Oklahoma@Miami, Lakers@Clippers: This much we know

April 5, 2012

By Jack Maidment

Four teams with realistic championship aspirations faced off against each other on Wednesday night with the NBA regular season finish line in sight.

Here’s what we learned.

Oklahoma City Thunder @ Miami Heat.

@There are way too many hot, young women going out with old (rich) men in Miami. Man.

@My heart might want something different (I see you Chi-Town) but an OKC-Miami NBA Finals would be out of this world. The standard of play when both teams are on the floor is off the scale.

@Kevin Durant has acquired The Look.

@LeBron James-KD is the best player match up in the league by a long way. They play each other pretty much the entire game and guarantee the other a tough night, both offensively and defensively.

@OKC can be nasty when it needs to be. Between Ibaka, Perkins, Mohammed and Collison, the Thunder have four solid bodies who can dish out a hit and on Wednesday they did. Frequently. The game had more missed layups than any other I have watched this season and every one was down to players waiting for the crunch.

@If I was a Miami fan, I would worry about Chris Bosh. He was milk-carton missing on Wednesday night and wanted no part of a positively scary OKC frontline.

@On that note, OKC’s front line is the best in the league. Between Perkins, Ibaka and Durant the Thunder have everything you need to be a great team on both ends of the floor.

@If Shane Battier cannot consistently make the left corner three in the fourth quarter the Heat could be in big trouble.

@Eric Spoelstra must drink a lot of Red Bull prior to each game. He walks around a lot. (Could make a ‘he spends more time on the floor than Mike Miller’ joke here, but I won’t because I am all class.)

@There is no scarier defensive player in the League than Serge Ibaka.

@If OKC-Miami do meet in the Finals Mike Breen is going to need to take a deep breath.

@Mike Breen is the best announcer in the NBA and it’s not even close.

@James Harden is the slipperiest player the the league.

Los Angeles Lakers @ Los Angeles Clippers

@There are way too many hot, young women going out with old (rich) men in Los Angeles. Man.

@Kobe Bryant is still Kobe Bryant. The ‘raise up’ wing three pointer he hits with alarming regularity is probably the toughest shot any player takes in the league and it is also probably the most demoralising for the opposition.

@Yes Blake, the dunks are nice. But they are still only worth two points.

@Pretty sure Vinny Del Negro pulls names out of a hat to pick his starters and their minutes.

@Chauncey Billups has some truly horrible ties.

@Andrew Bynum is the biggest and strongest player in the league. There is no one in the entire NBA who can play him one on one any more. He made DeAndre Jordan look like a 6-year-old on the low block.

@Blake Griffin looks lost in just about every half court set. Although to be fair, so would you if you had VDN teaching you.

@Randy Foye cannot play Kobe Bryant straight up. Who knew. Kobe was asked in his half time interview what he thought about the Clippers leaving Foye on an island. Kobe grinned and simply said in that situation ‘it’s just time to go to work’.

@Pau Gasol is the most skilled big man in the league. He is also the owner of the best stinkface. After Blake dunked on him a second time on Wednesday Pau gave a facial expression similar to the one given by a workman who arrives home to see his wife getting banged by an alligator. Amazing.

@A Clipper-Laker series would be fun, but the Lakers would win.

@Ramon Sessions is an upgrade over Derek Fisher in the same way that the animation in Toy Story is an upgrade over Steamboat Micky.

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NBA Superstar League: Durant by a distance

January 27, 2012

By Jack Maidment

A weekly statistical snapshot, out every Friday, ranking ten of the best players in the league.

Our 10: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James/Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge.

Let’s get to it.

Week 3.

1. Kevin Durant: NOH, DET, NJN. It was only a matter of time before Durantula made it to the top of the NBA Superstar League (5th last week). His Oklahoma City Thunder have won their last three and have the NBA’s best record at 15-3. KD had games of 25-7-4, 20-5-2 and 20-15-3 this week and he is the main reason OKC is looking like the best bet to come out of the West.

2. Kevin Love: DAL, HOU, UTA. New contract, same player. Nobody in the league is doing more to help his team win than Love who is top five in both rebounding and scoring. The Wolves did lose twice this week (Houston, Utah) but that’s to be expected. They are young and going through the same learning-to-win process experienced by the Oklahoma City Thunder two years ago. More than that they downed the champs in Dallas behind 31-10 from Love who was 4-6 from three. Can he do anything more?

3. LeBron James: DET, CLE, MIL. He was number one last week and he has continued his strong play in the absence of Dwyane Wade. Two wins and a loss to Milwaukee (urgh), but good James games them all. In each he had at least 5 assists as he sought to set the table for the whole team. He is a joy to watch at the moment. The question is, will things change when Flash returns?

4. Derrick Rose: IND, NJN, TOR. Rose was effectively exempt from the Superstar League last week due to injury but he has come back strong after two wins and a loss, all without Luol Deng who has caught the prevalent Bulls injury bug. Yes the wins were against bad teams (Nets, Raptors) but you can only play who is in front of you. Rose has Chicago tops in the East with a 16-4 overall record, 8-2 in their last 10. For the Bulls to carry on with that pace without Deng it will mean Rose giving even more for the cause. And he will. Rise.

5. LaMarcus Aldridge: GSW, MEM, SAC. The Blazers are slumping a little of late, 4-6 last 10, and LA has struggled with consistency but two wins and a loss this week should help steady the ship.

6. Kobe Bryant: LAC, IND, ORL. KB24 fell from 1st to 7th last week as the Lakers struggled to score. They are the league’s third best defense according to the numbers but the other end of the floor has been a problem, especially for the bench where production has been virtually non-existent. However, the Lakers snapped their skid on Wednesday night with a marquee win in a chippy game against the Clippers. Kobe threw the ball away 7 times but was successful in sharing the ball, especially early on, dishing 6 assists to go with his 24 points. He stays put, give or take one or two.

7. Chris Paul: MEM, LAL. CP3 has only just returned from a hamstring injury and this week we learned he doesn’t like people touching his head. Aside from that Paul gave us a demonstration of how to control a game by passing with his 4 points 12 assists against the Lakers. He drops but fitness and lack of activity is mainly responsible.

8. Dwight Howard: BOS, IND, BOS. Dwight Howard had a bad week with two awful losses against the Celtics, begging the question: is the trade speculation (this week the Knicks) getting to Dwight? Probably not. It’s more about the team he’s on and the relative lack of help he receives. If he doesn’t do it, who else will? The Celtics embarrassed the Magic and Howard twice this week. Good enough for a four place drop.

9. Carmelo Anthony: CLE, CHA, DEN. Uh-oh. 17 games into the season and there are already calls for the Knicks to blow up the roster and trade one of their stars. Carmelo was bottom of the Superstar League last week and he deserves to be there this week too. In their last 8 games, the Knicks have won 1, lost 7, the lone victory coming against the Charlotte Bobcats. Melo scored 1 point. Man. If he could be lower than 9th he would be.

10. Dirk Nowitzki. Has not played in almost 10 days due to injury and a terrible haircut, hence the fall.


Starting Five: The week’s best NBA players

January 18, 2012

By Jack Maidment

The Week’s Best

@Carlos Boozer. The Chicago Bulls power forward with the fat contract scored 31 points, a season high, against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday in a 118-97 win while pulling down six rebounds. He put up 26 of them in the first half as Chicago played another game without All-World point guard Derrick Rose. It’s the kind of game the Bulls were expecting when they snatched Boozer from the Utah Jazz and the kind of game he has seldom played since moving to the Windy City. For the Bulls to keep winning without Rose and to win in June they need more games like this from Boozer.

@Louis Williams. The Philadelphia 76ers are currently in the midst of a three game winning streak and are undefeated at home (6-0) with an overall record of 10-3, good enough for tops in the Atlantic Division and second (!) overall in the Eastern Conference. No one on the Sixers scores more than 16 points a game but they have seven guys averaging double digits. Phila may be winning by committee, but Williams is their spark plug. He hasn’t started any games this year, coming off the bench 13 times, but he leads the team in scoring at 16.2 points a game in just 25 minutes. He’s also throwing in four assists and shooting .417 from three.

@Dwight Howard. The game’s best center has been going berserk in the last week, leading the Orlando Magic on a five game win streak and third place in the Eastern Conference. In his last three games he has scored 78 points as well as grabbing almost 17 rebounds a night.

@Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City fans rejoice. The Thunder are on an NBA-best seven game win streak and possess the league’s best record while their two best players are playing so well I couldn’t choose between them for this week’s Starting Five. Westbrook has had games of 26-7-4, 21-8-8 and 22-2-7 in his last three while Durant over the same period has scored 28, 28 and 29. They are the league’s best pairing at present and are starting to distance the Thunder as the best in the West.


NBA Superstar League: The reign of Kobe

January 13, 2012

Kobe starts off #1

By Jack Maidment

NBA Superstar League: A weekly statistical snapshot, out every Friday, ranking ten of the best players in the league.

Play well and your team wins, you move up the table. If you suck, lose or moan about team mates, you move down. Simple.

The ten are in place for this season with LeBron/Wade counting as one person.

Our 10: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James/Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge.

Let’s get to it.

Week 1.

1. Kobe Bryant: UTA, PHX, MEM. Three wins. More than 100 points scored. Nine total turnovers. At least 38 minutes played each game. Kobe is the superstar playing the best right now. It’s not even close. He is on a tear. Number one.

2. Kevin Durant: NOH, MEM, SAS. Three wins against two and a half good teams and lots of work from Durant. He has done a lot of everything this week, 29-3-10 with 4 blocks against New Orleans, 22-5-11 going 8-8 from the line against the Grizzlies and 21-7-10, 10-10 from the line against the Spurs. He has been doing what superstars do. Just win.

3. Dwight Howard: GSW, POR, SAC. Three good wins for a bad Magic team and Dwight did what he had to do to grab the Ws. He put up 45 and 23(!) against the Warriors who made him shoot 39(!) free throws to earn them, the most in NBA history.

4. Chris Paul: MIA, POR, MIL. Two wins and a loss to Portland. Huge win against the Heat in which he had 26-11-6 and three steals. Forgettable games against the Blazers and Bucks, but on the strength of his performance against Miami, Paul deserves his fourth place spot.

5. Derrick Rose: MIN, DET, ATL. Two wins and a loss. He put up 31 and 11 on Minnesota and 22 and 8 on the Pistons, both wins. He struggled against the Hawks, scoring just 8 with 6 assists in a tough loss. He outdueled Ricky Rubio, did what he had to do against Detroit and went 3-10 against the Hawks. A mediocre week by the MVP’s standard. But the Bulls are 10-2. He’ll move up next week.

6. Dirk Nowitzki: BOS, DET, NOH. A shadow of who he was last season but three wins nonetheless. He scored just 10 on 2-11 shooting against New Orleans before picking it up against hapless Detroit. He’s not Dirk right now, but he is getting there, and wins are wins.

7. LaMarcus Aldridge: ORL, LAC, CLE. A loss against a reasonably good Magic team and two wins against the Clippers and Cavaliers. He has been solid, if not stellar, and averaged about 22 and 8 in the last three. All he needs to move up further are a few big nights with marquee wins.

8. Carmelo Anthony: MEM, PHI, CHA. He put up 14 before spraining his ankle against Memphis and 27 and 22 the two games before. The Knicks had won four in a row before losing to the Grizzlies, but are 5-5 in their last 10, so hopefully his Knicks are starting to figure it out.

9. Kevin Love: CHI, TOR, WAS. Two losses and a win. Minnesota’s PF has struggled mightily this week. He went 5-18 from the field against the Bulls, 3-16 against the Raptors (both losses) and 7-16 in a win over the Wizards. He has less talent to work with than most of the other guys on this list, but still, he hasn’t played well the last three.

10. LeBron James: LAC, GSW, NJN. Two losses and a win. He was 9-17 from the stripe in a loss to the Clippers. His line was 23-7-13 but the free throws in the fourth quarter killed his team. In a loss to the Warriors he had 26-7-11. His best performance was reserved for a win against the horrible Nets who he torched for 32-9-7. Superstars win games when it matters. This week he didn’t.


The Oklahoma City Thunder are Knocking

March 6, 2010

by Jack Maidment

Their final season in Seattle? They finished 20-62. Not good.

Their first season in Oklahoma? 23-59. Better, but still downright filthy.

People acknowledged that the Oklahoma City Thunder were heading one way and one way only a little while ago, but even so, their improvement this year can only be seen as a major surprise.

Currently sitting 12 games above .500, the Oklahoma City Thunder have come a long way.

Are they reliant on Kevin Durant?

Absolutely, but so would you be if your team had a player as good and as potentially great, actually great, as Durant.

He is 21 years of age, the leader of an NBA franchise and the finest pure 3 in the game.

Is Carmelo Anthony better offensively?

By a wafer, yes.

But given his age his all round game and his length, Durant is the man you take if you’re starting a franchise from scratch tomorrow.

And that is not easy to say.

Carmelo possesses the finest combination of being able to score and being able to score in a variety of ways.

LeBron is power.

Carmelo is finesse. But crucially he can be power personified.

The point, is Durant will reach the same stage.

When his jumper gets some polish and his post game improves there will be no question. And then there will only be one for KD to aim for.

To only associate the Thunder with the Texas Longhorn does a major disservice to Russell Westbrook whose development and contribution have been overshadowed by his team mates’ scoring streak.

But. Without Westbrook, and for that matter Jeff Green, the Thunder would not be experiencing the rush toward the top of the West that they find themselves in.

They are seeded 6th in the West with the 9th seed Memphis 5 games behind.

The Thunder seem a lock for the post season which will provide Durant and co another chance to show just how far they’ve come.

And how far they are planning to go.


The Oklahoma City Thunder are only headed one way.

December 14, 2009

by Jack Maidment

When assessing the deemed quality of a team’s draft selections over the past 3 years, what do you look for?

Games won or individual points per game? Best plus/minus rating or perhaps how quickly a player ‘fits in’?

All of the above can play a part in guiding an evaluation but ultimately the single most important question regarding new players has to be: where are they headed?

The players drafted by already successful teams must fill a niche in order to be rewarded with playing time and if they are perceived to be unable to contribute, or if they happen to face superior talent at their position, they will not play, in which case the answer is brutal in its simplicity. No place fast.

Players drafted to losers face different problems, but problems all the same.

Expectations are usually a volatile mix of despair and ‘new dawn’ at the basement dwellers. If you were chosen in the lottery it is very much deemed your responsibility to resurrect a previously moribund franchise.

There are minutes to be had but there is no learning curve steeper.

Losing will become all too familiar and only the truly persistent, not to mention talented, will prevail through the storm of progress which will inevitably involve at least one loss of faith by the fans.

Vehemently believing that progress is being made and that the sunlight of the playoffs is not too far away is key, especially when the boos are raining down.

Every team not talking championship will churn out the same rhetoric at the start of every season, that the franchise is going in the right direction and that young players are gradually utilising their potential, but the conviction they have in every cliché that they speak can mostly be described as wavering at best.

There are very few teams in recent years to have prophecised a bright future and then actually gone about delivering one.

Only two spring to mind: the Portland Trailblazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Teams that have been as low as you can go, categorical rebuilders, that have drafted well and grown as a team over a number of years in steps that can be easily identified.

No empty promises and General Manager speak. Just empirical results.

In Brandon Roy and LeMarcus Aldridge the Blazers drafted two players in whose hands the future of a franchise could be safely placed and through cunning in successive drafts they have been able to surround their leaders with the kind of complementary players that enable 50 win seasons and playoff runs.

Crucially, the Blazers stuck to their strategy, maintaining their youthful vision even when the losses were piling up.

They acknowledged the importance of learning together rather than seeking veterans who could taint the mix.

They were thrown in at the deep end. Eventually they swam.

The future has arrived for the team once known as the Jailblazers: 3 years ago making the playoffs was a pipe dream, this year just making it there isn’t enough.

If ever there was a case of duplicated blue prints the Thunder have traveled the same road as Portland in pursuit of wins and a team to be proud of.

In recent times, no team has been under heavier reconstruction than the Zombie Sonics.

Where many teams have readjusted or retooled, the Thunder have entirely re-modeled, building from scratch a team capable of making noise in the years to come.

In a coincidental twist of fate the promise of a better tomorrow for the Thunder was heavily influenced by the actions of the team most like themselves.

By passing on Kevin Durant for Greg Oden the Blazers ensured OKC would have the centrepiece on which they could build.

Injuries have restricted Oden’s progress and the fact that the Blazers are as good as they are without him suggests that if he can get healthy for any stretch of time Portland could be Finals material

The fortunes of the man picked directly behind him could not be any more contrasting.

Durant has gone from highly touted prospect to potential MVP and best player in the game discussions within the space of 3 seasons.

A meteoric rise indeed.

The Thunder were simply in the right place at the right time to grab Durant: the stars aligned as they occasionally do and they took advantage.

Few teams will ever experience that kind of luck.

That is without taking into account the calibre of Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook who make up Oklahoma’s Holy Trinity, three players drafted a year apart with the realistic ability to drive the Thunder toward title contention.

Currently sitting at two games above .500, the Thunder stand a very real chance of making the playoffs, the next step on their path to possible greatness, despite being just a year removed from a 23-59 record.

Durant may receive the majority of the plaudits but the respect and admiration for his running mates is coming: there is a reason why Charles Barkley calls Westbrook a ‘stud’.

Generously listed as 6’3, Westbrook is as springy as they come, the product of hours of sand work and plyometrics. Quick as a cat and strong to boot the UCLA product will challenge Mr Paul and Mr Nash for best point guard honors in the years to come.

As for Green, the man is versatile. Playing on the wing or in the post the Georgetown alumni presents opposing forwards with the kind of match up problems that coaches love to hate.

It will be apparent soon enough whether James Harden, OKC’s newest young gun, will force the Three Amigos into the Fantastic Four but it is already clear that the shooting guard will be at worst a solid and effective offensive weapon. He can score. Consistently.

If he can find the next level in the NBA the Thunder will possess not only the youngest core in the League but also the most fearsome in terms of where they are collectively, and individually, destined.

Add projects like BJ Mullens and the rehabilitated Shaun Livingstone to the Thunder mix and the roster is clearly on its way toward strength in depth, a prerequisite for competing at the highest level.

The Blazers and Thunder are moving forward rapidly and they have their unwavering vision, and luck, to thank for it.

So where are they headed? The Finals eventually.

The difficulty is that they will have to through each other to get there.


Shaq Means Championship? NBA GMs Look To Change Their Fortunes With Trades

April 15, 2009
Center Seeks New Home, Willing To Travel For Rings.

Center Seeks New Home, Willing To Travel For Rings.

The final day of the season represents two separate things. For those 16 teams in playoff positions it is a last opportunity to try and improve their seeding. For the other teams in the League it is a chance to savour the last competitive encounter of the lengthy season and to look forward to a period of relaxation and the off season improvement that follows.

 

While the players of teams like the Grizzlies and the Warriors go fishing and eventually hit the gym, the front office of each franchise will be busily planning and revising their strategy for constructing a team capable of storming the playoffs next season.

 

Some of the playing personnel will be working out harder than others in the off season, or at least you would suspect they were, given the fluctuating nature of rosters in teams not necessarily happy with their performance.

 

Some players will be cut and asked to look for employment elsewhere, whereas others will be nervously anticipating any trades that could materialise. The nature of the economy dictates that many teams will in all likelihood not be involved in any blockbuster transactions. So, if we were still in the days of the boom, rather than the bust, which players would be looking for new accommodation?

 

Shaq. Despite his aging hulk of a body, the Big Diesel has proven this season that he is still a major force in the paint, replicating some of the form which led the Lakers and the Heat to Championships. If he is healthy he is still one of the best centers in the L without question.

 

It is highly doubtful that a player who likes to deal in rings is at all happy with his early holiday. Missing the post season is simply not Shaq. The acknowledgement that the great experiment in the desert, where Shaq’s Ying did not mesh as hoped to the Sun’s track meet Yang, is over will surely lead to the Big Aristotle leaving Arizona.

 

The rumoured mid season trade to the Cavaliers should have happened simply because Shaq and LeBron on the same team would be just too much fun. Imagine the pre-game introductions. Imagine Shaq reducing the Celtic’s front line to tears. Imagine the fifth ring and the parade.

 

There is no doubt that Cleveland could use a banging inside presence to compliment Big Z’s more cultured/finesse approach on offense, and Cleveland’s contender status would provide a fitting stage for Shaq to bow out as one of the greatest to have ever played the game.

 

While Shaq finishes his career in Cleveland, a young player could make a big step toward post season success by ditching his lowly franchise for a legit contender. Enter Kevin Durant. Despite the fact that the people of Oklahoma would probably riot if the trade were to go through, KD to Houston would catapult the Rockets forward giving them an explosive swingman capable of hitting big shots: something that they are already supposed to have but for injury after injury to T-Mac.

 

Not only would the Rockets have a great 1-2 punch in Yao and Durant instantly, they would also safe guard the future of the franchise with Durant looking likely to cement his position as one of the League’s absolute elite players, possibly taking Kobe Bryant’s mantle when the lock Hall of Fame player decides to retire in the relatively near future. Durant versus LeBron could replace LeBron versus Kobe as the clash of the titans.

 

The trade of Shaq and Durant as illustrated above may be slightly fantastical to say the least, so how about a shade of realism? The Wizards, the worst team in the East and second worst in the League, have a statistically compelling shot at the number 1 draft pick for this year’s draft. Taking Blake Griffin first overall would give the Wiz some much needed power down low and height on the boards. Combine what is considered to be the only lock-star in the draft with Washington’s roster and on paper you have a contender. On paper.

 

Injuries have blighted the Wizards the past few years but one season is all they need to get back toward the top end of the League. Gilbert Arenas, on the back of rest and renewed focus, is easily one of THE elite guards in the NBA. There is perhaps only one guard by the name of Kobe who you would rather have the ball down the stretch.

 

Caron Butler gives scoring and defensive toughness. Antawn Jamison is probably the most under-rated scorer in the entire League. Guaranteed points. Brendan Haywood gives them valuable size and presence in the paint. Add Griffin and a few veteran role players and the Wizards record one of the biggest turnarounds on their way to a deep post season run.

 

One or two trades is all it can take in the NBA for a franchise to transform its fortunes, see Celtics, Boston. And, Cavaliers, Cleveland.  Equally, one or two trades can be enough to cause an otherwise successful franchise to implode, see Suns, Phoenix. And Pistons, Detroit.     

 

Mediocrity is far from good enough in professional sports, so change is in the air regardless of the economy because ultimately the pursuit of trophies does strange things to people.