Predicting the 2015-16 NBA season

I can’t pinpoint when exactly I fell in love with basketball, but I remember when I fell in love with my favorite NBA team.

It was the 1997-98 season, and I was in the sixth grade. As a young, impressionable sports fan in a small New York town, I could have easily adopted the Knicks as my favorite team. Yet I was drawn to the out-of-town underdogs — an upstart Minnesota Timberwolves team featuring 21-year-old Kevin Garnett, 20-year-old Stephon Marbury and third-year head coach Flip Saunders.

That Timberwolves team went on to reach the playoffs and push the No. 2-seeded — and heavily-favored — Seattle SuperSonics to a deciding fifth game in the first round. Minnesota lost, but I was hooked. I’ve been a Timberwolves fan ever since, through ups and (mostly) downs.

With increased player movement in professional sports, it’s become easier for fans to detach themselves from players and other franchise figures. Why buy a player’s jersey if he’s going to leave as a free agent in a year or two? I try not to think like that. As someone who has worked in the world of sports media and met athletes from all walks of life, here’s something to remember — they’re just people, too. And as such, I am really going to miss Flip Saunders.

I didn’t know him personally, though I did see him around on the ESPN campus occasionally. And yet, I feel like I lost a friend. I’ve heard multiple times this week that the NBA is a close-knit fraternity. A family, even. Does that family simply consist of players, coaches and executives, or can it include fans? I believe it can.

Even though I’m 18 years removed from that Sonics-Timberwolves series, the memories won’t soon fade. Another NBA season kicked off this week, and Flip Saunders didn’t get to see it. That, for him and his family, is a tragedy. But his extended family of NBA players, coaches and fans can continue to honor his memory with basketball — playing it, watching it, loving it.

I usually have some fun by making predictions at the start of each season. Here’s my shot at the 2015-16 season:

WESTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

  1. Los Angeles Clippers
  2. Golden State Warriors
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder
  4. San Antonio Spurs
  5. Houston Rockets
  6. Memphis Grizzlies
  7. New Orleans Pelicans
  8. Dallas Mavericks
  9. Utah Jazz
  10. Phoenix Suns
  11. Sacramento Kings
  12. Minnesota Timberwolves
  13. Portland Trail Blazers
  14. Los Angeles Lakers
  15. Denver Nuggets

EASTERN CONFERENCE STANDINGS

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers
  2. Chicago Bulls
  3. Washington Wizards
  4. Toronto Raptors
  5. Miami Heat
  6. Atlanta Hawks
  7. Boston Celtics
  8. Milwaukee Bucks
  9. Indiana Pacers
  10. Orlando Magic
  11. Charlotte Hornets
  12. Detroit Pistons
  13. New York Knicks
  14. Brooklyn Nets
  15. Philadelphia 76ers

PLAYOFFS

East finals – Cavaliers over Wizards; West finals– Clippers over Thunder

NBA Finals – Cavaliers over Clippers

AWARDS

MVP – LeBron James, Cavaliers

Defensive Player of the Year – Anthony Davis, Pelicans

Rookie of the Year – Jahlil Okafor, 76ers

Sixth Man of the Year – Isaiah Thomas, Celtics

Most Improved – Bradley Beal, Wizards

Coach of the Year – Doc Rivers, Clippers

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Ranking the Star Wars (films) lightsaber battles

The snap-hiss upon activation followed by a simple, yet often haunting, humming noise. The vibrant array of colors and designs, each with its own meaning.

I ask you this simple question: Is there anything cooler than a lightsaber? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously, because the answer is no. I want one, you want one, anyone that likes amazing things wants one. But, sadly, we can’t have them (not yet, at least).

We are just about two months away from the world premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I’ve got lightsabers on the brain. So, naturally, I need to rank the lightsaber battles we’ve seen on-screen thus far.

My highly-scientific system will score each fight on a 1-5 scale (5 being the highest) in five categories: the actual fight sequences, the musical score/dialogue, the emotional impact, the re-watchability of the fight, and the overall legacy. I’ve also limited this to just the six live-action films thus far (sorry, Clone Wars) and actual clashing of lightsabers (no Episode II Jedi attack on Genosia, for instance).

Agree with my rankings? Disagree? Come nerd out, and let me know.

11. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. General Grievous (III)

Score: 9 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 4; Score/dialogue – 1; Emotional impact – 1; Re-watchability – 2; Legacy – 1)

Highlight: Grievous unveiling and wielding four lightsabers simultaneously.

Lowlight: Obi-Wan disarming Grievous’ four lightsabers in cliched fashion.

Summary: Poor General Grievous. He had so much potential as a character, but never felt like more than an extra in Episode III. This fight scene is a perfect microcosm of that. I maintain that the shot of Grievous approaching Obi-Wan, four lightsabers in hand (two rapidly spinning) is one of the more vivid images from the entire franchise. Unfortunately, the fight takes a pretty mundane and predictable turn after that.

10. Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul (I)

Score: 11 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 1; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 1)

Highlight: Darth Maul’s badass entrance, flipping in off his speeder.

Lowlight: It’s just such a tease.

Summary: This fight isn’t bad. It’s just so short, and so dusty, and so chaotic, that we barely get to appreciate it. I know that’s done intentionally – this fight merely serves as a preview of the climactic “Duel of the Fates” showdown. But, the score speaks for itself here.

9. Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker vs. Count Dooku (II)

Score: 15 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 3; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 3)

Highlight: Yoda with a lightsaber? Yoda with a lightsaber!

Lowlight: Obi-Wan’s complete domination at Dooku’s hands.

Summary: Where to start with this one? I’m not the biggest fan of Count Dooku as a character, but Christopher Lee’s on-screen presence is undeniable. He convincingly defeats both Obi-Wan and Anakin while simultaneously taunting them. Yoda’s on-screen debut with a lightsaber is both entertaining and cheesy, but in the context of this scene, it’s the top moment.

8. Mace Windu vs. Darth Sidious (III)

Score: 16 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 4; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 3)

Highlight: Windu’s epic death, and the effects on Anakin.

Lowlight: Sidious cutting through three Jedi like a knife through butter.

Summary: This scene is weird. I realize Darth Sidious is the most powerful Sith we’ve seen in the films, but why, WHY, are the other three Jedi with Mace Windu unable to survive for more than mere seconds? It’s silly. And the whole lightning situation. It’s still unclear why, in the context of the films, Sidious becomes deformed from his own lightning (and Luke doesn’t in Episode VI). Regardless, this is an important scene for Anakin, and for that reason alone, I’m willing to overlook the painfully-forced CGI of Sidious flipping around for no apparent reason.

7. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (IV)

Score: 18 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 1; Score/dialogue – 4; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 3; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: The on-screen birth of lightsabers.

Lowlight: The actual fighting.

Summary: I refuse to knock this scene. After all, without it, we wouldn’t have any lightsaber debates (and that’s a world I shutter to think about). In the context of the films’ story, this scene is classic — Obi-Wan and Vader meet again, nearly 20 years after they’ve last seen each other. Obi-Wan’s self-sacrifice, and its impact on Luke, are crucial aspects of the entire saga. It’s just a classic scene. The fight sequences though … meh. But hey, it’s two old dudes. Let’s just appreciate this for opening the door.

6. Yoda vs. Darth Sidious (III)

Score: 19 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 4; Score/dialogue – 3; Emotional impact – 3; Re-watchability – 5; Legacy – 4)

Highlight: Sidious hurling Senate pods at Yoda.

Lowlight: The cheesy dialogue.

Summary: The on-screen action and musical score for this scene are on point. I’m not a fan of the slow build-up though. “If so powerful you are, why leave?” Dammit, Yoda. If so powerful YOU are, why are you standing there hurling cheesy zingers instead of destroying the Sith mastermind that just brought down the Republic? It also confuses me how Yoda simply gives up and accepts his “failure” at the end, but again, in the context of the saga, we needed both to survive this fight (obviously).

5. Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Count Dooku (III)

Score: 21 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 5; Score/dialogue – 4; Emotional impact – 4; Re-watchability – 4; Legacy – 4)

Highlight: Anakin embracing the dark side and defeating Dooku.

Lowlight: Obi-Wan once again having zero ability to match Dooku.

Summary: I love this underrated scene. It’s everything I wanted to see in the Episode II fight between these three. The dialogue is held to a minimum, and the surrounding space battle creates an awesomely eery mood. Count Dooku’s last line (“I sense great fear in you, Skywalker. You have hate, you have anger, but you don’t use them.”) is masterfully delivered by Lee, and helps increase the impact of Dooku’s demise at Anakin’s hands. This is a short, but crucial scene.

4. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (VI)

Score: 22 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 5; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 4; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: Luke severing Vader’s hand, echoing his own defeat in Episode V.

Lowlight: How quickly Sidious gives up in his attempt to convert Luke.

Summary: This scene is pretty timeless, though it’s not because of the lightsaber battle itself, which is arguably the best of the original trilogy. The ongoing dialogue between Luke and Vader is well-written, and strikes an emotional cord. So, too, does seeing an enraged Luke beat Vader into submission. What I’ve never understood is why Sidious moves from recruiting to electrocuting Luke so quickly. He spent years and years molding Anakin. Oh well. At this point I’m just being picky.

T-2. Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader (III)

Score: 23 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 5; Score/dialogue – 4; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 4; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: Seeing how Darth Vader became DARTH VADER.

Lowlight: It drags on for a little too long.

Summary: And we have a tie! Episode III’s epic duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin (now going by Darth Vader) is undoubtedly mesmerizing. From a visual standpoint, the volcanic setting of Mustafar is the most striking of any of fights on the list. And though he was already Darth Vader by name, this shows how he came to be “more machine now than man, twisted and evil.” If I have one gripe with this sequence though, it’s that it drags on a little too long. We get it, this is THE fight of the Star Wars saga, and we get it, Obi-Wan and Vader are evenly matched. I’d have rather seen more of Anakin’s emotional fall to the dark side, or his relationship with Sidious. But hey, I’m being picky again.

T-2. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader (V)

Score: 23 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 3; Score/dialogue – 5; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 5; Legacy – 5)

Highlight: “No, I am your father.”

Lowlight: Luke jumping (to his death?) and ending up in an air shaft.

Summary: Without question one of the most impactful and timeless scenes in cinema history. Darth Vader’s reveal at the end of the duel is legendary, but this entire sequence is brilliant. The setting, tone and mood inside the carbon freezing station are chilling. You FEEL scared for Luke when Vader ignites his lightsaber. But you also feel hopeful when Luke, displaying his new-found powers (thanks, Yoda), escapes the freezing chamber and battles back. I never really liked Luke jumping, seemingly in a suicide attempt to escape Vader, but given how the scene developed, I’m not sure what alternative he had.

1. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn vs. Darth Maul (I)

Score: 24 out of 25 (Fight sequences – 5; Score/dialogue – 5; Emotional impact – 5; Re-watchability – 5; Legacy – 4)

Highlight: Everything.

Lowlight: Darth Maul’s death.

Summary: This is as close as we’ve come to a perfect lightsaber battle. Three incredible characters, all with distinct appearances and unique lightsabers. A visually-striking setting (generator room platforms). An incredible score (Duel of the Fates), with absolutely no cheesy dialogue forced into the scene. An emotional and impactful death (Qui-Gon). There’s really not much to critique here … except for Darth Maul’s death! Much like Boba Fett, Maul’s death came too prematurely and in disappointing fashion. And yes, I know he is now alive in canon thanks to The Clone Wars, but I feel pretty strongly that Maul could have (and should have) had a major role in the entire prequel trilogy. Say what you want about Episode I (and people say plenty, usually bad), but it gave us Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn and the best lightsaber battle to date.

#tbt: A life-saving gift

Another quick throwback post here, this time from a D3football.com column I wrote back in 2012.

John Stephens, a former linebacker for the Cortland State football team, helped save the life of then-two-year-old Clara Boyle with a bone marrow donation a few years ago. It’s a remarkable story, one of pain and suffering, but also incredible happiness and resilience.

All too often, sports stories are negative. I’ve edited and written countless articles about injuries, arrests, personal and professional scandals, and any other number of discouraging incidents. But stories like the life-long bond between Stephens and Boyle help restore my faith not only in athletes, but in people in general. There are good stories out there, sometimes you just have to look harder for them. And quotes like this one from Stephens help support that claim:

“It hasn’t really hit me yet, that what I did for her is allowing her to be there in that moment running around with my little brother. … I was able to do something so simple for me, the choice for me to make was so simple, and it changed this family’s life dramatically. It’s heartwarming for me and my family.”

Oh hey, I’m blogging

This is my first post on a personal blog. Ever. (How am I doing so far?)

The only other blogging I’ve ever done was for The Ithacan‘s now-defunct Division III sports-focused blog, Hat Trick. Side note: I’m pretty sure no one, including myself, liked that name, but it’s lost to history now anyway. I digress.

For as long as I can remember — which, I suppose is about the first or second grade — I’ve loved writing. And from the time I could play them, I loved sports, too. Basketball, in particular, was my favorite sport, but once it became clear in the sixth grade that I wasn’t going to become an NBA player, I decided the best alternative was to combine sports and writing. And, largely, that’s what I’ve done. My writing has appeared on ESPN.com, D3football.com, Patch.com and a handful of daily newspapers in New York and Connecticut. I’ve also spent a large portion of my professional career as an editor.

Writing and editing go hand-in-hand, but I’ve always leaned toward writing. It was, after all, my first passion.

I don’t expect this blog to turn into a personal journal. Truthfully, I don’t have any clear expectations for it. Like most aspects of life, I’ll begin down a path and see where it takes me. I do expect most of the posts to be about sports because, hey, that’s what I love! But if you’ve read this far, you already knew that. But I won’t rule out an occasional culture post, or Star Wars post, or video games post, or … well, anything.

So check back and leave comments, good and bad. I’m always up for some banter. You can find me on my personal website, Twitter, or email me at andrewclovell@gmail.com.