nba playoff predictions

It is once again that time of year when I make playoff predictions. Last year, I went 7-1 in the first round, but only picked one upset (Spurs over Mavs). I only got one series absolutely right from a scoreline perspective (the Suns 4-2 against Portland). This year is going to be significantly harder, especially in the West where the top teams are split within just a few games and there have been a lot of regular season upsets. Anyhow, let’s get going!

Eastern Conference

Chicago Bulls (1, 62-20) vs. Indian Pacers (8, 37-45)

This one’s the easiest pick, in my opinion. I’m still not quite comprehending the fact that the Bulls actually ended up with the best record in the NBA. About a month ago, one would think it would definitely be the Spurs grabbing homecourt advantage for the duration of the playoffs. Derrick Rose has been in beast mode for pretty much all of the season, and his complementary players are really stepping up. Boozer has been big for them and even Korver has stepped in nicely into a “big-Hinrich” role. This is a hard team not to like, even though it is full of ex-Jazz players. The Pacers scraped through the playoffs, 8 games below .500. They’ve got some good young talent but I just don’t see them having the firepower to stop a rampaging Bulls team. 4-0 to the Bulls.

Miami Heat (2, 58-24) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (7, 41-41)

The Heat made a good late-season push to oust the Celtics from that second spot in the East. Their livelihood in the second round may be more questionable, but they’ve set themselves up for success going into the first round of the playoffs. Barring any injuries, I don’t think this team will be stopped in this round. Even though Philly has been playing some really good basketball, in the end I think they will lose simply because they will rely a little too much on team basketball, which doesn’t work as well in the postseason. Igoudala has been good and Holiday is having a career year, but the Heat will probably take care of business. 4-1 to the Heat, with the Sixers winning one of their home games.

Boston Celtics (3, 56-26) vs. New York Knicks (6, 42-40)

This is probably the series to watch in the first round of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics will be mighty annoyed that they couldn’t take care of business the last couple of weeks and fell down to the third seed to face a challenging Knicks team that has done well to finish above .500. Amar’e has missed a couple of games in the stretch, but Carmelo has been filling in effortlessly. I still think the Knicks traded away too many assets in the Melo deal and will have a tough time closing this series down. That said, the Celtics offense has been sputtering ridiculously in the last few weeks, with Allen having lost his touch and Pierce being in a shooting slump. They’ve also lost some of their paint presence, so I expect Melo and Amar’e will have a field day in the paint and at the line. Still think the Celtics will pull it out, but they’ll have to work overtime to do it. I’m going to call it 4-2 to the Celtics but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Knicks won the series by the same margin.

Orlando Magic (4, 52-30) vs. Atlanta Hawks (5, 44-38)

The Hawks are the most underwhelming team in the playoffs, which is strange considering they’re a 5-seed. They’ve been at the wrong end of some of the worst losses this season and are in fact entering the postseason on the back of 6 straight losses. However, right before that, they also beat the Magic and Celtics in the span of 3 days. They have the players to get it done, but come on, this team lost to the Wizards by 32 points just about a week ago. They may just be one of those teams that plays to their opponent’s level. I think the Magic roll this one. 4-1 to the Magic.

Western Conference

San Antonio Spurs (1, 61-21) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (8, 46-36)

Ah, here is the fun stuff. Divisional rivals taking on each other in the first round of the playoffs. The Spurs, who have traditionally been a very defense-oriented league made a major change this season by going to the completely opposite side of the spectrum–becoming an offensive-minded team. They play with great pace and still have the ability to shut down teams in the 4th quarter. They are obviously still a contender, although the window is closing rapidly for Ginobili, Parker and Duncan. The season series between these teams was split 2-2, with the home team winning all of the games. The Grizzlies have been coping well without Rudy Gay, but I think they’ll find it tough to overcome the Spurs. I’m going slightly left-field with this scoreline, but that’s because I’ll have to see if the Spurs can slow down the pace during the playoffs, essentially re-tooling their game. 4-2 to the Spurs.

Los Angeles Lakers (2, 57-25) vs. New Orleans Hornets (7, 46-36)

Everyone has been talking about the Lakers the last few weeks as they went on a rabid run post all-star break before simmering down considerably. The Lakers would be disappointed on missing out on the top seed, as they failed to take advantage of a Spurs slump. However, I don’t think the Lakers will have too much of an issue dispatching the Hornets. Maybe with D-West, they’d have a chance, but I think they’ll fail to make an impact here. Lakers swept the season series, too. 4-1 to the Lakers.

Dallas Mavericks (3, 57-25) vs. Portland Trailblazers (6, 48-34)

This is a match-up to watch out for. I still don’t understand how the Trailblazers manage to stay competitive after going through injury after injury every season. Kinda wish the Rockets could replicate that effort. The Mavs have been blowing hot and cold the last few weeks and split the season series between these two teams 2-2, with the home team winning every game. I have a feeling Rip City could pull off an upset here, depending on if Dirk’s teammates decide to show up. Going to go with my first upset. 4-3 to the Blazers.

Oklahoma City Thunder (4, 55-27) vs. Denver Nuggets (5, 50-32)

The Denver Nuggets have been playing some solid basketball since they got rid of their whiny star. The main reason for this is that they got a massive package from the Knicks and a bunch of players who play well with each other. OKC, meanwhile, was at one point threatening to slip down into the bottom seeds, but they did a good job to revive their season and almost go up as high as the 2nd seed. The Thunder won the season series between these two teams 3-1 and I think they’ll win here, but it will be tight. 4-3 to the Thunder.

That’s it. Can’t wait for some postseason basketball, even though I wish I had a chance to cheer for the Rockets!

On Carmelo and the Rockets

The buzz around the basketball world the last few days has been focused around one man–Carmelo Anthony. This is no surprise, since Carmelo is probably just a little jealous that this summer didn’t feature any discussion around his name because he chose to prematurely sign a contract extension during his first few seasons in the NBA. Now, he apparently doesn’t want to wait one year to hog the limelight all to himself but is creating waves by trying to get traded away from the Nuggets. The Rockets have come up over and over again because of Daryl Morey’s wealth of trade assets–ranging from expired contracts (9 of the players on our roster will be coming up for new contracts next year) to young talent (Hill, Budinger, Brooks) to two New York Knicks draft picks that could be pretty high if the Knicks don’t gel with their new-look team.

Rockets fans over the entire interwebs have been chiming into support several different trade scenarios–ranging from giving them bench pieces that we don’t really need to trading away most of our starting line-up. I am on the more conservative end of this spectrum. My opinion: Carmelo would be a nice add, but we shouldn’t wreck the team just to get him.

Last season, people did not expect the Rockets to be a team that won more games than it lost. Admittedly, we shaved it close finishing the season 42-40, but in doing so we demonstrated that you don’t need a superstar talent to be successful in the NBA–at least not in the regular season. In fact, our mid-season trade to unload McGrady at the expense of Carl Landry, thus fetching Martin in return, although a very savvy trade executed by Morey, probably ended up keeping us out of the playoffs. Our team chemistry was pretty good, Landry and Scola were monsters off the bench at the PF and the rest of the team was contributing pretty well. When we traded Landry away, K-Mart came in and wasn’t immediately explosive and didn’t start producing at his expected levels immediately. Given that the Western Conference playoff race is always this tight, this was a dealbreaker for us that prevented us from qualifying to the playoffs. Martin getting injured shortly after joining didn’t help us, either.

We’ve now got the same core from last season that are great playing with each other and we’ve added a superstar talent–Yao Ming. People tend to take a lot of credit away from Yao just because they expect him to be a lot better since he is a lot bigger than every one else. This is unfair to Yao. Shawn Bradley, for example, was 7’6″ and the second overall draft pick but ended his careers with extremely average numbers (8.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG). Unless Yao loses an arm or something, his numbers won’t drop that low because he is a solid basketball player, not just a tall one. We have to give Yao a shot with this team. One of our major weaknesses last year was at the center–we had 6’6″ Chuck Hayes starting, backed up on the bench by 3-point sharpshooter David Anderson. Scola/Hill sometimes played the center spot but they were out of their comfort zone. Teams could play our guards tight and yet we shot through the roof–or at least AB did.

With Yao, we’ve now got a legitimate post players who may require two defenders when he’s playing well. We’ve got perimeter sharpshooters galore in the form of AB, K-Mart, Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee and Shane Battier. Heck, even Brad Miller can knock down a corner three. These guys will be getting a lot more open looks if Yao can get the ball to them. We now have the flexibility to play both big (Yao, Scola, PP + 2 guards) as well as small (3 guards + Scola + Hayes) lineups depending on whether we need to run and gun or slow down the clock. Trading away key pieces to this flexible offense to get Carmelo seems foolhardy to me, especially if the trade is going to happen before the season gets underway.

To summarize, I’m not against a trade for Carmelo but I don’t want to do it for the core of our team, and especially not if it must be done now rather than closer to the trade deadline. Carmelo, although matured, isn’t the most stable person and he’s coming from a culture where players are more reliant on their own talent (J.R. Smith is a trigger shooter and Billups is a former SG turned PG). The Nuggets, for example, were 18th in the NBA in assists per game, compared with the 11th that the Rockets were. The only notable teams below them on the list were OkC (23), Orlando (25) and Miami (28).

Darly Morey has shown a good track record of making decisions that both help our team out strategically as well as financially. Let’s hope he continues this trend and doesn’t fall into the trap other GMs have fallen into in the past, of thinking that you can simply drag and drop a player from another environment and expect the production level to be the same or better, immediately. Carmelo over a few months would probably make up for trading a bunch of our best players away since he is that good, but we’d probably be burning the season in exchange for someone who could take off and leave for NY as soon as the season is over.

time to build a run

The four new Rockets have now been dressed for two games, and half of them have seen playing time. Kevin Martin came off the bench in both our losses whereas Jeffries had his debut in the ketchup-mustard alternate today, against the Hornets. So far, the signs have been encouraging, but unfortunately the “W” has been in the wrong column for the Rockets, on both days.

Yesterday’s loss to Indiana stung particularly hard, especially since these are the teams that the Rockets have to beat to make it to the playoffs. Indiana is currently the second-worst team in the Eastern conference, and considering that the worst team are the lowly New Jersey Nets (who will probably end the season with a single figured number of wins), this was a harsh loss. What was worse was that the Rockets lost despite scoring 115 points. I think Indiana average in the mid-90s this year, but yesterday they put 125 on us.

Kevin Martin came off the bench and Ariza moved to the small forward position, as expected. He had a particularly nondescript shooting night, scoring 14 points going 3-16 from the field. Today wasn’t much better, as he went 5-12 against the Hornets. He’s yet to hit a three pointer in a Rockets uniform, too. However, he seems to be getting into the rhythm, especially late in the game today. It’ll be up to Adelman and his staff to get these new additions to get into the system asap. The Rockets commentators suggested that this may take as many as 10-15 games. Unfortunately, with 27 games remaining in our season as of now, that may be a bit too many.

Jared Jeffries played his first minutes today and he was pretty impressive, especially on defense. The 6’11” length that he brings us is definitely going to help us. The Rockets are already a pretty good offensive rebounding team, from what I remember, and if Jeffries can repeat performances like today’s, where he grabbed 6 offensive boards, we’ll be in good shape. Jeffries did miss a couple of easy lay-ups and for some reason he abhors the dunk. Late in the fourth quarter, Jeffries took drop in lay-ups with no one at the rim instead of flushing it down. Perhaps he’s just playing it a bit easy until he gets comfortable with his team and the coaching staff.

Jordan Hill and Hilton Armstrong are yet to see minutes. It’ll be interesting to see how many opportunities they will get to earn a spot in the rotation, going late into the season.

Our schedule next week is rough–we play Orlando, who dealt the Cavs their third straight loss today, on Wednesday, followed by back-to-back games against San Antonio and Utah on Friday and Saturday. So if we think it’s going to get easier for our new players to adjust, we’ve got another thing coming! Let’s see if Kevin Martin and JJ can prove that they are a proper replacement to Landry (who had 18 points in the Kings’ loss to the Suns tonight).

One more off-topic point. I saw T-Mac play yesterday for the Knicks against the extremely hot Oklahoma Thunder and he certainly impressed. Now, one game is not enough to judge anyone, but I think one can safely conclude that no one expected McGrady to put these sorts of numbers up any game this season, let alone the first one. He had 19 points at the first half, and what was particularly encouraging for him was the fact that most of these points came from layups. As usual, though, he missed a pair of clutch free throws that could’ve earned him his first Knicks victory, allowing KD to tie up the game with a deep three and beat the Knicks in OT. T-Mac’s performance was impressive, and he is a player I will follow closely this season (I already added the Knicks to my League Pass). Let’s see if he has the legs and conditioning to come back and play his best basketball night after night.

the new rockets

Well, the draft deadline has officially passed and contingent on a few physicals, it seems like the dust has settled for the new Rockets team. Honestly speaking, and after thinking over it for a while, seems like we’ve come out on top. The only current piece that we traded away from our line-up was Landry. Landry was probably our best player this season but he was not the kind of dominating player that could take us to the playoffs. He did play really well in Adelman’s offense, though, and is in the middle of his break-out year. For his sake, I hope going to Sacramento doesn’t effectively end his career.

Let’s look at the trades:

Houston get: Kevin Martin (SAC), Hilton Armstrong (SAC), Jared Jeffries (NYK) and Jordan Hill (NYK)
Sacramento get: Carl Landry (HOU), Joey Dorsey (HOU), Larry Hughes (NYK)
New York get: Tracy McGrady (HOU), Sergio Rodriguez (SAC)

Kevin Martin was definitely a big pickup and if he starts, as expected, it’ll add some offense to our starting line-up that has been struggling as Ariza has lost his touch. The worrying factor, though, is the pick up of the contracts, which pretty much douses our free agency hopes. Not that we were planning to go for a big name, anyway, but this more or less gets rid of that potential drama. Both Jeffries and Hill have non-expiring contracts, a combined $10m next year. Martin adds another $9m-ish to the spectrum, an estimate based on the fact that he earns $8.7m this year. Armstrong earned $2m this year… and I’m not sure what his contract looks like, either. But all-in-all, it appears that we picked up all the non-expiring contracts. This adds up to about $21m, approximately equivalent to the amount T-Mac earns this year ($23m). So we did dump T-Mac, but we ended up picking approximately the same in contracts. We will also have to make a decision on Scola and Lowry… so with all these contracts, it doesn’t look like we’ll have a lot of space to pull a free agent in.

From an actual basketball point of view, this may be a good thing. The starting line-up will probably be Brooks and Martin as the guards, Ariza and Scola as the forwards and Hayes at center. David Anderson will have to share his minutes with Hilton and Jordan Hill and Jared Jeffries will probably end up sharing Landry’s minutes. When Lowry comes back are rotation will end up being pretty long, especially with Budinger performing well of the bench this season. I suspect this isn’t as much of a problem, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be playing any of these guys except for Martin for a lot of minutes, unless they show themselves to be spectacular.

All in all, I’d say I’m pretty pleased about how things worked out. Definitely better than the 2-team trade with Sacramento which was trading Dorsey, Landry and T-Mac for Martin, Armstrong, Sergio Rodriguez and Kenny Thomas. That seemed to bring in a lot of pieces that we did not need.

Let’s see how quickly these guys can get into Adelman’s offense!