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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Playoff Time

So the regular season is wrapped up and I still hate myself. Last night's Utah-Minnesota double-OT thriller/crapfest was BY FAR the most riveting game of the year due to its lottery implications for the Celtics. Now that everything is settled on that end, I can actually focus on good basketball. This year's postseason should be really damn fun, with all sorts of upset potential, collapse potential, and a Western conference with the best first round matchups in recent memory. Let's check it out.


Eastern Conference
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Indiana vs. Atlanta
Any NBA fan would be lying if they said they were excited about this series. Atlanta's third best player is DeMarre Carroll and they lost 44 games this season. What this series is really about is whether Indiana can convince everyone (including themselves) that they can still dominate. I think an underperforming Indiana still wins this series, but at the expense of a couple of games plus some confidence. Roy Hibbert won't have an excuse to continue his dreadful play against an undersized Atlanta frontline. Due to their early season dominance and weak conference, the Pacers have the luxury of being able to figure this out when it would be too late for other teams. I don't know who would be favored in a seven game series against Dallas. But if the Pacers can get it together, pound Atlanta inside while George and Lance mix it up on the perimeter, they could get the confidence they need in a potentially tough second round matchup. 
Prediction: Indy in 5
Alpha dog: Paul George
Upset potential: Nothing to see here. 
Weird stat of the series: Roy Hibbert hasn't shot over 50% in a game since March 19th.


Miami vs. Charlotte
The makeup of this series is pretty dependent upon Miami's switch-flipping ability. If Wade plays up to his ability and the threes fall, Miami will make quick work of the feel good Bobcats. But if nobody gets hot, Wade drags along and Charlotte turns this into a defensive series, things might not come so easy for the champs. I think this is the toughest first round matchup Miami has had over the past few years. Steve Clifford has developed an elite defense in spite of a McRoberts-Jefferson frontline, Big Al will mercilessly beat on whoever the Heat throw at him, and I couldn't name five guys who I'd rather stick on LeBron than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Am I crazy to be having flashbacks to Memphis pulling the upset on the Spurs? Still, Charlotte can't score and the Heat will have the best player on the floor night after night.
Prediction: Miami in 6
Alpha dog: The King. 
Upset potential: More than you would think (I think).
Weird stat: Josh McRoberts finished the season with a 4 to 1 assist to turnover ratio, good for second in the NBA behind Chris Paul. He's also the only non-guard in the top 20 of the category. What.
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Toronto vs. Brooklyn
This is probably the hardest series to call. Brooklyn has looked awesome at times with small ball lineups, not to mention their abundance of go to guys at the end of games and a deep rotation of scorers. Aside from the loss of Lopez, they seem to be getting healthy at the right time. We'll probably hear the terms "veteran" and "experience" a record breaking amount of times during this series. Toronto fields one of the league's best backcourts with Derozan and Lowry, in addition to a big frontcourt and a reliable bench. Not to mention they were one of three teams this year to rank top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. My gut tells me this series will come down to some big plays at the end and though Lowry is the best player in the series, the Nets just have too many guys who can close on their team. 
Prediction: Brookyln in 7
Alpha dog: Lowry
Upset potential: No clear favorite.
Weird stat: Tyler Hansbrough attempted as many free throws per game as he did field goals.


Chicago vs. Washington
Poor Washington pulled the wrong matchup in the first round. The Bulls are one of the only teams that can negate their size, disrupt their pick and roll action and generally stagnate their offense. Thibodeau may well single handedly put poor Randy Wittman on the hot seat when he's done. For the Wiz to have a shot, John Wall is going to have to paint an absolute masterpiece in this one. He'll have to go up against the league's most physical guard (Hinrich) and two of its best pick and roll switch men (Gibson and Noah) to open up the floor for his shooters. The shooters are there with Ariza, Beal and Webster, but they'll be useless if Wall can't get them the ball. Despite the series' inevitable offensive sluggishness, it'll be fun to watch two big, crafty and physical frontcourts go at each other, not to mention the Wizards bench squad of Al Harrington, Prof. Andre Miller and Drew Gooden, otherwise known as the level one team in NBA Street Vol. 2. In the end, Chicago is more composed and plays harder, not to mention the Wizards dismal homecourt environment will probably bear its teeth this round.
Prediction: Chicago in 5
Alpha dog: Noah/Thibodeau, Washingtonites in Derrick Rose jerseys. 
Upset potential: Tangible.
Weird stat: Chicago has finished dead last in scoring two consecutive years and made the playoffs.
 
Western Conference
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San Antonio vs. Dallas
It's hard to imagine a situation where this series isn't watchable. Seeing Dirk and Timmy go one on one will be delightful. Those two are the only players from their generation who still play at an elite level. Still, I doubt there will be much legitimate competition. Though Dallas has some crafty vets plus a great coach, San Antonio has some craftier vets and a better coach. Even if Nowitzki might be the best player in the series, the Spurs are craaazy deep. Ginobili, Mills, Belinelli and Diaw average a combined 43 per game of the bench. San Antonio is totally for real and probably the best team in the NBA, which is kind of nuts considering they haven't not been a contender since Clinton was president. There really aren't enough cliches to describe this team. Timmy and Pop have won four rings together, were a few unlucky plays away from five and now have a real shot at getting one back. All over the course of sixteen years. Look for their stretch of excellence to continue as they cruise into the second round.
Prediction: San Antonio in 4
Alpha dog: Could be Duncan, Dirk, Parker, even Monta Ellis. But it won't really matter.
Upset potential: Nope.
Weird stat: If Dirk had made four more field goals, one more three and one more free throw, he would've had the oldest 50-40-90 year ever.

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Oklahoma City vs. Memphis
Some people are calling upset on this one. Psh. Memphis has a really good defense that still ranks lower than OKC's. Even if their grit 'n' grind is built for the playoffs, their offense is dismal and Kevin Durant is somewhat inhuman. Stylistically, Memphis has no issue here, they're just overmatched. It'd be one thing if Memphis had an unstoppable weapon offensively to carry them down the stretch (a la Al Jefferson), but Zach Randolph isn't the same guy who commanded triple teams against the Spurs three years ago. The Thunder's supporting cast should do enough to help out OKC's big three, which is likely the best in the league right now. Reggie Jackson is no James Harden, but he creates havoc on the pick and rolls as a fearless slasher. Gasol, Conley and Randolph will need to play close to perfect while Courtney Lee and Mike Miller will need to catch fire. Even if all goes well, the Thunder's scary offense and defensive presence should quell any doubts of success.
Prediction: OKC in 5. 
Alpha dog: Guess.
Upset potential: Very slight.
Weird stat: Now, would everyone please look at Serge Ibaka's shot chart?


Clippers vs. Golden State
Again, a series that for many screams upset and for me screams nothing. I know, I know, Stephen Curry is amazing, but so is Chris Paul. Golden State's offense is nowhere near as consistent as the Clipper machine, something you can chalk up to shaky coaching and bad health. There's no reason that Golden State shouldn't have an absolutely elite offense, considering their interior passing, post scoring, shooting, athleticism and Stephen Curry. But they don't and their defense will definitely struggle without Bogut in the middle to bark out orders and lock down the paint. Rivers' squad has all kinds of offensive weapons, not to mention 2 MVP candidates in Griffin and Paul. The combined excellence of these two will be difficult for any team to stop in the playoffs, let alone when they're going up against the likes David Lee and Curry on the defensive end. I'd give the Clippers the edge on everything but shooting and not by much. Golden State might win a game or two by virtue of shooting explosions and a ridiculous home court, but I can't see them stifling the league's top offense for long.
Prediction: Clippers in 6
Alpha dog: CP3.
Upset potential: With lights-out shooting and an overachieving defense, maybe
Weird stat: Stephen Curry led the NBA on points off pull up jumpers, while Thompson was #1 in catch and shoot situations.


Rockets vs. Blazers
This one should be real fun. Each team has one perimeter star and one star big man, plus a scary supporting cast. Not to mention a similar styles of play, with an emphasis on quick possessions and a whole lotta 3s. Neither team defends much, which could be an issue in later rounds. In this particular matchup, Houston gets the edge for two reasons: toughness and star power. Portland does not have a Pat Beverley to hound opposing guards, nor do they have any bigs as physical as Asik or Dwight. I would sooner take Harden or Howard on a contender rather than either Lillard or Aldridge. Lillard isn't the playmaking threat that Harden is due to his lack of effectiveness inside, while Aldridge is more offensively polished, but nowhere near the two way threat that Dwight is. That being said, this series could very well come down to who gets hot. Whoever gains an edge in the Chandler Parsons-Nic Batum could be a huge factor in regards to the final outcome.
Prediction: Rockets in 7
Alpha Dog: Harden, with one huge game from Dwight.
Upset potential: Very palpable, though it wouldn't be all that much of an upset.
Weird stat: Dwight Howard and James Harden attempted only 2 fewer free throws per game than the San Antonio Spurs.

I was 8 for 8 on first round series last year so this postseason may well disappoint on that level. I'd say there are 5 contenders this year, being Indiana, Miami, OKC, San Antonio and the Clippers. Conversely, I wouldn't be all that surprised if any of those teams went down before the conference finals. All in all, we're in for some competition that may well make up for a lackluster regular season. All we can do is sit back and pray nobody gets hurt.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

5 Things to Consider Heading Into the Title Game


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1. The selection committee really messed this one up.
St. Louis was ranked 4 seeds ahead of Kentucky despite losing 4 out of 5 at the end of the regular season against Duquesne, VCU, Dayton and St. Bonaventure. While Kentucky didn't have the most impressive regular season, the majority of their losses came against ranked opponents and they did manage to beat Louisville and came within one point of beating Florida in the SEC tourney. 7 seed UConn had to play Louisville, Memphis and Cincinnati a combined six times and still finished 5-4 against them with an impressive 12-6 record in the AAC. The conference rearrangement is the real issue here. Sure, 'Nova went 16-2 against the Big East, but lost to Creighton twice and fell to a 6- 2 Seton Hall team in the conference tourney. How long will it take until figure out how strong each conference truly is now? The SEC and AAC got truly screwed in this one and it's truly a credit to the ability of both UConn and Kentucky that they managed to get through such brutal competition.

2. Each squad's supporting cast has played excellently and must continue to do so.
Shabazz Napier and Julius Randle were fantastic in the regular season and they've both been crucial to their team's success in this year's tournament. But they're both playing with players who are coming into their own/playing out of their minds. In addition to a convincing effort to condense Robert Horry's 16 year NBA career into three tournament games, Aaron Harrison has been on fire the whole tournament, shooting a ridiculous 56% from 3 on 25 attempts. DeAndre Daniels is hovering around 20 and 10 on 60% shooting the past three games, providing some serious offensive support and playing huge minutes. The otherwise middling Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress have gone a ridiculous 24 for 30 over the Wildcasts' contests. For a slight underdog to make a title run, the stars need to play like stars and the rest of the cast needs to overachieve a bit. 



3. Julius Randle will be the most important player on the floor.
Ever since day one, Randle has been a real fun player to watch. He's always looked like a man among boys with his refined inside game and physical presence, yet his passing and ball control have really evolved as of late. Randle's ability to draw double teams is crucial to Kentucky's spacing, which was oftentimes iffy during the regular season as Randle coughed up the ball at an alarming rate. Randle has been under 2 turnovers per game over the course of the tournament and his steady play here has helped the Wildcats immensely. The threes have been there for Kentucky and they've been taking advantage. Randle's ability to dominate inside without getting out of control will play a huge role in the outcome of the game. He's shown that he can have a serious impact on a game without having a big scoring night, so look for him to be active tomorrow night. 

4. Don't look for a huge scoring effort from Shabazz.
Napier has been magical this season. The guy is a walking cliché at this point. He has his Willis Reed moments, his Kemba Walker moments, and he makes his teammates better. As ridiculous as he's been during this tournament, expect him to set up other guys and act as a decoy for the opposing defense. Kevin Ollie can't play all of his cards too early and let Napier go and jack up all the fadeaway threes he can. A great point guard is one who picks his spots and, so far, Napier has managed to find a perfect balance between picking his spots and staying aggressive. On a stage like this, Calipari will divert a whole lot of resources towards slowing him down, so one can expect Napier to be ready and willing to play a reserved type of game that opens things up for other scorers like Boatwright and Daniels.



5. Aaron Harrison probably won't make another game-winning three, but if he does it might be the greatest moment in the history of college basketball.
I mean, come on, the guy has already hit on an unprecedented level of clutch. In fact, throw out college basketball, this would make the overall pantheon. It would be up there with Mazeroski's walk-off, Gibson's homer, Jordan's last shot, the Catch, etc. There's that kind of potential in this game, even if the odds of it happening are miniscule. I don't think I've ever been this excited about something that is this unlikely to happen. Just putting it out there.  Look for overplayed storylines like Julius Randle's outshining of Wiggins and Parker, Harrison's heroics, the fact that "seeds are just a number", and wayyyy-too many Kemba-Shabazz parallels (important note: Shabazz is currently projected to go 46th overall by DraftExpress). Regardless, both of these teams are super talented with a couple of marquee stars and this game will be supremely watchable.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Madness, Amateurism, and More B.S.



Let me first admit that few are enjoying the NCAA Tournament as much as I am. Actually, many are, which is what makes it so wonderful. While I’m not one who prefers college basketball to the pros, I will say that March Madness is far and away my favorite sporting event. There is literally nothing missing from the event, complete with melodrama, hyperbole, unprecedented finishes, great athleticism, Duke losing, great hustle, no names, big names, good games, bad games, celebrity coaches, ESPN talking heads pretending they have any idea what’s going on, a warped sense of self-importance from the fans and Dick Vitale speaking in tongues. In other words, everything that makes sports sports. By all accounts, the tournament is the biggest story in sports right now,
especially below the professional level.



Yet this legal concept of amateurism may soon disappear, as it should have many years ago. Word just came from the National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern football players are permitted to form a union. No, this doesn’t mean that a bidding war for next years top recruits will emerge next year, nor does it forebode that the entire system will be reshaped in the immediate future. The appeals process surrounding the union’s legitimacy will likely last years, yet there seems to be a change in culture with regards to college athletes’ right to compensation. While the common fan remains staunchly opposed to “those damned kids getting paid to learn” and Bobby Knight respectively criticizes the NBA scouting process with his trademark sense of tact, powerhouse labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler is planning to sue the NCAA and major conferences to blow up the system currently in place.

Whether these kids are receiving a real education or not, they are making billions of dollars for people whose jobs are solely dependent upon their athletic performance. There is no fundamental difference that separates a university from employing a student at the campus library and paying them to play basketball for their school. But there is a lot more money changing hands in sports, and more money means drastic measures to hold onto that money. The NCAA is able to pervade the absurd premise of amateurism for three reasons: the constant changing of personnel that comes with college athletics prevents the establishment of common ground among fellow members, the exploited athletes are young people in a temporary situation, and the public perceives educational opportunity for the players as nobility on the part of the institutions.

As the NCAA faces a barrage of lawsuits and labor efforts, it will be interesting to gauge the general public's reaction to the state of the college athlete. After all, the kids look like they're having fun, don't have to do much schoolwork and they get to enjoy the fame that comes with being a star. But when they get injured, they lose their education while those who pull their scholarship just have other kids make their money. I now feel about as guilty watching March Madness as I do watching the NFL. Even if the aesthetics are not as gruesome as in football, I am still supporting a bunch of people who are screwing over their employees, strong-arming the media out of sympathizing with the athletes, and then blatantly lying to the faces of the public. Regardless, March Madness is still the most exciting period of the year for me and next week's Final Four looks to be entertaining as hell. I just hope that in five years the players have some fat bonuses to look forward to as well.

Tip-ins
  • I'm real excited for the Kevin Love saga next offseason/season. Will Boston reach into their stockpile of draft picks and make a play for a guy who could be one of the most beloved Celtics ever (he rebounds and he's white)? Will Love be able to see past Mike D'Antoni, Jim Buss and the Kobe extension to play for his hometown Lakers? The situation reminds so much of '07 KG I'm literally drooling.
  • I don't want to say that the East is wide open, but, for the millionth time, both powerhouses look shaky right now. Can a team like Toronto, Brooklyn or Chicago really pull out a seven game series against Indy or Miami? My brain says no, but all it takes is some bad luck on their part. 
  • Is the West is fun or is the west fun. There are four title contenders, no clear favorites, and a lot of good teams. Each round will be incredibly watchable. Warriors-Clips and Thunder-Suns in the first round? Also, Kevin Durant is about to become the sixth player in history to average 32 per game and shoot over 50%. 
  • The whole tank race thing is becoming unbearable. Yesterday I found myself struggling to figure out whether it was the win or loss column that mattered more when it came to the Celtics over(under)taking the Jazz for the fourth worst record. I still don't really know and I don't want to care.
  • So Philadelphia just lost 26 games in a row and still has a better record than Milwaukee. Just, what, how, I don't understand? Giannis, the time is now. 
  • After sustaining what looked like a season ending injury, it looks like Patrick Beverley will further defend his title as the toughest motherf-er in the league. His appearance will be crucial to the Rockets' title hopes as their offense is able to really kick things into gear when Beverley single-handedly fights the entire opposing roster.
  • As for my Final Four picks, I have Florida over Kentucky. UK's athleticism is going to kill all of Wisconsin's white guys while Florida's defense is finally gonna put the kibosh on Napier's heroics. Billy Donovan's team is just too gritty and talented to lose. I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The NBA At the Break: Surprises and Not-Surprises

Seeing as it's been a while since I've posted anything about my sports league of choice, I figure it's time for some self-indulgent NBA coverage. Here's a summary (complete with a beginner Synergy package) of the NBA thus far and its crazy happenings.

10 Things that Were Supposed to Happen




1. Paul George took "The Leap" and so did the Pacers.
After a scorching start to the season, the league's newest member of the elite-small forward club cooled down a bit, but not much. George is boasting a much improved isolation game and seems more comfortable from mid range, shooting an outstanding 47 percent from the elbows. His spot up game is still killer, ranking 13th among qualified players in such situations, per Synergy Sports, and he's been an absolute sniper from the corners, shooting 56%. Plus, the emergence of Lance Stephenson as a secondary ball handler enables PG to play more comfortably, considering his struggles handling the ball last year. As for the Indiana defense, not much explanation is needed. Roy Hibbert is the runaway favorite for Defensive Player of the Year and George remains a stalwart on the perimeter. Due to a combination of personal growth, cohesion under Vogel's schemes and a consistent effort, I have few worries about my preseason title pick making good on my promise.

2. The Heat look tired
It's about time. Miami's three long, stressful postseason runs coupled with their exhaustive style of defense seem to taking a bit of a toll on the defending champs. LeBron's performance has essentially been a microcosm of their season. This guy's had to do everything for this team the past few years and, despite some lofty declarations, he seems as if he's having to pick his spots more. By most metrics, LeBron hasn't done much defensively this year. In opposing points per possession (ppp), LeBron ranks 139th among qualified players and an even lower 160th guarding isolation (per Synergy). Sure, he can guard a bunch of positions, but he hasn't been spectacular guarding any of them this year. Good opponents seem to be tearing up Miami's trap heavy style of D, an already chaotic scheme that has waned in efficiency this season. I'm not ruling Miami out by any means, but I have a hard time believing Indiana wouldn't be favored with homecourt this coming postseason.

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3. Tanking sucks.
All of my preseason talk about the Celtics "maybe being good enough to snag a low seed" is irrelevant. I am actively rooting for my favorite sports team in the world to lose. I was legitimately distraught when I saw that the Celtics had a double digit lead over Milwaukee the other night. All I care about each night is whether Jared Sullinger manages to shoot over 50% and if Kelly Olynyk has more points than fouls. Am I supposed to be proud of this?


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4. Boogie 'n The Brow doing work
Cousins has done his part to justify the max deal that the Kings threw at him this offseason. I have to say I was a bit surprised that the Kings would throw that kind of money at the big man when they had nothing to lose by letting him test restricted free agency the next summer. But it seems that Boogie feasted on those dollars as he's putting up a stat line unmatched since the Round Mound himself was dominating. Speaking of historically versatile big men, how good is Anthony Davis/how good can he be? I could legitimately imagine averaging 25-12 with, like, 7 combined blocks and steals per game. The guy is below the drinking age and elite on both ends of the floor. Combined with Blake, Love, and Aldridge, we're witnessing another era of a giant Western Conference that used to feature C-Webb, KG, Duncan, Dirk and Shaq battling in the playoffs.

5. Offseason spending sprees are backfiring.
First off, I'd like to clarify that a spending spree isn't characterized by total money spent, but in the manner that it's spent and who it's spent on. For instance, the Pacers resigning David West doesn't count because he's proven to be a consistent player who works perfectly within the team's system. But if the Knicks take a 60 million dollar flyer on Lance Stephenson next summer to be their point guard of the future, heads will be scratched. That being said, the Josh Smith deal has led to unprecedented spacing catastrophe in Motown, the Pelicans are paying Tyreke Evans to be Manu Ginobili except he's still Tyreke Evans, and Andrea Bargnani has spearheaded a tough interior defense while stretching the floor effectively as a second-option next to Carmelo, making him worth the loss of one first rounder and two second rounders. Oh, and J.R Smith too.

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6. This rookie class is vomit-inducing but the Greek Freak is here so everything is fine.
Those who hearkened back last June to the days of K-Mart and Stromile Swift weren't so far off. Oladipo, Burke and Carter-Williams are chucking and overachieving on terrible teams, but still could have a future ahead of them. As for the rest, Tim Hardaway, Steven Adams, Kelly Olynyk and Mason Plumlee look like they could be role players. Giannis Antetokounmpo is not human and really digs smoothies. That is everything positive that can be said about the class of 2013.

7. The injury bug is a bloodsucking vermin.
Ugh. It just seems unfair at this point. None of the big ones this season seem particularly out of the blue, but that's kind of what sucks so much. Can't we catch a break? Westbrook and Rose were both coming off serious injuries, so there's no surprise. Horford and Lopez each got caught by nagging issues which can derail a big man's career, Eric Bledsoe plays a real aggressive game in a small package, and it's a miracle that Kobe can still walk. But New Orleans losing Ryan Anderson in such a scary way and also missing their electrifying point guard who they gave up two lottery picks for, just ugh. Basketball is made less fun when these things happen. Also, where the hell is Javale McGee?!


8. Roy Hibbert retains his crown as Twitter MVP.


 Keep em' comin', Hibbz.

9. Dirk's giving us a Dirk-back year.
Would anyone have guessed in 2002 that the tall German sniper would be the last man standing in a generation of stars that featured the likes of A.I., Vince Carter, T-Mac, Pierce, Kobe, KG and Duncan? Well it's certainly the case now. Dirk is still a bona fide superstar, averaging 22 points, leading a top-10 offense to playoff contention in the West, and he's one percentage point away from a 50-40-90 year at 35. I still think we underrate the greatness of this guy. He's a 7 footer who shoots better than 95% of the league, has an incredible array of moves and counter-moves, one of the most iconic, unstoppable signature moves of all time, and is currently the only player to out-alpha dog a prime LeBron James. He's got an MVP, a Finals MVP and is well on his way to the top ten in scoring. Thank you, Dirk.

10. The West is nuts and keeps gunning shots.
There is a hell of a lot offense going on in the west. 12 of the top 14 scoring teams hail from the conference as we see many high powered, carefully constructed teams light up the scoreboard. There are a lot of three-pointers, a lot of good ball movement and a lot of wins. Only 3 teams in the west have a losing record against the opposite conference. Western teams have 426 wins. Eastern teams have 352.

5 Things that Weren't Supposed to Happen

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1. What is Phoenix doing?
Not one single person with NBA knowledge that goes deeper than NBA Live 2006 would have projected an above .500 record for the Suns this season. Seriously. The Suns seemed to be making an effort to lose this year, ditching the Polish Hammer for a big expiring and a mid-round pick while sniping Bledsoe, the gem of the trade market, for Jared Dudley. Phoenix had a bunch of picks, a rookie head coach, and only two returning players who averaged double digits the year before. The tankin' was afoot. But all of a sudden, a sporadically healthy Bledsoe beasts everyone on the floor, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and the Morris twins look like actual NBA players, and Goran Dragic looks like Tony Parker with three point-range. Aaaaaaaaaaaaand Phoenix has a better record than Golden State and Memphis.
Bonus Trade Machine Pipe Dream: Phoenix trades Okafor contract, Alex Len and future-pick(s) to Brooklyn for Paul Pierce and Mason Plumlee. Brooklyn gets some of the flexibility and young talent which they so sorely lack and Phoenix gets a seasoned vet to help with a playoff push. But the true gem lies with the fact that Suns' big rotation could look like this.
C- M. Plumlee, M. Plumlee
PF- M. Morris, M. Morris
Throw in Channing Frye so he can't screw it up.

2. The Knicks.
In the days of yesteryear there was nothing I found less bearable than Knicks fans explaining why Carmelo is better than Durant and almost as good as LeBron and why J.R. Smith gave them an advantage over every other team's bench. Inevitably, my response would be to point out that Carmelo was their only consistent offensive player and Chandler their only responsible defender. If anything happened with those two, the whole system would fall apart. Well, when Chandler went down earlier in the year, everyone was thinking the same thing. But even after Tyson came back (albeit not 100%), the Knicks are still a total mess. The loss of Jason Kidd has hurt this team drastically. I know, it sounds funny considering he shot the 3 only moderately better than my cat in the postseason, but the whole "positive locker room presence" thing has its merits and Kidd's ability to catalyze ball movement really helped the Knicks' 3-point bombing offense. But at this point, not much could help this team. They own no draft picks this year and are on pace to miss the playoffs. In the East! They're two games behind Detroit! There is no way that a team with Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler should be this bad!


3. The Clippers look nasty, but not that different.
I find it a little odd that Doc Rivers is coaching this year's squad. Their offense has gone from elite to unstoppable (they're second in scoring even with Paul missing a third of the season), but their defense has dropped off, two things characteristic of teams not coached by Doc Rivers. Obviously much of this has to do with personnel, considering how many minutes they give to J.J. Redick (he tries, but look at him), DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin (not terrible but not good enough), and Jamal Crawford, whose face will soon be on the Mount Rushmore of defensive sieves. But otherwise, the supporting cast shoots better than the past few years, DeAndre Jordan has doubled his rebound average, and Blake Griffin is a legitimate MVP candidate. There has probably been enough said about his improvement by now, but just consider that two seasons ago, Blake was outside the top 90 in isolation scoring and ranked 71st in post-ups. This season, he's 33rd and 23rd respectively (per Synergy). Along with LBJ and Wade as well as Durant and Westbrook, the Clippers have now joined the prestigious Two-Superstar Club.

4. The East's year of resurgence takes a rain check.
I'll admit, this was one of my favorite offseason topics last August. The Nets had landed two Hall of Famers and made what looked like the value signing of the offseason in Kirilenko, Chicago had a healthy Rose and another emerging wing stopper in Jimmy Butler, Indiana seemed to poise to contend and the Heat remained the Heat. Not to mention the Knicks, who were coming off of their winningest season a decade and a half. But of course, the Knicks had to implode, Brooklyn started off slow then lost it's best player for the season, and Derrick Rose continues to be the saddest story in the NBA since Grant Hill. What's so ironic is that this pitiful, disastrous year for the conference was supposed to be a comeback season.

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5. Kevin Durant is INSANE!
All the talk two years ago when OKC made the Finals about "wow, this kid's only 23" is starting to come full circle. Durant's having one of the greatest individual seasons in the history of the league (LeBron would mention that he's been doing that for the past 5 years). Without Westbrook most of the year, Durant has led the Thunder to the best record in the best conference at the all-star break. He's had 30-point sreaks, 40-point streaks, triple-doubles, game-winners, and he's still improving on every part of his game. What we're seeing from him is just magical. Where I think Durant is underrated this season is on the defensive end, where he ranks 45th overall in opposing ppp and 12th in isolation, both numbers well ahead of LeBron and Paul George. And offensively, there's nothing he isn't doing. Per Synergy, he ranks top 50 as far as ppp in every offensive situation, including 6th in isolation and 4th as a pick and roll ball handler. Not to mention a near 50-40-90 line and 31-8-6 nightly averages. Yeesh.

5 Things that I Think Will Happen 

1. The Western playoff race will be more exciting than the first two rounds of East series.
There are a lot of teams jockeying for a lot of position in the West right now. The 2 through 5 seeds are all within two games and the 6-8 are all within one, with Memphis is lurking just outside and New Orleans and Minnesota set to make mad dashes to please their owner/Kevin Love. In the east, the second round will most likely feature two of Brooklyn, Atlanta, Toronto and Chicago. The best player on any of those teams is either Kyle Lowry or Paul Millsap, while in the West, chances are there will be no Marc Gasol, Kevin Love, or Anthony Davis in the postseason. Maybe even no Stephen Curry.


2. The Knicks will (try to) panic trade at the deadline
I happened upon the Jeff Teague rumor as I was writing this section. After James Dolan refused to let them trade for Kyle Lowry when his value was at its lowest (since then he's been one of the three best point guards in the conference), he'll pull a Mega-Dolan and demand they offload more future assets for a mediocre player. The Knicks should have pulled the trigger on a Shumpert deal while they had the chance, considering he's a combo guard (supposedly) whose averages amount to fewer than 10 points and 3 assists per 36 minutes. Timmy Hardaway Jr., 'Melo, and Chandler are the only players on the roster with any tangible value, so chances are they try to trade some picks, but I'm not sure if anyone will buy what they're selling.

3. The Sixers will trade Evan Turner and the Pacers will trade Danny Granger
While I'm not totally sure who gets Turner, I see him going to a team who has enough assets that they can ditch one for a little more relevance this season. I think chances are he ends up shipped to Charlotte for Ben Gordon's expiring and one of their 3 mid-first rounders. As for Granger, chances are he'll be shipped off for some bench help, although Indiana needs to be careful about taking on money if they want to extend Lance next summer. Regardless, Larry Bird isn't one to let an asset like Granger's expiring flounder so chances are he flips it for some help, possibly hometown hero and financial question mark Eric Gordon.

4. The Heat will not win the championship.
Call it wishful thinking if you want. The Heat are incredibly lucky to be playing in the Eastern conference and that will help them breeze through the first few rounds of the postseason. But if all goes as planned and they have to play Indiana on the road with Oklahoma City awaiting in the Finals, I just don't think they can do it. They're a very good team, but they've shown tangible weakness this year and Oklahoma has the potential to tear them to shreds on offense, with Indiana punishing them inside and on D. They won so many important games by the skin of their teeth last year that I feel like it might just be someone else's time. Don't count it as a promise, but their road to another ring looks tougher than it has the past few years.

5. Award pick time.
MVP-  Kevin Durant
Even if he slows the pace down a little, with the season he's having and intense voter fatigue, he should finally take it home.

Defensive Player of the Year- Roy Hibbert
If media members voted after the playoffs, Hibbert would have won the award last year by a mile.

Rookie of the Year- Michael Carter-Williams
Stats are inflated, but the talent is their. Long arms are a terror on defense for opposing point guards.

Sixth Man of the Year- Markieff Morris(?)
There are a lot of solid candidates this year (Lin, Crawford, Reggie Jackson), but they've all started a few too many games due to injuries to contend. Kinda silly, but the greater Morris has been a killer.

Most Improved- Goran Dragic
Could choose the Brow here, but I feel like this award should be given to someone who improves out of the blue versus making a natural progression as a freak athlete. 

All-NBA
1st Team- Paul, Curry, LeBron, Durant, Aldridge
2nd Team- Lillard, Harden, George, Griffin, Howard
3rd Team- Dragic, Wade, Nowitzki, Love, Davis



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99 Things I'd Rather Be Doing than Watching Jeff Green Take Another Pull Up 3
Just saying.



Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hoophall Classic 2014: Some Pretty Solid Basketball


I walked into the Hoophall Classic with the expectation that the games featuring elite high school teams would look something like Zach Randolph playing in the Chinese league. Outside of my own experiences as point guard on a small prep team in Western Mass (if you're thinking Northfield Mount Hermon, think a few thousand levels lower),  I've had virtually no exposure to high level amateur ball.

From what I had taken from statistical averages, the first 100 pages of Shaq's autobiography, and Hoopmixtape, I had inferred that games like this mainly consisted of top level prospects on each team scoring roughly 40 points, the complimentary players hitting spot up jumpers off of double teams, and games coming down to absurd stepback jumpers and tip slams. The talent drop between NBA prospects and supporting players seemed like it would be massive. And if you had two blue chippers on one team, well, it was over.


The first game I saw on Monday seemed to validate my expectations. I walked in to find Wesleyan Christian's UNC-bound Theo Pinson raining stepback three after stepback three against Findlay Prep, scoring 14 in the first 5 minutes. Findlay responded with tough defense on Pinson from Kelly Oubre, a Kansas signee and the third ranked small forward in the country, and Rashad Vaughan, the number two shooting guard and top unsigned player in the nation. Pinson was limited to 5 points in the second half as Oubre and the uber-athletic Findlay ran circles around Wesleyan on the break en route to a 30 point blowout.

This game provided the absurdity that I had so expected. You see, Findlay Prep isn't actually a high school. The program consists of recruits from all over the world living together in a big house with private tutors, all financed by 6-8 World War II veteran and car dealership magnate, Cliff Findlay. You couldn't make this stuff up. So really, what I just witnessed was a 22-3 specialized program of 11 kids representing 7 nations shellacking the 289th ranked school in the country. Everything seemed to be on course.



The second matchup on the docket featured No. 1 recruit Jahlil Okafor's Whitney Young competing against the perennial powerhouse that is Oak Hill Academy. For those who don't know, the alumni of Oak Hill include Rajon Rondo, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Josh Smith and not one, but two of the greatest Stacks we've ever seen, Stephen Jackson and Jerry Stackhouse. With legendary coach Steve Smith's squad going up against a Chicago public school with the top prospect in the country, this matchup seemed to promise some exciting play.

From what I had seen of Okafor on DraftExpress and YouTube, he seemed to be very large, pretty coordinated and sort of quick. The big man (who is actually younger than me) did nothing to prove me wrong over the course of the game, showing some impressive passing and flashes of a post game in a dissapointing, foul ridden performance. Oak Hill's defensive execution in the first half would have made Tom Thibodeau blush, doubling Okafor on every touch and making every rotation out to the three point line. Yet Whitney Young managed to make a fourth quarter comeback behind some stellar transition play and a very strong outing from lanky power forward Paul White. The 6-8 Georgetown commit finished with 19 points and 11 boards and looked like the best player on the floor with patient inside play and a consistent mid-range jumper.

I have to say that at this point, I was starting to reevaluate my understanding of these games. What I saw in the last game was some very, very good fundamental basketball. A whole lot of running, defensive intensity, rebounding and ball movement. I was struck by how Okafor, a 6-10 power player seen as clumsy with the ball, could so easily fire cross court passes out of double teams. In approaching this exhibition with no context by which to judge the quality of play, I was incredibly impressed by what I saw. It seemed as if the overseas Z-Bo analogy was seeming less and less suitable.



Then Cliff Alexander happened. The 6-9, 240 future Jayhawk walked on during warmups and the whole place seemed to gasp. When you saw his massive frame striding towards the rim in layup lines, "how can they stop this guy?" seemed the only appropriate response. So when Alexander and his Curie High (also a Chicago public school) teammates took the floor against the No. 1 ranked Montverde Academy, there was a tangible Cliff vs. the World atmosphere about the gym.

Boy, was that guy unstoppable. A typical Alexander possession went like this: catches the ball next to the rim, draws a double, dishes to his teammate who misses a layup, and then follows with a putback slam. Alexander was strong enough to make triple teams irrelevant. Curie's Josh Stamps, a paper thin 2 guard with a solid outside shot, threw down what was certainly dunk of the weekend at the end of the second half (I've been waiting for an upload for 24 hours) and ended up finishing with 20 points.

Yet Montverde's steady three-point shooting and explosive transition game gave them an edge for most of the game, with an offense featuring top shooting guard D'Angelo Russell and elite junior Aussie Ben Simmons. Simmons' had more than a few throwdowns in transition and on the offensive boards, making him the next player to fill the surprisingly relevant niche of mixed race, hyper athletic power forward and dooming him to endless Blake Griffin and Aaron Gordon comparisons for years to come.



Despite being up double digits at the beginning of the fourth, Montverde just couldn't contain the big dude (who, again, is younger than me), who dropped 16 in the final frame. Cliff's dominant, forceful play was something I expected to see from the very beginning, yet it was interspersed with enough poise and finesse to promise a serious future. Alexander finished with 30 points, 12 boards and 5 blocks with an impressive 8-8 night from the free throw line. While it remains to be seen whether Alexander will play an undersized center type role or adapt his skills to the four, it's hard to him imagine him not excelling at each of the next two levels.

Part of what was so enjoyable about this experience was its potential for nostalgia. What if Alexander becomes (as his Ballislife mixtape title suggests) the next Dwight Howard, what if Okafor lives up to his hype and Kelly Oubre becomes the next great athletic wing. Even if none of the players I saw have remotely impressive careers, I'll still be glad to have seen some incredible athletes play an incredible game at such a young age.

Personally, Hoophall represented a stark realization of my entry into a new phase of fandom. Now, for the first time in my life, I am older than some of the athletes I obsess over and the number of such athletes will only increase for the rest of my life. I'll almost certainly struggle with this change of dynamic, as the days of boyhood idolization seem to be coming to a close. A much more cynical approach to the world of sports seems to lie in wait (I could write for days about how totally twisted the high school recruiting process is), but the condensed athleticism and wonder at Hoophall was a pleasant distraction and a reminder of just how fun ball can be.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Depressingly Perpetual Evolution of the NCAA



It's hard to know what to make of college basketball this year. This isn't to say that there aren't any excellent teams. The mainstays (MSU, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, etc...) are predictably stacked while Wisconsin, Arizona and Oklahoma State could have their best teams ever. The era of the mid-major continues as Wichita State shows that last year's cinderella run was no fluke and (Western Mass's own) UMass is now ranked for the first time since Calipari was coaching Camby. Coinciding with an extremely broad playing field is what is easily greatest freshman class college basketball has seen since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant ran things in '06-07. Watching Jabari Parker and Julius Randle is like watching a more committed Carmelo Anthony and a more athletic Zach Randolph sent down a level as a publicity stunt. Aaron Gordon and Andrew Wiggins have turned their jaw-dropping athleticism into some solid play for their squads as NBA scouts foam at the mouth. All in all, there's a lot to entertain us in men's basketball this season

But there's an undeniable air of uncertainty surrounding this year's abundant pool of talent. For we all know that, come April, the majority of the teams we have grown to recognize will disband for greener pastures. We’re now more than twenty years removed from the era of the Laettner shot, the Fab Five, a time when the college “dynasty” wasn’t such a foreign concept. Among major programs, it seems as if “one-and-done” is the way to go for any highly ranked prospect heading into freshman year.  Even those who would benefit most from an extra year or two of development still choose to jump to the pros early. Over the past few years, we’ve seen four of the five most highly touted recruits sacrifice higher draft standing (Drummond, Rivers, Muhammad and Noel, Anthony Davis being the exception) to enter the pros after wildly disappointing freshmen seasons. Andrew Wiggins has practically declared already and its likely that the collegiate level will be without all of its current star freshmen next year. To make the leap when you can seems like a no-brainer for most players now. 

And it's easy to see why.

I don't feel as if justifying the decision of a freshman to declare for the draft deserves its own paragraph. If a young man is given the opportunity to join the best players in the world for millions of dollars versus toiling away at an amateur level while receiving no tangible benefits, he will likely accept the former proposition. Every once in a while, there is the notable exception of a Marcus Smart or Jared Sullinger choosing to stay at school, making a decision that is nobody's but their own. Yet some of these instances have only made skeptics of their peers. Jared Sullinger opted not to leave Ohio State following a superb freshman year, forgoing a draft in which he was a mortal lock to be a lottery pick. After an injury plagued sophomore year, Sullinger dropped all the way to 21st overall, making about half as much as he would have had he declared a year earlier. Seeing as experience plays essentially no role in determining one's draft standing at this point (see: Kyrie Irving, Enes Kanter), even those with something to prove are prone to jumping early.

The NCAA has much to gain from this system. Given their TV deal with ESPN, the brass can essentially market men's basketball as an NBA farm system, as well as always being able to bank on ratings come March. Having different teams season after season adds a level of intrigue to the game, not unlike getting a new car every year as opposed to attaching sentimental value to a reliable station wagon. And of course, with players no longer able to jump from high school, the NCAA is guaranteed to have a fresh crop of players year-by-year to reap massive profit through at no expense of their own. All while coming off as the good guys trying to give underprivileged kids an education.  Like the great Charlie Pierce wrote, "give Americans a chance to be greedy and noble at the same time, and the cultural momentum becomes unstoppable." The NBA obviously loves for the talent to come in as soon as it can and drafting out of high school proved to be thin ice, leaving nearly all parties involved in the transitional process satisfied.

This leaves only us. The fans. And to be honest, I'm not going to stop watching anytime soon. Seeing beasts like Randle and Parker tear it up all over the floor never gets old, you still have your fun sleepers like the Shockers and the Wisconsin Buzzcuts, and Dick Vitale is still wonderfully insane. But I don't consider myself a "college basketball purists". My first true NCAA memory was watching the Orange win the title only to have Carmelo leave after one season. Even if I feel that March Madness is the most exciting sporting event on the planet, I've always considered the college game secondary to the NBA, so the Minor-League Basketball dynamic sort of works for me. But I'm certainly disappointed that the Horford-Noah-Brewer Florida team may be the last true back-to-back champion we see (it won't count if Coach Cal wins consecutive years with various starting lineups of top freshman recruits). Any sports fan desires a certain level of consistency, something finite enough to hold onto as a memory. However, ratings are still up for the NCAA so there's practically no reason to believe that the current system will change. 

One has to wonder if we'll ever see a Tim Duncan again, a dominant four year player who stays until graduation due to a moral obligation. Despite what wage statistics may indicate, there is still some value in a college education, especially on the financial management side. Just ask Antoine Walker. But even Duncan was an anomaly of his era and who knows when another glitch in the system will rise again. Until it does, I'll be content sitting here watching Aaron Gordon's Hoopmixtape. 

Tip-ins
  • You have to admire what Vivek Ranadive is doing in his attempts to bring the Kings back to relevancy. He's built a super athletic starting five featuring some wildly inconsistent building blocks. If I'm any GM in the league, I'm looking to exploit Sacramento's misguided win-now attempts. How's Rondo for McLemore and a top-5 protected pick sound?
  • Kudos to the NBA to be the first league to take major initiative in appealing to stat geeks. The video-log of stats combined with the SportVU tracking data is totally fantastic stuff to get lost in on a week night. It's fun to know that the Spurs have four players in the top ten for most distanced covered per 48 minutes.
  • Speaking of the NBA video logs, have a look at DeAndre Jordan's free throw shooting when you get the chance. The guy has elevated the missed free throw to a legit form of art. You never know where or how he'll miss. Left of the rim, right of the rim, top of the backboard, nothing but air, it's like a game within a game. Congrats on the 13 boards per game though, D.J.
  • The Phoenix Suns would have a death grip on the third seed if they played in the eastern conference. Miles Plumlee is looking like a real player, whichever one of the Morris twins is better is serving solid interior presence and stretch 4, and Eric Bledsoe is an absolute terror on both ends of the floor. The Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt bears some similarities to the experimental Hardaway-Kidd set Phoenix had at the turn of the century, but they look to be headed for more success.
  • Trade season has picked up surprisingly quickly this NBA year. We've already seen two rumor plagued guys shipped off (Williams and Gay) and Kyle Lowry was one over-involved owner away from changing hands too. In the midst of a crazy season with an impending crazy offseason, expect a lot of teams to hit the panic button. Now that players signed last summer are eligible to be traded, expect some serious wheeling and dealing in the upcoming weeks.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Southeast Division Preview

Southeast


Miami Heat (4-2)
Best case: The king continues his dominance en route to another MVP. Wade continues to stall father time while the supporting cast keeps spacing the floor and playing tight defense. The Heat power their way through the league once again and capture the elusive threepeat.
Worst case: Wade starts to fall of while Bosh loses some effectiveness on both sides of the floor. Miami coasts through the regular season and enters the postseason lacking the advantage which was so crucial to last year's title run. LeBron essentially serves as a one man show as the Heat fall early and face the terrible uncertainty of free agency.
Chances are... The law of averages stands against Miami this year. They won too many bizarre games last year and seemed to be the only contender blessed with good health. Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn all have the ability to match Miami's small ball lineups while also possessing the size to bully them inside. Miami will be elite yet again, but they will ultimately fall to one of the new eastern contenders.

Orlando Magic (3-3)
Best case: Young guns Vucevic, Tobias Harris and Mo Harkless continue to excel. Victor Oladipo looks like the guy who should have been the number one pick while Orlando still loses a lot of games. Throw in a top draft pick and you have a very solid young core.
Worst case: Orlando's youngsters don't mesh well in the second year of the rebuild as guys like Harris and Vucevic start to hit their ceilings. Oladipo struggles to adjust to the NBA game while a disgruntled Glen Davis wreaks havoc upon the locker room.
Chances are... Orlando will be just fine. They'll be bad this year, but if they can add a guy like Jabari Parker or Julius Randle and sign a few solid vets this offseason, watch out.


Charlotte Bobcats (3-3)
Best case: Charlotte sees legitimate improvement from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, justifying their 2nd overall selection. Al Jefferson scores enough to fill the seats while Kemba and Gerald Henderson continue to look like serviceable pros. If all goes as planned, than they have a legitimate shot at a low playoff seed.
Worst case: MKG is ineffective while the Bobcats lose out on some lottery luck yet again. Charlotte's reversion to the Hornets is somehow derailed and they retain the worst team name in sports indefinitely.
Chances are... The Bobcats won't be unwatchable this year. While I would usually attack this method of mediocrity, its just refreshing to see Charlotte play anything other than eye-gougingly terrible basketball. They'll still miss the playoffs though.

Washington Wizards (2-3)
Best case: John Wall instantly justifies his max deal and takes The Leap. Brad Beal plays like he did at the end of last season and works as an elite spot up shooter. The mind-numbingly hilarious low post tandem of Nene and Gortat plays solid two way ball and creates numerous opportunities for some inventive screen plays. Jan Vesely shows why he was drafted 8 picks before Kawhi Leonard (just kidding). Washington's starting five meshes on both ends and the Wiz see their first playoff appearance of the John Wall era.
Worst case: Wall continues to miss time and reverts to his habit of playing like a bull in a china shop. Beal struggles to adapt to newfound defensive attention. Nene continues to run into health issues and Washington finds no production off its bench en route to yet another lottery selection.
Chances are... Considering the explosiveness of their backcourt mixed with the skill and size of their bigs, the Wizards will finally break the glass ceiling and make the playoffs. If healthy, this team is to talented to remain with the bottom-feeders of the east.



Atlanta Hawks (2-3)
Best case: Al Horford and Paul Millsap make up an old-school, under-the-rim low post to drive a solid inside-out offense. The seasoned Mike Budenholzer should draw up some solid defensive schemes to hold down the other end of the floor. The Hawks will find themselves in the heat of the playoff chase as always.
Worst case: Really not that much worse than the best case. Jeff Teague could stagnate and the Hawks will probably need a wing with more than one skill. The promising Dennis Schroder could lose some potency buried on the bench. The Hawks will have their issues, but they're far enough removed from the bottom-feeders of the conference to have much fear of missing the playoffs.
Chances are... First round exit. The only real difference between the Hawks and the Bucks is that Atlanta will lose their series in six or seven games while Milwaukee gets swept. I can't think of a Hawks team in recent memory that has either exceeded or failed to meet their expectations.