Sunday, April 25, 2010

Some more playoff thoughts

Though it’s a series now, one that the Lakers have a strong chance of losing, you can’t help but wonder what’s next for the Thunder. They have their franchise player already, it’s merely a question of surrounding him with the right players.

Obviously they already have a good start, and they have tons of assets with which to make a trade: ample cap space, $11 mil in expirings, three first-rounders, and of course tons of young tradeable players. The question is: what to acquire? The problem for the Thunder is they have no shooters: their starting lineup features only one strong shooter, Durant, and their regular rotation contributes another, Harden. The Thunder, therefore, have a strategic dilemma at SG: they need a shooter, that shooter is on the bench, and yet that shooter’s defense won’t likely be at an adequate level for some time. Meanwhile, you start an elite stopper in Thabo Sefalosha, so you are faced with what Marlo Stanfield might call “one of those good problems.” Except you can only have one or the other…or so you think: option three—find another shooting guard. It’s a possibility. The other difficulty faced by the Thunder is their big men. Jeff Green is going through the overrated cycle as we speak (the overrated cycle: a good team features a mediocre player who, for whatever reason, plays tons of minutes. Commentators and announcers, seeking to justify this incongruity, overrate the player and assume he has mystical intangibles/winning ability that aren’t easily divined by production or the naked eye. Jeff Green only needs to talk to Derek Fisher to learn how this process works: Fisher has been various shades of awful the past two years—and is quickly regressing to apocalyptic—and yet people stubbornly call him a gamer, etc. etc. etc.), and yet Green is a weakness for the Thunder: he cannot shoot three pointers, he’s not especially efficient at shooting twos, and his defense is so-so because he’s undersized. Probably the best fate for Green on the Thunder would be a sixth or seventh man role, with Ibaka surging into the PF position. This, however, leaves the question of center, where Collison and Krstic are willing but not able; an improvement to that position would yield benefits. Rumor has it Chris Bosh may or may not be interested in coming, and that would be one of those end-the-league scenarios (along with the LeBron-and-Wade show in Miami—note: only works in Miami.) By the by, can we note something? With the general admiration everyone’s had for Sam Presti’s genius, it’s not really recognized that his high draft picks have been interesting: his Jeff Green pick could’ve been Jo Noah; his James Harden pick could have been the slightly intriguing Stephen Curry.

With that said, here are possible thoughts for the Thunder’s direction: a) trade for Andris Biedrins and b) trade for O.J. Mayo. Both are likely available; Biedrins because he had an awful season for a crazy franchise, and Mayo because Chris Wallace hasn’t made any bad moves recently, and Chris Wallace remains Chris Wallace, i.e. terrible. That’s obviously just spitballing a little bit, but I think the direction is correct. As you’ve likely guessed, the Thudner have a bright future.

***

Let’s not neglect the Lakers here. This mess is their own fault. And it’s a mess. You hear some people saying that the Lakers will simply flip the light switch again, that this happened against Houston last year, etc. etc. etc. Well, it doesn’t matter what position the light switch is in if the lightbulbs are blown out: this may be true. Now, the frustrating part of this argument is that it might well be true! It’s unlikely, but hell, you never know now do you?

That said, the Lakers are demonstrably worse in terms of production. Last year they had nearly a 8 point efficiency differential; this year, about a five point efficiency differential. The team has played worse, even while trying. If you don’t believe the effectiveness of this statistic—and you should—then I’m asking you, just watch the games. Does Kobe really look like the same player he was last year (even a few months ago)? Does Ron Artest really look effective to you? Other than the Laker big men, how many players look good to you? Answer honestly here.

There’s no effective rejoinder to the will-of-a-champion/they’ll-gut-it-out/flip-the-switch argument because it’s essentially faith-based: the future won’t look like the recent past (fair) but it won’t look like the past in a highly specific way. While unanswerable, it’s also unlikely.

Anyway, we could’ve avoided this whole debate had the Lakers simply chosen to be collectively smarter last summer through, oh, about ten minutes before Game 3. The most scrutinized decision was the Artest-for-Ariza swap, but that’s not all: the Lakers signed Artest with their midlevel. They could’ve resigned Ariza and then went out and gotten a midlevel player, say, a point guard to replace aging Derek Fisher. Oddly enough, a very good one went mysteriously unsigned for a long period over the summer (well, it wasn’t mysterious: teams didn’t want to risk their 2010 cap space on a player who was only very good): Ramon Sessions. The smart thing would have been to sign Ariza and Sessions and your life is better. Instead the Lakers went with the older guys. Bryant, too, deserves special blame for this entire debacle: Bryant’s finger has been hurting since last year, and he has refused to get surgery since then. This refusal is the essence of Bryant: admirably willful, yet stubborn and selfish. Bryant has been complaining about his injuries—which is somewhat justified; he doesn’t appear to have the same lift—and this could’ve been easily remedied during, say, January: get your finger surgery, sit out for a month and get rested for the stretch run. The team was good enough to survive that long sans Bryant. But Kobe decided to play anyway, risking aggravating the injury. And the entire series could’ve been played better: had Fisher and Artest and Bryant decided not to launch contested shots and instead fed the post more consistently, the Lakers are up 3-1 as opposed to being tied 2-2. But the Lakers have played dumb throughout the series and shockingly this has hurt them. If the Lakers don’t win in this series, they’ll lose afterwards. This isn’t a championship caliber team: I mean conference championship caliber, specifically.

****

LeBron basically ended the Bulls’ season today, so it’s worth eulogizing the season by noting that everyone associated with the Bulls aside from Rose and Noah and occasionally Luol Deng remains frustrating and somewhat annoying. The offseason is critical, and I am so certain it will be screwed up: has Carlos Boozer already bought a Chicago condo?

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