Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 NBA Playoff Preview and Predictions

You don’t need me to tell you that the 2014 NBA playoffs will be the most exciting in years. The discrepancy between the East and the West is tremendous in terms of conference quality but within each conference there are great stories…and we know that the Finals are going to be competitive.

The main question for me is do I stick with my pre-season playoff picks or pull a 180 on my champion and other rounds results? I did correctly hit 12 of the 16 playoff teams but seeding ended up…a bit off. That is attributable to the incredible parity within the league because there are few clear favorites.

Since there are no clear favorites this year, the NBA paved the way for a few bold predictions on my part. (Comment with your own below.) Bold prediction #1: Kevin Durant will average 40 in one series. KD has been on a well-documented scoring tear for…well, the length of the season. He joined two of the most elite scorers in NBA history, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, by leading the league in total scoring for five consecutive years. He’s bound to shred opposing defenses throughout these playoffs, but I see him either a) taking advantage of the Grizzlies in round 1 and putting up 40 a game or b) in the Finals turning it up a notch and going full MJ.

Bold prediction #2: no series in the entire playoffs will end in a sweep. The favorite to prove me wrong on this one is Miami over Charlotte, with an outside shot to Chicago shutting down Washington. Joakim Noah and the Bulls truly have an “us against the world” mentality after their front office dealt one of the team’s core players, Luol Deng. They’re even out to prove their own team (management) wrong! But in the end, John Wall and Kemba Walker won’t let it happen. And Dwyane Wade still needs a warm-up series.

The final bold prediction will have to wait for one of the below series analyses. It will be worth the wait…and just remember that these are bold predictions. I’m not out here claiming Indiana will beat Atlanta and calling it anything more than a given. Although if Paul George continues his downward spiral, you never know. And at this rate, Roy Hibbert appears to have a better chance rebounding the saliva Frank Vogel spews after another missed box-out than hauling down a basketball from the glass.


Eastern conference

(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (8) Atlanta Hawks

When your leader scorers are Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague, you’re going to have problems. That’s not to say that Millsap hasn’t improved as a scorer, but you can’t win a playoff series with him leading the way. Gus Fring had a better chance of surviving Hector Salamanca’s murder-suicide blast. It’s unfortunate because an Indiana vs. Charlotte series could have gotten veeeery interesting if Kemba and Al played to their offensive capabilities and the Pacers struggled to score 90. Or even if Al Horford returned (which he won’t). Indiana wins, 4-1

(4) Chicago Bulls vs. (5) Washington Wizards

John Wall is finally here! Like Kyrie Irving, he was one of those guys you looked at and said, “man, why isn’t this guy on a playoff squad?” Well, folks, here he is, battling a ferocious Chicago team that is so good that Brooklyn pulled off the NBA’s first tank-for-a-lower-seed strategy. Although Wall’s FG% leaves much to be desired, his reckless abandon at attacking the rim is something that keeps defenses on their toes. Trevor Ariza might be the most underrated role player in the league, with a respectable 14-6-3, 1.6 steals per game, and a tidy 46-41-77 shooting. Washington will work their wizardry for a couple games but Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah anchor one of the NBA’s best defenses.
            Somewhere in Minnesota, Kevin Love is mulling over his options and banging his head against the snow wondering why he had to get stuck in the Western conference while John Wall gets a free ride to the playoffs. I am now telling Kevin Love EXACTLY where to take his talents (said in Tim Taylor voice from a famous 1971 movie). Chicago wins, 4-2

(2) Miami Heat vs. (6) Charlotte Bobcats

It’s nice that Charlotte gets a shot at the playoffs for the second time in franchise history but we all know how this one will end up. The one minor story that will be interesting to watch play out is MKG defending LeBron. We all know Kidd-Gilchrist for some of his facials, but he won’t be throwing down any on LeBron. His defense, on the other hand, will be interesting to watch. As will how Miami defends Al Jefferson in the post. But “interesting” here is relative. Miami wins, 4-1.

(3) Toronto Raptors vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets

I tossed and turned over this pick. I got some heat for it from readers, and rightfully so. Both teams are talented but in diametrically opposed ways: one with a grind-it-out half-court offense and another one with high-flyers. Yes, Toronto started from the bottom and now they have Terrence Ross, Kyle Lowry, and Demar Derozan. Those guys make up a terrific trio. But I’m pulling the plug and taking the old guys on this one. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have too much pride to not get out of the first round. Brooklyn wins, 4-3

Western conference

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (8) Dallas Mavericks

We arrive at the battle for Texas. A bunch of old guys running the show on both ends: Duncan, Ginobili, and Popovich vs. Dirk, Vinsanity Senior, and Shawn Marion. Monta Ellis will provide a match-up problem for San Antonio, but (as always) Dr. Popovich, Ph.D will figure it out. It’s almost pointless analyzing the Spurs because you can try to pull out the “can’t guard Dirk” or “they’re too old” cards but when Pop rests his team for the playoffs you know San Antonio will dine on lesser opponents. Dirk and Monta will pull out a game or two, but Dallas can only dream upsetting the West’s no. 1 seed (cue the nightmarish flashbacks to 2007 for Mavs fans). San Antonio wins, 4-1

(4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trailblazers

Trailblazers. The Trailblazers. (Skip to 3:01.)

I know I’m not with Lil Wayne on this one, but Houston is simply more talented. The team with the best duo will win this series and that edge has to be given to James Harden and Dwight Howard. Oakland native, Damian Lillard, and All-Star forward, LMA, have a great squad but their stretch in early March was enough to make you wonder about the team that had the best record in the West early in the season. Even if Houston has to remove Dwight from late game situations, Harden + free throw line = wins. Houston wins, 4-2

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (7) Memphis Grizzlies

Kevin Durant is not nice and Kevin Durant has not forgotten. The embarrassment that he underwent in the 2013 NBA playoffs losing to the Grizzlies and his improvement since then is enough to lead OKC to the conference semis. The individual games will be competitive, but Memphis will be lucky to win two games. I would not be surprised if bold prediction #1 comes true in round 1. Oklahoma City wins, 4-1.

(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

Not a single ESPN writer chose the Warriors to win, which isn’t surprising considering the Clippers have one of the most loaded rosters in the league. But when you remember that not a single ESPN personality picked Golden State to win round 1 in 2013 (and GS won), I have my ammo for your disagreement with this pick. One topic is obvious, though: this series hinges on the battle of the point guards. Bold prediction #3: Steph Curry proves in this series that he is a better point guard than Chris Paul.
            In the frontcourt, Blake vs. DLee will be fun to watch, too. I’m going to go ahead and place the over-under for fights in this series at 2.5. I’m taking the over.


Eastern conference

(1) Indiana Pacers vs. (4) Chicago Bulls

Luck is truly in Indiana’s favor for these playoffs. They should be thanking Brooklyn for the worlds-most-interesting-tank because if this were Brooklyn instead of Chicago, I’d take Brooklyn. Alas, it is not and the reality is that Chicago is a poor-man’s Indiana. Joakim Noah is a contender for NBA Defensive Player of the Year but he doesn’t have the support around him to score…even against an offensively-challenged Indiana team. This series is more likely to have teams score under 80 than above 100. Indiana wins, 4-2.

(2) Miami Heat vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets

Everybody is salivating over two potential individual matchups this post-season: LeBron vs. Durant and LeBron vs. Paul Pierce. The former would make for the most interesting Finals matchup since Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird and the latter is the matchup of someone who can be perceived as passive vs. one of the fieriest competitors in the NBA (as a black mamba hisses at me). PP34 and KG are well past their prime and will probably log limited minutes but multiple fourth quarter battles of King James vs. The Truth? Yes, please.
            Jason Kidd has pulled off a minor miracle with the new Nets but ultimately playing against the best player of the game will be enough to win what would be a very exciting series. Miami wins, 4-3.

Take a reading break to enjoy the facial expressions on LeBron's and D-Will's faces. Joe's isn't too bad, either.

Western conference

(1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (4) Houston Rockets

Kawhi Leonard defending James Harden would be great to watch. James Harden not guarding Kawhi Leonard would also be fun to watch. Defense matters against the Spurs, because in addition to that PhD, Popovich also has a surgical degree in taking apart bad defenses. The man who popularized Hack-a-Shaq will not be afraid to take similar measures against Houston. The Rockets will run out of fuel in San Antonio. San Antonio wins, 4-2

(2) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (6) Golden State Warriors

The league’s best scorer, Kevin Durant, vs. one of the league’s best perimeter defenders, Andre Iguodala. Last time it didn’t end so well, with KD matching Steph Curry’s career-high in scoring for a single game but over the course of a seven-game series, this could get reaaaally interesting. My pre-season pick to make it to the Finals was the Golden State Warriors, but I can’t in my right mind pick them to beat OKC without Andrew Bogut. If the Warriors come together in this series and really click—and shoot—they certainly have an outside shot (no pun intended). Either way, this would also be another fun series to watch unfold. Oklahoma City wins, 4-2


Eastern conference

Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat

Indiana has made this the best rivalry in the NBA with their utter hatred of the Heat. While the Heat-haters had a viable reason to believe that the Pacers could win the East early in the season, it doesn’t look that way now. Dwayne Wade has been on a training program this entire year that has set him up to be as healthy as possible during the playoffs—like a Popovich scheme to the extreme. Wade told the Miami Herald that his knee is doing “very well” and “a lot better than going into it last year.” And with Chris Bosh emerging as a clutch shooter, the Heat are well-prepared for yet another deep post-season run. Miami wins, 4-3

Western conference

San Antonio Spurs vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

This series is like Toronto vs. Brooklyn 2.0. The young guys vs. the old guys…except San Antonio leaning heavily on Kawhi and OKC leaning (lightly) on Derek Fisher from the bench. Kevin Durant vs. Kawhi Leonard would be yet another heavyweight battle, but this is the year of the Durantula. OKC’s bench does cause some worry in this series because San Antonio with Patty Mills & Co. make up the second-best second unit in basketball (Clippers).
            Here’s where a bonus prediction comes in. Durant and Westbrook will need someone to help step up in crunch-time because the greats always do as the playoffs wear on. Bold prediction #4: Derek Fisher hits a game-winner in the Western conference finals.
            And that will be enough to propel OKC over San Antonio. Oklahoma City wins, 4-3.


Miami Heat vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

It would take the second time in three years for LeBron James and Kevin Durant to meet in the Finals for this to finally be considered a rivalry. Neither player has a particularly hostile personality but this Finals matchup would certainly change that. 1) Kevin Durant is desperate to prove that he is not the second-best player in the league. A championship would bolster his argument for best in the league, especially against LeBron and the Heat. 2) LeBron knows KD is coming. He feels the doubters questioning his team and knows if Miami doesn’t win this year that there is a chance the team falls apart with Wade’s ailing knees.
            KD made me question my pre-season pick, but I predicted Miami to win the 2012 and 2013 titles so I’m sticking with them for 2014 and the first three-peat since the 00-02 Lakers. LeBron puts up 30-8-7 and confirms his position as the greatest forward in NBA history with another Finals MVP win. Miami wins the NBA Finals, 4-3.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Why Steph Curry is the best point guard in the NBA

Whenever discussion of the best point guard in the NBA comes up, the answer usually defaults on either Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo. Although the love for Rondo this year has diminished as a result of his early-season injury, his championship pedigree has earned him the position among the NBA’s elite. Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker are also premiere point guards who are in the debate for that top tier but something is still missing with both, a thought we'll hold onto for later.

But when you look at a guy that you could unequivocally build a contender around, you have to give the edge to Warriors point guard, Steph Curry.

Despite his small stature, Curry improved in scoring output in each of his five seasons in the league while simultaneously improving his playmaking for teammates by dishing out dimes at a higher rate as well. Once he was given reigns of the organization after the Monta Ellis trade, the team has improved astronomically.

The front office from owner Joe Lacob to GM Bob Myers has certainly been pivotal in saving basketball in the Bay Area, bringing in pieces that fit well with each other and under Mark Jackson. But the foundation of the improvement is Steph Curry. Unlike any other point guard in the league, Curry possesses the unique capability of being an unselfish leader…who can also score from anywhere on the floor. You can watch a Warriors game and wonder why Curry isn’t shooting more than he already is.

He reminded us, too, that he can do things like this with the game on the line…in overtime and in a critical game in the playoff race. And finishing it off with grounds for a new hashtag trend never hurts either. #WeOut

That scoring capability is something that Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo simply don’t have. Neither are really go-to scorers in the final minutes of the game like Curry is. He possesses the LeBron James-esque nature to flash back and forth between facilitating and scoring. This brilliance is both effective from the team’s standpoint and also from a pure entertainment standpoint. Stephen A. Smith has pointed out multiple times on First Take that there isn’t a more fun team to watch.

Tony Parker is a tough case to look at because while he is individually talented, the Popovich system has endowed success on a whole generation of Spurs players surrounded by Pop and the greatest power forward of all time, Tim Duncan. I think of Pop’s Spurs a lot like Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots in the NFL: the coach and his superstar run the show, and everyone else fits in. Somehow you can always book on their teams being competitive. Always. Even if their star is a future Hall of Famer is 37 years old going on 38. Parker is in that limbo state where you can’t quite make up your mind on his individual talent because the team he runs is a classic example of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

But with Kawhi Leonard’s recent surge to the center of the organization, Parker has to be in that top second tier of point guards in the NBA today that you want to both a) win now and b) have to help you win in the future.

Russell Westbrook is a monstrous competitor and a perennial All-Star but he is really more of an undersized shooting guard running the point who can have a tendency to get into his own head a bit at times. High energy has led him to some boneheaded turnovers in the past and a career-high TO per game this year at 4.0.

Curry’s prowess is second-to-none, but I would be remiss to neglect the areas where he still can—and will—improve. Crazy one-handed overhead passes off of pick-and-rolls have led Curry to a career-high 3.7 turnovers per game. That highlights some poor decision-making of his which has been a problem for the Warriors in their home losses to some of the league’s bottom-tier teams. This is something that will be remedied with time because the increased load on Curry’s shoulders is new to the 26-year-old.

The demand to support his team in all facets of the game offensively has strained his efficiency from behind the three-point line to the point where he’s shooting a “terrible” career-low of 42 percent on threes. All of this while hovering around the top of the league in usage rate at almost 30 percent.

Defensively, Curry takes a lot of heat, and I would argue unfairly so. The eye-test certainly leans you to believe that he isn’t quick enough to keep up with guys like John Wall and Chris Paul, but he still fairs rather well in all defensive metrics. Hauling in four rebounds a game and 1.5 steals per game is rather remarkable for a guy who is 185 pounds. If you buy Ben Morris’ study that found a steal is worth nine points and is by far the most irreplaceable box score stat, then Curry fairs quite well, trailing only CP3 in this category among star point guards. Even in defensive win shares, one of a host of advanced metrics measuring a player’s defensive value, Curry just barely falls outside of the top-20 players in the league.

Steals are clearly something that are rare (and apparently 96 percent irreplaceable per

I don’t think even the most ardent Curry supporter would argue he is a wizard on the defensive side of the ball but he is far from terrible.

Numbers hardly give the full picture of what a player does but Curry clearly ranks among the league’s best in a host of critical categories, including scoring (sixth in the league), assists (fourth), threes made (first), minutes (15th), FT percentage (sixth), and even turnovers (second. Oh wait, that’s not a good thing). Sometimes he can be a little spacey on the floor looking like he's thinking about who knows what (maybe Klay has rubbed off on him in that realm?) but he clearly has mutual respect going with his coach and the respect of all his teammates.

So mark me down as the first player who lays claim to the belief that Curry's vast skillset makes him the most valuable, and thus best, point guard. You could build a roster will many types of players and work around him as the featured scorer or featured facilitator and succeed more than any other point guard. The only other floor general close in this debate would be Chris Paul.

And, of course, you could do what the Warriors are doing right now which is use him as both...and make him what Bill Simmons called a future MVP candidate.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Kobe vs. LeBron: Why 61 was more impressive than 81

To say that LeBron James’ 61-point performance is more impressive than Kobe Bryant’s 81 might, at first glance, appear to defy mathematical logic. On Monday night, LeBron scored from everywhere. But he was still a staggering 20 points behind what Kobe poured in on a January night in 2006 against the Toronto Raptors.

I’m here to say that even with that differential in mind, LeBron James scoring 61 points is more impressive and important to his legacy than Kobe’s 81.

One of the huge (and valid) critiques of his game earlier in his career was the fact that LeBron couldn’t hit a three if he could jump far enough to dunk from behind the three-point line. His rookie season he shot less than 30 percent from beyond the arc and only averaged 33 percent there for the first eight seasons of his career. For a man who could rebound, facilitate, play outstanding defense, his one major flaw was the fact that he couldn’t shoot...from outside.

This performance put a stamp on LeBron’s effort to improve his three-point shot. Since losing to the Mavericks in 2011, he has shot 39 percent (!) from deep. And in his 61-point effort, he hit 8-of-10…a number that would be considered absurd shooting for a game, LeBron did from 3 as part of a 61-point show. By comparison, Kobe hit 7-of-13 in his 81-point game. In Michael Jordan’s 69-point game, he was 2-of-6.

Here is a one-minute clip with all eight of LeBron's threes from Mondaywith the final one being a good 30-feet from the basket.

Keith Olbermann went on a rant just a couple days ago proclaiming all of the reasons why LeBron’s performance was far from memorable. He was quick to mention that Carmelo Anthony scored 62 just 38 days earlier. (Of note: Anthony, too, did not make more or shoot more efficiently from three than LeBron.) That was also followed up by a discussion of Kobe’s brilliant scoring performances. Olbermann forgot one big thing that most other people neglect, as well.

Kobe, Carmelo, and Jordan all are shoot-first players whose teams depend on them to put points on the board. While LeBron gets his shots, he is known for being an efficiency player. His FGA per game has decreased over each of the last four years. His FG% on the other hand has increased in each of the previous eight seasons.

For an efficiency scorer, as opposed to a volume scorer, you wouldn’t expect a LeBron James-type player to score 60+ simply because that’s not what his game is predicated on. We know that LeBron brings to the table a playmaker’s mentality as opposed to just a scorer’s mentality. This is well exhibited in the fact that LeBron already has more triple doubles (30) than Michael Jordan did in his entire career (28) and Kobe Bryant thus far (17).

High scoring performances are needed to validate the greatness of someone like Kobe Bryant. One of the defining moments in Bryant’s career is that performance because it is the top of the mountain of a career built on scoring. LeBron’s 61, on the other hand, validates the fact that he can score in bunches. It adds another piece to the growing masterful puzzle of a great career.

LeBron’s 61 may not be more than Kobe’s 81, but it is more impressive.