Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2012 Olympics: Extreme Team's Chances

The final score of the USA-Spain exhibition game belies the weakness Team USA showed. Spain blitzed to an early lead and embarrassed the favorites with crisp passing, Pau's post game, and a sloppy US squad. Of course, the lead after the first quarter was only two points and by halftime the US had already usurped them; by the end of the game it was a blowout. But there's a legitimate thread of reasoning for concern now that's surfaced in the lauded '12 Extreme(-ly small but athletic) Team. 

The most important point about this game is that Spain wasn't looking to win. It was an exhibition game whose result had absolutely no direct bearing on the Olympic tournament. A win would be just an abstraction. Maybe it would help the Spain's confidence during the following games, but that's the only type of loose benefit the team could extract. Since there is nothing objective to gain from winning, all important strategies against Team USA would be pointless to employ. Thus, any special play will be shelved until they meet again and a weapon like a zone defense or pick and roll should not be used frequently so the Americans can't learn to defend or play against it. Also, they don't need to force a player with an injury (Marc Gasol) onto the court or play their most important pieces large minutes. An insanely deep team like USA doesn't need to worry about that, but other teams usually have a few stars they hope could play the entire game. (USA arguably has LeBron in that position, showing how amazing he is.)

Team USA, by contrast, cannot even lose in an exhibition game because of the enormous expectations placed on them. So it was no surprise to see LeBron and Durant to play 28 and 29 minutes, respectively, while Gasol and Calderon only played 24 and 27 minutes. The amazing bench from Team USA couldn't even close the gap for reducing minutes.

The Extreme Team's glaring weakness, centers and subsequently frontcourt defense against big players, is a terrible match-up for Spain (and Brazil). Both Gasol brothers are legitimate 7-footers and USA's only counter is Tyson Chandler. Against only one Gasol Chandler fouled out in eight minutes; that does not bode well for the future. With Chandler out of the game here are their options: Kevin Love, who was destroyed defensively and stands 6' 8" with no vertical leaping skills and fairly short arms; Anthony Davis, who has not even played a single minute in the NBA; or a small forward like their two leading scorers Durant and James.With both Gasol brothers one of those other options will need to cover (most likely) Pau, and in the doomsday scenario, which is not entirely unlikely, Team USA will need to defend both without their only center. Pau scored 19 points in a little under 24 minutes while drawing ten fouls. It's frightening to consider what they could do when they're both playing well.

The primary strength of Team USA is their combination of speed and athleticism, which allows them to smother opponents in the backcourt and start transition plays that typically end in a dunk. Spain, however, has Jose Calderon, a player who's led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio three times over the past five seasons including an incredible 5.38 in 07-2008. Appropriately, Chris Paul is his nearest peer and has led the league the only two times Calderon hasn't. With a steady hand at the helm, their full-court defense and ball pressure is rendered ineffective, stunting the Retread Team's offense -- no easy dunks in the open court means there are more possessions with an all-star team that's still uncomfortable playing a half-court offense. Against Tunisia this will work, but not against a good backcourt.

Another concern is luck. In a one-and-done tournament, something as chaotic as the result of a three point shot has a huge effect on the outcome. The Extreme Team was 13/23 from three point land and Spain 5/19. It could have easily gone the other way, and with Marc Gasol playing suddenly Spain looks venomous. Carmelo Anthony isn't a marksmen from outside despite his superstar label; don't expect him to hit 5/8 of his shots from there with regularity. If we're speaking of luck, some will point out that Rubio isn't playing, but Team USA has an all-star team from guys who are also out with injuries -- Dwight Howard (they really need him too), Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, etc.

The Miami Heat and Team USA have a lot in common defensively. Team USA relies on switches and quick coverage overwhelming teams with athleticism. They also like to field a team with little variation in height; this allows for more switches on pick and rolls and a defense that is basically an amorphous, interchangeable system of parts. Joel Anthony is Miami's nominal center, but even he's a bit short and the team likes to play without a traditional center. Versus Oklahoma City this was fine because Perkins wasn't going to score 30 in the post, but against the Gasol Brothers (plus Ibaka, strangely enough, who seems to be liberated offensively) and Brazil's line of Nene-Splitter-Varejao. Another weakness of this approach is that Miami will often leave shooters open in the corners. While it's not entirely accurate to assume the same will happen to Team USA, constant switching and a swarming, pressuring defense can be defeated by crisp passing. If you swing the ball around enough even the fastest players in the world can cover every square foot of the court. Calderon is also adept at finding big men inside, and if Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love are part of the frontcourt there will be little resistance at the rim.

I still believe Team USA is the favorite to win the gold medal in London. One disadvantage that won't be (as) present is the home-court advantage for Spain since they were playing in their home country, and England is fond of the Americans as almost any European country. The FIBA officials will still be horrendous, but probably not as bad. (There were some calls during the game that were laughably bad; please watch FIBA basketball to gain back your respect of NBA officiating.) The Retread team is still a vulnerable team, however, especially in the frontcourt. Their best hope is that Anthony Davis gets more playing time and establishes himself as a part of the rotation because they'll need his shot-blocking and length. One Tyson Chandler is better than none, but the problem with having one of a kind is that teams can focus on getting him in foul trouble where only five gets you thrown out in the Olympics. The difficulty level has risen to "expert", and one wrong move will derail this cast of talent. It will take more than brute strength to repeat with gold; this time they will need guile, will, cunning, and a little bit of luck.

Interesting finds from the cumulative exhibition game stats:

-Tyson Chandler has more fouls than points.

-Anthony Davis has more points than Kevin Love.

-Their leading rebounder is Durant, although Love isn't too far from the lead in like 40% of the minutes.

-Leading shot-blocker is Davis even though he's only played 27 minutes.

-Westbrook has the best free-throw percentage on the team.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Review of 2011-12 Season Predictions

Now that the finals are a part of the history books and the draft has been completed to bridge the 2012 and 2013 seasons, it's time to look back on my predictions to see how wrong I was. Basketball writers love to make predictions, but few ever review them for the public.

Link to Western Conference preview.


Golden State Warriors

Key sentence:
I would argue that a compressed schedule will help an up-tempo team, but the new coach Mark Jackson has vowed to remake them into a defensive team. I’m not sure how he can do that, short of trading Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and David Lee for Dwight Howard and a good wing defender. ... The best move forward for the team is to trade Ellis to a delusional GM in exchange for first round picks and young player(s). 

Prediction: 29-37
Random prediction: Biedrins will average double digits in rebounding for the second time in his career but will fail to eclipse the same mark in points.

Actual record: 23-43

Okay, so I was totally wrong on Biedrins (3.7 a game) and they were a bit better than I had anticipated, but I wasn't fooled by their new zeal on defense. They were tied for 26th in the league in points allowed per possession and last year they were ... 26th. Great coaching, Mark Jackson! Trading Ellis for Bogut could turn out to be a great move if Bogut can stay mostly healthy. It's a gamble that you need to make in a competitive league like the NBA where one piece can make all the difference. It's also not like they were going anywhere with Ellis. In return they got a "true" center who if healthy is good enough for defensive player of the year consideration, and Ellis is a guy whose only strength is scoring but his shooting percentages are low. Now they just need to use the amnesty on Biedrins ... wait, they used it on Charlie Bell? Who stood to make 4 million a year expiring at the end of the season? And they did it to lure DeAndre Jordan of all people and instead of making room by using the amnesty option on a guy who plays the same position, makes more money with a longer contract, and has been horrible ... Charlie Bell? Good luck in the offseason, and I look forward to your wise moves.

LA Lakers

Key sentences:
The lone bright spot for the Lakers is Bynum, and any basketball fan knows why that’s a terrible kind of hope. ... The Lakers were slipping last season, and without their sixth man their fall will accelerate.

Prediction: 37-29

Random prediction: Josh McRoberts will become an instant Laker fan favorite with his powerful dunks.

Actual record: 41-25

I was more pessimistic than what actually happened, but how was I supposed to know Bynum was never going to miss a game after coming back from his suspension and start in the all-star game? However, their point differential was only 1.4, and if Bynum had even missed a handful of games my prediction would have been accurate. The Lakers were just good enough that their fans held onto the delusion that they were a real contender, and when they move Pau Gasol for what will likely be a disappointing package I hope the ax finally drops and the Lakers are stuck in contract hell paying Kobe 30 million a year and surrounding him with the cast of a local reality show. Josh McRoberts didn't exactly become the fan favorite for his dunks, but he was coined with the nickname McRambis for his physical style and stupid flagrant fouls. I'd say I'd get a half-point for that one.

LA Clippers

Key sentences:
In the playoffs, the Clippers will face problems when other teams exploit their weaknesses. ... Memphis, in particular, would plow through them. ... Their success also depends on how Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan develop defensively, as both were disappointing given their athleticism and size. However, the main reason I’m lukewarm on them this season is that they hired Vinny Del Negro as their head coach and Donald Sterling still owns the organization.

Prediction: 43-23
Random prediction: Chris Paul will break the single season alley-oop record, which someone like the Elias Sports Bureau will uncover after many Griffin-Jordan dunks.

Actual record: 40-26

The Clippers have quickly turned from league cellar-dweller joke to up-and-coming to overrated unlikable. I'm not sure how they did that because they have the best point guard in the game who uses not size or athleticism but skill, and an exciting young player who's this generation's Shawn Kemp without the baggage. I hope fans move on from blaming Stern for this team. Chris Paul would have been wasted on the Lakers because Kobe demands the ball so much. Why can't people realize that? I couldn't find many official numbers on alley-oops, but it appears Chris Paul didn't break the record and the Lakers led the league. That doesn't mean the Lakers are now Lob City. Bynum and Gasol get those old extremely tall man alley-oops where they stand on their toes and daintily throw the ball through the rim.

Phoenix Suns

Key sentences:
They will not compete with this version of the Nash Suns. ... I’m afraid the season will pass, they’ll make no major trades, and miss the playoffs with a record that ensures a middling draft pick.

Prediction: 30-36
Random prediction: Steve Nash will be contacted by Michelle Obama to help her campaign of healthy eating in the US.

Actual record: 33-33

They actually broke even, but it was only three more wins than I had predicted and another lottery team, the Rockets, had more wins. It was a lost year in the desert, and despite Gortat having a good year nothing important happened for the team. They missed out on their chance to trade Nash for something of value, and instead they could force the nice Canadian/South African to spend his twilight years throwing crisp passes to mediocre talent. Just go to Indiana or Portland, Nash. Do it for basketball reasons. Michelle Obama and Nash didn't exactly become best buds, but his organization does have strong ties to her health organization.

Sacramento Kings

Key sentences:
The Kings definitely have talent, but it’s unclear if that talent can be harnessed into real basketball games. ... The team also has no real point guard, mostly because they are insistent that Tyreke Evans is a point.  I’m not sure when management will finally realize this, but until they do the Kings will remain the worst passing team in the league. The rookie Isaiah Thomas is a letter and a couple inches in height away from helping in this regard.

Prediction: 22-44
Random prediction: Cousins will have a game with six turnovers, six missed shots, and six fouls.

Actual record: 22-44

Unfortunately for the Kings, I was actually exactly correct on their record. The bright side is that improbably their 60th pick in the draft, Isaiah Thomas, actually turned out to be a good player and started point guard in the latter part of the season, pushing Evans to a more comfortable 2-guard role. That in itself is an accomplishment, and now they just drafted arguably the second best player in the draft, Thomas Robinson, for a now imposing and physical frontcourt. It might be crowded because both are post players; it would behoove them to find floor spacers. Cousins, however, never had the dreaded 6-6-6 game; he was only one foul away.


Denver Nuggets

Key sentences:
The Mavericks made the mistake of giving up Rudy Fernandez for nothing so they could play a decrepit Vince Carter more minutes, and as a Portland fan I can’t wait to see how they use him in Denver, where they hope to push the tempo and fire away. ... Andre Miller will have another strangely healthy season where he shakes off his bad conditioning habits to pass four players to the tenth position on the all-time assists leaderboard. ... The Nuggets will be one of my favorite teams to watch, and they have a chance to post the top record in the west despite not having any players who were all-stars previously.

Prediction: 45-21
Random prediction: Nene will be an all-star because the coaches and the media will need to justify Denver’s record.

Actual results: 38-28

Between China and injuries the deep Nuggets had their roster devastated, and it's remarkable they were as good as they were. It was so bad they thought it was a good idea to trade a guy they just signed to a big contract for JaVale McGee. Andre Miller, after serving his time on a Portland team legendary for injuries, cruised along and never missed a game again, even though he separated his shoulder in the middle of the season. He also passed a few players into tenth all-time on the career assists leaderboard as I had said he would.  Fernandez also lived up to my hype. I was definitely wrong on how their season would go, but at least at this point you can't predict injuries.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Key sentences:
I don’t think this will be the season where they approach 0.500 basketball when so many of their young players are still learning how to play and Kevin Love’s unusual combination of 15 rebounds and 40% three-point shooting wasn’t enough to pull them out of the cellar. ... With Rubio’s lack of shooting touch and Love’s defensive deficiencies, it’s a team that needs careful roster management with the right personnel to complement the best players.

Prediction: 25-41
Random prediction: Rubio will have a game with ten rebounds, ten assists, and zero made field goals.

Actual results: 26-40

I was pretty accurate with how I thought the team would do even though Pekovic was better than most people thought (though it was counter-balanced by Rubio's injury.) Rubio, however, did not have the 10-10-0 game; his closest was 7-8-1. They gave away a lottery pick so they can't build through their awfulness this year, and it's troubling to figure out how they could get better from here. This team had their moments, but ultimately they were too far from anyone important to make a difference.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Key sentences:
They’re one of the youngest contenders in league history, and during a weird season they could reach the finals. ... With the Lakers faltering, the Spurs still quietly good but likely to rest their veterans, and the Mavericks as old any team, the Thunder are poised to take the western title crown.

Prediction: 46-20
Random prediction: Ibaka will lead the league in blocks per game with close to 3.5 and will receive heavy consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, even if he isn’t deserving.

Actual results: 47-19

The Thunder were probably my best prediction. I was only off one game for their record, I suggested they could make the finals, right before the playoffs started I said they would make the finals as well, and the crème de la crème was Ibaka. Ibaka led the league with 3.7 blocks, close to 3.5, and he did in fact receive heavy consideration for the defensive award even though he didn't deserve it. (There's a reason why he didn't play more minutes: he wasn't that great of a defender to justify more, and Collison was arguably better.) Though in all honesty I didn't exactly take a risk predicting the Thunder would reach the finals. It was an amazing year for the young team, but reality is about to set in as the rookie contracts for Harden and Ibaka near their ends.

Portland Trailblazers

Key sentences:
The Blazers were very good even with little production from Roy and Oden, so it shouldn’t be a surprise this year if they’re very good again. ... I imagine this year will be a pleasant surprise for Blazers fans, because their varied depth at least in positions 1 through 4 will do well in a compressed schedule, and the lack of a dominating western team at the top two or three seeds could lead to an upset and a second round visit for Portland -- yes, the Thunder, Mavericks, etc. are still good, but not overwhelmingly so.

Prediction: 38-28
Random prediction: Crawford for sixth man of the year.

Actual results: 28-38

I was dead wrong here. I'm a Blazers' fan, and as such I don't really want to talk about this year. Portland tanked and traded a very good player in Wallace for a draft pick, and the guy they drafted is someone who I think will be a bust because he's a senior and played against weak competition. Let's just move on and pray someone like Steve Nash decides to rescue this team.

Utah Jazz

Key sentences:
In other words, they’re a mediocre team in the middle of a rebuilding project. ... They’re not going to contend with this crew, and they could bottom out this year depending on who they move and how guys like Hayward and Kanter progress.

Prediction: 26-40
Random prediction: Enes Kanter will be a bust.

Actual results: 36-30

The Jazz somehow managed to take a rebuilding team to the playoffs, although they were destroyed in the first round. I still don't like the Millsap-Jefferson frontcourt, and I'm sure their fans agree with me. It'll be interesting to see how Favors pans out because some people are really high on him, especially defensively. His athleticism would be the perfect complement to Al Jefferson's below the rim game. The Jazz don't get nearly enough credit for the job they've done in assembling a quality team with little resources. Gordon Hayward has surprised a few people, and he's the type of young athletic wing many teams covet. Being able to find talent while competing for a playoff spot is the elite tier of good management and it's something few have been able to do. The Spurs are probably the best example as they haven't dipped into mediocrity since they drafted Duncan. I'm not saying the Jazz are as good as the Spurs, but they need to receive proper credit. Kanter hasn't shown anything yet as I had predicted earlier, but it's too early to call him out as a bust. There's a possibility the team saw something in him I did not; I saw him as a seven-foot stiff who was uneasy in the NBA game.


Dallas Mavericks

After winning a title and essentially trading Chandler for Odom, the Mavericks are once again neglected in the media. They’ll miss having a good defensive center, but an Odom-Nowitzki frontcourt will be devastating offensively and they will have cap room next year. This season won’t be a terrible title defense like Miami’s last one, but they’re not out for blood like Boston was. They have enough depth to weather the weird schedule, and will likely play small line-ups whenever the match-ups allow them to unless they pick up a decent center. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they force a center into their starting line-up because they’ll worry not having one will drag them down, but in fact playing a subpar player of any position will have the effect they’re trying to avoid.

The success of Dallas is hinged on the amazing offensive play of Dirk Nowitzki, a consistently efficient scorer who’s a match-up nightmare as a seven-foot jump shooter who can take fellow seven-footers off the dribble. He sets up in the middle of the floor, making double teams dangerous as the floor opens up, and Dallas has always surrounded him with shooters. This year is no exception – Kidd, Terry, Carter, Roddy, even Odom, and new arrival Delonte West are great from long-range. Dirk shouldn’t slip too much due to age; his playing style is built for low impact on the body and his shooting skills and huge frame won’t deteriorate as he goes further into his 30’s. The problem with the Carter signing, however, is that Dallas traded a first round pick for Rudy Fernandez, and then traded Rudy to clear space for Carter. Right now, Vince Carter is not significantly better than Rudy, who’s eight years younger. Rudy’s even a better dunker presently.

Dirk has been great for over a decade with alarming consistency, meaning his supporting cast will make or break this season, as it’s been for every season. Roddy Beaubois is their x-factor, but one should also watch Brandon Wright, who has shown huge potential but never stuck the landing while playing in Golden State and New Jersey. With Kidd’s ability to guard shooting guards, Roddy can forget about feigning interest as a point guard and attack the basket.  Vince Carter will probably end up being a mistake because he’s a guard who’s relied on his athleticism all his life and is in his mid-thirties. If you lower your expectations and think of him only as a spot-up shooter from deep, then he should attain success. Aging shooting guards like Michael Finley and Jerry Stackhouse had to make similar sacrifices to keep playing in the NBA.

I’m not down on Dallas’ chances, but the west is loaded with teams who are “weak” contenders, and both the Heat and Bulls should be better. I’m afraid Dallas won’t be able to find another decent center, and will by habit start the next best center they have, Brendan Haywood, even when going up against opponents who don’t have a big center worth guarding. They’ll drop a spot in the standings because of this, but when they play without a useless big man like Haywood or Mahinmi they’ll be as good as last year.

Key sentences:
This season won’t be a terrible title defense like Miami’s last one, but they’re not out for blood like Boston was. ... I’m not down on Dallas’ chances, but the west is loaded with teams who are “weak” contenders, and both the Heat and Bulls should be better.

Prediction: 42-24
Random prediction: Mark Cuban will make negative public comments about Kim Kardashian, and it will be funny.

Actual results: 36-30

I think most of the difference between them winning 42 and the reality of 36 is Nowitzki's weak start to the season and Odom's refusal to be a professional basketball player and an adult. The funniest part of the season was how Chandler left the team to win a defensive player of the year award and Dallas didn't slip defensively as they were eighth this year and seventh the year before; their offensive production is what fell off a cliff  (8th to 20th). They're a rich, spoiled team who throws around money like it's nothing, and this offseason after whiffing on Odom and investing in guys like Vince Carter they could lure the all-star Deron Williams. The league is full of the superrich and the rest.

Houston Rockets

Key sentences:
Instead they’re a near 0.500 team too good for a high lottery pick and too bad for a playoff run. ... This is a hard team to predict because they could make a major trade during the season. I think they’ll be patient, however, and could do something smart like play Kevin Martin heavy minutes to showcase his scoring and increase his trade value. ... They won’t make the playoffs, but they’ll be one of the most active teams in the trade market.

Prediction: 31-35
Random prediction: They’ll wait until the summer of 2012 to make a big splash in the trade and free agent market

Actual results: 34-32

I was surprised they didn't make any big moves but it wasn't for lack of trying. Near the draft they threw around some small moves and ended up drafting a bunch of players who will almost undoubtedly end up being better than people thought. They're in the hunt for a major player like Howard and have been stockpiling assets. They just missed the playoffs again, and it was basically a lost season. I think the management has done everything well, but it shows you how much of an impact luck and circumstance are in the league.

Memphis Grizzlies

Key sentences:
After a surprising run in the playoffs, the Grizzlies still have a lot to prove. They remain intact, yet they’re in a competitive conference where only a few games will separate first from eighth. ... Unfortunately, depth and a stacked western conference will keep them from the top spot, but in the playoffs they could again plow through opponents with a frontcourt of Randolph and Gasol.

Prediction: 36-30
Random prediction: Rudy Gay will make his first all-star team and could cement his status as one of the go-to forwards for the game now that Carmelo is in New York.

Actual results: 41-25

I really thought they would be more successful in the playoffs, but the Clippers unearthed one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history to help win in seven games. It was still a successful year for the team, and if they can make it through free agency with enough of a bench intact they'll do well next year as well. I was right about their depth being a problem because they were stretched to the limit way too often. Randolph was injured for most of the year, yet I underestimated their win total. I think I was really off on assessing their talent. Rudy Gay had a good year, but Marc Gasol oddly enough was granted the Memphis all-star representation in the game.

New Orleans Hornets

Key sentences:
Even David West left, and the remainder of the team is assorted flotsam and jetsam. ... As with too many teams, this season the Hornets are playing for the ping-pongs balls of the NBA draft. It’s an unfortunate time to try to sell the team, and if they get the number one or two spot in the draft David Stern will come under even more fire.

Prediction: 18-48
Random Prediction:  Eric Gordon sneaks onto the all-star team despite paltry team record since Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony defected to the eastern seaboard. David West also left, eliminating another competitor for the 12th man.

Actual results: 21-45

I somehow underestimated their wins even though Gordon was out the entire year. I was completely wrong about Gordon being an all-star because of his "injury" -- some could argue he was DNP-tanking -- but they did win the lottery causing an uproar about Stern and a conspiracy. I'd say they won the lottery because they were a terrible team and had a good chance at winning. It was a dreadful season after losing Chris Paul, but they're getting one of the surest stars in years. I think one year of awfulness can be excused. I also think I should have seen from my projection of 21 wins that Gordon wouldn't have had much of a chance at making the all-star team anyway.

San Antonio Spurs

Key sentences:
I don’t expect them to repeat their success when the compressed schedule will cause Popovich to rest his aging veterans to even more extreme lengths. I think they’ll be content to cruise to a four-seed and unleash hell in the playoffs. ... Additionally, with the keen eye for talent the Spurs have they may have found a diamond in the rough with Kawhi Leonard, a Shawn Marion type who can rebound like a power forward and finishes at the rim well. ...  If you adjust the shortened lockout season of ‘99 to 82 games Tim Duncan has never known a season worse than 50 wins, and this year will be one more.

Prediction: 42-24
Random prediction: The Spurs will have another rookie or related player from out of nowhere who will be a steal, most likely Kawhi Leonard.

Actual results: 50-16

They rested their starters to insane lengths and Ginobili was injured for half the year, but they still managed to lead the west in wins and blitzed through opponents after picking up Diaw up to meeting the Thunder in the playoffs. Tiago played more as I suspected, and Leonard was also another nice draft pick. I think the real find was taking a player who lost his starting job on one of the worst teams in league history and putting him in their starting lineup, causing them to improve their play with blowout after blowout. Diaw, however, is a great passer and a surprisingly good defender, so he's a nice piece to a good team but wasted on one where he can't pass to anyone good. Unfortunately, the only pick the Spurs had this year was a late second-round one, and I doubt they can recreate the magic of Ginobili. But who knows? Betting against this organization is stupid. If the Kings could find a starting point guard at pick 60, I think the Spurs can at least find a rotation player. I think that whenever I do a season prediction for the Spurs I should automatically add five or so wins after my best educated guess. That's the sign of the best run organization in the league, and it's a pity it hasn't drawn interest from high caliber free agents. You want to win? Go here.

Link to Eastern Conference preview.


Boston Celtics

Key sentences:
Expect their veteran trio to be rested early and often until the playoffs, while Rondo could use the trade rumors as motivation to post a career season. ... There is a hole at center, but if Jermaine O’Neal is halfway healthy he can at least provide them with defense, and Boston will try to use Garnett more at center this year. ... This could very well be the last year with this incarnation of the Boston Celtics, and with a title and a few high win seasons already under their belts they have fewer reasons to stay together.

Prediction: 44-22
Random prediction: The New York-Boston first round match-up ends up being an all-time class, as the relatively disappointing season from the Knicks from their lack of depth is not a problem in the playoffs as they can play Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler huge minutes, and Rondo and Spike Lee become enemies.

Actual results: 39-27

I was fairly confident on Boston playing well, and by the end of the season I was correct. They got off to a slow start because Garnett's vertical jump had to be measured with a micrometer, and when he finally refound his athletic ability their defense once again destroyed the competition. It was supposed to be their last year together, but they're bringing (most) of the band back together. One key to their season was responding to their injury and production problems at center with moving Garnett there, who is tall enough to be a center anyway. They were an underdog by some definitions and through a bit of luck wound up nearly knocking off the eventual champions, the Heat. New York also played the Heat instead of the Celtics, rendering my random prediction very wrong. Also, I wondered if Allen would leave (yes) and what kind of money Garnett would get (a big sum). They haven't done much else with their roster, however.

New Jersey Nets

Key sentences:
There are many rebuilding teams in the NBA, but no one else is actually physically rebuilding – the New Jersey Nets will become the Brooklyn Nets. ... The last season for the Nets will be fairly unremarkable, other than watching the deft playmaking skills of Deron Williams, but it will be followed by earth-moving reforms in the free agency/trade market and the relocation to Brooklyn.

Prediction: 21-45
Random prediction: Kirilenko and Williams rejoin forces, and the Kirilenko-Humphries line-up provides a rare bit of entertainment for the Nets as the AK-47 finally lives out his destiny as a small-ball four.

Actual results: 22-44

Well, I was correct on the outcome of the season, but my wild prediction about Kirilenko and mentioning that Okur was a basketball player was completely wrong. It was a mess of a season compounded by a bizarre trade for Gerald Wallace in exchange for their lottery pick. Draft picks are usually overrated and the Blazers will be lucky if their sixth pick, Lillard, is ever as good was last season, but the pick could have been used in a trade. However, trading for Wallace and resigning him was part of the chain reaction from the Deron Williams trade, and after that (arguable) mistake they're making countless other ones trying to justify it. Yes, it's a remarkable coup to steal a player of his caliber, but you have to plan better than that. Deron was thrust into the middle of a rebuilding project; that's no way to treat a star player in his prime with a soon-to-be expiring contract. They scrambled to find a way to keep him, and they did at the cost of some other bad personnel decisions. Really, all you need to know about the future of the franchise and the management is that Billy King, known as one of the worst GMs in basketball the past few years from people who pay attention, was hired on purpose. The season itself, the actual basketball, had little to discuss because it was like a game at the end of a blow-out: they were just dribbling out the clock.

New York Knicks

Key sentences:
It would take a surprise season from one of their young players or the Baron Davis of old to move this team to the top three in the east, and it’s obvious from that sentence how unlikely that is. Instead Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire will score a lot, keep the team over 0.500 but not by much, and will feature in a number of big games on TV. ... It won’t be a perfect season, but it’s better than about everything that happened last decade.

Prediction: 36-30
Random prediction: Baron Davis will have a run where he’ll average over 10 assists a game with impressive dishes right to the basket, but an injury will derail his campaign and after he comes back he’s limited and jacks up unwarranted threes.

Actual results: 36-30

I wasn't impressed with their pairing of Amare and Carmelo like many fans were, and it looks like I was right. Chandler, however, was an inspired signing, and his season made up for Stoudemire replacing his body with moldy garbage. What else do say about the season? No one besides delusional Knick fans were surprised they weren't a contender. They were even helped out by the magical appearance of Jeremy Lin, who may not come back because the Knicks would rather invest in a nearly 40 year-old Kidd. Baron was a nonfactor and I was correct in his injuries derailing his campaign; I was a bit off in thinking he could produce anything on the court though. The Knicks' fans were clamoring for big changes and big names on the roster to compete with the best teams, because with their large population they assume they deserve as much, so after settling on Stoudemire because no better free agents wanted to play for a team with little else they demanded Carmelo Anthony. Unfortunately, they got what they wanted.

Philadelphia 76ers

Key sentences:
With a shallow field of contenders in the east and the turmoil in Orlando, Philadelphia hopes to improve on their 0.500 basketball least season and secure a better seed. ... No major roster moves helps them with continuity important with a short training camp and preseason, and they’ve retained a mostly young crew of talented players.

Prediction: 35-31
Random prediction: Iguodala finally gets the defensive credit he deserves after impressive games against the top scorers like Lebron on TV games and makes the first team all-defense as a small forward alongside Tony Allen.

Actual record: 35-31

My second perfect record prediction in a row, and the one before was only off by 1 game. Somehow I knew the Atlantic division well.  Unfortunately, Iguodala did not make the defensive team, but he made the all-star team. He should have gotten voted in over Chris Paul, Bryant, or (counting Iggy as a forward) Serge Ibaka. No sane person who knew Iguodala well as a player would ever consider someone like Paul or current Bryant as a better defensive player this year. At least Tony Allen made the first team, half-saving my prediction. Philly was one of the best defensive teams, and he was their best defender (it certainly wasn't Spencer Hawes.) Regardless, the season was uneventful in that they survived unscathed and steadily improved to a decent record. I was correct in their roster continuity advantage because they came out of the gates very stronger relative to the competition, but by the time other teams adjusted they fell back.

Toronto Raptors

Key sentences:
Their young players still have a tenuous grasp on NBA-level defense, and as a result they’ll be contending for the worst record in the league for the strong upcoming draft. ... They are another team who’s playing for future seasons, and will provide fodder for the rest of the league, but with some young talent, an upcoming likely high pick in the draft, and a good international player, Jonas Valanciunas, overseas for the season they are building toward a brighter tomorrow.

Prediction: 18-48
Random prediction: Recovered from his hamstring injury a couple years ago, Jose Calderon posts a 50-40-90 season with 9 assists a game.

Actual results: 23-43

They were better than I'd thought they'd be, which speaks volumes to their new coach, but it wasn't good enough that it really meant anything. Bargnani appeared due for a breakout year and started playing well but got injured, killing any deluded hope they'd make the playoffs. Otherwise it was a forgetful year for a franchise whose best player in history was the third wheel for a champion, unless you count Carter as their best, which only further depresses the fans. At the start of the season I mentioned Jonas, and it appears he will be coming over; he is the only hope they have at this point. Their number one overall pick has quietly become one of the worst ever, and they couldn't even convince Steve Nash to play for his home country. But, hey, they won five more games than I thought, so there's that.


Chicago Bulls

Key sentences:
Chicago broke through last season on one of the best defenses in the league, where Rose carried their mediocre offense and won an MVP for doing so. ... This year will be one of the best chances to win a title, as their best players are either entering their prime or just leaving it.

Prediction: 49-17
Random prediction: With Lebron and Wade on the same team, Howard stuck in purgatory wondering where he’ll go, and Durant one of the few competitors, Rose nearly wins the MVP again after he improves his outside shooting, but before mirroring Nash’s back-to-back awards he loses in a close vote as the NBA sabermetric community finally has enough sway.

Actual record: 50-16

It was a weird season for the Bulls because even with 50 wins in a shortened season and the top seed their star Rose suffered an injury-addled season culminating in the devastating ACL-trauma. In a way, they proved my hypothesis that Rose wasn't a true MVP because they were winning with their defense: when he missed games during the regular season they kept on truckin', though he was still an important enough piece they couldn't go far in the playoffs without him. Rose, of course, didn't "nearly" win the MVP again, and with his clean injury history before last season I can't be at fault. Suddenly one of the most promising teams is scrambling to keep the ship from going off course, reminiscent of the Blazers when Roy's knee problems started to materialize. Rose's problems actually mirrored what happened in his MVP year: Noah and Boozer, among others, were missing games but the Bulls kept winning, so people naturally figured it was the high-scoring game. In actuality it's their defensive system and arguably the best coach in the league, Thibodeau, that deserve the credit. The team is almost like a monster whose head you cut off and another immediately pops up replacing it. At this point, however, all they care about is reaching the finals, and however impressive it was to win 50 games with injuries to Rose it was still a disappointing season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Key sentences:
Rebuilding teams have to understand that not only do they have to redo the roster when they run into trouble; they need to remake the entire organization. ... They’ll race to the bottom against Toronto and other terrible teams in full knowledge that they squandered one of the best number one picks in league history and that there’s little chance they’ll acquire another player of equal talent.

Prediction: Eyenga jumps over a small point guard for a dunk and earns a trip to the dunk contest, where he has one amazing dunk and another that kicks him out of contention.
Random prediction: 18-48

Actual record: 21-45

I think the difference in my predicted record and the actual is entirely Kyrie Irving, who everyone thought would be good but, you know, not this good so soon. He's a 19 year-old point guard whose rookie year arguably should have placed him on the all-star team for his production. Cleveland went from doomsday scenario of losing LeBron to what looks like the next great point guard. The season may have featured way too many losses, but hope and the future propel the Cavs and other teams in their situation. I was wrong about Eyenga, but was strangely prescient about someone jumping over a small guard because LeBron did that very feat in a real game. They kept Varejao, which is odd considering his age and their rebuildling, but they did get the 4th draft pick. Meanwhile Irving is doing things like destroying Team USA in the open court and making Cleveland forget their record.

Detroit Pistons

Key sentences:
Decent enough to beat cellar-dwellers but nowhere near a playoff seed, Detroit is neither truly rebuilding nor playing for the present. ... The Pistons’ most important player, however, is Greg Monroe, a sweet passing big man with enough size for the center position who even as a young rookie scored at a high percentage and frequency. ... Now they’re a shell of their former selves, mirroring the desolation in the economic ruin of modern day Detroit.

Prediction: 26-40
Random prediction: Unable to run an offense effectively through their guards, the Pistons often play through Greg Monroe, who nearly posts an impressive 3 assists a game for most of the season and conjures comparisons to Brad Miller.

Actual record: 25-41

Detroit's season went exactly as I thought it would: they weren't terrible enough to compete for the Anthony Davis lottery, but they weren't good enough to compete for the playoffs. Their team was basically a mess, and aside from one player no one was noteworthy. Greg Monroe, however, improved on his intriguing rookie year becoming a larger part of the offense while maintaining healthy efficiency along with his periphery stats like his his rebounding, which actually improved, and the Brad Miller comparisons continued as they had since he was a draft prospect. He did not average close to 3 assists -- though 2.3 per game is good for a frontcourt player -- but that was partly because of his fairly low playing time. He actually wasn't unfathomably far from leading the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game. He led the team in points, rebounds, and steals while his blocks were only 5 from Ben Wallace's total; the assist category is the hardest because Stuckey led with 251 to Greg's 152. Only Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James have led their teams in those statistics ('78, '95, '03, and '09, respectively.) I think the most impressive feat was that Monroe as a center totaled 83 steals while the closest was Brandon Knight at 49. He's an offensively-inclined center with a load of talent in an era where that is rare, but it actually leads to a dour note: the reason there are so few is that they aren't as effective as they once were. With the expanded use of the three-point line and hand-checking rules enforced on the perimeter, guards and now forwards are scoring more effectively while quick, collapsing defenses make it harder to even throw an entry pass into a post player. Now defense is more important for big men, and that's unfortunately Monroe's weakness as he's not huge for a center, can't jump, and doesn't move well laterally. I'm worried he's the next Al Jefferson, Zach Randolph, et al, but at least he can pass.

Indiana Pacers

Key sentences:
Most teams would claim a densely packed schedule work hurt them, but Indiana is one of a very few that definitely benefit. ... Orlando is receding, Boston is aging, and Atlanta is stalled. ... Indiana can capitalize on their descents and move up in the east either this year or the next.

Prediction: 36-30
Random prediction: With a good crop of forwards in the east, some of the media throw a fit when no Pacer is selected to the all-star game, as David West and Granger are edged by guys like Bosh and Stoudemire.

Actual record: 42-24

I underestimated Indiana, and I know I wasn't the only one. Hibbert improved, as well as youngsters like George, but perhaps I didn't give them enough of an advantage for a deep team (though they're really not that deep; just exchangeable) with an intact core through a weird lockout season. They were also lucky in that they traversed the year with few injuries where most of their rotation players were available in at least 60 games with the only exception being George Hill, who nonetheless showed up for 50; and that's with defining rotation player as only 15 minutes a game with 9 eligible players and 5 of those missed one game or less. Going forward into next season, it would be wise to keep their remarkably lucky clean bill of health to dampen expectations. It was a fun year because it was a team rather than a patchwork collection of big names (New York Knicks finished with a worse record despite the media attention.) The media indeed threw a fit for the selection of a Pacer because as ESPN writer John Hollinger says they pretend the game is a representational democracy and every good team needs a representative even if no one's deserving -- hence, Roy Hibbert and his sub-30 minutes per game. I thought it would be someone like Granger, but it's been easy to make it as a center on the team, especially with Horford out with an injury.

Milwaukee Bucks

Key sentences:
Nothing has changed last season, trading out Dunleavy from Maggette, but a full season with a healthy Bogut could prove the difference between a playoff berth and the lottery. ... Alas, they’re doomed to repeat 0.500 basketball with one of the best defenses in the league while being led offensively by Brandon Jennings. 

Prediction: 34-32
Random prediction: With the theatrics in Orlando and voter fatigue in awarding Dwight Howard, Andrew Bogut wins the defensive player of the year after his healthiest season yet nearly leading the league in both charges and blocks per game with 11 rebounds.

Actual record: 31-35

The theatrics in Orlando actually presented a chance for a New York Knick to win defensive player of the year. Who could have guessed that? But my greatest mistaken was expecting Bogut to be healthy. It was actually more of hope than a prediction, which is why I only pegged them for 34 wins. They hilariously traded for Ellis, the archetypal example of why points per game shouldn't be used without extensive context to rate a player, and they started losing defensive acumen when the pieces started leaving. Ellis and Brandon Jennings combined to form a backcourt whose efficiency hearkened back to the game in the 60's when guards were lucky to eclipse 40% from the field. They were a little worse than I expected, and I think that's mainly because of Bogut. They weren't have to worry about his injuries anymore, but now they don't have to worry about how they'll do in the playoffs because they reduced their chances of making them.


Atlanta Hawks

Key sentences:
Once an up and coming team, the Hawks may have reached their ceiling, cap space absorbed by their trio of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford while the rest of the team declines. ... I wouldn’t be surprised if Atlanta made the playoffs, but the middle class of the east with Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, and Indiana is playing musical chairs and one team has to sit out the playoffs. They don’t have any room next year to sign Deron Williams or someone of his caliber, and the Johnson contract will be eating up nearly a third of their salary space for five years.

Prediction: 33-33
Random prediction: Despite a career year, Smith once again misses a trip to the all-star game and watches Horford return again because of the lack of centers and Joe Johnson just missing out because the back-up guard slots go to point guards and their disappointing record precludes anyone from taking two Hawks.

Actual record: 40-26

The funniest thing happened -- they lost their starting center for most of the year, and they still finished with 40 wins and a trip to the postseason while I said they'd miss it. Part of this is because Teague came out of nowhere to have a good season from a point guard slot that was starting to become the Spinal Tap drummer of NBA positions. But, hey, I said I wouldn't be surprised if they made it either. Horford is also not the kind of star that anchors an entire team. I was right on Josh Smith inexplicably missing the all-star game again, but with Horford gone Joe Johnson got the nod, which makes it even worse. And, boy, was I wrong about Joe Johnson's contract because, and this is comedy that can hardly be believed, the former Hawks GM who did a terrible job traded for the contract. Danny Ferry is getting high praise for redoing their roster, but people have to remember he did the same thing in Cleveland to a lesser extent but failed to use that cap space once he opened it up wisely.

Charlotte Bobcats

Key sentences:
It’s the awkward stage in an NBA franchise where people have waited patiently for the expansion team to develop, and instead the highlight of seven years is 2010 where they went to the first round of the playoffs and had Gerald Wallace represent them in an all-star team. ... Causal fans still know little about the team, and most are faintly aware of even their existence. They’ve wasted years in the league to build to very little, and it’s disappointing Charlotte will have to suffer through at least two more years of major rebuilding.

Prediction: 20-46
Random prediction: Diaw ties Lebron for the lead in triple doubles with four on the season largely because the Bobcats have no choice but to run a good portion of the offense through him with major minutes.

Actual record: 7-59

Ouch. Well, Diaw was a huge disappointment, but he helped trigger one of the most impressive half-season runs by a team when he was traded to the Spurs. It makes sense, because who was he going to pass to on the Bobcats anyway? Gerald Wallace is an underrated player, and the sole piece of evidence you really need is that the Bobcats completely fell apart when he left. At the time, I thought 20 wins was too high, but the east was so weak someone had to win. They were arguably the worst team in modern history, and their offense in particular was absolutely dreadful; they nearly outranked New Jersey in defense (points allowed per possession). The combined point differential of Washington and Cleveland, the closest teams in wins in the east, didn't even equal Charlotte: -13.9. They were outscored by an average of nearly 14 points per game. But, hey, at least fans are aware of their existence now.

Orlando Magic

Key sentences:
The Magic are the latest team to be overshadowed by the potential move of a star player. ... If he stays they’ll be good again this season because Howard single-handedly makes them a great defensive team and distorts defensive attention like a black hole to a gravitation field. ... Even though talks have stalled, I expect Howard to leave Orlando, where the legacy of the organization is to squander the talent of the big center of his respective generation.

Prediction: 37-29
Random prediction: Ryan Anderson has a breakout season with over 200 three pointers made, contending for the league lead. 

Actual record: 37-39

I'm really tired of hearing about Howard and where he'll go, so I'll just leave it with just this sentence: he should have left already and please don't talk about it again until something actually happens. I split the difference between Howard staying and everyone engaged in the team and him leaving a mess of a roster in Orlando. Consequently, since he wasn't entirely himself and I wouldn't doubt if some players gave up hope, I was right on the money with their record. He was still one of the best players in the league and anyone leaving him off a top five list isn't doing so for purely basketball reasons. Ryan Anderson, however, had a break out year, mostly because he got more playing time and he's a young player; you can't be surprised when young players improve. He did lead the league in three pointers, but given that he only played 32 minutes he honestly wasn't that far off, and yes I was aware at the time I was predicting a historical season in hitting three's.

Washington Wizards

Key sentences:
The Wizards will be content to watch their young talent grow and a win a few games to ride into the lottery. ... Quietly building a nice roster, Washington will use this season as practice and eye the next one for the major improvements.

Prediction: 24-42
Random prediction: McGee will attempt to dunk from the three-point line. Or he may try to dunk from the foul line again in a game and make it this time.

Actual record: 20-46

The Wizards were a bit worse than I had anticipated, but Wall did not improve in his sophomore year and it was generally true for a lot of their young players, including McGee who became a laughingstock among the fans and media. No, he didn't try to dunk from the three-point line in a game, but he did several equally stupid things like throwing up a ridiculous running hook and ran back thinking he made the shot while everyone else watched and wondered if his identical twin who had never played basketball before switched into the game. Honestly, no one understands him, and he's a weird guy. He did give sports writers a lot to write about though and some laughs. The team, however, was still a young mess of players who didn't exactly know how to play, and by the end of the season JaVale the wonder was gone and replaced with the scoring talents of Nene. It's the end of an era in a way as they just used the amnesty option on the 25 year-old Blatche, and they followed it up with Okafor, a veteran center who graduated college in three years. We'll see if they blew up the team too soon, but I can't blame them for growing tired of McGee and friends.

Miami Heat

Key sentences:
The most important fact about this year’s incarnation of the Miami Heat isn’t the addition of aging perimeter stopper Shane Battier or even a healthy year from Haslem; it’s that they’re going for a full force transition led offense fed by an energetic defense.... Even with a weak bench, the Miami Heat are the favorites to win the title, and short of anything out of left field like Dwight Howard going to Chicago they should be able to claim the championship. ... With Bosh adding a three point shot and vowing to rebound more after his worst season in seven years, and James finally adding a post-game, the Heat are set to bring the championship back to the south beach in Florida.

Prediction: 50-16
Random prediction: James will post a field-goal percentage of 53 and one of his best years while Wade loses a few games due to injury; Lebron uses the NBA’s best record to claim another MVP.

Actual record: 46-17

Miami was slightly worse in the regular season than I thought, partly because Bosh didn't bounce back and Wade was often injured, but I'm satisfied that I correctly picked the NBA championship at the beginning of the season, as well as the MVP. Here was my best feat: I said he'd average a field-goal percentage of 53, and he finished this season at 53.1%. That's downright prescient. The rumors about the post game were true after years of armchair basketball players saying he needed to deploy one, and the league was trampled by his force. Another preseason rumor was the Heat's transition game and exploiting their athletic due offensively; they followed through on that and it paid off. I also said the Thunder would make the finals, and although my random predictions were usually hilariously bad I got the important ones correct.

The 2012 season was an odd one with a few unexpected storylines and too much ugly basketball, but it was better than I thought it would be for a lockout year. No accomplishment achieved should be downwritten or denigrated either, because in a way excelling in a compressed scheduled is even more of an accomplishment.

To next year: to hope, to renewal, to triumph, to redemption, to new stars, and the NBA.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stay Humble, Stay Hungry: 2012 Olympics

There is a lot of enthusiasm for this year's Olympic squad and even though Dwight Howard and others are injured they are highly favored. Check out some quotes about the team:

-"Our speed," the reigning NBA MVP said Saturday night after the final roster was announced. "Our speed is one of the best, and also how dynamic some of the lineups can be, [guys] being able to play a lot of positions."

-With the group of core players announced today, we have a strong foundation to the team as the roster contains a great blend of veterans and youth along with athleticism, talent and the all-important factor of international basketball experience."

-"We can play fast; we can play big. We can put a team of shooters on the floor, or go with a slash-and-penetrate lineup. I think defensively, we'll be able to throw different looks out there as well. From my standpoint, it will be fun having so many different ways to play the game of basketball. 

-Therein lies Team USA's biggest strength as it gears up for London. The speed and athleticism that Krzyzewski has to choose from is ridiculous.

-"We've added athleticism, defense, three-point shooting, ball-handling. I love the versatility of our lineup, and I think this summer is going to be a lot of fun."

-The Americans will look to run whenever they can and they know that if they can come together as a group and play solid defense throughout they should be walking away with yet another gold medal in London.

-"These players represent some of the top talent in the NBA and the team possesses tremendous versatility and athleticism. I'm certain that these players will represent the United States in a manner that will make all Americans proud." 

What's the problem then? Well, those quotes are mixed with ones from the 2002 debacle in Indianapolis where the Americans left with the same record as Puerto Rico and a seventh place finish on their home soil. Only the first, fourth, and sixth quotes refer to the London Games, while the others can be found here and here.When the rest of the world was catching up to the Americans in basketball in the early part of the 00's decade, the US was assuming its talent and athleticism would trump anything another country could produce, even if they had superior chemistry from playing together and being constructed as an actual team. They got through the first preliminary round loss-free, but fell to a superbly talented Argentina team and stained their legacy in the second preliminary round. Sure, they didn't win the world championship in '98, but it was a lockout and college players were used. During the first knock-out stage, however, they lost to Yugoslavia by three points, and subsequently wound up in sixth place overall after losing to Spain.

Very few people were paying attention to the FIBA world championship, so the disgrace of the team spread through the news cycle like an oil spill in a foreign land. People retroactively explained that the team was poorly constructed and stood little chance against teams that often employed NBA-caliber talent in cohesive units who had been playing for years. Like so many things, it took a catastrophe for people to notice, and swift changes were made ... well, they didn't win again until 2008 with the Redeem Team, but the mid 00's regularly featured lots of talk about how the mighty US had fallen in basketball and how to fix it.

What people finally realized is that you can't throw a bunch of big names on a team and expect domination. You need to field a real team without holes and allow them enough time to gel. For instance, here's a list of needs to fulfill while you field a roster (and obviously one guy can take up more than one category):
-True point guards who can pass with at least one back-up in case there are injuries or issues with the starting one.
-A tough, versatile perimeter stopper with a back-up to shut down the other team's star as international teams usually have one very good player.
-Outside shooters to bust zones and take advantage of the shorter line. Need at least three very good outside shooters in case one is cold from the field, and at least one needs to be one of the best outside shooters in the world.
-Shot creators who can carry the offense (we'll never be low on that.)
-Strong low-post defenders and preferably two. USA has been carved up by post players in the past, like with Baby Shaq on Greece
-Two true centers to protect the rim (separate category because they're different skills)
-Rebounders to control the boards including two elite guys with surrounding help.

The problem last decade was the drought of good, "true" point guards. Kidd was slated to be on the 2002 team but was forced out by an injury and the next best guy was Andre Miller, whose lack of a jump shot made him a liability in the international game. Kidd couldn't shoot either, but his passing and defensive skills were great enough to overcome that while Miller has yet to visit an all-star game. Looking at this year's roster we're doing pretty good with a notable exception in the frontcount.

Chris Paul
Deron Williams
Russell Westbrook
Kobe Bryant
James Harden
Andre Iguodala
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Carmelo Anthony
Kevin Love
Blake Griffin
Tyson Chandler

True points guards: Chris Paul and Deron Williams
Perimeter stopper: Iguodala and James (and Bryant since he's had that role before)
Zone busters: Durant and Harden ... and Paul and Williams and Love and Bryant (though he hasn't been shooting well from the NBA three last few years)
Shot creators: every perimeter player except Iguodala
Low-post defenders: Tyson Chandler
Rim protector: Tyson Chandler
Rebounders: Tyson Chandler, Love and Griffin (though you'd also have to mention guys like James too)

Obviously, Howard's injury completely changed the team, but Team USA should have had a better back-up plan than Tyson Chandler and Griffin or Love at center. There were options, and even though Anthony Davis sprained his ankle so they couldn't see him in person you have to be pretty sure he's a better rim protector than Griffin. There was also Cousins who could have provided a big body if need be; coach K commented on his maturity but this is the experience he needs to mature as a person and the coach should be used to guys like that seeing as how he coaches college players (well, it's Duke, but Austin Rivers shows you can be rich and still a pain.) He could have been mentored by Tyson Chandler and other vets on how to be professional. It's too bad Hibbert played for Jamaica because they could have used him as a back-up true center, but he did ask for a release.

Bynum is the only other American center besides Howard and faintly Hibbert with the star label, but with his injury history people keep him far away from the game. There are also a few veterans who could help but are far too old to convince like Garnett or Duncan. It's better to just target guys with a mix of talent who can help you cover all the defensive aspects you need while half will ideally space the floor like Love or Aldridge. Taj Gibson, for example, is a member on the select team and would be a fine addition as a 12th man for his defense.

There are a few players who USA doesn't really need. Kobe Bryant isn't what he once was and not even that great of an outside shooter. He's basically there as the wise old vet like Kidd was, and that's not really the worst pick. Carmelo Anthony duplicates a lot of what they already have, but he usually plays very well in the international games and he wants to be there so it's hard to keep him off. Blake Griffin is probably the easiest to let go because he doesn't have an outside shot and can't defend. Then again, he exists solely to throw down an all-time dunk against a player who has no hope of defending him like Carter over Weis in 2000. However, picking a player just because he's an exciting dunker is precisely the strategy that led to the US's downfall, and in fact in 2000 the team was one shot away from losing. Harden is another favorite to jettison, but his outside shooting is valuable and his beard can merge nations. Actually, I think the easiest guy to let go is Westbrook. They already have two great point guards, and if they're really so upset about losing a third then why don't they care they only have one center who has a history of injuries? With James and Iguodala and others someone else can also steer the ship on offense.

While the US has won the past two world championships from the 2008 Olympics and the 2010 world championships, it is best to remain cautious and not lose sight of how easy it is to lose in a single game elimination tournament. One bad mismatch and a player no American has heard of will play incredibly and Team USA could lose. To avoid that the team needs to be constructed with few holes and utilize the characteristics of the international game. There is a lot of outside shooting because of the shorter line, but an inside player can still wreck havoc like Sofoklis Schortsanitis in 2004. I think this is a good team but there's an obvious hole in the middle and anyone saying it doesn't matter because of the team's athleticism should check history first. With that said, here's my ideal team with no injuries:

Chris Paul
Deron Williams
Kyle Lowry
Stephen Curry
Andre Iguodala
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Kevin Love
Chris Bosh
Kevin Garnett
Dwight Howard
Tyson Chandler

(My favorite part is the number of amazing line-ups possible like the defensive juggernaut of Kyle Lowry-Iguodala-James-Garnett-Howard.)

And here's the team constructed in reality:

Chris Paul
Deron Williams
Kyle Lowry
Tony Allen
Andre Iguodala
James Harden
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Kevin Love
Taj Gibson
Tyson Chandler
DeMarcus Cousins

I'd save Paul for crucial minutes and give more to Williams and Lowry. Allen wouldn't be used all too often and more like a break-in-case-of-fire type of guy. Iggy and Harden would log pretty big minutes because Iggy is a fantastic big defender who pretty's good on offense and Harden is amazingly efficient. With Allen and Iguodala along with the high scorers on the team James wouldn't carry a big load until Spain or another big thread. Durant would likely be the top scorer, and Love would rack up a lot of time unless there was a bad defensive match-up. Gibson would appear mostly in blowout games and when he's needed for his defense. Same is true for Cousins except only when his big body is needed against the largest opponents. Chandler would be rested as much as possible with the US playing small a lot. He would play brief minutes against a team like Angola, for example.

Offensive lineup:
Chris Paul-Harden-Durant-James-Love

Defensive lineup:
Lowry-Tony Allen-James-Gibson-Chandler

Starting lineup:
Chris Paul-Iguodala-James-Love-Chandler

Monday, July 2, 2012

Asik: A Good Contract?

Houston, after failing to sway Dwight Howard's mind about coming to an organization that functions well instead of the Billy King led Nets and dealing Dalembert for draft picks, has attempted to fill out the center position with Chicago's back-up, Omer Asik. Based on the Gilbert Arenas provision, Houston is offering him $5 million for each of the first two years and then $15.1 million the third and final year, but it only counts for about $8 million each year against their cap. Chicago, however, if they were to match wouldn't get to use the $8 million number, but instead would have the $15 million count against their cap in the third year. Houston structured the deal precisely so the Bulls wouldn't match because of the problems that would occur trying to fit that enormous third year with their other salaries.

The question remains, however, isn't $25 million too much for a back-up center who averaged 3.1 points per game and 5.3 rebounds. The Rockets are one of the most stat-inclined teams in the league, and the story behind Asik is his monstrous impact defensively. Consider that the Bulls are already one of the best defensive teams and he's backing up one of the better centers with respect to that end of the court. Regardless, the Bulls play even better defense when he's on the court, and although this is due to their defensive second unit that also consists of uber-defensive player Taj Gibson when you adjust for who's on the court he still has a large impact. Regularized +/- stats, for instance, give him one of the best defensive scores.

Notice that offensive hasn't been mentioned yet, and that's because he's almost as bad there as he is on defense. His fingers apparently melted together and as such he's unable to handle the ball without turning it over to the other team, and he rarely shoots from even three feet away from the basket and during the course of his two years in the league he's only taken eight shots from 10 feet or further. Despite his offensive limitations as a center most of his value is on the defensive end where he's guarding the basket, and as a 25 year-old it's a better investment than, say, Kenyon Martin, who will keep getting worse as he gets older.

There's also a precedent here. A back-up international center in his second year and his mid 20's in the east was offered a huge contract as a restricted free agent from a western conference team. That player was Marcic Gortat, and in 2009 the Dallas Mavericks offered him a 5 year, $34 million dollar contract, which the Magic promptly matched. At the time the Polish center was buried behind Dwight Howard and during the 2008-09 season averaged 3.8 points and 4.6 rebounds. The Magic were able to match the contract, but a year later they traded him to Phoenix for Turkoglu and Jason Richardson (possibly on a dare.) Gortat has quickly become one of the better centers in the league and averaged 15-10.

The situation is similar to Asik's in a few different ways. Not only was he a back-up center, but it was common to hear people say Gortat had a lot of talent but needed an opportunity to play. The same is true for Asik, but not to the same extent because he's more defensively inclined and that inherently gets more press. The general reaction even among people familiar with his advanced defensive stats was surprise at the size of the contract, but upon looking at the situation more closely and what other centers make it's more logical. Remember this when JaVale McGee is given a huge amount of money even though on a terrible team like the Wizards the team played better with him off the court.

One legitimate issue, however, is how he can adjust from a limited bench role to what will likely be a starting one. He doesn't even play more than 15 minutes on Chicago, and back when he was in the Euroleague it didn't eclipse 23 a game. He also fouls nearly twice a game in limited minutes, and using some basic math it would be hard for him to play heavy minutes. Obviously, he'll learn to cut down on his fouls as he gains experience and is pressed into a starting role, but there's still a question of basic conditioning. He would have to play at least 30 minutes with few missed games to justify the contract, and there's no guarantee how well he'll play.

But that's the problem with evaluating basketball moves. There are no perfect solutions; instead it's a set of unsolvable problems and calculated risks, betting that your guess at what the future holds is better than the other team.