Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Kansas/Arizona Recap

While the beat writers turn to the record books to put last night's offensive ineptitude into temporal perspective, I'll just look back at my pre-season post that identified eight areas of concern for the 2005-06 season.

1) Ball-handling: I assume that teams who turn the ball over on 37% of their possessions have a winning percentage somewhere near zero. When you consider that other 63% of the possessions include CJ Giles and Brandon Rush losing the ball while going up for dunk attempts, Christian Moody struggling to control some of the rare aggressive, accurate passes, and Brandon Rush repeatedly trying to beat Hassan Adams off the dribble, you could argue that the ball-handling looked even worse than the box score indicates.

2) Interior scoring: Sasha Kaun is clearly much improved in his ability to get post position, catch the ball, and make an agressive move. He did not, however, do anything with his back to the basket. CJ Giles attempted a couple of post moves (again, an improvement over last year) but couldn't finish. Giles didn't get to the line, either. Their was some contact on a couple of his shot attempts, but, as he'll likely be shooting over opponents most of the year, he'll need to finish better rather than hope to get calls. Giles and Kaun each made a nice pass from the elbow on backdoor cuts which lead to easy baskets on two of the rare occassions when Kansas ran their half-court sets.

3) Perimeter scoring: The perimeter shooting was terrible. I don't how much blame to assign to the ability of the shooters and how much to the general inability to create good shots of any kind.

4) Offensive rebounding: Kansas rebounded 43% of their missed shots. Kaun led the way with four offensive rebounds in 22 minutes. Christian Moody made his lone positive contribution with a couple of tap-ins. If the Jayhawks can keep their offensive rebounding rate around 40%, it will help make up for their other, obvious shortcomings.

5) Ball pressure: I'd like to see a little more basketball before commenting definitively on the defense. Arizona looked plenty dreadful on offense themselves, struggling to score unless Kansas gave them the ball and an open path to the basket. Thus, I hesitate to give too much credit for Arizona's 31.6 eFG% or 21.2 TO% to the young Jayhawks. Their effort looked solid, but they were obviously trying hard when they had the ball as well, but to little purpose. I was surprised to see Micah Downs effectively guard Chris Rodgers for a couple of possessions.

6) Off-the-ball pressure: Arizona, the players content to challenge the Jayhawks off the dirbble throughout the game, didn't challenge Kansas's team defense much. A point of concern for Kansas fans: Arizona's free throw rate in this game was about the same as Kansas's against Idaho St.

7) Shot blocking: Not a huge factor in this game as Arizona showed little interest in getting into the paint in their half-court offense. Giles blocked 3 shots in 27 minutes and Julian Wright 2 in 22 minutes.

8) Defensive rebounding: Kansas only rebounded 52.4% of Arizona's misses. That's an embarassingly small number for any team, much less one that starts two centers and features a number of young, athletic players. When Giles goes for the block only Rush seems aware enough at this point to react to this and block someone out. Kaun looks like he's limited toi rebounding one spot right now and Moody continued last year's poor performance on the defensive glass. On an encouraging note, Russell Robinson grabbed 3 defensive rebounds, at least momentarily giving hope that he's not constitutionally opposed to rebounding.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

NBA Preview--Western Conference

Southwest Division Champions: San Antonio--Sean Marks can't really play. The bad news first portion of the Spurs preview is now complete. Even the guy they're trying to get rid of, Nesterovic, isn't a bad player. The Spurs have outstanding front-line talent. The Spurs have young depth and veteran depth. They have the best coach in the Western Conference. They have the best organization in basketball. I think they can keep this up until Tim Duncan retires.

Northwest Division Champions: Denver--The Nuggets aren't as good as their record down the stretch last year indicated, but they're about as good as the second- and third-best teams in the Southwest Division and will have the benefit of home court advantage against, if not being on the opposite side of the bracket from, the three best teams in the Conference once they reach the playoffs.

Pacific Division Champions: Sacramento--Somebody has to win the Pacific Division. The Kings will be a pretty good team, a slightly better iteration of the recent Memphis teams. Jason Hart will prove equally effective as Bobby Jackson, but in a different way. Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Bonzi Wells will have the opportunity to restore their reputations. If Wells fails, Kevin Martin will get a chance to make his rep. Francisco Gracia and Jamal Sampson provide decent, young insurance at the end of the bench.

4th Place: Houston--With Bobby Sura due to miss a long stretch, there's not much separating Houston and Denver. I think the Rockets can piece together an adequate backcourt between Skip To My Lou, Anderson, Head, Wesley, and Jon Barry, but you never really know with that sort of thing until you try out the various permutations. It all revolves around Tracy McGrady dominating the ball, so Alston may be the odd man out in crunch time. The frontcourt of McGrady, Yao (backed up by Mutombo), and Stromile Swift (backed up by Juwan Howard, who may have finally found a role in which he can succeed) should excel.

5th Place: Dallas--Avery Johnson has a limited number of options from which to choose Nowitzki's supporting cast. There are nine guys, but that assumes that everyone's healthy and that Doug Christie and Darrell Armstrong can still play. I suspect Johnson will ride Terry, Howard, Dampier, Daniels, and Devin Harris hard, use Stackhouse and Van Horn when they're available and beg for a better backup center than DeSagana Diop. I wonder if Greg Drieling or James Donaldson still live in the Dallas area?

6th Place: Phoenix--Even without Stoudemire, they should make the playoffs in the weakened Western Conference. If Amare can return in time for the playoffs, they'll be "the team nobody wants to play." They'll still probably lose in the first round as Amare won't be in game shape.

Steve Nash won't make James Jones Joe Johnson-rich, but he'll all look good playing alongside the nominal MVP. Somebody other than Marion and Kurt Thomas will have to grab some rebounds. My guess is Boris Diaw, though Raja Bell might put up good numbers for a guard.

7th Place: Seattle--I'm not convinced that Flip Murray and Damien Wilkins can successfully replace Antonio Daniels. So Luke Ridnour will have to play better. The rest of the team will be about the same as last year, though giving the Jerome James minutes to Mikki Moore and Nick Collison should be a net positive. I peg the Sonics at about 48 wins. Anything less than that we can blame on Bob Weiss, or retroactively credit Nate McMillan.

8th Place: Memphis--No better, no worse, just a little different. Bobby Jackson, Damon Stoudamire, and Eddie Jones might benefit from playing fewer minutes as a result of the Grizzlies' depth. Hakim Warrick, Lawrence Roberts, and sleeper big man John Thomas should steal minutes from the needlessly demonstrative Brian Cardinal. Fratello might also try playing Pau Gasol more than 32 minutes a night just to see if that would help.

First Playoff Runner-Up: Utah--A full season of Kirilenko will make a huge difference, but they will only make the playoffs if somebody falters. His versatility will help overcome any games missed by Boozer and Harpring. When at full strength, those three and Okur comprise an imposing frontcourt. Though I thought he was closer to being the third best point guard than the third best player available in the draft, Deron Williams should be solid, and thus, an immediate upgrade over Keith McLeod.

Second Playoff Runner-Up: Golden State--Exactly who is Chris Mullin worried about stealing away Adonal Foyle or Mikey Dunleavy? If the Warriors have a successful season it will be because Pietrus and Biedrins have taken away their starting jobs. Ike Diogu's late start will slow the rush for the eighth playoff spot. Baron Davis's first big injury of the year will likely end the playoff illusions in the Bay Area.

Eleventh Place: LA Lakers--None of the next five teams are very good at all, but the Lakers have two good players and an historically successful coach. Unfortunately, their best player wastes most of his energy trying to prove he's the best player rather than trying to win basketball games, their second best player has yet to fulfill the promise of his vast ability, their coach has been successful in vastly different circumstances, and Brian Cook might be their third best player. Actually, the Lakers might not have a third best player.

Twelfth Place: LA Clippers--Again, the Clippers don't have any depth and a couple of their key players (Cassell and Livingston) pose serious risk of injury. They should look pretty good when everybody's available to Mike Dunleavy without ever threatening a playoff spot

Thirteenth Place: Minnesota--Garnett is one of the two best players in the NBA. It's Garnett and Duncan. I don't care which one you argue for, but those are the only viable options. You've got to change the debate and discuss "most dominant" to argue for Shaq, or "most talented" to argue for Kobe or LeBron (though this may be the year that LeBron joins Garnett and Duncan as the class of the NBA). That being said, Wilt Chamberlain himself couldn't make this awful T-Wolves team competitive. When Marko Jaric, as I've read many a place, is the key to your season, you can go ahead and make those late April vacation plans.

Fourteenth Place: Portland--If Nate McMillan can get Zach Randolph to play hard, Portland will finish ahead of Minnesota. More likely, McMillan will make a sound decision for the future of the franchise and let Randolph go waste his considerable talent elsewhere. It's not like a foundation of Miles, Outlaw, Przybilla, Jack, and Telfair isn't a start. Webster, Monia, or Khryapa might turn into something useful as well, even if only as trade bait.

Fifteenth Place: NO/OKC Hornets--This here's the worst team in the NBA. Chris Paul could be an offensive talent to rival Steve Nash, but he has similar defensive limitations. JR Smith isn't very good yet, no matter how many points he scores while taking many, many shots. Chris Andersen is their best player, but he doesn't seem to be in line for a significant number of minutes. Desmond Mason and Speedy Claxton are decent, though I don't know if you can play Claxton and Paul at the same time. The rest of the roster is just looking to prove themselves useful players off the bench or as legitimate members of the NBA fraternity. They should have the freedom to take the best player available in the 2006 NBA Draft.

NBA Preview--Eastern Conference

Central Division Champion: Indiana--Clearly the best team in the East, at least until the Heat either trade or stop playing Antoine Walker or the Pacers lose multiple starters to ill physical or mental health. Drafting Danny Granger limits the loss of production should Artest or Stephen Jackson make themselves expendable.

Southeast Division Champion: Miami--Yes, Pat Riley may be setting Stan Van Gundy up to fail. I have no idea if this is a conscious decision on Riley's part. Shaq's not going to play hard for (or even play in) 82 games. Antoine Walker is sufficiently prolific in his incompetence that he will counteract some of Dwyane Wade and Shaq's effectiveness. Posey, Jason Williams, and Gary Payton, on the other hand, should all fit in and contribute.

Atlantic Division Champion: New Jersey--In no way are they a title contender, but they should win the Atlantic handily. Vince Carter will either have to play at the level he demonstrated once arriving in Jersey or let his teammates touch the ball occasionally. Marc Jackson and Krstic derive most of their ability from scoring. Neither they, nor Clifford Robinson nor Jason Collins rebound very well. That will be a problem in the playoffs.

4th Seed: Cleveland--I think Danny Ferry's already surpassed the achievements of his professional playing career. He acquired guys who fit in alongside LeBron and Ilguaskas and can provide cover for Drew Gooden's inconsistency. There aren't many good defenders on the roster, but James, Hughes, and Gooden will create some turnovers and everybody can rebound. Your 2007 Eastern Conference Champions.

5th Seed: Detroit--The Pistons will find it was easier to be better than the sum of your parts when you were younger and had either the best (Larry Brown) or second-best (Rick Carlisle) coach in the NBA. However (to a lesser extent than Garnett), Flip Saunders never received appropriate credit for overcoming Kevin McHale's work as GM in Minnesota. No longer a title contender, the team won't fall apart as they work in Milicic, Arroyo, Delfino, and Maxiell, and will make a final stand as a tough out in the playoffs.

6th Seed: Chicago--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: Sweetney and Songaila are ready for more responsibility, Deng is healthy, Chris Duhon may continue to make positive contributions imperceptible to the human eye.

Reasons to be pessimistic: The Curry trade doesn't solve their interior defensive limitations once you get past Chandler, at some point it won't be worth playing hard for Scott Skiles, Chris Duhon may be as bad as he looked last year rather than as good as the numbers suggest.

7th Seed: Washington--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: The rotation, wherein Daniels, Butler, and Haywood are all underrated, Arenas and Jamison are properly lauded, and the role players are all capable of succeeding.

Reason to be pessimistic: After the first nine, nobody on the roster can play basketball very well.

8th Seed: Boston--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: Pierce plays hard every night and he plays well. (He doesn't deal well with frustration. If he had played on better/more successful teams and/or was more personable, his playoff and fourth quarter performances would indicate his desire to win, not that he is a malcontent.) Al Jefferson getting more minutes.

Reasons to be pessimistic: I think Doc Rivers is a mediocre head coach. This season could push my opinion of him in either direction. If he finds ways to use his young depth successfully, he's better than I thought. If he cycles through his options without purpose, especially at point guard, he's worse than I thought.

First Playoff Runner-Up: New York--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: Larry Brown, amidst the ridiculously long, expensive, and in some cases uninsurable contracts he's handed out Isiah has found some interesting young, cheap talent. Brown could take a strong liking to any and all of Trevor Ariza, Nate Robinson, Jackie Butler, Matt Barnes, and David Lee.

Reasons to be pessimistic: Quentin Richardson's back, Eddy Curry's heart, Eddy Curry's limitations as a basketball player, the inability of Curry, Jerome James, Channing Frye, and Mo Taylor to rebound, the possibility of Isiah and Larry Brown constantly rebuilding the team on the fly.

Second Playoff Runner-Up: Milwaukee--Reasons to be optimistic about making the playoffs: They have more decent players than they used to have.

Reason to be pessimistic: Teams that make that make the playoffs without all-star talent (and, yes, I'm aware that Redd and Magliore are nominally all-stars) usually have more depth, or, in Memphis' case an all-star they don't play very many minutes for whatever reason. The Bucks go seven deep in terms of quality players (assuming Ford is healthy and Bogut adjusts relatively quickly). Their playoff hopes can't survive any injuries.

Eleventh Place: Philadelphia--At some point, Iverson's body is going to give out. I hope that day doesn't come soon. When it does, unless the rest of the roster gets filled with better the players, Philadelphia will immediately become the worst team in the league.

Iguodala is the only good, multi-dimensional teammate on whom Iverson can rely. Webber's a shadow of his former, overrated self. Dalembert is strictly a shot-blocker and rebounder. Korver is strictly a spot-up jump shooter. Nailon can only score (mostly against second units or in garbage time). Hunter is a good backup center, a less athletic Dalembert. Salmons is a poor man's Iguodala. Kevin Ollie dreams of being even one-dimensional, still, he's the only point guard on the roster.

Twelfth Place: Orlando--I saw Peter Vecsey on NBA TV talking about how the addition of Keyon Dooling will help the Magic. Keyon Dooling has had an even less successful NBA career than fellow Missouri Tiger Kareem Rush. Dooling is the fourth best point guard on the Orlando roster. Hell, I'm not sure he's better than DeShawn Stevenson. Shouldn't a professional NBA writer and analyst recognize this?

With Grant Hill, they're mediocre at best. Without him, it's Dwight Howard becoming very good, Steve Francis and Hedo Turkoglu shooting a lot, a bunch of guys who used to be decent-to-good role players (Outlaw, Battie, Garrity, Augmon), guys who have never been good (Stevenson, Dooling, Kasun), and two good backup point guards (Nelson and Diener). All in all, they would benefited from drafting someone who would have joined the team.

Thirteenth Place: Toronto--Bosh is really good. I hope by the time he joins a good team, or the Raptors succeed in rebuilding (kidding), he isn't worn down from playing center at 230 pounds.

The acquisition of Mike James allows them to ease Calderon into the Association while also providing someone a good team will look to acquire at the trading deadline. Rose and Bonner will score but do little else. I expect Joey Graham to follow their lead. The ignorant assume Graham is a good defender having played for Eddie Sutton. He's not. In fact, last year, Oklahoma State was a pretty poor defensive team. Coincidentally, last year Tony Allen found an immediate role in the NBA as a defensive specialist. Wait, that's not coincidental, it's causal.

Villanueva should score eventually and rebound immediately. I don't know how much of Morris Peterson's burgeoning defensive reputation comes from his play or the opposition's willingness to give the ball to whomever Jalen Rose is guarding.

Fourteenth Place: Atlanta--The Hawks aren't going to get much better by acquiring the fourth-best player from good teams. Especially if they then play those guys out of position. Now, if there was a point guard on the roster (Tyronn Lue most definitely does not count), I'd be all for throwing any four of Joe Johnson, Al Harrington, Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Marvin Williams, Salim Stoudamire, and Zaza Pachulia on the court alongside him, ignore positional definitions, and see what happens. They'll probably just trade Al Harrington at the deadline and try to get a point guard or a center.

Fifteenth Place: Charlotte--The Bobcats may be closer to contention than the Hawks in that their roster composition lacks gaping holes. Felton and Knight should handle the point capably. Okafor, Brezec, and May form a strong young post rotation. Gerald Wallace is a solid starter at one wing spot and Keith Bogans and Matt Carroll offer decent options off the bench. They only need to add a scorer on the wing and to upgrade the rest of their bench over the next two years to mount a serious run for the eighth-seed. Not a bad outlook for year two.