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Rowan’s Rankings | NBA Week 4

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It’s week four of Rowan’s Rankings, looking at the top 20 teams in The Association. We are now an eighth of the way through the season, and while sample size is still small, we can begin to identify trends with teams and players. It’s still important to factor in all that’s come before, but we can begin to look at the way things are and why they may be different now. With that in mind, let’s dive into this week’s rankings.

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers last week (1)

Speaking of trends, the Cavaliers seem to be following a pattern similar to last season. In most instances, the team gives as little effort as needed in order to get past an opponent. We’ve seen first halves with very little defense, followed by a buzzsaw when the team needed it. The differences between this year and last year are mostly due to their new offense, getting far more out of Love, as well as utilizing Frye as a stretch five over Mozgov last season. The Cavs got caught slacking against the Hawks and were unable to recover, but for the most part the team is humming right along.

  1. L.A. Clippers last week (2)

If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for a season like this from the Clippers for some time. Continuity is typically key to early success in the NBA season, and the Clippers look like a team that has been together for a long time and possesses two MVP-calibre players. While their small forward position remains a glaring hole, the team has added depth at every other position, and has as fearsome a top four as any team in the league. It looks as though we may finally get the Clippers vs. Warriors showdown that had always felt inevitable in the past. As long as they can stay healthy.

  1. Golden State Warriors last week (5)

It was only a matter of time before the Warriors started making their way back up towards the top of the list. All things considered, the team is probably further ahead than you could realistically hope for at this point of the season when you factor in the roster turnover. There will be the typical drama surrounding them, like any team with this much star power, but the Warriors are already at the top of the league in offensive efficiency and still haven’t unlocked their potential.

  1. Atlanta Hawks last week (6)

Pulling off a road win against the Cavaliers highlighted another strong week for the Hawks. The Dennis Schroder experiment has been paying off early, especially when you look the struggles of Jeff Teague in Indiana. Plus the rebounding woes of the past have disappeared with Dwight Howard. The Hawks have enough tools to allow coach Budenholzer to be a threat to every team on a nightly basis.

  1. Toronto Raptors last week (7)

The DeMar DeRozan experience is in full effect. The Raptors franchise player is leading the NBA in scoring and is doing it the same way as in the past, but better. He’s taking and making tough jump shots, shooting 58.2 percent with a defender between 2-4 feet away from him. While that number will likely decline over the season, the Raptors guard is clearly playing with more composure and awareness on the court.

  1. Charlotte Hornets last week (4)

The Hornets slipping in these rankings is more about the teams around them rather than who they are. Concerns over Kemba Walker regressing from last season are being put to rest for now, as the Hornets guard is positioning himself for his first ever All-Star appearance. Those that doubted the Hornets coming into this season failed to account for what good coaching and an elite defense can do for a team in the regular season. The Hornets are well-prepared and coached on a night-to-night basis.

  1. San Antonio Spurs last week (3)

While the Spurs managed to get back on track after losing three of four games, there’s reasons to be concerned about the team moving forward. After years of people analyzing the issues of the team, only to be proven wrong by Spurs magic, it may be time that “yeah, but it’s the Spurs” is finally running out. LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol simply do not seem to fit together and Tony Parker is running on fumes. There is only so much that Popovich and Leonard can do.

  1. Utah Jazz last week (11)

Another riser in the rankings, the Jazz have shown signs of being a very good team, whenever they are healthy. George Hill hasn’t seen the court since being named Western Conference Player of the Week and Rudy Gobert was out during the Jazz’s loss to the Grizzlies. Injuries were the story of last season for Utah, and while they now have enough depth to see their way into the playoffs regardless, their seeding will be dictated by their players’ ability to stay on the court.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers last week (9)

The Blazers have been doing exactly what they need to do this season: beat the teams they are supposed to beat. It seems like a simple task, but it often is what ends up separating teams in the year end standings. While they are a clear tier below being a contender, or even on the verge of contending, their talented collection of wings and exceptional coaching should leave them in position for a fair amount of regular season success.

  1. Houston Rockets last week (14)

A strong road win over the Spurs is a good sign for a Rockets team that seems to be finding their groove. While their defense will likely never approach good, this offense should be borderline transcendent with James Harden surrounded by shooters under the guidance of Mike D’Antoni. Harden’s status in the league seemed to be tarnished by the volatility of last season (to be fair, he had a hand in the dysfunction), but he is once again establishing himself as a legitimate MVP-calibre player and a top five talent in the league.

  1. Detroit Pistons last week (10)

The Pistons are still holding steady without Reggie Jackson. They lost two games they likely would have lost with Jackson against the Spurs and Clippers, and suffered a bad loss against the Suns. However the team responded well with a road win against the Nuggets as well as a dismantling of the struggling Thunder. Until we see this team at full strength it will be tough to evaluate them, but they are showing a lot of resilience so far this season.

  1. Oklahoma City Thunder last week (9)

Things are looking not too great for the Thunder, losers of four straight games despite dominant play from Russell Westbrook. Steven Adams has been a disappointment so far this season compared to expectations and you have to wonder about what the ceiling of this team is. Especially when you factor in the money they have shelled out to lock up this roster.

  1. Boston Celtics last week (12)

Yes the Celtics have been without Horford and Crowder. But the issues with this team go beyond anything that they will fix. The defense will surely improve, but the team is incapable of rebounding the basketball and despite a great offensive system, it still feels like it would fall apart against the higher-end competition in the league.

  1. Chicago Bulls last week (18)

The Bulls flirted with the seemingly inevitable regression, losing four of five games, only to turn things around with two wins against the Heat and Wizards. The Bulls now head out on their six game “circus” road trip, which should test what this team is really made of.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks last week (13)

The Bucks are still hanging around, but losses to the lowly Mavericks and Pelicans don’t inspire much confidence. Antetokounmpo and Parker deserve more credit than they are currently receiving for carrying a flawed and shallow roster. Both appear to be taking the next step into stardom. We’ll see if that’s enough for the Bucks this season.

  1. Los Angeles Lakers last week (15)

The Lakers may just be a darkhorse playoff team. They currently sit in the eighth seed and when you look below them, you can realistically see things not turning around for everybody else. The biggest question will be consistency, as the veteran Grizzlies will surely try and make a run for playoff position. Walton’s ability to keep a young team focused and prepared will be a fascinating storyline throughout the season.

  1. Memphis Grizzlies last week (19)

It’s been a rough start for the Grizzlies this season. They have yet to record a quality win, mostly defeating the have-nots of each conference. You expect this team to take care of business against lesser, inexperienced teams. Yet they already have accumulated a few uncharacteristic bad losses. Chandler Parsons has only played in four games this season, again pointing to the health storyline that will hang over this team all year.

  1. Indiana Pacers last week (17)

Paul George is awesome. The Pacers are not. Jeff Teague has been a big disappointment early on and the team is struggling on defense. They have the tools to turn things around and be a threat come playoffs, but dreams of home court advantage feel overly optimistic for this team.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves last week (not ranked)

Andrew Wiggins poured in a career high 47 points and still doesn’t look like the best player on his team. Needless to say, the future is bright for the Timberwolves. Zach LaVine is currently dealing with a sore knee, but the Wolves appear to be learning from their early season mistakes. The Wolves have lead in almost all of their games, only to eventually fail to close the game out. If they stop finding ways to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory, they may be poised to make some noise ahead of their development schedule.

  1. Sacramento Kings last week (20)

The Kings beat the Pelicans, then lost to the Lakers and Blazers. The Blazers loss is expected, as it came to a team that is clearly superior to them. But if the Lakers, Wolves, and Nuggets all appear to be ahead of the Kings in terms of development, it may finally be time for the Kings to explore a new direction and shop DeMarcus Cousins.

From the heart of continent, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Justin is a life-long hoops head with a love of the team from Northeast Ohio. He’s written for Fear the Sword as well as Hoops Habit. And he’s never blown a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals. "It's kind of boring when you take open shots." - J.R. Smith. Checkout Justin’s weekly NBA Power Play called Rowan’s Rankings.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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Reloaded Raptors Banking on Young Guns

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Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.

No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.

Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.

It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.

But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.

These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.

The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.

Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.

In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.

Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.

Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.

Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.

As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.

And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.

It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.

So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.

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