2014-15 NBA: How It Will Play Out

It has been quite the NBA off-season.

From LeBron “coming home”, to Carmelo staying home.

From racially charged insensitivity from Donald Sterling and Danny Ferry, to a gross price tag for the Clippers by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

From the Kevin Durant injury to the apparent return of Derrick Rose to full health.

All of the excitement, the hoopla, the moving puzzle pieces, it all adds up to create a puzzle that might just be unsolvable.  This season is highly difficult to project, which essentially ensures that it will be one of the most exciting NBA seasons in the past few decades.  TheAirUpHere is up to the challenge, enjoy our preview of the 2014-15 NBA season.

 1.  Cleveland Cavaliers

The return of LeBron James to Cleveland is the headliner to this NBA season.  James’ departure from Cleveland to “take his talents to South Beach” shook up the NBA landscape four years ago, but now his homecoming gives the city a chance to finally earn a title. In his previous stint with the Cavs, he was unable to lure big name free agents to join him, but now that he’s a proven champion, he hit no roadblocks in recruiting Kevin Love to join him and fellow All-Star Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Few can argue that on paper, the new “Big 3” are a more natural fit than the previous trio, but how quickly will the chemistry mesh and can this team make up for glaring defensive deficiencies?  Additionally, this team’s key pieces have a reputation for injury concerns, so there has to be focus on keeping minutes down early in the regular season.

2.  Chicago Bulls

It confuses me that more people aren’t talking more about Pau Gasol.  He’s a tremendous player who provides an offensively-challenged Bulls team with the perfect remedy.  Obviously, the return of Derrick Rose and his ability to remain healthy will weigh heavily on the success of this ball club, but there’s little doubt that this team has the pieces to make a championship push.  Look no further than here for the NBA’s premier defensive team, and that will always give you a chance.

3.  Washington Wizards

The Wizards are the hot name among media experts to challenge the Bulls and Cavs in the Eastern conference, and the hype is warranted.  Washington boasts one of the league’s premier guard combinations in John Wall and Bradley Beal, and the pair will only get better with experience.  Marcin Gortat and Nene form a balanced and potent duo that is widely undervalued throughout the league. The loss of Trevor Ariza looms large, however, and despite Paul Pierce stepping in to replace him, it is likely he will need to be on a strict minutes restriction to make it through the season with all of the pounding he’s taken throughout his career.

4.  Toronto Raptors

Simply put, the Raptors play in the most abysmal division in the NBA, which will undoubtedly push their win total up a bit.  They are the lone team in their division with enough talent to make a legitimate push to the Eastern Conference finals, but they don’t have a true superstar and will have to stay healthy throughout.  Kyle Lowry just might be the NBA’s most unheralded player, and Demar DeRozan has really elevated his game as well.  If Jonas Valunciunas can become more consistently reliable offensively and work harder on the defensive side of the court, the Raptors can make some noise in the playoffs.

5.  Miami Heat

The Heat are actually the more dangerous team than the Wizards, but they’ve never focused on the regular season and they will strategically keep Wade out of the line-up throughout the season to try and save his knees for crunch time.  That will likely push them behind Washington in the standings.  Luol Deng is another quality signing that will keep the Heat relevant, but do not pretend Deng will replace what LeBron brought to South Beach. Expect Chris Bosh to be the leading scorer this season, he’s extremely talented, and he’s on a mission to remind his detractors.

6.  Charlotte Hornets

The good news? The Hornets are back, and their logo is fantastic.  The bad news?  There’s a significant talent gap between them and the teams listed above.  Lance Stephenson is capable of putting up tremendous numbers, but he’s also capable of being a locker room cancer and he hasn’t had to be the lead dog before, how will he handle the change?  I love Noah Vonleh and PJ Hairston as prospects, but they both project to take awhile to round into form.  Al Jefferson needs to ensure that he receives heavy doses of paint touches from shoot-first Kemba Walker and his aforementioned shoot-first back court sidekick.

7.  Detroit Pistons

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the X-factor for this franchise, as they don’t have much depth on the wings.  If he can improve and become a reliable weapon, Detroit has a chance to do some things this season.  They’re front-court just oozes potential with Josh Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond.  Brandon Jennings really fits well there, and they’ve sprinkled in some veteran presence and toughness with Caron Butler, Jodie Meeks, and DJ Augustin. Surprisingly, Spencer Dinwiddie has been cleared to play after last season’s ACL tear and looked effective in his preseason debut, and many NBA scouts and executives believe he was of the most underrated players in last year’s draft.

8.  Atlanta Hawks

Al Horford’s return has Atlanta talking playoffs again. Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap are plus starters in the Eastern Conference, and Kyle Korver is the league’s most lethal three point shooter, but the rest of the roster is riddled with young and unproven talent.  Adreian Payne fell into a perfect system where he can learn under Elton Brand and Millsap.

9.  Brooklyn Nets

10.  Indiana Pacers

11.  New York Knicks

12.  Boston Celtics

13.  Orlando Magic

14.  Milwaukee Bucks

15.  Philadelphia 76ers

 1.  San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs were historically dominant last season, and nothing has changed heading into 2015.  Tim Duncan is the best power forward to ever play the game, and his game is timeless.  He will be effective until he decides he doesn’t want to be on the court anymore, it is as simple as that.  Manu Ginobili’s resurgence throughout the Finals last season was obviously a huge boost for the team, and Tony Parker still remains one of the league’s best point guards.  This bus, though, is now Kawhi Leonard’s to drive.  The Finals’ MVP has quickly become one of the best all-around players in the league, and their bid for a repeat title will rest squarely on his shoulders.

2.  Los Angeles Clippers

Their roster is arguably the most talented out West, but despite Chris Paul’s accolades, he’s failed miserably to find success in the playoffs.  Until he gets over that hump, it is hard to find an argument worth bringing to the table that they can unseat the Spurs this season.  Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan continue to get better, and the addition of Spencer Hawes gives them a new look on the inside and an additional weapon from distance.  Doc Rivers has the experience to put these pieces in the right places and bring a championship back to LA, but there are too many questions as of right now.

3.  Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder would be right there with the Spurs if it weren’t for Kevin Durant’s absence.  Unlike the Spurs, they play for playoffs home court advantage in the regular season, but with Durant out extensive time, they will likely be too far behind to make a run for the conference title.  Come playoff time, though, this team will be ready to go.  Russell Westbrook, while boisterous and a lightning rod for criticism, is one of the most talented players in the league.  They will be extremely young on their bench, which has to be a concern for crucial situations, especially early in the season.

4.  Golden State Warriors

The Splash Brothers remain among the most difficult guard combinations in the NBA, and likely none give opposing coaches more headaches.  They can create from anywhere on the court, in any situation, and they are open no matter who is guarding them.  The key for the Warriors, as always, will be in the hands of their front-court, where David Lee and Andrew Bogut have vast talent, and even vaster injury concerns.  Andre Iguodala is a perfect complement to their roster and stays under the radar besides being an Olympic staple.  Draymond Green is a premier bench luxury, and the signing of Shaun Livingston projects to have a quality impact on their success.

5.  Portland Trailblazers

If there was a team to pick as a sleeper out West, this has to be the choice.  Damian Lillard is already an elite PG in just his 3rd NBA season, and he’s already developed a reputation for being clutch down the stretch.  LaMarcus Aldridge is the best PF in the NBA, not Kevin Love, not Blake Griffin. Nic Batum and Wes Matthews are both criminally underrated, and they have added quality bench pieces in Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, and Chris Kaman.

6.  Houston Rockets

The loss of Chandler Parsons is significant, there’s no two ways about it.  Trevor Ariza is an underrated veteran, but he isn’t Parsons.  Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas combine for an intriguing PF pair, but beyond James Harden their guard play is suspect at best.  Dwight Howard will continue to be a physical beast on the glass and on the defensive end, but he’s a huge liability in late game situations.  That fact can’t be ignored when projecting how far this team can advance in the playoffs.

7.  Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks have been another hot name to contend in the Western Conference but we aren’t sold yet.  Their top four has immense talent, but who among the rest can you rely upon every single night?  There appears to be a lot of players past their prime on the roster, and in the tough Western Conference, will that be enough to contend?  Chandler Parsons was a phenomenal player as a third wheel, but is he ready to be a go-to performer?

8.  Memphis Grizzlies

Toughness prevails.  There isn’t a more physical group in the league from top to bottom, and Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol bring it every single night.  The rest of the group leaves a lot to be desired, but the Grizzlies seem to find themselves in the thick of the playoff picture year in and year out.

9.  New Orleans Pelicans

10.  Phoenix Suns

11.  Denver Nuggets

12.  Utah Jazz

13.  Sacramento Kings

14.  Minnesota Timberwolves

15.  Los Angeles Lakers

 

Pre-Season Predictions and Awards:

  • Western Conference Finals:  Spurs over Thunder
  • Eastern Conference Finals:  Cavs over Bulls
  • NBA Finals:  Spurs over Cavs
  • Most Valuable Player:  LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Most Improved Player:  Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
  • Rookie of the Year:  Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks
  • Defensive Player of the Year:  Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
  • Sixth Man of the Year:  Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
    • Note:  I would have had Reggie Jackson if it weren’t for the Durant injury, forcing him to start a good portion of the year)

Prop, Lock, and Drop it… Into Your Wallet

Toronto Raptors: O48.5 Regular Season Wins   -115

Last year’s Raptors won 48 games, they return all of their key pieces, and the division appears to be even less talented than last year, if you can believe it.  Take the over.

Indiana Pacers:  O33.5 Regular Season Wins   -105

Look at last year’s Bulls without Derrick Rose, everyone left them for dead and they hustled and played tenacious defense and kept themselves relevant.  Obviously that team is more talented than this year’s Pacers squad, but I just don’t see Frank Vogel letting these guys quit unless they choose to tank and try and land a premier draft pick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colorado Basketball: The Schedule

The answer to the hashtag Colorado hoops fanatics have made famous still remains the same.  No, it isn’t November quite yet, but we’re definitely knocking down the door.  Less than one month from now, Drexel will be in town to open up the college basketball season at Coors Event Center.

The expectations remain high for Colorado hoops despite the departure of Spencer Dinwiddie to the NBA.  The Buffs return every other key member of last year’s NCAA Tournament team, and for the first time since the 2012 tourney run led by seniors Nate Tomlinson, Austin Dufault, and Carlon Brown, this year’s group boasts a touch of veteran leadership.  Askia Booker, the team’s lone senior, is complemented by a trio of experienced juniors in Josh Scott, Xavier Johnson, and Xavier Talton.  Add redshirt sophomore Wesley Gordon to the equation and the entire starting five is now entering at least their third full year in the program.

As we approach the start of this year’s campaign, TheAirUpHere will be releasing a five part series previewing this year’s Colorado Buffaloes basketball season.  This piece focuses on the schedule, breaking it down into key fragments for you to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

  • Colorado Basketball:  The Schedule
  • Colorado Basketball:  The Roster
  • Colorado Basketball:  The Numbers
  • Colorado Basketball:  The Pac-12 Breakdown
  • Colorado Basketball:  The Predictions

Grouping One: “The Wake-Up Call”

  • Nov 14:  Drexel
  • Nov 17:  Auburn
  • Nov 22:  @ Wyoming

The Buffs will need to be ready for this season with this opening schedule.  Drexel is a quality opponent who gave Pac-12 opponents UCLA and Arizona legitimate scares early last season, and Damion Lee will be back from injury.

Auburn is led by one of college basketball’s best minds, Bruce Pearl, so we can expect vast, rapid improvement from the Tigers when they come to town as a part of the ESPN Tip-Off Classic.

The Buffs are just 11-26 vs. Wyoming all-time when the game is in Laramie, and last year’s close win marked the Buffs’ first win vs. Wyoming in any location since 1996. Bottom line, we struggle with Wyoming, and this will be one of the biggest games of the season.  They were closing in on an NCAA Tournament berth before leader Larry Nance, Jr. went out with an ACL tear late last season, but he’s expected back for the season and Wyoming will once again be very tough.

Grouping Two:  “Getting on Track”

  • Nov 25:  Air Force
  • Nov 30:  Lipscomb
  • Dec 3:  San Francisco

This stretch should provide Colorado with an opportunity to work on rotations, acclimate to the grind of the regular season, and boost the team’s confidence. Air Force and San Francisco lost vital pieces to transfer this off-season, and Lipscomb won’t cause any concern for a Buffs team that is lethal inside the Coors Event Center.

Grouping Three:  “The Preparation”

  • Dec 7:  @ Georgia
  • Dec 10:  Colorado State
  • Dec 13:  Northern Colorado
  • Dec 22:  Diamond Head Classic Round 1:  DePaul
  • Dec 23:  Diamond Head Classic Round 2:  George Washington OR Ohio
  • Dec 25:  Diamond Head Classic Round 3:  TBD

This group will go a long ways to prepping the Buffs for conference play, as they will play 4 of the 6 games away from home.  Additionally, Georgia should provide a quality road test as they return a majority of their talent from a team who went 12-6 in the SEC last season and advanced to the 2nd round of the NIT.  Chemistry will be key for Colorado State this season, who has enough talent to make a serious NCAA Tournament run, but with so many new pieces, it’s a bit up in the air as to how they will fit together.  Potentially, that match-up could represent Colorado’s best shot for a resume boosting win in the non-conference portion of the schedule.

The Diamond Head Classic could also provide the Buffs with an opportunity to make a name for themselves on a national level.  Their opening round game vs. DePaul is a must-win vs. an inferior opponent, as they were one of the worst high major programs in the country last season. A match-up with either George Washington or Ohio awaits in the following round, with GW representing the opportunity for the more impressive victory as they are coming off an NCAA Tournament berth and return 4 of their top 6 players.  Ideally, Tad Boyle and Co. would find themselves battling either Wichita St. or Nebraska in the Championship or 3rd place games which would provide an additional opportunity for an attention-grabbing OOC victory.

Grouping Four:  “The Test”

  • Jan 2:  UCLA
  • Jan 4:  USC
  • Jan 7:  @ Utah
  • Jan 15:  @ Arizona
  • Jan 17:  @ Arizona State

The opening weeks of the Pac-12 schedule provide no favors for the Buffaloes. It is not outside the realm of possibility that Colorado could leave this 5 game stretch at 1-4 in league play. To avoid that, the Buffs must find a way to beat UCLA, a feat they haven’t accomplished since joining the Pac-12. UCLA, while still talented, should be more vulnerable than in years past, and Colorado must find a way to take advantage of home court.  USC is without a doubt a must-win game in a stretch of difficult tests.

The good news in road-tripping to Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State is the timing.  They’ll get by far their toughest road trip of the year out of the way, and it will likely toughen the Buffs up for the road grinds thereafter. Additionally, they will get a full week to prepare for Arizona, a necessary luxury as the Buffs will be prepping for their toughest game of the entire year. Utah is expected to be vastly improved, with nearly all of their producers returning, most notably Delon Wright, who is probably the front-runner for Preseason Pac-12 Player of the Year.  Arizona State actually provides an opportunity to sneak out a victory away from home, as they lose a majority of their high-end talent from last season and aren’t expected to pose the same threat they did last season.

Grouping Five:  “The Must Haves”

  • Jan 22:  Washington
  • Jan 24:  Washington State
  • Jan 29:  @ USC

Colorado will have to take advantage of favorable match-ups in the next three games after going through their brutal opening stretch. Washington returns likely 1st Team All Pac-12 performer Nigel Williams-Goss, along with several other key pieces that will make them tougher than many have given them credit for thus far.  That said, at home, Colorado needs to win these type of games if they want to take it to the next level.  Washington St will again be on the bottom of the conference despite returning some definite talent including another likely 1st Team All Pac-12 performer in DaVonte Lacy.  USC, improving in their own right and enjoying the presence of transfer Katin Reinhardt and an impressive freshman class, will still find themselves a few steps below a majority of the conference and the Buffs will again enjoy a home-like atmosphere inside the Galen Center, which has become Coors Event Center West in recent years.

Grouping Six:  “The Measuring Stick”

  • Jan 31:  @ UCLA
  • Feb 7:  Utah
  • Feb 12:  California
  • Feb 15:  Stanford

This grouping of games might be the true determining factor about where this team is headed this season. All four games match up the Buffs vs. opponents likely to finish among the top six in the conference, but three of the four also tip-off within the friendly confines of the Coors Event Center.  This theoretically would give the Buffs an advantage as they try to separate from the other contenders in the league.  A road victory in Pauley Pavilion is probably unrealistic, but a win and Colorado suddenly finds themselves in very good position moving forward.

The three-game stretch vs. Utah, Cal, and Stanford is crucial for Pac-12 tournament seeding implications.  The Buffs are fortunate enough to face Cal and Stanford just once each this season, and with those match-ups coming at home it is imperative that they find a way to come out on top.  Stanford loses NBA talents in Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis, but also return Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Chasson Randle, the league’s reigning Most Improved Player in Anthony Brown, rapidly improving big man Stefan Nastic, and boast a quality freshman class led by Reid Travis. Cal enters the season minus Richard Solomon and Justin Cobbs, two crucial pieces for them last season.  But, returning sophomores Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews are expected to take huge leaps forward this season to pair with established combo guard Tyrone Wallace and one of the league’s better big men in David Kravish.  Last season, Utah struggled mightily on the road, but this year the expectations are much higher and they won’t a pushover in Coors Event Center.  This home match-up may be the single-most pivotal of the entire conference slate.

Grouping Seven:  “Proving Grounds”

  • Feb 18:  @ Oregon
  • Feb 21:  @ Oregon State
  • Feb 26:  Arizona
  • Mar 1:  Arizona State
  • Mar 5:  @ Washington
  • Mar 7:  @ Washington State

The closing stretch of the Pac-12 conference schedule presents quite the conundrum.  On the one hand, just one of the six opponents are likely to find themselves among the top half of the league (Arizona).  On the other, four of the games are away from home, and one of the two remaining home games comes against Arizona, hardly a guaranteed victory, and in fact, the Buffs are likely to be an underdog.  In order to find themselves enjoying a first round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, Colorado must prove they can consistently win on the road, and this stretch provides plenty of reasonable opportunities.  Oregon has had one of the most brutal off-seasons I’ve ever seen, losing essentially everyone outside of stud Joseph Young due to graduation, academics, and a sexual assault scandal.  Oregon State is likely to be the worst team in the conference, so there is absolutely no excuse to come back from that road trip empty handed.

As mentioned above, holding your breath for a victory over the league’s clear favorite is probably not wise, there are just too many weapons on Arizona’s roster to legitimately expect victory. Is it impossible?  Definitely not, but that doesn’t make it probable. Arizona State at home is another must-win game against an over-matched opponent at home.  It would be disastrous to go 0-2 on any home stand, let alone one sandwiched by four road games to close the season.

The Buffs will close the Pac-12 campaign on the road versus Washington and Washington St, another pair of winnable away games.  Washington will undoubtedly be the tougher of the two, and a loss would not be devastating, but it would mandate a victory in Pullman. I would think that, at minimum, the Buffs need to navigate this stretch at 3-3, with 4-2 being the benchmark of a successful close to the season.

On a big picture scale, this year’s non-conference schedule does not provide as many marquee match-ups as in years past, but there are a slew of quality opponents that will keep the Buffs’ RPI figures strong.  The Pac-12 should also experience a down-tick from last season, as the league lost a significant amount of talent to early departures to the NBA, along with a very quality group of seniors.  Tad Boyle was able to concoct a schedule filled with tests, and this team should find themselves battle-tested and adequately prepared for postseason play.

Stay tuned in the next few days for the next piece of this series:

Colorado Basketball: The Roster.