Monday, November 23, 2015

NBA Season to Date Observations and Predictions

  The NBA season is almost a month old with every team except the Washington Wizards playing at least a dozen games. As I write this on Sunday morning the defending champion Golden State Warriors have yet to lose and the perennial rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers yet to win.

  I thought the Warriors would get fat, happy, and selfish after winning last year’s championship. Instead they seem to be focused on proving last year was no fluke. None of the many role players have tried to break out of their roles, content to let Stephen Curry take (and make) the bulk of the shots while moving the ball, playing tough defense, and waiting for their chances to score. The Warriors have hit a tough stretch (for them) of late, finding themselves trailing the Nets and Clippers in the fourth quarter of their recent games but have managed to pull out wins. Do I think the Warriors can break the 1995-1996 Bulls record of 72-10? I believe they are sufficiently motivated and if they stay healthy this team is the one that can break the record. Having said that, it is a long season and I think that the Bulls record will withstand this challenge.

  The team that got fat and happy seems to be the Warriors 2014-15 Western Conference Finals opponents, the Houston Rockets. In the offseason Rockets superstar James Harden signed a $200 million dollar show deal with Adidas and has taken up with reality TV show icon Khloe Kardashian. Harden seemed out of shape and not at all in the mood to even pretend to play defense this season and when the Rockets started what they hoped to be a championship season with a 4-7 record including 4 20 point losses, head coach Kevin McHale was fired because in the words of Rockets GM Darrell Morey “The team was not responding to Kevin McHale”. The team responded to new coach J.B. Bickerstaff with a comeback win against the moribund Portland Trailblazers before further responding with a road loss against the Grizzlies and a home loss to the Knicks. I was high on the Rockets two years ago when they acquired center Dwight Howard but Howard can’t stay healthy (he is already taking games off this season to rest his back) and the fate of the team rests on Harden who is a superstar that is not playing like one which is an awful combination for a player that needs to handle the ball most of the time to be effective. This turn of events is a huge blow for GM Darrell Morey, making the huge proponent of basketball analytics seem clueless to the dynamic of team building for a championship run as opposed to collecting talent and draft picks.

  My pick to win the championship is the Los Angeles Clippers who rewarded my confidence by following a 4-0 start with losing seven of nine games for a 6-7 record after Sunday’s loss against the Raptors. Despite the rough patch I think the Clippers are built for the playoffs. They need to stay healthy and get superstars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get used to playing with newcomers Paul Pierce and Josh Smith. The wild card for the Clippers to me is whether Clippers owner Steve Ballmer will push the panic button and order GM/Coach Doc Rivers to shake up the team or even fire Rivers.

  I picked the Los Angeles Lakers to win 37 games this year which would be a 16 game improvement over last year. The Lakers have started 2-11 and would have to win more than half of their remaining 69 games to get to 37 wins. My prediction doesn’t look good but I still like the chances of the Lakers’ young talent to develop significantly as the season goes along and the less Kobe Bryant plays the quicker this process will be and the closer the team will get to 37 wins. As great as Bryant was, he is an aged (not aging) former superstar who takes more shots than anyone on the team while shooting 34%. Not only is Bryant unproductive he is taking minutes away from the younger players and disrupting their ability to grow as a team. Meanwhile the big surprise in the West is the Dallas Mavericks with a 9-4 start defying the skeptics that predicted the Mavs would miss the playoffs. I don’t believe in the Mavericks and think their record is the result of their brilliant coach Rick Carlisle. As the season wears on talent will win out over schemes and the Mavs will struggle with their aging roster. In the east I predicted the Atlanta Hawks would struggle to get 50 wins after getting 60 last season. The Hawks currently are at 9-6 which is a pace for 49.2 wins so I’m spot on so far. I also predicted the surprise team to be the Orlando Magic and said they would make the playoffs. The Magic have been inconsistent so far with a 6-7 record. I’ve seen the Magic play twice and they are not just inconsistent they are maddeningly inconsistent – looking like world beaters in one quarter and a turnover machine the next. Coach Scott Skiles is already running out of patience with his young team, benching center Nik Vucevic for the second half of their win against the Timberwolves and subbing the entire starting unit earlier this month. I knew Skiles would wear out his welcome in Orlando as he has in every other stop in his coaching career but I think his act is going to wear thin faster in Orlando than his other stops. It looks to me like the Magic are running the risk of a player revolt and a lost season unless they can pull off a few upsets on their upcoming western road trip in December to get the players to see success from Skiles hardcore methods.

  The most impressive team in the east to my mind is the Chicago Bulls. First year coach Fred Hoiberg has successfully shaken up the lineup by starting Tony Snell and Doug McDermott and bringing former Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah off the bench. Snell and McDermott have looked more productive, Noah is more rested, and the Bulls have looked crisp while going 8-4 to start the year. The other surprise team is the Knicks who have gone 8-6 to start the year including road wins against the Thunder, Rockets, and Raptors The Knicks have coalesced behind 7-3 rookie Kristaps Porzingas who has become an instant celebrity much like Jeremy Lin three y ears ago as can only happen in new York. I am impressed with the Knicks progress under club president Phil Jackson but I’m not convinced yet, preferring to see how the Knicks react when they run into their early injury problems and Porzingas hits the rookie wall.

  My basketball prediction program may have hit the rookie wall. I split my 2 picks on Friday, leaving me with a 10-3 mark and trimming my mythical winnings to $670. My unpublished weekend picks went 3-4 to take the program’s season mark to 30-16. One of the program’s flaws has been exposed, showing a certain slowness to detect a turnaround in a teams fortunes whether due to injury or a team suddenly jelling like the New Orleans Pelicans seemed to do this weekend with wins over the Spurs and Suns.

  Tonight there are three games I’ll put up $110 to win $100 using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports pagefor entertainment purposes only with no real money wagered. My program likes Charlotte giving 5 points to the visiting Sacramento Kings, the Pistons giving 2 points on the road at Milwaukee, and the Thunder getting 4 points from the Utah Jazz in Utah which seems to go against conventional wisdom to stay away from road teams on the second game of a back to back but I'll give my program a little leeway and take the risk.