Tough to Gauge

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The NBA season opens in just over 2 weeks and there are some things that are fairly easy to predict. The Miami Heat are going to win a lot of games, the Bobcats will lose just as many, and there will be 10,000 articles penned about the Lakers and ‘team chemistry’ before the first week is over. But there are some things, namely the potential success or failure of certain teams, that are more difficult to gauge. 

Over the past few weeks on BALLnROLL, we’ve profiled those teams that should be wildly entertaining to watch, and those that will be, quite frankly, awful. But the following 5 teams have stubbornly defied categorization—straddling that line between, “Yeah they’re going to be good!” and “Nah, they have self-destruction written all over them”. You can talk yourself into believing they’ll be much improved, and among the tougher teams in the NBA, and you can talk yourself out of that position just as quickly.

Here are 5 teams that leave you with more questions than answers:

Washington Wizards

Considering how poor the Wizards have been over the past few seasons, saying that this season’s incarnation is much improved might not be saying too much at all. But, at first glance, the Wizards have a roster that could challenge for that 8thseed in the East.

They’ve made some solid acquisitions in the off-season, bringing in Emeka Okafor, and Trevor Ariza, who will add some toughness and a defense-first mentality. And, of course, they’ve selected Florida Gator’s star, Bradley Beal, with the 3rd overall pick. Beal, with his great shooting, should be able to contribute immediately in the NBA, and will complement John Wall in the backcourt.

But there are also plenty of questions still surrounding the team. Is Randy Wittman the right type of coach? Many said no when he was retained by the front office. Does this team have enough scoring? They might overly rely on Nene and Wall in that facet of the game. And, having just mentioned 2010’s 1st overall pick, is John Wall ready to make the leap from a middling star, to an NBA superstar?

On the one hand, it’s a little unfair to expect Wall, entering just his 3rd season, to already be at a superstar level. He was thrust into an awful team, and was forced to find his NBA legs in a Nick Young-Andray Blatche-JaVale McGee melting pot of dysfunction. However, fairly or unfairly, we expect more from 1st overall picks, and Wall’s progress is more disappointing when compared to how quickly Kyrie Irving, the 2011 1st overall pick, has progressed to superstardom. Whether Wall makes that jump will determine how far these Wizards go.

Toronto Raptors

If the Raptors had been successful in their valiant pursuit of Steve Nash, making an assessment of how good they are would’ve been much easier. The Raptors with Nash would’ve been a lower-end playoff team. But enough with the painful hypotheticals. Are the Raptors, as currently put together, a playoff team?

Well, that’s a tough question to answer—hence the reason they find themselves profiled in this article. Undoubtedly Toronto’s more talented on paper than they were last season, and they’re aided by the fact that many poor teams have finished 8th in the East recently.

As a consolation prize for missing out on Nash, the Raptors added Kyle Lowry—a player who was playing at a near all-star level for the Rockets before injury derailed him last season. The much-hyped Lithuanian rookie, Jonas Valanciunas, will suit-up this year and should add some much-needed defense and rebounding in the frontcourt—although expectations will need to be tempered.

Of course, defense has been a constant headache for the Raptors. Defensive-minded coach, Dwayne Casey, has tried to install a defense-first culture in Toronto, and there’s no doubt that the additions of Lowry and Valanciunas should aid in that process. There are still weak links on this team, however. Calderon still can’t play a lick of defense, while little should be expected from the overpaid Landry Fields at the offensive end. As for Demar DeRozan, it’s time to show that he can be a consistently good player in the NBA—not simply good at providing the occasional SportsCentre highlight.

And then there’s the biggest question: Can Andrea Bargnani play at a consistent all-star level? He’s played at that level in spurts throughout his career (he looked like he was there at times last year), but he’s been derailed by injuries and, at times, a lack of focus. But if, and it’s a big IF, Bargnani can play at the level he’s capable of consistently, that 8th seed might be up for grabs.

Phoenix Suns

On paper, the Suns have a weird looking team—strangely endearing, but weird. Gone are Steve Nash and Grant Hill, model professionals and the backcourt lynchpins of the team for the last few years. And in comes Michael Beasley—head case, knucklehead, supreme pain-in-the-ass, but supremely talented.

Beasley has failed to live up to his billing when he entered the league as the 2nd overall pick in 2008. He left Miami as the ‘big-three’ era began, and couldn’t make it work in Minnesota—even as a 6th man. In Phoenix he’ll have license to shoot, and should be able to pad his stats—which sounds like a bad thing given his history. But Beasley has the sort of irrational confidence—always thinking he’s the best player on the court—that makes you think that if he finds a coach who can get through to him, he’s still got a lot to offer an NBA team. And he’s got some talent around him.

Luis Scola, possibly the most underrated player in the NBA, was picked up off waivers—an absolute steal for a player that will give you solid scoring and rebounding numbers every night. In the backcourt, Goran Dragic will finally get an entire season to show what he can do as the floor general. Dragic has returned to Phoenix after impressing in Houston, and is definitely not short on talent. Whether he can fill the void left by Nash is another story altogether, however. Players like Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley thrived playing with Nash, and their production could dip unless Dragic can raise his game to another level.

I’m probably ignoring conventional wisdom, but with the sneaky talent on this Suns roster, I’m still not willing to concede that they’re going to be as bad as many people say. What they are going to be, however, I’m not entirely sure.

New York Knicks

Predictions about the coming season for the Knicks seem to range from them being championship contenders, to just about scraping into the playoffs. And last seasons’ Jekyll and Hyde performance hasn’t helped make it easy to assess this team in any definitive way.

That the Knicks are talented is not in doubt. In Carmelo Anthony they have the best pure-scorer in the NBA not named Kevin Durant. When Melo was engaged last year, and that seemed to depend on the absence of a certain Harvard point guard, he looked like a top-5 player in the NBA—unplayable at times. He brought that type of form to London in the summer.

But when Melo isn’t engaged, possibly 60% of last season, he can be a detriment to his team. The lack of defensive effort, grumblings about his role in the offense, and ill-advised shooting, added to the general dysfunction at MSG.

And then there’s the problem of Melo and Amar’e Stoudemire playing on the court together. Stoudemire’s decline over the past two years has been alarming, but he’s still an above average power forward—offensively at least. The problem is, Melo is much better at the position than he is. The spacing and general chemistry in an Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler frontcourt hasn’t been good. Chandler may have won Defensive Player of the Year partly because he was forced to bail out Stoudemire and Melo multiple times a game, but that isn’t ideal for the team as a whole.

In the backcourt there are just as many question marks. Replacing Jeremy Lin with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd is still too painful for many Knicks fans to get to grips with, while J.R. Smith, although potential explosive on offensive, hurts his team at the defensive end. Once Iman Shumpert returns from injury, Smith will play less, and they should get better, but how much damage will be done in the interim?

Whether the arrival of the Nets to NYC will be a blow to the collective ego, and inspire the Knicks to overcome their many issues, is another question. Just add that to the long list of questions surrounding this talented, but very flawed team.

Philadelphia 76ers

Over the past few weeks, I’ve wavered between thinking the Sixers could shock the NBA, snatching the 4thor 5th seed in the East, or completely imploding and falling out of the playoff picture altogether.

There are multiple reasons why I’ve considered the former scenario. The Sixers now have the best centre in the Eastern Conference, and it’s not even close. Dwight Howard has been shipped of to the West, and there really is no one in the East who can defend Andrew Bynum, if he’s at his monstrous best. His low-post game came on leaps and bounds last year, and his ability to dominate down the stretch in games should worry every coach in the Eastern Conference.

Elsewhere on the roster, point guard Jrue Holiday made a big jump last season, and was particularly impressive during Philly’s improbable playoff run. Evan Turner looked great in patches last year, and will get more playing time at the 3-spot with the departure of Andre Iguodala.

But, for the same reasons the Sixers could be very good this season, they could also be very disappointing. New additions, Nick Young and Jason Richardson, add a lot as far as making Philadelphia a more dangerous outside shooting team, but they leave a lot to be desired on defense. In fact, with the loss of Iguodala, the Sixers are a far worse perimeter-defense team this year. Turner isn’t awful on that end, but he’s no Iggy at this stage of his career.

And then there are the personality issues. Turner has quietly developed the reputation of being difficult, and a combination of him and Nick Young in the locker-room could give Doug Collins fits. But the real elephant in the room is Bynum’s knucklehead tendencies, and how he will mesh with Collins.

As great as Bynum was last year, we all remember the clashes with Mike Brown; the ill-advised 3-point shot, the sulking, and the sitting alone during timeouts. Doug Collins has a tendency to over-coach, and has developed a reputation of self-destructing when trying to deal with difficult superstars—he didn’t exactly have the greatest relationship with MJ. Whether Bynum takes to Collins’ coaching style is one of the more intriguing subplots of the new season, and might make the difference as to whether the Sixers succeed or fail this year.

 

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