Thursday, March 26, 2009

What does it all mean?

Last night was one of those fun nights where you don't quite know what to make of the results. One team beats another, and you naturally want to conflate some meaning going into the playoffs; but can you?

Celtics @ Magic

Close-knit win by the Magic, gaining them a leg up on the race to 2nd in the East. Bostonites might say, hey, we only had Kevin Garnett for 16 minutes in the 1st and 3rd quarters. True, but when Kevin was on the floor, the Celts were -10, and watching the game you didn't need to see that number to know it. The Celts allowed a few more forays to the basket than you're used to seeing by Rashard Lewis, Cortney Lee and the like. Is KG not yet up to game shape? Should we put more stock in the C's 4th quarter comeback? Or more stock in the fact that there probably wouldn't have been a comeback had it not been for the number of chippies and wide-open looks that the Magic missed throughout the game? The youngsters had ample opportunity at a number of stretches to pump the lead up to 20 points, easily; I can think of at least 4 blown layups off the top of my head. But then there's the Truth factor: the Mag had no measure of an answer for him. Then again, there is the Hedo factor: surely, surely, no one can expect this All-Star calibre player to have many more 3-18 games in him.

In the end, it probably all balances out, and a series between the teams would be a tough tough out for either. Now, if Jameer Nelson were healthy, it becomes an even tougher out for the Celtics. Either way, I think the young Mag end up gaining infinitely-valuable playoff experience this year. Going forward, with a healthy Nelson backed up by Rafer Alston and Anthony Johnson -- assuming the Magic get Hedo re-signed -- look out Eastern Conference. You're living on borrowed time.

Utah @ Phoenix

This was the game the Suns had to win. The Mavs were playing the Golden State Running Dubs, and, naturally, putting up points by the boatloads in an easy win. Somehow, someway, the Suns pulled out a victory. My Suns-fan friend had told me earlier in the day how well Grant Hill had been playing lately, and I got to see it 1st hand last night. He was very, very good, nice drives into the lane, hitting the mid-range jumper, etc. It was vintage Hill. And J-Rich was pretty good for long stretches too. So where does that leave us? Is Utah really as good as that 12-game stretch they ran off a couple weeks back? Or are they fit to really struggle to beat a team on the outside looking in at the race? Are the Jazz simply that much poorer of a team on the road?

That last one is the biggie. Their only hope to host a playoff series is to catch Denver and beat out Portland for the Northwest crown. And even then, it's only one playoff series. After their win streak, during which the only road games were against the dregs of the league, they started coming back down to Earth, with a big splash. Last night couldn't be too confidence-inspiring.

In any case, Phoenix has another tough test tonight, rolling into Portland to face another team that's fighting tooth and nail for playoff positioning. They then have to face the Jazz on Saturday, who will be licking their chops after two days off feasting on home cooking.

Milwaukee loses to...Toronto? Charlotte loses to...Washington??

Congratulations Chicago. Apparently the only other potential suitors for a date with the Cavaliers in the first round have already put on their pajamas and pimple cream and turned in for the night. I can't imagine how those teams ended up losing those games, but, I can't bear the thought of League-Pass-ing the games to find out how and why.

And why yes, I did just make up a new term: leaguepassing a game - verb - watching a re-run of a game on NBA League Pass. Yes it's corny, no it has no chance of sticking, but, well, for today, there you go.

Still not as bad as the HornuhBobcats losing a must-win game to the Wizards.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Playoff Surge

With about 14 or so games left (depending on the team), the playoff race is starting to heat up and round into focus. The races for certain spots are definitely growing more interesting by the day.

Shootout in the Old West

With the Lakers concerned more with projecting the return of Andrew Bynum than looking in the rearview mirror, how terrific of a race is the rest of the conference is shaping up to be! 3 games separate spots 2 thru 7, and all 6 teams are within 2 games of a division crown. I could start to analyze the team's remaining schedules, recent performances, and what not; but how could anyone make a choice with so many teams locked so close? Let's just sit back and watch these fun matchups:

March 22: Houston @ SA
March 24: Houston @ Utah
March 25: Denver @ N.O.
March 29: SA @ N.O.
March 31: Utah @ Portland
April 2: Utah @ Denver
April 5: Utah @ N.O., Portland @ Houston
April 8: Portland @ SA
April 10: Utah @ SA
April 13: N.O. @ Houston
April 15: N.O. @ SA, Denver @ Portland

Could we have two games on the last night of the season that may determine a division crown? Could four teams be jumping between spots 2 to 6 in one night? Or all six teams? Stay tuned.

As luck would have it, I'll be traveling on April 16th, so I won't miss any of the action. But lemme just fix my mind to finish packing on the 14th or I might be struggling to make that plane early the next day.

First-round fodder

In the East, there is, mathematically, a 6-team shootout to see who becomes the doormat for the LeBronians -- I don't forsee anyone stretching them to a 7-game marathon like the Hawks last year against Boston -- but realistically, it's starting to look like a 2-team bout between the new-and-improved Bulls and the steadily-improving Bobcats. By my esteemable estimation, the teams will have identical 32-38 records by the end of the day, judging by the likelihood of Charlotte winning at home against the Pacers, and the Bulls losing to the Lakers. By any measure, the teams are neck-and-neck. While I recently thought it to be a foregone conclusion that the Bobcats would out-perform any other team racing for that 8th spot, the John Salmons/Brad Miller-infused Bulls have managed to reel off a respectable 6-4 record in their last 10 games.

The schedule seems to favour the Bulls; every game after today is more than winnable, with contests against the likes of Washington, Detroit, Indiana, Toronto, and the New York Area Rebuilders. The Bobcats on the other hand still have the Lakers, Boston, and Orlando to contend with.

We should know a great deal more when the two teams match up on the final Saturday of the season, a game that could potentially be huge. No matter the outcome of that game, Charlotte will own the tiebreaker, having won the first two games of the 3-game season series. It's gonna be tight.

With all due respect to injury-plagued Milwaukee, the now-Devin Harris-less Nets, the D'Antoni Offenders, and the Indiana giant-killers, math or no math, they'll be inking their golf and fishing plans by time April rolls around.

In the West, most people, myself included, have all but written off the Suns' chances at catching Dallas for the final spot, but perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to turn off the lights. Though the Mavs have put up more W's recently, neither team's play exactly inspires a wealth of confidence. Josh Howard is hurting for the Mavs, while Leandro Barbosa has joined Amare Stoudemire on the injury list, putting each team at a further disadvantage in the stretch run.

The Mavs were able to eeke out a win last night in Indiana, who despite their record has managed to play the top teams tough all year long; so perhaps we can give a pass to Dallas on this one. Had they lost, their lead would've shrunk to two games and made the race significantly more interesting. Going forward, Phoenix (Wizards, Grizz twice, Wolves, Warriors, Kings twice) seems to have more games verses teams they absolutely have to beat than does Dallas (Warriors, Wolves twice, Grizz). The Mavs have a shorter schedule, but have to play more teams that are more than capable of beating them. So, the schedule favours Phoenix slightly, but naturally, the 3-game deficit in the standings does not.

The biggest game will be 3 Sundays from now, when the teams play each other. If Dallas wins, that would give them a 3-1 win in the season series, and turn it into a 4-game deficit overall. If Phoenix wins, and beats those Sacramentos and Memphises on their schedule, they may end up with the better conference record tiebreaker. So who knows?

The Mavs hold on the spot still seems strong, but if you're Phoenix, you keep playing and playing hard until April 15th, cause they still have an outside shot at surprising us yet.

Congratulations in advance for the team that earns the right to become a playoff sparring partner for the Lakers.

The Rest

Naturally, everyone knows about the race for the best record overall, with a months-long battle-royal down to just the Cavs and Lakers. The Cavs look like they smell blood; I'm watching them plaster the 7-game win-streak Hawks as I write this (40-16 and counting). The Lakers meanwhile are juggling lineups (slightly) and waiting with baited breath on the health of Andrew Bynum's knee.

The Hawks' recent run nevertheless has seem to have put an end to the race between them and the Heat for the 4th spot; the Heat meanwhile are have to be more concerned with the Sixers and Pistons nipping on their heels. Playing the Hawks in the 1st round has to be a helluva lot more palatable than dropping into a showdown with the Magic, Celtics, or Cavaliers.

Can't wait to see how it all plays out. Well, as long as I don't go missing any flights.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What's in a career (year)?

The calendar has turned to March, giving us, among other things, the heating up of the NBA MVP conversation. If you're an NBA junkie, you've heard all the discussions by now, the arguments for and against the leading candidates of LeBron, Kobe, and D-Wade. If you're not an NBA junkie, you're probably most focused on the NCAA tournament. Well, for the junkies among you, I'll continue with the NBA discussion.

So I happened to be reading this article, in which a writer makes the case of history against Dwyane Wade's candidacy. Ignoring the obvious "duh" nature of the argument, I happened upon this gem of a quote:

And it’s not a coincidence that guys like Mo Williams and Delonte West are having career years. [LeBron] James is helping to elevate them.

Huh? Career years? Let's look at the numbers, shall we?

YearPPGFG%3PT%Rbs, Ast, Stl
Williams: 2008-200918.046.843.23.3, 4.0, 0.9
Williams: 2007-200817., 6.4, 1.2
West: 2008-200912.046.541.43.1, 3.6, 1.6
West: 2007-200810.344.036.73.7, 4.5, 1.1
West: 2005-200611.848.738.53.1, 3.6, 1.6

Career years? What exactly have West and Williams done this year that they haven't done in previous years? Aside from the 3pt shooting percentages, is there a single measure by which these players haven't simply performed as they've performed for the bulk of their careers? We're certainly not going to hedge a label of career-year based on one statistical category, getting more wide-open looks from behind the arc. The only difference is that they're playing in games that matter, on a team that people actually bother to watch this year.

And naturally, with LeBron dominating the ball more, both of their assist and turnover numbers have gone down. Doesn't do much for a player's career when you can say "the more you give him the ball, the worse he performs."

In fact, there has been a decent amount of print about how many players' games either remained the same or have actually declined alongside James. Here's a quick study done 2 years ago. We can now update the case study to include Delonte and Mo.

Most people, myself included, thought the Mo Williams pickup was a good one for the Cavs, but not because we thought he was gonna somehow elevate his game beyond what we'd already seen. It was because we surmised that what he was already doing, his basic talent-level, would benefit the team.

By contrast, let's look at a player who is actually having a career year (until his unfortunate injury); one of my favourite little men, Jameer Nelson:

2007-2008: 10.9 46.9 41.6 3.5, 5.6, 0.9
2008-2009: 16.7 50.3 45.3 3.5, 5.4, 1.2
A jump in every shooting category, a 6pt increase in scoring, while maintaining in all other areas. A career year that makes.

I think I'm going to copyright the completely-abused phrase "makes his teammates better". That way, people will have to pay me for every use, forcing them to either refrain from throwing it around carelessly, or to ensure, in this age of the battered economy, that they get maximum return on their investment. You know, by actually taking the time to see if it's true before trotting it out.

Monday, March 9, 2009

More bad NBA broadcasts, and a bad game recap to boot

* I just got thru watching the Detroit Pistons extend their long win streak over the Orlando Magic; actually, "suffered thru" is a better description of the last 45 minutes for my ears and brain. Now, general speaking, the broadcast wasn't completely terrible; actually, it was quite vanilla, neither bad nor good in any way. But one simple question highlights the glaring omission that took a run-of-the-mill broadcast from average to painfully horrible: where was Hedo Turkoglu? Right now, I have no idea. The Pistons broadcasters rambled on and on incessantly about the loss of Rasheed Wallace (he left near the end of the first quarter with a strained calf and didn't return), but the Magic's 2nd most important player plays 20 minutes, and they don't even notice? I'm at a loss for words. I was left to scratch my head for those 45 minutes, wondering why I saw J.J. Redick running around aimlessly, getting repeatedly abused by Rip Hamilton.

At one point I recall those Piston broadcasters, noticing the entrance of Marcin Gortat, inform us that the Magic were going to run their own version of the twin towers. Such insight. Never mind that, as I now learned 2 hours after the final buzzer, one of the most important players on the Magic squad went down to injury (thank you Detroit News). Oh no, Gortat's insertion alongside Dwight Howard was clearly a strategy-first move. Way to earn that paycheck guys.

Then to top it off, the full AP recap didn't mention Hedo either? At all??? Did I drop into the twilight zone? Could Pau Gasol or Paul Pierce sustain an injury and no one notice?

On second thought, maybe I should cut the AP writer some slack; perhaps he (or she) was listening to the Pistons broadcast when scribbling their game notes. I guess that reporter at the Detroit News would've had enough experience to know better.

* Caught the final quarter and both overtimes of the Heat/Bulls game, and got to enjoy some more Dwayne Wade wizardry...and endure some broadcaster torture. The final play was amazing, picking John Salmons' pocket at the top of the key in the backcourt, dribble half the length of the floor, put up a one-foot runner at the buzzer from the 3-pt line.....buckets! And then to see Wade get all "mannish" -- "this is my house!". Wicked.

But then what followed was headache-inducing. Congratulations and adulation is is annoyingly, uhh, effeminate. The next five minutes was a top-of-the-lungs, barely-legible man-loving rant: "MVP! Best in the game! Greatest of all time!" Mix, rinse, repeat for 120 seconds. Colorman: "The refs are checking to see if it was a three!" Umm no. Play-by-play: "Oh yea, they're also checking to see if he got it off in time." Well, at least you're somewhere in the neighbourhood; we'll give your "also checking" nonsense a pass since you were in the midst of an orgasmic celebration.

But please, calm down. This is the NBA. A sporting event. Exciting things do happen every so often.

* Some random thoughts:
- the Lakers are a pretty good lock to win a title with Andrew Bynum; without him? Hmmm not so much. I've been having this thought for the past couple weeks now, even before the destruction happening in Portland as I type this (Blazers lead by 28 after 3). Such a shame.

- something told me to reserve excitement over the Rafer Alston trade. The Magic still haven't returned to their level of prominence. I don't know if it'll happen for the young kids this year. Rafer looks great on paper, but there's something still missing with this team, something Jameer brought that is still lacking. It could be as simple as the shot-making: Jameer was murder when left open, but Rafer hasn't proven to be nearly as accurate.

- why does my gut tell me Utah's not quite for real? Everything else says they are: great PG, great PF, capable bench, reeling off a long win streak, and they might be more rested than everyone else (seeing as how so many of them weren't playing), and they're finally healthy with their full complement of playe -- oh, wait, was that Boozer missing another game yesterday? OK err umm never mind.

In any case, I dunno; what's really different about this team from last year, apart from the emergence of Paul Milsap? I am open to the fact that I could well be wrong; maybe they just need another year together, another year of growth for Deron, and some magic elixir to keep the team healthy, and maybe they'll take that next step -- oh wait, I keep forgetting, Boozer, ankle, DNP.

Those Utah docs are certainly earning their keep.

- speaking of Utah, it's starting to look like Jerry Sloan is going to get the equivalent of a sentimental lifetime achievement plaque masquerading as the Coach-of-the-Year award. Not to say he hasn't done a great job this year, keeping the team afloat thru the M*A*S*H parade. But still, has anybody done more with less, and with more problems and rotating lineups, than Rick Adelman in Houston? Take a look at their roster; how is this team winning games? Lots of them? With defense? Is this the same Adelman that coached the running gunning early-3rd-millennium Sacramento Kings? Not that any team with Ron Artest and Shane Battier shouldn't play good D; they should. But still, this is Adelman we're talking about. Everyone thought Jeff Van Gundy would've packed their defense into his Honda Civic when he was cleaning out his locker, but no such thing. Between that, the injury situation, and incorporating new players after a mid-season trade, Adelman is turning in a hands-down coach-of-the-year performance.

But that whole lifetime achievement award thing for Sloan would hardly be the worst travesty to befall an award. Halle Berry for Oscar it would certainly not be.