The NBA playoffs started last Saturday and I have been watching with rapt attention as basketball’s second season starts. The regular season was full of stellar basketball watching for me since the Fox Sports Midwest station on my cable TV provided a steady diet of Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Timberwolves broadcasts since November.
The Timberwolves are a talented but flawed team featuring Kevin Love (one of the league’s top scorers and rebounders) surrounded by a mismatch of spare parts like point guard Ricky Rubio and center Nikola Pekovic. Rubio has lightning quick hands and highlight reel passing abilities but is such a poor shooter that the opposing teams can play off him and negate his great passing. Center Nikola Pekovic is a hulking brute who clogs the lane on defense and has a nice scoring touch inside but is often injured and is so ponderously slow opponents just run the pick and roll play on his side for easy baskets all game long. If Rubio or Pekovic were on different teams they might be considered accomplished role players but their considerable limitations are exposed as featured players and the Timberwolves finished 40-42, missing the playoffs for the 10th year in a row. All-Star Love will be a free agent after next year and has been pilloried in the press for not leading his team to the playoffs. I believe the criticisms leveled at Love are very unfair. The Wolves record may not seem like much but it is the best record the team has achieved without future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett on the roster and was good enough to have made the playoffs in many other years. The team uncovered a diamond in the rough in rookie center Gorgiu Deng which allows the team to upgrade the roster by trading Pekovic. The Western Conference was stacked this year with 49 wins needed to make the playoffs but if the Wolves don’t trade Love before he becomes a free agent I think the team can be a playoff team in 2014-2015.
The Pacers gave last year’s champion Miami Heat all they wanted in last year’s seven game Eastern Conference finals and looked to be a team on a mission over the first month of the 2013-14 season with a 16-1 record on December 1st. Their pace slowed a bit after with a 9-5 December, 10-5 January , and 8-3 February but were still looking like one of the league’s top teams. Then the wheels fell off and the team limped to an 11-13 finish which was still good for the best record in the Eastern Conference but left a lot of unanswered questions about the team’s confidence and motivation heading into the playoffs which only intensified after losing the first game of their opening series to the mediocre Atlanta Hawks. I’m not sure what happened to this promising team. It could be an undisclosed injury to particularly off form center Roy Hibbert but I think that when GM Larry Bird acquired swingman Evan Turner and center Andrew Bynum at the trading deadline his very youthful team took it as a sign that that management didn’t think the team was good enough to win the championship and needed an upgrade. I don’t know if the Pacers will be able to right the ship and make a championship run but their playoff debut looked suspiciously like a continuation of a mediocre finish to the regular season instead of signaling the start of a new season.
In the first round of the NBA playoffs, the teams that consider themselves title contenders try to wrap up their first round playoff series in four or five games in order to rest while their future playoff opponents hopefully wear themselves out in long series and except for the Pacers the top contenders are on pace to do just that. The defending champion Miami Heat easily dispatched the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday while the Heat’s 2013 finals opponent San Antonio Spurs pulled away from the Dallas Mavericks late and the Oklahoma City Thunder recovered from blowing a huge lead to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies. The Spurs finished with the best record in the league and were one clutch Ray Allen jumper away from winning the championship last year but I don’t see them taking the title. The Spurs are an excellent team that is well coached but I can’t see them matching up against the Thunder as long as the Thunder can stay healthy and get past the Grizzlies (whose physical style is the hardest for the Thunder to match up to and won the second game of the series in overtime). Last year’s Spurs team didn’t have to play a top four seed in the first three rounds of their conference playoffs (thanks largely to Thunder’s guard Russell Westbrook’s knee injury in last year’s playoffs) and it looked to me like they snuck up on the Heat last year. There will be no sneaking up this year. Westbrook barely played in half of his team’s games and in the opening game win against the Grizzlies looked rested and was clearly moving at a different speed than everyone else on either team. I picked the Heat to win the title over the Thunder as part of my New Year’s predictions and see no reason to change my mind now. The Heat seemed to have their foot off the gas pedal for most of the season while they concentrated on getting their team healthy and at full strength for the playoffs. This was the same strategy used by the Chicago Bulls in the third year of their two three-peats in the 1990’s and they managed to complete their runs despite not having home court advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Heat win their third championship in a row it would be the fourth three-peat in the last 23 years after the 1988-1989 Los Angeles Lakers became the first team in 20 years to win back-to-back championships. For all the draft lotteries, salary cap rules, and free agent restrictions the NBA has implemented to promote competitive balance there remains no substitute for front-office brains and star power when it comes to building a basketball dynasty.
Aside from the second season for the playoff teams, the also-ran teams began their second season by trying to get their respective houses in order and pick up the pieces of a failed season. Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman retired more due his wife’s seizure disorders than his failure to produce a playoff team, the Utah Jazz failed to renew the contract of Ty Corbin when he failed to have a winning record for the first time in his three year tenure, and the New York Knicks fired coach Mike Woodson, whose injury riddled team sank from 54 wins to 37 wins in what was supposed to be a championship contending year.
The Woodson firing is the first move in the regime of new Knicks President Phil Jackson. Jackson is an 11 time championship coach but his accomplishments tend to get discounted with the reasoning being that Jackson merely was the caretaker of the great Michael Jordan Bull and Shaq and Kobe Laker teams. This is flawed reasoning that fails to take into account the fact that Jackson was a championship player with the Knicks and also coached the minor league Albany Patroons to a CBA championship. This is a man who has won everywhere he has ever been and I see no reason he won’t as successful leading a team from the front office as he was as a head coach.
Jackson’s former player and current announcer Steve Kerr is considered to be the front-runner to be the next Knicks coach. Kerr has no coaching experience but did play for two of the most successful coaches of his generation (Jackson and Spurs coach Greg Popovich). Kerr's three year stint as the Phoenix Suns General Manager had its ups and downs. In his first season he first ran Coach Mike D’Antoni out of town when he gutted his successful ‘7 seconds or less’ fast break offense by trading for the remains of Shaquille O’Neal. After the season D’Antoni quit and Kerr hired Terry Porter to take his place. In his second season Kerr realized his new coaching hire and O’Neal were not meshing with the rest of the team and was quick to recognize a change was needed , firing Porter in mid-season and trading O’Neal after the season. In his third season, the Suns were back to being a 50 win team if not a bona fide championship contender and Kerr resigned from the job claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family. The Knicks are over the salary cap for the foreseeable future and only have one first round draft pick for the next three drafts. As a GM, Kerr showed a marked tendency to acquire veterans at the expense of youth but if the Knicks are to become championship contenders they will have to get young players, develop the young players, and hope to pick up a superstar when their salary cap clears. I wonder if Jackson and /or Kerr will be allowed to slowly build the team under the harsh glare of the New York media and meddling owner James Dolan. I hate to bet against Jackson, but if I had to place a bet it would be that he won’t last a year and a half before trying and failing to build an instant winner as every Knick management team have tried to do for the past 20 years.