Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Lingering Problem

The Spurs have had this problem forever, well, it seems like forever, and it's something that's pretty hard to address, but something that we as Spurs fans need to continually realize. It comes on and off, and it's forgotten often when we win, but it's the most frustrating thing in the world. Some of you might have guessed what I'm talking about in the wake of the harsh 92-85 loss to the Chicago Bulls. It wouldn't hurt so much if this were a gritty, duke 'em out, the other team just played better than us, kind of loss to the Celtics or Lakers or even someone like the Nuggets. This was the Bulls. If you look at the box score, you can't even say that Derrick Rose or Luol Deng beat us, why? 6 players scored in double digits, Brad Miller was one free throw away from making it 7. Sure, Duncan had 28 points, 16 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 3 blocks and while that's great for the older Duncan, that's always been kind of par for him over the course of the years.

So what is this problem? Is it injuries? Obviously not since Manu is playing like Manu and everybody is healthy. While Pop is running an 11-man rotation, and there's a little confusion in working out a solid rotation, that's not really the problem either. What's the problem? Inconsistency on offense. This has always been an issue, and it's almost cliche to say that the Spurs are dependent on their role players. Yet while it's cliche, it's true, it's probably true of all contender teams, but I would say more so of the Spurs than any other. Duncan will get his own, that's just how good Duncan is, but we can't be asking Duncan to take over games, there's no doubt that Timmy probably could, but he's so respected that defenses throw a ton of attention on him, and honestly, it's not super fair to ask him to do that as sort of insurance when the other players can't deliver. It's something that is one of the most frustrating thing as a Spurs fan to deal with, and it's something I hope we can address soon. If we look back at Spurs success, the games we've won have often just ended up being whether or not our bench/role-players stepped up. Duncan doesn't often carry us through games, and I don't think it's fair to expect him to, and I don't know that it's fair to ask that of TP or Manu either. When the Spurs won it has been when players like Jarren Jackson, Avery Johnson, Sean Elliot, Steve Kerr, Nazr Mohammed, Robert Horry, and now Roger Mason and Michael Finley have stepped up to deliver. We need the players on our roster; McDyess, Mason, Blair, and especially Jefferson to step it up, keep it stepped up. Welcome to the big leagues fellas. This is what being a contender is about, sure McDyess and Jefferson have been there (Detroit and New Jersey respectively) but it's high time they remember what that's like.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sorry for the lack of posts. Things have been pretty crazy, you know, with real life and all that. Still, NBA season is coming up, and I feel bad about neglecting you readers. So without further ado let's just jump into it.

A lot of people are on the Cleveland bandwagon after they acquired Shaq. Shaq does indeed give Cleveland an interior scoring punch they desperately needed. However, I'm not as convinced as others that Shaq is the answer. However, I do believe it was a smart move, low-risk, high-reward, you can't really ask for much more, well, except, a guarantee at a championship. While I'm not convinced that Shaq really puts Cleveland over the top, I still concede that they are contenders, though I would argue the weakest of the five that most pundits have listed out there (Lakers, Celtics, Magic, and Spurs being the other four). I might be somewhat biased, but I honestly don't see what's so great about the Cavs, especially considering they lost their offensive coordinator John Kuester to the Detroit Pistons, he was the one who purportedly revolutionized the Cleveland offense and was one of the primary factors that enabled them to make such a strong push last season. Naturally, they sought to improve this off-season, and I think they have, however, replacing 2 of your 5 starters there's probably a bit of an issue, in terms of chemistry, but that's something developed through the season, and we're talking post-season here, so I'm not really going to say a whole lot about it. There's the whole Shaq-LeBron ego thing, but let's not get into that.

San Antonio Spurs

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston, Keith Bogans
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Cleveland Cavaliers

PG - Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson
SG - Delonte West, Anthony Parker
SF - LeBron James, Jamario Moon, Jawad Williams
PF - Anderson Varejajo, Leon Powe, J.J. Hickson, Darnell Jackson
C - Shaquille O'Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauksas

So I swapped out Keith Bogans for Marcus Williams since it seems like Bogans is guaranteed whereas Williams isn't, though I could be completely off base. Anyways, it's only a 15-man roster with 13 active, so I highly doubt it really makes a huge difference who it is that sits at the end of the bench. The thing that Cleveland definitely has going for them is that they are, like all the other contending teams, ridiculously deep. While I'm not of the mind that one All-Star reaching his prime with another quickly fading are enough to necessarily carry the team, the fact that they have so multiple viable, near starting caliber yeoman options at each position gives them something of an advantage, especially in a slug-em out war of attrition. While the likes of Gibson, Parker, Moon, Powe, and Ilgauskas aren't anything that would normally have you trembling in fear, when you consider that this is entirely their second squad, it's actually farily impressive.

Naturally, the issue of how these matchups breakdown again revolve around the issue of first, how well LeBron can be contained, and secondly, how uncontainable our offense can work. I was watching some of the 2007 Finals against Cleveland, and I can see why their offense needed the revamping. Overall, the offense was horribly stagnant and revolved around a lot of standing and watching whoever has the ball try an isolation play against 4-5 Spurs defenders. Nauturally, given all the hype, it seems that the Cavs have moved away from that. In terms of pure matchups, Cleveland and San Antonio are fairly even, though I would give a slight edge to Cleveland's bench, as we still have the unproven factors of Blair, Haislip, Hairston, and company, however, overall the comparisons are fairly apt, with the advantage slightly trending towards San Antonio.

While a lot of people are going to draw attention to the whole "Can Richard Jefferson really contain LeBron?" story, it again comes back to a duel between big men, those being Shaq and Tim Duncan, which will probably be up there as a second headline of sorts. At this point in time, I think Duncan still has much more to offer than Shaq, at least on the defensive end. Offensively, both will get their own, they'll get their fair share of rebounds, their points, their passes out to shooters for assists, etc... From all this talk, it seems like it'll be something of a wash, and it probably will be. The issue ends up being who gets more minutes and who can exploit those minutes when the other big fella isn't on the floor? Duncan will probably see some combination of Varejao, Shaq, and Ilgauskas being thrown at him, I'm not sure what Pop will do on Shaq, but I would guess something along the lines of Duncan, McDyess, and maybe Ratliff, with a lot of help. While I like Duncan over Shaq, the issue in the frontline isn't necessarily with talent, but depth. While I think Blair can match up with Powe fairly well, the x-factors really become Varejao and Ilgauskas, and it really becomes the burden of McDyess, Haislip, and possibly Mahinmi to really work at containing these players. Naturally, Blair isn't tall enough to contend with either player, and already, McDyess is on the shorter side. While neither Varejao nor Ilgauskas are the most formidable of offensive powerhouses, games where they start getting double-doubles will prove to be deadly for any team.

If we take a look at the positional matchups, I believe that the most obvious advantage for the Spurs lies within the point guard position. While Mo Williams and Daniel Gibson are serviceable, they're really more three point specialists than anything else, Tony Parker and George Hill need to realize, that both aren't really good defensively, and need to constantly attack them, either making big shots and carrying the team or taking a lot of defensive pressure off other players by forcing help in the lane. Tony Parker has got to be the man this year and especially in this matchup because all the other matchups are so even, or possibly even disadvantageous for the Spurs.

Like all of my previous posts, my current stand is this, the wings just have to keep attacking. The comparisons between the Spurs wings (Mason, Manu, Jefferson, and Finley) are so simiar to those of the Cavs (West, Parker, LeBron, Moon) that the Spurs really just have to play within their game and not make stupid mistakes. Of the wings from Cleveland, all four have defended the premier players of opposing teams, and all four have done at least serviceable jobs of it, there isn't a whole lot of inherent advantage in there, especially since all four are fairly interchangeable (especially between West and Parker). If Hairston steps up to be a big time defender, that'll be a plus for the Spurs, but due to the depth of this lineup it's goin to be a tough matchup for the Spurs. Ultimately, it all comes down to how well Tony Parker can work Mo Williams, if he forces Mike Brown to put Delonte West on him, then it's all about recognizing the mismatches, ultimately, it's a matter of attacking Mo Williams on defense, that's the key.

Key Matchups:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The 8-Man Rotation

No, I am not trying to hedge in on what Skeets and Dwyer have going on with their 10-Man Rotation, I'm really not, please believe me, or not. I suppose this will make much more sense if I actually get down to what I'm babbling about with my rotation thing. Well, recently I've been watching the Spurs' former championship victories, and something occurred to me; Greg Popovich only uses 8 players ever in his rotations when playing in the Finals. While he's not quite Jerry Sloan-esque in his management of minutes, he's fairly consistent in who will play, when, and how much. Generally speaking, Popovich likes to have one reserve big and one ball-handler/three point shooter. My question isn't why Pop does this, but rather, who Pop will incorporate in the future. I highly doubt that all 12 players who do suit up will see floor time in any given game, in fact, I highly doubt even 10 will. So who's going to step up? Pop has versatility and flexibility in his roster, but even so, I don't think he would (and I wouldn't recommend) varying the roster too much. Let's take a quick trip down memory lane.

In 1999, the first Spurs championship, the starting lineup was as such:

PG - Avery Johnson
SG - Mario Elie
SF - Sean Elliott
PF - Tim Duncan
C - David Robinson

Off the bench we pretty much only saw Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose, and a little bit of Steve Kerr. Certainly we saw a little bit of Antonio Daniels and a few cameos of Jerome Kersey, but those were negligible enough to not really count for anything. So while Johnson and Kerr took turns bringing the ball up (though Avery did it most of the time) Elie, Jackson, and Elliott split the wing spots, with Duncan, Robinson, and Rose platooning the time at the frontcourt. It worked because either Duncan or Robinson could play center next to Rose, with Elie, Elliott, and Jackson all being pretty flexible at the SG and SF spots. While Kerr wasn't the best PG, he could be trusted to bring the ball up and pass it into the post to either Robinson or Duncan. Kerr was at least nominally the backup ball-handler and with Jackson also the 3-point threat, with Rose being the backup big man.

If we continue on with the 3 other Spurs championships we see that Pop generally follows pretty similar a blue print. In 2003 the starting 5 looked something like this:

PG - Tony Parker
SG - Stephen Jackson
SF - Bruce Bowen
PF - Tim Duncan
C - David Robinson

The frontcourt rotation stayed Rose, Duncan, and Robinson, with Speedy Claxton and Manu Ginobili taking the roles of Steve Kerr and Jaren Jackson as the backup ball handler and scoring spark off the bench respectively. While this moves away a little from the Pop's obsession with 3-point shooting, there being no real 3-point specialists on the team, Ginobili, Jackson, Bowen, and even Parker made enough. Again, Pop didn't just stick with these 8, he played Kevin Willis a few key minutes, but generally speaking, this was the core rotation. Generally speaking, the only time Steve Smith and Danny Ferry saw floor time was during garbage time.

Continuing to 2005, in the 7-game classic against the defending champs, the Detroit Pistons, the starters were:

PG - Tony Parker
SG - Manu Ginobili
SF - Bruce Bowen
PF - Tim Duncan
C - Nazr Mohammed

Now replacing Kerr and Rose were Brent Barry and Robert Horry respectively, with Beno Udrih and Devin Brown seeing some playing time, but for all extensive purposes they more or less split the amount of playing time one player would have been allotted, one backup player though we can argue he stretched to 9. Note though, that Pop used Beno pretty sparingly and liked to play Barry and Ginobili next to each other with Ginobili pretty much manning the point. Barry was both ball-handler and 3 point specialist, and Horry, well, there's not much to say about Horry, besides he was Big Shot Bob, he did a little bit of everything, played hard defense, drew charges, hit big 3s. While Duncan was the most consistently dominating player, Horry made the biggest plays (including the 3 at the end of Game 5 in overtime). While Glenn Robinson did see a bit of crucial playing time and make a couple of plays, like in 2003 with Kevin Willis, he wasn't really part of the rotation.

We then move to the embarrassment that was the was the 2007 NBA Finals, not because of anything the Spurs did, but because somehow, a team as bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers managed to make it to the Finals. The starters were:

PG - Tony Parker
SG - Michael Finley
SF - Bruce Bowen
PF - Tim Duncan
C - Fabricio Oberto

Now, Pop throws a few more names off the bench here, we have Manu as our super sixth man, Jacque Vaughn *shudder* as our backup ball handler, Robert Horry again, as our backup big, and Brent Barry as our 3 point specialist, and Francisco Elson as our second backup big. Here's my take on it, which ultimately boils it down to 8 player rotation again, Oberto and Elson were generally called the 2-headed center, because they platooned the time that would've otherwise been used by a single center, so for all extensive purposes, I consider them one player. The frontcourt rotation was essentially Duncan, Horry, and Oberto/Elson. As for Vaughn, I don't think he was the primary backup, that job again got platooned between Manu and Barry, so we treat him like we would treat Beno from 2005. So 8 players is about the extent of the rotation that Pop used for his championship teams, and while I'm sure that he'll come up with something come this year, it never hurts to speculate a little.

In terms of the roster, I see it essentially panning out to this for the starters:
PG - Tony Parker
SG - Roger Mason
SF - Richard Jefferson
PF - Antonio McDyess
C - Tim Duncan
Some have surmised because Pop likes spreading the floor he might keep Matt Bonner in the starting rotation, but I'd argue that McDyess is proficient enough in the 18 foot jumper that I don't think that will happen, or if it does, it will only beg for a short while. While McDyess will be listed at center, Pop doesn't really have a use for the big man references of PF or C, as he plays them more like big man 1 and big man 2. Off the bench we have these options:

Ball-Handlers: George Hill
Wings: Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston, Marcus Williams, Michael Finley, Keith Bogans
Big Men: DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Ian Mahinmi, Matt Bonner, Theo Ratliff

Though this roster might be subject to change, I'm going to stick with it for now. Again, while theoretically this gives the Spurs an added degree of versatility, I don't see Pop venturing too far from a set 8-man rotation, especially as we draw nearer and nearer to Playoff time. While we all expect George Hill to be the primary backup ball-handler, we have to see if he'll be more like Speedy Claxton or Beno Udrih in how his minutes get allocated. Will Pop actually legitimately play him as a backup point guard or will he start trying to get away platooning two off guards with decent ball handling abilities and run a backcourt of Ginobili and Mason? Then that begs the question of whether or not Marcus Williams can be a decent point forward as well? Furthermore, who will be the next Robert Horry? Or will we go more the route of something like Malik Rose? All these questions, is Michael Finley our new three-point specialist (a la Jaren Jackson and Brent Barry)? Or do we forgo the 3 point shot and hope that our wings can hit enough of them to make it count like in 2003? Essentially here's who we have to wonder about in terms of subs (or in the case of 2007 the "not Manu starting SG").

In comparison to 1999: Jaren Jackson (wing/3 point specialist), Malik Rose (big man), Steve Kerr (ball-handler/3 point specialist)

In comparison to 2003: Speedy Claxton (ball-handler), Malik Rose (big man), Bruce Bowen/Stephen Jackson (wing/3 point specialist)

In comparison to 2005: Brent Barry (ball-handler/3 point specialist), Robert Horry (big man), Devin Brown/Beno Udrih (wing/ball-handler)

In comparison to 2007: Michael Finley (wing), Robert Horry (big man), Brent Barry/Jacque Vaughn (ball handler/3 point specialist)

Well, let's say for now we need a ball-handler, a big man, and a wing, with 3 point specialist attached to any one of them being something of a bonus. Let's do a quick cursory comparison of players today to players of yore:

George Hill (6-2, 190 lbs)
Category: Ball Handler
Best Comparison: Speedy Claxton (5-11, 170 lbs)
Like Speedy, I don't know that George Hill is a great shooter, at least from the perimeter. However, those features put both in the mold of someone like Avery Johnson. The question is, can Hill man the point full time? What Hill has in advantage to Claxton is size and length. There's no question that both finish, but Hill also has the makings of a pesky defender (something Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy called Jacque Vaughn, though I'm not so sure about that), meaning that he'll probably play better defense than Claxton. However, the second big question is, can he be less of an offensive liability as Jacque Vaughn? For all his issues, Vaughn at least could competently run the point, if Hill can do that and add onto his resume on top of that, "be a legitimate offensive threat" then I think we can expect to see good things.

Roger Mason (6-5, 210 lbs)
Category: Ball Handler/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Steve Kerr (6-3, 175 lbs)
We all know Mason can shoot the 3, we all know he's not afraid of taking big shots. He can handle the ball decently, so in all respects he's pretty similar to Steve Kerr. Now, I have a hard time believing that he's actually 6-5, in fact, I think a listing at 6-3 is already going to be overly generous, and he's not great defensively. He's also not super efficient with his scoring, but he is what you see, nothing more, nothing less. He's a good 3 point shooter who doesn't have to have the ball, is decent at handling the ball, though probably not as a full-time point, and will net you about 11 points per game in steady minutes. Currently, I think he'll hold onto that starting spot next to Parker, but we'll have to see how things progress as we move forward, I'm not really a huge fan of him in the roster, but at this point in time, there might not be a better solution.

Michael Finley (6-7, 220 lbs)
Category: Wing/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Jaren Jackson (6-4, 190 lbs)
The All-Star caliber days of Michael Finley are long behind him, there's no way he's getting back to the form he was in on Dallas 2000. He's liable to get hot, but he's equally as liable if not more so of being ice cold. I'm also in the bandwagon of using Finley sparingly. His defense just isn't there anymore, but hey, he knows the system and knows where to take his shots. I don't necessarily see him playing as big a role as Jaren Jackson did in the 1999 series, but maybe they'll keep him around like Steve Smith.

Keith Bogans (6-5, 215 lbs)
Category: Wing/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Jaren Jackson (6-4, 190 lbs)
Like Jackson and Finley, Bogans has kind of been everywhere. He's a hardworking guy, but he's not much better than just plain serviceable. I was actually pretty unaware of this acquisition, but hey, it gives Pop options. There's not much for me to say about Bogans, except that he's a solid failsafe, a good backup plan if things fall apart. I hope we won't really see a lot of him, not really as a knock against him, but more that I hope other people do step up.

Malik Hairston (6-6, 220 lbs)
Category: Wing
Best Comparison: Devin Brown (6-5, 210 lbs)
I don't know a whole lot about Malik Hairston, I don't follow the D-League, I don't really keep in touch with scouting reports and stuff, only what I see in a resource like DraftExpress. From all reports Hairston is one of those hard-working all around players, he has a serviceable but not great shot, the ability to score in the lane, and hopefully is an energy guy who can play some solid defense on the opposing team's top players. He's young, so hopefully he'll continue to improve, but honestly, unless he comes in as an above average defender and with an improved shot, it's hard for me to see anything in the rotation for someone like him. As of right now, I might liken him a little to Desmond Mason based on what I've read.

Marcus Williams (6-7, 205 lbs)
Category: Wing/Ball-Handler
Best Comparison: Stephen Jackson (6-8, 218 lbs)
Please don't think I'm saying that Marcus Williams is going to replicate Stephen Jackson-like production. However, that being said, everyone's pretty excited about Williams and Hairston as D-League call-ups. Williams is supposed to have played some point-forward while in Austin, so maybe he'll be able to handle the ball some bringing it up the court and stuff when Tony Parker is on the bench, gives Pop a little flexibility with the roster.

Marcus Haislip (6-10, 230 lbs)
Category: Big Man/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Robert Horry (6-9, 220 lbs)
Marcus Haislip is probably the one player that intrigues me the most in terms of what he can provide on the floor. While he was considered a bust after his first few years after being drafted 13th in 2002, he's had a chance to reshape himself in Europe for the past few years, becoming a rather effective player overseas. The reports show that he's able to be effective in limited minutes, is athletic, and shoots reasonably well from 3-point range. The critique on his defensive apathy is somewhat disconcerting, but I hope that the chance of redemption in the NBA given him by the Spurs help motivate him to work with the culture a little bit. My biggest question is can he keep up with smaller, faster forwards like Horry could at times? My hope is that he becomes more like Horry and less like an athletic Matt Bonner, but maybe I'm hoping for too much.

DeJuan Blair (6-7, 265 lbs)
Category: Big Man
Best Comparison: Malik Rose (6-7, 255 lbs)
I think Blair has the potential to be one of the biggest impact rookies in the league this year. I can't say that I've seen Blair play, but based on what I've read, I'm very encouraged. While there are reports of him being not quite where we'd like him to be defensively, I think that it's something developed with time. The fact of the matter is, he has the energy and work-ethic of Malik Rose, but also a better skill-set to build off of, he's a better rebounder, and hopefully, can work well in the rotation. Unfortunately, since Pop doesn't have the luxury of the twin towers in Duncan and Robinson to work with any more, as he did when he played Rose, it's possible that Blair might see his minutes suffer a little due to Pop's desire for another shot-blocking presence on the floor when Duncan isn't. I don't think that Pop would go the route of undersizing his frontcout with Blair and McDyess.

Matt Bonner (6-10, 235 lbs)
Category: Big Man/3 Point Specialist
Best Comparison: Robert Horry (6-9, 220 lbs)
For all extensive purposes, Matt Bonner is the Robert Horry replacement that can only shoot threes. He's not really that good on defense and he really doesn't have much else of an offensive game despite everything his +/- numbers tell us. He's pretty much a known factor, and like Finley, someone who will play if the new guys don't step up.

Theo Ratliff (6-10, 235 lbs)
Category: Big Man
Best Comparison: Kevin Willis (7-0, 220 lbs)
Honestly, I don't see Ratliff making a huge impact in the rotation. Pop likes to have old guys who know what they're doing and can make an impact in spot minutes though. Kevin Willis didn't play a whole lot in the post season, but he made a difference when he did. Pop likes to keep about 3-4 players that are older and perhaps past their prime to shore up the end of his roster, other such names include Danny Ferry, Steve Smith, and Glenn Robinson. While Ratliff may be the only other legitimate shot-blocker on the roster aside from Duncan, I don't know if that alone will warrant him extended minutes.

Ian Mahinmi (6-10, 250 lbs)
Category: Big Man
Best Comparison: Francisco Elson (7-0, 235 lbs)
I can't rightly say I know a lot about Mahinmi, and honestly, what I've read so far has been somewhat disappointing. The only real good things I hear about him are all buzz and potential. Flashes of brilliance, but also streaks of downright frustrating playing down the stretch, which is why I don't really know what to make of him, I mean, based on that alone, I'd have to compare him to someone like Tyrus Thomas at the moment. I think he'll be serviceable when healthy, and won't break the rotation unless he has a breakout year. Like Elson, I think he'll have to battle to be in the rotation, but at the moment, I feel, is a little lower on my scale in terms of playability. Mainly, I see Pop using him as a minute sopper to keep McDyess and Duncan fresh and limit their minutes.

To be honest I really don't know anything about Curtis Jerrells or Dwayne Jones to make any sort of assessment whatsoever. While it's possible we see Pop doing a lot of the two-headed monster thing that he did in 2007 with Elson and Oberto with perhaps Hairston and Williams or perhaps Haislip and Blair, I don't know that he'd do it extensively, especially when the playoffs roll around. Of course, Pop is always known to be pretty flexible with most of his subsitutions, making moves on the fly so as to throw off the opposin team's rhythm and adjustments.
Honestly, I can't say I'm super happy with any of our choices at the wing positions, though if either Hairston or Williams turns out to be something like the next Kelenna Azubuike then I might be able to swallow it a little more. If I were to settle in a rotation, I'd probably want Hill as my backup point, Hairston/Williams as my wing, and Haislip as my big. This is of course assuming the ideal situations in terms of development and playing to potential. Realistically, I'm going to say we'll start with Hill, Mason, and Bonner. I'm sure Pop will figure it all out as the season goes along, but I don't see him getting really far into his bench. While the Spurs do have a large degree of versatility, they're still hindered by the amount of defensive presence they can put into the paint, if that becomes a huge issue, Ratliff will be seeing more minutes than anyone had really anticipated.

I cannot wait for the season to start. While the roster isn't ideal, I see potential. I trust Buford to make the right move if we have to make one.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Los Angeles Lakers

Okay, okay, so I realize as I continue to try to get posts out here at a reasonable rate that I'm running out of time. After this, I have maybe 3 more entries I'd like to get in, those are, the three Eastern Conference contenders: Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Orlando Magic. And here I am, barely scraping through the last of the Western Conference. It's doable, I just need to get it done. Hopefully this doesn't adversely affect the writing quality (if there was any to begin with) of these posts. Anyways, I'm juggling this with a fairly rigorous school load right now, which I hope doesn't end up being a cop out on my part. Okay, down to business.

I don't know that I need to say a whole lot about the Lakers, I mean, their accomplishments speak for themselves. They are the returning champions. After the Finals meltdown against Boston in 2008, the Lakers turned it up a notch and blew through the regular season, and post season, despite stiff competition. While many of the games were close, the Lakers still eked out 16 of them to take home the title of NBA Champions, I don't think they really played a whole lot more than 16 games through the post season. That being said, the face of LA is still the Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant, and even though he's getting up there in age (31) he's still probably one of the best, if not the best perimeter players in the league right now. That says a lot. A couple of roster changes here and there with the most dramatic one being the essential trading of Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest, which I'll discuss a little further down. Let's take a look at what we've got here though:

San Antonio Spurs:

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley, Marcus Williams
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Los Angeles Lakers

PG - Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Shannon Brown
SG - Kobe Bryant, Sasha Vujacic
SF - Ron Artest, Luke Walton, Adam Morrison
PF - Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom
C - Andrew Bynum, DJ Mbenga, Josh Powell

Adam Morrison will probably only see garbage minutes, Powell and Mbenga will probably only see spot minutes, and therefore the only thing up in the air is whether or not Shannon Brown can learn Phil Jackson's triangle offense better than Jordan Farmar. What makes the Lakers' engine run so smoothly is not just the addition of Pau Gasol, not just the potency of Kobe Bryant, but honestly, what makes the Lakers so good, is the versatility of Lamar Odom. I was really hoping someone would throw some kind of big contract at Odom, just so he wouldn't be on the Lakers, anywhere but the Lakers. Nevertheless, he's back. Odom adds that degree of versatility that makes the Lakers a big transition team, with Odom and Gasol in the frontcourt, the Lakers become a nightmare on the matchups. Both are so active, that it's hard to defend both of them. Tack on Kobe Bryant on the wings, the pin-point ball movement of the Triangle, and it's a hard team to beat. Should Bynum improve anymore and this team is nigh unstoppable, and will be contenders for years to come (Bryant and Fisher being the oldest players on the roster).

The natural point of exploitation for the Spurs will have to be at the PG position, Tony Parker has to work Derek Fisher, every single time. This will force the Lakers defense to adjust and help on Parker and free up one of 4 other players to make big buckets. I think in terms of depth, the Spurs are fairly comparable to the Lakers, but of course, the Spurs don't have known quantities like Shannon Brown, Sasha Vujacic, or Luke Walton. However, with Manu back fully healthy, the wings have to continually attack, freeing up the big men, and giving Duncan an easier time at the basket, since Gasol has to worry about helping. If the threes are falling, all the better, almost everything has to be going right if the Spurs want to have a shot at knocking off the Lakers in a series, the chances of it happening are still there, the Lakers aren't indestructible. Complacency is probably the Lakers' worst enemy, and to take a series, the Spurs have to blitz the Lakers defense, and stay at home with their own defensive philosophy.

Richard Jefferson or Manu will probably have the unenviable job of chasing Kobe around on the defensive end, but as is the case with the other matchups, Jefferson and Manu have to make both Kobe and Artest work at the other end of the floor as well. Attack, be aggressive, but be smart. This is where it becomes important for another big outside of Duncan to step up as a shot blocker, coming across to help if necessary when the drive comes in. However, this becomes dangerous as the man being left is not Chris Dudley, but rather Gasol, Bynum, or Odom. However, the wings just need to consistently attack aggressively, and if Finley and Mason can make threes to keep players out of the paint, all the better, more room for Parker to operate in.

Gasol will likely have the brunt of guarding Duncan for whatever playing time they share, and he's probably one of the better post defenders in the league. He's smart about moving his feet and not fouling, and also big enough to bother Duncan and stand firm, being difficult to move in the post. Ideally, the perimeter defense of the Spurs will force the ball to go to Gasol in the post more, where Duncan is probably one of the best post defenders in the league, certainly Gasol will score, but he won't get easy buckets, in essence, the Spurs need to focus their defense appropriately, so as to make the Lakers key players work harder. You're not going to wear out Kobe Bryant, but you can frustrate him into taking draining 20 foot fadeaway jumpers.

The biggest question will end up being whether or not McDyess or Haislip can keep up with Odom. I think the development of Haislip into an NBA caliber tweener forward will be of utmost importance, because he does have the length to keep Odom in check, but the question is now, does he have the speed or versatility? Odom has the size of a PF but the handles and offensive game of an SF. He's tough to cover, and he's long on defense, he is the ultimate x-factor. However, one weakness of his game, is that he's not a great post defender, can the Spurs find a way to exploit that?

The final question mark then, is do the Spurs gamble on baiting Ron Artest into breaking the Triangle? This will be determined by the regular season play, but if the Spurs can get the ball into Artests hands and stay there until it flies to the rim, I rather like their chances. Artest is one of the more inefficient scorers in the league, and if the Spurs can get him to eat up Kobe and Gasol's shots, then it's a good thing. That's almost as big an x-factor as a healthy Manu.

Key Matchups:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Denver Nuggets

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, in my defense I've been transitioning back to being a student again, so I just moved back to Seattle (no basketball team... sad) and therefore haven't had much time to really keep up with any basketball stuff. Hopefully I'll be a little better about that as the season draws closer, and hopefully into the regular season as well. My information isn't entirely up to date, as I haven't really had the opportunity to really catch up on all the current basketball news, so you'll have to forgive me if anything is really off. I think I have the general gist of everything, and it's not like I have to be super up to date in order to do these posts, I think the core of the teams have been pretty much set, so we can move forward from there.

The Nuggets were considered a non-factor after the 2008 playoffs, where their potent scoring talent of Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and JR Smith folded before the Western Conference champions in the Lakers, being subsequently swept out of the first round after projections that they could at least put up some sort of resistance and give trouble to the favorites out of the West. In 2009, everything changed with the changing of one roster spot. First, everyone thought the Nuggets were giving up, trading Marcus Camby away for nothing (a conditional 2nd round pick, as good as nothing), but then Allen Iverson was traded for Chauncey Billups, Cheik Samb, and Antonio McDyess, only Billups was retained on the roster, and the Nuggets were magically transformed. Billups immediately brought legitimacy and leadership to an otherwise lackadaisical ball-club. The Nuggets were suddenly the second-seed in the competitive Western Conference, ousting both the Hornets and the Mavericks in the first and second rounds respectively, taking the would-be champions of the Lakers to a competitive 6 game series.

San Antonio Spurs:

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley, Marcus Williams
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Denver Nuggets:

PG - Chauncey Billups, Anthony Carter, Ty Lawson
SG - JR Smith, Arron Afflalo
SF - Carmelo Anthony, Joey Graham, James White
PF - Kenyon Martin, Renaldo Balkman, Malik Allen
C - Nene Hilario, Chris Andersen, Johan Petro

I'm not sure that the Nuggets are entirely done tweaking their roster, but from all appearances they have one of the more well-rounded rosters in the league, which definitely correlates to their success in the previous season. Their recent of additions of Graham and White simply continue to solidify their core, adding serviceable but not outstanding players and a certain amount of youth to their strong core. I'm not entirely sure how George Karl will set the lineups, perhaps he will allow JR Smith to remain the super sixth man (similar to Manu) and opt to start Graham or Afflalo at the off-guard position, using either one as something of a defensive stopper. For all our lauds about Chauncey Billups' leadership, for all our quips about K-Mart's lips tattoo, the Nuggets' success really boils down to one thing: player maturity. While the firm leadership that Billups provides does much to steady the ship for the Nuggets, their team will only win based on the the growth of Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith, and Nene Hilario. These really end up being the core of the future for Denver, and while we might like to see how prospects like James White and Ty Lawson pan out, the brunt of the onus of carrying the team lies on the shoulders of these three young men.

It not only has to do with whether or not they can score, but also I think how they come together to define their team, to give it identity. When Iverson was here, everyone just got together and played basketball, it was the ultimate pickup game on the ultimate stage of the NBA. Anthony needs to decide what kind of leader he's going to become for his team. We all know Anthony and Smith can score, but it's a matter of how they get those points and how well they can work to incorporate the other facets of their squad and involve them as well. As for Nene, well, they say winning starts from the inside out, and while Nene doesn't have the accolades of Marcus Camby, I've seen a lot of analysis that leads me to believe that the Nuggets were pretty smart in parting with the former Defensive Player of the Year.

Matchup wise, the Spurs are going to have all they can handle. While Kenyon Martin isn't quite as effective as the pre-microfracture surgery days, he, Nene, and Chris Andersen make up one of the most formidable defensive frontcourts in the league. Additionally, Martin is one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, so the hopes of trying to squeeze out an easy one by placing 4 three point shooters on the floor will be slim. While Nene has never been Defensive Player of the Year, he still guards Duncan much better than Camby does, making the smart defensive decision, his larger body size also makes it more difficult for Duncan to move him in the post. With Martin and Andersen's shot blocking abilities, the Spurs' big men have to make the Nuggets' big men stay at home on defense and not clog the paint. I don't know if we'll see as many isolation plays for Timmy, but if it works then it works. My general approach would be to attack the rim, attack the wings, make 'Melo and Smith work to defend you. Parker already has experience playing Billups in the 2005 Detroit series, this matchup is actually quite similar to that one. You have to try to pressure and rush Billups in his decision making, don't let him set the offense, but on that same note, you have to make sure that the explosive scoring of either Smith or Anthony doesn't go off, something that Billups didn't necessarily have with Hamilton and Prince on Detroit. I know I've been saying this for every single matchup, but it's true, the player of importance for the Spurs is going to once again be Richard Jefferson, making Melo work on defense. The frontcourt battle will be fierce, I don't know how much Pop is going to try to shove Duncan's post moves down Denver's throat, or how effective it will be, but this game is going to be won on the wings.

The second player of major importance is going to be I think the oft forgotten 5th man on offense: Antonio McDyess. The double teams will come on Timmy, the defense is going to cheat when Parker gets by Billups. The Spurs have to always be aware of this, and the player probably to best exploit this will be McDyess, or the other big on the floor. More often than not, McDyess will probably be open from somewhere where he's comfortable shooting the ball, he needs to keep taking those shots. While he won't be averaging such numbers across the season, I want to see some 20 point, 10 rebound explosions from McDyess, because he can, and because the defense forgot about him. While K-Mart is a good perimeter defender, I think Karl will stay at home with either Nene or Andersen (aka the Birdman) on Duncan, however, getting that extra shot-blocker out of the paint might make the difference. When McDyess isn't on the floor, Pop will probably (I would guess) go with Haislip or Bonner, because they have the range from beyond the arc to keep the defense honest. They have to know to take the shot when their open. Perhaps Pop will go with Blair here and there depending on how well he plays and if he wants to try to bully someone like Balkman in the post if Karl tries to run small.

On the other end, Nene will struggle against Duncan, anybody in the post will struggle against Duncan. The question then ends up being, how can the Spurs contain Billups and Melo? Both Billups and Anthony are big for their position, so that gives them the luxury of being able to post up their defenders, how can the Spurs limit the opportunities by that? Switching doesn't help significantly as the off-guard will probably then be JR Smith, since in the backcourt all 3 players are the primary scoring options for George Karl, Pop doesn't really have the luxury of trying to play small with George Hill running tandem with either Parker or Roger Mason. The defense then is going to have to come out of the wings, the bigs can't afford to help a whole lot, so Jefferson, Hairston, and Williams will have to be smart on their defense, this is also a matchup where we need to know if Haislip can handle the SF position, then he can have the size and length to bother Melo, the question being can he keep up with him?

Key Matchups:

Pic via Iran-Daily

Pic via Daylife

Pic via NiceKicks

Thursday, August 20, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Portland Trailblazers

So, I got the special edition of the Spurs championship DVD collection and I've made it through all of the 1999 championship and am now on Game 2 of the 2003 finals, getting more into the flow of the game. While I understand the high amount of disdain for the somewhat ugly yet ultimately efficient brand of basketball Popovich puts onto the floor night-in and night-out, I also appreciate more what each player brings to the floor, and the amount of work and effort all the players out there are putting out to win that elusive Larry O'Brien trophy. That being said, Bob Nessler, Tom Tolbert, and Bill Walton are the worst broadcast announcers ever. Nessler is a passable play-by-play caller at best, Tolbert sounds and looks like he belongs behind a desk next to James Brown on FOX NFL games, he really doesn't know what he's talking about, and honestly, neither does Bill Walton, well, okay, I don't mind what Bill Walton says, but he just has to stop making stuff sound like some mystical proverb from Confucius. I'm glad they don't do this anymore. I rather appreciate Bob Costas and Doug Collins now from 1999.

Anyways, moving onwards with what I'm actually supposed to be writing about here, I would argue that the Blazers are probably the 3rd best team in the Western Conference. Some would argue the Nuggets, some would possibly even argue the Jazz, but to me, the Blazers are definitely up there in terms of talent and depth. The youth of the Blazers also lends them a very viable in the long run. To me right now, the Blazers look kind of like the Lakers, minus Lamar Odom. I'm not really going to go very in depth about how and why, but if you really want to know, just ask me. I'm sure you can see it for yourself if you look hard enough. Anyways, let's get moving:

San Antonio Spurs

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley, Marcus Williams
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Portland Trailblazers

PG - Andre Miller, Steve Blake, Jerryd Bayless
SG - Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez
SF - Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge, Jeff Pendergraph
C - Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla

I'm not really sure about whether or not the Blazers signed any of their draft picks, but remember hearing something about Victor Claver not coming to the states, so for all extensive purposes I'm going to list Pendergraph there, since he's the next highest pick. However, if I'm Nate McMillain, I might toy with the idea of playing Outlaw at the back PF spot if Webster does come back healthy. Which brings about another question, is Martell Webster fully recovered from his injury? Webster was supposed to be the glue guy, the guy that would defend the opposition's best player and hit crucial threes when needed, like James Posey for the Celtics, like Shane Battier for the Rockets, but due to injury, he only played 5 minutes the entire season. Nicolas Batum then stepped up, and was able to deliver effect defense and decent offensive touches for a rookie. Naturally, I'm sure that Pritchard is still working to move both Outlaw and Blake somehow before the trade deadline, so the team could change pretty drastically, but all in all, the core of the team, and the general mindset offensively and defensively should be the same.

If you recall from last season, Portland was offensively, the most efficient and effective team in the league, despite running a snail-like pace. Defensively, there were a lot of deficiencies, but Portland is probably hoping for Greg Oden's development to solve some of those holes. If you haven't already, there are a couple of very good pieces at BlazersEdge on both Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge that you should read. While I wasn't a huge fan of the Andre Miller signing, Kevin Pritchard could've done much worse with the available cap space that he had, much worse. In terms of production from the PG position, Miller is much better than Blake, but it's yet to be seen if he's a great fit in the system, I think you can work around what he brings to the table, but he'll only fit to a certain extent. However as it has been for the last two seasons, the players that any team playing the Blazers have to watch out for are Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge. Roy is a very crafty player, and the ability of his to create shots for both himself and teammates often draws him comparisons to the likes of Kobe Bryant, whereas LaMarcuas Aldridge's versatile game has likened him at times to the Spurs' own Tim Duncan.

I think this is one situation where matchups in the frontcourt might actually start proving to be somewhat problematic for the Spurs. While Oden is no David Robinson, I won't hesitate to say that the pairing of Oden and Aldridge is somewhat reminiscent of the heyday of the original Twin Towers (in 1999) of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. The primary difference being that I don't see Oden as being or becoming anywhere near as versatile as the likes David Robinson, even towards the end of his career. It goes without saying that if Tim Duncan had the opportunity to take Aldridge under his wing, and if Aldridge would've somehow become a Spur, I would've been drooling at the dynasty that the Spurs could have built, but alas and alack, it's but a dream. Back to the matchups, I think that if Oden starts showing flashes of something of an offensive game, we might have to just play size, unless McDyess can effectively contain Aldridge, I would expect Pop to put Duncan on him and put McDyess on the offensively less proficient Oden. If Ian Mahinmi's development isn't as far along as we would like it to be, especially on the defensive end, I can expect us to be seeing a fair share of Theo Ratliff in this matchup too. If we are to probe deeper into the bench on this matchup, San Antonio has more players, but Przybilla in and of himself is probably one of the better backups in the league. The issue then would be at the backup PF slot and if we could exploit that. The minutes are limited, but anything the Spurs can get is something. I wouldn't be surprised if he's not traded, for Nate McMillain to start playing Travis Outlaw at the PF spot at times to stretch the defense and to spread the floor. Running a smaller lineup of Miller, Roy, Batum/Webster, Outlaw, and Aldridge could cause a number of matchup nightmares for other teams. Outlaw is probably the closest thing Blazers have to a Lamar Odom type player right now. I don't know if Pop will try to match suit by playing Parker, Mason, Ginobili, and Jefferson next to each other or not, but again a lot of it depends on how well players like Haislip, Blair, and Mahinmi pan out.

The key in the backcourt will be for Pop to force McMillain to keep his scorers, namely Outlaw, off the floor. I think if it gets into a scoring match, Portland has enough firepower, youth, athleticism, and versatility to outgun the Spurs. A lot of it will depend on how much Batum's offensive game has developed, but Parker, Ginobili, and Jefferson all have to make the Blazers work on defense, make Brandon Roy have to play aggressively on wing defense, make the bigs pay attention when Tony Parker is cutting into the lane, make Nate McMillain have to keep Webster or Batum in the game instead of Outlaw's apathetic defense. It'll be difficult because there is so much firepower in that backcourt, with Blake and Fernandez coming off the bench as instant offense, the Spurs defenders will have to stay on their assigned players and resist the temptation to move over on help defense. While Brandon Roy is a proficient 1-on-1 player, Miller doesn't have enough of a well-rounded game to be as effective if you can stop him. The Spurs need to clog the paint and harass Miller into taking a lot of jump shots, one of the aspects of the game that he's not good at. Additionally, since Miller isn't great on defense, I can see Parker and Duncan attacking the paint a lot, a common goal of Popovich is to get the opposing bigs into foul trouble, and if Duncan and Parker can do that in the paint, it would be to their great advantage to saddle Oden and Aldridge with petty touch-fouls early on.

As has always been the case, despite the proficiency in defense, the offense just has to be running. Jefferson has been crucial in these matchups and will continue to be so. Richard Jefferson has to make the opposing defense work, making them either pay for ignoring him or forced to give him significant defensive attention thereby relieving pressure on Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan. While the same generally holds true for McDyess, his main goal is just to make open shots so the other big can't leave him to double Duncan. I mean, if Malik Rose could do a good enough job (see #1) then I trust McDyess to hold up the fort. While Duncan is getting older and the competition getting stiffer, he's still the closest thing to an automatic two points when he's in the paint. I can understand with how Duncan plays why his knees are starting to go, but he's still amazing despite that. While people like to cite Ginobili's health as an X-factor, where if completely healthy he's nigh unstoppable, I would like to point out that the biggest X-factor will be how the Spurs' youth movement pans out, while we know Parker, Duncan, and a healthy Ginobili will get their own, and that Jefferson and McDyess are both known factors, the question will be how well do Mahinmi, Blair, Haislip, Hairston, and Williams pan out. No one is asking anybody to be the next Bruce Bowen or Robert Horry, but if they can put out the same amount of defensive effort as say Stephen Jackson, Malik Rose, Rasho Nesterovic, or even Jaren Jackson, and then make their open shots, then the Spurs are on the right track. Aggressive, but smart, Pop hates dumb fouls.

Key Matchups:

Pic via DayLife

Pic via DayLife

Pic via NBA

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Utah Jazz

I used to be a big Jazz fan, back in the day. My brother would root for Jordan and the Bulls, and I'd root for Malone and the Jazz. I was always disappointed, but those were good times. It's more than 10 years later and Jerry Sloan is stilling running the same high pick-and-roll as he did with Stockton and Malone. I like most of the personnel on the Jazz, I like the roster, I like most of the players, but the one problem the Jazz always have is that no one is taking ownership of the team. While we like to say that Deron Williams is the centerpiece of the franchise, we can't rightly say that this Jazz team is Deron's Jazz in the same way we can say that these are Kobe's Lakers or LeBron's Cavaliers or even Chris Paul's Hornets. What's that mean? Well, there's no one outside of Jerry Sloan, no one who walks the hardwood floor in those blue jerseys that's willing to step up and take this team on his shoulders, Deron Williams is capable, but maybe it's not his personality.

Anyways I digress... The Jazz have been pretty consistent for the past couple of seasons, about as consistent as Jerry Sloan has been at losing to Phil Jackson in the past 10 years (I don't mean that as a burn, but I guess it sounds like one). The roster really hasn't seen much turnover or alterations. The main themes for the Jazz have been the development of Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap coupled with the issues of Andrei Kirilenko's deteriorating play and Carlos Boozer's imminent departure. They seem always on the brink of contention but never quite there, and their lack of improvement in light of the improvements made to all other contention level teams has really hurt them, tack onto that the amount of confusion going on and all that, and we have a pretty rough time for the team. Let's look quickly at the matchups.

San Antonio Spurs

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Michael Finley, Marcus Williams
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Utah Jazz

PG - Deron Williams, Ronnie Price, Eric Maynor
SG - Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Matt Harpring
SF - CJ Miles, Andrei Kirilenko
PF - Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap
C - Mehmet Okur, Kosta Koufos, Kyrylo Fesenko, Goran Suton

The Jazz are solid, but again, they're not super exceptional, a solid playoff team as they've been. I'm not sure exactly how things will matchup, but I'm sure the Spurs want to keep Duncan inside, so he'll probably be guarding Boozer, leaving McDyess to chase Okur around the perimeter. This might be a situation where see a bit of Matt Bonner and Marcus Haislip, who are also fairly proficient perimeter bigs. The biggest question would be how motivated Boozer is in the light of the fact that his future is obviously not with the Jazz, and whether or not Kirilenko can regain any of his previous proficiency. What makes the Jazz dangerous is that while they're big at every position, they're a team that can still run. They have the ability to push the pace and keep up with any running team, which requires the Spurs to be much more active on defense. Both Boozer and Okur can spread the floor as well as play inside, Okur spreading to the 3 point mark, he's probably the 2nd or 3rd best 3 point shooter on the team (the best being probably Korver and then possibly Williams). The idea of a floor spreading big is something that the Spurs are relatively familiar with given Pop's pairing of players like Bonner next to Duncan. Personally I think Okur would be one of the most perfect fits next to Duncan as he's no slouch in the post either.

While Brewer and Kirilenko on the wings are more of a defensive presence, Kirilenko has been steadily deteriorating over the years. The biggest question then on the wings is can the Spurs exploit that? While Boozer's lack of defense and Millsap's lack of height might lend the Spurs to go to Duncan frequently, possibly forcing Sloan to play Okur or Kirilenko on him, Richard Jefferson becomes another key piece to the puzzle. The offensive punch that Jefferson brings to the table is so critical in keeping defenses honest and preventing help from clogging the lane, either smothering Duncan in the middle or keeping Parker from getting in. Jefferson needs to force whoever is guarding him (probably Brewer or Kirilenko depending of who's playing next to him) to pay attention, and the convert on the easy baskets when they don't. Previously, the Spurs did this by having Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen bomb threes from the corners, but now, with Jefferson, I think defenses now have to worry much more than just closing out on a shooter. On that same note, Jefferson can't allow Kirilenko to get into an offensive groove, though Kirilenko hasn't really found one in a while.

The biggest issue will be how the Spurs work to contain Deron Williams. While Parker has the speed to keep with him, he doesn't have the size that Williams does. When I think of Williams I think, Jason Kidd with a jumpshot, which in all honesty is pretty dang scary. While he doesn't seem as mercurial as his fellow draft buddy Chris Paul, he does have a better jumpshot and is what I would consider probably the 2nd or 3rd best point guard in the league. Williams has amazing handles and excellent court vision and passing ability, warranting even Jerry Sloan to hand the reigns of the offense over to him, making full use of his creativity and play-making ability, this was something that Sloan didn't even do with Stockton. Does this mean that Spurs have to play more George Hill with Tony Parker? Perhaps, while that solves the issue with Williams, Parker cannot be hidden on CJ Miles or Ronnie Brewer, both are too big for him to contend with if they start taking it hard to the hoop, while I think Parker might be able to keep a hand in Kyle Korver's face, playing a smaller tandem of guards to contain Deron might not be something that desireable from a Spurs perspective. I think then the biggest question them is; can someone like Marcus Haislip develop into a legitimate shotblocking presence? This way the Spurs can move to their previous defense of aggressive ball defense that funnels the handler baseline to a shot-blocker (Tim Duncan and/or hopefully Haislip or somebody) while blanketing all the passing lanes. Given the size the Jazz have, I suspect we'll see a more of Manu and some combination of Michael Finley, Marcus Williams, and Malik Hairston, and Mason used a little more sparingly.

While Deron Williams is the most dangerous weapon that the Jazz have, much of the brunt of the Jazz offense comes from the frontcourt, with a trio of Millsap, Boozer, and Okur, the Spurs will have their hands full trying to stop all comers. The key beyond keeping tabs on Okur around the perimeter is simply this, the Spurs have to box out. Millsap is one of the better rebounders in the league, and Boozer is no slouch either. I think when Millsap is on the floor Pop has either the option of trying to match his intensity with his own little big man of DeJuan Blair or trying to create some height mismatch with Mahinmi or something, but again, I think you go with the matchup that best limits second chance opportunities and is able to at least be competitive on the rebounds if not control the glass.

Key Matchups:

Pic via ESPN

Pic via Dadlak

Pic via DayLife

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: New Orleans Hornets

I know that most teams probably aren't completely done tinkering their rosters, but still, we have a pretty good idea the direction that teams are generally moving in for the upcoming season. I'm writing these things up under the assumption that everyone is healthy, so it's a fairly ideal situation. Both Tony Parker and Ian Mahinmi are currently playing for the French national team, so it's an added risk, but both are young and so I have no major qualms about it. In fact, it'll probably be good for Mahinmi to familiarize himself with Parker and get some playing time under his belt, getting him in shape and working off some of that rust from injury last season.

As the 2nd through 7th seed are usually somewhat up in the air come playoff time in the Western Conference, and with the San Antonio Spurs usually falling somewhere around 2nd-4th, I realized I'm probably going to be writing about most of the teams in the West, as all of them are potential opponents then in the playoffs. I'm reserving the Lakers to have the better regular season again being top of the Western Conference going into the postseason and I'm leaving the 8th seed (the guys who play the Lakers in the first round) as a tossup between either Phoenix or Houston. That being said, this is a rematch from two years ago, where the Hornets were the cinderella team, barely ceding a tough 7 game series to the more experienced San Antonio Spurs. I can't really say the team's improved significantly, if at all, and while we were all enamoured of the team, honestly, there isn't much to it other than Chris Paul. Okay, that being said, let's just jump into it.

San Antonio Spurs

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Marcus Williams, Michael Finley
PF - Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

New Orleans Hornets

PG - Chris Paul, Antonio Daniels, Devin Brown
SG - Rasual Butler, Morris Peterson, Darren Collison
SF - Peja Stojakovic, James Posey, Julian Wright
PF - David West, Ike Diogu
C- Emeka Okafor, Hilton Armstrong

Uh.... wow. Okay. I'm not really sure where I should start with this. I've already talked a little about what Emeka Okafor brings to the Hornets, so let's start there. For all extensive purposes, Emeka Okafor is Tyson Chandler with offense, I'm not sure he has enough of an offensive game to really be able to effectively get around Duncan's stellar post defense, but he is younger and more athletic, though he is also smaller. However, Okafor is probably good enough defensively to give Duncan some problems, he is one of the better defending big-men in the league, and Duncan isn't really getting any younger, so it's hard to say. Frontcourt depth is something of an issue, as always for the Hornets, Julian Wright just hasn't worked, which leaves the frontcourt legitimately 4 deep, with Ike Diogu being relatively unknown as no one has felt inclined to play him, and Hilton Armstrong being serviceable at best. I get the feeling that Pop would probably try to overwhelm them by giving them a number of different looks, as the Spurs boast a frontcourt that's 7 players deep, by mixing and matching Duncan, McDyess, Mahinmi, Bonner, Blair, Ratliff, and Haislip the Spurs frontcourt will always be fresher for one, and the variety of players (despite Blair, Haislip, and Mahinmi being relative unknowns) could pose a lot of matchup problems for Byron Scott as well as wearing out his already short-handed frontcourt. There is also the possibility that if the Spurs are playing a little smaller, Scott might slide Posey to the PF slot to guard someone like Bonner, but there are just too many mismatches to exploit. While I think West might currently be the better player than McDyess, I don't know that it's enough of an edge to make a huge difference, their games are similar enough that I'm sure McDyess has ways to keep him from getting into a groove with that 20 footer.

The big story of the 2008 playoffs was how Tony Parker and Chris Paul were continually going at each other, especially after Pop moved Bruce Bowen back from guarding Paul just so he could keep a hand in Peja's face. 2010 is going to be a pretty different picture though, why? Well, for one, Paul probably won't get much of a break, even when Parker's not on the floor, in fact, I would say that Hill would probably give Paul a harder time on the floor than Parker would, and if Paul is expending that much energy just trying to keep his team afloat, it makes it harder for him to stay in front of anyone on defense. Furthermore, outside of James Posey, the Hornets don't really have anyone that can make buckets and defend at the same time. In the previous series Peja could be hidden on defense by playing him on Bruce Bowen, because Bruce Bowen just sat in the corner and shot threes, so you just had to keep a hand in his face and try to deny the kickout. However, now Peja has to deal with Richard Jefferson, who is much more aggressive and potent offensively. I think that's part of what would make Jefferson valuable, I feel that part of his work as the key defender, is to make the other team's key player have to work to defend him, whereby giving him less energy to do things on the offensive end. Peja just can't keep up with Jefferson, and Jefferson has the length to hassle him endlessly on the defensive end.

While Morris Peterson is supposed to be a defensive stopper, Byron Scott has stopped playing him in favor of the scoring punch of Rasual Butler and the defensive abilities of Devin Brown, unfortunately, I don't know that either match Ginobili, and tack on a good shooting night from Roger Mason (who I probably should've compared to Jaren Jackson instead of Steve Kerr) the wings just aren't there to match. The main issue the Spurs have in any matchup is the fact that no one is really sure what Malik Hairston, Marcus Williams, Marcus Haisliip, and Ian Mahinmi will contribute at the NBA level, but I have confidence in the scouts the Spurs use both overseas and in Austin.

Key Matchups:

Pic via MSNBC

Pics via DayLife

Pic via ESPN

Update: Though this doesn't affect the matchup much, Rasual Butler was dealt to the Clippers for a pick.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How the Matchups Fall: Dallas Mavericks

So, now we're in the true offseason mode, which means that, aside from the odd free agent signings and all, there's not much going on in the league save for odd news clips here and there. Biggest news in the NBA recently (if you haven't heard already) is Rashard Lewis testing positive for steroids, or at least high levels of testosterone. From my perspective, Lewis made a careless mistake, and now he and his team are paying the penalty by having Lewis sidelined with a 10-game suspension. I'm inclined to believe Lewis when he said he simply didn't read the label, and while some might be inclined to disagree with conspiracy theories, both Shaq and LeBron (can't find the link, sorry) agree that Lewis wasn't really in it to gain any sort of unfair advantage.

Anyways, as the offseason is under swing, I figure I'd keep things going here by looking at the current roster as is and how it would match up to the competition, namely, potential playoff opponents and contenders, and how they match up against our dearly beloved Spurs. First let me start off by saying that this is possibly not a completed team, as we don't know what sort of moves RC Buford will potentially make during the season before the trade deadline. With a combination of Matt Bonner, Roger Mason, and Michael Finley; plus any one of the younger/new guys as a package (Ian Mahinmi, Marcus Haislip, Malik Hairston, Marcus Williams, Theo Ratliff, etc...) the Spurs have upwards of $10 million plus in expiring contracts and young guys available. That being said, as a caveat, as far as I can remember, no team making a major move just prior to the trade deadline has ever won a championship, at least as far as I can recall. Remember that Lakers lost to the Celtics in the Finals after the Gasol trade midseason, however, there might not be a correlation between the two, so let's not jump to any conclusions if the team does decide to swap for Marcus Camby or something.

With that, let's jump in to the current standing roster of the San Antonio Spurs:

PG - Tony Parker, George Hill
SG - Roger Mason, Manu Ginobili, Malik Hairston
SF - Richard Jefferson, Marcus Williams, Michael Finley
PF - Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Marcus Haislip, Matt Bonner
C - Tim Duncan, Ian Mahinmi, Theo Ratliff

Those are the 15 players, in my projected depth chart, for the upcoming NBA season. Now, let's look at the opposition. The natural place to start would be the first round victors from the previous season's playoffs, the team that beat San Antonio and knocked them out in a rather embarrassing 4-1 rout, the Dallas Mavericks. Being a fellow Texas team, there's a natural bit of rivalry between the two, now even more so after last season's first round matchup. Dallas looks to be an improved team, and with the volatile Western Conference rankings (that being that any team seeded between 2 and 9 can switch at the change of a game) it's entirely possible that these teams will match up again. Let's consider the Dallas lineup come tipoff time:

PG - Jason Kidd, JJ Barea, Rodrigue Beaubois
SG - Josh Howard, Jason Terry, Matt Carroll, Greg Buckner
SF - Shawn Marion, Quinton Ross, Shelden Williams
PF - Dirk Nowitzki, Drew Gooden, Tim Thomas, Kris Humphries, Nathan Jawai
C - Erick Dampier

Unorthodox is probably one of the first words that would come out of my mouth when asked to describe the Dallas Mavericks' roster. It's a strange combination of talent that emphasizes an outside-in sort of offensive game. While Marion is an improvement over Jerry Stackhouse or Devean George in the roster, the glaring lack of a shot blocker and post defender really hinders the Mavericks in this sort of a matchup.

While Jason Kidd can still produce, he's no where near as fast as he used to be, and with that, he gets burned more frequently than not on the defensive end. Tack on to that the fact that the Mavs have no shot blocking presence to cover for Kidd if someone blows by him, and add onto that the fact that Tony Parker is probably one of the fastest point guards in the league, and you've got a major matchup issue in favor to the Spurs. This has sort of been the story ever since Cuban and friends traded away Devin Harris for Jason Kidd, the Mavericks no longer have anyone that can remotely come close to stopping Tony Parker. As Parker continues to improve, and add that nice mid-range jumper into his arsenal and as Kidd continues to age, the disparity between the two guards becomes bigger and bigger. At the reserves we'll probably see JJ Barea, who, while playing well, is pretty undersized, and I think will be easily outmatched by the length and versatility of George Hill, who will probably smother him, and whoever he's guarding on the defensive end.

If Parker is going off, I can see Pop playing Hill next to him (Parker) as a major defensive stopper on Jason Terry. All in all, while the Mavericks have improved defensively, with the addition Marion, the lack of an interior defender that can body up against Tim Duncan and challenge Tony Parker in the paint still remains a major disadvantage to them. While Dallas has done much to bolster its bench, adding Drew Gooden and Tim Thomas, as well as picking up Kris Humphries and Nathan Jawai from Toronto, none of them are really defenders of any sort. They have more firepower, but saying that Drew Gooden or Kris Humphries is probably the most legitimate post player on the team is a pretty sad statement really. If and when this matchup does occur, I suspect that DeJuan Blair will be showing Dallas how much they miss Brandon Bass.

The biggest problem that Dallas will have in this lineup will be the fact that they will be forced to play extraordinarily small, having both Nowitzki and Gooden probably see extended minutes at center and Shawn Marion seeing a lot of time at power forward. This is a short team. While Nowitzki is a legitimate 7-footer, he plays like he's 6-5, seriously. When it comes crunch time, the best 5 that Rick Carlisle can put on the floor for Dallas will see Dirk at center, Terry and Kidd in the backcourt, and Howard and Marion at the forward slots. Meanwhile, Pop will probably be showing a lineup of Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson, McDyess, Duncan. Where does the matchup issue come in? Well simply put, it's height. Kidd and Terry are 6-4 and 6-2 respectively, fine, but Kidd doesn't really have any offensive game to speak of, and while Marion can score, you can't really say he has much of an offensive game either. Tack on to the fact that now we're playing a 6-5 small forward (Howard) and a 6-7 power forward (Marion) with a soft 7 footer (Nowitzki) and you can start to get an inkling of how things might be major matchup issues for Dallas. While Parker is only 6-2, he doesn't really need to do much except bother Kidd and get a hand in his face on defense, Ginobili is 6-6, Jefferson is 6-7, McDyess is 6-9, and Duncan is 6-11. Unfortunately for Dallas, their best post and perimeter defender is found in the 6-7 Shawn Marion, but the roster doesn't allow for switchups because of how potent the Spurs closing 5 has become. I'm fairly confident that Nowitzki cannot defend Tim Duncan on the block, and to switch Marion onto him so you try to hide Nowitzki on the less potent McDyess, just leaves Duncan to shoot over Marion at will, just ask Jeff Van Gundy about those moments he was forced to put the 6-6 Larry Johnson on Duncan in the 1999 Finals. The second major issue would be who Jason Terry guards. Logic would say put the bigger Kidd on Manu and then let Terry try to keep in front of Parker. Okay, that kind of makes sense, but it's still not an optimal situation. The only matchup that ends up working for Dallas is Howard would be expected to guard Jefferson, that's fine, but the problem is that now you can't really hide Terry on anybody. While they do manage to get blocks, Marion and Nowitzki aren't exactly what I would call shot blocking presences, in fact, they're less of one than Erick Dampier, who's not exactly stalwart defensively. What does that mean? If Parker gets in the lane (and Dallas hasn't had anyone fast enough to keep up with him since Devin Harris got traded) it's over, since there isn't really anyone to contest the shot.

I'm sure Pop knows all of this already, and I'm sure Rick Carlisle is trying to come up with a feasible plan to deal with it beyond trying to outscore the other team.

Key Matchups:

Pic via zimbio

Pic via UPI

Pic via DayLife

Pic via ESPN

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another New Old Guy

So if you haven't already read Rikkido's impressions at Pounding the Rock or Graydon's reaction at 48minutesofhell, then you should do so. If you haven't heard, well, the Spurs decided to bolster their frontcourt even more by signing Theo Ratliff. I don't know if Graydon is right in that the front office wasn't impressed with the performance of James Gist enough to give his potential slot to a proven veteran, or as Rikkido states, that there is a trade imminent. Honestly, I don't know, and I can't say. Maybe it's both. One doesn't necessarily exclude the other. What I do know is that Theo Ratliff will be a Spur. It does give us a rather loaded frontcourt, but perhaps that's one of those good problems to have.

The current Spurs frontcourt consists of 7 players, Tim Duncan, Antonio McDyess, DeJuan Blair, Ian Mahinmi, Matt Bonner, Marcus Haislip, and now Theo Ratliff. Out of those five, neither Blair nor Mahinmi has played significant pro-ball, additionally Haislip hasn't seen daylight in the NBA since 2004 where he was subsequently dubbed a bust. So what we have, excluding Ratliff, would be three unproven/unknown factors, Tim Duncan with knee issues, an aging Antonio McDyess, and Matt Bonner.

So what does Ratliff add to the frontcourt as it is besides age? Well, one thing that he brings that has been discussed before, is simply this, another shot blocking presence outside of Tim Duncan. Besides being a stop plug should one of Blair, Mahinmi, or Haislip not pan out, Ratliff is known first and foremost as someone who defends capably and blocks a lot of shots. If we look at his stats relative to the other veteran bigs (Bonner, Duncan, and McDyess) we see that Ratliff on a per-36 minute basis blocks more shots than even Duncan himself.

1 Matt Bonner 2008-09 28 81 67 1928 5.0 10.0 .496 2.2 5.0 .440 0.3 0.4 .739 1.8 5.4 7.2 1.5 0.9 0.5 0.7 3.5 12.5
2 Tim Duncan 2008-09 32 75 75 2522 8.0 15.8 .504 0.0 0.0 .000 4.8 6.9 .692 2.9 8.6 11.4 3.8 0.5 1.8 2.4 2.5 20.7
3 Antonio McDyess 2008-09 34 62 30 1866 5.2 10.1 .510 0.0 0.0
1.2 1.7 .698 3.6 8.1 11.7 1.6 0.8 1.0 1.0 3.7 11.5
4 Theo Ratliff 2008-09 35 46 0 578 2.1 4.0 .531 0.0 0.0
1.3 2.2 .600 2.9 5.1 8.0 0.6 1.1 2.9 0.9 4.8 5.5

While youo're not going to get much offensive production out of Ratliff offensively, I think the Spurs generally have enough firepower to somewhat hide Ratliff on the offense, allowing him to gobble up offensive boards and put-backs. Besides, it's not like he's going to be seeing anything more than possibly 5-10 minutes of floortime per game. While Mahinmi's D-League numbers and Haislip's Euroleague numbers show some promise as being able shot blockers, having Ratliff as a contingency plan isn't a horrible solution.

It's possible that now that Ratliff is on board a trade is imminent as Rikkido has stated. I believe Rikkido's original proposal looked something like this: Micheal Finley and Matt Bonner for Raja Bell. Which makes some semblence of sense. As I've stated before, I'm also willing to part with Mason if what the Spurs are looking for is an above-average to elite level defender. While Richard Jefferson is supposed to be solid, adding another defender never hurt, and would provide a number of matchup problems as well as be a solid contingency should Malik Hairston and Marcus Williams not work out. While he's not elite, I wouldn't mind parting with either Bonner or Mason for someone like Damien Wilkins either. Of course at this point in time it's all just speculation, and won't really affect the team roster come crunch time, which I believe will still remain Parker, Ginobili, Jefferson, McDyess, and Duncan, however, should the team not be as healthy as anticipated or something of that ilk, then it's good to have these sort of contingency plans.