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Friday, October 16, 2009

2009-10 Western Conference Preview

Last year, I correctly picked seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams. I matched that mark in 2007-08 and went 6/8 in both 2006-07 and 2005-06, putting my four year percentage at .813 (26/32).

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: LeBron James had the most productive regular season of any NBA player in 2009 and deservedly won the MVP but during the playoffs Kobe Bryant demonstrated that he still has the most complete skill set of any player in the league. Bryant's ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot not only opens up driving lanes for him but affects the way opposing teams defend his teammates, enabling the other Lakers to feast on wide open looks because Bryant simply must be trapped in any screen/roll situation (teams can sag off of James because he is not as deadly or consistent from midrange as Bryant is, even though James laudably has improved his three point and free throw percentages). Bryant's attention to detail at both ends of the court--showcased brilliantly in Spike Lee's Kobe: Doin' Work--sets a wonderful example for his teammates; Bryant's work ethic profoundly influenced his Lakers' teammates, mirroring the impact that Bryant had on his Team USA teammates: look at how many of those guys played the best defense of their careers during the Olympics and then carried over that kind of effort to the 2008-09 regular season--Bryant set the tone from the start for Team USA by approaching the coaching staff and asking who they wanted him to "take out" (i.e., smother defensively).

It is fascinating to take a close look at how the perceptions of Bryant's supporting cast have evolved in the wake of the Lakers' 2008 Finals appearance and the 2009 Championship. Pau Gasol made one All-Star appearance in his first six and a half NBA seasons before teaming up with Bryant early in 2008--but since joining forces with Bryant and making the shift from being the offensive focal point to the second option Gasol's field goal percentage has soared from the low .500s to the high .500s, he made the All-NBA Third Team in 2009 and he has even convinced some deluded souls that he is the best/most valuable player on the Lakers. Gasol is a tremendously skilled big man--and I think that he should have made the All-NBA Second Team last season--but it is foolish to suggest that Gasol is better than Bryant. Gasol is perfectly suited--skill-set wise and psychologically--to be the Lakers' second option; Bryant accepts the double-teams, the physical play and the burden of being the focal point of the opposing defense, while Gasol gets to play one on one (or sometimes one on none when he works the screen/roll with Bryant and Bryant gets trapped) and utilize his finely honed skills without having to carry the brunt of the load. The Memphis Grizzlies understood that they would never win a title with Gasol as their best player and that is why they hit the "reboot" button; whether their "reboot" will be successful is an entirely different issue but the point is that Gasol is in a perfect situation in L.A. as the second option behind Bryant.

Gasol's arrival bumped Lamar Odom from second option to third option and that is the ideal role for Odom; Odom's versatility is widely praised but his two most valuable skills for the Lakers are his rebounding and his ability to be a weakside pressure release when Bryant and Gasol run the screen/roll: if Bryant gets trapped and a rotating defender stops Gasol then Odom is available either as a backside cutter or at the free throw line, where he can shoot, drive or swing the ball to a wide open three point shooter. Odom is not as skilled or consistent as Gasol, so Odom is ill suited to be the second option--and anyone who thinks that Odom is the Lakers' best player and/or is well suited to be the first option is delusional.

In contrast to Gasol and Odom, Trevor Ariza's head got a bit swollen by the Lakers' success and the career journeyman convinced himself that he is a star in the making. Ariza proved to be a nice role player for the Lakers in 2009 but the Lakers pulled off a steal by in effect swapping him for former All-Star/Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest. Playing in Houston this year without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, Ariza will rediscover how difficult it is for a journeyman to score in the NBA without playing alongside someone who draws double teams. Artest was reasonably well behaved last year; his worst offense--no pun intended--was probably his dreadful shot selection, but Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson should be able to positively influence Artest in that regard.

Jackson is a master psychologist who knows exactly which buttons to push (and which buttons not to push). Some fools questioned why Jackson remained so loyal to starting point guard Derek Fisher, but Jackson's faith was rewarded when Fisher came up huge during key moments of the NBA Finals.

Reasons to mope: The Lakers do not have much to mope about--particularly if they stay healthy--but it should be emphasized that they are not as deep as some people think. The Lakers regular starting five is talented--though not more so than Boston's Hall of Fame-stacked crew or San Antonio's trio of All-Star regulars (Manu Ginobili may not start but he is certainly part of their crunchtime lineup)--but Andrew Bynum is injury prone and inconsistent and Derek Fisher is slowing down. Also, the Lakers' bench--specifically Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton--did not perform well last year; in the playoffs, Jackson often had to go with a six man rotation with Bynum starting but only playing nominal minutes before Odom took his place (Bynum averaged 17.4 mpg in the playoffs and no Laker reserve other than Odom averaged more than 16 mpg during the postseason). If Bynum suffers his annual injury and Gasol or Odom tweak an ankle the World Champions will all of a sudden be giving heavy minutes to D.J. Mbenga or Josh Powell.

Bottom line: The Lakers upgraded their roster by swapping Ariza for Artest, they have the confidence that comes from winning a title and Bryant will make sure that they maintain their hunger. The Lakers are well positioned to win the 2010 championship but they will face a strong challenge from the San Antonio Spurs (if the Spurs stay healthy) and if the Lakers get past the Spurs the Eastern Conference champion will also give them quite a battle.

2) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: The Spurs significantly upgraded their talent level, adding swingman Richard Jefferson and reliable power forward-center Antonio McDyess to a roster that includes All-Star caliber players Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs do not have a player who is as good as Bryant but their starting five--or, finishing five to be precise, since Ginobili often comes off of the bench--has no weak links and is at least as talented as the Lakers' best quintet.

Reasons to mope: Tim Duncan is not quite as dominant as he was a few years ago. Coach Gregg Popovich increasingly seems to be pacing Duncan during the regular season in order to keep Duncan as fresh as possible for the playoffs. Ginobili is very injury prone and the Spurs have no one who can replace his energy level/versatility when he is out of the lineup.

Bottom line: If the Spurs stay healthy they can pose quite a threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

3) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: As I mentioned in my Dallas preview for Lindy's Pro Basketball, "The high scoring trio that led the Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals--Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Jason Terry--is supplemented by future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd and four-time All-Star Shawn Marion." The Mavericks have the talent and depth to be a championship caliber team.

Reasons to mope: Other than Howard, all of the key players mentioned above are on the wrong side of 30.

Bottom line: A healthy Dallas team is capable of winning 50-plus games and even putting a scare into the Lakers or Spurs--but it may be asking too much for a team so heavily skewed toward the over 30 demographic to survive unscathed from the attrition of an 82 game season.

4) Portland Trail Blazers: Reasons for hope: Brandon Roy is a versatile performer who looks like he will be a perennial All-Star; I like his skill set, his demeanor and his work ethic. LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden anchor a solid frontcourt. Newly acquired Andre Miller is an underrated veteran point guard.

Reasons to mope: Other than Miller the Blazers' key players are young and do not have much postseason experience.

Bottom line: Portland is talented enough to win 50-plus games and pose a challenge to an elite team in a playoff series but the Blazers will not likely beat the Lakers, Spurs or Mavs if those teams are at full strength come playoff time.

5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: When healthy the Jazz can put four All-Stars on the court: Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko. That nucleus led the Jazz to the Western Conference Finals in 2007.

Reasons to mope: Injuries to several of their best players put the Jazz off key last season and those players must stay healthy for the Jazz to once again be an elite team. Despite the Jazz' talent and experience they are a poor road team.

Bottom line: The Jazz seemed to be a team on the rise in 2007 but after a second round exit in 2008 and a first round exit in 2009 it is possible that this group of players has already reached their collective peak.

6) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: The Nuggets have made the playoffs for six straight years and last season they took advantage of the injury travails suffered by the Spurs, Jazz, Hornets and Mavericks to finish second in the West in the regular season before advancing to the Western Conference Finals. Energetic reserve Chris Andersen ranked second in the NBA in blocked shots (2.5 bpg) and helped the Nuggets to become a much stingier defensive team. Chauncey Billups averaged nearly nine fewer ppg than his predecessor Allen Iverson did in 2007-08 when the Nuggets won 50 games but Billups received a lot of credit for helping the Nuggets to become a more mature and more disciplined squad. Carmelo Anthony is a smooth, potent scorer and last season he proved that when he wants to he can play solid defense--but he has yet to commit to doing so on a night in, night out basis.

Reasons to mope: In the couple seasons prior to his Denver homecoming, Billups looked like he was aging, losing a step and somewhat injury prone (particularly down the stretch after enduring the long regular season grind). Did the now 33 year old guard revitalize his career in 2009 or merely enjoy a last hurrah? The track record for 6-3 guards in his age bracket is not great and he is under contract for the next two seasons, with the Nuggets holding an option for the 2012 season. If Billups starts to decline then the Nuggets will be shelling out a lot of money in 2010 and 2011 without getting much in return. Also, it remains to be seen if Andersen can sustain his 2009 level of play. Dahntay Jones, who signed with the Pacers in the offseason, did not put up gaudy numbers but the Nuggets will miss his defense, particularly on the nights when J.R. Smith shoots 3-20 from the field and decides not to guard anybody.

Bottom line: Allen Iverson is not a popular player in some circles, so last season provided a great opportunity for a lot of people to blame Iverson for Detroit's demise while also heaping praise on Billups for "changing the culture" in Denver. Billups played well for Denver but the reality is that the Nuggets only won four more games in 2009 than they did in 2008 and their rise in the Western Conference standings had at least as much to do with the injury misfortunes suffered by their rivals as anything else. It is doubtful that the perfect storm of internal and external factors that carried the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in 2008 will happen again in 2009, so the Nuggets will not likely match their 2008 win total and thus slip back toward the bottom half of the playoff pool.

7) New Orleans Hornets: Reasons for hope: Chris Paul and David West provide a great one-two punch. Emeka Okafor, acquired in exchange for Tyson Chandler, is a solid double-double performer who provides more offensive punch than Chandler did.

Reasons to mope: The Hornets do not seem to have a clear plan. First they tried to trade Chandler during last season because they did not want to pay him big money, then they had to bring him back when he failed a physical and finally they dealt him for Okafor, a player who has an even bigger contract than Chandler does.

Bottom line: The Hornets do not have enough talent to keep up with the elite teams.

8) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: The Suns have a talented nucleus built around veterans Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Jason Richardson, Leandro Barbosa and Grant Hill, plus they have added some young players who they expect will benefit from mentoring by the team's veteran quintet.

Reasons to mope: As I explained in March, "three things have been consistently true of all of the various iterations of this team:

* The Suns have a lot of individual talent.

* The Suns have never been committed to playing good defense on a consistent basis.

* As a group, the Suns have not demonstrated mental toughness."

Bottom line: After the short-lived Terry Porter coaching experiment, the Suns have forever abandoned the idea of playing solid defense and will simply play a run and gun style featuring Nash at the controls, Stoudemire finishing in the paint and Richardson, Hill and Barbosa filling the wings. That approach will be good enough to produce 45-50 wins and a first round exit.

Daryl Morey has done a good job of using "advanced basketball statistics" to help make the Houston Rockets a better team but with no Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest it will be tough for the Rockets to win 40 games in the highly competitive West.

Since making the playoffs in 2006 after going 47-35, the L.A. Clippers have posted 40, 23 and 19 wins. Notice a trend? The addition of number one overall pick Blake Griffin will be enough to halt that slide but not nearly enough to lift the Clippers into playoff contention.

The Golden State Warriors are a team in turmoil, thanks in no small part to "Captain Jack" (Stephen Jackson). Why has the media spent the past couple years glorifying Jackson and ridiculing Terrell Owens? Owens is a Hall of Fame caliber player who has never been involved in legal trouble, while Jackson is a selfish hothead who is constantly getting in trouble on and off the court. Jackson wants out of Golden State and the Warriors should do everything they can to grant his wish. The Warriors will continue to play a fast paced style and it will be fun to watch rookie Stephen Curry play alongside Anthony Randolph, Corey Maggette and Monta Ellis but no defense plus no rebounding equals no playoff berth.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are assembling a solid young nucleus but they will take their lumps for at least one more year before threatening to claim a playoff spot. It is nice that most commentators have belatedly acknowledged that Kevin Durant belongs at small forward, not shooting guard; of course, I figured that out before Durant played his first regular season game and I provided in depth coverage of just how happy Durant was to return to his natural position after the Thunder fired Coach P.J. Carlesimo.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have done a lot of roster shuffling. Al Jefferson is an All-Star caliber player when healthy and Kevin Love showed some promise but this team does not have enough talent or cohesiveness to make the playoffs.

It is not clear exactly what Memphis' plan is. If the Grizzlies are trying to develop their young players then why did they bring in Allen Iverson? I am not sure and in any case it is more interesting to talk about Iverson's claim that the Detroit Pistons lied to him last season. It may not be popular to agree with Iverson but I think that he has a point, even if he expressed it poorly and probably should not have said anything publicly. When Joe Dumars acquired Iverson Dumars said that the Pistons had become "a little bit predictable" with Chauncey Billups and that Iverson is an "impact player" who provides the Pistons "a different way to attack teams." I expected--and I am sure that Iverson expected--that Iverson would be a focal point for the Pistons offensively, that the ball would be in his hands and he would have the opportunity to attack off of the dribble and either score or else dish the ball to open teammates. Remember that in 2007-08 with the Nuggets Iverson played all 82 games, led the league in mpg (41.8) for the third straight year (and sixth time in seven seasons), ranked third in scoring (26.4 ppg) and finished ninth in assists (7.1 apg). In just his fifth game with Detroit, Iverson produced 25 points on 7-12 field goal shooting and worked the screen/roll to perfection with Rasheed Wallace as the Pistons beat the eventual champion Lakers 106-95 in L.A. I still cannot figure out why Dumars and the Pistons are so enamored with Rodney Stuckey that they felt that they had to put either Iverson or Richard Hamilton on the bench so that Stuckey would be installed as a starter. Stuckey is clearly not better than Iverson or Hamilton, nor are either Iverson or Hamilton used to coming off of the bench so how can such moves possibly be justified if winning is the primary goal? Iverson thought that the Pistons were bringing him in to do what he did against the Lakers, not to come off of the bench behind an unproven player who I think that Dumars and others have vastly overrated. Iverson is hobbled by a hamstring problem right now and such troubles are often the beginning of the end for small guards, so we may never see the real Iverson again but Iverson has every reason to resent how he was treated in Detroit; Dumars essentially rented Iverson to create salary cap room but told Iverson and the public that the Pistons were still trying to be competitive.

The only time that the Sacramento Kings will attract any attention this year is when some "stat guru" writes an article declaring that Kevin Martin is as good as Kobe Bryant but that NBA GMs, coaches, players, media and fans are too stupid/biased to realize this self-evident "truth"--but I will grit my teeth and not respond and the Kings will fade back into obscurity.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

2009-10 Eastern Conference Preview

Last year, I correctly picked six of the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams. In 2007-08 I went 5/8 in the East, in 2006-07 I went 7/8 and in 2005-06 I went 6/8, which adds up to 24/32 (75%) overall for the four years that I have posted Eastern Conference previews online.

Barring injuries to key players, the Eastern Conference shapes up to be a three horse race in 2009-10, with 2007 NBA Finalist Cleveland, 2008 NBA Champion Boston and 2009 NBA Finalist Orlando leading the pack. There is a lot of buzz in some quarters about Washington but I do not believe the hype.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs; as usual, I have ranked the teams based on the likelihood that they will make it to the NBA Finals (as opposed to how they will be seeded in the playoffs, which is affected by which teams win division titles).

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: The Cavaliers posted the best regular season record in the NBA in 2009 and followed up that effort by making a series of personnel moves which essentially resulted in them swapping Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic for Shaquille O'Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon; the Cavaliers also acquired Leon Powe, who is trying to recover from a serious knee injury but may be available in time for the 2010 playoffs.

The Cavaliers have built their success in recent years on three pillars: defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James, the 2009 regular season MVP. There are no signs of cracks in any of those pillars. A fourth pillar for the Cavaliers is depth; last year, each of the 10 Cavaliers who averaged at least 16.0 mpg during the regular season had been starters at some point during their NBA careers--and the Cavaliers will be even deeper this season with the aforementioned additions.

It may prove difficult for the Cavaliers to match their 2009 win total (66)--few teams win that many games in back to back seasons, for a variety of reasons--but if they stay healthy they will have a great opportunity to win a championship.

Reasons to mope: Mo Williams made the All-Star team but he disappeared during the playoffs, particularly in the Eastern Conference Finals; no matter how well he plays during the regular season there will be pressure on him to perform at a high level during the 2010 postseason. Delonte West is the most versatile player on the roster other than James but his struggles with mental illness/legal issues could affect his performance or even his availability.

After being a starter for virtually his entire career, two-time All-Star center Zydrunas Ilgauskas will have to adjust to coming off of the bench in a reduced role. New starting center Shaquille O'Neal must stay healthy, he must fully commit to Cleveland's defensive schemes and he must accept a secondary or even tertiary role offensively. O'Neal has a long history of feuding with coaches and star teammates if things start to go south, so if the Cavaliers experience any turbulence it will be very interesting to observe his interactions with James and with Coach Mike Brown.

Bottom line: The Cavaliers will win at least 60 games and should be considered the top contender to capture the Eastern Conference title.

2) Boston Celtics: Reasons for hope: Kevin Garnett is back in the fold and the Celtics improved their frontcourt depth by acquiring Rasheed Wallace and Shelden Williams. Before injuries derailed their title hopes, the Celtics started out 27-2 in 2008-09. Point guard Rajon Rondo has improved during each of his first three seasons, while future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are healthy enough and productive enough to continue to play at an All-Star level.

Reasons to mope: Garnett's injury turned out to be more serious than the Celtics initially thought (or, at least more serious than they indicated publicly). Although he has been given a clean bill of health the 14 year veteran must prove that he is still durable enough to withstand the grind of an 82 game season. Wallace has the talent to be an impact player but his health and skills seem to have eroded recently.

Bottom line: It is easy to forget just how well the Celtics were playing in the first third of the 2009 season; they certainly looked poised to repeat as champions. Then the L.A. Lakers rolled into Boston and handed the Celtics just their third loss of the season; that setback seemed to put the Celtics into a brief funk but then they righted themselves and authored a 12 game winning streak before Garnett got hurt. If the Celtics are healthy and motivated they have to be considered serious title contenders.

3) Orlando Magic: Reasons for hope: Dwight Howard has established himself as the best center in the NBA and will likely be a top MVP candidate for years to come. Injured All-Star Jameer Nelson should be back at full strength. Two-time All-Star Rashard Lewis stretches the court with his long range bombing. Versatile forward Hedo Turkoglu has been replaced by eight-time All-Star Vince Carter. Carter has been a media whipping boy for years but it is difficult to take seriously the proposition ventured in some quarters that Turkoglu is a better player and/or bigger matchup problem for opposing teams than Carter. Nelson will take over the ballhandling duties that Turkoglu inherited when Nelson got hurt and Carter is able to attack defenses in multiple ways: he certainly can do some of the drive and kick moves that Turkoglu did, he is just as good a three point shooter and--contrary to his "soft" reputation--he has averaged nearly twice as many free throw attempts per game (6.0) during his career as Turkoglu (3.1). Yes, Turkoglu is three to four inches taller but Carter is simply a better all-around player; Carter has averaged at least 20.6 ppg for the past 10 seasons, while Turkoglu has never once averaged 20 ppg in a season--and Carter also boasts better career averages in rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage.

The Magic also acquired Brandon Bass and Matt Barnes.

Reasons to mope: The only real reason to mope is the Cavaliers and Celtics made more significant upgrades than the Magic did; Cleveland added an All-Star center who is a future Hall of Famer and also acquired a pair of talented swingmen, while the Celtics regained the services of a future Hall of Famer and added a four-time All-Star who has championship experience.

Bottom line: Essentially, the Magic added two All-Stars--a healthy Nelson plus the newly acquired Carter--to a roster that made it to the NBA Finals; the Magic only lost Courtney Lee and Turkoglu, a player who has never made the All-Star team and who likely peaked in 2008 (his 2009 stats were down across the board). The Magic are better on paper than they were last year--but right now they look like the third best team in the East behind the reloaded Cavaliers and the healthy/reloaded Celtics.

4) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope: The Hawks have been trending upward for several seasons, improving their win totals from 13 in 2005 to 26, 30, 37 and 47 in the next four years. Prior to last season I wondered if they would be satisfied with their 2008 playoff appearance and perhaps slide back into mediocrity but they refuted such concerns with a strong regular season and their first playoff series win since 1999. In the offseason they added explosive scorer Jamal Crawford and did not suffer any serious roster losses.

Reasons to mope: The Hawks ranked 12th in the NBA in scoring differential and 25th in the NBA in rebounding differential; that is not a recipe for an extended playoff run.

Bottom line: The Hawks are just not talented or focused enough to beat any of the top three teams in a seven games series if those teams are at or near full strength.

5) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: A healthy, rejuvenated Dwyane Wade reestablished himself as an elite player in 2009. Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers experienced growing pains but overall they both had solid rookie seasons. Daequan Cook won the Three Point Shooting Contest during All-Star Weekend and he shot 153-395 (.387) from long range during the regular season, spacing the court so that Wade can slash through opposing defenses. Eric Spoelstra led the Heat to a 28 win increase, the biggest in NBA history for a first year coach; a lot of that improvement had to do simply with Wade being healthy all season but that is still an impressive accomplishment for Spoelstra.

Reasons to mope: The teams ahead of Miami in the standings--and some of the teams behind them--upgraded their rosters while the Heat essentially stood pat, losing Jamario Moon but adding Quentin Richardson.

Bottom line: Wade is tremendous and the young guys figure to continue to improve but this team does not have enough talent to deal with the conference's elite squads.

6) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope: Three-time All-Star Gilbert Arenas returns to action after missing most of the past two seasons due to knee injuries. Starting center Brendan Haywood has recovered from the wrist injury that caused him to miss 76 games last season. The Wizards believe that they increased their depth by acquiring Mike Miller, Randy Foye and Fabricio Oberto. Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are each two-time All-Stars.

Reasons to mope: Arenas joined the Wizards in 2003-04. Since that time they have never won more than 45 games in a season and they have made it past the first round of the playoffs just once (2005). Even when Arenas was fully healthy a good case could be made that he was the most overrated All-Star in the NBA. I have repeatedly said that an Arenas-led team will not advance past the second round of the playoffs and I see no reason to modify that statement--assuming that Arenas will even remain healthy enough for an entire season to be considered Washington's best player.

Bottom line: In the four seasons prior to last year's 19-63 debacle, the Wizards won between 41 and 45 games. It is certainly reasonable to assume that if their key players stay healthy that they can return to that neighborhood--but the hype about the Wizards being a legitimate contender is absurd (the Sporting News placed the Wizards seventh in the NBA--and third in the East--in their "Preseason Power Poll"). Last year, the Wizards ranked 24th in rebounding differential and 29th in defensive field goal percentage; Arenas' return does not figure to boost Washington's performance in either area, though a healthy Haywood should help to improve those numbers to some degree. The Wizards do not rebound or defend nearly well enough to be considered an elite team. Arenas has pledged to cut down on his off the court activities and focus on basketball but it remains to be seen how thoroughly he will follow up on that commitment.

7) Toronto Raptors: Reasons for hope: Chris Bosh has made the All-Star team four years in a row and has emerged as one of the NBA's top power forwards. Newly acquired Hedo Turkoglu will add playmaking, three point shooting and someone the Raptors can go to for fourth quarter scoring if Bosh is double teamed. Jose Calderon is a very solid point guard. The Raptors have rebuilt their roster and look like a team that can be very productive offensively.

Reasons to mope: Like the Wizards, the Raptors do not rebound or defend very well; Bosh will have to hold down the fort in both departments and hope that he gets more help than he did last year.

Bottom line: The Bosh-Turkoglu-Calderon trio should be enough to lead this team to the playoffs, where they will be first round cannon fodder for one of the elite teams.

8) Charlotte Bobcats: Reasons for hope: Coach Larry Brown has a track record of turning losing teams around in a hurry (his failure in New York notwithstanding). The Bobcats have made incremental progress the past few years--climbing from 26 wins in 2006 to 33, 32 and 35 the next three years--and if Brown can squeeze just five or six more wins out of this roster the Bobcats can grab the final playoff spot.

Reasons to mope: The Bobcats did not do much to upgrade their roster in the offseason, acquiring Tyson Chandler but losing Emeka Okafor and Sean May.

Bottom line: The midseason acquisitions of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw provided a real boost--the Bobcats went 23-21 when both of those players were in the starting lineup. This year, the Bobcats will likely start Bell, Diaw, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Gerald Wallace; that lineup will not strike fear in the hearts of the Eastern elite but should be good enough--with Brown's excellent teaching/coaching--to provide the Bobcats with their first 40-plus win season.

The race for the eighth playoff spot figures to be as tightly contested as it was in 2009 and 2008. The Chicago Bulls had an exciting first round playoff series versus the injury-depleted Celtics but they lost streak shooter Ben Gordon while getting nothing in return. They are a poor rebounding team and a mediocre defensive team, so it is hard to picture them winning more than 40-42 games.

The Detroit Pistons added Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva but they lost Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess and Allen Iverson; I understand that part of Joe Dumars' plan was to rebuild by letting Wallace, McDyess and Iverson go in order to create enough salary cap room to sign younger free agents but I don't think that you can build a championship team around Gordon and Villanueva, neither of whom has made the All-Star team. I have yet to figure out why Dumars is so enthralled with Rodney Stuckey that he traded Chauncey Billups and then cut loose Iverson just to hand Stuckey the starting job.

The Indiana Pacers have narrowly missed the playoffs the past few years and certainly could make a run for the eighth spot if everything breaks well for them.

The 76ers lost heady point guard Andre Miller for nothing, so it is difficult to picture them improving on last year's 41-41 record.

Last year, an illiterate Knicks fan went apoplectic when I correctly noted that--despite all of the positive media buzz about Mike D'Antoni--the Knicks had not in fact improved much overall and, in a disturbing omen, faded markedly down the stretch. The Knicks are horrible defensively and on the glass and they did nothing in the offseason to improve in either of those areas. It seems as if they have placed all of their eggs in the "LeBron James basket"; there are two problems with that approach:

(1) Just adding James to this roster would not be enough to make them championship contenders because the Knicks would still be below average defensively and on the glass.

(2) Even if James decides to leave Cleveland why on Earth would he want to go to a team that does not rebound or defend?

If there is one thing that James has learned during his time in Cleveland--and on Team USA--it is that rebounding and defense are vitally important ingredients in any championship equation. James fully understands that endorsement dollars will be available to him wherever he plays but that his ultimate legacy will be shaped by how many championships he wins. The Knicks will not make the playoffs this year and it will be interesting to see what their fans think of the wasted 2008 and 2009 seasons after James does not sign with New York in 2010.

The Milwaukee Bucks and New Jersey Nets simply do not have enough firepower to make the playoffs unless several of the teams in front of them are depleted by injuries.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:00 AM

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Who's The Boss?

A slightly different version of this article first appeared as a cover story in the 2006-07 edition of Lindy's Pro Basketball.

It's the question that basketball fans have debated for decades in bars and at office water coolers: If you could build a team around any one player in the NBA, who would you take? The answers have ranged from Mikan to Russell to Wilt to Oscar to Kareem to Dr. J to Bird to Magic to MJ. As Rick Pitino might say, those guys are not coming through the door today. So, who's the man now? Who's the boss?

First we have to set some ground rules. Can you be the boss without winning a championship? It is theoretically possible—many people considered Oscar Robertson to be the game's greatest all-around player years before he got his only ring when he was past his prime and paired with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Still, there has never been someone who merited serious consideration as the league's best player who did not eventually win at least one ring, even if he got it near the end of his career; Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each won MVPs in the Michael Jordan era but that was more a matter of voters being tired of picking Jordan than a statement that the ring-less Barkley or Malone were better than His Airness.

Current players who have both the championship pedigree and the highly developed individual skills to merit mention as being the best player in the NBA include Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan. LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash have not won any championships but also certainly must be included in the discussion.

The word that first comes to mind to describe Wade is "explosive." He explodes vertically for soaring dunks and horizontally with his array of crossover moves that leave defenders with broken ankles and dented egos. When his game is flowing he is too quick for big guards and too powerful for small guards. He finished sixth in the 2006 regular season MVP voting but surely moved to the top of a lot of people's lists after his tremendous run in the 2006 playoffs, culminating in one of the best Finals performances in league history. He averaged 34.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.8 apg and 2.7 spg in Miami's six game victory over Dallas and the way that he took command of the series has already been mentioned in the same breath as standout Finals efforts by MJ and Magic. That is pretty heady company for someone who is entering his fourth season in the league. Prior to 2006, one trump that Kobe Bryant had over Wade was playing a key role on three championship teams. Wade still trails Bryant in total titles but he has a Finals MVP, an honor that Bryant has yet to win. Veteran NBA assistant coach Tex Winter literally had a front row seat for Jordan and Bryant's Finals exploits, so he is uniquely qualified to place Wade's Finals MVP in historical context—and he was very impressed by what Wade did, so much so that he has been forced to reconsider his opinion that Bryant is the game's best player.

While Wade's game has literally grown by leaps and bounds, Kobe Bryant still remains in many ways the perfect basketball player, an amazing combination of size (6-6, 220), speed, jumping ability, competitiveness and extreme focus. He made numerous big plays during the Lakers' three championship seasons and his performance during the Lakers' rebuilding campaign in 2005-06 was truly epic. He averaged 35.4 ppg during the regular season, the best scoring average since Jordan's 37.1 ppg in 1986-87. He carried a team that most observers thought was bound for the Draft Lottery to the playoffs and to the brink of an upset over the Phoenix Suns. Bryant redefined "unguardable" on January 22 when he poured in 81 points versus the Toronto Raptors, the second best single game scoring mark in NBA history.

During the first round playoff series versus Phoenix, Bryant's scoring average went down to 27.9 ppg but he shot better from the field, grabbed more rebounds and passed for more assists than he did in the regular season. Bryant willingly shot the ball fewer times so that the Lakers could use Coach Phil Jackson's "Inside Man" strategy against the undersized Suns. This enabled the seventh seed Lakers to extend second seed Phoenix to seven games before being eliminated. Bryant still managed to hit the winning shot in game four and produced 50 points in an overtime loss in game six, when Bryant's scoring output kept the Lakers close enough that one defensive rebound at the end of regulation could have clinched a series win for L.A.

Despite playing shooting guard, Bryant led the Lakers in assists from 1999-2000 to 2002-03 and again in 2004-05. He was the primary playmaker on each of the Lakers' three championship teams when he played alongside Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant is also good at passing the ball out of double-teams—a pass that often leads to an assist for the recipient if he promptly reverses the ball to the open man on the weak side of the court.

Tim Duncan's game is about as exciting as watching a metronome—but there is no arguing with his resume, which includes three NBA titles, three Finals MVPs and two regular season MVPs. He annually ranks among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. Duncan makes the game easier for his teammates in many ways: he gets them open shots by drawing double teams, he erases their defensive mistakes by blocking shots, his dominance on the boards allows them to get a head start on the fast break and his ability to draw fouls gets the Spurs into the bonus early, providing extra free throw attempts on what would otherwise be non-shooting fouls. Duncan has been durable for most of his career, although nagging injuries last season led to the worst scoring average (18.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (.484) of his nine year career. Classical basketball philosophy values a good big man over a good little man (little being a very subjective term regarding Bryant, James and Wade) but rules changes limiting defensive contact versus perimeter players have greatly increased the impact that slashing swingmen can have on a game. If you are looking for what Al McGuire used to call an "aircraft carrier," then Duncan is your guy in today's NBA.

While Wade, Bryant and Duncan already have championship resumes, LeBron James made his postseason debut in 2006. He made a big splash right from the start, putting up 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists while playing all 48 minutes in a 97-86 win over Washington. James is the second youngest player to have a postseason triple-double and just the third player to have one in his first playoff game. His fingerprints were all over Cleveland's six game series win over the Wizards—35.7 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.7 apg—and the Cavaliers' surprisingly competitive seven game series loss to defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit. James averaged 26.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 6.0 apg versus the Pistons and delivered the best quote of the playoffs when he said "They're not the big, bad wolf and we're not the three little pigs" to describe the Cavaliers' state of mind after taking a 3-2 series lead. He is significantly bigger than Bryant and Wade, so while those two are more accomplished at this point James has more "upside," as a scout might say. The phrase "one of a kind" is a cliché but how else would you describe someone who is nearly as big as Karl Malone but has the ball handling and passing skills of a guard? Just as striking as James' physical attributes are his poise, court vision and maturity.

Dirk Nowitzki seemed to be well on his way to making his case to be the game's best player when his Dallas Mavericks eliminated Duncan's Spurs in a seventh game in San Antonio, but his lackluster performance in the NBA Finals versus Wade's Heat ended that notion for now. There is no doubt that Nowitzki was not in peak form in the Finals but he did average 27.0 ppg, 11.7 rpg and 2.9 apg overall in the playoffs. While some described this as a breakout season for Nowitzki, he has averaged 25.7 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 2.4 apg during his playoff career, so it's not like this year was the first time that he excelled in the postseason. In 2002 he became the first player to have 30-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in four straight playoff games since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1977. Nowitzki had 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in two consecutive seventh games in 2003, something that only Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, Elvin Hayes, Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Pettit have accomplished in NBA history. Nowitzki can drain threes, run the floor and control the glass, a highly unusual combination of skills for a seven-footer.

Steve Nash has not won a championship and, at 6-3, 195, is not nearly as physically imposing as the previously mentioned players—but he won the regular season MVP in 2005 and 2006, joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan as the only players in NBA history to win the honor in consecutive years. Nash is a wondrous player who uses his tremendous ball handling skills and court vision to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. He is also an excellent shooter. While his impact at the offensive end of the court is unquestioned, Nash is a defensive liability. Also, although he does not miss a lot of games, Nash's durability—particularly after the grind of a long season—is suspect.

The bottom line is that you can't go wrong with any of these guys as "the boss" on your team. Wade is the popular choice at the moment because he has a new championship ring on one hand and the Finals MVP trophy in the other—but an excellent case can be made for Bryant, Duncan, James, Nowitzki or Nash. Duncan is probably the most underrated player in this group, due to the understated nature of both his game and his personality. Bryant's reputation has waxed and waned over the years, often for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. The theory behind the International Race of Champions (IROC) is to take the best drivers from various series, put them in identically outfitted cars and see who wins. The NBA doesn't work that way, but because of his drive and willpower, I suspect that Kobe Bryant would emerge as "the boss" if he and the other contenders were placed in an IROC-style competition that provided each player with equally talented rosters.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:31 AM

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