Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reading Between The Lines Midseason Update - Eastern Conference

Amid the pandemonium following the whirlwind ratification of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, it was impossible to predict what this season would bring. Given this, I turned to the open market, Vegas (well, Pinnacle, actually), and set forth predictions for the Eastern Conference (and the West) for the 2011-12 regular season.

With half of this frenzied season in the books, this is an opportune time to look back and assess my December tea leaf reading. I kicked off the proceedings yesterday with a Western Conference midseason update. Today, we head East:

Atlanta Hawks
Preseason line: 34.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then:
“In the summer of 2010… management bestowed upon Joe Johnson a contract worth~$126 million over six years… The consensus at the time was that the team had broken the bank to lock in a ceiling of mediocrity. One season and a nine-game regression later, that seems a tad optimistic.”

And now: The Hawks won 16 of 22 to start the season (including 9 of 11 in the immediate aftermath of Al Horford’s injury), but have since tasted the harsh slap of reality.

Joe Johnson (14.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 39.7% FG, 26% 3-pt) has been putrid in February, as has Jeff Teague (42.1% in February, down from 50%, with 2.8 assists per, down from 5+), while Josh Smith, averaging 17-10 for the month, has shot just 42.8% from the field and attempted nearly six shots per game from 16-23 feet. To make matters worse, depth is sparse on this team, as evidenced by a second unit that features a pair of 2001 All-Stars but boasts Ivan Johnson as its best player.

For a reasonably good team, this is one sad state of affairs.

Boston Celtics
Preseason line: 39.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 15-17
On pace for: 31-35

My thoughts then:
“This is still a playoff team (one that I think has another series win left in it) but, like the San Antonio Spurs, no longer one built to run at maximum intensity on nightly basis.”

And now: I really wish I was enjoying this more.

Charlotte Bobcats
Preseason line: 15.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 4-28
On pace for: 8-58

My thoughts then:
“For what felt like an eternity (about half an hour) I stared at this roster, not debating its chances of producing 16+ victories in the coming season (pretty low), but trying to recall where I’d encountered it previously…”

And now: I’ve been less than flattering to CEO GoAT, but I’ve got to hand it to the man. He's picked a great time to realize his potential as the Michael Jordan of tanking.

Chicago Bulls
Preseason line: 47.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 27-8
On pace for: 51-15

My thoughts then:
“Built around an unrelenting defense and a superstar playmaker, this is a team designed to win every game it plays.”

And now: This team is a freaking juggernaut – not in the jawdropping “Seven Seconds or Less Suns” sense, but rather in the Duncan-Pop Spurs sense – quietly dominating all aspects of the game that are vital to victory. The Bulls rank in the NBA’s top-three in both Offensive (108.2; 3rd) and Defensive Efficiency (97.7; 2nd), Offensive Rebound Rate (31.5%; 1st), eFG allowed (45.2%; 3rd) and Free Throw Rate allowed (17.5/100 FGA) and own the league’s best record, despite playing nearly a third of their games without Derrick Rose.

Most impressive of all? In those ten games, the Bulls have posted a 7-3 record.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Preseason line: 16.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 13-18
On pace for: 28-38

My thoughts then:
“Make no mistake, a team that trots a front line prominently featuring the likes of Antawn Jamison and Samardo Samuels is hardly one we’d classify as “good,” but look for these Cavs, no longer defined by LeBron’s departure, to outperform (admittedly, virtually non-existent) expectations.”

And now: What a difference a year makes, huh? There is plenty to like in Cleveland these days: Kyrie Irving is a franchise cornerstone, Tristan Thompson is sneaky OK (13.6 points, 11 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per 36, 14.7/20.2/17.4 O/D/Total Rebound Rates), Alonzo Gee is a legit NBAer, Andy Varejao is the league’s best pure role player and $15+ million worth of Antawn Jamison comes off the books this summer.

Problems arise, however, when considering the Cavs’ best course of action going forward – put the pedal to the floor in pursuit of a playoff bid, or take a torch to the next couple of months in the interest of landing Irving a blue-chip running mate? I’m not an advocate of tanking when you’ve got a player as young and as special as Kyrie Irving leading your team, but must admit that there is a compelling case to be made in favor of it.

Detroit Pistons
Preseason line: 20.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 11-24
On pace for: 21-45

My thoughts then:
“…despite my confusion at Joe Dumars’ apparent lack of a long-term vision, this team is not a total disaster. There is NBA-caliber talent at every spot on this roster.”

And now: Meh. This team is pretty much exactly what we expected heading into the season – Greg Monroe, who is awesome (and keeps winning me prop bets. Thanks buddy!) surrounded by a semi-decent cast that only kinda makes sense.

Try not to try yourselves out of the top five and we’ll see you guys in October.

Indiana Pacers
Preseason line: 36.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 21-12
On pace for: 42-24

My thoughts then:
“…the Pacers are poised to build on an encouraging 2010-11, which saw them flirt with .500 and give the top-seeded Bulls all they wanted in the opening round of the playoffs. Look for Indy to make a leap into the East’s top half, a tier below Miami and Chicago.”

And now: Someone needs to remind Danny Granger that 2008-09 was kind of a while ago. It’s a testament to the rest of the crew in Indy that, with Granger shooting a disgusting 38.2% (worsted by only A.J. Price and Lou Amundson) and no one on the team within four shot attempts of his 15.4 per game, the Pacers have managed to almost two out of every three games.

This is already a damn good team. Once its offensive resources are properly allocated, we might be looking at one of the best in the league.

Miami Heat
Preseason line: 50.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 27-7
On pace for: 52-14

My thoughts then:
“Remember the weeks leading up to last season, when in the mad scramble to construct a narrative in which “dynasty in a box” would not be an instant success, many took comfort in proclaiming that Year 2 is when things would come together for the Heat?

Well… we’re here. And Year 1 ended two wins shy of a championship after a 58-win regular season.”

And now: See above.

Preseason line: 30.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 13-20
On pace for: 26-36

My thoughts then:
“I love Bogut and Bucks’ “4s,” but the combination of question marks on the wings and (yeah, I’ll say it) incompetence at the point make the thought of a .500 record for this crew seem unattainable.”

And now: Shaun Livingston is once again a useful NBA player and Ersan Ilyasova is frankly pretty awesome. Otherwise? What a fucking disaster.

Drew Gooden has logged nearly many minutes as Andrew Bogut and Larry Sanders combined, Mike Dunleavy has suited up just three times and after a promising start to his third pro campaign, Brandon Jennings has once taken up arms in his all-out holy war against offensive efficiency. With Captain Jack in the mix as well, this could get ugly in a hurry.

New Jersey Nets
Preseason line: 21.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 10-25
On pace for: 19-47

My thoughts then:
“[Deron] Williams is a legitimate superstar- perennially one of the NBA’s ten best players, top-three at his position, and, barring catastrophe, a Hall of Famer. Greatness doesn’t lose two out of every three games.”

And now: I stand by this call. Despite a subpar start from Deron Williams, injuries to Brook Lopez and rookie stud MarShon Brooks and two separate losing streaks of at least six games, the Nets are still just a 12-19 finish from the 22-win plateau. It’s too late to think about the postseason, but if this team can consistently get its best five (D-Will, Brooks, Lopez, K-Hump and Anthony Morrow) on the floor, it will be one hell of a spoiler down the stretch.

New York Knicks
Preseason line: 41.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 17-18
On pace for: 32-34

My thoughts then:
“During all those sleepless nights, toiling tirelessly to extricate the most relevant franchise not to have won anything in four decades from perhaps the greatest financial quagmire in league history, you really think his [Donnie Walsh’s] plan was to commit 95% of the cap to Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony, while featuring a backcourt that will rely on 2010 second round surprise Landry Fields to be something more than a heady role player and may prominently feature the decaying duo of Mike Bibby and Baron Davis?”

And now: Jeremy Lin saved me from self-inflicted bodily harm.

Had Linsanity not gripped the NBA, there is a decent chance that I’d have torn a rotator cuff while patting myself on the back. Thanks, Jeremy.

Orlando Magic
Preseason line: 38.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 22-13
On pace for: 41-25

My thoughts then:
“Are people really expecting this team to win three out of every five games? Last season, with a happy (happier, at least) Dwight Howard and an uncharacteristically healthy Jameer Nelson, the Magic racked up 52 wins, or 41-42 over a 66-game sched.

While Dwight is still Dwight, it’s unlikely that he’ll be Dwight in Central Florida by season’s end.”

And now: Thanks to the long-range prowess of Ryan Anderson (43.4%), J.J. Redick (44.7%) and J-Rich (40.3%), along with Hedo Turkoglu’s return to the ranks of the (more or less) living (11.5, with 4.5 assists per game, with 36% on 3’s, though just 40.7% FG), Dwight Howard has received the support necessary to keep the Magic among the East’s second tier.

The possibility exists that Dwight’s bluff is called and he’s forced to play out the season in Orlando. Should this happen, and he is able to maintain his focus (which, in fairness, he’s done pretty well thus far), a run at 40 wins is very much in play. However, should management relent and deal Dwight for a copious (but probably forward-looking) collection of assets…

Philadelphia 76ers
Preseason line: 38.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then:
“With the Celtics’ grip on elite status looking a bit tenuous and the Magic about to have a harsh rebuild foisted upon them, the Sixers, are prime candidates to step into a new-look second tier (along with Indiana, behind Miami and Chicago) in the East.”

And now: The Sixers cooled off after a torrid start, dropping seven of nine heading into the break. a run at 40 wins is increasingly unlikely.

With that said, this is not a team in the midst of an implosion, simply an imperfect but very good team in the midst of a slump. The Sixers are an elite defensive unit (league-low 97 points allowed/100 possessions and second-lowest EFG allowed, 45%, just .1% more than Boston) that does not waste possessions (league-low 10.3 turnovers per 100 possessions – no one is within 2 of this mark).

However, this is also a team that’s challenged offensively (it’s been exactly six weeks since the Sixers scored 100+ in a game) and lacks a singularly-skilled weapon that can be deployed at will whenever a bucket is needed. The damage wrought by such a setup is minimal over the course a lengthy regular season, but becomes magnified in nip-tuck games against quality opposition. The #4 seed in the East is theirs to lose (I don’t think they’ll lose it), but serious contention is at least one move away for this group.

Toronto Raptors
Preseason line: 15.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 10-23
On pace for: 20-46

My thoughts then:
“A year from now, the Raptors will have cause for some serious optimism… This season, however… not so much. Look for the Raps to struggle early and often, en route to the league’s worst record.”

And now: That the Raptors’ 10 wins in 33 games represents significant outperformance relative to expectations makes me sad.

With that said, however, do you realize that at 10-23, the Raptors enter the second half just six games behind the Celtics for the #8 spot in the East? (Ok, I lied earlier. I am kinda enjoying the 2011-12 C’s.)

In all seriousness, as I have said before, looking ahead to next season, this team is more than a little intriguing, with the MUCH-improved Andrea Bargnani back in the mix, flanked by DeMar DeRozan, Jose Calderon and a pair of top-ten picks – 2011’s #5 overall Jonas Valanciunas, plus an addition from a loaded class this summer.

Preseason line: 19.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 7-26
On pace for: 14-52

My thoughts then: “Like the Raptors, the Wizards are a “next year story.”

And now: #tweetsfrom2013

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reading Between The Lines Midseason Update - Western Conference

Amid the pandemonium following the whirlwind ratification of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, it was impossible to predict what this season would look like. Given this, I turned to the open market, and a favorite pastime of mine heading into each season – I looked to Vegas (well, Pinnacle, actually), and put forth my 2011-12 Western Conference preview. Now, with half of this frenzied season in the books, I thought this an opportune time to look back and assess my reading of the tea leaves in December:

Dallas Mavericks
Preseason line: 44.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 21-13
On pace for: 41-25

My thoughts then: “With that said, this is a veteran-laden squad playing a condensed schedule, while integrating a handful of new faces into the second unit and trying to fill the massive defensive void left by Tyson Chandler’s departure. Look for them to top 40 wins, but between these challenges and the occasional need to rest their older guys, 45 may be a bit much.”

And now: I thought Chandler’s departure alone might be enough to bump Dallas from the West’s top tier. Throw in Dirk’s slow start and Lamar Odom’s failure to launch and the Mavs’ outstanding record is something of a shocker. Even at their current clip, however, the Mavericks are on pace to fall a handful of wins shy of the preseason number. Factor in more rest for their aging core and a growing likelihood that Shawn Marion, this season’s defensive stalwart, will be traded, and 45 wins is a virtual impossibility.

Denver Nuggets
Preseason line: 34.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 18-17
On pace for: 34-32

My thoughts then: “While a core of Nene, Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari is certainly solid, the team did little to replace the approximately 34 points and 15 rebounds per game provided by the free agent trio of J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, all of whom are plying their trade in China until further notice.“

And now: I was wrong. Apparently the Bird Man provides all the neck tat necessary to power the Nuggets. If Gallo is healthy and Al Harrington is locked in, Denver cruises past 35 wins. The problem, however, is that even in the best of times this team has little room for error. Had Harrington lost his touch (50% FG in Dec-Jan; 37.9% in February) or Gallinari gotten hurt, the Nuggets would have felt the pain. Take both, add a healthy dollop of slumping Andre Miller (~46% FG, 7.2 assts, 2.3 TO/game in Dec-Jan; 40.9%, 6.4 and 2.9 in February) and a 14-5 quickly deteriorates into 18-17.

Golden State Warriors
Preseason line: 25.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 13-17
On pace for: 29-37

My thoughts then: “Throw in [to Steph Curry’s frequent ankle woes and constant Monta Ellis uncertainty] a rookie head coach, the defensive stylings of David Lee and a free agency campaign that yielded Kwame Brown and little more, and Warrior fans are probably pretty thankful that 2011-12 will be 20% less painful than it otherwise would have been.”

And now: You realize in the Eastern Conference, these guys would be two games out of the #6 seed?

I’ll be honest, for a team I’ve watched with some frequency, I’ve really not paid a whole lot of attention to the Warriors in the standings. Come to find out… holy shit, they’re creeping up on .500!

Mark Jackson deserves credit for getting more out of this roster more quickly than I’d expected he would… almost as much credit as a schedule that’s called on the Dubs to take the floor a league-low 30 times thus far, 18 time at home, and 20 in the state of California. And two of the remaining ten… Phoenix.

13 wins in their next 36 could prove a bit tougher than 13 in the first 30.

Houston Rockets
Preseason line: 32.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then: “Last year’s team lost Yao once and for all less than two weeks into the season and played nearly half a campaign with an unhappy Aaron Brooks and still wound up with a 43-39 record. It’s not unreasonable to expect a similarly talented and more stable Rockets team to post a .500 record.”

And now: I have previously referred to the Houston Rockets as “the NBA’s island of misfit toys” and “one big supporting cast.” I stand by these statements, though I’d like to amend that second moniker to read “one big, really good supporting cast.” Whether Kevin Martin and Luis Scola finish the season in Houston remains to be seen, as does whether Kyle Lowry is a bona fide star, or simply a good player capable of lighting up an opponent from time to time, the Rockets have put together a nice collection of professional basketball players.

Not sure they’re built for postseason success, but barring a massive roster shakeup gone awry, the Rockets are one of the West’s top seven teams, and will finish with a win tally closer to 40 than to 30.

Los Angeles Clippers
Preseason line: 38.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-11
On pace for: 43-23

My thoughts then: “Teams with two of the league’s top half dozen MVP candidates simply do not play slightly-better-than-.500 ball. They just don’t.”

And now: DeAndre Jordan has not been elevated to All-Star status and Blake Griffin is unlikely to crack the top 10 in the MVP voting, but clearly the preseason bullishness was not misplaced. Blake is still a 20-12 lock and Chris Paul has lived up to even the most optimistic expectations. Having to rely on Mo Williams and Caron Butler to sustain their stellar play is less than ideal, but this team’s got at least another 20 wins in it.

Los Angeles Lakers
Preseason line: 41.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then: “Sure it’s been a rough few months in Lakerland… Is it so hard to believe that when healthy, a team led by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum (yeah, yeah) and a collection of capable NBAers, a team with the capacity to add another $8.9 million player via trade, could win three out of every five games?”

And now: Kobe, Pau and ‘Drew have managed to stay healthy, the rest of the roster consistently produces between one and three “capable NBAers,” and for a few more weeks the capacity to add another $8.9 million player (if not a whole lot more) remains. And with a win at home over the Timberwolves on Wednesday, they will have won three out of every five games.

It just feels a whole lot worse.

Memphis Grizzlies
Preseason line: 40.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 19-15
On pace for: 37-27

My thoughts then: “Led by the West’s best big man tandem (plus a returning Rudy Gay), a talented and seemingly ever-improving Mike Conley at the point and the league’s best perimeter defender in Tony Allen, the Grizz would be poised to establish themselves among the West’s elite.”

And now: For the second consecutive year the Grizzlies must battle through the loss of a top-12 forward en route to the playoffs. And for the second consecutive year it looks like they’re going to pull it off. Perhaps it’s obscured by heightened expectations, but to play this well in light of losing an elite low post scorer, particularly with this schedule looming, is remarkable.

Though certainly not out of play, the 22-10 needed to reached the 41-win plateau may prove a bridge too far, but look for these guys to leapfrog the at least two (probably not all three) of the Texas teams ahead of them in the Southwest. And come playoff time, with a healthy Z-Bo back in the mix, the Grizz will once again be one of the West’s toughest outs.

Minnesota Timberwolves
Preseason line: 22.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 17-17
On pace for: 33-33

My thoughts then:
“Between [Kevin] Love, [Derrick] Williams, Michael Beasley, Ricky Rubio, Wes Johnson and Anthony Randolph (even if he’s a bust he’s got at least one good year in him, right?!), there’s enough talent here to win one out of every three games.”

And now: Ricky Rubio will not win the Rookie of the Year award this season, but his impact on the Wolves cannot be overstated. A classic playmaker of the highest order, Rubio has combined with an MVP-worthy Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic (Yeah, he gets a mention. Watch him play for a week and tell you wouldn’t trade any center not named Dwight Howard for him) to form a ground-bound Russ-KD-Ibaka.

I’d expected the T-Wolves to play .500-ish ball after the break, following a first half as the league “best bad team.” They’ve totally bypassed step one, and appear destined for good things.

New Orleans Hornets
Preseason line: 25.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 8-25
On pace for: 16-50

My thoughts then:
“After all we’ve seen, you think there’s ANY chance Stern lets this team play itself out of a top-three pick?” 

And now: No.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Preseason line: 48.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 27-7
On pace for: 52-14

My thoughts then:
“If I could wager on only one team to win the Western Conference, the crew from OKC would be that team.”

And now: I got +350. Life is good.

Phoenix Suns
Preseason line: 31.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 14-20
On pace for: 27-39

My thoughts then:
“The Suns’ cracks, long since visible, have been covered up for years by the greatness of Steve Nash, but have finally spread to the point that not even the iron-willed maestro can keep this squad respectable.”

And now: C’mon Sarver, you dick. Have some fucking dignity. Trade Steve Nash and start tanking.

Portland Trailblazers
Preseason line: 35.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 18-16
On pace for: 35-31

My thoughts then:
“Not to pick at an open wound, but what the Blazers lack is a perimeter threat that can consistently get into the rim, knock down a jumper, create open looks for teammates and drop 20 in a quarter or 30 in a half, when necessary. Sigh…”

And now: According to Basketball Reference and Hoopdata, the Trailblazers rank in the top 12 in Offensive Efficiency (105.4; 8th), Defensive Efficiency (99.6; t-5th), margin of victory (5.4; 5th – beating the Spurs by about a billion on Wednesday night helped here), eFG% (48.7%; 12th), Turnover Rate (13.3%; t-5th lowest), eFG% against (47.5%; t-11th), opponents’ Turnover Rate (15.5%; t-3rd highest), Defensive Rebound Rate (74.5%; t-6th), Assist Rate (20.55%; 10th) and field goal attempts at the rim (27; 5th)… and are just one win above .500.

There is something wrong here. Maybe the shadow cast by Brandon Roy is too great for any backcourt player to overcome this soon after Roy’s departure. Maybe it’s the dearth of trustworthy playmakers on the perimeter. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to commit to doing the dirty work. Maybe this is a team comprised of elite #2/#3 guys, but lacks a true #1. Whatever the case, this a team that excels is in a great many facets of the game, but consistently finds ways to lose games. That’s a troubling trend.

Sacramento Kings
Preseason line: 15.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 11-22
On pace for: 22-44

My thoughts then:
“... why the Over pick? Contrarianism. Pure, unadulterated contrarianism. Markets have an uncanny knack for making the maximum number look foolish at any given time, and my brain cannot conjure a scenario in which this plays out well. Which is a hint that it probably somehow will.”

And now: Chalk up another one for contrarianism.

The Kings may only be looking down at a single team in the West, but there is reason for optimism here. Tyreke Evans is playing some nice (if not historic, like his rookie year) ball, Marcus Thornton is one of the most more dangerous streak shooters around and a more consistent and even-keeled DeMarcus Cousins is starting to look like the franchise big man many think he can be.

San Antonio Spurs
Preseason line: 40.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 24-10
On pace for: 47-19

My thoughts then:
“Barring catastrophic injury, look for the Spurs to return to the playoffs, but this is no longer a squad equipped to take three out of every five games over the course of a long season, particularly one in which rest will be in shorter supply than usual.”

And now: Yep, picking against a Popovich-led Spurs team is going about as well as one would expect.

Tim Duncan is clearly in decline, Manu Ginobili has taken part in all of nine games, no one outside of the Big 3 is scoring in double digits and legit MVP candidate Tony Parker, seemingly good for 30-10 a night, is averaging “just” 19 and 8. And yet here are the Spurs, piling up W’s at a 70% clip. It’s unlikely that they’ll continue to win as this torrid rate, but if Manu can get back (and back to form) and Pop rests his vets by punting entire games rather than trimming a couple of minutes here and there (something I am a HUGE advocate of), 45+ wins is very much in play.

Seriously, how does this keep happening?

Utah Jazz
Preseason line: 24.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 15-17
On pace for: 31-35

My thoughts then: “Now in full rebuild mode… the top priority for the Jazz will be to manage its portfolio of young assets. For this franchise, success in 2011-12 will not be measured in victories.”

And now: After winning 12 of 19 to start the season the Jazz are crashing back to earth. There is probably too much fontcourt talent on the current roster to avoid another 10 victories, but don’t expect too strong a push in the second half. There is little to gain beyond a short-lived playoff berth in exchange for a mid-first rounder (goes to Minnesota if Utah reaches the playoffs) in a loaded draft.

Don’t be surprised if veterans begin to receive “precautionary rest” for phantom injuries, and Paul Millsap and/or Al Jefferson finish their respective seasons elsewhere.

If you enjoyed this brief stroll down Self Congratulation Lane (or if you didn't - whatever), be sure to check out how my Eastern Conference predictions are shaking out.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Kyrie Irving Is Killing

In describing the late-game exploits of NBAers, the “taking over” of a game is often referenced. All too often the heroics in question are confined to three or four moments of brilliance amid an extended run of play. Tuesday night, however, Kyrie Irving painted a fourth quarter masterpiece as comprehensive in its dominance as it was exhilarating.

The Cavaliers entered the fourth quarter at home against the Detroit Pistons facing an 11-point deficit (down from 17), with Irving in the midst of an equally frustrating outing – eight points (on just two-of-seven from the field), two rebounds and six assist-negating turnovers. He’d shown flashes midway through the third quarter – first capping a blindingly fast break with a slick dish to Antawn Jamison for a layup, then, on the ensuing possession, freezing fellow rookie Brandon Knight with a fantastic first step (his startlingly high-elevation dunk attempt was blocked) – but had failed to spark a meaningful run. He finished the stanza on the bench, destined for a frustrating defeat.

Not so fast, my friend!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Next Next Chance

I am deathly afraid of becoming Roy Tarpley.

I say this not out of fear that of succumbing to substance abuse – thankfully that’s never been an issue – but out of fear that I will take the “next next chance” for granted until I’ve exhausted my supply. Be it career, friendship, relationship with significant other, alcohol, drugs, whatever, there is probably a facet of life in which your shit’s never really been together. Thanks to your potential for excellence, however, combined with someone’s ability and willingness to invest in this potential, you’ve been allowed to continue hacking away. To borrow an analogy from baseball, it’s the equivalent of facing a two-strike count in the ninth inning, and just managing to stay alive by fouling off pitch, after pitch, after pitch…

I am scared shitless of Strike Three.

If you are fortunate, at some point those with the power to do something about it will catch a glimpse of you at the peak of your respective powers and, if sufficiently intoxicated, allow you every opportunity to reach your potential, sometimes (all too often?) in spite of yourself. Until one day, when…

What’s all this nonsense got to do with Roy Tarpley? Well, for about a minute a quarter century ago, Tarpley was better at playing basketball than you are at any endeavor that you have undertaken. Whatever the skill, our gifts may be rare, but Tarpley’s were truly singular.

Three times in the last 27 NBA seasons a player has turned in a performance of at least 20 points, 25 rebounds, and three each of steals and blocked shots. The first occurred on March 30, 1986, when a 23 year-old Charles Barkley made 12 of 15 shots en route to 32 points, grabbed 25 rebounds, blocked three shots and added four swipes in a one-point 76ers win (in front of just 9,194 fans – fan up Philly!) over the Dallas Mavericks. A spectacular showing to be sure, but it’s worth noting that Chuck’s turnover tally (9!) added a modicum of difficulty to what should have been an easier victory.

Almost four years later in Houston, Hakeem Olajuwon put in some work, with a 32 and 25 of his own, to which he added three steals and a silly 10 blocked shots. The greatest center since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and an all-around statistical wonder seldom seen at the position, Hakeem’s performance will forever be deserving of a place in the NBA (and retroactively, fantasy) pantheon, though it’s worth noting that it came against an Orlando Magic team playing its 23rd game ever, and trotting out a starting 4-5 combo of Sidney Green and Mark Acres, with Otis Smith (who had an admirable 19 and 10) coming off the bench.

The third was turned in later that season, fittingly on April Fools’ Day… by Roy Tarpley. The most devastating player that never was, he scored 24 points on 12-of-25 (that he managed to not attempt a single free throw is as impressive as anything else he did that night), grabbed 25 rebounds (12 offensive!), blocked three shots and nabbed five steals, while committing just one turnover and no personal fouls, as the Mavericks downed the short-handed (sans leading scorer Ricky Pierce and defensive ace Alvin Robertson) Milwaukee Bucks, 86-72.

Takeaways? From where I sit, there are three: No matter how dominant the performance, some asshole will try to spot a wart, be it turnovers or subpar competition (the aforementioned Magic frontcourt, or the Bucks’ Murderer’s Row of Larry Krystkowiak, Fred Roberts, an aging Jack Sikma and Brad Lohaus off the bench). Given this, Charles Oakley deserves a lot more love for hanging 26 and 35 on Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Hot Rod Williams. And finally, Roy Tarpley.

That’s all. Roy freaking Tarpley.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On DeMarcus Cousins - An Aggressive Extrapolation

I have wanted to become an unabashed DeMarcus Cousins fan since the first time I watched him play at Kentucky. Not since a young Chris Webber had a college big man’s potential for dominance intoxicated me to that extent. However, seemingly every superlative carried a “character caveat,” be it with regard to his maturity, hot-headedness, conditioning or coachability, because, y’know, we all had our shit together at 19. As someone whose post-Magic/pre-Kobe wagon was hitched to the ill-fated star of Isaiah Rider, I was understandably unforthcoming with my affection.

No more.

I’m watching the Sacramento Kings – more accurately DMC – a lot these days. And I see it happening. The flashes of greatness, increasingly growing into short stretches, in which brain catches up to body, producing basketball that compels one to slam a double shot of hyperbole and take to the streets.

It happens when he drives the baseline and attacks an opposing big’s chest – without drawing a foul. An under-control drive capped off with a layup, after a slick up-and-under. An elbow jumper so smooth you’d swear it originated from Pau Gasol. An off-balance (but once again under control) fadeaway from the wing. Plucking a steal out of the air with one of his giants paws as though snatching a gently tossed tennis ball. An uncanny knock for creating space for rebounds that few could have reached anyway.

At his best, Cousins evokes images of a smaller, in-shape Shaq. A more powerful Chris Webber. Tall Barkley. Moses Malone with a refined offensive game.

He still gets into foul trouble, and frustratingly attracts whistles in bunches. He remains turnover prone and must recommit to maximizing his considerable passing ability. And he will have to sustain his recent efforts, both physical and mental, to ascend to the ranks of the NBA’s elite. Not that he’s not off to a decent start already.

Thing is, he’s trying. DeMarcus Cousins is growing up, clearly making a conscious effort to control his emotions, while remaining an emotional player. This progress is a sign that the immaturity that’s plagued him is not only not a terminal condition, but with age and sufficient experience, could fade rather quickly into the rearview. Remember this guy?

It took a couple of years, but I have arrived, ready to take the plunge.

I am all in on DeMarcus Cousins.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Plays of the Week – Starring Tough Love From Mark Cuban and an Angry Mailman

Mark Cuban is not here to make you feel better about yourself. He will, however, point you in the general direction of the path to success.

Could not agree more with Jerry West (or Kelly Dwyer) with regard to Dwight Howard, err, “a player that says he’s going to leave.”

Massive props to Neil at Got ‘Em Coach, for unearthing a 17 year-old Andrew Bynum’s MySpace page.

After Karl Malone called out the Jazz for their handling of Jerry Sloan’s exit, “Greg in Utah” painted a less-than-flattering portrait of The Mailman. Greg in Utah? Probably just some yokel that got a cold shoulder from the Mailman around town, right? Not exactly. And for good measure, D-Will chimed in from Jersey with a less-than-reverent, but LOL-worthy zing of his own.

In an ongoing series at Searching for Slava, Dave gives us a beautifully-written account of an awkward time for Craig Sager. (May or may not be based on actual events):

What happens when a vocab lesson meets the Kobe System? A phenomenal piece of work from Danny Chau.

Meanwhile, at I Go Hard Now, resident cartoonist Spacefunmars came up with the latest his own ongoing series, in which Kobe Bryant and Mike Brown take a journey in search of truth. (Full archive – you’ll want to start from the beginning)

At The Kings Blog, Alex Kramers with a fantastic look at Sacramento’s diminutive but dynamic rookie, Isaiah Thomas. A must read.

Another absolute must-read. On SB Nation, Bomani Jones examines the tragedy of Allen Iverson, and sums up beautifully what he meant to a specific generation.

Basketball Prospectus’ Kevin Pelton with the most comprehensive and educational book review I have read in some time. A fantastic read. Can’t wait to get into “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

Awesome piece on Truehoop looking at LaMarcus Aldridge’s All-Star candidacy. Candidacy. That this is even a question speaks to the obscene level of frontcourt talent out West, I get that, but his absence in Orlando will be an affront not only to LMA, but to quiet professionalism everywhere.

Now (more or less) healthy, the Boston Celtics sound more like a squad breaking camp and looking ahead than an aging ex-contender fading into obscurity.

And finally, from Shaky Ankles, O.J. Mayo with one of my favorite moves of the week, leaving a flailing Danny Green in midair.