Friday, April 15, 2011

6 comments NBA Playoff Primer

Maybe six weeks ago I saw Sanan put 34 on the Heat in the first quarter and it was something silly like 34-12 at the end of one. At that moment I made my call that Sanan would win it all. After all, Duncan led teams had done this four times before, and I don't think those teams ever started 45-7 or whatever it was. Spurs won 61 games this year. In 2007 they won 58 and were a third seed, 2005: 59 and a second seed, 2003: 60 and a first seed, they were the first seed in 1999 too, but on pace for less than 61 wins. So this, based on all the evidence we have thus far, is the best incarnation of the Spurs. They have by far the best coach (anyone who can make Matt Bonner into a deadly rotation player is basically Gandalf), they are as experienced as anybody, and probably have the best offense in the Western Conference. I don't really see how anyone could confidently pick against them, especially with all the flaws in their competition.

I do think the champ will come out of the West, the East is a complete mess. Really, when you get down to it, when you ignore the need for sportswriters to make a fuss over a nearly wholly irrelevant regular season, the Lakers are the same fucking team they were in October. If I told Octo-you that the Heat would win less than sixty games and Boston would lose Perkins for the playoffs, you couldn't have put your money down on the Lakers quick enough. The Lakers have been playing possum in the playoffs for a few years now. Remember the Yao/TMac Rockets series? OKC last year? For that matter, Phoenix last year? For the Lakers to do it, it will require this group to make their fourth consecutive NBA Finals trip. The last time someone in the NBA did that I was 1 year old. And that was a relatively young 1985 Lakers squad. Everyone here besides Bynum (and MAYBE Gasol, though I think he is) is past their peak, and have played 313 games in the last three years. Oh, and Bynum has yet another injury of indeterminate severity...again. Nevertheless, I think they should be the objective favourites, sort of obviously so, if we can just get the Chicken Little's to shut up for a second.

I don't think Dallas seriously scares anyone. I've heard the argument from many sources which boils down to "THEY HAVE DIRK!", which has been true for twelve years now. Unequivocally that is not enough, and this team is substantially weaker than previous versions. And they are playing very poorly.

OKC have been very trendy, for a very long time. My big issue with the Thunder is this. They have two scorers. It's almost Iversonesque how much they rely on Westbrook and Durant. What happens if Durant's effect is minimised? Tony Allen, Ron Artest, Trevor Ariza, Shawn Marion, Nicholas Batum, there are some wing stoppers out there in the West and there's just no plan B for this, still basically inexperienced team. Durant has not been as spectacular as last year and while I could see OKC beating, say, Sanan maybe, I cannot fathom them beating Sanan, LA and Miami, say. Not with such a concentrated offensive attack - they can be gameplanned for. I'm also not thrilled with the coach against Pop/Jackson/Stan Van (who I rate highly) etc.

Speaking of coaches I am not high on, Erik Spoelstra is a joke. Honestly, in the vein of what happened out West with the Lakers, this team has been over scrutinised all season, and the fact that Spoelstra is still "trying to work things out" when he has two of the best five players on the planet, and another player better than the best player on half the teams in the're a shit coach. League average coaching sees the Heat win more than 58 games, especially considering how regular season friendly their roster is. Then there is the fact that Miami just haven't beaten these teams. They are 8/11 against higher seeds in both conferences this year. They split against the Knicks and went 3-1 against the Hawks. They also split against both Portland and Denver. 17/18 against teams in the top six in either conference - a losing record. For the sake of comparison, LA, with one less regular season win, went 18/12 against the same competition. We're one Dwyane Wade fall from this team being irrelevant, LeBron hasn't had a good postseason in his last three tries and they have no post presence at either end of the floor, critical for playoff success. But if it sounds like I'm hating on the Heat (yes, proudly) I like them a lot more than the C's or the current flavour of the month, the Bulls.

The hype meter on MVP thief (following Kobe robbing Paul) Derrick Rose and his Chicago Bulls has gone to 11. They have four losses since February 9th (28-4 including their last nine straight) and I think this has birthed the move from "great season! team on the rise!" to "OMFG FAVOURITES IN THE EAST!". 17 of those games were against teams not in the playoffs (16-1) and four of the others were against the Pacers (a 37-45 team), Westless Hornets (wascaly wabbit!) and Philly. They also played Memphis, but I think that's a really good team, so I'll throw that out. Look, they've had an excellent season. Rose has clearly taken it to another level and more than anything, they are extremely professionally coached. It's all great from that perspective. If I had to describe Chicago I would use this word - clean. They play clean, they don't make bad mistakes, they execute and they stick to their gameplan. That is insufficient at this time of year. Basically, for the Bulls to win it all they'd need to completely revolutionise playoff basketball. The book says - winning a championship is a gruelling, multiyear, piecemeal process unless you add a Shaq/LeBron and Boozer ain't that. For God's sake, only two teams have won the West since 1998! It's an insiders club and the Bulls are a year away, everyone is getting a bit carried away from only partially relevant regular season data. Derrick Rose hasn't even won a postseason series yet, and experience does count at this time of year. Collectively all the contenders have them lapped several times on this measure.

The Celtics just made a ridiculous trade. It's especially unforgivable considering how much time they spent jawing about "never beaten with our starting five" thing. Last year feels like...fluke is a bit strong, let's say swansong for the Celtics. Could they draw an unfocused LeBron again? Sure, they could. Not very likely though is it? And they are old. And their one indispensible, young superstar is shooting 43% after the all star break (50% before it) with his assists dropping from about 12 to 9.5. This is particulary relevant because Boston does not hit treys (26th), get to the line (20th) or hit the offensive glass (last, 1.5 rebounds less than anyone else in the league). And these are season long rankings, it would be worse if we just looked after the break. It's a broken offense, with aging players, who traded their centre (on a defensively minded club) for one of the most ill-equipped playoff players I've ever seen. Has Shaq even played recently? Could see the wheels falling off badly.

It's for these reasons I quite fancy the Magic and Howard. They've done it before, have a truly one of a kind player (no one is remotely like Howard in the league) in, historically, the most important position in the playoffs. They are well coached in my estimation, and have a very substantial chip on their shoulder. The only time they get spoken about at all is how shit they are. This is the only team that went to the East Finals the last two years - they can fucking play. Frankly, the East looks as open as it has been in years, and a team like Orlando could slip through with the surprise factor on their side. There are lots of reasons they won't iwn it, don't get me wrong, but they are almost coma-level slept on at the moment, and as I hope I've demonstrated, their opponents are just (or nearly) as flawed.

Of the lower seeds, only Memphis and Portland intrigue me. Remember how New Orleans started 11-1? They are 35-35 since, and are without their second best player. Their offense is also borderline retarded. Marco Belinelli and Trevor Ariza will be starting on the wings for the Hornets (combined for 21.5ppg all year) and their last start they were topped by 32. Taking away West, no one on this team averages above 16ppg. I shouldn't even have to start with Indy and the Sixers have a shocking matchup with the Heat (3-0 in regular season) who just live to beat the 76ers of the world by 20 points. New York is abysmal defensively, and that is a disqualifier at this time of year and we know exactly what Atlanta can and can't do after this four year playoff run, which has revealed that their eight year plan or whatever finishes with them not remotely close to the ring. Depressing. Denver are also non qualifiers, reference 2004 Detroit if you want to, but that was a terrible, terrible conference (this was in the New Jersey years) and basically every starter was better than anything the Nugs run out there. Portland's size intrigues me, and unlike Memphis, there is some 1% chance they could take this to the house. McMillan is a superb coach and this is about as good as Portland's team (as it takes the floor) has looked in two years. I love their presence and physicality inside and think Aldridge should be a walk up winner of most improved this year. He might be a top 10 player, or will be this time next year. The Grizz are also strong on the interior and are a better defensive team. Put it this way, I'm a lot more excited about the Grizzlies this year than I was about OKC last year. They are in the process of locking Randolph up and have a tremendous young core. Imagine what they'd be like with a fully fit Rudy.

So, in summay, my socially filtered, acceptable pick is Lakers/Heat. My more brazen, purely individualistic "make a splash" pick is Spurs/Magic.


Bengoodfella said...

I don't know if Spolstra is as bad as it seems you believe him to be. He does have two of the best players in the NBA, but he also doesn't have very much behind Bosh. So he has taken a chemistry-challenged team that is deeply flawed in 2 of 5 starting positions and on the bench and they won 58 games. So as great as Wade and LeBron are, I think this year has been tough incorporating each of their games in the offense and figuring out how many players on the roster can contribute and when they can contribute.

I try not to count the Spurs out either, but I am higher on the Thunder. They may have two scorers, but I think they make up for that because Durant is tough to stop given his height and skill set. Plus, James Harden can score if necessary and they actually have interior defense now.

I guess we'll see what happens...

J.S. said...

The OKC defense has sky high potential, especially if Westbrook can get his groove back on that end - when he was drafted he was considered a defensive specialist.

Not buying the Miami thing - it's overthinking it. It's probably a relevant point in the postseason, but in the regular season, when they can run, Miami should have won 65 games. LeBron and Wade did this willingly, it ain't an Iverson/Melo thing, they are two of the best and smartest basketball players on the planet. When you look at the East, the talent advantage Miami has over its opponents is immense...

Bengoodfella said...

I think the Thunder are going to do very well in the playoffs. I have them going pretty far.

I think the talent advantage the Heat have is also going to cause them to go far in the playoffs. Maybe I am making excuses for the Spolstra, but I think herding those guys together was harder than it looks. You have 2 great players, one guy who has lost his confidence and then a huge fall-off from the other guys on the team. Is Spolstra going to win Coach of the Year? No, but I don't think he did a terrible job.

J.S. said...

re: Thunder, my comment was I could see them beating the Spurs maybe, but not the Spurs, Lakers and Heat/Celtics/Bulls.

Do you think they can win three series in a row against competition of that quality? On the road when they haven't won a road playoff game before?

Bengoodfella said...

J.S. I do think they can win on the road against quality competition. There has to be a first for everything and I think they could win a road game or two against those teams. We'll see though.

So you believe Spolstra has been a bad coach, but in the postseason it won't matter as much or James and Wade will just take over the game and ignore the coach?

J.S. said...

Not necessarily, I have very little certainty, especially in the East. This really was a lesser of three evils thing for me. I think Miami's weakness' are not as fatal as Chicago/Boston.