2011-12 Playoff Predictions
It should not surprise anyone that the truncated yet overstuffed 66 game post-lockout schedule resulted in a surplus of injuries, a lot of ugly, inefficient basketball
and a huge amount of variance: a team could get blown out one night and then win in a blowout the next night (particularly if the opposing team was resting exhausted and/or injured starters). It is understandable why San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich rested his stars on several occasions--and no one can argue with the results, as his team is healthy, rested and the proud owners of the West's top seed--but if you only had the time and/or money to go to one NBA game this season and it happened to be one of the games in which the Spurs' stars did not play then you paid full price for a subpar product.
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 (50-16) vs. #8 Philadelphia (35-31)
Season series: Chicago, 2-1
Philadelphia can win if
...the 76ers limit their turnovers (something that they did quite well during the regular season), shoot a high percentage from the field against Chicago's staunch defense and contain Derrick Rose's dribble penetration.
Chicago will win because
...the Bulls are a deeper, more talented and more physical team.
Other things to consider:
It is far from clear that Rose will be 100% healthy during this series but the Bulls should be able to prevail even if he does not play at his highest level.
#2 Miami (46-20) vs. #7 New York (36-30)
Season series: Miami, 3-0
New York can win if
...Carmelo Anthony goes nuts (averaging 30-plus ppg while shooting better than .500 from the field), Amare Stoudemire provides solid play (roughly 18 ppg and 9 rpg), Tyson Chandler deters Miami's perimeter players from driving into the paint and the Knicks get excellent play from J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Steve Novak.
Miami will win because
...the Heat have a more talented team and the Heat are more consistent defensively. This kind of first round mismatch is the type of series in which LeBron James excels.
Other things to consider
: The Knicks went through various different incarnations this season but in the end they are exactly who I predicted that they would be:
a low seeded team that is being touted by some so-called experts as the proverbial "team no one wants to face." Why wouldn't Miami (or Chicago) want to face an inconsistent team that does not always play hard? Some of the individual games in this series may be close but the ultimate outcome of the series will never be in doubt.
#3 Indiana (42-24) vs. #6 Orlando (37-29)
Season series: Orlando, 3-1
Orlando can win if
...the Magic's three point shooters set every conceivable NBA playoff record for long distance proficiency and Coach Stan Van Gundy magically turns a bunch of subpar defenders into a cohesive defensive unit.
Indiana will win because
...the Pacers are deep, talented and focused. Their perimeter defenders will shut down Orlando's three point shooters, while Roy Hibbert and the other Pacer bigs will dominate the paint.
Other things to consider
: The bottom line for this series is "No Howard, no hope." If Orlando had a healthy Dwight Howard then the Magic would have at least a puncher's chance but without Howard this series looks like it could be the only first round sweep.
#4 Boston (39-27) vs. #5 Atlanta (40-26)
Season series: Boston, 2-1
Atlanta can win if
...the Hawks play focused, disciplined half court basketball: attack the paint on offense instead of settling for jump shots and force the Celtics to take contested two point jump shots.
Boston will win because
...the Celtics rested their key players down the stretch of the regular season in order to try to make one last deep playoff run. I don't think that they will quite pull that off but I also don't think that they will bow out in the first round.
Other things to consider
: This looks like the strangest and most competitive first round matchup. It is strange because the Celtics are nominally the fourth seed by virtue of being the Atlantic Division champions but the Hawks have home court advantage because they posted the better won/loss record; I expect it to be competitive because the teams are very evenly matched and the Hawks proved capable of challenging the Celtics even back when Boston's Big Three were playing championship caliber basketball. Rajon Rondo's all-around game, Paul Pierce's clutch late game shooting and Kevin Garnett's defense/rebounding should be just enough to enable the Celtics to prevail in what could turn out to be a classic seven game slugfest.
Western Conference First Round
#1 San Antonio (50-16) vs. #8 Utah (36-30)
Season series: San Antonio, 3-1
Utah can win if
...the Jazz punish the Spurs in the paint with their young, physical frontcourt.
San Antonio will win because
...the Spurs seemingly coasted through the regular season and still posted a dominant record, which means that the Spurs are far more talented and far deeper than most people realized.
Other things to consider
: Tim Duncan's per game averages have declined over the past several years as his mpg averages have gradually been trimmed from 40-plus to the high 20s but his per minute production has been remarkably consistent, which suggests that a healthy and rested Duncan is capable of providing 20-10 production if necessary; he may not be able to do that every night but a few such eruptions per series could be a decisive advantage for the Spurs.
#2 Oklahoma City (47-19) vs. #7 Dallas (36-30)
Season series: Oklahoma City, 3-1
Dallas can win if
...Dirk Nowitzki has a flashback to the 2011 NBA Finals and proves to be the best player in the series and if the Mavericks force Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to shoot well below their regular season field goal percentages.
Oklahoma City will win because
...the younger, more energetic Thunder will come at the Mavericks in waves and the Mavericks will not be able to keep up.
Other things to consider
: An important X factor for this series is James Harden's health. Yes, he has been cleared to play in the wake of the concussion-inducing Metta World Peace elbow but there is no way to predict how effective Harden will be; the aftereffects of a concussion can linger for quite some time. Also, the Thunder fell into a weird funk near the end of the season and coughed up the number one seed to the Spurs even though the Spurs were resting players and hardly seemed to be chasing the top spot. The Mavericks have looked like a one and done team--at best--all season long but it is not out of the realm of possibility that they could peak just as the Thunder are descending. I don't expect that to happen but I am not quite as confident about the Thunder now as I was a month or so ago.
#3 L.A. Lakers (41-25) vs. #6 Denver (38-28)
Season series: L.A., 3-1
Denver can win if
...the Nuggets use a small lineup to exploit the Lakers in transition and in pick and roll sets (in the halfcourt), taking their cue from the way that the Mavericks dismantled the Lakers in last year's playoffs.
L.A. will win because
...Kobe Bryant essentially gave up the scoring title to be fully rested for this series. The Lakers need for Bryant to score 28-30 ppg while shooting .450-plus from the field; I don't think that he can sustain that pace for a long playoff run at this stage of his career but he should be able to do this for at least one round. If Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol run the floor and post up aggressively then they should be able to obtain high percentage shots; it will also be vitally important for the Lakers that both big men are very engaged and active defensively.
Other things to consider
: The seeding suggests mismatch but a glance at the standings shows only a three game difference between these teams--and the Nuggets actually have the better point differential, 2.9 to 1.4. The Nuggets are deeper, younger and more athletic than the Lakers, so this matchup has more than a slight whiff of upset in the air. If Bryant is not able to score a lot of points efficiently then the Lakers will be very vulnerable. The Lakers need for Ramon Sessions to create high percentage shots for himself and his teammates while also providing a defensive presence so that Bryant does not have to expend energy chasing around the Nuggets' point guards. The suspension-induced absence of Metta World Peace will increase Bryant's workload at both ends of the court because I suspect that Coach Mike Brown will elevate Bryant's minutes (by using Bryant at small forward in some lineups) in lieu of expanding his rotation to include young, untested players.
#4 Memphis (41-25) vs. #5 L.A.Clippers (40-26)
Season series: L.A. Clippers, 2-1
L.A. can win if
...Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the two best players on the court and the Clippers play defense with the same kind of exuberance they display after a "Lob City" dunk.
Memphis will win because
...the Grizzlies are a physical, tough team that is well built for the playoffs; they can score in the half court but they are also capable of forcing turnovers and scoring in transition.
Other things to consider
: I generally scoff at the "team that nobody wants to face" cliche but Memphis is one team about which this is probably true; the Grizzlies worked their way up to the fourth seed despite losing Zach Randolph for more than half the season due to injury and thus should really be looked at as a third seed caliber team or possibly even a second seed caliber team.
In contrast, the Clippers are an overhyped team, much like the New York Knicks; the Clippers went 14-6 with Chauncey Billups in the lineup but they were just 26-20 in the games he missed (and Billups will not return to action this season due to a ruptured Achilles tendon). I had my doubts about the Clippers even with Billups because I did not believe that a team could be a legitimate contender with a starting backcourt measuring 6-0 and 6-3; I expected that Billups would become worn down from having to play against 6-6/6-7 shooting guards on a nightly basis (and perhaps that wear and tear contributed, at least in a small way, to his injury) but without Billups on the court the team lost a lot of leadership and focus. Paul likes to have the ball in his hands all of the time but this physical Memphis team will likely wear him down over the course of the series; look for Paul to have one or two big games early but to be pretty spent by the end of the series when the Grizzlies finally close out the Clippers.
I expect the second round matchups to be Chicago-Boston, Miami-Indiana, San Antonio-Memphis and Oklahoma City-L.A. The Celtics will expend a lot of energy to get past the Hawks and will not have enough left in the tank to deal with the Bulls. The Pacers could pose some interesting challenges for the Heat because they have several tough wing defenders to match up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade but the Heat will ultimately prevail in that matchup. The Spurs will no doubt enjoy the opportunity to have a rematch against the team that beat them in the first round of the 2011 playoffs; if the Spurs remain healthy then I expect them to get their revenge. It will take all that Kobe Bryant has to push, pull and drag the Lakers past the Nuggets and I don't expect the Lakers to be able to offer much resistance against the Thunder.
Derrick Rose's health will be key in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls are deeper and more experienced than they were last year, so if Rose is anywhere close to 100% then I expect Chicago to beat Miami. All season long I thought that Oklahoma City would win the West but now I think that the Spurs--with game seven at home in their back pockets if necessary--will take out the Thunder.
If Michael Jordan had not retired in 1999 then we may have seen a Chicago-San Antonio NBA Finals after that lockout-shortened season, with the experienced Jordan going against a young Tim Duncan. I expect that the lockout shortened 2012 season will conclude with an older Tim Duncan claiming his fifth championship by defeating young Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in a seven game NBA Finals; the Derrick Rose-Tony Parker matchup could turn out to be a draw (or close to it) and the difference could well be a turn back the clock performance by Duncan, who may use the energy he conserved during the regular season to post a few vintage 20-10 games and seize his fourth Finals MVP.
Here is a summary of the results of my previous predictions both for playoff qualifiers and for the outcomes of playoff series:
In my 2011-2012 Eastern Conference Preview
I correctly picked all eight of this season's playoff teams and I went seven for eight in my 2011-2012 Western Conference Preview
. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2011: East 5/8, West 5/8
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 43/56 in the East and 45/56 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .786.
Here is my record in terms of picking the results of playoff series:
Total: 73/105 (.695)
At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past seven years I have correctly picked eight of the 14 NBA Finals participants (I missed both teams in 2011, I missed Boston in 2010 and Orlando in 2009 and I missed both Miami and Dallas in 2006). In three of those seven 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.
Labels: Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers, LeBron James, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs
posted by David Friedman @ 8:22 AM
Selecting the 2012 Award Winners
Over the course of the next several weeks, the NBA will announce the winners of various individual honors. Media members vote for every award except for the All-Defensive Team (chosen by the NBA head coaches) and the Executive of the Year (selected by NBA executives in polling conducted by the Sporting News
). In last year's awards article
I explained my philosophy about selecting NBA award winners:
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 2011-2012 NBA regular season awards:
1) LeBron James
2) Kevin Durant
3) Kobe Bryant
4) Dwight Howard
5) Kevin Love
The "stat gurus" will tell you that not only is LeBron James the landslide MVP choice this season but that his 2011-12 campaign ranks among the best ever by a perimeter player. James shot a career-high .531 from the field, mainly because he improved his shot selection by reducing his perimeter attempts and posting up more frequently. James is still not a great free throw shooter but other than that there is not much about his skill set that can legitimately be criticized at this stage--except for the unquantifiable yet obvious major issue: he repeatedly shrinks from the challenge in the biggest moments, something that we saw when he quit against Boston in the 2010 playoffs
and when he quit against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. James' obvious reluctance to challenge Kobe Bryant one on one at the end of the 2012 All-Star Game
will not define James' career but it is yet one more example of James' apparent fear of failure when the lights are brightest. There is a vast difference between being unselfish and shrinking from the moment. Magic Johnson was an unselfish player but he was also a great clutch player, someone who dominated game six of the 1980 NBA Finals as a rookie and someone who waved off the league's all-time leading scorer to take (and make) the game-winning shot in game four of the 1987 NBA Finals. James has had some great playoff moments but most of them happened several years ago when he and his Cleveland Cavaliers were underdogs; since James emerged as the league's best player and since he has either played on the best team (Cleveland owned the best regular season record in both 2009 and 2010) or the most talented team (Miami is the only team in the league that has three perennial All-Stars who are each in the prime of their careers) he has hardly distinguished himself in pressure situations. James deserves the MVP award because of his productivity and consistency but he is the shakiest MVP in the clutch since Karl Malone won a pair of MVPs more than a decade ago (the big difference is that Malone did not really deserve those MVPs, while James is a clearly a legit MVP despite his inexplicable failures in big playoff moments).
The one argument that could be made against giving the MVP to James is that if he really is so valuable then his team should have posted the best record in the NBA instead of finishing with the fourth best record, trailing the league-leading Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs by four games; the "stat gurus" keep declaring that a team with James plus four average players would still make the playoffs and that James could have led some of the recent Lakers' teams to 70-plus wins but those are just meaningless, unverified (and unverifiable) assertions: in the real world, James has failed to lead the Heat to the best record in the league for two seasons in a row despite teaming up with two All-Stars in their primes and a decent supporting cast. The problem with using this argument against James is that it does not supply us with a clear MVP; if Kevin Durant had led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the West then perhaps one could elevate him ahead of James in the MVP race but Durant's Thunder faded down the stretch and no other player in the league matches up with James statistically. LeBron James is the best regular season player in the NBA but it remains to be seen if his regular season proficiency will fully carry over into postseason play.
Kevin Durant did not quite outperform James this season but he has emerged as a perennial MVP candidate. Durant not only won his third straight scoring title while posting excellent shooting percentages from all three ranges (.496 FG%, .387 3FG%, .860 FT%) but he led the Oklahoma City Thunder in rebounding (the slender Durant actually averaged slightly more rebounds than the more muscular James did this season), ranked third on the team in assists and was the best player on the Western Conference's second seeded team. The next step for Durant is to become a great defensive player; he has improved from subpar to decent in that category but he is not yet an All-Defensive Team caliber performer.
I have ranked Kobe Bryant as the second best regular season player in the NBA the past three seasons (Bryant reigned as the NBA's best player from 2006-08, though he only won a single MVP during that time) but this season I have dropped him to third because Durant's youth and health enable him to be more consistent than Bryant over the course of an entire season; Bryant is still a better defender and passer than Durant but age/injuries cause Bryant to have more subpar performances than Durant does. Bryant did not perform as well down the stretch as he did in the early portion of the season but Bryant kept the Lakers afloat as they dealt with roster changes and with transitioning from the Phil Jackson era to the Mike Brown regime. Bryant earned two Player of the Week honors plus the season's first Player of the Month Award and he scored 40 points in four straight January games, leading the Lakers to wins in three of those contests. If you think that I have rated Bryant too highly this season, just wait until Bryant really declines or until he retires and then check out how good--or bad--the Lakers are with Andrew Bynum facing constant double teams as the primary scoring option (it may also be educational to consult the Sixth Man Award discussion below, where we see that my previous evaluations of how Lamar Odom would perform away from Bryant and the Lakers turned out to be much closer to the truth than anyone would have dared to admit prior to this season). The Lakers tied Memphis for the third best record in the West but they only tallied five more wins than the eighth seeded Utah Jazz, so without Bryant's early season heroics the Lakers could easily have missed the playoffs; if Bryant had been able to keep up his early season pace then he would have won the scoring title and perhaps challenged James and Durant for the MVP but Bryant still had a remarkable season for a 33 year old who tore the ligament in his right (shooting) wrist during the preseason and who overcame a concussion, a broken nose and a serious shin injury that finally knocked him out of the lineup after he played through the previous injuries.
Dwight Howard is still the most dominant big man in the NBA. Whether or not his conduct this season has caused his reputation to take a hit should have nothing to do with MVP voting. Howard led the league in field goal percentage (.573) for the second time in three seasons, he claimed his fourth rebounding title with a career-high 14.5 rpg average (Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Moses Malone and Dennis Rodman are the only players who have won more than four rebounding titles) and he ranked third in blocked shots (2.1 bpg) and fifth in minutes (38.3 mpg). Howard is criticized for his limited offensive repertoire but he has added some low post moves to his game and he ranked 11th in scoring (20.6 ppg, more than a full point per game better than any other center in the league). He has averaged at least 20 ppg in four of the past five seasons.
Kevin Love put up some remarkable numbers this season and he played a major role in lifting the Minnesota Timberwolves from the worst record in the league in 2010-11 (17-65, a .207 winning percentage) to 26-40 (a .394 winning percentage) in 2011-12. Love ranked fourth in the league in scoring (26.0 ppg) and second in rebounding (13.3 rpg). Fans, media members and even other players may not realize just how rare it is to post those combined scoring/rebounding numbers in the same season; Love is just the 16th player in NBA/ABA history to do this and since the 1969-70 season this feat has only been accomplished 20 times by a total of 11 NBA/ABA players--and those marks had only been reached three times since 1976 before Love did it this season: Shaquille O'Neal rang up those numbers in 1999-2000, O'Neal's first (and only) MVP campaign, while Moses Malone pulled it off in both 1980-81 and 1981-82 (Malone won the 1982 MVP and placed fourth in the 1981 MVP voting). The other 26.0 ppg/13.3 rpg players since 1969-70 are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (seven times), Elvin Hayes (twice), Bob McAdoo (twice), Wilt Chamberlain (he leads the all-time list with eight such seasons but he had just one during the time period in question), Billy Cunningham, Spencer Haywood, Julius Erving and George McGinnis. Hayes is the only player in that group who did not win at least one NBA or ABA regular season MVP (Hayes finished in the top five three times, including two third places). Love absolutely must be included in the MVP discussion.
Skeptics mocked Kevin McHale for bypassing O.J. Mayo to choose Love in the 2008 NBA draft but after Love made his Summer League debut I offered this scouting report
: "In his first NBA action, Love displayed better than advertised mobility, willingness to attack the glass at both ends of the court and a good understanding of how to play offensively in terms of setting screens, making passes and operating in the paint. He made some 'rookie mistakes,' particularly defensively, but most of the things that he did wrong are correctable errors as opposed to fundamental problems with his game/skill set." By the end of the 2009 season I noted that Love had already established himself as a solid player while Mayo seemed to be a player who "gets buckets" but contributes little else.
It now seems laughable that anyone seriously suggested that Mayo would be a better NBA player than Love.
Chris Paul is being credited with "changing the culture" for the L.A. Clippers
but the team has barely been over .500 since Chauncey Billups went down with a season-ending Achilles tendon injury. Paul has reestablished himself as one of the league's top point guards--and he may finish as high as third in the official MVP voting--but he does not belong on the All-NBA First Team or on the five player MVP ballot.
Tony Parker has obviously had an All-NBA caliber season but this is not even the best season of his career (he has had higher scoring averages, rebounding averages and field goal percentages several times), so anyone who touts him as a legitimate MVP contender ahead of the five players listed above is discounting the overall talent and depth of the San Antonio Spurs much like last year's MVP voters did with the Chicago Bulls when they selected Derrick Rose ahead of LeBron James.
Rookie of the Year
1) Kyrie Irving
2) Klay Thompson
3) Kenneth Faried
Kyrie Irving has displayed impressive maturity, consistency and efficiency. His rookie season numbers (18.5 ppg, 5.4 apg, 3.7 rpg, .469 FG%, .399 3FG%, .872 FT%) are comparable with--and, in some cases, better than--the rookie numbers posted by several of the elite point guards who have entered the league in recent years, including Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.
This is the first season since 2007-08 that only one rookie averaged more than 14 ppg. Irving is an outstanding rookie but no other rookie particularly distinguished himself; several rookies played well but no rookie other than Irving looks like a star in the making (that does not mean that none of them will become stars).
Klay Thompson emerged in the second half of the season as a solid starter who not only can shoot but can also contribute as a rebounder and a passer. He is not yet a great defender but he does compete at that end of the court.
Kenneth Faried earned the nickname "Manimal" because of his ferocious rebounding and defense. He is an undersized effort player in the mold of Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace. It will be interesting to see how much he can develop his shooting, passing and ballhandling skills.
Ricky Rubio missed 25 out of 66 games and only shot .357 from the field; he is on my All-Rookie First Team (see below) but I cannot rank him among the top three rookies, though the media may elevate him as high as second in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
Defensive Player of the Year
1) Dwight Howard
2) LeBron James
3) Serge Ibaka
The prevailing sentiment appears to lean toward giving this award to Tyson Chandler but that is because media members are considering too many irrelevant factors; it does not matter how many times Dwight Howard has already won this honor, nor does it matter that Howard created a season-long drama with his trade requests/withdrawal of trade requests and his tumultuous relationship with Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy. Howard is by far the most dominant defensive force in the NBA. He ranked third in blocked shots (instead of first) only because so many players are afraid to even challenge him in the paint. Just as significantly, he led the league in defensive rebounds per game (10.8) by a wide margin (he would have easily ranked in the top ten in rpg even without grabbing a single offensive rebound!). Howard even led the Magic in steals (1.5 spg, just short of the averages posted by noted perimeter defenders LeBron James and Tony Allen).
LeBron James is the only player in the NBA who can defend all five positions. He excels as both a one on one defender and as a help defender. He has made huge strides since his early days as a subpar defensive player.
Serge Ibaka led the league in blocked shots by a wide margin and he is a major reason that the Oklahoma City Thunder ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage.
What about Tyson Chandler? Chandler's individual defensive numbers are about the same this season as they were last season, when he finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting and Dwight Howard--whose defensive numbers this season are comparable to his 2010-11 defensive numbers--won the title in a landslide vote. Chandler's New York Knicks are giving up fewer points this season than they did last season (when he played for Dallas) but they have also vastly slowed down their pace. The Knicks were the sixth seeded team in the East in 2011 and they are the seventh seeded team in the East this season. Chandler does not deserve all of the credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) for the Knicks' performance this season but there is little objective evidence that he has transformed this team into some kind of powerhouse. Howard is better than Chandler both as a one on one post defender and as a help defender. Dallas certainly fared worse without Chandler--but the Mavericks actually did not decline much, if at all, on the defensive end of the court and their struggles had as much to do with complacency (and the accumulated effect of losing several rotation players) as anything else.
Chandler is probably going to win this award because the media likes to create compelling (if fictional) narratives but, in a just world, he would not even finish in the top three in the voting.
Sixth Man of the Year
1) James Harden
2) Lou Williams
3) Jason Terry
Several talented players have embraced the sixth man role. Denver's Al Harrington and Andre Miller and Philadelphia's Thaddeus Young are excellent reserves who deserve to be mentioned even though neither of them cracked my top three. James Harden has elevated himself to borderline All-Star status, giving the Oklahoma City Thunder a legit "Big Three." Lou Williams led the Philadelphia 76ers in scoring despite not starting a single game.
Jason Terry is an annual contender for this honor, winning in 2009, placing second each of the past two seasons and finishing third in 2008. His scoring, field goal percentage and assists declined slightly in 2012 but he is still one of the NBA's best bench players, a fearless fourth quarter scorer who could start for many teams--unlike Lamar Odom, the 2011 Sixth Man Award winner who is obviously not even in the conversation for this honor in 2012. Odom received a lot of praise during his time with the Lakers but I consistently declared that he was a good but overrated player and I cannot resist quoting what I wrote about Odom in last year's awards article
"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:
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
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."
One season away from Kobe Bryant and the Lakers has done a lot to reveal what kind of player Odom really is. No, Odom is not quite as bad as his 2012 statistics suggest--but he certainly is not nearly as good as so many people insisted he was during his tenure with the Lakers. Odom may bounce back to some extent next season but it is doubtful that he will ever approach the efficiency and productivity he displayed as a third option in L.A. benefiting from all of the defensive attention Bryant attracted.
Most Improved Player
1) Jeremy Lin
2) Ryan Anderson
3) Kevin Love
Lin is the obvious choice; prior to this season he had scored just 76 points in 284 minutes while shooting .389 from the field but his emergence as a legit NBA point guard helped the New York Knicks to salvage what could have been a disastrous season. Some media members have suggested that Lin did not really improve as much as he took advantage of an opportunity to play but what qualifies them to make such a distinction? No player improved his production as dramatically and in such a short period of time as Lin did.
Ryan Anderson only started 50 games in his first three seasons but this season he became Orlando's starting power forward and established himself as a poor man's Kevin Love, a solid scorer/rebounder who can consistently nail three point shots.
As I noted in last year's awards article
, Love made a big leap in 2010-11 when he "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." This season Love made an even more improbable leap, from All-Star to legit MVP caliber player.
Goran Dragic and Ersan Ilyasova are two other players who deserve mention in this category.
Coach of the Year
1) Tom Thibodeau
2) Gregg Popovich
3) Mike Brown
The Chicago Bulls were supposedly a one man team that triumphed because of Derrick Rose's greatness and Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes. This season, Rose removed himself from the equation due to injuries and the Bulls still captured the top seed in the East and earned the overall number one seed in the playoffs; the Bulls are a more talented team than most people are willing to admit (their rotation of bigs is underrated much like Cleveland's rotation of bigs was underrated circa 2006-2010) but Thibodeau has emerged as the league's best coach because of his ability to create a defensive powerhouse and his ability to adjust/adapt as various key players (not just Rose) missed games due to injury.
The San Antonio Spurs are perceived as the league's Rasputin--the team that just won't die--but this is partially because many people are just not that good at evaluating talent; I knew that the Spurs would be a legit contender this season but even though I don't think that the Spurs have necessarily "overachieved" (a word that I don't like) I do think that Gregg Popovich has done a great job changing his team's style of play, incorporating new talent into the mix and making sure that his star players stayed rested and healthy (even though I don't particularly like it when healthy players sit out games, it is more understandable to rest players in this kind of compacted season).
Mike Brown may not receive a single vote from the media members but he has done an outstanding job in difficult circumstances; he replaced arguably the greatest coach in NBA history and walked into a situation with championship expectations but reduced talent: the Lakers lost two key rotation players (Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown), their best player is a 33 year old with roughly 50,000 combined regular season/playoff minutes on his odometer and their second best player is a petulant young big man who is still figuring out how to deal with double teams and how to play hard on a consistent basis. The Lakers got swept out of last year's playoffs but bounced back to earn the third seed in the West (aided by Dallas' indifference and injuries that felled key players for Memphis and the Clippers). Brown transformed the Lakers into a defensive-minded team, always the mark of coaching excellence (it is easy to convince players to run and gun but it is difficult to convince players to play defense on a nightly basis).
Rick Adelman deserves mention for the fine job he did with a Minnesota team that posted the worst record in the league in 2010-11.
Executive of the Year
1) David Kahn
2) R.C. Buford/Gregg Popovich
3) Larry Bird
Former media member David Kahn has been a favorite media punching bag for years but his Minnesota Timberwolves improved from 17-65 in 2010-11 to 26-40 in 2011-12. Kevin McHale drafted Kevin Love, Minnesota's best player, but Kahn hired Coach Rick Adelman and acquired most of the other players on the roster--including the much-maligned Ricky Rubio, who may have made a run at Rookie of the Year honors if he had not suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Every year, most of the "experts" write off the San Antonio Spurs and every year the Spurs continue to be a serious championship contender. Gregg Popovich not only is an outstanding coach but he is the franchise's President, responsible (along with R.C. Buford) for building the team--much like the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick not only coaches the team on the field but also shapes the team's roster as well.
The Indiana Pacers went through some very tough times after the infamous "Malice at the Palace" but Larry Bird has done an excellent job of rebuilding the franchise. Jerry West set the standard for great players who became great executives but several great players have had less than stellar front office careers, including Michael Jordan (who currently helms the league's worst team, featuring a roster built entirely by him), Elgin Baylor and Wes Unseld.
All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Russell Westbrook
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Kevin Durant
All-NBA Second Team
G Tony Parker
G Chris Paul
C Andrew Bynum
F Kevin Love
F Blake Griffin
All-NBA Third Team
G Dwyane Wade
G Rajon Rondo
C Marc Gasol
F Dirk Nowitzki
F LaMarcus Aldridge
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant are First Team locks. Russell Westbrook's excellent performance should enable him to become the fourth different guard since 2008 to accompany Kobe Bryant on the All-NBA First Team; that is another way of saying that Bryant--who has made the All-NBA First Team nine times overall, including each year since 2006--has been remarkably consistent and productive. I hope that the voters understand and acknowledge that Westbrook has been more productive and more durable than Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, Bryant's recent First Team partners; Westbrook has become something of a media punching bag, inheriting a role that Scottie Pippen filled during the 1990s and Kobe Bryant filled during the 2000s: great player whose game is nitpicked to death by media members who do not understand the sport (I am not saying that Westbrook is or will be as great as Pippen or Bryant, merely that he is subjected to an unwarranted level of criticism considering how well he plays and how much he has already improved in a short period of time).
Years ago Shaquille O'Neal called himself "LCL"--Last Center Left--and those words have largely become prophetic. Dwight Howard is an all-time great but the drop off after him is significant. Other than Howard, the recent All-NBA centers are either retired (O'Neal, Yao Ming) or limited by injuries (Amare Stoudemire, Al Horford, Andrew Bogut). Andrew Bynum has essentially become the second best center in the NBA by default--there just are not that many legit candidates for the title. Marc Gasol gets my Third Team nod at the NBA's least deep position.
This is a golden age for NBA point guards, quick players who are aided by the recent rules prohibiting defensive contact on the perimeter. I don't agree with classifying Tony Parker and Chris Paul as MVP candidates but they are solid All-NBA Second Team picks. In 2010-11, Derrick Rose proved that he is the best 6-5 and under
player in the NBA--taking that title from Dwyane Wade--but injuries
limited Rose's effectiveness and availability in 2011-12 and by going
18-9 without Rose the Bulls demonstrated that they are hardly the one
man team that many media members depicted them to be. Rose missed too
many games to be considered for MVP or All-NBA honors this season (and
his reduced productivity would not warrant including him in the MVP
discussion even if he had not missed so many games).
Kevin Love had one of the great scoring/rebounding seasons ever (see the above MVP discussion for more details) but he cannot quite knock LeBron James and Kevin Durant off of the First Team. Blake Griffin must improve his free throw shooting and his defense but he is a 20/10 force who will likely earn First Team honors at some point in his career.
Dwyane Wade had one of the worst seasons of his career (second lowest scoring average, second lowest assists average, third worst three point shooting percentage)--a fact that has been blithely ignored by "stat gurus" who keep insisting (hoping?) that Bryant has vastly declined--and hopefully this season permanently refuted the bizarre notion that Wade is Miami's best player
but even a subpar Wade still ranks as one of the NBA's 15 best players.
Even in a down season by his exalted standards, Dirk Nowitzki still ranked among the league's leading scorers and guided Dallas to a playoff spot despite the team's well documented internal problems and significant roster overhaul. Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony stepped up their games after the All-Star break but they sleepwalked through the first half of the season and thus do not deserve All-NBA recognition; Nowitzki did not distinguish himself in the early going, either, but his overall body of work during the season is better and he led Dallas to a 36-30 record with no All-Star sidekicks while Pierce and Anthony both play alongside current (or recent) All-Stars.
All-Defensive First Team
G Tony Allen
G Grant Hill
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Serge Ibaka
All-Defensive Second Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Chris Paul
C Tyson Chandler
F Luol Deng
F Andre Iguodala
This is the only award that is selected by the league's head coaches. Last season I chose six of the 10 All-Defensive players who were ultimately honored by the coaches and in each of the three seasons prior to that eight of my 10 choices matched the coaches' voting. The players are supposed to be selected by position but this does not always happen because in recent years positional designations have become blurred and teams often cross match on defense.
I analyzed Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Serge Ibaka and Tyson Chandler in my commentary about the Defensive Player of the Year award, so I will only add that even though I would not select Tyson Chandler as Defensive Player of the Year he is the second best defensive center in the league.
I did not support Tony Allen's All-Defensive Team candidacy last season
because of his limited playing time but this season he has played in
almost every game and his playing time has increased to over 26 mpg.
Grant Hill is nominally a small forward but he guards point guards so
that Steve Nash can "guard" whoever is the least dangerous perimeter
player on the opposing team.
The "stat gurus" are right that defense cannot just be measured by steals and blocks but they are wrong to insist that their so-called "advanced statistics" accurately measure individual defensive efficiency; the "stat gurus" rank Carlos Boozer among the top 10 individual defenders in the NBA (in both Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares) even though knowledgeable observers realize that Boozer is often a defensive liability (the "advanced statistics" are not separating Chicago's collective defensive prowess while Boozer is on the court from Boozer's individual contributions--or lack thereof--to that defensive prowess).
The "stat gurus" have been bleating for years that Kobe Bryant is an overrated defender but what they fail to understand is that Bryant has
long been the vocal leader of the Lakers' defense, an unusual role for a guard (centers usually call out the defensive signals because they play
with their backs to the basket and thus can see the whole court). Bryant is not the lockdown defender that he was during his prime but he
can check three different positions (shooting guard, point guard, small forward) and he is an excellent help defender/roamer (Boston Coach Doc
Rivers has said that Bryant is the best help defender since Scottie Pippen, high praise indeed). During the Lakers' late season win over
Oklahoma City, Bryant shut down Russell Westbrook, showing that Bryant still has the footspeed and tenacity to guard opposing point guards
(something that he often has to do since the Lakers have not had a good defensive point guard since Derek Fisher exited his prime several years
Chris Paul is limited by his size (he can only guard one position and I tend to favor players who can guard multiple positions)
but he is a tenacious, scrappy defender whose quick hands enable him to perennially lead the league in steals.
Luol Deng is the best perimeter defender on arguably the best defensive team in the NBA.
Andre Iguodala is a long-limbed, explosive athlete who can guard multiple positions.
All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position)
All-Rookie Second Team
As I mentioned in the above Rookie of the Year discussion, Kyrie Irving is the only rookie who has consistently been outstanding. There are several rookies who have played well at times. Kenneth Faried and Kawhi Leonard deserve credit for being productive players on playoff teams, while the other rookies listed above established themselves as solid rotation players on their respective squads.
Kemba Walker put up decent per game numbers but being the third leading scorer on the worst team in NBA history is hardly much of a qualification to make the All-Rookie Team; he looks a bit like one of Kenny Smith's proverbial "looters in a riot," a guy collecting stats on a bad--in this case, historically bad--team.
Previous NBA Award Articles
Selecting NBA Award Winners: The Battle of Stats Versus Storylines Versus Logical Analysis
NBA Awards Season is Almost Here
An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP Race
Handing Out the Hardware for the 2008-09 Season
Choosing This Season's NBA Awards Winners
Labels: Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook
posted by David Friedman @ 6:17 AM
38 Special, "Changing the Culture" and a Peaceful Suspension: Random Thoughts as the 2012 NBA Season Concludes
Today is the final day of the 66 game, lockout-shortened 2012 NBA season. We already know the identities of all 16 playoff teams and the top three seeds in each conference but several playoff matchups will be determined by the results of tonight's games. There will only be one day of rest before the playoffs begin, so coaches will not have much time to prepare for the important game one of the playoffs (the winner of that contest ultimately wins the series the vast majority of the time
) and I will have less time than usual to complete my annual awards article and my playoff preview article--but three subjects that I will not cover in those two articles are weighing on my mind:
1) The L.A. Lakers' game versus the Sacramento Kings is "meaningless" for both teams but I remember when star players played--and sometimes put up big numbers--in such "meaningless" games. If the teams and the players are truly going to treat such games as "meaningless" then they should refund the ticket revenue from those games (the Boston-Miami game on Tuesday night--with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo all sitting out--was a travesty and everyone who bought a ticket deserves a refund plus a free ticket to a real NBA game). Kobe Bryant needs to score at least 38 points to beat out Kevin Durant for the scoring title. If Bryant hits that number exactly or barely exceeds it then this will be the closest scoring title race in NBA history, surpassing the legendary 1978 duel
when David Thompson scored 73 points in a "meaningless" game only to lose the crown to George Gervin, who scored 63 points in a "meaningless" game to finish with a 27.22 ppg average (Thompson averaged 27.15 ppg). Whether you are a Bryant fan, a Durant fan or an unbiased observer, if you truly love NBA basketball then you want to see Bryant play in that game and you want to see him try to score 38 points, a total that barely exceeds his 2006 season average (35.4 ppg) but that he has matched or bested just seven times in 58 games this season. If Bryant captures the crown he will be the oldest scoring champion other than Michael Jordan in NBA history, while if Durant is victorious he will be the first player to win three straight scoring titles since Jordan won the 1996-98 scoring titles. George Mikan, Neil Johnston, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob McAdoo and George Gervin are the only other players who won at least three consecutive scoring titles.
2) Metta World Peace is a repeat offender who has been suspended multiple times for violently striking opposing players (and, on one infamous occasion, charging into the stands to strike a fan, nearly starting a riot in the process). The vicious elbow that he delivered to James Harden's head could have seriously injured--or even killed--Harden; fortunately, Harden seems to have avoided serious injury but he does have a concussion, which could not only affect him in this year's playoffs (possibly costing the Oklahoma City Thunder a chance to win a championship) but could leave him susceptible to future concussions and possible long term health consequences. Suspending Peace for seven games is, literally, about the least that the NBA could do; it would not at all have been excessive for the league to sit him down for the entire playoffs and require him to successfully complete anger management training before being allowed to return. He has serious mental health issues that could have disastrous consequences if they are not properly addressed. If Peace did not learn from and was not deterred by previous suspensions that cost him more than 100 games plus millions of dollars in salary then why should anyone think that a seven game suspension is going to deter him now?
3) Chris Paul is receiving a lot of credit for "changing the culture" in L.A. and media members seem poised to anoint him as high as third in the MVP race. Paul is still not quite the player he was in 2008 and 2009 when he made the All-NBA First Team and All-NBA Second Team respectively but this has been a nice bounce back campaign for him after injuries limited his effectiveness the past two seasons. Paul certainly deserves a lot of credit for the L.A. Clippers' success this season but suggesting that he has singlehandedly transformed a losing team into a playoff team is just as ludicrous as saying that LeBron James' departure singlehandedly ruined the Cleveland Cavaliers
. Blake Griffin leads the Clippers in points per game, rebounds per game, field goal percentage and total minutes played, so it is far from clear that Paul is even the best player on his own team, let alone the third best player in the entire league. However, regardless of whether Griffin or Paul deserves to be considered the top Clipper, it is indisputable that the Clippers have a vastly different eight man rotation this season than they did last season: only Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye ranked in the top eight in total minutes played for the Clippers both last season and this season. Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans joined Paul as new members of the Clippers' eight man rotation--and the Clippers' ninth player in minutes played, Chauncey Billups, started the first 20 games of the season, during which the team went 14-6. The Clippers are only 24-20 since a ruptured Achilles tendon ended Billups' season, so if Billups had gotten hurt just a bit earlier the team might not have even made the playoffs.
Paul has had a very good season and has reestablished himself as one of the league's top point guards but there is no reason to exaggerate how well he has played or the impact that he has had; that is the kind of mistaken thinking that resulted in Derrick Rose winning the 2011 MVP over LeBron James and led to Steve Nash winning two MVPs while Shaquile O'Neal and Kobe Bryant only received one MVP apiece. Perhaps media members more readily relate to players who are closer to their own size but at the NBA level it is very difficult for even a great small player to have the same kind of impact that a great mid-size player or a great big man has. It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of NBA championship teams have been led by a great big man and/or a great mid-size player; the 2004 Pistons, the 1989-90 Pistons and the 1979 Sonics are three exceptions: those teams triumphed either because of the collective strength of an ensemble cast of very good players (2004 Pistons, 1979 Sonics) or because of the greatness of two small Hall of Fame guards (Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars) supported by gritty and tenacious big men who played suffocating defense. Rose's Bulls captured the number one seed in the East in 2012 because of their great defense/strong rotation of big men even though Rose missed a large chunk of this season but Nash never led a team to a championship (or even to the NBA Finals) and I doubt that Paul will ever be the best player on a championship team.
Labels: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace
posted by David Friedman @ 6:58 AM