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Season Recap: Why Predictions are Stupid, and Other Stories Part Two

To recap my last recap, I discussed the highs and lows of the Miami Heat season, and why you shouldn’t count your eggs before they hatch, regarding the MVP debate. That leaves me with the Lakers, the Spurs, and the Carmelo Anthony trade saga.

Do you remember your preseason picks? I’m sure plenty of people had the Lakers to, once again, come out of the West with the best record. Most commentators and bloggers had the Lakers to have the top seed in the Western Conference. They were just the safe pick. The Lakers roster arguably got better, with the additions of Matt Barnes, Steve Blake, and Theo Ratliff for extra depth. They didn’t lose any significant pieces, so they were early favorites to do what they have done so many times; win the West. Continue Reading

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West is Best: Lack of Superstars Means Nothing

With all the superstars in the league defecting to the East, we seem to have forgotten that the Western Conference is still home to the leagues best teams. Everyone is busy debating which team will come out of the East, well look at the West! It’s arguably more competitive, and holds the best teams in the league.

Now, I know the Celtics, Heat and Bulls are good teams, and I guess you can throw the Magic in there too, but look at the West. The Spurs are quietly the best team in the league. So much so, that people can’t refer to the Spurs without saying they are quietly the best team in the league. The Mavericks are pretty good as well. If Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t injured early in the year, they might have a better record than the Spurs. Even with their poor play when Dirk was out, they still have more wins than any team in the East. The Spurs and Mavericks may be the two top teams in the West, but the Lakers are still favored to reach the NBA Finals. Continue Reading

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Mark Cuban hates the Spurs

So Mark Cuban announced he hates the Spurs. Seems fair. After all, the Spurs and his Mavericks both play in Texas, they both play in the Western Conference, and the Spurs have four championships in the last eleven years.

Dallas? It has zero.

So it’s definitely understandable that the most passionate owner in sports is, well, passionate about his Texas compadres.

But the timing of this announcement is slightly troubling.

As if you didn’t know, the Mavericks and Spurs are competing in this year’s playoffs — a 2-vs.7 matchup. The Mavericks are, indeed, the favorites to win.

Dallas took care of business in Game 1, coming away with a hard-fought 100-94 victory and a 1-0 series advantage. All was well.

Then Mr. Cuban had to run his mouth. He had to announce to the world (and to the Spurs, in particular) that he loathes them. And how does San Antonio respond? With a 102-88 beatdown that has Mavericks fans very worried.

And worried they should be. After all, San Antonio — after struggling for most of the year — put it into high gear for the last month or so, taking the conference by storm.

Don’t forget, too, that the Spurs are constant playoff threats; they haven’t missed the postseason in some 13 years, and they can always sneak up on an unsuspecting opponent.

Sneaking up on an unsuspecting opponent … Sounds a little like Dallas’s predicament in 2007, after the Western Conference regular-season champions were dispatched by a ragtag Warriors team in the first 1-vs.-8 upset since Washington crossed the Delaware (or s0).

With that in mind, was this a good play by Cuban?

Was it wise to ignite a fire in one of the calmest teams in the league — a team on which the best player takes calm to a new standard?

Of course not. He awards San Antonio with yet another intangible leg up in a series that many expect to be the most competitive first-round battle of them all.

Was it wise to get the competitive juices flowing in Richard Jefferson after a mediocre season?

Of course not. Jefferson’s looking for any way to gain redemption in the eyes of the Alamo faithful. And he’s made him nostalgic about failed postseason appearance after failed postseason appearance in New Jersey. Why turn RJ into the difference maker he was supposed to be but didn’t appear to be?

Was it wise to rile up the Spurs fan base with three games still to be played in San Antonio?

Of course not. After the Game 2 defeat, he has now squandered precious home-court advantage in the series, and the Dallas players will be like fresh meat for the Spurs’ crowd in Games 3 through 5.

Was it wise to pile added pressure on the players who are already incredibly stressed?

Of course not. Dirk Nowitzki couldn’t miss a shot in the first game, and he goes and backs up that effort with a 9-24 circus. The starters as a group shoot 32 percent in the pivotal Game 2. Sure, attribute that in part to adjustments on Popovich’s part. But don’t discount the fact that the Mavericks had 2007 in their heads.

The bottom line here is that Mark Cuban incorrectly saw this announcement of his hatred as a way to pump up his team. In reality, though, it was just the opposite. He has jeopardized his team’s chances of winning. In a year that many expect is a one-year window for the Mavericks to come home with an NBA title in June, it’s a colossal misstep.

It’s great that Cuban’s passionate, but he has to keep it in check at the right times.

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NBA Today: April 18

  • Gregg Popovich isn’t yet sure who will start Game 1 at point guard for the Spurs, as Tony Parker is still recovering from an injury that relegated him to the backup role at the end of the regular season.
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Game of the Day: March 21

San Antonio Spurs at Atlanta Hawks — 8 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

I recommend for today an interconference matchup between the Spurs and Hawks. The Spurs have been playing well of late, winning eight of their last ten games, but face a very dangerous Hawks team featuring premiere scorer Joe Johnson, two promising bigs in Josh Smith and Al Horford, and sixth man of the year candidate Jamal Crawford. San Antonio counters with perennial all-star and future hall-of-famer Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.

Atlanta currently holds fourth place in the east, tied with Boston in the loss column and only percentage points behind for third place. San Antonio, given its strong play of late, appears to have a solid grip on a playoff spot, five-and-a-half games ahead of ninth-place Memphis in the West.

The Spurs won the only other game these two played earlier in the season on January 27, 105-90. Duncan had a mammoth of a game, amassing 21 points, 27 boards, and 7 assists. Johnson lead the Hawks with 31 points.

In a game like this in which the talent level is fairly equal, I look for the team who needs it more to come out on top down the stretch like this. Expect a win from Atlanta with another strong showing from Johnson and a solid effort up front from Smith

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15,000 and counting: how does he do it?

LeBron is the youngest player to reach 15,000 career points. How long until he passes Kobe?

LeBron James is a freak of nature. That’s all there is to it. The reigning MVP is basically a shoo-in to secure another one this year, heads the league in PER, plays four (or, arguably, five) positions, is a great leader for a Cavaliers team that he has established as the favorite from the Eastern Conference, dominates any opponent on both sides of the ball, doubles as an international business mogul, and stays completely out of trouble off the court.

Oh, yeah. He leads the league in scoring this year, narrowly edging out the pesky Kevin Durant right now. The bottom line: the guy can put the ball through the hoop. James, at 25 years and 79 days old, became the youngest player in NBA history last night against Chicago to reach the 15,000-point scoring mark, outpacing the previous record holder, Kobe Bryant, by, oh, only two years.

In honor of the historic occasion, I’ll attempt to account for why LeBron is so successful — specifically on the scoring end — in a number of different areas.

Athletic ability

LeBron James is the prototype for an NBA body. At 6’8″, he has the height to match up with most power forwards in the NBA, and his natural position is only small forward. Furthermore, at 250 pounds, he adds the weight that allows him to post up any defender another team can throw at him and to finish despite contact in the paint. This ability affords James more open looks than most other players at his position and more effective shots even when getting fouled or hit without a call. Naturally, according to Hoopdata, James leads the league in and-one conversions per game at 1.08 with a large lead over the field. His closest competitor in that category? Chris Bosh at 0.91 per game.

James’s rare athletic talent does not stop at his massive frame, however. His speed for his size is just as amazing. While I can’t seem to find any data about his 4o-yard-dash time or how he compares to other players objectively, from watching his game his gift of quickness is evident. Owing to his exceptional speed, LeBron can beat any one defender off the dribble and requires a double team to slow down, and even that doesn’t stop him. He can run the floor unlike anyone else and thus gets plenty of fast-break layups, dunks, and alley-oops.

Durability

While it goes hand in hand with his being in peak physical condition, LeBron rarely misses games. Staying on the court allows him to put up all those points. You can’t score if you don’t play, right?

Shooting

One of the biggest quibbles with LeBron’s game (albeit a nitpicky one because of his pure domination elsewhere) is his shooting. According to Hoopdata, LeBron shoots 74.5 percent at the rim and 52 percent from within 10 feet. Beyond that, though, his percentages drop dramatically. From between 10 and 15 feet, he shoots only 32 percent, and between 16 and 23 feet he improves to 39 percent. From three-point range, he shoots 34 percent.

At first glance, this may seem to reflect negatively on his shooting ability. However, upon closer evaluation, it’s revealed that only 23 percent of those 10- to 15-foot attempts are assisted and only13 percent of his 16- to 23-foot shots are assisted. What does that mean? LeBron is taking the vast majority of those shots off the dribble, so naturally his percentages are going to be low. Furthermore, James only take 1.2 shots per game from between 10 and 15 feet, so the low efficiency does not have a very profound effect on the completeness of his game. And the 39 percent from long two-point range is respectable, anyway.

Despite LeBron’s sublime talent at the rim, 13.2 of his 19.9 shots per game come away from it. Accordingly, a large portion of his points come from out there. Because he takes so many of those shots, defenders are forced to play close to him, giving him a lane to the rim. So despite the reputation, shooting plays a key role in LeBron’s scoring array.

Rebounding and Defensive Intensity

LeBron is, too, a great rebounder. His defensive and total rebound rates rank among those of the league’s centers and power forwards, and, again LeBron plays the 3. When James comes down with an offensive rebound, he is so good converting at the rim (as previously mentioned) that once he has the ball down that close to the hoop, he’s very likely to score. Furthermore, coupling his defense rebounding with his speed and ball-handling skills, he doesn’t need to outlet the ball and can run the transition game himself. If he gets ahead of the field, he can create shots in one-on-one or even one-on-two scenarios. Getting the rebound allows LeBron to craft a one-man game that’s nearly unstoppable.

Quite similarly, LeBron is a tenacious on-ball defender and reads the passing lanes well. He’s very good at stripping or stealing the ball from the man he’s guarding and intercepting errant and ill-advised passes. These high-I.Q. defensive plays give him possession in front of all five defenders and a free look at the rim.

Creating Free Throws

LeBron leads the league in free-throw attempts per game. Sure, some would argue, and I agree, that he could improve his free-throw shooting. Nevertheless, he hits his free throws more often than he makes his attempts at the rim, so it’s his best shot at getting a point. Lebron also ranks highly in free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt at .51, so he makes the most of his drives. If he’s not making them, he’s most likely getting fouled. Shaq was a fantastic free-throw creator; he just couldn’t hit them. If he had shot just 70 percent from the line, he would’ve added another 2000 points or so to his career total. LeBron is shooting almost 80 percent this year, so those free throws are really helping his cause.

Taking Over

The last thing I’d like to discuss is how James uses his clutch ability to take over a game whenever he wants and put up points in bunches. It comes from an intangible ability that few in the NBA have — and one that everybody and their mother see in John Wall. To analyze this statistically, I’ll turn to 82games.com’s quarter-by-quarter and clutch stats. Q-by-Q stats mentioned are from the 2008 – 2009 season.

LeBron typically serves as a distributor toward the beginning of each half, attempting to get his teammates involved and on the scoreboard. As the half progresses, however, he starts to shoot more himself to assure the Cavaliers come away with the win. Below are LeBron’s quarter-by-quarter scoring stats. All numbers have been manipulated from per quarter per game to per 12 minutes per quarter per game to account for differences in playing time.

First quarter: 8.45, Second Quarter: 10.14, Third Quarter: 8.04, Fourth Quarter: 10.67.

As you can see, he puts forth his greatest scoring effort in the fourth quarter. Unsurprisingly, he led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring last year. Next we’ll turn to how LeBron stacks up in terms of clutch performance (defined as five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five or fewer points). Per 48 minutes of clutch time this season, LeBron puts up 65 points, an astonishing 15 more than Kobe. Talk about dominating in close-game situations — that’s inhuman. Furthermore, only 16 percent of his clutch-time attempts are assisted, compared to Kobe’s 19 percent. LeBron loves the energy of the tough situations. It feeds him energy and makes him an even more electric scorer.

Conclusion

It’s truly amazing everything LeBron can do. Not surprising, however, is that LeBron can channel most of his various talents into scoring the ball when he needs to. The guy is unquestionably the best player in the game (sorry, Kobe lovers), and I can’t wait to see how the offseason frenzy surrounding him turns out. He’s the present and future of this league. Any team would be stupid not to do everything in its power to try and bring him on board.

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NBA Today: March 20

  • Jeremy Tyler, the high school phenom who skipped his senior season and went overseas to play in Israel this season, quit his team.
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Game of the Day: March 20

Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks — 9 PM eastern

On the first day of the second round of March Madness, the NBA sure isn’t supplying you with a whole lot of excellent matchups to tune in to. Not that it needs to. In fact, this game is your one real option for a thrill. KG and the slumping Celtics head to Texas to take on the surging Mavs. The Celtics bring the same starpower every night: KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. And they pair that with Kendrick Perkins, a young, tenacious defender at the 5, and Rajon Rondo, one of the best playmakers and rebounding guards in the game. The Mavericks counter with one of the most intimidating starting lineups in the Association after their trade with the Wizards before the deadline. Jason Kidd, after a scorching February, has returned to Earth and is coming off an 0-5 shooting performance for zero points.

In these teams’ one previous battle this season, the Mavericks came out on top, 99-90, behind a sparkling performance from perennial all-star Dirk Nowitzki, who put up 37 points on 14-22 shooting. Garnett did not play in that game, however, and expect him to bear down on the lanky seven footer and play far superior defense compared to that of Rasheed Wallace, his replacement in the starting lineup for that game. Sure, Wallace is a great defender in his own right, but he lacks the mobility to keep up with Nowitzki who takes a large percentage of his shots from the outside. Garnett, especially when fully healthy, is more agile and can keep up with Dirk.

I predict a win for Dallas, as you always have to go with the hot hand in a square-off of teams with relatively equal talent, but expect Boston to hang tough to the very end.