Tuesday, June 12, 2012

NBA Finals Preview: Heat vs. Thunder

Miami is here for two reasons: Chris Bosh's return and LeBron James' renewed openness to failure.

Both recovered in different ways. Bosh rested and conditioned himself during his injury layoff where he's now feeling more springy than the lockout-beaten players he shares the court with. James breathed in the quietness of playing for himself, accepting who he needs to be on the Miami Heat.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant will see a lot of each other in the Finals.
We know the Thunder. They pressure teams by having the unprecedented offensive trio of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Kevin Durant bleed matchup advantages. Their defensive malleability forced the Spurs to post up Tim Duncan, which is no longer a strength. It forced the Lakers to be more Kobe Bryant-centric than ever, effectively shutting down Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Even with the hyper Westbrook and the youthful Serge Ibaka, OKC is more of a constant than Miami has been over the past two years. Bosh's energy status and James' focus are the two biggest variables heading into the NBA Finals.

The Heat may be the only team capable of matching up with OKC's offensive talent. James, arguably the league's best perimeter defender, can match up with Durant, while Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers have the size and length to defend Westbrook and Harden. They also have Bosh's strong pick-n-roll defense behind them. When Harden makes those long strides to the rim, he'll have a much harder time gliding by Bosh as opposed to the relatively slower-footed Gasol and Duncan.

Still, OKC's firepower comes from all angles. When their trio diverts defensive attention away from role players like Ibaka, Derek Fisher, and Thabo Sefolosha, those guys hit shots. Fisher and Sefolosha are shooting 38.2 percent and 36.8 percent from 3, respectively, and Ibaka is shooting 55.6 percent from the field while shooting many assisted mid-range jump shots.

Miami's offense vs. OKC's defense will decide this series. When it becomes Ibaka/Durant/Harden/Sefolosha/Westbrook vs. Bosh/James/Battier/Wade/Chalmers, Bosh needs to score efficiently from 18 feet. If he does, James will have room to maneuver with or without the ball, leading to ball movement and swing passes. A stagnant Miami offense will get swallowed up by OKC's length and team speed.

Bosh's play and James' focus will determine who wins that offense/defense interaction. Based on Bosh's 19 points on stellar jump shooting in game 7 against Boston, it appears he is ready for the challenge.

That leaves us with James. If James plays aggressive basketball- without fury, fear, angst, worry, or the pursuit of always making the "right" play- and allows himself the possibility of failure, the Miami Heat are the favorites. He played conservatively in last year's Finals which limited the effects- positive and negative- he could have on his team. But that isn't what the Miami Heat need.

Based on his play against Boston, LeBron James understands.

Pick: Heat in 6

Sunday, June 10, 2012

LeBron James Gave Us A Throwback

LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal are two of the most physically gifted individuals in NBA history. They are bigger and faster and stronger than everybody else in NBA history at their respective positions.

They make it look easy, even though it's not. James finished an Eastern Conference Finals where he averaged 33.6 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.9 assists while shooting 58.7 percent True Shooting against the best defense in the NBA. And he did that while banging with Kevin Garnett on switches, slowing down Paul Pierce in isolation, and helping on the unpredictable Rajon Rondo.
The series against Boston is reminiscent of another great seven-game Conference Finals from 10 years before: the Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Sacramento Kings. It was arguably Shaq's greatest moment.

Dealing with numerous minor injuries and with his team down 3-2 to Sacramento, Shaq delivered menacing dunks, an alpha attitude and- yeah, check this out- excellent free throw shooting. He told the team to give the ball to him and let him set the tone for game six, and he did just that. Overall, he averaged 38 points, 15 rebounds and 3 blocks per game while hitting 75 percent of his free throws in the two victories.

Return to 2012. Dealing with enormous pressure and with his team down 3-2 to Boston, James delivered confident dagger jump shots, an alpha attitude, and big-man rebounding. He set the tone with a legendary game six performance. Overall, he averaged 38 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 59.5 percent from the field in the two victories.

They're both out-of-normal-NBA-court-dimensions stars, but dealing with adversity took more than being a physical specimen; it took brains and heart. James understood that to beat Boston, his team needed Shaq-like aggression from him. If he had failed, so be it, but at least he would have went down trying.

Shaq went on to win his third straight Finals MVP in 2002; perhaps LeBron wins his first this year. OKC is a powerful team, but a King-Mode LeBron- like a Superman-Mode Shaq- can overcome anything.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

ECF: Heat vs. Celtics

It's The Big Three vs. The Big Three 2, Round Two. Miami slayed the beast of the East in last year's five-game semifinal series. Now they reconvene in the Eastern Conference Finals with a bevy of intriguing matchups and variables.

Miami Heat (2) vs. Boston Celtics (4)

Chris Bosh needs to at least occupy Kevin Garnett.
The only reason Miami is even here is because Dwyane Wade and LeBron James went all Shaq & Kobe on the Indiana Pacers last series. Over the final three games against Indy, James averaged 32.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game on 61.3 percent True Shooting and Wade averaged 33 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game on 64.4 percent True Shooting. Ridiculous.

But that isn't sustainable against Boston. Kevin Garnett can roam around since Miami doesn't have a big man to attack with. Remember how Roy Hibbert was supposed to do that in the Indiana series but didn't because he's an overrated, plodding, soft big man who didn't deserve to be an All-Star this year? Well, KG can get it done. Boston's playoff-leading defense (94.2 defensive rating) should stifle their new opponent.

Miami's stingy defense should do the same against Boston's anemic offense. With Avery Bradley hurt and Rajon Rondo being a poor shooter - save for the final five minutes of game seven against Philly (Poor Doug Collins)- Miami's playoff-leading ability to force turnovers will provide them with easy transition buckets. LeBron James has shut down Carmelo Anthony and Danny Granger this postseason and has shut down a healthy Paul Pierce in the playoffs before; handling a hobbled Pierce won't be a problem. And for all the talk of Boston's success from behind the arc against Miami this season, the Heat's playoff opponents have shot below 30 percent from 3-point land in the playoffs. Miami is paying attention to closeouts in the playoffs.

Kevin Garnett will get his; he's the matchup advantage Boston has to milk. Rondo is smart enough to get him the ball.

The big variable here is the health of Chris Bosh. Does he play? If he plays, can he give 60-70 percent of his average performance? They need him to at least be a presence, at least pull a Willis Reed by occupying the other team's frontcourt despite an injury. KG has historically owned Bosh, but if he can simply be enough of an offensive threat to deflect attention from Wade and James, they can take care of the rest.

Miami is the superior basketball team, and if both teams were fully healthy, it'd be an easy call. The Bosh injury plays, however. After watching him cry last year following the NBA Finals loss, one must believe he'll fight through pain and try to help his team. Two-and-a-half solid games from him is really all Miami needs.

Pick: Heat in 6

WCF Preview: Thunder vs. Spurs

When Kevin Durant was asked if he could envision his young Thunder team following a similar life arc as the San Antonio Spurs- perennial rulers of the NBA for the past 15 years- he said that yes, that's the team's desired path.

They've got everything in place.  Durant is their quiet, no glitz-all guile superstar, their Tim Duncan. Both teams have rabid fans in relatively small markets.  Most importantly, they share a cultural structure that molds players into whatever is needed- to hell with one's ego.

The Spurs hid Sam Presti for a while, but now that he's out, he might have created a team that can take out the Spurs this year and reproduce what they've done over the last decade plus.

Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant.
San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (2)

The Spurs are playing the perfect brand of basketball this postseason.  Swing passes lead to the open man getting a high-percentage look on nearly every play; it makes sense then that the Spurs are shooting 54.8% eFG, including nearly 43 percent from 3-point range.

But that was against mediocre defensive teams with poor closeout defenders.  The Thunder understand that a defense's answers for swing passes are closeouts that see five play as one, each defender covering for his teammate. OKC's youth breeds mistakes, but their incredible length helps.

The defensive trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Thabo Sefolosha force the opposition to think quickly.  The Lakers had a decent size advantage against the Thunder, but OKC combatted L.A.'s physicality by being physical themselves and collapsing on Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol with lengthy double teams.  The Thunder rotate quickly without getting burned.  It is this interaction with San Antonio's controlled chaos on offense that looks like a thrilling matchup.

Tony Parker will work his way into the paint against Westbrook, and the usual chain reaction will ensue.  But unlike the Jazz and Clippers, the Thunder possess the perimeter quickness to slow down the 3-point shooting and secondary slashes of the Spurs.  Sefolosha vs. Manu Ginobili is a major matchup to watch.

Kendrick Perkins can contain Duncan in the post, but what about on the perimeter where Duncan spends a lot of time?  OKC may find it appealing to place Serge Ibaka on TD and simply treat him like Bynum when he posts.  Ibaka can switch and recover better than Perkins can, a useful trait against a springy Duncan.

Either way, The Big Fundamental is a matchup problem.  With him and Parker leading the way, the Spurs should have a strong offensive series, though it's doubtful they annihilate their opposition with their shooting as they have in previous rounds.

What will determine this series is how San Antonio defends OKC.  Will they cause enough turnovers and misses to generate their own fast-break opportunities? How do they match up against Westbrook, Durant, and James Harden?

If Westbrook continues to take care of the ball like he has throughout the playoffs, it's over.  The Spurs are below average at causing turnovers, and Tony Parker isn't good enough defensively to pressure RW.  If it's the case that Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard is put on Westbrook, Parker becomes what Steve Blake and Jason Terry were: mince meat for Harden. Green needs to be put on Durant anyway; KD is surging after torching Metta World Peace for 26 points per game on over 51 percent shooting.

Westbrook's poised play, Durant's consistent production, and Harden's matchup distortion will shock the Spurs in game one. Sweet chin music- hit them right in the mouth. The Thunder will roll into the NBA Finals from there, possibly with the torch in hand.

Pick: Thunder in 6 (Thunder take Game 1 as well)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Trailblazing 2012 Spurs

The '12 Spurs push basketball purists into a mania. Amidst LeBron James/Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook-led isolation-heavy teams, the Spurs understand the value of spacing and swing passes better than the rest. Team play at its best.

We've seen this type of attack before; the accompanying mania reveals itself all too well.

TNT knew what they were doing when they put these two together.
It was called Blazermania in 1977. In his one healthy prime season, Bill Walton was an all-timer when it came to helping teammates and stymying the opposition's game plan. The Blazers were quick to the attack, and it started with Walton's outlet passing. He didn't so much pass it to wing players like Lionel Hollins and Bob Gross as he did magically adjust each carom's momentum with his fingertips. It looked like he snapped at the ball and it landed in a wing player's hands, initiating a fast break.

In the half court, Blazermania was more evident. Without a 3-point line, the Blazers gained spacing by inverting their offense- Walton and Mo Lucas worked from the mid-post and high-post areas and either found cutters or set screens. The beautiful half-court offense picked defenses apart. These defenses were befuddled because they could not focus on a concentrated point of attack- i.e., a superstar scorer.

Thirty-five years later, the same brand of basketball is being played in San Antonio. The newly lithe Tim Duncan plays offense similarly to the fiery Walton, flicking outlet passes, knocking down jump shots, cutting to the basket to keep defenses honest, and providing necessary post scoring. Duncan has never been more effective from the perimeter. Even their raw stats are similar: Duncan averaged nearly 20 points and three assists per 36 minutes in the regular season on 49 percent shooting; Walton averaged nearly 19 points and four assists per 36 minutes in 1977 on 53 percent shooting.

Boris Diaw is a clear staircase below an underrated all-time great like Lucas, but like Lucas, he provides excellent passing and the ability to spread the floor. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard score off-ball like Gross and Hollins. The Blazers lacked individual creators like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, but Portland did have solid depth: six players averaged at least 10.9 points per game for the Blazers during the '77 playoffs. Portland head coach Dr. Jack Ramsay and Gregg Popovich are two of the best ever.

The major differences in the teams are that the Spurs get to use a 3-point line and the Blazers were better defensively. The same principles of synergy and team play apply.

The 1977 Blazers defeated a poorly constructed Laker team led by the best individual in the league, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then won the title by defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, a talented group of individuals who were less than the sum of their parts. Looking at the teams left standing in San Antonio's way, there is a chance the Spurs repeat the narrative exactly.

Call it Alamomania.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Western Conference Second Round Playoff Preview

The Western Conference is wide open this year. Out are the champion Dallas Mavericks and the darkhorse Memphis Grizzlies. Just two L.A. teams, an up-and-coming superpower, and the old guard remain.

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5)

Two of the best ever from Wake Forest.
The Clippers have youth, size, and the best player on the floor in Chris Paul. In some ways, it appears the Clippers are the perfect team for the job of taking the number one seed out. San Antonio is older, slower, and smaller. Feast on the offensive glass and exceed Tony Parker's production with CP3's, and you have yourself an upset.

But it's not that simple. The Spurs have superior health, home-court advantage, and, to put it nicely, a significant edge at head coach. They also have 3-point shooting. San Antonio ranked first in the NBA in 3-point percentage this season and continued hitting from deep against Utah at a 40.7 percent clip. The Clippers, nearly last in the league at defending the 3-point line during the regular season, closed out on Memphis well, but Memphis's weakness is shooting 3's, whereas it's a strength for the Spurs. The Clippers don't have the size or the consistent smarts to defend San Antonio's spread-floor offense.

With that spacing, Parker and Manu Ginobili will carve San Antonio up. The only way the Clippers contend with that duo is if Eric Bledsoe plays like he did in game 7 against Memphis. Tim Duncan should also get his on the green DeAndre Jordan, who will likely be in foul trouble for much of the series.

The best thing L.A. has going is Blake Griffin will likely put up better numbers than the 18 points and 6.4 rebounds he did against Zach Randolph. His production and offensive rebounding, as well as Kenyon Martin's and Reggie Evans's ability to drag the Spurs to hell, will keep this series close. Chris Paul will dominate as per usual.

The series will be close, but the Spurs have too many built-in advantages going in.

Pick: Spurs in 6

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Los Angeles Lakers (3)

The Western Conference matchup everybody wanted to see. After the Thunder thrashed the team that trounced them a year ago, they get their revenge match against the Lakers, who bounced them from the playoffs two years ago.

Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are two of the league's best pure scorers.
Derek Fisher vs. Kobe Bryant. Metta World Peace vs. James Harden. Kendrick Perkins vs. Pau Gasol, whom he's had words with in the media, and Andrew Bynum, whom he battled in the 2010 NBA Finals. Oh, and there's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, too.

World Peace locked down Durantula two years ago, but World Peace was Ron Artest and Durantula was a young scorer in his first playoff series. Durant is now a seasoned 3-time scoring champ with experience in the Western Conference Finals. He won't go off for 40 each game, but he'll be a consistent scoring presence.

Westbrook and Harden will determine the series for OKC. If they can effectively do what Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari could not- that is, initiate plays in the halfcourt and score efficiently with the clock winding down- then the Thunder offense will be lethal enough to win. Bryant has slowed Westbrook in the past, but not this version of Westbrook. How does L.A. defend OKC when they put Harden, Durant, and Westbrook on the court? That was Dallas's issue, and Jason Terry got torched. Can Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake do any better?

Gasol will likely dominate Serge Ibaka, who is a poor post defender. Bynum's offense is the bigger variable; L.A. is at its best when Bynum is scoring efficiently and the Lakers get to defend in the half-court. OKC will destroy them if they get in transition, so L.A. needs to create space for both 7-footers to go to work.

In the end, OKC's fast, tall perimeter double teams will likely make entry-passes too difficult, and Bryant will need to take a lot of shots. Bryant is an amazing player, but it's too much to ask to cover up all of his team's flaws at his age against a young Thunder team.

This series will end in five, but it won't feel easy. This will be a great matchup.

Pick: Thunder in 5

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Eastern Conference Second Round Playoff Preview

The first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs had its share of casualties: Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, and any fan who had to watch the Indiana-Orlando series. The second round is here, and it comes with a preview:

Miami Heat (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (3)

Danny Granger will have his hands full with the MVP.
The Pacers now face a real playoff team- maybe too real.

Miami vs. New York was anticlimactic after receiving momentous hype, with the Heat downing the Knicks in five games and outscoring them by nearly 15 points per game. LeBron James, recently named three-time MVP, did whatever he wanted and thoroughly outplayed Carmelo Anthony on both ends, even shutting down the scorer extraordinaire for long stretches.

The Indiana Pacers shot less than 45 percent against the Dwight Howard-less Magic. Indy found it difficult honing in on Orlando's weakness in the middle despite having All-Star center Roy Hibbert, who put up pedestrian numbers against Stan Van Gundy's makeshift defensive schemes. How is Indiana's multipolar offense going to put pressure on Miami's defense? Danny Granger is Indiana's best scorer, and he'll be guarded by James. Where is the scoring coming from?

Indiana's strength is defense; Granger's and Paul George's length may bother LeBron and Dwyane Wade at times, though the superstars will get their numbers. David West must win his matchup against Chris Bosh. Bosh may be too quick for the older West, however. Expect a big series from Bosh- something like what he did last year against Carlos Boozer.

Overall, Indiana isn't a threat to Miami. The maximum this series goes is five games.

Pick: Miami in 4

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8)

It's not Larry Bird vs. Julius Erving, but it's still a great SF matchup.
The story here is similar to the Boston-Atlanta first round preview. Philadelphia brings toughness, a rebounding advantage, and a young, quick two-way point guard to combat Rajon Rondo.

Despite Al Horford's return midway through the series, the Hawks only grabbed one more rebound per game than the Celtics did. Boston held its own on the glass and shut down Atlanta's offense by plugging penetration lanes and forcing the ball back out. Atlanta was a much better 3-point shooting team than Philadelphia in the regular season, yet the Hawks managed to shoot just 31 percent against the Celtics. Philly's 3-point shooting was putrid against the Bulls.

Spencer Hawes needs to spread the floor and take Kevin Garnett away from the core of Boston's defense. Who trusts Hawes to do that? With KG able to roam, Philly's offense will run into the same problems Atlanta's did. Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala can't penetrate to the rim with KG meeting them 15 feet out.

The Sixers will take a game or two. Thaddeus Young presents problems for Boston, and the Sixers have the defense to slow down Rondo and Paul Pierce. They simply don't have enough weapons to capitalize.

Pick: Boston in 6

Friday, May 4, 2012

Linsanity Beware

Jeremy Lin needs to fight the urge to return. Pride and a desire to compete are common traits in most successful athletes, but in this case, pride and desire need to be tempered in favor of reality and caution.

The NBA can't afford to lose both of these young fellas.
The New York Knicks are down 3-0 in their series with the Miami Heat and have struggled to defend LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. With the roll that duo is on, there is no way the Knicks can take four in a row. Giving up is out of the question, but giving up Jeremy Lin to the whim of the injury gods can't happen either. It can't happen.

Especially with the recent Derrick Rose ACL tear. Although it can't be proven in this particular case, there is a chance that Rose's non-contact injury last week was partially caused by Rose returning from injury too soon. With his leg muscles weakened, the ligament may have had too much stress on it when Rose pushed off the floor.

Lin doesn't have Rose's vertical explosion- the two players have different styles and strengths- but Lin's bread-and-butter is using his surprisingly quick first step to get past the primary defender and then using his crafty ball-handling and quick change of direction to spear through the help defense and into the paint. There's a lot of planting and pushing off involved. Lin has only played big-time minutes this season, so extra caution is sensible.

It'd break millions of basketball hearts to see two 23-year-old point guards hurt their legs in the same postseason. You know David Stern doesn't want the health of an integral global basketball figure jeopardized. Amare Stoudemire would probably break his foot kicking a fire hydrant in disgust following a Lin injury.

It's not worth Lin's future. Game four is not worth it, and this series is no longer worth it. Mike Woodson should focus on getting the ball to Carmelo Anthony in favorable scoring positions, not figuring out if or when Lin will return this season. Cede Miami the conference this year and get ready to take it from them next year with Lin at the offensive helm. Any other decision is insanity.

Monday, April 30, 2012

NBA Playoffs Tip-Off: Injuries, Comebacks, and Chest Bumps

The condensed 66-game season spoiled NBA fans by giving them daily games to watch and triple-headers to wait for. The only costs were the other 16 games and Derrick Rose's ACL.

It wasn't worth it.

D-Rose is out for the playoffs.
To what extent the shortened season contributed to Rose's injury can't be proved, but one can't help but connect it to the injuries suffered by Rose, Dwight Howard, and Knick rookie Iman Shumpert; Rose and Howard have been iron men throughout their respective careers. With any luck, these young players can take advantage of advancements in medicine and return with their explosive athleticism intact.

Here are some thoughts after the first weekend of NBA playoff action:

  • The Miami Heat are making the NBA Finals. Chicago without Rose is like a declawed and toothless lion- it's still big, fast, and strong, but it lost its primary way of taking the game by the throat. The Knicks without Shumpert have no way to defend Dwyane Wade, which is fatal since they can't guard LeBron James either.
  • The Clippers comeback was for the ages. Reggie Evans's defense on Zach Randolph should make any and every basketball purist smile, and Chris Paul's competitive nature never shined through more. Still, L.A. needs to make major adjustments to get Blake Griffin off, because Memphis shut him down. Randy Foye, Nick Young, and Mo Williams will need to step up if Caron Butler can't go full throttle after breaking his hand- Young especially since he has good size.
  • If Andrew Bynum delivers the kind of defensive performance he did Sunday, the Lakers can win the title. It doesn't need to be 10 blocks per game; it needs to be consistently challenging shots in the paint. Denver's big men are three levels below Bynum and Pau Gasol.
  • The Indiana Pacers are still going to win their series against Orlando, but their flaw was exposed in game one. They couldn't adequately take advantage of Howard's absence even with Roy Hibbert playing, and they couldn't consistently score against an Orlando defense that has struggled without their anchor. Indiana could have made a statement to the rest of the Eastern Conference in game one; instead, they put themselves in a hole against an inferior team.
  • Rajon Rondo's suspension was warranted. He did trip, but he didn't even seem to care that he bumped the referee. If he didn't get suspended, the 2007 Phoenix Suns would roll in their graves for the letter of the NBA law not being enforced.
  • Dirk Nowitzki is an unstoppable offensive player. His Mavericks, though, are vulnerable without Tyson Chandler, and they're facing a team that will take advantage of that vulnerability.
Stay tuned for more action, and hope that no more injuries occur!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Western Conference First Round Playoff Preview

Here is a preview of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Utah Jazz (8)

Utah has youth, size, and dominant offensive rebounding (second in the league); it's easy to think Spurs vs. Grizzlies 2011 all over again. However, there are major differences this year: Utah is a below average defensive team (19th in the league), and the Spurs have a healthy Manu Ginobili.

One more time?
Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors will cause problems for the Spurs, but Jefferson is easier for Tim Duncan to guard than Zach Randolph. Jefferson is the best scoring option on the team, like Randolph was for Memphis, but Duncan was relegated to guarding a less important Marc Gasol last year because of Randolph's unrelenting face-up game. TD can handle Jefferson's low-post game.

As tempting as it is to make the call for an upset again, it isn't happening this year. Utah won't be able to slow down San Antonio's offense.

Pick: San Antonio Spurs

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Dallas Mavericks (7)

Dirk and KD are elite offensive players.
In last year's Western Conference Finals, the Mavericks beat the Thunder in five games because the lineup of Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry meshed as perfectly as a five-man unit realistically could. Chandler is out of the equation now, and his supposed replacement, Lamar Odom, isn't going to play for Dallas anymore. Chandler occupied Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison last season, which allowed Dallas's perimeter threats to go off. Now, those bigs can help when Dirk or Jet drive.

The Maverick offense, normally a staple in the top 10, was ranked 22nd this year. Without an ultra-efficient offense, Dallas's defense, though supposedly improved from last season, will surrender too many fast-break points to the young Thunder. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden should be able to feast on Nowitzki's and Brendan Haywood's pick-n-roll defense.

Pick: Oklahoma City Thunder

Los Angeles Lakers (3) vs. Denver Nuggets (6)

Sessions needs to perform well.
If it weren't for Ramon Sessions, this would be a sure upset for Denver. Ty Lawson would have torched L.A.'s pick-n-roll defense while Arron Afflalo would have shadowed an overworked Kobe Bryant enough to win. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol wouldn't see the ball with Kobe gunning and Derek Fisher flopping.

Sessions changes the game. His ability to deliver the ball to the All-NBA-caliber 7-footers allows L.A. to dominate the inside matchup, which means less fast-breaking for the deep, energetic Nuggets. Denver doesn't have a single big man than can contend with Bynum or Gasol, and that's a damning matchup disadvantage.

Pick: Los Angeles Lakers

Memphis Grizzlies (4) vs. Los Angeles Clippers (5)

This is the most difficult matchup to assess because of injury variables. Is Zach Randolph back to form? Is Chris Paul's hamstring going to limit him?

CP3 's health is the most important variable in the series.
Randolph and Gasol vs. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is the frontcourt matchup of the first round; the teams are incredibly close when it comes to rebounding on both sides of the floor. The Clippers struggle stopping teams, but the Grizz are a below-average offensive team. Memphis led the league in causing turnovers (.163 TOV% for opponents), and Gasol can defend interior scorers.

But L.A.'s number four-ranked offense doesn't turn the ball over (.127 TOV%) thanks to CP3 (2.1 turnovers per game), and they don't rely on a post scorer. Instead, the Clippers attack with the Paul/Griffin pick-n-roll. If Paul is healthy, Memphis will have a hard time stopping the Clippers.

Pick: Los Angeles Clippers

Eastern Conference First Round Playoff Preview

It's playoff time in the NBA, a time for the team to shine. Regular season success matter little; it's all about matchups now. It's all about how one team matches up against another. It's "five as one" vs. "five as one", a social experiment of sorts; how does one team co-mingle with another?

Here is NBA Wired's preview of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Chicago Bulls (1) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8)

Rose will see plenty of Iggy in the first round.
Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday anchor perhaps the best perimeter defense in the league, a strength which on paper appears perfect for slowing Derrick Rose and the Bulls. Chicago specializes in shutting down superstar-centric offenses, but that doesn't matter against Philly's multi-polar offense. This series is ripe for an upset, right?

Well, it could have been if the Sixers weren't trending downward as the season progressed. Philly blazed through the first part of the season before struggling down the stretch en route to the eighth seed, whereas Chicago adapted to the absence of Rose. Chicago is going to win the possession battle: they take care of the ball better than Philly forces turnovers, and their dominant offensive rebounding corps will provide extra shots against a team without a singularly dominant defensive rebounder.

A major advantage for Chicago is their defensive depth. Philly's Louis Williams and Thaddeus Young anchor a potent scoring bench, but they'll be running into Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, who anchor arguably the best bench defense in the league.

Pick: Chicago Bulls

Miami Heat (2) vs. New York Knicks (7)

This is the most exciting matchup in the conference. The last time these two teams hooked up in the first round of the playoffs after a lockout was 1999, when Allan Houston got his $100 million shot to go down.

Talk about a marketable matchup...
These Knicks are a wildly different team than at season's start thanks to Mike Woodson's emphasis on defense. Tyson Chandler is possibly the purest anti-Heat weapon in the league, a center who can take advantage of Miami's small frontcourt with his length and movement. New York's explosive bench can push the pace against Miami's slower bench players. Iman Shumpert's defense against Dwyane Wade and LeBron James will be integral. On the other side, how will Miami defend Carmelo Anthony, who has been surging since the All-Star break and is out to prove himself against his 2003 draftmates?

In the end, Miami is going to have the two biggest matchup advantages on the court for 40 minutes per game. James and Wade are the two best players in the series and are on a mission to avenge last year's NBA Finals loss.

This series will go a minimum of six games.

Pick: Miami Heat

Indian Pacers (3) vs. Orlando Magic (6)

Should have just put Milwaukee in the sixth spot.

The Dwight Howard-less Orlando Magic have no chance against arguably the deepest team in the conference. Danny Granger's play improved throughout the season; post-All-Star Break, he averaged 19.4 points per game on 45 percent shooting, 41.3 percent from 3, and 90.8 percent from the free throw line. Granger and Paul George should be able to bother Orlando's 3-point shooters, who don't have Howard opening the floor for them.

Pick: Indiana Pacers

Boston Celtics (4) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5)

Jeff Teague needs to prevent Rajon Rondo's penetration.
This is going to be a tight series. Boston is the better team, but Atlanta has home-court advantage, a rebounding advantage, and an improved Josh Smith. J-Smoove nearly put up a 20/10/4 season this year and carried Atlanta's frontcourt after Al Horford sustained an injury.

Jeff Teague vs. Rajon Rondo is the premier matchup to watch; if Teague can cause havoc and open up jumpers for Atlanta's shooters, they have a chance. But that's a tough task with Kevin Garnet manning the middle. With KG's move to C and Horford's absence, he'll be free to guard Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson, meaning he can roam and help out on Smith and Teague. Avery Bradley's development as a defensive stopper will prove handy against Joe Johnson.

Atlanta doesn't have the offense to score against the best defense in the league; Boston still has Paul Pierce for isolation scoring when a drought occurs.

Pick: Boston Celtics

Thursday, April 26, 2012

All-NBA Teams for 2012

Building on the NBA awards theme this week, here are NBA Wired's All-NBA selections. Team results are deemphasized; each player's sustained level of play and health weigh heavily.

CP3 and RW get the All-NBA nod this season.
All-NBA First Team

Chris Paul
Russell Westbrook
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Dwight Howard

James and Durant were no-brainers. Westbrook's career-best season and superior health allowed him to leapfrog a pair of legendary shooting guards, and CP3 reestablished himself as the league's top point guard. Howard had the worst season of his prime thus far, but he's still the best center in the game. It's hard to ignore 20.6 points and a league-high 14.5 rebounds per game.

All-NBA Second Team

Dwyane Wade
Kobe Bryant
Kevin Love
LaMarcus Aldridge
Andrew Bynum

Bryant had one of the greatest "16th seasons" in NBA history, but it was also one of his least efficient years. Wade's play was up and down, and he missed too many games. Thus, Wade and Bryant were knocked off the first team by Westbrook and Paul. Aldridge proved the second half of last season was no fluke, and Bynum proved he is an All-Star when his knees hold up. Love's 26 points and 13.3 rebounds on an improved Minnesota team were good enough to edge out last year's Finals MVP and this year's dunk machine.

Nash and Williams were stuck in bad situations this year.
All-NBA Third Team

Deron Williams
Steve Nash
Dirk Nowitzki
Blake Griffin
Kevin Garnett

Williams and Nash faced similar situations this year; Williams had no frontcourt to work with, and Nash had too little talent to compete against the talented Western Conference. After a sluggish start, Nowitzki improved and took on his usual load for Dallas. While Griffin didn't improve as much as he could have from last season, he did develop chemistry with Paul and had a solid season. KG's move to center allowed him to post his best scoring numbers in years, and he summoned the energy and passion to anchor a great defense in Boston.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

NBA Regular Season Awards for 2012

As the NBA playoffs approach, it is time to give out the 2012 regular season awards. The season provided some fantastic highlights, including a high-octane start by the Miami Heat, a riveting slam dunk contest, and the legendarily hilarious Charlotte Bobcats. Corey Maggette would have won the iMVP (ironic Most Valuable Player) award for shooting 37 percent and blocking one shot all season, but he did too much right by his team missing 32 games. Next time, Corey.

Here are NBA Wired's regular season award winners:

Most Valuable Player

LeBron James is seeking his third MVP award.
It was a three-way race between LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul. In the end, James takes it for being the best player in basketball and leading Miami to a 13-1 record when the team's other offensive anchor, Dwyane Wade, sits out. Wade also saw a decline in minutes played, meaning James had to do more work on both ends.

Kevin Durant's frontcourt scoring and defensive rebounding are incredibly valuable, but Durantula's right-hand man, an improved Russell Westbrook, was healthy all year. CP3 lifting L.A. after the team struggled without Chauncey Billups made Paul a legitimate contender. He's arguably the second-best player in the league after James.

LeBron James

Defensive Player of the Year

Dwight Howard can usually sleepwalk his way to this award. Howard's late-season injury combined with Orlando's slip to defensive mediocrity (and perhaps some voter fatigue as well; I don't claim to be immune) opens the door for other star defenders.

Tyson Chandler and Kevin Garnett are the favorites. Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng are also contenders, and their plus/minus stats- specifically RAPM (regularized adjusted plus/minus)- give them legitimacy. However, those stats paint a positive picture for Tyson and KG, too. Both centers- yes Garnet plays center now- are elite defensive rebounders and shot-changers who also defend their position well. Garnett slowed the likes of Kevin Love and Al Jefferson, while Chandler locked down Howard a few times.

Boston has the NBA's second-best defense thanks to KG, while New York has the fifth-best defense despite playing Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony at the forward positions. Garnett may be the best per-minute defender in the league, but Chandler bridges the gap playing more minutes in more games. Tyson gets the edge based on playing with worse teammates, but KG is deserving as well.

Tyson Chandler

Sixth Man of the Year

James Harden
James Harden would be one of the top-25 starters in the league. He's one of the league's best pick-n-roll guards, able to make cross-court passes, drive to the rim to draw fouls, and shoot 3's off the dribble. His 66 percent True Shooting Percentage ranks second in the league, remarkable considering he's a perimeter player. His production was instrumental in OKC's dominant season, and his beard was instrumental in cushioning the destructive 'bow of World Peace.

James Harden

Rookie of the Year

Kyrie Irving helped the Cavs overachieve this year. He averaged 18.8 points and 5.5 assists per game on excellent percentages, and he showed a combination of poise, skill, and underrated athleticism that allowed him to get anywhere he wanted on the court.

Iman Shumpert and Ricky Rubio displayed great play and potential as rookies, too.

Kyrie Irving

Most Improved Player

Andrew Bynum and Greg Monroe
Jeremy Lin would have been a lock had it not been for his regular season-ending injury. Andrew Bynum, Nikola Pekovic, Greg Monroe, and Avery Bradley are solid choices: Bynum's knees stayed healthy, Bradley turned into a defensive star by season's end, Pekovic became a forcible presence inside, and Monroe matured as a lead player.

Bynum edges out Monroe based on his transition into a big minutes/big responsibility player on the Lakers following the Lamar Odom trade.

Andrew Bynum

Coach of the Year

Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel, Doug Collins, and Gregg Popovich are all deserving candidates. Thibodeau lost his star, Derrick Rose, for nearly half the season, yet Chicago played well and even improved on a few facets from last year. Collins was an early-season favorite, but Philly's play declined throughout the season.

Tom Thibodeau

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Resurrection of Chris Paul

Four seasons ago, Chris Paul finished second in MVP voting. He was coming off a historic regular season, and he followed that historic season with a magical- well, Magic-like, actually- playoffs. Not since Earvin Johnson himself had a point guard combined such flawless playmaking with the ability to volume score on ridiculous efficiency. Smaller package, but similar results.

Yeah Steve, he passed right by you.
However, CP3 has been overlooked ever since those 2008 playoffs. The season after was marred by injury, and the New Orleans Hornets weren't the same thereafter. Furthermore, several other perimeter superstars either emerged or had their situations radically shifted for the better. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade hooked up in South Beach. Kobe Bryant received two more rings. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook brought uber-athletic ability to Paul's position while still remaining smart enough to handle an NBA offense.

And Chris was put on the back burner, a player in basketball exile waiting to be moved, waiting to have his "Decision" summer.

Thankfully it came early when he was traded to L.A. And then it didn't when the trade was rescinded. And then it did again, to a different team in the City of Angels.

And thus, the public perception of Paul has ascended once again to acceptable levels. He still probably doesn't get the respect he deserves, but at least people are recognizing him again. Paul should be on the All-NBA First Team this year along with Westbrook (Wade and Rose have all missed more time), and he should be in the running for MVP as well. He is the best player on a high-level team, and he has assumed a large load on that team, especially since the season-ending injury to veteran Chauncey Billups.

Paul is leading the third-best offense in the NBA and orchestrates "Lob City" as the true mayor in town. Blake Griffin may get the highlights, but it's usually Paul setting him up for those dunks. Paul is averaging 19.4 points and nine assists (with just 2.1 turnovers!) per game while shooting 48.1 percent and 37.3 percent from 3-point range. His ability to handle the ball as much as he does, create the amount of offense he does, and play over 36 minutes per game while only turning the ball over 2.1 times is mind boggling.

When it's crunch time, Paul seemingly always recognizes the situation and takes the game by the throat. According to 82games.com, Paul has the fifth-highest scoring average under its definition of a "clutch situation." He's also tenth in assists and ninth in FTAs while shooting a staggering 95 percent from the charity stripe in "clutch situations."

Perhaps more importantly, he's taught Griffin how to flop at an ALL-NBA level. It's not in the scope of this article to make fish jokes about Clippers and flopping, so do that on your own time.

But Paul is back and on a relevant team with weapons, and if history is any indication, he's going to go bonkers in the playoffs. He's arguably the second-best player in the league, and he's on a mission to prove it to NBA fans.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Windy City Systems: The Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is a performance-enhancing coach. More than any other leader in the NBA right now, Thibs understands that if his players are to maximize their collective potential, each individual must contribute in two ways:

1.) By making the appropriate swing passes.

2.) By making the appropriate closeouts after the opposition's swing passes.
Thibodeau and Rose can both claim to be Chicago's Most Valuable Person.

These are the two most important components of any legitimate championship contender. Thibodeau baked principle two into Boston's defense back in 2008, and he baked it into Chicago's collective defensive brain last year. It seems he has finally gotten a chance to institute principle one into his team's DNA, and his team is reaping the benefits of this newfound lifeblood so much that they've somewhat shaken their unsustainable reliance on their old lifeblood- superstar point guard Derrick Rose.

Last year, Derrick Rose won the MVP by being the offensive system that Chicago used to win 62 games. He was my MVP last year. This season, Rose is averaging 22.8 points and a career-high eight assists per game while lowering his turnovers and upping his eFG percentage (efficiency from the field). He's arguably playing better than he did last year- when he actually plays.

After missing only one game last year, he's missed 22 this year; Chicago is 28-7 with him, 15-7 without him, so he's still valuable.

The major takeaway from this is how Chicago's offense has improved from last year despite missing their MVP- an offense-oriented superstar no less- for such a large percentage of games. And it all comes back to Thibodeau's installation of a more structured system that facilitates passing with or without an on-court facilitator.

Chicago was ranked 11th in offensive rating last year, their only team strength being offensive rebound rate (they were fourth in '11). This year, despite the absence of Rose and a dip in eFG percentage (in both the actual number as well as relative to the league for each year), the Bulls rank 4th in offensive rating. Lapping the field in offensive rebound rate is part of it- Chicago is nearly as far away from the second-ranked Utah Jazz as Utah is from the league average- but another major factor is a much lower turnover rate. The Bulls actually rank in the top 10 in turnover rate despite not having Rose on the court as much.

Joakim Noah is a very good high-post passer.
How is that possible? The quartet of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik occupying teams on the offensive glass relieves pressure, and Chicago has better overall spacing this year thanks to Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Luol Deng and John Lucas collectively shooting above 40 percent from 3-point range.

Most importantly is that the Chicago players are moving the ball via the pass, and they're doing it without turning the ball over as much. They are 5th in the league in Assist Percentage (percent of field goals assisted) at 61.25 percent. Last year, with Rose creating for everybody, the Bulls ranked 9th at 60.06 percent. Players are moving the ball more, and the collective IQ of the team has improved. As a result, Chicago has been able to withstand the injuries to Rose enough to own the league's best record (43-14).

What does this mean for the Bulls in May and June? Last year against Miami, Chicago was beaten because they relied too heavily on Rose. However, the need for Rose's creative abilities isn't as dire now thanks to a strategic enhancement in offensive philosophy.

Thibs's version of the truest of all basketball team fundamentals- let's call it his "Windy City Systems"- will play come May.