Coping With Loss: On The Eric Bledsoe Injury

bledsoe and hornacek

As a Grizzlies fan, no one should be happier about Eric Bledsoe going down than me. My team -- flailing without Marc Gasol for two months, although they're staying afloat -- now has a much better shot at making the playoffs. In fact, at this point, if they DO manage to reach the top-8, we may end up seeing the Bledsoe injury as directly responsible for the spot.

Despite all that, I'm inconsolable. Out of all the major injuries in the NBA this season, this one hits me hardest. Yes, even harder than Marc. Yes, even harder than Rose. One might think this is because the Grizzlies march to the postseason now seems almost too easy, but that'd be wrong-headed -- nothing related to my guys has anything to do with it. If they get in, I'll be thrilled regardless of how they accomplish the feat. What devastates me so much about this injury is that one of the weirdest basketball stories in the last few seasons will be left unfinished. We'll never know what exactly this Suns team could have done.

Take a step back: the Suns weren't expected to do anything this year other than lose very frequently. In an insanely deep Western Conference, the Suns were the only team that no one thought could compete for a playoff spot. (Even Utah had a few crazy believers!) They were supposed to bottom out for a draft pick, nothing more than four easy wins for the Clippers and Warriors. Instead, they stunned everyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to basketball. I mean, cripes -- they started out 21-13. Twenty-one wins! That represented more wins in their first 34 than many would have given them over an entire season. And this wasn't some case where they kept getting lucky in close games, either. Their point differential matched their record -- their expected Win-Loss record was right on track  with their actual record. No one could totally explain or understand the Suns, and no one had to. It was beautiful. They just worked.

The best thing about the Suns, to me, was that one of their expected problems turned out to be their greatest strength. Dragic and Bledsoe weren't supposed to be able to play together. Dragic was supposed to be trade bait while they bottomed out, because there was no way two point guards could exist in the starting lineup. Right? Wrong. The Dragic-Bledsoe duo proved to be phenomenal, stymieing opposing defenses and rivaling Steph Curry and Klay Thompson for the title of best back court in the league. Splash brothers meet slash brothers, or so they say.

As the wins kept piling up, the question of "can they keep it up" hung in the balance. Even though their record was consistent with their Pythagorean Win-Loss mark, it still seemed questionable that they could keep playing THIS well. After all. Channing Frye couldn't keep playing that well. Miles Plumlee couldn't keep playing that well. Gerald Green couldn't keep playing that well. Whether or not the Suns could blow our minds for a whole season and actually make the playoffs was shaping up to be most fascinating storyline in the league going down the stretch. And we'll never know the answer.

Given their inspiring play to-date, there's a chance they might not fall all the way into the gutter. They've still got more than a puncher's shot of finishing over 0.500, a massive accomplishment for the roster they put together. But with Bledsoe gone, their limitations are impossible to ignore. Dragic is their only true quality player at this point. Everyone else on this team was playing above their expected talent level, and the idea of them playing even more out of their minds than before is pretty laughable. What's more likely is that without Bledsoe, the team will fall into a funk. It's hard to know how much psychological factors can impact a team's performance, but its not a stretch to think the loss of Bledsoe could hurt the Suns just as much mentally as it does talent-wise. With Bledsoe healthy, this team knew they could win, even if no one else believed them. Now, no matter how much they might try to deny it, they know they don't have much of a shot. Confronting that on a daily basis could end up accelerating their descent into the gutter.

Still -- what's the big deal? After all, the Suns know what they have in Dragic and Bledsoe, and there's no reason they can't be competitive next year. If anything, they could be even better, since the prowess they've shown in the first half of the season should increase their odds of a luring a big-name free agent. Further, dropping into to the lottery -- even the fringes of the lottery -- gives them a better draft pick in one of the most loaded drafts in recent memory. And it's not like this year's Suns team was going to win a championship, anyway. Anything after the first round would have been a miracle.

So why does it hurt so much?

Because of the same reason the 2004 Heat are Aaron's favorite Heat team ever -- this is the only year where it was going to be special. We know what the Suns are capable of now, and we're going to into next year basing our expectations on that. If they lure the likes of Luol Deng or Carmelo Anthony to town, we'll be even more confident in their abilities. This was the only year where the Suns were going to push our imaginations to the limit. As NBA fans, we know the game we love is predictable, and we know it's hard to get casual fans excited about it. "Don't the Lakers/Heat just win it every year? I'll watch in June." It's hard to combat that attitude, because deep down, they kind of have a point. The year starts with four or five legitimate championship contenders and four or five legitimate tire fires. The year ends with the same, year-in and year-out.

These teams oscillate, and there's a decent amount of back-and-forth while we adjust expectations and figure out exactly who they are. But the broad strokes remain the same, except in extraordinary circumstances. The 2014 Suns -- prior to this injury -- were an extraordinary circumstance. The greatest thing about basketball's wretched predictability is that when we do happen upon a team like the Suns, it's all the more mesmerizing. Look at the NFL. The worst team in 2012 (the Kansas City Chiefs) ended up winning 11 games and making the playoffs this year, and it wasn't even that much of a surprise. That's the downside of parity, and the upside of predictable hierarchies; when a team plays better than they have any business playing, it really feels like something. It rekindles your excitement for the game and continues to teach you new things.

Deep down, I know the Rose injury is a much bigger deal. It caused the front office to blow the team up with Deng out the door and Boozer likely joining him soon, and now we'll never know if the Rose-Deng-Noah-Boozer Bulls could have won a title. I'm pretty unhappy about that, too, but at least by the time Rose went down again, I already knew where the Bulls were talent-wise. After all, we saw them finish 1st the East for two straight years. They were a known quantity, even if the injuries made them a nebulous unknown. With the Suns, I had no idea how good the team actually was. I had no idea how far they could go. That made them fascinating night in, and night out. They'll certainly be intriguing next year (I'm already expecting them to be at the the top of my Tiers Of Intrigue come September), but the element of surprise will be a gone. And in a sport where genuine surprises come some few and far between, it will be sorely missed.

2013 Tiers of Interest: The Most Interesting Team in the World (Part II)

I think this is the 3rd time I've used this in a GG article. There's a reason for this. -- Aaron

Bonjour, readers. Welcome to the first -- and perhaps only! -- edition of the Gothic Ginobili Intrigue Rankings! Why? Because regular power rankings are boring, that's why. It's a lot more fun to rank to teams by how interesting they are rather than how good they are. At least for me. What makes a team intriguing, other than my personal whims? A big part of it the distance between a team's ceiling and its floor. If I can pick a team's win total within five games without thinking too hard about it, that's not a particularly interesting team. If I can look at a team and see 30 and 50 wins as being equally possible, that's a lot more fun to think about. Relevance also matters, although less so. I try not to go strictly by ability, but if I know a team is going to be awful and it's just a matter of how awful they'll be, they will likely linger towards the bottom of the list. Above all else, this is a list about how fun a team is to think about, and whether or not I think they'll be interesting to follow in 2013-14. Now that that's set up, let's dive into the second half of yesterday's list. Rather than an ordinal 1-30 ranking, I've compiled a list of roughly ordered tiers corresponding to various levels of interest.

• • •

TIER #8: STAYING THE COURSE (... WELL, THEY CAN AFFORD TO)

Miami Heat

I had to put the Heat in the top half of this list because... well, they're the Heat. Their mere existence piques one's interest. Still, it's basically the exact same team every year at this point. Beyond their ridiculous streak last season, they weren't nearly the compelling story they were in 2011 or 2012 -- a title gives you carte blanche to rest your guys and take your foot off the gas. Hard to really blame them, but it made them inherently a little less fun. And the continuity is ridiculous.When you're invested in multiple superstars, you're pretty much stuck with that roster. The question of whether or not any team can make the Finals four years in a row at a time where the league is so competitive is the most fascinating question here. The Heat would be the favorites against any team in the East right now, but can they get through all of them? Last year, the Heat didn't face a real challenge until the Conference Finals, and they were taken right to the razor's edge by the Pacers and the Spurs. Now that the Bulls are back in the mix, the Nets got considerably better, and whoever represents the West should remain as stout a challenge as last year's Spurs -- whoever they are. The pressure could be a bit much. The possibility of Greg Oden becoming a serious contributor is a mildly entertaining sub-plot. Considering everyone they've trotted out at center over the past five years, he was easily worth the risk.

San Antonio Spurs

Some signings are interesting solely because of the team making them. If Marco Belinelli signs with the Bucks or the Raptors, no one gives a crap. If he signs with the Spurs? Genius! Bon vivant! The perfect fit! Pop is going to get SO MUCH out of him! ... Of course, for all the mocking we'd like to do of the predictable narrative, all of that is probably true. That's San Antonio for you. Anyway, the Spurs are a lot like the Heat, only a little more interesting because of the "how long can they possibly keep this up?!" factor. They seem like a lock for a playoff spot, and they're one of this season's 5 or 6 teams with a serious shot at a ring. But maybe that's the problem. Right now, everyone but a few quiet doubters fully believes that the Spurs will contend this year, especially with Kawhi Leonard gradually taking Manu's spot in the Big 3. It would be sort of amusing -- and classic Spurs misdirection -- if the Spurs finally ran out of steam the one year people stopped expecting them to die. Still, seems rather unlikely. They'll probably win another 55-60 games, take down another top seed that receives far more hype, and bow out gracefully after winning 2-3 rounds of playoff basketball. Sunrise, sunset.

TIER #7: WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS

New York Knicks

You know what's really funny, given all the hand-wringing people do about New York? The Knicks have made the playoffs three years in a row! Think about that. They were one of the worst teams in the league for almost a decade, but they've reached a reasonable amount of sustained success. They'll probably make the playoffs again this year, too. Four in a row! That's almost half a decade of sustained success. The problem? They've done it in such an impressively dysfunctional way, where all of their flaws are readily apparent the drama gets leeched of the proceedings. The Knicks are always fun, but it's kind of a circus of a team. And it's tough to root for that, sometimes. Andrea Bargnani seems like a semi-risky signing at first glance. But the expectations for him are hilariously low, and they gave up virtually nothing to get him. It's hard to see him not being a somewhat valuable bench player, so it may turn out to be a low-risk, high-reward move. I didn't mind the Metta signing either. Yeah, he's old, but he's coming off his most productive season since 2008-09, and he'll love every minute he gets to play in New York. The Knicks will be pushed this season, no doubt -- the Pacers, Bulls, and Nets will likely all pass them in record, and there's always the potential for a massive implosion. But chances are high that they won't be a tranwreck, and they'll be a fun story all the way from opening night to their 2nd round swan song.

TIER #6: THEORETICAL CHAMPIONS

Houston Rockets & Brooklyn Nets

I talked a lot about both of these teams in my last article, but essentially each of these teams are interesting because they've gotten themselves to a point where the idea of them winning a title doesn't seem completely off-the-wall. That's not to say it's LIKELY, mind you... just that the notion can't be laughed off. While signing Dwight Howard comes with a lot of potential pitfalls, the Nets actually took the bigger risk here. They basically have a two year window to win a title. After that, KG and Pierce will be gone or nonfactors, Joe Johnson will be in his mid 30s, and Deron/Brook will be their last two pieces of any real consequence. This is why the trade for KG, Pierce, and Jason Terry was panned by some. But I encourage the skeptics to look at the smaller picture: for the next two seasons, the Nets will be a force to contend with. That's at least worth something. Right? As for the Rockets, they may benefit this season from a surprising lack of hype. The Dwight signing itself received a ton of press, but once he officially came aboard, there have been very few articles talking up a potential dynasty in Houston, perhaps because Big Twos and Big Threes are so common that the formation of another one just isn't that big of a deal anymore. In any case, the Rockets will be very good team that will nonetheless face some big questions. Will Dwight get his 2008-11 form back? Can he play with Harden? Can we play with Asik? [ED. NOTE: I usually edit out typos, but I can't edit this one out. The childlike innocence of the question "can we play with Asik" is just too much. Thanks, John. Thanks for brightening our day.] Can Jeremy Lin run this team? Is Chandler Parsons a potential All-Star? Should be fun to watch, all things considered. We're in new territory, for sure.

TIER #5: IT TAKES TWO (HOPEFULLY)

Oklahoma City Thunder

I won't spend too much raking them over the coals for the Harden trade. It seems like everyone in the world has, and I have little to add. Still, with Kevin Martin leaving, this team is officially a two-headed monster, and it'll be interesting to see if Durant and Westbrook are enough to guide this team to a championship without a particularly stout of a supporting cast. Serge Ibaka is a force on defense, but he hasn't become the All-Star the Thunder thought he would when they chose him over Harden. And after that? It's slim pickings, and it remains to be seen if this team is still a favorite or an also-ran in a conference chock-full of both. Even if Westbrook-Durant is a better duo than Dwight-Harden, the Rockets may have the superior cast surrounding them. And that's where OKC's intrigue comes in -- if they can win the West at a time when so many teams appear better constructed, Durant's legend grows further. He'll officially be entering LeBron territory. Don't rule out this possibility.

Los Angeles Clippers

There's a metric ton of hype around this team, especially when you consider the fact that they a) lost in the first round last season, b) are the Los Angeles Clippers, and c) didn't get a great deal better in the off-season. The excitement over re-signing Chris Paul has drowned out the reasonable concern that they haven't really done anything worth noting with Chris Paul yet, and that he's still never played for a team constructed well enough to get past the second round. The Clippers could provide an all-time answer an immortal question this year: how much difference can a coach makes, really? Doc Rivers is an immeasurable upgrade over Vinny Del Negro, and that may be the difference needed to get them over the hump. Replacing Eric Bledsoe with the guy who lost his job to Mike James is a considerable downgrade, but replacing Tuff Juice with Jared Dudley -- who FINALLY gets to be on a good team! -- might make up for it. The talent level is roughly equal, and it's all about whether Doc is good enough to get this team past the other star-studded squads in the always-brutal West.

TIER #4: WE NOW RETURN TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED PROGRAMMING

Chicago Bulls

One of the most fascinating things about last season was the how the identity of the Bulls changed without Rose in the lineup. In the past, when he missed a few games, they would try to replicate his production by committee, and essentially play the same way, With Rose gone for a full year, the Bulls had no choice but to become a completely different team. Joakim Noah became the leader, and their brutal defense replaced Rose as the star of the show while Nate Robinson did a surprisingly excellent job of replacing Rose's energy. It makes you wonder how they'll operate with #1 back at the 1. Will they essentially go back to playing the way they did before he went down, or will elements of Rose-Lacking Bulls infiltrate the genetic makeup of the Rosebud Bulls? It certainly wouldn't be surprising to see Noah continue to pay a bigger role, as Rose's unofficial sidekick. Meanwhile Jimmy Butler's presence will allow Luol Deng to get some rest, if Thibs is smart, and quite possibly make him expendable. The questions of whether Rose will be his old self, how the team adjusts to his return, and whether or not Deng becomes trade bait are all enough to make the Bulls a surprisignly intriguing team going into next season.

TIER #3: THE EASTERN INSURGENCY

Washington Wizards

These next three are very much joined at the hip, as they're all young squads looking to sneak into the playoffs this year. The Wizards are the team I have the most doubts about, personally. They played .500 ball in the second half of last season's action against a not-particularly-easy schedule, and they would figure to be at least that good this year. Right? But it's hard to be confident. The Wizards are hoping the John Wall who showed up January was the real John Wall, and all of his earlier problems were simply side effects of him adjusting to the NBA and we won't see any of them ever again. Might be the case, but I wouldn't say for sure. The Wizards are also counting on Martell Webster to be just as productive as was last year, which seems like a risky proposition given that he'd been a scrap-heap amnesty guy on the cusp of retirement. We also don't know how healthy Bradley Beal will be, or if he's the potential superstar so many think he is. So yeah, there are a few big issues, but the Wizards should still be a fun energetic team. Hopefully, they'll frighten the establishment a little bit.

Detroit Pistons

I get why the Pistons went for Brandon Jennings -- he's young, and he might be a better player than his last few years in Milwaukee suggest. Still, I wish they had brought Calderon back. Sure, he's older, but during his brief time in Detroit, he was ridiculously amazing. He shot .527 from the field and .520 on threes. He took 98 three-pointers with the Pistons, and he made 51 of them! And the Pistons replaced him with a dude who struggles to shoot 40 percent? Is youth really that important? That gripe aside, I still really like this team. Josh Smith and Andre Drummond on the same team makes me wonder if @Jose3030 is secretly in charge of personnel decisions for the Pistons, and Greg Monroe finally has some talent around him. I still don't know they'll space the floor (another reason why they should have re-signed Calderon), but this team is easily good enough to sneak into the first round and give Miami or Chicago a good scare.

Cleveland Cavaliers

As for the Cavs, their big problem is injury potentialities. Bynum was the ultimate high-risk high-reward individual signing, and frankly, I thought it was a good move. We all know what his problems are, but if he's on his game, the Cavaliers could become really scary really fast. Honestly, if Kyrie, Varejao, and Bynum all end up staying healthy, I'd put the Cavs ahead of every team in the east except for the Heat, Bulls, Pacers, and Nets. And they could leapfrog one or two of that group, with some fortuitious injuries to those four. Obviously, that's a budget-of-The-Lone-Ranger sized if, but that's what puts a team near the top of the intrigue rankings. The Cavs could give the Heat a brutal second round push... or they could win 30 games. Who knows! The journey there should be a lot of fun, regardless. It doesn't hurt that they have Kyrie Irving, who is effectively a league pass alert unto himself.

TIER #2: YES WE PELI-CAN

New Orleans Pelicans

No team -- not even the Cavs -- had a bigger high-risk, high-reward offseason in its totality. Bynum is individually a bigger high-risk high-reward signing than any of the New Orleans signings, but New Orleans had SO MANY OF THEM! The Pelicans decided to go after Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, and try to get them to play with Eric Gordon. Woah! Just, woah! There's so much potential here, but it's hard to know if any of them will live up to it or if they'll complement each other's play in any tangible way. Still, if this arrangement works, it's hard to dislike what the Pelicans have put together. Anthony Davis could yet emerge to be a superstar, and the Pelicans are trying to surround him with as much talent as possible. They'll either be an unwatchable mess, or the team that the Western Establishment is deathly afraid of drawing in round 1. So many possibilities.

TIER #1: THE MOST INTERESTING TEAM ON EARTH

Golden State Warriors

Ethan Sherwood Strauss put it best -- it would not surprise me if the Warriors make the finals, miss the playoffs, or do anything in between. Steph could get hurt again. They could painfully regress to the mean if they don't win as many close games. Harrison Barnes might not be productive of the bench. David Lee could emerge as the odd man out, forcing the Warriors to trade him. And yet, if it all works out, this team could beat anyone in the league. Stephen Curry is more dangerous than Walter White when he gets hot, and it doesn't usually matter how you guard him -- he'll get the shot anyway. Curry plays with a freedom, with a reckless abandon that is glorious to watch, and impossible to defend. If he stays healthy, he'll be a superstar. Plain and simple. Meanwhile, Klay Thompson is the perfect sidekick for the Best Backcourt Ever. If you double team Steph, you leave Klay open, and he can murder you. And neither one of these guys has reached their full potential yet! Meanwhile, Iguodala was a cosmically brilliant signing that should do a lot to fix their defensive struggles, and give them yet another three-point shooter. There all sorts of reasons why this might not work out, but if everything congeals together, this team will be a rampaging beast capable of destroying everyone in their wake. In the meantime, they've earned the top spot in this list. And I can't wait to see them work.

• • •

Once again, disagreements are prime to be registered in the comments below. Hope you enjoyed this ranking exercise. Join me next week when I rank which team eats the most satisfying lunches, probably! [ED. NOTE: Do not join him for this. It will not happen.]

2013 Tiers of Intrigue: Let Loose the Bucks of War (Part I)

larry sanders show

Bonjour, readers. Welcome to the first -- and perhaps only! -- edition of the Gothic Ginobili Intrigue Rankings! Why? Because regular power rankings are boring, that's why. It's a lot more fun to rank to teams by how interesting they are rather than how good they are. At least for me. What makes a team intriguing, other than my personal whims? A big part of it the distance between a team's ceiling and its floor. If I can pick a team's win total within five games without thinking too hard about it, that's not a particularly interesting team. If I can look at a team and see 30 and 50 wins as being equally possible, that's a lot more fun to think about. Relevance also matters, although less so. I try not to go strictly by ability, but if I know a team is going to be awful and it's just a matter of how awful they'll be, they will likely linger towards the bottom of the list. Above all else, this is a list about how fun a team is to think about, and whether or not I think they'll be interesting to follow in 2013-14. Now that that's set up, let's dive into the list. Rather than an ordinal 1-30 ranking, I've compiled a list of roughly ordered tiers corresponding to various levels of interest.

• • •

TIER #15: PERPETUAL MEDIOCRITY IS OUR ULTIMATE GOAL!

Milwaukee Bucks

I originally had this team a few spots higher, but when they traded for Caron Butler last week, it served as a well-timed reminder of just how mind-numbingly dull this franchise is. They replaced their starters at three positions, but I'm not sure it'll have even the slightest impact on their win total. Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight and Monta Ellis for O.J. Mayo are both largely lateral moves, and Caron Butler's most attractive quality is his ability to be utterly average. The Bucks front office is too afraid of sinking into the abyss to give itself a chance to become serious contenders. They tread water every single year, hell-bent on boarding a train that leads nowhere. They'll win 35-40 games in the Eastern Conference for next 30 seasons. We all know this.

Atlanta Hawks

Meet the new Hawks -- same as the old Hawks. They're perpetually competent in the least interesting way possible. [ED. NOTE: Hey, Horford's pretty good! ... Okay, starting to see your point.] There was brief talk that the Hawks might get CP3, Dwight, or both. Those were the days. When that fell through, we thought the Hawks might blow it up, and try their luck in the lottery. Nothing doing. Instead, they brought back Jeff Teague and replaced Josh Smith with Paul Millsap, leaving them in effectively the exact same place they were last year. The difference? With the Cavs, Pistons and Wizards all looking to take huge leaps, it might not be enough to squeak into the playoffs anymore. This could be a good thing for the league -- I'm of the view that we could be better off if the Hawks fall into the more useless end of the lottery. Who REALLY wants to watch them lose to Indiana in six completely unwatchable games yet again?

Toronto Raptors

Had the Raptors made their big gamble -- the Rudy Gay trade -- in this fast-receding offseason, they might be a bit higher for me. But we already watched this for 10 weeks, and it's unlikely this team is going anywhere other than a first-round exit. Gay has always had more potential than actual ability, and for six and a half seasons, Grizzlies fans talked themselves into believing he was a potential superstar. When the team thrived after getting rid of him, it probably shouldn't have been all that surprising to anyone. Kyle Lowry is a similarly pedestrian star. He exhibits consistent yet brief flashes of brilliance and every team he's on starts to think he might be an All-Star. Never seems to happen. Neither of these quasi-stars can really carry a team, and the Raptors will hang around 0.500 this year. It should be their best season since Bosh left, but it still leaves them with a wispy future.

TIER #14: HOW LOW CAN THEY GO?

Philadelphia 76ers

If the only criteria for my intrigue was the carnival sideshow factor, the Sixers would be much higher. I honestly can't see a scenario where this team wins 20 games. Their point guards are Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten. They're combo guards. J-Rich might not play all year. No one knows when Nerlens Noel will be back. This team has a real shot at being historically awful, which can be interesting if you're into bad horror movies where the ending is telegraphed in the first scene. [ED. NOTE: Hi, Angelo!] If they don't finish with the worst record in the NBA, Thaddeus Young deserves a Nobel Prize. In what, you ask? I have absolutely no idea. Just give him one. The only interesting thing I spy here is the possibility that they break their own franchise record for losses in an 82-game season. Woo-hoo!

Phoenix Suns

Do you think anyone bought a Caron Butler Suns jersey? In the entire world? ... someone had to, right? That guy has my deepest sympathies. This is another team that won't start contending for relevance until they get a new piece in next year's lottery, and they're the odds-on favorite to finish last in the West. For a second straight year, I remind you. The most intriguing thing about this team is how they handle the Bledsoe-Dragic situation. Does Dragic's seniority earn him the starting gig even though Bledsoe has more potential? Do they possibly both start, with Bledsoe at 2-guard? That could be fun to watch. Kinda. Either way, this is gonna be a pretty awful eason. On the plus side, those new uniforms are pretty spiffy. [ED. NOTE: That is the most generous use of the word "spiffy" I have ever read in my life. Good job, John.] I feel like the Suns had to change uniforms; their previous digs reminded everyone of the Seven Seconds Or Less era and watching Michael Beasley and P.J. Tucker wear them was just depressing.

Utah Jazz

Much like the Sixers, the Jazz have embraced the idea of sinking to the bottom. They still feel like a better team, and almost certainly a more interesting one. Trey Burke seems like a considerably more exciting rookie point guard than Michael Carter-Williams. You get the sense than Trey could light up the highlight reels while the Jazz drop 60-65 games, but there's always the possibility that he has the type of year Lillard had last year, shining incandescently as he carries the Jazz to semi-competence on his lonesome. When Jefferson and Millsap were around, we praised the backup bigs and talked how they could start for a fair amount of teams. Now, we get to see if that's actually true. Derrick Favors feels like a potential breakout player, though I'm far more apprehensive about Kanter, who's game feels a bit unpolished. Also, Gordon Hayward might be their top scoring option. What? The overall picture feels like an enjoyable, fun team that will get annihilated on a regular basis. Which isn't super intriguing to me, although you're welcome to disagree.

TIER #13: ENCOURAGINGLY BAD

Sacramento Kings

When it was decided that the Kings would stay in Sacramento, I was happy. While I have no connection to California's capital city, I appreciated their love for their perpetually disappointing team. As a lifelong Buffalo Sabres fan, I can certainly relate. That said, I despair of the missed opportunities had this team gone to Seattle. Seriously: THEY DRAFTED A GUY NAMED MCLEMORE! How perfect would that have been to christen the new Seattle Supersonics? Is there any way a McLemore and Macklemore joint ad campaign wouldn't have have been plastered all over Seattle's billboards in an alternate universe? Anyway, all jokes aside, these guys should be reasonably enjoyable even if the depth of the West prevents them from having any NBA class mobility. Greivis Vasquez gives them their first real point guard since Bibby laced his work-boots, and McLemore was a steal at No. 7 with the potential to become an All-Star. Still, I feel like DeMarcus Cousins has gone from potential franchise player to albatross. No matter how good his numbers are, no one really believes in the guy -- except Jacob Harmon, kind of. But only sorta. Some other team will offer him a deal next summer, and the Kings will probably rejoice being rid of him.

Orlando Magic

How bad do you think Jameer Nelson feels right now? Oladipo is capable of playing the 2 or the 3. But the team doesn't want to bring Afflalo or Harris off the bench. Their solution is to start Oladipo at the point, even those he's never played it before, and send poor Jameer to bench because he's just that expendable. I hope he gets traded to a contender before the deadline, though I can't imagine who'd actually want him. They should still try. It's the least they could do. This team should carries some intrigue because they have a lot of talented young folks, and there's the slight possibility that they could exceed expectations and hover around the 8-seed. Still, between Oladipo playing out of position and the team's dreadful finish last year, I see the Magic as a team that loses a lot of entertaining games. They'll starts contending again in 2014-15. Join us then.

TIER #12: FOOL ME ONCE, SHAME ON KHAN

Minnesota Timberwolves

Could the T-Wolves be good this year? Absolutely. Could they make the playoffs in a middling-low seed, and give a favorite like the Rockets or the Clippers a serious run for their money? I'd have to say it's possible. But after what happened the last two years it's getting increasingly hard to trust this team. Rubio and Love are their two most essential players, and it appears they're both made of glass. Maybe they stay healthy this year and Minnesota becomes a scary team. But I wouldn't bet on it. I've been burned too many times before to commit to that. Still, picking up Kevin Martin was the best signing that nobody's talking about. Assuming he returns to the starting lineup, he and Rubio could be a deadly pairing. Imagine the spot-ups! Their ranking boils down to trust for me. This team has a boatload of theoretical talent, but I just don't trust them.

TIER #11: THE PROBLEM IS, THEY MIGHT BE GOOD

Boston Celtics

What's fascinating about this team to me is that Rondo may very well be able to carry them an 8-seed... even though that's the last thing the front office wants. For a team that ostensibly appears to be tanking for a lottery spot, the Celtics may have to deal with the problem of not actually being that bad. For one thing, if Rondo is healthy, it's hard to see them not winning at least 30 games. And the supporting cast is nowhere near as awful as you might think. Marshon Brooks is quite undervalued at this point -- while most believe he had an off-year, his dip in numbers was primarily attributed to playing fewer minutes. His per-36 averages were actually better! I'd be surprised if Kris Humphries is that bad for a second straight year, considering he averaged a double-double in 2011-12. Even Gerald Wallace looked a little better as the season progressed. You get the feeling this team really WANTS to be terrible, but may be stuck being mediocre. [ED. NOTE: Just wanted to register my paramount disagreement with this one. The Celtics will have a gimpy Rondo for half a season, and their big man rotation is INCREDIBLY thin. Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries may very well be playing big minutes at center for the hapless bunch. Even if they get bounce-back seasons from both of them, neither of those players have ever been a regular center. There's a reason for that -- THEY AREN'T GOOD AT IT. Without even a pretense of having a man in the middle, their defense will be awful and Rondo's hardly known for inspiring offensive over-achievement. Absolutely disagree that this team comes within sniffing distance of an 8-seed. And now that I've proclaimed this in a public forum, they'll win 40 games and finish with a 9th seed. It's just how these editor's notes work. --Aaron]

Charlotte Bobcats

There are too many good teams in the East for the Bobcats to be viewed as a playoff team with any legitimate chance, but they're worthy of a second look if little else. If I had to pick one team to be this year's version of the Golden State Warriors, I'd go with the Cats. We all know Al Jefferson can't play defense, but let's keep an eye to the context: HE'S REPLACING BYRON MULLENS! Imagine if Nick Young was a center. Okay, stop imagining, I see the blood too. Why did I tell anyone to imagine that? Jesus. But that's all you needed -- now you have an idea of what playing Byron Mullens is like. This might be the biggest upgrade at any position that a team has made this offseason. Should be good for 10 more wins right there. The intrigue here comes from the possibility of their young talent coming together sooner than most would expect, and looking like a poor man's version the 2009-10 Thunder. Like the Celtics, if this team wants a prime lottery pick, they might suffer from being too good. Unlike the Celtics, they're trending upward already, so the situation would be a lot easier to deal with.

TIER #10: WORKING CLASS HEROES

Indiana Pacers & Memphis Grizzlies

Here's where the difference between "intriguing" and "good" comes into play. Both of these teams will win a ton of games this year. A Memphis/Indiana finals isn't the most likely scenario, but you'd be hard pressed to find a serious hoops-head that would pish posh the potentiality. Despite that contention wrinkle, it's hard to get particularly excited about either one unless you're a diehard fan. They both play slow, ugly, defensive-grit basketball that wins games instead of hearts. Neither team made any particularly drastic roster changes in the off-season, either -- that keeps the intrigue lower than it perhaps could've been. That said, each of them got a tiny bit better with the moves they did make. Luis Scola is a considerable upgrade over Tyler Hansbrough. Yes, he struggled in Phoenix last year, but he was playing for one of the least inspiring teams of all-time. Being part of a contender should provide him with some motivation. Meanwhile, Memphis flipping Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos was a fantastic move. Not only did it solve their problem of having three power forwards and one center, there's a decent case to be made that Grizzlies now have the best center in the league and the best backup center as well. This should free up some playing time for Ed Davis, whose talents were largely wasted in his first half-season with Memphis. They also signed Mike Miller, who will do virtually nothing in the regular season but provide a requisite payoff in the playoffs. Neither of the teams made huge, attention-grabbing moves. Still got better. Just... not more interesting, really.

TIER #9: I JUST DON'T TRUST THESE GUYS WHATSOEVER OKAY

Denver Nuggets

Everything that happened to the Nuggets this off-season leads me to believe they're going to take an enormous step backward. They fired George Karl, and they were unable to keep Iguodala. Both seemed like admissions of defeat, as though this team decided that after losing to the Warriors in the first round there was no way their current core was going to achieve anything significant. Better to just blow it up before wasting any more time, right? And yet... when I look at this team, I can't completely write them off. They could 55 games again for all I know. Or, they could win 35, and the sink to the lower depths of the Western Conference. So, really... why not have them higher than this? Because teams who are trending upward strike me as more intriguing than teams who are trending downward. One last thing: can someone can explain the Nate Robinson signing to me? Please? They already have two point guards! When that happened, I froze up for hours in frozen wonderment -- had I missed Andre Miller's retirement? Was I that out of touch? I quickly realized that was completely impossible. Every NBA writer in the world adores Andre Miller, and his retirement would have sparked about 500 tribute pieces. I have legitimately no idea how this team is going to use Nate, and that alone makes them reasonably interesting.

Los Angeles Lakers

In every sport there are certain teams who win so often that even when they're going through a rough patch they still inspire fear. Even though everyone expects the Steelers to be mediocre this year, I still get nervous when I see them on the schedule. That's how the Lakers are. I know they're supposed to be awful, but I just don't trust them. It seems like too much went wrong last year, and we're basing our expectations on what may have been an anomaly. If Kobe's gone for a huge chunk of the year, they'll be terrible, mostly because Nick Young will be their starting 2-guard. But if the Mamba shows up on opening night, this team is at least a little bit frightening. Really, 95% of the intrigue here comes from figuring out what Kobe is going to do, while other 5% is for the question of whether Cryptkeeper Nash starts getting assists again, or if he's decided that he's better off just letting Kobe handle everything.

Dallas Mavericks

When mulling over the Mavs, it's easy to think about the disappointments. They didn't get Dwight, Deron Williams, or CP3. It's easy to think of them as losers. But this team had a surprisingly decent off-season anyway! The Calderon signing represents a huge upgrade at point guard. Calderon will never be a superstar, so it's easy to forget that he's an excellent shooter and a fantastic passer. Also, THIS TEAM STARTED MIKE JAMES LAST YEAR! ON NATIONAL TELEVISION! WITH EVERYONE WATCHING! Replacing Mayo with Monta feels like a lateral move, but Monta is a little bit more exciting, and Dirk's excited to see him. Here, he gets to work with a pass-first point guard, and the presence of Dirk as the main scoring option will take a lot of the pressure off him. This team is intriguing because virtually no one thinks they can do anything more than challenge for the 8-seed. But... if their off-season moves pan out, their ceiling might be considerably higher. Also, Dirk was really amazing at the end of last season. Really freaking phenomenal. Like, the return of 2006-07 Dirk. It may have been an anomaly, but if Dirk returns to his prime form for a twilight candle-flash year, this team becomes a huge sleeper. If I had to pick one under-the-radar team in the West to surprise everybody and make the second round, I'd probably take the Mavs.

Portland Trail Blazers

Last year, the Blazers achieved one of the most unique accomplishments a team can pull in the NBA: they won 33 games despite literally not having a bench. How this team was so competitive despite having only five players that could actually play NBA basketball boggles the mind. Their core five were good, mind you, but seriously! They only had five players! How did they win so many?! Anyway, a ton of people are high on the Blazers this year, but I have my doubts. The possibility that Damian Lillard has already reached the peak of his powers looms large, LaMarcus Aldridge is constantly brought up in trade rumors, and it just seems like this team has a lot more cracks than anyone wants admit. Their intrigue comes from the possibility that Lillard hasn't hit his ceiling yet, that C.J. McCollum will be a great contributor right away, and that LaMarcus Aldridge will have a bit of a bounce-back after a slightly disappointing last year. And I'm not really positive about any of those things. But hey. At least J.J. Hickson won't be their center anymore, right?

• • •

The next part of this series comes tomorrow. Join us as we finish the list off and run down the most interesting 13 teams in the league. If you'd like to register profound disagreement with the opinions expressed herein, there's a comment section below. On the other hand, if you'd like to register BROFOUND disagreement with the opinions expressed herein... there's a comment section below, brah.

Imaginary Basketball Season (Or: The Quest For A Theoretical Title)

July 12, 2013 - Source: Bob Levey/Getty Images North America

As time ran out in the NBA Finals, an intense feeling of despair washed over me. Partly because a Heat victory looked more and more inevitable, but primarily because this would be it: the last NBA game until late October. That sport I've cared way too much about would be floating away for four months. As a recent college graduate still looking for work, I had -- and still have -- absolutely no idea where my life will be the next time I watched a meaningful basketball game. A few days later, I perked up. The season was replaced by something almost as good: the offseason.

Or, as I like to call it, "Imaginary Basketball Season."

Every day for a solid month (the first two weeks being the most intense), we hear about an endless string of signings and deals in the basketball world. Then, until October, we get to fantasize endlessly about how it will actually work! Until we're burdened by the reality of whatever actually happens, we can speculate endlessly about each move. And that's fun. Is the mere presence of Andrea Bargnani going to submarine the Knicks, or does he revive his career as a valuable sixth man? What if the Jose Calderon-Monta Ellis back court in Dallas works really well? (Aren't they a perfectly complimentary pairing?)

All notions seem entirely possible. Plausible, even. And that's the thing -- Imaginary Basketball is not about realities or truths. It's about plausibility and ideas. And the quest for plausibility leads us to the greatest goal of Imaginary Basketball Season: winning an imaginary title. Basketball is easily the most hierarchical of the four major U.S. sports. Teams can win Super Bowls and Stanley Cups simply by getting hot at the right time, and any team who reaches the playoffs could potentially win the title. But there are only a select few of teams who have a real shot winning a championship in basketball. And usually, we have a pretty good idea of who those teams are, even when the season begins. Naturally, the ultimate goal of any general manager is to win a title -- but another, perhaps equally important goal? Get that team to the point where they could theoretically win a title. Continue reading

What the [BLEEP] do we know? ... (About Role Players)

Pretty sure this has more role players per pixel than any other image I could've possibly found, folks.

Hey, all. Please give a warm welcome to Gothic Ginobili's newest contributor, Grizzlies fan and blogger wunderkind John Hugar. His work has been featured at Three Shades of Blue, The Classical, and The Beast. He's one of the many who followed the Grizzlies on their trek from Vancouver to Memphis, and in a strange turn of events, he ended up in Buffalo. And don't jest, readers -- due to his residence, John knows better than any of us how Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. For John's first Gothic Ginobili piece, he's examining the ever-expanding definition of a "role player" in today's NBA. Do give it a read.

The idea of the elusive role player gets a lot of mileage in NBA circles, no matter where we are in the year. In the playoffs we pontificate about how the Heat benefit from the production of role players like Shane Battier and Mike Miller. When the draft gets into the 20s, we tell ourselves that this is the part of the draft where teams find valuable role players rather than the part where it officially becomes okay to change the channel. Then, in free agency, any time a contender gives the veterans minimum to a guy who can drain a few threes we talk about how that player will help them down the stretch. We imagine him randomly exploding for 25 points in a key playoff game, and throughout the regular season, commentators wax garishly on their rare moments of positive glory. That's the way of the role player, after all. On the surface, this all seems well and good. Who doesn't love role players?

There's just one teensy-tiny problem: no one has the slightest idea what a role player is. For good reason: the definition of "role player" has widened to the point where it means whatever you want it to mean (like "hipster" or "pornography"). These are some of the definitions of a role player that I've heard at various points over the past few years.

  • Any player who is only good at one or two things
  • Any player who isn't a star
  • A nice way of describing a player who sucks
  • Any marginal backup who can put in 10-15 minutes a game on a contender
  • Any player who is often referred to as a "good locker room guy" (see no. 3)

At this point, the term is completely relative. Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant would qualify as role players if you only compared them to LeBron James. So it has to be an elastic term. It means all things to all people. I first noticed this definitional crisis was when I heard multiple people refer to the 2011 Mavericks as "Dirk Nowitzki and a bunch of role players." To anyone who actually watched that team, this is patently false. Tyson Chandler was one of the best centers in the league that season. Shawn Marion, while slightly past his prime, was still a very effective player who contributed on both sides of the ball. And Jason Terry? He was one of the best sixth men in the league. Clearly, the "bunch of role players" schlock was an exaggeration of the highest order.

But where does this idea come from? I refer to #2 on my list: the star player/role player dichotomy. The idea that anyone who isn't an All-Star must be a role player exists because... well, people are lazy! There are plenty of players who don't fit into either category, and no one wants to take the time to describe them with any nuance. Think of a guy like Caron Butler. He's a former All-Star who still makes plays on both sides of the ball. He's still good enough to be a starter in the NBA. He is Butler University's namesake. (OK, he isn't that last one.) All that said, Butler's clearly not what he used to be, and it would be vastly inaccurate to call him a star in any perceptible way. But he's not really a role player either, since he doesn't exist to fill any specific niche. He's the kind of guy you can't really pigeonhole. Of course, this doesn't stop laziness -- we're all tempted to call him a role player anyway.

If we want to talk ourselves into pretending a crummy player is any good, we can tag him with the role player label. Good thing Shelden Williams is out of the league -- we no longer have to pretend he provides any value to an NBA team ever again. His defense may have been not horrible, but he was a terribly clumsy ball-handler, and as his cringeworthy minute-or-so of play in the 2010 NBA finals proved, he's not someone you ever want on the court in crunch time. I really enjoyed how little we saw of Joel Anthony this past season, who carries a lot of the same dead weight. When the Heat replaced him with the Birdman, they became a better team, and a far more watchable one. Nazr Mohammed may or may not be part of this group, depending on how much value you want to assign to his few good games he had against Miami in the playoffs. He had a strong series against the Heat, which caused the Bulls to commit themselves to one more year of his services. Maybe Nazr makes a few key plays in a playoff series, and leads a rejuvenated Rose and company over the Heat, but it's also quite possible that he'll spend the year merely occupying a roster spot, with those few good games against Miami severely inflating his value to the team. Perhaps it's even likely.

• • •

Now, let's talk about the one definition of role player that does make a little bit of sense: the guy who only does one or two things right. In my view, this is the definition that actually fits the term; a player who is there to perform a specific task or role. Like a character actor, but for basketball. Usually, these players come in two categories: guys who are only there to shoot threes and guys who are only there to play defense. Sometimes, players can fit into both categories, like Danny Green.

Even though I'm partial to that definition, Green's performance in the Finals added another wrinkle to it: what happens when a role player is consistently the best player on the floor? Is he still a role player if he contributes more than any of your star players over a brilliant five-game stretch? In the first five games of the series, Danny Green dominated. He set a record for the most threes made in the finals, and forced the Heat to watch his every move in the final two games. After Game 5, there was serious talk of him being the Finals MVP. If you look at everyone who's won this honor over the award's duration, it's pretty much always a star player. Nine times out of 10, it's the best player on the team -- the other time, it's the second best!

Of course, Green fell out of the running for the honor when the Heat paid closer attention to him and his hot streak ran out. Had the Spurs won the series, Tim Duncan would have almost certainly been named Finals MVP. But Green's run reminds us that when an alleged role player is at his apex, he can be just as valuable as anyone else on the team. Of course, this didn't just happen in the finals -- Green was one of the better shooting guards in the league this season, shooting .429 from the field while averaging in double figures for the West's best team. Does the fact that his skill set is still essentially "three and D" confine him to a role player's fate, or does the fact that he's so ridiculously good at both put him in a different category? The term is meant to help simplify things, but when it comes right down to it, the term gives us more questions than answers.

If Green is actually a role player, he's obviously one of the best ones in the league. For some of the other guys, their value can be inflated and overstated. In each of the past two seasons, the Miami Heat won the title after a guy who had been struggling hit a ton of threes in the deciding game. Last year, it was Mike Miller. This year, it was Shane Battier. If Battier doesn't drain those six threes in Game 7, there's a fair chance the Spurs are champions right now. So, yes -- Battier and Miller are both "valuable" players to the Heat's team. But I doubt either one is irreplaceable. To be a contender, you need a guy who can come off the bench and hit open threes. That's true. But it doesn't need to be any specific guy. Does anyone really think the Heat would have won fewer games if they replaced Mike Miller with, say, Daequan Cook? And suppose we swapped out Battier with Steve Novak -- does that swing the title in San Antonio's favor? I have my doubts. Sure, Battier's six threes carried Miami over San Antonio, but he's not the only player who could have pulled it off, especially when you consider how dreadful he had been in the playoffs up until that point.

• • •

It's not that these players have no value. That's not the moral here. The moral is that real role players -- the one-to-two tool players that really fit the definition -- are fairly interchangeable. You probably do need a few random dudes who can hit threes in order to win a title, but that's what they are: random. The pool of players with limited offensive games who can still hit two out of every five from downtown is wide enough that no one should be hurting in that area. Same goes for big men who just play defense; you can find a big, scary dude who can stand in the other team's way if you try hard enough. (For teams who are interested, I hear Jason Collins is looking for a deal.)

The discussion of role players has gotten completely out of control. We're at the point where we have no clear picture on what a role player is or how much value one actually provides. The role player tag is applied to various players at completely disparate talent levels, making us over-value some and under-value others. Rather than being an efficient way of describing what a non-star player does, the term complicates thing, and makes it all the more difficult to determine a player's true value. I propose one of two solutions. Either we all agree on one definition of a role player: a guy who is only there to shoot threes and/or play defense (and we also agree that Danny Green is by far the best of these players). Or, we agree to eliminate the concept of role players altogether, and do what the folks of Springfield did with Seymour Skinner's previous life as Armin Tamzarian: never speak of it again, under penalty of torture.