western conference playoff wish list

well, with three to five games left to play, the western conference playoff rankings are still up for grabs, although a little stratification is setting in.  the lakers are five games ahead of everyone in the loss column, and have five left to play.  the 2, 3 and 4 teams right now (dallas, denver, phoenix) all have 27 losses, with the 5 (utah) with 28.  then there’s a huge drop-off of two games in the loss column for 6-8 (portland, san antonio, ok city).  looking at the schedule and the standings, i have a clear wish list.  i’d love to see portland beat dallas at portland on friday night.  after that dallas has the clips and sacramento, and then a toughie at home against san antonio to close the season.  if portland (or san antonio) can beat dallas, and if phoenix can win out (a tall order: they play @ok city, houston, denver, @utah), then phoenix would take the 2 spot no matter what else happens (since they’d have dealt denver and utah losses).  my dream scenario has dallas in the 3 spot, with denver and utah beating each other senseless in a first round matchup.  assuming dallas and phoenix can win their first rounders (no guarantee of course), that gives phoenix the best possible chance of getting to the conference finals…

oh…you say, i’m showing my lakers bias?  yeah, i guess so…in that scenario, i frankly think the lakers have a tougher test in the conference semi-finals than in the conference finals.  i admit it…i’d like to see l.a. have to face either denver or utah, not both.  that said, denver is a shadow of its former self right now, probably atttributable in part to the loss of george karl, but also due to kmart’s absence and the birdman’s decline.  well, they do say watch what you wish for…

any way it works out, it should be interesting, and fun…but speaking for myself, i want to see as many phoenix games as possible, and that’s not just because i think the lakers can handle those guys, but because i think they are still one of the most enjoyable teams in the league to watch.  they play hoops, not wrestling, and in the playoffs, i prefer watching hoops to watching wrestling.

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miami in the driver seat in the bottom half of the east draw

for those interested in how the bottom half of the east draw is going to finish up, all i can say is, the schedule tells the tale.

in general, you can get a rough sense of whether and how much a team will move in the standings by looking at the schedule and counting the number of teams they have to play with better records (or, just better teams – use your own judgment) than them.  then do the same for the other teams vying for that playoff seeding.  if they’re close, don’t count on too much movement, unless the teams are dead even in the standings.  if there’s a big disparity in strength of schedule, maybe things are going to change. this doesn’t mean they’ll beat every “inferior” team and lose to every “superior” team (for example, just tonight indiana beat utah, philly topped atlanta, and, as i write this, the lakers are getting their heads handed to them by durant and the boys), but it’s a good rule of thumb.

in general, if you look at most teams, you’ll find that their remaining schedule differs by one or two “tough” games from those of their other contestants with ten to twelve games remaining.

not so for the heat.  for them, it looks like a cakewalk from here.  in the remaining ten games on their schedule, they have only a single game left against a team with a better record.  that would be the bucks, who the heat meet in milwaukee tonight.  after that, it’s a wasteland, with “tests” coming from toronto, detroit, indiana, minny, philly, detroit again, the juggernaut that is the ny knicks, philly again, and finishing up, at home, with the mighty nets.  true, six of the ten are on the road, but come on.

compare that to what the team in front of them, the aforementioned bucks, have to face.  after miami, they get: memphis, the clippers, cleveland (at cleveland), charlotte, phoenix, a possibly desperate (or possibly out-of-it) chicago bulls, then breathers against new jersey and philly, and then a nice triplet against boston, atlanta, and boston again, which should be especially fun as both boston and atlanta will be battling for playoff positioning.  so, even if we assume the bucks can take care of business against charlotte and  memphis (neither one a pushover), and we write off the clips, bulls, philly and nets, that still leaves five games against top teams.

the story is similar with toronto.  the traps will be facing denver, cleveland, boston and atlanta, in addition to miami, charlotte and that maybe-hungry-maybe-not chicago squad.  meanwhile, charlotte has a schedule more similar to that of the heat.  the bobcats toughest contests other than a game at home against atlanta are homers against toronto and milwaukee, roadies in new orleans and houston (who will play you tough always, anywhere, no matter what), and a couple against chicago.

so, given the strength of schedule, i don’t see even the surprising bucks holding on to that 5th place seed, despite the fact that right now they’re a full three games in the loss column ahead of miami and charlotte.  not to say they can’t hold on, just to say i don’t think they will.  that said, there is this caveat.  i haven’t seen them play lately, and if josh smith is right, they’re playing great ball.

so, my prognostication: miami fifth, milwaukee sixth, then charlotte and toronto last, with chicago still on the outside looking in…of course, charlotte might also be able to hop over milwaukee if they can win every game they “should” and don’t have a brain fart at the end.  with a larry brown team, it could go either way…great preparation, but too much stress.  that said, this charlotte team may be the perfect group of guys for larry brown…neither wallace nor jackson is liable to get too wound up by larry’s angst, and they set the tone.

anyhow, it should be interesting…not, of course, that i think any of the four can get to the second round, with the possible exception of a puncher’s chance going to whoever draws the celts.

nba haves and have-nots

well, with many of the big name free-agents having made verbal committments to teams, the view of the coming NBA season is beginning to take shape.  and it should be interesting and, if you’re a fan of one of the privileged few teams with a shot, a lot of fun.

the biggest trend is the divergence between the fortunes of teams that can realistically compete for a championship, and those with – let’s be frank – no hope.  what we’ve seen is no-hope teams letting great players go to top teams, trying to cut costs while they lick their wounds.  some of them may be planning to try to come back in one or more years, but most don’t look like they have much hope…

why?

because the best players out there are willing to play for the mid-level exception on teams with a realistic shot to win the title.

and that’s a short list: l.a., boston, cleveland seem like real threats, with outside shots in orlando and san antonio…with the recently reported signing of hedo turkoglu, pencil portland in as a dark horse, though realistically it seems like it will take them a couple of years to advance to the top tier, all that talent notwithstanding.

at the top of the list, there’s the lakers.  they’re going to have such an overwhelming talent advantage.  ron artest gives them something they’ve lacked for a long time: an imposing physical presence on defense.  while you might get some argument from gerald wallace’s ribs and lungs, there was not much in the middle for l.a. that made teams feel like they really didn’t want to wander into the paint.  unlike boston, who have two or more bodies converging, and usually making contact, with anyone who tries to get to the rim, the lakers frontline would frequently move out of the way when someone went hard to the rim.  that’s probably because guys didn’t want to foul out.  as the aforementioned gerald wallace learned, andrew bynum was willing to play that role, but too often in important games he couldn’t manage to stay on the floor long enough to make a difference.  odds are the young man, who seems smart and motivated, with a pleasant streak of nasty in his game, will learn quickly, and will improve.  but all that notwithstanding, in ron artest, the lakers now have a guy who will take it real personal if opposing teams are getting an easy path to the rim.  more importantly, they have a guy who can match lebron james and paul pierce physically at the 3.  trevor ariza is a quick, smart and committed defender, but he’s not going to wear out the tough 3’s in the league…he’ll stay with them, but he won’t beat them down.  artest will beat them down.  i’ll never forget watching him playing for sacto against a lakers team that had more talent but got pushed around nonetheless by the boys from the california capitol.

and i suppose it has escaped no one that in kobe, lamar (assuming they resign him) and artest coach phil jackson has a trio eerily reminiscent of jordan, pippen and rodman…but jordan pippen and rodman never had the likes of a pau gasol and andrew bynum to go with them.  if phil’s health holds up and if everyone stays a) professional and b) healthy, this could get ugly for the rest of the league.

meanwhile, the other cream of the nba crop all added key personnel, even if it doesn’t look like any of it will be enough to keep up with what l.a. has done.  jefferson in san antonio gives that team needed athleticism, without sacrificing the discipline that is its hallmark.  vince carter adds explosiveness to orlando and makes their starting five one of the best in the league…only problem there is, after you get past their big 4 of nelson, howard, lewis, and vince, the cupboard starts to look a little too bare…the departure of four guys who played important roles in the playoffs – turkoglu, courtney lee, marcin gortat, and rafer alston – is going to take a toll at some point, even if they get nelson back at full strength for the year.

as for boston, a lot hinges on the big ticket.  if he can bounce back physically (and if espn’s bill simmons can be proven wrong in his theory that garnett’s physical breakdown may at this point be irreversible) and if the lizards can convince rasheed to join them, they’ll look like a beast.  hard to see anyone doing much in the paint against that squad.  i’m among those who think that if garnett had been healthy we would have seen a repeat of lakers-celts in the finals, and at least right now, don’t see any reason why it won’t happen next year if the C’s stay healthy (big if).  they just have more experience, defensive toughness, savvy and composure than any of their rivals.  and they look to be deeper too.

meanwhile up in cleveland, lebron’s got some needed help, experience and physicality in the middle in his new big caddy: shaq (wish i could get royalties for coining the big caddy: shaq, but the big man has the right to his own name and nicknames).  but the upgrades in the other top teams will be too much for the land of cleve unless the cavs can pull a tall (preferably quick) lanky defender who can get his own shot.  there were/are a number of such guys in this year’s free agent crop – turkoglu, ariza, artest, odom – but the first three are all spoken for already and it’ll be a shock if the fourth, odom, doesn’t re-sign with the lakers.  the situation makes me think that lebron’s going to have to wait a few years to get his ring, and maybe even to get to the finals again.  here’s hoping he doesn’t sustain the kind of psychic damage that jerry west did, running year after year into the brick wall that was russell’s band of leprechauns.  lebron’s physical advantage is so great that you have to give cleveland a punchers chance, especially if they can get the top seed in the east and only have to play orlando *or* boston and not both in the playoffs.  still, i think the cavs have to rate behind boston, and maybe neck and neck with orlando in the eastern sweepstakes.  of course, if garnett turns out to be as fragile next year as he was this year, then give cleveland much better than a puncher’s chance…in the conference finals…lord help them against the stacked lakers.

the most intriguing move and the most intriguing non-move (so far) come from two western conference bridesmaids: portland and denver, respectively.

portland seems to have gotten exactly what it needed in turkoglu: an experienced guy who can take some of the ball-handling load off of brandon roy, who can get the ball anywhere on the floor and be a threat with it, who can get his own shot or make the right pass (especially over the defense), who will create match-up problems for most teams, especially when lamarcus aldridge is on the floor at the same time and most importantly, should be a great fit in terms of temperament on a team of guys who are proud and talented but not boastful.   and man, what  a deep, varied, and athletic bunch they are.  i think they’ll be one of the most fun teams to watch next year.

despite all that though, portland is a team that may need a year or two to work out how to beat the lakers in a conference finals, assuming they get that far.  and san antonio and denver are likely to have something to say about that.

denver however, may have taken a big step back, simply by having failed to take a step forward.  their big advantages this year were physical dominance and a newly poised offensive approach thanks to chauncey billups.  but the problem with billups, as started to become evident in the playoffs even though it was disguised to a degree by denver’s overall approach, is that his experience and ability can’t make up for the loss in phyical potency that inevitably comes with age.  it reminds me a little of rick “big daddy” reuschel when he took the giants to the ’89 world series.  an experienced guy who could dominate games against good teams, but struggled against great hitters and great teams, simply because he didn’t have the ability, at 40, to overpower the juiced up mark mcgwires and jose cansecos of the world.  basically, he couldn’t mix in a slowing fastball with his other stuff against those guys, and so ultimately couldn’t threaten them.

to me, that’s where chauncey is now.  he’s the perfect fit for a group of mostly young, strong but less than disciplined guys, but at crunch time, particularly against teams with quick guards, he may be at a bigger and bigger disadvantage.  in fact, l.a. is probably the nuggets best matchup because they have a guy at that position in derek fisher who’s not going to be able to outquick or outmuscle chauncey.  but with artest now in the mix, denver’s ability to physically dominate the rest of the floor against l.a. is substantially diminished.  and artest is going to match up very well against carmelo…in fact, it’ll be interesting to see if carmelo can maintain his poise against artest  in a hotly contested series against l.a., if it comes to that.

but, getting back to chauncey, it’s hard to see how he’ll stand up well against improved portland or san antonio squads, both of which have quicks at the 1.  we’ll see.

after the top six: l.a., boston, cleveland, orlando, san antonio, and portland, things start to look grim around the league.  one interesting stat will be teams’ combined record against the top six.  i may need to keep track of that next year…i’ll be impressed if any team not in that group can do better than .400 against it.  denver has the best chance of coming close, and given the number of teams in the league, the probability of one unexpected team fluking into a good record against them may be better than 50:50, but i kind of doubt it.

for the rest of the league, it’s hard to know how they’re going to keep their fans motivated to keep coming to games, other than to see the home boys try to put up against a fight against top six teams.

new york under d’antoni will undoubtedly be fun to watch because of the style.  ditto golden state (who, parenthetically, i think will be a lot *less* fun if they land amare stoudemire because i think his attitude will poison the team…the man should have a stronger sense of hunger and committment, as opposed to the idea he seems to drag around that he’s already arrived somewhere) .  and dallas fans are so in love with their team that they’ll show up and fantasize that they’ve got some kind of chance when the reality is that they’re going to be well-coached also-rans.  nuggets fans will have a chance every night but are likely to end up on the short end against the good teams, as already mentioned.  jazz fans will get what they’ve always gotten, well-prepared tenacious teams that will do well but won’t be able to get over the hump, and they’ll probably accept that.   in oklahoma city, they’ll root for the young guys and won’t worry much about today, thinking instead about someday a couple of years down the line.  one team that should be fascinating to watch is the charlotte bobcats, particularly if they get ai.  brown is the kind of coach who can get his team to play a sticky kind of game that will make it tough even on the best teams, and he may just have the talent to make it work this year.  in fact, if i had to pick a darkhorse candidate for the eastern conf semis next year, it’d be the bobcats.

but in atlanta, philly, chicago, phoenix, houston, new jersey, miami, new orleans, detroit, indiana…what’s there to look forward to? mediocrity or worse, and years of treading water (ok, in dwayne wade miami gets to watch something much better than mediocrity, but it says here there is no way miami can reach the conference finals, and serious doubts about the semis).   and don’t even get me started on toronto, milwaukee, the cloppers, the twolves and the rest of the scroungers making up the bottom rung.

nope, it’s going to be a long year watching top teams overwhelm everyone else, wondering who might be able to slip into the conference semi’s in the east and, if denver falters, in the west.  but once the conference semi’s start, well, now that’ll be interesting.

but already i think the default scenario for the 2009-2010 season is:

lakers (champs)

boston (eastern conf champs)

cleveland (eastern conf runner up)

orlando (eastern conf semis)

charlotte (? eastern conf semis)

san antonio (western conf runners-up)

portland (pushing san antonio to seven in conf semis?)

denver (western conf semis)

obviously, injuries or huge trades could change the situation, but for right now, i’ll start there.

here’s a nickname for shaq

listened to shaq’s interview on pti yesterday, including wilbon’s recital of proposed new nicknames for shaq in cleveland…

to me, there’s no contest…shaq’s going to carry lebron’s clubs and try and get him to the championship the way he did for wade in miami…

so here’s my entry in the shaq nickname contest:  the big caddy (shaq)

shaq to cleveland – what does it change?

so the big news today pre-draft is the trade of the big cactus to cleveland…wonder what he’ll be there?  the big nickname will have a big challenge figuring something out, but i trust he’ll come up with something…

the more important question is: does this change anything for cleveland in terms of its ability to beat top tier competition in the east, not to mention whoever comes out of the west?

to the eye of this amateur hoops junkie, it helps cleveland quite a lot against boston, but maybe not so much against orlando.  shaq will dish out a pounding to kendrick perkins, and he may be able to keep garnett away from the basket, though garnett doesn’t need to be within shaq-distance of the rim to be effective.  more importantly, he’ll force boston to collapse in, and while that will clog up lebron’s path to the hole, it’ll also mean fewer defenders able to key on lebron from distances that are still well within his “unlimited” range.

as for orlando, obviously shaq is a load and cleveland should do much better against dwight howard with him in the middle.  but…it still does not address the problem of how cleveland deals with the length, quickness and range of the two long forwards, lewis and turkoglu (assuming they can re-sign him).  true, howard was a force in the cleveland series, but i’d argue that even if you take away his great games in that series and make him just average, the real problem cleveland had was slow-footed people up front.  this trade does nothing to change that.  further, i think you have to assume that dwight’s going to get better, likely adding an offensive move or two and hopefully improving his footwork.

of course, there are those who’d argue if dwight was going to expand his game significantly there’d be signs of it already. and his main mentor is a guy whose offensive game was a bit on the mechanical and slow-footed side.  still dwight’s young and committed…odds are he’ll be better next year than this, and probably will be able to hold his own against a shaq who may be slowing down.  in the one game between orlando and phoenix in ’08-’09 that shaq played in (march 3), with orlando winning 111 to 99, dwight went for 21 points, 8 boards.  his season averages were 20.6 and 13.8.  so, shaq may have kept him off the boards some, but didn’t slow down his scoring.  meanwhile, shaq got 19 and 11, above his season averages of 17.8 and 8.4, and much better than anything ilgauskas managed.  so, an upgrade no doubt, if we assume shaq will still be healthy and playing come playoff time next year, and maybe those extra points and boards will be the difference makers should orlando and cleveland meet again in next year’s playoffs (though you’ve got to back out medium-sized ben’s boards, or rather, the difference between ben’s boards and whoever gets his minutes, to compensate).

that said, what is the evidence that cleveland will be able to handle both lewis and turkoglu any better now than last year?  hint:  there isn’t any evidence.  and to go further, if we assume both teams are healthy, and jameer nelson plays for orlando, doesn’t that offset any offensive gain that cleveland may get from having o’neal?

to me, cleveland is still a long, lanky, capable defender away from being able to get out of the east next year, even with shaq.  which may mean that, if the lakers want to repeat, they better make sure to re-sign lamar odom, because if they don’t, cleveland may be willing to pay the price for him.  adding lamar would, to me, make cleveland the favorite to win it all, because his versatility would fill in all the places that cleveland right now has serious deficits.

well, they did it again

so…the lakers won…dodged a bullet, or a nugget, if you will…

but again, it’s hard to be proud about it, though i think the second unit played better than they have all playoffs.  i sure can’t wait until andrew bynum gets some more playoff experience under his belt.  he’s a nice guy…smart, well-spoken, thoughtful…but he’s got, i think, a bit of nasty in him too, and once he learns how to channel his energy, where to be, how to play, he’s gonna be a beast…and the lakers need that…

anyhow, tonight’s game may be just what the lakers need to wake them up…given tonight, i think this series could go 5 or 7 games…we’ll see…

still…hard to be proud of it…

and one thing struck me…the laker crowd, the fans, are partly to blame…they’re front-runners…if the lakers don’t come out of the box fast, they sit quietly, nervously…as in, hey, is this supposed to be happening?  they seem to come to cheer dominance, but they don’t urge their team on…if the team isn’t doing well, laker fans don’t get behind them…

which is way different than how it used to be in the showtime days…back then, we loved the lakers, no matter what was happening…but then, those showtime teams, they were some of the best of all time…it was incredible watching those guys…and, from top to bottom, those teams had swagger and they backed it up…they expected to overwhelm teams, and they rarely came out looking like wilted flowers…seems to me ariza is a throwback to those days…kobe and fish could run with those guys…and farmar, on his good days has the confidence that comes from being a stud.  i really want to see gasol get that vibe…and bynum…then we’ll see…

a laker disaster in the making

it’s been awhile since i’ve posted…last time in fact was during the first half of a lakers-celtics christmas day game that the lakers ended up winning… much to my surprise given their wimpy play in the first half.

watching the denver-l.a. game tonight, i was moved, by nausea, to write again.

you gotta understand, i’m a laker fan for life.  my mom used to shout at the tv during those early seventies lakers playoff battles (goodrich was her favorite…jim mcmillan was mine) when i was just a tyke.  i suffered through the kermit washington and elmore smith years.  i got the thrill of showtime, and suffered through the doldrums that were the nineties.  i assume i don’t need to recount the shaq years or what has happened since.

the lakers have never been an overly physical team, despite what rudy t.’s jaw might have to say about it.

but this…this is ridiculous.  watching lakers actively avoid nuggets as they fly to rim makes my stomach turn.  i should have know it was gonna be painful on something like the second play of the game, when denver fumbled a rebound and it nearly went out of bounds, then was rescued and…there was no laker to be seen…no one even trying.  then comes about ten minutes of bad offense, lousy passes, brick shots, and most importantly, very little resembling a laker pulse, other than kobe’s…

i suppose the lakers may switch it on at some point, but i gotta say, it ain’t no fun watching a team that’s not willing or, possibly, able to work hard all game every game…i mean, it’s one thing to have occasional lapses of energy, but what the lakers have is constant lack of energy, with occasional lapses during which they show some effort.

ugh.