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Who are the contenders?
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By Sam Smith | 12.1.2014 | 9:27 a.m. CT
The first month of the 2014-15 NBA season concluded Sunday with plenty of intriguing storylines. There’s Derrick Rose’s in and out return, the demise of the Lakers with an impressive comeback from Kobe Bryant, the struggles of the Thunder without injured Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and the average play of LeBron James’ Cavs. Though what that shows, as expected, is there are no more super teams. Yes, the Spurs are good, though hardly unbeatable, the Thunder has to get going to make the playoffs and we believe what LeBron said that it will take time. What it suggests is an engrossing regular season and playoffs with perhaps more teams capable of winning the NBA title than any time in recent memory. You can make cases for perhaps a dozen or more teams who could legitimately consider themselves title contenders.
Golden State Warriors: They look as good as any thus far. Not just with the 14-2 record and 9-1 on the road. Their high scoring backcourt is the best in the league and they’ve shown impressive depth even with injuries to their two best big men.
Memphis Grizzlies: They’ve quietly come up with the league’s best record. Not always dominant, but their defense doesn’t produce that much excitement. But they have a big time Big Three in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley and enough depth and shooting now.
San Antonio Spurs: Never count them out, though they haven’t repeated. It’s not a reason they can’t. They’ll build toward the playoffs more than anyone and make an impressive case. But the age can catch up some time.
Houston Rockets: They didn’t look like a contender with the off season departures. But they’ve added enough pieces and as long as Dwight Howard is healthy have shown they can compete with anyone.
Portland Trail Blazers: Still a bit too perimeter oriented. But they’ve again improved their big man depth and with the right matchup are good enough to advance.
Dallas Mavericks: Deep team with Dirk Nowitzki having more support and showing he still can win games. It’s one advantage of never having been too much of an athlete.
Los Angeles Clippers: Perhaps a bit flawed with issues at the wing positions, but with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin they can take a series from anyone in the West.
Oklahoma City Thunder: The big late season story is going to be who’s losing games to avoid the Thunder in the first round. They should get there with Westbrook back and Durant coming and now some experience for the reserves.
Cleveland Cavaliers: They’ve got the best player and LeBron will figure out how to get Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to do more. They’ll still give up a lot of points, but can be the toughest to defend.
Chicago Bulls: Is it a Big Four if you include Joakim Noah? Jimmy Butler’s emergence has given them an unexpected offensive addition. It still depends on Rose being there, but there should be fewer demands on him this season.
Toronto Raptors: They suffered a setback with the recent injury to DeMar DeRozan, but he’ll return. Kyle Lowry’s improvement has been dramatic and they’re starting to find their big men.
Washington Wizards: There’s always an injury issue with Nene, but they have all the elements with star guards and size and some playoff experience from last season.
That’s a dozen teams, any one of which could win the title, especially the way the Western teams have to knock out one another. Atlanta or Miami probably could win a playoff round, though it seems unlikely they could get all the way to the Finals. Maybe the same for Denver in the West.
NBA news and notes
Is Carmelo Anthony damaged goods? The Knicks forward, who talked in a soon-to-be-released documentary on his free agency of being close to only the Bulls, has been out with back problems amidst reports in New York media of knee problems as well. Perhaps that’s why he opted for the long term deal with the Knicks instead of taking a risk of a shorter deal with the Bulls and opt out, which was the only way the Bulls could come close to matching the Knicks’ offer ... Are we going to have to give Jason Kidd coach of the year? He burns a lot of bridges, but Kidd has the Bucks playing their most competitive in the last decade with a varied roster. Their bench is second most productive to the Suns and they’ve been among the best in forcing turnovers with an active, young group.
Augustin driving Motor City
The Pistons are a mess, booed at home being blown out by the Bucks Friday. Coach/exec Stan Van Gundy went out of his way to praise D.J. Augustin and Andre Drummond on the pick and roll, further distancing himself from Brandon Jennings. With only one season after this, it’s not inconceivable team president Van Gundy could pursue a buyout for a point guard he doesn’t want to coach. Van Gundy was one of several coaches last week along with Charlotte’s Steve Clifford to have one minute press meetings after losses and then leave. Hey, it’s just November. Augustin’s probably the latest to leave Chicago for Detroit to discover the grass even browner in winter ... It’s always a surprise when someone picks up Marvin Williams. Talk about your non physical players. This season it was 15 games and 36 minutes until Monday when the Hornets’ Williams attempted his first free throws of the season. And it was being fouled off the ball with the Clippers in the penalty. In two seasons with the Jazz, Williams attempted 172 free throws in 139 games and 3,401 minutes. Yes, he’s even driving the ball less than ever
Teams dealing with injuries
You wouldn’t believe it with anyone else, but given it’s the 76ers it could be possible. Tony Wroten was declared out at least a week with a sprained knee. He is the team’s leader in scoring, assists and steals. Could they have put him out because they were too close to getting a win last week against Brooklyn? ... Often fans like to think only their team suffers hardships and injuries. The Rockets have had the same starting lineup for three games once with starters Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverly and Terrence Jones out for large parts of the season but the team remains among the best in the Western Conference. To say nothing of the Pacers, who had had all five starters injured for major parts of the season. But they’ve been one of the surprise teams even with a losing record remaining competitive and now with David West and C.J. Watson the latest to return ... Huge blow for the conference leading Raptors losing DeMar DeRozan to a serious groin injury and then losing to the last place Lakers. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have been driving the Raptors as among the best guard tandems in the league. Lowry has continued to make a remarkable improvement relatively late in his career, improving on his breakout season from last year and drawing comparisons to another blooming late guard, Chauncey Billups, for his clutch play. “He takes the big shots, the clutch shots, he keeps going, always keeps the motor going, just like Chauncey,” teammate Amir Johnson told Toronto media
Could they be talking playoffs in Orlando? They, like the Bulls, opened with a league most 12 November road games. They were 5-7 with an impressive win Sunday in Phoenix to go to 5-7. They were 4-37 on the road last season ... The joke is it’s another failing Russian five-year plan as the Nets fell to ninth in the East with Sunday’s home loss to the Bulls ... Hawks point guard Jeff Teague is on an All-Star run of his own, averaging 25.8 points and 6.2 assists the last five games before Saturday and more than eight free throw attempts per game. He had just six points playing briefly Saturday in the embarrassing win over the Hornets in which the Hawks mostly led by almost 40 ... Before Golden State blew out Miami last week, Stephen Curry filmed a Christmas Day commercial for the NBA on the Heat’s home floor shooting threes. Having obviously gotten the feel, Curry then went out and scored 40 points with eight threes. You don’t hear it much, but as coach Steve Kerr put it: “That was winning pretty.”
Chandler back in familiar role
Good no one listens to Mark Cuban. His latest brainstorm is to put the Bulls in the Western Conference. Cuban told reporters last week to cure the conference imbalance with Western teams currently winning about 70 percent of the East-West games to realign like the NHL centered on the Central time zone teams so playoff TV isn’t affected, which is a major issue why the NBA never would go to top 16 for playoffs. Explained Cuban: “I think Memphis stays West and the Texas teams, all three of us go East, and New Orleans. And Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Indiana go West. It kind of shakes things up not just in interest but also in terms of how people rebuild.” Of course, Cuban has the Mavs going East. Which also gets an extra home game with LeBron James’ Cavs ... Perhaps there’s no better example than Tyson Chandler of how teams suffer drafting young players. Chandler had 17 points and 25 rebounds in Dallas’ win last week over the Knicks, a bit of a personal crusade after team president Phil Jackson traded Chandler in mentioning a change of chemistry. It was more the Knicks needed a point guard and got Jose Calderon. But Chandler took it personally. Nevertheless, the Mavs are thrilled to have him back after Cuban, known for his personnel missteps like letting Steve Nash go to sign Erick Dampier, broke up his 2011 title team by letting Chandler go. Said Dirk Nowitzki of Chandler: “His leadership is so amazing. He’s always the first guy to talk, to get on the guys on and off the floor. He addresses the team at halftime, before the games. That’s great. And on the court, it’s still the same as a couple years ago. He’s active defensively, pushing guys, finishing above the rim. It’s good to see that.” The Bulls remember the teenage Chandler as a player even Tim Floyd said was immature and then who’d break down in tears under Scott Skiles. It takes time to become a leader and contributor. High school seniors and now college freshman hurt the NBA.
Western All-Star logjam
Looks like Eric Gordon may again be done for the season with a torn labrum. He’d averaged missing 44 games a season the last three years coming into this season. Looks like he’ll be picking up his $15.5 million option for next season ... The game after coach Monty Williams declared the Pelicans aren’t taking advantage of the talents of Anthony Davis and he needs at least 20 shots per game, Davis got to attempt 14 as it’s shocking sometimes to watch the New Orleans guards ignoring him. But the Pelicans look like they run almost no plays for Davis, putting him in pick and rolls and hoping the guard will throw to him. Davis was 11 of 18 in a loss in Washington Saturday while Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday were a combined 9 for 33. They ignored Davis repeatedly down the stretch and even the last play. This was classic: Davis got four shots in the fourth quarter and made them all. The rest of the team was four of 14. Davis gets his first national TV appearance Thursday in Golden State before the Warriors come to Chicago Saturday. It’s looking like the Pelicans are slipping in the powerful West and with a modest national profile for New Orleans and lack of success, everyone will be watching to see if Davis wants to become a free agent in the summer of 2017. That’s the summer Russell Westbrook can be a free agent, one summer after Kevin Durant ... The Grizzlies’ win in Portland Friday showed why Mike Conley likely will get that final West All-Star guard spot over Damian Lillard. Conley shot as a last resort and just missed a triple double with 21 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists while Lillard, who is very good and an eventual All-Star, was more shoot first. He missed several late threes with quick shots and the Trail Blazers could not overcome a deficit. Credit, though, to the Portland front office for another key under the radar move. After the key addition of Robin Lopez last year, Chris Kaman has proven a crucial addition in the Portland fast start once again. Kamen has led the Portland reserves in scoring 13 times.
More NBA news and notes
Zach Randolph had a quiet 14 points and 13 rebounds in the Memphis win over Portland. Perhaps no one has changed more, maybe in NBA history. The one time miscreant and troublemaker in Portland, Randolph has become one of the most reliable players in the game, professional, low key, a generous citizen and willingly playing his role on an excellent Grizzlies team. It’s a credit to Randolph that hardly anyone even remembers he was in Portland ... In the sentence you don’t hear much, the deep Warriors have been getting all sorts of contributions and lately from Marresee Speights, who had 27 points Friday in a win over the again woebegone Hornets. Speights already has more 20-point games (three) than he had all last season: Said Speights, whom Kerr now calls Mo Buckets: “I just knew I was in a zone, and when I’m in a zone, that goal looks like a swimming pool.” Yes, Marressee Speights in the zone. Don’t miss it. Obviously, Kerr isn’t uptight yet, the usual demeanor for NBA coaches. Winning helps. Said Kerr when asked about only recently using Speights more: “Just been way better than I expected at both ends. I think I even sat him out a game early on because I'm an idiot."…How about Byron Scott ripping the Lakers, on the verge of cursing them out post game after the Friday home loss to Minnesota to fall safely into last in the West. Wolves rookie Zach LaVine torched the Lakers for 28 while admitting he spent considerable time thinking about how cool it was to be on the same court with Kobe. Who exactly does Scott believe he has on that roster? The chase with the 76ers for Jahlil Okafor is heating up. Looks like someone hired to take losses for two years. ... If the Cavs beat the Bulls by one game in the division, does Cavs GM David Griffin get executive of the year for waiving A.J. Price for Will Cherry? Price then signed with the Pacers and basically beat the Bulls Nov. 15 with 21 points, was waived by the Pacers and was claimed Sunday by the Cavs. ... Bill Cartwright’s Mexico national team just coming together against veteran teams had a strong finish with a win over Costa Rica in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Vera Cruz last week.