Wednesday, April 22, 2015

NBA Playoffs First Round – Eastern Conference Edition

Atlanta Hawks. I did not like the way the Hawks ended their year. Yeah, a few guys were banged up – is it possible that’s because they were playing at half speed, trying not to get injured (obviously I’m speaking of guys other than Thabo Sefolosha). They would get up for marquee games, like a late matchup with the Cavs, but otherwise coasted with that huge lead for the 1st seed. And I hated it. Full disclosure – I had Kyle Korver and Paul Misap on my fantasy team, and they killed me in the semifinals with DNP-rests. But compare this to how the Warriors finished the year. Sure the warriors had guys miss games too, but for the most part they kept everything going. Momentum in sports is notoriously hard to quantify, so much so that it doesn’t exist. But I believe that there is something to the notion of the hot team, the team that peaks in May and June. It’s like when you play pickup and your team wins two or three in a row – you get fatigued, but you also build a nice chemistry, you start figuring out what each person can and should do. Maybe Atlanta will be fine – of course, they will win their first round matchup easily and possibly their second as well, considering how Washington and Toronto are playing. I’m just concerned that after a few weeks of playing disjointed lineups, the defensive rotations won’t be as crisp and the ball won’t fly as fast on offense.

Brookyln Nets. This is such a sad team. Sure, flipping Kevin Garnett for Thad Young was good, but what’s the plan here? They completely mortgaged their future for two guys that are no longer on the team, took a swing at a shooting guard that somehow isn’t a star despite playing an extremely thin position, and took a huge swing on a player playing perhaps the league’s deepest position (point guard). They don’t have a prayer of playing defense or improving their team in the summer. Let’s move on.

Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers’ offense hasn’t been pretty to watch at times. All that Princeton offense, cut without the ball stuff that David Blatt blustered about early in the year turned out to be nonsense (pretty sure LeBron put an end to that). I think LeBron realizes that the team just doesn’t have the pieces to learn that type of offense on the fly and is better suited to focus on its strengths – isolation play. So sometimes the ball stops while LeBron or Kyrie will pound it above the break. But there is also a subtle art to isolation play, especially the brand the Cavs have exhibited in two playoff games. They don’t just bring the ball up and go at you. They’ll run a couple actions until they get the exact mismatch they’re looking for. They’ve figured out that they have 3-4 deadly screen/roll combinations that, if aren’t handled properly, can score on their own. When the defense sells out to stop those actions, it usually results in a favorable isolation matchup. And yeah, the Hawks offense is more fun to watch, bit in the playoffs, when the pace slows, a team needs to have this ability to draw out possessions efficiently. Of course this Cavs team will probably only go as far as its defense (13th by Opp FG% and 18th by DRtg) will take it. Boston just doesn’t have the horses to hurt them on that end, but the Bulls might.

Boston have some nice things going. They are obviously well-coached. Guys know what to do and Brad Steven’s has visibly gotten the players to play within his system. They’re just not very good defensively on the wing (anybody not guarded by Avery Bradley is a problem) as Marcus Smart is still learning NBA-level defense. Kyrie Irving is only 2 years older than Smart, but those t2 years were spent in the NBA, and there’s no substitute for that kind of experience or intuition. On offense, the Celtics spacing is just awful. They try to make the right, unselfish play, but there is just too little room with the interior passes they are trying to thread. I’m shocked that this team is in the playoffs (I guess it is the East), but they are clearly a couple guys away.

Chicago Bulls. I don’t know how long the Derrick Rose can play at a high level, but dang if it doesn’t feel good. I really hope for him, for the team, for the league, that his body gets right. He and Jimmy Butler have something special. The Bulls overall have something special. They are playing guys out of position – notably Nikola Mirotic, but maybe for this year, they can get by with that. Atlanta has guys you can hide defenders on. So does Cleveland. If the Bulls play their chips right, they have a team good enough to get to the Finals and, depending on the matchup, make some noise. More than anything, I want to see more of Rose doing his thing, getting to the rack, running the team, feeding the hot hand.

Milwaukee Bucks. Another team you thought destined for another lottery before Jason Kidd resurrected things. This Bucks team can be really good. I like the fit between Khris Middleton and Giannis Atentekuompo, especially the challenges they could pose on defense. Of course, none of the Bucks defenders are good enough to really guard on the wing, but the tools are undeniably there. After toiling in obscurity John Henson may turn into a perfect rim-protecting big man, a poor man’s Rudy Gobert. It’s like someone finally realized with Henson, Gobert, and Hassan Whiteside that someone who’s huge, long and can jump has value. Go figure! You just have to teach him to hit the glass and be in the right spots defensively. When Jabari comes back next year, I really feel like this team will take a leap. They can play big on the wing and small in the frontcourt – I love teams that are both big and small. They have the tools to potentially switch everything. This could really be fun.

Toronto Raptors. Masai Uriji is a smart man, and throughout his NBA career, he’s shown an ability to plan a few steps ahead. So I’ll give him some time with this one. But the Raptors are not a contender and they don’t really have a clear path to becoming one. We’ve probably seen what we need to out of Kyle Lowry – a good defender and ball handler who is just wild enough and shoots just poorly enough to keep him outside the top 10 at his position (again, the deepest in the NBA). DeMar DeRozan is just good enough to take contested shots but isn’t quite good enough a shooter to really bend the defense. Terrence Ross is an enigma, with the tools to be Kawhi Leonard lite but not the game. James Johnson play less than he should. Jonas Valanciunus is a good enough rim protector but isn’t somebody you game plan around. He’s gotten better every year and is only 22, but he doesn’t look versatile enough to build either an offense or a defense around. Lou Williams is in a perfect spot, and was a pretty worthy 6th man of the year, but is not going to push you over the top. They let Ed Davis go for reasons unknown. I just don’t know what this team does to get better.

Washington Wizards. The Wizards have one advantage over Toronto: John Wall is 24 to Kyle Lowry’s 29 (did you know that Lowry is on the back-end of his career? Crap) and Bradley Beal is 21 to DeMar DeRozan’s 25. The Wizard’s young cornerstones will be with them for another extension at least, setting them up to be on the next great Wizards team. We still don’t know what they have in Otto Porter, but at least he has some pedigree. It’s these young players that give Washington hope despite the blown draft picks, poor trades, and bad contract. Despite Randy Wittman not know what a basketball court looks like. There’s hope in D.C.

And because I ca'nt help myself:

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