Friday, March 28, 2014

Revisiting the 2009 Draft Class

Of course we have to start this story with a photo of Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn, the two biggest busts of the 2009 NBA Draft. While they are not accountable for being selected so early*, they also blew multiple chances to salvage their careers. Thabeet now rides the pine on the Oklahoma City Thunder bench while Flynn was last seen strutting his wares for the Sichuan Blue Whales in the Chinese Basketball Association.

On a more serious note, 2009 is actually a sneaky deep draft that has showcased multiple All-Stars and a plethora of savvy ballhandlers. We ran through the pool of 60, then rearranged the top 10 based purely on impact and production and disregarded team need. In short, we went with the best player available if we could have done the draft all over again.

Let’s do a mulligan!

On the Bubble:
Marcus Thornton (selected 43rd by the Miami Heat)
Career: 330 games, 13.4 points, 3 rebounds, 1.5 assists
Thornton has been the type of player to wear out his welcome prematurely. After producing sterling numbers in his first season with the Hornets and Kings, his numbers would plummet in Year 2 particularly in the scoring department. He is the classic case of a player with good stats on a mediocre team, and now that he has been traded to the quasi-contending Brooklyn Nets, his true measure as a sparkplug off the bench will be gauged. Thornton’s ceiling remains untapped and should soon see some more quality opportunities as Joe Johnson begins to decline at the shooting guard spot.

Ricky Rubio (selected 5th by the Minnesota Kahns)
Career: 168 games, 10 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8 assists
There is no debate about Rubio’s court vision. A crafty playmaker, he finds the tiniest of creases on pick-and-roll defenses, slotting in pinpoint passes to a cutting teammate. The elephant in the room is his shooting. With nearly three seasons under his belt, the Spaniard has mustered 35.7%, 36%, and 37.4% from the field, making it impossible to take him seriously when he is in triple threat position. Is Rubio doomed to shoot below 40% for the rest of his career? Scouts have pointed to his very flat release as the main culprit, giving the ball a very little margin of error. Failure to improve this aspect of his game will hasten his expiration date once his athleticism starts to diminish.
Brandon Jennings (selected 10th by the Milwaukee Bucks)
Career: 360 games, 16.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.1 assists
This leftie is a one-hit wonder. The Pterodactyl (Basketball Reference gave him that nickname! I did not make that up!) scored 55 points in his seventh game as a rookie. It has been downhill from there. He has been branded as a volume shooter who can’t shoot, topping 40% field goal shooting only once in five seasons. Jennings has also been brash, calling out a six-game upset against Miami in last year’s first round of the playoffs. We all remember how that turned out. A change of scenery was supposed to be what the doctor ordered, the way Monta Ellis is now thriving with the Mavericks. Unfortunately, Jennings has been unable to properly direct the flow of offense for Detroit. Though Jennings averages 7.8 assists this season for the Pistons, the spacing is so discombobulated and congested that it results in so many atrocious jump shots between Josh Smith and himself.

The Top 10:
10. Darren Collison (selected 21st by the New Orleans Hornets)
Career: 366 games, 11.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists
Is Collison overrated, underrated, or properly rated? When then-Hornet Chris Paul went down with an injury, Collison spelled him admirably. Collison went berserk from February to April 2010 where he masqueraded as an elite point guard, stringing together games of 22-10, 26-11, 16-20, etc. Expectations inflated unreasonably high as he moved to Indiana and Dallas, where he put up relatively decent numbers, although his transition game was not maximized by those two teams whose offense revolved around the halfcourt. Now on his second go-round as Paul’s reliever with the Clippers, Collison is what he is, a reliable backup who can fire up a team’s offense in spurts, and a properly rated one at that.
 9. Tyreke Evans (selected 4th by the Sacramento Kings)
Career: 319 games, 16.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists
Has Evans’ time of wreaking havoc come to an abrupt end? If his 20-5-5 rookie season seems like a distant memory, it’s because it is. Kirk Goldsberry tried to solve the enigma that is Evans, who shoots very well at the foul line at 82% yet cannot buy a jumper outside eight feet. After a frustrating experiment of letting Evans come off the bench for Eric Gordon, Pelicans Head Coach Monty Williams has inserted him into the starting lineup, where he and Anthony Davis have done some serious damage offensively. Evans has been harkened as Corey Maggette 2.0 for his propensity to get to the line. If Evans has to visit the free throw line 15 times to be a game-changer, then so be it. It’s where he is most effective. It may be ugly and boring basketball, but it’s less ghastly than shooting 22% from outside eight feet.

8. Jeff Teague (selected 19th by the Atlanta Hawks)
Career: 221 games, 10.4 points, 1.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists
Playing with relative anonymity in the Highlight Factory, Teague introduced himself to the league with several impressive showings in the 2011 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Chicago Bulls. It was his stepping stone to respectability that made Kirk Hinrich expendable. One thing must be made clear: Teague is more of a facilitator than a scorer. He needs several options to thrive, as his numbers have taken a slight hit since Al Horford went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Hawks GM Danny Ferry is also slightly concerned with the baggage of Teague’s four-year, $32 million deal and is looking for ways to unload him. Don’t take Teague for granted though, as he is a poor man’s version of Tony Parker with the ability to gather for burst-of-speed layups and to throw off multiple defenders with jump-stop baby floaters.

7. Taj Gibson (selected 26th by the Chicago Bulls)
Career: 361 games, 9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 0.9 assists
Gibson’s crowning moment of glory came in the 2011, when he elevated and detonated over Dwyane Wade. Carlos Boozer might cannibalize Gibson’s offensive numbers, but it is on the defensive end where the latter’s impact is truly felt. Is Gibson’s hustle a byproduct of Bulls Head Coach Tom Thibodeau’s suffocating system? Will he be as effective playing for another team like, say, Portland? Gibson’s relentless effort makes him a fan favorite alongside Joakim Noah, and he relishes making life miserable for opposing power forwards. He is the leading candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year Award and he is inked on the books until 2017. Gibson is also improving his footwork in the paint, learning to maneuver his way to the basket without barreling or backing down his opponent too predictably.
6. DeMar DeRozan (selected 9th by the Toronto Raptors)
Career: 373 games, 16.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists
Thrust into the upper echelon of shooting guards, DeRozan forms half of the Raptors lethal backcourt together with the peaking Kyle Lowry. When he signed a four-year, $40 million contract back in 2012, most pundits perceived him to be overpaid because of his one-dimensional game. All he was good for was his East Bay Funk Remix dunks, which he proved everyone wrong the moment they traded away Rudy Gay to Sacramento. DeRozan has gotten to the line a lot more, drastically improved his on and off-ball defense, raised his PER significantly, and now commands double teams from time to time. DeRozan has also developed a reputation of demanding the ball during crunch time. That doesn’t mean he has been successful at it... yet. His name became news fodder last month when he got the All-Star nod over Lance Stephenson and his own teammate Lowry, but it is a testament of how coaches believe that he has finally made the leap in Year 5.

5. Jrue Holiday (selected 17th by the Philadelphia 76ers)
Career: 332 games, 13.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6 assists
Revisionist theorists may look at Holiday and wonder if New Orleans outsmarted themselves too much during the 2013 Draft, acquiring him for Nerlens Noel, who was projected to go first overall that night. Did they mortgage their future for a one-time All-Star who will always be overlooked behind the Russell Westbrooks and Damian Lillards of the West? Holiday is no slouch; similarity scores peg him to emulate Terrell Brandon’s career. Like Brandon, Holiday has a knack for thievery. Out for the remainder of the season to repair a stress fracture in his right tibia, Holiday will need use the offseason as an opportunity to further improve his passing game and recognize where Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson are located once the following season begins. He must establish himself as the team’s de facto third option moving forward.

4. Ty Lawson (selected 18th by the Minnesota Kahns)
Career: 337 games, 14 points, 2.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists
Bolstered by winning the 2009 NCAA title with the UNC Tar Heels, Lawson was shocked to hear 17 other players called to the podium before him. He was not an overnight sensation, learning the ropes behind Chauncey Billups as he acclimated to the air pressure of Mile High City. Once former Nuggets Head Coach George Karl handed Lawson the keys, the diminutive point guard went full throttle. Since Lawson became a full-fledged starter, the Nuggets have never finished below the top five in pace. Lawson came into the league with a mean streak from downtown, knocking down 41% from beyond the arc. However, a notable concern is his efficiency. His field goal percentages have steadily dropped since his rookie season as his burdens and responsibilities increased. What was once 51.5% is now down to 43.2%. Whether it is an adjustment to the triangle offense current Head Coach Brian Shaw is implementing or simply fatigue setting in after carrying a decimated lineup all season, Lawson is still feeling out his role as the number one option.

3. James Harden (selected 3rd by the Oklahoma City Thunder)
Career: 360 games, 17.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists
Harden is one of only two players on this list that were “correctly” selected. The way his first three seasons have played out in Oklahoma City felt like a honeymoon. Entering the 2012 Finals, the Thunder had a squad with a fixed pecking order ready to oust the Heat. And then the wheels came undone. Harden had an abysmal series and suddenly whispers of his status with the team grew louder and louder. It did not matter how he had just won the Sixth Man of the Year. One thing led to another, and he was off to Houston because they offered him more money and the promise of being their go-to guy. This story bears repeating because it provides a different dimension of the Harden blockbuster deal and how it shook the landscape in the West. Two years and two All-Star selections later, Harden is now the clear-cut best shooting guard in the league. If there were still any doubts earlier in the season, there shouldn’t be any now. His defense will play hooky from time to time when class is in session, but you can be sure that his offense will be there to deliver. The Beard’s mastery of the gather move and the Eurostep make him a ridiculously potent threat once he slashes through the shaded area.

2. Stephen Curry (selected 7th by the Golden State Warriors)
Career: 326 games, 20.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists
Stephenphetamine. The Stephen Curry Heat Check Alert is the meme that launched a million tweets. There is a magical aura that makes one believe that every single shot Curry releases is bound to go in. Coaches have adjusted their playbooks with one call that includes sending a double team at Curry right at the three-point line… even if he does not have the ball yet. But things weren’t so rosy 16 months ago, when the Warriors inked Curry to a four-year, $44 million extension. Those vulnerable ankles that seemed to twist like Play-Doh with one wrong cut to the basket were a red flag. Fans held a collective breath whenever he goes down in a heap. There’s no telling what could happen. But looking back, Curry almost did not become a Warrior. In a parallel universe, hewould have been playing for the Suns or Knicks. He would have been the metaphorical acetylyne torch that the Lady Liberty holds up in the Big Apple. Instead, he is in the Bay Area, where he announced his playoff arrival last season with a total dismantling of the Denver Nuggets before giving the San Antonio Spurs all it could handle. Curry will never be an inside threat taking it strong to the hoop, but as long as he can stay healthy on the court, his long range bombs will always be a sight to marvel at.
1. Blake Griffin (selected 1st by the Los Angeles Clippers)
Career: 300 games, 21.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists
Mozgov’d! Oh me, oh my! Blake Griffin’s arrival in the league marked a cultural revolution of sorts. The year he took off for rehabbing his knee was a blessing in disguise. When he broke into the scene in 2010, he entered right as social media became instantaneous, where you can watch GIFs of his eviscerating Kendrick Perkins and Pau Gasol within minutes of the actual murder… er, highlight. Bill Simmons prematurely touted Griffin as the possible second coming of Sidney Wicks due to his declining scoring output in Years 2 and 3. Then, Vinny Del Negro was shipped out and in came Doc Rivers. Griffin and Chris Paul called Lob City dead, putting away the gimmicky approach for more serious, championship-caliber basketball. Suddenly, a rejuvenated Griffin became a two-way monster, corralling every loose ball and playing with the mindset of an MVP. Even with Paul sidelined for several weeks, Griffin did not slow down as he ramped up his game to a whole new level with an improved arsenal from the midrange and at the charity stripe. Let’s face it: he has the power to manipulate the psyche of opposing teams. There are opposing players who are subbed in with the sole purpose of throwing off Griffin’s focus and composure in the hopes that he will retaliate. They push and undercut him in the post with extra gusto. The amount of punishment he takes is staggering. He may be a superstar on the rise, but he definitely is getting no superstar treatment.

*Thabeet was selected 2nd by the Memphis Grizzlies; Flynn was selected 6th by the Minnesota Kahns.












Monday, April 22, 2013

2013 NBA Western Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: Oklahoma City vs Houston



(1) Oklahoma City Thunder 60-22
(8) Houston Rockets 45-37

Season Series: Thunder 2-1
November 29: Rockets 98-120 @Thunder
December 30: Thunder 124-94 @Rockets
February 21: Thunder 119-122 @Rockets

The storylines could not be laid out more neatly. It took the final game of the regular season for the plot to thicken, and here it is. From the return of the $80 million beard to a tussle of the second and third-best offenses in the league, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets are expected to light up the playoff skies with fireworks in store.
Racking off at least 119 points in each of their three regular season meetings, the Thunder can expect such production to continue in the playoffs. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are not the type of players who slow down their pace and drop off during the playoffs. If I am Coach Scott Brooks, I will immediately recognize that Omer Asik is Houston’s solitary post presence. Armed with this knowledge, Brooks must instruct Durant and Westbrook to penetrate on every possible possession, get Asik in foul trouble, and force Coach Kevin McHale’s hand at the vastly inexperienced trio of Greg Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, and Thomas Robinson.

The Thunder are also expected to thrive on numerous corner threes coming from Ibaka, whose range has stretched out that far back (35.1% from downtown this season) and Kevin Martin, who would like nothing more than to stick it to his former team. The Thunder can do no wrong in terms of matchups. Insert Kendrick Perkins, the bruiser who will make James Harden work for his shots. Throw in Nick Collison for an added shot of offensive post moves. Unleash Hasheem Thabeet sparingly for the extra length to frustrate Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons.

Thabo Sefolosha will have his hands full containing Harden, which is news for the Thunder, because on the other end, Harden will be spending a lot of time fronting Durant, a mismatch in every sense of the word. The Thunder’s scouting report is clear as day: Houston only takes three-pointers and layups. Prevent those two from happening and the Rockets will be left with perimeter jumpers, the equivalent of basketball purgatory for Daryl Morey.

Harden will be the sole indicator of Houston’s feast-or-famine evenings. His game is as bipolar as it gets. He can have 37 points on 16 shots in one game, followed by 17 points on 19 shots in the next. Harden is sure to continue his foul-baiting exploits, but in a physical series, the Thunder can get away with a couple of bumps without any whistles being blown. The job falls on Jeremy Lin, Carlos Delfino, and Patrick Beverley to free themselves up for looks at the top of the key or along the elbow.

The Rockets are virtually playing four-on-five offensively with Asik as a massive offensive liability. Moreover, Houston needs to maximize their possessions and cannot fumble the ball away the way they had during the regular season, having led the league in turnovers with 15.8 a game. In the same light, Houston must force Oklahoma City into errors (5th, 14.6 per) on the other side of the floor to initiate transition attacks where the former is most efficient.

The Thunder must forcefully impose their “big brother” stance on the Rockets if they want to make quick work of them. None of the Rockets are defensively capable of staying in front of Durant and Westbrook for four quarters. Only a 40-point aberration from The Beard could swing a game in Houston’s favor, nothing more.

Prediction: Thunder in 5

2013 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: Miami vs Milwaukee



(1) Miami Heat 66-16
(8) Milwaukee Bucks 38-44

Season Series: Heat 3-1
November 22: Bucks 106-113 @Heat
December 30: Heat 85-104 @Bucks
March 16: Heat 107-94 @Bucks
April 10: Bucks 83-94 @Heat

Metrics, standard or advanced, fail to emphasize the gulf of talent between these two teams.
The Milwaukee Bucks feature incredible firepower in the backcourt, thanks to the troika of Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, and J.J. Redick. All three are expected to cannibalize stats in an attempt to get a huge paycheck this summer. It is also important to note that they are all mediocre defenders, and playing them simultaneously is akin to preparing a layup line for the opponents.

Most Bucks fans (at least I believe they have fans) are scratching their heads, wondering how their most viable young asset, Tobias Harris, was sent packing in exchange for Keanu Reeves/Penn Badgley’s doppelganger and a bag of peanuts.

Whatever potency the Bucks backcourt gives in scoring is matched by the frontcourt’s inability to get buckets. Ersan Ilyasova is the lone bright spot, but he roams too far out and camps in the three-point line more frequently than desired, when they already have too much fauna roaming in that vicinity, especially when you throw Mike Dunleavy, Jr. in the mix. At the very least, Ilyasova has ratcheted up his points and rebounds as of late after a subpar November.

Now on to the glaring problem. LARRY SANDERS! (taking the Zach Lowe route here), Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, John Henson, and Samuel Dalembert are no-shows on the offensive end. We can probably give SANDERS! a hall pass since he has been a defensive beast, sending back close to three shots a game into the 10th row. He serves as a help defender and as a last line of defense, similar to what Chris Andersen did for the Denver Nuggets and does now for the Miami Heat.

It is difficult to imagine SANDERS! effectively closing the door on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, not that any one man can humanly stop those two in close-range combat. In addition, Chris Bosh will smartly draw him out on pick-and-pop plays, thereby limiting his effectiveness even further.

To exacerbate matters, SANDERS! could find himself on the wrong end of ejection calls (hint: there is no right end) on several instances if his frustration gets pent up and unleashed towards the officials. SANDERS! has to stay in the game; at times he is the only one saving the Bucks on defense (20th, 100.4 points allowed per).

The worst thing Jim Boylan can attempt is to counter the Heat attack with his own version of small-ball, utilizing Mbah a Moute as a stretch four even though he has no range beyond 12 feet from the basket. Instead, the Bucks should resolve to playing huge lineups, similar to what the Indiana Pacers did against the Heat during the East Semis last season. It won’t be pretty, but having Ekpe Udoh and Gustavo Ayon could be the Bucks’ best chance (most likely it won’t, but desperate times call for such actions).

From the Heat’s perspective, the game plan is to stop Jennings and Ellis, the latter whom they have been very successful at limiting during the regular season at a paltry 9.5ppg. Those two Bucks account for nearly 40% of the team’s total points (12th, 98.9ppg), and if the Heatles chop their heads off and mount them on the wall, that will ultimately spell the Bucks’ doom.

The Bucks stop here. The coup de grace will come swiftly.

Prediction: Heat in 4

Sunday, April 21, 2013

2013 NBA Western Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: San Antonio vs LA Lakers



(2) San Antonio Spurs 58-24
(7) Los Angeles Lakers 45-37

Season Series: Spurs 2-1
November 14: Spurs 84-82 @Lakers
January 10: Lakers 105-108 @Spurs
April 15: Spurs 86-91 @Lakers

“Kobe is watching us at home. Dr. Buss is watching us up high. Let’s let it out tonight. Everything we got. Everything!” –Dwight Howard

The Los Angeles Lakers have gone through several season restarts. They mourned over Dr. Jerry Buss, the architect of Showtime. They lost Howard, Pau Gasol, Jordan Hill, Steve Nash, and Kobe Bryant at various points of the season. They went through two coaching changes. Phil Jackson came in the building and made Lakers fans swoon at the false hopes of a comeback. Mike D’Antoni adjusts uncomfortably in his hot seat. Though the Lakers have renewed his contract, job security comes at a high price.

Now, D’Antoni attempts to climb his personal Mt. Everest, better known to the public as the San Antonio Spurs.
 
Of course, annexing the summit rests on D’Antoni’s prized playmaker. How healthy will Nash be if and when he returns in this series? All the attention falls on him and how he gets Howard and Gasol involved on pick-and-rolls, keeping the spacing manageable even as the Spurs defense sees the play developing from the moment he brings the ball upcourt. The challenge falls on two other Lakers to step up: Metta World Peace and Jodie Meeks.

World Peace has experienced a fluke season, with his numbers spiking up slightly after it started taking an egregious downturn since he brought the Wheaties box along after Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. He has taken the second-most threes per game in his career this season (5.5 attempts), and with the return of Nash, he will be tasked to convert on many more kickouts.

The same goes with Meeks, who has struggled since starting in place of Bryant. He has gone 5/21 in his last two games and will need to find a way to bury jumpers because he will get a lot of open looks when the Spurs collapse on LA’s frontcourt.

Other Lakers will be under unfair (but necessary) scrutiny. Steve Blake had back-to-back breakout games, one against these same Spurs, and should be expected to handle defensive chores on Tony Parker, who has not yet fully recovered from his sprained ankle. Antawn Jamison, who has bounced back and forth between surprise X-factor and frustrating momentum-killer, will lick his chops at the sight of guarding Tim Duncan for the first time in the postseason.

There have been a lot of murmurs surrounding the Spurs as they faltered down the stretch with a 12-10 record to wrap up the regular season. Besides Parker, the absence of Manu Ginobili (strained hamstring) has carved up the guard rotation, forcing extended minutes from the likes of Gary Neal and Patty Mills. Boris Diaw also missed time with his own injury woes (spine cyst).

Worse, internal strife was present in a normally professional locker room, as Stephen Jackson was given the boot for complaining about a decreased role on the team. Of course Jackson being buried in the rotation was bound to happen. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have both submitted reliable downtown shooting, a large reason why the Spurs continued to be a threat from downtown (4th, 37.6%). The Spurs have given these two youngsters the confidence that they are competent pieces made elite by the system Coach Gregg Popovich runs.

However, Ginobili’s absence is a key loss for the Spurs, because the shooting guard position was supposed to be where they would dominate against the Lakers but now that advantage has been somewhat neutralized. As long as Ginobili is playing hurt, rotation guys like Cory Joseph and Nando De Colo will be forced to produce beyond their limitations. This is definitely a knock on those two, who have gotten minutes but have not yet played up to their billing.

Another concern is the Spurs’ very shallow frontcourt. Behind Duncan, there is DeJuan Blair and Aron Baynes. Matt Bonner as a power forward among the potpourri of Lakers big men could turn into rebounding suicide, as he only averages 1.9rpg. Suddenly, employing Smite-a-Dwight may not be as optimal for the Spurs as it initially sounds. There are times when the Spurs rotation will resemble that of the Austin Toros.

The reason that the Spurs still have the upper hand is not because of Tracy McGrady. McGrady will play a bit role in this series and might not even see significant minutes in the first couple of games. It will be the Spurs’ ball movement that will play a huge factor. The fluidity of the offense is hinged on quick inside-out passing (1st in assists, 25.1 per), making it difficult to close out on a single shooter or post up player.

In a series of banged-up players, the team that has the best player available should be able to lead his team to victory. That player is Duncan, who is having a renaissance year as his 37th birthday fast approaches. Watch him have a slugfest with not only Howard and Gasol, but also with Father Time as he hopes to add to his collection of vintage performances.

Prediction: Spurs in 6

Saturday, April 20, 2013

2013 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: Indiana vs Atlanta



(3) Indiana Pacers 49-32*
(6) Atlanta Hawks 44-38

Season Series: Tied 2-2
November 8: Pacers 86-89 @Hawks
December 30: Pacers 100-109 @Hawks
February 6: Hawks 103-114 @Pacers
March 26: Hawks 94-100 @Pacers

Lance Stephenson vs DeShawn Stevenson.

The matchup above reflects the overall temperament of this series. Some fake tough guys, studio gangsters, and players only seeing action due to injuries, etc. These two teams have been so under the radar that this will be the forgotten series when the 2013 playoffs are casually discussed five years from now. It is a shame that such an impression lingers, as these two teams fought vicious battles from 1994-1996, from Dale Davis to Stacey Augmon to Vern Fleming to Daron Oshay Blaylock (yup, Mookie).

Thanks, Basketball Reference. Now, on to the snoozefest.
Indiana has been the East’s darkhorse all season, playing the anti-Heat role. They win through sheer intimidation, crashing the boards, and wiping the glass clean. Though none of their players average double figures in rebounding, it has been a duty shared among Roy Hibbert (8.3), David West (7.7), and surprisingly, Paul George (7.6), who is widely known for his defense, three, and athletic ability. With Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi coming off the bench, the Pacers will make life very difficult for the likes of Al Horford and Josh Smith.

Defense will be the calling card of the Pacers, who finished second in points allowed (90.7) thanks to that enormous lineup. It will be interesting how the Hawks try to carve up the defense, as Indiana is not a team that goes small-ball. They force opponents to keep up with their size rather than adjust the other way around.

However, the Pacers have experienced serious slippage, barely going over .500 in the last 20 games of the season, which ultimately costed them homecourt advantage through the East Semis. Coach Frank Vogel has insisted that the team is still establishing its identity as a power-post team and this will be essential as they establish superiority over the Hawks.

In order to achieve this, the guy finding the bigs will need to be 100%. George Hill, who is battling hip and groin injuries will have to come out and face Atlanta’s plethora of point guards. If not, the onus falls on D.J. Augustin, who has vastly underperformed since his breakout season with the Charlotte Bobcats (Good stats/bad team alert!).

For the Hawks, it will be difficult to gauge the two regular season wins against the Pacers, as Lou Williams saw action in both of those games. Without him, the Hawks have given Kyle Korver a more significant role as the team’s fourth option and are squeezing out every ounce of talent from sophomore Shelvin Mack and rookie John Jenkins. Jeff Teague, who was once upon a time not even worth a footnote on the Hawks rotation, is now suddenly expected to carry the team as its bonafide third banana.

On Smith’s part, he knows that this will be the series that general managers will be zeroing in for his next hefty payday. Together with Teague, the two of them form one of the better passing duos in the league, a huge reason behind Atlanta’s finishing among the league leaders in the assists department (2nd, 24.5 per). If Smith turns into the guy with decent shot selection (big if), prevents George from morphing into Reggie Miller Lite (another big if), and boxes out Indiana’s frontline successfully (so many conditionals), he might just dupe a general manager into paying him cash that would make Rashard Lewis blush.

Given those details, the Hawks have too many holes that the Pacers can and will exploit. Atlanta cannot get to the free throw line enough (27th in attempts, 19.7 per), and when they do, they cannot get the ball in the basket (26th, 71.5%). This is an essential shortcoming because Atlanta’s only chance is to get Indian’s frontcourt in foul trouble. To compound matters, Atlanta plays the fifth-worst free throw defense (76.3%), something that they cannot control but needs to be mentioned nonetheless. They get beat on the boards (-2.8) as well. How Larry Drew got the team 44 victories is a minor miracle in itself.

It is a shame that Danny Granger and Williams will be on the sidelines when the series tips off. But then again, neither player would have made the series TNT-worthy.

Prediction: Pacers in 4

*The Indiana Pacers only played 81 regular season games.

2013 NBA Western Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: LA Clippers vs Memphis



(4) Los Angeles Clippers 56-26
(5) Memphis Grizzlies 56-26

Season Series: Clippers 3-1
November 1: Grizzlies 92-101 @Clippers
January 15: Clippers 99-73 @Grizzlies
March 14: Grizzlies 96-85 @Clippers
April 14: Clippers 91-87 @Grizzlies

There are few best-of-seven series that are so evenly matched that I am already typing down paragraphs without a clear picture of who has the decisive edge. Usually, after careful consideration, there is already a formulated group of arguments that tilt the favor one way or another. Not in this instance. The Clippers and Grizzlies both have strong cases for advancing into the West Semis.

The Clippers have been a bipolar team. This squad raced out to a 17-game winning streak spanning through the month of December. Jamal Crawford saw the effects of offseason practice, busting out a November for the ages. Clips Nation saw “A Tribe Called Bench” consisting of Eric Bledsoe and Lamar Odom provide solid contributions. 

Then the spotlight shifted to DeAndre Jordan, who committed first-degree homicide against a certain Detroit Piston. And somewhere in there, a point god named Chris Paul quietly submitted numbers that emphasized his All-Star Game MVP performance, with 16.9ppg, 3.7rpg, 9.7apg, and 2.4spg in 70 appearances.
However, the Clippers have been Jekyll and Hyde. Grant Hill saw career-low numbers across the board in what looks to be his farewell tour. He has been so invisible that he is the only Clipper producing negative Win Shares. Chauncey Billups, touted to finally see playing time alongside Paul, has been severely hampered by a cascade of injuries, suiting up in only 22 games and watching Willie Green handle a significant chunk of shooting guard duties. Caron Butler, while healthy, has also seen a gradual reduction in points, nowhere near his averages posted during his stints with the Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks.

Even Blake Griffin took a noticeable step back, averaging four less points and rebounds as compared to his unanimous Rookie of the Year Award season. Another cause of concern was their disinterested 17-17 slump through February and March. Had it not been for a seven-game recovery to end the season, they would not even hold homecourt in the first round. So which Clippers team shows up in the postseason?

The Clippers finished with a much higher winning percentage from last year (60.6% to 68.2%) but the team’s depth chart does not look as lethal. When these two teams faced each other this time last year, the Clippers trotted out competent relievers in Nick Young, Mo Williams, Reggie Evans, and Kenyon Martin. This year, the guy picking up that slack is Ryan Hollins who is worth six fouls and is a technical time bomb waiting to happen.

Rotations ideally shrink in the postseason, but that was the Clippers’ trump card against a Memphis team that finds ways to drain the Fatigue bar from their opponents as quickly as possible. That is a distinct advantage the Clippers gave up.

For the Grit N Grind Grizzlies, one of the many motivations driving this team is vindication. At the back of their heads, they want to justify once and for all that they are a better team moving forward sans Rudy Gay. Prior to the blockbuster trade, they were 29-15. Since the trade was executed? 27-11. The sample size of the regular season is still inconclusive. The only result that matters is advancing past the Clippers in Round 1, something they fell a game short of doing last spring.

The Grizzlies live up to their slogan. They grind opponents into the league’s slowest pace. They allow the least number of points (89.3ppg) to account for their own scoring deficiencies (27th, 93.4ppg). Mike Conley has quietly risen his stock as as a bargain chip. Many raised eyebrows when the Grizzlies inked him to a $40 million multi-year deal. The man has earned every penny of his contract. Together with Tony Allen, they form one of the most unforgiving backcourt units, combining for nearly four steals a game.

While Marc Gasol has been making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year, a vital piece to the puzzle has been Tayshaun Prince, who has proven to the world that a player’s career can be revived when placed in the right circumstances. The acquisition of Prince gives the team its first elite wing defender since Shane Battier and it allows Memphis’ offensive hierarchy to fall into place, forming a trio of options: Gasol in the low post, Zach Randolph in the high post, and Conley hovering along the perimeter.

The man who has the most to lose in this series is Vinny Del Negro. If he fails to get the Clippers out of the first round, it is quite certain that he gets the ax. The man who may have the biggest impact without a seeing a minute on the floor is John Hollinger. It is time to see the full utilization of the Player Efficiency Rating (PER).

The matchups are a wash. But it may be a case of the Clippers peaking too soon.

Sometimes it’s all about the timing.

Prediction: Grizzlies in 6

Friday, April 19, 2013

2013 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: Brooklyn vs Chicago



(4) Brooklyn Nets 49-33
(5) Chicago Bulls 45-37

Season Series: Bulls 3-1
December 16: Nets 82-83 @Bulls
February 2: Bulls 89-93 @Nets
March 3: Nets 85-96 @Bulls
April 4: Bulls 92-90 @Nets

The underachievers and overachievers clash in a potentially underwhelming series overshadowed by a superstar’s possible comeback.

Despite winning 49 games, the Brooklyn Nets reek of a disinterested team that coasted through the regular season, hoping to skip the formalities and just get things over with once the postseason fireworks began. No other player has personified this ho-hum nonchalance more than Gerald Wallace. Crash saw his numbers across the board plummet, a mystery since he played relatively healthy (note: concussion-free) this season.

The enigma of Wallace has typified that of the Nets’; on some nights, they can pulverize the Oklahoma City Thunder by 17, yet on other nights the San Antonio Spurs would obliterate this motley by 31. However, the good outweighs the bad. The Nets saw encouraging signs that made them at one point challenge the New York Knicks for the second spot in the East. This was most evident when P.J. Carlesimo was replaced Avery Johnson, who strained ties with Deron Williams.

In addition, Joe Johnson has made a very smooth transition from being Atlanta’s alpha Hawk to being the third option and premiere closer of this Nets team. Although he will never truly shed his overpaid label (not his own doing but a repercussion of Atlanta’s inept management), Johnson has delivered several buzzer-beaters and continued to display his clutch gene. He has been the complementary shooting guard that Williams never had in his first seven seasons in the league.
Brooklyn’s power forward platter will be serving different specialties. Former knucklehead Andray Blatche has solidified his role as the scoring punch off the bench, while Reggie Evans has more than compensated for Kris Humphries with his rebounding acumen, even getting a tooth knocked out in one of his forays under the basket. Brooklyn will also have additional ammunition from their bench mob. C.J Watson and Keith Bogans both have scores to settle against their former team and can spark mini-runs with their downtown shooting.

At the center of it all is Brook Lopez. The 7’0” giant is expected to have his way against Joakim Noah, who missed 12 of the last 15 games and is still recovering from plantar fasciitis. Lopez is no longer just a finisher with his back to the basket. The Nets frequently employ him on a high pick-and-roll and can finish strong, taking one power dribble to build momentum as he drives to the basket like a burly guard. Doing such a move with Williams in tandem will be devastating as the Bulls have no answer at both point guard and center that are large enough to stay in front of these two.

The Bulls have clambered onto the fifth seed by sheer will. What was expected to be a game of musical chairs filling out Derrick Rose’s size 13 Adidas kicks has turned out better than hoped for. Remember, preseason prognosticators pegged this team finishing with 30-something wins and Marquis Teague holding down the ballhandling duties. Instead, Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich have stepped up commendably.

Luol Deng is the forgotten man but he is capable of becoming the best player from both teams at key stretches. Once again, the burden of minutes management will fall squarely on Tom Thibodeau’s shoulders and he will need to keep Deng fresh especially in the deep end of the fourth quarter.
 
In order for the Bulls to have a legitimate shot at knocking down the Nets, Carlos Boozer has to play at par to the exorbitant contract handed to him three years ago. He has shown that he is up to the task, averaging 21.3ppg and 10.7rpg in his three games against Brooklyn. Moreover, defensive stalwart Jimmy Butler must be relentless on the defensive end, chasing Johnson all over the court and preventing any easy looks.

Watching these two teams play will be a test of patience and character. The Nets employ the third-slowest pace while the Bulls own the fourth-slowest in the league. It will be the equivalent of watching a 48-minute Phantom clip... in slow motion.

Prediction: Nets in 6

2013 NBA Western Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: Denver vs Golden State



(3) Denver Nuggets 57-25
(6) Golden State Warriors 47-35

Season Series: Nuggets 3-1
November 11: Nuggets 107-101 @Warriors
November 24: Warriors 91-102 @Nuggets
November 30: Nuggets 105-106 @Warriors
January 14: Warriors 105-116 @Nuggets

38-3.

That is the record of the Denver Nuggets in the confines of Pepsi Center, fast becoming the arena opposing teams dread to visit. The Nuggets have been a model of consistency throughout the regular season. Not even the injury of Danilo Gallinari could derail these miners. According to Bradford Doolittle of ESPN, the Nuggets’ win total this season simulated without Gallinari would drop the Nuggets from 56.4 down to... 56.4.

That figure virtually presumes that Gallinari’s absence is negligible. He averaged 20.5ppg and 7.8rpg in four games against the Warriors, which is quite substantial, but the Nuggets were constructed with so much depth that his loss can be compensated for. Props to General Manager Masai Ujiri.
The backbone of that mind-boggling constancy can also be credited to George Karl, who has my unofficial vote for Coach of the Year. He carries the distinction of leading a team with zero All-Stars (repeat, zero) with the best offense in the league at 106.1ppg, highlighted by their 15-game winning streak. Thanks to their absurd pace, they are also among the league leaders in rebounds (2nd, 45 per), steals (2nd, 9.3 per), blocks (3rd, 6.5 per), and assists (3rd, 24.4 per).

This elite offense cannot be associated solely with Ty Lawson, Denver’s de facto leader. Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller have meshed beautifully, harkening back to their days together in Philadelphia. Wilson Chandler has seen an uptick in his numbers after a poorly-timed return from China late last season. Even Evan Fournier has been a treasure find with a solid first half of April.

But where does Denver get that extra fizz when they play at Pepsi Center? The answer lies in getting the highest percentage looks as often as possible. Denver averages 58 points in the paint, tops in the league, a collective effort by Iguodala, Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufus, and JaVale McGee. Those 58 points give them a +19.7 advantage over Golden State.

The Golden State Warriors need no introduction on their style of play. Shoot threes. Shoot more threes. And when the defense collapses, David Lee or Carl Landry will be waiting inside. With so many nationally-televised games, they have become a League Pass go-to, as watching Stephen Curry (272 threes, single season record) and Klay Thompson (211) connect on 483 combined treys has been an engaging sight.

Mark Jackson has given his point guard the reigns to run the offense and unleash from downtown at will, if need be. Lee, the only All-Star in this series (!!!) who is not known for his defensive prowess, will have a tough task ahead of him containing Denver’s huge frontline.

Harrison Barnes will be going toe-to-toe with Andre Iguodala in one of the most riveting first round matchups among wing players. With one monster dunk, these two highflyers can set the tone and shift momentum. How the rookie stacks up against the veteran will indicate how much of a fighting chance these Warriors have out there. Jarrett Jack will be the Warriors main source of bench production. His best games of the season came in those tight-fit sleeves, so it will be a good idea to get the Golden Sleeves Warriors out to play.

The odds are stacked against the Warriors because their four best players are postseason virgins. Even Andrew Bogut’s lone playoff appearance came all the way back during his rookie season in 2005-2006, a lifetime ago. How will Curry and Thompson mentally react and improvise when their shots stop falling? Can Lee remain effective in spite of Faried’s physicality?

Both teams will be initiating transition plays back and forth on every ensuing possession. While the other seven first-round matchups will be grinding it out defensively, this might be the only series where both teams top the century mark each game.

Altitude matters. In the postseason, riding the elevator screens won’t be enough to get the Warriors mile-high.

Prediction: Nuggets in 7

Thursday, April 18, 2013

2013 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Predictions: New York vs Boston




(2) New York Knicks 54-28
(7) Boston Celtics 41-40*


Season Series: Knicks 3-1
January 8: Celtics 102-96 @Knicks
January 25: Knicks 89-86 @Celtics
March 27: Knicks 100-85 @Celtics
April 1: Celtics 89-108 @Knicks

Perhaps none of the 16 teams enters the postseason with as much emotional baggage as the Boston Celtics. Weighed down by the recent bombings of the Boston Marathon and forced to forego their penultimate regular season game against the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics are battered and bruised as they travel to the Big Apple as consensus underdogs in the first round. The Honey Nut Cheerios series is underway.

Though the New York Knicks have made it to the playoffs for the third straight season, this actually marks the first time that they have homecourt advantage since 2000-2001. The Knicks started out of the gates strong, crested midway, and built a 13-game winning streak right before the regular season wound down. 
Carmelo Anthony is at the forefront of the Knicks renaissance. Once upon a time, there was an uncertainty of whether he or Amar’e Stoudemire would be the face of this franchise. Thanks to how Mike Woodson has helped Anthony redefine himself in a combo forward role, there are no more doubts left.  With a blistering tear spanning through late March and early April, Anthony wrestled away the scoring title from Kevin Durant with a 28.7ppg average and he should receive numerous third-place votes on the MVP ballot.

The Knicks have lived and died on three-point shooting, tied for the league leaders in attempts with 28.9 per game and hold the fifth-best rate at 37.6%. The heavy reliance on threes is directly coming from the fact that they play the fifth-slowest pace in the league and demand finding the open man in the halfcourt sets. Unless Anthony is setting himself an isolation play, the ball finds its way into the hands of an eager J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, or Steve Novak.

As the Knicks total the league’s third-fewest assists with only 19.3 per game, the Celtics can hope that the Knicks offense stagnates to a grinding halt. However, this does not mean they will let Anthony go off for 50 points by himself anytime he wants.

Take note of Earl Barron, the Knicks’ late acquisition right before the end of the regular season who played in the regular season finale. The Knicks hope that he can provide additional problems for a very thin Celtics frontline. Second-year stud Iman Shumpert will be expected to provide heady defense against the likes of no-conscience chuckers Jordan Crawford and Jason Terry.

The Celtics’ dropoff has been very evident on the defensive end. What was once a perennial top five lockdown system has regressed to 12th this season as they allow a charitable 96.7ppg. Beantown’s hopes are pinned on fourth-year pro Jeff Green, who is gradually taking over the alpha dog role away from Paul Pierce. Since the All-Star festivities wrapped up, Green has been a bargain for the Celtics, averaging 17.3ppg on 43.9% three-point shooting to go with five rebounds. His aggressiveness is no longer a glaring deficiency as he is not shy to bury midrange jumpers and take it strong to the hole.

Finally, all eyes will be on Kevin Garnett and his inflamed left ankle. He should be ready to go for Game 1 but how much pressure he puts on that left leg of his will determine his effectiveness. As always, he will be tasked to shuffle between the four and five spots, and has to pick up for the slack that Brandon Bass and Shavlik Randolph leave behind.

Anthony and the Knicks should go on to dispatch the worn-down Celtics in a heated series that will see a flavor of physicality reminiscent of the 90s, especially when Garnett and Kenyon Martin start yapping at each other. As Boston recovers from a devastating explosion, the Celtics roster may headed for an implosion as the Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers head towards an offseason full of question marks.

Prediction: Knicks in 6

*The Celtics only played 81 regular season games.