Friday, February 27, 2015

The Tragic End Of Derrick Rose

I hate to say this, but it’s over for Derrick Rose. When the news broke on Tuesday night that he had a torn meniscus in his right knee again for the second straight season, my heart sank. I couldn’t help but feel like this was the nail in the coffin on the career of an athlete with limitless potential.


My first memory of Rose was when he was this uber-athletic, at times out-of-control, ball dominant guard who always played with a full head of steam, starring for that snake John Calipari at Memphis. I specifically remember being terrified of him before my Vols played them that season, because I didn’t think there was any way they'd be able to keep him away from the basket, or from totally disrupting everything they wanted to do defensively. I thought he was going to torch them. And at times, he did, but Tennessee was fortunate enough to escape victorious in one of the great sport’s wins of my life (Tennessee, with the win, achieved their first ever number one ranking). The Tigers did bounce back though, as they got a number 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and rolled through everyone on their way to the championship game. As they were ripping through everyone, Rose built a ton of momentum, and put together a fantastic tournament resume, including an absolute demolition in the national semifinal of a UCLA team that included future NBA players Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Darren Collison, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (he finished with 25 points and 7 rebounds). In that aforementioned championship game against Kansas, Memphis pulled ahead with 8:11 remaining, and built what seemed to be an insurmountable 9 point lead with 2:12 left, before a combination of the Jayhawk blistering shooting (they made 100% of their shots in the rest of regulation) and Tiger misses at the foul line, including an enormous brick by Rose, led to a Mario Chalmers' miracle three that sent the game into overtime, where Kansas ultimately won, 75-68.

Despite their failure in the championship game, Rose made himself eligible for the NBA, and quickly shot up the draft boards, where he was selected first overall by the Chicago Bulls. His first two seasons as a professional were chalked full of explosive drives to the basket, enormous throw downs, and at least 2-3 “oh my gosh, did you see that” displays of athleticism per game, though they ultimately led to nothing more than an extremely exciting seven game first round playoff series with the Celtics in 2009, and a few Sportscenter Top 10 plays.

The potential for some much more was evident, though it just hadn’t been realized quite yet. I remember watching him during that time period, and feeling like he was going to always miss every jump shot that he attempted. He also really had no idea how to run a team, get everyone involved, or keep his teammates consistently happy throughout the game. He was basically just out there being the best athlete on the court every night and hoping that was enough.

Then 2011 happened. Chicago hired Tom Thibodeau, an extremely intelligent basketball mind, off Doc Rivers’ staff in Boston, and signed Carlos Boozer to a max contract (that didn’t work out all that great, but at the time? Brilliant!). Expectations were high, and the Bulls and Rose didn’t disappoint, as Derrick put together an incredible season, and maybe the best ever in the history of the league for a 22 year old guard, as he averaged 25 points and 7.7 assists per game while leading Chicago to a 62-20 record, the best in the Eastern Conference. He was in constant attack mode all season, as he got to the rim at will, found open teammates, and even started to hit a few jumpers here and there. Chicago became one of the best defensive teams in the league, and basically depended on Rose to create everything for them on the offensive end, a task he met time and time again.  For his efforts that season, he was voted MVP of the entire Association, becoming the youngest such recipient of that award in league history.

The Bulls blew through the first two rounds of the playoffs with ease, before encountering the big bad Miami Heat and LeBron James in the conference finals. Rose had a mediocre series (he shot just 35% in the five games), and the Heat easily dispatched the Bulls 4 games to 1.

Obviously, it was a disappointing defeat, but Rose was still a young, ever-improving player, and his team had only just come together. Plus, plenty of great players had hit road blocks early in their careers, before ultimately breaking through and winning titles, so the loss to Miami wasn’t  completely out of the ordinary. Everybody thought this team would be around for years to come, and that the championship window would be open for a long time. If they only knew the tragedy that would be taking place less than a year later.


The lockout-shortened, 66 game 2012 season was a frustrating one for Rose, who battled through various ailments all year which kept him from appearing in 27 games. Despite those injuries, Chicago still finished with the best record in the East again, this time at 50-16. They entered the playoffs confidently against a young and inexperienced Philadelphia 76ers team. (I know, the Sixers in the playoffs? What? How did this happen?). Rose was finally healthy (or so we thought), and the Bulls had their sights set squarely on avenging that painful loss to the Heat from the year before.

But they never made it that far. In Game 1 of the Philly series, with Bulls leading by 12 with 1:22 remaining, Rose drove towards the basket, leapt in the air, and landed awkwardly, forcing him to crumple to the ground holding his left knee, writhing in pain. I remember watching the game, hoping that it was nothing more than a hyperextension, but fearing the worst, because his knee buckled. Selfishly, just as a basketball fan, I hated it, because really enjoyed watching Rose play, and I knew that if it was something serious, it was going to be so much worse for him, because he was a guy that depended on his athleticism so much to be successful. I wanted to watch Rose on the court as many times as possible, and a serious injury would’ve put this season, and the next, in jeopardy.

The news broke sometime after the game that it was indeed a torn ACL, and I remember getting a “Stick a fork in the Bulls” text from my Angry Old Man. The reason those words resonated so much with me was because I was shocked my Pops even knew how to send a text message. Normally he’d just call me and yell into the phone about how we’d lost the country before abruptly hanging up.

But he was right, as the Bulls lost four of the next five games and were sent home from the playoffs earlier than anyone expected.


It would be a long time before anyone saw Rose play another NBA minute. Nobody knew when he’d return during the 2013 season, but most people thought they’d at least see him at some point during the year. But as the season began, and games and months began to pass, it became more and more apparent that there would be no D-Rose in 2013.

The Chicago fans, and most of the media, did not handle that reality well at all. It didn’t help that Derrick hardly ever spoke to the press during that season (something that wouldn’t be allowed now), or that Iman Shumpert, who tore his ACL on the exact same day as Rose, returned to the Knicks’ lineup on January 17th. Throw in the fact that almost all of his Bulls’ teammates gutted out multiple playoff games with serious injuries while Rose continued to sit on the bench, and that he signed a massive, 5 year, $93 million dollar extension in December 2011, and it wasn’t shocking that D-Rose wasn’t exactly the most popular athlete in the city during and after the season. He was getting paid millions of dollars, and the fans wanted to see him suit up and do Derrick Rose things again. They wanted to see him battle with his injured teammates against the hated Heat in the playoffs. They wanted to see their star shine.

But he wouldn’t shimmer during that season. Chicago lost in five games to Miami in the conference semifinals, and Rose did nothing but sit on the bench wearing a suit and tie.


Maybe Rose was destined to break down. Watch his legs during this highlight film. Look at the unbelievable amount of torque he put on his knees, ankles, and hips almost every time he attacked the basket. He’d land with his body going one way and his legs awkwardly pointing in another, followed by him somehow inexplicably exploding towards the rim. If I had to describe his playing style in one word, I’d call it ‘violent’; he changes directions so sharply and quickly, and there’s no way that didn't put an enormous amount of stress on his joints and ligaments. If there was anybody who was going to have multiple knee injuries, wouldn’t it be him? Should anyone really have been shocked by that? Probably not. Ironically enough, the very thing that made him so effective may have cost him everything.


Everybody was anxiously awaiting the return of Rose during the 2013-14 season. We hadn’t seen him play in 18 months, besides in a few meaningless preseason games. We also had no idea what to expect. Would Derrick be able to recapture his athleticism? Would he still be explosive? Did his jumper improve at all? And could he reestablish himself as the best player on a championship contending team?

We never really got an answer to those questions. Rose struggled mightily (for him), averaging just 15.9 points and 4.3 assists per game on 35.4% shooting, before he suffered another gigantic, career-altering setback in Portland in his tenth game of the season, as he limped off the court with an apparent knee injury in the third quarter. Our worst fears would be realized soon after; Rose had a torn meniscus in his right knee, and he would need season-ending surgery to repair it. Once again, Derrick’s year was over.


I spent a lot of time over the last few days (probably too much time, because my brain started to hurt after a while) trying to figure out the right cross-generational NBA comparison for Rose, before realizing that there really wasn’t one. The best I could come up with was Bernard King, though it’s not a perfect fit. ‘Nard, a small forward, never won an MVP like D-Rose did (he finished 2nd in 1984, and 7th in ’85), but was also so much more of an unstoppable scorer than Rose ever dreamed of being.

For those of you unfamiliar with Bernard’s career, here’s a basic layout; after struggling for a few years with drug problems, King came into his own as the best scorer in the NBA on lackluster Knicks’ teams in the mid 80’s. He was the most difficult guy to guard in the league from November of ’83 to March of ’85, before he also tore his ACL in a game against the Kansas City Kings. He was the player we all hoped Carmelo Anthony would become, only we all now know that ‘Melo was never up for it. He scored a ton (26.3 points per game in ’84, 32.9 points per game in ’85), and was extremely efficient (57.2% shooting in ’84, 53% shooting in ’85), and also elevated his teams, as he dragged a mediocre ‘84 New York team through seven extremely competitive games with the future World Champion Celtics in the conference semifinals. But that torn ACL was a career killer 30 years ago, and it sapped Bernard of almost all of his explosiveness, which made him so much less effective. What a tragedy. It makes you want to curse the basketball gods.

Injuries kept ‘Nard, who was on his way to being one of the 40 greatest players ever, from reaching his potential. The same can be said for Rose. In June of 2011, I would have believed almost any positive outcome for his career. He, at just 22, was one of the two best point guards in the league (along with Chris Paul), the most explosive athlete in the NBA outside of Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin, and was only getting rapidly better every season. But then he smashed into the injury wall repeatedly, more times than any crash test dummy ever would.

Plenty of players have had their careers decimated by injuries. But how many times has it happened to a guy with top 40 all time potential? Not very often. And when it does, it’s heartbreaking.

King eventually found his redemption (sort of) when, at 34 years old, he averaged 28.4 points per game on 47.2% shooting and made the All Star team playing for the ’91 Bullets. And despite those extremely impressive numbers, he was still far from the ‘Nard that terrorized everyone for two straight years. Will Rose every have a bounce back season like that? Considering how much more technically sound King was (he actually had a reliable jump shot), and how many different ways he had to score, compared to how Rose basically started everything in his basketball life with his athleticism (which is fledgling as we speak from his repeated knee injuries), I think it might be, as unfortunate as this sounds, highly unlikely that he ever recaptures that magic again.


I was cautious when I heard that Rose was going to be playing for USA Basketball this past summer. I didn’t know what to expect from him, as I hadn’t seen him play competitive basketball since November 2013, or compete at a high level since April 2012. There were a few video clips from practices that summer that looked like the old D-Rose, but I wanted to see him on the court playing real basketball against teams that were trying their hardest to win. Again, there were flashes of brilliance, and the old Rose, but there were never any stretches of sustained excellence. He never put together one complete, classic, throwback D-Rose game in any of their tournament games, and he never came close to consistently looking like Derrick again.

I guess this didn’t surprise me, and I didn’t expect all that much from him. The team was loaded, he hadn’t played basketball in basically 26 months, and he’d just gone through two major knee surgeries. More than anything, I was just happy to see him out there, getting knocked around and taking some bumps, because he hadn’t done that in so long.

The 2014-15 season arrived, and Rose was, for lack of a better term, sluggish. The numbers (18.4 points, 5 assists per game on 40.7% shooting) and the tape weren’t close to what we were used to seeing from him, and it was becoming more and more apparent that we might not ever see prime, 2011 Derrick ever again.

But I didn’t give up hope. Every once in a while, he would play a game, like against Cleveland the day before the All Star break, where he ran around, drove to the basket, knocked down some tough jumpers, and got his teammates involved, as the Bulls absolutely demolished the Cavs. Games like that one kept my hopes up. If he could ever get healthy and shake off all the rust, why couldn’t we see that guy again, consistently, every night?


Derrick’s biggest problem, to me, more than anything, was that he was never able to overcome his mental demons. Sure, his knees were ravaged over the last three years, but when he was on the court, he just looked so timid and terrified, like he was worried about planting awkwardly and ruining everything again. His drives were way less frequent, and he stopped landing and exploding towards the rim from every conceivable angle like he used to. That’s why I didn’t kill him for his “I don’t want to be in pain at my kid’s graduation” comments that he made back in November like so many other people did, because I understood it. He just wasn’t right mentally. The only person who might’ve been more scared watching Rose night to night this season than me was, in fact, Rose himself.


I got the same, “stick a fork in the Bulls” text from my Angry Old Man on Tuesday night, when the tragic news broke that Rose had, once again, torn his meniscus in his right knee. The outpouring of support and prayers from the NBA community and fans was unbelievable. Not again. Not to this guy. He’s already been through so much.

Rose had successful surgery today, and the Bulls expect him to be back in 4-6 weeks, which means he could be back for the playoffs. Even still, isn’t it fair to ask if Chicago done this year, even with Rose? I don’t have a real solid answer to that question, but it’s leaning that way.

But I can more solidly answer this one: Will we ever see apex, 2011 Rose again? No, we won’t. I don’t think his knees will ever be right again, and I doubt we’ll ever see him put together a full, 82 games, plus playoffs, season again. And I don’t think he’ll ever be able to fully defeat his internal demons. Another knee injury means more doubt, more fear, and less court time.

This is the biggest NBA tragedy since the Malice at the Palace, not only because we’ve lost such a great talent, but also because it seems like everybody has basically forgotten just how awesome Rose was. There’s this revisionist history creeping around on Derrick’s career now, that he was basically nothing more than Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, or Steve Francis (What a farce. Rose was never that selfish, and he competed way more on the defensive end), and that he wasn’t a “winning” basketball player, nothing more than a fireworks show, according to Colin Cowherd. I remember having a Steph Curry-Rose conversation with my Angry Old Man during the 2013 playoffs, and thinking to myself, “Yeah, I mean Curry is a great player, but has everyone forgotten that D-Rose was the NBA MVP JUST TWO YEARS AGO??!! DOES THAT NOT MATTER TO ANYONE??!!” He stole the MVP from LeBron during the King’s prime, and every media member was all for it. I don’t remember hearing any “Rose is Iverson” criticism back then. But now that he hasn’t played at a high level in such a long time, the in-the-moment observations are forgotten, and the narrative around his career has completely changed. What a shame.


I hate this so much, and I’d love nothing more than to give the basketball gods a collective roundhouse drop kick right to the throat. Get well, Derrick Rose. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Part 1: Who Are The Greatest NBA Coaches Of All Time?

The last few weeks have been chalked full of coaching news, ranging from stories about Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich winning their 1000th game, or sadder, more tragic events, like the passing of two greats, North Carolina’s  Dean Smith and UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian. The recent rush by each and every media pundit to try and put each accomplishment or life in context has caused me to do a lot of thinking about basketball coaches, and where each guy falls in the overall hierarchy of the profession.

I’ve always had a particular fascination with basketball coaches, because while I recognize their importance, this question always pops into my mind: just how much credit should they be given for the success of the teams they coach? Basketball, more than any other sport, is about star players, and because there are only five guys per team on the court at a time, and everybody plays both ways, those sensational players are afforded a greater opportunity to make an impact on the totality of the game than any other athlete in any other sport. Couldn’t I mostly argue that every legendary coach was saddled with multiple elite, Hall of Fame-level players? In the NBA, Phil Jackson had MJ, Pippen, Shaq, and Kobe, Red Auerbach had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and John Havlicek, Pat Riley had Magic, Kareem, Ewing, Shaq, and Wade, and Greg Popovich had the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio building, meshing, and winning together for more than a decade. The same goes for the legendary college coaches. Coach K’s best teams were loaded with All Americans and All Conference guys, as were John Wooden’s, Bob Knight’s, and Dean Smith’s. Talent, above all, is what wins in basketball. You have to have it.

But some guys are clearly better than others. It’s why a guy like Bruce Pearl can go 22-8 in his first season at Tennessee with basically the same exact team that Buzz Peterson went 14-17 with the year before. But why did Pearl have so much success? Was it scheme? Personality? Energy? Why are some guys just better than others? Here’s a list (not in order of importance):

  1. Leadership. To me, this is the most important attribute a coach can have. Does he command the respect and eye of every man in the locker room? Can he reach the players, and do they take him seriously? Can he manage all the egos? Did guys quit on him? Do the players accept him as, for lack of a better term, their boss? This is especially extremely difficult and crucial in the pros, where many of the players make significantly more money than the coaches do.
  2. X’s and O’s. Is this coach ahead of his time in terms of scheme? Did he run/create a legendary offensive/defensive system that changed basketball? Was he great at drawing up plays? Did his offensive/defensive philosophy maximize and highlight the talents of his players?
  3. Professionalism. Could go hand in hand with “Leadership”, but did this coach handle himself well with the media? Did he publicly undermine his players, or was he fair? Did he know when to push someone’s buttons publicly, and when to let things go? Did he show up ready to work every single day? Was he a grinder?
  4. Winning. Ultimately, this is how a coach will be measured. Did he win a ton of games?
  5. Overachieving. Did his teams consistently play far above their talent level? Did he ever coach an underachieving team, or multiple teams that failed to reach expectations?
  6. Luck. The most random variable, and something that plays into every career. Was this guy fortunate to coach multiple Hall of Famers? Did he catch breaks with the refs or in games during pivotal moments?
  7. College Only Rules
    • Recruiting. Was he able to recruit elite level players in every aspect of being a student athlete to his school?
    • Program Building. Did this coach enhance the national reputation of this program during his tenure? Or did he make a place that had no basketball tradition into a national power?

I tried to take all the above factors into consideration when I compiled this list. For my purposes, I thought it would be too difficult to combine my rankings, so I decided to separate the college and pro rankings into two separate top five lists, with several honorable mentions. I'll save my college rankings for next week, and roll out my NBA thoughts now.

So, without further ado….

Greatest NBA Coaches of All Time

Honorable Mentions

Lenny Wilkens: Seattle 1969-1972, 1977-1985; Portland 1974-1976; Cleveland 1986-1993; Atlanta 1993-2000; Toronto 2000-2003; New York 2003-2005

1332-1155; 1-time NBA Champion (Seattle, 1979); 2 NBA Finals appearances (Seattle 1978, 1979); 4 Conference Finals Appearances; 20 Playoff Appearances; Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998

Don Nelson: Milwaukee 1976-1987; Golden State 1988-1995, 2006-2010; New York 1995-1996; Dallas 1997-2005

1335-1063; 0 NBA Championships; 0 NBA Finals Appearances; 4 Conference Finals Appearances; 18 Playoff Appearances; Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012

These guys’ coaching careers are eerily similar, though Wilkens did break through for one title in 1979. A few thoughts:

  • Both guys held head jobs for an abnormally long time without ever coaching a transcendent, in his prime, NBA superstar. Nelson coached Dirk and Nash right before they hit their primes, got C-Webb for one year in G-State (his rookie season), and had apex Sidney Moncrief (one of the best defensive guards and athletes of the ‘80s), Marques Johnson (a five time All Star), Paul Pressey, his point-forward (more on that in a minute) and a past his prime Bob Lanier on Milwaukee teams that made back-to-back Conference Finals in 1983 and 1984 (the ’83 squad swept a Celtics team in the conference semifinals that had Larry Bird, Tiny Archibald, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge, and Cedric Maxwell). Wilkens had Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, and Gus Williams on the ’78 Sonics, the Mark Price-Craig Ehlo backcourt on late ‘80s and early ‘90s Cavs teams that got their hearts ripped out by Michael Jordan like a zillion times (for highlights, you can click here, here, and here), and late ‘90s Hawks teams that got to three conference semifinals, though they were never really a serious title contenders because their best players were Steve Smith and Dikembe Mutombo. Ultimately, more than anything, back luck was what kept these two from being much more successful than they were; you’ve just got to have the right superstar players at the right time in their careers. Nash and Dirk peaked after Nelson stopped coaching them, his Bucks teams kept running into superior Sixers (with Dr. J and Moses Malone) and Celtics teams, and he never coached a top 50 all time guy on his Warriors' teams. Nelson, with as smart and forward-thinking as he was, could’ve have easily been Pat Riley if he’d inherited Magic and Kareem in the ‘80s. Or maybe he couldn’t have. “Nellie Ball”, as elite offensively as it was, never embraced defense, or even cared about making it a priority. We’ll never know, because he never got the opportunity, and it’s why we remember Riley’s coaching career as being superior to Nelson’s.
  • Nelson deserves credit for being the first guy to implement the “point-forward” concept into basketball, which did wonders for and helped highlight the immense skill sets of multiple guys like Scottie Pippen and LeBron.
  • Nelson was also the coach of one of the most fun basketball teams of all time, the “Run TMC” Warriors (featuring Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin, the highest scoring trio in the league), who advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals in 1991. Isn’t that ultimately Nellie’s legacy? Just a guy that coached a ton of fun, aesthetically pleasing, offense-first basketball teams? Both of his Warriors’ tenures were full of fun teams, as was run with Dallas in the early 2000s. Even if he never won anything substantial, I’m glad we had Nelson.

Bill Fitch: Cleveland 1970-1979; Boston 1979-1983; Houston 1983-1988; New Jersey 1989-1992; L.A. Clippers 1994-1998

944-1106; 1-time NBA Champion (Celtics, 1981); 2 NBA Finals Appearances (Celtics 1981, Rockets 1986); 5 Conference Finals Appearances; 13 Playoff Appearances

Rick Adelman: Portland 1988-1994; Golden State 1995-1997; Sacramento 1998-2006; Houston 2007-2011; Minnesota 2011-2014

1042-748; 0 NBA Championships; 2 NBA Finals Appearances (Portland 1990, 1992); 4 Conference Finals Appearances; 16 Playoff Appearances

I felt like these two, who always seemed to find themselves in great situations, were worthy of mentioning, even if both fall  far short of zenith of the coaching profession. Adelman’s Portland teams made two Finals appearances in three years during one of the most competitive stretches in league history, before being vanquished by two of the greatest teams of all time (The Bad Boy Pistons and MJ’s pre-baseball Bulls). He also guided the best Sacramento ever assembled to within a game of the 2002 Finals, before both the officiating and the Kings got shaky down the stretch of Game 6 and 7. My biggest problem with Adelman was that he looked like Adolf Hitler, and that he'd always make this “holy crap, I feel like we’re about to blow this game” face every time something turned sour on the court for his team. Nothing screams “leadership” quite like that.

Fitch, one of the first coaches to really embrace watching game tape, was also fortunate enough to coach a young Larry Bird for four seasons. We’d probably remember his coaching life differently if his late ‘80s Rockets team (you know, the one with Hakeem that ripped through the Showtime Lakers in the 1986 Western Conference Finals?) hadn’t been floored by multiple cocaine suspensions (John Lucas, Lewis Lloyd, Mitchell Wiggins) and Ralph Sampson’s frightening fall at the Boston Garden in 1987 that basically ended his career.

One more thought on Fitch: He coached a wildly overmatched ’76 Cavs team (their best players were Austin Carr, Campy Russell, Bobby “Bingo” Smith, Jim Chones, and a three levels beyond washed up Nate Thurmond…. Campy and Bingo?) within two games of the Finals, and even got THE CLIPPERS to the playoffs in 1997. Fitch was the man and nobody even knows it.

Larry Brown: Carolina (ABA) 1972-1974; Denver 1974-1979; New Jersey 1981-1983; San Antonio 1988-1992; L.A. Clippers 1992-1993; Indiana 1993-1997; Philadelphia 1997-2003; Detroit 2003-2005; New York 2005-2006; Charlotte 2008-2011

NBA Record: 1098-904; ABA Record: 336-229; 1-time NBA Champion (Pistons 2004); 3 NBA and ABA Finals Appearances (Denver 1976, Sixers 2001, Pistons 2004, 2005); 9 NBA and ABA Conference Finals Appearances; 22 Playoff Appearances; Inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002

Ultimately, Brown was his own worst enemy. While he did have an extremely successful coaching career, he constantly shot himself in the foot by jumping from one job to another for reasons that remain unclear, which didn’t enable him to build any sort of continuity with a players or a roster. Even still, his ’01 Sixers and ’04 Pistons teams were historically memorable squads that played wildly different styles. The offensively-limited Philly team ran everything through Allen Iverson and his unique abilities, while the group in Detroit pulled one the greatest NBA upsets of all time (they decimated the Lakers in five games, and helped bring the Shaq-Kobe dynamic to an end) by being quite possibly the greatest defensive unit of all time. Later in his career, Brown even guided the Bobcats to their first winning season and playoff appearance in franchise history.

Dr. Jack Ramsay: Philadelphia 168-1972; Buffalo 1972-1976; Portland 1976-1986; Indiana 1986-1989

864-783; 1-time NBA Champion (Portland 1977); 1 NBA Finals Appearance (Portland 1977); 1 Conference Finals Appearance; 16 Playoff Appearances; Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992

I felt like Ramsay was worthy of mentioning, even if he had relatively little success compared to many of the guys on this list, because he is the all time “what if” coach. He was the head man of the memorably team-oriented ’77 Trailblazers, a squad dubbed by Sports Illustrated as “maybe the most ideal team ever put together”. The ‘Blazers came back from a 2-0 Finals deficit to beat a much more talented Sixers’ team featured players like Dr. J, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free, Doug Collins, Jellybean Bryant (Kobe’s dad), and George McGinnis. Everything was built around Bill Walton’s elite passing, rebounding, and post moves. The players around him, like Maurice Lucas and Lionel Hollins, knew their roles and played them perfectly.

We’d probably remember Dr. Jack’s career more fondly if Walton’s multiple foot injuries hadn’t wrecked his career, and killed a potential Portland mini-dynasty that could’ve won at least three straight titles in the late ’70s. Don’t forget that the ‘Blazers were 50-10 and on their way to another title when Walton got hurt the first time during the ’78 season. If he doesn’t get hurt, Portland wins multiple titles, and Ramsay is remembered as one of the great coaches of all time, instead of a legendary TV and radio voice. What a shame. Bad luck struck again.

John Kundla: Minneapolis 1948-1959

423-302; 5-time NBA Champion (Lakers 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954); 6 NBA Finals Appearances (Lakers, 1949, 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1959); 9 Conference Finals Appearances; 10 Playoff Appearances; Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995

Kundla coached the Association’s first dynasty, George Mikan’s Lakers. I’d give him more credit if he wasn’t coaching in a tiny league with hardly any black players, and rules (a tiny lane) that was perfectly suited for Mikan’s skills.

Rudy Tomjanovich: Houston 1991-2003; L.A. Lakers 2004-2005

527-416; 2-time NBA Champion (Rockets 1994, 1995); 2 NBA Finals Appearances (Rockets 1994, 1995); 3 Conference Finals Appearances; 7 Playoff Appearances; 1 Olympic Gold Medal (2000)

Rudy T. can thank Michael Jordan’s first retirement and the once-in-a-generation skills of Hakeem Olajuwon for even allowing his name to be mentioned on this list.

Jerry Sloan: Chicago 1979-1982; Utah 1988-2011

1221-803; 0 NBA Championships; 2 NBA Finals Appearances (Jazz 1997, 1998); 6 Conference Finals Appearances; 20 Playoff Appearances; Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009

The greatest coach to never win a championship, Sloan benefited greatly from coaching the Karl Malone-John Stockton duo for 15 years, one that just happened to run the greatest pick-and-roll the Association has ever seen.

I don’t blame Sloan too much for never winning a title, because his Jazz teams ran into several great Western Conference teams and players throughout his tenure, including Magic’s Lakers, Barkley’s Suns, Olajuwon’s Rockets, Payton’s and Kemp’s Sonics, and Drexler’s Trailblazers. And when they finally broke through and made the Finals, Jordan and the Bulls were waiting for them.

His two superstars also happened to be some of the worst playoff performers of all time. Stockton got memorably dominated in two of their biggest playoff series, the ’92 Conference Finals, when Terry Porter destroyed him (26 points and 8.3 assists per game, compared to Stockton’s 14.3 points and 11.2 assists), and the ’96 Conference Finals, when Gary Payton owned him so badly (20.7 points and 6 assists per game, compared to Stockton’s 9.9 points and 7.6 assists) that it reminded me of that time when Aragorn cut off the Mouth of Sauron's head.

And then there’s Malone, who was famous for choking in pressure situations. He wasn’t horrible in Utah’s back-to-back Finals’ losses to the Bulls, but he was basically always outplayed by MJ in crunch time of all those games, several of which were extremely winnable. He missed two enormous free throws in Game 1 of the ’97 Finals, which led to Jordan’s game winner, and he got stripped by Mike at the end of Game 6 of the ’98 Finals, which ended with iconic push off shot on Bryon Russell.

So what could Sloan do about that? Short of shooting both Malone and Stockton with an elephant gun, fleeing Utah, and inheriting Hakeem or Magic, basically nothing. Like many things with coaching greatness, it comes down to luck. Sloan just never had any, or enough, to break through.

The Top 5

5. Chuck Daly: Cleveland 1981-1982; Detroit 1983-1992; New Jersey 1992-1994; Orlando 1997-1999

2-time NBA Champion (Pistons 1989, 1990); 3 NBA Finals Appearances (Pistons 1988, 1989, 1990); 5 Conference Finals Appearances; 12 Playoff Appearances; 1 Olympic Gold Medal (1992, the Dream Team); Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994

Daly scores major points for being the coach of the Dream Team, the greatest basketball squad ever assembled, as well as being the head man of the meanest, most hated team of all time, the Bad Boy Pistons, who won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, made the Finals three straight seasons from 1988-1990, and played in five straight Eastern Conference Finals from 1987-1991.

And then there’s this; besides Phil Jackson, I can’t think of a better manager of personalities than Daly. He weathered back-to-back absolutely devastating losses, the ’87 Eastern Finals and the ’88 NBA Finals, kept the locker room together through the awkward Adrian Dantley-for-Mark Aguirre trade during the ’89 season, and figured out a way to make that crazy, insane, ridiculous band of personalities like Dennis Rodman, Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Vinnie Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and John Salley in Detroit play for one another towards something greater than themselves.

I always hate reading overly sentimental and “this guy could never do anything wrong” pieces, but this one was full of enlightening stories and thoughts about Daly’s career and life. He mattered to the people he coached, and along with Isiah Thomas, he was able to push those Detroit teams to heights far beyond their talent level. It’s one of the few times in NBA history that a coach, by sheer force of personality, was able to elevate the overall play of the roster.

4. Gregg Popovich: San Antonio 1996-present

5-time NBA Champion (Spurs 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014); 6 NBA Finals Appearances (Spurs 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2013, 2014); 9 Conference Finals Appearances; 17 Playoff Appearances

Pop is this generation’s Red Auerbach, coaching Tim Duncan, this generations Bill Russell. Like Auerbach and Russell, Pop was fortunate to grab Duncan in the draft and follow that up by spending the next decade-plus winning championships with them. Pop’s brilliance has been well documented, and was evident in last year’s Finals, when the Spurs absolutely murdered the Heat with ball movement, built around the foundation of the unselfish Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio. He adopted his offensive philosophy around the personnel he had on the roster, going from a more traditional, post up approach when he had the Duncan-David Robinson twin towers look, to a drive-and-kick offense in the mid-to-late 2000s when Parker and Ginobili emerged as All Stars. Along the way, he surrounded his stars with the right veteran players, guys who willingly bought into their roles like Avery Johnson, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, and even Steve Kerr.

I’m not ready to complete sum up Pop’s career yet, because he’s still got at least a few seasons of coaching left. But for now, we’ll stick him at number four.

3. Pat Riley: L.A. Lakers 1981-1990; New York 1991-1995; Miami 1995-2003, 2005-2008

5-time NBA Champion (Lakers 1982, 1985, 1987, 1988; Heat 2006); 9 NBA Finals Appearances (Lakers 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989; Knicks 1994; Heat 2006); 12 Conference Finals Appearances; Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008

I went back and forth on the Riley-Pop debate for like three days before finally settling on Riley because he won big in three different cities while embracing several different, distinct styles. He won four titles with the Showtime Lakers, implemented thug ball in New York (and gave Jordan two of his toughest tests on his journey to 6 championships), and assembled a Miami team that immediately took off when he replaced Stan Van Gundy with himself during the ’06 season. His late ‘90s Heat teams also played great defense, and were entrenched in four of the worst offensive series in the history of the basketball with the Knicks.

Riley’s Knicks and Heat teams were never able to get by Jordan’s Bulls, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for how hard he made Jordan work for his points. Just look at the ’93 Eastern Conference Finals, a six game war that saw MJ just shoot 40% from the floor, or the ’97 ECF, where the Heat defense forced him to shoot a paltry 38.7%, including Game 4, where Mike was a shockingly bad 9 for 35. His Lakers years produced the unquestioned best team of the ‘80s, but it’s hard for me to make the “Riley was an elite coach” case when he had Magic and James Worthy, the perfect point guard-wing player combo for the fast break, and Kareem, who had the most unstoppable shot in the history of the game

To me, Riley cemented himself as one of the greats in the profession when he transformed the Ewing-led Knicks from a crumbling disappointment into a legitimate championship contender in the span of one season. Don’t forget that this team finished 39-43, 8th in the East, and got dunked hard out of the playoffs by Jordan and the Bulls in the first round of the ’91 Playoffs, the year before Riley arrived. And the scene in New York wasn’t pretty when he landed there for the first time as the new Knicks’ head man. Ewing’s knees were failing, the roster around him didn’t have anyone who was close to being an All Star, and their was an imminent dynasty brewing in Chicago.

Riley did the shrewdest, dirtiest, and most intelligent thing possible; he turned the team into the Bad Boy Pistons moved East, revitalizing Ewing’s career and basketball in the Big Apple in the process. They already had a bunch of intimidating, tough, “I’ll drop kick you in the throat” guys like Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, John Starks, and “the Jordan stopper” Gerald Wilkins already on the roster, and they got even more rugged by trading for Xavier McDaniel, maybe the zaniest NBA player not named Dennis Rodman or Ron Artest, before the ’92 season. Riley encouraged his team to be themselves, meaning they were to grab, chuck, and push around their opponents for 48 minutes. They adopted a “no layup” rule, and Ewing created this angry, “I’ll fight you to the death” persona that was present for the rest of this career.

And for the most part, it worked out pretty well. The ’92 Knicks rebounded to finish 51-31, and they pushed the Bulls to seven excruciating games in the conference semifinals, before coming up short when Jordan destroyed them in Game 7 (he finished with 42 points). The officiating also tightened up greatly in that 7th game, thanks to Phil Jackson (more on that in a minute). New York, motivated by the defeat, responded angrily the next season by going 60-22, finishing with the best record in the East, and blowing through the first two rounds of the playoffs to set up a rematch with the Bulls in the Conference Finals. The first two contests of the series were in Madison Square Garden, and the Knicks knocked Chicago around in both games to take a quick 2-0 series lead. Things were looking great for the Knickerbockers, until they suddenly weren’t. They squandered a terrible Jordan shooting performance in Game 3 (he was just 3 for 18) and got blown out by 20, got assassinated by MJ in Game 4 when he dropped 54 points, lost a devastating Game 5 back in New York when Charles Smith got fouled/blocked four times just before the buzzer by Jordan, Pippen, and Horace Grant. It was over after that, almost as quickly as it had begun. No one was going back to Chicago Stadium for Game 6 and beating the Bulls. Chicago won 96-88, and moved onto the Finals.

The Knicks blew that series, one of the most heartbreaking basketball defeats of the ‘90s. I’d blame Riley more if he wasn’t facing MICHAEL FREAKING JORDAN (there was no way anybody was beating Mike that season; he was at his zenith).

Thanks to Jordan’s unexpected retirement after the season, the Knicks were able to get over the hump and make the ’94 Finals, where they took a 3-2 lead over the Rockets,  going back to Houston for the final two games of the series. At the end of Game 6, Starks had his three point attempt to win the title dramatically blocked by Hakeem Olajuwon, and then followed it up with the worst game of his career in Game 7; he shot just 2 for 18 from the field, including 0 for 10 in the 4th quarter. Riley took a lot of heat (and should have) for sticking with Starks throughout the game, and allowing him to continue to shoot, despite the fact that he was murdering his team’s chances in the most important game of basically everyone on the court’s career. Riley left after the ’95 season, a year that ended when Ewing missed a very makeable layup in Game 7 of the Pacers’ series. Four seasons of overachieving for Riley’s Knicks, and it was over. Despite the fact that they never won the title, I give him immense credit for maximizing the Ewing era in New York, and building a championship contender in one of the most competitive stretches in league history around a big man with hardly any post moves, no crunch time chops, and declining athleticism. He pushed all the right buttons and took advantage of holes in the rule book to build the most physical team possible, a team that’s reason for success had virtually nothing to do with their talent level.

Much like how the Bad Boy Pistons embodied Chuck Daly, the Knicks were very much a physical expression of Riley’s personality. He was one of the best coaches in the league with Showtime, and the leader of that group, but those teams in L.A. didn’t quite feel like Riley. The Thugball Knicks did. They were the incarnation of Riley’s brain, genius, and influence on the court.

2. Red Auerbach: Washington (BAA) 1946-1949; Tri-Cities Blackhawks 1949-1950; Boston 1950-1966

938-479; 9-time NBA Champion (Celtics 1957, 1959-1966); 10 NBA Finals Appearances (Celtics 1957-1966); 19 Playoff Appearances; Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969

Auerbach’s career is the perfect example of when coaching genius meets a historic talent. Red began to plant the seeds of the Celtic dynasty years before Russell arrived in Boston, as he drafted Bill Sharman before the ’52 season, stole Bob Cousy in one of those weird early ‘50s NBA roster moves (you can read the details here), and added guys like Frank Ramsey.

And then, before the ’57 season, it happened. Red, realizing that Russell’s defense was game, and maybe even league-changing, traded future Hall of Famers Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the Hawks for the rights for Russell. Considering what happened afterwards, isn’t that the most important NBA trade of all time?

Anchored by Russell’s defense that forced opposing teams to constantly take low percentage shots (there was no three point line then, and most guys didn’t have consistent, reliable jumpers, so a rim protector was even more valuable then), his elite rebounding, and underrated outlet passes that led to quick four point swings for his teams, the Celtics went on to win nine titles during Red’s tenure, and appeared in the Finals 10 times.

So how much credit should Red get? On the one hand, he was extremely fortunate to cross paths with Russ, one of the five greatest players of all time, and the best and most dominant defender to ever set foot on a basketball court. Then again, he did orchestrate the trade, and also surrounded his big man with multiple Hall of Famers, including of the best backcourts ever, Sharman and Cousy, John Havlicek, one of the many forgotten greats from history, and Tom Heinsohn, the last NBA player to remain effective while also smoking an entire pack of Marlboro Reds before every game. Auerbach built that team, and he recognized just how dominant a great shot blocker and rebounder could be in that era of the NBA.

So why not rank Red number one? Because he didn’t start winning titles until he fleeced Russell. What if the Hawks had said no? Would we look at Red the same? Of course not. Russ would’ve been in St. Louis, winning multiple titles there, and Auerbach would just be this guy floating around in obscurity in Boston. Don’t forget that his playoff record with the Celtics pre-Russell was a lowly 10-17. Then Russell shows up and things were never the same. I know it sounds like a lazy criticism, but at this point, we’re basically splitting hairs. Phil Jackson won big in two different cities morphing and managing to of the most hyper-competitive monster teams of all time (Jordan’s Bulls and Shaq’s Lakers), while Red won titles with the best roster year after year, in a small league with hardly any modern centers that could compete with Russell, whose defensive style was perfect and unstoppable in that era. I’d be happy with either guy, but if I had to take one, I’d rather have Jackson… barely.

1. Phil Jackson: Chicago 1989-1998; L.A. Lakers 1999-2004, 2005-2011

1155-485; 11-time NBA Champion (Bulls 1991-1993, 1996-1998; Lakers 2000-2002, 2009-2010); 13 NBA Finals Appearances (Bulls 1991-1993, 1996-1998; Lakers 2000-2002, 2004, 2008-2010); 14 Conference Finals Appearances; 20 Playoff Appearances Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007

The arguments against ranking Jackson this high are easy:

  1. He coached Jordan, Pippen, Shaq, and Kobe, all at the peak of their powers.
  2. He, besides a brief time in the mid 2000s, always coached teams that were title contenders when he took over.
  3. The famed triangle offense, popularized by his teams in Chicago and L.A., wasn’t even created by Jackson. The credit goes to his lead assistant, Tex Winter. The Zen Master was just smart and observant enough to incorporate it onto his ball clubs.

Couldn’t I argue that Phil was just along for the ride? Anybody could’ve won titles with the teams he had right? Sure, they probably could have. So why put Jackson at number one?

It’s simple really. He’s the greatest motivator of talent and manager of egos in the history of sports. He reigned Jordan in, and helped him channel his competitiveness and immense gifts into the betterment of the team. He held the “this is going to blow up in our faces at any moment” Shaq-Kobe relationship together for FIVE years, winning three titles with them despite the fact that they hated each other. No one was better at working the refs from game-to-game in a series, and no one delivered little subtle hints and motivational tricks to his team through the media better than Jackson. He wasn’t an X’s and O’s thinker, and he didn’t pretend to be one. Instead, he focused his thoughts and words on what he knew best, the human psyche. Jackson understood people and how they thought, and he knew how to make them work together towards something greater than individual numbers or statistics. He, like Riley, Auerbach, and Pop, consistently maximized the elite talent he had.

And if you still aren’t convinced, the numbers don’t lie. 55% of the seasons he coached ended with titles, and he won 70.4% of his games, the best mark in league history. Plus, if you going season-to-season, how many years could you say that his teams underachieved? Maybe once, 2004, when his clearly more talented Lakers’ team got Mike Tyson'd right in the face by the defensive juggernaut and more team-oriented Pistons. But how about overachieving teams? His ’94 Bulls team, the one without Jordan, won 55 games and came within a single game and a phantom call by Hue Hollins of the Eastern Finals, thanks to one of Phil’s best coaching jobs, and Scottie’s MVP level play. Plus, he got Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, the two craziest and most complex NBA players ever, to buy in without completely destroying teams that were great enough to win titles, something both guys had done before.

So yeah, sure, there were a zillion basketball coaches who could draw up a better play in a huddle than Phil. But the ability work with and lead a group of men? There was no one better.

Friday, February 6, 2015

NBA Power Rankings: Part 2

In case you missed it, you can find Part 1 of my NBA power rankings right here.


You’re telling me we could win 46 games, and still miss the playoffs?

15. Oklahoma City Thunder
14. New Orleans Pelicans
13. Phoenix Suns

Unless San Antonio inexplicably starts slipping (which I don’t expect to happen), only one of these three teams will make the playoffs. Phoenix is six games over .500, New Orleans has the most exciting under 23 player in the league (Anthony Davis), and OKC has, when healthy, two of the best five or six players in the league. The Thunder’s biggest problem, obviously, has been both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s inability to stay healthy all season, particularly KD, who has been able to suit up in just 22 games. It’s been one injury after another for the reigning league MVP, whether it was a broken bone in his foot in the preseason, a sprained ankle on December 18th, and more recently, a toe problem that has kept him out of OKC’s last two contests. Westbrook has done his best to carry the load in the Durantula’s absence, including some ridiculous stat lines, like Monday’s triple double, when he notched 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 14 assists, or Wednesday, when he dropped 45 in New Orleans. But he’s had injury problems of his own, and the lack of talent on the Thunder roster outside of those two has caused it to be a shaky year in Oklahoma. When Durant has been healthy, OKC hasn’t missed a beat, going 14-8 when he's been on the court. They’re currently sitting at 25-24, with only 33 games left. What would their record be at the end of the season if they were able to keep up the “healthy Durant” pace for the rest of the year? And what would the Pelicans’ and Suns’ record be if they stuck to their current pace?

Thunder: 46-36
Pelicans: 44-38
Suns: 46-36

So as you can see, it’s going to be an extremely tight race down the stretch, and because of this, the Thunder will need Slim Reaper on the court consistently to even have a chance of sniffing the playoffs. And even then, they still might not make it. With that said, if they were able to sneak in (and I think they ultimately will, because I just can’t see a team with Durant and Westbrook, in their primes, missing the playoffs. This isn’t prime Carmelo we’re talking about, after all), they’ll be an extremely terrifying Round One opponent for Memphis or Golden State or whoever gets the number 1 seed. I know I wouldn’t want to play them, a squad that features the best scorer in the NBA (Durant) paired with the most explosive, hyper-competitive ball of energy I’ve ever seen (Westbrook) that’s just happened to have won eight playoff series since 2011. I’d rather play the small, run-and-gun, bombs away Suns, or the “We’re only three games over .500 in the extremely challenging and excruciating Western conference because The Brow is consistently slapping up 25 points and 11 rebounds with three blocks every night” Pelicans. Seriously, how are Pellies this competitive? Outside of Davis, they don’t have anyone that’s a top 10 player at their position. Tyreke Evans seems to have figured some things out, and is having a nice year, but he’ll never be an All Star. Plus, they’re still a terrible defensive team (ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency) that strangely has trouble beating Eastern Conference teams (they’re a woeful 8-10 against that conference this season). Even stranger, they were the team that ended Atlanta’s improbable 19 game winning streak. Here’s a lesson for everyone for the next 12 years: believe in the power of the Brow.

The most Cleveland outcome possible

12. Cleveland Cavaliers

On July 11th, LeBron James did the most anti-Cleveland thing possible. He came back. He chose the city that inspired The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, Edgar Renteria's World Series Walkoff, and most hilarious Joakim Noah quote of all time. The move north was universally (except in South Beach) rejoiced, and everybody quickly overreacted and penciled them into the Finals (ok, yeah, so did I). To be fair, no one foresaw Kevin Love’s implosion, Kyrie Irving’s inability (or unwillingness) to play with and defer to LeBron, the rapid ascension of the Hawks, and David Blatt’s apparent ineptness at reaching, communicating with, and coaching NBA players.

Maybe I’m being a little too hard ranking them this low. After all, they’ve won 12 games in a row (including last night’s thrashing of the Clippers), acquired the rim protector they sorely lacked in Timofey Mozgov, and seem to be getting the dominant, physically overpowering version of LeBron back (you know, the guy we weren’t seeing the first two months of the season?).

Or maybe I’m not. This is still a team that’s relying heavily on two guys (Love and Irving) who are somewhere between “bad” and “matador” on the defensive end, in addition to the fact that neither of them have ever played in a single playoff game. Also,  Mozgov is the savior? Really? This is a guy that’s most famous and notable NBA moment was when he created the verb “Mozgov’d” by getting dunked on by Blake Griffin. Trading two first round picks for him (which Cleveland inexplicably did) is like paying $37,000 for a 1991 Honda Accord with 210,000 miles on it. It literally makes no sense. Heck, it might be the worst panic trade in the league the last decade.

LeBron (26.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game) is doing everything he can, but that wasn’t good enough for last year’s Heat team, one that just happens to be much better than the squad created in Cleveland this season. They aren’t making the Finals, and frankly, I can’t see them winning more than a single series, unless LeBron just plays out of his mind (which is completely conceivable). The roster, even in the East, is too flawed. The Return, at least in year one, will end in disappointment.

And when it does, what will happen next season? If their recent transactions have been indication of anything, it’s that LeBron carries enormous weight and influence in the front office. It’s the reason Mike Miller is on the roster, why Ray Allen’s name keeps popping up in rumors, why Dion Waiters got shipped out of town, and more than likely why both Love and Mozgov don a Cavs’ uniform. Bill Simmons pointed out in LeBron’s SI letter that he mentioned the names of several of his future Cleveland teammates, but didn’t include the guy that just went number 1 in the NBA draft, Andrew Wiggins, or the guy that went number 1 the year before, Anthony Bennett. Both of them were almost immediately shipped to Minnesota for Love. You don’t think King James had something to do with that?

Will Blatt be back? I doubt it. And when he is relieved of his coaching duties, they’ll hire some “Yes Man” coach (I’m looking at you Tyronn Lue) hand picked by LBJ, followed by them making some strange, “I know this guy, and he’s going to help us!” trades engineered by GM LeBron, because he holds all the leverage with the Cleveland organization. Don’t forget that during his magical return, he only signed a two year deal, one that expires after 2016. Cleveland is trapped. They’re so attached and married to the King, and so terrified that he’ll leave them again, that he can basically demand anything and they’ll bend over backwards to make it happen. He’s such a overpowering and commanding figure, and I think it really hurts him that he doesn’t have someone in the front office that he really respects like Pat Riley. You know, someone that says, “Hold up LeBron, it’s probably a terrible idea to flip two first round picks for a guy that averages a career 6.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game”. Cleveland doesn’t have a strong, NBA lifer like Riley, someone to keep LeBron in check. He holds all the leverage, and all the bargaining chips… and I don’t think that’s a good thing, for his career, or for the future of basketball in Cleveland.

We’re having nice seasons, but, are we actually contenders?

11. Toronto Raptors
10. Washington Wizards

I’ve become a huge John Wall fan over the last couple of seasons, because he’s finally completely put together his immense gifts and channeled them all into playing winning basketball. He’s been the best point guard in the East the last two years, and he’s never been better at making plays for his teammates than this season, as he’s averaging a career high 10.2 assists per game. I think he should probably get some MVP love, and I’m glad the normally dumb fans voted him a starter in the All Star game. They saved their voting idiocy for Kobe and Carmelo.

I could see both of these teams forcing their way into the conference finals, but the Finals seems like too tall of a task, at least this season. The Raps have one of the best backcourts in the league (Kyle Lowry, also an All Star starter, and Demar Derozan), but their roster around those guys is worse than any of the other top six teams in the East. There was a trade to be made somewhere, but Toronto just hasn’t pulled the trigger, at least not yet. Washington is interesting, because they’ve got Nene and Marcin Gortat, two bigs that could match up with the front lines in Chicago and Atlanta, but at peak value, I like those teams better than the Wizards.

The End of an Era

9. San Antonio Spurs

I hate to say this, because it almost feels like this will inevitably blow up in my face, but I think the Spurs’ run as an elite level championship contender is over. The Duncan-Parker-Ginobili trio that’s won four titles together all look like they’ve lost a step and a half, and their best player, Kawhi Leonard, has a rather serious hand injury that may end up requiring surgery this off-season. Plus, unless they go on a ridiculous winning streak, and have a string of losses from a bunch of teams above them, they won’t have home court advantage in any of their playoff series. Add in the fact that they aren’t better than Memphis, G-State, the Clippers, or even Portland, and you’ve got a probable first round exit. Popovich is a genius, but not even his brain can overcome the declining skills of his former superstars.

Also, a point to not completely dismiss: remember at the beginning of the season when everybody was talking about the Spurs lack of drive and motivation, because they exorcised all of their demons by avenging their heart-breaking Finals defeat at the hands of the Heat by ripping through them in five games last year? Their entire 2014 season was completely geared towards and driven by the pain of that defeat. They wanted nothing more than to get back to Finals, and they vanquished every foe in their path. It’s impossible for anyone, unless you’re a super competitive psycho like MJ, to be just as hungry during the repeat season. I’m not saying San Antonio doesn’t care about winning, or their just taking it easy, but it’s natural to relax a little bit after everything they accomplished last season.

And honestly, can you really blame them? Duncan is 38 years old, and already cemented as one of the eight greatest players of all time. What else does he have to prove? He’s won five titles, three Finals MVPs, collected two league MVPs, dominated the Association for a decade and half, and tore the “best power forward ever” championship belt out of Karl Malone’s hands like seven years ago. The same goes for Popovich. He’s on the NBA coaching Mount Rushmore with Phil Jackson, Red Auerbach, and Pat Riley, and he’s presided over an unprecedented 15 straight 50 win teams. Those guys, their leaders, have achieved everything they’ve ever wanted to do with professional basketball. It’s just a shame that the run appears to be coming to an end.

Our aspirations are the size of Texas, but ultimately, we’ll come up short

8. Houston Rockets
7. Dallas Mavericks

I’m not going to pretend I can write an unbiased take on the Rockets, who I dislike more than any other NBA team. It probably has something to do with my extreme dislike of James Harden’s flopping, his “I’d rather be tortured by Liam Neeson than play defense” attitude, and Dwight Howard’s presence on this team, who somehow went from one of the league’s most popular players in Orlando to one of it’s most reviled in an extremely short span of time. Personally, I don’t hate Dwight, I just find myself being extremely frustrated by his career, because as great as he’s been, there’s no doubt that he’s left a ton on the table. He’s got the same problem that Shaq had (and the reason The Diesel’s career should’ve been 15% better than it was); both were amongst the most physically gifted athletes the league has ever seen, while just happening to be two of the least competitive superstars to ever grace the Association. I’m not saying they didn’t want to win, but they weren’t devastated and tortured by losing like MJ, Kobe, Bird, Russell, and many other NBA legends. Because of their gifts, both men never really had to work on their games to be elite players, as they were able to coast by based on their athleticism and strength alone. Shaq’s lack of competitiveness is why he never got in shape, and it’s why Dwight has only gotten marginally better with his back to the basket throughout his career. The difference between the two (and the reason The Big Aristotle is the greater player historically) is that O’Neal had far superior footwork in the post, much better touch around the basket, and a more imposing frame, which enabled him to tear through whoever he pleased. Dwight is strong, but people don’t go flying in all directions when he bumps into them. You could forgive Shaq for his attitude, because he actually put it together and absolutely destroyed the league for three straight postseasons during the Lakers 3-peat, something Dwight has never done, and frankly, was never capable of doing.

Sure, Harden is an elite offensive player (27 points and 6.8 assists per game), but his porous defense is the main reason that I’m out on Houston as a title contender. In fact, I’m creating this rule right now: you can’t be a title contender if your best player doesn’t care about competing on the defensive end. Seriously, you can’t. I’m not saying you need your best guy to be Gary Payton or prime Ron Artest on that end (after all, Dirk, Magic, and Bird were all the best guys on championship teams, and none of them ever struck fear in the hearts of the men they were guarding), but you can’t have this laissez-faire attitude towards it either, like Harden has had since he arrived in Houston.

Remember that time when Rajon Rondo went toe-to-toe with LeBron and Wade for seven games in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals? Or when he was the best player on the floor for much of the 2010 NBA Finals? I know I do, though those accomplishments seem like they were ages ago. The departure of Ray Allen, a Rondo torn ACL, the trading of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, and the worst Celtics team since 2007 have all happened since then, leading to this iteration of Rondo, a guy who is averaging a shockingly low 8.7 points and 8.7 assists per game. Really? That’s it? And it’s gotten even worse since he arrived in Dallas. At least in Boston, he was throwing up some nice stat lines, including a few triple doubles. But his Mavericks tenure has been less than stellar, and much worse than I anticipated. Sure, Dallas is 13-8 in games with Rondo, but their offensive efficiency has dipped considerably, about 7 points per 100 possessions since the trade. I don’t think Rajon is done as a basketball player, but the Dallas fit hasn’t worked. He’s an extremely unique player, someone who really needs an offense to be built around his skills for him to be successful, and I’m not sure the Mavs have the time (or the desire) to just completely toss aside all of their other pieces to make this work, at least this season. Dirk still needs his isos, and Monta Ellis is at his best when he’s attacking the basket with the ball in his hands. I’m interested to see what happens over the next few weeks with this team, as Rondo will be out as he undergoes facial surgery for an accidental kick he took to the head from teammate Richard Jefferson. What if Dallas takes off without him? And if they do, how will they reintegrate him back into the offense? There are just too many questions for me, and probably too many for them to win a first round playoff series in the loaded West.

THIS is how we’ll feel if we have to deal with another injury

6. Chicago Bulls
5. Portland Trailblazers

To the casual observer, I probably have both these teams ranked 5 spots too high, based on recent play alone. Chicago is just 5-10 in their last 15 games, and Portland is a paltry 3-8 since January 14th. Injuries have been extremely debilitating for both teams, particularly to Portland’s front line; in addition to LaMarcus Aldridge’s torn thumb ligament that he’s decided to play through, they missed Robin Lopez for 23 games with a fractured hand, and have been without Joel Freeland since January 3rd due to a shoulder strain. You can only deal with that so many body blows to your team before things start to crumble. Fortunately for them, Lopez was able to return on Wednesday, and Freeland should be back shortly. I’ve got them ranked this high because I just can’t foresee a scenario where a healthy Blazers team doesn’t at least make the conference semifinals. Even though they suck defensively, they're too talented on the offensive end to not win at least one series. They also just happen to employ the most random NBA player that I really like, Damian Lillard. The biggest travesty in the league this season is that this guy wasn’t an All Star. Like seriously, how did that happen? He’s been getting MVP buzz all season! The fact that Kobe and his 38% shooting got voted into the game as a starter is just another reason why I hate like 75% of NBA fans.

I’m not as optimistic about the Bulls, because I’m not exactly sure they’ll ever be healthy. D-Rose and Joakim Noah, the two pillars of the franchise, may be just done physically. I want Rose to recapture his 2011 MVP form again, I really do, but just watching him play basketball scares the hell out of me. Every time he lands awkwardly or hits the floor, I cringe. He doesn’t get to the rim anywhere near as easily as he used to, meaning he now settles for a ton more jump shots and three pointers, something that’s never been the strength of his game. The tape, and the numbers, show it:

2011 D-Rose

25.0 PPG, 7.7 APG, .445 FG%, .332 3P%, 37.4 minutes per game, .858 FT%, 81 games played

2015 D-Rose

18.7 PPG, 4.8 APG, .408 FG%, .296 3P%, 30.8 minutes per game, .807 FT%, 39 games played (out of 50)

Everything is down, and it depresses me. I want this guy back, just selfishly as an NBA fan, but also for his own career. That guy was so awesome to watch, but he might be gone forever. That’s what happens when two serious knee injuries cause to basically miss 30 months of competitive basketball.

The same goes for Noah, who is regressing before our eyes. He’s averaging his lowest points per game total since 2009, his lowest rebounds per game since 2012, and the lowest field goal percentage of his career. I love Tom Thibodeau, but he’s really grinded those guys, particularly Noah, so much over the last few seasons. Joakim only has one speed, which is great, because you know you’re going to get his best effort every night, but he really needs a coach to reign him in and limit his minutes to like 30 a game.

Of the two though, I definitely have more faith in Noah returning to form. I’m not sure he’s really been healthy in two years because of his plantar fasciitis, but if (and that’s an enormous if) he was able to get over it, I’m certain we’d start to see the A+ Joakim again, which is something Chicago will need if they have any chance of making the Finals.

This is the least fun Blake season since he was 8 years old and couldn’t dunk

4. Los Angeles Clippers

I could write something like, “Blake Griffin has completely changed his approach this season, as he’s shooting way more jumpers, and dunking A LOT less (he’s on pace for just 112 dunks this season, 64 less than last season)” but I really don’t have to, because he did it for me in his Players' Tribune piece that he wrote this week. In the article, he talks about how the fans criticism motivated him to improve his midrange game, and how he really needed to make it more consistently, because his body was wearing down over the course of an 82 game season, as he was relying solely on his athleticism. I understand that it takes a toll on your body to put your head down and drive as hard as you can to the basket multiple times night after night, but I hope Griffin will start playing closer to the basket once the Clips begin postseason play. He’s at his best when he’s wreaking havoc on defenses with his quickness and explosiveness. LA will need that version of Blake if they’re going to win the title.

We’ll be seeing each other at the end of May

3. Golden State Warriors
2. Memphis Grizzlies

In my opinion, these teams are going to meet in the Western Conference Finals. I think that overall, G-State is the best team in the West, but I have the Grizz ranked over them solely because they’re the worst possible match up for the Warriors. Steve Kerr’s team has no answer on the interior for the two headed monster that is Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and with the acquisitions of Vince Carter and Jeff Green, Memphis has enough on the perimeter to not get overwhelmed by State. The only way I could see the Warriors winning that series is if they absolutely went off in multiple games from downtown (which is completely possible). They’d need like two or three crazy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson heat check games where they make like a combined 15 threes. And even then, it might not be enough.

Speaking of Curry, at this point in the season, he’d get my MVP vote. He’s the leader of the best team in the best conference, and his numbers (23.6 points, 8.1 assists per game) are right there with Derrick Rose’s 2011 MVP season. Here’s how I’d rank the candidates right now:

  1. Stephen Curry
  2. Marc Gasol
  3. John Wall
  4. The Brow
  5. LeBron James

I had to throw The Brow on their, because as I mentioned before, I can’t believe the Pelicans, with that roster, are fighting for a playoff spot in the loaded West. And yes, I left James Harden off the list, because I’m not giving the MVP to a complete and total defensive liability who just happens to not care that he’s a complete and total defensive liability.

Another quick tangent on the Warriors: isn’t it amazing that the Dubs basically returned the same exact team as last season, only with a different coach, and now, they’ve suddenly got the best record in the West, and their offensive deficiencies have completely vanished? They move the ball so much better now, even if Curry isn’t on the floor, and they get the highest number of open shots outside of Atlanta. I’m sorry, but how terrible was Mark Jackson? Steve Kerr stepped in and Golden State instantly took off. I’d vote Kerr for coach of the year, though I’m not sure he’s an overly brilliant head man. It might just be that Jackson was the most clueless guy on the sidelines last season, and that’s saying something, considering both Jacque Vaughn and Tyrone Corbin were in the league.

We’d be lying if we said we saw this coming

1. Atlanta Hawks

I’m going to tell you about an exchange that occurred between my Angry Old Man and I back in December, as we were driving back from Johnson City together. We were just talking about a bunch of random stuff, when he asked me what I thought about the Hawks. Keep in mind that this was before their improbable 19 game winning streak, though they were still in first in the East. As someone who has followed the NBA my entire life, my natural inclination was to laugh, and instantly dismiss them as legitimate championship contenders, which I did. It made sense to me. I’d seen this story with Atlanta a zillion times before. They’d had some really nice pseudo-contending teams in the past, but ultimately, it had never led to anything but frustration and early round playoff exits. Why would things be any different this season?

It’s times like this when I’m reminded how much of an idiot I am. Since then, the Hawks won 19 in a row, placed three players in the All Star game, and put 8 games between themselves and everyone else in the East. Al Horford’s re-addition to the lineup from last season’s shoulder injury has been huge for them, and he, along with Paul Millsap, have formed the most imposing front line outside of Memphis. Kyle Korver is having a ridiculous season, as he’s hoping to become the first ever member of the 50-50-90 club (50% field goal percentage, 50% three point percentage, 90% free throw percentage). And then there’s Jeff Teague, who, along with Mike Conley, is the most underrated point guard in the league. They’ve got the best backup point guard in the game in Dennis Schroder, ridiculous wing defense and shooting from DeMarre Carroll and Mike Scott, and Pero Antic’s three point shooting and toughness on the interior. Somehow, despite all the turmoil in the organization, they’ve managed to build the most complete team in the Association. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… the Atlanta Hawks are going to the NBA Finals.