2014 NBA Playoffs Preview: 4-5 Match Up

Well Day 1 of the NBA playoffs is in the books and most of my predictions look to be in jeopardy. The Thunder were the only home team to win, with the Pacers, Clippers and Raptors all relinquishing home-court advantage. Here’s hoping that that trend does not continue with today’s games!

Eastern Conference
CHICAGO BULLS (4) vs. WASHINGTON WIZARDS (5)

Regular Season Series: Wizards won 2-1 (split 1-1 in Washington)

This is a difficult match-up to pick because it’s in the Eastern conference and who knows what team will show up when? The Bulls have put together a great second half of their season having gotten rid of Luol Deng and finding some scraps off the free agent market in DJ Augustin. I don’t think anyone has mentioned Derrick Rose anytime recently with respect to the Bulls. Tom Thibodeau has continued to ride his starters for insane minutes per game and Joakim Noah looks like a legitimate triple-double threat on any given night. The Bulls have a lot of things going for them and given that their game is predicated around the playoffs with a slow, physical style, they’ll have an upper-hand in this series, in my opinion.

The Wizards have a lot of talent and probably realized they were not bad enough to tank and get into the lottery so they decided to try their hardest. Given how shitty the East is, they climbed up as far as the 5-seed and were competing for home-court into the last few days of the season. The Wizards are also quite young and have a chance to become really good, especially given that they’ll be getting valuable playoff experience at a relatively early stage in their stars’ careers. John Wall and Bradley Beal form a formidable backcourt and Gortat and Nene is a luxury that few teams have at the 5. Ariza has once again showed how he can be valuable in a system where he is not meant to be the primary offensive threat and has been putting up good numbers and hounding defense.

I think this series will be close because the Bulls, while great defensively, get into frequent scoring lulls. The Wizards, though young and offensive-minded, are not yet consistent enough to break down the Bulls in the half-court. This series is going to come down to the 3-ball. The Wizards are the 6th best team shooting three pointers percentage-wise, but don’t take that many. The Bulls will likely have to extend their range since the Wizards will just pack the paint. I think the Bulls win, but it’s going to be a tight series.

PREDICTION: Bulls in 7 (4-3)

Western Conference
HOUSTON ROCKETS (4) vs. PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS (5)

Regular Season Series: Rockets won 3-1 (split 1-1 in Portland)

It’s “Rip City” vs. “Clutch City”. I don’t know what the “rip” in Rip City means, but that’s besides the point. As a Rockets fan who watched nearly every minute of nearly each one of the 82 regular season games, I am fairly confident in the Rockets ability to win this first round match up. However, given both teams rely so heavily on the three-pointer, this series could swing wildly. If either team can’t get it going from deep while the other is, expect large leads to develop. Both teams have also demonstrated an ability to come back from large deficits, so the game is probably not going to be over until the very end.

I don’t mind Portland as a team, but I think they are very streaky. They make a lot of bullshit shots (deep threes with the shot-clock running out, Wesley Mathews draining turnaround fadeaways from deep, Batum just generally shooting 8-foot stepbacks, etc.) and they are almost completely dependent on jump shooting. They are kind of like the Houston Rockets last year but with less defense. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the best jump-shooters in the league and one of the worst back-to-the-basket players at his size. He is kind of like Dirk Nowitzki with less range. While he’s a great player, I don’t think he’s a “star” per se.

The Rockets have grown a year with most of their core and of course have had to integrate Dwight Howard into the line-up as well. With Howard, they have a true center who is athletic and dominant in the paint. D12 still has work to do in his back-to-the-basket game, but he’s come quite fast. His left-handed jump hook turning into the paint from the right block is nearly unstoppable and I’m surprised he doesn’t go to it as often. The Rockets also shoot a lot of threes–most in the league, in fact–and make enough of them to be worthwhile. Of our starting 5, three can drain it from deep at a high clip and T Jones can stretch the floor on a hot night. Our bench is where we struggle a little bit, but given that the Blazers bench is basically Mo Williams, offensively, I think we should be fine.

I expect this series to feature a lot of high-scoring games but the Rockets to prevail because their game is more polished and consistent. I would not be surprised if the Blazers steal one in Houston, but I fully believe the Rockets to be able to win on the road, if necessary.

PREDICTION: Rockets in 5 (4-1)

I’m heading down to Houston for Game 1 tonight and am pumped! Hopefully we start off the series on the right foot.

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2014 NBA Playoffs Preview: 3-6 Match Up

The two 3-6 match-ups are rumored to be the best series’ in their respective conferences. I, of course, being a Rockets fan, believe that the Rockets-Blazers match up is the most interesting series, but hopefully not because it is close. Anyhow, more on that later.

Eastern Conference
TORONTO RAPTORS (3) vs. BROOKLYN NETS (6)

As The Rock might have said, “Finally the Raptors are back in the playoffs.” Of course, anyone could have said that, but just hear it in your head in The Rock’s voice. The Raptors have built a surprisingly successful season and one of their best (if not the best) regular season franchise records. This is on the back of Kyle Lowry, who was once again snubbed for an All Star bid. When he was back in Houston, he was definitely playing at an all-star level but of course the West is packed with guards. The East, not so much, so it can be understandable that he took it personally and out on the rest of the NBA. After Lowry, DeMar DeRozan has stepped up remarkably consistently for a guy whose go-to shot is an extremely low-percentage mid-range jumper. But when he gets hot, the hoop looks wiiide open. Valanciunas is growing into his role and although he is not dominating, he puts up good numbers.

The Raptors season essentially turned when they got rid of Rudy Gay. Terrence Ross has also stepped up remarkably well as has former Rocket Patrick Patterson. In fact, the Raptors are now the new Rockets rejects team with Lowry, Patterson and Hayes adorning their roster. Vasquez has been a great back-up PG and is a guy who I think should have earned a starting spot somewhere, by now.

The Brooklyn Nets are almost the polar opposite of the Raptors in that they are an aging squad with little to no upside. Nearly everyone on their roster is a known quantity. Luckily for them, those quantities are actually pretty good. When the Nets announced a potential starting lineup of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez back in November, the league was scared. However, those quantities did not pan out as expected and several injuries hurt the Nets along the way. However, the Nets have been one of the hottest teams of 2014 and it looks like their pieces have finally learned how to play together. I actually think they can string together enough wins to “upset” the Raptors purely based on the fact that they know how to win in the postseason.

PREDICTION: Nets in 6 (4-2)

Western Conference
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (3) vs. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (6)

This is going to be an awesome series just because these two teams hate each other. I’m sure you’ve seen the narrative from ESPN complete with all the videos of the fights, shoving, pushing, etc. Steph Curry is in an awesome shooting season that is, surprisingly, not as proficient as last year. Luckily for the Warriors, Klay Thompson has made up the gap and had an awesome season. The Warriors play defense, but they play a very nasty type of defense that could potentially be illegal. Hand-checking galore. Their offense is based solely on the success of Curry and how much activity he can create. Igoudala gives them a guy who can match up with most 2′s and 3′s in the league and win.

Unfortunately for the Warriors, the Clippers best players are at the PG and PF spot. I have no doubt that Igoudala will take his turn guarding Chris Paul, especially in late-game situations with the clock running down, but for the most part Paul will have a field day with Curry guarding him. Blake Griffin this year has shown a surprisingly dramatic year-over-year improvement in his post game and I’d actually put him up there in the top 10 list for back-to-the-basket players. It’s been fairly impressive, though extremely ugly.

I think this series will be close, with a few ejections and lots of late game heroics. I think the Clippers will pull it off just because they have improved their bench by leaps and bounds this year. But it’s gonna be an awesome series!

PREDICTION: Clippers in 6 (4-2)

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2014 NBA Playoffs Preview: 2-7 Match Up

Let me continue looking at the NBA playoffs first round match-ups (and hoping I can churn them all out before the playoffs start!). On the docket today is the 2-7 match-up.

Eastern Conference
MIAMI HEAT (2) vs. CHARLOTTE BOBCATS (7)

Regular Season Series: Heat won 4-0

This is Charlotte’s last season as the Bobcats and, I believe, their second season ever in the playoffs. Unfortunately, they got swept last time and I think they would be hard-pressed not to get swept here. Even though the Heat have been struggling of late, they’re still the defending champions and have the best player in the world on their roster. A lot of national media suggests that this team’s postseason runs will depend on Dwyane Wade’s availability and while I agree, I think the biggest gap is still the Heat bench. Even if Wade plays out of his mind, their starting line-up can’t play 48 minutes a game so Cole, Battier and Allen have to come to the party. The latter two have been having rough seasons, but I’m inclined to believe that they were taking it easy. To put it another way, Miami didn’t really try very hard and still ended up second in the Eastern conference. If they had tried harder the last few weeks, I have no doubt they would have easily usurped the top seed in the East from the Pacers.

Charlotte is a defense-first team (which is strange considering that they have Al Jefferson on their team) that likes to slow the game down. I also saw a stat yesterday along the lines of them having the fewest turnovers per game in the last few months of the season. Miami feasts on turnovers and it will be rougher for them to get easy points off of them. Charlotte have also been increasing their offensive efficiency month-over-month so they have some balance. However, I still don’t think it is enough to even win a game in this series. I think the Heat will turn on their playoff mode and give the Bobcats one last romping in their current uniforms. Jefferson, though a big, prefers to live outside the paint, so I don’t think the Haslem/Bosh/Andersen/Oden(?) rotation at center will be too unmatched.

PREDICTION: Heat in 4 (4-0)

Western Conference
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (2) vs. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (7)

Regular Season Series: Thunder won 3-1 (lost 1 at Memphis)

The last time these two teams matched up in the playoffs, the Grizzlies disposed of the Thunder in 5 games. Of course, this was a Westbrook-less Thunder where Durant was just starting to figure out how to play like Kobe Bryant does every night. I, of course, think the Thunder were lucky to get past the Rockets with some good old help from the zebras in Games 1, 2, and 3. Anyways, I’ll let bygones be bygones. The Durantula has now figured out how to play as sole alpha dog with Westbrook out most of the season and it is a very, very scary thing. The ease with which the man puts up 30+ points is ridiculous. Of course, Westbrook is back for the playoffs so the Thunder are doubly dangerous because they can play with or without Westbrook with ease, now.

The Grizzlies calling card is paint presence and slow pace. The Thunder love running. It is going to be the classic “grit-and-grind” vs. “run-and-gun” (or “pace-and-space”) match-up. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, the Thunder have ample frontcourt depth to deal with Randolph and Gasol in Ibaka, Perkins, Collison, Adams and maybe even Thabeet. While the Grizzlies have added some 3-point spacing to their squad with Mike Miller and Courtney Lee, they are still very much an inside-inside-inside-okay-I’ll-pass-it-outside team. Defensively, Conley will be outmatched by Westbrook and Tayshaun Prince will get to guard Durant. Prince is/was a defensive specialist from his Detroit days, but I’m not sure he has enough to contain KD.

I’ve talked before of series which are closer than the scoreline. I think this will be the opposite. I expect OKC to record some easy victories and the Grizz to start off well at home. But ultimately I think the Thunder will prevail.

PREDICTION: Thunder in 6 (4-2)

That’s it for this installment. Next I’ll look at the 3-6 match-up featuring the Nets and Raptors in the East and the Warriors and Clippers in the West. Just one more day to playoffs!

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2014 NBA Playoffs Preview: 1-8 Match Up

The 2014 NBA Playoffs are going to get going in just a few days and a quick glance at the match-ups promises some exciting basketball over the next couple of months. As I’ve been doing for the last few years, I’m going to go ahead and do a short preview of each series and predict who I think is going to win the series. I’m going to go down the series by match-ups, previewing each conferences’ match-up one-by-one.

Eastern Conference
INDIANA PACERS (1) vs. ATLANTA HAWKS (8)

Regular Season Series: Tied 2-2 (both teams split at home)

This is a surprisingly tough series to predict. Indiana looked like the cream of the crop for the first half of the season and then everything seemed to fall apart. Despite this, Indiana managed to snag the top seed in the East, though that was mainly because the Heat didn’t really appear to care. Interestingly, this is also the same first-round match-up from last year’s NBA Playoffs, though in that case it was a 3-6 match-up.

The Pacers may finally have gotten back on track but the Hawks have a team that can be dangerous. They have a bunch of second-tier role players, in my opinion, and I think the Pacers probably have the 3 best players in this series (David West, Lance Stephenson and Paul George). I think the series will be closer than the scoreline suggests, but the Pacers will manage to hold on. I wouldn’t be surprised if they take a dump and get knocked out, though.

PREDICTION: Pacers win in 5 (4-1)

Western Conference
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (1) vs. DALLAS MAVERICKS (8)

Regular Season Series: Spurs won 4-0

It’s that time of the year again when everyone has forgotten about the Spurs and is talking about the Thunder, Heat, Pacers and Clippers as serious contenders. Really? The Spurs just put in another 60-win season and have guaranteed home-court advantage for as long as they last in the playoffs. The Mavericks get to face the Spurs on the virtue of losing to Memphis in the last day of regular season. I honestly think both teams should have come to an understanding before the game and let the Mavs win because I think both teams would have a better match-up. I think Memphis matches up better with the Spurs and the Mavericks would have a shot against the Spurs. Anyways, no point mulling over hypotheticals.

San Antonio dominated the regular season series, winning all games somewhat comfortably. Dallas, in my opinion, overperformed this season because Monta Ellis finally became slightly more efficient and their role players outperformed expectations. I don’t think they have near enough to get around the Spurs, though. As a result of the dominating season, the Spurs have once again managed to rest their key pieces liberally and are entering the playoffs scorching hot (even though they are on a 2-game losing streak resting most of their important players). They got and integrated Kawhi Leonard back from injury at the ideal time and even allowed him to rest for the last couple of games.

I think there’s a high probability that the Spurs bring out the brooms in this series, but I’m willing to bet that Dirk will have at least one of those ridiculous games where everything goes in, regardless of how silly it looks. So I’ll give them a split at home.

PREDICTION: Spurs win in 5 (4-1)

So there you have it. I’m expecting the top seeds to take care of business fairly easily, although I’m way more confident about the Spurs than the Pacers. Next up I’ll preview the 2-7 match-up!

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recovery: part 2

It’s been a couple of days since my surgery now–in fact it is almost exactly 48 hours since I was discharged from the fine Central Park Surgery Center facility. I actually started writing this entry the same evening I had surgery but after reaching two sentences I became disgruntled and took a nap instead.

The last couple of days have been interesting. The pain this time around is a lot less than the pain last time around, which was to be expected, I suppose, since the procedure was far less… serious.

Day 0 PS (9/13/2013)

I won’t go through the pre-op process and all that again since it was pretty much the same as last time. The anasthesia worked and did its job well and I woke up in the recovery room with a cracker and apple juice in my hand.

I have still not figured out the specifics of what they did in my knee but as I understand it, they basically cleaned up everything from my previous surgery. This included removing the “hardware” (washers and pins that were responsible for holding the previous reconstructed ligament to the bone until it grafted) from the previous surgery and getting rid of the remains of the old ligament. They also trimmed my medial meniscus because it was apparently too lacerated to be repaired. I’m not sure if they removed it completely or just trimmed the part that was torn and in my joint, though.

The surgery took about 2 hours and I spent an additional hour in the recovery room. I came back home and took a nice, long nap on the painkillers on Friday and survived on a diet of fruits and liquids (juices and such) since that would supposedly allow the anesthesia to get out of my system the fastest. I slept a bunch on Friday but since I was not in that much pain (they had supposedly injected morphene into my knee joint) I did remote in and got a little bit of work done.

Day 1 PS (9/14/2013)

On this Saturday I spent most of the day lying in bed watching football. Not a bad way to spend the day if you’re a professional couch potato. I’ve kept my leg elevated almost constantly since surgery. I probably spent less than 10 minutes off the bed on Saturday, and that was just to walk around the house a little bit and use the restroom.

I had a delicious lunch of lamb curry and rice cooked by my uncle which lifted my spirits considerably. Rice ended up squeezing through a victory in their game against Kansas so that put me in a good mood, as well. I ended up going to bed around 10:30 PM with a fresh batch of ice in my ice machine and slept without interruption till about 5AM. At this point I disconnected the ice machine since it felt a bit wet and went back to bed for another couple of hours.

Day 2 PS (9/15/2013)

When my uncle came in at 7.30 AM to replace the ice I said that the leg felt wet so I was going to open it up. I went into the bathroom and went to work on the bandaging and its many layers. The lowest layer of gauze was fairly bloody but it was also all dried. So the wetness that I was feeling just appeared to be nerves down around my knee being pinched or something.

I got rid of all the old dressing and then put some new surgical dressing that my uncle had bought from Walgreen’s and wrapped it all up. There’s maybe 1 or 2 fewer layers now because I can definitely feel the ice pack when I reconnect it. I’m not putting it on all the time, though, because I’m afraid that the moisture might seep through and get the wound wet.

Pain levels have decreased to just discomfort. I’m still not taking the risk of testing my knee too much but the last dose of hydrocodone I took was last night at around 7:30 PM and I have been able to sleep and such without too many problems. Hopefully this improvement continues.

NFL is about to begin in just about 29 minutes so the rest of the day is going to be focused around fantasy football!

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going back under the kni– arthroscope

It’s almost been a full 2 months since I last posted something literary, and that post also happened to be a couple of days before I reinjured my knee. Since I’m going to be bedridden in a little more than 12 hours, I figured I’d get the creative juices flowing in anticipation of doing stuff to keep my mind occupied while recovering from my second knee surgery in as many years.

On July 22nd this year, exactly a year and 10 days after I had my first ACL reconstruction surgery and meniscus repair, I re-tore my ACL graft and meniscus while contemplating a game of volleyball. The entire injury was probably manifested over the last few months of my rehab where I had tweaked my knee a few times while running but was cleared to return to activities by the physical therapist.

Day 0 (7/22/2013)

On this fateful Monday, I was waiting in the rotation for a sand volleyball game when someone served the ball long. I retrieved the ball, turned around, took a skip step and threw the ball. Apparently my knee got stuck in the ground while the rest of the body pivoted and whatever was left of the graft shredded and took my meniscus with it.

The pain was not as extreme as I remember it being following my first ACL injury but still bad enough that I took a day off to ice it and got an appointment with North Austin Sports Medicine, the practice that handled my first surgery, as soon as I could. They sent me off to get an MRI and I spent the next three days or so icing my knee and staying off my feet. I then went to a bachelor party in New Orleans where I played phone tag with the surgeon’s assistant but couldn’t get through to find out what the diagnosis was. I did manage to reschedule my follow-up appointment to Monday from Wednesday through a series of voicemails. After doing extensive research on WebMD as well as the tests performed by both my primary care physician and the orthopedist surgeon, I was fairly confident that I had a medial meniscus tear. While this wasn’t ideal, the recovery schedule for this injury was about 3-6 months, a far cry from the 12 months I had just spent from my prior surgery.

Day 14 (8/5/2013)

I got to the orthopedist surgeon and after a 10-minute or so wait outside, I was ushered into a room and given my MRI results in paper form. I was then left to stew in what they said for the next 30 minutes or so, in the normal waiting game that NASM likes to play. This summary was pretty straightforward:

Impression:

  1. Complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament graft.
  2. Displaced bucket-handle tear of the medial meniscus.
  3. Moderate knee joint effusion.
  4. Status post resection of the medial synovial plica.
  5. Mild bone marrow edema of the proximal tibia.

That first line was the killer blow. The world didn’t spin around and I didn’t throw up in the doctor’s office, but I did spend the next 30 minutes gathering my thoughts and preparing for the spiel.

The surgeon came in and seemed genuinely disappointed and surprised and went ahead and recommended surgery as soon as possible but definitely within the next 1-2 months before scar tissue began to develop that prevented my knee from straightening, or before the cartilage tear got any worse. Unlike last time, I asked for a copy of my MRI with an intention to get a second opinion and an even stronger intention of going with the second opinion’s expertise for the repair surgery. While I have few problems with Dr. Brotzman, unfortunately his practice is not very well-managed, at least as evidenced by how long a trip to see him usually takes.

Day 16 (8/7/2013)

I scheduled a second opinion for this date with Dr. Carey Windler of Austin Sports Medicine. A few people I know have been to this practice and had nothing but good words for them. I even know two people who’ve had ACL reconstruction surgery there and have been recovering well. I took a copy of my MRI and they were able to access my last x-ray.

The verdict was pretty much the same: surgery. However, Dr. Windler suggested a different process, which was to fix my medial meniscus tear first (as well as undo the stuff from the failed ACL surgery) first and get that healed up completely and then follow by getting the ACL reconstructed next year. While this would be more expensive and increase my rehab time by a few months, it also made a little bit of sense for me because I could see how life was without an ACL (but a good meniscus). If I choose to go without an ACL long-term, I’ll have to cut out most all sports and running, and start swimming and biking. It’s a decision I haven’t thought about extensively and won’t really until my rehab from the first surgery is winding down.

In the weeks following this meeting I contacted NASM to attempt to talk to Dr. Brotzman about Dr. Windler’s opinion but I was never able to get him on the phone. Since they didn’t seem to want my business, I decided to go with Dr. Windler for my procedure.

Day 52 (9/12/2013)

Over the last month or so my knee has felt better and gained strength but I still cannot extend it completely apart from, of course, being unable to run, cut, etc. At this point I’m probably back to the lowest physical form of my life (sadness). However, I did give up a little bit since it didn’t make sense for me to go hard with my workouts when I knew I would probably be spending about 3 weeks without any exercise anyway. I know, it’s rationalization at its finest, but I was okay with it.

My first surgery–to repair the meniscus and undo the work done in my previous surgery–is scheduled for tomorrow at 8.15am, which means that I will need to reach the surgery center at 6.45am, which means I will be having a very, very early day. My uncle has flown over from Las Vegas to help me out and that coupled with the fact that I’ve been through this once before has me feeling cautiously optimistic about the surgery and recovery. Hopefully it will all go as planned.

I’ll be using my bed-ridden state to blog ferociously and perhaps even work on some Windows Phone apps that I’ve been putting off, in between spurts of pain medicine and naps. We’ll see how it goes. Onwards to surgery!

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[acoustic cover] f***in’ problem by a$ap rocky feat. drake, kendrick lamar and 2chainz

It’s been a long time since I put out one of these up (or, as someone ears would say, ‘not enough time’) but I figure it’s the right time, before this song turns a year old. Although I may have missed it.

This song is called F***in’ Problem and I think it goes without saying that it’s gonna contain some bad words. So if that’s not your thing, don’t listen. Also, excuse the sound and the video shakiness. Apparently the Lumia 1020 is really good at deep basses but not as good as crappy acoustic covers. Ah well. I may put up another version if I ever set up my microphone rig.

Anyhow. Enjoy (as much as you can).


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from royce white to d-wight

If you have been following the NBA at all, you would have been aware that sometime during the July 4th weekend festivities last week, Daryl Morey pulled off a move that no one except Rockets fans expected him to. I’m talking, of course, about the Dwight Howard free agent signing. After being spurned by free agents (Chris Bosh) and the NBA (Pau Gasol), Morey was finally able to make a career-defining move. Or, at least, that’s what popular media claimed.

As a Rockets fan, though, it’s obvious how short-sighted that narrative is. Morey’s genius is in his ability to continually tinker until the pieces fall into place. Some might call it lucky, and it definitely plays a part, but I think it is about doing whatever you can to increase the probability of the outcome that you desire. Which, in this case, was getting a championship contender together.

Before we even reach Dwight Howard, we need to take a look at what is lovingly known as “Moreyball” over the last few seasons. Once it was apparent that Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming would lead to nothing more than jersey sales and a cornering of the Chinese market, Morey went to work. It is hard to imagine that the Rockets’ best player after McGrady went down and Yao was here and there was Trevor Ariza, or maybe Ron Artest. After that curtailed playoff run in 2009 where Yao went down for the penultimate time, it was obvious that we had to rebuild. But not in the way most NBA teams approached it: tank and go fishing in the lottery. Morey had to remain competitive.

The one thing that defines Daryl Morey as a GM more than anything else is his ability to treat players like financial assets. This is a blessing and a curse. It is great because he is able to extract maximum value from his roster moves but it is a curse because players don’t like being treated like lines on a balance sheet. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the laundry list of the last few players to be through the revolving door of the Rockets roster who were disposed of at their peak value: Tracy McGrady, Trevor Ariza, Kevin Martin, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Patrick Patterson, Luis Scola, Chase Budinger.

All these players were household names and starters when they were playing for the Rockets. T-mac was a shell of his former self but his was the trade that brought Kevin Martin into town and Kevin Martin was the player that brought James Harden to the red uniform. Ariza was dumped to the Hornets for something or another, where he has been languishing as a very expensive and inefficient defensive sharpshooter. Kevin Martin peaked as a Rocket, showed his lack of big-game play in the playoffs for OKC and now has gone running back into the arms of Rick Adelman.

Aaron Brooks was traded away post-injury for some valuable assets where he elected to play the lockout-shortened season in China. He is a free agent still looking for a team as we speak. Carl Landry was traded away to the wasteland that is Sacramento. Luckily, he managed to get to Golden State and has now signed a shiny new contract and is performing at levels near where he was with the Rockets. Lowry was traded to Toronto for a lottery pick and hasn’t come close to the success he enjoyed in a Rocket uniform. Dragic decided to test the free market and Phoenix bit but is now regretting it. Patterson, Budinger and Scola were great in Houston but have not managed to recreate their success in other surroundings.

In addition to all these big names coming and going, there have been a host of tiny little roster changes that are just blips on the radar for most “professional” analysts. When the Rockets traded for James Harden, everyone was surprised that it happened because no one expected James Harden to be a financial asset. Luckily for Houston, both Sam Presti and Daryl Morey were on the same page. Harden was going to become a free agent in another season and instead of having to deal with a Dwight Howard-like nightmare situation in Orlando, Presti elected to sell high. And despite what people might say, he got a pretty decent package. Kevin Martin was an able contributor in the regular season, Jeremy Lamb is now showing flashes of brilliance, Hasheem Thabeet has played meaningful minutes and Stephen Adams looks like he can become a solid role player. The players OKC lost apart from Harden aren’t in an NBA rotation right now.

The trade worked out for both teams. Presti realized his assets were going to tank because he wouldn’t be able to afford them in 2 seasons and the rest of the league would know that. Houston realized that their assets, particularly their futures, were worth cashing in to move into contender mode. Because once a big-name player comes into a city, others want to join (see McGrady and Artest).

A lot of people claim that Morey took a huge risk in drafting Harden because there was no idea he knew that Harden was going to put up top-5 SG numbers after being promoted from the bench to the starting lineup. It is easy to use hindsight, but I feel like all these naysayers didn’t watch any OKC series in the 2011-12 NBA playoffs until the finals. James Harden was an absolute stud and played an enormous part in them even getting to the finals. Yeah, he choked there, but the fact that people blamed him for the Thunder losing in 2012 is even more of a testament to how awesome he is.

It could have all gone horribly wrong if Harden did not make the transition to top dog well so it was absolutely a gamble on Morey’s part. But the gamble was like getting pocket aces in a game of Texas Hold’em. Yeah, you might lose, but there’s a high probability of winning the pot. Getting Harden was absolutely a safe bet, in my opinion. In fact, I think Morey may have overpaid by including both Lamb and a lottery pick. However, it was probably the overpayment that allowed the deal to get done without news of Harden being on the trading block hitting the rest of the GMs.

There was more luck at play as well. No one expected Chandler Parsons to strike gold. That was a case of low risk, high payoff. Not even Daryl Morey expected to get Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin in restricted free agency despite the poison pill contract. Especially in the case of Asik, where all the analytics pointed to a strong likelihood that he would be one of the top defensive players the league has seen. And the biggest piece of luck was obviously chemistry. Chemistry is officially a type of science but in the NBA, it is anything but.

Team chemistry is unpredictable and there are many examples. See the first third of the big 3 era in Miami. I believe that team went something like 18-16 and people began to question Riley’s vision. They’ve now been to three successive NBA finals and won twice. See the New York Knicks, who despite being full of successful players still struggle in the playoffs because of lack of cohesion. Most recently and topically, see the Los Angeles Lakers of last year, whose big 4 needed a healthy dose of zebra help to even make it to the playoffs where they were dumped in 4 straight games by a San Antonio Spurs team that has been together for seemingly forever.

Good team chemistry is hard to get which is why teams should strive to protect it. The Spurs have worked with a strong core (and a great coaching staff) for over a decade now, subbing pieces where it makes sense. They’ve not brought in a huge name from outside because they don’t want to disturb the equilibrium that already exists. I thought Dallas did the exact opposite thing when they disassembled their 2011 championship core. Now, the money may not have worked out and the Dallas GM probably realized that his assets had peaked so it may have been a good decision. I mean, if we see the rest of that championship roster, they’re languishing at the end of the bench somewhere. But they fit together perfectly in Dallas. I think Cuban should have ridden that train a little longer.

This brings me to Miami. A lot of people think the Wade-Bosh-James trio is going to break up in 2014 when that class hits free agency. And I don’t know if it will but I think Riley should be working his ass off to keep it together. Age and fading athleticism is not a problem—Parker, Ginobili and Duncan are well into their 30’s. They just need to make sure the big changes are happening at the role player level and not the star level. They’ve got to ride that chemistry all the way to dynasty level.

Anyhow, I’ve now gone off topic quite a bit so let me bring this back to Houston. Unfortunately, according to my theory, Houston is probably going to struggle this year, at least at the beginning. But Rockets fans will recall that the beginning of the Harden-era was fraught with problems. The rest of the team seemed anxious on offense and always deferred to Harden, resulting in a fair bit of hero ball. Once Harden began trusting his teammates, the Rockets took off (excuse the pun) and the chemistry became maximized.

I think Howard replacing Asik in the starting lineup will have a huge negative effect on chemistry. I won’t be surprised if this team, now expected to do so much, wavers around the .500 mark for the first third or so of the season. The Heat did it too. I think we have a better path, though, because we only have one person thrust into a new role—Asik. Harden was an able facilitator in Oklahoma City and I think his usage was above optimal levels last season. In contrast, the Heat had to deal with three players having to adjust—Wade became the second scorer and Bosh was essentially a glorified role player. LeBron’s adjustment was easier, if only because his teammates were now able playmakers and he could trust them. But it still took him about 35 games to gain that trust.

It definitely helps that Howard is already chummy with the Rockets, especially Chandler Parsons who has apparently had a friendship with Howard since his Orlando days. Dwight Howard chose to go to Houston, so you expect the chemistry to increase quicker, unlike his days in LA, where he was traded. I don’t know about others, but I cannot imagine Howard calling up Kobe, Pau and Nash to go hang out at a club as soon as he was traded. Those players are from a completely different generation.

Bringing this back to Miami, all of their big three were from the same draft class and already buddy-buddy. They had been through the same sort of challenges in their drafted teams—being the most talented player on a mostly crappy team. I think their ability to empathize helped them, which is why that I’m optimistic that the Rockets will gel if the fans and the media give them an opportunity to. Of course, I’m not optimistic that the media will adhere to this agreement as they probably already have a target aimed at the Toyota Center, but I’m hoping that the roster gets through it together. It’s obvious that they already believe in each other in a quietly confident sort of way.

To wrap up, this is going to be another exciting season of Rockets basketball. I think the playoff experience last year made this team even better, regardless of the Howard addition. I think the Howard addition will have some teething pains but I’m hopeful that that will clear up quickly. More than anything, I think these guys will just flat out have a lot of fun on the court and play some exciting basketball. The only regret I have is the diminishing role of Omer Asik and the likelihood of his impending trade. However, he’s hardly the first casualty of Moreyball. Here’s hoping to the health of the roster and a great season!

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nba playoff predictions: conference semis

So the first round of the NBA playoffs finally closed as the Chicago Bulls won on the road to become the last team to book their tickets to the conference semis. Let’s take a look at my scorecard for the first round of playoffs first before I go ahead and make my predictions on the second round based on what I saw.

Scorecard

Eastern Conference
Miami Heat 4-0 Milwaukee Bucks (PREDICTION: 4-0)
New York Knicks 4-2 Boston Celtics (PREDICTION: 4-2)
Indiana Pacers 4-2 Atlanta Hawks (PREDICTION: 4-1)
Chicago Bulls 4-3 Brooklyn Nets (PREDICTION: 4-2)

Western Conference
Oklahoma City Thunder 4-2 Houston Rockets (PREDICTION: 4-1)
San Antonio Spurs 4-0 Los Angeles Lakers (PREDICTION: 4-2)
Golden State Warriors 4-2 Denver Nuggets (PREDICTION: 2-4)
Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 Los Angeles Clippers (PREDICTION: 4-3)

Not bad, if I say so myself. I got two on the dot and 5 correct series winners with the incorrect scoreline, most of which really ended up being due to injuries. The Nuggets-Warriors pick was actually one I lamented over before going with the team with the best regular season home record, but apparently all it took was one loss at home to change the tide of that series. Now, let me look ahead at the conference semis.

Western Conference Semifinals

Oklahoma City Thunder (1) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5)

I think Oklahoma City is lucky to have made it after the first round after losing Russell Westbrook, winning Game 2 and Game 3 on the back of some contentious calls and having to deal with substandard coaching for the entire series. I’m very proud of my Houston Rockets for putting up the effort that they did and I’m very optimistic about their future given that this is Year 1 of rebuilding and we now have 5 more years of Daryl Morey and James Harden to look forward to.

All that said, it looks like Scott Brooks finally got his head out of his ass during Game 6 and benched Kendrick Perkins in favor of the far more useful Nick Collison. It also helped, of course, that his role players remembered how to shoot while Houston triggered the “die-by-the-three” clause of their playing style, in the fourth quarter. Anyhow, the Rockets-Thunder series was almost the polar opposite of the Grizzlies-Clippers series in terms of play style as well as personnel. Both the Grizzlies and Clippers have solid half-court offenses and play a slowish pace (more the Grizzlies than the Clippers).

Looking at this series, I expect the Grizzlies to win, but not as easily as I thought before. The post-Russell Westbrook Thunder have finally figured out how to play without him but at the same time I think the Rockets laid a pretty good gameplan of how to beat them by shutting down KD. The Grizzlies were the best team in the NBA this season in terms of points allowed and they have several good defensive wings (Tayshaun Prince, Tony Allen) that they can use in single coverage against KD.

I expect this series to go down to 7 games because the Grizzlies are very poor from long-range and rely on post offense which I think Ibaka and Perkins can actually deal with pretty well. However, I still think the role players for the Thunder don’t show up consistently enough to make up for Westbrook’s loss. Grizzlies in 7 (4-3).

San Antonio Spurs (2) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)

This should be another tremendously exciting series. Both teams have a bevy of sharpshooters and like to spread the floor and go to work on the perimeter with a series of pick and rolls. The Spurs have been rolling this postseason (what’s new?) and their efficient sweep of the Lakers means that Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have had ample time to rest up given that they’re both returning from injury. For a team whose core is all in their mid-30s, that was the perfect set-up for them. But can they run with the Warriors?

David Lee’s absence will mean a big deal for the Warriors because he was a phenomenal rebounder and would also force Duncan to defend. Lee may still play a few minutes here and there but I don’t expect any of them to be meaningful minutes. Carl Landry has been filling in well for Lee but he’s not nearly as consistent (and he’s not an all-star, either). Luckily for the Warriors, Andrew Bogut has been giving them really good minutes and has stayed away from injuries. That could all change in one play, though. I think the Spurs will prove to be too powerful in this match-up, although I’m gunning for the Warriors. Spurs in 6 (4-2).

Miami Heat (1) vs Chicago Bulls (5)

The Heat really brushed away the Bucks without much of an afterthought, killing Brandon Jennings’ dreams swiftly. The Bulls have been battered by injuries and barely managed to scrape past an underwhelming Brooklyn Nets team. Unless we see Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng make a return, I don’t see Chicago putting up much of a fight. I think they might split at home because Tom Thibodeau is such a great coach, but Miami will close this series out pretty easily. Heat in 5 (4-1).

New York Knicks (2) vs. Indiana Pacers (3)

Can you believe this is the only series in these playoffs where both top seeds actually made it through? The Knicks have looked a bit shaky (or shaaakkkyyy as Royce White would put it) after Carmelo’s insane form finally fell through but they were able to power their way past an offensively-challenged Celtic roster. The Indiana Pacers dispatched the Hawks with a little bit of a fight, but I don’t think anyone was surprised. (Side note: It’s going to be an interesting off-season in Atlanta with both Josh Smith and Al Horford becoming free agents.)

I really have no idea how this series will transpire. The Knicks may have recaptured some of their swagger after the Game 6 victory in Boston, especially now that it looks like Iman Shumpert has made a full recovery from ACL surgery. The Pacers weren’t really challenged in their first round series even though they dropped two games on the road and ended up with a few blowout victories. This should make for an interesting series as the Knicks try to get back to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since… forever.

I think they succeed because even as far as Paul George has come this season, Carmelo knows how to turn it on when he needs to and he’s a far superior offensive player. I think the Knicks role players and bench is just a lot better at knowing what their roles are (and nearly all of their roles is “3-point specialist”). Anyways, we’ll see. I’ll take the Knicks in 6 (4-2).

 

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nba playoffs preview: 4-5 matchup

This is a rematch of last year’s match-up, except that the Clippers hold home court by virtue of winning the regular season series 3-1 after the two teams finished with identical records on the year. The Clippers continued building on their roster from last year by adding a few veteran role players while the Grizzlies decided to move in a different direction by getting rid of Rudy Gay. Is this year’s series going to have a different result?

These two teams play very different games. Memphis is the best defensive team in the NBA in terms of points allowed and also the only team that allows fewer than 90 points a game. They do this by playing a slow pace and relying on their significant post presence to get points. Zach Randolph has continued making weird, falling away, unbalanced baskets from near the rim with remarkable accuracy and Marc Gasol has continued to make a claim for the Most Valuable Gasol award in the NBA this year. Their backcourt is solid with Mike Conley continuing to provide consistent play and Tony Allen being a great defensive stopper. Post-trade, they did away with the low-percentage shots that Rudy Gay threw up to add veteran Tayshaun Prince, who has a very underwhelming but successful style.

On the other side of the coin is a team entirely predicated on point-guard play, forcing turnovers and getting into transition. Chris Paul continues to be the best playmaking point guard in the NBA and has made a motley crue of role players look like all-stars. Blake Griffin has polished up his very rough back-to-the-basket game somewhat, but it is still cringeworthy to watch. Caron Butler has been great this year when he’s been playing and even Chauncey Billups has worked his way back to health and he’s always looking for big shots to hit during the playoffs. Matt Barnes has been a spark-plug off the bench and his solid defense and ability to stretch the floor from three-point range will have the Grizzlies bench in a tiff.

In the end, though, I think the Grizzlies will take care of this match-up because of Z-Bo. DeAndre Jordan may be able to limit Gasol’s impact, but I don’t think Griffin will be able to hang with Randolph. I also expect the zebras to play a part in this series, especially if the Lakers get knocked out early against the Spurs. I’m going to call the Grizzlies in 7.

PREDICTION: Memphis win in 7 (4-3)

I’m sorry, but I’m still not convinced by the Nets. Which is weird, considering they have a pretty solid core with good inside-outside play but I guess they’ve just been flying under the radar. Brook Lopez has made some noise for a first-team all NBA selection with typically consistent play. Deron Williams has been solid without being spectacular. Joe Johnson continues to make the Atlanta Hawks front office look like idiots with the contract they gave him. Gerald Wallace has been decent offensively but his big value is really as a defensive stopper. Well, at least the Nets are back in the playoffs, but I don’t see them having too long a stay over here.

The Bulls, in contrast, have been extracting every ounce of over-achievement from their severely depleted roster. Not only are they missing Derrick Rose (whose participation has been the object of media speculation over the last week) but they’ve also had Joakim Noah battling injury towards the end of the regular season. In Rose’s absence, Nate Robinson has stepped up wonderfully, particularly in the last few weeks of the regular season in big match-ups. It seems like Robinson is a big-game player but with Robinson, you’re going to get a guy who can just as easily shoot you out of the game as shooting you into a game.

The Bulls have really been about defense and I think they’ll match up with the Nets pretty well. The Nets do have Reggie Evans swallowing up boards at an alarming pace, but I just don’t see the x-factor from them. Luol Deng has stepped up well as primary scorer for the Bulls team and Carlos Boozer has been consistent as ever. I think this series will really come down to whether Noah can come back healthy, since he will do a big part in limiting Lopez’s effectiveness. I think the Bulls defense will be able to handle the Nets from the perimeter.

I’m going to risk Noah being healthy and call an upset in this 4-5 matchup as well.

PREDICTION: Chicago in 6 (4-2)

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