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Friday, April 15, 2016

2015-16 Playoff Predictions

This year, my annual playoff preview article will be presented in a different, briefer format. Before making my predictions, here are some comments about the 2015-16 NBA season:

Golden State's mini-collapse in the closing portion of the regular season before catching a second wind to finish 73-9 provided a good reminder of just how great and consistent the Chicago Bulls were two decades ago. Keep in mind that the Bulls followed up their 72-10 regular season in 1995-96 with a championship and then posted a 69-13 regular season record the next year (plus another championship) before "slumping" to 62-20 (along with a third straight title) to close out the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen six championship dynasty. The question of how those Bulls would fare head to head against the Warriors may be open to debate but there is no doubt that even after setting the single season wins record the Warriors still have some work to do to match the Bulls' historical accomplishments.

The San Antonio Spurs just completed the least appreciated 67-15 season in pro basketball history; that is the same record posted by the 1986 Boston Celtics, the 1992 Chicago Bulls and the 2000 L.A. Lakers, three of the most legendary championship teams of the past three decades.

The Warriors and the Spurs are clearly the class of the league, while the West's third place team is an enigma. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are two of the league's top five players and their supporting cast looks strong on paper, yet the Oklahoma City Thunder squandered more fourth quarter leads than any team in the league and finished 12 games behind the Spurs. The Thunder have enough talent to win a championship but their defense is too inconsistent and their late game offensive execution is inexplicably bad.

LeBron James once again led his team to the best record in the East, though the Cleveland Cavaliers would have barely held off the Thunder for third place in the West. James has lost a little bit physically, while he seems all over the place mentally. This just feels like one of those years when he will disappear in the first playoff series that is challenging--but that may not happen until the NBA Finals.

A cynic might say that Tom Thibodeau should be voted Coach of the Year based on how the Chicago Bulls fell into oblivion after firing him.

Speaking of falling into oblivion, after making a fluky and unlikely to be duplicated run to the 2015 Western Conference Finals the Houston Rockets went 41-41 to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the season. A lot of numbers are thrown around about James Harden but here are the most important numbers about Houston's "foundational player": after the Warriors dispatch the Rockets in four or five games James Harden will have led the Rockets to three first round losses in his first four seasons with the franchise. The Rockets would probably ship Harden elsewhere and try to build around someone else but who is going to take a coach-killing, overdribbling prima donna who often does not even pretend to be interested in playing defense? I have to confess that Harden is an MVP candidate this year--a Shaqtin' the Fool MVP candidate (hey, Shaq said it first and I am just stealing his line, so if that sounds like hating then tell Shaq).

Basketball fans everywhere can rejoice that the 76ers finally got rid of Sam Hinkie and his ridiculous tanking plans. With the Colangelos in charge, the 76ers will probably be a playoff team three years from now but it is unlikely that many--if any--of Hinkie's players will be on the roster by that time. The media killed Isiah Thomas for his work in New York, even though it is evident that with James Dolan running the show indisputably great basketball minds like Larry Brown and Phil Jackson cannot turn the Knicks around; when will ESPN.com or the New York Times update (in other words, retract) the breathless praise they have heaped on Daryl "Losing in the First Round is my Middle Name" Morey and Sam "Trust the Process" Hinkie?

I have no doubt that the correct application of basketball statistics can be helpful both in building a team and in analyzing the sport; Hubie Brown was decades ahead of his time in both regards, which is why he won an ABA title, two Coach of the Year awards and widespread recognition as the sport's premier TV analyst. I also have no doubt that Morey and Hinkie have been praised far more than they deserve for reasons that are not at all evident to an objective observer.

On to the first round:

The Eastern Conference features two heavyweights, four 48-34 teams (!) and two pretenders. Stan Van Gundy clearly has the coaching edge over Tyronn Lue but that is Detroit's only significant advantage and the Cleveland Cavaliers will dispatch the Pistons in five games (because LeBron James and company will be too bored/disinterested to make it a sweep). Yes, I am aware that Detroit won the season series and yes I am aware that Andre Drummond had his way in the paint versus Cleveland; I just don't expect those trends to continue in the postseason, because the one thing that James consistently does in the playoffs is dispatch lesser teams with alacrity in the early rounds.

The Toronto Raptors have not won a playoff series in a while and that gives one pause but they match up very well with the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors will advance in six games.

I'll be honest: I am not sure what to make of the 48-34 quartet. Each of those teams has looked like a possible Eastern Conference Finalist at times and each of them has looked like a team that could be swept in the first round. The Miami Heat displayed both traits in the same game on the last night of the season when they blew a 24 point lead versus the Boston Celtics.

The Charlotte Hornets have been really strong in the second half of the season but they don't have a lot of playoff experience. If the Hornets steal a game on the road early then they could win the series in six but I like Miami in seven games.

The Boston Celtics have improved since last season while the Atlanta Hawks have regressed but this is another evenly matched series that will likely be decided by homecourt advantage. I am taking Atlanta in seven games.

In the Western Conference, the Warriors will relish the opportunity to humiliate a Houston team that flapped its gums after losing to Golden State in the Western Conference Finals. James Harden thinks he deserved the MVP award over Stephen Curry? Sure. Harden will average 25 ppg in the series but he will shoot about .400 from the field, he will have at least one game with seven or more turnovers and he will offset a 40-plus point game with a single-digit scoring game. The Warriors will sweep the Rockets.

The Memphis Grizzlies struggle to score 90 points in the playoffs even when they are healthy. Their injury-battered roster has two chances against the San Antonio Spurs: Slim and none. The Spurs will sweep the Grizzlies.

The Oklahoma City Thunder should sweep the Dallas Mavericks but the Thunder will probably mess around and blow at least one double digit fourth quarter lead. Oklahoma City will win in five games.

The Portland Trail Blazers are one of the surprise teams of the season, while the L.A. Clippers act like they are contenders even though they finished a distant fourth in the Western Conference. I'll take the Clippers in six games.

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I expect the second round matchups to be Cleveland-Atlanta, Toronto-Miami, Golden State-L.A. Clippers and San Antonio-Oklahoma City. Cleveland is going to smash Atlanta. The Heat have a lot of firepower but the Raptors have been the much more consistent team and the seventh game, if necessary, will be played in Toronto. I expect Toronto to prevail in a topsy turvy series. The Clippers are another team that had a lot to say about the Warriors. The Warriors are going to shut them up and hand Chris Paul yet another second round exit. San Antonio versus Oklahoma City might be the best, most exciting playoff series this year. I can think of a lot of reasons that the Thunder could win but I expect the Spurs to prevail.

The Conference Finals look tremendous on paper. The Raptors' confidence should be sky-high after finally winning a couple playoff series and they have enough talent to at least push the Cavaliers. If the Raptors take a 2-1 lead, James might fold his tent and pout about the front office, his hand-picked coach or some of his teammates. Cleveland should win but I would not be shocked if the Raptors won. The Spurs know the formula to beat the Warriors: play big, slow the game down, pound the ball inside to Aldridge, cut down on open court turnovers that lead to transition points. However, even if Aldridge is not limited by the finger injury that he suffered near the end of the regular season against the Warriors, I question whether the Spurs can execute this game plan effectively enough to beat the Warriors four times. The Spurs don't like to go to one player over and over again, even if that is the optimal strategy. If the 1996 Bulls played the Warriors, the Bulls would walk the ball up the court and wear the Warriors out in the post with Jordan, Pippen or Kukoc (depending on the matchup). The Bulls would use the same mismatch over and over until the Warriors changed their defense and then the Bulls would find another mismatch. The Spurs are most comfortable relying on ball movement but the Warriors would rather scramble and rotate than have to deal with 25 Aldridge postups. I liked the Spurs before the season began but I am picking the Warriors now.

The much-anticipated NBA Finals Golden State-Cleveland rematch will feature a healthy Cleveland team looking for its first NBA title versus a defending champion looking to not only repeat but also to be remembered as one of the greatest teams ever.

The Warriors are fun to watch because they play with so much joy and unselfishness. Unlike previous teams that relied on playing fast and shooting a lot of jumpers, the Warriors are a very good defensive team when they want to be. The Cavaliers have dealt with a lot of internal turmoil this year and they just do not "look" like a championship team even though they have all of the requisite parts. The Warriors are building a dynasty, while  LeBron James is looking more and more like this generation's Wilt Chamberlain; James has racked up impressive individual numbers during his career but he is stuck on two rings and that does not seem likely to change soon, if ever.

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

In my 2015-2016 Eastern Conference Preview I correctly picked five of this season's eight playoff teams and I went six for eight in my 2015-2016 Western Conference Preview. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2015: East 5/8, West 7/8
2014: East 6/8, West 6/8
2013: East 7/8, West 6/8
2012: East 8/8, West 7/8
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 66/88 in the East and 70/88 in the West for an overall accuracy rate of .773.

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

2015: 10/15
2014: 13/15
2013: 14/15
2012: 11/15
2011: 10/15
2010: 10/15
2009: 10/15
2008: 12/15
2007: 12/15
2006: 10/15
2005: 9/15

Total: 121/165 (.733)

At the end of each of my playoff previews I predict which teams will make it to the NBA Finals; in the past 11 years I have correctly picked 11 of the 22 NBA Finals participants. In three of those 11 years I got both teams right but only once did I get both teams right and predict the correct result (2007). I correctly picked the NBA Champion before the playoffs began just twice: 2007 and 2013.

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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:29 AM

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kobe Drops 60 to Drop the Mic on an Unparalleled 20 Year Career

I never thought we would see that again. The last time Kobe Bryant scored at least 60 points in a game was seven years--and many injuries--ago but in his final regular season game Bryant turned back the clock with a performance that can only be described as astounding: 60 points on 22-50 field goal shooting, including 38 points in the second half, 23 points in the fourth quarter and 17 straight points down the stretch as the L.A. Lakers came from behind to beat the Utah Jazz 101-96.  Bryant's breathing was labored by the end of the game, his gait looked wobbly at times and on his two dunk attempts he barely got the ball over the rim but Bryant also displayed deft footwork, tremendous grit/determination and a nice shooting touch inside the three point arc (16-29). Bryant added four rebounds, four assists, one steal, one blocked shot and just two turnovers while playing 42 minutes (including all but the final four seconds of the second half) on a night when the plan was for Bryant--whose minutes have been restricted all season--to play just 32 minutes.

Bryant set the NBA single-game scoring high for the 2015-16 season, he joined Bob Pettit as the second player in NBA history to score at least 40 points in a game versus every team in the league, he became the oldest player to score at least 60 points in a game and he joined Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry as the only players to launch at least 50 field goal attempts in a game.

Assuming Bryant is eventually inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame, this performance shatters the previous mark for most points by a Hall of Famer in his final game, set by John Havlicek with 29 points in 1978. Julius Erving, Gail Goodrich, Dave Bing and Maurice Stokes are next on that list with 24 points each.

In a recent interview, Bryant said that if he had the power to turn back time he would not do it because living in the moment would lose all meaning if it were possible to just go back and relive situations until you obtained the desired outcome. The fact that each moment is precious and can never be relived adds "spice" to life, according to Bryant.

If Bryant did not turn back time he at least provided a flashback to a time--not so long ago--when he could dominate games at will. After it was over, he spoke with pride about his daughters watching the game and being old enough now to appreciate his play; he wryly noted that they seemed surprised by how well he played, even after he assured them that he used to do things like this all the time.

During the pregame and halftime shows, Jalen Rose and Doug Collins shared their favorite Kobe Bryant stories. Rose mentioned Bryant's 81 point game, during which Bryant shredded Rose's Toronto Raptors. Rose noted that Bryant had few highlight reel plays in that game and that Bryant did not talk trash or act in a disrespectful manner; Bryant was strictly business--a stone cold basketball assassin--and Rose respects that.

Collins singled out the 2008 Olympics, when Bryant was the star of stars for Team USA during the gold medal game, scoring 13 points in the fourth quarter to make sure that Team USA did not suffer another loss in FIBA play.

Bryant will always be compared to Michael Jordan--a comparison that Bryant openly invited from the start--and Bryant will always fall short, at least numerically in terms of championships, MVPs and scoring titles. However, Bryant deserves credit for setting the bar so high for himself and he is without question the closest thing we have seen to Jordan since Jordan retired; Bryant is the only "heir to Air" whose body and/or mind did not collapse under the pressure of trying to be Jordan's successor. Think about it: Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady were all touted as the next Jordan but none of them even came close; they were not durable enough physically and/or did not have the right mindset. LeBron James has also been compared to Jordan and, even though James is without question one of the greatest players of all-time, he has fallen short of the Jordan standard in terms of championships. James has also repeatedly been outplayed in the NBA Finals by lesser players, something that never happened to Jordan.

Hubie Brown repeatedly emphasized during the telecast how incredible it is that Bryant made the All-NBA Team 15 times and the All-Defensive Team 12 times. Brown stated that the great players get it done at both ends of the court for a sustained period of time.

We all know that Bryant has not been consistently great or particularly efficient this season but it is commendable that he played as well (and as often) as he did considering that he has put in 20 years of service and that he has come back from a torn Achilles, a broken bone in his knee, a chronically injured shoulder and assorted minor ailments.

Bryant has not lost his skills but his body is falling apart, at least in terms of the health that is necessary to play professional basketball at an elite level. It is worth remembering that Bryant sustained the career-altering Achilles injury at 34 years of age in his 17th season, a campaign during which he made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in MVP voting. Bryant was carrying an impossible workload as he tried to push, pull and drag the Lakers into the playoffs; he played 319 of a possible 336 minutes in the seven games prior to sustaining the injury.

Bryant's reaction to the injury was remarkable; he stayed in the game and sank two critical free throws, because if he had let someone else shoot the free throws then by rule he would not have been able to reenter the game--and he actually was trying to figure out how to play with a ruptured Achilles tendon! Lakers trainer Gary Vitti recalls that Bryant attempted to manually roll the tendon back down his leg before Bryant walked under his own power back to the locker room. When I first saw that image of Bryant going to the locker room I immediately thought of the times that Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade left the court in a wheelchair with injuries that were not nearly as serious as Bryant's.

We will never see a player like Bryant again; he had a unique combination of impeccable fundamentals, supreme confidence, relentless competitive drive and willingness/capacity to play at a high level while injured. LeBron James is bigger, stronger and possibly faster than Bryant was at his peak but he does not come close to matching Bryant in any of the aforementioned categories--and that is why Bryant won as many titles in his career's second act as James has won in his entire career thus far.

Piggybacking off of Hubie Brown's comments during the telecast, it is highly unlikely that there will ever be another NBA guard who plays 20 seasons, let alone 20 seasons with the same team while winning five titles, making the All-NBA Team 15 times and earning 12 All-Defensive Team selections.

Bryant is firmly entrenched in pro basketball's Pantheon and his performance in his final game is a fitting tribute to the mental/psychological traits and the basketball skill set that enabled him to be so dominant for such a long period of time.

After the game, Bryant spoke to the home fans, expressed his heartfelt appreciation and then literally dropped the mic at center court after saying, "Mamba out."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM

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