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April 29, 2009

NBA playoffs: my picks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 3:34 pm

It suddenly occurred to me that I never went on record here at the site with my playoff picks. That’s a bit of an oversight, I would say. Luckily, my picks are on record in a reputable publication, so the fact that I’m posting these now can’t be dismissed with a, “Yeah, sure you picked the Mavericks.”

However, the aforementioned “reputable publication” also edited out my picks for beyond the first round, an occupational hazard for those who work in that medium. So without too much elaboration, here’s how I saw the playoffs unfolding:

FIRST ROUND

  • Cleveland vs. Detroit: No way Cleveland loses a game in this series. No way. As such, Detroit’s six-year streak of reaching the conference finals is finally at an end. Cavaliers in four.
  • Atlanta vs. Miami: It’s hard to see Miami overcoming Atlanta’s homecourt advantage. A year from now, the growing Heat will have left Atlanta in its dust. Not this time around, though. Atlanta in six.
  • Orlando vs. Philadelphia: I think Philly can steal a game or two just as they did in its first-round matchup last season against Detroit. For a team that is almost exactly average, that’s about as good as the 76ers can hope for. Orlando in five.
  • Boston vs. Chicago: More competitive than it would have been had Garnett been healthy, this is still not going to be the series where Boston is dethroned. The Celtics have the edge in experience, defense and consistency. Boston in five.
  • LA Lakers vs. Utah: The Lakers may be challenged before the finals, but it won’t be in this one. This just hasn’t been Utah’s year. Lakers in five.
  • Portland vs. Houston: The Rockets are cursed in their recent first-round matchups. Portland is too deep, too athletic and is peaking at the right time. Portland in seven.
  • San Antonio vs. Dallas: It’s probably a mistake to count out a Gregg Popovich team this early in the playoffs, but this just seems like a matchup of teams headed in different directions. Because the overall indicators are so close, recent performance hold sway in this case. Mavericks in six.
  • Denver vs. New Orleans: The Nuggets have got to be one of the most unsung two-seeds in recent memory. No one is giving them a shot to make a deep run in the postseason and plenty of pundits are picking the Hornets in this series. The Nuggets aren’t really the second-best team in the West, but they are good enough to win this series, especially with homecourt in their hip pockets. Nuggets in six.

CONFERENCE SEMIFINALS

  • Cleveland vs. Atlanta: No chance for Atlanta, but a second-round appearance is a nice season for the Hawks. (Cavs in four)
  • Boston vs. Orlando: The Kevin Garnett injury tips the scales in what would have been a great series. Could be one anyway. (Magic in six)
  • LA Lakers vs. Portland: Great matchup, but comes one season too soon for Portland. (Lakers in six)
  • Denver vs. Dallas: This is what a high seed can do for a team. (Nuggets in seven)

CONFERENCE FINALS

  • Cleveland vs. Orlando: Not the matchup we expected, but will be plenty of fun anyway. (Cavs in five)
  • LA Lakers vs. Denver: A letdown. (Lakers in four)

NBA FINALS

  • Cleveland vs. LA Lakers: The Cavaliers won only one more game than the Lakers in the regular season, but most numerically-based rankings have the Cavaliers anywhere from four to six games better than the Lakers. This has the potential to be an iconic matchup at the Bird/Magic level. (Cavaliers in six)

April 27, 2009

Hot Rod is going to cool his wheels

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 6:26 pm

Sad note from the NBA today, where iconic Jazz broadcaster Hot Rod Hundley announced that he is going to retire after the end of the current season. That means tonight could mark his swan song behind the microphone.

There are a group of displaced NBA fans such as myself and my younger brother, that got into the league when satellite signals were ripe for the picking and the dishes were the size of a flying saucer. Back then, most teams relied on a single voice for play-by-play to do both radio and television in a simulcast. As such, you could really “listen” to a game while you were watching it and these voices invariably became the prism through which you came to know each team. For us, the Hot Rod was the Jazz, before Karl Malone, before John Stockton, even before Pete Maravich.

He’ll be missed. The Jazz went away from simulcasting a few years back, so Hot Rod was only on the radio and the new generation of League Pass subscribers never got to know him. Every once in awhile, I’d still fire up the Jazz radio broadcast from the Audio Pass, but it wasn’t synched with the video. Still, it was always good to hear an old friend.

The old school simulcasters are pretty much gone. The days of Jim Durham calling the Bulls, Chick Hearn the Lakers, Kevin Callabro the Sonics, among others, are behind us. In their place are a different breed of play-by-play announcers, more intent on offering commentary and exchanging banter with their color analysts than describing the action. The Jazz are still in good shape as Craig Bolerjack, who took over TV duties from Hundley, is one of the best in the business.

Still, there are few that had or will have the flair of Hot Rod Hundley. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

April 24, 2009

A Tale of Two Knees

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:08 am

I’ve yet to touch on either of this week’s two major knee injuries. The first was suffered by Boston Celtics big man Leon Powe, who tore his left ACL and meniscus in Monday’s Game 2 against Chicago. While the Celtics hardly missed Powe in tonight’s lopsided win at the United Center, they will before this postseason is over. Glen Davis has had a strong postseason, but in my book Powe was the best of the non-Kevin Garnett Boston power forwards. Certainly, he provides the most scoring punch. Also, there’s an issue of sheer depth with Garnett and Powe both sidelined. Brian Scalabrine made his return to the lineup Thursday to help alleviate that somewhat.

More troubling than the implications for the Lakers is what the injury means for Powe. He initially tore his left ACL in high school, returning too quickly by his own admission to play his senior year. (Also, naturally, the treatment players who suffer major injuries as prepsters fails to compare with what they get in the pros.) After a strong first year at Cal, Powe underwent two more surgeries on the same knee, including what is described as a “reconstruction.” The history of knee problems was a major reason Powe dropped to the second round of the 2006 NBA Draft.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Powe this time around; he’s scheduled to become a free agent this summer, and surely will miss part of the 2009-10 season. Doc Rivers has already spoken up on Powe’s behalf. We’ll see how that plays out.

I was in attendance for the second knee injury, the ruptured quadriceps tendon suffered by Houston’s Dikembe Mutombo. When he stayed on the ground writhing in obvious agony, it quickly became evident this was a serious and possibly career-ending injury. Despite the generic preliminary “sprained knee” diagnosis, that was confirmed when reporters came out of the Rockets locker room saying Mutombo had told them, “For me, basketball is over.”

Mutombo was likely to retire at season’s end either way, so this isn’t a long-term loss. Still, you’d have liked to see one of the NBA’s most respected players go out on his own terms and not because of a gruesome injury. The good news is the tributes to Mutombo over the last few days have shown how much he meant to everyone involved in the NBA. Even I’ve forgiven him for the 1994 playoffs.

– A couple of notes on league-wide trends. David Aldridge referenced our research in a very good piece on how the hand-checking restrictions have changed the way teams play defense and put increased emphasis on defending without fouling. Also, M. Haubs over at The Painted Area put together an update on those same trends, emphasizing the league reaching or nearing new standards in terms of 3P%, FT% (surprisingly) and eFG% as well as how the San Antonio Spurs’ clutch shooting allowed NBA teams to crack the century mark in average scoring for the first time since 1994-95.

– Lastly, join me tomorrow at 1 p.m. Eastern at Baseball Prospectus to chat about the NBA postseason and whatever else is on your mind. If you can’t make it then, you can leave your question ahead of time to be answered during the chat.

April 21, 2009

Is This the Playoffs of the Point Guard?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:33 am

With all due respect to LeBron James, Ben Gordon and others, through three days and 10 games, the 2009 NBA Playoffs have been owned by point guards. Already we have seen the following lines posted by point guards around the league:

  • 36 points, 11 assists (Derrick Rose)
  • 29 points, nine rebounds, seven assists (Rajon Rondo)
  • 27 points, seven assists (Aaron Brooks)
  • 16 points, 17 assists (Deron Williams)
  • 36 points, eight assists (Chauncey Billups)
  • 21 points, 11 assists (Chris Paul)
  • 19 points, 16 assists, 12 rebounds (Rondo)
  • 38 points, eight assists (Tony Parker)

Nearly half the league’s teams have had their point guard either record a double-double, score 25 points, or both. Remarkably, five of the seven are still within their first four years in the league. This might be the tipping point in an evolution that began when the league reinterpreted rules restricting hand-checking on the perimeter, opening the floor up for quick guards.

I’ve been thinking about this in the wake of my All-Defensive picks. Fans of the Celtics and Magic, respectively, felt I’d overrated Rondo and Rafer Alston, who made my First and Second Teams, respectively. I think part of the disagreement is they have seen these players beaten time and again–but they haven’t seen the same thing happen to other point guards they aren’t watching as closely. Basically, given the current rules, it’s virtually impossible to defend the league’s best point guards. While it may be frustrating for fans to see their defense get beat, it makes for an open, free-flowing, entertaining game for the rest of us.

April 20, 2009

Good News for the Celtics and Spurs

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 6:22 pm

Piggy-backing on Bradford’s post just below. . . .

Having lost Game 1 Saturday on their home court, Boston and San Antonio are desperately in need of a Game 2 victory tonight to avoid facing a deep 2-0 hole heading out on the road. Portland will be in the same position tomorrow, as will Orlando on Wednesday. History tells us the road teams will have a hard time completing the sweep of the first two games.

The eagle-eyed readers at Blazer’s Edge noted that the site WhoWins.com has comprehensive data on seven-game series in the NBA as well as other sports. They break down team performance by Game 1 outcome. From 2003, when the NBA went to best of seven in the first round, through last year, 12 lower-seeded teams went on the road to take Game 1. In Game 2, those same teams were 2-10. (Oddly enough, one of those two teams was the 2005 Houston Rockets, who ultimately lost the series in seven games. The other was last year’s Utah Jazz, who went up 2-0 on the Rockets and beat them in six games.)

That site’s breakdown was fascinating to me because I wanted to take a look at one of my subjective beliefs–that the Game 1 loser actually takes something of an advantage into Game 2. Alas, the first-round data doesn’t prove that out. Home teams are slightly better in Game 2 coming off a win (.861 winning percentage) than having lost (.833). However, that’s probably got something to do with the large talent differences in the 1-8 and 2-7 matchups. When you look at all seven-game series, home teams win Game 2 68.3 percent of the time after winning Game 1 and a much stronger 74.2 percent of the time after losing.

Why do we see this effect? Part of it, surely, is nothing more than old-fashioned regression to the mean. But I also think it’s easier for teams to make adjustments after a loss than it is to do so after a win. Winning can hide some flaws. In some ways, this theoretical effect is similar to the one researchers at Penn found this year where teams that trail by small margins at halftime tend to come back to win more than 50 percent of the time. While there are still questions about the robustness of that study, the underlying theory makes some sense.

Road warriors: WRITETHRU

Filed under: Uncategorized — Bradford Doolittle @ 1:07 pm

Four road teams won game one in the first round of the playoffs this past weekend. Wow. As these were all series openers, in each case, it was the lower-seeded team that won. How unusual is that?

I’m not sure of the exact answer to my own question, but I did check last season. In the 86 games played in last year’s NBA playoffs, lower-seeded teams won six road games. Six of 86. This year: Four of eight.

EDIT: Of course, the lower-seeded team isn’t actually always the road team, so that means the ‘six of 86’ business is all wrong. I apologize for the misinformation. I blame nature, which has imbued me with a beauty of a respiratory infection that has sucked the lifeforce out of me going on 10 days now. Just in time for the playoffs!

I don’t know if there is a full article worth writing on this subject, but if one were to try, the inevitable question would be: Why? Well, two days worth of results don’t tell us much. Right now, it’s just interesting trivia. However, it’s worth noting that two of those home favorites that bit the dust on Saturday (Boston and San Antonio) were missing a member of its core trio. I suspect that if we uncovered similar NBA playoff seasons that did not hold to form, we’d find a similar story.

That’s not to suggest that after two days, we know that this year’s bracket won’t hold to form. I’m just saying …

April 17, 2009

Stat Geek Smackdown

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 5:48 pm

For the third straight season, I’ll be competing in TrueHoop’s Stat Geek Smackdown, which pits eight NBA statistical analysts against each other (and author Henry Abbott‘s mom) to see who can do the best job of predicting the NBA playoffs. My results the last two years tend to show this isn’t much of an indicator: After finishing second in 2007, I was last amongst the geeks last year, beating only Henry’s mom.

Basketball-Reference.com‘s Justin Kubatko was more consistent, winning both years. Alas, he had to retire this season because he is now under the employ of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Our picks for the first round are now online, along with some explanation for each pick. Here’s who I took:

Cleveland in 5
Boston in 7
Orlando in 5
Atlanta in 6

L.A. Lakers in 6
Denver in 6
Dallas in 7
Portland in 7

This is the first year I’m relying on a specific formula instead of just making use of the available numbers. Common sense is still an override, though. The numbers favored San Antonio, almost entirely because of home court, but I still like the Mavericks to pull the upset.

Elsewhere, I summarized my research on the relationship between age and success in “The Count” feature for The Wall Street Journal this morning, highlighting Portland ending the season as the league’s youngest 50-win team in the last three decades.

(By the way, if you think Stat Geek Smackdown is a misleading name in terms of level of violence, you might enjoy the Garbage Time All-Stars cartoon previewing the Rockets-Blazers series.)

April 13, 2009

The Rule That Might Decide a Division

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 12:25 am

I know I wrote earlier this year that the San Antonio Spurs have been the recipients of some good fortune in close games this season, but this was ridiculous. Earlier tonight, San Antonio hung on to defeat a scrappy Sacramento team at ARCO Arena on the strength of a tie-breaking Michael Finley three-pointer with 1.3 seconds left to play. The only problem was the shot was clearly released after the shot clock had reached zero, as the incensed Kings broadcast crew pointed out even before seeing a replay that confirmed the referee error.

Had the shot come at the end of the game, the officiating crew could have reviewed the play, but because there was still time left on the clock they had no such option. I understand the NBA’s logic here–the league doesn’t want games bogged down by endless replays–but there’s got to be some common-sense way to allow referees to go to the video on such critical plays. Maybe anything clock-related within the final minute becomes open to review? That would also rectify a clock stoppage error that worked against the Spurs, though not so dramatically in terms of the final outcome, two weeks ago.

To its credit, the NBA has been willing to work with the replay rules in the past, making a change this year that allowed officials to look at whether a basket was a two or a three at any time during the game. It helps the cause that tonight’s game could ultimately end up making the difference in the Southwest Division. With the win, San Antonio tied Houston atop the Southwest at 52-28. The Spurs finish their season by playing at Golden State tomorrow and hosting New Orleans Wednesday, while Houston gets the Hornets at home tomorrow and travels to Dallas Wednesday. It’s easy to imagine the Rockets splitting those games, and San Antonio would then be able to take the division with a sweep.

If that ends up playing out, Houston will probably be first on the phone to the commissioner’s office looking for a rule change.

April 11, 2009

Five Thoughts: Portland-L.A. Lakers

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 6:00 am

My latest trip down to the Rose Garden gave me the chance to watch another thriller after some recent Portland Trail Blazers blowouts at home. The Blazers led the Los Angeles Lakers by one point inside the final two minutes before finishing the game on a 7-0 run to win by a 106-98 final. To me, the night was all about matchups. Here are the five most interesting ones from my perspective.

– Kobe Bryant vs. Brandon Roy
The marquee pairing occurred down the stretch. While Bryant defended Roy much of the evening, the Blazers used Nicolas Batum and Travis Outlaw to chase Bryant around the court while Roy focused on offense. That changed in the final five minutes, as Nate McMillan needed to keep Rudy Fernandez in the game instead of Outlaw (or Batum) because of his hot shooting. Portland went offense-defense with Outlaw in the final minute and a half, but Roy still got the assignment on the game’s biggest play–a wild three Bryant missed badly with just over 40 seconds left and the Lakers down three.

While Bryant had the stronger overall game, you’d have to give the head-to-head decision to Roy, who held Bryant to 2-for-7 shooting in crunch time. Bryant did not score in the last three minutes, going 0-for-4 with a turnover as Roy forced him into contested shots. The Blazers guard, working against double-teams, did not force the issue. Roy scored four points down the stretch and set up Steve Blake for a key score, one of his eight assists on the evening.

– Andrew Bynum vs. Greg Oden

The Blazers and Lakers have two of the league’s most promising young big men–both, alas, with checkered injury histories. Each player had his moments in this game, Oden able to create good shots by powering into his defender and Bynum looking awfully spry in his second game back from a two-month absence. Watching Bynum was one of my most important goals heading into the game, and I was impressed with the impact he had on the Lakers’ defense. This doesn’t really show up in the numbers, but teams get very little in the paint when Bynum and Pau Gasol are paired together. That was the case for Portland in the first half tonight. Bynum’s most impressive play came in the second quarter, when he beat Joel Pryziblla downcourt, established great position in the post, and was able to just turn into an easy layup. That’s the kind of play that makes Bynum such a special talent. His timing remains slightly off on offense, but Bynum looks like he’ll be ready to go for the playoffs.

– LaMarcus Aldridge vs. the Lakers’ D

The length of the Lakers’ frontcourt rotation and the aggressive way they defend the paint seems almost perfectly designed to neutralize Aldridge, or at least make him a jumpshooter. Aldridge missed all five of his shots in the first quarter. He was much more aggressive taking the ball to the rim after halftime, building on an alley-oop finish in transition. (Part of a game that featured more lobs by both sides than I can remember.) Aldridge scored 10 of his 16 points in the period, though even then Los Angeles limited him to 4-of-9 from the field. Aldridge subsequently went scoreless in the fourth quarter and finished the game shooting 6-for-18.

– Rudy Fernandez vs. Sasha Vujacic
A surprisingly interesting matchup materialized between the teams’ reserve swingmen. Things were a little testy during the first half between Fernandez and Vujacic, who traded some pushing and shoving while running from one end of the court to the other. Fernandez kept Vujacic busy with his movement away from the ball, running him from one end of the court to the other. Fernandez drew a couple of fouls in the process, which culminated in his setting Vujacic up for a backdoor cut finished with a spectacular reverse dunk off a Sergio Rodriguez feed. Fernandez really makes moving without the ball an art form, and his ability to shoot from range was invaluable against a Lakers defense that packs the strong side and dares opponents to reverse the ball and shoot the three. Fernandez finished with 15 points in 25 minutes as the Blazers’ second unit combined for 37 points.

– Lamar Odom vs. Lamar Odom
Consecutive third-quarter plays serve as a microcosm for Odom’s entire career. On the first play, he corralled an offensive rebound near the top of the key and flipped up a left-hand lob for Gasol to finish at the rim. Few power forwards in the NBA, if any, could make that play. The next play saw Odom get the ball in transition, be unable to control it, and dribble it off his leg out of bounds. One step forward, one step back. A couple possessions later, Odom drilled a three-pointer. His game continues to mystify me.

April 9, 2009

Chat and April Basketball

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Pelton @ 1:23 am

April basketball is a strange beast. While a handful of teams are fighting to get into the playoffs or for positioning, there are also teams who are playing out the string. Somehow, I find this strangely entertaining. Here on the West Coast, my late-night League Pass options are limited. That’s left me watching the Timberwolves the last two nights as they defeated a pair of lottery-bound teams, the L.A. Clippers and Golden State.

These games offer experiences you just won’t get at any other point of the season, like Sebastian Telfair serving as Minnesota’s go-to guy down the stretch. Telfair had 14 fourth-quarter points as the Timberwolves held off the Warriors using four reserves and starting PG Kevin Ollie (part of an unorthodox three-point attack with Telfair and Bobby Brown). Telfair has averaged 17.5 points over his last four games.

The Golden State broadcast crew kind of blew my mind by pointing out that Telfair would be a rookie had he gone to college and stayed four years. It seems like he’s been around forever now, going from promising rookie to bust to backup point. This is one of the funny things the preps-to-pros trend did–it messed with our sense of timing.

Anyways. . .we can discuss Telfair, teams out of the playoffs and maybe even a little playoff positioning when I chat at Baseball Prospectus tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. Submit your questions now if you can’t make it live. We may even talk a little NCAA championship game if you so desire. I’ve taken a break from chatting recently to let John Gasaway handle all the tourney talk, but we’ll be working back into a regular rotation as the NBA postseason gets underway.

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