Thursday, December 22, 2011

NBA Preview FAQ: 2011-12 Season

It’s baaaaccckkkkkkk. No, I’m not talking about the NBA, which just went through a completely pointless lockout and threatened the beautiful game coming off one of the greatest seasons in history.

No, I’m talking about The People Say Booyah, which has been on a ridiculous hiatus thanks to Philly Sports World, which I don’t believe exists anymore and Pro Football Weekly, which definitely exists and was awesome with great experiences and even better people.

This is the point of the column where I promise you that the blog will be back in full throat, but that would pretty much be a lie. However, given my ridiculously awesome class schedule next quarter at NU (no class on Friday, no class before 3 p.m. two days away and 12:30 p.m. the other two days), I’ll try to bring at least one column a week after the holidays. But, no promises.

But the reason you’re here is to get the essential knowledge on the NBA for the upcoming season. The hellacious schedule that they are forced to play (back-to-back-to-backs, five games in six nights, etc.) will make for some really ugly, college basketball-quality games (and if you are going to try to argue that college basketball is better, just stop. Let me know when the other 99 percent of college players learn to dribble, or when a majority of college coaches, and I’m looking right at you Rick Barnes, get a clue and then we MIGHT talk. “Atmosphere” and “they care so much” and “look at them hustle” can only take you so far). Regardless, I am pumped for basketball. The Eagles stink, Northwestern is primed to lose another bowl game, Bill Carmody still coaches our basketball team, I’m not ready to watch regular season hockey on a consistent basis, and Arsenal (my soccer club team) usually plays way to early in the morning for me to watch. All I have is Sixers, talking smack to Bulls and Lakers fans and the rest of the NBA. It’s time for the Frequently Asked Questions, 2011-12 NBA Preview edition.

What are you expectations for the Sixers this season?
I expect them to be better this season. Remember, they started out last season 3-13 and still managed to end up 41-41, including impressive wins over the Spurs and a beatdown of the Bulls in Chicago (I remember, because I was there). They’re a young team with key players (Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thad Young and even Andre Iguodala to some extent), having room to improve from where they were last season. So far in preseason, Turner has looked much better, with his jump shot improved and ball-handling significantly better.

But the guy I’m expecting the most from is Holiday. In the playoff series against the Heat, I thought for the first time that we might actually have something more than just a quality point guard in him. He guarded D-Wade as well as a 20-year-old kid who looks 15 could. He made big shots when they mattered and didn’t seem rattled at all by his first playoff series. I think he has a significantly better season than he did last year (something like 18 points, seven assists, four boards, fewer turnovers and solid percentages, even from three, across the board) while flying under the radar because of the ridiculous at point guard in the East.

As far as how they finish, I like them around 38 wins or so, enough to grab a 5 or 6 seed. If they play really well (for instance, we get that “leap” I’ve wanted to see from Igudoala for five years on the offensive end), they could push for a four seed. Once you get past the top three in the East (Heat, Bulls and Celtics), everything is wide-open. The teams that finished ahead of them last season are either worse (Hawks), about to be worse (Magic) or just plain overrated (Knicks, who decided it would be a good idea to go into a season with Toney Douglas and Landry Fields as the starting backcourt. And I know they signed Tyson Chandler to help with their defense, but the first day Mike D’Antoni spends coaching defense or Carmelo/Amare/whoever-is-on-their-bench plays it will be the first. So there’s that).

I may be wearing the rose-tinted glasses because the team seems to finally have ownership that cares for the first time since Pat Croce, it’s only Year Two of the Doug Collins regime (which means the players won’t start to hate him for another year) and because the Eagles dashed all my Super Bowl dreams this season with missed tackle after missed tackle. But I don’t care. This is actually a good basketball team.

Should Lakers fans be worried?
What’s there to be worried about? They only traded their third-best player for nothing to the defending champions who just happened to sweep them out of the playoffs with prejudice last season; signed Josh McRoberts to replace him; trot out the Derek Fisher/Steve Blake crap sandwich at point guard every night; don’t have a backup big man for Andrew Bynum’s suspension and inevitable injury; have an angry, on-his-last-knees Kobe who already has a wrist injury and the season hasn’t started yet; replaced the greatest coach ever with the most clueless offensive coach ever; Metta Washed Up (who is managing to break his own record for looking fat, slow and inept, set last season); and bench that is relying on Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono’s cardboard cutout for quality minutes. Sounds like a title contender to me.

Now I know that David Stern kinda screwed things up for them with the whole vetoed trade thing. I get it. You thought you were getting Chris Paul (even though I don’t think the trade made their team better and I’m a little shaky on how Kobe could have co-existed with him, especially without Phil Jackson doing Phil Jackson mind-trick things) but instead saw him forced on the Clippers. But that doesn’t explain why you then gave away Lamar Odom for nothing and decided that the Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace thing would work out.

How does this team, with two of its best three players (on a team that only has three legit players mind you) with balky knees, survive this hellacious season. Now unless Jerry West takes over for Otis Smith in the next couple of weeks and gifts Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson for Andrew Bynum and a warm bowl of poop, this team is in for a serious downslide.

They’ll make the playoffs, but they’ll be a seven seed, knocked out of the first round and have to seriously consider rebuilding in the offseason. 2006 Kobe could have carried this group to a top-four seed and maybe a Western Conference Finals birth if things broke right. Unfortunately for the Lakers, that Kobe is gone (I thought about making a tasteless divorce joke here, but decided to pass. It’s not all bad Lakers fans).

I can’t wait until that day in April, when I get to knock on my roommates door (who’s a Lakers fan) and hand him the final NBA standings, with the Sixers having a better record than the Lakers. It’ll be Christmas in springtime.

How excited are you for the Clippers?
On a scale of One to “Seeing Michael Jackson live in his prime,” I’d say I’m a nine. The reason Chris Paul is the best point guard alive (sorry Derrick Rose lovers) is because he can make his teammates look awesome (I mean did you see Aaron Gray in the playoffs against the Lakers? He looked like a real NBA player). When you give him awesome teammates, well then you get awesome to the second power. DeAndre Jordan will get so many easy looks and nasty alley-oops, it’ll make his asinine four-year, $43 million contract look semi-reasonable. Blake Griffin will continue his ascension to possibly the best power forward in basketball. This team will be the most fun team to watch this season, bar none.

But they aren’t a title contender just yet. That team still has too many holes, namely no backups for Jordan/Griffin, unless you think giving Brian Cook and Reggie Evans minutes is a good idea (and it’s not), no one who could even think of guarding the elite perimeter players in the league, a glut of point guards and a quietly washed-up Caron Butler whose contract is going to look really dumb in March.

I definitely think that they can nab a top-four seed. But who on this team is guarding Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in a playoff series? Jordan can help erase some mistakes on the backend, but this team still has real defensive.

Now if they could turn Eric Bledsoe or Mo Williams into a serviceable big man and a wing defender, things change a bit for them. But as of right now, they’ll have to settle for leading off SportsCenter every night in their special Lob Angeles segement.

Are the Thunder the best team in the West?
When I first started thinking about this question, my initial reaction was no, it’s still too soon for them. Then I looked at the teams in the Western Conference who are supposed to be better than them (Lakers, Spurs, Mavs) and realized the Thunder are the best team in the West and also, that the West kinda sucks.

The Spurs and Mavs are too old to do anything of note, especially since the Mavs will be without Tyson Chandler and Tim Duncan can’t move anymore. The Lakers have the same starting lineup as they did last season and that’s not a good thing. I like the Grizzlies, a lot actually, but do I like them enough to be the top seed? I don’t think so. Everyone else (Blazers, Clippers, Nuggets etc.) has way too many issues.

So that makes the Thunder the best team by default. Which is kinda weird, because it wasn’t even two full years ago when they were an eight seed taking on the Lakers in the first round and everyone said “You know, give this team some time and they’ll be great.” I guess one full season counts as some time.

But, for the first time Durant, Westbrook and company have to deal with real expectations. And Scotty Brooks has to resemble a semi-competent coach (a difficult task given his dreadful performance in the playoffs last season). Have they fixed their offensive problems from last year, when Brooks would look terribly confused on the sideline, Westbrook would dribble at the top of the key and Durant tried to post up 35-feet from the basket? Are they going to continue with the charade of starting Thabo Sefolosha, even though every time he touches the ball, it looks like the first time he’s ever touched a basketball in his life? Will the chemistry between Durant and Westbrook fall apart if Westbrook gets mad that everyone keeps blaming him for their crunch time woes, even though at least half, and probably more, of the blame goes to Durant/Brooks?

Those questions, I don’t really know the answer to. I do know that if they don’t make it to the Finals, in this crappy conference, with James Harden looking like a big-time player in the making and Kendrick Perkins looking able to contribute infinitely more than he did last season (because even if he contributes a little bit, it’s better than the donut he ate gave them last season), it will be and should be a major disappointment.

Can the Bulls beat the Heat this season?
Unless the year magically becomes 2005 again and Rip Hamilton is a quality two-guard on a championship-caliber team, I don’t see it. While Hamilton should be better than Keith Bogans (qualifier: any past or present NBA shooting guard with a pulse would be better than Bogans), he doesn’t alleviate the problem exposed in the playoff series against the Heat in May, namely someone who can create their own shot. Hamilton can still shoot it but he needs someone to get him the open shot, whether it’s a series of down-screens or a drive-and-kick.

The reason the Bulls lost to the Heat last season was because the Heat could put the best player in the world on Derrick Rose, a 6’8” behemoth with otherworldly physical attributes and shut him down. The Bulls counter should be that either their SG or SF should have Mario Chalmers on him and drop 25 with ease. As much as I like Luol Deng and as much as other people like the Hamilton signing, neither one of those guys is going to do that consistently enough. Carlos Boozer is supposed to help with that by getting points on the block, but we all know that worked out.

Now I think their series this season will be a bit longer than it was last season, just because Rose should be able to have more success with another year of experience and someone resembling a real shooting guard. But it’s not enough. Until the Bulls get a bonafide scorer alongside Rose, who can score without Rose having to do the heavy-lifting for him, they aren’t going to beat Miami. Now, if they try to pry Dwight Howard from Orlando (as they should) with a Deng, Joakim Noah, Omer Asik or Taj Gibson, plus some first-round picks and cash offer to the moron known as Otis Smith, we’ll be having a much different discussion.

Does that make the Heat the favorites?
Well, they were the favorites (at least in my eyes) last season, but came up just short (Go ahead, make the four quarters joke. Great, that was hilarious. Now my thoughts on it all: I think LeBron just got worn down. He averaged 44 minutes in 21 playoff games, guarding the opposing teams’ best player for the whole time while also carrying the load offensively. While we typically think of him as indestructible, and with good reason, even he has to get tired. Given what he had to carry in the regular season with a poorly-constructed roster and the fact that they started the worst player in NBA history during the playoffs, I can see why LeBron wore down. However, I’m done giving excuses to LBJ. If he doesn’t get it done now, he’s on his own).

This season, not much is different for the team, except for a little too ballyhooed addition of Shane Battier (he helps the team, especially with taking some defensive pressure of LeBron and D-Wade, even though his defense has slipped. But they needed a point guard and a center and still have neither, so calm down). The big thing for them is everyone else is much different and to be more specific, worse. There’s no way that the elderly Celtics, with no bench to speak of, can hang with them in the playoffs. We’ve already illustrated the weaknesses in the West and the still glaring weaknesses of the Bulls. They are all that’s left.

Offensively, they should have worked out the kinks that led to their slow start and the crunch time woes that had everyone worried. Defensively, they should be just as strong as they were last season (the biggest surprise being Chris Bosh as a very competent help defender). Not only that, there is the intense level of scrutiny that is following them every game. This season, every misstep won’t be overanalyzed on TV, radio, etc. They can, more or less, just concentrate on basketball, whereas last season, there was such a circus surrounding them all year that basketball at times seemed secondary to their coverage.

They should win the title this year, emphasis on should. They are the most talented team in the NBA, with two of the five best players and three of the top 20. They have a pretty solid coach and a better supporting cast than they did last year (Battier, a healthy Udonis Haslem and the fact that Mike Bibby isn’t on the team makes them infinitely better). If they lose in the playoffs again, I’d be willing to question LeBron and that’s saying something.

2011-12 Predictions
West Standings
1. Thunder: The team has to deal with expectations for the first time. While I hate going with such a young team, who else is there?
2. Grizzlies: With Rudy Gay coming back, he should add the perimeter offensive punch they were missing in last year against the Thunder. But it’s always dangerous trusting a team led by Zach Randolph
3. Spurs: They’ll be machine like again in the regular season, flying under the radar, until their flaws are exposed in the postseason again.
4. Mavs: If they had managed to keep Tyson Chandler, with the addition of Lamar Odom, they would be the favorites, despite their age. But I can’t pick a team too high that is heavily dependent on Brendan Haywood and Vince Carter.
5. Clippers: Lob Angeles will be my favorite team to watch this season, easily. No one is better than CP3 at making his teammates better. They could win a playoff series, maybe even two, but too many holes on the perimeter.
6. Nuggets: You need depth to survive this schedule and the Nuggets definitely have it. However, they don’t have one guy that you can point to at the end of games that is going to make things happen, which is going to cost them in close games.
7. Lakers: J
8. Blazers: Nate McMillan is a criminally underrated coach. They are always ravaged by injuries but somehow manage to make the playoffs consistently. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s probably a top-20 player in the league, they should sneak in. 
East Standings
1. Heat: Best team in the league and not a whole lot of competition.
2. Bulls: They’re better, for sure, but still have offensive problems outside of Rose.
3. Celtics: The title window closed when Metta Washed Up drained an improbable three in the 2010 Finals.
4. Magic: Unless Dwight Howard gets traded, he’s improved enough offensively to carry a suspect roster to another home playoff series defeat.
5. Knicks: I really toyed with putting the Sixers in this spot but eventually, having two guys like Amare and Carmelo beats out having none of those guys.
6. Sixers: Passionate. Intense. Proud. I have completely bought into the new ownership. Now if we could only get a real GM…
7. Pacers: Not as good as some people make them out to be, but still a solid team. They are going to need more from Darren Collison to get ahead of the Sixers. The David West signing is completely overrated.
8. Hawks: Joe Johnson will make enough contested, isolation jump shots to allow this team to get slaughtered by the Heat in the first round.
MVP: LeBron James
I thought he should have won MVP last season but whatever. He’s puts up numbers like a machine and should be the best player on the best team in the league. No-brainer.
Coach of the Year: Lionel Hollins
If he gets Zach Randolph to have two great seasons in a row, he might have to be coach of the decade.
Most Improved; Ty Lawson
Without Ray Felton there anymore, Lawson is going to have a big season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard
Who else is going to win the award?
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving
I think Derrick Williams will end up being the better pro, but Irving is going to get more opportunities, which makes the difference this season.
Conference Finals
Thunder over Grizzlies in seven games
Heat over Bulls in six games
Two repeats from last year’s playoffs end up with the same result. The two most talented teams in the league should end up in the Finals this season. 
NBA Finals
Heat over Thunder in six games
This is the most important season of LeBron James’ career. He couldn’t possibly choke again, right?

Christian West is the publisher of The People Say Booyah, and a Northwestern student. Email him at

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