I Probably Should Say Something About the Brown-Jackson-D’Antoni Fiasco

If you’ve been away from the planet or living under a rock, you know the Los Angeles Lakers made a move after a distressing start and fired their head coach, Mike Brown. Brown had quickly become the spacegoat for the Lakers early struggles, not a not-100% Dwight Howard or an injured Steve Nash who missed all but two of the Lakers first games, or the fact that they were implementing a new offensive system that might prove difficult to learn. You can’t fire the players, but you can fire the coach in the hopes of shaking things up and “saving” the season (I put  “saving” in quotes because… we’re only 10% of the way through the regular season) and that’s the move that the Buss family elected to go with.

The leaders to take over for Mike Brown became apparent very quickly and they were both veteran, high-profile coaches. One was Mike D’Antoni, formerly of the up-tempo New York Knicks and the Phoenix Suns, and the other was the the Lakers head coach before Mike Brown– Phil Jackson. The reports throughout the weekend seemed to be that Jackson was the likely choice. However, on Monday morning, the basketball world awoke to be surprised that the Lakers brass has signed Mike D’Antoni to a 3 year, $12 million dollar contract. Jackson was surprised at this turn of events, having met with the Lakers on Saturday and believed, according to ESPN, that he had until Monday to make a decision about the job. However, team president Jim Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak elected to sign the former Suns and Knicks head coach and offensive mastermind, ostensibly because of how D’Antoni’s up-and-down offensive style would match with the pieces currently on the Lakers roster as opposed to Phil Jackson’s triangle offense.

I’m of a couple of minds regarding this move. The first is the mind of someone who does not want the Lakers to succeed. And in that regard, I am very glad that Phil Jackson is not their head coach. Phil won 5 titles while in Los Angeles and made it to two other NBA Finals as well, so he has a pretty good track record with that organization and those players (namely Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol). Bringing Jackson back would have been the easy and expected move and would have likely yielded good results for the team wearing forum blue and gold. For someone who is predisposed to not wanting the Lakers to do well, seeing Jackson back on the Los Angeles bench would have been a most unwelcome sight and thus I was relieved the Lakers went with D’Antoni.

However, I think that D’Antoni is a good coach– maybe not great (though he did reach back-to-back Western Conference Finals with the Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s) but a good coach– and I think this move to go with him was a strong one. The pieces that are on the Lakers roster, namely Steve Nash, lend themselves to D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” up-tempo style. Also, along those lines, while Kobe and Pau are quite adept at performing in Jackson’s triangle offense, Nash and Dwight Howard don’t lend themselves to that offensive system. D’Antoni’s offense emphasizes the pick-and-roll and with Nash (when he returns to the lineup) running that offense and getting the ball to Dwight Howard (easily the most skilled big man D’Antoni has had since Amar’e Stoudemire before his microfracture surgery), it should put up big numbers and make the Lakers offense one of the most formidable in the Western Conference, particularly when you keep in mind that they also have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Antawn Jamison coming off the bench. Yes, D’Antoni’s teams are generally weak on the defensive end. But the Lakers’ aren’t that far off defensively from the top teams in the Western Conference (from a statistical perspective) and, again, D’Antoni has never had as strong a defensive player as Howard playing for him.

The Lakers still have a ways to go in the Western Conference and I think, even after the change from Brown to D’Antoni, the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Grizzlies are all above the Lakers and seem more likely to represent the Western Conference at the end of the season. But I’m also intrigued by this movie and, yes, excited to see what D’Antoni can do with all these pieces. Maybe the Lakers didn’t guarantee themselves a spot in the NBA Finals with their choice to replace the dispatched Mike Brown, but the Mike D’Anonti Lakers will be a force in the Western Conference and a fun team to watch as we see a little bit of Showtime in the Staples Center.

In Which I Think About The James Harden Trade

While out at a Halloween party on Saturday night, I checked the Twitter app on my iPhone and my feed was blowing up. Why were there so many tweets going out? What was the cause of this?

Because the defending Western Conference champs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, traded one of their three best young players in super-sub James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder sent Harden to Houston, along with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward, in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. The deal occurred after Harden turned down a 4 year, $55 million deal offered by Thunder GM Sam Presti, which Chris Broussard of ESPN.com notes is $4.5 million less than the max deal he will be receiving from Houston.

Looking at most of the reactions to the trade, it seems like the consensus is that the Rockets won this trade and perhaps rightfully so. They get, far and away, the best player in the trade in the form of Harden, a young player heading into his 4th season in the league and coming off a monster regular season and playoff run (though excluding the Finals against the Heat) and who looks like he might be able to become one of the top 15 players in the league. I mean, in terms of PER, he was just outside the top 20 last season when he claimed the Sixth Man of the Year Award. The Thunder definitely lost something by moving Harden along, there’s no denying that. We can understand why they did it from a financial sense– they’d already given Durant and Westbrook max deals and to give Harden a max one as well would have financially hamstrung the Oklahoma City squad and kept them from being flexible. But I think reactions like the one we got from Grantland’s Bill Simmons were a tad on the hyperbolic side and spell too much gloom and doom for the Thunder.

Simmons himself notes, at the end of the article, one way the loss of talent can be perhaps nullified would be if “Ibaka miraculously matures into a game-changing two-way force,” which Simmons notes that Zach Lowe addresses in his own piece for Grantland. While Ibaka could never, unless his game really develops, become the same offensive threat as Harden, the numbers perhaps tell us that the gulf might not be that big to make up. Last season, the Thunder’s +/- when Durant-Westbrook-Harden were on the floor was +260 while their number with Durant-Westbrook-Ibaka was +208. While there is a gap, it’s not unreasonable to think that Kevin Martin can make up some of that, as well as the addition of rookie Jeremy Lamb. Also, the Thunder can shift back to a more defensive minded approach and get Thabo Sefolosha on the floor in late game situations where he can continue to play the role of defensive stopper. A more defensively-oriented (relatively speaking) Thunder team might emerge as Harden and his 1.9 Defensive Win Shares might be expendable as Serge Ibaka’s 3.2 (just outside the top 20 in the league) become more valuable. While an exciting and explosive offensive player like Harden is much more fun and enthralling to watch, generally the addedage about “defensive win[ning] championships” proves to be true. Thus a player like Harden can be, to some degree, expendable if they aren’t willing to fit into the organization’s plans while someone like Ibaka might be worth investing more money in.

Perhaps the best take, and one that sees the trade in a similar fashion to the way I do, came from Kelly Dwyer on Ball Don’t Lie where he wrote:

Overall, it’s a brilliant move. We’re not expecting great things from the low level-lottery pick the Thunder will take in from Toronto, but the Thunder found a way to stay nearly as competitive while attempting to grab some needed depth along the way. And though the expiring contract market is often overvalued, they won’t have Martin’s eight-figure salary to worry about come July.

Don’t pen Kevin Martin in, as great as he can be, as having the same impact as Harden. We’re aware of the True Shooting percentages, and Martin’s newfound ability to play against lesser defenders off the bench. He, even with Lamb, isn’t quite at Harden’s level.

The gulf isn’t too great, though, and the Thunder should continue to be thought of as in the championship picture. Still, even if this is a significant win for Presti, it comes at a cost.

It was a tough move for Presti and the Thunder to make, and Harden looks poised to do great things in Houston (though it will be different having to be The Man versus the instant offense guy coming off the bench). But it made sense in terms of keeping the team from being too tied down to big contracts and keeps the future open for Durant and Westbrook for the near future. And with Ibaka and Thabo being more integral to the Thunder’s game plan and perhaps and shift back towards a slightly more defensive oriented approach, I don’t think we should be writing off Oklahoma City.

Just the Facts for the 2012-2013 NBA Season

A pretty straight-forward post for the first day of the 2012-2013 NBA season about how I think the standings and awards will all shake out this year and who will be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June 2013. Read on…

Western Conference

1.Los Angeles Lakers

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

3. San Antonio Spurs

4. Los Angeles Clippers

5. Memphis Grizzles

6. Denver Nuggets

7. Minnesota Timberwolves

8. Dallas Mavericks

You should probably get used to this sight– LeBron holding up the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Eastern Conference

1. Miami Heat

2. Boston Celtics

3. Indiana Pacers

4. New York Knicks

5. Atlanta Hawks

6. Chicago Bulls

7. Philadelphia 76ers

8. Brooklyn Nets

Eastern Conference Champion: Miami Heat

Western Conference Champion: Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Finals Champion: Miami Heat (in 6 games)

MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Rookie of the Year: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets

Coach of the Year: Mike Woodson, New York Knicks

Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry, Boston Celtics

Most Improved Player: Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets

5 Questions Going Into the 2012-2013 NBA Season

It feels appropriate as I once again enter into the fray, to start by making a list, especially a list of 5 things. To begin my breakdown of the NBA heading into this season, I’ll start with 5 questions I have going into the start of this year’s NBA campaign.

1.) Will LeBron continue to ascend? The King has finally been crowned as LeBron James finally claimed his first NBA championship after leading the Heat to the 2011-2012 NBA title with as strong a postseason as we’ve seen in a long time. LeBron has finally cracked the ceiling, claiming his first title and perhaps validating those who anointed him “King James” even in his rookie year. But the question lingers in the air– where does LeBron go from here? Has the monster been unleashed and now we will have to deal with a decade of LeBron dominating the league like Michael Jordan in the early-to-mid 1990′s? Or was this merely a blip on the radar, with the Heat getting on a hot streak (pun somewhat intended) in the playoffs that led them to the title? Looking at how Miami’s run to the title unfolded, it seems like he might have finally turned that corner. Whether it was his 40 point, 18 rebound, 9 assist performance to keep Miami from falling into a 3-1 hole against the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, or his 45 point, 15 rebound performance in Game 6 at the Boston Garden while facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Finals at the hands of the Boston Celtics, or averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the NBA Finals against the up-tempo Oklahoma City Thunder, LeBron pieced together an impressive run in last year’s playoffs. In the past 10 years, only Tim Duncan (in 2006 and 2002), Chris Paul (in 2008) and James himself (in 2007) have had higher postseason PER (Player Efficiency Rating). LeBron has, seemingly, turned the corner and took his game to that Michael Jordan-esque level in the time when it mattered most. The way he played throughout the postseason, especially with all the focus and attention falling squarely on him, leads me to believe that LeBron has finally turned the corner and has the monkey off his back, which means that the Miami Heat will be in the NBA title conversation for the near future.

2.) Will this Lakers cast be a blockbuster? After a underwhelming season by Lakers standards, capped by a defeat in the Western Conference Semifinals at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder on their way to the NBA Finals, the brass in Los Angeles felt the need to retool. And retool they did. Not only did they add Antawn Jamison to their bench (a player who would be starting with most teams), they also traded for Phoenix’s lone star (The Sun is a star…) Steve Nash as well as being the team that finally liberated Dwight Howard (at the cost of their own up-and-coming big man, Andrew Bynum, who was sent to the 76ers as part of the three-team trade between Los Angeles, Orlando, and Philadelphia). The Lakers have put together an impressive starting five with former All-Stars in each spot. Now the last time the Lakers had an assemblage of talent like this, it was in 2004 when they lost in 5 games to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, which in turn led to Shaq being traded from the Lakers and Phil Jackson’s retiring (only to return to the Lakers bench a few years later). And while I’m leery of all this talent fitting together (lest we forget Jamison coming off the bench as a sixth man) and sharing the basketball, I think this set-up will work out well for the men in Forum Blue and Gold. At the very least, they are the odds-on favorite in the Pacific Division and seem like a lock for the #1 or #2 seed in the Western Conference. However, I’m not printing their NBA Finals tickets just yet, as the Thunder still look formidable and can give them a run for their money, but I think this Lakers team is going to be as strong and tough a squad as we’ve seen in a few years.

3.) Who is this year’s sleeper team? Every year, you’ll see a team that sneaks up on everyone and puts together an unexpectedly strong season. This season, coming off the lockout-shortened campaign last year, there are many candidates. Both the Milwaukee Bucks (now with a full season of Monta Ellis) and the newly minted Brooklyn Nets seem like prime candidates to sneaking up on some teams and maybe making some noise in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. But the team that’s poised to make the leap into relevancy this year has to be everyone’s League Pass darlings, the Minnesota Timberwolves. They are still dealing with some injuries, whether it’s Kevin Love’s fractured hand or Ricky Rubio’s ACL, there are some interesting pieces waiting for those two stars to return. Whether it’s the second pick in the 2011 NBA draft Derrick Williams or Brandon Roy retirement or 2011 NBA Finals hero J.J. Barea, there are interesting pieces on the Timberwolves roster that can hopefully develop while Love and Rubio rehab to hopefully return to the lineup 2 months into the season. Hopefully coach Rick Adelman will be able to hold it together through those first months and, once his two franchise players are healthy, can incorporate them and the Timberwolves can make their way back into the playoffs for the first time since the Kevin Garnett era in the Twin Cities.

4.) Is this the year Father Time catches up with some teams? Everyone was surprised when two of the best teams in the intense, lockout shortened season were two of the oldest– San Antonio and Boston. The Spurs looked invincible for most of the season, locking up the best record in the tough Western Conference and making their way to the Western Conference Finals while the Celtics turned it on in the playoffs, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals and giving the Miami Heat perhaps their biggest scare as they made their way to championship glory. We’ve been waiting on these two veteran teams to finally fall off and have a rough season, especially after the Spurs boasted the best record in the West the past two seasons and the Celtics proved to be a tough playoff team no matter where they were seeded. But the question still remains– is this the year these two veteran teams finally tumble down the standings at the championship window of opportunity is finally shut? The Celtics seemed like the most likely candidate, watching as Ray Allen left Boston for greener pastures… well at least a pasture that’s better headed towards a championship. But the Celtics made some interesting moves to fill that void, bringing in Courtney Lee and Jason Terry while also getting Jeff Green back after missing the last season while recovering from a heart ailment. The Spurs, meanwhile, return with largely the same team that last year ran through the league on their way to a shocking defeat in the Western Conference Finals to the Oklahoma City Thunder, and with Parker and Ginobili still playing at a high level and Tim Duncan still providing the foundation to the team itself and Gregg Popovich calling the shots there doesn’t seem to be much cause for concern in the Alamo city. But it wouldn’t surprise me if one of these teams, ones that have been mainstays in the championship picture for the past 5 seasons or so (if not longer), take a tumble down the standings.

5.) What team will be surprisingly but for negative reasons? Unfortunately, not all surprises can be pleasant ones and there is usually a team or two that takes a surprising tumble down the standings every season. Now it goes without saying that this doesn’t include teams dealing with injuries, since I don’t think we can expect the Chicago Bulls to have the Eastern Conference’s best record again with Derrick Rose out for the beginning of the season as he tries to rehab from the torn ACL he suffered in the first round of the playoffs. Perhaps it’s because I’m skeptical of teams that don’t feature at least one “star” or go-to player, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Denver Nuggets aren’t as good as everyone’s expecting them to be this year. While I like some of the things that Ty Lawson brings to the table, I’m not sure that a team can really thrive with him as your primary player. The addition of Andre Iguodala is interesting and adds something, but I feel the same way about him that I do about Lawson. The roster is loaded with lots of “glue guys” and scrappy players like Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer, but I just don’t think there’s anything that they can rally around in the closing minutes of games when they need that one big bucket. The Nuggets will still be in the mix in the Western Conference, but I see them more as a lower seed rather than a team near the top half of the playoff picture.

I’m Back

Well it’s been almost two years… but Nellie and Mully are in the Hall of Fame, Dwight Howard’s on the Lakers, Steve Nash (STEVE NASH?!?!?!) is on the Lakers, LeBron James has his ring and looks stronger than ever… it’s time for me to make my return to the world of basketball blogging.

Well, I will be making my return. We’re still 3 weeks away from the tip-off of the 2012-2013 NBA season, so I’ll be gearing up and getting things together for the start of the season. So check back here in the next week or so for posts to get us all ready for the start of the NBA season and expect semi-regular (though not daily anymore) posts breaking down the NBA as only I can (whether that’s good or not, you decide).

Resting the Starters

It’s something that a lot of teams do as they approach the end of the regular season. After teams lock up playoff spots, division titles and home court throughout the playoffs, they’ll often rest their star players to prevent them from getting injured and from being too worn out for the playoff push. Well, I’m bringing a bit of that logic to my blog. I’ve been pretty worn out recently and will be doing some travelling in the run-up to the postseason so I decided that I, like those starters, would rest up and take it easy as the playoffs approach. Now I’m not saying that I won’t post, I’m just saying it won’t be a daily thing like it has been in the past. There will be some content between now and when the playoffs start on April 16th, but I won’t be pushing to do it on a daily basis as I have in the past. I’ll start talking about the first round match-ups and some other things once the playoff field is all set, but until then I’m going to take a seat and rest up as I get ready for the NBA playoffs to tip off in a few weeks.

Bad Knicks, Good Spurs

This weekend wasn’t one where I watched a ton of NBA games, as I’ve been watching and enjoying all the NCAA Tournament action, but I’ve been keeping up with all the professional basketball goings-on. In what is becoming a bit of a Monday tradition (replacing the “Three From The Weekend” of weeks past), here is the One Up and One Down from this past weekend.

The Knicks might be in trouble It’s tough trying to extrapolate a lot from end-of-season performances. A lot of teams, when they realize they’re locked into a certain spot and that’s not really going to change, go into cruise control a little bit as they head into the playoffs. We’ve also seen teams who look positively dead heading into the postseason come alive and go on deep playoff runs. But if we were trying to determine things from late-season play, I would be very worried about the New York Knicks heading into the playoffs. Even though they were finally able to acquire Carmelo Anthony, who they have long coveted, the Knicks record has actually been below .500 since acquiring Anthony. This weekend was especially bad, as New York lost to both the Pistons (one of the worst teams in the league) and the Milwaukee Bucks after being outscored 32-9 in the first quarter. Yes, it was these same Milwaukee Bucks who only scored 56 points in one game against the Boston Celtics. This slide has allowed the 76ers to catch the Knicks, having a half game on the Knicks for the sixth seed  in the Eastern Conference (and drawing the relatively favorable matchup of the Miami Heat as opposed to either the Bulls or the Celtics). Tonight, the Knicks will play a team that is also engaged in a bit of a late season swoon– The Boston Celtics. But the Knicks need more than one win to stop this bleeding, as they’ve very quickly gone from “a team you wouldn’t want to play in the first round” to “all-offense, no-defense potential one and done.”

The Spurs roll along I know, especially after big defeats at the hands of the Lakers and Heat, most people thought the Spurs might fall back to the pack a little bit. They probably wouldn’t lose the number one seed and best record in basketball, but they would at least seem mortal and beatable as the postseason began. Well, the Spurs made all that talk seem foolish this weekend by beating the Dallas Mavericks, a team who had been playing great in the second half of the season, 97-91. After allowing 100 or more points in the previous 4 games (including giving up 110 in that loss to Miami), the San Antonio defense locked down and held the Mavericks to 26.1% from three-point range (when they usually shoot 37.1%) and 9 points below their season average of 100 points per game. Meanwhile, Dallas could not prevent a turn-back-the-clock performance by Tim Duncan (22 points, 8 rebounds) as well as big games from Tony Parker (33 points) and Manu Ginobili (25 points). Though the Spurs still haven’t locked up the division yet (showing how good the rest of the Western Conference is), the Spurs pulled 7.5 games ahead of the Mavericks in the division and for the best record in the Western Conference, while the Lakers are still 6.5 back for the conference’s best record. But with 13 games left to go in the regular season, it looks like the Spurs are back on track after this win over their in-state rival and again look like a team poised for a deep playoff run.

Pro Basketball? Madness!

If you aren’t into college basketball and won’t be enjoying all the March Madness action on TV, here are the games in the NBA worth checking out this weekend

Denver Nuggets at Orlando Magic, 3/18 The Nuggets have surprised many of the experts and other basketball fans by playing well since the Carmelo Anthony trade (going 9-2 since moving the forward from Syracuse), but haven’t faced a team as talented as the Magic during that stretch. Will Denver be able to take care of business or will the Magic, who have been struggling of late (losing to the Lakers, Bulls, Trail Blazers and Warriors in the month of March), get back on track with a win over a likely Western Conference playoff team?

Miami Heat at Atlanta Hawks, 3/18 As I’ve said before, the Miami Heat are almost always a must-watch team. Though it looked like the Heat were back on track after wins against the Spurs and the Lakers, they dropped a winnable game to the Thunder in Miami which raised some of those questions about their toughness. Is this a game the Heat will be ready for and beat a team they really should be or can the Hawks take advantage of Miami’s proclivity for playing inconsistent basketball?

San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks, 3/18 Though the Spurs have clinched a playoff spot, there’s still quite a bit to play for (the Southwest Division title and home court advantage) so this should be another exciting game between these two Texas powerhouses. The Mavericks have been playing great basketball after the All-Star Break and are coming off a come-from-behind win over the Warriors on Thursday night. Can the Mavericks get a win over their divisional rivals that will allow them to close the gap in the division as well as allowing them to pass the Lakers for the second best record in the Western Conference

Boston Celtics at New Orleans Hornets, 3/19 The Celtics have been struggling since trading Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder while the Hornets have slid down the Western Conference standings, going from a 5 seed to a 7 seed right now. These are two teams that aren’t playing their best basketball heading into the post-season, which is when you generally do want to be playing your best basketball. In this battle between teams featuring outstanding point guards (the Hornets’ Chris Paul and the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo), which team gets out of their late season funk and picks up a win against a good opponent?

Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers, 3/20 Much like the aforementioned Denver Nuggets, the Trail Blazers have surprised most NBA fans by remaining in the playoff hunt despite numerous seemingly season-crippling injuries. But Portland has kept on rolling along, thanks to players like Wesley Matthews and the trade deadline acquisition of Gerald Wallace from the Charlotte Bobcats. The Trail Blazers are in a battle in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff teams with New Orleans and Memphis and could use a win against a team like the Lakers. Will the Trail Blazers steal one in Los Angeles or will the Lakers take care of business against Nate McMillan’s squad?

A March to Madness

While this blog is devoted to the NBA and professional basketball, it is the time of the year when college basketball grabs out collective attention and takes center stage in the sporting world for the rest of March. I have certain misgivings about college basketball as a whole, something I might get into another time (and something I know I have in common with many other fans of the NBA), but March Madness and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is definitely one of my favorite sporting events of the year. One of the things I love about it is that, like the World Cup, there are games going on round the clock on the first Thursday and Friday. There is basketball at lunch time (or breakfast if you’re in California), the early afternoon, dinner time and then into the late night hours. It’s also a great opportunity for us, as NBA fans, to see some of the young talent who will likely be entering the NBA Draft and playing professionally. We get to have a look at UNC’s Harrison Barnes and Duke’s Kyle Irving, two players who are likely to be high draft picks whenever they decide to leave their respective universities. Yes, I prefer the style and level of play in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy and appreciate these few weeks of March (and the first week of April) where there the college game commands our attention. March Madness is something I always remember watching growing up, eating lunches at home in high school so I could watch games and filling out brackets and competing against my friends. Filling out a bracket and competing in a pool is another hallmark of March Madness and what separates it from other sports’ postseasons. It is a time-honored tradition, picking the teams you think are going to advance in the tournament, one that the President of the United States even participates in. This combination of a ton of games, an easy way to “gamble”/participate in the fun and having colleges involved makes for something that is special and one of the great times of the year to be a sports fan. Here is my bracket, one which will almost certainly be worthless after the opening round when all my picks lose, as is usually the case with me. Eventually enough of my picks will be wrong that there will be no conceivable way I can win any of the pools I’m in and thus I just start rooting for anarchy and for the real Madness to begin.

 

 

My bracket, soon to be busted

 

 

Here Come The Bulls

Something flying ever so slightly under the radar in the run-up to this year’s playoffs is how good the Chicago Bulls have been. The Bulls, who have been battling injuries all season with their two best, non-Derrick Rose players missing 31 (Noah) and 21 (Boozer) games, have quietly slid into the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and have been playing their best basketball at the best time, winning 7 in a row. The combination of Rose’s maturation into a team leader and bonafide MVP candidate, as well as the increase in defensive efficiency thanks to new head coach Tom Thibodeau (a league-leading 96.9, bettering their 102.6 last year under Vinny Del Negro) has allowed the Bulls to reach the top of the Eastern Conference and while playing very few games together with the team they thought they were going to have this off-season. What is remarkably about all this is just how much and how far the Bulls have come, particularly when one remembers where they were last year. Last year, the Bulls were a listless 41-41 with a lame duck coach in Del Negro (who they stuck with for the entire season) and were pretty effectively dismantled by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs. Yes, in the previous season they had an exciting first round series with the defending champion Boston Celtics in Derrick Rose’s rookie year, but that Celtics squad was missing one of their key components (Kevin Garnett) and that opened the door ever so slightly for Chicago to stretch the first round series to seven games. The Bulls weren’t a horrible team these past two years (they did make the playoffs) but they were in an even worse position– basketball purgatory. They were good enough to get into the playoffs/not bad enough to tank and play for the draft lottery but really couldn’t piece together a run against all the elite, top teams. You can’t blow it up if you’re that consistent, but you’re probably not going to get anywhere if you merely stay the course.

Looking at this Chicago situation is very interesting when one considers the path of another team whose stock has risen quite considerably and is definitely the “hot” team on the rise– the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last year the Thunder made a huge jump, winning 23 more games and going from a lottery team to a playoff team (albeit the eighth seed, though with 50 wins). This year, the Thunder came into the season with a great deal of expectations to make another leap just like they did last year. The problem is that once you crack into that top 8/winning 50 games a season club, there isn’t that much room left to go. There isn’t as much space to rise and any increase in terms of wins or in the standings is going to be much more difficult to come by. So even though the Thunder are playing better (or are better off) than they were last season (poised to win at least 3 more games and looking like they will at least host a first round playoff series by being one of the 4 best teams in the conference), there has been an air of unwarranted disappointment that surrounded Oklahoma City.

Granted, the narratives of each of these teams are a little different (the Thunder were built around a core of young players while the Bulls brought in one big-time player, in Carlos Boozer, this offseason to add to their core of Rose and Noah) but I also think these squads were in similar situations to start the season. Both were seen as teams making the right moves, progressing towards becoming a championship team, but was probably a year or two away from really competing. The Bulls didn’t make a Miami-like leap by bringing in a truly “elite” or franchise-altering player (they didn’t really need another one as they had Derrick Rose) but they brought in a player in Carlos Boozer who fit well within Thibodeau’s system and was a solid (if not splashy) pickup. But getting past teams like Boston, Miami and Orlando in the Eastern Conference seemed tough and they were probably a year or two away from seizing the reins. Boston would eventually fade due to age and Orlando’s claims to elite status were precarious at best, but no one thought they would be the best team this year. They were able to make that difficult leap from all right/pretty good to very good/one of the best in the conference, all while reconstructing their team and its identity. The Bulls aren’t last year’s Thunder, but the change in the narrative and course of this team that occurred within one season is fairly remarkably, in my humble opinion. The Bulls looks like a team not just content to build and get a little bit better this season while looking to the future. The Bulls are a team that thinks it can win a title this year, and they very well might do it.