June 27, 2011

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2011 NBA Draft Winners and Losers

By: Anson Whaley

This past week’s NBA Draft wasn’t very star-studded according to most experts. Unlike the 1996 Draft, which was one of the best in recent memory producing future Hall of Famers such as Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Ray Allen, and Allen Iverson, this year’s class isn’t expected to have as many stars.

That said, as always, some teams still found a way to draft wisely while others left us scratching our heads.

WINNERS

Washington Wizards – I know all about Enes Kanter taken by the Utah Jazz at No. 3, but Jan Vesely could end up being the best international player in this field. Vesely is a true athlete that has an NBA-type game and will be a perfect fit for John Wall and the Wizards’ young team. At 6’11”, he has three-point range and could cause huge mismatches for opposing teams’ frontcourts. Washington also landed Chris Singleton at No. 18, a great defensive weapon, and Butler’s Shelvin Mack in the second round. Mack was listed as a late first-round pick in many mock drafts and the Wizards could have gotten a bit of a steal.

Detroit Pistons – The Pistons picked up a relative steal in getting Brandon Knight at No. 8. Knight is the second-best point guard in the draft and averaged more than 17 points a game as a true freshman – something virtually unheard of. Getting him that late (especially when there’s a premium on point guards in the NBA these days) was a big coup for General Manager Joe Dumars. The Pistons also ended up with Kyle Singler, who played a big role on some winning teams at Duke and as a second-rounder, was a smart pick. And while Vernon Macklin (No. 52) isn’t a star, he shot more than 60% during his entire collegiate career and has a chance to be a serviceable backup center.

Sacramento Kings – Sacramento reeled in the draft’s most prolific scorer in BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. Even better for the Kings is that he should be an excellent fit for their team. Fredette will fit right in alongside Tyreke Evans and give the Kings a great backcourt for years to come. He’s not a stellar defender and will need to improve if he wants to play 30 minutes a game, but he knows how to score – and that’s the primary function for a shooting guard. Tyler Honeycutt was a solid second-round selection and, unlike some other teams to be named later, the Pistons secured a good proven talent in guard Isaiah Thomas with the last pick in the draft instead of going for an unknown international player.

LOSERS

Los Angeles Clippers – Man, the Clippers’ just can’t catch a break. They were so desperate to unload Baron Davis’ huge contract that they traded him away with an unprotected first-round pick back at the trade deadline in February. Little did they know that pick would turn out to be the No. 1 overall selection. So to recap, the Clippers traded away Davis (a former All-Star) and the No. 1 overall pick for Jamario Moon and Mo Williams? Yeah, how’s that one working out? Look, I understand the desire to move that contract, but the fact is that Davis is still a solid NBA player. Instead of having Kyrie Irving or Derrick Williams to pair along with Blake Griffin, the Clips are still a few players away from being able to compete. The bottom line is that trading unprotected lottery picks away simply to dump large contracts is a very bad idea and this is why the Clippers are the Clippers.

Los Angeles Lakers – Even without a first-round pick, the Lakers still had a chance to make an impact in the draft. Unfortunately, even with four second-round selections, Los Angeles failed to add much substance to their team. Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock were reasonable picks, but that’s when things got a bit crazy. With talented players like Scotty Hopson and Ben Hansbrough still on the board, L.A. somehow decided it was a good idea to draft Ater Majok (a player who averaged less than a point per game in the NBDL) and Chukwudiebere Maduabum, an international project with no discernable talent. In their defense, Maduabum was later shipped to Denver, but with some solid players still available, the Lakers had the chance to add two quality prospects instead.

Philadelphia 76ers – Philadelphia took a huge gamble by taking big man Nikola Vucevic at No. 16. Nothing about him screams superstar and the 76ers could have done much better with more of a proven commodity. At No. 50, Lavoy Allen out of Temple was a solid, but unspectacular player in college. What strikes me the most about him is that he didn’t seem to improve much during his time there. His stats over the past three seasons remained virtually unchanged and his shooting percentage actually dropped the last two. It can be sometimes hard to find real value that late in the draft, but Allen had undrafted free agent written all over him. This move reeks of drafting a hometown kid just for the sake of a nice story. And a team needing as much help as the 76ers can’t afford to make those types of picks.

June 16, 2011

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NBA Offseason Stories

By: Rick Jarrell

Alas, one of the better NBA seasons in recent memory has come to an exciting end. The Dallas Mavericks took the crown as unlikely champions, overpowering the surprisingly ineffective big three of the Miami Heat. Much has been said about each team since the series ended Sunday, positive and negative – who came through, who didn’t, potential offseason roster move – all a strong precursor to another summer of rumors and mayhem for the NBA. Here’s what I’m watching.

What Will the Champs Do?

The Dallas Mavericks, who used their deep bench to push past the Heat in the NBA finals, have a lot of important players up for free agency. Most notably is America’s new sub six foot hero, J.J. Barea, who provided a scoring spark off the bench and eventually, as a starter. Tyson Chandler, the rugged, dirty work center is also free to go as he pleases. Outspoken owner Mark Cuban, for which money has never been an issue with his players, has stated he will resign the two. But will that be enough to seriously contend next year? Rumors are swirling about a play for 2012 free agents Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, and Derron Williams… but these are considered long shots… nothing more than entertainment until the next season begins.

Can Miami Add Another Piece?

Maybe the question should be, do they need another piece? The big three, although the NBA finals didn’t go as well as they hoped, began to mold together toward the end of the season. Another season together, with a healthy Udonis Haslem, may be all they need. But it won’t shock me to see Pat Riley try to pull off some moves, so look for them to upgrade their front court and perimeter shooters. They don’t have a lot of pieces to give back in a trade, but you never know – if you would have told me a year ago LeBron James and Chris Bosh would join Dwayne Wade in Miami, I would have laughed in your face, simultaneously making a fool out of myself.

What About the Rising Two

The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder made strong strides to become arguably two of the top four teams in the league. Carried on the shoulders of their young stars in Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant respectively, fans are looking for each team to make the leap to the NBA finals next season. Will these two young teams wait for their talent to grow internally and hope that’s enough, or will they go after a free agent or seek an impact trade?

The Bulls need to upgrade the shooting guard position, so look for them to package some of their younger players for a capable scorer. They were also exposed by LeBron James, who shut down Rose in the conference finals, as a one trick pony on offense. The upgrade at the two would help, but more production out of the frontcourt – in some manner – would help, as well.

The Thunder have a stronger core of young talent than the Bulls. If Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka can continue to development at this pace, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. But General Manager Sam Presti is one of the savviest front office men in the league, and I expect him to do something. Whether it is obviously impactful this year, or next, is another question.

The Draft

Although the 2011 draft class is less stellar than many in years past, the excitement surrounding the potential of these college kids and international players still exists. As a Cleveland fan, I’m especially interested in what the Cavs do with the first and fourth pick. Duke point guard Kyrie Irving will be the first pick, barring a severe change of mind, but the fourth is a question. They may trade up for Minnesota’s pick to take Derrick Williams with the second pick. They may trade down for the Piston’s eight pick. Who knows.

The Lockout

I’ve avoided this word for the latter part of the season. It’s sad. It’s depressing. I just want basketball to come back in November. So instead of monitoring the daily updates regarding the collective bargaining agreement, I’m going to wait until the contract is actually signed to figure out the implications. I’m already lost now that the season is over; I don’t want to think I’ll still be lost in November.

May 25, 2011

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Fallout at the OKC Corral

By: Rick Jarrell

Two days ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a commanding 15 point lead with five minutes left in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant had just nailed a seemingly dagger-three, consequently celebrating by turning to the OKC bench and miming a wrestling championship belt around his waist. But the gesture was premature, as the Thunder fell victim to a Dirk Nowitzki led comeback by the Dallas Mavericks in one of the most epic collapses in recent  history of NBA playoffs.

To be fair, the Dallas comeback was both highly improbable and astonishing. No one expected them to make a run to get back into the game, let alone win, especially in the fashion they did – Dirk hitting ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. At one point, Nowitzki pump faked to draw contact, which he clearly did, severely altering his shot, but didn’t get the foul call. But it didn’t matter. He nailed the jumper. Just Dirk being Dirk.

Even more improbable than Dallas’s Game 4 comeback is OKC coming back to win this series. That’s a tall order, especially for a young  team with little NBA playoff experience. The series will likely end, in my opinion, tonight in Dallas. But Oklahoma City, team and fans, shouldn’t look on the outcome as a complete loss. For young teams, unfavorable NBA playoff losses and crushing disappointment often serve as building blocks for perennial championship contenders. The heartbreak Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka felt after Game 4 and (most likely) the end of the series will fuel their offseason routines have them more than ready for next year.

That’s part of the beauty of what OKC General Manager Sam Presti has built – a young team that’s molded together who, along with their coach, Scott Brooks, have a single goal in mind. Not fame or fortune, but a championship. Every indication coming from the NBA players leads us to believe they are in it to win it – together – for the long run.

Durant, the humble 22 year old superstar, leads the team on and off the court. During last summer’s free agent extravaganza, while NBA players LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and David Lee were being wined and dined by teams in need of superstars, holding egotistic press conferences and premature celebrations, Durant signed a five year contract extension with the small town team who drafted him. How did the public find out? He tweeted it.

The remaining young core exemplifies the same modesty, as well. Russell Westbook, Durant’s Robin to his Batman, was recently benched for the entire fourth quarter of a pivotal NBA playoff game. Most 22 year old budding stars would have been visibly upset, taking their issues to the media. But Westbrook handled it well, maintaining something along the lines of “as long as we win, it doesn’t matter.”

Kevin Durant

James Harden and Serge Ibaka, both 21 years old, have seen highs and lows in their sophomore seasons. Harden, a potential offensive powerhouse, and Ibaka, a block machine, have been benched and lost playing time for extended times this season, largely due to match ups with opposing teams. But they’ve both taken the reduced minutes in stride, as each has received more playing time since the trade of Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics. But will still sit, if needed, for match up sake.

Beyond the young core is a set of blue collar role players. Kendrick Perkins, the defensive minded center, provides toughness inside. Thabo Sefolosha starts at shooting guard, also as a defensive presence. Nick Collison spells Ibaka and Perkins when needed, providing solid rebounding, causing offensive fouls, and scoring back door layups. Eric Maynor, of Virginia Commonwealth fame, has developed into a more than capable point guard who can come in and hit shots and change the pace from Westbrook’s freight train style.

Together, the Thunder display the true meaning of the word team. They cooperate on the court, hang out off the court. Say the right things, do the right things. They’re everything that is right with sports and competition. Oklahoma City has developed a rare, but successful, organizational model that will be mimicked by other small market teams.

But even with all the right pieces in place, the Holy Grail isn’t a given. There is still work that needs to be done. OKC still has its weaknesses. Westbrook has a tendency to be a “black hole” and be less point guard, more scorer, sacrificing offensive plays and passes for kamikaze dives to the basket (good and bad, depending on the situation and outcome). Durant, while a gifted scorer, is not assertive enough with the team and lacks great defensive skills. Harden, also a capable scorer, is still very streaky and lacks a defensive presence. Sefolosha and Perkins, while strong defensive, are offensively inept. Perkins, too, has terrible knees, and often takes forever to get up and down the court (he also can’t really jump).

Clearly, they aren’t perfect. Presti and Brooks know this, as do the players. And they have the ability to improve and fix these issues, both internally through young player development, and externally, through flexibility available through draft picks and trades. As captain of the ship, Presti is more than capable of steering the Thunder even further in the right direction. So if my prediction is correct, Dallas defeats OKC in the NBA playoffs to reach the NBA finals, it’s not the end of the world (that’s scheduled for October now, right?). Unlike many teams, built for a 3-5 year run, the Thunder, assuming at least some of the team stays together, have the potential to be title contenders for the next ten years. As a Cleveland fan, I’m jealous, but also excited to see what the “good guys” can do.

April 27, 2011

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NBA Playoffs: Lessons Learned So Far

By: Rick Jarrell

With less than a quarter of the NBA playoffs complete, it may be too early to rush to judgment. There’s a lot of competitive basketball to be played, and as we’ve seen so far in the Memphis/San Antonio series, anything can happen. But a few of the first round match ups have made for some fairly concrete, if not obvious, conclusions.

Hold on D-Rose, CP3 is Still Here

The second half of the regular season brought the rise of Derrick Rose. As I’ve said before, Rose took his game to a whole other level the first half of the season. Then with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer back from early injuries, Rose took his game to yet ANOTHER level to lead the Chicago Bullsto the best overall record. His performance was tantalizing to casual and diehard basketball fans alike. A lot of people, including myself, saw him as the best point guard in the league – with good reason. But with the regular season over, and the playoffs underway, a lot of people are watching with their foot in their mouths as Chris Paul makes professionals look like amateurs.

Despite playing at a high level all season, Paul’s serious knee injury seasons ago left him without his quick first step, and caused many to question the longevity of his career. Still hands down the best pure point guard in the league, it was amazing to watch him adjusting his game accordingly after the injury. But something was still missing. Apparently, that something was stored away for the playoffs.

CP3 has led the New Orleans Hornets against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, currently down 3-2, all without star power forward David West, lost to injury. His ability to manage the game, draw defenders just far enough toward him to seed the pass into the lane for an easy bucket, or nail the mid range jumper if left open, is magical. As for the knee? This video of Paul crossing up Andrew Bynum shows as visual proof CP3 can still break your ankles. If he’s on his game, New Orleans will win the series. Let’s see what he can do with his team facing elimination for Game 6 back in New Orleans.

Brandon Roy is Still Here, Too

The Portland Blazers, perhaps the most trendy upset pick this year, were on the verge of going down 3-1 to the Dallas Mavericks. That is, until Brandon Roy came to life. In the process of being blown out, the Blazers began to slowly pick away at the lead after halftime. Then, in the fourth, Roy took over, hitting shot after shot for the otherwise anemic Portland offense, carrying his team to victory. Impressive for a franchise player, but Roy’s story is different.

Coming out of Washington, he had two severely injured knees. No one knew how long his career would be able to go. After early success, more knee issues emerged, and Roy was forced to miss a ton of time, including the majority of this season. He can’t even play in back to back games in some cases. His knee is essentially a series of bone-on-bone connections. I can’t imagine living with that, let alone running up and down a court and colliding with physical specimens. But Roy was able to get past his problems, and rise above them to a truly inspiring performance. I don’t usually gush over comebacks like this, because he making millions of dollars a year, but Brandon Roy is a classy guy and great teammate. Makes me feel like I should take my fully function knees to the gym immediately. The Portland crowd was ecstatic for their hobbled superstar. The city deserves their first playoff series this decade, and hopefully Roy’s performance will provide momentum toward an upset over the Mavs, who now hold the series lead at 3-2.

Grizzlies Rewrite the Rules

Speaking of unexpected performances, the Memphis Grizzlies are on the verge of upsetting the Western Conference’s top seed, the San Antonio Spurs. A playoff mainstay and three time champion over the past decade, the Spurs usually make lunch meat out of inexperienced, young teams like the Grizzlies. But inspired play from Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and OJ Mayo has fueled the athletic Griz past the veteran Spurs to a 3-1 series lead.

Memphis has managed to make the Spurs look inept. Usually a well oil machine, turnovers and lack of defensive presence have so far doomed the powerhouse. There’s still a small chance the Spurs can come back, and if there’s a team out there with that drive in them, it’s definitely San Antonio, but the Griz still hold the reigns. Not only is a first round upset a possibility for Z-Bo and the gang, but a favorable match up with Oklahoma City in the second may wait, depending on the outcome of that series. Memphis has a serious opportunity for the Grizzlies to make some noise.

Big Three Non-existent in NYC

That was fast. All of the media fire surrounding the so-called revival of the Celtic-Knicksrivalry was extinguished before it even had a chance to spread. For the second year in a row, Boston stumbled into the playoffs only to show us, again, that a veteran team doesn’t necessarily have to perform at the highest level during the regular season. And the optimism for New York fans that the Carmelo Anthony trade would finally bring playoff success after a decade of dismal play was squashed, just like that.

In all fairness, this should have been a better series. New York could have won the first game, and probably would have if not for a questionable offensive foul call on Carmelo. If that outcome had come to fruition, the Knicks could have used that momentum towards an upset. But instead, we saw Boston adjust to the Knicks game plan and cause them to panic into late game Carmelo isolations rather than go to Amare Stoudemirein the post. The injuries to Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups weren’t exactly catalysts, either – the downfall of assembly a “big three” surrounded by veterans and minimum contract players.

But is the Carmelo-Amere-Billups combination even really a “big three?” The trifecta do not complement each other like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allendo, nor are they individually as talented as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. It’s clear the Knicks have a lot of work to do, and even more clear the “big three” euphemism is being thrown around WAY too much. Toward the end of the regular season, my local media outlets began referring to John Wall, Jordan Crawford, and Andray Blatche as a “big three.” The NYC application of the term is nowhere near as presumptuous as the Washington Wizards, and may be slightly off topic, but you get the point.

Look on the bright side, Knicks fans. The NBA draft is quickly approaching us. Oh wait, no draft picks… let the Dwight Howard watch begin!

Demise of the Orlando Magic

Speaking of which, look how far the Orlando Magic have fallen. From a surprise Eastern Conference powerhouse to an athletic superhuman surrounded by shooters who can’t seem to shoot. The team has only seemed to decline since their surprise domination of the Cleveland Cavaliersa couple years ago. From letting Hedo Turkoglu leave, the Vince Carterexperiment, reacquiring Turkoglu, and trading away Rashard Lewis for once upon a time Agent Zero in Gilbert Arenas, General Manager Otis Smith appears to be chasing Howard out of town on purpose.

The Atlanta Hawks, a team that Orlando has historically man handled, largely in part due to Howard’s dominance in the paint, have taken control of the series. Journeyman Jason Collins, Atlanta’s cure for Howard, has kept the big man from taking over. Aside from Howard’s 46 point, 20 rebound performance in Game 2, which Orlando lost anyway, Collins and the Hawks have held their own in the paint. And when Howard does kick the ball to the wings, Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Jameer Nelson are unable to knock down open jumpers. Sharpe contrast to what we’ve seen in the past.

Some highs, some lows, but an exciting beginning to the 2011 NBA playoffs for sure. Non-NBA fans point to the long post season as one of the negatives of the league, but I’m thankful we get two months of the highest level of competitive basketball. Honestly, it’s hard to get anything productive done during this time frame, unless you count watching the playoffs as productive. Which I do…

March 7, 2011

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Crosby and Malkin Injuries

By: Anson Whaley

Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Pens Championship Hopes Dim

Looking at the overall stats, it’s hard to see why the Penguins can’t make another Stanley Cup run this season. As of Sunday, the Pens ranked tenth in total offense (2.8 goals per game), sixth in total defense (giving up 2.4 goals per game), and first in penalty kill defense (86.7%). More impressively, they sit in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and their 84 points are only two behind the first place Philadelphia Flyers.

But don’t let that fool you – the Penguins have virtually no chance to win the championship this season. That’s because the team is missing not only their two best players, but two of the best in all of hockey.

The Penguins were flying high after an 8-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 5th. Little did they know that the win would be a costly one. At the time, Sidney Crosby was looking more and more like the league’s Most Valuable Player. Through only 41 games, he had scored 32 goals and had a total of 66 points – better than a point and a half per game. But Crosby sustained a concussion in that contest and has been out with the injury ever since. The early projections were that he would likely miss about a week, but more than two months later, Crosby is still missing in action, and there is a possibility that he could be lost for the rest of the season.

The news only got worse for Pittsburgh when Evgeni Malkin suffered a season-ending knee injury a month later in a 3-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres. Malkin wasn’t having a great year, but the Penguins could have really used him with Crosby out. And when healthy, he can be one of the league’s best scorers – Malkin averaged nearly 40 goals per season over the first three years of his career, and, though playing only 67 games, he scored 28 goals last season.

Things have certainly taken a turn for the worse without both players. Pittsburgh has won only four of the 14 games since Malkin went down, and they’ve not yet won one in regulation; all of those victories came in overtime or shootouts.

With the possibility that both Crosby and Malkin will be out for the season, the Penguins made some moves before the trade deadline to try to improve the team. General Manager Ray Shero first traded with the Dallas Stars, sending 2004 second-round draft pick Alex Goligoski for winger James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen. Goligoski was a promising young defenseman, but Neal (who should soon be a 30-goal scorer) will give the Pens some much-needed scoring on the wing.

Shero wasn’t done, though. He then traded a conditional seventh-round draft pick to the Ottawa Senators for a familiar face in winger Alexei Kovalev. No one would argue that Kovalev has seen better days, and at 38, he’s obviously on the downside of his career. But he scored 44 goals the past two seasons, and he’s on pace to score more than 20 this year. Because of his age, he won’t be a part of the Penguins’ long-term plans. But Pittsburgh got exactly what it needed for the playoff run – an experienced player capable of scoring some goals.

Still, while Neal and Kovalev could help, they can’t make up for the production lost by the injuries to Crosby and Malkin. With Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh has a goaltender that’s won a Stanley Cup, but the offensive deficiencies are probably too great to overcome.

So while I expect Pittsburgh to reach the playoffs and even win a round or two, Stanley Cup expectations are going to have to be put on hold until next season.