Conf. Semis: Thinking of D'Antoni, J.R., Stockton and Rashard
Here are the people I'm thinking of as I watch each of the four Conference Semifinal series:
BOSTON v. CLEVELAND: MIKE D'ANTONI
You know, we've said it in this space before, the Chuckster alludes to it about five times a night, and you saw it for yourself last summer with Team USA: LeBron James filling the lane on the fast break is about as physically unstoppable as Shaq was down on the low block in his prime.
As much talk as there is about whether D'Antoni is the best fit in Chicago or Toronto or New York or Dallas, doesn't he actually make the most sense in Cleveland? Is there any team that *needs* to be relentlessly fast breaking more than the Cavs?
Yeah, sure, they'd still need the right point guard to make it go, but when you have possibly the greatest fast-break finisher in basketball history, I say you've got a pretty decent building block to start with.
How many PPG would LeBron average out on the break, at a faster pace? 35? More? You'd have to think the numbers and the fun style of play might help keep him away from the Brooklyn Hovas down the road, no? Although, quality of supporting cast will probably still be more important, questions about whether there was enough D to win in the D'Antoni style could arise, and who knows if the whole thing isn't essentially fait accompli already, no matter what.
In any event, it would be pretty ballsy for Danny Ferry to emulate the Joe Dumars Carlisle-for-L. Brown swap by canning Mike Brown for D'Antoni even after the Cavs' recent success, but I think it'd actually be a good move for his franchise, both short-term and long-term, if he did it.
NEW ORLEANS v. SAN ANTONIO: J.R. SMITH
People have suspected all season that the Spurs' role players might finally be just a bit too old and too slow, and it sure seems like it might be a fatal flaw in the Hornets series. As I watch, I can't help but think that J.R. Smith is just the type of guy that San Antonio needs. Of course, S.A. had Smith in its grasp in 2006, but a trade for Brent Barry was consummated just minutes too late to beat the deadline.
J.R. Smith was the winner of my personal Monta Ellis Award for the explosive young talent who I really enjoyed watching down the stretch of the season. He's had well-documented issues with maturity, but at age 22, Smith seems to be on the road to putting things together.
Smith, with tremendous athleticism and unlimited shooting range at 6-6/220, gave the Nuggets a huge energy boost off the bench in their playoff push at the end of the season, as he averaged 16.5 ppg on 49% FG in just 22 mpg in the last 14 games.
J.R. was one the best players on the floor in two key games in the final week of the season - at Golden State on Apr. 10 (24 pts in 26 min) and vs. Houston on Apr. 13 (23 pts in 25 min).
In fact, for the entire season, Smith ranked a fairly staggering 7th in the entire NBA in per-minute scoring. He seems on the cusp of becoming an efficient 20-25 ppg scorer a la Monta.
Smith certainly still needs to prove he can be a focused and consistent contributor over the course of an entire season, but he sure seems to provide exactly the type of athleticism and youth that San Antonio needs to remain a championship contender going forward.
Are things starting to turn for a franchise whose stunning run of sustained success over the last two decades has been fueled by a combination of lottery luck (Robinson/Duncan) and incredibly shrewd management?
It's probably too soon to go that far, as the Spurs do have cap flexibility coming up, and they do have an infusion of youth coming to the frontcourt in Ian Mahinmi (21), who had a strong season in the D-League, and Tiago Splitter (23), who was recently named to the All-Euroleague First Team.
But as their supporting players are dotted with thirtysomethings like Barry (36), Horry (37), Bowen (36), Finley (34), Thomas (35), Oberto (32) and Vaughn (32), it sure seems like S.A. could desperately use three players who have fallen through their grasp for various reasons in Smith (22), Udrih (25) and Scola (28).
And once again, the Barry-for-Smith near-trade reminds us again that age is perhaps the most underrated number in all of basketball. What looks like a fair trade one year becomes lopsided very quickly as a old player declines and a young player develops, as we've learned with Chandler-for-Wallace (essentially), Kidd-for-Bynum (nearly), and Kidd-for-Harris (give it a year or two).
Of course, New Orleans actually did have J.R. Smith on its roster for his first two seasons, until his maturity issues became too much for Byron Scott to handle. As spectacular as N.O. has looked in these playoffs, I wonder if they too will ultimately regret giving up on Smith too soon.
The Hornets are certainly set up to be a top franchise for the next several years, but one wonders if the question following this team will be: do they have enough to beat the Lakers? It seems like everyone in the West is going to need a fully loaded team to compete with the juggernaut that L.A. has compiled, and it seems now like Smith would be a great backcourt mate going forward with CP3, and would fill the hole at the 2, which is N.O.'s weak spot currently.
And man, I'd just like to see it as a fan: CP3-to-J.R. would be damn near the most exciting alley-oop tandem in the league.
I'm sure it was unsalvageable in N.O. given the way player feuds with Byron seem to progress, but still the moral of the story is: don't give on young players too soon!
P.S. I can't let this one go without a special shout-out to John Paxson for dealing J.R. Smith to Denver for Howard Eisley and two second-round picks in 2006. This deal did clear the cap room to sign Adrian Griffin, it should be noted.
LA LAKERS v. UTAH: JOHN STOCKTON
The 1988 Conference Semifinal series between the Lakers and the Jazz is a personal favorite of mine. It was a seven-game battle in which the upstart Jazz challenged the defending champion Lakers from start to finish.
Kareem recently alluded to this series in his blog, and here's how it went: Utah stole Game 2 at The Forum and then took a 2-1 lead at the Salt Palace, before the Lakers dug down for a road win in Game 4 and then took the tense, decisive Game 5 - which had multiple lead changes down the stretch - back in L.A. Utah won in a blowout in Game 6, and then L.A. used its homecourt advantage to finally outlast the Jazz in Game 7, and continue on its march to a repeat title.
All that was fine, but the reason I remember the series especially fondly is that it was when I first discovered the revelation that was John Stockton.
Try to imagine, if you can, 1988. Obviously, no internet, no League Pass, the playoffs did not yet have blanket TV coverage, no fair warning that a potential all-time great was in our midst, as John Hollinger has given us repeatedly with Chris Paul.
All John Stockton was to me was a number in the USA Today. He sat there at the top of the assist leaders all season, ending the year with a whopping league-leading number of 13.8.
It was just Stockton's first year as a starter, even though it was his fourth season in the league. His assist numbers had jumped from 8.2 the previous season (I did not yet understand the telling nature of per-minute production as a future predictor). He was just a kid from Gonzaga. C'mon, something had to be funny with his numbers. It all seemed to be a fluke. He couldn't really be this good.
Then came the Lakers series and the revelation: yes he could. As a young player, Stockton had the ability to dart up and down the court and control a game from the middle of the floor, in many ways similar to CP3 today. And, as it became clear over the course of the series - as he went toe-to-toe with Magic Johnson at the peak of Earv's career - John Stockton was potentially all-time-great good.
Take a look at the series highlights here:
The Game 5 highlights start at around the 3:15 mark. Check out Stockton's full-court assist to put the Jazz ahead in the late stages of that game, a precursor to the greatest pass I've ever seen, his full-court assist over MJ to the Mailman to put Utah ahead late in Game 4 of the 1997 Finals.
What made the whole revelation especially delicious was just being a kid on the East Coast, staying up late into the night and feeling like I was discovering this exceptional player who people hadn't heard of - and didn't realize just how good he was.
Just imagine if you'd never really had a chance to see Chris Paul play until these playoffs. You really wouldn't have believed the hype until you'd seen it yourself. That's the closest comparison I can make to seeing John Stockton go up against the champion Lakers in 1988.
DETROIT v. ORLANDO: RASHARD LEWIS
Living in Seattle, I have long thought Rashard Lewis to be a soft player, not fit to be a top player who could help carry a team through the grind of the playoffs.
The numbers have generally backed up these sentiments. Lewis made the playoffs three times during his nine years in Seattle and his stats declined sharply twice (2002 and 2005), although they did go up significantly as a 20-year-old in 2000, though I'd note that he was a player with much less responsibility on his shoulders that season.
Reg. Season: 19 min, 8.2 pts, 4.1 reb, .486 FG
Playoffs: 31 min, 15.4 pts, 6.2 reb, .441 FG
(Sonics lost 3-2 to Jazz)
Reg. Season: 36 min, 16.8 pts, 7.0 reb, .468 FG
Playoffs: 26 min, 12.7 pts, 3.7 reb, .375 FG
(Sonics lost 3-2 to Spurs; Lewis was hurt midway through Game 3 and missed the rest of the series)
Reg. Season: 38 min, 20.5 pts, 5.5 reb, .462 FG
Playoffs: 39 min, 16.9 pts, 5.4 reb, .406 FG
(Sonics defeated Kings 4-1, and lost 4-2 to Spurs; Lewis missed Games 4, 5, and 6 of the Spurs series - Seattle still managed to win Game 4 101-89 and barely lost Game 6 (98-96) to the eventual NBA Champs despite Rashard's absence)
So far in the 2008 postseason, Rashard's numbers have been solid: 20.8/7.5/.445 in 41 mpg after a regular season of 18.2/5.4/.455 in 38 mpg.
Certainly, Lewis was fantastic in Game 3 with 33 points on 11-15 FG and 5-6 3PT. However, he was particularly horrendous down the stretch of Game 2 (20 pts on 6-21 overall), when Orlando blew perhaps its best chance to steal a game in Detroit.
Can Rashard step up for his team when the going gets tough in the playoffs? It's something that he still needs to prove. It's something that may determine if Orlando steps up to become a championship contender over the duration of his mega-contract. And the beauty of the playoffs is that it's something we'll see answered before our eyes in due time.