Saturday, February 16, 2008

Thoughts On The NBA (Primarily The Trades)

Many of you (okay, probably two) will be wondering why I haven't posted anything substantial on basketball for a while. After all, I deem it important enough to be one of our categories over there in our little categories section. Plus those readers who happen to know me personally know that I'm a huge fan. So what happened? Well, a couple of things. First, there's just been way too much stuff to write about in the last few months. With the political turmoil in Pakistan and election season in the U.S., not to mention my real work (which for now constitutes working on my MA; I'll talk about the project here on Rs. 5 when it's done in a month or so), I simply haven't had the time.

For another thing, I'm simply down on the NBA right now. A lot of things have really frustrated me over the last few months. Consider the playoffs in the last two seasons. In 2006, the refs almost cost Phoenix the series against the Lakers when they made those atrocious non-calls in game 4 (when Kobe hit the game winner after Nash "lost" the ball). They then handed Miami the championship, repeatedly bailing Wade out against Dallas, sending him to the line when defenders had the temerity to breathe on him. It wasn't just the fact that the refs were deciding the game instead of the players, but that the refs were rewarding a certain style of play: put your head down, drive into the lane, flail your arms, and hope for a whistle. Just like evolutionary biology contorts itself to keep ugly people around, so too NBA refs were somehow making sure that ugly basketball lived on: if refs rewarded a certain style of play, you can be sure as hell that other teams would emulate it, thus reducing the aesthetic quality of the game.

[Just a quick interruption: conventional wisdom states that in team sports, coaches/managers/captains control the style of play. Get a different manager/coach/captain, the thinking goes, and your style will change. This is true, but only to a limited extent, and it masks a greater truth - that the greatest determinants of style in any team sport are referees. I guarantee that if refs in football start yellow-carding dives regularly and unequivocally, you'll see diving out of the game in a matter of months. Officials and referees are the most powerful people on the field/court/pitch insofar as the quality and content of the product concerned.]

Anyway, as I was saying, the 2006 playoffs were sort of a disappointment. But they were nothing compared to last year's Phoenix-Spurs series. San Antonio is one of those rare teams that manages to commit more infractions than any other team, and yet is held up as the standard, the beacon of light in a world of darkness, the Team That Everyone Respects. I never understood it. They have a guy who flops at least four times a game (Ginobili). They have a guy who is arguably the dirtiest player in the NBA and risks injuring people every time he guards them (Bowen). They have a guy who mopes and makes that puppy dog face every time a call goes against him, even though he's a supposed MVP and the greatest power forward of all time (Duncan). Their coach is a goddamn Cold Warrior. And their point guard married Eva Longoria. Can anyone please explain to me why this team has any fans? And speaking of fans, you know what else is really annoying? When in their home games, Spurs' fans start their stupid "Go, Spurs, go!" chant. Arrrghh! They sound like eleven year-olds at a birthday party playing musical chairs. I just want to strangle them.

So this team ends up beating the most aesthetically pleasing group in the NBA, the Suns. And they don't beat them because they're better, but because in David Stern's twisted logic, rules like "You can't leave the bench in case of a fight" have to be strictly adhered to, but rules like "You can't knee the opposing team's point guard and league MVP in the balls" and "You can't kick a guy in the heel when he's driving in for a dunk" are to be applied somewhat less stringently. Anyway, once the refs and David Stern handed the Spurs that series, I was beyond livid. Add that to the fact that Cleveland (!) got to the Finals beating a grand total of one good team (and even that team didn't play hard for three of the six games), and you can see why I was disheartened.

This year has throw up its own slew of problems. Consider the disparity between the conferences right now. As of today, February 15, Denver is out of the playoffs. A team with two all-stars and one which really should have had three (Camby's having another monster year), with a great supporting cast and a decent coach, is out of the playoffs. Not because they're underachieving, or not playing hard, but simply because right now, they're eight teams in the West better than them. They're 32-20! 32-20! 12 games above .500! Over in the East, Philly (Philly!) is in the eighth spot, with a...(wait for it)...23-30 record (I wonder how AI would feel about his new and improved team sitting home in April while his former team, led by superstars like Igoudala, Andre Miller, and Dalembert get into the playoffs). The disparity in their records doesn't even reveal the true gulf in quality, because Denver plays most of its games in the West and Philly most of theirs in the East. In other words, 32-20 in the West would probably be 40-12 in the East. That, for the record, would be 2nd place right now. And can anyone dispute that if Denver was in the East, as it is presently constitued, it would be behind Boston but ahead of everyone else? Anyone?

What this means is that out of Phoenix, New Orleans, San Antonio, Dallas, the Lakers, Utah, Golden State, Houston, and Denver, five won't make the second round. Five of those teams will not make the second round. I'm sorry I keep repeating myself, but can you honestly blame me? I would venture to suggest that each of those five teams could be anywhere between best in the East to third in the East, but no lower. The difference in quality is just ridiculous.

Of course, the solution to this would be easy: just scrap the entire notion of conferences. Seed the best sixteen teams in the NBA by record first, head-to-head second, plus/minus differential third. If 12-13 Western teams make it, so be it. It would make for the most satisfying result anyway. That fact, by the way, guarantees that the NBA will never do it. Any time they can actually do something smart for the fans, you can be sure they won't bother trying. (Sometimes it's worse than not trying - sometimes the NBA actively discourages other people from trying. Witness their refusal to let Dwight Howard raise the rim to 12 feet for the dunk contest this Saturday. Why, you ask? Because the idea "clashes with their intent to apply as many standard NBA rules to All-Star Weekend contests as possible." Because, you know, nothing screams "standard NBA rules" quite like All-Star weekend).

Anyway, that's enough bitching for me. Here are my thoughts on the various trades and non-trades.

Gasol to the Lakers
For once, I actually agreed with Greg Popovich. Here's what he told SI after the trade: "What they did in Memphis is beyond comprehension. There should be a trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense. I just wish I had been on a trade committee that oversees NBA trades. I would have voted no to the LA trade." This was truly highway robbery. The Lakers got exactly the type of guy they wanted and gave up a bunch of liabilities in the process (really, you should try and watch Kwame catch the ball; it's a truly painful experience). Now they pair a 27 year-old Gasol with a 20 year-old Bynum with a Kobe in his prime with a young and hungry supporting cast (Farmar, Turiaf, Vujacic, Walton) with just the right amount of smart, heady veterans sprinkled around (Fisher, Odom). That's a championship caliber team. Only, they're not going to win it this year. Two reasons:

One, teams that pull a major trade in the middle of the season almost never win anything substantial the same year. The lack of familiarity dooms almost all of them. The only exception to this rule in the last ten years has been Rasheed to Detroit in '04. The only other exception I can think of off the top of my head is Clyde to Houston back in '95. That's it. You pull a monster trade, you do it in the off-season, so your team and coach can have a training camp together and build from there. This is especially true of a team with a complicated offense like the triangle.

Two, the Lakers need to pull another trade, and here's why. Bynum plays center. Gasol (a weak defender) plays power forward. And Odom will now shift to the 3. Now, do you really think Odom can guard small forwards? You think he's quick enough to stay in front of Carmelo? How about Ginobili? Josh Howard? Grant Hill? McGrady? You think Odom can guard these guys? I don't. I also don't think Gasol can guard the Duncans, Boozers, and Nowitzkis of the West. What this means is that the Lakers will have two weak links on the defensive end in the playoffs, and that usually spells doom (you're allowed one if you want to win a ring, but two is pushing it).

So in the off-season, after they're bounced in the second round, the Lakers need to trade Odom for a young athletic three who's happy playing defense (Igoudala would be nice, but they can't get him, not for Odom). And then their team will be complete, and they'll be favorites next year. But not this year. Not yet, Laker fans. Not just yet.

Shaq to Phoenix
Dear Lord, what a disaster this will turn out to be. What's been truly funny to me is the reaction to the trade. First, everyone came out and said they hated it. Then, following Rule Number 178627 of Punditocracy (Thou Shalt Stake Out A Position Completely Contrary To What Logic Dictates If It Means That Thou Standst Alone), everyone shifted their opinion, saying "hey, maybe it could work after all!". Of course, all the pundits made the exact same move at the same time, thus defeating the purpose of the original move.

This will be terrible. Mark my words, this will turn out to be unmitigated disaster. First, Shaq will clog up all the space in the middle. The reason the Suns are so devastating on offense is that they can put three three-point shooters on the perimeter, and let Nash and Amare work the pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor. The opposing team has to decide if it wants to give up a thunderous Amare dunk, a short jumper by Nash, or an open three. That option is now gone. Second, Shaq is a terrible defender. If Phoenix thinks he's going to help their defense, they're in for a rude shock, because he's going to get beat by any center who can move his feet. Third, he's a terrible rebounder. You have to be able to jump to get rebounds, and Shaq, sadly, can no longer jump. Fourth, for all the talk about chemistry, wait until Shaq gets grumpy at not getting a touch for three or four posessions. This is still an immensly proud man, and he's not going to be happy with merely starting the break, as everyone seems to think he will be. Fifth, dude's going to be hurt all the time. The guy has played more than 67 games just once in the last seven seasons. Whatever you say about Marion, at least he showed up to play more than once a week.

I feel bad, primarily because I love Nash and I think he deserves a ring. But he's not getting it with this team. Not in a million years.

Kidd to Dallas?
Call me crazy, but I think a non-trade will work out best for the Mavs here. Really, what do you get with Kidd at this point? A 35 year-old dude who shoots his age, that's what (well, almost - his FG% is 36). He's not going to run and gun because that's not Dallas' style, and really, he's too old to stay in front of the Parkers and Iversons, who are the type of people he'll be asked to guard. So what exactly is the point? I have absolutely no idea why Dallas would pull this trade, especially given all they're giving up. It's just not worth it.

I'm convinced that Dallas, if it doesn't pull this trade, will become along with San Antonio and Utah the favorites in the West. My reasoning, outlined earlier, is simple: the playoffs favor teams that know and trust each other. Continuity is good, not bad. When you have a core that's been together a while, and has played heated 7-game series in raucous atmospheres, and has won and lost together, then you stand a chance. If Dallas stands pat, I say they become the favorites, notwithstanding the damage to their chemistry this non-trade would have wrought. I mean, shouldn't Devin Harris' feelings be considered in our calculations?

Webber to Golden State, Damon Stoudamire to San Antonio, and Korver to Utah
Inconsequential and stupid, realtively inconsequential and not bad, and very smart and unheralded, respectively.

That's it for me. Enjoy the weekend, guys.


shariq said...

wow, that was an epic post. some comments.

1) umpires don't really determine the style of play in cricket as much as the pitches and weather. the only thing i can think of is how batsman have adjusted/not adjusted to the fact that umpires are now more willing to give lbw's, especially when batsmen are playing well forward to spinners. see warne, panesar etc.

2) the western conference playoffs are going to amazing! i think its great that the first round is going to be so competitive.

if you wanted to scrap conferences you would also have to readjust the schedule so everyone plays each other an equal number of times. also, a system in which say the spurs could just coast to the 7or 8 seed seems slightly wrong.

btw, this would almost certainly scrap the possibility of nba franchises coming to western europe. as a londoner i'm still hoping for the London Towers :)

3) As a Suns fans I'm worried the Lakers are ready to win it all this season depending on Bynum's fitness. Like the Sheed trade, they're just subbing in a vastly better piece rather than restructuring a new team.

4) Ultimately predicting the west is fool's gold as so much depends on matchups.

Ahsan said...

yeah, cricket is an exception. i guess i should have said "team sports that are contact-oriented".

Farooq said...

How about that Michael Jordan and them Chicago Bulls!

Nikhil said...

Detroit is SIGNIFICANTLY better than Denver. A 7 game series would go 5 games, mayyyyybe 6.

I think Denver need to get Artest to cover for Melo's inability to defend a chair - only then will i take them seriously.

Remember what I said 1-2 months ago about the how two teams not making the playoffs would be Por (fo sho) and one of either Den / GS...and you said Por was around for good and Uta and Hou probably wouldn't make it...just wanted to remind you of that. Also, remember when I destroyed you in our first-round playoff pool? How you can claim to know basketball better when you're SO far off the mark on every prediction you make is beyond me.

Nikhil said...

Oh, also wanted to mention the following:

1) Korver to Utah feels SO right. It was something I'd been hoping for since the year he was drafted, never believing it would actually happen...this move is H-UY-UGE in terms of what he provide the Jazz (deadeye 3 pt shooter, end of game FT finisher). So very excited!

2) Chris Wallace is a choot. Babies could take candy from him.

3) I told you how I felt about the Shaq trade - shocked initially, and then sort of won over by Stein (who beat the rest of the pundits to the phenomenon you mention...I think he is the best basketball reporter around). Basically, I really don't think Pho was going to make it out of this Western conference with that team, and knowing they had max 2 more years with Nash, they rolled the dice...Good for them. I do think they could have gotten a pick or something out of miami in addition to shaq, but that's neither here nor there.

4) If the Kidd trade goes through, Thorn has done a phenomenal job for Jersey again...he's been incredible except for the Carter extension - I'll never understand that.

5) Dallas is NOT winning the West. With or without Kidd. Although you're wrong about them not being able to run - they can definitely run.

6) Mighty Mouse in San Antonio was a great pick-up - both for the regular season as well as the playoffs.

7) If the Jazz can avoid LA and SA in the playoffs (which is entirely possible given the million different ways in which the West could end up), I feel confident in saying they will make the NBA finals.

8) LA can win this year. Pau can hit the mid-range / elbow jumper and is a fantastic passer. With him on the high screen and Bynum in the low post, LA will be hard to beat. The only reason I don't think they'll win, is not because Pau will be hard to integrate into the triangle (I think he'll fit in quite nicely), but because of how long it'll take Bynum to get back to 100% and comfortable playing with a true 4.

9) I know I've forgotten a couple of other things I wanted to say, but it's 5.30 in the morning and I just got back from 2 days in AC, so forgive me. Instead, I'll just sign off by saying that it's impossible to hate the NBA given how great the West currently is. I watched the NO-Pho game a couple of weeks ago and was simply blown reminded me of why I loved basketball in the first place...where amazing happens.

shariq said...

1) Nikhil, agreed that Korver is a big difference for the Jazz. I think the key guy is Memo. If he can shoot 3's and play solid post D at the same time they can win. I think against SA last year he defended well but shot poorly.

2) Stein is great (like the fact he's a huge football fan) and i think Shaq can make a difference to Phoenix. However I can't help thinking that Simmons was right that they should have done whatever they had to, to trade Amare for KG.

3) There were probably better deals for Phx than Shaq, but the fact that his deal expires the same year as Nash was probably the clincher.

4) Dwight Howard, Wow! If only Orlando hadn't bet their future on Rashard Lewis.