May 31, 2011
Five years ago, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks led the series 2-0 and Game 3 by 13 with 6:30 left in the fourth quarter. That’s when Dwyane Wade took over the series and led the Heat to four straight wins.
If it was a movie script, the Mavericks would exorcise their 2006 finals collapse demons and defeat the villainous bully that looks unstoppable. Rocky did it multiple times. Hickory won the state championship in Hoosiers. However, in the real world, we don’t always get that storybook ending. John Elway finally got his Super Bowl ring. Greg Norman never got his Green Jacket.
In this case, I believe the Mavericks will have that happy ending.
Dirk Nowitzki is a man on a mission. He knows this could be his last good chance at an NBA championship. He has been the MVP of the playoffs so far. But Miami does have LeBron James. He left Cleveland to win “not four, not five, not six…..” titles. If he is going to get to title number eight, he’s got to win the first one. These two great players cancel each other out.
In 2006 if you happened to be flipping through the channels and stopped on any of the last four games of the NBA Finals, chances are you saw Dwayne Wade at the free throw line. He scored 42, 36, 43 and 36 in those four games. Don’t expect that constant parade to the line this time around. Perhaps more than any other, that series comes up in the discussion of outcomes affected by the officials. The powers that be don’t like that. They will make sure it doesn’t happen again. And this time Dallas has DeShawn Stevenson. In two meetings during the regular season, Stevenson held Wade to just two points in 30 minutes. Dallas will need Stevenson on the floor as much as possible because when he was on the bench Wade scored 42 points in 50 minutes.
Dallas has the advantage at the center position as well. Tyson Chandler has been a big part of the Mavericks’ improvement this year. He’s added defense and a toughness in the paint that they have lacked in the past. The matchup with Joel Anthony is probably a push defensively, but Chandler adds more offensively than Anthony.
Neither NBA team has an explosive point guard like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, but Dallas does have a future hall-of-famer in Jason Kidd. Kidd is no longer the superstar he was earlier in his career but he has improved his shooting and has been playing great defense. He’s got a ton of experience and usually makes the right play. Bibby has led a team deep into the playoffs before as well but he hasn’t done much since coming to Miami.
Jason Terry, J.J. Barea and Peja Stojakovic come off the Mavs bench and can score in bunches. Brendan Haywood is a quality big man. This group is more explosive and consistent than the Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, and James Jones group of Miami reserves.
The Heat have two of the best players in the league who are headed to the Hall of Fame. They also have a third all-star in Chris Bosh. The Mavericks have one superstar and a group of veterans with playoff experience that is better and deeper than the rest of the Miami roster. The Heat have more talent. Dallas is a better team. And if it comes down to coaching, I’ll take Rick Carlisle over Coach Spo.
Prediction: Dallas in 6.
May 31, 2011
The recently retired Phil Jackson is considered one of the best coaches in NBA history. But the simple fact is that he should be clearly viewed at the top of that list. His most fierce competition for that top spot comes from former NBA team Boston Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach, so for the sake of argument, I’ll compare the two.
For starters, Phil simply won more. His eleven titles beat Auerbach’s nine and while that’s not the only thing that matters, it’s a great place to begin.
Now the talent – ah, yes. We hear it all the time from misguided fans – ‘Phil had MJ and Kobe – who wouldn’t win with those two?’ Well, Doug Collins, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Del Harris, actually. Seriously though, Phil’s detractors love to point out that he won his titles with four of the best NBA players in history – Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Scottie Pippen. While that’s true, it’s also important to point out that none of those players won titles under other coaches.
The amusing thing is that it’s not only arguable that Red Auerbach had more talent, it’s likely. In 1996, the NBA named its famous ’50 at 50’ – the top fifty NBA players in history. While this was a subjective list, it’s difficult to find many problems with the selections. Red won his 11 titles with six of those players on his rosters, while Phil had the aforementioned four.
A deeper look shows that Auerbach had an even greater advantage, though.
His championships were won with many of those NBA players on any given team. Auerbach never won a single championship with fewer than three top 50 players at one time – and many years, his teams boasted four such stars. Jackson, on the other hand, never had more than two on the same squad.
Further, Auerbach also had plenty of other talent outside of those top 50 players. During his championship seasons, Red coached many other Hall of Famers not on that list including Tommy Heinsohn (who should be, by the way), Frank Ramsey, Arnie Risen, K.C. Jones, and Clyde Lovellette. His 1962-63 NBA team featured eight Hall of Famers, for crying out loud. In 1960-61, seven of the Celtics eleven players were Hall of Famers. With that type of talent, it’s probably amazing they managed to lose as many games as they did.
Phil Jackson’s other Hall of Famers on championship teams other than his duos of Jordan/Pippen and Kobe/Shaq? Maybe Dennis Rodman, who helped the Bulls win three – that’s it. Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Ron Harper, A.C. Green, and Horace Grant were all fine supplementary players, but not Hall of Fame worthy.
In other words, Phil managed to win his titles with talent that was significantly more diluted.
Sure, the obvious thing to point out is that the league, as a whole, had stronger teams in the 1950s and 1960s because there were fewer of them. Thus, more stars ended up on each team as a result. Still (and with all due respect to the 1970s and 1980s Los Angeles Lakers), no franchise has boasted such talent over such a prolonged period of time. Auerbach was playing with a stacked deck and while winning nine championships with anybody is flat out unbelievable, it’s clear he had more aces than Phil.
So Phil won more titles with less overall talent than Red. But there’s more.
Jackson won his titles with two different franchises, proving that he could take completely different collections of players to the pinnacle. Not only did he help Jordan get over the top, he took an immature Bryant and turned him into the best thing since, well, Jordan.
Then there’s the ‘what if’ factor. What if MJ had the hindsight to realize hitting minor-league curveballs wasn’t as easy as he thought and played full seasons in 1994-95 and 1995-96? What if Kobe and Shaq did their best Oscar and Felix impersonations and coexisted as an odd couple for several more years? What if the Bulls’ management didn’t take winning for granted and brought Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson back for more runs? It’s conceivable that Phil walks away with 15 titles … or more.
Lastly, consider the fact that today’s players make much more money and are far more difficult to control. Auerbach had it a lot easier with less media attention, fewer egos to deal with, less agents causing a stir, and generally, less headaches. In all, the pressure to win was not as great with far less money to be made.
When you add it all up, not only was Phil a better coach, it’s not all that close.
May 11, 2011
Monday night was a treat for NBA basketball fans. In the first match up, the Miami Heat escaped the Boston Garden with an overtime win over the Celtics. The game was exciting, just as you would expect with arguably seven superstars involved, but after regulation ended all knotted up, the Heat took over with ease. The late game was the real treat.
By now, you’ve either seen the game I’m referring to or heard about it endlessly at various media outlets. The triple overtime extravaganza between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies. The game was by far the most entertaining of the 2011 playoffs, and the best second round game that I can remember seeing.
I won’t go into deep analysis of the game, as I’d be repeating thousands of other people. But I can say although the game was more thriller than Michael Jackson himself, was actually considerably sloppy. The Griz jumped out to an early 18 point lead, then relaxed on defense, allowing the Thunder to come back on the shoulders of Russell Westbrook. Not to be outdone, the Thunder built up a considerable lead only to allow the Griz to come back.
OKC should have taken this game. They would have won this game in regulation, if not for a Mike Conley game tying three. They would have won it in the first over time, if not for a game tying, off balance three by Greivis Vazquez (that’s right – Greivis Vazquez). They should have won it in the second overtime after Conley and OJ Mayo fouled out in the first OT. But it took three extra quarters to take the game. Memphis was exhausted. The youthful legs of the Thunder didn’t give in whatsoever, and it won them the game. The series is now tied at two games apiece.
But the game itself, and the whole series for that matter, has a league wide impact fans should be aware of. OKC and Memphis are both regarded as small market teams, home to places it is typically difficult to build a franchise for both geographical and economic reasons (I realize the Thunder have not been in Oklahoma very long, but if you had a choice between there and New York, where would you go?). But they’re building long term competitors through high value drafts and savvy trades and free agent signings, ready to compete with the large market teams in Dallas, Miami, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles on a regular basis.
The media prefers the big market teams make deep playoff runs, and as a fan, I agree it can be exciting to see old school rivalries play out. And I’ll admit, I will love the NBA no matter what, I’m hooked. But there’s something refreshing about an actual old school mentality being put into action right in front of your eyes.
The Thunder, for example, have drafted two core superstars in Kevin Durantand Westbrook. Three key role players – James Harden, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison – were also drafted by the team, as well. Former start Jeff Green, also drafted by OKC, was shipped to Boston in exchange for Kendrick Perkins to fill a glaring weakness for a true big man. They’re building a team that plays well together, and honestly enjoys being around each other. Hang out with each other on off days. Constantly tweet at each other. It’s like a close group of friends that complement one another, except they happen to be very good at basketball.
The Thunder aren’t attracting the most talented players possible with any glitz and glamour, and hoping they mesh. There are no overzealous endorsement deals, no appearances at South Beach clubs between playoff games. There’s no ego, just basketball.
Everyone has their opinion on what happened in NBA free agency last summer. As a lifetime Cleveland fan, I feel the right to have strongly negative feelings toward LeBron’s decision to leave. But I don’t. His reasons for leaving may not have been amicable, and there are a lot of mitigating factors involved, but if it was a purely basketball decision, he would have left anyways. The team around him was way below his caliber, as we’ve witnessed this season, and for him to fully blossom, he needed more talent around him. To be honest, I have more of a problem with Chris Bosh, simply because he’s not any good.
The larger issue at hand is the ability, and willingness, of players to leave the team they drafted, even if it’s their hometown, to go to a larger market. Following the money, rather than basketball greatness. These “big threes” that are spawning are entertaining, yes, but they also create a gap in competition. For every “big three,” there’s the teams and fan bases they left behind (I realize the two teams I’m championing were formerly located in Seattle and Vancouver, but a fan base unable to keep their entire team there is an entirely different situation).
The Thunder are different, though, and it brings a smile to my face to see them blossoming. Monday night’s game was nearly five hours long – and I stayed up until 2:00 AM to see the ending, then another couple hours laying in bed wide awake because my mind couldn’t process how awesome the game was. And I’m not even an OKC fan, nor have I ever been to the state of Oklahoma. There’s just something about the team, the city, the fans, that just seems right. It’s a wholesome underdog story, a rarity in the NBA, that may need to succeed for the future competitive balance of the league.
April 27, 2011
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…
April 20, 2011
The NBA Playoffs are a proving ground for young NBA players. The new kids on the block can look great at times during the regular season, showing flashes of greatness, but the greats show what they’re made of in the postseason. Aside from Wilt Chamberlain type stat lines, fans don’t remember your regular season performance. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter. The playoffs do. It’s where great NBA players become Hall of Famers, and great teams become dynasties.
A fantastically exciting regular season has led us to high expectations for these 2011 NBA Playoffs, sure not to disappoint, with a few rising stars you need to keep an eye on. Of course, we have Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but their thrones may be in jeopardy if these NBA players live up to their hype.
It’s hard to put into words how much Derrick Rose progressed through the season, but I will. Picked as one of the top three NBA teams in the Eastern Conference early on, the Chicago Bulls suffered various injuries to their frontline. Carlos Boozer, their prize free agent signing, was lost for six weeks with a broken thumb before the first game. Then, defensive stalwart Joakim Noah tore a ligament in his thumb and was lost for six weeks.
Not a problem for Rose. He carried the team through the rough patch nearly single handedly (not to diminish the performance of the rest of the team, a series of perfect role players for Coach Tom Thibodeau’s system). And when Boozer and Noah came back, the Bulls went full steam ahead to the number one overall seed. It’s laughable to think that NBA experts suggested Michael Beasley be drafted number one overall instead of Rose.
But as I said, his regular season performance pales in comparison to what he needs to do in the playoffs to begin his legacy. Rose has big shoes to fill in Chicago, where a guy name Michael Jordan dominated the league for the better part of the 1990s. While there will never be another MJ, Rose has shown he’s more than ready to take the Bulls back to dynasty status. Rose scored 39 points in Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers, with a key drive and kick out to Kyle Korver to ice the game, and another 36 points in Game 2. The first round is supposed to be a warm up for the top seeds. If tradition remains true, I can’t wait to see what D-Rose does the rest of the NBA Playoffs.
Touted as an amazing pure scorer coming out of Texas, Durant has lived up to the hype. A wet jump shot, ability to twist his way to the rim, and a great system have helped propel KD to NBA superstardom. But playoff success has eluded him so far.
Last season, Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder pushed the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to the sixth game of the first round. A correct box out by Serge Ibaka would have most likely sent the series to seven. That’s an incredible leap for such a young team. But although Durant’s team had a good series, his performance was not up to his regular season numbers.
Fast forward to this year, and OKC has secured a fourth seed and become a trendy pick to make it to, and even win, the NBA Championship. Durant knows his performance the previous postseason was not acceptable for legacy building and is making up for it by starting with 41 points and 9 rebounds in a win over the Denver Nuggets.
As a sophomore, Westbrook’s performances mostly fell into the shadow of Kevin Durant. There were flashes of what would be – a diesel train into the paint, much like Derrick Rose – but it took the 2011 NBA season for fans to see what Westbrook is capable of. The UCLA product has become a solid second option behind Durant and one of the top five point guards in the league. Some analysts say Westbrook still has a lot of room to improve, that he still makes a lot of “rookie mistakes” a Hall of Fame point guard shouldn’t make (true), but he’s only in his third year. I’d argue that Westbrook is nearly as important to the Thunder as Durant, and Durant’s star would not be shining as bright with another point running the offense. Batman’s Robin added 31 points and 7 assists to help push the team to a Game 1 win. In all likelihood, Durant and Westbrook will rise together – each as important as the other.
So while you’re watching the NBA Playoffs and marveling at Kobe Bryant’s campaign for a sixth championship, or the Miami Heat’s big three’s attempt to justify their offseason decisions, remember the young guys. I’ve heard stories of fans watching MJ, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird rise from stars to legends. Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook offer the younger fans a chance to enjoy the transformation themselves.