Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Changing of the Guard

My apologies to everyone for taking awhile since my last post.
If you haven’t been watching the NBA playoffs yet, WATCH! No seriously, WATCH! These games have been unbelievable. We are now just starting the conference finals, and for me, there has been one dominant theme: the changing of the guard.
Kobe and the Lakers? I don’t think so. They are more busy worrying about this. Shannon Brown is pulling a Delonte West. For those who don’t know, Delonte is widely rumored to have slept with Lebron’s MOM, thus causing a rift in the locker room that doomed the Cavaliers last season. What hilarity. Quick side note to all the people who have an opinion about why the Lakers lost: stop saying that they are too old. Get your facts right before you claim that. Dallas has the oldest starting lineup in the entire league. Hell, their youngest starter is older than OKC’s oldest starter. They just were beat by a better team. Or Pau’s wife realized that once you go black you never go back. Especially to a bushy Spanish-speaking bitch. Just saying.
Timmy D and the Spurs, the team that had the best record in the West? See you later. When you have a guy nicknamed the playing significant minutes, it better be in a porno, or this South Park Episode. The Big 3 and Boston? Enjoy the offseason. Hopefully the rest of the league learned from them that you can’t count on the oldest player in the league, even one who is one of the greatest players of all time, to play 30 minutes a game and replace Perkins’ death stare. Anyone notice how KG no longer was hollering and talkin’ trash to everyone within earshot? It’s because he no longer had his enforcer behind him. Nenad Krstic only has a hairline run away from him.

Matt Bonner isn't intimidating anyone
So who is left in the playoffs?
Miami, the juggernaut Big 3 with little help. It is 3 young stars (2 superstars) who are just entering the primes of their careers.
Chicago, led by the youngest MVP in league history, and joined by a group of young, energetic, unselfish players who have continued to improve.

Oklahoma City, that has a starting 5 (not to mention James Harden and his classic beard who are all ages 27 and under. They aren’t even supposed to be here yet.

Now this is the type of guy I want leading me into the future 

Dallas, the anomaly to this trend. They are the oldest team. So why are they here? OOOOOOO, I don’t know, maybe a German named Dirk. I briefly defended him before ripping his whining in my all-yelling team, but these playoffs have continued to justify my claim that he is a truly great player, regardless of if he ever wins a championship. The last two series he outplayed Lamarcus Aldridge (an All-NBA player this year) and then destroyed Gasol, Bynum, and Odom (supposedly the most formidable front line in basketball). He is a stud, and he is the reason why Dallas is here. His stats tonight: 12-15 from the field, 24-24 from the free throw line. It was his 6th 40 point game of his playoff career. I’d say that’s pretty clutch. Every commentator was granting him top 30 player of all-time status. To quote Coach Bayliss (my college tennis coach), “That’s pretty good!”
Ok, so what’s my point. I’ve already rambled on for several paragraphs without any coherent theme/point. Well, here it is. I am going to list my top ten teams that are in the best shape for the future. The criteria will be based on several things:
-Young talent: Is Kobe still one of the best players in the league? Yes. In an imaginary draft that starts the league over next year, do I want to pick him, or Kevin Love? I’m taking Kevin Love for the next 12 years over Kobe for the next 3.
-Salary cap space: This will be the one big negative for Miami. They have 2 of the top 5 players in the league, and 3 of the top 20(ish). But the rest of their team will have to be based on veterans who accept less money to try to win a championship, and younger guys who have yet to do well enough to earn any significant contract, either because they are still in their rookie contract, or because they suck. The end.
-Contracts: Essentially a combo of the two. Do I want to build around Dwight Howard or Derrick Rose? I might take Howard, simply because the difference between Howard and the 10th best center is far bigger than the difference between Rose and the 10th best point guard. Howard simply is tougher to replace. That all being said, do I want the position the Bulls have with Rose, or the position the Magic have with Howard? Obviously I want Rose. He is signed for several years, was born and raised in Chicago, and has given every indication he wants to play there for his entire career. Howard? He is considered to be all but gone from the Magic. Carmelo 2.0. Lebron 2.0 <-Embarrassing.
Now that the criteria have hopefully been laid clearly out,
here is the list.
The Changing of the Guard:
10.  Golden State  – The Warriors have a potentially very bright future. They have David Lee signed for 6 more years, albeit at a max contract. They have Monta Ellis signed for 4 more years, and they still have Stephen Curry signed to his rookie contract (cheap) for 3 more years. They also have a couple of their other young contributors, Epe Udoh and Dorell Wright, signed for several more years. I would have put them higher, but several issues could hold them back. The first and biggest concern is that their two best players, Curry and Ellis, are both undersized combo guards. While Curry has accepted the role of playing point guard and allowing Ellis to be the primary scorer, it sometimes inhibits their team by taking the ball out of Curry’s hands. As by far the best creator on the team, that is less than ideal. Thus, it has often been rumored that Ellis could get traded. While this would not be a disaster because he has plenty of value, it is no guarantee that they would get full value back for him. Additionally, once Curry’s rookie contract ends, a max contract will most likely be required to keep him, as he is desired by almost every team in the league. If this is done, they will have most of their money locked up in 3 players (Curry, Ellis, and Lee). Think of it similar to the Miami situation. Except that the talent of the two Big 3’s would be as follows: James, Wade, Curry, Bosh, Ellis, Lee). Being in a similar situation as Miami financially but with less talent is why they are only at 10.
9.      Philadelphia  – The 76ers still have Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner for multiple years on their rookie contracts. They also have their best player, Andrew Iguodala, signed for 4 more years. Jodie Meeks still has 2 years left. Thaddeus Young , who had a breakout postseason, only has one year left. Assuming he plays well next year, he will be commanding a premium in free agency, which could make him more difficult to re-sign. The 76ers, like the Warriors, are a middle of the road team as far as salary cap goes. They have more quality players that will probably be with them for multiple years, but less star power. While Holiday, and Turner certainly have bright futures, it is optimistic to count on them being nearly as good as Curry and Ellis. Their depth is what puts them above Golden State.
8.      Nuggets – Also known as the All-Tatted-Up Team, the Nuggets completely reinvented themselves this season following the trade of Carmelo Anthony. They have a young and talented core that consists of Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Aaron Afflalo, and J.R. Smith, all of whom are ages 26 or under. They will most likely lose Kenyon Martin and Nene to free agency in the near future. Kenyon will probably be signed with a contending team for more than the Nuggets, building for the future, will want to take on. Nene had a great season and will probably get a significant bump in his contract. While Denver would like to keep him, it also might be too much for them to match. Plus, he isn’t as tatted up with the rest of the team. Chemistry. Chemistry. However, even without Martin and Nene, their young nucleus will continue to improve together over the next couple of years. Being in the bottom 3rd of the league in current salary, the team will have the option of signing some to bigger contracts, letting some walk that they feel are overpriced, or trading them for different pieces. No matter what, I see them being competitive in the future with their young nucleus. 
It's pretty clear why Nene wouldn't fit in here

7.      New Jersey – The Nets are probably the biggest unknown of the teams I have on this list. The current duo of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez is a great young tandem. Additionally, only 6 teams have spent less than them, so they have plenty of space to acquire helping pieces or a big star. Which, of course, brings me to the Dwight Howard topic again. The Nets have made it abundantly clear that they now want to go after Dwight Howard. The appeal of the tandem, plus playing in a big market (the Nets are moving to Newark), will certainly appeal to Howard. If they can get him, they probably should be ranked 4th on this list. If they don’t get him, Deron Williams will most likely opt out of his contract in a year, the team will be a bottom dweller, and they will drop to about as low as any team in the league in regards to this list. As we know, Dwight Howard isn’t exactly serious about winning, but he is serious about becoming a celebrity. So who knows.
6.      Los Angeles Clippers – Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon. The second smallest salary spending in the league. Those reasons alone put the Clippers here. Add in the fact that they have Al Fariq Aminu and Eric Bledsoe for at least a few more years to bolster their young nucleus, and it is quite clear why L.A. could become a Clipper town. Chris Kaman and Mo Williams are the only 2 players not named Blake who even make $5 million for them, and both will more likely than not be gone soon. So why aren’t they even higher? Donald Sterling, the notoriously cheap man who makes idiotic roster moves, is still in charge. It is not inconceivable that the Clippers would fail to re-sign Griffin for no other reason than it would cost a lot. He is also the only owner who publicly chastises his players from the sideline. On the other hand, when that same player’s highlight of the year is from a car, maybe he has a point. Do the right thing Donald. Spend some money. Make the Clip show good.
Maybe Sterling was right...

5.      New York– The Knicks have two superstars of their own in Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. They also have some young supporting players in Landry Fields and Toney Douglas. If New York had been able to wait until this offseason to acquire Carmelo, they could have been at the top of this list. In addition to what they already have, they could have still had almost all of the players I talked about for Denver, the #8 team on this list. Unfortunately, ‘Melo had to get his money. Smart man.
Carmelo did mess up marrying this. You hate to see it.

4.      Memphis – Assuming the Grizzlies follow through on their promise to Zach Randolph to sign Marc Gasol to a long-term contract this offseason, the Grizz should have essentially the same team that took Thunder to 7 games a couple of days ago, minus Shane Battier. Additionally, they will have Rudy Gay, a 20 point scorer and their go-to player in crunch time over the last 2 years, back as well. If they can keep Z-Bo motivated (and that will be quite the task after they overpaid him this season), then they will be scary for years to come. In Zach’s defense, I guess he has to make plenty of money when he’s funding drug cars
3.      Miami – The Big 3. Enough said. Regardless of what happens this season, the Heat will be better going forward. Mike Miller will be healthy and not look like a cracked-out punk rocker, and Udonis Haslem will be back (which will honestly help a lot). Three stars and a couple decent players around them means that they always have a shot. And the Heat will have that for years to come.

2.      Chicago – Derrick Rose isn’t leaving. He adores Chicago, and the love is mutual. Additionally, the Bulls are 26th out of 30 in salary, meaning they will certainly have the flexibility to ensure that they have space to sign him to a max contract. This flexibility will also provide them the opportunity to upgrade at starting shooting guard, their one major weakness. Considering this along with the fact that Noah (6 years ), Boozer (5 years), and Deng (4 years) are all signed to long-term contracts, and the future is quite bright in Chicago. P.S.: If the Bulls win the NBA Title this year, I will be partying in the streets with more drugs than this woman. Note #1 – I don’t do drugs. It was a joke. Note #2 – This video has some nudity. My apologies. It was too funny not to include.

1.      Oklahoma City – As I already mentioned, the entire starting 5, along with James Harden off the Bench, are all 27 and under in age.  Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins are already signed to long-term deals. Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka each have at least 2 years remaining, and the Thunder (25th out of 30 in salary) have the space to keep them. Furthermore, the team buys in to what it takes to win. Pulling the anti-Lebron/Wade/Bosh, Durant signed his contract extension in the small market of OKC, and did so not with a high-profile televised announcement, but rather with a simple Tweet. This is the kind of guy I want leading my team in the years to come.

Thanks for reading. Please keep following, and tell people who you think would be interested. Good night, and Go Bulls!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Things I Have Observed About the NBA Playoffs so Far

First, shout out to Derrick Rose for the MVP. He deserves it as much as any MVP in recent memory. He has put up great stats and come through consistently in the clutch. He has led his team by example on the court, in the locker room, and in the practice facility, and is now becoming more of a vocal leader as well. He has handled being the hometown kid and, rather than hiding from the expectations, has attempted to fill the void that the city of Chicago has felt since the departure of Michael Jordan. He has played through numerous injuries. Despite success, he has remained humble and true to his friends and family. He is everything a team could ever ask for, without any of the showboating or off-court distractions that we, as Americans, have come to see as the norm from our stars. Congratulations Derrick.

We are into the second round of the NBA playoffs, and it has exceeded expectations. Stars have shown up big, whether it was Durant going for 41, Rondo throwing up a triple double, Rose leading his team to 3 fourth quarter comebacks, or Wade destroying Boston in game 1. Already, a few themes have emerged. Below are my observations. Sorry in advance, but this is a no frills commentary on the playoffs, so don’t expect a lot of pictures or videos.

1.  The parity in the league is unmatched

I can’t remember the last time the league had this much great talent playing throughout the playoffs.  Not including Yao as a member of the team, 21 of the 24 All-Star players were in the playoffs this year, including all ten starters. 15 are still playing in the second round.

Surprisingly, the two series largely expected to be the most competitive and must-see TV were the least competitive. Denver, after putting up a supreme effort in a game 1 loss to the Thunder, showed little resistance en route to a 5 game series defeat. The Knicks were expected to battle the Celtics down to the wire, but were swept due at least in part to injuries of Stoudemire and Billups. San Antonio, winners of 4 championships since 1999, were bounced by the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that had previously never won an NBA playoff game. Atlanta, a team that just last year was bounced by a historic margin the previous year by Orlando, won in 6 games despite only winning 44 games this year and appearing to completely quit on its first year coach.

Additionally, even the teams that lost were surprisingly competitive. New Orleans, a team considered by many to be the weakest team in the playoffs without its leading scorer David West, was able to tie the series 2-2 before falling short against the Lakers.  Similarly, the Trail Blazers, despite losing their franchise player Brandon Roy for most of the year to a potentially career-threatening injury, were able to make the series competitive before falling in 6 games. The Pacers and Sixers, teams that were considered largely overmatched against the Bulls and Heat, respectively, were able to make several games close and each actually win a game.

2. Size matters

Insert hilarious Greg Oden joke here. Horses have been considered shriveled by comparison. But seriously, size has been a huge factor in the playoffs this year. Just look at the dichotomy between the playoff prospects of the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder. On one hand, Boston has shown just how vulnerable it has been since the trade of Perkins, its tough-guy center that gave their team an identity and swagger. They slumped down the stretch in the regular season, dropping from the 1 seed down to the 3 seed within the last couple of weeks. While they certainly looked good in their sweep of the Knicks, beating a team that was regularly playing Bill Walker, Shawne Williams, Toney Douglas, and Ronny Turiaf with Carmelo Anthony is hardly impressive. In their second round playoff matchup with the Miami Heat, they have appeared overmatched in the first 2 games. One of the perceived weaknesses of the Heat, a lack of a true defensive and rebounding presence inside, has yet to be exploited because Jermaine O’Neal, an aging Kevin Garnett, and a pouting Big Baby Davis is not quite as intimidating as Kendrick Perkins’ mean muggin' Without any noticeable disadvantage inside, Miami has been able to exploit its advantages on the perimeter. With all due respect to Pierce and Allen, they can not be expected to keep up with Lebron and Wade in their primes. Not gonna happen. Meanwhile, the Thunder have looked impressive, knocking off a hot Nuggets team with relative ease in 5 games. Serge “I Block Ya” Ibaka has become a defensive force now that he is able to play from the weakside and have Perkins battle the best big men on the opposing team.

Other examples abound as well. The dominance inside by Grizz big men Randolph and Gasol in the dismissing of the Spurs has been well documented, but the difference in Dallas with Tyson Chandler this year has also been impactful. They have become an above-average defensive team due in large part to the fact that they finally have a big man who can battle inside. It has been quite evident already in the series with the Lakers, who have been unable to obtain any significant rebounding advantage in the first two games, that a facet of the game largely considered by critics to be the Lakers’ biggest strength will not necessarily be there in this series.

3. Talent beats experience.

As I alluded to earlier, the Heat have looked head-over-heels better than the Celtics this series. Removing the aberration of James Jones scoring 25 in game one, this had been and will continue to be because of the Big Three. Say what you will about them, but they are the best top 3 in the league. While Wade has won a championship, Lebron has never won a Finals game, and Bosh has not even won a second round game. Meanwhile, Boston is sporting a team that’s top 4 players have been to the NBA championship in the last 2 seasons. But all of that experience is erased by the simple fact that Lebron, Wade, and Bosh are all entering their primes, while Pierce, Allen, and Garnett are nearing the end of their careers.

Memphis’ defeat of San Antonio is another instance of this theme. As mentioned, Memphis had never won a playoff game coming into this year. Meanwhile, San Antonio’s core of Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan have won multiple championships together, with other role players such as Hill, Mcdyess, and Jefferson having significant playoff experience. In the end, that all was erased. Randolph and Marc Gasol destroyed the Spurs big men, pounding them on the glass and in the paint. Additionally, Mike Conley, an average starting point guard largely known for his up and down play, steadily guided the Grizz and at times flat out outplayed Tony Parker. Along with the rise of the young Bulls and Thunder, and the struggles of the aging Lakers, a changing of the guard is on its way. 

4. Stars (with proper support) Matter

If you were wondering why I have hardly mentioned my Bulls yet, wonder no longer. Derrick Rose has exemplified how far a star can lead you. In the first three games against the Pacers, Rose led the Bulls to 3 straight fourth quarter comeback victories. Similarly, when he had a rare subpar game in game 4, the Bulls struggled and lost to an inferior Pacers team. 

Numerous other instances have been evident. Joe Johnson showed this same quality in game 1 against the Bulls, dropping 34 points and hitting all 5 of his three point attempts en route to a victory. Dwyane Wade had arguably the most impressive performance of the playoffs in game 1 against the Celtics, scoring 38 points and exuding an unbelievable amount of energy while chasing Ray Allen around on screens.  As has been discussed numerous times already, Zach Randolph was unstoppable while leading his team to the upset over the Spurs. Nowitzki has been, as always, ridiculously clutch, evidenced no more than in the game 1 road victory over the Lakers. If you didn’t see the “impossible shot” (as Steve Kerr described) off one foot (as I have previously praised) for an And One to put the Mavericks up 87-73 tonight, then YouTube it. It is as tough of a shot as any that is taken, and he routinely makes it. As mentioned in my first article, 25 points and 10 rebounds. Enough said. Durant dropped 41 in a first round victory.

Now the caveat. As much as stars matter, they need to have some sort of proper support around them. 42 points, 6 assists, 17 rebounds. That was Melo’s EPIC stat line in game 2 against the Celtics. It was done without the support of Stoudemire or Billups, making it one of the best playoff performances in history. The problem? The Knicks still lost. They had no one out there who could make a play besides Anthony. Thus, he ultimately came up short. The same can be said the Magic-Hawks series. Dwight Howard’s average for the series? 27 points and 16 rebounds. The best game for the Magic, a 25 point victory? Dwight had 8 points and 8 rebounds. The point is that you need some help. When his teammates actually stepped up, he didn’t need to be Superman. Unfortunately, this happened 1 out of 6 games. The rest of the series, Atlanta accepted Dwight getting his, but forced the rest of the team to make plays. They couldn’t, and they got upset.

5. Chemistry matters.

This is not any more evident than in the Boston-Miami series. Boston has been out of whack since Perkins left.  They no longer have the enforcer to back up KG’s ridiculous antics, Pierce’s whining, Rondo’s womanly voice, and Krstic’s receding hairline.  Shaq was supposed to fulfill that role, but unfortunately he is about as mobile as Osama was in avoiding a bullet. Meanwhile, Miami has found its groove. It faced unprecedented criticism when it started the season at 9-8, and has continued to face it’s doubters all season. But, whether or not we want to admit it, they have found their groove, and are now looking poised to completely dismiss the reigning Eastern Conference champions.

The Bulls and Grizzlies are other teams who have exemplified the importance of chemistry. Despite having seen a lack of a true second option on the offensive end in the playoffs with Boozer struggling/hurt/being a bitch, they have continued to find ways to win because of their belief in one another and their commitment to team defense. Noah and Deng were both voted top 15 in the league in defense this year. However, the other 3 most significant players on the team (Boozer, Rose, and Kyle Korver) are notoriously bad defenders. Yet, the Bulls were one of the top 2 defensive teams in the league (along with the Celtics) because of their commitment to team help and rotations. Similarly, the Grizzlies consist of a bunch of players who are willing to commit to one another by accepting their particular roles on a team. I don’t know any other team in the league that has players that can be more easily described than their team. Randolph – low post scorer. Gasol – dirty work, rebounding, weak side scoring. Conley – push the pace, hit open jump shots. Tony Allen – wing slasher, top defender. Shane Battier – bench hustle guy, experience. Sam Young – athleticism, versatility. Watch any game of the Grizzlies for the rest of the playoffs, and I can guarantee those players will fulfill those roles. They do what is best for the other guys on the team.

That’s my take on the playoffs so far. It is going to be a crazy next couple of weeks. The Mavericks just took down the Lakers again, and my Bulls have evened up the series with the Hawks. Here are my predictions going forward:

Bulls over Hawks, Heat over Celtics, Mavericks over Lakers, Thunder over Grizzlies; Bulls over Heat, Thunder over Mavericks; Bulls over Thunder. (Note: My only change from the beginning of this round is the Mavericks beating the Lakers. I still thought the Thunder would make the finals after witnessing the first round, regardless of if they played the Lakers or Mavericks.)