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Previewing The Eastern Conference Finals (Bulls Vs. Heat)

Miami against Chicago. The Bulls versus the Heat.

No matter how you look at it, this is another one of those matchups that, by mid-season, everyone was aching to see, just like the Heat/Celtics series from the round before. The postseason has been intense and that does not look to be faltering as we move into the later rounds. 

The storyline is interesting; in the offseason, both LeBron James and the hometown boy Dwyane Wade turned down an impassioned pitch from the Bulls to join their team. Wade brought LeBron and Chris Bosh to the Heat, as well as several other roleplayers, all joined beneath Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley smiling down upon the team he had assembled.

The Bulls hired Boston assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, signed Carlos Boozer and a few role players. 

Riley and Gar Forman of the Bulls would share the Executive of the Year award, while Thibodeau would win Coach of the Year, after having built a strong reputation for defensive excellence for his time with the Boston Celtics over the previous three seasons. For Thibodeau, however, it was simply another stop on a journey all about defense. He’d spent time as an advance scout for the Payton-era Sonics, worked as an assistant coach in San Antonio, gone to the Finals as an assistant to the Van Gundy-led Knicks and then to Houston (also under Jeff Van Gundy). Pretty much every stop he made helped and defense had definitely defined each of those teams. 

In 2010-11, defense became the calling card of the Bulls as they topped the league in defensive rating despite struggling with health in their frontcourt (and playing Carlos Boozer). Dominating the glass and playing suffocating defense, the Bulls charged out and led the entire league in wins before winning their first two postseason matchups on the strength of their mostly-healthy frontcourt (Boozer’s turf toe aside), their suffocating defense and last but surely not least, the work of the youngest MVP in league history, Derrick Rose. 

Despite struggling with his three-point range at times during the season, Rose turned in an extremely impressive 25 ppg season on solid efficiency for what was otherwise a middling offensive squad with little ability to create its own shots. Rose has scored nearly 29 ppg in the playoffs, and though his efficiency is noticeably lower as he takes many more threes at much lower effectiveness, he’s still passing exceptionally well and the Bulls remain a dominant defensive team. 

The Bulls undoubtedly will test the Heat. Just like Boston, they will force the Heat to work very hard for their points. More importantly, they are younger than the Celtics and will not likely falter as badly down the stretch due to fatigue as did the Celtics. Very much like the Celtics, however, where they have the potential to fail will be in their very vulnerable offensive production. Without Rose playing at the top of his game, the Chicago offense will be vulnerable to the effects of another elite defensive team. It will be interesting to see who spends most of the time checking Rose, though; Wade has the best combination of physical attributes and defensive acumen to do so, certainly more than Mario Chalmers or Mike Bibby. He will, however, be counted upon heavily to create and facilitate offense, so he will not be able to spend full-time minutes dogging Rose. How Miami works to cut off Rose’s lanes to the hoop and exploit Chicago’s relatively underwhelming perimeter game will be key to their chances to win.  

Miami is primarily going to attack from the perimeter through Wade and LeBron, seeking to create lanes to the basket and put pressure on Chicago’s frontline through foul trouble, and they are very good at that style of play. The issue will be putting so much pressure on those two on the catch that they are swarmed with a wall of defenders before they get momentum, because once they start to move it’s all over. Boston did this with some success against Kobe Bryant over the last few years and as well to both Wade and LeBron at times (though they seemed to have more trouble with Wade). Chicago’s defense will be primarily about that and possession control through rebounding, at which they excel. 

These two teams aren’t all that dissimilar; both of them are outstanding at rebounding and defense. Miami is actually a bad offensive rebounding team typically, which isn’t good news for them given that the Bulls were the best defensive rebounding team in the league.  They are going to have a fairly slim margin of error in terms of their shot selection and their ability to create offense because the Bulls aren’t going to permit the Heat to get a lot of second chances, though the reverse is true as well since Miami was the second-best defensive rebounding squad in the league. Where Miami has the edge is that they have a second offensive creator and a third player who has very strong offensive value most nights (and won’t be matched up against a great individual or physical defender).  

The Bulls are a very good team, but I expect the Heat to take this series in six or seven games simply because they have a far more potent offense and the gap between the two teams there is a lot larger than between what they can do on defense and the boards. If any two of the Big Three get going in a single game, Miami’s offense will be superior to what the Bulls can manage and that should give them the edge, though that remains an interesting question given the defensive prowess of this Chicago squad. 

What will be interesting to see is less the first game of the series so much as the third and fourth games; Thibodeau is known for being able to make adjustments and for dragging a lot of powerful defensive effort out of his guys and if the Bulls are able to frustrate and stall the offensive production of the Heat stars, their roleplayers will have to do a lot more and that’s typically been an issue. 

In the Boston series, the Miami bench came through; can they do so in timely fashion again, this time against the Bulls? If they even contribute at a minimal level and the Heat get themselves going through their stars, this will be a hard-fought and tightly-contested series, but they should come out the victors in the end. 

Who's The Best At Point Guard?

We are in the middle of a golden age of point guards. Even before the remarkable leap forward taken by Chicago’s Derrick Rose, the last half-decade of NBA basketball has been marked by some incredible performances at the point position. Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash have led the charge but there have been others. Russell Westbrook has risen to prominence recently, breaking out last season and developing even further for the Thunder this year. There has even been a solid second tier, mostly involving Raymond Felton and Devin Harris when they’ve been healthy, as well as rookie John Wall. Washington’s young point struggled with injuries and his shot but he showed all kinds of intriguing signs. As for Rajon Rondo, his points per game drops him from consideration for my purposes here.

With all of this talent floating around, the question remains: who is the best? 

There are many ways to evaluate who is the best at anything in sport. Does best mean the most productive from a statistical point? The most wins? The best balance in terms of game impact? Best two-way player? Best value long-term as a franchise player? The list of questions and criteria is nearly endless and it stirs conversation at every turn.

For example, Steve Nash was far and away the most productive player in terms of assists, averaging 11.4 assists per game (1.1 more than the next-best player, and playing fewer minutes than any of the aforementioned guards except for Devin Harris) and has long been regarded as an absolutely incredible playmaker. He led a fairly unimpressive Phoenix lineup to the 9th ranked offense, a remarkable feat. Deron Williams was the only other double-digit assist producer, authoring a 20/10 season over 65 games and two teams (and averaging almost 13 apg in his dozen games as a Net). From one standpoint, a player’s impact on team offense should be considered a large aspect of his value at the point guard position. This is the traditional value Steve Nash has brought to the Suns, orchestrating their offense to perfection, creating open looks for even highly limited players while controlling the tempo effectively. 

But what about someone like Derrick Rose? Widely regarded as the forerunner for the MVP, Rose put together an extremely impressive 25 ppg, 4 rpg, 7.7 apg season on solid efficiency (55% TS). The Bulls were only the 11th-ranked offense, largely winning on the basis of their defense (which was the best in the league) but Rose’s value as a scoring playmaker cannot be denied and his impact on that team as it weathered injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer (neither of whom played even 60 games) cannot be ignored. 

The overall value of players such as Rose, Paul and Williams cannot be denied. Likewise with Steve Nash who, despite lacking any kind of legitimate teammates, nearly took the Suns to a .500 record. What about someone like Russell Westbrook? 

Westbrook and Durant led the Thunder to a 55-win record, a division title and the 4th seed in the Western Conference, along with the 5th-ranked offense in the league. He also added nearly 6 ppg to the scoring he average he posted a year ago, improving from 16.1 ppg to 21.9 ppg. He also took a nearly-5% leap forward in scoring efficiency while doing so while maintaining the playmaking that helped the Thunder in the 2010 season, and is building off of the impressive playoff performance he had last season as well. Westbrook has, in a nutshell, firmly thrust his name into the discussion with the others around him, despite several flaws in his game (most notably his perimeter shooting).

So how does one measure whom is the best among such an impressive group? 

In the opinion of this humble writer, there is not a single way to adequately decide who the best is in a definitive sense. Each player brings a different set of skills and abilities.

Do you take Rose, who isn’t as good at controlling tempo and distributing the ball as someone like Nash, Deron or Paul but has far and away the best scoring skills? He can cover up for the lack of a significant secondary isolation scorer while still providing very good floor leadership from the point.

Do you take Westbrook, who isn’t as good a scorer as Rose but adds better rebounding and defense while still a 20/8 type player?

What about Steve Nash? Phoenix’s Old Man isn’t as good a defender as the others but his playmaking and shooting abilities are unmatched by any one other player in the league. There are concerns about his minutes played but it’s clear from the impact he had on the Suns this season (while they fielded either Hedo Turkoglu or Vince Carter as a major component of the lineup all year in the absence of a significant frontcourt partner for Nash). 

Ultimately, it comes down to team fit; who would be best with a specific roster.

The Chicago Bulls, especially factoring in the injuries to their frontcourt), needed a strong scoring threat, someone to shoulder the load, and while Westbrook and Deron were both 20+ ppg scorers this season, they really don’t have the same kind of scoring chops as does Rose. This seems a little amusing in the wake of what Chris Paul did to the Lakers recently and given that he has a couple of 20+ ppg seasons under his belt already but it’s clear that Paul scores at volume mainly out of necessity as opposed to having the sort of ability that would allow him to do it regularly. Rose is around three inches taller and a lot more physically powerful than Paul, who does his work more with his blinding speed and excellent timing. For the Bulls, it seems that Rose is the best fit. 

For the Thunder? Westbrook seems to be the best fit, although I could see Deron Williams doing a little better for them because of his superior shooting ability. Still, Westbrook’s disruptive help defense erodes that gap to some extent, as does his superior rebounding and his considerably greater ability to get to the rim. 

It generally seems that each of these players is best suited to his particular team, and that makes sense assuming halfway sensible management. Each of these teams would look a lot different with another of these superb point guards at the helm. 

Nevertheless, it is clear that Rose has catapulted himself into the upper tier of point guards with his performance in the 2011 regular season. I would argue that Westbrook has done the same.

Which is superior of that pair and the others? Time will tell, though I believe Rose (operating without the aid of a player such as Kevin Durant alongside of him) is better than Westbrook at this stage. Statistically speaking, Rose has a strong argument over any other point guard besides Chris Paul, and likewise the success of the Bulls (regardless of how much influence their league-leading defense had on that) helps reinforce that he’s doing something right. It’s a down year for Paul, if you can believe it, and the biggest question here is whether or not the difference in volume scoring, which favors Rose, is enough to off-set the difference in shooting and playmaking ability between him and Paul/Deron. 

For right now, I think I’d still be inclined to take either of those guys over Derrick Rose, but Chicago’s bright star is making that an increasingly difficult proposition to back up. We’ll see how the playoffs shake out and I’ll keep watching going forward. This much is certain, Rose’s capacity for improvement makes him one of the most compelling young players the league has seen in some time.   

10 Favorites To Watch Nightly

In honor of the All-Star Game this month, which is ultimately a glorified showcase of basketball's best talent, I wanted to take a look at the 10 players I personally enjoy watching the most on a nightly basis. Some of the choices are common, but a few are certainly surprising.

Ray Allen

There really isn’t anyone in the league who moves without the ball better than Ray Allen and he’s just about the best jump shooter I’ve seen apart from Steve Nash, who does it a whole different way. Allen is a cagey, savvy veteran player but he’s been playing like this since he was at UConn. He’s borderline OCD, but it makes him one hell of a shooter and his attention to detail shows in how he plays the game.

Kwame Brown

What? What’s he doing here? I took a lot of heat for years on the boards about Kwame, and still do occasionally, so it’s nice to see him playing well for the Bobcats and building a little on some things he started to do as soon as he left the Lakers. He’s having the best season of his career if you’re looking at his per-minute rates or what he’s done since Larry Brown’s departure. Surely, he’s no star, but for me, I really enjoy watching bigs play the game the right way. He’s rebounding and defending well and he’s playing some competent offense.

Roy Hibbert

Especially now that Jim O’Brien is gone and he’s being permitted to play, Hibbert is a captivating player to watch.  He won’t ever be mistaken for Shaq, but he’s a nice mid/low-post big with legitimate skills. Hibbert is a great passer, good defender, crummy rebounder (given his size), but he’s making strides. I love to watch his inside/outside offense and just how versatile he can be working from the elbow area and in the low post.

LeBron James

He’s not the most varied player in terms of how he scores, but he’s a creative passer and an electric scoring threat who can throw down some big dunks. I like watching him if we get little flashes (just flashes) of Bird and Magic from him, with some ‘Nique in there as well. He never really puts it together quite the same way, but he’s pretty much the most physically gifted perimeter player in league history and he’s not just coasting on physical talent. He’s become a fantastic defender and has noticeably improved his shooting, which has left him a legitimate MVP candidate even though so many people are still obsessed with how he handled 2010 and he plays alongside Dwyane Wade.  He’s still managing 26/7/7 on exceptional efficiency, which is simply ridiculous. His passing is really what gets it for me, and whenever Erik Spoelstra can force him into the post.

Kevin Love

Rebounding. I mean, is there anything else to say? He’s having one of the best rebounding seasons we’ve had since Dennis Rodman retired. And that he might match the 20 and 15 Moses Malone posted in 82-83 (which we kind of thought Dwight Howard might do the last couple of seasons) is also pretty special. That he’s also a dominant offensive rebounder who shoots threes is even cooler.

It’s unfortunate that he languishes on such a bad team and that he’s catching flak from people who think that he’s not good just because the Wolves suck. There’s only so much you can do with a team that devoid of legitimate talent.

Amar'e Stoudemire

Do I even need to explain? Even though he doesn’t drop the thunderous dunks with quite the frequency as he once did before the surgery, Stoudemire can still slam with the best of them and he’s better than any other big apart from Dirk Nowitzki at moving without the ball and working for short jumpers, milking the pick-and-roll, etc.

Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk is one of those shooters that make jumpers fun.  Plus, since he got roasted by the Warriors in the 2007 Playoffs, he’s turned himself into a hell of a post player. A 7-footer with 3-point range, a post game and pretty much the best perimeter jumper in the league apart from Nash’s (and maybe better, given how often he airs that thing out past the foul line and under the arc), he’s just all kinds of unique. There isn’t really anyone like him and he’s just a dominant offensive threat. Before the injury this year, too, he was having an insane run.  It’s a real shame he got derailed, but he’s starting to pick it up again. Dirk has one of those Old Man Games that lasts because he never really relied on athletic ability in the first place, and now with the post game, he doesn’t even need to pull the first step out all that much. 

Steve Nash

Nash is the best shooter I’ve ever seen, and as a playmaker, there is really only one guy I’ve seen who did a better job and that was Magic Johnson.  At somewhere between 6’2” and 6’3” and lacking explosive athleticism even on his best of days as a youngster, Nash still finds a way to break you down with the threat of his jumper and his handles. He’s got some of the best developed skills of any player in the league and is just such a massive offensive threat that he’s got the current Suns as a top-6 offense despite the dearth of serious talent around him and some of the offensive titan squads elsewhere in the league.

Dwight Howard

I tried hard to put him number one because he’s the closest thing to a truly dominant power-post center (my favorite type of player) in the league. And he’s darn close. The rebounding, defense, jaw-dropping athleticism, it’s all there. He’s even starting to add some range, just about on the schedule I had him moving along, too. That’s satisfying. He’s about the same age as when Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing really started to refine their offensive games and develop what he now has. Orlando is starting to use him a little more offensively.  He’s starting to pull out that 13-foot Tim Duncan banker from the left side of the floor and he’s finishing with a couple of new and effective moves inside and just outside of the paint, which is great. He’s even pushing boundaries and taking some 16- and 17-foot jumpers. If he gets the 17-footer down, he’s going to be a 25+ ppg player pretty soon as he’s already climbing towards 23.

Blake Griffin

This guy had to be on this list, and he had to be saved for last. Blake Griffin is unquestionably the most exciting player in the league right now. He full-on reminds me of a 6’10 Charles Barkley. He is defined by power, speed and full-on aggression. He dunks through people, not on them, and it’s amazing. He has spin moves and hook shots and off-ball movement for days. Plus, he’s a wicked rebounder and a really surprising talent as a passer, which makes him even MORE fun when he’s setting up Baron Davis or DeAndre Jordan for dunks off of the defensive attention he receives. 

Griffin is a fantastic young talent that looks even better day-by-day.  His January splits were 26 ppg, 13.4 rpg and 4.4 apg. In December, they were “only” 23 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 3.9 apg. He’s pretty much found his stride as a mid-20s scorer, dominant rebounder and really good passer. The best part is, he isn’t even a turnover or foul factory; he’s simply this good.

We haven’t seen a rookie come in and do anything like this since Duncan and even Elton Brand’s rookie season wasn’t this good. Now, Blake isn’t the defender Duncan was back then, but Duncan also wasn’t this exciting and Blake doesn’t play with David Robinson.

The Rise And Fall Of Colangelo's Raptors

The Raptors get very little from anyone beyond Bosh, which is particularly unsettling when realizing how difficult it will be for Colangelo to shuffle the roster the way he did when he arrived in Toronto.

Charting Toronto's Defensive Play

The Raptors needed an overtime session to defeat Chicago on Sunday. Their defensive play was very closely charted as part of a new project.

Why The Suns Need Stromile Swift

Stromile Swift has never been a real difference maker, but here is why he might have a huge impact on the Phoenix Suns.

Sherkin's Top-25: Rick Barry At #23

Barry demonstrated incredible skill, realized the ultimate goal of winning a title and was a dominant and versatile player during his career.

Sherkin's Top-25: Dave Cowens At #24

Cowens was an undersized center at 6'9", 230, with the ability to take bigger centers out away from the paint and had a ridiculous energy level.

Sherkin's Top-25, Sidney Moncrief At #25

Creating a personal rank of the top players in NBA history is a sort of rite of passage for everyone who has seriously considered the topic.

Jermaine In Toronto: Beyond The Obvious

The Raptors attempted to address their abject lack of interior defense by acquiring Jermaine O'Neal, but what else will his presence in Toronto mean for the club?

Breaking Down Durant And Beasley

With input from ESPN's David Thorpe, we look at Kevin Durant after his first NBA season and what we can expect from Michael Beasley.

Breaking Down TOR-ORL, Game 1

The Raptors were so badly discombobulated by Orlando's defense and their first quarter shooting that they looked like a Div. III team in Game 1.

Why It Will Be A Three-Team Race

In this edition, we look at the results of the Kyle Korver trade, as well as Kurt Thomas, Jason Kidd, Pau Gasol and Shaq.

Assessing The Eastern Conference Contenders

Boston and Detroit are, barring injuries, a given to be the 1-2 punch at the top of the East; but what about the rest of the conference?

Looking Closer At Portland's Success

The Blazers are playing beyond themselves at the moment and enjoying the fruits of their particular schedule but may be better than some of the indicators predict.

Forecasting The Lottery Picks

There aren't too many bad decisions to be made in terms of who to pick as long as the teams steer clear of the biggies: don't replicate what you already have in four other players and think about the value of your pick.

Quality Quantity In The 2001 Draft

The Washington Wizards had the first pick of the 2001 draft and they ended up with the best player, though it of course was not Kwame Brown. In a solid draft, especially for the Warriors, many of those selected have become quality role-players.

The Worst Draft Of All-Time?

It's clear that the 2000 Draft was one of the most disappointing drafts in recent memory. There are three All-Stars in this draft and one of them came out of the second round (Michael Redd). Of all the players selected in the first round, only seven of them are starting.

Kwame Revisited

Several months ago, I wrote an article about Kwame Brown. It talked a great deal of having patience with Kwame's potential, about promising signs from his third season and other topics that seemed to support the idea that Kwame could still turn into a really solid player. To this point in the season, I have been gravely mistaken.

Raptors In A Position For Real Change

The Antonio Davis trade is good for Toronto as a team but more importantly, it's good for the franchise. Wayne Embry is slowly rebuilding the dignity and respect of the team's management and in doing so has made it possible for the team to make some moves to increase the quality of the roster as well. That kind of move is made by teams moving in the right direction.

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