NCAA Tournament Thoughts

Where’s all the chaos?
It’s cliché to say the bracket feels harder to pick every year, but can anyone remember a year that seemed so wide open? Last year there were four or five dominant teams, one of which was a historically good team in Kentucky that entered the tournament undefeated. This year it seems like fifteen different teams could go all the way because no team has separated itself from the pack. And yet, almost everybody is picking Michigan State or Kansas. Why, after such a chaotic season, is everyone so bullish on those two teams?

Michigan State is understandable. There is no one better to bet on in March than Tom Izzo. Michigan State almost always outperforms its seed expectation. Either the selection committee habitually underseeds the Spartans – if anything, you would expect the opposite – or Tom Izzo is a March magician. And this year, Izzo has the country’s best player, do-it-all swingman Denzel Valentine, as well as Bryn Forbes who is one of the best shooters in the country. Michigan State is the most popular pick and for good reason.

But Kansas, despite its 30-4 record, is not invincible by any means. We’ve seen Bill Self teams with way more talent breeze through regular season only to stumble early in the tournament. Remember Ali Farokhmanesh? He was the guy from Northern Iowa raining 3s against Kansas in 2010 when they were the top overall seed. That Kansas team was 32-2 entering the tournament and had four future NBA players. No one considered the possibility of that 2010 Kansas team bowing out early. People are treating this year’s Kansas team the same way. Is the rest of the field that weak? Bill Self has had some immensely talented teams but this is not one of them. Their best player Perry Ellis probably will never play in the NBA. They lost by 19 earlier in the year to an Oklahoma State team that finished 12-20.

Beware of the overachievers
When filling out your bracket, there’s a tendency to overemphasize what just happened in the conference tournaments. It’s what is known as recency bias – we assume that what just happened will continue to happen. It’s actually a better idea to take a look at the first poll of the season, not the last. The preseason poll? Yep, that’s the one. It may seem counterintuitive to take more stock in the poll from right after Halloween than the one from a week ago, but the preseason poll is a strong indication of raw talent. It has its flaws, but at its core, it’s the coaches selecting who they think are the 25 most talented teams in the country. Throughout the season, things happen. Players get hurt, teams go through funks, and the poll changes. But that initial marker of talent at the start of the year is still helpful.

What you’ll often see is a team that was ranked highly in the preseason and then struggling in the regular season, only to make what is considered a surprising run in the tournament. Remember Kentucky a few years back? They were ranked first preseason and only earned an 8 seed, but then upset top-seeded undefeated Wichita State on their way to the championship game that they lost to UConn. It’s the case of a massively talented team that underachieved over the course of the year and figured things out right in time for the tournament.

The reverse is just as useful when looking for teams to stay away from. If a team is unranked before the season starts and climbs all the way to a high seed in the tournament, proceed with caution. On the surface it doesn’t make sense because we’re saying: This team won more games than people expected it to during the regular season, so will probably win fewer games than people expect it to in the tournament. The numbers bear this out: Since 2002, only four teams made the Final 4 after entering the season unranked.

This season, several highly seeded teams came out of nowhere. Top seeded Oregon, two seed Xavier, and three seeds West Virginia and Texas A&M all entered the season outside the top 25.

 

 

Wizards Game 3: Carmelo and Knicks put away the Wiz in the 4th

For the third game in a row, the Wizards found themselves locked in a tight game late in the fourth quarter. But the Wizards were unable to edge out the rejuvenated Knicks, marking the first loss of the year. Though the game was close throughout, the Wizards did not play particularly well. John Wall and Bradley Beal continued to carry the load, and Drew Gooden gave productive minutes off the bench with three putback tip-ins.

For the most part, the rest of the team struggled. Otto Porter finished with what a stat line that, if you missed the game, would look respectable, but he has shot poorly now in three consecutive games. Much of the Wizards ability to space teams out and run depends on the team’s ability to knock down 3’s. And right now, the only shooter that really worries teams is Beal. Maybe Otto is not a 40% 3-point shooter, like many optimists envisioned. He needs to be able to shoot over 35% though and knock down open corner 3’s – he had a couple against the Knicks with no one around that he missed.

The other two starters, Marcin Gortat and Kris Humphries, offered almost nothing. It’s inexplicable for someone Gortat’s size to only grab five rebounds. At least four or five times throughout the game, either Wall or Porter drove and dished to Gortat in the middle of the paint, only for Gortat to miss or get swatted by Robin Lopez. Meanwhile, it’s time to seriously consider whether Kris Humphries is destined to be a guy who beats up on backups. You know, someone whose energy is his best attribute, who grabs a bunch of rebounds and scraps around. It’s intriguing seeing him stretch his game out behind the arc, but it also just doesn’t seem right seeing him primarily line up 25 feet from the hoop on offense. He is most effective as a banger down low – a guy who makes a living on garbage points and tough rebounds.  Continue reading

Wizards Game 2: Barrage of 3’s in the fourth quarter propel Wiz past Buckss

For the second straight game, the Wizards played a subpar game and still managed to come away with the win. For most of the game, the Wizards looked lackluster on both ends of the court, but things started to click in the fourth quarter. Or shots just started dropping. Really, there is a difference between an offense firing on all cylinders and a team just getting ridiculously hot out of nowhere. It would be misleading to attribute to the fourth quarter offensive outburst to ‘pace and space.’ Some of the seven threes made by the team in the fourth definitely were a result of pushing the ball, but there were also several contested threes that you would never count on going in.

Regardless of the “how”, the Wizards are now 2-0 for the first time since 2005 – that seems like a long time even for the most cynical, jaded Wizards fans – and beat two underrated teams on the road. This was a gutsy win that, until the fourth quarter, seemed like a total no-show from the entire team. The Bucks got ahead to a 12 point lead midway through the first quarter and held a double digit lead for the remainder of the first. The first quarter was filled with much of the same sloppy play that plagued the Wizards in the season opener in Orlando. John Wall, despite the awesome numbers and clutch play, continues to jump the pass way too often. He did so six times in the first quarter, and those are the plays most frequently responsible for his turnovers.  Continue reading

Wizards Game 1: Wiz win season opener in dramatic final minute against Magic

For the first time in the Randy Wittman, there is intrigue and excitement over how the Wizards will play. All preseason long, the Wizards have promised a “Pace and Space” approach – something a little closer to what the Warriors dominated the NBA with last season. It is a shift towards small ball, surrounding arguably the fastest player in the NBA, John Wall, with three shooters and a big man. This, rather than the conventional lineup with two big men, Marcin Gortat and Nene last season, both of whom do not have range extending to the 3-point line. It’s a game plan that, ideally, utilize’s John Wall’s blazing speed better. When shots go up, the wings leak out and Wall races down court, putting constant pressure on defenses and opening up for 3-point barrages from Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, and whoever else fills the wing.

For all of the excitement surrounding the Wizards’ new look in the preseason, the season opener in Orlando felt like a preseason game. Both teams were sloppy. Beal opened the game with back to back turnovers, and then Kris Humphries followed suit with a turnover of his own. Though sometimes out of control, Wall mostly steadied the team through the first quarter, responsible for 14 of the team’s first 16 points, with eight points and two assists. The Wizards sprinted ahead to an 18-9 lead in part to hot shooting from deep from Bradley Beal, who finished the first quarter with 13 points off of 5-9 shooting. But the quarter ended with the Wizards holding a single bucket advantage, as the Magic rallied behind their latest two lottery picks, Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja. The second quarter showcased a little bit of the good and bad of the “Pace and Space.” Kris Humphries, who for his career is 2-6 from behind the arc, hit a corner 3! That is a new dimension to his game, as he knocked down 10-28 3’s in the preseason. The other bright spot of the second quarter was newcomer Gary Neal’s productivity. The career journeyman has made a living in the NBA as a scorer, and he knocked in three baskets off the bench to keep the Wiz above water. It’s clear that it will take time for the team to figure out when to push the ball and when not to. The Wizards had seven turnovers in the half, and the increased pace coincided with recklessness. That is a symptom of playing fast, though John Wooden said: “play quick, but don’t hurry.” The Wizards look hurried getting the ball down floor, and it will take time before Wall and the rest of the team figure out when the break is not on. Continue reading

Implications of Paul George Breaking His Leg

Last night, Indiana Pacers superstar swingman Paul George gruesomely broke his leg in a Team USA scrimmage, effectively ending his 2014-2015 NBA season. The injury was reminiscent of the broken leg suffered by former Louisville guard Kevin Ware almost a year and a half ago. The injury immediately raised concerns over how close the stanchion was to the baseline and whether this is the tipping point that ultimately ends superstars playing for Team USA.

The only true concern should be for Paul George. Although George’s max extension is just about to kick in at the start of the upcoming season, it’s disheartening to see such a young, talented player come down that sort of injury. It would be awful, regardless of how talented he is. But with the league just getting Derrick Rose back from his heap of injuries, it’s tough to see another one of the league’s most exciting and likable players to go down. The injury will have far reaching implications. Let’s examine them in order of importance:

Paul George
Everyone is hoping and praying that George returns stronger than ever, but that seems unlikely. Yes, George will recover. There’s no exact timetable for his return, but he’ll probably miss next season. Will he regain his explosiveness? No one knows right now. George is only 24 years old and was just starting to enter his prime. Even though the injury is not similar to those suffered by Derrick Rose, the situation seems eerily similar. An extremely young superstar set to be one of LeBron’s rivals loses an entire season due to injury, coming off of a career year. Everyone will be rooting for George to recover from his injury and continue to be a star. Whether he will be return to the league as a top player is uncertain though. We can only hope.  Continue reading

Kevin Durant Should Go to the Wizards, But Not Because It’s Home

What I’m going to say will not be popular. And I will probably be derided as a deluded homer, just rationalizing fake reasons as to why Kevin Durant should sign with the Wizards in two years. But I’ll say it anyway: Kevin Durant should sign with the Wizards in a couple of years, and not because he is from Washington D.C. Of course, that it is home adds to the allure, but plenty of basketball reasons are more responsible for why Durant should come to D.C.

The Wizards will make a strong push to sign the hometown hero Durant.

The Wizards will make a strong push to sign the hometown hero Durant.

Mind you this could all change relatively quickly if the Thunder win a championship this upcoming season. Before explaining why Durant should sign with the Wiz in a few years, let’s first remember how unlikely that is, and how many things would have to go right (or wrong, for Thunder fans) for KD to end up in Washington. With LeBron out of South Beach, the pecking in the NBA looks like this: 1) Spurs, 2) Thunder, 3) Everyone else: Clippers, Warriors, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Blazers, etc. The Thunder may even be 1B, ever so slightly trailing the Spurs. During the regular season, the Thunder were 4-0 against the Spurs, and if not for Serge Ibaka’s injury, the Thunder may have ended up hoisting the Finals trophy instead. Which is all to say, there is a very good chance that the Thunder win the title this season. And if that happens, there is just about a zero percent chance Durant leaves. Just for the sake of argument though, what if Russell Westbrook gets hurt again. Then what? Supremely talented as he is–easily one of the ten best players in the NBA–Westbrook has undergone three knee surgeries already at the tender age of 25. Each time, Westbrook has returned from injury just as effective as before, but how many more blows can he take?  Even if Westbrook does stay healthy, that’s no guarantee that the Thunder are going to win a title. It’s not like Westbrook and Durant are natural fits next to each other. There’s the constant subplot of whether they can coexist, always present just below the surface, adding tension after failed fourth quarters. Continue reading

The Best Offer the Timberwolves Will Receive for Kevin Love

With Andrew Wiggins signing his rookie contract with the Cavaliers four days ago, he is now unable to be traded for 30 days (26 now, as the signing took place four days ago). With that, speculation regarding a possible Kevin Love trade has ramped up in the past few days. There seem to be three teams with a semi-legitimate chance at acquiring Love: the Cavs, who remain the frontrunner, the Warriors, who are hellbent on keeping Klay Thompson, and the Bulls, who are probably the long shot destination for Love.

Trading Kevin Love is not ideal. That much is clear. Love is a superstar and the NBA is a league whose fate hinges on where the superstars play. Basketball–unlike sports like football, baseball, or soccer–is a sport where one player really can make the difference in a team. With only five players on the floor at a time, one player can make a big difference. Basketball is not a sport with teams of twenty players like soccer, or fifty-ish players like football. There are only usually 10-12 guys on an NBA team, eight or nine of which will consistently play. Trading a superstar in the NBA almost never yields equal or even close to equal return. Often, teams trading the superstar will get three quarters on the dollar back, if they’re lucky. Lately in the NBA, when superstars have been traded, it has been for a package of assets, sort of a mystery box. Some young players here, picks there, and maybe some cap space too. The deals have looked like those you see in MLB, where a star player is traded for a handful of prospects. It’s almost always impossible to accurately grade the deal when it’s made. You’ve got to wait and see how good (or bad) the prospects end up being, and that can take years. That is precisely the type of deal the Cavaliers are offering the Timberwolves right now. They’re offering Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, as well as several first round picks for Kevin Love. In other words, their two brightest prospects and future prospects for Love. Continue reading

The Best Player Left in Free Agency Is Delusional

Everyone expected the post-Steve Nash Suns to struggle. Last year, most people safely assumed the Suns would tank to get a top pick and land Wiggins or Parker. Little did anyone know Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe would form one of the league’s best backcourts, and that Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee would be real contributors. The Suns raked in 48 wins though, finishing just a game out of the Western Conference playoffs. The Suns have become one of the more attractive teams in the league, with a good, young nucleus and tons of cap space. But for some reason, they haven’t been able to lure top-tier free agents Phoenix. Aside from the Isaiah Thomas signing, the Suns have remained relatively quiet this offseason.

Their top priority heading into the offseason was to re-sign Eric Bledsoe, the 24-year old point guard, who in his first year as a starter, displayed borderline All-Star ability. Playing behind Chris Paul for the past few years in LA, Bledsoe was unable to show the wide range of his ability. But last year in Phoenix, Bledsoe had a very successful year. The only minor concern regarding Bledsoe was that he needed knee surgery last season. When healthy though, he was very productive, averaging a line of 18-6-5 on a nightly basis. Those are good, but not great numbers, even for a 24 year old.

The Suns offered Bledsoe a 4 year/$48 million deal, a very fair deal, identical to what Kyle Lowry got a few weeks ago. Lowry is definitely a better player at this stage, but Bledsoe is a few years younger. The Suns’ offer for Bledsoe is a bigger deal than what Steph Curry got a few years ago. Of course, it must be noted that Curry had some ankle problems at the time, and that is why the offer wasn’t a max. But still. Bledsoe is not the player Curry is. Continue reading

Why the Timberwolves Should Trade Kevin Love For Andrew Wiggins

It’s understandable that the Timberwolves are reluctant to trade All-Star power forward Kevin Love. He’s only 25 years old and averaged 26 points and nearly 13 rebounds per game, making him the NBA’s third leading scorer and fourth leading rebounder. Love gets killed by the media for having never made the playoffs, but he’s never had a teammate who made the All-Star game. Not even once. Right now, with one year left on Love’s deal–thanks to David Kahn, who decided three years ago to save Minnesota’s max deal for Ricky Rubio–the Timberwolves don’t have much leverage. If the Wolves hold onto Love, he will surely leave the team in free agency in the summer. The only thing Minnesota can really do is try to drive up Love’s price, pitting the Cavaliers and Warriors, who are firm in their refusal to part ways with Klay Thompson, against each other and creating a bidding war.

Even though David Kahn isn’t the Wolves’ GM anymore, it’s still hard to see them making the right decision here. Rumor is that they’re more interested in Thompson than Wiggins because they view Thompson as more ready to help them now. It might just be a rumor, but if it’s true, the Warriors are thinking about this all wrong. They aren’t winning now, period. And they sure aren’t winning with Klay Thompson as their best player. The T’Wolves need to realize that they are not going to win now, but they can still set themselves up very nicely for the future.andrew-wiggins-vertical Continue reading

Cavs Make Right Decision and Are Now Willing To Trade Wiggins For Love

The Cavs have finally stopped lowballing the Timberwolves in their pursuit of Kevin Love. No longer are the Cavs only offering Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, and a first round picks for Love. The Timberwolves have held out, with the hope of getting Andrew Wiggins in return, and it looks to have paid off. Despite having little leverage, as Love only has a year left on his current deal, the Wolves may get their guy Wiggins. This being after Cavs rookie head coach David Blatt recently shot down the chance of a potential trade involving Wiggins, saying:

“There’s no reason or cause for worry on his part because Andrew’s not going anywhere, as far as I know and as far as the club has expressed”

Apparently the Cavs changed their mind on Wiggins, and then LeBron reached out to Kevin Love on the possibility of playing together. Or maybe, LeBron reached out to Love, and then the Cavs changed their mind. That makes a little more sense. LeBron gets what he wants. His two year deal, with the player option after year one, may be a way of maximizing the money LeBron earns, but it’s also his way of keeping leverage over Dan Gilbert and the Cavs. It’s a way of putting pressure on management to be proactive and improve the team. Continue reading