Nets Top Atlantic; Spurs Reign in Southwest; Gambling and NFL Future Plans

new jersey nets

Ian Thomsen>INSIDE THE NBA
by Ian Thomsen
www.sportsillustrated.cnn.com

 

Atlantic Division: How They’ll Finish

1 Brooklyn Nets
2012-13 Record: 49-33

Top Addition: Kevin Garnett| Biggest Loss: Gerald Wallace

The Nets took out a second mortgage in order to build the most audacious rotation in the NBA. The team now boasts at least two future Hall of Famers in Garnett and Paul Pierce, three more All-Stars in the starting lineup and former All-Star Andrei Kirilenko and former Sixth Man Award winner Jason Terry off the bench. One year ago, the Nets were highly paid underperformers who sleepwalked through their first-round loss to the depleted Bulls. But the arrival of Garnett and the hiring of fellow future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd promises to caffeinate the entire organization. Kidd’s inexperience will be offset by the meticulous preparation of lead assistant Lawrence Frank, who will help make sense of the substitution patterns that will be crucial to the Nets’ success this year. The elderly squad knows better than anyone that nothing is more important than its health. With seven members of the rotation on the wrong side of 30, including the three former Celtics each 35 or older, their title hopes will depend on them being healthy and fresh going into the playoffs.

The skinny: If the Nets can’t manage their health, their enormous size and experience will go to waste against the younger Heat, Bulls and Pacers.

2 New York Knicks
2012-13 Record: 54-28

Top Addition: Andrea Bargnani| Biggest Loss: Jason Kidd

The Knicks will maintain the larger following, but during the regular season they figure to be the second-best team in New York. They’re going to miss the soothing influence of Kidd, and never mind his disappointing scoreless streak to end his career last spring — up to that point he had helped bring out the best in Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. They remain a lock playoff team, but they carry many questions whose answers may conspire to prevent them from reaching the second round: Will Amar’e Stoudemire be healthy enough to be reliable off the bench? Will Andrea Bargnani flourish as the starting stretch 4 — and will Anthony excel by shifting back to small forward? Or will the Knicks follow up last season’s division title with a year of fearing whether Anthony will leave as a free agent next summer? Mike Woodson will spend the year preaching patience as the back-page headlines focus on the crosstown Nets.

The skinny: The Knicks must find a way to crack the top four — their playoff run will be short without home-court advantage.

3 Toronto Raptors
2012-13 Record: 34-48

Top Addition: Tyler Hansbrough| Biggest Loss: Andrea Bargnani

The front office has been overhauled with the departure of general manager Bryan Colangelo and the arrival of CEO Tim Leiweke and new GM Masai Ujiri, but the team on the court (apart from Bargnani) remains unchanged. Ujiri will be watching closely to see if there is a future in this team that should be making a run at the playoffs in the top-heavy East, where there are only five certain playoff teams and three spots up for grabs. Adding to the intrigue are the expiring contracts of coach Dwane Casey, leading scorer Rudy Gay (player option) and point guard Kyle Lowry. The Raptors need a strong start to create momentum for a run at their first playoff appearance since 2008 — and to stave off rumors that are waiting to hatch at the trade deadline. The Raptors have enough talent to compete for the postseason, and if they lack the chemistry and commitment to make it happen, Ujiri will start the rebuilding ASAP.

The skinny: Even if some players are dealt by February, Casey may yet earn an extension and an opportunity to coach into the new era.

4 Boston Celtics
2012-13 Record: 41-40

Top Addition: Gerald Wallace| Biggest Loss: Kevin Garnett

Rookie coach Brad Stevens is likely to grasp the importance of his six-year contract by January. In the absence of their beloved Big Three and with Rajon Rondo on the sideline at the start of the year as he recovers from ACL surgery, the Celtics are headed for the lottery for the first time since 2007 (when they traded the No. 5 pick for Ray Allen). The roster is disjointed — too many players in the frontcourt, no point guard besides Rondo and the most talented healthy players (Wallace and Jeff Green) are both small forwards — because it is just beginning to undergo its reconstruction after the trade that sent Garnett, Pierce and Terry to Brooklyn for a package of draft picks and placeholder salaries. The interior defense figures to be porous without Garnett’s leadership, while the offense will be without reliable ball handling in the absence of Rondo and Pierce. With all that said, expect Stevens to be worthy of the challenge: He knew what he was getting into, and this season is all about building up toward a payoff down the road.

The skinny: The Celtics may be out of playoff contention by the time Rondo returns to the lineup. He might not be there long, either, if GM Danny Ainge decides to trade the last holdover from the old regime.

5 Philadelphia 76ers
2012-13 Record: 34-48

Top Addition: Nerlens Noel | Biggest Loss: Jrue Holiday

Rookie GM Sam Hinkie was given a mandate for change, and in a few short months he’s changed the entire face of the 76ers. He traded Holiday to New Orleans for Noel and a first-round pick next year, and he signed new coach Brett Brown to a four-year deal, accounting for the likelihood that the Sixers will spend the first two years in the lottery. Noel’s return from knee surgery has yet to be determined, and even when he’s back in uniform, the Sixers will be cautious with their shot-blocking center of the future. Rookie Michael Carter-Williams, the No. 11 pick in a weak draft, will spend this year learning the hard way as the starter at point guard. Another big project will be to restore the confidence and value of fourth-year swingman Evan Turner, whether to include him in the rebuild or move him for assets. Philadelphia is going to struggle to score, and the best Brown can hope for is to establish a hard-fought defensive identity that can create easy baskets. It will be important for everyone to remember that a losing season is part of the larger strategy.

The skinny: The biggest victory for the 76ers will come in May — if they should happen to win the draft lottery.

Players To Watch

C Brook Lopez
2012-13 Stats: 19.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.1 BPG
Career Stats:17.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 1.7 BPG

The 7-foot center will enable the Nets to match up with the frontcourt size of Chicago (Joakim Noah) and Indiana (Roy Hibbert) while creating mismatches in a potential playoff series against Miami. The paint figures to be parted almost biblically for Lopez thanks to the wealth of All-Star shooters who will be surrounding him on the perimeter as the ball zips around the floor before finding its way inside. Lopez had better enjoy this season, because his life in the paint may never be so comfortable again.

G J.R. Smith
2012-13 Stats: 18.1 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.9 3PM
Career Stats: 13.2 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 1.8 3PM

The reigning Sixth Man Award winner couldn’t make a shot by the end of the playoffs before undergoing surgery and earning a five-game suspension for a drug violation over the summer — not exactly the type of headlines the Knicks were hoping for to combat the big splash created by the rival Nets this summer. With the top of the conference growing more competitive, the Knicks need Smith to build on his terrific regular season by playing explosively and yet still under control. They may be asking too much.

G Kyle Lowry
2012-13 Stats: 11.6 PPG, 6.4 APG, 4.7 RPG
Career Stats: 10.6 PPG, 5.0 APG, 3.7 RPG

The Raptors’ 27-year-old point guard is known for getting carried away with his competitiveness, to the point of being divisive rather than inspiring. Now that he enters a contract year with his franchise at a crossroads, the Raptors will be looking for Lowry to help lead them toward the playoffs while defining himself as a winner upon whom Toronto (or another prospective employer) can depend. It was one thing for Lowry to lose his temper with coaches and teammates when he was a rising young player, but as he approaches his peak years, he must define himself in a constructive way.

Burning Questions

Are the Nets worth $180 million? Their luxury-tax bill alone will be close to $80 million, and owner Mikhail Prokhorov appears to have no problem paying it. He figures to have a big problem, however, if his older players are too injured and/or exhausted to deliver him a championship. If they don’t make a deep run, aren’t we likely to hear Mark Cuban accusing Prokhorov of being played like a chump for investing in a roster of washed-up players? This was a gutsy all-or-nothing gambit for which the Nets are to be commended. They won’t have a chance to rebuild until 2016 at the earliest.

Can Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo share a locker room without driving each other crazy? At first glance, this odd couple appears to be the NBA’s version of Oscar and Felix: Stevens has never spent a minute working in the NBA, while Rondo is a highly intelligent young player who questioned his former coach Doc Rivers, an NBA lifer. Both men are talking a good game, but league insiders expect Rondo’s frustrations to boil over as the Celtics endure a difficult season. What happens off the court in Boston may be more dramatic than the games themselves.

Will the Knicks live up to their end of the rivalry? The Nets outspent and outmaneuvered their rivals in pursuit of short-term gain, but don’t count out the Knicks yet. New York has many questions of its own to answer, but it also has a younger team that is (apart from Stoudemire) less prone to injury. A dream come true for New York would be to enter the playoffs as a fifth-seeded underdog and then knock off the Nets in an exhausting Game 7 in their beautiful new arena in Brooklyn. For once, it would be the Knicks who would be free of pressure.

Bold Prediction

The Nets will look like potential champs during the regular season, but the rigors of the playoffs and younger rivals will be too much for their tired legs.

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san antonio spurs 13

Paul Forrester>INSIDE THE NBA

by Paul Forrester
www.sportsillustrated.cnn.com

2013-14 NBA Preview: Can Rockets rise in Southwest?
Southwest Division: How They’ll Finish

1San Antonio Spurs
2012-13 Record: 58-24

Top Addition: Marco Belinelli | Biggest Loss: Gary Neal

The Spurs’ script is likely to remain the same this season, albeit with more Kawhi Leonard and a sprinkling of Marco Belinelli, who replaces Gary Neal and serves as insurance in case Manu Ginobili struggles or misses time with injuries. The unknown part about the Spurs’ future is the rest of the Western Conference’s contenders, many of whom made moves to bolster their rosters (Rockets, Warriors, Clippers) or their strategies (Clippers, Grizzlies). Will another season of strategic caution with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili reserve enough energy for another deep postseason run? Will Danny Green continue to spruce up the offense with accurate three-point shooting? Will the matchups break so advantageously for the Spurs again in the postseason? The answers haven’t always been the same over the past 17 years under Gregg Popovich, but they’ve always been intriguing.

The skinny: Another 50-win season is almost a given. The challenge is to find enough ways to win those games so that the Spurs are prepared for the different styles of play they will have to conquer in the playoffs.

2Memphis Grizzlies
2012-13 Record: 56-26

Top Addition: Mike Miler | Biggest Loss: Lionel Hollins

How do you follow up on the best season in franchise history? By parting ways with your coach, apparently. With Lionel Hollins out, new coach Dave Joerger offers as smooth of a transition as could be hoped after working as a Grizzlies assistant for the past six seasons. And after winning five titles in a handful of minor leagues, the 39-year-old understands the pacing and psychology of guiding a team deep into the postseason. The plan for improvement is subtle, calling for a moderately faster pace in an attempt to ease the burden on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (who averaged a combined 29.5 points and 19 rebounds last season) in the low post. Still, with size inside (which got a boost with the acquisition of promising big man Kosta Koufos) and the quickness of Tony Allen and Mike Conley hounding the perimeter, the Grizzlies’ calling card will remain defense. Only Indiana finished ahead of Memphis in points allowed per possession last season. Assuming Memphis doesn’t become much more charitable, the tweak on the bench and in the offense might make the front office look very smart.

The skinny: If Joerger can squeeze more offense out of his lineup, assuming the cost isn’t a slide on defense, the Grizzlies may not want to rent out the FedEx Forum to anyone else in late May or early June.

3Houston Rockets
2012-13 Record: 45-37

Top Addition: Dwight Howard | Biggest Loss: Carlos Delfino

After years of stockpiling assets and cap space in the wake of Yao Ming’s retirement, GM Daryl Morey scored the superstar he has longed for when Dwight Howard fled the Lakers for the welcoming embrace of James Harden and Kevin McHale. On paper, the pieces fit well. Howard provides a steady offensive option inside and an elite pick-and-roll partner as well as a back-line eraser when Harden or Jeremy Lin is beaten defensively. As he showed after arriving from the Thunder last season, Harden is one of the game’s most dynamic scorers and has the playmaking abilities to keep Howard engaged. But before penciling in Houston for the Finals, know that, much like the Heat found after gathering the Big Three, big moves at the top of the roster often leave a bench a little thin. Omer Asik and Patrick Beverley will help keep second units off the scoreboard, but regular contributions from Omri Casspi, Ronnie Brewer and Francisco Garcia may be asking for a bit too much.

The skinny: The West’s other contenders are deeper, but the Rockets have arguably the conference’s best-fitting duo in Howard and Harden. Their chemistry alone should be good enough to reach the second round of the playoffs.

4Dallas Mavericks
2012-13 Record: 41-41

Top Addition: Monta Ellis | Biggest Loss: O.J. Mayo

Looking for a not-so-quiet sleeper for the free agent shopping spree of 2014? May we present, the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter all come off the books at the end of this year, leaving the Mavericks with only about $32 million committed for 2014-15. And though it’s difficult to imagine owner Mark Cuban not keeping Nowitzki, it’s equally tough to fathom a team as forward-thinking as the Mavs choosing to build around three players who will be at least 36 by the start of next season. In the meantime, Nowitzki’s sublime shooting, Marion’s ageless defense and Carter’s transformation into an elite sixth man will keep the Mavericks in the playoff hunt, as will Monta Ellis’ volume scoring and Jose Calderon’s playmaking. But the new additions don’t offer much promise to improve a defense that finished 20th in efficiency last season. Rick Carlisle is masterful at maximizing his roster, and with the bottom of the West bracket in flux, that may be enough to sneak into the playoffs.

The skinny: In lieu of bottoming out, the Mavs appear dedicated to trying to eke out a playoff spot and roll the dice in free agency next summer. This franchise has some defining decisions ahead.

5New Orleans Pelicans
2012-13 Record: 27-55

Top Addition: Jrue Holiday | Biggest Loss: Greivis Vasquez

New nickname. New uniforms. New pace. The former Hornets were the league’s slowest team last season. They were also one of the worst defensive teams, finishing 28th in efficiency at 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. Combined, those two factors left New Orleans with 55 losses and in search of pieces to build around Anthony Davis. Trades for Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans promise to speed things up and add two rangy defenders in front of the 2012 No. 1 pick. The two new additions struggled with the unreliable options around them in Philadelphia and Sacramento, respectively, but both are capable playmakers and aggressive scorers. A healthy Eric Gordon (which is a big assumption, to be sure) wouldn’t hurt, but the sixth-year shooting guard struggled mightily even when he was in the lineup for New Orleans last season.

The skinny: How will Evans, Gordon and Holiday mesh? The talent is here for playoff contention, but the experience is not.

Players To Watch

F Kawhi Leonard
2012-13 Stats: 11.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.7 SPG
Career Stats: 9.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG

No one played more minutes for the Spurs in last year’s playoffs than Leonard, a reflection of the multiple uses the third-year forward serves for Popovich. Leonard does a little bit of everything, from defending the opponent’s top wing scorer to shooting three-pointers at a 37.5 percent clip to rebounding. His ability to expand his game even further will take pressure off the Spurs’ veteran core and preserve it for the playoffs.

F Chandler Parsons
2012-13 Stats: 15.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 3PM
Career Stats: 12.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.5 3PM

As much as the Howard-Harden pairing promises to be mutually beneficial, Parsons is likely to provide the grease that keeps the partnership fluid. Parsons, a career 37 percent three-point shooter, will force defenses into choosing from a host of unpalatable coverage options, inside and out. In transition, Parsons is quick enough to keep up with Houston’s breakneck attack and possesses the length to maneuver over opposing forwards. And on defense, Parsons’ size and quickness allow him to track perimeter threats effectively, softening them up for Howard’s shot-blocking near the rim. Working off Howard and Harden has helped others become stars, and it could do the same for Parsons.

G Tyreke Evans
2012-13 Stats: 15.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.5 APG
Career Stats: 17.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.8 APG

It’s not often a former Rookie of the Year becomes available three years after winning the award, but with a new administration in Sacramento focused on building around DeMarcus Cousins, Evans was deemed expendable. The Pelicans didn’t come by him cheaply, giving Evans a four-year, $44 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade with the Kings, but the potential is still there for a lucrative return on investment. The raw numbers alone are impressive: 17.5 points, 4.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds 1.5 steals per game for his career. With better talent and Monty Williams’ more disciplined approach than anything he had in Sacramento, Evans could make the Pelicans one of the league’s bigger surprises.

Burning Questions

Did Memphis improve? As successful as last season was, the Grizzlies were still swept in the conference finals by the Spurs when their offense sputtered. A new coach promising a new pace may help jumps-tart an attack that ranked 18th in points per possession in 2012-13. The roster, though, remains largely unchanged but for the addition of Mike Miller, who has averaged 5.5 points the past three seasons. Memphis will need the likes of Miller, Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless to make threes to complement Memphis’ inside attack.

Is Dwight happy now? After two seasons of requests for trades, firings and amnesties, Howard finally will play for a team of his choosing. The pressure won’t be the same as what LeBron James felt after he left Cleveland for Miami, but Howard’s move to Houston leaves him without excuses now. If Howard believes he is Superman, the Rockets are his Daily Planet, and it’s time to go to work if he wants to save his reputation.

What does Tim Duncan have left? The future Hall of Famer parlayed a new fitness regimen into his best season in three years, reversing what was a gradual, but clear decline in production. Given Popovich’s careful limiting of his players’ minutes, a repeat performance wouldn’t be a surprise. But playing at age 37 every night carries risks and a need for rest. We wouldn’t bet against Duncan yet, but the odds are getting worse.

Bold Prediction

The Rockets will finish third in the division as they adjust to Howard. By playoff time, though, with Howard fully integrated and anchoring an improved defense, Houston will barge into the conference finals.

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nfl in london

Gambling Makes the NFL’s World Go Around

by Nolan Dalla

www.nolandalla.com
I just watched a news report that the National Football League is seriously entertaining the idea of placing a team in London.

Sounds reasonable. The American sports scene has pretty much reached the saturation point. I’ve already noted that some so-called “major” sports are in serious decline. Even the wildly-popular NFL likely faces serious challanges attracting new fans in the years to come. Fact is, if someone isn’t watching pro football by now, there’s a slim chance they’ll convert and become a fan sometime later. Moreover, every region of the country already has an NFL team, which means there’s really no such thing as an untapped market within the U.S.

And so — the NFL is wisely considering expansion overseas, with the primary focus on Great Britain. The appeal and advantages of expansion here are obvious. A common language and culture. Considerable wealth. A rich sporting heritage. Excellent stadiums. Huge television money. In fact, London has hosted at least one NFL regular season game for years. But now, there’s serious talk about a franchise actually being placed in Wembley Stadium full time.

What’s most interesting about this prospect is something the NFL doesn’t like to talk about and never publicly acknowledges. And that”s the NFL’s extensive popularity stemming largely from one thing — gambling. There’s absolutely no doubt that gambling (and its close cousin — fantasy football) have combined to make the NFL into a jaggernaut. Every game is now watchable by anyone who follows the game, due to either a financial interest of from a fantasy sports perspective.

But we Americans are wimps. The Brits take betting on sports to new levels.

Consider that at present no NFL team exists in a market where there’s legalized sports betting. Sure, there’s plenty of underground and offshore betting. But football fans can’t legally go and place a bet nearby, and then go to the stadium and watch their action unfold. In London, things are entirely different.

Betting shops are all over the place — hundreds, if not thousands of them spread all across the country. They’re even across the street from the stadiums. And, most all of them take bets on NFL games (all of them — including sides and totals). You’d be shocked by how many Brits bet on American football. And if you think the 95,000 or so fans who are packing Wembley Stadium today for what appears to be a dreadful mispantch of NFL game between San Francisco and Jacksonville are there merely to casually watch a football game all in “good fun,” then pull your head out of your ass and think again. Want proof? Listen to the crowd once the 49ers either manage to cover the 16.5 point spread or the total goes over 40. You”re likely to hear a huge roar, perhaps the biggest of the game when that happens (Neil Channing, undoubtedly cheering the loudest).

See, that’s the whole point the NFL misses. That sports and gambling go hand-in-hand. The English soccer leagues attract innumerable numbers of gamblers to games, all with a vested financial interest in the outcome. Everyone gets into the act — the sports clubs, the stadiums, the bookmakers, and the fans. The system works.

So, what might the NFL do as a pre-condition oforplacing an NFL team in London? Ban gambling? Force the English betting shops not to take action on the games?

Fat chance.

If that happens, pro football will never make it in London. The stadium would be half empty. If American gambling fuels the NFL’s immense popularity, then in England it’s a virtual pastime. It will be interesting to see how the NFL — often so hopelessly hypocritcal and out of touch with reality — deals with this issue.

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