2014 NBA Playoffs – Game 1 Quick Takes

April 21, 2014 by

BROOKLYN NETS over Toronto Raptors – The Nets came out in the face of a great Toronto crowd and stole home court advantage on the backs of aggressive nights from Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and big late game buckets by the old former Celtics Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. That said, the Raptors shouldn’t feel too bad about this game. They were dominant inside and able to get into the paint off the dribble, and they kept the Brooklyn bigs in foul trouble all game. Better games from Terence Ross and Demar DeRozen should go a long way as well. On the other hand, the Nets are unlikely to miss 14 straight three point attempts again.

ATLANTA HAWKS over Indiana Pacers – I’ve been a Pacers believer since last year’s conference finals, but I’m ready to stick a fork in these guys. Their defensive principles are slipping, and with their on-again, off-again relationship with shot-making that doesn’t leave them with a leg to stand on. They need to stop penetration, stick to the Hawks’ three point shooters, and exploit the size advantage they enjoy at every position by attacking in the post. How ironic would it be if the Hawks pulled off the upset after all the noise about how they don’t even belong in the playoffs because of the East / West disparity?

WASHINGTON WIZARDS over Chicago Bulls – The third team in the East to win game 1 on the road, the Wiz showed that they are a better team than their record when healthy. Or, more to the point, when Nene is healthy. The big Brazilian is out of shape, but his size, savvy, and skills proved enough to offset Joakim Noah, and the younger Wiz exploited their perimeter athleticism to outgun the more plodding Bulls. I predicted a Chicago victory in this series, but I’m starting to think I may have underestimated Washington’s potential. I look for Chicago to really mix it up and make the game a physical, slowed down mess in game 2. They can still win the series if they can control the pace.

MIAMI HEAT over Charlotte Bobcats – The Cats had little hope of getting more than 1 game against the defending champs going into this series, but with the injury to Big Al Jefferson, that hope has basically been extinguished. Miami now has the three best players in the series (and may have prior to Al’s injury anyway) to go along with all their experience and confidence. Looking like an easy sweep for LeBron James and company. If this were pro-wrestling, Michael Jordan’s entrance music would cue right now, and he’s run into the arena, hit LBJ with the Stone Cold Salute and Stunner special, powerbomb Dwyane Wade through an announcer’s table, and lock Chris Bosh in the Crippler Crossface until he tapped out. Then, it would turn out the ref was Pat Riley in disguise, and Pat and Alonzo Mourning would beat Michael into the ground with steel chairs. MJ’s entrance music is “Indestructible” by Disturbed.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS over Dallas Mavericks – The Spurs first handful of buckets in this game all came on lay-ups. Dallas could not deal with the Tony Parker pick and roll action or the interior passing that the Spurs use when team try to wall off penetration. Rick Carlisle is a great coach, and the Mavs will make good adjustments where possible, but it’s been a long time since they’ve had a victory over the Spurs, and at this point it looks like a personnel issue rather than a strategic one. I believe Jalen Rose’s read on this match-up was that Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki would have to put up a combined 50 to outduel Tim Duncan and Tony Parker’s Spurs machine. That seems about right at this point.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS over LA Clippers – Exciting overtime game was somewhat marred by uneven officiating. The Warriors did enough to win, but they also got the benefit of early foul trouble for Blake Griffin on some pretty light contact. On the other hand GS lost Andre Iguodala to fouls, and he was their designated JJ Reddick chaser. Mark Jackson’s decision to put Klay Thompson on Chris Paul paid off even CP3 had a huge game – he had to work hard to get his buckets, and the team actually had to move him off the ball to get him some rest. With the Warriors’ team shooting, they are always a challenge to scout, and it will be interesting to see how Doc adjusts in game 2.

OKC THUNDER over Memphis Grizzlies – I don’t think the Grizz could have drawn a tougher opponent. OKC is one of the few teams with enough size to match up without having to double, and as savvy and tough as the Grizz guards are, there’s no accounting for Russell Westbrook’s athleticism and ferocity. Kevin Durant and Furious Styles (TM – Jalen Rose) are back in synch on offense as well, which is a huge problem for any team. Memphis has the goods to take a game or two in this serious on toughness and cleverness, but the talent disparity is too much across seven games.

PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS over Houston Rockets – I predicted the Blazers to steal this series, and they have started off by stealing home court. The game was very tight, as the OT and score obviously indicated, but it was tightly played throughout with neither team showing any real ability to impose its will on the other. Both teams rely on the three point shot too a great extent. I picked the Blazers because I think LaMarcus Aldrige has a better ability to make tough contested shots than anyone else in the series, and that might be what it comes down to. The injury to Patrick Beverly could be a huge loss to the Rockets. Jeremy Lin is a starting quality point guard, but Beverly’s defense and toughness represented all of the perimeter defense Houston had to offer. Without him Damian Lillard may be impossible to corral.

2014 NBA Awards and Playoff Predictions

April 18, 2014 by

Dear beloved readers,

If I could properly apologize for the two month gap in top notch basketball coverage content that my hiatus has left in your lives, rest assured, I would. But no amount of codified remorse could ever make up for my lapse. All I can do is offer you the most exhilarating, thrill-ride of a season wrap up, you’ve ever encountered. Brace yourselves for awards, playoff predictions, and whatever else pops into my head. I don’t want to oversell it, but it’ll probably be better than the NCAA tournament and all four rounds of the NBA playoffs combined.

2014 NBA Awards (Not predictions – how I would vote)

Season MVP: Kevin Durant – I don’t even see an argument here. The Thunder are the second best team in the league by record and by statistics, and the only better team, the Spurs, spreads the wealth too thin to have a real MVP candidate this year. Durant leads the league in scoring, PER, WS, and WS/48. The Thunder are a top 6 in both ORtg and DRtg. KD produced the most and did it efficiently for a great team. That’s the MVP.

MVP Runners up: LeBron James, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Tim Duncan

DPoY: Joakim Noah – He held it down all season long. Chicago is the second best defense behind Indiana, but unlike the Pacers, the Bulls start and give big minutes to a number of sub-standard defensive players. Noah carries the weight that they can’t at the defensive end.

DPoY Runners up: Roy Hibbert, Andre Igudala, Tim Duncan, Serge Ibaka

6th MoY: Ray Allen – This is going to be an unpopular pick because his stats are a career worst, and maybe he should be disqualified since he started so much in place of Dwyane Wade, but the dynamic that Ray brings to the Heat offense is an overlooked aspect of their team greatness. Lots of good shooters stretch the floor, but Ray draws so much attention with his movement and the cross screens he sets for James and the perimeter guys, that it totally warps team defensive concepts. The Heat employs two big minute line-ups with +4 point differential. Wade is only on one. James is only on one. Ray is on both.

6th MoY Runners up: Manu Ginobili, Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford, Vince Carter

CoY: Gregg Popavich – He’s simply the best, better than all the rest, better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met. Seriously. Pop has been ahead of the curve for a decade. He and RC Buford together are this generation’s Red Auerbach. Pop’s masterful manipulation of his team’s minutes, and his ability to adapt his system to the talents that come through to get the best out of everybody sets him above the pack.

CoY Runners up: Jeff Hornacek, Tom Thibodeau, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle

MIP: The entire Phoenix Suns team. It’s hard to pick. Green maybe? Dragic? Let’s go with the Dragon. Goran Dragic.

MIP Runners up: Gerald Green, DeAndre Jordan, Markieff Morris, Reggie Jackson

RoY: Michael Carter-Williams – I don’t care if the Sixers were one of the worst teams we’ve ever seen. That was management’s decision, and the players were not put in a position to be able to compete. MCW was the best rookie by the numbers averaging 16 ppg with 6 boards and 6 dimes. I’m not sure if projects to have the best career, but he did the most this season.

RoY Runners up: Victor Oladipo, Mason Plumlee, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Kelly Olynyk

All NBA
First Team:

G – Stephen Curry
G – James Harden
F – Kevin Durant
F – LeBron James
C – Joakim Noah

Second Team:

G – Chris Paul
G – Tony Parker
F – Blake Griffin
F – LeMarcus Aldridge
C – Dwight Howard

Third Team:

G – Goran Dragic
G – Paul George
F – Kevin Love
F – Tim Duncan
C – Al Jefferson

All-Defense

First Team:

G – Andre Igudala
G – Tony Allen
F – Tim Duncan
F – Paul George
C – Joakim Noah

Second Team:

G – Mike Conley
G – Lance Stephenson
F – Jimmy Butler
F – Serge Ibaka
C – Roy Hibbert

Playoff Predictions

East Round 1:

PACERS def Hawks 4-1
HEAT def Bobcats 4-0
NETS def Raptors 4-3
BULLS def Wizards 4-2

West Round 1:

SPURS def Mavericks 4-1
THUNDER def Grizzlies 4-1
CLIPPERS def Warriors 4-3
TRAILBLAZERS def Rockets 4-3

East Round 2:

PACERS def Bulls 4-3
HEAT def NETS 4-3

West Round 2:

SPURS def Trailblazers 4-1
THUNDER def Clippers 4-2

East Finals:

HEAT def Pacers 4-2

West Finals:

THUNDER def Spurs 4-2

NBA Finals:

HEAT def Thunder 4-3

I’ve been predicting a Heat three-peat all season, and I still think it’s going to happen (Wade’s knee permitting). They just have another level they can go to, and I’m not sure that any of their would-be dethroners can say the same. I do think the Spurs would win a repeat of last year’s finals, but I don’t believe San Antonio would beat OKC to get there simply because of the match-ups involved. That said, Miami matches up very well against the Thunder and takes them out of their defensive schemes by going small, so that’s sort of a rock-paper-scissors that falls out in the Heat’s favor. LeBron wins his 3rd consecutive Finals MVP to join only Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.

2014 Team Profile – Portland Trailblazers

February 5, 2014 by

Before I get into dissecting the Trailblazers, let me just say that I love this team’s construction.  It is such a classic set up with a sniper point guard, a shooting guard with size, strength, and range, a long, athletic Swiss-army-knife small forward, a post up / pick and pop oversized power forward, and a defensive anchor / dirty work specialist at center.  This is a team where every opponent knows exactly what’s in store and can’t do a thing about it.  Love it.

The Trailblazers are currently the 5th best team in the league by Simple Rating System (margin of victory factored against strength of schedule).  They have the 6th best average margin of victory.  They score the most points per game of any team, and they also have the highest points per possession ranking, meaning that their offense is both the most prolific and most efficient in the NBA.  They are so efficient that they lead the league in points scored per game despite the fact that they are not even in the top ten in pace (possessions per 48 minutes).

How do they maintain such great offensive numbers?  With a very balanced attack plan.  While not spectacularly great like Miami’s or San Antonio’s, Portland sports a top 10 Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG% factors the value of the 3 pointers made into regular FG% for a more accurate estimate of scoring efficiency on field goal attemtps).  Speaking of the 3 pointers, they are 2nd in the league in 3 point field goal percentage and top at in three pointers taken per total field goals attempted (sandwiched between the 3 point-happy Warriors and Heat).  The only weak spot in the Portland offense is getting to the free throw line.  They are ranked 22nd in free throw rate.  However, they shoot free throws at a league-best percentage so their made free throws per field goal attempt ratio (one of Dean Oliver‘s famous Four Factors) is actually league average and doesn’t drag their offense down.

Where the Blazers really excel is in possession maintenance.  They have the third lowest turnover rate and the second best offensive rebounding rate.  No other team in the top 5 in ORb% has an above average eFG%.  So they shoot better than average, almost never lose scoring opportunities to turnovers, and they extend possessions on missed shots better than anyone except the oversized, shooting challenged Pistons.

What I think works best about Portland’s offense is that the responsibilities are properly spread.  The perimeter players, especially Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum, play make.  Those two along with Wes Matthews and Mo Williams off the bench provide their great three point shooting.  The primary scoring option, LaMarcus Aldridge does not take open threes, and he doesn’t lurk under the basket taking up space that rebounder / layup offense only Robin Lopez needs to be effective.  LaMarcus does his damage in the most difficult scoring space on the floor, the midrange.  Because the leading usage player on the team is taking the difficult shots in the middle of the half court, he leaves lanes to get dump down passes to Lopez or kick outs for threes to the guards and wings.  The floor balance works because the best player does the heavy lifting, and the talented role players are in position to do their roles.  As a team they also work the ball very quickly into scoring positions, keeping the pace crisp and moving the ball well.  Lillard has made great strides as a pick and roll decision maker, and he’s shooting threes off the high screens like Stephen Curry.

This team’s major issues occur at the defensive end of the floor.  They allow the 5th most points per game and the 10th highest points per possession.  That’s bad.  They do a decent job contesting shots, holding opponents to just under league average eFG%.  They also control their defensive backboard, again a little bit above average in DRb%.  They also keep their fouling to a minimum – top 10 in opponent made FTs per FGA.  Their real weakness is that they are a conservative defense that ranks dead last in causing opponent turnovers, and while opponents don’t shoot a high proportion of threes against the Blazers, they do shoot them very well against the Blazers, top 8 in fact and well above league average 3PT%.  Some of this is by design.  Terry Stotts has the team in a conservative defensive scheme.  The bigs tend to sag on pick and roll coverage instead of challenging the ball handler at the point of the screen.  This limits opportunities to force turnovers and leaves some good shooters open coming off the screen.  But it discourages drives to the rim and limits opponent opportunities to draw free throw attempts.

In an interview with Zach Lowe, Coach Stotts basically admitted that he runs this conservative defensive scheme to save his players’ energy on offense.  I suspect the Blazers’ other weakness, depth, contributed to that decision.  Outside of the starting lineup, only three Trailblazers are providing real minutes, and none of them has a PER over 15 or a WS48 over .100.  I don’t think Stotts is willing to tax his starters at both ends while asking them to carry such a big burden.  This is reminiscent of the Pacers who don’t ask for a lot of complexity on offense since their main guys expend so much physical and mental energy on D.

Right now Portland is second in the Northwest Division behind the Thunder and third overall in the West with a slim lead over the Clippers.  If they can maintain a top 4 spot in the conference and take home court advantage into the playoffs, the Blazers will have a strong opportunity to advance to the second round.  Though to be fair bowing out in the first round in the West this year is no cause for shame.  It looks like round two will be a matchup against either the Spurs or Thunder (assuming no big swings are coming our way in the second half of the season), and I wouldn’t expect Portland to win a 7 game series against either of those deeper and more experienced squads.  A semi-finals exit against one of those great teams would have to count as a successful season for this team that missed the playoffs last season and would set them up for future playoff success.

 

2014 NBA Mid-Season Awards & Projections

January 31, 2014 by

I would normally wait until the All-Star break to start looking at possible award winners and projecting how the All NBA and All Defense teams will break down, but I’m going to be on vacation over the All-Star break, and we are past the halfway point in the season.  Most teams have played at least 45 games, and we have a feel for who is good, who is bad, and why.  Of course a team could get a player back from injury or click into Godzilla vs. Tokyo mode and run off 20 straight wins, but we’ll work with what we know so far.

Awards

Most Valuable Player – Kevin Durant.  We’ve talked about why KD is the best choice for MVP a few times on this site, so I’ll keep this brief.  He plays on the best team.  He has the best statistics / metrics.  He comes through in big moments.  He can’t be defended one-on-one, which disrupts the defense of every opponent and opens things up for his teammates.  He’s doing it all without the help of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jeff Green or any of the other young talent the Thunder management drafted to put around him with the exception of Serge Ibaka.  Runners up: LeBron JamesChris Paul has been disqualified after missing so many games (and the fact that his team has excelled without him probably doesn’t help his cause).  No one else is close.

Defensive Player of the Year – Roy Hibbert.  He is the defensive anchor of one of the greatest team defenses in league history.  I’m going to write a post about where the Pacers rank all-time defensively (the Oracle predicts that it will be very high), but suffice it to say that this year, Indiana is the best by a Midwestern mile.  The separation in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) between the #1 Pacers and #2 Bulls is larger than the separation between Chicago and #8 Minnesota.  Roy’s size and alert positioning are keys to the Pacer defensive superiority.  He leads the league in individual defensive rating, and his ability to protect the rim and discourage slashers from even attempting to drive helps Indiana to play man to man along the perimeter limiting fouls committed and 3 point opportunities as well.  He’s a classic NBA giant in a league of stretch bigs, and he is dominant on the defensive end.  Runners up: Paul George, Serge Ibaka, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut.

Rookie of the Year – Michael Carter-Williams. Not the strongest race in the world this year. Of players given more than 20 minutes a game to show their stuff, MCW is the only one with a PER above the 15 mark, which is the level of an “average” NBA player. Several future stars could emerge in the second half of the season or in years to come, but so far this has been an underwhelming rookie class. Runners up: Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tim Hardaway, Jr.

6th Man of the Year – Markieff Morris.  This is a really tough award to pick so far this season.  San Antonio and the Clippers have both gotten fantastic contributions from multiple players off the bench.  Manu Ginobili and Jamal Crawford, both former winners, are producing well and coming up in big moments for their teams.  However, I’m leaning towards Markeiff Morris of the Phoenix Suns for the award this year.  He leads all bench players in Win Share and has a 19.2 PER, and his shooting, defense, and versatility have really helped Phoenix’s second unit excel. Runners up: Manu, Jamal, Darren Collison, Taj Gibson, Andre Blatche.

Most Improved Player of the Year – DeAndre Jordan.  I don’t think Jordan will win this award, but his improvement has been tremendous.  He has doubled his rebounds per game, is playing over 11 more minutes per game, and has become a positive factor in crunch time.  Doc Rivers deserves some of the credit for positioning Jordan to succeed, but DeAndre certainly has done his part as well.  The actual winner will probably be Lance Stephenson of the Pacers who is also highly deserving.  Runners up: Lance, Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Isaiah Thomas, Roy Hibbert, all of the Suns.

Coach of the Year – Jeff Hornacek. The Suns are great, and their commitment to team play is the reason.  Credit Hornie for keeping them on the same page and instilling a system that is fun and effective.  Runners up: Frank Vogel, Gregg Popovich, Terry Stotts, Doc Rivers.

I’m not going to do full 3 team All-NBA projections, but I will say that I think the voters need to get creative with the positions because so many of the best players this year have been forwards.  LeBron, Durant, Paul George, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki, and Carmelo Anthony all need to be included, and Ibaka and David Lee deserve consideration as well (and I’m probably leaving some guys out too).  Maybe move George to guard and call LaMarcus a center?  I do believe the All-NBA team is still G-G-F-F-C.  I hope so anyway for the sake of historical consistency.

I’ll just give some options on the All-Defense Teams as well.  Hibbert and George need to be on the team, and I could see Lance making it as well.  Ibaka is a no-brainer as is Noah.  I like Bogut for the third center, but Tim Duncan and DeAndre deserve consideration as well.  To beef out the perimeter, I’d go with Andre Igudala, Jimmy Butler, and Kawhi Leonard then consider some guys on good defensive teams who might not get much press like Thabo Sefolosha and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.  Could I squeeze Dwight Howard in as a forward?  He’s been a great defender on a terrible defensive team.  Surprisingly, I don’t think LeBron James has a guaranteed spot on this team.  He probably will make it, and his athletic ability is one of the keys to causing the turnovers that sustain what is otherwise a mediocre Heat defense, but his attention to detail and overall effort have been lacking this year, and there are a lot of deserving forwards.

All-Injured Too Long to Win Awards This Year Team – SG Eric Bledsoe, PG Derrick Rose, C Brook Lopez, PF Al Horford, SF Kobe Bryant

2014 Heat – Most Difficult 3Peat Ever?

January 24, 2014 by

Right now, at just about the halfway point of the 2014 season, the Thunder, Spurs, and Pacers are all top 25 all-time teams by the Simple Rating System, a one number team rater that factors in margin of victory and strength of schedule. This is by no means a perfect estimation of a team’s ability to win, but as you can see in the below table, it captures something that picks up on many of the greatest teams of all time.

Miscellaneous
Rk Season Tm G W L W-L% MOV SOS SRS
1 1970-71 MIL* 82 66 16 .805 12.26 -0.34 11.91
2 1995-96 CHI* 82 72 10 .878 12.24 -0.44 11.80
3 1971-72 LAL* 82 69 13 .841 12.28 -0.63 11.65
4 1971-72 MIL* 82 63 19 .768 11.16 -0.46 10.70
5 1996-97 CHI* 82 69 13 .841 10.80 -0.11 10.70
6 1991-92 CHI* 82 67 15 .817 10.44 -0.37 10.07
7 2007-08 BOS* 82 66 16 .805 10.26 -0.95 9.31
8 2012-13 OKC* 82 60 22 .732 9.21 -0.06 9.15
9 1985-86 BOS* 82 67 15 .817 9.41 -0.36 9.06
10 1985-86 MIL* 82 57 25 .695 9.04 -0.35 8.69
11 1993-94 SEA* 82 63 19 .768 9.09 -0.41 8.68
12 2008-09 CLE* 82 66 16 .805 8.93 -0.25 8.68
13 1990-91 CHI* 82 61 21 .744 9.10 -0.53 8.57
14 1966-67 PHI* 81 68 13 .840 9.44 -0.94 8.50
15 1990-91 POR* 82 63 19 .768 8.68 -0.21 8.47
16 1969-70 NYK* 82 60 22 .732 9.09 -0.66 8.42
17 1999-00 LAL* 82 67 15 .817 8.55 -0.14 8.41
18 2013-14 SAS 42 32 10 .762 7.86 0.54 8.40
19 2006-07 SAS* 82 58 24 .707 8.43 -0.08 8.35
20 1986-87 LAL* 82 65 17 .793 9.30 -0.98 8.32
Rk Season Tm G W L W-L% MOV SOS SRS
21 2013-14 IND 41 33 8 .805 9.05 -0.76 8.29
22 1961-62 BOS* 80 60 20 .750 9.24 -0.98 8.25
23 2013-14 OKC 43 33 10 .767 7.26 1.00 8.25
24 1972-73 LAL* 82 60 22 .732 8.54 -0.36 8.16
25 1996-97 UTA* 82 64 18 .780 8.79 -0.82 7.97
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/24/2014.

Glaringly absent from the list are the two time defending champion Heat (currently ranked 235th all-time). This is not necessarily a nail in the coffin of the Heat. The last three teams to three-peat did not make the top 25 either – 1993 Bulls, 1998 Bulls, and 2002 Lakers. However, no other teams from those seasons made the list. 2014 Miami looks to be up against stiffer competition than these other teams, at least midway through the season. There’s a lot of time for these three 2014 juggernauts to slip out of the top 25 and for Miami to right the ship and make it higher up the list.

Assuming that the current rankings hold relatively static through the rest of the season, at least for one or two of these teams, what is the prognosis for the title this year? Well 14 out of the 22 teams in our top 25 who are not currently playing won the title. Of the 8 teams that failed to win the title, half of them lost to teams ranked higher in the top 25, so they didn’t underachieve, they just got beat by higher ranked teams. The remaining four squads that failed to win are:

2013 Thunder – Lost Russell Westbrook in round 1 of the playoffs.
1994 Sonics – Possibly the worst 1 – 8 upset in NBA history.
2009 Cavaliers – Epic fail against an inferior Magic team. LeBron James put up impossible stats.
1973 Lakers – Knicks kicked their butts in a revenge Finals meeting.

That’s one injury excuse, one major collapse, one minor collapse, and one that just got beat in the Finals rematch. The good news for Miami fans is that the 2013 Heat, 1994 Rockets, 2009 Lakers, and 1973 Knicks who won the title those four years also don’t show up on this list. If that Pacers, Spurs, and Thunder keep up their dominant play throughout the regular season, there’s still a 4 out of 22, basically 20% chance that someone will beat them. Heck, it’s very probable that of the Spurs and Thunder, one will eliminate the other. But that still leaves the Heat to go through Indiana to get to the winner of the match-up (you know, assuming many things fall out right for all four teams). Three-peating is never easy, but it should be especially tough against this level of competition.


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