Aug 2, 2009
Living in Portland, my 45 min morning commute is comprised of 35 min of Blazer analysis on the radio. After digesting the reaction of callers and radio hosts, there are a few points I'd like to touch on as we head into next season.
1. Jerryd Bayless - Which Side are You On?
It's amazing how much can change in a year.
Just twelve months ago, Bayless was heralded as (an integral piece of) the future for the Blazers. Today, the overwhelming majority seems to have given up on him, calling for his head and hoping a trade ensues. While I'm somewhere in the middle with regards to Bayless as a player, I am beyond annoyed by the overnight shift from a fanbase of Bayless believers to a fanbase of Bayless haters.
What caused this shift? A few summer league games. Summer league? Yep. This is the same summer league that Oden averaged 42 fouls/game in last year. What was fans' response to Oden's lack of discipline last summer? That he's still young and has plenty of time to learn. So why hasn't the same patience been offered to Bayless? You got me. More on Oden later in this post.
On Bayless, most fans are just now coming to the realization that he isn't a point guard. This is the primary reason for the abandonment of the fan base in recent months.
I knew Bayless wasn't a point guard from day one, but who really cares? The same point guard experiment failed on Monta Ellis in G.S. and Ben Gordon in Chicago. Both of those guys have managed to make a good living in this league, despite their lack of height and lack of a distributor's mentality.
So he can't pass. Big deal! As soon as Blazers' brass stops pushing him as a point guard and gets creative with lineups, he'll be just fine. The fact remains, Bayless is a FREAK athlete... you don't believe me, just youtube his high school and college highlights. He gets to the rim at ease and finishes. He can pressure point guards better than anyone else on the roster save Andre Miller. Let's stop focusing on what he isn't and focus on what he is.
Much has been made of Portland's failure to land Turkoglu and Millsap. What do I think? I think the Blazers are better off. While I love both of those players, they would have put a tremendous burden on Portland's future cap space.
Will Turkoglu really be worth $10mil+ in 5 years, when he's in his late-thirties? I doubt it. Plus, he excels with the ball in his hands as a point-forward of sorts. B Roy is still the pick-and-roller late in games, and I can't say with certainty that Turkoglu would have been as effective playing off the ball.
Millsap would have brought some toughness, but at the expense of $10mil per? Remember, he would have been coming off the bench. It's hard to justify paying that kind of money for 25-30 min per game.
In short, the death of those proposed deals could be a positive in the long run.
On Oden: Sam Bowie or Dwight Howard?
Let me start by saying that Greg Oden will be a much better player than Sam Bowie ever was. However, there are certain things about the former #1 that I am a bit worried about.
Did anyone else find it concerning that Greg opted against training with the team in favor of academic pursuits in Columbus? For a guy who underwhelmed in year one, I would think he'd dedicate every minute of his summer attention to getting better. Not saying he hasn't been working hard, but to even divert some of his attention to the books seems foolish to me at this point. If anything, it just strengthens the argument that Oden just isn't THAT passionate about basketball... at least not compared to the all-time greats people have been likening him to. That worries me.
As I mentioned earlier, the unwavering support for the big fella has been astounding. It's like people forget that free passes aren't given to #1 picks. People so desperately want to see him succeed that they are blinded by all of his shortcomings. This wasn't intended to be Oden bashing hour, but from what I've seen he 1) has no offensive awareness WHATSOEVER, 2) is extremely undisciplined on defense, 3) shows little aggressiveness or passion for the game, and 4) is injury-prone. Yet, somehow, people up here still think he was a better pick than Kevin Durant. Unbelievable.
The Blazers did the right thing by hiring Brian Grant to be Oden's personal trainer this summer. He should do wonders for the big man.... Grant was always a tireless worker and brought toughness to the court. If he can help Oden in these facets of the game, he should be a big-time contributor this year.
Despite all my criticism, I'm not gonna give up on the big guy yet. He is still VERY young and has years to come into his own. He's got the God-given tangibles that can't be taught, now it's just a matter of him taking it upon himself to improve every year. I hope this happens.
This Season and Looking Forward
The Blazers should be a contender this year, even more so than they were last year. I'm expecting a win total in the 55-60 range, which would be good for 3rd or 4th in the West. They aren't quite a championship-caliber team at this point (especially with the offseason improvements by the Spurs & Lakers), but they should make it past the first round. If they can lock down Roy & Aldridge to long-term deals, and Oden makes Pryzbilla expendible, this team could be downright scary in a couple years. There is not a team in the league that is more loaded with young talent. Should be fun to watch!
Jun 25, 2009
Jun 23, 2009
Browsing the sports cyber-world, I came across NBA.com's consensus mock draft, and was shocked by how many players with glaring weaknesses were projected as lottery picks. In fact, every player not named Blake Griffin (and potentially James Harden) seems destined to underwhelm at the pro level, in my estimation.
Normally, I focus my pre-draft analysis on team needs and overlooked "sleepers." This year, I'm going to be as pessimistic as possible. For each consensus lottery pick, I will present my arguments for why he shouldn't be drafted so high. I've excluded #1 (Blake Griffin) because I don't see any glaring flaws in his game.
2) Hasheem Thabeet: Where do I start? I contemplated writing this entire piece on Thabeet's shortcomings. He's a flimsy, one-dimensional shot-blocker with no resemblance of an offensive game. He got manhandled in college by DeJuan Blair, who is 9 inches shorter than him. He ain't gonna sell any tickets. But he's tall... and he has upside. Yeah, we've heard that before. Think Mutombo at best and Sam Bowie at worst.
4) James Harden: Harden's college stats point to a well-rounded game. I saw him play a lot, and he was clearly the best player on the court. When he was engaged. If Harden is going to be a bona fide shooting guard in the NBA, he's gotta be more aggressive. 13 shot attempts per game (like he had at ASU) isn't gonna cut it. I also think he's a little slow for a 6'4 guard.
5) Tyreke Evans: Apparently GM's searching for their franchise point guard aren't putting much merit in Evans' college stats. 3.9 assists, 3.6 turnovers, 27% on threes, 71% on free throws. Shaq can get away with those kind of stats. Point guards can't.
6) Jordan Hill: Meat and potatoes guy. Every team needs a power forward who can rebound and hit the mid-range jumper. There are a lot of guys in the NBA who can do that. That's why you pick one up through free agency -- not with the 6th overall pick.
7) Stephen Curry: Curry should be a 2-guard, but isn't really big enough to play the position full-time. He has the stroke to fill that Vinnie Johnson/Ben Gordon microwave role, but this is the lottery we're talking about here. You don't use a top-7 pick on a role player.
8) Jonny Flynn: I'm having DaJuan Wagner flashbacks...
9) Demar DeRozan: For all the "De"'s in his name, this dude doesn't play much "de"-fense. That's problematic for swingmen trying to cover Lebron, Kobe, and the rest of the multi-talented offensive juggernauts at that position. Oh, did I mention he shot 17% from three? And that's from the college three-point line.
10) Jrue Holiday: He can do a lot of things. He's just not great at any of them. 8.5 ppg & 3.7 ppg as a frosh at UCLA. Impressive.
11) Brandon Jennings: When drafting a point guard, leadership should be as important a factor as scoring, ballhandling, or passing. Jennings didn't get the memo. When Jennings couldn't skip college for the NBA, he thought he was too big for the NCAA, making headlines with an international rotation. Then he made those laughable pre-draft comments. He's sure got a lot of confidence for a guy who put up 6 ppg and 2 apg while in Rome. Rubio's international stats don't look too bad after all.
12) Gerald Henderson: The last 5 guards drafted out of Duke? J.J. Redick, Daniel Ewing, Chris Duhon, Trajan Langdon. That worked out well.
13) Earl Clark: Last year, he put up 14 points on 12 shot attempts per game. Not terribly efficient for a 6'9 guy. To be honest, I haven't seen him play much. I did a little research, and it came as no surprise that "shot selection" was listed as one of his weaknesses. Another listed weakness was "focus." That would worry me.
14) DeJuan Blair: It's no wonder Blair can't block shots. He's just a hair over 6'5" without shoes on. Only one post player has ever excelled in the NBA at that height: Charles Barkley. Will Blair be the next Barkley? I say no.
Jun 19, 2009
1. 1979 NBA Draft -- Earvin 'Magic' Johnson (1st overall pick)
The Lakers struck gold in landing the first pick in the 1979 draft and made the no-brainer choice to select Magic. The four picks that followed L.A.'s selection? David Greenwood, Bill Cartwright, Greg Kelser, and Sidney Moncrief. I'd say the Lakers made the right decision here. Magic went on to team with Kareem and James in bringing home 5 NBA championships and a plethora of close second's. He was the catalyst of the "Showtime" era and solidified the franchise as the second-best in all of pro basketball.
I flirted with the idea of including the Jerry West and Elgin Baylor selections on this list, but kept them off in the end. Going through the team's draft history, it is easy to see why the Lakers have remained good (or great) for most of their history. Unlike many franchises (ahem, Sam Bowie), they made the right decisions in the offseason.
Jun 11, 2009
- Kobe line-drives an 18-footer. 78 seconds in, we get our first teeth-clenching moment.
- Gotta give it to Courtney Lee, he's got an awful lot of confidence for a rookie who blew a game-winning layup and missed two wide open threes to start the game.
- Bynum picks up the obligatory 2nd foul with 8:42 left in the first. True to form, his foul was wasted, not hard enough to prevent a three-point play, not soft enough to avoid the whistle.
- Kobe forces another shot early in the shot clock. Will he ever take the ball to the basket again?
- Skippy throws in his second prayer of the game. He's a different player at home.
- Kobe FINALLY decides to take the ball to the basket and gets a three-point play. The NBA: where amazing happens.
- This is the "hardest" Jeff Van Gundy has seen Howard play for a six minute stretch... in this series... in the games in Orlando... while the Magic have had the lead... and Courtney Lee has two fouls. Riveting stuff.
- Was it irresponsible for ESPN to have the coach's brother commentate these games?
- Speaking of the Van Gundy's, the interview of Papa VG was priceless in game three.
- I love it when Turk complains that he got fouled. It's kind of like watching Bobby Brown protest against domestic abuse. If Bobby Brown had been born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Tony Battie sighting.
- Orlando fans boo when Kobe rips through, raises up, and draws the foul. Have they ever watched Turkoglu play?
- DJ Mbenga sighting. Drumroll please... Josh Powell sighting.
End of 1st: Magic 24, Lakers 20
- Luke Walton starts things off with a feathery jumper. He has played terrific basketball all playoffs long.
- Proof positive that Breen is an idiot. "J.J. Redick has become a facilitator this year under Stan Van Gundy." I checked the stats: Redick averaged an eye-popping 1.1 apg this season.
- Turk is making himself some money this series. He's playing all-star ball.
- Magic by 10. Maybe their game three shooting (and the Lakers' defense) wasn't a fluke after all.
- In case you were wondering, Marcin Gortat cannot guard Pau Gasol.
- Bynum makes his first legitimate post move in 96 hours. In other news, Americans elect their first black president. Wait...
- Dwight Howard grabs his 47th rebound of the half.
- With no other low post options, L.A. subs-in trainer Gary Vitti. Maybe he will box out Howard.
- Mark Jackson criticizes SVG for not subbing Turkoglu on the last offensive possession. Shockingly, JVG quickly changes the topic of conversation.
Halftime: Magic 49, Lakers 37
- Since when did Brian Scott become the spokesperson for the Lakers?
- Bryant pulls up and hits a three on the slow break. Camera pans the Magic bench as Pietrus drops his warmups.
- Ariza hits his third straight shot, and it's a five-point game. And the Magic just lost 10% of its playoff fan base.
- In breaking news, Kobe likes Hedo as a player.
- Question for SVJ: when a player is one-dimensional and that dimension is failing, why would you keep him in the game? Sub-out Redick.
- The refs confer with Fisher, who calls it Laker ball.
- Maybe Howard shouldn't have sprinted every possession in the first half... he looks winded.
- Orlando looks lost without Turkoglu on the floor.
- In the most amusing play I've seen in recent memory, J.J. Redick tries a Hedo/Kobe pump, lean, & chuck and actually expects a foul to be called.
- I stand corrected. Kobe trying to man up on Howard is the most amusing segment I've seen in recent memory.
End of 3rd: Lakers 67, Magic 63.
- SVG tries to weather the storm by starting the fourth with Tony Battie in the lineup. Nice.
- Why doesn't Shannon Brown play in this series? He would give Skippy fits.
- Wow. Pietrus blows the 1-on-0 break. That's a game-losing play right there.
- Did Jameer Nelson gain weight and shrink during his layoff? He looks like Muggsy Bogues tonight.
- After Pietrus hits a three, Kobe hits an impossible three, check that, two, in Pietrus' face. Coincidence? I think not.
- Even JVG is annoyed by the "hand down, man down" phrase at this point...
- Whenever Dwight Howard makes a free throw, I feel like a flock of seagulls has just crapped on my head.
- Pietrus is one of those Stephen Jackson/Travis Outlaw players, the player who has no concept of good basketball play vs. bad basketball play. These types of players tend to play well at the end of games because they have no filter and aren't bothered by the moment (because they don't understand what "the moment" is). 76-75 Magic.
- The lost 10% of June Magic fans are back again.
- David Stern walks over to the Laker's bench and takes back the embroidered "best closer" chair when Kobe misses a wide open three.
- Mark Jackson offers his apologies to SVG for questioning his playing "Muggsy" Nelson in the fourth quarter. JVG bites his tongue.
- Does that "best closer" chair belong to Trevor Ariza?
- Stern calmly walks the chair over to the Magic bench and slides it under Turkoglu as he sits down. Magic by 5 at the timeout.
- Kobe takes a horrendous three as the rest of the team watches. This is getting old.
- Howard misses first of two. This one could make it a two possession game. Shot's up... and out. The Lakers have life.
- Fisher hits the second-biggest shot of his career, and JVG's partiality comes out as he chastises Jameer Nelson for leaving him open.
- 4.6 left, tie game. SVG is contemplating subbing-in Courtney Lee.
- Pietrus misses the buzzer-beater. So much for my above theory.
End of 4th: Lakers 87, Magic 87.
- Lewis starts things off with a "magical" three. Okay, I apologize to anyone who just read that.
- Kobe with two straight. Stern sneaks back to the Magic bench to reclaim the "best closer" chair.
- Pietrus blatantly whacks Bryant on the wrist. No call.
- Howard hits 1-of-2 to make it a tie game with 1:30 left. The Magic team doctor resuscitates SVG.
- Gasol swears in espanol as Nelson hooks his arm on the rebound attempt.
- Fisher hits the third-biggest shot of his career, and Breen finally gets a chance to talk again. Lakers by 3.
- After a Bryant elbow, Nelson's teeth would be intact if he ever kept his mouthguard in his mouth.
- France and Spain square off. Advantage: Spain.
- Game, set, match. Series over, folks.
Final: Lakers 99, Magic 91.
Jun 10, 2009
Polarize (v) - "To cause to concentrate about two conflicting or contrasting positions."
In my previous post about Kobe Bryant, I called him the most polarizing figure in sports. With some inspiration from Knee Jerk, I put a little more thought into this claim, identifying the professional athletes who have elicited the most bipartisan reactions from fans in recent years. I started by brainstorming the historical players who met this criteria, but quickly learned that that was far too difficult an exercise. There is no way I could create a responsible list of the all-time most polarizing/controversial players when I either: a) wasn't alive or b) wasn't coherent enough to really get a feel for the reactions they brought forth in fans and the media. Consequently, I've narrowed this list to the 5 most polarizing athletes of the past twenty years.
Honorable Mention: Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Ron Artest, Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley (retired), Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, The Manning Brothers, Pete Rose (retired), Mike Tyson, Jose Canseco (retired).
5. Shaquille O'Neal
The Diesel didn't make this list because he is the center of controversy (like Roger Clemens or Ron Artest). He made this list because ever since he has entered the league there have been two camps: one camp calls O'Neal the best center and most dominating force of his generation (or even all-time), the other says he was simply bigger than anyone else and did not dedicate himself to the game (pointing to his free throw percentage and lack of conditioning). Perhaps the biggest factor in including O'Neal on this list is his media-fueled feud with Kobe Bryant. Since Kobe is the most polarizing athlete in the game, anything Kobe creates a rift amongst fans. Stemming from the Kobe-Shaq feud, Kobe's supporters generally dislike (or even hate) O'Neal and Kobe's naysayers generally praise O'Neal and his accomplishments.
4. Terrell Owens
T.O. stirs up self-inflicted controversy every year. From calling out every quarterback he has ever played with, to crying after a playoff loss, to overdosing on pills, to contract disputes, to self-proclaimed greatness, to crunches in his driveway on ESPN, to trend-setting touchdown celebrations, he is constantly the center of attention. The only reason T.O. isn't higher on this list is that there is a sizeable disparity between the amount of fans who love him and the amount of fans who hate him. Every sports fan with a pulse in San Francisco, Dallas, or Philadelphia dislikes him. Older generation fans generally dislike him, and younger generation fans are split. At one time or another, most fans have at least admired his on-field accomplishments or physical attributes, even if they later made the switch and became T.O.-haters.
3. Alex Rodriguez
Any time a player is dubbed the next big thing, there is bound to be a mixed reaction. That's exactly what happened when Rodriguez came into the league as a protypical young talent. Any time a player gets those types of accolades and clearly believes them to be 100% true, the eaction is even stronger amongst fans. When that player suits up for the most polarizing team in professional sports, these reactions are only further magnified. Rodriguez's record-breaking contract, postseason struggles, MVP trophies, relations with Madonna, and steroid admissions have all elicited mixed reactions and been the focal point of the media. Just like the team he plays for, you must love him or hate him -- there is no middle ground.
2. Barry Bonds
1. Kobe Bryant
Kobe wins the top spot on the list by a wide margin, in my opinion. Shaq receives more love than hate, and the other three athletes on the list receive more hate than love. What makes Kobe the most polarizing figure, in the true sense of the word, is that he receives equal parts love and equal parts disdain. For every attribute praised by a Kobe-lover, there is a rebuttal for a Kobe-hater. For every accomplishment, a caveat. Kobe ran Shaq out of L.A. /Shaq couldn't handle sharing the spotlight. Kobe is a "ballhog" / Kobe is the best scorer in the game. Kobe can't win without Shaq / Kobe hasn't had the supporting cast to win without Shaq. The list goes on... and on... and on. The love/hate divide began when Kobe came into the league and grew when he was compared to the most sacred name in hoop history: Michael Jordan. Like A-Rod, Kobe plays for the most polarizing team in his sport, which only intensifies opinions about him. No matter how you slice it, Kobe is the most loved, and hated, player in the NBA. Winning both of these imaginary awards simultaneously makes Kobe Bryant the most polarizing athlete of this era.
Jun 8, 2009
Jun 7, 2009
- Orlando's players do not respect Stan Van Gundy or what he has to say to them. As if Shaq's vocal criticism in '06 wasn't enough, this probably should have been obvious to me after a normally reserved Dwight Howard disrespected him in front of the national media during these playoffs. But until tonight, I thought the criticism directed toward SVG was somewhat unwarranted, as he has a pretty good track record in terms of wins & losses. Tonight, I saw ESPN's cameras pan in on multiple huddles where players were taking part in side conversations or appeared to be completely tuning out what he had to say. This was also evident during his halftime speech ("mic'd up" by ESPN), where not a single player was making eye contact with the coach and as a whole looked indifferent.
- Kobe is much more difficult to analyze now than he was even a few rounds ago. At one moment he appears to be on a violent mission, shooting death stares at his teammates and hitting impossible shots in cold blood. The next minute he is jovial, sharing laughs with said teammates and perfectly content in the decoy role. It used to be that Kobe would enter a game with a predetermined approach. He would carry out this approach to a flaw, either by forcing up shots in his "scoring Kobe" mode or passing up wide open looks in his "passing Kobe" mode. Now, his approach is changing from quarter-to-quarter or even possession-to-possession. I still haven't fully embraced the notion that his behavior on the offensive end is entirely reactive (as opposed to predetermined), but he has recently made a point to tell us that he is "taking what the defense gives him" in every interview. Really? Not only do I see nobody in pinstripes (individually, or collectively) who is capable of dictating his approach to the game through their defense, but I also think Kobe is entirely too analytical and stubborn to be patient in his strategic decisions. I still think that on certain possessions he decides that he is going to shoot regardless of the defensive front, or that he is going to get others involved regardless of whether or not he has an open look. I will probably write another post addressing these opinions separately in the near future.
- Hedo Turkoglu is more physical than his reputation. I never noticed, but Turkoglu initiates contact almost every time he touches the ball and is very crafty in getting defenders in the air. He was called for a push-off on one critical possession late in the game, but overall his initiation of contact paid dividends via free-throws. As much as the Lakers claim to be a tough team, I still see them struggle when the game becomes more physical. Physicality was the only reason an injury-plagued Houston team made round two a series, and Denver pushed the Lakers around in the paint all series long in the WCF.
Until next time...
Jun 5, 2009
Game One Reaction
That said, this series is far from over. I know the Magic were outshot, outdefended, and just plain outclassed in game one. We all witnessed just how good a focused Laker team really is, and the Magic's weaknesses were certainly exposed (namely the lack of a second post player and too much reliance on outside shooting). Clearly, if the Lakers continue to play this way the series could be over in four games. But as we have seen in these playoffs, the Lakers don't play this way every game. It seems every game, our impression of the Lakers flipflops between heartless and determined. Phil Jackson's Jekyll & Hyde analogy wasn't too far off.
Unfortunately for the Magic, both versions of the Lakers are better than most teams in the NBA. Even on down nights, they have the talent and experience to keep things close. The Magic must play near-perfect basketball to beat this juggernaut, and even then I'm not sure it can be done in a seven-game series. Nevertheless, I've put together a gameplan for Orlando to shock the world and win this series:
1. Feed the Beast, Even When in Foul Trouble
The Magic must feed the ball to Howard early and often. Regardless of the foul situation, they must be persistent on this front. Nobody on the Lakers has the strength to guard him down low, despite the common belief that Howard has no post moves. Bynum is the Lakers' bulkiest threat, and Howard has eaten him alive when given the opportunity.
I know it's tempting for Stan Van Gundy to monitor his star's fouls. Much has been made of Howard's foul troubles in these playoffs and the detrimental effect it has on the team. I know he picked up a few offensive fouls in game one and feeding him the ball increases the likelihood of said foul trouble. I know the Lakers are sagging and positioning help defenders to take charges when Howard makes his predictable spin move.
I understand how these factors would play into SVG's strategy, but I still don't agree with his cautious approach. I think he needs to throw all these fears out the window and take his chances. The Magic aren't going to win this series playing scared. They aren't going to win this series holding back Howard, as he is the only significant positional advantage that the Magic have in this series. To win, the Magic must force-feed their star until he fouls out. At worst, this would occur in 25 minutes of court time. This would eventually force double-teams from the Lakers and would open up the three-point line for Orlando's shooters, who didn't have good looks at the basket in game one. It would also force the Lakers into foul trouble of their own.
2. Mix Things Up
When Bynum picks up his inevitable second foul midway through the first quarter, put Gortat in the game alongside Howard. Slide Lewis to the three and Turkoglu to the two. Odom would then be forced to cover Gortat and Gasol may pick up some cheap fouls trying to contain Howard. Lewis would have easier looks against shorter defenders (without Odom guarding him), and Kobe would have to exert more of an effort on defense against Turkoglu than he does against Courtney Lee.
In game one, it was as if the Magic were playing reactive basketball instead of forcing the Lakers' hand. They were reluctant to play Gortat and Howard at the same time for any significant stretches of the game, and their best attempt to match the Lakers' size was by inserting seldom-used Tony Battie into the game in the second quarter. Battie looked lost; it was as if he 1) hadn't picked up a basketball in 8 months, 2) forgot that he can't shoot midrange jumpers and/or 3) knew he wouldn't play again and wanted to get up as many shots as possible in the meantime.
3) Revise the Jameer Nelson Experiment
Nelson looked great for the first three minutes in the second quarter, before his I.R. legs showed themselves. I'm not really sure what SVG was trying to do by playing Jameer the entire second quarter, even as the Lakers mounted a run. He must have not noticed that his team actually led after the first quarter with Alston at the point.
I'm not necessarily opposed to tinkering with lineups (even in the finals), but I think SVG should change his approach with Nelson. I don't agree with Mark Jackson's assessment that the Magic should either play him starter minutes or bench him. I think Nelson brings some different elements to their offense that can still be valuable in shorter stints. He should play the true backup role (15-18 minutes) rather than instituting a platoon system at the point. The Magic made it this far with Alston at the reins, and Skip is the type of player who needs to get quantity minutes to find a rhythm. By playing each of these guys equal minutes, they both become less effective.
4) Increase Pietrus' Minutes
Mikael Pietrus shot horribly in game one and did little to slow Kobe Bryant. However, my observation was that the other Magic defenders did a worse job on Kobe and Pietrus was one of the few Magic players who didn't look scared by the Staples lights. Pietrus showed us in the Cleveland series that he is capable of hitting big shots and his early-game misses against L.A. in game one didn't cause him to shy away from open looks later in the game. I've gotta believe that his shots will start to fall soon enough, and this could provide the scoring spark the Magic desperately need.
5) Play the Zone
The Magic should insert a pseudo two-three zone or box-and-one defense for part of game two. While the Lakers have a few players with decent range, I'd rather take my chances on Luke Walton's or Trevor Ariza's three-point shooting than on Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in the post. Much has been made of the Lakers' 55-41 advantage on the glass in game one, but that was mostly due to Orlando's poor shooting (30%!) leading to defensive rebounds for L.A. The real problem was L.A.'s 56 points in the paint. The Magic don't have the quickness on the perimeter or the size down low (outside of foul-prone Howard) to keep the Lakers away from the rim, so a straight man-to-man defense is not going to work. If Orlando's players can find bodies when shots go up, the zone could be very effective in frustrating L.A. If nothing else it would give the Lakers a different look, one that they probably haven't prepared for.
Jun 4, 2009
Game one has finally arrived, and I couldn't be more excited. Even though the Magic wrapped up their series with the Cavs just 5 short days ago, it feels like it's been months since the last NBA telecast. So long, in fact, that I felt compelled to pick up the pencils and create some artwork of the Finals' two best players (see above).
For game one, I'll keep the predictions short and sweet. The first half will be a "feeling out" period for both of the teams, and Finals jitters will show through uncharacteristic turnovers and overall sloppy play. By the second half, the teams will have locked in and good basketball will be played. I'm predicting unexpected contributions from Sasha Vujacic (9 points, all from the three-point line) and Courtney Lee (15 points). I'm predicting a down game from Rashard Lewis, who will finish with 12 points and shoot below 40%. The Staples Center crowd will prove to be too much for Orlando in a seesaw battle. Lakers by 8.
Jun 3, 2009
Rashard Lewis has been overlooked since he was a teenager. When he bypassed college for the pros in 1998, he was an intriguing prospect to the point that he was asked to sit in the Green Room on draft night. However, Lewis was the last man standing in the Green Room, a la Brady Quinn. When the dust settled, Seattle stole him with the 32nd pick. As a point of reference, 1998 was the year Michael Olowokandi was picked #1 and Raef LaFrenz was picked #3.
Lewis was probably overlooked because GM's hadn't fully embraced the new regime at the time of his arrival. They hadn't foreseen the impending transforming of the game where all 5 players must be able to score in a variety of ways. They hadn't foreseen the value that could be derived from a 4-man who could stretch the defense or the forthcoming defensive rule changes that would allow teams to hide weak individual defenders behind zone defenses. Outside of Bird, tall shooters hadn't made their mark on the game and GM's still believed that there were five distinct positions with five distinct skillset requirements. (NOTE: This thinking was evidenced further by the Olowokandi pick at #1 and Tractor-Traylor at #6). As such, Lewis was too slight to bang down low as a 4, and lacked the ballhandling & lateral quickness to play on the wing. He was a 'tweener, a distinction that only had negative connotations at the time.
Another factor in Lewis' descent on the draft board was that the 1998 draft class included Antawn Jamison (#4), Nowitzki (#9), and Al Harrington (#25). Even Raef LaFrenz (#3) and Michael Doleac (#12) were more highly-coveted than Lewis at the time. Lewis was considered a second-tier version of these players, and aside from Garnett executives were still skeptical about a player's ability to transition to the NBA without intercollegiate experience.
As time passed, the NBA's transformation became more apparent. Nowitzki transcended the game as the first 7-footer who could play effectively from the 3-point line in, but other aforementioned members of the '98 draft class (Jamison & Lewis) were part of the transformation, as well. In fact, today's team builds are due in large part to the contributions of the draft class of '98. Orlando's current composition of 4 shooters and a big man would have been considered foolish just 10 short years ago. Today, range from the four-spot is considered a necessity.
As stated earlier, Lewis has always done most of his damage behind-the-scenes. He shared the spotlight with Ray Allen in Seattle, and shares it with Dwight Howard in Orlando. Lewis is a rarity in that he shows glimpses of being a franchise-type player (see big shots against Cleveland in the Conference Finals) and there are also times when he's seemingly invisible on the court. It's as if he's comfortable with the spotlight, but equally content playing second- or third-fiddle. Call it Lamar Odom Syndrome.
Until this season, Lewis had never been considered a "winner" in quantitative terms. He had played many seasons of losing basketball, and his greatest accomplishment from a win/loss standpoint had been a trip to the second round with Seattle. When he signed that ridiculous contract with Orlando in '07, skeptics were quick to point out his track record of losing and his incapability to play the star role. Why pay a guy star dollars if he couldn't play the part of a star?
Well, like everything else, opinions change. We are now embracing the idea that Rashard Lewis was never put in a position to win. Maybe he is capable of being a star, but flourishes as a secondary option. Maybe Lewis never desired to hold the key to a basketball city's championship aspirations. Maybe, just maybe, Lewis lacks the intangibles or the "win at all costs" mentality required of a winning star. If put in the #1 role, maybe Lewis' teams would have been destined for mediocrity. As crazy as it sounds, maybe Lewis yearned for the #2 role where he could continue in his predestined trade without the level of praise and criticism that attaches itself to a bona fide #1.
This isn't the first time a phenom has saved his best for when he became second best. It is becoming more and more evident that championship teams need players with star pedigrees to fill secondary roles. Pippen was the enabler for the Bulls' championships (disgruntled or not) and Parker/Ginobili were a huge part of the Spurs' championship parades as well. The Cavs couldn't do it in '07 with one star, and neither could the Sixers in '01. On the flip side, only the Pistons of '04 have done it without at least one brand name.
But while it seems rather simple -- teams are at an advantage having multiple threats on the court -- it is not always as easily done as it is said. The deepest pockets in the league have tried and failed to build team environments where multiple big names (and games) can coexist. It may work for one season, but it is often difficult to sustain this type of environment successfully. The ego-to-skill ratio must be less than 1-to-1. For as the tides become rocky and adversity strikes, most players of this caliber have a difficult time accepting the criticism without deflecting blame. We saw the failed experiment of four #1's in L.A. in '04. To be accurate, we saw the failed experiment of two #1's in L.A. in '04. If Kobe or Shaq would have been willing to concede a few shots, or interviews, or prideful moments, we would have seen five or six straight titles instead of three.
For it to work, one of the stars must be humble enough to accept the #2 role. He must be capable of delivering in #1 fashion, but content receiving #2 attention. The Celtics found the right personalities to pull it off last year. The Magic and Lakers have found the right personalities to pull it off this year. For all of his god-given ability, it is rare to hear Pau Gasol gripe about touches (although, ironically enough he did have these qualms against the Nuggets), and it is even more rare to hear those types of complaints out of Rashard Lewis.
Some may call it timidness, others unselfishness. I prefer self-awareness. Rashard Lewis' self-awareness has propelled the Magic to their first finals berth since the mid-nineties. He's willingly accepted a back seat in Dwight Howard's car. He's willingly accepted an unrecognized voice and an uncelebrated celebrity. He knows that Dwight Howard is the star and the face of this franchise, and that doesn't seem to bother him one bit. If it did, his face would have been photoshopped into one of TNT's "Gone Fishing" mosaics after the first round.
If the last twenty years has taught NBA GM's anything, it should be this: when shopping for sidekicks, start with guys who don't need a lot of coddling. Make pushes for Pau Gasol, Rashard Lewis, David West; steer clear of Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudemire, Allen Iverson. Follow this rule, and championships may be attainable.
Jun 2, 2009
Derek Fisher doesn't get much publicity. He's rarely asked to take the podium for postgame interviews, hasn't had his name etched into the Hollywood walk of fame, and his house hasn't been featured on "Cribs." On the national scene, Fisher is just "that" guy, capable of keeping a job but incapable of selling jerseys. Even amongst the NBA's most diehard of fans, I'd be willing to bet most couldn't name Fisher's alma mater. Fisher probably runs errands at local strip malls without getting much attention.
D-Fish's lack of notoriety is quite remarkable, all things considered. After all, he is the starting point guard for the team favored to win the NBA Championship. He has won three titles. His miraculous shot against San Antonio in '04 did salvage L.A.'s chances at a four-peat. He has earned the trust and confidence of the most skeptical and condescending superstar in pro sports (Kobe). Phil Jackson did draw up the last shot of Game 2 against the Nuggets for him (not Kobe). He has made the most of his abilities. He does leave it on the court every night. He did skip a critical playoff game to tend to his ailing daughter. He does play the game the right way. But to most of us, none of that matters.
Overshadowed in the city of angels by the brighter stars of Kobe, Pau, Lamar, Phil, Jerry, and Jack, Fisher just goes about his business. He comes in early and stays late. He studies film to the point that mental lapses are a rarity. He prefers the standard chest back rather than going behind the back. And for these throwback tendencies, Derek Fisher might be the least sexy player in the entire NBA (and the least sexy to write a blog about, for that matter). And to most of us, that does matter.
My guess is that Derek Fisher could care less about what matters to us, though. His approach has always been substance over form. In a league of Hummers, Benzes, and Beamers, Derek Fisher is a Ford Taurus. Low maintenance, limited features, consistent performance. Consistency equates to boredom in the eyes of most NBA beholders. Derek Fisher's game is not aesthetically-pleasing and his stats are not spectacular. We know Fisher is good for 12 points, 5 assists, and a clutch jumper. We seldom like what we know.
I find this to be an unfortunate reminder of what the NBA has become for us fans. Overachievers aren't exalted like they once were. We favor the high risk, high reward guys over the guys who seemingly do more with less. NBA GM's see it the same way. Why else would Tyrus Thomas be chosen ahead of Brandon Roy in the draft? As fans or as executives, we're willing to take the risk that an inconsistent or underdeveloped player will be a bust if there is a glimmer of hope he could become a superstar. We don't pack the house for Fisher's 12 and 5, we pack the house for Greg Oden's 20 and 10, or Greg Oden's 4 and 2. We pack the house for Ron Artest's ejection and we pack the house for Chris Anderson's arm flaps and we'll pack the house for Ricky Rubio's seven turnovers.
These days, Derek Fisher is playing blue-collar ball in a sport that is no longer blue-collar. He is relying on wits and experience to hedge against his painfully obvious physical decline. But while he has failed to successfully chase the younger point guards in these playoffs, he has remained a professional. Despite his decay, he hasn't gone Scottie Pippen on us by turning into a crotchety old man, unwilling to let go. And for these reasons, we choose to neither praise him nor ridicule him. To slander the 2009 Derek Fisher would be nearly as sacrilegious for a basketball fan as it would be to love his game.
When the Staples lights come on Thursday night, we will tune in to the broadcast and tune out Fisher's game. We will watch intently for Dwight Howard's foul count, Rashard Lewis' success rate from the three-point line, Stan Van Gundy's animated facial expressions, Kobe's preference between assassin or facilitator, Lamar Odom's level of effort, and the Lakers' persistence (or lack thereof) in getting the ball to Gasol in the post. Knowingly or not, we have already come to the conclusion that Derek Fisher will be neither great nor horrible. He is the epitome of afterthought, and as a Laker fan, I'm okay with that. I'm okay with it because I know that when those lights come on, Derek Fisher will be ready to play -- whether we're paying attention or not.
Jun 1, 2009
Advantage: Lakers in a landslide.
Small Forward: Hedo Turkoglu/Mikael Pietrus vs. Trevor Ariza/Luke Walton/Lamar Odom
Turkoglu has been nails in the fourth quarter during the regular season and in the playoffs. In late-game situations, he seems to always come up with a big bucket or assist. In fact, he averaged more assists/game than Alston against Cleveland in the playoffs as a whole. Turkoglu created mismatches against Cleveland when Lebron wasn't guarding him, using his rare combination of size (6'10), outside shooting (1.5 threes/game), and vision (6.7 apg) to score or set up teammates. Pietrus was mentioned earlier in the shooting guard analysis, but with the Magic's lack of depth (8-man rotation), he gets many minutes at the three. He's Orlando's best spark off the bench and a versatile defender. I'm expecting big minutes out of him to match up with Kobe or Ariza.
Trevor Ariza has been a media darling this postseason. Adding a three-point shot to his already-imposing defensive presence and athleticism, he has been the perfect complement to Bryant (namely because Kobe doesn't have to expend as much energy on the defensive end as in years past). Odom is one of the biggest enigmas in the league, no-showing one night and looking like the most talented player on the court the next. His back problems have been well-chronicled, but a little cortizone should do the trick this series. After all, it is the NBA Finals. A lot will be discovered about Odom's heart and competitiveness in this series, and I see him doing a better job on Turkoglu/Lewis than Cleveland did. Luke Walton will get limited (but valuable) minutes in this series with his headiness coming at a premium in crucial junctures of the games.
Advantage: Toss-up. I like L.A.'s depth, but Turkoglu has been the most consistent player in this group.
Advantage: Magic by a mile.
Keys to Winning -- Orlando:
The Magic also have to knock down the three-point shot with regularity. They have lived & died by the three all season, and this series will be no different. If Orlando can hit three-point shots with consistency, the Lakers will be forced to play honest defense and leave Howard in one-on-one situations in the post. Nobody on the Lakers (or in the league for that matter) is strong enough to keep Howard out of the paint by himself. Howard needs to have a few 20-20 games for the Magic to win this series.
May 29, 2009
As a Laker fan, maybe I'm naive or biased. After all, the Lakers seem to be the center of most of these theories. In fact, I don't recall a big Lakers win that wasn't tainted by cries of conspiracy or biased officiating in the fan universe. Nevertheless, I'm downright annoyed by NBA fans and their conspiracy theories.
Without a doubt, NBA execs would love to see a Lebron-Kobe Finals matchup. Ratings would soar, and revenues would follow suit. Pitting the two best (and most marketable) players in a head-to-head matchup on the biggest stage would be fail-proof from a business standpoint. Everyone from Shanghai to Chattanooga would be tuning in to that matchup, and the NBA undoubtedly understands this. However, has anyone considered the possibility that the teams with the two best players in the universe have the best chance of winning?
If the outcomes of NBA games were truly influenced by Monty McCutcheon, Joey Crawford, and Dick Bavetta (as instructed by David Stern), the NBA would be more concerned with extending series. I'd think the best way to maximize revenue (and overall viewership) would be to add games. The NBA figured this out a long time ago when the season was extended to 82 games. So why, from this perspective, would the NBA and its officials allow the Cavaliers to breeze through first- and second-round sweeps? Why would the refs allow Kobe & Company to deliver a knock-out punch in Denver (even after all of George Karl's whining) and thereby eliminate a game seven in L.A.? Either the NBA is run by idiotic businessmen, or there is no conspiracy theory this season. I choose to believe the latter.
The Lakers came out and dominated Game Six. Needless to say, Officials are virtually incapable of directing a 27-point blowout, but let me list some of the facts. The Lakers shot 57% from the floor, 56% from three, and 100% from the line in game six. The Nuggets? 44%, 42%, and 80%, respectively. Absent shrinkening the circumference of the Nuggets' rims, the referees couldn't be blamed for these discrepancies. Maybe they affected the game through their whistles? I think not. Free throw attempts: Nuggets - 25, Lakers - 24.
Nugget fans, coaches, and players were enraged by the "horrendous" officiating in game five. Watching the game (even as a Laker fan), I thought these claims were unfounded and borderline paranoid. Just to do my due dilligence, I checked the box score on this one as well. The Lakers shot 49% in that game compared to the Nuggets' 39%. At a critical juncture in the second half, the Nuggets missed something like 16 of 17 shots. Again, the officials probably weren't to blame for that collapse. The Lakers shot 35 free throws to the Nuggets' 30. Not a huge discrepancy. Despite these tangible facts, the fans were still in an uproar and conspiracy theories were flowing.
Maybe kissing up to the refs would've been a better approach
If the Cavs make the NBA Finals, it won't be because the NBA "played God." It will be because the Magic (and every other team in the NBA for that matter) cannot defend Lebron James with any success. It will be because the Cavs put together an improbable comeback and put behind them three heartbreaking losses that could've gone either way. It will be because we have all witnessed the (soon-to-be) best player of this generation single-handedly leading an undermanned group of role players to an NBA Finals. It will not be because the NBA has subscribed to the doctrine of predestination and monkeyed with the outcome of games in order to boost ratings.
So let's all sit back and enjoy the greatness of Kobe & Lebron. Let's all enjoy the greatness of the 2009 NBA playoffs and the historically unparalleled skill level of today's players. Let's take the outcome of games at face value. After all, in the vast majority of cases, the best team wins.