Sunday, April 18, 2010

Blazers Need to Emulate the Spurs

Phoenix is one of the hottest teams in the NBA while the Blazers enter this first round series without Brandon Roy. Understandably, the consensus seems to be that Phoenix should dispatch Portland fairly easily.

But the Suns might be the most unbalanced team in terms of offense to defense in the playoffs. And we think this gives the undermanned Blazers an outside chance in this series.

The Suns are easily the worst defensive team in the playoffs, far worse than the mediocre defensive units of the D'Antoni era. I understand Phoenix has been playing better defense of late, but without Robin Lopez for the series, there is no doubt the Suns' defense is rather suspect.

Think Portland needs to copy some of things that the Spurs have done in the past that have made them successful when matched up with the Suns.

Spurs are generally successful vs. the Suns because they do two things as well as any team in NBA that put a major crimp in the Suns' style of play:

1) The Spurs get back in transition as well as any team.

2) The Spurs generally defend the 3pt. line as well as any team.

The Spurs just don't keep the opposition's 3pt. % low, they limit the number of 3pt. attempts. They would do this vs. the Suns and force them into mid-range jumpers. This would cut down on the extra points per possession that the Suns thrive on to outscore their opponent while playing lackluster defense.

Though, a lot of times when a team tries to overplay the 3pt. line, they eventually give up easy looks at the rim. But the Spurs were so well-schooled defensively, they never got burned bad. The Spurs' baseline rotations were textbook to challenge the dives/rolls of Amare & Marion. The Spurs were able to flood the Suns 3pt. shooters but still hustle to help Duncan at the basket.

Can the Blazers pull this off defensively? Not sure. They're solid with Camby on the backline, but in general, Portland is not as tight as the Spurs defensively.

What's positive for the Blazers heading into this series is that they have been solid in their transition defense this year and have done a good job limiting the Suns' transition game in the season series. (See Hollinger article)

Also, the Blazers did a nice job guarding the 3pt. line during the season. (Opponents shot 34%). But it's not just about keeping the Suns' 3pt. % low - it might be more important to keep their 3pt. attempts low.

A lot has been made of the importance of controlling the tempo in this series. No doubt it's a key factor in this series, but controlling how much damage Phoenix does from behind the arc could be just as crucial.

Like the Spurs, encourage shots in the 12-to-22 ft. range. Even sacrifice some wide open looks on mid-range jumpers, just as long as 3pt. attempts are kept to a minimum. Make it a goal to hold the Suns to 12-13 3pt. attempts per game. (The Suns average 21 attempts from long range per game.)

When Frye is on the floor with Amare, Nate should have Camby checking Amare. Camby should be sloughed off near the painted area as much as possible. Let Amare have his looks in the high post.

On offense, Portland has to attack paint relentlessly. This is another strategy that the Spurs would implement vs. the Suns. Either constantly calling Duncan's number on the block or having Parker & Manu darting to the rim, the main idea was to punish the bad interior defense of the Suns.

Portland's primary line of attack has to be feeding Aldridge on the low block. LaMarcus can't settle for mid-post action--he needs to try to get deeper position and try to finish his shots as close to the basket as possible.

Andre Miller should be the another option for Coach Nate to turn for post-up points. Also, Andre is a quality finisher for a PG and needs to be aggressive driving the ball. I'm sure Portland will try to make a concerted effort to exploit Nash on the defensive end.

Rudy Fernandez has been frustrated with his role this season. Can understand Rudy's frustration since he has the goods to be a quality starting 2-guard in the NBA. But can't fault Coach Mac much considering Rudy plays the same position as Roy.

Well, Rudy has no excuses now, he will be given ample opportunities to provide offense. Next to Miller, Rudy can create scoring opportunities for himself or teammates. Rudy can't just look to jack up bombs, but also mix enough dribble drives to put pressure on the soft interior of the Suns.

Phoenix doesn't protect their defensive glass (only G-State was worse) and should be even more vulnerable with Lopez out. The Blazers were the 4th-best offensive rebounding team in the reg. season.

The one caveat is the Blazers can't go at the off. glass with as much vigor in this series because they need to put more emphasis on transition defense. Nate should still have Camby & LaMarcus heading to the glass as much as possible, while the perimeter guys need to pick their spots when to help on the off. boards.

So buck up, bearded, American Apparel-ed, PBR-drinking, Potato Champion-eating, fixed-gear-bike-riding Bridgetown fanbase (and Henry) who have been demoralized by a litany of injuries this season.

If the Blazers can stay diligent with a game plan of cutting down 3pt. attempts and transition on defense while relentlessly attacking the interior of the Suns' defense on offense, and use their advantage on the off. glass, they can extend this series to a seventh game.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

2010 NBA Playoffs Predictions: Cavs over Lakers

It's the day of the Playoffs / Wow-wow-wow.

Let's start by saying that - with seven wins separating 1 from 8 and key injuries up and down the field - there is absolutely nothing that would surprise me in the West, not even if Russell Westbrook ran wild against the Lakers' PGs to spark an upset.

Indeed, I'm hardly brimming with confidence about my pick of L.A. winning the West, after they limped home with a 15-12 record in the final third of the season, but I just can't figure out who's strong enough to beat them. I liked Utah, but the Kirilenko injury is a killer. I think the Spurs could beat L.A., but they'll be hard-pressed to get out of the first round, and to stay healthy for more than a month. I like the Suns, but don't know if they can play enough defense, or get past their old nemesis San Antonio.

In the East, it'll be all about the Cleveland-Orlando series, which should determine the 2009-10 champion. I see it as a toss-up which has multiple games coming down to the final minutes, as in last year's series. I've gone back and forth on this one, but in the end, I'm going to change my preseason pick of Magic over Lakers, because I just think Cleveland is much better equipped to deal with this matchup this season.

So I'm predicting that
  • LeBron will get his first ring
  • Shaq will be the "first to 5" titles, beating Kobe and Timmy, and
  • Cleveland will get its first championship since 1964.
Do I feel uncertain about picking two no. 1 seeds in what seems to be a playoff season of unpredictability? I do. One thing I am certain of hasn't changed since I wrote about it at the beginning of the season: no single player's legacy is on the line as much as Vince Carter, who becomes a Hall of Famer if he wins a title.

For the record, here are our full playoff predictions:

First Round: Cavs in 4, Magic in 6, Hawks in 5, Heat in 6
Conf Semis: Cavs over Heat in 5, Magic over Hawks in 5
Conf Finals: Cavs over Magic in 7

First Round: Lakers in 7, Spurs in 6, Suns in 7, Nuggets in 7
Conf Semis: Lakers over Nuggets in 7, Spurs over Suns in 6
Conf Finals: Lakers over Spurs in 7

NBA Finals: Cavs over Lakers in 5

Time for the best sporting event on Earth to start. Let's do it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

On Playoff Money

• Also see: The Painted Area's 2009-10 NBA Awards

A couple days ago, both TrueHoop and FanHouse posted breakdowns on the "playoff pool" money which teams earn based on how far they advance in the playoffs and where they finish in the regular-season standings.

I am currently re-reading Go Up For Glory, the classic 1966 Bill Russell autobiography, and I had to chuckle when I came across this passage the other night, in which Russell explains the grind of the NBA season thusly:
    Seven months of hotel rooms and plane rides and violence and more hotel rooms and chicanery and confusion and card games and card-sharks and more hotels and more airplanes and more of the violence of two hundred pound men slashing away at each other for a valued prize - the money that only goes to the champion.
Considering that Russell is widely considered to be the greatest winner in the history of American sports, I found it funny to read his phrasing of the ultimate goal: "the money that only goes to the champion."

Considering that Russell made $19,500 in 1956-57, his first season, it's understandable. While it was a Don Draper-worthy salary in those days, every penny of playoff money counted to the players back then in a way that it does not now.

SCHOENE, King of the Season Win Over/Unders

In order to give myself some accountability, let's quickly review my preseason predictions for NBA season win over/unders. Altogether, I had a fairly pedestrian year. Here were my five preferred picks:

Milwaukee OVER 25.5 - W (46)
Minnesota OVER 25.5 - L (15)
Golden State UNDER 35.5 - W (26)
Portland OVER 52.5 - L (50)
Orlando OVER 57.5 - W (59)

So, out of the league's predicted bottom-feeders, I had a big hit (Milwaukee) and a big miss (Minnesota). I also ended up predicting the two teams which were most injury-riddled; in one case, it worked in my favor (Golden State), and in the other, it cost me a W (Portland).

The pivotal team for me was Orlando. When they were at 26-15 and 39-20 at different points in the season, it looked like I was destined to go sub-.500. The Magic needed to go 32-9 and 19-4 from those respective points in the season, and they went one better, finishing the season 33-8/20-3 (note to self: damn). Thankfully, Stan Van Gundy understood the value of pushing to gain home-court advantage in a potential matchup vs. the Lakers.

Thanks to Stan & co., I ended up with a respectable 3-2 (.600) mark on the season, bringing my record to 17-9 (.654) in the four years that I've been posting my favorite predictions.


But enough about me. Let's recall that I also surveyed the predicted W-L records offered by the best NBA writers - John Hollinger, Kelly Dwyer and Kevin Pelton - and specifically noted the predictions which fell furthest from the preseason O/U line.

Hollinger and Dwyer were, like me, in the vicinity of .500, but check the five biggest outliers from Pelton, whose predicted records were based on his SCHOENE system of player projections:

Toronto UNDER 41.5 - W (Predicted: 32-50 / Actual: 40-42)
Detroit UNDER 41.5 - W (Predicted: 33-49 / Actual: 27-55)
Milwaukee OVER 25.5 - W (Predicted: 34-48 / Actual: 46-36)
Memphis OVER 27.5 - W (Predicted: 45-37 / Actual: 40-42)
LA Lakers UNDER 62.5 - W (Predicted: 54-28 / Actual: 57-25)

Not only did Pelton sweep his way to 5-0, but SCHOENE found some big winners. Other than the Raptors, these weren't even close - the other four won by at least 5 games, and three of them were double-digit winners. I think that KP2 earned himself a free lunch at Samurai Sam's based on SCHOENE's impressive work.

I'd also like to note what I think was the single most impressive NBA preseason prediction of 2009-10, Pelton/SCHOENE's projection of the Grizzlies at 45-37 (which was published in early October, and then adjusted down to 43-39 when the projections were recalculated just prior to the season).

The Grizzlies had won 24 games in 2008-09. Their O/U line was set at 27.5 wins, and this was the vicinity in which most observers expected them to fall. Hollinger and Dwyer both projected Memphis at 27-55, and that's about where I assumed they'd finish, as well.

In fact, the 45-37/43-49 projections seemed so outlandish that it represented a flaw in the SCHOENE system. But they were essentially on the money, and Grizzlies brass Michael Heisley, Chris Wallace and Lionel Hollins are the ones having the last laugh after a surprising 16-game improvement left the Grizz at 40-42.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Painted Area's 2009-10 NBA Awards

With the 2009-10 NBA regular season now in the books, let's get right to it:

1. LeBron James, Cleveland
2. Dwight Howard, Orlando
3. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
4. Dwyane Wade, Miami
5. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

There has never been a unanimous winner of the NBA MVP award, as some wankers always manage to muck things up (haven't forgotten you, Fred Hickman). LeBron James is certainly having a season which merits a unanimous MVP, but like the handful of players who have earned the honor before him, LBJ will have to settle for merely hoisting the Mo Podoloff Trophy, which he will assuredly do for the second straight year.

I really don't have much to add to the awe-inspiring evidence for LeBron provided by John Krolik on Cavs: The Blog. Suffice it to say that I consider the gap between 1 and 2 on my ballot to be as wide as that between 2 and 5. I'll just say the same thing I did last year: if Cavs top this baby off with a championship, LeBron's season will go down as the greatest ever by a forward, better than Larry Bird in '85-86, and everything else.

With most of the guys on my MVP ballot, I feel like I don't have a lot new to say. When I look back at last year's MVP column, I realize that '08-09 was the revelatory year, when James and Howard and Wade and Paul all raised their games to previous unseen heights. In '09-10, these players largely maintained their exalted standards. It's no mean feat and still a joy to watch, believe me, just not revelatory like last year.

Of course, the season's superstar revelation is the young man sitting at no. 3 on my ballot, Kevin Durant, who has won the scoring title while leading his team to 50 wins at age 21. Durant is the youngest scoring champion ever, and joins LeBron as the only players to score 30 ppg by age 21. Durant had a supremely good year shooting the ball, with an impressive true shooting percentage of .607. Many seem to have KD no. 2 on their MVP ballots, and I can't argue too much. I favor Dwight Howard at 2 because his defense has been so dominant (and he also led the league in FG% at .612, and had a gaudy TS% of .630 in his own right).

A key element of Durant's high TS% has been his foul shooting. In Hubie Brown's typically fascinating recent appearance on ESPN's NBA Today podcast (I could have listened to Hubie all day long, by the way), the coach brought up some interesting numbers to this end.

Namely, Durant not only shot an even .900 from the stripe, but he also attempted the most FTs out of anyone shooting 85%+ this season by far - a remarkable 254 more FTAs than Dirk Nowitzki. KD shoots 10.2 FTs per game; the average 85%+ guy shoots 4.2 per game.

What's more, Basketball Reference shows that Durant shot the best FT% in history for someone with 10+ FTAs per game, surpassing Rick Barry. All this at 6-10. All this at age 21.

All-NBA First Team
C Dwight Howard, Orlando
F LeBron James, Cleveland
F Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
G Dwyane Wade, Miami
G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

All-NBA Second Team
C Tim Duncan, San Antonio
F Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
F Carmelo Anthony, Denver
G Deron Williams, Utah
G Steve Nash, Phoenix

All-NBA Third Team
C Amar'e Stoudemire, Phoenix
F Chris Bosh, Toronto
F Carlos Boozer, Utah
G Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
G Rajon Rondo, Boston

The First Team matches my MVP top 5, and was largely a snap to determine in general. The Second and especially the Third Teams were more agonizing for me to determine.

There was somewhat of a bizarre distribution of good players this year. The two best teams - Cleveland and Orlando - had one superstar and a bunch of good players surrounding them, though no one deserving of being an All-Star.

Then there were teams like Phoenix, San Antonio and Utah, who were each led by two primary players between whom it's difficult to determine primacy. For the first half of the season, Tim Duncan and Steve Nash were outstanding, though both players faded a bit, while Manu Ginobili and Amar'e Stoudemire raised their games in the second half of the season. Deron Williams challenged for the First Team, was the best point guard in the league with CP3 banged up, and was generally a joy to watch, but don't underestimate Carlos Boozer's bounce-back year as a factor in Utah's renaissance.

Then there were teams like Atlanta and Portland, who each had four players with PERs over 18. It kills me to omit Brandon Roy and Josh Smith from these teams, but I narrowly decided to give Ginobili, Rondo, and Boozer the edge. If you prefer Roy and Smith, I really can't stand in your way.

Gerald Wallace, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bogut were the other players I considered for spots on the All-NBA teams who were tough final cuts.

Defensive Player of the Year
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando
2. Gerald Wallace, Charlotte
3. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee

This one is as much of a shoo-in as the MVP. Howard is the anchor of the no. 2-ranked defense in the league (which fares especially well in defense at the rim), and the league leader in blocks and rebounding, as well.

Wallace seemingly does it all as a perimeter defender for Charlotte, the top-ranked team in the league. Bogut was probably better on D, but I give the slight edge in the rankings to Wallace because he was out there much more: 41 mpg in 75 games, as opposed to 32 mpg in 69 games for the Aussie.

Let me just say that, when Andrew Bogut was drafted, I never thought he was athletic enough to be such an outstanding interior defender, especially as a shot-blocker. The rare player who both blocks shots and takes charges voluminously, Bogut set the tone for the 4th-ranked D in the NBA in Milwaukee, and I think he's the most underrated player in the league, period.

Rookie of the Year
1. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento
2. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State

All-Rookie First Team
Tyreke Evans, Sacramento
Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee
Stephen Curry, Golden State
Darren Collison, New Orleans
DeJuan Blair, San Antonio

All-Rookie Second Team
Marcus Thornton, New Orleans
Ty Lawson, Denver
Jonas Jerebko, Detroit
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City
James Harden, Oklahoma City

I was expecting that Tyreke Evans' sheer production would make him the overwhelming choice of the objective analysts, so it was unexpected to see some last-minute questioning of his credentials by two reputable sources in Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus and Joe Treutlein of Hoopdata.

Nonetheless, Evans is still my choice for the award, though I'm curious to see how his game translates to winning basketball as his career goes on. One fascinating aspect of the season to me was the James Harden-Tyreke Evans conundrum, in that Evans was easily more productive than Harden, who was drafted two spots ahead of him, yet very few questioned Oklahoma City's pick because of Harden's fit with the emerging Thunder.

I went back and forth and back again on Jennings v. Curry - it's really a 2/2a ranking rather than 2/3. It's so hard for me to gauge by the numbers, given that Curry racked up better stats while playing in the circus at Golden State, while Jennings was involved in meaningful games from start to finish. I give Jennings the slightest of edges based on superior defense.

Sixth Man Award
1. Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
2. Anderson Varejao, Cleveland
3. Jamal Crawford, Atlanta

I'm just going by the rules of the award here. Manu Ginobili started 21 of 75 games, and it doesn't really matter to me whether he started the games at the beginning of the year rather than the end. He was a sixth man by the definition - he came off the bench for two-thirds of the season, and played 29 mpg. Manu was by far and away the most productive of the candidates, with a 22.5 PER.

Sideshow Andy takes second with superior defense and improved offense, in a close call over Jamal Crawford, who produced at an 18.5 PER rate at age 30, far surpassing his previous career-best mark of 16.4.

Most Improved Player
I'd like to join in the chorus of Mr. Pelton and others in ignoring this award. Trying to figure out who should and shouldn't be considered makes my brain hurt, and in the end, the award just doesn't really say anything meaningful about the 2009-10 season.

Coach of the Year
1. Scott Skiles, Milwaukee
2. Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City
3. Nate McMillan, Portland

The Coach of the Year award seems to be about which coach exceeded expectations to the highest degree. In looking back at the season win over/under lines set at the beginning of the season, Milwaukee's line of 25.5 was the lowest in the Eastern Conference, surpassed only by Sacramento's 24.5 in the league.

Scott Skiles led the Bucks to 46 wins with an emphasis on defense - Milwaukee has moved from 30th to 3rd in defensive efficiency ranking in the two years since Skiles arrived in town. Not only did he rely on a rookie point guard who led the team in total minutes, but consider this: out of Milwaukee's top four in total minutes this season, one guy played in Italy last year (Jennings), one guy played in Russia (Delfino) and one guy played in Spain (Ilyasova).

[As an aside, my Harvey Pollack note of the day: Did you know that Milwaukee's top five in total minutes included players born in North America (Jennings), Europe Asia (Ilyasova) [Correction: He was born in Eastern Turkey, which is in Asia], Australia (Bogut), South America (Delfino) and Africa (Mbah a Moute)? Milwaukee also has two players born in Europe (Gadzuric, Brezec) and they've even drafted two players born in Asia since 2007 (Yi, Alexander).]

Scott Brooks takes second for improving the Thunder from 23 wins to 50 (their preseason O/U was 35.5) with not only the youngest team in the league in terms of "effective age", but also the third-youngest team in the last three decades. Oklahoma City surpasses last year's Blazers to become the youngest team to ever win 50-plus games, and it's a great credit to Brooks that OKC did it as one of the top 10 defensive teams in the league - young teams just aren't supposed to be able to do that.

The Blazers underachieved compared to their preseason expectations, but Nate McMillan was still a miracle worker to keep everything patched together despite injuries which just kept on coming right from training camp to the end of the season.

One name who I'm surprised has not gotten even a peep in the Coach of the Year discussions: Lionel Hollins of Memphis. Coming off a 24-win season, the Grizzlies were expected to be one of the worst teams in the West again (27.5 O/U), yet Hollins coaxed a 16-win improvement out of his young charges despite integrating Zach Randolph into a team which was already deemed to be too selfish, despite getting off to a 1-8 start thanks in part to the distraction of the Allen Iverson folly, and despite the fact that the team's no. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet was not prepared to offer much.

Executive of the Year
Sam Presti, Oklahoma City

Executive of the Year is increasingly a difficult award to select in the modern era, with GMs having disparate goals around the league - some need to keep payrolls low, some need to clear space for the future. Kevin O'Connor of the Jazz, for example, deserves credit as always for keeping Utah in contention despite the restrictions of a very small market, despite making two moves which look terrible on their face: giving away Ronnie Brewer and Eric Maynor in salary dumps.

That said, our choice is Sam Presti, whose Thunder experienced a 27-win improvement which was the largest in the league. The flexibility which Presti created by stripping his team down is coming to fruition, as he has continually unearthed value at little cost to his team, in acquiring the likes of Thabo Sefolosha, Nenad Krstic and Eric Maynor. Presti has consistently hit on his lottery picks, and Serge Ibaka appears to be a major score as a late first-rounder. The Thunder are poised to be one of the forces of the 2010s.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Nike Hoop Summit: How Good is Harrison Barnes?

For the third straight year, The Painted Area was on hand at the Rose Garden in Portland for the Nike Hoop Summit, a premier showcase for emerging basketball talent, which matches up a team of ten top U.S. high-school players against ten intriguing international players under 20 years old.

The 2006-2009 editions featured what could turn out to be four straight NBA Rookies of the Year (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, respectively). The 2010 game seems like a good bet to keep that streak alive, what with eight of the top 13 high-school seniors (according to ESPN/RISE) in action in Portland, including Harrison Barnes, generally considered to be the no. 1 player in the class of 2010, and currently listed as the no. 1 pick in the Draft Express 2011 Mock Draft.

Because it is traditionally more competitive than other all-star games like the McDonald's All-American Game, the Hoop Summit has proven to be an excellent stage for scouting purposes, and Saturday's game - hard-fought to the finish - delivered in that regard once again.

Trailing the USA team 50-41 at the half, the World Select Team opened up a 74-62 lead after blitzing the U.S. with a 33-12 third-quarter edge, powered by 13 points from Enes Kanter in the quarter. But Team USA fought back, as the lineup of Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones and Jared Sullinger extended the D and sparked a 101-97 comeback with a 39-23 edge in the fourth.

While competitive, the 2010 Hoop Summit had nothing approaching the religious basketball experience of the 2009 game, which featured the epiphany of John Wall, who had not played in the McDonald's All-American Game due to eligibility issues, and struck the basketball scene like a bolt of lightning with a transcendent performance.

This year's game was decidedly low on highlight-reel plays compared to 2009 or 2008 (which had guys like DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka flying around), which speaks to our sense that the class of 2010 seems to be solid and fundamentally sound, but not spectacular overall.

Certainly, there were several NBA prospects in action. Before we get into our scouting reports, one more general note on the game: I thought it was somewhat ridiculous that World coach Rob Beveridge had his team playing a 2-3 zone defense for the entire game. Yes, it probably helped keep the World team in the game and thus made things more exciting at the end, but that's not the point of this game. The Hoop Summit is meant to be a stage to display players' talents, and a zone defense serves as a deterrent to that goal. Apparently, Mr. Beveridge felt compelled to try to burnish his Hoop Summit W-L record.

Harrison Barnes (6-8 SF, North Carolina) was clearly the best player on the floor in terms of pro potential. Watching Barnes reminded me of the old Michael Wilbon line that Grant Hill's game was so smooth that he played as if he was wearing a tuxedo. I had the same sense about Barnes, who has a polished and fundamentally sound game, and is widely reported to be a high-character kid.

Barnes had 27 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and a block in 29 minutes in the Hoop Summit. He hit 9-17 FG, including 4-8 on threes, and 5-6 FT. Barnes displayed an explosive first step which made him difficult to stop on the drive (always to the right) and shooting range which went out to NBA distance on a clutch three in the fourth quarter.

Following on an outstanding co-MVP performance in the McDonald's game (17-5 on 7-10 FG), Barnes is a clear leader in the class of 2010 field, and I don't think it's premature to suggest that we may well be looking at the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year.

That said, the question "How good is Harrison Barnes?" is an open one in my mind. I am not convinced that Barnes has the ceiling of an NBA superstar. I see a guy who should be able to score in the 20s, and be a mid- to lower-tier All-Star. But I haven't seen much in the way of creating for others. He's certainly not a selfish kid; I just don't feel like court vision is a strength in his game. And while Barnes is a very good athlete, he doesn't strike me as a guy with off-the-charts physical gifts.

I certainly foresee Harrison Barnes being an valuable asset on the NBA level. I just see him as closer to a 20 ppg guy than someone entering the Durant-Carmelo-type stratosphere as a 30 ppg player. As a potential no. 1 pick, I just don't think he's a true game-changer.

One of the more intriguing battles was a below-the-rim duel between the USA's Jared Sullinger (6-9/262 PF/C, Ohio State), who had 22 points and 8 rebounds on 10-14 FG, and the World's Enes Kanter (6-10/255 PF/C, Turkey/Undecided), who was a beast with 34 points and 13 rebounds on 13-21 FG in just 24 minutes.

Because Sullinger appears overweight with less-than-adequate athleticism for an NBA prospect, I was initially skeptical about him, but he's slowly won me over with his sheer production. First, I saw an ESPN game in which Sullinger went for 32 points and 21 rebounds to lead his Columbus Northland H.S. team to a 53-52 over Findlay Prep - a very impressive win for a local team to beat a national all-star team such as Findlay, which went 32-2 and was ranked no. 2 in the final USA Today Super 25 poll.

Then, I watched Sullinger put up 22 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals on 7-11 FG, including 2-3 on 3-pointers, to deservedly share the McDonald's MVP with Barnes. Follow that up with seeing his Hoop Summit production in person, and I think I'm sold.

Sullinger has a very high level of skill, strength and basketball IQ for his age, and a history of winning - he won three straight AAU championships, as well as an Ohio state championship his junior year. He showed off a variety of spin moves and was ambidextrous inside. I see Sullinger as a player in the mold of Kevin Love, whose game is so skillful and team-oriented that he should be able to overcome below-average NBA athleticism as long as he can keep the weight off.

Kanter is in some ways analogous to Sullinger. Given his status as a potential lottery pick, I was expecting Kanter to be more athletic. But like Sully, Kanter's game was more one of skill and ox-like strength.

Kanter's 34 points broke Dirk Nowitzki's Hoop Summit record of 33, and the young Turk did it with a variety of moves of his own. He showed off spin moves, good hands and a nice shooting touch, as he hit on a pick-and-pop in addition to doing damage inside.

I'm more concerned about Kanter's lack of athleticism than Sullinger's - I'm not sure that Enes as many tools to compensate at the NBA level. But I'd imagine that such overwhelming production is hard to ignore, and I'd think Enes Kanter helped secure his spot as a lottery pick with his performance at the Hoop Summit.

Kanter is expected to play for Kentucky if deemed eligible. However, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express reported Saturday that he'd heard Kanter had been paid as much as $600k to play in Turkey.

Kyrie Irving (6-2 PG, Duke) and Brandon Knight (6-3 PG, Undecided) are two point guards who are both ranked as consensus Top 5 players in the class of 2010, but I would have to say I've found Irving to be a much more impressive player.

Irving had 15 points, 5 assists and 0 TOs in the Hoop Summit, and delivered some of the game's prettiest moves at key moments late in the game. He has a smooth handle/crossover - Irving had a gorgeous move late which consisted of a hesitation & crossover to get by his defender, culminating in a sweet lefty and-1 finish at the rim.

He plays smart, with good court vision - all in all, Kyrie Irving plays like a good-old New York City point guard. However, those players are bred in Jersey these days. Irving hails from St. Patrick's H.S. in Elizabeth, NJ, and appears to have received some good coaching there.

I've had trouble shaking my first experience viewing Brandon Knight, as he scored 48 points on 15-36 FG shooting in one of the more unrepentant displays of gunning I've seen in awhile, in an ESPN game earlier this year.

After watching Knight at McDonald's and live at Hoop Summit, I'm still largely unmoved. He's quick and creative with the ball and displays glimpses of court vision, but his game is still plagued by poor shot selection and bad decisions with the ball. Knight had 5 points, 4 assists, 4 TOs on Saturday, and I don't think he's in the same league as Irving in terms of knowing how to run a team.

Knight is a very good student, and has shown strong competitive instincts as well. He nailed the game-winner at McDonald's after a poor shooting day, and he and Irving really picked up the defensive pressure to help spark the U.S. comeback in Portland.

Brandon Knight has good size at 6-3 and plenty of tools, but needs to learn how to run a team to reach his potential.

The more that I watch Terrence Jones (6-9 PF, Undecided), the more I like him. The hometown kid's versatility played a big role in the USA comeback on Saturday. Jones did a little bit of everything - 15 points, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, made a three - both inside and outside, on offense and defense, in half-court and in transition on a coast-to-coast drive one time, impressive for a player his size.

The crafty lefty has now been one of the best players on the floor at both the Hoop Summit and the McDonald's All-American Game. Jones is such a unique player in so many ways. I marvel at how he plays effectively on more of a horizontal plane - he maneuvers his extremely long arms at multiple angles to elude defenders - than a vertical one, as he's not a truly explosive athlete.

Two bigs from the Balkans - Nikola Mirotic (6-10 F, Montenegro) and Dejan Musli (7-0 C, Serbia) - may have helped their draft stocks as much as any players at the Hoop Summit, considering that they seemed to be off the radar heading into the week.

Mirotic had 14 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in 25 minutes, and flashed some excellent perimeter skills for a player his size. He knocked down 2-4 three-pointers, hit a runner, made an assist on the pick-and-roll, and made a very strong drive going to his left into the lane for a bucket that put the World up 92-91. I'd have to think the 19-year-old definitely put himself on the draft radar last week.

Musli had 11 points, 6 rebounds and a block in 23 minutes. While he is more of an interior player, Musli definitely proved to be multi-skilled as well. In addition to hitting on a hook shot and a nice move vs. Sullinger, Musli also displayed the ability to pass and catch inside. While hardly an imposing athlete, Musli at least shows some decent mobility to get around a little bit on both offense and defense.

Canadians Cory Joseph (6-3 PG, Texas Undecided [Ed. Note: My apologies - especially to Gophers fans! - for the error]) and Tristan Thompson (6-8 PF, Texas) both hail from Ontario, and both attended Findlay Prep in Nevada, so it shouldn't be surprising that they were teammates for the World team on Saturday.

Joseph has the ability to create off the dribble and shows good poise, but has not really done a lot to wow me in three viewings now. He was a combined 4-13 FG, 0-2 3PT, 1-2 FT with 4 assists and 4 TOs in 36 minutes in the McDonald's game/Hoop Summit.

Thompson is a good athlete who displayed varied skills in delivering 14 points on 5-6 FT, a steal and a block in 24 minutes. He showed the ability to finish the pick-and-roll, and the ability to finish with dunks, and was generally quite mobile. Thompson also made a nice crossover move and showed some good basketball IQ in his passing game. There are some nice tools here, but he still needs an overall polish to the game.

North Carolina should be in good hands with Kendall Marshall (6-4 PG, UNC) and Reggie Bullock (6-6 SG, UNC) joining Barnes in Chapel Hill next year. Marshall played with good court vision and basketball IQ, dishing out 5 assists in 14 minutes after doing the same in the McDonald's game. Bullock has the rep of a big-time shooter - while he has a nice stroke and hit one deep three, he was only 1-5 behind the arc on the night. Both players look like they should be solid college ballplayers for Roy Williams; I'll need to see a little more before gauging if they can be contributing pros.

Patric Young (6-10 PF, Florida) was the most impressive natural athlete at the Hoop Summit. Young has something of an Amar'e Stoudemire body, though let's be clear that his overall game is nowhere near comparable to STAT's at this point. He makes more of an impact on defense, where he had 2 blocks in 20 minutes, than offense, where he had just 4 points.

Meyers Leonard (7-0 C, Illinois), a late addition to the roster and not a highly-touted prospect, did have an athletic block and a nice catch-and-finish in his 8 minutes of play. It was more than I was expecting from the last man on the bench.

Will Barton (6-6 G, Memphis) did not do much of anything, going 0-3 from the field (0-2 on threes) for a goose egg in 13 minutes.

Sui Ran (6-4 G, China) was not heralded as a prospect to watch heading into the game or based on reports from practice sessions, but give the kid his due, he played well in the game. In 20 minutes, Ran had 6 points on 2-2 FG (both made threes), three assists and a steal. He exhibited good speed and quickness in a solid frame listed as 6-4/204.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The NBA Ownership Overhaul of the 2010s

I believe that the only curses in professional sports are those of bad ownership. The most famous "curse" in 20th-century American sports is the so-called Curse of the Bambino, which haunted the Boston Red Sox in an 86-year championship gap between 1918 and 2004. Coincidentally, the Red Sox chose to be the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate, which helped set them back for a generation. And coincidentally, the team won its long-awaited post-Bambino World Series two years after a progressive new ownership group took over.

Ownership matters. Mark Cuban's purchase of the Mavericks in Jan., 2000, was the catalyst in transforming Dallas from one of the league's laughingstocks in the '90s to one of its premier franchises in the 2000s.

One of the big-picture NBA stories developing in 2010 is that we could see as many as six or seven franchises experience a change in controlling ownership this year. Consider that, for the entire decade of the 2000s, nine franchises changed hands, and three of those occurred in the year 2000. Consider also that there are a handful of septuagenarian owners with uncertain succession plans, and we could end up seeing half the league change hands in the 2010s.

What's striking to me is that many of the teams in question have experienced particularly good or particularly poor ownership, so the landscape of the NBA - and its standings - could be ripe for a drastic transformation in the 2010s. Let's take a look into the crystal ball:

New Jersey Nets
I don't know that there's much that I can or need to add to the bravura 60 Minutes interview with Mikhail Prokhorov which heralded the Russian billionaire's impending arrival as an NBA owner.

Kevin Pelton's recent analysis of future team assets indicated that the Nets might be poised for a shockingly quick rise from the basement even before Prokhorov's billions are taken into account. Indeed, with deep pockets, a sparkling new arena coming soon, cap space and a high draft pick, Prokhorov has the opportunity to quickly change the destiny of a franchise which has had few bright moments since Dr. J was sold to the 76ers at the time of the NBA-ABA merger.

Lest you wonder if Prokhorov might throw around his money indiscriminately, note that CSKA Moscow - for whom Prokhorov was principal owner from 1997-2008 - has been on one of the most successful runs in European basketball history over the last decade, making the Euroleague Final Four every year since 2003, and winning the European championship in 2006 and 2008.

All signs point to Brooklyn becoming an NBA hot spot in the 2010s.

Golden State Warriors
Free at last, free at last, with Chris Cohan finally ready to sell the team, long-suffering Warriors fans are quite nearly free at last. With Cohan's successor presumed to be Oracle CEO/Founder Larry Ellison, the Bay Area can rejoice even further.

Ellison, an intensely competitive man who recently won the America's Cup, would surpass Prokhorov, Paul Allen, Mark Cuban and everyone else to become the richest owner in the NBA. Couple Ellison's wealth with one of the league's more intriguing collections of young talent, and a passionate fan base which has supported the Warriors loyally through thin and thinner, and Oakland, too, could become one of the league's signature destinations in a hurry.

Washington Wizards
With the fanfare surrounding the ascension of Michael Jordan and Mikhail Prokhorov to NBA ownership, the recent transfer of the Washington Wizards to Ted Leonsis has flown somewhat under the radar on a national level.

Abe Pollin, who died in November after owning the Bullets/Wizards since 1964, was a good man who sparked the revitalization of downtown Washington with the opening of the Verizon Center, which he financed privately. However, Pollin was thoroughly unable to spark similar results on-court, as the franchise has not won more than 45 games in a season since 1979.

D.C.-area sports fans have suffered through several years of underachievement from their beloved Redskins, Orioles, Wizards and now Nationals, yet the one bright, shining light on the pro sports scene has been the NHL's Capitals, owned by Leonsis since 1999.

Leonsis has been fan-friendly, innovative and forward-thinking as he's built the Caps into one of the NHL's more formidable teams. Just last Friday, he suggested that he strongly believes in analytics in basketball, in a radio interview which left this Wizards blogger "incredibly, incredibly impressed."

The Nets, Warriors, and Wizards climbing up the standings? It's crazy to think, I know, but I do believe these new owners can make it happen. Beyond having three impressive gentlemen poised to take the helm, I'd note that these are currently three of the four worst teams in the league, so there's a good chance that John Wall or Evan Turner will be delivered to these franchises to help jump-start a new era.

Charlotte Bobcats
Michael Jordan said in a recent ESPN interview that he expected to be like Mark Cuban as an owner, and I wish the G.O.A.T. well - I certainly wouldn't take any pleasure in seeing MJ fail, not after all the joy he's brought me in this game.

That said, color me skeptical that Jordan will be able to have the same impact as an owner as Prokhorov, Ellison or Leonsis. My skepticism stems primarily from a funding standpoint. The Bobcats rank near the bottom in terms of revenue, and Jordan's pockets are shallow compared with his brethren on the NBA Board of Governors.

MJ's certainly made some good moves in turning the Bobcats into a playoff team, though I wonder if he sacrificed a bit of the team's future for the short-term gains. Hopefully, at the very least, Jordan can start to re-energize a fan base which once filled the Charlotte Coliseum regularly, and get the Bobcats on the road to becoming a healthy franchise. I'd love to see the first player/principal owner succeed.

New Orleans Hornets
News is surfacing out of the Big Easy just this week that George Shinn - who has owned a controlling stake in the Hornets since they entered the league in Charlotte in 1988 - is poised to sell his share of the team to minority owner Gary Chouest.

This sure seems to be an upgrade for New Orleans basketball fans, as billionaire Chouest is wealthier than Shinn, and he's a Louisianan, to boot. Chouest has also been visible as a fan, in his courtside seats. The state of the New Orleans Hornets - so tenuous post-Katrina - suddenly seems secure. Currently perceived as penny-pinchers, the Hornets may - if Chouest is willing throw his money around a little - now be able to focus on how they can thrive in the Chris Paul era instead of merely wondering if they'll be able to retain the point guard into the future.

Detroit Pistons
Bill Davidson died in March, 2009 after a Hall of Fame run as an owner dating back to 1974. Mr. D's tenure included such innovations as The Palace of Auburn Hills, the standard-bearer for modern NBA arenas, and Roundball One, the first team plane.

While the Pistons have tumbled down the standings in the past couple years, the Davidson era produced impressive results on-court as well as off-, as the franchise won three championships and has advanced to at least the conference finals 11 times since 1987.

Davidson's widow, Karen, has indicated an interest in selling the team, and it appears that a sale could occur sooner rather than later. Rumors have suggested that David Katzman, recently a part-owner of the Cavs, was poised to purchase the team, though an investment consortium has also expressed some interest.

There has been some unease in the Detroit area about whether the Pistons may be in danger of leaving. A move now seems unlikely, especially if Katzman, a Michigan State grad, takes over. Katzman has to be potential to be a strong owner, like his former partner Dan Gilbert of the Cavs, though the Davidson legacy leaves behind some mighty big shoes to fill.

Indiana Pacers
75-year-old Herb Simon has been an NBA mainstay since buying the Pacers in 1983 along with his brother Melvin, who passed away last year. The main issue which has arisen in Indy is that the Colts have a much sweeter lease at new Lucas Oil Field than the Pacers do at Conseco Fieldhouse. Couple that with the continued fallout from the Artest fight, not to mention the horrendous economy, and the Pacers are experiencing some extreme financial distress.

While the fundamentals of a good building and a proven fan base suggest that there's a way out of this mess, the future of the Pacers is anything but secure. In 2009, Herb Simon told the Indianapolis Star: "Is it prudent to stay [at Conseco] if economic conditions keep deteriorating? No.... We're here, not to keep the team here for as long as I can afford it, but to keep the team here even after someone else ... takes over this team."

Forbes reported somewhat mysteriously in March that Simon would be receiving an offer of about $230 million within two months. Simon responded to the Indy Star by saying, "There was an article in Forbes -- and I don't know where it came from -- but there's been no talk with anyone about selling this team. I'll continue to own this team."

In 2008, the Indianapolis Business Journal reported that the city fathers had some unease about the lack of a clear succession plan for the Pacers, and it still seems as though "uncertainty" is the watchword when it comes to the future of Pacers ownership.

Chicago Bulls
If you want to talk about a sleeper team that could see its fortunes change with an ownership change in the 2010s, look no further than the Chicago Bulls, where 73-year-old Jerry Reinsdorf has hurt the club repeatedly in the post-Jordan era by being arguably the cheapest owner in the league.

As a big-market team which has seen the gigantic United Center filled consistently even in the depths of the initial post-championship years, the Bulls are one of the premier cash cows in the league. Forbes currently ranks the team third in estimated value ($511M) and second in operating income ($51.0M), just behind the Lakers, in the NBA. An owner who was prepared to unleash that fortune might be able to get Chicago back up near the top of the standings.

However, Reinsdorf doesn't show any signs of slowing down, as he's recently made an attempt to buy the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. In 2005, he told the Chicago Tribune that
    he "hopes" not to sell the [White] Sox or Bulls, "but you never know," he said. "If something happened and I got real sick, then I think I would because I don't want to stick my kids with this. Maybe the Bulls. I might let them hang onto the Bulls because that's a sensible business, it's not that hard to run.
They're a bit of a speculative inclusion on this list, for sure, but the Bulls are one to watch only because the idea of an ownership change is not outlandish, and it could have a massive impact.

Milwaukee Bucks
The situation the Bucks are in now seems perilously similar to where the Seattle SuperSonics stood not too long ago: a franchise dating to the '60s, with a lone championship from the '70s, and an arena that has quickly moved from being considered state-of-the-art to one deemed to be inadequate, with no public appetite for further funding, and no clear solution in sight.

The main thing holding the Bucks in place seems to be that its owner, Herb Kohl, is also a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, and his options are politically imprudent. However, Kohl is also 75 years old and single with no children, so at some point, something's gotta give. I'd deem it likely that the franchise will have new ownership by the end of the decade. I hope the team is able to stay in Milwaukee beyond then, but hey, I'm a Seattleite, so I don't know that I have a lot of optimism to pass on to the good people of Wisconsin.

Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are another franchise which seems to be a prime target for an Oklahoma City-style takeover by a purchaser who might want to take the team out of town. Memphis owner Michael Heisley has made it very clear that the team is for sale. A month ago, he said this to the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
    I'm 73 years of age. My family is not going to take over this basketball team. My point is very simple. If the right person makes a reasonable offer for the team I will sell it. If the minority (local) owners want to come up with a reasonable offer, I would love to sell it to them. I think they would make great owners. If it's not to be, it's not to be.
With the Grizzlies ranking last in the league in revenue, and consistently in the shadow of the University of Memphis basketball team, it wouldn't seem as if there's a robust market of buyers to keep the team in town.

However, the terms of the Grizzlies lease with FedEx Forum are such that it'd be nearly impossible for the team to move before 2014, and the terms remain onerous enough thereafter that a move would be unlikely before the late 2010s. But if the team's revenue situation hasn't improved by then, I'd consider it a stone cold lock that a new owner will have the Grizzlies in a new city by the end of the decade.

Now we move expressly into the speculation portion of the program, for sure. The Lakers have been considered the NBA's marquee franchise and the Clippers its doormat for so long that it seems like it must be fated. Yet, I'd argue that it's no coincidence that Jerry Buss has owned the Lakers since 1979 and Donald Sterling has owned the Clippers since 1981.

Buss turns 76 in June and is in the process of turning over control of the Lakers to his children, while Sterling turns 77 this year, so it seems reasonable to assume that his tenure may mercifully come to an end at some point this decade.

Is it crazy to think that the Lakers and Clippers could experience a reversal of fortune with new ownership for both franchises? Well, maybe a little, but I think you'd be crazier to assume that it couldn't happen. Ownership matters.

L.A. Lakers
It was announced Monday that Jerry Buss will be part of the 2010 class inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and deservedly so. Dr. Buss has always struck me as an owner with just the right touch - someone who's known exactly when to step in, and exactly which decisions require his input. And with his poker-player's instincts, he's generally made the right calls on the big decisions and been a shrewd operator in contract negotiations.

Buss is handing the Lakers over to his children Jim and Jeanie. As he said in a recent interview with on "Eighty percent of the basketball decisions are made by [my son] Jimmy and all of the business side is handled by [my daughter] Jeanie. I don't have anything to do with that."

To me, the jury is still out on whether the Buss children will be able to coexist effectively in the ownership suite, as well as whether they will have their father's wise touch. On his blog Lakernoise, respected author Roland Lazenby has suggested that there is already internal tension in the organization, especially around the contract status of Phil Jackson.

How will Jackson's future be handled? What about in a few years, when the team may need to be effectively handed over from Kobe Bryant to Andrew Bynum, as it was from Kareem to Magic and from Shaq to Kobe in days gone by - how will that be handled?

The Lakers should certainly be a championship contender for the next couple years, but as this decade moves on, their fortunes will not be decided by fate or championships banner already hanging at Staples Center. It'll be decided by the performance of the Buss children.

L.A. Clippers
Donald Sterling loves being an NBA owner so much that he turned down a reported $1 billion dollar offer for the team, according to an adamant Bill Simmons in a recent column. Not much is known about Sterling's three children, but they certainly aren't visibly entering the basketball business, as the Buss kids are. It seems reasonable to assume that the Sterling family might be tempted by a lucrative offer if and when the team is passed on to them.

Considering that L.A. is easily the no. 1 most desirable market for players, and with all the money and all the pro basketball fans in Southern California, I think that the Clippers easily have all the raw materials to become an NBA power under the right ownership. Imagine an energetic Cuban-type - there must be plenty of candidates among all the rich fans in L.A. - who perhaps rebrands the team as the Hollywood Stars, as Simmons suggested last year, for a new beginning. I believe it can work.

Also note that the Clips rated very high in Pelton's analysis of future assets, though we'll see how well Sterling executes on this potential in the immediate future.

Yes, we may still be a few years away, but Sterling has to give up the reigns at some point, doesn't he? It's not like he's Monty Burns. Um, on second thought, forget I said that.

Portland Trail Blazers
The first job I ever had was for a Paul Allen company and it was a great place to work. I wish Mr. Allen nothing but the best in his fight against cancer, but the frightening reality is that non-Hodgkins lymphoma is a very serious illness. The Portland Oregonian reported on the future of the Blazers following the announcement of Allen's cancer diagnosis in November:
    Few billionaires invest so much in their personal passions, and few Northwesterners have so profoundly affected the region. His legacy as Microsoft's co-founder is secure, as is his imprint on Seattle's landscape and character.

    Less certain is the fate of his sports teams and technology investments, imbued with Allen's own fervor. Allen is the rare billionaire who never married and has no children. He is close to his sister, Jody, who runs Vulcan [Allen's parent company] and lives near him on Mercer Island, just outside Seattle.

    Many people survive Allen's condition, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but nearly as many do not. Neither Allen is speaking publicly in the wake of his diagnosis. Team officials, past and present, uniformly expect that the cancer won't slow Allen down. They're optimistic he'll beat it, as he did an earlier bout in the 1980s.

    Many of them also predict that whenever the company changes hands, the Blazers will, too.

    But Vulcan and Blazers officials maintain that the team, back on an upward trajectory, is the company's jewel and a cornerstone of Allen's empire. They insist it will remain that way indefinitely.

    "Regardless of what happens, I believe that Vulcan will be proud to be the owner of the Blazers," said Larry Miller, the team's president.
    Allen may very well live for many, many years, but all wealthy people eventually leave their heirs a large estate tax. With the value of pro sports franchises soaring, Vulcan could have to pay huge taxes just to hold on to the Blazers and Allen's pro football team, the Seattle Seahawks.

    Although Vulcan could certainly afford that bill, some wonder whether it would want to pay it absent Allen and his very personal ties to the team. Together, the teams would certainly fetch more than $1 billion if sold.

    For those who have dealt extensively with Allen's sister, the fact that the team is losing much less money than in the past matters less than the fact that it continues to bleed red ink.

    "There is a constant sort of drumbeat from Jody and the people who work for Jody to cut the losses," said one former team executive, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "They're doing their job, trying to look at the portfolio as a business. I can't fault them for that."

    "Paul's ownership of the franchise has always been a struggle between his emotion for the team and the sport and the business reality," the executive said.
Due to Allen's enormous wealth, the Blazers have had the tremendous fortune of being a small-market team which has been able to operate like a big-market franchise. Despite the nearly unrivaled passion of the Portland fan base, whenever the Blazers change hands, there could be a profound change in how they are able to operate. Hopefully, it won't be anytime soon.

Steve Ballmer
Forgive me for the 206 homerism, but it's my list, so I'm adding the Microsoft CEO. Ballmer fits the Paul Allen template as a potentially great NBA owner: he has billions and he passionately loves basketball. Beyond already floating a last-ditch proposal to attempt to save the Sonics and renovate Key Arena, Ballmer has been a booster for the development of the basketball program at his alma mater, Harvard.

What's more, when Ballmer's "secret" Twitter account was finally uncovered, it turns out the account, LakesideBball, was actually a vehicle to tweet updates of his son's basketball games! Get this man a team already!

Here's hoping the Seattle SuperSonics are back by the end of the 2010s, under the control of majority owner Steve Ballmer.

Note: I didn't include Sacramento because I think the Maloofs will retain ownership even if the team moves, and I didn't include Utah because the team has stayed in the hands of the Miller family following the death of patriarch Larry last year, and son Greg seems as though he is keeping the franchise on course.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Dominant FC Barcelona Eyes First Football-Basketball European Cup Double

With the stunning four-goal performance by Lionel Messi against Arsenal on Tuesday, FC Barcelona is within striking distance of becoming the first club to win the European Cup in both soccer and basketball in the same year, as they have advanced to the semifinals in both football's Champions League and basketball's Euroleague.

Barça are heavy odds-on favorites to take home trophies in both sports, as lists them with 9-10 odds to win the Champions League (followed by Inter Milan at 4-1 and Manchester United at 5-1), and with 7-10 odds to win the Euroleague Final Four (a strong Olympiacos team is next at 5-2).

Indeed, both FC Barcelona teams have been dominant this season. I should say that I understand this to be the case in soccer as I can't claim any expertise in the sport. I defer to lifelong football fan Steve Nash, who retweeted this note from reporter Oliver Kay of The Times last week, with commentary of his own:
    RT @oliverkaytimes: my Dad, very good judge, said this Barca team play best football he's seen since "Total Football" Dutch of 70s.([Nash:] mine too)
I can speak to the basketball side of the club, as this Barcelona team has the potential to be the best European club I've seen since I started watching Euroleague basketball in earnest in 2002.

With an 18-2 cumulative record in Euroleague play, FC Barcelona - should they win the Final Four - would establish the best overall record in Euroleague play since the current format was created in 2000-01 following the FIBA/ULEB split.

Further, Barcelona leads the Spanish ACB with a 26-2 record, and also went 3-0 to win the Copa Del Rey in February. That means that the Barça basketball team is a stunning 47-4 overall this season. What's more, of the four losses, two were by 1 point, and another one was by 2 points. They are four points away from being 50-1!

Two main obstacles stand in the way of the basketball team at this point. One is an Olympiacos team which is stacked in its own right, with the likes of Josh Childress, Linas Kleiza, Milos Teodosic and Yiannis Bourossis. My fingers are crossed for a titanic Barcelona-Olympiacos matchup in the final.

The other is the ridiculous system of egalitarian minute distribution which is often custom in European basketball. You may have seen it in the Olympic final in Beijing, when it may have cost Spain a gold medal, as Pau Gasol played just 28 minutes even though the U.S. struggled mightily to contain him.

Barcelona coach Xavier Pascual uses a guard rotation of Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Gianluca Basile, Jaka Lakovic and sometimes Victor Sada, plus swingman Roger Grimau, who gets a little time at the 2.

This insane system limits the court time of the two best guards on the team by far - Rubio and Navarro.

And it is Gianluca Basile who especially stinks. Basile led the Italian national team to the silver medal in 2004 when he was 29 years old, but now he is 35 and he has flat-out stunk in Euroleague play.

Basile is averaging 4.3 points and 0.8 assists in 18 minutes per game in Euroleague play, shooting a robust 30% from the floor. His advanced numbers show a PER of 5.0 and a 44% true shooting percentage. Just awful across the board.

Yet, Pascual continues to trot him out there as if he's on par with Rubio and Navarro. Here's the guard minute breakdown for Barcelona's 67-66 loss to Partizan in the Top 16 stage:
    Basile 29
    Lakovic 24
    Rubio 21
    Navarro 19
    Grimau 6
Here it is for Game 2 of the best-of-5 Euroleague quarterfinal series vs. Real Madrid, which Barça lost 70-63:
    Navarro 23
    Basile 19
    Rubio 17
    Sada 12
    Lakovic 11
    Grimau 11
And here it is for Game 4 vs. Madrid, which Barcelona won 84-78 to win the series 3-1, though they were perilously close to blowing the game and facing a winner-take-all Game 5:
    Navarro 25
    Basile 23
    Rubio 23
    Lakovic 17
    Grimau 12
    Sada 1
This game was especially crazy as Basile had 6 points on 2-7 shooting, with 0 rebounds and 0 assists, while Rubio and Navarro combined for 40 points in 48 minutes. Rubio shot more FTs (11) in this game alone than Basile's earned (8) in 16 Euroleague games played!

Coach Pascual is keeping these games unnecessarily close by treating a washed-up Basile as if he is a peer of Rubio and Navarro. Barcelona is so overwhelming talented that they've survived to date, but against a team as good as Olympiacos or even CSKA Moscow, their semifinal opponent, they may not be so fortunate if Pascual sticks with this insanity.

Lakovic can be effective in providing scoring punch off the bench, but that's it. It should be a three-guard rotation of Rubio, Navarro and Lakovic, period, with the majority of the minutes going to Ricky and Juan Carlos.

It may be the European way, and I may just not understand it, but I'm sorry, it's still a losing strategy to send Basile out there for so many unproductive minutes.

We'll see what happens on May 7-9, when the Euroleague Final Four takes place in Paris. I can't wait. By then, we'll know if FC Barcelona's football team has booked a spot in the May 22 Champions League final in Madrid; their semifinal legs vs. Inter Milan take place on April 20 and 28.

Perhaps 22-year-old Lionel Messi and 19-year-old Ricky Rubio will both reign atop their respective sports in Europe.