Thursday, December 31, 2009

NBA All-Decade 2000s: Best of the Playoffs

When David Stern memorably handed over the Larry O’Brien Trophy to "Lakers Alternate Governor" Joey Buss back in June, he effectively closed the book on the decade of the 2000s in the NBA, as the next championship will be won in 2010.

With that in mind, we wanted to take a look back at some of the highlights of the NBA decade. In the fourth and final installment of this NBA All-Decade series, we look back at the best of the NBA Playoffs from the decade.

Previously in our NBA All-Decade series, we have explored our choices for the best players (MVP: Tim Duncan), best teams (best franchise: L.A. Lakers), and biggest underachievers (MVP: Baron Davis) of the 2000s. We've got one more before we say goodbye to the 2000s: today, we highlight the decade's best moments, performances and series from the greatest sporting event in the world, the NBA Playoffs. Let's get right into it:

1. Big Shot Bob at the Buzzer (2002 West Finals, Game 4)
Robert Horry with the dagger of the decade, hitting a three to give L.A. a 100-99 Game 4 win over Sacramento. The Lakers mounted a methodical, inexorable rally from a 24-point first-half deficit to take their first lead since 2-0 on Horry's shot, a true heartbreaker for the Kings, who let a chance for a 3-1 series lead slip through their hands. Best game of a great series, in our opinion.

Great call by Marv, too: "Horry... for the win... Yes!" Just in the way he says one word - "win" - he captures the essence of the play: Holy crap, it looked like the Kings had dodged OT at worst, and now they could lose the game with this one open shot by a storied clutch shooter.

2. Big Shot Fish: Point Four (2004 West Semis, Game 5)
Do you remember that there were actually three late clutch shots in this one? Kobe hits a jumper to put L.A. up one, then Duncan knocks in the impossible leaner from 20 before Derek Fisher delivers the "0.4" shot for which he is famous. See all three shots below

P.S. I love that a YouTube search for "0.4" returns the Fisher shot.

3. LeBron at the Buzzer (2009 East Finals, Game 2)
No, LeBron's big shot didn't lead to a championship, but it ranks high for degree of difficulty, with just one second left, and for turning a 95-93 defeat to Orlando into a 96-95 victory. A thrilling moment, and oh yeah, another great call by Marv.

Also, an all-time great local-news reaction from this Cleveland crew:

4. Baron Lowers the Boom Dizzle (2007 West Semis, Game 3)
Dunk of the decade. Gotta bring it hard against a good defender like Kirilenko, and Baron Davis did just that. Love Hubie's comment: "Hello." Love the goofy, T-drawing, pull-the-jersey-up celebration. Love it all. Part of one magic month at Oracle.

5. Big Shot Bob Does It Again (2005 NBA Finals, Game 5)
Oh, Sheed. You can't leave Robert Horry. Big Shot Bob gives the Spurs a 96-95 OT win in a decisive Game 5, giving San Antonio a 3-2 series lead in a Finals that would go the distance. It was a turn-back-the-clock game for Horry, who also had a big lefty slam in OT.

6. Tayshaun Chases Down Reggie (2004 East Finals, Game 2)
One of the great chasedown blocks in basketball history. Tayshaun Prince with a stunning, gorgeous block on Reggie Miller to secure a 69-67 lead in the final minute of Game 2, a key road victory for the Pistons, who would go on to surprise a Pacers team which won seven more games than Detroit in the regular season.

7. Quintessential Kobe-Shaq Oop (2000 West Finals, Game 7)
I don't know that this is anywhere close to the best alley-oop of the decade, but it is certainly the most iconic, and possibly the most important: Kobe and Shaq, working together, secure Game 7 against the Blazers as they near the completion of scaling Championship Mountain.

8. Big Shot Fish Does It Again (& Again) (2009 NBA Finals, Game 4)
Down three with 10.8 seconds left, L.A. has to be going to Kobe, right? Not necessarily, not when there's another proven clutch shooter like Derek Fisher on the floor. The old vet sends Game 4 to OT, and then hits the game-winner in the final minute of the extra session, giving L.A. a 3-1 series lead, and sending Kobe & Fish on to their fourth championship together.

9. T-Mac Scales Mt. Bradley (2005 West First Round, Game 2)
Tracy McGrady posterizes 7-6 Shawn Bradley. "He just sucked the gravity right out of the building!" Nuff said.

10. Kobe Sinks The Suns (2006 West First Round, Game 4)
Two plays here. First, Kobe hits a difficult layup to tie the game at the end of regulation. Then, he gives the Lakers a 99-98 win with his weaving buzzer-beater at the end of OT.

11. Kobe Sends the Finals to OT (2004 NBA Finals, Game 2)
It turned out to be the only Finals win for a heavily-favored Lakers team in 2004, but it was still sweet. Kobe drains the long three with seconds left in the fourth quarter to tie things up.

12. Indiana's Mr. Clutch Delivers Again (2002 East First Round, Game 5)
Two spectacular clutch plays at the end of Reggie Miller's career in a losing effort, as the upstart 8-seed Pacers took the 1-seed Nets to double OT in a decisive Game 5 in 2002 (the last year of best-of-5 first rounders).

First, Reggie hits a miraculous spinning 40-footer - "He banked it in!" - to send the game to OT. Then, he sends it to a second OT with a two-handed dunk right down Main Street of the New Jersey defense - a shocking play considering how rarely Miller dunked in traffic at that late stage of his career.

13. Joakim Noah Coast-to-Coast (2009 East First Round, Game 6)
So many plays to choose from in the thrilling Celtics-Bulls series from 2009. We'll go with Noah's steal and coast-to-coast run for the dunk and foul to help win Game 6 in 3OT - a supremely athletic play for a 7-footer.

14. Tim Duncan for Three?! (2008 West First Round, Game 1)
After the Suns had dealt with so much adversity in playoff series vs. the Spurs through the years - an injury to Joe Johnson, a cut to Steve Nash's nose which wouldn't stop bleeding, suspensions to Amare and Diaw - what could be next? How about Tim Duncan hitting his first three-pointer of the season to tie Game 1 at the end of OT, leading to a Spurs win in 2OT. Phoenix would never recover in the series.

15. Big Shot Fish Encore (2007 West Semis, Game 2)
One of the more emotional plays of the decade, Derek Fisher hits the jumper after a long, long day. Fish flew back to Salt Lake City from New York, where he was seeking treatment for his young daughter's rare form of eye cancer, arriving in the middle of the game before knocking down big shots in the fourth quarter and OT.

1. Mavericks 4, Spurs 3 (2006 West Semis)
Stands with series like Celtics-Sixers 1981 and Celtics-Lakers 1984 as one the greatest playoff series ever played. A seven-game donnybrook between two 60+-win teams, played at a high level of quality, and with five of the seven games within two points at the end of regulation. Dirk Nowitzki sealed sent Game 7 to OT with a three-point play off of a drive.

2. Lakers 4, Kings 3 (2002 West Finals)
The best rivalry of the decade, a dramatic California contrast between the Hollywood Lakers and the Cowtown Kings from up north. The last four of these seven games went down to the wire, including an OT Game 7 which L.A. won on the road at Arco as the Kings couldn't come through down the stretch. Because of all the compelling storylines, this one might be no. 1, if not for the atrocious officiating in Game 6 which marred the series.

3. Warriors 4, Mavericks 2 (2007 West First Round)
Yes, there were more competitive and more important series, but nothing was as fun and as exhilarating as 8-seed Golden State's shocking run-and-gun upset of 67-win Dallas, as Nellie got his revenge against Cuban. The crowds at Oracle Arena - taking full advantage of their only playoff action in the last 15 years - were among the most raucous of the decade.

4. Lakers 4, Blazers 3 (2000 West Finals)
A great heavyweight fight of a series between two deep teams who were clearly the best two teams in the league in 1999-2000. After shocking L.A. with a blowout win at Staples in Game 2, the Blazers blew a golden opportunity at home in Game 3. Still, Portland rallied from a 3-1 series deficit, only to famously blow a 15-point lead with a fourth-quarter collapse in Game 7.

5. Celtics 4, Bulls 3 (2009 East First Round)
We discussed this series and placed it in historical perspective back in May. In and of itself, it was certainly a classic, with 7 overtime periods in 7 games, and a remarkable 108 lead changes overall. Lots of thrilling moments, but Celtics-Bulls is held back a little just because it didn't really affect the course of the '09 Playoffs as a whole.

6. Lakers 4, Pacers 2 (2000 NBA Finals)
It wasn't a great decade for Finals, but we think this was the best of the lot. There were two outstanding games - Game 4, in which Kobe Bryant's OT heroics on a bum ankle gave L.A. the win, and Game 6, in which the Lakers clinched the series with a 116-111 win. Overarching everything was Shaquille O'Neal, turning in the most dominant performance of the decade.

7. Celtics 4, Lakers 2 (2008 NBA Finals)
Yeah, this one is probably bumped up a little bit because of the history of the league's most storied rivalry, but there were still some compelling games. In Game 1, Paul Pierce emerged from injury to lead Boston to a tone-setting win. In Game 4, the C's came back from a 24-point deficit at Staples to take a 3-1 lead. And even though Games 2 and 6 were blowouts, they were fun for Celtics/neutral fans because of the spirited throwback atmosphere at the "New Garden".

8. Pistons 4, Heat 3 (2005 East Finals)
A competitive back-and-forth series between two top teams, with an exciting Game 7. Unfortunately for Miami, Dwyane Wade was not at full strength for Game 7, which may have cost the Heat a chance to go back-to-back.

9. Sixers 4, Raptors 3 (2001 East Semis)
There were seven 50-point playoff games in the 2000s, and three of them were posted in this series, two by Allen Iverson, and one by Vince Carter. Philly won Game 7 88-87 after a last-second miss by Vince, who had spent the morning in Chapel Hill picking up his college degree before flying to Philly.

10. Suns 4, Mavericks 2 (2005 West Semis)
After Dallas essentially allowed Steve Nash to sign with Phoenix the previous summer, Nash and the Suns knocked off the Mavs in a six-game series which showcased two of the best offensive teams in the league, highlighted by a 130-126 OT shootout in Game 6.

11. Mavericks 3, Jazz 2 (2001 West First Round)
Classic matchup of the new kids on the block (Nash, Nowitzki, Finley) overcoming the old veteran legends (Stockton, Malone) trying to keep it going one more time.

12. Suns 4, Lakers 3 (2006 West First Round)
Very exciting series in which the favored Suns rallied from a 3-1 deficit, included an OT Game 4 (featuring Kobe's heroics mentioned above) and an OT Game 6 (in which Tim Thomas saved the day for Phoenix). Would rank higher if not for Kobe's disappearing act which completely took the air out of Game 7.

13. Suns 4, Clippers 3 (2006 West Semis)
Another entertaining series featuring the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns against a fun Clips team with Sam-I-Am Cassell and Elton Brand. The Clippers had a chance to take control of the series, but lost Game 5 on the road in double OT. Part of an amazing playoff stretch which also included seven-game series between the Mavs-Spurs and Cavs-Pistons running concurrently - two weeks of nightly compelling drama.

14. Sixers 4, Bucks 3 (2001 East Finals)
No team this decade played harder than the 2001 Sixers, and the Cassell-Allen-Big Dog Bucks were an entertaining unit in their own right. A definitive performance for Iverson with a 44-6-7 in Game 7, after scoring 46 points in leading a frantic rally that came up just short in Game 6.

15. T-wolves 4, Kings 3 (2004 West Semis)
Narrowly beats out Mavs-Kings 2003 (always a great matchup in the early part of the decade) only because C-Webb went down with a knee injury in that one. T-wolves-Kings 2004 featured a top-notch KG v C-Webb matchup, which was highlighted by KG's tour-de-force Game 7.

1. Shaq's Dominance (2000-02 NBA Finals)
In all of the NBA decade retrospectives, we feel like one thing may be getting lost a little bit: there was no one, at any time this decade, who was as dominant a player as Shaq was during the 2000-02 NBA Finals. Duncan is the clear choice for player of the decade, but no one was close to Shaq at his peak. Here are his numbers from those Finals, in which he repeatedly made top defenders look like little kids:
- 2000: 38.0 pts, 16.7 reb, 2.3 ast, 2.67 blk, .611 FG%
- 2001: 33.0 pts, 15.8 reb, 4.8 ast, 3.40 blk, .573 FG%
- 2002: 36.3 pts, 12.3 reb, 3.8 ast, 2.75 blk, .595 FG%

2. LeBron’s 25 Straight (2007 East Finals, Game 5)
We did a whole post on this one at the time. LeBron James announced his playoff presence with authority when he scored Cleveland's last 25 points, leading to a 109-107 road win in 2OT which propelled the Cavs to an upset series win. Here are LBJ's numbers overall for Game 5:
- 48 pts, 9 reb, 7 ast, 2 stl, 18-33 FG

3. Duncan's Near Quadruple Double (2003 NBA Finals, Game 6)
How does one end a championship run in style? How about with a 21-20-10-8 block performance, as Tim Duncan did in Game 6 in 2003 to help send David Robinson into retirement with a ring as he won a second Finals MVP for himself. The Twin Towers went on to deservedly share Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year honors.

4. D-Wade Goes Off (2006 NBA Finals)
Dwyane Wade averaged a 35-8-4, plus 3 stl, in leading Miami to a championship-winning comeback from a 2-0 series deficit. His 33.8 PER for the series is the best number for the Finals since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976.

5. Iverson's Signature Game (2001 NBA Finals, Game 1)
The high-water mark of Allen Iverson's MVP dream season was Game 1 of the 2001 Finals, when he posted a 48-5-6-5 steal line as Philly shocked the Lakers in L.A. in OT.

6. Pierce v LeBron (2008 East Semis, Game 7)
It was a junior, junior Bird vs. Dominique for the 2000s, Paul Pierce scored 41 points on 13-23 FG as he outdueled LeBron James, who scored 45 on 14-29 FG as the 45-win Cavs took the 66-win Celtics to the brink in Boston. The C's held on for a 97-92 win in the closest call of their championship run.

7. The Answer v Vince (2001 East Semis)
As we mentioned above, the Sixers-Raptors 2001 series featured three of the seven 50-point playoff games of the 2000s, including 54 for AI in Game 2, 50 for Vince in Game 3 and 52 for the Answer in Game 5. In Game 7, Iverson dished out 16 assists to go with 21 points in the series-winner for Philly.

The series stat lines:
Iverson: 33.7 pts, 4.4 reb, 6.9 ast, 3.1 stl
Carter: 30.4 pts, 6.0 reb, 5.6 ast, 2.0 blk

8. Dirk's 50 (2006 West Finals, Game 5)
Dirk Nowitzki made his mark as probably the most efficient player of the decade, and he was never more so than in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals vs. Phoenix, which gave Dallas a 3-2 series lead on its way to its only Finals appearance. Dirk scored 50 points, as part of a stat line that looked like this:
- 50 pts, 12 reb, 3 ast, 14-26 FG, 17-18 FT, 5-6 3PT, 1 TO

9. Boston's Big Comeback, Vol. I (2002 East Finals, Game 3)
With Boston down 74-53 to the Nets after three quarters, Antoine Walker gave his teammates a tongue-lashing in the huddle. The Celtics responded with a miraculous fourth-quarter comeback, outscoring New Jersey 41-16 en route to a 94-90 win, with Paul Pierce scoring 19 of his 28 in the fourth.

10. KG's Game 7 Masterpiece (2004 West Semis, Game 7)
In his MVP year of 2004, Kevin Garnett lifted Minnesota to its first conference finals with his all-around brilliance in Game 7 of the Conference Semis vs. Sacramento:
- 32 pts, 21 reb, 2 ast, 5 blk, 4 stl

11. Kobe Emerges on The Big Stage (2000 NBA Finals, Game 4)
Kobe Bryant made his first mark on the Finals in Game 4 in 2000. He had missed Game 3 and most of Game 2 with a sprained ankle, but essentially won Game 4 for L.A. with 8 points in OT after Shaq had fouled out, a crucial road win which gave the Lakers a 3-1 series lead.

12. LeBron Off The Charts (2009 NBA Playoffs)
The Cavaliers came up short in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, but it wasn't because of LeBron James, who was off-the-charts good with a mind-boggling 37.4 PER for the entirety of Cleveland's playoff run. Here were his overall playoff numbers:
- 35.3 pts, 9.1 reb, 7.3 ast, 1.6 stl, 0.9 blk, .510 FG%, .333 3PT, .749 FT%

13. Kobe Takes Over: 2001 (2001 NBA Playoffs)
Not to be outdone by the 2001 Iverson-Vince duel noted above, Kobe Bryant had huge back-to-back performances during L.A.'s 2001 blitz through the playoffs. In Game 4 of the Conference Semis vs. SAC, Bryant had 48 pts, 16 reb, 3 ast on 15-29 FG as L.A. swept the Kings out of the playoffs. Then, in Game 1 of a highly anticipated Conference Finals vs. the Spurs, Kobe posted a 45-10-3 line on 19-35 FG as the Lakers won by 14 in San Antonio, setting the tone for another crushing sweep.

14. The Baron Davis Explosion (2007 NBA Playoffs)
This was the headline story in our recent post on the biggest underachievers of the decade. As we wrote there: "You saw it, I saw it, the world saw it: the 2007 Playoffs, a glorious 11-game run in which Baron Davis was completely, utterly unstoppable on both ends of the court. He averaged 25.3 pts, 4.5 reb, 6.5 ast and 2.91 stl on .513 FG% in that postseason. It was really one of the more dominant displays of point-guard play that I've seen, with a box-score production level of 26.8 PER in a career which never topped 21.0 in a single season (and is 18.1 for his career) or 21.4 in another postseason." Unfortunately, it was an aberration rather than the norm, but it was a hell of a fun ride while it lasted, highlighted by the Warriors' big upset over Dallas.

15. Nashy's Revenge (2005 West Semis)
Nash was massive in the 2005 Conference Semifinal grudge match vs. Dallas - the team which had let him go the previous summer - in which he put up a 39-9-12 on 14-24 FG/5-8 3PT in the clinching Game 6, and this stat line for the series overall:
- 30.3 pts, 6.5 reb, 12 ast, .550 FG%, .419 3PT%, .962 FT%

16. Boston's Big Comeback, Vol. II (2008 NBA Finals, Game 4)
In the pivotal Game 4 against the Lakers in L.A., the Celtics trailed by 24 at one point in the first half, and by 20 midway through the third quarter, before Boston's Big 3 of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett spearheaded a big comeback with inspired play on both ends. Boston ended up with a demoralizing 97-91 win at Staples which gave them a 3-1 series lead.

17. Steve Kerr Unthawed (2003 West Finals, Game 6)
At the end of his career, Steve Kerr was a little-used player in 2002-03 - he played just 46 minutes during the Spurs' playoff run that year. But he delivered when Gregg Popovich called his number in Game 6 of the 2003 West Finals vs. Dallas. Kerr knocked down four out of four second-half threes to help key a Spurs rally from 13 points down. Kerr later said to call him Ted Williams because they had to unfreeze him to get him into the game, because he had played so little.

18. The Truth Lives (2008 NBA Finals, Game 1)
After suffering a knee injury and heading back to the dressing room, Paul Pierce made a dramatic return to the court in Game 1 of the 2008 Finals. The Truth knocked down back-to-back threes at the end of the third quarter which gave Boston a lead it never relinquished as the C's got a leg up in the race to their 17th banner.

19. J-Kidd Leads Jersey to the Finals (2002 East Finals)
The Nets had experienced little success in their NBA years before Jason Kidd led them to the Finals in 2002, averaging a triple-double line of 17.5 pts, 11.2 reb, 10.2 ast in the Eastern Conference Finals series vs. Boston in the process, including a 15-13-13 in the clinching Game 6.

20. Kobe Takes Over: 2009 (2009 NBA Playoffs)
As we wrote in June, Kobe Bryant's 2009 playoffs were possibly his most impressive postseason statistically. More important, Bryant always seemed to step up when the Lakers needed him most.

Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks for reading. Let's get the 2010s going.

Monday, December 28, 2009

NBA All-Decade 2000s: The Underachievers

When David Stern memorably handed over the Larry O’Brien Trophy to "Lakers Alternate Governor" Joey Buss back in June, he effectively closed the book on the decade of the 2000s in the NBA, as the next championship will be won in 2010.

With that in mind, we wanted to take a look back at some of the highlights of the NBA decade. In the third installment of this NBA All-Decade series, we discuss the biggest underachievers of the decade.

Previously in our NBA All-Decade series, we have explored our choices for the best players (MVP: Tim Duncan) and best teams (best franchise: L.A. Lakers) of the 2000s. (Note: On Dec. 31, we also posted our Best of the Playoffs post for the decade.) Today, we explore the players and teams who should've been great, the biggest underachievers of the decade.

We're discussing underachievement in the cosmic sense: players and teams who had the chance for immortality and squandered it. Note that our definition of underachiever does not include guys who were drafted too high, like Kwame Brown or Darko Milicic. Those are players who were poorly evaluated, and overrated, in our definition. Yes, they may have underachieved as players, but they never had the potential to be superstars in the first place. We are looking for the players who had the ability and talent to be superstar players, potentially Hall of Famers, and let it slip away.

So, please note that these are not necessarily the biggest underachievers we've seen overall. They are guys in whom we've seen glimpses of superstar talent at one point or another, but who have failed to deliver on that promise.

As we watched Greg Oden crumple to the floor with another season-ending injury just as he was beginning to come into his own, we realized anew that - as much as anything as fans of this game - we just want to see every player reach his full potential. Note that, for our purposes, we are not including players whose careers were derailed by major injury, such as Grant Hill, in this survey.

Here is our all-decade underachiever team - more info below:
All-NBA First Team
C Rasheed Wallace
F Tim Thomas
F Lamar Odom
G Baron Davis (MVP)
G Stephon Marbury
Team: Dallas Mavericks

You saw it, I saw it, the world saw it: the 2007 Playoffs, a glorious 11-game run in which Baron Davis was completely, utterly unstoppable on both ends of the court. He averaged 25.3 pts, 4.5 reb, 6.5 ast and 2.91 stl on .513 FG% in that postseason. It was really one of the more dominant displays of point-guard play that I've seen, with a box-score production level of 26.8 PER in a career which never topped 21.0 in a single season (and is 18.1 for his career) or 21.4 in another postseason.

As much as that performance stands as the great aberration of Baron's career, I feel like it should have been something closer to the norm. Baron Davis was blessed with quite possibly the best body for playing point guard which has ever been doled out, an impossible combination of power, speed and explosiveness wrapped in a frame listed at 6-3, 210 in its ideal form.

I still remember one episode of Inside the NBA in which Kenny Smith relayed a conversation he had once had with Baron Davis, which went something like this (paraphrasing from memory here):

Kenny: "On offense, is there anyone who can stop you on the basketball court?"
Baron: "No."
Kenny: "On defense, is there anyone who you can't stop on the basketball court?"
Baron: "No."
Kenny: "Then why aren't you one of the ten best players in the league?!?!"

Kenny touches upon the underrated aspect of Baron's lost potential: defense. In 2008, Devin Harris was asked about which point guards were the best at different elements of the game (best shooter, best penetrator, best handle, etc.). For best defender, part of his answer was this: "Baron is a major pain when he's motivated." Indeed, dude was an absolute terror on the ball - the equal of smaller players in terms of speed and quickness, but with overwhelming strength - when motivated. When motivated.

On offense, Davis has hampered himself with a horrendous shot selection, a crippling willingness to repeatedly settle for ill-advised three-pointers ahead of going to the basket. For his career, Davis has a field-goal percentage of .409, with five seasons under 40%. Perhaps the most damning statistic of his career is that he has attempted 5.3 three-pointers per game, and just 4.3 free throws per game.

Yes, Baron has had some injuries along the way, but they have been more of the variety of nagging injuries - quite probably produced in part by being out of shape - than major structural problems.

You may be thinking that Allen Iverson had a similarly bad field-goal percentage, but consider that even The Answer is at .425 for his career, with just two seasons under 40% (and one of those was at .398), and more importantly, Iverson has always compensated for it a little just because of the frequency with which he's gotten to the line: his ratio is 3.8 3PA career vs. 9.0 FTA. With his body, Baron Davis should have a similar ratio, and if he did, I dare say we'd be talking about a Hall of Famer.

Instead we're left with the memory of the Warriors run in the 2007 Playoffs - maybe the most exhilarating basketball we saw all decade, when Baron Davis was a force of nature unlike any other point guard - but little else. Two All-Star games, and one All-NBA Third Team nod in 2003-04. It's a shame.

[One note: one way in which Baron did not underachieve was in the category of facial hair. Dude had the beard of the decade. That thing was a force of nature all of its own.]

In my memory, the 1995 ACC Tournament is one of my favorite college basketball competitions ever. Randolph Childress was the headliner, as he went bananas in averaging 36 pts and 7 ast to lead Wake Forest to an improbable, exciting tournament championship.

What I remember as much as anything were the ferocious battles among quality bigs, something rarely seen in the college game today. The '95 ACC tourney included the no. 1 pick in the 1995 NBA Draft (Joe Smith of Maryland), the no. 4 pick (Rasheed Wallace of North Carolina), and the young man who would have been the no. 1 pick had he come out of college (then-sophomore Tim Duncan of Wake Forest), all going head-to-head inside.

I thought that we were going to be looking ahead to years of battles among these bigs in the league, but it was not to be. It was another young big, high-schooler Kevin Garnett, who became the best player of the 1995 draft class (he was the no. 5 pick), and the definitive comparison of power forwards of the 2000s is Duncan vs. Garnett.

I firmly believe that Rasheed Wallace has had enough talent that the comparison could have and should have been Duncan vs. Garnett vs. Wallace instead.

Yes, Sheed was a key contributor to a championship team after being acquired by Detroit at the trading deadline in 2004, but he could have been so much more. Wallace has made four All-Star teams, but never an All-NBA team.

The first topic that comes to mind when discussing Rasheed Wallace will always be technical fouls, of course. The 41 technicals in 2000-01 was one of the truly epic single-season performances of the decade. Make no mistake, Wallace has hurt his teams in big games, many times, with his technical fouls and ejections. No one has taken the air out of a home building or the energy out of his team quite like Rasheed with one of his ugly, explosive technicals.

Strangely, a related issue which has prevented Sheed from ascending to superstar level has been his unselfishness. Wallace's teammates and coaches have consistently lauded him for being a great team player and for having a high basketball IQ. The problem with this is that Wallace has too often been reluctant to step up and be The Man even when that's exactly what his team has needed.

Rasheed has the talent of a franchise player, and has been paid like a franchise player, but he's never truly stepped up and accepted the responsibility of being a franchise player, whether that's meant being a team's stand-up guy with the media, keeping his emotions under control as a team leader, or demanding the ball repeatedly when his team has needed it.

What's most depressing to me is that we should be talking about how Rasheed's turnaround jumper in the low post was one of the definitive offensive moves of the decade. It's a thing of beauty - those long arms reaching up to a release point so high that the shot is essentially unblockable, with a soft touch to boot. Sheed's turnaround J is a rare move that is truly unstoppable, yet he's preferred to roam around on the perimeter and launch long-range shots increasingly as his career has gone on.

Wallace's career marks of 2.9 threes attempted per game vs. 3.0 FTA per game are almost shameful. Moreover, with his reluctance to demand the ball, Sheed's averaged just 12.5 FGA per game, which has only served to hurt his team. Compare the career numbers:
          FGA   3PA   FTA
Duncan 16.1 0.1 7.2
Garnett 16.1 0.5 4.9
Wallace 12.5 2.9 3.0

Rasheed Wallace should have been a player who averaged 15+ 2-point attempts, primarily from the low blocks, over the last decade. And yes, we list him as a center on this team because he should have spent much more time near the basket.

It's also worth noting that Duncan and Garnett are considered by many, including me, to be the two premier defensive players of the decade, and Wallace is gifted enough - with his length and smarts - that he should have been part of that conversation, too. His defensive brilliance was on display in 2004, when I thought the interior defense of the Wallace boys was the most important factor in the Pistons' championship, but Rasheed has not brought the focus or the effort on a consistent-enough basis to be considered as productive a defensive player as Timmy or KG overall.

Tim Thomas is probably the biggest dog of this whole group, as he has easily achieved the least of any member of this team, never making an All-NBA or All-Star team, or ever coming close, really.

But I swear this guy had the whole package of gifts - a 6-10 player with the coordination and ballhandling ability to take people off the dribble, and the explosiveness to dunk on them with authority at the rim, plus a sweet shooting touch from outside. I still remember seeing a game at Key Arena (excuse me while I pause to pour out a little 40) in which Thomas basically ran the offense as a point forward, expertly finding cutters from the top of the key, easily able to see over the defense at 6-10. He scored off the drive and with his outside shot, as well - Thomas was unstoppable, frankly, and I walked out of the building thinking I had seen one of the 10 most talented players in the league.

On Thomas's Wikipedia page, Ray Allen is quoted as saying: "If he wanted to, Tim Thomas could be the best player in the league."

That's the thing about Thomas - he wasn't really a selfish player, he has shown signs of being a willing passer with good court vision at times. He's just been a supremely unmotivated player.

Statistically, the most telling number is probably the 2.5 FTA per game career, for a guy who could take people off the dribble at 6-10. The 4.1 rebounds per game career is not too far behind.

The Tim Thomas story which sticks in my head is the vignette from Seven Seconds or Less, when the 2005-06 Suns - struggling to replace the lost firepower of Joe Johnson and injured Amare Stoudemire - sign Tim Thomas for the last third of the season in the hopes that he can help get them over the hump. Mike D'Antoni is quoted as saying that maybe he can "fool somebody into another contract."

Even serving as little more than a designated shooter, Thomas did just that. He was a valuable piece of Phoenix's 20-game playoff run to the conference finals, averaging 15.1 pts and 6.3 reb. Then the Clippers signed him to a 4-year, $24 million deal, and his game went back into the tank.

The lasting memory I have is of a friend who is a lifelong Bucks fan, helplessly, plaintively screaming at Thomas through the television: "You're 6-10! You're 6-10!" Indeed, he's always played so much smaller.

Let me start by just saying, "Sorry, SoCal" and "Sorry, Queens". It really hurts me to write this, believe me. I love Lamar, who seems like one of the true good dudes in the league.

I'll also point out that the first thing I wrote after the Lakers championship this year was called "In Praise of Lamar Odom", a nod to how his unselfish acceptance of a sixth-man role in training camp was a key to L.A.'s whole season, and I think L.O.'s performances in Games 5 & 6 of the Nuggets series were as pivotal to the Lakers' season as anyone's.

I'll also remind you to consider our criteria for this post - it's not just based on straight underachievement. Has Lamar Odom underachieved more than, say, Eddy Curry? No way. But we see Curry's ceiling as a guy who pumps in 20+ ppg on a consistent basis, while not providing much else. Lamar Odom, meanwhile, is a guy who's shown us glimpses of superstardom, while never reaching that level as a whole.

Odom has never made an All-NBA or All-Star team. His career numbers of 15-9-4 (16.8 PER) look pretty good. But consider that Lamar's best season statistically was at age 21 in 2000-01 with the Clippers, a 17-8-5 (18.9 PER) which seemed to be a scratching of the surface rather than a high-water mark. After a couple seasons lost to drug suspensions and a variety of injuries, Odom regained his mojo after going to Miami at age 24 in 2003-04, with a 17-10-4 (18.5 PER) stat line.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Lamar has just a touch of Magic in his game. In my memory, that rebirth season in Miami is one big blur of L.O. grabbing a board and leading a beautiful coast-to-coast run, with that long lefty limb reaching for the goal, or dishing to the open man.

Then, Odom became a Laker and, instead of his career taking off at age 25, he took a step back and became an enigmatic ballplayer - alternately brilliant and invisible, too often disappearing into passivity and seeming deference to Kobe.

When Lamar came back to L.A., many thought that he could become Kobe's Pippen. It's a bit simplistic and unfair to Odom, since they are different players, but the numbers are still telling.

At age 24 in 1989-90, Pippen posted a 17-7-5 season (16.3 PER) which was a taste of things to come, as he was essentially a 20-7-6 (20 PER) guy for the rest of the Bulls championship run, even in Jordan's shadow.

In the summer of 2004, I thought Lamar was headed in the same direction statistically, no matter who he played with. We've never seen a big breakout 19-10-6 season from Odom, which I was certain he had in him, as he's settled in as around a 15-9-4 (17 PER) player.

One of the more interesting numbers is Odom's Usage Rate. (Basketball Prospectus defines Usage Rate as a "the percentage of a team's possessions a player 'uses up' while he is on the floor. The skill being measured is a player's ability to create his own offense for his team. It's one of the most underrated metrics in basketball.")

In his pre-Lakers years, Odom was in the range of a 23-24 Usage Rate, never below a 22.3. In L.A., he's hovered around 18-19. It's yet another indication that Lamar has been too passive and deferential too often as a Laker. Even Pip still managed a Usage Rate of around 24 next to Jordan during the Bulls' championship years.

Given that Lamar Odom has a chance to end up as a key piece of two or three championship teams, we doubt Lakers fans will ultimately care all that much. But as a basketball fan in general, I'm bummed just because I thought in 2004 that Lamar Odom was on the cusp of becoming a perennial All-Star and one of the most consistently joyous players to watch in the league. But it was not to be. We get glimpses, but it's not enough.

On one hand, I'm not completely sold that Stephon Marbury was a Hall-of-Fame talent. On the other, I think that you may forget how productive this dude was in the first half of the decade. For a seven-season stretch from 1998-99 (age 21) through 2004-05 (age 27), Marbury averaged 21.7 pts and 8.3 ast per game. His PER was above 20 in six of those seven seasons. And for a guy with the reputation of a malcontent, he missed just 26 games in the eight seasons from 1997-98 to 2004-05.

Of course, the defining characteristic of Marbury's career was that he was the best player on a losing team, year after year after year. The Nets improved drastically after trading Marbury for Jason Kidd (although they added several other new players as well), and the Suns did the same after Steph was replaced by Steve Nash.

I can't argue with the notion that Marbury wasn't fit to be the leader of a championship contender, but I still believe that he had the ability to become a Hall of Famer because he had the perfect situation in which to do so in Minnesota.

You see, there was a brief time, long ago, when Stephon Marbury was on a winner. As a 20-year-old in 1997-98, Steph was teamed with Kevin Garnett (age 21) and Tom Gugliotta (age 28) to win 45 games in Minny. Then, the T-wolves were 12-6 in 1999 when Marbury threw it all away with his decision to demand a trade.

I do believe that Starbury/KG could have been junior heirs to the Stockton/Malone throne, rolling out 50+ wins consistently, with a handful of deep runs in the playoffs in an admittedly tough Western Conference. If only Marbury could have accepted playing second fiddle to KG, I think his career would be viewed in an entirely different light, with his 20-8 seasons in a winning context.

But Marbury couldn't accept making far less money than KG, whose contract was grandfathered in after a new collective bargaining agreement capped maximum salaries. Then he became an NBA vagabond whose career careened off the tracks, seemingly permanently, beginning at age just 28. Just two All-Star Games, just two All-NBA Third Team nods.

Really, it's amazing: after all of the promise and acclaim for Marbury as a high-school legend and a strong college player in one year at Georgia Tech... just two All-Star Games?

I still remember a quote from then-Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders at the time of the trade, wondering if, many years down the road, all parties would look back and regret having squandered such a golden opportunity. It still seems like a fair question.

Marbury could play, and he could have been viewed as a winner. It was his choice to give it all up.

Here are the overall regular-season records of the five winningest teams of the decade, for the seasons stretching from 1999-2000 through 2008-09:
    SAS 576-244 .702
    DAL 548-272 .668
    LAL 530-290 .646
    DET 497-323 .606
    PHX 491-329 .599
These are the five standout teams by far. Utah has the next-best winning percentage at .561.

The Spurs and the Lakers were the teams of the decade, and the Pistons managed to sneak away with one championship, even though they couldn't capitalize on excellent opportunities for more rings in 2005 and 2006.

That the Suns had to experience yet another tantalizing but ringless decade is certainly a disappointment to their faithful fan base. While Phoenix was struck with plenty of misfortune during its 2005-07 prime, there was never a year in which I thought they were the best team in basketball - I never thought that they flat-out blew a chance to win a title.

That honor would be reserved for the Dallas Mavericks. In general, their decade has to be considered a huge success. Pro basketball was brought back from the dead in the Metroplex: the Mavs went from 24.6 wins/season in the '90s to 54.8 in the '00s, after Mark Cuban took over the franchise in January, 2000.

Indeed, the mark of 55 wins per season is a fairly staggering number - 5-plus wins per season over both the Pistons and Suns. Dallas clearly deserves to share the top tier of the NBA decade with the Spurs and Lakers, if not for the harsh fact that the standings of titles won reads LAL 4, SAS 3, DAL 0.

It has to be a bitter disappointment to end such a fruitful decade without a championship, especially because the title was within their grasp in 2006. They won the best playoff series of the decade - a seven-game thriller over San Antonio - which seemed to decide the best team in the league. Dallas held a 2-0 series lead over Miami, and blew a chance to go up 3-0 after giving up a 13-point fourth-quarter lead. Blame Bennett Salvatore for Game 5 all you want, it never should have been that close. Dallas should have been the 2006 NBA champions and blew it.

Maybe the Mavs weren't better than the champion Spurs in 2007, but it's pathetic that we never even got a chance to see a rematch of their 2006 playoff epic to find out. Dallas' 67-15 record tied the '99-00 Lakers for best single-season record of the decade, yet they were famously upended by the 42-40 Warriors in the first round.

Take a look at the biggest playoff upsets of this decade, using the metric of teams which overcame the biggest deficits of regular-season wins. Here's the entire list of series where a team overcame a deficit of 5 wins or more in the '00s:
    '07 GSW v DAL 25
    '06 MIA v DET 12
    '06 MIA v DAL 8
    '09 ORL v CLE 7
    '04 DET v IND 7
    '07 NJN v TOR 6
    '05 DET v MIA 5
The Mavs were by far and away the biggest playoff underachievers of the decade. They definitely should have won a championship in 2006, and at least challenged the Spurs for another in 2007. That was when both Dallas and Dirk peaked, that was their chance.

It's been a remarkable decade for the Mavericks in many ways, but in the end they stand on the side of the 25 franchises who went ringless.

• More NBA All-Decade 2000s Review:
- Players (Duncan is MVP) | Teams (Lakers are Team of Decade)
- Best of the Playoffs (Horry, Shaq, Mavs-Spurs)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Setting the Record Straight on Tim Donaghy's 60 Minutes Interview

Note: I started writing for The Painted Area just for fun, really, as I simply enjoy sharing my opinions on all things basketball. But, as I step away from the on-court fun and games, and delve into the hypersensitive topic of Tim Donaghy, I feel like I should disclose that I worked for NBA Entertainment from Sept., 2003 to Nov., 2004, and I also worked on at a third-party company, from the site's initial launch in 1995 through March, 2000.

Tim Donaghy has repeatedly leveled accusations insinuating that NBA games are manipulated both by individual referees and by the league itself, most recently in his new book, Personal Foul, and on the recent media tour to promote the book.

Donaghy's charges are certainly explosive and disturbing to any NBA fan, and of course need to be examined seriously. Many of Donaghy's allegations seem plausible at first blush, to the point that it seems like there must be some fire to accompany all that smoke.

Digging into the facts below the surface of Donaghy's allegations, however, has consistently unearthed information suggesting some of his claims are flawed, at best. Recently, the yeoman work done by Henry Abbott and Kevin Arnovitz at TrueHoop showed that many of the tactics Donaghy claims to have employed to run up such a spectacularly successful winning percentage on his bets - such as betting on big underdogs if Dick Bavetta was officiating - were strategies that fell far short of the 70-80% success rate which Donaghy has claimed, and were actually losing strategies in many cases.


In general, my personal sense regarding many of Donaghy's allegations has been that he does not necessarily tell outright falsehoods. It's more that pieces of information (often involving well-known NBA hot buttons) get twisted and stretched to the point where things are misleading and do not hold up to scrutiny when one actually digs into the data.

I had such a reaction following Donaghy's recent interview on 60 Minutes, a high-profile appearance which was Donaghy's first public interview since his arrest.

A key piece of information offered in the 60 Minutes story to support the claim that Donaghy did not let his bets affect his officiating was this: Donaghy once ejected Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich during the first quarter of a game in which he had bet on San Antonio.

The clear implication in the story was that this Popovich ejection caused San Antonio to lose the game. From the 60 Minutes transcript:
    "In one game you were betting on San Antonio, but you threw their coach Gregg Popovich out of the game," [60 Minutes reporter Bob] Simon pointed out.

    "I didn't think about the bet during the game. And in my mind, he needed to be ejected," Donaghy said.

    Losing their coach cost San Antonio the game and cost Donaghy his bet.
The AP story about the 60 Minutes interview, which ran in countless news entities around the world repeated this claim right in its lead:
    NEW YORK (AP)--Disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy says he refused to make calls to affect games even if it meant he lost money and it angered the mob.

    In one game where he bet on San Antonio, he ejected coach Gregg Popovich midway through the first quarter and the Spurs eventually lost the game. That drew the ire of the mob, which reportedly lost money using his tip.

    “I just told them that I wasn’t making calls in games to influence the outcome,” Donaghy said in an interview on “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday night on CBS. “And I’m not going to be able to obviously predict the winner every night, and they have to accept that’s what’s going to happen.”
First of all, any reasonable basketball fan understands that an ejection of a coach in a single game does not necessarily mean that that team will lose. Often, it is thought that an ejection of a head coach can light a fire under a team which inspires it to victory. In this particular instance, the matchup featured the 27-13 San Antonio Spurs playing at home against the 15-22 New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, who were without Chris Paul due to injury. Frankly, it's a bit of a stretch to think that a Popovich ejection would necessarily cause a Spurs defeat in this particular matchup.

But, more importantly, here's the rub: The Spurs won the game in question. No, really.

Believe me, I was stunned to learn that the actual results of this game were wildly different than how they were portrayed on national television. I double- and triple- and quadruple- and cross-checked to make sure that this was the correct game, and it is. January 19, 2007, Hornets at Spurs, Gregg Popovich ejected at the 6:21 mark of the first quarter with the score 9-8, San Antonio.

Yes, it is true that betting on the Spurs was a losing proposition in this game, as this research indicates that they were favored by 15.5 points, yet won the game by 13 points, 99-86.

Let the record show, however, that not only did the Spurs win the game despite Popovich's ejection, but they were utterly in control of the game from start to finish. They were actually running ahead of the 15.5 point spread for the majority of the second and third quarters, and were at least in striking distance of covering the spread for essentially the entire game from the end of the first quarter on. Check the play-by-play:

- San Antonio outscored the Hornets 17-4 after Popovich was ejected, to take a 26-12 lead at the end of the first.
- The lead ballooned to as much as 22, and was never less than 13, in the second quarter, with San Antonio ahead 53-36 at the half.
- In the third quarter, the Spurs lead fluctuated between 12 and 19 points, with San Antonio holding a 16-point lead, 76-60, at the end of three.
- The Hornets made a run in the fourth quarter to cut the lead down to 8 (83-75) at the 5:52 mark, before San Antonio pushed it back up to 15 (95-80) with two minutes left.
- The Hornets ended up cutting the final score to 99-86, covering the spread.

So, yes, it is not a lie for Tim Donaghy to say that he made a call that was against his interest in ejecting Gregg Popovich, and yes, he did end up losing that bet. But the portrayal of how this situation played out was highly misleading.

Of course, this may be as much an indictment of shoddy TV newsmagazine journalism by 60 Minutes as anything. In Personal Foul, Donaghy does note that the Spurs won the game in question.

However, he writes that, after ejecting Popovich, "the complexion of the game changed – advantage New Orleans. The Hornets kept the game fairly close, but San Antonio won 99-86." Based on the facts of the game provided above, you can make your own judgment about whether that is a misleading account of what actually happened.

Donaghy also noted that one of the reasons he bet on San Antonio was that fellow ref DeRosa "specifically commented that the Hornets had been playing poorly as of late." While the team had been struggling overall in Paul's absence, New Orleans/Oklahoma City had actually won its three previous games heading into the January 19, 2007 contest.


Another key allegation brought to light in the 60 Minutes interview was Donaghy's claim that officials conspired against Allen Iverson in a game between the Nuggets and Jazz - in which Donaghy says he bet on Utah - on Jan. 6, 1997.

Ken Berger of did an outstanding job breaking down these claims:
    [T]he most significant piece of news that emerged from the interview Sunday night was Donaghy's assertion that he did, in fact, manipulate calls that helped him win a bet on a game between the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz on Jan. 6, 2007. This is the first time that Donaghy has publicly disclosed a particular game that he wagered on and described the actions he took -- coincidentally, he claims -- to win that bet.

    A bombshell -- until you watch the game.
    If Donaghy was able to execute his plan, he did a better job concealing it than you could imagine. The Nuggets attempted 31 free throws to Utah's 17, and Iverson went to the free-throw line more than anyone else in the game; he was 11 for 12. But there's more, thanks to Synergy Sports Technology, which logs in-depth statistics, play outcomes and video clips of every NBA game.

    In the game in question, Iverson drove to the basket 12 times. I watched every one of those plays. Iverson made two driving layups, missed four, lost the ball once and drew five fouls -- three of which were called by Donaghy himself. He was called for two personal fouls and drew nine in the game.

    Iverson was called twice for palming the ball, an infraction known as a discontinued dribble. One call was made by Zielinski and the other by Donaghy, who also whistled Utah's Deron Williams for the same infraction with two minutes left in the game. At the time, cracking down on palming was a point of emphasis for the NBA's officiating department, according to a source.

    The Synergy video clips showed one play on which Iverson obviously was fouled and didn't get the call. With 2:28 left in the third quarter, Iverson missed a driving layup in transition. Donaghy, the baseline official on the play, failed to call Mehmet Okur for hitting Iverson with his left arm. Donaghy did, however, call Okur for fouling Reggie Evans, who got the offensive rebound and missed both of his free throws.
I have to note that I literally LOL'd at one piece of "evidence" presented for this game by 60 Minutes reporter Bob Simon, who first said to Donaghy, "According to the game's announcers, even late in the game, you kept hurting Iverson's team by letting defenders bludgeon him without calling any fouls."

Then, Simon showed video of an Iverson drive to the basket against Derek Fisher which was a no-call. (Donaghy said, "We're looking at a foul that was let go", though I thought the no-call was reasonable - it was a marginal foul at worst.)

Overlaying the video, we heard Denver Nuggets TV analyst Scott Hastings say, "Tim Donaghy will not call a foul when Iverson goes to the basket.... About three in a row where he got to the basket and got fouled, we thought; no call."

Scott Hastings says the Nuggets aren't getting a good whistle. There is your indisputable evidence, folks.

Let's point out that 1) Scott Hastings is employed by the Denver Nuggets, 2) local (team-employed) broadcasters around the league rant each and every night of the NBA season - with or, often, without merit - about how the calls are going against their team, and 3) in a profession filled with guys biased in favor of their team, Scott Hastings is one of the most notorious "homers" in the entire league. Really, that "evidence" was outright comical to me.

Again, to be fair, the misinformation as described in this post often seems to be as much of a function of subpar work by 60 Minutes as explicit allegations straight from Donaghy.

Still, such a high-profile interview is yet another addition to a public record filled with information and allegations which just don't quite add up.


I'm not here to claim that none of the scores of allegations leveled by Donaghy in Personal Foul and elsewhere have any merit. Lots of things in the book seem like they could be plausible and deserve to be vetted and explored further.

In particular, the claim that individual officials carry personal biases onto the court has seemed to ring so true with league insiders that it certainly seems plausible. (We'd recommend this Yahoo! Sports video interview with Kenny Smith and Adrian Wojnarowski for a sober-minded discussion of what "personal bias" means in practice – something closer to human nature than sinister manipulation.)

It's not that Donaghy's claims should be dismissed out of hand, or should not be a cause for concern. It's more that he creates so much noise (often by purposely poking at the most celebrated raw meat of NBA conspiracy theorists) with allegations that prove flimsy upon the shallowest investigation, that he really needs to be scrutinized precisely.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Early Look At The 2010 FIBA Worlds Field

The field of 24 for the 2010 FIBA Worlds was officially set with the announcement over the weekend that Lithuania, Germany, Russia and Lebanon secured wild-card berths.

Have to hand it to the FIBA brass for picking the European teams who were most deserving of a spot in Turkey. Didn't let Grand Poobah Stern bogart them into choosing Britain for a berth over a more deserving team like Germ., Lith., or Russia.

Would have preferred Dom. Republic getting the non-European berth over Lebanon because the Dominicans could have put a more competitive team on the floor. But can't quibble with the selection too much since Lebanon's fan base showcased voracious grass-roots support.

On Tuesday, FIBA held a draw in Istanbul to split up the 24 teams into four groups of six. Group play begins on August 28th. Each team plays every other team in its group once. The top four teams from each group earn a spot in the single-elimination playoff portion that starts Sept. 4th.

This is how the draw shook out for the preliminary round (listed in predicted order of finish):

Group A: Argentina; Serbia; Germany; Australia; Angola; Jordan
Group B: USA; Slovenia; Brazil; Croatia; Iran; Tunisia
Group C: Greece; Turkey; Russia; Puerto Rico; China; Ivory Coast
Group D: Spain; Lithuania; France; Canada; New Zealand; Lebanon

Quick take on the opening-round groupings:
Really don't see a clear-cut "Group of Death". Think the groupings are pretty well balanced. Group B could be tough if Croatia plays up to its talent level. Team USA will have to face off vs. big frontlines in group play that could hurt them if they choose to run Melo or Bron at the 4-spot.

Greece lucked into a very good situation by being able to avoid USA or Spain until the finals. Though, Turkey or Russia could win Group C instead of Greece. Group C could have five playoff-caliber teams, if Yao goes for China.

I would say the draw worked in Argentina's favor, considering Serbia, Germany and Australia all should be solid next summer, but none great. Also, if everything goes according to form, Arg. gets to avoid Spain & USA until the finals.

Group D looks very top heavy with three legit medal contenders. Just too bad we will be likely robbed of a Team USA-Spain Gold medal game, as they are slated to meet in the semis.

Below we prematurely try to rank the teams into tiers. Obviously we should have a better take on the Worlds' field once the summer rolls around and rosters get set. (Tier I is ranked 1-5, Tiers II-V listed in alpha. order)

TIER I (The Main Contenders):

1) USA (Group B):
Probably could put this team in a tier by themselves, or at least in a tier just with Spain. No doubt the heavy favorite for Gold. Mr. Colangelo has not gotten a firm commitment from Lebron, Wade or Bosh, so we'll see how this shakes out over the next few months. No doubt an endless reserve of talent to choose from if some of the big guns sit out. Placed in a fairly tough opening group with probably the best 2-seed team, Slovenia. Will be going up against some big, talented frontlines in Group B that could take advantage of Team USA's propensity to go small at the 4. Expect them to take home the Worlds title for the first time since 1994.

2) SPAIN (Group D): Even if Pau decides to take next summer off, the defending champ still has the goods to be the top challenger to Team USA. Lithuania and France should push Spain for Group D supremacy. Besides Pau's possible absence, Spain could be without the services of Rudy. Still plenty of firepower with Rubio, J. Navarro, Sergio Llull, Vic Claver, F. Reyes, and Marc Gasol at Coach Scariolo's disposal. Not sure if vets like Calderon, Garbajosa and Fran Vasquez will suit up for Espana. Expect uptempo play combined with lots of ball pressure in group play. Keep Sept. 11th clear on your calendar, as that's the date of a probable Spain-US semifinal.

3) ARGENTINA (Group A): Tentatively have them penciled in as the 3rd best team overall, but could see them slipping. Did get a favorable draw as they can avoid Spain and Team USA until the finals (if they make it that far). Manu is still dealing with lingering injuries and will be 33 by the time the Worlds start. Nocioni has balky knees that could force him to sit. Actually, most of Argentina's key guys (Prigioni, Oberto, Scola) will be 30 years old by the time the Worlds roll around--only Delfino is in his 20s. Lots of questions with this roster. Have not really replenished with any type of young talent and don't have much depth.

4) GREECE (Group C): Medal contender that could be the 3rd best team at the Worlds if Argentina can't overcome its age & injury issues. Theo Papaloukas and Dimis Diamantidis have stated they will be heading to Turkey next summer, which adds more firepower to a team that would be potent without these two vets. Greece took home the Bronze without them at last summer's Eurobasket, led by the dynamic play of V. Spanoulis. Always had been known for their aggressive half-court defense, but showed this year that they could be equally dangerous on the offensive end. No filler on this roster--deep upfront and in the backcourt. Guys like Sofo Schortsanitis, G. Bourousis, Antonis Fotsis, K. Koufos dot the frontline. Have three top-notch playmakers in Spanoulis, Diamantidis, Papaloukas. Next summer could be the best Greece team we seen in their recent run thanks to maturation of Spanoulis, Big Sofo and Bourousis.

5) SLOVENIA (Group B): This team is ready to slide into the upper echelon, really liking this team. Right now, think this is the 5th-best team in the field (if at full strength), and is probably just as good as Greece. And they could be headed for a matchup vs. Greece in the quarters. If they can get most of their main guys healthy next summer, they can compete for a medal. Thought they were the second best team at Eurobasket and had the 2nd best player in the tourney, Erazem Lorbek. Think they would have beaten Serbia if Goran Dragic was healthy. Jaka Lakovic had to go too many minutes in the semis and he made some crucial blunders down the stretch. Snake-bitten by injuries last summer: Matjaz Smodis barely played, Dragic had to sit out the last few games, not to mention Beno Udrih and Sani Becirovic had to sit the whole tourney out. This team has a wealth of options and can put five deep shooters on the floor together thanks to Smodis & Lorbek's range. Lorbek & Smodis are two of the most fundamentally sound bigs outside the NBA. Bostjan Nachbar is a great option at SF and might pair with promising prospect Emir Preldzic (Cavs own rights). If they have the fortune of bringing most of top players, they can could slide above Argentina. Will see how the recent departure of Coach Jure Zdovc effects this team considering the strong job he did with a short-handed lineup last summer.

TIER II (Could win a game or two in playoff rounds):

BRAZIL (Group B):
After underachieving the last few years, Brazil played some of the best ball they've ever played at the FIBA Americas tourney. The tandem of Tiago Splitter and A. Varejao was superb at both ends of the floor at the FIBA Americas. Best defensive frontline on the int'l stage. And if Nene joins next summer it adds more potency to this defensive front. L. Barbosa was an offensive force at the FIBA Americas finishing behind only Scola in scoring average with 21 ppg. The switch to Moncho Monsalve as head coach paid dividends right away, after some problems with the previous coach. Monsalve brought better flow and movement on the offensive end. Monsalve also made a concerted effort to get plenty of post-up action for his bigs, something his predecessor failed to do. Will be interesting to see Barbosa's status by next summer, since he has struggled to stay healthy in the first six weeks of the NBA season. This team is dangerous in transition thanks to great speed across the board. Marcelo Huertas and Alex Garcia add more quality speed next to Barbosa in the backcourt. Not an incredibly deep team and Coach Monsalve only seemed to have faith in 6-7 players--used a short rotation last summer that could be taxed by tough comp day-after-day at the Worlds.

FRANCE (Group D): Though they finished in 5th place at Eurobasket, France's only loss of the tourney came in the quarters vs. Spain. Should continue to be a strong defensive unit and tough on the boards. We harped ad nauseum that this squad's outside shooting ability holds them back from consistent medal contention. But we might have to start to soften that stance since France shot the ball fairly well at Eurobasket and seem to be improving its collective perimeter marksmanship. The roster should not be hurting for talent next year with names like Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Nic Batum, Ronny Turiaf and Florent Pietrus likely headed to Turkey. Will see if Mickael Pietrus, Roddy Beaubois and Joakim Noah join Les Bleus next summer. If they can finally add consistent shooting to their arsenal, the Frenchies will be a formidable force in Turkey.

LITHUANIA (Group D): Were forced to gain entry through the wild-card process after underachieving at Eurobasket. Their only win came against Bulgaria. The crux of Lith's problems last summer revolved around a patchwork backcourt that could not come close to replicating the playmaking brilliance of Saras Jasikevicius and Ramunas Siskauskas. Saras and Rimantas Kaukenas have indicated they will be available next summer, which is huge for Lithuania's fortunes. Though, it looks like Siskauskas has retired from national-team duties. His loss can't be taken lightly, considering he was Lithuania's secondary playmaker next to Jasikevicius. Frontcourt rotation is one of the best in the world. Spurs draftee Robertas Javtokas should be back and the Lavrinovic twins are currently playing well in Euroleague action. 6-9 Marijonas Petravicius gives Lith. an old-school bruiser who happened to be Lithuania's most consistent player last summer. Linas Kleiza can play inside & out and is playing superb ball right now for Olympiacos. As usual, Lith. will have shooters everywhere and expect crisp ball-movement to return with Saras back. If Saras can play like he did a couple of years ago (a big if), Lithuania becomes a legit medal contender.

RUSSIA (Group C): Coach David Blatt squeezed as much as you could ask from his undermanned Russian club last summer. Finished in 7th place without its two best players, one spot short of automatically qualifying for a Worlds spot. With Kirilenko and Vik Khryapa back in the fold next summer, Russia becomes a major player again. Very strong forward rotation of AK47, Khryapa, Sergey Monya and Kelly McCarty--all terrific defenders. Promising young big Timo Mozgov gives Russia an athletic, physical presence inside. Though, Timo is still rather raw and has trouble staying out of foul trouble. Need to get more consistent play from their PG tandem of Sergey Bykov & Anton Ponkrashov. Still could see some dry spells on the offensive end, but expect stellar defensive effort. Can compete on the same level as Greece and Turkey in Group C.

SERBIA (Group A): Coming off a surprising 2nd place finish at the 2009 Eurobasket. Went with a youth movement last summer and that really paid off. Serbia got great effort from nearly the whole roster. PG Milos Teodosic had a breakout tourney and Nenad Krstic was solid throughout. Serbia even saw some strong efforts from NBA castoff Kosta Perovic at Eurobasket. Teodosic got solid help on the perimeter from combo guard Milenko Tepic and sharpshooter Uros Tripkovic. Multi-skilled forward Novica Velickovic was a key contributor as well. Velickovic is one of the better potential NBA free agent targets in Europe, who's currently thriving with Euroleague power Real Madrid. Could steal 1st place in Group A if Argentina can't come healthy.

TURKEY (Group C): Started the '09 Eurobasket strongly but kind of lost steam as the tourney progressed. The Turks are led by their combo of multi-skilled 6-9 forwards, Hedo Turkoglu and Ersan Ilyasova. Have had issues with getting steady play at the PG spot in the past, but got nice contributions from Kerem Tunceri and Ender Arslan last summer. 7-footer Omer Asik gives Turkey an athletic presence in the painted area. Though, the Bulls draftee sometimes needs to be pulled late in games because of his dreadful foul shooting. Not sure if Memo Okur will join Hedo & Ersan. Though, even without Memo, this team is a formidable bunch who has the advantage of playing at home.

TIER III (Should advance out of group play):

Impressive frontline rotation that could include A. Bogut, Dave Andersen, Nathan Jawai, current Vandy standout Andrew Ogilvy and former Wazzu bruiser Aron Baynes. Made the Round of 16 in 2006 where they were bounced by Team USA. Portland Trail Blazer Patty Mills should also be on board and made a quite a splash the last time he performed on the int'l stage. Right now, see the Aussies finishing with the 4-seed in Group A, but could get a 2-seed since I don't feel Serbia or Germany is much better than them. But Australia could easily be upended by Angola and fail to advance to the Round of 16. Though, they look to be in good shape vs. Angola because of their wealth of 7-footers.

CANADA (Group D): Canada earned a trip to Turkey by slipping past Dom. Republic (Fran Garcia didn't play) 80-76 for the last qualifying spot in the Americas Zone. Always a quality defensive unit anchored by a stout interior defense. Solid on the boards as well. Matt Bonner is expected to be added to a decent frontline rotation of Joel Anthony (Miami), Jesse Young & Levon Kendall. What holds this team back is a lack of playmakers since Steve Nash stopped playing internationally, which makes for a constant struggle on the offensive end. Carl English is their #1 option. English is a nice player (good shooter), but when he's the best scoring option/playmaker, you're in trouble offensively. Added some more movement to their half-court sets last summer, which helped to a degree at the FIBA Americas. Why Leo Rautins is interested in adding Jamaal Magloire to the mix, I'm not sure. Should be more concerned with adding some scoring to the mix or a true point guard. He might need to tap some of the promising young prospects from the Great White North like Tristan Thompson, Corey Joseph or Myck Kabongo. Bring Kabongo or Joseph as a back-up PG. Expect them to secure the 4th seed in Group D.

CROATIA (Group B): Next to Lithuania, might have been the biggest underachiever at '09 Eurobasket. Even though Croatia finished in 6th place, they finished 4-5 overall and played uninspired ball throughout the tourney. The players seemed to tune out Coach Repesa and his recent departure might help this team refocus. Endless supply of quality big bodies who crush the boards, though some of the bigs are slowing down, like Nikola Vujcic & Nik Prkacin. Really missed the services of swingman Marko Tomas this past summer. The PG combo of Roko Ukic & Zoran Planinic was the one consistent element for the Croats last summer. Raw talent to compete with the upper-echelon teams. Tough draw for Croatia and need to stay focused vs. Iran to grab a 4th-place finish.

GERMANY (Group A): Have to imagine the German federation is relieved to finally secure a wild card after the push Britain was getting from the NBA. The Germans only won one game at Eurobasket, but were competitive in every game with a severely undermanned unit. Coach Bauermann did a terrific job integrating a handful of newcomers into the German lineup. All of sudden, Germany looks to have a bright future after Dirk retires, with the likes of 6-10 Robin Benzing, SF Elias Harris (Gonzaga), Tim Olbrecht and PG Heiko Schaffartzik displaying tons of promise at Eurobasket. Nowitzki says he expects to be in Turkey, which automatically makes Germany playoff-caliber. No idea on the status of Chris Kaman. Could finish in 2nd place in Group A.

PUERTO RICO (Group C): Strong showing at the FIBA Americas tourney, finishing in 2nd place behind Brazil. A very deep team that likes to bomb the 3-ball. Quality playmakers in the backcourt with Carlos Arroyo, JJ Barea and Larry Ayuso likely on board next summer. Three servicable 7-footers in PJ Ramos, Dan Santiago & Ricky Sanchez. Think their Round of 16 status heavily hinges on if Yao suits up for China. If no Yao, P.R. should easily slide into 4th place in Group C. If Yao goes, it could be a tighter race for the last playoff spot.

TIER IV (Outside shot at a Sweet Sixteen playoff berth):

ANGOLA (Group A):
An undersized, scrappy bunch that is never an easy out for their opponent. Made it to the Round of 16 in '06 where they pushed France to the brink, losing 68-62. Would not be stunned if they stole a spot from Australia or even Germany. Gave Germany quite a scare in 2006 in group play in a triple-OT classic.

CHINA (Group C): If Yao can't go next summer, a Round of 16 berth could be a tough get. Iran routed a Yao-less China in the Asian Championships that was played in China. Should be somewhat competitive with Yi Jianlian and Wang ZhiZhi leading the way.

IRAN (Group B): Definitely a rising squad on the int'l scene led by Memphis Grizzlies' reserve Hamad Haddadi. Were impressive in the Asian Champs., where they finished 9-0 and crushed China (with Yi Jianlian & Wang ZhiZhi) 70-52 in the finals. Getting the 4-seed in Group B will be a tough task, but could trip up Croatia if the Croats play like they did last summer.

NEW ZEALAND (Group D): Won the Oceania Zone title this summer over Australia. Doesn't mean much since the Oceania Zone set-up is a joke and Austraila brought their B-team. Very unimpressive play in their last Worlds appearance in 2006. Snuck into the playoff portion at the '06 Worlds only because they were in the weak Group B. Don't expect much from the Kiwis and should be eliminated after group play.

TIER V (Slim chance of getting past group play):