1.    Finals Preview: On paper, Cavs-Spurs seems like a mismatch.  Yes, the Cavs are playing very well.  Yes, the Cavs are 2-0 against the Spurs.  But the Spurs are playing at a really high level and the Cavs are weaker at almost every position.  Can we really gleam the winning formula the Cavs two wins against the Spurs?  In fact, the first game was the second game of the season and the later meeting right after New Years (January 2nd).  Here is the recap of those two games:

-November 3, 2006: Cavs@Spurs, Cavs win 88-81: LeBron had a great game (35 pts, 10 rebs, 4 asts) and Hughes was useful (18 pts on 6-15 shooting).  No other Cav scored more than 10 points.  On the Spurs side, Tim Duncan was great (25 pts, 12 rebs) but shot 9-19 from the foul line.  Tony Parker was very good and Manu Ginobili (14 pts) was played to a standstill by Hughes.  Outside of the Big Three, no other Spur broke 5 points.

January 2, 2007:  Spurs@Cavs, Cavs win 82-78: This time, the Cavs did not have any superhuman efforts (LeBron had 19 pts, 5 rebs, and 5 asts).  Parker again had a great game (26 pts) and Dunan had nice raw numbers (18 pts, 15 rebs) but shot poorly from the field (6-15).  The key of the game seemed to be Hughes and Manu.  This time, Hughes (18 pts, 5 rebs, 5 asts) thoroughly outplayed Manu (6 pts on 1-8 shooting).

A lot has changed since then but here is what we can gleam from these games:

-The Cavs can’t stop Tony Parker: He’s broken 20 ppg both times this year, on good shooting.  This is a big deficit for the Cavs who don’t usually get much from Eric Snow or Daniel Gibson (Game 6 against the Pistons notwithstanding).

-The games will probably be played at a slow pace: Neither team  broke 88 points in either game and neither team has generally looked to push it too often.

-Duncan has yet to really breakout against the Cavs:  For whatever reason, Duncan’s had some shooting problems against the Cavs, both at the line and from the field.  I don’t believe that will last.

The Cavs’ regular season success against the Spurs might not be a total fluke: The Cavs traded blowouts with the Spurs in 2005-06.  Cleveland won the later game in Cleveland 101-87 and LeBron had 44 points on 19-33 shooting.  The Cavs even played the Spurs tough at home in 2004-05 (losing by two at home) and beating the Spurs by two in Cleveland LeBron’s rookie year of 2003-04.  Overall, the LeBron Cavs are 4-4 against the Duncan Spurs.  Not exactly sure why this is but it is possible that Zydrunas Ilgauskas is big enough to bother Duncan (not shut him down but make him slightly less effective).

Manu!: At least this year, winning the two guard match up against Ginobili has been key for the Cavs.

Putting aside the regular season games, the Spurs look like a vastly superior team on paper.  The Cavs backcourt typically can’t score and the Spurs backcourt can.  Duncan is the best player on the floor unless LeBron can put forth some more ridiculous efforts.  Moreover, the Cavs can’t make the Spurs pay for playing the non-scoring Bruce Bowen because he will be offset by the Cavs’ non-scorers Snow and Damon Jones.

The interesting subplot is how well Bowen and his defensive reputation will fare against LeBron.  Bowen can be a tough defender but he is slower and smaller than LeBron and can’t really guard him one-on-one.  The best you can say is that Bowen is usually distracting to scorers long enough to allow Tim Duncan, the true defensive anchor, to dissuade the drives that the Pistons couldn’t.  In the end, the Spurs are the better team.  Spurs win 4-2.

2.    Spurs Historical Perspective: It might not feel like it and they might not inspire the warm fuzzies of the old Red Holzman Knicks but the Duncan Spurs are already a dynasty.  This team has won more titles than Julius Erving’s teams, the Isiah Thomas Pistons, the Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets, and Wilt Chamberlain’s teams.  Hell, if they beat the Cavs, which they probably should, the Spurs will have more titles than the Larry Bird’s Celtics and would be one title away from Magic Johnson and two from Michael Jordan.  Perhaps even more notably, the Spurs have been unique in that they haven’t lost in the Finals, something only Michael Jordan can claim from teams with more than two NBA titles (Hakeem was 2-0).

Of course, some historians will be quick to point out that the Spurs have arguably not been pitted against the best of teams in the Finals.  Indeed, the Spurs first title came against an eight-seed Knick team.  Here’s a look at the list of some of the post-1980 NBA dynasties and the quality of opposition of their NBA Finals, measured by average record and average Pythagorean record of the opponents.  Let’s see how the Spurs stack up:

Team Years Opp W-L Pyth W-L
Spurs 1998-2007 49-33 51-21
Shaq-Lakers 1999-2004 55-27 55-27
Bulls 1990-1998 58-24 59-23
Rockets 1993-1995 57-25 60-22
Magic-Lakers 1979-1991 60-22 57-25
Celtics 1980-1987 54-28 52-30

Of this group, the Spurs have had, by far, the easiest opposition in the Finals.  This is true even if you take out the flukish 1998-99 Knicks (who were really a 50-win quality team).  Taking out the Knicks, the Spurs opponents still are only 51-31, with a 53-29 expected record.  Interestingly, the Shaq-led Lakers are direct contemporaries yet have had much better Finals’ opponents, which also seems a bit random.

Another interesting note is that the Larry Bird Celtics have the second easiest Finals path of all these teams.  The Celts went to five Finals in the 1980s and played the Lakers three times (average record 60-22) and the Rockets twice (45-37 average record).

3.    Round Three Fallout: For some teams, coming close to an NBA Finals appearance came almost create more change than a more mundane first round loss.  Here’s how the Pistons and Jazz look coming into the summer:

-Detroit Pistons: As non-Detroit fan, I tend look at the Pistons as a nice team that’s had a very nice run.  But putting myself in the shoes of Detroit, the last two seasons have to feel a bit bitter.  Last year, they had a great regular season and were blown apart by a seemingly inferior Heat team.  This year, the Pistons were not quite as good but still a better team, on paper, than Cleveland but were still run off court.  So what do they do now?  The team is older but still intact and there are a few major issues to consider:

(1) Chauncey Billups: Billups is a free agent and he is probably their best player and the hardest to replace.  The problem is that he is 31 and due a huge extension.  The Pistons have been lukewarm about giving him one of those maximum deals that he wants.  So the Pistons have to walk that fine line of negotiating hard but not losing him.  There aren’t a ton of teams with cap room this summer but it takes only one team to create a market for Billups.  My sense is that Billups will get a four or five-year deal for about $15-$16 per year.  (As a quick note, Billups top comp on is the immortal Rickey Sobers, who fell off in his early 30s but the rest of his comps are pretty solid).  Bottom line, the Pistons will pay him because they need him to keep contending.  Considering how cheaply he came in 2002, the Pistons can afford to overpay a little now, if not too much.

(2)  Chris Webber: Webber gave the Pistons a nice shot in the arm (the team went 32-14 after signing him on mid-January).  Still, it’s anyone’s guess what his goals are at this point in terms of winning, playing time, and titles.  His game is declining but he’d be well worth mid-level exception for another run.

(3) Antonio McDyess: McDyess has a player’s option for next year for $6.4 million.  McDyess is likely to opt out because he played in 82 games and was reasonably effective.  At age 33, McDyess might not get $6.4 million but he could get a multi-year deal starting at $5 million, which might not be available next Summer as he approaches his mid-30s.  For Detroit, McDyess is a key cog and his fate is probably directly related to Webber because they can’t invest over $10 million per year to keep them both.  I think McDyess is probably the better bet going forward but it’s pretty close.

(4)  Flip Saunders: Saunders’ tenure in Detroit has been relatively solid but he’s sure to feel a little bit of heat from fans given the fact Larry Brown got just about every ounce of talent out of the Pistons in 2003-04 and 2004-05.  Not that Saunders is going anywhere but this will be a running subplot for next season if the Pistons don’t get off to a great start or if they lose to a worse team in the playoffs.

-Utah Jazz: One hit wonder or start of a good thing?  A lot of things had to go right for the Jazz to get as far as they did.  Still, the win in Houston in Game 7 was enough to make this a really satisfying season and the subsequent run was some sweet gravy.  The Jazz should be pretty good next year but they could face the problem of staying on the same plateau as a team and still feeling heat from competitors.  In the division, Denver and Portland could be significantly improved and (maybe) Seattle.  So, can the Jazz at least not give ground?  The Jazz’s biggest concern is Carlos Boozer.  He was great this year and really changed the team but we can’t forget that he averaged 40 games per season the previous two seasons.

The other issue is to deal with is the woeful two guard slot.  A combo of Derek Fisher and Gordan Giricek is not equal to a starting level two guard.  And this isn’t a one-year problem.  Look at the post-Hornacek two guard list for the Jazz:

John Starks (2000-01)

-DeShawn Stevenson/Quincy Lewis/Andrei Kirilenko (2001-02)

-Calbert Cheaney (2002-03)

-DeShawn Stevenson/Gordan Giricek (2003-04)

-Gordan Giricek/Raja Bell (2004-05)

-Gordan Giricek/Devin Brown (2005-06)

-Derek Fisher/Gordan Giricek (2006-07)

Timing is everything.  Bell and Stevenson have become pretty good players since leaving Utah and Starks, an All-Star in 1994,  was well past his prime in 2000-01.  The team is loaded with forwards and they need to re-balance this roster by trading Andrei Kirilenko or Matt Harpring.  Obviously, AK’s contract makes him harder to move but the Jazz haven’t been average at two guard in way too long and it’s an easy way to keep the Jazz near or above their 2006-07 level of production.  Two guard is the easiest position to fill.  There is no reason the Jazz can’t find something.

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