Every year around draft day I think of the enormous amount of talent annually available t..."/> Every year around draft day I think of the enormous amount of talent annually available t..."/>

NBA Pre-preseason Winners and Losers


Every year around draft day I think of the enormous amount of talent annually available to the NBA.  For starters, players from more than 300 Division I colleges! Then there are international players, players from high schools, from junior colleges, from the D-League, from Division II, etc.

All of which is to say that the NBA is loaded with talent. Which makes for a very competitive league. Gotta love it!  Some teams have one or two great players, but every team has several very good players, and several more damn good ones. [Yes, even the Bobcats. Don’t blame the players for their bad record. The players are good. A team with a bad record usually has bad management who has made bad decisions.]

The talent is distributed about evenly but, despite the Miami Heat’s NBA title, the Western Conference, as usual, has both more good teams than the Eastern Conference and fewer bad teams.

Being able to draft well is an absolute necessity, especially if you’re a small-market team. This year three teams in the West got better via the draft.

New Orleans Hornets cashed in the 1st and 10th picks with Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers. And with their 46th pick took Darius Miller, a small forward from Kentucky, the only first-stringer on their championship team that wasn’t drafted in the first round. You get a feeling that Miller is probably pretty good. Those three are going to join Eric Gordon, newly acquired Ryan Anderson, and a bunch of no-names who are decent. The Chris Paul deal that David Stern brokered for the Hornets paid off in this draft, which Stern probably rigged, turning the Hornets’ fourth place (from the bottom) finish into the overall #1 pick. The draft system with its grotesque ping pong balls invites that kind of corruption. The Hornets probably are still the weakest in the West but they are better and are positioned to improve. (Although the new ownership has already made its first stupid move by dealing Jarrett Jack to the Warriors for virtually nothing.)

The Trailblazers took Damian Lillard with the 6th pick. Everyone calls him the best point guard in the draft, and because he went to Weber State and weighs a mere 185 pounds, he probably is. For their 11th pick Portland took Meyers Leonard, probably the best center in the draft. They also drafted SG Will Barton with their 40th pick. Nice haul of talent to go with Lamarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum and Wes Matthews.

The Rockets, like the Hornets and the Blazers, are rebuilding and aren’t playoff-bound next season. But, picking 12th, 16th and 18th, they nabbed Jeremy Lamb, an off-guard to back up Kevin Martin, and two outstanding power forwards in Iowa State’s Royce White and Terrence Jones from Kentucky. And signing Jeremy Lin was as astute as it was horrible on the Knicks’ part not to match the 4-year, $25 million offer sheet. The Rockets got the perfect point guard for their young team.

The Mavs are the only other Western team that had a decent draft. They dealt down, going for quantity after losing a few players, and picked up SG Jared Cunningham, C Bernard James and SF Jae Crowder, all of whom will probably make the team.

Draft Losers

I think the Kings dropped the ball by taking Thomas Robinson with the fifth pick. That was an occasion to do something bold. Sacto is flat-out boring, which comes with being a low-scoring team. Boring is OK if you win (like the Bulls) but the Kings don’t. Robinson will be a good blue-collar type of power forward, but what the Kings need is firepower from the front court—a dynamic small forward or a PF who can score.

Dwight Howard’s trade to the Lakers unofficially ended the free agency period but he was only the biggest fish reeled in. The offseason was a blizzard of signings and deals. That’s how most of the Western teams got better.

Free Agency: Where the Season is Won

The Lakers got much better—and then got Dwight Howard! Adding Steve Nash and bench standouts Antawn Jamison and Jordan Hill brought the team close to the top but the acquisition of Howard (not to mention added backcourt depth in Jodie Meeks and Chris Duhon) makes them the clear favorite to win it all.

The Clippers also got serious, signing such stalwarts as Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Rony Turiaf and—here it comes—Lamar Odom. The big baby’s back in LA, which he loves and which loves him, so get ready for Lamar to win the Comeback of the Year award. Consider that the above four acquisitions are bench players and you realize just how potent the Clips are. The Lakers and the Clippers might be the two best teams in the West. Seriously.

Just as active were the Mavericks. After losing Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, they re-tooled their backcourt with Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo and Delonte West. They also signed Elton Brand and Chris Kaman to crash the boards. Mavs aren’t as potent as they used to be but they’re deep, they still have Dirk, and are still dangerous. The three D’s.

The Grizzlies had a good off-season. They drafted Tony Wroten to beef up their backcourt, and Darrell Arthur, a fine power forward, returns healthy after missing most of last season. They also added Wayne Ellington on the wing.

The T-Wolves, huffing and puffing to get better (which I love them for), signed Andrei Kirilenko to solve their small forward problem. The Wes Johnson experiment didn’t work and he was shipped to Phoenix. The Wolves are hella interesting and are about ready to explode. The re-birth of Brandon Roy, the development of Nicola Pekovic in the middle, the signings of Kirilenko, Chase Budinger and Greg Stiemsma to go along with Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio et al give the Wolves a legit shot at the 8th playoff spot.

The Jazz, a team the Wolves will have to beat, also made a few deft moves, signing Mo Williams and Randy Foye to bolster the backcourt (and the team’s perimeter shooting at the same time), and getting Marvin Williams in trade (for Devin Harris) from the Hawks to play small forward. With the emergence of Alec Burks, the additional firepower of Mo and a front line of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Marvin Williams, the Jazz should be tough.

The Suns did a nice job of staying competitive after losing Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Robin Lopez and Hakim Warrick (and their salaries) by signing Luis Scola, Goren Dragic, Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson. In fact, the Suns are better now and have a much better chance of landing a playoff spot than they did last year. Gortat in the middle is one of the best, Dragic is terrific and Scola is a shtarker. Beasley should be the small forward on this team. With Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown, Michael Redd and Channing Frye adding firepower, the Suns are also thinking playoffs.

The Warriors, another dark horse, haven’t had this kind of balance in a long time. The deal that sounded weird last year—giving up a (healthy) scoring machine like Monta Ellis for a center who was already out for the season and who had a history of injuries—looks a lot better right now as Ellis toils in the fields of Milwaukee while Andrew Bogut joins a suddenly interesting team. The Dubyas, going nowhere rapidly, rolled the dice on Bogut, one of the few elite centers when healthy. They drafted small forward Harrison Barnes, a cheaper version of Dorell Wright, now in Philly (in a three-way deal that brought combo guard Jarrett Jack to the Warriors), signed PF Carl Landry and re-signed swingman Brandon Rush. With David Lee and Stephen Curry, and second-year off-guard Klay Thompson (who replaced Ellis), the Warriors will go as far as Bogut’s health takes them.

Free Agency Losers

Unlike the above teams, the Spurs did nothing and I think that will hurt them. As good as they are, you’ve got to keep getting better because everyone else is.

The Thunder did very little but that’s better than nothing, and the Thunder can afford to do very little more than the Spurs can. They did draft Perry Jones, a 6-11 forward from Baylor with chronic knee problems who would otherwise have been a lottery-pick. The Thunder took a chance and, drafting 28th, why not?. Also Eric Maynor, backup point guard who was out most of last season, is back. So the Thunder still looks strong but the question remains: Are they now good enough to succeed where they failed last year, i.e., can they now beat the Miami Heat? Quick answer: No.

The Nuggets and the Sixers were the two other teams that made the Howard-to- the-Lakers trade possible. The Sixers got Bynum and immediately became a threat to beat the Heat in the East. The Nuggets, however, lost out on this one. They got Andre  Iguodala but had to give up Arron Afflalo (the team’s best defender), Al Harrington (a key sub) and a #1 pick. Which is too much, not to mention that the Nugs already have Danilo Gallinari as their small forward and he’s an All-Star.

Remember, this is still the pre-preseason. There will still be deals, injuries and funky tweets before the preseason starts in October. The draftees haven’t been tested yet, and some of the deals that seem good will turn out not to be. But with the extensive player movement it figures that there will be some balance-of-power changes and some surprises. Memphis Grizzlies, anyone?