Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NBA All-Star Weekend Review

We were lucky to get the 2012 NBA All-Star Weekend.  Back in 1999, the NBA lockout guaranteed there'd be no All-Star game, and so, the league was forced to play out a rushed season without showcasing its talent through dunk contests and rookie-sophomore games and a superstar-laden exhibition.  

They were fortunate this year.  The 1999 lockout harmed the league's popularity, and it took nearly a decade to recoup some of the losses and find the next Michael Jordan.  Sadly, 2012 will still always be remembered as a lockout year, but hopefully not as forgettable as the '99 season.  

My thoughts on All-Star Weekend:

Kevin Durant captured the All-Star Game MVP.  
  • It's John Wall, and not LeBron James, who should compete in the dunk contest.  Wall has the swag (Doouuggie!!!), the vertical, and the creativity to put on a show.  His behind-the-back jam at the end of the Rising Stars game necessitates his entry into the Saturday night main event next year. 
  •  All I keep hearing is that the injection Andrew Bynum took to his knee was part of the maintenance every 7-footer requires.  Are the doctors sure 7-footers need this?  Are they sure they don't mean...the Tin Man?   
  • Shaq didn't play Jeremy Lin enough minutes.  The Diesel, a master marketer by his own account, should have put Linsanity on display for a few more minutes with the whole NBA world watching. At least O'Neal had some words of wisdom for Lin
  • This dunk contest outdid every other dunk contest of the post-VC/J-Rich era.  I'm not saying we found the next Vince Carter or Jason Richardson, but this year's contest had the right blend of pure dunking and fun gimmicks.  Gimmick dunks get tired and played out; this dunk contest resuscitated my enjoyment of the event.
  • Paul George's glow-in-the-dark dunk deserves placement amongst the legendary dunks of the modern era.  It took VC's flawless 360 windmill from 2000 and built upon it creatively.  In terms of pure aesthetic execution of the dunk, Carter can't be beat.  But doing it in the dark- and on the first try no less- required an amazing amount of concentration.
  • Dwight Howard should have taken more 3's during the All-Star game.  Wasted possessions are awesome.    
  • I love when All-Star games come down to the wire.  Just wish Deron Williams could have hit that 3.  And I bet LeBron James wishes that more than anybody...  

Friday, February 24, 2012

Top-10 MVP Candidates at the All-Star Break

With the league's premier ballers playing in this weekend's All-Star Game, it feels like a good time to begin thinking about MVP candidates.  While there is no clear-cut frontrunner, a few players have risen above the pack.

Derrick Rose was a deserving MVP last year.  
My definition of the MVP, which I thought about last year, is...

"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."

So let's be clear: An MVP isn't necessarily the best player (LeBron James), the best story (Jeremy Lin), or the guy on the best team (James or Kevin Durant).

For now, my rankings are as follows:

1.)  Kevin Durant-  He's the Constant on the West's best.  OKC has the second-best offense in the league, which is based on a perimeter-oriented attack led by KD, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden.  The Bearded One and RW handle a lot of the playmaking duties, but without Durant's scoring, OKC's offense would be incredibly predictable, as they wouldn't be able to start an attack inside the 3-point line.  Durant is also the team's best defensive rebounder with a 20.6 rebound rate.    

2.)  LeBron James-  He is the best player in the league, and he's on the best team in the league.  The only reason why I can't put him above Durant right now is because he is flanked by an all-star backcourt player AND an all-star frontcourt player.  Dwyane Wade might not be having his best statistical season, but he's still proven to be an offensive anchor.  Wade's missed games do give me pause, however, as LBJ was incredibly valuable with Wade out.  It's very close between James and Durant.

3.)  Kobe Bryant-  He just keeps plugging away.  The Laker perimeter squad sans Bryant is arguably the worst perimeter corps in the league.  Bryant needs to carry such an offensive load, from bringing the ball up to spreading the floor to creating shots for himself/others to volume scoring.  Without him, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol would never even see the ball (ironic, isn't it?).

4.)  Chris Paul-  CP3 is after the Mamba mainly because his team has such depth at the point guard position.  I mean they lost Paul's backup to injury, and they still have Mo Williams coming in to spell him.  Still, Paul is playing like the best PG in the league.

5.)  Dwight Howard-  Dwight is a weak candidate right now.  Aside from the turmoil he is partially responsible for in Orlando, it seems he has also regressed in the scoring department (less volume and less efficiency compared to last year) and on D.  Howard usually has the Magic in the top five on D, but Orlando is closer to the league average this year.

Parker and Westbrook are having monster seasons.
6.)  Tony Parker-  San Antonio is first in their division and boasts a stellar SRS rating of 5.01, good for sixth in the league.  Parker has catalyzed S.A.'s offense without backcourt mate Manu Ginobili, an impressive feat in my book.

7.)  Russell Westbrook-  In the past, Westbrook has been Rondo-lite in his ability to hurt his team's offense as much as he helped his team's offense.  But the alpha-athlete of the NBA has the Thunder rolling at a frenetic pace and is playing better than ever.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him climb in the rankings.  

8.)  Derrick Rose-  Barring additional injuries, the other alpha-athlete will likely leapfrog the two point guards in front of him.  He has missed some time this year, and his team has done all right without him.  Personally, I do still think that over the long haul, Chicago would be incredibly screwed without Rose since he probably has the greatest offensive load of any perimeter player except maybe Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker.

9.)  Dwyane Wade-  He lands at number nine simply because of injury, decreased minutes, and the fact that he plays with somebody who plays his role (perimeter offensive attacker/creator) better than he does.  Still, Wade is arguably the second-best player in the league, and he's on the best team in the NBA.

10.)  Dirk Nowitzki-  After a sluggish start, Dirk seems back on track.  Despite Dallas having a lot of depth, Dirk is still by far the only player on the team who can be called an anchor.  Despite Tyson Chandler's departure, Nowitzki has his team in a solid position out West.

On the outside:

Blake Griffin - He's arguably the best PF in the league.  Plus he did this.  

Jeremy Lin-  I love Lin, but he isn't on my list yet because he hasn't been playing major minutes for that long.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Denver Nuggets: Going High Speed in Thin Air

The Denver Nuggets traded their star player, Carmelo Anthony, to the Knicks for half of New York's roster last season.  Normally, large roster turnover plus small sample size equals poor results.  However, Denver's offense for the last half of 2011 was ridiculous, as their abundance of versatile players developed immediate chemistry.

The lockout was unkind to the Nuggets, with Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton going to either different teams or hemispheres; hence, the depth entering the 2012 season declined, the Andre Miller addition notwithstanding.  

Denver still has a lot of firepower.  
The offensive potency, however, has remained relatively high.  As of today, Denver was ranked sixth in team offensive rating.  Their 18-15 record belies their true standing in the NBA considering their SRS rating is a well-above average 3.62, good for eighth in the league.  And that's with Nene Hilario and Danilo Gallinari missing some time.  

Denver's early 2012 success has been spurred by Gallo and Ty Lawson, a duo I talked about over the summer when I evaluated the league's top young duos.  Lawson's 15.4 points, 6.1 assists, and mere 2.3 turnovers per game powers Denver, and his speed from foul line to foul line weaponizes Denver's young talent and running bigs, which is why the team is ranked first in pace.  Gallinari leads the team with 17 points per game on nearly 60 percent True Shooting despite knocking down 3's at a disappointing 31 percent clip.  Thirty-one percent- coming from a forward whom Mike D'Antoni called the greatest shooter he ever coached.  At least, before Steve "Novocaine" Novak came into the picture.  

Consider- Denver's offense is clicking right now even with pedestrian offensive rebounding and turnover numbers.  They are efficient because they draw fouls, take many 3's, and hit their 2-point shots, a fact I'd reckon comes from their quick pace and ability to get good shots when the defense is in transition jeopardy.  

What happens when they start hitting their 3's at even a league-average rate?

Denver is perhaps the most well-put together offensive squad in the league.  No ball-stoppers or selfish gunners or "diminishing returns" scenarios; the unselfish duo of Lawson and Gallinari leads them.  They fit.  And the West would be wise to take note, because in a season like this that rewards youth and instant cohesion in the regular season, Denver may take a top-four spot heading into the playoffs.  Old squads (Dallas, L.A., San Antonio for example) plus thin Denver air gives the Nuggets a shot to be legend killers and second-round entrants this season.                    

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Tyson Chandler's Big Apple Impact

Jeremy Lin deserves the headlines he has garnered.  He has spearheaded the current New York run and put them back in the playoff picture, right as head coach Mike D'Antoni was on the cusp of unemployment.

But another pre-season Knick acquisition- one initially publicized more but has since been overshadowed since Linsanity took hold- is Tyson Chandler.  Chandler was supposed to come in and give the Knicks a defensive backbone, completing the Chandler-Amar'e Stoudemire- Carmelo Anthony trio.    

Chandler's ability to catch and finish is nearly unmatched.  
Amidst the many surprises N.Y. has encountered this season, Chandler has been a welcomed constant.  The straight-out-of-high school veteran center has seemed to click with the Ivy League youngster on both ends, rolling to the hoop for alley-oops on one end and having Lin's back after a blow-by on the other.  By the eye-test, they seem to communicate well.  

The Knicks are currently sixth in the NBA in defensive rating.  The last time New York finished a season in the top ten in defensive rating was back in 2001, when coach Jeff Van Gundy, ever-mean mugging Kurt Thomas, and young Marcus Camby were leading the defensive charge.  

Chandler has no doubt been a huge part of N.Y.'s defensive resurgence.  Never a prolific shot-blocker, Chandler's shot-changing help defense is his greatest asset.  It's important to note that actually blocking shots is overrated; it's better to block 1.4 shots per game and change a bunch of interior shot attempts (that's Chandler) than block three shot attempts and play bad help defense the other 92 possessions per game.  

Chandler's also rebounding the ball well with a 22.6 defensive rebound rate.  That's important since New York doesn't have any other great interior-oriented rebounders.  New York is the third-best defensive rebounding team in the league (it surprised the hell out of me, too).

Credit should also go to Jared Jeffries and defensive coach Mike Woodson, but Chandler is usually the last line of the defense.    

And Chandler remains the prototype for this era's role-playing offensive player at center.  Despite not playing with a playmaking PG until two weeks and having poor spacing as a result of team-wide shooting woes and zero ball movement, Chandler is averaging 11.7 points per game on a league-leading 73.6 percent True Shooting.  His individual offensive rating is a league-leading 136- basically, when he gets the ball, he doesn't make mistakes.  Insanity- no L. 

Something that worries me is that he's playing a lot of minutes- a lot more than last year.  He played less than 28 minutes per game last year; this year, he's up around 34.  That's a testament to his judiciousness with personal fouls, but D'Antoni would be wise to give him more breathers.  Chandler has been prone to injuries in the past. 

Chandler's two-way play and ability to play like a superstar role-player has proven constant through in-season turnover and turmoil for N.Y.  The right Baby Bull seems to be yielding great results thus far.     

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sixers and Pacers: The Win Reapers

Philadelphia and Indiana are expectation exceeders.  At least they have been this year.  Neither team has a star player, however, and in an Eastern Conference plentiful in all-nba and all-star duos, trios, and quartets- well, it's an endearing quality.

Danny Granger and Andre Iguodala lead their respective teams.
Philly has the third-best SRS rating in the entire league and the best defense in the league.  They play a team-oriented style of basketball and get major contributions from their bench, led by Louis Williams and Thaddeus Young, who showed me something last year in the playoffs when he went at LeBron James and Chris Bosh and occupied them with his offense.  Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday form one of the better two-way perimeter duos in the league.  Eight guys average 8.7 points per game or more- the definition of a balanced attack.  Linsanity and Celtic Pride still trail the Sixers in the Atlantic.

The only thing I can't stand about Philly is that they took announcer Doug Collins and made him coach Doug Collins.  He's a certifiably good coach, but I loved him courtside.  Dude seemed to always predict the right out-of-bounds plays for every team.  I'd bet a decent amount on Collins's squad defending out-of-bounds plays pretty well.

The Pacers have been less impressive, with a record of 18-12 and an average SRS rating.  The same principle applies though.  Like Philly, Indy uses youth and balance to succeed; seven players average nine points per game or higher, with Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert leading the way.  The Pacers earned the league's respect by giving Chicago a good series last year, but their record and playoff standing in this Eastern Conference is attention-grabbing news.

Is this play sustainable for each team, especially in the playoffs?  Well, in a condensed season, each team's core of fresh bodies certainly helps matters.  These are the kinds of teams that can take wins off superior teams in the regular season who might not have the legs or are out of shape or have a star- whom they rely on heavily- injured.  Regular season?  Sure, especially Philly.  Philly vs. New York for the Atlantic Division title should entertain the I-95/Turnpike crowd.

Playoffs?  These teams have 2011 Denver Nuggets written all over them.  A purist loves Philly's swing passes and closeouts and team play, but they don't have that star anchor to carry them, and like it or not, that fact plays.  It always does.  Because teams with a star or stars can play with chemistry and team play, too, and those teams will almost always take out the defiant, role-player studded, lovable underdogs because of matchups issues created by those stars.

Monday, February 13, 2012

While Mayweather Talks of Race, Jeremy Lin is the People's Champ

This has wrestling promo written all over it.

Floyd Mayweather is flapping his gums again about something he isn't qualified to talk about.  The controversial boxer saw fit to say that Jeremy Lin, the point guard wunderkind of the New York Knicks, is only getting positive press because he's Asian.  Mayweather, the same guy who fought at Wrestlemania a few years back.  Mayweather, who has teased us with a match against Manny Pacquiao for ages, Rock-Cena style.

Jeremy Lin, in wrestling terms, is over with the fans as a babyface.
Prediction:  Mayweather makes a few more unflattering comments about Lin until Pacquiao, who has been assaulted by anti-Asian Mayweather comments in the past, steps in and challenges Mayweather to a match at Wrestlemania this year.  The match is even for 12 rounds when out of nowhere, Lin clocks Mayweather with a steel chair, giving Pacquiao the victory.

Lin's reign atop New York may be about as dramatic as a well-sold wrestling promo right now, but his play warrants the hype .  As was mentioned in the above article, Lin is the first NBA player in history- counting black, white, yellow, brown, green, aqua, maroon, pink, and emerald players- to drop at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first four starts.  His Steve Nashian ability to allow his teammates to settle into their comfort zones while he takes care of the rest has propelled New York recently.

In short, there's a reason Lin has recently wrestled headlines away from all of the other main event talents, from Kobe Bryant to Deron Williams to Ricky Rubio.  He's that damn good.

Mayweather should know that.  Love him or hate him, Mayweather is a great talent in his sport.  But real is supposed to recognize real, not randomly spatter it with racist remarks over social media with absolutely no provocation.

Either Mayweather is a real-life heel, or wrestling feuds are real.