Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Painted Area's '07-'08 Predictions (Part I)

M. Haubs' predictions:
Happy Opening Day, everyone. The League is back, rejoice. I feel a little bit weird this year because, while I'm certainly ready to fire up the League Pass, I'm not desperately hungry for the season to start, as I usually am.

Partially I'd say it's because we had a solid month of intriguing international basketball to sate the appetite, between watching Team USA get its groove back and the always-spirited competition at the Eurobasket. Partially, I have to admit, I'd say it's because I'm a fan of one of the teams playing in this weekend's NFL Game of the Century, and I'm having trouble focusing on anything else. Don't fret, don't fret, I still favor the League over the NFL by a wide margin, this is just such a huge game that I need to get through Sunday before I can get my NBA on with the full 110% KG-style intensity that she deserves.

That said, it's also an odd year for predicting the League - I feel like my choices are predicated on a process of elimination of teams that I feel are *not* worthy of hoisting the Larry O'B more than a spirited competition of those who can.

It's weird, it feels like we're headed into another season that's sort of nondescript, yet just think about what might be right around the corner... if Kobe goes to Chicago. We could end up with some desperately needed *juice* in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Imagine an East semis with Kobe vs KG vs LeBron vs D-Wade (OK, so Miami's a longshot, I know, just dream with me for a second). When's the last time the Eastern side of the bracket has been deeply compelling for more than a good series or two? '01, maybe, when we had AI and Vince going off and Milwaukee's Big 3 lighting it up?

As much as I hate to see Kobe go because I believe he should be a Laker for life, I have to admit that, if he takes the final step on the MJ imitation path by donning the red and black, it'll make things that much more compelling come May. And I'll tell you what, I think it's going to happen, and that hunch shapes a big part of these predictions:

1. Chicago
2. Cleveland
3. Boston
4. Orlando
5. Detroit
6. New Jersey
7. Toronto
8. Miami

- First Round: Bulls over Heat, Pistons over Magic, Cavs over Raptors, Celtics over Nets
- Conf. Semis: Bulls over Pistons, Celtics over Cavs
- Conf. Finals: Bulls over Celtics

East notes:
- With Boston on the ascent, someone has to drop out of the playoffs, and I say it'll be Washington, though I wouldn't be shocked if the bottom fell out in Miami. That said, you could make a plausible case that any Eastern team has at least an outside shot at the playoffs except for maybe Philly (and even they finished strong) and Charlotte (with the injuries already piling up). As always, health will be a huge factor all around.
- I'm picking Chicago no. 1 assuming Kobe will be there, but I have the Bulls up there even if they don't make a deal. Too many flaws on the other top contenders.

1. San Antonio
2. Dallas
3. Phoenix
4. Denver
5. Houston
6. Utah
7. New Orleans
8. Golden State

- First Round: Spurs over Warriors, Nuggets over Rockets, Mavs over Hornets, Suns over Jazz
- Conf. Semis: Spurs over Nuggets, Mavs over Suns
- Conf. Finals: Spurs over Mavs

West notes:
- Here's the crazy thing about the West: it's not implausible to think that Dallas, San Antonio and Houston could end up with the three best records in the NBA, yet one of them is going to have to be seeded 5th, because of the way the seeding works (Top 4 spots go to the three division winners, plus next best record).
- I dropped the Lakers out because, again, I think Kobe's a goner, yet I still toyed with slotting them into the 8th slot, thinking that Phil might be able to coax a 1993-94 Bulls-type season out of them if he gets enough pieces back....
- I see Memphis also in the hunt for the last spot, and it wouldn't surprise me if Utah drops all the way out of the playoffs - they're so dependent on Boozer, who has an injury history, Okur is hobbled already, and their chemistry seems like it could be fragile with AK47 in the locker room and Derek Fisher out of it.

- NBA Finals: Spurs over Bulls
- MVP: Kobe Bryant
- Rookie of the Year: Kevin Durant

Rookie of the Year notes:
- Duh.

MVP notes:
- I'm really going all in on this hunch that Kobe ends up in Chicago, huh? Let me first say that I feel like LeBron is going to have a spectacular year, and that he will be a top MVP contender along with Kobe and KG.

What MVP voters, weenies that they are, love as much as anything is a good story, esp. one that entails changing teams and leading your new team to the top of the conference standings (even if there are four teams with better records in the other conference!).

I'm banking on Kobe coming East and having a little more team and individual success than KG (I think KG's ppg will drop a little), and both players will be better stories than LeBron. If Kobe stays put in L.A., or goes elsewhere, I think KG has a great shot at hoisting his second Maurice Podoloff.

- Darkhorse candidate: Yao. Before you scoff, just consider that it's not crazy to think the Rockets could have one of the league's best two or three regular-season records, and Yao averaged 25 and 9 in Van Gundy's slowdown system. You'd think his numbers will go up with more team possessions in the Adelman era. And he'd be a good story. First things first, though: gotta stay healthy.

Championship notes:
- As I mentioned above, my prediction is as much as about eliminating teams I think are deficient as anything:

*I think the thin Suns are too dependent on the fragile health of Grant Hill and I think they'll miss Kurt Thomas' D at some point;
*I can't pick the Rockets given the collective playoff underachievement of Adelman, McGrady and Yao;
*I think Dallas needed to make more significant changes, though I did like the T. Hassell and E. Jones moves;
*While I think the East is improving, it's still inferior, though a Kobe trade might help close the gap further.

That leads me to the Spurs. I'm a little nervous because they didn't make any significant moves on a team that's getting old, but they are the proven club and Tim Duncan is still the best player in the world, MVP or no MVP.

Now we have the emerging report that Timmy will leave $11 million on the table on his extension because it will help give his team flexibility going forward. I'll be interested to see how much media coverage this choice commands, compared to the uber-narcissism of the A-Rod opt-out drama.

While I'm not entirely confident in my pick of S.A. to repeat, I am much more certain that the NBA will continue to be hammered as an example of everything that's wrong with modern sports, and all the while the team and player who are what's right with modern sports (unless you're a Suns fan) will continue to be dismissed as too boring to be worthy of attention.

The Painted Area's '07-'08 Predictions (Part II)

In Part II of our epic (some would say long-winded) '07-'08 predictions we'll deal with Jay Aych's predictions for the upcoming NBA season. So strap yourself in & grab youself a Vitamin Water to keep your electrolytes & energy levels up.

Atl: (1) Celts (2) Nets (3) Raps (4) Knicks (5) Sixers

Notes: Celts should get the Atl. crown, but I think the Raps & Nets will challenge them a little more than most expect. Raps & Nets should jockey for 2nd place, and don't see more than 2-3 games separating them; think you can shuffle the teams either way. Think the Knicks do have a shot at a bottom playoff seed but need to fix not just their defense but propensity for turnovers (worst TO margin in NBA by a wide margin) Simply, the Sixers are gonna be the worst team in the East, and have no shot at the playoffs. Their offense looks to be the worst in the league.

Cent: (1) Bulls (2) Pistons (3) Cavs (4) Pacers (5) Bucks
Notes: Should be a tight race between Bulls, Pistons, & Cavs, and can't see more than 6-7 games separating the 3 teams. Think it's possible any of the 3 could realistically win the division, and think you can shuffle them in any order. But think the Bulls' depth & defense will push them into the mid-50s win range with Detroit right there with them. Think the Cavs will miss Varejao, and could cost the Cavs a few games in the standings. The Pacers are gonna be better than most are predicting, not sure they have a shot at the playoffs, but they will not be the dregs of the East either. Have to remember Jim O'Brien is a pretty good coach, and I expect the Pacers' defense to be pretty tight. Can he turn around one of the worst offenses in the league? Not sure, but it was encouraging how Indy put points on the board in preseason. Not high on the Bucks, and think their playoffs hopes are slim to none. Offense looks to be good, but expect the defense & rebounding to still suck.

SE: (1) Magic (2) Heat (3) Wizards (4) Hawks (5) Bobcats
Notes: Don't have a good feel for this division at all. Would not even be stunned if the Hawks won the division. Good chance you will need only 45 wins to take the SE crown. Guess I'm going with the Magic, who I don't think are Eastern title contenders, but are a solid bunch. Their offense was not very good last year but the addition of Rashard & the natural progression of D-Howard should make them an alright offensive team. Their defense was underrated under Brian Hill, and with Stan Van Gundy aboard can't see it falling off. Then we come to Miami. Tell you the truth, I have no clue what to expect. Wade's injuries are still lingering, and you have to expect Shaq to miss his annual 20 games either from legit injury or just self-imposed rest. The loss of their 3 best shooters (Kapono, Ed Jones, & Posey) could hurt them big time considering all the double-team action thrown on Shaq & Wade. Though the addition of R Davis was a nice coup, & he shot the ball well last year. Just don't see how the Wizards have improved any--they look about the same as last year, hovering around .500. Just don't see them ever committing themselves on defensive end, and they will never be part of the Eastern elite until they do. Hawks are on the upswing, and are filled with promising young talent, particularly at the forward positions. Hawks can challenge for 3rd place with the Wizards, and have an outside shot of grabbing the 8-seed. But they have some work to do to improve their poor defense & outside shooting (dead last in 3pt% last year). Liked the Bobcats in the summer as a sleeper pick in the East, but they've been sideswiped by injuries to Morrison & May. The May injury hurts worse because they don't have much frontcourt depth, while they have plenty of talent on the wings to cover for Adam.

EAST Playoff seeding:
1) Bulls
2) Celts
3) Pistons
4) Magic
5) Cavs
6) Heat
7) Nets
8) Raps

1st Round: Bulls over Raps; Celts over Nets; Pistons over Heat; Cavs over Magic
2nd Round: Bulls over Cavs; Pistons over Celts
Conf Finals: Bulls over Pistons

NW: (1) Nugs (2) Jazz (3) Sonics (4) Blazers (5) TWolves
Notes: The Jazz & Nugs are on equal footing, and it's a tossup for the NW crown. The Atkins injury is a minor blow to the Nugs since they have no other quality true PGs, and will have to move Iverson to the point more often. Expect both teams to be in the high-40s/low-50s win range. But then the NW division drops off mightily after that. Give the Sonics a slight edge over the Blazers or Wolves, but think their playoffs chances are close to non-existent. The Blazers' time is in 2-3 years, but this year they should just be happy with 25 wins. Gonna be interesting to see how Portland puts points on the board. Even before Foye's injury, Minny was arguably the worst in the NBA, now it's a question if they can reach 15 wins.

Pac: (1) Suns (2) Lakers (3) Warriors (4) Clips (5) Kings
Notes: Suns shoud run away with the division. Lakers' future is in disarray, but all I know is Kobe is still a Laker & I don't expect him to half-ass it, so I see the Lakers getting back to the playoffs. But obviously their roster could change any day, so who knows. G-State are the new darlings of the NBA after an improbable 1st round upset & will try to ride the wave of momentum from last season. Some might expect them to be a team on the upswing & a shoo-in for the playoffs, but they've done nothing to address their size issues, and this should keep their rebounding & interior defense in shambles. Though they do play a style that is conducive to piling up regular season wins, so would not be stunned if they finished above the Lakers & grabbed the 7-seed. Clips & Kings look like they are on an express train to lotto land, and Elgin & Petrie should have their rooms at the Secaucus Red Roof Inn already booked for mid-May.

SW: 1) Mavs 2) Spurs 3) Rockets 4) Hornets 5) Grizzlies
Notes: All five teams have legit possibility at the playoffs. We know the top 3 teams are in if they avoid injuries, but also the Hornets & Grizzlies have the goods to slide into one of the bottom 2 seeds. Mavs, Spurs, & Rockets are the top 3 teams in the league in my estimation, and think all are capable of 60 wins. Like the Central division, can't see too many games separating the top 3 teams, and think you could shuffle the top 3 in any order of finish. All 3 teams are as well-balanced as any teams in the league--great offense, great defense, & good rebounding. The Rockets definitely have upgraded their offense, but the question remains how much will their defense fall off? Don't think it will tumble too far, and Houston still should be a Top 10 defensive unit. If the Hornets can keep their main guys, I expect them to fight with the Warriors for the 8-seed. Grizzlies should be much improved this year with a healthy Gasol & the addition of Coach Iavaroni. If they can make strides on defense, they can compete with the Warriors & Hornets.

WEST Playoff seeding:
1) Mavs
2) Spurs
3) Suns
4) Nugs
5) Rockets
6) Jazz
7) Lakers
8) Hornets

1st Round: Mavs over Hornets; Spurs over Lakers; Rockets over Nugs; Suns over Jazz
2nd Round: Spurs over Suns; Mavs over Rockets
Conf Finals: Mavs over Spurs

NBA Champs: Mavs. (Mavs over Bulls). Very tough decision between Mavs & Spurs, but just gave the Mavs the lean at the tape thinking that the Spurs might not get the timely contributions from their role players around Manu, Tony & Tim. And the Mavs have proven over the last few years that they can match up very well with the Spurs.

Very hard for me to pick between the Spurs, Mavs or Rockets in general. Like I said above, think they are the 3 best teams & don't see much separating them. Think whoever comes out of the West will take home the hardware. And the West Conf. should have some epic playoff battles. Think the Suns have a shot to make the finals, but they might have regressed a step by dumping Kurt Thomas, who was desperately needed since the Suns' main flaws holding them back are interior defense & rebounding. Think it's a 4-team race to see who comes from the East. Celts, Cavs, Bulls, & Pistons are all tightly bunched and all have the goods to take the crown. Think the Nugs & the Heat have slim shots of sneaking into the finals, but basically everything would have to line up perfectly.

MVP: LeBron. The Cavs will still be good enough to challenge for a top spot in the Eastern Conference which should keep Bron in consideration. And if Bron's jumper is indeed legit then we could experience a whole other version of Bron. All the other usual suspects should be in the mix: Kobe, Wade, KG, Melo, Nash, Dirk, Yao & Duncan. While guys like Bosh, Boozer, & McGrady have an outside shot for consideration.

Rookie-o-Year: Kev Durant. No contest. Already Seattle's #1 option & will be expected to give them 20+ pts right away. The only way Kev doesn't win this is if he's injured for around 40 games. In that case it's either Al Horford or Scola.

Breakout Player: Rudy Gay. Love this guy's potential, and should thrive in Iavaroni's system. I also look for LaMarcus Aldridge to flourish this year, and will be expected to produce because Portland desperately needs scoring help. LaMarcus is probably the 2nd scoring option next to Roy, could see him pitching in around 18 ppg this year.

One More O/U Pick Under The Gun

OK, I've been looking for a reason to pull the trigger on Memphis Over 34 (22 wins last year) and John Hollinger gave me the last piece of evidence I was looking for, with this research about how preseason results affect regular season records:
    One other team looks promising in [Roland Beech's study on 82games.com] -- Memphis. He found that teams who won fewer than 30 games the year before but had a winning preseason record improved by an average of 19 games the following season; adding in last year's results drops the improvement to 17 games, but it's still eye-opening.

    The Grizzlies had a winning preseason after winning 23 games last season. Were they to improve by the average of 17 games, they'd go 40-42 and make a strong run at a playoff spot in a Western Conference that isn't nearly as deep as it used to be.
I like the offseason they had, and I think Iavaroni's going to be a hell of a coach. I only hope that they'll forgive me for the intemperate post about their franchise that I made earlier this summer.
But check the timestamp, I'm in under the gun with Memphis Over 34, to add to my other O/U picks.

And oh by the way, I'm curious to see if Orlando, Atlanta and Indiana all exceed expectations, as Beech's analysis of preseason results projects. That would be some Season O/U gold for future seasons....

Rasheed, Where You At? Redux

So, Rasheed Wallace drew the attention we're sure he was seeking with his insinuation that the Cavs victory in the Eastern Conference Finals was fixed:
    "I still don't think they (Cavaliers) beat us, we beat ourselves," Wallace said. "And I think we also fell victim to that personal NBA thing where they are trying to make it a world game and get (television) ratings. They wanted to put their darling in there (the NBA Finals) and they did, and look what ended up happening."

    The league's darling, according to Wallace, was LeBron James, and what ended up happening were the worst ratings in the modern history of the NBA Finals.

    "This game ain't basketball anymore, it's entertainment," Wallace said. "It's starting to get like the WWF. There ain't no real wrestling anymore either. It's all fake."
What we find especially rich about these comments is that, back in June on this very site, we analyzed the video of LeBron's 25 straight points in Game 5 to examine where the Pistons' once-formidable interior defense had broken down, and guess who was Culprit No. 1?

Yes, it was Mr. Sheed. He repeatedly failed to close down LeBron's wide-open driving lanes as he was apparently too afraid to leave Donyell Marshall open, even though you might remember that LeBron was excoriated for passing to Donyell instead of taking a last-second shot in Game 2 (perhaps Sheed was still feeling burned by leaving Big Shot Bob Horry in the 2005 Finals).

We should note that our single favorite Sheed team defense moment in Game 5 was when he left LeBron a wide-open lane for an uncontested dunk because he felt compelled to turn his head and follow Eric Snow away from the ball when the always dangerous Snow cut away to the weak side.

If you don't believe us, you can watch the video clips here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

2007-08 NBA Win Over/Under Predictions

It's time for one of our favorite posts of the year, as we offer our recommendations for picking NBA regular-season win over/unders.

We don't claim to have a whole lot of talents in this world, but (perhaps sadly) picking NBA win over/unders happens to be one of our biggest strengths. We would estimate that we are around 60% overall lifetime, and we chose a good year to take these public for the first time, as we went a career-best 6-1 in 2006-07 with our recommended picks, although four of those wins were extremely narrow. (Note that another unnamed prognosticator went 4-6 with his O/U picks).

As always seems to be the case, the vast majority of these are extremely hard to pick because the O/U number seems absolutely spot on.

That said, we've narrowed down the ones we like, and here they are, in order of confidence level:

Golden State: Under 43 (42 wins last year)
I wish this weren't the case - I loved watching the Warriors as much as anyone last season. Still, I think the Warriors take a step back this season, not forward, mainly for one big reason: I think that Jason Richardson's return from injury was a big, underrated part of this team's late-season run, and I really think the draft-day trade will hurt GSW this season. I don't think that either Brandan Wright or Marco Belinelli will give them much this year, and that makes these W's a pretty thin team unless Mully can pull another mid-season rabbit out of a hat.

Houston: Over 53.5 (52 wins last year)
I know these guys are a trendy pick to move up to the level of championship contender, so that might make them a little scary, but we're just talking regular-season wins here. It's hard to believe this team won't improve by at least two games with all of the solid moves that GM Daryl Morey made this summer. If Yao can get back to a reasonable level of durability (he missed just 2 games in his first three years, before missing 59 in the last two), this should be a complete no-brainer.

The one thing going against this pick is that I think Van Gundy was exceptional regular-season coach who really bled the maximum amount of wins out of this team. That said, they still have a roster of guys who will play hard consistently, and Rick Adelman is a strong regular-season coach in his own right.

San Antonio: Over 54.5 (58 wins last year)
Just look here. Since Tim Duncan entered the NBA in 1997, the Spurs have won at least 56 every year (if you pro-rate the lockout season) except 1999-00, when they won 53. Further, they have won at least 58 for seven straight seasons. I'm gonna keep riding this horse until I get thrown off.

Sacramento: Under 34.5 (33 wins last year)
Improving by two games? I see this one getting worse before it gets better, esp. with that old, slow, defensively-challenged frontcourt. And I have a hunch that Bibby's contract might be unloaded at some point, and these guys will subsequently end up competing for the No. 1 pick.

L.A. Clippers: Under 30.5 (40 wins last year)
Elton Brand and Shawn Livingston are a long way from playing. Their backcourt is old. One could easily see Sam Cassell and Tim Thomas losing interest early. Corey Maggette may average 30 ppg... on 30 FGA with 30 TO's a game. This has disaster written all over it. I heard Chad Ford opine that 30 wins is a best case for this team, and I agree.

Chicago: Over 50.5 (49 wins last year)
I'm a little nervous here, just because they haven't addressed their lack of low-post scoring and Ben Wallace is getting old quickly, but they have so many talented young players that I find it hard to believe they won't continue to improve.

I want to pull the trigger on CLE Over 48.5, but I just can't do it with Varejao and Pavlovic still in limbo, so that's it.

Another team I thought about pulling the trigger on was Memphis Over 34 (22 wins last year). I was highly critical of the franchise earlier this summer, but then GM Chris Wallace went out and had a hell of a summer, so I need to tip my cap.

I thought they had a very good offseason in adding Conley Jr., JC Navarro, and Darko at little cost (and they're essentially adding Kyle Lowry, who was injured for most of last year). And, of course, Pau missed 23 games last year, which contributed heavily to a dreadfully slow start. I was just hoping that the O/U number would be in the 30-31 range. I *think* the Grizz will be in the upper 30s in wins, but the 34 number is just a little too close for comfort.

Bonus Player Prop Recommendation:
LeBron James: Over 28.5 ppg (27.3 last year)

Sportsbook is offering this player prop - LeBron averaged 31.4 in 2005-06, and I think he gets back up closer to that level in '07-08, esp. if that cleaned-up jumper he displayed this summer wasn't a fluke.

OK, here are the complete O/U lines (last season's wins in parens):
ATL 39 (30)
BOS 50.5 (24)
CHA 35.5 (33)
CHI 50.5 (49)
CLE 48.5 (50)
DAL 56.5 (67)
DEN 49.5 (45)
DET 50.5 (53)
GSW 43 (42)
HOU 53.5 (52)
IND 30.5 (35)
LAC 30.5 (40)
LAL 42.5 (42)
MEM 34 (22)
MIA 45 (44)
MIL 36.5 (28)
MIN 20.5 (32)
NJN 44 (41)
NOH 38 (39)
NYK 36.5 (33)
ORL 46.5 (40)
PHI 31.5 (35)
PHO 56.5 (61)
POR 31 (32)
SAC 34.5 (33)
SAS 54.5 (58)
SEA 28 (31)
TOR 42.5 (47)
UTA 47.5 (51)
WAS 39.5 (41)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

07-08 NBA Preview--Northwest Division

We'll start our season preview out in the Northwest to mix things up (we're crazy & dangerous like that here at The Painted Area). This division should look about the same as last year, where you have Denver & Utah fighting for the NW title in the high 40s/low-50s win range, then a huge dropoff to the other 3 teams fighting just to get to 30 reg. season wins.

If there is one common link among the NW teams it's that none of them shoots from the perimeter particularly well, besides maybe Seattle. Outside shooting is a significant flaw for both the Nugs & Jazz, and can hold them back from advancing in the playoffs. The fans of the Minny, Seattle, & Portland should prepare themselves for 50-loss seasons, and getting familiar with names like OJ Mayo, Derrick Rose, & Michael Beasley.
*-last year's record, division finish, conf. finish appear after the team name.

NUGGETS: 45-37; 2nd in NW; 6th in West
Should be in a tight race with Utah all year for Northwest supremacy. Nugs should finish in the top 6 or 7 in the West and will fight Utah for the #4-seed awarded to the NW champ. Have 2 of the most potent pure scorers in the NBA in Melo & AI, and having Iverson from the start of training camp this year should make the Nugs even more dangerous.

The Nugs also need Nene to continue his upward progression. Nene's improved footwork has helped him improve his offensive game, and he showed he could be a reliable 3rd scoring option with his strong play in the playoffs. It would be nice to see Nene increase his board production (particularly his def. boards); something I think he's capable of. Nuggets' def. boardwork was surprisingly lackluster last year, but they have the bigs to turn that around, so I expect it to improve.

Perimeter defense is definitely a sore spot, especially with the probable starting backcourt of 5-11 Chucky Atkins & 6-0 Iverson. Melo's no stalwart himself, lucky for the Nugs that they have one of the best collection of interior defenders in the biz, and added to their defensive integrity with the underrated pick-up of Steve Hunter, who adds a viable back-up for Camby. And if Kenyon Martin can regain some of his old form, he adds another valuable defender to the mix.

The other main flaw holding this team back last year (and seemingly for the last 5 years) is its lack of outside shooting. The Nugs were once again one of the worst 3pt. shooting teams in the NBA. The acquisition of Atkins was the first step in the right direction. With the combo of AI & Melo on the floor, you'd better have a PG guard who can make all the double teams pay.

Really need bench players like JR Smith & Linas Kleiza to step up their play this year, and provide some offensive pop off the pine, specifically some consistent outside shooting help. Both guys shot the ball well in the reg season (Kleiza improved as the season went on), but came up short in the Spurs series when the Nugs needed their bench production most. Smith already causing drama is not a good sign for the Nugs because his outside shooting is an underrated factor the team's longterm prospects.

It would be nice if the Nugs could cut down on their turnovers, but I can't see that happening with AI & Melo heavily involved. They do temper their own TOs by causing a fair amount (3rd best in 06-07).

The Nugs should finish around the 50-win mark if they can stay relatively healthy, and should be neck-n-neck with Utah for the NW title. The goal is to try to advance past the 1st round. For them to do that they need to hope for some consistent shooting around AI & Melo to ease the defense collapsing in their laps.

TWOLVES: 32-50; T-3rd in NW; T-12th in West
Not sure I want to waste too much time breaking down the TWolves because all you need to know is they're gonna be sure-fire lottery-fodder. The recent trade does really nothing to improve their prospects this year, and basically is just a deal to create more financial flexibility.

The departure of Ricky Davis should open up the door for Randy Foye to establish himself as the main perimeter option for the TWolves. The one area where Minny looks good is at the wing spots. Have a lot of promising young talent stockpiled at the 2 & 3 with guys like C. Brewer, Gomes, G. Green, Foye, McCants fighting for minutes.

Actually, their 4 spot is in pretty good shape as well with Al Jefferson ably backed up by Craig Smith (a mild surprise last year). They also have Ant Walker & Juwan to plug in at the 4, not to mention Gomes can move over when needed. It's their bookend positions of PG & C that are giving the TWolves issues. They don't have a starting-caliber center on the roster and Doleac & Ratliff are just around for their expiring deals. Sorry, but I don't see Foye as point. Feel he's much more adept in creating for himself, not others. Telfair is their only true point on the roster, and it's pretty much a consensus he was just overhyped by the NYC media machine.

Can't see this team improving much defensively, and expect them to still do a poor job on the boards. Also, Minny really lacks any players with natural shooting ability, and I could see their 3pt% dropping with the loss of Ricky Davis & Mike James, replaced by Antoine Walker's chucker ways.

Just think they will have a bad locker room situation with disgruntled vets who don't want to be in town paired with a collection of inexperienced young players. Just expect bad times all around. 25 wins would be a major accomplishment. The one good thing - the only good thing for Minny this season - is that they are positioning themselves to be a major player in free agency next summer.

BLAZERS: 32-50; T-3rd in NW; T-12th in West
Blazer fans just have to sit tight for the next 2-3 years, and get used to the losses piling up for now. If Oden was healthy, felt that the Blazers would've had an outside chance at a 8-seed, but with Greg on a year-long sabbatical, Portland should be prepared for another trip to beautiful Secaucus in late May.

Imagine Portland is going to have some issues trying to put points on the boards, and I could see them in the bottom five in offensive efficiency. With Randolph's departure, Brandon Roy becomes the #1 scoring option, and I'm not sure he's quite ready for that role this early in his career. And with Roy already experiencing some foot problems, the offense could possibly project even worse than expected. I guess Aldridge becomes the 2nd offensive threat. I like Aldridge's potential, but I'm not sure he will give you more than 15-17 ppg this year. And I think you will need something more potent from your #2 guy considering I can't see Roy giving Portland more than 22 ppg.

This squad did not shoot the long ball well last year and not sure that will change much this year unless Martell Webster can find consistent burn in the rotation. Webster maybe should get some run at the 3-spot since this position is Portland's biggest question mark, with erratic options of James Jones, Travis Outlaw & Miles to choose from.

Still not sure why they wasted cash on re-acquiring Steve Blake when they had a better option in-house with Jack. And Blake's presence could possibly stunt the growth of the promising Sergio Rodriguez. Even with Oden out, think the Blazers should be decent upfront with a serviceable frontcourt rotation of bigs of Aldridge, Frye, LaFrentz, & Pryzbilla. Not great, but alright.

I think if the Blazers win 30 games this year they should feel satisfied. This team was not very good on either end of the court last year. I could foresee the defense improving somewhat, but I just can't see the offense breaking out at all.

SONICS: 31-51; 5th in NW; 14th in West
Sonics are one of the teams I really can't get a good read on. Even though they have 9 players returning from last year's squad, this team has been overhauled in a sense with the dumping of their 2 best players in favor of 2 rookies in their place. You have to wonder how this team will replicate the point-production loss with Allen & Lewis gone to the East.

Actually, think Durant could basically cover for what was lost with Rashard, and maybe even offer more rebounds. And Durant is gonna have to produce at an All-Star level, because he immediately becomes Seattle's #1 scoring option. I have to think Wilcox becomes the 2nd option, which you can't be too enthused about. I guess he's alright, but probably better suited as a 3rd option at best. After him, what do they have offensively? Collison is underrated & solid but I can't see him giving you more than maybe 13 ppg. Ridnour is alright, but just like the others, he's just alright.

And this is why I wonder how good this team's offense is going to be. I know they plan to go more up-tempo with the addition of Paul Westhead to the coaching staff, but I'm not sure they have the horses to pull it off. Like rookie Jeff Green's multi-dimensional talent, but I wonder what he can give you this year. Delonte West & Wally are decent pickups from Boston, but both are really just solid back-ups at best, and Wally is strictly just a SF at this point, so I don't them helping at the 2-spot.

Not really feeling Durant at the 2-guard. Here's the deal: he already creates tremendous matchup problems at the 3. Why do you want Durant chasing around opposing 2-guards, especially chasing smaller guys around the phalanx of screens many shooting guards see? I guess this just a temporary fix considering the Sonics don't have a true starting caliber 2-guard on the roster.

Once again they go into the season without a firm answer to their center woes. It's seems a lot of people are always high on Robert Swift, but the kid is unproven, and it seems Seattle has already decided to go with Collison.

Not sure where I fall on this team's defensive prospects either. Seattle has been horrible on the defensive end for about 5 years now, and last year was no different. They really did nothing well on the defensive end of the court, and compounded this by being one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the NBA. You would assume the Sonics would still be fairly porous defensively given similar personnel, but they did add Kurt Thomas, who can help in the interior. I think the Seattle should be somewhat better defensively just by the presence of PJ Carlesimo, who I'm sure will bring some of the Spurs' mentality over.

I expect the Sonics to be slightly better than the Blazers or Wolves, and just maybe have a sliver of a chance of getting the 8-seed if the Warriors or Hornets have massive injury problems. I'm just not seeing where this team will generate the kind of offense they need to make a serious push.

JAZZ: 51-31; 1st in NW; 5th in West
Not sure too many people predicted that the Jazz would end up in the Conf. Finals last fall, but they avoided major injuries, and Boozer & Deron blossomed into young studs. They should be back in the thick of things out West once again.

Some folks don't realize how good an offensive club the Jazz are overall, but they have always been a highly efficient bunch under Sloan, and Utah's collective shot selection is as good as any team year-in, year-out. Not to mention they move the ball like few other teams can. And they aid their strong offensive execution by pounding the offensive glass for extra possessions (1st in off reb. last year, 1st in overall reb.).

Have to try to find a way to cut down on their fouling. But can't see it happening since it's so ingrained in Sloan to play a physical brand of basketball. At their core, they play fairly solid halfcourt defense. The issue that hurts them is they just foul too much. Some teams foul too much because they are out of position or slow on rotations, but the Jazz foul too much because they are overtly physical. Their def. FG% was pretty solid last year at 45%, but they sort of wash it away by leading the league in fouls.

The other main bugaboo is that their deep shooting is a concern (2nd worst in 3pt% last year), and the situation made worse with the loss of Fisher--I'm sure they hope rookie Morris Almond can step up quickly. Directly tied in with the poor 3pt. shooting is that the weak link in the Jazz lineup has to be the 2-guard spot--a position they have had a hard time trying to fill since Hornacek left. They drafted Almond to hopefully fill the void and provide much needed relief in the long-ball department.

Right now it looks like Sloan is handing the starting assignment to defensive-minded Ronnie Brewer, who has played well so far in preseason. But if Ronnie has one main weakness, it's his outside shooting. However, the 6-7 Brewer could allow the Jazz to put him on the opposition's best wing threat, and allow AK47 to roam around more as the ultimate help defender. I think it's an option the Jazz could explore.

Not quite as adamant as others that AK has to be moved to the 4--not sure I want him trying to body guys on the block. I think you have to find a way to allow AK to freelance on the defensive end, sort of like a free safety.

Utah possesses one of the better inside/outside punches in the NBA, Booze & Deron. Boozer was one of the most consistent & efficient players week-in & week-out last year. A multi-dimensional offensive threat who can face you up or work you over down low with his clean footwork, and can finish with either hand. Also an underrated passer who shoots a high percentage. Works great with Deron in the high screen--Booze is adept at the elbow jumper, and is a solid ball-handler so he can drive the ball well from the high post.

Deron has turned himself into one of the top young PGs in the NBA, and already one of the top assist men in the NBA. Said early in the reg. season last year I loved how Deron ran the Jazz offense & used the high pick. Sweet step-back jumper, & much better athlete than his pudgy physique would indicate. Though a good pull-up shooter, Deron has to improve his long-ball accuracy, especially with lack of shooters surrounding him.

They're gonna need Memo Okur to have a repeat of his strong regular season play after disappointing in the playoffs (particularly the Conf. Finals) & subpar play at the Euros. They really need his outside shooting touch, especially if they plan to start Brewer alongside AK47 on the wings. The one thing that was a revelation last year was Okur's strong defensive play on the ball. Harpring's early-season injury is an underrated blow. Matt provides a nice lift off the bench, physically punishing opposing defenders, and being a master at using the baseline screens/cuts of the Utah offense.

Don't see much separating Utah from Denver, and expect them to fight with Denver for the 4-seed. But if this squad wants to get deep in the playoffs like last year, they will need to curb their propensity for physical play and improve their collective outside shooting.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Is Mark Cuban Ruthless Enough To Win It All?

It's been a fairly extraordinary offseason in a few respects, including this: a true NBA superstar appears to be on the trade market for the second time.

Back in May, we wrote a piece arguing that we thought Dallas should trade Dirk for KG in a heartbeat and, in a poll that we ran, about 60% of you agreed with us that the Mavs would get the better of that trade.

Now, Kobe Bryant appears to be on the market, with Dallas reported to be one of the few teams for whom he would waive his no-trade clause, and our analysis is similar to what it was in May: you gotta trade Dirk for Kobe if you're the Mavs.
Which team would get the better of a Dirk-Kobe trade?

In general, we think that teams often overreact to playoff losses and end up making their teams worse by breaking them up prematurely, so we respect the approach that the Mavs have taken this offseason overall.

Despite Dirk's playoff shortcomings in '07 and the '06 Finals, we certainly didn't advocate Dallas shopping him around, as that's how a team usually ends up getting 50 cents on the dollar for its assets.

But this is a rare opportunity (though, amazingly, the second one of this offseason). I mean, we're not talking about just All-Stars here - Jermaine O'Neal-types who are important pieces. In Kobe (as well as KG), we're talking about one of the 5-10 true difference makers in the league - one of the very short list of players who is better than Dirk.

Yet, Mark Cuban has dismissed the idea out of hand, saying "Dirk is untouchable" and "If and when I talk to Jerry [Buss], I'll make it clear that we're not going to trade Dirk."

Why not? I think that it's related to this clip, which is of Mark Cuban talking about Dirk emotionally at this spring's MVP press conference:

It's a genuinely touching moment, and helps you understand all the reasons that Cuban is loyal to Dirk:
• Dirk was there when he first bought the team, and has been there with him all the way on the road from NBA laughingstock to model franchise;
• He's seen Dirk himself rise from the ridicule he endured in his rookie season, and develop into an elite NBA player;
• Dirk has done so largely due to an incredible work ethic;
• In short, as a person, Dirk is everything an owner would want in a franchise player. He's the type of guy an owner can be proud of.

That's the thing: all of this is admirable. We respect Cuban for his loyalty in standing behind his player in a time of adversity. And we're not trying to pile on Dirk - he is everything that's right about the league.

It's just a stark evaluation from a basketball standpoint: Kobe Bryant is a better player. It might not fit the Mavs as cleanly as a KG trade would have in terms of position, but we still think it would work.

The facts remain that Dallas should have won the 2006 Finals and they should have played San Antonio in the 2007 Western Conference Finals to essentially determine the league champion, and Dirk was a big part of the underachievement in both instances.

Kobe is a proven playoff closer, and it's an equal tradeoff in terms of age (both are 29). Kobe might not be as pleasant of a guy to be around, and it might require another move to balance out the roster, but we still think it would make Dallas a better team in the long term. We think Mark Cuban needs to put aside his personal loyalties, as he did with Steve Nash and Michael Finley, and make the deal.

Hey, maybe, since the market for Kobe is so limited, Cubes thinks he can get him without giving up Dirk - more power to him if he can.

And listen, we take no pleasure in writing this - if Dirk ends up leading Dallas to the title, we'll be the first to admit that we were wrong. We admire Dirk and admire Mark Cuban for the way he's backed his star - we're just analyzing this coldly from a basketball perspective, and wondering if Cuban is ruthless enough to do the same.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lakers Levity

After our eight-million-word diatribe against Bill James, we thought we'd go a little shorter and lighter with a brief interlude of Lakers levity today:

When I e-mailed my friend to tell him that I thought this line from Mark Heisler of the LA Times (on TrueHoop) was the quote of the day...:
    "Buss wants to keep Kobe as surely as he wants to keep charging $2,200 for courtside seats and dating 21-year-old girls."
...said friend's return reply was:
    "I gotta think that if I were 80 and dating 21yo girls, the rest would be pretty much irrelevant."
On Buss's behalf, he is just 74 AND, more important, he bears a striking resemblance to certain highly attractive celebrities:
Jerry Buss
Rip Taylor

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Offense Is Up! Offense Is Up!

When researching some numbers a while back, I came across this pretty cool page of League Average Stats through the years, on Basketball Reference.

The page simply runs down the average per-game team stats for every NBA and ABA season ever.

For example, here is the average line of offensive stats for an NBA team in the 2006-07 season:

36.5 79.7 .458 6.1 16.9 .358 19.6 26.1 .752 21.3 98.7

A few things struck me:
1. Scoring is up significantly.

Last season's PPG average of 98.7 was the highest since 1995-96 (99.5).

The lockout season (1998-99) was the nadir. Offensive stats were disastrous - points per game (91.6) were the lowest of the shot-clock era, and FG%/FT% were the lowest since the '60s. Of course, that season was a bit of an aberration.

Excessive handchecking and the bumping/manhandling of cutters were removed from the game that offseason, and PPG temporarily shot up for a season, to 97.5, before falling back, with 2003-04 being a low point, at 93.4.

That offseason, the current rules interpretations - no handchecking allowed - were implemented and Steve Nash joined Mike D'Antoni and the Suns to bring back the fast break in earnest. Scoring immediately shot up to 97.2 in 2004-05.

2. Three-point shooting is up.

Three-point percentage has been at .358 for two straight seasons - that's the highest number ever, other than the three seasons (1994-95 to 1996-97) when the line was moved in.

As much talk as there is lamenting the supposed lost art of the midrange game, there is very little talk about how it's been offset by massive improvements in three-point shooting, with many more players able to hit the three better than they were a generation ago.

In 1987, the average team went a measly 1.4-4.7 (.301) from three-point land, while last season the numbers were 6.1-16.9 (.358).

Interestingly, three-point shooting numbers have gone back up since the new handchecking interpretation was instituted in 2004-05 - one could assume that more help defense is needed against penetrating guards, leaving more open shooters.

3. FG% shooting overall is up.

Last season's field-goal percentage of .458 was a big jump from .439 in 2003-04, and the highest number since 1995-96 (.462).

Even though overall field-goal percentage still trails the '80s, when FG% was in the .480-.490 range, the volume of three-point shots explains a lot of that.

In fact, in terms of Adjusted Field-Goal Percentage (i.e., granting an extra .5 FG made for each three-point shot made, to account for how many points are scored per field-goal attempt), the numbers are actually up.

In 1986-87, adjusted FG% was roughly .484 - last season, it was .496 (also comparable to the .495 ADJ FG% in '83-84).

Ever poor old free-throw shooting has rebounded from the .730s in the late '90s to the .750s today, comparable with the early '80s and the late '70s.

4. Assists have actually fallen.

Total assists, obviously a measure of team play, are still in the 21 range, which is down from the '80s, when they hovered around 26, an historic high.

Part of this is explained simply because fewer field goals are made in this era, so the more telling number is assists per field goal.

Last season, there were assists on roughly 58.4% of all field goals, which is down from 61.0% in 1986-87, and a general average of around 60% in the '80s.

Interestingly, assists per FG are actually down from the nadir year of 2003-04, when the 60.9% average was comparable to the '80s.

Again, the handchecking interpetations would seem to have made the difference, opening up more lanes for penetrators.

And in general, even in the lean offensive years of the past decade, the ratio of assists per field goal stayed competitive with the '80s - in 1997-98, it was 61.3%, for example.


Maybe I'm a little oversensitive after my Bill James rant, but it seems like there are many fewer articles heralding that we are in a glorious new NBA era, thanks to rising offensive numbers, compared to the countless sky-is-falling stories over the past decade which used declining offensive numbers to lament the NBA's overall decline.

I actually don't think the numbers mean a whole lot in and of themselves from year to year, which is why I thought they were overused in tracking the alleged decline.

My interpretation is that offensive numbers initially went down mainly because the quality of defense across the league increased drastically - a good thing, as that was a sign that the intensity of the average game went up. But then, games just became brutal (literally) in the late '90s when they got overly physical, before handchecking was curtailed and bumping cutters was stopped before 1999-2000.

By contrast, even though last season had the best overall offensive numbers in more than a decade, it was still a crappy season overall, thanks to so many injuries plus too many teams futilely tanking their way to more Oden/Durant ping-pong balls.

Still, I think we are headed in a good direction overall. I made notes of one comment Steve Kerr made during the Dallas-Golden State series, when he pointed out that games in the NBA are increasingly being decided by athleticism more than brute physical force, and that's a good thing.

Kerr developed the idea in this post on Yahoo! in the spring, Speed kills Heat, Mavericks, when he also noted that the elimination of illegal defense (implemented for the 2001-02 season) has had a strong effect as well:
    The future of the league can be summed up with one word: speed.

    Speed at all five positions. Skilled, multi-position players who blend together, play any spot on the floor and run like hell.

    The NBA deserves some credit for the current trend. By allowing zone defenses into the game in 2002, the league basically made the 7-foot stiff obsolete. Now it's impossible to hide a player who's a non-factor offensively. It used to be that every player on the floor had to be covered, so teams like the Utah Jazz would put Greg Ostertag near the hash mark on the sidelines, and his defender had to be above the free-throw line or be called for illegal defense. Ostertag was basically moved out of the play so that John Stockton and Karl Malone could play pick and roll, and then he'd go back and clog the lane defensively at the other end.. Now, since the big man doesn't have to be covered, teams can't afford to have him out there. So instead, they play five guys who are all actually skilled at the same time. And since there aren't any big slow guys in the lane, it's easier for both teams to score.
Just reading that comment gets me excited to start watching a new season. Even though last season was a bummer in a lot of ways, I still think we're headed in the right direction overall.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bill James Can Go To Hell

Don't get me wrong, I have always been a huge Bill James fan. I still remember the first time I found The Baseball Abstract, by happenstance in a mall in Fort Myers, Florida, on a spring break trip to Grandma's - truly one of the great revelations of my life as a sports fan. I'm pleasantly amazed that Jamesian-style tools of rational analysis have become increasingly common and mainstream in baseball. And I'm thrilled that the rational analysis revolution has finally reached basketball, even though we're still in the early stages.

But this Bill James story from Sunday's Boston Globe Magazine, titled "Where Numbers Go Next", has piqued my frustration.

The story centers around James' thoughts on the evolution in statistical analysis in sports. He seems to believe that the next steps should go beyond analyzing players in the name of determining what makes a team win, and focus on determining the optimal competitive conditions for a league to succeed as a whole.

All well and good, but then James immediately jumps in and cites a series of perceived "problems" with the NBA which are worth examining. I don't understand why he didn't use the league he knows, MLB - which, in my mind, has plenty of problems - as his case study, rather than the league he knows nothing about, the NBA.

I'm just starting to reach my breaking point in terms of old white guys who are disaffected with the NBA - often people who don't actually watch NBA games - telling me about everything that is wrong with my league. And I am tired of these disaffected old white guys getting so much time and space in major media outlets (often empowered, of course, by the disaffected old white guys who run said outlets).

I'm tired of stories like this where a disaffected old guy's opinions about what's wrong with the NBA are presented as accepted fact. This shit needs to be responded to. So I will try.

The Best Team Always Wins
James' main thrust is that the NBA's biggest problem is that the best team wins too often.

As he writes:
    "The NBA's problem is that the underlying mathematics of the league are screwed up. In every sport, there is an element of predetermination and an element of randomness in the outcomes.... In the NBA, the element of predetermination is simply too high. Simply stated, the best team wins too often."
First of all, in my personal opinion as a fan, I want my pro sports leagues to be organized such that the point of the playoff system is to try to determine the best team. I mean, honestly, should it be any other way? To me, there's a Herm Edwards obviousness to it: "You play to determine the best team!"

I understand that having the best team win too often may conceivably be bad for business, but James clearly thinks it's inherently a bad thing for on-court competition, judging by this preposterous passage:
    "If the best team always wins, then the sequence of events leading to victory is meaningless. Who fights for the rebound, who sacrifices his body to keep the ball from rolling out of bounds doesn't matter. The greater team is going to come out on top anyway."
Honestly, I can't believe I even have to respond to this. Did Golden State not play hard when matched up with 67-win Dallas in the first round? Did Phoenix not battle with the Spurs, even though most people assumed that San Antonio was better? Did Cleveland give up down 0-2 vs. the Pistons, because the consensus was Detroit was superior? Even in the wild mismatch of The Finals, Cleveland's problem wasn't that they laid down, resigned to their fate. They actually played quite hard. They were just overwhelmed. It was a terrible matchup; it happens.

The point is this: NBA playoff series are played to determine the best team. It's not pre-determined, no matter what the conspiracy theorists think. Heading into the playoffs, we usually know that there are 3-5 teams who are generally superior than the rest, and then we play best-of-seven series to find out who the best team is. And the rest of the teams are not irrelevant even though they are not championship-worthy. Often there are young teams and players trying to go a little farther than they've gone before, to lay some groundwork and earn some experience for future playoff runs.

Hoops Darwinism and Sagas
I guess I'm biased: I love the NBA playoff system and think the NBA Playoffs are the best sporting event in the world. I've written it before, but I consider the NBA Playoffs to be Basketball Darwinism, a sporting survival of the fittest. As Hubie might say (rocking the second person, of course): "Are you mentally and physically tough enough to withstand the pressures and challenges and obstacles, to control your emotions at all times so that you avoid that one untimely outburst that can sink your team, as you need to be to endure four best-of-seven series against the toughest competition?"

I love the storylines which emerge from this hoops Darwinism. More than anything, I look forward to the 2008 Playoffs to see how The Dirk Nowitzki Story continues to get written. Will he be mentally tough enough to overcome the failures of the last two years and get all the way to a championship? Or is he destined to be another Karl Malone-type, a player who ultimately couldn't quite lift his team over that last obstacle?

I love that these playoff stories are often multi-year sagas, such as Dirk's story is or Jordan's story was. Even as bad as last year's Finals were, they served as another step in the LeBron saga. We saw him take a step by producing in the 2006 Playoffs, and then a leap with his surpassing performance in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Now, can he take the final step? Can the Suns get over the hump? Can McGrady and Yao advance? I don't think any other American sport has as many compelling stories which arc on a multiyear basis.

As I've already noted, and most everyone concedes, the 2007 Playoffs largely sucked. What were the reasons for such suckage? I would say:
1. There was a huge imbalance in the quality of the conferences, which led to an utterly non-compelling Finals matchup.
2. The suspensions in the Suns-Spurs series utterly deflated what was fixin' to be a spectacular series.
3. Golden State's upset of Dallas ruined matchups down the road. Yeah, I said it. As wildly adrenalizing as that series was to watch - possibly the most entertaining first-round series I've ever seen - it led to the San Antonio-Utah conference finals, which was arguably the most predictable series I've ever seen.

The fact that Dallas, the better team overall, lost ended up hurting the playoffs because it robbed us of the Dallas-San Antonio matchup that we were expecting to determine the best team in basketball, to continue the multi-year storyline of their rivalry, especially after their epic series in 2006. I'm just saying.

So, what are James' prescribed solutions for the NBA's ills? In short, make the game more like college:
    "So how should the NBA correct this? Lengthen the shot clock. Shorten the games. Move in the 3-point line. Shorten the playoffs.... If the NBA went back to shorter playoff series - for example from best-of-seven games to best-of-three - an upset in that series would become a much more realistic possibility. A three-game series would make the homecourt advantage much more important, which, in turn, would make the regular season games much more important. The importance of each game is inversely related to the frequency with which the best team wins."
You know, on a certain level, who am I to argue? The NCAA Tournament is clearly a more popular event than the NBA Playoffs, so maybe this is the ideal answer: just mimic March Madness. All I know is that I would be let down, borderline devastated as a fan, if this is what pro basketball came to.

I actually think that the NBA Playoffs and the NCAA Tournament complement each other beautifully. The NCAA Tournament is a boy's game, where a team can ride a wave of emotion and a barrage of 20-foot three-pointers, and go on a magical run of upsets and narrow wins. Every game is a Game 7, your grandma has a bracket, and that's all exciting enough to compensate for the fact that the play is increasingly subpar.

The NBA Playoffs, meanwhile, are a man's game - as utterly rational as March Madness is wildly emotional - where teams have to prove that they are better than their opponents over a sustained period, and players have to show superior mental toughness, to contain themselves when the emotions are most highly charged.

To me, both events have their charms and both events suit their sport, even though one (the NCAAs) is not geared to determine the best team, and one (the NBA) is.

NBA vs Baseball
As I mentioned above, one of my biggest issues with the James piece was that there was not even a hint that his sport, baseball, might have problems with its competition system. I happen to think that the current baseball playoff system is crap, since they expanded from four teams to eight.

Even though the NBA has twice as many teams in its playoffs, I think that its regular season is much more meaningful in terms of determining its champion than baseball's is.

In the NBA, teams need to jockey for seeding until the end because home-court advantage is meaningful. Are the playoffs a little bloated with 16 teams? Probably a little, yes. But ultimately, it doesn't really matter because the no. 1 and 2 seeds rarely lose in the first round, so it doesn't cheapen what they earned in the regular season. And if 1's and 2's do fall in the first round, it just serves to illustrate that they weren't championship-caliber in the first place.

The fact that a best-of-seven series in basketball generally determines the best team means you could conceivably expand the playoffs infinitely and it wouldn't affect the competition. Further, the best NBA teams generally have outstanding records from the second half of the regular season on, to prove that they are the best teams for a sustained period of time.

In baseball, teams mainly need to merely ensure that they'll qualify for the postseason - seeding is much less important than in the NBA because home-field advantage is much less pronounced than home-court advantage is.

More important, a best-of-seven series in baseball is largely a crapshoot. It's James himself who educated me about this long ago, with the simple math that there is relatively small deviation between the best baseball teams (about .600 win pct) and the worst (.400), so it's more likely that the worst teams can beat the best in small sample sizes than in the NBA, where it's more of a .750-.250 spread. Red Sox owner John Henry, who employs James, knows this, and has stated in the past that his goal is to create a team which can compete for the playoffs each year, because he knows that each of the eight teams has a roughly equal chance to win the World Series.

I guess my point is this: the baseball playoff system is cheapened with each team that's added to the playoff pool. Teams do not have to sustain excellence over the regular season to win the World Series, and that's how we end up with the St. Louis Cardinals as 2006 World Series champions with an 83-78 record, the worst record ever for an MLB champ. At which point, I ask: What's the point? What does that prove? What's the point of the regular season when an 83-78 team ends up winning?

And, to flip it around, I don't understand what the point of an 82-game NBA regular season would be if we then just decided the champion with a bunch of three-game series. What's the point if you just need to be a 43-39 team and qualify for the postseason? That's when the NBA regular season would be meaningless, not now.

I will take the system where the playoffs prove the best team every time.

Here's another NBA sideswipe by James:
    "Take the problem of what we could call NBA "sluggishness." In the regular season, players simply don't seem to be playing hard all the time. Some people attribute this to high salaries, but the other major sports are choking on money and don't seem to have the problem to any comparable degree."
First, I will say, as I've said before, that I think the quality of the NBA regular season is much higher than it was 20 years ago because there is much more defense being played overall, and defense is a function of effort to a certain extent. But certainly, I concede that it is difficult to sustain a maximum effort every night over an 82-game season, and I think the ideal regular-season length would be about 60 games.

All I would ask is this: is it any different in baseball? Do baseball players "play hard" for a 162-game season? It's commonly known that baseball has had a longstanding problem with amphetamines because the players have found they've needed them to sustain their ability to recover over the course of the long regular season.

And how, by the way, do I even tell if baseball players are playing hard in a sport where most of the time is spent standing around doing nothing? Does the fact that baseball has slowed to a standstill mean anything? Should we maybe examine the effect that maybe baseball is deathly boring now that the average game takes close to three hours, when it used to be more like 2:20?

Last James excerpt:
    "A fan can look at the standings in December, pick the teams that will make the playoffs, and might get them all. This has a horrific effect on the game. Everybody knows who's going to win. Why do the players seem to stand around on offense? Why is showboating tolerated? Because it doesn't matter. Why don't teams play as teams? Because they can win without doing so (although teams like these may crumble when they run up against the Pistons or Spurs)."
I'm running out of steam here, as I'm sure you the reader are, but let me just quickly point out that:
1. In baseball, it's clear by June that many, many teams have no shot to win the World Series. I don't see a lot of difference there.

2. Re: showboating, I dunno - the NFL has at least as much perceived showboating as the NBA and it's the most popular league in the country by far.

3. This is a topic for another time, but I think the NBA has long been structured such that the best teams play as teams the most, and the worst teams play as teams the least. I believe that there are more and more NBA teams exhibiting solid team play each year.


Listen, I understand that the NBA has plenty of problems, and that ratings are dwindling, but I don't believe that the reason the NBA is unpopular is related to its system of competition.

What I continue to hear anecdotally from the disaffected fan is the generic thought that the "players are all thugs". First of all, this doesn't have a lot of basis in fact - increasingly, the All-NBA teams are populated by true "good guys" like Nash and Yao and KG and Brand and Boozer and Bosh and on.

Second, at the end of the day, the pool is comprised of the same players who make up the NFL, so the thought baffles me a little that the perceived player pool in the NBA is a primary reason to not watch the sport, but in the NFL, it has absolutely no effect.

I still think the simple facts of racial perception sadly play a far greater role in the NBA's declining popularity than is acknowledged. I think the older white fan has a tougher time seeing past image-related things like cornrows and tattoos and up-close-and-personal lipreading more than the fact that the competition system is geared to determine the best team, but that's a topic that needs a lot more words than what I have left in me today....

Friday, October 05, 2007

Preseason Games to Watch

2008 preseason games to watch

With a solid four straight weeks of quality Olympic qualifying hoops recently completed, we're not feeling the hoops withdrawals quite as much as we normally do this time of year. Still, it's always welcome when training camps open and it's almost time to fire up the League Pass for another season of the world's greatest sport.

First, we get the preseason, which tips off Saturday in Europe. What we find most interesting about October hoops are preseason matchups between NBA teams and European club teams, as well as sneak peeks at highly anticipated league newcomers. Below is a rundown of some notable NBA preseason games: all of the games which will either be played outside North America, against international teams, or televised on ESPN/TNT.

NBA v. Europe notes
Last year, two NBA teams lost to European teams, as Philly fell to FC Barcelona and the Clippers were crushed by CSKA Moscow.

Here are some elements which tend to lead to such upsets:
1. Look for a top Euroleague team, ideally playing a mediocre (or worse) NBA team. Last year, CSKA Moscow was a Euroleague finalist and Barcelona just missed out on the Final 4. CSKA had an extra advantage in that the Clips had played a crappy team (BC Khimki) a couple days earlier, so they were complacent, not realizing how much better CSKA was.

2. NBA teams are more vulnerable early in the preseason, when they've barely had any practice time - the European teams have an advantage in that they start a few weeks earlier.

3. Partisan home crowds help. Sometimes the crowds end up being fairly neutral if it's Pau playing back home in Spain or Tony Parker playing in France, which negates the edge.

See here for Sportingbet's odds to win the Euroleague this season, just to get a gauge of where all the teams stand. These are the 5 teams with the best odds:
-Panathinaikos 23-10
-CSKA Moscow 13-5
-Real Madrid 3-1
-Olympiacos 8-1
-Barcelona 10-1

OK, here we go - The Painted Area's picks for top matchups to watch are indicated by ***. (Also see: Complete NBA preseason schedule)

Sat., Oct. 6: Boston vs. Toronto, Rome (NBA TV, 2:30 ET)
Andrea Bargnani will get all the love, as we'll get a first look at the G-A-P Band Celtics.

Sat., Oct. 6: Minnesota at Efes Pilsen, Istanbul (NBA TV, 5:30 ET)
Possible upset potential, mainly because the T-Wolves should be terrible and will have had just a few practices to try to cobble together a thoroughly revamped roster. And they'll be up against a partisan crowd in Istanbul.

Efes Pilsen is a pretty good Euroleague team (33-1 odds, 9th best), with a nice mix of U.S. college stars (Loren Woods, Drew Nicholas) and top Turkish players (Serkan Erdogan, Cenk Aykol, Keren Gonlum), plus an exceptional coach, David Blatt, who just led Russia to its surprise Eurobasket title.

- Efes Pilsen team page

Sun., Oct. 7: Toronto at Lottomatica Roma, Rome (ESPN2, 12:30 ET)
Should be a Toronto win, as Roma is just a mid-level Euroleague team (80-1 odds, 14th best), and the crowd should be full of Bargnani love.

Roma players to watch include Americans Allan Ray and David Hawkins, 2005 Raptors draftee Roko-Leni Unic, and the immortal 36-year-old Italian veteran Gregor Fucka.

- Lottomatica Roma team page

Tue., Oct. 9: Memphis at Unicaja Malaga (NBA TV, 2:00 ET)
Unicaja made a surprise run to the Euroleague Final Four last year, and they are tied with Efes Pilsen for the 9th best odds to win this year, at 33-1. That said, with *both* Pau and J.C. Navarro on the Grizz, Memphis should get significant support from the crowd.

Unicaja's roster includes former NBA players Jiri Welsch, Marcus Haislip and Daniel Santiago, plus Spanish national team stalwarts Carlos Jimenez, Carlos Cabezas and Berni Rodriguez.

- Unicaja Malaga team page

Wed., Oct. 10: Boston vs. Minnesota, London (ESPN2, 2:30 ET)
It's a shame that KG's first meeting against his old club is in London rather than at Target, where he'll be able to bask in the 30-minute standing ovation that he so richly deserves, but he's normally fun to watch in international situations (he had a lot of fun with the crowd in Tokyo a few years back).

Thu., Oct. 11: Memphis at MMT Estudiantes, Madrid (NBA TV, 12:30 ET)
This should be a Memphis blowout, as MMT Estudiantes is not even in the Euroleague, they finished just 16-18 in the Spanish League last year, so they are pretty mediocre. Mickael Pietrus' brother Florent plays for them.

***Thu., Oct. 11: Toronto at Real Madrid (NBA TV, 3:30 ET)
Maybe some upset potential here, as Real Madrid (3-1 odds, 3rd best) has stocked up on talent for a run at the Euroleague Final Four, which will be held in Madrid next year. And they should have good crowd support, although Calderon and Garbajosa will get some love for the Raps.

Real Madrid's roster includes Americans Louis Bullock, Charles Smith and Venson Hamilton plus top Spanish players like Felipe Reyes (starter on national team), Raul Lopez and Alex Mumbru, and veteran Greek center Lazaros Papadopoulos.

In the Raptors favor, they have so many international players that they certainly won't take Madrid lightly, which is often a problem that NBA teams fall into.

- Real Madrid team page

Thu., Oct. 11: Maccabi Tel Aviv at New York (7 ET)
Maccabi is a solid Eurloeague club (13-1 odds, 7th best) though not nearly as dangerous as they were when they won back-to-back Euroleague titles in 2003-04. Could be an interesting game, as I could see the Knicks taking them lightly.

Maccabi's roster includes Americans Marcus Fizer, Will Bynum, Terence Morris and Vonteego Cummings, plus longtime Euroleague star Nikola Vujcic and NBA draftees Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu. Also, Draft Express projects 19-year-old Omri Casspi as the no. 22 pick in the 2008 draft.

- Maccabi Tel Aviv team page

***Thu., Oct. 11: Panathinaikos at Houston (8:30 ET)
***Sat., Oct. 13: Panathinaikos at San Antonio (8:30 ET)
These are easily the NBA-Euroleague games I'm most interested in watching, as the defending Euroleague champion - and favorite to repeat at 23-10 odds - takes on two of the top teams in the NBA, including a tasty champions matchup in San Antone. Hopefully, NBA TV will pick these games up.

Panathinaikos has a particularly deep backcourt, with top European players such as Dimos Diamintidis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Sani Becirovic, Milos Vujanic and Vassilis Spanoulis, who is out due to injury, so he won't have to endure a return trip to Texas.

- Panathinaikos team page

Mon., Oct. 15: Zalgiris Kaunas at Golden State (10:30 ET)
Wed., Oct. 17: Zalgiris Kaunas at Toronto (7 ET)
Zalgiris is just a 125-1 shot to win the Euroleague (19th best), so they should have trouble competing on their long road trip across the U.S. Two Americans who are longtime European veterans - Marcus Brown and Tanoka Beard - play for this Lithuanian club, which also has marginal NBA prospect Mantas Kalnietis at the point.

- Zalgiris Kaunas team page

***Wed., Oct. 17: Orlando vs. Cleveland, Shanghai (ESPN2, 8 ET)
Thu., Oct. 18: Orlando vs. Chinese National Team, Macao (NBA TV, 8 ET)
A nice matchup in the NBA China Games, with LeBron against the new-look Magic. Should be interesting to see the reception LeBron gets in China, and to hear Walton ramble on with random trivia and historical notes about Shanghai. Yao and Yi will not be playing for Team China, so that shouldn't be much of a game.

***Thu., Oct. 18: Seattle vs. L.A. Lakers, Bakersfield (TNT, 10 ET)
Easily the NBA preseason game I'm most interested in watching, as Kevin Durant gets to show his stuff vs. Kobe. If P.J. is serious that KD's going to be at the 2, it should be one hell of an intriguing October matchup, at least for a few minutes here and there. And it's always nice to get the Inside The NBA gang back together.

Fri., Oct. 19: Zalgiris Kaunas at Washington (7 ET)
Sat., Oct. 20: Orlando vs. Cleveland, Macao (ESPN2, 12:30 ET)
See above.

Thu., Oct. 25: Utah vs. L.A. Lakers, San Diego (TNT, 10 ET)
Not exactly the most tantalizing matchup, as these teams haven't changed too much from last season.

Fri., Oct. 26: Cleveland at Boston (ESPN, 7:30 ET)
Fri., Oct. 26: Sacramento vs. L.A. Lakers, Las Vegas (ESPN, 10 ET)
Get yourself geared up for the regular season (which starts Tue., Oct. 30) with a potential Eastern Conference Finals preview on the last night of preseason.

SAC v LAL doesn't exactly have the same preseason cache as it did back in the day when Rick Fox fought the Christies with a Burberry-clad Shaq playing peacemaker.