NBA Philosophising

What is the NBA? This is the question…

The NBA in 2035…

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The year is 2035 the NBA Finals have just ended with the Seattle Supersonics repeating as the NBA champions by beating the London Knights 4-2 in a series that many described as historical. The young NBA TV’s broadcaster is discussing NBA in 2035 with the retired NBA superstar and two-times NBA champion with the Washington Wizards, Kevin Durant.

Broadcaster: Is this truly a historical day for the NBA?

KD: That is definitely a historical day. We haven’t seen such a performance by a player for a very long time1.

Broadcaster: There are many that consider his play similar to yours. Would you agree with that?

KD: Well, I believe that every player has his own style and legacy and we should avoid comparisons of this kind. However, I can see a lot of similarities; his height, the way he runs the floor and of course his scoring ability. Of course, he is also compared with Larry (Bird)2 from the previous generations. But, as I said every player, especially at this level, has his own style and uniqueness.

Broadcaster: The last time that we had the pleasure to have you in our studios, you said that in today’s NBA you would be averaging 45ppg. Is this something that you still believe?

KD: Well, yes nothing really changed since our last meeting (laughs). So, yes I still believe that. I mean, think about it. I used to be a pretty good outside shooter and a dunker. So, I believe that even though the three-point line is now at 27ft. (8.25m.) I would be able to hit some three-pointers and with the new point-system that gives to dunking more than one point3, I am sure I would be able to score enough baskets. While, of course and most importantly the fouling rule that gives you points immediately would make my life much easier.

Broadcaster: Many of the old stars of the game see the new zoning of the court as unacceptable and as the main reason for the total elimination of post-play. What is your take on that?

KD: I agree. I mean having baskets that are scored close to the basket, in a 13ft. (4m.) distance from the hoop, counting for only one point is definitely a good reason for choosing to do not play close to the basket. Players like Shaq for example, who used to score mostly with dunks close to the basket, would have to score 30 baskets in today’s NBA to get to 30 points. So, yeah I feel that the new zoning4 is also promoting a different, more athletic style of play.

Broadcaster: Do you feel that this is a logical continuation? Do you feel that it was players like you or Giannis (Antetokounmpo) that actually made this change in the rules and the style of play, necessary?

KD: Yeah, I think it makes sense. I mean that with players being able to run the floor so fast and jump so high, it makes sense to adjust the rules. I mean, we all witnessed what SF5 is able to do, being 7ft. tall and able to run the floor like only point guards used to do in my era. Now the league is full with players of his size running like Russell, dunking like LeBron and shooting the three like Steph, to speak in terms of the 2010s.

Broadcaster: Do you feel, however, that the game is more spectacular now?

KD: Well, I think that everyone sees the era that he played as the best. However, I think that bringing the shot-clock down to 20secs, having every foul to count instantly as points and by allowing 2-3 steps before dribbling the ball6, the game has become a lot faster and closer to the game that is played in parks. If you are a fan of the park game then I am sure you are excited by what you see today on NBA courts by the best basketball players in the world.

Broadcaster: How do you feel that American-born players are now the minority in the league – players that have been born abroad or that are from a non-American descent are almost 53% of the league. Also, how do you feel that the arguably best player and MVP of the league is British and not American?

KD: It is a global game man. That is all. It is a global game. There are now three teams based outside the US7 and one of them have actually just lost in the Finals. I feel that this is what the league wanted, through the expansion outside the US and what is happening is good for the game. SF is great player and if you think about it, even though he was born in the UK he learned the game from Americans, as the league has created many basketball academies in the UK to make the game popular8. I think that it is now second only to soccer in the UK. However, I still think that we are the best team in the world, when it comes to national teams, but the competition is much higher than when I used to play. I still believe though that we are the favourites to win the gold in the upcoming World Cup in Greece9

Broadcaster: One final question for you KD and then we are going back live to Seattle. How would you describe the season in general?

KD: I think it was an exciting season with a lot of young players showing potential and the best teams reaching the Finals. It seems to me that the new system that made possible for the teams with the best records to actually qualify to the play-offs10 works, as I feel the competition is higher now and regular season is more meaningful. I think Seattle deserved the title and I expect London to come back stronger next year.

* That was an imaginary dialogue inspired by what is currently happening in the NBA; such as this, this, this, and this. It was also based on the history of the game and its evolution through the ages. The London Knights logo is an actual logo that was used by London’s ice hockey team (London Knights) in 2001.  

1 SF averaged almost a triple-double during the Finals –  a performance that KD compares with that of LeBron in 2015; with the difference that SF won the title (sorry LeBron).

2 SF has a body that is similar to that of Giannis but he is white and a great three-point shooter and it is unavoidable, to compare him with Larry – it is one of the favourite discussions among NBA analysts in 2035 whether he or Dirk or Larry is better.

3 If a player jumps behind the 2-point line the dunk counts for 2-points, if the player is stepping on the line, it counts for 1-point. Nobody has dunked by jumping behind the 3-point line yet…

4 The new zoning that made game the much faster and eliminated post-players gives one point for every basket within 13ft, two points in the area between the 1-point line and the 3-point line (13ft-27ft) and three points behind the 3-point line.

5 SF are the initials of the league’s MVP and arguably best player.

6 Every contact is considered as a foul. Every foul means points – there are no free throws, which means the game doesn’t stop and teams cannot employ the hack-a-player tactic (it would be a heaven for Shaq and DeAndre). Also, players based on the new rules that provide a higher degree of freedom are allowed to take 2-3 steps before dribbling the ball in direction or way the want to. Travelling is called literally only in cases where a player runs with the ball as if he were playing rugby or American football.

7 London Knights, Mexico City Eagles, and Tokyo Samurais.

8 Basketball is becoming increasingly popular in the UK and this is also thanks to the work the NBA has done in promoting the game in the UK. It is however currently considered as less popular than football, cricket and rugby from team-sports.

9 Based on the new FIBA World Cup system that starts in 2019 there will be a World Cup in 2035. Greece will, hopefully, by then be free of debt and able to organize a World Cup…

10 When it comes to the play-offs it doesn’t matter in what division a team plays; the 16 out of the 36 teams, with the best records qualify to the play-offs. Divisions matter only for the all-star game, which is now a whole week and is instead of East against West, the 6 divisions playing against each other; all-star rosters for each division play against each other in a final-four type system with a final game. A system that made all-star break more competitive with more games, more all-stars, more days to celebrate the game and a final game to close the celebrations and have a division that wins the all-star – it was Northwest that won the all-star final in 2035.    

The ‘original’ Greek Freak

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There is too much discussion lately around Giannis Antetokounmpo or the young basketball phenom that has been widely known as the ‘Greek Freak’. Giannis is a great talent and an extraordinary story of a young man from a poor family that lived in the Greek capital, Athens that made it to the NBA without ever playing a single professional game in Europe – at the time he was drafted he used to play for the Philathletikos club that participates in the second national basketball league of Greece (known as A2). Giannis will, in a few days exhibit, once again, his talents at the 2015 NBA all-star; he will be playing for the ‘World Team’ at the ‘rookie game’ as well as competing for the title of the ‘dunk champion’ in the Slam Dunk Contest. I truly feel and hope so, much like many others, that Giannis will become a great player, as apart from his talents he seems to be concentrated on what he is doing and living his dream one-hundred per cent.

However, this article is not about Giannis; there is a plethora of them around the internet – and he deserves it. This article is mainly about a player that in my view was the ‘original Greek Freak’, in the sense that he was prior to Giannis. This player’s name is Sofoklis Schortsanitis, but he has been known as ‘Baby-Shaq’, ‘Big Sofo’ or even as the ‘Bulldozer’. If you have never heard of ‘Sofo’, which is possible if you are not following European basketball, he is a 6’10 (2.08) 345lbs (156kg) man and he has been almost like this since he was 16 year old. So, I argue that when it come to the description ‘Freak’, which in the case of Giannis refers to his extraordinary physique – he is now listed as 6’11 (2.11) with a wingspan of 7’3 – as well as his agility and ability to play from PG to C!!! The word freak is used in everyday language to signify someone whose appearance is not average or mainstream, but somehow exceptional; most of the time though it is used in a negative way. It is obvious, however, that the characterization ‘Freak’ in Giannis’ case is used in a positive, admiring, way about, mainly, his physique. I argue then that in this sense ‘Sofo’ was the first, the ‘original’, ‘Greek Freak’.

Those that have seen ‘Sofo’ at a young age (he made his first appearance with my favourite club Iraklis Thessaloniki at the age of 16!!!) would agree with me, without a second thought, that his physique was exceptional: 6’8 (2.04) and 270lbs (120kg). NBAdraft.net was writing about him in 2003: ‘A Greek Baby Shaq? A super prospect with developing offensive skills…The first thing that comes to mind when watching this kid is that its rare to find a body with such amazing strength and size at the age 16…He has incredible power, strength and body control, so at the junior level he’s an illegal weapon!!!’ Imagine that ‘Sofo’ was averaging 11.5p. and 6.4r. in 21.3mins per game at the age of 17, while playing at Greece’s first professional division (A1), which was one of the top-3 basketball leagues in Europe. In addition, numbers like those ‘Sofo’ had when he was 17 are still considered big numbers in European basketball especially if they come in 21 minutes/game. This is what ‘Sofo’ looked like in 2002:

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Unfortunately, ‘Sofo’ never played up to his potential – at least this is how I see it – and he never played in the NBA, even though he was drafted in 2003 by the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round (his rights have been traded recently to the Oklahoma City Thunder – in other words, he can still play in the NBA). Even so, ‘Sofo’ was able because of his exceptional physique and basketball talent to achieve greatness in a European as well as international level (through Greece’s national team). I am sure that those that watched basketball world cup’s semi-final in 2006 in Japan between Greece and USA, will definitely remember ‘Sofo’ dominating team USA. He won championships in Greece and Israel as well as the Euroleague’s title, and was included in All-Euroleague 1st team in 2011.

As I do not intend to write an article on Sofoklis’ achievements (you can find more about his history in his own webpage: http://www.bigsofo.gr/), I am going to sum up by saying that I believe that ‘Sofo’ was (and still is) an exceptional case, a freak of nature in the good sense of a man with a rare combination of size and athleticism. Draftexpress.com wrote in 2006: ‘His size is immense, but doesn’t slow his outstanding quickness and explosiveness, which allow him to run the court in transition and usually finish most plays with an impressive dunk.’ I feel that if ‘Sofo’ didn’t love food that much or if he was more ambitious when it comes to basketball success he would have been able to achieve many more great things; in my opinion he could have easily been one of NBA’s best bigmen of the last decade (thankfully in 2009 we had the chance to watch ‘Sofo’ playing against Shaq as Olympiakos played against the Cavs in an exhibition game). I am not saying that he didn’t succeed, but from rare cases like him you always expect more…but this is me…’Sofo’ had other plans and priorities for his life and this is what counts.

Handing the Key to the West

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Following the article about Eastern Conference’s prediction, I will attempt in the following paragraphs to give my predictions for the Western Conference. A few days before the beginning of the 2014-15 season and I feel like at the end of the regular season the same eight teams that qualified for last year’s play-offs will be competing for the crown of the West this year as well. The truth is that the most powerful teams of the West either maintained their rosters untouched, for the most part (Spurs, Thunder, Warriors, Blazers, Grizzles), or made few non-radical changes (Clippers, Rockets). I believe that only Dallas, from last year’s play-off teams,  made some bold off-season moves. From the rest of the West, I expect New Orleans to be much more competitive than last year, but not good enough to claim a play-off spot, while I see the Nuggets and the Suns missing the play-offs for only a few wins. Other than that, I am really eager to watch the renewed Timberwolves team, which can I feel is going to be a lot of fun; I think that under the right circumstances they can also be competitive as well.      

Northwest Division

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1. Oklahoma City Thunder 50-55 wins (4), 2. Portland Trail Blazers 47-52 wins (6), 3. Denver Nuggets 42-47 wins (9), 4. Minnesota Timberwolves 20-25 wins (14), 5. Utah Jazz 15-20 wins (15)

In my initial prediction I had Thunder winning 60 games this season, but after the unfortunate news of last year’s MVP injury I think that they will finish with somewhere between 50-55 wins (54). I still think they will finish first in Northwest, as I believe Westbrook, Ibaka and Reggie Jackson will be able to carry the scoring load, in Durant’s absence, to hold the team above 50%. It is a shame that Durant was injured after a summer where he rested and had enough time to prepare, by withdrawing from team USA’s roster. However, I see him returning strong and hungry for success. On a different note now, I consider the Blazers as the only team that can compete for the top spot in Northwest, however, I have them winning less games (52) than last year’s (54) surprisingly good season. Aldridge is for me a top-3 power forward and Lillard a rising star. They have added to the mix of Batum, Matthews, Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson, the experienced center Chris Kaman and it certainly looks like Portland is getting there, but is just not there yet.

Northwest’s third team, the Denver Nuggets, is probably the biggest question mark of the West, as it seems like they will have all their players healthy and available. Chandler will be there from day one as well as Danilo Gallinari after a long time; who knows, however, if he is the player he was before the injury. Lawson alongside the World Champion Faried are going to lead the team, while they hope JaVale McGee is not coming back to reclaim his ‘Shaqtin’ A Fool’ title. We should not forget about Nate Robinson, Afflalo, Mozgov and the rookie Harris. I really see them winning more than 50% of their games, but I find it really difficult to have them taking the place of any of the eight teams I have mentioned above. I rank them 9th in the West, but I feel they have the talent to surprise the NBA; probably by leaving out of the play-offs either Memphis or Dallas, or by finishing above Portland in the Northwest.

The remaining two teams of the Northwest do not have, in my view, any serious chances of making the play-offs this season. However, I am really excited about their future; mostly that of the Timberwolves. Minnesota is one of the teams that I am looking forward to watch this year. The Wolves have undergone a huge change this summer by trading their superstar Kevin Love to Cleveland for the talents of this year’s no.1 draft Andrew Wiggins (I feel he will be better than expected), last year’s no.1 draft Anthony Bennett and the ‘veteran’ Thaddeus Young. If we add, the explosive rookie Zach LaVine and last year’s starters Rubio and Pekovic we have a very promising young roster. Utah on the other hand did not undergo any major changes but added a player in Dante Exum that could change their destiny, while maintaining the services of Hayward and Favors. It seems to me that Utah and Minnesota are very far from reaching the play-offs. 

Pacific Division

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1. Los Angeles Clippers 55-60 wins (1), 2. Golden State Warriors 52-57 wins (3), Phoenix Suns 40-45 wins (10), 4. Sacramento Kings 30-35 wins (12), 5. Los Angeles Lakers 27-32 wins (13)

Is 2015 the year of the Clippers? That is a good question, and a difficult one to answer. I think they will finish with the best record in the NBA, probably 60 wins. I also believe that it will be Chris Paul’s year to win the MVP and it is really surprising how most of the NBA’s analysts have forgotten about him in their predictions. With Griffin becoming more consistent and with ‘Doc’ creating a roster with players that fit to his style of play (Hawes and Udoh) I believe the Clips are going to have a great regular season. The only team that is going to really create problem to the Clippers dominance in Pacific is not their intercity rivals Lakers, but the young and exciting Warriors.

Golden State with a new coach in Steve Kerr, even though Mark Jackson had a great season last year, will try to improve last year’s record and compete for one of the top spots in the West. I consider their backcourt as the best in the NBA, with Curry and Thompson, and their frontcourt one of the most underrated in the NBA with Lee and Bogut (if healthy). With Iguodola and Barnes at the wing, I think the Warriors should aiming for the Western Conference’s crown this year and nothing less. The battle between them and the Clippers will be one of the most interesting this year as well, however, I do not see any of them playing at the NBA’s Finals in June 2015.

Last year’s pleasant surprise Phoenix team will, in my view, have a fairly good year and will win almost 50% of its games in regular season, but I do not think they will be able to ‘steal’ a spot in play-offs from the West’s current ‘big-8’. Sacramento will, again, have a so-and-so season with some promising and some disappointing moments. Cousins, I feel, will make the all-star team and Gay will be Gay (good but not good enough to help his team reach the next level). I do not think the rookie Stauskas will make a great difference for them and the additions of Sessions and Collins in the PG position are not the ideal ones for a team that needs leadership badly. Finally, the once dominating Lakers team will have another year struggling to find its new identity, having its great star returning and making this even more difficult. I feel that Lakers need to start rebuilding, picking Randle at the draft was an excellent move, but Kobe, being the competitor he is, is basically messing with the team’s rebuilding by refusing to accept the reality. Anyway it is good to see him back and I urge you all to enjoy watching on the greatest that ever played the game in one of his last seasons.        

Southwest Division

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1. San Antonio Spurs 55-60 wins (2), 2. Memphis Grizzles 50-55 wins (5), 3. Houston Rockets  47-52 wins (7), 4. Dallas Mavericks 45-50 wins (8), New Orleans Pelicans 35-40 (11)

This is the most competitive division in the NBA with four teams in what I consider to be West’s ‘big-8’ and New Orleans as an up and coming NBA power. Except from being the most competitive, Southwest is the division of NBA’s champs San Antonio Spurs that are returning (all of them) to defend their 2014 title. As I have written in an older post on whether Spurs are a dynasty or not, I believe that San Antonio is going to do what it wasn’t able, for various reasons, to do in the past and will repeat this year as NBA’s champion. From the rest of Southwest’s challengers I pick the Grizzles as the the team that will finish second as I believe that they have the best frontcourt in today’s NBA and possess good players in every position. The addition of Vince Carter gives them a good outside shooter and an experienced player in position three where they looked they needed help.

I expect Houston Rockets to have a fairly good season with around 50 wins, but once again I see them underachieving as I can’t see them being focused and determined, at least not under coach McHale. Ariza and the Greek ‘monchichi’ (don’t tell me he doesn’t look like one!!!) Papanikolaou will help the team become  better defensively, but with Harden and Howard having too much fun the Rockets will remain a mediocre Western Conference team. The Mavs on the other hand will be better than last year, even though Dirk is not getting any younger. The signing of Parsons from the state rivals Rockets and the return of an old friend in Chandler will help the team perform at a high level; high enough to reach the play-offs, but not for something more than that. Lastly, New Orleans Pelicans seem to be able to make some noise with the impressive development (he was dominant in FIBA World Cup) of their young star and one of the league’s greatest talents, Anthony Davis. However, it seems like they are missing some pieces and it looks like they are packed with perimeter players with similar playing styles (Gordon, Rivers, Evans, Holiday). On paper they look better than I think they will be on court and I believe they will trade one of Gordon or Evans during this season. 

Western Conference Play-offs

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1. Los Angeles Clippers 60-22, 2. San Antonio Spurs 58-24, 3. Golden State Warriors 56-26, 4. Oklahoma City Thunder 54-28, 5. Memphis Grizzles 54-28, 6. Portland Trail Blazers 52-30, 7. Houston Rockets 50-32, 8. Dallas Mavericks 48-34

So, the end of the regular season will find the Clippers having the best record in the West followed closely by the Spurs. From the following first round matchups in the Western Conference I believe that the most competitive one will be that between the Thunder and the Grizzlies, while I think that the Rockets could create some problems to the Spurs.

Western Conference First Round

1. Los Angeles Clippers – 8. Dallas Mavericks: Clippers win 4-2

2. San Antonio Spurs – 7. Houston Rockets: Spurs win 4-2

3. Golden State Warriors – 6. Portland Trail Blazers: Warriors win 4-2

4. Oklahoma City Thunder – 5. Memphis Grizzlies: Thunder win 4-3

I expect home-court advantage to be decisive for the first round of the West, while I believe that the Grizzlies have the more chances from the teams without home-court advantage to advance to the second round.

Western Conference Semi-Finals

1. Los Angeles Clippers – 4. Oklahoma City Thunder: Clippers win 4-3

2. San Antonio Spurs – 3. Golden State Warriors: Spurs win 4-2

My prediction is that 2015 will be the last season for Scott Brooks as the Thunder’s head coach and the last season the dynamic duo of Durant and Westbrook playing together. The defeat in the hands of the Clippers will be devastating and will mean the end of Durant-Westbrook era in Oklahoma City; a sad end. On the other hand, I see the Spurs solving the Warriors problem and  moving to the Western Conference’s Finals. However, I see this happening after a series of extremely competitive games, in which the Warriors will simply fall to the Spurs’ system.

Western Conference Finals

1. Los Angeles Clippers – 2. San Antonio Spurs: Spurs win 4-2

Western Conference Finals will, in my view, reinstate that the Spurs are the best team in the West. However, change is coming with the Clips, the Warriors and the Rockets that will, most probably look to replace McHale and add a third star. Also, I expect the Thunder to undergo dramatic changes after the end of the season. But most of all the change is the one that started last year and will be completed this year; Kawhi Leonard replacing Tim Duncan as the face of the franchise.

Chicago ‘Bulling’ the East

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With the 2014-15 NBA season knocking on our door (less than a month left) I’ve decided to write a long article to preview briefly NBA’s Eastern Conference. An article on the Western Conference is going to follow, but I feel like this season all eyes are going to be on the East and for many good reasons. It is not that the West is going to be less interesting, but we are just used to the West being interesting and having a competitive East is simply exciting. So, I will try within the length of this article, to give a short preview of all Eastern Conference teams and my prediction (regular season and play-offs). 

The most exciting thing with the East is, in my view, the big changes in the balance of power within the conference, which has been, the past four years, dominated by the Miami Heat and their ‘Big-Three’. This summer, however, the ‘Big-Three’ lost their ‘King’ and turned into ‘Big-Two’, while the league’s 2010-11 MVP, Derrick Rose, looks finally ready to return and play a full season. In addition, Miami’s ‘King’ left his realm and instead became the ‘King’ of Cleveland, the land of his ancestors, and brought with him a new Cavalier, Kevin Love, to help him with his quest to bring the title to Cleveland. These major returns/transfers, alongside Paul George’s injury, changed 2014-15 East’s landscape and my prediction is that at the end of the regular season the standings will look like this (the number within brackets refers to the team’s standing for Eastern Conference’s play-offs):

Atlantic Division

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1. Toronto Raptors 48-53 wins (4), 2. Brooklyn Nets 45-50 wins (7), 3. New York Knicks 32-37 wins (10), 4. Boston Celtics 22-27 wins (12), 5. Philadelphia 76ers 8-13 wins (15)

It seems like there are no changes in the balance of power in the Atlantic, as my prediction is that at the end of 2014-15 the standings of the teams will be the same with that of the previous season. The reason is that there have not been any major changes in the Atlantic in terms of personnel. Toronto stands out as probably the best team with a year’s experience in the play-offs and all of its young talent returning – resigning Kyle Lowry was a wise move. I expect Brooklyn to look more like a basketball team this year, I really believe Lionel Hollins is a very good coach and an upgrade comparing to Jason Kidd. However, in order to do better than last year and probably finish above Toronto they will have to stay healthy and get great seasons out of D-Will, and Brook Lopez. In my view, this Nets team is merely a play-off team in the East and I do not see them being able for more.

I think that the rest of the teams in Atlantic will not make it to the play-offs again; in fact I expect the Sixers to be the worst team in the NBA and it is a shame for this historical franchise, but this is the rebuilding road they chose. Looking forward to see what Nerlens Noel is able to do playing alongside a 2nd-year Michael Carter-Williams and who knows we may take a glimpse of the very promising Joel Embiid this season. Sixers’ future looks good, however, I am afraid I cannot say the same for another of Atlantic’s historical franchises; the New York Knicks. I feel bad for the Knicks, because I simply believe the league is better when the Knicks play better; New York is basketball’s Mecca. Appointing Phil Jackson as their president seems as a good move, however, I am not so sure, since we have never seen him working as a president in the past. In this sense, I think we have to wait and see as it seems that he has a plan that started with the signing of his former player Derek Fischer as the head coach. Would it also be possible for Jackson to land Rondo? That is a difficult question to answer, but it would turn the Knicks, instantly, into a contender in the East.

Knicks are simply a question mark, much like the franchise with the most titles in NBA’s history; the Boston Celtics. The Celts have been looking for their identity since the 2011-12 4-3 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. That was the point the page turned for them and since then the most interesting thing about them, almost every season is whether Rajon Rondo is going to stay or go. It looks like Rondo is finally going to go by the end of this season’s trade deadline as his contract is about to end at the end of the season. What are they going to receive in return for Rondo and what they are going to do with the young talents of Marcus Smart, James Young, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller will define their future.        

Central Division

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1. Cleveland Cavaliers 55-60 wins (1), 2. Chicago Bulls 55-60 wins (2), 3. Detroit Pistons 38-43 wins (8), 4. Indiana Pacers 30-35 wins (11), 5. Milwaukee Bucks 18-23 wins (14)

Central Division has been the centre of attention during the summer and it is this season’s attraction. It seems like whatever happened this summer happened by and for teams from the Central. The changes, intentional and not, that happened here changed the balance of powers of the entire league. Cleveland became a contender overnight and a favourable destination for superstars. The reason of course was LeBron’s decision (no.2) that he wants to win at least a title with his hometown’s team. LeBron is a very smart guy and once he realized (after being destroyed by the Spurs) that in Miami he does not have the future he wishes, he left. Kevin Love that wanted to leave Minnesota and wasn’t even thinking of Cleveland  as an option, became suddenly very fond of it and moved there to play with LeBron and NBA’s rising superstar Kyrie Irving. I think LeBron, Love, Irving and players such as Waiters, Thompson, Varejao and Marion are enough to make a team the favourite in the East. I believe the Cavaliers will win between 55 and 60 games in the regular season and finish first in the East.

However, I expect their Central rivals Bulls to give Cavaliers a very hard time for the lead in the East. Chicago feels great as its best player and one of the leagues best, Rose, seems to be back healthy. I really hope Derrick Rose is going to stay healthy for the rest of his career and we will enjoy watching him play; he is a unique talent. Next to him the Bulls brought a guy that knows about winning titles in Pau Gasol (have you seen him play for Spain in the World Cup? He looked rejuvenated) and two promising rookies in Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic. I think the Bulls are going to be very good and lose East’s lead to the Cavaliers for 1-2 wins. Central’s third place, I believe is going to be occupied by a team that has missed the play-offs for many years; the legendary Detroit Pistons. It is my belief that signing Stan Van Gundy would be reason enough for the talented Pistons to make the next step and qualify for the play-offs this year. I think that Van Gundy will find a way to make Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond play together and dominate the paint, while controlling Brandon Jenning’s game.

The Indiana Pacers are going to be the team with the biggest difference in wins comparing with the previous season, but unfortunately for the Pacers, unlike Cleveland, is not going to be an upwards change. Pacers are expected to play the entire season without their biggest star; Paul George got injured in a team USA’s scrimmage. In addition, Lance Stephenson, a starter last season and one of the league’s rising stars signed with Charlotte as a free-agent. I think that even if Roy Hibbert plays like a true all-star for the whole season they still have no chance of making the play-offs. Finally, is the Milwaukee Bucks, for which I am optimistic; there is positivity and they have also added a player with superstar potential in Jabari Parker, to their already rich in raw-talent roster (Giannis ‘Greek Freak’ Antetokounmpo, Larry Sanders, John Henson). I like the future of the Bucks, if they find a way to make all these talent develop and play as a team; let’s see if Jason Kidd is the right man for this job.     

Southeast Division

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1. Washington Wizards 50-55 wins (3), 2. Miami Heat 50-55 wins (5), 3. Charlotte Hornets 45-50 wins (6), 4. Atlanta Hawks 35-40 wins (9), Orlando Magic 20-25 wins(13)  

It looks like, since LeBron’s departure, there is a new boss in the Southeast Division; Wizards’ fans have been waiting for this moment for many, many years. ‘Good things come to those who wait’ the Chinese say and even though these wise words can be interpreted in different ways, it seems like good times are finally here for those that remained loyal to Wizards basketball. Washington has a backcourt (John Wall – Bradley Beal) that is advertised as the best in the league and I could argue that only the Warriors can disagree actually with that statement. Washington, however, is not only its backcourt as the Wizards have a very good frontcourt as well (Nenê – Marcin Gortat). If we add to that the newly signed Paul Pierce at the small forward position as well as the expected development of last year’s no.3 overall draft pick, Otto Porter, I think we have the winner of Southeast and a contender in the East.

In the second place of the Southeast I see the team that has been hated by so many the last few years; the Miami Heat. I guess there are many celebrating since LeBron decided to take his talents back to Cleveland and expect to see the Heat crush and burn. I wasn’t a fan of Miami’s ‘Big-Three’ and now I have the opportunity to watch a team that I thought would be a team contender, back in the days when LeBron had not yet decided whether to join the Heat or not. What I am saying is that Wade and Bosh in the same team means a contender, simply. Add to that the experience they gained, Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger and I believe that you ‘should not underestimate the heart of the champion.’

In the third place, I would like to welcome the Hornets back. It feels good to see the Hornets back (I grew up with LJ’s and Zo’s Hornets). I expect Charlotte to inflict some damage this season and qualify to the play-offs. The addition of Lance Stevenson to the already talented roster that includes the best offensive center of the league today, Al Jefferson, will make the Hornets a force to be reckoned with. Atlanta Hawks, probably the most boring NBA team of the last 15 years, will again have a mediocre season with the addition of a healthy Al Horford make them much stronger in the paint, but not strong enough in general to qualify for the play-offs. I see them missing the play-offs for a few wins and I do not think anyone, except from Hawks fans, is going to feel bad about this. Hawks officials and owners if you read this, please do something bold change this team make it at least fun as it used to be in the 80s-90s. Finally, the Orlando Magic that added two more talented rookies (Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton) to an already young/talented/inexperienced roster. I do not expect any miracles from Orlando but it looks like they have a plan and they have gathered a good amount of talent to build a team for the future/near future – expect them to be fun and decent this season.      

Eastern Conference Play-offs

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1. Cleveland Cavaliers (59-23), 2. Chicago Bulls (57-25), Washington Wizards (54-28), 4. Toronto Raptors (50-32), 5. Miami Heat (53-29), 6. Charlotte Bobcats (49-33), 7. Brooklyn Nets (46-36), 8. Detroit Pistons (40-42).

At this point and since I completed my regular season predictions I intend to go a step further and make some even bolder predictions regarding Eastern Conference’s regular season records (in brackets) and play-offs. It may seem crazy as not even a preseason game has been played to this point and there are possible transfers that may change the landscape during the regular season. However, this is the magic of imagination and I am not planning to put any boundaries on mine. So, the way I see it, the play-offs matchups in the first round and their winners are going to be the following:

Eastern Conference First Round

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – 8. Detroit Pistons: Cavaliers win 4-2

2. Chicago Bulls – 7. Brooklyn Nets: Bulls win 4-1

3. Washington Wizards – 6. Charlotte Hornets: Wizards win 4-2

4. Toronto Raptors – 5. Miami Heat: Heat wins 4-2

Except from the Toronto-Miami series, I predict that the teams with home-court advantage are going to win and qualify to the semi-finals. Miami Heat, even though I see them finishing regular season with a better record than the Raptors, will be ranked fifth in the East because the Raptors are going to win their division, according to NBA’s rules. Even so, I feel that the experienced Heat will be able to prevail against a talented but less experienced Raptors team.  

Eastern Conference Semi-Finals

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – 5. Miami Heat: Heat wins 4-3

2. Chicago Bulls – 3. Washington Wizards: Bulls win 4-2

In East’s semi-finals, I predict a huge matchup; LeBron facing his former team and I see the Heat upsetting the Cavs in seven. It may seem crazy to some but I feel this Heat team is a much more experienced team that is also rich in talent – of course my prediction is based on a healthy Wade and a Bosh playing like the Raptors’ Bosh used to, which are both possible. I believe all LeBron haters out there will be fantasizing of a similar end to that season. Can you imagine LeBron not being able to finally win a championship for his hometown? In addition, I think that even if everybody would be paying attention to a Cavs-Heat series, the Bulls-Wizards series could be a really competitive one.

Eastern Conference Finals

2. Chicago Bulls – 5. Miami Heat: Bulls win 4-2

The Eastern Conference Finals are going to be a rematch of the 2010-11 series, but this time is going to be revenge time for the Bulls. I think it is going to be a great series in which the hungriest for success team will prevail and I feel these Bulls are the hungriest team in the NBA this season; Rose hasn’t played for almost two-years, while Noah, coach Tom Thibodeau and the rest of the Bulls have been fighting without their leader all this time. It seems to me that if Rose remains healthy, the Bulls are aiming for the top and I see them conquering it this year. I am not planning to say anything more about the NBA Finals, as I intend to write an article dedicated to the Finals before the beginning of the play-offs.

Yugoslavia beats USA to win 2014 World Cup!!!

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While relaxing with a good friend in a small traditional fish-tavern back in Greece this summer, having three-four mini-carafes of tsipouro (Greek very strong alcoholic drink – great with meze) the conversation turned towards the Spain’s basketball World Cup. After discussing Greece’s chances of winning a medal we moved to another imaginary topic, equally impossible as a Greek medal in the upcoming World Cup!!! The topic was: what if Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union had not been broken down into many smaller countries, would they have good-enough teams to compete for a medal as they used to? Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union have 3 gold, 3 silver and 2 bronze medals, at world cups, each. Without much thought we were able to identify a number of available players for each team that could make them contenders, but the conditions of the discussion (too much tsipouro) did not help for a more careful approach. So, with this article I will continue that discussion and have a closer look at what would have happened if Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union participated in FIBA’s World Cup 2014.

First of all the countries that were forming Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union must be identified as they are going to be the pool from which the players are going to be selected. The current states in the region that used to be Yugoslavia are mainly the result of the Yugoslav Wars started in 1990. I do not want to get into either the history or the politics of the Yugoslav Wars, as this is not the place to do that and I am not an expert. The result, however, was the creation of 7 independent nation-states: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYROM, Montenegro, and Kosovo. The Yugoslav Wars were the reason there was no Yugoslavian team in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona; a team that could have made Dream Team’s road to the gold much more difficult. Imagine the Croatian team plus players such Vlade Divac, Predrag Danilovic, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Savic, Aleksandar Djordjevic (Serbia’s current head coach) and Jure Zdovc (Slovenia’s current head coach).

Having said that let us move back to the imaginary Yugoslavian team of 2014. After careful consideration and research I have chosen a 12-player roster consisting of 3 players from Serbia, 3 from Croatia and 3 from Slovenia, as well as 1 player from Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1 from FYROM and 1 from Montenegro. As you can see from the following table that presents the imaginary Yugoslavia 2014, there are only 3 players that are not currently play for or are members of an NBA team:

Pos. Name Country Team
P.G. Beno Udrih Slovenia Memphis Grizzles
S.G. Goran Dragic Slovenia Phoenix Suns
S.F. Mirza Teletovic Bosnia and Herzegovina Brooklyn Nets
P.F. Nikola Mirotic Montenegro (Spain) Chicago Bulls
C. Nikola Pekovic Montenegro Minnesota Timberwolves
P.G. Milos Teodosic Serbia CSKA Moscow
S.G. Nemanja Nedovic Serbia Golden State Warriors
S.F. Bojan Bogdanovic Croatia Brooklyn Nets
P.F. Pero Antic FYROM Atlanta Hawks
C. Nikola Vucevic Montenegro Orlando Magic
S.G. Sasha Vujacic Slovenia Reyer Venecia Maestre
C. Nenad Krsitc Serbia Anadolu Efes
Coach Zeljko Obradovic Serbia Fenerbahce Ulker

So, basically from the three players that do not currently play for an NBA team, Teodosic, Vujacic and Krsitc, only Teodosic has never played in the NBA, however, take a look at him playing against the Timberwolves in a pre-season game. Also, I know I have chosen Mirotic, who also holds Spanish nationality, but I think that since he has not played for the Spanish national team yet and as he is not a member of the current Spanish roster he was eligible and available to get picked as a Montenegrin. In other words, this imaginary Yugoslavian roster could have 11/12 players that have played or are playing in the NBA and one that could have easily played. Right now only Spain is close to that with 6 current NBA players (Gasol Bros., Ibaka, Rubio, Calderon and Clever) and 3 former (Fernandez, Navarro and Rodriguez).

But, lets move now to the Soviet Union’s roster. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, 15 independent states were formed. The most well-known of them when it comes to basketball are: Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia and Georgia. So, the following roster is mostly consisting of players from Russia (6 players) and Lithuania (4 players), while there are one player from Latvia and one from Georgia:

Pos. Name Country Team
P.G. Alexey Shved Russia Philadelphia 76ers
S.G. Jonas Maciulis Lithuania Real Madrid
S.F. Andrei Kirilenko Russia Brooklyn Nets
P.F. Donatas Motejunas Lithuania Houston Rockets
C. Jonas Valanciunas Lithuania Toronto Raptors
P.G. Dmitry Khvostov Russia Nizhny Novgorod
S.G. Sergei Monia Russia Khimki
S.F. Linas Kleiza Lithuania Emporio Armani Milano
P.F. Andris Biedrins Latvia Utah Jazz
C. Timofey Mozgov Russia Denver Nuggets
S.G. Sergey Karasev Russia Brooklyn Nets
C. Zaza Pachulia Georgia Atlanta Hawks
Coach Jonas Kazlauskas Lithuania Guangdong Southern Tigers

Soviet Union’s roster has only 4 players that are not currently play for or are members of an NBA team and from these 4, only Maciulis and Khvostov have never played for an NBA team. This means 10/12 players with NBA experience, second only to Yugoslavia (excluding the US team of course). Thus, if the imaginary Yugoslavia and Soviet Union existed and participated at FIBA’s World Cup 2014 we would have 4 (alongside USA and Spain) teams consisting almost entirely of players that have played or currently play for an NBA team. I believe that this is the future of basketball; I believe that in the near future international players will be more than 50% of all NBA players, making US-born players a minority. However, this is the topic of a future article.

Now that the rosters are ready it is time to make a wild prediction regarding the winner of the tournament (World Cup 2014). The title of the article gives away my prediction; I believe that imaginary Yugoslavia would have beaten team USA at an imaginary final in Spain. I think that it would have beaten either Spain or the Soviet Union as well. The main reasons behind this belief of mine is the determination, the talent, the character and the organization the Yugoslavians have shown in the past. Trust me, as a Greek I have witnessed some unbelievable games where Greece seemed like it was going to win but end up losing to Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia defeated team USA in their own home in 2002 and gave Dream Team III a scare in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics. I know that team USA in 2002 was not a good team and many first-class stars where missing, but this is the case with the 2014 team USA. I have to admit I think team USA 2014 seems better than the one in 2002, at least looks more like a team than a bunch of NBA stars playing together. However, this time the games are in Spain and not Indianapolis. I do not in any way imply that Yugoslavia would beat a team USA with James, Durant, Paul, Howard, Anthony, Love, George, Griffin and Aldridge in its roster. All I am saying is that by looking at the rosters of the imaginary Yugoslavia and team USA, I believe that imaginary Yugoslavia is a team with capable players in every position; a full roster with very few weaknesses.  

I should not forget to add to all the above the exceptional coaching ability of Zeljko Obradovic, a man that has won everything in his career (including two world cups: 1990 as a player and 1998 as a coach). I do not want to underestimate Mike Krzyzewski but I think I rank him below Obradovic but above Jonas Kazlauskas. I have chosen Kazlauskas as the coach of the imaginary Soviet Union, even though I thought David Blatt would have been ideal (led Russia to European Championship in 2007), because I think that it would be very difficult, for reasons other than basketball, to have an Israeli-American coaching the Soviet team. Furthermore, by looking at the roster of the imaginary Soviet Union I think that it would be the weaker of the four super-teams, mostly due to the lack of many good guards – the rest of the contenders are full of great combo guards. Finally, I think Spain, even though playing at home, would not be able to win the gold; they have failed to beat team USA the past few years, however, they were the only team that competed against team USA and almost beat them even when team USA had a superstar roster. In addition, playing at home was not reason enough for them to win the European Championship in 2007, when they lost to a much weaker Russian team in front of their home crowd in Madrid. I believe Spain would have more chances beating team USA than beating imaginary Yugoslavia.

These are my reasons for believing that the imaginary Yugoslavia would finish first in FIBA World Cup 2014. Of course forecasting an imaginary tournament is a difficult but rather enjoyable task and the arguments may lack rigour. So, I invite you to give your perspective on the issue using the following poll. I am eager to watch the World Cup to begin and I think it is going to be great and competitive. I believe team USA is the favourite but Spain can win it all. Look out for teams such as Brazil that is operating under the radar but has a very good roster. I am also optimistic that Greece can do well; at this point this means descent basketball and final-8 (We believe in Giannis). 

…and in the end the Spurs win

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In keeping with the biggest sport event that is currently taking place in Brazil, Football’s World Cup 2014, (well done Greece, better next time) I decided to use this special San Antonio Spurs football logo made by some very talented guys. Adding to the whole football atmosphere, I had twitted some time ago, paraphrasing Gary Lineker’s (one of England’s best ever strikers and a Spur) famous quote about the Germans1 that:

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Following the result of the 2013-14 NBA season we could say that “NBA is the basketball league in which 30 teams participate and in the end the Spurs always win.” My Spurs (a big fan since 1990) were finally, after coming close for the two previous years (2012-lost in WCF, 2013-almost win in Finals), able to win the title again; Spurs won five titles between 1999-2014 and they could have won more. Spurs might have won five NBA titles but they are not considered by many, such as the great NBA coach Phil Jackson, as a dynasty because they have not won back-to-back titles.

Phil Jackson, the top coach of the NBA at 90s, has “attacked” the Spurs various times in his career; the “dirtiest” of them being his comment about putting an asterisk next to the Spurs first championship in 1999 because it was won during a shortened, due to the lock-out, season. Now, he returns by arguing that the San Antonio Spurs are not a dynasty. In particular, according to Newsday’s Al Iannazzone, Jackson said:

‘…I wouldn’t call San Antonio a dynasty—a force, a great force. They haven’t been able to win consecutive championships but they’ve always been there…’ 

Okay, Phil Jackson is a great coach and his opinion, just like anyone else’s, is and should be respected. This, however, does not mean that it should be accepted or go unchallenged. So, in this article I intend to disagree with coach Jackson’s comments and argue that San Antonio has been one of the three NBA dynasties of the post-MJ era (1999-today).

But, let us begin by looking briefly at what is the definition of dynasty. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary a dynasty is:

a family of rulers who rule over a country for a long period of time; also: the period of time when a particular dynasty is in power,

and/or

“a family, team, etc., that is very powerful or successful for a long period of time.”

In addition, based on the Online-Etymology dictionary the word dynasty comes from the Greek word “dynasthai”, which means to “have power”, to “be able to”.

In other words, a dynasty in the case of the NBA would be a team, consisting of the same group of guys or has some kind of a continuity that is either winning or has the power to win for a long period of time. This definition helps us to define the basic parameters of what an NBA dynasty should look like, but it doesn’t help at all with the time limit; how many years is a long period of time? As there is no definite answer to that question I think we should use the whole post-MJ era, from 1999 to today.

So, basically during this timespan we have three times that can claim of being dynasties: San Antonio Spurs (5 titles), Los Angeles Lakers (5 titles) and Miami Heat (3 titles). These three teams have won 13 of the 16 NBA championships of the post-MJ era; Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks are the other three NBA champions of this period. 

San Antonio Spurs are the issue of this article, so let’s see what the Spurs were able to do since 1999, to find out if they deserve to be called a dynasty. First of all, they have won 5 titles, but as coach Jackson accuses them of, they never repeated. However, the Spurs won 3 out of 5 during the period 2003-2007; they lost at WCSF in 2004 and 2006.

In 2004, they have entered the play-offs as second in the West even though David Robinson retired after winning the title in 2003. So, in 2004 the Spurs played against coach Jackson’s Lakers at the WCSF and as series was tied 2-2 the Lakers won in game 5, in San Antonio, in a devastating way; Fischer scored with 0.4 remaining on the shot-clock, following an unbelievable bucket by Duncan that had put the Spurs up by 1. If the Spurs had won that game, I believe they would have won the series. I am not saying that they would definitely beat Minnesota and Detroit and win the title that year, I am just saying that they were basically good enough to win it again that year and were just knocked out of the play-offs by a crazy buzzer-beater.

In 2006, the Spurs had the best record in the West and after beating the Kings in round 1 they were facing their Texan rivals; Dallas Mavericks. The series went to game 7, in San Antonio, and after a very tough game the Spurs were up by 3 with less than 30 seconds to the end of the game. This is when Dirk Nowitzki took the ball to San Antonio’s basket, scored and was, foolishly, fouled by Manu Ginobili, who had, in the previous possession, put the Spurs up with his three-pointer. Long story short, Nowitzki scored from the foul line, tied the game that went to overtime where the Mavs won and advanced to the WCF.       

What I am saying here, is that if it weren’t for these two crazy, basketball moments the Spurs could have won 5 in a row. I know that this is an ‘if scenario’ and the reality is that this is basketball and that they lost fair and square as they have won in analogous crazy situations; Elliot’s Memorial-Day miracle, Horry’s three-pointer against Detroit etc. But, this means that the Spurs were there and they were able to go all the way, they had what it takes, but they lost the opportunity to repeat or even three-peat in the details. Isn’t wrong to define the whole legacy of this team by this two moments? Isn’t wrong to do call them a dynasty because they weren’t able to win two in a row, but they won 3 out of 5 and it was in their powers to win 5 out of 5? I say it is wrong and the post-MJ-era Spurs are the definition of an NBA dynasty.

But, let’s look at what else the Spurs have achieved in the post-MJ era that makes them a dynasty. They have the best, regular season, winning percentage in the post-MJ NBA, with 71%!!! They have qualified for the play-offs every year since 1999, lost in the 1st round only 3 times and won the most play-off games with 147 in total. The have been 11 times the division champions, had the best regular-season record of the NBA 4 times and the best record of the Western Conference 7 times. In addition, they have won a championship in all three decades that comprise the post-MJ era (90s, 00s, 10s), while they had the same coach all these years, Gregg Popovich, and the same superstar, Tim Duncan.

So, even though the Spurs may not always win in the end; they do most of the time and I believe that from all the above it becomes obvious that the Spurs are the definition of an NBA dynasty. I don’t think that anyone can disagree with the fact that they have the necessary continuity in terms of success and ability to win as well as in terms of personnel. Therefore, I think that in this case we should, at least, ignore coach Jackson, much like the way “the Admiral” did in 2003 NBA All-Star game (even if he didn’t do it on purpose…):   

 9z0th

1 Gary Lineker’s original quote is: ‘Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chasing a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.’

What is Wrong with LeBron? (pt.2)

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It has been more than two years, it was February of 2012, when I wrote a piece on LeBron; in fact it was the piece that was originally asking ‘what is wrong with LeBron?’ In February 2012, LeBron was an “untitled” (meaning without an NBA title…) superstar, who was criticized for not being Michael Jordan. In the original piece, I concluded that LeBron is not and should not be compared with MJ as he is simply a different player; a player that is brilliant in his own way. However, I also concluded that winning a title would make all the difference in LeBron’s approach to the game and he would be able to show to all of us who he really is. In June 2014, after winning two titles and two Finals’ MVPs, LeBron’s abilities and leadership are again being criticized. So, I have to ask for a second time: what is wrong with LeBron?

At this very moment that this piece is being written, LeBron James has declared himself a free-agent – which, he will effectively be from the 1st of July 2014. This is a turn in things that many did not expect, when LeBron joined forces with Wade and Bosh. However, here we are, 4 years after ‘the decision’, talking again about possible destinations for ‘the King’. But, is LeBron seriously considering to leave Miami or do we really love talking about him and his decisions? I think this is the main question here, and I believe the answer is that for one more time we create stories about our favourite hero; LeBron James is the most popular fictional character out there.

What I am saying here, is that is not LeBron’s fault if once again we expect from him things that he had never promised he will deliver. In other words, there is nothing wrong with LeBron if he simply is not as determined as MJ or Kobe are (see ‘What is the next MJ’). It is mostly the fact that we need the best player of the league to follow MJ’s model; it is our problem that we imagine him being an MJ type of player, even though he showed us in any possible way that he is not. What else do we expect to see or hear from him to be sure? The man said to the media after game 4 of 2014 NBA Finals, where his team was destroyed for the second time in a row in his own house that:

“I understand it’s the media and the sport is the greatest sport in the world. I love it. It’s done so many great things for me, but it’s just basketball. It’s just basketball.”   

I believe that there is no better way in telling us to leave him alone to play the game he loves, while at the same time showing us that the burden of carrying his own expectations and the unreal expectations of all those that imagine him in their own ways is unbearable. To put it simply, LeBron is the best player the game today has but he is not MJ and his basketball dreams as well as the way he wants to play the game differ fundamentally from our views about him. MJ used to say that basketball was everything to him and I believe him, however, I believe that basketball is very important for LeBron too, if not equally important, but the main difference and what LeBron is trying to say to us is that basketball does not define him.

LeBron loves the game, he adores it, but he is not obsessed with it, while I believe that MJ and Kobe (maybe Kobe even more) define themselves through the game; their whole personality revolves around their basketball dominance. Domination is not LeBron’s main thing and this is something that we should understand; he loves the game in a different way, in a less competitive way. LeBron, then, chooses to downgrade publicly the importance basketball has in his life, to show to everybody that is a different type of superstar and stop the ongoing comparisons of himself with players such MJ and Kobe whose main characteristic is their obsession to dominate. 

LeBron, I argue, does not want to be compared with players of this type, because he does not possess the killer instinct these guys have. However, this does not make him a lesser basketball player, but it makes him a different type of superstar – one that  is not looking to dominate and humiliate his opponents. LeBron wants to win his own way and wants to leave his own legacy; he does not want to continue MJ’s legacy as Kobe did, to some extent. LeBron is of course a very competitive guy, he wouldn’t be the best if he weren’t, but he does not have the killer’s instinct that MJ and Kobe do. He is more relaxed and prefers to be around other superstars and enjoy the game with them rather than competing against them; this is why he joined Miami at first place. He is not the lone-wolf type of guy that will try to dominate all by himself and in any possible way. He is more of a team-player than MJ and Kobe, he does not seem to care about drawing all the attention and prefers to share the spotlight with other superstars.

All in all, I argue that the answer to the question ‘what is wrong with LeBron’ is nothing. I do not know him personally, but I think nothing is wrong with him, he is just who he is and the sooner we realize that the better for all of us. I believe that he will, eventually, stay with the Heat, but even if he leaves for a better destination, according to his preferences and wishes, there will be nothing wrong – there will be only a different approach to winning than the one we are used to (look for the best circumstances elsewhere instead of trying to create them). Thus, we need to realize that LeBron is a different superstar than MJ and his legacy is going to be different. If we prefer MJ’s approach to the game instead of LeBron’s, it is our problem and not his. The one thing that it is certain is that he is not who we would like him to be and it is probably for the best. It is time to rethink the image we have of how the NBA’s best player should be even if this means that the whole concept of ‘the American dream’, which MJ personifies, has to be revised.  

Why the Pacers

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In the past few days I have read many posts and I have watched and listened to many analyses regarding the Eastern Conference Finals (ECF) and it seems like nobody is actually believing that this Pacers team – the no.1 seed in the East – has any chance of advancing to the NBA Finals. I can understand this, up to a point, because of their inconsistency in the first two rounds of the play-offs against much weaker teams. However, I consider this treatment of the best team of the Eastern Conference, based on their regular season record, to be at least unfair. So, I intend in the following few paragraphs to provide five reasons why I see the Pacers advancing to the NBA Finals instead of the defenders of the title Heat.

Bad Matchups

I understand that when you are the number 1 seed everybody is expecting from you to at least win comfortably in the first round and to show some signs of the dominance you exhibited throughout the regular season. The Pacers instead showed a team that had no rhythm and was unable to dominate and play its game against an Atlanta Hawks team that finished the season with a negative record (38-44). Almost the same type of inconsistency, with some signs of improvement, characterized their second round games against a very good Wizards team. However, if we take a closer look at these two matchups we will see that they were bad matchups for the Pacers.

Jeff Teague’s speed and quickness was a major factor in the series against the Hawks and the same was true for the series against the Wizards that possess one of the most athletic and efficient backcourts in the league in John Wall and Bradley Beal. George Hill does not seem to be at the same level as most of the point guards that are nowadays in the league; no offense to the ex-Spur but I would find it difficult to even consider him as a top-20 point guard. Three-point shooting was another thing that was killing the Pacers in the first round, where each player of the Hawks became suddenly a threat from the three-point line; in G5 of the series that gave temporarily the lead to Atlanta 3-2, the Hawks were shooting 56% from the three-point line and Mike Scott had 5/6. However, the Pacers that everybody is accusing unfairly found a way to win in the following two games and take the series 4-3. Do not forget that the 2008 NBA Champs Boston Celtics (66-16) of the Big Three (Allen, Pierce, Garnett) advanced to the second round with the same score 4-3 against the 8 seeded Atlanta Hawks (37-45).

There is also one more point that I have to make regarding the bad matchups the Pacers had in the first two rounds and is about the ‘bigs’ of the Wizards. Washington is a team that has been under the radar all season long mostly because of the injuries they had that constrained them to mediocrity. Wizards are a team that is loaded in every line, they have Wall, Beal and Ariza at backcourt and Nene and Gortat at frontcourt. This is a rare combination of capable guards, forwards and centers in today’s NBA; they can all score and defend but they lack in experience and star-power, which is an issue that will probably not bother them for long as Wall and Beal advance their game. The point that I am trying to make here is that Pacers are a team that relies on inside presence and against a team that has Nene and Gortat (both of them could easily be starters in any NBA team) it was not possible for them to take full advantage of their strength. However, again they were able to prevail and Hibbert that struggled badly in the first round played finally as an all-star (Games 2 & 4), while the other member of the Pacers frontcourt, David West, sealed the deal in Game 6 with 29 points.           

Focus

So, I argued in the previous paragraphs that the matchups of the first two rounds of the play-offs were not the best possible for the Pacers and they gave them a hard time. However, it was not only the matchups but it was also a matter of concentration. Indiana has shown two faces this season; the face of a team that it is focused and determined, until the All-Star break and a second face, the one that is showing until now, of a team that has lost its purpose and determination. I would also like to add to that second face the characteristic of eagerness, which I feel it describes in the best way the behaviour Indiana is showing on and off the court. In other words, the Pacers, I say, were focused and determined to become East’s number one and they showed to everybody until the All-Star break that they can be number one. After the All-Star break they became eager, which means that they reached a point where fighting for the first place in East was not enough; they wanted to get over with that and play against the Heat.

What I am saying is that because of their obsession to acquire home-court advantage against the Heat at the Eastern Conference Finals the Pacers reached a point during the last month of the regular season where they lost their focus. They became eager, regular season seemed to large, they lost an integral part of their team, a leader, in Danny Granger and in other words they wanted, if it was possible, to get to their destination without the journey. This is how, I think, the Pacers saw their opponents in the first two rounds of the play-offs; as a necessary evil on the way to their target. The Pacers suffered of what most of us suffer when we a set a goal and become obsessed with that; we are excited and determined at the beginning, but as time passes and our goal is still far away we get disheartened and lose focus. Most of us give up and never reach our goal, while others perceive the journey to our goal as boring and necessary task that we have to get over with and by the time we are there we have lost most if not all of our interest to the goal itself. There is, however, a small part of us that gets there and is either focused all along or reclaim its focus in the end and is able to accomplish the goal successfully. I think the Pacers belong in the last category and I see them regaining their concentration now that they reached their goal – of course I believe that their goal is to use their home-court advantage to advance to the NBA Finals and not just play against the Heat with a home-court advantage.     

Miami Heat or LeBron James Heat

So, even if the Pacers regain their concentration why are they going to beat the Heat four times? First of all, I believe that this going to be a very difficult task and they will definitely have to remain 100% focused and play their top game to accomplish it – we our talking about the two-times NBA Champs. But, I think that even though the way that the Heat advanced to the ECF gave them the opportunity to rest and have a fresher Dwyane Wade, which is always a positive thing, they have not been tested enough in this year’s play-offs. Their opponents were much weaker than them and did not challenge them enough, which is not always a good thing; Spurs woke up early in the first round, when the Mavs pushed them to 7 seven games and then they went on and destroyed the Blazers. We have not yet seen how this Heat team reacts with its back on the wall.

I would like to emphasize here that I am talking about this year’s Heat not last year’s championship team. I am saying this because this year’s Heat does not have Mike Miller, a player that made many crucial three-pointers for the Heat the past two-years and more importantly they have an older version of Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and of course Wade. 2014 Heat is now truly James’ Heat. I listened to Charles Barkley talking about how much they relay on him and it is truly amazing but James leads the Heat in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game in the 2014 Play-offs!!! Miami, it seems to me that it has become from a big-three team to a team that relay’s alarmingly enough on the performance of one player. Consider that in the first two rounds LeBron had to play the Bobcats, against whom he scored 61 during the regular season and against an almost retired Paul Pierce (Kirilenko is not at the defensive level he used to be). Against the Pacers will have to face one of the finest young stars of the league in Paul George and a team that is going to make his life difficult close to basket. Is he going to be able to beat the Pacers all by himself? Does Miami have enough firepower to prevail over the Pacers? I don’t think so; they would need the resurrection of their bench and of Wade to do so.   

Frontcourt

Except of Miami’s lack of firepower, there is also their lack of capable ‘bigs’; where is Greg Oden? (great ‘what if’ matchup of the series Oden against Bynum…) Miami’s most reliable ‘big’ is ‘the Birdman’ Chris Andersen, in the sense that he plays as a ‘bigman’ while their most talented ‘bigman’ Chris Bosh has become more like new type of player that could be described as ‘wing-center’; a delicate power forward that plays center out of need and executes behind the tree-point line!!! This is what Bosh currently looks like and the weird thing is that he is such a talented player that plays great even in this awkward role. But, Indiana’s frontcourt is not the Bobcats’ frontcourt (even though I consider ‘Big-Al’ as a top-3 center in today’s NBA) or the Lopez-less Nets’ frontcourt.    

Indiana’s frontcourt I argue is and should be the main reason the Pacers are going to advance to the NBA Finals. They have two players, in Hibbert (it is time for him to play as an all-star for a whole series) and West that are capable both offensively and defensively, while the addition of Luis Scola makes them even stronger and experienced close to the basket. Adding to that frontcourt, Indiana’s backcourt (Hill and Watson will have a seemingly easier job against Chalmers and Cole) I think that Miami is going to be finally tested in this play-offs. Of course we should not overlook the individual matchups of Lance Stevenson against Wade and George against James, in which I expect Evan Turner to play an important role and probably make the difference coming from the bench (it is a great chance for him to show why Larry ‘Legend’ decided to trade his ex-franchise player and team-leader, Granger, to bring him to Indiana). 

Pacers have to

All in all I think that the Pacers, following the analysis of the previous paragraphs, have to win this series against Miami. I realize that there are a lot of ‘ifs’ included and how could this be any different when you are trying to forecast, but I believe that this is the series, in which the Pacers are going to get it together, realize that this what they were actually playing for the whole season and accomplish their target. If they fail they should consider serious changes during the summer, but I believe that instead this summer will be a period of changes for the Heat (I do not see LeBron going anywhere, not just yet). The final verdict: Pacers in either 6 or 7 games. 

The Fate of The Grizzlies

George_Catlin_Attacking_the_Grizzly_Bear

Saturday the 3rd of May 2014, the Grizzles got ‘thunderstruck’ by Oklahoma City in Game 7 of the Western Conference’s 1st Round, 2014 NBA Play-offs. The question, however, that remains is whether the Grizzles were the best team of the series. I know that many would argue that there is no such question; Thunder won fair and square. I agree that Thunder won fair, they did not cheat and they prevailed in both games 6 & 7, while Kevin Durant played like the MVP. However, in the following few paragraphs I intend to argue that the Grizzles should and could have done much better this season (and not only) but it seems to be their fate to play a decent supporting role on the NBA scene.

I would like to start by saying that I am not a fan of the Grizzles and in fact, as a fan of the Spurs, I used to dislike them since their unanticipated win over the Spurs in 2011 Play-offs. 2011 was the first time the Grizzles reached the play-offs since 2006 and they were the number 8 seed that season; Spurs were of course number 1, even though unexpectedly, with 61 wins in the regular season (Grizzles had 46). This season the Grizzles basically entered the play-offs in the last two games of the season against the other two teams that were playing for a play-off birth; Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks. The Grizzles beat them both and finally got West’s number 7 seed (50 wins), while the Mavs entered the play-offs as number 8. This meant that they had to play Oklahoma City in the first round without a home-court advantage, which would be a more-than-a-difficult task for any team. However, I would like to argue that the Grizzles, if it weren’t for their fate, should not have been West’s number 7 seed.

They were better than 7th in the West

Last season the Grizzles won 56 games and this year, while playing without their all-star center Marc Gasol for more than 20 games, finished with 50 wins. In addition, their best perimeter defender and a regular candidate for the DOP award Tony Allen was also absent in more than 25 games. I could say that based on the winning percentage of the team with Gasol in its starting five (68%) that they could at least finish with a record similar to that of last season’s (56 wins at least). This would mean that the Grizzles would have finished either fourth or even third, but lets consider them as being fourth. In that case they would have to face the Rockets in the first round with a home-court advantage. The season series against the Rockets was 2-2, but in their losses the Grizzles played without Gasol. Adding to that the inconsistency the Rockets showed in the Play-offs against the Blazers and I truly think the Grizzles would have beat the Rockets in 5 or 6 games. However, I don’t think they would be able to beat the Spurs in the second round.

In the best case scenario, if the Grizzles had finished third in the West, they would have played against Portland in the first round, which even though a difficult matchup would be much easier than the current one against Thunder. It is my belief that the Grizzles, even by using their home-court advantage, would be able to surpass Portland’s obstacle and found themselves playing against the Thunder in the second round. The question now is if they would be able to beat Thunder. The simple answer is not, as they didn’t in reality. But we should not forget the two other events that determined the fate of the Grizzles; Randolph suspension in game 7 and Nick Calathes’ 20-game suspension before the play-offs.

Key Players Suspended

Zach Randolph is arguably the team’s best player and the face of the franchise. He is one of the best power-forwards in the game today and his style of play, not based on athleticism, makes him one of the most consistent players in the league; he simply knows how to play the game in an old-school type of way. He was averaging 18.2ppg. and 8.7rpg. in the first six games of the series against Thunder (22ppg. and 9rpg. at Thunder’s home court). In other words, Zach Randolph performed better away than at home and Game 7 of the series was away!!! This may not sound as reason enough to justify my taking of Grizzles over the Thunder, but if you add the psychological factor of knowing that you play without your main offensive weapon and on the other hand knowing that you play against a team that comes to play a Game 7 on the road without its best player makes a lot of difference.

I believe that the Grizzles were the best team of the series and if Randolph has not been suspended they would have won Game 7. I could also add Calathes’ silly 20-game suspension to the mix to support my argument. Calathes is not a super athlete or a player that you actually expect to make much difference, however when Conley was out (yes Conley was also out for a number of games this season) he did make a difference and carried the Grizzles. I believe that with Calathes, the Grizzles would have another dangerous guard coming of the bench, with the ability to change the rhythm of the game. I can see the fellow Greek, Calathes, making a difference in game 4 were Reggie Jackson took over. All in all I think that fate has treated the Grizzles in an unfair fashion and it should have been them playing against the Clippers in the second round; a team they know very well and have beaten in the past (last season’s play-offs). But maybe fate has been more cruel to them than that.

They should have been playing in the Eastern Conference

It was the year 1996 that the NBA expanded towards Canada and the Vancouver Grizzles was one of the two franchises, alongside Toronto Raptors that entered the league. The Grizzles were initially included in the Western Conference, which is only logical as Vancouver is located north-west above Seattle. However, the team was included in Midwest division instead of the Pacific division, which would make much more sense, geographically speaking. But as the franchise moved in 2002 to Memphis, after the failure at Vancouver, the team remained in the Midwest division. Memphis is definitely more Midwestern than Vancouver, but if you take a look at the state of Tennessee on a map, in which Memphis is located, do you actually see a western state? Most of the geographical descriptions I found on the internet locate the state of Tennessee in the Eastern side of the US or South-eastern but none of them positions Tennessee in the Western side (except from the NBA map). In the map below you can judge by yourselves.

map1_memphis

Don’t you think that this is really unfair? Have you imagined what the Grizzles would be able to do if they played in the East? They could have been third in the East with their current 50-32 record, while with a 56-26 record they could even be first!!! Have you imagined what the Grizzles would be able to do in the East with their frontcourt? I think they could have made a lot of damage and I wouldn’t want to go that far and talk about them being contenders (even though they would have been). Of course one could argue that in the same sense New Orleans is also unlucky and Minnesota and so on. Probably yes, they are, and maybe it is time for the NBA to think of a different setting; four conferences (North, South, East, West)? Why not? But this could be the theme of another article. In reality, however, the Grizzles, in any case, would have at best reach the Conference Finals, as they did last year. 

Not Good Enough

Imagination is better than intelligence according to Einstein but in the case of Grizzles the harsh reality is that they are good but not good enough. They seem to be missing something that would make them contenders and no it is not Rudy Gay. They desperately need another scorer, a team-player (unlike Rudy Gay) that will be able to help with consistent outside scoring. This is what they should probably be looking for during the summer. In addition, Randolph is a very good player but it seems that he has reached his full potential and his huge salary is not making it easier for the Grizzles to add that extra piece they need. So, should the Grizzles be looking to offload Randolph in the near future (this summer)?

The Future – Gasol Bros.

It looks like the Grizzles won’t have to do anything if they do not want to bring Randolph back next season, as he would become an unrestricted free-agent this summer. This means that they could use the money from his huge $16-million contract alongside some other cap-clearing moves to attract two good players and change their fate. Fate this time seems to be on their side as an all-time favourite of the Grizzles fans – the first all-star of the franchise’s history – is going to be a free-agent and his name is Pau Gasol. At this point it is at least intriguing, to imagine of a Gasol Bros-frontcourt. If I were at Grizzles management I would also go for a player such as Danny Granger (Bird’s biggest mistake) that can still play at a high level and could potentially play even at an all-star level next season, following a full preparation during the summer and staying healthy. Granger could add outside scoring, experience, talent and leadership to a team with one of the best frontcourts in the league. I am not sure, however, if those two moves would be enough to make them contenders in the packed Western Conference but in my eyes it would worth the shot.

Is the Title of Atlantic Division a New York Issue?

atlantic division

A lot has changed in the Atlantic Division, not only in terms of faces but also in terms of places. New Jersey is no longer hosting the Nets; Brooklyn is the new home of the Nets that look ready for the play-offs after acquiring Joe Johnson and retaining the services of their star point-guard Deron Williams. Are they ready though to contend for, at least, the title of the division? I think yes but the competition will be great in the division I think is going to be represented by the most teams in the Eastern Conference play-offs.

Nets seem to have their best team since the 2002-03 season, when they reached the NBA Finals, only to lose to the San Antonio Spurs. But, does this mean that they are better than their New York rivals, or the new-look Philadelphia, which is building its own contender around its newly arrived tower – Andrew Bynum – or even from the aged but dangerous and experienced, Allen-less Celtics? I think not yet. In my view the final ranking of the teams in the Atlantic Division at the end of the 2012-13 season will look like this:

1) New York Knicks

2) Boston Celtics

3) Brooklyn Nets

4) Philadelphia 76ers

5) Toronto Raptors

I also believe that the first four teams will qualify for the play-offs, which means only the Raptors will go for early summer vacations. The Raptors are obviously the weaker team in the division even though they made a great move in acquiring Kyle Lowry from the Rockets. Lowry, if they can re-sign him, can be their franchise player. I like their future prospects, except from Lowry; they have DeRozan, who can become a future all-star if he works more on his shoot; they got Landry Fields from New York, another tall guard with defensive virtues; their Italian star Bargnani, who can only become better; and a new great prospect in Jonas Valanciunas, a super talented European-style center that can develop to an all-star if he gains some muscle and work on his post-game.

The Raptors can wait for better days in the future, just like the Philadelphia 76ers that made a radical change in their roster by acquiring arguably the top center of the game. Trading for Bynum was a bolt move that Sixers had to do, to change their fate. But, even if Bynum stays healthy, which I hope, the Sixers need more than him. They made some controversial moves during the summer and they now seem to be packed in the guard positions, while lacking a real power forward that will create, alongside Bynum, a truly powerful frontline for them. Jrue Holiday will probably be their point guard for years, and they are lucky to have him, and Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young are good investments. But, they definitely need to trade one/some of their wing players (Richardson, Nick Young, Wright, Wilkins) for a strong big man that will take some of the load off of Bynum’s shoulders.

If the Sixers get a real power forward, during the season, they will be able to change the balance of power in the Atlantic Division. But until that happens, the Brooklyn Nets seem better equipped to finish above them. With a starting line-up that most teams would envy the Nets look good; Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, and Brook Lopez. If Lopez stays healthy he can be a top-5 center and dominate the paint many nights. The acquisition of Andray Blatche was a risky move that may be turn out as a steal if the man’s performance comes close to his 2010-11 season (16.8ppg, 8.2rpg.). The only other player that stands out from the otherwise weak Nets’ bench is the second-year guard MarShon Brooks that had a promising rookie year (12.6ppg.,3.6rpg.,2.3apg).

Brooklyn despite not being able to land Dwight Howard has a paly-offs-ready team, but with Howard in its roster would be able to finish above the Celtics and the Knicks. Celtics are, for now, a stronger team than the Nets, based on their experienced stars but mostly on their Rajon Rondo, who will be running the show again from the point guard position. They will definitely have to adjust to life without Ray Allen that moved to the rival Miami, but this is going to be easier having Jason Terry and Courtney Lee in the roster. I believe that the key points for the success of the Celtics will be a healthy Rondo, without him the Celtics are hardly a play-off team and a Garnett playing the center position with similar success as last year (15.8ppg, 8.2rpg). Of course I consider Paul Pierce able to play as Paul Pierce for one more year. Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, when he returns, will also be valuable members of 2012-13 Celtics’ team.

This means that the Atlantic-Division title is not, just yet, entirely a New York issue, as the Celtics still have some gas left in their tanks and the Nets some miles to go. But, the other New York team, the Knicks, seems to be more ready than even in the last decade to become the champion of the Atlantic Division. I think they have the right mixture of veterans, maybe a bit too many of them, young players and stars. Their roster contains players such as Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace, who came back from retirement, that have more than 15 years of NBA experience on their shoulders. But, they also have their own ‘Big-Three’ in Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler, from which I expect this year to see what the New York fans were expecting last year; to cooperate and dominate the game in both ends. If they do not make it this year then the only way for New York will be to break the trio.

They just can’t go wrong this year. Stoudemire has been working out, during the summer, with the best big-man of the 90s, Hakeem ‘the Dream’ Olajuwon; Mike Woodson is coaching the team from the beginning of a full season, Anthony and Chandler are coming from a summer where they won the gold medal at London’s Olympics; and they have players like Iman Shumpert, Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith making their backcourt as competent as it could be. For all these reasons I would be very surprised if the Knicks do not finish the season first in their division recording well above 50 wins.