Before the new media season starts tomorrow (which we're all probably SUPER EXCITED FOR!!!) I wanted to recap Goran's summer off court and show why he is loved for more than just his basketball artistry.
Upon returning to Slovenia after the NBA season the main question on everyone's mind was whether Goran Dragic would participate in the World Cup; he answered question upon question regarding the subject - polite and patient as always. His good manners are a pleasant afterthought to his altruistic ways.
After the Dragon left for Phoenix last year a documentary on Eurobasket2013 came out in which Matej Avanzo tells an anecdote that is just so Gogi: During the tournament team Slovenia had their own branded bus that drove them everywhere. After one warm-up game in Koper, all the players decided to take advantage of the opportunity to go home with their families leaving the driver all alone. When Gogi heard this, he told his family he'd take the bus instead so he could keep Janez company on the almost two hour drive home. This story is still just the tip of the kindheartedness that is Goran Dragi?.
In the middle of May, when Serbia and Bosnia were being severely flooded and in dire need of help, Goran teamed up with Rašo Nesterovi?, organising a humanitarian action aimed to provide as much supplies as possible to the affected areas. Together they urged the nation to help as much as they can. Goran also arranged several packages of needed supplies to be sent by his sponsors. The project probably somewhat contributed to the (golden) Apple of Inspiration honor he received from the Slovenian president, but what he has achieved with commitment and hard work, while remaining humble, grounded and kind is in itself inspiring.
The most exciting thing for every aspiring basketball youth during the summer was surely Goran Dragi?'s basketball camp, where Gogi got to mentor a bunch of kids and cool stuff like this happened. The camp looked so fun and well thought out it made me wish I was about 13 years younger. I read how sad the kids were when it was time to go home (at least I didn't have to go through that).
During the preparation games that took place in Slovenia Dragon go a chance to catch up with his mentor; Steve Nash who gave an all praise interview of his apprentice (at 2:11 Gogi who is not playing, jabs Omi? to get in the game - this might only be funny to our kin). He also managed to meet up with Leandro Barbosa and crew in Ljubljana. And while in Lithuania he visited a sports university in Kaunas.
At some point Gogi and Zoki did a promotion video for Telemach together in which they compete in 3 challenges (none of which include a ball): speed clicking, b-ball version of pictionary and finally; blindly finding the right button on a remote control device. It's in Slovene, but still fun to watch. They also did this mellow commercial for a speedy Internet pack.
Somewhere in between this busy summer Gogi (and his gorgeous wife) had time to pull off what was probably the wedding of the year (the video of which has curiously and sadly been made private). They had a church wedding with a big party that included some awesome dance moves and a magnificent view of white balloons with lit strings released simultaneously by guests to sparkle in the night. Seriously, dream wedding.
As most of Brightsiders already know, the Suns just signed Goran Dragic's younger brother, Zoran.
Is he any more than leverage for when Goran opts out of his contract next year and commands a much higher paycheck?
Zoran Dragic, the newest addition to the ever-expanding number of guards on the roster, is a high-energy player with relentless motor and great defensive skills. Here is a (somewhat) detailed look into the pros and cons of Zoki (his nickname in Slovenia).
High energy and great hustle
You may have seen our own Goran Dragic running for an entire game, stopping only when the final whistle blows or when he's too exhausted to carry on. Well, expect the same from Zoran.
He is, in the words of his first coach, like that Duracell Bunny, never staying still, always on the move, always doing something. Zoran will not slow down, he just won't, so he's a great option to have in transition, speeding down the court, waiting for a pass to drive to the rim or take the open three. On top of that, he's the same on defense, always looking for the ball, waiting to get into those passing lanes and get a steal. He jumps for every loose ball, no matter if it's against a guard or a big man, he's reminiscent of PJ Tucker in that respect.
Zoran has been constantly and steadily improving throughout his career. His first coach said he had real trouble with him, with Zoran never staying still long enough for him to actually learn something. He never was very interested in playing on defense. He was mostly just about running with the ball and taking a shot from deep. Yes, from deep. Fun fact: Zoran was a very good 3-point shooter starting his career in the junior leagues but his second coach (the one that taught him to play defense) realised just how quick Zoran is and from then on, he was not allowed to shoot a three, ever. His only job was hustling on D and driving to the rim past his slower opponents, effectively making his shooting stroke something nobody want to see, while it mirrored his efficiency-very poor. But for the last few years, especially in Unicaja Malaga (a great video by Euroleague about Zoran), Zoran has been individually working on his shooting stroke before and after every practice in Malaga, and things are looking up. It's not hard to see him improve even more with one of the best shooters in the league as his coach. Work your magic, Jeff.
Speedy with some crafty moves driving to the rim
Speed is the basis of Zoran's game. He never really listened to his parents and teachers when they were yelling: "Will you stop running!". He's quick, Goran-quick, maybe a tad slower but very speedy nonetheless, with a touch of Dragon's craftiness (18th second of the video) in the open court and when it comes to finding an open teammate. He's a good finisher at the rim, especially on the fast-break, where he's very hard to stop, as he's almost two meters tall (196 cm/6.4 ft) and can easily dunk one-handed or finish from under the basket.
Well, I don't need to tell you how hard it is to guard a left-handed player, as you've seen plenty of Goran's moves at the rim. Zoran's drive down the left side is very strong and he is very much capable of finishing through contact, at leas in Euroleague, where he's become on of the best (jut kidding, THE best player for Unicaja) on court for his team on most nights. It's not a great big thing, to be a lefty, but Zoran is the type of player that will use anything and everything against his opponents if it will help him get the ball or score. He's been described as on of the least-favorite opponents in the Euroleague by the very players he was guarding.
This was, up to the 2013 Eurobasket, Zoran's bread and butter. He was sent on the court time and time again against the best guards in Europe with a single instruction: Do not let them score. And he's done just that, relishing in the defensive aspects of the game, getting into people's faces, using his body to get an offensive foul called, waiting for the careless passes and disrupting the flow of the game or juts poking the ball away (usually from opposing point guards) and sprinting to the rim on the other end. If you've watched the Unicaja video (who am I kidding, of course you have), Zoran actually likes playing defense, he actively enjoys shutting down opposing stars, frustrating them and keeping them below their average effectiveness. Be it fighting over screens or getting into someone's face on iso plays, Zoran does it all. Just ask James Harden, who was scoreless for the entire first half of the Slovenia:USA game when Zoran was guarding him. James Harden, scoreless. Let that sink in.
All that being said, Zoran is not a perfect player and there are a few aspects of his game that will need work so let's look at those next.
Cons (sort of)
Shooting stroke and the NBA three
I mentioned this previously, but Zoran's shooting stroke was truly awful just a few years ago because of his coaches insisting that he drive to the rim every chance he gets. But he's been hard at work with a shooting coach for the last few years and although his numbers are nowhere near stellar (45% 2FG, 35% 3FG, 70% FT in a little over 22 minutes of play on average in the 2013/2014 season in Euroleague) his percentages are slowly climbing and as I also mentioned previously, Jeff Hornacek is just the man for the job. As for the NBA three, Zoran is not afraid to shoot from well behind the line in Europe so I don't think it will be a big transition for him. If he can master the corner three (his favorite spot for three is at about 45 degrees from the baseline) to start with, there is great potential for him as he has a quick release and a high release point, making it difficult to get a hand onto the ball if you are guarding him.
Driving to his right and body type
Typical of a natural lefty, Zoran drives to his left most of the time, even when he could finish easily with his right hand. The trouble is, he's not nearly as efficient with the latter, something he'll definitely have to work on in order to become an even better finisher. Basically what Goran did last year to become a player that hits over 67% at the rim.
Also, while Zoran is hard as a rock on court, that was Europe and in order to be effective in the NBA both on defense and offense, he will need to add some extra muscle to his frame. But I'd advise caution with over-doing it, because this will surely slow him down, not something we want to happen. Hit the weights, young man just, you know, use your head too.
Emotion and decision making
Similar to his brother, Zoran is very emotional on the court, giving his all on the court every time he gets a chance to play, which can get him into trouble. He will often get frustrated with himself over a missed lay-up and will try everything to redeem himself for it, something that sometimes results in a great steal and dunk, but more often to a quick foul and a seat on the bench. I believe this will improve with playing time and with better technique when handling the ball. He's by no means sloppy with the ball (averaging a little over 1 turnover per game in last year's Euroleague competition) but he does try to make that extra, showy move, which can lead to a turnover and an easy bucket on the other end. I'm betting he'd love to have an older, third-NBA guard on the team to learn from. Oh wait...
World Cup Performance
Even before summer started Zoran Dragi? was confirming he would represent Slovenia in the World Cup tournament. Since this would be his first World Cup with the National team he would have a chance to show what he can do on a bigger stage. Coming into training camp, coach Zdovc said he had a lot of problems with Zoran. Zoki, who had just recuperated from a hernia surgery, had a 4 weeks' supply of energy that needed an outlet. Adding that up with his already vibrant nature and I have an image of Zoki bouncing on his heels while the coach is giving out instructions. That excessive energy probably contributed to his awful 3ptFG% (22) and turnover average of almost 2 per game during the warm-ups. His 2ptFG% was at 64% though, and he averaged 1.5 steal a game while adding 3 rebounds, almost 2 assists and 12.7 points through 13 games.
When Goran joined and the whole team had settled down a bit more, Zoran became more concentrated and reliable. In the actual tournament he managed to lower his turnovers to 0.7 per game and increase his rebounds to 4 per game. He kept the 50% overall FG% intact, shooting slightly worse from below the arc then in the warm-ups, but raising his 3ptFG% to a proud 43.3%. He also added 1.4 steals and 1.3 assists. He was Slovenia's second best scorer at 12.9 points per game. His best performance was a perfect game against Mexico. In 22 minutes of playing time he got just as many points on perfect 8/8 shooting (4/4 on 3, 2/2FT). He added 3 steals and 2 assists, one of which was this lovely Alley-Oop to Omi?.
In the end coach Zdovc commended Zoki on his great performance in the cup. In some of his latest statements it is obvious Zdovc is sure that Zoran will be successful in the NBA. Saying his energy, commitment and hard work is an example for every young player who wants success. And that those same traits will be what convinces the coach he deserves minutes.
Zoran is a high energy player that will not doze off on court, and will not shy away from guarding the best guards the NBA has to offer. He fights for every loose ball, jumps at every rebound and sprints down the other end whenever he gets the chance. His performance in the World Cup helped him gain the attention of many NBA team, including the Phoenix Suns. If he continues to work on his shot (which he is) and slows down enough for his coaches and players to be able to teach him something, while adding bulk and some extra moves on offense, he will be a good player in the NBA.
And what does Zoran expect?
Of course he is very happy about signing with the Suns and realizes having his big bro looking out for him will be a big help. But also knows there is some added pressure and expectations are higher because of Goran's success. In this video he gives some of his very first statements after the reveal. Since it's all in Slovene, here is the translation:
I'm very happy I signed with an NBA team. My dreams have (sort of) come true. But I'm not going to stop dreaming. I just signed a 2 year contract, now everything starts anew, from zero and I hope I'll prove myself as much as possible, that I can get certain minutes.
On playing with Goran
I definitely want to (play with his bro), we had a great time on the national team, we know each other well and now this will be something new - playing in the same club. I'm looking forward to that.
It will probably be easier to adjust to life (in Phoenix because of big bro), but regarding playing, it's basically all on me. I have to maximally prove myself and show what I'm capable of, so I will get minutes.
On whether there's a "minutes per game clause" in his contract
No, I haven't talked to the coach yet. I talked to the GM of the Suns. I know what kind of players are on this team, a lot of them play my position. Like I said, first 2 years it will be very hard. Have to prove myself and fight for minutes.
We deliberately did not go on about the fact that having Zoran in Phoenix is likely to add some serious leverage to the Suns FO when it comes to signing Goran to a much bigger deal next year but yeah, can't hurt.
During a protracted free agency period many people felt that Rich Paul was doing his client, Eric Bledsoe, a major disservice. They were wrong.
Have you ever watched the Usual Suspects?
*This is the part where if you haven't you should go watch it. Trust me.
Rich Paul might just be Keyser Soze.
I mean, didn't he just pull off acting the role of a small-time con artist? You know, the kind that sells jerseys out of the trunk of his car?
How else do you explain it? After all, he just limped through a summer where he was derided and maligned. Where his intelligence, qualifications, competence and motives were all questioned and often mocked.
Last week he limped into an office with the Suns crackerjack negotiating team. Oh, to be a fly on that wall...
What transpired there? How did the session unfurl? Did Paul adopt the role of a raconteur and tell quippy anecdotes? Maybe #Klutch Sports had formed a barbershop quartet in Skokie, Illinois Akron, Ohio? Did he fool the Suns into thinking he had another offer from a team whose name was emblazoned on the bottom of a coffee cup?
We might not ever know. But what we do know is that Rich Paul didn't limp out of that room.
So how in the hell did all of this happen?
How did the sides get to $70 million? What was the path that led from the "fair deal" to a contract that seems to be largely a pantsing of the Suns organization? These negotiations just seemed to go sideways...
The Suns had already inked P.J. Tucker to a fair contract early in free agency. Then they signed Isaiah Thomas for pennies on the dollar. After more than holding their own at the bargaining table in these situations, how did they manage to get boat raced by team Bledsoe?
It turns out they had quite a few things working against them.
In the end, the threat of the qualifying offer turned out to be leverage. What would the fallout have been from the Suns holding firm on their line and letting Bledsoe enter next season playing on a qualifying offer? What kind of image does that portray to the public and other players around the league? Not one the Suns want.
The Suns (largely undeserved) reputation of parsimony turned out to be leverage. If the sides had reached a stalemate over the original reported figure it would have fueled more discussion to traduce the ever frugal Banker Bob. I recently wrote on this subject, noting that the Suns hadn't signed a contract larger than $34 million since 2006.
Bledsoe's relationship with LeBron James turned out to be leverage. It's tough for the Suns when the most famous and powerful player in the game is lobbying against them in this type of situation. When LeBron asked the Suns to share the wealth (#breakbread), what choice did they have but to acquiesce?
And Rich Paul knew all of this. Paul wasn't backed into a corner. He had the Suns surrounded.
The Silent Treatment
This turned out to be the successful negotiating tactic that team Bledsoe implemented. It would seem this would be a counterproductive practice in most cases. After all, compromise is often difficult to achieve without communication.
But Paul used it to perfection.
Even though the sides never sat down to discuss the contract parameters until last Wednesday the contract had been negotiated through the media all summer. Paul used his sycophantic henchmen to leak rumors and "information". Bledsoe (probably) innocuously fired a shot at the Suns about their tactic of using his restricted free agency status against him. That was the extent of what slipped through their embargo.
Robert Sarver, meanwhile, went public and decided to try to negotiate Eric's contract on the radio. Considering that he very publicly and very explicitly stated that the Suns thought the four year $48 million dollar deal was fair, what does that make the five year $70 million deal? Wouldn't that have to be a monumental fleecing? You can't have it both ways...
So Bledsoe held his breath until he turned blue in hopes of getting the Suns to cough up more green.
What did this gamesmanship accomplish? Did the very public nature of the situation make it even more difficult for the Suns? Surely, their handling of Bledsoe was under the microscope. Article after article scrutinized every new development... even though, interestingly enough, there were really very few real developments.
The Suns even seemed to be winning the court of public opinion, to a certain extent. Four years and $48 million was overwhelmingly considered a fair deal. A group of NBA general managers even confirmed this in an anonymous poll. People scoffed at the notion of Bledsoe being worth a max contract.
But Rich Paul got the Suns to do more than budge. If the $48 million dollar deal was fair and the max was ridiculous, I guess the eventual deal falls under the category of fairly ridiculous.
How about some syrup with that waffle?
The Suns claimed they would match any offer that Bledsoe received in free agency... and then gave him a contract with more guaranteed money than he could have possibly gotten from another team. If the most possible money was the goal, Eric was better off NOT getting a contract offer from another team in free agency. Even if he would have gotten a max offer sheet it would have only netted him $63 million. Instead the Suns gave a player with a history of knee injuries a lucrative five year contract.
Rich Paul was able to get the Suns to bid against themselves. There was no other offer. Not one. The Suns $48 million dollar deal was worth $48 million more than the next nearest suitor.
They said they wouldn't do this. But they did. Rich Paul cajoled them into an extra $22 million of compromise. Of course the Suns can't come out and say they got pistol whipped in the deal. Of course it will be proclaimed a win/win deal for both sides.
But Rich Paul won more.
The Suns, meanwhile, took on all the risk. No matter what happens Bledsoe gets his $70 million. If he can't stay healthy or underperforms the Suns will get stuck holding the bag. That's part of the gamble of paying for hopeful future production with no valid track record.
Paul must have sold the Suns on this hopeful future, because if they were willing to go to $70 million back in July this seems like it would have gotten done a lot sooner.
The Greatest Trick
People claimed Eric Bledsoe needed to fire his agent, that he was giving him bad advice. He wasn't. Despite his somewhat unconventional, and at times bizarre, tactics he was able to produce the desired results. Being an agent is all about results.
People who denigrated Paul's qualifications as an agent can now bask in the glory of their own ridicule. Paul is an excellent agent and I can give you $22 million reasons why.
If the goal of the negotiations was to get Eric Bledsoe the most possible guaranteed money then Rich Paul probably did as good as any agent working for any player in the NBA could have done.
Maybe unrestricted free agent Kyle Lowry, for instance, would have been better off with Paul... Considering he was both better and healthier than Bledsoe last season it seems like he left money on the table by accepting the terms (four years/$48 million) of Bledsoe's "fair" contract. Then factor in he was actually an unrestricted free agent...
I'm sure the Suns wouldn't want to deal with Paul on an ongoing basis. Just imagine if Goran Dragic, the Morris brothers and Gerald Green all decided to sign up with Paul after seeing what a good job he did for Bledsoe... What kind of circus of horrors would next summer become?
So Rich Paul may have limped into Phoenix looking bungling and amateurish, but he walked confidently out of that room knowing that he had negotiated the best damn contract for his client that anyone could have possibly imagined.
It was a misdirection of epic proportions. He completely blindsided public perception and surely the Suns, to at least some extent.
And despite all the criticism Rich Paul received throughout the Bledsoe drama this summer when it came time to get the deal done he was #Klutch.
All the preview articles for the 2014-15 season right here.
Welcome to Bright Side of the Sun's Season Preview Series. Throughout the next month we will bringing you various pieces to get you ready for the 2014-2015 Phoenix Suns season. We are looking to cover just about everything in the NBA and will have most of this be on the Suns and some additional content on the Western Conference and even more specifically the Pacific Division. Today we start with the least relevant part of the NBA to the Suns and that is the Eastern Conference. Enjoy.
The Eastern Conference might not be the conference the Suns are in and it is absolutely worse than the West, but that doesn't mean we want to ignore those teams. Here is a brief preview of each team with some of my own thoughts and predictions sprinkled in. I'm sure you'll agree with me on all of them. We will go worst to first.
Extremely young and extremely bad
15. Philadelphia 76ers- The Sixers will surely bottom out the NBA this season. They get back a healthy Nerlens Noel, but on purpose they did absolutely nothing in free agency and their first two picks in the draft (both in the lottery) are highly unlikely to even play this season. This is a rebuild unlike anything we've ever seen in the NBA, so much so that the NBA's lottery system could be changing sometime soon and that some fans actually hate the Sixers because of their plan. As for some positives I like the look of rookie K.J. McDaniels, I think Noel is the real deal, and it will be interesting to see what happens with Alexey Shved's career with a plethora of opportunities he didn't really have in Minnesota. That just about ends the buzz though, as a good chunk of the roster is still D-League worthy and that leaves last year's rookie of the year Michael Carter-Williams little to work with. The only big news you will hear about from Philly is via trade rumors from the mastermind himself GM Sam Hinkie.
14. Milwaukee Bucks- The Bucks have a very good chance of being a lot of fun this year. Larry Sanders could start playing like before his contract extension, Ersan Ilyasova and Jared Dudley could play like it's 2012, and this could be Brandon Knight's year. The key word there is "could". Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are probably the best youth duo in the NBA and Nate Wolters and John Henson will continue to be underrated. It will be interesting to see how Parker adjusts to the NBA and if Giannis takes another leap, but there's too much here from last year's rough season to indicate any serious changes. Jason Kidd has a lot to work with in terms of talent, it's just a matter of them reaching their full potential and if Kidd is the one to bring it out of them.
13. Orlando Magic- The Magic are the Jazz of the East. They have established a deep core of young players with Nikola "Vucci Mane" Vucevic, Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris, Mo Harkless, Andrew Nicholson, Kyle O' Quinn, Elfrid Payton, Evan Fournier, and Aaron Gordon. The question now is what do they do with it. They responded by making a veteran addition in former Sun Channing Frye. Frye will bring leadership, mentorship, and improvement on the floor to a team that very much needed it. Frye got paid a lot of money over four years to help start the transition out of the cellar. By then he will have to hand if off to whoever comes out of this the leader of a hopefully stacked roster of developed talent. Keep an eye out for Victor Oladipo's second year jump and the dangerous defensive backcourt he forms with BSotS favorite rookie Elfrid Payton.
Is the East bad enough for these teams to make the playoffs?
12. Boston Celtics- NO. The answer is a hard no for the Celtics. Rondo is all but gone and the team has quickly morphed into a slightly older version of the above teams. The dreaded contracts of Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace will still hang over this club and they will definitely look to try to move at least one of them at the expense of Rondo's departure. This team is going to be ugly whenever it is that Rondo leaves. I'm interested to see how Marcus Smart and James Young look in the NBA and Avery Bradley is back, so there's at least something to watch for in Boston. However, Evan Turner is going to play basketball for this team so that might rule out all the positives right away. Rondo being on the roster of a team in the East means that team doesn't deserve to be in the bottom so they barely get into this group.
11. Detroit Pistons- Unless they get rid of Brandon Jennings and get a shock collar on Josh Smith every time he shoots outside the key, no. Stan Van Gundy is so heralded amongst many NBA folks that the Pistons are actually garnering some 8 seed buzz. The reality of this situation though is that Jennings will never work out with this type of roster (or possibly any roster) and Smith needs to stop shooting the damn ball in any sort of jumper form. Van Gundy wants to win now with the kind of money he spent on Jodie Meeks and Caron Butler. I have no idea how he does it with this roster though, so keep an eye out for trades looming especially with Greg Monroe's qualifying offer.
10. Indiana Pacers- It's very hard to see it. The problem for this team has always been offense and with Paul George and Lance Stephenson gone it seems impossible for them to score enough to make the playoffs. George Hill will be much more aggressive in scoring and Rodney Stuckey will try to help out there as well. There's just far too much relying on the very old duo of David West and Luis Scola alongside Roy Hibbert. Call me a homer all you want, but I think Solomon Hill will have a nice year for the Pacers and head coach Frank Vogel has said they are heavily relying on him. They are still going to be incredibly challenging to score on, but that's not enough even in the East.
9. New York Knicks- I have no idea how you could talk yourself into this team. There's too many defensive nightmares in this rotation to confidently pick them to do anything. For all of the flack he gets (particularly on this site) Carmelo Anthony is still a terrific basketball player and could very well carry this team with a little more help. Jose Calderon is going to try to do that and bring balance to the offense, but he along with a couple of other Knicks are quickly approaching their mid 30's trying to be a rotation player on a playoff team. I loved their draft this year with my man Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, both of whom I glossed over plenty during my time in Vegas. Both will be able to contribute, but not with the kind of impact that this team really needs. When in doubt, unleash the Bargs.
We are really old and really glad we play in the East
8. Brooklyn Nets- Joe Johnson is 33, Deron Williams plays like he's 33, and Kevin Garnett wishes he was 33. Paul Pierce is gone, their big addition was 30-year-old Jarrett Jack, and although I like the two players, their influx of youth is Cory Jefferson and Sergey Karasev. That all being said, this team is getting back one of the best bigs in the land in Brook Lopez so they should still squeak into the eight seed.
7. Miami Heat- Sometimes you think the Heat are going to be fine and then you open up their roster and start wondering if they can even make the playoffs. They WASTED a first round draft pick just to try to keep LeBron James in town instead of snagging Dwyane Wade a backup (it's Reggie Williams now! Reggie. Williams.). With the way Wade is going to have to be nurtured this team is one major injury away from tank town. If they can stay healthy though, Luol Deng and Chris Bosh are both very good and I will always believe in McBob. I am very intrigued to see what kind of role Mario Chalmers tries to play because you get the feeling that he could be much better given the extra freedom he gains with Bron gone. All that being said, it's still an old team with injury concerns all over the place and an even older bench. They could finish 12th in the East if this goes badly enough. Time to make that money Erik Spoelstra.
On the rise
6. Charlotte Hornets- I was begging for this team to get an upgrade over Gerald Henderson in the draft and instead they got Lance Stephenson. I wrote about Stephenson for our FA preview and believe that he is going to make this Hornets team very good. Kemba Walker will start to get his proper exposure as a solid NBA point guard and a healthy Jeff Taylor is a lot more important than you think. This is the perfect sort of situation for Marvin Williams to prove that he is just as solid and underrated as everyone thinks he is and I am very high on Noah Vonleh being able to replace him if need be. Al Jefferson is the best post scorer in this galaxy and Cody Zeller was slowly piecing it together last season. They still have two things that need to go right and that's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's offensive game and their bench. I'm not sure either will pan out enough for them to seriously cause problems for the top four teams, but they will still be a great team to watch and will continue to improve over the next couple of years.
5. Toronto Raptors- The time I want to take you back to is before we even thought LeBron and Love were possibilities for Cleveland. There was a ton of speculation in the East as to who could possibly be in the East finals if Derrick Rose could never be back at 100%. Could we see a Wizards and Raptors series to decide who goes to the NBA Finals? These were things to be considered before the Cavaliers got those two stars. For the Raptors now, it's just the natural progression from last season. They brought back just about everyone and are hoping that the youngsters in the rotation like Terrence Ross and Jonas Valancuinas can show improvement and catch up to the All-Star caliber play from Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan. Amir Johnson is a solid basketball player and I think this bench was sooooo close to being a legitimate threat. Using a first round pick on a project like Bruno Caboclo was a massive mistake in my opinion as Grevis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, and Lou Williams form a very good bench already. If those two former first round picks can make a considerable leap, Toronto will cruise to a three seed.
4. Washington Wizards- The commitment to now was clear when the Wizards signed Marcin Gortat to that long of an extension. It's a strange move given how they could do whatever they want with John Wall being 24 and Bradley Beal being 21, but hey what do I know. The Paul Pierce arrival is fascinating and his impact along with Nene's will be the two x-factors for Washington this season. Professor Andre Miller will still do this thing off the bench and Wizards fans are crossing their fingers that Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. can give them some pop. Kris Humphries and Dejuan Blair are two good under the radar signings for a team that played Drew Gooden off the bench last year and I think if those young guys can help it gives them a complete bench. Bradley Beal is going to have a monster year and I think they have a serious chance of challenging for the East this year.
3. Atlanta Hawks- Do you know how good Al Horford is at basketball? Are you sure? Be sure to check out that great Matt Moore work via the hyperlink before you answer. I think Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver are two of the most underrated players on the planet and also think that #PLAYOFFTEAGUE could possibly evolve into #REGULARSEASONTEAGUE. They've got some great out of nowhere bench play from the likes of Matt Scott and DeMarre Carroll, and a healthy John Jenkins gives them another lights out shooter. BsoTS' dearly beloved Adreian Payne will give them yet another big who can shoot and they could get two monster pluses to the lineup if Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder decide that this is their year. I'm clearly all in on the Hawks and think that they will be the third best team in the East if everything goes according to plan.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers- I don't think the Cavaliers win the NBA Championship this season. Feel free to barrage me on twitter for that, but first hear me out. Everyone knows about the reasons to get excited, so let me present my case. Anderson Varejao, the man responsible for rim protection when he doesn't necessarily even do that, has not played more than 65 games in a season since the last time LeBron was in Cleveland. Kyrie Irving is averaging 60 games played a season in his career. The bench for this team is 34-year-old Brendan Haywood, Tristan Thompson, 36-year-old Shawn Marion, 33-year-old James Jones, 34-year-old Mike Miller, and Matthew Dellavedova. Remember, this is a team that you are picking to win the NBA Finals probably. Can all that age and injury concern even make it there, and if they do, can young players like Irving, Dion Waiters, Thompson, and Dellavedova even perform well enough when they get there?
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I can't remember any team that won an NBA championship that had at least 3 starters (don't forget Love) or 5 rotation players with zero playoff experience. I think Waiters is the obvious x-factor for this team and if he reaches a certain point in his overall play it won't matter about the rest of those factors. That's a lot to ask for a guy like Waiters though if you get what I'm saying. I am a full-fledged believer in the ability of LeBron James and Kevin Love, but that's way too much for me to confidently predict them to win the NBA Championship or even the East.
1. Chicago Bulls- I think the Bulls win the East even if they get 90% of former MVP Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau is the second best coach in the NBA and he's bringing back two All-Defense performers in Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah. Noah's insane playmaking last season will combine a downright frightening ball movement situation down low with Pau Gasol. Thibs slowly morphed Mike Dunleavy Jr. into a useful player and he will hopefully turn into one of the best deep shooters in the league. Remember, Thibs literally played a seven man rotation in the playoffs and had absolutely no depth which almost killed Butler last year. This season that will change.
This all hinges on a lot of new additions and youth of course, but I think the bench will be stacked this year. Taj Gibson is a great two-way player, I think Tony Snell will make an impact this year with his shooting, basketball twitter is rightfully very excited about Nikola Mirotic, and I think Doug McDermott will be tremendous for this team under the right circumstances (click). Thibs will also have a two guard rotation at point with either Kirk Hinrich or Aaron Brooks (was decent for Denver) and while it's not a significant cushion, it's still a good amount of cover for Rose if they want to watch his minutes throughout the season. This team's problem last year was depth and offense and they vastly improved under both positions. A defensive and rebounding monster like this is a nightmare for a young and old Cavs team and that's why I think they win the East.
What do you think? Can LeBron win one for his city? Could one of those four teams in the middle make an impact? Or do you agree with my prediction for the Bulls? Go on in the comments below.