Monday, May 30, 2011

Give the Kidd a Ring

Jason Kidd is one of the greatest players of his generation.  He was a triple-double machine, an all-time great defender, and the possessor of possibly the greatest court vision of any point guard in NBA history (Magic Johnson may have something to say about that though). 

Unable to win a championship in his prime despite being carried to two NBA Finals by Jason Collins, Kidd is trying to win a title alongside Dirk Nowitzki.  He’s the co-second best player on the team, along with Tyson Chandler and Jason Terry.  On a team that is built around Nowitzki’s top-end talent and the fit around him, Kidd’s job is to provide size and rebounding at an unorthodox position, defend intelligently, hit the open 3 and run the half court offense.  What would winning a ring do for his all-time standing in this role? 

It’d be the same as what a ring would have done for Scottie Pippen if the Portland Trailblazers hadn’t gotten game seven asphyxiation vs. the Lakers in 2000.  Kidd is the guy with a lot of Finals experience on a hungry team; he fills in where needed as a peripheral player, much like Scottie.  Portland and Dallas are much alike actually, except Dallas has a dominant go-to offensive anchor in Nowitzki, while Portland played hot potato in the clutch. 

What would the title do?  It would help illuminate that prime/peak Jason Kidd could have definitely been the clear-cut second best player on a title team.  I’ve personally always thought that, but a title for Kidd would validate my stance somewhat.  It would also obviously give him a championship as a legitimate contributor (read: not what Gary Payton did in 2006 with Miami) on his resume, which I personally use as a tiebreaker when figuring out where a player goes on an all-time list. 

Title or no title, Kidd is a championship player in my eyes.  But that title would certainly aid along the public’s perception of him in a generational sense.            

Friday, May 27, 2011

NBA Finals 2011: The More Things Change...

The Miami Heat vs. the Dallas Mavericks- round two.  It's five years later, and we're back to the exact match up.  It's five years later, but Miami and Dallas seem 20 years removed from where they were in 2006.  Has an NBA Finals ever had so many classic conflicts, parallels, and role reversals as this year's Finals?

The anti-climatic answer which will undoubtedly deflate the serious tone I was setting and bring levity to this opening is a simple "Yes, perhaps last year when L.A. faced Boston."  The storyline was that L.A. was out for revenge for 2008, this time armed with Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum to combat Boston's physicality.  It worked when L.A. destroyed Boston on the glass in game seven, earning them their redemption.  Boston finished the 2010 series without their brute center, Kendrick Perkins, just like L.A. with Bynum two years prior.
Round 2: "I want a good, clean fight." 

Still, this year's matchup compels the basketball lover's mind.  You saw it coming in the Conference Finals when both teams went up 3-1.  Your mind wondered forward and you started thinking about LeBron James vs. Dirk Nowitzki in a fourth quarter, salivating at the chance to watch somebody shut down Dirk or torch LeBron.  Then you started thinking that it couldn't happen because if it did, somebody loses.  The way both are performing, losing seems out of the question.  It's like when you compare John Wall's dougie against Skip Bayless' dougie.  OK, maybe not.

Anyway, here are some particulars and perpendiculars:        

  • The two teams combined to punch out the youngins who led Team USA 2010 to victory, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, in the Conference Finals.  Rose won MVP and Durant has won two scoring titles, yet the older guard taxed the rebels their dues before team success.
  • Both teams stomped on last year's NBA Finalists in the second round.  They also defeated the Blazers and Sixers, both of which have the letter "P" as the first letter of their respective cities (it's not the best I can do- I promise).
  •  Both James and Nowitzki saw a dip in their regular season raw numbers compared to previous years, yet might be playing better than ever.  Both have changed their games to combat perceived past weaknesses in their play:  Nowitzki's mid-post game allows him to dominate smaller defenders, and LeBron's mid-range game is now elite.
  • James and Nowitzki made the Finals in consecutive years.  They both had their legacies tarnished by embarrassing defeats, resulting in the last titles for the great bigs of the era, Duncan and Shaq (with help from Dwyane Wade of course).  Both are seeking vengeance against the NBA Finals itself.
  • It was possible last summer that Dirk could have joined the Heat, likely in place of Bosh.  Bosh has played well in these playoffs despite my T.V. heckling, but could you imagine if Dirk landed on this team instead of Bosh?

Where the individual players are in their career, and how they came together, is probably the most interesting subplot.  Again, 2006 comes into play.  In '06, Miami was in win-now mode, saturated with veterans and ring-chasers like Antoine Walker and Gary Payton and coached by legend Pat Riley.  This version's core is made up of younger players in their prime who came together, at the beckoning of Riley, to form a dynasty.  They are coached by a more modern tactician in Erik Spoelstra.

Dallas has a contrasting narrative.  They were young in '06, featuring a seemingly prime Dirk with Devin Harris, Josh Howard and prime Jason Terry as his unproven supporting cast.  The current incarnation has players that can tell a common theme- "I lost my chance before, and I'm hungrier than ever."  Shawn Marion  with Phoenix, Jason Kidd with New Jersey, Chandler with New Orleans in 2008, Peja Stojakovic with Sacramento and Terry and Nowitzki with Dallas have all had their hearts broken.

LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki will meet in the NBA Finals.
 Let's get to some basketball.  I thought OKC would do a better job of contesting Dallas on the perimeter, but Dallas hurt them on the secondary break as OKC began to play lazy defense after they turned the ball over 86 times per game.  Miami has similar length and even more speed than OKC on the perimeter, and they are much better at defending in transition and on secondary breaks because they seemingly don't care about hitting the offensive glass. 

This will be the key to the series.  How Dirk is defended isn't what decides this series- LeBron might guard Dirk in spots, but that matchup is definitely going to get more hype as a deciding factor this week than it deserves.  Dirk will get his, but will the peripheral Mavericks get theirs when they need to put the ball on the floor after Miami closes out on them.  That's the key variable for Dallas.

Miami can go big on the perimeter, which means trouble for Dallas when Miami is on offense.  It's Dallas who is going to have trouble closing out on Miami's perimeter players.  J.J. Barea and Terry are too small to take on James/Wade/Mike Miller.  Kidd can decently defend when he has help behind him and can funnel, but what happens when he needs to close out on James or Wade and they get to have a step on the older Kidd?  What happens when Miami targets Nowitzki in the pick-n-roll like they did with Boozer?

Miami has a better chance of winning the series.  They have the top-end talent advantage, and after seeing how they closed out game four (that one play where Wade blocked and James against Chicago, I'd say this team has the effort and chemistry to disrupt Dallas's primary variable- their peripheral perimeter players.

2011 is different from 2006:  Osama's been done taken care of, The Wire is gone and Louis C.K. thankfully has his own show.  Some things stay the same though.  Miami wins the title in six or seven.                  

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mavs Reclaim Western Throne: A WCF Review

The Dallas Mavericks defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals.  4-1.  Hmm, that's the ratio of Russell Westbrook's shot attempts to Kevin Durant's shot attempts, correct?  

Dallas finds itself back in the Finals for the first time since 2006, and as it awaits the winner of Chicago/Miami, I will hold off on previewing Miami vs. Dallas, Part II, simply out of respect for the hardworking, likable Bulls.  Instead, I'll talk about what happened out West.   

  • OKC needs a new offensive dynamic between its two stars, Durant and Westbrook.  In the playoffs, Westbrook had a USG of 34.4 but only an offensive rating of 103.  Compare that to Kevin Wayne Durant's USG of 29 with an offensive rating of 119.  Putting USG and offensive rating together gives you an idea of how well a player can perform at a certain offensive role.  Putting the ball in Westbrook's hands gives you an idea of how uncertain he is at accomplishing his offensive role.
  • How do you temper Westbrook's USG while giving Durant more offensive responsibility?  Either Westbrook becomes a better floor general, or Durant improves his handles to the point where he can consistently make the types of plays for teammates like he did in the first half of game four.  It's probably a combination of both.  If Durant is going to get to the level of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant as far as offensive anchors go, he needs to be able to take control of the offense.
  • Tyson Chandler is the all-important tight end who acts as a possession receiver- he doesn't make huge plays on offense, but he catches the ball and he's reliable at finishing plays with authority.  It comes in handy on third down.  He's perfect for the Maverick offense with his low volume, high efficiency play.  Brendan Haywood and Chandler are excellent co-defensive anchors next to Dirk Nowitzki.
  •   Dirk is good.

Westbrook and league MVP Derrick Rose get compared because they're both young, ultra-athletic point guards who are a bit raw relative to Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash.  The comparison is too simple, however, and relies on the possibility that they are the two best pure athletes at the position in NBA history.

Rose is on another level in my opinion. If you put Westbrook on Chicago, the Bulls would average 25 turnovers a game. Westbrook is not the floor general that Rose can be, which is exactly what Chicago needs. Chicago is such a flawed offensive team that they need Rose to be a volume scorer/creator AND floor general. Now, Rose isn't on CP3's or Nash's level as far as playmaking and decision making, but he's not incompetent like Westbrook is either.

Rose's USG in the playoffs is a league-high 34.9; his offensive rating is a respectable 109.  So despite them playing similar roles, Rose appears to be more effective at the role.  Never mind that Westbrook doesn't seem smart enough to understand that he shouldn't even be attempting to perform said role since he has a scoring champion on his team to help him.  Rose doesn't even have a James Harden to relieve ball-handling duties.

Westbrook needs to work on his game a lot this summer. Rose is closer to his ceiling than Westbrook is to his; I question whether Westbrook will ever get there though, as much as I like him. He may actually have as much or more potential than Rose.  Maybe not though- maybe Rose's combination of body control and side-winding explosion enable him to do things even Westbrook can't do, for all of his considerable athletic ability.

But I digress about the seemingly impossible athletic moves they can make...Rose is clearly superior to Westbrook right now.      

Sunday, May 15, 2011

ECF Preview: Battle of the Flawed Teams

Derrick Rose will need to step against Miami's lengthy defense. 
The Miami Heat and the Chicago Bulls are beginning their Eastern Conference Finals series as I type this.  I'm just going to quickly describe why I believe the Miami Heat are going to be victorious.

Miami's defense is the key.  Chicago's offense is incredibly flawed, relying on one player to do more heavy lifting than any team in recent memory.  Derrick Rose was my MVP, and as I said before, that isn't necessarily a good thing for Chicago's team success.  It's incredibly difficult to win a title if your team is so flawed that you require one player to do so much in a certain area of the game, regardless of how great that player is.  The Heat defense is so quick to react and so long on the perimeter that I can't see Chicago's offense having any continuity, meaning the Bulls will not perform well when they eventually call on their sixth and seventh best players to make big plays.  Luol Deng is the next best wing player Chicago has, but he doesn't handle the ball, and LeBron James has been playing great defense this year.  Statistically, the Bulls are poor when it comes to taking care of the ball- mainly because they have no ball-handlers aside from the MVP- and that means trouble against James and Dwyane Wade.

The Bulls can expose a Heat flaw, however.  Miami's defense is at its best when it has slender bodies in the middle that can move quickly and cover space- when they have their small lineup in.  The only thing the Bulls do above average is offensive rebound with tough guys like Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah; each of them should be able to push Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh around and score off putbacks in the paint.  That's how Chicago is going to stay in this series offensively.

Defensively, Chicago's players arrange themselves in unison beautifully to block a player's movement.  It's beautiful and it should make things difficult for James, Wade and Chris Bosh.  Miami's offensive output is going to rely on the trust James and Wade have in their teammates.  James needs to trust that when he passes to James Jones, Jones will either take the open shot or pass the ball to Wade, who will be set to attack a scrambled defense that James just put into chaos with a drive off a pick-n-roll.  It doesn't seem like the Heat have had a problem with this thus far, which is why I think Miami's offense will be just fine.  They have the two best offensive players in the series; all they need to do is not waste that talent advantage.

I'm taking Miami in six games.  Chicago doesn't have the interior isolation scorers necessary to take advantage of the Heat's biggest flaw.  Miami has the speed on defense that will expose Chicago's biggest flaw of being too reliant on one creator.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Midseason Trade for MVP of the Decade

Kendrick Perkins might be the NBA’s MVP of the next 10 years.
Kendrick's role is that of mentor and protector on OKC. 
He’s never been an all-star or gotten any individual awards.  He’s never led the league in a statistic.  And he certainly has never won the MVP award. 

And yet- I just made that quirky statement about K-Perk that at first, second and third glance looks like the hermit of all basketball-themed leads.  It doesn’t belong anywhere. 

Don’t haze or grill the lonely line.  I’ll be the defense lawyer of said statement (nonexistent LSAT scores notwithstanding). 

Perkins was part of a midseason trade that sent him and Nate Robinson from Boston to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.  Immediately, Boston was shaken to its core.  The vaunted starting lineup that had never lost a playoff series when healthy had their brutish enforcer jettisoned for backups while his backup, Shaquille O’Neal, was stuck on the bench with an injury.  Suddenly, Ray Allen, who owes the extension of his career as a productive star to Perkins thanks to his fabulous semi-legal screens, didn’t have his personal chauffeur showing him the clear path to the 3-point line.  Rajon Rondo didn’t have his big brother.  Kevin Garnett, the master of horizontal defense, didn’t have his vertical brick wall counterpart covering the paint for him.  Boston was 41-14 before the trade and 15-12 after it. 

Meanwhile, Perkins helped ensconce a defensive mentality for the Thunder that balanced the team out.  With Perkins controlling the middle defensively, the Thunder’s agile and awesomely named forward, Serge Ibaka, got to play power forward, a position he is better suited for.  Despite being chiseled from stone, Ibaka is too lithe and doesn’t have the bulk necessary to play in Perkins’ heavyweight division.  The presence of Perkins enables Ibaka to roam around, block shots from the weak side, and use his quickness and vertical explosion to contest shots near the basket; Perkins does the sumo wrasslin’ and post defending and body blocking in the paint.  Along with a long, athletic perimeter defense, the two young bigs dominated defensively, helping the Thunder go 15-4 after the decade-altering trade. 

Perkins is the perfect fit for the Thunder.  On a team built through draft picks, Perkins is the only major piece gathered via trade.  He brings to the young, inexperienced Thunder a package of information- a DNA sample, if you will- of championship pedigree and swagger, knowledge he gained from Boston’s wise Big Three of Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce after they left their prime years behind and amassed themselves together for a ring. 

He’s also the perfect fit on the court.  Those Wes Unseldian screens he throws at opponents that Allen loved are perfect for freeing up Kevin Durant off-ball and James Harden or Russell Westbrook in the pick-n-roll.  He shoots a high percentage, recognizes what he can and can’t do, and most importantly, he makes swing passes; swing passes make champions.  Defensively, he’s got his team’s back.

Oklahoma City is built to win playoff games.  They have their offensive constants in the ever-productive Durant and the electrically charged alpha-athlete Westbrook, with Harden as a solid third option.  Defensively, they can wrap around the court like vines on a recently abandoned house- they make you look worse than you are, which is exactly what defense is about.  Perkins plays the role of the house maintenance dude who was just let go- he lets the vines pervade freely.  With the basket protected, they suffuse and suffocate their opponents in the half court, which is something Boston prided itself on.  Only not anymore. 

Without a legitimate center, Boston folded to the Miami Heat in a five-game semifinal.  LeBron James and Dwyane Wade averaged over 58 points per game combined in the series, running unimpeded through Boston’s defense.  Maybe a healthy Shaq could have helped.  Maybe Miami wins with Perkins there anyway.  But not in five games.  Not with such dual dominance by Miami’s slashing superstars.  Miami was supposed to assume control of the Eastern Conference at some point, but such a sudden usurpation means that perhaps Miami is ready to win it all right now, that the window through which James and Wade can add to their legacies is wider than before.                       

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has flourished in the playoffs.  They easily dispatched a hot Denver team by outclassing them with their top-end talent, and currently have a 3-2 lead over a tough Memphis squad that ended an era by defeating the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.  Such feats are hard to envisage without Perkins residing over the paint as an ironically cool, calm, collected bouncer.  Imagine Serge having to fortify the Thunder defense while bodying up on Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin in the first round, and then Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the second round. 

Durant has a team around him now that permits him to compete for championships as early as this year.  Mind you, he’s 22 years old; a whole decade waits for him as he builds upon his legacy.  The kicker is that his team is essentially as young as he is.  If Ibaka can develop into a 14 points per game power forward with a mid-range jumper, he’ll shore up the team’s deficiency in volume frontcourt scoring.  Then, you need to watch out.  Yes, you. 

The Perkins move changed things in the NBA.  I suppose his presence, or lack thereof, started the chain of events last year when he was injured in the NBA Finals.  After losing Perkins, Boston was manhandled on the boards by the Lakers, which proved to be their demise in game seven.  This year, Perkins’ exit proved devastating for Boston; the team’s window may have shut, which in turn opens windows (Windex must love this house) for younger teams like Miami and Chicago to rule on high earlier than expected.  Oklahoma City can inherit winning ways that Perkins exposes them to so they can potentially bypass the painful learning curve that entails losing a lot before winning a lot. 

James, Wade, Durant and 2011 MVP Derrick Rose have an opportunity to seize control of the league right now.  Winning changes the perception of players, which in turns leads to more All-NBA teams and MVP awards- legitimately deserved or not (see Kobe Bryant’s all-defensive first team selection this year).  That affects all-time rankings.  Reputations are at stake, as are legacies.

And it’s all because of a center who has averaged 6.4 points and 6.1 rebounds for his career.  Your Most Valuable Player of the next decade- Kendrick Perkins.  I rest my case.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Gloating and Hoping

Ahh, put the blame on me.  I should have been gloating about calling the Memphis victory over San Antonio and talking about the second round, but I was too darn busy this week.  Instead, I've let some major second round events pass on by.  Alas, I'll talk about my thoughts following the first round as well as how I think the second round will finish.  

Round Thoughts First

  • Obviously, my obligatory "glotation" point regarding calling San Antonio's demise.  The Spurs had neither an offensive constant nor a defensive constant this year, instead relying on a style of play suited for regular season basketball.  They met a good team that had no fear and matched up well with them.

  • Tim Duncan is done as a player who can elevate his game to even a semi-dominant level.  He's at a point now where you need to question who you would rather have in a playoff series- current Duncan or “regular all-star PF/C who is athletic and produces decently.”
  • The Magic screwed up.  Dwight Howard played like a top-25 player in NBA history this season and crushed Atlanta's bevy of sacrifices, yet Orlando was snapped in half.  Props to Atlanta for emphatically rejecting mine and errbody else's predictions of a Magic victory.

  • Dallas vs. Portland was, as I predicted, was the craziest series in the first round.  Dallas showed some metal by getting back up after Portland's game 4 performance.  LaMarcus Aldridge didn't have the series I was suspecting he'd have, but he was the first option in the playoffs for the first time; his performance was permissible.  
  • Chicago and Boston were exposed as flawed-yet-formidable, while Miami flexed not only their advantage in top-tier talent, but also their advantage when that talent is clicking.  The Lakers struggled against a quick point who happens to be a borderline top five player in the league, while the Thunder took care of business against Denver.  Nothing shocking in these matchups.  

The Elite Eight
  •   Man....before the round started, I would have picked Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oklahoma City to advance.  Some of these picks- and one especially- aren't looking good.  I'm almost glad I was busy this past week....

  • I still expect Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City to advance.  Chicago regained home court advantage and has the best player in that series.

  •  Miami is still in control of its series.  The Heat's defense seems to be able to key on Boston's players and use the polarizing-to-Boston-itself Rajon Rondo to its advantage.  I think they'll pull it off.
  • The Thunder should still win their series.  Their length and ability to cut down on paint opportunities for the Grizz will be the turning point.  However, Memphis does have legitimate matchup advantages on their side, notably their ability to put excellent defenders on the Thunder's perimeter players who supply most of the team's offense.  

The Lakers?  Jeez....I guess I could be an ass and call "L.A. in seven."  If I'm off the mark, it would seem too off-the-charts a prediction to take seriously, and if I'm right, I appear to be a genius.  Though the low risk-high reward prediction is tempting, I'm not going to do that.  I don't know which game Dallas is going to take, but they will make the Conference Finals.  It's too difficult a task to ask an older team like the Lakers to kick it into high gear for four games in a row and decimate a quality team in this setting.  It's just too much.  I doubt they even get it to game seven.  

Jut in case- Lakers in seven. Happy Mother's Day!