Sunday, December 25, 2011

2011-12 NBA Win Over/Under Predictions

It's once again time for the annual favorite here at The Painted Area, as we offer our predictions for picking NBA regular-season win over/unders. We're under the gun here this season, as the craziness of this offseason postponed any O/U lines until the last couple days, so these are really for posterity's sake, as we've raced to get them posted just before season tip-off.

For the record, we were 5-2 in O/U predictions in 2010-11, with the 71% success rate lifting our lifetime percentage since we started The Painted Area to a robust 66.7%.

Here are our year-by-year records for the four years we've been publishing our picks:**********************
For 2011-12, let's go straight to the data. What we've done below is:As always, these are for entertainment purposes only.
    (O/U Line - JH/KP - '10-11*)
    MIA 50.5 - 52/48 - 47
    CHI 47.5 - 48/46 - 50
    NYK 41.5 - 35/36 - 34
    BOS 38.5 - 43/36 - 45
    ORL 37.5 - 40/40 - 42
    PHI 36.5 - 37/36 - 33
    IND 36.5 - 36/33 - 30
    ATL 34.5 - 33/31 - 35
    MIL 31.5 - 34/32 - 28
    NJN 25.5 - 28/29 - 19
    DET 21.5 - 22/26 - 24
    WAS 20.5 - 22/20 - 19
    CLE 16.5 - 18/22 - 15
    TOR 16.5 - 19/28 - 18
    CHA 15.5 - 13/28 - 27

    (O/U Line - JH/KP - '10-11*)
    OKC 48.5 - 45/40 - 44
    DAL 42.5 - 39/37 - 46
    SAS 40.5 - 42/38 - 49
    LAC 40.5 - 41/40 - 26
    LAL 40.5 - 40/34 - 46
    MEM 38.5 - 37/32 - 37
    DEN 37.5 - 43/35 - 40
    POR 37.5 - 38/38 - 39
    HOU 32.5 - 32/33 - 35
    PHX 27.5 - 24/28 - 32
    GSW 26.5 - 26/25 - 29
    UTH 25.5 - 27/30 - 31
    NOH 24.5 - 22/31 - 37
    MIN 24.5 - 29/33 - 14
    SAC 20.5 - 25/26 - 19
This year's 66-game schedule is 80.5% as long as the standard 82-game season. For reference, here are how 66-game win totals translate to a 82-game slate:
    50: 62
    45: 56
    40: 50
    35: 44
    30: 37
    25: 31
    20: 25
    15: 19
Here are what we're calling the consensus picks from Hollinger/Pelton - teams which are at least three wins above or below the line in the same direction by both men's projections:
    NYK Under 41.5
    MIN Over 24.5
    SAC Over 20.5
    OKC Under 48.5
    DAL Under 42.5
A couple key factors seem to be driving our picks this year: coaching changes and team depth, given the unique nature of this year's condensed schedule.

Here are our picks for 2011-12:
  • TOR Over 16.5
  • DET Over 21.5
  • MIN Over 24.5
  • DEN Over 37.5
  • NYK Under 41.5
  • LAL Under 40.5
  • MIL Over 31.5
Here's our rationale on the team picks:
TORONTO OVER 16.5 (22 last season/18 pro-rated)
DETROIT OVER 21.5 (30 last season/24 pro-rated)
Two similar situations here. These were two of the worst defensive teams in the league last season, and neither team had a whole lot of roster turnover in the offseason, though both teams made what we consider to be significant coaching upgrades to defensive-minded coaches. Toronto moved from Jay Triano to the architect of Dallas' championship defense, Dwane Casey, while Detroit changed leadership from John Kuester to Lawrence Frank. Also, while both these teams are lottery-bound because of a lack of star talent, the Raptors and the Pistons do both have pretty good depth, which should help them grab a few extra wins. Ultimately, we're expecting both these teams to be a little better due to defensive improvement, rather than a little worse, which is why we're going over.

MINNESOTA OVER 24.5 (17 last season/14 pro-rated)
This is another selection rooted primarily in a coaching change, as the T-wolves moved from an atrocious head coach in Kurt Rambis to an outstanding one in Rick Adelman. It makes us a little nervous that this over requires such a big jump in wins, but we're going to trust in our guys Hollinger and Pelton, who both project Minny handily above the number. The Minnesota roster is filled with young players who should be on the upswing, and they have plenty of depth, as well.

NEW YORK UNDER 41.5 (42 last season/34 pro-rated)
We're trusting Hollinger and Pelton again here, as both project the Knicks well below their O/U line. We fully believe in the logic that a roster which is injury-prone at the top and quite thin in reserve is not terribly well-built for this season. The only thing that makes us nervous is that someone other than Miami and Chicago has to win significant games in the East, and the Knicks seem like they have as good a shot as any of the remaining teams to do so.

L.A. LAKERS UNDER 40.5 (57 last season/46 pro-rated)
There could not be a team built worse for this particular season, given how old and fiber-optic thin they are in terms of talent. Not only do the Lakers only have three good players, but there are significant questions about how well two of those guys, Kobe and Bynum, can physically withstand the grueling schedule. This is a team in decline, not a championship contender as presently constructed.

DENVER OVER 37.5 (50 last season/40 pro-rated)
As we wrote in our season predictions post yesterday, we've totally bought the Mile-High Kool-Aid that John Hollinger was selling on this team in his Western Conference forecast. Now that Nene and Arron Afflalo are back in the fold, the Nuggets are perfectly constructed for the truncated season - outstanding depth, with one of the best second-units in basketball, plus the high-altitude home-court advantage which should be more pronounced than ever.

MILWAUKEE OVER 31.5 (35 last season/28 pro-rated)
After a 46-win season in '09-10, the Bucks were the team hit hardest by injuries in '10-11. We think they'll have a solid bounce-back above .500, and in particular, we like what we're reading about how Andrew Bogut is feeling, after struggling all last season with the elbow that he injured seriously in '09-10. We do have some concerns about when the inevitable Scott Skiles burnout will occur, but we're rolling with the Bucks nonetheless.

OK, there you have it. If there's one team we feel like we might regret including, it's San Antonio, with a line set at 40.5 (equivalent to about 50.5 for an 82-game regular season). This is a team which has played 50-plus-win basketball for the entirety of Tim Duncan's career, since '97-98. Alas, the age of the often-banged up Big 3 has me a little too skittish.

Happy holidays, everyone - thanks for reading and enjoy the season!

Friday, December 23, 2011

2011-12 NBA Season Predictions: Oklahoma City Thunder over Miami Heat

The league is (finally) back, rejoice.

A year ago, when we offered our 2010-11 season predictions, we noted in our headline that the NBA was "More Wide Open Than We Think." The consensus was that the Heat and the Lakers would meet in the Finals, yet we presented cases for seven teams (including Miami and Los Angeles) as contenders... and we didn't even include the team which ended up winning it all, the Dallas Mavericks, not to mention other teams which emerged as tough squads, like Memphis and Denver.

This year, as we survey the NBA landscape, our feelings have done something of a 180. Namely, we'll be surprised if anyone other than the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls end up playing in the 2012 NBA Finals. Beyond our Big 3, we see a vast second tier of teams with too many question marks to truly contend for the Larry O.B. in this condensed lockout season.

On top of that, we're picking the Thunder to beat the Heat to win the 2011-12 NBA championship. If we had to boil it down, we'd have to say that a decisive factor is that we simply don't trust LeBron James anymore. In our opinion, LeBron's underachievement in key playoff games is the primary reason that his teams have not won championships in each of the last two seasons.

We think Oklahoma City is poised to dominate the Western Conference this season - we could foresee the difference between first and second being about the same as the gap between second and seventh. The Thunder were really not that far from becoming the youngest team to ever win it all last year. OKC was clearly a better team than Dallas for the first 42-44 minutes per game, but the veteran Mavs out-executed the Thunder at crunch time.

Now, the Thunder are back with that experience under their belts, with its key players still young on the rise (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are already among the league's top dozen players, and James Harden and Serge Ibaka are poised to bust out further), plus they'll have a svelte and healthy Kendrick Perkins available for the whole year, and their exceptional team depth leaves them perfectly suited for this year's schedule.

What's not to like? Well, coach Scotty Brooks is the big question mark, for sure, after getting Dirks run around him by Rick Carlisle. But we think another year of experience will help the Thunder execute better, and the depth of talent on their roster is just too strong.

We certainly expect the Miami Heat to be a formidable ballclub again, and likely improved after one year together. We're especially excited to see their new "pace and space" offensive philosophy (as described by Tom Haberstroh in an exceptional piece on in action, as it seems to be a style of play, which fits the personnel much better than the fairly methodical, set-heavy game which Miami employed for much of last season. We'll see if, when the games are on hardwood rather than whiteboard, more freedom works, and sticks for the entire season.

We were expecting the Heat to have a better offseason than they did. Maybe they can still grab a buyout guy or a Chinese League refugee, and maybe promising late first-round pick Norris Cole can provide just the boost Miami needs at point guard, but the Shane Battier signing left us largely unmoved. Yes, he should be a good fit this season, though he is clearly in decline at 33, and with a three-year deal, Battier continues the Heat's disturbing trend of signing guys until they're 35, joining Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller. Also, the Heat's lack of depth, given this year's schedule, makes us think that they'll once again have to chase the Bulls without home-court advantage.

Still, via experience and a new style of play, we think this will be an improved team, and we're giving them a narrow edge over Chicago.

Speaking of the Chicago Bulls, they come back with their well-constructed roster largely intact, providing cohesion which should serve them well this season, and a roster with no returning rotation players over 30, suggesting they are still a team on the rise. The key move was exchanging Keith Bogans for Rip Hamilton. As with Battier, we have some concerns about adding a 33-year-old wing, but we think Hamilton will be a good fit under Tom Thibodeau, and is certainly an upgrade over Bogans.

These Bulls should be neck-and-neck with Miami, but they'll need much-better playoff production from Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer than they got in the Eastern Conference Finals. With its depth and cohesion, Chicago should be the top seed in the East, though one wonders if Thibodeau's ceaselessly hard-driving style has a chance of backfiring given this season's schedule.

Here are some quick thoughts on teams we rate in the next tier:
Denver Nuggets: We spent most of the summer assuming Denver would take a step back, with three free agents going to China, and Nene likely to sign elsewhere, with the possibility of Arron Afflalo. But now that they got those two guys back, we've bought John Hollinger's logic on the Nuggets hook, like and sinker: *very* deep roster, headed by two borderline All-Star talents in Nene and Danilo Gallinari, plus high-altitiude, and maybe a dash of a March acquisition of Wilson Chandler, and these guys should roll up the regular-season wins. We're drinking some Mile High Kool-Aid: we agree with Hollinger about Denver finishing second in the West.

Dallas Mavericks: We certainly feel uneasy about discounting the Mavs' title chances after last season. But this was the second-oldest team to ever win a championship, so we think it's going to be tough to recapture that lightning in a bottle, especially given the tough blows to the team defense in losing both Tyson Chandler and assistant coach Dwane Casey, despite the donation of Lamar Odom from the Lakers. Rick Carlisle will win them more games than they should, and Dirk is still Dirk, but it's too much to ask the 2011 postseason magic to continue.

Los Angeles Lakers: It's not shocking that the Lakers' odds to win the championship are right up there with the Heat, Thunder and Bulls, given that they're such a public team, but boy howdy, is it sure ridiculous. As we've been saying since L.A.'s ugly playoff exit, this is a team in clear decline without many means for getting better. With the inexplicable Odom trade, the Lakers are pretty much down to three good players, two of whom (Kobe, Bynum) may have trouble withstanding this year's punishing schedule at peak effectiveness. We don't see this team finishing top-four in the West, and we absolutely don't see them contending for the championship, barring some sort of incredibly favorable deal for Dwight Howard.

San Antonio Spurs: It's been weird that, all offseason, conventional wisdom has seemed to suggest that the Lakers' championship window is still open, while the Spurs' is unquestionably closed, given that San Antonio was a better team in the regular season and the playoffs last year (Spurs losing to Memphis in six tough games with a banged-up Ginobili > Lakers beating a David West-less New Orleans, the worst team in the playoffs, in six tough games). Certainly, there are questions about the aging of the Spurs' Big 3, and we think George Hill-for-Kawhi Leonard is a downgrade in the short term, but we still see this as a formidable team. Tiago Splitter is the key player if the Spurs are going to be true contenders. He has to become the contributor he was expected to be coming off the kind of MVP season in the Spanish League that guys like Luis Scola and Marc Gasol used to propel them to quality NBA career.

Los Angeles Clippers: We certainly can't wait to watch the Lob City Clippers, as this promises to be a League Pass team for all time, and we certainly think this ballclub can ride the good vibes of the Chris Paul trade to significant improvement leading to a possible top-four finish in the West. While we think the Paul is a definite improvement, we wish that L.A. had held out for a better deal (considering it was unclear what other team was a realistic trading partner for the Fifth Avenue Hornets). Long-term, every asset counts when you're trying to compete with the OKC juggernaut Sam Presti has put together. Indeed, the Clips gave up so many assets to acquire Paul that they are extremely thin, though they do have four good point guards - we'll see if they can deal for frontcourt depth. Caron Butler might be a decent fit for now, but we certainly don't like him on a three-year deal, and Vinny Del Negro is still a cause for concern. But sit back and enjoy the ride - the Clippers definitely have a good chance to win the championship of L.A., even if an NBA title still requires a few more moves.

Memphis Grizzlies: With its strong starting unit, Memphis could once again be a very tough out come playoff time, but lack of depth is a problem - and now a serious one up front following the loss of valuable reserve Darrell Arthur - which should cost the Grizz a few regular-season wins. We have the Grizzlies sixth in our predicted conference standings, (again, we think there's a good chance that sixth will be closer to second place than second will be to Oklahoma City in first), but advancing to the second round again.

Portland Trail Blazers: We just wanted to pour out a little 40 to honor the Blazers era that should have been. Yes, Portland has done quite well to stay competitive amidst its myriad injuries, and still has plenty of intriguing assets for the future. But, right now, we should be gearing up for an epic rivalry developing between the Roy-Oden-Aldridge Blazers and the Thunder. But it was not meant to be, and that sucks.

Boston Celtics: We've written off these Celtics before, at our peril, so we're reluctant to do so again, but it's tough to see this as anything but a team in decline, as Boston's Big 3 ages without any significant young talent to the rescue other than Rajon Rondo, whom the C's don't seem particularly inclined to keep, and with the death of ubuntu following the Kendrick Perkins donation to Oklahoma City. Last year, this team was on the same tier as Miami and Chicago. Not this year.

Orlando Magic: Even if Dwight Howard were committed to staying, we wouldn't have the Magic on the same tier as Miami or Chicago. Wasting a valuable trade asset like Marcin Gortat in last year's disastrous trades blew Otis Smith's best chance to keep this team viable. Now, with long-term signings of Jason Richardson and Big Baby Davis, Smith continues to pile up questionable moves, and the glass appears half-empty at best for Orlando.

New York Knicks: The Knicks should be too thin to rack up gaudy regular-season numbers, but could be a pesky postseason team with the nucleus of Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Baron Davis. It's a bit perilous given the collective health history of those four, and New York doesn't have enough depth of talent to win the East, but this is clearly the best Knicks team since Jeff Van Gundy left a decade ago, and a Heat-Knicks playoff series would be wildly entertaining.

Indiana Pacers: The Pacers are a fascinating team, with lots of red-chip players, but zero blues. Indiana has very good depth, especially among its bigs, which could be huge given this year's schedule and which gives them a definite chance to vault thinner teams like Boston and New York into the top four in the East.


Here are The Painted Area's 2011-12 NBA season predictions:

1. Chicago
2. Miami
3. Indiana
4. New York
5. Boston
6. Orlando
7. Milwaukee
8. Philadelphia

-First Round: Bulls over Sixers, Heat over Bucks, Pacers over Magic, Knicks over Celtics
-Conf. Semis: Bulls over Knicks, Heat over Pacers
-Conf. Finals: Heat over Bulls

1. Oklahoma City
2. Denver
3. San Antonio
4. L.A. Clippers
5. Dallas
6. Memphis
7. L.A. Lakers
8. Portland

-First Round: Thunder over Blazers, Nuggets over Lakers, Grizzlies over Spurs, Mavs over Clippers
-Conf. Semis: Thunder over Mavs, Nuggets over Grizzlies
-Conf. Finals: Thunder over Nuggets

-NBA Finals: Thunder over Heat

Award predictions:
MVP: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
As has been proven over and over again, narrative plays a critical role in determining the NBA MVP. Given that we expect Oklahoma City to run away with the West, we think Durant is perfectly positioned to be the odds-on favorite for the award.

Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
Not only do we think that Irving is the best player in this rookie class, but we also think that he's ready to contribute right away, and that he'll also get plenty of playing time to rack up some good numbers. Stir it all together, and that's your Rookie of the Year.

OK, with the late release of the season win over/unders, we're racing to get our annual O/U picks before season tip-off. Hope to have something shortly. Thanks for reading, as always, and enjoy the season.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

CP3 Trade Fiasco Follow-up: Regardless of Motivation, Stern is Wrong

After my initial reaction to the Chris Paul trade situation immediately following David Stern's veto of the Lakers-Rockets-Hornets deal last Thursday night, some discussions with various TrueHoop Network colleagues have caused me to want to refine and focus my position on the continuing events after my scattershot initial thoughts.

Specifically, I want focus on Stern's actions, and set aside the idea that lingering large-market/small-market tensions from the lockout may be influencing his actions, as that is speculation on his motivations, something I cannot know, regardless of how many respected NBA media members across the board are suggesting that this may be an underlying factor.

Regardless of his motivations, Stern is in the wrong. It is not right for him (or other league executives, such as Joel Litvin or Stu Jackson, as his proxies) to be as deeply involved in the trade details as he has been, regardless of how good the eventual trade turns out to be for the Hornets, as I think there's a decent chance that the eventual deal will be more favorable to the Hornets from a basketball persepctive in the long-term.

First, I go back again to the original statement that Stern made after the league took over the team, saying "while this process has been going on, there have been two significant transactions. And our response to both of them was you guys are management, you understand your budget and your instructions, just go ahead, because we've got Jac Sperling, Hugh Weber here, and if they recommend it, then we're going to be approving it."

That is the way this process should work, the way it has to work for the sake of the integrity of the league. Just because Stern's statement may not have reflected the league's true policy toward the Hornets, or even if we may have suspected that this was a crock and Stern would get involved in operations anyway, does not justify his actions. He is now either contradicting his statement of policy, which has essentially been the league's consistent rhetoric regarding the Hornets situation throughout, or proving it to be an outright lie.

The policy as spelled out by Stern in the initial conference call is how it should be. The league lays out general parameters for how the Hornets should operate, team chairman Jac Sperling is the ultimate decision-maker within those parameters, and the league approves those decisions unless there is something patently egregious. Sperling has been established as the person who holds the team's seat on the NBA Board of Governors - for the purposes of operations, he is the owner. And it has to be that way for the integrity of the league. Unless there's something done that's beyond the pale, the league should not be stepping in, and there's no reasonable cause to overturn the person they've established as the team's owner on the Paul trade talks.

The NBA's role in approving trades is another concept which has gotten skewed in this whole saga. The league's role in "approving" trades is to judge submitted trades on whether they are legal by league rules, and to ensure that nothing grossly egregious is being done. The league is doing something entirely different when they are "approving" the Paul trade proposals. They are essentially getting involved before the submission process in this case. There's a 0% chance that the original Lakers-Hornets-Rockets trade would not have been approved under standard operating procedure. This is an entirely different definition of the term "approval".

Hornets GM Dell Demps has been working within his budget and parameters. If the NBA had wanted to set up different parameters for dealing with Chris Paul, it should have established those parameters in advance, and it certainly had ample time to do so, as this was not a surprise situation that CP3 might need to be traded. Even just since the lockout ended, there have been a million Paul trade rumors for the entire world of NBA fans to see. It's mind-boggling that the league and the team's management in New Orleans are on such wildly different pages regarding the question of Chris Paul, as if the topic was never considered.

There's been some argument that the NBA has the right to take such invasive action because they are preparing the Hornets for sale. First, I don't think that that excuses the way they've affected the integrity of the league. Second, they had plenty of time and opportunity to establish broad parameters for the Hornets which tied with their sale goals. Third, the sad thing is that I really don't think that any result of the Paul process will have a material impact of the team's sale price.

The crazy thing is that the NBA has actually done an amazing job in New Orleans from a business perspective, overhauling the team's financial outlook in a way that is nothing short of miraculous, and that I thought was going to be impossible to achieve. That is the heavy lifting in terms of getting the Hornets ready for sale.

I don't think that any player-personnel moves from here will have anything more than a marginal impact. There are three general outcomes for the Hornets, none of them great:

1. Paul remains on the team for a lame-duck season before walking via free agency.
2. Paul is traded for a package of veterans (a la the Rockets-Lakers proposal) which keeps them roughly competitive in the short-term, but leaves them with onerous commitments in the long-term.
3. Paul is traded for a package of younger players/expiring assets (a la the Clippers proposal) which is more of a tear-down approach that leaves them less competitive in the short-term but better prepared for the future.

Frankly, in terms of which approach maximizes the team's sale price, I've seen reasonable arguments for each of these three. It's ultimately going to suck for any of three, as the team's going to lose Chris Paul. For a franchise that's struggled so much to establish its fan base, I think that rallying around a Scola-Martin-Odom team that could have scrapped its way into the playoffs might have been best, to retain that fan support in the short term, even if it required some potentially onerous long-term commitments. But again, I think one could make a plausible case for any of three scenarios, I don't think there's any one magical path, which is part of the reason I think it's been crazy that the league's been involved. To what end?

Now, the skewing of the "approval" process is what's having repercussions not only in making it more challenging for the Hornets to find a trading partner, but also in creating paralysis and chaos to franchises across the league.

And again, why? What is the point of all this? The Hornets are being disallowed from making a reasonable trade for questionable, marginal value for the sale price.

Whether David Stern was right or wrong regarding on the particular merits of the trade, or the team is worth marginally more or less, or his intentions were sinister or not, is somewhat irrelevant. The act of stepping in on a reasonable transaction impacts the integrity of the league, and it was thoroughly inappropriate for him to do so.

I stand by my original belief that this is shockingly dumb, poorly thought-out, a unnecessary disaster, and the possibly the worst decision of David Stern's commissioner, a sign that it's time for his tenure to end sooner rather than later.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Musings on the Chris Paul Trade Fiasco

December 6, 2010
"Q. Can you explain when trades are made, or if a free agent wants to be signed, what is the process that Dell [Demps] has to go through, do you say yeah, we'll do that trade or we won't do that trade?

DAVID STERN: Actually, the league generally approves all trades, number one. And number two, as far as we're concerned there have been while this process has been going on, there have been two significant transactions. And our response to both of them was you guys are management, you understand your budget and your instructions, just go ahead, because we've got Jac Sperling, Hugh Weber here, and if they recommend it, then we're going to be approving it."

(Thanks to Hornets Report for the transcript)

December 8, 2011
367 days later, we experienced one of the most surreal days in NBA history, as the stunning news that the Lakers had acquired Chris Paul without giving up Andrew Bynum (thus suddenly making the Paul-Howard dream seem viable) was trumped by the truly shocking decision by the NBA, as the owner of the New Orleans Hornets, to block the trade, in what I think might be the worst thing David Stern has done in his nearly 28 years as NBA commissioner.

I was certainly wasn't surprised that Stern did something so heavy-handed, but I was truly shocked that he did something so, well, dumb. I am used to the commissioner's tyranny, but his surpassing intellect has never been in question. (I thought Jan Hubbard's portrait of Stern from October was spot on.) Yet this decision made so little sense on so many levels, and seemed so poorly thought-out and short-sighted, without any sense of the repercussions and precedents which seemed patently obvious.

Stern *has* to understand this; he's too smart not to. One is left to conclude that he's completely lost control of his owners. The lockout often seemed to pit small-market owners vs. large-market owners as much as owners vs. players. It appeared at the end of the lockout that the intra-owner squabbles were not sufficiently healed, a perception only strengthened by today's actions, which seems driven by small-market owners, as evidenced by Dan Gilbert's now-annual uninformed, unhinged screed. I believe that, for the bulk of his career, David Stern ran the owners, but it couldn't be more clear that he works for them now. It is probably time for a change at the top.

Again, I'm just stunned by how much nonsense there is surrounding today's actions. Let me try to itemize my thoughts:

1. The Competitive Balance Canard
I have fully supported the idea that increased revenue sharing was needed in the NBA, but this was strictly from the perspective of allowing teams to compete from a business perspective. I know I'm not the first to say this, but the whole idea that payroll is related to competitive balance is debunked by pretty straightforward analysis.

The effect of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) on competitive analysis will likely be minimal, especially so if players are willing to leave money on the table as free agents. For the owners and the league to have expected more competitive balance from this deal is seriously misguided. In fact, elements like a more punitive luxury tax may serve to create less competitive balance, as teams like Utah will likely never go into the luxury tax, as they did a few years ago when they had a contending team. It's a fair question to ask if the more punitive luxury tax will make it tougher for small-market Oklahoma City to keep its burgeoning juggernaut together.

If the owners had truly wanted competitive balance, they should have sought a radical overhaul in which the max salary was eradicated, thus making it harder to fit multiple superstars on the same team. Stop saying this had anything to do with competitive balance. The Lakers were acting perfectly fairly under the system in place, a system which is not designed to create competitive balance, as much as the owners want to believe it does.

2. If Owners Wanted System Issues, Why Didn't They Negotiate Harder For System Issues?
I was surprised that the lockout ultimately wrapped up as soon as it did, mainly because I thought the owners were going to press harder on the so-called "system issues". Truth is that the owners did exact some meaningful changes, such as creating greater monetary incentives for free agents to sign with their own teams.

But, as the lockout wrapped up, the rhetoric from the owners side was that the lockout was about competitive balance more than money. Yes, likely some elements of B.S. in there, I know, but let's take it at face value. If that were truly the case, why did the owners give ground on so many system issues at the end, rather than give back on some of the huge concessions they got from players on basketball-related income (BRI) in exchange for more favorable system issues?

By the end, money should not have been a problem for the owners. They absolutely crushed the players on BRI, just crushed them, and there's reportedly an increase of more than $100 million a year coming from the Lakers new local TV deal alone, not to mention better local-TV deals for teams like the Celtics and the Rockets, with an increase in national TV revenues on the horizon in a few years, given the trajectory of the league. With smart revenue sharing, there was more than enough money moving into the owners' hands to allow them to concede BRI for system issues at the end if they'd wanted. The owners essentially dictated the terms of this lockout, and do not now have grounds to complain about the system they dictated, which essentially seems like what happened today.

3. Superteams Are Great For The League
When one steps back, it's really just surreal to think that The Decision was a key event which incited the owners, and continues to do so today. A free agent, after playing out his contract, opted to leave money on the table to join another franchise, in a mid-major market, so that he could maximize what he perceived to be his best chance to win a championship.

As a result, this decision created MASSIVE INTEREST IN THE LEAGUE, with the most popular season in years, with captivating storylines all the way from The Decision through the end of The Finals almost a year later. And this was apparently a big problem.

You may not want to hear it or acknowledge it, but the fact is that a Lakers superteam of Paul/Bryant/Howard (which is where I believe we were headed) would be great for the NBA. It would capture the conversation and interest of the casual fan, and more than anything, it would finally bring the rhapsodized, fetishized era of the NBA '80s back to life.

The most treasured era of the league is the mighty '80s, when the loaded Celtics and Lakers (and Sixers and Pistons, to a degree) reigned over a top-heavy league with little overall competitive balance. A Lakers superteam to counter the Heatles, with an emerging superteam in (tiny-market) Oklahoma City, with another strong contender in Chicago. Loaded teams for the Lakers, Heat, Thunder and Bulls? Gotta tell you, as a neutral observer, it sounds like a whole lot of fun to watch, and I'm sure it would be crazily popular for the league. And truth be told, all of those franchises have done it fairly, with some combination of strong management and luck.

It's just another thing that I thought was crazy today. When I first heard about the trade, I thought, wow, this is another bogus conspiracy theory which is going to stick around with David Stern - the fact that an NBA-owned team was going to deliver CP3 to the Lakers. When, in reality, it was all logical to me - an imminent free agent was using the leverage he had to get somewhere he wanted to be, and the Hornets were getting the best deal they could under the circumstances.

By luck, and system, the league was going to benefit, overall. Instead, I do believe that blocking the trade is a matter of the NBA fixing the league to a certain indirect degree, as there is no reasonable cause to block this reasonable trade, though of course it's an unwitting fixing, as no one in their right mind would go out of their way to fix the league AGAINST a Lakers superteam. But that's what the NBA has done - they've gone out of their way to make a heavy-handed, unwarranted, illogical, unfair decision that could not be in more opposition to the league's best interests. Instead of the world talking about a potential Lakers superteam, they're talking about the blocking of the trade.

4. Screwing Over the Small-Market Hornets
Continuing the nonsense, if there's one team that got screwed over today, of course it's the team the NBA owns, the New Orleans Hornets, in one of the league's smallest markets. Now they apparently can't trade Chris Paul, and are presumably stuck with him for a lame-duck season, in which the story of the blocked trade will follow him and the franchise around all year, at the end of which, New Orleans will end up with no compensation. This helps increase the value and facilitate the sale of the Hornets how?

5. Chris Paul of All Players - Really?
Chris Paul is the guy that you're going to try to turn into the villain for leaving a small-market team as a free agent - really? Chris Paul has never experienced anything close to good ownership in his entire career, with the clownish George Shinn followed by the unprecedented league takeover. All along, Paul's stood by the franchise, to Oklahoma City and back post-Katrina, committed to the community and to helping rebuild New Orleans. If the NBA wants to make an example of a free agent, this is not the guy to do it with.

Paul's never had a chance in his NBA career because of his team's ownership situation, yet has not wavered in his commitment to the city of New Orleans. He's done nothing wrong, and has every right to try to get to a team he wants to play for.

But now, Paul has been blocked, and he and the league are paralyzed and who knows what comes next. I believe that the NBA has essentially restricted Paul's freedom of movement (even if indirectly or implicitly) by refusing to trade him for a fair return, possibly ultimately limiting his options in where he can end up. If the players wanted to strike tomorrow, until the trade was restored, I would understand where there were coming from. They have the right to free agency, and that includes the right to employ leverage as an imminent free agent.

With a better owner, whether it's Gary Chouest in New Orleans or Larry Ellison in San Jose, Paul might well be a happy Hornet. Paul is working within the system which has been collectively bargained, not undermining it.

UPDATE: I originally wrote this post late last night. Some good back-and-forth with various TrueHoop Network colleagues has helped me crystallize my thinking further, and I'd refine my concluding opinion like so:

I believe that the Chris Paul trade was vetoed for one reason: because it was to the Los Angeles Lakers. As fun as it may be to hate the Lakers, that's not sufficient reason to veto the trade. The Lakers were operating fairly within the system, and Paul was as well, in using his leverage as an impending free agent to help direct where he wanted to go. If the owners wanted to reduce the leverage of players in Paul's situation, this should have been addressed in system changes within the new CBA.

I believe the owners and the league were some combination of too oblivious, ineffectual, divided and dumb to realize a revised system which actually achieved competitive balance, and are now trying to unilaterally impose competitive balance which they couldn't achieve through system changes. This is serving to indirectly restrict Paul's freedom of movement and to effectively manipulate the league.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Musings on the NBA Draft Prospects from the Kentucky-North Carolina Game

What a game of college basketball on Saturday at Rupp Arena, as Kentucky edged North Carolina 73-72. And what a concentration of prospects on one floor with six of the Top 13, and 10 of the Top 40 on Chad Ford's Big Board, and a full eight players who Jonathan Givony projects as Top 11 picks in his Mock NBA Drafts for 2012 and 2013.

Of course, that kind of talent concentration created a unique opportunity to evaluate these prospects in matchups against other elite talents. As such, I wanted to take a moment to play the role of dilettante draft evaluator and offer my observations on the many Wildcat and Tar Heel prospects, coming out of Saturday's classic in Lexington.

In general, my feeling about the potential 2012 draft class is this: I think there is a deep pool of about ten players who could potentially be Top 50 or so guys in the NBA, but I don't know if there are any players who are Top 10 guys. I question how high the ceilings are for even the top guys in the draft, several of whom played prominent roles in the Kentucky-North Carolina game.

Obviously, it's still very early, as many of these guys are freshmen who've played but a handful of college games. I suspect a lot will change between now and March, but here are some early-season thoughts on prospects from the big game at Rupp:

Anthony Davis was the ultimate headliner of the game, as his wingspan proved to be just a fraction more impossible than John Henson's on an impressive game-sealing blocked shot in the final seconds. Even after a game in which he scored just seven points (3-6 FG, 1-1 FT), Davis still seems to be entrenched as the consensus choice as the no. 1 overall pick for 2012.

I have no doubts that Davis is an elite defensive prospect, but when I read quotes like this, from a scout in a recent Chad Ford blog post, I have to ask if Davis is being overvalued:
    "Davis is the only person in this draft who I'm sure can change a franchise.... Davis is the only sure thing to me. He has such a unique game. He'll be a great pro."
Again, I have no questions about Davis' D, not when he's averaging a somewhat-bananas 4.5 blocks in 27.5 minutes per game, plus 1.4 steals and solid boardwork, to boot. But I'm still trying to discern for myself if he is, to use a shorthand, closer to KG or Marcus Camby as a prospect; is he a true franchise-changer - an All-NBA 1st or 2nd teamer - or more of a borderline All-Star type?

My concerns can be summed up like so: I never see him create offense in the halfcourt. Against Kansas, Davis had six field goals, five of which were dunk finishes. Against St. John's, Davis had six field goals, comprised of four assisted dunks, one assisted layup, and one tip-in. Against North Carolina, Davis' three FGs consisted of one nice post move, one spectacular finish of an alley-oop, and one assisted lay-in.

The main reason that I suspect Davis may be overvalued is actually narrative-based, relating to his point-guard past. Davis famously experienced a seven-inch growth spurt in one year which transformed him from a marginal Division I prospect into the consensus no. 1 pick he is today. He is, as the lore now goes, a big man with point-guard skills, because he spent most of his career as a young guard.

The problem I have with that is this: I have yet to see this narrative translate into actual playmaking ability on the floor. Davis is averaging 1.1 assists per game, as has one assist total in 99 minutes in Kentucky's three games against decent teams (Kansas, St. John's, North Carolina) so far. He also had just 2 assists in 73 minutes in the three main high-school postseason all-star games last year (McDonald's All-American, Nike Hoop Summit, Jordan Brand Classic), in which he played very well overall, averaging 20 and 9 plus three blocks.

Obviously, it's still very early, and Davis is still growing into his new body. He has plenty of good tools - he's smart, has really good hands, shooting form that's good enough to suggest he can eventually knock down outside shots, and already has some decent post moves down low.

But as of now, I have questions about whether Davis is a guy who can create a bucket for you in the halfcourt of an NBA game, and I really wonder if he's a playmaker at all, or if that's just a function of narrative that's actually a crock.

Davis certainly doesn't look like an All-NBA 1st or 2nd teamer to me based on what I've seen so far. He looks more like a Camby than a Garnett. Don't get me wrong, Marcus Camby is a guy who's had a long, productive career, winning a Defensive Player of the Year award, and probably deserving to make a couple All-Star games even though he never has, but I'd guess that "lower-tier/borderline All-Star" is more than teams and fans expect to get out of a no. 1 overall pick, and out of Davis.

Speaking of players I think are overvalued, let's move on to Harrison Barnes.... Barnes seems like a great kid, and I really want to believe in him, but I just haven't seen signs that Barnes will be a truly elite NBA player in more than a season at North Carolina, and felt that way again after watching his matchup against Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

This summer, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted this: "An NBA scout gushing over Harrison Barnes battling KDurant in Chicago last night. 'Top pick in the next draft -- by far.'" It makes me wonder what I'm missing, because I don't see Barnes as anywhere near a guy who projects to Durant's level.

To me, Barnes' main strength is knocking down outside shots - and a willingness to do so in pressure situations - but I have major concerns about the fact that he doesn't seem to do much else well. I rarely see him get to the rim (Barnes shoots just 48% on two-point shots), he is a middling rebounder, and a downright poor passer.

Let me say that again, because it's a facet of Barnes' game which I don't think is discussed enough: he is a terrible passer. Awful. He has six assists in eight games so far this season, and his A/TO rato has dropped from a subpar 1.4/1.9 to a dreadful 0.8/2.5 to date this year. But beyond the numbers, I offer my observations that Barnes doesn't seem to see the floor well and rarely seems to make productive passes, so-called hockey assists or passes which put the Tar Heels in a better position to score.

All of this was on display vs. Kentucky. Barnes scored 14 points in 24 minutes, powered by 4-5 shooting on threes. But he made just 1-7 on twos, and had just two rebounds, zero assists and zero FTA, and never made it to the rim once all day. To be fair, Barnes did have a turnaround jumper move in the low post which looked pretty smooth and promising, and got him good looks vs. Kidd-Gilchrist, and the ball just bounced out on him a couple times.

I've seen the Joe Johnson comparison for Barnes a few times, which seems like a reasonable ceiling for Barnes, though I'd note that Joe has averaged 4.5 assists for his NBA career, with a high of 6.5. Of course, NBA assists are handed out more freely, and it's worth nothing that Johnson's career A/TO ratio in two years at Arkansas was just 2.4/2.5, so it can be improved, but even those pedestrian assist numbers are well ahead of Barnes. But again, I see Johnson - a lower-tier All-Star - as Barnes' ceiling. I don't see him as an All-NBA 1st/2nd teamer, and I don't think he should be going no. 2 in the draft.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seems like the opposite of Barnes in some ways. He's a guy whose floor game is outstanding, but whose major weakness is that he is not a consistent scorer or shooter. Kidd-Gilchrist was the leading scorer (17) and rebounder (11) in Saturday's game, and I thought he was the key player for Kentucky in powering a second-half run after gutting his way through a separated shoulder.

I thought that Kidd-Gilchrist gave Barnes fits with his strength and athleticism. I think that he's superior to Barnes as a defender, a driver, a rebounder and a passer, though it's worth noting that MKG's early numbers at Kentucky don't back up my observations (which include watching Kidd-Gilchrist multiple times in high school). Kidd-Gilchrist averages just 4.4 FTA and makes just 51% of his twos so far, and his A/TO is just 1.5/2.6, though he does average 7.1 rebounds in 29 minutes (as opposed to 5.6 in 29 minutes for Barnes career).

Still, I'd point to plays like the gorgeous alley-oop he threw to Davis to spark Kentucky as an example of Kidd-Gilchrist's court vision. And with his athleticism, size (he's listed at 6-7/232), strength and toughness, I think that Kidd-Gilchrist will be an elite wing defender in the NBA. It's a little weird, most young players seem behind the curve on defense, but like Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist seems far more advanced on defense than offense (including filling the defensive stat sheet with more than a block and a steal per game).

But how just high should a guy like Kidd-Gilchrist go in the draft? It certainly gives one pause when he puts up a stink bomb like his 5-points-on-1-of-7-FG job vs. St. John's. Again, it's tough for me to project Kidd-Gilchrist as an elite NBA player if he can't score consistently. But man, I just love the way the kid plays the game and his versatility on both ends - there's a Pippenesque feel to his game, but of course, he's a long way from being able to produce offense like Scottie. I liked Kidd-Gilchrist better than Barnes coming into Saturday's game, and still feel the same way now.

While guys like Davis and Barnes were the big headliners coming into Saturday's game, it was two players with freakish wingspans, John Henson and Terrence Jones, who were probably the most impressive players in the first half.

Henson may have helped his draft stock as much as anyone. The potential to be an elite defender has always been there (he's averaging about 10 boards and more than three blocks, like last year), but his expanded offensive repertoire was quite impressive on the big stage in Lexington. Henson looked comfortable knocking down midrange jumpers and showed some post moves including a lefty hook. All in all, he just looked more comfortable and fluid on offense. Still, he only shot 4-11, and needs to play well offensively on a consistent basis, but if he can, I can finally see why Henson may deserve a Top 5 pick (given how strong his defensive potential is).

Jones was sensational in the first half, showcasing the versatile inside-out game he has at his best en route to scoring 14 points. But he didn't necessarily give his draft stock a boost because his performance only raised the same old questions about why he doesn't play that way more consistently. Sure enough, Jones disappeared in the second half, going without a point on 0-3 FG, all of them three-pointers, which is not a strength of his game. It's hard to think Jones warrants more than a late-lottery pick based on his inconsistency.

Thanks to Chad Ford, who was kind enough to re-tweet my moment of inspiration when I tweeted during the game that "Teague's body + Marshall's head might = CP3. Teague's head + Marshall's body might not even be a D-I player." And really, that's the crux of what really makes it hard where to place these guys on a draft board.

Marquis Teague was atrocious in the early-going, making about seven terrible decisions before the first TV timeout, but he settled down a bit, and somehow only had one turnover on the day. Still, his shot selection was horrendous (he shot just 3-11 on the day, 0-4 on 3s) and seems to have a long, long way to go as a decision-maker.

Kendall Marshall, on the other hand, had about four passes which displayed world-class court vision (which seems to be average for him), including a thoroughly gorgeous cross-court in the final minute to set up Reggie Bullock for three to close Kentucky's lead to 73-72. It was also nice to see Marshall knock down a couple threes, but shooting percentages remain very low, and questions about his athleticism has been raised anew after he's been torched on defense early in the season.

I tweeted earlier this season that I'd take Marshall over more-athletic guys like Teague or Myck Kabongo in a heartbeat, but I'm wondering if that's wishful thinking. I absolutely love watching Marshall, but he does have some glaring deficiencies, including physical ones, whereas point guards can learn how to cut down turnovers. I'm not sure that he'll ever be an NBA starter, but for now, I'm keeping him above Teague as a late first-rounder on my mythical draft board because I've never been impressed by Teague in multiple viewings in college or high school.

Tyler Zeller somehow ended up with pretty decent numbers on Saturday (14 points on 4-9/6-6, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block, but 4 TOs) even though he seemed to be in duress on the low block all day long.

I was surprised that Kentucky played Zeller with such aggressive NBA-style double teams in the low post, given that it opened up space for Carolina on the perimeter - it seemed like Kentucky's no. 1 defensive objective was to stop Zeller.

Zeller seemed to struggle against Kentucky's tough D, having trouble making his moves fast enough to beat the double, or having enough strength to operate against or pass out of the doubles effectively. All told, it was a reminder that Zeller is what he is - a player who does not have a terribly high ceiling, but who is suitably reliable and fundamentally-sound to potentially develop into a rotation player. Somewhere in the first round after the lottery seems about right for him.

I feel like I'm already eating crow for suggesting that I thought James McAdoo was the best prospect in the class in my review at the end of last season. McAdoo clearly wasn't ready for the big stage of Saturday's game. Givony currently has McAdoo at no. 2 in the 2013 Draft, and indeed, it's probably a good idea for McAdoo to spend another year at Carolina in a more primary role.

Don't get me wrong, there were some glimpses from McAdoo on Saturday, with some impressive rebounds and a good passing sense in the post, but his shooting looked absolutely horrendous on a couple bad misfires. The two-hand shooting style looked atrocious, but McAdoo did knock down 3-4 threes in the McDonald's/Jordan Brand game, so he can hit the shots. I'm still high on McAdoo in the long-term, but he certainly doesn't look like a lottery pick with the way he's playing now.

Try not to be scared, I mean this in the best way, but I think P.J. Hairston has some J.R. Smith in his game, with a combination of deep shooting off a quick release and athleticism (even if he's not as explosive as J.R.). Hairston scored 11 points in 14 minutes on 4 shots, firing in 3-4 threes without hesitation off his quick release. Givony has Hairston going no. 10 in 2013. As with McAdoo, it probably makes sense for Hairston to come back in a more prominent role next year, and those two will certainly be major prospects to watch if they do so.

Whew, we've already written about *10* guys who have great shots to go in the first round, and there are still more guys worth talking about, like Doron Lamb, Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland and Darius Miller. 14 guys or more from this one college game could end up playing the league. Just crazy.

What an amazing collection of prospects, and what a fun game to watch. Let's hope we get a rematch in New Orleans at the Final Four.