Late Sunday night trust podcast companion Paul Clark joined me to discuss the NBA Finals in the Captain’s Corner. Specifically, we talked about Dwyane Wade’s mediocre play this postseason, the potential future of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the psyche of LeBron James, and what my psyche will be if the Heat cannot win the NBA Championship.
It had been over a month since I last conducted a Captain’s Corner Podcast. In that time, I visited New York, grew a goatee and watched twelve teams get eliminated from the NBA Playoffs. That’s a serious gamut of events right there! Needless to say, it was time for a discussion with Paul Clark. It was supposed to be a discussion on the NBA Playoffs, but it turned into much more than that. In this edition of The Captain’s Corner we talked about the NBA playoffs thus far, what to expect over the next few weeks, the horrible officiating epidemic, how to talk about the NBA without sounding like a numbskull, the Lakers plan of attack in rebuilding their team and the NBA Draft Lottery. Buckle your hypothetical seat belt, this was an all-time great Captain’s Corner.
Last year I had a post with this 20 Questions gimmick that I ran before the NBA playoffs started. Not to sound braggadocios, but I felt that it was a really solid piece of writing. There is nothing more satisfying and interesting than asking questions, and then going ahead and answering them yourself. Even though I love the idea, I made two changes to the format this year. First, I trimmed the fat and removed ten questions. As the title states, I felt quality was more important that quantity, and it turns out, I have just as much information in this year’s edition as I did last years. Second, I made the executive decision to wait until the end of the 2nd round to post this. I felt like I would be able to put out an overall better product if I tackled less questions, included the early rounds, and also looked into my magic 8-ball and made some predictions for the next few weeks.
1: What was the most interesting series so far?
In the first round, the Los Angeles/Memphis series was legitimately intriguing from a stylistic standpoint, and the games didn’t fail to deliver. Four games were decided by 4 points or less, and there were three legitimately memorable games in the series. Obviously, the 27 point comeback in game seven qualifies as one of the three. Watching it live, it was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen in an NBA game, and a testament to the statement that no lead is safe in the NBA. Here is how quickly Los Angeles came back in that game: My dad has a tendency to fall asleep towards the tail end of sporting events. He does the classic head bob and acts like he isn’t falling asleep; rather he’s just resting his eyes for a minute. Eventually, you start to hear the snoring and that’s all she wrote for him. Well, Los Angeles came back so quickly in that game my Dad didn’t even get to the latter stages of dozing off. Memphis handled that for him. By the end of the game he was actually wide awake, and neither of us could believe that Memphis blew the game. And I was in shock he stayed awake to see it all.
The series was decided in a tough and ugly game seven which I chronicled in a Running Diary Recap. It was far from pretty, but as I tweeted during the game, it was the most compelling game of the playoffs at that point. I think sometimes ugly, low scoring, poor shooting games get unfairly judged as boring games. Game seven was a war that was closer than the final score indicated. It probably would’ve put my Dad to sleep though.The only other series that has matched what Los Angeles/Memphis brought to the table has been Indiana/Miami. Aside from the fact there were 3 games that stand out because of the final score and an all-time great performance from LeBron (we’ll get there), there was legitimate bad blood between the two teams that is so rare to see in today’s AAU/everyone loves everybody NBA lifestyle. It was actually refreshing to see flagrant fouls (which shouldn’t have really been called flagrants), technical fouls (which really shouldn’t have been called technicals) and even a little blood shed (which was actually blood).
2: What’s the forecast look like next year for the teams already eliminated from the playoffs?
Chicago Bulls- Well, Derrick Rose will be out a while, so I really doubt the Bulls will again have the best record in the East. They were successful without Rose this past year during the regular season, but it’s entirely different knowing that Rose won’t be there for a while. Chicago will still be competitive. The Bulls are a well-coached, gritty, great defensive team… even without Rose.
Indiana Pacers- It was no fluke Indiana had a 2-1 lead against Miami in the 2nd round. We were getting a look at the new top dog in the Central Division. The Pacers will likely be able to re-sign Roy Hibbert, and with Derrick Rose out for a portion of the year for Chicago, the Pacers should take a step forward in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta Hawks- Just like every other year, the Hawks will finish in between 3rd and 6th in the Eastern Conference and remain totally irrelevant in the big picture of the league.
Philadelphia 76ers- Philadelphia is tricky to predict because it’s not a certainty that Andre Iguodala will be there next year. Look, I like Iguodala, but not as a team’s best player. If Iguodala is the 3rd best player in your team, you are in good shape. But you don’t win a championship when your best guy shoots 38%, and averages 13 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists like Iguodala did this post season. Let’s see if Philadelphia moves Iguodala, and if so, for whom.
Orlando Magic- Let’s forget about Orlando until Dwight Howard is gone. And well we’re at it; I’ll go ahead and forget that Dwight is a total dick too. Everyone else seems to have forgotten this, so I might as well jump on board too.
New York Knicks- The question still remains: Can Carmelo Anthony be the best player on a NBA Championship contender? I thought after Mike D’Antoni was fired and the Knicks took off before the playoffs started, that the anti-Carmelo argument was dead. But man, he didn’t show me too much promise against Miami. Yeah, 28 points and 8 rebounds per game looks good, but 42% shooting doesn’t. As talented of a scorer as he is, he needs a lot of shots to get those points, and he doesn’t make a single teammate any better. The Knicks have plenty of intriguing pieces; Carmelo, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, Jeremy Lin, JR Smith and his quick trigger, and Amare Stoudemire with his fire extinguisher. It still remains to be seen if all of those pieces can be put together and used effectively.
Los Angeles Lakers- As much as I’d love to speculate about the Lakers, it’s hard to guess where they will be because we have no idea who’ll be on the roster. Is Pau going to still be there? What about Bynum? Will they find a way to trade for Dwight Howard? Could Deron Williams end up in Los Angeles? Will Metta World Peace change his name back to Ron Artest to eliminate the incredible awkwardness of calling him World Peace? This team is a giant question mark. Plus, maybe the biggest question is how much does Kobe Bryant have left in the tank? During the postseason he looked like he was still capable of carrying the scoring burden for the Lakers, but is that necessarily what is best for the Lakers? I don’t think Kobe shooting 30 times a game is a recipe for a title, at least not this stage in his career. The best move in my eyes: Flip Pau for Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, and try to sign an off the bench scorer during free agency. Lowry, Kobe, World Peace, Scola, Bynum and more bench help doesn’t sound too bad.
Los Angeles Clippers- Year one of Lob City can only be seen as a success. There was talk of the Clippers making a finals appearance, but the expectations were set way too high from the start. If the Lakers make the right moves they’ll probably remain at the top of the Pacific Division. But giving Paul an offseason to learn his teammate’s tendencies and another year of polishing for Blake will definitely result in an improved Clippers team.
Memphis Grizzlies- Memphis should be able to sustain success for a while. They weren’t totally healthy either of the last two seasons, yet still managed to upset 1 seed San Antonio last year, and grab a 4 seed this year. I think Memphis remains a contender in the West next year, again hovering around in the top 5 of the standings.
Denver Nuggets/Utah Jazz- These two teams won’t make the playoffs next year. Count on Golden State and Houston taking those two spots. That’s my first major prediction for the 2012-13 season.
Dallas Mavericks- Considering Dallas eliminated any chance at a title defense this year by letting go of Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, and DeShawn Stevenson, I’d expect them to make some big moves in the offseason (Example: Sign Deron Williams) and try to get a little younger before Dirk is no longer relevant. If Dallas, well, when Dallas signs Deron Williams, they suddenly become very a very interesting contender in the Western Conference.
3: What have been the best non NBA Playoffs aspects of the last month?
Three things come to mind. First, on April 29th the WWE Extreme Rules pay-per-view was about as good of a show as you could realistically ask for. It was going to be a tough task to follow up WrestleMania 28 (check out LaterNamed on June 1st to see my firsthand recap of the show), and Extreme Rules somehow managed to successfully do so. The Daniel Bryan/Sheamus 2 out of 3 Falls Match was an exciting contest, and it gave the two a chance to showcase their skills since their match at WrestleMania lasted only 18 seconds. The Chris Jericho/CM Punk Chicago Street Fight was far different than their technical wrestling clinic at WrestleMania, but just as entertaining. And the John Cena/Brock Lesnar Extreme Rules Match was a throwback to the style of match that wrestling fans were familiar with ten years ago, even though it played out like a real fight. Every time I think the WWE is going to fail to deliver, I’m hit with a pay-per-view like Extreme Rule and then I remember why I still love the WWE.
Secondly, we have a Triple Crown threat for the first time since Big Brown won the first two legs in 2008. Even though I’m not much of a horse racing guy, I can always get into a chance at history being made. That’s why I always watch the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and in the off chance there is Triple Crown potential, the Belmont Stakes becomes Super Bowl level exciting… well for like two minutes. This year, I’ll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez have a chance at making history, and a chance at providing me with a previously unknown level of excitement.
And speaking of previously unknown levels of excitement… how much do you love the Corona Light commercial with Stan!? Isn’t Stan the biggest winner of the playoffs so far? How can’t you love Stan? Can I book him for a party? If I’m going out and partying, I want Stan as my wingman. He is the epitome of awesome.
4: Which player has improved his free agent stock the most in the playoffs?
Not that it really matters since neither player would leave their current team, but Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have been playing better than any of the other upcoming free agents this postseason. That’s a slap in the face to father time and to every young guy who is supposed to be outplaying these two vets. Kevin Garnett is showing flashes of being the Minnesota Timberwolves version of KG and Tim Duncan is playing like he’s capable of putting up the numbers he did when San Antonio was rattling off titles every other year. In Garnett’s case, this scares the hell out of me. As a Heat fan (excuse me, a LeBron James fan), this could pose as a major problem since the Heat front line is as thin as a starving Kenyan and Chris Bosh isn’t even in the picture. Even if Bosh was healthy, there is still the realistic fear that Garnett could go all Big Ticket on him and eviscerate Bosh and the rest of the lackluster Miami bigs. It’s not unthinkable. Garnett has averaged 19.5 points on 50% shooting, and 10.7 rebounds throughout the playoffs, and has had a double-double in 10 out of 14 playoff games.
Statistically, Duncan hasn’t been as spectacular as Garnett has, but I think it’s safe to say Duncan is a very vital piece of this San Antonio squad. I find it interesting that all we hear about San Antonio this year is Parker’s MVP caliber season, Ginobili coming off the bench doing Ginobili things, and an incredibly deep supporting cast. Tim Duncan is rarely mentioned, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. Just like he has for the majority of his career, Duncan has flown under the radar this year. No one has ever fully appreciated how great Duncan has been for 15 years, so why start now? In the hypothetical scenario that Duncan wasn’t 36 and didn’t have a connection with San Antonio, he’d get plenty of long looks as a free agent.
So ultimately, the biggest free agency winner is Roy Hibbert. By simply averaging a double-double (11.7 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3 blocks, 50% FG) this postseason, Hibbert will cash in during free agency; likely to the degree that Marc Gasol did this past December. The Grizzlies agreed to a contract extension with Gasol, who got paid nearly $13 million this year and will be getting 12.5% raises over the next three years. Since the center position is arguably the weakest in the league right now, I guess I can see paying a 7’2 center who has shown glimpses of improving $13 million a year. My only problem with this is that Hibbert, 7’2, couldn’t even manage 9 rebounds a game during the regular season. In the postseason he feasted on two teams playing without a legitimate big man. Hibbert was guarded by the likes of Ryan Anderson, Glen Davis, Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf and Udonis Haslem, so you have to wonder if the numbers are skewed a little in his favor. If I’m a GM and I’m thinking of signing him, I’m certainly hoping he can grab double digit rebounds, and not just against a bunch of power forwards. The fact of the matter is I would feel a hell of a lot more comfortable throwing $13 million a year at the aging Garnett or Duncan for 2 years than I would at Hibbert for 5 years.
5: What has been the biggest disappointment of the playoffs so far?
Honorable Mention: Chris Paul’s play in the 2nd round, Memphis losing in the 1st round, Phoenix/Minnesota not making the playoffs in place of Utah (so we could see Nash or Love/Rubio for four games instead of Utah’s lackluster squad).
The clear cut number one disappointment of the playoffs is Derrick Rose’s ACL. Well it’s not so much the ACL’s fault, but the fact he tore his ACL. It doesn’t matter how much you love your team or how much you maybe even hate the Bulls, you don’t want guys to go down with injuries that severe. Even though surgeries are entirely different now than they used to be, there is still a chance that Derrick Rose is never the same player. He was incredibly successful because of his explosiveness and speed, and he is going to lose some of that, or at least take some time to recover it. And maybe I’m different than everyone else, but I’m an NBA fan more than anything. I want every team 100% coming into the playoffs. I don’t want any asterisks or footnotes next to a title winner. I want the 16 best teams in the league all at their very best for two months of great basketball. Taking Rose out of the equation was a major blow to the Bulls, and to the overall quality of the NBA Playoffs.
6: Any potential Big Room Award winners from this post-season so far?
It’s early in the year, and we have some basketball yet to be played, but we have a few. Obviously there are a few candidates for any NBA exclusive categories. I’d say right now the early front runners for NBA Player of the Year are LeBron James or Kevin Durant, and that can definitely be wrapped up with a title. Speaking of a title, whoever wins the championship will almost certainly get a nomination for Team of the Year, and if the Spurs end up wrapping up a title, it’s hard to imagine a team going on a run as impressive as theirs not taking home the hypothetical Biggie Award Trophy. Coach of the Year honors are definitely up for grabs, especially with Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers still in the mix. There haven’t been any major upsets, but there have been some really good games. Clippers/Grizzlies game one could definitely get some Game of the Year love because of an unthinkable comeback.
Additionally, we have potential nominees for some off the court action as well. TNT’s Inside the NBA has been nominated two straight years for Best Pre/Post Game Show, and this year they could bring home the gold. We also have Best and Worst Announcers of the Year honors potentially in play. Marv Albert is the voice of the NBA, and Mike Breen is high on the game-caller power rankings as well. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Chris Webber seemingly doing everything he could to secure a nomination for Worst Announcer of the Year. It’s almost like he’s purposely awful.
7: Now that Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose are out for the Olympics, who should round out the 12 man roster for Team USA?
First let me say that even though Dwight Howard is my least favorite player in the NBA, losing him really hurts Team USA. Not to the point that I fear we aren’t bringing back the Gold Medal, but enough that it’s not totally out of the question that Spain could pull an upset. They nearly did in 2008, and now Serge Ibaka will join more rested than expected Gasol brothers on the Spanish team. Rose’s injury hurts too, but there is a bulk of great point guards USA has to choose from. Not exactly the case with centers. We have two separate questions here: who do I think should, and who do I think will round out the 12 man roster for Team USA. I personally think it would be wise to have James Harden take Derrick Rose’s spot and Anthony Davis take Dwight Howard’s spot. If you didn’t read my USA Basketball post back in January then the quick rundown of my 12 man roster now including Harden and Davis is: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, James Harden, and Anthony Davis. Hold the phone though, Dwyane Wade has talked about how he may not participate in the Olympics, and due to a knee issue and an extended playoff run, this is something we need to consider. Assuming Wade doesn’t participate, I hesitantly put Carmelo back onto Team USA. Again, if you didn’t read the post back in January, the reason I kept Carmelo off in the first place is because Team USA doesn’t really need any more scoring, and as seen in the playoffs, Carmelo is a scorer who needs a lot of shots to get those points. Just take a look at the Knicks/Heat series. It took Carmelo 124 shots to score 139 points. I trust Durant a lot more in the role of “Off the bench scoring forward to come in and light it up” than I do Carmelo.
One more quick thought before I get to who I think will be on Team USA: I know that the pool of players who could potentially play in London has already been determined, but if possible I think Jerry Colangelo and Coach K should take a look at bringing in Kevin Garnett. He looks better this postseason than he has since his first season in Boston, and I trust him more than Bosh, Griffin and even Love in a big game. You’re telling me KG wouldn’t get all kinds of fired up to go to war against Spain in the Gold Medal Game? If that were the case, I’m keeping Anthony Davis off and bringing Garnett along.
Alright, so now who will actually make Team USA? Well, if Dwyane Wade wants in, he’s in. If Deron Williams decides that playing for Team USA is more important than leaving Brooklyn, he’s most likely in. So that brings us to 10 locked spots for LeBron, Kobe, Wade, Durant, Paul, Williams, Westbrook, Love, Chandler, Carmelo. My guess would be that Bosh will be added (experience, size, and a game that translates well to the international game) and so will Blake Griffin (for marketability and a slew of garbage time alley-oops). Anyways, whether these are the smartest moves, it’s likely where we are headed and regardless, USA will all but certainly win Gold. I just think Harden makes more sense than Williams or Carmelo; he can play 1-3, he’s familiar with coming off the bench, and he can be effective by scoring or distributing. Plus he would have the best beard in the entire 2012 Olympics.
8: Where does LeBron’s game four against Indiana rank among his all-time best playoff performances?
Of course I was going to have one whole question devoted to LeBron! By now you knew this had to be coming, didn’t you? Plus, this question gave me an opportunity to look back and reminisce on all of his past playoff games. After careful research thanks to www.basketball-reference.com and a brain that is geared towards remembering useless pieces of NBA information, as far as I can tell, this was the 2nd most impressive/significant game of LeBron’s playoff career. Allow me to break down the top five, in descending order.
T5: 2006 Game 3 1st Round- Win 97-96 at Washington, 16-28 FG, 6-9 FT, 41 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists
-This game has lost steam historically because it came in the first round and because Cleveland lost in the next round. In reality, it was one hell of an effing game and series for that matter. LeBron was absolutely out of his mind in this game (as you can see above) and in the series (35.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.7 assist, and an unheard of 47 minutes per game). What’s not shown in the stat line is LeBron breaking the record for most points in a road playoff debut, his 14 points in the 4th quarter or the game winning bank shot he hit with 6 seconds left.
T5: 2011 Game 5 Conference Finals- Win 83-80 at Chicago, 8-19 FG, 9-11 FT, 28 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists
-This game has already lost steam historically because of the fact the numbers don’t stand out like many of LeBron’s other games do, and because he played a round of hide and seek in the NBA Finals. In reality, this game was Chicago’s to win and it was a minor miracle that Miami won. The Bulls were up 77-65 with just 3:14 left, and then LeBron (along with Dwyane Wade) started making huge shots, Chicago went cold, and suddenly Miami, thanks to a clutch LeBron James jumper, had the lead. To cap off the game, LeBron fittingly blocked a potential game tying three point attempt from Derrick Rose. It was an appropriate way to end a series where Derrick Rose shot 7% in the fourth quarters with LeBron guarding him.
4: 2009 Game Two ECF- Win 96-95 vs. Orlando, 12-23 FG, 10-12 FT, 35 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists
-A not so fun fact: I actually missed this game live. It was the night of prom my junior year of high school and I didn’t see LeBron knock down the biggest shot of his career, which doubled as the biggest shot in the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers. That night I actually spent more time on the dance floor getting updates from my dad than I did dancing. And I was one pissed off S.O.B. when I got the message saying that Cleveland had blown a 23 point lead and was down 2 points with one second left. Needless to say, my night completely turned around when I got bombarded with text messages from every family member and friend who was watching the game. It still bugs me that I didn’t get to watch this game as it happened, but luckily Sports Center ran the shot on a 24/7 replay for the next two days, and I was fortunate enough to catch the game on ESPN Classic a while later.
3: 2009 Game Five ECF- Win 112-102 vs. Orlando, 11-24 FG, 15-19 FT, 37 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists
-Incredible performance with Cleveland on life support at the time. LeBron scored 17 in the fourth quarter, and scored or assisted on Cleveland’s final 29 points of the game. 1962 was the last time anyone posted at least 37-14-12 in a playoff game, so umm yeah, that’s kind of impressive.
2: 2012 Game Four 2nd Round- Win 101-93 at Indiana, 14-27 FG, 12-16 FT, 40 points, 18 rebounds, 9 assists
-Let’s wait to discuss the magnitude of this game until this post season ends. From what I can tell, it’s safely locked in at number two since it can’t surpass the number one game, and since number three took place right before the Cavaliers were knocked out of the playoffs. Let me just say this though, in 9 years of watching LeBron, this was probably the most complete game he has ever played when you consider his scoring, rebounding, defense, etc. He played nearly flawless basketball.
1: 2007 Game Five ECF- Win 109-107 at Detroit, 18-33 FG, 10-14 FT, 48 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists
-Call me biased, but I’d be willing to argue with anyone that this was the best post-MJ playoff performance yet. You know who got 4th quarter and overtime minutes for Cleveland besides LeBron in this game? Eric Snow, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson, Damon Jones, Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. There is a reason why LeBron scored 29 of the last 30 Cleveland points… That team sucked! I keep saying this! LeBron’s greatest accomplishment of his career hasn’t been his three MVP Awards, back to back 60 win seasons or the all-defensive teams he’s made; it’s getting this particular Cleveland team to the NBA Finals. It’s not just impressive, it’s slightly miraculous. If you have the time, click on the link and watch the 13 minute highlight video from this game. It’s worth the time, trust me, and I’m not just saying that from a LeBron fan perspective. If you appreciate basketball brilliance or you don’t necessarily remember the game so vividly like I do, then I beg you to watch the highlights.
9: What is the biggest reason for each team remaining why they won’t win the title?
Miami- As a half-hearted Miami Heat fan, I have three major worries about this team. Worry number one is if the Big Three can hold up. And that doesn’t concern just Chris Bosh, who is a serious question mark for the rest of the postseason. Dwyane Wade is getting his knee drained (never a good sign) and LeBron is going through yet another post season averaging 40 plus minutes per game. Not trying to make excuses for LeBron, but fatigue was definitely a reason why he performed poorly against Dallas in the Finals last year. Without Bosh in the mix and a banged up Wade, it worries me that LeBron might need to start logging even more minutes. My second worry is the supporting cast, which has so far offered little help. Outside of Mario Chalmers, I don’t feel totally comfortable with offensive contributions from any other players. Battier is shooting under 30% from deep, and Mike Miller is running like a 70 year old man with two hip replacements and a back surgery in the past. Worry number three is the LeBron/Wade dynamic. I’m still convinced they haven’t reached their peak as teammates, and I don’t know the Heat can win a title until they do. This is especially troubling against teams like Boston and San Antonio who thrive on teamwork.
Boston- Injuries, injuries, injuries! Ray Allen has two bad ankles, Avery Bradley has a bad shoulder, Paul Pierce has a sprained knee and Kevin Garnett isn’t exactly unbreakable. If Boston isn’t at full strength, it’s hard to believe they can beat the Heat, let alone win the NBA Title.
Oklahoma City Thunder- The biggest reason the Oklahoma City Thunder won’t win the NBA Title is the San Antonio Spurs. Plain and simple. Ten years ago, the Kings and Lakers had a 7 game battle in the Western Conference Finals, and were without question the two best teams in the league. If the Thunder can manage to make this series interesting (that looks like it might be a big if), we might end up looking at things the same way this year.
San Antonio- At this point it’s really hard to point to anything San Antonio does and call it a potential weakness. The only way I can see them not winning the NBA Title is if their bench pulls a Houdini and disappears, AND the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili Big 3 is badly outplayed. That looks very unlikely. When you play rock solid team basketball like San Antonio does, it’s really hard to imagine a scenario where the Spurs don’t win the title.
10: Historically, how significant are the rest of the playoffs?
Very. Up for grabs:
-Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker or maybe even Russell Westbrook could take sole possession of the “Best Point Guard in the World” Championship Belt.
-Kevin Durant could make a serious push as the best player in the NBA. His late game heroics and overall brilliance so far in the playoffs, combined with an NBA title would give that argument some serious momentum.
-Miami desperately needs to win a title… And that’s all I really need to say.
-This might seem crazy at first glance, but a 2nd ring would put Dwyane Wade third on the list of best shooting guards of all-time. I’m not going to list the credentials because I can only give Dwyane Wade so much love in one post.
-Boston could pull one of the greatest upsets in NBA playoff history if they could somehow win the NBA Title. Additionally, if Boston wins the title the Garnett/Pierce/Allen era will be seen as a complete success, without any objection. This was originally supposed to be a three-year plan, and we are now in year five. If two titles come out of a supposed to be three-year plan, no Boston fan is complaining.
-San Antonio could not only lock down a spot as one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history (5 titles in a 13 year span), but lock down a seat at the Greatest Teams of All-Time round table. It’s not completely out of the question that they could sweep the playoffs. Even if they didn’t, but still remained relatively dominant (say they finish 16-2 in the postseason), they enter the conversation. For God sakes, they are 33-3 since March 12! They aren’t at the level of 96 Bulls, 86 Celtics or 87 Lakers as far as historical relevance goes… but this is the best NBA team I can remember see playing. If they finish the job, they more than deserve that recognition. Plus, the individual legacies of Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are greatly improved, not that they need it.
-As much as Miami needs to win a title this year, LeBron James needs to win a title even more. It just has to happen. LeBron may be the most brilliant basketball talent of all-time, yet won’t ever be fully appreciated if he doesn’t win at least one championship. It’s a shame, but it’s true. Right now, I’ve never felt more comfortable with the way LeBron is playing. I’ve watched him closely for 9 years and he is playing the best basketball of his entire career right now. There is one gigantic problem; basketball is a team sport, and the brilliance of the best team (San Antonio) will almost always be greater than the brilliance of the best individual (LeBron James). That’s why even if the Heat make the Finals (I still can’t count out Boston… it’s a mental thing for me) come mid-June I’ll again be left disappointed. At least I know it in advance.
The general measuring stick for sports postseason excitement is March Madness. Especially on the first weekend, everyone stops what they are doing and all that matters is the bracket. What teams are going to be upset? What powerhouses looked good? How are my picks doing? How many times will “Onions!” be yelled by Bill Raftery? I get caught up in the madness just like everyone else. But I’m a complete NBA dork (if you didn’t know already). To me, the NBA playoffs trump March Madness. Multiple games every night for two months, better basketball, more on the line in terms of legacy and history. I eat that shit up like it’s Mom’s Chicken Parmesan. This year, the start of the NBA playoffs coincide with the end of my sophomore year at college. With a massive burden lifted off my back, I couldn’t think of any better way to bring in the NBA Playoffs than talking about it with the jack-of-all-trades himself, Paul Clark. We got into a thorough breakdown and made plenty of predictions. In Pauley’s case, he made history with his NBA Finals predicted.
You’re dying to know what exactly he predicted, aren’t you? Just click here to find out.
Back three weeks ago I took a look at the landscape of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. I’ll be honest, I initially planned on ranking the Western Conference teams one week later. A combination of school giving me a serious beat down, my birthday (thanks to any readers who wished me a Happy Birthday), and a shoulder injury that resulted in me spending a few days in a haze because of pain pills… I didn’t quite get around to it. Well, better late than never. Halfway through the season, here is how the NBA’s Western Conference looks.
15 New Orleans Hornets
-Is it a bad sign that the 2nd worst team in the league is “owned” by the league and the league is making executive decisions for said team? That doesn’t really inspire a ton of confidence in the brain trust making crucial decisions for the NBA, does it? I know all of this was already beaten to death during the “Chris Paul is traded to the Lakers… Psych!” episode, but it’s worth mentioning again. There is a very good reason why I relentlessly bashed David Stern during the NBA Lockout like he was a punching bag. He didn’t know what he was doing then (or maybe he did, and was just blatantly trying to cancel this season), and many feel that he/the league doesn’t know what they are doing with the Hornets now. The Hornets flat out suck. Sure, Eric Gordon has only played two games; he was the biggest piece of the Clippers trade, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the Hornets would stumble out of the gate. I truthfully don’t think Eric Gordon makes too much of a difference in the win/loss column for the Hornets though. He’s a nice player and all, but are the Hornets going to the playoffs with him in the lineup every game? The answer is no. New Orleans is lottery bound and will likely win the Anthony Davis Sweepstakes thanks to a “lucky bounce” of a ping pong ball (wink wink). On the bright side, the Hornets have indirectly provided one of the best highlights of the NBA season so far.
14 Sacramento Kings
-Hey Sacramento fans, your team might be really bad, but look on the bright side… At least you get to keep your team. You could be from Seattle.
13 Phoenix Suns
12 Golden State Warriors
11 Utah Jazz
-I’ll write about Phoenix when they either get some help for Steve Nash or do the right thing and trade Steve Nash. As an NBA fan, I want him playing for a contender, and I don’t care who it is. I’ll write about Golden State when people acknowledge that Stephen Curry is the best player on their team. I’ve had enough of watching Monta Ellis, Nate Robinson and David Lee competing to see who can take the most shots. And I’ll write about Utah when their most interesting player isn’t Jeremy Evans, the winner of the worst NBA Slam Dunk Contest ever.
10 Denver Nuggets
9 Houston Rockets
-You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Sonny, why so low on Denver and Houston? Houston is fifth in the standings right now and you have them ranked ninth. Denver started out the season better than anyone in the West other than Oklahoma City and their tenth according to you… Why no love?” It’s not so much I don’t have love for Houston or Denver, it’s just that someone has to be on the outside looking in. Unfortunately for a select few teams in the West, only eight teams from one conference can make the playoffs. By my estimation, at least the top ten teams in the Western Conference would safely make the playoffs if they were in the Eastern Conference (I’m wishy-washy on number 11 Utah). Hold on, it’s time for a tangent.
Interesting/Slightly Wacky Idea: My initial idea proposal was going to be eliminating conferences all together, taking the top 16 teams in the league, seeding them 1-16 and going forward with the playoffs that way. Then I realized you can’t just eliminate conferences. That’s way too drastic. But what do you think about the idea of taking the top eight teams from each conference, and then reseeding them 1-16, to try to balance the power a little bit, and create matchups we don’t have the luxury of seeing more than twice a year? Hypothetically, last year the first round playoff matchups would’ve looked like this:
1 Chicago v. 16 Indiana, 8 Orlando v. 9 Denver, 5 Dallas v. 12 Memphis, 4 Los Angeles v. 13 Atlanta, 6 Boston v. 11 New Orleans, 3 Miami v. 14 New York, 7 Oklahoma City v. 10 Portland, 2 San Antonio v. 15 Philadelphia
I can almost guarantee you are against this idea, since its engraved in everybody’s head that the way something has always been done is the right way. I on the other hand like to look for ways to improve or tweak the system. I’m sure you’ve seen the extensive work I’ve done on changing the College Football postseason. I’m not going to campaign to change the NBA playoffs because I love the NBA more than I love being able to breathe clean air. But it would be interesting to think about past instances where a change in the playoff system would be fun. Think back to the early 2000’s when the Lakers would battle through the Western Conference playoffs only to annihilate the Eastern Conference champ in the Finals. Take a look at what the 2002 playoffs would’ve looked like under my radical playoff structure. Remember, in real life the Lakers swept their 1st round series against Portland, defeated San Antonio 4-1, won a battle against Sacramento 4-3, then swept and embarrassed New Jersey in the Finals. The one team that challenged the Lakers was Sacramento.
1 Sacramento v. 16 Indiana, 8 Boston v. 9 Portland, 5 New Jersey v. 12 Orlando, 4 Dallas v. 13 Utah, 6 Detroit v. 11 Charlotte, 3 Los Angeles v. 14 Philadelphia, 7 Minnesota v. 10 Seattle, 2 San Antonio v. 15 Toronto
We’re most likely looking at a classic Lakers/Kings Finals matchup rather than 4 games of Shaq sodomizing Todd MacCulloch. Isn’t that more fun for basketball fans and especially for Todd MacCulloch?
Well, anyways… I do have love for Denver and Houston. I like that Houston has a solid trio to build around (Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola), and a few nice pieces outside of that. I just don’t know if they can sustain what they’ve done so far throughout the rest of this crazy season. Denver might have already proven they couldn’t sustain a hot start. And maybe, just maybe, slotting Denver at ten and Houston at nine has something to do with my fascination of the team I have at eight.
8 Minnesota Timberwolves
-Yes, it’s true, I do have quite the fascination with the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s not so much that I like them. It’s more that they are a very interesting team to watch. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio are both standout players. I’ll take it even further: they are transcendent players. Love is the best rebounding power forward in years. Add 25 points per game on top of that. Ricky Rubio belongs to a breed of point guard that is extremely rare: An absolute pass first point guard who not only enjoys setting up his teammates, but does it with unbelievable style. He can easily control a game without making a shot and even in instances where he is 0-10, can rise up in a key moment and nail a game tying three. Rubio is special, and so is Love. And maybe they are making Minnesota a contender in the future.
As Minnesota was making a strong comeback against the Clippers on Tuesday night, Paul Clark texted me mentioning how deep Minnesota is. I’ll do him one better: they are deep AND young. This is a team that has some promise for the future. If Minnesota is lucky enough to keep its young nucleus together for a four or five year stretch, we are looking at a yearly playoff contender. Love, Rubio, Rubio’s contagious unselfishness, JJ Barea, a budding Nikola Pekovic, Derrick Williams, and Michael Beasley (or whatever you can get for Michael Beasley) is a good foundation to build around. For now, Minnesota can settle for being the team that I love watching and that I’m praying finishes eighth in the West just so I can enjoy a Timberwolves/Thunder series.
7 Portland Trailblazers
-Note to readers: By the time Miami finished their stomping of Portland and I got done recording a podcast with Paul Clark, it was 2:45 am. I was sleepy and drained from a busy day lying by the pool. Portland certainly didn’t look like the seventh best team in the Western Conference last night, but they’ll stay there for now.
6 Memphis Grizzlies
-I hope you haven’t made the crucial mistake of forgetting about the pre-season Western Conference sleeper Memphis Grizzlies. Just because they are still sleeping doesn’t mean they won’t wake up before the playoffs start. Mark my words; it’s going to be shades of the 2011 playoffs when Memphis knocks off a higher seeded opponent in the 2012 playoffs. They’ve been treading water for a large portion of the season without the catalyst of their playoff run last year (remember when Z-Bo was taking the NBA by storm). Plus Rudy Gay is in the lineup, and he was missing in action last year. I’m not backing down from my pre-season NBA Finals pick of Miami over Memphis. You can call this a Bold Prediction if you’d like, but it’s really not too bold.
Maybe the Grizzlies don’t fit the mold of a team led by a super-duper to the championship, but they do have all of the ingredients to be a title contender. Last year was absolutely not a fluke. They have a premier inside scorer—Zach Randolph, 22 points per game in the playoffs last year. He is flanked by a top 3 center in the league—Marc Gasol, All-Star this year, 15 points, 11 rebounds per game in the 2011 playoffs. Additionally, they have a small forward who is a premier talent on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor—Rudy Gay, 19 points, 7 rebounds per game this year; injured in the 2011 playoffs. Mix in a speedy/smart point guard who stepped up his game in the playoffs last season—Mike Conley, boosting his scoring and assist averages in the playoffs and was unafraid to take some big shots (most notably, the deep game tying 3 he hit against Oklahoma City in game 4 of the Western Conference Semi’s). Rounding out the starting lineup is Tony Allen, whose averages don’t show his defensive presence and hustle plays. Don’t forget about a bench that is filled with size, instant energy and in the case of OJ Mayo, instant scoring. Yes, I’m still totally sold on the Grizzlies. But at this point in the season, they can’t crack the top five.
5-2 Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers
-Time to flash back to January 2011 when I didn’t know who the top team in the NBA was. Since I can’t totally differentiate one team from another it’s time to rank the Mavericks, Spurs, Clippers and Lakers in a series of categories to figure out how teams five through two fall into place. All of these teams have major flaws, but I could see a case you could make for all four as the 2nd best team in the west at this moment. The lower the number, the better the ranking.
Point Guard- 1: Clippers, 2: Spurs, 3: Mavericks, 4: Lakers
-Chris Paul is the best point guard I’ve ever seen, and I’ll stick to that until I’m as blown away watching someone else as I am when I watch him. Tony Parker has been absolutely sensational this year, even outdueling Chris Paul back on February 18th (30 points and 10 assists for Parker, 21 and 6 for Paul). Jason Kidd is old reliable. He’ll manage the game, play some defense and knock down an open three. But the key word is old. I don’t know if he can stick with Paul or Parker. Derek Fisher is the odd man out in this group. The point guard position shows up as the glaring weakness of the Lakers night in and night out.
Shooting Guard- 1: Lakers, 2: Spurs, 3: Mavericks, 4: Clippers
-A note for this category: Kobe is obviously number one. His credentials don’t even need to be mentioned. The Spurs come in second, assuming Manu Ginobili can stay healthy (which may be turning into a bigger issue than we realize). The Mavericks two headed shooting guard monster that is Vince Carter and Delonte West comes in at third, just ahead of the Clippers Randy Foye. If Chauncey Billups didn’t tear his Achilles (ouch) the Clippers would be third in this category.
Small Forward- 1: Mavericks, 2: Clippers, 3: Spurs, 4: Lakers
-Small forward isn’t quite the strongest position for any of these four teams. Evidence of this is Shawn Marion is without question number one in this category. You probably think that seems crazy, but it actually shouldn’t. Marion was an absolutely vital piece of the Mavericks championship run last year. 26 points in the closeout game against Oklahoma City, 14 points per game in the finals, great defense. That’s good enough for me to be rank Marion number one. The occasionally trigger happy Caron Butler is in second (his season average is 12 shots per game… sometimes he strays away from that number). The Richard Jefferson (past his prime)/Kawhi Leonard (much better than I expected) combination comes in third. And the artist formerly known as Ron Artest comes in a distant fourth. Does he bring anything to the table anymore besides huge muscles and increased odds for a fight every game?
Power Forward- 1: Mavericks, 2: Clippers, 3: Lakers, 4: Spurs
-An absolutely stacked position, especially if you consider for the majority of his career, Tim Duncan played power forward. For this Spurs team, DeJuan Blair is considered the starting power forward with an aged Duncan starting at center. So Blair comes in fourth. I gave Dirk the nod over Blake and Pau, even though Dirk is working his way out of a slump to start the season. After what happened last spring, it’s impossible to say Dirk isn’t the power forward you’d trust the most in the playoffs. I give Blake Griffin the edge over Pau Gasol simply because Pau isn’t assertive enough for my liking. I can’t see Pau approaching Kobe late in a game and saying “give me the ball!” even though he absolutely should. Pau has been more of a non-factor this year than he ever has during his Lakers tenure (especially late in games). It should be noted, this is partly because no one can get him the ball, so how can I take him over a budding superstar who will get plenty of touches thanks to his superstar point guard?
Center- 1: Lakers, 2: Spurs, 3: Clippers, 4: Mavericks
-If (that’s a big if) Andrew Bynum can stay healthy, and if (another big if) Mike Brown can find ways to get him, and Pau, more touches down the stretch, I take the Lakers seriously as a title contender. The pace of the game in the playoffs slows down so mightily and that might be the Lakers savior. Shots in the paint for Bynum and Pau drastically cut down the potential of fast breaks for the much faster and athletic teams the Lakers will be playing. If Bynum really is the second best center in the league, he needs to start being treated like it. Next is Tim Duncan, who is enjoying a statistically better season compared to last year, comes in 2nd. He’s 35 years old and his prime is way behind him, but I’m not going to fully count out the best power forward ever quite yet. Third is DeAndre Jordan, who has seen an increase in production this year and that is not a coincidence of the Chris Paul trade. He’s potentially Tyson Chandler 2.0. Speaking of Tyson Chandler, I bet the Mavericks will be wishing they had Tyson Chandler to go to war with instead of Brendan Haywood come playoff time.
Depth/Bench- 1: Spurs, 2: Clippers, 3: Mavericks, 4: Lakers
-It’s amazing that this category was arguably the biggest plus for the Mavericks and Lakers over the last couple of years, and now each team’s depth is a major concern. The Mavericks downgraded from a solid 10 deep last year (Dirk, Kidd, Jet, Chandler, Marion, Haywood, Barea, Peja, Stevenson, Mahinmi) to a mediocre 10 deep this year (Dirk, Kidd, Jet, Marion, Haywood, West, Carter, a very disengaged Lamar Odom, Mahinmi, Beaubois). Look at it like this- The Mavericks starting center this year was their back up last year, and he’s not starting because he improved. The four guys in the backcourt last year (Kidd, Jet, Barea, Stevenson) trump the four this year (Kidd, Jet, West, Carter). And unless Lamar Odom eats some candy and bursts out of this mental slump, I’ll take the hot shooting 2011 Peja Stojakovic over him. The Lakers on the other hand are a complete disaster. I don’t even have jokes about Steve Blake, Andrew Goudelock, Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono and Josh McCheddarBob.
Coaching- T1: Spurs, T1: Mavericks, 3: Lakers, 4: Clippers
-Gregg Popovich is the consensus best coach in the game, but it’s hard to discount the coaching clinic that Rick Carlisle put on in the post season last year. I locked them in as a tie for the number one spot. Lakers coach Mike Brown comes in third far ahead of his Los Angeles counterpart, Vinny Del Negro.
Injury Concern- 1: Clippers, 2: Spurs, 3: Mavericks, 4: Lakers
-Somehow, in the category of injury concern I’m the least concerned about the Clippers, who have already lost one vital piece to a torn Achilles (once again, ouch) and happen to be the beneficiary of some historically bad luck. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul aren’t exactly the healthiest dudes, especially considering Blake Griffin throws his body around like he’s a rag doll. Maybe it’s the youth, but I don’t have a huge worry about the Clippers breaking down. The older and more experienced Mavericks, Spurs and Lakers have me concerned. Manu’s been hurt, Dirk started off the year nicked up, and everyone is well aware of the injury issues the Lakers have. Andrew Bynum’s paper mache knees have been well documented, and what injury isn’t Kobe Bryant playing through right now? It’s conceivable to believe they can both break down in this hectic schedule, especially Bynum. On second thought, the only way I can see Kobe not playing is if Jigsaw kidnapped him and put him in a trap that removed both of his knees. Yes indeed, that was a Saw reference.
Totals- Spurs 18, Mavericks 19, Clippers 19, Lakers 24
The Spurs have been playing better basketball than any of the other three teams. The Clippers are the flashiest team and may have the highest upside. The Mavericks are the defending champions. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, and are only two years removed from winning an NBA title. What exactly do these totals mean? I wish I could tell you. I don’t know for a fact that the Spurs are the 2nd best team in the West, or if the Lakers are the 5th best. I’d probably rank the Clippers as 2nd best to be honest with you, and that’s based simply on the fact that I can’t totally trust the Spurs after their first round loss last year and I don’t think the Lakers and Mavericks are deep enough. All I really know is it is very likely one of these teams (or Memphis) will have to go through the number one team in the rankings for a chance to play for the NBA Championship.
1 Oklahoma City Thunder
-It’s not much of a surprise for Oklahoma City to be sitting here. Any possible worries about the Thunder are drowned out by the fact that when clicking, they are the highest-octane team in the league minus Miami. I’ll be the first to admit that the Westbrook/Durant partnership seems sketchy at times. Not so much from a friendship or teammate standpoint, it’s just hard when Russell Westbrook, who is naturally a shooting guard, is forced to play the role of distributor because he is flanked by the best scorer in the league. Before the year I called for Oklahoma City to start Eric Maynor at point guard (who stole some crunch time minutes from Westbrook in the 2011 playoffs because of Westbrook’s general mentality/shot selection) and slide Westbrook over to shooting guard. Maynor is out for the year, but the Westbrook/Durant duo looks better and more cohesive than it ever has. They’ve found a Wade/LeBron type balance of both relentlessly attacking defenses without making it look like they are taking turns. For the most part Westbrook hasn’t forced the action and that’s key. Westbrook can get his as long as it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the game for Oklahoma City, or stop Durant from getting his shots up. A perfect example would be last night’s game against Orlando. Westbrook 29 points, Durant 38 and all of the late game baskets. Durant needs to be the guy to close. It has to be this way. It’s Durant’s’ team, and even though Westbrook might be one of the fifteen best players in the league, Durant is too.
Ultimately, Oklahoma City will go as far in the playoffs as the Westbrook/Durant duo can carry them. Or until they play Memphis.