By: Tommy Beer
14 months ago, the Boston Celtics and their fans were in the doldrums. They were coming off a dreadful 2006-2007 season in which they finished 24-58. And, as if adding insult to injury, after gripping their rosary beads and praying for over a year that they would be lucky enough win the 2007 NBA draft lottery – they landed the fifth overall pick; meaning they would have no shot at landing Kevin Durant or Greg Oden. The mood in Beantown was somber, as Celtics fans assumed their team would be stuck in neutral for a decade or so.
But a funny thing happened on the way to back to the 2008 Draft Lottery: The Boston Celtics won the NBA Championship.
Thus, for the foreseeable future, whenever any coach and/or GM of a struggling organization addresses their team during the first practice of the season, they will likely be quick to remind them of the Celtics incredible turnaround. Of course, it is safe to assume that most teams won't have the good fortune of adding two Hall of Famers over the summer, but why quibble with semantics? The point is, while it is highly improbable, it is possible to go from first to worst. (At least that is what teams can try to convince themselves of…)
With that fairy tale in mind, let's take a look at last season's cellar-dwellers and see if there is reason for a glimmer of optimism. While the 'miraculous, one-year turnaround into a champion' won't happen, are these teams at least on the right track towards respectability?
Oklahoma City TBD's
Last season's incarnation of the Seattle SuperSonics finished with a Western Conference worst and franchise-low 20-62 record. (And it must be noted that it is truly a shame that fans in Seattle will not be able to cheer for the Sonics next season). However, Oklahoma City residents will obviously be ecstatic to inherit a team with a solid nucleus of young, promising athletes. The crown jewel of the franchise is Kevin Durant. Durant is fresh off a Rookie of the Year season, and is primed for bigger and better things during his sophomore campaign. One of the most impressive aspects of Durant's rookie run was his ability to step his game up during the season's second half. Over the first 50 games of the year, Durant was scoring at an impressive clip (19.4 PPG), but he was taking a lot of shots to get those points – he shot just 40% from the floor and 28% from behind-the-arc during that initial stretch. However, over the second half of the season, where most first-year players hit the "rookie wall," Durant got stronger and became more efficient and effective. In the Sonics' 30 post-All-Star break games, he averaged 21.9 points per game and boosted his FG percentage all the way up to 47.6%. During 16 games played in March, he shot 52.6% from the field and over 90% from the stripe. One of the few knocks on Durant coming out of college was that his lack of strength would be a hindrance, so to see his play improve as the season dragged on was impressive. In addition, he also led the team in blocks and steals. The sky is the limit for this kid.
Oklahoma City will also get to watch the development of Durant's fellow 2007 draftee, Jeff Green. Green also came on strong late last season, averaging 16 points over the Sonics final 13 contests. And in the Vegas Summer League last month, Green poured in over 22 points per game. Accordingly, with Green and Durant already in the mix, and their talented, young GM Sam Presti calling the shots, Oklahoma City has plenty of reasons to be thankful.
Memphis Grizzlies: While most teams in the NBA are trying to figure out ways to shave salary to get under the cap or avoid paying the luxury tax, the Memphis Grizzlies are being much more conscientious. (Memphis did sign Atlanta restricted free-agent Josh Smith to an offer sheet, but the Hawks immediately matched it.) However, while Memphis won't challenge New York for the league's highest salary anytime soon, they do have an assortment of promising young pieces. And after the Grizz donated Pau Gasol to the Lakers last season and traded Mike Miller this summer (the team's fifth leading scorer, Juan Carlos Navarro, also left to play overseas), the youngsters that remain will get plenty of playing time to show and prove. The Grizzlies best player is rising star Rudy Gay. Gay was one of the league's most improved players last season, nearly doubling his rookie production by averaging over 20 points and 6 rebounds a night. But Gay did more than just score and rebound. In fact, there were only two players in the NBA last season to average at least 20 points, 1 block, and 1 steal per game: LeBron James and Rudy Gay.
Gay will be joined this season by O.J. Mayo, the highly touted guard out of USC. The Grizz originally drafted Kevin Love, but sent him to Minnesota for a package including Miller, with Mayo being the key ingredient. O.J. is extraordinarily talented and is said to have the most NBA-ready game of all incoming rookies. We shall see. However, with Mayo and Jaric coming over from the T-Wolves, the Grizz now have a glut of guards with Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, and Javaris Crittenton already on the roster. Expect Memphis to shop at least one of these PG's, most likely Crittenton, in effort to shore up some other holes in the lineup.
Miami HEAT – Of the also-rans listed in this piece, the HEAT clearly have the best shot of seeing rapid results. And while the addition of Michael Beasley and a full season of Shawn Marion is exciting, it is the return of a healthy Dwyane Wade that really has folks in South Beach fired up. Those hoops fans that have seen D Wade strut his stuff for Team USA in the Olympics this month realize that "Heeeeeeeeeeeeeee's back." For the first time in over a year, he looks 100% healed from an assortment of injuries that have hampered him. And when he is on his game, D Wade is utterly unstoppable. He is a rare, elite talent that can take over a game by himself (or even an entire playoff series - just ask the Mavericks.)
The combination of subplots in South Beach makes the HEAT one of the more interesting teams to watch this upcoming season. Lots of questions need to be answered. Wade looks great right now, but can he hold up for the full season? How will Marion perform, considering he is in the last year of his contract and will be especially eager to prove his incredibly impressive career statistics aren't the byproduct of playing alongside Steve Nash within the Suns explosive offense? Word on the street in the days leading up to the draft was that Pat Riley was extremely worried about Michael Beasley's immaturity and character issues. However, Riley apparently felt Beasley's prodigious talent was too tempting to pass up. Can Beasley grow up in a hurry and steer clear of South Beach's late-night draw? And, with Riley stepping down, much of the responsibility for keeping the ship sailing straight will fall on the shoulders of 37-year old Erik Spoelstra, now the NBA's youngest head coach. Should be fun to watch it all unfold…
New York Knicks – The good news: Isiah Thomas is gone! Knicks fans rejoice. The bad news is that the Knicks roster is still full of the players acquired by Isiah Thomas. Nonetheless, New Yorkers are hoping that their team is on the right path under the direction of GM Donnie Walsh and Head Coach Mike D'Antoni. The Knicks big addition this offseason was Danilo Gallinari, whom Walsh selected with the sixth overall pick in June's draft. They also signed free-agent PG Chris Duhon to a two-year contract. The Knicks roster is still unsettled – will they waive Stephon Marbury? - and Walsh continues to explore trade opportunities. The main focus of the organization from a big-picture perspective is slicing salary and getting far enough under the salary cap to be buyers in the magical 'Summer of 2010.' Walsh would love to find a taker for Zach Randolph, who is owed $17.3 million in 2010-2011. New York feels that if it can carve out the requisite cap space to offer a contract starting at $15 million annually, it will have a very real shot at landing LeBron James, or possibly settling for a beautiful consolation prize in the form of Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.
Still, the Knicks, who won just 23 games last year under Thomas,
should see a significant increase in their win total next year. Adding
a former NBA Coach of the Year in D'Antoni will have an immediate
impact. New York is desperate for any sign of progress and even baby
steps in the right direction should energize the team and its fan
base. The Knicks haven't won a playoff game since April 29th, 2001, so
just being in the postseason picture during the second half of the
season would represent a monumental improvement. In addition, Walsh is
hoping that Knicks success will translate into his player's league-wide
value increasing, making beneficial trades more feasible.