Monday, April 30, 2007

Series Wrap-Up: Bulls-Heat

Bulls win series 4-0. That the Bulls eliminated the Heat is not a surprise. That Miami never really had a chance of winning a single game the series is shocking. In completing the sweep, Chicago scored 99.8 points per game while holding Miami, who shot their series-high 46.8% from the field in Game 1, to just under 89 a game. Miami had no answer on defense for Luol Deng, who was the best player in the series. Udonis Haslem was the only non-disappointing member of the Heat other than Dwayne Wade (who was clearly at less than 100% but fought like hell for his team!). Miami needed more out of Shaq (7.4 rebounds, 1.5 blocks per game), James Posey (under 40% from the field for the series; Game 4: 1-8 FG, 18 rebounds, ONE offensive rebound! How the hell do you do that?) and Eddie Jones (7.7 points, 3 boards, 1.7 assists/game).

The Bulls turned a corner as a playoff team in this series, not wasting any time in closing out an opponent with championship experience. It was important that Chicago, who will face the Detroit Pistons in the next round to determine the likely Eastern Conference champion, not allow the Pistons much rest after their sweep of Orlando. This sweep of the Heat is exactly why the Bulls gave Ben Wallace a monster contract last summer. So far, so good!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Series Wrap-Up: Pistons-Magic

Pistons win series 4-0. No surprises here. The Magic were overwhelmed by a team with much more talent and playoff experience. There was no doubt that Detroit would take the series, and they did nothing to disappoint, winning all four games with little trouble. A consummate professional performance from the Pistons.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Western Conference Playoff Preview

(1) Dallas Mavericks v. (8) Golden State Warriors- The Golden State Warriors are going to give Mavericks a run for their money. Not only are they 6-1 against the Mavericks in their past seven regular season meeting (3-0 this season), the Warriors are the NBA’s hottest team coming into playoffs, with a 16-5 record in their last 21 regular season games. Golden State can outscore any team in league, but their chances of winning this series will be tied to their defensive effort against the Mavs’ front line.

Frontcourt: It’s fairly obvious that the frontcourt edge goes to the Mavericks, with likely MVP Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Howard, the NBA’s most underrated All-Star carrying the load. Alongside them, the Mavs’ two-headed center of Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop will provide a defensive presence in lane. Despite Dallas having the top two frontcourt players in the series, the Warriors have size and versatility up front with Al Harrington, Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, which will create some challenging match-ups for Dallas. Also, Andris Biedrins, one of best young big men in the NBA, will command enough attention from the Dallas centers to keep them from simply guarding the hoop.

Backcourt: Despite the talent in the Dallas backcourt, the edge in this series goes to the Warriors. In a head-to-head comparison, each of the Warriors’ top three guards gets the nod over each of the Mavericks’ top three guards. Baron Davis’ strength and versatility will be too much for Jason Terry to handle; Monta Ellis and Devon Harris are similar in terms of build, speed and quickness, but Ellis’ offensive game is far more refined and consistent than Harris’; Jason Richardson and Jerry Stackhouse, both former high-fliers who have evolved into better all-around perimeter players, should both be very effective, but will cancel one another out.

Coaching: Avery Johnson is the best in-game coach in the NBA today. He manages his time-outs and his rotation better than any other coach in the league and his players seem to genuinely love playing hard for him. In this series Johnson is matched up against his mentor, and one of the architects of the Mavericks, Don Nelson. One of the NBA’s greatest coaches, Nellie is a master of “small ball” and creating match-up problems. His Warriors’ up tempo, controlled chaos style of play will be the biggest wild card in the series and will give Dallas problems.

Despite Avery Johnson’s fantastic coaching ability, Don Nelson’s experience, along with his familiarity with the Mavericks gives a slight coaching edge to Golden State.

Prediction: Mavericks in 7. This is a nightmare match-up for the systematic and methodical Mavericks. The Warriors will push the tempo and not allow Dallas to dictate the flow of the game the way they normally do. The Mavs’ talent and adaptability will allow them to play the Warriors’ game when necessary and control the rhythm of the game the rest of the time. The Warriors will give the Mavericks, who will benefit from having Game 7 played on their home floor, all they can handle.

(2) Phoenix Suns v. (7) Los Angeles Lakers- The rematch of last season’s most exciting first round series should provide some entertaining, up-tempo play but, sadly for the Lakers, will again end with Phoenix advancing to the second round. The injury-plagued Lakers limp into the playoffs, having lost 14 of their 23 games since March 1, while the Suns, who come into this year’s series with a healthy Amare Stoudemire, posted a record of 17-7 over the season’s last two months, finishing the regular season with 61 wins.

Frontcourt: By a wide margin, the frontcourt edge belongs to the Suns. Phoenix comes into this year’s playoffs with a healthy Amare Stoudemire, who is back to 100% after returning from micro-fracture knee surgery, as well as Shawn Marion, the NBA’s top defensive forward and a modern-day James Worthy on the break. Throw in a supporting cast of Boris Diaw, Kurt Thomas and James Jones, and Phoenix may have the deepest frontcourt in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom and Luke Walton, the Lakers’ two best frontcourt players, have spent a good portion of the season nursing injuries, missing 26 and 22 games respectively. The Lakers’ big men, Kwame Brown, Andrew Bynum and Chris Mihm, have been hampered by injury and inexperience all season. Even when healthy, however, this is not the strength of the Lakers’ roster.

Backcourt: With all due respect to Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash is the most deserving candidate for the MVP, but he is not the best individual player in this series. Kobe Bryant, who has developed into one of the most devastating offensive players in league history and is capable of taking over any game at any time, will leave his mark on this series. On the shoulders of Kobe alone, the edge in the backcourt goes to the Lakers.

The Lakers’ supporting cast does not need to dominate the series, but it will be extremely important for the Lakers’ point guards (Jordan Farmar, Smush Parker and Sasha Vujacic) to a) force Steve Nash to play defense and b) make Nash work on offense. From the Suns’ standpoint, it will be crucial that Raja Bell stays out of foul trouble, since he plays Kobe as hard as anyone does. Also, look for Leandro Barbosa, who is as fast as anyone that has ever played in the NBA and one of the toughest backcourt match-ups in the league, to give the Lakers’ guards fits on defense.

Coaching: It’s difficult to determine which team has the coaching edge. Phil Jackson’s reputation and body of work are far greater than Mike D’Antoni’s, but the Suns’ superior talent and Steve Nash’s on-court coaching give D’Antoni a much larger margin for error. Setting aside all past accomplishments and looking at only a current snapshot of these coaches, a slight edge goes to Phoenix.

Prediction: Suns in 6. With the Lakers’ injury problems and the return of Amare Stoudemire, it’s highly unlikely that this series will be as competitive as last season’s. However, Kobe Bryant will not allow the Lakers to be embarrassed. He will single-handedly extend this series to six games, but the Lakers are simply overmatched, and Phoenix should advance without too much of a scare.

(3) San Antonio Spurs v. (6) Denver Nuggets- The Nuggets, who are playing their best basketball of the year (10-1 in April), are peaking at the absolute perfect time. In addition to the Iverson-Carmelo duo, Denver has athleticism and depth at both end of the floor. On the other hand, the Spurs, who personify professionalism and championship experience, did not retool in the frontcourt as well as they have in years past and have some question marks on their roster.

Frontcourt: In what felt like a quiet season for him, Tim Duncan was still Tim Duncan, averaging 20 points, 10.6 rebounds (2.7 offensive) and 2.4 blocks per game. However, three of the top four frontcourt players in this series, Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby and Nene, play for the Nuggets. After Duncan, San Antonio’s frontcourt features the underwhelming center duo of Francisco Elson and Fabricio Oberto, Michael Finley, now just a 20 minute-10 point a night player and Robert Horry, the greatest non-superstar clutch shooter in NBA history, but certainly not a major offensive threat throughout a long series. Throw in the Nuggets #4, 5 and 6 options in the frontcourt, the underrated Linas Kleiza (47% field goals, 90% free throws and 37% 3-pointers), Eduardo Najera (57% FG, 70%+ FG) and Reggie Evans (averaged 7.1 rebounds in just 17 minutes/game in the regular season), and the edge in the frontcourt goes to the Nuggets.

Backcourt: The backcourt match-up will be the key to this series. Although Denver has the best backcourt player in the series (Iverson), the Spurs have the next three (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen), as well as greater depth, with Brent Barry and Beno Udrih, as well as Ginobili, coming off the bench. The stability and consistency of the Spurs’ guards makes them the safe choice to control the series, but the Nuggets’ backcourt has a much higher ceiling, but will experience more pronounced cold spells. Denver features Steve Blake, a consistent playmaker/distributor and the perfect compliment to AI, and J.R. Smith, who, while erratic, is one of the NBA’s scariest streak shooters who, like Parker and Manu, can put up 30 at any time. The determining factor in this match-up will be Iverson, the only guard in this series capable of hitting for 50 and single-handedly winning a game on any given night. AI’s warrior mentality and ability to raise his game in the postseason gives Denver the edge in the backcourt, but by the narrowest of margins.

Coaching: In the regular season or the playoffs, there is not a better coach in NBA right now than Gregg Popovich. Popovich has won titles in all three of his trips to the NBA Finals, faced practically every postseason scenario and built the Spurs into a dynasty supported by unselfish, mature and accountable players. It should be noted that Nuggets’ coach George Karl has been/still is a great NBA coach in his own right, but this has less to do with any shortcomings that he may have and more to do with Gregg Popovich’s out-of-this-world track record. It’s time to recognize him as an all-time great coach. Interestingly, Popovich’s career is a lot like Tim Duncan’s, the greatness doesn’t beat you over the head, but when you really take the time and look, his accomplishments in just under 11 seasons (3 titles; 518 wins; .673 regular season win %; .618 playoff win %) are pretty amazing.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6. The Spurs are not getting any younger and are as vulnerable in the paint as they have been at any time in recent memory. Also, Allen Iverson has been reborn in Denver and finally has some talent around him. He and Carmelo Anthony, who needs to win a playoff series soon, will carry the Nuggets to the next round. Denver’s offense will be too much for the Spurs to overcome. However, all bets are off if Horry get the ball with less than ten seconds to go in a close game…

(4) Houston Rockets v. (5) Utah Jazz- This series will come down to the performance of Tracy McGrady. T-Mac, who turned in the NBA’s most underrated MVP-caliber season, averaging 24.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game, is the one true SUPERstar in this series. Given the Rockets’ lack of offensive depth, McGrady will have to be the best player on the floor this series if Houston is going to defeat the talented and versatile Jazz, who won three of the four regular season meetings between the teams.

Frontcourt: Yao Ming, with his size and talent, should have little trouble putting up impressive numbers against the Jazz. However, Yao has not shown the Shaq-like mean streak to emerge as the NBA’s dominant big man, capable of winning games all by himself. It is this kind of aggressiveness (Harpring, Kirilenko, Millsap), and some great talent (Boozer, Okur) along with superior depth, that gives Utah the frontcourt edge in this series. Sadly, Houston’s most aggressive frontcourt players, Juwan Howard, Shane Battier, Dikembe Mutombo and Chuck Hayes, are neither as young nor as talented as Yao.

Backcourt: Having Tracy McGrady, the best player in the series, gives Houston the advantage in the backcourt, but by a slim margin. Houston’s lack of secondary scoring in the backcourt, with McGrady’s only help coming from Rafer Alston and Luther Head, could prove to be hindrance. Utah features top-6 point guard Deron Williams (16 points, 9 assists per game), Gordon Giricek (42% 3-point pct.), Matt Harpring (49% FG, 77% FT, 33% 3-pt), as well as Derek Fisher’s championship experience gained in his three title runs with the Lakers.

Coaching: The match-up between Jerry Sloan and Jeff Van Gundy promises to deliver a great coaching battle. Both of these coaches have delivered great regular season results, with each posting a win percentage greater than .550 (Sloan- .600, Van Gundy- .575), but the results are less than spectacular in the postseason, with Sloan posting a 78-80 record in playoffs and Van Gundy entering the series with a record of 41-40. A slight edge goes to Sloan, given the propensity of his teams to exceed expectations.

Prediction: Rockets in 7. This will be the most competitive first round series in the West. The determining factor in this series will be if either team can win a game on the other’s home floor (Houston 28-13 at home, Utah 31-10). The Rockets have the advantage in this match-up, as they have the series’ best individual player (McGrady) and a potential Game 7 on their home floor.

Eastern Conference Playoff Preview

(1) Detroit Pistons v. (8) Orlando Magic- The epitome of a #1/#8 match-up. Consider the following: 1) The Pistons, clearly the top team in the Eastern Conference, have been on cruise control for six weeks; 2) The Magic, after starting the season 14-5, had to fight until the last week of the season to secure a playoff spot with a record of 40-42; 3) Detroit won all four regular season meetings, including April 11 (the only time Orlando broke 90 points vs. Detroit), a game that was vital to Orlando’s playoff push and meaningless to Detroit.

Here’s how they stack up:

Frontcourt: With Rasheed Wallace, Tayshun Prince, Chris Webber and Antonio McDyess, the Pistons’ frontcourt is the deepest and most talented in the NBA. It’s hard to see anybody matching up well, offensively or defensively, against Detroit up front. Despite his incredible physical tools, Dwight Howard’s offensive game is still very raw and he has yet to establish himself as a consistent and dominant offensive player. Beyond Howard, the Magic frontcourt, with Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu, Tony Battie and Darko Milicic, simply doesn’t have the size or athleticism to compete with the Pistons.

Backcourt: Not a contest. With all due respect to Jameer Nelson and Trevor Ariza, it’s impossible to see them as anything more than a slight nuisance to the Pistons’ starting guards, Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton. Detroit’s edge in the backcourt also extends to the bench. Comparing Detroit’s reserve guards (Carlos Defino, Flip Murray, Lindsay Hunter) to Orlando’s (Carlos Arroyo, Keith Bogans, Keyon Dooling, J.J. Redick), it’s unlikely that Orlando’s reserve guards will give Detroit any problems either.

Coaching: Not a lot to choose between Flip Saunders and Brian Hill- neither is terrible; neither is particularly great. Saunders has a decided edge in regular season winning percentage (.584 v. .486), but Hill’s 18-18 postseason record outpaces Saunders’ 27-38 mark, and each lost his only trip to the NBA Finals. Detroit gets the edge here as well, not so much because of Flip Saunders, but because of their maturity and because Chauncey Billups is like a coach on the floor.

Prediction: Pistons in 4. The over/under for the Magic is 2- not for wins, but games with 80 or more points. The playoffs are where the Pistons thrive. DEE-TROIT BAS-KET-BALL is built for this. This series is unlikely to be competitive.

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers v. (7) Washington Wizards- With the Wizards having lost two of their three best players, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, to injury, LeBron James and the Cavaliers have the NBA equivalent of a first-round bye. With both teams at full strength, Washington’s Arenas-Butler-Jamison trio would probably be too much for the Cavs to handle, but such is the nature of late-season injuries. The teams split two early season meetings, with each winning at home, and Cleveland won on April 6 in D.C. against the depleted Wizards.

Frontcourt: Even without the injuries, James, Zydrunas Ilguaskas and the underrated Drew Gooden in the starting lineup, and Anderson Varejao and Donyell Marshall coming off the bench, give Cleveland the edge in the frontcourt. Antawn Jamison will get his points, but guarding LeBron or Gooden is more than he can handle. And without Butler, the Wizards’ best defensive player, slowing down James and Gooden becomes even less likely. However, even in Butler’s absence, Washington will be able to contain Ilgauskas with its big man combo of Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood.

Backcourt: Gilbert Arenas, the NBA’s best pure scorer not named Kobe Bryant, would single-handedly have given Washington the best backcourt in this series. Even without Arenas, Cleveland only has a slight edge in guard play. The Cavs’ Eric Snow-Larry Hughes backcourt will produce similar numbers to Washington’s Antonio Daniel-DeShawn Stevenson combo, with Hughes’ defense giving Cleveland the edge. Guard play off the bench is where Cleveland has a decided advantage. Arenas’ injury forced Daniels into the starting five, leaving Washington with only Roger Mason and Jarvis Hayes for backcourt help. On the other hand, the Cavs can bring Daniel Gibson (their best point guard), Sasha Pavlovic and Damon Jones.

Coaching: Both Mike Brown and Eddie Jordan are decent young coaches, but nothing special. Brown’s Cavs, though talented, were plagued by inconsistent and indifferent play all season. That they won 50 games says less about Brown’s coaching prowess than it does about the level of play in the East.

The Wizards ran out to a 31-21 start and were headed for a high playoff seed until the wheels came off in February. Terrible play on defense, along with season-ending injuries to Arenas and Butler, caused Washington to go 10-20 in its final 30 games.

In a close race, the edge here goes to Brown, who made the decision to take the shackles off LeBron and the offense in the final weeks of the season and gets his players to play much more consistent defense than Eddie Jordan does.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 5. In their current state, the Washington Wizards are not a playoff team. Had the season been a week longer, the Wiz would have fallen out of the playoffs. That said, professional pride and occasional lapses in intensity from the Cavs will allow Washington to steal one game.

(3) Toronto Raptors v. (6) New Jersey Nets- How did the injury-plagued, underachieving (even considering injuries) Nets go from struggling to simply make the playoffs to jumping all way to the #6 seed? And how exactly did those same Nets suddenly become the sexy pick to pull a first round upset? Of their top four players, one (Nenad Krstic) is recovering from season-ending knee surgery, another (Jason Kidd) will age 10 years before our eyes chasing T.J. Ford around, a third (Richard Jefferson) has been plagued by injuries (7 or fewer games in 4 different months this season) and isn’t close to his form from the past 2 seasons, and the fourth, (Vince Carter), by far the team’s best player, will face such intense hatred and vitriol from Raptors’ fans (stemming from his admitted half-hearted play that led to his trade to New Jersey) that Toronto will have the greatest home court advantage of any team in Round 1.

Frontcourt: Toronto gets the edge in the frontcourt, not only because of superior talent, but also because of greater depth. The Raptors, led by Chris Bosh, who this season went from being a very good, young player to the best big man in the East. Bosh has plenty of support up front: rookies Andrea Bargnini and Jorge Garbajosa will create match-up problems and open up the lane with their outside shooting and Rasho Nesterovic, who’s much better than he gets credit for, is running unopposed for the title of “#1 center” in the series

Because of Krtic’s injury, the Nets best frontcourt scoring option after Carter is Bostjan Nachbar, who is a nice player, but that’s quite a drop-off! The Nets’ big men (Mikki Moore, Jason Collins and Josh Boone) will have their hands full trying to 1) avoid foul trouble guarding Chris Bosh and 2) control the offensive glass so the Raptors don’t run all over them.

Backcourt: The backcourt match-up dramatically favors the Raptors. T.J. Ford ended the season playing the best basketball of his NBA career, and it’s no gimme that Jason Kidd will be the series’ best point guard. To compound matters, Ford is a match-up nightmare because he’s so small (6’, 165 lbs.) and lightening quick. As great as Kidd is, defense has never been his calling card. This series will be among the toughest of his career, and his offensive game will suffer as a result. Sadly, Kidd can expect little-to-no defensive help from back-ups Eddie House and Marcus Williams. Richard Jefferson, the Nets’ best perimeter defender, is not only too big to stay with Ford, but has been battling an ankle injury all season- which is not good sine he’ll need to rely on his quickness. In addition to Ford, the wildly underrated Jose Calderon, and shooters Anthony Parker (underrated!), Juan Dixon, and Morris Peterson will have the Nets’ backcourt looking overmatched.

Coaching: Consider that Sam Mitchell entered the season as a lame-duck coach, that the Raptors stumbled to a 3-9 start and that his top rookie (#1 pick Bargnani) was universally considered to be a project. Now consider that Mitchell never lost his players’ respect, Toronto put an end to the “Titanic Division” jokes by going 44-26 after that rough start, including an 18-11 record after the All-Star Break, and that Bargnani justified his draft status and looks poised to develop into a star. Can you say Coach of the Year?

Conversely, we have the Lawrence Frank era in New Jersey. Since taking over the two-time Eastern Conference champions after Jason Kidd ran Byron Scott out of town, has won two playoff series in three seasons, compiling a combined 1-12 record in the three series he’s lost, and, despite adding Carter, now presides over an underachieving .500 team. Looks like once he retires, Kidd is on his way to an Isiah-esque GM career.

Prediction: Raptors in 6. New Jersey’s top players, while extremely talented, are injury-plagued, without the depth on the roster to fill the voids. The Raptors are healthy, talented and cohesive, and their key players are on the upswing of their careers. Also, the Raptors’ feature the depth than the Net’s don’t, which will have a major impact on the series.

(4) Miami Heat v. (5) Chicago Bulls- Potentially the hardest fought series of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Both teams have top-shelf talent and post-season experience. Miami’s supporting cast is playing its best basketball of the season, but if Dwayne Wade’s shoulder acts up and Shaquille O’Neal is unable to dominate an entire series like he’s done in the past, Miami won’t be a threat to the Bulls.

Frontcourt: The Bulls have the edge in the frontcourt. Even without a dominant low post scorer, Chicago’s biggest strength is its frontcourt, with a combination of youth and experience. Ben Wallace and Tyrus Thomas anchor Chicago’s defense in the paint, providing help defense, challenging shots and dominating the glass at both ends of the floor. At the other end of the floor, Chicago will give the Heat fit with some extremely difficult match-ups. With their size and versatility, Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni, who’s very similar to Mehmet Okur, will expose Miami’s lack of athleticism and depth on the front line.

For Miami, Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning don’t have the stamina and athleticism that they’ve had in years past. Shaq is still a major factor in the low post, just not with the same consistency as in his prime with the Lakers. Although he doesn’t dominate like he once, Shaq is still a quality player with talent and experience. Mourning, still one of the NBA’s great warriors, will play his heart out and undoubtedly make some plays, but won’t be nearly enough to swing the series Miami’s way. This will place a lot of (too much) pressure on Udonis Haslem and James Posey on the boards and the on defensive end Offensively, unless Shaq becomes his old dominant self, the Heat will have to rely on Antoine Walker to carry the frontcourt scoring load. Walker wasn’t that type of a dominant offensive player in his prime, so it doesn’t seem reasonable to expect him to become one now.

Backcourt: Behind Detroit’s Billups-Hamilton duo, Chicago has the Eastern Conferences best starting backcourt. With Wade’s shoulder ailing, Ben Gordon is the most electric offensive player in the series. Gordon’s ability to catch fire and put up 20 points in quarter, combined with Kirk Hinrich’s ability to score as well as run an offense, may be the Bulls’ biggest advantage. Foul trouble is this duo’s fatal flaw, with each averaging more than 3 fouls per game in the regular season. If they’re not careful, this may cost them one or two games in a playoff series.

If Wade’s shoulder is 100%, the series is up in the air; if he gets re-injured, the Heat have no chance. Considering he’s at his best when he’s slashing through the lane and playing with reckless abandon, it is likely that he will take a few hard shots on his bum shoulder. With Jason Kapono, Miami’s #1 threat from the outside, also not 100% after returning from an ankle injury, the Heat are just too thin at the top of the depth chart to challenge the Bulls’ guards.

Coaching: With Pat Riley coaching the team, Miami has much more name recognition than the Bulls. While Riley’s motivational skills and championship experience give him the edge, Miami doesn’t have an overwhelming advantage on the bench. Scott Skiles has done a fantastic job of developing the “Baby Bulls” into a legitimate contender in the East. Dogged by trade rumors involving numerous players all season, Skiles’ didn’t let the Bulls lose their focus. While his body of work doesn’t compare to Riley’s, Skiles is the best coach in this series today.

Prediction: Bulls in 5. As valuable as championship experience is, the teams that are the healthiest and have the greatest depth are generally the most successful in the playoffs. With both teams at full strength, this could be a classic 7-game battle, but Miami is limping into the playoffs. The Bulls are deep and healthy, and look ready to peak at the right time of year.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

It's Not Just How High, But How, You Draft

It can't be ignored any longer. Simply put, NBA teams tank games. Going against the principles of competition, sportsmanship and customer service, NBA teams intentionally field weak lineups in order to lose games and potentially improve their positions in the draft. This is not a new concept, but the widespread tanking in the NBA this season has reached humiliating proportions. Sub-.500 NBA teams' have acting like junkies looking for a fix in their desire for "more ping-pong balls" in the Oden-Durant Sweepstakes.

The Celtics did everything but take bats to their players' knees in their epic quest for losses (seriously, Sebastian Telfair was getting minutes!); the Grizzlies fired Mike Fratello, a proven, successful NBA coach in favor Tony Barone (who? exactly!), who's revolutionary "run around and shoot" system has not produce a high level of basketball (shocking!); the 76ers thought they were tanking the season when they traded Allen Iverson, only to play better-than-.500 ball since January 1 (damn it!); once the Indiana Pacers accepted that playoff success wasn't in the cards, they traded for the starting frontcourt of the "What the $%^& Contract" All-Stars; late in the season, the Sonics, Timberwolves and Bucks declared their best players out "indefinitely", which quickly turn into "out for the year." Why?

Ping-pong balls.

This June's NBA Draft, headed by Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, is being touted as the deepest in at least a decade, and teams want a piece of the action! While the consolation prizes are pretty enticing, teams really want either Oden or Durant, and the blatant tanking that this has brought on will give May 22's NBA Draft Lottery higher TV ratings than most playoff games. Only two teams will get the pleasure of drafting Oden and Durant, leaving 14 heartbroken lottery teams looking for a silver lining while trying not to vomit. Not to worry, quality NBA players are always found at the top of the draft! Yeah, about that....

History shows that the teams who chose to mortgage improvement, competitive pride and the goodwill of their fans will not necessarily be rewarded with a star-quality player. Sure, they'll have a bigger pool of talent to choose from, but that's hardly a guarantee. It's no secret that every year, teams do well in the draft despite not having a top pick, proving that how teams draft has far more impact on their success than how high they draft.

Here is a look at the best non-lottery draft picks since 1996. It's plain to see that teams can, in fact, play to win, make the playoffs, and draft successful players, several of them All-Stars, even an MVP. In the interest of not making snap judgements and allowing young players time to develop, the 2006 draft has been omitted. Here's something to think about while praying that your favorite team doesn't leave the lottery with the second-coming of Todd Fuller, Nickoloz Tskitishvili or Olivier Saint-Jean:

2005: Danny Granger (#17), Hakim Warrick (#19), Jarrett Jack (#22), Francisco Garcia (#23), David Lee (#30), Monta Ellis (Round 2, #40 overall), Ryan Gomes (#50),

2004: Al Jefferson (#15 overall), Jameer Nelson (#20), Kevin Martin (#26), Anderson Varejao (Round 2, #31 overall)

2003: Luke Ridnour (#14), David West (#18), Boris Diaw (#21), Carlos Delfino (#25), Josh Howard* (#29), Jason Kapono (Round 2, #31 overall), Luke Walton (#32), Mo Williams (#47), Kyle Korver (#51)

Tayshaun Prince (#23), Nenad Krstic (#24), Carlos Boozer* (Round 2, #35 overall), Ronald "Flip" Murray (#42), Matt Barnes (#46)

Zach Randolph (#19), Gerald Wallace (#25), Samuel Dalembert (#26), Jamaal Tinsley (#27), Tony Parker* (#28), Gilbert Arenas* (Round 2, #31 overall), Mehmet Okur* (#38), Bobby Simmons (#42)

2000: Desmond Mason (#17), Quentin Richardson (#18), Jamaal Magloire* (#19), Morris Peterson (#20), Eduardo Najera (Round 2, #38 overall), Michael Redd* (#43)

1999: Ron Artest* (#16), Kenny Thomas (#22), Andrei Kirilenko* (#24), Manu Ginobili* (Round 2, #57 overall)

1998: Ricky Davis (#21), Al Harrington (#25), Nazr Mohammed (#29), Ruben Patterson (Round 2, #31 overall), Rashard Lewis* (#32), Cuttino Mobley (#41), Greg Buckner (#53)

1997: Bobby Jackson (#23), Stephen Jackson (#43)

1996: Peja Stojakovic* (#14), Steve Nash* (#15), Jermaine O'Neal* (#17), Zydrunas Ilgauskas* (#20), Derek Fisher (#24)

*- Played in at least 1 All Star Game, Bold- MVP Award winner

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Plenty of NBA Talent in NCAA Final

The NCAA Championship Game on Monday night may have been relatively routine victory for the Florida Gators, but it will prove to memorable when the NBA Draft rolls around in June. The Gators and the Ohio State Buckeyes (provided they all declare for the draft) showcased at least nine players that will be drafted into the NBA, five likely lottery picks, three of whom may be among the top six players selected- incredible! A look at the NBA prospects that took the floor in Atlanta on Monday:

In the Top 6

Greg Oden-
A no-brainer. Oden came into the game as the likely #1 pick, and he firmly cemented himself into the top spot in June by putting up 25 points, grabbing 12 rebounds (4 offensive), blocking four shots and staying out of foul trouble. Had the Buckeyes made a stronger commitment to running their through Oden, the game may have played out differently. He's likely to adapt to the NBA much like Shaquille O'Neal did, with his defense and rebounding outpacing his offense in his first season. But make no mistake, his size, power and athleticism will make him an offensive force in the paint from the beginning. With a year or two of NBA experience (and stamina) and coaching, Oden will be absolutely unstoppable.

Al Horford- An experienced, NBA-ready big man, Horford was a top 5 draft prospect coming into the title game and, like Oden, did nothing to hurt his status. Horford is a powerful scorer down low and a skilled rebounder, grabbing both defensive and all-important offensive boards. He's also versatile on offense, with 12-15 foot range on his jumper, as well as a presence on defense, averaging just under two blocked shots per game. In time, he could develop into a Jermaine O'Neal-type big man.

Corey Brewer- As much physical ability as anyone in the draft and, unlike many young players, never has a game where he gives you nothing. His length, quickness and anticipation are huge assets on the defensive end, where he will be a terror. His combination of agility and a 7-foot+ wingspan will make him a stopper along the lines of Scottie Pippen before his rookie season is over. Offensively, he's extremely versatile- his speed and quickness allow him to get into the lane on a regular basis, and his strength and athleticism make him a strong finisher once he gets there. He should have room to get his jumper off at the next level, and his improving perimeter game (to 20 feet) will make him a legitimate inside-outside threat as a pro. Outside of the Oden-Durant duo, Corey Brewer will be the biggest impact player from this draft.

Still in the Lottery

Mike Conley, Jr.- Has the speed, quickness and poise of Tony Parker. Although he plays the game at 100 mph, Conley is always under control and never seems to make a mental mistake- traits normally associated with championship point guards. His absurdly clutch play for the Buckeyes down the stretch, combined with a weak crop of point guards in the draft, has catapulted him into the top eight picks this June (assuming he comes out). He's two steps quicker than anyone who tries to guard him, something that will really benefit him in the Association, where any good faith effort to play defense usually results in a foul. Like Parker, he will make a very nice living carving up NBA defenses.

Joakim Noah- Didn't show any improvement in his game from his outstanding sophomore season which, along with his underwhelming performance in the title game (8 points, 3 rebounds, 0 blocks), likely dropped his draft stock into the lower half of the lottery, which is probably still a bit high. Noah's energy and defensive effort will not be enough to mask his lack of physical strength or a refined offensive game. It's difficult to see him becoming much more than an A.C. Green-type role player. Had he played for any other college team, he'd be a nice late-first round bagain, but team success at Florida has inflated his draft stock.

Late 1st/Early 2nd

Lee Humphrey- Most contending team in the late 1990s would gladly have traded a late-first or early-second round pick to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Steve Kerr. Humphrey offers an opportunity to do just that by picking up the NCAA Tournament's all-time leader in made 3 pointers (47; 23-for-49, 47%, in 2007) and one of the best outside threats in the draft, in the #28-35 overall range. Drafting on potential is all well and good, but there is something to be said for drafting a clutch 3-point threat who's proven himself on the biggest stage in back-to-back years. Upside and athleticism do not always translate into a defined role in the NBA. Lee Humphrey has a defined role and he will prove to be an asset to a contender looking for an outside threat.

Round 2

Chris Richard- Think Chuck Hayes. Chris Richard will not be a star in the NBA, but his strength and championship experience will keep him on an NBA roster for a long time. In his senior season, in just 18 minutes per game, Richard averaged 6 points and nearly 4 rebounds, 1.5 of them offensive- solid production for a big man off the bench. He raised his production in Final Four, averaging 12 points and 6 rebounds in 20 minutes per game. He will be a low-risk second round steal.

Taurean Green- A talented point guard with a versatile offensive game and championship experience. In 2007, Green's field goal percentage jumped to 44%, a dramatic improvement over his 36.6% percentage of 2006. This, along with his strong perimeter game (40% 3-point percentage) and excellent free throw shooting (84.9% in 2007; 88.6 in 2006) will make him a viable second-unit point guard in the NBA. Taurean Green has played college basketball at the highest level and has been the point guard for a two-time national championship squad. Drafting this type of resume in the middle of Round 2 is seldom a mistake.

Ron Lewis- Rather than spending a late second round pick on some little-known European or small-school prospect who may or may not develop into an NBA player, why not select a player who has contributed at the highest level of college basketball (NCAA career- 13.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and has an NBA-ready body (6'4", 200 lbs)? Ron Lewis, who averaged 17 points-per-game in 2003-04, has four years of college experience as well as the ability to raise his game when the situation calls for it, evidenced by his 18 point, 4.6 rebound tournament averages (vs. 12.5 ppg and 3.5 rpg during the season).