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:

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