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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Basketball Hype Versus Basketball Reality

The 2016-17 NBA season is approaching the halfway mark, so this is a good time to separate basketball hype from basketball reality. The premise of this article is not meant to suggest or imply that my predictions are always correct; Minnesota is much worse than I expected, while Houston is better than I expected. Every season has its surprise teams, both good and bad--but some teams are hyped up by consensus for no objectively correct reason.

Basketball Hype: The Indiana Pacers will be a top four team in the East.

Basketball Reality: The Pacers are struggling to stay above .500 in a weak conference.

I predicted that the Pacers would "decline a bit" from last season's 45 wins and thus not make the playoffs. The Pacers' current .500 winning percentage is what I expected, though the Pacers might sneak into the playoffs because the bottom has dropped out of the Eastern Conference. 

I was baffled that so many people thought that the Pacers would not only be a playoff team but might even challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Pacers fired a good, defensive-minded coach (Frank Vogel) and they sacrificed defense/rim protection to put together a small ball roster that does not suit the natural inclinations of new coach Nate McMillan. The roster construction does not make much sense; there is not enough firepower to just outscore the opposition nor do the Pacers have a lineup that is willing and able to play elite level defense. All of this just screams "mediocrity"--and that is exactly what has transpired.

Basketball Hype: Kobe Bryant held back the progress of the Lakers' young players but with Bryant now retired the Lakers will be a much better team.

Basketball Reality: The Lakers' young players were not ready for prime time last season and they still are not ready for prime time this season.

The media bashed Kobe Bryant when he was averaging 35 ppg and carrying the likes of Smush Parker and Kwame Brown to the playoffs, so it was obvious and inevitable that the media would kill Bryant when his skills declined. He was blamed for his big contract, as if he forced the Lakers to sign him. He was blamed for shooting too much, for supposedly not playing defense, blah, blah, blah. Well, Bryant is enjoying retirement now and those Lakers that he was supposedly holding back rank last in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, last in points allowed, last in steals, last in turnovers committed and 19th in field goal percentage. Their defense is horrible and their offense is not much better, though the latter deficiency is superficially disguised by playing at a fast pace and chasing down a lot of their missed shots (the Lakers are second in the league in offensive rebounding).

The way that Bryant prepared mentally and physically for each game--despite the challenges of age and multiple injuries--provided a great example for his young teammates to emulate. It is too bad that they did not pay more attention.

Basketball Hype: Kristaps Porzingis is the next Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony is an elite player, so the additions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah combined with upgraded coaching from Jeff Hornacek will revitalize the Knicks.

Basketball Reality: Jeff Van Gundy picked this team to win 45-50 games and said that a win total in the "low 50s" is not out of the question. I respect Van Gundy but I don't always agree with him. His prediction for the Knicks was, to be charitable, very optimistic. If everything breaks just right--which almost never happens--the Knicks could win 45 games but 50 or "low 50s" is a pipe dream. Porzingis is a very talented young player but he is not ready to carry a team yet. Anthony was overrated in his prime and he is certainly not an elite player now. Rose is playing well but he is not even close to his pre-injury MVP caliber form. Noah's individual numbers are nothing to write home about, though the team performs much better when he is on the court than it does when he sits.

The Knicks have been overly hyped for years; the fans and the media blamed Isiah Thomas for every problem under the sun and then became oddly silent when the team remained bad to mediocre (with the exception of a brief glimmer of hope when Mike Woodson was the coach) for years after Thomas' departure. Owner James Dolan is the real problem and until he either sells the team or changes his management style the results are not going to change.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:13 PM