By Justin Cherot
Admittedly, I need to take a headline writing course. More importantly, I needed someone (cough, Colin, and by the way, you need to stop doing ‘shrooms) to kick me in the head a couple of times and remind me that trying to do 30 previews player-by-player, while cool and original, just doesn’t fit into any normal, 40-hours-a-week person’s schedule. While I did better than I did my first time trying this in 2006, I couldn’t even fit one measely playoff team into my previews. For that, I apologize. Oh well, live and learn. Next year I promise to do better.
But, for now, we’re less than 20 hours away from a Washington Wizards’ ass-kicking (Go Mavs!), meaning I have to get these done in a timely manner. This is what I propose: instead of over-analyzing the remaining 300 or so players I haven’t mentioned yet (apologies to J.J. Redick, J.J Barea, Daequan Cook and plenty of other non-starters I won’t have time to go into), I’ll give you the most important player (MIP) from all the remaining teams and why they fit into such a category. Inevitably, some will be the “duh, even my daughter knows that this guy is the star of the team” players, and some will be those unsung guys whose team’s success hinges on whether or not they produce on a nightly basis.
So, for one last time, let’s ride. After the next 2000 or so words, these NBA previews will no longer hold me hostage. Now, where was I?
20. Memphis Grizzlies
MIP: Rudy Gay
If this team truly wants to take the next step from hype machine to legitimate playoff contender, Gay needs to take the reins of this team. Yeah, O.J. Mayo , Zach Randolph and boom or bust free agent pick-up Allen Iverson all need more attention (and shots) than him, but Gay, talent-wise, is the best and most versatile of this bunch. His assertiveness has been in question before, ultimately costing him a national championship at UConn, but if he can step in and be more of a leader on the court, this team is too talented not to contend for a playoff spot. The pieces are there, but like a trippy Dora the Explorer puzzle that seems like one thing until a shimmer of light hits it and then it looks completely different (not speaking from experience or anything), sometimes the pieces can be hard to put together… so hard in fact that sometimes they just refuse to fit.
19. Detroit Pistons
MIP: Tayshaun Prince
On a team full of “get mine” guys–Ben Gordon, Richard Hamilton, Charlie “NitTwit” Villanueva and Will Bynum, to name a few– Prince just needs to keep being that versatile, lockdown defender he’s always been. Yes, the faces are new and more offensive-minded, but Prince just has to be there to remind them that, contrary to popular belief over the past few years, there is still a “D” somewhere in Detroit. If he can’t, it’ll be this simple: Etroit will miss the playoffs.
18. Philadelphia 76ers
MIP: Lou Williams
The Sixers have a very nice core, headlined by Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, who I think is finally due for a relevant season after two seasons of nothingness. However, the Sixers’ biggest move was letting Andre Miller walk without getting a true point guard to fill his shoes. Williams is going to try his hand at the spot, but let’s face it: he’s definitely a two. Coming from someone who had to do it at the high school level, trust me: it sounds easy to “learn” how to play the point, but guards are pretty much born into a position. How he handles the transition from one to two is ultimately going to tell the story of whether or not Philly makes the playoffs. And, as of right now, I just don’t see him doing well in this crash course, even if he does have Eddie Jordan pulling the strings for him.
17. New Orleans Hornets
MIP: Chris Paul
Denver Nuggets’ fans should be horrified right now. Bill Simmons (book out tomorrow, a must-buy) wrote in his NBA previews (Part I here and Part II here) that the Nuggets were this year’s “Last Season Everything Went Right; This Season Everything Went Wrong” Team. Last year’s version? The Hornets. I knew it would happen, I even wrote it. In my own words, in ’07-’08 everyone except for CP3 played way above their heads. Last season, everybody came back down to earth and they fell all the way to the seventh spot. Paul needs to basically carry this team just for them to sneak into the playoffs this year, and he will do his best to urge this squad with questionable talent into doing big things. Unfortunately, with the next team on the come-up, I just can’t see that happening. But Paul will make it interesting into the final week of the season.
16. Los Angeles Clippers
MIP: Baron Davis
Does anybody remember this Baron Davis:
Funny, because if you’re a Clipper fan you hardly saw any of this last year. Was it the injuries? Was it his conditioning? Was it his overall indifference because he felt betrayed by Elton Brand who, allegedly, begged him to come, only to sign with the Sixers? Who knows? What I do know is that apparently he’s in muuuuuuch better shape coming into this season, and I feel like the Davis of old will be back. On paper, this roster suits his style of play perfectly, with high-flyers in Blake Griffin (when he comes back from a broken knee cap, of course) and Al Thornton and a young, budding backcourt-mate in Eric Gordon. Guys, if Davis can stay healthy and on the court for 70, this is a playoff team.
15. Toronto Raptors
MIP: Chris Bosh
The rumors are swirling about where Bosh is going to be next season. Fine. That’s next season. This season, the Raptors have a playoff roster on paper. There’s no questioning CB4′s talent, but his gusto may eventually come into question (yeah, I went there, Chris Rock fans), especially if the Raptors come out of the gates slow. However, as mentioned before, Bosh has plenty of talent around him. The Hedo Turkoglu signing/Portland Trailblazer screwing takes a lot of pressure off of him, and it never hurts to have a pass- first point guard (Jose Calderon) and an emerging big guy who’s showing signs of “getting it” (Andrea Bargnani). The Raptors probably don’t have enough talent in the long run to keep Bosh in cold Canada, but his last run with them should find them in the playoffs.
14. Miami Heat
MIP: Michael Beasley
Side note before I get into Mr. “Be Easy” himself: the East has really closed the gap. Hard to believe I have the Heat this low. Anyway, we all know about Beasley’s off-the-court “stuff”, and anyone who knows me knows that it’s not that hard for me to relate to the troubled guys. It’s all about getting past it, though. If anything, Beasley needs to use the court as an outlet, because his team is going to need him to play like a No. 2 overall pick. They already have arguably (it would be quite an argument but the point could be made) the best player in the NBA in Dwyane Wade and some good young p… okay, I won’t sugarcoat it: Miami is this high strictly because of Wade’s ability to flat-out bring it every night. He just needs someone to bring it with him. Beasley can definitely be that guy. Or, he can just be satisfied with being the second coming of Derrick Coleman.
13. Washington Wizards
MIP: Gilbert Arenas
Okay, we all drank the “Wizards Are Better Off Without Hibachi” juice. And then last year happened. Granted, he wasn’t the entire reason they couldn’t even crack 20 wins last season, but needless to say he had a ton to do with it. I’ve read so many “Gilbert Looking Good” stories this past summer and off-season that I think I’m about to vomit, but I do admit that his highlights throughout the pre-season have been promising. It goes beyond numbers, though. Even for a team that doesn’t lack swagger–hell, their second best player, Caron Butler, calls himself “Tuff Juice” for crying out loud–they need his “swagger on a hundred, thousand, trillion” voice out on the floor and in the locker room to succeed. With their off-season improvements, I have them pegged as the East’s sixth seed right now (defense is a MF), but really the sky is the limit for this team if Gilbert really is the old Gilbert.
12. Chicago Bulls
MIP: Luol Deng
Gordon is gone from this bunch, so the Bulls will have to find someone to take and make all those big-time shots at the end of games. It’s assumed that Derrick Rose is the guy who’ll step up and have the ball in his hands down the stretch, but he can’t do it all. Somehow, the Bulls have to replace his 20 a game, and Deng is the likely candidate to put the biggest dent in that 20, if not go for 20 himself. If he can return to ’06-’07 form, then the Bulls may not even miss Gordon all that much (especially with new acquisition Jannero Pargo trying to actually BE Ben Gordon down the stretch of ball games). It’ll be interesting to see if this young, talented bunch takes the next step… or if it remains stagnant like the old Baby Bulls (when Gordon and Kirk Hinrich and were considered young).
11. Phoenix Suns
MIP: Jason Richardson
Steve Nash has become one of the better facilitators in NBA history. But his defense is non-existent. Prior to the eye injury, Amare Stoudemire added a damn near automatic mid-range jump shot to his stellar athleticism. But his defense is non-existent. Neither player has ever been known for his great work on the “other” end. But Richardson has. In college, he was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year in his sophomore season. With his great scoring numbers in the league, we forget that Richardson was at one time a really good defender. Especially with Raja Bell gone, the Suns need him to re-capture that defensive energy while still maintaining his offensive output in order to compete in the West. That’s a tall order for him, but he’s shown in the past he’s up to the task.
10. Utah Jazz
MIP: Andrei Kirilenko
It was only a couple of years ago when AK47 put up these numbers: 15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.2 bpg, 1.5 spg. That’s disgusting. In his defense, how do you even go up from there? While it’s true he never really found out for whatever reason, he really only needs to be a shade of his former self for the Jazz to get back into serious contention. With second best point guard in the world Deron Williams running the show and Carlos Boozer (for now) holding the fort down inside, Kirilenko doesn’t even need to average double-digits. If he just gets back to being that all-over-the-place player that made Jazz fans fall in love with him, then the Jazz could be really good. However, if he reverts back to the “I Can’t Even Beat Out C.J. Miles” Kirilenko, then the Jazz might be in danger of missing the playoffs. My guess is that they’ll be somewhere in between.
9. Atlanta Hawks
MIP: Jamal Crawford
One day when she’s old and wise, Cadence will use this gem to describe the intracacies of life to her kids and grandchildren: “Life is like a Jamal Crawford: you never know what you’re gonna get.” Corny, probably, but oh so true. How come a guy who can just go off for 50 at the drop of a hat has only averaged over 20 ppg once? Weird. Nonetheless, he can definitely help the Hawks take that next step. Last year in the playoffs, it was clear that it was Joe Johnson or bust down the stretch. Now, Atlanta has one of the best “give me the ^%$#in’ ball” players in the NBA to go along with a young and versatile front line in Crawford. They can’t beat any of the East’s Big 3 yet, but their time will come.
8. Portland Trailblazers
MIP: Greg Oden
Through all the injuries, all the foul trouble (3.9 per game is just an amazing number), all the columnist nit-picking, everything… Oden put up nine and seven last season while blocking a shot a night. Off the bench. Translation: at his absolute worst he’s better than a lot of centers in the league. But, if the Blazers want to take the next step, it mainly falls on Oden to take the next step. Brandon Roy is already there, becoming a much better NBA player than anybody thought he ever would, so what’s stopping Oden? I know this team is still young, but with that whole low-salary cap threatening to happen, this almost seems like a make or break year for this squad. And Oden.
7. Denver Nuggets
MIP: J.R. Smith
What I’m about to say is bold and controversial: Smith, talent-wise, is one of the top 10 offensive players in the NBA. Why he hasn’t put it all together yet remains a mystery to me, but he may very well be my favorite player in the NBA to watch when he’s not playing the Mavericks. He’s not off to the greatest of starts to this campaign, as he’ll be watching the first seven games in NBA dress code-friendly attire due to off-the-court problems. The Nuggets need Smith to take pressure off of Carmelo Anthony, especially with Chauncey Billups not getting any younger. Given that Smith starts the season on the bench and the Nuggets pretty much stood pat in the off-season, it’s safe for me to say that the Nuggs take a step back this season.
6. Dallas Mavericks
MIP: Dirk Nowitzki
You know, I think at some point tomorrow on my site I might publish a Long and Drawn Out Preview for the Mavs since they’re my favorite team and all, but that’s neither here nor there for right now (potential H1N1 cough, GO MAVS!!!!!!). Look, I can take a few angles here in terms of MIP. Josh Howard needs to get healthy (okay, so much for that in the near future); Shawn Marion needs to learn to fit in; Jason Kidd needs to find SOME way to be effective on the defensive end. Truthfully, it starts and ends with Dirk. He’s been great for both the Dallas franchise and the community and is a surefire Hall of Famer, but let’s face it: his leadership skills always come under fire, and fair or not, he needs to constantly play with that “now or never” mentality, because that’s what it’s come down to. People are saying the window of opportunity for a title is closed. If it’s open at all, he needs to jam his pinky in there and push up with all his might.
5. Boston Celtics
MIP: Kevin Garnett
Garnett is the archetypical MIP. When they won the title, it was because of Garnett’s production and toughness. When they flamed out against Orlando while an injured Garnett continually cursed up a storm to himself on the bench, it was because they missed Garnett’s production and toughness. Theoretically, it would be nice if the old KG re-emerged and put up redonkulous numbers across the board, but, now that the Celts have Rasheed Wallace to spell him, they just need his intensity. He’s the one who pushes Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. However, because I’m not completely sold on Garnett’s health, I just can’t have them higher than 3rd in the East right now.
4. San Antonio Spurs
MIP: Manu Ginobili
If you really think that Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are the most important Spurs, than you obviously missed the Mavericks dismantling the San Antonio in the playoffs last season. Even as a diehard Mavs’ fan I can admit that Dallas goes from winning that series in five to losing that series in six if Ginobili is on the floor. He’s not their best player, but he’s their sparkplug, their wildcard who can change a game at the drop of a dime. He’s getting up there in age and he’s probably not as athletic as he was a few years ago, but if I was playing in a game where my life depended on the outcome, I’d want Ginobili. As far as the Spurs go, I like their off-season moves, but please don’t try to sell me on Richard Jefferson as being anything more than the 4th option on offense in crunch time. 15 a game is his absolute ceiling this season. PROP BET ALERT!!! PROP BET ALERT!!! I’ll take Anthony Morrow’s average over RJ this year. Bet me, stupid.
3. Orlando Magic
MIP: Vince Carter
I wanted to put them back in the Finals soooo bad, because on paper they are 1) more fun to watch then the Cavalier’s stagnant 1-4 offense, and 2) Carter/Kobe to me is a more intriguing Finals match-up. But, I digress. Pundits give the Carter acquisition mixed reviews, but I’m definitely pro-Carter. First off, he’s a million times better than Turkoglu, so he’s an upgrade. Second, he’s playing in his home state for the first time ever, and third, while homecomings can be rough (see, Griffey, Jr., Ken and Marbury, Stephon) he’s going to a great situation where, for once, it doesn’t neccesarily have to be all about him. He’s got the best center in the NBA (Dwight Howard), one of the best perimeter shooters (Rashard Lewis) and a guy he can share hair tips with (Marcin “Give Us Us Free” Gortat). However, it’s a team better built for the regular season, and I think someone gets some revenge, and that person would be…
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
MIP: LeBron James
Colin… shut up and watch the greatness…
Unfortunately, much to your delight, I do not have that greatness translating into a title for Cleveland. Good supporting cast at the guard spots (Mo Williams, Anthony Parker, Delonte West), bodies down low (Shaquille O’Neal, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) to stop Bynum and Gasol… but in the end, there’s really only…
1. Los Angeles Lakers
MIP: Kobe Bryant
True, Ron Artest is the biggest wildcard in the history of wildcards, the equivalent of AK vs. pocket 7s for every last dollar you own. However, if anyone can tame the volatile Artest, it’s Bryant. Say what you will about Bryant’s mileage, but at 31, he’s still got at least three more years of top five in the league-type play left in him. That, plus the fact that he’s got arguably the best four man in the league in Pau Gasol and a steady cast of characters off the bench that just keep coming at you in waves, and what does that equal?
BASKETBALL IS BACK, BABY!!!!!!
NBA Preview Archives
30. Sacramento Kings
29. New Jersey Nets
28. Milwaukee Bucks
26. New York Knicks
24. Houston Rockets
22. Indiana Pacers