Bleacher Report’s Ultimate 2014-15 NBA Season Preview and Expert Picks

There’s something about the upcoming 2014-15 NBA season that feels awfully familiar, you guys. 

LeBron James is a Cleveland Cavalier again, determined to win over the hearts and minds of Cleveland’s born-again witnesses. Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose return to full strength after devastating, psyche-crushing, season-ending injuries…again. Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs defend an NBA title, again.

Phil Jackson is talking Zen again, in the city in which he first learned how to win. Charlotte has cast aside its cursed Bobcats moniker and returned to its beloved maiden name. Rajon Rondo is on the trade block (probably). The NBA draft lottery of today is still the NBA draft lottery of yesterday. The Philadelphia 76ers are a laughing stock… 

Is this some sort of sick joke, basketball gods? 

OK, granted, things have changed…drastically in some cases.

Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers are finally on sturdy foundation, free from the horrors of previous ownership, well-positioned for a run at the Larry O’Brien. Anthony Davis might already be the third-best player in the world at just 21 years old, bringing more hope to New Orleans than any single player since Pistol Pete (sorry Chris Paul, even you couldn’t claim this kind of upside while still putting up all-world numbers).

Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum headline one of the most promising rookie classes of a generation and might even make basketball watchable in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City, respectively. And—not to be understated—the NBA has a new gargantuan media-rights deal, which will likely change the entire structure of the league’s finances and labor relations in the coming years.  

So, same as it ever was, same as it never was. Got it.

So how will things change in 2014-15? Bleacher Report’s NBA experts have the answers to guide you through the 82-game expedition, as well as democratically agreed-upon picks and predictions for the record (and your scrutiny, please).

(Blows whistle)

(Tosses basketball skyward)

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Charlotte Hornets 2014-15 Season Preview: Roster Breakdown, Win-Loss Prediction

If you’ve been paying any attention to the Kansas City Royals’ remarkable run to the World Series, then you know that only means one thing.

Basketball is upon us!

A lot has changed since the last time an NBA game took place in Charlotte, and the Eastern Conference is going to look radically different. Some guy named LeBron James took his talents elsewhere, along with Kevin Love. Paul George broke his leg and ruined the Indiana Pacers chances of running the East again. Paul Pierce left Brooklyn for the Washington Wizards, and the Heat replaced the King with Luol Deng and Charlotte’s very own Josh McRoberts

However, the biggest change in the conference could still be coming from lovely North Carolina. Lance Stephenson came to town. P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh showed up as one of the franchise’s better draft hauls in quite some time. Al Jefferson fixed his foot. By some act of a higher power, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist might have learned how to shoot a basketball, and best of all, the Bobcats completely rebranded themselves as the Charlotte Hornets.

Fresh off the franchise’s second playoff appearance, (and second sweep), the Hornets are more than equipped to ring in this new era with a loud statement. After Chicago and Cleveland, this conference is presumably wide open. Charlotte came within one win of its franchise record last season at 43-39, and with good health, the Hornets should have no trouble eclipsing that number this year.

Enough speculating, let’s dive right into it. Here is the full preview with everything you need to know about your 2014-15 Charlotte Hornets.

 

Best Five

To some surprise, the Bobcats’ best statistical lineup last year came during the brief 65 minutes shared by Kemba Walker, Ramon Sessions, Anthony Tolliver, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson. Granted, that is a small sample size. Their most frequent lineup by far was Walker, Gerald Henderson, MKG, McRoberts and Jefferson.

Even though the 65-minute lineup played such a small amount of time together, a few things stuck out from their numbers playing together.

The unit was by far Charlotte’s best outside shooting lineup, namely because of Sessions’ ability to create helped free up Walker to light it up. Tolliver was an assassin all season, and that lineup shot 20 percent better than their opponents.

That lineup also produced the team’s best statistical group when it came to assists and field goals made and attempted. Charlotte had huge advantages in all three categories with that lineup, likely because the ball movement was much more efficient with Sessions in the backcourt, and the team ran more with Zeller in the frontcourt.

I may be digging deep into my basketball nerd encyclopedia, but there is something to be made of the virtues of ball movement, shooting and running the floor—aspects that will get more emphasis with this new Hornets squad. Because of that, Charlotte’s best lineup in 2014-15 will likely be Walker, Stephenson, MKG, Zeller and Jefferson.

Those five could dismantle teams in a variety of ways on offense by playing a brand of basketball that last year’s Bobcats displayed for really only 65 minutes all season. Stephenson provides a second ball-handler in the backcourt, as well as another distributor. He and Walker have shown in preseason that they are going to be ruthless attacking the rim and making flashy passes all over the court. Zeller‘s energy and athleticism will be much different than the fundamental style McRoberts played. A consistent MKG would just be the icing on the cake.

 

Youth Movement

When thinking of this team’s star-in-the-making, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Cody Zeller would be the first choices that come to mind. However, neither is as likely to be as a big a star this year as Lance Stephenson.

To many, this kid might have already become a star. He has been one of the driving forces the past couple of years behind the Pacers’ ascension to the top of the East. However, he just turned 24, and still has plenty of room to improve his game. His fiery style of play fits just what you’d expect from a Brooklyn guard. Pairing him with the Bronx-born Kemba Walker is sure to provide one of the NBA’s most dynamic, talented and underrated backcourtsThese two are no strangers to one another, as well.

Stephenson will act as the Swiss Army Knife that coach Steve Clifford did not have at his disposal last season. He is 100 percent different than anyone else from last year’s Bobcats roster, and if he can continue to improve in terms of attacking the rim and shooting from the outside, he could make another leap to become an All-Star.

Gerald Henderson was the starter last year, and he had a usage rate of 22.1, higher than Stephenson’s 19.4. That just shows how much more effective Stephenson can be than Henderson, what kind of upgrade he can be.

Henderson’s development has been stagnant over the past couple of seasons, whereas Stephenson is going to be more than ready to prove to the Pacers and the rest of the league why he is worthy of much more than the three-year, $27 million deal he signed this past offseason.

One might say he was even…Born Ready.

 

Team Award Predictions

Best Offensive Weapon: Al Jefferson

Big Al had his best campaign last year since he left Minnesota. He was the main reason this squad catapulted to 43 wins. Many were surprised that he took a deal to play in such a small market, but he made a massive contribution to the franchise a year ago and now has this team headed toward unprecedented levels of success.

It was a shame to see his season end with the plantar fasciitis injury in the playoffs, as his Bobcats were hanging in there with the mighty Miami Heat, for the most part. Another year in this system should only help him, and now with an improved roster around him, he could perform even better.

 

Defensive Stopper: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

His improved jumper should actually help him on defense. It will make him less of a liability on that end of the court, resulting in more minutes for MKG.. It will also help to tire out the man guarding him, resulting in said player having less energy to expend on offense. Ironing out that hitch in his shot should go a long way for him.

Having a jumper that is even somewhat respectable will boost his confidence. MKG seemed lost at times last season, and it was clear that his ineptitude on offense hampered his defense a little bit. Look for him to go from being a good perimeter defender to a great one.

 

Biggest Surprise: P.J. Hairston

He won’t be a star right away, but there is a role on this team that he can fill following the departure of Anthony Tolliver. Hairston is a fearless shooter, and so far in preseason and summer league, he has proven he can be a legitimate threat from the outside.

Hairston is not necessarily a chucker, but he could still use more discipline in shot selection. That much was evident in summer league when he was the main offensive option. On this roster, he will mostly be used in the early going as an outside shooting threat off the bench. With some early continued success, Hairston could force his way into some bigger minutes, and success on his part might even push the front office into dealing Gerald Henderson.

 

When The Dust Settles…

I’m predicting a 46-36 record for this team and the fifth seed in the conference. To me, this is tentative. I strongly believe if Hornet players mesh together that this team can surprise the NBA world and push its way higher up the standings, possibly as high as third.

Winning 46 games would be a franchise record, but this team should have bigger aspirations. It is time to make noise as one of the big up-and-comers in the Eastern Conference and get to at least the second round of the playoffs. They got their feet wet last season, and now it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them make a deeper run once they get to the postseason.

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Pacific preview: Kobe vs. the world

The Clippers or Warriors will win the division, but the Lakers’ leader won’t be happy about it.

      
 

 

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Northwest preview: Thunder still favorites

The Blazers are tough, but Kevin Durant’s injury won’t knock the Thunder off their perch.

      
 

 

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NBA Live 15: Release Date, Top Player Ratings, New Features, Preview and More

NBA Live fans, your wait is almost over. On Tuesday, Oct. 28, NBA Live 15 will be released for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and hopes are high that the game has taken huge strides from last year’s release.

If the pre-release flow of information is any indication, it looks as if EA Sports is confident about its upcoming product. There’s been a steady diet of information over the last two months to set the stage for Tuesday’s release.

Player ratings have received an especially glamorous presentation. The top five players at each position were revealed on Twitter, as were the top players at specific skill sets, such as ball-handling, dunking and three-point shooting.

This tweet points out the top five sixth men in the game.

Click here to see all of the player ratings.

With every new sports video game release comes the demand for fresh and improved features. Sometimes, simply optimizing or fixing existing favorites can be sufficient if the improvement is substantial enough. 

Because of NBA Live 14‘s imperfections, this year’s release has room to grow. It could potentially make a statement with its loyal fanbase as well as grab the attention of gamers who don’t currently play the game.

Here’s a brief description of the features, per EASports.com.

  • Enhanced Visuals - New Scanning, lighting and player-specific body types.
  • Improved Gameplay - Real-time physics in the paint, better flow of action in transition, 100 new animations, more responsive controls and improved artificial intelligence.
  • Interactive Tutorial - Cover athlete Damian Lillard guides you through the game’s controls.
  • Live Features - Live seasons allows gamers to re-create or repeat recent history in the NBA. Ultimate Team returns with an auction house, fantasy challenges and new legends.
  • Rising Stars - The single-player mode is a bit more beefed up this year with player types and Jordan Brand incorporation.
  • Daily Updates - NBA Live 15 boasts that it will feature daily updates powered by Synergy Sports’ advanced statistics.
  • Dynasty Mode - Old staple returns with improved schedule generation and trade logic.

 

Most Intriguing Features

Live Season

EA Sports seems to be shifting its focus to the strength of its servers.

Rightly so, as the game’s biggest competition comes from NBA 2K, and while that series has dominated the virtual hoops scene for over 10 years, the servers are routinely inconsistent. The NBA Live team is smart to try and accentuate its area of advantage.

Live Seasons is a great platform to prove how dependable the game is online.

Most every virtual basketball fan loves the real NBA. Thus, most Live fans will have seen LeBron James go for 30 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists on Tuesday night, and they would be intrigued by the challenge of duplicating this feat on the game shortly after.

Those are the experiences Live Seasons creates, as it did last year. This year’s version promises to bring even more challenges with pertinent detail. Rewind, Hot Spots and Big Moments challenges are all part of the feature. If this is executed correctly, it could continue to grow into the calling card for the series.

 

Daily Updates

Along the same lines of online functionality is the daily updates system. Synergy Sports is a firm that compiles and distributes data to real sports teams and media groups. EA Sports has partnered with the company to produce what it hopes will be the most accurate and up-to-date statistical data and video game translation of that information around.

As was told to me last year by producer Ryan Ferwerda when this feature was being initially launched for NBA Live 14, there are hopes that the concept evolves into a system that can even update the night’s action hours after the last game is completed.

It’s an exciting feature that could spawn things like routine, hairstyle, sneaker and accessory changes in the game as they appear in real life.

Without having played the game at any level during development, it’s impossible to say how much it has grown since last year. However, it seems apparent that the graphics have taken a leap forward, and that’s the first step.

We’ll all get a good look at the game on launch day, even if you haven’t decided to buy it yet. The free demo will be released on the same day the game is available in stores. 

Xbox One users who subscribe to EA Access will get a six-hour preview of the game beginning on Oct. 25. Let the season begin.

 

Follow Brian Mazique, aka FranchisePlay, the Sports Video Game Journalist.

Follow BMaziqueFPBR on Twitter 

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Milwaukee Bucks 2014-15 Season Preview: Roster Breakdown, Win-Loss Prediction

After putting together a franchise-worst record in 2013-14, it’s cliche to say that things can only get better for the Milwaukee Bucks when 2014-15 tips off.

But, despite the 15-67 record the team turned in a season ago, that’s exactly the mentality needed to turn things around. And with an abundance of young talent, it’s not unreasonable to think brighter days are right around the corner.

It didn’t take long for the direction of the franchise to drastically change after the nightmare season, either.

New ownership, new coaching and some new roster additions were all part of a flurry of offseason moves that gave the Bucks a new, exciting look.

And while this team’s true potential is several years off, 2014-15 is the beginning of what is hopefully a path back to success for Milwaukee.

What, then, is in store for fans in the immediate future?

 

Biggest Question Mark

By far the biggest question mark for the Bucks this season is Larry Sanders.

The big man had a tremendous 2012-13 season, averaging 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks en route to becoming one of the league’s most intimidating interior defenders.

However, 2013-14 was a major letdown.

Sanders appeared in just 23 games due to injuring his thumb in a night club incident and subsequently fracturing his orbital bone.

It was a disappointment, to say the least.

And while his absence did allow John Henson to emerge as a legitimate interior defender—he averaged 1.7 blocks—Sanders’ presence on a consistent basis would have given the Bucks a very good interior defense.

Instead, Henson was the team’s only real paint presence on both ends of the floor.

In order for the Bucks to move forward successfully, Sanders not only needs to prove he can remain healthy, but he needs to deal with his emotional outbursts and off-court issues. Truthfully, it’s those things preventing him from becoming one of the league’s premier big men.

If a younger, more understanding coach like Jason Kidd can get through to Sanders, perhaps he can turn things around in 2014-15 and return to being a dominant interior presence on defense.

 

Best Five

Last season, Larry Drew toyed with an astonishing 27 different starting lineup combinations.

And while it’s important to try different things when you’re dealing with a team full of raw, young talent, it’s also vital to establish some iota of consistency.

The roster hasn’t changed significantly, but the emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and drafting of Jabari Parker will certainly mean less minutes for other players.

Discussion of the Greek Freak manning the point-guard role are certainly intriguing, but him playing long-term minutes at the 1 probably isn’t going to happen on a consistent basis.

Ultimately, Milwaukee’s best lineup will look like the one below:

PG: Brandon Knight

SGO.J. Mayo

SF: Jabari Parker

PF: John Henson

C: Larry Sanders

That’s right, Antetokounmpo is best suited coming off the bench as the team’s sixth man.

Why?

At this point, the youngster is still incredibly raw on the offensive end and is too inconsistent to provide the team with a consistent scoring threat. Not to mention, the spark he can bring off the bench with his energy and passion will be beneficial to the second unit.

The five aforementioned players provide the team with a good balance of offense and defense.

You won’t find Knight and Mayo winning any Defensive Player of the Year awards, but both put forth the effort to defend and aren’t terrible.

And while Parker’s defensive struggles aren’t a secret, he can prevent himself from becoming a liability with a focus on team defense and rotating properly.

With Sanders and Henson starting, Milwaukee finds itself possessing one of the most intimidating shot-blocking duos in the NBA, and that alone can help alleviate some of the pressure on the team’s perimeter defense.

Offensively, Knight led the team in scoring a season ago, and Mayo has the capability of going off on any given night. 

Parker’s prowess for scoring was well documented during his lone season at Duke, and Henson has continued to develop his low-post game, increasing his scoring average to 11.1 points in 2013-14.

Sanders himself is raw but, with continued work, can become a serviceable option in the interior.

Overall, these are the most well-balanced five players the Bucks can put on the floor at the same time—at least for now.

 

A Youthful Appearance

According to RealGM.com, the Bucks have an average roster age of 24.4, making them the third-youngest team in the league.

Leading that youth movement are Parker and Antetokounmpo.

Both players bring vastly different skill sets to the table, yet they are equally exciting and should be productive for the franchise well into the future.

Parker’s readiness on the offensive end gives the Bucks a go-to scorer who is aggressive and who can usually get the shot that he wants.

Magic Giannison—that nickname will never get old, even if he doesn’t play point—is a versatile, athletic freak who has the potential to turn into a special, two-way player if and when he rounds out his offensive arsenal.

With those two names garnering the most attention, it’s easy to forget that Knight is just 22 years old himself and continues to develop at point guard.

Coming off his best season, he’ll have the opportunity to become more of a distributor now that the team has more offensive weapons. Whether he’ll recognize and embrace that opportunity is yet to be seen, but he can make just as big of an impact this season as he did last, just in a different way.

As a whole, this team is young and hungry. It might take some time, but if and when these guys reach their potential, the franchise will be in a good place.

 

Team Award Predictions

Most Valuable PlayerJabari Parker

Parker is a rookie and will certainly make his number of mistakes, but when the season comes to an end, the youngster is going to wind up being the team’s biggest asset. He’ll likely be given the green light on offense, and that alone should be enough to make his impact felt in a big way. But what he does this year will only be a glimpse of what he can do for the franchise from a long-term standpoint.

 

Defensive Player of the YearLarry Sanders

Sanders will certainly have his doubters in 2014-15 and rightfully so. But regardless of how poorly he sometimes manages it, there’s no questioning his passion for the game and desire to win. Everyone makes mistakes, and last season was one massive blunder. The chance to continue his downward spiral obviously exists, but it would be surprising for him not to have received a major wake-up call after last year.

 

Biggest Surprise of the YearO.J. Mayo

Writing Mayo off after arguably his worst season as a professional is the easy thing to do. However, from all indications, he has taken the criticisms in stride and is dedicated to improving. According to Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Mayo has shed 15 to 20 pounds during the offseason, and the veteran finished the preseason by averaging 16.7 points over the final four games.

 

Mr. ExcitementGiannis Antetokounmpo

With the scoring ability of Parker, the fancy passes from Kendall Marshall and shot-blocking ability of Sanders, the Bucks have a number of players who provide an ample amount of exciting plays. However, it’s Antetokounmpo who will once again wow fans on both ends of the floor. Whether it’s making a defensive play, sprinting back up the court and throwing down a dunk or going the length of the floor in two dribbles, he’ll be sure to please fans once again in 2014-15.

 

Final Predictions

When compared to the 15-67 record they posted a season ago, this year will be a major improvement for the Bucks when the curtain closes on 2014-15.

No, they won’t make the playoffs, but you had better believe this team will be competitive.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic both in similar—or even worse—situations than them, the Bucks will dig themselves out of the Eastern Conference cellar and will be looking at a 13th-place finish. 

If everything were to go really well, they might be able to move up a few spots, but that shouldn’t be expected.

In terms of number of games won, look for Milwaukee to be around 23 to 25 wins when it’s all said and done.

If assessing the team fairly and understanding that young players don’t become experienced overnight, those numbers are both fair and realistic.

But what the numbers in the win and loss columns say this year won’t speak to the direction the franchise is headed. It’s all about the eye test. If players continue to show signs of developing and guys like Sanders can get back on track, the future in Milwaukee isn’t as dim as it was prior to the offseason.

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Sacramento Kings 2014-15 Season Preview: Roster Breakdown, Win-Loss Prediction

The expectations for the Sacramento Kings have changed heading into this 2014-15 season. 

Last season—in his first year as owner and with a new general manager and head coach—Vivek Ranadive wasn‘t concerned with the team’s win-loss record. It was a good thing, as the Kings ended up finishing with a 28-54 record, identical to the previous season.

However, Ranadive‘s outlook has changed this season. The owner talked to reporters at media day and told them he expected an improvement in the team:

Last year, when the season started, I said it wasn’t going to be about wins and losses. When I came here and we bought the team, there was dysfunction in the locker room, there wasn’t mutual respect, the arena was literally falling apart, the roof was falling down.

So we brought in a new team, we restored stability, restored respect, we put in a strong culture. But this year, let’s be clear, it is about wins and losses.

While the owner declined to put a specific number or expectation on the table, he did add, “We have to do a lot better than we did last year.”

Making the sort of improvements the ownership expects will be a task in the difficult Western Conference. The Kings didn’t add any marquee players. They drafted Nik Stauskas and signed Ramon Sessions, Darren Collison, Ryan Hollins and Omri Casspi in free agency. 

The franchise’s biggest trump card is more familiarity with head coach Mike Malone in his second season with the team. Hopefully that, coupled with improvement from players already on the roster, will be enough to make serious headway.

However, there are still plenty of question marks. Starting with…

 

Biggest Question Mark: How Do They Replace Isaiah Thomas’ Offensive Production?

The Kings lost one of their key players when point guard Isaiah Thomas signed an offer sheet with the Phoenix Suns. As a restricted free agent, the Kings were able to execute a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, but the package the Kings received (a $7 million trade exception and the rights to Alex Oriakhi) doesn’t compare to the production they lost.

That means Sacramento will need to replace Thomas’ production through other means. 

Most notably, Collison and Sessions will be asked to fill those shoes. But despite Thomas’ 5’9″, 185-pound stature, they’re big shoes to fill.

The point guard averaged 20.3 points and 6.3 assists in 34.7 minutes of action. He also produced a team-high 6.4 offensive win shares.

Going off of what Collison and Sessions did last season, the duo combined for 23.7 points and 7.8 assists in 52.6 minutes. The two also produced 6.9 offensive win shares. 

It’ll require a similar effort—if not a better one, considering each will probably see a small reduction in playing time—to make up for what the Kings are missing. 

However, if the preseason is any indication, they should be up to the task. Their 25 combined points and 9.3 assists would do the trick. But there’s obviously a big difference between the preseason and the regular season. 

Yet if the Kings are to make the jump in the standings the front office expects, that production will need to hold up.

 

Best Five

Point guard: Darren Collison

Shooting guard: Nik Stauskas

Small forward: Rudy Gay

Power forward: Jason Thompson 

Center: DeMarcus Cousins

This is more of a projection of the best five players for the majority of the season. Although no starting lineup for the regular season has been announced, Ben McLemore will probably get the nod over Stauskas to start the year. He’s started five of the team’s six preseason games at 2-guard.

However, Stauskas‘ shooting ability, which we’ll get to momentarily, should be enough for him to supplant McLemore by the end of the season.

Point guard is also up in the air, with Collison or Sessions the two options to start. Collison gets the nod here for a couple reasons.

For one, he’s started four of the six preseason games, while Sessions has only started two. Collison is also primarily a point guard, whereas Sessions is capable of playing both backcourt spots (52 percent of his minutes came at the point and 48 percent at the 2 between his stops in Charlotte and Milwaukee last season). 

Power forward is the other spot that has a few options. Namely there’s Carl Landry, Reggie Evans and Thompson. Thompson started 61 games there last season, and he’s started five of six games this preseason. 

Not to mention Thompson, along with Evans, had a very strong training camp.

All of those factors give him the edge. 

Center and small forward really aren’t up for discussion. Cousins is the team’s best player, while Gay is unquestionably its second-best player. Both made Team USA for the FIBA Basketball World Cup and are the cornerstones of this franchise.

If the Kings are to do anything at all this season, it’ll be because of the production they get from Cousins and Gay.

 

Youth Movement

Stauskas was the Kings’ only draft pick this offseason.

The former Michigan Wolverine plays shooting guard and figures to have a prominent role with the Kings. He’s averaged 24.4 minutes during the preseason and has started one of the five games he’s appeared in. 

The player who’s started the other games at 2-guard is also a youngster—Ben McLemore. The 21-year-old is entering his second season in the NBA. After a lackluster rookie season, the Kings are hoping to see improvement from McLemore in 2014-15. 

How the two of them play will be a big determining factor in whether the team can live up to those lofty expectations. McLemore will need to find more consistency to his shot—he only made 37.6 percent of his field goals and 32 percent of his three-pointers as a rookie.

Stauskas, on the other hand, has a great shot. He’s made 36.8 percent of his three-pointers during the preseason and knocked down 44.1 percent of them in his two years at Michigan. His major adjustment will be to the increased speed and physicality of the NBA game.

Adding an additional layer to the equation is the long-term outlook of whether the two of them can develop next to one another. With both playing the same position and being incapable of switching to the 1 or 3 for extended periods of time, they’ll need to progress without huge playing time. It’ll also be interesting to see if the presence of Stauskas has any effect on McLemore‘s psyche.

Those were some concerns listed by NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper when the Kings drafted Stauskas.

There’s also the possibility power forward Eric Moreland plays with the Kings. The rookie is intriguing because of his ability to block shots and rebound—two blocks and five rebounds in 20 preseason minutes—but he’s likely to spend most of the year in the D-League.

 

Team Award Predictions

 

Best Offensive Player: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins’ was the team’s highest scorer last season (22.7 points), and it figures to be much of the same this time around. 

Without Isaiah Thomas on the team, who was one of three Kings players to average more than 20 points, the ball will go to Cousins with even more regularity. That’s saying something considering the center was third in the league in usage percentage, trailing only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

But with Cousins, it’s not a case of only volume. He gets his points in an efficient manner. In fact, he was fifth in player efficiency rating, with only Durant, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Anthony Davis ahead of him.

Between his ability to get to the charity stripe (9.3 attempts per 36 minutes), his efficiency and his touches, Cousins will be Sacramento’s best offensive player. While it’ll require improvement from all over the roster to meet expectations, the Kings will go as Cousins goes. 

 

Best Defensive Player: Omri Casspi

There were a few directions to go for the team’s best defensive player. Truth be told, Cousins could also win this one as well. However, for the sake of change, let’s look at a different player in Casspi.

Casspi deserves recognition because of his ability as a wing player. According to 82games.com, he held opposing small forwards to a PER of 6.9 last season. With 15.0 being league average, Casspi did a solid job shutting down the opposition. 

His previous team, the Houston Rockets, were also a stronger defensive team when he was on the floor. They posted a 103.9 defensive rating with Casspi in the game, opposed to a 107.2 defensive rating when he was on the bench. 

Considering Gay is the unquestioned starter at small forward, Casspi can fill a similar role in Sacramento. Meaning he can be a defensive sub who comes in to help slow down opposing teams. That’s an important option to have as he can not only help on defense, but he can do so while giving Gay a rest.

 

Most Improved Player: Carl Landry

Based on last year’s production, nobody is likely to improve as much as Landry. That’s mainly because he was so poor last year, rather than him making a dramatic improvement over his previous production.

Last season was Landry’s first back in Sacramento, after he played for the Kings during a previous stint a few years ago. Unfortunately he was hurt for most of the campaign, only appearing in 18 games throughout the season.

However, his scoring (4.2 points), rebounding (3.2) and win shares per 48 minutes were the worst of his career. Of course, Landry also played fewer minutes, both per game and overall, than he had during any other season. That could partially explain the decrease in scoring and rebounding.

Yet his per-minute production was also the worst of his career. His points (11.7) and assists (0.8) per 36 minutes, player efficiency rating (11.2) and free-throw rate (2.6 attempts per 36 minutes) were all career worsts.

At just 31 years old, it’s unlikely Landry’s athleticism suddenly fell off a cliff. Simply by returning to previous production, he’ll be the team’s most improved player.

 

Team MVP: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins is clearly the Kings’ most valuable player. Without him, the team would be lost, which is saying something considering it hasn’t been too productive to begin with. 

For evidence, look no further than what happens when Cousins misses games. Last season the center missed 11 games. The Kings’ record in those 11 games he missed—0-11.

He also led the team in scoring, rebounding, steals and blocks per game. Not to mention he had the most total win shares, defensive win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, the highest PER and the lowest defensive ranking.

At only 24 years old and coming off an offseason working with Team USA at the FIBA Basketball World Cup, Cousins won’t see that production decrease. If anything it’ll increase. That means last year’s team MVP will also be this year’s team MVP.

 

When the Dust Settles… 

Ranadive and the front office may be expecting dramatic improvement in the team’s win-loss record, but it likely isn’t in the cards. 

It’s just too tough to compete in the difficult Western Conference. Not to mention the Kings haven’t added enough quality players to expect a dramatic improvement in their on-court talent. That means what’ll it’ll really come down to is how they adjust to a second year in Malone’s system.

More familiarity with the coach and his expectations will definitely help. But at 28-54 last season, there’s just too much ground to make up to even qualify for the playoffs. So even if the Kings improve, it may not be enough to satisfy those expectations. 

At this point, a better question isn’t whether the Kings make the playoffs—it’s whether they can do enough to earn Malone and general manager Pete D’Alessandro another year at the helm. 

Final Prediction: 31-51

 

Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

How do you think the Kings will do? Let me know on Twitter @SimRisso.

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Denver Nuggets 2014-15 Season Preview: Roster Breakdown, Win-Loss Prediction

After ending the 2012-13 NBA season third in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets could not escape the injury bug last year and fell into the lottery for the first time since 2003.

The Nuggets bring back the majority of their core heading into this season and are hoping a healthy season from their starters will help land them a playoff spot in a loaded Western Conference.

Denver is an interesting team, as it is one of the deepest teams in the league. But its lack of a dominant offensive player may preclude it from competing with some of the star-loaded teams in the West.

It’s clear that the Nuggets’ success predominately rides on their ability to stay healthy, as Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson and JaVale McGee all went down with significant injuries at some point last season. 

This is a young, talented team with a lot of potential that could turn into a legitimate threat in the Western Conference if it can develop chemistry and significantly cut back on the number of injuries in 2014-15. 

 

Biggest Question Mark

After missing the entire 2013-14 season after undergoing knee surgery, there is no question that Danilo Gallinari should be considered the biggest question mark for the Denver Nuggets heading into this year. Once considered the prize of the Carmelo Anthony trade, Gallinari has failed to live up to the hype due to a string of injuries over the past few seasons.

Gallinari’s main strength is his ability to score in a variety of ways. After starting his career as mainly a three-point shooter, Gallinari has since expanded his offensive game to the point that he is an efficient scorer who can draw fouls and knock down free throws.

In 2012-13, his last healthy season, Gallinari shot 37.3 percent from beyond the arc and knocked down 82.2 percent of his free throws. Assuming he has fully recovered from his knee injury, Gallinari should have another strong scoring performance.

In addition to a strong offensive game, Gallinari is also a sound defender as well. In 2012-13 he had a defense-per-100 rating of 1.2. To put that into perspective, renowned defender Patrick Beverley had a rating of minus-0.5 that same year.

Clearly, the tools are there for Gallinari, but as always, he will need to stay healthy to contribute to the Nuggets this season.

 

Best Five 

Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Timofey Mozgov

Despite not having an All-Star in their starting lineup, the Nuggets will still throw out a solid group that doesn’t appear to have any holes.  

The lineup is very young with no player over 29 and loaded with potential. In addition, every player in the lineup except for Arron Afflalo has yet to reach his peak as a basketball player.

The least accomplished player in the starting unit is Timofey Mozgov, but he still averaged 10.8 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game as a starter last season. Mozgov has looked great so far in the preseason for the Nuggets and should see his game elevate this season.

However, for the Nuggets to compete, one or two players from this group must develop into a star player. Lawson, Afflalo, Gallinari and Faried have all look like very good players at times in their careers, but they’ll need to become more consistent for the Nuggets to have a chance this year.

 

Youth Movement

After pulling off multiple trades on draft night, general manager Tim Connelly acquired two first-round draft choices in Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris.

Nurkic is a 6’11, 280-pound raw center from Bosnia and Herzegovina who could eventually turn into the Nuggets’ big man of the future. With a massive body that he uses to post up and grab rebounds, Nurkic has the ability to become a very good offensive player.

He will take time to develop, but a few years down the road Nurkic could end up being one of the hardest big men to cover on the block. Some experts, via NBADraft.net, compare Nurkic to Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who has quickly developed into one of the best offensive centers in the league.

The other first-round pick rights they acquired were for Gary Harris, a 6’4” shooting guard out of Michigan State. Although a good shooter and scorer in college, Harris may struggle to adjust to the pros because of his size.

He is stuck in a tough position, as he has the game of a shooting guard but body of a point guard. However, if he can get past that he could end up becoming a very good offensive threat for the Nuggets for years to come.

 

Team Award Predictions

Breakout Player: Ty Lawson

In a point guard-driven league, the jury is still out on whether Ty Lawson is just an average starter or capable of being a top-10 player at his position. After missing 20 games in 2013-14, a full 82-game season will give Lawson a stronger case for the latter.

He still had a strong season statistically last year with 17.6 PPG and 8.8 RPG. Although critics may state that Lawson has become a less efficient player with the increased workload—his turnovers have increased, and field-goal percentage has decreased over the last few years—he was still second in PER with the Nuggets last season.

With the addition of Arron Afflalo and Danilo Gallinari coming back from a season-long injury, Lawson will not be asked to take as many tough shots on offense and should become even more efficient this season.

Without a true star on the roster, the opportunity is there for Lawson to make the Nuggets his team. 2014-15 will be the year Lawson develops into a premier player in the Western Conference. 

 

Best Addition: Arron Afflalo

After one of the biggest offseasons in recent memory, with LeBron James and Kevin Love changing teams, GM Tim Connelly quietly pulled off one of the best trades of the summer by acquiring Arron Afflalo from the Orlando Magic for Evan Fournier and a second-round pick. Afflalo brings scoring, defense and experience to the shooting guard position, three things the Nuggets lacked at the 2 last season.

If Afflalo can average between 18-20 PPG, play quality defense and limit the number of mistakes the Nuggets make, Denver will have a strong chance of reaching the postseason in 2014-15.  

 

Least Valuable Player: JaVale McGee

The second-highest paid player on the Denver Nuggets is center JaVale McGee, a player who has lost his starting job after injuries plagued him for all but five games in 2013-14.

The problem with McGee was that he was not particularly good when he was healthy. The 7-footer averaged just 3.4 RPG and shot .447, an abysmal mark for a player his size. One could argue that this is a small sample size, but McGee’s low basketball IQ has always made him a frustrating player no matter what team he’s played for.

With two years and 23.25 million left on his contract and Mozgov taking over the starting duties at center, McGee is clearly the least valuable player on this young, talented roster.

 

When Dust Settles…

In the Northwest Division, the Denver Nuggets are stuck between two teams with title aspirations and two other teams who are more focused on who they are going to draft come June.

Even with Kevin Durant out for the beginning of the season with a foot injury, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still one of the best teams in the NBA. Right behind them are the Portland Trail Blazers led by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Trail Blazers are young and talented, and they figure to be even more dangerous this season.

On the other side are the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. The Timberwolves showed everyone in the league they’re looking to rebuild after trading perennial All-Star Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer. The Jazz are still a few years away from contending for the postseason, with no player in their starting lineup over the age of 24.

That puts the Denver Nuggets right in the middle of the division. With a starting lineup that has few holes but no star player, the Nuggets are an average team in the Western Conference. If they can stay healthy, they could squeeze into the No. 8 spot in the West, but you should expect a very early exit if they do reach the postseason.

Assuming health isn’t a concern like it was last year, the Nuggets will finish the 2014-15 season with a record of 44-38.

 

Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, HoopsHype.com and ESPN.com

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Atlantic preview: Raptors’ to lose

The Nets and Knicks are remade while the Celtics and 76ers rebuild. But Toronto is steady.

      
 

 

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Portland Trail Blazers season preview: Player projections

This is the third and final installment of our Portland Trail Blazers season preview. In the first two articles we took a look at the Blazers’ general roster and their potential standing in the Western Conference. Now I will give an overview of each player that will potentially be in the starting five and some key reserve players that will have a big affect off the bench.
The potential starters
Damian Lillard: While many players struggle during their second season, Lillard found a way to thrive. He averaged 20. 7 points and 5.6 assists per game last season. He hit the game winning shot to put the Blazers past the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs last year. Even if  Lillard’s numbers stayed the same this year, he would still be looking at having another great season. However I do expect Lillard’s 2.4 turnovers per game to decrease to 1-1.5 turnovers per game. If he is maintaining more procession and getting the ball to teammates more often, then scorers like LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews

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