Because covering the league screws up all of your loyalties — in a good way — when it comes to rooting for a team, I’ve been toying with who my teams are going to be this season. I decided I’ll pick one from the Eastern and Western conferences. Teams I’ll root for because of the combination of players, coaching staff, stories, potential for success, excitement factor, and intangibles. I’ll still be enjoying things league-wide, but these teams will be the ones I’ll watch just a little bit closer than the rest. Of course, this could change seven times as the season unfolds, but for now, here’s who I’ve got:
My Eastern Conference selection was a no-brainer for me. If you know much about me, follow my Twitter account or have spoken to me about ball for more than 10 minutes, you could probably guess that it’s the Milwaukee Bucks.
There are so many things for me to like about this squad, I can’t wait to watch them play. At the top of the list, of course, is Brandon Jennings. After a solid rookie season, I’m looking forward to seeing how this sophomore adjusts to defenses keying in on him, whether his shot has improved and how quickly he gels with his new teammates. Jennings is a favorite to watch in this league, for me.
Then there’s Larry Sanders. I was blown away by Sanders when he came through Toronto for a predraft workout this past May. First, there was the speed. He outran everyone else in the gym, including the guards. Then the strength. While looking pretty slight, Sanders knows how to stand his ground. Then, there’s the personality. Asking him about the draft process was like asking a scout about the guys he’s been working out. Sanders spoke of interviewing and asking teams questions himself so that he could learn more about how other people — the people that matter — viewed his game so that even if he never saw them again, he had their feedback in the back of his mind to think about wherever his game took him. Often pre-draft workouts yield similar answers from the players involved. Guys are emotionally exhausted due to the grind and consciously trying to avoid saying anything too headline-worthy. Sanders had his own way of approaching things. He allowed himself to stand outside of the box rookies generally prefer to stay in until after they are drafted. I liked that.
The Bucks had an interesting offseason, making plenty of moves and acquisitions to make their team deeper. Bringing in Chris Douglas-Roberts from New Jersey is something I’m looking forward to watching play out on the court. We don’t really know who Douglas-Roberts is as an NBA player. At least, I don’t feel comfortable writing him up or off based on what we’ve seen in a couple of turbulent/injured years with the Nets. I’d like to see how coach Scott Skiles works with him and whether he’s able to find a spot coming in off of the bench to provide some scoring and an energy boost when his team needs it.
I like the move to bring Corey Maggette to Milwaukee, too. He’s a scorer and if they need points, Magg won’t be hesitant to take the shots necessary to get them. Then there’s Drew Gooden, who was paid a big chunk of change to come to the Bucks and help them out inside. While that contract made eyebrows raise, I’m hoping he can be a solid addition to Milwaukee’s squad. Flesh out the roster with Jon Brockman, Ersan Ilyasova, Earl Boykins and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and there’s only more reasons to watch.
Oh yeah … the most compelling storyline may be the return of one of the top centers in the league. Through the offseason, the one thing I’ve been looking forward to above all else (excluding rookie performances) is Bogut’s return. After a gruesome injury — no, I will not be linking the Youtube of that one — and the heartbreaking experience of having to sit on the bench in street clothes during his team’s trip to the playoffs, Bogut back on the basketball court is going to be one of the sweetest moments of the 2010-2011 NBA season for me. Can’t wait.
I haven’t gotten to touch on Skiles and why I love the way he coaches Jennings. I know that people say his teams tune him out after a season or two, but I can’t say enough about the tough love he gives Jennings and the respect and freedom he’s shown his young point guard. That respect and freedom allowed Jennings to trust Skiles from the jump. Let’s see what these two can do in their second year together.
I may surprise you with my Western Conference pick when I select the Sacramento Kings. Yup, the Kings.
The single biggest reason why I’ll be tuning in to Kings games and their 10:30 p.m. ET tips is DeMarcus Cousins. Can’t say (or write) enough about this guy. He intrigues me off the court, after getting a horrible rep during the pre-draft process. He intrigues me on the court after watching him play college ball and show the speed, passing skills and amazing hands you usually can only hope for in a big man. I spoke with Cousins a couple of times during the draft in New York and both times I thought he was engaging and pleasant. Seeing his fellow rookies rank him as the funniest in their class only makes that intrigue intensify. Could the majority just be getting him wrong? I’m excited to find out. Also excited to watch him get some serious minutes with Sam Dalembert sidelined with a groin injury.
Oh yes, another reason to like the Kings — Samuel Dalembert. If you’ve got a heart that beats, regardless of what you think about Dalembert’s game, you have to respect the man. Giving time and money to relief efforts in Haiti, Dalembert stepped into the spotlight when his country needed a face to represent them. He did so beautifully, showing us a side of his own personality that we don’t normally see in athletes. Walls down, emotions out, it wasn’t easy for Dalembert. Looking at how he responded when he was needed makes it really, really easy to root for him.
While reigning Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans is everyone’s favorite King, fellow sophomore Omri Casspi is near the top of my list. Casspi plays with such heart and unbridled emotion for every second he’s on the floor. Whether that floor is the one of Arco arena in Sacramento or Thomas & Mack in Las Vegas for Summer League. Whether it’s three minutes into the game or three seconds remaining in overtime, Casspi is a focused, doing whatever it takes to help his team get the W.
Putting Carl Landry on your team automatically increases the chances that I’m watching your squad. Having Donté Greene on there doesn’t hurt and of course, the hyper-athletic Hassan Whiteside with all of his upside is one more reason to tune in. We really haven’t even covered Evans and how eerily similar to a young LeBron he is when watching him up close. Different players, but the speed, strength and smoothness you see from LeBron in the open court, Tyreke’s got it. His second season hasn’t officially started yet and already he’s a handful.
Now, I know it looks like I’ve left out the Oklahoma City Thunder, but no need for concern. The thing with the Thunder is that while they may be located in the Western Conference, I think we all root for them. They’re like our gift for being basketball fans. Great players, a young coach, underdogs from the jump, forced to start over in a new city because of a situation that was out of their control. While OKC has embraced them — and how could they not? — so, too, has the rest of the basketball world.
Kevin Durant is on his way to becoming the face of the league and I can’t think of a better person to represent it. Russell Westbrook is showing that sometimes hard work and dedication wins out over doubters and projections. Serge Ibaka gives an angel it’s wings with every swat. Jeff Green takes the backseat to his teammates on court, but remains their best friend off of it. James Harden and Eric Maynor complete the bro-hood while Nick Collison provides comic relief every step of the way off the court while doing all of the little things on it that rarely get acknowledged, but are always needed.
Oklahoma City is the example of what can happen when guys buy in to a system, value defense, play for team success rather than individual accolades and respect the game. We’re lucky to have them.