What’d I miss?

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“It’s been a long time, I shouldn’ta left you, without some real Trill shit to go left to.” – Bun B

August 2016. Man.

Much has happened in my life and in the world at large since that month. Almost too much. But you know what hasn’t happened? A Down on the Block blog post from yours truly. That’s right, your boy is emerging from a 17-month hibernation.

So what happened? Where did I go? I struggle to answer that myself. I have a ton of ready-made excuses for you, if that helps. Landed a dream job, the worst person in America became President, worked the Super Bowl on behalf of StubHub, lost said dream job thanks to budget cuts (Capitalism!), had my first child, moved back to Austin, writer’s block, laziness, daddy duties. You name it, I can use it as an excuse.

But as any writer knows, this shit takes practice and diligence. Not only have I neglected to work out my long-form writing muscles, but my time spent writing professionally for social media sapped my confidence a bit. Can I still write more than 140 characters coherently? We shall see. Right now, I’m shaking off the rust like a wet dog with an iron collar.

But this is supposed to be about basketball, right? Enough with the autobiography. While I haven’t been jotting down my thoughts about the NBA recently I’m not falling off all the way. I’m still watching plenty of games, and even attending a few. Namely, Cavs-Wizards in D.C. and Warriors-Rockets in H-Town. Quick aside: I heard Bill Simmons claim on his podcast that Houston is a “top-3 worst home crowd.” I’m calling bullshit on that. Every Rockets game I’ve been to has been raucous. Step your game up, Simmons.

Anyway, how to approach my first NBA post of the 2017-18 season? Let’s keep the vibes positive with this one. As we hit the halfway mark of the season, here are the teams, players and coaches who’ve pleasantly surprised me.

Lauri Markkanen – The plus side of my dereliction of blogging duty? That my worst takes haven’t been recorded for posterity. I guess I’m outing myself now, though. But so what? My Bulls have found the 7-foot quick trigger shooter of the future, improbably salvaging the Jimmy Butler trade. While I’m still dubious that trading Jimmy was the right move, Markkanen’s rise (fastest rookie to 100 3-pointers ever – WHAT?) makes it easier to stomach.

Fred Hoiberg – The Mayor has not been treated well in this space in the past. I was 100 percent sure that Bulls brass made a colossal mistake with their hand-picked hire after the Thibs era, up until as recently as two months ago. Now? I’m more like 25 percent hopeful that Hoiberg has figured it out, now that the last of the Thibs roster is out of the way. He deserves some credit for Markkanen’s rise and Kris Dunn’s solid play, as well as his handling of the Bobby Portis – Niko Mirotic rift.

Giannis, 30ish per game scorer – Like everyone, I knew the Greek Freak was coming to take over the league. I just didn’t see him trailing only James Harden in points per game THIS SEASON, without having a real 3-point shot yet. He’s been one of the league’s best defenders to boot. Bucket list player to see live, for sure.

Lou Williams, 30ish per game scorer – Wow. Lou is averaging 23 a game for the year, but a whopping 31.2 over his last 13. Chris Paul called him the Clips’ go-to scorer in some phenomenal petty shade thrown at Blake Griffin. Didn’t see this coming in Sweet Lou’s 13th season.

Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers – I would’ve told you in September that the Pacers were headed for their first ever real tanking season. Silly me, the Pacers don’t tank! Oladipo, a former No. 2 overall pick, is finally shining (24.3 ppg) and making the Hoosier State forget about Paul George. His Pacers are 6th in the East and Kevin Pritchard looks like a genius. Domantas Sabonis looks good too at 12 and 8 per game.

DeMar DeRozan – 36 percent on 3.2 treys a game?! I had given up on DeRozan’s potential as a deep threat. Now he’s got the Raptors rolling to a 29-13 start and dropping 25 a game with efficiency. The top of the East is, dare I say, fun? What a world.

Gerald Green – Do it for H-Town! The NBA vagabond has found a home in his hometown, and in Mike D’Antoni’s system. I witnessed him bury six 3-pointers against the Warriors, including one off the backboard. The crowd progressively lost their shit with each triple until it was almost deafening. I guess Simmons wasn’t watching that night.

Honorable Mentions – Donovan Mitchell/Trey Lyles/Doc Rivers/Jimmy Butler’s MVP case/Ben Simmons thriving on offense without actually shooting/Spencer Dinwiddie (CU Buff!)/Andre Drummond/the 25-18 Miami Heat/that time Orlando started out 8-4/Celtics dominating without Gordon Hayward.

It’s good to be back!

 

 

How the Unanimous MVP Stacks Up Historically (Plus Playoff Rankings)

Stephen Curry
The MVP’s ridiculous heat map resembles a sinister smiley face. Coincidence?

Welcome back, Steph. The playoffs missed you.

While the NBA’s first unanimous MVP recovered from a sprained MCL, we watched the Cavs throttle the Hawks in four games and a Heat-Raptors death march featuring injured centers, inefficient guards and dubious late-game coaching. The Steph-less Warriors played some entertaining games with Portland, but it was palpable that something was lacking. Meanwhile, Thunder-Spurs is the one second round series that has been good for consistent thrills, but unfortunately they can’t play that series every night. This all came after an underwhelming round one, where even the Game 7’s were lackluster.

But the Baby-Faced Assassin is back, and he wasted no time reminding us why we fell in love with him to begin with. His 4th quarter and overtime performance in Game 4 was legendary.

Every historically great player is able to quiet a hostile crowd in the playoffs. Steph didn’t just quiet the Portland faithful – he ripped their hearts out, poked them in the eyes and slapped their mamas. The man turned billionaire Paul Allen into a damn meme:

As an encore, Curry finished off the Blazers in Game 5 singlehandedly down the stretch. His ability to hit step-back threes over bigger defenders is beyond description at this point. It used to be absurd that he would even take these shots – now you just expect them all to go in. He doesn’t even have his feet squared up to the basket on this backbreaking, series-winning dagger on Al-Farouq Aminu:

Aminu, who had a great shooting series in his own right, learned the perils of tugging on Superman’s cape. If you recall, Aminu stared down a street-clothes-dressed Curry in Game 3 after draining a corner three.

Yea, not a great move. Curry of course got the last laugh. Don’t spit into the wind…and don’t mess around with Slim.

Curry’s second-straight MVP campaign has been so transcendent, I’m not sure NBA fans could’ve gotten over it if they were cheated out of watching him do his thing in the playoffs. From Game 1 to Game 82, this Curry season has felt historic. 73 wins. 402 threes. A top-10 all-time PER. 50-45-90 shooting percentages. His value is unique because he can dominate a game while still operating within the confines of the Warriors’ offense. The ball doesn’t stick in his hands. To wit, per SportVu stats on NBAsavant.com, Curry ranked 69th in average dribbles per touch (3.613) and 73rd in average touch time (3.816 seconds). Remember Curry led the league in scoring yet played under 35 minutes per game. Just how the hell does he pull that off without playing hero ball exclusively? It just doesn’t compute.

So let’s turn our attention to the historical context of this special MVP season.

I looked at 29 other famous MVP campaigns in an effort to compare where Curry ranks by the numbers. The criteria I chose to consider: PER, counting stats titles, Win Shares, Value Over Replacement Player, Box Plus/Minus and Team Wins. I’m simply adding them up without weighing any value higher than another, because I barely passed College Algebra. I did give a player 5 points for each counting stats title they won during their MVP season. The sum total is what I call the MVP Quotient. *Note: steals, blocks, VORP, BPM are not available for Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain. I estimated 11 BPM and 10 VORP for each.

The results:

MVPtable

As you can see, Curry grades out at the very top of the list. Above 1971-72 Kareem, 1995-96 Jordan, 1985-86 Bird, 2008-09 & 2012-13 LeBron. I’m always highly cognizant of the perils of recency bias, which is what led me to this exercise in the first place. But the numbers back up Curry’s case for the greatest offensive season of all time and, at the very least, a top-5 all-time MVP season. A season for the ages. My grandkids will hear plenty of stories about 2015-16 Steph.

Side note or two: How awesome was LeBron’s 2008-09 season? The 4th-best ever PER and it ranks 5th on this list even though he didn’t get any 5-point boosts for a counting stats title. It’s also cool to see how LBJ and Jordan dominate with seven of the top 12 MVP seasons on this list.

Playoff Power Rankings

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (Beat Hawks 4-0) – Just rolling through the East, licking their chops at the Heat-Raptors slap fight.
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder (Lead Spurs 3-2) – Amazingly have won 3 of  after getting trounced in Game 1. They need to close it out in Game 6, as a third straight victory in San Antonio is highly unlikely.
  3. Golden State Warriors (Beat Blazers 4-1) – Portland was a handful, even for five games, but now they get some rest. We’ll see how Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green heal up from minor injuries. The West Finals will be a bloodbath.
  4. San Antonio Spurs (Trail Thunder 3-2) – Reeling and on the ropes. But you can never count out the Spurs until the last buzzer sounds on their elimination. Wouldn’t be surprised if they win Games 6 and 7, but their offense needs an injection of life to do so.
  5. Toronto Raptors (Lead Heat 3-2) – They should beat the Heat without Hassan Whiteside. Their prize is the Cleveland slaughter.
  6. Miami Heat (Trail Raptors 3-2) – Terrible luck with Chris Bosh and now Whiteside and Luol Deng banged up. We’ll see if vintage Dwyane Wade returns to help force a Game 7.
  7. Portland Trail Blazers (Lost to Warriors 4-1)
  8. Atlanta Hawks (Lost to Cavs 4-0)
  9. Charlotte Hornets
  10. Indiana Pacers
  11. Boston Celtics
  12. Los Angeles Clippers
  13. Dallas Mavericks
  14. Detroit Pistons
  15. Houston Rockets
  16. Memphis Grizzlies

Playoff Rankings: Round 2 Rout is On

The cream has officially risen to the top. Here I thought Round 2 was going to be all-out war but – though things could change as the four series shift to the lower seed’s building – the rout is on. Cleveland has gone to another level. If they can sustain 85% of this 3-point production, they have a shot against Golden State. The Spurs go to Oklahoma tied but look to be in a class above the Thunder. An MVP-less Warriors team is mostly rolling through Portland. We shouldn’t be surprised. This entire season there have been three teams at the top, and they’re still looking down on the rest of the league. Now, Steph Curry looks to be coming back sooner than expected (hooray for blood spinning!). Here’s where we currently stand.

  1. Cleveland Cavaliers (Lead Atlanta 2-0) – Broke the record for made threes in a playoff game last night (25) in a 123-98 rout of the Hawks. After watching Atlanta throttle Boston in Game 5, I tweeted the following:

    Oops.

  2. San Antonio Spurs (Tied with OKC 1-1) – The messy ending to Game 2 was glorious and bottom line is the Spurs squandered a great chance to win that game with numbers in transition. Playing in OKC is no picnic. But now the Spurs are mad. You can rely on the following equation: Gregg Popovich>Billy Donovan. Spurs in 7 (if not 6).
  3. Golden State Warriors (Lead Portland 2-0) – An amazing fourth quarter brought them back after trailing by 17 points in Game 2. Draymond Green is vaulting to another level and Klay Thompson is staking his claim to the title of best two-way shooting guard in the league. Look for more Festus Ezeli going forward (finally). The Blazers should win one at home, but this series won’t make it past Game 5. Steph should be brought back with discretion, as the Warriors can clearly beat this team without him.
  4. Miami Heat (Lead Toronto 1-0) – Dwyane Wade’s renaissance has been a joy to watch. If Kyle Lowry can’t magically turn his shot back on, the Raptors are toast. Miami’s best player and coach know how to win this time of year. It’s worth keeping an eye on Wade’s and Hassan Whiteside’s knees going forward. Word is both are fine, but a setback could change the series.
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder (Tied with San Antonio 1-1) – To pull out this series over a 67-win Spurs juggernaut, Russell Westbrook will need to impose his will as he did early in Game 2. Tony Parker simply can’t keep up with him. The “let LaMarcus get his” strategy is interesting especially since it helps put a clamp on Playoffs Danny Green and Playoffs Patty Mills. Even though the series is tied 1-1, I get the feeling they need to win both these next two games at home. They stole one in San Antonio and I don’t think they’ll get another in the Alamo.
  6. Toronto Raptors (Trailing Miami 1-0) – Sad Kyle Lowry stayed in the empty arena after Game 1 working on his jumper. Let’s hope that helps him turn things around. Jonas Valanciunas was great in Game 1, but how much of that was due to Whiteside not being 100 percent? Norman Powell needs to make an impact in this series, but at the end of the day their fate will be tied to Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
  7. Atlanta Hawks (Trailing Cleveland 2-0) – I believed. Then Earl Smith III destroyed my faith. The Hawks can’t keep Thabo Sefolosha on the floor due to his poor shooting, and unfortunately he’s the only Hawk that can even pretend to guard LeBron. I expect Paul Millsap and Al Horford to perform better in Atlanta, but it won’t be enough. The Cavs death train rolls on.
  8. Portland Trail Blazers (Trailing GSW 2-0) – The Blazers have already overachieved. They may win a game at home with their great crowd, but Golden State is on a collision course with San Antonio. They always have been. Great job this season by Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard. They have good things ahead, but need to round out their roster in the offseason.
  9. Charlotte Hornets
  10. Indiana Pacers
  11. Boston Celtics
  12. Los Angeles Clippers
  13. Dallas Mavericks
  14. Detroit Pistons
  15. Houston Rockets
  16. Memphis Grizzlies

Reviewing the Wreckage: Updated NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Boy, it was such a simpler time back on April 16, when I posted my original Playoffs Power Rankings. Steph Curry had two healthy feet and a non-sprained right knee, coming off a historic regular season and ready to become immortal. Chris Paul’s traffic finger was whole. Russell Westbrook was an unquestioned superstar (good call, Mark Cuban!). The NBA’s finest hour was upon us. Now just a week and some change later, the Western Conference has been turned on its head as NBA fans have lost the two best point guards in our lives. A rematch of the horrible 2007 Finals seems unavoidable. If it happens, the Cavs are much more competitive now than the first time they faced the Spurs in the Finals; yet we will still likely feel cheated, even if it’s a seven-game classic. But, alas, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Behold, the second installment of our Playoffs Power Rankings…

  1. San Antonio Spurs (Beat Memphis 4-0) [Last Week: #2] – Quietly and swiftly took care of business versus the ghost of Memphis’ roster, winning four games by an average of 19.5 points and posting an obscene 117.1 OffRtg. San Antonio gets a much tougher test in OKC in Round 2, but they’ve suddenly become my de facto favorite to win it all now that Steph is a question mark.
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers (Beat Detroit 4-0) [LWk: #3] – Proved to be too much for the Pistons in a testy series that saw LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving average a combined 69.1 points per game. The rest of the league should take notice as the big three seem to have found a rhythm finally. Then again, Detroit doesn’t present the toughest defensive matchup. The Cavs, the second-biggest beneficiaries of the recent Warriors’ woes, actually bested the Spurs by three in OffRtg in Round 1 (120.4).
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder (Beat Dallas 4-1) [LWk: #4] – In another feisty series featuring shoves, errant elbows and innumerable stare-downs, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban tried to get in Westbrook’s head, or something, by saying the Thunder only had one superstar in Kevin Durant. Russ went off a couple hours later for 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists as the Thunder punted Dallas out of the playoffs. Russ is one of the last people on Earth I would choose to anger. Maybe that’s why I’m not a billionaire.
  4. Golden State Warriors (Lead Houston 3-1) [LWk: #1] – Let’s just get through this one before we get emotional. The greatest show on hardwood got knocked down a few pegs with news of Curry’s low-grade MCL sprain, but it’s still a damn good basketball team. Tied at halftime on the road in Game 4 with Curry shelved, the Warriors’ other stars unleashed the fury on Houston, to the tune of eight 3-pointers in the third quarter en route to a 65-38 second half. As bad as the Curry news is, they should still be favored over Portland or a CP3-less Clippers team in Round 2.
  5. Atlanta Hawks (Tied with Boston 2-2) [LWk: #7] – Instant Gratification Overreaction (IGO) Exhibit A: To everyone on the Internet complaining about the lack of competitive playoff series after two games, just let it breathe. Amazing how a series can even up once both teams have played the same amount of home games. There’s nothing wrong with the seven game series format. Still, it feels like Atlanta should be up 3-1 at the least, but somehow Boston is staying alive without its best wing defender, Avery Bradley. The Hawks had a 16-point lead in Game 4 behind Paul Millsap’s monster effort, but the rest of the team couldn’t hit an open shot. If that inefficiency corrects itself, look for ATL to advance.
  6. Miami Heat (Tied with Charlotte 2-2) [LWk: #9] – IGO Exhibit B: “Miami is red-hot and Nic Batum is out, it’s going to be an easy sweep” or some variation of that line of thinking was all over the podcast and Twitter world after Game 2. Amazingly, Miami did not continue to score at an all time team playoff rate and Charlotte’s great home court advantage helped them even the series. Initially I took Charlotte in six, but gun to my head I’ll take the Heat in seven. That Batum injury will haunt the Hornets at some point. The Heat should take care of business at home.
  7. Toronto Raptors (Tied with Indiana 2-2) [LWk: #5] – Toronto is all over the place. Determined to put to rest all the demons of playoffs past, the Raptors fell flat in Game 1, losing at home. After two straight convincing wins it seemed things had course-corrected and the 56-win team would prevail easily. Then Indiana spanked them in Game 4. DeMar DeRozan (30%FG) can’t score efficiently on Paul George and it seems he’ll be the last one to admit it. It’s up to Kyle Lowry (32%FG), who’s having his own matchup difficulties, to take the reins and finally get this team to Round 2.
  8. Charlotte Hornets (Tied with Miami 2-2) [LWk: #8] – I love the fight they showed in their two home wins, without the aforementioned Batum. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin are an unlikely pair of playoff heroes, but they played the role well in Games 3 and 4. They combined for 55 points in Game 4, hitting half their joint field goal attempts. Steve Clifford has largely stuck to his guns on defense and waited for the Heat to stop making everything. It will be interesting to see if Miami gets hot again back in their home building, what kind of counter punch Clifford has in store.
  9. Portland Trail Blazers (Tied with LAC 2-2) [LWk: #11] – IGO Exhibit C: The Blazers looked dead in the first two games, with Paul handcuffing Damian Lillard and the rest of the Blazers struggling to score. Though they still haven’t eclipsed 100 points in the series after averaging 105/game in the regular season, Dame, CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu got loose with some home cooking. Aminu in particular was amazing last night, scoring a career playoff-high 30 points with 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks. The Clippers’ myriad injuries have opened the door for Portland, will they bust through it with two games remaining in LA?
  10. Boston Celtics (Tied with Atlanta 2-2) [LWk: #10] – I really struggled with this ranking. On the one hand they willed themselves to two straight victories to even the series. On the other hand, I just don’t feel like they’ve played all that well. Atlanta has just been missing open shots – can the Celts count on Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder and Jeff Teague going 14-60 again? I’ll go out on a crazy limb and say no.
  11. Los Angeles Clippers (Tied with Portland 2-2) [LWK: #6] – With Paul expected to miss the rest of the playoffs with a broken third metacarpal, that means Austin Rivers & Jamal Crawford will be running the point. Yikes. Also, Blake Griffin is gimpy on that bad quadriceps, J.J. Redick has a bruised heel and even DeAndre Jordan got nicked up last night. It’s entirely possible Donald Sterling has a collection of Clippers voodoo dolls and is somewhere laughing maniacally. What an asshole.
  12. Indiana Pacers (Tied with Toronto 2-2) [LWk: #12] – Paul George is the best player in the series with Toronto, and that alone gives the Pacers a fighting chance. In their two losses, the Pacers just couldn’t generate enough points on the offensive end, despite how well they’ve defended the Raptors’ stars. In Game 4, Ian Mahinmi and George Hill gave George much-needed support on the offensive end with 22 points apiece. Meanwhile George held DeRozan to single-digits scoring.
  13. Houston Rockets (Trailing GSW 3-1) [LWk: #15] – We are so close to being rid of this uninspiring team. Let’s hope the Warriors put them out of their misery Wednesday so Dwight Howard and Co. can finally start their vacations. https://vine.co/v/iFVpQMzWBhO
  14. Dallas Mavericks (Lost to OKC 4-1)
  15. Detroit Pistons (Lost to Cleveland 4-0)
  16. Memphis Grizzlies (Lost to San Antonio 4-0)

NBA Playoffs Power Rankings

Plus Round 1 Picks!

  1. Golden State Warriors (73-9) – Duh. Any worry that the chase for 73 would wear them out should be squashed. If anything, it’s galvanized them even more. Now the Dubs can take a deep breath and smash the Rockets. That said, anyone who says there isn’t more pressure on them to finish off this record-setting season with a title is kidding themselves.
  2. San Antonio Spurs (67-15) – Of course the team with the best chance at ruining Golden State’s dreams are the Spurs, who just finished their best season. Though the Spurs have lost the season series 3-1 to GSW, they’ve played better defense on them than anyone else. Not surprising, given the Spurs’ historic 99.0 defensive rating. Their problem has been their inability to score enough to keep up with the Dubs. But I won’t be surprised if Danny Green magically becomes DANNY GREEN once the playoffs begin and starts hitting 70 percent from three.
  3. Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25) – For all the doubting and negativity surrounding Cleveland this year, they still rate as heavy favorites in the East and LeBron has located his familiar dominance setting in the past month. The East road is tougher this year and I can’t wait to see how the Cavs fare with a healthy team this time around. Another Finals loss for James seems likely, however.
  4. Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27) – The Thunder somewhat underachieved, given the relative health of their big three this season. In a weaker West they should have won 60+ games. But that’s all in the rearview. They should be too much physically for Dallas, leading to the real test in Round 2 vs. the Spurs. It seems unlikely that they make it to the West Finals, but they will always have two of the three best players in a series. If it’s ever going to click, you get the feeling it has to be this season, given Kevin Durant’s looming free agency. The fate of OKC will be a fascinating subplot to these playoffs.
  5. Toronto Raptors (56-26) – The Raptors just completed their best regular season ever, yet they arrive in the playoffs with significant pressure. The Dwane Casey regime has yet to make it out of the first round of the playoffs and were embarrassed in four games by Washington last season. Kyle Lowry and Demarre Carroll are coming off injuries. DeMar Derozan will need to continue to be a scoring force, but may find it a bit more difficult to get to the line in the playoffs against a strong frontcourt. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of the Raptors’ young bucks make an impact.
  6. Los Angeles Clippers (53-29) –  I’m kind of lost on these guys. Chris Paul and JJ Redick have had tremendous seasons. But Blake Griffin will need to be in top form for the Clips to have a shot against any of the top three in the West. He hasn’t looked right yet. They will also need some contributions from one of their wings – does Paul Pierce have anything left in the tank?
  7. Atlanta Hawks (48-34) – The next four teams are so tightly bunched they could be ranked in just about any order. I’ll take the Hawks as the cream of this group, thanks to the steady brilliance of Al Horford and Paul Millsap. I also expect Kyle Korver to up his production in the postseason.  Their lack of rebounding troubles me but I like their X-Factors, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, to win them a game or two in a great Round 1 matchup with Boston.
  8. Charlotte Hornets (48-34) – I like the Hornets to get their first playoff game and series win on the backs of Steve Clifford’s defensive sets, Kemba Walker’s takeover potential and the wing shooting they’ve displayed all year.
  9. Miami Heat (48-34) – Man, I wish Chris Bosh was healthy and able for these playoffs. They’ve done an admirable job without him, as key young pieces Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Hassan Whiteside have meshed with Dwyane Wade. Goran Dragic has found more of a role and newest addition Joe Johnson has found the Fountain of Youth now that he’s gotten the Nets stink off him. I expect their series with Charlotte to be a grind.
  10. Boston Celtics (48-34) – They may beat the Hawks in Round 1, if they get enough consistent shooting. I don’t like the matchup of their bigs against Horford and Millsap, but they should be able to pester the hell out of Jeff Teague and Korver on the perimeter. Big opportunity for Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart to show out.
  11. Portland Trail Blazers (44-38) – They have a puncher’s chance to catch fire and score the upset over the Clippers in Round 1. I’ll take Terry Stotts over Doc Rivers in the coaching matchup but they’ll struggle with DeAndre Jordan in the post.
  12. Indiana Pacers (45-37) – They present some interesting matchup challenges for the Raptors. Ian Mahinmi will need to have a big series protecting the rim from DeRozan’s many drives. Paul George may be the best player in the series. Their lack of shooting depth gives me pause, however.
  13. Detroit Pistons (44-38) – I love Reggie Jackson’s confidence and think they’ll give the Cavs at least three tough games. They don’t have enough firepower on offense to score the monumental upset. SVG has the edge over Tyronn Lue on the sidelines.
  14. Dallas Mavericks (42-40) – Another amazing job by Dirk and Rick Carlisle to will the Mavs to the postseason. They’re over-matched and injured going into Round 1 against OKC, but I won’t put it past Carlisle to steal a game or two by out-coaching Billy Donovan.
  15. Houston Rockets (41-41) -This team has disappointed and infuriated me all season and I refuse to believe in them again. I need to cleanse my pallet. Patrick Beverley could give Steph some trouble, but the Rockets are too undisciplined; the Warriors will carve them up.
  16. Memphis Grizzlies (42-40) – It’s so unfortunate what’s gone on in Memphis. I was hoping to see another grit n grind playoff run, but with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley shelved we may never see it again.

Round 1 Predictions:

East

(1) Cavaliers vs. (8) Pistons – Cavs in 5

(2) Raptors vs. (7) Pacers – Raptors in 7

(3) Heat vs. (6) Hornets – Hornets in 6

(4) Hawks vs. (5) Celtics – Hawks in 7

West

(1) Warriors vs. (8) Rockets – Warriors in 4

(2) Spurs vs. (7) Grizzlies – Spurs in 4

(3) Thunder vs (6) Mavericks – Thunder in 5

(4) Clippers vs. (5) Trail Blazers – Clips in 7

 

 

Who Among Us Hasn’t Tanked?

It’s been a week since the (probably) forced resignation of Sam Hinkie, ending the great tanking experiment of the Philadelphia 76ers and inspiring one last wave of think pieces about the “Process”. Fear not, this won’t be yet another profound critique of Hinkie’s three-year reign. Besides nothing can top Hinkie’s own rambling, TED Talk-esque manifesto of a resignation letter.

Instead, something that Zach Lowe said on his podcast piqued my interest and I’d like to explore it further. In the Lowe Post episode that followed his podcast with Hankie (weirdly, one day prior to Hinkie’s resignation), he pointed out that just about everyone has tanked at some point or another, so it’s somewhat hypocritical to say what Hinkie pulled was some sort of radical new ground. Perhaps the Sixers went overboard with the strategy, but no NBA team is above tanking. Not the Celtics, not the Lakers, not even the high-class Spurs. Below, we’ll go through each NBA team, examine a season in which they tanked and what came of each tanking. See the Warriors’ section to understand the successful tanking equation: one part sheer luck meets one part smart drafting. Hinkie had neither ingredient, hence why he is out of a job – bottom line.

A History of Tanking Continue reading

Rising(?) East – Examining the Southeast Division

The Southeast Division has rarely been relevant in the past decade, outside of the Miami super-teams and Atlanta’s 60 win season last year. But as mentioned in my last post, the Southeast is one of two divisions with four teams over .500. Charlotte and Orlando have been frisky, jumping out to 10-8 records. They both potentially join division mates Atlanta and Miami in the playoff conversation. I mentioned this already but it bears repeating: the top eight teams in the Southeast and Central divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. One of the toughest questions for NBA analysis is always, “is this a blip or a real thing?”

What makes me confident that the East is actually gaining ground on the West is that two East teams I most expected to be near the top are at the bottom – Milwaukee and Washington. I still have faith in both teams, but the East is no longer one big doormat and these two slow starters are learning that the hard way. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s go back to the goodness.

Southeast Division

  1. Miami (10-6)
  2. Atlanta (12-9)
  3. Charlotte (10-8)
  4. Orlando (10-8)

Quick hits on each team:

Miami can throw out a starting-5 that can stand toe to toe with just about anyone, and they do one thing exceedingly well – play efficient defense. Opponents shoot so poorly against the Heat it’s like they’re using those tight carnival rims that always screw me out of a useless prize dammit. The Heat hold opponents to 41% from the field (1st in NBA), 32% from three (4th), allow the second fewest free throw attempts per game and lead the league in point allowed per game (92.5). The reason they aren’t, say 14-2, rather than 10-6, is an almost equally anemic offense. Basically Heat games this season have been brick-laying contests in which Miami forces slightly more clanks from their opponent than they produce. They’ve only gotten off for more than 100 points four times this season, but three were against Houston, Sacramento and the Lakers. Those three may as well spot the other team 15 points at the start of each game. With the talent on Miami’s roster – Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh – you expect the scoring to go up at some point. The mantra for these guys is to keep healthy for the playoffs.

Atlanta will not win 60 games again this season. We all knew that. But an early 7-game win streak (albeit against less than stellar competition) shot them to the top of the conference early. Their defense has taken a bit of a hit without DeMarre Carroll, and with Tiago Splitter on the injured list. But Budenholzer ball continues to thrive – the Hawks are second in the league in assists and top half in most shooting categories. They should compete for a top four seed all year.

Charlotte is a team that I had completely written off after the season-ending injury to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. That they are 10-8 is a testament to the coaching staff, Nic Batum’s bounce back season and a more efficient Kemba Walker. The narrative around this team is that they are hoisting threes at will and just trying to outscore teams with their defensive stopper MKG on the shelf. They have gone nuts in certain games, scoring 130 on the Bulls and 108 on the Mavs in back to back games. They hit 14 threes in that Bulls beatdown, but only 6 against the Mavs. They rank 6th in scoring and 12th in three point attempts, numbers that seem improbable for a team that features Al Jefferson. I love Big Al, but he slows the game down and has never been known as a great kick out passer once he gets the ball down low. Nice job by coach Steve Clifford pivoting their style after MKG went down and helping Marvin Williams find a niche as a stretch four.

Orlando is just awesome. They are a joy to watch. They are filled with pedigreed athletes (due to so many years of high lottery picks), they play hard for Scott Skiles, they make mistakes but always seem to put up a fight against tougher competition. This is the trajectory I hoped they’d be on and I expect their above-average play to continue. Victor Oladipo has taken the next step and has slightly improved his jumper but it still needs work. Elfrid Payton has fantastic hair but also needs work on his jumper. Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon are fascinating swiss army knife type of players and Evan Fournier has surprised me with his scoring. Nikola Vucevic gives them a constant 15 and 10 post presence. With so many pieces Skiles can roll out many different lineup combinations to mix things up and keep other teams guessing. For instance, potentially their toughest lineup to defend this season is Fournier, Payton, Vucevic, Channing Frye and Tobias Harris. Figure out a way to slow that group down, and here comes Oladipo and Gordon; two more difficult problems to solve. Orlando may slip in to the playoffs as an 8 seed, and drive Cleveland batty in Round 1.

Back in a bit with a diagnosis and analysis of Milwaukee and Washington.

Rising(?) East – Examining the Central Division

Over a month into the NBA season, there are many early returns I didn’t see coming (hello Houston and NoLA), but I will take credit for predicting the rise of the Central Division. Since it’s only been a month I can’t say it’s eclipsed the Southwest Division as the class of the league, but it’s much closer than expected thanks to some stumbling teams (hello again, H-Town & N.O.).

Three of the four Central teams won again last night (Cleveland was off), leaving four teams in the division above .500 on the season. The only other division in the NBA with four teams over .500 is the surprising Southeast, where Charlotte and Orlando have overachieved to 10-8 records. Amazingly, the top eight teams in these two divisions are 35-19 against Western Conference opponents. This is where I remind you that the West has bested the East in regular season record 15 of the last 16 years. It’s only early December, but we can officially raise an eyebrow at the perpetual little brother, the East.

What’s most crazy about these early results is who is not doing well in these divisions. Unquestionably, the two worst teams in the Central/Southeast have been Milwaukee and Washington, two playoff teams that went all in to win this season. We will examine what’s wrong with them in a follow-up post.

But let’s start with the good.

Central Division

  1. Cleveland (13-5)
  2. Indiana (12-5)
  3. Chicago (11-5)
  4. Detroit (10-9)

Cleveland came in as the clear favorite to win the East and that hasn’t changed. I’m loving the all-business version of LeBron we’re getting right now; he has his guys humming and their fast start will allow Kyrie Irving to ease back into the lineup when healthy. Get Kyrie back, get Iman Shumpert back, hit full stride going into the playoffs. That’s the script for Cleveland and nothing has diverted them from it so far.

Indiana is the true surprise of the division early on. Frank Vogel is a great coach because he has shown the ability to adapt. Much like Erik Spoelstra in Miami or Gregg Popovich in San Antonio have done, Vogel has changed to fit the personnel and whims of the front office. Roster turnover is a thing that happens quickly in the NBA, especially when you factor in injuries. Before Paul George went down prior to the 2014-15 season, Indiana was one of the top teams in the West, by playing a plodding, physical style anchored in defense and rebounding. Roy Hibbert and David West were great on the boards but not ideal for spacing on offense. So Vogel shaped a team that wasn’t all that fun to watch but they were damn successful, with those bigs clogging the middle and the versatile Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill wing combo slowing down shooters and creating turnovers. Losing George before the start of the season made last year a lost cause, but Indiana has quickly pivoted into a totally different attack. PG-13 is back playing at an All-NBA level on both sides of the court and the Pacers rank 11th in offensive rating, 9th in pace and 2nd in three-point percentage. The truly amazing thing is that their defense hasn’t slipped a bit when they’ve gone small. I really don’t have a great explanation for that, outside of Vogel’s game planning and George’s all-around brilliance. They are blitzing teams with one lineup that’s featuring Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen as the only “bigs”to the tune of +55 points and +6 rebounds. Another lineup with Jordan Hill as the lone big is +40 in points. I have doubts on whether any of this is sustainable but the Pacers have proven me wrong thus far.

Chicago keeps winning yet I’m not quite sure how they’re doing it. As a Bulls fan I’m very happy with an 11-5 start, but I also worry about sustainability here. Let’s take a closer look. First off, who are the Bulls beating? All the good teams, seemingly. Chicago has knocked off Cleveland, OKC, San Antonio, Indiana, Charlotte and earned a nice road win in Phoenix. They played Golden State tough in Oracle before the Warriors’ practically unfair, Draymond at the 5 lineup torched them in the final two minutes. The Bulls have only scored over 100 points in five of their wins, while ranking 4th in defensive rating. So their well-renowned defense hasn’t been hurt, curiously, by Fred Hoiberg’s new system. Season-long, a Hoiberg team can’t compete with a Thibs scheme in defensive efficiency, right? (However, considering most of the roster has been around for a while, we do need to give them some credit for retaining Thibs’ principles and knowing how to play the game at a high level. They are NBA players, after all). Of their five losses, two have been in overtime and only one occurred at the United Center. So no worries right? All good, moving on…

…OK now taking my head out of the sand. There are a few concerns worth mentioning quickly. A) Derrick Rose is shooting 34% and 19%(!) from three; B) Nikola Mirotic may not actually be a good shooter (which they desperately need him to be), and his incessant pump-faking is ridiculous; C) Hoiberg has them playing 11th in pace yet 26th in offensive efficiency. So they are getting shots up quickly just not making them. If this doesn’t right itself, how can their defense possibly hold up?; D) four of the top five Bulls’ lineups in terms of +/- don’t include D-Rose, but four of the bottom five +/- lineups do include D-Rose. E) As a D-Rose fan, I’m sad.

Detroit raced out to a 5-1 start, lost four straight, then have played about even ball since. They are much improved, but still have glaring flaws, which show up in their multiple blowout losses. Six of their losses have been by nine points or more. It boils down to a serious lack of shooting. Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond can be magic on the pick-and-roll, but when defenses clamp down and force Detroit to beat them from the outside, they simply don’t have the firepower. Marcus Morris is shooting just 28% from three, so not doing his part to stretch the defense, while Stanley Johnson has shown flashes and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been up and down. On nights when they can be close to league average in field goal / three point shooting they will be dangerous. Once they get Brandon Jennings back, they may get a much needed shot in the arm, at least for small stretches. But basketball is definitely back in the Motor City, and I can’t get enough of Mr. Drummond.

Southeast Division breakdown coming up next…

 

So You Want to Be the Warriors?

The Warriors' secret ingredients
The Warriors’ secret ingredients

Look at the NBA landscape and things are pretty clear – it’s the Warriors, and everyone else. The Dubs, fresh off a championship, have come out firing to a 5-0 record, against four teams that were in last year’s Western Conference playoffs. Not until Wednesday’s thrilling win over the Clippers had the Warriors even had to sweat in a fourth quarter. Steph Curry is lethal and it seems each key cog has somehow improved from last year.

Naturally, the league’s other teams want to emulate Golden State. They are the standard-bearer for NBA excellence, sure, but the effort to transform into a Warriors-like identity is especially strong because they are viewed as unorthodox. They’re challenging convention by playing small, fast and with a deep bench. Ask 10 casual fans about who the Warriors are and I bet nine of them will talk about their pace and knack for outside shooting. It’s only part of the answer, however. Several teams have latched onto this half-truth in building their rosters, coaching staffs and overall identity.

Teams seem to forget the main ingredient in the Warriors’ hearty basketball stew – DEFENSE.

Yes, Curry is in the conversation for best scoring point guard of all time. Indeed, the Warriors led the league last year in pace, scoring, effective field goal percentage and three-point percentage, while finishing second in offensive rating. But it was their versatile and suffocating defense that drove the Dubs to 67 wins and an NBA title. Pace and space is a great concept, until your stretch four is getting smoked on the perimeter and your “rim protector” is getting dunked on (See: Mirotic, Nikola and Gasol, Pau).

I’m going to pick on the Bulls for another minute because I watch most of their games and I still can’t believe Charlotte hung 130 on them Tuesday night. Chicago scored 105 in that game, something they did 29 times in 2014-15. Last season, under Tom Thibodeaux, the Bulls went 24-5 in games in which they scored at least 105 points, winning those 24 games by an average of 11 points. They never lost by more than 11 when scoring that much, and in fact all season only allowed 130+ once, in a double overtime loss to the Mavericks. After kicking Thibs to the curb, the Bulls’ brain trust took major steps to Warriorize the team, bringing in Fred Hoiberg to install his pace-and-space, three point-heavy system. Hoiberg immediately moved Joakim Noah to the bench and is using stretch lineups with more shooters on the floor, such as Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic and Aaron Brooks. In a vacuum, this all makes perfect sense for a plodding offensive team looking to change its ways.

But the Bulls, and others such as the Pacers, Mavericks, Pelicans and even the Thunder, are missing the forest for the trees. There is a foundational dilemma at the heart of the small-ball revolution. How do you score in bunches, push the pace and create matchup nightmares for opponents on one end, while not becoming a sieve on the other end? Is it possible to gain the upper hand in matchups on both ends and blow teams out of the gym? If you’ve constructed a roster like the Warriors, then yes and yes. The LeBron-era Heat and the 2013-14 Spurs also proved the model. Teams that are playing small for small’s sake and not emphasizing the defensive end are setting themselves up for some ugly nights. Like when you give up 130 to Charlotte, those kind of nights. The Spurs were able to surround Tim Duncan’s rim protection with three or four deadly shooters. The Heatles had LeBron, Wade and Bosh in their primes and featured a trapping, frenzied defensive scheme that made up for lack of size in the middle.

Golden State works because they can go small or big, while always rolling out lineups that can switch screens, protect the rim and force turnovers. They have Draymond Green and nobody else does. He can cover quick guards for stretches on the perimeter, switch any screen and as he showed against Zach Randolph in the Warriors’ 50-point demolition of Memphis, he can body up almost any big. His unique talents combined with the rim protection and rebounding of Andrew Bogut allows Golden State to go small or super-small and never give up much defensive integrity in the paint. Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala are swiss-army knives on the perimeter that can switch to big men without allowing easy buckets. Throw all of this together with their shooting and running ability. The result is a championship-proven monolith that may not be replicable. The Warriors have set a standard that is not statistically attainable. Here are some Warriors numbers from last season to go with the offensive ranks listed above: 1st in opponent’s field goal percentage (.428), 1st in defensive rating, 1st in margin of victory, 2nd in blocks, 4th in steals, 5th in opponent’s turnovers, 6th in rebounding. Dear Lord.

Good luck matching that with Mirotic and Gasol playing more minutes than Noah and Taj Gibson. Or with Paul George at the four, next to Ian Mahinmi. Or with Enes Kanter taking minutes from Steven Adams.

OKC and Chicago are breaking in first-year coaches, and the season is very young. They may well figure out the right mix of minutes, tempo and defensive strategies. But they don’t have – and no one does – the roster versatility on both ends that Golden State has. They’d be well served to do like the rest of us: simply watch the Warriors in awe and try to make their own way.

What We Might Know After a Week (Eastern Conference)

What might we know after a week of NBA games? After looking at some data…maybe, probably nothing. But we can look at what last year’s standings were after each team played three games, and where that jived with or diverted from final standings. After waiting breathlessly all offseason for NBA action and eager to understand the league power structure, I crave context. I posted the Western Conference breakdown earlier. Now moving on to the Eastern Conference.

Anyone who follows the NBA with any real enthusiasm knows one simple truth: the Eastern Conference is inferior to its Western counterpart. It’s been that way for most of the 21st century. Some day I will do an investigation into why this phenomenon exists. But for now, just take comfort in the fact that the status quo has not changed. There’s one constant in this ever-changing world.

While the West has three winless teams in Houston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles (Lakers), the first two still have very real playoff aspirations after their bad start. Middle of the pack teams such as Phoenix, Denver, Sacramento and Utah all pack a punch. And the top of the West is much stronger than the top of the East. So the top, middle and bottom of the West is looking to be superior. To further illustrate the point, in this admittedly early stage of the NBA season, there are six winless East teams – Milwaukee, Philly, Indiana, Charlotte, Orlando and Brooklyn.

Detroit is a pleasant surprise at 3-0, and the Raptors have also jumped out to an undefeated start. Chicago and Atlanta have each played four games and sit at 3-1, while Miami, Washington and Cleveland all look very good. Here’s a look at the standings early on:

  Team W L
1 Raptors 3 0
1 Pistons 3 0
3 Bulls 3 1
3 Hawks 3 1
5 Cavaliers 2 1
5 Knicks 2 1
5 Heat 2 1
8 Wizards 2 1
9 Celtics 1 2
10 76ers 0 2
10 Bucks 0 3
10 Pacers 0 3
10 Hornets 0 3
10 Magic 0 3
10 Nets 0 3

Here’s a look at where the East stood after three games last season, and the final conference standings:

14-’15 Team W L   Final Standings W L
1 Heat 3 0 1 Hawks 60 22
2 Bulls 2 1 2 Cavaliers 53 29
2 Wizards 2 1 3 Bulls 50 32
2 Raptors 2 1 4 Raptors 49 33
2 Knicks 2 1 5 Wizards 46 36
2 Nets 2 1 6 Bucks 41 41
7 Cavaliers 1 2 7 Celtics 40 42
7 Bucks 1 2 8 Nets 38 44
9 Celtics 1 2 8 Pacers 38 44
9 Pacers 1 2 10 Heat 37 45
9 Hawks 1 2 11 Hornets 33 49
9 Hornets 1 2 12 Pistons 32 50
13 Pistons 0 3 13 Magic 25 57
13 76ers 0 3 14 76ers 18 64
13 Magic 0 3 15 Knicks 17 65

The East was weird last year, as the Heat adjusted to life after LeBron and eventually were done in by health issues. The Knicks fell off a cliff, winning only 15 more games after their 2-1 start. The Cavs struggled near .500 before the LeBattical and Timofey Mozgov/J.R. Smith/Iman Shumpert acquisitions, finishing the season 35-15 over the last four months. Meanwhile the Atlanta Hawks became nearly unbeatable for three months, going 38-6 from December through February.

Looking at the first week of this season, there are only two teams that really stand out as surprises – the Pistons and Bucks. These two Central division teams are headed in different directions through three games. Detroit has reshaped its roster and approach to the game. A question mark coming into the season was their defense, but they are winning with stellar performances on that side of the court, anchored by Andre Drummond blocking/changing shots in the paint. The Pistons are winning while shooting just 39 percent (28th in NBA) and ranking 21st in points per game. But they’re fourth in opponent’s points per game and are holding teams to just 28 percent from beyond the arc.

If the Pistons join the Heat in making the playoffs in the East this year, that means at least two teams that made it last year will fall to the Lottery. The Nets will be one of those teams. The other, it pains me to say, could be the Bucks. A chic pick to make a leap by people like me (I gushed about them in this NBA Risers column), the Bucks are struggling to find their way. They clearly miss cagey veterans like Zaza Pachulia and Jared Dudley, while Giannis missed a game and Jabari Parker hasn’t played yet (he’s cleared to play as of this writing). Meanwhile the addition of Greg Monroe, while it has great potential, has disrupted the chemistry. The Bucks are also testing conventional wisdom by starting a point guard that can’t shoot, in Michael Carter-Williams. He’s shooting a gross 27 percent from three.

The good news for Milwaukee, besides Jabari returning to the lineup? There are 79 games left, and they play in the East. The Rockets and Pelicans are envious.