On The Up…

With these being the sleepy days of August in the NBA before training camp begins next month, it’s time to focus in on two teams who will be hoping to quietly improve on last season, and once more try and become relevant in the NBA scene over the next couple of years.

New Orleans Hornets

It is a time of hope in the Big Easy once more, not even one year after the departure of franchise player Chris Paul. Obviously talk of the playoffs is a little premature, but at least they have not taken as many steps backwards as they probably thought they would have in order to improve. The number one pick fell into their lap, and with the acquisition of Anthony Davis with that lottery ball, things immediately changed.

Record Last Season: 21-45   Last in Western Conference

Pros: The number one pick obviously helps, although was it just me or did Davis look very skinny in the Olympics? Certainly he will need to bulk up as he comes up against solid big men on a nightly basis. Holding onto Eric Gordon was a massive boost too, he has got real quality, and despite asking to be allowed to leave, an offer sheet from Houston was matched, and so he remains. The surprise package of last season, and most improved player winner, Ryan Anderson, may turn out to be the best pickup of all. His shooting ability and length will give the team real width. Anderson himself has spoken about getting in the post more to score, and it will be exciting to see how he develops further in this enviroment. This is Anderson’s fourth year in the league, but for a team with a whopping five rookies, as well as four more players in the league two years or less, Anderson may almost be considered a veteran. Robin Lopez is a solid pick-up with NBA experience as well, and has been a consistant performer for Phoenix in the past. There will be no Steve Nash for him out here though. Austin Rivers may excite off the bench too, although it remains to be seen how quickly he will learn to defend in the NBA.

Cons: As mentioned above, this is a very young and inexperienced team, with guard Roger Mason Jr the only real veteran of the group having been in the league for nine years now. Fans will hope the attitude of these youngsters does not echo that of another young team recently broken up, the Washington Wizards, as their “knucklehead” mentality has seen them remain in the doldrums for a couple of years now, even with potential All-Star John Wall on board. It also remains to be seen how Davis will cope with automatically being “The Man” too, remember in his one year at Kentucky he played very unselfishly. Yes he will help on the defensive end right away, but on offense it may take a little while to get there. Workouts next summer with Olajuwon anybody? Quality depth is also an issue, although Lopez and Anderson could walk onto more than half of the teams in the NBA.

Verdict: The only way is up when you were the worst team in the conference last year, but this team didn’t even have to fall as hard as the Bobcats before looking upwards again. It’s no secret that the West has more talented teams than the top heavy East, and talk of the playoffs does seem silly. Hell, this team won’t even break .500, but the potential is now there, as is the more proven quality like Anderson and Lopez. Give it two or three more years, another trade or two, (There is a lot of youth they can package up and send elsewhere for a high quality player.) and of course hope that the curse of injury doesn’t rear it’s ugly head, and you have a team here. Fans of the Hornets should just enjoy the fact that the Chris Paul era can now be consigned to the past and this group can move forward.

Sacramento Kings

Not since the early noughties have the Kings been a team to look out for, and unfortunately this may look set to continue. The mystery surrounding where in America they may call home doesn’t help either, nor does being the definition of a small market team. There is some light trying to shine through the clouds however.

Record Last Season: 22-44    Second from bottom of Western Conference

Pros: The big positive, quite literally, is DaMarcus Cousins. Put simply, he has the ability to play at an All-Star level, and can be easily the best player on this team on any given night. The addition of Thomas Robinson with the fifth pick in this year’s draft would appear to be a good one, and forms a big and intimidating partnership with Cousins. Aaron Brooks is a solid point guard, and this is an area that needs stability on every team. More than that, Brooks is looking for the place to showcase his skill set, and Sacramento will hope that this is the place he does that. Isaiah Thomas (Sadly not THE Isaiah Thomas, how much the Kings would like that.) was one of the surprise packages of last season, and this season can turn into one of the better back-up points guards off the bench. If he improves the way some believe he can, he may even push for a starting role in future. Travis Outlaw can play.

Cons: Where on earth has Tyreke Evans vanished to? From rookie of the year in 2010 to a question mark, most players are meant to build on their rookie success. Not Evans, but if he was rediscover some of his previous form and improve on it, then of course that would be a massive pro to this team. The Jimmer Fredette experiment has so far yielded no results, although it may be a little early to write him off just yet. As of right now though, he has brought very little to this team bar some scoring spurts. Of course for all the positives DaMarcus Cousins brings to the team, his attitude and percieved bad boy image are hurting this franchise. He needs to grow up that little bit more and really become the leader of this team. The bench also looks a little thin on quality, with role players sitting on the bleachers waiting for the call, although Marcus Thornton has his moments.

Verdict: They may have gotten a fraction better, but amazingly the Kings may find themselves at the bottom of the conference at the end of this season. That is nothing against them, their young players are a year older with more experience in the league, it’s just that them teams who finished around them, the Hornets, Warriors and Timberwolves, either improved more than the Kings or are still better than them. Barring a massive downturn from both the Timberwolves and the Trail Blazers, which could possibly happen, the Kings will once more be looking upwards in envy.

Mario Elie – Ireland’s First Basketball Player

Mario Elie – Ireland’s First Basketball Player.

Mario Elie – Ireland’s First Basketball Player

Few people know the story of Mario Elie in Ireland, and that is a great shame. In fact, I did my thesis on American sports played in Ireland, and Elie made up a solid portion of the ten thousand word effort. Of course he was not the first Irish man to play in the NBA, hell he is not even Irish. But to me he is one of our own.

Born in New York City in 1963, his explosive early career curtailed somewhat, which culminated in him being selected 160th out of 162 people in the 1985 draft. Some of argued he should have been drafted far higher than this however. Elie opted instead to play in Europe, and although he is more well known for playing with the Portuguese side Ovarense Aerosoles, he did spend one season playing for Killester in Ireland. Killester is arguably Ireland’s biggest team, but that is irrelevant, having an eventual three time NBA winner playing at the beginning of his career on these shores was special. I was not even born, but I have interviewed the people who watched him play in the flesh. One gentleman, Kieran Shannon, has only just recently returned from Brooklyn where he was interviewing Elie for an as yet untitled documentary about basketball in Ireland. He also grew up watching him play and this turned him on to basketball. He was also in the stands that day in 1995 when the Rockets, whom Elie played for, defeated one Shaquille O’Neal and the Orlando Magic to win the NBA title.

Part of the charm that is Mario Elie is the fact that he won three NBA titles, two with the Rockets in 94 & 95, and again with the Spurs in 99. Of course he was never the focal point of any of these teams, Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan respectively would have been, but to know that a champion had begun playing on this small island is exciting. Basketball had it’s moment in the spotlight in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but with the introduction of the one American per team rule, it quickly stagnated. Very few people play the sport anymore in Ireland, and even less care about it. It is however a tight knit community.