That pretty much summed up the perception of the playoffs heading up into the 2009 edition. Of course, it turned out to be more like this:
A video illustration of why predicting sports is folly—I’ll spare you the clichés and let the videos speak for themselves. Expected LeBron, got Dwight. Anyway, it illustrates the difference: last year we were prepping ourselves for the epic showdown between the Cavs and Lakers, a showdown that was fated to occur like any good epic…Meanwhile, this season, who are the juggernauts? What is the narrative?
As it turns out, the league might have become a little too skillful: among the sixteen playoff teams, there are only two really catastrophic coaches (Mike Brown and Vinny del Negro) and only one really dysfunctional front office (the Bulls). The upper class is a little less rich this year, probably a consequence of the massive infusion of talent, domestically and abroad. It’s both good and bad: good, in that there are more entertaining teams—hell, even the Spurs are entertaining this year—bad, in that what the NBA does best is the seven-game epic between two titans. A kind of junior example was last year’s Bulls-Celtics slugfest, an absurdly compelling series. The only potential series—at this point—that has a good chance of offering that kind of drama is a Magic-Cavs rematch.
What is the primary appeal is what this post will focus on: the Western Conference. The fashionable pick remains the Lakers, but it’s no guarantee that the Lakers will even make it out of the first round. In fact, while I won’t predict the identity of the Western Conference winner, I’m pretty much certain it won’t be the Lakers.
Consider that Phil Jackson is already working the refs for the first-round series, accusing the refs of giving too many calls to Kevin Durant. A lot of people have given a game, set, match to Phil because Durant responded that he felt “disrespected” by the claim, but I disagree: for one, Durant’s response was basically that the refs are good and therefore won’t favor the Lakers. Which is a great message to get out, but the real lesson Durant should learn is that the media is selective in being obedient: sometimes they’ll get out your message, sometimes they won’t. And usually all-time greats outrank nascent supernovae. Nevertheless, what the contretemps obscures is that Phil felt is was necessary in the first place to work the refs. He’d save his fire if it were the usual one-versus-eight walkover.
It won’t be: the matchup is exceptionally even. For one, Jackson revealed this tidbit:
"I'm not going to get into trying to anticipate [how much Bynum will be able to play]," Jackson said before the Lakers' 107-91 loss to the Clippers in their regular season finale. "We don't know whether he can play six minutes a half or if he can play 10 minutes a half. We'll look and see how his conditioning is and measure it from there, after Friday-Saturday, if things go right."Now, if Bynum can’t go or won’t be effective, then that means you have an Odom-Gasol frontcourt. That’s fine, and more than enough to have an edge on the Thunder’s. On the other hand, your first big off the bench is D.J. Mbenga. The only difference between Mbenga and a corpse in full-onset rigor mortis is that generally corpses don’t have dyed blonde hair.
Incidentally, the only difference between Mbenga and Derek Fisher is that Fisher also doesn’t have dyed blonde hair. Mbenga, Fisher, and a random corpse are equally effective at playing the game of basketball. Which is why the Thunder have a chance, because none of their players resemble or play like corpses. Unfortunately for the Thunder, they have Russell Westbrook.
Here’s why: the plan for the Thunder is for Durant and Bryant to roughly cancel each other out. Your frontcourt slows down theirs. Your bench kills theirs. Then that last edge comes from the point guard position, which must be a merciless slaughtering: think cattle in an abattoir. Sadly, Russell Westbrook is not yet that player.
Westbrook has that mentality: his formative year was with the spectacular 2007-8 UCLA team, in which he was the third option behind Love and Collison. This meant he had only premium opportunities, and Westbrook seized them aggressively. So he’s got an aggressive mentality. Unfortunately, he’s more aggressive than he is skilled at this point, and he plays slightly faster than he is. He’s very fast, a leaper, and all that, but he can’t finish at the room and can’t shoot. So he might annihilate Fisher every night or he might kill a celebrity with an errant pass. If he does, I hope it’s Justin Bieber. I bet he’s a Lakers fan.
And you just know that in a pressure situation, this will happen: Fisher will take some terrible jumpshots, Kobe will take five overly difficult shots and hit, say, two; Pau Gasol will be ignored though he has premium position and then stew in the locker room. The media will blame Pau Gasol for being soft if they lose.
Anyway, the Thunder possess nearly every other piece you’d like from a Lakers-killer: a scorer, a good coach, a premium defensive stopper, a strong homecourt, an athletic big or two, and a few good guys off the bench. The question is Westbrook.
The rest of the conference is a matchup between good-but-flawed teams, and you can’t help but look at the flaws while looking at them. The Lakers’ and Thunder’s flaws are related to their age, so you tend to excuse those. Whereas the other teams have to deal with injury and incompetence to varying degrees, so that the…Spurs actually look like the best team in the Western Conference. If I have to pick a team, they’re my guys.
But the injuries in this conference are ridiculous. In no particular order, these are the important hobbled players: Bynum, Martin, Lopez, Kristc, Roy, Boozer, Kirilenko, etc. etc. The team that’s been hit hardest is the Blazers, losing something like 300 player-games to injury.
And that gets me thinking: what about the Suns? Grant Hill has played nearly every game for the last few years—need I remind you that this is Grant Hill, the inspiration for Mr. Glass? Shaq immediately became healthy there. We’re constantly told that Steve Nash has a balky back, but he barely ever misses a game. Nash, in fact, re-signed with the Suns specifically because of their training staff. This suggests one of two things. One, drugs. Or, two, something they’re doing medically is exceptionally good. If it’s the second, why aren’t teams league-wide trying to copy them? Why hasn’t someone offered an excessive amount of money to the head trainer or his/her deputy? Isn’t that worth a couple of million a year to have that superlative a record? Look at the Blazers: let’s say you get a 10% improvement, or about 30 player-games back. How many wins is that worth? Two, three, four? Five, even? Well, if it’s at the upper bound of that amount, you know what the Blazers have? Home court. That means (potentially) another home playoff game, which means good gate receipts. It’s clearly worth a lot of money; why aren’t teams doing this?
With fewer injuries, Denver might have fulfilled its destiny as the flamethrower team: causes a lot of damage—can’t necessarily direct it well. Instead, Adrian Dantley is a disaster at the helm of the team, and the Billups-Anthony relationship is very odd: Billups still thinks he’s very good, but he isn’t. J.R. Smith could only play for this team: catch J.R. at the right night, and you might wonder, why isn’t J.R. a mid-20ppg scorer with good passing and decent defense? Well, you forgot about the other nights. And you can go on down the line with the flaws and the injuries. People have tried to claim the Suns care about defense now, but caring has never been their problem on that end, ability has been, and they’ve always lacked it. Anyway, they’re 21st this year. Not good enough. People also like to overhype Deron Williams, who’s destined for the Hall of Very Good; at any rate, the Jazz’s defensive style—foul them if they move!—is not conducive to playoff success. Dallas is just overrated. It’s going to be San Antonio, almost by default. And with the way Manu’s playing, I’m not sure I mind.
Anyway, here are the picks for the Western Conference:
Lakers in 7
San Antonio in 5
Phoenix in 6
Utah in 7
Eastern Conference tomorrow.