Friday, May 16, 2014

The Matchup We Have All Been Waiting For, Right?

Sunday May 18th. 3 o'clock. Fans of defense and smashmouth basketball undoubtedly have this date and time penciled in their calendars. The top two teams in the East are set to duke it out in a matchup with no shortage of compelling story lines.

James versus George

The champs versus the underdogs.

The flashy, big market Heat versus the blue collar, small market Pacers.

America's Riviera versus America's heartland.

The majority of NBA coverage related to the East revolved around these two teams. Many experts predicted that this would finally be the Pacers' year. Others predicted that nothing could stand in the way of Lebron and the Heat. Aside from the mediocrity of the other teams in the East, much of this buildup came from last year's Conference Finals. The upstart Pacers gave the Heat all they could handle in that 7 game classic. They out-hustled the Heat. They out-rebounded the Heat. Roy Hibbert looked like a boy amongst men for much of the series. More significant than almost beating the champs in a competitive series was the fact that the Pacers challenged Miami's very identity.

Can a team with size beat the league's poster child for "small ball?"

The Pacers came awfully close last year. Their starting 5 outplayed their Heat counterparts significantly in that series. Their size and athleticism clearly posed problems for Miami. Indiana's bench; not so much. Miami, not normally known for their depth thoroughly dominated the Pacers' second unit. Given the fact that the Pacers' bench was ranked second to last in the league, this shouldn't have come as a surprise. Being that the ultimate goal is not to almost win a championship, Larry Bird addressed this glaring deficiency by bringing in CJ Watson, Chris Copeland, and Luis Scola in the offseason. Before the trade deadline, Bird essentially traded a struggling Danny Granger for a (statistically) more efficient Evan Turner.

The Pacers now had a much improved bench. It's a wrap, right?

For about 45 games, that appeared to be the case. Then the Pacers began to spectacularly fall apart. Their once adequate offense regressed to god awful. Their potent defense regressed to just above average. A team once known for sharing the ball and mental toughness suddenly looked selfish and fragile. Losses piled up and speculation abounded. Perhaps losing Granger meddled with chemistry. Perhaps the team began to believe it's own press. Whatever the reason, Indiana has struggled to regain their dominant form for any considerable period of time since the All-Star break.

Miami also had its share of struggles this season. After the All-Star break, they had a comparable losing streak and massive decline in their normally superb defense. Their role players seemed unsure and Dwayne Wade had trouble both staying healthy and fitting in when he did play. As with the Pacers, speculation abounded as to why the champs were struggling. Had the 3 consecutive trips to the Finals taken a toll on the team? Were they "coasting?" Was the Heat's lack of depth and size finally catching up to them? Was Wade too injury prone to contribute for one more championship run?

As cliched as it sounds, the Playoffs are a whole new season and winning is the ultimate cure-all. Regular season drama and losing streaks fall by the wayside as long as a team wins. For the Miami Heat, this appeared to be the case. In the first round, the Heat faced the Bobcats, a defensive-minded team with a dominant center. Miami swept them. Their defense looked sound. Lebron looked like the best player in the world and Dwayne Wade looked healthy. In the second round, the Heat handily beat the Nets, the only regular season team to sweep them in the Big Three era.

The Playoffs have been more of the same for Indiana. The top-seeded Pacers came incredibly close to being upset in the 1st Round by an Atlanta Hawks team with a losing record. Indiana's defense was non-existent in that series and Roy Hibbert was largely ineffective guarding a center who can hit outside shots like, say Chris Bosh. In the second round, the Pacers often looked flat and unfocused as they barely held off the 5th seeded Washington Wizards.

The good news is that this isn't NASCAR. The outcome of previous rounds have no bearing on deciding a champion in the NBA. Each series is its own entity and the Pacers have another shot at the champs. This time they have home court advantage and an improved bench. On paper, these are the two most complete teams in the East. The teams also hate each other in a way that is both rare and refreshing in today's bromance-filled NBA. If there is any justice in the sports world, the Pacers will regain their mojo and give us fans one more classic series.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Can a Team Be Worse for Getting Better?

Stop me if you've heard this one before:

A Turk, a South American, and a guy named Zaza walk into a bar...

Both the punchline of that terrible joke and the offseason moves John Hammond and Herb Kohl have been making won't have a lot of Milwaukeens laughing, except perhaps to keep from crying in their pints of Schlitz. One season away from what could be the best Draft class ever and the Bucks are trying their damndest to not be a lottery team.

This is, of course, by design. The Bucks' owner Herb Kohl has said publicly that his squad will not "tank it" and that he remains committed to putting forth a competitive team each season. Kohl also felt that last year's team was, in fact "pretty good." What exactly does that mean? One could certainly make the case that a team whose record consistently hovers around .500 could be considered "pretty good." The question is: can they become better than "pretty good" without first getting much, much worse?

Kohl's comments open up an interesting debate. Some feel that "tanking it" is the only way for an average team to rebuild in today's NBA. They could point to the success of teams like the Thunder and Cavaliers who had to hit rock bottom before obtaining a Superstar to build around. Others feel that teams owe it to the fans and season ticket holders to put forth a decent product every season. People of this school of thought could point to the success of the Lakers and Mavericks, who have attempted to stay competitive every season for the better part of two decades.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present into evidence "Those in Favor of Tanking It's" Exhibit A: The projected starting lineup of the 2013-2014 Milwaukee Bucks.

Brandon Knight, O.J. Mayo, Carlos Delfino, Eryan Ilyasova, and Larry Sanders.

The NBA version of the Expendables.

Make no mistake; the team as it was previously constructed wasn't going anywhere. Moves had to be made for the Bucks to become anything more than a 1st round warmup for the Heat or the Pacers. Last season it became painfully obvious that pairing Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the back court worked about as well as pairing Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke for a mashup at the VMAs. The tandem of talented borderline All-Stars were supposed to comprise a playmaking backcourt the Bucks could build a competitive team around. Despite what many (myself included) predicted, the two never developed any type of chemistry or made the Bucks a competitive team.

It was time to rebuild. Conventional wisdom says that there are two main ingredients in the rebuilding process: clearing cap space and trading in older, more expensive players for Draft picks or younger, cheaper talent.

Saying goodbye to Monta Ellis and trading Brandon Jennings for younger, cheaper point guard Brandon Knight seemed like the first logical steps in the Bucks' rebuilding. GM John Hammond's decision to part ways with defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute (shedding $19 million of payroll) looked an awful lot like a move designed to clear cap space rather than win games. Letting sharpshooters Mike Duleavy and JJ Redick go for one measly 2nd round Draft Pick (when teams are lining up to overpay shooters) seemed like the game plan of a franchise in a hurry to get worse.

The other moves; not so much so. Moves such as:
  • Paying an inconsistent backup shooting guard like OJ Mayo $24 million
  • Signing underwhelming 29-year-old center Zaza Pachulia for $18 million 
  • Adding career backups Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal, making 5 of their 15 roster spots point guards  
  • Inking 31-year-old Carlos Delfino to a 3-year contract

Coach Larry Drew has quite the jigsaw puzzle to put together. The Bucks are now a team loaded with well-compensated role players, none of whom averaged more than 13 ppg last season. Who will step up and fill the void left by Ellis and Jennings? Is anybody on this current roster a bonafide All-Star? The sobering reality is that the sum total of these offseason moves (in addition to the tanking and rebuilding of other teams in the East) very likely keep the Bucks exactly where they were for the past two years; a team hovering around .500 that either barely makes or misses the Playoffs. A team that has no real chance to compete with the big dogs in the East and no real chance of getting a high lottery pick in the Draft. Sometimes a team can actually be in worse shape for getting better.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Mo' Better Motown

"Deeeeeetroit Basketbaaaaall!"

I still get amped every time I hear John Mason's boomy baritone echo that phrase throughout the Palace at Auburn Hills. For years, those two words have been synonymous with that rugged, hard-nosed brand of basketball that the league and its rules committee have been trying to officiate into extinction. For too many years those two words have not been used to introduce a team seriously competing for another championship, which is bad news for defense and rebounding enthusiasts such as myself. The Pistons have not participated in the post season tournament since '09. Times have been tough for a team that once made it to the Conference Finals six consecutive times in the early aughts but like a couple of joyriding teens attempting a three-point turn, they could be turning this thing around.

The emergence of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe certainly falls into the "good" category of a mostly bad and ugly season. 23 year old Monroe came into his own last year, averaging almost 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. In limited minutes, the 19 year old, 7 foot tall Andre Drummond looked far more impressive than his stats may indicate. In a league with a serious shortage of good big men, the Pistons appear to have found their starting center and power forward of the future, with cap room and cash left over to throw around in free agency. That made Joe Dumars' decision to ink power forward Josh Smith to a 3-year $54 million deal a bit of a surprise.

There are two schools of thought with regards to both drafting players and signing free agents. One says that you go after the player whose position and/or skill set best fills your team's needs. The other says that you go after the best player available, regardless of position or skill set. Joe Dumars apparently belongs to the latter camp. After Chris Paul and Dwight Howard signed elsewhere, Josh Smith became the best available free agent. Although his presence creates a bit of a logjam in their frontcourt, it undoubtedly upgrades the roster's overall talent. Many question Smith's attitude and shot selection but few can deny that he is a game changing force on both ends of the floor.

Despite being stacked in the frontcourt, this roster is far from a finished product. The backcourt is certainly an issue. In his 3 seasons, "Point Guard of the Future" Brandon Knight has been anything but a consistent floor general. Signing beloved veteran Chauncey Billups should help but having him on the roster creates a significant point guard controversy. Coach Cheeks needs somebody to get the ball to Smith, Monroe, and Drummond and when healthy, the 36 year old Billups is a far more consistent game manager than Knight. Perhaps having Knight move to shooting guard and play alongside Billups is the solution but hearing Knight's recent assertion that he is a point guard on Slam Online makes you think that he would be less than thrilled with the idea. The other option is to have Knight become the first point guard off the bench. This scenario could pay dividends down the road as one would be hard pressed to think of a better mentor for young point guards than Billups. It would also take one of the Pistons' most talented young players off the floor.

Guard play is not the only issue this team has. Far be it from me to say that they were a terrible jump shooting team but there were reports from several unnamed sources that the Pistons' perimeter players could not, in fact, hit water if they fell from a boat. The Pistons were one of the worst 3-PT shooting teams in the NBA last year. Dumars attempted to address this by drafting University of Georgia's Kentavius Caldwell-Pope in the first round and signing Italian league MVP Luigi Datome. Both are outstanding 3-Pt shooters. Both have taken as many shots in the NBA as I have. The two will be expected to play and contribute immediately so it is reasonable to expect that both will struggle at times next year. It is also reasonable to expect that both will one day become pretty good players at the next level.

Coach Mo Cheeks certainly has his work cut out for him. He is taking over a team without a Superstar, an identity, or a winning culture. He also has tough decisions to make regarding the starting lineup, how to divvy up playing time, and what to do with guys like Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum, Jonas Jerebko, and Charlie Villanueva. On the other hand, he has a blank slate to work with, not to mention three very good big men, a veteran point guard, and a roster full of young and talented athletes. Expectations shouldn't be too high for a coach inheriting a 25 win team but fans could be pleasantly surprised by their improvement next year. Josh Smith and Chauncey Billups' presence alone make this team better. With the benefit of a friendly schedule and several teams in the Eastern Conference tanking it (I mean retooling their rosters while staying competitive), the Pistons could easily win 10 more games. Adding another piece (Rajon Rondo and Rudy Gay's names have been bandied about in trade rumors) could put them over the .500 mark, which in the East could mean more,

"Deeeeeetroit Basketbaaaaaall!"

come Playoff time.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Rather Cavalier Attitude

If I were to ask you,

"What are the premiere destinations for NBA free agents?"

How would you respond? 

If all things were equal and you had to choose a place that a marquee free agent would like to spend a few years of his life, I guarantee that Cleveland would not be one of the cities mentioned. If you had to pick a team that a young star would like to play for, the Cavaliers most certainly would not be one of the organizations likely to roll off your tongue. Teams like the Knicks or Nets in the basketball Mecca of New York City would be more likely responses. Perhaps the Lakers or Clippers in La-La land (where they don't have an NFL team and NBA players are treated like rock stars!) might be in the discussion as well.

But all things are not equal these days. Franchises like the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks, and Nets in glamourous cities like Los Angeles and New York simply do not have the disposable cash to pay a marquee free agent like Andrew Bynum. 

The Cavaliers did.

This has been a productive offseason for a team coming off another disappointing 24-win season following Lebron's unceremonious departure. Now that I think about it, Lebron's departure was quite ceremonious. There was a prime time TV special to announce it and a big welcome party with fireworks, smoke machines, a marching band, dancers, and the whole nine. But that's another story...

The Cavaliers now have a center who can dominate the East as long as his knees remain unswollen. Teaming him up with Anderson Varejao (who was averaging over 14 and 14 last season) makes him even more scary. Add Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller into the fold and you have a very deep front court. Having this depth will actually help Anthony Bennet in the long run. This year's number 1 overall pick will have veterans to mentor him, young guys to compete with in practice, and will not be forced into the starting lineup and the unrealistic expectations that go along with it prematurely.

The Cavaliers already have a good back court. It could become a great one. Kyrie Irving is a star who has emerged as one of the best point guards in the East. There is no disputing that. There is also no disputing that he has not yet reached his full potential. After a stellar rookie campaign, Irving became the scorer and playmaker that the Cavs were hoping he could be, averaging over 22 points and dishing almost 6 assists per game last season. The reigning 3-Pt Shootout champ will undoubtedly make teams pay early and often when they double team Andrew Bynum. 

Dion Waiters was certainly one of the bright spots for the Cavs last season. Waiters is a natural shooting guard who can create his own shot. The former Syracuse sixth man also showed the potential to be effective in pick and rolls. Waiter's ability to catch and shoot the ball efficiently should complement Irving's playmaking abilities nicely. His 33 point game versus the Kings showed just how dangerous he can be when teams turn their focus on Irving. One would expect both Irving and Waiters' offensive efficiency to improve as the two get more comfortable playing together, which is a scary thought for a tandem already scoring almost 40 points per game.

Landing Sergey Kasarev with the 19th pick could prove to be the steal of the Draft. The Cavs have little depth at the small forward position and shoot the 3 very poorly.  This kid fills both of those needs. The 6'7" Kasarev is adept at playing both the shooting guard and small forward positions and shot a blistering 49% from downtown in the Eurocup tournament last year. The 19 year old lefty appears to be one of the most NBA ready European players available and could contribute immediately.

Bynum wasn't the only player the Cavs added via free agency. Earl Clark was the most promising young player that the Lakers had last year. The Cavaliers were able to lure him away with a $9 million contract that the Lakers had no way of matching. Los Angeles being a farm team for Cleveland. Who'da thunk it?! Jarret Jack was one of Golden State's most valuable players, particularly in the postseason. The Warriors were forced to release him to make room for Andre Iguodola which meant that the Cavs were able to swoop in and sign the Sixth Man of the Year candidate. 

Cavs' GM Chris Grant has taken his share of criticism over the past few years. Many disagreed with him drafting Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. Both appear to be panning out. Some criticized his lack of moves in free agency last year. You could just as easily argue that he was biding his time to sign impact players this year. Whether it is by luck or design, (or some combination of both) it appears that he has put together a very competitive squad that is poised to make the Playoffs. Seeing Irving and Bynum as All-Stars next year wouldn't surprise anybody. If Varejao has the type of season he had last year, him making it on the 2nd team isn't a stretch either. The Cavaliers making the Playoffs with 3 All-Stars on the roster. Who'da thunk it?!