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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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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