Sunday, March 7, 2010
Each year millions of fans renew their love for their team with a new season of promise and possibility. And each year, when it's all said and done, all but one fan base is left wondering what could have been done differently. Fans of teams that did not win the championship can be broken down into one of three categories. There are the fans of the playoff teams that say, “We were so close, if only our sixth man was on or if we hadn’t lost our center to a toe injury.” The fans of the teams that just miss the playoffs who say, “If only a couple guys had played up to their potential we could have made some noise in the playoffs.” And then there's the last group who gripe, “Let’s hope for a good draft, some luck and let’s just be thankful we aren’t the Clippers.” (I had so much fun watching Griffin play this year)...
In reality, only a handful of teams have any shot at an NBA World Championship every year, and you can pick them out before the season starts. If you had to pick a group of five teams and one of those five had to win the championship, you’d be hard-pressed to not pick a winner. That’s because when it comes to NBA playoffs, unlike the NFL, the better teams almost always win a series, unless it’s just a slightly worse team playing better. And unlike baseball where two ace pitchers can take you the distance (think 2001 Diamondbacks), in the NBA no matter how good a player is, he still needs help to be a champion.
When playoff time comes around there are always several factors at work.
First of course, you need a key player. Kobe, LeBron, Melo, Pierce. To me, all of these guys qualify and there are maybe a few others. If you don’t have at least one of these guys, you really don’t have a shot. Not just a very good player, but a great one. That’s why the Raptors will never win a championship as long as Chris Bosh is their best player.
Second, to get past the first two rounds you need some help from one bench player and one other starter. The main guy can and will do most of the work, but to ensure victory, a few timely three pointers from a bench player will put a good team up 3-1 in a series instead of heading for a game 7 which will hurt them in the next round.
Third, to win a conference championship and ultimately the NBA Finals you need significant minutes from your second and third best player. This is because no matter how good your best player is, once you get to these rounds you will be playing someone who is nearly as good, or if not better. When these types of teams play each other the great players will cancel each other out over a seven game series. One player might win a game on his own, but the other will need to step up in the next. To win four out of seven games against a team with a comparable star you need help from somewhere else. This is why LeBron keeps getting screwed in the later rounds. LeBron is the only player in the league to absolutely guarantee a game is close if he wants it to be, but without another really good player, they will always stall in a seven game series. Mo Williams might hit a big shot or have a big night every once in a while but he isn’t consistent enough to help beat a team like the Magic with three players better than him(Howard, Carter, Lewis). This is why the addition of Jamison is so important for them. Jamison has been consistently over-looked the last several years, but really you can count the number of guys that consistently put up 20-10 games like he does on one hand. Again, that is why that is such an important pickup for the Cavs.
Ok so after all of that, now it’s time to break down the teams that actually have a shot at this year’s title and what will be the key to getting over the hump for these teams. We all know about the main characters, but if it were that easy, Kobe and LeBron would have won the last 7 titles...but, they’ve won a combined 1.
LeBron is the single most dangerous player in the open court, so why they would willingly slow him down by adding Shaq? Seemed counterproductive, and as the numbers have shown so far this year, they are better off without Shaq, inserting the young and aggressive players in JJ. Hickson and Varejao at the center position instead. The Cavs need to get running and they need Jamison to run with them. This team will go as far as Jamison takes them. He is a great offensive rebounder and shooter, a tough combination to guard that helps spread the floor for James and gives him a solid in and out option. With his other three point shooters, Gibson, Williams, West and Parker, they are far too small to pose an inside threat so their team is very easy to focus on. You know what you have when they are out there, and you can make game plans for them and adjust accordingly. With Jamison out there, you need a big man to cover him downlow but now you lose that big man on defense because Jamison can step back and pop. The only problem is Jamison isn't the best defender. He wants to play D so badly, but he just isn’t good at it. So if they can play team defense and help him out there, then the Cavs are going to be impossible to beat in the East.
The key no one talks about for the Cavs is the three point shooting by LeBron. The fact that he shoots so many threes is ridiculous. LeBron has a great feel for the game and knows when to attack, when to defer and when a team is hurting. When they are on a roll and about to open a lead, he will always shoot a three to try to break it open. Or if the other team makes a big three, he will immediately try to answer. That’s exactly how basketball is played, and three pointers are often used as statements or answers to other threes, but that shouldn’t be the case for LeBron. He’s a decent shooter, but he isn’t Ray Allen. Instead of trying to kill a team’s spirit with a long three that has a 35-40% chance of going in, how about a thunderous dunk over top of someone. That would make much more of a statement for his team, and is worth only one point less and is a much higher percentage shot. For someone as big and as quick as LeBron, who can get to the rim at will, it’s just laziness and immaturity that keeps him taking those long three’s and turnaround fade-aways.
This is very simple. The Magic have three all-stars in Vince Carter, Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis. So... they should win a lot. They win it all if Howard touches the ball. Lewis is fine with his role, as he has been his whole career, although he’s more than able to dominate a game. Just check the stats from a few seasons ago when he was playing for the Sonics, and Ray Allen was out with an injury. Vince Carter is going to be a ball hog because he’s Vince Carter, and he doesn’t know how not to. This will destroy their chances at a championship. When Vince Carter is hot, you are guaranteed a win, but the sad thing is, that only happens once in every 3-4 games. That’s not a high enough percentage to beat good teams.
When Dwight Howard scores 25 points or more the Magic are 12-2. 12-2!
Get him the ball every time down the floor. Howard's not a ball hog, but there is only one way to get better offensively, and that’s the only part of his game Howard needs to work on. The same was true for last year, when it was very obvious he was severely limited offensively. He's put in the work with Patrick Ewing, developed a hook and is now dominating….again, when he gets the ball. I recently watched a game where he had nearly 20 points in the first half on 80% shooting and then got only two touches in the third quarter while Vince jacked up fade-aways. If the Magic want to win, this can’t happen.
Plain and simple...Howard gets the ball, the Magic get wins.
The Celtics are old, this is well established. But they are old in the right places. KG is still a smart player who motivates his team, Ray can keep that stroke until he’s 50, and Pierce just won the 3-point contest and has shown us many times this season that he can still dominate a game. Most importantly, at PG, the most important position for youth, they have Rondo who is only 24. With him running all over the place and dumping it to his old men, they will be fine. The key for the Celtics is health. If they make it to the playoffs healthy, they are as dangerous as anyone because of the reasons just mentioned. In a close game ‘Sheed will be the key. If he stops playing like a fatass they will be a very, very tough out. But with him playing like he left his soul in Detroit, they will always win one less game than they need to win in a seven game series.
The Lakers are the odds on favorite to win the Chip because of their balance. They have two seven footers patrolling the paint, a freak of an athlete in Odom and of course, the Black Mamba. It still pisses me off that he gave that nickname to himself. He just wants friends so badly.
The key to the Lakers repeating as champs is Pau Gasol. Not too much of a shocker but you never know what you are going to get with Gasol. Will we get the guy who just took over when Kobe was out with an injury or will we get the Gasol who disappeared for parts of the playoffs last year. Bynum is not that good yet. Yes he’s put up some monster games, but he’s not going to be consistent enough to be a major championship component. Odom is who he is and the role players all play ball-feeder to Kobe. If Gasol losses Kobe’s confidence or plays like a push-over on defense, the Lakers are very vulnerable.
The Mavericks are in a great position for the post season. They are flying completely under the radar right now and will continue to do so well into the playoffs. This is because the Mavericks have been consistently great ever since Cuban took over. That is, they’ve been great during the regular season. They consistently win 60 games and they consistently make the playoffs. What they do not do consistently is make it to the Finals. They did it once and lost to Wade and the Heat then. They are great during the regular season because they have a great team. Most of their games are not very close because they are able to build a big lead with their solid starters and with their great sixth man, Jason Terry.
The heart and soul of the team is obviously Nowitzki but his inadequacies were shown when they were decimated by the Warriors as a one seed three years ago. This year everything is different. Of their five starters, four are former or current all-stars. For the past decade, they’ve had no one that could really create their own shot. Dirk can always get a decent look because he’s 7 feet tall, but the Mavs have always lacked a rim attacker. With Caron Butler and Shawn Marion on the team, they now have two athletic guys who can take it to the rim and finish. So far this season they’ve split four games with the Lakers and won more games than they’ve lost against the other top teams in the NBA.
No one is going to want to play the Mavericks come playoff time. Their only problem will be themselves. Can they mentally get over the hump?
The Denver Nuggets are maybe the most fun team to watch in the NBA. Melo is absolutely dominating again, but he is deferring more to his teammates. Chauncey Billups had his coming out party last year, but has been unbelievable for years. The best part to watch a Nuggets game is about with five minutes left to play, in a relatively close game. Without a doubt, Billups will come down and launch up two or three straight threes. He will always make at least a pair. Watch a game and watch this happen. You can always see it unfolding, but still no team can stop it.
In the end, the Nuggets will go as far as J.R. Smith takes them. He is the key to this team. One of the most emotional and immature players in the league, J.R. Smith has a bad case of the I-Should-Be-Getting-More-Respect disease. Smith is a very good player. He has amazing hops and can hit three’s with the best of them. The problem with Smith is that he’s a basketball schizophrenic. One day you’ll get the Smith who’s 5-7 from downtown, with a bunch of assists, and the next day you’ll get the Smith who misses three three’s in a row, and then tries to immediately rebound by taking three more.
If Smith makes a three, there is a 75% chance that the next trip down the floor he will be take another one. The problem is he normally won’t make that second one. He acts like LeBron and Wade in this respect, only that he doesn’t have their talent. If Jason Kapono, maybe the best three pointer shooter in the league, makes a three pointer, he likely won't be shooting again on the next possession. This is because he is a role player and he understands that. J.R. Smith refuses to be a role player, even though there are two other players on his own team that are clearly much better than he is.
If Chauncey doesn’t pull the reins on Smith and lets him start chucking up shots in a close game against a good team, they don’t have a chance. Billups and Anthony need to make sure JR knows his place heading into the playoffs. If they do, the Nuggets will be just as good as anyone in the Playoffs.
Ok so these are the teams that have a real shot at the Chip. Thanks to all the trades last year and this year, several teams actually have legitimate shots at the Title, unlike almost every other year, where it’s really only between two or three teams. It all depends on who stays healthy, who gels as a team with their new teammates, and who steps up in big games. If the above-mentioned teams identify their stars, defer to them in close games, and the teammates play their role in winning, any of them have a legitimate shot to win it all. My apologies to the Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz and Matt Damon...
Thanks for reading this, and please stop by with comments...
-Justin Dreyfuss used to write for The Connection Newspaper in Northern VA. He also freelances for the Chicago Tribune, and loves chess. He will now be contributing his insights to Docksquad Sports as well...