Tag Archives: NBA

Appreciating Greatness: Choosing to Celebrate (and Not Hate) Kevin Durant and the Warriors

I am a Lakers fan, so I didn’t have a horse in the race in this year’s NBA Finals. However, as an NBA fan, I don’t understand the vitriol being directed at Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors. Don’t begrudge other people’s successes.

From a business perspective: Imagine you have the opportunity to take a new job in California with one of the best companies in the world and some of the best coworkers imaginable where you will have the chance to help create one of the best products your industry has ever seen. OR you could stay in your current job in Oklahoma continuing to churn out the same good-but-not-great product year after year. By the way, you have this one hardworking but obsessive coworker who sometimes gets on your nerves and steps on your toes in meetings. Oh, and the company transferred your favorite bearded coworker to Houston just as you were getting started on a potentially revolutionary project together.

From a basketball perspective: The Warriors play a beautiful brand of basketball. They space the floor. They’re unselfish. They have a great coach in Steve Kerr. They have Jerry West in the front office, so you know they’re going to make smart moves in terms of roster assembly (*cough cough OKC traded James Harden!*) Why would anyone NOT want to play for the Warriors? I want to play for the Warriors! I can hit a corner 3!

From a legacy perspective: LeBron backers, you cannot have it both ways. I have the utmost respect and appreciation for LeBron’s greatness, but you cannot deny LeBron went to Miami and joined forces with Wade and Bosh and Allen because it gave him the best chance to win. He returned to Cleveland with Kyrie and Love because it gave him the best chance to win. Why did Durant go to Golden State? Ding, ding, ding…because it gave him the best chance to win! LeBron and KD are both historically great players who put on a masterful display in the Finals. LeBron’s legacy shouldn’t be tarnished for losing to a great Warriors team, and Durant’s legacy shouldn’t be lessened for leading an already great Warriors team to even greater heights, going 16-1 en route to a championship. I don’t know how anyone could come away from watching that series thinking anything other than LeBron and Durant are both historically great and unique players. Fans were robbed of never seeing a Kobe-LeBron Finals; personally, I am delighted we’ve now been treated to two LeBron-KD showdowns. If the Lakers still suck next year, I wouldn’t mind seeing LeBron vs. Durant Part III.

From a fan perspective: I get it. The playoffs sucked this year. There were too many blowouts. The Finals matchup seemed inevitable from day one because the Warriors and Cavs were so talented. Yet I contest that even in a 4-1 series featuring only two games decided by fewer than 10 points the Finals was still compelling, must-see television precisely because the Warriors and Cavaliers had so much star power. More than any other sport, the NBA is a star-driven league. Dynasties rule in the NBA. That has been true since Russell’s Celtics in the 60s. But the true origins of the “super team” superstar model goes back to the “glory days” of the 80s. Winning an NBA championship has—with very few exceptions—always meant fielding a roster with at least two future Hall-of-Famers. The 80s Lakers had Magic and Kareem, and then they added James Worthy. The Celtics had Bird, McHale, Parish, and Dennis Johnson, and then they added Bill Walton!). The Pistons had Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Dennis Rodman. The 90s Bulls had Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman. The 00s Lakers had Shaq and Kobe. The Spurs had Duncan and some combination of Robinson/Parker/Ginobli/Kawhi. The 2008 Celtics had Pierce, Garnett, and Allen. The Heat had LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Allen. You get the idea. Heck, even the 2004 Pistons, who defeated the Lakers “super team” of Shaq/Kobe/Gary Payton/Karl Malone, had four all-stars in Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, and Ben Wallace.

Yes, the Warriors were a “super team” in 2017, but they’re just the latest in a long list of NBA super teams. Maybe they will win the next 5 championships and the rest of the league will waive the white flag of surrender, but remember…Shaq and Kobe only won 3 when critics thought they’d own the whole decade. LeBron’s Heat only won 2 despite his press conference promises to win more. So let’s not crown the Warriors 2018-2022 champions yet. They still have to play the games. They still have to earn it.

That’s what they did this year. And they did it all fair and square. This team was constructed expertly. They didn’t cheat. They brought back players like Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, former lottery picks willing to fit into a championship team as role players. They drafted well. Steph Curry was picked 7th (behind players like Hasheem Thabeet and fellow point guards Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn). Klay Thompson was selected 11th (behind three players on the current Cavs roster, including Derrick Williams). Draymond Green went in the second round (35th overall), so the odds are your team team passed him up. They added veterans like Zaza Pachulia and David West and found a rookie worthy of NBA Finals closeout game playing time in Patrick McCaw. And they worked the salary cap to perfection to sign Kevin Durant. The rest, as they say, is history.

I am not a Warriors fan, but I choose not to hate. I prefer to celebrate and marvel at greatness. Durant and the Warriors earned that this season and this NBA Finals.

Kawhi not?: Why the understated, underrated Spurs star should be the 2016-17 NBA MVP

The race for this season’s NBA Most Valuable Player award has been one of the most hotly contested and highly debated in league history. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the season. James Harden scorched the competition running one of the league’s most efficient offenses. Meanwhile defending champion and former four-time MVP LeBron James and reigning two-time MVP Stephen Curry once again put up big numbers while putting their respective teams back in title contention.

The glitz and glamour associated with the names listed above likely means Kawhi Leonard won’t be named the 2016-17 NBA MVP. While compelling cases can be made for any of the four names mentioned above, Kawhi Leonard should be named the 2016-17 NBA MVP. Allow me to explain:

Nearly a decade ago I wrote about my desire to fix the NBA’s MVP award. More specifically, I wanted to clarify what is meant by the term “valuable” because 10 different voters might define that term differently in regards to how it plays out over the course of an NBA season. My system, which first debuted in 2008, may not be perfect, but it accounts for 10 of the most significant arguments people tend to make regarding their MVP choice.

To summarize the process, I whittle the list of MVP candidates down to 10 with two major provisions. First of all, I do not include anyone from a non-playoff team. If a player is not valuable enough to get his team into the postseason, he may be an all-star, but he is not the MVP. Secondly, I only permit one MVP candidate per team. So, in the case of a team like the Golden State Warriors, I had to cut Kevin Durant in favor of Steph Curry. (Durant’s injury made this decision a little easier than it otherwise would have been.) The rationale is simple: if a player is not the MVP of his own team, he cannot be the MVP of the entire league.

List of MVP questions

I then ask myself the 10 questions shown above. For each question, I rank the 10 nominees with 10 being the highest and 1 being the lowest. The nominee who totals the highest (out of a possible 100) earns my vote for MVP.

In the 9 years I have been using this process, my vote has matched the eventual winner of the MVP award 8 times. The only time my vote differed from the real life result was in 2011 when the NBA awarded the MVP to Derrick Rose. My system named LeBron James the rightful winner and actually had Rose third behind both James and Kobe Bryant.

Year-by-year comparison on my MVP vote and the actual MVP recipient

Continue reading Kawhi not?: Why the understated, underrated Spurs star should be the 2016-17 NBA MVP

My 2009 NBA Finals Pick

It’s finally time for the NBA Finals. After a year of waiting, the Lakers are back for unfinished business. I hope they remember last year’s loss to the Celtics as distinctly as I do. I’m anxiously awaiting the tip of the ’09 Finals, even though I’m disappointed we will not be getting the heavily anticipated showdown between Lebron and Kobe.

Instead, the Lakers are faced with the Orlando Magic, led by the league’s best big man and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard. It’s hard to dislike Orlando. Howard is a fun-loving, Dunk Contest-winning, Shaq Junior. Meanwhile their coach looks like porn star Ron Jeremy, they shoot 3s like a rec league team, and they come from Disney World.

Still, the Lakers have experience on their side. Only two Magic players have ever played in the NBA Finals, and both are backup point guards. Anthony Johnson played for the New Jersey Nets in 2002 and 2003, and Tyronn Lue played for the Lakers in 2001. Most of the Lakers roster played in the Finals last year. Additionally, Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher each has 3 rings, and coach Phil Jackson is aiming for his NBA record 10th title.

The key to the series, in my opinion, will be the frontcourt battle. I expect Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to more or less cancel each other out. Both are all-star and All-NBA talents. The difference will be the other frontcourt players. If the Lakers’ Andre Bynum/Lamar Odom/Trevor Ariza can outplay Orlando’s Rashard Lewis/Hedo Turkoglu/Marcin Gortat, L.A. will win. If Orlando’s bigs make a bigger impact, they may pull the upset.

In the end, though, I think L.A. simply has too much firepower. They learned their lesson from last year’s championship, and they finally came together in Game 6 against Denver. Lakers in 6 is my pick.

My Picks
To recap, I’m using the scoring system from TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott’s Stat Geek Smackdown. The scoring system is 5 points for each correct series winner, plus 2 points if you get the number of games correct.

1st round = 36 points
2nd round = 15 points
3rd round = 7 points
Total = 58 points

NBA Finals
Los Angeles over Orlando in 6

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

2009 NBA Conference Finals Picks

The conference finals are here. After tonight’s one night break, the NBA has a game scheduled each day for the next two weeks. By then, if not sooner, we’ll have our 2009 NBA Finals matchup. My conference finals picks are coming in a bit, but first, a look back at how I fared in round two.

To recap, I’m using the scoring system from TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott’s Stat Geek Smackdown. The scoring system is 5 points for each correct series winner, plus 2 points if you get the number of games correct.

My picks
Cleveland over Atlanta in 5 = 5 points
Boston over Orlando in 7 = 0 points
Los Angeles over Houston in 5 = 5 points
Denver over Dallas in 6 = 5 points

1st round = 36 points
2nd round = 15 points
Total = 51 points

Boston’s Game 7 failure cost me 7 big points. Aside from that, I again underestimated the Cavs and Nuggets as they’ve both breezed through the first two rounds. For the record, my 51 points ties me with Henry’s mom in second-to-last place. Oh well.

Moving on to the conference finals, I still believe the Lakers and Cavaliers are on a collision course to meet for the championship, even if L.A. struggled to eliminate a depleted Rockets team. While I’m confident about who will advance, trying to predict the number of games is tough. I think both Orlando and Denver are tough enough to win a couple of games in the series, but I don’t see either squad forcing a Game 7.

Eastern Conference Finals
Cleveland over Orlando in 6

Western Conference Finals
Los Angeles over Denver in 6

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Game 7 Looms for Los Angeles

I still cannot believe that the Lakers’ season could actually be over 24 hours from now. The problem is, I’m not sure the Lakers realize that either. They’ve had multiple wake up calls during this playoff run—perhaps more of a playoff jog or playoff brisk walk—and have continually hit the snooze bar.

So now they’re down to a one-game, winner-take-all Game 7 against an undermanned, undersized Houston team that clearly has the Lakers overmatched in one key area. Use whatever term you want: heart, desire, will, want-to, effort, energy, enthusiasm. The Rockets bring it and the Lakers wing it. I haven’t been this frustrated, well, since the Lakers last played an elimination game. For those who need a reminder, they were embarrassed by the Boston Celtics, 131-92. The Celtics celebrated an NBA championship and the Lakers vowed to come back tougher this year. Ha.

Toughness—both physical and mental—remains the glaring vulnerability of this Lakers team. Their recent history with their backs against the wall isn’t encouraging either. Including the Boston Finals debacle last year, L.A. has faced elimination just three times in the post-Shaq era, and they’re 0-3 in elimination games.

In 2006, the Lakers met the Phoenix Suns in the first round. L.A. took a 3-1 series lead, but the Suns won the next two to force a Game 7. And in the series finale, the Lakers folded, losing 121-90 in a game in which they never led.

The following year, they met up with Phoenix in round one again. This time it was the Suns who jumped out to a 3-1 series lead. But the Lakers would not force a Game 7—or even a Game 6. They lost Game 5 by a count of 119-110, again never leading at any point.

Throw in the 2004 NBA Finals against the Pistons and 2003 Western Conference Semifinals, and the Lakers are 0-5 in their last five elimination games. They haven’t won an elimination game since they took both Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals against Sacramento in 2002. Incidentally, that team was also the last Lakers team to win a championship.

With home court advantage and memories of a 40-point win the last time the Rockets visited Staples Center, the Lakers are the clear favorites in Game 7. But if they’re going to win and advance, they can’t rest on their laurels. They have to come out from the opening tip with something to prove and give a spirited full 48 minutes of intensity and execution. If not, Houston is more than capable of stealing another game and the series, leaving the Lakers and their fans another long, agonizing offseason of questioned toughness and finger-pointing.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Grading the Game 6 F-ort

Frustrated. Disappointed. Angry. The Lakers brought out a cornucopia of negative emotions from me with their dismal Game 6 performance. They started the game by digging themselves a 17-1 hole that they would never emerge from. Credit the Rockets for not rolling over when everyone (myself included) was already talking about how L.A. matched-up against Denver. Fault the Lakers for thinking the Rockets would.

Collectively, there is no question that the Lakers deserve an F for their effort in this one. If there was a grade lower than an F, I’d give them that. But I’m not satisfied with just one blanket grade for this lackluster performance, so let me go down the line and assess the Lakers roster one-by-one.

Phil Jackson: D
He can only do so much to preach to his team about not having a letdown game. My gripe with Jackson is his lineup decisions. Farmar should play the bulk of the point guard minutes against the speedy Aaron Brooks. Shannon Brown should be the primary matchup against Kyle Lowry, and Fisher should only see spot minutes filling in. I also don’t want to see any more Luke Walton or Josh Powell in this series.

Kobe Bryant: B-
He may be the only Laker that I trust to bring it every night (excluding the second half of Game 7 vs. Phoenix in 2006). Still, he was hardly at his best last night. The careless turnover he had trying to feed the post in the third quarter was a momentum killer after the Lakers had cut the deficit to two. He also needs to resist the temptation to go for the FU-jumpers Battier wants him to take and instead make a commitment to getting into the paint and onto the free throw line for some easy points and/or kick-out opportunities to spot-up shooters.

Derek Fisher: F
Derek Fisher is past his prime. OK, fair enough. I don’t expect major statistical production from him anymore. And I don’t expect him to be able to defend quick point guards like Aaron Brooks. (You hear that, Phil?) Still, as the only Laker besides Kobe with any championship rings, I expect certain intangible benefits from him as a veteran leader of this team. Jacking up pull-up jumpers in transition, missing open 3s, and forcing the issue on offense before any offensive rebounders are in position are not among the things he should be bringing to the table. Is it a coincidence that L.A. won the game he was suspended in this series? I’m not so sure it is.

Pau Gasol: D
It is simply unacceptable for Pau Gasol, an All-NBA selection to be outplayed by the likes of Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes, and Carl Landry. Unacceptable. No one epitomizes the soft problems more than Gasol. Don’t get me wrong, the Lakers need him. But they need him to step up and be someone they can run the offense through, especially given the injury status of the Rockets’ front line.

Lamar Odom: C+
Odom is the individual player most like this Lakers team. He is so ridiculously talented that there is little he cannot do, but you never know what version is going to show up from game to game. For being the only Laker that seemed to want to rebound the ball in Game 6, and doing so with a severely bruised back, I’m giving him one of the few decent grades.

Andrew Bynum: F
Where did you go, Andrew Bynum? The man that was supposed to be a key cog in the Lakers’ attack after returning from injury has yet to fit back in. He used to be good for a few dunks, offensive rebounds, and shot blocks per game. Now he looks lost on offense and fouls like Greg Oden on defense. He’s young enough to have time to redeem himself, but it’s looking less and less like that will happen this year—let alone this series.

Trevor Ariza: C-
He was a key contributer to the Lakers’ brief sign of life in the third quarter, getting a steal and dunk and then connecting on a 3. Unfortunately, his supposed role of defensive stopper isn’t getting much press considering the workmanlike job the Rockets’ Shane Battier is doing on Kobe.

Jordan Farmar: C+
He may have been the only Laker to make a positive impact on the first half. Then when he finally got some fourth quarter minutes in place of Jackson, his impact lessened. I still think he needs to get more time in Game 7, though as his energy and quickness is needed.

Shannon Brown: C
The most consistent player off the L.A. bench this postseason didn’t do much good or bad for the team in this one.

Sasha Vujacic: F
One of the team’s most deadly weapons off the bench last season, Vujacic hasn’t shot the ball well all season, and this series is no different. His inability to hit shots has cut into his playing time and allowed the Houston defenders to sag into the paint against Kobe.

Luke Walton: D-
Walton is noted for his basketball IQ, but I frown every time I see him on the floor. He’s become an offensive liability and he’s not much better on the defensive end.

DJ Mbenga: D
I realize he didn’t play, but DJ deserves a “D” because defensive intensity is the one thing he brings to this team. If he were on the Rockets, he’d likely be seeing some playing time filling in for the injured Yao and Mutombo. And he’d probably be outworking Gasol, Bynum, and Odom, too.

Josh Powell: D-
As the roster replacement for Ronny Turiaf, Powell gave them some quality performances during the regular season, showing that he could be a reliable pick-and-pop player. But his deficiencies have surfaced in the playoffs. Unlike Turiaf, Powell is a low-key guy. Turiaf brought a feistiness and energy that this team seems to lack. Turiaf was also a better post defender and stronger rebounder. I was sad to see him go when he did, but I really didn’t miss him until now as he’d be the perfect answer to counter the Rockets’ Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry.

Adam Morrison: INCOMPLETE
In need of comic relief? Take a look at the 2006 NBA Draft. Morrison was chosen third overall yet he’s spent the series in a suit watching picks 24-26 play meaningful minutes right before his eyes. I don’t know If Morrison will ever matter as a Laker, but I’m at least intrigued to see if watching the playoffs from close up has an effect on him next season.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

Two Recipes for the Lakers

I went to bed angry last night. It’s one thing to lose a playoff game. It’s another to come out at home in a series opener and lose like THAT.

The same things that the Lakers got away with in their first-round series win against Utah surfaced in Game 1 Monday night against Houston. It was a recipe for disaster.

Lazy defense? The Rockets will move the ball, find the open man and hit the shot. Bypass boxing out? Scrappy Chuck Hayes, Carl Landry and company will sniff out the loose ball and give their team extra possessions. Rely on perimeter shooting? Houston’s defense will make you work. Open shots are few and far between, and you’ll be more tired if you ever do get an open look.

There’s no question which team is more talented in this series. The Lakers have the most talented roster In the league. But the Rockets proved in Game 1 that great effort and execution can defeat great talent.

Call it rust from the long layoff between series. Or call It an off-night (the Lakers shot just 11 percent (2-18) from 3-point range to go along with 63 percent shooting from the line and 44 percent from the field.

Despite all of this, the Lakers never trailed by more than 11 and even led by 1 briefly in the fourth quarter before the Rockets closed the game on a 24-15 run.

So, now that I’ve had some time to blow off some steam via text messages to my brother, an e-mail to my dad and several ranting tweets and Facebook status updates, let me offer the an 8-step recipe of improvement to help the Lakers bounce back from this ugly 8-point defeat.

  1. Start Lamar Odom.
    The Lakers are crisper with Odom and Gasol than they are with Bynum and Gasol (or Bynum and Odom) up front. It’s as simple as that. Plus, Bynum seems to pick up quick fouls almost every game relegating him back to the bench anyway. Let Bynum play with the second unit where the Rockets really have no backup center to defend him.
  2. Get Gasol involved early and often.
    Pau gives the Lakers a mismatch whether it’s quickness against Yao or size and skill versus Scola, Hayes or Landry. They need to get him the ball on the low block and let him go to work. Bynum going at Yao is not the way to attack. Gasol is an all-star and a better passer if the Rockets choose to double-team.
  3. Make an effort to get to the free throw line.
    I’m looking at you Kobe. Five free throw attempts is not going to cut it. Yao is a presence inside, but you still have to challenge him. Take the ball to the hoop strong and stop settling for outside shots.
  4. Give Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar more playing time.
    Fisher is not a good matchup against the Rockets’ speedy point guard tandem of Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry. Brown and Farmar have the speed and quickness to stay with them and limit penetration. Fisher brings veteran leadership, but his minutes should be limited throughout this series.
  5. Pass the ball with a purpose.
    There was too much stagnant offense from the Lakers in Game 1. The Rockets are a tough defensive team, but you make their job easier when the ball is sticking in one place.
  6. Make someone other than Yao beat you.
    Offensively Houston looks into Yao Ming on almost every possession. The Lakers need to show Yao different looks to complicate things for him. Double-team him on the catch one time, on the dribble the next, play him straight up the next time. Frustrate Yao and you’ll stifle the Rockets.
  7. Shoot with confidence.
    Ariza, Vujacic, Fisher, Brown, Farmar…when you have an open look from downtown, step into your shot and put it in. Don’t think about it. Don’t hesitate. Just shoot it. There’s no way we’re going 2-18 from distance again.
  8. Show some passion.
    Somebody show me that you care. Remember the beatdown Boston gave you last season? Where is that team that was poised to make this postseason different? Give me an FU dunk on Yao. Give me a good clean, hard, playoff foul on Aaron Brooks the next time he slithers into the paint. C’mon now!

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

2009 Conference Semifinals Picks

With the Hawks in the process of blowing out Miami in Game 7, the conference semifinals are all but set in stone. I’ll give my second round picks in a second, but first it’s time for a quick recap of my first round picks.

To recap, I’m using the scoring system from TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott’s Stat Geek Smackdown. The scoring system is 5 points for each correct series winner, plus 2 points if you get the number of games correct.

My picks
Cleveland over Detroit in 5 = 5 points
Boston over Chicago in 4 = 5 points
Orlando over Philadelphia in 6 = 7 points
Atlanta over Miami in 7 = 7 points
Los Angeles over Utah in 5 = 7 points
Denver over New Orleans in 7 = 5 points
San Antonio over Dallas in 6 = 0 points
Portland over Houston in 6 = 0 points
Round 1 total = 36 points

The two Western conference series that I missed surprised me. In retrospect, I’m mad at myself for not taking Houston with the experience edge they had over Portland. But I definitely didn’t see Dallas knocking off the Spurs, especially in such easy fashion. I also should’ve taken that Cavs sweep, but I gave Detroit too much credit for past success.

Moving on to round two, I remain very confident that the Lakers and Cavaliers will have little trouble advancing. The other two series have more question marks. My picks are as follows:

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Cleveland over Atlanta in 5
Boston over Orlando in 7

Western Conference Semifinals
Los Angeles over Houston in 5
Denver over Dallas in 6

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

16 Reasons I’m Watching the 2009 NBA Playoffs

The NBA playoffs tip off tomorrow afternoon, and I couldn’t be more excited. For the next two and a half months, the best that the basketball world has to offer takes center stage. From TNT’s 40 games in 40 nights to ABC’s Sunday afternoon showcase games, there’s no reason not to catch a game—or, if you’re like me—it’s really tough to miss any one game.

Please, do me a favor and put your petty gripes aside. The players will be playing hard. Defense does matter. And believe it or not, the first three quarters are as important as the final three minutes. There’s so many storylines to follow in this year’s playoffs, headlined by the seemingly destined Finals showdown between Kobe’s Lakers and LeBron’s Cavs. But 14 other teams have a little something to say about that.

So, without further ado, here are 16 reasons (one for each team) why I’m watching as much of the 2009 NBA playoffs as I possibly can.

  1. The return of Andrew Bynum
    Lakers fans (like myself) are elated to have a healthy roster heading into the postseason. Last year, without Bynum, they came two wins shy of winning the NBA championship. With the young center back in the lineup, Los Angeles becomes most experts’ pick as the team to beat, but question marks remain about Bynum’s long-term stability and the Lakers’ toughness.

    Still, like the Yankees, the Lakers are a polarizing force that is good for the sport. They are one of the most popular franchises in the league and also the most hated. If you’re not a Lakers fan, it’s fun to root against them, and fans will likely get the chance to do that well into June again this season.

  2. Mr. Big Shot in the wild, wild West
    No one knows who is the biggest threat to the Lakers in the West, but it might be the second-seeded Denver Nuggets, the same team L.A. swept in round one last year. This year’s Nuggets team has a decidedly different feel thanks to the early season trade for Chauncey Billups. The former Finals MVP (against the Lakers in 2004, for what it’s worth) has provided the veteran leadership that this team has needed, and they are hopeful that his presence will help them escape the first round for the first time in the George Karl era.
  3. What’s left in Tim’s tank?
    If the pattern holds, the Spurs will win the title this year. They won in 2007, 2005 and 2003, but the odds are not in their favor in 2009. The big reason why is that Manu Ginobli will miss the playoffs with an injury. So, that raises the question about San Antonio’s rock, Tim Duncan. Can the Big Fundamental rise to the occasion and carry San Antonio back to the Finals? His numbers have dipped a bit, but betting against Duncan and the Spurs in the postseason is like betting against heat in the desert.
  4. The future is now in Portland.
    For the past year of two, many in the media have touted the Blazers as the team of the future. With the youngest roster in the league, featuring 2006-07 Rookie of the Year Brandon Roy and 2007 number one overall pick Greg Oden among others, the Blazers were pegged as the team to contend with the Lakers down the road.

    Now It looks like that road may lead to Hollywood as early as May. Having earned home court in round one, the Blazers now look to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2000 when Blazers fans will remember, they lost a heartbreaking Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals against, who else but the Lakers.

  5. Houston, we have a problem.
    No one had a more disappointing tax day in the NBA than the Rockets. They went into their April 15 game against Dallas with the possibility of moving up to number two in the West. But their loss, coupled with wins by San Antonio and Portland dropped them to fifth, which means they’ll start the playoffs on the road. Rockets fans who were hoping this would be the year they get out of the first round (0-6 in playoff series since 1998) also have to be worried about the way they lost against Dallas, faltering down the stretch.

    Without the injured Tracy McGrady, Houston is left without a crunch-time identity. Does the last shot go to Yao or Ron Artest? The time to answer that question is not in Game 1 of a playoff series, and that could spell trouble for the Rockets unless Daryl Morey can stat-geek his way out of that quandary as well.

  6. Mark Cuban has a lot of money and little patience.
    It’s now or never in Dallas, and quite frankly, now is more like two years ago. Remember 2006, Mavs fans? Your team was two wins away from the NBA title when, down 0-2 in the Finals, the Miami Heat’s Dwayne Wade (and, depending on your point of view, the refs) made a historic comeback. After a stunning loss at the hands of the eighth-seeded Warriors in ’07 and a 4-1 series round-one beatdown from the Hornets last year, Dallas is now an afterthought when it comes to NBA title talks.

    For what it’s worth, they still have one of the game’s best players in Dirk Nowitski, and the most explosive bench scorer in the league in Jason Terry. But if they don’t overachieve this year, expect owner Mark Cuban to blow this thing up and start with a new plan of action in Big D.

  7. Can Chris Paul steal a playoff series?
    He led the league in thievery (that would be steals) for the second straight year, so it’s certainly in his nature. And last year’s playoffs was a real coming out party for Chris Paul as he led the Hornets to the Western Conference Semifinals before falling in seven games to the Spurs.

    This year, however, the Hornets have underperformed expectations, especially after adding former-Celtic James Posey in the offseason. But CP3 is the most dangerous player in the West not named Kobe Bryant, and the Hornets are certainly a frisky first round matchup for the Nuggets. I expect this to be the best first-round matchup in the West.

  8. Jerry Sloan is singing the blues.
    The veteran coach of the Jazz has all but conceded his team’s first-round series against the Lakers. I’m not buying it. This is essentially the same team that tested the Lakers in a well-played six-game series last year. Sure, they’ve struggled down the stretch, but L.A. has no answer for Deron Williams, and Utah has a variety of lengthy perimeter defenders to throw at Kobe. No, I don’t think the Lakers will lose the series, but I think talk of a sweep is a bit premature. This team’s talent is much better than that of an eight seed.
  9. LeBron James
    Remember this game from two years ago? Well, the starring figure in that montage is still playing basketball, and in case you haven’t heard, he’s gotten even better. Soon to be named 2009 NBA MVP, James leads the Cavs into the playoffs with the best record in the league, including a 39-2 mark at home. There’s no telling what King James has in store for the postseason, but he’s got at least two or three guaranteed WOW plays in him every time he steps out on the court.
  10. The defending underdogs
    The Lakers were the popular pick in the Finals last year even though the Celtics were the best team all season long. Now, as defending champions, the Celtics find themselves in familiar territory. After learning that they will likely play the entire postseason without Kevin Garnett, the Celtics not only would be underdogs in a Finals rematch against the Lakers, they would be underdogs against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals and might even be underdogs against Orlando in the second round.

    You just know that coach Doc Rivers loves the opportunity to fly under the radar with the confidence of a team that found a way to get it done last year. This is undeniably the team best-equipped to derail what appears to be Kobe and LeBron’s date with destiny.

  11. The wild card
    For most of the season, Orlando was talked about as the fourth member of the elite top tier (along with the Lakers, Cavs and Celtics). But after a 116-87 throttling of the Cavs on April 3, Orlando closed the season 3-4, failed to reach the 60-win mark, and dropped behind Boston into the three seed in the East. Dwight Howard is a beast, but he needs to prove he can carry a team deep in the playoffs. Now’s the time for this team to prove the doubters (like me) wrong and prove they belong in the same conversation as the aforementioned big three.
  12. No, seriously, watch the Hawks.
    One of the most entertaining playoff series of last season featured the Atlanta Hawks, a team that had a losing record. They took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games. And guess what? The Hawks are back and better this year. They have home court advantage in round one, and that’s big because they were 3-0 at home, 0-4 on the road in that series against Boston. Joe Johnson is the playoffs’ best kept secret, and Josh Smith is a freak of nature when it comes to swatting shots away. Look for Atlanta to be part of one of the most entertaining first-round series again.
  13. Dwayne Wade takes on the Hawks.
    OK, technically it’s the Miami Heat heading to Atlanta, but Dwayne Wade is the NBA’s best one-man show. After Miami traded away Shawn Marion midseason, it became even clearer that this team was only going to go as far as Wade would take them. Is that into Cleveland for a second-round showdown with LeBron and company? Can Wade really beat the Hawks on his own? Wade’s done it before (see: Mavericks, Dallas; 2006 NBA Finals). We’ll see if he can repeat that performance soon enough.
  14. Is AI the man in Philly?
    No, not Iverson. I’m talking about Andre Iguodala. Many predicted the 76ers would be in the playoffs again this year, but they expected Elton Brand to lead the charges. Instead, he’s another big name out with injury, and this Philly team is much like the one that gave Detroit a first-round scare before bowing out in six games. Iguodala leads the team in scoring and minutes played, but he’s yet to show that he’s a guy worthy of being a team’s alpha dog. If he can spearhead a first-round upset, that’d be huge, but my thinking is that he’s got to be your second or third option if you’re going to win a title.
  15. A Rose blooms in Chicago
    Rookie Derrick Rose had a great first year in the NBA, and it’ll be fun to see him make his playoff debut against the defending champions and arguably the league’s best defensive point guard, Rajon Rondo. Rose has this Bulls team surging at the right point of the year, but they dropped a key game to close the season and fall from sixth to seventh in the East. No one’s expecting them to win the series, but it’ll be fun to see how much of a scare Rose and company can give a KG-less Boston squad.
  16. The end of an era
    It started with the departure of Ben Wallace a few years ago, but it wasn’t really until Joe Dumars pulled the trigger on the trade that sent Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson, that this Pistons era—the one that saw Detroit play in six straight conference finals and two NBA Finals—officially came to a close. Iverson will not be a part of this Detroit playoff team (adding him to the list of injured stars that includes Garnett, McGrady, Ginobli and Brand).

    But it doesn’t really matter. With or without the Answer, this Pistons team doesn’t have the answers to solve all the questions posed by Cleveland in round one. Veterans Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess will certainly be game, but effort can only take them so far, and in their case, it won’t be far at all this year, especially by recent Detroit Pistons standards.

There you have it. So many reasons to watch. I can’t wait. Let the games begin.

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.

2009 NBA Playoff First-Round Picks

I am not a Stat Geek, but I am intrigued by Henry Abbott’s 2009 NBA Playoff Stat Geek Smackdown.

If you don’t know Abbott, he is the author of the TrueHoop blog on ESPN.com, and it’s my go-to blog year-round.

Anyway, you can read about the Stat Geek Smackdown and see the competitors picks here.

Just for fun, I’m going to submit my picks as well and use the same scoring system to see how I match up to the stat geeks as someone picking based solely upon instinct and observation. The scoring system is 5 points for each correct series winner, plus 2 points if you get the number of games correct.

My picks:

East 1st round
Cleveland over Detroit in 5
Boston over Chicago in 4
Orlando over Philadelphia in 6
Atlanta over Miami in 7

West 1st round
Los Angeles over Utah in 5
Denver over New Orleans in 7
San Antonio over Dallas in 6
Portland over Houston in 6

Feel free to join in the fun and submit your own picks in the comments section below!

For more information, visit MattHubert.com.