NBA Offseason Grades: Pacific Division

gs warriors champs

Welcome to the final part of my 6 part series of NBA Offseason Grades! If you’ve been keeping up with series, I thank you for lending me your time and patience. If you’re just joining us now, well, better late than never!

For the newbies:

I’ve taken it upon myself to evaluate each team’s offseason transactions. I’ve given each team a letter grade based on whether or not I thought they made good moves considering their respective situations. This includes the draft, resigning period, free agency, trades, firings/hirings, and anything else I deem important. Most importantly, I answer the one pivotal question: Are they better?

I’ve unintentionally saved the most entertaining division for last, as today we discuss the Pacific Division. This division has given us so much in regards to entertainment value since June. We’ve seen a team make NBA history, free agency masquerading as a romantic comedy, the fall of an empire, and Vivek Ranadivé doing Vivek Ranadivé things!

This was awesome!

If you missed it:

Atlantic Division Grades

Southeast Division Grades

Central Division Grades

Northwest Division Grades

Southwest Division Grades

Key: 

  • (R): Rookie
  • (DnS): Draft-n-Stash – players drafted, but playing overseas next year
  • (D): Draft-n-Stash player joining the team
  • Bolded Names: Particularly notable players

And we start with our reigning Pacific Division/NBA Champions:

Golden State Warriors: A+

Re-signed: Leondro Barbosa, Draymond Green

Lost: Justin Holiday, Ognjen Kuzmic, David Lee

Acquired: Chris Babb, Jason Thompson, Gerald Wallace

Drafted: Kevon Looney

Other notable moves: N/A

What did they even do?

Exactly.

The disease of more* runs rampant through championship teams across all sports; and the presence of a salary cap keeps this concept a reality. Winning a championship was great, but the iron is hot. And once the team actually climbs the mountain, self goals often take over for team goals. Players want more money, more playing time, more recognition, a bigger role, etc. And so we see key cogs end up taking huge contracts from other teams and then they disappear, with their new money, into irrelevance; all while their former team struggles to defend their title.

*NOTE: “The disease of more” was coined by Don Pat Riley in his book “Showtime.”

Golden State’s team management were able to avoid the disease of more; at least during this offseason.

Of the 5 team free agents that Golden State needed to make a decision on, only 2 were regular rotation guys. Draymond Green may have gotten a huge raise (5-years/$82 million), but his value to the Warriors is actually fairly represented by his max contract; therefore, is exempt from this rule. And Leandro Barbosa (1-year/$2.5 million) is coming back on a very team-friendly deal.

The David Lee salary dump was a way for Golden State management to save money on the luxury tax. Lee is a solid player, but he really didn’t fit in Steve Kerr’s system anyway. He only played 904 minutes in 49 regular season games in 2014-15 (both career lows), and really only had a cup of coffee in the NBA Finals. Lee may be a good guy to have in your foxhole, but the Warriors certainly don’t need him to defend their title.

(Image from USA Today) Yup, the Warriors are bringing back everyone [who matters].

The drafting of Kevon Looney with the 30th pick sparked a little debate due to the prospect’s health issues (he had offseason hip surgery). This doesn’t worry the Warriors, though. They’re super deep and Looney is likely to ride the pine his rookie season anyway. However, he was expected to be a lottery pick before the report of his surgery surfaced the day of the draft. This makes Looney one of those low-risk/high-reward draft picks. And considering the personnel that the Warriors are boasting next season, they’ll have time to wait on Looney.

So management did their part in avoiding the disease of more. The Warriors will be bringing back just about everyone who mattered on an NBA championship team that boasted one of the 4 best regular seasons of all time. Golden State was right not to tinker with the roster. In this case, less is more. And now we’ll wait and see if Steve Kerr can keep the disease of more at bay during the regular season.

The Warriors may not have gotten better from a personnel standpoint; but they’re still a super deep team with championship experience and arguably the hardest home court for opponents to play on. The Spurs may have won the offseason, but the Warriors are still the champions. And like the Nature Boy Ric Flair once said, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”

Are they better?: No (But dammit they’re still good).

Los Angeles Clippers:  F-   A

Re-signed: DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers

Lost: Matt Barnes, Glenn Davis, Jordan Hamilton, Spencer Hawes, Lester Hudson, Dahntay Jones, Hedo Turkoglu, Ekpe Udoh

Acquired: Cole Aldrich, Branden Dawson (R), Chuck Hayes, Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, Pablo Prigioni, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson

Drafted: N/A

Other notable moves: N/A

DeAndre Jordan was rumored to want a larger role than one he was receiving with the Clippers. Perhaps to finally have an offense built around him. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reported that DJ also grew tiresome of his relationship with Chris Paul , saying:

He [DJ] was tired of Paul’s constant barking and petty gestures, like distributing high-fives to the three other guys on the floor following a timeout but somehow freezing out Jordan.

And so on July 3rd, DJ agreed (in principle) to sign a 4-year/$80 million deal with the Dallas Mavericks.

A few days later in an interview with Bleacher Report Radio , JJ Redick gave the Los Angeles Clippers his own grade on how they handled their offseason to that point. Keep in mind JJ Redick is still under contract with the Clippers for 2 more years…

Is there an F-minus?

Listen, we had one priority this summer and that was to re-sign DJ and we missed out on that, so barring some miracle, [the] makeup of our team is completely different now. He’s such an integral part of what we did, not just defensively but offensively with his screening, his rolling, his offensive rebounds. His presence down low essentially made teams either commit to the three-point line when Blake [Griffin] or Chris [Paul] penetrated or commit to him, and that either opened up lobs for him or threes for guys like me and Jamal [Crawford] and Matt [Barnes].

So he was a huge part of what we did and missing out and having him leave for Dallas gives us a failing grade.

Yes JJ, I make up the rules for this article, so there is such thing as an ‘F-.’

But on the last day of the free agent moratorium, team owner Steve Balmer, Head Coach Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, JJ Redick, and Paul Pierce organized a special ops mission to bring DJ back to the Clippers on a long-term deal. They literally infiltrated his house in Houston, Texas, with the intent of locking DJ inside his house until he agreed to sign a contract. They hashed out their differences, and then they played cards until midnight when DJ was able to officially sign a 4-year/$87 million deal to stay in Los Angeles.

It was an emojional day…

with a few laughs…

and some hurt feelings.

It was the most entertaining offseason day in NBA history.

Getting DJ back puts the Clips in good standing grade-wise. I roasted the Mavericks for even trying to sign DJ; so why would I applaud the Clips for going to such lengths to woo their center back?

It’s simple, the Clippers needed DJ to stay.

DJ is actually a perfect fit with the Clippers, his overpaid price tag be damned. He’s the third best player on a contender (ideal role), CP3 and Blake Griffin are running the offense and are very good passers, DJ is the best pick-and-roll finisher in the NBA, and he anchors the defense.

Obviously I was alluding to the fact that I don’t think he’s worth the $21 million+ per year, but it’s not like the Clippers could parlay that money into other players. The Clippers were already over the salary cap before the DJ contract, and the only reason they could pay him big money in the first place was because they owned his Bird Rights. If they lost DJ, they’re not getting anyone else who can replicate what he does for this team; at least not in free agency.

Last post-season the Clippers beat the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs in a 7-game first round series, and were 1 win away from making it to the WCF. Their starting point guard/league’s best point guard turned 30 in May and is entering year 11 of his career (history suggests he will begin to drop off this year or next), and Blake Griffin is just entering his prime. It’s simple, the Clippers are in win-now mode, and the way they went after DJ during the moratorium confirms that notion. DJ walks, and the Clippers are wasting next season.

The Clippers’ Achilles heal in the playoffs last year was their lack of depth. As I mentioned earlier they didn’t have much in the way of cap room, either. General Manager Doc Rivers turned chicken crap into a half-way decent chicken salad by acquiring depth through means of trades, trade exceptions, and minimum contracts.

They traded Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes to the Charlotte Hornets for the notorious headache that is Lance Stephenson. Stephenson was a triple-double machine 2 years ago in Indiana, but played his way out of the starting line-up in Charlotte via his 38-17-63 shooting splits and just all around bad attitude. I don’t love the risk of bringing in Lance just because of his tendency to rub people the wrong way; but he’s coming into a situation where there’s strong leadership in both the locker room and organization, and he stands a better chance of being kept in check. I can justify the risk given these circumstances. Good move.

The Clippers will miss Matt Barnes’ toughness, his ability to defend multiple positions, and his ability to hit the 3; but the Clips were able to replace Barnes when they signed Paul Pierce to a 3-year/$10 million deal via the tax-payer’s mid-level exception. Pierce brings the same package to the table as Barnes did, plus a proven leadership presence. Pierce is also a native of Los Angeles and won a championship with Coach Rivers in Boston in 2008, so there’s also a little bit of a full circle narrative in relation to this signing. But hey, Pierce is a guy you want in your foxhole.

Doc also managed to pry Josh Smith away from a Western Conference rival despite only being able to offer a minimum contract. Smith is an 11 year veteran who showed a lot of value coming off the bench for the Rockets in the second half of last season; which instantly makes him an upgrade over the 87 year old Hedo Turkoglu. And I imagine the 14 4th quarter points that Smith threw down against the Clips in game 6 to save the Rockets’ season had a little something to do with this signing, as well. But that’s none of my business.

And the Clips also managed to bring in Cole Aldrich, Chuck Hayes, Wesley Johnson, and Pablo Prigioni to beef up the end of their bench. Solid role players at good prices.

Seems like Doc is getting better at this Coach/GM thing.

Are they better?: Yes.

Phoenix Suns: C-

Re-signed: Brandon Knight 

Lost: Earl Barron, Reggie Bullock, Gerald Green, Andrew Harrison (R), Jerel McNeal, Marcus Morris, Marcus Thornton, Brandan Wright

Acquired: Tyson Chandler, Jon Leuer, Ronnie Price, Mirza Teletovic, Sonny Weems

Drafted: Devin Booker

Other notable moves: N/A

I haven’t had a good grip on the Phoenix Suns’ game plan ever since they traded for Isaiah Thomas in 2014 when they already boasted a Goran Dragic/Eric Bledsoe back court; then essentially traded Dragic, Thomas, the Lakers’ top-5 (now top-3) protected first round pick + spare parts for Brandon Knight.

I can’t base this summer’s Suns grade on what happened in past years, but its worth noting I have no idea what’s going on in Phoenix.

Anyway…

The Suns kicked off free agency by signing Brandon Knight to a 5-year/$70 million deal. I personally like Brandon Knight as an all around player, and I think he gets unfairly lambasted based solely on the amount of times he’s landed on the wrong side of a YouTube clip . But he’s a versatile combo guard who does a lot of things well. For some reason his stats dropped after the trade to Phoenix. Granted the sample size was small (11 games in Phoenix compared to 52 in Milwaukee), so it is possible he may have struggled adjusting to a new system on the fly.

(Image from USA Today) With Phoenix committing to Brandon Knight long-term, could Eric Bledsoe be the next Sun to go?

That being said, the Suns went about this all wrong.

Knight was a restricted free agent and the Suns came in with a massive deal in hand without letting the market decide his value. That’s a big no-no when it comes to restricted free agency, unless the player’s name is Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis of course.

They would have been better off letting him find a deal in free agency and just matching it. Sure, they may have ended up overpaying him to stick around anyway, but it beats overpaying the guy when the only team you’re competing against is yourself.

The Suns also brought in Tyson Chandler on a 4-year/$52 million contract. He’s obviously being brought in to anchor the defense and serve as a positive veteran leader with championship pedigree; which is good. I imagine Dallas would bring him back if they had a mulligan on free agency. The drawback is that Chandler turns 33 in October, has 14 seasons under his belt, and has had trouble staying healthy his whole career. It’s an alright pick-up at a fairly steep price. I can’t imagine that contract ages well, either.

The Suns also traded Marcus Morris (the lesser twin), and let Brandan Wright and Gerald Green walk in free agency. Mirza Teletovic is a nice pick-up as a floor spacer on the cheap; but other than him, the Suns brought in a cast of role players to fill in the blanks.

I liked the decision to draft Devin Booker at number 13. Booker was arguably the best shooter in his draft class, and should develop nicely in Phoenix’s pace-and-space system.

It’s obvious LaMarcus Aldridge was the apple of Phoenix’s eye this offseason. But LMA chose the San Antonio Spurs, and it appears the Suns didn’t have a contingency plan in case that scenario occurred. So now they find themselves in a situation with no star player and no real direction to go in next season.

The Suns went 39-43 last season (10-17 post trade deadline). Given whom they let walk and whom they brought in, I can’t say that the Suns are better than where they were April 15th. Jeff Hornacek is an under-rated coach who’s been really good at bringing out the best in his players; but even he has his work cut out for him this year in the loaded Western Conference.

I don’t really know where the Suns go from here; but it’s certainly not up.

Are they better?: No.

Sacramento Kings: F

Re-signed:  Omri Casspi

Lost: Reggie Evans, Ryan Hollins, Carl Landry, Ray McCallum, Andre Miller, Eric Moreland, Nik Stauskas, Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams

Acquired: Quincy Acy, James Anderson, Marco Belinelli, Caron Butler, Seth Curry, Duje Dukan (R), Kosta Koufos, Rajon Rondo

Drafted: Willie Cauley-Stein

Other notable moves: N/A

Congratulations, Sacramento Kings! You just took the Most Dysfunctional Organization in the NBA title belt away from the New York Knicks!

Where do I even start?

How about allowing your 3rd head coach in 1 calendar year the opportunity to alienate your franchise center? Then let said head coach keep his job after he publicly looked to trade said franchise center? Yes, DeMarcus Cousins has 3 years left on one of the best bargain contracts in the league; but there’s no chance in Hell he’s sticking around Sac-Town after the 2018 season.

Or how about paying the Philadelphia 76ers a package of Nik Stauskas (2014 – Round 1, Pick 8), a future 1st round pick, and the right to swap picks in 2 future drafts just to take on Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, and their combined $26 million+ salaries over the next 2-3 seasons?

Yes, this trade actually happened.

Forget the fact that they could have used the stretch provision to buy out Carl Landry. Why wouldn’t they just offer this trade to Denver for the right to Ty Lawson? After all, Denver basically ended giving away Lawson to the Houston Rockets following his 2nd DUI of the past year. This would have ultimately been a win-win for both the Kings and the Nuggets had it come to fruition. Instead, Denver dumped Lawson for spare parts and a late first round pick, the Rockets solidified their spot as a contender, the 76ers (briefly) looked like the smartest team in the room, and the Kings ended up tossing their future draft picks away and overpaying for a point guard who’s best years were left behind in 2013.

Speaking of which…

Go ahead and add a 1-year/$10 million contract for Rajon Rondo to Sacramento’s dumpster fire. In case you missed it, last season the Mavericks bet the farm on a Rondo resurgence in the hopes that he would be the missing link to a championship team. Instead, Rondo butt heads with Head Coach Rick Carlisle and played his way out of the rotation in the playoffs. Rondo threw away any leverage he had in a big money contract in free agency, and then the Kings gave him a $10 million deal when no one else even wanted him.

Yes, Boogie Cousins and Rondo will play for a team coached by George Karl. This instantly makes the Kings a must-watch NBA League Pass team. Not for the games themselves; rather for the comedy. Boogie, Rondo, and Karl could end up choking each other out on any given night! No seriously, its going to be Survivor: Sacramento Kings in 2015-16.

A couple other moves I’m not a huge fan of:
1.) Kosta Koufos – 4-years/$33 million. Bleh.
2.) Drafting Willie Cauley-Stein with the 6th overall pick; passing on Emmanuel Mudiay (7), Stanley Johnson (8), and Justise Winslow (10). I love WCS as a prospect; but the last thing the Kings needed was another center. There were better options at number 6, even if they planned on trading Boogie.

I’ll close with this. Pardon me while I borrow/touch-up a quote from Billy Madison that I think correctly reflects the Sacramento Kings’ offseason:

[Sacramento Kings], what you’ve just [done this offseason] is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever [seen]. At no point in your [embarrassing], [franchise debilitating moves] were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational [plan]. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having [witnessed] it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Original Version!

Are they better?: No.

Los Angeles Lakers: D

Re-signed: N/A

Lost: Vander Blue, Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price

Acquired: Brandon Bass, Michael Frazier (R), Jonathan Holmes (R), Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams

Drafted: D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance, Jr., Anthony Brown,

Other notable moves: N/A

This summer we witnessed the end of an era. Sure, the Lakers haven’t won a championship since 2010, and they last made the playoffs in 2013. But I’m not talking about wins and losses. Down years happen to just about every franchise, and the presence of a salary cap has made it especially difficult to maintain dominance over consecutive years.

Instead, I’m referencing the aura and the mystique that once upon a time surrounded the Lakers franchise. 16 championships, a big market, an LA lifestyle, establishing a legacy; what star player wouldn’t be drawn to these elements? Especially if the money was equal.

After all, good things would just happen to the Lakers throughout NBA history. Stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal would just fall onto their laps.

But not this time. There was no LaMarcus Aldridge; nor Greg Monroe. Instead their was Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert.

It’s not just failing to get a star, it’s why they didn’t get a star. Aldridge sat down with the Lakers twice, where they pitched branding, young pieces, and the opportunity to play with Kobe Bryant; but LMA was turned off by LA’s old-fashioned style of play. And he had no interest in being the Pau Gasol to his Kobe Bryant.

Meanwhile Greg Monroe turned down both the Lakers and the Knicks to play for the small-market Milwaukee Bucks because he believed they had the best chance of winning.

It was a bigger loss for the Lakers than it was for the Knicks. The Knicks have sucked for the better part of the last 15 years, and have swung-and-missed on a number of premier free agents. The Lakers aren’t used to this. This uncharted waters.

This summer was one of the last chances for the Lakers to extend Kobe’s career by adding another star, and yet it ended horribly.

I mean, the sum of the parts gained is actually fairly better than the parts lost. Brandon Bass cancels out the loss of Ed Davis, but Roy Hibbert finally gives the Lakers a rim protector. Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams is a good pick-up assuming the Lakers keep him in that role and not try to shoe-horn him into the starting line-up with Kobe.

I also LOVE D’Angelo Russell as a prospect. But even D’Angelo drew the ire of Lakers Nation when he had the cajones to call Tracy McGrady the GOAT when one Kobe Bryant is on his team. Take a lap, young fella.

The Los Angeles Lakers now find themselves (temporarirly) stripped of their competitive advantages. Now they are forced to rebuild the old fashioned way like the rest of the teams in NBA: through draft picks and smart business decisions. Truth be told, it’s not the worst way to rebuild in this league. But this was not the gameplan GM Mitch Kupchak drew up. So this is going to cost them.

Are they better?: Yes.


 

 

6 divisions and 30 NBA teams later, and we’ve have completed the NBA Offseason Grades series! I’ll revisit these grades somewhere around the all-star break just to see where each team stands and see how accurate each representation was. Only 7 more weeks until opening night!

Thank you very much to basketball-reference.com , espn.go.com/nba , and hoopshype.com for the stats and information used in this article.

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What to Watch For With Trade Deadline Approaching

With the NBA Trade deadline approaching, teams are undoubtedly looking at their roster and contemplating possible moves both for this year and possibly more importantly for the future. For those teams making the playoffs or hoping to make the playoffs, the right move or two might push them in the right direction, while those completely out of it are looking towards next year.

With so many teams in the East in the playoff mix this year, most of the trade rumors involve teams from the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference on the other hand, might end up seeing most of their changes occur in the offseason, once free agency officially begins.

Will the Celtics Get Their Superstar?

For awhile now, the Celtics have been linked with almost every possible trade involving a big man as the popular consensus has been that Boston is in need of that one big name to bring them over the top in the Eastern Conference. Whether it was Demarcus Cousins or Kevin Love, the Celtics were apparently after them.

Since it seems for now, at least, the Cavs will keep Kevin Love (David Blatt obviously sacrificed instead) and Demarcus Cousins still in Sacramento after the whole will they or won’t they with George Karl, the Celtics might have to wait till free agency to get their big man.

Unless of course, those other rumors about Dwight Howard and the Rockets come to fruition. Before rumblings began about the Celtics being interested in Howard, I wondered what Dwight might look like with the Celtics given his apparent discontentment with Harden and the Rockets.

Like the Kings, it seems the Rockets would prefer to keep Dwight around, at least for now. Which in the end, might end up working best for the Celtics as David Lee didn’t exactly end up contributing much after they acquired him for the Warriors.

Will the Hawks Help the Knicks?

Not too long ago, I wrote about how it seemed the Knicks were finally on the right track, heading towards a possible fight for the last spot in the playoffs. Fast forward a month or so later, and the Knicks have since fired their head coach Derek Fisher, thanks to the Knicks losing nine out of their last ten games.

While definitely a shock to most, given the talent of the team, it was definitely understandable. With rookie sensation, Kristaps Porzingis, to go along with Carmelo Anthony and other quality players such as Robin Lopez and Aaron Afflalo, there really is no reason for the Knicks not to be in the playoff hunt.

Though Carmelo Anthony has had to miss a few games due to lingering injuries, the Knicks are talented enough to at least compete for the last playoff spot in the East with the likes of the Pistons and the Hornets. Of course, most people still think they need a quality point guard to truly compete, so in comes Jeff Teague and the Atlanta Hawks.

Since it appears the Hawks are looking to move Teague since Schroder is a younger and cheaper version of Teague, the Knicks are definitely towards the top of the list of those interested. With a new coach and hopefully an all-star point guard, New York might actually end up an enticing place for one of the biggest free agents this summer, Kevin Durant.

Durant and Griffin: Offseason Rumors Heat Up

With Blake Griffin out with both an injury and suspension (due to his altercation with a staff member), rumors have begun about the Clippers possibly trading Blake Griffin this offseason. If that ends up being the case because the Clippers aren’t able to compete with the top teams in the West in the playoffs, it seems the Celtics once again will be one of the teams most interested.

Since Griffin will become a free agent after next season, it might make sense to try get something for him before he possibly decides to move on himself. Whether Durant stays in OKC this offseason, might also have an impact on where Griffin ends up as Blake is from Oklahoma so returning home might be end up being enticing for him.

And speaking of KD, no rumor has caused as much controversy as the one that has Durant heading to the Warriors should he decide to leave OKC this summer. It almost seems preposterous for that to even be a real possibility, but it seems some want us to believe it is indeed a likely scenario.

http://sports.yahoo.com/news/sources–warriors-serious-threat-to-sign-kevin-durant-182559375.html

As a fan of Durant from his days at Texas, I can’t see Durant choosing to leave OKC to join a team that wouldn’t really need him should Golden State win another championship this year. I think he likes a challenge so unless OKC fails to compete in the playoffs, I think he remains in OKC since the only other team I thought he might leave for, his hometown Washington Wizards, have completely blown their chance to show that they could be a team to compete for a title this year.

OKC Thunder Tickets

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Spurs and Warriors Heading Towards Epic Showdown and Other New Year Musings

With the new year finally upon us, teams are undoubtedly reflecting back on the 2015 season while also looking forward to what lies ahead in 2016. For teams in the Eastern Conference, the good fortune most teams have enjoyed in the season thus far looks to continue in the new year. The Western Conference, on the other hand, is still looking for some improvement, at least for those teams hoping to capture the last spot or two in the playoffs.

Spurs and Warriors Setting Records

A couple of teams in the Western Conference that couldn’t really improve much more if they tried are the defending NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors and the 5 time NBA champs, the San Antonio Spurs. Week after week, these two teams are setting records, and unfortunately for the rest of the league, they show no signs of slowing down.

With the Spurs aiming for a 20-0 record at home this weekend and the Warriors with only two losses in the season so far, the matchups between these two juggernauts can’t get here fast enough. When these teams do finally meet for the first time this season in late January, it will hopefully be a preview of things to come in the Western Conference Finals.

Until that first matchup between the two arrives though, both the Warriors and Spurs will continue to make headlines. The Warriors just recently lost their second game of the season as Steph Curry sat out with a leg injury. They were blown out by the Mavs thus proving Steph Curry was indeed the Real MVP last year. Curry, however, should be back long before the Warriors meet the Spurs as he was sat out more as a precaution during a back-to-back.

The Spurs, meanwhile, just recently notched their 11th win by 20 or more points. While impressive in it’s own right, more than a couple of those lopsided wins occurred without Duncan and/or Ginobili, who sat out for “rest”. With LaMarcus Aldridge, David West, and Boban Marjanovic, the 7-3 giant from Serbia that is the Spurs’ newest international find, Popovich is able to afford to give Duncan and Ginobili all the days off he wants.

http://deadspin.com/gregg-popovich-on-boban-marjanovic-hes-not-some-sort-1750446195

Clippers Rebound While Rockets Remain Unpredictable

As the Spurs and Warriors continue to impress, other teams in the Western Conference are still trying to find their way. While the Clippers seem to have finally turned it around after a bumpy start, the Rockets continue to disappoint, taking one step forward and then two step backs. After finally posting a winning record with a win over the Spurs on Christmas, the Rockets have since fallen below .500 once again.

Irving Finally Returns But Cavs Still Fail to Impress

Though the Eastern Conference as a whole continues to impress, one team that, given expectations, has been a bit disappointing, is the Cleveland Cavaliers. While true they currently hold the top spot in the Eastern Conference, compared to the two top teams in the West, their 21-9 record hasn’t been that impressive. Especially not when you consider that they believed, if healthy last year, they could’ve beaten the Warriors in the Finals.

In fairness to the Cavs though, Kyrie Irving probably will need some time to integrate himself back on the team as it’s been a long lay off for him since he injured himself in the playoffs last year. Until then, David Blatt might consider taking a page out of Pop’s book and resting Lebron some as he looked gassed during the Finals rematch vs the Warriors on Christmas Day which subsequently led to them being blown out by the Blazers the following day.

 

Dallas Mavericks Tickets

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Six Predictions For The Top-Six Western Conference Teams

A lopsided dispersal of talent between conferences is no modern nuance of the NBA. The league crowned just one champion from the West from 1955 to 1970 (the St. Louis Hawks in 1958). Since 1999, the Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat are the only Eastern Conference franchises to attain the coveted Larry O’Brien trophy.

As 30 NBA teams embark on a new season next month, it appears the Western Conference will be the most competitive sect of basketball on earth. Even if Tristan Thompson settles for a $6.9 million qualifying offer, the Eastern Conference still belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Six Western teams boast sufficient talent to go the distance: the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the new and improved San Antonio Spurs, the ever-predictable Memphis Grizzlies, a Houston Rockets squad with an electric backcourt addition, the reloaded Los Angeles Clippers, and the fierce dynamic duo for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Although unproven in the postseason, even the New Orleans Pelicans may look to close the gap with Anthony Davis secured on a max contract.

All in all, it is difficult to make predictions for the cutthroat, star-studded lineup in the West. Like last season’s San Antonio Spurs, at least two elite teams won’t make it out of the first round. Below are six expectations for each of the top-six teams in the Western Conference.


1. The Warriors will modify their offense mid-season.

It worked for Steve Kerr and the Warriors last season, but team defenses adapt and recover faster than offenses on a year-to-year basis. Coaches will probe every available tape of Golden State, seek hidden flaws, and mimic useful strategies. In the process, teams entering Oracle Arena will better defend the three-pointer and force Stephen Curry to work inside-out.

Curry and Thompson’s willingness to hoist momentum-killer long balls irritates Steve Kerr. He prefers a systematic, unselfish approach in the half court. I predict a collective shift to a more conservative offense mid-season.


2. The Spurs will start slow, but peak at the right time.

Signing four-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge was the most significant move of the summer. Not only did Gregg Popovich snag the superstar on a reasonable, four-year, $80 million deal, but he gave veterans Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili a reason to stick around.

Nevertheless, the Spurs rarely dominate early in the year. Much like Phil Jackson’s approach in the early 2000’s, Pop prefers to rest his starters during the regular season. In doing so, role players gain confidence and perform sanguinely in pressure situations.

Expect a modest start to the year, a flurry of critical exploits from the media, and a few spectacular win streaks down the stretch en route to the playoffs.


3. Mike Conley will surpass Zach Randolph as the second most important Grizzly.

Fans in the “Grind House” take pride in the Grizzlies’ old school, punishing style. It has worked for the most part, but against the Warriors in last season’s semifinal round, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green embarrassed Zach Randolph on the block.

Overpowering and out-manning defenders are no longer options for Z-Bo. He’s simply too old, too slow, and too immobile to play effectively on both sides of the ball. He will always deliver 15 points and 8 rebounds, but playing defense against teams with four three-point shooters has proved challenging.

Luckily for Memphis, they possess a quick, intelligent backcourt led by Mike Conley. Entering his ninth professional season, Conley will surpass Randolph as the second most important player on the Grizzlies’ roster – behind Marc Gasol of course.

Conley orchestrates a stellar pick-and-roll with Gasol at the top of key. The problem for Memphis is that they still lack the shooters to make this play truly effective on a consistent basis.


4. Patrick Beverly will be displeased with his decline in minutes.

Ty Lawson has endured his fair share of obstacles in the last eight months, but he never really let it affect his performance on the court. Only two other point guards averaged more that 15 points and 9 assists per game last season (John Wall and Chris Paul), which places Lawson in an elite category of creators.

Once Kevin McHale decides how touches will be distributed, Lawson will become an integral component of the Rockets’ offense. Unfortunately for point guard Patrick Beverly, the acquisition means fewer available minutes for a major contributor from last year.

Beverly is a fiery, competitive guard who wears down the opposing team’s fastest player. However, with a speedier, well-rounded talent in Ty Lawson on the roster, Beverly will most definitely lose playing time and his displeasure will be well known in the organization.


5. The Lance Stephenson, Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith experiment may implode the Clippers’ second unit.

Clippers’ head coach Doc Rivers tried valiantly to reconcile his reputation as a poor team president. Acquiring Stephenson, Smith, and Cole Aldrich were confident steps in that direction. But were they the right players for the job?

Jamal Crawford is a legendary sixth man, which can be attributed to his prowess off the dribble. The problem is that neither Stephenson nor Smith play well alongside this type of player.

In Indiana, Stephenson was a crucial cog on a roster with few creators in the half court. Likewise, Smith flourished off the bench for Houston last season because he attacked the basket and set up Dwight Howard on the block.

I forecast a whirlwind of conflict in the second unit. In the absence of deep shooters and guards that can capitalize off the ball, a stagnant offense will ensue. Of course, Stephenson and Crawford will have their moments on the highlight reel, and Josh Smith will eventually find DeAndre Jordan for a thunderous dunk, but that’s not the kind of depth that wins championships.


6. Enes Kanter will be a major difference maker for the Thunder frontcourt.

The Portland Trail Blazers unsuccessfully tried to snag Kanter in free agency, but Sam Presti and the Thunder front office members were confident in his ability to score near the rim and crash the boards. In fact, the Oklahoma City brass shelled out $70 million over four years to retain the 23-year-old big man.

Although NBA experts are quite critical of Kanter’s interior defense, I believe Serge Ibaka will make up for lost ground. His role won’t predicate on defense, but rather his massive stature in the paint.

Let’s not forget, in 26 games for Oklahoma City last season, Kanter managed 18.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game. Those are impressive marks for any player alongside a reeling Russell Westbrook. Regardless, Kanter will be a significant upgrade over both Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins.


 

 

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2015-2016 NBA Season’s Most Intriguing Games

With the 2015-2016 NBA season tipping off next month (preseason begins early October with the regular season beginning October 27th), it is never too soon to start talking big games. With so much change and drama happening over the summer, this upcoming season promises to be one of the more intriguing seasons yet. Here are just a few of the must watch games of the upcoming season.

Los Angeles Clippers @ Dallas Mavericks 

Unless you were living under a rock this past summer, you know one of the biggest headlines to come out of the offseason was Deandre Jordan’s last minute decision to stick with the Los Angeles Clippers instead of agreeing to sign with the Dallas Mavericks, the team he had, in college recruiting terms, verbally committed to previously. Given the drama that arose from the apparent change of heart, which included Deandre Jordan apparently ignoring Mark Cuban’s calls, there really is little doubt Deandre Jordan will have quite the “homecoming” when the Clippers come to Dallas on November 11th. I expect the fans will not soon forget how Deandre spurned the Mavericks and the city of Dallas.

Deandre Jordan not listening

Photo by USA Today

A preview of Deandre Jordan playing at American Airlines Center on November 11th?

San Antonio Spurs vs …… pick your team

The 5-time NBA champion Spurs undoubtedly won the offseason with the acquisition of the biggest name on the 2015 free agent market, All Star Power Forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Next year’s Spurs team looks to be greater than ever, which given their history, is hard to imagine.

New Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge

Photo by Spurs.com

Besides Aldridge, the Spurs also got veteran David West to agree to a 11 million pay cut to play alongside Spurs stars Parker and Kawhi and not yet ready to retire, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. So whomever the Spurs play will really be a game worth watching, but some of the more intriguing match-ups I’m looking forward to are the Cleveland Cavaliers (preview of the 2016 NBA Finals?), Los Angeles Clippers (last year’s NBA playoff series looked more like a WCF series), Golden State Warriors (in order for the Spurs to get back to the Finals, they have to get past the defending champs), and the OKC Thunder (most expect them to rebound from their injuries last year and once again be one of the teams to beat in the West).

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors 

Rematch of the 2015 NBA Finals. Christmas Day game. Enough said.

Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Clippers (November 7)

Another entertaining playoff series from last year. After the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead, the Rockets appeared to have brought back that Clutch City magic from the 90s. Josh Smith had a big impact in this series for the Rockets so it was surprising to see Houston let him go sign with the Clippers this offseason. Other big signees like Paul Pierce and Lance Stephenson for the Clippers and Ty Lawson for the Rockets should make this an even more entertaining series. Now only if we could somehow forget that whole Hack-a-Jordan/Howard free-throw nightmare.

OKC Thunder vs the best of the West and the Cavs

As mentioned earlier, injuries plagued the young stars of the Thunder so it should be interesting to see if they are able to bounce back and regain their place in the top tier of the West. With Durant and Ibaka hopefully back healthy, the Thunder will have some much improved teams to deal with in the West.

So besides the Cleveland Cavaliers, it seems the East didn’t even need to apply. Da Bulls who?

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NBA Playoff Notebook (2nd round Edition)

 photo credit: Cleveland.com

 

Eastern Conference

1 Hawks / 5 Wizards

Wizards snagged home court from the Hawks by getting a split in Atlanta, now it is their turn to defend home court. The Hawks were 25-16 on the road this season so its not crazy to believe they can get a game or two in Washington. The health of John Wall will be key because this is just a different team without him. Ramon Sessions is a more than a capable backup but he still isn’t Wall.

Also of note Bradley Beal is a match-up problem for Atlanta.

The Hawks are still searching for the synergy they had back in January when they went 19-0. They are a machine but for some reason that machine has been coughing up double digits leads and having trouble finishing. The Wizards are a team that has had a measure of playoff success and if you don’t put them away it could bite you.

We still believe the Hawks are the better team but like most of these second round series, it may go the distance. Hawks win the series in 7.

2 Cavaliers / 3 Bulls

If the Cavs have to give significant playing time to guys like Mike Miller, James Jones and Shawn Marion this will be a quick series. Losing Kevin Love was big but losing Love AND J.R. Smith might be too much for the Cavs to overcome. Lebron James is still the best player on the planet but as of now the Bulls simply have the better team.

Despite letting the Bucks sticking around in the 1st series the Bulls looked pretty sharp in this series. We’re not so much worried about home court as we are not knowing what the Cavs are going to do when they are short handed. Game 2 will be really big.

Sticking with our guns and our preseason pick because we’re stubborn, Cavs in 7.

 

Western Conference

1 Warriors / 5 Grizzlies

If anyone has solved the riddle that is Steph Curry please let us know. He is on a tear right now and deservedly so they are the front runners to win it all. The Grizz are built for playoff basketball with their tough defense and strong inside game.

Will Tony Allen be the kyptonite to Steph Curry’s superman?

Only time will tell but the Warriors are in for a dog fight. Regardless of if the Warriors win or lose when this series is over it will look like they have been in a fight. We are gonna stick with our preseason prediction and say Grizzlies in 7.

2 Rockets / 3 Clippers

If I were to tell you that Austin Rivers would get the game 1 start in Houston in place of a injured Chris Paul most would let out a laugh. If I continued further and told  you they would actually win the game by 16 you’d might not make it.

That happened.

Paul’s status is still up in the air for game 2 but stealing homecourt without their star player has the Clips playing with house money. Rockets still have a very talented team, it is going to be interesting to see if they can overcome those defensive lapses and reliance on the 3 ball.

This series is far from over, look for the Clippers to win the series in 7.

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NBA Playoffs Second Round Preview and Picks

(image from miragesbg.com)

 

The second round of the 2015 NBA playoffs is underway. ‘12’ is now the magic number of wins that separate one team from NBA history. For those of you keeping score at home, I went 7-1 for first round predictions, barely missing the Clippers-Spurs series (Part 1 & Part 2 ). The answer to your question is yes, self high-fives are pathetic. Though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the first round didn’t go exactly how I anticipated. Last year’s first round gave us five game sevens and some of the most entertaining basketball of the playoffs; this year, not so much. One game seven and a series of series where only one team showed up left me in a state of wanting more. But if history is any indicator, then a putrid first round will be followed up with an exciting second round. At least that’s how I’m going to go about it.

Playoff Stats:

Home Teams: 26-15

Home teams in closeout games to put the series away: 3-2

 

And now let’s get to our second round preview!

Western Conference

(1)  Golden State Warriors vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

First Round Finishes: GSW 4 – NOP 0; Mem 4 – Por 1

Season Series: GSW 2 – Mem 1

Saying that the Golden State Warriors made short-work of the New Orleans Pelicans would be an insult to Anthony Davis and company. The Dubs defended home court without much of a scare in games one and two, but it took a historic 20 point fourth quarter comeback and a no-look three pointer from (the likely) MVP Stephen Curry to force overtime in game three, where they eventually pilfered a win from the Pellies in New Orleans. The Warriors shot 50.6% from the field in game four en route to an 11 point victory, clinching the sweep. In part one of my first round preview, I said Anthony Davis would have his way with the Warriors; and he did, averaging 31.5 points, 11 rebounds, 3 blocks, and shooting 54% from the field in four games. Well played, Brow, well played.

(Image fromscmp.com) Call me a softie, but this picture is one of my favorites from round one

The Memphis Grizzlies found themselves on the happy end of the controversial seeding rule that gave the Portland Trail Blazers a four seed, despite them having the West’s sixth best record. Instead of playing the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs, they squared off against an injury depleted Trail Blazers team.

If there’s any team left in the playoffs that would benefit from rest, it’s the Grizzlies. Mike Conley’s surgery may have been a success, but his return for the second round is up in the air. Mike Conley may not have the notoriety like Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook, but there’s no doubt in my mind he’s a top ten point guard in the game right now. He’s a veteran table-setter who knows how and when to get his teammates involved, and can take over a game with his scoring ability if that’s what the situation calls for. His impact on the Grizzlies cannot be accurately measured by his numbers.

We saw his value in the last series when the Grizz were seemingly on cruise control in games one and two. All eyes were on Damian Lillard, as Conley and the Grizzlies exploited his inability to defend. On the other end of the court, Lillard put up sub-Damian numbers, including 18 points and 4.3 assists per game, while shooting 35.2% from the field in the first three games of the series. When Conley went down, backups Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes saw more playing time. Lillard went for 27 points and 5 assists in games four and five, while putting up a 46.7% clip. CJ McCollum had a similar story arc, averaging 11.3 points on 34.3% shooting in games one through three, and then 25.5 points/game on a 62.5% clip then next two games. Coincidence? I don’t believe in coincidences.

I’m going to operate under the assumption that Mike Conley will not be available for at least the first two games of this series. If Tony Allen, Udrih, and Calathes had their hands full with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, I have serious doubts they’ll be able to contain the Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will present match-up problems for the Warriors at times, but they won’t find the same success that Anthony Davis found in round one because they’re just not that type of player.

The Warriors are now 41-2 at home since the start of the season. I expect the Grizzlies to drop games one and two in Oakland, because there is no way they will be able to keep up with the Warriors without Conley’s leadership. Jeff Green is just too inconsistent, and I can’t see Gasol and Z-Bo carrying this team when the Splash Brothers are raining three’s. Conley’s game three return will keep games three and four close in Memphis, but I don’t expect Golden State to lose both games on the road. The Grizzlies’ offensive woes and Mike Conley’s absence will hurt them in this series, but it’s Golden State’s up-tempo style that will ultimately be Memphis’ demise. If you’re going to beat a historically great team, then one of your best three players can’t be hurt.

Warriors defeat Grizzlies in 5

 

(2) Houston Rockets vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers

First Round Finishes: Hou 4 – Dal 1; LAC 4 – SAS 3

Season Series: Hou 2 – LAC 2

I picked Houston to win their round one series with the Mavericks in seven games, because I somehow forgot that Rajon Rondo is a cancer to his team, Tyson Chandler is the Mavs’ only big that can play defense, Dirk Nowitzki is a 37 year old 7-footer, and Josh Smith was the third best player in this series. Wait, WHAT?!

You read that right.

Smith’s first round stats: 17.4 point, 6.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and shot 51.5% from the field…and 39.1% from three! He managed to put up the second most points and assists for the Rockets, despite not even starting one game. Josh Smith is the not the third star that the Rockets deserve; but he’s the third star they need right now.

Other points of emphasis:

  • James Harden exorcised last year’s playoff demons by putting up a 28-8-4 stat line on 46.5% shooting. Those who said he wouldn’t be able to get to the free throw line in the playoffs can chew on his 52 free throw attempts in that opening series.
  • Dwight Howard looks healthy. His 16.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game make the Rockets a very scary team.
  • Depth was not an issue in the first round: five Rockets scored double-digits per game, including two bench players.

Take these points with a cinderblock of salt, though. In early March I said I felt that the Mavericks were headed for an inevitable first round exit. The Mavs simply could not defend the Rockets, likely inflating a few players’ stats (cough, Josh Smith, cough). But the fact is James Harden and Dwight Howard are playing like a first-banana and second-banana should be playing, they’re getting contributions from their bench, and most importantly the Rockets are on to the next round.

(Image from Bleacher Report) Both CP3 [left] and Harden [right] have carried their teams throughout the season. We’ll find out who can carry that load a little further.

The Clippers-Spurs series may have been one of the best round one bouts I’ve ever seen (feel free to argue). This series had a Western Conference Finals feel to it. After squandering game five at home, Chris Paul and company put together one of the best two-game stretches in Clippers history (no argument there), winning on the road in game six to set up a chance to close out the two-time reigning Western Conference Champions at home in game seven. Game seven was a closely contested game throughout, and it took another Blake Griffin triple-double and the biggest shot of Chris Paul’s career (soooo much hyperbole in this paragraph!) to finally put the down Spurs and quiet Clippers critics (for the time being). Well done, Clippers.

The Rockets are well-rested after closing out the Mavericks in five games; whereas, the Clippers played their best basketball all season in seven games with the Spurs. More often than not, I’m riding with the team playing well coming off the long series because I’m a believer in momentum. But the reason I picked the Spurs to be beat the Clippers in the first round was the lack of quality depth on the Clippers’ bench. Blake Griffin averaged 41 minutes per game in that first round series, and CP3, JJ Redick, and DeAndre Jordan all averaged 36 to 39 minutes per game. By the way, the Clips’ starting five averaged 80.7 of the team’s 103 points per game. Though, I will cede that the Clippers did get quality bench play at opportune times from Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, and Glen Davis.

However, I can’t see this level of play sustaining against a well-rested Rockets team. I think those seven games with the Spurs were as mentally taxing and it were physical. For that reason alone, I’m out .

Rockets defeat Clippers in 6

 

Eastern Conference

(1) Atlanta Hawks vs. (5) Washington Wizards

First Round Finishes: Atl 4 – Brk 2 ; Was 4 – Tor 0

Season Series: Atl 3 – Was 1

The Atlanta Hawks non-believers really came out of the woodwork in the first round series with the Brooklyn Nets. Somehow, the vaunted Hawks and their system blew two road games and allowed a team that didn’t even really belong in the playoffs to push the series to six games. I’m not going to reach for the “they don’t have a go-to star” low-hanging fruit; instead, I’ll point out their injury situation.

But first, let me point out that you don’t just walk into a 60-22 overall record (which is good for the league’s second best record), with a 29-11 record against playoff teams. That’s a team that’s done everything they can in the span of a regular season to give them the best chance to come out of the Eastern Conference.

Coach Budenholzer’s pace-and-space system has allowed the Hawks to utilize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. However teams, coaches, and offensive/defensive schemes are more sophisticated in the playoffs. It’s very hard to hide your weaknesses when the opposing coach is game planning specifically for your team for a four to seven game series. If there was coach and team that was going to expose the Hawks, it wasn’t going to be Lionel Hollins and the Nets. Not once did I think Brooklyn was going to win that series, even when it was tied at two games apiece.

Back to the injury comment earlier. You’ve heard the overly used cliché “well-oiled machine” when describing certain systems. Think of the Atlanta Hawks as a car. When all the parts work, it gets you from point-a to point-b without any dilemmas. However, throw in a transmission problem or a faulty tire alignment, and you’ve got yourself a problem. You’re still going to be able to get to the grocery store and back without anything going drastically wrong; but if you have to make a long day trip somewhere, battling potholes, environmental conditions, and constant driving, then you’re car is likely to break down at some point.

That’s the Atlanta Hawks right now. Paul Milsap and Al Horford are banged up, putting more pressure on the other parts to compensate for the injured parts. It’s one thing to be injured in the regular season. Coaches can elect to rest the banged up players for long stretches at a time. In the playoffs, high level games are happening on two to three days’ rest. Atlanta did not do themselves any favors by letting their first round series go past five games. Now they’ll face a young and fresh Washington Wizards team that’s had over a week to rest and game plan for this series.

(Image from Yahoo! Sports) I love when I see teammates having fun with each other outside of games. It’s great for team chemistry, which goes a long way in the playoffs.

The Wizards are on the right side of the spectrum. They came into this season with a second round playoff appearance in their hip pockets, expecting to make the next leap. However, they were injured for long stretches of time throughout the season, putting somewhat of a chokehold on their development. All year fans wondered what this team would look like if they were healthy. Enter the first round of the playoffs. A 4-0 sweep of the Toronto Raptors, despite the Wiz-kids having to play the first two games in the T Dot. John Wall was slashing-and-kicking, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat started looking like 2014 Beal and Gortat, and Otto Porter started looking like an actual NBA rotation player. Let’s not undermine Paul Pierce’s role on this team, as well. He gives this young team leadership, swagger, and a swift kick in the butt. Coach Randy Wittman’s decision to move Pierce to the four spot has proven to be effective, and will help the Wiz in their series with the Hawks.

Pierce’s new role as a stretch-four will be beneficial for the Wizards in the second round. The Hawks pace-and-space offense keeps the bigs away from the basket, which would have been a problem for the Nene-Gortat frontcourt since they’re not comfortable playing so far from the paint. Pierce’s quality defense and perimeter instincts will serve him well against Paul Milsap. I also like John Wall over Jeff Teague in the battle of the point guards. But the biggest concern I have for the Hawks is there health. If they could stay healthy, I’d take the Hawks in seven; but I can’t see myself picking a team that’s’ so banged up playing against a team that’s healthy and hot at the right time.

Wizards defeat Hawks in 6

 

(2) Cleveland Cavaliers vs. (3) Chicago Bulls

First Round Finishes: Cle 4 – Bos 0; Chi 4 – Mil 2

Season Series: Cle 3 – Chi 1

The Eastern Conference Playoffs path for the Cleveland Cavaliers has had somewhat of a “This is Your Life” kind of feel for LeBron James. Round one gave us a Cavaliers-Celtics match up that was reminiscent of the old days; and by ‘old days’ I mean three to six years ago. The city of Boston and their beloved Celtics have despised the King long before it was cool to despise the King; from his first go-around in Cleveland, to his four year stint in Miami, and now back to Cleveland. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Doc Rivers weren’t walking through that door. But this first round match up gave us a new chapter in the LeBron-Celtics rivalry, to the tune of LeBron talking smack to Evan Turner, Kelly Olynyk tearing Kevin Love’s labrum, and JR Smith’s cheap shot on Jae Crowder.

Round two will pin LeBron and the Cavs against another familiar adversary: the Chicago Bulls. This will mark the fourth time the Bulls will face a LeBron-laden team in the playoffs (Chicago has lost all three duels). If there’s one thing I love about Bulls center Joakim Noah, it’s his competitiveness; or more so his disdain for anyone NOT wearing a Bulls uniform. As for the King? Let’s just say there’s a special place in Noah’s heart for one LeBron James. Just look up “Joakim Noah hates LeBron James ” on YouTube, and I promise you won’t be disappointed. Derrick Rose may be Chicago’s son and Jimmy Butler may be a budding star, but Joakim Noah is the heart of the Chicago Bulls. And he wears that heart on his sleeve.

(Image from CavsNation.com) This image sums up what LeBron-laden teams have done to the Bulls in the playoffs.

This will be my favorite series of the second round, and not just for the aforementioned reasons. I chose Cavs/Bulls as my preseason pick for the Eastern Conference Finals earlier this year, but since the Atlanta Hawks decided to crash the party I’ll have to settle for these two playing in the second round.

There’s a lot going on in this series for both teams. Cleveland lost Kevin Love, his 18.3 points and 9 rebounds/game, and depth in the front court for the remainder of the playoffs due to a torn labrum suffered at the arms of Kelly Olynyk. They’ll also be without starting headcase shooting guard JR Smith for the first two games of this series due to the swing he took at the Celtics’ Jae Crowder in game four of round one; which is ironically not the first time JR Smith took a cheap shot at a Celtic’s player in the first round of the playoffs at the TD Garden . Then there’s the big green elephant in the room that even though the Cavs swept the Celts, they let them hang around in each of the four games. The Celtics may have been scrappy, but the Cavaliers probably should have had a slightly larger average margin of victory, no?

As for the Bulls, can you remember the last time any team went from “can this team find a groove in the playoffs?” to “this team can win the East,” to “are we sure this team is healthy enough to make a run?” back to “this team can win the East” all in the span of a six-game series? Joakim Noah and Nikola Mirotic are banged up, Derrick Rose has been inconsistent, and the Bulls were outplayed in there closeout game at home. Anyone who’s bearish on the Bulls (pun intended) is probably not that far off.

I’m going to give both the Cavs and the Bulls the benefits of the doubt for their last series. The Cavs knew they were far and away better than the Celtics, and just took them lightly. If they wanted to, they could’ve beaten them by 20 each of the first four games; but they didn’t want to expend all that energy in the first round, nor give anything away to their next opponents. I think the Bulls just assumed they were going to close out the series in game five in Chicago; but Milwaukee put together one of their best games of the season and just blew past a Bulls team that was looking ahead to the Cavs. I feel pretty good about that statement considering they put a 54-point smackdown on the Bucks in Milwaukee in game 6 to end the series.

Taking all the variables into consideration, I’d be shocked if this series didn’t go to seven games. I can see this series being tied at two, with both teams stealing a win on the opponent’s home court. It should be interesting to see the adjustments (figure) Head Coach David Blatt and (player coach) LeBron James make without two of their starters, and how the Bulls respond. I also look forward to seeing if the Bulls’ inconsistencies carry over into the second round. There’s no doubt that both teams will get up for each game;  but I think the home court advantage takes over games five, six, and seven.

Cavaliers defeat Bulls in 7

Honorable mention: Jimmy Butler has averaged 24.8 points, 3.8 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and has posted a 48-41-79 shooting split. In the words of Teddy KGB from Rounders, “Pay that man his money .”


That does it for my second round preview and predictions! Expect a conference finals preview in about two weeks. While I may have patted myself on the back for my round one picks, just know I will be back even if I go 0-4 in round two; and I’ll eat crow.

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NBA Playoffs First Round Preview and Picks (Part 1: Western Conference)

(Image from BouncyOrangeBall.com)

 

As the 82-game round robin has ended, so do the seasons of 14 NBA teams. For some, the season ended in the last couple weeks in which they were not able to do enough to secure a playoff berth. For most teams though, the season ended long before the clock hit 00:0 at the end of game 82.  However for 16 fortunate teams, a new journey has begun; a new beast to conquer. Yes, 16 wins separates them from the Larry O’Brien trophy and a place in basketball immortality. In a league that determines greatness by the rings on your fingers, legacies are often built and broken during these next eight weeks. As the weather continues to warm up, so does the NBA action; and every big time performance, buzzer-beater, and upset win will get lumped into the inevitable “NBA Playoffs: Where Amazing Happens” montage.

Speaking of where amazing happens…

Last year’s first round gave us what I believe to be the most exciting opening round in recent history, as it included an NBA record five game sevens, three of the eight match ups ending with an upset, a series-ending block at the buzzer , and a series-ending 3-pointer at the buzzer .

Some NBA pundits are bearish on this year’s first round of the NBA playoffs. While I don’t anticipate five game sevens, this year’s opening round should still give us some exciting basketball.

Walk with me as I put myself, as well as my credibility out in the open and make my first round picks and predictions.

Part 1: Western Conference

Part 2: Eastern Conference

Western Conference

If the Western Conference playoffs were a reality TV show, it’d be called Survivor: Western Conference. Each team brings a different set of skills to the island. Where the older, more experienced contestants are typically the favorites to win the grand prize, some of the younger contestants have shown the creativity and resourcefulness to make a deep run in the competition. It’s a conference where at least seven fan bases can make a reasonable argument as to why their team belongs in the NBA Finals.

 

And the first round match ups…

 

(1) Golden State Warriors vs. (8) New Orleans Pelicans

Records: GSW 67-15; NOP 45-37

Season Series: GSW 3 – NOP 1

Let me start off by congratulating the Golden State Warriors for finishing the season 67-15, tying the 1991-92 Bulls for the third best regular season record of all-time.

The Warriors bring their MVP frontrunner (Stephen Curry), their coach of the year candidate (Steve Kerr), their super deep/healthy team, and the NBA’s best home court advantage (39-2 at the Oracle Arena) into a first round matchup with the allegedly “happy to be here” Pelicans of New Orleans.

(Image from BasketSession.com)(Left to Right) Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Jrue Holiday

The Pelicans basically started their postseason on the last day of the regular season with a home game against the reigning champion Spurs. The Spurs needed a win to clinch a 2-seed, and the Pellies needed a win to secure a playoff spot. In stunning fashion, the Pelicans outlasted the Spurs 108-103 in one of the most emotional “play-in” games in recent memory.

The interesting thing about these teams’ season series is that Anthony Davis only played in two of the four games: a 27 point loss in Golden State (12/14/2014) and a 3 point win in New Orleans (04/07/2015). In his two games against the Dubs, The Brow went for 30 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks, and 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 blocks.

The Warriors may lead the league in defensive efficiency (98.2), but they cannot stop Anthony Davis from doing Anthony Davis things. The Pelicans face their own conundrum, though: how do they stop the Splash Brothers? Jrue Holiday, a capable defender when healthy, has played only three games since returning from a stress reaction in his right leg. While Pelicans Coach Monty Williams hopes Holiday can start for his squad against the Warriors, history tells us that he probably won’t be that effective, as he still has to get back into “game shape.”

Predictions:

The Warriors will not stop Anthony Davis. The best Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, and the rest of the front court can hope to do is slow the man down; try to limit his production. The Warriors are a sophisticated defensive team. If Davis is going to put up big numbers, they’ll be sure to make sure their next best players don’t get hot. This shouldn’t be a tall order, considering Tyreke Evans and company aren’t the most imposing of threats.

My prediction for the Warriors is that they’ll lose two home games in their entire playoff campaign. Steve Kerr’s lack of playoff coaching experience may haunt him in certain spots in the playoffs, but not verse the Pelicans. Too much Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and overall depth will be the demise of the Pelicans.

Warriors defeat Pelicans in 5

 

(4) Portland Trail Blazers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

Records: Por 51-31; Mem 55-27

Season Series: Por 0 – Mem 4

The Portland Trail Blazers sent ripples across the West with their Northwest Division Title. NBA rules mandate that all division winners are awarded home court advantage in the first round, despite their overall record. This explains why the Blazers have a 4-seed when they finished with the West’s 6th best record. The Grizz would have found themselves in the 4/5 match up, anyway (this time as a 4-seed); except they would’ve been paired with the reigning champion Spurs. In retrospect, the Grizzlies might have been the only winners in this fiasco. I’m sure your favorite team would sacrifice home court advantage for one series to not play against the Spurs; “Search your feelings, you know it to be true,” I say in my best Darth Vader impression.

The Portland Trail Blazers were 40-19 and title contenders going into their March 5th match up with the Dallas Mavericks. The Blazers may have won that night in regards to the box score, but they lost when Wesley Matthews went down with a ruptured achilles tendon. The Blazers were already battling injuries all season long, but the Matthews injury was the most devastating. Not only was Matthews their best defender, but he was the leader of the locker room. The Blazers stumbled to the finish with a 10-12 record in their final 22 games.

(Image from FanSided.com) Both Portland and Memphis had title aspirations as late as February. Injuries and sluggish play have sent them back to reality.

The Memphis Grizzlies also started their season strong with title aspirations. They acquired swingman Jeff Green from the Celtics in a mid-season trade to boost their offense. The trade appeared to be just what the Grizz needed, as they went 15-3 in the 18 games following the swap. However, Memphis played .500-ball down the stretch, going 14-13 in their final 27 games. The “can this team score enough points to make a deep run” questions began to resurface with theirs sluggish play down the stretch.

The theme of this playoff match up is ‘injuries.’ With Wesley Matthews out for the postseason, Dorrell Wright sidelined with a broken hand, and LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, Arron Afflalo, CJ McCollum, and Chris Kaman all battling injuries, the Blazers certainly have their work cut out for them. Fortunately for them, the Grizzlies are also a little bit banged up. Mike Conley is questionable for game one, and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are both coming off injuries of their own.

Memphis has Portland’s number this season, winning the series 4-0. Portland has also gone 1-7 in their last 8 games against playoff teams.  The Blazers are just too hurt right now.

Predictions:

While the Grizzlies may have played .500-basketball down the stretch, they’re still one of the five best defensive teams in the NBA.  Aldridge and Robin Lopez will struggle down low against the best defensive front court in the league. Portland’s lack of depth will ultimately be there killer.

Grizzlies defeat Trail Blazers in 5

 

(3) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (6) San Antonio Spurs

Records: LAC 56-26; SAS 55-27

Season Series: LAC 2 – SAS 2

If there’s any team that should be angry with the Trail Blazers earning a 4-seed, it’s the Los Angeles Clippers.

As I mentioned earlier, legacies are often made or broken in the NBA playoffs. Chris Paul knows this reality all too well. After all, the biggest glitch on his Hall of Fame resume is the fact that he has yet to compete in a conference finals in his career. The NBA’s most offensively efficient point guard has led the league’s most offensively efficient team to a third straight 56+ win season and a 3-seed in the playoffs. Though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit to another key player. DeAndre Jordan’s most dominant season couldn’t have come at a better time. With Blake Griffin struggling to follow up his own breakout year, DeAndre has kept the front court afloat and the paint off limits to any intruder.

(Image from USAToday.com) Doc Rivers has turned DeAndre Jordan in to a top five center worthy of a max contract this summer

The Clippers’ reward for their regular season success: having to play the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round.

I don’t think the Spurs will lose too much sleep over being a 6-seed. After all, how many times have we seen Coach Gregg Popovich not take the regular season seriously until the final leg? Yes, the Spurs did what the Spurs do best: coast through the regular season, get hot late, and ride that momentum into the playoffs. Following the Spurs cardiac arrest-inducing overtime loss to the New York Knicks on St. Patty’s Day, Pop’s crew went 14-2 in their final 16 games, with wins over the Hawks, Mavs, Grizzlies, Warriors, Thunder (twice), and the Rockets (also twice). Tim Duncan is still showing us why he’s the greatest power forward of all time, and Kawhi Leonard has emerged as one of the best two-way players in the league.

The Clippers drew even with the Spurs after falling behind 2-0 in the season series. Both teams have a win on the opponent’s court to their credit.

Predictions:

The playoffs are often a chess match, and Gregg Popovich understands this better than anyone. The last time these teams faced each other, it was Pop ordering the “Hack-a-Shaq” on DeAndre Jordan, sending him to the free throw line for 28 free throw attempts (DJ made 10 of 28). Look for Pop to continue this strategy to neutralize Jordan’s dominance inside. Coach Doc Rivers will sit Jordan for pro-longed stretches late in games; thus, diminishing the effect of the Paul-Griffin-Jordan Big-3. The Spurs momentum and depth will overpower LA’s talent.

Spurs defeat Clippers in 6

 

(2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks

Records: Hou 56-26; Dal 50-32

Season Series: Hou 3 – Dal 1

Last summer Chandler Parsons agreed to a contract with the Dallas Mavericks, and the Houston Rockets elected not to match the offer. Instead, they brought in veteran swingman and former champion Trevor Ariza to replace the former Florida Gator. James Harden said of Parsons’ departure ,

“Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets. The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.”

I’d say those are fighting words.

Other notable narratives in no particular order:

  • Veteran point guard Jason Terry was a member of the Dallas Mavericks’ 2011 championship team, and now plays a large role for the Houston Rockets
  • Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban have a rivalry that’s been brewing for a few years; since Morey won over Dwight Howard in 2013 and tried to sign Dirk Nowitzki in the 2014 free agency period.
  • The intrastate rivalry probably has something to with it too, don’t ya think?

What James Harden has done one year removed from a putrid playoff performance is unbelievable. The MVP candidate has led his injury depleted team to 56 wins and a 2-seed in a loaded Western Conference, without having Dwight Howard on the court with him for 41 games. James Harden skeptics are quick to argue that he will not be able to carry his Rockets team deep into the playoffs; that the NBA playoffs are not designed for one player to carry the load. A healthy Dwight Howard is exactly what the Rockets need to advance.

(Image from Zimbio.com) Former comrades James Harden (left) and Chandler Parsons (right) will square off for the first time in a playoff series, eager to prove each other wrong

What concerns me moving forward, though, are a trio of injuries for the Rockets that emerged over the last month. Starting point guard and pesky defender Patrick Beverly, back-up center Donatas Motiejunas, and rookie shooting guard KJ McDaniels will miss the entire postseason.

As for the Mavericks…

The 2011 championship band is back together after trading for Tyson Chandler and signing JJ Barea last summer. And the addition of Chandler Parsons last summer was aimed to serve as  a reinforcement on the perimeter. I was one of the people who believed that the Rajon Rondo trade would make the Dallas Mavericks the favorites coming out of the Western Conference. Instead, the Mavs gave up their front court depth for a point guard that’s more stats-oriented than team-oriented, and rocks a 44-35-45 shooting split in his time with the Mavericks.

One final stat: the Dallas Mavericks would be the first team to ever win a playoff series with a point guard who started at least 46 games, shot less than 45% from the field, 36% from three, and 50% from the free throw line. Just saying.

Predictions:

Rondo’s ineffectiveness will offset the Patrick Beverly injury to an extent. Houston’s injuries will keep this series close, as will Dwight Howard’s inability to find a rhythm early on in the match up. The Mavericks will beat the crap out of James Harden every time he draws a foul in the paint, but it’ll be Harden sticking a fork in the Mavericks with his big play down the stretch.

Rockets defeat Mavericks in 7

 


 

That’s it for the Western Conference Playoffs first round preview. Hang tight for my Eastern Conference predictions and picks coming in Part 2!

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5 Questions for the Western Conference

photo credit: nbacircle.com

 

Which star will be healthy to help their team for the playoffs?

Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis are all currently on the shelf and their ability to get as close to 100% healthy will be essential to their teams success. Howard has missed 12 games and his team has gone 6-6 without him. James Harden has been playing like a MVP with and without Howard but you have to wonder what will happen come playoff time. The additions of Corey Brewer and Josh Smith have paid dividends for this Houston team.

In Los Angeles, Blake Griffin still has no timetable set for his return and although the Clippers have gone 4-2 without him nobody is going to take a “Blake-less” Clippers team to do anything in the playoffs.

The Thunder have arguably the best team they have ever had with the addition of Augustine, Waiters, Kanter, and Singler. Russell Westbrook has been playing himself into the MVP conversation and this team has looked strong even without Durant. While teams like Memphis and Golden State will be heavy favorites this Thunder team is the one team in the West nobody wants to see in their bracket especially with a healthy Durant.

Do the Spurs have enough juice to flip the playoff switch?

If the season ended today the defending champion San Antonio Spurs would be matched up with the 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies. The Spurs are a team that typically flies under the radar during the regular season then come playoff time they flip a switch. This Memphis team has been together for a number of years and you can argue that no team in the West will carry a bigger chip on their shoulder than the Grizzlies. We don’t hear much from the Spurs because they aren’t sexy and they are old. After dropping 3 in a row after the all-star break even Tony Parker admitted this team is having trouble overcoming injuries and finding their rhythm. Father time is undefeated and selling this team as a repeat champ will be tough to anyone not living in San Antonio.

Are the Golden State Warriors the new version of the old Phoenix Suns?

Remember those Suns teams with Steve Nash that used to run up and down the court, shoot a bunch of three’s and score a million points but never won a Championship? The team was fun to watch, they won a lot of games but always seemed to get bounced out the playoffs by the Spurs or the Lakers. Could this Warriors team be Suns 2.0? The style of play is very similar and until they do some damage in the playoffs Suns 2.0 might be that shoe that fits this Warriors team.

What’s next for the Lakers?

While things may look bleak in Laker land right now all isn’t totally lost. The future of Kobe Bryant is up in the air but even better for the Lakers is the fact that Kobe is the only guy owed any large amount of money next season. Jeremy Lin’s 14 million and Steve Nash’s 9 million will fall off the books next year so that is 23 mill they can use to offer a max player. The question is can they entice a Kevin Love to opt out or a Marc Gasol to come to L.A? They also could sit on that money and wait till the 2015-16 summer and go all in with Kevin Durant as the foundation for the post Kobe era.

The Lakers should also get first round pick Julius Randle back next year as well as whoever they draft. And make not mistake about it, they will be drafting high. So Lakers fans its not all bad and there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Who is the favorite out West?

The Spurs are the defending champions but again, it will be hard to sell them as the favorite to anyone living outside of San Antonio. For as good as Houston, Dallas and Portland are they still have a certain something missing. Memphis and Golden State will probably be the top two seeds and if I had to roll the dice I would go with Memphis as the favorite. Their team is built the best for playoff basketball.

The Thunder will be either a 7 or 8 seed and they are a dark horse that nobody wants to draw, especially if a healthy Kevin Durant is back.

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Mid-Season Awards

(Photo from www.experience.usatoday.com)

We’ve reached the midway point of what has been an exciting NBA season. Some players have lived up to, and even surpassed expectations, while others have disappointed. Although roughly three months of basketball remain and much has yet to be decided, a handful of players deserve recognition for standing out among the fray. It’s time to hand out the mid-season awards.

Mid-season Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins. Go back to mid-December and it’s hard to put a finger on who most deserves the award. In the last four weeks, however, the Minnesota guard has taken off. He’s averaging 15 points and has reached double-figure scoring in 16 consecutive games. After a game against the Lakers, Kobe Bryant said that Wiggins reminds him of himself when he first came into the league. Not too bad.

Mid-season Most Improved Player: Jimmy Butler. After averaging no more than 13 points a game his first three years in the league, the Marquette product spent this past offseason consumed by basketball. No TV. No internet. Just basketball. As a result, 21 points per contest, a sure-bet first time all-star appearance and more than likely a Most Improved Player award to boot.

Mid-season Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Thomas. If he isn’t a part of a three-guard rotation, he’s starting somewhere and isn’t in the running for this award. The 5’9″ guard, selected dead last in the 2011 draft, is averaging 15 points and four assists per game. Thomas is one of the quickest guards in the league, can shoot from anywhere in the gym and despite his size, plays like a bulldog. The reserve role hasn’t kept him from appearing late in games. He’s usually always on the court in crunch time.

Mid-season Defensive Player of the Year: DeAndre Jordan. Leading the league in rebounding, second in blocks, DeAndre Jordan is a dominating force around the rim. He’s the most athletic center in the league, and probably the most underrated as well. It’s about time he gets his due.

Mid-season MVP: Stephen Curry. At this point, it’s virtually a toss-up between Steph Curry and James Harden. I ultimately gave the nod to Curry because his team owns the league’s best record. The sixth year guard is already a master at his craft, averaging 23 points, eight helpers, five boards, 40% from deep and is clearly a fan favorite. He received the most all-star votes this year, ending the three-year top vote-getter streak by LeBron James.

Mid-season Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer. Although a strong case can be made for Steve Kerr, Budenholzer is the front-runner in my book. The Hawks are without a bonafide superstar, and yet, sit atop the Eastern Conference. Winners of 15 straight, the team really seems to be picking up what Budenholzer is putting down. Their playing style mirrors that of the Spurs: crisp ball movement and a stout defense. 36-8 speaks for itself.

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