The playoffs this year have been fantastic, but no series have been as intense as the Lakers v. Jazz series was. What made this series so entertaining was the raw competitiveness of the 10 players on the hardwood. So many talented players, all willing and wanting to take the big shot, no one shirking their responsibility as a scorer or play maker (except for Jordan Farmar, who was abused by Deron Williams this entire series).

With regards to the Lakers, what impressed me most was the high level of play by Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. Odom, who has always filled the stat sheet this year (especially after the pickup of Pau Gasol), made very big plays this series, giving the Lakers buckets at many essential junctures of games. Times where the offense was stagnating, the Jazz slicing into the lead, and then, BAM, out of nowhere, a Lamar power drive to the bucket for the dunk and one. And how about Fisher's defense on Williams? His positioning and speed kept Williams out of the lane, and his quick hands netted him close to four steals per game this series (and leads the League in steals in the 2008 postseason)!

But what effect did coaching have on the quality (and outcome) of the series? This series boasted two of the League's best coaches in Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan and both did a great job, as expected. But there are teams in the playoffs that have, at best, average coaches (and some coaches disgruntled fans might define as mediocre). I think it's safe to say that coaches like Doc Rivers and Mike Brown and Flip Saunders are not in the same league as Phil, Jerry, or Pop. How much does quality coaching matter?

I think it's safe to say that coaching in the NBA matters in the postseason, where two teams meet for, potentially, seven games in a row. These series test the mettle and expertise of the two teams' coaching staffs as they make adjustments and tweaks to their offense, defense, lineups, and matchups. Does coaching matter in the regular season, though? It matters some, of course. A coach sets the tone for the team, the professionalism, the level of effort and energy and work expected by its players. And coach/player chemistry affects the entire team. But in the actual grind of a regular season game, how much of a game's end result is due to coaching versus the team's overall talent and the bounce of the ball?

I think that coaching in the NBA truly only matters during the postseason. I think a talented team with average coaching has as good a chance making the playoffs as a team more middle of the pack team with excellent coaching does. Yet if these two teams were to face off in the playoffs, I'd expect the better coached team to win (assuming the player talent gap wasn't too wide). Just imagine how invincible the Celtics would be if they had a more talented coach. Or how unstoppable LeBron and the Cavs would be if they had a coach who could motivate LeBron to develop a post game (or just convince him to stop jacking up 3s).

Looking forward, the Lakers will play the winner of the Spurs / Hornets series. I hope the Hornets win, as I think that'll be an easier series for the Lakers. The Spurs, while aging and looking vulnerable in their 3 blow out losses to the Hornets, still have an amazing level of talent in their big three players. And with no Bynum, I don't see how the Lakers are going to stop Duncan from taking over the series. Regardless of who emerges, I think the X-factor for the Lakers will be the play of Lamar Odom. If Odom can continue his superb level of play, I think the Lakers can beat either team.

Go Lakers! 

What a first round! While there were a number of snoozer series that lacked a single competitive moment (I'm looking in your general direction, Denver), there were plenty of exciting battles, some where I expected, others in less expected series.

While the Spurs/Suns series had some exciting moments - Game 1 was the most amazing first round basketball game I've ever had the pleasure of watching - it was not nearly as competitive as I expected. What went wrong? I don't blame Steve Nash; nor do I think Coach D'Antoni deserves the blame. Rather, the blame lies squarely with the Phoenix Sun's front office. They've had personality issues with true quality players (Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion), they've traded away key role players (Kurt Thomas), they've always had too shallow a bench, and they've given up far to many draft picks over the years for cash and non-essential players. Bill Simmons has a much more thought out and in depth discussion on this topic that's definitely worth reading: A Requiem for the S.S.O.L Era in Phoenix.

How about the Hawks taking the Celtics to seven? Who could have foreseen that, especially after the Celtics thumped the Hawks in Games 1 and 2? But the Hawks never gave up (at least not at home) and gave the Celtics a run for their money. While the Celtics prevailed, you have to worry that going to the wire might shake their confidence and give other teams in the Eastern Conference more confidence.

Another team I gave far too little credit to in my playoff predictions was the New Orleans Hornets. They dusted the veteran Mavericks (and are giving the Spurs a run for their money in the second round) showing that sometimes youth, energy, and raw talent is more important than experience. Props to Chris Paul who, in his second year in the league, it showing glimpses of being a future Hall of Famer. (Speaking of Paul, check out the following video, which details his first high school game after learning about his grandfather being murdered. Chris went out and scored exactly 61 points, one point for each of his grandfather's years, and then walked off the court and collapsed into his father's arms.)

And now we're into the second round. Based on my pre-postseason picks, I am 6 of 8 (I picked the Mavs over the Hornets and the Wiz over the Cavs). I picked the Lakers over the Jazz, the Spurs over the Mavs, the Celtics over the Wiz, and the Pistons over the Magic. I think I'll be 3 of 4 on my picks here. I expect that the Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons will advance, but with the way the Hornets are outplaying the Spurs, it's looking like it will be the Hornets advancing to the Western Conference Finals. (Let me say it again - Chris Paul is pure amazement.)

This postseason is living up to its hype - a number of exciting and competitive series. Go Lakers! 

 Just before the start of the playoffs I submitted my annual playoff predictions, in which I see the Celtics beating the Lakers in a classic Finals series. I still hold firm to that earlier prediction, but clearly some of my other first round picks were significantly off the mark.

For starters, I thought Dallas's veterans and playoff experience would trump the young New Orleans Hornets, but as I write this the Hornets are up 2-0 in the series, with two convincing wins and two monster games from Chris Paul. And then, in the Eastern Conference, I thought the Wizards would prevail over the Cavs, but things are looking bleak with the Wiz down two games in the series and LeBron looking as hungry and playing as well as ever. Lesson learned - do not bet against King James. It reminds me of Jordan in his prime. Only a fool would bet against a Jordan team losing a series or a must-win game. MJ just wouldn't allow it. He had a force of will, a talent level, and - let's be honest - more than his fair share of foul calls in his favor. In the 1990s, MJ-led teams participated in 26 playoff series and lost only 1 (the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against the Orlando Magic in the 1994/1995 season, and that shouldn't really count against Jordan seeing as he didn't start start that season until after the mid-way point). One day we may very well think of LeBron in the same way.

I also predicted that the Pistons would quickly dispatch of the 76ers: "A lot of people knock Detroit for being overconfident. From past years, it seems that Detroit has believed that it can "Turn it on" when it needs to, and win pivotal games. For that reason, and because of Philly's strong play in the latter half of this season (vaulting themselves from the lottery to the #7 spot), they assume Detroit will have trouble with this team. I disagree. I think Detroit will come into this series with a renewed sense of focus and will dispatch of the 76ers in 5." Whoops. What can I say? The Pistons came out flat and unenergetic against a young team with nothing to lose, and gave up the first game of the series while at home. I still think the Pistons will win the series, but their lackluster effort, while expected, is disappointing and does not bode well for them when they have to face the Celtics in the Conference Finals.

The Lakers looked good against the Nuggets on Sunday. Neither team played any defense and the result was a layup drill. Early in the first half the Lakers had a big lead, but let the Nuggets charge back and recapture the lead going into half time. But thanks to a third quarter collapse, the Lakers prevailed, and won big. The Lakers abject lack of defense is worrying, and I think it will come to haunt them in future rounds, especially when they have to face the Spurs in the Conference Finals. But for now, I'll just enjoy the high scoring, fast flying three remaining games of this first round against Denver.

Go Lakers! 

Each year I post my (insanely inaccurate) playoff predictions prior to the start of the postseason. I some rare circumstances my picks are spot on, but most of the time I take a gamble or two and end up blowing the whole postseason (like last year, I picked the Dallas Mavericks to beat the Detroit Pistons in the Finals). This year I didn't have as much time to pontificate on my playoff picks because the Western Conference seedings weren't finalized until the last day of the regular season. The Denver Nuggets - the eight seed - have won 50 games this year. That would have netted them the four seed in the East.

 Let's get started with this year's picks! I've put the winning team name from each series in bold.

Eastern Conference

Round 1
(1) Boston beats (8) Atlanta - I don't think the Hawks have much of a chance this postseason. They are facing, arguably, the best team in the entire NBA. Moreover, the Hawks have been playing poorly the last part of this season, they have very little playoff experience, and were swept by the Celtics during the regular season. Boston in 4.

(4) Cleveland loses to (5) Washington - The Cavs have had a disappointing year, culminating with a multi-player, mid-season trade that was, at best, a lateral move; at worst it was a step back. The Wizards, on the other hand, have gelled nicely as the season wound down, and Gilbert Arenas is back in the lineup, now giving his team a boost off the bench. The only thing the Cavs have going for them is the fact that LeBron is a beast and he can, single-handedly, win games, as was evinced in last year's Conference Finals. This series should be enticing because this is the third consecutive year these two teams have met in the first round of the playoffs, with the Cavs winning the first two meetings. This time I predict the Wizards will win in 6.

(3) Orlando beats (6) Toronto - Toronto has had a disappointing season, while Orlando has done better than expected, especially with the emergence of Hedo Terkoglu. Along with Detroit and Boston, the Magic are the only 50+ win team in the East. I think this will be Dwight Howard's year to shine in the playoffs. Orlando in 5.

(2) Detroit over (7) Philly - A lot of people knock Detroit for being overconfident. From past years, it seems that Detroit has believed that it can "Turn it on" when it needs to, and win pivotal games. For that reason, and because of Philly's strong play in the latter half of this season (vaulting themselves from the lottery to the #7 spot), they assume Detroit will have trouble with this team. I disagree. I think Detroit will come into this series with a renewed sense of focus and will dispatch of the 76ers in 5.

Round 2
(1) Boston beats (5) Washington - The Celtics are a much better team than the Wizards, which will be plainly evident by the end of this series. Boston in 5.

(2) Detroit beats (3) Orlando - While the Magic are clearly the third best team in the East, there's a fairly substantial divide between them and the Pistons. Orlando will win a game or two this series, and may be competitive in all of them, but I'm picking the Pistons in 6. Which sets up the Eastern Conference Final everyone's been waiting for...

Round 3
(1) Boston beats (2) Detroit - These two teams had some memorable regular season matchups, so this ought to be an exciting and hard-fought series. The Pistons clearly have the experience, having been to the ECF for several straight years now, but the Celtics are clearly the best team in the League this year. Granted, Garnett and company lack Finals experience, whereas the Pistons have been there twice in the last four years, and the Pistons enjoy a team chemistry that comes from years of playing together, whereas the nucleus of Garnett, Pierce, and Allen is not even one year old. Still, I like the Celtics and see them winning in 7.

Western Conference

Round 1
(1) Los Angeles beats (8) Denver - Denver is a team that, on paper, should be better than an eight seed, but this team has chemistry problems and consistency problems. Earlier this year Denver had won game where they scored more than 120 and then, the next night, gave up for than 120 in a loss. And they've exhibited little to no defense all season. This plays into the Laker's strength as they have a fast and furious offense. The Lakers main problem, in my opinion, is their lack of focus on defense. They've had a number of games the second half of this season where they had a large lead only to let it evaporate (like the 30 point lead they held against the Hornets only to end up winning the game by a solitary point. But with the Nuggets playing D-less ball, too, I can't see the Lakers blowing big leads, which I think they will have plenty of. The Lakers superior bench will separate them against most teams this postseason. Lakers in 5.

(4) Utah beats (5) Houston - Poor Tracy MacGrady has never been out of the first round in the playoffs and I can't see him and the Rockets getting past the Jazz this year, especially considering that the Jazz have home court advantage. Jazz in 5.

(3) San Antonio beats (6) Phoenix - This series is, by far, the most exciting first-round series I've ever witnessed. These two teams beat one another up in the Conference Semi-Finals last year; in response to their loss, the Suns waent big this season, trading Marrion for Shaq in February to better match up with the West's big men, like Tim Duncan. It took some time for the Suns and Shaq to mesh, but things are looking up. As long as the Big Fella can stay out of foul trouble, he should be able to dampen Duncan's scoring and rebounds. Additionally, the Spurs aren't getting any younger and aren't at their healthiest as the postseason draws near (with Manu and Barry having some health issues). But they have the experience, having gone deep in the playoffs every year since 1999. Given that, the Suns thin bench, and home court advantage, I have to pick the Spurs over the Suns in this series. But regardless of the final outcome, this series promises to be dramatic and exciting. Spurs in 7.

(2) New Orleans loses to (7) Dallas - The Hornets had a miraculous season, with Chris Paul playing lights out and in serious contention for League MVP. But they are too dependent on Paul. Take him out of the game and they fall apart. I think we'll see the Mavs trapping Paul with the ball, getting the rock out of his hands. What then? Yes, the Mavs have their playoff demons, and the Kidd trade has, so far, been an expensive wash, but I like the Mavs in this one. I think this is the worst matchup for the Hornets. They would have fared better against the Rockets or Nuggets. Mavs in 6.

Round 2
(1) Los Angeles beats (4) Utah - This should be a great matchup. Two great teams; two great coaches. The Jazz have a strong nucleus that has gotten deep into the playoffs the last two years. However, I think the Lakers have the edge here, assuming everyone stays healthy. Plus, I don't think the Jazz can win reliably on the road, and the Lakers have home court advantage. I see the Lakers winning the first two, the Jazz the next two, then the Lakers the two after that, to close it out in 6 on the road.

(3) San Antonio beats (7) Dallas - This Texas clash should be a great series, just like the Conference Finals two years back. I wouldn't be surprised to see this game go to the limit, with the Spurs winning the pivotal Game 7 in San Antonio.

Round 3

(1) Los Angeles beat (3) San Antonio - The Lakers are too fast and too deep. I think they'll blow past the Spurs, who will be exhausted from their back-to-back seven games series against the Suns and Mavs. Lakers in 6.

NBA Finals

(1) Boston beats (1) Los Angeles - Ah, a Celtics/Lakers Finals series - pure nostalgia! Boston had the best record and was, without doubt, the best team in the League this year. Granted, they played in the Leastern Conference, but they had winning records against elite West teams and Garnett, Allen, and Pierce will outmatch the Lakers. Allen and Pierce are far better than Odom and Gasol. And although the Lakers have a much deeper bench, I see a rested Celtics outplaying the boys in Purple and Gold. Celtics in 6.

With a 112-108 win against the Dallas Mavericks on Friday, the Lakers clinched a coveted playoff spot in the highly competitive Western Conference. (Also, Friday's game was Pau Gasol's first game back since tweaking his ankle a couple weeks back.) Only two West teams - the Lakers and New Orleans Hornets - have clinched playoff berths, even with only a couple of weeks left in the regular season. Currently the Hornets lead the Lakers and Spurs by a game and a half, but their position on the top is by no means secure. Even the San Antonio Spurs, who are tied for second with the Lakers, aren't mathematically guaranteed a playoff spot (although they'd have to seriously implode not to notch one of the eight spots).

The Western Conference playoff race has been boiled down to nine teams, with the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors battling it out for the 8 spot. But no one (save the Lakers and Hornets) is safe. Only six games separate the #2 spot and the #8 spot. As this season winds down we could have nine 50+ win teams in the Western Conference. Amazing.

The Lakers remaining schedule is pretty easy. They are on the road for the next two games against the Kings, Blazers, and then "on the road" again against the Clippers. They then finish the regular season with three home games: one against the red hot Hornets, one against the Spurs (on ABC), and the season finale against the Kings. Plenty of time to get Gasol worked back into the rotation. And with any luck the young Mr. Bynum will make a cameo or two.

In mid-January, Andrew Bynum - the Laker's only true big man - went down with an injury that was scheduled to keep him off the hardwood for eight weeks. Well, eight weeks have come and went, and still no Bynum. A couple of days ago, Phil Jackson was quoted as saying that Bynum wouldn't be back until the playoffs. Now there's word that he'll be worked back into the rotation the last week or two of the regular season. Whatever the case may be, it's going to be hard to get Bynum back into playing shape and back into the flow of LA's offense. Unfortunately, I think that a healthy and productive Bynum is a necessity in order to win 4 out of 7 against teams with traditional and offensively-talented big men, such as Utah and San Antonio.

Pau Gasol, towering at seven feet, is certainly a big, but he plays like a shooting forward, preferring to take jump shots or slash down the lane for backdoor layups. Gasol plays too far out and is too soft to collect any rebound that doesn't happen to fall right in his hands, and his size and strength are a liability against a true big with post up moves. Without Bynum, I see the Lakers akin to the Phoenix Suns in years past - a quick, rapid fire team with a lot of offensive threats. A team that can burn you in a fast-paced, full court game. But put them in a slowed down, half court set against a team that pounds the ball inside, yet still has reliable outside shooters and all bets are off.

Of course all bets are off in the Western Conference playoffs this year, with so many hot teams. Coaching and player experience are important in every postseason, but I think that these attributes will be doubly important this year with the high level of talent. While teams like the Hornets and Rockets have strong records and great players, I wouldn't be surprised to see both fall by the wayside in the first round in the face of older, better coached competition from teams like the Lakers, Spurs, Jazz, and Suns.

As I write this, four games separate the best team in the West (the Lakers and Hornets with 46-21 records) and the eighth seed Golden State Warriors with a 42-25 record. Amazing. There are seven teams in the West with either 44, 45, or 46 wins. This year's playoffs are going to be amazing. Maybe Mark Cuban was right - maybe this is the best NBA season ever.

The Los Angeles Lakers are looking like the best team in the entire NBA since their blockbuster trade for Pau Gasol. Tonight's victory against the Seattle SuperSonics made it eight in a row, and many of these wins have been blow outs. 117-92 against Minnesota. 122-93 against the Hawks. 113-95 against the Clippers. And 111-91 against the Sonics, tonight. Granted, these aren't elite teams, but during this stretch they have bested the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic.

Lamar Odom has been lights out, netting double-double after double-double. Tonight he notched up another one, ripping down 11 boards along with his 19 points. Gasol has been efficient and a top scorer. Tonight he led all scorers with 22. Sasha Vujacic is shooting 43.4% behind the arc, and is clearly not afraid to hoist up the long distance bomb when he's open; he's averaged near 14 points in the last five games. What's really impressive is that there are so many threats on this team. Tonight 7 players had 10 or more points. In their wins against the Clippers and Hawks, six players scored in double digits.

It's so much fun to watch this team play. Even when they are blowing out a team by 20 with minutes to go, I keep the game on, just to watch the second unit perform. And all of this is happening with Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza sidelined with injuries. Amazing.

I was looking through some of my old blog entries here and stumbled across one from February 2004 commenting on an article (whose link is now dead) where TNT analyst Steve Kerr was commenting on Shaq.

Steve Kerr: "I don't know if Shaq has that killer instinct, but it's probably a good thing he doesn't, because there would be a lot of dead people lying around the floor."

Shaq's Reply to the Quote: "You have to know what killer instinct is to comment on it.  (Kerr) has never had a killer instinct, he's just been a lucky guy on the end of the bandwagon, several times. He doesn't know what killer instinct is."

What makes this deliciously funny is that Steve Kerr, as GM of the Phoenix Suns, is now Shaq's boss. Moreover, he's the one that instigated the trade with the Miami Heat. Too funny. This reminds me of Shaq's quote about Steve Nash's winning of the MVP award being "tainted."

Here's a piece of free advice, Shaq: don't bad mouth other players because you never know where you'll end up in this business. Of course, it seems that no one holds Shaq's comments against him. Everyone seems to view Shaq as that goofy guy who jokes around a lot and, at times, doesn't know when to keep his yapper shut, but really means no harm.

Posted by Scott Mitchell | 11 comment(s)
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Shaq starts his career as a Phoenix Sun.Tonight Shaq played his first game with the Phoenix Suns, facing the Los Angeles Lakers on ESPN. It was a very exciting and entertaining game. The Lakers lead most of the way, but it was close through much of the game, especially in the 3rd and 4th quarters as the Suns kept crawling back to within 2 or 3 points. In the end, the Lakers prevailed, winning 130-124, with a great game from Kobe - 41 pts, 5 boards, 3 dimes, and 2 picks.

Shaq's Play
Shaq logged 29 minutes and looked fairly spry and active throughout the game. In fact, he appeared to be a bit overactive late in the game, diving for a couple of loose balls, one that resulting in a costly foul on Pau Gasol. Shaq had a nice dunk, lobbed to him from Nash, and a couple of good 4 to 6 foot baby hooks that dropped. He also picked up 3 assists, with a couple of nice entry passes from the high post.

The Pau-er of Pau (Sorry)
Having Pau Gasol join the Lakers has been like a dream come true. Sure, he's not a dominant big man. He plays away from the basket often and, as a result, pulls in far fewer boards than you'd expect from a seven footer. He also isn't the strongest player, so he doesn't box out as well or take up the necessary space to guarantee the board. In tonight's match, there were a couple of times when he had inside position on Shaquille, but wasn't able to stop Shaq from overpowering him and getting the ball. Despite his shortcomings on the glass, he has a nice 15-18 foot spot up jump shot, decent handles, and he knows how to move without the ball. Because he plays further out from the basket, he has many opportunities to cut to the basket away from the ball, and he does this with great speed and finishing ability. Kobe might be backing the ball in, or Lamar making a cut to the basket, and WHAM, here comes Gasol swooping in from the backside, catching his defender watching the ball handler, and he gets the pass and dunks it home.

Pau contributed 29 points, 2 assists, and a block in tonight's win. He only brought down 3 rebounds (and one was putting back up a short layup he missed).

Best Player Who Receives the Least Attention - Lamar Odom
Lamar Odom plays in the shadow of Kobe, but he really is talented. His length, speed, and strength help him rack up double-double after double-double. Tonight was no exception. Despite a frustrating game in the sense that he missed a handful of layups that should have gone down, Lamar still managed to score 22 points and grab 11 boards. Lamar is in a great position with this Lakers team. He has the best basketball player in the League on his team, who commands so much attention from the other team. Gasol's away from the basket play keeps the other team's big man further out, and Lamar is usually matched up against shooting forwards an inch or two shorter and certainly not as long. The net result is that Lamar is able to pick up many defensive rebounds, score clean up points, make cuts to the basket without the ball, and so on. And just wait until Bynum gets back and starts demanding double teams down on the block.

I have to say that this year's Laker team - especially with the Gasol pickup - is very exciting to watch. I haven't been this jazzed about the Laker lineup since 2004, when Gary Payton and Karl Malone signed up. The Lakers really have a solid roster with great depth at every position. As I noted earlier, their second squad could outplay most teams in the East.

This is shaping up to be a truly great NBA season! So many great teams. So much talent. So much fun basketball being played. I can hardly wait for the playoffs! 

After a bunch of false starts, the Dallas Mavericks will be landing perennial All Star guard Jason Kidd. The original trade would have involved Devean George and Jerry Stackhouse along with Devin Harris, but with George exercising a no-trade clause in his contract and the League frowning upon Stackhouse's claims that he would be released by the Nets and resigned with the Mavs, the deal appeared to have fell apart. But Cuban opened his wallet and traded the rights to Keith Van Horn at the tune of an extra $11 million dollar hit this year from the luxury tax. Ouch.

In a nutshell, the Mavs get:

  • Jason Kidd
  • Malik Allen 
  • Antoine Wright

In return, the Nets get:

  • Devin Harris
  • DeSagana Diop
  • Trenton Hassell
  • Maurice Ager
  • Keith Van Horn via sign-and-trade
  • Two first-round draft picks (2008 and 2010)
  • $3 million in cash

At first glance, it looks like the Nets are getting the better end of the deal here. They're clearing up cap space, getting a promising young and speedy point guard in Devin Harris, a decent center in Diop, and are freed from Jason Kidd and his annual trade demands and occasional "mailing it in" games.

The Mavs take a financial hit this year, which Cuban can afford. This trade also shortens their Championship window, as Kidd ain't getting any younger. Phoenix is in a similar predicament with signing Shaq. Should make for an intense and interesting postseason! For an insider's take on the trade, check out Mark Cuban's comments on the trade: Doing the Deal and Dishing the Dirt:

"The annoyance. One agent who made a truism of the saying that "no good deed goes unpunished". That said, I have nothing but respect and admiration for Devean George. He told me that he would trust his agent as he had done for the last 10 years and take whatever may with that decision. He had the balls to stick to it. Even with people yelling and screaming at him. That said, as I write this, I really have no clue why the agent made the decision he did."

I pity George and wonder what the locker room chemistry must be like right about now... 

In the past several years, NBA execs have been too cautious to make any big-deal trades. However, this year we've already seen many such transactions, from Garnett and Ray Allen joining the Celtics and Pau Gasol joining the Lakers. And then Steve Kerr, and now Mark Cuban, have stepped up to plate, brining Shaq to the Suns and Kidd to the Mavs. I hope this trend of big name trades doesn't abate at the end of this season. Let's face it - the NBA is at its most boring time in the winter months. These trades have helped spark some interest in these otherwise ho-hum times.

Today the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat squared off in South Beach and on national TV, with the Lakers winning the contest 104-94. Today's game was the first for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks since they were traded to the Miami Heat for Shaq. For some reason, ABC loves scheduling the Heat on national games, so I've been able to see the Heat play more times than I care. With Shaq and Mourning as their lumbering centers, the Heat have traditionally been a half-court set offense, a team that walks the ball up after a basket or turnover, sets up, and then runs the offense through Dwayne Wade.

With Shaq out of the picture, and with the addition of the incredibly athletic Shawn Marion, the Heat have a new style of play about them, as evidenced by this afternoon's game. There were many fast breaks, a lot of quick passes, a lot of cuts to the hoop. The Heat came out running, gunning, and scoring, and played competitive basketball through the first half of the game. But in order for a run and gun offense to work properly, the team needs to be in tip top shape. In the second half, the Heat's pace slowed, their D softened, and the amassed a double-digit deficit heading late into the 4th quarter.

This was the first "fun" game to watch the Miami Heat play since the 2006 playoffs, when D-Wade was breaking ankles. It was great to see this level of play, but it leaves me wondering what to expect in the future. There's no way the Heat can dig themselves out of this 9-40 hole to make the playoffs this year, and Marion's contract ends this year (and Wade's ends the year following that). This should be an interesting off-season for the Heat and its fans.

The Phoenix Suns have stunned their fans by giving up on the admittedly disgruntled, yet talented Shawn Marrion, trading him (and Marcus Banks) for the once dominant, but now pedestrian Shaquille O'Neal.

Wow.

Shaq's physical prowess and dominance peaked in the 2000/2001 season, where he was a man among boys. If you watched the Lakers much that season, you knew their go-to play. Get it low to Shaq, let him bang the opposing center, and then dunk the ball. He was a force of nature back then. But time waits for no man, and it is especially impatient for NBA centers, who have a knack of hitting a wall in the early to mid 30s and going downhill quickly. Shaquille O'Neal is no different. After the Lakers first championship this century, Shaq showed signs of slowing down. Yes, the Lakers won two more rings in the subsequent years, and made it to the Finals in 2003/2004 only to lose, but the game was increasingly being played through Kobe. Shaq had his moments, and he still commanded special attention from the defense, but gone were the days where he could physically dominate any opponent at will.

When the Lakers traded Shaquille to the Heat, I thought they were getting $0.60 on the dollar and showing disrespect to the reason they won their three consecutive rings. The day Shaq was traded I wrote:

This is a tough day for Lakers fans, like myself, who liked the Big Fella and was hoping to see him wrap up his career here in L.A.  In a perfect world, Shaq would hand the torch over to Kobe, like Kareem did with Magic back in the early 80s, but neither of these two megastars seem to be able to put aside their egos and pride long enough to realize that doing so would be in their mutual best interests. ... The stinger is what the Lakers are getting back for Shaq: Odom, Grant, and Butler.  All decent players in their own right, but combined I still think Shaq is a better player.  Bigger.  Stronger.  More dominant.  Let me put it this way: even in a loaded Western conference, Shaq could create mismatches and demand a double-team.

The trade seemed lopsided. And it was not managed well, as the Lakers traded a talented and improving Caron Butler (and a washed up Brian Grant) to the Washington Wizards for Kwame Brown, a cosmic wrong that wasn't righted until their recent trade for Gasol. But I understood the decision from a financial and long term perspective. Kobe still had more years on his legs. Shaq, I figured, was done without a suitable side kick and a deep bench with talented role players. Of course we all know what happened - Shaq went to Miami, teamed up D.Wade, and the Heat surrounded them with a better than average team and they ended up winning it all (thanks, in large part, to the Dallas Mavericks melting down and losing four straight games after winning the first two).

But now Shaq is well on his decline, as evidenced by the Heats dismal record - 9-37, the worst in the league. He's still one big dude, but he lacks the hops and the speed and the physical domination that once made him the most dangerous offensive threat on the court (well, except in crunch time, when you could just send him to the foul line). Which is what makes the trade with the Suns so perplexing. The Suns whole offense is built on speed and dexterity, on being able to have Steve or Barbosa slash to the basket, draw the double, and hit the cutter or dump it out for the 3-ball, on being able to push the tempo on fast breaks and score quick, easy points in transition. I fail to see how Shaq helps this offensive scheme. He routinely gets beat down the court; his lack of an outside shot means he's going to continually clog the lane, reducing opportunities for the Suns slashers.

And I've not even commented on the financial issues here. Shaq is still on the hook for two years at roughly $20 million per year. Ick. This trade was a mistake for so many reason, but what's most alarming is that there's no exit strategy. If Shaq doesn't work out, if he gets a serious injury or just doesn't mesh with the offense that the Suns want to run, they are stuck for two years. No other team is going to assume Shaq's contract, especially if he fails miserably in Phoenix. In short, first year GM Steve Kerr is making a two year bet. I hope for his sake, and for the sake of the Phoenix faithful, that it's a bet that works out.

In closing, I think the Shaq trade stems in part from the Lakers acquisition of Gasol. The Suns saw that their small ball wasn't getting them past the other big teams in the West. They saw LA improve their front court, and they figured they needed to match suit. Maybe they did need to do something, maybe their approach will never get them to the promise land. Steve Nash isn't getting any younger, after all. I just think their direction is questionable.

It makes you wonder how hard the Suns were trying for KG this summer. A question for Suns fans: would you rather have received Shaq for Marrion, or KG for Amare?

After the stunning trade from the Memphis Grizzlies for Kwame and pocket lint, Pau Gasol stepped onto the court tonight for his debut game as a Laker as a starter. Despite Gasol's sore back - and a season-low 6 points from Kobe - the Lakers came away with a victory over the dismal New Jersey Nets, 105-90. Gasol had a strong game, getting a double-double with 24 points and 12 boards (plus 4 assists and a steal). Awesome.

Side note: the most points Kwame scored this season was 10 points (in three appearances). Most rebounds - 11 (twice).

This is exciting. In his first game in purple and gold, Gasol displaying strong numbers and helped the team to victory. And these numbers come after just a couple days with the team and only one practice. Wait until he picks up the ins and outs of the Triangle Offense. Wait until he has his role down as the big man at the high post and is able to either take the J, dump it down to Bynum on the block, or kick it out to Fisher, Kobe, Sasha, or Odom for the long ball.

Next up for the Lakers is the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are playing better than most people expected this year, but they're still mired in the Leastern Conference with a sub-.500 record. But tomorrow's game will be a back-to-back affair for the Lakers, so who knows how it will play out. Hopefully they'll come out energized and Kobe will feel compelled to make up for his lackluster performance in tonight's game. Following that, they play the scorching Orlando Magic on Friday and then play the Miami Heat on Sunday on national television. Will Shaq still be in Miami come Sunday?
 


 

Today the Lakers traded Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, and two first-round draft picks for Memphis big man Pau Gasol! This is a great pickup and should help the Lakers front court fill in after injuries to Andrew Bynum, Trevor Ariza, and Luke Walton. Granted, Pau is not a domineering big man - he's got range and speed and plays suspect D at times - but his numbers are impressive - 18.9 ppg and 8.8 boards/game, 50.1% field goal average, 81.9% free throw shooting, and nearly 1.5 blocks/game so far this season. And best of all, they finally got rid of Kwame! So long.

I'm certain that it will take Gasol some time to integrate into the Lakers offense, but once he's worked into the system he will no doubt make important contributions. And just wait until Trevor and Andrew get healthy. I'd love to see Phil try out a "big & quick" lineup of Kobe and Lamar in the backcourt; Trevor or Luke as the shooting forward; and Bynum and Gasol in the front court. Speed and size. This lineup would cause mismatches with so many teams. Get Lamar or Kobe on the post on a small guard, and either back them down and score or pass to a cutter when the double team comes.

Go Lakers!

Mark CubanDallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently asked in his blog:

Is this the best NBA season ever? I haven't done the research to find out when the last time 7 games separated one conference's top 10 teams, all with a winning record and playing good basketball this late in the season. It hasn't happened in the 8 years I have owned the Mavs. This year is shaping up to be a crazy one. A 5 or 6 game losing streak and any of the 4 teams who have had the best record in the west over the past month could find themselves out of the playoffs.
http://www.blogmaverick.com/2008/01/28/is-this-the-best-nba-season-ever/

It's silly to try to apply absolutes like "best" or "worst" to any season, since the attributes that define the quality of a season differ from fan to fan. Some fans just want to see a high caliber of play all around, and for those, this is indeed a great NBA season. Other fans are a bit more selfish, and define the greatness of a season based on how their team is performing. While Hornets fans would surely agree that this is the BEST SEASON EVER, Miami Heat fans might disagree. And for teams with a storied history, it's hard to slap the label "GREAT" on a season when you compare it with past glory. Sure, the Celtics are playing great and have an exciting roster, but to define this season as "the best ever" would diminish the unstoppable 1986 Celtics with Bird, McHale, Parish, Walton, Ainge, and others coming together to play lights out ball. Point being, it's easier for the owner of the Dallas Mavericks to pontificate about "best ever," but for a Laker GM or Celtics coach or Knicks owner or Bulls VP to do the same would be heresy.

Hoop purists who have no proclivity for one team over another must be enjoying this season as the level of play is exception in many spots around the League. There have been and will always be some level of disparity in any league with so many teams, but the number of top tier teams is at an all time high. As Mark noted, there are 10 Western Conference teams with near-identical records. And the Eastern Conference has Boston and Cleveland and Detroit playing at a high level.

So, Mark, this is shaping up to be a top-notch season, but I think it's a bit premature to label it the best ever. But we appreciate your enthusiasm.

Posted by Scott Mitchell | 4 comment(s)
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