Monday, October 25, 2010

Secret Wars: Previewing Heroes & Villains for the 2011 NBA Season with ESPN and Marvel Comics, Part 1




It's time for NBA season previews and ESPN the Magazine has put forth the most interesting effort by using Marvel superheroes and illustrators to come up with variant comic book covers for each team (Insider access required). Honestly, the idea was genius and the outcome was pretty tremendous but there were a few covers that could have been better. I'm going to preview the NBA season with a rundown of the good (heroes), bad (villains) and the ugly (anti-heroes) from Marvel's variant NBA covers.  All images used for this post appear courtesy of comicvine.com.  This is Part 1, a review of the Western Conference. Part 2 reviews the Eastern Conference.

Western Conference


After shooting 28% in the preseason while recovering
from knee surgery, Kobe Bryant could use an onboard
computer for his shot and armor to get through
the season intact for the playoffs.
#1. Lakers (58-24)
Cover Rating - Villains: I liked the idea of an Iron Man cover for the LA Lakers until I realized that it was Iron Man's nemesis, the Mandarin, that had the rings of power.  That being the case, it doesn't really make sense to show Kobe Bryant getting strapped into Tony Starks' armor wearing five rings.  You know what else doesn't make sense?  How the rest of the Western Conference isn't really trying to surpass the Lakers.  While the Celtics, Heat, Bulls and Magic are stacking chips and pushing them to the middle of the table in the Eastern Conference, the teams in the Western Conference are just folding like "Japan's futons and fans."  Word to Black Thought from The Roots, "If you know like I know, then you know the motto - that's all this fraud $#!t got to go..." The Lakers will be the #1 seed in the West until Kobe's derailed by injuries or Sam Presti makes a big trade to bring a legitimate third star to Oklahoma City.



With Tony Parker's contract expiring, should the Spurs
"Big Three" be disassembled after the season if they
don't seriously challenge for the title?
#2. Spurs (56-26)
Cover Rating - Villains: Marvel illustrated Thor, Iron Man and Captain America paying homage to Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker is about as boring as the Spurs are every season.  It's the same-old story by the Riverwalk - Duncan's a hall-of-famer, Ginobili is probably the most underrated guard in the league and Tony Parker's always a threat to lead the league in points scored in the paint when he's coming off the pick-and-roll with Duncan.  The interesting aspect of the Spurs is what Dejuan Blair and Tiago Splitter will bring to the frontcourt.  Blair was a monster on the boards last year and Splitter outplayed all of Team USA's centers in their FIBA World Championships matchup.  I think they'll be enough to push the Spurs to a #2 seed if Parker, Ginobili and Duncan can stay healthy.



If Greg Oden and Brandon Roy had cybernetic parts like
Deathlok, then the Blazers could come out with guns
blazing in the Western Conference.
    #3. TrailBlazers (54-28)
    Cover Rating - Heroes: A Deathlok cover with Greg Oden, Brandon Roy and Joel Pryzbilla getting fitted for cyborg parts was perfect. The Portland TrailBlazers could have been the #2 seed in the Western Conference if they were healthy last season, but of course, they weren't and the season ended with another first round playoff exit. At least the owner, Paul Allen, realized the team's general manager was an idiot for drafting Oden over Kevin Durant and summarily fired him. If he could just get Microsoft to come up with those bionic parts for the Blazers' injury-prone players, then they could be the best in the West. Until then, I don't see the Blazers finishing higher than the 3rd seed.



      Despite all the hype about his resources, innovation
      and dedication to winning, the Mavs have mostly been
      ants led to sledgehammers in the playoffs during
      Mark Cuban's ownership.
      #4. Mavericks (52-30)
      Cover Rating - Villains: It says a lot about a franchise when the owner is on the variant cover and what it means is that the Dallas Mavericks are not a title contender. Mark Cuban as Ant-Man? He was always a wack hero to me and that's probably appropriate for the Mavs. They've been a wack franchise since they were run out of the first round with 67 wins by the 8th-seed Golden State Warriors. I would like to ask the cover artist, Kyle Baker, why is Dirk Nowitzki the only recognizable player on the cover? Oh, that's right - because he's probably the only player on the roster that any other team in the league would want. As one of the most durable players at his position, Dirk will probably log his seventh season with 3000+ minutes and lead the Mavs to home-court advantage in another first round playoff beatdown, which is the way they've exited the playoffs in three of the last four years.



      Despite the hype, the Gods of Thunder will have a hard
      time getting out from under the heel of the established
      powers in the Western Conference.
      #5. Thunder (51-31)
      Cover Rating - Anti-Heroes: The cover with Kevin Durant and Thor was so well illustrated that I really wanted to like it but I couldn't. I don't care about the similarities with a comic about the mythical god of thunder being based in Oklahoma. The best nickname given to Durant is "Durantula" and the best character for the cover would've been Spider-Man. Durant and Peter Parker are both mild-mannered young men with funny, trash-talking sides that are only revealed when they don their respective uniforms. Thanks to Phoenix and Utah (probably Denver, too) losing key starters to teams in the East, I think the NBA's friendly neighborhood scoring champion will be able to swing into the #5 seed this season, but won't be able to get any higher until Sam Presti gets them some more help. Daequan Cook (-0.040 WP48), Morris Peterson (0.033 WP48) and Cole Aldrich (projected WP48 between 0.038 and 0.051 as a rookie) don't impress me.



      Hornets fans may hope that new GM Dell Demps is an Angel that
      can convince Chris Paul to stay, but the Archangel of CAA will
      prevail and get their client whatever he wants.
      #6. Hornets (50-32)
      Cover Rating - Villains: I loved Marvel's Archangel character and thought it was clever having Angel and Archangel sitting on Chris Paul's shoulders giving him advice about whether to stay with the New Orleans Hornets or force a trade to another team with a superstar. With that said, the cover was boring and I don't like my comic books or my NBA superstars boring. CP3 is one of the most exciting players in the league and deserved a more exciting illustration. If he stays in N'awlins, then they're guaranteed a playoff berth. Despite only playing 45 games, CP3 was still the fifth-most productive point guard in the league last year with nearly 12 Wins Produced. With a full season, he can lead Marcus Thornton, Trevor Ariza, David West and Emeka Okafor to 50 wins.  Whether or not he wants to do that is a different issue entirely.



      Like Bullseye, Marvel Comics' greatest marksman, the
      Warriors are a can't-miss pick for the playoffs.
      #7. Warriors (48-34)
      Cover Rating - Anti-Heroes: The artwork for the Golden State Warriors cover was fine, but the character selection was a little underwhelming. Bullseye? Who cares? The Warriors may have been an afterthought in the past, but this season the additions of David Lee, Dorell Wright and Louis Amundson along with the return of Andris Biedrins could bring more than 20 extra wins if they stay healthy. That will be enough to get the Warriors at least 45-50 wins and their second playoff berth in 17 years.



      Not even the most powerful force in the universe will be
      able to get Steve Nash back to the Western Conference
      Finals.
      #8. Suns (46-36)
      Cover Rating - Anti-Heroes: I thought the use of the Phoenix Force for the Phoenix Suns was an obvious pick and a little cheesy. I also thought it was cheesy for the Suns to tell Amare Stoudemire (9.1 Wins Produced) to kick rocks so they could sign Hedo Turkoglu (4.2 Wins Produced) and Hakim Warrick (1.8 Wins Produced). Josh Childress was very productive when he was in the league three years ago and produced 0.239 WP48, but I don't see where the minutes are going to come from to get him on the floor without sacrificing too much size. Steve Nash is not as powerful as Marvel's Phoenix Force, but he should have enough left to get the Suns into the playoffs.



      Carmelo Anthony's inevitable exit from Denver will be
      blamed when the team misses the playoffs for the first
      time in seven years - even if it's not the real reason.
      #9. Nuggets (44-38)
      Cover Rating - Heroes: The remake of the classic X-Men cover with Cyclops leaving everybody's favorite band of mutants behind perfectly sums up the Denver Nuggets and their season. Carmelo Anthony obviously wants to leave Denver and Chris Andersen is clearly a mutant. If the Nuggets can get an average small forward back for Anthony, then they may survive losing him. What they can't survive is replacing Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen with Al Harrington and Shelden Williams for an extended period of time. K-Mart and Birdman produced 14 wins for the Nuggets last season. Harrington and Williams would produce about 10 wins less than that if given the same amount of minutes. So Melo may grab all the headlines but the rehab of K-Mart and Birdman's knees may be more important. One last thing on Melo - it will not be easy to just replace him with "an average player." While Melo ranked 15th in Wins Produced amongst NBA small forwards last year, there were only five players at the position that played more than 2,500 minutes and produced more wins than him last season - LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Gerald Wallace, Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng. If Denver gets anyone else back in a trade, then it means more minutes for a benchwarmer like Renaldo Balkman or an unproductive player like Al Harrington and that won't help them make the playoffs.



      Deron Williams is not the best PG in the NBA.
      #10. Jazz (42-40)
      Cover Rating - Anti-Heroes: Sorry, I just didn't buy Deron Williams as Daredevil, the "Man Without Peer." First of all, his court vision isn't on the level of Steve Nash or Jason Kidd. Secondly, he's not a better point guard than Chris Paul and legitimate cases can be made for Rajon Rondo and Nash, as well, so he has plenty of peers. What he won't have this season is a top five power forward (Carlos Boozer) or the league's best three-point shooter (Kyle Korver). Spending a few seasons flirting with the luxury tax finally caught up with the Jazz in 2010. Twenty-six wins left the roster and I only expect around 15 wins to come back from players acquired in trades, free agent signings and the draft. After four consecutive playoff appearances, it looks like the Jazz will be singing a different tune when the regular season ends this year.



      Yao Ming needs an adamantium skeleton (claws optional)
      to get the Rockets into the playoffs.
      #11. Rockets (40-42)
      Cover Rating - Heroes: Yao Ming as Weapon Y is science fiction at its best. If Ming's skeleton was bonded with adamantium, there's no telling how dominant he would be in the NBA. In the real world, his brittle bones will cost the Houston Rockets about eight wins this year as he plays limited minutes and Houston will be limited to just playing in the regular season. How long before the owner, Les Alexander, has the same epiphany Paul Allen had and fires the media-darling GM that hasn't been able to turn his team back into a title contender?



      After an undefeated preseason, can the Grizzlies give
      playoff contenders nightmares in the Western Conference?
      #12. Grizzlies (40-42)
      Cover Rating - Villains: The Memphis Grizzlies had the lamest cover in the entire issue. ESPN and Marvel chose Captain America because the Grizzlies' need leadership in the locker room? Whatever. How about some leadership on the court? Twenty-four NBA teams had point guards that produced more wins than Mike Conley last season. After last season's 16-win improvement and an undefeated preseason this year, I think the New Mutants would've been a more appropriate cover for the Grizzlies but I don't think that success will translate to a playoff berth until they add better players than Tony Allen, Acie Law and Damien Wilkins to the roster.



      Will the young Kings follow Tyreke Evans if he
      sets his sights on the playoffs?
      #13. Kings (38-44)
      Cover Rating - Heroes: The X-Babies make a good metaphor for the Sacramento Kings. Only two players on the roster that were in the team's top six for minutes played last season are over the age of 25 (when the average NBA player stops improving their productivity). They've added DeMarcus Cousins (age 20) who will see significant minutes while Samuel Dalembert is out with a groin injury. The Kings' youth movement could result in six extra wins as the young players improve and DeMarcus Cousins makes an impact. The big boost, however, could come from replacing Spencer Hawes with Dalembert. If he returns from his groin injury to play 1500+ minutes, then he could provide eight more wins than Hawes did last year. A 14-win improvement would boost the Kings to the 40-win territory, similar to the Memphis Grizzlies last season. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies didn't make the playoffs last season and I don't see the baby Kings making it this season.



      Brain freeze in the front office will keep the T-Wolves
      frozen in mediocrity this season.
      #14. Timberwolves (25-57)
      Cover Rating - Anti-Heroes: I liked the concept of the Minnesota Timberwolves being frozen in place by the Iceman but I don't think the Iceman is Ricky Rubio. I think it's David Kahn with brain freeze. Whether he's wasting a pick on Rubio, money on new practice facilities or both on a half-dozen point guards, a half-dozen small forwards and garbage European centers, it doesn't matter. Kahn has lost a projected 19.3 Wins Produced in his transactions listed at basketball-reference.com (that count includes projected performances for rookies). Fifteen of those wins were lost in one of Kahn's first moves as GM - trading Randy Foye and Mike Miller to the Wizards for the #5 pick in the 2009 draft which was used on Ricky Rubio.  In 67.5 minutes played in three games against Team USA in the last three years, Rubio has produced an estimated 0.4 wins and 0.290 Est. WP48 (for 2008 games, see the spreadsheets HERE; for the 2010 game, see the GCC-ESP spreadsheet HERE). At that rate of productivity, it would only take Rubio 2,483 minutes to produce 15 wins. That means if he ever played for Minnesota, Kahn would get the return on his investment in Rubio's rookie year. Of course, I don't think he'll ever play for Minnesota, which leaves Timberwolves fans out in the cold with Kahn's brain freeze.



      Blake Griffin will smash and Blake Griffin will eventually
      break down as a result.
      #15. Clippers (24-58)
      Cover Rating - Heroes: Marvel's cover with Blake Griffin as the Incredible Hulk carrying the LA Clippers on his back was on point in more ways than one. Griffin could be worth 10 wins to the Clippers. That would have made him the most productive player on the team last season if he could have stayed healthy. Unfortunately, he recklessly leaps around the court like the Hulk recklessly leaps around the Midwest. Without the Hulk's incredible healing factor, I don't think he can stay healthy enough to carry the Clippers and there's no one else around to pick up the slack.  There is only one player on the roster whose productivity was above average last season - Baron Davis (0.117 WP48). With a team this bad, I think he gave up on the season before it started.  There's no way for the Clippers to avoid being the worst team in the West if they don't have Griffin.

      Unless referenced otherwise, all stats used in this post were taken from the Wins Produced Viewer, Wages of Wins website and basketball-reference.com.

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