Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thoughts on the South Beach Experiment Thus Far

Many moons, months, and possibly eons ago, I wrote about an experiment- the South Beach Case Study.  The SBCS is based on the unusual alignment of stars (I don't get the fixation with astronomy either; please bear with me) that occurred last summer.  LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh- the "Three Kings"- came together to give us NBA fanatics a real life case study that could give answers to our astronomically divine inquiring minds- give yourselves a round of applause for having both a divine inquiring basketball mind and the patience to keep reading after my unfortunate attempt at rhyming.
The kingly test subjects. 

"Three superstars of this caliber have never played together at their absolute peak…The big questions are: can two ball-dominant slashers, James and Wade, work together? Will the egos of the three amigos collide or will they remember the sacrifices they promised to make in order to play with each other? What happens to a superstar's stats when he isn't playing in a single superstar-centric offense anymore? Who takes the last shot, Wade or James? What about substitution patterns and minutes distributions? Will their careers be extended because they don't have to lift their teams alone anymore?"

What has been answered through 58 wins, 24 losses, and a first round series victory over a solid Philadelphia team that wrecked my prediction of the matchup being "Boston vs. Atlanta in '08" all over again?  For one- no, Philly didn't match up to their top-end talent-centric opponent like Atlanta did.  But beyond that, we've secured our answers to a few of the pertinent questions listed above.  Or at least, this season gave us some indications.

All three players saw more losses than gains in both raw numbers and advanced numbers when compared to last year's production.  Bosh took the biggest hit; he went from 24 points and 10.8 rebounds per game to 18.7 and 8.3 rebounds per game.  His rebound rate, PER, WS/48, and TS% all dropped.  He played .2 minutes per game more than last year.

Wade's points and assists went from 26.6 and 6.5 per game to 25.5 and 4.6 per game.  His rebounding went up significantly, while his TS% went up to 58.1 percent.  He played .9 minutes more per game.  James saw his scoring average drop three points per game and his assists average drop 1.6 assists per game.  He saw a dip in just about every other stat except rebounding.  He played .2 minutes per game less this year.      

 Bosh's offensive numbers going down should have been easy to guess.  He played on a middling-at-best team that needed his production to compete.  Going from the first option to the third option is a drastic drop, too.

James and Wade were the guys who shouldered some massive loads.  Each was Atlas last year, carrying the world on his shoulders (That's it, I'm playing "Intergalactic" by Beastie Boys before I go to bed). 

Suddenly, they could share.  Sparingly, they let old habits get in the way (though it surely happened, especially at the start). Sullenly, opposing wing defenders prepared to take the duo on.

The minutes didn't decrease, but it does seem like the workload may have.  By all accounts, all three players played the best defense of their respective careers this year, which helped Miami rank fifth in team defensive rating.  Bosh needn't create as much by himself, - sounds like a hopeless and draining task if we're having a dirty mind- instead being used as a finisher.  Wade's scoring efficiency increased, and he was able to play more consistent defense in more minutes per game.  To me, James saw the greatest benefits from the decreased workload.  He was more aggressive on the offensive glass, set picks, used different parts of the floor better, and successfully played off another primary ball-handling attacker after admirably handing him the reins sometimes. 

We can now see how stats, roles and workloads are affected.  Their egos seem to have remained in check for the most part.  Questions regarding last shots, longer careers and true chemistry won't be fully answered until the team is healthy, the season ends, Pay Riley constructs the team with fewer holes and, ultimately, the players decide to retire.

As the SBCS enters phase/round two, I'll be previewing Miami vs. Boston.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Black Skies for a Dark Horse

In my first round preview, I mentioned that the Orlando Magic were my dark horse pick to win the NBA title.  Since then, my dark horse has received a few black eyes at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks, a team I've needled since the start of my blog.  Atlanta has a game on the Magic and home court advantage right now despite 33.3 points and over 17 rebounds per game from Orlando's center, Dwight Howard.  Why was/is Orlando considered my dark horse pick, especially after they've struggled at the start of this year's playoffs?

Dwight Howard battles inside. 
Of all the contenders in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat are the top dogs.  The two squads share elite top-end talent, in the form of a trio and a foursome that made up over half of this year's Eastern Conference All-Star team.  Seven players- zero centers.  Dwight Howard is the alpha center in the league, and he equipped himself with a dominant interior scoring game this year, making him an offensive mismatch, and possibly an offensive Constant, in the playoffs.

The Heat's center-by-committee act can easily be exposed against Orlando, especially since Miami lacks a defender capable of tracking Jameer Nelson around Howard's enormous screens.  Boston's version of Superman has kryptonite of the calf- they need to make an alternate, comedic version of Smallville where elderly Clark enters a nursing home and fights off a villainous, pimped-out great-grandson of Lex Luther who walks with a cane and has dentures made of kryptonite- and with Kendrick Perkins gone, Boston has some mighty question marks at the five spot.       

Even though the Chicago Bulls have home court throughout and my league MVP, Derrick Rose, they are far too flawed and inexperienced a team to make it very far in these playoffs.  Joakim Noah was pushed around by ancient Shaquille O'Neal last year; a spry Dwight Howard should tame the gator.  Howard also represents the biggest road block in the league for Rose as he slashes into the paint.  If Chicago is having trouble with Darren Collison-Tyler Hansbrough pick-n-rolls, what happens when they need to defend Dwight and Jameer?

The team should be able to take down Atlanta.  The Hawks don't have a trusty go-to player, and nothing about the team is dominant.  Orlando's peripheral perimeter players need to clear those clouds and let Superman bathe in some rays to let the dark horse flourish.  If the Magic can take three before the Hawks take two, they have a very real chance of making it to the NBA Finals, where anything can happen.           

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Pick for 2011 NBA MVP

The last three MVPs have gone to these two.
My butt is moving people and I'm sitting on the hot seat.  I'm boxing out the specter of the voters, positioning myself in their spot, and getting deep into this post.  Interior design is mine this time.  Call me the The Big Right Block Voter.

My 2011 NBA MVP is...going to be given at this post's conclusion, after I've figured out who it is.  Undecided is what I am at this point.  A decidedly victorious player may not ascend above the rest, but I'll try my best to unpack what an NBA MVP is and who is most deserving this year.  Choose the best answer.  I apologize to those losing electrolytes after flashing back to standardized testing.  Go drink Jordan's elixir.

What is, and isn't, an NBA MVP?  

An NBA MVP is the transcendental signifier of his particular team, the base upon which the concepts and principles of a successful team are presumed and carried out.  Being part of the equation for a team isn't enough to be MVP; the player needs to be the logic upon which the equation- the team's makeup itself- is based on.

It's kind of weird.  An NBA MVP needs to have the perfect blend of being a great player, having a great supporting cast that allows the player to flourish by allowing him to carry the maximum possible weight for the team, have that supporting cast give enough help to maximize the results of his efforts (and have those results look good relative to the league's other teams), and not have a similarly talented base, or constant, on his team.  It's incredibly difficult to win titles this way.  MVP winners usually aren't on title teams. It takes one hell of a blend to accomplish that dish.

The Most Valuable Player award is such a simple yet descriptive title for an achievement.  Beautiful language.  Refusing to put the word "best" into the title should make confusion regarding what the award represents dissipate.  Steve Nash may not have been a top five player in the league in 2005.  But he was more valuable to his team than anybody else was to theirs, which is why I had Nash as my MVP that season.

LeBron James has been the best player on the planet for three consecutive regular seasons, and a legitimate MVP candidate on his hilariously flawed 2009 and 2010 Cleveland teams.  This season, he's been slightly better than ever before in my opinion.  But he isn't really relevant in this year's MVP race.

LeBron's Irrelevance, and Why it's so Relevant to Talk About

James joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh last summer, ushering Miami into the South Beach Experiment era.  One of the hyped critiques of the move was how exactly James and Wade would fit with each other since they essentially fill the same role.  They are elite-level offensive anchors at the wing position who are solid defensive pieces.  Ignore for a minute the diminishing returns that this duo would suffer in theory.  What is the need for them on this Heat team?

It's reasonable to assume the team is better with both James and Wade acting as co-anchors of the offense.  When one isn't in the game or if one is having an off night, the team can rely on the other to counter deficiencies.  They've even been learning how to work together, using pick-n-roll plays and the like.  But what would the team look like without one of them?  Surely the team wouldn't rise to 58 victories on the back of high-end talent.  Bosh and Wade or Bosh and James aren't as good as James, Bosh and Wade (obviously).  But take one of those two off the team, and the Heat can still create a successful equation based on the Constant offensive anchor that is James or Wade, with Bosh as a dependable secondary option.  Add in the 3-point shooters and dedication to defense that head coach Erik Spoelstra could institute given the fact that Wade or James with Bosh would be doing the heavy lifting on offense, and you likely get a solid- flawed, but solid- 50 win team.  They'd be less compelling as a contender in the playoffs, but they'd still be pretty good.

The current construction of the Miami Heat is flawed, especially with their holes at center and point guard.  James and Wade and Bosh needed to produce a lot for this team this year, which is why they combined to have more win shares as a trio than any other trio in the league.  The Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller injuries make the job they did even more impressive.  But take Wade or James away and the team can still run using the same principles and operate at a decently high level in the regular season.  Spoelstra wouldn't need to rush to a radically different plan B.

That's why the best players in the league can't win this award in 2011.

Naming the Contenders

Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, San Antonio's Big Three, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are suitable enough to be at least looked at.

I'm going to eliminate Westbrook, Williams, Stoudemire and Gasol first.  Westbrook isn't as important to the Thunder offense as Durant is.  Durant's super-efficient production of points, particularly coming off-ball, is incredible.  Westbrook, while electric, is prone to making bone-headed decisions and turns the ball over a lot despite not having to carry as much weight offensively as his teammate.  The team has other ball handlers, like Eric Maynor, James Harden, and to a lesser extent, Durant.  Obviously the team would suffer, but I think they'd suffer without Durant a lot more.  Westbrook's defense has regressed a bit, as he gambles way too often now.

Williams was traded mid-season and was injured at his new destination, so it's tough to gauge his value.  Amar'e started off strong, but a mid-season trade changed the dynamic of his team, and they ended up with a lesser record than I had hoped.  Gasol is on the huge frontline of the Lakers, and his normal replacement just won Sixth Man of the Year.  By now, I hope the logic of my choices is becoming clear enough that I don't need to explain why Pau Gasol isn't an MVP candidate.

Paul and Nash are similar.  Both led middling teams with inferior talent.  Both were incredibly valuable to their respective teams.  Neither had the help to get just enough positive results to be contenders here though.  Nash is probably in my top five for most valuable players in NBA history, but his under .500 team hurts him here.

Regarding Boston:  I can't seriously put a Celtic on here.  Rondo is the reason why the offense goes- and stops.  Nobody does enough heavy lifting to be included.  If I had to pick an MVP for that team though, it'd be Garnett.  With the injuries Boston suffered, if they didn't have KG, they'd have a horrific frontcourt.

The overrated Spurs are in a similar situation.  Tim Duncan would be my choice for that team's MVP because he makes the team respectable defensively with his shot-blocking and rebounding.  However, I think Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker's offense create the incredible offense that the Spurs displayed.  If you take one of those two away, I don't think the other players, including Duncan, could pick up the slack.  That would make the Spurs a lesser offensive team, and since the team isn't built to play strong defense anymore, I believe the effects of not having a Parker or a Ginobili would be significant.  Nobody's important enough.

This leaves Durant, Bryant, Nowitzki, Rose and Howard.

The Fab Five

And this time, their accomplishments will count!

Let's start with the Black Mamba.  Offensively, Kobe needs to shoulder an immense load initiating, scoring, handling the ball and making plays for others.  On his blog, ElGee notes that Kobe's offensive responsibility is gigantic, second to another remaining player, Derrick Rose.  Remember that fact.

  L.A. is a difficult team to gauge because they are an older team, a tired two-time champion that is known to coast at times during the regular season.  Observing them is a chore simply because you never know if and when they are operating at their highest level.  Are they badly equipped for the regular season?  Are they badly equipped for the regular season without Kobe?

Dr. MJ talked about Kobe's impact here, citing the fact that he doesn't lift his team as much as other superstars which at the very least indicates that he isn't as valuable to his particular team as they are to their respective teams.  Now, an argument against me using Doc's argument is that a player can't lift a talented team that high- a damning argument against Kobe if we're positing that Kobe's team is talented- except that there is a profound concentration of the team's top-end talent in the frontcourt.  Kobe's presence balances things out for L.A.- ironic if you've followed Kobe's career.

Kobe would be my MVP.  But...Derrick Rose has a similar problem with his team.  The difference is Rose doesn't even have that concentration of high-end talent at any position on his team- offensively anyway.  He also doesn't have anybody who can handle the ball.  At least L.A. has Lamar Odom and the point guards to bring the ball past half court.  Pau Gasol can create a bit in the half court.  Chicago's best ball-handler not named after a flower (as far as I know) is Earl Watson, who isn't a high-minutes player.

Two of the Fab Five. 
At least L.A. has the talent in the frontcourt and some ball handlers.  Sorry Kobe, but your team isn't flawed enough.

Nowitzki and Durant are similar.  The main value they bring is efficient off-ball perimeter scoring that essentially opens things up inside and outside for the peripheral players.  Nowitzki's team has more depth, while Durant has more players named Westbrook.  Dallas seemed to really struggle without Dirk this year, which would give Dirk the edge over KD.  However, if you take KD off his newly formed team, you'd lose any frontcourt scoring, or positive effects of frontcourt offense outside of Serge Ibaka's off-ball game, that exists.  Number-one option Westbrook is a bad fit with the interior based Ibaka-Kendrick Perkins frontcourt; he'd have been better with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.  After that trade, Durant is more valuable than ever.  His ability to spread the floor, allow Westbrook to do other things, and produce volume scoring from a non-backcourt position makes the offense work.

Still, I don't see either of those two forwards doing what Rose needs to do.  Think about it like this:  Rose essentially plays two positions for the Bulls.  He's the volume scoring threat and the floor-general point guard.  The run he's on has been compared to 2001 Allen Iverson's MVP run, but I reject that comparison.  Iverson wasn't the ball hog that season that people like to characterize him as- otherwise, how did Eric Snow and Aaron McKie manage 7.4 and 5.0 assists per game, respectively?  Philly could at least run some offense and get the ball up the floor.  Rose doesn't have anybody who averages over 2.8 assists per game on his team.  Rose plays two positions for the Bulls on offense- he's Allen Iverson, and he's Eric Snow.

That brings us to Dwight Howard.  Howard has improved by leaps and bounds this year, turning his mechanical offensive game into a confident-looking, fluidly effective source of points for his Orlando team.  The Magic had clearly regressed in the beginning of the year as Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter struggled.  Howard kept the team afloat.  The team traded those two, along with his backup, Marcin Gortat, for Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu.  Hedo and J-Rich have been solid, while Arenas has put up a disappointing 8 point per game on woeful percentages.  Howard got the team to 52 wins with his 22.9 points and 14.1 rebounds per game, along with DPOY-type defense.

Who rebounds for that team?  Orlando has the best defensive rebounding percentage in the league this season, a crucial part of their defense.  I happen to think Orlando's team defense, orchestrated by Stan Van Gundy, would be greater than the sum of its parts without Dwight.  But rebounding is part of defense, and you can only scheme so much for "I'm bigger than you."

Orlando would drop off offensively as well.  A big part of their offense is their eFG%, but without Howard's efficient post scoring, what happens to that stat?  I think Orlando sans Dwight Howard would be a less explosive version of last year's Golden State Warriors, with better defense.  That's not a very good team.  Solid, but not very good.  Kinda sucks actually.

Chicago?  Without Rose, the team's offense sputters.  They were a bit above average this year with Rose.  Without him, they'd turn the ball over even more than they did (they were pedestrian in terms of turnovers this year).  Their claim to offensive fame was offensive rebounding, but you need to get shots up to get offensive boards, and it helps to have a guy drawing attention 18 feet away from the basket.  Intuitively, their league-leading eFG% Against would go up since they'd be turning the ball over more often.  Their defense would suffer without their two-positions-in-one star, and that isn't even taking into account Rose's stellar defense this season.

Above average defense and nearly league worst offense.  Well, that likely results in a team better than Orlando without Howard, but that doesn't solve much considering Rose's team did win more games than Dwight's.

It's Rose's effects on offense as a double-duty star that are so great that it spills into the team's awesome defense vs. Howard's all-around effects on defensive possessions and scoring efficiency.  Different effects on different teams by different types of players.

At this point, both are viable candidates.  However, my choice for MVP would be Derrick Rose.  Such a concentrated flaw in a team is dangerous, as shown this year in the LeBron-less Cavaliers.  They went from over 60 wins to less than 20.  The balancing act necessary to maintain a respectable team would be enormous if Chicago's base player was taken away.  Howard's departure would obviously hurt, but Rose's departure puts Chicago in a black hole- we don't know where they'd land.

As I said, Howard as MVP is certainly reasonable.  I'm taking Rose strictly because of my belief that the concentration in Rose's effects on Chicago would hurt the Bulls to a greater degree if Rose weren't there.  They'd very much need to change what they are.  The team's principle logic and makeup would dissolve without- well, without its MVP- to a greater degree than Orlando without Howard.

I think my three seconds in the paint are up.... 

Lamar Receives an Apt Award

Image via Wikipedia
Lamar Odom finally got an NBA award befitting his unique talents.  He finally got a major award period.  He is this year's Sixth Man of the Year.

The multidimensional Odom was on the 2000 all-rookie first team, an award that came with the expectation that he'd make his way onto a 20xx all-NBA team.  A 6'10 forward who could handle the ball, rebound, shoot from the outside and make passes that men five to 10 inches shorter usually make, Odom was supposed to be a nightly triple-double threat.  He was supposed to be a big-time scorer.

Well, we all know that didn't happen.  Lamar never averaged over 18 points per game or made an all-NBA team.  He accumulated a respectable 12 triple-doubles throughout his career.  He didn't meet people's initial expectations of what he'd become, partly because they overrated his talent, and partly because they placed a mentality upon him that he simply didn't have.  Without a low post game or even an average 3-point shot (career 32.1 percent shooter), Lamar was never equipped with the necessary skills to be a big-time scorer.  Handles separate good perimeter threats from middling threats, and though Lamar was tall and could bring the ball up the court, he didn't possess elite attacking handles.  Going right is always an adventure for Lamar, and going left and finishing at full-speed off the dribble isn't a gimme either.  He had skills, but he wasn't Kevin Garnett at power forward or Carmelo Anthony as a multidimensional scoring forward.

How did the expectorators (I know it's not a word, but it sounds dangerously professional) plop a mentality onto Odom that he emphatically rejected you ask?  Watching Odom for a decade now, I've never seen a player act more unselfishly.  Sure, he possesses extraordinary vision for a power forward, but passing ability isn't what I'm talking about here.  It's his active decisions on the basketball court to make his teammates look good that put Odom in a rarefied air among NBA players.  A telling anecdote is the story of when Odom was being examined by NBA scouts.  During the game, he passed the ball more than usual and tried to get his teammates involved, trying to make them look good for the scouts who were there.

Another is during a blowout victory for the Lakers last year.  Odom was playing with the bench warmers in garbage time.  With maybe a minute or so to play, he caught the ball and could have shot over the non-existent outstretched arm of an incredibly lazy opposing bench warmer.  Instead, he swung the ball to his teammate in the short corner, who proceeded to hit a jumper.  As I've said before, swing passes make champions.

Lamar doesn't look out for himself, which is part of the reason why he is an astoundingly effective support player, or glue player.  As a second option in 2006 and 2007, Lamar was an inconsistent sidekick to Kobe Bryant, a sidekick who never saw a rise in stats that usually accompanies being a clear-cut second option for a talented player in his prime.  There's a reason for that:  Lamar's not an "option"-type player, a blessing of a trait and a curse of a trait if Lamar's on your team.  He won't dominate for you, but you know his decisions will always be in the best interest of his teammates.  That's valuable.

Receiving the 2011 Sixth Man of the Year award fits Lamar.  He's still only 31, still talented enough to start on teams.  But he sacrificed and accepted his place as a sixth man coming off the bench for a championship team behind Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.  Atypical for most.

The voters got it right.  The award found its rightful owner, apropos after Lamar has spent a decade dutifully finding his teammates.  Typical for one- Odom.             

Monday, April 18, 2011

Thoughts on the First Rounds of the First Round

Whoa.  One word comes to mind when mulling over what happened in the NBA this weekend.  I'll allow Senator Clay Davis, a character from my favorite show, The Wire, to divulge it for me here.

Some thoughts...
  • Game one between Chicago and Indiana was a microcosm of the season for Derrick Rose and the Bulls.  They win despite obvious flaws in their team construction, owing their success to a stingy defense and an offensively overburdened superstar.  When he had a hand in each of those seven straight points to give the Bulls the lead, I couldn't help but think, "Man, this guy has way too much responsibility for this team to continually succeed this way, but damn is he playing brilliant basketball."  Rose was a basketball hero Saturday afternoon. 

  • I'm going to stand by my prediction that Philly is going to give Miami a hard time in their series.  Thaddeus Young was superb; his ability to occupy one of Miami's forwards defensively needs to be examined as a way for the Sixers to equalize the talent gap.  Lebron James didn't dominate with his scoring, which is what I expected with Andre Iguodala defending him, but he still affected the game in other ways, which is what everybody should expect from the game's best player.  It'll be '08 Boston vs. Atlanta Part II.  

  •  Anybody who blames Dwight for Orlando's loss is a fool.  The man dropped 46 and 19 and trashed any defender he faced.  In my opinion, Dwight's real test will be in games three and four; Orlando will make adjustments for game two and get the victory as Atlanta displays the same defense against Howard.  They'll change things up in game three.  That is when Dwight will be tested as an offensive constant in this series.  

  •  Dallas against Portland does indeed look to be the most confusing matchup of the first round.  Portland had game one in hand before Dirk Nowitzki took over down the stretch, utilizing his "soft" style of play to get to the free throw line at will in the fourth quarter.  Dallas found no answer for the Andre Miller-to-Lamarcus Aldridge connection, however.  We're looking at a tight series.

  • My nutty prediction has legs!  Memphis stole game one from the Spurs after Shane Battier buried a go-ahead 3-point shot.  Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph pounded the Spurs inside, and no Spur could make up for the loss of Manu Ginobili.  I expect Manu to come back, which will alleviate the defensive pressure on Tony Parker, who had a sub-par shooting game.  San Antonio needs to defend much better than they did, lest they lose to an eighth seed, fulfill my prophecy and find themselves at the top of my list of Most Impressive Things I've Said in Life.

  • Chris Paul must have watched Derrick Rose on Saturday.  He definitely sees that Rose is a new shark in the point guard waters, a top-of-the-food-chain apex predator who is claiming more and more votes as Best Point Guard in the League.  He dropped 33 and 14 on the defending champs at Staples and displayed arguably the best ball-handling in the league.  Laker fans probably should not be on tenterhooks just yet considering L.A.'s second best player, Pau Gasol, put up a horrendous performance and the team is infamous for needing extreme motivation before truly playing at its best for an opponent.  Good win by New Orleans. 

  • How many broken hearts are there in New York right now?  I can't wait to pick up the Times/Daily News/Post/whatever you don't ridicule me for reading to see the sports headlines.  Amar'e's slashes looked like prime Michael Jordan as he got into the midpost, exploded past the primary defender and whirled, spun, jumped and dunked with power on big men.  Toney Douglas delivered a ballsy 3 in the fourth.  And the Knicks still couldn't win.  That's tough.  At least they showed they aren't afraid to take it to the bullies of the Eastern Conference.

  • The first game of a playoff series hardly ever proves anything.  However, the way Denver lost game one (aside from the botched goaltending non-call that made myself, a former intramural basketball ref, cringe) may be telling.  When the Thunder needed baskets, they went to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  Denver doesn't have that caliber of player right now, using more of an ensemble cast.  As fun as it is to watch a team high on chemistry have success, chemistry may not always be enough to overcome top-end talent. 

  •  In my mind, Nene's dunk-fest legitimates my vote for him as an all-star starter this year.  
  • I miss watching Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Raymond Felton play on the Knicks.  
  • I am starting to see that I was wrong to consider Tyler Hansbrough a Leon Powe-type of player.  Or maybe Carlos Boozer's terrible defense made him look good.  Either way, his jumper looked great, and he was surprisingly fluid as he handled the ball.
  • Kobe Bryant looked petrified with all lenses eying him.  He looked like he was being so careful, trying not to mouth the wrong words at any camera, which he assumed were all watching him closely.  Still played well.
  • Watching Westbrook defend J.R. Smith reminded me watching two cobras fighting each other.  Two of the most electrically athletic players in the league matching up was pretty cool.  

I keep wanting to look ahead.  It seems all of the major contenders have checks and balances on each other, so there isn't a clear favorite right now because matchups will dictate who goes on.  For now, I'm just going to enjoy Round One.              

Saturday, April 16, 2011

NBA Playoffs: First Round Preview, Sizable Questions, and Predictions

It's NBA playoff time, baby.  It’s the pro’s version of March Madness as teams get to scrutinize matchup issues and weaknesses of the opposition in a best-of-seven series. 

Image Via
Unfortunately, the 2011 playoffs will go on sans a couple of classic, shouldn't-need-to-miss features:  Tracy McGrady's team won't be kicked out of the first round, Steve Nash won't get to demonstrably prove that his style of offense works in the playoffs despite what his detractors say, and NBA audiences won't be listening to analysts comment about how great the Houston Rockets are doing without an injured Yao Ming.  If you can't live in a world where consumption of the information I just spoke of is available to you during most NBA telecasts, then stop reading this article and turn on the NHL playoffs.  If you can make it through and be satisfied with a half-historic/half-experimental playoffs, then follow me!  Don't feel forced though- hopefully my McGrady joke caught your comedic eye enough and you think they'll be more hilarity in the coming paragraphs…a risky proposition. 

Eastern Conference Preview
  In the Eastern Conference, everything is pretty straightforward.  All of the bottom-four teams are competitive squads, but none of them will make the top-four quaver.  Despite what happened in the regular season (ATL taking three out of four), Orlando owns Atlanta to a greater extent than Matthew Mcconaughey owned his lead role in The Lincoln Lawyer (Seriously, watch that movie.  Excellent performance my Matty Mac).  Joe Johnson may be a very rich man, but the constant flow of dollars and sense into his bank account isn't proportional to the offensive consistency and sense that he provides the team he's supposed to lead.  This is the series I see ending in a sweep.  Dwight Howard's prudent concern should be limiting his technical fouls and using his anger at getting hit across the face to run harder, make moves faster, and play defense better than ever.  He's by far the best player in this series, but he's got to remain disciplined. 

A very wise professor (Not making this up and not saying he's wise to play up my narrative regarding a basketball player whom I don't know personally) recently told me that if a person wants real freedom, they need to have discipline.  Howard's ability to control his emotions, even if he needs to use self-deception - pretending that literally every time a call goes against him, it physically boosts his energy- will be the key to not only Howard's success, but Orlando's success.  Orlando is my dark horse pick to win the NBA championship.  But it starts with Howard not picking up technicals in the first round of the playoffs against an easy opponent.  Normally, this series wouldn’t matter.  I think it matters mentally for Orlando, and Dwight in particular.  They’ll obviously win, but it’s the mental aspect that the Magic must capture. 

Mr. MVP Derrick Rose is going to lead his team past Indiana in five games.  Indy is a solid team, but they will simply be overmatched here.  Luol Deng should limit Danny Granger, and Roy Hibbert has neither the game nor the experience to play well against Chicago's tough interior defense.  Darren Collison will have a hard time driving into Chicago Head Coach Tom Thibodeau's playoff defense, a defense which-  when Thibs was in Boston- looked to suffocate perimeter-oriented creators by keying on them and denying them their most effective spots.    

Boston versus New York looks good better on paper.  And I think it will be a good, entertaining series.  The Knicks can legitimately call this a small, nascent rivalry now, regardless of what Paul Pierce thinks.  In professional wrestling (the one with the metamorphic stone who asks people if they can detect the odor of his cooking, the one that Boston's Shaquille O'Neal appeared on in the past...the one you used to watch!  Yeah, admit it!), a rivalry is born when two wrestlers start a feud and produce an emotional reaction in the audience, good or bad.  Knicks against Celtics isn't Yankees against Red Sox yet- that'll only happen when Rajon Rondo throws Walt "Clyde" Frazier to the baseline of MSG during a brawl- but it has some potential.

Both teams have high-end talent, but Boston is the team with an identity and a build.  New York is just figuring it out, and although Amar'e, Melo and Chauncey are an excellent offensive trio, the Knicks will have a hard time slowing down Boston, which shot a league-best 48.6 percent from the field this year.  Now, Boston was below average offensively in terms of offensive rating, which can be attributed to poor offensive rebounds and turnovers (Boston was terrible in these two categories).  However, New York is less than outstanding when it comes to boxing out and defensive rebounding, and the Knicks aren't exactly a bunch of ballhawks out there.  Boston should be fine offensively, and since defense is their team constant, they'll beat New York.

Can Iggy slow Lebron enough?
The South Beach Experiment starts as well.  Philly actually matches up pretty well against Miami, as Andre Iguodala is arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA.  Having Iggy on Lebron or Wade will slow Miami's offense down.  Elton Brand matches up well against Chris Bosh, who isn't exactly Stone Cold Steve Austin when it comes to being physical.  (Would you look at that?  My memories of wrestling are infiltrating my post.  Maybe after the playoff games are done for the day, a little Wrestlemania XXI via YouTube is in order.)

Still, Miami's defense wins out as Philly doesn't have the offense capable of exposing Miami's weaknesses.  I expect this to go to six games as Miami attempts to find its playoff self while fending off a tough foe coached by the meritorious Doug Collins.  This series is analogous to Boston's 2008 first-round matchup against Atlanta.  Not saying Miami finds itself enough to run through the league to a title, but you get the idea.

Western Conference Preview

Phil, Kobe, and Fisher are looking for their second three-peat together.  They will be tested more this year than either of the previous two years, as the top of the West is stronger than before.  However, they won't need to flip their usual lazy switch just yet.  The Hornets are a solid team with a point guard who is arguably better than the point guard about to win MVP.  The Lakers are terrible at defending point guards, so Paul will get his numbers, but with David West injured, I don't see how New Orleans summons enough firepower to take the Lakers down.  L.A. should rest center Andrew Bynum by using him sparingly and letting the bone bruise in his knee heal up.  They haven't had a healthy Bynum in either of their playoff runs the past two years, yet they've won nonetheless.  That won't happen this year though.  They need a healthy Bynum.  Not for this series, but for future ones.

Perkins gives the Thunder some power.
Oklahoma City is taking on Denver.  This is similar to the South Beach-meets-Liberty Bell series.  Denver's chemistry and a few favorable matchups will make this one of the most exciting series in the first round, and the Nuggets will give the superior talent of the Thunder a rumble they will take with them in future exploits.  With their genius mid-season trade to acquire center Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder have the capability of playing dominant playoff defense.  They have the chemistry and the personnel to do it, while Denver does not.  Kevin Durant was stopped offensively by Ron Artest and L.A.'s supreme length in his first shot at the playoffs, but now he has experience and the luxury of not facing Ron-Ron con defensive Megatron.

In theory, Dallas should dominate Portland.  The Blazers don't have a quick point guard capable of penetrating at will versus the Dallas D, Lamarcus Aldridge is facing a strong interior defense led by Tyson Chandler, and Brandon Roy isn't really Brandon Roy right now.  And yet...I believe this series will be amazing.  Portland, forged out of the Gerald Wallace trade and Aldridge's inspired play after becoming a first-option, is not a team where dissecting matchups makes a whole ton of sense.  I suspect Aldridge scores a ton despite Dallas defending him properly.  All Portland needs is one or two hot nights from one of their peripheral players to win games against Dallas.  I guess I'll take Dallas overall because I feel they are the third best team in the conference after the Lakers and Thunder, but man......I feel like we're all missing something as this series begins.  We need to watch this one closely.

San Antonio is going to lose in their first round series, ending many myths about the Spurs.

Myth 1:  Tim Duncan can still elevate his post-season play.

No, no he cannot.  He hasn't since 2007, and he hasn't consistently been able to on-call since 2006.  Tim Duncan is no longer a playoff offensive constant, and he is only a true co-anchor on defense.  Unfortunately, San Antonio has nobody in their frontcourt backing him up defensively, and their wings aren't great either.  The Spurs cannot expect Tim Duncan to carry them.            

Myth 2:  The Spurs will still be able to play enough defense to win now that they have a strong offense. 

Related to myth one.  Where is the anchor?  San Antonio didn't show signs of playing consistently excellent defense in the regular season, and this particular team hasn't shown an ability to turn a switch on that side of the floor.  There are a lot of new faces since the last time the Spurs relied on dominant defense to get far in April and May. 

Can Duncan still elevate his game?
Myth 3:  Playing the stars at decreased minutes was only to preserve them, and the egalitarian nature of the team's scoring distribution is not a weakness.           

The team has no true offensive constant either.  This is especially true if Ginobili is not playing at his best as a result of the elbow injury he suffered at the end of the season.  If San Antonio is going to be carried by their offense this year in the playoffs, then it won't go far, because their offense won't look like it did in the regular season.  You need to be able to bank on somebody's offense this time of the year, and the Spurs can't.

I'm calling it.  The Grizzlies will take down the Spurs.  Memphis has the ability to punish the Spurs on the offensive glass and make the Spurs walk the ball up, and they have an above average defense that could give a less-than 100 percent healthy Spurs offense trouble.

I'll be back with analysis of Shaq's importance to Boston going forward and of how well built the Thunder may be now with Perkins.  Enjoy the playoffs.  Make sure to watch Portland and Dallas.  And remember to come back and comment on how insane I was for taking Memphis to beat San Antonio- or on how astounding and ballsy a pick I made.   

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tech-Tech, Parade!

This game was probably supposed to offer us something better.  It was supposed to spice up the MVP story and make the voters think twice about handing Derrick Rose the trophy.  Dwight Howard could have given voters a personal choice regarding not only what they value in basketball, but what they value in life.  Life, damn it.   

Do they prefer the two-way center who provides an interior presence on both ends of the court?  Do they value the perimeter player who can control the offense with the ball in his hands and make plays to close games out?  Do they look for the best player or the most valuable player?

Image Via
You can forget about me answering those questions or describing which type of player the voters should value more.  Why?  Because much like Jameer Nelson's shot to cap what could have been the most thought-provoking game of the year, the game simply did not matter.  Both Nelson's 3-pointer and the potential of the game brought a lot of initial excitement.  Ultimately, both excitations came to an anticlimactic turn, where they then veered out of control, spun out, and ended safely and boringly on the side of the road, waiting to get picked up by a very cordial tow-truck driver sent by AAA.  No crash or danger- just a long wait in the short time before the regular season is over to give Mr. Rose a well-deserved award.

It's not about Rose deserving or not deserving to win though.  Be reasonable people- of course he is a worthy candidate.  That's enough to give him credit as a winner. 

It's about the little things that can create an MVP winner in a given season.  It's also about how this season, Howard, because of who he is and what he is, didn't get the fairest of shakes.  Rose got what he needed this year.  Today's game was the perfect coronation of Rose becoming MVP.

I remember a few years ago when Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul were getting the major hype as legitimate MVP candidates.  Aside from Kobe never winning one before '08  despite him being a top-tier all-time talent, the major showcase that propelled Bryant past Paul in the race was the Lakers winning an important home game versus Paul's Hornets, with Bryant delivering a too-youthful-for-2008 Kobe-looking reverse two-handed dunk that put the crowd on its feet and the Hornets out of the nest.  Today's game would have been different because Howard's Magic don't really have a chance of catching Chicago in the standings, but wouldn't it have been something if Howard dropped 30 points and 20 rebounds on Chicago's vaunted defense and tough mother F’er brand of basketball and blocked Rose on one of his acrobatic drives into the lane?  We didn't get to see it.  Howard didn't get his chance to showcase what he brings to the table.  He got his 18th technical foul and was forced to sit this one out.  Rose makes all the plays, including the integral close-out on Nelson that preserved the win.  His challenges into the middle of Orlando's defense, like this showcase of MVP candidates today, were won by Rose- everything uncontested.  Howard's campaign stalled. 

It ended because players half his size are allowed to hack him every time down the court, and he hasn't learned that the referees don't know how to- will never know how to- equalize things properly for the smaller players against the bigger players.  Howard has to balance being aggressive with not being aggressive and being aggressive enough and not acting up and not talking to the referees but also being physical and being an enforcer in a new era where enforcers don't exist but "stay physical Dwight!" but don't react and let them hack and it all balances out- or else you get technical foul after technical foul.  Dwight has to make sense of the last, incoherent sentence I wrote.  It comes with being bigger than everybody else.            

The MVP award is a historical document.  Forty years from now, the 2011 MVP award is going to be a primary source for students of NBA history.  Today's game didn't cost Howard the trophy, didn't cost him a piece of history.  But it did negatively affect the people's showcase.  Little things like that affect who wins these awards every year.

Today, this game means that Rose's Bulls won their 60th game on the home court of most likely his closest rival for MVP- a rival who didn't even play in the game as Rose dropped 39 on his (literally) defenseless team.       

In 40 years, this game means nothing.  It could have though.  A true student of the game must keep in mind that it is the little things that lead up to the making-of-history moments.