The Pistons are built in that mold with guys like Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris as the Lewis-type stretch 4’s and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ad Stanley Johnson providing the Redick-esque support. Unfortunately, SVG lacks a Jameer-like point guard. Reggie Jackson is too much of a gunner and ball killer, and unlike his former teammate Russell Westbrook, when he loses his shit, he loses his shit in a way that takes his team out of the game. His stupid technical foul basically killed any shot or hope the Pistons had in terms of coming back.

2.) SVG makes great adjustments, and he has them play with great intensity and tempo. SVG knows how to coach. He finds weaknesses well and makes great adjustments. He did that with the Pistons often-times this year, and got them in the playoffs for the first time since the “Sheed” days because of his ability to adjust on the fly. And furthermore, SVG is a great motivator. Yes, superstars butt heads with him, but this Pistons team doesn’t have a Dwight or Shaq or DWade superstar. Drummond is still young and impressionable, and he doesn’t have the kind of ego that sunk the Dwight-SVG relationship. These Pistons will go through a brick wall for SVG and that will be key, especially considering it is yet to be determined how Tyronn Lue will handle in his first playoff series as a head coach.

3-point-oriented, tough, a great coach, young, and playing against LeBron…I don’t see how you cannot cheer for the Pistons this first round.

 

No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics

This is a tough one. Atlanta has a lot going for them. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are underrated and effective post players who go unnoticed because they play in Atlanta and don’t have the “big” personalities (i.e. they haven’t dated any major celebrity of note). Dennis Schroeder has an awesome name, an awesome nickname (“German Rondo”) and is a fun player to watch when he’s on. Mike Budenholzer is one of the best NBA coaches in the league, who still got a lot from his team this year, despite some down years from some key players (Kyle Korver especially).

But, damn, this Celtics team. They are…so…freaking…fun to watch. They blitz it on the court with their tempo, and they are all young, all fiery as hell (Marcus Smart, Evan “The Villain” Turner, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, just to name a few, all play with serious “chips on their shoulders”, so much so that it comes off as endearing, unlike Jackson of Detroit or any white guard from Duke where it comes off as annoying), and play with the kind of tenacity that makes you forget about the pretentious “Unbuntu” days when Doc Rivers complained endlessly to refs (seriously did he do any coaching? Or did he just leave that to Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank?), Kevin Garnett picked on point guards, and Paul Pierce was being carried out on wheelchairs, only to return 15 minutes later. I know Boston, that era brought you a title, but your current Celtics are way more endearing to us general NBA fans and make us forget not only about that insufferable team, but also the crappy weather and over-bearing nature of your New England population.

Back to the Celtics, they do have major some major issues. Isaiah Thomas is one of the most fun players in the league, and I hit myself on the head everyday as a Kings fan that they let him walk for practically nothing because DeMarcus Cousins didn’t like how he shook hands with Chris Paul after a meaningless mid-season loss to the Clippers. However, he’s going to struggle defensively against Jeff Teague and he is closer to Nate Robinson than Chris Paul when it comes to point-guard mold. And, they lack a true offensive post player (Amir Johnson gives you post defense, but not much post offense), which will make things interesting against Horford and Millsap. That being said, despite these glaring disadvantages, you still feel like the Celtics are the favorites in this series because of their depth (They can play 10-11 deep, though losing Avery Bradley hurts big time), their breakneck pace and 3-point heavy approach (they nearly came back on the road against Atlanta despite being down as much as 29 points at one point), and Brad Stevens, who really should be Coach of the Year along with Portland’s Terry Stotts.

Speaking of Stevens, I have totally turned around on him since he was hired away from Butler. I didn’t know if he was going to be a good fit at the NBA, because it seemed like his personality and style didn’t mesh well with the NBA game. He wasn’t a former NBA player, and he seemed to rely more on unheralded talent to gain long-term success. I figured he would be overwhelmed or struggle to mesh with top talent and egos, which he never had before at Butler. However, Stevens has totally turned around this Celtics team in the post-Unbuntu era, and somehow molded into the kind of teams he coached at Butler: tough, relentless and well-prepared on a night-in, night-out basis (though to be fair, Danny Ainge really built this team to his strengths as a coach; a poor GM wouldn’t have given Stevens the amount of young talent and patience in a market like Boston; case in point: New York). And, he’s really good at drawing up inbounds plays. Jon Barry on the broadcast was gushing about his in-bounds play artistry like a 42-year-old overweight divorcee would about Pornhub now offering VR videos.

This one is a coin toss. But, the combination of Stevens, youth and fun style of play not only make the Celtics more endearing in this one, but also in a potential second-round matchup with LeBron and the Cavs.

 

No. 3 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Charlotte Hornets

This Hornets team came out of nowhere, really. Two years ago, in their final years of the Bobcats, they surprised everyone and made the playoffs. Then last year, in their first year of their rebirth as the Hornets, they acquired Lance Stephenson, and consequently chemistry went to shit, and they finished in the Lottery. With lower expectations this year, they acquired a bunch of guys coming off down years (Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes, etc.), got rid of Stephenson, drafted Frank the Tank from Wisconsin, decided to jack up more 3 pointers, and now they’re the six-seed in the playoffs. It’s fucking nuts how the NBA works sometimes.

The Hornets are the underdogs this playoffs, akin to Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA Tournament, and there’s something endearing in that description. However, despite their “Island of the Lost Toys” roster, this Heat team is infinitely more interesting and worth cheering for. Here’s three reasons why:

1.) This Chris Bosh health issue sucks. Nobody deserves a playoff run without Lebron more than this guy. I watched him live when he was with the Raptors and he truly is a unique talent that sacrificed more than people think to win two titles with the Heat. I’m convinced that he and DWade could be just as competitive as LeBron and the “Misfit Army” of the Cavs. But, this health issue with the blood clotting is keeping him out, and thus, we are deprived of that potential Miami-Cleveland matchup that would be all kinds of intriguing and fun. And the worst part is that Bosh cares so much about all this. He really seems like a truly genuine guy who wants to be out there on the court, and is not just posturing because he’s the Heat’s top-paid guy (along with Wade). I freaking hate this. Fate can be so cruel. I just hope this issue doesn’t force an early retirement, as I want at least one more year where Bosh could have a shot against LeBron in the playoffs.

2.) Goran Dagic doesn’t get enough love or appreciation from NBA fans for his talent and impact. He played in the shadow of Steve Nash, then was on lukewarm Suns teams that never made the playoffs post-Nash, and then went to the Heat post-LeBron where nobody gave a shit about the Heat except for the 50 percent of the Miami sporting fan population who stayed around when Lebron left town. Dragic has just always gotten overlooked. People talk about Kyrie. People talk about John Wall. People talk about Jeff Teague and Kyle Lowry. But Dragic? Never. And it’s too bad because he’s one of the most complete point guards in the league. He deserves to get more pub, and a potential opportunity to carve up Kemba, Lowry and maybe Irving en route to an Eastern Conference Championship would be the perfect scenario to get him more of the respect he deserves when it comes to being compared to other point guards in the Eastern Conference.

3.) And speaking of people who don’t get love, what about Erik Spoelstra? I love him because he’s Filipino, but with all this Coach of the Year talk, Spoelstra doesn’t get mentioned in the convo. He was a hell of a coach pre-Lebron and is showing that he’s a hell of a coach post-Lebron, but he’s barely mentioned as one of the best coaches in the game. Spoelstra has done wonders with this squad, molding them into their own unique blend without LeBron and has them playing as one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference as of this moment (especially true after their demolishing of Charlotte in game 1). Spoels, like Dragic, needs more love, and a deep run would do so, not to mention it would be an especially juicy story if it came at the expense of LeBron.

This is a tough series, because I like the Hornets a lot and have enjoyed following them this year on league pass. But this Miami team has more long-term potential, especially since they may be the team best-equipped to de-throne the Cavs. And that is why you should cheer for them not just now, but in the further rounds as well.

 

No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers

I don’t think Toronto will get far in the playoffs. And this is a tough series for them. Paul George is looking like Paul George pre-broken leg. Frank Vogel is one of the more underrated coaches in the league. The Pacers play a tough, physical kind of game that I think guys like Demar Derozan struggle with. And that was on full display in game 1, as the Raptors dropped game 1 at home, continuing their trend from the past two years of disappointing in the playoffs despite the tremendous support and regular-season success.

That being said, I am pulling for them. Dwane Casey is a much better coach than people think, and I think he gets way too much shit for the Raptors’ playoff woes than deserved. He has put the Raptors in situations to succeed, it’s just that a combo of youth and lack of somebody stepping up in the moment has done the Raptors in these past couple of years, not something Casey really could control. (What’s he supposed to do? Put magic dust on Derozan?) The Raptors fans are great and really have pulled for this team the past five years or so in a way that shows how big basketball really is in the Maple State. They basically treat every playoff game at home like Kansas City does for the USMNT during the World Cup at Power and Light (and like those KC fans, the Raptors fans get their hearts ripped out in big games…seriously, beating Algeria is NOT THAT BIG A DEAL soccer fans). Lowry, despite his own issues, is a gritty type of player who really has come a long ways from his days with the Grizzlies, and Jonas Valanciunas, one of my favorite Lithuanian players ever along with Sarunas Marciulionis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Sabonis and Domantas Sabonis (see what I did with the names there?) has also developed into one of the more underrated bigs in the game who can bang and board down low with any other post player in the NBA while still maintaining some offensive skill and touch around the basket.

But the biggest reason? I want to see them break the playoff hex. Being in bad losing streaks like this suck, especially when it is on such a big stage (as a Gonzaga fan, I think we can relate to the Raptors’ playoff disappointment) These fans care too much and have been through too much shit after those losses to Brooklyn and Washington in consecutive years. Furthermore, this team is young and built in a way that is unique compared to other teams in the league, especially in the Eastern Conference. Their roster is filled with guys who overachieve and overcome the modest expectations people have for them year after year. Lowry doesn’t have what it takes to be an elite point guard. Derozan is too perimeter-oriented. Jonas doesn’t have the skills to compete with other post players. Demarre Carroll doesn’t have a position in the NBA. Casey is dubious as a head coach as evidenced from his Minnesota days. And despite those expectations, the Raptors continue to win and continue to get better and better. I don’t think anyone thought the Raptors would be the second-best team in the Eastern conference going into this year and here they are, the No. 2 seed after one of the best seasons in franchise history.

But that would all go to crap if they lose to the Pacers. And they don’t deserve that. Not after all the progress they’ve made and the season they had. I’m not saying they can or will go far. I think Miami would be too much for them in the second round. But they are better than Indiana and they need to step it up. The fans and the organization deserve to at least get out of the first round for the first time since the Vince Carter days.

And lastly…the Raptors have super-fan Drake. Let’s not see Drake jump off this bandwagon after another first round exit. I want to see him courtside cheering for the Raptors in Miami in the second round.

That would just be oh-so-fitting.

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Melo and the New York Knicks Could Be Better Than Expected…If Fisher Can Stay Out of the Way

Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks could be better than people expect…as long as Head Coach Derek Fisher doesn’t provide any more distractions.

The New York Knicks have been an unmitigated train wreck the past two seasons. Two years ago, after finishing 54-28 the year before (which included an Atlantic Division title but a disappointing 2nd round exit in the playoffs to the Indiana Pacers), the Knicks failed to live up to expectations that they could compete with LeBron and the Heat and the Pacers in the Eastern Conference. Though Carmelo Anthony put up a banner All-Star year for the Knicks, averaging 27.4 ppg and 8.1 rpg on 45.2 percent shooting in 77 games, and put up 10.7 win shares and a PER of 24.4, the Knicks’ franchise player failed to get much help from his supporting cast. Tyson Chandler was the team’s 2nd best player on a Win Shares basis (4.9) and he only played in 55 games due to injury. Amare Stoudamire and JR Smith had regression seasons (3.8 and 3.7 win shares, respectively) and Raymond Felton had one of his classic “off” years (i.e. he rested on his laurels and didn’t stay in shape), as evidenced by his PER dropping from 15.9 in his first season in New York to 12.9 in year two. .

With all these regressions from veteran players who were expected to be key contributors, the Knicks struggled to find any consistency on the court despite Melo’s best efforts. Their most glaring weakness was on defense as they ranked 24th in the league in defensive efficiency. And thus, instead of repeating as Atlantic Division champs and challenging the Heat and Pacers in the East, the Knicks missed the playoffs with a 37-45 record. Though the Knicks expected W-L (39-43) was a bit better than their actual, it didn’t hide the fact that 2013-2014 was a disappointing campaign, further evidenced by their SRS (Simple Rating System) of -1.40, which ranked them 19th in the league.

After the year concluded, Phil Jackson was hired as Team President to restructure the franchise from the inside-out, and the first one to go was head coach Mike Woodson, who failed to build on the momentum generated from his first two seasons as head coach (Woodson was 72-34 as Knicks head coach prior to 2013-2014). After a failed run at Steve Kerr (who took the Warriors job and led them to a NBA title), Jackson hired former player Derek Fisher, who had just recently retired as a player. Though Fisher had no coaching experience, Jackson hired him because he was a respected player in the league among his peers, and he knew the “Triangle” system from his playing days that Jackson wanted implemented in the Knicks organization.

In the off-season, Jackson’s presence was felt, as he let Chandler, Felton and Andrea Bargnani walk, and only signed Jason Smith in free agency. Instead of relying on veterans who had been inconsistent, Jackson decided to go a more organic route, trying to build within with guys like Cole Aldrich, who had showed some promise in 2013-2014 and Smith, a crafty inside-out center whose skill set was similar to Triangle centers Jackson had coached in the past like Luc Longley, Bill Wennington and Bill Cartwright. The Knicks were trying to craft a new identity, similar to Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams, where the team complemented the superstar (in this case Melo) in the Triangle offensive system.

Unfortunately, the Triangle never took off, and by mid-year, with the Knicks clearly going to miss the playoffs for a second straight year, Jackson shipped off mainstays Smith and Iman Shumpert to Cleveland for draft picks and expiring contracts. By February, Stoudamire was bought out, ending a relationship that started out great, but slowly died out in frustrating fashion (few people remember how exciting Amare was in his first year in New York before Melo arrived). With bare bones for a roster, and Melo only playing 40 games due to injury, the Knicks finished 17-65. Not only was it the worst record in the league (something that isn’t easy to do when you think that the Sixers seemed to be shooting for that since Draft night), but they also were putrid when it came to offensive rating (29th), defensive rating (30th) and SRS (30th). Knicks fans have been use to disappointment and losing in the past (see the documentary “When the Garden was Eden” to get an idea of how bad the Knicks used to be before the Walt Frazier and Willis Reed days), but even this was tough to stomach. Just three years ago, the Knicks were thinking they could compete for a NBA title, now they were back to stage 1 of a total rebuild.

2014-2015 couldn’t have gone worse for Knicks fans. That being said, I think the Knicks will improve in 2015-2016, and I think a healthy and motivated Carmelo Anthony will be a big reason why (along with a better suited roster for his talents). However, whether the Knicks see a modest 8-12 game win improvement or something more substantial will fall on the shoulders of second year head coach Fisher, and his improvement from 2014-2015 which, unlike Melo, is something I have less confidence in.

Rookie Kristaps Porzigins will complement Melo well on the court, and allow Melo to play his more natural position of small forward.

The Knicks have struggled defensively the past couple of seasons, and the most common idea is that Melo is to blame. Critics cite his stronger focus on “offense” as a reason why the Knicks defense hasn’t clicked, consequently contributing to the recent team decline in performance on the court and in the win column. I am not saying that Carmelo Anthony is an elite or even above-average defensive player. But he is certainly not as bad as people think, and he has proven to use his 6’8, 230 pound frame to his advantage.

The problem the past few years for Melo defensively is that he’s been playing mostly out of position at the power forward spot. In 2012-2013, Melo played power forward 72 percent of the time and in 2013-2014 he played the position 62 percent of the time. Playing the stretch 4 can be an advantage for a team on the offensive end (which Melo took advantage of quite a bit thanks to his impeccable mid-range game), but on the defensive end it can be taxing as well as ineffective. And that proved to be the case, as more “physical” power forwards tended to take their toll on Anthony. Furthermore, considering how much the Knicks depended on him on the offensive end (his usage rate was 35.6 in 2012-2013, which led the league, and 32.2 in 2013-2014), it made sense that Melo may have struggled or put less effort on the defensive side of things. When you play a full-season, it’s difficult to play 100 percent on both ends. Something has to give, and in this case, that proved to be Melo going toe to toe in the block with NBA power forwards. When Chandler was healthy, it wasn’t a bad thing because he could clean up any of Melo’s mistakes. But when Chandler wasn’t healthy (as in 2013-2014), his defensive inefficiencies were made more glaringly obvious, though as stated before, considering Melo is not a natural power forward, it should have been expected.

Last year, Melo made the transition to small forward more, as evidenced by him playing small forward 77 percent of the time (his time at PF dipped to 22 percent). However, Melo only played 40 games, so this change was hardly noticed or had any impact, especially considering in the 40 games Melo did play, he struggled through nagging injuries. But, at the SF position, Melo’s game shines the most. As mentioned before, he is an impeccable mid-range shooter, a lost art in this era of efficiency and the 3-point shot, but still a talent nonetheless if the player is exceptional in the mid-range, which is the case with Melo. In the past 3 seasons, Melo has shot 44.1 percent, 44.7 percent, and 44.5 percent from 16 feet to the 3 point line, the area typical of the mid-range shot. Those percentages are extremely strong, especially when you compare him to players like Kobe, who has never shot over 42.9 percent from that distance and that was in 2009-2010; and LeBron, who shot 44.7 percent in 2012-2013, but has seen his shot regress to 36.6 percent and 37.7 percent in the mid-range the past two seasons, respectively. Analytic people might not favor the mid-range, but they will agree that if someone can do it consistently well, then it is worth it for the team, and that is the case with Melo who has proved he can shoot the mid-range effectively on a consistent year to year basis. Heck, look at his 62 point game below from a couple of years ago and you can see how his mid-range game opens up so many things for him as a scorer. It is so crucial to his ability to dominate as an offensive player, something that hasn’t been seen since MJ.

But while the mid-range is the strongest aspect of Melo’s game, his diversity of scoring skills (which he has developed tremendously from his Denver days) is what makes him one of the NBA’s best pure scorers. And furthermore, it also makes him more dangerous when he is playing small forward, where he outmatches opposing small forwards in terms of size. While Melo can torch teams from the mid-range, he can post up smaller wings in the post, or he can stretch them out and hit the 3 when needed. Prior to his injury filled-year, the past few seasons had seen Melo utilize the 3 point shot a bit more. In 2012-2013, 27.8 percent of his field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, and in 2013-2014, 25.3 percent of his shots were 3-pointers. Even last year, 22.2 percent of his shots were from 3-point land, which still would surpass any percentage he sported from his Denver days (the highest 3pt FGA percentage he had with the Nuggets was 14.6 percent, which was his rookie season). And though he shot more from beyond the arc, he proved that it is worth it, as his 3pt FG percentage was 37.9 in 2012-2013 and 40.2 percent in 2013-2014. Though it fell to 34.1 percent in 2014-2015, Melo was unhealthy, and considering he has had a full off-season to recover, and judging from his early results so far in pre-season (where he is looking like Old Melo again), it would not be surprising to see his 3-point percentage jump back to that 2012-2014 range.

With his ability to take and own smaller defenders in the post with his size, and stretch cheating or lumbering defenders with his mid-range and 3-point shooting ability, it makes more sense for Melo to see more time at the Small Forward position. But of course, in order to do that, the Knicks need to have a sound option at the 4 spot, which they haven’t really had the past few years.

And that is where rookie Kristaps Porzingis comes in.

Porzingis, the Knicks’ first round pick (and 4th overall) in the most recent NBA Draft, may not be a household or popular name with typical Knicks fans. And it is understandable (though unfair and unfortunate) that the nightmares of Darko and Tskitishvilli come to mind with the drafting of Porzingis. But, Porzingis is a multi-talented player who fits into what Jackson wants to do with this team. Early in the Summer League and Preseason, Porzingis has showed a strong, inside-outside ability and a willingness to go toe to toe with physical power forwards. He hasn’t always been successful, and he still needs to get stronger, but I believe the early results have been promising so far. At the very least, he takes pressure off of Melo from playing the 4, which will open up things more for Melo on the offensive end, and put less pressure on him on the defensive end. If fans are patient with him, it would not be surprising to see Porzingis as the Knicks’ third or second best player as soon as next season. He is only 20 years old, but take a look at some of the highlights of him below and it’s easy to see why the Knicks drafted him over more proven prospects like Justise Winslow and Stanley Johnson.

Again. He’s only 20 years old. And for those that are thinking “Another Darko”, Jackson has assembled this roster to support the big man from Latvia. European players like Jose Calderon and Sasha Vujacic (who both will be key to the Knicks’ on court success) will be strong mentors to Porzingis who can also relate to him as fellow European players who adjusted to life and play in America. That is something Darko never had and undoubtedly stunted his development early in Detroit. Already, Porzingis has cited some good rapport and mentoring from Vujacic, and that is a good sign that will not only help Porzingis’ development, but make him more effective on the court, which consequently will make the Knicks, as well as Melo better this season.

Derek Fisher will need to rely and empower Anthony if he wants to keep his title as Knicks head coach

This Knicks team will be better in 2015-2016. If Calderon stays healthy, he will certainly be a better fit for this offense and team than Felton ever was. Vujacic is an underrated 3-bomber who has proven to fit well in Jackson’s Triangle. Free agent post pickups like Robin Lopez and Kyle O’Quinn and wing Aaron Afflalo will make the Knicks not only a better defensive team (which has been lacking the past couple of years), but also a tougher, and more well-rounded squad as well. All the pieces are in place, frankly, for a dark horse season where the Knicks could surprise some people in the Atlantic as well as the Eastern Conference. Considering the Detroit Pistons, the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers all get better with some key off-season acquisitions, that is not an easy statement for me to say. Nonetheless, I really truly believe that the Knicks’ off-season was one of the more subtle, yet effective ones around the league.

But unfortunately, what makes me hesitant that the Knicks will live up to that “dark horse” status is Fisher as head coach.

Last year, Fisher looked overwhelmed and under-qualified to lead the Knicks, even for “first year head coach with no coaching experience” standards. Fisher struggled to find an offensive or defensive identity with this team, and they often looked lost and disjointed as a team on the court, with no leadership or sense of direction. Now, I know by February the Knicks were obviously playing for draft position, but so were the Sixers, and Brett Brown seemed to have his team prepared night in and night out. You can still tell a well-coached team even when they are tanking, and the Knicks were far from that in every aspect of the game.

Now, the adjustment from year 1 to year 2 is huge for a coach. We even saw that with Jason Kidd, who started off horrendously as a head coach only to lead a Bucks team, which had the worst record in the league the year before he arrived, to a playoff berth and a six-game slugfest with the Bulls despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league. It is possible Fisher really learned from his first year and has made some adjustments. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthier roster and some more established talent that fits the Triangle better. It is possible that Fisher will be better with a healthy Melo. Fisher seems to be well-liked by players around the league and Melo doesn’t seem to be an exception to that rule. It is not out of the question to think Fisher will empower and put the leadership responsibility of the team squarely on Melo like Jackson did with MJ, Shaq and Kobe.

But there are so many things that make me skeptical of Fisher. Last year’s record and performance is one thing. However, I think of his time as the Union player’s rep where he basically allowed the Players Union to get swindled by Billy Knight during the lockout. I have been utterly disgusted by his poor decision-making in this whole Matt Barnes ex-wife fiasco (though I do put 90 percent of the fault of this situation on Matt Barnes, who has proven once again to be a jerk of massive proportions). Fisher has the potential to be a good coach and the coach Melo and this Knicks team needs. But he doesn’t have a great track record beyond his on-court playing days, and while that isn’t a total indicator for how a coach will perform (Mark Jackson had his off-the-court issues too, but he experienced on court success with the Warriors), it certainly doesn’t help the perception that he has everything under control, which is essential as a NBA head coach.

Maybe this Barnes incident is just a blip on the radar. Maybe the player’s union stuff was more Knight and Fisher was just the scapegoat because he was the Player’s union president. The past is the past. But, the bottom line is this: the Knicks have real potential. They could surprise people, especially if Melo is healthy, as he says, and they get a full season from Calderon. This roster fits what Jackson wants to do with this franchise in ways last year’s couldn’t even imagine. And it’s Fisher’s responsibility to make that happen. Fisher and Jackson may have a great relationship from their Laker days, but Phil is too competitive, and Knicks fans are too restless and impatient to put up with another season like last year.

Keep an eye on Fisher. Keep an eye on Melo. Keep an eye on the Knicks. 2015-2016 could be the year the Knicks turn the corner or when they make another change.

And you can guarantee that if it’s the latter, that change will begin with Fisher.

Can the Milwaukee Bucks Win the East Next Year?

The Bucks’ uniforms got better (love the blue!), but will their record improve? Flannel, PBR and PER likes to think so…

The NBA season is still months away. In fact, we aren’t really done with free agency just yet this summer (some players are still yet to be signed). However, despite the distance from the start of the NBA season, it is never too early to talk about next season and what teams will be making an impact and dominate the headlines in 2015-2016.

A select number of teams have been dominating the headlines this July, in good ways (San Antonio Spurs), bad ways (Sacramento Kings) and good/bad/hilarious/emoji ways (Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks and DeAndre Jordan). However, one team that has gone under the radar has been the Milwaukee Bucks this off-season. Of course, it makes sense that they haven’t dominated the “big off-season” discussions in major media circles. They didn’t sign any “big” names, and haven’t really been involved in any July drama with players, though the team’s arena issues did put a fright in many Bucks fans who were afraid they would see their team leave to Seattle (the NBA’s eternal bargaining chip). Now that it is certain that the Bucks are going to be in Milwaukee next season and beyond, the focus can be what they did in improving their roster and how they set themselves up for next season.

And let me just say this: the Bucks are going to be good…and not just good like 5-8 seed in the East good, like last season. The Bucks next year may be a serious threat to the heavy East favorite Cavs, and that is saying something considering how the Cavs will most likely improve with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (and committed Love after re-signing to a 5-year extension this off-season) and the Hawks still return mostly everybody from their squad a season ago (minus DeMarre Carroll).

So why are the Bucks a dark horse in the East? How can they potentially dethrone King James and his merry men of Cavaliers? Let’s take a look at three reasons why the Bucks should be taken seriously next season and could greatly surpass their 41-41 record from a year ago.

Reason #1: Greg Monroe is a huge upgrade for the Bucks in the post.

Monroe’s stock wasn’t as high as many initially thought when he entered this summer as an unrestricted free agent, but that isn’t to say he isn’t one of the more productive post players in the league. Despite playing 13 fewer games from a year ago (69 last year), and struggling to find a role with the crowded Pistons front court in the beginning of the year (with Josh Smith and Andre Drummond garnering minutes; though Smith was waived early, which freed up playing time for Monroe), Monroe posted improvements in PER (18.8 to 21.2), win shares (5.9 to 6.8), points per 100 possessions (26.6 was a career high in that category) and true shooting percentage (53.1 to 54.9 percent). Though Monroe certainly wasn’t an indispensable part of the Pistons’ future (Drummond is the younger, more valued commodity, and coach Stan Van Gundy prefers stretch 4’s over traditional posts, so the writing was on the wall for Monroe in Detroit), Monroe was a big reason in the Pistons’ surge mid-way through the season that nearly result in a playoff berth for them despite a 3-15 start. With his strong ability to score and adept passing ability for a big man, it was not surprising that the 25-year-old from Georgetown garnered heavy interest from the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks this summer.

But, instead of being in the Big Apple or Tinseltown, Monroe finds himself in the Cheese Capital of the USA thanks to a three-year $50 million deal from the Bucks, an aggressive and unexpected move from a small-market franchise that ranked 29th in attendance in 2014-2015. The deal appears to be a considerable upgrade over what the Bucks trotted out there in the center position last season. Larry Sanders went AWOL a quarter of the season in, and while Zaza Pachulia was a fan favorite (and noted public speaker mind you) and John Henson has been an underrated young talent, they have not and will not match the production that Monroe will generate as Milwaukee’s go-to center next season. In fact, let’s compare the career advanced numbers for all four players:

Rk Player G PER TS% FTr ORB% DRB% AST% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS VORP
1 John Henson 200 18.0 .541 .317 11.6 20.5 9.0 6.1 14.1 20.1 3.6 5.1 8.7 2.3
2 Greg Monroe 378 19.7 .545 .376 11.3 22.8 12.6 1.5 13.8 21.9 19.3 12.8 32.2 12.3
3 Zaza Pachulia 815 14.2 .533 .534 12.2 19.4 9.0 1.3 17.2 17.3 17.5 18.8 36.3 5.2
4 Larry Sanders 233 15.5 .494 .235 11.0 21.4 6.0 7.1 12.6 17.0 1.8 8.5 10.3 3.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2015.

It is obvious Monroe has been the best and will be the best offensive player of the bunch going forward in Milwaukee. He bests all the other four in nearly every scoring category, and he also demonstrates excellent efficiency (career 19.4 PER) and ability to generate offense off his passing prowess (career 12.6 assist rate). Pachulia has been the better offensive rebounder, and Sanders appears to be the better defensive player (7.1 career block rate) and Henson is the young “upside” pick (second-highest PER of the four). But, Monroe is head and shoulders above the other 3, as evident by his 12.3 VORP (value over replacement player). Bucks fans should be excited about the options Monroe will give this Bucks team, especially with his passing ability in the post, which should open up the offense for athletic forwards such as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker (who is coming off injury though).

A lot has been made about whether or not Monroe will fit in with Milwaukee’s hyper-aggressive, switching defensive scheme (as chronicled in this Zach Lowe piece). In a changing league that is starting to utilize more “small” posts to promote nightmare matchups offensively and defensively, Monroe leaves a lot to be desired in the latter end. His athleticism is average to below for a big, and he has never been categorized as a shot blocker at any point in his career (in fact, his lack of athleticism and lackluster shot blocking ability was a big reason why he slid to the Pistons at No. 7; the Kings drafted Demarcus Cousins at 5, wisely; the Warriors drafted Ekpe Udoh at 6, not so wisely). It’ll be interesting to see how Kidd will utilize him within the defensive scheme that carried the Bucks to such radical success a year ago (remember, the Bucks were one of the worst teams in the league two seasons ago), and if Monroe will be a fit, or if he’ll be subbed in key moments with someone more athletic to mesh better with what Kidd and the Bucks do best defensively.

Defensive issues aside though, it is a clear that Monroe will help the Bucks improve upon their .500 record a season ago. Monroe is the most productive and talented center to arrive in Milwaukee in quite some time (Ervin Johnson he is not) and he gives the Kidd and the Bucks the kind of offensive flexibility they haven’t had since the Karl days. Furthermore, his presence will give the Bucks a major weapon to compete against the best bigs from the best teams in the East such as Chicago (Gasol, Noah and Mirotic), Cleveland (Mozgov and Thompson), Washington (Gortat and Nene), and Atlanta (Millsap and Horford).

Reason #2: Head Coach Jason Kidd could be even better in year two

It is hard to imagine now how much Kidd has progressed as a NBA head coach, especially considering two seasons ago, it looked like his hire was a colossal mistake in Brooklyn. The Nets, coming off the major acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, were 5-12 by the end of November, and Kidd was widely ridiculed in the media as “unprofessional” and a “hack” for this incident below:

Since then though Kidd has done few things wrong. He led the Nets to a 44-38 finish and a first round victory over the higher-seed Toronto Raptors (including a Game 7 win in Toronto). Last year, despite taking over a team that went 15-67 the year before, and with little established, veteran talent, he coached the Bucks to a 41-41 record and pushed the Bulls (who looked like the second-best team in the East in the playoffs) to six games (they won 2 emotional games after giving up the first 3 in the series). “Sodagate” aside, this is certain: Kidd can coach.

That being said, year two remains a bit of a mystery to Kidd and Bucks fans. Kidd has only coached for two seasons, and this is the first time he has had a full off-season with his current team. While there is expected to be some growing pains and some adjustments other teams will make to what Kidd likes to do offensively and defensively as a coach, it goes without saying that there will be a lot of improvement from Kidd as a coach with this roster in year two. Kidd has done an extraordinary job reaching his young talent, while also getting the most out of his under-the-radar veterans. Jerryd Bayless and OJ Mayo were big-time contributors for the young Bucks last season, even though they had been widely maligned throughout their careers for inconsistent play. Kidd excels as a player’s coach, while also doing a good job of communicating what he expects from his players on the court, which is more characteristic of a “coach’s coach” in the mold of a Tom Thibodeau, for example. That puts Kidd in a rare class, and it is enticing what he can do going forward with this organization.

The biggest challenge and judge of him as a coach though centers on how Michael Carter Williams develops, whom they acquired in a 3-way trade with Philadelphia and Phoenix that involved them shipping Brandon Knight, who was on the cusp of making the All- Star team a year ago. Carter Williams, though the Rookie of the Year a couple of seasons ago, has been categorized as an “efficiency-killer” who gains gaudy per game numbers while doing it inefficiently (his career offensive rating is 94, which means 9.4 points per 100 possession; average is 10) and on losing teams. Kidd has voiced his confidence and faith in Carter-Williams and his future with the Bucks in the past, making the improvement and revitalization of MCW’s career somewhat of a side project for the 3rd year coach. After all, no one is questioning MCW’s ability: at six-feet, six-inches, he remains a nightmare matchup for the league’s point guards, and there is hope that MCW will turn into what Shaun Livingston would have had Livingston not suffered that grotesque leg injury with the Clippers early in his career. But, it will be interesting to see if Kidd, who also struggled with his shooting early in his career much like MCW, has the coaching chops to turn around MCW’s struggles and develop him into a Kidd 2.0.

If that, or some progress on that side mission, can happen next year, not only will MCW revitalize his career, but Kidd will have proven that he is one of the top “coaches” in the game and the Bucks will be serious threats to Cleveland’s hold in the Eastern Conference. Pay attention next year to MCW’s development. With a full off-season under Kidd, I can’t help but think there will be improvement in MCW’s game and thus, the Bucks’ play in 2105-2016.

Reason #3: The Bucks will have underrated depth on their roster.

The signing of Monroe not only improved their starting five, but also their bench immensely. In terms of the front court depth, John Henson, as displayed in the table above, is an underrated big who is an efficient scorer and rebounder, and has outperformed expectations when he first came into the league. Miles Plumlee, with Ersan Ilyasova now a Piston, will give the Bucks valuable minutes in the post, and is the kind of “dirty work” player that will help the Bucks compete against some of the “tougher” squads in the East. Even Johnny O’Bryant, an end of the bench player who offers “stretch 4” skills, could greatly improve in his second year in the league and give the Bucks an added boost when needed.

Furthermore, the backcourt depth for the Bucks will be really impressive and should help make “Fear the Deer” a phrase worth repeating on multiple occasions next season. The Bucks added Greivis Vasquez this off-season, a tall point guard in the MCW mold who can push the tempo and generate instant offense off the bench. He excelled in that role in Memphis and Toronto, and though he is prone to inconsistency, he is the kind of dynamic player that will maintain the offense when MCW is off the floor. Also, the return of Bayless will also be a boost to the backcourt, as he is a similar kind of player to Vasquez. Though he doesn’t have the height of Vasquez, he can find ways to create offense, and isn’t afraid of the big moment, as evidenced in the video below:

The Bucks will also return Mayo, who has to prove he can have more seasons like last year in Milwaukee rather than the lackluster year before, as well as second-year guard Tyler Ennis, who came from Phoenix in the Knight-MCW trade and looks to be a project of sorts (He seems destined for more D-League time next year). However, one of the more overlooked options on the bench next season could be Jorge Gutierrez, who signed a multi-year deal at the end of the season with the Bucks after succeeding on multiple 10-day-contracts. Gutierrez has been a D-League stud, as he has a career per 36 average of 13.8 ppg, 6.3 apg and 5.8 rebounds per game. Gutierrez also offers a lot of defensive upside, as he is a tough, gritty defender who can match up well with opposing wings as well as points. Should anything happen to Vasquez or Bayless, don’t be surprised to see Gutierrez breakout and become a star in the mold of Matthew Dellevadova in 2015-2016.

The Bucks will have a great starting lineup with MCW, Khris Middleton, Giannis, Jabari Parker (when healthy), and Monroe. But the Bucks’ options off the bench and the underrated talent that they have stacked up last year and this off-season will help them go from fringe to possibly a serious contender next year.

Final Analysis on the Bucks

The race for the Eastern Conference crown will be more of a dogfight than in years past. Cleveland will most likely improve in LeBron James Era 2.0 year 2, especially with Kevin Love back and committed for the long haul. Boston is another young team that will improve under their excellent coach, Brad Stevens, and Chicago could turn the corner now that they have a coach (Fred Hoiberg) who is more in touch with the modern game (i.e. better at offense) than his predecessor (Thibs). And Atlanta remains an interesting team as well, especially considering they returned everyone but Carroll, and declared coach Mike Budenholzer as in charge of basketball operations as well. They were still the no.1 team after the regular season, and they still will provide a challenge to the rest of the Eastern Conference, as well as the league in general.

But, the Bucks did so much this off-season with the signing of Monroe and the re-signing of Middleton. Add that with more depth on their bench, and the possibility of Kidd improving as a coach in year 2 with the Bucks organization, and Milwaukee’s hopes next year look scary good. There without a doubt will be improvement from the Bucks next year. They will not be just a .500 team next year. However, how much they improve is the real question. Will things come together and will Milwaukee take the next step to being the “team to beat LeBron” in the East? Or will they fall in that “contender, but not really” pack with Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto and Washington?

Whatever happens in 2015-2016 for the official basketball team of the Cheese State, this is for sure: the Bucks will be required League Pass viewing for NBA fans across the nation (myself and FPP included).