Wednesday, December 25, 2013

NBA Christmas Conversation

Rather than a preseason preview of the NBA (like last year), I thought I would let some actual games happen before I spouted off about what's happening around the Association. And thank God. I probably would have looked pretty stupid if I had made a bunch of October predictions that would clearly have been way off. I included the perspective of a couple of NBA die-hard friends; Phil (a Warriors fan) and Clay (a Knicks fan). What follows is the transcript of our conversation. Hope you enjoy(ed) watching the Christmas slate of games.


OWEN
Alright Phil and Clay, since we're essentially one-third of the way through the NBA season, I think it's high time that we had a good conversation about the league. I'm going to start off with the team that I think has been the surprise revelation thus far through the 2013-14 season; the Portland Trail Blazers. Everybody thought that they made some serious upgrades to their pathetic bench from last year, and everybody thought that they had a very good starting five, but 22-4? Name me someone who thought that Portland would be leading the deep Western Conference this far into the season. That's what I thought. Their starters have been terrific, and the bench (Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Joel Freeland, and Dorell Wright) has been worlds better than last year. And they haven't even incorporated either of their rookie shooters (Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum) in any significant way. I'm giving Portland the edge over Indiana's dominance because a) everyone expected the Pacers to be very good and b) they play in the awful East.

As for biggest individual revelation, I'm going with Arron Afflalo, coming soon to a contender near you. Here's a guy who has never been more than a nice third wheel (and an injury-prone one at that - he hasn't played 70 games since 2009-10), all of a sudden jumping to 21 PPG while shooting ..469/.415/.873. He also plays defense and can serve as a secondary playmaker. I'd say that he's easily been a top-five shooting guard so far this season, and I'd be surprised if Orlando hasn't traded him to Oklahoma City (or Memphis, or any other team that needs a shooting guard who can, in the words of Jay Bilas, "score the ball") before the end of this paragraph. Yet he was sitting on our fantasy league's waiver wire for almost two weeks before I grabbed him. How about you? Who are your biggest surprises from a team and individual standpoint?

PHIL
Portland is the obvious runaway winner for surprise team. Arguing for another team is kind of like pretending LeBron isn't the MVP. However, I want to give a shout out to the Phoenix Suns. I think everyone had them penciled in for one of the bottom five teams, and honestly they are probably better off being bottom five in the long run, but they look like a legit playoff team right now. Bledsoe is beasting and Dragic is a very effective offensive guard who benefits from having Bledsoe to guard the best backcourt guy on the other team. They also have a bunch of young athletic run-and-jump guys with the Morissi and Plumlee (is the other Plumlee in the league? Can they get him and just run groups of weird pogo stick twins out constantly?). On the more depressing side the apocalyptic tire fire which most of the East finds themselves in is pretty gross. I honestly think the Wizards might grab a four seed and the Wizards aren't good at basketball. Someone needs to send Snake Plissken in to New York City to rescue their basketball fans.

I have to rep my fellow East Bayarian Damian Lillard for seemingly coming into his own in his second year. I think most folks thought he won the Rookie of the Year because Davis under-performed, and I think a lot of people thought he would be more of a complementary piece, but he is leading the best team in the West and averaging 21 and 6. At this point I would much rather have Lillard than Kyrie Irving, which no one would say at the beginning of the season. Fun season so far at least in the West and I am excited to see how everything kicks out. We could end up with four awesome opening-round matchups.

OWEN
Phoenix looks shockingly competent, which is all the more amazing given that this summer a lot of people thought that Bledsoe wouldn't be as productive in more minutes, and everyone thought Miles Plumlee was on his way to being a colossal bust (and they thought the Morrisi already were). (Speaking of which, yes, Mason Plumlee is in the League, currently backing up the decomposing KG in Brooklyn.) Care to guess what Vegas set the line at for Phoenix wins this season? 21.5. They're already at fourteen! And of course, the training staff is so legendary by this point that they can't have a bunch of key guys get hurt to help their tanking position because it would look too fishy. Maybe this is what their cheap owner wants, though - to actually succeed at what Milwaukee tried to do, which is land the eighth seed, avoid the lottery and future All-Stars (and their contracts), and get swept in the first round.

The East is just so pitiful. Only three teams with a winning record! Of course, as others have pointed out, no one's record is going to be that awful at the end of the year, because all those crappy teams have to play each other, and someone has to win those games. Looks like Utah has the inside track on the number one pick for that very reason. As for the Wizards, I wouldn't say they're bad at basketball, but they are only average. They're scoring almost exactly 100 points per 100 possessions (100.6), and their defensive rating is shaky at 102.6, but they could absolutely take a top-four seed in their decrepit conference if John Wall and Bradley Beal can manage to stay upright for the rest of the year. After all, they do have six guys who can score points, and Trevor Ariza has managed to look interested in playing basketball again for the first time in a couple years.

As for all of those dumpster fires, with apologies to the Big Apple teams, Milwaukee has to be the worst. They tried to be competitive, but they just look awful, and apart from the Greek Freak and some flashes from John Henson they don't seem to have much going for them. O.J. Mayo should never be your leading scorer, unless you're playing in Palestine. Ugh. Which of the (really) disappointing East teams do you think has the most reason for hope?

CLAY
Fine answers all of these, but I think that your latter answer (Phoenix) is the much bigger first half surprise. I had Portland penciled in as the 7-8 seed before the season for the reasons you both outline: bench would be something better than atrocious, assumed improvements for Lilliard and Batum. Matthews turning into one of the better 2-way forwards in the league goes down as a giant surprise, as does Aldridge finding another gear. But this team is not the best team in basketball or the best team in the West. 22-5 is obviously awesome, and I wouldn't think they would fall any further than #4 in the West based on what I've seen from the other top teams, but if this team is in the conference finals I'll be surprised. In short, I very much viewed this as a playoff squad this year and they are a playoff squad, just a better one. I think it is reasonable to suggest that even pegged as a #8 seed, they were obviously a team on the rise and with some serious upside just by virtue of the talent they had collected. (And I note that I am among those who believe LeBron should get the MVP every year until further notice, and that the Derrick Rose year is just reason #927 that I have a tough time getting too amped up over MVPs--though there is an excellent argument that it should have been Dwight that year.) 

Over to Phoenix, Owen you've said it: the guys who know things had these guys at 21 wins and challenging for worst record in the league. This was a team that supposedly made itself worse in the first few weeks of the season in dealing Gortat. First-year head coach. Biggest off-season splash was Eric Bledsoe (a nice player of course, but this speaks for itself). They employ BOTH Morris twins and one of the Plumlees. I did not read a single article this summer/fall that even believed these guys would even try to win games, much less that they would actually win them if they tried. And yet they would be the #7 seed if the playoffs started today (a similar or one-spot difference from my Portland "jump"--i.e. PHX-14-15 to 7; POR--7-8 to 1-2). These guys have the same number of wins as Golden State depending on what happens with the Spurs tonight, and while I am not among those overzealous folks who actually thought Andre Iguodala would put them over the top, they are still a good team and expected to make noise by most.**  Just as POR is overplaying, PHX likely is as well. But IF (and that's a big if) they want to they could very well be a playoff team. GS will vault back into the top 8, but I argue Denver is just as likely to be the team that swaps out as Phoenix. That being said, if Minny figures it out you have to think PHX will drop.   

**Just for fun, here were my thoughts to Owen pre-season on GS--(Since when was Iguodala Michael Jordan?  You know who won games for them in crunch time last year? Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack. Where do they play now? Curry is the best shooter in the league. He is not a complete player (I mean defense here). Klay Thompson is not the best shooter in the league, yet he is hailed as 1A to Curry. Lee, Curry and Bogut don't tend to play full seasons. Best backup big is Festus Ezeli. Why is this team a contender?)       

As to biggest individual surprise, I was going to say Reggie Jackson, but then Haberstroh wrote a whole bit on how amazing he has been today so I likely can't make the case for him without you all thinking I am just biting off the work of others. (But for the record, I think he has perhaps been the biggest surprise. Unreal stuff from him—12 PPG, 3.8RPG 3.5APG in 24 MPG, jumps to 17.6 5.6 5.1 per 36 min, and I love them to rep the West in the Finals). As for others, Monta Ellis being more responsible and fitting in well has been interesting, even if the numbers aren't that different. Duncan continuing to be who he is remarkable though maybe not a surprise. But I’ll say Lance Stephenson. He looks like he has actually figured out how to be an NBA player which is just frightening for a guy with that much skill (and from the perspective of a passionate Knicks fans who hates the Pacers more than he hates war, poverty, famine and disease put together). On talent alone it was always crazy that he fell to the second round, but then he obviously came out too early and is clinically insane. Improvements by the numbers are pretty solid on their own—2012–8.8/3.9/2.9; 2013–12.9/6.6/4.9—but he’s playing smart now and isn’t quite the loose cannon he was which is maybe the bigger surprise and more important change. (Again, I can’t describe to you how much I hate this development.)

Going forward: I stand by my pre-season Clipper comments, I don’t think they are good enough because (among other things) DeAndre Jordan is possibly the worse dollar-for-dollar player in the NBA.  I just don’t think they’ll defend at any point, and the injuries aren’t helping on either side of the ball. OKC is the title pick with Miami right now, but of course you can’t deny that Indy looks fantastic (AHHHHHH!!!!). I also very much think that Houston could suddenly figure this thing out at any time (my preseason Western pick). Give them some time and they may really develop into a juggernaut.   

Other thoughts: I wish I had a Jim Dolan voodoo doll. I also wish I had a JR Smith voodoo doll.  I hate this Knicks season so much I just want it to end. I won’t bore you all, but I maintain that this cannot be laid at the feet of Melo (Owen has heard this bit from me before). I really wish Ricky Rubio would learn how to shoot so that he could really take off and be the best PG in basketball (or close). The comment about Lillard over Irving is very interesting, and standing here today its tough to say you aren’t right. It’ll be very interesting to see how that comparison develops in the next few years, as both of them really need to improve defensively. Somehow it still seems like Irving has more upside with his unreal quickness, but this is a much closer argument (and again, you might be right) than I’m sure anyone would have thought. I wish I was LeBron James.

OWEN
Last question for you guys; after the first third of the season, given what we know about who's hurt and who is actually good, etc., who are your playoff teams for each conference? I'll give you mine:

EAST
1) Indiana - I think this team has a chip on their collective shoulder, and I think they find a way to add another weapon, whether it's getting Danny Granger healthy to be a versatile heat check guy off the bench, or turning his expiring into something else, that gets them juuuuust past..
2) Miami - All hail King James. This is a pretty well-oiled machine, as evidenced by the fact that Michael Beasley is sporting a 22.1 PER, only slightly behind Wade's 22.6 (!!!).
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3) Boston - I mean, that Atlantic Division is terrible. I think Ujiri out-tanks Ainge, pulling out all the stops and giving Boston an undeserved home court in the first round. But hey, Rondo will actually play now, right? 
4) Washington - No, really. Their offense is pretty lethal with Wall, Beal, and Nene all healthy. Of course the odds of that being true the rest of the way is something like 15 percent, but we'll roll with it.
5) Detroit - This Drummond-Monroe-Smith experiment is weird, but Drummond is already enough of a force of nature that there are very few teams that can contain him, and that's going to make Detroit as feisty as one of these awful Eastern teams can be.
6) Atlanta - Not terrible, although they also will never be above fourth in even this putrid conference if they can't find a way to get their hands on or develop a game-changer.
7) Cleveland - They can't be this bad, can they? We all know having Mike Brown as your coach is the equivalent of being guarded by the Pacers every day, but they're going to make a move by the All-Star break to try and at least make the playoffs.
8) New York - Clay, I'm throwing you a bone. I think they have the best chance of the New York teams to turn it around with Chandler coming back to turn them from a team that might give up 100 to DeMatha into a somewhat acceptable defensive group. And then they get the Pacers in the first round! Let me have that bone back.

WEST
1) Oklahoma City - Imagine how good they can be if they turned Kendrick Perkins into an actual basketball player? Of course, they irrationally love him, and any trade means also giving up Reggie Jackson or Jeremy Lamb, so I'm not betting the ranch on that happening. Still, Arron Afflalo would look REALLY good with Jackson and Collison and Adams on their second unit, and would give them another versatile defender for opposing wings.
2) San Antonio - I don't know that they catch the Thunder in the standings, but this team knows they can beat OKC in a series regardless of who has home-court advantage, and, well, they're the Spurs. They'll be rested and ready.
3) LA Clippers - I agree with everything Clay says about DeAndre Jordan, but the same irrationality applies here as to Perkins in OKC. Their ceiling is the semi-finals barring a Durant or Duncan injury.
4) Portland - They'll cool down enough to lose the division, but this is a fun team to watch with Lillard and Aldridge both making a leap. It will be even more awesome if they can match up in the first round with...
5) Golden State - You're right, Clay, Iguodala is no Michael Jordan. But he does everything on the court well, and allows them to hide Curry better on defense. I also think that Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Lee-Bogut and Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Bogut are two of the five most entertaining offensive lineups in basketball.
6) Houston - They'll be happier whenever they finally deal with this Asik business, but they still need to massage Dwight's ego, and that will wear on them just enough. They could make a run from here, though, especially if Terrence Jones keeps growing into his new role.
7) Dallas - Healthy Dirk + Carlisle =  playoff spot, no matter who else is around. Monta is no longer a completely selfish gunner, but he still can't hide on defense, especially against the rest of these teams.
8) New Orleans - They now have a healthy Brow and a healthy Ryan Anderson. I think Davis' limitless potential (and the way he's realizing it, bouncing right off the disabled list with a 24-12 against the Clippers and a 21-9 against Portland) get them in over Minnesota and Phoenix.

CLAY
First off, Phoenix Suns. Winners of three in a row! Hoist the O'Brien trophy in the desert this summer!

East--A little irritated at even having to discuss this but I guess we can't just pretend it doesn't exist.  

1) Indiana--I will buy Indiana taking the 1-seed (though not necessarily beating Miami), and I am saying that while maintaining as in my preseason e-mail that the market for Granger just won't be what the blogosphere wants it to be. I don't see the match for them to actually get something back worth having.  
2) Miami--LeBron is the MVP, and Miami is the champion.  Nothing I've seen so far has made me waver on that view.  
3) New York--This isn't some sort of homer view on things. The Knicks are terrible. The Knicks will be terrible come April. But if we truly are of the belief (which 90% of the known world was 2 months ago) that Boston, Toronto and Philly will do ANYTHING to finish in the cellar and get a high pick...why do we think they will back off of this stance now? Thus, I don't think it's a question of "out tanking" one another. TOR and BOS will both find a way to suck and if that leaves only BKN and NYK as teams in the Atlantic trying to win basketball games, doesn't one of them have to win the division? And isn't BKN the bigger dumpster fire by the slimmest of margins given that their one not-older-than-dirt impact player is now out for the season? BOS only has 3 more wins than the Knicks right now. I could easily see the Knicks taking this division with 36 wins.  This entire paragraph is an abomination.  
4) Atlanta--I actually really like these guys. I think they'll give a good fight to whoever they face in the second round. Horford is great. Millsap is good. Teague is hovering between good and very good. Not a terrible team. Such a wild card going forward with all the trade assets, but I think they're okay.
5)  Washington--Echo your thoughts here. There is just no reason to believe they will have their best guns all year. 
6) Detroit--Brandon Jennings just doesn't get it. He needs a strong coach to straighten him out. But Drummond is special.
7) Cleveland--Nothing to add here. 
8) Charlotte--Tell me why not. Suppose this could end up being Brooklyn.  

West

1) OKC--LeBron needs to go play baseball for 2 years so Durant can really get his due (and his MVPs). Also, we must continue to point and laugh at the allegedly smart basketball people that trash Westbrook all the time.
2) San Antonio--Echo your thoughts but one thing..."knowing they can beat them" rings hollow. That was a few years ago now. One team's stars have aged, one team's have entered their prime. OKC is a better team and I think they win a series in 6. (Side note--media members as a rule need to criticize big trades to validate themselves and distract from the fact that they have no solutions of their own, but why does Harden get a pass for being the worst defender in the NBA?)
3-5) Clippers/Portland--I really don't know who takes this. Gun to my head I suppose LAC but I don't feel good about it.  
4) Houston--can't fully explain it but I just think they'll figure it out. I really do.
6) Golden State--see previous e-mail. "Entertaining" is not the same as "best" or even "good." (I do think they're good, but you see what I'm saying). Holes on defense, and injury histories continue to scare me. 
7) Dallas--Nothing to add here. 
8) Minnesota--Too much talent (seemingly). I think they are better than their record, though not by much.

PHIL
I feel like I should defend my Warriors here, although it is hard after watching them lose to the Spurs D-League team (I have heard "Marco Bellinelli is killing the Warriors" before, but normally because he was bricking shots and turning the ball over) and grinding out ugly wins against Lakers D-League and whatever the Nuggets currently are. However the W's with Iguodala, Curry and Bogut playing are both top 5 in defense and offense which traditionally makes you a title contender. They need a piece off the bench, and they need Barnes to unslump himself, but there are a lot of great but flawed teams in the West and there is no one I would be terrified of playing in a playoff series if we have all of our horses.

East
1) Indiana- I don't think the Heat are going to go all out to win the top seed this year and the Pacers have that look. Love the improvement in Born Ready, one of my favorite guys in the NBA, and Hibbert may be one of the most impactful players around. Still I don't know if at this point I can pick against the Heat in a 7 game playoff series.
2) Heat- How fun is it that they may have turned Mike Beasley into an NBA player? I love that the NBA Eastern Conference may come down to Be Easy v. Born Ready just like Gunnin for that #1 Spot predicted (RIP MCA).
3) I guess the Knicks? I dunno, I agree with Clay, I think the three teams that want to lose will find a way to lose, and Lopez being down for the year puts the Nets slightly ahead in the New York sadness competition. So the Knicks will pull it out and be the worst division winners in NBA history.
4) Wizards- I don't like the chemistry of this team at all, but someone has to win these games. I still hope John Wall can be what we want him to be. I am not sure anymore,
5) Atlanta. The talent level is high enough that I figure they have to end up somewhere in the mix. I imagine at this point if you aren't a historic disaster or actively trying to lose you end up with an East playoff spot.
6) Detroit. And they wallop the Knicks in the first round.
7) Charlotte. Sure what the heck. They seem to play hard.
8) I guess Cleveland. I do not like this team at all, but I am running out of teams.

West
1) OKC- Still think they are a bit thin. Still a two-man team with a beast of a pair, but I am not sure they get out of that nasty playoffs unless a third guy makes a leap.
2) Spurs- I just watched their scrubs beat the Warriors in Oakland, they just execute so well and it doesn't seem to matter who they roll out.
3) Portland- I just buy them more to win that division then the Clippers who I just think are poorly constructed.
4) Golden State- We have played almost all of our games against the West so far. We still have tons of chances to feast on the East, and I have to believe that Barnes and Klay work their way out of this slump. We need a guy who can score a bit off the bench, so I think we make one more move.
5) Clippers- Another first round exit too.
6) Houston- Can be very scary when they put it together, and Dwight as much as we all hate him, seems to be working his way back into shape. Still would love Harden to try to guard someone.
7) Dallas- I am happy for Monta, he entertained me too much over the years to hate him. I think a first round Spurs series will be really entertaining.
8) Phoenix- Plays very hard, lots of springy athletes, I think they pull it off.

CLAY
Didn't realize we had a warriors fan here, sorry for piling on. I agree with your whole write-up, and I love the upside for them. My comments reflect a general skepticism that they will indeed have all those horses. And though I may be a fool for this in the end, I'd still take Houston in a battle of the 3-jacking, wildly entertaining, at times questionable defensive squads. Can't fully explain my faith in them to pull it together especially with the periodic stink bombs they keep throwing out. 

And yes, the Knicks will lose to their first-round draw. Maybe they beat Charlotte 

OWEN
Clay, I suppose you're right regarding my comment about the potential Thunder/Spurs matchup. That matchup may come down to how much or how little Scott Brooks plays Kendrick Perkins (who by the way, Clay, is offended that you called DeAndre Jordan the worst dollar-for-dollar player in the NBA). It's hard to believe that we live in a world where smart people think a Charlotte team starting Josh Freaking McRoberts is going to get the seventh seed in the NBA playoffs. Astounding. Great talk, gentlemen, and I hope that we keep getting good basketball to watch for the rest of the season (at least in the West). Let's check back at the end of February and talk more, not just about the good teams, but about the tanktastic ones too (and the guys they're tanking for).