NBA Hoops open up this week! Love it! No better time to hang out indoors at the arena and/or in front of your TV set and enjoy another season of action. Stay warm and dry and most importantly, safe as we deal with Hurricane Sandy bearing down on us here on a Monday morning. Some quick thoughts.
1. JAMES HARDEN TRADE: A sign of things to come in the NBA with a much more punitive Luxury Tax on the horizon. Teams will have to make difficult and in this case proactive decisions on whether they want to tie huge dollars up into their top two or three players in a small market environment with the major hit of a significant Tax hit and minimal wiggle room to improve your team on other fronts. Tough call for Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti but I think he did the right thing. He made his best offer that would allow his franchise the ability to still function in a prudent economic sense for the short and long term and was rejected by Harden. Either you're in or you're out. Time to move on and get the best deal you can before the value decreases. I still think the Thunder will be a very good team in the West. The Lakers have the potential to be the best here and with this move I now put OKC with the likes of San Antonio, Denver, the L.A. Clippers and Memphis. Of the latter four I mention, I still consider OKC the best of that bunch and a clear second but the margin of error and bench scoring boost and skill level just diminished somewhat. Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb will be good players for OKC but Harden is in another class as far as efficiency and knack for making winning plays. I'll tell you what though, Sam Presti never shies away from the big call. We saw it with Jeff Green to the Celtics and we see it here again.
2. MIKE DUNLEAVY, JR. (Bucks): Watched him last week when he was in town to play the Raptors and I must say that every time I see him, he impresses me with his level of understanding of how to influence the game as a second unit player. He does a wonderful job of moving without the ball and is terrific setting his man up and utilizing screens. Plays the game in a controlled and effective fashion. Knows what he can and can't do and plays within himself. Is he a star? Far from it, but I think any coach would love to have him coming off their bench. He is the son of a former player and coach, Mike Dunleavy, Sr., so you can clearly see that he's spent a lot of time around the game and is a 'Gym Rat'. He plays the game right and the team comes first.
3. DAVID STERN: Congrats. Wonderful run. Warm and fuzzy? No, far from it. He could turn the charm on and off with the best of them. Nobody's fool, that's for sure. A polarizing figure to say the least. He took the NBA from the depths of a league that was perceived to be on the verge of collapse with its NBA Finals on tape delay and numerous image problems, to a league that is economically healthy and in high demand worldwide. His leadership was masterful. Perfect? Far from it. But when you look at 28-plus years in any job, you'll have the pros and the cons. At the end of the day the bottom line is that the NBA is a far better league than it was 28-plus years ago and he's a big reason why due to his vision. Every player, coach, executive, broadcaster, owner and any other NBA staff member should be thankful that he led the league to where it is today compared to where it was when he took over. We're all better for it. Is the game perfect? No. There are lots of issues that I'm sure new boss Adam Silver will have to deal with when he takes over but he's in a much better spot than Stern was over 28 years ago - that's for sure.
4. TORONTO RAPTORS (40-42): I like the way things are headed with this team. Head Coach Dwane Casey and his staff are very good. Talent level is better. Depth and internal competition is much improved as well. Are they capable of overcoming having to play in the toughest division in basketball and play Boston, Brooklyn, New York and Philly (all predicted to be playoff teams) a total of 16 times? Are they capable of handling a difficult early road-heavy schedule with 15 of their first 22 games coming away from the Air Canada Centre? Will Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan in particular take that next step and make winning plays and do whatever it takes to get their team over the hump? Their numbers have looked good over the years but the only number that matters now is the number of wins. It's time to take the next step as a franchise and for these two players in particular - the investment has been made in them - time for the return. I truly believe that this team can contend for a playoff spot and a lot will have to happen in their favour to get there. They have to stay relatively injury-free and other teams need to have some issues with injuries to open up some spots - Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta come to mind as teams that are vulnerable - but will 40 wins get the Raptors in? Not sure but the vibe and direction with this franchise is changing. They might be a year away but they're on the right path. Encouraged and optimistic long-term. Short term - a much more competitive team that should be a whole lot more entertaining. Sure beats the past four years of utter frustration.
5. NBA FINALS: (MIAMI and LAKERS): OK. Go ahead and criticize me for not thinking outside of the box. I've tried like crazy to do that but I keep coming back to these two teams. Both should be a fascinating watch this year and in my opinion, if both stay healthy, if they're not in the Finals, shame on them. Talent level and star power are there in bunches and over the course of the next six-plus months both will grow into different and better teams poised to square off in June. Might be a boring pick but can't seem to get my head around anyone else at this point. Enjoy the season!