1. Finals Preview: It’s been a long road this year to the Finals and there have been quite a few twists and turns that were unexpected (notably the fact that the Lakers aren’t here). Still, after all the happenings, the Heat are in the Finals and are prohibitive favorites (as most expected last FAll) and we have a very fun Finals match up with the Mavs, who are far from pushovers. Aside from the actual games, there are tons of questions being raised. Let’s take a look at the major issues/questions FAQ-style and see what we learn…
-Who is going to win?
I guess we should start with the most important question. At first glance, the Heat seem to be serious favorites. Maim has so much star power that it is hard to imagine how Dallas can keep up. Forgetting this superficial analysis, a deeper look doesn’t change much. We all understand the Heat: an excellent, albeit slow paced team (20th in pace), that needs the three stars to score. If a secondary player gets hot, the opposition is probably can’t win.
Even without the stars, Dallas plays at a fairly similar pace to Miami but are just a little worse offensively and defensively. Dallas still gets its point from the three-point line and accurate shooting overall. They were able to score despite being only 27th in free throws. Defensively, the Mavs only have two legit shot blockers (Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler). What you have then is a slow team that plays tough man defense and avoids giving up free throws but can’t really stop shot blockers and relies on jump shots offensively. This has worked very well in the playoffs, since Dirk, Jason Terry, and Peja Stojakovic are shooting great from three and most of the team has outperformed their regular season numbers.
In contrast, Miami lives at the line offensively (Miami’s Big Three all had more free throw attempts than anyone on Dallas) and the Heat don’t have any superlative shot blocking big men but are effective (Dwyane Wade actually has more blocks than anyone on the Mavs). On paper, this looks like a mismatch in the Heat’s favor. But the Mavs have been a different team in the playoffs and no one has been able to stop Dirk. Miami will have to do something different than OKC and Los Angeles tried. I suspect this means, that we’ll get to see some fun match ups where LeBron is guarding Dirk. Most of the time, though, we’ll see a lot of Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem on Nowitzki. Not sure that Bosh/Haslem can stop Dirk but you would have to figure that Dirk will slowdown a little from his torrid series against the Thunder (who were more loose defensively than Miami).
For Dallas to win this they have to hope Dirk can continue his amazing run (which is definitely possible) and that the secondary players who killed L.A. and OKC (Terry and J.J. Barea) continue to play well. Miami will probably avoid doubling Dirk to leave Terry free since Pat Riley teams usually hate to double and Terry has been really effective in that role. As for Barea, he is a key player, who brings a scoring ability to the floor that Jason Kidd doesn’t have. J.J. turned around both of the previous playoff series with huge scoring off the bench and Mike Bibby clearly can’t guard him either. As for defense, Dallas has some issues. They will put Shawn Marion on LBJ and hope that that this works and Kidd will have to guard Wade. J-Kidd is still an effective defender (he did good work on Kobe last month) but that is a tough cover for a 38-year old after a long season. Dallas will probably put Tyson Chandler on Chris Bosh to let Dirk rest defensively against whomever is playing center for Miami (Joel Anthony doesn’t really make much sense against Dallas, so Haslem may play more center in the Finals).
I see LBJ and Wade running all over the Mavs and Miami doing enough to slow down Dirk defensively to pull this series out. Prediction: Miami wins 4-2.
-Is this anything like the 2005-06 Finals?
No! The fact that Miami and Dallas met several years ago has no bearing. The only Miami players left from that team are Wade and Haslem and the only Mavs are Dirk and Terry. Back then, Dallas was the offensively efficient team we remember from the Don Nelson Years, with a little twist….they didn’t run. Coach Avery Johnson had held back the reins and this yielded an efficient team (1st in the NBA) but did so a ridiculously slow pace (27th in the NBA). As for Miami, they were patchwork team trying to squeeze one more title out of Shaq (several teams have tried that formula with Shaq since, to less effect) and were lucky enough to have found Wade to make sure it happened.
It is true that teams tends to meet in the Finals on more than one occasion but this feels like a different world from 2006. Rather, this is very similar to the Celtics-Rockets meetings in the 1980s. Boston and Houston first met in 1980-81 when a young Larry Bird led his team over a .500ish Rockets team that rode a short playoff format and a hot Moses Malone to the Finals. Randomly, the teams met again in the 1985-86 Finals. Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish were the only players left from the first match up and Houston’s only holdover was Robert Reid.
-Is Dirk Better Than Ever?
This is a serious misconception. As great as Dirk has played at certain times in the playoffs, his clear peak was from 2004-05 to 2006-07. Dirk was not far off of that level in the regular season but his game is off by a few percentage points in most areas (his PER in the peak years was in the 27 range but has been 22-24 range since 2007). As great as Dirk has been in the playoffs, he has put up a 27.1 PER, which is about at the level of his peak seasons, no better. Oddly, Dirk actually put up better PERs in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 playoffs (28.4 each year) but no one noticed since his team didn’t get to the Finals. So, Dirk is a player who is aging very well and can still match his prime numbers in spurts but, overall, he’s about 85-90% the player he was in the mid-2000s.
-Is LBJ Better Than MJ?
Scottie Pippen implied this might be the case. Obviously, it’s impossible to truly ever answer such a question but there are certainly reasons to examine the question. On James’ side, he has now put up offensive numbers for the past six years that only MJ has matched since the 1960s. Also, for all of LeBron’s tribulations he is still only 26. At 26, Jordan hadn’t yet won a title either. On the other side of the ledger, it seems hard to compare anyone with MJ, who objectively looked like the best while he was playing. James is supremely talented and wants to win but it’s hard to envision anyone imposing his will on a game like Jordan did. While I often believe that titles won (or not won) is unfairly used as a criteria for assessing a player’s historical worth, MJ’s six rings are a unique feat in modern times and James hasn’t gotten close to that level yet. In all, it seems premature to compare James to Jordan but LBJ is certainly in the conversation, which is the most you could say about any player at age-26. Let’s check back in eight to ten years on this question.
2. Conference Finals Fallout: Having dealt with what’s coming, let’s stop for a second and assess who we’ve left behind. Normally, when we look at playoff losses, we are contemplating veteran teams who will have to re-tool and might not expect to be back so deep into the playoffs. But the Conference Finals losers, Chicago and Oklahoma City, are both very young and expect only minor tweaks for next season. Let’s take a quick look:
-Chicago Bulls: We all expected the Bulls to take the division but level of domination was more of a surprise. As we all have been told, Derrick Rose helped lift this team to the next level and the coaching change helped a bit too. The team is set at most positions for next season but shooting guard remains a gaping hole. With Rose at point, the Bulls don’t need a traditional two guard who creates tons of shots but they still need someone who can score a bit when Rose gets cold. The Keith Bogans/Ronnie Brewer duo just doesn’t fit the bill. Bogans did shoot well from three but he drew an absurdly low 32 foul shots all season and Brewer drew some fouls but couldn’t hit an outside shot (only 6-27 from three for the season). Brewer works as a bench player but the Bulls must find a Kerry Kittles-type multi-purpose guard, who has few glaring holes in his game, to work with Rose. Should the young players continue to develop and two-guard issue be fixed, the Bulls should be the Heat’s main rival in the East for the next five years.
-Oklahoma City Thunder: Unlike the Bulls, OKC’s loss to Dallas was met with a little more pessimism by the masses. The main issue that concerned most was whether Kevin Durant could co-exist with a shoot-first point like Russell Westbrook. This question seems awfully silly on a team that has continued to grow and improve steadily and where the best players were only 22 this season. It may be that Westbrook is not the ideal point guard but he is plenty productive and it’s not like KD had problems getting points this year. OKC needs to sit back and let these two (as well as Serge Ibaka and James Harden) develop. In reality, the more significant problem was not offense (5th in the NBA) but defense, where the Thunder slipped. Scottie Brooks’ homework for the off-season is to figure out why OKC’s defense went from 9th in 2009-10 to 15th this season. I’m not sure if a change in personnel is needed (probably not since the starting lineup is locked in) or whether an adjustment has to be made to the scheme. In either case, the most room for improvement on OKC is on defense and Durant/Westbrook concerns are just a sideshow.