Paul George is on the verge of NBA superstardom. You should probably start paying attention. (Thursday Night NFL Pick Included.) (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)
11. Those last three playoff spots in the Western Conference. There are five teams in the West locked in for a playoff spot. The Spurs, Warriors, Clippers, Thunder and Rockets will see the 2014 postseason. Even one devastating injury wouldn’t keep any of those teams out. (Though it would cripple any title chances.) Playoff seeds six through eight in the West offer much more excitement and mystery. Let’s meet the candidates, ranked in order from strongest to weakest.
Minnesota Timberwolves: With Kevin Love back and healthy for the first time in what feels like five years, the Wolves boast one of the NBA’s elite offenses. They move the ball, their passing is brilliant, Love is an offensive genius, and the list goes on and on. Defensively speaking, the Wolves couldn’t stop a high school team, but that will only hurt their chances IN the playoffs.
Portland Trailblazers: I know, I thought the Memphis Grizzlies would be here also. Instead, I’m going with the deep and uber-athletic Trailblazers. Like the Timberwolves, I have my doubts about Portland’s defense in the playoffs, but at the very least it will be great to have the Rose Garden around in late April.
Memphis Grizzlies: Watching Memphis over the first week has left me empty. The Grizzlies were built on defense. Instead of keeping the coach that orchestrated an upset of the top seeded Spurs in 2011 and advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2013, the Grizzlies allowed Lionel Collins to depart. In other words, the Grizzlies are the same offensively inept team but without the defensive mastermind at the helm. Am I missing something here or does this just not make sense? I’m not going to go overboard after a handful of games, but early results show a lottery in the team’s future, not a playoff run.
Dallas Mavericks: I’m not a fan of Dallas. I’m not buying a career year from Dirk Nowitzki. Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalembert and DeJaun Blair are key components of your team? I’m out. Way out. The Mavs are here out of respect for Rick Carlisle.
Denver Nuggets: I like Ty Lawson and I love Danilo Gallinari. I thought Denver could have made a nice run in the 2013 playoffs, but losing Gallinari crippled their offense. They had no chance without him. Since Gallinari won’t be back until later in the season, it’ll be up to Lawson to keep Denver within striking distance of the 7th or 8th seed.
New Orleans Pelicans: If New Orleans can ever figure out that backcourt they could be a lock for a 6th or 7th seed because Anthony Davis is that good. On the other hand, figuring out that backcourt could take a very long time. Like, years.
10. Finally, a competitive Eastern Conference again. How long has it been seen there were more than two really good teams in the East? I can’t remember. Last year it was the Pacers and Heat. The year before, Derrick Rose tore his ACL, opening the door for one final run by the Celtics. In 2011 the Bulls weren’t ready and Rajon Rondo broke his elbow when Dwyane Wade mugged him. 2010 was the last time three title contenders were in the East semifinals. This year (barring a catastrophic injury), we should get two thrilling and fiercely competitive playoff rounds out of the east instead of just waiting for the obvious candidates to reach the conference finals.
9. Every season a team makes the leap from “not worth a second thought” to playoff terror. The Warriors did it in 2013. Philadelphia and Indiana scared the Celtics and Heat, respectively in 2012. 2011 saw the Memphis Grizzlies upstage the top seeded Spurs and push the Thunder to seven. So who is 2014’s leap team? I like the Pistons. Their frontcourt is massive. That size could give anyone fits in the playoffs. Brandon Jennings is always capable of exploding for 35 and taking over a game. Sadly, as long as Chauncey Billups is their two guard, Detroit won’t advance past the 1st round, but I still think they’ll scare someone.
8. The NBA has never experienced a shortage of overrated players. For instance; Kenneth Faried and LaMarcus Aldridge. Faried is a fan favorite because he hustles and boasts insane athleticism. Some of his rebounds and vicious dunks are unreal. But look closer and you’ll see a player that hasn’t developed an offensive presence in the post, can’t shoot, and still suffers from silly defensive lapses. Faried is a good player, just not as good as everyone thinks.
I really like Aldridge but he feels like a stats guy to me. His numbers are fabulous. When you watch him you immediately recognize him as one of the best players on the floor. Yet, he hasn’t elevated his game to the “great” level. He’s like a more athletic version of Al Jefferson. I don’t know, maybe Aldridge isn’t overrated, I may just be bitter because I want more from him.
7. If there’s overrated players, there’s also guys who are underrated. Gordon Hayward is one. He doesn’t do anything at a LeBron James level but he does a lot of things really well. He’s almost the opposite of LaMarcus Aldridge. His numbers aren’t the greatest but when you watch him play he’s almost always one of the most impactful players on the floor. He even has the sweaty mop top like old school Ginobili.
I’m in the minority here, but I like Brandon Knight. I liked the Pistons better with Knight as opposed to Brandon Jennings. Knight is still only 21 and doesn’t carry the “hero ball” baggage of Jennings. I think Knight will be a very good and reliable point guard for the next decade.
Now, this may be the homer in me, but I actually think Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young are a little underrated. Look at the coaches they’ve had throughout their young careers. Not one of their coaches, and especially not Doug Collins, were known for developing young talent. Both Turner and Young play hard and are above average rebounders. I even think Brett Brown can transform Turner into a poor man’s Paul Pierce. You just wait.
6. The Next Generation of young superstars are ready for your attention. Take your pick; Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Steph Curry. You could even throw Kawhi Leonard and John Wall in there and I wouldn’t argue. Curry and George are locks for super stardom. If Curry can overcome his chronic ankle issues, he could go down as one of the greatest shooters… ever.
George isn’t on the same level of Kevin Durant or LeBron James, but he’s right behind them. George went toe-to-toe with LeBron and the Heat in the 2013 conference finals. Expect to see more of him in late May and early June in the future.
Kyrie Irving is a fabulous offensive talent and could absolutely make the leap to superstar if he can stay healthy for a whole season. It also wouldn’t hurt if he could improve his horrific defense.
Wall and Leonard are on the fringe here. Wall had a great second half of the season last year and got paid for it. He has to drag Washington to the playoffs to prove his place on this list. Leonard may not reach his ultimate potential for a few years, because unlike the others on this list, he’s surrounded by hall-of-famers. For now, though, Leonard can simply continue to develop his wide array of skills and stockpile those breathtaking flashes of greatness for the postseason.
Redskins at Vikings
Alfred Morris is the Redskins meal ticket. Feed him and the Redskins win this game easily. Unfortunately, Mike Shanahan will probably throw the football 40 times, thus keeping this game close (and ugly). As much as I loathe Shanahan, I’m not sure Leslie Frasier knows what he’s doing any more than Shanahan. REDSKINS If I were Charles Barkley; Redskins -1.5