20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Central Division Blogger Previews

On October 6, I posted links to the first batch of blogger team previews: the Atlantic Division. Part II, the Southwest Division, ran on October 11. Here is the newest installment, featuring the Central Division:

Chicago Bulls
Nels: Give Me The Rock
Matt: Blog-a-Bull


Cleveland Cavaliers
Rock: Waiting For Next Year
FTS: Fear The Sword
David Friedman: 20 Second Timeout
Amar Panchmatia: Cavalier Attitude


Detroit Pistons
Brian Spencer: Empty the Bench
Natalie Sitto: Need4Sheed.com
Matt Watson: Detroit Bad Boys


Indiana Pacers
Tom: Indy Cornrows


Milwaukee Bucks
Jeramey Jannene: The Bratwurst
Frank Madden: BrewHoop

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:02 PM

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

2008-09 Western Conference Preview

Last year, I correctly picked seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams. My only mistake was choosing Golden State over New Orleans; the Warriors won 48 games but missed the playoffs, while the Hornets enjoyed a 17 win increase thanks to All-Star level play from Chris Paul and David West plus Peja Stojakovic's return to health and Tyson Chandler's strong inside play at both ends of the court. Yesterday I posted my Eastern Conference Preview; this preview has the same format, with the following eight teams ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).

1) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA, Phil Jackson is the best coach in the NBA and Pau Gasol is a versatile big man who is much better as a sidekick than as the go-to guy--which is why his field goal percentage shot up after he was traded to the Lakers from the Memphis Grizzlies, where he spent many years as the primary offensive option. If Andrew Bynum stays healthy then he can provide a physical presence in the paint at both ends of the court. Derek Fisher may have lost a step but he is a proven clutch performer who is a good shooter and solid defender. The rest of the roster is a bit overrated by the general public but still very good; youngsters Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar provide a spark off of the bench, but they are inconsistent. Reasons to mope: Casual observers may have thought that the Lakers have an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt with Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom but the reality is that those three players cannot be on the court together for significant periods of time due to their overlapping skill sets. Bynum can only play center. Gasol can play power forward or center, so he and Bynum should be a good tandem after an initial adjustment period--but Odom, who thrived as the power forward/third offensive option alongside Bryant and Gasol last season, cannot play small forward for a full season. Odom should come off of the bench and anchor the second unit from the power forward spot but he is in a contract year and does not want to "suffer" such a reduction in status. The number one issue for the Lakers this season will be sorting out Odom's role in a way that does not mess up overall team chemistry or cause him to become even more inconsistent. Bottom line: Unless Bryant or Gasol miss significant playing time, the Lakers have an excellent chance to win 55-60 games (and possibly more). They are a legitimate championship contender but if the Odom situation is not straightened out they could have some rough moments down the stretch of the regular season and/or in the playoffs, when the importance of every possession and every game is greatly magnified.

2) New Orleans Hornets: Reasons for hope: Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA. He is not only a very skillful player but a tough, gritty competitor who significantly improved his shooting and his defense last season. David West is an All-Star power forward whose skills are still underrated because many people think that his production is entirely dependent on Paul. The addition of James Posey will improve the team's perimeter defense, the weakness that cost them in their game seven loss to San Antonio when Manu Ginobili was the X factor. Reasons to mope: Peja Stojakovic rejuvenated his career after missing almost the entire 2007 season due to injury but if he gets hurt the Hornets will struggle to replace his outside shooting. Teams that foolishly trap Paul get burned by his dribble penetration and passing but after the Spurs reverted to the conventional matchup of Tony Parker on Paul--with Bruce Bowen hawking Stojakovic instead of chasing Paul--and stopped trapping the Hornets were not as effective; will Paul and the Hornets have an answer for that strategy the next time they play an elite team in the playoffs? Complacency could also be a bit of a concern for a young team that improved so much in one season. Bottom line: The Hornets have an excellent chance to contend for the Western Conference title.

3) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: As long as Tim Duncan is healthy, the Spurs will be an upper echelon team. He not only provides a double-double on a nightly basis but he anchors San Antonio's stingy defense. Tony Parker is unstoppable at times due to his blazing speed and ability to finish at the rim. Manu Ginobili provides scoring, playmaking, defense and clutch play. Gregg Popovich is an outstanding coach whose teams are always disciplined and well prepared. Reasons to mope: Ginobili's health and durability are major question marks. Several key rotation players are well past 30 years old. Bottom line: Unless injuries derail them, the Spurs will be right in the hunt for the Western Conference title.

4) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are both MVP caliber players when they are healthy. Newly acquired Ron Artest is capable of being the best defensive player in the league. Luis Scola had a solid rookie season and figures to be even better this year. Reasons to mope: McGrady and Yao simply cannot seem to stay healthy--physically. Meanwhile, Artest's mental health is a question mark--and that is not meant to be a joke by any means. Bottom line: Every year, I feel like doing two previews for Houston--one assuming that Yao and McGrady are finally healthy and another one figuring that they will each miss 15 or more games. This year, I feel like doing three or four Houston previews, combining those factors with possible Artest scenarios ranging from 80 games played and a Defensive Player of the Year award to getting suspended for some act of rage and/or foolishness. I suspect that by the end of the season it will all add up to 50-55 wins, much like the previous two years. Honestly, this team could win anywhere between 40 and 60 games depending on what happens with the top three players.

5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer comprise one of the top duos in the league and they have a lot of talent around them, including former All-Stars Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur. Reasons to mope: The teams ahead of Utah each have a legitimate MVP-level player who can take over a playoff game or a playoff series. For Utah to advance to the NBA Finals, either Williams or Boozer will have to prove to be capable of performing at a similar level not just in the regular season but also in the playoffs. Bottom line: Utah is a hard nosed, physical team but seems to be lacking that little extra something that is necessary to get past the elite teams in the postseason.

6) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: The Suns played very well down the stretch after acquiring Shaquille O'Neal. They beat their nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, twice in the regular season and led most of the way in game one versus the Spurs in the playoffs. Amare Stoudemire thrived at power forward playing alongside O'Neal. New Coach Terry Porter will emphasize defense and half court offensive execution. The Suns' window of opportunity to win a championship has probably closed but this is still a dangerous team. Reasons to mope: The mental toughness of this team has to be questioned; the Suns tend to make excuses when they come up short in the playoffs, as opposed to acknowledging their shortcomings. The Suns proved during the regular season that with O'Neal in the paint they could compete with the Spurs and yet they never recovered in the playoffs after their meltdown late in game one. Bottom line: The Suns are capable of winning 50+ games and putting a real scare into one of the top contenders before bowing out of the playoffs.

7) Portland Trail Blazers: Reasons for hope: This team has a ton of young players who have tremendous upside, including Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and, of course, rookie center Greg Oden, who missed all of last season due to injury. Rookie guard Rudy Fernandez is a veteran of FIBA play who could have an immediate impact. Reasons to mope: Although there have been young teams that came out of nowhere to win a championship--including the 1977 Trail Blazers--the usual pattern is that young teams have to make step by step progress in the postseason. Oden's health is also a question mark until he proves that he can make it through an entire season injury-free, something that he has not done since high school. Bottom line: Portland has the talent, depth and youthful exuberance to not only make the playoffs but cause some real headaches for the upper echelon teams, much like Atlanta did to Boston in the Eastern Conference playoffs last year.

8) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki is still an MVP-level player. Jason Kidd may have lost a step but he still can pass, rebound and make timely three pointers; his leadership is very valuable, too. New Coach Rick Carlisle will help the Mavericks improve their defensive execution. Reasons to mope: Josh Howard is an All-Star level talent but in the past year or so he has had some kind of meltdown that has resulted in him concentrating on too many things other than becoming a better basketball player. Also, there is good reason to wonder if this team has ever overcome their epic collapse versus Miami in the 2006 Finals. Bottom line: The Mavericks are good enough to make the playoffs but that is about it; much like Phoenix, their championship window of opportunity has closed.

The Denver Nuggets squeaked into the 2008 playoffs, albeit with 50 wins, but without Marcus Camby to erase their numerous defensive shortcomings they figure to drop out of the playoff picture.

The L.A. Clippers added Baron Davis and Marcus Camby but subtracted Elton Brand, who missed most of last season due to injury. They will obviously improve on last year's win total and could make a run at the last playoff spot if everything breaks right--mainly Davis and Camby staying healthy.

Now that Ron Artest is gone, this is "go time" for Kevin Martin in Sacramento: his fans believe that he can be an elite level NBA player and this season he will certainly have the opportunity to prove or disprove that notion. Unless he has markedly improved his skill set this offseason--which is highly unlikely--he remains a slender, one dimensional player who will score a lot of points, probably miss 10-15 games due to injury and not have a significant impact beyond his point production.

The Minnesota Timberwolves will be a lot better this year. Al Jefferson is an excellent post player and rookie Kevin Love will surprise a lot of people: he can shoot, pass and rebound and will be a nice complement to Jefferson. Mike Miller will space the court for those guys with his three point shooting, while Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes are solid players. This is not a playoff team but 35-40 wins are not out of the question.

The Golden State Warriors' all-offense/little defense style was an entertaining novelty in 2007 and they certainly stunned the Mavericks in that year's playoffs, largely because the Mavericks stubbornly insisted on trying to slow the game down. However, the Warriors fell just short of the playoffs last year and hardly figure to be improved after the departure of Baron Davis and the serious injury suffered by Monta Ellis.

Kevin Durant ranked 92nd in three point shooting percentage among the 93 NBA players who attempted at least 200 long range shots last season. He improved a lot in the final weeks of the season but there is no way that he will even come close to leading Oklahoma City to the playoffs this year.

The Memphis Grizzlies decided that they would not win a title with Pau Gasol as their franchise player, so they traded him in order to start over from the bottom up. They were right that Gasol cannot be the main guy on a championship team and they certainly reached bottom after getting rid of him. This year their hopes rest mainly on Rudy Gay and rookie O.J. Mayo. In other words, they will still be at the bottom. Gay is talented but he is not a franchise player, while Mayo is overrated; he can score but he is not a franchise player, either, and it is not clear what else he will contribute other than scoring.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 PM

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

2008-09 Eastern Conference Preview

Last year, I correctly picked five of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. Admittedly, that is not a great percentage but I don't think that too many people foresaw the complete collapses that took place in Chicago and Miami. My other miss was choosing New Jersey; Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta were the three teams that made the playoffs instead of the ill fated Chicago/Miami/New Jersey trio that I favored. All that I can say in my defense is that four teams finished within five games of the eighth seeded Hawks--who were only 37-45--so there were a lot of mediocre (or worse) teams in the East, which made it hard to figure out the final finishing order (and easy for a team to move up or down in the standings as a result of an injury or a player going into a slump).

Several Eastern Conference teams clearly improved in the offseason--most notably the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired Elton Brand. The Cleveland Cavaliers hope that Mo Williams will not only solidify the point guard position but that he will also be the best second scoring option that they have had in the LeBron James era; no James sidekick has averaged 17 ppg, a mark that Williams has exceeded each of the past two seasons. The Miami Heat not only added second overall pick Michael Beasley but they look forward to having a healthy and explosive Dwyane Wade for a full season.

Without further ado, here are the eight Eastern Conference teams that I expect to make the playoffs this season. They are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships). I have also included some brief observations about the seven Eastern teams that I don't think will qualify for postseason play.

1) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: Any team that plays suffocating defense and has three future Hall of Famers has plenty of reasons for hope. The Celtics stormed through the 2007-08 regular season with the best record in the league and showed a lot of mental toughness while surviving some challenging situations in the playoffs. I'll admit that before last season I was skeptical of the Celtics' bench, point guard play and commitment to defense. Then I saw the Celtics play in person versus the Pacers and I was very impressed, declaring, "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 played hard on virtually every possession last season. It is difficult to win back to back championships and I realize that a lot of people expect the Celtics to fall off this year but I don't think that Boston's commitment to defense was a one year fling. I doubt that the Celtics will win 66 games this year but they have to be considered the Eastern Conference favorites until further notice. Reasons to mope: Injuries, complacency and personnel changes are the three biggest obstacles in the path of teams trying to win repeat titles. The Celtics enjoyed good health last season but it is obviously impossible to predict if that will be the case this year. I don't think that complacency will be a serious problem for this group. The Celtics lost James Posey to New Orleans but otherwise their nucleus remains intact. There just are not that many reasons to mope for Celtics fans. Bottom line: There is every reason to believe that the Celtics will win at least 55-60 games and be a serious title contender.

2) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: LeBron James, defense and rebounding. If James is not already the NBA's best player then he is clearly the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant. The Cavaliers' focus on defense and rebounding enables them to annually confound the "experts" who expect them to drop in the standings. Reasons to mope: Newly acquired point guard Mo Williams should help to improve the offense but will he buy into the team's defensive mentality? Also, other than James and Williams the team does not have a lot of players who can create their own shots and/or create shots for others. If big men Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace do not stay healthy then the team will lose a lot of size and strength in the paint. Bottom line: The Cavaliers are capable of winning 55 games and challenging Boston for the best record in the East.

3) Detroit Pistons: Reasons for hope: New Head Coach Michael Curry will command the respect in the locker room that the departed Flip Saunders never did. The Pistons have a nice group of young players who seem to be ready to play more minutes and assume greater responsibilities. Reasons to mope: The attitude and professionalism of the team will improve under Curry's direction but what should have been the prime years for this team's top players were squandered with Saunders at the helm. Bottom line: Paradoxically, Detroit could field a better organized team than last season but have a worse record in a more competitive Eastern Conference. When the Pistons got rid of Larry Brown, I said that their championship window had closed and, so far, that assessment has proven to be quite correct.

4) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard won his first rebounding title while also posting career highs in scoring and blocked shots as the Magic posted their best record since 1995-96. Hedo Turkoglu had a career year and won the Most Improved Player award. Rashard Lewis may not be quite worth the huge contract Orlando gave him but he was a very productive third scoring option whose three point shooting helped to space the floor. Reasons to mope: Other than Howard, this team is not strong in the paint. Turkoglu and Lewis are both good players but neither is a true power forward; the Magic will not reach their full potential until Orlando acquires another big body to help Howard in the paint. Orlando also is still looking for a top notch shooting guard; the Magic wasted a lottery pick on J.J. Redick and since they don't figure to be in the lottery any time soon they will long rue that mistake. Jameer Nelson is a solid point guard but it is not certain that he is a championship level point guard.
Bottom line:
Orlando will again be one of the top four teams in the East but the Magic are not quite strong enough--literally--to make it to the Conference Finals.

5) Philadelphia 76ers: Reasons for hope: Newly acquired power forward Elton Brand gives the 76ers the inside presence that they sorely needed. Andre Iguodala is on the verge of being an All-Star, Andre Miller is a very underrated point guard and the team has several young players who are rapidly improving. Reasons to mope: Brand missed virtually an entire season due to a serious leg injury (ruptured left Achilles tendon). It remains to be seen how healthy and productive he will be. Also, the 76ers still need to add some outside shooting help to open up the middle for Brand's postups and Iguodala's drives. Bottom line: The Sixers should definitely move up in the standings but probably not quite as much as their more optimistic fans assumed in the wake of the Brand deal.

6) Toronto Raptors: Reasons for hope: Chris Bosh is one of the top power forwards in the NBA. If newly acquired Jermaine O'Neal can stay healthy, Toronto will have a very good frontcourt, although in the past O'Neal has not liked playing center. Jose Calderon emerged as a top flight point guard, which enabled Toronto to trade T.J. Ford for O'Neal. Reasons to mope: This team lacks toughness and that weakness shows up on the boards and on defense. Teams that lack toughness do not advance very far in the NBA playoffs. Bottom line: The Raptors just are not quite as good as the Eastern Conference's elite teams.

7) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: If you saw Dwyane Wade play during the Olympics then you already know the primary reason that Miami fans cannot wait for the season to start. Having Shawn Marion for a full season can only be a positive and rookie Michael Beasley looks like he can step right in and be a solid 15 ppg scorer. Reasons to mope: No matter how good a coach Erik Spoelstra is or will be, there will inevitably be a drop off in terms of strategy/preparation when you go from a Hall of Fame Coach (Pat Riley) to someone who has never been an NBA head coach. Wade's pell-mell style makes it unlikely that he can go though a season unscathed. Marion is a productive player but can mope at times when he thinks that he is unappreciated. Bottom line: Even with the injuries to Wade and others and with Shaquille O'Neal mailing in the first half of the season before being traded, there still is no reason that the Heat should have become the worst team in the East--eight games behind the Knicks! On paper, they will probably be the "most improved" team this season because they figure to win at least 40 games.

8) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope: Caron Butler has emerged as the best player on the team, a versatile All-Star who excels at both ends of the court. Antawn Jamison is a steady scorer and rebounder. This team has proven that it can be very competitive without Gilbert Arenas, who will miss the first couple months of the season due to recurring knee problems.
Reasons to mope: The upside for this team simply is not as good as their rabid fans believe. With Gilbert Arenas they are a 41-45 win team and without him they are a 41-45 win team. When Arenas is out, they play a steadier, more methodical game; when Arenas plays, the Wizards may be more exciting but they are also more erratic. A rash of injuries in addition to Arenas' knee woes--Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and Antonio Daniels are all out of action at the moment--has left the team looking very ragged during the preseason. Bottom line: This team is just not a serious contender--with or without Arenas. They will not miss Arenas as much as some people think and once Jamison and Daniels get back on the court the Wizards will resume being a team capable of winning 41-45 games.

Atlanta surprised a lot of people by making the playoffs last year and then they shocked even more people by pushing the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in the first round. However, they lost Josh Childress for nothing in the offseason and did not make any significant roster upgrades. It also remains to be seen if their young players will react to last season's success by being complacent or by being hungry to get even better. While it is certainly possible that the Hawks will grab one of the last two playoff berths, I think that they will fall just short this year, even if they win a few more games than they did in 2007-08.

Most people seem to expect Indiana to be terrible this year but the Pacers only missed the playoffs by one game. They sent Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto in exchange for T.J. Ford, a point guard who will be able to push the ball up the court and feed the team's many three point shooters. I think that the Pacers will surprise a lot of people but in the end they will probably once again fall just short of the playoffs.

Last year, I thought that the Charlotte Bobcats could surprise some people. They finished 32-50, just five games away from qualifying for the playoffs. There is a lot of raw talent on this roster and new Coach Larry Brown has a history of getting the most out of such teams. They are probably a year away from making the playoffs but if they stay healthy and buy into Brown's "play the right way" mantra they could move up to 40-42 wins and grab a playoff berth.

The Chicago Bulls are the East's "mystery guest." Last year almost everyone expected them to be a very good team and they stunk. Coach Scott Skiles got the ax at Christmas and midway through the season they swapped Ben Wallace and Joe Smith for Drew Gooden and Larry Hughes. After the season, they hired Vinny Del Negro to be the new Coach and then they selected Derrick Rose with the number one overall pick. In the best case scenario--Rose plays very well immediately while the veterans stay healthy and perform up to their abilities--this team could certainly win 45 games. Realistically, it will take a season for all of the new parts to mesh together and the Bulls will end up in that Eastern mosh pit of 30-40 win teams that just miss the playoffs.

The New York Knicks will almost certainly improve now that Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni are running the show but there is no reason to believe that even in the Eastern Conference they can leap frog enough teams to make the playoffs.

In the past few months the Nets hit the "reboot" button, jettisoning Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson in order to start over with a group of young players surrounding All-Star Vince Carter. I just don't see enough talent--or defensive focus--for this team to make the playoffs.

The Milwaukee Bucks were a horrible defensive team last year. New Coach Scott Skiles will do his best to change that but he will not be able to completely transform this team's identity in one year.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 PM

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Cleveland Cavaliers 2008-09 Season Preview

Cleveland's 2007-08 Record: 45-37
Key Losses: Devin Brown, Damon Jones, Joe Smith
Key Additions: J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson, Tarence Kinsey, Mo Williams, Lorenzen Wright

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The Cavaliers traded Joe Smith and Damon Jones to Milwaukee as part of a three team, six player deal that brought point guard Mo Williams to Cleveland. The Cavaliers hope that Williams--who averaged 17.2 ppg and 6.3 apg last season for Milwaukee--will not only be the best playmaker that they have had at the point guard spot since Andre Miller but that he will also be a bona fide second scoring option who can create his own shot; no Cavalier other than LeBron James has averaged more than 17 ppg since James joined the team in 2003-04.

Rookie J.J. Hickson played very well in the Vegas Summer League (19.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .534 FG%) and if he can be productive during the regular season then he will add some youth and athleticism to their center/power forward rotation, which currently consists of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao.

2. What are the team's biggest strengths?

LeBron James, rebounding and team defense. Even the most casual basketball fan knows about LeBron James. Many people believe that James is already the best player in the NBA but he still needs to improve his outside shot and his free throw percentage to surpass 2007-08 MVP Kobe Bryant. That said, James is a remarkable talent, a powerful and explosive scorer who also sees the floor brilliantly and can destroy trapping defenses with remarkable crosscourt passes. His defense has improved by leaps and bounds since his rookie year and he is on the verge of being an All-Defensive Team member.

James' brilliance is so obvious that it tends to overshadow the other two key factors that comprise the foundation for Cleveland's recent postseason success; the reality is that if all a team has is one great player then they will not go far in the playoffs and may not even earn a playoff berth at all: in 2006-07, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen each failed to lead their respective teams to the playoffs but when they combined forces in Boston the Celtics won the 2008 championship. James played very well in his first two NBA seasons but the Cavaliers did not make the playoffs. In 2005, the Cavaliers hired Mike Brown to be their head coach and he brought with him the blueprint for success that he learned as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio: defense and rebounding. The Cavaliers have won five playoff series since 2006, more than any team in the NBA except for San Antonio (seven) and Detroit (six).

Teams tend to follow the example set by their best player, James deserves a lot of credit for buying into Brown's defense-first philosophy. The Cavaliers are a scrappy team that contests shots, tries to keep the opposing team out of the paint and rebounds very well on both backboards.

Media "experts" annually underestimate how well the Cavaliers will do. Last season, some pundits even predicted that the Cavaliers would miss the playoffs the year after going to the NBA Finals! Many people expect make the mistake of simply looking at the names on Cleveland's roster; they see LeBron James and little else that excites them and then they assume that the team is not that good. They fail to understand that Cleveland's commitment to defense and rebounding not only makes the Cavaliers a formidable team but that this style is even more effective in the playoffs, when the game slows down and each possession becomes even more important.

The Cavaliers extended the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference semifinals and everybody justifiably raved about James' wonderful seventh game performance (45 points, six assists, five rebounds in a 97-92 loss). However, the Cavs knotted the series at 2-2 even though James shot just 20-78 from the field (.256) and committed 23 turnovers in those first four games. How could the Cavaliers go toe to toe with the best team in the league with James playing so poorly? The answer is that the Cavaliers played excellent defense in those games, holding Boston below 90 points each time and twice limiting the Celtics to fewer than 80 points.

3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

Even if Williams performs as well as the Cavaliers hope, the team still lacks players who can create their own shots as well as create shots for teammates. James shoulders most of that burden, Williams will certainly help and Delonte West can fill that void at times but in recent years the Cavaliers have not scored a lot of easy baskets, either in transition or in the half court.

The other main concern for the Cavaliers is that Ilgauskas and Wallace must remain healthy. They both have accumulated a lot of mileage but the Cavaliers need for them to be productive in order to continue to excel defensively and on the glass. Ilgauskas has a history of foot problems but he has actually been fairly durable in recent seasons; Wallace has a balky back that bothered him sporadically last season and he seems to have lost some of the athleticism that enabled him to dominate the paint as an undersized big man.

4. What are the goals for this team?

James led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2007 and to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2008. As long as he is in his prime and surrounded by a reasonably good supporting cast, Cleveland's goal every year will remain the same: return to the NBA Finals and then complete the job by winning the championship.

5. Will LeBron James win his first NBA MVP?

Now that Bryant won an MVP award, James is the best active player who has not received that honor. As long as he is healthy, James figures to put up MVP-level statistics for at least the next 10 years, so the timing of him winning his first MVP has more to do with his team's overall performance than anything else. In effect, the "tiebreaker" last year that enabled Bryant to win the MVP was that his Lakers finished with the best record in arguably the most competitive Western Conference race ever. If the Cavaliers exceed the 50 win plateau and contend for the best record in the East then James will garner a lot of support from the MVP voters.

Predicted Record: 55-27

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM

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TNT Broadcasters Steal Show During NBA's First Outdoor Game in 36 Years

"Basketball calls us all outside to play, for outside is where the game lives"--David Aldridge during TNT's introduction to the AutoTrader.com Open

The Indian Wells Tennis Garden hosted the NBA's second outdoor game ever, a 77-72 Denver victory over Phoenix. Denver All-Stars Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony sat out due to minor injuries, as did Phoenix All-Star Amare Stoudemire. J.R. Smith and Mateen Cleaves led the Nuggets with 12 points each, while Steve Nash paced Phoenix with 16 points. Denver shot 29-80 from the field (.362), including 1-11 (.091) from three point range, while Phoenix shot 25-79 from the field (.316), including 2-16 (.125) from three point range.

Considering the lack of star power plus the fact that this is just the second preseason game for both teams, one would expect a sloppy game. Add in windy conditions and rapidly dropping temperatures and we found out that the concept of an outdoor preseason game is good but the execution--at least in this case--left something to be desired. Remember those backyard pickup games on crisp fall nights when the wind was gusting, you could not get loose and there were more airballs and bricks than swishes? That is what this game looked like, particularly in the second half.

Or, as Charles Barkley is fond of saying, "The operation was a success but the patient died." In this instance, the banter among TNT's broadcasting trio of Barkley, Reggie Miller and Marv Albert was often more entertaining than the game itself, although after this airballapalooza/brickathon I don't think that Commissioner David Stern will follow up on Barkley's suggestion to play the All-Star Game outdoors. However, Miller's idea that the game should have started an hour earlier is worth implementing if the NBA decides to have another outdoor game.

With both starting units on the court--albeit bereft of the injured All-Stars mentioned above--Phoenix outscored Denver 20-18 in the first quarter. The Suns enjoyed a 41-37 halftime lead, a Bizarro world score for two teams that are known for playing run and gun ball. The Suns went ice cold from the field in the third quarter, scoring just 13 points, and the Nuggets pulled ahead and hung on for a win that will not be replayed on ESPN Classic any time soon.

The Suns have replaced Mike D'Antoni and his offensive philosophy of shooting in "seven seconds or less" with Terry Porter, who plans to place an emphasis on defense and half court offensive execution. As Porter put it, the Suns will still run this season but they want to do so after defensive stops, not after taking the ball out of the basket after the opposing team scores. The Nuggets feature the same coach (George Karl) and the same stars (Iverson and Anthony) that they have had in recent years. They lost defensive hub Marcus Camby but the defensive intensity of their bench figures to improve with the addition of energy players like Renaldo Balkman, Chris Andersen and Ruben Patterson. However, the "knucklehead quotient" on this team is reaching levels not seen since Portland housed the "Jail Blazers": let's just say that a locker room with Iverson, Anthony, Patterson, Andersen, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Smush Parker will never be a dull place (not to say that all of those players are bad people but they all have repeatedly demonstrated bad judgment on and/or off the court on more than one occasion).

Shaquille O'Neal looks like he is in decent shape but it is obvious that his days of being an explosive and nimble inside player are long gone. He is huge and he literally throws his weight around but his game is shockingly ground bound now; he seems to struggle to dunk in traffic, something that he did with ease during his prime, often while defenders clung helplessly to him trying in vain to foul him before he slammed the ball through the hoop. That said, O'Neal still has an impact on the defense--literally and figuratively; he has to be guarded and at times still has to be double-teamed and that creates space for the other Suns. The Suns were a better team last year after they acquired him, even thought that truth became somewhat obscured by their meltdown in the first round of the playoffs versus San Antonio.

Phoenix rookie Robin Lopez played with a lot of energy, contributing eight points, five rebounds and seven blocked shots. He looks like Anderson Varejao with his wild, flowing hair and he plays like Cleveland's frenetic Brazilian center/forward.

Suns forward Boris Diaw drew Barkley's ire on several occasions for being too laid back and lacking a killer instinct. "He gives up more layups than any player in the NBA," Barkley grumbled about Diaw's propensity for passing the ball when he is right in front of the rim. That was a mild remark for Barkley on this night as he offered wide ranging commentary not only on the game but also on politics, the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team and seemingly any other thought that came into his mind. TNT executives were probably alternately laughing, cringing and wondering if it was too late to put Barkley's microphone on eight second delay. At one point, Albert wryly asked, "Are we on the air?"

Barkley made a candid admission that he has mentioned a few times on TNT: "One of the big regrets of my career is that I did not become a better defender." Of course, he then (half jokingly) took a shot at his first team, the Philadelphia 76ers: "I blame that on all the dead weight I had to carry with the 76ers." Barkley suggested that he could not play defense with the Sixers because he had to do all of the scoring and rebounding. He did carry a heavy burden at one point in his career but in his formative years with the Sixers Barkley played with Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks, so there were plenty of opportunities for him to learn how to play defense and plenty of role models from whom he could have sought guidance. The reality is that Barkley was a great talent and a very productive player but he never took his conditioning or his defense as seriously as Michael Jordan did or Kobe Bryant does. Barkley added that he is still made at the Sixers for not drafting Brad Daugherty in 1986 and I completely agree that that was a travesty.

Miller offered a clip and save prediction--"Houston is my pick to win the West"--but Barkley is not convinced, largely because of the unreliability of Ron Artest, of whom Barkley said, "He's a couple sandwiches short of a picnic." Miller also said, "Larry Brown got on me as much as any coach in my career and made me a better player. I think he's the best thing that ever happened to me in my career in Indiana."

Speaking of demanding, hard driving coaches, Barkley recalled that he, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Terry Porter rode to the airport together after Bobby Knight cut them from the 1984 Olympic Team. Keep in mind that Joe Kleine, Leon Wood, Jon Koncak and Jeff Turner made the cut.

Barkley touched on Phoenix' inability to win a championship despite having a two-time MVP and a host of All-Stars and skilled role players. He said point blank that the Suns probably could have won a championship or two if they had focused more on defense and rebounding. Miller offered up the same weak excuses that Suns' fans--and sometimes Suns' players--cite, including what Phoenix supporters call the Horry game but what should properly be called the Stoudemire/Diaw game; after all, it was their overreaction that cost the Suns, not Horry's shove of Steve Nash. If Stoudemire and Diaw had kept their cool, then Horry would have been the only player who go suspended. Anyway, Barkley rightly insisted that if the Suns had defended and rebounded better then they would have had a much better opportunity to defeat the Spurs.

As for the Nuggets, Anthony told TNT's Cheryl Miller, "I think that when I put my mind to it, I can defend whoever I want to." Needless to say, that begs the question of when/if Anthony will in fact put his mind to playing good defense on a consistent basis. Barkley said flatly that Denver is Anthony's team and that how much he buys into what Karl is selling will determine how far the Nuggets go. Miller is convinced that Anthony learned how to step his game up from his experience playing alongside former NBA champions Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade with Team USA but Albert said, essentially, that talk is cheap: the Nuggets need to see real progress from Anthony, not just hear him say the right things during preseason. I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for Anthony to play good defense or to even know exactly where he is supposed to be defensively.

Postscript:

The venerable Joe Gilmartin describes the NBA's first outdoor game, a preseason contest in 1972 in which Phoenix defeated Milwaukee 113-100: "The game marked the debut of Butch van Breda Kolff’s brief (seven-game) stint as Suns’ head coach, and with Neal Walk scoring 15 points and Charlie Scott 14, the Suns beat the Bucks, who were led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, 113-110. As he usually did, Suns forward Connie Hawkins drew the most oohs and ahs with some of his patented swoops."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:33 AM

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