Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Thoughts on Opening Night

Obviously the highlight game, the one everyone was looking forward to (my wife watched it…she’s a Celtics fan, though is torn because she despises Shaq), was the Heat vs. the Celtics. And, while it got off to a rocky start for the Heat, all it took was for Lebron to grab control of the game and almost single-handedly pull the Heat to within one triple of tying the game with a minute to go in the fourth quarter.

The fact the Celtics have been playing together for a couple of seasons was enough to push them ahead. While I think the Heat will eventually be a formidable team (as long as the big three stay healthy) I can’t help but point out that the Cs were integrating new, large pieces into their style of play as well. Love Rajon Rondo's 17 assists and 3 turnovers, but he still can't shoot 2-9, which has got to be somewhat disappointing for Celtics' fans hoping to see Rondo take his game to superstar levels. If he continues with that busted jumper, his ceiling is all-star occasional game-changer. If he could hit threes? Top three point guard easily.

On a side note, watch out for Jermaine O’Neal who is really in an ideal situation to have a helluva year—efficiency-wise at the very least. He’ll get to split time with Shaq, Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett, so he won’t be exposed to 30-plus minutes of banging down low every night. The dude is only 32 and had an underrated season last year with Miami (though all anybody remembers is his horrific playoffs). While he can’t dominate with size like Shaq, and he’s not the beast of a defender that Kendrick Perkins is, overall, JO is definitely the Cs best all-around center.

As for the Heat, they’ll be fine, though 72 wins never seemed so far away. And they are going to struggle mightily against teams with big centers.

Tuesday, the Heat tallied 17 turnovers to only 15 assists. Bosh had 8 points and 8 boards on 3-11 shooting, while Wade shot 4-16 with 6 assists and 6 turnovers. Lebron had 31 points and 3 assists, but turned the ball over 8 times. Cleaning up the turnovers will come with familiarity.

Another side note: while it's been said that the Heat will struggle to guard big centers, most notably Shaq and Dwight Howard, is it completely insane of me to think that Lebron should get some time covering Howard? Just a thought. Both are freak athletes, and while Bron gives up a couple of inches, he might actually weigh more than Howard. Of course, you don't want your best player getting in foul trouble, but he's never had that problem before. Besides, it wouldn't be for the whole game, but, I'm thinking they might have to go with that...unless Jamaal Magloire, Big Z and Joel Anthony are going to unload all 18 of their fouls on Howard.

That Houston tandem of Kevin Martin and Aaron Brooks is going to be a nightmare matchup. Both have slight frames, and therefore struggle defensively. But with Yao an intimidating presence in the key, one that can foul with abandon thanks to his strict 24-minute time limit, Martin and Brooks’ defensive liabilities will be masked to a great extent. That is the Yao effect.

For the Lakers, Pau Gasol has suddenly become the man on the team with Kobe working back from injury though, it’s hard to say ‘working back’, then read Kobe’s 27, 5, and 7 statline. Matter of fact, it’s hard to say Pau is the man when it was obvious he struggled a bit taking so many shots. Yao’s size had a lot to do with that, but Pau also settled for 8 jumpers outside the key. He hit one. It’s the first game and the first time Pau has been the go-to option on the Lakers, so he’ll improve. In fact, the broken play where he picked up Kobe’s fumbled drive and scored was the second biggest play of the game.

If Shannon Brown can continue to shoot like that? Sasha Vujacic won’t see the floor, which means his stock will continue to plummet, meaning when he becomes a free agent at the end of next June, the offers will be minimal. All that to say that the soon-to-be Mr. Sharapova might need to borrow from his wife-to-be in order to pay for that $250,000 rock he bought her. By the way, Shannon is leading the league in PER at this moment in time.

Bryant played extremely well on the offensive end, especially in light of the fact he’s in the latter stages of his rehab on his surgically repaired knee. But, his defense was atrocious. Martin and Lee both blew right by him like he was a traffic cone on several plays. One wonders if his lateral quickness will come back this season.

If it doesn’t, Kobe’ll be better at covering small forwards. And if Brown continues his stellar play and becomes the designated 2-stopper, than we might begin seeing that Brown, Blake, Kobe wing combo that finished Tuesday’s game a lot more often. Which means that Ron Artest is going to lose minutes. Wonder how that’s going to sit with him?

One last point and why I love Kobe so much. Coming out of a Lakers timeout at the 2:48 mark, the Lakers are up 103-97. Kobe has a chat with Steve Blake, moving his arm in a circle like he's diagramming a play. He’s teaching, or at least relaying to Blake the holes in the Houston defense that he sees.

Fast-forward to the end of the game, Lakers down by one point with 20 seconds left on the game clock, Kobe drives to the hoop, stutters, sucks the defense in, and then kicks it out. While it almost looks like a pass to Gasol, who pulls his hands away at the last second, the ball sails perfectly into Blake's hands as he is circling back up to the top of the key, finding him in rhythm.

The newbie, who along with Theo Ratliff and Matt Barnes had to watch the rest of his teammates collect some gaudy jewelry before the game, knocks down the game-winning 3 pointer.

Now, tell me how that’s not making your teammates better…

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Greatest Season Ever: Post 3

Beginning in 2003, the San Antonio Spurs reeled off three straight championships every odd year. Not forgetting their chip in 1999, and its safe to add historical precedence to the list of reasons why the Spurs should rightly be considered dangerous in 2011. With the foundation of Tim Duncan/Greg Popovich and Pete Holt/R.C. Buford, the Spurs have all the makings of a team that if healthy, should be considered in a class with Boston, Orlando, Los Angeles and Miami.

It is my humble belief that the Spurs are the deepest they’ve been since 2003.

Last season, the team made it to the Western Conference Semis with Tony Parker hobbled and Richard Jefferson clearly still trying to find his way in a system that takes most a year to acclimate to. To his credit, Jefferson has been very candid about his struggles last year. He’s even put in one-on-one time with Greg Popovich and with a new, fat contract in tow, seems to be more than willing (dare I say driven?) to focus on molding his game to fit with what the Spurs have successfully done for over a decade (at least 50 wins for the last 11 seasons).

Parker is in a contract year and is only 28. Despite the pounding his body takes due to his attacking style of play, with George Hill’s emergence and Pop’s brilliant time-management skills, Parker will get the best of both worlds. Plenty of rest. But plenty of opportunity to return to the 50 percent shooting and 18 and 6 he consistently put up the five seasons prior to last.

Outside of Lebron, potentially the biggest offseason acquisition for a legitimate contender? Tiago Splitter. For those who don’t know, Mr. Splitter was named the 2010 Spanish League MVP last year. A couple of other recent Spanish League MVPs? Luis Scola (twice) and Marc Gasol. Sure, there was an adjustment period for both, but they each shot over 51 percent and both had PERs better than 16 their first seasons in the Association. And neither got to play and learn from Tim Duncan. Splitter is tough, unselfish, smart and defensive-minded. Basically the perfect fit in the Spurs system. Best of all, he’s only 25.

As for the rest of the roster, Gary Neal, another Euro-find, is polished enough to contribute right away and there is absolutely no reason why the Spurs’ drafting magic can’t continue. James Anderson will join DeJuan Blair, George Hill and to a certain extent, Alonzo Gee, as an immediate contributor with plenty of upside still yet to explore.

Look, people are rightly talking about the Boston Celtics (me included) and how they should still be the most feared team in the East, always providing the caveat of health. So, what makes the Spurs any different? Well, besides the fact that they have three championships with the Manu, Parker, Duncan core to Boston’s one with Pierce, Allen, KG.

I expect a Western Conference Finals bid for the Spurs barring no major injuries.

Despite my affinity for Kobe Bryant and my belief that he is widely undervalued, I still recognize that there’s little debate that Duncan has been the decade’s best. As a big man with a new defensive presence protecting him, I’m confident that he’ll continue to play at an elite level.

Especially with how svelte and fit he’s looked in the preseason. It’s preseason, but he did put up 10 and 7 in only 16 minutes a game.

Some quick thoughts on a few other teams.

The Orlando Magic are also not being given the proper amount of respect. Is Vince Carter past his prime? Yes, but he’s still a really good player and any marginal improvement from last season, which is a reasonable expectation, could be enough. Especially if Dwight Howard has figured out how to utilize his speed and athleticism to punish the two centers that have been his kryptonite (Shaq and Kendrick Perkins). If, if, if…sure, but Miami, LA, Boston all of have plenty of ifs as well.

Look at the Magic. They are perhaps the deepest team going into the season. Two-deep at every position, the Magic can easily withstand any injury to anyone on the roster that is not season-ending. That goes for Howard as well, seeing as how Marcin Gortat would start on no less than 13 other teams. Ryan Anderson, who was stolen from New Jersey in the Carter trade, is a Troy Murphy-in-training. Brandon Bass provides size and offense off the pine. Mickael Pietrus is good from beyond the arc and a defensive menace while Quentin Richardson started 75 games last year for the Heat. And if Orlando had not matched Chicago’s offer, J.J. Redick would be starting at the two for the Bulls.

Hell, Chris Duhon has 137 starts over his past two seasons.

The Magic have a new state-of-the-art arena; a terrific coach who has talked earnestly about unwinding from previous stressful highs; a deep as the ocean bench, and several trade assets that could be used come February to snag a whale of a catch…

I’m going to watch the Toronto Raptors this year. I thought last season was going to be a grand experiment testing if a Euro-style team could be successful in the NBA. Only problem was that Jarrett Jack and Chris Bosh still played like Americans. Now Bosh is gone, and Andrea Bargnani has assumed the mantle of franchise player. Bargs is the prototypical European player. Tall, skilled. A stretch-five with a deficiency in the rebounding and physical play that the NBA demands.

A very intriguing player is Linas Kleiza who led Lithuania this past summer to a bronze medal behind 19 points and 7 boards on 52 percent from the field. He’s a bit laterally slow for a small forward, but he’s big, strong and weighs close to 250. He’s also 25 and coming into his prime. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the Raptors go-to scorer this season and average 16-18 points.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that five or more players will be averaging at least 10 points.

Freak athlete DeMar DeRozan will get plenty of looks to have a breakout sophomore campaign. Leandro Barbosa, with a year’s distance from his mother’s death and the injuries he endured, will be looking to reprise his sixth man of the year role. Bargnani will be shouldering a greater scoring load. And the dynamic duo of Jarrett Jack and Jose Calderon has me thinking of 07-08 when T.J. Ford and Calderon shared the lead guard spot and both had highly efficient seasons.

This year’s Raptors are going to be weak inside and will survive by moving the ball and spreading the wealth on offense and by implementing a variety of zone defenses and team rebounding concepts. If the team gels, they could win 35-40 games and snag a playoff spot and officially announce what has been steadily gaining momentum—that Euro League style of play and players are both NBA-ready.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Greatest SEason Ever: Post 2

In my opinion, I feel like the Utah Jazz are getting an upgrade in Al Jefferson and if he lives up to his potential (remember, he’s only 25 years old) this Jazz team could potentially be a Western Conference Finals contender. Carlos Boozer was completely at home in the flex offense, and was probably a better rebounder and passer, but Jefferson is bigger. Out west, size matters. Also, Jefferson has averaged over 20 ppg while shooting close to 50 percent with a bevy of third-string point guards and combo guards running the show in Minnesota over the past three seasons. Now, he’s playing with arguably the best point guard in the Association who loves to pass. And let’s not even get into coaches. Jerry Sloan is easily a top-5 coach. He’s a Hall of Famer. No question Jefferson will benefit from Sloan’s greatness. Jefferson is a certified 20 and 11 and will probably shoot in the high 55-58 percentile this year.

Now, if he can use his size on defense, I think the Jazz have the potential to be better this season than last (as long as injuries don’t bite them too hard). Sure, they lost a lot of wing depth when Portland stole away Wes Matthews, and the Bulls (along with Boozer) swooped up Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer.

But the additions of Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward and Jeremy Evans have the potential to offset those losses, if not immediately, then certainly in the future. The hope is also that the maturation process of young guys like CJ Miles and potentially Othyus Jeffers or Ryan Thompson continues.

I get the line of thinking from Utah brass—Hayward is the new Korver, Evans is the new freak athlete, and Bell is the steady, defensive-minded, three-point shooter replacing Matthews. I like the mix. Even if Evans and Hayward are in fact, a year or two away.

Though Bell has only played in 73 games over the past two seasons, he’s maintained his ability to shoot lights out beyond the three-point line (around 43 percent). While he may not be the elite defender he used to be, and he’s certainly not the athletic defender and steals machine that Ronnie Brewer was, Bell is far more of an offensive threat and will hold his own playing scrappy defense sans gambling. With Andrei Kirilenko, Bell and Deron Williams, this Jazz team could be a much improved defensive squad.

Evans has the potential to be something really special, especially in a system that creates easy looks for him. With Bell on the floor, you can play Evans at the three and not worry about a lack of outside shooting. Evans will be free to slash and crash the glass. And he’s an excellent rebounder who is currently tied for the team high with Jefferson thus far in preseason (in 18 less minutes too).

Now, don’t get me wrong, Matthews is a very nice player, but at nearly $7 million per season for the next five, not sure he lives up to that contract. He shot well last year, played solid defense, and learned how to fit in, but is he really $1.2 million better than Trevor Ariza (for that matter, Lamar Odom makes $8 million)? Ariza is at least equal defensively, a far better athlete and pick-pocket, and just as good, if not better, of a spot-up shooter, evidenced by his 41 percent from beyond the arc post all-star break (after Kevin Martin joined the Rockets). And the two are separated in age by a single year, though it should be noted that Ariza has six years in the L to Matthews’ one.

Speaking of Ariza, I think he’s going to have a bounce back season. After the Rockets acquired Martin, Ariza blew up and once again became the ultimate glue guy. Every single statistic except ppg, went up or improved in efficiency. With Chris Paul running the show in New Orleans, David West the clear-cut second banana, and Emeka Okafor providing a relevance in the post, Ariza will have the freedom to roam the range.

He’s going to put up about the same averages, it’s just that everything will be done at a more efficient clip. I think 14 ppg, 7 rpg, 3 assists, 2.2 steals and a block while shooting 47 percent is very realistic.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Greatest Season Ever: Post 1

Been a long time since I last posted something. No time like the present to start it up again. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about an NBA season before. So many changes, so many exciting storylines: the Superfriends, the Lakers 3peat aspirations, the maturation of young teams like the Bucks and Thunder, the refusal to concede of veteran championship squads like the Celtics and Spurs, vindication mixed with a pinch of revenge for the Cavs, and of course Blake Griffin.

Here’s an interesting thought. If Andrew Bynum really will be out until December, a Lakers squad sans the soon-to-be 23-year-old is not nearly “faraway best in the west.” In fact, without Bynum, Dallas has a much deeper, bigger team and suddenly Portland has the size advantage and the Thunder no longer is too small.

On a quick side note, I honestly think expectations are too high for OKC. First of all, while the team has extremely talented bigs, all of them are really power-forwards, except for Cole Aldrich who’s big, but also a rookie. In addition, the Thunder have never won a playoff series and they’re a young team (average age was 24 last season). The last Finals team whose best players had never won a playoff series before that season was the Shaq/Penny Magic in 94-95. And as good as Durant is going to be this year, not sure he’s at 94-95 Shaq level. Shaq, because of his sheer size, caused massive adjustments on both ends of the floor. Durant’s awesome, but he still lacks defensively, and in three seasons he’s never averaged three assists. Even Melo averages more than three assists. Hell, a third-year Shaq only had 16 less assists (in three less games) than a third-year Durant. So, yeah, Durant’s got a ways to go before he impacts entire games like young Shaq. End, somewhat long “quick side note.”

All that to say, if Bynum is out? Yeah, definitely I can see the Thunder beating the Lakers.

And, I really, really like a healthy San Antonio team. Especially if Richard Jefferson learned anything at all from Greg Popovich over the past month in their one-on-one time. A Jefferson closer to his 08 self, a healthy Tony Parker (who, for whatever odd reason a lot of people seem to be overlooking), and 2010 MVP of the Spanish League Tiago Splitter, along with Duncan, Ginobili and Pop—that team is Lakers-with-Bynum good.

So, I’m not convinced that the Lakers are far and away favorites in the West. On a similar line of thinking, I don’t understand how people believe the Heat are going to automatically roll to the finals. Could they win 70 plus games? Absolutely. In fact, if they don’t, it’s going to be somewhat disappointing. I mean, come on. They’ve got arguably the Association’s top two talents and arguably the league’s best power-forward. I know Pau Gasol is widely considered the best power forward. And I think he’s a wonderful player. Top-15 for sure. But he’s playing with Kobe Bryant! Who’s Nowitzki played with? (Okay, Nash, but he’s no Bryant). How about Chris Bosh?

Forget Bynum, Artest, Odom, and Phil’s HOF coaching, Bosh has never even played with one other great player. I mean, Vince Carter…Sure, VC had MJ talent, but without the MJ drive to go with it, the former Tar Heel high water marked at all-star/best dunker of all time—which is sadly poetic considering VC stopped doing the dunk contest because he didn’t want to be known as a dunker.

But, I again digress. Back to Bosh. While he never has played with much talent, he’s also never been coached by the best. No offense to Kevin O’Neil, Sam Mitchell, and Jay Triano. O’Neil has an NBA record of 33-49 to go along with his 187-194 career college record. Mitchell won coach of the year, but in four full seasons, his teams only had one season over .500, a 41-41 season, a 33-win club and a 27-win club. Triano’s 65-82 for his career.

I know Spoelestra (career 90-74 record) is no veteran coach, but he did a phenomenal job with last season’s team that finished second in opponent FG%, second in opponent points per game, and seventh in defensive rating according to while ESPN’s John Hollinger had them rated as the fourth best defense. That’s all the physical evidence I need to accept that he truly is Pat Riley’s disciple. Whatever you may think of Pat Riley, there’s no denying his ability to win. And in terms of quality of NBA coaches, Riles walks closest to Red Aurbach.

So, it will be interesting to see how the storyline concerning Bosh’s status in the NBA goes and how people’s view of Gasol as the best power forward will change now that Bosh is playing with Kobe-Bryant-level talent, under the direction of a Hall of Famer.

Remember, Bosh shot 77 percent during the 2008 Olympics. He also led the team in rebounding and as a roleplayer, he was free to play tenacious defense. With Lebron and Wade this season, I could easily see a healthy Bosh shooting over 60 percent from the field and averaging 11 plus rebounds while leading the team in scoring and being a beast on defense.