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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

2006-2007 Western Conference Preview

Last year, my Eastern Conference and Western Conference previews each correctly picked six of the eight playoff teams. I thought that the Spurs would be the best team in the West in 2005-06 but injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili slowed them down and by the time they faced the Dallas Mavericks in the second round I wrote that very little separated the two Texas powerhouses. I predicted that the Spurs would prove to be "thismuch" better but of course Dallas narrowly prevailed. Tim Duncan appears to be in good health entering the 2006-07 season, as do Ginobili and Tony Parker, so I look for the Spurs to not only be the best team in the West but to claim their fourth NBA title of the Duncan era. I recently posted my 2006-2007 Eastern Conference Preview; here is my Western Conference preview:

1) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich. The Spurs have three of the top individual players in the league and one of the game's great coaches. That has proven to be a championship winning formula in the past as long as Duncan is healthy. Reasons to mope: Ginobili is known as "El Contusion" for a reason: his relentless, no holds barred style leads to a lot of bruises. On paper, the Spurs look deep but guys like Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley all have a lot of mileage on their odometers. The Spurs need their big three to stay healthy throughout the season and especially during the playoffs. Bottom line: Tim Duncan has yet to win back to back championships but three titles in the past eight seasons suggest that it might soon be time for the Spurs to hoist another banner.

2) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki, his disappointing Finals performance notwithstanding, has been a playoff stud throughout his career: his 25.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg and .406 three point shooting in the postseason exceed his excellent career regular season averages. Coach Avery Johnson has set NBA records for being the fastest to reach various win plateaus and he has instilled a hard nosed defensive mentality in a team that some people used to consider to be soft. This team was one decent fourth quarter away from taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals, so the talent to win a championship is obviously there. Reasons to mope: This team was one decent fourth quarter away from taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals--and proceeded to lose that game and the next three contests as well. You don't get seeded into the 2007 NBA Finals based on past performance. Will Dallas' tantalizingly close run to an NBA title fuel the Mavericks' hunger to complete the task this year or will they struggle to sustain the effort and focus that are necessary to survive the 82 game regular season marathon that is a prelude to the playoffs? Bottom line: It would not surprise me if the Mavericks won the 2007 NBA title but they were in a dead heat with the Spurs for most of last season and I think that the Spurs will beat them this year.

3) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: Two-time MVP Steve Nash is choreographing the show and he has an excellent supporting cast, including fellow All-Star Shawn Marion. Reasons to mope: Amare Stoudemire may never completely regain the explosiveness he once had. He provided an inside presence that the Suns have not been able to replace and was a nightmare matchup even for All-NBA Team and All-Defensive Team stalwart Tim Duncan. Bottom line: Phoenix is a fun team to watch and as long as Nash and Marion are healthy they will always be a contending team, but without Amare Stoudemire they just don't have quite enough to win the Western Conference.

4) Los Angeles Lakers: Reasons for hope: Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. With Mr. 81, 35.4 and 24 (his new jersey number), anything is possible. The Lakers took the favored Suns to the brink of elimination last year and now players such as Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker will be more comfortable in the triangle offense and better equipped to execute in pressure moments. It sometimes takes players a full season to begin to understand how to run the offense smoothly. Free agent pick ups Vladimir Radmanovic and Shammond Williams will provide three point shooting and point guard depth respectively. Reasons to mope: Lamar Odom shows tantalizing glimpses of what he is capable of doing but he is a career underachiever who has never made the All-Star team because he does not consistently play at a high level. Without Kobe Bryant's productivity and will, this team would have struggled to win 25-30 games last year. Bottom line: Last year I picked the Lakers to win at least 45 games and make the playoffs--and they did just that. Few people think that the Lakers can grab the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round but--if Kobe remains healthy--the Lakers will do just that.

5) Los Angeles Clippers: Reasons for hope: This team really seemed to turn the corner last year after years of making early reservations for the Draft Lottery. They have a bona fide star in Elton Brand, a clutch, veteran point guard in Sam Cassell, several solid veterans and a promising point guard for the future (Shaun Livingston). Reasons to mope: The Clippers have no track record for sustaining greatness--or even viable playoff contending status. Cassell is aging and if he gets injured or has trouble accepting that Livingston's playing time is bound to increase then the Clippers boat will be sunk (again). Bottom line: This is a solid playoff team that is not quite good enough to contend for an NBA title.

6) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: When Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are in the lineup together Houston wins about two thirds of its games, which would translate to at least 55 wins in an 82 game season. New addition Shane Battier will help defensively and has the ability to make open three pointers, spacing the court for T-Mac and Yao to operate. Recently signed Bonzi Wells can provide scoring and rebounding. Reasons to mope: The Rockets were simply dreadful last year without T-Mac, even when Yao was healthy; their winning percentage without McGrady may have threatened the 1972-73 Sixers' mark of 9-73 if projected over a full season. McGrady has been plagued by a balky back for quite some time, so the likelihood of him making it through an entire season unscathed seems remote. Bottom line: Wells gives the Rockets a potent third option when the team is at full strength and he should be able to pick up some of the slack if T-Mac has to sit out a few games to rest his back. If T-Mac actually stays healthy for all or most of the season, the Rockets will finish higher than sixth.

7) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: Carmelo had his best season yet in 2005-06, making the All-NBA Third Team. Marcus Camby is a force defensively and on the glass. J.R. Smith may provide the three point shooting that the Nuggets desperately need to take pressure off of Anthony and the team's post up players. Reasons to mope: The 32-8 run to close out the 2004-05 season is a distant memory. The chemistry on this team seems explosive in a number of areas, most notably between Coach George Karl and disgruntled power forward Kenyon Martin; there is also the question of whether or not Anthony will develop the rest of his game to complement his tremendous scoring ability. Bottom line: Karl has led the Nuggets to two playoff appearances and two quick postseason exits. There is no reason to expect anything better this year.

8) Sacramento Kings: Reasons for hope: When he is healthy and focused, Ron Artest is one of the best players in the NBA. Mike Bibby is an excellent point guard. Brad Miller is showing some signs of age but he is still a good high post center. Reasons to mope: The Kings lost free agent Bonzi Wells, a key contributor last season, when he rejected their offer and signed with the Houston Rockets. It is not clear that new coach Eric Musselman can get any more out of this unit than the fired Rick Adelman did. Bottom line: There is enough talent here for this to be a very good team, but putting them in the top eight is my riskiest choice for one reason: Ron Artest--I'd like to put an asterisk by the Kings and not have this selection count against me if he misses more than 20 games for non-basketball reasons such as league or team suspensions or promoting a CD.

There are some other decent teams in the West that could sneak into the playoffs if teams 6-8 stumble. The Memphis Grizzlies were a playoff team in 2005-06 but Pau Gasol might miss as much as half of the season because of the injury that he suffered in the FIBA World Championships; I think that his absence will be too much for them to overcome, particularly in the Western Conference, where last year's eighth seed won 44 games. Golden State has a lot of talent and it would not be shocking to see Don Nelson guide this team to the last playoff spot, particularly if Baron Davis can stay healthy. The Hornets collapsed down the stretch last year but are a fashionable "sleeper" pick this year. Frankly, I just don't think that they are as good as any of the first eight teams listed above, so--barring Ron Artest going off of the deep end--I don't see them making the playoffs. The Utah Jazz made few changes to a roster that missed the playoffs by only three games. It is certainly not out of the question that they could make the playoffs but I see no reason to believe that they have gotten better than the teams that were ahead of them. Minnesota only won 33 games last year but Randy Foye and Mike James--the team's only significant additions--are supposed to be worth the 10 or so additional wins to make the playoffs? I don't think so. Seattle made no changes worthy of note, so don't expect the Sonics to do much better than last season's 35 wins. As for Portland, the Trail Blazers should lease the Clippers' old seat at the Draft Lottery with an option to buy--the Clippers won't be needing it for a while and Portland figures to be making the cross country trek for the next few years.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM

17 comments

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17 Comments:

At Tuesday, October 10, 2006 3:41:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a life-long Lakers fan, but even I have to admit that your ranking the Lakers number 4 in the West seems a bit out of hand.

With the exception of Kobe and Odom, no one else on the Lakers roster would get any substantial playing-time on other contending teams. When you consider the fact that Odom has been known to have little heart, fire, or will, the situation looks even more bleak.

Watching Game 7 of the Suns vs. Lakers series was one of the most depressing moments I've ever witnessed in basketball. So many times, it seemed like Phil Jackson was looking down his bench begging to be surprised by someone who could come in and make a difference, but all he could do was send in Rony Turiaf or Luke Walton, or keep switching Sasha Vujacic and Smush Parker back in and out. I think it is a very telling fact that Smush wasn't supposed to play much if he started off cold, but when he did indeed start off cold, Jackson pulled him, but had to go back to him because he had no one else to go to.

The Laker team of the post-Shaq era might be the LEAST talented Laker team since the franchise moved to Los Angeles. It is arguable that even the early-90s crew of AC Green, Vlade Divac, Anthony Peeler, Nick Van Exel, George Lynch, Sedale Threatt, etc. had more overall talent (and certainly much more talent from 2-12).

I thought the Lakers overachieved incredibly last year, and I'm not sure they made any improvements. Vladimir Radmanovic? I think it was maybe you who pointed out that he's basically another Brian Cook. Jordan Farmar? We all know how much Phil Jackson plays rookies. The only hope is for the players the Lakers already have to show improvement. But who is going to do that? Lamar? No. Andrew Bynum? Doubtful.

 
At Tuesday, October 10, 2006 5:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I think that last year when I wrote that the Lakers would make the playoffs that most people (other than maybe Greg Anthony from ESPN) thought that was "out of hand."

I agree that the Lakers roster is a bit threadbare compared to other playoff teams and I mentioned that in the preview, saying that without Kobe that team would have struggled to win 30 games--but the Lakers do have Kobe and in basketball one great player can have a significant impact to a much greater extent than in football or baseball.

The Lakers' other great trump is Phil Jackson. Don't forget the job that he did with the 1994 Bulls team despite Michael Jordan retiring right before the season started; the Bulls had no chance to even try to replace him on the roster because the draft was over and teams' rotations were already set (not that you can replace Jordan but you can try to set up your roster a certain way if you know in advance that he is retiring). Jackson started Pete Myers at shooting guard and the Bulls came within one atrocious blown call of making it to a very winnable Eastern Conference Finals matchup with Indiana.

The one advantage that Bulls team did have is its great familiarity with the triangle offense. This Lakers team will not have that degree of mastery but the offense will unquestionably run more smoothly this year. Don't overlook the great strides that the team made on defense and the fact that under Jackson's tutelege Kwame Brown became a serviceable player and Smush played decently until the last few games against Phoenix.

The Lakers' failure in game seven does not taint or diminish how much the team grew overall. Game sevens on the road are death historically in the NBA, particularly for teams that do not have a lot of playoff experience.

Barring an injury to Kobe, I expect that Jackson and the Lakers will build on what they accomplished last year and take another step up the ladder. True title contention will not happen until the roster is upgraded some more.

 
At Tuesday, October 10, 2006 11:38:00 AM, Blogger alternaviews said...

I agree w/anonymous...

i think the clips shd be #4, and the Lakers are maybe #7 or 8.

all of the touchy-feely stuff like the Clips franchise not having a traditino of sustaining excellence -- that's not going to make it easier for opponents to keep Brand off of the boards. They have developing talent, like Kaman, to go with a true star, Brand, and other solid players... Livingston is very talented, and Cassell will probably be mature -- Cassell is a winner, above all else.

as for the LAkers, yes, Kobe is good enough to elevate them to playoff level, on his own. But team defense, rebounding, and secondary scoring all factor in. Plus, Kobe has had a history of some injuries. He's a great talent and he sells merchandise, but, alone, he can't take this team into the top 4 of the West.

i'd also hold out a bit more hope on Phx -- if Amare is near his old form, then can't they contend for the NBA title, don't you think?

 
At Tuesday, October 10, 2006 1:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Badly understimating the Jazz. They are healthy, have Fisher to back up Williams and picked up a couple of stud rookies. They will be like Memphis of last year (and worry about advancing in the playoffs later).

 
At Tuesday, October 10, 2006 2:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

My opinion about the Clippers is not based on "touchy feely" stuff but the fact that the two constants in the organization over the past two decades are owner Donald Sterling and GM Elgin Baylor. They put together a pretty solid team one other time, in the early 90s with Larry Brown as the coach, but they were not able to sustain or build on that (brief) success.

I like Cassell and he is definitely a winner--but the adjustment to having less playing time/a smaller role is not easy for any player. After Cassell had his early success with the Rockets he began to chafe at sharing minutes with Kenny Smith and I'm not sure that he will be any more comfortable with sharing minutes at this point in his career, either, especially because Livingston is still learning on the job.

I agree that Kobe can't take the Lakers to the fourth spot alone, but, as I mentioned, I believe in Phil Jackson's ability to get the maximum production out of the remainder of the roster. Kobe's performance, barring injury, is a given. The only two games he missed last year were because of a suspension.

If Amare makes it all the way back then Phoenix is certainly a title contender; I placed them third in the West anyway despite indications that Amare will not make it all the way back, at least not anytime soon.

Of course Utah is healthy now--they haven't played any games yet! Kirilenko and Boozer have both missed significant time due to injuries the last two seasons. Fisher was a good complementary player on some championship teams a few years ago but I don't think he can provide much of a boost to a team that is hanging around 40 wins.

 
At Tuesday, October 10, 2006 7:36:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Hey, I'm the main guy who has been posting under the name "anonymous" recently (in particular in the stats debate about Oscar Robertson, and the first, but not fourth, comment for this entry to your blog).

Anyway, I'm hesitant to give the Lakers too much credit for their performance against Phoenix. They did play very well, but I think it had to do largely with the fact that the Suns have little inside presence on defense and Phil Jackson exploited that to the max (with Kwame Brown and Lamar Odom). The novelty and effectiveness of the Lakers' power game wore off as the series progressed, and in the end, coaching tactics could not compensate for difference in talent. I'm not sure the Lakers would have had as much success with a team with similar standing as Phoenix which presented less favorable matchups. I think that most of the progress the young players on the Lakers showed against Phoenix was due to matchups rather than any sort of coming-of-age.

I think playing well in pressure situations is what separates the good players in the NBA from the marginal, and the collective choke job exhibited by Odom, Brown, and Parker was very discouraging.

You'll get no arguement from me about Kobe's greatness. I think he's the best player in the game. However, I think if the Lakers are to go farther, he has to find a way to take his individual brilliance and spread that energy around the team (he already does this, but he has to do even better in this department if the Lakers are to take another big step).


This is a bit of a digression from our main discussion, but I'd like to say a few things about the 1994 Bulls. Many fans and members of the media like to act like the championship Bulls teams were basically Jordan, Pippen, and a bunch of bums. I don't think this is true at all, and the 1994 Bulls are an undeniable counterexample. I think that a combination of Jordan hype and hype for the Bulls' oponents (in an attempt to create a rivalry or two) has given a raw deal to the role players on those Bulls teams.

For example, let's compare the Bulls (minus Jordan) with the Knicks of 1994. Pippen and Ewing were both stars of about the same level. Grant was better than Oakley. Starks was slightly better than Armstrong. Anthony Mason, Hubert Davis, Charles Smith, Derek Harper etc. were about as talented as Bill Cartwright, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley, Scott Williams, etc.

Let's look at Bulls vs. Knicks in 1993 and 1994. In both years, the series was tied 2-2 heading into Game 5. In that game the Bulls had a one point lead in the waning moments. In 1993, Pippen blocks Charles Smith about 37 times in a row underneath the basket as time runs out. In 1994, Pippen is called for a phantom foul against Hubert Davis. In Game 6 (both years), the Bulls blow the Knicks out in Chicago. The difference was in 1993, that ended the series, and in 1994, there was still a Game 7.

NBA fans and media often like to point out that Russell/Magic/Bird/Kareem/whoever had more talent on their team than Jordan when making arguments for Jordan as greatest player, but in doing so they implicitly underrate the Bulls' role players and overrate the Bulls' competition.

 
At Tuesday, October 10, 2006 7:41:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

I also believe that if health is not an issue, the Rockets MINUS Yao Ming and Bonzi Wells have about as much talent as the Lakers. I think that says something.

 
At Wednesday, October 11, 2006 5:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

You are correct that on the surface Phoenix was a more favorable matchup for the Lakers than any of the other top Western teams but don't forget that the Suns handled the Lakers pretty easily during the regular season. The Lakers' only win came when Nash sat out a game. So give the Lakers some credit for steadily improving during the season and successfully implementing Jackson's "Inside Man" strategy for most of the playoff series. The Lakers were one defensive rebound away from eliminating the second seed. Before the season started, how many people predicted that that Lakers could achieve so much? Game seven was ugly but no uglier than the Cavaliers' game seven and most people seem to assume that Cleveland will build on that performance.

I don't think that Kobe can really do more, energy-wise or production-wise. Provided he stays healthy, he can maintain his current level for the next few years, until he hits his early to mid thirties. If the Lakers steadily add/develop talent, they should become a title contending team in that time frame. This year the goal should be home court advantage in a playoff series and advancing at least one round. Of course, every team says that the goal is to win the NBA title, but I am talking about a realistic, achievable goal that is part of a step by step process ultimately leading to true title contention.

You make some good points about the Chicago Bulls. Grant and Armstrong made their only All-Star appearances in 1994. Some people wrongly assumed that Pippen would try to pick up Jordan's scoring slack but, while he did increase his scoring somewhat, what he really focused on was controlling the game in an all around sense and helping the team to execute the triangle offense. Some would say that the Bulls never ran the offense better than they did that year; in other years the results were better because Jordan was always there as a safety valve if a play broke down, but the 1994 Bulls put on a triangle offense clinic. I'm not sure that I agree with all of your player evaluations (Starks was a better all around player than Armstrong at that time) but your larger point--that the Bulls had some pretty solid players--is true and Pippen is one of the most underrated great players ever. He should have been the MVP that year (he finished third).

You are right that the 1993 and 1994 series shared a lot of similarities. Kobe is of course a much more aggressive scorer than Pippen was but he has an excellent understanding of the triangle and showed during the Phoenix series that if other players know what to do and execute that he is perfectly willing to take fewer shots. The Lakers are going to surprise some people this year.

I agree that some observers underrate the Bulls' role players but when you compare them to the Russell Celtics, Magic Lakers or Bird Celtics you are getting carried away. Russell played with numerous Hall of Famers and Top 50 players. They had so much talent that Hall of Famer and Top 50 player John Havlicek came off of the bench for several years. MJ had one Top 50 player (Pippen) and one other potential Hall of Famer (Rodman, though his sideshow antics may hurt him in the voting). Magic and Kareem had each other--arguably two of the top ten players ever--plus Hall of Famers James Worthy and Bob McAdoo (late in his career but still quite potent) and, at various times, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon, Byron Scott, A.C. Green, etc. Bird had two Hall of Famers and Top 50 players alongside him on the frontline (McHale, Parish), plus a Finals MVP (Dennis Johnson) and a former scoring champion (Nate Archibald). So those other stars did have better supporting casts around them than Jordan did, based purely on talent and career achievements. This is not to say that those teams would necessarily beat the Bulls in a seven game series; that is a discussion for another time.

 
At Wednesday, October 11, 2006 5:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I don't agree that the Rockets minus Yao and Bonzi have about as much talent as the Lakers. Kobe and Odom are a better tandem than T-Mac and choose-a-Rocket-other-than-Yao-or-Bonzi.

What we did see last year is the Rockets missed T-Mac when he was out a lot more than they missed Yao during his absences, at least based on their won-loss records in both situations. I'm not sure if the strength of opposition during those periods was drastically different but I remember that the Rockets looked pathetic when T-Mac was out, even when Yao was scoring 25 ppg. If I were certain that T-Mac will be healthy I would have put the Rockets higher than sixth, probably up around fourth and then slide the Lakers and Clippers down one, but someone who has a chronic back problem is not likely to survive the rigors of an 82 game season completely unscathed; so putting them sixth is kind of a compromise move on my part, balancing what they are capable of if T-Mac stays healthy against what their record will actually be if he misses 10-15 games.

 
At Wednesday, October 11, 2006 7:12:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

David,

Don't get me wrong on my comparison between the Bulls rosters with those of the great Celtics and Lakers teams.

I'm not saying the Bulls had a roster which could compare to those other great teams. They didn't. What I am saying is that, when you adjust for level of competition, the Bulls had a roster with comparable talent.

For example, the Lakers of the 80s had Magic, Kareem, Worthy/Wilkes, Scott/Nixon, Cooper, etc., but they were competing against the Celtics, who had Bird, Parish, McHale, Maxwell/Walton, DJ, Ainge, etc. and the 76ers who had Erving, Toney, Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and either Moses Malone or Darryl Dawkins and Caldwell Jones. And the Celtics and 76ers had to compete against each other.

Similarly, Russell's Celtics had strong competition from the 76ers of Chamberlain, Greer, Walker, Cunningham, etc. and definitely faced more talented teams in their 1969 title run (Knicks and Lakers).

The Bulls teams of the 90s were talented compared to their competition. As I argued in my previous post, I think the Bulls MINUS Jordan were in the same neighborhood as the Knicks talent-wise. The Bulls were also at least as talented (and probably more so) than the Suns, Jazz, Sonics, etc. of the time.

My point is, YES, Jordan's Bulls were less talented than Magic's Lakers or Bird's Celtics or Russell's Celtics, BUT, they also faced lesser competition. The Bulls were just about as well-equipped to face the teams of their day as the Celtics and Lakers were to face the teams of their days. Therefore, I don't agree with people when they try to award MJ extra points for having a "lesser supporting cast" than Magic, or Bird or Wilt or Russell, because these people fail to notice that MJ had a VERY capable supporting cast compared to his competition.

 
At Wednesday, October 11, 2006 7:14:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Oh, and in my comment about the Rockets, I was thinking of comparing Kobe and Lamar to T-Mac and Shane Battier (not any Rocket other than Yao or Bonzi).

You make good points though, and I understand your reservations with regard to the Rockets' ranking.

 
At Wednesday, October 11, 2006 8:23:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

Thank you for clarifying. Now I understand your point. This is a difficult comparison to make, because talent was a lot more concentrated in the 1960s because there were fewer teams and smaller rosters. Even in Bird and Magic's early years there were only 23 teams, so the NBA had 80-90 fewer players than today. There is also a question of how one defines talent. I'm not sure that Paxson, Kerr or even one-time All-Star Armstrong would have seemed quite so talented in a different system. The triangle really emphasized their primary strength--spot up shooting--and did not require them to dribble penetrate or even do as much ball handling in general as guards of their size are normally expected to do. So, they seem "talented" in retrospect in part because Jordan and Pippen assumed so much of the playmaking responsibilities. If they were on a lesser team, they would never have had the opportunity to hit big playoff shots and it is doubtful that they would have done anything individually that would cause us to remember their careers. I think that this is less true of the supporting casts on the Russell Celtics and the other teams we are talking about: some of those players did in fact make a name for themselves before or after being role players. I know that you are making a relative comparison to each era and not an absolute comparison; I understand what you are saying but I'm still not sure that I completely agree.

 
At Wednesday, October 11, 2006 8:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I wasn't sure if you meant Battier or someone else. I like T-Mac and Battier but, even if we call T-Mac vs. Kobe a wash, I'd take Odom over Battier: Odom is bigger, rebounds better, passes better and handles the ball better. Battier's only advantages would be on defense and three point shooting. Of course, we're really talking about five on five, not two on two, so the real issue would be how well each duo meshes with the other three guys on the court.

I actually like the Rockets and T-Mac quite a bit. I picked them to finish much higher last year, but T-Mac's back issues have really caused me to curb my enthusiasm this time around. I will have to see him make it through a season injury free to believe that he can do so again at this point. Every time he lands after a dunk or long jumper I hold my breath that he hasn't thrown out his back again; it seems to happen to him on plays that would not affect most athletes of his caliber, which indicates to me that he has a congenital condition that is never going to be exactly right.

 
At Wednesday, October 11, 2006 4:45:00 PM, Blogger vednam said...

Indeed, the lower concentration of talent is a result of a larger league.

I agree with your assessment of Paxon, Kerr, and Armstrong. However, I think you can say the same for the role players on most of the teams the Bulls faced. That's why I'm not sure on which point you disagree. Were Paxon, Kerr and Armstrong able to make significant contributions because of the advantages they enjoyed playing on a team with the Bulls' system and superstars? Yes. But other players without a great deal of "individual" talent made lasting marks in the NBA by making the most of the advantages they enjoyed playing on good teams of the time OTHER than the Bulls. For example, Robert Horry on the Spurs (or Lakers, depending when you think his individual talent began to decline), Derek Fisher on the Lakers, even Steve Kerr on the Spurs.

I know you understand that I'm making relative comparisons, so I don't know where you disagree (maybe you didn't mention this). If you mean to imply that the Bulls had less talent than some of the teams they faced, and that their system and superstars made up for this, I must disagree.

 
At Thursday, October 12, 2006 7:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I guess some of this depends on how one defines "talent." We have the benefit of hindsight to know that Paxson made the big shots against the Lakers, Suns and other teams; likewise with Kerr. I guess my question is, before that history was made, so to speak, would an NBA general manager prefer Paxson or Kerr over the players who had comparable roles on the Bulls' rivals that you mentioned? Let's look at Paxson: he averaged 25 minutes a game on the Bulls' first championship team as a 6-2 point guard whose main responsibility was to make open jump shots. He didn't have to handle the ball against pressure and either MJ or Pip would take the toughest backcourt defensive assignment. Would he have beaten out Byron Scott on the Lakers--or even Terry Teagle? Could he have cracked the Knicks' three guard rotation that year of Gerald Wilkins, Mark Jackson or Maurice Cheeks? The Pistons' three guard rotation that year was Isiah-Dumars-Vinnie Johnson. Utah had Stockton-Jeff Malone-Blue Edwards. Portland had Drexler-Terry Porter-Danny Ainge. I'm not convinced that Paxson is more "talented" than any of those guys. Could he beat any of them one-on-one? Other than spot shooting, would he outperform those guys as a passer, ballhandler, rebounder or defender?

If your reply is that he performed well against them when he was with the Bulls, that doesn't really address the issue, which is would he have even gotten those minutes if he were on a different roster at the time? Jackson designed a role for him that suited Paxson's skills and hid his weaknesses and used a Triangle Offense that no one else in the league was running.

I guess my disagreement with you is that, even making the kind of relative comparison that you are talking about, I still think that you are overstating the "talents" of the Bulls players other than Jordan and Pippen, unless you are defining "talent" in a different way than I am.

By the way, those Bulls teams are among my favorites of all-time and I really enjoyed watching them. I appreciate the contributions of those role players very much but I don't think that they would have had the same success in different systems.

 
At Saturday, October 14, 2006 7:17:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

You make good points about John Paxson's talents. Indeed, I think he would have trouble getting playing time on some of those lineups that you mentioned.

However, it's tough to really use one player at one position as a measuring stick for the Bulls' overall talent (not trying to criticize you, I realize what we're discussing is, in the end, impossible to evaluate objectively).

For example, most observers thought the 80s Lakers had at least as much talent as the 80s Celtics (with a good amount of people thinking the Lakers had more talent). However, the Lakers's starting PF, Kurt Rambis, would have gotten about as much playing time on the Celtics as Greg Kite. On the other hand, you could take any of the Celtics' top 6 or 7 players and they would have stacked up well against the Lakers' players at that position. (The only argument I can envision here is one against Danny Ainge; the Lakers probably would have preferred to play Scott or Cooper rather than Ainge due to style of play, but I think it is fair to say Ainge was in their neighborhood as far as talent).

I guess what I'm really trying to look at is "did Jordan have a team as talented as his competitors?". Let us suppose Jordan is a wash with the best player on the other top teams of the time (Drexler, Ewing, Barkley, Malone). Some of those teams may have had advantages in terms of talent over some of the Bulls' role players (like Paxson) but the Bulls would have held their own in many ways (Paxson and Armstrong weren't far behind, if behind at all, in talent compared to the Knicks' backcourt of John Starks/Hubert Davis/Derek Harper ... I'd take Bill Cartwright or Scott Williams or Luc Longley in a heartbeat over Mark West and Greg Ostertag, and they're not far behind Kevin Duckworth or Sam Perkins ... Horace Grant was better than Charles Oakley).

The key, however, is Scottie Pippen. I don't think the Blazers, Suns, Knicks or Jazz had a second-best player on Pippen's level (Stockton was old by then).

 
At Saturday, October 14, 2006 9:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

You hit the nail on the head in reference to Pippen. He really made the whole thing go. MJ and his role players went 9-1 in playoff games and 0-3 in series before Pip arrived (Grant arrived the same season, although he did not come into his own as quickly as Pip did). Other than pure scoring ability, MJ and Pip were interchangeable in a lot of ways--playmaking, rebounding, defense. Jackson could rest MJ and go with Pip and four reserves without losing anything. Indeed, the Bulls made a big comeback against Portland in a Finals game with MJ on the bench. Then he came back in, well rested, and teamed with Pip to finish things off. Of course, that also reinforces your point that the other four guys were not slugs, either.

Looking back at what we have both written in this thread, I think that we are substantially in agreement: we seem to agree completely on Pippen's importance; to sort out our individual thoughts on each Bulls role player versus his counterpart on other teams might require a separate blog :) That's why I chose Paxson to illustrate a general point about some of the Bulls' players who, in my opinion, were almost uniquely suited to playing in the Triangle Offense. An interesting sidenote is that many of those role players considered Pip to be their favorite teammate. Not that they didn't like and respect MJ but there was almost a good cop/bad cop thing in which MJ would criticize and Pip would be supportive. I don't think that this was planned out; it just reflects their personalities.

 

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