Friday, April 20, 2007

NBA stories: the MVP, the draft and the playoffs

As another NBA season winds down, there are a few compelling storylines still going on. Tops among them are the MVP race, the upcoming draft and the exciting NBA playoffs. I decided to combine them all into one post. So on to Oden, Dirk, the playoffs and more.

MVP – Two man race?

The general consensus is that the MVP is coming down to two guys – Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks and reigning two-time MVP, Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns. The NBA MVP is one of my favorite sports arguments, mainly because almost no one can agree on who should get it. This argument stems for the fact that “MVP” means a lot of different things to different people. I have come up with the three general categories of MVP’s to try and figure all this out.

1) The best player on the best team
This group tends to win out the most, barring a legendary season from an individual. This player has very good stats - usually not the best, but makes up for it by leading his team to a number one seed during the regular season. By this definition, Dirk should be MVP.

2) The guy with the best numbers
Usually loses to previous category, mainly because said player is an alpha-dog and his team is less than great. Kobe Bryant is the poster child for this MVP, putting up stupid numbers and carrying his team. Think Texas Rangers Alex Rodriguez.

3) The guy who, without him, the team would fall apart
A unique MVP candidate and one Steve Nash rode to back-to-back awards. This player is so unique that if he weren’t on the team, the team would be significantly affected. Would the Mavs and Lakers fall apart without Kobe or Dirk? Absolutely, but without Nash the Suns would be a lost team.

So which one is the right answer? Well it seems to change every year. It seems every season there some guy on a mediocre team who puts up great numbers but gets burned by the “well his team wasn’t that good, how valuable can he be?” I tend to lean towards that category, and in my mind Kobe is the most valuable player. I know I said this last season, but without Kobe scoring 50 points seemingly every night, the Lakers would be a lottery team. Kobe has no All-Stars to support him (unlike Nash and Dirk, who have numerous) and opponents know what is coming every single night - and still cannot stop him. 50+ points ten times, 31.6 points per game and over five rebounds and assists per speak for themselves.

Dirk is going to win, and Nash will probably come in second. I don’t keep my healthy man-crush on Dirk a secret, he is probably my favorite NBA player, and I will be happy to see him win. But to me, Kobe is the most valuable player in the NBA.

My ballot:

Oden/Durant sweepstakes

I have kept my mouth shut on the whole Oden/Durant argument for a few reasons. One, I wanted to watch them play more, specifically in the NCAA tournament, as I felt like I didn’t know enough about them. Another was that neither player had actually declared for the draft yet. Although a minor formality, now that both have expectedly declared, I feel better talking about them. Finally, I really wasn’t, and am still not, 100% sold on my choice. But here goes.

Greg Oden is a franchise player, an impact guy on defense and one who is still evolving offensively. He played with a broken right hand for a good portion of the season, so he is not only a warrior, but obviously ambidextrous. He was by far the best player on the floor in the national championship game and really flexed his muscle. He reminds me a lot of Emeka Okafor, there are a lot worse people to be compared to. Is he the next Ewing, Parrish or Russell? I highly doubt it. Oden also has a great demeanor, calm, cool and collected. I am in the camp that this is a boon, not a hindrance. Some argue that he “doesn’t get fired up” or “isn’t a team leader.” I have to disagree - just because a guy doesn’t pound his chest or slap the floor after a dunk, doesn’t mean he isn’t a leader. Give me a cool player over a hothead almost every time.

To me Oden will be something like 14-18 points, 10-12 rebounds, 1-2 blocks a night (with a number of altered shots, which they should really figure out how to make a stat for) and shoot in the high fifties from the field and a reliable 70-80 percent from the stripe. Can you build a team around this guy? Without a doubt. Oden’s defensive presence is undeniable and his offense has a high ceiling.

If the Celtics draft him and pair him with Al Jefferson, a post player with better offensive skills, Boston suddenly becomes a force in the East. Oden could also take pressure off Pau Gasol defensively in Memphis (assuming they don’t trade him) to create a lethal tag team there. Centers this talented don’t come around very often.

Kevin Durant is the fire to Greg Oden’s ice. Durant made me check when Texas was playing on TV and tune in, just to see if he would put up another 35 point/20 rebound game. He is lanky, can score from anywhere inside (and sometimes outside) the three-point line in a myriad of ways and has a knack for turning it on during crunch time. He was without a doubt the best player in the nation last season and was a man amongst boys.

Durant is drawing comparisons to the incomparable Kevin Garnett, a big man who has an unbelievable amount of tools on the offensive end, can pass well and plays solid defense. But can Durant save a franchise? I am not so sure.

My crystal ball looks something like this for Durant: 20-25 points, 8-10 rebounds, 3-4 assists and scattered steals and blocks. Gerald Wallace is a player that comes to mind when I think of Durant (and yes, that is two Charlotte Bobcats references). My big concern is Durant’s size; he seems too small to post defenders up and too big to take guys off the dribble. I see Durant getting pushed around by bigger players on offense and defense until he bulks up. Also, what position do you stick him at? Not the four, maybe the three? I don’t know – right now he seems like a prospect without a position, always a dangerous proposition. That being said, Durant has a bigger upside than Oden, if a few things go right.

1) Get on a team with a big man. Durant and Jefferson on the court at the same time is match-up nightmare for teams. You have to double Big Al and Durant is almost un-guardable by non centers/power forwards. On a team like the Bucks, with Villanueva/ Bogut down low and Durant roaming is a pretty scary thought.
2) Bulk up. Durant will be pushed around when playing defense for the first few seasons of his career. He should just look to Yao Ming for advice.
3) Get drafted by Minnesota. Durant/Garnett for president in 2008.

Final verdict: Oden. I became a huge believer in him during the Final Four. There were some dunks where he looked like vintage LSU Shaq - and it was scary. But honestly, I won’t be sad if the Celtics get Durant at number two. And David Stern, please freeze some ping pong balls so Boston doesn’t get jobbed again. Do it for Red, DJ and Tim Duncan, I beg you.

Let’s wrap this 1500+ word behemoth with some quick playoff predictions:
(1) Dallas over (8) Golden State in 4
I know the Warriors swept the season series, one of the games the Mavs didn’t try in. I know Nelson understands all the ins and outs of the Dallas game plan. I know the Warriors are hot and pumped about being in the playoffs. But they are in happy to be here mode and don’t have the muscle or stamina to hang with the Mavs.

(2) Phoenix over (7) Los Angeles in 5
Have to give the Lakers one win for the “Kobe just dropped 58 points” game that he will have against the Suns. Beyond that, the outcome looks pretty grim for the Lakers.

(6) Denver over (3) San Antonio in 7
If you can’t see me, it’s because I am way out on a limb on this one. The NBA is notorious for having very few upsets in the playoffs. But there is something about this Denver team that I like. Iverson and Carmello going for a combined 60 points a night? Marcus Camby playing a worn out/older Tim Duncan? Ginobili and Parker not looking like the players they were two years ago? Yeah, I am probably wrong here…

(5) Houston over (4) Utah in 5
Utah is playing like trash down the stretch, losing home court advantage in the first round, which is sad because I really like this team. Houston is cresting at the right time, with the ridiculous combo of T-Mac and Yao putting up monster numbers, a solid supporting cast of role-players and the best defense in the league? Sounds like a championship bound team to me. But Dallas and Phoenix may have something to say about that.

(1) Detroit over (8) Orlando in 5
No contest here really, experience and talent over youth. They may squeak out one win if Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson have unconscious nights at the same time.

(2) Cleveland over (7) Washington in 4
No Arenas in the playoffs is a true crime. There is no way Arenas lets LeBron whisper in his ear like he did last year. I am pretty sure Arenas would pants James or something if he tried that junk again.

(3) Toronto over (6) New Jersey in 6
Everyone’s upset special. But I am a believer in the Raps, Bosh is a great player and TJ Ford is a solid point guard. If Bargnani plays well, I look for the Raps to prevail in a tough series.

(5) Chicago over (4) Miami in 5
I don’t see the compelling match-up everyone else does here. This same Bulls team (minus Ben freaking Wallace) pushed a full-strength Miami to the limit last season. Wade is probably 60-75 percent and Shaq does not like playing against Wallace and company. I like the Bulls to win here and to come out of the East.

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