Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Warrior Assassins: Who can topple Golden State

It has been smooth sailing for this group all season (Noah Graham/Getty Images)

The Golden State Warriors have won 66 of the 73 games it has played thus far, that’s a win percentage of just over 90. If they can win seven out of their last nine regular season games, they would eclipse the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls’ record win total of 72.  There is a large part of me that hopes that they don’t break the record.  Michael Jordan’s place in history as the consensus best player in history will change as the calendars do.  Even if it isn’t LeBron or Steph that supplants him, there will come along another gunslinger to topple MJ off his throne.

But before this team is hoisted into the Valhalla of All-time great squads, they will have to complete the season and win the championship.  Let’s take a look at the teams that could throw a damper on their coronation.

Blake Griffin's mistake has changed the dynamics of this team (Getty Images)

Los Angeles Clippers

This team may not have appeared in this group if Blake Griffin had taken much longer to get back, but any time an All-NBA caliber player becomes available on a team things can change. They have been good without Red Bull (he’s a redhead and has ups for days, the nickname fits too well not to be used, even if he weren’t already a paid endorser of the product) but when the possessions dwindle and teams know tendencies, stars dictate success. With the exception of Jeff Green and the ghost of Paul Pierce, this team is essentially the same as it has always been.  Perhaps Griffin will give them the jolt needed to challenge the Warriors.

J.J. Redick is having his best season of his career; it’s he, and not any member of the Warriors. that leads the Association in 3 point FG%. Chris Paul is having another fantastic season with averages of nearly 20 points and 10 assists a game.  They aren’t the Splash brothers, but the Clippers have star power to combat the Warriors’ backcourt. How will this team (specifically DeAndre Jordan) respond to the addition of a player the caliber of Griffin being re-introduced this late in the season after months without him?

Check the hair. These guys have been doing this for awhile.

San Antonio Spurs

You could set your watch by the Spurs in the playoffs.  They are as bloodless and ruthless as any Skynet disciple. This iteration of San Antonio is a throwback. The Spurs are the oldest team in the league, employing the two players furthest removed from their births (Tim Duncan and Andre Miller).  But moreso than their actual age, their style of play is one that would make Oscar Robertson blush. 

They are 25th in the league in 3 pointers attempted. In a time where teams are consistently going small, they start two seven footers. And while isolations dominate most offenses, the Spurs are third in the league in assists. Plus, the team that is 61-12 and undefeated at home has added Kevin Martin with Manu Ginobili finally back after his extremely painful injury. Perhaps most salient to the idea that they could beat the Warriors this postseason is the fact that they actually beat the Golden State a little over a week ago.  One old head just won a Super Bowl, why can’t an NBA team full of them follow suit?

Triple doubles and prolific scoring. Tell me these two can play together forever.

Oklahoma City

Unlike the Spurs that win with below-the-radar personalities and talent, the Thunder is the loud and gifted group that is perhaps watching its window close. If Kevin Durant leaves after the season, it will mean that years of KD and Westbrook netted an NBA Finals appearance and one underachieving label. In the Championship or Bust times that currently dominate the NBA, having two guys more talented than any duo in the league without a ring would leave an unseemly taste in the mouths of their fans.
The team is deeper than they were under Scott Brooks.  Head coach Billy Donovan has flexibility in the frontcourt with Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, KD, and Serge Ibaka all capable of playing either the power forward or center position (or both).  Moreover, Dion Waiters and Anthony Morrow are capable of reducing the scoring burden of the stars—and Randy Foye alleviates some of the play-making duties from the tireless Westbrook. Perhaps because of all of the new talent, it has taken most of the year to hit their stride, but a current eight game winning streak certainly buoys the chances of a postseason run. The team is as laden with talent as any other squad, can Donovan take them to glory in his first year?

While not a member of the Big 3, Smith will be instrumental in a Cavs run (Getty Images)

Cleveland Cavaliers

There’s been a lot written about what the Cavs aren’t. And with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love up and down in their production (particularly together) there is legitimate concern over Cleveland’s “Big 3”. But throughout all the subtweeting, disappointing play, and peculiar losses (this team just dropped a befuddling game to the listless Brooklyn Nets) they’re cruising to back-to-back number 1 seeds in the Eastern Conference. It’s easy to nitpick the Cavs for what they aren’t—namely, the Warriors. But what are they?

The Cavs are a team that is top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency (an accomplishment shared only by the Spurs and Warriors).  While they aren’t great in one area, they are significantly above average in a number of areas; namely, they are top ten in offensive rebounding percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, and effective field goal percentage. Plus, they have one of the greatest players to ever play the game on their team. Moreover, unlike the rest of these poor slobs on this list, if they meet the GSW in the playoffs, they are guaranteed to play them after having run the gauntlet of the Western Conference playoff contenders. Keep in mind, the Cavs don’t have to beat all these other teams, only the Western Conference title winner.  Perhaps after beating a couple of these teams (and having sprinted through the season to win a record-setting number of games), the Warriors will be at their most vulnerable.

Ultimately the Warriors will be the odds on favorite to win the title and take their place in the pantheon of great NBA teams.  But make no mistake, the Association will fight, scratch, and claw to keep the Warriors relegated to an interesting footnote in basketball history.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sweet 16 Breakdown of Games: Part 1

I can't see KU losing before the Final Four (USA Today Sports)

The Sweet 16 is set to kick off Thursday with a slate of four games.  Here is a brief synopsis of the teams, a breakdown of the matchup, and the my picks to go on to the round of the Elite 8. All numbers are from ESPN.com and sports-reference.com/cbb.

Angel Rodriguez has averaged 26 ppg this first round. Not bad (Getty Images)

University of Miami vs Villanova University

Miami is a veteran team with two stars, Angel Rodgriguez and Scott McClellan. They are lead by Jim Larranaga, a coach with March experience (he led George Mason to a surprising run to the Final 4). Moreover, they survived and thrived the bite of the jungle of ACC basketball this year.  They have everything one would want in a formidable team. The team’s offense has never been a problem,( they rank 25th in the country in terms of points per possession) it is their defense that has failed them at points.  In fact, their season was littered with as many peculiar losses (Northeastern, Clemson) as impressive wins. 

This Villanova team is the prototype of a Jay Wright squad. The starting lineup is essentially a four guard, big forward group. They rely on spacing opponents out and exploiting their quickness with dribble drives that strike at the heart of their opponent.  The team features four players that shoot above 35% from 3.  While no one shoots north of 40% from behind the arc, the balance in scoring (five guys that average right at 10+ points per game) make them a formidable team.

The Matchup
UM played Duke (another kick and drive team) well, and held them to 69 points. If they can come up with another defensive performance like that, they should win. For Villanova, they will try and use their aggressive defense to take the ball from Miami.  They rank 28th in the country at forcing turnovers.
Result: Miami has too many factors I deem necessary for winning come this time of the year. Give me the Hurricanes to continue their run and get Larranaga back to the elite 8.

It's been all smiles for Bill Self as KU has rolled thus far.

Kansas University vs University of Maryland

This is arguably the most talented team in the tourney, and they have surely played like it to this point.  Whether it is Wayne Selden soaring over the competition, or Perry Ellis’ old-school post moves, or local product Devonte Graham running the show, the team has legitimate college stars on the floor at all times. Keep an eye on Landen Lucas as well, who is a skilled big that has a burgeoning comfort with knocking down a jumper and a penchant for handling the dirty work inside.
There won’t be a lot of teams that can match talent for talent with Kansas, but UMD is pretty darn close. The backcourt is sensational with Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon, two combo guards that can get their shot and shots for their teammates whenever the mood strikes. Diamond Stone has played well especially considering the Freshman’s minutes have been up and down with UMD occasionally going small.

The Matchup 
This game will have an NBA feel to it because all of the potential future pros that will litter the hardwood. Kansas has been rolling along without a real test thus far in the tournament…which cold be a bad thing.  How will KU perform in a tight spot against a good team? I like UMD a ton, but I can’t bet against Goliath.  I wonder if David will show up adorned in red, black, white, and gold.

Brandon Ingram is good #Analysis (Winslow Townsend/USA Today Sports)

Duke University  vs Oregon Universtiy

The number one seed that everyone had going out early keeps hanging around.  They weren’t especially dominating in their win against St. Joe’s, but the tag line is “Survive and advance” and they have done just that. One thing is clear from the jump, the team is athletic and knows it.  They use that athleticism to get to the free throw line and turn the ball over (they rank top 20 in the nation in both statistics). They aren’t particularly strong from outside, with only Tyler Dorsey shooting better than 40% from behind the arc.

The team started out as just Grayson Allen and some talented freshmen.  Since then, Brandon Ingram has become a dark horse candidate for the first pick in the NBA draft and Luke Kennard is as good a third option as there is in the country.  They aren’t very deep, but even in the best of scenarios Coach K only employs a 7 man rotation. They drive. They kick. They score.  Their problem all year has been on the other side of the court, they were 230th in points allowed per possession this season.

The Matchup
There isn’t a better two-headed combo than Ingram and Allen.  What’s more, the team has already traveled to the site of the game and has had several days to recover, virtually negating the tired legs that can accompany playing a short bench. Give me Duke in this one, which I don’t think will be a particularly close contest.

Add caption

Texas A&M vs Oklahoma

Texas A&M
First off, kudos to winning their last game.  Yes, Northern Iowa collapsed in dazzling fashion, but the Aggies were right there to pick up the pieces and carry the comeback to a fruitful conclusion.  Still, they will need to be much better in the body of the game if they plan on advancing in the tournament. Perhaps they will employ the press that led to their surprising finish, earlier in the game. This team thrives on defensive stops and attacking in transition. They have forced the 14th most turnovers in the nation.

I was wrong twice on this team.  I thought 1) buddy Hield was a great shooter and athlete, but not capable of getting his own shot against set defenses. 2) I thought that if Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard didn’t play well, Oklahoma couldn’t win. With Hield made a liar out of me by getting his own offense and scoring 29 of his 36 points in the 2nd half as the rest of the team’s offense stalled. Great players shine biggest when the lights are the brightest.

The Matchup

I’ve officially been Hield, and I won’t bet against the young man in this spot.  A&M got gifted its last game, I don’t see the Sooners being that generous.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A Look Philadelphia 76ersAround the League: Eastern Conference Also-Rans

Your fortunes can change just that quickly in this game (Sports Illustrated)

Most teams have about a dozen or so games to go before the playoffs.  While there will be a ton of focus on those teams, this would be a good time to say goodbye to the fourteen other squads as they depart this earthly regular season. This edition of A Look Around the League focuses on the present and future of the teams we’ll cease to see this come postseason time. Part 1 will be solely about the Eastern Conference teams already looking forward to the offseason, with a brief recap of their 2015-2016 season. Note: if a team still has a somewhat legitimate chance to make the postseason, they have not been included.

The 76ers' biggest acquisition may be Jerry Colangelo (Bill Streicher USA Today Sports)

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers trusted the process right into a new head guy of bball ops (Jerry Colangelo's official title is “Chairman of basketball operations”) after having Sam Hinkie convince his boss that losing was actually better than winning for three seasons, the owner (under a bit of pressure?) hired Colangelo, who is now finally giving a timeline to hitting that light at the end of the tunnel. Their top picks in the most recent drafts, Jahlil Okafor and  Joel Embiid were shut down for the season and will hopefully be ready to go when the next season rolls around. One thing is certain, with new decision-makers in place, the NBA’s nightmare of an experiment is coming to a close.

Sean Marks will have his hands full as the new GM in Brooklyn (Getty Images)

Brooklyn Nets

As sad as the 76ers have been for years, the Nets are going to be worse. The team’s future was mortgaged for about a year and change of old superstars.   As such, their front office shake up moving Billy King out and replacing him with Sean Marks will more than likely have little effect.  There are dark days ahead for Brooklyn, if you want to get out now as a fan, no one would blame you.

You think Melo is rethinking his no-trade clause? (Getty Images)

New York Knicks

I don’t mean to pile on the city of New York but…it wasn’t a banner year of basketball for the east coast’s largest city. After starting out the season reasonably well (and wouldn’t anything be reasonably good after a franchise-low number of wins last year?), the Knicks fell on hard times and eventually jettisoned their head coach and former Phil Jackson protégé, Derek Fisher.  The future looks good with rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis’ surprisingly good first campaign and Carmelo Anthony’s continued greatness.  There are still more roster moves to be made to establish themselves as a playoff contender, but overall the franchise’s outlook is brighter than at this time last year.

Can Skiles help develop the Magic's young stars like he did in OKC? (Getty Images)

Orlando Magic

This team is perilously close to becoming the Miami Dolphins of the NBA—the team that is hyped in the media to make the leap and manages to fall short. They’ve drafting of Elfrid Peyton, Victor Oladipo, and Nikola Vucevic has been deft, but attracting free agents has been an issue for the team.  A consideration that may only worsen as the salary cap jumps and every team will be flush with cash.  The team recently hired Head Coach Scott Skiles for his penchant for developing young talent. Hopefully he will be able to improve their young core like he did in Oklahoma City. The team’s most glaring weakness is on the offensive end, where they currently rank 26th in points per possession.  Contributing to their offensive woes is the team’s lack of consistent three point shooting, they are in the bottom half of the league in both attempts and percentage of makes. Hopefullly Skiles can work his (ahem) Magic on this roster and Florida’s 0% state tax can work its powers of seduction of free agents.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Fait Accompli: Ben Simmons' Loss Season

Simmons Has faced his share of criticism over the past year (Getty Images)

While reading the stellar Jonathan Givony of Draftexpress (a must read for tournament time and NBA draft junkies such as myself) I came across an article detailing a myriad of reasons why Ben Simmons could/should belosing his spot as the inevitable first pick in this June’s NBA draft. Specifically, Givony outlined four reasons that a change at the top of the draft was warranted; his competitiveness, hollow box scores, poor defense, and character issues all stemmed back to a perceived general apathetic approach to the game. Givony, as usual, seemed to hit the nail on the head.  I watched several LSU games and Simmons (at times) appeared to be stoically resigned to the LSU casually piled up over the course of their oddly forgettable season. What I believe Givony missed was the real-life context that may have been the driving factor for the perceived indifference Simmons displayed.

Ben Simmons was born July 20th, 1996 less than a month after Kobe Bryant was selected 13th by the Charlotte Hornets. The NBA officially adopted what has been deemed the “One and Done” rule as a part of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement.  So for the duration of Simmons’ life, he has seen Kobe Bryant and LeBron James dominating the NBA.  There was no question as to whether a player straight out of high school could play at an elite level.  So perhaps he attacked the prospect of one year of college basketball much in the same way that many attacked their first jobs; as a necessary evil that was a means to an end. With the exception that that job was required…and unpaid.  Add that to the fact that the team he selected based on a familial relationship was devoid of sufficient talent, and this season simply petered out to a whimpering conclusion.

This summer, Simmons will finally get an opportunity to realize his dream of being drafted. This arbitrary rule of forcing players to wait until a year after their graduation is now not only exploiting a small number of players, but is now affecting their assessments.  The NBA was concerned that players out of high school weren’t ready to play in the Association. Now, the rule may be affecting competitive balance; forcing teams at the top of the draft to assess a player’s meaningless season—a practice that could lead teams that need talent most to bypass a player that could sorely help them and their fan base.

Watching the scrutiny that Simmons has been under for a season, including the leaking of his academic performance, has only highlighted the need to change the NBA rule. The players that are talented enough shouldn’t be denied a right to earn what the market bears. And as more of this generation of basketball player who grew up watching Kobe (a player currently on an 82-game goodbye tour because of his celebrated greatness) have to endure a year of playing without pay, we will continue to see college basketball seasons approached with the anticipation of a prostate exam.

Friday, March 4, 2016

UNC and Duke: Two Institutions, One Spectacle

Is there any better venue in sports? Credit: Gerry Broome AP

The best rivalries in sports are at the collegiate level.  This really isn’t debatable. Watching Roger Clemens don the pinstripes and call Fenway home makes him the living embodiment of the fatal flaw of pro rivalries. Rasheed Sulaimon not withstanding, Charles Woodson would never wear the Scarlet and Gray. There is no chance that Adrian Peterson would ever throw up the Horns. The idea of Marcus Allen as a Bruin is physically nauseating. But among those collegiate rivalries one stands above the rest—Carolina vs Duke Basketball is the pinnacle of contentious competition.

To have a great rivalry, it is necessary to have success.  Loads of rivalries flutter out because one of the teams loses its competitive edge.  UNC and Duke have combined for 48 regular season  ACC titles and 36 ACC tournament titles—both are more than the rest of the ACC combined.  Over the last 25 seasons, they have each reached the Final Four on nine occasions and have combined for eight national championships.  Not to mention the numerous star players both teams have  featured on the college and pro levels. 

This particular rivalry has the added bonus of proximity, something that most college rivalries don’t have; and certainly not this sort of proximity.  Eight miles separate the Duke University and the University of North Carolina.  But more than just mere distance, the culture and feel of the schools helps add to the flavor of the angst. Duke and its snooty, pretentious, refined, quasi Ivy League private school is the perfect foil for the hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, unassuming public university-attending UNC students.

This Saturday, the rivalry gets renewed.  UNC is currently leading the ACC and both are ranked in the top 20 in the AP poll. As usual, the two teams will be locked in the last contest of the ACC regular season.  Not only rankings and seedings are on the line, but with Duke having won the last four contests, the Tar Heels will be looking to avenge a stunning and heartbreaking loss they suffered at home.  There is no more hectic and electric environment in all of college sports than Cameron Indoor Stadium when the Carolina Blue squad saunters in for a battle.

The last game was an instant classic. After controlling the game for most of the contest with its inside presence, Brice Johnson was completely ineffective on the offensive end of the floor after dominating the first 3 quarters of it. Coach Roy Williams heard plenty of criticism from the peanut gallery after refusing to call a timeout on the final possession for Carolina that ultimately resulted in a poor shot and mindless scramble drill.  The pressure on the coach has ratcheted up as Duke has continued to stockpile championships and lottery picks.  In this rivalry, there is no such thing as a moral victory or “good enough”.  Iron sharpens iron and each programs’ success acts as a catalyst for the other’s.

It is easy to be cynical in sports.  This rivalry offers a nice reprieve to sit back and enjoy one of the purest, most fun spectacles in all of sports. Enjoy watching two storied programs strap it up and get back after it. They meet at least twice a year, but it is always an event to be savored.

NBA Eastern Conference Contenders: A Look Around The League

LeBron's won a few EC Championships, is he on his way to another?

Cleveland Cavaliers

For the longest time it was Cleveland…and everyone else.  The winners of the Eastern Conference were penciled in by the time the year changed its last digit. That’s why pencils have erasers. The Toronto Raptors have gone on a run while the Cavs have dropped 3 of their last five games and appear to be searching for their mojo. Moreover, there are reports that Kyrie Irving is unhappy. With 23 games remaining, the Cavs have more questions surrounding them than at any other point in the season.

Toronto Raptors

I don’t believe in them. I know the team is closing the gap on the Cavs, but the team is built in the backcourt and neither Kyle Lowry nor DeMar DeRozan have proven to be efficient scorers in the postseason.  To his credit, Lowry is having the best season of his career, posting career highs in points, rebounds, field goal and 3 point percentage. For the Raptors to take the next step forward, they will need consistent play not only from their stars bu their frontcourt as well. Jonas Valanciunas and his post game help give the Raptors balance. Will the Raptos have enough to finally get over the hump?

Boston Celtics

Brad Stevens has quickly established himself as a guy that is going to be in the Coach of the Year discussion perennially. His after timeout offensive sets are both confounding and effective, and he’s arguably the most recognizable guy for this franchise.  The team is third in pace and defensive efficiency, while keeping their turnovers low (they have the 6th lowest number of possessions that result in one). Isaiah Thomas has made a name for himself in Boston and is the best player on the surprising team.  In the end, stars win playoff series and this organization is still looking to barter its assets to acquire one. Still, the future looks bright for one of the stalwarts of the NBA…even if there is a good chance all these wins end in a first round exit.

Wade has another running mate, NC's own Hassan Whiteside (USATSI)

Miami Heat

This team is as intriguing as it is frustrating.  When Chris Bosh went down with a recurrence of blood clot issues it felt like the season was careening towards a disappointing end.  But as Hassan Whiteside has continued to improve, and Joe Johnson’s recent acquisition Miami looks to be surging at the right time. Add to that the fact that through some shrewd moves, they will avoid paying a repeater luxury tax (Pat Riley for Executive of the Year?) and the future looks as bright as the present.  Still, they will need Bosh if they plan on making a real run.  But the idea of a Miami Heat vs LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers Eastern Conference Finals matchup is incredibly exciting.

Atlanta Hawks

After winning 60 games last season, there was a hope that the Hawks were close to dethroning the Cavaliers.  Then they lost DeMarre Carroll and got off to an extremely rough start.  After deciding not to blow up the team at the trade deadline, the Hawks have continued to struggle. They’ve had four different three game losing streaks this season. That magic that they captured is gone. It seems like the right time to figure out the value for the pieces that they have, and come up with a plan for the future.

Steve Clifford has put himself in the COY runnings (USATSI)

Charlotte Hornets

What a delight to have the local team invited to the party.  Ranked 6th, they are showing signs of consistency, easily dispatching the Suns and 76ers most recently.  Perhaps even more impressive, they have incorporated Al Jefferson back into the fold without missing a beat. His time as a part of he second unit gives the team’s offense a dynamic flair.  Last season the team was 24th in 3 pointers attempted, this season they are 4th.  The startling contrast is a testament to Head Coach Steve Clifford’s flexibility and understanding of his roster. This year will be a success if they make the playoffs and keep soon-to-be-free agent Nicolas Batum.

Indiana Pacers

This team has far exceeded my expectations, and that starts with their star Paul George. It’s been about 18 months since George injured his leg on that stanchion in Las Vegas.  Most expected this year to be one of rebuilding—for him and the franchise.  Instead, the team sits in the 7th spot in the Conference and rookie Myles Turner has continued the team trend of going beyond what the pundits thought possible. Turner and Ian Mahinmi have provided the front court presence for a team that has used Monta Ellis as a pseudo point guard to make their occasionally docile offensive attack more dangerous.  They already have their superstar in place, a good free agency haul and the Pacers could be back among the best teams in the East.

Detroit Pistons

Speaking of pleasant surprises, the Pistons suddenly have two emerging stars.  Andre Drummond’s ascension, while sharp, has been expected.  Reggie Jackson’s rise has been more startling. After years of being Russell Westbrook’s understudy in Oklahoma City, Jackson wrestled the starting position away from an injured Brandon Jennings, making him expendable. Jennings departure meant Tobias Harris could come into the fold, which should improve their below average offensive efficiency. If they can avoid Cleveland in the first round, they will be a tough out for someone.

Wall must carry his team to the playoffs to be considered one of the sport's best PGs (USATSI)

Washington Wizards

I know the Wizards are currently 9th and out of the playoff bracket if it started today—but it doesn’t start for another 20 games or so.  And this team is finally healthy (no team has lost more games to injury than the Wizards).  If I had to bet on a team with the majority of its talent in the backcourt, give me Washington over Toronto.  As long as they stay healthy, they’ll make the postseason. Imagine playing all season to get homecourt advantage and the prize is John Wall and a fresh Bradley Beal. Good luck.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls are yet another case of talent taken asunder by injury woes. The Bulls have had injuries to nearly all off their key members.  Ironically, 35-year-old Pau Gasol has been the healthiest and most consistent member of the team.  With star player Jimmy Butler finally cleared to play, do the Bulls have enough time to run down the bottom of the playoff contenders?