Friday, April 15, 2016

Playoff Preview (feeling more optimistic)

          I’m feeling more optimistic now that the season is coming to a close and we’ll soon be jumping into the playoffs.  Golden State went for 73 wins against the very strange collection of NBA castoffs and characters that is the Grizzlies and won.  Matt Barnes did his best to knock Curry out of the playoffs short of getting kicked out but it didn’t work.  The little guy is tougher than he looks. The collection of characters on the mash unit that is the Grizzlies is hilarious.  Barnes, Born Ready, the Birdman, P.J. Hairston, and Zach Randolph is an extremely strange group of weirdoes.  I was really hoping that these misfits would play the Clippers in the first round but instead they’re going to be demolished by the Spurs.  They would have lost to the Clippers as well but I guarantee there would have been some dudes getting kicked out for flagrant fouls.  I love to watch the Spurs play against anyone but I’m not sure I’m going to be glued to Memphis vs. San Antonio.  – I’m predicting a San Antonio sweep -- 
            Those Clippers are going to square up against Portland and that actually might be an interesting match up.  Portland’s front line will be a bit over matched but at least there’s the potential of an upset.  The Clippers should pull it out, but mentally they’re a bit of a fragile team and were Portland to win one of the games in Los Angeles I could see the Clippers tightening up.  I’ll be surprised if LA doesn’t pull it out eventually.  Portland is a couple rotation players away from being a really dangerous team.  If LA doesn’t go at least a few rounds deep I think they might have to undergo wholesale changes by the next season.  There’s a lot on the line in the playoffs for the core of Griffin, Jordan, and Paul.  Doc the GM will have some soul searching to do if they don’t make it to the finals.  That’s a tough position for a team that is clearly the 3rd or 4th best in the West and is looking at facing the Golden State juggernaut in the second round.  Can Doc say that the season wasn’t a bust if they get knocked out in the 2nd round even if it’s to the eventual champions?  Portland is playing with house money.  No matter the outcome of the series their season was an incredible success.  Terry Stotts worked miracles with this team and Lillard and McCollum stepped up and established a core back court for years to come.  –I’m picking Clippers in 6 --

            OKC vs. Dallas should not be competitive given all the injuries the Mavericks have suffered.  Rick Carlisle is too good a coach though to get swept.  They’ll win a game or two and you’ll wonder how it happened.  OKC is flawed, but Westbrook and Durant are too talented to lose this series.  The future for both teams is murky and confusing.  I can’t in any way see how switching from Brooks to Donovan as coach helped the Thunder.  They play virtually the same alternating one on one style of basketball.  They’re still searching for five guys who can be on the court when things really matter.  It’s both bad coaching and bad GM work in tandem when there are no clear-cut solutions for your roster.  They’ve got offensive lineups that aren’t that great and defensive lineups that don’t scare anyone and not enough effective two-way players.  I truly have no idea how Cantor is making so much money to play basketball.  Any team dependent on Dion Waiters for anything is in trouble.  And yet, they’ve got two of the best few players in the game.  The talent of Durant and Westbrook can be transcendent though neither one has learned to play off the ball comfortably.  Durant is one of the greatest scorers ever but if you compare him to Curry you see a couple small flaws.  Curry can dominate the ball one on one but he’s comfortable passing it off and switching to running off screens mode which allows the team to run different sets and gets everyone else involved.  Neither Durant nor Westbrook is comfortable in this role and the over all goal of their offense is to get one or the other into their comfort spots on the floor so that they can school someone.  This is old time ball that is capable of working but seems antiquated in today’s NBA.  It can work if one of your guys is channeling Jordan but that’s tough given modern defense and the ability for teams to zone up and switch and overload.  OKC should scare the crap out of everyone they play in the playoffs but eventually Westbrook will fire up too many errant 3 pointers and their offense will stagnate and someone will execute them out of the gym.  I have no idea what happens to Dallas going forward.  They just don’t look positioned to make many moves next year but they’ve got Carlyle and so they’ll compete for the playoffs no matter what.  Championship aspirations for them seem distant.  OKC’s future is murky too.  They need to go deep into the playoffs and play well.  Unfortunately they’re looking at San Antonio in the second round.  Chances are that they do not win that series but they’ve definitely got a chance.  They are precisely the kind of athletic team that would create problems for San Antonio in the past.  I don’t think that’s the case this season though.  Kawhi can make Durant work and the Spurs can afford to put Green on Westbrook as the Thunder still haven’t located a competent off guard.  In past games OKC has tried to punish Tony Parker on the block with Waiters but frankly San Antonio’s goal should be to have Waiters shoot as much as he wants.  Yes, go ahead and punish our little guard if it means Waiters island becoming a more remote location.  Another difference for the Spurs this year is that Aldridge makes them much more athletic and big on the front line.  His overall size is under rated and he’s much quicker than you might think looking at him.  Like the Clippers, OKC is in the unenviable position of potentially being knocked out of the playoffs early enough to put doubt in the mind of Durant that it’s worth returning.  What’s going to change in the next few seasons for OKC?  -- I’m picking OKC in 6 --

            Golden State vs. Houston is not terribly exciting to me.  You’ll see Harden get fouled a great deal and he’ll dominate the ball and put up big numbers but Thompson matches up pretty well with him.  Beverley will piss off Curry but outside of deliberately hurting Curry and knocking him out of the series (I wouldn’t put this past him) the Rockets are just too outmatched to make this interesting.  Fortunately Golden State is good fun enough to watch that they can probably overcome the boredom of watching Harden shoot free throws and make these games worth watching to some extant.  Houston will have a lot of off-season decisions to make.  What is the market for Howard?  Even if it’s less then he wants it to be I just don’t see him returning.  Beyond Harden what do they have?  It’s going to take some serious magic to resuscitate this team.  Amazing considering they were in the conference finals last year (that took a lot of luck though).  I don’t see what the point of firing McHale was?  Why didn’t they let him play out the season?  As for Golden State, contrary to what Barkley might think, I find it hard to imagine they don’t win it all.  Anything can happen I suppose and certainly an injury could radically change their fortunes (they been really lucky with injuries although it helps that they don’t play anyone too many minutes over the course of the season), but they are clearly the best team and the dominant team can usually win out in a best of seven series. 
One more thing I’d like to point out that fascinated me on the last night of the regular season.  Contrast Curry’s 46 points on 24 shots (10 for 19 from 3 and 5 for 5 from 2) in 29 minutes with Kobe’s 60 points on 50 shots (6 for 21 from 3 and 16 for 29 from 2) in 42 minutes for the last game of the season and you can extrapolate a difference in eras.  It’s amazing how much efficiency is valued in today’s NBA compared to the past.  Both games were exciting but Curry was incredibly efficient in helping his team win their 73rd game of the year and Kobe was incredibly inefficient in helping his team win their 17th game of the season.  Allen Iverson just got into the hall of fame and don’t get me wrong.  I loved Iverson.  What he did at his size was amazing.  But just imagine if he could have learned to shoot.  What Curry has done this season is unprecedented.  He’s averaged over 30 points per game and shot over 50% from the field for the season, over 45% from 3, and over 90% from the line.  That’s just crazy.  – I’m picking Golden State in a sweep --

            The East, on paper at least, has some interesting matchups from a competitive standpoint.  I don’t think anyone will beat Cleveland but every team out there has a chance to make them sweat. They are a fragile team from a psychological standpoint that seems like they genuinely don’t like each other and they’re completely dependent on the continuing dominance of Lebron James.  Without him they are terrible.  We’ve seen over the last month or so that he still has another gear few players can match but what happens when Irving dribbles too much and fails to get any assists and when Love bricks 3 pointers and plays atrocious defense?  Lebron can sulk and sometimes his greatness is more of the watch him go variety than the inspirational variety.  The Cleveland organization has once again made huge personnel mistakes and put a flawed collection of misfits around James.  I feel like the Cleveland organization learned nothing from their original mistakes the first time around with Lebron.  Once again they rushed into constructing a team with no flexibility that overpays role players.  Like OKC they have no idea what 5 players should be on the court when games matter.  Detroit is just happy to be in the playoffs and though they should be over matched they might be loose and that’s dangerous.  They have some talent and Van Gundy is a much better coach than anyone in Cleveland.  I could see them winning a game or two and getting Lebron pissed off at some of his teammates but they’re not going to win the series.  That’s fine.  Van Gundy has them headed in the right direction and they should be better next season and well positioned for the future.  Cleveland on the other hand must get to the finals.  Even doing so will not make their season a success.  They don’t have to win it all to keep their team but they definitely have to be competitive and close to winning in the finals or Lebron is going to start demanding they do their best to trade all the dudes he doesn’t like for his friends.  My crystal ball tells me there’s going to be a lot of soul searching in Cleveland over the off-season as Lebron is not good enough to beat either the Warriors or the Spurs… -- I’m predicting Cleveland in 5--

            Atlanta vs. Boston is actually going to be really fun to watch (for me at least).  Both teams are well coached and play fun basketball.  Millsap rarely gets mentioned as a top player but he totally kicks butt.  Horford is good, Korver remembered how to shoot and Teague and Schroeder can be dangerous on a given night.  They’re not overly talented but they are well coached and everyone knows their role.  Brad Stevens must be a great coach because while Boston has a lot of really nice bench players they don’t have many clear-cut starters.  Stevens gets the most out of his players.  I feel like too often NBA coaches minimize the psychology of playing basketball whereby anyone who has ever played pick up knows that when you play with a bunch of dudes who think you can shoot and encourage you to do so you always shoot better.  Confidence, even for people who are clearly good at what they do, is so important.  Stevens seems to have the knack for putting his players in the right positions and for getting the most out of their abilities.  No one seems tight or confused as to what their role is on the floor.  Pretty amazing for a coach so young.  Bradley and Smart can make it hell for opposing guards to get to where they want to go.  Whether Atlanta wins or loses they are going to have some serious decisions to make in the off-season as to whom to sign and for how much.  There are many different directions their organization could go.  Boston should be in excellent shape going forward.  They’ve got a lot of picks but until now Ainge has kept all his options open.  At some point they’ll have to decide how many picks to keep and whether to make a big trade or to go young.  There’s no clear-cut path to success for Boston but at the same time there are still many paths they could take to become successful and that, in of itself, is exciting… -- For me this series is 50/50.  I could see either team winning and if I had to pick I’d probably go with Atlanta in 7)—

            Miami vs. Charlotte is, for me at least, another exciting match up I could see unfolding in either direction.  These teams are pretty much evenly matched with perhaps a slight edge I’d give to Miami.  I’m happy to watch both of them play basketball.  Kemba changed the fortunes of this team when he learned to shoot 3s.  It has dramatically opened up their game.  It’s crazy how something so simple can change the fortunes of a franchise.  That little bit of extra space on the court has opened up the offensive game of the entire team.  Lynsanity has also continued to improve steadily.  He’s an excellent bench player in the NBA who, when he’s hot, can be used in a bigger role along side Walker.  They have a plethora of big men who do different things for them and they can give you a number of different looks.  Their concerted effort to push the pace has made them much more exciting to watch.  Miami is intriguing as well.  They’ve figured out somewhat how to use Whiteside’s constant threat of the lob and he’s developed just enough of a shot to surprise you from time to time.  It’ll be interesting to see how much Wade has left in the tank.  Their key has been unlocking the mystery of Dragic.  For a while there I was wondering what happened to the dude that looked great in Phoenix.  As it turns out Dragic is really only capable of playing one way and Miami finally realized that.  They’re playing much faster and letting him attack.  I’m feeling like this series could go either way but if I had to pick I’d go with Miami in seven.  Riley did an amazing job rebuilding this team on the fly.  If they’d stayed healthy I might have been able to envision them knocking off Cleveland but unfortunately without a healthy Bosh for that outcome is not going to come to fruition…

            Toronto vs. Indiana should be fun to watch.  Indiana both surprised me and disappointed me at various parts of this season.  There was a point I felt like they were turning a corner and were going to be really dangerous but Paul tailed off a bit and Miles Turner hit a bit of a rookie wall.  They’re a good surprise but the surprise has worn off a bit and now they’re just looking mediocre.  This was a rebuilding year for them anyway so they shouldn’t be too disappointed in losing this series.  I can envision a scenario whereby Paul turns it up and is the best player on the floor and all the pieces step up and this series goes their way but Toronto is the better team and should finally win a playoff series.  It’s Toronto in the playoffs though so you never know what might collapse.  This year’s team feels a little better than the past year’s.  Maybe it’s just because Loughery is in better shape and they know more what to expect.  They’ve been playing with a bit more of an edge.  The future of this team is definitely on the line though.  There will certainly be wholesale changes if they don’t beat Indiana and they will consider a lot of options for sure if they don’t make it as far as the conference finals.  Indiana needs to take their time and continue to rebuild in the off-season.  It will be essential that they nail the draft again as I don’t see many free agents lining up to play there.  – I’m predicting Toronto in 6 or possibly 5 --

Sunday, April 10, 2016

As the season winds down...

            I haven’t written much since earlier in the season.  This somehow went from a very exciting season to a kind of boring season quite quickly.  Other than Golden State and San Antonio most of the big stories are kind of depressing.  The other contenders for the title all seem like pretenders.  Frankly I think anyone knocking off Golden State would be an upset at this point and that includes San Antonio.  The Spurs are a great team but the Warriors have another gear that no one else can match.  Even the Spurs are left hoping that Golden State simply misses some shots and leaves them a window.  It’s a possibility but if I was a betting person I’d definitely bet on Golden State. 

     After Golden State and San Antonio the quality of the teams this season becomes significantly murkier.  Cleveland is a dysfunctional mess but they’re not even an exciting mess.  It’s just not that interesting dissecting cryptic Lebron James tweets.  It’s hard to tell if Cleveland will be beatable in the East.  The regular season means nothing to them and other than wrapping up the number one seed in the East there’s just isn’t anything for which they are playing.  Cleveland’s winning or losing is almost entirely built upon the greatness of Lebron.  They don’t run much of an offense.  If Love and Irving hit some shots and play ok then they generally win.  As a team Cleveland certainly doesn’t inspire much.  Miami looks like they might have a shot against them particularly if Bosh is able to come back.  That would be pretty ironic if Miami made it to the finals knocking out Lebron.  It’s clear that Riley is a much better puppet master than anyone else in the east.

       Toronto also qualifies as a positive story but given their post-season play the last couple years nothing they do in the regular season really matters until they put together some wins in the playoffs.  This season feels different for The Raptors but then again so did last season.  That’s pretty much it in the East.  Atlanta has played much better the second half of the season but it’s hard to imagine them doing anything against Cleveland.  The Hornets are a nice story.  Kemba Walker finally taught himself to shoot, but they too have no chance to win the East.  The Pistons have been fun but they’re still a few years away from any chance at contention.  It’s a good story though.  The bad stories seem to far outweigh the good.  Chicago has been the number one disappointment in the league (excepting perhaps the Rockets).  They just proved the other night that they’re a bad match up for Cleveland but they’ve been a mysteriously dysfunctional mess all season.  You get the feeling no one likes each other and that Hoiberg was not ready to coach an NBA team.  No way does Thibodeaux miss the playoffs with this team.  Milwaukee has to be disappointed taking a dramatic step back this season.  At least they have some nice cornerstone players.  Antetokounmpo looks like he might have found a role at point guard and Jabari is starting to look like he’s got some potential as a good player (it usually takes a solid year to come back from his kind of injury).  Middleton is a nice player but after that there’s not a whole lot there.  I’m not a fan of the Greg Monroe trade they made.  He can put up some numbers as he did with Detroit previously but he doesn’t do much for a team.  He also made them more conventional then they were last year.  The Knicks are dismal and depressing in every way.  The Unicorn is the only thing that keeps them interesting but I’m worried that it’s too appropriate of a nickname.  Unicorns are mythical beasts and they’re not real.  Towns is real.  He’s already a top 20 player in the NBA.  Porzingis is still a project.  It’s hard to know what he’ll end up being. 

            Washington is a huge disappointment as well.  They’ve got good players and I like some of their draft picks.  They’re long and interchangeable.  On paper I don’t understand why this team is not better.  I feel like a good coach could dramatically change the fortunes of this team next season.  How Randy Wittman is still an NBA head coach I’m not sure. 

            Brooklyn and Philadelphia are so depressing they’re not even worth talking about.  The only thing I’ll say further about Philly is that in a weird way while I totally disagree with how they’ve run their team, I’m not sure I agree with firing Hinkie.  I mean everyone in that organization had to sign off on this stupid plan.  What really changed such that they decided things weren’t working?  I suppose that while plenty of teams have tanked no one has ever taken it this far and probably never will again.  The stupidity of playing the numbers like they’ve done is that no matter how many draft picks you get the odds of getting a Lebron type talent are still bad.  It’s not worth historically sucking to add a few percentage points to your chance at a number one pick that might not even be as good as the 13th pick of the draft.  If Hinkie had nailed one draft pick that might have given him some leeway with Philly’s fans and their management and the NBA powers that be.  His picks were conventional and obvious and didn’t inspire any confidence that he was a good judge of young talent and potential.  His plan depended 100% on that ability.  One could say time will tell if it was all worth it but I don’t agree.  At this point they needed to have 1 player with potential star power to make that kind of losing palatable.  I could go on and on but who really cares about Philly.  Other teams will tank but no one will ever treat their players that poorly again…

            In the West it’s been great watching San Antonio and Golden State but most every other team other than Portland has been a huge disappointment.  The Rockets collapsed completely.  They should have kept Mchale as their coach.  The Clippers imploded and yet stayed afloat.  They’re still one of only two teams with a chance to knock off San Antonio or Golden State but they’ve stayed pretty much the same or are slightly worse while those other two teams have managed to get even better than last year.  OKC will always be dangerous with 2 transcendent talents but they still aren’t fun to watch and barely run an offense and have done a terrible job of putting pieces around Durant and Westbrook.  Memphis and Dallas had too many injuries and have limped into the playoffs.  They’re sad to watch.  Memphis as least has enough crazy dudes that if they play the Clippers it’d be worth watching for the drama.  Utah hasn’t really improved much from last season.  Other teams just dropped off giving them a window into the playoffs but they don’t inspire much.  At least they seem to play Golden State well, so that match up could at least lead to a few close games.

            Out of Sacramento, New Orleans, Denver, Minnesota, Phoenix, and L.A., only Minnesota seems to have any kind of hope for next season.  If they get a real coach they could be a playoff team with a lot of young potential.  It would really help if they could nail one more draft pick.  The other five teams mentioned above are barely worth talking about at this point.  Anthony Davis disappointed and the roster around him stinks.  Sacramento entertains only in a rubber necking sense.  I find Cousins reprehensible on the court.  He would easily be the least fun to play with of anyone in the NBA.  I can’t believe the shit he says to the refs.  I’m actually amazed he doesn’t get even more technical than he does.  Denver surprisingly, of the after thoughts in the West, might be the most on the right track.  At least they’ve gathered a few interesting young players and kept a few useful veterans around.  If they continue on that track and stay healthy next year (big ifs) they could be worth watching. 

            Hopefully the playoffs will turn this all around and we’ll get some exciting games but the second half of this season has been, for the most part, more about collapse than  achievement…