Grit And Grind: What To Expect From The 2014-15 NBA Season
It’s been nearly five months and I’m still not over the incredible left-hand dunk from Manu Ginóbili.
While he was posterizing Chris Bosh in the second quarter of San Antonio’s 2014 Finals victory last June, he wasn’t just defying gravity and male-pattern baldness.
The 2014-15 season, like Ginóbili’s emphatic “eff you,” will force basketball fans and insiders to once again reevaluate what’s possible.
Who’s coming with me?
5. Philadelphia 76ers
While taking in a USA vs. Dominican Republic FIBA World Cup exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in August, I had the unique privilege of sitting directly above a spectating Nerlens Noel.
Watching Noel ingest six chicken fingers and several “Two and Half Men” reruns (on his luxury suite’s television), I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for the 2014-15 Sixers.
From the top down, this organization is embracing predictable chaos with a Charlie Sheen-esque disregard for immediate consequences and the relationships that matter most.
Sure, GM Sam Hinkie is stockpiling young assets for the future. But how long will kinetic Philly fans support a plan rooted entirely in potential? The Answers don’t always fall in your lap.
4. Boston Celtics
Brad Stevens will keep his squad engaged, but February’s trade deadline should be a transitional point in a transitional season for the C’s. Danny Ainge hosed Brooklyn last summer, and it’s only a matter of time before Manhattan’s franchise allows him to do the same.
3. New York Knicks
I admire Taylor Swift’s Big Apple enthusiasm, but it won’t be long before she’s penning break-up songs about the emotionally abusive and heartbreaking Knickerbockers.
Although it appears James Dolan is too busy kazooing to interfere with bicoastal president Phil Jackson, it’s way harder to mend a decrepit culture than it is to overhaul an incoherent roster.
Patience is essential; though, I’d be shocked if Jackson waits until next summer to make his first franchise-altering player acquisition. Rondo and Melo would make an interesting tandem, but an elite interior stopper should be his top priority.
We’ll miss ya, (pre-2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals and flu-like-symptoms-stricken) Tyson Chandler. If only Derek Fisher could also preach the triangle defense.
Will Carmelo Anthony foster more ball movement? Can José Calderón help resurrect what’s left of Andrea Bargnani’s contract and career? What happens if red wine unexpectedly seeps into your urethra? So many questions.
2. Brooklyn Nets
Paul Pierce’s departure is a much bigger deal than Shaun Livingston’s. Not being able to handle “The Truth” will place significant pressure on bailout scorer Joe Johnson and a bailed-out, sulking Deron Williams.
Collective regular season health arguably means more to the Nets than any other team. If the wheels fall off, stay tuned for a trade-induced Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers LA reunion.
1. Toronto Raptors
Started from the bottom, now they’re here. Drake’s beloved Raptors are primed to seize their second consecutive Atlantic title, though multi-year contract Kyle Lowry terrifies me.
All of Canada better hope he and DeMar DeRozan haven’t lint-rolled the chip off their shoulders.
5. Orlando Magic
GM Rob Hennigan is accumulating (and locking up) a compelling mix of young talent, but the Magic are a few seasons (and probably one head coach) away from making noise.
Elfrid Payton is a Rookie of The Year sleeper, but this unit is in desperate need of a proven scorer who can close out tight games. It’s a good thing Dajuan Wagner is back on the market!
4. Miami Heat
This is probably the single hardest team to gauge. There’s no replacing LeBron, but adding a Luol Deng and “maintenance-free” Dwyane Wade is a nice place to start.
The latter is the NBA’s single biggest X-factor, not named Derrick Rose. He’s also most likely to become this era’s Iverson/Isiah by physically wearing himself out of the league well before his 35th birthday.
Can Coach Spo manage Wade’s minutes while depending on Chris “I should’ve went to Houston for the max” Bosh to carry the load? Doubtful.
Welcome back to what the last four seasons would have been like had LBJ stayed in Cleveland, D-Wade.
3. Charlotte Hornets
Dust off your Starter jackets, rush order your official Grandmama Swingman, and start binge-watching Nickelodeon’s “My Brother and Me.” The Charlotte Hornets are back and ready to make you forget that the Bobcats were ever really a thing.
Kemba and Lance could already be the league’s ballsiest backcourt, but how fast can they rub off on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? MKG is only 21, but his growth means everything to this Big Al-anchored team on the rise.
*Side note/story: After attending a Lorde (“Push”) concert at Roseland Ballroom (RIP) back in March, I strolled into a Midtown bar to find none other than Sir Charles Barkley. Over a few beverages, we proceeded to discuss the current NBA landscape and share some Adam Morrison jokes.
Charles may or may not have told me that Michael Jordan “doesn’t know how to draft players for d*ck.” He most definitely told me that he doesn’t “give a f*ck” about a potential “Space Jam” sequel. Soul crushing.
2. Atlanta Hawks
Sticky times in Hotlanta, but these guys are always strangely competitive. I’m genuinely looking forward to not watching them on NBA TV in April.
1. Washington Wizards
The Wiz made huge strides last season, and Paul Pierce’s leadership should tangibly improve John Wall’s. Randy Wittman is more than capable of f*cking this up, but experience will make up for losing contract-year Trevor Ariza.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think Kris Humphries sucks. He’s shopping organic, guys! Look out.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
Jason Kidd’s coup pales in comparison to landing Jabari Parker with the second overall pick. Paul Pierce 2.0 is ready to (offensively) dominate right away, and “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo will electrify Twitter even more than Mallory Edens.
Still, I’m not sold on the Larry Sanders revival that’s necessary for them to compete on a nightly basis.
4. Indiana Pacers
How the f*k is this team going to score? After enduring the league’s most depressing offseason, Frank Vogel will have to pull a Tom Thibodeau and make winning ugly look beautiful.
I went all in on last year’s Pacers, but picking them to finish fourth in their division now feels like an even bigger leap of faith. I trust Vogel and Larry Legend to maintain some sense of stability, though a Copesanity redux may be their only hope. Break a leg, y’all!
3. Detroit Pistons
Stan Van Gundy has awkwardly dealt with enigmatic stars before, but Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith are different animals. With SVG possessing full personnel control, it’ll be fascinating to see who’s exported from Detroit.
2. Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose will stay healthy this season. He has to.
The Association has changed since the superstar-less 2003-2004 Pistons shocked the Kobe/Shaq Lakers and hoisted Larry O’Brien’s Trophy. Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls teams routinely reach their respective ceilings, but only D-Rose’s presence (no disrespect to newcomer Pau Gasol) can make the sky their limit.
At least this was the case before LeBron sat down with SI’s Lee Jenkins.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron’s return to Cleveland feels a lot like Walter White’s return to Albuquerque. Armed with heavy artillery and nothing to lose but previously strained ties to a past he infamously fled, the King of Kings is back to rewrite and cement his lasting legacy.
Kyrie and K-Love may be sharing some of LeBron’s spotlight, but the volatile Dion Waiters is LeBron’s Jesse Pinkman. Waiters was born to be a contender’s sixth man, but will he embrace the apprenticeship of a lifetime at 22? Yeah, bitch.
LeBron doesn’t have to go down as the greatest player ever to have the greatest career arc, and Vince Gilligan couldn’t have scripted this one any better. Despite some predictable ups and downs, Cleveland will return to the Finals for the first time since 2007.
That’s where they’ll meet their Hank and Gomez-esque demise.
Walter White once asserted that chemistry is “growth, then decay, then transformation.” Chemistry matters, and Cleveland’s deprived fans won’t get to fully experience the compound until the first two elements have the necessary time to react.
5. Utah Jazz
Missing out on Mormon Jabari Parker would make many question their faith, but Aussie Dante Exum is on a mission to convert his early haters.
Will art and hair gel enthusiast Quin Snyder help Gordon Hayward justify his seemingly horrible but unavoidable max deal? Can Steve Novak discount double-check his back into an NBA rotation? He belongs here, right?
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Bruce Jenner thinks Flip Saunders has an identity crisis. As Wolves president, part-owner and head coach, Saunders will have to juggle proactive and reactive decision-making without getting one (or all) of his selves canned.
Andrew Wiggins, “Tony” Bennett and Zach “F*ck Me” LaVine need LOTS of time to grow. It’s way less stressful for a 59-year-old to patiently observe from above than it is from the sidelines.
Ask yourselves, Minnesotans, is it truly better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all?
3. Denver Nuggets
Aaron Afflalo isn’t LeBron, but his return shouldn’t be flying this low under the Mile High radar. He and Ty Lawson will rival any Western Conference starting backcourt, but frontcourt health will determine whether the Nuggets can contend for a bottom playoff spot.
If Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee are able to fully recover from their respective woes, Brian Shaw’s deep roster should have the league’s highest win differential from last season.
No amount of legal hippie lettuce should allow you to zone out on rookie Gary Harris, and I almost made it through this paragraph without a lazy stoner joke.
2. Portland Trailblazers
Damian Lillard’s incredible playoff walk-off busted this rehabilitated organization out of the Jail-blazers’ shadow. LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract situation is a distraction, but I simply can’t see Lillard allowing him to leave. These franchise players need each other, like Robin Lopez needs to get with the times.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant’s foot injury is a blessing disguised as a karmic wake-up call for Sam Presti and Thunder ownership. If KD to DC rumors won’t incentivize OKC’s execs to invest in supporting talent, these next few months should do the trick.
Russell Westbrook will come in like a wrecking ball, but quickly remember why he needs the league’s reigning MVP by his side. This humbling absence may be just what Westbrook and Presti need to rise to the occasion and keep Durant fresher when they will both need him most.
Let’s not forget how great these guys (and Steven Adams’ mustache) have been.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
How long before this becomes a thing?
4. Sacramento Kings
Vivek Ranadivé is my favorite NBA owner. After hearing his story, how can he not be?
A monster Boogie Cousins season is the only thing that’ll distance Vivek’s professional team from the recreational girls’ squad he once volunteered to coach.
3. Phoenix Suns
Goran and Zoran Dragic! Marcus and Markieff Morris!
Pretty cool to see Phoenix embracing brotherly love as Jeff Hornacek continues raising his dynamic basketball family.
With the Dragics, Eric Bledsoe, number one contender Isiah Thomas and rookie Tyler Ennis all in the fold, Hornacek will aim to make Mike D’Antoni’s only remaining supporters forget he ever existed.
Nobody saw last year’s 48-win season coming, but why sneak up on teams when you can blow right by ‘em?
2. Golden State Warriors
For a team known for its quick releases, I still can’t believe the Warriors neglected to pull the trigger on a Kevin Love trade. It’s too early to tell if Steve Kerr is a head-coaching upgrade, but Love and Curry would’ve quickly drowned out all memories of the Splash Brothers.
Roster continuity is a rarity, but it’s hard to justify firing Mark Jackson when you aren’t also willing to swap his second best guard for the NBA’s most dynamic power forward.
Maybe The Beatles were wrong and all you really need is a healthy Andrew Bogut.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Turns out Steve Ballmer may be even crazier than Donald Sterling. Must be nice having a boss with energy as genuine as your previous employer’s douchebaggery.
Chris Paul and (senior editor!) Blake Griffin are both legitimate MVP candidates, but a healthy J.J. Redick will be their X-factor.
After admirably remedying last season’s chaos, Doc Rivers can now focus on basketball. With some of the NBA’s darkest days nearing their conclusion, it’s comforting to know we can all do the same.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
NOLA’s roster is more incoherently intriguing than a Rust Cohle monologue. Anthony Davis is the future ‘browed face of professional basketball, and the Ryan Anderson/Omer Asik combo should allow him to play to all of his strengths.
Still, Eric Gordon will continue getting hurt; Jrue Holiday will continue making me wish they kept Nerlens Noel, and Tyreke Evans will continue to remind me of that guy from the “Unforgivable” videos. Time is a flat circle, and it’ll be at least another season before the Pelicans straighten themselves out.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Chandler Parsons and Dirk Nowitzki will provide ridiculous spacing for Monta Ellis to continue doing Monta Ellis things.
As long as Rick Carlisle keeps doing Rick Carlisle things, the Mavericks will make another post-season push. Tyson Chandler should’ve always remained a Dallas lifer, and I fully expect him to bounce back strong in his second stint.
…Because Knicks fans haven’t suffered nearly enough.
3. Houston Rockets
Trevor Ariza never would’ve let Damian Lillard hit that shot.
Ariza is back where he played his career-high minutes per game in 2009-10, and Kevin McHale’s job may depend on getting similar output this time around.
James Harden and Dwight Howard all-but-guarantee a successful regular season. But, it will be hard to look past what could’ve been (adding Chris Bosh and retaining Chandler Parsons was once a very real possibility) come playoff time.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
While I’m not sold on 37-year-old Vince Carter holding up, Mike Miller miraculously played 82 games after hobbling barefoot into Memphis last summer.
Miller is gone, but grit and grind is forever. Dave Joerger proved he can coach, and the Grizz will once again compete for the Western Conference title. They can always blame Beno Udrih if it doesn’t work out.
1. San Antonio Spurs
For years, we’ve taken the Spurs’ unrivaled efficiency, core stability and age-/style-defying greatness for granted. They’ve been so many things for so long, but resiliently returning to the NBA Finals to vanquish the Heat has finally made them cool.
When the Duncan-and-Pop-era does come to a close, I’ll miss their effortless swagger the most. It’s a good thing Kawhi Leonard radiates more of this than any up-and-comer in the game.
I truly believe recovering from 2013’s infamous game six loss to win the 2014 title is one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of team sports.
We’ve all seen and learned enough to never doubt them again, and I couldn’t be more excited to watch them run it back.
Post-Season and Awards
NBA Finals: Spurs over Cavaliers (in six games)
MVP: LeBron James
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker
Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers
Most Wins: 59 (Cavaliers)
Top Photo Courtesy: Twitter