Wednesday, June 10, 2009

6-10-09: 2009 NBA Finals: Some Thoughts after Games 1-3

We are at the midpoint of the 2009 NBA finals so let’s take a look at what’s been going on. Since my preview, a major event happened with Jameer Nelson returning and playing more than a handful of minutes in Game 1. Unfortunately, this tinkered with what I consider the most important aspect of a championship team: Chemistry.

Going back to Game 1, the teams were somewhat feeling each other out. The Magic led after the 1st quarter and then Nelson came in and played well on emotional energy. However, this sputtered out and the Magic were in disarray since the Nelson factor was unpredictable and everyone’s games were affected. Playing Nelson for so long was the worst coaching decision I’ve seen in a while and even worse was Alston’s reaction and pouting. In the NBA finals, these things are unacceptable. With the Magic out of sync, the Lakers attacked. Primarily, it was Kobe attacking in the 3rd quarter and he was both mentally and physically on top of his game during that span. Sensing that the Magic were confused, it was the right moment to do so and the game basically became a blowout in a few short minutes. There was not much to be interpreted here other than that LA was in peak form while Orlando was trying to adjust to Nelson at the worst possible time.

In Game 2, both teams struggled with some adjustments. Luckily for the Magic, even with Alston pouting, LA was off offensively so they had some time to fight. It was a grinding game based on desire and a few bounces here and calls here could have resulted in either team winning. Lee’s crucial layup miss was something the Magic had to live with but they could at least go home knowing that they should be tied 1-1.

Game 3 had both teams clicking in high gear. It seemed everyone was making shots. Kobe’s incredible 1st quarter kept LA in the game even with the Magic shooting an absurd 75%. However, having Kobe going meant he might be taking too many shots and the delicate balance of the team was affected. This was noticeable during the 2nd half when Kobe tried to be the aggressor but lost his touch. By that point, the team could not pick up the slack and Gasol, while red-hot, was not getting his shots because Kobe was taking most of them. It’s uncertain if still Kobe tries to force the issue because he is aware of his resume, but the self-consciousness of such play is detrimental to the overall chemistry aspect of the team. LA has so much talent, this may not even matter at this point but Orlando is such a potent offensive team that even LA needs to play their best to win. That means unified play as seen from Orlando in Game 3 will normally get the job done.

Orlando may have gotten their chemistry back now that Alston is back to his regular mode. However, they may have given up too much ground during that time to recover. Ironically, the unpredictable “Nelson” event was something the Magic should have been aware of more than any other team since they were the beneficiaries of beating a team with a similar occurrence when Michael Jordan returned to the Bulls in 1995 after 1.5 years of retirement. Adding Jordan made the team much deadlier and better, but in the playoffs, the team wasn’t on the same page and Jordan himself admitted that his timing was off and couldn’t get to the openings he saw. As a result, Orlando beat the Bulls in 1995 in the Eastern Semifinals and went on to their first ever finals appearance. Now, Nelson is not Jordan, but the added value of a star or superstar can only be fully realized when everyone’s tendencies are in unison. It’s not only a matter of Nelson performing, it’s a matter of what he knows his teammates will do and vice versa. Only Alston can know that since he’s been there through the struggles and intensity of the entire playoffs. But now that both teams are back and with the Magic having two more games at home, things might get interesting.

-Hoopsencyclopedia 6/10/09

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

6-3-09: A Quick 2009 NBA Finals Preview

It was exactly one year ago that I wrote my first article previewing the 2008 NBA finals (correctly) and I apologize deeply that it has taken so long to return. But, just like that, it is the eve of the 2009 NBA finals and there is nothing more important to write about in basketball so not only am I returning, I am here to stay to continue to raise and discuss important issues in the game. So yes, this page will be updated as much as my schedule allows – hopefully 1-2 times weekly. It is my ambition to have the highest level of basketball critique in an unbiased manner without boundaries that handcuff the perspectives of major media writers whose careers and salaries are dependent on their relationships with players and personnel.

Now, on my Youtube home page (, I erred in a rush judgment during the 2nd round, picking the Cavs to win it all. I rarely make predictions at such an early phase but since I was prodded, I did so based on the nature of the teams at that moment. Sure their first opponents (Pistons and Hawks) were mincemeat, but the data and chemistry of the Cavs were undeniable compared to the rest of the league. Unfortunately for them, this ride did not last so therefore, instead of delving into a philosophical discussion about why they were defeated, we will go ahead and get into a more enjoyable discussion about the LA-Orlando series.

It seems apparent that the media has rushed to choose LA to be victorious this year. While this seems like a safe pick, this series is a very difficult one to grapple with. What also seems strange is how the media just yesterday picked LA as underdogs against Denver but now have amnesia and see them as indomitable against Orlando: a team that is playing with much more intensity and skill compared to Denver. However, since everything is seen as black or white these days, this comes as no surprise – however annoying it may be. If anyone recalls last year, the media thought LA would steamroll over the Celtics before the exact opposite happened.

There is no doubt that LA is a better basketball team this year and, a better one than the Magic systematically. When LA is playing at their best with the triangle in motion, their combination of finesse plays with finesse players makes them the most functional team. LA can be so good that it sometimes hurts their energy level because they can almost relax. This especially weakens them on the defensive end and allows lesser talented teams to make runs and win games.

While LA is the more advanced team, the Magic are the most radical team. Their system is somewhat unique to basketball in that they have incorporated the kick-out trey more than any other team perhaps in history. They are able to play this style due to Howard’s brilliance at the post vacuuming in his opposition and have consciously surrounded him with incredibly tall sharpshooters to encourage the three point shot strategy further. Will we one day see a game where all the jumpshots are three point attempts? As repulsive as that might sound, it may be possible and it may actually be effective. The Magic are treading on this radical turf and are doing it at a high level. It may not be possible to match LA play by play, but this may be the system that can knock them out even if LA is playing at their highest level.

Now, most predictions from major media sources have a microscopic, scientific breakdown of the playoffs. While extreme studies of numbers and individual plays are important, I have always thought that making predictions should be more of an art than science. Therefore, I’d rather use the data more like a reference book rather than a crystal ball. Besides, any set number of plays or dissection of how well high screen and rolls are executed by one team can be thrown to dust by a hot hand or adjustments during the course of a series. History is always a great guide and of course, the importance of grand themes cannot be neglected. So what’s at play in 2009?

At first, the current level of play of both teams must be looked at. LA had a rocky road but seemed to have regrouped at the last moment. Was this a freak occurrence or was it because Denver played their last game with zero intensity? The answer is really unknown since we only had one really great game from LA during these playoffs. Meanwhile, the Magic have consistently shown us toughness, skill and surprising hunger in all of their series. The fact that they disposed of last year’s champions cannot be ignored – however weakened the Celtics may have been. And, the fact that they handled Lebron’s singular force rather calmly is something to admire. We all know Orlando was able to step it up against LA during the regular season to sweep them too. So, at present, I believe the edge goes to Orlando because they have been more consistent throughout the playoffs. So moving on thematically, I believe the most crucial factors that can influence the outcome are the following (with their importance on a percentage scale):

Veteran hunger:...................23%
Youth energy/hunger:...........14%

To interpret this scale, one shouldn’t conclude that talent is only 11% important to a team. This scale must be looked upon as what is most important to a team during the finals only. Any team that reaches the finals will be talented of course, but, during the finals, the other factors are more in play since talent on both sides will somewhat neutralize each other. That being said, let’s grade each team on these themes on a 1-10 scale (the numbers are as impartial as possible based on the players who will be getting the most minutes):

Veteran hunger:....................9.5..............9
Youth energy/hunger:............8.5..............8.5

Total with %

Each subplot can be explained individually. Veteran hunger is referring to the veterans (stars or role players) who usually play with true desire and experience. On LA, we have Kobe, Pau and Odom and on Orlando, we have Lewis and Hedo. LA has the edge here obviously - especially with Kobe still on a mission to win without Shaq. Chemistry was explained above. Leadership is crucial and while Howard is younger than Kobe, his leadership style is more natural and as a big man, more accepted. While tremendously improved from three years ago, Kobe still struggles with balancing his play with leadership and Fisher shares the load as a result. Youth energy from the secondary players are rather even. Athleticism goes slightly to Orlando because overall, their speed from Alston and explosiveness from Howard are something LA cannot match. Talent-wise, LA gets the edge due to Kobe and Pau's skills and shotmaking abilities.

In conclusion, based on the closeness of the numbers, this series really can go either way. But, there is one more factor that must be considered: the team with the best big man usually has the advantage. The reason being is that big men are the most efficient while also providing the defensive presence that alters the system of the opponent. And it's no secret that Howard is the Defensive Player of the Year. Of course, Kobe can neutralize Howard as the deciding factor, but, as a perimeter player and looking at his career, he has had a pattern of inconsistent shooting in the finals. When Kobe shoots well, LA can click on all cylinders (especially if he hovers around 20 shot attempts) but when he is off, he must compensate by raising his all-around game. If he does and LA plays with intensity and energy, they should win against anyone. But, with the themes slightly favoring the Magic, with Howard being the best big man and Orlando having conquered the two toughest teams in the league on their way to the finals, the Magic should be able to close out the series in 6. If not, LA should win game 7. I am not as confident as I was this year as compared to last year's predictions. But, this is my conclusion based on a rational, macroscopic level of critique.

-Hoopsencyclopedia 6/3/09