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NBA Playoffs sports

Some Quick Hit Thoughts On The 2019 Playoffs

Lately I’ve been working on my post-tournament prospect rankings which will be out very soon.  After I post my big board I’ll start posting scouting reports.  Since the NBA playoffs just began (Nets beat at Sixers, Magic beat at Raptors, GSW win vs Clippers, Spurs beat at Nuggets) I’ll post my scouting reports periodically.  Interspersed with my scouting reports I’ll go over certain NBA matchups.  But for me I don’t want to over analyze the NBA playoffs like some have.  In the west Golden State is the clear favorite with home court advantage.  The only team I could see give them trouble will be Houston.  Houston has done a tremendous job of course correcting their season with mid-season acquisitions of Danuel House, Kenneth Faried, Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert.  An argument can be made that Houston is a deeper team now then they were last season.  Last years version of Trevor Ariza was better than any player they’ve just acquired but the depth in comparison is better this year.  The series versus Golden State last season was a 7-8 man rotation for the Rockets with Gerald Green getting major minutes.  Now the Rockets can go 8-10 men deep with a better bench unit and possibly keep players fresher.

The next question becomes will the Golden State vs Houston series come to fruition?  The major roadblock is of course Utah.  Last postseason divisional round Houston beat Utah in five games.  Houston really is a bad matchup for Rudy Gobert; make him play in space, on the perimeter and guard multiple ball screens per possession.  The only thing that I could see derailing the Rockets would be Donovan Mitchell going off like he has over this past month.  Over his last 15 games Mitchell is averaging 24.6 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 46.6% from the field but most importantly 47.1% from three on 6.1 attempts per game.  If Mitchell can continue his three point shooting barrage then that could affect the way Houston guards him on pick-and-roll.  Maybe instead of switching they blitz him and as a result can bend the defense in favor of the Jazz.  I could see the Jazz pulling off the upset if Gobert has a bigger presence in the paint offensively and Mitchell’s gravity changes the way Houston guards pick-and-rolls.  I wouldn’t count on it though.

As far as the other series go in the west, I really could care less.  Denver’s only chance at making noise in the playoffs was based off getting home court advantage throughout the playoffs.  Now instead of playing the Clippers in the first round they get San Antonio which has been playing much better defense compared with their sluggish start to the season.  The Spurs just beat the Nuggets game one.  The Nuggets obviously aren’t out of it yet but the Spurs might have the upper hand due to the difference in experience and the lack of go-to scorers the Nuggets have.  In the end does it really matter who wins this series?  And it feels like everyone is picking Oklahoma City to beat Portland.  The Thunder did beat the Trailblazers 4-0 during the season and without Jusuf Nurkic the series seems insurmountable for Portland to overcome.  So naturally I’m picking Portland.  They have home court advantage, Paul George is still dealing with shoulder issues and I trust Damian Lillard the most in this series.  But again, neither team pose a serious threat to Golden State.  Although, one of these four teams have to make the western conference finals.  I’ll pick Portland for the sake that they’re underdogs against Oklahoma City and a nice redemption story after losing last postseason to the Pelicans.  

In the East my pre-season pick was Boston then as the season went on I started to favor the Bucks.  Out of all the eastern conference teams, Boston is best designed for the playoffs while Milwaukee has the best fit.  Boston has a slashing, three point shooting scorer of a point guard, with a mismatch problem at center and a bunch of switchable big wings.  Remind you of any team out west?  That’s why I think they are best designed.  Al Horford was and still is a mismatch problem for Joel Embiid and he will force Brook Lopez to exit the paint on defense.  Kyrie is the do-it all offensive point guard and they have a slew of big wings that can switch, shoot threes and attack closeouts.  Yes, Boston hasn’t been quite the team we expected them to be before the season began.  Even though they might be well designed they haven’t been able to get on the same page all season. That is obviously my biggest reservation but then I remembered how everyone counted them out before last postseason began since Kyrie was hurt.  They were one game away from making the finals.  I kind of think when pushed against the wall this team finds ways to win.  For Milwaukee it’s more simple.  They’ve been the best team in the league all season due to fit.  Giannis as the fulcrum of a 5-out motion offense that has shooting at every position.  They have the pieces that fit the best out of all the possible eastern conference teams and they have home court advantage which helps too.  I honestly can’t make my mind up.  Boston or Milwaukee?  The easy answer is Milwaukee since they have the best player in the conference and home court advantage.  But I still like Horford being a mismatch problem to defend on pick-and-rolls.  The injury bug is a problem for both teams as Marcus Smart is out for Boston and Malcolm Brogdon is out for Milwaukee.

The reason why I’m not talking Toronto and Philadelphia isn’t because they both lost their first series game.  Overall I just think Kawhi has one foot out the door, OG Anunoby is hurt and Kyle Lowry’s playoff failures are still a thing.  For the Sixers, Embiid is dealing with another knee issue, their bench stinks and the lack of shooting is a major flaw.  I know that’s over simplifying both teams and if I’m wrong then I’m wrong but I think Boston and Milwaukee are best suited to win the east and give Golden State problems.  

This postseason could be very interesting for this reason: I really think the two best teams in each conference will play each other in the divisional round and not the conference finals.  Boston vs Milwaukee and Golden State vs Houston will both happen in the divisional round but both series could determine the actual winner of the conference.  Or at least, that’s what I think.

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NBA Play Breakdown Playoffs sports Video

On Further Review: Boston Celtics vs Philadelphia 76ers

On an incredible stretch run of basketball winning 20 of 21 games how did the Philadelphia 76ers lose in five to the undermanned Celtics?  Even with Boston having home court advantage the Sixers seemed to be the favorites due to Bostons injury woes and momentum.  The Sixers were trending towards a matchup with Lebron in the Eastern Conference finals.  Philadelphia had two budding superstars and with the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova a deeper team.  So what went wrong? How did everything come crashing down on the hottest team in the league in a matter of five games?  Was the winning streak a mirage? Was the matchup problem with the Celtics that egregious?  Now with Lebron in the Western Conference there’s a chance this potential rematch can determine the outcome of the Eastern Conference.  If these teams meet again during this years postseason both rosters will look different.  I want to examine what struggles the Sixers went through and explore what triumphs did Boston achieve last Eastern Conference semifinals.  I also want to analyze the effects of the new rosters and what impact they will have if a postseason rematch happens.

The Sixers were up four points with a minute left to go in overtime during game three and up four points with a minute and thirty-seven seconds left to go during game five.  Now those leads aren’t insurmountable and one possession games can be fickle with terribly blown calls, a convenient bounce of the ball, head scratching turnovers and weirdly called fouls.  But there’s no question the Sixers should’ve closed those games.  They are the type of games you have to win.  I’m about to probe this series and go over what Philadelphia did wrong but a couple minutes is the difference from changing the narrative completely.  I’m not even going to include game two where the Sixers were up five points with five minutes and forty-eight seconds left to go in the game.  At least that scenario is less deplorable for the Sixers.

The end of game three and game five bring me to arguably the most important factor of Philadelphia’s descent: finishing games and situational basketball.  Before I go more in depth here’s a video I made breaking down some of the 76ers end of game mishaps:

This was on the coaches for not making the correct play call adjustments and the players for not being poised enough to make the correct reads.  Game three was tied and with five seconds left to go JJ Reddick throws a bad pass for a turnover transitioning Boston into an easy fast break bucket.  Apparently the play the Sixers were running called for Simmons to get the pass from Reddick off an Embiid screen.  The problem was Simmons never turned his head around but Reddick threw it anyways.  Some might chalk that up to a miscommunication but Reddick has to identify the action more properly and hold onto the ball and adapt accordingly.  Bottom line is if Simmons isn’t looking don’t pass the ball even if the play calls for it.  Reddick should’ve known better.

Luckily Marco Belinelli made a last second buzzer beater to send the game into overtime.  Ben Simmons gets an offensive rebound with seventeen seconds left in overtime and the Sixers were up one.  You might be thinking to yourself that Simmons pulled the ball back out, got fouled and made the game a three point difference.  Makes sense, right?  If that’s what you’re thinking than you’d be wrong since Simmons immediately shot the ball, Boston got the rebound and called a timeout.  The Celtics ended up running a simple but clever play knowing that the Sixers were switching most everything off-ball.  During the play Embiid gets switched out onto Jaylen Brown off a Horford pindown and Tatum cross screen, clearing out the paint and lobbing an overhead entry pass to Horford for the easy two.  The Celtics were dictating the terms of the game.  But don’t worry though.  The Sixers still have five seconds left to give themselves a solid chance at winning.  Surely they can get a good shot off?  Well, not quite.  Simmons doesn’t throw a clean inbound pass to Embiid and Horford picks the ball off for the win.  Oh good grief.

Most of game three errors can be attributed to unforced turnovers and not knowing what the situation called for.  Game five on the other hand had a lot to do with basic fundamental missteps.  With a minute twenty-seven left to go in the game five Dario Saric and Ben Simmons miscommunicated on a pick-and-roll coverage leaving Horford open for a lob pass.  Next Boston possession Simmons gets beat at the point of attack by Jayson Tatum.  Tatum missed the layup attempt but both Saric and Simmons remained flat footed while Marcus Smart explodes for the easy put back.  Next Sixers possession Saric commits an unforced turnover then the next Celtics possession Simmons gets beat backdoor for a Tatum layup.  That was the go-ahead bucket and the Celtics never looked back.  Simmons was terrible at defense with two minutes left to go in the game: not boxing out, floating off-ball, not staying balanced containing dribble penetration, biting on fakes in the paint and overall looking lost on defense.  Simmons was bad at defense but this was a team effort at being unclutch.  The Sixers were -21.2 points per 100 possessions throughout the playoffs during games that had five minutes left to go and the score being within five points.

The end of game performance and unforced turnovers were frustrating but the rate at which they occurred were just mind boggling.  You can somewhat blame the Sixers youth for their blunders but they did lead the league during the regular season with 16.5 turnovers per game so clearly this was a major problem all year.  Also the Celtics were a young team too being lead by a rookie in Jayson Tatum.  I don’t know how legit of an excuse being young is then.  Maybe the biggest culprit of error for Philadelphia was coaching and game strategy.  The Sixers run a motion styled offense with a bunch of ball reversals, screen aways, cut throughs, fills, curl cuts, long curls, backdoors, ball movement and player movement. They were second in the NBA with an assist percentage of 66.3% and a pace of 102.2 possessions per 100 possessions which ranked fourth.  The Sixers offense was about bending the defense to find open shooters and pushing tempo to get into their early offense. After the mid-season acquisitions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova the Sixers had an offensive rating of 111.5 offense which was fifth best during that stretch.  Combine that to their already stout defense lead by defensive anchor Joel Embiid and the Sixers ended up winning the final twenty-two of twenty-seven games.  With a team humming on all cylinders how did the coaching and strategy breakdown?

Boston presented Philadelphia with a few matchup problems.  For starters Boston singled Joel Embiid in the post and made Philadelphia’s shooters into drivers.  Embiid normally good in the paint sported a .97 points per possession from the post during the regular season but a .81 points per possession from the post in the playoffs.  If Embiid is failing in the post then why would anyone leave their shooters?  The only time I noticed the Celtics doubling Embiid was when he had great position around the restricted area.  The Celtics were content on letting Horford or Baynes guard Embiid one-on-one in the post and close off air space for the Sixers shooters.  The Celtics would lock-and-trail shooters on off-ball movement and would switch on-ball depending on personal reads.  Boston was forcing the Sixers shooters to create separation on their own.

The Sixers had a solid group of shooters during the regular season making 36.9% of threes which was tied for eighth best.  However outside of Dario Saric and JJ Reddick no one was able to attack closeouts proficiently.  Even when the Sixers shooters got solid looks from three they still missed some with Belinelli shooting 31%, Covington shooting 25%, Ilyasova shooting 21% and Philadelphia shooting 31% from three as a team during the Celtics series.  Add that to their inability attacking closeouts and that’s a recipe for complications.  One way the Sixers combated this issue was dribble pitches and dribble handoffs with Embiid and Reddick as a two man game from the wings.  Embiid would stretch out the Celtics defense bringing Horford or Baynes out of the paint.  Embiid is also a brilliant passer and Reddick has terrific foot work off screens using variations of stunts, fakes and set ups to create enough daylight for wider passing angles.  The Sixers also maintained off-ball actions trying to free their shooters through pindowns, flares, staggers, hammer passes and rescreens.  Essentially doing what they know how to do: motion offense.

Philadelphia was having trouble getting their shooters space so they ramped up motion based plays.  The problem was that Boston’s defense was built to switch off-ball so no matter what action you ran it could still be cut off, in particular when you’re using players who can’t create off a live dribble.  For the most part the Sixers had spot-up shooters who couldn’t off-dribble pull up or get to the rim.  If that was the case then why not use more spread based pick-and-roll offense?  During the regular season Philadelphia was last place in possessions when using the roll-man out of pick-and-roll and second last when going with pick-and-roll ball-handler.  This just highlights how much the Sixers used pick-and-rolls to stabilize their offense even though it’s a very effective play especially when using the roll-man.

Throughout the series with Boston every time the Sixers used a high side pick-and-roll with Simmons/Embiid surrounded by shooters Boston had their help side defense tagging Embiid on his dive leaving a shooter wide open.  When the Sixers ran simple spread pick-and-roll either the dive-man got an easy layup attempt, a shooter was left open or the ball handler had more space to contort the drive.  The Celtics couldn’t just switch their way out of this action and had to scramble help defense.  As a result the Sixers shooters had more space to operate.  But for some reason the Sixers rarely went to it and stuck by with motion.  The few times they did go to pick-and-roll the outcome would typically be positive.  I found that to be a huge adjustment mistake by the Sixers coaching staff.

The Sixers coaching staff ended up making a lineup adjustment starting TJ Mcconnell game four over the struggling Robert Covington which worked out well but it didn’t fix the root of the problem.  Mcconnell has dribble drive moves that can collapse a defense and create movement for his shooters but it was only a band-aid.  It was a temporary fix because the court was still shrinking for the Sixers even though they were able to manipulate driving lanes better.  It isn’t an advantageous situation when you have Embiid in the post with two non-shooters on the perimeter. Sometimes the Sixers off-ball cutters would run into Embiid when he was working the post.  Simmons was doing Embiid no favors either by being passive on his drives and routinely picking up his dribble resetting the offense.  I don’t know if it was because Simmons isn’t confident at the free throw line but time and time again Simmons misread driving angles and had poor body control on his floaters. Simmons shot 28.6% on paint attempts not including restricted area shots. The Celtics did put Marcus Morris and Al Horford on Simmons sagging off him at times helping maintain dribble penetration but there were still opportunities that Simmons didn’t leverage.

Defensively for Philadelphia the Celtics would occasionally space out Embiid with Aaron Baynes in the corner or Al Horford on a high side pick-and-pop.  Taking Embiid out of the post to leave the rim unprotected left the Sixers back end more vulnerable.  Early in the series Embiid was late on his rotations when recovering drop coverage versus an Al Horford pick-and-pop.  Embiid does a solid job on switches but can struggle to cover space in a hurry due to lack of acceleration and change-of-direction.  The adjustment was to put Embiid on Marcus Morris more since Morris isn’t involved in pick-and-roll situations as much.  But again this is only a band-aid since it doesn’t fix how porous the paint is without Embiid protecting it.

The Sixers were not scrambling well on the Celtics side-to-side swings, dribble penetration and weak side shooters.  When you have Embiid recovering late and perimeter defenders like JJ Reddick getting beat by first step attacks it’s an uphill battle for the defense to overcome.  Robert Covington was one of the better defenders in the league sporting the third best defensive real plus/minus at +4.24 during the season.  Surly he was able to stifle first step moves or setup dribble drives?  Yet again even he was having trouble containing dribble drives getting beat by pivots, rip-thrus and exhibiting poor balance.  Covington looked like a deer lost in headlights this series.  At times he was unplayable and looked like the undrafted player he is.  The Celtics would also headhunt Marco Belinelli, JJ Reddick and TJ Mcconnell since they literally couldn’t guard anyone.  The Celtics had a few players who were tough to guard out of the triple threat stance and with no one protecting the glass the Celtics would routinely attack Reddick with Brown or Belinelli with Tatum; the Celtics didn’t have to worry about weak side block attempts.  Overall the Sixers didn’t have the foot speed to bottle up the Celtics perimeter scorers.

This series was combination bad matchup and not so stellar coaching.  Maybe if the Sixers had more versatile players the coaching staff would’ve engaged the Celtics with different tactics.  And again maybe I’m reading too much into it because a couple minutes is the difference from the series being turned upside down.  Or it could just be that the inherent flaws the Sixers possess lead them to blunder play after play late in the game.  Are the Sixers doomed to repeat the issues of the 2018 playoffs in 2019?  

One of the Sixers biggest needs this off-season was a perimeter scorer.  The Sixers three best scorers are Embiid who isn’t efficient from three and is post heavy, Reddick who is a liability on defense and Simmons who can’t shoot.  The Sixers wanted to go after Paul George, Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard but struck out on all three.  This remains a huge issue going forward as late game scoring devolves into one-on-one basketball quite often.  Philadelphia needs a three level perimeter scorer if they want a better chance at beating Boston. The Sixers also lost Belinelli and Ilyasova this off-season and replaced their shooting with Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet and to a certain extent Furkan Korkmaz.  Muscala is a lesser known name coming from Atlanta but is a career 37.8% three point shooter.  Shamet is a rookie but shot 44% from three his last two years of college.  Korkmaz dealt with injuries during his rookie year last season but deserves a crack at the rotation since he’s been able to showcase his scoring ability during the summer league and preseason.  There’s a lot of unpredictability in trusting three obscure players but I actually like all three to fill the void as shooters.  Being able to defend though is a different discussion.

To fill in the gaps defensively for the Sixers they went out and drafted Zhaire Smith and traded for Wilson Chandler.  Both players have the size and athleticism to be apart of a switching defense, something that was lacking versus the Celtics.  Chandler seems to be dealing with a hamstring injury, it doesn’t appear to be too serious but hamstring injuries can never be taken too lightly.  Smith on the other hand could be out for the season with a broken foot.  Even if he comes back late in the year he’s still starting from behind.  Smith has the defensive acumen the Sixers crave but is super raw offensively. Taking away that season of development might mean that Smith will be unplayable during the playoffs.  Zhaire Smith being hurt was a big loss for the Sixers hopes at beating Boston.

Internal development will also be key for the Sixers battle against Boston.  Simmons needs to shoot better from the free throw line and mid-range.  The media is clamoring for Simmons to start shooting threes more but I just want him to step into a mid-range pull-up.  Just that alone will affect the defensive alignment for the opposing team.  Embiid needs to improve his outside jump shot but that’s more of a luxury at this point.  And finally the man of mystery Markelle Fultz needs to mentally be over his shoulder injury.  If Fultz can play like the draft hype imagined then he could be the x-factor the Sixers need.  He can create separation on his own, initiate offense for others, take it to the rim with ease and force pressure on Boston’s defenders.  His release on his three point shot is still low but confidence might be the objective to forge in this scenario.

There really isn’t much to say about Boston’s new roster since health is their main goal.  The Celtics are the ones with the vantage point over the Sixers in terms of perimeter defenders and three level scorers.  The Celtics are built perfectly for the modern day NBA but staying healthy is an ambiguous aspiration.  Getting Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back and maintaining their well-being might determine a possible rematch against the Sixers.  The Celtics biggest roster move this off-season was drafting Robert Williams who might be a couple years away but has the potential for an immediate role as a rotational big-man.  The Sixers lost to the Celtics without Hayward, Irving and Williams last postseason.   After Philadelphia made marginal moves to upgrade their roster this off-season are they ready to win a potential rematch?

Well it could take Boston a few months to reintegrate Irving and Hayward plus Philadelphia could end up using more pick-and-rolls with Markelle Fultz getting additional playing time.  So there’s a chance Philadelphia plays better than Boston in the early months but it’s obviously how you play during the postseason that matters most.  As of now it doesn’t look good for Philly if a postseason rematch happens.  Losing Zhaire Smith was a big blow and banking on internal growth is a fortuitous ask for the Sixers.  The regular season does tend to be volatile with injuries, trades and breakout stars.  Six months from now is a long ways away and a lot could happen between then.  The Bucks offense looks really good during the preseason and the Raptors are stacked.  By no means is a Sixers/Celtics rematch in the works but as a basketball fan it sure be enjoyable to watch.

    *All Stats Provided by NBA.com*

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NBA Play Breakdown Playoffs sports

How Boston Got The Go-Ahead Bucket Versus Philadelphia

I’m either going to do a write up or podcast previewing both conference finals but I wanted to briefly break down the sequence of events that lead to Boston beating Philadelphia in five:

Personally, I would’ve called an offensive foul on Dario Saric but I was fine with the no call.  Even though Marcus Smart seems like a mismatch in the post for the 6’10 Saric Smart keeps a strong base, doesn’t bite on the rip-thru and frustrates Saric into a forced back down.  That’s not quite the efficient look I would’ve ran with 43 seconds left.  Horford gets the loose ball, starts a break and wisely kicks it out to Terry Rozier.

Brad Stevens doesn’t call a time out to draw up a play and instead trusts his players during crunch time.  Rozier and Horford proceed to set up a side pick-and-roll.

JJ Reddick and Joel Embiid do what most teams run when covering side pick-and-rolls and “ICE” the action; using the sideline/baseline as an extra defender.  And while Saric is technically in solid position I personally would’ve been more aggressive on the coverage.  Instead of zoning up between Horford and Smart I would’ve denied one pass away and forced Rozier to lob it over to Marcus Smart above the break.  Smart is a worse three point shooter than Horford and the extra time for the pass to make its way over to Smart increases recovery time on rotations. 

But with Saric zoning up Rozier delivers a bounce pass to Horford starting a sequence that lead to the go-ahead bucket.  You can already see Jayson Tatum start his move to the basket with Ben Simmons ball watching.

Smart play by the rookie.  Tatum anticipated the ball reversal and with Ben Simmons ball watching Tatum backdoors to the basket.

TJ Mcconnell did the best job he could on the help but the play was unsalvageable.  The next play was a missed layup than turnover by Joel Embiid.  There might have been a foul on Embiid’s release by Aron Baynes but that’s a tough call to make at the juncture of the game.

I really liked this play because it felt like a microcosm of the series: even though the Sixers had more talent, when it came time to close the game the Sixers either committed unnecessary fouls, terrible turnovers or boneheaded mistakes.  Overall this was a bad matchup for the Sixers. Having Horford as Ben Simmons kryptonite, length/athleticism on the perimeter minimizing space for the shooters and Embiid having his troubles in the post knocked Philadelphia out of their rhythm.

The Sixers still have a bright future and I’ll eventually do a write up about their possibilities this off-season.  For now….Cleveland vs Boston.

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College NBA sports

Quick Hit Thoughts from Around the League and NCAA

~ Some initial thoughts on Trae Young from Oklahoma are slow down on the Steph Curry comparisons.  I really like Young a lot but I’m hearing all type of crazy buzz on this kid and from the few games I’ve seen I’d say pump the brakes.

Yes, he’s an excellent point guard prospect, maybe even better than Lonzo ball or Markelle Fultz.  Young has a great mechanics on his jump shot; except for his low release point.  When the defense commits he makes strong decisions.  He has a Lonzo Ball feel for the game; he throws it ahead to find players out in transition beating the opponent.  When Young breaks down the defense he throws pin point passes to shooters in the corner; reminds me of Lebron.  Young knows how to manipulate screens as the ball-handler; when to shoot, pass and drive.  Like I said I really enjoy his game but it does come with some flaws

Young doesn’t have a tight handle.  Its good but when the defense hedges hard he takes a wide angle around it wasting motion in the process; good defense flusters his rhythm.  He’s not that great around the basket and finishing.  His field goal percentage around the basket is 44% and his points per possession is 1.00 which ranks 745th in D1 basketball with a minimum of 50 possessions per Synergy Sports.  He needs to work both hands around the rim but mostly his left.  When Young uses a right side PnR his field goal percentage is 62% but when he uses a left side PnR his field goal percentage is 23% per Synergy Sports.  He also needs to work on his off-ball game; better at using screens, when to flare, fade, curl.  

He’s still going to be a likely top three pick and he still has Damian Lillard with better passing ability potential.  Curry is generational and comparisons at times can get out of control; I’m looking at you Bill Simmons (Tweet).  This upcoming draft is weak when it comes to point guards so he’ll for sure be off the board quick.

 

~ BREAKING NEWS: Russell Westbrook is really, really, really good.  Over his last five games he’s been averaging 33.8 points, 11.8 assists, 8 rebounds on 52% from the floor.  Paul George over his last five has been averaging 27.8 points per too.  The Thunder have now won eight in a row and from an outsider looking in the Thunder pose a real threat in the West.  I’m still not there yet.  

They don’t move the ball, their offense is still too isolation friendly reliant on a vanilla system with their best defender, Andre Roberson, out for the year.  It’s only January and George/Westbrook are logging heavy minutes.  That catches up with you come postseason time.  Bottom line: Are they better than the Warriors?  No.  Are they better than the Rockets?  No.  Are they better than a healthy Kawhi Spurs?  No.  Are they better than the Timberwolves?  Maybe.  It feels like a lot of people are trying to convince themselves the Thunder are for real but the space shrinks during a seven game series.  Those driving lanes for Westbrook go away and shooting is needed to stretch the court.  Considering the Thunder have only two shooters and a bottom two assist percentage….I’m not buying it.

 

~ I don’t think this is breaking news but Ty Lue isn’t a good coach.  The Cavs major problem entering this season was defense, in particular transition defense.  And his solution?  Put Kevin Love at center.  Oh good grief.  

It’s only been two games but the Cavs do look better since the switch back to Tristan Thompson at center.  Thompson runs the floor (sometimes), sets good screens, has a good repertoire with Lebron at finding the angles on his dives and brings toughness back to a soft defense.

Is this enough for a turnaround?  I mean they could’ve done nothing and still win the East.  The Cavs problems are inherently worse than some lineup change.  Possibly getting George Hill will help but against the Warriors it’s a cupcake move.  This really has the makings of Lebron leaving this summer.  I know there’s a lot of speculation out there with no substantial basis but Lebron really should stay in the East.  Even if he went to the Rockets it would have to be at the cost of players like Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and maybe you make it out of the West.  Going to teams like the Knicks or even Philly make more sense.

 

~ The Sixers lost yesterday to the Thunder but I still really like the Sixers.  I think outside of Boston they pose the biggest threat to beating the Cavs.  No….I don’t take the Raptors seriously.  The Sixers have shooting, ball movement, player movement, well executed after timeout plays, long lanky versatile players that can switch 1 thru 5 and two budding superstars.  They need to work on closing games, holding leads, taking care of the basketball and limiting the amount of stupid fouls.  They aren’t consistent for a reason…youth.

I’m starting to write up a longer piece on why I think Philly could be a dark horse but I want to watch more games.  Health is obviously important and when Embiid plays the Sixers have a net efficiency rating of the second best team in the league and when he doesn’t play the Sixers have a bottom five efficiency.  We’ll see what the team does about Embiid playing back to backs, JJ Reddick should be coming back from injury soon and who knows what’s going on with Markelle Fultz.  They need to make the playoffs first and even though they are young the Sixers have the personal and style of a maturing title team.

 

~ I really don’t like fixating on the MVP topic but this year is really interesting.  No one is running away with it or there is no two man race like years past.  An argument can be made for five to ten players.  Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Lebron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook.  Heck I can make arguments for Victor Oladipo, Klay Thompson, Joel Embiid and Demar Derozan.  

As of now I think Harden would probably be the consensus choice but if Curry continues this level of play since December first than I’d go with him.  Since December first Curry is averaging 30.8 points, 6.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds on 54% from the floor and 50% from three on 11 attempts per game.  The excuse that the team has so much talent that they cancel each other out does hold some weight and Curry did miss a two week stretch of games.  But the identity of the Warriors is Curry.  His gravity stretches the court horizontally and vertically, his screen setting causes major confusion in opposing defenses even when he doesn’t shoot.  When Curry is at his best, in a league full of adjustments, there’s nothing you can do to stop him.