I've been Jellying the shit out of these NBA previews, but I'm really excited about tip-off tonight. Here's the promised write-up one division at a time, starting with the one I care about most: the Southwest. I appreciate all of your suggestions for column ideas, but something really lent itself to these teams, and that something is the King of Pop. In order of how I think they'll place. Brace yourself.
5. Dallas Mavericks
Jason Kidd is at the Brett Favre stage of his career, when instead of criticizing him, every sportscaster marvels at how much he loves the game and how "no one else in the league would have attempted that pass." What we saw this summer at the Olympics was depressing. Basically, for three turnovers a game, the Mavs dealt Devin Harris, Desagana Diop, Trenton Hassell, Maurice Ager, and the idea of Keith Van Horn, along with a pair of draft picks (one an unprotected first rounder in 2010, right around the time when it will be a lottery pick) and cash. Oh, I'm sorry. They got hustle in return. And getting forty hung on them by Chris Paul every time they play New Orleans. Keep in mind that the team has no backcourt depth beyond Kidd and Jason Terry, despite the fact that those guys are each on the wrong side of thirty.
Have you ever been in a fantasy football league with an old guy who only picks hometown players and is still saying stuff like, "What happened to Ahman Green? Am I right?" That dude is Mark Cuban right now. Otherwise, lookin' good, Dallas!
Still, this is a team that won 51 games last year. I'm talking about them as if they're the Washington Generals, but they still have one of the best players in the league in Werewolf at Sunset, and Rick Carlisle is a much better fit for the lineup than Avery Johnson. Under his system, they could return to the uptempo style that made them so successful at the beginning of the decade. I also love Brandon Bass this year; he's pretty much Colossus from X-Men.
If I had to compare the Mavericks to a Michael Jackson LP--you were wondering when I was going to get all bloggy, weren't you?--they would be Invincible. It's really hard to give them a fair shake when you stack up their current incarnation against their body of work. They're bloated, expensive, and older than they used to be. Then again, they're still the Mavericks.
Jason Kidd= "You Rock My World"= twelve minutes and twenty-six seconds= the real nadir of Marlon Brando's career
(All embedding of official MJ videos is disabled by request. Because he's dumb.)
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Welcome to the Marc Gasol era. We have a new member of the Birdman/Madsen group of players I write about obsessively. Take overly-aggressive play, an Antoine Carr-esque frame, confusing facial hair, and Spanish awkwardness, and it's enough for me to bump the Grizz ahead of Dallas.
Okay, I'm being flippant. Memphis has imported the younger Gasol for some interior defense and rebounding, they drafted the NBA-ready OJ Mayo to replace Mike Miller's scoring, and Antoine "Pancake Face" Walker to...okay, he hurts them. But they keep adding young pieces to the table, and you look up and realize that this is a young, energetic group that could shake things up. Juan Carlos Navarro has hit the trails, and his versatility is sorely needed, but make no mistake that Rudy Gay is ready to make the leap and become a household name. Add to that that the Grizz have more cap room to land a mid-season free agent than anyone else, and this is a team to watch.
On the negative side, this is kind of a video game team. There are some exciting pieces there, but in real life they might not have the chemistry to make it work. Memphis is still playing pointguard roulette until Mike Conley decides to step it up, and they don't have a dedicated outside shooter anymore. Is it unrealistic to believe that a team that won 22 games last year will out-perform the Mavericks? Yes. But my tone sounded much more hopeful here, so I had to flip their rankings.
If the Grizzlies were a Michael Jackson album, they would be Dangerous. I mean, you look at the elaborate Dangerous cover, and it seems like this is going to be a wild ride. You remember a whole lot of jaunty singles and flashy videos, but you forget about all the fruity stuff like "Heal the World" and "In the Closet" until you actually get to it; it's deceptive. Plus, Marc Gasol is bound to get into some damaging misunderstanding like MJ's "jew me, sue me/kick me, kike me" line in "They Don't Care about Us." (Which he retracted and apologized for just because Steven Spielberg spoke out against it. Have some backbone, Mike. I'm pretty sure no one ever operated on that.) In the end, as you're listening to another slick, interminable intro, you realize that the whole team/album is too flashy for its own good.
By the way, Dangerous totally holds the record for "most uses of the glass breaking sound effect" in modern history.
the Kriss-Kross appearance in "Jam"= 1992 in a bottle= Antoine Walker asking for extra barbecue sauce at a Memphis ribs spot. How many times did the director of this video say, "That was great, but, um...could you try to look a little more heterosexual" before giving up? Memphis will have more wins than that.
3. San Antonio Spurs
"And they said...this wouldn't last."
The Spurs nearly won the division last season, even though they never quite clicked at the right time, peaking early and looking kind of aimless late. They're also an already old team that is yet another year older, and the drop-off in Tim Duncan's play seems imminent. For any seven-footer, there seems to be a morning in his mid-thirties when he is instantly a shadow of his former self, and that could be any day now for The Big Fundamental.
On the other hand, they keep rotating in these younger guys who buy into the system and contribute off the bench, like Ime Udoka, who looked awesome in stretches last year. They still have the most consistent, dominant defense in the league, and--always the best test for coaching--they win all the close, ugly games by the grizzly beard of Popovich. The Spurs could stay one of the more powerful forces in the West, but it's just as likely that they take a Colts-like step backwards.
The Spurs are Thriller. They have a justifiably legendary reputation, but they're also not quite as good as you remember. However, there's no disputing that they're stacked across the board with a tracklist as deep as anyone. Sure, there's a big three, and the producer is a star in his own right, but you can't deny how important every piece is to the whole.
the McCartney-Jackson banter in "The Girl Is Mine"= almost pubes
2. Houston Rockets
"Have you seen my childhood..."
I have to be careful here, since I think I still owe some money around town for my "Rockets will win the West outright" claims last year. Let's just say that I'm optimistic. Even with gruesome injury problems and sub-par coaching last year, they finished as the fourth seed in the West.
Now they have Ron-Ron Artest, which seems like a good idea--again, I'm being careful here. He goes from being an limiting first option to being an effective third banana, creating match-up problems and playing stingy perimeter defense. Do you realize how much you can limit backcourt production if your line of defense is Ron Artest and Shane Battier? Plug in dependable role players like Carl Landry and Brent Barry, and what's not to like? This team has obvious talent, and now it's up to a few things for them to succeed.
They have to stay healthy, which seems impossible. T-Mac is already complaining about nagging injuries, and Yao will miss his standard twenty games or so. That's where things get sketchy. If either one of them misses too much time, the Rockets can't hang in this division. Chemistry is also an issue because, you know, Ron Artest is on this team. There are several question marks, but, like their mascot Clutch, they could surprise people.
The Rockets remind me of Bad. There are obvious, unforgettable standouts, but there's still some terrible stuff lurking like "Speed Demon"/Rafer Alston. The sequencing doesn't make much sense, and reminds you that your coach has kind of shot you in the foot.
the borderline stalking of "The Way You Make Me Feel"= possible post-game activity for Ron-Ron, who should probably check out another Bad cut: "Man in the Mirror."
1. New Orleans Hornets
I hope I'm not jinxing anything here, and God knows I'm biased. They won the division last season, but for that to happen again absolutely everyone needs to stay healthy (and in Tyson Chandler's case, stay out of foul trouble). It's also unlikely that Chris Paul can approach a performance as historically great as the one he had last year. They lost more than they added, sending away Bonzi Wells, Birdman, and the rather essential Jannero Pargo while only adding Devin Brown and James Posey. Peja doesn't even pretend to play defense anymore. Their lack of depth kills them.
At the same time, that starting five works together so well, Chris Paul really is that good, and, perhaps most importantly, this is a team that knows who it is. They have poise even though they're really young--the big game experience they got from the playoffs will be invaluable--and they're expertly coached. Understanding your strengths and weaknesses is indispensible in a league as unpredictable as the NBA. Hopefully the long and deceptively quick Julian Wright can cash in on some of his promise and provide much-needed frontcourt help off the bench. And Posey will be a defensive threat while stretching the floor. If they play to their potential, there's no reason New Orleans can't compete for the division crown.
In this way, they're pretty similar to Off the Wall in that they're stepping out on their own adn making a name for themselves. They're quick, young, exuberant, and they're kind of the sexy pick. Saying that you've been listening to Thriller a lot lately isn't cool, but if you say, "Oh, I've been getting really into Off the Wall, people can see that you're an expert.
The rudimentary disco visuals of "Rock with You"= whatever.