The Wandering Beard

As Thunder GM Sam Presti was watching his former sixth man run circles around the Pistons, I suspect he had a moment of recoil. At least he should have.

Keep in mind that as the Lakers struggle to 0-10 (including preseason) much like the Heat struggled a couple of years ago, NBA analysts around the country emphasize that a team needs time to “gel”. And while I don’t doubt the acumen or insider expertise of any of these former players and coaches, I did just watch James Harden turn into “Big Game” James and drop a LeBron James like stat line without ever having played with any of the current Rockets.

James Harden came off the bench last year and regularly sparked the Thunder to victories. He was a burst of energy that the other team rarely saw coming, and often had no answer for. Standing 6’5” and 230lbs, Harden has prototypical size for his position and is one of the best athletes in the NBA. If he had LeBron’s size I could make a case for him possibly growing into the best in the game. He drives the ball with raw power and swift feet. He shoots the ball with a silky release and a confident follow-through. He’s already one of the most intelligent players with the ball in his hands. And he is COLD BLOODED.

Now, none of this is news to Sam Presti. So why get rid of him? Money, money, money. He saw Harden was in line for the type of deal he got from Houston and simply could not fit that into the Thunder’s current budget. The key word there being “current”. Durant, Westbrook and Perkins are all locked up to big deals and Harden’s deal would have meant another $30 mil in luxury tax.

I get that, but here’s the thing: Would you rather have Westbrook or Harden signed to a max deal?

Russell Westbrook is one of the best talents in the NBA and there is absolutely no disputing that. But he is a little behind the curve from the neck up. He fires wild, wayward passes; often turning the ball over more than 7 or 8 times in a game. Most possessions that begin with the ball in his hands end that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him dribble the ball up, then just pull up from 15 feet. That’s great when you make 70% of them, but that seems to be happening less and less. Meanwhile, the best scorer in the game goes possession after possession without touching the rock. My biggest problem with him is he clearly thinks he’s a better player than Durant. That’s not a strategy conducive to winning.

Presti could have, and in my opinion should have dumped Westbrook on a team for a good young point guard who is years away from a big payday or a veteran who can be an extension of Scott Brooks on the floor. Even Harden himself would have been an excellent solution at point guard.

But c’est la vie, Presti decided to hold on to one of the more volatile personalities in the NBA and dumped his 23-year-old Sixth Man of the Year.

My second problem here is the haul he got for Harden. Presti brings in Kevin Martin, who was a good scorer in Houston, but who else was going to score for them? Martin is a solid talent, moves off the ball well and has a good, albeit funky-looking jumper, but he has been apathetic to coaching in the past.

My big problem is after that they landed Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks. Picking in the NBA draft can truly be a lottery experience. The Thunder have drafted well, yes, but there is also a lot of luck involved in that. They could have easily ended up with Greg Oden, OJ Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet (who is ironically on the team this year) in the drafts that netted them Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

Obviously, only Presti knows what other offers were out there, but I can’t believe he got all he could for a man on the verge of becoming one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. If anyone had to go, Westbrook should have been the guy here. Only time will tell of course, but I seriously doubt any of the other teams in the West are sad to see Durant and Harden split up. They could have been a new generation Jordan-Pippen.

I’m afraid in the next five years Durant will have to endure some serious frustration with Westbrook and that this could end in tragedy for OKC.

Catching Up With Paul George

Paul George talked with me about how the team has grown over the past two seasons, how a tough loss to the Miami Heat helped the team grow, expectations for this season and how his game is going to improve.

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Preseason Promise And Questions For Utah

We’ve all heard it over and over: The preseason doesn’t mean anything. But is that really true? With the 2012-13 NBA regular season set to start, is there anything that we’ve learned about the Utah Jazz from their preseason performance? I think there’s plenty.

For starters, the offseason move the Jazz made to acquire Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye will pay dividends.

With Mo Williams at the point, Utah was consistently able to push the ball up the floor quickly, allowing for more easy transition baskets. Also, his 3-point shooting should give the Jazz a potent option on offense in the halfcourt that they just didn’t have last season.

Marvin Williams gives Utah plenty of athleticism on the wing, and he’ll have the opportunity to do things with Utah he never had with Atlanta.

Foye’s shooting came on later in preseason, and Jazz coach Ty Corbin was able to use Foye and sophomore guard Alec Burks in a combo-guard backcourt in reserve that showed some interesting results and could prove quite handy while reserve point guard Earl Watson continues his rehab.

Also, the work Enes Kanter put in during the summer was for real. My concern with Kanter ever since he was drafted was whether or not he was worth a No. 3 overall pick over Toronto rookie center Jonas Valanciunas, and Kanter’s rookie season didn’t fill me with confidence. I also thought Kanter should’ve join Turkey’s national team for Eurobasket qualifying. But the workouts he did to get in shape for the season and the skills he picked up working with NBA legend Kiki Vandeweghe really showed during preseason. He averaged nearly a double-double in Utah’s eight preseason games, playing hard in all of them, and showed improvements in defense, rebounding and offense, particularly with his mid-range jumper. Now my biggest worry about Kanter is whether or not Corbin will play him 20 minutes per game in the regular season like he did in preseason.

Fellow big man Derrick Favors had a slower start to preseason than Kanter did, but he defended well throughout, and by the last few games of exhibition, his offense looked more ready for the start of the season as well. Again, with veterans Al Jefferson, Utah’s best and most consistent player last season, and Paul Millsap both looking to take a major share of minutes in the frontcourt, playing time for Favors may also be a challenge.

While the start of the regular season brings promise, it also brings questions. With regards to Jefferson and Millsap, both will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. With their contracts, among others, coming off the books, the Jazz will be looking at a lot of salary cap space next summer. But Jefferson and Millsap will also be among the top free agents available on the market, and Utah may not be able to retain both players.

A trade during the season for either player is a real possibility in order to ensure getting value in return, and it’s a situation that will bear watching between now and February.

Also, Utah is going to need to get more from third-year swingman Gordon Hayward this season. Hayward has shown incredible potential, and his defense is particularly underrated. But just as it was with C.J. Miles, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, consistency will be Hayward’s challenge. He has the ability, but he needs to be assertive with his role on the court, and performing well consistently, particularly on offense, will help him define that role with this team.

On Wednesday, when Utah opens the regular season agains the Dallas Mavericks, we’ll see what carries over from preseason and what questions start to get answered — and what new questions might emerge.

Boom Or Bust Season For 76ers

The revamped Philadelphia 76ers are an intriguing enigma for those compiling their preseason previews and power-rankings. No team seems to have a higher ceiling—some have predicted that they’ll win the Atlantic division—or a lower floor, as others predict that they’ll fall out of the playoff picture altogether.

Many people, myself included, while wanting to believe that the 76ers are going to be a major contender, see a team with the potential to self-destruct.

The reasons for believing that the 76ers are going to be a major player in the East are clear—and they begin and end with Andrew Bynum. Bynum, the NBA’s second best centre, is now the best centre in the Eastern Conference—it’s not even close. With Dwight Howard shipped off to the West, there is no one that opposing big-men, and coaches, should fear more.

Last season, an injury-free Bynum showed what he could do at both ends of the floor. His footwork and low-post game was the best it’s ever been, while his play down the stretch in games was extremely impressive—check out his percentages in the final minutes of close games.

Recently there’s been talk of teams like the Miami Heat opting for small-ball lineups—not needing to play a genuine centre— but Bynum’s presence on the 76ers may put a wrench in that idea. I love that LeBron James can guard all 5 positions, and sure, he may be able to guard makeshift centres like Kevin Garnett, but he isn’t guarding Bynum down low. No chance.

As well as the potential 25-12 monster that is Bynum, the 76ers should also be better at the point-guard position this year. Jrue Holiday had somewhat of a coming-out party last season, particularly against the Celtics in the playoffs. He should continue that upward trajectory this year.

And then there’s Evan Turner. The uber-talented former 2nd overall pick showed flashes of brilliance last season, and he presents numerous match-up problems at the 2-spot, with his size, quickness, and rebounding abilities. Doug Collins will be hoping that he takes his game to the next level this season.

Given the factors just listed, it’s entirely logical to assume that Philadelphia are a solid playoff team, however, there are an equal number of reasons why they might also unravel. Although the signing of Bynum undoubtedly improves them in the frontcourt, the loss of Andre Iguodala in that same trade makes the 76ers substantially weaker on the perimeter. Having just praised the attributes of Turner, it’s worth mentioning that at this stage of his career, he’s no Iguodala when it comes to perimeter defense.

Iguodala was a huge part of Philadelphia’s highly ranked defense last season, and his loss means that much of the onus will be placed on Turner. Turner’s expected to play minutes at the 3-spot this year; mitigating much of the match-up problems he poses playing at the 2. At the same time, new additions Jason Richardson and Nick Young, while adding an outside shooting presence for Philadelphia, aren’t exactly shutdown defenders—Young being a particular liability at that end of the floor.

Then there’s the issue of locker-room cohesion and harmony. Fairly or unfairly, Turner has a reputation for being a difficult player to deal with, while we all know about Nick Young’s history as a member of a Washington Wizard’s team that took dysfunction to a whole new level. But the biggest problem could be Bynum’s tendency to act like a petulant child.

Bynum may have put up monster stat-lines last year in L.A., but he was also a monster pain in the behind. Just ask Mike Brown. He sulked his way through games, refused to sit with teammates during timeouts, got ejected from games, and of course, jacked up that ill-advised three that resulted in his benching. With all that baggage, Doug Collins, a highly-strung individual, with a tendency to self-destruct when pushed by a volatile superstar, might not be the ideal coach for Bynum. Just read about Collins’ checkered history with Michael Jordan for a potential precedent.

Of course, there’s also the small issue that Bynum hasn’t even suited up for the 76ers yet in preseason. It might be hard to clash with Collins if he doesn’t even get on the court. Remember, last year was also unique in that Bynum managed to play a full season—something rare in his injury-riddled career. Bynum has struggled with knee problems all summer and underwent a platelet enrichment procedure in Germany. I would be a little nervous if I was a fan in Philly.

That the 76ers are talented is not in doubt. They have enough potential scoring in Bynum, Holiday, Turner, and Thaddeus Young, while also possessing a top-15 NBA player, in the aforementioned Bynum. But there are big question marks on defense, as well as major injury and personality concerns with their star big man.

If everything comes together, you’re looking at a genuine threat in the Eastern Conference, but if the 76ers’ weaknesses on and off the court are exposed, the wheels could come off this team very quickly.

Podcast: 2012-13 NBA Season Preview

Mark and McNeill recorded a podcast to preview the 2012-13 NBA season. We talked about what teams we’re excited to watch on League Pass, the sleeper teams in each conference, what teams are overrated and what storylines we’re going to watch closely.

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