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Northwest Division Preview

New kid on the block

Doyle Rader: The Northwest Division looks to be one of, if not the most, competitive divisions in the NBA this season. Last year three teams (the Thunder, Nuggets, and Jazz) made the playoffs. Utah made a late push to secure their playoff berth only to be eliminated by the Spurs in the first round. Denver took the Lakers to seven games in the Western Conference Semi-finals. And the Thunder eventually lost in the NBA Finals. This season the division is only deeper.

Both the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves were early season darlings to make the playoffs last season with the Blazers’ hot start and the emergence of Ricky Rubio in Minny. What curtailed these teams was the fire-sale in Portland and the injuries that plagued the Timberwolves. However, Minnesota has completely reloaded their roster in an attempt to make a playoff run this year. They just have to wait for Kevin Love to recover from his broken hand.

Travis Huse: What’s remarkable about this division is that each of its franchises is looking toward the future.

Let’s begin with what’s been going on in Denver: the Nuggets’ reload looks really enticing to me, much in the same way that the Pacers have the past couple of seasons. They’re going to play blindingly fast, group-effort basketball, a hard-nosed team approach. What really makes things interesting is Iguodala’s defensive role, alongside his ball handler abilities, which were hidden behind Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday in Philly.

Iggy will have to play the roles of Danny Granger, Metta World Peace, and Lebron James simultaneously, and how successful he is at integrating with George Karl’s style will determine the success of this team. Coupled with the maturation of Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee (seems strange to mention maturity and McGee together), this is a well-built team, with players who complement their teammates’ strengths. Next step: tightening up on defense.

DR: Yes, their pace belies a low defensive effort as they want to be streaking up and down the floor. However, this team has the potential to be quite serviceable defensively and it all begins with Iguodala.

He will be their premier perimeter defensive player and will be tasked with defending the opposing team’s best wing player and even point guards at times. Denver must focus its defensive efforts in transition. This is where the team will be most venerable. In the halfcourt they have the like of McGee and Timofey Mozgov, as well as Kosta Koufos (who I particularly enjoy watching), to anchor the middle with Iguodala patrolling the arc.

Where I think Iguodala will be most beneficial to the Nuggets is when they play the Thunder. It will be his job to guard Kevin Durant. Oklahoma City won this division last year on the back of Durant’s scoring so bringing an elite defender was very important for Denver.

TH: Yeah, OKC is still the hands-down favorite to win this division this year, regardless of whether or not James Harden receives an extension. But next year, who knows? There’s so much young talent on these teams and the stars for each team are about to truly hit their stride.

Damian Lillard running the Blazers could change the entire dynamic of LaMarcus Aldridge’s game, assuming they didn’t handicap themselves too much with Nicolas Batum’s contract. In the Northwest, they’re the furthest away from being a playoff lock, and I could envision this division becoming as competitive as the Southwest was a few years ago. They’re thin as hell as just about every position, but for a rebuilding team, they don’t look to be wallowing in their sorrow for much longer.

DR: You’re right, the Thunder are the class of the division. That shouldn’t change this year and perhaps Kendrick Perkins will actually be useful to them now that Dwight Howard is in the West. Yet, he is still a liability against the more hybrid centers.

As for Portland, Lillard has shown that he is ready to compete at the NBA level. In five games this preseason, Lillard has averaged 17 points on 50 percent shooting while also dishing out six assists per game. Beyond the numbers, he is assertive on the court, even aggressive at times. Against the Lakers he frequently attacked Steve Nash off the dribble, getting to the rim with ease once he became comfortable with the flow of the game. Of course, Nash has never been a good defender but it was impressive to see a rookie go directly at a two-time MVP with little regard for his mythos.

What will hurt the Blazers is their lack of depth. Jared Jefferies will contribute more than anyone knows off the bench, though it may not always show up in the box score. Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard, the team’s only true center, are major questions who have considerable upside.

Outside shooting will also be an issue going forward. This is a team built around the mid-range jumper. If Aldridge goes down again, this team will wallow in the basement once again.

TH: You’re neglecting Batum here. His contract is so weighty, the Portland front office will push him to fill more of a starring role, and the hiring of Terry Stotts as head coach will also give him more responsibility. If Stotts is able to formulate this team based off what he saw in Dallas, and modify the 2011 championship core of Jason KiddJason TerryDirk Nowitzki (Lillard, Batum, and Aldridge, respectively), the Blazers have more than enough skeleton for their squad.

Which means:

Much is spoken on how the NBA’s system favors tanking. But teams are finding creative ways to rebuild without having to ride the lottery hoping for a once-in-a-generation talent. The Blazers are well on their way to rebuilding (only 7 months after blowing their team up), without having to seriously tank.

They were only 8 games out of the playoffs last year, and while this year might be a bit sore, Blazers fans should be optimistic. They managed a sizable reformation in the quietest way possible, and they did it with a vacant GM seat for over a year. Looking at what Neil Olshey created with the Clippers, it will be interesting to see how he fleshes out their roster.

Another franchise attempting a “soft rebuild” is the Utah Jazz, a team that has really reached a crossroads. Swapping Devin Harris for Mo Williams isn’t exactly a game-changer (it’s never a good idea to start a third-string PG from the Clippers), and Raja Bell is as good as gone. They need guard help badly, and the big man logjam finally must give. If the team still cannot decide whether they trust Enes Kanter or Derrick Favors, they need to move them sooner, rather than later. By all accounts, Kanter has an ego, and will not like playing second fiddle to Al Jefferson; but Jefferson’s much too good to move.

DR: If we are going to make a Mavs comparison when it comes to the Blazers, I feel that Batum represents more of a Shawn Marion role. Only his scoring responsibilities will be somewhat equivalent to Marionon the Suns.

As for the Jazz, they have a wealth of big men and they seem to be happy about it. I don’t think it’s a question about if they are willing to move Jefferson, but rather they could lose Paul Millsap. That would truly be a blow to this organization but as you pointed out they have Kanter and Favors.

Last season, Kanter was essentially a non factor. His skills around the rim were unpolished, to be kind, and played mostly during garbage time. So far in the preseason he has been drawing double-teams and averaging a team high 12 points per game. The jazz seem content to run out a platoon rotation in the post which should help later in the season as it allows their stars (Jefferson and Millsap) to rest. Kanter and Favors should garner around 20 minutes a night.

Mo Williams is a completely serviceable point guard. I doubt he can return to the form he showcased in Milwaukee, but he still has the ability to run an offense effectively while also scoring the ball. Like Memphis, Utah runs a lot of post plays but Williams’ outside shooting and ability to dish the ball should open up the floor creating opportunities for shooters like Alec Burks, Randy Foye, Gordon Hayward, and Marvin Williams.

Hayward will be key for the Jazz. He is quietly becoming a good perimeter defender and has gained a considerable amount of muscle since coming into the league. Tyrone Corbin has molded Hayward into a hardnosed, physical defender. It would not surprise me if he was at least discussed as a possible DPOY if his improvement continues. He won’t win, but he making the discussion is always a plus.

TH: I’m not saying that their big man platoon isn’t a bad idea. It’s a great thing to have through an 82-game season. However, both Kanter and Favors are starting-caliber players in the NBA right now. Favors is nearing the end of his rookie contract, a solid producer with room to grow (and a team option for next season). Aside from the solid production at a low price tag, these players are highly desirable for contending teams for many reasons. Kanter is a skilled big body who plays a thin position.

Would the suddenly broke Sam Presti really contemplate letting James Harden go in order to free up cap space? Probably not, but that is not a bad rumor to float.

I can only think of three NBA teams who wouldn’t listen to offers on Kanter, because they are seriously the only NBA teams without concerns in the middle. The Lakers have Dwight now; the 76ers are going to see where Bynum goes as a leader. I had to throw in the Raptors, because, well, they’re in a similar situation as the Jazz; the arrival of Jonas Valanciunas has made Bargnani more than expendable.

You’re also right about Mo Williams: He is a completely serviceable point guard. But with their lineup, the Jazz are one torn ligament away from Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson bringing the ball up the floor. The Jazz are lacking roster balance, and their contingency plan is Alec Burks.

DR: My love of the bad boy Pacers has always endeared me to Tinsley and Watson filled in well when Devin Harris was hurt last year. It could be worse for the Jazz.

One team with high hopes for the season is already bemoaning their star being out with injury. As I mentioned above, Kevin Love will miss at least the first month of the season with a broken hand resulting from the oh-so-cool-bro knuckle pushups. Luckily, the Timberwolves have reloaded their roster.

They brought in Brandon Roy, fresh from retirement, bad knees and all and added Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved from Russia. Nikola Pekovic also hails from Russia and is one of the better centers in the league. Despite the number of white guys on this team, the Timberwolves are primed to make the playoffs. Hell, their guard rotation alone is enough to get them there and they are stacked beyond that. Once Love returns they could be dangerous in the West.

It will be interesting to see how Derrick Williams fits into the rotation. He seems to be the odd man out this year despite being drafted so highly two years ago.

TH: With Love out until December, this Timberwolves squad is left without its two young stars in Love and Ricky Rubio. How the team fares without them will be a good litmus test to see how the rest of the rotation fits. But this is also a team that, like you mentioned, added Roy, who’s never been afraid to put his team on his back. These injuries will strengthen the Wolves, and I anticipate one of their wings picking up the scoring slack. There are many questions as to just exactly who will rise, but their depth chart, from 1 to 3 is loaded with talent. J.J. Barea is only one year removed from being an unstoppable blur for the Mavs, and he’s still buried behind Rubio and Luke Ridnour. Shved’s a monster, and should have a fairly easy transition to the NBA with Kirilenko beside him.

And all that is forgetting Chase Budinger, who will be able to fit in much the same way that Wilson Chandler has in Denver, slashing and providing decent outside shooting (believe it or not, he posted a 40% 3-point percentage last season) for the second unit. The whitest of white dudes in the NBA these days, Budinger is often overlooked, but his time spent with Rick Adelman in Houston will give him an early chance to prove himself. He’s dangerous when left in the corner, and when Love and Rubio return, it will be key for them to utilize their passing abilities and wing talent.

Injuries or not, this team is going to be fast and fun, with a healthy amount of competition amongst players vying for minutes. The coaching change should help us to see a bit more specialization of players, as well as championship experience.

Oh, and they got rid of Michael Beasley. Thumbs up on that one.

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The Denver Nuggets: A Beautiful Mess

This sums up the Nuggets

When Dwight Howard was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three team deal, many thought that the Denver Nuggets landed one of the best players in the swap. Denver acquired All Star and Olympic small forward Andre Iguodala. His versatility and ability to play both sides of the ball will be integral for Denver in the coming season. This has many hyping the Mile High City as a team to watch. However, there is a bit of a problem. The Nuggets are loaded at the forward position with seven of their 15 players listed as a forward. Iguodala will start for the Nuggets but what kind of rotation will they employ?

The Nuggets will have athleticism in droves with players who can stretch the floor and (hopefully) guard the perimeter. Yet, that is almost all they have. If ever there was a Free Darko team, this is it. (Anthony Randolph being on the roster helps that claim.) Can a team exist with a roster full of forwards? If it can then head coach George Karl will certainly have to be creative.

Danilo Gallinari was the starting three for the Nuggets last season. This year he will likely not crack the starting lineup without a significant injury or some lineup shuffling by Karl, though some have suggested that he will start alongside Iguodala at either the two or three. But that doesn’t matter.

Denver will be a rangy mass of confusion, ingenuity, and joy. And all of that comes from the two forward positions and the potential log jam they create on this roster. Of course, depth is always a good problem to have and the Nuggets do have capable players filling out the rest of the roster. Let us not forget JaVale McGee is also on this team. The Nuggets have the ability to be the most dangerous and frustrating team in the league. That alone is exciting. And McGee! Never forget that he is on the team.

With all these wings, five of the seven forwards are small forwards, the Nuggets will have to focus on perimeter defense. They were last in the NBA in field goal percentage allowed in long 2-pointers and 3-pointers. Iguodala should help to alleviate this problem but this isn’t a defensive team at heart. Sure, it has players that can defend. McGee, Iguodala, and even Kenneth Faried, despite being undersized for a four, can hold his own. But this is an offensive team that likes to run, Denver had the second fastest pace last season, and that will not change in the coming season.

As noted above, the lineups that the Nuggets run out on the court this season will be the most interesting aspect of the team. Small ball will be a relative term when it comes to Denver but that is the style of ball we should expect most out of this team if they are to navigate their abundance of wings. Perhaps medium ball is a better term to describe their style of play based on size. Nonetheless, on-court groupings of Ty Lawson, Iguodala, Wilson Chandler, Gallinari, and Faried are completely plausible, though not wholly advisable. Yet, that is the allure of this tradition-be-damned team. Kosta Koufos and Randolph could be on the court at the same time as Corey Brewer and Andre Miller. Lawson and Miller will share the backcourt again and it isn’t out of the realm of possibilities that Gallinari will play the five in limited stretches. It’s maddening and thrilling all at once because it can work. Karl’s open offense allows for it.

And then there is Timofey Mozgov.

Lawson’s pure scoring will be accented well with Iguodala’s ability to play off the ball, run the floor, and defend. Faried and McGee will man the post well. But the rest of the team is an enigma, aside from Miller, in how they will mold together into a cohesive unit, especially with Chandler coming back from injury.

This is an unbelievably deep team. There is no questioning that. They will hit their opponents with speed and the ability to score from anywhere. Denver is dangerous but they must maintain an incredible tempo to realize their full potential. George Karl knows this and will put his team and players into every possible situation to get the most out of them and this will give teams, and fans, reasons to pull their hair out.

Denver’s brash iconoclasm will cause many to question whether there is a method behind the madness or if they are functioning purely on calculated abandon. Their roster begs these questions but that seems to be the goal. Traditional positions are dead and Denver is currently at the forefront of experimentation. It won’t always be a pretty endeavor but it should work. This team has the skill required to compete in the ever-deepening competition in the Western Conference. By the time the playoffs roll around, the Nuggets should be considered a dark horse. That is, of course, if everything falls into place.

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Conceptualizing Team USA

Hybrid

At this time we have no idea what kind of rotations that coach Mike Krzyzewski will use for Team USA. He has a roster loaded with talent especially in the fields of athleticism and speed. Therefore, fans of basketball should be in for a treat once Olympic basketball tips off in London.

The roster has been set. Lineups, however, are a whole other animal. With a team so repeat with talent, finding the right combination of efficient chemistry could take time, yet, with the summer games set to begin in a few short weeks, time is of the essence.

One thing we do know is that Coach K plans to have LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant on the court at the same time for heavy minutes. These players can be cycled through any position that a given lineup has to offer from one through five. They will likely be paired with Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant giving Team USA a college feel with a two guards and three forwards set, forgoing the traditional center.

Team USA does have one center on its roster in Tyson Chandler. Honestly, if Chandler does start a game it will be for appearances only or to compete with the bigs of Spain. Other than that, his role should be limited in London. This is a hybrid team with players who can play multiple positions. Why bow to archaic positional traps? That is not what Team USA is about anymore. 2010 solidified that when the team that won gold at the World Championships started Lamar Odom at center.

Traditionalists may warn that smaller lineups will pose defensive shortcomings in the half court but that is if we assume that opposing teams have fluid, unchallenged ball movement and can work the ball into the post or lane. Reports coming out of Las Vegas, where Team USA was holding practice and scrimmages with the Team USA Select team, noted that the Select backcourt of John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and Jrue Holiday were harried from the moment the ball was inbounded and they were tasked with bringing it up court.

This stifling full court defense will be a staple of Team USA. It allows the team to play smaller, more versatile lineups and prevent opponents from easily setting up their offense potentially forcing plenty of turnovers in the process. Smothering the ball as they will could draw comparisons to when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen traded off guarding Toni Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics. Take the ball out of the hands of the playmaker or the opponent’s best player and that team stands little chance.

The key defenders that will be tasked with harassing the ball will be Bryant, though the oldest player on the team he can still muster good defensive possessions, Paul, Deron Williams, James Harden, and most importantly James and Andre Iguodala, whose admission to the final roster was likely based on his defense. Aside from Paul, each of these players can defend multiple positions with James and Iguodala being able to guard anything from a point guard to a power forward. James could also be asked to defend centers. He has that ability.

In fact, that defensive versatility is what makes this team so astounding. Referring back to the lineup of Paul, Bryant, Durant, Anthony, and James, these players can guard almost anyone, towering centers aside. Both James and Anthony proved they could defend power forwards during the NBA regular season and playoffs while Bryant and Durant are suited to guard wings. If their pressure defense works as well as it can, opposing centers could be taken out of the equation all together with ball denial.

However, where versatility is the biggest asset is on offense. Team USA should blaze up and down the court. Key to this will be rebounding. Since the team is relatively undersized it would make sense that Kevin Love should see more playing time on this squad than he did in Turkey, where he was an unbelievably efficient player. His knack for rebounding in volume and his ability to pass into the break plays into the speed that this team possesses. A scenario where Love gets a rebound, hits Westbrook/Paul/Williams with the outlet pass, and the play finishes with a layup, lob, or dunk is very real.

Imagine the above scenario and picture Blake Griffin as the one scoring at the end of the break. Enough said. That is what makes this team so dangerous and why the anticipation for the games to begin that much greater.

Even if a team slows down Team USA, they have a savvy floor general in Paul who can dissect a defense with his passing, and Westbrook to run a pick and roll or find and open shooter. There is no shortage of premier shooters on this roster.

The hardest part, right now, is building a cohesive unit, with interchangeable parts, capable of adapting and excelling in every situation. With a roster as loaded as this one and with the general camaraderie amongst players in the league, not to mention many of these players having played together before, everything should fall into place nicely.

Before Olympic play begins, Team USA will play in several “friendlies” just to wet out appetite.

July 12 vs. the Dominican Republic

July 16 vs. Brazil

July 22 vs. Argentina

July 24 vs. Spain

Enjoy.

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Team USA Olympic Roster Finalized

London calling

The final roster that will represent the United States in Olympic men’s basketball has been set and is comprised of players who have almost all played for Team USA before.

LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, Blake Griffin, Andre Iguodala, and James Harden are headed to London later this month to compete for the gold medal. They are the favorites to win.

Griffin and Harden are the only players on the roster to have not played on Team USA in international competition before. They, along with Iguodala, were the final three players to be added to the roster. They beat out the likes of Eric Gordon and Rudy Gay, who played on the FIBA World Championship team in 2010, and Anthony Davis, the first overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Team USA was plagued with former members withdrawing from eligibility throughout the month of June. Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Derrick Rose, all who were locks to play in London, opted out of play, mostly due to injuries.

The omission of such All Stars led some to be concerned about the United States’ chances at defending the gold. However, with the roster they have assembled for London, those doubts should vanish.

The final three players selected are essentially no brainers. Harden, who had a rather rough time in the NBA Finals, is a good scorer with size who should do well in international competition coming off the bench. He an Gordon are almost interchangeable in terms of scoring ability but Harden is lengthier and has a knack for long range shots.

Iguodala played a crucial role on the “B-Team” during the Worlds in Turkey in 2010. He was the premier perimeter defender on the squad with his defense leading to plenty of transition opportunities for a team that was lightning fast.

As for Griffin making the roster over Davis, well, yeah, of course. If Davis and his propensity to groom himself as an homage to Frida Kahlo had made the roster he would be relegated to the role of Christian Laettner. Griffin is there because he can do this and this and this. Frederick Weis should be glad he doesn’t play anymore.

Though Chandler is the only legitimate center on the team, Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski has shown a willingness, especially with the 2010 team, to employ an unconventional or hybrid lineup. This incarnation of Team USA presents matchup options across the board with James’ ability to post up, Durant’s length and shooting ability, and Love’s ability to stretch the floor, opening up lanes for the likes of Westbrook, Williams, and virtually every player on the roster. And as Marc Stein points out, this team has some pretty good jump shooters as well.

Starting lineups have yet to be set but it would not be surprising if Chandler came off the bench depending on the matchups. This is the best team heading into the Olympics. Spain is a close second but they do not have the shear determination to win that Bryant brings to the table. That and the bonuses from all the endorsements.

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Chicago Bulls vs. Philadelphia 76ers First Round Preview

Why so serious?

It was an almost monumental collapse that sent the Philadelphia 76ers to the verge of missing the playoffs entirely. Luckily, they aren’t the 2007 New York Mets and they just squeezed into the postseason, aided by the perpetual hump that taunts the Milwaukee Bucks. As with anything in this culture of spin, the Sixers readily admitted that they prefer to face the Chicago Bulls, who are the number one seed in the East. It seems as though they have an aversion to playing the Miami Heat and as such they didn’t even try to win their last regular season game so that they could lock up the eighth seed. If this logic seems flawed, that’s because it is. Yet, when a team realizes who and what it is, as the Sixers may have done as they watched their excellent first half of the season be for not, they must adapt to a mindset that reaches above limited expectations. Therefore: bring on the Bulls!

Obviously, this is not an ideal scenario for the Sixers. They are the eighth seed and have lost all sense of identity as the shortened season slogged into a battle of attrition with body, fatigue, and Doug Collins. Despite having capable players and some depth the defined roles of players have been blurred and they can no longer threaten an opponent from all sides. Especially in late game situations, Philadelphia becomes a haphazard mess as player take arrant, contested jumpers and become uninterested defensively. Though they possess the ability to force turnovers late, and have done so repeatedly, their instinct to close and win games is nonexistent. If they hope to overcome this self-imposed obstacle they better have a damn good plan and execute it flawlessly because at the end of games, Chicago is their antithesis.

Perhaps, with an oft ailing Derrick Rose, the Sixers thought they matched up well with the Bulls. On paper, maybe. Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng matchup well and should cancel one another out. This same line of thinking is extended to the matchups of Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer; and Lou Williams and the shell formerly known as Rip Hamilton, who, despite riding the pine (a dated term as the folding chairs the players sit on resemble the luxury of a fine recliner) for much of the season, has shown occasional bursts of his former, productive self; and Thaddeus Young, with his range, could conceivably draw Taj Gibson out of the paint, where his shot blocking is to be feared. That is where the comparisons, flawed as they are, end.

Jrue Holiday is not the reigning NBA MVP, Rose is. Evan Turner was the second overall draft pick a couple of years ago but he has yet to fully understand his roll on the Sixers and can get completely lost over the course of a game. Then there is Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes. All are decent players, unrefined, but decent nonetheless. Yet, they cannot fully match the depth that Chicago brings to the table.

The Bulls, to go along with the players already mentioned, have Joakim Noah, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, John Lucas, C.J. Watson, Omer Asik, Mike James (remember him?), and the main man, Brian Scalabrine. Here the advantage is the Bulls’. Oh, and they have Rose.

One interesting note, however, is that the Sixers, this season, performed better against the Bulls when Rose was on the court. Their net rating goes from -5.2 with him on the bench to 5.8 while he is in the game. This can be attributed to the rise in their 3-point percentage from 18.8 percent to 26.3 percent with Rose on the floor.

It will be interesting to see who Iguodala guards. He will likely split time between Rose and Deng but when not guarding one, the other has the potential to thrive.

Personnel aside, the Bulls implement one of the most disciplined defenses in the league. They hold their opponents to a league low 88.2 points per game on 42.1 percent field goal shooting, a number that is second best in the league. Chicago also allowed a league low in number of 3-point shots they allowed their opponents to take as they are quick to chase players off the arc, forcing them into the teeth of their defense. Perhaps the heart of their defense is their rebounding. They led the league in defensive rebounding, rarely allowing a second chance opportunity. What the Bulls lack in mediocre offense, and it is just that, make no mistake, they more than make up for in superb defense that will be tough for the Sixers to crack.

This series will be dominated by defense. The 76ers have the third best defense in the NBA so Chicago shouldn’t feel all high and mighty entering this match up. Where the Sixers should try and exploit the Bulls is by getting to the free throw line. Philadelphia is much more adept at creating fouls and going to the line than Chicago. This could be a great equalizer as the Sixers are ranked 23 in points per game and 24 in pace.

Essentially, the meeting of the Bulls and Sixers will not be exciting to the casual fan. It will be marred with slow, tedious action, countless turnovers forced by two good defenses, and a veritable lack of scoring. In the end the Bulls will out bore (and it will be boring) the Sixers and advance to the second round. One could hope this series would be similar to the Bulls and Pacers first round meeting last season, but that seems a bit far-fetched. Those Pacers were hungry, these Sixers are lost.

Doyle Rader predicts: Bulls defeat 76ers 4-1

Travis Huse predicts: Bulls defeat 76ers 4-1

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Ribeye to Eye: The Eastern Conference Playoff Picture

Even the East is juicy this year

Doyle Rader and Travis Huse discuss the NBA’s Eastern Conference, namely the playoff situation (what do you think of this segment’s tentative name?):

DR: Before we get rolling on how we feel the Eastern Conference playoffs will look, I want to address something that I saw last night. Now, I didn’t watch this game, I feel sorry for anyone that did, but I kept an eye on the score throughout the night because, well, I simply didn’t believe what I was seeing. The Detroit Pistons demolished the Cleveland Cavaliers 116 – 77. Now, the 77 points that Cleveland scored are deceiving. On the surface it appears to be a respectable, albeit low, total. It most certainly was not. At the end of three quarters the Pistons were up 100 – 50. Yes, they had a 50 point lead. 50 points! My God! This is the NBA. I know that there is a very vague level of parity that exists in the league, although it often cannot be found on a nightly basis, but what an embarrassment. At least the Bobcats weren’t the worst team in the NBA for one night.

OK, had to get that off my chest. What do you think about the Eastern Conference playoff picture?

TH: I don’t even know how you let the Pistons drop 100 on you. In the middle quarters, the Pistons scored 71. The Cavs only scored 6 more points than that in the entire game.  Oof.

Home court appears to be set, with the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, and Indiana Pacers spread enough apart that no one will be able to chase them. Bulls’ losses at Miami and Indiana could give the Heat a slight chance to make the top seed, but that’s a tough thing to imagine. Due to the NBA Playoff format, Boston will nab the 4th seed after winning the Atlantic Division. The remaining four spots are a murkier view.  With Dwight Howard‘s back injury and the myriad of front office issues the Orlando Magic have faced, it’s hard to imagine them competing with the Atlanta Hawks for the right to play Boston.  That being said, they seem to be a more cohesive, team-first organization without Howard.  Teams with a distinct desire to win will remember this when Dwight-a-palooza 2.0 hits next season, and will likely pass.  He’s more meant for the organizations that have a need for PR purposes than ones who need to win.  Every team has a joker, a guy you can’t rely on (Luke Babbitt, Metta World Peace, Stephen Jackson with 29 NBA teams), but it’s not exactly the best formula for winning if that guy also happens to be your superstar.  Recent history has shown that in order to win, your best bet would be with a humble star (Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki), instead of the splashy names. Orlando’s not a postseason threat to anyone in limbo, but they might make a last push in order to save face. Knicks can have the 7th seed, whatever.

The 8th spot is something to consider, though.  Could the Philadelphia 76ers really fall out of the picture with only 5 games left in the regular season? Absolutely. The Milwaukee Bucks are only a game and a half behind, and they play the 76ers at home. Since the trade deadline, this Bucks team is almost, sorta, maybe clicking, somehow.  A loss here could spell doom for Philly.

DR: Humble stars? Are you forgetting Kobe Bryant? He may actually be humble off the court but on the court he is quite loquacious with his game.

You’re right about the Magic, though. They are dead in the water and I’m pretty sure that Atlanta has the tie breaker over them so it’s doubtful that they move up in the standings, especially with Howard resting his back injury for the foreseeable future. Some have even speculated that he could sit out the playoffs too. Drama Dwight knows how to play ‘em doesn’t he? The Magic will be a first round exit; the top three teams in the East are too good.

As for Philly, they are taking all their cues from the 2007 Mets. This was a team that I predicted was the scariest team in the East at midseason. I was way off with that one. It is simply mind blowing that they could fall apart this bad. There has been plenty of blame to throw around but it is the whole team that needs to accept responsibility for this showing. Andre Iguodala scored more than 20 points last night for the first time ALL SEASON. This is a well balanced team at virtually every position, and hypothetically, they can rely on scoring from all their pieces but this is crunch time and their balance is dwindling. It is completely conceivable that Milwaukee catches them.

New York is locked into the 7th seed behind the might of Steve “Discount Double Check” Novak. What a flawed and exciting team. I’m pretty sure that they can only exist with one star healthy at a time if they have any hopes of winning. Jeremy Lin led the team at one point, Stoudemire did it early on, now it’s Melo’s turn. It’s the oddest damn thing that they cannot coexist.

TH: Kobe’s an outlier, though, simply because of his self-concept as the post-Jordan Jordan. He’s his biggest critic, and he forces his teammates to play at the best of their ability. Dwight, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James have been habitual excuse-makers, and it shows when they’re really tested in the playoffs.

As for the Knicks, I still think they can mesh. Mike Woodson has done a great job with Melo so far, and if he can get Stoudemire to buy into him (not his plays even, but Woodson the man), they’ll work. Melo’s triple-double against the Celtics is firm evidence that he’s much more likely to defer a bit to his teammates than ever before. As soon as the Knicks can get Anthony to pass the ball, we’ll see an increase in his shot selection, and they’ll be able to run high pick-and-rolls with STAT, and then they’re golden.  The Knicks need two things on offense, from my perspective. They need unselfish play from Anthony in pick-and-roll situations, and they need to move the ball from left to right in the halfcourt.  If they get defenses paying attention to that sort of movement, it will free up a TON of space for the stars to drive.

DR: With Amar’e coming back from injury soon, Woodson has indicated that he will insert him backing into the starting lineup. Thus, Carmelo will move back to small forward as he has been playing the four spot. I just wonder if this is going to hurt their defense moving forward since Stoudemire isn’t known as a defensive anything. But it looks like we will see a Knicks Heat first round series so that should be fun.

Anyway, there is one team flying under the radar right now and that is fairly unbelievable. The Indiana Pacers are cruising! They have won 10 of their last 11 games and are simply clicking on all levels. The change of tempo that Leandro Barbosa has brought to this team is remarkable. Danny Granger is efficient and resisting the ‘hero-mode’ urge more than usual. Roy Hibbert is a double-double machine and Tyler Hansbrough has returned to his ever scrappy play that we saw in the first round against the Bulls last year. Oh, and they have David West. This team IS dangerous, yet, no one is talking about them at length outside of the guys at eightpointsnineseconds.com. Whether they play Orlando or Atlanta in the first round, the Pacers should see the second round for the first time in a while.

TH: I love this Pacers squad so much.  They were a boatload of fun last season, and all the guys they added are quality.  Of course I have to love George Hill, but David West was such a wonderful pickup for these guys.  I truly feel that this time next year, once the Magic and Celtics and Hawks suck, they will cement themselves as a perennial contender and a new Bulls-Pacers rivalry will form, maybe one that puts Indiana on top.

DR: The job that Frank Vogel has done with this team is remarkable. They have won more games already this season, in a shortened year, than they did all of last year. There aren’t many teams that can make that claim who are making the playoffs.

I think, though, one of the biggest concerns going into the playoffs is the health of the star players. Derrick Rose has been hurt, Rajon Rondo landed hard on his coccyx last night, Howard is hurt, how will Amar’e integrate, and to a lesser extent, Zaza Pachulia is also hurt. Teams like the Bulls and Celtics need to be healthy if they expect to compete deep into the playoffs. I know players will play hurt in the post season with everything on the line but with the season wrapping up it might be wise just to rest players. Miami is already doing it. In fact they will probably be the most rested team by the time the postseason begins.

TH: I’m not going to lie, I burst out laughing when Zaza’s name came up. Only in Atlanta. Not exactly worthy of the “Highlight Factory,” but with Al Horford out, you take what you can get.

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Team USA Finalists Announced

Repeat?

Earlier today the 20 finalists for Team USA were announced. These players will compete for a chance to represent the United States at the Summer Olympics in London. Here is the list:

Guards:

Deron Williams

Chris Paul

Russell Westbrook

Chauncey Billups

Derrick Rose

Kobe Bryant

Eric Gordon

Dwyane Wade

Forwards:

LeBron James

Andre Iguodala

Rudy Gay

Kevin Durant

Carmelo Anthony

Kevin Love

Blake Griffin

Lamar Odom

LaMarcus Aldridge

Chris Bosh

Centers:

Tyson Chandler

Dwight Howard

The vast majority of these players have played for Team USA before. Only Griffin and Aldridge have not suited up in the red, white, and blue.  What will be interesting to see is how these players fare after a brutally compacted season. If anything, the final 12 players selected to play in the Olympics might come down to a matter of health above all else.

From this list of 20 there are clear shoe-ins, most of whom played on the Redeem Team in Beijing. Paul, Rose, Bryant, and Wade are the top guards in the group. Bryant expressed his interest in returning to play for Team USA long ago and Wade has stated that this will be his last run as member of the squad. However, Wade’s future with the national team is up in the air presently as he is out indefinitely with an ankle injury.

As for the forwards, where Team USA is loaded, James, Anthony, Durant, and potentially Love or Bosh will be the main candidates to make the final roster. Bosh is playing exceptionally well this season but his ability to be multidimensional will come into question if he is to make the cut. If head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s philosophy remains the same, Howard will be the only center who makes the final cut. Under Coach K, the national team has become a model of hybridization. 2010’s gold metal team at the FIBA World Championships in Turkey was a pure experiment and subsequently a benchmark for teams composed of hybrid, multi-positional players. That team started Odom at center over Chandler and it worked.

With that in mind, and assuming that none of the “shoe-in” players listed above have health setbacks, there are still three positions left to make the full 12-man roster. Williams, Iguodala, and Aldridge would be, in my opinion, the best choices to round out the squad. Aldridge, because of his size and shooting ability, would serve the team nicely as a power forward/center. Iguodala, who shined in Turkey, should be included for his defense which will lead to transition offense for the team. Williams is easily the most replaceable player that I have mentioned who has a chance at making the roster. It might be wise to go with another rangy, multi-positional forward instead like Gay or even Odom, who can play three positions on the team not including point forward.

Whatever the final makeup of the roster, health allowing, Team USA will be heavy favorites this summer in London. Hopefully, they have another catchy nickname and congeal as a team. I wonder if Bryant will be spotted in the stands at the beach volleyball tournament this time. Let’s hope so.

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