Thursday, April 30, 2009

RONDO!!!

As great as Derrick Rose has been, there’s NO doubt that Rajon Rondo is the breakout star of this NBA postseason. In the absence of Kevin Garnett, and with Paul Pierce obviously fatigued, Rondo has elevated his game to mythical heights, averaging a triple-double (24.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 10.2 apg), not mention more than 3 steals, in the first five games of Celtics’ Round matchup against the young, hard-charging Bulls. This postseason is hardly a done deal, but should he manage to continue this run, Rajon Rondo would become just the third player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire postseason, adding his name to the following list:


Oscar Robertson, 1961: 28 ppg, 11 rpg, 11 apg in 4 postseason games


Jason Kidd, 2006: 14.6 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 10.9 apg in 12 postseason games


Not bad, huh?


Watching Rondo dominate this series, there’s no doubt he’s raised his level of play, but it hasn’t seemed like he’s been playing over his head. His play over the past couple of weeks has been so spectacular, his leadership and strength of will so sublime, has clearly catapulted him from “top-10 point guard” into the ranks of the NBA’s elite. However, a look back at his regular season stats proves, retroactively, perhaps, that these games have been no fluke. Outstanding, perhaps, but not out of left field. Rajon Rondo’s been this good!


In 80 2008-09 regular season games, in just his third professional season, Rajon Rondo quietly put together one of the best all-around seasons by a point guard in NBA history, producing averages of 11.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.86 steals. This combination of all-around production places Rondo’s season in some rather rare company. Only 49 other times (by 16 other players) in league history has a player averaged 11.9-5-8, with only eight (in bold) achieving the feat in their first three seasons:


Andy Phillip (1951)


Bob Cousy (twice; 1955, 1958)


Guy Rodgers (twice; 1960, 1965)


Oscar Robertson (11 times; 1960-1970)


Wilt Chamberlain (1967)


Walt Frazier (1969)


Lenny Wilkens (3 times; 1967-1969)


Norm Van Lier (1970)


Micheal Ray Richardson (twice; 1979, 1984)


Magic Johnson (10 times; 1981-1990)


Clyde Drexler (1985)


Michael Jordan (1988)


Mookie Blaylock (1993)


Jason Kidd (10 times; 1995, 1998-2006)


Rod Strickland (1997)


Gary Payton (1999)


Chris Paul (2009)


Toss in the numbers for steals, which the NBA only started tracking in 1973, and only eight players can match Rondo’s 2008-09 season (11.9-5-8, and 1.85 steals), and just four (again, in bold) in the first three years of their respective careers:


Micheal Ray Richardson (twice; 1979, 1984)


Magic Johnson (3 times; 1981-1983)


Clyde Drexler (1985)


Michael Jordan (1988)


Mookie Blaylock (1993)


Jason Kidd (8 times; 1995, 1998-2002, 2004 & 2005)


Gary Payton (1999)


Chris Paul (2009)


Thanks to his incredible play against the Chicago Bulls, we are all just now waking up and taking notice of Rajon Rondo’s floor presence and awesome all-around skills, but the reality is that, without blowing anyone away, he’s already put up single-season numbers that very few players in NBA history can match, especially considering just how early in his career it’s happening.


Monday, April 27, 2009

20 Questions from the Association- Playoff Week 1 Review

Is it just me, or…


Is Derrick Rose so special, he’s difficult to sum up?


Is Shane Battier poised to be this generation’s Robert Horry?


Regardless of their Round 2 opponent (assuming they’re able to close out the Spurs), do the Dallas Mavericks look like a threat to reach the Western Conference Finals?


Is Rajon Rondo on the verge of making The Leap to “full-blown superstar”?


Are the Lakers just plain good enough to overcome their fleeting attention span?


Have the Hornets set record for quickest turnaround from “up-and-coming contender” to “missed their window”?


Is it about time for Dwight Howard to produce a truly dominant performance?


Was the Pistons’ inability to capitalize on the Cavs' 9-point Game 3 3rd quarter not much of a surprise?


Do the Blazers’ bigs look like they’re capable of consistently stopping Yao Ming?


For all their debilitating injuries (including the obvious wear-and-tear on Paul Pierce), are the Boston Celtics showing some great, old-school championship pride?


With Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose all at the top of their respective games, will point guard play elevate these playoffs to new heights?


Will Greg Oden be chronically foul-prone until he starts receiving the D-Wade treatment from the referees?


Is Luis Scola becoming the best player on the Houston Rockets?


Do the Hornets need Chris Paul to channel Game-3-CP3 just to have a chance in any game?


Does the “Carmelo Anthony-LeBron James-Dwyane Wade” debate now look like an elementary school “which of these doesn’t belong” question?


Will LaMarcus Aldridge only reach his potential when he commits to developing an inside game?


Are gamblers everywhere devastated to see the Detroit Pistons departure from the postseason?


In addition to the Sixth Man of the Year award, does Jason Terry deserve at least one (even 10th place) MVP vote?


Is this year’s surprising playoff performance by the Atlanta Hawks a lot less cool than last year’s?


Should the Orlando Magic be scared to death of Andre Iguodala in Game 5?


Saturday, April 18, 2009

Everyone Look At KG!

With all due respect to one of the best players of his era, Kevin Garnett needs to get over himself!


As everyone’s no doubt heard by now, KG’s injured knee will keep him out of the 2009 Playoffs, and prevent him from being a part of Celtics’ title defense. While this is pretty disappointing for most NBA fans, it cannot be considered a surprise, given the amount of time he spent on the sideline this season and lack of clarity surrounding the severity of his injury.


However, in several previous games in which he was sidelined, Garnett wasn’t present on the Celtics’ bench, claiming his emotional state wouldn’t allow him to sit comfortably on the bench.


What???


Ok, we get it! You’re intense! But c’mon KG, you’re better than that! Are we really expected to believe that, regardless of the stakes, an otherwise composed and articulate man is totally incapable of spending three hours in a courtside seat at an NBA game? C’mon!


And if that strange little regular season subplot wasn’t weird enough, Garnett had a curveball in store for everyone in Boston’s playoff opener. As the Celtics tipped off against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday afternoon, Kevin Garnett, in a classic display of playoff courage, put on a suit and joined his teammates on the bench… for an entire half! After spending the first half of the Celtics Game 1 loss to the Bulls on the bench, Garnett was noticeably absent in the second, despite the fact that some of his younger teammates, namely Kendrick Perkins and Glen Davis, reportedly would have preferred that he be there. He is so awesome! That’s SO intense!


So let me get this straight- Kevin Garnett, drowning in his uncontrollable intensity, is such a great team guy that, in a game in which he unable to participate, he’s unwilling to grant his presence and moral support to his own less experienced teammates who are attempting to fill the void left by his absence?


Get a grip, KG! I realize you’re bummed, and it can’t be easy watching your team struggle and being unable to help, but are you really incapable of just sitting there? I realize that your intensity frequently intoxicates you, but perhaps, if only on occasion, you could act like a functional almost-33 year old wealthy husband and father?


Or, maybe there’s something else….


After spending more than a decade in mid-market Minneapolis, where his Timberwolves were a distant third in the city’s heart, behind the Viking and the Twins, Garnett really seems to really be enjoying the relevance that comes with being a superstar and a champion in the city of Boston. But it’s really hard to stay relevant in a suit on the bench.


Way to go KG- it’s still all about you!


Playoff Time!

It’s playoff time! We’ve known for a while the 16 teams who would be participating in 2009 NBA Playoffs, but had to wait until the last night of the regular season to finalize the Round 1 match-ups. This weekend is what I consider to be the NBA equivalent of March Madness, and on Saturday afternoon, the Celtics and the Bulls tip off the NBA Playoffs in Boston, following by the Pistons’ trip to Cleveland, the Mavericks visiting the Spurs in San Antonio, and the young Portland Trailblazers hosting the Houston Rockets. And if you don’t overdose on playoff hoops on Saturday, Sunday menu is also jam-packed, with the Lakers taking on the Jazz in L.A., the Sixers visiting Orlando, D-Wade and the Heat going to the ATL, and the West’s #2 seed, the Denver Nuggets, hosting Chris Paul and the Hornets. Good times! And against this backdrop, it’s time for the official Hardwood Hype NBA Playoff (or, more appropriately, Round 1) Preview!


Let’s take a look at the 8 first-round matchups, starting with the West, which, with all due respect to LeBron and his 66-win Cavaliers and the defending champion Boston Celtics, is the better of the conferences, top-to-bottom. Plus, I feel like someone should be out there, trying to perpetuate the West Coast bias, a mantle I’m more than happy to assume.


Lakers-Jazz


Given the Utah’s depth, talent and fantastic home-court advantage, this team should perennially occupy a spot in the West’s top-tier. However, thanks to their absolutely terrible play on the road (15-26 overall; 1 road win against another West playoff team), instability in the frontcourt and subpar transition D, the Jazz have had to settle for sneaking into the playoffs as a #8 seed.


After coming back from an injury that cost him three months, Carlos Boozer is definitely not at his best. In addition to not having his A-game, Boozer’s return to the floor (and his automatic spot in the starting lineup), has really stunted Paul Millsap’s development. The Jazz played their best basketball of the season with Millsap starting up front and putting up double-doubles on a nightly basis.


With Andrew Bynum back, healthy and regaining his feel on the floor, the Lakers’ core is now all together, with Kobe, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom all in sync and playing some fantastic ball. One potential concern for the Lakers will be the matchup at the point guard spot, where neither Derek Fisher nor Jordan Farmar have the size or speed to match up with Deron Williams- look for Trevor Ariza to log some minutes trying to slow down D-Will.


With that said, this series should be over in 5 games. It could go 6 if Lakers’ focus waivers, but the Jazz road woes and defensive issues seem to be too much for Utah to overcome this season. The Lakers are a good bet to take one game (Game 3 or 4) in Utah, but this not at all the case with the Jazz in Los Angeles. Prediction: Lakers in 5


Nuggets-Hornets


With their acquisition of Chauncey Billups, a true leader with a championship pedigree, the Denver Nuggets turned in a fantastic regular season. This, however, is not going to stop Chris Paul from shredding their perimeter defenders, whether he’s matched up with Chauncy, Anthony Carter, J.R. Smith, or anyone else on the Nuggets’ roster. It’s probably not unreasonable to expect averages of 35-14 from CP3 in this series. Given the Nuggets’ lack of D, not to mention their collection of volatile personalities, it’s very temping to pick Hornets here, but they’re going to have to receive contributions from more than two players on offense, as Paul and David West have accounted for roughly 60% of the team’s offense of late. To that end, the Hornets will be welcoming Tyson Chandler back to the lineup, and if Chandler’s ankle holds up, his work on the offensive glass and on the receiving of CP3’s alley-oop passes could be a big boost to the Hornets. However, if the Hornets are going to advance to Round 2, they must, MUST get more production from Peja Stojakovic, who’s only been good for 10 ppg in April, while shooting about 35% from the field and from 3-point range.


To be fair to the Denver Nuggets, there is actually quite a bit to like about this team, not the least of which is their interior defense, with the length an athleticism of the Birdman, Chris Andersen, Kenyon Martin and Nene, which could create some trouble for West and Paul, not to mention making Chandler’s job on the boards a lot tougher. Most importantly, we can’t overlook the fact that this is one of the NBA’s most explosive offensive teams, led by Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, and supported by Billups, Martin and Nene.


There’s little doubt in my mind that this will be the most entertaining series, and probably the longest, first round series. I really do like this Nuggets team, and the home court advantage will certainly help, but I almost certainly see this series going seven games and, despite their injuries woes and the shortcomings of his supporting cast, I simply refuse to pick against Paul in a Game 7. Prediction: Hornets in 7


Spurs-Mavs


Manu’s out, both of Tim Duncan’s knees are banged up… this has to be the year, right? This is the year that the Spurs just don’t have a playoff run in them, right? In years past, many observers, myself included, have declared that age, injury, or some combination of the two, will do the San Antonio Spurs in. Unlike in years past, the two of the Spurs’ three stars are ailing, and they just don’t have enough firepower to win four out of seven games against a Mavericks teams that is playing very well.


It would be ridiculous to say that Duncan won’t be a factor in the series, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that he’ll have a tough time putting together consecutive big games. We can probably expect one or two 20-15 games from Duncan, but the bulk of the offensive load will fall to Tony Parker, who can be expected to (and will probably have to) chip in 25-30 points a game, but it’s tough to see anyone else on this roster who is going to carry much of the scoring load. Michael Finley? Matt Bonner? Kurt Thomas? Ime Udoka? The firepower’s just not there. Drew Gooden might hit for 20 once or twice in the series, but is not really a threat to dominate and win you a playoff game.


The Mavs, on the other hand, seem like they’re really in nice groove, winning 7 of their last 10 regular season games to close out the year, and having fought late into the year just to secure a playoff berth. Dirk Nowitzki, who averaged 26 points and more than 8 rebounds to quietly have a fantastic season, has raised his game recently, averaging 30-9 in April, while shooting 55% from the field. And finally, we have Jason Terry, who really should be considered a top-flight 2-guard, although he continues to fly under the radar. JET is a legitimate 20-point scorer and a fantastic all-around weapon, not to mention the Mavs’ top late-game assassin. It’s really tough to see the Spurs holding him under 22-25 a game.


With both teams at full strength, it’s easy to see the Spurs taking this series in anywhere from five to seven games. However, with no Manu, and if Duncan is at all hobbled, Spurs are really thin up front, and lacking the offensive weapons to exploit Dallas’ suspect D. Prediction: Mavericks in 6


Rockets-Blazers


On the surface, looks like a great series, but I’m not so sure. In examining this series, the Portland Trailblazers have what looks to be a clear edge in variety of areas- depth, athleticism, firepower, a top-5 closer in Roy, best home crowd in the NBA. The one area on the floor where the Rockets are likely to have Portland’s number is in the paint, where Yao Ming and Luis Scola are likely to put up some impressive numbers (I’d look for Yao to average high 20’s, with 12-13 rebounds per game). However, if the combination of Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden can combine for 15 points and 10 rebounds, equaling roughly 60% of Yao’s production, the Blazers should be in good shape.


Looking at the other end of the floor, despite all the talk surrounding the defensive prowess of Shane Battier and Ron Artest, it’s really tough to figure out which member of the Rockets will guard Brondon Roy. Ok, what about LaMarcus Aldridge? Rudy Fernandez, anyone?


On the offensive end, this is type of series, against an opponent like the Blazers, where Rockets will miss Tracy McGrady. When healthy, T-Mac’s explosiveness on the break and his ability to create on off the dribble in halfcourt sets would give the Rockets some much-needed versatility that they just don’t have. At the 2-3 spots, not only are Shane Battier and Ron Artest not athletic enough to consistently score on Nicolas Batum, they will have lots of trouble getting easy buckets on the break or by getting into the lane.


With a rabid home crowd that’s absolutely starved for playoff basketball, Portland is NOT losing a game at home, and with their edge in athleticism, and a late-game hammer like Brandon Roy, they could conceivably stealing one in Houston, whose experience (much has been made of this) consists of a chronic inability to escape the first round)- not necessarily a good thing. Prediction: Blazers in 5


Cavs-Pistons


I cannot state this point emphatically enough- the Detroit Pistons have absolutely NO chance in Round 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and no better than an outside shot at taking a single game. LeBron James dominated this team when they were still legitimate title contenders; there’s NO reason to believe this declining version of the Pistons is in store for anything different.


Rip Hamilton might be able to get you 30 a game (he probably won’t, but he could), Rodney Stuckey, while talented, is still totally unproven as a playoff threat, and Tayshaun Prince doesn’t really look like anything more than an occasional 20-point threat, especially against LeBron. And at the defensive end, it’s almost impossible to see Prince giving LeBron even a minute’s concern. And then we have Rasheed Wallace who, at 34 years old, has slipped significantly at both ends, especially on offense, where he’s running almost entirely on reputation now, hitting just 42% of his field goal attmepts, nearly half of which are now coming from 3-point range.


This series isn’t going to be very competitive. If these games stay close enough to keep LeBron on the floor, look for him to flirt with averaging a triple-double. Not much more to say on this. Prediction: Cavs in 4


Celtics-Bulls


Even if Kevin Garnett had returned to the Celtics at even 60% of his full strength, this series would likely have been more competitive than predicted. Without KG, without his length and ability on defense, with his intensity, this series may now be the most compelling of all the Round 1- and it’s gonna get downright dicey for the Celtics. Even though his stats are clearly slipping, with KG out for the postseason, the Celtics no longer have the interior D to be a legitimate title contender.


In his absence, someone else on Celtics, more than likely Rajon Rondo will be asked to play a much bigger role on offense, which ordinarily wouldn’t be that big a deal, except for the fact that Rondo is the man primarily responsible for guarding Derrick Rose, one of the three toughest PG matchups in the NBA (with CP3 and Tony Parker), which is going to take a lot out of him. With Rondo expending all that energy on D and shouldering a greater offensive load, who do the Celtics turn to stop the Bulls on the perimeter? Rondo (and occasionally Stephon Marbury- yikes!) will have all they can handle with Rose, leaving the Allens, Ray and Tony, and Eddie House, none of whom are renowned for their defensive abilities, will have the task of stopping Ben Gordon and John Salmons, both of whom are consistent 18-20 ppg scorers capable of hitting for 30 on any given night.


As good as the Celtics have been in defense of their title, Derrick Rose will be the story here. His ridiculous speed and quickness, along with his maturity and ever-growing leadersip, will transform this series into his coming-out party- look for Rose to turn in a dominating, Chis Paul-like performance. This series is reminiscent of Kirk Hinrich & Ben Gordon’s 2006-07 “Baby Bulls”, who swept the defending champion Miami Heat after entered the playoffs without much fanfare. Prediction: Bulls in 6.


Magic-76ers


Not quite what we were building up to- the least relevant 1st round series, with the undersized, backed-into-the-playoffs (losing six of their last seven in the regular season) 76ers taking on the Magic, who’s injury issues, obviously headed by the loss of Jameer Nelson in early February, but also including dings to Rashard Lewis (knee) and Hedo Turkoglu (ankle), have caused them to slip from the ranks of the title contenders. I was a huge proponent of the Magic early in the season, and with Nelson healthy they are a title contender, but they look like they could have trouble every step of the way this postseason.


Not helping matter is the fact that Philly is potentially a very tough matchup for the Magic, with Andre Iguodala, Thaddeus Young and the underrated Lou Williams giving them plenty of speed and athleticism on the perimeter, which could be a big problem for Orlando, as the Courtney Lee is by far their best perimeter defender, with everyone else (Lewis, Hedo, Mickael Pietrus, J.J. Redick, Raefer Alston, etc) finishing in a mediocre pack behind him. Lee could have a great defensive series, switching onto whichever Sixer 2-3 player is hot, but unfortunately there is only one of him. If Philly is hot from the outside, and/or can get their break going with some frequency, their wing players could have a major impact.


The main factor in Philly not a major threat to Orlando in this series stems from the best player on the fllor, Dwight Howard, and the fact that the Sixers are simply too light up front (Samuel Dalembert, Marreese Speights, Reggie Evans), and really have no obvious method at their disposal for stopping Howard, who looks like a decent bet to have at least two, and very possibly three, 20-20 games.


With speed and athleticism, the Sixers will probably play the Magic pretty tough in every game of the series, and Iguodala (who I think will have a big series) will probably win them a game at home, but Philly’s lack of an inside presence to match-up with Dwight Howard (at either end) is going to be too much to overcome. Prediction: Magic in 5


Hawks-Heat


Every year, there’s one or two of these Round 1 matchups, where the prediction of an upset becomes the consensus. Despite finishing four games behind the Atlanta Hawks and sporting a sorry 15-26 regular season road record, the Miami Heat (well, Dwyane Wade, mostly) are the sexy upset pick here. While there may be something to that, it seems like the Hawks are not getting the respect they’ve earned during the regular season, managing a 10-win improvement on the heels of unexpectedly pushing the Celtics to a seventh in last year’s first round.


There’s little question that Dwyane Wade will (as always) be a nightmare matchup for the Hawks, and probably win two games (probably one in Atlanta) on his own. It’s not unreasonable to expect D-Wade to put up somewhere between 35 and 40 per game in the series, probably with a couple of runs at 50 mixed in, but I’m not convinced that the rest of the Heat will provide him with enough support to finish off the series.


When healthy, the Hawks’ starting lineup of Joe Johnson (very quietly one of the NBA’s top-10 players), Mike Bibby (playoff tested; late-game assassin), Josh Smith (a top-10 defender who could give Wade some problems), Al Horford (finding a consistent offensive game and could dominate this series) and Marvin Williams (great length and athleticism; return from injury is a big key) is among the NBA’s best. One problem the Hawks will ultimately face is that their second unit is somewhat light, boasting little more than a solid trio of Flip Murray, Maurice Evans and Zaza Pachulia, but there’s a good chance that this will be enough against Miami.


Michael Beasley will be a major X-factor in this series- after a somewhat frustrating rookie season, Beasley’s really raised his game of late, averaging almost 21 points in the month of April, while shooting 55% from the floor, 50% from behind the arc, and (finally!) consistently looking like he believes he’s the best player on the floor. If he can extend this run in the postseason and become consistent secondary option, Miami has a serious shot of advancing. At this point, it’s still difficult to buy into Beasley as a consistent 20-point guy in the playoffs, and the Heat don’t have enough otherwise to deal with the Hawks talented and athletic lineup. Prediction: Hawks in 7


Friday, April 17, 2009

Nobody's Perfect

On the eve of the NBA Playoffs, with all the jockeying for position done, we are down to sixteen teams. With the Hardwood Hype Eastern and Western Conference preview forthcoming, this seems like an excellent opportunity to examine the potential weaknesses of the NBA’s postseason participants.


For all of their talent and the variety of strengths they bring to the floor, each has a glaring flaw that could be exploited by a playoff opponent. What, if unchecked, could work against each of these playoff-bound teams? Lets take a look at the potentially fatal flaws facing each of this season’s NBA playoff teams?


Eastern Conference


Cleveland Cavaliers- Defending strong, athletic wing players. Between Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Joe Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Andre Iguodala and Kobe Bryant (to name a few), there’s no shortage of powerful wing players standing between Cleveland and an NBA title. Other than LeBron James, there’s really no one on the Cavs’ roster that’s well-suited to stopping these guys. Considering the offensive load that LBJ is asked to carry, and the possibility of foul trouble or fatigue as the Cavs’ primary perimeter defender, Wally Szczerbiak or Sasha Pavlovic must step up and provide some defensive support.


Boston Celtics- Backcourt depth. Despite some issues with the second unit earlier this season, the midseason acquisition of Mikki Moore and the progress of “Big Baby” Davis in KG’s absence have bolstered the Celtics’ frontcourt, but some major questions remain behind Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. The C’s struggles this season have coincided with the struggles of the starting backcourt (Allen: 19 ppg, 51% FG, 45% 3-pt in wins, 16.3 ppg, 39% FG, 30% 3-pt in losses; Rondo: 12.9 ppg, 55% FG, 8.6 apg in wins, 9.7 ppg, 38% FG, 7.8 apg in losses), with little support from the bench. Eddie House (8.5 ppg, 44% 3-pt; 8.9 ppg, 47% 3-pt in wins) is playing very well and has provided some relief, but Tony Allen (inconsistent at best, missed 6 weeks in February and March; scored in double figures twice since 2/8) and Stephon Marbury (3.8 ppg, 34% FG, 24% 3-pt in 23 games) have done very little to significantly relieve the pressure on Allen and Rondo.


Orlando Magic- Perimeter Defense. Rashard Lewis is an underrated defender and Dwight Howard’s presence in the lane cleans up a lot of defensive slip-ups on the perimeter, but outside of Courtney Lee (underrated rookie, solid on D), no one on the Magic can slow a strong, athletic wing player (LeBron, D-Wade, Andre Iguodala, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith), or Derrick Rose (deserves mentioning), in the playoffs. If Lee runs into some early foul trouble, the job of defending opposing 2-guards will fall to either Mickael Pietrus or J.J. Redick, neither of whom inspires much confidence in the Magic Kingdom.


Atlanta Hawks- Consistency from the second unit. When healthy, the Hawks’ starting lineup of Joe Johnson, Mike Bibby, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams is among the NBA’s best. However, even when healthy, the bench boasts little more than the solid trio of Flip Murray, Maurice Evans and Zaza Pachulia, and, with all due respect to Acie Law, really no backup for Bibby at the point. Heading into the playoffs, Marvin Williams is working his way back from a back injury that cost him 16 games and forced Evans into the starting lineup. If the Hawks are going to have any playoff success, they’ll have to get the most out of whatever resources they do have, which means that Williams will have to regain his form fairly quickly.


Miami Heat- Consistent offensive support for Dwyane Wade. For virtually the entire regular season, Dwyane Wade’s been the Heat’s only legitimate offensive threat, with no one finishing a distant second, the likes of Shawn Marion, Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Jamario Moon (among others) received significant minutes for the Heat, with mixed results at best. After a largely inconsistent and frustrating rookie year, Michael Beasley has raised his game of late, averaging almost 21 points, while shooting 55% from the floor and 50% from behind the arc in the month of April. If he is in fact putting it together and can extend this run into the postseason, Beasley, with his size and fantastic skills on the offensive end, could take enough pressure off of D-Wade to get the Heat into the second round.


Chicago Bulls- Strength on defense in the paint. Simply put, there’s not a single bruising interior defender on the Bulls’ roster- and, if the Bulls are able to upset the banged-up Celtics (this could really happen!) in Round 1, with Dwight Howard looming in the second round, that does not bode well. Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah are playing extremely well, but both seem physically better suited to guard Rashard Lewis than they do Howard. And while Brad Miller has the physical frame to bang down low, his reputation was not built as low post defender. If Chicago’s going to have any success trying to stop Dwight Howard, it will have to be predicated on whatever scheme they run, and not on individual matchups.


Philadelphia 76ers- Inside scoring. The megabucks contract given to Elton Brand was meant to address this very point. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Brand’s season was brought to a premature end about ten weeks ago, and when he was healthy, his performance was rather disappointing. Looking at what’s left, Thaddeus Young, who came off an ankle injury with 18 points against Boston and 20 in Philly’s seaon-ending win in Cleveland, is Philly’s biggest inside threat (52% of his FG attempts and 63% of his made FG have come in the paint), and even he’s not a classic low post threat. As they prepare to face the Magic, the Sixers other inside threats consist of Reggie Evans, Samuel Dalembert and Marreese Speights- yikes!!


Detroit Pistons- Consistent frontcourt scoring. Let’s pretend for a minute that Detroit’s playoff fate includes anything other than a savage beatdown from LeBron and Friends. What the Pistons would need in order to have some success is consistent firepower up front. The trio of Rip Hamilton, Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum will put up numbers and fill the offensive void left by Allen Iverson, but the play of the frontcourt provides cause for concern. None of the Pistons’ top three up front (Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess) can take over a game and carry this team to a win. While Prince is had his usual consistent season and McDyess is averaged close to a double-double (9.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg), ‘Sheed is clearly no longer the same guy, now almost exclusively a perimeter player, attempting just 1.5 FT per game and taking 4.8 of his 11 FG attempts per game from behind the arc. And despite another trio of able-bodied forwards (Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson, Kwame Brown) on the roster, none of the three has shown the either productivity or the consistency to make Detroit a postseason threat.


And in the Western Conference?


Los Angeles Lakers- Maintaining focus and intensity when playing with a lead. All season, the Lakers have done an excellent job of building large early leads, only to let them slip away, before salvaging harder-than-they-should-have-been victories (see 2/20 v. Hornets, among others). In four of their seventeen losses, however, the Lakers haven’t been so lucky, blowing a 15-point second half lead in Indiana (lost on a tip-in at the buzzer), 9 & 10-point leads in both games against Magic (lost by 3 in Orlando, and by 6 in L.A.) and a 14-point 4th quarter lead against Philadelphia on 3/17. When they’re focused, the Lakers are the NBA’s best team. Maintaining focus and intensity will be the biggest key for this team in the playoffs, when the intensity is turned up and there’s less margin for error.


Denver Nuggets- Perimeter defense. It’s rare that a team with so much experience and athleticism is able to climb to the #2 spot in strong conference, while at the same time being so inept at the defensive end, particularly on the perimeter. Who on this roster can match up against Kobe Bryant? Or Chris Paul? Tony Parker? Chauncey Billups has brought some much needed leadership and a championship pedigree to the Nuggets, but neither he, nor Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith is capable of locking down an elite offensive player on the outside. The Nuggets can score with anyone in the NBA, but somewhere along the line, a perimeter superstar (they face CP3 in Round 1) will carve them up.


Houston Rockets- Athleticism and explosive offense from the wings. This is where the Rockets miss Tracy McGrady. For all the talk about the defensive impact of Ron Artest and Shane Battier, not only has neither shown the speed or the athleticism to bother Kobe Bryant’s defensive game, neither of the two has the ability to fill the lane and get easy buckets on the fast break, or to create easy shots in the lane. There is a greater focus on halfcourt sets in the postseason, but there’s also a premium placed on maximizing fast break chances and getting high-percentage shots. When he’s anywhere close to 100%, this is where McGrady thrives. A lot of that pressure is going to fall onto Von Wafer, Houston’s most athletic wing player.


Portland Trailblazers- Inside scoring. With all the preseason hype surrounding the Blazers, this is a young team that done an excellent job of competing with the NBA’s best and establishing itself in the top tier of the Western Conference. A major key to playoff success for anyone is the ability to get easy points in the paint. As a predominantly perimeter team, this could be a challenge for Portland. While Brandon Roy will definitely manage to get into the paint and create easy shots, the Blazers would love for their bigs to pick up some of the inside-scoring slack. Since the Blazers’ big men are either perimeter threats (LaMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye) or not serious offensive threats (Joel Przybilla), the best bet here is Greg Oden who, if he can avoid injuries and foul trouble, has a strong inside game that’s well-suited for the playoffs.


San Antonio Spurs- Depth in the frontcourt. If we count Manu Ginobili among the Spurs’ frontcourt players, their situation with regard to depth up front is a full-blown catastrophe. Sadly, ignoring the loss of Manu doesn’t dramatically improve the outlook. The 4-5 spots are extremely thin, with Tim Duncan nursing a pair (a pair!) of sore knees and likely unable to carry his usual heavy load. If Duncan is significantly limited, the Spurs have to turn to Drew Gooden, Kurt Thomas and Matt Bonner to hold down the fort in the paint. It’s hard to see them winning more than a couple of postseason games if that happens.


New Orleans Hornets- Players #3-12. The New Orleans Hornets do carry a full roster of NBA players, right? As good as Chris Paul and David West are, and they may be the best 1-2 punch in the league, they should not be carrying more than 60% of the offensive load for the Hornets, which is happening with some regularity of late. Tyson Chandler’s return from an ankle injury will help, but he’s not paid to be a major offensive threat. New Orleans is not going to threaten anyone in the postseason without some improved play from Peja Stojakovic (13.7 ppg, 40% FG), Rasual Butler (maybe a bit more than just buzzer beaters?), vaunted playoff force, James Posey (8.9 ppg, 41% FG), or Julian Wright, who can do some damage when he receives consistent minutes.


Dallas Mavericks- Generating any defensive intensity. Jason Kidd comes up with plenty of steals, Josh Howard is a capable (but not lock-down) defender and Brandon Bass is a fantastic athlete who plays with lots of energy and intensity, but ever since they traded away DeSagana Diop, the Mavericks no longer have a big man who can legitimately defend the basket and set a defensive tone for the team- a problem that’s compounded by the absence of anyone on the roster that can shut down the opponent’s best player.


Utah Jazz- Playing away from home. This is a team with nine quality players and an abundance of strength and toughness. On talent alone, the Jazz should be contending for the Western Conference title- unfortunately they are asked to play half of their games outside the state of Utah. Any team aspiring to be a true contender must demonstrate an ability to pull out wins away from home, ideally having a few of these roads wins come against quality opposition. The Utah Jazz managed just 15 wins in 41 road games, (.366 win %), and have won only three of 22 road games (.120 win %) against other playoff teams- 11/11 @ Philadelphia, 12/19 @ Detroit, 4/5 @ New Orleans. With their opening round matchup pitting them against the Lakers, a turnaround in the trend doesn’t seem likely.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Exorcist

It happened in L.A., at Staples Center, at 8:23pm Pacific Time, 11:23 pm Eastern.


Just over two years after sustaining one of the most gruesome injuries in NBA history, Shaun Livingston, now a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, returned to the scene of what must have been the worst night of his basketball life, and with a single play, showed that he still has a future as an NBA player.


Midway through the second quarter of what would ultimately be a blowout win over the hapless Clippers, as the Thunder got the ball to Earl Watson on the fast break, Shaun Livingston hit the gas, raced down the left wing, and ran to the hoop. Watson, with no regard for the massive amount of surgery Livingston’s knee has endured, threw him an alley-oop pass, a pass that looked like it might be too high, certainly for a guy with a reconstructed knee. It was as though Watson was daring Livingston to believe that his knee would hold up. And did it ever!


Not only did Livingston take off like he believed his knee would hold up, he went up, way up, got the ball with one hand, and threw down a beautiful dunk! Congratulations, Shaun! I was watching in February 2007 against the Charlotte Bobcats, and it broke my heart. I watched you return to L.A., and exorcise the demons. I’ve been pulling for you, and for this moment ever since then.


For about five minutes after seeing that play, I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face, and seeing the grin on Shaun Livingston’s face, as he celebrated a moment that he undoubtedly feared would never arrive, I realized that these are the underrated moments that make sports great.


Welcome back, Shaun!


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Answering Reality

It didn’t just happen, and it didn’t go down overnight, but time looks like it’s finally caught up with Allen Iverson.


For the last decade and a half, ever since he burst onto the scene as a freshman phenom at Georgetown, Allen Iverson has been the toughest, and one of the most electrifying players in basketball. Year in and year out, Iverson played, as hard as anyone, through injuries to virtually every part of his 6-foot, 180-pound (both generous estimates) body, and year in and year out, “experts” predicted that his slight frame would begin to buckle under the heavy physical toll. And yet, year in and year out, Iverson would manage to defy those who were forecasting his decline, always coming to play, never giving less than his total commitment, bouncing up every time he hit the floor.


Sadly, it looks like this is the year that the reports of A.I.’s demise are not so greatly exaggerated. It’s rare that a player who’s clearly still among the league’s fastest and quickest can obviously have lost a step or two, but that exactly what’s happened to Iverson. Last Wednesday in New Jersey, A.I. managed 4 points and 4 assists in just 17 minutes off the bench in the Pistons’ 111-98 loss to the New Jersey Nets, after which he said “I won't do this again in my career… I'll retire before I do this again. I would leave the game before I'd do this, because I can't be effective like I know I can [by] playing this way. It's just that I'm not used to it. It's just not something that I've ever been able or had to do."


Iverson’s comments have provoked quite the reaction, some of it rather vitriolic, with journalists, bloggers and their commentors not wasting a moment in reapplying the “selfish” label that A.I. wore early in his career, suggesting he should simply accept the reality that he’s no longer an NBA starter, and happily accept a reduced role as a supporting player off of the bench, and that his reluctance to do so would significantly detract from his legacy.


To which I ask- WHY?


Are we not the same culture that admires the stars who are willing to step away from the game with dignity, before their career hits rock bottom? Think of Patrick Ewing with the Seattle Supersonics and the Orlando Magic; Hakeem Olajuwon with the Toronto Raptors; where was the honor in that? Had medical conditions not accelerated their exits from the game, do you think it’s likely that Magic Johnson or Larry Bird would have graciously moved to the bench? Probably not. When he ultimately reaches the twilight of his career, will Kobe Bryant be happy accepting a diminished role coming off the bench? Doubtful. Would a starting spot with the Wizards have been guaranteed to any aging star not named Michael Jordan? I don’t think so.


As I observed in what would be Iverson’s last game as a Piston, from some sweet corporate seats at the Izod Center, something became painfully evident.


Allen Iverson should retire. Not because he can no longer play at a high level, but because his is a style of play that does not age well. Iverson’s game is predicated on his being the best player on his team, being allowed to monopolize the ball in the halfcourt, probe the defense with the dribble, absorb tons of physical punishment and get to the free throw line. For thirteen seasons, which is frankly longer than anyone predicted, Iverson dominated the NBA with his speed, his quickness and his warrior mentality. He never had a signature move, would take 25-30 shots a night, and sported a shooting percentage that always left a bit to be desired, but to anyone that watched him carry his undermanned Sixers team to the Finals in his 2000-01 MVP season, that’s all irrelevant. To understand the dominance of Allen Iverson, you had to watch him play, leaving every ounce of himself on the floor, doing whatever he could (occasionally trying to do too much) to pull out a win.


For nearly two decades, going back to his high school days, Allen Iverson has been a superstar, getting the most out of his physical gifts, never concerned with self preservation. Allen Iverson is a fighter and a winner. But sadly, there comes a day when a player’s heart and his mind are still strong, but his body can no longer rise to those same heights. Reality is now dictating that Iverson can no longer rise to the same physical heights, and to vilify him for contemplating retirement at this point in is nothing short of absurd. Allen Iverson has poured his heart and soul into his career, and as his career wanes, the NBA’s best-ever little man should be celebrated, not criticized for trying to cling to his pride.


20 Questions from the Association- Winding Down the Regular Season

Is it just me, or…


As much fun as it is to pretend the MVP is still a 3-man race, is there anyone out there that believes that Kobe and D-Wade actually stand a chance?


Since he couldn’t go in with Karl Malone, is it fitting that John Stockton at least gets to enter the Hall of Fame with Jerry Sloan?


Rather than focusing on his recent trials and tribulations, is this a great opportunity to reflect on just how special Allen Iverson has been over the past decade-and-a-half?


Does Michael Beasley never look like he believes he’s the best player on the floor?


Will Tyler Hansbrough probably develop into a pretty solid NBA player?


Has Lamar Odom brilliantly played himself into yet another monster contract?


With Carlos Boozer likely to opt out of his deal and become a free agent this summer, wouldn’t the Jazz have been better off looking to trade him to, say, Miami, for Shawn Marion?


Is it time to acknowledge that Tony Parker is a top-10 player in the NBA, and (with all due respect to Tim Duncan) that the San Antonio Spurs are now his team?


As good as he already is, does Andre Iguodala’s demeanor, along with his awesome form of late, give him the look of a player that’s ready to take “the leap”?


Even before Manu Ginobili’s ankle shelved him for the rest of the season, was the Spurs’ reputation the only thing keeping us from writing them off in the playoffs?


Is Dwyane Wade starting to get an awful lot of favorable calls, just in time for the postseason?


Heading into the postseason, are the Boston Celtics the most flawed of the NBA’s five 50-win teams (Cavs, Lakers, Magic and Nuggets are the others)?


Is there a chance that Gilbert Arenas could send the NBA reeling by returning next year as a pass-first playmaker?


Could Will Bynum potentially give Rodney Stuckey some serious competition for the title of “future of Pistons’ backcourt”?


With Shane Battier as their fourth-best player, is it hard to take the Houston Rockets seriously as a top-tier team in the West?


Is Monta Ellis already mounting one hell of a push for the 2010 All-Star Game?


With his recent fantastic play, has Deron Williams seriously reignited the DWill-CP3 debate?


Does someone, ANYONE, other than Chris Paul and David West need to step for the Hornets to have any chance in a playoff series?


Looking ahead to the 2009-2010 season, will the TimberwolvesAl Jefferson-Kevin Love-Ryan Gomes front line rank among the NBA’s best?


If Thaddeus Young can get healthy, are the 76ers a threat to advance to Eastern Conference Semifinals?