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Friday, April 15, 2011

2010-11 Playoff Predictions

The L.A. Lakers are trying to make a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals, something that has not been accomplished by any team since the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, who won championships in 1984 and 1986; the Lakers are seeking their third title in a row, which has not been done since the 2000-2002 Lakers "three-peated"--and no team has won three titles while making four straight Finals appearances since the 1959-66 Boston Celtics, winners of a record eight consecutive NBA championships (the 1985-88 Lakers captured the 1985, 1987 and 1988 championships but did not make it to the 1986 Finals).

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 Chicago (62-20) vs. #8 Indiana (37-45)

Season series: Chicago, 3-1

Indiana can win if...the Pacers can contain Derrick Rose, avoid getting obliterated in the paint by the Bulls' bigs and consistently score more than 100 ppg versus Chicago's staunch defense.

Chicago will win because...Derrick Rose will be the best player on the court, the Bulls' bigs will outplay Indiana's inexperienced frontcourt and the Pacers will struggle to consistently score more than 90 ppg.

Other things to consider: The Pacers are a young, improving team and they could possibly win one home game in this series but if the Bulls are focused and injury-free they should be able to sweep.

#2 Miami (58-24) vs. #7 Philadelphia (41-41)

Season series: Miami, 3-0

Philadelphia can win if
...Coach Doug Collins finds a time machine and inserts the 1983 versions of Julius Erving and Moses Malone into his starting lineup.

Miami will win because...the Heat have the three best players in the series--LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; the Heat play the same style that the 76ers do but have much better personnel, which makes this a very bad matchup for Philadelphia.

Other things to consider: The Heat should sweep this series; they tend to feast on inferior teams and they have several distinct matchup advantages to exploit. However, the Heat have had some strange lapses during the season and Collins is an excellent coach, so perhaps the 76ers will extend the series by winning a home game.

#3 Boston (56-26) vs. #6 New York (42-40)

Season series: Boston, 4-0

New York can win if...Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire each average more than 25 ppg while shooting a high FG% (over .480 for Anthony and over .520 for Stoudemire) and if the Knicks devote a fraction of the energy and effort they put forth on offense to actually offering some kind of defensive resistance.

Boston will win because...the Celtics are a veteran-laden, championship quality club anchored by multiple future Hall of Famers. The Celtics have some frontcourt health issues but that is not a weakness that the Knicks will likely be able to fully exploit.

Other things to consider: Most of the teams that have given the Celtics trouble in the playoffs in recent seasons are athletic teams that push the pace; the Knicks are a high scoring team but with Chauncey Billups running the point they are not a super athletic, push the pace kind of team. The Knicks may hit the Celtics with a flurry of three pointers during a quarter or even for an entire game but over the course of a series the Celtics will force the Knicks to shoot a low percentage from behind the arc.

Has there ever been a more overhyped team than this year's New York Knicks? Yes, the Heat received too much hype but they eventually earned the second seed in the East and they are legitimate championship contenders. The Knicks have been terrible for the better part of the decade and they seemingly tanked the past couple seasons in order to free up enough cap space to sign LeBron James--who I don't believe ever had the slightest intention of going to New York--but instead they ended up with Amare Stoudemire, who teamed up down the stretch with Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to...drum roll please...lead the Knicks to 42 wins and the sixth seed in a weak Eastern Conference in which two of the playoff teams don't even have winning records. It is mindboggling that Knicks' fans are still grousing about Isiah Thomas while acting as if the current regime has somehow performed a great miracle.

#4 Orlando (52-30) vs. #5 Atlanta (44-38)

Season series: Atlanta, 3-1

Atlanta can win if...the Hawks can single cover Dwight Howard effectively enough to enable their perimeter players to stay at home on Orlando's three point shooters.

Orlando will win because
...it is difficult to believe that the undersized Hawks can effectively single cover Howard for the duration of a playoff series.

Other things to consider: Although the Hawks won the 2011 regular season series with the Magic, the Magic swept the Hawks convincingly in the 2010 playoffs. Both teams have made some roster moves since that playoff series but the Hawks still have an undersized frontcourt that Howard should be able to dominate. I am far from completely sold on the Magic and when they made their two big midseason trades I wrote that those moves did not increase their chances to win a title--but the inconsistent, mercurial Hawks hardly inspire much confidence, either. It would not shock me if the Hawks win this series--I can picture a "Hack a Howard" strategy being used or perhaps a game in which Gilbert Arenas shoots 2-14 from the field--but ultimately the Magic have three significant tangible advantages: they have the best player, they have game seven at home if necessary and they have the best coach. I am not saying that Larry Drew is a bad coach but the Hawks won nine fewer games this season with essentially the same roster that Mike Woodson had in 2009-10--and Stan Van Gundy is a top level coach, perhaps just below the cream of the crop (Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich).

Western Conference First Round

#1 San Antonio Spurs (61-21) vs. #8 Memphis Grizzlies (46-36)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Memphis can win if...Zach Randolph outplays Tim Duncan, the Grizzlies contain the Spurs' three point shooters without exposing themselves to backdoor cuts and the Grizzlies play intelligently and unselfishly at both ends of the court.

San Antonio will win because...they are more talented and deeper than the Grizzlies. The Spurs have a nice blend of championship experience and youthful energy.

Other things to consider: The Spurs may be the most overlooked 60-plus win team ever, particularly considering that their core players have won three championships together since 2003. The Grizzlies apparently wanted this matchup--or at least preferred it to the "option" of playing the Lakers--because they made little effort to win the final few games of the season and move up to the seventh seed. I understand why the Grizzlies did not relish the prospect of facing the two-time defending champions but the old cliche about being careful what you wish for comes to mind. Manu Ginobili's arm injury could be a major X factor later on in the playoffs but the Spurs have enough talent and depth to defeat the Grizzlies even if Ginobili misses some games or performs below par.

#2 L.A. Lakers (57-25) vs. #7 New Orleans (46-36)

Season series: L.A., 4-0

New Orleans can win if...a micro black hole envelops Los Angeles and sucks Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol into a parallel universe.

L.A. will win because...the Hornets have no one who can cover Bryant or Gasol.

Other things to consider: TNT's Kenny Smith says that the Lakers disrespect the NBA and their opponents because of their cockiness and their apparent belief that they can simply flip a switch to instantly be dominant but that is an oversimplification; the Lakers may be cocky or complacent--Lamar Odom publicly said that they are--but people seem to be blithely dismissing how difficult it is to reach the NBA Finals year after year and then finish another season as a top two seed. Kobe Bryant's age/nagging injuries have forced Coach Phil Jackson to limit Bryant's regular season minutes and it should be obvious that five minutes per game less of Bryant explains at least a few of the Lakers' "questionable" losses--not to mention the fact that Bryant hardly practices full speed anymore, which inevitably leads to a lack of sharpness for the team collectively (Bryant used to be a hard driving practice player in all senses of that phrase). Bryant's minutes will increase during the postseason and I suspect that the extra days off will enable him to practice more frequently; those two factors should make the Lakers a more effective, more focused team.

#3 Dallas (57-25) vs. #6 Portland (48-34)

Season series: Tied, 2-2

Portland can win if...the Blazers' wave of versatile defenders is able to slow down Dirk Nowitzki and force him to shoot a low field goal percentage. LaMarcus Aldridge and Gerald Wallace both need to perform at an All-Star level. It would also help if the Blazers can win the battle of AARP point guards (Andre Miller versus Jason Kidd).

Dallas will win because...Nowitzki is the best player in the series and an underrated playoff performer. Tyson Chandler has made the Mavericks a better defensive team and a more physical unit than they used to be. Jason Terry must shoot a good percentage, particularly in the fourth quarters of close games.

Other things to consider: Portland is a chic pick to win this series and the Blazers are this year's proverbial "team that nobody wants to face," a designation that is annually handed out informally to a lower seeded team that some national media members would like to hype up; someone should go through the archives and find out the winning percentages of such teams, because I suspect that most "teams nobody wanted to face" actually did not go particularly far in the postseason (I think that Carmelo Anthony's Nuggets received that title several of the years that they lost in the first round). The Blazers are a very good team and the addition of Gerald Wallace certainly helps them at both ends of the court but they are the sixth seed for good reason--they are not an elite team. The Mavericks have consistently been a better team than the Blazers all season long, they have the best individual player in this series plus home court advantage and I expect the Mavericks to win in six games at the most.

#4 Oklahoma City (55-27) vs. #5 Denver (50-32)

Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1

Denver can win if...the Nuggets' new-found attention to detail defensively enables them to slow down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The frontcourt matchups will also be crucial; the Nuggets must neutralize the Thunder's revamped power forward-center rotation.

Oklahoma City will win because...Kevin Durant is the best player in the series (do you detect a theme in this article regarding playoff matchups?), plus the additions of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed shored up the team's one weakness--a lack of interior size and strength.

Other things to consider: If there is really a team that other teams legitimately don't want to face (other than the obvious choices among the top two or three seeds in each conference) then the Thunder certainly qualify; they are young, athletic and now have enough size to match up with anyone. The only things that could hold them back (in later rounds) are their collective playoff inexperience and, perhaps, if Durant struggles to score efficiently against elite defenses.

It is interesting that after the Nuggets acquired Chauncey Billups the "stat gurus" and national media members agreed that Billups "changed the culture" in Denver (even though the Nuggets had been a 50 win team with Allen Iverson the previous season) but not much is being said about Billups' culture changing impact this season when his new team (the Knicks) has been a .500 squad since he arrived and his old team (the Nuggets) looks tougher, more cohesive and more dangerous than they ever did with Billups. This is yet another example of how similarly biased some "stat gurus" and some media members really are: both groups have axes to grind against Allen Iverson (for various reasons), so when the Pistons floundered and the Nuggets thrived in 2009 several "stat gurus" and various media members fell all over themselves praising Billups and trashing Iverson, completely ignoring the various other factors that contributed to the differing fortunes of those two teams. The nuanced reality--too complicated for a soundbite and not comprehensible to the "stat gurus"--is that Iverson played very well for Denver, Billups also played very well for Denver, the Pistons' collapse cannot be blamed on one player or one trade, the Nuggets became deeper and more defensive-minded after the Anthony trade and Billups' vaunted culture changing abilities cannot magically transform a New York team that has serious defensive liabilities.


I expect the second round matchups to be Chicago-Orlando, Miami-Boston, San Antonio-Oklahoma City and L.A.-Dallas. The Bulls will single cover Howard, smother Orlando's three point shooters and make short work of the Magic. Before the Kendrick Perkins trade I thought that the Celtics had the perfect roster to beat the Heat--Rajon Rondo could exploit the Heat at point guard, while Perkins and the other Celtic bigs could push around the Heat's center by committee. The Celtics have actually been able to get by defensively without Perkins but they miss his toughness and the solid (moving) screens that he set to free up Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The Heat have homecourt advantage and they no doubt gained confidence by routing the Celtics late in the season after losing to them three straight times. Unless LeBron James inexplicably quits, the Heat will beat the Celtics.

The Thunder have the right combination of youth, athleticism and size to cause the Spurs a world of trouble but if the Spurs stay healthy I think that their veteran savvy (plus home court advantage) will enable them to triumph in seven games. There is a perception that the Lakers had a bad/disappointing season but their 57 wins match their total from last year and also from 2008 when they made the first of their three straight trips to the NBA Finals. The Spurs sprinted out to a nearly insurmountable lead in the race for the West's top seed, but the Lakers did just enough after the All-Star break to secure the second seed and earn home court advantage in the second round. The Mavericks have generally had trouble defending Bryant, so--with game seven at home as a trump card if necessary--the Lakers will eliminate Dallas.

Both Conference Finals will be epic. In the East, the likely MVP award winner Derrick Rose and his well balanced, excellently coached Chicago Bulls will square off against Miami's power trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Bulls are an outstanding defensive team, while the Heat have had trouble executing offensively down the stretch in close games, as I described last month: "Henry Abbott's repeated attempts to 'prove' that Kobe Bryant is not a great clutch player look even more ridiculous after nearly a full season of watching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade team up to look like clowns piling out of a car at the circus every time the Heat are in a close game." The "clown car" offense that also transforms Chris Bosh from an All-NBA caliber player to a Horace Grant clone waiting for scraps on the weak side is not going to get the job done versus elite teams in the NBA playoffs; the Heat will not need to win close games in the first round and they have game seven at home versus Boston if necessary but I suspect that we will see the "clown car" offense reemerge at some point versus Chicago. I would have never imagined making this pick before the season began--I expected the Celtics or possibly even the (old look) Magic to knock off the Heat and I did not consider the Bulls a legit contender--but Chicago will delight fans in Cleveland (and many other cities) by defeating Miami.

The Lakers and Spurs have been the teams of the new millennium not just in the West but in the league overall, collectively claiming the 2000-03, 2005, 2007 and 2009-10 NBA championships. The Spurs own home court advantage and they have a deeper roster but the Lakers have Kobe Bryant, who has been a Spurs-killer in several playoff series. The Lakers will win one of the first two games on the road and close out the series in six games.

The NBA Finals will represent a full circle journey for Phil Jackson, who began winning championships two decades ago in Chicago; he will return to the Windy City trying to cap off his coaching career with an unprecedented fourth three-peat. The Bulls will pose many of the same challenges that the Celtics did in the 2010 NBA Finals but ultimately this series will come down to a battle between Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose; Bryant will likely check Rose at least part of the time, while Rose is unlikely to guard Bryant, but both players will score 25-plus ppg while also creating shot opportunities for their teammates. The Lakers will split the first two games in Chicago, take two out of three in L.A. and then win the title in Jackson's old stomping grounds with a game six victory that probably will come down to the final possession. Coach Jackson will leave on top, Kobe Bryant will tie Michael Jordan by winning a sixth championship ring--one more than Magic Johnson but five fewer than Bill Russell--and, unless a lot of progress is made off of the court, this may be the last NBA game we watch for quite some time.


Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:

In my 2010-2011 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I also went five for eight in my 2010-2011 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2010: East 6/8, West 7/8
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 35/48 in the East and 38/48 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .760

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

2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 63/90 (.700)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in six years I have correctly picked eight of the 12 NBA Finals participants (I missed Boston in 2010 and Orlando in 2009, plus I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those six years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I track these results 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 NBA Finals may differ from what I predicted in April--the most obvious example of this is the 2006 playoffs, when neither of my projected Finalists actually made it to the Finals!

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:31 AM


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Selecting NBA Award Winners: The Battle of Stats Versus Storylines Versus Logical Analysis

The 2011 NBA Championship will be determined on the court over the next couple months; during the playoffs, the NBA will periodically announce the winners of various individual honors: media members vote for every award except the All-Defensive Team (selected by NBA head coaches) and the Executive of the Year (chosen by NBA executives in polling conducted by the Sporting News).

Some of the winners are pretty obvious (Blake Griffin seemingly clinched Rookie of the Year back in November), while others may spark controversy. The NBA does not provide much formal guidance concerning the qualifications/standards for these awards, which results in annual debates among people who favor "advanced statistics," people who like good stories and (the few) people who actually at least attempt to inject some logical, objective analysis into the process.

The various "advanced statistics" describe which players performed in a manner most closely conforming to the biases of a particular "stat guru" (some "stat gurus" use formulas that favor rebounding, while others favor scoring or some kind of nebulously defined "efficiency"); people who like good stories frame seasons, teams and players in narrative terms (conveniently disregarding any statistics and/or facts that do not fit the chosen narrative). Both approaches are highly subjective, but don't tell that to an advocate of either method unless you want to be derided for being closed-minded--never mind the fact that legitimate scientific inquiry is based on constantly and relentlessly questioning one's theories, methods and conclusions--or ridiculed for failing to conform to the larger narrative being crafted by various national media members.

I prefer to select award winners based on a logical analysis of all relevant factors, including statistics, observation of games (a heretical act according to at least some "stat gurus") and historical context; using logical analysis does not mean that I am always right or that I have successfully removed any traces of unconscious bias but it does mean that I value being right over being popular and that I have done my best to render unbiased judgments.

Here is my take on the 2010-2011 NBA regular season awards:


1) LeBron James
2) Kobe Bryant
3) Dwight Howard
4) Derrick Rose
5) Dirk Nowitzki

This season's MVP race is perhaps the strangest one in recent memory; the league's best regular season performer will likely not receive the award because he has become unpopular, while the league's most complete player--and the NBA's greatest winner of the post-Michael Jordan era--is being treated as an MVP afterthought even though he has put his team in position to reach the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season, something that has not been accomplished since the 1984-87 Celtics.

I refuse to accept the popular notion that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant should be considered mere footnotes in the 2011 MVP discussion--but this is hardly the first time that I have bucked conventional wisdom on this subject; I disagree with many previous MVP selections. Forget the MVPs that voters robbed from Michael Jordan in order to fill the trophy cases of Charles Barkley and Karl Malone and just look at the past decade: the first part of the post-Michael Jordan era featured two dominant low post players--Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan--who combined to lead their respective teams to six out of seven NBA championships between 1999 and 2005 and who should have combined to win all seven MVPs during that time frame (Duncan actually won two MVPs, while O'Neal inexplicably only received one MVP). As O'Neal and Duncan became less physically dominant, Kobe Bryant completed his emergence as the league's best and most complete all-around player--a devastating scorer who could also rebound, pass and defend at an elite level; Bryant should have won the 2006, 2007 and 2008 MVPs but he only won the 2008 award.

Bryant appeared to be on track to earn the 2009 NBA MVP until LeBron James moved past Bryant in the final weeks of that season. This is what I wrote in my analysis of the 2009 MVP race:

Until March, I continued to maintain the opinion that I have had since last season, namely that Bryant's complete skill set slightly trumps James' powerful athleticism and improving--but still incomplete--skill set. However, in March, James led the Cavs to a 16-1 record while averaging 28.2 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 8.4 apg; he shot .472 from the field, .386 from three point range and .759 from the free throw line. Bryant's Lakers went 10-5 in March as he averaged 25.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 4.6 apg while shooting .432 from the field, .338 from three point range and .840 from the free throw line. Bryant's skill set is still more complete than James' is and James' inability to consistently make midrange jumpers could be a factor in the postseason but in a close MVP race James has to get the nod on the basis of outperforming Bryant down the stretch as the Cavs wrested the best record in the league from the Lakers.

James similarly outperformed Bryant during the 2010 regular season--by a slightly greater margin than in 2009--though it is worth remembering that Bryant led the L.A. Lakers to championships in both seasons, twice earning the Finals MVP.

In the wake of James' infamous "Decision" we are supposed to believe--for statistical and/or storyline reasons--that he should no longer be considered an MVP candidate. While it is true that the pairing of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade alongside All-NBA caliber power forward Chris Bosh has demonstrated the absurdity of the "stat guru"-fueled notions regarding the value of James and Wade--namely that they are supposedly by far the league's two best players and thus would lead Miami to something like 90 wins in an 82 game season--it is ridiculous to assert that James has somehow disqualified himself from the MVP race.

James is a terrifying combination of speed and power, particularly in open court situations. He is an excellent rebounder, passer and defender. His only skill set weaknesses are midrange shooting and, to a lesser extent, free throw and three point shooting. James clearly established himself as the Heat's best player, leading the team in minutes, scoring, steals and assists while placing second in rebounding. James shot a career-high .510 from the field, better than any Heat player except for some members of their center by committee who rarely shoot and generally only take close range shots. The biggest strike against James' MVP candidacy is that he did not perform particularly well in late game situations but such situations invariably comprise a small sample size with a lot of variance; the larger reality is that James was clearly the best player on the team that earned the second seed in the East.

Bryant has demonstrated a greater ability than LeBron James to successfully help his team navigate choppy playoff waters but Bryant's declining minutes and James' youthful energy/athleticism have enabled James to surpass Bryant as a regular season player; we are no longer seeing the Kobe Bryant who could run off a streak of multiple 40 or 50 point games, either because Bryant cannot do that anymore or because the required energy expenditure/physical wear and tear would exact too high of a cost come playoff time. The Kobe Bryant of 2006-08 would have lifted the 2011 Lakers to 65 wins simply by exploding for huge scoring totals on the nights that Pau Gasol and the other Laker bigs trotted (Jeff Van Gundy's term) up and down the court instead of sprinting and the nights that the Lakers' bench squandered leads or turned small deficits into insurmountable margins. James has surpassed Bryant in terms of regular season impact--but even in Bryant's relatively reduced regular season role I'd still take him over any player in the league other than James.

I will not be surprised if some MVP voters leave Kobe Bryant's name off of their five man ballots; Bryant only received one of the three MVPs that he deserved, so now that his numbers are reduced and his contributions are subtler it is easy to ignore his value. The balky right knee that will likely shorten Bryant's career convinced Lakers Coach Phil Jackson to reduce Bryant's playing time to 33.9 mpg, Bryant's lowest average since his second season; that is why Bryant's per game averages have dipped but it should be emphasized that his per minute productivity is still essentially the same: in fact, Bryant posted his highest points per minute average since the 2006-07 season when he won the second of his two scoring titles. The Lakers cost themselves some wins by keeping Bryant off of the court but the 400 or so minutes of wear and tear that this conserved (plus an even more drastic reduction of his time on the practice court) should pay dividends in the postseason. I expect Bryant to average around 38 mpg in the playoffs and five extra minutes of Bryant in each game should keep most games close enough for Bryant to save the day at the end. I still insist that Being a Clutch Player is More Significant than Just Making Clutch Shots but it is worth remembering that Bryant hit six game-winning shots in 2009-10 and that proved to be the difference between capturing the Western Conference's number one seed and dropping to the sixth seed; the extra time that Bryant sat out this season meant that some games were too far gone in the fourth quarter for Bryant to have a realistic chance to bring the Lakers back but despite their inconsistent bench they still managed to grab the second seed in the very tough Western Conference--after Bryant logged 38 minutes in a 116-108 overtime victory against Sacramento in which he poured in a game-high 36 points on 13-24 field goal shooting, grabbed nine rebounds, dished off six assists and had just two turnovers; Bryant nailed the three pointer that sent the game into overtime and he scored or assisted on seven of their first nine points in the extra session. From a skill set standpoint, Bryant could have done that in several other games this season and dragged the Lakers to the number one overall seed, but Coach Jackson correctly decided that he would rather have Bryant save those heroics for late April, May and June; if everything goes according to that plan, Bryant will receive a third Finals MVP as a "consolation prize" for sacrificing a real shot at winning the regular season MVP. In an era in which players routinely sit out for minor injuries, Bryant played in all 82 games for the third time in the past four seasons--and even a sprained ankle that he called the scariest injury of his career did not sideline him.

Derrick Rose is going to win the regular season MVP and the voting probably will not be close. Derrick Rose's story--a humble young man leading his hometown team to the best record in the NBA--is more appealing than LeBron James' story, particularly if it is true that during last summer's free agency drama Rose essentially told James that James could either become part of the Bulls' future success or else the Bulls would beat whichever team James decided to join; Rose lacks arrogance but he certainly has an abundance of well-founded confidence. Kevin Durant's story--a humble young man who quietly stayed with a small market team instead of focusing on "building his brand"--is also more appealing than LeBron James' story. I understand why the media tried to hand the MVP to Durant before this season began and I understand why the media is trying to hand the MVP to Rose now; I just do not believe that Rose or Durant are better, more complete or more dominant players than LeBron James.

Rose is a tremendous player and he has definitely taken the mantle of best 6-5 and under player from Dwyane Wade, thus earning a spot on the All-NBA First Team, but the 6-3 Rose simply does not threaten defenses the way that the 6-8 runaway locomotive LeBron James does or the way that Bryant does with his exquisite footwork/ability to make any shot from any distance--and at the other end of the court, James can guard any player in the league from point guard to power forward (and even some centers), while Bryant can lock down most point guards, shooting guards or small forwards; in contrast, Rose has improved defensively but he can only guard two positions at most and cannot yet be considered an elite individual defender.

Frankly, considering the way that James handled his free agency process and the way that he arrogantly pranced around last summer while talking about winning five, six, seven or more championships--an outrageous statement to make in the wake of blatantly quitting in the 2010 playoffs versus the Boston Celtics--I can honestly say that part of me would much rather see Derrick Rose win the MVP than to see James capture his third straight MVP trophy; however, it would be disingenuous to let those personal feelings prevent me from analyzing this year's MVP race by the same standards that I have always analyzed MVP races: I have consistently said that the MVP should go to the best, most consistent all-around player in the league, with the only exception being if there is a dominant big man whose overall impact cancels out certain skill set weaknesses (the way that Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Shaquille O'Neal ruled the league in their primes despite being poor free throw shooters). Rose is currently the fourth best player in the NBA, trailing James, Bryant and Dwight Howard, the league's most dominant big man.

I cannot place Howard above James or Bryant--big wing players who can play multiple positions and who impact the game at both ends of the court--but I still would take him over anyone else in the NBA. Howard is a monster defensively and on the boards and he has made great strides with his offensive footwork/post moves. What he has not shown is the inclination and/or ability to dominate offensively for significant stretches of time--in the regular season or the playoffs--by averaging 28-30 ppg like Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon did in their prime, championship-winning years; Howard needs to demand the ball the way that those guys did, particularly now that he has the ability to do more on the low post than just dunk off of alley-oop passes. I believe that Howard could lead an average supporting cast to 50 wins (one could argue that he did just that this season, because the Magic currently have no true backup center, no good wing defenders and a lack of overall depth) but I think that "small" players like Rose, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul could not do likewise; Rose's Bulls are deep and well balanced (which enabled them to overcome some injury problems), Wade presided over one of the worst collapses ever by a championship team and Paul's supporting casts are routinely underrated by media members and "stat gurus" who annually try to force his name into MVP consideration (Paul is a great player and at one time he was the league's best point guard but he has never been the best player in the league).

Dirk Nowitzki rounds out my top five. Nowitzki posted the highest field goal percentage of his career and has done an excellent job leading the Dallas Mavericks to the third seed in the West. His rebounding average declined for the sixth straight year but that is hardly surprising for a 32 year old who has played nearly 1000 regular season games, not to mention the fact that he plays alongside a point guard who is very active on the glass (Jason Kidd) plus a center who is a defensive and rebounding specialist (Tyson Chandler). Nowitzki's rebounding tends to increase during the playoffs and that will probably be the case this season as well. I give the nod to Nowitzki over Kevin Durant because the number one skill set area for both players is shooting and Nowitzki easily outdistanced Durant in field goal percentage and three point field goal percentage while nearly matching him in free throw percentage; another tiebreaker is that I know that Nowitzki can be a highly productive performer against elite teams but Durant has yet to prove that he can do that consistently (just think back to the first round of the 2010 playoffs, when Ron Artest harassed Durant into some very low percentage shooting).

Rookie of the Year

1) Blake Griffin
2) John Wall
3) DeMarcus Cousins

Griffin is the gold standard among this year's rookies and he should join Ralph Sampson (1984) and David Robinson (1990) as the only unanimous winners of this award since 1984. Griffin made the All-Star team and will likely receive consideration for the All-NBA Team as well. Griffin's playing style reminds me a bit of a younger LeBron James: Griffin is breathtakingly explosive but he also has a high basketball IQ and an on-court maturity that belies his age. Like a younger James, Griffin still does not fully understand how to be an effective defensive player in the NBA, nor has he completely figured out how to use his individual skills to greatly increase his team's win total: despite all of the justified hysteria about Griffin's highlights and individual productivity, the L.A. Clippers barely won more games this season than they did in 2009-10.

Similarly, John Wall made some flashy moves and posted good individual numbers but his team showed no tangible improvement collectively (the Washington Wizards actually have a worse record this season than they did last season). Wall scores, passes, rebounds and amasses steals but he still does not really understand how to run a team or how to play efficiently. Wall was the second best rookie and yet both the NBA and the NCAA would be better off if players like Wall spent more time in college instead of jumping so quickly into the professional ranks; early entry at least partially explains why a team shoots less than .200 from the field in the NCAA Championship Game and why two NBA rookies who would have been consensus All-Americans cannot even come close to leading their respective NBA teams to .500 records.

DeMarcus Cousins' talent is matched--and limited--only by his immaturity. He could turn into a great NBA player or he could become someone who 10 years from now is discussed only in terms of wasted potential. When I watch Cousins I think of Derrick Coleman; Charles Barkley once said that the first time he saw Derrick Coleman play he thought that the game was over and that Coleman would be the next dominant player in the NBA. Coleman had a solid NBA career but never truly became a great player. Greatness is there for the taking if only Cousins develops the wisdom and maturity to maximize his talents.

Defensive Player of the Year

1) Dwight Howard
2) LeBron James
3) Kevin Garnett

Dwight Howard has been a landslide winner two years in a row and he should be a unanimous selection this season; he is surrounded by defensive sieves and yet collectively the Orlando Magic are a good defensive team.

LeBron James gets too much credit for "chase down" blocked shots (he totaled just 50 blocks this season, tied for 69th in the league) but not enough credit for his ability to guard multiple positions and for the way he uses his size, length and speed to disrupt the opposing team's offense.

Kevin Garnett seems healthier than he did last season and he thus had a more significant impact defensively, once again anchoring the Boston Celtics' attack at that end of the court.

Sixth Man of the Year

1) Jason Terry
2) Lamar Odom
3) Jamal Crawford

Lamar Odom is almost certainly going to win this award, even though he started nearly half of his team's games and even though he was not the league's most effective reserve (for some reason, people insist on looking at his total statistics without considering that he padded his numbers by starting so many games); Odom's numbers as a reserve (13.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, .494 FG%) are much worse than his numbers as a starter (16.3 ppg, 10.2 rpg, .573 FG%).

Jason Terry only started 10 games this season and he has been a major fourth quarter scoring threat for the Dallas Mavericks. Terry should win the Sixth Man Award, with Odom placing second in a thin field; Odom did not start enough games to be disqualified in this category and there is not exactly a plethora of candidates from whom to choose: Manu Ginobili--an annual contender for this honor--became a full-time starter this season, while 2010 winner Jamal Crawford (who gets my third place nod) scored less and shot worse this season than he did last year.

Since Odom is likely going to be a landslide winner of this award, it is worthwhile to debunk some myths about him. He is supposedly playing much better this season in the wake of his contributions to Team USA's victory in the FIBA World Championship but the reality is that Odom is producing around his career norms in most categories except for field goal percentage (he shot above .500 for just the second time in his 12 year career, in no small part because he is attempting fewer three pointers while also connecting on a better than usual percentage from behind the arc). Odom may be the most overrated--or at least "over talked about" (to coin a phrase)--player in the NBA: he has never made the All-NBA or All-Star team (for good reason) yet he is often referred to as one of the league's top 25 players and/or someone who supposedly could start for most teams in the NBA (even Jeff Van Gundy, who is usually right on target with his player evaluations, uttered the latter phrase during a recent telecast). Instead of tossing off a throwaway line without thinking about it, let's look at the starting power forwards for this season's playoff teams:

Western Conference

San Antonio: Two-time NBA MVP, three-time Finals MVP, 13-time All-NBA selection, 13-time All-Star Tim Duncan
L.A. Lakers: Two-time All-NBA selection, four-time All-Star Pau Gasol
Dallas: One-time NBA MVP, 10-time All-NBA selection, 10-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki
Oklahoma City: Serge Ibaka
Denver: One-time All-Star Kenyon Martin
Portland: LaMarcus Aldridge
Memphis: One-time All-Star Zach Randolph
New Orleans: Two-time All-Star David West

Eastern Conference

Chicago: One-time All-NBA selection, two-time All-Star Carlos Boozer
Miami: One-time All-NBA selection, six-time All-Star Chris Bosh
Boston: One-time NBA MVP, one-time Defensive Player of the Year, nine-time All-NBA selection, 14-time All-Star Kevin Garnett
Orlando: Brandon Bass
Atlanta: One-time All-Defensive selection Josh Smith
New York: Four-time All-NBA selection, six-time All-Star Amare Stoudemire
Philadelphia: One-time All-NBA selection, two-time All-Star Elton Brand
Indiana: Tyler Hansbrough

The only Western Conference playoff team that Odom would clearly start for is Denver. One could make a case that he'd start for Oklahoma City but I'd take Ibaka's size and shotblocking over Odom's abilities as a lanky rebounder. Odom would start for the Hornets now, but only because West is injured. The only Eastern Conference playoff teams that Odom would clearly start for are Orlando and Indiana. Odom could start for the Knicks if Stoudemire played center but that would make the Knicks undersized.

It's not like Odom would automatically start for any non-playoff team, either: Blake Griffin (L.A. Clippers), Kevin Love (Minnesota) and Luis Scola (Houston) would clearly start ahead of Odom.

Odom is a very solid third option for the Lakers and his primary skill set strength is rebounding; he has carved out a nice niche for himself as a valuable contributor on two championship teams but I will never understand why some people try to elevate Odom's status to All-Star or All-NBA level when it should be blatantly obvious that he is not that good.

Most Improved Player

1) Kevin Love
2) LaMarcus Aldridge
3) Dorell Wright

Kevin Love went from being a guy who barely played for Team USA in the FIBA World Championship to leading the NBA in rebounding while averaging more than 20 ppg and amassing the most consecutive double doubles since Moses Malone patrolled the paint for the Houston Rockets. Love probably still is not as good of a FIBA player as Tyson Chandler, Chris Bosh or Lamar Odom but he seems poised to become a perennial NBA All-Star.

LaMarcus Aldridge became Portland's primary offensive threat after injuries felled Brandon Roy and Aldridge responded by posting career-high numbers in scoring, rebounding and free throw percentage. He added some bulk and became a much more effective low post player.

Love and Aldridge were both lottery picks, while Dorell Wright was a late first round selection who blossomed in his seventh NBA season, emerging as a starter in Golden State after spending most of the early part of his career as a bench player for the Miami Heat.

Coach of the Year

1) Doug Collins
2) Tom Thibodeau
3) Nate McMillan

In general, it is easier to improve a team from the 20 win range to the 40 win range than to guide a team from the 40 win range to the 60 win range; all other factors being equal, what Tom Thibodeau accomplished in Chicago would be more impressive than what Doug Collins accomplished in Philadelphia--but all other factors are not equal: Collins' Philadelphia roster is essentially unchanged, while the Bulls made several key acquisitions, including Carlos Boozer, Ronnie Brewer, Keith Bogans and Kyle Korver. One of the many fallacious "stat guru" credos is that coaching does not matter but Collins' career strongly suggests otherwise: he has led teams to double digit win increases in his first season with Chicago (1987), Detroit (1996), Washington (2002) and now Philadelphia. Michael Jordan's famous quote (in response to criticisms that he did not make his teammates better to the extent that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson did) is true--one cannot make chicken salad out of chicken bleep--but some coaches are able to make good chicken salad with the right ingredients while other coaches cannot make a palatable meal with those same ingredients.

Thibodeau's Bulls have completely bought into his defensive system but a lesser reported story is that the Bulls also run some of the same offensive sets that the Celtics profitably employ; during the playoffs, watch how effectively the Bulls use multiple screening actions and sharp big to big passes to get layups and dunks--and those same actions also can lead to open jumpers for Luol Deng or Kyle Korver (much like Boston creates air space for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen).

The Portland Trailblazers lost Greg Oden to injury (again) and had to remake their team's pecking order on the fly after knee injuries transformed Brandon Roy from an All-Star to a role player but Nate McMillan still guided them to the sixth seed in the West.

NBA coaches are generally underrated collectively but this season there have been an exceptional number of coaches who performed very well. Gregg Popovich incorporated the best aspects of fast paced offense/reliance on three point shooting into the Spurs' repertoire without completely sacrificing their defensive identity. George Karl helped the Nuggets survive months of "Melo drama" and then led his new-look team to the fifth seed. Phil Jackson's Lakers battled injuries and complacency to finish with the fourth best record in the league, just one game behind a Miami team that many people predicted would win 70 or more games. Monty Williams improved the Hornets' defense and lifted them to a playoff berth.

Executive of the Year

1) Pat Riley
2) Gar Forman
3) Sam Presti

Pat Riley pulled off something that no one thought was possible until it happened: he signed three max level players last summer at a time when most teams were straining to figure out how to obtain two such players--and I wish that people would stop saying that the Heat have "two and a half" great players: while it is true that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are a level above Chris Bosh, Bosh's pre-Heat career is much more impressive than Pau Gasol's pre-Laker career and Gregg Popovich literally called for an investigation when Mitch Kupchak brought in Gasol to play with Bryant. If Bosh had not joined the Heat there are many other teams that would have gladly signed him to be their franchise player. No executive had a bigger impact on his team--or the very face of the league (the Heat's triple signing had a ripple effect that inspired other moves and may lead to a lockout-induced restructuring of the Collective Bargaining Agreement)--than Riley.

Many NBA fans probably don't even know who Gar Forman is but he quietly made several masterful moves: he hired Tom Thibodeau and then he bolstered the Bulls' roster with several quality players, only one of whom (Carlos Boozer) even remotely qualifies as a big name. The Heat are trying to overwhelm the league with star power while the Bulls are built around one superstar, a defensive-minded coach and a very well balanced, deep roster.

Sam Presti's Oklahoma City Thunder were considered a team on the rise prior to this season; they obviously did not need a major overhaul but Presti improved the Thunder's size and toughness by acquiring Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. Riley's moves made the most waves and Forman's moves helped the Bulls post the league's best record but it may yet turn out that Presti's team wins a title before the Heat or Bulls do.

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

All-NBA Second Team
G Dwyane Wade
G Russell Westbrook
C Amare Stoudemire
F Kevin Durant
F LaMarcus Aldridge

All-NBA Third Team
G Tony Parker
G Chris Paul
C Pau Gasol
F Kevin Love
F Blake Griffin

The First Team will probably be pretty close to consensus choices; voters who are overly influenced by "advanced statistics" will foolishly favor Wade (the second best player on the East's second seeded team) over Bryant (clearly the best player on the West's second seeded team) but I think that Bryant will make the First Team (possibly for the last time).

Every year, the question of what to do with the center position on the Second and Third Teams becomes more difficult (barring injury, we can expect to write in Dwight Howard on the First Team for the next several seasons). There just are not that many great true centers and many teams use their centers and power forwards almost interchangeably. Amare Stoudemire and Pau Gasol are natural power forwards but they both frequently started at center this season and they are more deserving of All-NBA honors than any of the league's full-time centers other than Howard.

Kevin Love may be considered a controversial choice but the league's rebounding champion deserves a spot on the All-NBA Team in most instances and Love is not a one dimensional player: he scores both in the paint and from behind the three point arc and he is a good passer. TNT's Kenny Smith says that sometimes it is hard to tell if players on bad teams are just "looters in a riot"--i.e., putting up numbers in a chaotic situation--but I don't think that Love is "looting."

It would be easy to pencil in the high-scoring Carmelo Anthony but the Nuggets are thriving without him while the Knicks have only been mediocre with him, so Blake Griffin earns the final forward slot.

All-Defensive First Team

G Rajon Rondo
G Kobe Bryant
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Kevin Garnett

All-Defensive Second Team

G Thabo Sefolosha
G Grant Hill
C Tyson Chandler
F Tim Duncan
F Gerald Wallace

This is the only award that is selected by the league's head coaches. In each of the past three years, I chose eight of the 10 All-Defensive players who were ultimately honored by the coaches but it will be difficult to match that feat this season because there are many candidates who are equally worthy.

Dwight Howard and Tyson Chandler are the obvious choices at center and I think that Kevin Garnett regained his status as a top notch defender (even if he is not as good as he was back in 2008 when the Celtics won the championship). I know that the "stat gurus" will be outraged to see Kobe Bryant's name mentioned at all but Bryant is the vocal leader for the Lakers' defense and--despite his advancing age and creaky right knee--he often has to check opposing point guards because Derek Fisher has seemingly lost all of his lateral mobility. I suspect that the coaches may put Bryant on the Second Team this year, ending his run of five straight First Team selections.

Rajon Rondo had an up and down season overall but he is an excellent defender who is willing and able to guard much bigger opponents, even including LeBron James.

The positional designations will probably be stretched more this season than ever before; I put Grant Hill at point guard because he almost always defends the point guard even though he is nominally a small forward.

Thabo Sefolosha is a nightmare with his long arms and quick feet; he gives Kobe Bryant fits at times.

Tim Duncan is not as mobile or dominant as he used to be but he is still the anchor of San Antonio's defense and his work at that end of the court is a major reason that the Spurs posted the best record in the West.

Luol Deng may get the nod from the coaches over Gerald Wallace or Hill but Hill is a more versatile defender than Deng while Wallace is more athletic than either of them. Joakim Noah deserves serious consideration and Andrew Bynum will probably get some votes, though I don't think that someone who plays half a season (and really was only dominant for 15-20 games) should be chosen ahead of players who are more durable.

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

Blake Griffin
John Wall
DeMarcus Cousins
Landry Fields
Gary Neal

All-Rookie Second Team

Greg Monroe
Jordan Crawford
Wesley Johnson
Ed Davis
Derrick Favors

The first four choices are obvious. I gave Gary Neal the First Team nod because he is a key rotation player for a championship contending team.

The Second Team was harder to select. Only eight rookies averaged at least 24 mpg this season--down from 11 in 2010 and 15 in 2009--and that includes Jordan Crawford, who appeared in just 42 games. Crawford put up big numbers in March and April after hardly playing for most of the season; he may be a "looter in a riot" for the sorry Wizards or he may be a star in the making but he at least earned a Second Team selection in a thin rookie class. Greg Monroe, Wesley Johnson, Ed Davis and Derrick Favors likewise may just be "looters" on bad teams, though one hopes that they will eventually prove to be solid contributors on good teams. I am sure that fans of various franchises believe that "their" rookie deserves mention over one or more of my Second Team selections--and those fans may even be right, because after the first five rookies plus Crawford's great two months it is very hard to choose from the next batch of first year players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:49 AM