Setting the Tempo: Suggested Readings

Hello Beloveds,

This correspondent has set himself to the task of completing a makeshift “summer reading” list–perhaps, I will share that once I get it finalized. One of the first books from my list, however, is the Best American Sportswriting from 2016, with writings selected and edited by Rick Telander.

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As I go, I’ll share selections that I really enjoy.

It won’t always be sports, but these first few are–save for the piece about the evolution of the shotgun and the piece on the evolution of language.

Happy reading!

– A. Hart, Editor-in-Chief


“Spun” (Steve Friedman) from bicycling.com

“Revenge of the Nerds” (Chris Ballard) from Sports Illustrated

“A Hero for the Wired World: Michael Jordan reaches new heights” (David Halberstam) from Sports Illustrated

“Make Mine A Double: A lifelong love-affair with classic American side-by-sides, in four parts” (Roger Pinckney) from Garden & Gun

“The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from?” (Cormac McCarthy) from Nautilus

 

 

Dispatch from the Coca-Cola 600

My First NASCAR Experience:

An Unexpected Right Turn

By J. Patrick

coke600

Thursday, May 25th, 2017, 8:43 A.M.

Today, I decided that over the course of the next few days, leading up to this Sunday, I would write a semi detailed account of my first ever Nascar experience. I have never been to a race, despite the fact that I grew up less than an hour away from Charlotte Motor Speedway. Whenever I say “Charlotte Motor Speedway,” I always cringe because it is in fact, in the city of Concord, and not the city for which it is named. This is a typical theme here in the ole’ tar heel state: do or name something so stupidly that it takes away from what should otherwise be a pillar of the state. Maybe this doesn’t actually detract much at all, but it still irks me. It irks me almost as much as my first Carolina Panthers game, which just so happened to be that 2008 playoff molly wopping from the Arizona Cardinals which saw Jake Delhomme throw five interceptions. That one hurt. My first basketball experience? I don’t remember the opponent, but I hardly doubt it mattered. The Bobcats were a sorry excuse for a professional sports organization through and through. My first MLB game was observed when I was 11 and I went on a trip to New York City with my mom and a couple other women, where we saw a Yankee’s game. We were so high in the nosebleeds that I’m not sure I ever actually saw the ball moving around the field. While I’ve had many great sporting experiences and I’ve witnessed history more than once, my first experiences usually turn out to be less than stellar. I’m hoping that trend doesn’t continue this weekend.

Nevertheless, I am looking forward to my first NASCAR experience for a couple of reasons: Chiefly, I can now legally drink copious amounts of alcohol, which will hopefully make the endless series of left turns more interesting. Secondly, I’ve never cared for NASCAR, so I have no favorites, nor is there any drivers I don’t like. This weekend’s festivities probably won’t do much to spark my interest in the sport, but hey, I’ll keep an open mind. As of now, I don’t have any money riding on this event (although that could soon change, heh heh).

This seems like enough of an introduction for now. Tomorrow I’ll report back with some interesting NASCAR facts, Coca-Cola 600 details, and other related things that I find. Until then, stay classy spectators!

Friday, May 26th, 2017, 9:54 P.M.

As promised, I’ll spend my time today going over some general NASCAR hoopla, interesting facts, and some things you need to know about the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest (and possibly most grueling) race of the season. So here’s the facts, Jack.

The Coca-Cola 600 is a 600 mile race. 600 miles. That seems daunting enough, just saying that, but think about this: To drive from Charlotte, NC, to Tampa, Florida, would be 579 miles. 21 miles short of this race. The track is 1.5 miles in length, so drivers end up driving 400 laps in total. This is by far the longest race on the circuit, which makes it one of the more difficult ones. In addition to the race length, racing conditions seem to be cited often as another challenge. North Carolina is notorious for hot and extremely humid weather. Believe me, this isn’t a joke either. The humidity in Concord is currently 89%, and high enough to make you sweat harder than a conservative in a gay bar. I would honestly tell you more, but I don’t know too much about the mechanics of racing. I may save that for tomorrow’s post.

On the flipside, I have wasted the last couple hours finding things I found interesting, as it relates to the race and NASCAR in general. The first thing I pondered was the popularity of NASCAR in the state of NC. Aside from the Panthers, NASCAR is probably the next (if not first) most popular sport in the state. There’s a couple things that back up that claim: first, there used to be four total race tracks in the state (Charlotte Motor Speedway, Rockingham Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway, and Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough), all used at different points in history. This suggests that the whole state is/was invested in the sport. North Wilkesboro and Occoneechee Speedways were both a part of the original eight racetracks used in the inaugural 1949 NASCAR cup chase, with the final race of the series being in North Wilkesboro. Charlotte Motor Speedway is the only track in the state still being used by the highest NASCAR circuit. Secondly, NASCAR is, in a lot of ways, a very prideful thing in the Carolinas for a number of reasons. The main ones being the long history with the sport, and the other being the drivers produced by the state. Some of the sports most dynastic drivers and families are from, and reside in the state of North Carolina. You have the Earnhardt’s, which include Ralph, Dale, and Dale Jr.; the Petty’s with Richard, Lee and Kyle; the Jarrett’s with Ned and Dale; and then other drivers like Junior Johnson, Benny Parsons, and bobby Isaac. Lastly, the first two reasons sort of give way to the third: North Carolina can be considered a hub for NASCAR racing because a lot of former and current drivers reside within the state, which is why many race teams are based out of North Carolina. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is even located in the heart of Downtown Charlotte.

I think that’s enough for now. Tomorrow I’ll look at some of the rules, drivers, standings, and how all that works. Don’t worry, I have no clue about how it works today, but by tomorrow morning at some point, I’ll look like an expert. I mean, how hard can this NASCAR stuff be? (I’m kidding!)

Saturday, May 27th, 2017, 8:30 A.M.

Alright, it seems more complicated than I may have thought. From what I’ve gathered, NASCAR is moving towards a more complex points system. It seems that the more refined the system becomes, the more it begins to relate to other major professional sports in that the gray area seems to increase, between the black and white areas. In other sports the rules have a lot of gray area, but NASCAR, it seems to be the points system. Don’t know what that means? I’m still working through it myself. Here’s how it works (in a nutshell):

There are three stages to a race and two different points categories, championship and playoff points. Neither of them matter to me, but in the profession of left turns it probably matters a lot. The Coca Cola 600 on the other hand, will have 4 segments, probably because of the race length. Whoever finishes first after the first stage gets 1 playoff point.The same is true for the second stage (and third stage for the Coca-Cola 600). Whoever finishes the final stage in first wins the race, receiving 40 championship points. Second place gets 35, and third place gets 34. Each racer receives points inversely based off of finishing position from 4-35, until the 35th finisher gets 2 points. Anything after that receives 1 point.

I would go into what those points mean in the 16 race playoff series, but it was a little tricky, and I’m not going to spread any misinformation (at least I’ll try not to). So, let’s look at some of the racers in tomorrow’s event.

The first person that comes to mind is Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving for Nationwide Insurance under the Hendrix team. This will be the racing redhead’s last time racing in the Coca Cola 600, which he has yet to win. It would be a nice feel good story for NASCAR and it’s fans if he can squeeze a W out tomorrow. Though it would be nice, it doesn’t seem like that’ll be the case when looking at how far back in the standings he is, and how good some of the competition he’ll be competing against is. Last years winner, Martin Truex Jr., will be chief among them. Currently second in the standings behind Kyle Larson, Martin set two astonishing records in last years race. He set records for average speed, coming in at 160.655 mph, and he led for 392 of the 400 total laps. Two other racers to watch for are Jimmie Johnson, a four time winner currently in 8th place in the cup standings, and Kevin Harvick, a two time winner who’s currently in 6th in the standings.

That’s about all I got for now. Tomorrow’s the big day! We’ll see what these guys are made of, and hopefully I’ll find out what all this NASCAR hysteria is about. I’m expecting a big day for alcohol sales, nationalism, redneck-ism, and other staples of the true American.

Sunday, May 28th, 2017, 9:18 A.M.

Well folks, it’s time to race! Not quite right now, the green flag goes up at 6:18 this evening. I just found out that Channing Tatum will be the Grand Wizard. Oops! I mean the Grand Marshal, excuse me. Let’s forget I ever said that. Anyway, he’ll be in the pace car leading the drivers around to start the race.

My prospects today aren’t looking too good. I drank more than my fair share before heading to bed last night, where I had a horrible time trying to sleep last night on a fluffless futon. I awoke this morning with a headache just noticeable enough to be frustrating, and dead tired. I’m not sure how in the hell I’ll make it through today’s festivities without being absolutely wrecked. Just a quick prediction: Something is pulling me towards Kyle Busch emerging victoriously in the final stage. I have absolutely no evidence to back that claim up besides his starting position. It’s just a feeling. Most of my gambling ventures have turned out the best when I go with a knee-jerk reaction instead of putting any logic or heart into the matter. That’s all I have for now, I need to hit up waffle house to rid myself of this garbage-like state I’m in.

12:32 P.M.

I’m definitely feeling better now, thanks for asking. In fact, I’m feeling well enough that I may crack open a brew here in a few minutes. It’s going to be one of those days. I’ll report back to you during various points throughout the day. I do have a few questions I want answered about this whole thing, when it’s time to leave the track today.

  • What’s it like to really be a true NASCAR fan?
  • What’s the most important thing about attending a NASCAR race?
  • Does the race even matter?
  • What’s an acceptable level of drunkenness and foolishness? Just kidding about this one, there is no acceptable level at events such as this. All social constraints on public behavior shall be lifted. Hooray!

2:30 P.M.

3 beers and 2 shots later we’re hitting the road. Don’t worry, I’m not driving. My dad offered to be the DD this time. Me, my girlfriend Shelby, and my mom all have the green light to drink our hearts out, which I fully intend to do. It’s time to get rowdy, folks.

2:58 P.M.

My mom just made me realize I’ve been doing this all wrong. I was playing “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, which to me, is a jam. She told me, “she was not feeling in the mood to see a NASCAR race,” and that we needed to listen to NASCAR music, which was completely correct. Bingo. How did I not notice that? So I immediately busted out the KISS, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and that one Molly Hatchet song, “Flirting with Disaster.” Ahhh yes, this feels right.

3:35 P.M.

We have arrived and parked. The first things that stand out to me are things that I wholly expected, and are standard here in North Carolina: RV’s, confederate flags, and big ole round beer bellies. Everywhere you look people are drinking heavily, and I fully intend to join them soon. I’ve seen people walking in the streets, past state troopers and other officers of the law with open containers. I guess it would be acceptable at such an event.

One thing I forgot to mention earlier: You can bring your own coolers and alcoholic beverages into the stadium. Yes, you read that correctly. We have an entire cooler packed to the brim with beer and airplane bottles.This is a monumental plus for NASCAR. I now fully endorse stock car racing. You better believe it buddy, I’m getting lit like a christmas tree today; we don’t have any of that commoner-lite beer stuff either. Everything here is 6% and up, baby. We’re making our way to the concourse outside the track now, which is loaded down with the sponsors of the drivers and other companies who want to advertise.

3:45 P.M.

We’ve made it onto the concourse and I’ve cracked open my first official NASCAR beer while “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey blares in the background. Hooray! It’s time for some real hooliganism now. Interestingly, I’ve noticed some pretty unique attire already. The first being a man wearing a shirt saying something along the lines of, “Vegetarian’s are pussies, and don’t know to hunt or fish for meat.” I paraphrased that statement because I can’t remember the exact words, but most of those words were on the shirt. I’ll let you guess at which ones weren’t on there. The assumption the shirt made may be true in some form or fashion, to a certain extent, but it was still amusing, and extremely ignorant. Score: NASCAR fans 1, vegetarians 0. The second thing I noticed, and probably my favorite one of the entire day, was a man wearing a combat-like vest that had beers strapped on both sides of the body, all the way down, 6 on each side. The man was a walking 12-pack!

5:30 P.M.

I will say, the NASCAR fanbase is extremely friendly. Almost everyone I’ve talked to or interacted with was very nice and polite. It would be fair to say that if you’re not a NASCAR fan, but you attend the race, you can become a fan purely based off of how inviting the fans are.

On another note, I’m loving this whole concourse experience. Almost all the sponsors booth’s have little games and wheel-of-fortune-type spinners where you can play for prizes. Between the four of us in our group, we’ve amassed something like 5 drawstring bags, 4-5 pairs of sunglasses, probably 20 koozies, and a pack of M&M’s (with the peanuts, the best kind. Kyle Busch is sponsored by M&M’s, so this is an encouraging sign). My dad also won a free rental for this handheld device that you can use in the race to get live video feeds of certain drivers, stats, and you also can listen in on the interactions between pit bosses and the drivers. Pretty neat. This should definitely spice the event up, or at the very least, provide some other perspectives on the race.

Now, it’s time to head into the race, so I’ll get back at you guys in a little while.

6:45 P.M.

Quick break in the action, only 20 laps in and there’s already been a wreck. I think a piece of Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car (not sure if he’s also in the Earnhardt racing family) came off, hitting Chase Elliott’s car, who then got hit by Brad Keselowski. I’ve never understood why this is a part of the excitement of NASCAR– watching and hoping for a wreck. Why? NASCAR isn’t supposed to be a blood sport, is it? To me this feels reminiscent of the old Roman Coliseum days where you could watch two guys fight to the death against each other, or watch a captive slave fight a lion with a stick. I don’t endorse the idea of watching something in hopes of seeing someone potentially die. Was Dale Earnhardt’s crash a great spectacle to see?

8:00 P.M.

Ugh, it started raining, which is starting to kill my vibe. Watching the race so far was very entertaining, and I just starting to get into the flow of it. It was only two stages in, half way through when it started to rain. It’s looking like it may rain for a good little while too, so this may be a long one. On the other hand, it may be a good thing the rain stopped. I was just starting to develop a headache between the very (and I mean VERY) loud cars and listening in on the racers and pit bosses cuss at each other like sailors. Even with the noise canceling headset on, the cars are very loud. They were loud enough that in order for me to hear the exchanges between the crews and drivers I had to turn the volume all the way up on the device. While I was developing a headache I did find the exchanges highly amusing, and surprising.

I think I heard Danica Patrick say something like, “What the fuck is he doing out there? That was the shittiest throttle.. He needs to stop acting like a fucking idiot and get his shit together.” Woah! Danica has a dirty mouth; kinda sexy, actually. Another Pit boss had something to say to his driver like, “take it easy out there, calm down. Don’t ruin what we’ve worked on. We’ve been through a lot of therapy, kid.” Very interesting.

While it’s raining, I thought I’d give these fans a show and attempt to ride the mechanical bull that’s set up a floor below us. I’ll get back to you with the results in a few.

8:35 P.M.

Hot damn, I’m pathetic. I can tell the alcohol is catching up to me now. I could barely get on the bull before I was almost falling off. The guy operating it wanted me to get off quickly anyways. If I had been 100 times more sexier and a female, I guarantee I would’ve been allowed to “ride the bull” for at least a minute before I was seriously thrown off. But as it stands,  I was given 15 seconds of spinning before the bull stopped, and I just fell off in a drunken heap. At least I know I’m not cut out for a career in the rodeo.

I forgot to mention earlier, Catawba Brewing Co. has a special beer for today’s race, called the “600 Ale.” It’s very basic and almost lite, but it is tasty. Hopefully this rain clears out soon and we can get back to the race. I am getting into this NASCAR thing, but I’m not sure if I have the spirit to prevail through until 1 in the morning.

coke601

9:30 P.M.

The rain went away, but I think it’s time to hang it up and call it a day. I have to leave early in the morning to make this trek back to Greenville, NC. In a way, I’m kind of sad that I won’t keep this evening going, but I’m also glad because my enthusiasm was starting to wane just a bit. I’ll have to do one final report tomorrow (when I’m a little more sober) on my final takeaways and gatherings from today’s festivities.

Monday, May 29th, 2017, 2:45 P.M.

Lots of coffee and a 3 hour drive later, and I’m feeling much better (although more tired) than I did this morning when I woke up. I’m a little sad I had to travel alone, and that I had to pry myself away from my parents so quickly. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time together at all these days, so any time together is always nice.

Speaking of family, that leads me to my first takeaway from yesterday’s race. NASCAR fans are truly a big family. This isn’t a metaphor either, but I’ll explain this is a little more in a minute. I spoke to 6-7 different people throughout the day, and asked them the questions that I listed yesterday as things I wanted to know when I walked away from the race. I’ll relist the questions below.

  • What’s it like to really be a true NASCAR fan?
  • What’s the most important thing about attending a NASCAR race?
  • Does the race even matter?

I never asked anyone the first question, as I was hoping to be able to answer it myself, today. I don’t really think I have a straight answer for you yet, either. If I had to say what are some characteristics of a true NASCAR fan, however, I would say they are fun-loving, caring, inclusive, happy, joking, and pretty accepting, surprisingly enough. I would actually say that NASCAR fans are the nicest and the least viscous of any of the major sports fans in America. I’ve seen multiple fist fights break out at NFL and Collegiate football games, and I’ve seen things close to this at some basketball games, but I didn’t see anything that hinted at violence amongst fans at the race yesterday. Not saying that it hasn’t and won’t happen, but I see it far less likely to happen there than at other events.

The second question received a lot more answers. Most of the answers were pretty closely related too, which is what led me to calling the NASCAR fanbase a family. The first person I questioned seemed a little weary about me randomly approaching him and asking what his favorite thing about NASCAR was, and what the most important thing about attending the race is. His response of simply, “Everything,” and the blank, suspicious look he gave me told me he didn’t think I had honest intentions, which is totally understandable. I tried to push him a couple times more, and he just responded with “everything,” again. His buddy on the other hand, was not shy about his favorite things at all. He put his arm around me, and pulled my arm toward him, which held my phone that I was using to take audio recordings, and said, “I’ll tell ya, I love the tailgating, the giant crowd, I love drinking with the fans, and the racing.” simple enough.

After we decided to leave the race, though, is where I really got what I was looking for. Walking out of the front gate that we entered, a pot-bellied, middle aged white guy stopped me and asked me about the Alonzo Mourning jersey I had on. We talked about the former Hornets legend for a few minutes before he began talking about his son and other stuff. Before I knew it, five or 6 other stragglers in small groups had stopped to join in on the conversation. One person complimented my girlfriend about the tattoos on her legs, which led to more conversation. When I looked back at the audio recordings I made yesterday, I realized I had recorded 17 minutes and 26 seconds of conversation (and inquiry on my part) with these complete strangers. I asked the pot bellied man what he liked about NASCAR events the most, and he responded with, “It’s freakin’, a bunch of people comin’ together and gettin’ real drunk before the race, comin’ to watch a race, it’s fun. I mean, it’s entertaining, sure, but at the end of the day, it’s still a race, you go from point A to point B, period.” The emphasis he put on calling it entertaining told me that he was more concerned about being there for the event, not necessarily the race itself. I asked the second question and he went on to say, “It’s more about hangin’ out, enjoying life, gettin’ really drunk, and then, if the race is good, it’s good.”

Really, that should tell you everything you need to know.

A couple who had ventured up to us and joined in on the conversation were next in line to be questioned. It should be noted that they were an African American couple, and they were not the only people of color that I saw yesterday. I saw whole, entire, large families of African Americans attending the event, which was somewhat surprising to me. I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t think that NASCAR racing was almost entirely a white man’s sport. Back to the couple though. The guy’s favorite thing about NASCAR was that it reminded him of his childhood. He told me that his Grandfather took his father to the races, and that his father took him. For him, NASCAR was a family thing, almost like an inherited passion. He went on to tell me that he enjoyed the race itself, and that he kept up pretty well with the points. He even told me that out of all the other sports he follows (baseball and football), NASCAR is his favorite.

I was a little too drunk to stay focused and continue to try and find answers, but I did end up having some good conservation with them. I was lost in it to the point that I almost forgot that I was talking to complete strangers. My parents and girlfriend had to pry me away from the group so that we could actually leave and go home. The jolly white guy (I can’t remember his name, I think it was Bryan) gave me a big, sweaty bear hug right before I left. That’s when I really thought I had come full circle with the whole experience. Here was a person I had never seen before, and probably won’t ever see again, fully engage in a conversation with me, and then give me a big hug when I walk away. The other couple that joined in on the conversation approached us like lifelong friends. It sort of reminded me of Seinfeld, where they all just slide into the same booth in the diner they’ve been going to for years, and don’t go through the usual greeting process because they saw one another the night before.

All in all, I didn’t really become a fan of the sport, but I definitely have a newfound respect for it. All the way from the drivers themselves to the fans. NASCAR is an incredibly unique sport in both the atmosphere and the way the event unfolds. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a sporting event where the people at the event are as friendly and familial as they are at a race track. Whenever I look back on my experience at the Coca Cola 600 I’ll always remember the fun activities before the race, the loud engines and tactical moves around the track, and the magical ambience set by Charlotte Motor Speedway on a hot May afternoon. Most importantly though, I’ll remember being there with the people I love the most, the random embraces and smiles of strangers, and the feeling of being warmly welcomed and accepted into a family. If I had to guess what it truly means to be a NASCAR fan, I think that would be it.

 

 

NBA Finals Predictions

More Views from the Cheap Seats

June 1, 2017

By A. Hart & J. Patrick

nbafi nals

(#1) Golden State Warriors v. (#2) Cleveland Cavaliers

Because there is only one series left, we decided to write our own predictions. Unlike our sitting president and his suit-dummy cronies, we thought it best to keep collusion at a minimum. But if we did do it–and we’re certainly not saying we did–it was mutual, ya know, with the viewers best interest in mind.

A. Hart’s take:

In 1975, “The Greatest” met “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier for a third time; called the “thrilla in Manila,” that historic meeting resulted in one of boxing’s timeless classics. And now, for the first time in the NBA’s history, we have a complete three-peat: the Warriors and the Cavaliers are primed to battle for a historic, third, consecutive Final series, and the “perfect storm-esque” conditions have so far shaped up to play out in a potentially classic fashion.

If there is a team in the league that could beat these Golden State Warriors, it’s LeBron and this patchworked Cavaliers squad. It won’t be easy, however, as has been the story of LeBron and the NBA Finals. And, really, it’s kind of insane that the reigning NBA Champs are both a juggernaut team and Finals underdogs. But so many things are crazy these days.

As this correspondent sees it, there are five Keys to the Championship Door:

  1. LeBron James v. Kevin Durant
    After 14 years in the league, there is still no real answer for King James. And he comes into this Finals playing, perhaps, the best basketball of his career, carrying a 30.4 PER [+3.4 from regular season] and averaging 32.5 pts/8.0 trb/7.0 ast/2.2 stl/1.4 blk–on 62.5% effective shooting. The guy is a monster and could easily be Finals MVP, win or lose.

    That said, he’s finally coming into a series that should challenge him. Not only do the Warriors have KD to pester him with some length and strength, but they also have Draymond Green (whose playoff efforts, so far, have provided Golden State with the same box +/- as playoff-version Bron Bron [+11.0]) to help with that effort. This correspondent in no way believes this version of the Warriors has an answer for LeBron James, but he’s been averaging 40.9 mpg and if there’s a run in which that might start to get to him with the added defensive frustrations.

    In turn, Kevin Durant is, like LeBron, a player for whom there is really no offensive ceiling. So few players have the basketball acumen and the physical dimensions to handle the ball from the perimeter to hit a mid-range jumper and post up in the paint and back a defender down and hit a 30+ jumper with a little of the sauce Chef Curry cooks with. At the moment, he’s undoubtedly one of the top-3 players in the league, and he’s coming into this Finals carrying a 25.1 PER and averaging 25.2 pts/7.8 trb/3.7 ast/0.7 stl/1.2 blk, on 61.9% effective shooting. Durant will have to carry his offense into the Finals and he’ll absolutely have to dog James on the court; Durant has the skill to make LBJ’s life miserable. But this is where it gets more interesting, because Kevin Durant has only won 4 games against LeBron–and this will be one of the keys to Golden State’s overall success: can KD take control of his destiny, or will LeBron end up ghostwriting it for him?
  2. Chef Curry v. Uncle Drew
    Many have been inclined to say that Kyrie is the best point guard in the league, and his Isiah Thomas-like performance in Game 4 of their Conference Finals against Boston has only fueled that sort of nonsense. … Make no mistake, he is an incredible player; he has handles for days, but all the numbers favor Curry. Coming into the Finals, Steph’s box +/- is 11.3 in the playoffs–slightly better than playoff-version Bron Bron. In contrast, Irving’s box +/- is merely 1.9. If you want to account for some of what is added by their teammates, looking at Real +/-, Curry is also head and shoulders over Kyrie–Steph is #3 (+7.57) and Kyrie is #54 (+2.1). Now, it’s true that with Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and LeBron James, Kyrie doesn’t have to do too much to boost the team to win, BUT neither does Steph. Further, neither player is a defensive enforcer, but they’re certainly each capable defenders. The question is who comes out on top? … This correspondent doesn’t see Kyrie doing more than annoying Curry, who should continue to facilitate and find shots with ease.

    If the Cavs overcome, keep an eye out for conspiracies involving these Golden State Warriors and their ability to play against King James.
  3. Boards and Transition
    Through the playoffs, these teams have been offensive juggernauts that have had no real rival in their own conference, however, as evenly matched as these squads are, the Warriors have “outscored” the Cavs per-game, 101.7 vs. 96.4. Further, there is a slight difference in the number of assists and boards they’re averaging per game:  the Cavs have, so far this playoffs, per-game averages of 17.1 asts/34.5 trb on 10.5 turnovers; compare this to the Warriors’ per-game average of 22.7 ast/37.4 trb on 11.6 turnovers. … In this correspondent’s opinion, the Cavs are close enough to match these numbers and strong enough to disrupt Golden State’s production and efficiency–BUT, keep in mind, that the Warriors have done all this while facing, arguably, more difficult competition in their run to the Finals. The Cavs will absolutely have to control the lane and box out to limit the number to boards and second-chances the Warriors will be aiming to get. The Cavaliers will need to be physical, and they’ll need Tristan Thompson to make Golden State find an answer for him–

    This Warriors team has the ability and athleticism to move smoothly from patient offensive gameplans to a quick transition game. While the Warriors can play that game, they lack a player, like Kevin Love, who can make an outlet pass to a sprinting teammate like a QB hitting a WR on a post route, and they’ll need to find ways to curtail Cleveland’s ability to utilize that skill from Love.

    This is all a question of whose “Big 3” is bigger.
  4. X-Factors
    Each team has some interesting x-factors to keep an eye on. … Coming into Klay Thompson has had a reduced effect in the playoffs to this point, but he doesn’t stay cold, so look for him to get hot, and if he does, Cleveland will need sharpshooters J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver to step up and hit shots–if the Splash Brothers” are on fire and they and Draymond can provide KD with some space to freestyle, so to speak, watch out.

    The Warriors also have a real unpredictable asset in Javale McGee–who is as likely to be focused and a domineering presence in and around the paint as he is to be clumsy and poorly positioned, stumbling around. His numbers look solid (, however, and while it’s important to remember that basketball is never played on paper, the numbers suggest not only improved play with Golden State, but his tenure with the Warriors seems to have rejuvenated his career and they suggest a boosted confidence–as long as he doesn’t try to punk the Cavs, Javale could be a real lynchpin for a Golden State championship.
  5. Mental Fortitude
    This one sorta speaks for itself. Fighting successfully through 82 games is a feat of endurance alone, not to mention the added pressure that continues to build as championship teams move through each stage of the playoffs. Sometimes, even if a player knows The Secret, they don’t end up having the durability to put themselves in the position to determine their own fate. Both of these teams have shown, in different times and different ways, they know The Secret and know how to outsmart and outlast competition, but the most important test is now, and the only people left have to not only play well, but to demonstrate that they’re tough enough mentally. This is Kevin Durant’s toughest test to date, for certain.  –

Really, as excited as I am that the Finals are finally here, it’s also bittersweet knowing that, at most, we have only seven games of basketball left to watch before another long, hot summer. This series should be an epic addition to this, the NBA’s, second golden age (or third, if you’re of the crowd who saw Magic and Larry Legend push the game’s evolution) as it continues to offer gems to its fans. Here’s one we’ll talk about for years.

Warriors in 7 games.


J. Patrick’s take:

Let’s not beat around the bush here. The Warriors are far and away the odds on favorite to win the chip. I’m talking super favored. For The Win only gives the Cavs a 31% chance of winning. Even though it makes total sense, it’s odd to think that the team with the best player in the world isn’t given a little more respect on the books.

I get it though. Golden State not only won 16 more games in a tougher conference than the Cavs did in a weaker Eastern Conference, but they sucked all the joy out of postseason play by dismantling the Blazers, Jazz, and Spurs, all in four games. Albeit a Kawhi-less Spurs team, they still did it. That’s only the third time in Pop’s career that he’s been swept. The other two times? Against far superior teams, including the 09-10 Phoenix Suns led by an in-his-prime Amare Stoudemire and a just-past-his-prime Steve Nash (who still averaged 16.5 ppg and 11.5 apg), and the 00-01 Lakers, widely considered one of the greatest teams of all time, led by arguably the most dominant duo for any given season in history (Shaq averaged 28.7 ppg and 12.7 rpg, Kobe averaged 28.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, and 5.0 apg).

This Warriors squad just has so much going on, it’s almost hard to keep up with. They have the league’s best record (for the third year straight, also third year with 67+ wins), scored the most points per game, have the best offensive rating, and the second best defensive rating. They have three out of the top 30 scorers in the league in Curry, Durant, and Thompson, who could also double as the three best shooters in the league. They have Draymond Green, the ultimate team player who is in the Defensive Player of the Year race. Finally, they have Andre Iguodala, one of the league’s most savvy vets who serves as a great 6th man on this team. Iggy will serve the purpose of being another fresh body to throw at LeBron as well.

While the case against the Cavs is staggering, I can’t pass up on those odds above. Nor can I deny the fact that King James is ruling this postseason with an iron fist. So far through 13 games he’s averaging 32.5 ppg, 7.0 apg, 8.0 rpg, 2.2 spg, and 1.4 bpg. He’s shooting 56.6% from the field on 20.5 attempts per game. Are you kidding me? That is absolutely insane. The hand of the king, Kyrie Irving, is also starting to put it together. After tweaking his ankle in the beginning of the third quarter of Game 4 against the Celtics, he exploded for 21 points in the quarter, and 42 for the game. If Kyrie carries that same energy into the Finals, Steph and the Warriors could be in for a long series. Kevin Love also seemed to have found his stride in the postseason too, averaging 22.6 ppg, 12.4 rpg, and 2.6 blocks and steals combined against Boston. Kyrie doesn’t seem to need much outside motivation to step up, but Love does, and the confidence he showed in the Eastern Conference Finals should go a long way against the Dubs. He’ll need to ride that hot streak if he wants to be a factor against a more than amped up Draymond Green.

The real reason I feel the Cavaliers will win, besides the sheer will of LeBron, is the bench. The Cavs spent the whole season stockpiling vets to the point that they have a legitimate 10 man rotation they could run if they felt like it. Deron Williams was an excellent pick up for this team, who severely needed a backup for Kyrie. Iman Shumpert gives them versatility and strong defense at either the 2 or the 3, wherever he’s needed, while Kyle Korver helps space the floor and gives them a huge boost in the shooting and offense department. Channing Frye could luer Warriors backup center, Javale McGee, away from the rim, potentially opening the offense up even more. Finally, they brought Richard Jefferson back for another year, who seems to be dunking more now in his mid thirties than he ever did as a youngster.

The wildcard in this series will be the coaching. People are overlooking Mike Brown taking the reigns with the Warriors ever since Steve Kerr announced earlier this month that he would not be returning to the sidelines. Brown presents pros and cons. The pros include his prior relationship with LeBron, whom he coached for the first five years of his career. He knows LeBron well enough to know a lot of his tendencies, even though James is obviously a much different player than he used to be. The cons include the fact that he doesn’t have the same moxy that Kerr has. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always quick to point out how his assistants (Luke Walton last year and Mike Brown this year) can and have won in his absence. But the finals are an entirely different beast altogether, and I’m not sure Brown will be able to hold the team’s composure the same way Kerr can.

Everything about this series seems like a wash. Kyrie-Steph, LeBron-KD, and Green-Love almost all cancel each other out in some way or another. I give the Warriors a slight edge at SG with Thompson, and the Cavs a slight edge at center with Thompson over Pachulia, but after that, I really feel the Cavs have too many weapons for the warriors to keep up with. As long as the Cavs can control the pace of the game, I think they win this series, but that’s a big IF. Despite the Warriors being the overwhelming favorites, and looking a tad bit sharper than the Cavaliers, there’s just something about the way LeBron is handling himself and his team this year that just seems otherworldly.

Cavaliers, 7 Games.

The Spectator’s 2016-’17 NBA “Peanuts”(cont.)

May 2017

By A. Hart & J. Patrick

 

coach of the year

Finalists: Brad Stevens (BOS), Mike D’Antoni (HOU), Erik Spoelstra (MIA), Steve Kerr (GSW), Pop (SAS), Scotty Brooks (WAS)

This selection was nearly as difficult as picking the “MVPeanut.” Just like Lebron, Gregg Popovich didn’t win this award because we’ll forever take his skills and expertise for granted for as long as he remains a coach.

For this season, the top two candidates for coach of the year are also similar to the MVP candidates in that there is a clear division between them and everybody else. That said, Brad Stevens and Mike D’Antoni are in a league of their own for this award.

Your correspondents wish to preface this by saying D’Antoni wins this award in the eyes of pretty much every pundit and basketball fan, and rightly so, given the success we’re seeing out of the squad he’s built around the Beard, in Houston. In fact, the ESPN fan polls reflect this exact sentiment (link):

coach poll

And, as we say, that’s perfectly fine. But if you’re new here, or if you haven’t noticed, your correspondents–for better or worse, though we’re inclined to argue the first–don’t take the easy or always obvious selection in our approach to these awards.

Stevens and the Celtics finished 5th in the East and 9th in the NBA last year, and this year they finished 1st in the East and 4th in the NBA with a 53-29 record. Sure, they were only 5 games better than last year, and the Rockets were 14 games better this year than they were a year ago, but your correspondents are more concerned with how they got there. With this in mind,

The Spectator’s “Peanut” for NBA Coach of the Year goes to Brad Stevens.

brad stevens

Mike D’Antoni doesn’t get the edge here at The Spectator for practically the same reason the Rockets GM gets the “GM of the Year” award over the Celtics GM, Danny Ainge: Brad Stevens had to put more blood, sweat, and tears (okay … maybe not tears) into these Celtics to get them to the point they’re are at now, whereas Mike D’Antoni signed two high caliber shooters (Gordon and Anderson) and plugged them into a shot happy system and poof, they’re suddenly an offensive juggernaut.

In order to get to where the Celtics are now you have to go back four years ago, to Stevens first year as head coach in Boston.

  • 2013 offseason: drafted Kelly Olynyk, made KG-Pierce trade to the Nets (probably moreso the work of Danny Ainge)
  • 2013-14 season: made various other trades and ultimately ended up with a couple second rounders and a 1st rounder

That team obviously tanked, and went 25-57.

  • 2014 offseason: Drafted Marcus Smart, re-signed Avery Bradley, made more trades and acquired more picks
  • 2014-15 season: traded Rondo and Dwight Powell for Jae Crowder, traded Marcus Thornton and picks in order to get Isaiah Thomas

That team ended the season 40-42, already looking much improved.

  • 2015 offseason: Drafted Terry Rozier, signed Jerebko and Amir Johnson
  • 2015-16 season: No significant moves

This team finished 48-34 last year.

  • 2016 offseason: Drafted Jaylen Brown, signed Al Horford
  • 2016-17 season: no significant moves

Four years later after taking the job, we’ve seen Stevens turn Avery Bradley into an extremely serviceable two-guard, Marcus Smart into a strong combo guard, Rozier is finally looking like a good back up,  and Olynyk has developed into the player we thought he’d be. In the same time he tip toed around trades and signings that didn’t look too significant at the time, but have since turned into monumental additions.

Isaiah Thomas recently expressed dismay (and here your correspondents will echo that sentiment) that Stevens wasn’t a finalist for the award this season. Brad Stevens has worked very hard, and very diligently, to get this team to where it is now, and he is only more respected for his evolution from college coach to NBA coach. In fact, pulling from that Boston Herald piece, standout Guard Avery Bradley was quoted saying,

“It’s night and day,” [referring to] the change in Stevens. “I’m just happy that I’m able to play for him. He’s a really great coach. And just like the guys on this team, he’s open, and I feel like he’s just a special coach because he just cares about us. And he cares about us becoming better basketball players and better men. I mean, all the guys that he brought in, all the speakers, I could go down the list. It shows that he really cares about us as men. And I just appreciate him for that. He’s definitely grown over these years.

This Celtics team is set up to be a contender for the next four or five years at least, so long as Stevens keeps his head screwed on straight. And all this is not intended to suggest the other finalists aren’t great coaches–at least Pop is, and your correspondents have a fondness for Spoelstra’s abilities and success with the Heat. To this general point, to Stevens’ credit, Popovich still studies Brad’s Butler playbook. ESPN’s Chris Forsberg further points out that, “The absence of Thomas has put an even greater spotlight on Stevens’ ability to draw up plays.” For some visual help, here’s a related vid.

And here seems like a good place to point out, too, that “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons has had some pertinent thoughts related to coaching in the NBA and its importance/significance to the game, both at large and in match. In The Book of Basketball (2010), Simmons argues that:

Only after the ‘81 playoffs did people start believing that coaches could work wonders. [But] … there’s no concrete evidence that they make a genuine, consistent difference except for a small handful of gifted leaders … and forward thinkers. Plenty of coaches understand The Secret; only a few can pass it along to players; even fewer can keep The Secret  thriving with any type of roster. (146)

He goes further to argue that “most [coaches] tread water or inflict as much damage as good,” and that “… ultimately players win titles and coaches lose them. (147)” For the most part, Simmons seems to be right in his overall assessment that most coaches range from having little-to-no-effect (i.e., Steve Clifford) to being more detrimental than beneficial (*cough* George Karl *cough*). Ultimately, we bring all this up for this reason: Yes, the award is only for performance this year, so maybe our take is a little unfair, but when you consider Stevens’ overall impact on this team, it’s very hard not to like such a dynamic 4th-year coach.

Consider this: between Stevens and D’Antoni–both captained teams that vastly outperformed preseason expectations, but one led his team to really testing the Cavaliers’ resolve in the Conference Finals, while the other led his team into a tense playoff spot with the Spurs, and then, amazingly, failed to make in-game adjustments in a pivotal and deciding Game 6, against a Spurs squad that was, according to most of the media, in prime position for an easy defeat.

Add to all this that it wasn’t D’Antoni’s first loss against Popovich, either; and while this is not an indictment of the “D’Antoni system” (if you want to give him that much credit) in favor of a more “traditional” form of the game, it does say something that he’s failed to overcome Pop with three different squads (his current being his strongest to date). Combining all this together, we feel comfortable rewarding the young hotshot over the veteran mainstay.

So, Brad Stevens: this Peanut is for you.


 

 

NBA Playoff Predictions (Round 3)

The Conference Finals

May 2017

By A. Hart & J. Patrick

ecf

(#2) Cleveland Cavaliers v. (#1) Boston Celtics

The biggest disappointment of this series will be that after fighting hard through a semi-classic rivalry series, the only real reward awaiting the Celtics is just another series, this time against LeBron and the Cavaliers’ Lonely Hearts Club band.

The story for Boston all season and all post-season has been their 5’9” stunner Isaiah Thomas, running the point like an all-star. In the regular season, Thomas averaged 28.9 pts/2.7 trb/5.9 ast; and this postseason, he has kept his foot solidly on the pedal, averaging 25.4 pts/3.3 trb/6.5 ast per game, so far. Yes, his has become a tale of retribution from the grief of tragically losing his younger sister, just days before her [#] birthday–on which, he dropped 53 points (4 boards, 4 assists) and became one of only twenty (now twenty-one) players to score 50-or-more in a playoff game (joining the likes of Jordan [8 times], Wilt [4 times], A.I. [3 times], Sir Charles Barkley [1994], Dominique Wilkins [1986], Karl Malone [2000], Vince Carter [2001], Ray Allen [2009], Russell Westbrook [2017], among other greats).

And while the Celtics of this postseason are not the same team they were at the start of the season, and the squad and especially their coach, Brad Stevens, deserve a great deal of credit for their improvement to very surprisingly take the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Despite their hard work, they have been consistently overshadowed by I.T., yet they are more than capable of supporting Thomas in a way that doesn’t pressure him to score as often (consider how Avery Bradley and Al Horford’s play against the Wizards in Game 6 eased I.T.’s pressure on the court).

In the regular season, Thomas averaged 29 pts per game against the Cavs, and we don’t expect that to change. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert will likely have to step up and try to lock down I.T.–Kyrie will rarely be spoken of in a sentence involving praise for lockdown defense. We may be wrong, but we see Irving being more of a liability on defense than Thomas’ peskiness at the other end of the court. Because of this, it would not be surprising to see LeBron defend against Isaiah Thomas at times in this series.

The face of the NBA in Boston has been a story that is hard to compete with and hard to hate on, but the story in this Finals series will be about whether Isaiah’s teammates can carry their hot hands into Cleveland. If the Celtics are to win any games, it will be on the back of Thomas’ teammates and Stevens’ brilliance. Thomas is the glue of the team, and he’ll have to play well with his team. It will take everything they have–whatever they have left in the tank.

All told, as much as we like this Boston squad, there is almost no real chance that they will upset Cleveland, and any fan feeling remotely otherwise is already in danger of breaking a variant of one of the NBA’s unwritten rules. LeBron and the boys have had 10 days to rest as compared with Boston’s three, after having to play three games (144 min) more than the Cavs–a difference that, based on LBJ’s postseason efforts so far (34.4 pts/9.0 trb/7.1 ast), could be intensely noticeable early in this series, probably as early as Games 1 and 2 in the Boston Garden. To borrow the analogy of a SportsCenter anchor, it could very well be like giving Usain Bolt a head-start in the 100-meter.

Your correspondents love a good dark horse or fairy tale team. That said, it’s hard not to feel like this is a Cinderella-esque tale about to go very awry. It’s likely we’ll soon discover that this story, at large, is really more of a tragedy. Here, there is no Prince Charming and there will be no wedding and there are no glass slippers. There is a king, however, and he will pass judgement, but he will not likely be benevolent.

Cavaliers in 5 games.


wcf

(#1) Golden State Warriors v. (#2) San Antonio Spurs

It’s hard to think, going into this Conference Finals, that there is any question about who will emerge to battle for the Championship. Rather, the real questions are either inconsequential or hypotheticals (which aren’t necessarily worth entertaining until they become real):

  1. How many games can the Spurs expect to push the series?
  2. The Warriors have looked otherworldly. As a healthy squad, can they get through another series without any key player(s) suffering injury?
  3. This one’s a hold-over from the Warriors/Jazz series, but it still has yet to be adequately answered:  What the hell do you do to stop Kevin Durant??

Regarding the initial question, the answer is heavily dependent on Kawhi’s health (i.e., his ankles). Even if Kawhi can start the series at 100%, the Spurs are still down Tony Parker, and that absence of skill and veteran experience will surely be missed against this Golden State squad. Despite the absence of Tony Parker, the Spurs are still the Spurs and they should not be slept on or underestimated–as they demonstrated in the previous series, not only besting a favored Rockets team, but doing so in only six games. But while the Warriors run a power version of D’Antoni’s high-shooting offense, they’re not only more consistent offensively (1st in the league in offensive efficiency), they’re also stronger than the Rockets were defensively, as well (just slightly 2nd in the league).

The Spurs, by contrast, are ranked first in the league in defensive efficiency, and they run an offense that is 9th in the league. Thus, by default the Spurs will likely be reliant on their defense to slow the pace of the game and better control possessions. Ever the disciplined team, this may be one of Pop’s weakest, shallowest postseason squads, and as such we saw that these Spurs can get rushed and be sloppy, and we’ve seen them keep some pace with Houston, but get out-shot and lose. And what we’ve seen of the Warriors suggests the Spurs’ best game plan won’t be just hoping for an off-night shooting, even if that will undoubtedly play some role in aiding any upset win(s). The Warriors are absolutely scary, but they’re not superhuman, and if any teams not named Cleveland stands a chance, it’s San Antonio.

Cleveland faces the same second question, and the Warriors must also work with the same unpredictability–though depending on the injury, Cleveland stands to suffer far worse. It’s not something anyone expects (Tony P. and Kawhi stand out as shocking for who they happened to as much as when the injury occurred), and, unfortunately for everyone else, injury may be the best chance of vanquishing these Warriors.

Barring unexpected and untimely injuries, it’s difficult to believe this Warriors team is not destined to again be in the Finals. Four of their starting five players are top-20 in the league. And while San Antonio has plenty of talent (some of it top-20) and loads of deep playoff experience, this may be the first time your correspondents can recall where Pop and the Spurs haven’t been thought of as a real challenger in the Finals. Maybe that will work to their advantage. If rule 1a dictates that the smart money is never bet against LeBron, then rule 1b is that you should never feel confident picking against the Spurs. A lot will fall on the shoulders of Kawhi and LaMarcus–maybe too much, but it’s still not a safe bet. And if the circumstances didn’t involve Chef and KD, your correspondents wouldn’t know where to put our money.

Warriors in 6 games.


*Updated 5/17 to complete the prediction for the Cavs/Celtics series.
*Warriors/Spurs prediction: made 05/14/3:00pm
*Cavaliers/Celtics prediction: made 05/17/4:30pm

The Spectator’s 2016-’17 NBA “Peanuts”(cont.)

May 2017

By A. Hart & J. Patrick

Defensive “Peanut” of the Year

Disclaimer: If you were unhappy that we didn’t give the “MVPeanut” to Kawhi, it seems unlikely that you’ll be satisfied here.

The lazy analyst will be content giving this award to Draymond or Kawhi without a second thought, but the numbers are really quite telling. No disrespect to the efforts of P-Bev, DJ, or Marc G, but this decision is, like the choice for Rook of the Year and “MVPeanut,” mostly between two players. Because while Draymond has some very impressive numbers, it really comes down to Rudy Gobert v. Kawhi Leonard. Before we upset, validate, or impress anyone, here are the numbers:

DPoY1

DPoY2

The Spectator’s top-5 candidates have had fantastic seasons, but, with total respect for all six players considered in our above stat-sheet, only four of these players made a significant contribution on the scale needed for more serious consideration for the Defensive Peanut of the Year in different ways. In putting the numbers into some wider context, your correspondents considered playing environment to evaluate the impact of their production–“Boogie” Cousins averaged a seriously-respectable double-double this season, but, because they have no depth and a middling backcourt, he and AD (who also balled out, as usual) missed the playoffs, yet they collectively carried Win Shares approximating 54.7% (AD accounted for nearly a third [32.3%]) of the Pelicans’ total wins. In fact, at the time of Cousins’ trade, Sacramento had 24 wins and “Boogie” had an approximated Win Share of 6.0, or 25% of the team’s success. But Cousins, ultimately, played in fewer than 70 games on the season and only carried a defensive rating of 104–so he maybe should have gotten more consideration, but that places him between P-Bev and Marc Gasol.

It’s not to say that Win Share is the best measure, but it is useful in considering approximate overall on-court impact. As a measure of “contributed success,” it should highlight exactly why “playing environment,” as we’ll call it, matters.

Only Gobert is on a team with a weaker offensive/defensive roster. By comparison, Kawhi’s team is older, but these vets are still incredibly versatile (and more disciplined); Draymond, in contrast to both, is surrounded and supported by a freakish amount of offensive talent–and on the defensive end, Klay and Iggy are solid defenders, and KD is  seven-foot SF with at least a 10-foot reach, and if that can’t aid a defense, something is truly amiss. Further, still, these extra defensive assets allow Draymond (a frequently fearsome shooting-Forward) to be more of a “roaming defender,” keeping on a mark, but maintaining the freedom to slide off, into pockets to cause trouble and make things happen. And DeAndre–despite his Clippers’ playoff history– runs the court with a squad that always seems to possess the potential to be an offensive juggernaut that also runs some capable defensive assets.

So, as far as our serious D-Peanut candidates, we’re looking at four players who are producing positive results on both ends of the floor–not just on defense–but three of these players (Leonard, Green, and Jordan) are supported by a roster capable of explosive offense. And of these three, only two players contribute heavily on defense and drive the team’s offensive momentum: Kawhi and Gobert.

Why is this important? Your correspondents believe this speaks to the different ways each player can/has to approach defense, and it helps explain the connection between the player’s stats and their overall impact, to which your correspondents give equal weight. Consider the following chart for a more advanced stat comparison:

DPoY Comparison

The above chart is useful for visualizing some of the more intangibles of on-court production for these three, players. But let’s be clear on this: you have to be careful how you think of the DPOY. For us at The Spectator, it means we’re looking for the player who has the most profound impact on your team’s defense by having that player on the floor vs. what that team would be without that player on the floor. Obviously the Spurs, Warriors, and Jazz are all better with their best defensive players on the floor, but, in your correspondents’ opinions, Gobert means just a little more to his team’s success on defense. In light of all these things:

Utah’s Rudy Gobert is The Spectator’s 2016-’17 DPoY.

Here’s why it matters that we began with a look at how their teams shape the gameplay of these ballers. In the end, to be completely fair, the best way to look at it is like this: Kawhi Leonard is, really without question, the league’s best individual defender–in the “Space Jam scenario,” if we had to build a squad to tackle an alien team, “Sports Guy” Bill Simmons explains it well (within his regular-season MVP argument), saying Kawhi’s the defensive specialist we’d want, “just in case they had a 6-foot-9 alien with five arms that we needed to lock down.” Draymond, by contrast, is the league’s most versatile defender, able to effectively defend all five positions with great success. Not just that–Dray is the glue of his squad. These two players, though they missed out on the DPoY this season, are very successful individually and that success contributes heavily to their teams’ season success.

rudyg

Gobert, though–we believe–was the most impactful defensive player in the league. Without him, the Jazz would be an average to below average defensive team. His presence on the floor allows his teammates to press up further on the 3-point line because they know the “Stifle Tower” is lurking behind them in case they get beat. And this is ultimately why Gobert got the nod on this one–he’s second in the league in defensive rating behind Kawhi, on a lower usage rate, and with a higher defensive plus/minus; his team was only ten games behind Kawhi’s and would no doubt be much closer if Gobert could produce offensively on the same magnitude as Leonard.

Oh, by the way, in that same MVP argument, Simmons calls Rudy Gobert “an offensive/defensive ratings god, an occasionally dominant force for the 50-win Jazz, the second-best French player ever, and a lifelong cautionary tale for anyone thinking about trading backward in the NBA draft just for cash.”



“6God” of the Year

6man

Ahh! Finally an easy one, or so we feel comfortable saying. (And on a side note, it should speak to the strength of Houston’s bench to have not just two 6MoY candidates on the roster, but two of the league’s top-3 this season, to be sure.)

Houston’s Lou Williams [17.5 pts/2.5 trb/3.0 ast, on 42.9% shooting (36.5% from the arc), with a PER of 21.4] would’ve been a nice choice, but the Lakers didn’t win enough games (particularly on the back of Williams’ production), before they sent him to Houston at the All-Star break–where his production was lower than that season average, from the trade deadline to the final game.

There are solid candidates in Denver’s Wilson Chandler [15.7 pts/6.5 trb/2.0 ast, on 46.1% shooting (33.7% from the arc), with a PER of 15.0] and Miami’s Tyler Johnson [13.7 pts/4.0 trb/3.2 ast, on 43.3% shooting (37.2% from downtown), with a 15.9 PER]. By the numbers, both had quality 6th-man seasons, but they played fewer games than Gordon and Williams, and their squads just missed making the playoffs, and in light of those facts, while their stats are definitely respectable, those contributions didn’t amount to a spot in the playoffs, and that’s a detriment toward gaining this award.

Memphis C/PF Zach Randolph, aka Z-bo, was absolutely fantastic in his new role, coming off the bench this year [14.1 pts/8.2 trb/1.7 ast, on 44.9% shooting, with a 18.5 PER] and his production didn’t really budge either, but he just didn’t seem to have the same pizzazz that he’s had over his career–and this season, his work on-court just was neither as dominant as Gordon’s, nor as flashy. Then again, when was the last time you heard someone refer to the Grizzlies as a sexy team to watch. Elvis won’t nothing but a hound dog, and that goes a long way in describing the Graceland’s basketball team.

Eric Gordon is The Spectator’s 6th Man of the Year for 2016-’17.

ericg6

What made Eric Gordon’s season so much more impressive than the other candidates this year is that it wasn’t a sure thing that he would be back in anything close to top form this year. We’ve always known he was a baller, and we know he’s always had issues staying healthy.

This is only the second time in his career he’s played 65+ games (75 games, generating a 13.1 PER). He’s always had starter-caliber ability, but the injuries always kept him sidelined. Something else that is interesting is that in the last five seasons, his two best scoring years have come when he’s received the lowest amount of minutes per game. This year EG is averaging 16.2 pts/2.7 trb/2.5 ast, on 37% shooting from beyond the arc and 40% shooting from the field. If you want to look at stats alone, Wilson Chandler and Lou Williams had a better season, but as we already stated, their production didn’t quite add up to winning.

Based on the numbers, it may be tempting to argue that Lou Will deserves the title, but, as was pointed out, Williams didn’t produce at the same rate in Houston as he did in LA–his Win Share is way down in Texas, but he also isn’t likely being asked to do the same kind of work and system he was in for the La La Land squad. Overall, Eric Gordon produced similar numbers to Lou Williams, doing it with a slightly lower usage rate and with a lower turnover percentage. Another way to consider the two players is to evaluate the contrast in their (Net) Real Plus/Minus numbers (+19.0, Gordon v. +14.7, Williams) because the similarity in their offensive production seems to highlight a key difference in Gordon’s defensive skills vs. those of Lou Will.

So, as we mentioned, Lou Williams had a better offensive season; the numbers, however, show that Gordon was not only the better two-way player, his contributions also had a greater impact on his team’s ability to win games. Throw in the fact that Gordon fits the Rockets scheme incredibly well, and you’ve got the perfect storm of statistical contributions and relevancy in winning. For all these reasons, your correspondents have chosen to give this “Peanut” to Eric Gordon.


*All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball Reference.

NBA Playoff Predictions

Second Round:
Conference Semi-Finals

April 2017

playoffs

Eastern Conference

(#1) Boston Celtics v. (#4) Washington Wizards

This is it. This is the #Rivalry series we all deserve. Almost as soon as “The Rivalry” became a thing, your correspondents were talking about the chances of this playoff series. After a series in which many were concerned about how this Boston team seems like a historically weak #1-seed, the (53-29) Celtics have a real chance to maintain their playoff momentum and to make a statement about their two-way strengths. In fact, on the other side, the (49-33) Wizards stand to gain from this series in much of the same way if they can find a way to circumvent Boston’s well-disciplined defense. There are also two, great coaches on display in Boston’s Stevens (The Spectator’s Coach of the Year) and Washington’s Brooks.

During the regular season, these teams split four meetings. And it’s because these teams are built relatively similarly. The biggest difference is in the perimeter games, because Boston is going from a relatively balanced team to one built to play like they do, but Washington is going from a series against a weak perimeter team to a series against a handful of outside shooters (Thomas, Smart, Bradley, Crowder, Rozier, Brown, and occasionally Horford)–in contrast to Washington’s 4.5 (Beal, Porter, Oubre, Bojan B., and Wall [with Morris and Gortat shooting long on rare occasions]). Because of this, Washington will need to find points consistently (which hasn’t been a huge problem), control the paint (where they may find themselves overwhelmed), and maintain a strong defensive press. It’s really in those final two elements where your correspondents feel the biggest questions loom: Can the Wizards control the posts and paint better than Boston’s big forwards? And, can Washington find a way to short-circuit the Celtics defensive shifts to create more opportunity? — Then, there’s the also important questions of, Can the Wizards keep up with Celtics’ shooting (or will they even need to, depending on Boston’s temperature)? And, how much will John Wall have to do on his own? The first questions seem crucial to this last one.

Isaiah Thomas is 12-3 in his career against John Wall, but Thomas can be a defensive liability, and this won’t be the John Wall of the regular season, but rather a harder-driving, fiery postseason John Wall–the John Wall who dominated the court in their opening series against Atlanta, even despite the Hawks pushing it to six games. Boston can’t afford a slow start to this series, however; if they go down two games, we could expect Washington to take the series in five or six games. Even if the Celtics start strong, your correspondents expect at least six games.

This is “the funeral” for which those during the season were simply practice. While we like Washington and love watching Wall wheel-and-deal at the point, your correspondent’s just aren’t sure they have neither enough depth nor enough tricks up their sleeves. 

Celtics in 7 games.

(#2) Cleveland Cavaliers v. (#3) Toronto Raptors

Call us crazy, but we think the Raptors have the best chance of any team in the East to beat the Cavs in a seven game series. Let’s call them the “Dark Horse of the East.” The (51-31) Raptors an interestingly explosive team with, arguably, more athleticism than this season’s (51-31) Cleveland roster. That said, most NBA fans and bookies should still feel very comfortable counting on the Cavaliers to best Toronto, and, likely, to do it handily. As such, your correspondents expect the Cavaliers to get it done in six.

All things considered, it’s also important to note that, if we’re being honest, the postseason form that Cleveland morphs into is usually much different than the form the work out of during the regular season, and they could easily and unmercifully sweep the Canadian Dinosaurs. Expect that result, too, if DeRozan doesn’t show up in All-NBA form. Maybe the worst of this series, though, will be dealt to Toronto’s Demarre Carroll. LeBron has a certain knack for punishing the guys that are supposed to be his most quality challengers, and Demarre Carroll has fit that mold for the last four or five years now, both on the Hawks and the Raptors. We also know the beating LeBron is going to lay on Demarre–it’s the historical record Carroll’s legacy carries. But it’s the rest of Raptors that will give the Cavs a fit.

Starting with Kyle Lowry, who should put his defensive chops on display against Kyrie Irving (and let’s hope amnesia sets in and he forgets the shelling he received last year), the shooting guard position will be the x-factor for both teams: If J.R. Smith’s jumper is falling, you can write this series off early. If, however, J.R. Smith is cool to cold and DeMar’s shot is falling, the Raptors may have a chance to limit the Cavs perimeter offense to only four solid threats (Kyrie, Korver, Kevin, and King James). Again, regardless of what J.R. does, DeRozan will have to at least be his usual self for the Raptors to be relevant in this series.

Considering the front court, it’s possible that too many people are sleeping on Toronto’s Serge Ibaka, who could easily return to the type of defensive nightmare he was back in his OKC days. Kevin Love is the better offensive player, but he also tends to be Charmin soft, and if Ibaka wants to, he should be able to lock him up–and he will have to do so from controlling boards in the paint to peskiness and solid man-defense at the arc. This should prove to be crucial to increasing any chance of Toronto winning this series. Pay attention to how well Jonas Valanciunas does this vs. Tristan Thompson as well, since he should have a fighting chance against the Cleveland Center (so long as he tries to outmuscle him and not outwork him–a battle he’ll likely lose every time).

Ultimately, the Cavs have a better bench, more (and better) talent, and more playoff experience. In some ways, it would be nice (i.e., more interesting) to see someone dethrone the King for a change, but it’s hard to see anyone without a LeBron James having a chance to beat Golden State. And it’s even harder to believe that LeBron might let this series get away from him and his Cavaliers. After getting charged up by a flailing Pacers squad, these Cavs are a careening meteor, and, unfortunately, the Raptors (and their fans) are facing an extinction-level event.

Cavaliers in 6 games.

Western Conference

(#1) Golden State Warriors v. (#5) Utah Jazz

What is to be said? Maybe this: No one really wants to meet this Warriors team in the playoffs, yet the Jazz are built to beat the warriors. But can they?

To do anything memorable in this series, the Jazz are going to have to live up to their namesake–they’re gonna have to play tightly together; a few people are gonna have to solo and they’ll have to do it well; they will have to improvise well and be predictably unpredictable, and to do it in a way that is at once effective and pleasantly surprising.

And it isn’t like they can’t do it. But the better question considers whether or not the Jazz can put it all together four times. And their season record supports this–the Jazz were 1-2 in their three meetings with the Warriors; and in those games: they won by 6 (April 10), they lost by 7 (Dec. 08), and they lost by 30 (Dec. 20).

This series, in a way, will hinge on game tempo, and Utah is going to have to control that as much as they can. They’ll have to,

limit Golden State’s chances in transition, make the Warriors work hard in the half court and find some way to score while grinding it out on the offensive end. That’s the formula the Jazz have used most of the season while allowing the fewest points and playing the fewest possessions in the NBA. (McCauley)

And it’s well worth noting that, according to ESPN’s Micah Adams, “Golden State’s pace of 96.1 against Utah is its slowest against any opponent over the past two seasons and over six possessions slower than its average pace against all other teams.”

If you missed their season play, Utah was strong for the above reasons, solidly anchored in the paint by the “Stifle Tower” Rudy Gobert (The Spectator’s DPoY) and supported on the wings by young phenom Gordon Hayward, the fascinating Joe Ingles, and the veterans “Iso Joe” Johnson and George Hill. Until his injury, Derrick Favors was outstanding off the bench for Gobert–though, as we saw in the first series, this generally younger team can be overly foul-prone at times. And with Exum, Hood, Burks, Diaw, Lyles, and Favors, the Jazz are a deeper team than most, and there’s no question they’ll need it. But if the bench can really step up, the Jazz are afforded a much greater chance to press Golden State further into the series.

The Jazz present some interesting match-ups in length and athleticism for Golden State–Gobert should make Zaza look foolish in the paint (which your correspondents would LOVE to see), and, as he has been all season, Rudy will be pivotal to the Utah’s ability to frustrate (if not stress) Golden State on both ends of the court. Javale McGee could be a possible solution to press Gobert, but McGee’s main issue will be quality minutes, and he can be streaky. Further, considering the backcourt, Utah, like Golden State, is equipped with multiple perimeter sharpshooters (Hayward, Hill, Hood, Ingles), and while the Jazz don’t shoot quite like the Warriors, they are more than capable of being a serious perimeter threat. And this is another way to stress out the opponent because there’s more space to need to account for, offensively and defensively.

Without question, one key to killing the Warriors game strategies is to interrupt Curry’s ability to roam and run the court like the monster he usually is. Consider this, though:

… the Jazz often run their offense through wings, leaving point guard George Hill to do what he does best — play off the ball.

Hill is as deft as Curry in running off off-ball picks and finding space in a defense. And when he gets the ball, he has an effective field goal percentage of 60 percent when he doesn’t take a dribble.

The Warriors will have to be creative with their defensive matchups in a series against the Jazz. With Boris Diaw and Joe Ingles often running the offense off the elbow and Gordon Hayward demanding a top defender, it’s clear that Thompson won’t be guarding Hill. The Warriors might be content with Curry defending Hill the entire series, lest the Jazz’s other ball handlers (including Hayward) — who more often than not play with George — bully Curry with their size. (Kurtenbach)

The remaining puzzle pieces are just questions, however:

  • What needs to be done to throw off Draymond, or at least to keep him away from significant points of action?
  • And what the hell do you do about Kevin Durant?

It would be interesting to see the Warriors go down to the “Dark Horse of the West,” if only because it would renew intrigue in the Finals, if not the league in general. But that’s a measured “interesting,” since losing one of the most dynamic and impressive teams in the league–in NBA history–doesn’t truly reason to be the most fun scenario (no matter how much fun the Jazz are to watch–and they are a ton of fun to watch).

In some ways, it’s tempting to pull for the Jazz to record their own Milestones in this series, but it’s very hard not to feel that any way it gets cut, Utah will only be playing their own versions of “Blues in Green.”

Warriors in 5 games (if the Jazz are lucky).

(#2) San Antonio Spurs v. (#3) Houston Rockets

This should be the most exciting series of the playoffs thus far for real basketball fans. And that’s because it has all the angles and makings of a classic series. We have two of the top four MVP candidates; we have the timeless, ageless (61-21) Spurs vs. the new look (55-27) Rockets. It’s efficiency vs volume–the smooth-operating machine from San Antonio vs the more-sporadic-than-lightening Rockets. It’s cool ranch vs hot sauce. Ok, so that last one was more of a metaphor, but we think you get what we’re saying. It’s a series of practicality vs. excess.

The Spurs won the regular season series, going 3-1 against D’antoni’s squad, but in those three W’s they only won by a combined margin of 10 points, and in the Rockets one win they only won by two points. Taken as a whole, the average margin of victory for all four games was three points, which suggests each game should come down to the wire. The only other head to head stat that’s worth mentioning is D’antoni’s head to head record vs coach Pop, sitting at 4-12; but that’s almost irrelevant considering this may be the best team D’antoni’s ever coached.

The most interesting development of this series is obviously whether or not, and how much, does Kawhi Leonard guard James Harden. Harden and Leonard are arguably the most prolific offensive and defensive players, respectively, so it’ll be worth seeing if Harden can use his crafty handles to trick the league’s most un-trickable defenders. Another matchup that will be worth noting is the power forward battle. Ryan Anderson, who is arguably the league’s deepest and most fearless shooting big, should provide a favorable contrast to Jamychal Green and Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies for Lamarcus Aldridge, who has been decidedly disappointing in the postseason up to this point. How the Rockets choose to handle Pau Gasol, and vice versa for the one Gasol left standing, will also be a fun matchup to watch seeing as how the Rockets have a diverse group at the center position. They could go with the most experienced and polished of the group in Nene, or they could go with the young low post anchor in Clint Capela, or they could even go with the younger, more athletic Montrezl Harrell if they want more athleticism on the floor.

Perhaps the x-factor in the series though could be Patrick Beverley, who showed in the series vs OKC that he can be THE difference maker in big situations that really give these Rockets lift off. Let’s shed light on a potentially less-interesting x-factor: Defense. No, it isn’t interesting because the Spurs will probably look to slow down the Rockets and force them off the three point line, but rather because of the individual matchups. Will the Spurs put Kawhi on Harden? Will they throw Green at him first to avoid foul trouble for Kawhi, and then stick him on Harden in the second half? Will the Rockets sic their pitbull, P-Bev, on the aging Tony Parker to slow down the dribble and the initiation of the Spurs offense, or will they put him on Green to slow down his three point shooting? Will Harden be a liability, regardless of who he’s guarding? Will any of the Rockets bigs be able to neutralize Gasol’s versatile offensive skillset? These are all questions weighing on my mind hours before this series tips off.

This series has everything you should want from the differing personalities and play styles; it’s a match-up of the quintessential perennial favorite vs the dark horse. It would be easy to pick the Spurs based off of their resume alone, but it’s hard to count the Rockets out, purely based off the offensive numbers they can put up. Here’s one final set of stats for you: the Rockets score 115.3 ppg vs the Spurs’ 105.3 ppg, which leaves a differential of 10 ppg; also, the Rockets give up 109.6 ppg vs the Spurs’ 98.1 ppg, which leaves a differential of 11.5 ppg. Overall, the numbers show an average differential of only 1.5 ppg.

This suggest what your correspondents have been trying to make clear: this series should go the full seven games, and could have either team advancing. Ultimately, because of their history, it’s hard to doubt the Spurs.

Spurs in 7 games.

-AH/JP