Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tourney Time

One of the most interesting things to me about the NCAA Tournament is how there are players that can be so successful in college but just can’t fit in the NBA. At the same time, there are always great players who will be stars in the NBA who never made any noise in the Tournament. When you look back at last years tournament and NBA Draft, it’s interesting to see that the top group of players came from a mix of schools who made deep tournament runs and played in the championship game, but also has a good number of top players who didn’t lead their team to any success. 

Last year, Michael Beasley (the 2nd overall pick), OJ Mayo (3rd overall), Eric Gordon (6) and Jerryd Bayless (12) all were eliminated before the end of the first weekend of the tournament, and it clearly didn’t hurt their draft day value. Of course, if you look at the best teams from last season, you’ll see that their rosters are all filled with top-flight NBA prospects. Top overall pick Derrick Rose was the star of Memphis, who lost in the title game to Kansas, who had impact players Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush on their rosters. Also, Final 4 team UCLA had a pair of top-5 picks in Russel Westbrook and Kevin Love, and DJ Augustin led Texas to the Elite 8. Also prominant in last years tournament were twins Brook and Robin Lopez, who led Stanford to the Sweet 16, and Joe Alexander put himself into the lottery mix with a breakout performance in leading West Virginia to the Sweet 16 as well.

The point here is that when looking at your bracket, you have to look at both sides of the spectrum. Usually I would look for teams with future pros, going with the idea that the teams with the best player (or players) will generally win even if the team isn’t ranked as high as their opponent. But the new draft rule forcing everyone to play at least one year of college ball has thrown this idea off a little, because the one-and-done freshmen aren’t as invested in their teams success, and also because they might not be ready to completely lead their team in the tournament. Right now, I’m going to look at the best pro prospects playing in the tournament this year, and also some successful college players who don’t have a chance of really making it in the NBA, and what that might mean for their teams tournament chances. 

I’m going to start with what I think is the best team in the Tournament and my pick to win it all- Louisville. In this case, their success has a lot to do with the presence of 2 future NBA players, forwards Terrance Williams and Earl Clark. Williams, a senior, is one of the most complete players in the country, an powerful swingman who can impact the game on both ends without having to score or shoot that much- he reminds me of a Andre Iguodala or Ronnie Brewer in the way he can handle and distribute the ball as a point forward and hit the glass on both ends from the 2 position. Right now, Williams is thought of as a late-first round pick, but I think he would be a steal there. He still has potential, but will also be able to step in right away and contribute at the next level. Clark, a junior, is an athletic combo forward who still hasn’t reached his full potential. He’s a guy that will get drafted high regardless of his production because he has the NBA frame, wingspan and athleticism that everyone loves to talk about. In terms of pro comparisons, I think that Clark projects as a Josh Smith or Lamar Odom type, someone who can play both forward spots and, like his teammmate Williams, do a lot to impact the game without scoring. He doesn’t really have the ballhandling ability of an Odom, but he can still take the ball of the glass and bring it up himself, and is a good passer for his size. In the tournament, Clark is the perfect player to sit in the middle of the zone defense that so many teams in the NCAA love to play and create for himself and others. He projects to be a high lottery pick, and in a weak draft could even go in the top 5. As for Louisville as a team, Rick Pitino has a great system in place for his talented, athletic and deep squad, which uses all of these elements to their advantage. They press relentlessly the entire game, and the Williams-Clark tandem is extremely difficult for opponents to match up with.

The rest of the 1 seeds have plenty of pro prospects as well. Connecticut is headlined by 7’3 center Hasheem Thabeet, a game-changing shotblocker who is still pretty raw but translates into a Top 5 pick (at worst). Thabeet is flanked by a pair of NBA hopefuls in point guard AJ Price and forward Jeff Adrien. Price has the skills and outside shooting ability of a pro player, but he just doesn’t have the speed or athleticism that the better prospects do. Adrien has been a productive college player and is a great leader for a very good team, but he simply doesn’t have the size to play at the next level- he’s a 6’6 power forward who doesn’t have the wingspan or athleticism to make up for his lack of size. It’ll be surprising if he plays at the next level. As for UConn as a team, I think they might be the weakest of the top seeds- the presence of Thabeet gives them an undeniable edge against smaller teams, but as they face tougher competition they could be beatable. It’s unfortunate, but the injury to Jerome Dyson really set them back and I think won’t be enough for them to overcome.

Pittsburgh also sports a trio of NBA hopefuls, only two of which have a real chance of making it. The clear leader of Pitt is undersized point guard Levance Fields- he’s short, stocky and not too quick, but Fields controls the tempo of the game and makes shots when he has to. Fields reminds me of former UConn PG Khaled El-Amin- a great leader at the college level, but no real pro future. At first look, 6’6 center DeJuan Blair seems to be the same story- too small, not athletic enough. I thought that Blair, while a dominant college player, would have to do the Antonio Gates thing and switch to football. But Blair has a freakish 7’3 wingspan and uses his bulk to his advantage, and the fact that he’s been able to be so productive against true NBA-sized centers (such as Thabeet) makes me think that he could actually succeed in the pros. NBA scouts agree, as Blair is not considered to be a mid-first rounder. Blair really inspires confidence because he’s a hard worker but clearly enjoys playing the game- if you ever watch him play, you’ll always see him smiling and bouncing around (except when he gets in foul trouble). But the real pro prospect on Pitt is small forward Sam Young, an athletic jack-of-all-trades who sizes out to the NBA standards. He’s another guy who might actually get undervalued on draft day, but I think he projects out to a player like Andres Nocioni, a tough 3 who can do damage both inside and out while playing tough defense. Overall, Pitt is a team that has the depth and physical attitude to take any team out of their comfort zone and really slow down the tempo of the game, making it the slugfest that they prefer. In the tournament, the team that can control the tempo generally has the upper hand, and I think that Pitt can impose their will enough to make a very deep run.

The final #1 seed, UNC, might have the biggest mixed bag in terms of potential pro talent- no team in the country has as much overall talent as UNC, but none of the players on their team project to be high picks or difference-makers at the next level. On one hand, this actually helps UNC’s chances in the tournament because they function so well as a team. Carolina is obviously led by senior power forward Tyler Hansbrough, a player as controversial as JJ Redick was a few years ago in terms of pro prospects. Redick was taken higher than he should have been at #11- just ask the Magic now how they feel about that pick. This year, scouts seem to be much lower on Hansbrough, calling him a late first rounder at best, but I think it might actually be too low. Hansbrough seems similar to Udonis Haslem of the Heat- they’re similarly sized, and Hansbrough’s new mid-range game gives him the ability to make himself a threat on offense. Say what you will about him, but he’s a worker and he simply knows how to score, regardless of how awkward it might look. On the right team, he will be able to contribute in the NBA. 

UNC has a few more borderline prospects in point guard Ty Lawson and swingman Danny Green, who will both be in this years draft, as well as scoring guard Wayne Ellington, who will probably find himself in next years draft. Lawson has applied for the draft each of the past 2 years before pulling his name out, both times because he didn’t grade out high enough. Unfortunately, Lawson’s potential goes down a little every year older he is, and he hasn’t been able to answer questions about his outside shot and durability as a smaller point guard. Lawson is a smaller version of Ray Felton, which probably isn’t a good thing seeing the success (or lack thereof) that Felton has experienced. Danny Green is kind of a poor mans Danny Granger, a versatile swingman who does a lot of things well but nothing great. More realistically, he should hope that he can remind people of James Posey, someone who can come off the bench to guard multiple positions, provide rebounding and some clutch outside shooting. Finally, Ellington can do that one great thing (shooting), but falls a little short in a lot of other areas such as his size and athleticism. So where does UNC stack up in the tournament? I think that they do have the talent and depth to compete, but when they come up against teams with more size and athleticism- exactly like what happened last year when they fell to Kansas in the Final 4. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

We're Back!

And after close to a year, I'm writing again. The plan is to be able to update this on a semi-regular basis, sometimes with full columns like this one, and other times with more brief postings regarding to specific games, things I've noticed, and other things like that.

I decided the best way to get back into blogging would be to go around the whole league with my current power rankings- basically, a combination of a teams current standings (by record) as well as how well I think they're playing in comparison to the other teams around them. I've included an overview of the team in my eyes, and some quick notes about some of the teams.

1. Los Angeles Lakers (48-12)- With Andrew Bynum in the lineup, the Lakers looked like they would cruise through the regular season. Now with Bynum hurt once again, the Lakers have simply returned to their stretch run lineup from last season and are cruising along once again. Of course, they now have to deal with the same questions as last year, and as well as the Lakers have been playing, they'll need Bynum healthy if they want to win the title. 

2. Cleveland Cavaliers (47-12)- LeBron has rallied the troops in Cleveland, and with wingman Mo Williams, an energetic supporting crew and the best home-court record in the league, the Cavs have picked up the tempo offensively and are flaunting the East's best record. LeBron is as aggressive on a night-to-night basis as he's ever been and is a more productive and efficient player as a result. And the results so far have been pretty scary- he's averaging 28, 7 & 7 while playing the best defense of his career- as well as fewer minutes per game than he's ever played. Of course, he won't be playing those reduced minutes once the playoffs come along, and when that happens, the Cavs should be even more dangerous than they already are.

3. Boston Celtics (47-14)- As the reigning league champions, the Celtics have had to deal with more scrutiny over the course of the season and consistently get the opposing team's best efforts. But the emergence of Rajon Rondo has turned the Big 3 into 4, and despite battling injuries and relying on a thin bench, the Celtics are as cohesive of a squad as their is in the league and they don't plan on going away easily. The signing of the exiled Stephon Marbury could prove to be a huge boost to the Celtics- it's easy to forget, but Marbury used to be a premier scorer, and is a big point guard who can play both backcourt positions. If he can keep his ego in check and play within the teams scheme, Marbury might be a difference maker before the year is done.

4. Denver Nuggets (39-21)- The Nuggets got more than they could have possibly expected from the now seemingly lopsided trade of Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups, and now find themselves sitting near the top of the still loaded Western Conference. The presence of Billups transformed a talented but wild group into a true team on both ends of the floor, but the real secret to Denver's success lies in the frontcourt trio of former castoffs and afterthoughts Kenyon Martin, Nene, and Chris Anderson. However, the success of that group could also lead to trouble for the Nuggets- all three of them have had injury problems throughout their careers. I think the Nuggets could really use the services of Joe Smith or Drew Gooden, who were both waived last week- another capable big would really provide good insurance to a team who I think has a good chance of competing in the playoffs.

5. San Antonio Spurs (40-19)- Without much fanfare, the Spurs are once again within striking distance of the top of the West, even though the core group surrounding their Big 3 has completely changed in just one season. This years Spurs team is more lively and resilient than recent versions of the team, and Tony Parker has shown that he is a top point guard and capable of carrying a team on his own. If Manu Ginobili is healthy heading into the playoffs, the Spurs once again look ready to make a title run. 

6. Orlando Magic (43-16)- The Magic made the jump to the upper level of the East by adding some defense to their high powered offense, fueled by the dominating Dwight Howard and the versatile pairing of forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis. Point guard Jameer Nelson was also playing at an All Star level before unfortunately suffering a season-ending injury. The Magic are going to try to fill his void with trade-deadline acquisition Rafer Alston, and how he handles the challenge will go a long ways towards the Magic advancing through the tough top of the East. So far, it looks like Alston can't quite replace Nelson and the Magic have been a little bit inconsistent since the trade was made.

7. Portland Trail Blazers (37-22)- The Blazers seemed like a lock to turn some of their endless supply of assets into a big piece that could help put them over the top, but instead decided not to change the young and talented group that had been playing so well all year. The Blazers are extremely deep, and Brandon Roy is a legitimate MVP candidate who always gives his team a chance to win. They have obvious team chemistry, and Greg Oden is starting to show flashes of the dominant big man that he can be. 

8. Utah Jazz (37-23)- Despite missing several of their best players for long stretches of the year, the Jazz have hung around the top of the West and are now getting healthy for the first time all year. The Jazz are tough and extremely well-coached, and while he didn't make the All Star team once again, Deron Williams is as dynamic and dangerous of a player as there is in the league, and he is fully capable of carrying the team. If Boozer can return to his form of last season, the Jazz are definitely another team to watch out for in the always-crowded West.

9. Houston Rockets (38-22)- If you want to talk about teams battling the injury bug, the Rockets belong at the top of the list. They really never got their dream lineup of McGrady, Artest, Battier & Yao healthy at the same time, and now McGrady is out for the year and former starting point guard Rafer Alston is in Orlando. The Rockets are still deep and talented, and will rely on the dynamic scoring ability of new starting point guard Aaron Brooks and tough defense in the hopes of finally making it out of the first round. 

10. New Orleans Hornets (37-22)- What was supposed to be a dream season for the Hornets hasn't quite gone according to plans, but they've managed to ride the amazing Chris Paul to enough wins to keep them in the playoff hunt. Paul has made it clear that he's a superstar in this league, and the numbers that he's been putting up this year have been absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, the Hornets don't seem like the cohesive unit they were last year, and it doesn't look like Paul has enough help- a serious playoff run seems unlikely. 

11. Atlanta Hawks (34-26)- The Hawks are an enjoyable team to watch, and their starting 5 is as good as any in the league, but their bench is a serious issue- there isn't a single impact player that they can bring in to change the game, and one injury to any of their starters would crush any serious hopes of making a splash in the playoffs. It's been great to see the Hawks turn their gritty first-round series against the Celtics last season into a launching pad for this season, but they seem at risk of being in a constant cycle of mediocrity. 

12. Miami Heat (31-28)- Dwyane Wade has returned to his pre-injury, Finals MVP form and with the help of 2 impact rookies, the Heat are a viable playoff team in the East. I think the deal they made with Toronto for Shawn Marion will be a great move for them- not only do they finally get a real center in Jermaine O'Neal, but Marion had regressed to the point that the raw but athletic Jamario Moon does a lot of the same things that Marion does. When you watch the Heat play, you can tell that they all believe that they can be competitive, and really rally around Wade, who is leading the league in scoring. They're probably still another year away, but I think the returns on this remade team will come in earlier than expected.

13. Phoenix Suns (34-25)- Where do you even start with the Suns? The Suns are the most entertaining and dysfunctional team in the league, and now they're without arguably their most talented player for the rest of the season. At this point, Phoenix is going to try to play as fast as possible in the hopes of squeezing into the playoffs. Regardless of the result of this season, the Suns are in real trouble in terms of salary, and will have to shake things up even further to prevent paying the luxury tax.

15. Dallas Mavericks (36-24)- The Mavs are clinging onto a playoff spot (and the almost certain first round exit that would come with it), and seemingly have nowhere to go but down after yet another disappointing season. The core group of Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Jason Terry remains productive, but it's clear that the Mavs need one more true impact player to really push them into serious contender status- hindsight is always 20/20, but it's been looking like former Mav and Eastern Conference All Star Devin Harris could have been that player. The Mavs might be ranked a little low, but they've developed a bad habit of losing to bad teams, and I really struggle to take them seriously despite their record.

14. Detroit Pistons (29-29)- At the time of the trade, I thought the Pistons came away on top, or at least no worse than where they started, but time has clearly proved that trading away Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson has hurt the Pistons. While you can't blame all of the problems on Iverson (the coaching has been awful as well), the Pistons don't really have a true identity at this point and have lost production from one of their best players (Rip Hamilton) at the expense of playing Iverson. The good news is that the contracts of both Iverson and Rasheed Wallace expire after the season, so the Pistons will have plenty of money to rebuild or reshape the team. With all of that said, the Pistons have been hot recently in Iverson's absence and if they put him on the bench and start Hamilton again, it's not out of the question for them to get hot down the stretch.

16. Milwaukee Bucks (29-33)- The Bucks are another rollercoaster of a team, as they're right in the middle of the ridiculous East playoff race, but are also without their best player (Michael Redd) for the rest of the season. The young tandem of Ramon Sessions and Charlie Villanueva is more dangerous than you'd expect, and with a healthy Andrew Bogut they could realistically find themselves in the playoffs.

17. Philadelphia 76ers (29-30)- It turns out the best thing to happen for the 76ers was offseason prized acquisition Elton Brand hurting his shoulder- with Brand out of the lineup, the Sixers can get back to their running style that suited them well enough last year to land them a playoff spot. The bigger problem lies in the fact that the Brand signing was absolutely horrible, and now they're paying top money to Brand and Iguodala, neither of which should be the best player on a contending team. To make matters worse, they'll probably lose point guard Andre Miller to free agency in the offseason, and while Iguodala gets most of the credit, Miller is definitely the player that holds the Sixers together.

18. Chicago Bulls (27-33)- The Bulls are one of the more puzzling teams to follow, both on the court and in the front office. For years, the Bulls have passed on making big deals, choosing to instead let their large stockpile of assets continue to grow. The pick of Derrick Rose has given the team more national attention, and Rose has done nothing to disappoint so far, but the fact of the matter is that the Bulls now have too many players that are able to contribute but aren't stars. Before the All Star break, the Bulls had a small window where they could have traded for Amare Stoudamire (or maybe even Chris Bosh). But instead, the Bulls decided not to go for the home run, much as they have in past years when they missed trade opportunities for both Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol. John Salmons and Brad Miller are 2 good pieces, and for the most part the Bulls are lined up to be able to make a big free agent signing in the much-anticipated summer of 2010, but nothing is guaranteed in unrestricted free agency and it looks like the Bulls played it too conservatively once again. Seriously, could you imagine a Rose-Stoudamire combo?

19. New Jersey Nets (26-33)- The Nets are one of a handful of teams who came into this season looking simply to gain as much cap room as possible for the summer of 2010. But along the way, the Nets have thrown together a pretty good, young team. Along with Vince Carter, who has played a better all-around game this season than he has for years, the Nets are led by the surprising Devin Harris and rookie center Brook Lopez. When it's all said and done the Nets will probably miss the playoffs this season, but with the point guard & center positions set for the future, New Jersey is certainly becoming an attractive free agent destination for some of the biggest stars.

20. Indiana Pacers (26-36)- The Pacers have been another pleasant surprise this season- what looked like a disaster at the end of last season looks like a much better situation less than a year later. The Pacers have rebuilt on the fly around Danny Granger, who is a legitimate scorer and much better than I ever thought he would be, and a wide-open offense. The team is young and pretty talented, and they have some money coming off the books that will help them take another step in the right direction. They probably can't sneak into the playoffs, but they'll certainly be able to use a lottery pick as they continue to move forward.

21. New York Knicks (24-35)- If you're looking for excitement, look no farther than the new-look Knicks. Some sound front office work and the coaching of Mike D'Antoni has revived the franchise, and while all the talk still centers around the hopeful signing of LeBron in the summer of 2010, the Knicks are a very entertaining and explosive offensive team that has won a lot more games than expected this year. Nate Robinson and David Lee, two players who would be perfect complements to LeBron but might never get the chance to actually play with him in New York, have been the stars, but the real surprise has been Al Harrington. Cast away from Golden State, Harrington has played with a chip on his shoulder all year and has been hugely successful in D'Antoni's system. 

22. Charlotte Bobcats (25-35)- The Bobcats are an absolute mess and hold the fairly dubious distinction of having the most players on their roster over the course of the season. As it stands now, they actually have a decent collection of talent and seem to be willing to play for Larry Brown, but they're not positioned to do anything worthwhile either this season or down the road. In my opinion, the problems start with the fact that they're paying center Emeka Okafor star money, but really he would be the second or third-best player on a legitimately competitive team. Looking back now, it's amazing that Okafor was considered by some to be a better prospect than Dwight Howard, and what a crippling mistake taking Okafor would have been for the Magic.

23. Toronto Raptors (23-38)- It's hard to say exactly what went wrong in Toronto- GM Bryan Colangelo wanted to build his team with the same run-and-gun formula that he had success with in Phoenix, but this team just doesn't have the right pieces to do that. The Raptors biggest weakness is their play at the two wing positions- other than Anthony Parker, they don't have anyone on the roster who can really play the 2 or 3 positions successfully. Chris Bosh is still a star, and Andrea Bargnani has shown some of the promise that made him the #1 overall pick a few short years ago. The idea, following the trade for Shawn Marion, is to feature the versatile trio of Marion, Bosh and Bargnani and force other teams to match up with them. Marion is a free agent after the season, so they get a free look at how this unit will fare, but realistically I see Marion leaving Toronto and forcing the Raptors to attempt at starting over once again.

24. Golden State Warriors (20-39)- You have to love the Warriors- no matter who they have on the roster, you know that they're going to be exciting to watch every time they take the court. This year they've almost completely ditched the idea of a traditional point guard, and handed the reigns to the offense over to small forward and captain Stephen Jackson (whose idea of running an offense often involves taking the first 3-pointer available to him) or combo guards Monta Ellis and Jamal Crawford. Honestly I'm surprised that the Warriors are this bad, because offensively they can keep up with anyway. What makes them frustrating is when you see what they can be offensively- I saw them play the Lakers recently, and they were competing on the defensive end the entire game. It's not that they don't have the bodies, its just the fact that coach Don Nelson doesn't have them playing enough defense on a nightly basis.

25. Oklahoma City Thunder (15-45)- Even though they still haven't converted it into that many wins, the Thunder are a team on the rise that clearly seem to have both good young talent and, more importantly, a plan for the future. Kevin Durant is a superstar in the making who has been lighting it up every night until his recent ankle sprain. Jeff Green and rookie sensation Russell Westbrook are very good players who fit well around Durant and the three of them will surely continue to grow as a unit. The Thunder passed on the opportunity to add a legitimate young center in Tyson Chandler, but they did add a defensive minded shooting guard at the deadline in Thabo Sefolosha, which is a nice piece going forward. If they use their cap room and high draft pick correctly this offseason, the Thunder can be a serious player in the West for years to come.

26. Minnesota Timberwolves (18-41)- The T-Wolves looked like they could be a feel-good team late in the season, but losing Al Jefferson is a blow that no team in the league could cope with, especially the bottom-dwelling Wolves. The Wolves will once again look to the draft and the accompanying top-5 selection, but their draft history isn't exactly inspiring- in the past few years they've passed up on Brandon Roy and OJ Mayo for Randy Foye and Kevin Love. 

27. Memphis Grizzlies (15-43)- To me, the Grizzlies really missed on some opportunities to be a good, promising young team. They actually haven't been THAT bad, considering that they've been starting 3 rookies (OJ Mayo, Darrell Arthur & Marc Gasol) for most of the year. Mayo has put his stamp on the team and already is the clear leader, and Gasol looks like he definitely has a place in the league as a gritty center. But the bigger concerns revolve around the regression of Mike Conley and Rudy Gay, who hasn't been the dominant scorer that he looked like he would develop into last year. The Conley situation is made more problematic because the Grizzlies traded away two promising young point guards (Javaris Crittendon & Kyle Lowry) to make Conley "the man," and it hasn't worked so far. It's possible that the team envisions Mayo as a point guard down the road, but I think that puts too much pressure on him defensively, where he isn't fast enough to chase the top point guards around. As for Gay, he might be fine as a role player who does a lot of things, but the team decided to keep him instead of trading him for Amare Stoudamire, which might end up being a big miss for the franchise.

28. Los Angeles Clippers (15-46)-  The Clippers problems don't have as much to do with the talent level as they do with negative personalities, injury problems and the trust that the franchise has placed in coach & GM Mike Dunleavy. At this point, it's unclear why he still has any job with the team. Either way, the Baron Davis signing has completely backfired both on and off the court, and trading for Zach Randolph, even if it is just for cap reasons, is never a good idea. The bright spot is rookie Eric Gordon, who is yet another promising player from this years loaded draft class. He's an explosive scorer who has deep (seriously, deep) range but is still willing and able to get into the lane and finish at the rim. 

29. Washington Wizards (14-46)- My hometown Wizards have been as bad as any team in the league this year, and have a ton of money tied up in a team that might not get any better than a team that loses in the first round every year. But it's important to note that the Wizards came into the season without their starting point guard (Gilbert Arenas, who also happens to be the face of the franchise) AND their starting center (Brandon Haywood, who was coming off of the best season of his career last year). Look around the league, and ask yourself how each team would fare if they had to play the entire season without their projected starters at point guard and center. They might not all turn out as bad as this years Wizards, but either way the results wouldn't be good. Just an attempt at some positive spin on a horrible season.

30. Sacramento Kings (13-48)- You can't even count the Kings among the most disappointing teams of the season, because there were never any expectations out of Sacramento, and honestly even legitimate basketball fans would have trouble naming more than half of their roster. Kevin Martin remains the lone bright spot, and there are some promising young players on the team who could turn into real contributers down the road. I do like young center Spencer Hawes, who isn't too great defensively but is a true 7-footer who can do a lot of different things on the offensive end and learned how to be a better passer under former Kings center Brad Miller. The most important thing for the Kings, however, is to change the culture in Sacramento- the franchise seems more interested in making (or currently, not losing) money, and the teams play is a secondary motive. Until that changes, they can't get better as a team.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympics are Here

A 2-part preview of basketball in the Olympic games- the first half is mainly about the basketball side of things, and the second part focuses more on the politics of the game and the public opinion of Team USA.

Strategy for Success

Anyone who has watched Team USA knows that most of their scoring is generated from the fast break, which is fueled by forced turnovers, loose balls and sharp outlet passes after missed baskets (and sometimes even made baskets). As the US has superior athleticism across the board, running at every opportunity gives them the best chance to score, and in turn, to win. There are two major problems with this source of offense- frequent gambling on defense to create these opportunities, and the lack of a half-court offense when fast break opportunities don’t present themselves.

Against most teams, the US will dominate simply because the back-court pressure of Kobe, Williams, Paul and Kidd will be too much for inexperienced or incapable guards to handle- this prevents very good teams, like Lithuania and Germany, from seriously competing with the US. That said, the better teams have achieved top status in part because of their strong guard play. Spain, Greece and Argentina will not have the same struggles bringing the ball up. Spain in particular is loaded at point guard, led by Jose Calderon (who was among the NBA leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio last season) and young phenom Ricky Rubio, who will almost definitely be a top 5 pick in next year’s NBA draft and should get regular playing time.

Once the opposing teams get into their offense, Team USA loves to gamble, running out into passing lanes and prematurely leaking out on the break. The disciplined medal contenders will not only be able to withstand this, but exploit the aggressiveness of the Americans into easy half-court baskets, either with back-door cuts for open layups, or spot-up shooters getting uncontested looks from 3-point range. The thing that I’ve noticed about all of the international teams, even the lesser ones, is that if they have an open look, they will almost always make it. You can only expect to see the quality of shooters go up as the US faces tougher competition.

Team USA loves to push the tempo. Along with the strong trio of point guards, Kobe, Wade and LeBron are all capable of handling the ball in the open court, and every player on the team is more than capable of finishing on the break. But when teams take care of the ball and make a concerted effort to get all 5 guys back on defense (a strategy that Russia successfully employed), the opportunities to run will be less frequent. This is where the US needs to be able to walk the ball up and run plays in the half-court. This has always been a problem for the Americans, and unfortunately this team doesn’t seem to be much different. The issue isn’t the players, it’s just the nature of the international game that causes these problems. The NBA is fueled by individual offensive play- since zone defenses aren’t allowed and you can’t camp out in the paint, a superior offensive player who can beat his man one-on-one is given the advantage. With FIBA rules, there is no concept of individual play, and it shows. When the Americans try to run isolation plays, letting Kobe or Carmelo work against his man, it doesn’t look quite right, and generally doesn’t result in any advantage for Team USA- this isn’t the way the international game is supposed to be played, and there just isn’t going to be that much success with this strategy. International teams rarely, if ever, run isolation plays for a specific player. Instead, most offensive play in international basketball starts with a high pick-and-roll (and the pick man is given much more freedom to set a moving screen), and then goes into a series of perimeter passes with the intent of finding a mismatch somewhere on the court. In the event that an international player drives into the lane, he usually isn’t looking to get all the way to the rim and score- instead, his intent is to find a shooter that has been left open on the wing, or a cutter who the defense lost track of. Team USA is definitely capable of playing this way, but it is still a foreign (no pun intended) concept to actually AVOID one-on-one play for an entire game.

With all that said, the US should still be fine on offense, even in a slow game. Against Australia, the entire US team went ice cold, especially from 3-point range. The Americans continued to shoot 3’s because the Aussies were purposely sagging off of them, choosing to pack the lane and prevent drives at the expense of giving up uncontested jumpers. In a game where the US shoots 3-18 from distance, this strategy might work (don’t forget, however, that Team USA still won by 11 points). However, what happens if the US shoots 50% in that game- a completely reasonable number. 9-18 shooting from 3-point range gives the US 18 more points, and all the sudden you’re looking at a 29 point win. Watching the Australia game, I saw the Americans miss several open jumpers that they are more than capable of making, shots I’ve seen all of them make on a very regular basis. It’s rare for an entire team to have such a cold shooting night, but it happened to the US against Australia. The other thing that happens if the US shoots a percentage that they’re capable of making (we’ll still with the 50% estimate, which could actually be on the low side) is that the Australian team would be forced to change their defensive strategy. You can’t keep packing in the paint if the other team is making their open jumpers, and if the Australians opened up their defense, extending beyond the 3-point line, the US would have much more room for their athletes to get into the lane and get easier buckets.

While this scenario might seem complicated and optimistic, it really isn’t that farfetched. When you have a team with so much talent and athleticism, you have to expect your opponent to use the rules to level the playing field- in this case, using a zone defense or very soft man-to-man, exploiting the lack of the defensive 3 second rule. From there, it comes down to one simple opportunity. If you make your perimeter shots, the opposing team will be forced to play a more traditional defense that doesn’t give up easy outside shots, and the floor opens up again. If you miss your outside looks, then the opponent isn’t penalized for playing a “junk” defense, and they will continue to do so until you can make them pay.

To me, this closely resembles the individual battles that a superstar has with his primary defender every night in the NBA. For this example, I’m going to use Dwyane Wade. Since Wade has such an explosive first step, along with the speed and strength to score every time he gets close to the basket, his defender has to give him some space, thus negating his first step. Wade, given this extra space, now has the opportunity to shoot an uncontested jumper basically every time he touches the ball. If he chooses to take this shot, and starts making it, his man has no choice but to guard him more closely- this prevents Wade from shooting open jumpers (which, in this scenario, he has been making), but sacrifices the buffer zone that protects him from Wade’s deadly first step. Since his jumper is falling, Wade can once again get into the lane at will. And back and forth. For most NBA stars- Paul, Williams, Kobe, LeBron, and Carmelo are all included here- this is the case almost every night. If their jumper is falling, then they’re impossible to stop; if their shot isn’t falling, then the defense has more of an advantage. The international game takes this one-on-one scenario and expands it to the entire team- if USA is hitting from the outside, which they are very capable of doing, the floor will open up.

I’m not overly worried about one bad shooting night for Team USA. The odds that EVERY shooter on the team goes cold at the same time are very slim, and if even one player had a plus shooting night, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. That said, the nature of the Olympic tournament doesn’t allow for off nights. The medal round is a single elimination tournament, and one bad shooting night against a top team could very easily result in a loss. In the NBA, where the regular season is 82 games long and each round of the playoffs is best of 7 games, players are protected from having poor games. While I think the US will be fine, at least in terms of their shooting performance, the idea that one bad game could end their run is a scary thought.

America's Team?

I’ve noticed a fairly large number of people who seem to be rooting against Team USA, or laughing about their close calls in the exhibitions and the difficulty they will surely face to potentially win the Gold. Part of this stems from the fact that it’s easy, and fun, to root for an underdog. That rationale would be understandable, except for the fact that this is the Olympics, and this team is representing our country- there’s no way any Americans should be rooting against them. I think that this anti-Team USA sentiment stems from two deeper issues- the fact that they aren’t as good as the Dream Team, and the general public opinion of the NBA and its players (and most professional athletes, for that matter).

The original Dream Team, the team that represented the United States in the 1992 Olympics, simply dominated their competition. They famously went through the Olympics without calling a single timeout, without ever scouting an opponent, and probably without ever really holding serious practices or learning the international rules. However, it wasn’t just the sheer talent on the USA roster that made all that possible- it was the fact that the rest of the world didn’t really play competitive basketball yet. Without going into a full history of international basketball, I can definitely say that the roster of the ’92 team isn’t THAT much better (if at all, but once again that’s another story) than the current roster. Show me Michael Jordan and Larry Bird, and I’ll counter with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, currently the consensus best two players in the world. The list goes on, for both sides. But the Dream Team would play opponents who were just as interested in taking pictures and getting autographs from the NBA players as they were playing the actual games. The Dream Team was a spectacle, and relative to their competition, was easily the best basketball team ever assembled.

But the climate of international basketball has changed, and a large part of that comes from the dominance of that Dream Team. Other counties wanted to learn the game, and eventually be competitive. Some teams, like Spain, Argentina and Greece, have reached that goal; others, such as Canada, Australia and Germany, are still trying to reach it. Either way, the international teams that the current Team USA faces aren’t star-struck anymore. Instead, they have a sense of hostility and aggression that the Dream Team never had to face- these teams want to prove that they can beat the best, and want to show that they are just as good as these international superstars. Even when watching these exhibition games, it is clear that the other countries now treat FIBA basketball at “their game,” one which these NBA players are outsiders to. In any sport, the title of being “the best” comes with a large bullseye for all to see. In every game the US plays- regardless of the quality of the opponent or the circumstances of the game- they bring out the best in their opponents, because a victory over the United States would be a landmark win for that country. And for the US, a loss, in any situation, would be looked at as a monumental failure. Even if they win the gold in these Olympics, a single loss along the way would be looked at as a disaster.

Don’t think that our current team is weak, because they’re not. The fact that they are going through extensive practices and thoroughly scouting their opponents should prove that the world really has caught up. And while it might be hard for a casual fan to understand, this is a good thing for the NBA, and the game of basketball as a whole.

The other issue that people seem to take with this current team is the more troubling one for me. To most fans who don’t religiously follow the NBA, basketball players are brash, overgrown kids who have had everything given to them their whole lives. They either skipped college or got a free ride through school before leaving early because of their talent, and now they make more money in a single season than most of us will make our entire lives. They are covered in tattoos, and every run-in with the law is publicized as the hottest story of the day- they don’t exactly fit the description of someone that we want to represent our country on the world’s biggest stage. Once again, this could be a story in itself, but I’m going to move on. These stereotypes might make them difficult to root for, and the coverage provided of these games doesn’t really explain why the team might run into trouble in the Olympics. For the media personnel who don’t typically cover everything basketball, it’s hard to understand what makes the international game different, and why we can’t dominate like the old days. In fact, some casual fans might not even realize that basketball even HAS different rules in the Olympics. Instead, the struggles of supremely talented individuals in a team-oriented game gives the press even more reason to write these players off as egotistical, immature and self-centered players who care only about themselves. And to those people, my response is simple: we brought this on ourselves. This is OUR fault.

The NBA, just like the NFL, MLB and any other sports league, is a business. A business that, by nature, wants to succeed. For die-hard fans like myself, the game will always be appealing- the NBA doesn’t need to market to me. The NBA wants the business of the casual fan, and in order to do this, they need to make their product as appealing as possible to the masses. The game has evolved over the years so that more people will watch. The common fan who is flipping channels on TV doesn’t want to see a low-scoring game where they can’t recognize any of the players and they don’t see any highlights. Instead, they want to root for a player, maybe more than they want to root for a team. We want a superstar that we can identify with one name who has unbelievable talents, someone who can score 40 or 50 points in a single game, throw down jaw-dropping dunks and showcase his otherworldly speed. And of course, when we see this player endorsing a product, we want to wear what they wear or use what they use, because we want to be able to do what they do. While I love Shane Battier and think that he’s a great role player on a very good team, people aren’t going to wear a specific shoe because Shane Battier tells them to- but if we see Kobe Bryant jumping over a moving car in his new Nikes, that’s a different story. To cater to this phenomenon, the NBA has changed its rules to produce fast-paced, high-scoring games that give every advantage to their stars. People aren’t going to tune in because the Pistons have great role players, people watch because tonight might be the night that Kobe or LeBron, the one-named immortals, might score 50 points. Old-school basketball purists hate what the game has become, but it gets ratings and puts people in the stands.

But the rest of the world doesn’t play this style of basketball. The international rules create a game that levels the playing field, where superior individual talents can be neutralized by a team of inferior players, and slow-moving, low-scoring games are more likely to take place than the high-scoring shootouts that we want to see. By definition, putting together a team of NBA players to play the international game is the same as trying to fit a square peg in a round hole (or whatever the metaphor is). I applaud and congratulate the current USA team for their valiant efforts in putting this team together in their quest for the gold. I respect the fact that these players have played through three consecutive summers, a time when most players are relaxing on the beach after a grueling 82 game season, in order to be here. But mostly, I hope that the rest of the country can appreciate the fact that these players have sacrificed their egos in order to play in these Olympics, and have put in countless hours of work to become a team that we can be proud of, and can appreciate that while there will never be another Dream Team, that our current team is pretty good as well.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Debut of Team USA

It's one thing to speculate and predict how Team USA will perform in the Olympics, and playing FIBA rules basketball in general. Watching the exhibition game against Canada the other day really opened my eyes to how different the games really are and how difficult this journey could be for Team USA. It's important to note that while Canada is an international team on the rise and have been playing together (in real, competitive games) for over a month while unsuccessfully trying to qualify for the Olympics, they are not a very good team, and are easily worse than any team that the US will see if Olympic play.

I was very interested to notice that the comfort level in the international game still isn't there for the whole team. When you watch Canada, their shooters naturally drift to the FIBA 3-point line, always getting the most efficient 3-point shot and usually making it. The Canadian players were also moving much more naturally, while I felt that USA players were thinking more than just reacting. Obviously, this is the reason they are playing these exhibition games and shouldn't be a problem by the time the Olympics come around. The FIBA game and the NBA game are similar rules-wise, but there are several things that are allowed in FIBA that NBA players have been coached AGAINST their whole careers.

One of these rules is playing a ball on the rim. In FIBA, there is no cylinder rule- you can play a ball off the rim, offensively or defensively. Chris Bosh had a nice play where he dunked home a Chris Paul layup that might have gone in anyway. If exploited correctly, this rule could be huge for the US because Paul and Deron Williams are so good at simply getting the ball to the rim on their drives.

Here's a (relatively) quick rundown of how I thought each player performed in their exhibition game against Canada:

Jason Kidd- I like the role that Jason Kidd fills on this team. He's the unquestioned starter at point guard, as well as one of the team leaders, but when everything is all said and done I think that Kidd will end up towards the bottom of the team in terms of minutes played. Kidd has aged very noticeably, and Chris Paul and Deron Williams are simply too good to keep off the court. That said, Kidd does a great job of setting the tempo that Team USA wants to play at, and I love the way he gets the ball up the court and out of his hands as fast as possible. Watch when he gets an outlet pass after a rebound (or grabs the rebound himself, as Kidd is always around the big bodies down low for rebound opportunities)- he rarely dribbles to advance the ball. As soon as he sees an opportunity up ahead, Kidd finds the fastest way to get him the ball and lets them do the work.

Kidd's impact on the rest of the team is easy to see. Because of his abilities to hit the open man, everyone runs the court knowing that they most likely will get the ball (Carmelo enjoys this the most). But more importantly, the vision and unselfish play of Kidd has really spread to the rest of the team. Kidd has had mixed results trying to instill this unselfishness to his teammates in the NBA, but when surrounded with a group of elite players that all look up to him, it's easy to see them buying into his style of play.

Kobe Bryant- I really enjoy watching Kobe act as a part of this team, and it's clear that he enjoys the role that he's playing. Kobe is completely content acting as the defensive stopper, and as he gets more comfortable with the absence of hand-check rules on the perimeter, Kobe will absolutely shut down whoever he's guarding. There was one play against Canada where Kobe smothered Carl English (one of the better Canadian players), pinning him at halfcourt before wrestling the ball away for an easy breakaway dunk. In FIBA rules, the defender can get very physical with the ball-handler on the perimeter (something that Kobe tries to get away with anyway), and the rules almost give him an unfair advantage here. Obviously Kobe is in phenomenal shape, and he doesn't have to save any energy for offense (like he does for the Lakers), so his relentless defensive efforts never ease up.

On the other side of the ball, Kobe does a good job letting the action come to him. With Kidd and the other great point guards on the team, Kobe doesn't need to dominate the ball (and LeBron wasn't even playing in this last game), so he becomes a spot-up shooter and a bail-out option late in the clock. Kobe still has the ability to quickly score on anyone in a variety of ways, but he knows that he doesn't need to look for his own offense all the time. Kobe also spaces the floor very well- the range on his shot is just ridiculous, and I doubt that FIBA players are used to guys camping out that deep behind the line. I'm sure that Kobe will flip the switch and take over a game offensively at some point, but for now I've really liked his attitude and general demeanor on the court.

Dwyane Wade- Starting in place of LeBron James (who could have played if it wasn't an exhibition game), Wade made the most of his first televised game since his latest injury. It's safe to say that Wade is healthy again. The most surprising thing for me was how well Wade fit in at the small forward spot. My biggest questions about Wade before this game were his health, and what position he would/could play (I had speculated that he might be playing a lot of point guard). Wade has that great midrange jumper which he's extended to the FIBA 3-point line, and like Kobe, he did a good job of letting the action come to him instead of forcing the issue.

At this point, don't expect Wade to play any point guard in the Olympics. He is actually very well suited to be a 2/3 in this style of ball, and his size at the small forward position isn't a disadvantage, given his strength and athleticism.

It's great to see Wade healthy again. Given his recent run of injuries and generally poor play (most likely due to playing hurt), it's easy to forget how dominant of a player Wade can be- this is the same guy who averaged over 30 points per game in the NBA Finals. It sounds like Coach K and the entire team were surprised with his level of play, and I think that they're going to be able to use Wade much more than initially predicted.

Carmelo Anthony- Carmelo continues to amaze me every time I watch him play. At this point, it's no secret that Carmelo loves the international game, but he still comes out and exceeds expectations. To me, the most underrated aspect of Carmelo's game is his use of the triple threat position- his jumper is so accurate that everyone has to respect it, but his deceivingly fast first step allows him to get by anyone playing him too close. This is why his ability to simply face the basket and make one jab step can buy him so much room. It looks like he's settling when he does this, but the reality is that he is able to free up so much space that he's basically shooting an uncontested jumper. 

Carmelo always gets a good chunk of his points from easy dunks, and it's because of 2 unique skills that he utilizes. In the halfcourt, Carmelo is very good at making subtle cuts along the baseline to get right under the basket, and also at just shuffling and planting himself in an open space, almost like a tight end settling into a soft spot in the defense and waiting for the quarterback to find him. With so many great players on the team, Carmelo just has to find that spot and wait for the ball to find him. Carmelo is also an expert of leaking out on the break- again, some call it being lazy, but he really does have a knack of reading the play and knowing that his team will come up with the rebound, loose ball, or steal, and getting to the other end for an easy dunk.

Dwight Howard- The international game really is all about perimeter players- what really surprised me is how most of the game is played between the 3-point lines, as opposed to around the baskets. Howard, as I predicted, really isn't a good fit for international play. Against Canada, he really didn't seem to make too much of an impact, and I thought that Chris Bosh played much better than Howard. He's still the starter, and a lot of what he does for Team USA won't show up on the stat sheet, but it was interesting to see how few chances he had to make plays offensively.

Michael Redd- It's really interesting to see just how deep the NBA 3-point line is compared to the FIBA lines. For Redd, shooting FIBA 3-pointers looks as effortless as a free throw. There were several reports that he was absolutely on fire in practices, and he didn't disappoint in the Canada game. Redd made it look easy as he dropped in 20 points against Canada, and it really looks like any time he gets a shot off it's going in. It should be interesting to watch Redd when teams try to go zone against the US, because Redd is definitely best zone-breaker the team has had in the past 8 years, and I think that his shooting ability will really discourage teams from playing as much zone as they otherwise would.

Chris Bosh- I thought that Bosh looked great in the exhibition game. He really is an international-style center, and he seemed much more comfortable in this setting than Howard or Carlos Boozer. Bosh swoops around the floor, and can also hit the jumper with some range (I haven't seem him attempt an international 3, but I wouldn't be surprised if he takes/makes a few). Because of his speed and long arms, Bosh actually plays much bigger than I realized- against most teams in the Olympics, Bosh should be fine at the center position.

Deron Williams- So much for the alleged point guard battle- Deron Williams appears to be a 2-guard on this team. Williams is definitely big and strong enough to play the shooting guard position (in both the NBA and FIBA play), and with his quickness and point guard abilities, makes Team USA much harder to defend. Since he's on the second unit, I don't forsee too many situations where Williams wouldn't be able to play the 2-guard, and I really like the decision by Coach K.

Chris Paul- Forget anything I said about Chris Paul not being a good fit on the team, because Paul is clearly ready for the Olympics. Paul has gotten MUCH stronger since I last saw him in international play, and he is more than capable of holding his own against opposing point guards. Coach K looks like he solved his point guard issue by playing Williams at the 2, next to Paul at the point, and it looks to be a good fit. Paul, as predicted, is going to be a great weapon defensively with his ball pressure. Like Kobe, Paul is only going to get better at using his body defensively, and his feet are already so quick that he has no problem playing pressure defense the entire length of the court. Since Team USA uses defensive pressure and deflections to fuel their fast break, Paul's pressure on opposing point guards will be crucial.

Offensively, Paul is best described as "efficient." Even though he throws as many alley-oop passes as anyone, it isn't to be flashy- it's because the lob pass is often the best way to get the ball to the bigs. His ability to take his man off the dribble is just scary, and he has really embraced the physicality of the international game more than I expected, and seems to be using this move where he intentionally runs himself into opposing players when he has the ball, almost setting a screen on someone else's man while keeping his dribble alive. Paul has always been feisty and an intense competitor, and is a great weapon on both ends to bring off the bench.

Tayshaun Prince- I really don't get why Prince is on this team. From a physical standpoint, Prince really doesn't look like he belongs on the court. Even with LeBron sitting the game out, Prince didn't make his presence felt at either end, and I'm really not sure what kind of element he brings to the team. With Tyson Chandler injured and most likely not able to play, Prince probably would have ended up on the team anyway, but I still don't like it.

Carlos Boozer- The exhibition game really showed how little Boozer is going to play unless there is foul or injury trouble. The international game is played with only one (at most) true big, meaning that Boozer can only play when Howard and Bosh aren't in the game. Team USA generally uses Carmelo at the 4, and it sounds like LeBron will spend some time there as well. That said, I like the way Boozer fills the center spot and trust his ability to fill in when needed.

Coach K- It isn't necessarily easy to coach a team with this much talent. Obviously, all of these stars have done a great job removing their egos and embracing their roles, but it still isn't easy to find the right combinations, and balance playing time, over the course of a 40 minute game. First off, it looks like Prince and Boozer won't get too many minutes unless there is an injury or serious foul trouble. I'm sure that both players understand that and, being late additions, shouldn't have any problems with that. Aside from those 2, it gives Team USA a very talented and versatile 10 man rotation. It seems that Coach K is going to take an all-star game approach to managing the lineups, subbing in waves of 2, 3 or even 4 players at a time, forming clearly defined units on the floor. Given that there's only been one game so far, it's hard to say if he was experimenting or if this will be his real approach, so I'll be looking for that as the team plays more exhibition games.

Overall, I loved the attitude and effort of Team USA. They were completely focused defensively, which is going to be a big key for them, and their fast-break game will be very hard to stop. That said, their half-court offense leaves a little to be desired. Their team shooting is actually quite good- almost everyone on the team can hit the FIBA 3-pointer (Paul and Wade really surprised me here)- but the ball movement and penetration still doesn't come naturally. I think the addition of LeBron will help to solve this problem. LeBron is a facilitator, and I think you'll see much more cutting and movement without the ball when LeBron has the ball- his size allows him to easily read the defense, and his attacking style really puts pressure on the opposing team, as opposed to letting them dictate our offense.

It's really important for Team USA to play in as many of these games as possible before the Olympics begin- starting tomorrow morning, they are playing 4 exhibition games against other countries. The more familiar they get with the international style of play, the better off they will be.