June 27, 2011
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 19, 2011
The Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder are half way to a NBA Championship. They met on Tuesday night in the first game of the Western Conference Finals. Here’s a look at the five most important players in this series.
There was a lot of talk during the Thunder’s series with Memphis about Westbrook taking too many shots and turning the ball over too much. When he takes care of the ball and helps Kevin Durant get open shots, they are as explosive as any duo in the league. When he takes bad shots and Durant goes nine minutes without a shot in the fourth quarter as he did in Game 5 against the Grizzlies, the Thunder will struggle. Westbrook hit just 14 of 44 shots against Dallas in three regular season matchups. If that number doesn’t go up….the Thunder will go down.
Marion scored at least 20 points twice against Oklahoma City in the regular season. There is no doubt that Dirk Nowitzki and company would love to have Marion do that a few times in this series, but what they really need from Marion is great defense against Kevin Durant. The NBA scoring leader averaged nearly 30 points against the Mavericks this season. If Marion can keep him closer to 20 than 30, Dallas has an excellent chance to return to the NBA Finals.
When his back allows it, Peja is one of the best shooters in the world. He hit 9 of 13 from behind the arc in games three and four against the Lakers. If he shoots like that against the Thunder and forces their defense to spread the floor, things will open up for Nowitzki. Dallas made quick work of the Lakers while the Thunder went seven games so Peja should be well-rested.
Collison played a big part in the Thunder’s win over Memphis. He’s not going to do a lot that will show up in the box score, but he can do a lot that won’t. He was lucky enough to get to guard Zach Randolphand now it looks like he will get to try his luck with Nowitzki. Slowing Dirk down will certainly be more than a one man job. The less help Collison needs, the better for Oklahoma City.
Dirk Nowitzki/Kevin Durant
They are two of the top ten players in the league. It’s safe to assume they are going to get their 20-25 points and do what makes them great. Which one of these guys will get 30-35? We can also expect this series to come down to a game or two that goes down to the final minute or two. Somebody, and Nowitzki and Durant will be the first options, is going to take a shot with the game on the line. I expect one of these two to make a play that will send their team to the NBA Finals.
May 18, 2011
Last night was the NBA Draft Lottery. Finallysomething to distract us from the incredible postseason basketball we’ve been subjected to so far (kidding). Pre-draft coverage is often over hyped, and the draft lottery is a great example. It’s not the actual drafting of players that may or may not (probably won’t) be superstars, but a random drawing of ping pong balls to decide who gets to gamble on the most recent highly touted players in hopes they can turn around a franchise. ESPN managed to drag a process that should have taken five minutes into a thirty minute “extravaganza.” But hey, it’s not as demoralizing as “The Decision,” and for those fans currently outside of the playoffs, it provides a small shred of hope.
With that in mind, rather than perform a mock draft, as most media outlets will do in an astonishingly redundant fashion, let’s take a look at different types of draft strategy and which lottery teams are likely to employ each one.
Draft for Potential
This strategy is nearly mandatory for those fortunate enough to win one of the top picks, especially when it comes to this year’s widely agreed upon weak draft. Most years, there seems to be a few players clearly above the rest, if not a single player perceived as the hands down top pick. For this year’s draft, that player is Kyrie Irving. Despite playing only a small portion of his freshman season at Duke, Irving is seen as the only sure NBA talent with potential to become a superstar. Expect the Cleveland Cavaliers, who those around the league say love Irving, to take him first.
After Irving, the draft becomes more of a mystery. And with such a shallow talent pool, I fully endorse any team taking a huge risk on an unknown like Bismack Biyombo. The likely best case scenario for a lot of these players is a strong rotational player, maybe a starter on a decent-good team. The odds are against any of this draft class leading a team to a championship, so why not take a risk? If you’re wrong, you get another high pick next year, with hopefully a better selection.
Draft Best Available
Selecting the best available in the draft is usually a strategy most commonly used by teams who need to improve in a lot of areas. Typically that includes the majority of the top end of the draft, and this year is no different. The Cavs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Toronto Raptors, and Washington Wizards all have multiple areas of glaring weakness. Where they’re slotted in the draft now, taking the most talented player is logical.
Personally, I’m a big fan of this strategy, whether or not the best available player would be redundant on the team. You can find time to play two players, even if they play identical positions. And you can’t count on one player staying with the team their entire career. They’ll either be traded or leave via free agency. So you can also use the “redundant” player as a trade asset. But with this draft, the best available is unremarkable, and this strategy may not be as strong as it would be in most years.
Draft for Need
Traditionally, you’d see teams that seem to be one piece away from a playoff appearance, or a playoff team who acquired a lottery team’s draft pick, in this position. But the team that would have fit this mold the best, the Los Angeles Clippers, traded their pick to the Cavs (a pick that defied the 2.8% odds to gain #1). The Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, and the Houston Rockets could enact this strategy, but with the 11th, 13th, and 14th picks, respectively, in a poor draft doesn’t leave them with much option. The rest of the high lottery teams are in such disarray, they are likely to select either based on talent or best available.
The one team that may use need-based drafting that could shake things up is the Utah Jazz. A playoff team a year ago, the team was uprooted midseason as they sent Deron Williams to the New Jersey Netsand longtime head coach Jerry Sloan resigned shortly afterwards. Williams is a great player, but he wasn’t the entire team. There’s still talent on the team. But the front court is currently crowded with Paul Milsap, Mehmet Okur, Al Jefferson, and Derek Favors, who they received from the Nets. So despite having the third pick and the ability to select Williams or Kanter, the Jazz may go for a need and select a guard to pair with Devin Harris, such as Brandon Knight or Kemba Walker.
Wheelin’ and Dealin’
Every year, there are a few draft day trades – either before a player is drafted, or right after the player is drafted. In general, the NBA is a constantly evolving mechanism. But with the Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire this summer, it’s going to be difficult for a team to makes any serious moves without knowing what the future holds. Also, with the lack of talent in the draft (have I said that already?), teams are even less likely to take a risk. If any of the teams with higher draft picks this year is offered a future draft pick, I think they’ll strongly consider. Having said that, the Rockets are a team that is always looking to make a move, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that holds true next month. The Wizards, looking for a sidekick to team with John Wall, may have fallen just short of being able to select a talented front court player, and may be open to a trade.
The NBA Draft is June 23rd. Until then, PLAYOFFS! It’s only getting better…
May 16, 2011
With the early second-round exits suffered by the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celticsthis past week, much has been made about the shrinking window of opportunity for more championships for each team. The Lakers and Celtics have combined to win the last three NBA Championships and in two of those seasons, have faced off against each other for the title. So why is everyone down on their chances to win more hardware?
Boston and Los Angeles have two of the oldest rosters in the NBA. Even the 1996-97 Houston Rockets team of aging vets such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Kevin Willis, Sedale Threatt, and Eddie Johnson (all of whom had played at least 11 years at the time) think these guys might be over the hill. So are these two franchises, the most storied ones in league history, effectively done winning championships with the same group of players? Well, one of them is.
Last week, I heard plenty of analysts draw parallels to these two teams. But the fact is that they’re both in entirely different situations.
The Celtics are, for all intents and purposes, finished. The team’s triumvirate of stars, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce are all getting up in age. While all three were durable this season, they are also past their prime – and by several seasons. The Celtics have a few nice pieces in guard Rajon Rondo and forward Jeff Green, but (and with all due respect to Rondo who is a very good young point guard) those are supplementary players. Shaquille O’Neal’s absence in the series against the Miami Heatproved that age is catching up to him and without the recently-traded Kendrick Perkins, Boston was extremely light in the frontcourt, needing to rely on Jermaine O’Neal and Nenad Krstic.
Boston simply doesn’t have enough to compete for future rings with this group of players. If they’re to get back to the top, the Celtics will need to reshape their current roster. The greatest need will be to add another skilled rebounder in the middle to complement or even replace Shaq. In the words of Yoda: several mediocre rebounders do not a frontcourt make. Adding a quality guard would also be a good idea as the Celtics are very thin after Rondo and Allen. Boston’s greatest problem lies in the fact that due to their age, the team cannot expect to make it through a full season healthy.
The Lakers, on the other hand, still have enough in the tank for a few more runs. Despite the embarrassing sweep to Dallas, there’s plenty left on this team. Kobe Bryant is still the best closer in the game and one of the NBA’s top players. After Bryant, you’ve got Pau Gasol. I know, I get it – he disappeared against the Mavericks. Fact is that he was dealing with some off-court issues and probably just needed a break from the game. The only problem for the Lakers was that he took it during the most important time in the season.
And here’s the thing about Gasol – even though he vanished faster than Houdini in the Mavericks series, he has a good track record of succeeding in the playoffs. His numbers in the postseason over the past two years actually exceeded those of his regular season stats. Because of that, I don’t expect Pau to shrink again next season and Los Angeles will be a better team for it.
In case the Bryant/Gasol duo isn’t enough, the Lakers also can throw Andrew Bynum, one of the best (and here’s the key) young centers in the game and Lamar Odom, who seems like he’s been in the league forever, but is only 31.
Los Angeles’ key pieces are simply younger than those of Boston’s. Four of the five Celtics starters are at least 33 years old while the only Laker starter that old is Derek Fisher. And while Fisher has been an integral part of the Lakers winning five championships, he’s not relied on nearly as much as any of the Celtics starters. The Lakers would be a better team if they could add a younger point guard in their starting rotation, but they could get by with Fisher for the next season or two if need be.
Not only is Los Angeles younger where it counts, but they’re also better than Boston – which is why a couple more title runs with the same team might not be out of the picture.