Portland Trail Blazers: Why They Aren’t Contenders

(Source: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America)

(Source: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images North America)

Portland Trail Blazers: Why They Aren’t Contenders

By Troy Tauscher: Staff Writer At Hoopstuff…

It was only a couple of years ago that the Portland Trail Blazers were 33-49 and their lone star LaMarcus Aldridge was in “trade me to a good team or I’ll leave in free agency” territory. Now, the script has flipped in Oregon. The Blazers are 31-13, and sit 2nd in the Western Conference. There’s a lot to like about this Blazers team; Damian Lillard floats between really, really good and great, Wesley Matthews is shooting well, LaMarcus Aldridge is a machine both scoring and rebounding, and Robin Lopez has been a valuable unsung hero for that team. As a unit, they’ve played a very well-rounded season of basketball this year. They are seventh in the league in scoring, ninth in assists, third in rebounds and 3rd in opponent field goal percentage.

The trouble for the Blazers is they are right in the middle of the bloodbath called the Western Conference. Any weakness in the West is a big problem, and the Blazers weakness lies in the fact that they are injured and have insufficient depth. The Blazers are fully entitled to look in the mirror and be pleased with what they see, however, this team isn’t true Western Conference contenders in their current state.

The trouble starts when people remember that both Aldridge and Lopez are out. Lopez broke his hand in December and will likely not return before February’s All-Star Weekend and Aldridge needs thumb surgery that will keep him out for 6-8 weeks.

The loss of Aldridge is critical, and the differences between having him as the primary offensive weapon and having to play without him are significant. His dominant offensive ability opens opportunities for Lillard to get easier drives and Matthews (among their other marksman shooters) to get less contested looks. That sort of non-statistical contribution is something that becomes clearer when that player is out for an extended period of time. Portland will need to adjust to life without LA for about games. Lopez’s injury is big too, as although his stats aren’t great, he is a guy who does the dirty work, rebounds and defends.

Then there’s Nicolas Batum, whose season isn’t going well. His offensive and shooting numbers are very poor by his standards and he is now dealing with a wrist injury. Regardless, he has been a valuable asset to Portland for a long time and his injury is a big concern, because although he isn’t scoring, he is an excellent defender and their secondary distributor.

So three of Portland’s five starters are injured and the question now becomes, does Portland have the depth to stay elite despite its losses and along the same lines, does Portland have the depth needed to win in the playoffs?

The Blazers bench averages 26.0 points per game, which ranks 27th in the league. That’s not a good thing even with a healthy roster. Depth has been an issue in Portland for a while, but in some ways, it almost matters more now because they are a better team this season and have a chance at a title. This problem will only get more and more evident, because now guys like Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland (when he returns from injury) and Allen Crabbe (ditto) will be relied upon to augment their key players for extended playing time.

Portland also has had trouble executing early in games. Against the Clippers, Warriors, and Grizzlies (all possible playoff opponents) the Blazers started slow and couldn’t execute and Portland must recognize that elite teams don’t give you those chances very often if you let them jump ahead and if they do, like the Suns, they’ll fight to the hilt to make sure they still come out on top. Early game execution is something they need to show more of to truly be contenders.

It seems like a lot of people believe in Portland’s ability to contend, and like I said, they have many great qualities. But if we learned anything from the 2014 NBA Finals, it’s that depth does matter, and if a bench cannot support star players, then a team is in some trouble. The next stretch of games while the team is embattled with injuries will be a great test about whether or not they can step up when it’s most crucial. They’re a playoff team, and a scary match-up for any of the other 29 teams in the league, but I think they need to show a little more to be genuinely deserving of contender status in the brutal, unpredictable West.

 

Memphis Grizzlies: Contender Or Pretender?

 

Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Source: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

When the season was about to start I wrote an article on the 8 teams that I thought could win a title and in this article I had the Memphis Grizzlies. A lot of people disagreed with me, but this week I wrote the article for a second time and I still have the Memphis Grizzlies, however I doubt too many will disagree today, as the Memphis Grizzlies are an elite NBA team this season and may just have the best team in their franchise’s history; they are that talented.

To me the Grizzlies are the 4th best team in the Western Conference, after the San Antonio Spurs, Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks and the 5th best team in the NBA (Chicago Bulls) and to their credit they are actually a stronger team than I expected. It is obvious they have an elite defense, as it is their trademark and Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Mike Conley are three of the best defenders in the NBA and big weapons for them. With Gasol they have an elite defender for any big man, with Allen an elite defender for any perimeter player or point guard and with the mix of Conley and Allen they can slow any of the West’s elite point guards. However, why they are one of the league’s best teams this season is because of how much better they are on offense.

Marc Gasol has given them a strong number 1 scoring option this season which is nice, as they have used a combo of Gasol-Zach Randolph-Conley for a long time. Having someone to take the role of an actual number 1 option is helping them, as having someone they can depend on nightly is a luxury. Mike Conley and Zach Randolph are having big offensive seasons too and I love the trade for Jeff Green. Green could be an excellent 3rd option on a contender, but he is their 4th option, gives them a 4th player that can score 20 points in any game and he also gives them a 2nd perimeter shooter and scorer along with Courtney Lee. With Gasol averaging about 20 points per game and with a 4th 15+ point per game scorer in Green, their offense is getting close to as excellent as their defense.

With their offense, defense and toughness I love this team and I can see them winning a championship this season. They are true contenders, 1 of 7 in this league. I wasn’t a fan of the team firing Lionel Hollins, but Dave Joeger is an excellent coach too and his team will be very dangerous in the playoffs. However, as much as I like the Grizzlies, the Spurs are still my pick to win the title.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Start Trading Now!

(Source: Getty Images)

(Source: Getty Images)

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

Those who read Hoopstuff on a loyal basis (thank you) you will have seen a lot of trade scenario articles for teams. I have decided against this for Cleveland. The truth is, they are in a lot of trouble and just one trade isn’t the answer. Yes, the injury to LeBron James hurts, but he will just miss a few weeks and regardless, when the Big Three are healthy this team is playing like just a solid playoff team, when they should be playing like contenders. The injury to Anderson Varejao really hurts them, as he was their only real center and although Tristan Thompson is playing well as the starter, at 6’9 he just cannot help them like Varejao can. They basically have just Kevin Love and Thompson as big men and although LeBron and Shawn Marion are able to play the 4, they have to find a center; however, their role players are pathetic too. Like I said, they have problems and this isn’t going into the issues with Kevin Love who isn’t being used the way he should. Yes LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love is an incredible foundation for a winning team and Tristan Thompson is playing excellent, but then? Well take a look…

– Dion Waiters is averaging just 10.5 points shooting 40 percent from the field and 26 percent from 3.

– Veteran additions Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, James Jones and Brendan Haywood are averaging a combined 14.9 points per game and 9 rebounds per game; at least they were cheap.

– They are 25th in rebounds, 24th in blocks and 21st in steals.

– They are 17th in scoring, 15th in points allowed and have a record of 19-15; pathetic based on their roster.

With these problems mentioned, just 1 trade isn’t going to help them become the contender they should be, but they have assets and they should consider trading them. They are in win mode and anything less than winning the Eastern Conference isn’t acceptable, more so as they could lose Love (50-50 chance) and LeBron (he is likely staying, but this is coming from the writer that said that there was no way he would sign anywhere but with the Heat) in the offseason, so besides trading James, Love or Irving no player shouldn’t be considered.

The assets: Draft picks, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson

They would be wise to make a deal with Dion Waiters and a 1st round pick for a center, someone like Timofey Mozgov or Kosta Koufos who were mentioned as potential centers that they could trade for. They would also be smart to try and trade for an actual starting caliber shooting guard and if they were able to get a player like Aaron Afflalo, would they consider trading Thompson? A trade of Waiters and Thompson for Afflalo and Mozgov could work for the Cavaliers and Nuggets. However, trading Thompson should only be for a big prize, as if Kevin Love is gone next season, Thompson can just take his spot and with Thompson-Varejao as their starting big men they are a better defensive team. However, Mozgov and Afflalo count as a prize to me and gives them a better chance to win a title this season, which is what counts for the Cavaliers.

The Nuggets with Mozgov and Afflalo are the best option for the Cavaliers, but they could also trade for Jeff Green, Brandon Wright, Bismack Biyombo, David West, Chris Copeland, Ed Davis, John Henson, Zaza Pachulia, Chase Budinger, Thaddeus Young, Kevin Martin, Gerald Green, Ian Mahinmi, Samuel Dalembert and Isaiah Thomas. The Cavaliers have options, they just have to start trading, because this Cleveland team cannot win a title this season, they have to find help and the best and only option for them is to make trades. Cleveland, start making phone calls!

Philadelphia 76ers: What If They Get Pick 1?

(Source: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

(Source: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

It seems like the Philadelphia 76ers will have the best chance at the number 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and although they are tanking and so they deserve to get pick 30, they are likely to have a 25% chance at getting the 1st pick. This is answering the question; what happens if they get the 1st pick?

For most teams this wouldn’t be a problem, as you take the best prospect, but for Philly it is a problem, although a positive one to have. Why is it a problem? The best player in this draft is Duke center Jahlil Okafor and with Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel they already have 2 premier center prospects in Philly (although Noel can start at power forward. If there was a prospect at shooting guard or small forward that was close to as talented as Okafor then there wouldn’t be a problem, but there aren’t and the next 2 prospects are another big man, Karl-Anthony Towns and a point guard who is a lot like Michael Carter Williams, Emmanuel Mudiay. Okafor is the best prospect though and to me is the best prospect in 3 drafts. For the number 2 ranked Duke Blue Devils he is averaging 19.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game in just 28.8 minutes and is shooting 68.8 percent from the field. Those numbers are ridiculous, but look at his per 40 minute numbers; 27 points, 12.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, which are incredible numbers. Towns and Mudiay are talented players, but the 1st pick in this draft should be Jahlil Okafor. So again the question, what is the best choice for Philadelphia if they get pick 1? They have 3 options.

1. Draft Okafor and have a roster problem.

2. Trade the pick for a lot of assets.

3. Take a lesser prospect who is a better fit.

The 3rd option would be a mistake, which means they should take Okafor or trade the pick.

* This next part is me acting as Sam Hinkie.

It’s a tough choice, but I take Okafor. He is a monster, will be an All-Star and with Michael Carter Williams (another probable All-Star) we would have an elite 1-2 punch as the foundation of the franchise. I would then trade Joel Embiid who many said was the best prospect in the elite Andrew Wiggins draft. His injuries are a problem, but he remains an elite prospect with excellent trade value and we would get multiple 1st round picks, multiple young prospects, another elite young talent or maybe a mix. Regardless, there is no doubt that he would give us a mountain of assets. I would then take the best perimeter player with the pick from the Heat that I am owed, which is likely in the mid-teens (Caris LeVert?) and go into next season with Okafor, Noel, MCW, K.J. McDaniels, Tony Wroten, Henry Sims, Hollis Thompson, the 2nd 1st rounder and then try and get Dario Saric to play for me. This team wouldn’t make the playoffs, but we would be competitive for the 1st time in 3 seasons and have the potential to be elite in 2-4 seasons.

If the 76ers get the 1st pick in the draft they have a lot of choices, but the most vital part is to just draft Jahlil Okafor and then make their choices about trades, signings and Saric another day. That is best for the 76eres and Sam Hinkie.

Houston Rockets: Kevin McHale Extension Grade

(December 16, 2014 - Source: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America)

(December 16, 2014 – Source: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America)

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

Contract: 3 Seasons, 12-13 million dollars…

The Houston Rockets have given head coach Kevin McHale a 3 season contract extension. Coming into the season I wasn’t a fan of McHale’s coaching and there were rumors that the franchise wasn’t either, but with the team playing elite ball this season and looking like a contender despite having a far lesser roster than when they were just the 4th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs he has earned his 12-13 million dollars. This year Houston is a better team and one of the biggest reasons is because of coaching.

In 1 season Houston has gone from an elite offensive team (2nd in points per game) and a poor defensive team (23rd in points per game) to an excellent defensive team (4th in points per game) and a strong offensive team (17th in points per game). The difference in their defense is why I am a fan of McHale. James Harden was considered one of the league’s most pathetic defenders, but he is playing strong defense this season and although many will say that they have Dwight Howard and a team with Howard will be excellent regardless, he has missed 12 games and they were giving big minutes to rookie Tarik Black who wasn’t drafted and is actually a free agent, as they cut him to sign Josh Smith; and they were still excellent. That is ridiculous and that is elite coaching.

This team was winning because of their offense, but with Jeremy Lin traded to the Lakers and Chandler Parsons a Maverick (their 4th and 3rd best scorers), McHale had to turn an offensive team into a defensive one. He saw the players that he had on his team and made this choice because he had to and his team keeps winning and are actually better. He has proven that he is an excellent NBA coach, he is a COY candidate and has gone from a coach on the hot seat to a coach who may be one of the best in this league. To me he is the COY for the 1st trimester of the season.

Grade: A

Philadelphia 76ers: From Greatness to Laughing Stock

Source: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images North America

Source: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images North America

Philadelphia 76ers: From Greatness to Laughing Stock

By Tashan Reed: Staff Writer At Hoopstuff…

The Philadelphia 76ers are one of the oldest and most storied franchises in NBA history. They’ve had some of the greatest teams ever as well as some of the greatest players to ever play the game. They’ve won three NBA championships, with the second coming way back in the 1966-67 season when there were only 10 teams in the league and the “Baltimore Bullets” were still a thing. The team was lead by the incredible Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 24.1 points on 68.3% shooting from the field, 24.2 rebounds, 7.8 assists, and an unknown number of blocks that season. Their third and last championship came in the 1982-83 season when a team led by the likes of Julius “Doctor J” Erving, Moses Malone, and Maurice Cheeks earned a 15-1 record in the playoffs and swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals. Although they haven’t won another championship in over 30 years, the success of the 76ers didn’t end there. From 1984 to 1992 the 76ers had one of the greatest power forwards of all time on their roster: Charles Barkley. Barkley never led the 76ers (or any team, for that matter) to an NBA championship, but he put up ridiculous numbers during his eight years playing for the franchise. “The round mound of rebound” known as Charles Barkley averaged 23.3 points and 11.6 rebounds per game which was a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he was only 6’6” (if that).

The era of Barkley ended in 1992 when he was traded away to the Suns, but a new era began only four years later when the 76ers selected Allen Iverson with the first overall pick in 1996. Iverson won the rookie of the year award in his first season, putting up 23.5 points and 7.5 assists and making it clear that he was something special. “The Answer” was one of the greatest scorers the league has ever seen during his time with the 76ers and even led the team to an NBA finals appearance, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers. Iverson also won the MVP award that same season, however, his great talent wasn’t enough to keep the team afloat for much longer. The 76ers slipped into mediocrity and a trend of sub-.500 records before Iverson finally left the team in 2006. Since he’s left the 76ers have been average at best, and for the last few years they’ve been absolutely horrible. Andre Iguodala lead the team from 2006-2011 and then Jrue Holiday took over from 2011-2013, but neither player was able to accomplish much success. After a disappointing 2012-13 season, the 76ers hit the reset button in the 2013 draft by trading away all-star point guard Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a pick. With that pick they selected Michael Carter-Williams, who surprisingly went on to win the rookie of the year award. Noel missed the entire 2013-14 campaign with a torn ACL and the 76ers went on to have their worst season in almost 10 years with a 19-63 record. They selected Joel Embiid in this past year’s draft, but just like Noel he’s set to miss the entire season with an injury that he suffered in college.

Last year and during this past offseason the 76ers traded away or simply chose not to resign almost every player that gave them a chance to win basketball games. Two of the most notable names that the 76ers dumped were Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young; both of whom had been more than serviceable for the team. It’s clear what they were making every attempt to tank for this upcoming season, a topic that draws heated debates. Some don’t see anything wrong with it, they believe that smaller market teams who can’t sign the big-name free agents have to get better anyway they can. Others are strongly against it, and a few have even called for teams that tank like the 76ers are to be punished for their actions. Tanking is a strange subject that’s emerged in the past few seasons, and there really isn’t any clear cut answer on whether it’s good or bad. On one end it gives a struggling team its best shot for a top pick in the draft and a chance at selecting a potential franchise-changing player. On the other side it gives the fans almost no reason to come to the games or supports the team. Honestly, who wants to spend money to come to an arena and watch a team that’s 1-17 lose on purpose in a blowout fashion? Seriously, the organization is making it clear that they don’t care about winning, why then should the fans care about coming to see the games? Philadelphia is known for having some of the most passionate fans in the United States, and they are undoubtedly disgusted with what their once-great team is doing.

If it weren’t for their victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Philadelphia 76ers would’ve tied for the worst start in NBA history. Sure, even if they tried to form a solid roster the 76ers would’ve still been a long shot to make the playoffs. However, this isn’t the answer, it can’t be. Purposefully losing games is extremely disrespectful to a very loyal and passionate fanbase, and inevitably drops the moral of the players on the roster immensely. Losing like this makes the 76ers even less likely to be able to sign a big-name free agent and getting a franchise-changing player in the draft isn’t exactly something that happens all too often. What if the draft lottery doesn’t role their way and they end up with a pick that causes them to miss out on that special player? Do they just scrap the 2015-16 campaign and tank all over again? It’s unfair to put a fanbase through this, and it’ll be interesting to see just how long the 76ers do it.

 

Philadelphia 76ers Duo Lead All NBA Rookie Teams

Philadelphia 76ers Duo Lead All NBA Rookie Teams

By Josh Morgan: VP and Director of Content

There are few things more difficult in sports than predicting how well a rookie will perform in their first year in their respective league. The jump in competition can’t be overstated and for some highly thought of prospects, can be too much to overcome. Making predictions for the All Rookie teams may seem like a futile proposition; especially the second team as there are almost always players that come out of nowhere to make an impact, but I am going to make an attempt at doing just that.

First Team:

G: Elfrid Payton -Orlando Magic

When it comes to rookies putting their stamp on the league from their first season in the league, a lot of it is about the opportunity. Playing on a bad team and getting plenty of minutes to show your talent can go a long way to getting on one of these teams and I’m sorry Magic fans but Orlando won’t be very good this year. They do however have a promising rookie point guard in Elfrid Payton. Coming from a Sun Belt Conference school like Louisiana Lafayette, Payton wasn’t a household name coming into the college basketball season but his play throughout the year and his physical talents at the point guard position, standing 6’5 with long arms and a great, NBA ready build propelled him into the lottery. The Magic signed veteran Luke Ridnour this offseason but this move should not hold back Payton’s playing time and if he can add any sort of jump shot to go along with his aggressive style off the dribble and his relentless defensive play, he will not only make the First Team All Rookie but he will be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year.

G: Andrew Wiggins- Minnesota Timberwolves

These next two players may undercut my theory of either playing on a bad team or getting a lot of minutes making it easier to be selected to one of these teams but there are exceptions to most every rule. In this situation Wiggins will likely be competing with other players at the two or three, wherever Flip Saunders decides to play him, such as Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, fellow rookie Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and someone they are paying a healthy amount of money to in Chase Budinger. His talent will win out in the end, his pure scoring ability and the potential he has to become a stopper on the defensive end, and he will see plenty of playing time to put up the numbers.

F: Doug McDermott- Chicago Bulls

In McDermott’s case the Bulls are not a bad team, they are one of the best in the league, but he has a skill that they need, scoring ability on the perimeter. While McDermott is a great all around scorer he will likely be asked to stretch the floor more than he will be posting up like he did at Creighton and with his phenomenal ability to cut and move without the basketball to act as a counter to his unlimited shooting range, he should put up the numbers to be named to this team. Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a great mentor to have but he is no spring chicken so the opportunity should be there for McDermott, should he put in the effort defensively that Thibs looks for, and I believe he will.

F: Jabari Parker- Milwaukee Bucks

Parker is likely the favorite for the Rookie of the Year award and for good reason. He can leave plenty to desire when it comes to the defensive end of the floor but his scoring ability is phenomenal. His jump shot overall as well as the range on it needs to improve but he can work on this part of his game while still utilizing his size to get to the rim and finish and with that size he has the handle to get around just about anyone on the floor on his way to finding his spot to score. The defensive ability isn’t there but he is a very good rebounder and with his ball handling ability he will go coast to coast time after time. Parker is in the best situation to make an impact as a rookie and as things sit right now he is a shoe-in for the first team.

C: Nerlens Noel- Philadelphia 76ers

I’ve talked a lot about opportunity with the previous players and there may not be a team that gives rookies and young players more of an opportunity to play and contribute at a high level than the Philadelphia 76ers, as they are unequivocally the worst team in the league. Noel was the 6th pick in the 2013 draft but he did not play last season due to a knee injury. This season he will be a cornerstone of the Sixers’ plans along with Michael Carter-Williams and this will put him in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year as well. He is one of the best shot blockers to come into the league in recent years and he can change the game in this way. He combines incredible athleticism and impeccable timing to swat away attempts both on help side and in one on one situations. The offensive end is a work in progress, and that is being incredibly kind, but he should have plenty of chances for put backs and lobs where he will likely find the majority of his points. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Noel averages around 10 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks per game or higher, numbers that will certainly find him named to the first team.

Second Team:

G: Marcus Smart- Boston Celtics

Smart has the talent to be on the first team but there is one person in his way, Rajon Rondo. There are plenty of rumors that Rondo will be traded but unless Danny Ainge gets an offer that knocks him off of his feet I don’t see him moving his best player. Smart will still get plenty of run however and could play alongside Rondo at times, helping him put up good enough numbers to make the second team in my opinion.

G: Nik Stauskus- Sacramento Kings

The Kings have two excellent players that represented their country in the World Cup this summer in DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay but outside of those two there isn’t much when it comes to proven NBA talent. Stauskus should be a very good player in the league however because of his versatility on the offensive end. At 6’6 he has good size for his position, is a very good playmaker with the ball in his hands, a good shooter with range out to the three point line and is a very good athlete as well to finish around the bucket. He could struggle guarding the better athletes in the league but his offensive game and the Kings dearth of talent means Stauskus will see the minutes necessary to put up good numbers.

F: KJ McDaniels- Philadelphia 76ers

KJ McDaniels should have been a first round pick in this past draft. He is an incredible athlete and can put that to use on both ends of the floor, showing the potential to be a very good one on one defender as well as an effective offensive player whether it be in the mid range game or getting out in transition to catch lobs and slam home missed shots. He also took a big risk in taking a lesser contract to have the chance at a better pay day sooner and I think he will be very motivated to prove the teams that passed on him wrong.

F: Julius Randle- Los Angeles Lakers

Randle plays in a crowded frontcourt with the Lakers but his versatility and motor should win the favor of his coach and most importantly Kobe Bryant to get him solid playing time. He looks like Charles Barkley at times, high praise for someone who is yet to play a regular season game in the league yes, but his ability to handle the ball at 6’9, 250 pounds is a sight to behold. It could be said that he relied too much on playing bully ball at Kentucky last season, backing down defenders that were overmatched by his size and agility, but he is more than just a bully. He is a skilled big man and by mid season he should solidify his spot in the rotation and put up good numbers.

F: Nikola Mirotic- Chicago Bulls

Mirotic was hyped as one of the best European players in recent years and finally this season the Chicago Bulls fans will have a chance to see him on the court. At 6’10 Mirotic could be a big matchup problem for the opposition as he is a phenomenal shooter out to the three point line and has the handle to make defenders pay for overplaying his jumper. The Bulls may not want to play two rookies all that much, as Tom Thibodeau noted the last team to win a title with two rookies playing 15 or more minutes per game was the 1974-75 Golden State Warriors, but their two rookies deserve that type of playing time and a potential pairing of Pau Gasol and Mirotic would be incredibly difficult for any team to match up against.

Oklahoma City Thunder: What Kevin Durant’s Injury Means

Oklahoma City Thunder: What Kevin Durant’s Injury Means

By Tashan Reed: Staff Writer At Hoopstuff…

In a shocking story, Kevin Durant has gone from preparing to pursue an NBA championship, to recovering from an injury. After practice on Saturday, Durant complained of pain in his right foot, and further tests revealed that he suffered a Jones’ fracture. The injury will keep the Thunder superstar out for approximately 6-8 weeks. The danger here is that Jones’ fractures have been known to have difficulties healing without surgery and lead to more foot problems down the road. It’ll be crucial for Kevin and the Thunder organization to manage this injury properly and to avoid rushing his return to the floor.

Time won’t freeze for OKC, they’ll still have to play basketball during while Kevin Durant misses games, and they’ll turn to Russell Westbrook to lead the way. Westbrook has been heavily criticized for his tendency to take a lot of shots and attempt to take over the game, now he’ll be implored to do so. He’ll have the very definition of a green light, and it won’t be surprising to see him put up monster numbers in the time that Durant misses. That doesn’t guarantee victories by any means, however, Kevin Durant was able to keep the team afloat with a 20-7 record when Westbrook missed time last season due to knee issues, but Russell Westbrook isn’t Kevin Durant. Regardless, they can manage in these 6-8 weeks.

For the rest of the Western Conference, this should be seen as a golden opportunity to overtake one of the perennial powerhouses in the league. Particularly the Los Angeles Clippers, who’ll have the best chance in my estimation to use this as a head start to secure the 1st or 2nd seed in the West. The Western Conference is always painstakingly close, so even if the Thunder don’t falter without Kevin Durant, they’ll undoubtedly have a lesser record than they would have with him. Look for the Clippers, along with several other teams in the West, to pounce on this opportunity. However, for the Thunder, they should manage while Durant is on the bench with Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and the very talented Thunder role players.

Los Angeles Clippers: Will Chris Paul Win His First MVP?

Los Angeles Clippers: Can Chris Paul Win His First MVP?

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

The MVP race was considered to be a 2 man competition with Kevin Durant and LeBron James, the winners of 5 of 6 NBA MVP’s, however with LeBron on a Cavaliers team that is ridiculously talented and with voter apathy likely (voters get sick of the same player winning) and Kevin Durant injured and missing about the 1st 1.5 months of the season, this is looking like the perfect time for someone who has played elite basketball for a decade and has constantly just missed winning the MVP to win his 1st. Can u guess who I am talking about? Well if you read the title that question probably sounded dumb, but I am describing Chris Paul.

Many believe that he should have won when Kobe Bryant won his 1 MVP, in 5 different seasons he was voted among the best 7 players by voters, he has won 3 assist titles, 5 steals titles, was voted onto 6 All NBA and All NBA Defense Teams and has made 7 All Star Teams. That is quite the list of accolades, but my point is that he is incredible and to me is the best point guard in the NBA and the 3rd best player in the league. As the 3rd best player and with the 1st 2 players having their own concerns regarding the MVP, you have to like his chances.

What helps those chances is that he is likely to be 1st in the league in assists per game, is arguably the best defender at his position and is the best player on a Clippers team that has an a very strong chance to win the most games in the NBA this season. With excellent offense, defense,  rebounding and depth, the Clippers are a title contender and a team that could be 1st in the NBA in offense and Paul is this team’s best player and the key to their winning ways.

At 28, Chris Paul has 5+ more seasons of being an elite player, but with LeBron James and Kevin Durant 1a and 1b in the NBA by a big margin, this is Chris Paul’s only chance left to win an MVP in this league. Although LeBron James has to be considered 1st this season on the list of MVP candidates, Chris Paul can win his 1st MVP this season.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio The NBA’s Most Improved Player?

Minnesota Timberwolves: Ricky Rubio The NBA’s Most Improved Player?

By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…

As I was writing my NBA Award picks and writing the Most Improved Player section, there was really just two names that I considered, Ricky Rubio and Kenneth Faried. However, I chose Rubio as Faried was already excellent, he just has to get more minutes from the Nuggets, but the Timberwolves point guard will become excellent this season. It was an easy choice, Ricky Rubio is my choice for the NBA’s Most Improved Player this season.

Rubio is one of the better distributors in the NBA and is a wizard with the ball, but is also a very strong rebounder and one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA, however this league is about scoring the ball. Rubio’s stat line from his 3rd season was strong, with 9.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.6 assists (4th in NBA) and 2.3 steals (3rd in NBA) per game. However his points aren’t enough and neither are his shot attempts per game, as 8.2 for a point guard playing 32 minutes is pathetic and his efficiency, 38.1 percent from the field is porous. Yes, his strengths and weaknesses are no secret, but why is he my pick for Most Improved Player?

To answer that question, just look at the roster, they are young and they are missing a guy named Kevin Love, who was their offense. Yes Nikola Pekovic will likely be their best scorer and their franchise player is Andrew Wiggins, but he is just 19 and isn’t ready for a franchise player offensive burden, although he will in a season or 2, however Ricky Rubio should be the man for this offense. Lacking the elite offensive talents of Love, the duty of making this offense work becomes Rubio’s and he cannot just distribute and score occasionally, he has to be aggressive, because he is the only player on this team that can make each of these 12 players gel together. They have elite shooters in their rotation with Wiggins and Kevin Martin, elite athletes with Wiggins, Thaddeus Young, Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine and one of the best offensive big men in Nikola Pekovic, but someone has to get them the ball and that is Rubio. He is the most vital player on this offense and the key to the offense. He can and should average 10 plus assists this season.

His distribution and defense will be excellent, probably elite, but what about the scoring? Rubio is looking for a big contract and he may get one this offseason, but let’s say they won’t give him one, this means that he will be playing for a contract this season and just because of this he would be a better scorer, as more points would equal a bigger contract, but also this being his 4th season he should get better just by being more mature as a player and with Love scoring 25 points per game, Rubio being a non-factor scoring the ball meant little, but Love is in Cleveland, so they have to get scoring from their point guard and I seem him helping. A scoring increase is very likely for Ricky this season.

I think that Ricky Rubio will average 12-13 points, 9-11 assists, 4-6 rebounds and 2-3 steals per game and become the elite point guard he has the talent to be this season. As he should have bigger numbers and take a bigger role for his team, he is my pick be the NBA’s Most Improved Player. Whether they are able to re-sign Ricky Rubio or he walks as a free agent in the offseason, expect him to have a big season.