Archives For October 2009

Preview & Chat: The Dallas Mavericks

Kurt —  October 30, 2009

Dallas Mavericks vs Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles
Records: Lakers 1-0 Mavericks 0-1
Offensive (pts per 100 poss): Lakers 101.6 Mavericks 100.5
Defensive (pts per 100 poss): Lakers 94.4 Mavericks 112.7
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Mavericks: Jason Kidd, Quinton Ross, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Erick Dampier

The Lakers Coming in: Once again, no Pau Gasol tonight, although he is possible for Sunday against Atlanta. Phil Jackson said something interesting about the team not rushing Gasol back: Ron Artest’s versatility is a key part of what makes that possible.

The one concern coming out of the first game was the play of the bench, which didn’t wow anybody in the preseason, either. Certainly, the return of Gasol, moving Odom to the sixth man role, will help with that. But Sasha got yanked fast after a defensive lapse in the first half Tuesday, Jordan Farmar seemed to really push looking to assert himself (and not always successfully), and DJ Mbenga returned to shooting like it is the regular season. (Yes, DJ hit jumpers in preseason, he does in shoot around too, but that is very different from regular season game action.) We will see tonight if the unit plays better, although to be fair the fourth quarter run that gave the Lakers the win included a number of bench players. Just something to watch.

The Lakers have a six game winning streak against the Mavericks, including a sweep last season.

The Mavericks Coming in: Dallas comes in off a disappointing season opening loss to the Wizards, in part because the Hibachi got hot. That game was won in the backcourt matchup — Dallas starters Kidd and Ross combined for just six points on the night. I asked Rob from Two Man Game a couple questions about that:

1) Marion was not the support for Dirk he was expected to be in game one. Is he still adjusting to the players and system?

There’s no doubt that Marion is still getting his sea legs. And it’s to be expected, honestly. Marion’s adjusting to a minimal offensive role after being (at least, theoretically) more prominent in Miami and Toronto, he’s adjusting to the strengths and weaknesses of his new teammates, he’s adjusting to the offensive and defensive sets, and he’s adjusting to Rick Carlisle. Marion’s incredibly aware on the court, but one of the reasons why his anticipation is so strong is because he understands spacing. He knows when to make the cuts, and he knows when to hit the boards. Those things take time to figure out when you’re playing with a completely different team, and as soon as Marion gets a better grip on the flow of the offense and each player’s spots, I’m sure he’ll shine.

He’s already had some tough critics for a one-game performance, especially considering he really didn’t play that badly. Marion still showed up his positional counterpart, Caron Butler, with some solid defense and a back-to-the-basket game I didn’t really know Shawn had.

2) The Wizards offensive numbers were fantastic, was that a matter of a hot team or bad defense (or a combination)? Was it the Pick-and-roll?

I always want to pick one of the polar answers on these types of questions, but basketball is such a middling sport. I’m not sure anyone expected Gilbert Arenas to get off to the start that he did, and his combination of quickness going to the basket and a pull-up game was a tough cover for the Mavs’ guard corps. Randy Foye and Andray Blatche also came out of relative obscurity to lend a hand in the opening night festivities, and those are, in my mind, the more grievous defensive problems. I can deal with Gil dropping big points, and hey, for that matter, I can deal with a role player getting hot from now and again. There are 82 games, and these are the inevitabilities. But Jason Terry’s defense on Foye was just miserable, and he was getting abused by Foye’s quick cuts and use of picks along the perimeter. Blatche showed more energy in this one game than I’ve ever seen him play with in the NBA, and just abused the Mavs’ bigs with his activity. Everything seemed a bit slow for Dallas, and Blatche took full advantage of the rust en route to a big night on the scoreboard and the offensive glass.

The Mavs’ inability to defend the pick-and-roll has been a recurring theme for the better part of a decade. Though they’re somehow capable of handcuffing San Antonio’s screen game, teams with a quick point guard and a finishing big have most of the ingredients necessary to topple Dallas. Gil and Brendan Haywood proved that theory in the first half ad nausem, ending in not one, not two, but three uncontested Haywood slams. Arenas also had the benefit of some extra room on his jumper, and though he couldn’t stick all of them, they were good looks. Honestly, this is probably the area that separates the Mavs from the true elite. They just don’t have the quickness, the anticipation, or the communication to defend the pick and roll effectively. The Mavs can and will still win plenty of games through their offense, rebounding, and other facets of their defensive game, but they’re at a real disadvantage to teams who know (and can) go to the pick and roll early and often.

Dallas has gone in to a “Win Now” mode — the five players who logged the most court time in the season opener (Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and Erick Dampier) are all at least 31 years old. Which is why a loss to the Lakers and going 0-2 could play to the insecurities of that team and its fan base.

Quinton Ross is starting at the two because Josh Howard is out with a lingering ankle injury following off-season surgery.

Dirk Nowitzki apparently worked on his back-to-the-basket game this summer. I’ll be curious to see if the try to use it. Like the Lakers with Gasol, it makes sense to put him on the block like that against the teams with smaller fours, but with the Lakers size that is less of an easy basket.

The focus this past training camp for the Mavericks was getting better on defense, something they apparently did not carry over into the first regular season game. However, expect them to be a lot more focused on that end of the court tonight. Ross will get the majority of Kobe time, but others will have a chance.

One guy to watch on Dallas, if he gets in the game, is the rookie from France Rodrigue Beaubois. I was fortunate to see him a couple times at Summer League and he was one of the guys everybody wanted to watch — he is lightning quick, can pass and wasn’t a bad finisher. He is still learning how to harness all that into the NBA game, but he could be very good.

Blogs and Links: To learn more about Dallas, check out The Two Man Game.

Also, live chat as ESPN tonight if you want to go by, just log on here any time after the early game starts.

For those of you stat nuts out there, a new site to check out is Hoopdata, which tracks a lot of information including a lot of the expected advanced stats as well as charges drawn, shot locations, assist locations and more. It has stats from the last three seasons as well as this one. It’s too early to read anything into statistics for this year, but the site is well worth checking out.

Excerpts of the may never be released Tim Donaghy book are out, and I thought wondahbap made a great point in the comments.

Donaghy really didn’t tell us anything we don’t know. Some of you think it may change the way you view the game, but like the change of the “traveling” rule, it really shouldn’t change anything.

How many people here play(ed) basketball? How many times have you felt your team isn’t getting a fair whistle, but instead of whining, you tell your teammates to play through it and adjust to the whistle? The best team will, and that’s why they are better. That is what makes the difference between a good amateur player, and a good professional. Adjustments. Why do you think Kobe is as great as he is? Because when the money is on the line, he can score with defenders draped all over him, he can hit big shots in hostile environments, and make his free throws. The Lakers were the best road team last year because they could handle, good or bad, whatever the refs gave them and adjust.

Finally, a trivia question: Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki are two of the three NBA players who have averaged at least 20 points per game the last nine seasons. Who is the third? (Answer at the bottom of the post.)

Off Topic Question of the Day: Anybody using Google Wave? Thoughts?

Keys to game: While we were all watching the Lakers get their rings a couple nights back, Gilbert Arenas was carving up the Dallas defense on the way to a Wizards win. Dallas has long struggled to cover good shooting guards/small forwards, and apparently that has not changed. So this could be another very good night for those of you with Kobe on your fantasy team — he has scored at least 25 points against Dallas in 16 of the last 17 meetings between these teams, and has 40 or more five times.

One guy the Lakers need to watch off the bench is Jason Terry, who last year had the highest shooting percentage in the league on two-point jump shots (49.2%). He has killed the Lakers before with the midrange, you can’t help off him.

Odom, who has been playing with amazing confidence, will start on Dirk, but expect Artest and Powell likely to get some time. Obviously, slowing him is a key.

Transition defense will be important — Kidd is not as fast as he was but he still makes fantastic decisions in transition. Also, with Marion on the wing, he has a good option to dish to. Also, in his pregame interview at Lakers.com, assistant coach Jim Cleamons said that Kidd becomes a dangerous three-point shooter late in the clock — when he does not have an option to pass — and that the Lakers need to be aware of that and be there to contest the shot.

Where you can watch: This is an ESPN broadcast, starting at 7:30 Pacific.

The trivia answer: Vince Carter.

Andrew Bynum of the Los Angeles Lakers
During the bloggers forum last weekend at ESPN Zone LALive, Andrew Kamenetzky made what I thought was a very astute point: The Lakers are going to win 20 games or so this season just because they are that much more talented than the other team. The Lakers won’t play bad, they won’t play great, and they’ll get a win because they are just flat out better.

I think game one was the first of those 20. There were a lot of rough edges out there to polish (as JD Hastings put it), but the bottom line is the Lakers got a comfortable win on a night without their second best player (and the one that often makes the offense look pretty). For a first game, you take that. Especially on Ring Night, when a lot of teams look past the game. The Lakers got a professional win.

• As I’ve said, Ron Artest still seems to be thinking and not just reacting yet, he’s still figuring out how to use his aggressive play in the system. Darius expounds on that.

Ron needs to shoot a bit more when he drives the lane. In the 2nd half he penetrated to the middle a few of times and once committed a turnover by forcing a pass to the short corner when that guy was covered and the other time he tried a hand off to Bynum that didn’t do anyone any good at all as ‘Drew found himself with the ball and no where to go with it. Mind you, I’m not asking Ron to be more selfish, but I am asking him to read the play a bit better when he’s creating off the dribble. It’s like he’s trying too hard to conform to the offense. Even Ron mentioned it in his halftime interview “Phil wants me to play my normal aggressive game”. Phil’s right. Take the liberties that are presented to you, Ron. This offense is equal opportunity. When the opportunity presents itself to make a play for yourself, please take it. Believe me, I like moving the ball. I like seeing him as a decisive passer. But there are times when he’s 5 feet from the hoop and looking to pass. Our offense will be much better off if he’s shooting on some of those plays.

• Working with Kareem or no, Bynum is showing a healthy variety of moves in the post and a lot of quickness. If you listened to the ESPN NBA Podcast yesterday, you heard Celtics guy Ryen Russillo say the NBA should be very afraid if Bynum is moving like that. I think people are starting to see what we saw this preseason and what we have hoped for. Darius added one concern (Ryen had it as well):

I still wonder if Bynum can be as productive as he showed last night when Pau returns. I still think their numbers will come at the expense of each other as they have essentially become the same type of offensive player. Yes, Pau has more range on his jumpshot (out to 18 ft whereas ‘Drew is 15 ft and in) and Bynum is not as deft a passer as the big Spaniard. And Pau is more polished (though ‘Drew is growing by leaps and bounds in this area – how about those hard dribbles to the middle from the right block with the smooth left handed finishes?). But both primarily score on the block in post isolations or in attack situations from the elbow. Plus our high low sets work best when it’s Artest or Kobe flashing to the mid-post and looking for the lob to one of our bigs when the defense reacts to the flash – so I don’t expect to see a ton of high low work between Pau and Drew (though there will be some). My point is, while I’d love for both our bigs to be 20 point guys (they obviously both have the talent to do it), I think they’ll share the court too much and it will likely be Pau getting 18-20pts with Drew getting 13-15 points.

• I think we’ll see more high-low than Darius does, but when Pau comes back that is fewer shots for everyone else.

• Am I a bad person for gloating that Shaq was -25 last night.?

• I am very happy for Rambis with the opening-night win.

• Why NCIS Los Angeles? There is almost no Navy presence in Los Angeles. NCIS San Diego makes a lot of sense. LA… not so much.

• While the +/- numbers from the Clipper game were not great for the bench guys, remember that the run that put the game away to start the fourth quarter came with a mix of bench and starters — DJ was out for some of it, replaced by Bynum, they had the Farmar/Brown backcourt for a little bit of it. There were just a lot of different guys all contributing. That is how you win.

• We close with this:

Welcome to the first nomuskles live blog of the year! It seemed like this day would never come!

Boston vs. Cleveland

Neither team looked incredibly impressive (it’s early) but two things stuck out about Cleveland. Shaq is pretty much his same self and Lebron is getting nastier and nastier. He continued his trend of incredible blocks from behind and hit some nice looking jumpers. That young man is unstoppable.

Championship Ring Presentation and Banner Unveiling

The Lakers receive their championship rings tonight because, in case you might have possibly perhaps forgotten, they beat the Orlando Magicians to earn the title of 2009 NBA Champions. That’s a phrase that never gets old. 2009 NBA Champions! How many times before that gets annoying? 2009 NBA Champions!

David Stern says something incomprehensible. Jeannie Buss stands next to him and says nothing. She has her umm…shall we say, “special occcasion” boots on.

The Lakers begin the ceremony with a few players from past Lakers championship teams. They are: Jerry West, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, Michael Cooper, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, AC Green, Rick Fox, and Robert Horry. Kareem is introduced later as a member of the coaching staff.

Players I wish would have been invited as well: Shaquille O’Neal, Ron Harper, Byron Scott, Elgin Baylor, and Elden Campbell. Okay, not Elden. I also wish Wilt Chamberlain and Chick Hearn could have been at the event. Alas.

This is followed by an awkward moment in which Dr. Buss is given some love by Magic and he has to put his drink down and we all notice that he’s sitting next to an attractive young woman who can’t be older than 33. It makes you wonder what his kids might think. And then you realize that his daughter…okay mm yeah. I’m going to stop myself right there.

Then of course Adam Morrison gets his well-deserved ring. Speaking of which, does anyone know if there are formal rules for who gets a ring and who does not? For instance, I assume Sun Yue will get one. Does Radmanovic get one also? How about Chris Wallace? I think in this case, the Lakers should send him one. And when will Trevor Ariza and Sun Yue get theirs?

Very triumphant music being played. Fisher looks like he has tears in his eyes. Kobe comes out with some young man energy smiling and bouncing around. Haters/Cynics go ahead and insert your “he’s disingenuine/fake” comments here.

The new banner is unveiled like a giant game of peek-a-boo. Amazing. I’d like to offer my appreciation to everyone here and in the Lakers organization for letting me enjoy such a great season last year. Titles don’t come very often to “your team” everyday. I’m savoring the moment.

The TNT crew does a great job ribbing Charles about the fact that Mbenga, Powell, and Morrison have championship rings. They also mention such legen..wait for it…dary legends as Rich Petruska, Zan Tabak, and Mike Penberthy.

1st Quarter

Starting Lineups
Lakers: Dfish, Kobe, Crazy Pills, LO, and Young Bynum
Clippers: Baron Davis, Baron Davis’s beard, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton, Chris “The Recently German” Kaman, and Marcus Camby

11:50 – Lakers control the tip, go into Bynum who enjoys the give in the new rims and gets a jump hook to fall….eventually. Only notable because it forces the bench to wait on it’s new first made field goal ritual as the ball bounces around the rim. I watched the Major League version, and the bench actually does it slightly differently. Lakers tap their right foot twice in contrast to the movie guys who tapped their right foot once and then their left foot once before crossing over. Check out the 1:36 mark on youtube. Also of note: Josh Powell got it right this time. Mbenga…not so much. We are officially underway in this season of possibilities. LAC 0, LAL 2.

10:59 – For those who care, the Lakers are wearing a special patch celebrating their championship win. It’s the Larry O’Brien Trophy next to a black and gold banner that says 15 on it representing the 15 championships won by the franchise (including the ones from Minneapolis). The Lakers have also added decals along the baseline touting the 50 year history of the Lakers in Los Angeles. They now have about five different fonts on their court. Design nightmare. The Lakers.com in front of the benches, the new decals, the Lakers under the baskets, the Lakers logo at the center, and the Staples Center wordmark. Can’t we stick to one or two fonts? LAC 0, LAL 5.

10:22 – Baron Davis’s Beard is no match for Kobe Bryant’s Fadeaway. LAC 2, LAL 7.

8:52 – Sloppy play. Kobe goes around the back in the back court in transition and loses the ball. Kaman ends up with the ball and the enforcer, DFish, takes him out at the basket. There was a pile of Kaman on the floor afterwards. Recently German hits one of two. We also find out that Kaman built a workout facility on his farm in Minnesota. Someone tell Kaman that building a workout facility doesn’t fix the ugly. LAC 7, LAL 7.

7:15 – B Diddy looks good. He’s quick and he can still shoot bricks with the best of them. LAC 8, LAL 9.

6:43 – Marv Albert is telling me about how teams fair on opening night after winning the championship. Thanks Marv. Totally relevant. My life is now complete.

4:49 – The crowd Oohs and then Ahhs when Fisher throws a wraparound pass to Bynum who proceeds to Kwame it out of bounds. LAC 15, LAL 18.

3:32 – Crazy Pill decided to shave more stuff into his hair. It’s amazing. Words can’t do it justice. Go find a picture. Run, don’t walk. He shoots a couple free throws and makes one. The announcing crew proceeds to have a banal conversation about whether Artest will accept his role as a third or fourth option. Miller insights this little gem, “well he’s going to have to.” Thanks Captain Obvious. I’m glad you make so much money telling everyone what they already know.

1:07 – I believe Mike Dunleavy just asked his assistant coach what a clear-path foul is. You can now watch Bill Simmons light himself on fire. LAC 19, LAL 28.

0:53 – B Diddy fell asleep trying to receive the inbounds in the back court and Farmar accepts the gift, flushing home a deuce. Clippers turn it over again and the Lakers get two more. 4 careless points right there. I imagine Mike Dunleavy is pretty happy with that. LAC 19, LAL 32.

0:21 – Ricky Davis banks home a three instead of holding for the last shot. Hard to argue with that but Lakers will now have plenty of time to get the last shot. The scoreboard crew is also a little rusty. They add three points to the Lakers’ score and then have to take it away and add it to the Clippers’ score. LAC 25, LAL 32. That’s how the quarter ends as Artest can’t make the wide open three. Kanye West interrupts and says, “sorry Ron, but Ricky Davis had one of the best threes of all time.”

2nd Quarter
Summary of Mike Dunleavy’s 1st break interview: We’re playing well except those stupid mistakes we made. Oh really? And I’m a good cardiac surgeon except for all those patients I killed.

Lakers open the period with Odom and Crazy Pills still in with Vujacic, Farmar, and Mbenga.

10:17 – Craig Smith is built like a tank. He scores underneath and then gets a steal and beats farmar down the court to get an easy layup. LAC 26, LAL 37.

9:27 – Eric Gordon’s nickname is Hobbit??? This is quite a well-read Clippers team we’ve got on our hands. I wonder if it’s a reference to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. LAC 29, LAL 39. Every time the camera gets a glimpse of Blake Griffin, he’s standing and walking around. He should probably not be standing and walking so much if he’s got a borked knee. He is the new franchise player, just sayin’.

8:30 – Mbenga is throwing up all kinds of trash towards the rim in hopes that…well I’m not sure exactly. Let’s just move on.

6:35 – Mbenga spikes the ball off Josh Powell’s face. Did he yell hibachi? LAC 33, LAL 40.

5:36 – Bassy Telfair hits a jumper to make it 37-40. clippers making a little run here with Kobe, Fish, and Jerry West on the bench. I imagine they’ll be back out there on the flipside of this timeout. On a positive note, that means Kobe got a long rest with the 5 minutes from the intermission plus the 6 and a half minutes of game time already elapsed in the second quarter. If Phil can afford to do that for the entire year, Kobe is going to feel like a spring chicken come the playoffs. All the starters come back except LO. Powell stays in.

3:45 – Kobe is playing center field off his man but when Craig smith reaches the paint and Kobe doesn’t rotate over in time, what exactly is the point? If you’re cheating off your man, shouldn’t you be in prime position to help? If you’re not going to help, then just go guard your man. Don’t stand in no-man’s-land.

The following is almost as sad as Phil Jackson’s hanging dap is hilarious: Khloe Kardashian sees herself on the jumbo tron and almost points it out to her sister Kim but then realizes that she’s supposed to be above such pedestrian concerns and stops herself midway through saying “hey look, that’s us.” You could literally see the SLOW progression of thoughts from “Oh I’m on tv!” to “oh I want to tell my sister” to “Oh, I should just pretend not to notice.” You aren’t a publicity fiend at all, Khloe. Not at all. We’re totally buying that you don’t care about being famous. Yup. Totally buying it.

1:32 – Bynum swallows up Rasual Butler’s shot and gets called for a phantom foul. So much for the regular refs being the saviors of the game. After the free throws, LAC 45, LAL 51.

0:27 – Reggie “Ferengi” Miller can finally stop talking about Khloe Kardashian when Kobe makes a nice over the shoulder layup. He articulates “Mmm..nice” Mmm nice, indeed, Mr. Ferengi. Lakers make another steal and get a Bynum layup with 1 second left. Nice way to close out the half. LAC 49, LAL 59.

Halftime

Good to see Agent Zero back in action. He was hoopin tonight.

3rd Quarter

Both teams go with their starting lineups. Young Bynum put a sleeve on his bad knee at halftime. Something to be worried about?

10:50 – Clippers run a horrendous slow break. Baron Davis lets his beard make decisions for him and shoots a three with no one else around. On replay, it’s obvious that Baron’s shot was about a foot to the right of the rim. He tries to play it off like it was deflected.

8:29 – Clippers fans are now going to light themselves on fire. Baron Davis just earned his third foul in the past two minutes.

6:57 – Camby asks the Staples Center staff to shut the door after he throws up a 19-foot shot from 21 feet away. LAC 61, LAL 70.

5:31 – Reminder: it’s the first game of the season. Turnovers and bad shots abound along with the inability to corral rebounds. LAC 63, LAL 70.

4:24 – Great battle of young centers. First Kaman puts Bynum in the popcorn machine with a plethora of fakes and jabs but can’t finish. Then Bynum gets fed in transition and beats Kaman at the other end for a pretty layup. LAC 63, LAL 71.

1:26 – we might hear this a lot more this season “[insert point guard’s name here] blows by fisher.” LAC 70, LAL 74.

0:41 – Hooo weee. Telfair gives a great alley-oop to marcus camby from the wing! Great vision by the young New Yorker. LAC 75, LAL 76.

4th Quarter

11:22 – Great defense by the Lakers. They are heavily pressuring the ballhandlers. OOOoooo. shanWOW breaks out the rocket pack and rises up in transition for a dunk after the Farmar steal. The German nudges him and takes out his legs and Shannon’s lucky not to get hurt. Brown was about to do a 180 degree reverse.

9:39 – LO! Kobe is trying to will the lakers to a win but misses the runner. Lamar grabs his 11th rebound and puts it back while getting fouled. He’ll try and pick up the 3 point play. He does. Big play right there. Did he learn how to close the deal from Khloe? LAC 77, LAL 82.

8:36 – Craig Smith (recall: built like a tank) has a full head of steam and Jordan Farmar (recall: not built like a tank) stands in the paint to accept the charge. I believe he breathed a gigantic sigh of relief when Smith wiggled his way around without any contact. Farmar immediately calls over the equipment manager for a change of shorts. Smith gets fouled at the rim but misses the free throws. LAC 77, LAL 84.

6:55 – It’s the Lamar Show! A couple seconds left on the 24 second clock and Lamar heaves up a deep three and it’s beautifully true. LAC 79, LAL 89.

5:35 – After Kobe throws up an ugly 27 footer that bounces straight to Bynum, Bynum deftly feeds Mamba on the move towards the bucket who draws the foul and hits the layup. Kobe gets a steal on the next possession and hits Ron Ron with a nice bounce pass for the layup in transition and the foul. Lakers are too deep and too strong for the Clipper Ships on this night of battle. LAC 79, LAL 94. …the lights are out, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard, and the jellooooo’s jiggling. This one is in the refrigerator.

0:27 – No one told the Clippers this game was over as they continue to play hard. Too little, too late. LAC 92, LAL 99 is your final.

NBA 2009 - Lakers Beat Clippers 88-85
Records: Lakers 0-0 Clippers 0-0
Offensive ratings: Lakers NA Clippers NA
Defensive ratings: Lakers NA Clippers NA
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum
Clippers: Baron Davis, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton, Craig Smith, Chris Kaman

Going For The Game One Overload: In addition to the flowing comments here, I’ll be taking part in a live chat tonight at the ESPN.com NBA page. There will be some ESPN.com NBA writers, a few of us bloggers and whoever else wanders in. When I have the link I’ll post it, but come on by there (I’ll be bouncing between here and there like a Forest Gump ping-pong match).

The Lakers Coming in: First the injury news: Gasol is a game-time decision but I expect the Lakers to err on the side of caution and he will sit. Kobe has a sore foot, but frankly if you amputated his foot this afternoon he would still play. Also, DJ Mbenga is your inactive tonight.

Tonight first is a chance to celebrate last season — and we should revel in that one more time. Championships are precious things to be savored. Enjoy the ring ceremony, enjoy the banner being unveiled. Soak it in.

Then the players need to forget and move on.

After a preseason of “Phil Jackson’s Experimental Kitchen” tonight we start to get a feel for his rotations. Well, a little bit. Obviously no Gasol means no early Odom and probably some time for Josh Powell. I am curious to see the guard order off the bench (Farmar, Sasha, then Brown is my guess). I’ll add I think Brown gets more minutes tonight because the Clippers backcourt of Davis and Gordon are physically strong — that suits Brown’s defense better. Jordan may get some time on the ultra-quick Telfair.

The Clippers Coming in: Again? Already the injury bug has bitten the Clippers — Blake Griffin is out six weeks with a stress fracture. It really does suck, he won me over with his play at Summer League and just came off as a down-to-earth guy when you spoke with him. Fortunately it’s not career threatening. In addition to the headline injury, Baron Davis and Marcus Camby are slowed, but expected to play tonight.

Still, there is hope in Clippers land. And — on paper — there should be. Kevin at Clipperblog explains:

Griffin and Gordon may not be saviors, but they’re something. Griffin’s skills and his tenacious work ethic (the guy runs up sand dunes in his free time) will be a boon to a team desperate for cultural overhaul. Gordon offers an enticing combination of spot-up shooting and forays into the paint. He finished third in true shooting percentage among starting off guards in his rookie campaign, something that can only help a team that ranked dead last in offensive efficiency last season.

Both Griffin and Gordon are 20 years old, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to make the Clippers a playoff team by themselves. Fortunately, the Clips have surrounded the duo with a decent collection of veterans. The list starts at center, where Marcus Camby is in the twilight of his career at 35, but remains a formidable defensive rover and rebounder. A healthy Chris Kaman commands serious defensive attention in the post and can block shots in bundles.

But there is really one big question looming over the Clippers season: Can Baron Davis and Mike Dunleavy share the sandbox? Their clash of styles last year — Davis thinking he was still with Golden State while Dunleavy wanted to play slower than the Spurs — was the millstone around the Clippers neck. This year, Davis has come in promising to do what his coach asks (plus he looks fit). Dunleavy, with a team full of young guys that can run, would be a fool not to let them. Maybe they should try a little of what Phil Jackson has done with the Lakers — the first seven seconds of the shot clock run and freelance, but after that run the offense. We will see.

Blogs/Links to check out: In addition to the previously mentioned ClipperBlog — just one of the best team blogs out there in the NBA — check out ClipsNation.

Also, check out ESPN’s E:60 for a feature on Ron Artest today. (Starts at 4 Pacific on the big network.)

On a separate note, great piece in the New York Times Sunday on the history of basketball and James Naismith.

Keys to game: This will be the first test of one of the big concerns about the Lakers this season — focus. Plenty of teams get wrapped up in the rings and the banner and the celebration and forget about the game at hand. Meanwhile, the other team sits there and watches the rings and the banners and just gets ticked, then comes out focused. Darius notes that during the preseason, energy was not the issue.

I love the mentality of this team; I love what this team is projecting when they’re on the court. They look loose, they look like they’re having fun, and best of all they look like they’re competing and still hungry. People have had complacency concerns with this team and that is understandable. But I think back to the weeks right after the season and hearing Fish and Kobe talk about the mindset of a repeating champion. How the goals for this team aren’t limited to winning one title, but in extending their run to put their stamp on the league. This is where having the Phil/Kobe/Fisher triumvirate is meaningful to long-term success. These guys have all been through successful 3-peats and they *know* what it takes. With these guys steering the ship I’m positive we’ll put forth our best effort in driving for the ultimate goal. That doesn’t mean we won’t have some lackluster nights or lose games against bad teams. But it does mean that this team will play their best ball when it matters most.

On offense the Lakers will stay with the pattern seen in the preseason — they will go in to the post early and often. Bynum will get touches, and Odom may as well. One matchup I’d like to see the Lakers exploit is Ron Artest covered by Al Thornton — because Thornton and defense are like oil and water. Look for Rasual Butler to get the majority of the time at the three, he plays defense, and Thornton should get some time at the four with Butler. Of course, Kobe should be able to get his as always. Scoring is not the concern tonight.

On defense, the Lakers need to cut off the head — focus on Baron Davis. That starts with Fisher (and Brown and Farmar) but it is going to take smart rotations from Bynum and Odom as well. Next, the Lakers need to not let Craig Smith eat them up inside like he did in preseason. Granted, that was preseason, but the Lakers need to make sure he doesn’t drop 20+.

Without Griffin, the Clippers will be more of a perimeter team. As Darius noted in the comments, Kobe likes to play free safety and has wandered away from Eric Gordon in the past — do that tonight and he will have a big game. No need to collapse inside, the bigs got it. Stay at home.

Finally, the Lakers need to get back in transition — the Clippers have a lot of guys who can run. Gordon, DeAndre Jordan (who I like a lot, he could have a big year) and Griffin when healthy all can get out and go, and with Telfair running the second unit they could get good looks in transition. The Lakers need to get back.

Where you can watch: TNT has the game, with a 7:30 tip off after what should be an entertaining Celtics/Cavaliers tilt. (The best part of the first game will be watching some columnist from the losing city virtually write their city’s team off after a loss in the first game of a long season.) Hopefully TNT will give us a lot of ring ceremony, which starts at 7 (if TNT runs long NBA.com is supposed to have a stream of the ceremony).

Game 5: Magic vs. Lakers
This year the TrueHoop Network has put together a book of NBA team previews, which you will hear more about soon. Due to book publishing deadlines, my first version of this was written in August, well before training camp opened, and had tight word counts to fit space.

What follows is a modified version of that printed preview — my views have evolved with what we have seen in training camp and preseason, and with your comments and the discussions here. Also, this is longer. Enjoy, then check out the list of other blogger previews for their teams below.

————————————————————-

God, it is good to be hated again.

It’s an oddly comforting thing for Lakers fans when the entire world seems to be passionately wishing for your team to fail, hoping for an earthquake that will break off Los Angeles and dump it in the ocean so that they don’t have to hear about the Lakers again. When the Lakers are hated, you know they are good.

And they are good — very good. Not only did they win the NBA title, they brought back virtually every piece of that team, and made a move to bring in a unique talent (and personality) at another spot. On paper they should be a better team this year — Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant are back to lead, with a more mature supporting cast.

But they also will be a different team.

Two things change the Lakers dynamic this year, meaning they will play at a little slower pace and likely be better on defense.

The first of those is Ron Artest, who will make the team different because he is, um, different. But forget the under/over on how many times Phil Jackson is asked a question that begins, “Ron Artest tweeted…” (the betting line is 225), he changes the Lakers on the court. He is a more physical defender, a guy who can slow down the big threes in the league like Paul Pierce or LeBron James (as much as anyone slows them). His offense within the triangle has been a pretty good fit through preseason, as Darius explains:

I’ve described Artest as a souped-up Walton and I believe that even more now. He’s barely looking to shoot and he’s focused almost entirely on making plays for his teammates whenever he touches the ball on offense. But because he’s still such an offensive threat and so strong, he’s able to occupy defenders in a way that has been effective so far and allowed him to be a playmaker from the perimeter that we don’t have outside of Kobe and Odom (who is not nearly as controlled as Ron has shown so far).

That said, Artest will shoot (and likely at some points this year more than we would like). Artest shoots the three better than Ariza and is a beast down low, a dangerous combination in the Lakers offense. But Reed adds this note about comparing Ariza and Artest:

Ariza proved that, more than perhaps anyone on last year’s team but Kobe and Fisher, he is a winner; he is not scared of the big moment; he asserts himself to change the game when everything is on the line. That’s a rare and special quality. He clearly had Horry and Cassell’s role player killer instinct…. And that’s what this team really needs after Kobe and Gasol — talented players who rise up in big moments. We’ll see if Artest has it in him. He’s never been tested like that before.

The other big change will be having a healthy Andrew Bynum. (*knocking on wood*). So far in the preseason, Bynum has moved well and he has been devastatingly good — he is running the floor, beating the other big down and getting deep position on the block. Reed adds to that point.

Bynum looks to have regained his explosiveness. I think he’s going to be a man on a mission to prove himself, resulting in big numbers and lots of ball hogging. I won’t care about the latter so long as he doesn’t pout about sitting at the end of games and can keep his selfish tendencies on hold for the playoffs (like Kobe was able to when young). But I think he’s going to give himself an Antoine Walker in Boston level green light and just fire away whenever he has the slightest opportunity.

There will be other things to watch during the regular season (besides the one time a game — at least — when Kobe just makes your jaw drop to the floor like you’re in an old Tex Avery cartoon). Point guard is going to be one thing to follow. Derek Fisher is the starter, the guy who hits the big shots, but he is almost old enough to start for the Celtics. Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown will get the chance to supplant him, but the question remains if one of them can step up and do it. Brown may be the crowd favorite — he is certainly the YouTube favorite with his dunks — but Farmar may have had the better overall preseason.

That said, what Ty Lawson did to the Lakers PGs (all three of them) in the last game is a reminder that this is a lurking issue. Somehow the Lakers need to find a way to defend quick point guards, or that will come back to bite them this season.

The ultimate keys to the Lakers are: 1) Kobe; 2) A front line that is long and versatile. Reed chimes in with this

The obvious strength of this team is its frontcourt size, skill, and quickness. No other team can match up with Gasol, Bynum, and Odom up front when they are all healthy and playing well. I don’t know if we’ve seen a front line with this much potential since the 86 Celtics…. I do hope that our closing offense in tight games is much less spreading the court for Kobe the last 3 minutes, and much more throwing the ball inside and reserving the Kobe clear out until the last play or two.

With that front line, expect a lot of post-up play and a slower pace from our starting unit. Zephid talks about that:

On offense, the starters are pretty much a post-up unit. Kobe, Artest, Pau, Andrew, they’re all at their best when posting up, so we could be in for a ton of grinding first quarters. Heck, even Fisher posts up smaller guards from time to time. I really like Artest’s “post game,” even if it consists mostly of bull rushes to the hoop and no actual back-to-the-basket moves. Man, but when he gets his shoulders around his defender, he’s pretty much unstoppable, with a couple of really nice assists coming off these bull-rushes.

On defense, things will be a little different this year. With Artest as another strong wing defender to go with Kobe (when he wants to be a good one on one defender), the Lakers now have a healthy Bynum in the paint. The Lakers moved away somewhat from the strong side zone in this preseason, but worked hard to force penetration to the baseline and get the help there early. The Lakers will still trap and try to force turnovers, something else we saw with the team near the end of the preseason. Particularly with the second unit, which is more likely to run on the turnovers they create.

The unenviable challenge for other teams is to match up with the versatility of the Lakers — want to go big and the Lakers can stack three guys 6’10 or taller along the front line for you. Want to go small and the Lakers can move Kobe Bryant to the three, Ron Artest to the four (or Odom) and have one of the better running/passing true seven footers in Gasol in the middle (plus Bynum can run the floor).

No matter what you want to do, the Lakers can match up with better players. That just makes everybody hate them. Which is a good thing.

Predicted Win total: 64. One less than last year, the West is deep and the Lakers will have an adjustment period with Artest, but in the end they are still the class of the conference. (The crystal ball of the rest of the TrueHoop Network said 62 Lakers wins.)

Why they will fail (Thoughts from the rest of the network on why the Lakers will fall short):
Because one day Derek Fisher will stop saving Kobe’s teams. (Ryan Schwan)

I paid a voodoo priestess to curse them. I even let her use some of my blood and my lucky chicken’s foot. I’m sure that should do it. (Matt McHale)

Best Tweet of the Team: “Stop me if you can opponents. Then I will just pass to Kobe. Or maybe Kobe might pass to me. Or maybe Gasol might pass to Bynum. Your F*&#ed”

From Ron Artest, who is so pumped to be a Laker he is even willing to give up the rock and was a good playmaker in preseason (readers in Sacramento and Houston just involuntarily said “we’ll see about that”).

The People’s Player (besides Kobe): Lakers fans love them some DJ Mbenga. He sparked more of that love this preseason with a seven-block game. Last season one section of Staples Center all had made “Banging with Mbenga” T-shirts. When he comes in during mop up time, the elbows are out and Lakers fans will be begging him to shoot. And with this Lakers team, he should get lots of mop up chances.

The play the Lakers run if down one point with the ball and :09 left on the clock: Lamar Odom inbounds the ball to Derek Fisher, who quickly gets the ball to Pau Gasol in the high post. He has a plethora of options: There is Andrew Bynum looking for the backdoor lob, Ron Artest has set himself at the three-point line and his man is coming to double Gasol; and there is Lamar Odom making a sharp cut toward the basket. Gasol surveys the situations and…

Who are we kidding? It’s a clear out for Kobe.

Legalese (the contract stuff): The question is how you keep the team at its peak through a championship window without having an Isiah Thomas level payroll (Gasol is a free agent in 2011). If the Lakers can make a trade to save money and get a decent player this season (as they did sending Vladimir Radmanovic away), they may well take it.

Kobe Bryant has been working with Lakers brass on a five-year extension. If he wants at the end of this year he can opt out of his current deal then turn around and sign a new max five year deal with the Lakers. It will mean a short-term savings of a few dollars, but some issues near the end of that contract.

The other coming contract (and on the court) issue is the point guard situation — Derek Fisher’s contract is up after this season, Shannon Brown has a player’s option for next season (he makes $2 million if he stays) and the Lakers chose not to extend a qualifying offer to Jordan Farmar, who will become a restricted free agent at the end of the year (the Lakers could match any offer to him). With Adam Morrison’s $5.2 million coming off the books after this season, look for the Lakers to spend some money on a point guard of the future next summer. The question is who will that be?

————————————————————————

TEAM BLOGGERS SAY WINS*
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Bret Lagree | target="_blank">Hoopinion

“The Hawks have not built, nor do they appear to be building, a championship
contender. … Joe Johnson is poised to be a free agent in the summer of
2010. Johnson is not a franchise player, yet he’s the Hawks’ best
player.”

45

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Zach Lowe | CelticsHub

“It seems reasonable to say anything short of an 18th championship would be
a disappointment.”

58

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Brett Hainline | Queen City
Hoops

“Great defense + equally bad offense = average. With an improving division
around them, that equation does not get them their first playoff berth. But
at least they won’t suck.”

36

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Matt McHale | target="_blank">By the Horns

“During the offseason, the Bulls lost free agent Ben Gordon, whom many
people considered the team’s best or second-best player (after Derrick
Rose). Memo to Chicago fans: Don’t sweat it. Seriously. Gordon will be
replaced by John Salmons, who not only gave the Bulls almost as many points
per game (18.3 versus 20.7) but was slightly more efficient in how he scored
them.”

43

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John Krolik | target="_blank">Cavs the Blog

“After last season’s playoff heartbreak, Danny Ferry has changed up the
equation … However, Shaq could disrupt the delicate offensive and
defensive chemistry the Cavaliers rode to 66 wins and the conference finals,
despite the fact he will be the best player LeBron has ever played with if
he continues to play like he did last season. The big question for the Cavs
this seasons whether they overreacted to two clutch 3s by Rashard Lewis, or
made the risk they needed to take to finally get LeBron a ring.”

61

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Rob Mahoney | target="_blank">The Two Man Game

“’Rebuilding’ teams seek financial flexibility and the acquisition of young,
productive assets. Quality squads amass veteran talent, no matter the cost,
in pursuit of a title. Defying all logic, the Mavs have simultaneously moved
in both directions.”

50

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Jeremy Wagner | target="_blank">Roundball Mining Company

“The only players still on the roster who exceeded expectations in 2008-09
were Nene and Birdman. It is reasonable to expect every member of the
Nuggets, other than thirty-something Chauncey Billups, to improve.”

53

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Dan Feldman | target="_blank">PistonPowered

“However the minutes shake out between Chris Wilcox, Kwame Brown and Ben
Wallace, they won’t be as good as Rasheed Wallace. But Sheed wasn’t that
great last year. He looked old and disinterested, so the drop here won’t be
too steep.”

36

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Rasheed Malek | target="_blank">Warriors World

“Under the ownership of Chris Cohan, the Warriors have made the playoffs
exactly one time and have gone through numerous coaches, players and
executives. Going into this season, Larry Riley is the man in charge taking
over for Chris Mullin.”

28

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Anup Shah and Brody Rollins | Rockets Buzz

“The speed revolution has overtaken some of basketball’s peers, most notably
football … Is basketball headed in the same direction? [Aaron] Brooks
provides an excellent case study. Beginning the year as the Rockets number
one threat on offense with Ron Artest’s departure and injuries to Tracy
McGrady and Yao Ming, Brooks will have every opportunity to prove that size
really doesn’t matter.”

39

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Jared Wade | target="_blank">Eight Points, Nine Seconds

“It’s hard to believe that anything short of the postseason will remove the
dark cloud over Conseco. … Ultimately, it will come down to one thing:
[Mike Jr.] Dunleavy’s knee.”

32

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Kevin Arnovitz | target="_blank">ClipperBlog

“[Blake] Griffin and [Eric] Gordon may not be saviors, but they’re
something. Griffin’s skills and his tenacious work ethic (the guy runs up
sand dunes in his free time) will be a boon to a team desperate for cultural
overhaul. Gordon offers an enticing combination of spot-up shooting and
forays into the paint. He finished third in true shooting percentage among
starting off guards in his rookie campaign, something that can only help a
team that ranked dead last in offensive efficiency last season.”

32

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Kurt Helin | target="_blank">Forum Blue and Gold

“God, is it good to be hated again.”

64

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Chip Crain | target="_blank">3 Shades of Blue

“The 2009-10 version of the Grizzlies have put together a starting five
where every player scored 30 points or more in a game last year. The oldest
starter is only 28 years old (Zach Randolph) and the youngest won’t turn 22
until after the start of the season (O.J. Mayo). They are young, talented
and hungry for success. So why do most people focus on the two players not
on a rookie contract this season?”

20

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Matthew Bunch | target="_blank">Hot Hot Hoops

“38.6 minutes. 30.2 points. 49.1 percent shooting. Five rebounds. 7.5
assists. 2.2 steals. 1.3 blocks. That’s what [Dwyane] Wade averaged last
season. You’re going to keep that guy out of the playoffs? Good luck.”

44

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Jeremy Schmidt | target="_blank">Bucksketball

“If the Bucks get anything out of their three small forwards, if they can
keep [Andrew] Bogut and [Michael] Redd healthy and if they get a season
worthy of the number ten selection out of Brandon Jennings at the point, the
playoffs will be within reach. But that’s a lot of ifs.”

29

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Patrick Hodgdon | target="_blank">Howlin’ T-Wolf

“”Ever since his arrival, David Kahn has had seemingly one mission, other
than to look like the smartest guy in the room at every turn, and that is to
get as much cap space for next summer as he possibly can. … The obvious
question lies in whether or not the Wolves will actually be able to lure one
of the better free agent players to come to Minnesota.”

23

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Mark Ginocchio and Sebastian Priuti | target="_blank">Nets are Scorching

“Lingering doubts about Brooklyn could spoil any change the Nets have of
landing a top free agent next summer.”

29

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Niall Doherty and Ryan Schwan | target="_blank">Hornets247

“Enter Emeka Okafor. He’s a near match to a healthy Chandler, is more
durable, and doesn’t look like he’s having muscle spasms when making a post
move.”

47

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Mike Kurylo | target="_blank">Knickerblogger

“2010 could be New York’s return to winning.”

31

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Royce Young | target="_blank">Daily Thunder

“The Thunder may not win more than half their games, but with over half the
roster unable to get an alcoholic beverage still, steady improvement and
progression is the name of the game.”

34

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Zach McCann | target="_blank">Orlando Magic Daily

“Take away either Hedo Turkoglu or Courtney Lee and the Magic aren’t getting
to face the Lakers in the Finals. No way. But does that mean the Magic were
wrong to let them go? Were the Magic foolish to allow a borderline All-Star
and a possible future All-Star leave the team when both clearly wanted to
stay in Orlando? Absolutely not. I believe the Magic are an entirely better
team than they were four months ago.”

59

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Carey R. Smith | target="_blank">Philadunkia

“The travesty of a deal that Billy King gave to Samuel Dalembert remains
easily one of the worst contracts in NBA history. Hopefully this season
Dalembert, his inflated self-worth and his contract will be dealt for a
couple of expiring contracts and some much-needed cap space.”

39

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Michael Schwartz | target="_blank">Valley of the Suns

“Two years ago the Suns were chic championship picks. Last year, the Suns
were (accurately) thought to be a fringe playoff team. This year there are
almost no expectations outside of their locker room. … There will be no
mistaking what the Suns are this season: a lightning-speed team that will
score points in bunches and likely give them up almost as quickly while
struggling badly on the boards. But they will once again be the most
exciting team in basketball.”

46

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Max Handelman | target="_blank">Beyond Bowie

“The Blazers effectively bumbled their way to a 54-win season despite a
mediocre performance from Greg Oden, the loss of Martell Webster for the
season, and at times starting three rookies. This team is only getting
better, kids.”

53

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Zach Harper | target="_blank">Cowbell Kingdom

“Enter Tyreke Evans — a bulldozer-sized menace who will test the strength
of every team’s defense at its entry point. He immediately creates matchup
problems against teams with traditional point guards and will look to have a
similar impact as fellow Memphis alum, Derrick Rose.”

22

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Timothy Varner | target="_blank">48 Minutes of Hell

During the Celtics heyday, Red Auerbach boasted a winning percentage of
.719. In the modern era, Pat Riley’s Showtime Lakers played to the tune of
.733. Phil Jackson’s Jordan Bulls dominated the 90s with an otherworldly
percentage of .771. Jackson’s three-peat Lakers? .735. In his 12 seasons
with San Antonio, Gregg Popovich, whose cynical disdain for the regular
season runs more than skin deep, has, nevertheless, posted a winning
percentage of .707. That’s the company the Spurs keep. What should we expect
this season? 58 wins and a run at the title. Same as every other year.”

55

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target="_blank">RaptorsRepublic

“How is a rookie(ish) head coach going to integrate nine new players into a
new system with two new assistant coaches?”

41

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Spencer Ryan Hall | target="_blank">Salt City Hoops

“With young Wesley Matthews providing the good luck charm, Boozer in a
contract year, Deron Williams with a chip on his shoulder, and a new
longer-haired version of Andrei Kirilenko the Jazz have no reason to be
anything other than beastly this season. And I mean that in a good way.
Every prediction from the Jazz camp, however, comes with the ominous caveat
‘If we can stay healthy.'”

46

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Kyle Weidie | target="_blank">Truth About It

“Flip Saunders has never gotten a team ‘there.’ That worn out cliché always
runs rampant, plaguing almost every coach who hasn’t won … until they win.
Red Auerbach (647), Larry Brown (1,900), and Dick Motta (738) all took their
lumps before winning a championship (games coached before title season).
Don’t be surprised when what you think is impossible becomes a reality. …
2010 is the Chinese Year of the Tiger. Factor in Gilbert Arenas’ stomach
tattoo and the fact that the Wizards play their home games in D.C.’s
Chinatown, and all the cards are in place.”

42

* As predicted by a consensus of all TrueHoop Network bloggers.