Tuesday, October 26, 2010

2010-11 NBA Season Predictions: More Wide Open Than We Think?

Happy Opening Day, everyone. The League is back, rejoice.

When The Decision was announced on July 8, we assumed that a presumptive Heat-Lakers matchup in the 2011 NBA Finals was an overwhelming likelihood. As the summer moved on and turned to fall, various moves and developments have led us to believe that the field of championship contenders is more wide open than we thought. We feel like the Heat and Lakers are more vulnerable than we believed in mid-July... but we just can't figure out who's going to be strong enough to topple them.

Let's take a capsule look at seven potential championship contenders:

What we like: The obvious: the overwhelming talent of two of the top five, and three of the top 10-15 players in the league. It'll be particularly hard to stop this team's offense, considering that defenses will be unable to shade help to either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade without leaving the other at an advantage. Chris Bosh may shoot 60% with all the open looks he's going to get alongside these two. If everything clicks, this team could be completely unstoppable. We can't wait to watch Miami play.

What we don't like: The bum hammy which wiped out Wade's preseason was a reminder that he's missed 20+ games in three of his seven seasons. Couple that with Mike Miller's thumb injury, and it's a reminder of how top-heavy this roster is. Beyond the superstar trio, Miami's roster would struggle to win the Euroleague. Also, almost all of the six other teams listed here will have a significant advantage in quality size over Miami. Even in this era in which smallball has been in vogue, quality bigs have been a championship requirement.

What we like: On the heels of its crushing preseason - the Magic went 7-0 with a +25.0 average point differential - Orlando looks like a regular-season juggernaut. Basketball Prospectus noted that they've been especially effective going with a big lineup with Rashard Lewis at the 3. We wouldn't be surprised if the Magic end up with the best regular-season record in the NBA. The Magic still have an extremely deep roster, and Dwight Howard promises to be a matchup nightmare for Miami.

What we don't like: Last year, we picked Orlando to win it all, and they seemed to be on track to do so, until a shockingly lethargic showing against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. Also, they will again be reliant on Vince Carter to create offense in key situations. To borrow some old Public Enemy lyrics: Can't truss it, no no no no. We think the Magic are being slept on as a championship contender, but we're gun-shy after they disappointed us so deeply last spring.

What we like: Around mid-July, we thought the Celtics were headed toward a disaster of a year, with Kendrick Perkins sidelined deep into the season, and having suffered underrated losses to their formidable defense with the departures of Tom Thibodeau, Rasheed Wallace and Tony Allen, who went unreplaced for much of the summer.

A series of good news slowly changed our minds. We liked the strategy of addressing the Perk absence with a volume of solid bigs in Jermaine O'Neal and Shaq, and then even Semih Erden looked surprisingly good at the FIBA Worlds. We loved the late pickup of Delonte West to replace Allen, and the underrated signing of a good head coach, Lawrence Frank, to fill Thibodeau's role as top assistant. Then, we got to camp, and KG looks a bit healthier, and Nate Robinson and Marquis Daniels appear poised for improved performance based on preseason play. All of a sudden, the C's have a roster that appears to go 10 deep, and with the superior heart they showed last season, they just can't be counted out.

What we don't like: Nothing creative here, it's mainly just age. Ray Allen is 35, Kevin Garnett is 34, Paul Pierce is 33, and all showed signs of deterioration last year. While Allen keeps himself in outstanding condition, similar players have fallen off a cliff in terms of production at his age. Pierce in particular needs to create shots for this team - can he still do it over the long grind? As deep as Boston's roster may be, they still need strong production from the old Big 3.

As much as we like Frank, we do also still wonder if Boston's D can remain extraordinary without Thibodeau - it needs to be at that level, given this team's offensive challenges. Considering the C's will likely finish no better than 3 in the East, it seems like a tall order to count on such a magical playoff run as last season, when there was seemingly a different hero every night.

What we like: The power of incumbency. While we tend to think the Lakers are more vulnerable than most others do, L.A. largely needs to just play to its capabilities, whereas most of its challengers in the West need to have a lot of stuff go right. These Lakers still have the best collection of versatile, skilled, talented bigs in basketball, they still have Kobe Bryant, and the symmetry of a fourth threepeat to close out Phil Jackson's career just feels right. One needs to prove why someone else should win the West, more so than why L.A. will lose it.

What we don't like: This has quietly become an older team. Every key player other than Andrew Bynum is on the decline, even if ever so slightly (especially considering that the margin of error last spring was not that great). It feels like this could be a long slog of a year for the Lakers, with Bynum still a month away, and with Bryant looking terrible in the preseason, as both recover from knee surgery. Coupled with three long playoff runs, it wouldn't surprise us if L.A. struggles to get it going during the regular season, and has to make its run from a 3 or 4 seed.

While we think Steve Blake is a good fit for the triangle offense, we're not sold that he's that good of a player. As much as we respect this ball club, we didn't think the '10 champions were nearly as good as the '09 team, and we think this team is lesser still. We're concerned about whether Kobe's knees can continue to carry such a big load. We think the Lakers need to rely on more consistent production from Bynum to offset the expected declines on the perimeter, and that makes us nervous, given Drew's injury history. We just can't tell you who in the West can beat them.

What we like: We really liked the offseason that the Spurs had in terms of filling needs. First and foremost, there was the signing of Spanish League MVP Tiago Splitter, who should allow San Antonio to return to the style of play from its championship years: they can play big again, and the interior defense should be formidable. The Spurs D should return to a top 5 unit, after slipping to 8th last season, their worst showing since '96-97. The Splitter acquisition should be a huge help in the matchup vs. the Lakers' bigs.

Also, the Spurs seem to have beefed up their outside scoring with Gary Neal, another signee from the European pro leagues, and rookie James Anderson, who seems like he could follow in the mold of productive San Antonio late first-rounders. Couple all this with the return to full strength of Tony Parker, and we've just got good vibes about the Spurs. They've infused their team with a nice amount of youth to bolster the vets, and they appear to match up pretty well with the Lakers.

What we don't like: It just feels like a little too much needs to go right. The trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker needs to stay healthy, and Duncan and Ginobili need to ward off the effects of aging. While Splitter is much more of a proven veteran than the normal NBA rookie, he's still an NBA rookie. There's no guarantee he'll be the player S.A. expects until he proves it. Same goes for guys like Neal and Anderson. We do believe that this team's ceiling is high enough to be the 2010-11 NBA champions, but they're going to have to live a pretty charmed life to get all the way there.

What we like: Well, let's start with the fact that Portland won 50 games last season, despite one of the most injury-decimated campaigns you'll ever see. Statistical models absolutely love this team, with projections extremely high for guys like Nic Batum and Greg Oden as well as Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. The numbers suggest this team could finish the regular season no. 1 in the West.

What we don't like: Yes, we know. We used the name "Greg Oden" above. He's still working on an unknown timetable for his return, and his health can't be counted on even upon return. There's a little bit of bad karma with questions of whether Brandon Roy and Andre Miller can co-exist, and with Rudy Fernandez's unhappiness. We're high on this team in '10-11 in general - they have too much talent to bust - but again, there's just too much that has to go right for Portland to contend for a title.

What we like: The youngest team to ever win 50 games, seemingly with the best team chemistry ever assembled, and rising young stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The sky is the limit. Would it shock us to see the Thunder win 60 games and take the no. 1 seed? Nope.

What we don't like: Everything went right last season, most notably that the rotation players averaged 79 games played. It seems likely that the trajectory will level off a little bit in '10-11 before heading back skyward. OKC's still a little green to be expected to make it through four rounds of playoffs.

After all that, we don't think that Miami and L.A. are unbeatable, we just can't see who's going to be better come springtime, so we're going to stick with talent. Heat over Lakers is our pick for the NBA championship in 2010-11.


Here are The Painted Area's 2010-11 NBA season predictions:

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

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

1. L.A. Lakers
2. Portland
3. San Antonio
4. Oklahoma City
5. Utah
6. Dallas
7. Houston
8. Denver

-First Round: Lakers over Nuggets, Blazers over Rockets, Spurs over Mavs, Thunder over Jazz
-Conf. Semis: Lakers over Thunder, Spurs over Blazers
-Conf. Finals: Lakers over Spurs

-NBA Finals: Heat over Lakers

Random thoughts on other teams:
- The 7/8 spots in the East were impossible to predict: New Jersey, Cleveland, New York, Charlotte, Indiana, possibly Washington and Philly all seem like they could be in the mix, especially considering that it should only take in the mid-30s for wins. We're rolling the dice on a big improvement for the Nets. Nothing from about 15 wins to 45 for the Cavs would surprise us; we're banking that the outstanding D from the preseason carries over, and carries them to the 8 seed... projecting a potential matchup vs. Miami was too delicious to resist.

- In the West, there seems to be a lot of potential for "League Pass teams" which are really fun to watch even if they aren't playoff teams. Every single team we have in the lottery - Phoenix, New Orleans, Memphis, LA Clippers, Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota - potentially fits this role. An undefeated preseason for Memphis portends that they could be a playoff sleeper, while a strong preseason for Minnesota suggests that they could make Kevin Love's prediction of 30 wins come true.

Award predictions:
MVP: LeBron James, Miami
Not really sure what to do here. We think that LeBron James will quite easily be the best regular-season player, but we think that the voters will be inclined to go in a different direction, when even Brian Windhorst is saying stuff like this:
    "People will never forget the way that he played in those playoffs. He did not play like an MVP. I voted for him for MVP over the last three years and I don't care if he scores 35 points a game next year I don't think I'll ever vote for him for MVP because he's proved he cannot be an MVP when it counts the most."
I mean, I don't argue with the initial point, at all, but am I supposed to consider the 2010 playoffs when I vote for the 2010-11 regular-season MVP? I don't know.

Kevin Durant is clearly the media darling, but I tend to think OKC's regular-season standing will not be strong enough to earn him the award. Dwight Howard could be a sleeper, as I wouldn't be surprised if that's a 60-win team, though MVP voters don;t tend to prefer guys who aren't big-time scorers.

Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, Clippers
A fricking beast, with a 17 and 12 on 60% FG in 29.5 minutes per game in the preseason. ROY seems to favor the flashier players, such as John Wall, but Griffin's production should be enormous enough to surpass him. Wow, what a year for rookies, with two dynamite guys coming in.

In a strange quirk, we wouldn't be surprised if the All-Rookie First Team includes three guys who weren't drafted in 2010 - Griffin, Tiago Splitter and Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic will score efficiently from the low post; we think he'll be better than rookie teammate Wes Johnson, the no. 4 overall selection.

Let's tip this baby off - happy 2010-11 season!

Monday, October 25, 2010

10 NBA Veterans I'm Curious To See in 2010-11

OK, here are ten players I'm curious to see in the upcoming 2010-11 NBA season. I'm qualifying things in a couple ways - just veterans here, as I'm basically curious to see how every rookie fares in the league. And, also, this is a non-Heat list, as, duh, of course I'm curious to see how everything comes together basketball-wise with the three Miami Super Friends.

Derrick Rose, Chicago
For all of his immense physical gifts, as an impossible combination of size, speed, and strength at the point, there is still plenty of room for improvement in Rose's game at age 22. Rose averaged 20.8 points and 6.0 assists (18.7 PER) in 2009-10, impressive numbers for a second-year player. However, Rose makes things challenging by only really scoring by 2's, as he can't hit 3's (16 made threes on .267 in '09-10) or draw 1's (4.3 FTA per game). Further, he is not considered to be a good defensive player and even his assist rate trails far behind the Nash-Paul-Williams-Rondo leaders.

Rose's free-throw rate actually did improve quite a bit last season, if you consider that he averaged 4.7 FTA per game from Dec. 1 on (remember that he was fighting a bum ankle early last year), up from 3.1 FTA as a rookie. He claims to have been working on his three-point shot this summer, but I haven't seen evidence of it - Rose hit just 5-18 (.278) at the shorter line in FIBA Worlds, and even had to be benched for being an ineffective floor-spacer, and made just .238 in the preseason.

Despite all of the room for growth in his offensive arsenal, what I'm especially curious to see from Rose in 2010-11 is his defense. Can a union with defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau vastly improve Rose's defense? With his physical ability, there's no reason that Rose shouldn't be one of the best defensive point guards in the game. Becoming a disruptive defender would be a huge step in helping Rose become a truly elite point guard, rather than just a potential one.

Monta Ellis, Golden State
For all of the chaos that took place in Oakland in 2009-10, one of the most depressing developments for me was that Ellis, one of my favorite players to watch a couple years ago, became the poster child for inefficiency and misleading statistics. Sure, Monta's 25.5 points per game smashed his career-high, and ranked him 6th in the league, his name listed up with the superstars of the game in the leaders. But it was all a mirage, as Ellis's numbers were inflated by playing an absurd number of minutes (41.4 per game) at an absurd pace, leaving him with an absurd volume of shots (22.0 FGA's per game).

Looking at the Ellis player comment in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 reminded me that it has not always been this way. The stat that jumped out at me was Ellis's two-point field goal percentage. In 2007-08, it had been .544, a solid number, before plummeting all the way to .470 in 2009-10. Despite being an improved three-point shooter (.338 in '09-10, up from .231 in '07-08) with significantly more attempts from downtown, Monta's effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) has still, somewhat amazingly, dropped substantially.

But that look back at '07-08 was a reminder that Monta has efficiency in him. Here is a comparison of his shooting numbers:
         FG%    3P%   eFG%     TS%
'07-08 .531 .231 .536 .580
'09-10 .449 .338 .476 .517
Monta has efficiency in him. Now that the Don Nelson Circus has relocated back to Maui, can Monta regain some sanity and efficiency in his game? Man, I sure hope so, but the preseason numbers are not promising. Ellis's FG% was even lower at .438, and new coach Keith Smart inexplicably played Ellis 53 minutes and 44 minutes in preseason games last week. Please come back to earth, Monta, I miss you, man.

Nicolas Batum, Portland
After a season in which Portland won 50 games despite losing 300+ man games to injury, those who have run statistical projections, such as John Hollinger and Kevin Pelton, are quite high on the Blazers' chances in 2010-11. Yet, in all the talk of the Blazers as potential contenders in the West, a key name in the team's rosy projections - Nic Batum - is rarely mentioned.

After missing half the season with a shoulder injury, Batum was a vastly improved player in the 37 games he did play in his second season:
         MIN   FG%    3P%    TS%    PTS    PER
'08-09 18.4 .446 .369 .555 5.4 12.9
'09-10 24.8 .519 .409 .646 10.1 17.3
After taking such a big jump from age 20 to 21, can Batum continue on this trajectory at just 22, or was his '09-10 improvement something of a mirage due to the relatively small sample of total minutes played? For all the talk of whether Brandon Roy and Andre Miller can co-exist, and what Greg Oden might be able to contribute, and what Wesley Matthews can bring to the table, I think Batum will be a key underrated figure in determining Portland's fortunes in '10-11. I'm curious to see if we have about the same guy as last year... or if Nic Batum is actually a potential star in the making.

Jordan Farmar, New Jersey
In 2007-08, it seemed as if the Lakers had scored a steal with the 26th pick of the 2006 Draft in Farmar. In that year, Farmar posted a solid 15.4 PER as a 21-year-old in his second season, and appeared to be the heir to L.A.'s starting point guard position. However, Farmar regressed sharply and surprisingly in the following two years, failing to a PER of 9.9 in 2008-09 and 12.3 in 2009-10. Notably, his assist rate plummeted in 2009-10 - Farmar averaged just 1.5 assists in 18 minutes per game, down from 2.7 in 20.6 minutes in 2007-08.

Farmar seemed to fall out of favor with Phil Jackson in L.A., and now that he gets a fresh start in Jersey, I'm curious to see what we have here: is it the young player filled with promise from '07-08, or the barely replacement-level player we've seen since?

With the athletic Farmar still turning just 24 in late November, I tend to think he has a chance to blossom anew in Newark. His preseason numbers have been a mixed bag - FG% down at .407, but assists up at 3.3 in 21.9 minutes.

While I do believe that Steve Blake is a better fit than Farmar for the triangle offense, and for the Lakers in 2010-11, Blake also has limited upside at age 30. As the Lakers presumably enter the post-Phil Jackson era in 2011-12, I wonder if they'll wish they still had Farmar - I tend to think that his next five seasons will be significantly better than Blake's. We should start to get a sense of whether this will be the case based on how Farmar performs this season - it's a pivotal year for him.

Yi Jianlian, Washington
I'd never been much of a fan of Yi. On the night he was drafted, I asked how you say "El Busto" in Mandarin. I've been watching Yi with the Chinese national team since 2004, when he was just 28 years old (c'mon, give me a rim shot for that one), and he had always struck me as an exceedingly passive player.

The guy I saw at the FIBA World Championship was a different player. Yi averaged a 20-10 on 50% FG shooting in the Worlds, and it was how he did it that was especially impressive. He was smart and versatile as he operated from the mid- and low-post, either employing a variety of post moves, or facing up to take advantage of his soft shooting touch from the mid-range.

As much as anything, Yi was shockingly assertive. He was especially impressive with 26 points and 14 rebounds against Greece, as Yi was able to hold his post position well even against the rugged Greek big men down low. For the first time, I became a believer that Yi could be a quality NBA rotation player. Now he needs to do it in the NBA, and do it consistently. I'm curious to see if he can do so.

Michael Beasley, Minnesota
As with Farmar, Beasley gets a chance to press the reset button on his career at a young age, with a fresh start in Minnesota at just age 21. Beasley has scored 14.3 points per game in 27.3 minutes per game in his first two seasons. When his game is on, it's quite difficult to stop Beasley from scoring.

However, Beasley's 2009-10 season was worse than his rookie year, as his scoring rate and PER dropped, and he was particularly dreadful in the playoffs. Beasley has the talent to be an efficient 20 ppg scorer in the league - possibly even 25 ppg - with a scoring game nearly as smooth as Melo's.

I want to see that guy. He should be the go-to guy on the wing in Minny, and he's filled it up in the preseason, with 13.8 points in 21 minutes, though on just .394 FG%. Beasley doesn't even turn 22 until January, so there's still plenty of time for his career to develop, but I'm starting to get antsy to see him become a premier scorer on a consistent basis.

Tony Parker, San Antonio
OK, so I'm little bit curious to see what Parker does this season - if he can fully recapture his jets after an injury-plagued year - and I'm more curious to see what happens to Parker this season. With all of the talk about where guys like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul are going to end up, Parker is a quietly fascinating player this year.

Parker will turn 29 in mid-May as his contract expires and he heads into unrestricted free agency. Players like Parker, whose game is based primarily on speed, do not tend to age well. I can't possibly see the Spurs committing to another five years with Parker, for example. But, with Duncan and Ginobili aging, do they let him walk for nothing, or try to trade him at the deadline to recoup some assets? As long as the Spurs are in something approaching contention, I can't see them dealing Parker at the deadline. Letting Parker walk would leave a huge hole at point guard in '11-12 that I'm not sure George Hill will be able to fill. With the championship window still cracked open ever so slightly in 2010-11, I'm not sure the Spurs have another choice. We'll see.

Trevor Ariza, New Orleans
Quite simply, who is Trevor Ariza? Is he the 15.5 PER guy from the Lakers championship season of '08-09, the guy who shot the lights out during the 2009 Playoffs, or the miserably inefficient Rocket who shot just .394 in '09-10?

I'm guessing that he gets back closer to that '08-09 guy at age 25 with the Hornets, though his .397 preseason FG% is a cause for concern. Mostly, we're just curious to see if Ariza can get out on the fast break with Chris Paul - if so, New Orleans has a chance to become one of the most exciting teams to watch on NBA League Pass this season.

Eric Gordon, L.A. Clippers
Stephen Curry is far better known as a player than Gordon, who has been buried in obscurity as a Clipper after a single NCAA season plagued by injury and tumult at Indiana. Yet, this summer with the U.S. national team, Gordon reminded us that he is a player of similar promise as Curry, and even nine months younger, to boot.

Gordon played almost twice as many minutes as Curry in the World Championships, and had several explosive scoring outings over the summer as a whole, even though he was certainly inconsistent (Gordon made just 3-16 FG in the final three knockout games).

Still, Gordon, who turns 22 on Christmas, scored 17 ppg in 36 mpg last year, and is still a player on the rise. Can Gordon build on his summer in the relative spotlight, and establish that he and Blake Griffin are one of the top young duos in basketball? Well, I'm curious to find out.

Anthony Randolph, New York
Statistical projections by Hollinger and Pelton absolutely love Randolph this season. Hollinger projects him at 23.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 40 minutes, for a 21.5 PER. Pelton's comparable players at a similar age include Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett and Josh Smith.

Though he played in just 33 games, Randolph's per-minute production in '09-10 at age 20 was fairly startling, as he averaged 11.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in just 22.7 minutes per game (18.7 PER), though of course there were significant inconsistencies even in that small sample size.

Randolph is something of a freak of nature as a versatile 6-10, 205 player. Can he put it together consistently in age 21? If he does - and especially if he does so in Mike D'Antoni's system - Randolph could quickly become one of the most fun players to watch in the entire league.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

2010-11 NBA Win Over/Under Predictions

It's once again time for the annual October favorite here at The Painted Area, as we offer our predictions for picking NBA regular-season win over/unders.

For the record, we were 3-2 in O/U predictions in 2009-10, with the 60% success rate dropping our lifetime percentage since we started The Painted Area to a still-robust 65.4%.

Here are our year-by-year records for the four years we've been publishing our picks:
    Season  TPA  
    06-07 6-1
    07-08 3-4
    08-09 5-2
    09-10 3-2
    Total 17-9
For 2010-11, let's go straight to the data. What we've done below is:As always, these are for entertainment purposes only.
    (O/U Line - JH/KP/KD - '09-10)
    MIA 64.5 - 66/60/70 - 47
    ORL 56 - 55/52/60 - 59
    BOS 53.5 - 51/42/50 - 50
    CHI 47 - 48/51/49 - 41
    ATL 46.5 - 46/35/48 - 53
    MIL 46 - 49/42/48 - 46
    CHA 39 - 30/32/38 - 44
    NYK 36 - 37/44/41 - 29
    PHI 35.5 - 43/33/35 - 27
    IND 34.5 - 31/34/28 - 32
    WAS 33 - 30/22/31 - 26
    DET 31.5 - 32/27/19 - 27
    CLE 29.5 - 29/39/12 - 61
    TOR 26.5 - 22/35/31 - 40
    NJN 25.5 - 26/40/27 - 12

    (O/U Line - JH/KP/KD - '09-10)
    LAL 57 - 56/46/57 - 57
    OKC 52 - 49/48/47 - 50
    POR 51.5 - 55/55/50 - 50
    SAS 50.5 - 54/49/55 - 50
    DAL 50.5 - 48/48/52 - 55
    UTH 49 - 47/41/52 - 53
    HOU 47.5 - 46/36/46 - 42
    DEN 43.5 - 46/49/50 - 53
    PHX 41.5 - 38/37/52 - 54
    NOH 41 - 45/49/44 - 37
    MEM 38.5 - 36/39/40 - 40
    LAC 37 - 27/27/38 - 29
    GSW 32 - 32/49/21 - 26
    SAC 28.5 - 28/43/26 - 25
    MIN 23.5 - 26/30/13 - 15
Here are what we're calling the consensus picks from Hollinger/Pelton/Dwyer - teams for which at least 2 of these 3 esteemed gentlemen are in concert on picks at least five wins above or below the line:
    CHA Under 39.5
    NYK Over 36
    DEN Over 43.5
    LAC Under 37

Quite honestly, we're finding this to be a difficult year for O/U predictions, mainly because there are several lines that we like, but very few that we love.

With that said, here are our picks for 2010-11:
  • CHA Under 39
  • NJN Over 25.5
  • POR Over 51.5
  • SAS Over 50.5
  • DET Under 31.5
  • CHI Over 47
  • GSW Over 32
Here's our rationale on the team picks:
CHARLOTTE UNDER 39 (44 last season)
Quite simply, the Bobcats lost two starters in Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler, and essentially did not replace them. This team has an absolute hole in the middle with Nazr Mohammed trying to repeat a Fluke Rule year at age 33, and DeSagana Diop trying to plug the gap defensively. Hugely reliant on continued production in heavy minutes from Stephen Jackson, who is 32.

A few things make me mildly nervous, most notably that Larry Brown is an awesome coach, who has finished under .500 just five times in 30 seasons of pro coaching, and four of those losing seasons occurred in his first year with a new club, when his rebuilding was just getting under way. The Bobcats improbably led the league in defensive efficiency last season, and LB will probably find a way to keep them among the league leaders in D again. But, really, this team might finish 38th in the league in offense this season. We see them around 35 wins this year.

NEW JERSEY OVER 25.5 (12 last season)
Yup, a 14-win increase is a big jump for a team that won 12 last season, but there are a couple enormous upgrades we really like here.

First is at coach, where Avery Johnson gets to press the reset button on team culture after 64 disastrous games of Kiki Vandeweghe trying to hide under his Moe Greene glasses on the sidelines. We could see Avery lifting the Nets from 25th in defensive efficiency up to near the middle of the pack, even with subpar personnel on the interior.

Second is that even though the offseason acquisitions of decent players like Travis Outlaw, Troy Murphy, Jordan Farmar and Anthony Morrow don't seem like much, consider the players that Jersey got rid of. The Nets had one of the most god-awful collections of wings in league history. Jarvis Hayes, Trenton Hassell, Rafer Alston, Bobby Simmons and Eddie Najera combined to start 67 games even though none of them had a PER in the double digits. Josh Boone started another 28 games inside. God-awful to average is a big upgrade: we see the Nets getting into the low 30s.

PORTLAND OVER 51.5 (50 last season)
Don't have much analysis for this one. Quite simply, this is a team that won 50 games despite losing over 300 man-games to injury last season. Despite the continued uncertainty about Greg Oden's health, Portland remains a deep team. With merely average luck on injuries this season, we see this club easily improving by at least a couple games.

SAN ANTONIO OVER 50.5 (50 last season)
Yes, the Spurs "only" won 50 last season, but they had the point differential of a 57-win team, and, oh by the way, prior to that they'd won more than 50 every season since 1997-98 (pro-rating the lockout year). Even with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili aging, we see this as an improved team, with Tony Parker healthy and Tiago Splitter imported to restore preeminence to the interior D. Plus, San Antonio's quietly built some impressive young depth with unheralded pieces like George Hill and DeJuan Blair; maybe Gary Neal and James Anderson can continue the trend this year. We're sticking with the Spurs going over 50.

DETROIT UNDER 31.5 (27 last season)
In fairness to the Pistons, they were hit pretty hard by injuries last season. A guy like Ben Gordon should have a bounce-back year, and the talent on the perimeter is decent with Rodney Stuckey and Rip Hamilton back there, too. But, man, does that frontcourt ever look stinky. This team was 26th in defensive efficiency last season even with Jonas Jerebko (already out for most of this season) and with Ben Wallace turning back the clock at 35. Lottery pick Greg Monroe does not figure to fortify the defensive backline. We see this club challenging Toronto and Phoenix for the "honor" of worst defensive team in the league, with not much firepower to offset it.

CHICAGO OVER 47 (41 last season)
The Bulls had one of the more bizarre offseasons we can remember, as they significantly improved their team, yet the summer has to be considered a major disappointment overall given that they were the odds-on favorites on July 1 to land LeBron plus Bosh or even Wade.

Still, we had the Bulls tabbed for 54 wins when we participated in ESPN's Summer Forecast in early August. We're a little nervous with Carlos Boozer out for several weeks, especially given his history of extended absences for non-catastrophic injuries. We're also a little nervous that Chicago had the point differential of a 35-win team last season, and overachieved to hit the .500 mark.

We're sticking with this team hitting the 50-win mark, though, not just for the upgrade in players, but at coach, as well. We think that Tom Thibodeau will be a very good regular-season coach in the Van Gundy mold who gets his players to compete every night, and we love the hiring of Ron Adams, probably the assistant coach of the year in '09-10 as the architect of Oklahoma City's defensive improvement, as an assistant as well. We see this team as a top-5 defense, maybe even top-3.

GOLDEN STATE OVER 32 (26 last season)
We connected on Golden State under 35.5 last season, and it was a gut pick, as the Warriors definitely had enough talent to beat the number. A key line of our rationale was this: "We think that Nellie has lost it for good, and we're predicting that it all implodes this season."

Even though the Warriors lost talent on balance this summer, we're going with our gut again, this time in the opposite direction, with the sense that Golden State will start to take a few steps forward into the sunshine of the post-Cohan era.

Similar to our reasoning about the Nets above, even if Keith Smart is slightly below-average - even just moderately sane and coherent (and we have to admit we're at least a little concerned after seeing Monta Ellis played 44 minutes tonight) - it's a big step forward from last season's rudderless ship.

In addition to Nellie's insanity, Golden State was also clobbered by injuries last season. The returns of Andris Biedrins and Brandan Wright - in concert with the additions of David Lee and Lou Amundson (well, when he returns from injury) - should give a huge boost on the boards to what was one of the worst rebounding teams ever seen last season. The bench is loaded with question marks, though guys like Reggie Williams, Rodney Carney, Wright and Amundson do have a fair amount of upside, relative to their roles, as well.

All told, this was Kevin Pelton's most eye-popping projection in terms of improving teams: he has the Warriors winning 49 games. While you may scoff, recall that his most outlandish projection last season called for Memphis to win 43 games when its O/U line was 27.5, and essentially no one else had them pushing .500. The Grizz went on to win 40, and Pelton was generally money on his key projections last season.

Other predictions we considered, but opted against in the end:

LAL Under 57 (57 wins in '09-10): We're going to predict them to win the West, but we think this team is more vulnerable than most others do, with age starting to creep in - Andrew Bynum is the only key player on the right side of 30.

BOS Under 53.5 (50): In mid-July, this would have been a no-brainer, but the C's did a nice job of filling in major holes as summer wore on. We're still skeptical Boston can improve on last year's 50 wins, given its age, and Perk's lengthy absence, but the late moves gave us cold feet in the end.

WAS Over 33 (26): We love John Wall and find it hard to believe he won't catalyze more than a 7-game improvement over last year's disaster, but the numbers uniformly speak to the contrary, so we'll respect them in this case.

LAC Under 37 (29): Sort of a similar story here, somewhat in reverse. Hollinger and Pelton both have L.A. at 27 wins, well under the number, which makes it tempting, but Blake Griffin has just looked too damn good for us to go there. Too uncertain for our blood.

DEN Over 43.5 (54): Geez, speaking of uncertainty.... Even with some injury issues, this one would be a complete no-brainer if not for the Melo situation, which makes it a total stay-away.

NYK Over 36 (29): Pelton's numbers love this one, but trading Randolph and Gallinari for Melo could be a "be careful what you wish for" kind of thing.

OKC Over 52 (50): So hard to think the young Thunder won't improve by more than two games, especially with the solid addition of rookie Cole Aldrich, but one just has to respect that the top eight OKC players averaged 78.5 games played last year, and that'll be really tough to replicate.

PHX Under 41.5 (54): Should be a colossally bad rebounding team, and then there's the issue of the 17 small forwards. But just couldn't pull the trigger on such a big slide, especially after underestimating them so much last season.

NOH Over 41 (37): Really wanted to go for this one, as I love this starting lineup, but that bench is seriously thin. One injury could crush an over pick on a team this thin.

ORL Over 56 (59): Wasn't really considering this one too much until very recently, but man, they are 6-0 with a +25 average differential in the preseason. I know, I know, it's preseason, but +25! Per game! I do think this team is being underestimated, and I do think they'll end up with the second-best regular-season record.

MIN Over 23.5 (15): Couldn't go with Minny after my Over 25.5 pick got crushed last year, and it sounds crazy, I know, but see below....


Something we're keeping an eye on again is the 2006 research by Roland Beech of 82games.com which showed that preseason records may have predictive value for regular-season records.

Specifically, Beech found that teams which win less than 30 games one season and then have a winning record the following preseason tend to see substantial improvement.

So far this is based on a small sample size, so these are fairly rough generalizations. The teams which met this criteria the past two seasons - Minnesota in 2008-09 and the L.A. Clippers in 2009-10 - both failed to live up to the promise, though key injuries played a major role both times. Blake Griffin's season-ending injury in the final preseason game devastated L.A.'s year, while Al Jefferson's torn ACL in January, 2009, snuffed out the growth of a Timberwolves team which was actually playing quite well at the time.

The only team which meets Beech's criteria in the 2010-11 preseason (through Tuesday's games) is the Minnesota Timberwolves, once again. After last season's 15-win disaster, they are 5-2 in the preseason with one game left. Kevin Love has been an absolute beast, averaging a 19-11 in just 26 minutes per game, and shooting a ridiculous .591 from downtown.

Despite the giveaway of Al Jefferson, I did really like the quiet acquisitions of Nikola Pecovic, Michael Beasley, Martell Webster and Anthony Tolliver. Going over 23.5 wins is certainly a reasonable proposition.

OK, thanks everyone. We'll check back after the season to see how we did. Finally: Remember, this is not a competition, it is only an exhibition - please, no wagering.

Friday, October 08, 2010

2010-11 Basketball Books Preview

All told, 2009-10 was a fairly major year for basketball books, headlined by a New York Times no. 1 best seller - The Book of Basketball, by Bill Simmons (which comes out in a revised paperback edition in December) - and a Magic/Bird joint effort (When The Game Was Ours), plus other well-regarded tomes like Roland Lazenby's Jerry West and Chris Ballard's The Art of a Beautiful Game, not to mention the cause célèbre that was Tim Donaghy's Personal Foul.

2010-11's basketball-book lineup doesn't have quite as much star power as last year's roster, though there is a decent depth of notable titles. Taking the measure of the breadth of this list, the season in basketball books projects somewhere between "quirkily intriguing" and "bizarrely eclectic" as a whole. Let's take a look.

We've broken down this list of more than a couple dozen hoop books into sub-groups to help make it digestible. These leadoff books don't really fall cleanly into sub-categories, so we offer them under the pithy catch-all headline. Note that this does not mean we *don't* like anything else here. To the contrary. These are just some headliners we're looking forward to, to get us going.

Play Their Hearts Out, by George Dohrmann (Oct. 5)
Dohrmann, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his reporting on academic fraud in the men's basketball program at Minnesota, is now a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. Following in the tradition of Alex Wolff's Raw Recruits and Dan Wetzel's Sole Influence, Play Their Hearts Out delves into the often-unsavory world of elite AAU basketball. Dohrmann followed a group of kids from southern California for eight years to research the book.
Excerpt: A Meeting with The Godfather (Deadspin)

Gaming the Game, by Sean Patrick Griffin (Mar. 11)
Griffin has followed the Tim Donaghy affair on his blog, NBA Scandal. Gaming the Game is his in-depth take on the Donaghy scandal, done in conjunction with Donaghy's co-conspirator, Jimmy "Baba" Battista, who seemed to contradict Donaghy's claims that he never fixed games while betting on them in an interview with HBO's Real Sports last year.

Rise of a Dynasty: The '57 Celtics, The First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America,
by Bill Reynolds
(Nov. 2)
Venerable Providence Journal columnist Reynolds has authored several first-rate hoop books, such as Fall River Dreams and Cousy. Now he takes aim on the Celtics' first championship season, which not coincidentally was also Bill Russell's rookie year. Here's hoping that Basketball Junkie, a reported collaboration between Reynolds and Fall River Dreams protagonist Chris Herren is still a possibility at some point, as well.

Overheated [Tentative Title], by Ric Bucher (TBD)
It was reported in August that ESPN's Bucher would pen a book about the Great Free-Agent Chase and the crazy NBA summer of 2010. In Bucher's words: "This book isn't just about how [Miami] pulled it off, but all the forces unleashed as a result, forces that promise to change how the league looks and operates forever." No word yet on a release date for this book, or even if it will be out in the 2010-11 timeframe.

There are a couple of books coming out from members of the SSSBDA, an informal group of passionate pro basketball fans in Seattle (of which I am included) who doggedly maintain their love of the game despite a landscape which is understandably inhospitable to the NBA in a post-Sonics world. [Full disclosure: I gave a reasonable amount of feedback to both books while they were being written, and I'm happy to give you the biased opinion that both books are great.]

FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History (Oct. 26)
Following up on The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac from 2008, the cast of characters from FreeDarko offers its take on the evolution of pro basketball history in both style and substance. Gorgeously written and illustrated.
Excerpt: Only the Ball Was Orange [PDF]

Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11, by Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle (Oct. 4)
"The Essential Guide to the 2010-11 Season" includes essays for every NBA team and comments (plus advanced stats) for every NBA player. The SCHOENE projection system provides forecasts for every team's W-L record, and every player's stats. The college basketball version is coming right around the corner as well.
Bulls team essay/Warriors player comments

To the champions go the spoils of the book deals (well, unless you're the Spurs...). There's a varied collection of new books related to the now 16-time champion Lakers franchise.

Untitled Autobiography, by Jerry West with Jonathan Coleman (TBD)
This one was on our list last year, and despite the fact that we still can't find an Amazon page, a title, or a release date, it really does seem like the release of a new Jerry West autobiography is finally imminent. Reports from both NBA.com and the New York Times suggest that creating the book has been an intense, cathartic process for West, who delves into losing a brother in the Korean War and enduring physical abuse from his father, as part of baring his soul to Coleman, who was "practically living with West for four months", according to the NYT.

Laker Girl: From Pickfair to Playboy to the Purple and Gold, by Jeanie Buss with Steve Springer (Nov. 15)
She is one of the most powerful women in sports, head of business operations for the Lakers, daughter of the greatest owner in NBA history, girlfriend of the greatest coach in NBA history, and has posed in Playboy. Think there's enough potential material here? The Chicago Tribune says that Buss used a diary of the 2009-10 season as a vehicle for telling her story.

Journey to the Ring, by Phil Jackson (with photography by Andrew D. Bernstein) (Oct. 31)
How about his-and-her's Lakers books recapping the 2009-10 championship season? Jackson provides the text to complement the images from Bernstein, the dean of NBA photographers, who had plenty of behind-the-scenes Lakers access, as usual. Jackson told ESPN Los Angeles that writing the book "really brought me back and helped me embrace the season."

Los Angeles Lakers: 50 Amazing Years in the City of Angels, by LA Times staff (with photography by Getty Images) (Nov. 1)
2009 release has been revised and expanded to cover the 2009-10 season.

A couple more commemorative editions for a pair of rabid fan bases while we're here:

Blazermania: This is Our Story, by Wayne Thompson (Nov. 1)
The official team history, as written by the original Blazers beat writer from The Oregonian newspaper.

Carolina Basketball: A Century of Excellence, by Adam Lucas (Sept. 29)
Lucas has written five other books on North Carolina hoops, covering national-championship teams from 1957 to 2009.

This year's re-issues promise to be auspicious and delicious.

Rockin' Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool, by Walt Frazier and Ira Berkow (Oct. 30)
There aren't too many hoop books we're looking forward to more than this re-release of Clyde's singular 1974 concoction, which has an Amazon product description reading: "A New York Knick talks about basketball, his life, and being cool." There's a delightful recap of some book highlights from this 2008 TPM Cafe Book Club post, including Clyde's illustrated guide to catching a fly in mid-air with one's bare hands. Been looking for this forever - very excited for the re-release.

Manute: The Center of Two Worlds, by Leigh Montville (Oct. 1)
Following the untimely June death of Manute Bol, the widely admired rail-thin 7-7 Sudanese humanitarian who was one of the most peculiar characters to ever pass through NBA circles, Montville's lyrical 1993 biography has been re-released.

The Big O: My Life, My Times, My Game, by Oscar Robertson (Oct. 1)
Seven years after the hardcover release, the autobiography of one of basketball's all-time greats finally comes out in paperback. We're betting that Oscar is cranky about the delay.

Reflecting upon then-newly-integrated prep basketball teams from the '70s and '80s is a popular topic.

The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White, by Doug Merlino (Dec. 21)
Journalist Merlino tells the story of his Seattle AAU basketball team from the '80s, which won a state championship with a mix of white kids from Seattle's most exclusive private school and black kids from the Central District.
Excerpt: Chapter 11: The System
TrueHoop: Uniting the team

Thornridge: The Perfect Season in Black and White, by Scott Lynn (released Nov. 2009)
Released last year, Portland radio man Lynn tells the story of the 1971-72 Thornridge High School basketball team, which was led by Quinn Buckner to an Illinois state championship amidst the upheaval of a school being integrated by busing. TrueHoop called it "an amazing tale of hoops, race and more."
Denver Post: A terrific sports/history book

My Los Angeles in Black and (Almost) White, by Andrew Furman (Nov. 15)
Furman uses his San Fernando Valley high-school basketball team from the '70s/'80s, also integrated by busing, as a vehicle to explore the desegregation of the L.A. public-school system as a whole.

The Butler Bulldogs are the engine driving a spate of new books.

One Beautiful Season: Inside College Basketball's Mid-Majority, by Kyle Whelliston (Oct. 16)
Whelliston is an excellent writer who has chronicled the NCAA's mid-major conferences for several years, currently at The Mid-Majority. One Beautiful Season is much broader than just Butler, spanning college basketball history and Whelliston's 15,000-mile journey around the country during the 2009-10 season, though the Bulldogs' near-miracle is certainly a key storyline.
Excerpt robot

Underdawgs, by David Woods (Oct. 16)
Woods has a decade of experience covering Butler basketball for the Indianapolis Star. In Underdawgs, he chronicles Butler's Cinderella run to within a shot of a hometown national championship.

Butler's Big Dance: The Team, The Tournament and Basketball Fever, by Susan Neville (Nov. 16)
According to the publisher, Butler professor Neville "intertwines her recollections of the events with interviews, anecdotes, and photographs to bring readers a taste of the on-campus and courtside excitement of the Bulldogs’ David-and-Goliath bid for the national title."

How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer, by Buster Olney (Nov. 9)
Well, this one is small-college rather than mid-major as Olney, who is normally a lead baseball writer for ESPN, tackles the story of Meyer, the all-time winningest coach in men's college basketball history, and his inspiring response to a near-fatal car accident and the subsequent discovery of cancer in his liver and intestines.

We can't resist including a couple books which are not currently available in English.

24, by Kobe Bryant with Doris Stockstill [Chinese-language] (released in June)
Kobe released this as a Chinese-language book only. Global Times says that 24 "illustrates his thoughts on the connections between martial arts and basketball, while offering Bryant's insight on and passion for the sport."

After Bryant's promotional tour of China this summer, Global Times also reported the following about 24:
    Bryant noted his approach to basketball has been shaped by Chinese influences. He first heard about the concept of Qi, often translated as "life force" or "energy flow," while in high school. He found later that Qi was a strong element in the martial arts of Bruce Lee, someone Bryant greatly admired while growing up as a kid in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

    "It seems Bruce Lee has nothing to do with basketball. To me it has everything to do with basketball. There are a lot of similarities," he told his fans. Besides Lee's close attention to detail and control over his emotions, it was his philosophical approach to martial arts that captured his interest.

    Bryant pointed out that Lee approached his opponents with no rigid set structure. While playing basketball, this "formlessness" is very difficult to guard and even more difficult to stop.

    "By doing so, no one knows what you are going to do next, therefore, they don't know how to fight back. I've been working hard to infuse his principles of utility, agility, speed and efficiency to my own training," Bryant says in his book.
Da Zero a Otto, by Danilo Gallinari with Flavio Tranquillo [Italian-language] (released Sept. 30)
With the Knicks opening their season in Milan, Danilo Gallinari took the opportunity to unveil an autobiography covering all 22 years of his life. The book's title translates to From Zero to Eight.
Excerpt - NY Post (in English)


A Perfect Fit, by Luther Wright with Karen Hunter (Nov. 23)
This is a memoir by Luther Wright, a seven-footer who went from a first-round pick of the Utah Jazz to bouts with drug addiction, mental-health problems and homelessness, before a rebound that he credits to renewed faith. Tim Povtak captured Wright's story for AOL FanHouse last year.

Blessed Footsteps: Memoirs of J.R. Holden, by J.R. Holden (Jan. 1)
Since we offer a fair amount of FIBA coverage, we thought we'd include this one, which we found randomly on Amazon. It's the autobiography of Holden, who grew up in Pittsburgh and played for Bucknell before establishing an excellent career in Europe, both for CSKA Moscow and the Russian national team, which he joined after Vladimir Putin made him a Russian citizen. Considered a strong clutch player, Holden did a mini-MJ impersonation down the stretch of the 2007 EuroBasket final to help Russia beat Spain for a stunning gold.
Excerpt - Chapter 1

We do our best to be as comprehensive as possible in our basketball books previews, but inevitably, a couple fall through the cracks. Here are a couple more notable books released earlier this year which did not make it into our 2009-10 preview, and deserve recognition.

Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin' in Flip-Flops and the Philippines' Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, by Rafe Bartholomew (released on June 1)
Bartholomew delivered what is widely considered to be a rollicking, entertaining read about the basketball-mad nation of the Philippines.
Excerpt - The Legend of Black Superman, Billy Ray Bates (Deadspin)

Heart of a Lion: The Life, Death And Legacy Of Hank Gathers, by Kyle Keiderling (released on Feb. 5)
The Paul Westhead Loyola Marymount teams rank among our favorites to watch ever, at any level of basketball. Keiderling offers a biography of Gathers, a compelling character who led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89 and then of course tragically collapsed and died on the court during an LMU game in 1990.

That's about it for our 2010-11 list. We're already looking forward to the 2012 list, considering that Sports Illustrated's longtime basketball writer, Jack McCallum - author of books like Seven Seconds or Less and Unfinished Business - will be coming out with a book on the 1992 Dream Team, which he covered during that magical summer run to Barcelona. Happy hoop reading.