Another great NBA regular season has come to an end; now the fun starts. The NBA playoffs kick off today, with many people anticipating a finals matchup (finally) between LeBron James and the LeBronaliers Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. But before we get into that, let’s take a look back at the regular season.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers – LeBron followed up one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history with one of the most dominant seasons NBA history. 29.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, with career highs in assists and shooting percentage (8.6 apg and 50% FG). He continued to improve defensively while leading the Cavs to the best record in the league. I could delve into this deeper, but I think even LeBron haters have to admit he deserved the MVP this year. Anyone who votes against him should lose their right to vote for NBA awards.
Coach of the Year
Scott Skiles, Milwaukee Bucks – There are a dozen coaches who can stake claim to this, but I have to give my imaginary vote to Skiles. While Scott Brooks of OKC will deservedly get a lot of props for leading the Thunder to the playoffs, I actually thought they would be good. The Bucks? Fear the Deer? I thought they would be a lottery team. They’re the six seed in the East. This team lost Michael Redd (again) to injury, and added a ton of rotation players during the year. Skiles has them playing defense and team ball for the most part, although Brandon Jennings goes for self a little too much at times. When Bogut returns next year, Skiles has this group poised to be a player in the East for the next few years.
Defensive Player of the Year
Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic – D-Ho could very well win this award for the next five years. And when he finally realizes that its smarter to block the ball inbounds to a teammate instead of swatting it to the fifth row, watch out (he’s starting to do this now).
Sixth Man of the Year
Jamal Crawford, Atlanta Hawks – I admit, I didn’t think Crawford would work in Atlanta. Crawford is a gunner on a team with a lot of players that need shots. Yet, this experiment has worked very well for Atlanta. Crawford gives them scoring off the bench, which they’ve lacked before. And with Bibby on his last legs, Crawford and Joe Johnson have turned into end game assassins. His addition to the team is the reason why they were a strong three in the East.
Rookie of the Year
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors – I know some of you guys are going to black on this one, because Tyreke Evans averaged 20, 5 and 5 and/or the fact that Brandon Jennings’ team made the playoffs this year. But have you watched these three guys play? Jennings forces it all the time and takes a lot of bad shots. Evans dominates the ball to the point where Kings had to trade Kevin Martin for nothing. The Kings are going to struggle to build a team around Evans because of the way he hogs the ball. Meanwhile, Curry never seemed to take a bad shot and had to be one of the easiest guys to play with. On a dysfunctional team with a coach who’s mailed in the past two seasons, Curry was almost a calming influence on the team and helped them stay in a lot of games down the stretch. Once the Dubs dump Don Nelson and get rid of some of those bad contracts, Curry will help them be competitive sooner than later.
Most Improved Player
Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder
In a normal year, this dude would’ve been MVP. Scoring champ at 21, taking his team from 23 wins to 50 and cementing himself as one of the top players in the game. Durant improved his scoring and his much maligned defense for a Thunder team that is quietly won of the best defensive teams in the league. He could easily average 35 a game next year.
|1st Team||2nd Team||3rd Team|
|C||Dwight Howard||Pau Gasol||Andrew Bogut|
|F||LeBron James||Carmelo Anthony||Tim Duncan|
|F||Kevin Durant||Dirk Nowitzki||Amar’e Stoudamire|
|G||Dwyane Wade||Steve Nash||Joe Johnson|
|G||Kobe Bryant||Deron Williams||Brandon Roy|
Eastern Conference Playoffs
Now here’s the fun part, the playoffs. In the East, it seems like it’s a foregone conclusion that Cleveland will make the finals for the second time in LeBron’s career. Well can anybody in the East beat Cleveland? That shouldn’t be the case this year, although that was the case last year as well. Cleveland has the best player in the league and a ton of depth. Danny Ferry has done a great job of teaming LeBron up with players that mesh well with his skill set. Coaching is actually their only weakness, which shouldn’t be a factor until the Finals. Lets take a look at the rest of the teams and size up their chances.
Chicago is a dead man walking. Watching them fight to make the last playoff spot in the east, all I could think is ‘Why aren’t they tanking?’ Sportsmanship and integrity aside (two big things to drop), this team is better served with a lottery pick than an opening round sweep.
Charlotte can defend and is very well coached with Larry Brown running the show. However, they’re a jumpshooting team with inconsistent jump shooters. If everything falls their way, they could steal a game or two from Orlando, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they got swept either.
Milwaukee caught a really bad break with Bogut’s weird elbow injury coming down the stretch and now have to face one of the three good teams in the East. Between them, Miami and Boston, I think they’re the better team but Atlanta should handle them easily without Bogut.
Miami has Dwyane Wade, which should be enough to get them past Boston. I can see him going off for a few 40 point games in their series against Boston. However, they’re nothing around him and they’ll be an easy out in the second round for Cleveland.
Boston looks like those Billups-Wallace x2-Hamilton-Prince Pistons teams the past few years before they had to blow it up. Most of the team doesn’t care. Even the coach, Doc Rivers, is already thinking about getting back into the booth. Their Big Three are all professionals who will give a great effort, but KG is aging in dog years and they should go out very quietly.
Atlanta has a good chance to make the conference finals this year. With Al Horford, they match up well with Dwight Howard and Orlando, their likely second round opponent. They were embarrassed by Cleveland in the second round last year and look to them to play a lot harder if they face the Cavs a second time around. With Joe Johnson’s free agency on the horizon, this might be their last chance to make a deep playoff run with the current nucleus.
Orlando has played well down the stretch, but they just don’t look like the same team that made the finals last year. Vince has finally settled into his role as a ‘score when we need you to’ player, but the Magic will really miss Turkoglu’s size and ability to create mismatches in the playoffs. With Vince, the Magic have a more conventional team. Both Atlanta and Cleveland have enough size to slow down Dwight Howard, and I actually like the Hawks to defeat them in the second round.
That leaves Atlanta and Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. Atlanta is better than they were last year, but Cleveland is just too deep for them. Not to mention, LeBron has been unstoppable this year. I’m thinking Cleveland over Atlanta in Six.
Western Conference Playoffs
There’s something wrong with the defending champion Lakers. Yes, they have their third consecutive number one seed in the West and should make their third straight finals. It’s just something about this team that doesn’t feel right. Bynum’s hurt again and is complaining about touches/minutes when he is present. Artest is aging fast and isn’t looking like the great pickup many thought he’d be last off-season. Gasol is complaining about Kobe’s shot selection and #24 is nursing a myriad of injuries. And Phil Jackson is concerned enough about Kevin Durant that he started playing mind games with Durant/the officials a week before the playoffs even started. That said, can anyone in the West beat the Lakers in seven? I could see scenario’s where every team in the playoffs could beat them. I don’t think that will happen, but LA has a tougher road to the finals than Cleveland for sure.
Oklahoma City is perhaps the most dangerous 8th seed in NBA history. A 50 win team with a 30 point scorer that defends like crazy and has a lot of depth for a young team. I wouldn’t be surprised if they beat LA, but I don’t think it will happen. I do think it will take the Lakers at least six games to defeat the Thunder.
The Spurs look old. Duncan is a step slower and Tony Parker has been dinged up all season. The Richard Jefferson trade didn’t really work out either. I think the window has closed on the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili championship era.
The Trailblazers are having a hard luck season. They lost their starting and backup center’s at the beginning of the season and lost their best player before the start of the playoffs. They’re a well coached team that plays hard, but without Brandon Roy it will be difficult for them to make it out of the first round.
Utah is another team whose chances have been altered by a major injury. Losing Kirilenko might be the straw that breaks this camel’s back. Utah has battled injuries and cost-cutting moves by management to have a great season and almost finished with the #2 seed in the conference. They will be a tough out for Denver, and LA if it comes to it, but I don’t think they have enough to make a deep run this year.
Phoenix, on the other hand, his healthy and playing as good as they’ve ever played during the Steve Nash era. They have depth at all positions and even have a capable backup for Nash. The question for them, as always, is if they will be able to defend well enough to make the Finals.
Dallas has looked unstoppable at times after picking up Caron Butler and Brendon Haywood from the Wizards around the trading deadline. If Phoenix is playing as good as they’ve ever had during the Nash era, this Mavs team looks as good as any team in the post Nash era, including the teams that made the finals a few years ago. Their problem is Phoenix is really good and is due some playoff luck, and the Lakers are really good and very well coached.
I actually think Phoenix can get past Dallas and make it to the Conference Finals. After going six or seven with Oklahoma City and the Nuggets, I think the Lakers will make it there as well, and will probably need six or seven games to beat the Suns as well. I’m picking the Lakers over the Suns in seven games.
So David Stern will get his dream Finals this year, Kobe vs. LeBron. Bring back the Nike puppets and the Vitamin Water commercials. If things play out the way discussed in this column, will the Lakers have enough in the tank to defeat Cleveland? I think once LA gets to the Finals adrenaline will help them forget about being tired and their nagging injuries. However, Cleveland is the better team this year, and is already 2-0 against the Lakers. LA has a huge advantage in coaching, but that’s about it. LeBron will finally win his first championship, making his decision to stay or leave that more difficult (or if he was leaning towards staying, a hell of a lot easier). I like the Cavs in six. Let the debating begin.