The Pacers accomplished their season-long goal of earning the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, giving them home court advantage until the NBA Finals. The Hawks on the other hand, just clinched the #8 seed with a win over the defending champion Miami Heat. The Hawks have been ravaged by injuries to All-Stars Al Horford and Paul Milsap. Coach Budenholzer deserves tremendous credit for the job he has done, seeing as many people believed they would be in the running for a top 5 pick in this year’s draft. Although the Pacers have the best record in the East, they have struggled mightily since the All-Star break with a record of 15-14. Here is why each team could win the series. Why the Pacers will win:
Despite their struggles the Pacers are still one of the top 5 teams in the NBA, headed by their terrific defense which gives up only 92.4 points per game, 2nd in the NBA. Their scheme of forcing tough, mid-range jump shots is facilitated by the presence of 7’2 center Roy Hibbert, who has clearly established himself as one of the premier rim protectors in the NBA. They also have star power in Paul George, an emerging star who has improved every year of his career especially on the offensive side of the ball. The Pacers also improved their bench this season, adding Luis Scola from Phoenix and signing back-up point guard CJ Watson as well as executing an in-season trade with the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner. Bench scoring is vital in the playoffs as the starters have endured a tremendous physical toll on their bodies, and need scoring help. The Pacers should also benefit from the injury to Al Horford as Roy Hibbert should be able to dominate the low-post (just as he dominates the center less Heat). The Pacers have the talent to make a deep post-season run but their consistency is a concern.
Why the Hawks can win:
The Hawks have an advantage at two of the most important positions in this series, point guard and power forward. Jeff Teague garnered some All-Star consideration and Paul Milsap was a bonafide steal for the Hawks at two for years $19 million. Jeff Teague is an extremely quick guard who creates for others and can attack the basket. He should be able to drive by George Hill, but the problem lies in Indiana’s ability to deny easy baskets around the rim. Paul Milsap could also be a match-up problem for David West, who is more adept at guarding in the post rather than guarding stretch 4s. Although the Hawks are a terrible road team, they have played the Pacers well, splitting the four games they played this year, including winning one game in Indiana. If the Hawks manage to steal a game in the beginning of the series they could put enough pressure on the Pacers to take this to a six or even seven game series. X-Factor for the Pacers:
Roy Hibbert has been criticized for his comments about his teammates, calling them “selfish” and although these comments might be true, seeing as Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner are playing for new, lucrative contracts, Hibbert should look at his own play as a reason for the Pacers’ struggles. This Hawks series could be a boost for Hibbert’s confidence as the Hawks minus Al Horford, have limited big bodies to defend him. Hibbert’s defense is a constant but his offensive game is starting to waver and so are the Pacers. X-Factor for the Hawks: Kyle Korver
Kyle Korver might be the best spot up 3-pt shooter in game right now and holds the record for most consecutive games with a 3-pt basket with 127. Although the Pacers hold opponents to a measly 34.5% from 3-pt land, Korver has unlimited range that becomes very hard to guard when he gets hot. Korver also has plenty of playoff experience as he has played in 60 playoffs games and has contributed to the deep runs of the Utah Jazz in 07-08 and the 10-11 Chicago Bulls. There is no doubt that Roy Hibbert means more to the Pacers than Korver means to the Hawks but if Korver can get on a hot streak, he could help lead the Hawks to a monumental upset.
Prediction: Pacers in 6
A #1 seed has only lost in the first round four times in NBA history and I don’t think that number will change with this series. The Pacers just have too many weapons on both sides of the court and eventually I think they will wear the Hawks out. Coach Vogel deserves kudos for pushing his team through their rough patch, all while achieving their goal of winning the #1 overall seed. The Hawks also deserve credit for their accomplishments, not many teams could lose their two All-Star players to injury and still find a way to sneak into the playoffs. Sure the Eastern Conference was weak in terms of wins and playoff positioning, but making the playoffs is still a respectable achievement. After the Pacers defeat the Hawks, they will have to take on the winner of the Bulls/Wizards series who both split the regular season series with the Pacers, 2-2 with the Bulls and 1-1 with the Wizards. Either matchup would present matchup difficulties as the Bulls’ series would be a drag-out, knockdown type series where whoever scores 80 points first will probably win the game. With the Wizards, the mismatch at point guard would be highlighted even more as John Wall is just head and shoulders above George Hill in terms of talent and productivity. To conclude, the Pacers roll on to the second round.
The NBA season is coming to an end as many teams have finished about 75% of their schedule. Along with having debates about which team will win the championship or go far in the playoffs, many NBA fans are debating which players should win the major awards in the NBA, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and MVP. Unlike previous seasons, this year’s race should be incredibly close, especially for the DPOY, COY, and MVP.
Rookie of the Year: Michael Carter Williams
The 11th pick in the draft has been an absolute steal for the 76ers this season. After a horrible NCAA tournament, many questioned if MCW could really be a successful player in the NBA, although he has incredible length and came out of Syracuse. Since the start of the season, MCW has proved his doubters wrong and has excelled in every facet of the game. Currently, Michael is the best among rookies in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and minutes per game. Michael is able to succeed because he is 6’6″, incredibly long, looks to pass first, and has the ability to explode past his defender. It is amazing that Michael has been able to surprise so many prognosticators because he is on the second worst team in the league and is asked to do everything for the 76ers. Although Michael is not shooting very well, 40%, more experience and better talent from his teammates will take pressure off of his shoulders and allow him to take better shots and improve his shooting percentage. On defense, Michael uses his length and knowledge of the passing lanes to record 2 steals per game, which is ranked 4th in the entire league. Besides Carter Williams, the other rookies that have a chance to win the award with a great 20 games are Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo. Since Trey Burke returned from injury, the Jazz have significantly improved and Burke has been the catalyst on offense. Burke is averaging nearly 13 points, 5.5 assists, and 1 steal per game. The rookie should continue to grow in the future with his fellow teammates, who are young like himself. The second overall pick, Victor Oladipo has been consistent throughout the entire season. Although he is not a natural point guard, he has assumed the position because Jameer Nelson has not been very good this season. Oladipo is averaging 14 points, 4 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game on a dreadful Magic squad. Oladipo is a great athlete, which has enabled him to play quality defense for a rookie. Oladipo should become a borderline All-Star in the future because he has improved during every season since his freshman year at Indiana.
Coach of the Year: Terry Stotts
The first year coach of the Portland Trail Blazers has led the team to the fifth best record in the NBA. Last season, the Trail Blazers had a quality start to the year, but toward the end of the season they fell out of the playoff race and suffered numerous injuries to important players. This season was important for the Trail Blazers because they had to convince LaMarcus Aldridge to stay in Portland. Luckily for the Blazers, Stotts has completely turned around the Trail Blazers this season. Although they had a lot of talent, Stotts has enabled them to play together and has given Damian Lillard the best chance to lead the offense. Stotts has allowed the Trail Blazers to play a style of basketball that would best fit their abilities. The Trail Blazers play an incredibly fast paced style of basketball, which has enabled them to gain a lot of possessions, score a lot of points, but allow a lot of points as well. The Trail Blazers have 41 wins and are third in the West while accumulating the most points and rebounds per game and the fifth most assists per game. Although Portland allows the 25th most points per game, they score 5 more points per game than the give up in each contest. Stotts has elevated the bench into quality players, Lillard into a star, and Aldridge into one of the best players in the league and a MVP candidate. It will be interesting to see if Stotts can make the necessary adjustments to lead the young talented roster to wins in the playoffs. Also, Stotts must teach his players how to play a slower game as their current style of play does not work in the playoffs against top notch competition and great defenses. Besides Stotts, Tom Thibideau the coach of the Bulls, should finish in second and Jeff Hornacek, the coach of the Suns, should receive the third most votes among coaches.
Most Improved Player: Lance Stephenson
Although he is only 23 years old, Davis has ascended to stardom in his second year of play as a starter. The second round pick from the 2010 draft did not play much during his first two seasons, but was finally able to get a chance to play last season due to the injury of Danny Granger. Lance has transformed himself from a 12th man to a borderline All-Star shooting guard that can fill the stat sheet in every category. During the playoffs last season, Stephenson first bursted onto the scene because of his quality play against the Knicks and the Heat. This season, Lance has improved almost every facet of his game, including points, assists, rebounds, shooting percentage, three point percentage, defensive rating, offensive rating, and win shares. This year, Lance is averaging 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 50% shooting percentage, and 35% from the three point line. This year, Stephenson has recorded 4 triple doubles, the fourth most in the league, which displays his ability to do everything on a court. In terms of advance metrics, Stephenson has an offensive rating of 108, defensive rating of 99, and 6.5 wins shares. Although the season is not over, Stephenson has already past his career high in wins shares. Stephenson’s success on both ends of the court has enabled the Pacers to have more options on offense and play great defense. Also, Stephenson allowed the Pacers to move on without the services of Danny Granger and his albatross of a contract. Thus, they were able to garner another offensive weapon, Evan Turner, that should help the team score in the playoffs. Lance should be able to continue his success in the playoffs while the Pacers attempt to win a championship because he does not hide from the pressure and has proven that he can perform in the clutch, offensively and defensively. Besides Sir Lancelot, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are in contention for the award as well. Davis has become one of the best players in the league, although he is only 20 years old. He averages more than 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game, which displays his ability to play great offense and defense. Cousins, like Davis, has become a star in the league because he is a stud at center. Cousins is averaging over 22 and 11, although he does not have much help on the Kings.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford
The 14 year veteran has become one of the most lethal shooters off of the bench, which has made him one of the most valuable players in the league. This season, Crawford is having one of best seasons of his career, although he is playing less minutes than earlier in his career. When Paul was forced out of the lineup for multiple weeks due to injury, Crawford’s ability to score and attract double teams enabled the Clippers to keep afloat in the fierce and competitive Western Conference. In total, Crawford is averaging 19 points, 3.2 assists, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.4 threes per game. Like many other productive sixth man, Crawford plays over 30 minutes per game. Although Crawford has the skill and productiveness to start for the high flying Clippers, his ability to generate points with the second unit, which grows the lead built by the starters or cuts into the opponent’s lead when the starters do not have success on a certain night. At the end of games, Crawford is incredibly important to the Clippers because he is another scorer that can stretch the floor and make open shots when Paul dishes the rock. Crawford is clutch and has shown the aptitude to score as the clock winds down at the end of games. Besides Crawford, guards Manu Ginobili and Reggie Jackson will compete for the award as the season winds to an end. Ginobili has been the most consistent 6th man over the last decade, which has made the Spurs a great team. Ginobili has the ability to score and run the offense when the Spurs starters are in the bench. Similar to Jamal Crawford, Reggie Jackson allowed the Thunder to maintain their best record in the West while Russell Westbrook was injured with a knee injury. Although he started in Westbrook’s absences, he is a true sixth man and should be in consideration for the award. When Westbrook went down last season in the postseason, Jackson showed fans and experts around the league that he could be a starter in the league and is a great backup for Russell. Jackson is really quick, which enables him to get to the basket and sets teammates up for easy shots. Jackson adds nice offense and ball movement to the Thunder second unit. Jackson should finish third in the vote as long as he continues his success in the future.
Defensive Player of the Year: Roy Hibbert
The big man for the Pacers has become one of the best all around centers in the league because he has great length and athleticism, which allows him to dominate smaller centers on offense and stop centers and driving guards inside the paint. Although Hibbert does not grab a lot of rebounds for a center who is 7’2″ 278, 7.4 rebounds per game, he plays great defense. This year, Hibbert is ranked top 4 in blocks per game, defensive rating, and defensive wins shares, which shows that the basic stats and the saber metrics favor Hibbert. Currently Hibbert is averaging 2.4 blocks per game. Although the number is ranked 4th in the league, it does not accurately depict how great a shot blocker he is in the league. Hibbert’s length and skill affects every shot in the paint, which is difficult to realize, unless one watches the games. Last season during the playoffs, Hibbert portrayed his ability to defend players inside the paint, without fouling, because he goes straight up without hitting players during their shots. Hibbert’s defensive rating, 95.7 second in the NBA, and win shares, 4.2 fourth in the NBA, shows that he is definitely worthy of the award. If Hibbert can maintain his success by anchoring the best defense in the NBA and accumulates more rebounds, nobody will be able to strip the award from him this season. Outside of Hibbert, many other competitors such as Paul George, Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan, and LeBron James will receive multiple votes for their defensive prowess. Since George is not a center, the position that normally wins the award, he will be overlooked by voters when it is time to turn in their ballots. George currently ranks first in defensive win shares and third in defensive rating while recording the ninth most steals per game. George has the athleticism and length to stop the team’s best wing or backcourt score. The combination of George, Stephenson, and Hibbert is the reason why the Pacers’ defense is so dominant and stingy. Although it may hurt each other’s cases, George and Hibbert should finish first and second in this year’s race. If either player falters down the stretch or does not put the same effort on defense, the dark horse for the award is DeAndre Jordan. Although Jordan has always been a great shot blocker because of his hops and length, he has refined his game and become one of the best interior defenders in the game. Jordan is ranked eighth in defensive rating, third in defensive win shares, third in blocks per game, and first in rebounds per game, with an incredible 14 rebounds per game. Jordan has made significant strides with his rebounding because he previous high was only 8.3 rebounds per game. Like Jordan, Serge Ibaka is a great defensive interior player and is one of the best shot blockers in the league. Ibaka can defend almost everyone on the court because he is extremely athletic. Serge has improved his defensive rebounding, which should allow him to garner a defensive player award in the future. LeBron has always been great at defense because he is the most physically gifted player in NBA history. Since LeBron is a great overall player, especially on offense, his defense is frequently overlooked, which will keep him from winning this award this year and in the future.
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant
In the tightest MVP race in recent memory, Kevin Durant and LeBron James will be fighting tooth and nail to the finish line for the award. James has won 4 of the last 5 MVP, although he should have won the last five much to the chagrin of Bulls’ fans because he has led the NBA in win shares the past five seasons. However, this season, Durant has taken over the lead in win shares with almost 15 wins. Although Durant has taken the win share lead, James is still having a great season with 12.2 win shares. Although Durant has been considered the best offensive player in the league for the past few years because of the points he scores, this is the first time that he is leading James in offensive win shares or offensive rating in his career. While Durant has continued scoring, on pace to win his fourth scoring title in five years, he is improving his shooting percentage, scoring, and assists per game. After setting a career last season with 4.6 assists per game, Durant is bound to record another career high with 5.5 assists per game. Although James is known as a better passer and rebounder, he has recorded only 0.7 assists per game more than Durant and has less rebounds per game than Durant. As previous seasons, Durant is averaging more points, 31.7, than James, 27.4. Although James is prided for his shooting efficiency, 58%, while Durant shoots 51% from the field, one must look at the more advance stats to see the true comparison. In terms of true shooting percentage, James only shoots 2% better than Durant when one takes into account threes, twos, and free throws. The big difference between previous seasons is that Durant has cut the defensive difference between himself and James. Like the offensive stats, Durant has a higher defensive rating and defensive win shares than James, which is the first time in his career. Durant has a defensive rating and win shares of 102 and 3.7 respectively, which is more favorable than James’ 105 rating and 2.5 win shares. Durant has learned to use his new found strength, athleticism, and length to stop opposing scorers all around the court. Lastly, Durant has been able to lead his team to a better record in a tougher conference without his best teammate for much of the season. This season, Durant has literally put the Thunder on his back and lead them to the best record in the league and three more wins than the Heat. While James has been without Wade for much of the season, Durant has been without Westbrook for over half of the season. Also, at this point in his career, Westbrook is a better player than Wade because he is more explosive. Since Ibaka is not a major offensive contributor and the Thunder were without their starting point guard, Durant had to score more points and facilitate the offense. Although it is a close race and the lead may change a few times before the end of the year, Durant should finish the season with the award because he is the best player on the best team and the statistics defend Durant’s case to win his first major award. Although the top two spots will either be occupied by James or Durant, the race for the number three spot will be very interesting. Currently, the leader is probably Blake Griffin. Although he is not the best player on his team, he was able to lead the Clippers without Chris Paul for much of the season because Paul was sidelined by injury. Griffin has matured as a player and a man, which has helped him lead his team and improve his stats. Fourth in the voting will be Paul George. George has exploded this season after exploding onto the scene last year. George has significantly improved his offense while his defense has reached an elite level. George is the best player on the Pacers, who have the second best record in the league. Although George was in the MVP race earlier in the season, he has been worse as of late, but he must return to his high level if the Pacers are going to win the championship. Fifth in the race is LaMarcus Aldridge. Before the season, Aldridge asked out of Portland, but this year has been great for himself and the Trail Blazers. Aldridge is scoring and rebounding at a high level while leading the Blazers to an amazing and surprising start in the West.
pics and stats from ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference
This summer was exciting for both New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets fans as they both thought they had a serious chance to challenge the Miami Heat and potentially win an NBA title. Well, welcome to reality New Yorkers, both of your teams are below .500 and don’t have much hope for the future.
Let’s first start off with Brooklyn, the Nets made some supposedly huge offseason moves acquiring Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry for Gerald Wallace, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans, Kris Humphries, Kris Joseph and first round picks in 2014, 2016, and 2018. Pundits deemed Garnett and Pierce, “the experience” that the Nets needed to defeat the Heat. Now people are seeing that “experience” really means “old-age” and the scoring numbers for Pierce and Garnett have drastically decreased from 12.3 ppt to 6.7 ppg. Deron Williams has constant ankle injuries, and now with Brook Lopez gone to a season-ending surgery on his broken foot, the Nets are going to have to rely on bench players for the majority of their scoring. The other huge problem for the Brooklyn Nets is Jason Kidd and his inexperience as a head coach. GM Billy King and owner Mikhail Prokhorov took a chance on Kidd, and now the gamble has failed. The soda-spilling scandal and the swift removal of Lawrence Frank as an assistant coach has shown that Kidd is not ready to coach any NBA team.
Now on to the Knicks, who face a huge decision on whether to trade Carmelo Anthony before the February deadline because of Melo’s impending free agency. Melo has already been quoted as saying he is planning to test his free agency, so why wouldn’t the Knicks shop around their lone star? It is clear that the Knicks have a long way to go before becoming remotely relevant in the championship picture, and trading Melo might aid that process. If the Knicks can land a high first round pick or a young talent under contract for Melo, it would enable the franchise to make more strategic offseason moves. On the court the Knicks struggles are laughable, they rank 25th in points per game and 22nd in adjusted field goal percentage. J.R. Smith is shooting 34% from the field and is only getting to the free throw line 1.7 times per game, showing how inefficient a scorer he is. Mike Woodson might be the first coach fired this year, the Knicks 9-19 record is a harbinger of needed changes — and lots of them.
2.) The Portland Trailblazers are for real
From the disappointing NYC teams to the emerging Portland Trailblazers, who I didn’t pick to make the playoffs this year. To quote the famous rapper The Notorious B.I.G “If you don’t know, now you know” — and this applies perfectly to the Blazers as they have started the season off at a league best 24-5, all while hiding amongst the elite teams in the Western Conference throughout preseason predictions. The Blazers are led by their two should-be all stars, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, who together average 44 points per game. These two provide a lethal pick and roll game with LaMarcus’ ability to knock down 15-20 footers and Lillard’s ability to driving and score or step out and hit threes. Playing in Portland, most East coast basketball fans don’t see the Blazers play, but I urge you to try. They are fun and exciting and have players who will compete with anyone in the league. There have been discussions about LaMarcus Aldridge as a possible MVP candidate, and we all saw Damian Lillard preform last year by winning ROY. The only question for the Blazers is their bench as the starters average 85 points per game while the team averages 108 points per game. Rookie CJ McCollum is expected to come back soon and he might provide a spark off the bench, but if he doesn’t, the Blazers might need to trade for a sixth man who can score the rock. The Blazers are coming folks, whether you know it or not.
3.) Rivalries are Real
Ok, the NBA has had storied rivalries like Bulls-Knicks, Celtics-Lakers, Pacers-Knicks/Bulls, Lakers-Kings and the Detroit Bad Boys against almost everyone, so you might think that era is over. But look again. There are simmering rivalries in today’s NBA, and the animosity is clear among certain teams and players. For instance, the Clippers-Warriors have featured skirmishes involving Blake Griffin with Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green as well as DeAndre Jordan’s near fight with Bogut. The coaches, Doc Rivers and Mark Jackson, aren’t the best of friends and the two teams won’t even go to chapel together. In their last two games alone, there have been seven technical fouls called with two ejections. It would be difficult to make a case that these two teams don’t play a little bit rougher when the face each other. Another rivalry resides in South Beach and Indiana as these two teams clearly see themselves as the Eastern Conference’s top teams. Paul George was even quoted as saying that his preparation in the offseason was for the Miami Heat. Indiana believes that they can defeat the Heat and are trying to send messages through regular season victories. Miami has consistently downplayed the Pacers’ talk, citing the fact that championships aren’t won during the winter months. And while the Pacers-Heat rivalry hasn’t been as physically bruising as the Clippers-Warriors sparring, the potential for hard fouling is huge. The Pacers may be the strongest team in the league, and LeBron is the NBA’s best. Let’s just hope we see a playoff series between both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers and a Eastern Conference Final between the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat.
4.) Top Teams Tanking
With the upcoming loaded NBA draft class there has been discussion about whether tanking is fair and strategic or embarrassing for the league. My opinion is simple — bad teams especially in smaller markets such as Utah, Charlotte, Orlando and Milwaukee, don’t necessary attract the huge free agents like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or Miami. These smaller market teams try to build through the draft just like the Thunder did. Listen to the Supersonics/Thunder’s draft picks since 2007, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, James Harden (the trade was dumb but they did net Jeremy Lamb), Eric Bledsoe (traded to LAC now with PHX), Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones III and Steven Adams. They found two franchise changers and some tremendously talented role players all through the draft and even traded some pieces to fit the Thunder’s system. So when teams tank and perform poorly, it is usually not a reflection of the team’s desire, but a plan devised by the front office to find young players who can contribute in the future. Rebuilding by tearing down is a viable strategic option for smaller markets who don’t have the resources to attract top free agents. Who knows, with some luck of ping-pong balls and the development of the right players, Utah or Milwaukee could be the next OKC.
5.) The Pacers are the best team in the NBA
While the Portland Trail Blazers have the NBA’s best record, the Pacers are the NBA’s best team. The Pacers get my vote for best team because of their overall depth and intense defensive mentality. Paul George is no longer a star on the rise, he is firmly entrenched as one of the league’s best players. He plays hard on both ends, a rarity in today’s NBA and his offensive game has elevated every year he has been in the league. The Pacers also improved their bench this year, trading for Luis Scola and adding CJ Watson and Chris Copeland to help alleviate the scoring stress on the starters. Lance Stephenson has also emerged posting three triple doubles this season, most in the NBA. As “Born Ready” continues to mature with age, the Pacers become more and more dangerous in terms of team potential. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Pacers’ bigs Roy Hibbert and David West who are two stout defensive players who also can score in the low post, making opposing defenses worry about the inside-out game. This Pacers team is maturing and is not afraid of anybody, including the defending champs the Miami Heat. Don’t be surprised if this Pacers team knocks off the Heat as they have both the offense and defense to do so.