November 20, 2013

ZAKOUR | NBA: What Have We Learned

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By JOHN ZAKOUR

About one eighth of an NBA season is in the books.

So, what have we learned?

Is the East too bad to tank in? The 76ers and Magic were supposed to be tanking — especially the Sixers. Preseason predictions that foretold the Sixers losing 70 games were not uncommon. Now they’re leading their division, and Michael Carter-Williams already looks like the real deal. But, they’re only 5-7. A losing record is leading a division in the East. The East, outside of Indiana and Miami, might be very bad — too bad to tank in. There are simply too many mediocre teams.

It’s hard to tank in the NBA — and strange. But the best way to get better is to be bad enough to get a top draft pick. And with this year’s star-studded draft class, everyone wants a top-three pick. A top-three pick means a teams gets one of the possible future stars Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Julius Randle. Even with the uncertainty of a lottery, the same lottery that does not guarantee a top-three pick for even the worst team in the league, this class is just too talent-loaded. Teams are willing to take the risk it and get a guy that will jump-start their franchise.

The thing about tanking is that it’s an art, not a science. If you’re a GM, you can’t just sign five guys off the street. You need basketball players that want to develop and get better in the future, but are bad enough to lose a lot. You want ultra-competitive athletes to lose, but not throw games. And then one year you want to throw the switch and say, “Okay, it’s time to win now!” It’s a strange dichotomy. And it may not even work. Indiana was able to build a contender without being worse than ninth in the East since ’06. Tanking only gets you so far.

Which teams most need a top-three pick this draft?

Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Utah are probably in most need of a superstar. Especially Charlotte (poor MJ). There are plenty of bad teams in the NBA, but those teams at least have some young talent. The Sixers, Magic, Suns and Pelicans are all bad. But at least they have hope. The same can’t be said of the Bucks, Bobcats or Jazz. The Jazz are an abysmal 1-11 and getting run over in the Western Conference, while Charlotte deserves some excitement after missing out on Anthony Davis. I’ll be rooting for the ping pong ball balls to bounce their way.

How disappointing are the New York teams?

If the playoffs were to start today (could you imagine? I mean this is a phrase thrown around, but still) both the Nets and the Knicks would be left out. Both have been horrendous and feature identical 3-7 records as of writing, yet both were top-four seeds last season. And both added high-priced, older talent. It’s still hard for me to imagine either team missing out on the playoffs, but this is hardly encouraging. Older teams shouldn’t need to fight to make the playoffs, which the Nets and Knicks will have to do. Both teams will be hurt by scratching and clawing their way in, as well as lack of rest for their veterans. The same can’t be said for the Heat or Pacers.

Why am I disappointed by the Cavaliers?

Yes, I’m disappointed by a Cleveland team. I should know better. But the early returns on the Cavaliers have been underwhelming. Kyrie Irving has been healthy so far (knock on wood), but the Cavs still are still just 4-7. Despite a lot of young talent, including fellow number-one pick Anthony Bennet (who is struggling mightily), Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller and some veteran players like Andrew Bynum and Jarrett Jack, the Cavaliers are still mediocre.

We should give the Cavaliers some time to develop, as they are a very young team. But their ceiling will depend on how these players develop. This is a big season in Cleveland, as LeBron and Kevin Love could both be free agents, and both could be fits with the Cavs. But if Cleveland hopes to coax some elite free agents, they’re going to need to compete better this year. If worse comes to worst, and the Cavs can’t even squeak out a playoff berth, they can forgot about LeBron.

Is Anthony Davis is already a star?

It’s time we stop referring to Anthony Davis as a good young player and just as an all-star caliber player. He’s already broken out — and broken out for good. After a relatively tame rookie year, Davis is averaging a double-double this season. Davis is averaging 21, 11 and 3.6 game and looking every bit like the star the scouts envisioned he would be in college.

How tough is the West?

The West is pretty tough. Seven wins in the East gets you a top-three seed. Seven wins in the West is the bare minimum for a playoff berth at the moment. San Antonio, OK City, Golden State and the Clippers all look like serious threats to win the west. Even though the Heat are still the title favorites, I could see any of these four teams knocking off Miami in a seven-game series — and Houston isn’t too far off, not to mention Kevin Love is paying like an MVP in Minnesota. We’ll see.

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