2015 NBA Playoff Preview Podcast

The NBA Playoffs begin today, and to celebrate the big event my cousin Gianni Zambito and I conducted a massive two-part NBA Playoff Preview Podcast.

Part 1: We discuss who should win the NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and other end of season awards. Then, we discuss the Eastern Conference 1st Round match-ups. Which team poses the biggest threat to LeBron James’ return to the NBA Finals? Are the Atlanta Hawks being underrated? Is there any team less entertaining than the Brooklyn Nets?

Part 2: We dive in Western Conference 1st Round previews and discuss how close Anthony Davis is to being the best player in the NBA. Are the Grizzlies and Blazers both too banged up to make a legitimate postseason run? Is this the Spurs last hurrah, and are San Antonio and Golden State locks for the Western Conference Finals?

Check it out! We’ll be back every week to discuss the biggest postseason narratives.

The Dream Game: 1992 vs. 2012

Just like every other NBA fan on the planet, one month ago I watched the 90 minute NBA TV “Dream Team” documentary. Actually, I’ve watched it four times. It was that good. And since then I’ve purchased Jack McCallum’s book “Dream Team” because I didn’t quite get my fix of the Dream Team. The only gripe I had with the documentary was that it wasn’t nearly long enough. I wanted more. More practice footage, more interviews, more of the hot girls by the pool in Monte Carlo that Scottie Pippen was macking on, and especially more of John Stockton walking around with his family as hundreds of people passed him not having a clue he was a world class basketball player. I could’ve sat down and watched a documentary on the Dream Team for 24 straight hours, and only needed to leave the TV to get food or go to the bathroom.

I walked away with some lingering questions. I want to know more about how the players were selected. Why Christian Laettner over Shaquille O’Neal? Was Michael Jordan the sole reason why Isiah Thomas was left off the team, or were there others who didn’t want him on the team? Who else was considered for the team—maybe Joe Dumars, Mark Price, Dominique Wilkins, Reggie Miller, or Tim Hardaway? I want to know more about and see more of the practices. Hell, for all I’m concerned, I would’ve been happy if they just showed the scrimmage at Monte Carlo in its entirety. I want to know who won the late night poker games between MJ, Magic and Barkley. I want to know how many of the topless girls by the pool Scottie Pippen scored with. Luckily, I’ll probably get some of those answers in the book. I imagine it will remain a mystery as to how many girls Scottie Pippen scored with though. I suppose I can live with the uncertainty of that one.

The biggest question that the documentary presented was the claim that the Dream Team is the greatest team of all-time in sports history. From a historical significance standpoint, that statement absolutely cannot be disputed. In fact, it shouldn’t even be up for discussion. It was the perfect storm of star power (Jordan, Bird and Magic headlining a group of 11 future hall of famers), talent (I won’t gush about the talent since it sort of speaks for itself), time period (coming off of a Bronze Medal finish in 1988, and becoming the first team of professionals to represent the United States in basketball at the Summer Olympics), success (winning by an average of nearly 44 points per game) and lasting impact (changing the landscape of international basketball for better and always). However, not everyone thinks that this team is unbeatable.

The greatest and most important team in basketball history… The Dream Team

I didn’t want to necessarily write about how the 2012 Team compares to the original Dream Team, since it has been and will continue to be done for every USA Olympic Basketball Team. Additionally, comparing any team to the Dream Team seems to be looked at as sacrilegious by most basketball observers, so I didn’t want to face any sort of backlash. But luckily, Kobe Bryant took it upon himself to face the inevitable future backlash from NBA fans and from Charles Barkley, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Scottie Pippen by declaring that the 2012 USA Team would beat the 1992 Team. So now it’s my job to examine the two teams and declare a winner in this hypothetical game; a game that I would literally pay all of the money in my bank account to see. It’s important for you to know that I don’t have a horse in this race. I’m simply here to play devil’s advocate and make a case for why both teams could win the game. At the end I’ll evaluate everything I’ve written and then go back and forth 4,000 times before picking a winner. And I’ll still probably second guess my decision.Because of the incredible legacy that the Dream Team has left, people seem to think that this team is untouchable. But if you look closely, there are some cracks in the foundation of the Dream Team. Again, I’m sure to some this seems blasphemous that I would even consider speaking in such a way. Look, I’ve done my research. Thanks to YouTube I’ve watched nearly every game the Dream Team played together, along with a good portion of NBA games involving these players. The biggest difference between me and people who watched this team live as it was happening is that they don’t want to let go of the past. Someday, when Future Player X is taking over the NBA and my future son tells me that Future Player X is the best basketball player ever, I might be quick to jump in there and say, “Whoa, wait just a second there youngster. You never saw LeBron James play.” Just like if I were to say that LeBron James is the best basketball player ever, somebody who grew up watching Michael Jordan would call me a youngster (weird considering I have a beard) and tell me that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever. And even though it is a nearly universally accepted fact that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player ever, there are going to be a group of old timers who will argue that it is Magic, Bird, Russell, Oscar or Wilt who holds that title. People don’t want to admit that the game has changed. NBA fans are a product of their era. They want to believe the players that they grew up watching in the league made up the Golden Age of the NBA, ultimately meaning it was the best age. That’s not always the case.

For example, I’d like for someone to try to explain to me how the Dream Team’s point guards are going to be able to guard the stable of point guards on the 2012 Team. It is impossible to do so and sound like a sane human being at the same time. Trust me, I’ve tried. After all, I am playing devil’s advocate. I couldn’t come up with an answer to that riddle. Magic Johnson would’ve gotten torched by any of these guys in his prime, and in 1992 he had already been retired for a year. I know John Stockton is the all-time leader in steals, but if you are a Dream Team supporter, are you going to feel totally comfortable with Stockton guarding Russell Westbrook, maybe the fastest and most athletically gifted player in the NBA? Umm, no. The Dream Team got torched by Bobby Hurley in scrimmages. You don’t think Westbrook, Paul and Williams would be able to do whatever they wanted? Let’s go even further… How are Larry Bird or Chris Mullin even going to get on the court and not be exposed as complete defensive liabilities? Bird, bothered by a ravaged back at the time of the 1992 Olympics, was in no condition to cover anyone with the kind of talent or athleticism he’d see on the 2012 team and Mullin was never going to be able to guard anyone like that. Already, that is five players who would clearly wouldn’t have any sort of edge defensively (I’m counting Christian Laettner in that mix since he wouldn’t be able to sniff the court even if it was doused with Bengay). That leaves Jordan, Pippen, Drexler, Malone, Barkley, Robinson and Ewing as guys you could play without getting absolutely exposed on the defensive end.

Now it’s time to figure out how the Dream Team would do on the offensive end. Even though the Dream Team had some breathtaking open court players, there is no way they should try to get into a fast pace game with the 2012 Team; a team that is loaded with incredible athletes with the exception of Kevin Love. The Dream Team’s best chance would to succeed offensively would be very similar to a style that Spain played in 2008 against Team USA’s Redeem Team. Option number one is pound the ball inside to the Gasol’s (or in the Dream Team’s case, Ewing, Robinson, Malone and Barkley); additionally, thrive on a savvy, ball-movement oriented offense that leaves shooters open to take target practice from a shortened three point line. Barkley and Malone are two of the top 3 or 4 power forwards ever in their primes, and Ewing and Robinson were two of the best centers of their era. Tyson Chandler is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but it seems to me if the Dream Team made a concerted effort to pound the ball inside, get to the free throw line, and neutralize the speed and athleticism of the 2012 team, the advantage in the game goes to the Dream Team. Realistically, the oh-so-thin Chandler, Davis, Love trio of big guys would get eaten alive inside like Charles Barkley would eat a five buck box.

My rebuttal as devil’s advocate: If I’m the 2012 Team I’m playing a super small line-up that displays a stupid amount of speed. Think Paul, Westbrook, Kobe, Durant and LeBron. Anytime the Dream Team dumps the ball inside to one of their big guys, I’m sending help from anyone on the perimeter that isn’t guarding Bird or Mullin if they are in the game. With the incredible speed of that 2012 line-up, I’m fairly confident they would be able to rotate quickly enough to the shooter to not leave him with a completely wide-open jump shot. If I’m the 2012 coaching staff, I can live with Drexler (23% from 3 point range in the following NBA season), Pippen (24%), Stockton (39%, but likely to go down with Russell Westbrook running at him like a rabid wolverine), Magic (32% in the 1990-91 season) or even Jordan (35%) taking somewhat contested jump shots the whole game. I’d feel more comfortable with this than allowing the Malone, Barkley, Robinson, Ewing assembly to go to work in the paint. Then on the offensive end, is there a better line up for Team USA than going with something like this? How perfect is it that you have five players around the perimeter, robbing the Dream Team of their biggest defensive advantage (their size) in this game? If the Dream Team is playing a conventional line-up (for arguments sake let’s say Magic, Jordan, Pippen, Barkley, and Robinson) here is what happens: Chris Paul gets to any place on the floor with Magic guarding him, Jordan cancels out Westbrook, Pippen guards Kobe reasonably well, and Barkley and Robinson are out of their element being forced to play on the perimeter against the Durant and LeBron. I’ll simplify it even more. Chris Paul dribbles around Magic Johnson’s mannequin, only there is no interior defense to stop him from scoring at the rim because every player for the 2012 is standing around the perimeter. And if there is help defense in the paint Paul will take great joy in kicking it out to an open shooter. Sorry Scottie, but I just can’t see the Dream Team locking this 2012 Team down defensively. Actually, the only way I can see the Dream Team being able to successfully defend the 2012 Team is if they play zone and make 2012 a jump shooting team, which seems to really puzzle modern day NBA offenses. Their zone defense would be incredibly long and could rebound the ball well, plus they’d be able to hide Bird and Mullin better than if they were playing man to man defense. But even then, Durant, LeBron, Paul, Harden, Love all shoot over 35% from downtown, and they would be playing on a shortened three point line.

Could the 2012 USA Basketball Team defeat the Dream Team?

I’m sure it sounds like I’m leaning heavily towards 2012, but the Dream Team still gets some big check marks: Jordan is at his absolute zenith, everyone besides Magic and Bird were at or near their respective peaks, they have a serious advantage inside, and incredible team unity and cohesiveness (still totally unknown how 2012 will be in this department). To win, the Dream Team would need to take advantage of their edge down low, rely on cohesive team offense and defense to dictate their preferred tempo (half-court offense where Magic and Stockton could thrive, not allowing 2012 to get out and run), and sprinkle in a dash Jordan doing Jordan things. And really, it’s not inconceivable to think that all three could happen. There is one more thing that absolutely needs to be touched on before I make a prediction.In this hypothetical game, egos are going to be on display, and that is something that could be a major factor in the outcome. We know for sure that MJ, Magic, Barkley, Kobe, Durant and LeBron are going to walk on the court firmly believing they are the best player on the floor. That’s six alpha dogs in one game. That’s absolutely fantastic. Even though the majority of the 18 other guys on the rosters are top dogs on their respective teams, they would likely fall into place as complementary role players. Maybe not everyone thinks this way, but I can’t see either team getting blown out in this game. We can assume that this game goes down to the wire. This raises two interesting questions: Which two of the six alpha dogs become their respective teams’ go-to scoring option down the stretch; and which team as a whole handles playing in a close game better? The answer to question one is easy for the Dream Team: Jordan, unless Magic is completely delusional and tries to handle the scoring load by himself, which would likely lead to Jordan going on a five state killing spree. In all likelihood, Magic is smart enough to hand the conch to the best player in the game. Could 2012 handle that dilemma organically like 1992 would? In 2008, it was that easy. LeBron and Wade stepped aside and let Kobe close out Spain in the Gold Medal game. But now: LeBron is the undisputed best player in the world, Kobe has taken a step back (only he probably doesn’t totally know that) and Durant is a more reliable late game option than Wade was in 2008. Who is the one to close the game out?

I suppose it’s about that time where I am supposed to make a prediction. I’m not totally ready yet. Give me a minute.

Ugh, okay, okay. I guess I’m ready. The entire time I was writing this piece I was convinced that 2012 would come out on top, but the late game hierarchy for the Dream Team makes me feel more comfortable than 2012’s does. Between the size, team camaraderie and Michael Jordan, the Dream Team would likely come out on top. Do I feel totally comfortable with this pick? No, no I don’t. Do I feel like a pansy for being afraid of just coming out and saying “2012 would win”? Yes, yes I do. Do I really want to be the guy who picked the Dream Team to lose? No, no I don’t.

2012 NBA MVP Shares Part Two

Tyson Chandler (3 Shares)- 11.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 68 FG%
Three statements that warrant Tyson Chandler getting 3 MVP Shares:
1: Statistically, this is his best season since the 2007-08, which includes the third best field goal percentage in NBA history.
2: He is the main reason why the New York Knicks look like an NBA team, and not a team playing at Rucker Park. Chandler, rookie Iman Shumpert, and wait for it… interim coach Mike Woodson have given the Knicks at least a fraction of a defensive identity. If you want to contend for a title, you need to play at least some defense, and Carmelo, JR Smith and Baron Davis certainly aren’t locking anyone down.
3: Aside from Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler was the single most important piece of the Mavericks championship team last year. Don’t believe me, check out Dirk’s take on Tyson Chandler’s value: “His positive energy, his defense I think is really what turned this whole thing around and what really won us the playoffs. Every big game down the stretch we did it with defense.”

Russell Westbrook (3 Shares)- 23.5 points, 5.4 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 46 FG%
I’m not afraid to admit that I’m not the biggest Starting at Point Guard, Russell Westbrook guy. In his defense, he was a shooting guard in college, with shooting guard scoring skills, and he has a shooting guard’s mentality. It’s completely understandable that a guy who is wired like a shooting guard and has the skill set of a shooting guard would actually play like a shooting guard.  It’s been four years and he still doesn’t look like a point guard.

Even though it bugs me to watch the point guard Westbrook, Russell Westbrook is still one of the most talented and exciting players in the league. I can’t help but wonder what the Thunder would look like if Eric Maynor hadn’t gotten hurt and you insert him into the starting lineup with Westbrook, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins. That would allow Westbrook to play his natural position, Harden to remain coming off the bench, which is actually an ideal spot for him, and an impossible-to-keep-up-with small lineup of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant, and Ibaka.

None of that really has anything to do with Westbrook’s MVP credentials, which are definitely worth mentioning… especially considering this whole post is about the MVP. Westbrook’s durable (hasn’t missed a game this year, or in his career), shooting more yet shooting a career high 46 percent, and he’s a mismatch for a ton of point guards in the league. Seriously, I love Steve Nash, but Nash doesn’t have a snowballs shot in hell of stopping Russell Westbrook from doing whatever he wants. And that’s what separates Westbrook from the prototypical point guard. A point guard like Nash is likely thinking about how to get his teammates a great shot even if he has a good shot. Westbrook is likely thinking about how he is one of the 15 most talented players in the league, so his good shot is better than a lot of his teammates great shot. I’m fine with that. I understand that. But Westbrook has got to remember he has this guy named Kevin Durant rocking the Thunder jersey with him, and Durant’s good shot is better than Westbrook’s.

So with all of that said, it’s hard to gauge how valuable Westbrook really is. Maybe he would be more valuable if he took 4 less shots and averaged 3 more assists per game. Or maybe he’d be more valuable to the Thunder if he didn’t need to carry the burden of running the offense and could focus primarily on scoring, while someone like Maynor (when healthy) or Harden (perfectly capable) ran the offense. Right now he vacillates between the two styles of play and he still managed to get 3 MVP shares.

Rajon Rondo (6 Shares)- 12.1 points, 11.6 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 45 FG%
As mentioned in the Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett section last week, Rajon Rondo is the catalyst for the Celtics. He makes them go, he steers the ship, and he usually saves his best for their biggest games. In 13 games against the Knicks, Heat, Bulls, and Lakers, Rondo has boosted his numbers up to 18.2 points, 12.1 assists, and 6.8 rebounds.

You may be thinking “So what, a lot of great players elevate their play against the better teams in the league.” True, but Rondo has been incredible all season long. Rondo ended the season in the midst of a 24 game double digit assist streak that’s only been topped by John Stockton (29 games) in 1992. To put that in context, Chris Paul has 25 double digit assist games total this season. So strictly from a passing the ball standpoint, Rondo has established himself as the most effective passer in the NBA. He doubles as the only player in the league who I can realistically see throwing up a 20 point, 20 assist, 20 rebound game and don’t laugh because he came damn close with a mind-blowing 18-20-17 performance in a win against the Knicks back in March. The fact that we can even talk about a 20-20-20 game is borderline stupid. I’ve played a lot of NBA Live in my day, probably more than I should’ve, and it’s impossible to put together a 20-20-20 game. Trust me, the real life Rondo is the only one flirting with that feat.

Steve Nash (8 Shares)- 12.5 points, 10.8 assists, 53 FG%, 39 3FG%
Are there any true NBA fans who do not absolutely love what Steve Nash did this year? I personally find it hard not to marvel at Nash on a nightly basis. Maybe it’s just the point guard mentality I have embedded in my system or maybe it’s because I’m an NBA nerd, but I think anyone who appreciates the game of basketball appreciates Steve Nash. Nash has never been the consensus best player in the NBA, even during his back to back MVP seasons, but it’s impossible to deny the impact that he has on the court, this season especially.

Nash’s 2011-12 campaign gives meaning to the word valuable. His uninspiring supporting cast features Shannon Brown, Josh Childress, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye, Marcin Gortat, Grant Hill, Michael Redd, Markieff Morris and Sebastian Telfair. In summary, his best teammate (Gortat) was Dwight Howard’s back up and possibly has the biggest nose in the NBA. His 2nd best teammate (Hill) is a year older than Nash himself. Translation: Nash is making chicken salad out of chicken shit, and it tastes pretty good. Somehow, Nash has turned a Suns team that doesn’t feature a guard who can create a shot for himself—unless you want to count Michael Redd, who is willing to pull the trigger from anywhere— into a potential playoff team, in the Western Conference no less.

Statistically, Nash has declined over the last 3 years but still boasts numbers that make many point guards in the league look like novices. This is especially true when you consider he’s 38 freaking years old! Generally, John Stockton is considered the model for point guards as far solid and consistent play over a career goes. Nash is scoffing at Stockton’s late career numbers and overall value. Stockton’s 99-00 season doesn’t match up to Nash’s current season statistically (Stockton- 12.1, 8.6, 50% compared to Nash- 12.5, 10.8, 53%) or when you consider Steve Nash is the guy for the Phoenix Suns and he damn near single handedly carried this crappy team to the playoffs. And am I crazy or does it seem like Steve Nash could play effectively for another 5 or so years? With his basketball IQ, ability to knock down open shots, and commitment to keeping himself in great shape, it seems like we could be seeing a lot more of Steve Nash… thankfully.

Tony Parker (8 Shares)- 18.3 points, 7.7 assists, 48 FG%
To no fault of his own, I have new found animosity for Tony Parker. You see, Skip Bayless and I are rivals. He doesn’t know this unless he’s seen a few of the Tweets I’ve sent him relating to LeBron James. Last week on ESPN First Take, a showcase for Skip Bayless to be an ignorant ass, which he is unbelievably good at, he expressed that he thought Tony Parker was as worthy of the MVP this year as LeBron James. Laughable. Skip is the same guy who was standing up for Dwight Howard when Dwight said he wouldn’t play for Stan Van Gundy. Again, ridiculously laughable. Tony Parker is simply guilty by association. The fact is, Parker does deserve to be in the MVP discussion. But you have to be realistic with it. Parker is playing for a team that features 11 players averaging 7 points or more. In comparison to LeBron James (Skip’s idea, not mine), the Heat have 4 players averaging 7 points or more. That’s a lot more production from Parker’s teammates than LeBron’s. And Skip is going to try to tell me Tony Parker is more valuable to the Spurs than LeBron is to the Heat? Give me a break.

Let me give my spiel on Parker now. Playing the league’s deepest position, Parker, along with Nash, is receiving the 2nd most MVP Shares of any point guard this year. The irony of this is Parker decisively outplayed the only point guard in front of him, Chris Paul, in their head to head meetings this year (Parker- 22 points, 9.5 assists, and 55% shooting vs. Paul- 15.5 points, 7.5 assists, and 31% shooting). Considering I’ve gone on record saying that Chris Paul is the best point guard I’ve seen play, and Nash’s credentials speak for themselves, this is a pretty important note. It’s also important to note that this season more than ever Parker is facilitating one of the league’s best offenses while still showing the ability to at times score as well as any point guard in the league. On top of this, he gets points for being the best player on the best team record-wise in the Western Conference.

Kevin Love (10 Shares)- 26.0 points, 13.3 rebounds, 45 FG%, 37 3FG%
I expect that I have Love higher than most MVP voters will. For a good portion of the year, the general consensus amongst NBA fans was:
1: Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio have made basketball relevant in Minnesota.
2: Kevin Love is the best power forward in the NBA.
3: Kevin Love is without question an MVP candidate.

Just about the time everyone was starting to realize all of this, Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL, the Timberwolves went into an understandable slump (5-18 since Rubio was injured) and everyone aborted the Kevin Love bandwagon. Let me rephrase: everyone unfairly aborted the Kevin Love bandwagon. Everyone seemed to forget about his 48 double doubles (most in the league), 39 minutes per game (2nd in the league) and his unthinkable month of March where he led the NBA in points, rebounds and 3 point field goals made. The list displaying all of the players who had accomplished that in a single month was non-existent before Love pulled it off. And really, should it be a surprise? Are there any players who could have ever sniffed coming close to that accolade other than Larry Bird or possibly Dirk Nowitzki? Don’t forget about the game winning 3 against the Clippers, the sweet beard that I plan on trying to grown, the fact that he is without question the best white player in the NBA (and potentially the best since Larry Bird), his ridiculous stat-lines like 31-20  (Milwaukee), 32-21 (New York), 39-17 (LA Clippers), 51-14 (Oklahoma City), 40-19 (Charlotte), 30-21 (Denver), 33-17 (Houston), and 18 games total of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds.

My criterion clearly states that “It needs to be taken into consideration whether an MVP is good enough to get his team to the playoffs.” Love fell short in arguably the most important category, but he kicked ass everywhere else. Take a look.
1: How valuable is this player to his team in the landscape of the league? To answer this question you need to evaluate how many wins a player is worth to his team.
-Minnesota is 2-8 without Love, and that doesn’t sound too far off what their win percentage would be if you took him off the team. Would a team with a nucleus of Nicola Pekovic, Luke Ridnour, Michael Beasley, J.J. Barea, Derrick Williams, Martell Webster, Anthony Tolliver, and Wes Johnson win more than 20% of their games? Even if you add Rubio back into the mix, the Timberwolves are closer to winning 30 games in an 82 game season than they are to winning 50.

3: Statistically, how great was the player’s season? Was it one of his career best? Was it one of the NBA’s best? Was it historically good?
-26 points per game is Love’s career high, and good enough for 4th best in the NBA. 13.3 rebounds per game is the second highest of Love’s career. When you combine the two, Love is in pretty impressive company. Since 1990, only Shaquille O’Neal (twice) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Once) have submitted a 26-13 season. So yeah, Love was statistically historically good this year.

4: What is the player’s role on the team and how important is that role?
-Well when you are relied on to score every big point and grab every big rebound, I’d say that’s a pretty crucial role.

5: How good are they under pressure? Please keep all LeBron criticisms to yourself. Thank you.
I present the evidence

6: To steal an idea from the Bible (Aka: The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons): In a giant pickup game with every player available and two knowledgeable fans forced to pick five-man teams, with their lives depending on the game’s outcome, what would be the order of the players picked, based on this season alone?
-Let’s try to hash this out. If I had the number one pick, I’m absolutely torn between picking LeBron or Kobe. LeBron is the most complete player in the league, but Kobe is an absolute killer. I would fear that if I picked LeBron, a vengeful Kobe would go into full blown Mamba mode and single handedly end my life. At the same time, if I picked Kobe I would be going to war knowing that I don’t have the best player in the game. Hypothetically, if LeBron were to be picked first and Kobe second, then Durant and a healthy Dwight Howard are probably next to go. After those four isn’t it probably Dwyane Wade (for those of you who are big on him), Chris Paul or Kevin Love? I’m not big on Wade, so he’s not even an option for me if I have the fifth pick. A possible strategy: even though Chris Paul is the next best player available, why grab Chris Paul with the 5th pick when you have Rondo, Nash, Westbrook, Rose, Williams, Parker, etc. still waiting on the board? I’m grabbing Love, knowing that I can get a reasonable foe for Paul later. Plus, my team almost certainly has a definitive edge at power forward now.

Side note: After thinking about this quite a bit and inquiring with Paul Clark, I came to a conclusion that I would risk picking Chris Paul fifth, hoping that the “knowledgeable fan” I’m picking against isn’t as knowledgeable as he should be and overlooks Kevin Love with the next pick. Give me Kobe, Durant, Paul, Love and a Center to be named (Bynum, Chandler, Al Jefferson, and Marc Gasol are on my short list of possible choices. I’m slightly leaning towards Chandler to anchor my defense) and suddenly I’m feeling pretty good about my chances of living.

So with that said, I have Love 5th in the MVP Shares standings. Statistically, he is magnificent. His impact on his team can’t be questioned. But he still managed to fall way short in getting Minnesota to the playoffs.

I just had to include the Kobe Face

Kobe Bryant (12 Shares)- 27.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 43 FG%
Kevin Durant (16 Shares)- 28.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 50 FG%, 38 3FG%
Just to be clear, before last Sunday’s OKC/LA showdown (also known as The Day Ron Artest Made His New Name Really, Really Awkward), I had Kevin Durant slated for 18 MVP shares and Kobe with 10 MVP Shares. Today, Durant is down to 16 and Kobe is up to 12. Kobe gets those two shares because in a game where both he and Durant struggled from the field (Kobe- 9 for 26, 26 points, Durant- 11 for 34, 35 points), he proved that like the Black Mamba itself, he is still the most dangerous player in the world. Plus, since this is my hypothetical idea I can dish out my hypothetical shares to whoever I want.

Other than the snapshot of MWP smashing James Harden in the side of the head with a Jon Jones style elbow, the roll of film from last Sunday’s game feature Kobe’s refusal to lose by hitting two huge three’s in regulation and the go ahead jumper in the 2nd overtime, Russell Westbrook momentarily validating why I think Durant should be taking the big shots, and then Durant refusing to attack the basket even though his jump shot was struggling mightily. Kobe overcame a slow shooting start and closed the game as he has done so many times before. Durant, despite 35 points, came up short.

In my eyes, Kobe is motivated by one accolade right now: six rings. It’s really that simple. That’s why Kobe didn’t play the last night of the season and hang 40 on Sacramento to win the scoring title. That isn’t what matters to Kobe. Kobe’s 2011-12 season is more similar to a vintage Allen Iverson season than it is a season of Michael Jordan. Rather than picking his spots and dominating in ways that late 90’s Jordan did, Kobe, like Iverson, has had to battle and he succeeds at this point more on desire than overwhelming skill. He’s shown a tendency to force shots, not so much in a selfish mindset but more along the lines of him having supreme confidence in himself, which is well deserved I suppose. Kobe is excelling mainly on tenacity and a hunger to win that not many players have. He is killing himself by playing nearly 39 minutes a night of balls to the wall basketball, ridiculous considering he has already logged over 50,000 regular season and playoff minutes combined in his career. Don’t forget, he’s doing so while dealing with grocery list of nagging injuries. Bynum has shown glimpses of dominance and once upon a time Pau was widely considered the most skilled big man in the game, but other than that do the Lakers have anything special? I really like the Ramon Sessions acquisition, but he alone doesn’t instantly make the Lakers a title contender. In the end, the Lakers will live and die by the play of Kobe Bryant, and I don’t think he would have it any other way.

Had you asked me the night of the 2008 NBA Draft where Kevin Durant would be five seasons later, I’m pretty sure I would’ve accurately been able to predict that he’d be near a 28 point per game scorer, adding 8 or so rebounds and around 4 assists. I was one of the select few who thought Durant should’ve been the number one pick in the draft over Greg Oden. I knew Durant would be a star and I swear to you that I would’ve been able to call that in 5 years he would be an MVP candidate. I wouldn’t have been able to predict that at this very point, I’d have more skepticism over Durant than I would at any point in his career. As a basketball fan, I want Kevin Durant to prove my next statement wrong. I’m concerned that Durant doesn’t have It. Durant has all of the physical tools to be the greatest perimeter scorer of all-time. He’s nearly 7 feet tall, has an enviable jumper and has shown great improvement in all other areas of his game. But last weeks’ Lakers game scares me. Last year’s playoffs scared me, when Westbrook and Harden showed more courage late in some games than Durant did. This is all coming from a fan of LeBron James, who played a round of hide and go seek in the NBA Finals last year. But LeBron has shown he can dominate games in multiple ways, not just by scoring. Right now, Durant’s shtick is scoring. And when he defers or comes up short, it scares me. I want to see Durant win a ring someday and I think he has a really good chance this year. In the end, the Thunder will live and die by the play of Kevin Durant, but I don’t think he necessarily wants it that way.

Chris Paul (20 Shares)- 19.8 points, 9.1 assists, 2.5 steals, 48 FG%, 37 3FG%
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Chris Paul is the best point guard I’ve ever seen play. Maybe not statistically, but you can’t control a game as well Chris Paul does. You can’t do it. No great player in the league right now better understands the concept of involving his teammates for 42 minutes and then kicking into a totally different gear for the last six. Watching Paul sit back, get all of his teammates their shots and then come to the conclusion that his team is better off when he starts taking over … it’s wonderful. And it hardly ever fails. Paul’s basketball IQ (doesn’t get much higher), ball handling skills (masterful), and passing genetics (as a point guard, I’m envious) all make him a revolutionary point guard.

I’ve raved about Chris Paul the player, but what are his MVP credentials? The failed Paul-to-Lakers trade almost set the NBA on fire. While this doesn’t seem significant, just imagine if the Lakers were trying to acquire a point guard like Darren Collison instead of Chris Paul. Does anybody care that David Stern vetoed that trade? Probably not. Instead, Paul got traded to the Clippers. This trade took the Clippers from a fringe playoff team to a sexy pick to make the NBA Finals. I don’t think Darren Collison has that pull (By the way, I have no problems with Darren Collison. When I think of middle of the road point guards, I think of Darren Collison. He is my designated example). Paul is the ultimate closer, as mentioned above. Looking at the rest of the roster, there isn’t one guy I’d feel totally confident with taking the last shot besides Paul. Blake Griffin still hasn’t developed a polished offensive game and often comes up small in the clutch. DeAndre Jordan still hasn’t developed an offensive game outside of catching alley-oops. Nick Young is sure willing to take late game shots, I just don’t know how comfortable I feel with that. Mo Williams is a classic second banana who shouldn’t need to create his own shot. Caron Butler is a shell of his former self, shooting 41% this year. Do you get the point or do I need to continue, because I have more ammo.

Finally, Paul is good enough to single-handedly put a sliver of doubt in my mind about picking the Memphis Grizzlies to come out of the first round. Last year after he carried a below average Hornets supporting cast to two wins against the Lakers in the first round we learned the lesson that you shouldn’t count out Chris Paul. Darren Collison wouldn’t have been able to sniff a win in that series.

LeBron James (35 Shares)- 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.9 steals, 53 FG%, 36 3FG%
I feel like giving too much explanation would just sound bias. I could give you every detailed stat and plenty of stories’ debunking the myth of LeBron being “anti-clutch.” That doesn’t really matter if you are hardheaded and refuse to admit how great he is. I’ll just give one statistical nugget that I think is pretty significant, and then get to my NBA Playoff predictions. This year, LeBron led the Heat in points, assists, rebounds and steals. The last player to do this was… the 2008-2009 Cleveland Cavaliers version of LeBron James. I don’t know how else you can define “valuable.” Anyways, onto the Playoff Predictions.

Eastern Conference
1st Round- Chicago over Philadelphia (4-1), Miami over New York (4-2), Indiana over Orlando (4-0), Boston over Atlanta (4-1)
2nd Round- Boston over Chicago (4-2), Miami over Indiana (4-2)
Conference Finals- Miami over Boston (4-3)

Western Conference
1st Round- San Antonio over Utah (4-1), Oklahoma City over Dallas (4-1), Los Angeles Lakers over Denver (4-2), Memphis over Los Angeles Clippers (4-2)
2nd Round- Memphis over San Antonio (4-2), Oklahoma City over Los Angeles Lakers (4-3)
Conference Finals- Memphis over Oklahoma City (4-2)

NBA Finals- Miami over Memphis (4-2)

Who Should Be On Team USA?

In case you didn’t know, the 2012 Summer Olympics are just six months away. I figured that now would be as good of a time as any to make my Team USA Olympic team selections. All twenty finalists are deserving and any combination of players could likely contend for a Gold Medal. But the truth is, the world is getting better at the game of basketball and even as dominant as the 2008 Redeem Team looked 95 percent of the time, they were seriously tested by a shorthanded Spain team in the Gold Medal Game. This team can’t expect to win by scooping up the twelve best players and throwing them out there without any similarities of a team (anyone remember 2004?) Team USA also can’t expect to win if the roster doesn’t at have at least a few guys who can say “I know it’s my job to carry this team on my back right now.” There needs to be a delicate mix of the two. In the end, it should look like a collage of personalities and playing styles, but all of the players should have the ultimate goal of winning the Gold. If I’m Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski, I want twelve guys who will kill themselves and take on any role I need them to in order for Team USA to win the gold. And I’m sure that’s exactly what they are looking for.

In this imaginary scenario, I will play the role of Jerry Colangelo. I’m running Team USA, so my picks aren’t a reflection of what will happen. It’s simply what I would do. By the way, every time I imagine this scenario I get butterflies in my stomach, so you can trust that I have the best interest of this hypothetical team in mind. As Bill Simmons stated in his best-selling book, The Book of Basketball, “Instead of picking the greatest players, you should pick twelve who complement each other in the best possible way.” Bingo, this is exactly what I am looking for, and all twelve players who make the roster will be aware of this. They better be prepared to put their individual ego aside and familiarize themselves with our collective team ego.

As the head of USA Basketball (just go with it), I sat down and looked at all 20 finalists. The first thing this team needs is strong leadership.

Kobe Bryant
The Mamba has proved so far this season that you should never count out someone who has a sickening desire to win or someone who is more physically talented than maybe anyone who’s ever played the game of basketball, no matter how many miles they have on their odometer or how injured they are. We need Kobe’s work ethic, scoring ability and killer instinct. He was one of the two unquestioned leaders in 2008, along with…

LeBron James
If you’ve done your homework on the 2008 team (I have) you’d know that the players and coaches looked at Kobe as the leader based on his actions, and LeBron as the vocal leader of the Redeem Team. Those roles will remain the same in 2012. Since 2008, LeBron transformed himself into the best player in the world (two MVP’s to back that up), an elite defender (not many players can guard all five positions… LeBron can) and he still remains a team first guy (one of the highest per game assists averages for a forward in NBA history). On this team, he won’t carry much of a scoring burden. LeBron’s roles will be to kill himself defensively to shut down the opposing teams best offensive perimeter player, facilitate the offense in stretches if we want to go with a bigger line-up, and to deliver two or three “Holy hell how did he jump that high” plays per game.

Okay, two down. Next we need a defensive anchor. I might as well take the best interior defender in the league.

Dwight Howard
This is really a no brainer. We need to be able to combat the size that Spain can throw at us with the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka, so Dwight is our answer. Dwight played terrific in 2008, averaging 10.9 points and 5.8 rebounds per game while carrying most of the interior defensive workload by himself. This year we are giving him a little more help down low.

Kevin Love
Opposite of Dwight down low is Kevin Love. Has there been anyone from the 2010 World Championship team that has benefited as much as Kevin Love has? I’m not sure he isn’t a top ten player in the league. If you watch Kevin Love frequently (besides the Heat, Lakers and Clippers, I watch more Timberwolves games than I do any other team) you know that Love is absolutely a franchise player who deserved the extension he got. And he happens to be a perfect fit for our team. Love’s an elite rebounder and a big body who like Dwight can bang with bigger teams. Additionally, Love has NBA three-point range, so shouldn’t he feast on teams with a shortened three-point line in international play? Think about the open looks Love will get with LeBron, Kobe, Dwight, and our starting point guard on the floor. Love could potentially put up huge numbers in London.

Chris Paul
Finally, I’m taking Chris Paul as my starting point guard, considering he is the best pure point guard I have ever watched. I never saw Oscar, Magic or Isiah play except in replays of old games on NBATV and ESPN Classic; I vaguely remember watching John Stockton and Gary Payton; I’ve seen Steve Nash and Jason Kidd throughout their entire careers; and I’m watching Derrick Rose, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, etc. play spectacular basketball now. But Chris Paul puts on an absolute “this is how you play point guard” clinic every single night. He does everything you could possibly want a point guard to do: He creates his own shot, he legitimately enjoys setting up his teammates, he plays good defense, he plays mistake free in part due to his extremely high basketball IQ, and he can get to any spot on the floor with the dribble. There isn’t really much more you can ask for from a point guard.

Now that there is a starting five in place, it’s time to assemble a bench that hopefully won’t be much of a drop off at all. Frankly, I’m not too concerned.

Dwyane Wade
Our first guy off the bench is Dwayne Wade. In case you forgot, Wade was absolutely spectacular coming off the bench for the Redeem Team in 2008. He led the team in scoring, provided instant energy off the bench and even stole crunch time minutes in the Gold Medal game. Wade should thrive in this role once again.

Kevin Durant
Next we have Kevin Durant, who basically singlehandedly won a Gold Medal for Team USA in 2010. As much as I wanted Durant in the starting line-up, I couldn’t put him in there for two reasons:
1) This fella named LeBron James is a pretty good player.
2) There won’t be enough size and strength if we have Durant starting at the four.
So Durant comes in off the bench, potentially playing the 2, 3 or 4 (this will be covered when I go into Coach K mode and break down my rotation) and most likely gets crunch time minutes if there are actually close games.

Derrick Rose
Next off the bench is the reigning MVP. The reasons why I decided to stash Rose on the bench is because I need my second unit to be as fast as possible, plus he could give us more looks than Chris Paul. I could put him in for Paul at point guard or I could go with a small lineup where Rose will play shooting guard. I expect Rose to be able to absolutely embarrass opposing teams back up point guards. I need him to harass them defensively and push the tempo on offense. Like I said, we are looking to speed up the game with our bench. There might not be a faster point guard/player in the world than Derrick Rose.

Blake Griffin
To continue with our super-fast/super athletic bench, we bring Blake Griffin on to the team. It was a tough decision to leave off guys who have Team USA experience, but the upside of Griffin on Team USA is through the roof. Just think about how raw Blake Griffin is at this point in time. He isn’t polished offensively (hard to believe) and he isn’t a great defensive player. Imagine how much he can improve in both facets of the game while he’s playing big guys like Dwight Howard and Kevin Love. Plus, think about Blake running on a fast break with Rose, Wade, and Durant. That’s a vision that could make basketball fans drool.

Chris Bosh
Chris Bosh has quietly become a much better player than he was in 2008 when he was playing big minutes for Team USA. He has expanded his shooting range (a great tool to have with a shortened three point line), bulked up (important when dealing with a bigger Spain team than they were in 2008), played in more big games (besides Team USA experience in 2008, he also averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds per game in Miami’s playoff run last season) and he’s accustomed to being the second or third option on the floor, which is something that this team needs. We need guys who without question can accept playing a complementary role.

I’d be very surprised if these first ten guys didn’t make the team. According to insiders, of this group of ten only Love and Bosh aren’t considered locks, but I’d think their games transfer over to the international game so well that it would be foolish to keep them off. Like I said above, this roster isn’t my prediction of what I think the team will look like. This is what I think the team should look like. Be prepared for me to go off the grid with these next two selections.

Tyson Chandler
I need an insurance policy in case Dwight Howard gets in foul trouble. I wouldn’t expect Chandler to get a lot of playing time unless we are getting beat up inside.

Russell Westbrook
I cautiously select Russell Westbrook as our twelfth player. There is always the possibility that Westbrook goes out there and gets into an alpha dog battle with his teammates. Luckily, I have Chris Paul and Derrick Rose so pulling him out of the lineup won’t be an issue at all. If he can keep his emotions and ego in check, he could be very useful in a small lineup, or if we want to throw a press at the second unit of the opposing team.

You’ll notice I left out Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams. It’s almost a certainty that both Anthony and Williams make the team, but I didn’t see the use for either. Carmelo would be our third best small forward, and not as well-rounded of a player as LeBron or Durant are. Ultimately, Carmelo was kept off in order to add more size with Chandler and Bosh. Sorry Carmelo, until you prove you can do more than score, we don’t have a spot for you. I still question my decision to take Westbrook over Williams. In his limited minutes, I just need him to be flying around like a maniac and wreaking havoc. He does this slightly better than Deron Williams.

All we really need is a ten man rotation with two guys on the bench as luxuries—the 2008 versions ten man rotation was Kobe, LeBron, Kidd, Howard, Carmelo, Wade, Bosh, Paul, Williams and Prince, with Michael Redd and Carlos Boozer playing limited minutes. With these twelve guys, we have plenty of options. Here is how a close game would look.

First Quarter
Paul, Kobe, LeBron, Love and Howard start the game. At the five minute mark, we bring in Durant and Wade for Love and Kobe, giving a little bit of a smaller look, playing either LeBron or Durant at power forward. Plus, one key for this team is keeping Kobe fresh for late game situations. At the three minute mark, we are bringing in Rose, Bosh and Griffin, for Paul, LeBron and Howard. We will try to turn up the pressure defensively and get out and run a little bit more in these last three minutes with our five bench guys out there.

Second Quarter
We’ll start the quarter with Rose, Wade, Durant, Griffin and Bosh. At the seven minute mark, we’ll bring in LeBron, Kobe and Love for Rose, Wade and Griffin… This might be my favorite lineup. LeBron playing point forward with four great perimeter shooters/supremely talented offensive players surrounding him (Kobe, Durant, Love and Bosh). I’m in love. At the three minute mark we’re still trying to preserve Kobe so we take him and Durant out for Paul and Howard. Welcome to Big Ball 101. Even though this lineup might be slower than I’d ideally like to have out there, it works because of LeBron’s freakish speed/ability to cover the whole court, and Dwight Howard anchoring our defense, essentially becoming the security blanket for Love or Bosh, whoever is guarding the small forward.

Third Quarter
Same starters. At the seven minute mark, we’ll take out Kobe, Paul and Love, put in Wade, Westbrook, and Durant and unleash an unholy press that will surely fluster the hell out of our opponent. We’ll have Westbrook, Wade, LeBron and Durant flying all around the court with Dwight holding down the middle. After four minutes of this killer press, we take LeBron, Westbrook and Howard out, put in Bosh, Rose and Griffin to close out the quarter with Durant and Wade.

Fourth Quarter
We’ll start the final quarter with Rose, Wade, Love, Griffin and Bosh. For three minutes we need to survive with this unique look. My hopes would be that over the few weeks of training camp and practices, Blake makes a commitment to defense and develops the ability to guard the small forward for a three minute stretch of the game. At the seven minute mark, we’ll take out Rose and Griffin for Paul and Kobe to play with Wade, Love and Bosh. Finally, with five minutes left we put in LeBron, Howard and Durant to close out the game. For those of you who are saying “Hey, LeBron folds under pressure you idiot!” First, you are wrong. And second, he won’t be taking our late game shots. Most likely it will be Kobe, with Paul and Durant as quality options as well. LeBron is the best all-around defender in the world. We’ll be sticking him on the opposing teams best perimeter player and he’ll be locking his ass down. The only other options for closing out the game are the lineup of LeBron, Kobe, Durant, Love and Bosh (as long as we aren’t getting killed inside) or Paul, Kobe, LeBron, Durant, Love/Bosh (ditto).
Minutes Breakdown: LeBron (26), Durant (24), Howard (22), Paul (20), Wade (20), Love (20), Kobe (19), Bosh (18), Rose (12), Griffin (6), Westbrook (4), Chandler (0)

This hypothetical scenario is just for games that are close all the way through (if there are any). So Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin can probably expect to see more minutes than they would in a close game.

Ultimately my say means nothing. I’m just a fan with an opinion like everyone else. If anyone inside Team USA sees this and uses it, don’t worry about thanking me publicly for it, I’m just glad I could help. But I will be expecting my gold medal in the mail.