- The Season's Over -

Don’t Look Now, But Buck-Hunting Season Just Became Hawk-Hunting Season

April 30, 2010

Brandon Jennings

Brandon Jennings Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Zachariah Blott

Going down 0-2 in a playoff series isn’t necessarily a death sentence, but having to win four of five is never a situation a coach wants to find his squad in.

That’s exactly what Milwaukee’s Scott Skiles faced 1 week ago, and it wasn’t looking too cheery before then either. Not only did the Bucks lose center Andrew Bogut, their best player and defensive stopper, but they were squaring off with the third-seeded Hawks, who posted an intimidating 34-7 mark at home and went 7-3 down the stretch, including wins over the Lakers and Cavaliers.

The first two games in this series, in Atlanta, went according to form: the Hawks went up early because they have more talent and then rode out the fourth quarters to wins that were even easier than the 10-point win margins indicated. Milwaukee tried to steal one of those two games by tossing up tons of triples, something they did during the regular season (sixth-most threes in the league, which is really good when you consider that the Bucks play at a measured pace). Instead they clanked 34 of 44 attempts from downtown and were on their way home for Game Three in a 0-2 hole.

Everyone figured the Bucks had stopped there (including me). Maybe they’d pull out an emotional Game Three in front of a crowd starved for postseason action, but no one outside of Wisconsin expected what happened next.

Milwaukee came out smoking hot at the Bradley Center in the third game, building a 17-point lead by the end of the first quarter behind stellar three-point shooting (10-23 for the game), cruising to a 107-89 blowout. Good for them, most pundits felt, and then they showed in Game Four that they could also grind it out for an entire contest in winning 111-104. This time, they did it without ever holding a big lead, but again nailing the triples that eluded them in the first two games (7 for 18, 39%).

Game Five back in Atlanta turned out to be a true beauty. With four minutes left, the Hawks were sitting on a comfortable 82-73 lead, looking to make the NBA universe right again by taking back the series’ momentum as the healthy higher seed. Instead the Bucks went into attack mode in a big-time way, nailing a couple threes, driving like crazy to get to the line (9-12 on free throws in the last four minutes), and stopping the Hawks cold, taking the game and the series lead with a 91-87 gem.

How the heck did the Bucks do it? How did they stop a series that looked like it could be a runaway train and actually take the a 3-2 lead while Bogut sits on the bench with a deformed right arm?

How the Bucks have turned the series around after the break…

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1 CommentPosted by ETB Contributor on Apr. 30, 2010 at 8:42am in NBA

Tyreke Evans is Your NBA Rookie of the Year; Golden State’s Stephen Curry is Mine

April 28, 2010

Stephen Curry

Stephen Curry Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Brian Spencer

We begrudge you not, Tyreke Evans, for your voters pushing Stephen Curry out of the Rookie of the Year limelight. But we’re not entirely happy about it.

Yesterday the good people at Sactown Royalty broke the news that studly Sacramento Kings PG Tyreke Evans will be named the 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year. It’ll be formally announced on Thursday, and it’s not an especially surprising win for Evans. As the Kings’ new face of the franchise and one of the individual players I personally most enjoyed watching this season, Evans revealed himself as one cool cucumber under pressure, an efficient game-manager conducting and performing well beyond his 20 years. His efforts didn’t translate to many wins for the Kings (25-57), but the carnage would have been much worse—maybe Timberwolves worse—if not for him.

But like my colleague here at ETB, my man crush for Golden State Warriors G Stephen Curry ultimately supercedes my respect and admiration for Evans. I’m not quite ready to have Curry’s babies—he’ll have to first complete a successful sophomore season before I consider making that sort of commitment to him—but as the season progressed, and as I saw him steadily mature into a well-rounded dynamo who, as a rookie and like Evans, is every bit capable of carrying the load for a NBA franchise, the more my thinking changed on who deserved the Rookie of the Year nod.

They’re both worthy of the honor; this isn’t meant as a diss of Evans. In an ideal world, ROY voting would have ended in a tie, like it did 10 years ago for Elton Brand and Steve Francis and 15 years ago for Grant Hill and Jason Kidd.

Team record doesn’t really come into play, with the Warriors finishing just one game ahead of the Kings in the Pacific Division standings. Statistically the two finished in nearly a dead heat: Evans averaged about 3 points more per game and was the first rookie since LeBron James to average at least 20 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds per. Curry established himself as one of the league’s best, most-efficient three-point and free-throw shooters, finished with about 2 steals per, and averaged 22.5 points a night over his final 34 games.

Minutes FG% FT% 3PTs Stls TOs Rebounds Assts Points
Tyreke Evans 37:12 46% 75% 0.5 1.5 3 5.3 5.8 20.1
Stephen Curry 36:12 46% 88.5% 2.1 1.9 3.1 4.5 5.9 17.5

Evans was probably the more consistent player of the two over the entire season, and because of it pretty much cemented himself in voters’ minds as the “runaway winner” early in the season. Curry really only entered the conversation as a viable alternative after the All-Star break and, fair or unfair, his fireworks in the second half of the season were likely viewed with an asterik because of the uptempo system in which he plays.

I don’t buy that possible demerit and feel any such skepticism does a disservice to what Curry unexpectedly accomplished. Those who actually watched the Warriors in action saw a player who responded extremely well under pressure, one entirely unfazed in end-game situations, and one every bit as eager to set up his teammates as he was to get his own shots.

While Don Nelson’s offense-only approach certainly worked in Curry’s favor, especially on fast breaks, at times the isolation-heavy sets worked against him, too, as he was far too often tasked with creating his own shot from the perimeter. Add to that an increased reliance on his offensive talents due to the ungodly amount of injuries that oftentimes left the Warriors’ roster bereft of proven scorers outside of Monta Ellis and Corey Maggette, both of whom suffered injuries themselves.

But, again, Evans wasn’t exactly living the high life in Sacramento, either, as the leader of a team who basically decided to reshuffle the deck midway through the season after trading Kevin Martin and and finished with only two players (Andres Nocioni and Ime Udoka) older than 28. The rookie from Memphis was asked to do it all, and, well, he basically did do it all.

Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry are both primed for perennial All-Star status. They’re both worthy of Rookie of the Year recognition. If I had a ballot, though, I’d vote for the guy whose baby I’m more inclined to have. Here’s looking at you, Steph.

2 CommentsPosted by Brian Spencer on Apr. 28, 2010 at 12:21pm in NBA

Wild, Wild West: Western Conference Playoffs Aren’t Going According to Seed

April 27, 2010

NBA West Playoffs

Carlos Boozer & Pau Gasol Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Zachariah Blott

Veteran defending champions should take care of inexperienced clubs who some considered lucky to make the playoffs. Teams who lost multiple starters due to injuries have no business hanging with higher-seeded teams that are fully intact. Squads overflowing with talent don’t get pushed aside by rosters that were considered too old years ago.

A lot of things that shouldn’t be happening in the playoffs are taking place right now in the Western Conference. In fact, the current standings of all four series are a bit surprising. If things keep up, we’ll have to stop saying “should” and “shouldn’t” as early as this weekend.

#1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #8 Oklahoma City Thunder (tied 2-2)

One week ago, this match-up looked to be a thanks-for-coming butt whopping delivered by the defending champs upon the playoff newbies. The Lakers’ frontline trio of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom averaged 44 points (on 33 shots) and 29 rebounds per, comparing favorably to the 1981 championship Celtics’ frontline, which is generally regarded as the best in NBA history. (That would be Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, who combined for 50 points [on 41 shots] and 25 rebounds per.)

LA also has Ron Artest, the NBA’s premier perimeter defender, and Derek Fisher, a super-clutch PG with four rings. Throw in one of the highest-paid benches that features a great mix of veterans and young up-and-comers, and it just didn’t seem fair. And then you add Kobe Bryant to the mix. Dear god.

The Thunder have excitement and a fun-to-watch quality on their side, but despite their long-term projection as a possible NBA powerhouse, they frankly have no business being in this series after four games. Their starting lineup has a combined 600 career playoff minutes, not quite two-thirds of what Kobe had last year alone. It was assumed Artest would make it difficult for Durant to score, the Laker bigs would bully Oklahoma City’s afterthought-of-a-frontline around the paint, and experience would easily push youthful exuberance right out of the playoffs.

At this point, though, the Thunder are looking to become only the second #8 seed ever to knock off the top seed in a best-of-seven series (#8 Golden State beat #1 Dallas in 2007). Los Angeles predictably took the first two, but both contests were close. The Lakers won Game One by eight, 87-79, but they were outscored by the Thunder over the last three quarters. Game Two was a nailbiter, with LA prevailing 95-92 behind a dominating rebounding performance (49 to 37) and Kobe’s splendid 13-15 free throw shooting.

Then the series swung over to Oklahoma City and things got interesting in a hurry. Kevin Durant threw his stick figure body into the mix for 19 rebounds and James Harden scored a big 18 points on only 7 shots off the bench in a 101-96 Game Three win. And then the Game Four shellacking happened, a 110-89 Thunder victory that wasn’t even that close. Now the Lakers are trying to figure out how to handle a green squad that’s sticking the defensive screws to everyone’s pick to win the West.

It’s now a three-game series with OKC holding all the momentum. Durant really hasn’t blown up yet in any game this series and Russell Westbrook’s speed is proving to be too much for a veteran Laker squad. Everyone predicted the Lakers would prevail within 5 games; now they’ll be lucky just to prevail.

Catch up on the rest of the West after the break…

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No CommentsPosted by ETB Contributor on Apr. 27, 2010 at 8:49am in NBA

Matt Millen Still Doesn’t Know When to Shut Up (and ESPN Still Keeps Him on the Air)

April 26, 2010

Oh, that Matt Millen is such a kidder. Here’s what happens when NFL Draft coverage is stretched so thin over the course of three days that ESPN is forced to turn to disgraced ex-Detroit Lions GM Matt Millen for brief commentary.

Because, you know, Millen was such a prolific evaluator of talent.

From the Detroit News:

Matt Millen has made another draft-day blunder. The former Lions president and CEO, who had some questionable draft picks during his tenure with the team, was forced to apologize for an on-air Polish joke he made Saturday to fellow ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski.

At one point during Saturday’s coverage, the two began talking about fried bologna sandwiches, and Millen said, “Ask any polack from Buffalo how they like them, right Jaws?”

(Hat tip to MLive’s Ottoman Empire.)

1 CommentPosted by Brian Spencer on Apr. 26, 2010 at 12:29pm in NFL

What We’ve Learned in the NBA Playoffs

April 23, 2010

Kevin Garnett and Josh Smith

Kevin Garnett and Josh Smith Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Zachariah Blott

Orlando Magic vs. Charlotte Bobcats

1) There is just no defense to stop a team with multiple three-point shooters in the starting lineup and multiple three-point shooters off the bench. If there was, Larry Brown would have found it by now. Instead, the Magic have hit 23 trifectas through two games, which were two easy wins even with the Bobcats having a higher FG% and grabbing more rebounds. Don’t forget that many of Orlando’s long-range shooters have hard-to-defend height (6-10 Rashard Lewis, 6-10 Ryan Anderson, 6-6 Mickael Pietrus, and 6-6 Vince Carter won’t stay 0-9 outside).

2) Turnover margin is the most important stat that almost no one looks at. Of the Four Factors, turnover margin is the second-most important number when evaluating why a team wins or loses. So far, the Bobcats have turned it over 5 and 7 times more than the Magic, which creates 4- and 5- point swings at numerous points throughout a game. Something to keep an eye on in the second round if Orlando gets through: these turnovers have more to do with Charlotte’s O than the Magic’s D. Charlotte was the only team in the league to turn the ball over on more than 15 percent of their possessions this year (15.1).

Orlando Magic lead 2-0. Next game: Saturday in Charlotte

Atlanta Hawks vs. Milwaukee Bucks

1) Andrew Bogut’s defensive presence is what drove the Bucks. Milwaukee’s improvement from last year to this year can be attributed almost completely to their improved D, which roadblock centers are always the most important piece of. After a nasty arm break, the big Aussie isn’t playing in the postseason, which has allowed Atlanta to get away with Offensive Ratings of 118 and 111 in their first two wins. Milwaukee’s offense is definitely not strong enough to keep up with this sort of onslaught.

2) Good luck figuring out who to lock down in Atlanta’s starting lineup. All five have gone for double-digits in both games, including the underrated trio of Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Al Horford. In Game 2, all three scored at least 20 on a combined 29-47 shooting (62%). Don’t forget that the Hawks also bring Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford off the bench. He averaged 18 per during the regular season, able to both get to the rim and shoot spot-up triples.

Atlanta Hawks lead 2-0. Next game: Saturday in Milwaukee

Boston Celtics vs. Miami Heat

1) Admit it: you forgot about the Celtics and assumed their team plane crashed somewhere. After playing .500 ball for the past two months, Boston came out and jacked the fourth quarter from Miami in Game 1, taking it big-brother style, 21-10 for a 9-point victory. Then everyone remembered that the Celtics are filled with Playoff-tested vets who play unselfishly and bust their humps on defense. Even with Garnett riding the pine due to a one-game suspension, the C’s had Game 2 locked up early in the 3rd quarter, winning 106-77.

2) Dwyane Wade really, really needs a new supporting cast. He’s been forced to do everything as the rest of his starting lineup has provided him with exactly one double-digit scorer each game. Michael Beasley should be a far more consistent contributor by this point (his college stats were better than Durant’s, in the same conference no less), but his head may not be in it. It looks like Wade will re-sign with Miami this summer, but they better bring in another max-contract guy or it won’t become long before that 2006 ring looks about 15 years old.

Boston Celtics lead 2-0. Next game: Friday in Miami

Cleveland Cavaliers-Chicago Bulls

1) As much as we know who all of LeBron’s teammates are, he really is doing most of this himself, which spells doom for later in the playoffs. There is no reason an eighth seed that played poorly down the stretch is hanging around with a team that was 20 games better during the regular season. The Cavs have had only one overpowering quarter in each of the series’ three games; otherwise the two squads have been pretty even. James is doing his usually dominating thing, and then you got … uh … Antawn Jamison? Mo Williams? Admit it, you think Cleveland’s second-best player is Anderson Varejao, a reserve. There is no way a club that’s barely staying ahead of this Bulls team is making it to the Finals unless, well, you know.

2) That being said, Cleveland will continue to win some games if they keep shooting 49% and averaging 24 assists per 38 made field goals a night. A huge part of this is obviously due to LeBron’s contagious passing chops, but don’t forget that they have plenty of smart players (Anthony Parker, Varejao) and legitimately decent passers (Shaq, Williams, Delonte West). A lot of this has to do with playing Chicago, but ball movement and smart shot selection really do get internalized after a while.

Cleveland Cavaliers lead 2-1. Next game: Sunday in Chicago

Breaking down the rest of the first-round matchups, after the jump …

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No CommentsPosted by ETB Contributor on Apr. 23, 2010 at 10:54am in NBA

Reading is Great! Featuring Dwight Howard’s Efforts to Raise Money for Haiti

April 21, 2010

Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard Photo Credit: Icon SMI

- Dwight’s Haiti Fund – Help Dwight Howard raise money for Haiti (and maybe win $500).
- Rip City Project – Blazers get high marks for guarding the Suns’ pick-and-roll in Game 1.
- Ball Don’t Lie – Should Michael Jordan be the face of the Charlotte Bobcats?
- MLive- Trading Rip Hamilton should be Joe Dumars’ top priority this summer.
- Detroit Bad Boys – Perhaps Hamilton will go to Utah in a deal for Carlos Boozer?
- ESPN – There’s a special place in Mark Cuban’s heart for the San Antonio Spurs.
- The Big Lead – How the NBA Draft would look if every player was available.
- NBA FanHouse – Marcus Camby is thrilled to be spending another 2 seasons in Portland.
- We’re Bucked – So, Bucks fans, would a seven-game series be sufficient?
- Alone in the Corner – The NBA’s 2010 All Non-Defensive Team, starring Jonny Flynn.
- Stacheketball – Now Chris Bosh has to stay in Toronto.
- Sports Radio Interviews – David Lee, apparently, wants to stay in New York.
- Basketball.org – Rebounding, blocked shots, and the NBA Playoffs.
- D-League Digest – Mark Tyndale is poised to make some noise in the D-League Playoffs.
- Hoops Addict – The ripple effect of Dwyane Wade is being felt in Switzerland.

No CommentsPosted by Brian Spencer on Apr. 21, 2010 at 2:40pm in NBA

Receivers on the Move: Santonio Holmes and Brandon Marshall Find New Homes

April 20, 2010

Santonio Holmes traded to New York Jets

Santonio Holmes Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By: Andrew Thell

With Thursday’s 2010 NFL Draft fast approaching we’ve seen a few teams wheeling and dealing players and picks already. While there are bound to be some more moves leading up to the big day and on draft night, we’ve already seen some real Duesenbergs with two marquee wideouts changing uniforms.

Speaking of “draft night,” is anybody actually excited about the new schedule for the proceedings? I’m certainly not. I mean, who want to watch the draft on a weeknight, especially one that already boasts some great playoff basketball? From a strict business perspective I understand the league’s effort to put it in primetime and further monetize the already-overhyped event, but it’s a real buzzkill if you ask me. Draft day was like a national holiday for us NFL fans, particularly fans of struggling franchises. It was a rite of spring, a leisurely all-afternoon event, a day when we could actually justify watching hours upon hours of NFL programming that didn’t feature a single snap, a day when typical standards of decorum like showering before 7 PM and not drinking beer before noon were thrown out the window. Alas, if the new arrangement goes smoothly the fat cats in the league office are unlikely to ever reverse course.

Ok, let’s take a look at the recent Santonio Holmes and Brandon Marshall transactions …

Santonio Holmes, WR, New York Jets

I have to say, ever since the fat man donned the hunter green I have absolutely loved the way head coach Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum are doing business in New York. They’ve taken some risks, but for the most part smart risks with limited financial commitment and little chance of blowing up in their faces. Wide receivers with elite physical tools are a rare commodity in the league, and you generally have to pay a big price to land one that ends up fulfilling his star potential – just ask the Detroit Lions. Back in October, the Jets traded receiver Chansi Stuckey, special teamer Jason Trusnik, and a 3rd and 5th round pick for Cleveland Browns receiver Braylon Edwards. That’s a hefty price, but it was a reasonable gamble on a player who could potentially provide the deep threat their offense and young quarterback Mark Sanchez desperately needed. The early returns were a mixed bag, but that’s to be expected making a move in the passing game mid-season, and New York re-signed him to a one-year, $6.1 million contract. That’s a modest price to pay for one more roll of the dice on a player with his freakish talent.

But this week the Jets set a new standard for “modest price” when they acquired former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes from the Steelers in exchange for a 2010 5th round pick. I understand that Holmes will be subject to a four-game suspension to open the season and he’s a free agent after the season, so this is really just a 12-game-plus-playoffs rental, but that is still an amazingly low price to pay for one of the league’s best deep playmakers and a guy with great hands all over the field. He’s a headcase, sure, which is why Pittsburgh was happy to just get rid of Holmes, but there’s no denying he’s a player. This is Rex Ryan stepping up to the plate and saying, hey, I know he’s a challenge – one I’ll take on personally. And we know from Ryan’s track record he’s more than capable of getting the most out of a troubled talent. Given the fact that they have absolutely zero financial commitment to Holmes, this was a potentially high-reward risk well worth taking.

It’s hard to imagine the Steeler’s couldn’t get more value for a talent like Holmes in a league starved for playmakers at the receiver position. I get the sense this was a knee-jerk reaction to the suspension news and that, had they showed some patience, they could still have made the same statement by still moving Holmes but gotten a far greater return.

Breaking down the Brandon Marshall deal, after the jump …

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No CommentsPosted by Andrew Thell on Apr. 20, 2010 at 7:53pm in NFL, NFL Fantasy News

NBA Playoffs Start with a Bang (and a Elbow, and Some Trash Talk, and an Upset, and…)

April 20, 2010

Kevin GarnettBy Brian Spencer

Dead-ball scrums. Elbows. Trash talk. Accusations. Insults. Suspensions. Upsets.

This is what the NBA playoffs are all about. Nobody cares to see the type of mild-mannered, sanitized version of playoff basketball that some fuddy-duddy basketball purists prefer. It’s been a long, long season for the 16 teams still standing, and they’ve each endured hardships, injuries, losing streaks, winning streaks, and various twists and turns to get here. If at this point these players aren’t feeling a bit ornery and a bit agitated, something’s wrong.

For a league that heavily markets its on-court drama to the mass sports world, the events that have already unfolded in these playoffs have to be seen as a good thing.

Here we have Kevin Garnett and the desperate Boston Celtics scrapping and clawing and, finally, nearly fighting with Quentin Richardson and the nagging Miami Heat. After the game Richardson called Garnett and Paul Pierce “actresses”–instant classic–and then outspoken Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah entered the conversation, unprompted, by coming out and calling KG a dirty player while ragging on the moribund state of the city of Cleveland. (As a Michigan native, you won’t hear any objections from me, Joakim.) Garnett was suspended for Game 2, and though I’m a fierce advocate of “punch you in your mouth basketball”–figuratively, not literally–it was the right call.

On Sunday we had Ron Artest, acquired by the Los Angeles Lakers because of his shutdown defensive ability, locking horns with young, prolific Kevin Durant, the league’s youngest scoring champ and the face of the most intriguing franchise in the NBA. Score the Round 1 win for Artest (Durant shot 7-24 in a losing cause), but this kid isn’t one to back down or be intimidated. I can’t wait to see how he responds tonight.

We had Dwight Howard setting a new Orlando Magic playoff franchise record with 8 blocked shots in the first half in his team’s 98-89 win over the tough Charlotte Bobcats. Gerald Wallace, the Bobcats’ do-it-all All Star, wasn’t impressed: “We’re not going to just let him think he’s the bully or that he’s a factor up under the basket,” Wallace said, “because he’s not.”

We had hotshot Milwaukee Bucks rookie PG Brandon Jennings dropping 34 points in his playoffs debut against the Atlanta Hawks; it was too little too late, though, as the Hawks held on for the win. We had the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets, bitter divisional rivals, tipping off what looks to be a long, hard-fought series; ditto the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, both traditional Western Conference powerhouses whose run of dominance just might be like sand running through an hourglass. Finally, we had the Portland Trail Blazers, a team I’d admittedly written off with no Brandon Roy in the fold, traveling to Phoenix and pulling a Game 1 upset over the Suns.

I don’t want to see full-blown brawls–nobody does–but the extracurricular stuff and the post-game banter doesn’t bother me one bit. Why should it? It’s time to take the kid gloves off and stop tip-toeing around the inherent physicality of professional basketball and to instead embrace it, within reason. Yes, hand out suspensions when players like Garnett cross the line, but err on the side of letting boys be boys when it comes to pushing and shoving and hard, not malicious, fouls. I realize this is a fine line to walk, but that’s what referees are paid relatively well to handle.

So keep talking, Joakim… and back it up too. Keep watching your teammates’ back, KG, but don’t cross the line and jeopardize your team’s chances against a tough opponent. Don’t back down from Dwight Howard, Gerald Wallace, and Dwight? Block that ball right back in his face the first time he goes to the hole. Kevin Durant, I want to see you drop 40 on the Lakers next time; Artest, it’s up to you to make sure that doesn’t happen. Brandon Jennings, the odds are heavily stacked against you, but this is your team, your franchise now: embrace the moment and take charge. Josh Smith, you better not let Brandon Jennings take charge.

This is what we wait for all season long; so far, the wait has been well worth it.

Kevin Garnett Photo Credit: Icon SMI

No CommentsPosted by Brian Spencer on Apr. 20, 2010 at 6:25am in NBA

There’s Always Next Year: West Conference

April 19, 2010

Chris Paul Injury

Chris Paul Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Zachariah Blott

The playoffs got rolling over the weekend, and some teams are already getting feisty (KG’s Celtics) and others already have more injury concerns (Utah’s Mehmet Okur tore his Achilles). Sixteen teams have started their quest to keep their seasons going for another two months, but 14 clubs are already done with little to look forward to this summer except the June 24 draft and free agency.

Here’s a breakdown of the seven Western Conference teams on the outside looking in, and what type of outlook they have while everyone else is playing for a banner.

Golden State Warriors (26-56)

The Hope: First of all, congratulations to the Warriors for not tanking the end of the season for higher draft position, going 6-4 over their last 10 games. Stephen Curry turned out to be a phenomenal rookie talent, registering a triple-double, shooting 43% from downtown, averaging 22-5-7 for the last three months, and increasing his shooting percentages and scoring load throughout the year. GS did a great job integrating D-Leaguers into the lineup, and they return all the key pieces (Monta Ellis, Corey Maggette, Anthony Morrow, Anthony Randolph, Andris Biedrins, Kelenna Azubuike) from the most injury-filled season in NBA history, resulting in this first-of-its-kind situation.

But Don’t Forget: When you have that many injuries, you know some of them are harbingers of what’s to come for a few of these guys. Because of all the lineup mix-and-matching going on this year and the good possibility of a new coach, there is not much focus for next year. Who are they going to build this team around? If it’s Curry, you got a few me-first scorers (Ellis, Maggette) who will implode the team and drive fans crazy. What are they going to do with Anthony Randolph, one of the most amazing physical freaks in the league, whose development is behind schedule?

Houston Rockets (42-40)

The Hope: Houston had a winning record with a 6-6 center starting in place of an injured Yao Ming for an entire season. Genius GM Daryl Morey has built a roster of role players who are able to play well together while forgoing personal stats for the sake of the team. The Rockets landed a true number one scorer in Kevin Martin, and it looks like they’ll be able to keep PF Luis Scola and PG Kyle Lowry. Second-round rookie Chase Budinger was a pleasant surprise as a versatile defensive player and providing some pop off the bench. They have Minnesota’s second-round pick (#32 overall), which Morey will get value out of.

But Don’t Forget: It’s obvious the Rockets need a taller interior defender to clean things up at the rim, and Yao Ming has had a string of bad injuries for the past five years. Kevin Martin is not interested in playing defense, and his shooting is streaky and often inefficient. 2010-11 is the Rockets’ last season with their main core under contract, then almost everyone of note becomes a free agent.

Los Angeles Clippers (29-53)

The Hope: Blake Griffin, the 2009 number one pick, “returns” next season, likely to be the Clips’ best player. Chris Kaman turned in one of his best seasons to date (19-9) and made the All-Star team after not even being listed on the ballot; there’s no reason to believe he can’t be just as effective next year. The LA JV team is way under the cap (on the books for only $34 million next year) and has the money to offer a big contract to an impact player plus make a run at decent role-players.

But Don’t Forget: Donald Sterling is still the owner, so nothing but bad karma is bound to follow the Clippers. Baron Davis is the league’s gutsiest player, but he can’t shoot (41% FG, 28% 3FG) and he loves to shoot. Eric Gordon, who has always relied on his athleticism, appears to have already plateaued, doing virtually nothing better than his rookie season. In case you missed it, these are the Clippers, so they will screw up the draft, screw up the head coach selection, and screw up free agency. God, justifiably, does not like Mr. Sterling.

Checking in with Memphis through Sacramento, after the jump …

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1 CommentPosted by ETB Contributor on Apr. 19, 2010 at 9:21pm in NBA

Things are Looking Good in Oklahoma City, and They’re Only Getting Better

April 19, 2010

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Brian Spencer

This was long overdue. World, meet the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After keeping them in hiding for most of the season, the NBA has taken the shackles of anonymity off the Oklahoma City Thunder and finally embraced what’s been the league’s best story of the year. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but because of a grossly inept national TV schedule, casual NBA fans (read: those who didn’t take the plunge on the NBA League Pass) have had just one opportunity all season long to catch the Thunder… and that was a mid-week game in mid-December against the middling Dallas Mavericks. I’m guessing few made a point to tune in.

(I’ve already mini-ranted about this once, and it’s kind of besides the point here, but they really need to get some forward-thinkers on the scheduling committee next year. Yes, record-wise the Thunder weren’t that great last season, but everybody knew they’d be better this year, right? Maybe not 27 games better, but better. And it’s not like the team was lacking in young starpower. Limiting the nationally televised games to a select few teams doesn’t do the league any good. Obviously, LeBron and Dwight and Kobe sell, and they deserve their fair share of exposure. But do we really need to see the Cavaliers, Lakers, and Magic 25 times on national TV? Or the Spurs 20 times? No, no we don’t. )

That the Thunder drew the Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1 is both a good thing and a bad thing. Bad in that they have little to no chance of beating this (flawed) Lakers team in a seven-game series, but good in that they’re facing a primetime opponent, one of the league’s all-time most-decorated franchises, and they’re going to have a lot of people watching for the first time by default. And learning about them. And, hopefully, falling in love with them and becoming fans of them. They deserve it. They’re the Portland Trail Blazers of a few years ago, but way better and with a lot more potential.

It’s amazing what the Thunder has accomplished this season, collectively and individually. After finishing 23-59 last year, they improved faster than anticipated in posting a 50-32 record in the highly competitive Western Conference. They did it under the direction of a general manager, Sam Presti, who’s just 33 years old, and they did it with a team that’s the youngest in the league. They did it by leading the NBA in blocked shots despite being undersized. They did it on the backs of the league’s top-scoring trio of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook, who combined to average just over 61 points a night. They did it with depth, they did it with hustle, they did it with hard work, they did it with excellent coaching from Scott Brooks, my pick for Coach of the Year.

And, yes, they did it with Kevin Durant, the NBA’s youngest-ever scoring champ. He began the season absorbing valid, if not a bit bull-headed questions from some NBA bloggers about his defense and ability to lead, and it’s safe to say that he answered the call and then some. How can you not root for this kid? At 21 years old, Durant already possesses one of the most intriguing skill-sets of any player in the league, and he remains one its most humble, soft-spoken megastars. Fantastic season, LeBron, but Durant is my MVP.

Russell Westbrook

The stats he put up in his third season are silly. He scored 25+ points in 73 of 82 regular-season games, including a streak of 29 straight games at that mark. He led the league in free throws made at 9.2 per–for comparison, LeBron was second at 7.8–and finished sixth overall in FT% at 90%, his career best by 4 percentage points. Rebounds (7.6), assists (2.8), steals (1.4), blocks (1), and three-pointers (1.6) were all career bests too, along with those 30.1 points a night. He’s everything that’s great about the professional game of basketball and has earned every accolade that’s been spoken or written about him. It helps that his “supporting cast” are consummate pros with top-tier talent, too.

As we saw Sunday afternoon in Game 1, Russell Westbrook can get to the hole at will and is well on his way to perennial All-Star consideration. He’s a nightly triple-double threat, and like Durant, he’s only 21 years old and still improving. Starting PF Jeff Green, like Durant now in his third season, is a solid 16 and 6 guy who looks more and more like the New Orleans Hornets’ David West. And though I’m not going to run down the rest of the Thunder’s youthful core (read up on them here) remember the names of rookies James Harden and Serge Ibaka; longtime ETB readers know how we feel about Thabo Sefolosha, the team’s starting shooting guard.

It’ll be interesting to see how far the Thunder extends this series against the Lakers, but in the end, it matters not. They got here, they’re getting their first taste of the postseason, they’re going to learn from it, they’re going to be better and even more loaded next season. The Thunder currently have 3 of the first 32 picks in the upcoming draft (#21, #26, and #32 overall), which they can spend on more young talent or, perhaps more likely, use for trade bait to land an established player or two. And in the much-anticipated Summer of 2010 NBA free agency, they have the sufficient cap space to bid on some of the premier free agents if they’re so inclined to.

The Lakers will beat the Thunder in this seven-game series; they might even do it handily and with relative ease. But they should be concerned, and they should be looking over their shoulder. So should the Mavericks, Suns, Jazz, and Nuggets. The Thunder are coming, and they’re coming strong. The secret is finally out.

1 CommentPosted by Brian Spencer on Apr. 19, 2010 at 5:16am in ETB Articles, NBA

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