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Friday, June 20, 2008

The 2008 Playoffs: Where the Revival of the NBA's Two Flagship Franchises Happened

One year ago, the NBA's two flagship franchises appeared to be in total disarray. The Boston Celtics had just completed a demoralizing 24-58 season and their "reward" for posting the worst record in the Eastern Conference was the fifth pick in what was considered to be a two player draft. The L.A. Lakers earned the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs with a 42-40 record and got destroyed 4-1 by the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. Kobe Bryant had just won his second straight scoring title with a 31.6 ppg average and he poured in a playoff career-high 32.8 ppg versus the Suns but he did not look forward to wasting the prime years of his career going into battle with Kwame Brown and Smush Parker starting at the two most important positions, center and point guard. Bryant had always wanted to be a Laker for life but he also wanted to win championships, so he publicly blasted the team's management and demanded that they work as hard to put together a championship team as he worked at being the best player in the league.

What a difference a year makes! The Celtics packaged the fifth overall pick with other considerations and acquired All-Star guard Ray Allen from a rebuilding Seattle team. Now that the Celtics had two All-Stars on the roster, Kevin Garnett agreed to be traded from Minnesota to Boston and the remade Celtics were suddenly a bona fide threat to win the East and contend for a championship. Meanwhile, young Andrew Bynum emerged as a legit double double threat and the Lakers raced to a 26-11 start. Bynum went down with what turned out to be a season ending knee injury but Bryant held the team together until the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis in exchange for Brown and other considerations. The Lakers now had a legit second option, which meant that overmatched second option Lamar Odom could now become a solid third option.

The Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA (66-16), while the Lakers had the best record in perhaps the most competitive Western Conference race ever (57-25). The top two seeds have generally not both made it to the Finals in recent seasons but the Celtics and Lakers each vanquished tough foes to advance to the championship round, where Boston earned the right to hoist a 17th championship banner, denying Phil Jackson his 10th coaching title and Bryant his fourth ring as a player and in the process completing the one blank space on the Hall of Fame resumes of Garnett, Allen and 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce.

I correctly predicted the outcome of 12 of the 15 playoff series this year and I correctly predicted that the Celtics and Lakers would meet in the Finals; my three incorrect predictions were that the Lakers would beat the Celtics, the Suns would beat the Spurs and the Mavericks would beat the Hornets. Last year, I also went 12-3, including picking the correct Finals matchup and the eventual winner. In 2006, I went 10-5 but did not correctly pick either Finalist, while in 2005 I went 9-6, correctly picking both Finalists but picking the wrong champion. So, in four years of posting playoff predictions online I have a 43-17 record (.716) and I have correctly picked six out of eight Finalists, though I have only been right about one out of four champions.

Here are some final thoughts and observations about each of the 16 playoff teams:

1) My default position about players and teams is skepticism and there were plenty of good reasons to be skeptical about the Celtics prior to the start of the season. None of their "Big Three" had been able to lead their teams to the playoffs in 2007, the Boston bench was of questionable quality (Danny Ainge shrewdly strengthened it later in the season) and neither Pierce nor Allen had previously been known as great defensive players. However, once I saw the Celtics play during the regular season I began to modify my opinion of their team because they played so hard and so well defensively night after night. After their 5-0 start, I was already convinced that they could win more than 60 games, a significant departure from my preseason expectations. A couple days later, I saw them in person for the first time, observed that Pierce was playing at an elite level offensively and concluded, "I am impressed by how hard they played throughout the game, particularly on defense...Call it tenacity, heart or will to win, the great teams have it and that is how they win even when they are not at their best. The Celtics provided a glimpse of this against Indiana and it will be interesting to see if they can replicate such efforts at playoff time against the very best teams."

The Celtics proved to be the best team in the NBA from start to finish, answering all questions about chemistry, defense and depth. The only question now is whether or not they can duplicate this high level of play next season. It is unlikely that they will win 66 regular season games, because that requires not only skill and tenacity but also good health, something that is hard to maintain two years in a row; the real issue is what level will the Celtics be playing at by the time next year's playoffs roll around. Are the "Big Three" satisfied with winning one title or will they pursue a repeat title with the same hunger that fueled their chase for the 2008 championship? My initial thought is, as usual, that I am skeptical; it is difficult to repeat, though the teams that have done so in the past 15 years were tough minded squads led by multiple All-Stars, a description that certainly fits the Celtics.

2) The blowout loss in game six of the Finals was without question a bitter pill for the Lakers to swallow but it should not lead to rash judgments or actions. The Lakers still have the same strengths that enabled them to not only post the best record in the West but also defeat three 50-plus win teams in the playoffs: they have a Hall of Fame coach, the best all-around player in the NBA and a high powered offense. The Finals highlighted the weaknesses that they overcame to have such a great season: a lack of toughness that manifests itself defensively and on the boards and the lack of a legit, top flight small forward who can make a significant offensive contribution and/or lock down the opposing team's high scoring small forward. If Andrew Bynum returns to health and is productive then he can start at center and Pau Gasol can shift to power forward. In that scenario, the ideal move for the Lakers would be to trade Lamar Odom for a quality small forward. Odom is not an ideal small forward, so a frontline of Bynum-Gasol-Odom is not feasible, despite what some people may try to convince you; the only way that those three players can effectively coexist is if one of them comes off of the bench. Gasol is the second best player on the team, so he is not going to be a reserve. Bynum is the best postup player, so it does not make sense to sit him either.

3) As long as the San Antonio Spurs have Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich they are going to be a formidable team. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are perfect complements to Duncan and the Spurs do an excellent job of finding veteran players who fit in perfectly to their system. Barring injuries or a marked decline by Duncan, the Spurs should be right back in the mix as a contender.

4) Joe Dumars finally figured out that Flip Saunders was never going to lead the Pistons back to the Finals, let alone win a championship. The question now is whether the team's championship-contending window is still open with the current nucleus of players or if Dumars is going to overhaul the roster. Until I see what happens on that front it is impossible to predict how good the Pistons will be in 2009.

5) The Utah Jazz have a dynamic young duo in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, plus a talented supporting cast that includes two former All-Stars, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko. They certainly have to be considered a Western Conference contender. If not for Kobe Bryant's heroics against them in the Western Conference semifinals (33.2 ppg, 7.2 apg, 7.0 rpg, .491 field goal shooting) they could very well have made it to the Finals for the first time since the Stockton-Malone era.

6) The Cleveland Cavaliers remain one of the most misunderstood and underrated teams in the league. All season long I heard "experts" talking about how the Cavs would not even make the playoffs, a ludicrous idea that I consistently rejected. The Cavaliers' formula for success is the brilliance of LeBron James, defense and rebounding. Everyone except Skip Bayless realizes that LeBron James is a great player but few people appreciate or respect the way that Coach Mike Brown has turned the Cavs into San Antonio East in terms of defense and rebounding. What happened to the Cavs in the playoffs is that they ran into a Boston team that matched their commitment defensively and on the glass and had three All-Stars to match James' offensive production. The Cavs need one more player who can create his own shot and/or create shots for other players but even if they don't add that player they still will be a serious Eastern Conference contender next year. Injuries or personnel moves around the league could change this but right now they are the biggest threat to knock off the Celtics in the East.

7) Chris Paul emerged as the best point guard in the NBA, David West is probably still underrated even though he made the All-Star team and New Orleans looks like a legit Western Conference contender. The playoff experience that the Hornets gained this year should serve them well in the future. The Hornets' defense is underrated and that defense--combined with the brilliance of the Paul-West duo--could very well carry them to the Western Conference Finals in 2009.

8) Dwight Howard is already the dominant low post force in the NBA and the scary thing is that he is still improving. I question whether Jameer Nelson is a championship level point guard and I think that the Magic need to still improve their overall talent base but Orlando is a team on the rise.

9) I've been saying for a couple years that the Raptors are the Phoenix Suns East: that means that they can win a lot of regular season games and be a tough playoff matchup but unless they become more stout defensively and on the glass they will not beat Boston, Cleveland, Detroit or Orlando in a seven game series.

10) The Philadelphia 76ers were one of the real surprise teams of the season--as opposed to a team like the Cavs that only surprised people who were foolish enough to not understand how good they are. No one expected the 76ers to be a playoff team. Whenever a young team comes out of the woodwork like that there is always a question of whether they were one year wonders or if this was the first step toward bigger and better things. I think that the Sixers took the first step toward bigger and better things but they won't be a serious contender unless they upgrade their roster a little bit and become a better half court team.

11) The Phoenix Suns were never going to win a championship with their previous nucleus, so I still think that trading for Shaquille O'Neal was a worthwhile risk to take, even though they still failed to beat the Spurs. New Coach Terry Porter will surely try to instill more of a defensive mindset in this team but if the Suns' championship window has not close the opening is very, very small: young teams have emerged in L.A., New Orleans and Utah and the Suns have yet to prove that they can beat their old nemesis San Antonio, let alone deal with the new kids on the block.

12) Point blank, it seems like the Mavericks have never recovered from blowing a 2 3/4 games to 0 lead over the Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals; one more good quarter and they might have swept Diesel and Flash but it's been all downhill for the Mavs since Gary Payton hit one of his few playoff field goals in 2006. The Mavs still have a very good team but it just seems like the rest of the top West teams are better than they are now.

13) Houston put together an amazing winning streak but everyone understood that the Rockets could not go far in the West playoffs without Yao Ming. If Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming can both stay healthy for a full season, this would be a very formidable team. Rick Adelman has proven that he can take teams deep into the playoffs, though he has yet to win a title.

14) The Atlanta Hawks almost rewrote the entire script of the 2008 playoffs, pushing the Celtics to seven games in the first round. The future looks bright but keep in mind that Golden State knocked off the defending conference champion one year and did not even make the playoffs (albeit in a very tough conference) the next season. As with the Sixers, there is the question of whether the Hawks are a team on the rise or a one year wonder.

15) The Denver Nuggets are the NBA's mystery team: they have a former MVP who is still playing at a high level (Allen Iverson), one of the premier scorers in the league (Carmelo Anthony), a former Defensive Player of the Year (Marcus Camby), a top sixth man (J.R. Smith)--and yet they simply cannot get out of the first round of the playoffs. Despite all of the talent on their roster, they have problems at both ends of the court: their defense is terrible and their offensive execution is wildly inconsistent, with Iverson and Anthony taking turns running the show while the other players pick up the table scraps that are left over. It is either entertaining or sickening to realize that ESPN pays "expert" Stephen A. Smith a lot of money for "insights" such as saying prior to the 2008 season that the Cavs won't make the playoffs and the Nuggets would win the West. Hey, I don't get everything right but I don't miss the mark that wildly either.

16) The Washington Wizards will never make it further than the second round of the playoffs as long as Gilbert Arenas is their primary offensive option. Period. I don't care how certain people crunch various numbers to "prove" his value and I don't care that the Wizards were once in first place in the East for a minute and a half almost two years ago when Arenas had some high scoring games. Arenas is a player who is primarily focused on scoring points and on settling old scores (being a second round pick, being left off of Team USA, etc.). It seems highly unlikely that he will ever change his mindset and that makes him ill equipped to lead a legit contender.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:24 AM

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