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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Cavs Build 22 Point Lead, Coast to 96-83 Win Over Bulls

Several Cavaliers set career playoff highs in various statistical categories as Cleveland used a balanced attack to defeat Chicago 96-83 in game one of their first round playoff series. LeBron James led the way with a game-high 24 points on 9-19 field goal shooting plus six rebounds, five assists and a playoff career-high four blocked shots but he had a lot of help: Mo Williams added 19 points, a playoff career-high 10 assists and four rebounds, while Anderson Varejao scored eight points and grabbed a playoff career-high 15 rebounds. Antawn Jamison had a double double in his first playoff game as a Cav (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Shaquille O'Neal was aggressive right from the start and he had 12 points, five rebounds and four assists in 25 efficient and productive minutes--an excellent box score line for a 38 year old center who had not played in nearly two months after suffering a thumb injury that required surgery. The Bulls' offense was pretty much the Derrick Rose show: the dynamic second year player produced 28 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds but he also turned the ball over seven times and fired up 28 field goal attempts, a large number for a point guard; Rose shot a solid percentage (13-28, .464) but he only earned two free throw attempts, which means that the Cavs defended without fouling, forcing Rose to work very hard to create shot opportunities for himself and his teammates. Joakim Noah spent most of the game in foul trouble--and he wasted a lot of energy complaining about that; he finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. Small forward Luol Deng was Chicago's only other double figure scorer (12 points) but he shot just 5-15 from the field and he had little impact during his 39 minutes of action. Flip Murray pumped in nine points in just 11 minutes, a ratio that he likely could not maintain if given more extensive playing time. The other Bulls were interchangeably invisible for most of the game.

The two big questions about the Cavs coming into this game were how effective O'Neal would be after his long period of inactivity and whether the team in general would be rusty after turning the latter part of the regular season into a second preseason. It did not take long for the Cavs to prove that their fans have no need to worry about either issue--at least not against an opponent as completely outmatched as the Bulls are. Although James missed his first two point blank shot attempts and O'Neal's initial layup attempt also went awry, the Cavs soon asserted their dominance over the Bulls in a variety of ways, taking a 32-18 lead by the end of the first quarter. Jamison got off to a fast start with nine points and five rebounds but O'Neal set the tone with seven points, three rebounds and one assist as the Cavs outscored the Bulls 16-4 in the paint in the first 12 minutes; O'Neal's tremendous presence distorted the Bulls' defense like a badly broken accordion, as the smaller Bulls collapsed into the lane to try to deal with O'Neal and then watched the Cavs use good ball movement to repeatedly create open shots for players left unguarded in the wake of the swath of destruction that O'Neal left.

The Cavs led 56-41 at halftime before scoring 10 points in the first 2:30 of the second half and eventually establishing a 22 point bulge. It seemed like the Cavs could simply name the final score as the Bulls could neither stop the Cavs from scoring nor find a way to get their anemic offense going but then the Cavs began getting sloppy, committing careless turnovers and settling for too many jump shots: in the second half the Cavs shot just 16-39 from the field (.410) after blistering the nets at a .511 clip (23-45) in the first half--and during one extended second half stretch the Cavs shot 9-27 (.333) as the Bulls battled back to trim the lead to 78-71 with 7:25 remaining in the fourth quarter. In theory, that is a quite workable margin for the trailing team with that much time left but the reality--as I mentioned in my series preview--is that the Bulls will struggle to score 85 points against the Cavs so by that stage the Cavs were in effect just a few made baskets away from essentially putting the game out of reach regardless of what the scoreboard said; sure enough, jumpers by Jamison and Williams plus a Varejao dunk increased the Cavs' point total to 86 by the 4:47 mark and then James iced the game by awaking from his fourth quarter slumber (he did not score in the first 9:31 of the final stanza) with a three point play followed by a long jumper at the 1:28 mark that proved to be the final basket of the game for either team.

In his postgame press conference, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown did everything he could to avoid creating bulletin board material for the Bulls and to try to ward off overconfidence by his team; Brown praised the Bulls for being a "good, gritty team that competes real hard" and he emphasized a point that he made before the game (see below in Notes From Courtside) about how well the Bulls "shrink the floor and make the paint look crowded," which is part of the reason that the Cavs took 23 three point shots and experienced a second half offensive drought.

Chicago Coach Vinny Del Negro said that his team committed too many first quarter turnovers and got overpowered on the boards (Cleveland outrebounded Chicago 50-38) but he saw a silver lining because "our guys fought back in it."

O'Neal was not as lively as he has been in some press conferences but with a straight face he offered up some quirkiness/dry humor: first he declared that the exaggerated way that he ambles down court after a particularly impressive dunk is his "Diesel truck with no brakes" move--his message to opponents to get out of the way or get run over; then, O'Neal said that the Cavs are "LeBron Incorporated" while he is just "an unorthodox CEO who has been hired as a consultant." I still think that "Big Bill Cartwright" is a very apt description of O'Neal's current role: a 33 year old Cartwright averaged 9.6 ppg and 6.2 rpg in 28.8 mpg (ranking fourth on the team in scoring and third in rebounding) as the Bulls' starting center in 1990-91 when Michael Jordan won the first of his six NBA titles; this season, O'Neal averaged 12.0 ppg and 6.7 rpg in 23.4 mpg for the Cavs, ranking fourth on the team in both scoring and rebounding.

James and Williams shared the stage for their postgame media availability and a very serious looking James was quieter than usual, often deferring to Williams to answer questions that were addressed to both players. James' most extensive response addressed a question about how deep and talented the Cavs are now; James noted that Jamison is a player for whom opposing teams must specifically create a game plan--something that was not true of Cleveland's previous starting power forwards--and he said that the Cavs can now wear down opposing teams by virtue of the number of skilled big men that they have.

The Cavs are so deep up front that two-time All-Star Zydrunas Ilgauskas--who is still a quite skilled pick and pop player in addition to being a good rebounder--played just nine minutes, J.J. Hickson--a very productive young player who started 73 games for the league-leading Cavs this year--played just 40 garbage time seconds and Leon Powe--a rotation player for the 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics who has battled back from knee surgery--was not even on the active list for this game. Thus, depending on matchups, foul trouble and other considerations, the Cavs could literally send out an entirely different wave of three good big men than the crew that wreaked havoc against the Bulls in game one.

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Notes From Courtside:

The Cavs dropped their last four regular season games as Coach Brown "rested" LeBron James and various other key players. In addition to the "rest versus rust" debate there a number of other issues associated with the practice of benching healthy players, including the effect that this has on the league's integrity/competitive balance and the impact that it has on fans who may have only bought one ticket all season long and thus missed the chance to see their favorite player(s) in action (it is easy to say that such fans should have "known better" and thus purchased tickets for earlier games but that option may not have been available for any number of reasons). I am not sure when it became a standard and somewhat accepted policy for healthy players to not play; I may be wrong but it seems to me that when I was a kid some players may have sat out the very last game of the season and/or had their minutes reduced in the final few games but I cannot recall teams deliberately putting an inferior product on the court for several games in a row.

During Coach Brown's pregame standup, I asked him about this: "It seems that in the past more teams played the season out all the way to the end but at some point it became more of a fad or a trend to rest players like you did. When do you think that changed and why do you think that changed?"

Coach Brown replied, "I don't know; I know that when I was in San Antonio (as an assistant coach to Gregg Popovich) from 2000 to 2003 Tim Duncan, at times, or David Robinson, at times, might not have been hurt--this is in the regular season, not just at the end--and Pop would just say, 'Hey, we're going to rest this guy for this game or that game.' So, I've always been around that situation in terms of resting guys whether they are hurt or not hurt. That is since 2000-03. I can't remember when I worked with Bernie (Bickerstaff) or Dan Issel and guys before that if that happened before 2000-03. It might have, it might not have, but I know some of what Popovich has done since I was with him from 2000 on in terms of resting guys."

I then asked, "I was thinking historically in terms of teams that have won 68, 69 or more games; the Bulls won 72 games--those teams had obviously wrapped things up before that last win but they still kept playing their players. Is there something that changed between the 70s, 80s, 90s and now? Or because some of those things happened before you were in the league are you not sure exactly when things might have changed?"

Coach Brown answered, "I got in the league in '92, so I'm not sure what happened before then. I didn't look into it, so I don't know."

For the record, here are some interesting facts and figures about some of the winningest teams in NBA history--none of which rested key players who were not hurt and each of which won the championship:

1) The 1967 Philadelphia 76ers set a league mark with a 68-13 record and won the regular season conference title by eight games but five of their top six players played in all 81 games.

2) Four of the top five players for the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks team that went 66-16 played all 82 games even though the Bucks won the regular season conference title by 15 games.

3) The 1971-72 L.A. Lakers set an all-time wins record--69-13-- that stood for 34 years and won the regular season conference title by six games but four of their top five players played at least 80 games and Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich played in all 82 games.

4) The 1995-96 Bulls went 72-10 and won the East by 12 games but Michael Jordan played in all 82 games and in the final game of the season Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc each played at least 24 minutes in a "meaningless" 103-93 win over Washington.

5) The following year, the Bulls went 69-13 and won the East by eight games but Jordan and Pippen each played in all 82 games and they logged 39 and 38 minutes respectively in a "meaningless" 103-101 loss to the Knicks in the 82nd game.

***

Before the game, Coach Brown listed two main strengths of the Bulls, a team that he said has "a record (41-41) that doesn't really speak on how good they are (because of the) injuries and distractions that they had this year." Brown said that the Bulls' best attribute offensively is their ability and willingness to repeatedly drive and kick the ball until they get an open shot, while Brown said that defensively the Bulls do an excellent job of "shrinking the floor" and "making that paint look crowded"--i.e., forcing opposing teams to shoot contested jumpers outside of the paint.

***

The next time you read or hear some foolish person spouting off about Coach Brown's supposedly bizarre player rotations during the regular season, keep this quote from Coach Brown's pregame standup in mind:

"A lot of the things that we do during the regular season--we might not say it to our players or publicly--are for the big picture, which is come playoff time. Because we feel we are a championship caliber team, we make sure we use the regular season to get better for the postseason."

So, when Coach Brown takes out your favorite bench player and inserts a bench player who you do not like this does not mean that you know more about how to allocate minutes than Coach Brown does; sometimes, he uses the regular season as a sort of chemistry lab to test out different combinations of players--and this does not mean that he is not trying to win the game in question but rather that he is trying to ultimately put his team in the best possible position to win in the postseason.

Just minutes after Brown made the above remark, James said that he and Coach Brown talked about this very issue before the season began and they reached an understanding that even if it cost the Cavs some wins early in the season it was worth it for Coach Brown to get a better understanding of which lineups were most effective and which lineups were not as effective. I'd say that Coach Brown's laboratory experiments have worked out pretty well in the past few seasons: best record in the NBA two years in a row, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances (2007, 2009) and one NBA Finals appearance (2007).

***

Prior to this game, James had averaged 29.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg and 7.3 apg in 60 career playoff games. No other player in NBA history who has participated in at least 20 playoff games has averaged at least 25 ppg, seven rpg and six apg.

***

The Cavs have posted the best record in the NBA for the past two years. Since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, only five other teams have had the league's best record for at least two years in a row: the 1980-82 Celtics (tied with the 76ers in 1981), the 1984-86 Celtics, the 1987-88 Lakers, the 1996-98 Bulls (tied with the Jazz in 1998) and the 1998-99 Jazz (tied with the Bulls in 1998). Except for the Jazz, each of those groups won at least one NBA title.

Just leading the Eastern Conference in wins for consecutive seasons is impressive; the only other teams to do that since the merger are the 1980-82 Celtics (tied with the 76ers in 1981), the 1984-88 Celtics, the 1989-90 Pistons, the 1993-94 Knicks (tied with the Hawks in 1994), the 1996-98 Bulls, the 1999-2000 Pacers (tied with Miami in the lockout-shortened 1999 season) and the 2006-07 Pistons. From that elite group only the Knicks, the Pacers and the latter Pistons crew failed to win at least one championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:51 PM

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Friday, April 16, 2010

2009-10 Playoff Predictions

The Cleveland Cavaliers are well positioned to make their second appearance in the NBA Finals in four years, while the Western Conference playoff race is more wide open than it has been in the past couple seasons because Kobe Bryant's injuries have made the L.A. Lakers much more vulnerable.

Here is my take on the first round matchups, what I think will happen after that and who I predict will win it all.

Eastern Conference First Round

#1 Cleveland (61-21) vs. #8 Chicago (41-41)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Chicago can win if...Derrick Rose is the most productive player on the court, Joakim Noah and the Bulls' bigs hold their own on the boards with Cleveland's bigs and the Bulls find a way to keep LeBron James reasonably in check without allowing Cleveland's three point shooters to fire at will.

Cleveland will win because...the Cavaliers are bigger, more talented and deeper. The Cavs not only have the best player in the series--LeBron James--but their second unit could give the Bulls' starters a run for their money. Cleveland's outstanding defense will suffocate Chicago's anemic offense.

Other things to consider: Shaquille O'Neal is expected to make his much anticipated return to action in game one. Look for the Cavs to feed him the ball in the post early in the game both to get him in the flow and also to force the Bulls to reveal their hand defensively; if O'Neal is single-covered then he will look to score but if the Bulls double-team him then Antawn Jamison and/or three point shooters Mo Williams and Anthony Parker should have a field day on the weak side.

I provide a more detailed analysis of this series at CavsNews.com.

#2 Orlando (59-23) vs. #7 Charlotte (44-38)

Season series: Orlando, 3-1

Charlotte can win if
...Coach Larry Brown comes up with a game plan to contain Dwight Howard in the post without giving up open three point shots to Rashard Lewis, Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson.

Orlando will win because...the Magic are a very underrated defensive team that will hold Charlotte's key players--Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace--below their normal field goal percentages. The Magic's crisp ball movement will really put Charlotte's defense to the test.

Other things to consider: Orlando's first two wins against Charlotte came so early in the season that they can be disregarded in terms of foreshadowing what might happen in this series; the rotation that the Bobcats used down the stretch of the season proved quite capable of challenging the Magic, so this will not necessarily be a series in which the second seed will walk all over the seventh seed. Nevertheless, the Magic have both the best player in the series in Dwight Howard and a more talented team overall so they should prevail, probably in no more than six games.

#3 Atlanta (53-29) vs. #6 Milwaukee (46-36)

Season series: Atlanta, 2-1

Milwaukee can win if...the Hawks have poor shot selection and lose discipline defensively.

Atlanta will win because...the Hawks had the more talented and playoff-tested team even before Andrew Bogut suffered his season-ending injury; without Bogut the Bucks will have difficulty matching up in the paint at both ends of the court.

Other things to consider: If Bogut were available then this could have been a much more intriguing series but as things stand now the Hawks should be able to win this series in five games if they stay focused.

#4 Boston (50-32) vs. #5 Miami (47-35)

Season series: Boston, 3-0

Miami can win if...Dwyane Wade has a monster series and he receives adequate support from Jermaine O'Neal, Michael Beasley and Udonis Haslem.

Boston will win because
...even though the Celtics look like they are running on fumes they have too much pride--and too much talent--to be eliminated in the first round.

Other things to consider: The Celtics have not been a great home team all season, so it should not surprise anyone if Wade leads the Heat to a split in the first two games in Boston--nor should it surprise anyone if the Celtics immediately counter by winning at least one game in Miami. The aging, inconsistent Celtics will likely drag out this series longer than it should take before finally putting the Heat away.

Western Conference First Round

#1 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #8 Oklahoma City (50-32)

Season series: L.A., 3-1

Oklahoma City can win if...Kobe Bryant continues to be as limited as he has been recently and if the Thunder rediscover the defensive intensity that they had for most of this season. Naturally, the Thunder will also need for Kevin Durant to perform at a very high level.

L.A. will win because...Kobe Bryant likely used his recent time off to figure out what kind of adjustments he has to make to maintain his normal productivity and efficiency despite his various injuries. Pau Gasol should have an advantage in the post if he plays with the proper mindset and aggressiveness. The Lakers are obviously a much more experienced team and that savvy should make a difference in the playoffs when the importance of every possession is magnified.

Other things to consider: Bryant shot just .300 from the field in his three games in April and if he is not able to significantly improve that percentage then the Lakers will lose this series no matter what Gasol or anyone else does; Bryant averaged 30.1 ppg on .479 shooting in the 2008 playoffs and he scored 30.2 ppg on .457 shooting in the 2009 playoffs: without that efficient and productive scoring punch--which forces the opponent to double team Bryant and thus opens up scoring opportunities for Gasol and the other Lakers--the Lakers are in fact not as good as the Thunder. I am predicting a Lakers victory in this series based on the assumption that Bryant will figure out a way to average at least 26-28 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field.

#2 Dallas (55-27) vs. #7 San Antonio (50-32)

Season series: Dallas, 3-1

San Antonio can win if...Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker all play at a high level at the same time. That has rarely been the case this season but Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich carefully managed the minutes of his three stars with the hope that they would be fresh and ready to go come playoff time.

Dallas will win because...the deep and talented Mavericks match up quite well with the Spurs. The Mavs can go big or small and they can play fast or slow.

Other things to consider: If the Spurs' stars are truly all at full strength then this could be a knockdown, drag out, seven game battle royale but the Spurs have just never seemed to be able to click on all cylinders this season: their defense is not as good as it was during their championship seasons and their offense gets bogged down at times. It would be entertaining to see these teams go the distance but I think that the Mavs will not need seven games to eliminate the Spurs.

#3 Phoenix (54-28) vs. #6 Portland (50-32)

Season series: Portland, 2-1

Portland can win if...the shorthanded Blazers find enough smoke and mirrors to slow down the Suns' well oiled offensive machine.

Phoenix will win because...the Suns have been on fire (forgive the pun) down the stretch and the Blazers will neither be able to contain the Suns defensively nor score enough points offensively to keep up.

Other things to consider: It is impressive that the injury-depleted Blazers made it this far but Brandon Roy's knee injury is likely the death knell for their chances to advance past the first round.

#4 Denver (53-29) vs. #5 Utah (53-29)

Season series: Denver, 3-1

Utah can win if...Carlos Boozer is healthy enough to make a significant contribution, Deron Williams at least cancels out Chauncey Billups and the Jazz--who have not been a great road team in recent years, though they were better in that regard this season--find the necessary composure to win at least one game in Denver.

Denver will win because...Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and J.R. Smith will win their matchups.

Other things to consider: Denver's extra home game could prove to the difference in a series that may well go the distance. If these teams were movies then their soundtracks would be the beeping that a truck makes when it backs up, because both squads backed their way into their current seedings: the Jazz could have potentially finished as high as second in the West with a home victory over Phoenix in the final game of the season but instead they got blown out and plummeted to fifth, while Denver dropped from second to fifth in recent weeks before rallying to grab the fourth seed. Both teams are dealing with injury problems to key players (Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko for the Jazz, Chris Andersen and Kenyon Martin for the Nuggets), so if one team turns out to be markedly healthier than the other as the series progresses that could shift the balance of power but as things stand now the Nuggets look like the favorite.

-----

If these first round series go as I have predicted, we will see second round matchups of Cleveland-Boston, Orlando-Atlanta, L.A.-Denver and Dallas-Phoenix. The Celtics at full strength could barely hold off the Cavs two years ago, so this time around the Cavs should not have much trouble advancing. The Hawks do not match up particularly well with the Magic, so it seems as if Cleveland and Orlando will face each other in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row. The Cavs remade their roster specifically with the goal of matching up better with the Magic. Even though the Magic also upgraded their roster I expect the Cavs to prevail.

The balance of power in the West depends largely on which Kobe Bryant we see during the postseason; if we see the Bryant who averages 30 ppg while shooting at least .450 from the field then the Lakers will make it to the NBA Finals for the third straight year but if Bryant is unable to perform at that level then the West is suddenly quite wide open. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that after all of their frustrations, roster moves and coaching changes the Suns could emerge as the Western Conference Champion. However, I am going to operate under the assumption that even if his injuries cause Bryant to be a bit less effective or consistent than usual he will still be the best player on the court for long enough to tip the balance in the Lakers' favor. Thus, I expect that the Lakers will beat the Nuggets in the second round. A Dallas-Phoenix second round matchup could be the most exciting and competitive playoff series of the year, with the Mavs needing homecourt advantage to prevail in seven games--and then it could very well take the Lakers seven games to move past the Mavs.

I have been saying for two years that I would like to see a Finals showdown featuring the game's two best players. I expected it to happen last year but the Cavs did not hold up their end of the bargain. Assuming that Bryant stays reasonably healthy we will probably at last get to see LeBron and Kobe go head to head with the championship on the line--but I fear that the matchup will not be quite as compelling as it could have been if it had happened last year when both players were healthy and at the top of their games. The Lakers have no depth, so even if Bryant manages to push, pull and drag them back to the Finals they will have their hands full with the Cavs and I expect that we will end up seeing the 2010 version of what Michael Jordan's 1991 Chicago Bulls did to Magic Johnson's L.A. Lakers. No matter how much LeBron James downplays the importance of who he might face in the NBA Finals, he certainly would love to win his first championship by defeating Kobe Bryant and the defending champion Lakers--and Shaquille O'Neal must be positively giddy at the prospect of one-upping his former teammate in head to head combat.

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Usually I place the results of my earlier predictions at the top of my Playoff Preview but now that I have made several years' worth of predictions I decided to put this summary at the end of the post:

In my 2009-2010 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked six of this season's eight playoff teams, while I went seven for eight in my 2009-2010 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2009: East 6/8, West 7/8
2008: East 5/8, West 7/8
2007: East 7/8, West 6/8
2006: East 6/8, West 6/8

That adds up to 30/40 in the East and 33/40 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of 63/80 (.788).

Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:

2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 53/75 (.707)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in five years I have correctly picked seven of the 10 Finals participants (I missed Orlando last year and I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those five years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I count these records separately from the series by series predictions because a lot can change from the start of the playoffs to the NBA Finals, so my prediction right before the Finals may differ from what I predicted in April--and it definitely differed in 2006 when neither of my projected Finalists actually made it to the Finals!

Overall, I think that I have done a pretty solid and consistent job of predicting who will make the playoffs and who will win each playoff series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:32 AM

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NBA Awards Season is Almost Here

The 2009-10 regular season is over, which means that during the next few weeks the NBA will announce its annual award winners. Last season, I wrote one article explaining my choices for most of the awards and devoted a separate article solely to analyzing the race for the 2009 regular season MVP but this season the MVP race is about as clear-cut as it has ever been. LeBron James may very well become the first unanimous MVP selection in NBA history. Shaquille O'Neal would have been a unanimous choice during his first and only MVP season in 1999-00 except for the lone voter who cast a ballot for Allen Iverson and it will take a similar "protest" vote/cry for attention by some journalist to prevent James from making a clean sweep of all of the first place votes.

Here are my selections for each of the official NBA awards:

MVP

1) LeBron James
2) Kobe Bryant
3) Dwight Howard
4) Dirk Nowitzki
5) Kevin Durant

James has been an MVP caliber player since his second season in the NBA, finishing sixth, second, fifth, fourth and first respectively in the official MVP balloting from 2005-2009. Early in James' career his best attribute was his athleticism--his amazing combination of size, speed, power and agility; however, he had skill set weaknesses in terms of defense and outside shooting. James has methodically worked on each of those problem areas and the results have been impressive: he has progressed from being a subpar defensive player to an All-Defensive Team caliber performer and he has not only cleaned up his shooting stroke aesthetically but he improved his shooting percentages from the field, from three point range and from the free throw line.

In the 54 games prior to the 2010 All-Star Game, James posted career-high shooting percentages from the field (.506) and three point range (.361) while his .776 free throw percentage nearly matched his career high number from 2008-09 (.780). I have not seen it discussed anywhere but James' shooting numbers declined after the All-Star Game, perhaps a sign that James is a little bit worn down: James shot .494 from the field, .264 from three point range and .747 from the free throw line in his final 22 games, so he ultimately fell short of his career-highs in three point shooting and free throw shooting but he still shot a career-high .503 from the field in 2009-10--and the data at NBA.com/Hotspots shows that James' accuracy improved from 2008-09 to 2009-10 in six of the eight midrange shooting areas that the site tracks, so James' excellent field goal percentage is no longer solely the result of his high number of dunks and layups. That is significant because in previous years the elite defensive teams could defend James by clogging the paint and daring him to shoot jumpers; now, James is effective enough from the midrange and three point areas that this strategy is less likely to be successful over the course of a playoff series.

James finished second in the NBA in scoring (29.7 ppg) for the second year in a row; he is often described as a "pass first" player but that is, at best, an imprecise way to characterize his game: James won the 2008 scoring title (30.0 ppg), ranked third in the league in scoring in 2006 with a career-high 31.4 ppg average and has ranked no lower than fourth in the NBA in scoring in each of the past six years. James owns the highest regular season career scoring average of any active player (27.8 ppg) and the third highest scoring average of all-time behind only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. James is not a "pass first" player--he shoots a lot more than he passes--but rather a tremendous scoring machine who is also a remarkably gifted passer in terms of his court vision and his ability to deliver a variety of kinds of passes on time and on target.

I consider assists to be a "semi-bogus" statistic because they are awarded so liberally now and because there is not necessarily a direct correlation between assist averages and playmaking ability but there is some significance to the fact that James averaged a career-high 8.6 apg, ranking sixth in the league and setting a single-season record for forwards (Milwaukee "point forward" Paul Pressey averaged 7.8 apg in 1985-86 and Boston's Larry Bird averaged 7.6 apg in 1986-87). James does not get as many steals or blocked shots as you might assume if your only sources of information are highlight packages but he ranked ninth in the NBA in steals (1.6 spg) and he blocked 77 shots in 76 games, both numbers slightly down from his 2009 production (1.7 spg, eighth in the NBA; 93 blocked shots in 81 games).

The real MVP race this year is for second place. It seems like ancient history now but for the first month and a half of this season Kobe Bryant was the league's best player, unveiling some low post weapons that he honed by working with Hakeem Olajuwon during the summer and carrying the Lakers to the NBA's best record even though Pau Gasol missed the season's first 11 games: the Lakers went 8-3 without Gasol, including four victories in which Bryant scored at least 40 points while shooting .500 or better from the field. That run is at least as significant as Bryant's much praised game-winning shots, because if Bryant had not kept the Lakers afloat sans Gasol then they would not have finished with the best record in the Western Conference for the third straight year (a feat that has not been accomplished since the John Stockton-Karl Malone Jazz in 1997-99--and the Jazz only tied for the best record in the West in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, while Bryant's Lakers have had the best record outright each time). Bryant's MVP chances faded only after a series of injuries--broken right index finger, back spasms, left ankle sprain, right knee issues--chipped away at his efficiency. Bryant's final 2010 numbers (27.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.0 apg, .456 field goal percentage, .329 three point percentage, .811 free throw percentage) are actually remarkably good considering all of the physical problems he has fought through and they are not much worse than the statistics he posted during his 2008 MVP season: 28.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.4 apg, .459 field goal shooting, .361 three point shooting, .840 free throw shooting. However, a closer examination reveals signs of wear and tear: Bryant's three point percentage is his lowest since the 2004 season and his free throw percentage is his lowest since the 1998 season, Bryant's second NBA campaign. Bryant shot just .300 from the field and .741 from the free throw line in three April games before shutting things down to rest before the playoffs. The finger injury has clearly affected his shooting touch and the other various ailments have conspired to take away Bryant's lift, making it more difficult for him to elevate over defenders and thus further affecting the release point of his shot.

Bryant deserves to finish second in the MVP voting due to his overall body of work in the 2010 season: without Bryant's efforts--particularly early in the campaign--the Lakers most likely would not have even made the playoffs. However, I suspect that Bryant will place somewhere between third and fifth in the official balloting.

Dwight Howard led the NBA in rebounding (13.2 rpg) for the third straight year, captured his second straight blocked shots title (2.8 bpg) and earned his first field goal percentage crown with a career-high .612 mark. Howard is not a dominant scorer (18.3 ppg, his lowest average since 2006-07) but there is no question that he is a dominant player: he controls the paint defensively and most opponents must double team him, thus freeing up his teammates for wide open shots. James and Bryant are superior players due to the overall completeness of their skill sets but Howard deserves to be placed ahead of everyone else in the MVP race.

It seems like Dirk Nowitzki will never be forgiven for Dallas' collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals and subsequent loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2007 NBA playoffs but he had a tremendous under the radar season for the Mavericks in 2010 as Dallas earned the second seed in the West. Nowitzki averaged 25.0 ppg while shooting .481 from the field (the second best mark of his career) and setting career-highs in three point shooting (.421) and free throw percentage (.915, second in the NBA). Think about that: the player who many people consider the greatest shooter ever among big men posted his best shooting numbers in two categories! Nowitzki's offensive efficiency is off the charts and he clearly could have averaged even more points if the Mavs had needed him to do so. Like most 12 year veterans, Nowitzki is not quite the rebounder that he used to be but he is still very solid in that department (7.7 rpg, nearly half a rebound per game more than the younger and more athletic James) and he is an underrated passer.

Kevin Durant enjoyed a highly productive season, though it is worth noting that his field goal percentage (.476) is exactly the same as it was in 2008-09 and his three point percentage declined from .422 to .365. Still, Durant improved his free throw percentage to a career-high .900 and he showed that he is much more willing and able to accept contact: his FTA/g jumped from 7.1 to 10.2 and his rebounding increased from 6.5 rpg to 7.6 rpg while his minutes remained essentially unchanged. As I predicted at the start of his career, Durant benefited tremendously when Coach Scott Brooks shifted him from shooting guard to small forward.

I would not have a big objection if someone placed Durant ahead of Nowitzki but from my perspective Nowitzki is a bit more productive, versatile and difficult to match up against: I can picture Nowitzki putting up 50 points in a playoff game or getting 30 points and 20 rebounds against an elite team in postseason play but it is yet to be seen what Durant will do in playoff action when one team can zero in on his strengths and weaknesses; I am not saying that Durant will do poorly but until I see evidence to the contrary I give Nowitzki the benefit of the doubt in the MVP race and in terms of All-NBA status (see below).

Dwyane Wade is no doubt considered an MVP candidate in some quarters but his numbers this year are down across the board (scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocked shots, field goal percentage, three point percentage and free throw percentage). Even if his productivity were comparable to that of the five players listed above, he is listed at 6-4 (and is closer to 6-2) and, as I noted last year, Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA.

Rookie of the Year

1) Tyreke Evans
2) Stephen Curry
3) Brandon Jennings

Evans has been the most consistent rookie and the most productive (20.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.3 rpg). He has a classic, prototype modern NBA body (6-6, 220 pounds) that will ultimately enable him to potentially play three positions.

While some people inexplicably expected Curry to struggle, when Curry was in college I wrote:

Curry can pass off of the dribble, he can drive to the hoop and finish with a dunk, he has quick hands and he can slide his feet well enough to at least be adequate defensively at the NBA level. Curry can also dribble down court at full speed, stop and shoot a step back three pointer, which--combined with his ability to handle the ball and drive to the hoop--means that he will be able to get his shot off in the NBA; in other words, his game is very similar to his father's, though I would say that Dell Curry was a bit bigger and stronger while Stephen is quicker and a bit more clever as a ballhandler.

I am not surprised by how well Curry has played and if not for a slow start he could very well have beaten out Evans for this award; Curry averaged 26.4 ppg, 8.1 apg and 6.4 rpg in his final eight games of the season--numbers that are not just RoY-worthy but also MVP caliber (he will have to do that for an entire season, of course, to truly be considered an elite player but that kind of production is still eye-popping, particularly since some people doubted if Curry would even be a starting quality player). Curry averaged 17.5 ppg, 5.9 apg and 4.5 rpg overall.

Jennings made a big splash early in the season with his 55 point outburst--which ranked as the best single game scoring output by any NBA player in 2009-10--and he started all 82 games for a Milwaukee team that surprised many people by qualifying for the playoffs but Jennings was not as productive or efficient as Evans and Curry, shooting just .371 from the field--and it should have been easier for Jennings to shoot a high percentage because he has a better supporting cast around him. Jennings averaged 15.5 ppg, 5.7 apg and 3.4 rpg.

Defensive Player of the Year

1) Dwight Howard
2) LeBron James
3) Rajon Rondo

Howard was the landslide winner in this category last season and he should be the landslide winner again this year.

Some people may make a case for Josh Smith to crack the top three but I still do not get the sense that he orchestrates his team's overall defense the way that guys like Howard, James and Rondo do (Kobe Bryant also falls into that category, though this season he was not quite as dominant defensively as he has been in years past)--those players not only make good individual plays but they spearhead their team's overall defensive scheme.

Sixth Man of the Year

1) Jamal Crawford
2) Anderson Varejao
3) J.R. Smith

Crawford did not start a single game but he ranked second on the Atlanta Hawks in scoring (18.0 ppg in just 31.1 mpg), providing a major offensive boost as the Hawks had their best season since 1996-97.

Varejao started just seven of 76 games but he led the Cleveland Cavaliers in total rebounds (578) and rebounding average (7.6; Antawn Jamison averaged 7.7 rpg as a Cav but only appeared in 25 games with the team) while playing outstanding defense and posting career high shooting percentages from both the field (.572) and the free throw line (.663). He may be the most underrated player in the NBA.

Smith came off of the bench in each of his 75 games but he led the Denver Nuggets in three pointers made (158) and ranked third on the team in scoring (15.4 ppg). He is not a very efficient player, his shot selection is atrocious and he can shoot his team out of a game but there is no doubt that he is an important weapon in Denver's offensive attack.

Manu Ginobili started 22 of his 75 games and did most of his best work as a starter, so I did not consider him in this category; Lamar Odom started 38 of 82 games, so he too does not qualify.

Most Improved Player

1) Aaron Brooks
2) George Hill
3) Corey Brewer

Brooks played well in the playoffs last year but I did not think that he could be a 20 ppg scorer (19.6 ppg to be precise) over the course of an entire season. Brooks also increased his shooting percentages as his scoring average rose, which is impressive (in contrast, his Houston teammate Trevor Ariza averaged a career-high 14.9 ppg but shot a career-low .394 from the field).

Hill jumped from eighth in total minutes on the San Antonio Spurs in 2008-09 to third this season behind only Richard Jefferson and Tim Duncan. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich constantly raves about Hill, a second year player whose game has grown by leaps and bounds.

Brewer, who some people considered to be a bust after his first two seasons, started all 82 games for Minnesota, averaging career-highs in scoring (13.4 ppg), field goal percentage (.431), assists (2.4 apg) and steals (1.4 spg).

Coach of the Year

1) Scott Brooks
2) Scott Skiles
3) Nate McMillan

The Oklahoma City Thunder did far better this season than anyone could have reasonably expected and Brooks' coaching is a major reason for that success. Brooks literally changed the Thunder from his first day on the job last season when he shifted Kevin Durant from shooting guard to small forward, thus unleashing "Durantula" on the rest of the league.

I knew that the Thunder were a team on the rise but I did not expect them to be a playoff team until next season because it usually takes a while to get young players to completely buy into playing good defense on a nightly basis. Brooks' Thunder ranked seventh in the league in defensive field goal percentage without having a dominant shot blocker or any individual defender who would be considered a "stopper." That means that Brooks has a sound defensive scheme plus the ability to teach that scheme and motivate young players to follow it. There are several worthy Coach of the Year candidates this season but Brooks is the most worthy.

Skiles is also a defensive-minded coach and he did a tremendous job leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their best record since 2000-01 and their first playoff appearance since 2005-06.

The Portland Trail Blazers suffered a devastating barrage of injuries but McMillan still guided them to their second consecutive 50 win season and a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference.

Larry Brown did an excellent job in Charlotte as the Bobcats earned the first playoff berth in franchise history. Brown has an unparalleled ability to build a program from scratch; previously he engineered turnarounds that enabled the Nets and the Clippers to make the playoffs.

Phil Jackson and Mike Brown likely have no chance to win the award this year--the honor generally goes to coaches whose teams have unexpected success--but it is no accident that Jackson's Lakers have posted the best record in the West for three straight years and that Brown's Cavs have posted the best record in the league two years in a row. Jackson is an excellent leader/motivator who uses the Triangle Offense as a template to encourage his players to share the ball and he is an underrated defensive coach/game planner. Brown is an outstanding defensive coach who gets a bad rap for his supposed deficiencies offensively: his Cavs ranked ninth in scoring, second in point differential and third in field goal percentage, so they are actually quite productive and efficient at that end of the court.

Executive of the Year

1) Danny Ferry
2) Donnie Nelson
3) Otis Smith

I chose Ferry last year after he upgraded a Cleveland roster that previously made it to the 2007 NBA Finals and I am picking him again this year; it is not easy to improve a team that posted the best record in the league but Ferry did just that by acquiring Shaquille O'Neal, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon.

Nelson's midseason acquisitions of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood helped the Dallas Mavericks claim the second seed in the West and put them in position to legitimately contend for a championship.

Much like Ferry upgraded an already strong Cleveland roster, Smith improved the Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic by replacing Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu with Vince Carter and Matt Barnes.

All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Dirk Nowitzki

All-NBA Second Team
G Steve Nash
G Deron Williams
C Andrew Bogut
F Kevin Durant
F Amare Stoudemire

All-NBA Third Team
G Chauncey Billups
G Brandon Roy
C David Lee
F Tim Duncan
F Carmelo Anthony

Four of the First Teamers are very obvious; the toughest decision is Nowitzki versus Durant for the second forward spot on the First Team. I suspect that the media voters will award that honor to Durant and, as I explained above in my analysis of the MVP award, I do not have a big problem with that.

Steve Nash's image has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence after what was perceived as a down year last season but most of his numbers from both years are very similar with the exception of a 1.3 apg increase this season--and that is at least partially a result of the Suns playing at a faster pace in 2009-10. Nash's All-NBA candidacy is helped by the fact that injuries knocked 2009 All-NBA guards Tony Parker and Chris Paul out of consideration--Paul played at an elite level but only participated in 45 games, while Parker's statistics dropped precipitously and he only played in 56 games.

Stoudemire played reasonably well prior to the All-Star Game but he was sensational down the stretch.

At 33 years of age, Billups posted the best scoring average (19.5 ppg) of his 13 year career.

Roy did not perform quite as well as he did last season and injuries kept him out of 17 games--which is about my limit to still put someone on the All-NBA Team--but overall he played an important role in helping Portland to win 50 games.

While the New York Knicks dumped an entire season in the vain hope of persuading LeBron James to sign with them, David Lee quietly put together some very impressive numbers: 20.2 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3.6 apg, .545 field goal percentage, .812 free throw percentage. Here is a novel idea: maybe the Knicks should abandon their LeBron pipe dream and instead come up with a realistic plan to put a credible supporting cast around Lee.

There is a perception that Tim Duncan's game has dropped off but his per minute numbers this year are virtually identical to his numbers last season when he made the All-NBA Second Team (his per game averages are down slightly because he averaged 31.3 mpg instead of 33.6 mpg).

Every year, some people try to interject Anthony's name among James, Bryant and Wade but Anthony is in reality a fringe member of the NBA elite--he has never made the All-NBA First Team but has earned Third Team honors three times.

I suspect that Manu Ginobili will receive serious consideration for the Third Team at the very least--but should playing well for a fourth of the season really earn a player recognition as one of the top 15 players in the entire league? Ginobili averaged 16.5 ppg, 4.9 apg and 3.8 apg while shooting .441 from the field this season. Those simply are not elite level numbers.

I will be very interested to see how many media members fall for the chic hype about Pau Gasol and vote him on to the All-NBA Team. Gasol missed 17 games while Duncan only missed four games and even though Gasol averaged nearly six more mpg than Duncan their numbers were very similar: Gasol averaged 18.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 3.4 apg and 1.7 bpg while shooting .536 from the field; Duncan averaged 17.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 apg and 1.5 bpg while shooting .518 from the field. While Duncan can legitimately be listed as either a forward or a center (see below), Gasol spent virtually the entire season at forward until very recently when Andrew Bynum got hurt, so it would not be proper to put Gasol at center over players who played that position all year.

All-Defensive First Team

G Rajon Rondo
G Kobe Bryant
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Ron Artest

All-Defensive Second Team

G Dwyane Wade
G Jason Kidd
C Tim Duncan
F Anderson Varejao
F Josh Smith

This is the only award that is selected by the league's head coaches. It is amusing to hear "stat gurus" and fan bloggers gripe about the results, as if they have a better understanding of the nuances of NBA defense than the guys for whom game planning/exploiting mismatches is a full-time job. In each of the past two years, I chose eight of the 10 All-Defensive players who were ultimately honored by the coaches, which you can correctly interpret to mean that I view the game like a coach/scout as opposed to being a biased fan or a slave to "advanced statistics," which are not effective at capturing individual defensive excellence (such numbers can provide some insight about defense at the team level but not in a way that convincingly explains how much credit/blame individual players should receive for a team's defensive strengths and weaknesses).

Artest struggled to learn the Triangle Offense but he performed at a high level defensively; in general, the Lakers' problems this year have been on offense, not defense: they dropped from sixth in field goal percentage in 2008-09 to 18th this season but their ranking in defensive field goal percentage remained high (third in 2009, fifth this season). Artest is the team's designated stopper, while Bryant is the roamer/disruptor and the player who makes the defensive calls to ensure that other players are properly positioned.

Kidd may have difficulty at times trying to defend quick point guards but with the current defensive rules few players really excel at checking the speedsters; Kidd is still a crafty ball thief (1.8 spg, fifth in the NBA) and he can effectively defend bigger guards.

I am "cheating" a bit by designating Duncan as a forward on the All-NBA Team and as a center on the All-Defensive Team. The reality is that this season the Spurs listed him as a starter at both positions at various times, so I am taking advantage of that flexibility to try to reward the most worthy players in both categories. Duncan was officially listed as a center on the 2009 All-Defensive Team and as a forward on the 2009 All-NBA Team.

Varejao may not receive consideration because he is a bench player but I think that even in his relatively limited minutes he has a significant impact. I left off Shane Battier because he only played in 67 games.

All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position)

Tyreke Evans
Stephen Curry
Brandon Jennings
Darren Collison
Marcus Thornton

All-Rookie Second Team

DeJuan Blair
Omri Casspi
Johnny Flynn
Jonas Jerebko
Taj Gibson

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cavs Will Battle Bulls in the Playoffs for the First Time Since the Michael Jordan Era

The Chicago Bulls eliminated the Cleveland Cavaliers from the playoffs five times between 1988 and 1994; at first the rivalry was highly competitive--with Chicago winning by 3-2 margins in both 1988 and 1989--but the soon to be three-time NBA Champion Bulls swept the Cavs 4-0 in 1993 and even without Michael Jordan the Bulls swept the Cavs 3-0 in 1994. This year the Cavs will have the opportunity to get at least some symbolic revenge as a 61-21 Cleveland team that finished with the league's best record for the second year in a row faces off against a 41-41 Chicago team that has the worst record of the NBA's 16 playoff participants.

My newest CavsNews.com article analyzes this Eastern Conference first round playoff matchup:

Cavs Will Battle Bulls in the Playoffs for the First Time Since the Michael Jordan Era

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Magic Pound Pacers, Move Closer to Capturing Second Overall Seed

Vince Carter scored 14 of his game-high 21 points in the first quarter as the Orlando Magic built a 42-18 lead en route to a wire to wire 118-98 win over Indiana in the Pacers' final home game of the season. A home win against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers in the season finale on Wednesday will clinch home court advantage for Orlando against any possible playoff opponent other than the Cleveland Cavaliers--and, unlike some teams that are resting certain players heading into the postseason, Stan Van Gundy's Magic are using their regular rotation and making their best effort to obtain every possible win. Point guard Jameer Nelson flirted with a triple double (15 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) and Dwight Howard controlled the paint (12 points, 11 rebounds, four blocked shots) as all ten Magic players who participated scored at least six points, with seven players reaching double figures. Not only did the Magic jump on the Pacers right from the start--leading 19-9 less than six minutes into the contest--they withstood the inevitable Indiana run and did not allow the Pacers to get closer than nine points the rest of the way. A.J. Price scored a team-high 19 points off of the bench for the Pacers and tied two others with a team-high four assists. Danny Granger added 18 points but shot just 6-19 from the field and Mike Dunleavy pumped in 18 points on 7-11 shooting. The Pacers shot just 36-88 (.409) from the field but their defense was even more atrocious than their anemic offense, as Indiana repeatedly conceded dunks, layups and wide open jumpers. The Pacers had played well recently--winning four in a row and 10 of their last 12--but they just looked completely outmatched versus the Magic.

Howard was a one man dunking/shot blocking wrecking crew in the game's first 10 minutes, powering home three monster jams and rejecting three Pacer shots before a questionable second foul sent Howard to the bench. Once Howard reached the sideline, he griped to the media members seated on the baseline, "See how they do me? It's been like this all year" but within moments he was back to being his usual jovial self, joking with courtside fans, playfully tapping Vince Carter on the head when Carter was not looking and then pretending that Rashard Lewis was the guilty party after Carter turned around. During a stoppage in play, Howard talked to referee Pat Fraher about the disputed call. Howard gestured to indicate that he had not committed a foul but was simply trying to free his arm after being grabbed. However, I could not quite make out their conversation so I asked Howard about it after the game and he told me, "I just told him that I thought that the guy was holding me when I went up to get the rebound. He thought differently. I don't know what to say about it. I know sometimes they say I am bigger and stronger than everybody--but guys should not be allowed to hold me and grab me and get away with it...We got the win and that is all that really matters."

Howard and the other Magic players genuinely seemed to enjoy bantering with the fans seated near their bench, a group that included supporters of both teams. When one Pacers' fan quite loudly barked at Howard to stop whining and sit down, Howard smiled and responded that he was standing up not to complain to the referees but rather to "mess with my coach" (i.e., make fun of the way Coach Van Gundy was pacing the sidelines); instead of ratcheting up any possible hostility, Howard defused the situation with a joke. Late in the game as Carter watched the blowout from the bench, a young fan kept trying to get his attention; they finally made eye contact during a timeout and the boy grinned from ear to ear after Carter tossed him a plastic wristband that Carter had worn throughout the game: for the rest of the night, the kid looked at the wristband in wonderment, sliding it up and down his arm (Carter's wrist is probably thicker than the kid's biceps) and at one point proudly saying to some family members, "He actually wore this!" Other Magic players--including Howard and Matt Barnes--also gave away various items to fans before leaving the court.

Make no mistake, though, this fun-loving bunch is very serious about winning basketball games; much like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Orlando Magic seem to be able to strike a delicate balance between being happy--even silly at times--without letting that get in the way of putting in the hard work that it takes to be a very successful team. During his postgame standup, Coach Van Gundy praised the Magic's overall focus and effort versus Indiana, declaring, "We obviously got off to a really good start in the game, particularly at the offensive end, and Dwight held our defense together by blocking shots early on. In the second quarter we turned the ball over and we fouled a lot and they made a little run back but I thought that the first six minutes of the third quarter was our best defensive effort probably in a couple weeks. I thought that our guys really came out of the locker room and worked very, very, very hard. In the first six minutes they (the Pacers) only scored four points. We only scored 10 points--they (the Pacers) were playing hard, too--but I thought that our effort was great and that was good to see. I liked the effort we made at the defensive end."

Coach Van Gundy added that prior to the game he was "a little worried" because when he walked into the locker room some of the players "seemed a little tired" (the Magic had just played on Sunday, beating a Cleveland team that rested LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Parker and did not use All-Stars Mo Williams or Antawn Jamison down the stretch of a close game) but that he was pleasantly surprised that once the game began his team's "focus was great." He also provided a comparison of regular season basketball versus playoff basketball: "I've said this all the time: I think that the regular season and the playoffs are two totally different tests. I think that the regular season is really about how many times you get yourself ready to play and get out there and give a great effort. I think that our team's record would indicate that we do that pretty damn well. In the playoffs, everybody is ready to play, so it really comes down to how good you are. I don't think that anyone is going to take a night off in the playoffs. I think that if you are a fan of our team and you are going to watch us on TV or come out to a game, you have to appreciate that our guys are going to give it a pretty damn good effort every single night--and usually they play pretty well."

*****************************
Notes From Courtside:

The 2009-10 Orlando Magic made two changes to the starting lineup that led the team to the 2009 NBA Finals, bringing in shooting guard Vince Carter and small forward Matt Barnes to replace Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu respectively.

Carter placed second on the 2008-09 New Jersey Nets in both scoring (20.8 ppg) and assists (4.7 apg) as the team missed qualifying for the playoffs by five games, finishing with a 34-48 record; this season, Lee has averaged 12.3 ppg and 1.7 apg as the Nets' starting shooting guard while the team flirted with posting the worst record in NBA history before finally breaking the 10 win barrier (they are currently 12-69). Meanwhile, this season Carter ranks second in scoring (16.6 ppg) and third in assists (3.1 apg) for an Orlando team that is one win away from clinching the second overall seed in the 2010 playoffs.

Barnes averaged 10.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg while starting 40 of his 77 games for the 2009 Phoenix Suns, who went 46-36 but missed the playoffs by two games. This season, Barnes has averaged 8.7 ppg and 5.4 rpg while starting 56 of his 79 games for the Magic; Barnes' scoring has declined a bit but he is also averaging slightly fewer minutes and--more importantly--he has improved his field goal percentage to .486, the second best mark of his career. Turkoglu ranked third on the Magic in both scoring (16.8 ppg) and assists (4.9 apg) while shooting .413 from the field in 2008-09; this season, Turkoglu's numbers are down across the board (11.4 ppg, 4.1 apg, .408 field goal percentage) and his Toronto Raptors are in danger of missing the playoffs.

Both the individual numbers for these four players and Orlando's team numbers (the Magic improved from being the third seed in the East and fourth seed overall last season to the second seed in the East and likely the second seed overall this season) suggest that the Magic upgraded their roster with their offseason moves, though of course the final verdict will not be rendered until after the playoffs. Prior to the game, I spoke with Coach Van Gundy about how Carter has fit in with the Magic this year and the issue of teams resting healthy players as the season winds down:

Friedman: "Sometimes, players and coaches say that you never really know a player until you've had him in your locker room and you've seen him in practice. Now that you have had a full season with Vince Carter, what have you learned about Vince that maybe you did not know before the Magic acquired him?"

Van Gundy: "I don't know that there is anything we didn't know but he's a smart guy, he's a very good teammate, an unselfish guy. Also, I think that like most veteran guys as they get along in their careers, he just wants to win. He's done all of the individual things--he's scored a lot of points, he's been in All-Star games, he's done all of that stuff and now it's just about winning. I think it's always great as a coach when you get guys at that point in their careers."

Friedman: "A lot of times when people talk about your team they act as if you basically swapped Turkoglu for Carter but really Barnes is your starting small forward and Carter is playing Lee's position so from your standpoint do you really look at it like Carter should do what Turkoglu did last year and fill his role? How do you look at it from a coach's standpoint in terms of Carter's role this year compared to Turkoglu's role last year?"

Van Gundy: "Well, it's similar in the sense that they are the guys we go to a lot, particularly down the stretch, but they are different players; Turkoglu is 6-10, Vince is a (6-6) two guard but they are similar in the roles that they play for us: get them the ball late in the game, run a lot of pick and rolls with them, very similar stuff."

Friedman: "Are you satisfied with the ratio of Carter's free throw attempts to his three point attempts? Is there a certain way that you look at those numbers?"

Van Gundy: "No, I don't (specifically look at those numbers). At times, Vince is not as aggressive as he could be and we talk about that but for the most part Vince has been great picking his spots and being very aggressive--particularly since the first of February. I think that if you go from there on, it would be hard to play more efficiently than Vince has."

After a dreadful January in which Carter--hobbled by an ankle injury--averaged just 8.7 ppg on .284 field goal shooting, he scored 18.6 ppg on .515 field goal shooting in February and he averaged 17.6 ppg on .494 field goal shooting in March.

Friedman: "Is that something that you keep stressing to Vince and reminding him about or by this point does he know that you want him to drive more and not settle for jumpers?"

Van Gundy: "You do (talk to him) and he knows but it's also about how the defense plays you. Vince is a smart guy. If you are going to play off of him or go under on his pick and rolls and stuff--you can't force the issue, either (by driving against a defense that is packed in the paint). You've got to play the game smart and you've got to take what the defense gives and I think he's good at that."

Friedman: "During yesterday's (Lakers-Trail Blazers) telecast, your brother brought up the point that he feels like the NBA should do something about teams resting players who are physically capable of playing. The NFL has talked about maybe doing something about this issue as well. What are your thoughts, not about particular teams, but in general--should there be a rule about this?"

Van Gundy: "It's impossible to do that. It sounds good in theory but the bottom line is that (if there were such a rule) then teams would just say that guys are hurt and the fact of the matter is that when you hit this part of the season everybody does have something bugging them. Who is to say who can play and who can't? To me, that is a great discussion to have--and fans, media, everybody can talk about it--but there is no way, there is absolutely no way, to enforce that. There is just none. So it will continue to happen. I think that the bigger problem (than playoff teams resting some players) is the people (teams) who are not in the playoffs who are sitting people to basically lose games and improve their draft status but, same thing, there is nothing you can do about that as a league. You can make your displeasure for it known but I don't think that there is anything they are going to be able to do and I think that every organization, every G.M., every coach, has to do what they think is the best thing for their franchise, for their team. If that includes resting some guys then that is what they have to do and I think that it needs to be settled within that team on how you are going to approach it. Whatever guys want to do is up to them. We all have different priorities."

Friedman: "Related to that issue, your brother mentioned that there was a year in which he sat Tracy McGrady for a couple games and afterward he looked back and regretted it. Also, Avery Johnson during a recent telecast mentioned that there was a season in which he sat Dirk Nowitzki for a couple games but he looks back on that as a mistake. You said that the league cannot compel anyone about this but from your personal standpoint--and I understand that the Magic have something to play for now in terms of the Lakers--if you were in a position in which you quote unquote have nothing to play for what is your personal philosophy in terms of resting people versus being concerned that they might get rusty and also worrying that key players might get injured?"

Van Gundy: "It goes beyond philosophy. Every situation is going to be different. You may look and say that you have a guy who is very fatigued, which is what I think that Mike Brown did with LeBron--this is a guy who plays huge minutes, takes on a huge role for them, so he needs some time off. Probably a good decision for them, with nothing to play for. Everybody's situation is different; you may have some thoughts as a coach, philosophically, but the bottom line is it's going to come down to specific situations and every one is going to be different."

***

During Indiana Coach Jim O'Brien's pregame standup, I asked him, "From what you've seen of the Magic this year, how would you say that Vince Carter has fit in and how would you compare his role on the team this year to the role that Turkoglu had for them last year?"

Coach O'Brien responded, "I think that being able to get Carter when they knew that they were going to lose Turkoglu was really important. I think that lately Vince does not seem to be shooting the ball in the volumes that he normally does (Carter averaged 18.8 FGA/g in November, dipped all the way to 10.1 FGA/g in January and has averaged just under 13 FGA/g since February). Down the stretch, when you have a new guy who is key--like Carter--coming over to your team, it might take 60 or 70 games to get him totally comfortable with what is going on. I think that it is almost a wash from the standpoint of Turkoglu versus Carter but I would have to give Carter a little bit of an edge because of his total body of work throughout his career and I think that he will be very hungry heading into the playoffs."

***

After the game, I briefly spoke with Howard about the team's offseason personnel changes.

Friedman: "What are some of the similarities and some of the differences of having the ball in Vince Carter's hands in the fourth quarter versus having the ball in Hedo Turkoglu's hands?"

Howard: "They both can score. All we really care about is getting the ball in the basket and playing defense. What will count in the playoffs is having someone like Vince who can finish games (on offense) but who can also play defense."

Friedman: "This will be the first time in 10 years that Vince Carter has not averaged at least 20 ppg. What kind of adjustment has that been for him?"

Howard: "All of us have had to adjust to something. We have a lot of scorers and we understand that. We just have to, as a unit, be able to sacrifice. We sacrifice a lot of different things for the betterment of the team. Vince knew coming in that he didn't have to average 20 points for us to win."

***

Naturally, any analysis of Vince Carter's impact on the Magic would not really be complete without hearing from the man himself. I interviewed Carter after the game.

Friedman: "This is going to be the first season in 10 years that you have not averaged at least 20 ppg. Talk a little bit about the adjustment you had to make--"

Carter: "We're winning."

Friedman: "It's not a difficult adjustment? I've talked to players like Bob McAdoo and Mark Aguirre--players who were big time scorers at one point in their careers before going to championship contending teams, teams that ultimately won championships, and they had to make a certain kind of adjustment and in some cases it is a difficult adjustment to make."

Carter: "It's not for me. I'm all for playing with a great team like this. I'll do whatever I am needed to do--if it's scoring, I'll do it. We have balanced scoring, so that's it. At this point in my career, to go through ups and downs and see different things, I understand what it takes. I see that the teams that win (championships) have more than one go to guy and they work together. This team has done a great job with that. Winning is the most important thing, not scoring."

Friedman: "If you go through a portion of your career shooting 20-25 attempts per game then you know that if you go through a streak when you are missing shots then you can just shoot your way out of it. That is not the case when you are on a team where you get fewer attempts, so isn't that situation more difficult?"

Carter: "Sure. It is. It's tough. I mean, I didn't know what you were going to ask but it is tough. I had a month like that but I think that if you believe in your game then you will shoot your way out of it regardless of the amount of attempts or lack thereof. I just have to make sure that I take good shots and make them count."

Friedman: "A lot of people compare you to Turkoglu even though you are a different size and you play a different position. How do you feel about what your role is on the team?"

Carter: "Great. I feel great. I think what I bring to the table is good enough and I've proven that all year. I have nothing to prove and I could care less what other people say. He's a great player and he did unbelievable things. I sat there in the stands and watched him play in the (2009 Eastern) Conference Finals, but that's not a concern of mine."

Friedman: "You are a player who can shoot the three and who can also drive to the hoop. How do you find the right balance so you don't get too happy with the jump shot? As you know, sometimes people say that you shoot too many fadeaway jumpers."

Carter (emphatically): "I don't care about what anybody says. I am going to play my game."

Friedman: "From your standpoint--"

Carter: "That's what's it. I'm going to play my game. So, it all depends on what is happening. If the jump shot is there, I'm going to take it. If I can go to the basket, I'm going to go. That's what I was asked to do and that's what I'm going to do."

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:30 AM

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