Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NBA Preview FAQ

Have you ever had one of those sports weekends, where at least three of your teams play and they all lose? Were they important games? No, that hasn’t happened to you?

Well, then you can take solace in my pain, as I just encountered the worst sports weekend ever.

To recap:

1. My beloved Northwestern Wildcats held a 17-0 lead over undefeated Michigan State at home, on homecoming. It was glorious, especially considering there is no team I hate more in the Big 10 than Michigan State (which makes turning their cheer “Go Green, Go White” into the highly offensive “Can’t Read, Can’t write” even sweeter). But a fumble at the goaline, a crazy fourth and 11 conversion on a fake punt by Michigan State, and Northwestern QB Dan Persa (who didn’t have a game where he completed less than 73% of his passes until Saturday) doing his best (it pains me to say) Donovan McNabb impression on our two last drives, and all of a sudden the ‘Cats lost 35-27. And yes, it seemed like it happened that fast.

2. Ryan Howard, for the love of God, swing the bat.

3. The Eagles secondary decided to make Kenny Brit look like a cross of Jerry Rice and Randy Moss, Kevin Kolb decided he didn’t want a quarterback controversy and Kerry Collins lead the Titans to a blowout victory (seriously though, Kerry Collins? The only reason he’s still in the league is because he needed one more paycheck. And you lose? Pathetic).

What is the point of me telling you this story. Well because you are my six loyal readers and I needed someone to vent to. Oh, and that I couldn’t be more ready to get into the most compelling NBA season ever. I need something to take my mind off of the horrendous end to the Phillies, Northwestern and Kolb seasons. I now realize that it’s more fun to watch sports when don’t have a team, or as it’s more commonly known, being a 76ers fan.
Will the Axis of Evil reign supreme?

It’s time for the Frequently Asked Questions.

Is there any reason to optimistic about the Sixers this season?
To answer this with a question: Would you be optimistic about a team with the worst frontline since the Puerto Rican national team, a second overall pick who has yet to show any discernable skills yet, a “best player” who was the 16th option on offense at the FIBA World Championships, a coach who hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1997, and Elton Brand still collecting eight-figure pay checks?

Most of these things we already knew: Marressee Speights is the Sixers best big man, Andre Iguodala is a third banana on any half-decent team, Doug Collins is not the long term solution at coach and Elton Brand is the basketball equivalent of Jason Peters.

But the major issue comes with Evan Turner, the second pick who was considered a sure thing. I want to avoid being the typical Philly fan who overreacts to every misstep and calls for everyone’s firing and benching at the first sign of trouble….but: 1. Turner was horrendous in summer league. There is no other way to put it. 2. His preseason line is as follows: 29 MPG, 7.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.2 TO, 31%. The only reason this is remotely concerning is 3. DeMarcus Cousins’ preseason line: 25 MPG, 14.3 PPG, 8 RPG with 3 offensive boards per, on 40% shooting.

The day of the draft lottery, when the Sixers secured the second overall pick, I was double rainbow happy, knowing that Evan Turner was waiting in the wings. Minutes before the draft started, I was making statements that Cousins’ would be the best player to come out of the draft this year, barring any future admittance to the insane asylum.

A lot of it has to do with Cousins: when is the last time you saw a rookie big man with his footwork, rebounding prowess and touch around the rim? But then there’s also Turner, who as I started re-watching some of his play, looked a step too slow to be an NBA swingman, has no range three-point range whatsoever (he’s attempted no threes in the preseason while Cousins is 3-4 from distance), was turnover prone and can only play with the ball in his hands.

I am now legitimately afraid of how Cousins may haunt our franchise. If he doesn’t go Sprewell on Paul Westphal, I am convinced that he will be a 22-13 guy in three years as he and Tyreke Evans battle Kevin Durant for the Western Conference crown. I’m going to have nightmares about his drop-steps as Turner throws up mediocre 13, 5 and 5’s for the next few years.

I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

What’s the most underrated story going into the season?
It might be just me, but Allen Iverson having to sign in Turkey is the most depressing basketball story I’ve heard since MJ decided to return with the Wizards.

Does anyone remember that it was Iverson that bridged the gap between Jordan’s first retirement or that he was the most popular player, by far, before Kobe’s resurgence post-Colorado, or that he was the only reason almost everyone you knew had Reebok’s, or that he was one of the top 5 unique players ever, or that he was the most fearless player ever, or that he was the fastest with the ball in his hands than any player ever?

Now he has to go to Turkey and play against ‘C’ competition for one last pay check? I feel like my childhood was a lie.

Can Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder live up to expectations?
Kevin Durant is expected to be somewhere between Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Mother Theresa and Abraham Lincoln. So, yes.

But in all seriousness, there is so much expected of the Thunder and Durant in particular, it’s almost impossible for them to meet expectations (a lot of people have them second in the West and those really concerned about Kobe’s knee have them in the Finals). But still, if you temper expectations, just reasonably, you will see that the Thunder and Durant have an unbelievably bright future.

The things they have in their favor: Durant and Russell Westbrook were the two best players on Team USA in the summer, hands down, Scotty Brooks is a really good coach, Sam Presti is smarter than your GM, and Serge Ibaka is better than you think.

Things not in their favor: They are really young dealing with expectations for the first time (usually ends poorly), Jeff Green, Thabo Sefalosha’s offense, and every big man not named Serge Ibaka.

I think they have more things in their favor than not, the only thing really concerning me is the lofty expectations. But Kevin Durant will finish in the top 2 in MVP voting again, probably lead the league in scoring and throw up crazy silly numbers. The Thunder will be in the top half of the Western Conference, win 50+ games, Westbrook will breakout even more than he did last year and get at least to the second round of the playoffs. Just remember that their best players are all under 25. Let’s not get carried away too quickly.

But we still need to be legitimately concerned about the expectations and pressures we put on Durant. We just got done witnessing LeBron not be who we wanted him to be (more on this later) this summer, not to mention the way we’ve torn down Kobe, Iverson, Bonds, Tiger among countless other athletes for all different reasons. I think we need to realize that athletes can’t always be what we want them to be. Durant might be super humble, loyal and respectful, but then again he might not. We’ve thought these things before. So while it’s great that we ascribe all the behaviors to him that we all love, including me, we need to remember that’s he’s human and going to make mistakes. We just need to accept Durant and every other athlete for exactly what they are: tremendous athletes and that’s pretty much it.

Which Western Conference teams are the biggest threat to the Lakers?
I think it’s a two team race between the aforementioned Thunder and Utah Jazz (though I think the Spurs might possibly, maybe have one last gasp in them if Tiago Splitter is good) especially since the Suns decided not to resign Amare and instead use that money to create TSFF (Terrible Small Forwards Fund).

The Jazz had the best offseason of them all (so good, I could Whip My Hair to it), getting the biggest heists PG (Post-Gasol) in stealing Al Jefferson for two late first round picks. Now they have the size to compete with the Lakers up front (Boozer killed them last year. He just couldn’t get his shot off against the length) and they still have the second or third or fourth best point guard in Deron Williams (because Chris Paul is unequivocally, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Simply Lemonade vs. Tropicana better and D-Rose and Rajon Rondo are closing fast), and a great coach in Jerry Sloan. I like the Jazz.

Who’s the Sleeper Team?
Hell is about to freeze over in three…two…one: the Los Angeles Clippers.

Obviously, they are the worst franchise in professional sports, and a lot of things can be said about Donald Sterling (which I will now proceed to say: he’s a dirty cheapskate racist who doesn’t remotely care about his product) but that doesn’t change the fact that there is still a lot to like about the Clip Show.
Blake Griffin is already one of the top 5 power forwards in the league (in order Pau Gasol, Amare, Dirk, Bosh and Griffin), Eric Gordon was the third best player this summer on Team USA (for reference Danny Granger, Chauncey Billups and Tyson Chandler were tied for the worst), Chris Kaman is an all-star and Mike Dunleavy is no longer the coach, making for an infinite improvement in that department even though I couldn’t tell you who his replacement is.

What’s stopping the Clippers from winning 45ish games and making the playoffs in a down Western Conference? Well their curse that will probably lead to Blake Griffin going Shaun Livingston on us or Baron Davis deciding to show up looking he did last year, where he weighed 15 pounds less than Shaq at the start of the season.

Still, with Houston not quite there, the Suns conjuring memories of the 05-06 Knicks with all their swingman, the Nuggets in limbo with Carmelo (Denver has no choice but to trade him. Get whatever they can and move on. The last thing they need is him on national television saying “I’ve decided to take my talents to Midtown”) and the Trailblazers having chemistry problems, the bottom two spots are definitely up for grabs. If the Clippers hand the keys to Gordon and Griffin, they should snag it.

How do the playoffs shake out in each conference?
For the west, in order: Lakers, Jazz, Thunder, Mavs, Spurs, Blazers, Clippers, Nuggets (if they keep Carmelo) or Hornets.

For the east, in order: Heat, Magic, Celtics, Bulls, Bucks, Hawks, Knicks and Wizards (by the way, I expect the Wizards and Knicks to win about 35 games each. The East is that bad).

If you’re the Lakers, how concerned are you?
I’ve been saying for years that eventually, the Lakers will have a 3-5 year stretch of continual lottery appearances (and what a glorious stretch that will be) and the way Kobe has looked so far, that time is moving mighty close.

However, it’s not quite here. If the Lakers and more specifically Kobe are smart about minutes, numbers etc, hands the keys to Gasol for the regular season and he rests consistently throughout the season, kind of the way Gregg Popovich handles Duncan or Doc Rivers handles his old guys, then Kobe should have just enough juice to get back to the Finals in a weaker West and put up one more 6-24 in Game 7.

The issue lies in the years beyond that. Kobe has officially hit the Tim Duncan circa 2009 stage of his career: he’s still good, can get his numbers but in no way, shape or form can carry his team past the second round the way we’re accustomed.

That means they will have to permanently hand the keys over to Gasol, hope Andrew Bynum can put together a full season (which is truly laughable) and find some way to get the atrocious contracts off the books (which should be easy, just put in a call to Chris Wallace).

Darker days are coming for the Lakers, but that doesn’t start until 2011.

Do the Magic, Celtics or Bulls have a chance against the Heat in the East?
Only the Celtics, if healthy, have a real shot. Last time I checked, the Magic still have Vince Carter, so in big playoff moments they play 4 on 5. The Bulls are much improved (and Derrick Rose has a beastly look about him), but don’t have the wing firepower to stay with Wade or LeBron.

Leaving only the Celtics with a real shot to stop the Axis of Evil (the name I’m giving them). Even though they’ve done their best to get the 2002 All-Stars back together (seriously, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, KG, Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal were all 2002 All-Stars), as we saw last year, they have an ace in the hole: defense.

If they can get one of the O’Neal’s to play pick and roll defense (or at the very least get Jermaine to awake from the coma he suffered in the playoffs last year), they have a shot at stopping the Heat.

The Heat don’t have anyone to matchup with Rondo, KG should be able to score on Bosh’s terrible defense and Pierce manages to give LeBron a hard time every time they play.

But you have to be concerned that Ray Allen may not have anything left, they don’t have near the athleticism to keep up in a track meet and all the years they beat Wade and LeBron, they only geared their defense to one guy, not three.

In other words, the Heat should make it to the Finals and make it pretty easily.

What about the Heat? Can it work?
The big question. Before the answer, let’s consider the factors:

1. The big offseason acquisition to complement the Axis of Evil, Mike Miller, is out for a while. It would be a big deal if his name was James, Wade or Bosh. Alas it’s not.

2. Chris Bosh has finally found his niche: open 15 jumpers created by the two best penetrators in the league. He doesn’t really have to rebound, post up or facilitate offense. His only job is to hit open looks. I maintain he’s the luckiest man in America.

3. Dwyane Wade can now only focus at what he’s really good at: finishing games. No longer does he have to worry about making sure Carlos Arroyo doesn’t blow it in the second quarter. He’s got one mentality: finish in the fourth quarter, which is scary.

4. Erik Spolestra has the most pressure on him of anyone in the organization not named LeBron. I don’t care what Pat Riley says. He’s no better than the Situation when he tries to swoop in and steal Vinny’s girl. Riles always has his eye on the job, and rumors will swirl at the first sign of trouble.

5. LeBron has a look about him that is so encouraging its scary. It was really funny when he tweeted that he was taking mental notes at the people taking shots at him but after watching the focus he’s shown in preseason, it seems like he’s serious. He finally developed a semi-post game after 4 years of people yelling at him to do so. He’s no longer loosy-goosy, taking pictures on the sideline and joking around. He’s all business. He’s Kobe on nights flying to games from Eagle, Iverson in 2001, Shaq in 2000, Jordan in 1996: on a flat out mission to shut all the doubters up. Say what you want about the decision but it has radically changed the way he operates. He’s no longer who we want him to be but exactly what he wants to be (as a really good Nike commercial with a not to veiled shot at Barkley shows). I think he’s finally got it. And all it took was him completely destroying his popularity. He could honestly throw up 22-9-11 and do it with ease.

So to answer the question, yes. I honestly hate this team with everything I got, just because of the way it came together, the way they celebrated like they already won the championship and the fact that it happened to one of the worst fan bases in sports. But this looks like it’s going to work. Everyone seems to accept their role. They are going to out athlete everyone. And it’s going to see all that talent on the floor at once will be amazing to watch.

It pains me to say but they are the best team in the league.

Who will win the major awards?
Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin. Easiest award to pick if he stays healthy. He’s freaky even though John Wall will be really good.
Coach of the Year: Jerry Sloan. He’s just due.
Defensive Player: Dwight Howard. If he doesn’t win this award, we can stop mentioning him like he’s a top player right?
Most Improved: Jrue Holliday. The lone bright spot on a barren 76ers roster will rack up easy numbers
6th man: Jamal Crawford: He’ll win the backhanded compliment award for the second straight year
MVP: LeBron: It’s almost crazy how because of the summer, we forgot that this guy is still the best player on the planet. Just because he joined the Heat doesn’t mean that he’ll suck. He’s finally playing with good teammates. As much as I love Durant, LeBron is on a mission like he’s never been before.

Finals Pick
Miami over Lakers in 7

Game 7 will be played in Miami. The fair weather fans will decide that it’s an important enough game to go to. Kobe might shoot 5-24 in this game. Ron Artest will take that same three he made last year, only this time it will do what it’s supposed to and get sucked into Rick Ross’ fat orbit. Wade will close like he did when he won Finals MVP. LeBron’s decision will prove to be correct.

The reign of terror is set to begin.

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