USA Conference Preview
By Ron Chambers
Yesterday we looked at the incredibly deep World Conference. Today, we are diving deep on where the top teams from last season all reside, the USA conference. Three of these teams finished above 60 wins last year and seem poised to do the same this year. One team took a huge jump and may compete in this category also. Heck, there is even a 5th team that could hang out in the stratosphere. But, there are only so many wins to be had…this will be a fun year.
The 2018-2018 Brooklyn Rage were arguably the most dominant team in WBA history. They won 74 games which is the second most in WBA history and were the first team to go through the playoffs without a loss. But they had a problem. Money. They had huge contracts and older players and it looked like after this next year they may fall apart. Management decided that they believed they could move two starters and still compete for a Championship while preparing themselves for the future. They traded Omar Jefferson’s gigantic contract to Kansas City for Antonio Gleason and Ed Rhodes. They then traded Dan Kincaide to Fort Worth for Trenton Adams who they believe will be a future star for them. Brooklyn feels that as long as they have Mario Bailey and Jarius Miles they are in the run for a championship. They still have Tyris Mayes at center. Antionio Gleason is no Dan Kinkaide but he is still a very good player and more affordable. At point guard, defensive specialist Anthony Davis will move into the starting role. The Rage may actually have a better defense this year than last but might drop off some offensively. Brooklyn also has some really great depth with players like Shawn Jones, George Faup, David Walker, Ed Rhodes, and P J King. The one real weakness is what will happen if Anthony Davis gets hurt. The Rage are used to having tremendous depth at PG. If he goes down they will have to get creative. To many, except those living in Northern California, the Rage are still the favorite to win the Championship. But, they will not be the completely dominant force that they were last season.
The Massacre had a frustrating season last year as the looked to retool. They dropped 10 wins from the previous season. Boston is always a good team but they have not been able to really break through. They have made the playoffs the last five seasons but they have never been higher than the 5th seed and only once have made it out of the first round. Their retooled roster has a mix of youth and players in their prime. Three starters are 24 or younger while Victorino Pinelo and Casey Pointer are 27 and 28 respectively. It looks like the Massacre will run a three-guard system with Pinelo, Pointer, and their superstar Michal Askins. That trio will provide tremendous offensive fire power. John Keating will fill in admirably and Frank Mathieu should continue to be a major force inside, though expect his scoring to drop. Boston also has some good young depth so look to this team to be improved and back on track. Their problem is that there are too many powerhouse teams in the USA conference. It is hard to imagine this team finishing above the 5th seed this year which will no doubt disappoint management.
The Liberty are the only team to win a championship in the last six years other than the Rage, but that was five seasons ago. Last year they were pretty average offensively and poor defensively resulting in a team with 36 wins. They are in the process of reworking their team to fit the vision of new ownership. They will look very different. Neville Donner will still start as one of the bigs, probably center, and Kelley Brandon will start at small forward. Coomas Neetar will replace Chad Nolan at power forward. Ajan Estay came over from Arizona and will move from point guard to his more natural shooting guard. Moving Shermar Mahara to be replaced by Friedrich Egg is probably a slight step back. All in all New York looks like they will be roughly the same as last year.
Toronto was an elite team that made the finals three years in a row. But they blew up their team which led to the discovery of the WBA’s great cheating scandal. They have struggled the last two years winning 35 & 32 games. They currently have temporary management but they have still increased their talent level. They will likely run four smalls and Senecca Redd. Latrell McDyess, Jay Dickenson, Char Archer, and Jim Koons are all talented but only 6’ 5” or 6’ 6”. James Donovan will probably come off the bench. He is taller at 6’ 9” but isn’t much of an interior player. If it works out well this team could find some magic and approach 40 wins but more likely they will remain in the low 30s.
Are the Bangerters really cursed? Some argue yes. Their teams certain have not performed the last couple of years the way they expected. But to be fair, the brothers have both had very good teams I the past. The question for Miami is if they can get back to that. Miami has brought in more talent so I suspect they will improve. They can go a lot of different ways with their rotation. They may start Omar Rozier and Rufus Castellano at guards which may give them the best rebounding guard duo in the league. They will need that rebounding if they keep Maury Coleman and Jim Woods as their forwards because they are very talented but not great rebounders. Jesus Morrell will continue to be a rock in the middle. Or course, they could decide to start James boon as power forward and move Jim woods to small forward and Maury Coleman to shooting guard. These are the tough choices that management has to make but the good thing for Miami is that they have choices to make since they have improved their talent. The Xtreme should certainly finish the season with over 20 wins, probably in the range of 25 but they could hit the 30s. It depends on how they manage things.
#5- New York
Last year the Pioneers were elite. They were one of only three teams to break the 60 win mark. They are much the same team that they were last year which means they will remain elite. They added Donovan McCormick for greater depth at the bigs. DaRond Lyons will once again be the team’s big scorer. But Henderson is their heart. Divine Devine will also continue to be a big scorer. Kinsey is the other one of the big four. Edgar Kamara will probably still be the starting point guard but despite his terrific qualities he continues to slow with age. The other issue with this team is depth. They rely VERY heavily on their top four players and if they get a serious injury it could totally derail them because they just don’t have that much talent after their big four. Still, they won 64 games and finished 13 games ahead of the Blues in second place so it is hard to pick against them since they are basically returning the same team.
The Blues felt they were a point guard away from a championship run last year. They may have been right. Daren benson is a good player but he probably is not a championship quality point guard, at least not as a started. Off-the bench I’m sure championship quality teams would love to have him. So, the Blues made the controversial move of trading away their starting small forward and their starting shooting guard to acquire Omar Jefferson. Jefferson has been a key part of the success the Brooklyn Rage have had over the last seven years. Many thought he and Bailey were going to retire together especially since he has such a monster contract. KC, however, looked at the age of Walt Jackson and decided they needed to try and win it all now. The Blue are set with four of their starters Jeremy Sims and Walt Jackson are their stars. Matthew Turgeon is a young developing talent and Omar Jefferson is their new sharp shooting floor leader…or is he? One option is to start those four player as PG, SG, SFS, & PF and then have Shawne Olson as the Center. Another option is to have Olson come off the bench and have either Johnny Blaylock or Daren Benson start at point guard. The smart money is on starting Olson but they have tried both ways during the preseason. If things go as management hopes KC could easily jump to the 60 win range. The question is if Fort Worth has made enough improvement to pass them. The top three in this division are all really good and depending how injuries and player fit goes any of the three could finish 1-3 in the division.
Salt Lake City
The Fanatics tried really hard to keep Able Debusiness. But it seems he didn’t want to play on a college team. That isn’t an insult. It is just that the Fanatics are incredibly young. Guy Welty is the oldest player on the roster at 24. The average age on the roster is 21.58…you know college age. There there is tremendous potential on this roster. There are 10 players who were lottery picks and five who were picked in the top 5. If they can keep their players an development they could have one of the all-time great dynasties. This year they will probably start Alston Irving, Leonard Sedelmaier, Ermin Zeleznik, Guy Welty, and Fulgencio. That is a pretty solid starting lineup. JuJu Wambaugh, Demarcus Walton, Bobo Reynolds and Blaise Godin may see less playing time this year but developing them for the future is key. This is one of the teams I am really looking forward to watching over the next five years. Can a Bangerter build a winner or will the family curse stay alive?
This team only won 23 games last year and they did not make huge improvements in the off season. Their starting five will probably have four of the same players. One change will be at point guard where they slightly upgrade from Jermaine Lee to Eric Falk. The league is improving, and this team is standing still so they may even drop a little in their win total. But they aren’t too worried about that. It isn’t because they don’t want to win. It is because they are taking the long view. They have a lot of young talent that they are looking to develop Bennett Bangerter (21), Chico Dillinger (20), Asdrubal Aristia (18), and Wimpy Critchfield (20) are the future of this franchise. Cincinnati will not judge their success by their win totals they will judge it by the development of their youngsters.
There is no team in the league that will see the type of improvement that has the fans of Fort Worth excited. This is a team that has spent the last five seasons between 20 and 29 wins. They should easily double last year’s total of twenty wins and could even look to triple it. Likely only Curtis Starman will retain his starting roll from last year. He will, however, have much more talent around him so don’t expect him to average almost 27 points a game. He may not break 20 this year. Trevor Tomlin will take over at point guard. Super stud Darryl Whittaker will lead the team from the small forward position. In a surprise move Dan Kincaide was sent from the championship Rage to the Warriors. This gives forth worth two legitimate stars and a near star in Starman. The one question for this team is center. They don’t need scoring. They have clearly put s focus on defense also so who starts there is still up in the air. Conventional wisdom says Marques Feldman. He is the most talented player they have at that position. But they started Ulrich Kunze there in much of preseason. He is a better defender. Another option is to go with Vance Clopp he is past his prime but defends about at well as Kunze while rebounding better. If I had to wager, I would guess Kunze but there also may be another deal in the works to plug this team’s one hole.
#2- Fort Worth
#3- Kansas City
#4- Salt Lake City
This team is the pride of the Western Division and in many people’s mind the favorite to dethrone the Rage. They finished last year with 66 wins, second only to Brooklyn. They also bring back every player in their rotation with the exception of Victorino Pinelo. They took full advantage of this year’s very deep draft with two solid draft picks in the 20s, Heinrich Stoebener and Timoteo Gangotena who made be dominant forces in the WBADEV. In free agency they were also able to get some surprising talent, such as Austin Bangerter and Mike Lewis, despite only being able to offer minimum contracts. There is no doubt that the loss of Pinelo hurts. But they expected it. Hassan Watt is still only 23 and improving as he is becoming one of the most dominant shooting guards in the league. Kurt Beck is healthy and will be arguably the best small forward in the league. Last year they had the leading defense and a top three offense. That should continue. They are a dominant force and despite Wally Birkhead and Bishop Stein getting older most of their team is in their prime of still improving. There isn’t reason to expect a jump in performance from this team, but they are already at or near the top. Depending on health they should finish with between 65 and 70 wins.
The Gamblers finished 25 games behind the Fighting Cocks. Don’t expect them to make up that ground. They were very close with the Rainmakers finishing just two games ahead of them. That is where LV’s main challenge lies. Second year player Bemjamin Deletombe is the Gambler’s best returning big. But they made big improvements with their bigs. They traded for Chad Archer and Macario Montavez. Both are solid players. It is a little uncertain exactly what the rotation will be but those are three quality players. They also signed Justice Rhodes to replace Rufus Castellano, who they traded to Miami. Almantas Talacka will return as their main scoring option. Brice Bell was traded to the Fury in a deal that brought Vester Friedrich to the Rainmakers. Friedrich is not the floor general that Bell is, but he is a much better scorer. Michael Kramer and Brian Sewell also provide a good deal of depth at the guard position. They also now have two good young talents to develop in Kenny Lobo and Toussaint Leclecq. It is hard to judge this tea to last year because they should have four new starters. But this team has more talent and certainly more depth. It all depends on how the talent comes together. They should break .500 again and could eas.ly pass 45 wins.
The Rainmakers are on the rise after years of being just terrible. They were just one win shy of doubling their previous years total and made the playoffs for the first time since moving to Seattle. But they weren’t content with that. They decided to add talent this summer. They signed Justice Grant to a big but short-term deal- a great move. Grant is certainly an improvement over Reed Moses who moved to Albacete. Grant much improves their already strong big man rotation of Neville Blake, Valentine Ghesquier, and Stretch Armstrong. They also drafted Lucien Poirier who can play small forward or power forward. Seattle’s scoring punch comes from their wings, Pat London and Scooter Baylor. They are both good scorers and good shooters. They throw up a lot of threes but the also make a lot of them. Baylor is also young and is continuing to improve as he moves into his prime. Brice Oliver was the starting point guard for the majority of last season and the youngster will likely continue in that roll with veteran Coleman Johnson coming off the bench. Seattle also added some good depth with talent like Kurt Williams and Lon Johnson. This team is better and deeper than last year. They should break the .500 mark.
The Gargoyles moved to Los Angeles to take advantage of the large market, but they have never quite pulled it off. Since moving to LA they have not won more than 33 games. Two years ago they only won 19 and last year they barely improved to 20. Last year they had virtually no talent. It was a miracle that they won 19 games. William Curry was their lone bright spot. The new management is committed to spending money to bring in talent. They gave defensive force Marc White a maximum contract to come play in the city of Angels. He is a great defender but he has limited endurance and does not score. On the right team that can be fine. We will have to see if LA gets production out of his worthy of that contract. LA also traded with Gabon to bring the championship experience of Tyriq Lang to the team. Obviously, LA wants a strong interior presence and they now have it with tow good rebounders and defenders. They also now have a lot of depth at the bigs with every player who started for them last year at the power forward or the center still on the roster. David Poland started at small forward last year. Don’t know who he is? Neither do the residents of Brentwood so don’t worry about it. It looks like he may still start but the coaching staff should reconsider that as they have better options on the roster. William Curry will continue as the star but likely transition to his more natural position of shooting guard. He is a legitimate offensive threat and should have an excellent year. But as long as he is LA’s primary offensive option they will not be an elite team. Richie Reddy, who came over from Sydney looks like he will be getting the nod at point guard. As with so many teams this is the weak spot. Reddy is a good passer and defender and very quick but his offensive game still needs to develop. The Gargoyles still have significant holes outside the bigs but they are a much improved team. Their problem is that there are many improved teams in the league which means they may not get the big bump they want. 25 wins sounds about right.
Ouch! This team is in a hard place. They had only 18 wins last season and their finances are a wreck. A few years back they were solid with 55 wins but they dropped some each of the last four years until they were just terrible last year. They are also paying $26 million this year to Wayne Taylor. Yes he is the all-time WBA scoring leader, former champion, and one of the best players in WBA history. But his body has taken a beating and at 33 he is not the player he once was. He is a serviceable reserve but not worth a 10th of his salary today. Things will be very different in the high desert this year. LaMar DeAngelo started 52 games at center last year only averaging 5.4 points and 5.0 rebounds. Expect him to spend this year in the developmental league. Walter Walter who was acquired as part of the Ajan Estay trade will take over this role. Marquez Houston started the season as power forward but only played 27 games due to a bad concussion. He is back and is looking pretty good for a 32-year-old. Jo Jo Edwards started 52 games last year. The new management had no interest in resigning him. He is now in Paris playing for a minimum contract. Meechy Jennings, the former #3 pick who hasn’t quite worked out yet will take over this starting role. Wayne Taylor started most of the season at shooting guard despite being rather slowed by age. 24-year-old Nicholas Evans will take over this role and provide much improved defense. The spot where this team really falls off will be at point guard. Sean Madera is no where near the player that Ajan Estay is. Still over all this team should be improved and look to win 25-30 games.
#2- Las Vegas
#5- Los Angeles