1. Celts-Cavs: Quite a game Cleveland tonight where we watched the Celts take on another possible playoff contender. Boston, whose defense has been good so far, struggled to match up with LeBron James (38 pts, 14-15 from the line, and 13 assists). In the end, the Cavs surged past the Celts to force overtime (after Ray Allen shockingly missed two free throws with the score tied in the last few seconds) and the Celts played their Big Three huge minutes. Kevin Garnett had 44, Ray Allen 49, and Paul Pierce had 45 (subtract four or five minutes from each total to get a sense of how much they really would’ve played without overtime). By overtime, the Big Three were gassed and they were relying way too much on Rajon Rondo (1-9 from the field in 44 minutes).
From the Cavs side, we get a sense that LeBron has enough to compete with any team in the East (a big qualifier). From a Celtic perspective, you have to worry about the heavy minutes. In fact, this is the fourth time in November that Ray Allen has broken the 45-minute barrier. While a hot start is nice, the Celts are going to have to tone it down a bit if they want to be intact come April.
2. Nets Need More Williams: One of the nice surprises of the early season has been Nets rookie center Sean Williams. Williams is clearly very raw. He has only a Yinka Dare-ish 0.1 apg per game (!) but he’s also shown an ability to score on the break and to really block shots (2.2 bpg in only 20 mpg). It’s not clear where Williams will end up as a player yet but it is clear that he must play more. The only alternatives at center so far are Jamaal Magloire (who hasn’t been very good) and Jason Collins (unbelievably bad so far). It’s hard to understate how poor these two have been so far but take a look:
Collins: 17.7 mpg, 0.5 ppg, .250 FG% (3-12 from the field), .100 FT% (1-10 from the line), 2.2 rpg, 0.4 apg, 0.1 bpg, 0.1 spg, 0.3 topg
Magloire: 13.5 mpg, 1.9 ppg, .192 FG% (5-26 from the field), .500 FT%, 4.2 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.5 bpg, 0.0 spg, 0.3 topg
The other big men haven’t been great either. Josh Boone, Malik Allen, and Nenad Krstic have all struggled in the 30% range. But Magloire, and Collins even more, are unacceptable offensively. Collins has somehow devolved from putrid offensive player to absolutely moribund. He has literally done nothing well statistically on a basketball court this year. He can’t score or rebound and the stats don’t indicate that he defends very well either. Now, Collins does defend decently in the help defense department but he certainly doesn’t help well enough to play 18 mpg and star. This is also confirmed by the plus/minus data from 82games.com, which has Collins at -19.3 and Magloire at -20.7 and Williams second on the team at +8.1.
It appears that Lawrence Frank has slowly come to realize this fact, limiting to Collins to 8 minutes in Los Angeles and playing Williams down the stretch. Still, Collins has been something of a security blanket to Frank because he is smart and plays hard (Magloire has already been buried on the bench). Unless there is an emergency, however, Collins’ game has declined too much to play more than 10 minutes a night.
1. Celtic Revival: It’s a pretty fun time to be a Boston sports fan and the Celtics are no small part of the fun right now. Obviously, adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen has helped. Not often is a team able to bring in so many big names in a short period. Here’s the short list and how it turned out:
-Wilt/Baylor/West Lakers: The Lakers brought Wilt in for 1969-70 season to put them over the top after a painful seven-game Finals loss in 1967-68. At that time, Wilt (age 33), West (31), and Baylor (35). Wilt was injured for nearly all of the regular season (he played 12 games) and the Lakers were just okay (46-36). Still, he came back for the playoffs and helped lead the team to NBA Finals, where they lost to the Knicks in the legendary Willis Reed Game 7. Baylor was never healthy again but the West/Wilt core, surrounded by a pretty deep roster, kept the team in contention for another three years.
-Barkley/Hakeem/Drexler Rockets: The Rockets acquired Charles Barkley in 1996-97 in a last attempt at a title while Hakeem (age 34) and Drexler (age 34) were still near the top of their game (They had been swept by the Sonics in the second round of the playoffs in 1995-96). Barkley (age 33) played great when healthy (20 ppg 10 rpg, 5 apg) and the team went 57-25 and made it to to the Western Conference Finals before they were submarined by John Stockton’s buzzer beater in Game 6. Barkley and Hakeem declined pretty rapidly the next season in both health and performance and the team slumped to 41-41. They still almost made a nice run in the playoffs (they were up 2-1 on the top seeded Jazz in the first round) until Charles Barkley injured his elbow and missed the rest of the season. Drexler, who was still quite good at age-35, retired to coach the University Houston. It was a bad idea for Drexler, who resigned after two season and a record of 19-39, especially when he probably could’ve squeezed out another good NBA contract. The Rockets replaced Drexler with another Hall of Famer in Scottie Pippen (age 33) for 1998-99. The team improved to 31-19 but, again, lost in the first round. Pippen bitched and moaned and was traded out of town after the season. The Rockets collapsed to 34-48 and the run was over.
-Kobe/Shaq/Payton/Malone Lakers: After losing to the Spurs in 2002-03, the Shaq/Kobe Lakers tried to get a leg up by grabbing a couple of older Hall of Famer free agents, Karl Malone (age 40) and Gary Payton (age 35) to add to Shaq (age 31) and Kobe (age 25). This new four-person star team improved the Lakers six games to 56-26 and made a march to the NBA Finals before being upset by the Pistons 4-1. The team ended up being a one shot deal. They fell apart that off season when Shaq was traded because of contract dispute/blood feud with Kobe. Payton was dealt because he wasn’t quite the same player in L.A. and Malone’s knee injury in the playoffs essentially ended his career.
The 2007-08 Celtics are materially different from all three of these famous star-powered teams. Each one acquired the stars to prolong a playoff run and to put them over the top. The Celtics were a miserable team last year and had been mediocre previously. Getting Allen and Garnett was really more of a desperate attempt at relevance. But sometimes desperate works. The Celts now have the best forward in the East (Garnett age 31), a very good small forward in Pierce (age 30), and Allen (age 34), who is great when healthy but has missed about 30 games in two of the last four years.
As pretty much everyone has noted, even if all three stars play well, lack of depth is a serious issue here. This is where coaching matters. Some coaches do a very good job of maximizing mediocre benches by identifying players who might contribute more than you would think and by enhancing team defense, which is the primary asset that any good coach brings to a team. In that respect, you’d think that the Celts might have to worry. Here are Rivers’ coached teams defensive rankings (points per 100 possessions) as an NBA coach:
2006-07 Celtics, 107.2 pts/100, 17th out of 30
2005-06 Celtics, 106.9 pts/100, 19th out of 30
2004-05 Celtics, 106.6 pts/100, 14th out of 30
2003-04 Magic, 110.8 pts/100, 29th out of 29 (Rivers was fired after a 1-10 start so it’s hard to attribute this all to Doc)
2002-03 Magic, 104.9 pts/100, 20th out of 29
2001-02 Magic, 105.4 pts/100, 16th out of 29
2000-01 Magic, 102.1 pts/100, 10th out of 29
Aside from Doc’s debut with the plucky 2000-01 team with Ben Wallace, Bo Outlaw, and Darrell Armstrong, Doc’s teams have been middling to poor defensively. But so far, the tables have been turned. The Celts have allowed the fewest points per game this year and have really held people down. They key to watch going forward is whether they can keep this awesome defensive pace going. The answer probably depends on Kevin Garnett, who has been a boon on every level, KG has topped the plus/minus stats of all Celctics at 82games.com, he is averaging a ridiculous 14 rpg so far, and is the only above-average defender in their starting five. If he can keep up this pace (and there is little evidence in his past to indicate otherwise) the Celts will remain quite good.
2. Bearish on the Bulls: Though the Bulls are loaded with young talent they have had a rough start on several levels. First off, they are playing quite poorly and they have to decide whether to give big extensions to Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, and, soon enough, Tyrus Thomas. Lastly, they have felt a ton of pressure as to whether they should break up their young core and add a veteran.
As bad as they have played so far, you have to think the Bulls will eventually get it together. They have no major injuries just some a general sense of malaise. This is not a unique thing for a Scott Skiles-Bulls team. Check how if his Bulls’ teams have started in full season as Bulls coach:
2004-05: Bulls started 0-9 and ended up 47-35
2005-06: Started out at about .500 but dipped to 29-39 before finishing 41-41
2006-07: Started out 3-9 (actually 3-3 and then lost 6 straight) and ended up 49-33
In case you’re wondering, Skiles did not have this problem in Phoenix, where he started off hot when he replaced Danny Ainge in early 1999-00 and was hot for all of 2000-01. Skiles was fired in mid-2001-02 with a 25-26 record (this was the year the Suns struggled after trading Jason Kidd). All this is our long way of saying that we have no idea but if you are a Bulls fan you can take solace in the fact that there is a history of fixing terrible starts in Chicago.
3. Keep the Core?: Even harder than fixing the bad start in Chicago, however, is deciding whether to trade some of the core players for a star. The Bulls have the assets and cap room to try to land Kobe Bryant but do they want to? So far, they have shown no inclination (and it does seem that Kobe is temporarily off the market). It’s a hard decision and not many teams get it right. Here’s a quick sampling of some other up-and-coming teams and what they did when they were faced with surplus talent and the possible need for an established star:
-Cleveland of the late 1980s: The Cavs were close with Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, Hot Rod Williams, and Brad Daugherty. They decided to cash in Harper for prospect Danny Ferry and play Craig Ehlo at two guard. Ferry ended up being a role player and Harper for Ehlo was not a great swap. It didn’t kill the Cavs as much as injuries did but the trade certainly didn’t help.
-Dallas of the mid-1980s: Another loaded squad with Derek Harper, Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, Roy Tarpley, James Donaldson, and Brad Davis. They sensed they needed toughness so they traded Schrempf for Herb Williams. Williams was okay for a few years but Detlef was an All-Star. The Mavs were undone by Tarpley’s drug problems anyway but they didn’t target the right asset for Schrempf to begin with.
-Golden State of the early 1990s: Yes the exciting Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin team was loaded with scoring guards in reserve (Sarunas Marciulionis and Mario Elie). Don Nelson decided that Sarunas could replace Richmond so they dealt Mitch to the Kings for high draft pick Billy Owens. Sarunas and then Latrell Sprewell replaced Richmond to some degree but Owens was injured and, ultimately, a wash out.
-Phoenix of the early 1990s: Blessed with Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Dan Majerle, Tom Chambers, and Ced Ceballos, the Suns traded Hornacek and Tim Perry for Charles Barkley. They never won a title but Barkley got the team a lot closer in 1992-93.
The Bulls have a ton of young talent and they could hold onto it all and win 50 games or so but I don’t think this is ultimately a title team if the maintain the status quo. The team has a unique opportunity to package some of their cheap young players for a star (Cleveland and Golden State squandered their young assets by crapping out on rookies who didn’t pan out). Kevin Garnett would have been nice but they have to be players in the Kobe Bryant sweepstakes when it re-appears (and it probably will). Having assets when a great player is available is a like an eclipse, it’s rare event and you better catch it while you can.
Although the season has just begun, there are, with apologies to certain former U.S. president, a few truths that have become self-evident. Here are five very early season stories that created some buzz, at least within this author’s mind.
1. The Celtics are really that good
With Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce leading the way the Celtics leap to a 3-0 start and a ridiculous 16.3 margin of victory per game. Assuming health, this team is clearly for real. But with just one other player scoring in double figures (Rajon Rondo at a tepid 10.3 ppg) and basically every stat being dominated by the Big Three, someone else is going to have to step up, especially with Allen’s health problems last year. It will take more than just a few superstars to win a championship (see 2003-2004 Lakers), it takes role players as well and we haven’t quite seen any such sub quite yet.
2. Kevin Durant misses Greg Oden
This may seem odd to say being that he is averaging 22.6 PPG and 5.4 RPG through his first four professional games and getting all the publicity that could have been directed towards his gigantic rookie counterpart. This is a very young team. Durant is obviously the baby at 18 but Chris Wilcox is still only 25, Jeff Green (the other rookie in town), Johan Petro, and Robert Swift are only 21, and Earl Watson (28) and Damien Wilkins (27) aren’t that old either. In fact, the only player older than Watson is Wally Szczerbiak’s poison pill contract and he’s only 30. They won’t be that good this year with such a young squad and the Sonics look like a team that is just biding time before moving to Oklahoma City. With the potential of losing season and the morbidity of watching fans possibly jump ship from the team while ownership antagonizes the populace, a friendly rivalry with Oden could be about the only Durant had to look forward to this season.
3. New Orleans is a team that will be around
Winning four of their first five games by comfortable margins, the Hornets gave New Orleans something to cheer about during the first week of the season. A balanced attack that includes Tyson Chandler averaging double figures and the ultimate sixth man in Bobby Jackson will give them something to cheer about after the last week of the season. Clearly, this offense is driven by Chris Paul is who has 18.6 PPG and a whopping 12.4 APG, which no doubt has gotten the offensively-challenged Chandler, who has never averaged double figures previously (he maxed out at 9.5 ppg last year). Also, having Peja Stojakovic, is big help. His numbers have been really up-and-down. Look at his shooting these first five games:
-Game 1: 7-12 from the field and 4-7 from three
-Game 2: 7-17 from the field and 4-10 from three
-Game 3: 1-10 from the field and 1-8 from three
-Game 4: 12-21 from the field and 10-13 from three
-Game 5: 2-13 from the field and 1-4 from three.
It’s been a wild ride but, even with a couple of stinkers, a diminished Peja is makes a big difference over Rasual Butler and this team has a chance to move up the playoff ladder.
5. The West is no longer a dominant conference
One of the main reasons for the West’s dominance in recent years has been the big men on the left coast. With Garnett’s move combined with Dwight Howard emergence as a dominating big man, the Tim Duncan’s of the world will not get to relax after the Western Conference Finals. It’s pretty early, but the East is a respectable 8-7 against the West, which is a huge improvement so far. This is not to say the East is ready to overtake the West and will win the NBA Championship; I mean c’mon it’s only the first week.
Who wins the Most Improved Players award? Typically it’s scorers. The winner has usually upped his scoring average by at least 7 PPG to the high teens or low 20s. The winner also tends to be a younger player, in his 2nd or 3rd season. Team success and position played have little to do with who wins this award. This award has been somewhat of a surprise the last 3 seasons, with few experts having spotted winners Simmons, Diaw and Ellis. Any player whose season has a “whoa, where did that come from” type of feel to it is going to get noticed moreso than a player who’s a favorite going in and I think that vibe helped those 3 a lot. With that in mind, don’t be too surprised if a player not on this list, say Travis Outlaw, Shawne Williams or James Singleton, walks away with the award. The way this season is starting to transpire, I found myself looking mainly at 2nd year players. The 2006 draft was a weak group and not too many rookies got a chance to show their stuff last season, but some good ones will emerge this season. Continue reading NBA Preview 2007-08: Most Improved Player…
This award usually goes to the top scoring rookie, regardless of team record or how valuable a player the rookie is. Before I get into any individual players, I want to mention that I believe this will be one of the great draft classes ever. Even without Oden the group is loaded with talented players. I’m also guessing we’ll see more good players coming out of round 2 than in any draft since 1986. Sometime in January there will be articles appearing on-line and in magazines touting this group against the ’84 and ’96 classes. Some will even go over the top and suggest that the 2007 draft class might save the NBA, as if it needs saving. As far as the award goes, it seems like Durant’s to lose. He’s the only one who will immediately be the top gun on his team. For that reason it seems almost pointless to list 10 candidates, but there are several good rookies out there and no one is really sure what will transpire at this point. When projecting any rookie’s season, I try not to take too much stock in where he is coming out of the pre-season. There have been many rookies who were shaky coming out of training camp but found their NBA legs and confidence by November and proceeded to light up the league. Finally this list reflects chances for winning the ROY, not how valuable I feel each rookie will be. If that were the case, Joakim Noah and Julian Wright would make the top 5 along with Durant, Horford and Conley. Neither were included, because it’s doubtful they’ll score enough points to even get considered for the award.
- Kevin Durant, Seattle: This is an easy choice. The first thing Durant has working in his favor is he’s a very good player. With Oden sitting out the season, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Durant is the most talented rookie to take the floor this season. His college numbers were historically good and his athleticism allows him to play 3 positions. In addition to scoring, he’s capable of impressive numbers in rebounds, blocks, steal and 3-point pct. The Sonics have shipped out their top 2 scorers from last season, basically clearing the decks for the Durant era to start ASAP. Most of the other rooks are looking more like role players than like their team’s top scorers. The only thing that would keep Durant from winning the ROY is an injury.
- Al Horford, Atlanta: Right now he’s part of the mix at PF-C in Atlanta. By the end of the year he’ll probably emerge as Atlanta’s best front court player and starting center. I can’t say for sure whether or not that will transfer to much more than 12-14 PPG, because Atlanta has some gunners in their backcourt who are going to take most of the shots. But Horford could be the Hawks most valuable player by mid-season and might even post double figures in points and rebounds, with strong numbers in blocks and assists also. Should anything happen with Durant he has the next best chance.
- Mike Conley Jr., Memphis: Going into the season reports have the Grizzlies leaning toward Stoudamire as the starter, with Lowry as the main backup. I can’t believe that will continue. Stoudamire just isn’t a very good player and there’s no way he’ll keep Conley on the bench for very long. The Grizzlies are planning on running and Conley, with his quickness, smarts and passing skills, seems like the perfect player to lead the charge. He’s not going to be a big scorer, but if Memphis runs as much as they’re promising to, he’ll post an impressive enough PPG just by being part of a running team. He also has an excellent chance to finish top 10 in assists and steals. But he has to get on the court first.
- Corey Brewer, Minnesota: It’s always a good thing for a rookie when his team ships out his competition. Both Trenton Hassell and Ricky Davis have been traded, so it looks like Brewer will be the starting SF sooner rather than later. He’ll probably be the Timberwolves’ top defender, but he hasn’t exactly shown himself to be a great scorer in college. My guess is that he’ll fall somewhere behind Jefferson, Foye and McCants in the Timberwolves scoring pecking order, which isn’t a good place for a potential ROY to be. But on a team like this, where questions like: “Who’s going to score and how often?”, will be answered as the season progresses, it’s not out of the question for any player, especially a rookie, to emerge as one of the teams’ leading scorers.
- Al Thornton, LA Clippers: He trailed only Durant in preseason scoring among rooks and with Brand out for a few months it looks like he’ll get a shot to play. I’m not sure how long the Clippers can stay with him as a guy who plays PF exclusively though. Thornton is a substandard rebounder and will probably be overmatched defensively at PF. His game is better suited to playing SF, or being a matchup guy off the bench. His PT could hinge on whether or not the Clippers remain in the playoff hunt. If they fall out of things quickly, Thornton may get minutes simply for the sake of giving him experience and that would help his chances quite a bit as he’s a scorer first and foremost.
- Acie Law IV, Atlanta: I’m mainly focusing on scorers here and Law is certainly one of those. He does have a similar problem to Thornton though in that he’s going to be asked to fill a role he may not be best suited for. He’s going to be asked to play PG, when he might be better utilized as a combo guard, like Chicago used Ben Gordon as a rookie. Law was a shoot-first PG at Texas A&M and honestly that’s the last thing the Hawks need. If he does start, he’s a talented enough scorer, that he could finish 2nd on the team to Johnson.
- Juan Carlos Navarro, Memphis: He has to be considered for one reason: He’s a scorer playing on a running team. Like Conley he’s going to rack up a fairly impressive PPG just by being in the rotation. Navarro was a terrific scorer in Europe and has the potential to do the same in the NBA. I could see him developing into the Memphis version of Leandro Barbosa. Problem is he’s 27 and there’s probably going to be some bias against him because of that.
- Luis Scola, Houston: Like Navarro, he’s a foreign player who’s 27 and voters seem to prefer rookies to be more of a typical rookie age. Scola will have a big impact though. He’s coming into a situation where he’ll be a huge upgrade on the previous player, Juwan Howard. He’ll also be an important player on one of the league’s better teams. I’m just not sure how much he’ll score, with McGrady, Yao and James around. Since that’s the main factor in the MVP race, right now his chances are tough to gauge.
- Marco Bellinelli, Golden State: He can light it up and that should lead to a bunch of points in this offense. He’s also on a roster that’s loaded with wing players, most of whom are better defenders than Marco and that could mean lots of time on the bench. He seems capable of scoring 20 PPG if he can get himself enough minutes in this offense. It would be a soft 20 PPG, but voters don’t seem to concern themselves with such things when selecting the top rookie.
- Yi Jianlian, Milwaukee: The rumor is he’s been promised 25 minutes per game by the Bucks as an enticement to get him to come to Milwaukee. The fact that he logged exactly 25 minutes in his first game might verify this. I don’t know that this is a terrible thing, as it can be just as stupid to nail a rookie to the bench while playing a mediocre veteran. But Yi just hasn’t shown all that much this far. Scoring is his strength and the fact that he could be guaranteed 2000+ minutes puts him ahead of most rookies.