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The NBA’s biggest surprises, halfway through the season–Part 2

Yesterday, we took a look at some of the biggest surprises for this half-NBA season, including the surprising mediocrity of the Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves (but perhaps not in the same context) and just how terrible the Brooklyn Nets are. Peep the second half right here!
 
Portland’s excellence despite their defensive shortcomings
 
Under almost any metric you can interpret, the Portland Trail Blazers are the best offense in the NBA. Led by Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, they can beat you in almost any fashion. They are willing and accurate three-point shooters, deadly from mid-range and potent in almost every rotation with guys like Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and now C.J. McCollum. The numbers are all there—they have the most offensively versatile starting five in the NBA and a very good bench behind them. In that sense, it’s no surprise they have the fifth best record in the NBA.
 
But defensively they’re not very good. They allow the 4th most points per game, coming in 22nd in defensive efficiency. They are the worst squad in the NBA at forcing turnovers and 22nd in opponent’s offensive rebounding numbers. Luckily, this team scores so well that they’re not often penalized for their defensive lapses. In many ways, they’re the lucky versions of the Minnesota Timberwolves—high scoring, efficient but with two closers at the end of games instead of Minny’s one. Portland could very well continue to thrive during the regular season, but I’m not sure how well they’ll fare during the playoffs with such mediocre to poor defensive scheme.
 
The completeness of Lance Stephenson
 
“Born Ready” Lance Stephenson was a Brooklyn, NY playground prospect, whose legend and skillset earned him a spot as one of the most highly recruited teenagers in the country. After spending one very mediocre season at the University of Cincinnati that was marred with rumors of him being difficult to coach, Stephenson made the jump to the NBA. Unsurprisingly, he was drafted 40th overall in the 2009 NBA Draft by Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers. His per game numbers in his first two NBA seasons were extremely uninspiring (just 54 total games played with averages of 2.6/1.3/1.2), especially for two decent, but unspectacular NBA squads. There was no doubt that he could be a very good pro defender, but it seemed that a player like Tony Allen was his comparative ceiling.… Read more...

With Dwight in tow, are they title contenders? Houston Rockets Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Jeremy Lin, SG James Harden, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Omer Asik, C Dwight Howard
 
Key bench players: PF Donatas Montiejunas, PG Patrick Beverley, PF Terrence Jones, SF Omri Casspi, SG Ronnie Brewer, G/F Francisco Garcia, PG Aaron Brooks
 
Offseason additions: C Dwight Howard, SF Omri Casspi, PG Isaiah Canaan (34th overall pick), C Marcus Camby
 
Offseason subtractions: SF Carlos Delfino, PF Thomas Robinson, SF Royce White
 
FACT OR FICTION: Dwight Howard makes this team into a title contender.
 
FICTION. But he gets them a hell of a lot closer.
 
After years and years of collecting assets and waiting, GM Daryl Morey finally assembled the super team he always seemed right on the precipice of creating. With defensive specialist wrecking ball in Howard joining a James Harden-led 45-37 8th seed team with defensive shortcomings, it almost seemed like too perfect of a formula.
 
The problem is that as we’ve seen year after year, the NBA isn’t a plug and play league. As perfect of an addition as Dwight may seem on the surface, there’s several problems that he simply doesn’t address. And one of them isn’t “Aren’t you just a relentless Lakers homer?”
 
I might be. I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m not right.… Read more...

NBA Playoffs: Western Conference First Round Predictions

On Friday, we took a look at our Eastern Conference predictions. Even though one game is in the books, better late than never. Let’s get right to the other side of the bracket, the Western Conference:
 
1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 8) Houston Rockets
 
Why OKC takes it in 5 games
 
KOBEsh: It’s a 1-seed versus an 8-seed. That’s reason enough right there. 
 
But going further? You’ve got the league’s best and most efficient offense playing a squad with a middling 16th ranked defense, though they’ve certainly improved over the second half of the season. You’ve got two of the NBA’s deadliest scorers in Westbrook and Durant, and no one on the opposition that is at all suited to slow them down. You’ve got an experienced OKC front line that knows how to work advantages against a bunch of first-time playoff virgins, including Serge Ibaka whose mobility and shooting touch should tear up whatever platoon coach Kevin McHale chooses.
 
This shouldn’t be a contest. No further explanation necessary. … Read more...

Fact or Fiction: 2009 NBA Draft Class Contract Extensions

As the country was out giving candy to either children or twenty-something girls that were both curiously wearing the same size costumes, the NBA’s deadline for 2009 Draftee extensions came and went. The draft class ended up with seven different players being offered multi-year deals, while the rest would go on to being restricted free agency next summer. Thus, players like OKC’s Eric Maynor, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans and Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings could be extended offer sheets by other teams, only to have them matched by their current squad. 
Before this week, Clippers forward Blake Griffin had been the only 2009 rook to sign an extension, a five year pact worth approximately $95 million. Since then, six of these twenty-somethings have signed within the past few days, four just before the midnight buzzer Wednesday night. 
Resuscitating a feature from THE GREAT MAMBINO’s blog predecessor NYisMecca, we’re going to examine these deals and ask “these young fellows worth the money: Fact or Fiction?”

James Harden: $80 million over 5 years and Blake Griffin: $95 million over 5 years 
2012 stat lines: (Harden) 16.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.7 apg .491/.390/.846 shooting and (Griffin) 20.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 3.2 apg .549/.125/.521 shooting
Fact.  Griffin was an open and shut case for an extension here, even with a documented history of knee injuries. By the time this extension even begins, he’ll most be one of the most decorated Clippers in franchise history (two presumed All-Star teams, one 2nd Team All-NBA nod and perhaps another one on the way). This isn’t to speak to Griffin’s still burgeoning potential–he’s got enough room to grow to fit both of Boris Diaw’s boobs–but rather to the dubious distinction which is being a good player on the worst franchise in American sports history. Owner Donald Sterling couldn’t let Blake go no matter what the price was for keeping him. 

Harden has had his detractors the past few days after the trade to Houston, but after his ridiculous 37 point, 12 assist night (even against the lowly Pistons), I can’t imagine there’s very many people yelling “fiction” at his max deal. The Beard is questionably one of the top-20 players in the NBA right now, and could end up being one of it’s 15 best in April. Fact, fact, fact over the validity of this contract.
 
DeMar DeRozan: $40 million over 4 years

2012 stat line: 16.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, .422/.261/.810 shooting
(From El Miz)

Hilarious Fiction, on par with the movie Super Troopers.  DeMar can’t create his own shot, doesn’t defend particularly well, and in fact doesn’t really do anything other than dunk particularly well.  In 2014-15 the Raptors owe Landry Fields $8.5 million and DeRozan $10 million (unless its escalates every year, in which case it’ll probably be around $11.25 million) — so they’ll owe at least $18.5 million to two wing players, neither of whom is an elite scorer, neither of whom can even create their own shot. Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo needed to be fired yesterday; how much longer can that guy ride the coattails of Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash? Toronto should have let DeRozan go to restricted free agency. I highly doubt any other team would give him a contract of this size after another decent but largely uninspiring season from a

one-dimensional player.
Jrue Holiday: $41 million over 4 years
2012 stat line: 14.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.5 apg .432/.380/.783 shoot… Read more...

Instant Trade Analysis: James Harden to the Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets get: G James Harden, C Cole Aldrich, G/F Daquan cook, G/F Lazar Hayward

Oklahoma City Thunder get: SG Kevin Martin, SG Jeremy Lamb, two 1st round picks (via Toronto and Dallas), one 2nd round pick (via Charlotte)

The writing was on the wall, but typing it out is still shocking: reigning Sixth Man of the Year James Harden has been traded by the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets. The former Sonics dealt one of the key pieces that built them up into a Western Conference Champion and supposed future perennial title contender not as a basketball decision, but one that was almost 100% business.

The back story is the Thunder front office wasn’t willing to offer James Harden a maximum contract, which was about $60 million over four years. The closest they got was approximately $55 million over four years, which Harden and his management promptly rejected Saturday morning. The deadline for negotiating an extension with the OKC super-sub is Wednesday, and if not signed by then, Harden would become a restricted free agent next summer. Knowing that the team probably wouldn’t be able to get their reserve shooting guard to change his mind over the course of the season (they had been negotiating with him all summer long), GM Sam Presti worked out a deal with the Houston Rockets, and hours later, Harden was an ex-member of the reigning Western Conference Champions. That simple.

Harden can now sign a contract anywhere up to five years, $75 million, an extra year he couldn’t have gotten with the Thunder (a team can only dole out one five year contract under the current CBA–which was what the lockout was about last year–and they already used it on Russ Westbrook’s maximum extension). Rockets GM Daryl Morey will ink Harden to the deal before Wednesday, but at this point it’s just a matter of whether it will be four years or five years long.

So the question here is…why would the Thunder make this move?… Read more...

Winning Three More Games – Oklahoma City Thunder Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Russ Westbrook, SG Thabo Sefolosha, SF Kevin Durant, PF Serge Ibaka, C Kendrick Perkins

Key Bench Players: PG Eric Maynor, SG James Harden, G/F Daquan Cook, PF Nick Collison, F Perry Jones III
Notable offseason additions: F Perry Jones (28th overall pick)
Notable offseason subtractions: PG Derek Fisher, C Nazr Mohammed
How do the Oklahoma City Thunder win three more games? That’s it. Just three more?

With the NBA Finals notched at a 1-0 advantage Thunder, OKC went on to lose an unfathomable four games in a row to the Miami Heat. Each passing game the Thunder seemed to look younger and younger, with James Harden looking more like a petrified kid wearing a Brian Wilson costume than a future All-Star. Kevin Durant and Russ Westbrook still shined under LeBron’s total eclipse of the court, but both young stars couldn’t do enough to prevent the gentleman’s sweep. 

Think about that: it’s not just that the Thunder were beaten by the better team: they essentially were swept out of the Finals after being spotted a game. Yes, two of those contests were only decided by six points, but those losses happened because of the superior execution by the more seasoned villains from South Beach. OKC didn’t get beaten by coincidence or luck or suspect circumstance. They didn’t even “come up just a bit short”. They got mauled right out of the Finals. Three more games? Yes, they only have to win three more games. But what they need to close a gap of 144 minutes is far more complicated than just a few more W’s. 


Coming into the summer, the Thunder knew how much better they had to get. It wasn’t a secret–the youthful exuberance on the faces of the OKC stars was gone, replaced with a humility only served up by such a scalding loss. Lots of wholesale changes were bandied about by the media at large, especially when analyzed financially. The Thunder had secured both Durant and Westbrook to long-term contract extensions, but F Serge Ibaka and Harden remained unsigned beyond 2012-2013. If indeed the core needed some changes to win the NBA title, perhaps the coinciding cap crunch OKC would inevitably fall into could be the catalyst for a major trade.

But the summer came and went, and the Thunder made only a few cosmetic changes in personnel. New to the team is rookie Perry Jones III, a forward with big potential but huge questions about his aggressiveness and true desire in improving as a basketball player. The Baylor forward was once projected as a lottery lock with Lamar Odom comparisons, but after staying in school through the 2011-2012 season, his stock plummeted in accordance with his ca
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NBA Finals Game 5 Running Diary: The Miami Heat and LeBron James Are NBA Champions

(At perhaps a seminal moment in NBA history, we here at MAMBINO HQ knew it’d be important to document a minute by minute running diary during Game 5 of the NBA Finals. LeBron had lived up to his various monikers so far this series, but could he close it out in the biggest game of his career? Or would OKC send this back home? Read on for some in-game thoughts)

Pregame Introductions: We’ve talked for years about how LeBron is some sort of indestructible robot cyborg created to play basketball and assassinate all comers – he actually looks like it tonight. He’s stone-faced, walking slowly and with purpose. He’s even got a slight tick in his neck, as if part of his cold, mechanical programming is somehow malfunctioning. Despite the connotation of his pistons misfiring, that’s not a good sign for the Thunder.

Pregame Shotaround: I see Wade throwing up J’s, but Bron is sitting on the bench, fists to his head, mouthing some sort of mantra, which is probably something like “I’m going to murder everyone tonight”. I’m a little worried that he might be putting a little bit too much pressure on himself. I feel like he’s excelled these playoffs because he’s had the mindset of “this is what I do, I dominate”, and then gone out there and done just that. Obviously the gravity of the situation has affected his play, but he seems almost silently angry rather than stoic. Curious.

11:23: Chalmers steals, followed by a LeBron dunk that screamed “We are not losing tonight”. Uh-oh.

10:48: Sefolosha fouls LeBron mid-jump. LeBron shakes it off with that robotic tick. He’s like a black T-800 with fewer weaknesses and bad facial hair.

10:27: Westbrook jumper clangs hard off the iron. At least we know he isn’t wilting to any criticism.

9:32: Westbrook has taken 3 of the team’s 4 shots and hasn’t even looked for his teammates. It’s either stupidity or extreme confidence.

8:42: After getting doubled in the lane, Westbrook forces the ball to Ibaka for an easy bucket.  A really difficult pass right past Battier’s outstretched fingertips. Say what you want about his gaffe at the end of Game 4, he’s playing phenomenal, CONFIDENT basketball right now.

8:14: KD with his first bucket of the game, 18 feet from the basket. He’s looked a little passive early.

7:43: Interestingly, the Heat are leaving all the OKC shooters wide open to try and stop Westbrook. Luckily for Russ and the servers at Twitter, he’s making these baskets.

7:09: Pretty oop from Chalmers to Wade, who finger-rolls it in. A lot hasn’t been mentioned about Wade, but he’s really been locked in for the past 3 quarters. Say what you will about his off the court attitude, but despite stupid sound bytes comprising 65% of his speech, he gives 100% full effort every night on the hardwood.

6:02: James Harden’s first hoop barely touches the rim. Not a great sign for the Thunder  who desperately need his production tonight. Not just the points, but a spark off the bench. OKC hasn’t displayed that fire they showed in the first quarter of Game 4 since, well, that first quarter of Game 4.

5:14: Ibaka gives Wade a wing 15 footer, and he puts it in his face. No preening, no trash-talking and most shockingly of all, no complaining to the refs. Wade, like James, is all business tonight. Uh-oh.

4:34: Perkins nice put-in around the hoop. With this team, it’s amazing that Perkins ever gets touches. I mean, sometimes plays are designeRead more...

"I’m Kind of Freaking Out" – Keys to an OKC Victory in the NBA Finals

Along with The CDP doing aces on the Miami Heat keys to victory in the Finals, we’ve dispatched our main man Thunderstolt to look at the OKC side and determine what the keys to victory are. Keep in mind that this has been edited, as he’s barely slept, can’t eat and quite frankly, is barely a human being right now. This is him at his most serene, probably the result of some sort of placebo. As the title of the post says, earlier today his first message to me was “I’m kind of freaking out.” Peace be with you, brother. Let’s get to it!

He saw this coming.  From the moment he told Clay Bennett he would be his GM, Sam Presti saw this as his vision.  His vision has brought them to within four wins of raising a banner. 

Presti has done his job.  Now its time for Scott Brooks and his staff to finish theirs for this 2011-2012 season.  The good news is the Thunder doesn’t have to change much from the previous three series to be successful in the Finals.

It seems fitting the first championship foe ever for this Thunder squad is against the Heat – after the next two weeks either KD or LeBron will have a ring and a banner to raise this fall.  Soak that one in.

Other than that quick little hit, I going to stay away from the obvious KD vs LBJ narrative because I’m pretty sure 99% of the blogosphere is writing about that (My thoughts on that matchup: The two best players in the league going at it for their first title and we’re in for a hell of a series. That cover it? Okay, good). So let’s stick to basketball, shall we? Presenting the Thunder’s keys to victory.

Russell Westbrook vs The World

As I mentioned in my last post for MAMBINO,  Westbrook has evolved as a player not only throughout this lockout shortened regular season but over the last 15 playoff games as well.  He has kept his foot on the gas pedal when need be, but surprsingly has pulled back to get other guys involved as well.  His defense in the playoffs has been underrated, relentless and most importantly, he is finding ways to contribute to wins other than the stat sheet. 

This could be a big, BIG series for Russ.  Westbook has been a sponge in these playoffs not only from what his coaching staff is telling him but from opponents as well.  In my four years of watching the Thunder play, I don’t think I have ever seen Russ use a screener more than once in a set.  Against the Spurs, they ran him ragged through screen after screen as Tony Parker used the same big man to find a crease in the defense.  You know what happened?  Russ threw it back right at ’em and started using his big men to use a screen two or three times until he saw daylight to drive to ball and either find a slashing big man or shooter in the corner.

More than likely Chalmers will start on Westbrook to start the series but that could have disasterous ramifications if they stick with Mario too long.  Westbook will see Chalmers, Wade, LeBron, Battier and anyone else who Coach Spoelstra thinks can slow him down for stretches.  Russ must keep doing what he has been doing and playing with poise and composure.  He has been fantastic at picking his spots thus far and they need him to continue that for the Thunder to make the final step.  Plus, the idea of Westbrook having more shot attempts in the Finals and Thunder winning would make Skip Bayless’ head explode (so America wins, as well as OKC!). Depending on what the Heat defense gives him, that could be a reality. 

Like A Bosh 

Chris Bosh is the key cog on both ends of the floor for the Heat, Thus, Serge Ibaka must … Read more...

Lakers Game 5 Recap: The Best Team Won

It just didn’t feel right. In trying to distill down my swirling thoughts into a simple reductionist theory that would hopefully quell my aching fanhood, that sentiment kept on rolling around and around in my head. It just didn’t feel right.

I’ve seen champions before and lived in the cities while they happened. I’ve seen five Lakers title teams, and two in the 2004 and 2007 Boston Red Sox. I’ve watched intently as teams have broken decades-long curses, and other teams who arose seemingly out of nowhere to take a championship no one thought could be theirs, but in the end was rightfully earned. I know that feeling you get, a sensation similar to a great idea hitting you slowly but deeply. In every championship season I’ve witnessed, there’s a moment when you realize that the team you’re watching could take it all. Or maybe more accurately, should take it all.

You see it in their eyes and in their effort. It’s present in the teammates on the bench, whether they’re in the throes of competition or in the malaise of a practice. It’s that undeniable feeling you get that no matter how bad the loss was, or how emphatic the score, that your team can go all the way. The 2012 Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t give me that.


Where to start with Game 5? There’s so many angles to take: Andrew Bynum’s passive stat line of 10/4 with three quick fouls, zero offensive rebounds and a -6,000 on how engaged he seemed to be in the game. Ramon Sessions making just one bucket all whilst watching Russ Westbrook drop 25 points, each hoop more dynamic than the last. Pau Gasol, in what might have been his last game in purple and gold, aggressively going for a 14/16 night, but ultimately not giving enough for a W. Metta World Peace, despite the worst flagrant foul call I’ve seen since Tyson Chandler put a flaming sledge-hammer coated in uranium to LeBron’s back hit LeBron in the first round, played his ass off in a OKC gym that booed him every time he touched the ball. And then there was Kobe, who dropped 42 points on over 50% shooting, solemnly reminding us how much we’ll miss his greatness when he’s gone. It’s not even worth going over the statistics. The Lakers scratched and clawed for 3 quarters, while the Thunder looked like they were just getting warmed up, like Skynyrd playing a bunch of new middling songs before getting into Freebird. When OKC turned it on, it was too much for the Lakers to handle, and the game ended in a blowout. Of course Andrew’s lack of production and the incredible performances by Westbrook and Durant are primary culprits for the loss, but really, this contest was just a microcosm for the entire series.

The bottom line is, the Lakers got beat by the better team. Even in a 5-game series that felt like it went 9, the Thunder didn’t just outwork the Lakers; they were flat-out more talented, explosive and hungry. No matter how badly you thought the Lakers played at the end of the fourth quarters, or the mistakes they made to give Games 2 and 4 away, the Thunder had to win them. Down seven with two minutes left? Down 13 with seven minutes left? Both in games where the Lakers largely dictated the pace and rhythm? Maybe this more than anything demonstrates the greatness of the OKC attack – their 9 minutes of play were better than 87 from the Lakers. It only took them 540 seconds to outdo what LA had struggled over 5,200 to achieve. Chew on that thought for a minute and tell me that this was the Lakers series to lose. The Lakers couldn’t c… Read more...

Five Quick Thoughts on the Metta World Peace Suspension

How much more can be said on this? The talking heads have been going bonkers the past 2 days, and this could be the 1,345th article, post or report written about Metta World Peace’s left elbow and James Harden’s head in the last 24 hours. So to break up the monotony, we have five quick thoughts stemming from MWP’s 7 game suspension handed down by the league last night.

 1) It was about 2 games too much

I’m not condoning what MWP did, giving a MMA-style hit and dropping another guy in the middle of the court. But for comparison’s sake, let’s look at Andrew Bynum’s hip check on JJ Barea in last year’s playoffs, the last really vicious hit by a Laker on an unsuspecting victim.

Examining Bynum’s hit nearly a year later and knowing what we now know about him, it’s obvious that it was much more deliberate and pre-meditated than World Peace’s elbow on Sunday. During game 6 in Dallas, Bynum and Barea were running down the floor and while the hip check wasn’t a basketball play, Drew knew that he wanted to take Barea out. JJ got back up, a little more rattled than he was before, and continued to torch the Lakers, and then the OKC Thunder and the Miami Heat in the Finals to serve as a key cog in Dallas’ title run.

Bynum’s hit on Barea was just as vicious as MWP’s was on Harden, but the difference is that Barea didn’t get seriously hurt. Yes, the intent was the same but the end result was different. I don’t think the malicious nature of the blow was any different. 5 games should have been an appropriate punishment for Metta, but I can understand why they’d make it 7.

2) We’re not asking the right question regarding the elbow

I’ve heard all the talk about if Metta saw Harden there, the angle that he swung that elbow and how he didn’t pay any attention after he made physical contact with another person’s skull (how does that even happen?). But the most prevailing and troubling question for me is simple. Why? Why would he ever do that?

It’s pretty clear to me that MWP had turned into a testoterone-filled beast after that dunk. A PT Cruiser driven by a Nutella facsimile of Burt Reynolds could have come crashing through the ceiling of Staples Center at that exact moment and I’m still not sure that Metta would have even noticed it. He claims that he was running back down the court and celebrating a moderately epic slam in the midst of a Lakers comeback scoring run. According to Metta, his primal rejoicing got a little out of control, and in a moment of pure bliss, he clocked Harden in the back of the head.

Obviously I don’t buy that. In the slow motion replay, you can tell that he sees Harden there, or at the very least, feels another human brushing up against his entire left side. Maybe he thought that James was invading his personal space a little too much, and was doing a simple elbow to his side to “clear out” the interloper. That I would buy; it happens in every single NBA game I’ve ever watched with guys coming back up the floor.

But Metta throws that elbow up, and completely follows through with it. He didn’t just clear out space – he razed the foundation and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again. Why would you ever do it like that? What possible benefit could that have? And why that action in the first place? Why not a shove or shoulder bump? Why did you choose to hit someone that hard, that quick, and in such a lethal way? This was like lighting a cigarette with a blow torch. Compl… Read more...