Final Thoughts on the 2007 NBA PlayoffsThe 2007 NBA Playoffs ended with the result that I predicted before they began, albeit a couple games earlier than I expected. Overall, I correctly picked the winner of 12 of the 15 playoff series, my best performance since I started posting NBA playoff predictions online in 2005; I went 9-6 in 2005 (and also correctly picked both Finalists before the playoffs began, but incorrectly chose the Pistons to beat the Spurs) and 10-5 in 2006 (and did not correctly pick either Finalist before the playoffs began).
Two of the series that I missed this season happened in the first round, Golden State's historic upset of the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks and Utah's seven game victory over the Houston Rockets. I correctly resisted the temptation to jump on the Golden State bandwagon against Utah and the only blemish on my record in round two was Detroit beating Chicago. So, I can honestly say that I was not surprised by much that happened in this postseason. Here are some final thoughts and observations about the 2007 NBA playoffs:
1) San Antonio has to be considered the early favorite for the 2008 championship. Their core players are healthy and staying motivated has never been a problem for the Spurs. Their previous bids to win back to back titles derailed because of injuries to Duncan (2000 and 2006 playoffs) and the presence of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (2004). Obviously, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers--a squad that went 3-2 versus the Spurs in the playoffs between 1999 and 2004--are history and none of the other Western Conference teams have shown that they can beat the Spurs in a series when San Antonio is at full strength. During the 2007 Finals, Duncan said that he had a restful and productive summer before the 2006-07 season and his overall physical condition is better than it has been in years. That does not figure to change this summer, as Duncan will not be playing for Team USA and will be able to again focus on being rested and in top shape for the start of next season.
2) Cleveland's flaws were exposed and highlighted by San Antonio in the Finals but it is important to keep in mind that this was probably the best of the Spurs' four championship teams. LeBron James has taken the Cavaliers to heights that the franchise had never reached before and he did this very quickly and without even one current All-Star as a sidekick. Cleveland needs to surround James with more dependable shooters and needs to acquire an all-around point guard; right now, the position is manned by a committee of specialists: Larry Hughes is a versatile (and injury prone) player who is good defensively but is not a true playmaker or great shooter; Daniel Gibson is a good shooter and willing defender but also not a true playmaker; Damon Jones is strictly a one trick pony backup player, a three point shooter who does little else effectively; Eric Snow is an aging veteran who plays tough defense, particularly against bigger guards who like to postup, but his lack of ability as a shooter makes him a liability at times on offense. It is not at all clear that Cleveland will be able to upgrade its current roster via the draft or free agency, because of their low draft position and because of salary cap limitations that will preclude them from signing certain players. One thing that Cleveland must guard against is complacency. The Cavs will not start next season in the NBA Finals; they will start 0-0 like everyone else and have earn a good playoff seed and survive three rounds of the playoffs in order to get another crack at a championship. The Cavs seemed to take lesser teams lightly during the 2006-07 season and they will have to guard against that tendency next year.
3) Utah looks like a team on the rise, with young stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams leading the way. I underestimated this team coming into the season and I will be interested to see how the Jazz respond to their successful playoff run. Will they be hungry to finish the job or complacent after having their first taste of the Western Conference Finals?
4) Detroit is on a downward slide. The brains (Larry Brown) and the soul (Ben Wallace) of the 2004 championship team are gone and the Finals MVP from that season, Chauncey Billups, has hardly looked like "Mr. Big Shot" during the playoffs since that time. The addition of Rasheed Wallace was the final ingredient that pushed that team over the top but, honestly, he has been a liability since then.
5) Phoenix has knocked at the door for several years without getting into the Finals. One would think that anyone would love playing with Steve Nash but grumblings are sometimes heard out of Arizona from Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion that they are not well enough appreciated. It is not out of the question that one of them could be traded. I still can't see this team beating a healthy San Antonio team in a playoff series and I think that the Suns would not have an easy time with Dallas or Utah, either. New G.M. Steve Kerr has his work cut out for him to help the Suns make the leap from good to great.
6) I'm not convinced that Dallas has to make major changes. The Mavericks made it to the 2006 Finals and ran away with the best regular season record in 2007. Any change is just as likely to make the team worse as it is to make the team better. The coaching staff, players and philosophy that are currently in place are good enough for the Mavericks to contend for a championship in 2008.
7) Chicago is a young team on the rise and if the Bulls are able to acquire Kobe Bryant without dealing away too much of their nucleus then they will become the team to beat in the East. Bryant would fit right in with the Bulls' hardworking mentality and focus on defense while providing the offensive "closer" that the team presently lacks (all due respect to the streak shooting and undersized Ben Gordon but he would be much better suited receiving passes from a double-teamed Bryant than trying to create his own shot one on one).
8) Golden State certainly provided a lot of excitement but I question if the structure is really in place for the Warriors to have long term success. They are very dependent on an injury prone point guard (Baron Davis), a--shall we say--volatile shooting guard (Stephen Jackson) and a style of play that involves highly questionable shot selection and gimmicky defenses. I will be surprised if the Warriors' record improves much next year; it's much more likely that injuries or other adversity will keep the Warriors in the 40-45 win range.
9) Orlando and Toronto both appear to be young teams on the rise. The Raptors are kind of "Phoenix Suns East," with former Suns executive Bryan Colangelo running the show and the team employing an uptempo style. The Magic are built more traditionally, anchored in the paint by young stud Dwight Howard.
10) Miami and New Jersey both appear to be teams on the decline. Yes, the Heat's Dwyane Wade is young but the rest of his team's aging nucleus is crumbling around him--and we still don't know what shape he will be in physically to start the season after dealing with shoulder and knee injuries. Jason Kidd led the Nets to two Finals appearances and does not seem to have lost much off of his fastball, so to speak, but New Jersey just does not have enough inside power to be a legitimate title contender.
11) Two very good pieces--Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady--are in place in Houston, so it will be interesting to see how the Rockets respond to new Coach Rick Adelman, who led the Blazers to the NBA Finals twice and who turned the Kings into consistent contenders.
12) Denver's mix just does not seem to be quite right--not enough defense, questionable shot selection from several players and a coach (George Karl) who has historically done better molding underachieving teams than leading talented ones. Karl has won a lot of regular season games but his postseason resume is not nearly as gaudy and includes being on the wrong side of one of the biggest upsets in playoff history when his number one seed Sonics lost to, ironically, the eighth seed Nuggets in 1994.
13) This year I think that we will see that Gilbert Arenas' injury was a blessing in disguise; when he went down, so did the expectations for the Wizards to do anything in the playoffs. The reality is that they lost in the first round to Cleveland in 2006 and, even with Arenas, they would have lost in the first round to Cleveland this year. If he stays healthy, the Wizards will eventually be forced to acknowledge that they cannot advance deep in the playoffs when their leader is a shoot first point guard who has poor shot selection and is not very good defensively.
14) "As the Lakers Turn" figures to be an interesting offseason soap opera. Kobe Bryant has reiterated that he wants to be traded if the team is not able to upgrade the sorry roster of players surrounding him. With Kobe--and if Lamar Odom and Luke Walton stay healthy--the Lakers can win 45-50 games and maybe one playoff series. Without Kobe, the Lakers will plummet into the draft lottery and have to undergo a complete overhaul.
posted by David Friedman @ 11:11 PM