Thursday, January 17, 2013

Eastern All-Star 2013!

So as you know, I never got around to finishing my Western Conference Season Preview. In fact, I haven't written anything here since early October. Three whole stinking months. That's what you get when you go to college full-time I guess. But lets not dwell on that. As unlikely as it is that I'll start writing here regularly again, I sincerely hope that I will have the time to do so. Since I carved out the time to sit down and watch a Blazers game tonight, I figured I'd at least start a new column: My picks for the 2013 All-Star game! The official All-Star voting is closed, and the starters will be announced January 17 so I'm just in time to get my picks in before the real ones are revealed. Before I give my picks though, I should explain my thought process. I'm picking players who will give us an exciting offensive-minded game. That's what this is all about, so the best scorers and the best all-around players will be taken. I also don't like the change from Center to three Forward spots, but since those are the rules I'll play along. When deciding between players, I'll look at their per game statistics, per 36 minute statistics, their effect on their team, and their team's record. I'll be making this Al-Star fiesta a three parter: The first part for Eastern Conference picks, the second part for Western Conference picks, and for the third part I'll be choosing contestants for the Skills challenge, Three-Point Shootout, and the Dunk Contest. Anyway, let's go!


GUARD #1: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics. 37.2 minutes, 13.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.8 steals, 3.6 turnovers, 50% FG, 26% 3FG, 64% FT, 18.59 PER.

It took me a long time to convince myself Rondo was worthy of the starting spot over Kyrie Irving. I eventually chose Rondo because I think pairing his quality passing with the quality shooting of the guys we're surrounding him with will be a great combination. Rondo started the first month of the season by stringing together 37 consecutive games of double digit assists (continued from last season) before getting ejected from a game to end the streak. People often focus on his assist numbers, which is logical considering that's where his most impressive statistics come from. He's leading the league in assists for the second straight year, and is in the top six for assists and averaging 8+ assists for five consecutive seasons now. This is also his third season averaging 10+ assists.
Along with his assists, his shooting is improving too. Rondo has, in the past, been a notoriously bad shooting and not someone you want taking a shot unless he's driving to the rim. This season however, Rondo is currently shooting 51% from mid-range (59 for 116) and is still being left open from that range by opponents on a nightly basis. He's only averaging 13.2 points and still can't shoot from three consistently and is still a terrible free throw shooter at only 64%. However, Rondo is currently averaging more points than he did the past two seasons, and his Free Throw shooting is above 60% for the first time in three seasons as well. As people have been saying for years, if Rondo can finally fix his shooting problems he'll be one of the best players in the league. Until then, he'll be known for his assist numbers and nothing else. Well... other than his ability to finish with the most ridiculous triple doubles I've ever seen. He has three triple doubles this season, and had 10 last season including the playoffs with his most memorable one being an outrageous 18 point, 17 rebound, 20 assist game against the New York Knicks despite shooting 7-20 from the field.

In short, the argument between Rondo and Irving is a great one, and this is probably the last year we'll be debating it before Irving surpasses Rondo's skill for good and pushes toward that MVP candidate level so many expect him to reach. Irving will be coming off the bench for sure, but seeing Rondo thread passes to all the superior scorers on this East team makes me giddy.

GUARD #2: Dwayne Wade, Miami Heat. 33.1 minutes, 19.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.4 turnovers, 51% FG, 36% 3FG, 75% FT, 22.81 PER.

Wade is far and away the only choice for the second starting guard spot. He blows away every other Shooting Guard in the East despite playing in the shadow of Lebron James. You can argue however much you want about Wade still being one of the best players in the league, because he is. But he's still far from being the center of attention on this Heat team. Still, Wade seems to have found an acceptable role on his team. He's averaging below 30 PPG for the first time since his rookie season in 2003-04, but he's averaging over 50% shooting for the first time in his career as well. He's also averaging a career best 36% from three. He won't be entering the three-point contest anytime soon, but he's finally starting to become at least somewhat reliable from outside. He only takes about one or two threes a game, and has kept from taking too many of them other than his last two seasons before Lebron came to Miami. He's also nearly averaging career lows in rebounds and assists, and it's painfully apparent that he's finally succumbed to Lebron in the battle for leadership of the Heat.
It doesn't matter. The Heat won the championship last season, and are currently on top of the Eastern Conference Standings. Yes they've had some problems lately, but this isn't the place to talk about it. Wade's production may be down, but he's still an obviously better and more exciting player than Joe Johnson, DeMar DeRozan, Arron Afflalo, or Bradley Beal. DeRozan and Beal are emerging as future stars, but unless they reach their potential Wade may have a lock on this spot for the next few seasons.

FORWARD #1: Lebron James, Miami Heat. 38.2 minutes, 26.0 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.6 steals, 2.8 turnovers, 55% FG, 40% 3FG, 73% FT, 29.85 PER.

No surprise here. Lebron is king of the NBA at this point. He just became the youngest player to score 20,000 career points and reached 5,000 assists on the same night. He's the reigning MVP and is on his way to his fourth MVP trophy in five seasons. He's one of the best scorers in the league and could finish this season as the scoring champ if he wanted to. He's ninth in minutes per game, fifth in scoring, 25th in rebounding (which has curiously dipped lately), 10th in assists, 8th in field goal percentage, third in field goal percentage without threes at 58%, 13th in steals, and leads the league in PER. This is astounding. If James picked up his rebounding and stopped taking threes so much, we could see him finish in the top 10 in points, rebounds, and assists, and in the top five in shooting percentage. We're witnessing one of the greatest players in NBA history play at the peak of his powers. Enjoy it. We may not see something like this again for a long time, if ever.

FORWARD #2: Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks. 37.2 minutes, 29.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.5 turnovers, 46% FG, 42% 3FG, 82% FT, 25.81 PER.

Anthony is playing one of the best seasons of his career and is easily the second best forward in the East behind Lebron. He's the superstar of a New York team that is fighting the Heat for the top spot in the East, and they'd be doing a lot better if injuries and old age didn't keep striking. Injuries have struck almost everybody at some point this season, and if this entire team can get healthy for the second half of the season, we may see them give the Heat a great playoffs rematch although presumably in the Eastern Conference Finals. They've recently seen Amar'e return, and Iman Shumpert comes back this week as well. So even though they have players going down with injuries, they've also got guys returning to the lineup. Anthony's obviously a player known for his scoring ability. His defense seems to have finally improved this season, or at least early on. He's second in the league in scoring behind Kobe, and ahead of Durant, Harden, and Lebron. He's hitting his threes at a great rate, so Knicks fans aren't as scared of him taking so many as they were last season when he averaged 33%. Since the All-Star game is meant to be all offense and no defense, Melo will thrive. He may take about 10 threes, and he may have problems sharing the ball, but it'll still be fun to watch. I think...
The thing with the three guys listed above Carmelo is that they'll be able to share the ball. James scores a lot, but he also passes a lot. He plays with Wade so they know how to work together, and Rondo leads the league in assists. Carmelo could threaten to ruin that if he chose to go to an isolation play whenever he got the ball and try to prove that he's just as good as the guys he's on the floor with. I can't say that for sure, because he played great on the Olympic team which featured a similar assembly of talent. Regardless of how Carmelo plays in the game, he's good enough that he deserves this spot.

PS: Also, even though positions aren't specified in the All-Star game. Lebron would play the Power Forward spot with Melo at Small forward. Thought I'd make that clear.

FORWARD #3: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls. 38.4 points, 12.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.0 blocks, 1.3 steals, 2.9 turnovers, 46% FG, 80% FT, 17.12 PER.

There are a lot of people who could take this last spot. I debated between Noah, Tyson Chandler, Greg Monroe, Chris Bosh, Brook Lopez, and even Nikola Vucevic. In the end, I chose Noah because he's one of the biggest reasons this Chicago team has stayed in the playoff hunt without Rose. The Bulls have surprisingly gotten to a 22-15 record and the fourth seed in the East. Noah is one of the biggest reasons why. He's one of the best defensive players in the league and anchors one of the league's best team defenses. He leads all centers in assists, averaging a surprising 4.1 a game and brings energy and hustle to this team. He's 10th in rebounds per game and tied for third in offensive rebounds. On this team, Noah would be the guy to bang other bodies down low and grab the rebounds and play defense if necessary. He'll tip in missed shots, and I know he'll be unselfish and can pass the ball back outside of the defense collapses on him. Any of the starting five for the East could erupt for a triple double in this game because they can all fill the stat sheet, which is exactly what we want for a game like this. In short, Noah will anchor the team and keep them steady. He'll provide a couple dunks, grab loose balls, and provide opportunities for his teammates to score. Because honestly, we'd rather see Lebron, Anthony, or Wade hit some crazy shot than see Noah take hook shots all day.


Here's my blueprint for the bench: Two guards who can handle the ball and shoot, two versatile guard/forward combos who can fit in any lineup, and a big man who can do things similar to Noah. There's no need for more than 10 players. 12 is normal for a roster, but with the talent we have there's no point in playing more than 10. We want the best of the best and nobody else.

GUARD #1: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers. 35.7 minutes, 23.3 points, 3.6 rebounds. 5.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 3.7 turnovers, 46% FG, 40% 3FG, 83% FT, 21.91 PER.

I almost stuck Irving in as the second starting guard over Wade, but decided against it because Irving and Rondo both need to be the primary ball-handler on their team to maximize their ability. So for my All-Star team, Rondo and Irving will never be on the court together, and even though Rondo is starting, Irving will likely get more minutes. I got to see Irving last night when the Cavs came to play in Portland, and Irving exploded for 31 points on 13 of 24 shooting. His ball-handling skills are what amazed me the most. On several plays throughout the game, Irving went behind his back, between his legs, threw in a couple crossovers, and just embarrassed Lillard. It's not a secret that Lillard plays terrible defense, but it felt like Irving, in his 39 minutes on the court, could have scored 50 points if he wanted. In only his second season, Irving is already one of the top scorers in the league and is destined, barring a horrible injury, to become a superstar in this league. He seems like he'll become a smarter and possibly even higher scoring version of Russell Westbrook. Someone who can shoot the ball a bit smarter and not try to force things so much. Of course, the biggest difference between Irving and Westbrook is that Westbrook plays with Durant and Irving is the lone star on his team other than Varejao, who can't stay healthy. A day will likely come when Irving challenges Chris Paul for the title of best Point Guard in the league. Irving's stats haven't improved significantly from his rookie year other than averaging five more points a game, but I think that if he was surrounded by better shooters than he is right now then his assist numbers could climb into a more elite rankings. Right now the top scorers on the Cavs other than Irving and Varejao (who's injured) are Dion Waiters (36%), Alonzo Gee (40%), and CJ Miles (39%). They're obviously not befitting of a "Big Three" status, and looking at their numbers puts some perspective into why Irving is by far the leading scorer on this team. Regardless of how bad his teammates are, Irving is quickly become one of the best guards in the league and deserves this All-Star nod.

GUARD #2: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers. 37.9 minutes, 19.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 3.5 turnovers, 46% FG, 38% 3FG, 78% FT, 19.11 PER.

I thought a lot about whether another shooting guard should have this spot... and decided no. Holiday deserved this more than any other guard. I didn't even realize it until I looked up his career stats, but Holiday is still really young. He's only 22 years old and in his fourth season in the NBA. He's averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists, minutes, and FG%. He's the budding star point guard on a Sixers team that was supposed to be really good with Andrew Bynum at Center. With Bynum yet to play a game this season, Holiday is left as the primary scorer on this team with Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, Jason Richardson, and Nick Young shouldering most of the scoring load as well.  Their percentages are less than pleasant... Thad is the only Sixer averaging over 50% form the field at 52%, Richardson and Nick Young are each shooting 40%, and Turner is shooting 43%. If Bynum had been healthy this season, I think the Sixers would be in the middle of the playoff hunt and Holiday would be averaging 10+ assists. Being only 22 years old, I expect Holiday to continue to get better over the next few years. He definitely deserves this All-Star nod, even though he will probably get the fewest minutes of all guards.

FORWARD #1: Paul George, Indiana Pacers. 36.4 minutes, 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.7 turnovers, 43% FG, 37% 3FG, 80% FT, 16.97 PER.

In his third season in the NBA, George is at the forefront of the Pacers after Danny Granger was injured over the summer. With Roy Hibbert drastically underperforming as well, The scoring load has been placed on George's shoulders along with David West and George Hill. He's reacted fairly well to the increased pressure considering he's still pretty young. His percentages are a bit low, but after shooting 39% for November he bounced back to shoot 46% in December. He takes almost six threes a game, so that factors into his low overall FG% despite shooting nearly 46% from inside the arc. George also has a knack for grabbing rebounds, and has pulled down 10+ rebounds in his last five games. For a Shooting guard/Small Forward combo, that's a huge benefit especially considering Roy Hibbert's disappointing performance this season. George trails only Lebron in rebounding by Small Forwards, and will likely continue to improve over the years.
He'll be a great spot-up wing player and rebounder for the All-Star team, and this will be the first of hopefully many All-Star appearances in his career.

FORWARD #2: Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics. 33.1 minutes, 19.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.3 turnovers, 43% FG, 37% 3FG, 80% FT, 19.98 PER.

Pierce's stats are very similar to George's. Pierce gets a few more points, George rebounds a bit better, they're shooting percentages are identical, and Pierce plays about three minutes fewer than George. George is rising to the peak of his talents while Pierce is in his twilight years. Despite being 35 years old, Pierce is still deserving of his 11th All-Star appearance. He, Garnett, and Rondo are still the Big Three for Boston despite age starting to overcome Pierce and Garnett. I suspect this may be the last All-Star game for Pierce, and he'll likely be played sparingly in favor of younger and more exciting players. He's still an exceptional scorer and relies more on his experience and faking out his opponents than the overwhelming athleticism that many young stars rely on. He's still really skilled though and is the leading scorer for a Celtics team fighting to stay in the playoff hunt. He just edges out Josh Smith, Luol Deng, and Thaddeus Young for this spot.

CENTER: Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic. 31.9 minutes, 11.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.1 blocks, 1.6 turnovers, 51% FG, 66% FT, 17.03 PER.

His numbers are pretty impressive. He's one of four healthy players averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds (We're discounting Kevin Love and Anderson Varejao). Even more impressive? He averaged 12.1 points and 12.8 rebounds in December. And he's averaging an amazing 15.0 points and 14.3 rebounds in January! That's Kevin Love territory right there. Wow. He only averaged 5 points and five rebounds in 15 minutes last season, but exploded onto the scene this season out of nowhere. There's some discussion as to whether Glen Davis' injury affected Vucevic's numbers, so here's my take: It's hard to tell since Nikola was on and off during November before really turning it on a couple weeks before Davis got injured and then stayed consistent during Davis' injury. He's played well in his first two games with Davis back in the lineup but we'll see how it goes. If Davis does drag Vucevic's numbers back down it's too bad. Nikola's numbers are All-Star worthy. This is definitely my most controversial pick, but I love Vucevic. And these are my picks. He'll clean up the boards with Noah out, and he plays well with another big man so he can play alongside Noah if need be.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

2012-2013 preview: Sacramento Kings

Western Conference #15: Sacramento Kings (22-60)

Point Guard: Isaiah Thomas, Aaron Brooks, Jimmer Fredette.
Shooting Guard: Marcus Thorton, Francisco Garcia.
Small Forward: Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw.
Power Forward: Jason Thompson, Thomas Robinson.
Center: Demarcus Cousins, Chuck Hayes.

Sacramento? Seriously?
          The Kings have the building blocks in place, but they're still in rebuild mode. They've got Demarcus Cousins, who will likely contend for an All-Star spot after averaging 18.1 points and 11.0 rebounds in his second season, and Tyreke Evans, who still has shooting issues to overcome before he can become a legitimate threat on the perimeter. Other than that, they've got an incredibly young team with mediocre talent. A bench of Aaron Brooks, Francisco Garcis, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, and Chuck Hayes isn't going to protect a lead when your starters are resting. There honestly aren't many terrible teams in the West, so I expect the Kings to receive another lottery pick after the coming season. They've got second year point guard Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 11.4 points, 4.1 assists, and 45% shooting in 25.5 minutes his rookie season. He'll likely improve this season, and I think he could average a 12-6 if he gets the minutes. He'll be backed up by Aaron Brooks, who is returning from a season long stint in China. Brooks looked like a promising guy three seasons ago when he averaged 19.8 points, 5.3 assists, 43% FG and 40% 3FG in 35.5 minutes with the Rockets, but then his role got reduced when he couldn't replicate that production and he was traded to Phoenix to back up Steve Nash for the second half of the 2010-11 season and played less than 20 minutes a game. I don't expect Brooks to replicate his stats from 2009, and he will likely take awhile to get readjusted to the NBA before he's able to be a solid if even decent role player for the Kings.
          Marcus Thorton also seems to have potential, but he took a step back last season after averaging just over 21 points in his 27 games with the Kings after being traded from the Hornets. He still averaged 18.7 points last season, but his percentages dropped (43% FG and 34% 3FG) about 2% each. He was locked up last season for a contract worth $31 million over four seasons, so the Kings seem invested in him. The Kings will be relying on him to be one of the leading scorers though, so the question of how effectively he gets his points will be important this season. He'l be their #2 or #3 scoring option behind Evans and possibly behind Cousins depending on how consistent of a threat he is.
          Tyreke Evans is Sacramento's star in the making. At least that's what they'd like him to be. Evans made a greatly promising start his rookie season by averaging 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and shooting 46% in 37 minutes a game. In the two seasons since then, he's been unable to replicate those numbers and has had problems with his jumper. He's a career 25% 3FG shooter and gets most of his points attacking the rim. If he were able to shoot the ball well, he'd likely be close to an all-star level, but after three seasons he still hasn't fixed that issue. Of course, there's still plenty of hope for him. He just turned 23 years old and  should theoretically still have a couple years before reaching his peak. Unfortunately for the Kings, they aren't going to get anywhere when he shoots like that. The Kings have John Salmons and Travis Outlaw backing him up at SF, and that's not something to be happy about. I do feel like Salmons could be a valuable piece, as he averaged 20 PPG only three seasons ago, but he is likely past his peak (32 years old) and also shot a career low 40% last season. As for Outlaw, he's not one to be trusted to score effectively. Outlaw has now gone for four consecutive seasons of shooting under 40% from the field, finishing last season with 34% FG, 26% 3FG and 67% FT which are all career lows for him. The Kings are basically stuck at SF and unless Evans fixes his shooting problems they're going to have production problems at SF. Considering Thorton and Cousins are the other two leading scorers, that may be a problem.
          Jason Thompson and Thomas Robinson will split up the Power Forward minutes depending on how well Robinson plays. Thompson averaged 9.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in 26 minutes a game for the Kings last season while Robinson averaged 17.7 points, 11.9 rebounds (second in the NCAA), and 51% shooting in 31.3 minutes a game for the Kansas Jayhawks as a Junior last season. I expect that Robinson will start out on the bench, but may play his way into the starting spot and around 30 minutes a game. He seems like a great rebounder and physical guy, although his defense will be a big factor in how many minutes he gets. In the long term, I think Robinson will turn out alright for the Kings but he may take awhile to develop. On the positive side, he played three years in college so he may be able to adjust to the NBA quicker than many of his younger fellow rookies.
          At Center, of course, is Demarcus Cousins. He averaged 18.1 points and 10.9 rebounds in his second season in the league and looks poised to break out as one of the best centers in the league. His shooting percentage (44%) is the biggest thing holding him back, and if he can get that up around 50% he could score up to 25 PPG on average. I expect his rebounding to improve as well, and we may be seeing a 23-12 with two blocks a game from Cousins this season, just in time for him to sign a contract extension with the Kings. He's one of the biggest, if not THE biggest, foundational piece for the Kings moving forward. He's a stud center in the making and if he can improve his defense that'll stabilize this Kings team a lot. The Kings allowed 104.4 points last season, three points more than the second worst defensive team in the league. They'll need Robinson and Cousins to provide defensive support since this isn't a team that's made to outscore their opponents. I think Cousins will be able to contend for an All-Star appearance this year, but that'll depend on how much he actually improves. There doesn't seem to be any reason that his growth won't continue, but you never know.
          Sacramento is stuck with guys who can't play defense, but can't outscore their opponents or shoot effectively enough to not worry about defense. They'll need to either sign some veterans who can play defense and score, or tank this season and hope for another good lottery pick. They've got a base in Cousins and possibly Evans, but other than that I don't think anybody on this team has too much promise. Even in watching their top 10 plays from last season (shown above), they don't seem like a team that can do much else other than run fast breaks. Still, the rebuilding is in process and they've already started. Robinson and Cousins do seem like a promising big man combo and they may be able to carry the Kings to a few wins this year. Not many, but still a heck of a lot more than if they weren't here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

2012-2013 preview: Beast of the East

Eastern Conference #1: Miami Heat (60-22)

Point Guard: Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole.
Shooting Guard: Dwayne Wade, Ray Allen, Mike Miller.
Small Forward: Lebron James, Rashard Lewis, James Jones.
Power Forward: Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem.
Center: Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony, Dexter Pittman.

          So much has already been said about the Heat, that it already seems a waste of time to talk about them. Because of that, this will be by far the shortest team preview of the series. They went through the Knicks, Pacers, Celtics, and Thunder in the playoffs, which is an accomplishment in itself. Lebron established himself yet again as the best player in the league by finally winning a championship. They've added a two new guys in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, but the roster is the same other than that. The biggest roster change is actually the plan to switch Bosh to Center and to play Battier at Power Forward. Battier will provide decent defense, score some threes, and spread the floor for Lebron and Wade to attack the rim better by drawing out the opposing PF at times.
          Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to predict how Miami's regular season will turn out. James, Wade, and Bosh battled injuries all season long, and at times it seemed like they honestly didn't care about the season. But in the end, none of that matters. They're the champions. I expect something similar to that this year. However the Heat finish, they will not reach their full potential. If James, Wade, and Bosh decided to play 40 minutes a night for 82 games, they could make a run at Chicago's 72-10 record. But they won't. They've just too injury prone, and the problem is that they know they can skim by the regular season, and turn it on for the playoffs at still kick everyone's butts. The biggest threat to Miami isn't the talent of the other teams, but James and Wade's confidence level. It won't show too much in the regular season, but when the playoffs come again, will they come in expecting to win because they won last year? Or will they walk in completely focused on title #2 (and #3 for Wade)? There are so many questions, but the answers can't come from anyone except the Heat themselves.
          All I know is that this is undoubtedly the best team in the East, and probably the whole league. Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka are really good. Howard, Kobe, and Nash look incredibly dangerous. Pierce, KG, and Rondo are still lethal and took the Heat to seven games in the playoffs and have a revamped roster now. The Nuggets, Nets, Spurs, Pacers, and even the Clippers could also claim a shot at the title. But the Heat still have their big three. Bosh may not be spectacular, but his return during the playoffs showed how much the Heat need him and how important of a player he is. For all the bad stuff said about him sometimes, he's still made the All-Star team seven straight years and is one of the best Power Forwards in the league. They have Dwayne Wade, who has developed into a spectacular sidekick for Lebron by averaging 22 points and taking the leading role any time Lebron isn't playing or can't get his shot going. He also led all guards in the league in blocked shots, averaging 1.3 a game along with 1.7 steals. That's three turnovers per game caused by Wade alone. Wade is still one of the best players in the league, but it's just hard to see sometimes with Lebron headlining the team.
          As for Lebron, anything I say will already just be repeating something someone else already said. This guy has been hounded by the media his entire career, and especially since he joined the Heat. His first title is in the books though, and now that he's broken through that wall, he will be aiming for the history books. Can he repeat his Finals victory or even get a three-peat like Kobe and Jordan did? Can he make a legendary run of titles like Russell, Bird, Jordan, or Kobe did? He's already going to be a Hall of Fame legend. The question left is how great. And it may be an answer we can never really answer. The number of titles he collects will be key to that, as well as whether or not he can keep up his statistical and defensive dominance over the next decade. I'm not a Miami fan, and I understand how it is to enjoy hating on Lebron. But we shouldn't try and deny that he's truly a special player, and that's reflected in the attention he draws by both fans and haters alike. When's the last time a player drew attention like this over the course of multiple seasons? Not only that, but he's responded by reaching incredible heights and achieving his first NBA championship. Simply amazing. I'm excited to see how far he can launch himself into the record books and where he will rank among the all-time greats when his career is done, as well as how soon it will be before we crown another young guy "the next Lebron". For all we know, that could start this season. Or next season. Or five or ten years from now.
          Despite so many teams looking amazing this season, the Heat are my favorites to win it all. Doesn't matter how they play during the season. As long as they're healthy in April and May, I'm betting on them repeating as champions. Good luck to anybody who tries to stop them.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

2012-2013 preview: Boston Celtics

Eastern Conference #2: Boston Celtics (55-27)

Point Guard: Rajon Rondo, Keyon Dooling.
Shooting Guard: Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, Avery Bradley, Leandro Barbosa.
Small Forward: Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, Kris Joseph.
Power Forward: Brandon Bass, Chris Wilcox.
Center: Kevin Garnett, Jared Sullinger, Jason Collins.

          At the end of last season, the Celtics looked done. They'd lost a bitter seven game series against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, nearly toppling the heavy favorites in the East after beating both the Hawks and Sixers in seven and six games.. Their three best players, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce were another year older. Allen was falling apart and needing multiple surgeries on his feet, Avery Bradley needed surgery on both his shoulders and would miss the first 2-3 months of the coming season, and they just didn't seem to have enough firepower to contend with other teams. So what did the front office do? They solved Boston's problems. They signed Courtney Lee, Jason Terry AND Leandro Barbosa, three guards who can create their own shots and drain threes. Jeff Green returned healthy and excited for a new season, and rookie Jared Sullinger looks to be a great backup for Garnett. They have Rajon Rondo, the league leader in assists, running the offense and possibly coming back with an improved jumper. They have Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett still, who are yet again ready to make one last reach for a title. Pierce and Garnett are now 35 and 36 years old respectively and re undoubtedly at the very end of their careers. Pierce plans to play out his contract through the 2013-14 season, and Garnett was just resigned for a three year contract worth nearly $12 million a season. That should really say something about these guys. They're old, but they are by no means ready to go out yet. Garnett made second team All-Defense last year, and is still one of the best defenders in the league. Pierce can still score and they'll both provide valuable experience, leadership, and balance to this team that suddenly looks revamped and ready to continue contending.
          I'm actually very excited to watch this Celtics team this season, and I think that they have an outsider's shot at the title. The Thunder, Lakers, and Heat are the three teams that everyone expects to win it all this season, but outside of those three Indiana or Boston is my pick to win the championship. They're suddenly deep again, and will have a great bench as well as starters who can play 40+ minutes a game if needed. Despite all their new acquisitions, they won't be able to make a run without Pierce and Garnett. Their health will be key this season, so don't be surprised if the two of them are periodically rested to remain strong for the playoffs. They may sit out games without having an official injury, and that's something that shouldn't be too worrisome. What really matters is that they make the playoffs and Pierce and Garnett are ready to play hard in April and June. I'll also be interested to see how the minutes and positions shake out between all the guards. They've got Rondo, Lee, Bradley (when he returns), Terry, Dooling, and Barbosa all fighting for minutes at two positions. We know Rondo will get the majority of the PG minutes, and I expect Lee to start at SG with Terry playing substantial minutes at SG and PG off the bench. Barbosa, Dooling, and Bradley will have a hard time fitting in the rotation though. I don't expect Dooling to stay on the team, and Barbosa may not either. Bradley will have to carve a role out for himself when he comes back, and he may need an injury to get a good amount of minutes. If one of those five is going to get cut out, it'll be Barbosa, which is a shame since he played so well during the Olympics this summer. Bradley will hopefully come back strong though, and that'll give Boston a healthy perimeter defender to throw on the court. Bradley averaged 15.1 PPG in April once Ray Allen went down with injuries and he excelled in the extended minutes.
          Courtney Lee is entering his fifth season in the NBA after averaging 11.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and shooting 43% FG and 40% 3FG in 30.3 minutes a game. He's developing into a great long range shooter and will likely make a couple threes every game and space the floor for the Celtics. He's only 27 years old, so he's still in his prime and is normally a consistent player and not injury prone, which is always a plus. Jason Terry averaged 15.1 points last season (his lowest average since his first season with Dallas in 2003) along with 2.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals, 43% FG and 38% 3FG in 31.7 minutes. Ideally, Terry would play some minutes at SG and also take the PG minutes left by Rondo. He'll also make 2-3 threes a game, and finished second in made threes in the league last season. He's a valuable bench player and knows his role very well, which he will able to recreate for Boston. He's been one of the league's best sixth men for several seasons now, and will bring some firepower to Boston's bench. Then there's Rondo of course. Rondo averaged 11.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, a league leading 11.7 assists, 1.8 steals, 45% shooting, 24% 3FG and 60% FT. He's also been an enigma thanks to his terrible shooting and free throw percentage (62% for his career). Rondo used to thrive off getting to the rim much like Derrick Rose for his points, but unlike Rose he's never been a big source of scoring for his team. He's never averaged more than 13 points a game for a season, and his assist numbers have risen every season he's played. Could he top 12+ assists a game? I think he could. He'll be playing with lots of options and decent scorers at every position. He likely won't score more than 12 PPG though, and that's probably a good thing unless he finally fixes his jumper. He's young enough that I wouldn't rule that out, and if he does he'll be much like Steve Nash in his prime when he averaged 19 PPG and 12 assists and won two MVP trophies. Unfortunately, his use will be limited if his shooting issues aren't solved. We know he can step up big when he has to, as evidenced by his 44 point explosion in Game two of the Conference Finals seen here.
It's crazy to think that Rondo is still improving his game. He's only 26 years old and is entering his seventh season in the NBA, usually about when players hit their peak. He recorded 10+ assists in 46 of the last 50 games he played in, including playoffs, highlighted by a streak of 24 straight double digit assist games. He's clearly the leader on this team, despite playing with two future Hall of Famers who still have something left in the tank. That's saying something. The past four seasons he's totaled an average of 10.2 assists a game, which is the third highest career average behind Magic Johnson (11.2) and John Stockton (10.5). Throw in his first two seasons where he struggled to get the starting spot and big minutes, and he's averaging 8.1, which is still tied for 10th all-time. If he averaged 12 assists a game this coming season, he'd be up to a career average of 8.8 and seventh all-time just ahead of Steve Nash and right behind Jason Kidd. Lets move on...
          At Small Forward, the Celtics have long-time great Paul Pierce. He's entering his 15th season in the NBA, and has yet to average fewer than 16 points per game for a season. He's got the statistics thing down now, and you can predict his numbers pretty well. He'll give you 18-25 points, 4-6 rebounds, 3-5 assists, 44-47% FG, 35-40% 3FG, and 34-37 minutes a game. Those have been his averages for the past decade, and while he's getting older he doesn't yet seem to be seeing a significant drop in production when he's on the court. There's a chance that may change with the talent around him, but I don't think so. He and KG will still be the veteran leaders for this team and will carry the team in tough games and clutch situations. Rondo is the most talented player right now, but Pierce and Garnett will still command the respect of everyone on court until they retire. We can look for Pierce to be the guy who takes the game-deciding shots again this season, and he'll still embrace the challenge. He's now playing younger, more athletic players almost every night but he's got experience and practice on his side. He's still not someone you want to play against, and it'll likely be like that until he finally retires.
          Also at Small Forward, we have the celebrated return of Jeff Green! Green was part of the trade that sent Kendrick Perkins to OKC a couple seasons ago, and he missed all of last season due to heart surgery and recovery. He's looked great during the preseason, and will bring the Celtics a legitimate backup Forward and a guy who can play more minutes if Pierce needs to sit out a game. His stats won't be anything amazing, but his presence will make a huge difference. He averaged 15.6 points and 5.2 rebounds in 37 minutes a game for the Thunder in the 2010-11 season, and he looks to be in great shape and could be ready for the best season of his career. He's still only 26 years old, and his enthusiasm to finally be back on the court will help Boston's bench a lot even if it doesn't seem like it.
          Brandon Bass will start at Power Forward again after having a bit of a breakout season with Boston last year. He averaged 12.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 48% FG in 31.7 minutes and is also fairly young at 27 years old. Bass, Garnett, and Sullinger will likely split up the power forward and center minutes between them, with KG and Sullinger splitting the Center minutes and one of them taking the rest of Bass's PF minutes. I'm excited to see how a KG and Sullinger front court could work out for a few minutes each game. Garnett is entering his 18th season in the league and will be 37 years old when the season ends. He still averaged 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 blocks, 50% FG, and 31.3 minutes in 60 games last season. His ferocity has always been an integral part of his play, and that's what will continue to keep him playing at such a high level. His stats aren't amazing, but his defense is still top notch and he's one of the best defenders in the league. The defining statistics for him are his numbers in the playoffs last season: 19.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, and 50% FG in 36.9 minutes. That's a definite step up from his regular season numbers and perfectly portrays KG. His game always steps up when it matters. When Boston enters the playoffs, that's when their true power will show. We won't really know what they're capable of until then, but I'm still excited. Jared Sullinger is Boston's rookie backup big man. He slipped to the bottom of the first round in the draft because of suggested back issues, and if he stays healthy he may be a great steal for the Celtics. He's looked great in the preseason, and there's been talk of Sullinger starting over Bass alongside KG. We'll have to wait and see and let Sullinger prove himself in the real season, but he has great potential and Celtics fans should definitely be excited.
          Like the Spurs, we should know better than to count these guys out or think they're done. Their addition of young guys while retaining their best veterans makes a dangerous combination that will take them to a high seed in the East this season. I'm rooting for them to beat Miami in an ECF rematch this season before Pierce and Garnett finally bow out and retire.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

2012-2013 preview: Indiana Pacers

Eastern Conference #3: Indiana Pacers (54-28)

Point guard: George Hill, DJ Augustin, Sundiata Gaines
Shooting Guard: Paul George, Lance Stephenson.
Small Forward: Danny Granger, Gerald Green, Sam Young
Power Forward: David West, Tyler Hansbourgh, Jeff Pendergraph
Center: Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi.

The future of Indiana basketball
          In the end, I couldn't put them ahead of Boston. That's the only reason they're not #2. I just couldn't see them winning a series against the Celtics, although it'd be pretty close and exciting. Last season's Pacers team was the best Indiana has seen since before "Malice At The Palace" in 2004. They beat the Howard-less Magic in the first round and took the champion Heat to six games before bowing out. The Pacers are centered around their two stars Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert, with a number of up and coming players surrounding them. David West, Paul George, and George Hill round out the starting lineup, and DJ Augustin, Lance Stephenson, Gerald "Highlight Reel" Green, Tyler Hansbourgh, and Ian Mahnimi will pick up the rest of the minutes. This is a team that can go 10 deep in quality (not necessarily starting material... but still quality) guys and have a number of lineup options to go with that. Granger will turn 30 at the end of the season, so he's unlikely to get any better than he is now and might have already reached his peak. Thankfully, the Pacers have enough young players to make up for his slight dip in production if it does, in fact, exist. They, like every other team, have made some roster changes this offseason. Most notably they've gotten rid of last season's starting PG, Darren Collison, and will replace him with George Hill. He's the only change in the starting five from last year, and should replace Collison's statistics fairly well. Collison averaged 10.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 4.8 assists with 44% FG and 36% 3FG in 31 minutes. As Collison's backup last year, Hill averaged 9.6 points, 3 rebounds, and 2.9 assists while shooting 44% FG and 37% 3FG in 25.5 minutes a game. Not incredible, but he'll be playing with better scorers so it shouldn't matter.
          This year's Pacers look to be better than last year and are likely to achieve that goal. They're one of the best in the East now, and I think they could finish anywhere between the 2nd and 4th seeds. Homecourt advantage seems likely for these guys, as well as a Central Division title with the Bulls losing Derrick Rose. The Pacers are one of those teams who's offense isn't molded around a superstar scorer or a single amazing player. Much like the 76ers, Indiana distributes the ball and shots fairly evenly between everybody. Their point guards aren't likely to rack up too many assists since their shooting guards and Granger can handle the ball as well. There also won't likely be any fantasy basketball superstars on this team unless Granger jumps back to averaging 25 PPG, which is unlikely.
          George Hill and DJ Augustin are the Point Guards for this Pacers team this year and while I expect Hill to get the nod to start over Augustin, the minute spread will likely be pretty even. Augustin was the starting PG for the Bobcats last year, averaging 11.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and shooting 37%. He's not someone the Pacers should rely on for shooting, but with more talented players on the floor (any team is a big upgrade from the Bobcats) he should be able to play well as a pass-first point guard and distributor. Neither Hill nor Augustin are All-Star caliber and may even be simply average players. They won't need to play much of a larger role than that, and as long as they can shoot at a good percentage and make the shots they take they should be a success.
          At Shooting Guard the Pacers bring back Paul George, who recently had his team option exercised. He made a great second year jump in production last year, and should improve even more this year. He averaged 12.1 points, 5.6 rebounds (Second among all guards in the NBA behind Evan Turner), 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 44% FG and 39% 3FG in 29.7 minutes. His minutes will jump that 30+ mark and he could play up to 35 MPG if he does well or Stephenson doesn't pan out. Stephenson only played 10 MPG last season, so George may see himself as one of Indiana's leaders in minutes this season. He's an unrestricted Free Agent after next season, and is in line for a big pay raise. He looks to be an integral part of this Indiana team for the future, and we can expect to see the Pacers do what they can to keep George in Indiana for the long term. If he continues to improve, which is likely, he could be a future contender for an All-Star selection somewhere down the road.
          Danny Granger is Indiana's Small Forward as usual. He's not quite the guy who exploded onto the scene as the 2009 MIP and averaged 26 PPG, but he's surrounded with promising talent so he can share the scoring load. He also doesn't get as many shots as he used, while registering the lowest FG% of his career last season by shooting 42%. He's often seen as the leader of this team, but I think that perception may change over the course of this season as Hibbert and George continue to improve. Still, Granger will likely be Indiana's leading scorer and will get the biggest share of shots. He can handle the ball and create shots for himself and will be Indiana's go-to guy in clutch situations. Basically he's their Joe Johnson, but not quite with such a great resume. He's still a great player though and if it weren't for the amazing talent of Carmelo Anthony and Lebron James, Granger would have been an All-Star the last couple seasons. Granger will be backed up by Gerald Green, who may or may not be a help to the Pacers. It's been five seasons since Green played at least half the games in a season, although he did post career-high numbers in 32 games with the Nets last season so there's some hope. Green is best known for his dunking ability, having won the 2007 dunk contest and throwing down several vicious in-game dunks. Other than firing up the home crowd at times during games, Green likely won't bring much to the court or see much playing time either.
         The Pacers are bringing back David West at Power Forward and he will continue to support Roy Hibbert in the post. West's numbers dipped significantly over the past few seasons from 21 points and 8.9 rebounds in  2008-09 to 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds last season. Now it's true that last season me moved from the Hornets to the Pacers and didn't have such a large role as he used to, and he also saw far fewer shot attempts than he did with the Hornets while seeing his minutes dip just below 30 a game. That's just a product of this Pacers team, and while it can be disconcerting to see players join the team and watch their numbers drop, keep in mind that the team as a whole gets the points scored every night and have a balance that works for them. Their balance means that double-teaming anyone will likely end bad for their opponents and West and Hibbert seemed to work well together last season so there's no need to worry about something that seems to work. Tyler Hansbourgh will again back up West at PF, but his production seems uncertain. His numbers sank last season, his third season in the NBA, back to below 10 PPG and 5 RPG. He also shot just 40% from the field and doesn't seem to be improving like he should. There's a chance that the Pacers will increase West's minutes and decrease Hansbourgh's role if his production doesn't rebound like it should. West is perfectly capable of playing 30-35 minutes a game and that may be a good thing for the team.
          At Center, the Pacers have their All-Star Center Roy Hibbert, who should really be starting for my Trail Blazers. But whatever. I'm not bitter. The Pacers resigned Hibbert for just under $20 million a year, and he seems like a promising force in the East and a regular All-Star. He averaged 12.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, and 50% shooting in 29.8 minutes a game. Hibbert is still only 25 and while he doesn't seem like he'll develop in a high volume scorer, his improvement in rebounding seems to be still going and I expect him to average a double double this season. His playoffs numbers jumped to 11.8 points, 11.2 rebounds. 3.2 blocks, and 50% shooting in 30.9 minutes, so he seems to have a great sense of stepping it up for the playoffs. Hibbert is also giant, at 7'2" and 290 pounds, and that's huge considering many of today's centers are actually under 7' tall. His size will continue to help him as his skills improve and those extra 2-3 inches will help him a lot in playing defense or rebounding. I really hope Hibbert sees more minutes though. I don't understand why they'd keep him at under 30 MPG even though he's clearly one of the best centers in the NBA and is still getting better. It's not like they have anyone amazing backing him up (Ian Mahinmi was acquired from Dallas for that job this season), and he's also their best defensive player and one of the best shot blockers in the league. expect Hibbert to finally crack the 30 MPG mark this season and also make a big jump as he starts to reach his full potential. I think a top 5 rebounding and shot blocking average with 50%+ shooting is in his reach, and he may challenge Bynum for the title of best center in the East.
          All in all, this Pacers team seems well equipped for the season and will be no pushover when the playoffs come around. They're far more balanced that the Heat and Hibbert will destroy their big guys (which is what happened last season) and they're also young and hungry. They're clearly one of the most important teams in the East, and will likely remain that way for the next several seasons.