Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cleveland 102, Los Angeles 87

This year’s slate of Christmas day games included probably the most hyped up game of the entire season: the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Los Angeles Lakers, Lebron James meets Kobe Bryant. Puppet-a-puppet. While I try to avoid drawing conclusions from single, meaningless regular season games, I was looking forward to this one, since direct games between title contenders tend to come with playoff-like intensity, with both sides trying to pull out a “statement” win. Also, the Cavaliers and Lakers only play each other twice each season, and I wanted to see how the two teams matched up, after last years seemingly dominant Cavaliers team fell to the Magic due to unfavorable matchups. Sadly, the game wasn’t nearly as close as the early predictions suggested, but here are some things I noticed that could be big in the future:

The Cavaliers dominated this game, hounding the Lakers into 36.5% shooting, and getting into their heads. Once a few calls went against the Lakers’ way (my take on that: Shaq probably got away with blocking foul or two, but all in all, the Lakers got calls in the first half, the Cavs in the second, and the officiating as a whole seemed fairly even), the Lakers lost their heads, leading to technicals on Kobe, Fisher, Odom (twice), the bench (not subbing in for Odom after he was ejected), and the fans (throwing foam fingers on the court. I continue to be amazed by the Staples Center crowd. Kudos to them for actually showing emotiong that doesn't revolve around tacos, but throwing foam fingers? Was it "6 year olds get in for free night"?).

For the Cavaliers, this game should push them back into the public’s short list of contenders. I’m not really sure why they weren’t there earlier, but no harm done. After struggling early on this season with adjusting to the big Shaquasition and Delonte West’s personal issues, the Cavs are rolling, with an impressive 3-1 road trip. What impressed me most was the versatility displayed during this trip: after beating the Phoenix Suns with a monsterous 4th quarter behind a small ball line up that Bill Simmons called “poop-in-your-pants-scary" (Lebron at the 4, Anderson Varejao at center), the Cavs beat the Lakers going big, with Shaquille O’neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas playing together extensive minutes despite some pretty bad previous results. The Cavs proved that they can deal with LA’s size, pretty much shutting down Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Shaq and Z are still pretty terrible at defending the pick and roll, but specifically against LA, which doesn’t run the pick and roll as much, the pairing works. Also, Anthony Parker did a great job on Kobe - forcing tough shots, contesting jumpers, recording 2 blocks and altering several more by my eyes. Parker was brought in to make 3s and take the pressure of Lebron at defending perimeter guys: so far he has done only the former, but defending Kobe well is a great place to start.

As for offense, I know I’m not the first one to say this, but as Mo Williams goes, so does Cleveland. Mo torched Derek Fisher for 28 points on 8 for 13 shooting, combining long range bombs with penetration, and even some posting up. Anthony Parker had a bad shooting night – 1 for 5, missed all 4 of his attempts beyond the arc – but Jamario Moon and Delonte West filled in, each making a 3 and Moon hitting 2 more long range jumpers and finishing with 13 points on 7 shots. The Cavs shot 54% from the floor, with Lebron again proving why he is so great – struggling with his shot (27 points on a decent 9 for 19 shooting night, yet an atrocious 3 for 12 on jumpers from 16 feet and out), he played second fiddle to Williams, finding him for open jumpers doing his damage inside (including two absolutely gorgeous post moves). Seven turnovers for Lebron, but two of them were charges, and one came when the game was over, so while that isn’t a good number by any standards, I wouldn’t.

Truly, a great all-around game for the Cavs, who look downright scary after three impressive wins (the Suns, Kings and Lakers are a combined 37-9 at home this season, with three of those losses coming against the Cavs in the past week). The only downside I could see in this game was how lost J.J. Hickson seemed on defense, posting a team low +/- of -9. He played well in his first few games in the starting line-up, but the momentum caused by the move seems to have passed, and while I do think the Cavs could earn a valuable playoff contributor by giving him minutes, it would be hard to justify keeping him on the floor if he keeps playing like this.

Cut to the Lakers: hard to tell how much credit should be given to the Cavs’ defense and how much to the Lakers’ poor offense, since even against the best of the best, the defending champs should shoot more than 36% from the field. I would credit both: the Cavs did a great job stifling the Laker big men (Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are shooting 57% and 53% shooting, respectively, yet shot a combined 6 for 16), and yet not many nights will you see Kobe Bryant shoot only 11 for 32 from the floor. Bryant, in particular, had a very bad offensive game: despite his impressive box score (35 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), he forced bad shots, missed many of the midrange jumpers that he usually lives on, and looked to me like he was pretty tired in the second half (more on that later). Kobe supporters would say that he had to take the extra shot attempts, with Bynum and Gasol shooting so poorly, but against a team with weak post defenders (of Cleveland’s four big men, only Shaq can truly defend a strong post presence one-on-one), those two have got to get the ball more. The Lakers can’t win a game with Kobe taking twice as many shots as his starting frontcourt, under any circumstances.

The Lakers as a whole played a pretty bad game offensively – only Ron Artest gave them a good game, with 13 points – but to be honest, except for Kobe’s mid range game, I didn’t really see them miss any shots that they usually make, except maybe Artest’s breakaway layups (then again, he misses those a lot). However, don’t make the mistake of dismissing this as a game that the Lakers just decided to let go – Kobe clearly wanted this game very badly, so much that he was pushing and hounding Lebron on defense late in the 4th quarter, even though the game was pretty much over. Perhaps this was the reason that he played way too much in this game, getting his first rest only midway through the 4th and playing a game high 45 minutes. I get that this is a big game, and that Kobe is a fierce competitor, but he is 31, and those knees aren’t getting any younger. In a December game, he shouldn’t top 40.

Then again, there is a good reason for Kobe’s high minutes: the Laker bench is terrible. This is a major concern going forward. The disparity between L.A.’s starting five (probably best in the league, though Boston and Orlando are in the discussion) and the bench is enourmous: after Lamar Odom, who is averaging a career low 8.5 points per game, the Lakers truly have no help from their second unit. Sasha Vujacic is a shell of the shell he was last year, Luke Walton is injured and wasn’t all that much to begin with, and Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga really aren’t all that. All that remains is the point guard combo of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, but Brown is good mainly for highlight plays and energy spurts, and Farmar clearly doesn’t mesh well with Phil Jackson and should be moved for his own good. L.A.’s main six contributors are good enough to do it alone on most nights, especially in the playoffs when rotations shorten, but seeing how deep other contenders are, the Lakers need to find somebody who can be a spark off the bench.

All in all, this game teaches us more about Cleveland than about the Lakers – mainly, that Shaq works against the big teams, that they can still defend with the best of them, and that Mo can show up for big games after last postseason’s collapse. However, with L.A. now dropping to only 6-5 against teams with a winning record, it should be asked if they aren’t as dominant as we thought. Being the defending champions, they get the benefit of the doubt, but this year’s title is still far from certain for the Lakers – and the road to it, despite everything, still goes through Cleveland.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dancing With The Stars

After Friday night's match between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, a fair share of media attention was diverted from the final result (Cleveland won) to an off-the-court incident: Chicago's Joakim Noah apparently felt disrespected by Lebron James' dancing to the sweet music of victory, and called him a bitch. A minor incident such as an athlete dancing - not murder, not theft, not even sticking a tongue out at a child spectator - stirred up a media controversy, adding to a list of events that transpired over the past year, and have each helped in portraying Lebron as an arrogant ass. I will now make an honest attempt to ignore my utter disbelief that anyone would find this newsworthy, if only to say this.

So - Freaking - What?

I mean, seriously? Dancing? We're getting pissed off at dancing? You know who dances? Dancers. Are dancers arrogant? Are dancers disrespectful? When was the last time you read a headline about dancers? And among those single-digit-numbered events, how many times did the aforementioned headline make you think "Wow, I really care about what happened over there, tell me more!"

But fine. Let's assume for a second that dancing isn't nice. Let's say that celebrating victories in basketball is a matter to be confined to high-fives only, excluding the occasional chest bump. Not only that, but let's all agree that dancing in front/in proximity to a defeated opponent is arrogant, and that said dancer is obviously a self absorbed prick.

Are you seriously surprised about it?

Lebron James makes millions of dollars a year, just to play basketball. In addition, he probably makes even more money by graciously allowing various companies to print his name over their products. Every time he comes to work at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, he may or may not notice himself covering nearby building(s). He was featured on a magazine as a high schooler. He was dubbed "The Chosen One" and "The King" as a teenager. Hell, the whole New York tri-state area has been obsessing on the sheer possibility of him maybe - or maybe not - moving there in the summer of 2010. That talk has been around since 2007. And now you're complaining that he's self absorbed? How could he not be self absorbed?! He's just trying to focus on what the rest of the world is!

This is not Lebron's problem. This goes way deeper. Every single sports fan - every, f-ing, single, one - wishes they had the physical abilities to have a sports career. Anyone who denies so is a liar. I've been playing basketball since I was 4. I believed I could be an NBA player until I was 12. I am 5'8, and whiter than snow. You can guess how that played out.

But since so many people wish to do what they love for a living - and so little actually do - us less talented ones hitch on for the ride. We find ourselves in those who made it. "Wow, look at Chris Paul! He's almost as short as me! I like that dude!" And since we look up at these people, we wish with all our might that they be look-upable (you're damn right I just made up a word for my angry tirade).

But sometimes - more often than not - they just aren't. Maybe because they were born as assholes - you know who you are - and maybe because they grew up in an environment that just didn't enable them to grow as such. Doesn't matter. Not the point. The point is that some athletes are good people, and some are not. But very few, if at all, are worthy of the adulation we shower them with. Most of us feel under pressure when asked to speak at a family dinner. These people perform in front of millions on a nightly basis - get paid ungraspable amounts to do so - see their names on peoples coats, shirts, shorts, socks, shoes, underwear, hats, wristbands, headbands, and whateverbands - open the paper/news every morning just to see themselves there - and retire at an age when most of us are just getting started, not before being immortalized by memories, history books, jerseys with their names and numbers hanging in arenas, and sometimes even life sized statues. Put yourself in that position. You wouldn't think ever-so-slightly higher of yourself?

Charles Barkley once half-complained, half-explained that he is no role model. Whether he wanted to or not, he was speaking on behalf of the entire athletic community. He is, and they are, not role models. If they were, maybe they would have been teachers, or world leaders, or dead. Doesn't matter. They are not good at setting examples, they are good at being athletes. And as such, we should stop idolizing them, only to declare them dead whenever they do wrong (ahem, Tiger Woods), but accept them for what they are - very, very good athletes, and human beings nonetheless. And if we can't do that, at least lets not waste our time covering pointless things instead of actually watching the beautiful world of sports.

And just so it'd be clear: If I was the best basketball player on the planet, I would be dancing too. And I'd be damned if hurting Joakim Noah's feelings stopped me.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Joe Johnson is still only an All-star

Prior to the season, the basketball world was pretty much in consensus regarding the NBA's Eastern Conference: Cleveland, Orlando and Boston will finish 1-3 in some order, and Atlanta will probably end the battle for 4th place up top. However, slightly over 3 weeks into the season, the Hawks own the best record in the NBA (11-2), raising the question: Is the East's upper-echelon not as straight forward as we thought?

A longtime laughing stock, Atlanta was for years labeled a ridiculously athletic team, but too young to do any damage. After finally breaking their playoff drought in 2008, and a strong first round series against the eventual champion Boston Celtics, the Hawks won 47 games last year, and advanced to the second round of the postseason. This season, the Hawks look like they might improve their postseason record yet again. How?

A quick skim of the web will show you a lot of Joe Johnson related headlines when discussing the Hawks' ascension to the NBA's elite. More specifically, the notion that Joe has "crossed the line from all-star to superstar" is an extremely common one. But has he? A quick look at the 3 time all-star's numbers:

2007-2008 (82 games): 40:47 MPG, 21.7 PPG, 7.9 FGM, 18.3 FGA (43.2%), 2.1 3PM, 5.4 3PA (38.1%), 83.4 FT% (4.6 FTA), 4.5 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.0 SPG, 2.7 TOs

2008-2009 (79 games): 39:30 MPG, 21.4 PPG, 7.9 FGM, 18.0 FGA (43.7%), 1.9 3PM, 5.2 3PA (36%), 82.6 FT% (4.6 FTA), 4.4 RPG, 5.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 2.5 TOs

2009-2010 (13 games): 38:30 MPG, 23.2 PPG, 8.8 FGM, 19.3 FGA (45.4%), 1.5 3PM, 4.6 3PA (33.3%), 87.1 FT% (4.8 FTA), 5.4 RPG, 5.0 APG, 0.9 SPG, 2.7 TOs

Hmm. Those three lines look pretty similar. It is worth noting that Joe has been keeping more or less the same numbers in steadily decreasing minutes, and that he has been scoring 2 more points at a more efficient clip so far this season (higher field goal percentage, less 3 point attempts). He's been rebounding slightly more (probably due to playing more minutes at small forward next to newly acquired Jamal Crawford), and passing out less assists (due to handling the ball less, again, thanks to Crawford.) However, both his points per game and his field goal percentage are still lower than his career highs (25 points, 47.1%, both in 2006-2007). So it's not something that he hasn't done before. Is he a more efficient player? Yes. His PER went up quite a bit this season, amounting at 20.14 in comparison to last season's 18.26. But has he made the proverbial leap? No. And at age 28, he probably won't.

The Hawks have been very impressive to start the season, and are now considered by many to be full-fledged title contenders. But just because MVP voters like the "best-player-on-the-best-team" storyline (just a smart way of saying "highest-scorer-on-the-best-team"), doesn't mean that Joe is now an MVP candidate. In fact, Joe might not be the best player on his team anymore, with Josh Smith finally tunneling his vast potential into the all-star caliber campaign he was long overdue for.

So, next time you look at the Hawks and ask yourself how they got there, remember that Joe Johnson's ability, while great, is not much, if at all, better than in the past. It's the new, positive mentality displayed by Josh Smith, the continued development of 3rd year pro Al Horford, and the trade that brought in bonafide scorer and meant-to-be-a-6th-man Crawford that are pushing the Hawks up the standing, and into contention.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Random Opening Night Impressions

Despite watching real NBA basketball for the first time until June, I tried not to conclude too much from the 4 games that were on Opening Night. Many teams are still searching for their identity, and the bottom line is, what really matters is the form teams hit right around mid-April. However, here some things that I did find worth writing about from the two games I focused on (I got some action from the other two, but not enough to make extreme observations) - take them lightly, as it is still very, very early:

Boston 95, Cleveland 89

  • Cleveland: After a very strong 1st quarter, Cleveland's offense collapsed, regressing back to that dreadful Lebron-vs-5 stage that we know all too well. If Mike Brown can't figure out a way to get the rest of the team involved, the Cavs will be in trouble.
  • The Cavs really missed Delonte West last night. Daniel Gibson just isn't much more than a streaky spot-up shooter, leaving the Cavs with a very thing backcourt rotation, not to mention West being their best defensive guard. I don't know if and when West recovers from personal issues and comes back, and I truly hope that he does that only after regaining full mental health, but the Cavs probably need another guard even if he does return (Antonio Daniels has been mentioned).
  • Anthony Parker too way too many bad, forced shots. Though he is fully capable of scoring at a high clip, this isn't the role he should fill for the Cavs.
  • Shaquille O'neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can not play together under any circumstances. Each one of them is a defensive liability on their own, the two of them together is too much.
  • Speaking of Z, he seemed incredibly uncomfortable coming off the bench. I don't think Shaq will agree to playing as a 6th man, but after years of establishing Z early in the game, the Cavs need to find a new way of keeping him effective. Shaq, on the other hand, struggled offensively in the second half (1 of 5 from the field) after a decent first one - he still has plenty of time to find his rythem, but if he can't score consistently in the post against big teams, his acquasition is kind of moot.

  • Boston: Boston played great defense throughout the game, but I still have my concerns. The Celts couldn't do anything about Lebron, who torched them for 38 points on 22 shots. Admitedly, if Lebron wants to torch a team he will, but in my eyes Boston still lacks that Posey-type defensive presence at the wing positions that was so crucial for their 2008 title.
  • Free Agent signee Rasheed Wallace looke awfully trigger happy, attempting six 3 pointers. It's too late in his career to move Sheed back in the post, but against teams with better defenders at the 4 spot he can't shoot that much.
  • Kevin Garnett seemed healthy, but not spectacular, with 13 points (5 of 10 from the field), 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks. However, he did botch a wide open dunk. Lets not forget that the NBA season is very long, and it's KG's April form that will matter, eventually.
  • Ray Allen had a very good first half, and a very bad second one. Allen has always been a very productive player, but I just can't shake off the feeling that he is mostly just a shooter at this stage of his career (one of the reasons I have Boston pegged as #3 in the East).

Portland 96, Houston 87

  • Portland: Greg Oden was absolutely terrible offensivly, scoring only 2 points, and putting up 7 turnovers (many of them on offensive fouls - don't have the exact numbers with me). However, Oden produced a defensive display of the highest quality, grabbing 12 rebounds, blocking 5 shots, and altering many more. The Blazers are so stacked offensively, that they can afford to give Greg's offensive game time to evolve. If he continues defending like last night, it could be enough to make Portland an elite squad.
  • Martell Webster started in place of the injured Nicolas Batum, and had a very efficient 14 points on 7 shots. Webster missed last season due to injury, but is a gifted scorer, with great athleticism. If Webster can start fulfilling the promise he has shown at time, the Blazers will benifit greatly, whether via a strengthed rotation, or by adding yet another trade asset to a seemingly infinite collection.
  • Andre Miller showed no sign of his reported unhappiness after signing with the Blazers in the offseason, coming off the bench for 9 points and seven assists. I actually think Miller fits better with the Blazers second unit then the first, as starter Steve Blake's outside shooting better complements superstar Brandon Roy. It was nice to see Miller doing his best to fit in, since he has always been a player who has played well below his abilities due to a bad attitude.
  • Travis Outlaw led all scorers with 23 points. The Blazers have reportedly been very open to trading Outlaw and his expiring contract, but the guy can just plain shoot. I don't really like seeing him at the 4 - he is a small forward in every way - but he can contribute regardless of position.

  • Houston: David Andersen had 11 points and 5 rebounds in his NBA debut. I really like Andersen's offensive game - he was amongst the Euroleagues top big men for years - and he could prove to be a very valuable scorer for a Houston team that will struggle to put points up. Very underrated offseason pickup for the wonderful Daryl Morey.
  • Chase Budinger could be another potential scorer for this team. The second round draft pick was once considered a lottery lock, but fell due to concerns about him being one dimensional - a scorer and not much else. With a team desperate for scoring, however, he could be huge.
  • Aaron Brooks broke out last postseason when he carried the Rockets to a 7th game against the eventual champions, but I'm not sold. Brooks is way to small to guard shooting guards (he can barely guard point guards), but he plays like a 2. If Brooks doesn't develop a passing game, I don't think he can handle the ball. Brooks scored 19 last night, but he used the ball mainly for dribbling aimlessly in all directions. Not the guy you want distributing the ball to the rest of your team.
  • I love Trevor Ariza. The Lakers wouldn't have won the title without him last year. But he's a role player - a perfect role player, but a role player nontheless. If this Houston squad turns to him as a leading scorer, they're in trouble.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Portland Trailblazers

Coach: Nate McMillan
Last Season: 54-28, lost in 1st round
Key Additions: Andre Miller (Free Agent, Philadelphia 76ers), Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham, Patrick Mills (Draft), Jarron Collins (FA, Utah)
Key Losses: Sergio Rodriguez (Trade, Sacramento), Channing Frye (FA, Phoenix)

Offseason: The Blazers assembled one of the leagues youngest, most talented teams. Built around superstar Brandon Roy (mistakenly underrated as just a star), and power forward Lamarcus Aldridge, the team has steadily improved to the point of finishing 4th in the West last season. However, a lack of experience, and perimeter scoring other than Roy meant a 5 game knock out against the Houston Rockets.

Armed with ample cap space and a promising youngster, GM Kevin Pritchard sought out offensive help, specifically at the 3 and the 1. Pritchard’s top priority on the market was Hedo Turkoglu, hot off a great Finals run with the Magic, and fitting the bill perfectly with his clutch scoring and ball handling abilities in the problematic small forward spot. However, after agreeing to a 5 year, 50 million contract, Hedo U-turned and signed with the Toronto Raptors. However, it seems to me that the Blazers dodged a bullet here – Hedo is already 30 years old, meaning that he would have been way past his peak by the time this team reached theirs. He most definitely won’t be worth the money they were going to give him when he’s 35 and on the bench. After Turkoglu declined the Blazers’ offer, Portland turned to Utah’s restricted free agent, Paul Millsap. However, Utah matched Portland’s 4 year, 32 million offer, and the Blazers were again left without their man.

With the free agent market dwindling, the Blazers decided to address their weakness at point guard instead of their forwards, and signed Andre Miller to a three year, 21 million contract, with only the first two years guaranteed. Andre Miller should provide the Blazers with a veteran presence and some another ball-handler, though his style of play doesn’t mesh in very well with what the Blazers had last season. What the Blazers need from their point guard is a player who can knock down shots, and doesn’t really need the ball to be effective. Miller is a 21% career 3 point shooter, and is accustomed to dominating the ball on offense. In addition, the Blazers were the NBA’s second slowest offensive team last season (only Detroit had less possessions per game), and yet Miller, with his passing and his penetration, is much more suited to play a running style game. Despite these things, Miller is a good signing – he is a clear upgrade over Steve Blake, will provide a veteran presence and a tutor to Jerryd Bayless, and in case he doesn’t fit in, he will serve as a large expiring contract next season, but the Blazers have to feel disappointed that they couldn’t make more out of their favorable situation. Other offseason moves by the Blazers shouldn’t have much of an immediate effect on the team, as the three draftees won’t be asked to do much, and Jarron Collins is mainly a big-man insurance policy now that Channing Frye left.

Despite failing to sign their top-priority free agents, though, the Blazers should improve internally: Brandon Roy should cement his status as a superduperstar, not only with stat geeks and basketball maniacs, but with the mainstream media; Greg Oden is posed to have a monster season now that he’s 2 years away from microfracture surgery, already dominating preseason games and looking much nimbler; Lamarcus Aldridge will continue his ascension into the upper echelon of power forwards; and Spaniard sensation Rudy Fernandez, point guard Jerryd Bayless, and defensive ace Nicolas Batum will have their first NBA year under their belts. All in all, not a magnificent offseason for the Blazers, but they will be better next season.

- Greg Oden: After being drafted before Kevin Durant in the much hyped 2007 draft, Oden missed his entire rookie campaign due to microfracture surgery. Last year he was back on the court, but seemed very slow, fouled frequently, and didn’t dominate the paint like the Blazers hoped. In his defense, the center position has a difficult learning curve, microfracture typically takes two years to recover from, and Oden did show some skills while on the court; however, this season there will be no excuses. Oden has the potential to be an all-time great at center, or “the guy drafted before Durant”. If he wants to be the former, he needs to give a strong showing this season.

- Continued development: As mentioned, the Blazers are an incredibly young team. This featured greatly in the playoff loss to Houston, where the Blazers just seemed scared of the big stage. As this team matures, it will become better and better, with plenty of potential not even given rotation time last season (mainly Bayless, and injured swingman Martell Webster). The rate at which these youngsters improve could determine whether Portland joins the rest of the contenders, or are given that “one-year-away” label.

- Kevin Pritchard: After (deservedly) gaining a reputation as one of the best GMs in the league, Pritchard has shown some hesitance to pull the trigger, failing to move Raef LaFrentz’ expiring contract, and mainly holding on to assets instead of looking to improve via trade. Pritchard has received criticism of falling in love with his own team. The Blazers are already very good, but have the assets to pull off a major move. Another Pritchard stroke of genius could propel them into contention.

- Nate McMillan: McMillan has done a great job coaching this squad, getting the Blazers to defend, and mainly execute offensively (2nd in offensive efficiency) very well. However, one can’t shake the feeling that this team should be flying down the court, not walking the ball up. Roy, Rudy, Travis Outlaw, Aldridge – most of Portland’s rotation is ridiculously athletic, and newly acquired Andre Miller is perfect for running fast breaks. This team will probably be good no matter what style they play, but as a fan, you have to hope Nate will just let this team go loose.

Prediction: Greg Oden is posed to explode, and I believe he’ll make his all-star debut in the dilute talent pool that is Western Conference centers; Roy should garner a respectable amount of MVP votes; Aldridge should become a 20 point scorer; and the supporting cast should get better and better as they adjust to NBA level play. 56-26, 3rd in the East, and even more optimism in the Pacific Northwest.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Boston Celtics

Coach: Doc Rivers
Last Season: 62-20, lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals
Key Additions: Rasheed Wallace (Free Agent, Detroit Pistons), Marquis Daniels (FA, Indiana Pacers), Shelden Williams (FA, Minnesota Timberwolves)
Key Losses: Mikki Moore (FA, Golden State Warriors), Gabe Pruitt (FA)

Offseason: The Celtics' biggest offseason addition has to be a healthy Kevin Garnett. After KG's knees broke down last February, the Celtics, one year removed from the title, survived an epic 1st round playoff series against the Bulls, before bowing down to the Magic. However, the Celtics wanted to insure that whatever the case, Brian Scalabrine, Mikki Moore (who has since left), and their type won’t get major playoff minutes in the frontcourt this season. To address this, the Celtics signed former All-star Rasheed Wallace. Rasheed, coming off a terrible season in Detroit (despite putting up 12 and 7, he visibly quit on the team, highlighted by his 6 pts and 6 rebounds per game in the playoff sweep vs. Cleveland). The Celtics, however, seem confident that Rasheed’s decline was a result of the Pistons going nowhere, and that on a title contender, and more importantly, with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce as a positive influence, Rasheed will do just fine. The Celts then resigned restricted free agent Glen Davis, who had a very good postseason, specifically improving his mid-range shot (including a game winning jumper in game 4 against Orlando). With Wallace, Davis, Garnett, and the ever-improving Kendrick Perkins, the Celtics now have 4 strong big men, with Shelden Williams, the disappointing 5th pick of the 2006 draft, brought on as an insurance policy.

The Celtics’ other free agent signing was Marquis Daniels. Daniels played as a swingman his whole career, but due to his strong ball handling skills, is expected to play point guard for the Celtics. The Celtics hope that Daniels can fill the gaping hole the Celtics have at backup point guard, and plan to play him in together with Eddie House, enabling House to guard point guards, but relieving him of running the offense. However, this is a huge gamble, as adjusting to a new position is never easy, and Daniels is already 28. Daniels’ contract was signed at the value of the bi-annual exception (slightly under 2 million), meaning he is a bargain financially-wise no matter how this pans out, but he has only once topped 62 games in a season, and isn’t a strong defender. I see Daniels more as a last resort signing, due to the lack of decent point guards on the market, and the desperate need to upgrade the bench (Tony Allen, the Celtics’ back up shooting guard, just isn’t a very good player).

The surprise of the Celtics’ offseason, however, was the trade that didn’t happen. After being the Celtics’ best player last postseason, Rajon Rondo was openly shopped for a short period of time, raising questions regarding the Celtics’ willingness to offer him a contract extension (he is posed to become a restricted free agent next summer). The talk eventually dulled down, but it will be interesting to see if it affects Rondo’s play.

-Kevin Garnett’s knees: Basically, no matter what else happens, it all comes down to this. Garnett is the Celtics’ best player, best defender, emotional leader – you name it, he does it all. With him, they’re title contenders, without him, they’re not. It’s that simple. At the age of 33, after playing over 1100 games in full gear, and a very, very difficult procedure, medicine is not on his side, but Garnett has the heart of a lion, and all of the regular season to get into shape. Therefore, judging this team before the playoffs is ridiculously premature.

- James Posey: Posey left after the 2008 title to sign with New Orleans for more money, and the Celtics still haven’t found a replacement for his leadership, defense, and shooting of the bench. Who guards Lebron/Vince/Kobe/Manu/Wade? Daniels is not a good defender or a good shooter, and Paul Pierce can’t be asked to carry such a huge load both on offense and on defense. In my opinion, this was the fatal flaw in Boston’s offseason plan – not bringing in a player to fill a role that proved crucial for them in the past.

- Age: Garnett is 33, Allen 34, Pierce 32, and Rasheed 35. The Celtics were absolutely exhausted last postseason, and though it can be attributed to their short rotation, age must be a concern. Doc Rivers needs to get his team fresh to the playoffs, or they won’t have much of a chance to advance past Cleveland and Orlando.

- Chemistry: Rasheed Wallace has always had character questions; Marquis Daniels has similarly been somewhat problematic, although not as volatile; the reason to the Celtics shopping Rondo, reportedly, has to do with him not fitting in very well; and Ray Allen, despite being one of the leagues perennial “nice-guys”, is in a contract year, playing for what would probably be his last NBA contract. All of this adds up to some serious question marks. Seeing how this team’s togetherness was a huge factor in winning the title two years ago, if the players can’t get along it will be disastrous for their second bid.

Prediction: The difference between the 3rd place and the 4th place in the East is huge, so the Celts will finish 3rd at the very least. However, I don’t think they’re deep enough to be considered on par with the Magic and Cavs, especially considering their old age. Many questions are still up in the air – which Rasheed will the Celtics get, how much Pierce and Allen have in the tank, and can Rondo continue his meteoric rise. Even if Garnett is healthy, that’s just too many questions for me. 57-25, 3rd in East.

The San Antonio Spurs

Coach: Gregg Popovich
Last Season: 54-28, lost in 1st round
Key Additions: Richard Jefferson (Trade, Milwaukee Bucks), Antonio McDyess (Free Agent, Detroit Pistons), Dejuan Blair (Draft), Marcus Haislip (FA, Spain)
Key Losses: Kurt Thomas, Francisco Oberto, Bruce Bowen (Trade, Milwaukee)

Offseason: After getting knocked out in the 1st round of the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000, the Spurs had to options: accept the fact that the core of their former dynasty is aging, and rebuild, or spend money and try to win another ring or two before Tim Duncan’s window closes for good. Considering that this is a front office that has made great decision after great decision, it shouldn’t be surprising that they chose the latter.

Thus began a magical offseason for the 4 time NBA champions. To start it off, Richard Jefferson was shipped in from Milwaukee, for expiring contracts. The Spurs' usage of the Bucks’ financial trouble was marvelous – for the mere price of 3 role players (and two of them above the age of 35), the Spurs received a do-it-all-forward: Jefferson has scored over 20 ppg twice in his career, shot just slightly under 40% from 3 last year, and is a very good defender. Also, Jefferson fits in perfectly with the Spurs’ mentality – he won’t complain about minutes or touches, and will be perfectly happy and capable both as a spot up shooter on offense, or as a facilitator (whether he creates shots for others or for himself). Jefferson is also an indescribable upgrade over the aging Michael Finley/Bruce Bowen combo that manned the 3 for the Spurs last season, and will enable both Finley and Roger Mason Jr. to return to their ideal roles: shot making role players, and not offensive mainstays.

After taking care of their swingman position, the Spurs turned to their frontcourt. With all due respect to Matt Bonner, who emerged last season as a 44% 3pt shooter and a nice compliment to Duncan, he just isn’t a good enough rebounder or defender to count on as a starter. Enter Antonio Mcdyess. After struggling with injuries for the early part of his career, Mcdyess reinvented himself without his athleticism. The result is a very, very good rebounder (9.8 in 30 minutes per game last season), and a very good low post defender, who is capable of knocking down some mid-range shots when needed. Instead of a glaring hole down low, the Spurs now have a legitimate starting center, and yet another good-character veteran, who is committed only to winning.

And as if the Spurs’ front office weren’t annoying their peers enough, they then managed to steal DeJuan Blair with the 37th(!) pick of the draft. Blair was a monster in college, finishing his sophomore year with 15.7 points (on 59% shooting), 12.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and a block in 27.3 minutes per game, yet slipped in the draft due to injury concerns. After two reconstructive knee surgeries, which reportedly caused Blair to lose both his ACLs, made GMs stay away, assuming his knees won’t hold up long term. However, for a team looking to win now, Blair is a perfect fit, as he is NBA-ready and can contribute right away. Blair has had a monster preseason so far (14 and 8 in only 18 minutes), and will give the Spurs another strong defender and rebounder. With the signing of Hailsip, the resigning of Malik Hairston, and a year of experience for young point guard George Hill, the Spurs now possess an extremely strong, and deep rotation, that can definitely take them all the way.

- Health: The Spurs weren’t championship material last season to begin with, but they wouldn’t have gone out so early if they were at full strength. Tim Duncan played through knee troubles, Manu Ginobili didn’t play at all, and with Tony Parker the only healthy member of the big 3, the Spurs didn’t have a chance. This year, the Spurs’ magnificent offseason means that the Spurs have a real chance at winning a title – but even with the new acquisitions, it won’t be enough if Timmy and Manu aren’t healthy. Hopefully for the Spurs, a whole summer’s rest for the two will be enough to bring them up to speed, because there is no replacement for the two (specifically Manu, since even a half-strength Duncan is a monster).

- Defense: After dominating defensively for years, the Spurs lost a step last season, finishing only 9th in opposing field goal percentage, and 6th in defensive efficiency. Obviously, the Spurs were still near the top of the pack, but for a team whose defense made the difference for the past decade, this is a major fall. The Spurs need to regain their defensive identity to dominate. Of course, this relative letdown can be attributed to the decline of defensive ace Bruce Bowen, whom Richard Jefferson should do a decent job of replacing, and injuries, so it can’t be ruled out that this is a one year flop. Gregg Popovich’s mentality, a healthy Duncan, and a much stronger rotation should vault the Spurs back to elite-defensive status, however, if not, the Spurs in trouble.

Prediction: With perhaps the deepest team Duncan ever had, the Spurs are, yet again, posed for a whole lot of gut-wrenching, low scoring wins. They are currently the only team in the West that can, as currently constructed, dethrone the Lakers, and I really won’t be shocked if they do. However, it can’t be mentioned enough: the Spurs’ season will completely revolve around the health of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. 59-23, 2nd in West.

The Orlando Magic

Coach: Stan Van Gundy
Last Season: 59-23, Lost in NBA Finals
Key Additions: Vince Carter, Ryan Anderson (Trade, New Jersey Nets), Brandon Bass (Free Agent, Dallas), Matt Barnes (FA, Phoenix), Jason Williams (FA)
Key Losses: Hedo Turkoglu (Free Agent, sign-and-trade to Toronto), Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston, Tony Battie (Trade, Nets)

Offseason: I already covered the Magic’s offseason extensively over here, but to sum it up, this is a team coming off a surprising Finals defeat, looking to take it to the next level. They started off by smartly declining overpaying an aging, overrated Hedo Turkoglu. This isn’t to slight Hedo, who is a very good player, but the Magic were on national TV so much, that people were focusing on what he can do (pass, handle the ball, score in the clutch) on not on the fact that he isn’t a good defender, at that at age 30, he is what he is, and not for a very long time. Instead, the Magic swung a great deal with the Nets, bringing in a better player, defender, scorer in Vince Carter. Obviously, Vince is also no kid either (33 in January), but he is still an all-star caliber player (undeservedly excluded from last year’s squad due to Devin Harris’ emergence, and the coaches’ tendency not to award bad teams with two all-stars), and his contract (16 million this season, 17 million next) is much more manageable than the 5 years, 50 million Hedo got from Toronto. Specifically, Vince is a better shot creator than Hedo, a much better defender, and as good a passer, despite the rep Hedo has gained from last season’s playoffs. With first team NBA center Dwight Howard, together with Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson, the Magic can now trot up a lineup consisting almost only of all-stars. Not many teams can say that.

The incredible thing about the Carter deal was how little the Magic had to give up. Losing Courtney Lee hurts, after he gave the Magic quality minutes as a rookie, showing that he is fully capable of taking big shots and guarding top perimeter players in the playoffs. However, with the Magic in win-now mode, giving Lee up for all-star talent is more than a solid bargain. Tony Battie and Rafer Alston were included in the trade because of their expiring contracts – Battie won’t be much of a loss, giving only scarce minutes behind Dwight Howard, and Alston is expandable with Jameer Nelson returning from shoulder injury. And if that trade wasn’t great enough for Orlando, they also got Ryan Anderson from the Nets – a hustling, rebounding, 3 point shooting power forward that fits this team like a glove. Anderson showed a lot of potential with the Nets during his rookie campaign, and at the tender age of 21, was a huge long term pickup.

The Magic also struck gold with free agency. Matt Barnes is another player of the Rashard Lewis mold, that tall, athletic small forward that can play at the 4 and knock down shots. In addition, Barnes is a great defender, fitting in well with the Magic, who led the league in defensive efficiency last season. Brandon Bass is another underrated signing – he enables the Magic to play a more traditional line up with him at the 4, providing great defense, hustle, and a very underrated mid-range jumper. Resigning Marcin Gortat, coming off a breakthrough campaign, was probably done mainly to keep him as an asset for a future trade, since he costs a lot of money for a backup center (5 years, 34 million), but as long as he’s on the team, he’ll be one of the best backup centers in the league. Jason Williams was brought on to replace Alston as a backup point guard, though he might compete with Anthony Johnson for the job. All in all, a fantastic offseason – the Magic now go two deep at every position, have assembled plenty of talent that fits with their style of play, can go both small and big, and have the reigning Defensive Player Of The Year. Way to build on a successful playoff.

- Vince Carter: Vince has superstar ability, but throughout his career, has never really showed willingness to carry a team. Then again, he was never on a truly great team. Most of his teams were second round material at best, and they rarely underachieved. So which Vince is Orlando getting? The one who jacks up bad shots, disrupts his team, then fakes injury when things go south? Or the durable Vince from the past few seasons? Vinsanity, or Half Man, Half Ice Pack? If Vince fits in with this team, offensively and defensively, then watch out. If not, Dwight may get very jealous of Toronto’s Turkish community.

- Dwight Howards’s offense: Dwight took it up a notch defensively last season, upgrading from a top-notch rebounder and shot blocker, into a dominant, all around defender. However, he doesn’t really have a lot of offensive moves. Most of his points come of putbacks, offensive rebounds, dunks, and poorly shot free throws. If he can find a way to consistently score in the post and knock down free throws, Orlando’s offense will have so many weapons that it will be impossible to contain, and Dwight might get himself an MVP or two.

- Jameer Nelson’s shoulder: After years of solid, yet unspectacular play, Jameer Nelson finally fulfilled his potential, blowing up for almost 17 points on 50% shooting, 5.4 assists, and an all-star spot. However, in early February, he tore the labrum in his right shoulder, effectively ending his season. Jameer shockingly returned for the Finals, way ahead of schedule, but was clearly not fully healthy, and was ineffective. After trading Alston, who was brought at the last trading deadline as Nelson’s replacement, the Magic will have a huge hole at point guard if Jameer is not at full strength. And with the other title contenders stacking up as well during the offseason, the Magic just can’t afford that.

- Clutch: Last season Hedo was the Magic’s clutch player, whether he took the big shots, or created them for others. Now he’s north of the border, and that clutch player role is empty. Jameer Nelson filled it for the Magic in the past, but he is returning from injury. Vince and Rashard haven’t exactly failed in the clutch in their career, but haven’t given reasons to trust them in those situations either. And Dwight, as mentioned, still isn’t a trustworthy option when points are needed. In the playoffs, when games are tight, the Magic will need someone to step up, or they will lose – they have the whole regular season to find out who that person will be, but it has to happen.

Prediction: The Magic had a wonderful offseason, and the clearly improved their squad. They might start the season slowly, taking time to adjust to the new roster, and because of Rashard Lewis’ 10 game suspension after failing a drug test. Still, the Magic are a clear-cut top 3 in the East, and top 5 in the league. With the other contenders making significant offseason moves themselves, it will be tough to know which one is better until they actually meet in may, but in my eyes, what the Magic have now puts them at 59-23, 2nd in East, and a shade under Cleveland as far as their chances for a repeat Finals appearance.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Los Angeles Lakers

Coach: Phil Jackson
Last Season: 65-17, NBA Champions
Key Additions: Ron Artest (Free Agent, Houston)
Key Losses: Trevor Ariza (FA, Houston), Sun Yue (waived)

Offseason: After ending a 7 year championship drought, the Lakers’ main offseason goal was keeping the squad intact. However, when Trevor Ariza declined a 5 year, 33 million dollar offer following his breakout campaign, the Lakers instead used their mid-level exception to sign Houston’s free agent, Ron Artest, for that exact deal. Ariza then signed with the Rockets for, ironically, 5 years, 33 million.

Though the Lakers swapped Ariza for a much bigger name, they might have gotten the shorter end of the stick. With all due respect to Ron, he just doesn’t seem to be a good fit with this team, especially considering the player he’s replacing. Unlike Trevor Ariza, who was perfectly content with his role player status, Artest has been (or has viewed himself as) a star his entire career. However, he just isn’t that good. He doesn’t seem to care that he is an extremely inefficient offensive player - jacking up 15-20 bad shots a game. Where are those touches coming from? You know that Kobe won’t give them up. Pau already got way too little touches during last season's playoffs. If Artest doesn’t figure out his new role, he could turn the Lakers’ offense into chaos.

In addition, Artest just isn’t the defender he used to be. He can no longer guard elite swingmen. He is much slower and heavier than he used to be – he even had trouble staying in front of Corey Maggette during a preseason game. Artest may return to his top notch form and prove me wrong, but according to last season, the Lakers lost their best defender (Ariza) and replaced him with a far inferior one.

It seems to me that signing a player as volatile with Artest – probably the owner of the most infamous off-court track record of the past decade in the NBA – is enough of a gamble as is. But when pairing that with the fact that Artest might not even be an improvement over his predecessor, it’s a gamble that’s not only dangerous, but unnecessary. And even though Phil Jackson is probably the coach best equipped to deal with Ron – remember, he harnessed Dennis Rodman – the team would have been better off sticking to what they know.

Apart from the Ariza-Artest switch, the Lakers had a quiet offseason basketball wise, resigning their other two free agents – Shannon Brown and Lamar Odom. However, off the court, it was drama galore, with Odom’s extension taking several weeks to complete. However, despite the long saga, Odom seems very happy in LA, claiming from the get-go that he has no intention to move. Odom starred again later in the summer, with his much publicised marriage to Khloe Kardashian – I will not elaborate on that, as I find it boring and unrelated to basketball. My apologies to gossip-maniacs. I do, however, find it important to mention that the Lakers waived Sun Yue – probably the most universally loved athlete ever to roam the earth.

-Point Guard: Apart from Artest, who is clearly the biggest X-Factor this squad has, for all the reasons explained above, the Lakers’ most burning concern personnel wise is at the point guard position. Derek Fisher manned the position for the past 2 seasons, but at 35 has noticeably lost a step. Despite a strong showing in the Finals (11 ppg, 50% FG, 44% from 3, and two huge threes during a crucial game 4 overtime win), Fisher was bad throughout the regular season, and downright terrible in the Western Conference Playoffs (35% FG, 23% from three). Not only that, but Jordan Farmar, who had a very promising sophomore campaign in 2007-2008, hit a wall last season, shooting only 39% from the floor, putting up an absolutely atrocious 9.9 PER, and raising questions regarding his ability to inherit Fisher’s spot. The Lakers’ third Point man, Shannon Brown, showed some promise last season after arriving from Charlotte via trade, and was re-signed to a 2 year, 4.2 million deal. However, he has yet to prove that he can play at a high level throughout the season.

The Lakers had major trouble guarding opposing point guards, specifically small and quick ones. Their defense on this Point Guard prototype was so bad last postseason, that Houston’s Aaron Brooks torched them during their second round 7 game series, scoring 18 ppg, on 46% shooting. If the Lakers have trouble with Aaron Brooks, what are they going to do against world class, small, quick point guards such as Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Jameer Nelson? Their ability to guard this position will go a long way towards guaranteeing them a repeat, but if they can’t, I don’t see how they can get past the Spurs in the West.

-Motivation: The 2004 Lakers, probably one of the most talented squads of the last decayed, imploded with inner drama and stories. Last season’s squad managed to avoid the drama, but will they still be friends now that they have that title? After every single person on that team gave everything for that ring, and they got it, will they put aside squabbles for the second consecutive season or will egos explode? Will Pau Gasol complain about touches? Will Lamar Odom want to start or will he be willing to remain a 6th man? Will Phil Jackson still be motivated to lead this squad now that he passed Red Auerbach on the all-time title list? Is he even capable of motivating them? It has always been said that defending a title is harder than winning one. The Lakers need to prove that they still want it.

-Kobe: Last season, Kobe Bryant finally got rid of that monkey on his back, and won a title as the alpha dog of his team. Now that he has silenced the critics, will he still be fully committed to that goal? Will he still involve his teammates, or will he revert to get-my-own-stats-Kobe? Also, Kobe is 31, and has played over 200 games the past two seasons, including the Olympics with Team USA, all of this with an injured finger. Basketball players all reach a stage where their body breaks down; has Kobe reached this stage? Kobe is such a competitor, that he’ll probably stay focused on getting that 5th title all throughout, but it should still be pointed out that with Kobe's history, it isn’t a given.

-Andrew Bynum: The past two seasons, Bynum displayed borderline all-star form before succumbing to injury, returning far from full strength in the playoffs. If Bynum can play to his potential, the Lakers have the best frontcourt in the league. But if he’s injured, then Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom are pretty much alone up front, unless you are a huge Josh Powell/DJ Mbenga fan. The Lakers were able to win without Bynum at his best last season – but with all other contenders stacking up during the offseason, they need the young big man in order to repeat.

Prediction: Despite my doubts about Artest’s effect on the team, the Lakers are still pretty much the same squad that won last year’s championship, and must be considered the favorite to repeat until we see evidence to the contrary. If drama/injuries don’t catch up with this team, they should finish atop their conference during the regular season, fully prepared to meet the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. It will be very hard to count them out. 61-21, 1st place in the West.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

NBA Preview: Cleveland Cavaliers

I doubt that I'll be able to preview all 30 teams in the league, but I will make an honest to god attempt to preview as much as possible. With that in mind, here are your 2009/2010 Cleveland Cavaliers.

Coach: Mike Brown
Last Season: 66-16, lost in Eastern Conference Finals
Key Additions: Shaquille O’neal (trade, Phoenix), Anthony Parker (Free Agent, Toronto), Jamario Moon (FA, Miami), Leon Powe (FA, Boston Celtics), Danny Green (Draft).
Key Losses: Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovich (trade, Phoenix), Wally Szczerbiak (FA), Assistant Coach Jon Kuester (now head coach of the Detroit Pistons).

Offseason: Cleveland’s offseason mission of “getting Lebron a title so he won’t leave next summer” started off with the big Shaquasition: 4 time NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’neal joined the team in a full-fledged salary dump by the Phoenix Suns. Shaq was brought on to address two of the Cavs’ biggest weaknesses in last season’s crushing 6 game loss to the Orlando Magic – the lack a low post scorer, or really any scorer not named “Lebron”, and a big body capable of guarding Dwight Howard, who proved to quick for last year’s starting tandem of Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

However, due to Shaq’s migration north being analysed to a pulp by every basketball enthusiast on the planet, the rest of Cleveland’s offseason went by somewhat under-the-radar. Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon, both brought as free agents, give the Cavs two long, defensive swingmen, meaning that Lebron is no longer the only player on board that is capable of guarding the Rashard Lewises of the world. Both players are also very capable of knocking down shots, particularly Parker, who has established himself as a clutch player who can create his own shot during his 6 year Euroleague tenure. Leon Powe, another offseason pickup who came cheap from the Celtics due to injury concerns (a torn ACL expected to keep him on the sidelines until January at the earliest), is fully capable of giving the team quality minutes at the 4 come playoff time. The Cavs also re-signed free agent Anderson Varejao to a 6 year, 42 million deal - probably too much for a role player like Varejao, but still important, as Varejao brings much to the table for the Cavs.

Clevelands strong offseason was marred only by the departure of Assistant coach John Kuester. Kuester, who became the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, functioned as the Cavs’ offensive coordinator last season, and was largely responsible for Cleveland's progression from the “give-Lebron-the-ball-and-hope-for-the-best” offense to an efficient offensive team (4th in offensive efficiency). However, during Cleveland’s 4-2 loss to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals, the offense regressed back to 1-on-5, and the Cavs struggled to put points on the board. Mike Brown’s ability to run the offense without Kuester, and not only his regular stifling defense, will go a long way towards bringing Lebron that ring.

To summarize, Cleveland addressed all their weaknesses during the offseason: a big man capable of guarding Dwight Howard (Shaq has had some success with this in the past), a low post scorer (Shaq), another perimiter player capable of creating a shot (Parker), defensive swingmen (Parker and Moon), and frontcourt depth (Powe). A very strong summer indeed.

- Shaquille O’neal: Quite fittingly, the biggest player is the biggest question mark. The Artist Formally Known as the Most Dominant Player in the Game will be 38 years old come playoff time, but is coming off a very productive season in which he averaged 18 and 8 and returned to the All-Star game. However, his personal rebirth came at the expense of his team, as the Suns missed the playoffs for the first time since the arrival of Steve Nash.

- Delonte West: After losing some of last season’s training camp due to treatment for depression and a mood disorder, West emerged as a starting shooting guard, defensive ace, deadly shooter (40% from three point range), and general glue-guy. However, West continued to reveal his troubling personality this summer, being arrested for speeding on a motorcycle while carrying 3 weapons, and yet again missing the beginning of training camp due to personal issues. While the acquisitions of Parker and Moon mean the Cavs are much better equipped to replace West if necessary, he is still an important part of their team, and a very good basketball player. West’s ability to put a bumpy summer behind him for the second consecutive year and contribute at a high level will go a long way to bringing Cleveland to the promised land.

-Zydrunas Ilgauskas: The Lithuanian big man is an X-Factor for two reasons: first of all, after starting for the Cavs in the middle the past decade, Big Z is now a bench player. His ability to contribute in this new role could be crucial for the Cavs’, as very little teams in the league have such a strong 2nd string center. Secondly, Z’s 11 million dollar contract expires next summer, meaning that if the Cavs still feel they need to improve, they can send him (or Shaq’s 20 million expiring deal, or both) to a lottery team looking for cap relief, and strengthen their team. This could be huge – don’t forget that the Lakers weren’t anywhere near a title before Memphis gave them Pau Gasol for peanuts.

- J.J. Hickson/Leon Powe: This isn’t really that much of an X-Factor as a possible bonus. Last season, Hickson showed a lot of potential before being slowed down by injury. Reports out of Cleveland are that these injuries are behind him, and his preseason form has ranged from solid to surprisingly good. Similarly, Leon Powe provided the Boston Celtics with great hustle, defence and rebounding, when healthy. If Hickson can have a breakout sophomore campaign, and/or Powe can recover from his injuries, the Cavs could have a very good 4th, and even 5th big man, turning front court depth from a weakness to a strength.

Prediction: The Cavs were the best team in the league during the regular season, and I believe that they had a legitimate chance to win against the eventual champion Lakers. Sadly for them, they met a very good Orlando team, who, more importantly, matched up against them perfectly. Even though the Magic and the Celtics made very strong offseason moves, I think the Cavs had the strongest offseason in the East, and arguably in the league, not only strengthening the team, but addressing their matchup problems. The large number of X-Factors tell you that this is far from a done deal, but the sheer presence of Lebron James has been enough for the Cavs to overachieve for the past few seasons, and it should be again. 63-19, 1st in the East, and my favorites for the title.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Welcome back, soccer + short break

Due to the NBA offseason being reduced to absolutely nothing of interest, the blog's going on a late-summer vacation, and will probably be back in early September with some stuff about european soccer, which, thank god, is back. See you then

Friday, July 31, 2009

Trades That Should Happen

The NBA offseason is becoming duller by the second, with the last big-name free agents finding teams, and with very few moves being dissected from every angle. Since I agree with almost everything that has been written around the web regarding Lamar Odom resigning with the Lakers, Andre Miller signing with the Blazers, and the Emeka Okafor-Tyson Chandler trade, allow me to avoid writing the same things myself, and instead write 2 new ideas for trades that absolutely, positively should happen.

The Los Angeles Clippers trade Marcus Camby to the Chicago Bulls for Kirk Hinrich:

A trade option that is getting no mention, yet in my opinion is a coup for both teams. The Clippers have a very crowded frontcourt, with Chris Kaman, No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin, the newly acquired Craig Smith, and the young, promising DeAndre Jordan. With four players already vying for minutes, the 35 year old Camby seems both redundant, and too old for the teams youth movement. Hinrich, on the other hand, has been in trade rumors for years now, especially this summer. With Derrick Rose poised to man the point for the next decade, last years trade deadline acquisition John Salmons expected to start at the 2, and the return of Jannero Pargo, Hinrich seems expandable.

Enter this switch. Both teams get what they want: The Bulls have been starving for a decent center for years, and though Camby isn't a very strong low post scorer, he has a decent mid-range shot (upping his shooting percentage last year to 51%), and is a shot blocking and rebounding machine. This gives the Bulls a very solid frontcourt rotation of Camby, Brad Miller, Joakim Noah, and, if they wish to keep him, Tyrus Thomas. Perhaps more importantly, this unloads Hinrich's 3 year contract, with Camby's deal coming off the books next summer, enabling the Bulls to make a run for Chicago native Dwyane Wade.

The Clippers, on the other hand, sort out their frontcourt logjam, fully committing to their youth movement. The addition of Hinrich then strengthens their backcourt, which currently doesn't consist of much more than Eric Gordon and Baron Davis. Hinrich can give the Clippers a well needed boost of veteran know how, as well as an option to replace Davis at PG if his injury issues continue. And while this deal does hurt the Clippers' cap space in 2010, I really don't believe that they have a decent chance of signing a marquee free agent, given the owner Donald Sterling's reluctant to overpay, and the franchise's well-chronicled streak of failures.

The Dallas Mavericks trade Eric Dampier to the Detroit Pistons for Rip Hamilton

As I explained here, the Mavs' inability to pry Marcin Gortat away from the Orlando Magic would suggest that they are best built to play Dirk Nowitzki at the 5 and Shawn Marion at the 4, and play Phoenix-Suns-style run and gun next season. The Mavs' signing of Tim Thomas, who thrived in Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs, and the signing of Drew Gooden, an athletic 4 who could play center in a small-ball system, strengthens this notion. Seeing how well the Mavs are built for this style of play, Dampier, a slow, traditional, center is unnecessary. Hamilton, however, is an extremely good shooter, who would thrive in a high octane offense, especially with Jason Kidd providing him with shots. Hamilton would give the Mavs a very strong, albiet old, six man core, with Nowitzki, Marion, Kidd, Josh Howard, and reigning sixth man of the year Jason Terry. Together with Thomas, Gooden, and J.J. Barea rounding out the rotation. Though this move doesn't put the Mavs over the top, it more or less solidifies their position as 3rd in the West, and gives them a chance to make some real noise come May.

The Piston's, on the other hand, get to undo Hamilton's terrible 3 year, 34 million extension that Hamilton signed last November, with Dampier's expiring deal (Dampier's deal has another year, however it is fully guaranteed. I wasn't able to understand the conditions under which Dampier's deal becomes fully guaranteed, however, from what I understand there is very little chance that will happen). This gives the Pistons some cap space next summer - though not as much as they had this year, it should be enough for a strong addition. The Piston's would also be fully committing to the newly signed Ben Gordon at shooting guard, and moving further ahead in their rebuilding. As for this season, Dampier gives the Pistons a legitimate starting 5 ahead of the infamous Kwame Brown, completing a solid, if slightly underwhelming offseason.

While some might think of Hamilton as worth more than an expiring contract, the fact remains that Hamilton has exhausted himself in Mowtown, and both sides would benefit from a change. And with the Pistons needing a big man more than anything else, and reportedly not interested in Carlos Boozer, a year of Dampier + cap space seems like the right move.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Do you believe in Magic?

No? Well, you should.

The Orlando Magic, less than two months removed from a 4-1 loss to the LA Lakers in the NBA finals, are finally doing what we want to see from almost-champions - getting better. No cutting back financially, no getting young and aiming for 3 years from now, just good, old-fashioned improvement. And boy, is that working great.

The Magic's offseason can be summarized to this: Hedo Turkoglu, Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Tony Battie for Vince Carter, Ryan Anderson, Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes. While Hedo shined last year in the playoffs, he isn't as good as Toronto's 55 million, 5 year offer would suggest - basically, he's a 30 year old who gives you 15-17 points, 5 red 5 assists. Vince Carter - despite all his bad rep - gives you at least a 20, 5 and 5, and is better at creating his own shot. The only thing the Magic might miss Hedo is his playmaking abilities, but Carter is a very underrated passer, and with a healthy Jameer Nelson, they should be fine.

Apart from replacing their biggest offseason loss with a better player, the Magic addressed another problem: their dependence on Dwight Howard. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year averaged for 13.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game - the whole team, including Howard, averaged 43.25 and 5.35, meaning Howard accounted for loosely 32% of the team's rebonds, and 55% of their blocks. In fact, the Cleveland Cavaliers based their whole offensive scheme in the Eastern Finals on attacking Howard with the hope fouling him out, and opening the middle. Well, no more. with the signing of Brandon Bass, the Magic get a strong, defensive, rebounding PF to play with Howard in the frontcourt. This enables Rashard Lewis to move back to his more natural position at small forward, no longer needing to guard the Dirk Nowitzki's and Pau Gasol's of the world. Combined with the Magic re-signing Marcin Gortat - even though 34 million over 5 years for a career backup seems a bit much, Gortat could probably start for most NBA teams and has played very well in limited minutes - the Magic now have a very strong frontcourt.

With the newly acquired experience of playing in the finals, the NBA's most dominant defensive force, 4 all-stars, and maybe the deepest team in the league (the Magic are 2 deep at every position, though they could use a better backup point guard than Anthony Johnson - they reportedly went after CJ Watson before signing Barnes), the Magic will be force to be reckoned with next season. And in a league where we see players being moved around for financial relief on a daily basis, their effort to improve instead of standing pat and hoping for the best should be applauded.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Paul Millsap Situation

The Portland Trailblazers have signed the Utah Jazz's Paul Millsap to an offer sheet worth around 36 million for 4 years. Since Millsap is a restricted free agent, the Jazz have 7 days to match the offer, thus retaining Millsap. However, the Jazz are trying to cut costs, and with Mehmet Okur's 2 year 21 million extension, and Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver deciding against opting out of their contracts, the Jazz are now committed to a lot of payroll. To add insult to injury, the Blazers have shrewdly added a very hefty signing on clause reportedly worth around 10.3 million to Millsap's offer, giving the Jazz even more financial headaches.

The thing is, Paul Millsap is a player I have no idea what to think about. After two very solid years off the bench as a second round energy guy, he blossomed in Boozer's injury-induced absence to the tune of 16 pts (on 54.5% shooting), 10 reb, 1.2 stl and 1 block a game in 38 starts. Monster numbers, and an absolute bargain at 7-8 million per year.

However, I'm not sure that Millsap can keep this going on a regular basis. A look at his season splits show that his absolutely monstrous number for December and January went way down as the season progressed. Since Millsap is such a high energy guy, he wears and tears very quickly, and one must wonder if he can play with the same effectiveness over 40 minutes as he can over 28. This is why I think the Blazers are making such a smart move with Millsap - adding him to a rotation with 3 other bigs, including Lamarcus Aldridge to start in front of him at the 4. Paul Millsap is best used as a 6th man, someone who can energize the second unit, and then stay on the court in crunch time. Perfect fit for Portland.

However, if the Jazz aren't keeping Boozer - and they are reportedly trying very hard to get rid of him - Millsap doesn't make sense by himself. He simply can't hold the fort alone at the PF position. He doesn't have the stamina. If he gets it, he's a borderline all-star, but as of now, the Jazz either need someone else to fill in minutes in their frontcourt rotation, and allow Millsap to get his rest, or, they need to give up on Millsap and move Boozer for a better fit. Which brings us to a segment I like to call - Trades That Should Happen:

The New York Knicks sign David Lee to a 5 year, 50 million contract, then trade Lee and Jared Jeffries to the Utah Jazz for Carlos Boozer and Matt Harpring

Great trade for everybody. The Jazz save some money (Jeffries and Harpring make the same, Boozer's 12.6 million is more than Lee's first year would be), rid themselves of Boozer, who has worn out his welcome, get a budding young PF who will thrive next to Deron Williams. Harpring at this point in his career is no more than a fringe player, and while Jeffries' contract has one more year on it, he may provide decent minutes. The Jazz can now decide whether they retain Millsap and run a very strong 3 man frontcourt rotation with Lee and Okur.

The Knicks get loads of cap space (both Boozer and Harpring come off the books at the end of the season) for 2010, unload one of their two preposterous contracts that continue after 2010 (the other being Eddy Curry's), and get an all-star caliber PF for the following season. Not to mention the possibility that Harpring may retire due to injury, leaving insurance to pay his contract. Finally, and maybe most importantly, they don't lose Lee in free agency without getting something in return.

Trades That Should Happen will be featuring regularly from here on out - just my humble contribution to a fascinating offseason so far.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Israel is a tennis empire!

Taking a break from the NBA offseason just to say how great Dudi Sela has become, leading Israel (together with Harel Levi) to a 2-0 lead over Russia - yes, THE Russia - in the Davis Cup. You getting any expert opinions on tennis, but Israeli pride man! After qualifying to the Wimbledon final 16, Dudi seems in great shape. We might finally have a sport we're good at here in the holy land!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Latest Offseason moves

Cleveland signs free agent Anthony Parker, resigns Anderson Varejao:

I love the Parker move. Love it. Many fans will see it as a low-profile signing, one that could have been replaced by a bigger name, but in this free agent market, Parker is top notch. As one who lives in Israel saw Parker on a regular basis when he was playing for Maccabi Tel-Aviv, I can tell you that Parker is extremely underrated: excellent defender, creates his own shot, very good rebounder for his position (led Maccabi in rebounding as a SF). He wasn't the Euroleague MVP just because he's american. Great signing.

As for Varejao? Look, Cleveland had to resign him, and he had to resign. Both parties are perfect fits - there is no system better for Varejao than Cleveland. But at 6 years, 50 million? In this market? For a role player? I have no idea how Danny Ferry can defend this one. Good general thinking, terrible negotiating.

Antonio Mcdyess to Spurs

The Spurs do it again. After bringing in Richard Jefferson in a deal whose only downside was frontcourt depth, the Spurs use free agency for... wait for it... frontcourt depth! Perennialy one of the few franchises in the league who actually know what they're doing, the Spurs continue to retool around their big 3 in an attempt to get Tim Duncan his 5th championship. And they're great at it. Mcdyess is a legitimate starting center for any team in this league, and completes perhaps the best 5 in the NBA (I don't say starting 5 because Ginobili is a "bench player").

Chris Andersen resigns with Denver

Actually, I just wanted to talk about the Nuggets, with the Birdman just serving as a perfect example for my case. The Nuggets overachieved last year in the sense that they played much better than they were expected to. However, this was the result of basically everything falling into place for them: every single player on that team had something to prove, and every single one of them did. But what are the chances of that happening two years in a row? Look at Andersen. Last year: playing for the league minimum, after being suspended for drug use, trying to redeem himself. This year? fit for the rest of his career with a 5 year, 26 million deal which pays him until he's 36. Which player do you think will be more motivated?

Looking at the Denver Nuggets, they're virtually unchanged (Dahantay Jones left to the Pacers, Ty Lawson was brought in via draft). But inner complacency, combined with the Spurs retooling and the Blazers gaining valuable experience tells me that the Nugs will probably compete for the second round of the playoffs next year, and no more.