Thursday, August 2, 2012

I Love This Game

People often tell me that they don't care for today's NBA. These same individuals claim that basketball was much better back in the day. Of course, "back in the day" means different things to different people. Some miss the excitement of the Jordan era. Some miss watching Larry Legend and Magic Johnson battling on the game's biggest stage. The one thing that all of them have in common (aside from the nostalgia that comes with getting older) is that they are all wrong.

The game of pro basketball has never been better.

If this is true, then why have so many lost interest in the sport? More often than not, people have the same grievances. Some complain that guys don't really start competing until the Playoffs, but that has been the case for years. The majority of people who don't care for the sport, for whatever reason, do not like or relate to today's NBA players. There is another factor at work here.

In a much simpler time many years ago, popular culture gave birth to a phrase.

"Don't hate the player. Hate the game."

That saying changed everything. The 90's were a decade plagued by "player hating" which gave birth to the aughts, a decade of "game hating". You see it happen again and again. When Latrell Sprewell claims that he can't feed his family on $14.6 million dollars a season, people hate the game. When A.I. routinely skips practice after signing a $70 million contract, people hate the game.  When guys piss and moan about every foul call, people hate the game. Let's face it; some guys in the league are downright unlikable and I can understand people not wanting to support them. Unfortunately, a lot of truly great basketball was missed as a result. Let's examine the 2000's NBA.

The aughts gave us the best years of some future Hall of Famers. The greatest power forward of all time established himself in that era. There are plenty of guys in the league who can either score, rebound, pass, defend, or block shots. For many years 4-time champion, 2-time MVP, 13-time All-Star Tim Duncan did all of those things exceptionally well. Basketball purists were losing faith in the new crop of shoot-first point guards until a shaggy haired baller from British Columbia made it cool to pass the ball. How can anybody who loves sports not enjoy the way that Steve Nash approaches the game? Him being named the NBA's Most Valuable Player was a resounding victory for all those who still play basketball the right way. We saw a lanky kid from Wurzburg revolutionize the power forward position in that decade. The world had never seen a 7-foot tall low-post presence with the shooting range of a 2-guard and the skill set of a point guard before Dirk Nowitzki stepped on the scene. His talent was unreal and getting to see a humble, hardworking, loyal guy win it all after years of disappointment was truly gratifying. Who can forget "The Answer"? Few were as polarizing as that diminutive David in a game of Goliaths. Whether or not you like the guy, witnessing Allen Iverson carry the Sixers to the Finals with a bruised tailbone, right quad contusion, sprained right knee, sprained left ankle, inflamed right toe, right hip contusion, left hip pointer, dislocated shoulder, bursitis in his left elbow, and a sprained left thumb captured my imagination in a way that transcended sports.

The 2000's also gave us some great teams. Seeing the dominant yet dysfunctional Lakers 3-peat was unforgettable. Shaquille O'Neal was a once in a lifetime talent (on the basketball court, at least) and he and Kobe Bryant may be one of the greatest tandems to ever play together. The Spurs were also a force to be reckoned with in those days. Some said their style of play was boring; I thought it was brilliant. Each and every night, San Antonio played relentless defense and executed their offense with surgical precision. In 2007, three superstars put aside egos and big contracts to win as a team. They did just that. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo were all great players in their own right but what stays with me is that despite all of their individual greatness, every game they competed in was a clinic on how basketball should be played. The '04 Pistons with Billups, Hamilton, Prince, and the two Wallace's could be the best defensive unit ever assembled. Watching them absolutely manhandle a heavily favored Lakers squad with 4 future Hall of Famers was quite entertaining.

There were no shortage of awe-inspiring moments in the aughts: Kobe's 81 Point game, Tracy McGrady's 13 points in 35 seconds, the Celtics beating the Nets after being down 21 points in the 4th quarter, the postseason battles between the Lakers and Kings, Dwayne Wade's performance in the '06 Finals, Vince Carter's gravity-defying dunk contest, Robert Horry's numerous game-winning buzzer beaters, and Phil Jackson surpassing Red Auerbach for most championship teams coached to name a few.

When I first starting following basketball, guys like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, John Stockton, and Hakeem Olajuwon's unbelievable talent, skill, and passion for the game made a lasting impression on me. Pro basketball became my favorite sport and this didn't change throughout the 90's or the 2000's. Right now there are more great players, great teams, and great coaches in the league than ever before, and last season's Playoffs provided some of the most competitive games that I've ever seen. Despite all of that, the player haters and game haters of the world still won't watch, which doesn't bother me at all. Katt Williams did say that it is a hater's job to hate. Perhaps that makes it my job to love the game that much more.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Lost Art of the Low Post Game

There is little debate among the basketball intelligentsia in the matter. Kentucky's Anthony Davis appears to be the consensus #1 overall pick.  This is no small feat, especially since many scouts are calling this the deepest Draft class since '03. The 19 year old is projected to be a starting power forward who can have an immediate impact at the next level. Some would go as far as to say that Davis will one day blossom into a franchise player.  Predicting the success of big men coming into the league can be a crap shoot but the kid does have a tremendous upside. Davis is a game changer on the defensive end. He is already a superb shot blocker with great instincts. He runs the floor well, is surprisingly quick, and has an amazing vertical leap. These attributes contribute to him being an exceptional offensive rebounder. Anthony Davis is listed as 6'10" with a 7'4" wingspan. He also has nimble feet and a nice looking jump shot. These attributes could contribute to him one day becoming a good low post scorer.

A good low post scorer.

Imagine that.

There is a serious lack of good low post scorers in the league right now.   For years, getting a dominant big man and surrounding him with outside shooters and other role players was the blueprint for winning championships.  It was how the Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets won two of them. It was how the Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers won 3 of them.  It was how Tim Duncan and the Spurs were able to win 4. One could even argue that the low post play of Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett were essential to their respective teams' championship runs. Getting that dominant big man used to be every team's mission in life.

Things are much different these days. The tried and true "back-to-the-basket" style of play seems to be going the way of the set shot and the underhanded free throw. Why is that?  There are plenty of athletic big men in the league but for whatever reason, none of them are dominant low post scorers.  Is it because strong, agile, coordinated, 7-footers with a soft shooting touch are that hard to come by?  Is it because today's game is becoming more about guard play and perimeter shooting?  Either explanation makes sense.  You don't see guys with Olajuwon's size, footwork, and skill set every day.  The game is also changing.  Nowadays there is no shortage of great perimeter players at every level.  Perhaps today's big men are being taught to become screen setters rather than scorers.

Some teams still choose to invest in big men.  Right now, the two best in the league (in my estimation) are Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum.  Both guys can take over a game on any given night.  Their play in the low post commands double teams, creates spacing and makes their teammates' jobs a whole lot easier.  Who else is there?  Roy Hibbert, Al Horford, Andrew Bogut, and Luis Scola are all quality big men but none of them are exactly "franchise player" material.  Demarcus Cousins could develop into a dominant big man but has a lot of maturing to do.

The Hornets' eventual decision to draft Anthony Davis is not without risk.  A lot of promising 7-footers taken number 1 overall ended up being busts. Yao Ming was a dominant center when he was healthy. Unfortunately, he wasn't healthy too often.  Andrew Bogut has the size and skills to be a dominant low post scorer but can't stay healthy either.  Greg Oden may have developed into a great center but has never been able to remain injury-free for any extended period of time.  Kwame Brown had all of the physical tools to become a great center but will most likely be remembered as the biggest bust in the history of the NBA.

I hope that Anthony Davis will live up to the hype.  It would be great to have another dominant big man in the NBA and I believe that it would be good for the game.  Back in the day, seeing Ewing and Olajuwon go at it was always entertaining.  Some of my favorite Playoff memories involved watching Shaq and Tim Duncan battle in the low post.  One day I may be just as fondly recalling the epic battles between Anthony Davis and Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard, or DeMarcus Cousins.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

You're Welcome, Oklahoma City

My dad used to regale us with Dodgers anecdotes.  He had a lot of them as he was a diehard fan who went to their games quite regularly.  Bleacher seats cost fifty cents back in those days and the game of baseball was much different than it is today.  Of course, Pops was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, whom have resided in the greater Los Angeles area since I've been alive.  Many teams have moved over the years but not too many have done so recently.  In the last 26 years only three NBA teams have defected to a new city.  Since '02, only two; the Charlotte Hornets and the Seattle Supersonics.  While I enjoyed watching the Hornets battle the Spurs in the '08 Semifinals as much as the next guy, let's not kid ourselves.  The Hornets aren't any better off in New Orleans than they were in Charlotte.  The team is still owned by the NBA as they can't find anyone willing to buy them.  They were forced to trade Chris Paul to a bigger market team and attendance is spotty at best.

The franchise formerly known as the Sonics are an entirely different story.

To say that Oklahomans have embraced their new team does not do their loyalty justice.  I can say without hesitation that these are the best fans in the NBA.  For the last few years, attendance has been down, even for some of the storied franchises residing in big cities.  This is not the case with the Thunder.  They are currently tied with the Celtics and Knicks for attendance percentage.  These fans are something else at home.  They do not sit until the Thunder score.  I remember watching a game where it took almost 3 minutes for them to make that first bucket.  Not one person sat until the ball went through the net.  No arena get louder than the Ford Center and during the Playoffs, everybody in that building wears their blue OKC T-shirts.  This kind of intensity is rarely seen in today's NBA.

As a sports fan, I have witnessed my share of dramatic moments.  One that I will never forget was Game 6 of the 2010 Western Conference Semi Finals.  The Lakers were looking to close out the upstart Thunder on the road.  After a late OKC rally, the Lakers were trailing by one with 6 seconds left.  Kobe had the ball at the top of the key, drove right, and shot a heavily contested fadeaway that rattled in and out.  Pau Gasol was right under the basket and tipped the ball back in with a half a second remaining.  After a timeout, the Thunder inbounded the ball and Westbrook missed the potentially game winning 3-Pointer.  A devastated Kevin Durant and Jeff Green hit the floor in agony.  There was a lot of drama in that crazy finish but what stays with me was what happened after the buzzer sounded.  Every fan at the Ford Center got up and gave their team a 3 minute long standing ovation.  It was as if the entire city was telling them,

"It's alright.  You played your hearts out and there is no shame in losing tonight.  You had an amazing season that exceeded all of our expectations.  Thank you."

Thinking about that moment still gets this cynical New Yorker a bit misty eyed.  I have never seen fans react that way after a loss.  Let's face it.  These days, most fans are spoiled.  They expect their teams to win every game and their star players to stay forever, even if it means getting paid less money or forfeiting any real chance of winning a championship.  Seeing fans boo their team or underperforming player has become commonplace.  The Thunder fans are an entirely different breed.  I would be willing to bet that we will never see Kevin Durant booed at home, no matter how poorly he is playing.  Perhaps some of these big city fans could learn a thing or two from these humble Midwesterners.

Alas, sometimes bad things happen to good fans.  The unfortunate reality is that owners occasionally move their team, regardless of how much the community loves and supports them.  It is a shame that the good fans of Seattle lost their beloved Supersonics.  The fact that the team has blossomed in their new home is probably little consolation to them but I have enjoyed watching this development.  During the latest CBA negotiations, journalists and bitter owners told us that small market teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder will never have the resources to compete with big market teams like the Knicks, the Bulls, the Lakers, or the Mavericks.

This postseason, the Thunder beat the Mavs and Lakers and have gone deeper in the Playoffs than the Knicks or Bulls.

Just sayin'.

GM Sam Presti has taught us that with a little luck and a lot of shrewd personnel moves, a team in any market can become competitive.  Wilt Chamberlain said, "Nobody roots for Goliath."  He may be right.  Seeing the Thunder get their revenge on the Lakers last week had me out of my seat cheering.  Just like everybody at the Ford Center.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tony Parker is a Hall of Famer

The year was 2001.  The San Antonio Spurs were taking on the Seattle Supersonics in Seattle and I was watching the game from the relative comfort of my first apartment.  Before tipoff, the commentators were discussing the generic keys to victory for both teams.  Of course, the point guard matchup came up.  The Spurs' rookie from France (the youngest player to ever start for the Spurs) would be guarded by "The Glove" Gary Payton, whom had made the NBA's All-Defensive team nine times.  The talking heads bantered back and forth and chuckled while making inane comments like,

"This will be a rude awakening for the young kid from France."

"It's gonna be a long day at the office for Tony Parker."

After a missed jumper by the Sonics, Parker got the ball and took off.  Payton nearly tripped over his own feet trying to keep up.  The kid seemingly made it from one end of the court to the other in less than 2 seconds, with Payton far behind him.  On the next possession, the young kid from France got the ball at the 3-Point line. "The Glove" was in front of him in that famously low defensive stance.  Parker dribbled hard with his left, then crossed over right and flew past him for another layup.

I'll never forget that crossover.  At that time guys like Allen Iverson, Steve Francis, and Jason Williams were turning the crossover dribble into an art form.  They were masters of using their great handles, low center of gravity, head fakes, and quick first steps to get by their defenders.  This was something completely different.  There was no trickery.  No great ball handling.  Just pure speed.  Parker was standing upright and blew by the best perimeter defender in the NBA. He was the fastest guy I had ever seen and watching him play was like watching Usain Bolt run.

The kid was a blur.

Tony Parker's game has grown and developed throughout his illustrious 11 year career.  Shot blockers and charge takers set their sites on him so he developed the "tear drop floater" which has become his signature move.  Slower defenders would sag off him once he got within 20 feet of the rim so he developed a consistent outside shot.  Parker is still as fast as ever and makes a living attacking the rim.  He regularly ranks in the top 5 in points in the paint, a distinction normally reserved for giants like Shaquille O'Neal or Dwight Howard.  In 2005, Parker finished the season shooting over 54% from the field.  That was the first time since 1975 that a point guard had ranked in the top 3 in field goal percentage.  Tony Parker plays the game without fear and seeing him get knocked to the floor has become so commonplace that we take for granted how tough he is.  He ranks 3rd among active players for free throws attempted per 48 minutes in the Playoffs.

Tony Parker has been instrumental in the 3 championships he has won with the Spurs but for whatever reason, his greatness is not recognized by most fans outside of Texas.  Perhaps it's because he came into the league when it wasn't cool to be French.  Perhaps it's because he plays with the Spurs.  Perhaps it's because he made People's list of the "100 Most Beautiful People".  Perhaps it's because he was married to Eva Longoria and still felt the need to sleep with Brent Barry's wife.  Some people cannot root for a player that they are jealous of.  Others have a tough time divorcing a player's greatness on the court with their behavior off of it.

I don't have either hang up. In my opinion, great athletes don't have to be guys that you would want to drink a beer with or have date your kid sister.  An athlete's greatness is measured by what they accomplish in their given profession.  Tony Parker has accomplished a great deal.  He is a 4 time All-Star who has scored over 13,000 points and played in over 140 Playoff games.  He is currently the Spurs' all-time assist leader in both the Playoffs and the regular season.  Parker is 2nd only to Tim Duncan in Spurs all-time Playoff scoring and could surpass the future Hall of Famer one day.

Another great, yet equally unpopular champion famously said,

"To be the man, you gotta beat the man.  Whoooooooooo!"

I think that Ric Flair is on to something.

Throughout Parker's career, he has performed well against the best point guards the league has to offer.  He has outdueled guys like Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Stephon Marbury and Derek Fisher.  When asked what the key would be to defeating the Spurs in '05, Phil Jackson said that the Lakers would have to keep Tony Parker out of the paint to win the series.  They couldn't and as a result didn't.  Tony Parker absolutely dominated Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2007 Finals and became the first European-born player to win the Finals MVP.

Tony Parker has shown no signs of slowing down, literally or figuratively.  This season has been his finest as a pro.  He is clearly the best player on what is arguably the best team in the Western Conference.  Last night, he outplayed Chris Paul, whom many consider to be the best point guard in the world.  Parker should go on to have many more years of playing at a high level.  I hope that when all is said and done, people will appreciate just how special he was and put that young kid from France in the Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

And my wolf grew by four.

Saturday night, the Lakers were facing elimination.  They were in this situation largely due to the fact that in Game 6, the twin towers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol ironically came up small against an undersized Nuggets front line whom they were supposed to dominate.  Guards Razor Ramon and Steve Blake were handily outplayed by New York castaway Ty Lawson and a 36 year old Andre Miller.  Kobe, on the other hand, played with all of the guts he didn't puke up that morning while his teammates appeared lackadaisical and indifferent.  Things looked bleak for the Lakers and many wondered how Kobe would respond.

In Game 7, Kobe responded by passing the ball.  He regularly threw it to Bynum and Gasol in the post.  When they got doubled and threw it back to him, he would let them re-post and passed it right back.  Steve Blake and Metta Woldpeace missed numerous wide open shots that night but in the 4th quarter of a tightly contested elimination game, Bryant didn't hesitate to give them the ball when they were open.  Bryant trusted his teammates.  Bryant trusted that new guy in the suit who has 5 less championship rings than he does.  It worked.  Worldpeace and Blake combined to hit nine 3-Pointers.  Gasol and Bynum combined to score 39 points.

Make no mistake, Kobe still has the ability to take over a game.  The 16 year veteran missed the scoring title by a tenth of a point this season.  In Game 5, he almost single-handedly put the Nuggets away with his 4 minute 12 point barrage.  Far be it for me to claim to know what was going through the gifted basketball mind of Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers won the game and it was truly a team effort.  Whether or not it was by design, one would assume that the role players on this team will have much more confidence going into the next round and possibly beyond.

This is a different approach than Kobe has taken in the past.   When facing the Pistons in '04, Kobe kept shooting the ball ineffectively even though Shaq was having great success in the low block.  The Lakers lost that series.  In '06 Kobe petulantly took only one shot in the 2nd half of Game 7 versus the Suns, even though he was scoring at will against their perimeter defenders.  They lost that series as well.  On Saturday we saw a mature, determined, intelligent basketball player letting the game come to him.  He commanded double teams and made the right pass.  When the double teams didn't come quickly enough, he took the shot.

Now this squad will face a very talented, very hungry, well rested Thunder team who has already beaten them two out of three times in the regular season.  The Lakers' only chance of pulling off an upset lies in their ability to play as a team.  When the Lakers are moving the ball and shooting with confidence, they are dangerous.  When they let the ball stagnate and their role players become scared to shoot, they are predictable and easy to defend.  Which Lakers team will show up in this series?  When the Thunder make runs (and they will) can the Lakers stick with their game plan?  When guys miss a few consecutive shots (which will happen), will Kobe keep giving them the ball?  Nobody with any sense has ever questioned Kobe's individual greatness.  Many have questioned his ability to raise his teammates' level of play.  Some of that comes from effectively distributing the ball on the court.  Some of that comes from being a motivational presence in the locker room and in the huddle.  Kobe and the Lakers will face quite a test in this series.  Let's see how they respond.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sizing up the Spurs

In every major sport with a postseason tournament, much is made of "getting hot at the right time".  Conventional wisdom says that to win in the postseason, a team needs to be firing on all cylinders.  If that is in fact the case, the San Antonio Spurs should be sitting pretty.  They won 21 of their final 23 regular season games while resting players and avoiding injuries.  Any concerns of being rusty or out of sync once the Playoffs began were quickly laid to rest.  They swept the Utah Jazz by an average margin of 16 points in what more closely resembled a layup drill than a Playoff series.   Hot may not be a strong enough adjective to describe just how well they are playing right now.  Perhaps sizzling would be more accurate.

This is, of course, no accident.  The Spurs are a well coached, deep team that does many things well.  They have the unusual distinction of leading the league in both Field Goal percentage and 3-Pt Field Goal percentage.  Defending a team that consistently drains 3's while getting dozens of easy layups is no easy task.  The dynamic duo of guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli may be the best 1-2 punch in the business.  While a bit long in the tooth, Tim Duncan is still a great player who is healthy in May for the first time in years.  Gary Neal, Dejuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard, Matt Bonner, Danny Green, Stephen Jackson, and Tiago Splitter are all solid players who know their role and rarely play outside of themselves.  Poppovich preaches ball movement and collectively these guys pass the rock better than any team I have ever seen.

Could this team win it all?  Absolutely.  Do I think that they will?  Not necessarily.  The Spurs are not without their weaknesses.  Basketball is all about matchups and San Antonio does not match up well with some teams in the Western Conference.  Here are some of the weaknesses that could prove to be their undoing;

Suspect Interior Defense
This comes down to size.  Right now the Spurs have two 7 footers on their roster; Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter.  Duncan is still a serviceable defender but not the dominant force he was 10 years ago.  Tiago Splitter is still young and gets into foul trouble early and often when defending quality big men.  Matt Bonner is tall (listed as 6'10") but a non-factor defensively due to his lack of strength and quickness.  Heavy D (Dejuan Blair) gives a ton of effort but is a very undersized center at 6'7".  Teams with quality low post players like the Grizzlies or Lakers could pose problems for San Antonio.

Difficulty Facing Good Shot Blocking
The Spurs shoot a lot of jump shots but their dribble penetration is what gets them going.  The Spurs guards getting into the paint is what creates spacing for their outside shooters. Teams that can keep Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli out of the paint tend to give this team trouble.  The Lakers, Grizzlies, and Thunder have great shot blockers who could make life difficult for this Spurs' offense.  

Difficulty Facing Efficient Offenses
San Antonio likes to get out and run in transition.  They also like to shoot a lot of 3-Pointers.  The way to stop a fast breaking team is to make shots.  The way to stop a 3-Point shooting team is to make shots while using up the shot clock.  When you control the clock while scoring, you take away both fast break baskets and possessions.  3-Point shooting teams like the Spurs need a lot of possessions to be effective.  Teams with efficient offenses like the Lakers, Grizzlies, or Clippers could disrupt the Spurs' offensive rhythm.

San Antonio matches up pretty well with the remaining teams in the East (Miami, Boston, Indiana, and Philly) but getting out of the West will not be easy.  The Lakers, Clippers, Thunder and Grizzlies all pose different matchup problems for them and the road to the Finals will be a difficult one for this very talented team.  A fifth championship for Duncan and Poppovich would add to their already impressive Hall of Fame resume.  A fourth championship most likely guarantees (deservedly so, in my humble opinion) first ballot status to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli.  The Spurs' next series will start Tuesday and the real test begins.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Injury Bug is Buggin' Me

We have all heard the tired old axiom that "injuries are part of the game". On any given night, any team can lose any player. One could argue that injuries help create parity and make things interesting. I would not argue that. This year, several key injuries have robbed us of some potentially entertaining postseason matchups. Enough has already been written and said about Chicago losing Derrick Rose and New York losing Amare Stoudemire. Here are some other untimely injuries that really disappointed me.

Hawks losing Al Horford 
In '08 the Hawks and Celtics treated us to an unforgettable 1st round series. It went 7 games as neither team could win on the road. This year could have been another great matchup but for the injury to Al Horford. The tandem of Al Horford and Josh Smith gave Boston trouble. The Celtics are still tough to score on once their defense gets set and teams that run the fast break effectively pose problems for them. When the Hawks have two 7 footers who run like gazelles on the floor at the same time, they are a much more dangerous team. This current series has been watchable but a far cry from the barn burner we saw in '08.

Magic losing Dwight Howard 
What has been overshadowed by the trade demands, trade deadline change of heart, Stan Van Gundy drama, and poorly timed injuries was just how special a season Dwight Howard was having. Howard has always possessed the ability to take over a game defensively. This year his offensive skills were finally catching up to his formidable defensive presence. Dwight was having a monster season and took over games against quality teams. 972 miles north, Indiana's big man was also having a special season. Third year center Roy Hibbert was posting career highs in every major category and showing flashes of dominance. While Roy Hibbert is not yet playing at Dwight Howard's level, I very much wanted to see the two of them battle in the low post for an entire series.

Knicks losing Jeremy Lin 
Admittedly, the Linsanity phenomenon had begun to lose its luster before his knee injury. The team's identity had changed once Carmelo Anthony was added to the starting lineup and Mike Woodson took over for D'Antoni. While I never bought into the hype that Jeremy Lin was an elite point guard, I was impressed with how he was able to adjust from game to game. The guy has a remarkable basketball IQ and I believe that he could have become a solid contributor to this Knicks' team if given more playing time. Even at full strength, these Knicks had little chance of beating the Heat but I was interested to see how Lin would perform in his first postseason series.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Houston, we have a problem.

A recent series of unfortunate events is threatening to rob me of a first round matchup that I very much want to see. This is disappointing. Several years ago, in its zeal to milk the post-season for maximum revenue, the NBA eliminated the 5 game format. As a result, witnessing improbable upsets are much less likely. Conversely, witnessing lame T Mobile and All State commercials are much more likely. Let's face it. The 1st round of the playoffs can be boring even for the most diehard fans. The possibility of a first round upset make these initial games interesting or, at the very least, watchable. Despite Houston's current struggles, seeing them take on the Spurs or Thunder in the first round would be very entertaining.

I don't mean to take anything away from the Nuggets or Suns. Both teams have good stories- they have little star power and have fought tooth and nail to be competitive in the brutal Western Conference. The Nuggets had their franchise player defect to a bigger market and became a better team as a result. How often does that happen? Since Melo moved to midtown, the Nuggets play the game unselfishly. They play the game with passion. They have guys known as "the Manimal" and "the Birdman" who are as ferocious as their ThunderCats-like nicknames would suggest. Salt Lake City is the new Gilligan's Island for NBA castaways. Danilo Galinari, Al Harrington, and Ty Lawson have all shined in their new environment. Javale McGee and Rudy Fernandez may follow suit.

It's hard not to root for this Phoenix Suns team. Steve Nash and Grant Hill are still great players when most athletes their age have moved on to commentating or Dancing with the Stars. Some athletes talk about loyalty in press conferences. Two time MVP Steve Nash has never requested a trade despite being constantly lured to play for more competitive teams. Guys like Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, Josh Childress, and Michael Redd have found a home in Phoenix and the team has chemistry.

Alas, I don't watch professional basketball for the sappy back stories. In fact, when the obligatory feel good segments come on at halftime, I tell the bartender to turn off the sound. I watch professional basketball to see the game I love played at the highest level. Phoenix and Denver have no chance of beating the Spurs or Thunder. Basketball is all about matchups and they don't match up well with either team.

Houston split the season series with both teams because they match up well with them. For several weeks, Goran "Dragon" Dragic was playing as well as any point guard in the league. The kid is no game manager. He is a game changer. Will he outplay Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook in a 7 game series? Maybe not. He will make them play defense every possession and bait them into making the games a 1 on 1 matchup. A scary thought if you're the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Rockets have quality big men. Luis Scola is a great player. He can score in the post. He can knock down the 10 foot jumper. He passes the ball well. The power forwards on either team would have a hard time defending him. The two headed monster of Marcus Camby and Samuel Dalembert can anchor that defense, block shots, and control the paint. Collectively, they are a better center tandem than what San Antonio or OKC have.

The Rockets have solid role players. Chase Budinger, Chandler Parsons, and Courtney Lee are all athletic young players who can knock down shots when left open. The Rockets have a dangerous bench. The one-two punch of Kyle Lowry and Earl Boykins could be a problem for the Spurs or Thunder. Sharpshooter Kevin Martin may be healthy enough to come off the bench once the post-season starts.

The Rockets will need to win their final 3 games to have a shot at making the Playoffs. Let's hope that they do. I would much rather see a competitive series than a compelling storyline.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Hoops Talk Episode 3 - 04.16.12

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry....  A rant about how terrible the Bullets are:

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hoops Talk Video Blog - Episode 2

My 2nd video blog!  Discussing Lob City, the Kings' young talent, and the Chicago Bulls' injury woes.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The MVP Conundrum

This subject has always been confusing to me.  How do the powers that be choose the the NBA's Most Valuable Player?  Is the Maurice Podoloff trophy given to the "most valuable player" or to the "best player on a team most likely to win it all"?  The fact that Kevin Durant and Lebron James are the top two candidates on most sports writers' lists leads me to believe that the decision is based on the latter criteria rather than the former.

With 40 wins, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the best record in the competitive Western Conference.  Durant is averaging 27.5 ppg this season and has dropped 30 or more points on 19 different occasions.  The reigning scoring champ seems even more focused this season and his buzzer-beating 3-pointer versus the Dallas Mavericks was certainly MVP-like.  With 37 wins, the Miami Heat are 3 games behind the Bulls for the best record in the much improved Eastern Conference.  Lebron is averaging 26.5 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists per game and on four occasions he has been 1 or 2 assists shy of triple-double.  His low-post game is much improved as is his shot selection.  Despite a pair of mini-slumps, the Heat have been rolling this season.  Oklahoma and Miami could very well meet in the Finals and both Kevin Durant and Lebron James are having remarkable seasons.

What if the MVP award was truly about being valuable to your team?  Both Durant and Lebron have a lot of help.  Durant plays alongside Russell Westbrook, one of the better point guards in the NBA, and there is no shortage of talent on that Thunder squad.  James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, and Thabo Sefalosha are all very good players.  Lebron James plays alongside Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, who are (arguably) one of the 3 or 4 best players at their respective positions.  Russell Westbrook has carried the Thunder to a win numerous times.  Wade or Bosh have taken over their share of games as well.  In the fourth quarter of a close game, Westbrook and Wade are just as likely to have the ball in their hands as their superstar counterparts.  How valuable does that make Durant and James to their teams?

If given a vote, I would have Dwight Howard and Kevin Love as my top two candidates.  Both players are the best at their respective positions (in my humble opinion) and both certainly have the numbers to justify MVP consideration.  Dwight Howard is averaging nearly 21 points and 15 rebounds a game.  He has already had eight games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds this year including that ridiculous 45 point, 23 rebound performance versus the Golden State Warriors.  The reigning Defensive Player of the Year single-handedly makes a bunch of mediocre defenders into a good defensive team and a mediocre team into a Playoff contender.

Kevin Love is averaging 26 points and 14 rebounds a game and leads the league with 44 double-doubles this season.  Sixteen times he has scored 30 or more points and pulled down 10 or more rebounds in the same game.  In the much anticipated showdown with Blake Griffin and the Clippers, Love's 39 point, 17 rebound effort capped off by his buzzer-beating game-winner was certainly MVP-like.  His more recent 51 point performance versus Oklahoma City was nothing short of spectacular.

Both Dwight Howard and Kevin Love are thriving without nearly the talent around them that Durant and Lebron have.  Who are the 2nd and 3rd best players on the Magic?  Ryan Anderson and Jameer Nelson?  Glen Davis and Jason Richardson?  What about on this Ricky Rubio-less Timberwolves team?  Michael Beasley and Nikola Pecovic?  JJ Barea and Luc Ridnour?  Do me a favor.  Say these two sentences aloud.

"In other news, the Miami Heat have agreed to trade Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh to the Orlando Magic for Ryan Anderson and Glen "Big Baby" Davis."

"Today the Oklahoma City Thunder have agreed, in principle, to trade Russell Westbrook to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Luc Ridnour."

Both of those statements sound pretty absurd, right?  The tired old adage of "rewarding winning" will probably disqualify Howard and Love from actually winning MVP honors this season, which is a shame.  They are having amazing seasons despite having teams game plan to get the ball out of their hands every single night.  I cannot think of two players who are more valuable to their teams than they are.  Can you?

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Final Playoff Spot in the East

I hope that the Milwaukee Bucks beat out the Knicks for that 8th and final Playoff spot in the East.  There, I said it.  Please don't mistake me for a fickle New Yorker who has jumped off the Knicks' formerly crowded bandwagon in recent weeks.  This has little to do with the six game losing streak, Amare's injured back, Melo's sore groin, or the fact that Jeremy Lin has gone from franchise savior to solid backup in a matter of weeks.  This has everything to do with the fact that this new look Milwaukee Bucks team is much more intriguing to me than the current collection of stars on the New York Knicks' roster.

Let us examine the trade deadline move that made this team so intriguing to me.  Both Milwaukee and Golden State were spinning their respective wheels this year.  Both had players with real trade value.  The two teams pretty much made an even swap.  Andrew Bogut for Monta Ellis.  This trade has undoubtedly left both GM's wide open for criticism from their fans.  Last week Golden State's new owner Joe Lacob was booed at a pre-game ceremony retiring Chris Mullin's jersey.  John Hammond will certainly come under fire from the Bucks' fans if this team doesn't show signs of improvement quickly.
Improvement could happen quickly.  Milwaukee now has a very talented tandem of guards.  Both are dynamic playmakers who can score with the best of them.  As a result, there are some understandable concerns about the two of them co-existing.  Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis are both volume shooters and conventional wisdom says that having two shoot-first guards in the starting lineup rarely works.  Ask any Knicks fan how making Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury the highest paid guard combo in the league worked out for them.  Normally, I agree with this logic but I believe that these two could be very good for years to come.  Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond good.  Isaiah Thomas and Joe Dumars good.  John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek good.  I am being serious.

The two guards have styles that are more complimentary than people think.  Brandon Jennings is a scoring point guard but I think that this is largely due to the lack of Andrew Bogut and other playmaking options on the team.  The fundamentally sound Jennings has all of the tools to be a traditional point guard and had no problem deferring to John Salmons 2 years ago.  Monta Ellis is a scoring 2 guard who can single-handedly take over a game on any given night.  He is also a lightning quick slasher who is good at finding teammates on the perimeter after he gets into the paint.  A great spot up 3-point shooter like Jennings should get a lot more open looks with Ellis on the floor.  It will take time for the two to learn how to play together but when they do, they could become a dominant force in the East.

The Bucks will need more talent to seriously compete for a championship but I think that they are well on their way.  Scott Skiles is a good coach.  Eryan Illyasova, Drew Gooden, and Mike Dunleavy are quality forwards.  Epke Udoh and Luc Mbah a Moute are good defenders who will fit right in with the physical style of play that Skiles preaches.  Kwame Brown and Larry Sanders are probably not the long term answer at center but they are serviceable for the time being.  Getting some Playoff experience this year could help the team become more competitive next year.  It worked for Indiana.  In four weeks, I hope that the most exciting duo of guards in the Eastern Conference will still be playing games.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Showtime they are not

After yet another road loss, a reporter asked Kobe if the offense was under construction.  He quipped that,

"We're still working on the blueprints, actually."

Although he was smiling, I'm not convinced that the man was joking.

The Los Angeles Lakers' offense is seriously struggling.  In other news, Greece's economy isn't doing so well.

Is this all that surprising?  Let's not forget that the team has undergone major changes since last season.  Lakers fans need to come to grips with the fact that Adam Morrison has left for Turkey and he ain't coming back.  Also, the Phil Jackson regime is gone and they took the triangle offense (and Phil's orthopedic throne) with them.  They had a 10 point quarter versus the Magic last week and have scored under 100 points in 17 of their last 19 games.  In Portland, the Lakers somehow managed to miss every 3 pointer they attempted, including a woeful 0-5 performance by Steve Blake.  Chris Paul is not walking through that door, folks (at least not in a purple and gold uniform) and right now the Lakers seem lost out there.

In the 3 consecutive years where the Lakers made it to the NBA Finals, they had good balance offensively.  It was a simple time.  They ran the triangle offense using Kobe and Pau as their primary scorers and playmakers.  They were the Jordan and Pippen of that team and were used in a very similar manner.  Phil rarely took both of them out of the game at the same time.  Roles for everybody else on the team were clearly defined and role players did their part.  D Fish was there to handle the ball, pass to Kobe or Gasol, and knock down the open shot.  His role was simple but not easy.  Ron Artest was there to defend the other team's best perimeter scorer.  On offense, Phil kept him on a sort leash.  He was asked to knock down the open shot and occasionally attack the basket in a clear mismatch situation.  Defining Andrew Bynum's role is a bit more difficult.  He anchored the defense, clogged the paint, and collected lots of rebounds.  It seems as though he was being groomed to be a primary scorer but chronic knee injuries put the kibosh on that.

The Lakers also relied heavily on their bench for scoring.  Reigning 6th Man of the Year Lamar Odom was the King of the "Killer B's".  Perhaps "Queen B" would be more of an apt analogy but that just sounds weird.  Odom was the second unit's primary scorer, playmaker, and ball handler.  Shannon Brown was there for alley-oops, put back dunks, and 3-pointers.  Sasha Vujacic spaced the floor with his outside shooting.  Those 3 players have since left town and while Goldie Loc (Andrew Goudelock) had a nice game the other night, I hardly think that this second unit as it's currently constructed is scaring anybody.  Goudelock, Troy Murphy, Devin Ebanks, Jason Kapono, and Darius Morris are all averaging about 3 points or less per game.  Al Harrington single handedly gives Denver as much scoring as all of them put together.

What is the "blueprint" for the Lakers' offense?  Among the fraternity of NBA coaches, Mike Brown is a well respected figure.  As a head coach, he does certain things quite well.  Being creative with his offense is not one of them.  The way he utilized (or did not utilize) Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, JJ Hickson, Delonte West, and Shaquille O'Neal in Cleveland seemed strange at times.  Some of his decisions regarding substitutions and playing time were downright puzzling.  He inherited a Lakers team that has been pretty efficient since Pau Gasol came to town.  They currently rank 18th in offensive efficiency.

Let's start with the obvious.  This Lakers' offense is still built around 2 players.  Are they holding up their end of the bargain?  Kobe is still the primary scorer and playmaker on this team.  Nowadays the league's leading scorer is doing way more scoring than making plays for others.  One could argue that this is in part due to the poor outside shooting from his teammates.  Matt Barnes, Derek Fisher, Steve Blake, and Troy Murphy haven't found their shooting touch and no one is ever going to mistake Metta World Peace for Steve Kerr.  One could just as easily argue that Kobe has been taking too many bad shots and not looking to pass the ball enough.  This season Kobe is shooting more jump shots than ever and generating less assists per game.  Pau Gasol has not looked like himself either.  He is not establishing himself in the low post as much and, as a result, he is not scoring very efficiently.  Lately he has been settling for outside jump shots.  The biggest downside to this is that we have seen much less of that great passing from the low post that he was known for.  Without Kobe and Gasol consistently setting up their teammates, this offense looks very mediocre.

One bright spot has been that with limited touches Andrew Bynum has shown flashes of dominance.  Limited being the operative word.  Is it finally time to give Bynum the oppportunity to be a primary scorer?  The Lakers took Bynum in the first round and (until recently) resisted every offer to trade him.  He is the only Laker aside from Kobe and Bynum that is able to create offense without having to be left open.  Could his low post scoring be the answer to the Lakers' offensive woes?  Could getting him the ball more help guys like Fisher, Barnes, World Peace, and McRoberts find their mojo?  The only way to find out would be to give him the ball a lot more than they have been.  Phil Jackson seemed to want Bynum to eventually become the focal point of the offense but it never actually happened.  The offense has always run through Kobe and Gasol.  Trying to change that now would be perceived as either foolish or incredibly bold.

What should Mike Brown do?  He is their head coach and the buck stops with him.  Brown knew when he took this job that anything less than a Finals appearance would be viewed as a failure.  At 12-9, the Lakers are the 8th seed in the Western Conference and would be out of Playoff contention with another loss or a Spurs win.  Mike Brown is a defensive minded coach and fixing this offense will be a difficult task for anybody.  Will he have the chutzpah to tell Kobe to stop shooting so much?  Can he tell Pau that he will be benched if he keeps settling for jump shots?  Will he be willing to take a player out of the game that's not hitting open shots, even if that means replacing them with a worse defender?  Much has been made of the lack of practice time due to the lockout.  This is especially challenging for teams attempting to learn new systems with new coaches.  I imagine that this is a factor but I have doubts that this offense is going to fix itself without being shaken up either through personnel changes or scheme adjustments.  Make no mistake.  There is plenty of basketball left to be played, plenty of time to make trades, and plenty of opportunities for Mike Brown to prove his doubters wrong.  Let us see what "blueprint" Mike Brown is constructing.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's not easy being green

We are witnessing the "era of the point guard" in today's NBA.  This is quite a departure from the 2000's "era of the big man" where (almost) every team to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy was built around Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal.  After Jordan retired, the conventional thinking was to build your team around a dominant 7 footer.  These days, more and more teams are building their franchises around a dominant 6 footer.  The reigning MVP is a point guard.  Chris Paul created more of a trade frenzy than the best (according to most) center in the league.  The former pride of Istanbul's Besiktas Milanga will either lure another franchise player to Brooklyn or force another team into a fire sale to trade for him.  One would be hard pressed to think of a time when there were so many max contract worthy point guards in the NBA.  Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo's job of choosing only 3 for the Olympic team is no easy task.  Is this a good thing?  People hated the slow, low-scoring, feed-the-post-on-every-possession style of the Spurs and Lakers.  Nowadays, everybody would rather see fast breaks, slick crossovers and alley-oop dunks.  The many talented point guards in the league are giving the people what they want.  What's not to like?

Believe it or not, there have been some negative repercussions to this trend.  The market is a funny thing in professional sports and every team has reacted differently to this explosion of  talent.  Some GM's have opted to start an arms race to get a better point guard than the competition.  The last two number one overall picks in the Draft have been spent on point guards.  The Clippers and Nets gave up quite a bit to simply lease a top flight point guard for a season or two.  Other GMs feel as though great point guards grow on trees so trading/releasing theirs is not the end of the world.  This unprecedented surplus of talented point guards has left the Celtics' play caller Rajon Rondo lost in the shuffle.  Danny Ainge used up all of his anytime minutes in the offseason trying to trade Rondo for Chris Paul or Deron Williams.  One could argue that either would be an upgrade from Rondo.  I'm not convinced that it's a significant one.  Rondo is one  hell of an athlete and a very underrated floor general.  In a league saturated with very good point guards, Rondo is a truly great one.

What separates the great point guards from the good?  In my humble opinion, John Stockton is the greatest point guard to ever play in the NBA.  He defined how to play the position and when I think of great point guards, I use him as the model.  Stockton made the Utah Jazz offense click for 20 years and dished out almost 16,000 assists.  He played the passing lanes better than anyone and amassed more than 3,000 steals in his career.  After stealing the ball, few ran the fast break as well as he did.  In the half court he was able to pick apart defenses with his dribble penetration and incredibly accurate passing.  John Stockton had the unique ability to completely dominate a game without ever taking a shot.  He understood the game and knew how to make everybody on his team better.

Rondo has many of these same qualities.   He is also an incredibly accurate passer.  Whether it's throwing lobs to Garnett, bounce passes to a cutting Ray Allen, no-look passes to a streaking Paul Pierce, he is always right on the money.  Rondo is like a Pro Bowl quarterback on the court and watching him throw a bounce pass is a thing of beauty.  The fundamental bounce pass has become a lost art in this SportsCenter age but Rajon Rondo's game is old school like Kangol hats and Reebok Pumps.  He runs the fast break as well as any guard in the league and can make any assist imaginable.  I would argue that he is a better pure passer in the open floor than Paul or Williams.  Rondo at his best is like a turbo charged Bob Cousy.

In the half court, Rondo runs the Celtics' offense to perfection, which is no easy task.  This is in part because he is incredibly explosive and can get into the paint at will.  Once he blows by his defender, he is adept at finding shooters on the perimeter or big men cutting to the basket while still moving at full speed.  Rondo knows where every teammate likes to shoot the ball and is able to find them consistently.  While scoring may be his biggest deficiency, Rondo is very athletic and finishes strong around the basket.  He has added the tear drop floater and running jumper to his offensive repertoire.  There are certainly better scoring point guards than Rondo, but I doubt you will find a replacement that will actually improve the Celtics' offense.  He makes that Boston Celtics' offense "do what it do".

Like Stockton, Rondo is not only a leader but a competitor.  Seeing him dive after loose balls, take charges, snatch rebounds away from centers, or block shots has become commonplace.  The man is as tough as they come and does whatever it takes to get the win.  Rondo is also a superb defender.  Unlike most point guards, he not only plays passing lanes but excels at playing one-on-one defense.  He is exceptionally quick and quite good at keeping defenders in front of him.  Rondo also has long arms and very quick hands which he routinely uses to block shots, deflect passes, and get steals.  Rondo rebounds exceptionally well for a point guard.  Like Jason Kidd, he is good at crashing the defensive boards and starting fast breaks with long outlet passes.  The Celtics all know this and (like the old Utah Jazz) they run the floor at every opportunity.  The breakneck pace set by Rondo and the Celtics was especially disruptive versus the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010 Playoffs.

It is impossible to tell what the future will hold for Rondo or these Boston Celtics.  One of the reasons Rondo did not get his proper respect used to be because he played with 3 future Hall of Famers.  As this corps gets older and more injury prone, this is not such a convincing argument.  He is a star in his own right and one could argue that him being the primary piece in trade talks is a testament to that fact.  Right now he may be one of the only Celtics with any trade value left but I somehow doubt that that is any consolation to him.  Lamar Odom wasn't exactly thrilled to be traded to Dallas a year after being named 6th Man of the Year.  Hopefully Danny Ainge appreciates what he has in Rajon Rondo.  This is a point guard's league and he is still one of the best in the business.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Open Letter to Steph Curry's right ankle

I am not above admitting that I have been dead wrong in my assessment of some players coming into the league.  Stephen Curry was one of those players.

From the handful of times that I watched him play at Davidson, (handful being the operative word.  Those who know me know that I find college basketball about as entertaining as watching Grey's Anatomy) it seemed as though he was a natural combo guard.  Given his lack of size, strength, and quickness, (when compared to NBA 2 guards) it was obvious that he would have to transition to playing point guard exclusively.  Learning a new position is never easy, especially as an NBA rookie.  My gut feeling was that Stephen Curry would be no more than a solid role player at the professional level.  I thought that he would not start in many games and certainly would not be the All-Star some were projecting him to become.  I confidently predicted that he would go the way of Adam Morrison or JJ Redick and most of his rookie year would be spent on the bench.

Our former president could just as confidently say that I misunderestimated him.

Curry's rookie season could not have gone any more differently than I had predicted.  Role player he is not.  The kid started 80 games and averaged almost 18 and 6.  He had five 30-point, 10-assist games.  Only Lebron and D Wade had more that year.  He dropped 42 points against Portland in the last game of the season.  As a rookie, Curry posted one triple double and flirted with a quadruple double.  He also made a record breaking one hundred and sixty six 3-pointers.

The kid can flat out play.  Steph Curry may not be a freakishly athletic, but he has a freakishly high basketball IQ.  He reads defenses and always knows where everybody is on the floor.  He may not be lightning quick but he has a good crossover and very deceptive change of pace dribble which allow him to get to the basket.  Fouling him is a bad idea as he shoots almost 93% from the line.  While Dell Curry's son doesn't exactly jump out of the gym, he is able to get his shot off using his exceptional handles and great footwork.  And what a jump shot he has.  Beautiful form.  Quick release.  Great range.  I can't remember a guy not named Ray Allen or Reggie Miller that had a jumper this nasty this early in their career.

Alas, Stephen Curry's right ankle is threatening to hold his career back more than any of his other physical shortcomings.  7 ankle sprains in less than a year and a half.  He missed 8 games last year and the ankle clearly bothered him at times.  He opted to have surgery in the offseason to strengthen the ankle, which makes it doubly frustrating when he sprained it again on Friday.  We are two weeks into the regular season and Curry has already sprained his ankle three times.  Apparently, there is no structural damage and he is listed as day-to-day.  One would imagine that the Warriors training staff are going to let him fully recuperate before getting him back on the floor.

This latest setback is undoubtedly frustrating for all parties involved.  The fans, the organization, and new head coach Mark Jackson have some difficult questions that need to be answered.  Right now, Curry is still under his rookie contract and is earning about $3 million per year.  He will be an unrestricted free agent after next season.  Can Curry ever stay healthy enough to justify re-signing him for the amount of money that he and his agent will want?  The men writing the checks have to wonder whether a substantial investment in him is a wise one.

Another question is whether Golden State can build a competitive team around the backcourt of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry.  So far, it has been a work in progress.  Scoring points has not been a problem for the tandem.  Winning games has been.  Both can put up big numbers but neither of them are great at setting up their teammates.  Can you win in today's NBA starting two shoot-first guards?  I have my doubts.

In my opinion, Curry must adjust and improve his game for the two to win together.  He is already a good passer and could be ready to take that next step.  Lots of point guards can give you good numbers but the really good ones make everyone around them better.  Perhaps former point guard Mark Jackson can help Curry's development in that area.  That will require him staying healthy.  Both Curry and Ellis also have to tighten up defensively.  Nobody is expecting either of the diminutive guards (both are generously listed as 6'3") to be on the NBA All-Defensive team, but they have to improve on the defensive end to make the Warriors relevant in the Western Conference.  Again, improving defensively will require him staying healthy.

Being wrong about Stephen Curry does not bother me one bit.  He is a phenomenal talent and very entertaining.  I have become a big fan of his but the ankle injuries are starting to get old.  Haven't you had enough attention, Steph Curry's right ankle?  The man spent his offseason surgically making you stronger.  How cool is that?  He's like the Six Million Dollar Man and you are now the most tricked out joint in the league.  How about letting the spotlight go back to the talented young baller with a bright future ahead of him?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Keeping Pace in the East

The Pacers won their first three games.  While victories over the Pistons, Raptors, and Cavaliers aren't exactly worthy of front page news, the manner in which they won these games has me taking notice.  In their first game versus the Pistons, the Pacers were completely dominant in the paint.  Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansborough combined for 27 rebounds and 31 points.  The team had 9 blocked shots and 9 steals.  Against the Cavaliers, Hibbert had another big night (13 boards, 19 points, 3 blocked shots) and wanted the ball on every possession.  The Pacers' newest acquisition David West laid out Anderson Varejao rather than giving him an easy layup.  The two later got into a scuffle and had to be separated.  West ended up hitting a last second shot to send the game into overtime, where the Pacers cruised to a win.  While I don't endorse flagrant fouls or pushing and shoving after the whistle blows, it's nice to see that these Indiana Pacers already have a Playoff-like intensity about them.  This year you can see a noticeable increase in swagger when this team comes out of the tunnel.  They don't back down to anybody, as we saw in last year's  first round matchup with No. 1 seeded Chicago.  Indiana put up more of a fight than anybody expected and that series was much closer than the 4-1 record would suggest.

Could there finally be hope for this franchise floating around the greater Indianapolis area?  If there are any NBA fans that deserve hope, it has to be these Pacers faithful.  Aside from the emergence of Danny Granger, there hasn't been much to get excited about.  Throughout the lockout, the Indiana Pacers were often used as an example of a helpless small market team that will never be able to compete with the Miamis, Bostons, and New Yorks of the world.  After years of salary cap hell and mediocrity following the Rumble at the Palace, it seems like a competitive squad is beginning to take shape.  Give David Morway and Larry Bird some much deserved credit for this development.

This transition began last year when the Pacers acquired Darren Collison from the Hornets.  Collison added some much needed stability at the point guard position.  So far the former backup to Chris Paul has fit in nicely and played well for them.  The Draft day trade that sent Spurs sharpshooter George Hill to Indiana for Kawhi Leonard helps the Pacers in numerous ways.  Hill stretches the floor, is a solid defender and should give the team some valuable minutes when Collison is on the bench.  Landing Fresno State's Paul George in the first round of last year's draft has already paid dividends.  After going 5-5 from behind the arc versus New Jersey last night, we now know that the freakishly athletic swingman has an improved 3-point shot.  While Luis Amundson isn't going to compete with Roy Hibbert for the starting center position, the team needed another big man and got one for a reasonable price.  Speaking of reasonable, how about signing a 2 time All-Star like David West for 2 years/$20 million?  Boston was very interested but in the end, the smaller market team under the salary cap could afford to pay him more.  That, my friends, is capitalism at work.  While we are on the subject of capitalism, this is a contract year for talented big man Roy Hibbert.  So far he looks like a big man playing for that big contract every night.  Perhaps the NBA system isn't as broken as one majority owner of a professional basketball team from Ohio might suggest.

It remains to be seen what first-time head coach Frank Vogel can accomplish with this team.  So far, you have to like what he is doing.  Former head coach Jim O'Brien was not developing the young nucleus of this team.  He was stubborn with his rotations and his play calling and consequently lost the respect of the locker room.  After making Vogel the interim head coach, the team responded by playing hard and making the Playoffs for the first time in 5 years.  Vogel has no problem giving the young guys minutes and letting them learn from their mistakes.  For this team to move forward, guys like Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansborough, Paul George, and Lance Stephenson have to develop sooner rather than later.  By all accounts, Vogel gets it and this team seems to play well together.

Let's not kid ourselves.  Outside of a couple of teams, the Eastern Conference is still weak.  Squads with sub .500 records are going to make the Playoffs this year.  The Pacers could conceivably make the post season for the second straight year while still getting a pretty good draft pick in what some are calling the best draft class since 2003.  Let that marinate for a moment.  They could gain valuable experience this year AND gain a franchise changing talent next year.  With one lucky bounce of the lottery ball and a few more shrewd moves from this underrated front office, we could be seeing those blue and gold unis in a championship game sooner than later.