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NBA Mid-Season Awards

Thunderstruck might not win any awards, but Durant likely will

Thunderstruck might not win any awards, but Durant likely will

The NBA is just past the mid-point of the regular season so the Kobe Beef decided to jump on the bandwagon and list our selections for who is deserving of an award thus far.

Coach of the Year

Ben Gooding: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls

I’m sure you guys like Mark Jackson.

Travis Huse: Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors

“Mama, there goes that man!”

After years of hearing Mark Jackson spit his catchphrases beside Jeff Van Gundy on ABC, I could have never envisioned that he would be the man to lead the Golden State Warriors back to the playoffs. But now with Monta Ellis gone, The Warriors can now play Stephen Curry at the 2, and allow Jarrett Jack to handle more of the distribution duties. Once you factor in Klay Thompson’s advancement and the return of Andrew Bogut, it is evident that the Warriors might just be the beginning of a perennial playoff team.

Doyle Rader: Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors

It was a bit premature for Mark Jackson to declare that the Warriors would be playoff-bound after he was named head coach last season. However, he was only off by a year. Barring a collapse on the level of the 2007 Mets, Golden State will reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007 as they have already topped their win total from last season. Jackson has melded his rotations well and rode the chemistry that David Lee and Stephen Curry have developed to this point. Not to mention this team is all buckets everything. They shoot 45.6 percent from the floor, and lead the league in 3-point shooting percentage with a mark of 38.8. The Warriors are also the only team to have defeated the Thunder, Heat, and Clippers. Now the team has Andrew Bogut back which will only bolster their roster. His handling of Curry’s recent ankle tweak, by sitting him, also shows that he is not risking his team’s future for one game.

Most Improved Player

TR: Paul George, Indiana Pacers

This award is not even up for discussion. To begin the season, Indiana looked like a sure lock on winning the Central Division, but were derailed by Danny Granger’s knee injury and disappointing play from Roy Hibbert. George has filled the superstar role nicely, and the Pacers now have a serious chance to overtake the Bulls in order to land the 3rd seed in the East by the time playoffs roll around.

DR: Greivis Vasquez, New Orleans Hornets

Vasquez’ play this season has been nothing short of superb. He has quarterbacked a bottom feeding team as well as anyone could imagine and has already set career numbers in points, assists, rebounds, and 3-point shooting percentage and he has done it all in ewer total minutes than he played all of last season. New Orleans has a +/- of -7.9 and a Net Rating of -8.1 when Vasquez is on the bench.

Defensive Player of the Year

BG: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

Chicago is 27-17 and Derrick Rose has not set foot on the hardwood all season. What could be even more astonishing? That the Bulls have that record by only scoring 93 points a game (that’s 27th in the league, folks).

How are they doing it? Defense and Joakim Noah is leading the way. Midway through the season, Chicago is only giving up 90 points a game (3rd in the league) and they are gathering 44 rebounds a game (6th in the league).

Noah is gathering 7.2 rebounds a game and 2 blocks. He’s gathered 15 boards or more eight times this season. His energetic style matched with stingy defense all over the court, is allowing the Bulls to bide their time before Rose returns.

TH: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ success in the absence of Derrick Rose speaks volumes about the work of head coach Tom Thibodeau, and the way he has managed to keep this team performing at an elite level without his MVP point guard just might be his biggest success to date. But with the defensive identity of this squad is the glue that holds them together, and Noah has been phenomenal as a defensive leader, in a capacity similar to Kevin Garnett’s role on the Celtics.

 DR: Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks

Larry Sanders may be an odd choice for Defensive Player of the Year. Yet, I cannot get past a few aspects of his game that let me to select him. Sanders is by no means a household name. He has scrapped for playing time in Milwaukee, a team laden with forwards, but now seems to be coming into his own as a defensive presence. Sanders currently has the second best defensive rating in the league, 95.9, behind only Tim Duncan and leads in every block category. The most striking statistic being that he blocks nine percent of all the shots taken when he is on the floor. NINE PERCENT! JaVale McGee is second with 7.9. Opposing offenses only shoot 52.7 percent, a dreadful number, from the restricted area when Sanders in patrolling the paint. He also pulls down 8.2 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes and sports a defensive win shares rating of 2.3.

Sixth Man

TH: Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors

Jarrett Jack is just one of those players who can really rally a second unit, and I am pretty damn unsure as to why he hasn’t managed to secure a starting spot on an NBA team. At any rate, he has helped out many a crappy team (looking at you, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh) while being buried under talented starters, and you just have to enjoy him.

[Editor’s note: Jack was the starting point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2006-07 season. He started in all 79 games that he played.]

DR: Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors

One of the reasons that the Warriors have been so successful this season, aside from their coach, has been the willingness of Jarrett Jack to accept his role as the team’s sixth man. Not only has he accepted this position but he has excelled in it. This is Jack’s first season coming off the bench since he backed up Chris Paul in New Orleans. Now he comes off the bench to spell Stephen Curry or play alongside him. He has posted a win shares rating of 3.6 to go along with a true shooting percentage of 56.2 and 7.1 assists per 36 minutes. The Warriors are a deep team with many good bench players, Carl Landry especially stands out, but it is Jack who has contributed the most.

Rookie of the Year

Unanimous: Damien Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

BG: Portland won 28 games last year. So far this season, they are 22-22. May not seem like a lot but it is when you consider how cursed this team has been with rookies (Sam Bowie, Bill Walton, Greg Oden). Seems like all they needed to do was stop drafting centers to break the curse.

Regardless, no one expected to see what we have already seen from Lillard this season. A 37-point game and six double-doubles so far this season are just a few things padding his resume.

TH: I have tried all season to believe in Anthony Davis. I drafted him too highly on our fantasy league. I bought into all the hype about his “NBA readiness,” and I am still trying to believe that he will pull off winning this award.

 With the passing of each day, it becomes more and more unlikely. The Hornets have been very careful with their franchise prospect, and Eric Gordon has finally returned, taking some of the scoring load off Davis.

 Lillard, though, has crafted an amazing year, finally giving the fans in Portland a capable distributor. He is smart with the ball, and he has been willing to shoulder the burden of a leadership role right out of college. When was the last time the Blazers had that? He maximizes the performance of teammates LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. Blazers GM Neil Olshey certainly drafted himself out of the hot water that he was in after matching Batum’s $46 million, four-year offer sheet from Minnesota.

DR: When I saw him fearlessly attack and harry Steve Nash during the preseason, I was sold.

Most Valuable Player

Unanimous: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

BG: It’s hard not to see him winning MVP at this point in the season. The Thunder have only lost two games in a row once this season and one of those games was to the Heat. He leads the league in scoring (29.6 ppg) on one of the best teams in the league (2nd in the West and league, OKC with 34 wins).

While its just as easy to mention LeBron James in this conversation, it’s an award that belongs to Durant. We never expected Durant to be what he is now while the media, fans, and the league completely set the stage for LBJ.

His stat sheet includes over seven rebounds and four assists a game. That matched up with shooting 91 percent from the free throw line and 42 percent from past the arc, spells out history. Only Dirk Nowitzki, Reggie Miller and Larry Bird have maintained the 40-50-90 line throughout a full NBA season.

TR: Even though Lebron James is the best basketball player in the world, the Miami Heat haven’t particularly shined this season, and that will hurt his chances of hoisting a fourth Maurice Podoloff trophy. Instead, I opt for Kevin Durant, who looks driven and determined to win a ring. His team has managed to maintain such a high level of play even though they traded away James Harden, and Durant is poised to take home his fourth straight scoring title. While Durant has lived under Lebron’s shadow the past few years, this is Durant’s time to shine.

DR: Kevin Durant is in rare form. He is currently a 50/40/90 player, meaning that he shoots 50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on 3-pointers, and 90 percent on free throws. If he can maintain this through the rest of the season he will join the ranks of Larry Bird, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, and Steve Nash as the only players to finish a season shooting at such a level. Not only is his shooting impressive but he is averaging 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game to go along with his league-leading 29.6 points.

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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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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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Miami Heat Poised to Win Championship

One more

Doyle Rader: With the Miami Heat one win away from their second ever NBA title, now is as good a time as any for us to talk about the Finals. Last night, the Thunder, namely Russell Westbrook, threw everything they had at the Heat in an attempt to tie the series but came up just short as they have in every game since Game 1. Plenty of people are singling out Westbrook for the foul he committed on Mario Chalmers with 15 seconds left in the game as the moment the Thunder lost the game. (They were down three points at that time.) Yet, this is a complete overreaction to the play in my opinion. If it wasn’t for Westbrook in the first place the Thunder would have likely not even been in this game. He poured in 43 points on 20 made field goals. Everything was falling for him last night. It was a performance on par with what Rajon Rondo did against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. During the presser LeBron James even likened those two performances to each other. It seems to me that a new narrative (it isn’t that new actually) is forming around Westbrook, scapegoating him, doubting him, much in the same ilk that James has dealt with throughout his career. However, James is on the cusp of shattering his previous narrative and the baggage that came with it.

Travis Huse: If we’re looking at problems here, it’s not Westy. Harden went
2-10 last night and finished with 8 points, and here’s the part where I tell
you that he was still third in the Thunder’s point totals. They managed to
beat the Spurs with an effective team play atmosphere, and they’ve lost the
contributions from Harden and Serge Ibaka. Smart team play can defeat Miami, but pitting a “Big 2” against a “Big 3” is suicide.

Casual basketball fans tend to place much more emphasis on offense than
defense, and that’s the population most affected by Anti-Westbrook Fever.
But you can’t overlook how the Heat have been able to control the tempo of
the game, and Harden looks thrown off. He was 2-10 on Sunday, as well, held
to only 9 points. If he wants the label of next-generation Manu Ginobili, he
needs to step up better now, where it really matters.

DR: You’re right, Harden has been bad, but it isn’t just his shooting. For
some reason, and there has been much to talk about concerning Scott Brooks’
rotations, Brooks insists on having Harden defend James for extended periods
of time. I know that James is a player that is difficult to defend on every
level but this simply is not where Harden should be utilized on the
defensive end. Time and again, James will just post him up since he is
bigger and stronger and the results have been devastating.

Zach Lowe over at SI.com touched on that today. By his tally, Miami scored 24 point on James post-ups. The points did not all come from LeBron as he was able to hit open teammates when double teams came his way. He finished the game with 12 assists. How can anyone stop him at this point, let alone an undersized player known more for his offense?

It’s not just Harden, though, you are correct in pointing out Ibaka’s
dramatic fall-off but Kendrick Perkins has been equally awful. He is the
wrench in the gears. Nick Collison showed flashes of brilliance against the
Heat in Game 4 but then vanished. Poof! Scott Brooks is showing us his
inexperience with these stubborn, and at times haphazard, lineups that he
has been throwing out there.

Last year Rick Carlisle showed his flexibility by inserting J.J. Barea into
the starting lineup to wondrous results for Dallas as they went on to win
the championship. Erik Spoelstra was left in the dust scratching his head as
he stuck with Mike Bibby in the starting lineup for too long. Now, Spoelstra
is in command and his small center-less lineups are rendering OKC’s bigs
completely useless.

TH: To be very honest, one of the biggest hindrances in Lebron’s career has
been his unwillingness to post up. He used to be very prone to jacking Josh
Smith-type 3s, so much so that every time I play against him (Miami or
Cleveland) on the 2K games, I will sag off him and make him shoot it. I
might have to change my approach with the next one. And it makes sense that
their success has revolved around his post play, because the dude is the
biggest, strongest, most athletic person that might have ever existed. The
Thunder don’t have anyone who’s going to be able to defend him without
leaving a glaring mismatch. I’m not sure anyone in the league does, and
that’s why the Heat are one win away from the championship.

They’re a stronger team than last year, and they’ve found a way for both
Lebron and Dwyane Wade to play together. Right now their bench is outplaying the Thunder bench. I don’t see any way the Thunder make it as champs, and you’re right, Spo is out-coaching Brooks. Unless something drastic changes, the Heat seem to be poised to close this one out sooner rather than later.

DR: After the body language that Durant showed last night in the post game
presser this series could wrap up Thursday night. During that presser we
witnessed the return of Durant’s backpack, which had been MIA all
postseason. It too was just as sad an dejected as Durant as he let it fall
to the floor, shoulders slumped. It reminded me of the Western Conference
Finals last year. There were many a sad backpacks to be found in that
series.

Here’s the thing though, as I am not a true fan of either of the teams in the Finals, just a fan of the game, I have slowly come to view the post game presser as must-see throughout these playoffs. Sure, the questions are generally fluff, verging on inane at times, but I find them to be truly interesting.

Chris Bosh, who has been great this series, gives one of the best presser
interviews there are. Honestly, if more people heard him speak, instead of
instantly buying into the “Like a Bosh” or “Bosh Face” trope, they would see
just how smart, composed, and well spoken he is.

But of course the presser is all about the clothes. Man, these players
(Westbrook) wear some silly expensive shit. That said, Wade won the presser
clothes game last night when he came out wearing glasses that were straight
off the face of Dwayne Wayne from Different World.

TH: I’ve never really understood why Bosh gets so much shit. He’s a consistent 20-10 player, a perennial all star, who stretches the floor very well. His outside touch does wonders for the sometimes-anemic Heat offense, exposing the rim for the slashing of the other two stars.

It has become so commonplace to make fun of the Heat, that the worst thing I could think of has happened. I have moved past resenting them, past feeling sorry for them, into rooting for them as an underdog. Obviously, they are not the underdog, but I now feel that I have to throw stats in the faces of anyone who harps in on how much they hate the Heat.

DR: I found myself in the same place as the Finals started this year. For various and extremely biased reasons I cannot bring myself to root for the Thunder organization so that left me with only one choice. I have James many times on this blog, taking both a negative and positive view of him and his game. Seeing all the backlash towards one of the greatest players the league has ever seen has continually shocked me, though. Sure he, and the Heat have made some questionable choices in the past but does that really outweigh what goes on in a game? Miami is the most scrutinized team in sports and it is simply ludicrous to hear some of the things said about them.

The Heat deserve to win the championship this year, if for no other reason that silence the doubters who continually lob volley after volley of asinine rhetoric interspersed with buzz words at them all the while refusing to make sound judgments and arguments. At this point, if winning a championship is the only way to get it through the thick skull of some people that James is good and so are the Heat then so be it. They shall be vindicated.

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Western Conference Finals Preview

“Why, Lord, must we play the Spurs?” -James Harden

Travis Huse: With the Oklahoma City Thunder’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers last night, our Western Conference Finals matchup is set. They can book their flight to San Antonio. Frankly, this series looks to eclipse the NBA Finals in terms of excitement. These games are going to pit the league’s two best offenses against each other, and with some very strange matchups to make things interesting. We have the league’s best scorer in Kevin Durant being guarded by Kawhi Leonard, the best defensive rookie this season. The Thunder’s best defensive player, Serge Ibaka, will have to defend the rejuvenated and driven Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili on James Harden. Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook trying to blow by each other. I’m totally pumped for these games. But looking at the Spurs lately, as well as their games against the Thunder this season, is there any hope for the Thunder to pull this off?

Doyle Rader: I agree that this series has great potential, it probably won’t be a seven game series as some might be hoping for, though. However, each game should be extremely competitive. As far as your matchup predictions I think you have it dead on with Leonard defending Durant. As for the rest I think that Scott Brooks will have Kendrick Perkins, if he is healthy, guard Duncan. Or at least until Duncan steals his lunch money and gives him a swirly. Perkins’ has the body mass to try and dislodge Duncan from the block but will get lost when Duncan drifts to the top of the key or his favorite 45 degree bank shot location. I just don’t see Ibaka as a viable defender on Duncan. His defensive prowess is predicated on off ball positioning and weak-side help and shot blocking. Ibaka has improved his face up defense this season but he need s the freedom to roam and hedge to be effective.

Much like we saw against the Clippers, the Spurs will probably use Danny Green to try and slow down Russell Westbrook. I doubt Parker will spend a whole lot of time guarding Westbrook this series. It looks like the Spurs have the advantage with disrupting the Thunder with the number of matchups and mismatches they can create on the court, but the Ginobili/Harden battle should be special.

TH: Ginobili vs. Harden is a great situation because they’re both 6th men, both fan favorites, and can play with some fire. As for Parker on Westbrook, I could see Pop keeping Tony on him just because he’s not Chris Paul. Against the Clippers, you need Green’s long arms to prevent Paul’s unparalleled passing ability, whereas with Westbrook, you’re going to be better the more he has the ball. If the Spurs can goad him into playing hero ball (like he did, in oh, say, last year’s WCF), the Thunder are done. The only way the Thunder have a chance is if Westbrook defers more. And if he can still score 30 while deferring. So it’s going to be tough.

Another thing I’d like to reiterate. This is a series that contains both the #1 and #2 offense in the league. But the Spurs stars have played so much less this season and are so much deeper, that the Thunder will need to highlight their defense to prevent giving up insurmountable leads while their stars rest. Look at these minutes numbers so far this season (including playoffs):

Kevin Durant: 2912
Russell Westbrook: 2655
James Harden: 2219

Tony Parker: 2203
Tim Duncan: 1890
Manu Ginobili: 1002

Even if you throw out Manu’s numbers because of his injuries in the regular season, that’s a pretty big contrast. Tony Parker has played less than OKC’s 6th man, which is a huge thing to take into consideration this season, because all those games were condensed.

DR: All of the OKC players you listed are younger than us. I think they’ll just fine in terms of fatigue, they have yet to show any signs of dwindling yet. In fact they outscored the Lakers in the combined fourth quarters of their series 119-97.

As you mention, these are prolific offenses. Maybe I’m just old-school, but I still think defense will define the series. The 7-Seconds or Less Suns never got to the Finals for a reason. The Spurs, though they have completely altered their identity, still have a defensive pedigree. They might not be as fast as the Thunder but they work well as a cohesive unit defensively and have completely dominated their previous opponents. I expect a platoon defense to be used on all three of the Thunder’s stars that features Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Green, Gary Neal, and Stephen Jackson. That’s a lot of bodies and fouls. Brooks should do the same against Parker and Ginobili with Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, and Daequan Cook. Don’t expect Derek Fisher to matter. The backcourt of San Antonio is too quick.

TH: Yeah, we’re going to see a ton of different lineups, but I think the onus is on the Thunder to figure out how to crack this Spurs team. San Antonio is on a roll, and performed very well against the Thunder this year (and since Kevin Durant first made the playoffs with this team, the Spurs have won 8 of 10). The strategies that they have been employing simply haven’t worked, and there’s no reason to believe that unless the Thunder manage to change their game significantly before the start of this series, that there is no plausible hope that they can win it.

DR: Scott Brooks has definitely grown as a head coach this season but he is out classed and outmatched in every conceivable way in this series. Gregg Popovich is one of the greatest coaches that the NBA has seen and is a future Hall of Famer. He has seen just about everything and has more contingency plans than NATO had for a Soviet strike during the Cold War. Pop is the best coach in the league, and not just because he won Coach of the Year this season. I just don’t see any coach left in the playoffs that could possibly out-coach him and that is what it is going to take to beat the Spurs.

TH: My neighbor gave me 10-to-1 odds on a bet that the Spurs would make the Finals. It was the day the Spurs signed Boris Diaw (March 23rd), and I felt at that time they were as complete as they could possibly be. Plus, I would have only lost 10 bucks. They’ve lost two games since then, and right now I feel pretty darn secure with that decision.

DR: As a Mavs fan it is hard for me to heap praise on the Spurs, (don’t fret Thunder fans, I equally despise your team too) but I’m not so biased as to be blind. They are the better team in this series, hands down. Spurs win the series in five games.

TH: 5 games? Damn, that’s rough. I’ll say they pop two off against the Spurs. Spurs in 6.

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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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