Wednesday, February 07, 2007
My birthday present to Steve Nash
First of all, let me wish a happy birthday to one of the best offensive point guards of the modern era, Mr. Steven Nash. I am proud to say that I once rode a train to Vermont with Steve Nash's ex-girlfriend. She was an Asian fashion designer, and she was taking the train to see her mountain man boyfriend (her words, not mine). She might have just been a kook but [I'd like to think that] it's the closest I've ever gotten to an NBA player (other than that time I pissed off Raef LaFrentz's wife) and I was pretty excited about it. I secretly hoped to sweep her off her feet, and then parlay her connections in a cool crowd into becoming friends with a bunch of basketball players. Yeah, I'm cool like that.
Here's one thing I don't get about Steve Nash: I know women think he's handsome. I am aware that there is something of a general consensus that he is handsome. I have nothing against handsome (or for that matter, ugly) people, but this is what is confusing: doesn't this guy look like an evil troll or something? Is that just me? And wasn't he rolling with the balding-long hair thing last year? Am I crazy? I really think he is not among the best-looking players in the NBA.
I do like Steve Nash. His performances in the playoffs were incredible the last two seasons, he gives a lot of money to charity, he got booed by Suns fans when they drafted him, and he seems like a pretty thoughtful and nice human being, as well as an unbelievable athlete. He suffers a chronic back condition and doesn't bitch about it, and had to be told to shoot more when he was in Dallas. He's my kind of guy. But he sucks at defense and he's a bit troll-like.
A couple of years ago Steve wore a shirt that criticized the war in Iraq, and evoked the anger of one of my least favorite ESPN talking heads, Skip "Son of a bitch" Bayless. This richie-rich douche-bird radio host had the nerve to tell Nash to "shut up and play" [as if Bayless had ever played himself](Nash was defended by Nick the Quick Van Exel, who most surely will see a column devoted to his greatness). This is the same Skip Bayless who hosts the worst show on ESPN (Cold Pizza), who thinks that kicking should be taken out of football, and who once questioned Troy Aikman's sexuality in his book. He also went on a tirade against a player accused of rape this year, except, uh, he was talking about the wrong person, and had to face a lawsuit for that thing we call "libel". He is an embarrassment to sports journalism and if he doesn't like Steve Nash, then I do.
With that aside, my birthday present to Mr. Steve Nash is a full explanation of why I think his rival club, the Houston Rockets, will win the NBA finals. (I also wanted to follow up that unexplained thought in yesterday's column.) While this might devastate his psyche for the next few days, knowing that a person of such magnitude and stature of myself believes the Rockets will win the NBA finals will be a great gift to Mr. Nash. You see, the reason I am giving this to Steven is to motivate him. That's right, I'm giving him the gift of emotional strength and determination, and you can't put a price on that.
Houston, we have a problem
First I'd like to discuss the strengths of the Houston lineup. They have the best center in the league, Yao Ming. He is unselfish, a skilled passer, and bigger than everyone else. His defense has improved every year, and his weak and strong-side blocking abilities have been dominant at times. The Rockets are also blessed with the best backup center in the league in Dikembe Mutombo; a good defensive player, tough rebounder, and unselfish shooter.
Tracy McGrady is one of the ten best players in the NBA. He is almost always good for 25, 5 and 5, and he is also a solid defender when he hustles (which can be somewhat rare). He can shoot from deep, he can get to the hole, and when he is hot, he is one of those guys that is unfathomably good at scoring. I personally think his 13 points in 33 seconds was more impressive than Kobe's 81. He scored 62 points once, of course. He averaged over 32 points per game a couple of years ago. His career playoff average is 29.8. The year he went against the Knicks in the playoffs (when he was still playing second fiddle to Vince Carter), he was the only man who could score because Sprewell was locking down Carter. He's a hall-of-famer, for goodness sakes.
Rafer Alston is a point guard who shoots sporadically and in streaks, and there's not a lot to say about his game from a quantitative perspective. However, in my mind, he has three things going for him: He has a great first step that enables him to hit open shooters or score/get to the foul line; He has great court vision whether driving to the hoop or running the break; and he is a pretty good defender that seems to be getting better with time.
Luther Head is an excellent three point shooter and a good defender. It's always good to have one of these guys on your team. He doesn't shoot a lot, but he is very reliable with the deep ball. He's really improved his game despite playing almost exactly the same amount (28.8 mpg this year vs. 28.9 last year). His three-point shooting is up 9%, his field goals are up 3.5%, he scores more, he rebounds more, and he is shooting better from the line. He is a great open guy to kick out to when A) Rafer Drives; B) Tracy Drives; or C) Yao gets double-teamed. There is almost always a guy like Luther Head on winning playoff teams.
I really don't care for Shane Battier because I am anti-Duke, and because he played during a time when I felt unusually strong hostility towards Duke. I also was offended when the NCAA changed the rules so that fouls were not called against him. To just change the rulebook like that was very frustrating for the fans that didn't like Duke that season.
Shane didn't write that rule, though, and he's been out of Duke for a long time. He never misses a game, he shoots for a high percentage from mid range and from deep, he is a servicable scorer in many ways, and he is very unselfish, which is important considering the players surrounding him. Furthermore, he is an exemplary defender, and is much better than one-dimensional cheap shot artists like Bruce Bowen. He's no Ron Artest, but he's also capable of making another teams' best player work very hard. He has a good body and good size, he can run forever, and he doesn't turn the ball over. There are very few guys like Shane Battier in the NBA right now and I think his value may be under-appreciated. (Which is fair considering how overappreciated he was in college. It's nice that he plays well in both circumstances.)
Juwan Howard is a pretty good guy to have in the post. He can hit mid range jumpers and rebound, and doesn't demand the ball on a team stocked with talent. He is also a good defender, even if he is the worst shot-blocking frontcourt player in NBA history. (.09 bpg this year!).
I also like the rotation guys; Bonzi Wells, Kirk Snyder, and Chuck Hayes. Hayes is an undersized rebounder, Snyder is a defense-first shooting guard who can jump over people, and Bonzi Wells is a streaky shooter with weight problems. I don't see how that combination could net anything but success.
I really think it's a great lineup. Let's see how Houston stands up to comparison against teams like San Antonio, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix, Miami, and Detroit. (The teams I think are conventionally favored, with apologies to up-and-comers.)
San Antonio has faced the Rockets twice in 2006. The first time, the Rockets were without McGrady, and the second time, the Rockets were without Yao. Both times, the Spurs lost. Why is this and why will it continue in the postseason? Well, San Antonio only has one big guy that can play defense, and it ain't Fabricio Oberto. Tim Duncan will have his hands full with Yao, and while all of the guys on the Spurs play and rebound hard, there's really not another good rebounder on the team except for Duncan. Parker can't get rebounds, Ginobili is average, Barry is below average, Finley doesn't play, and Bowen, despite being a "good defender", is not a good rebounder, something that requires more than cheap shots.
I don't see how you can beat a team in a series without being able to rebound on a comparable level unless you can score your ass off. I don't think the Spurs can. Tim Duncan will have a hard time against a skilled frontcourt (though I'm sure it won't be that hard), and I feel that Tony Parker won't have enough of an impact to create open shots for the Spurs shooters. He can get lots of floaters and easy layups against most teams, but with Yao and Dikembe that's a different story. They are both great shot blockers and I think they will stop him even if Rafer can't. That means no double team and no open shot.
I think the real essence of this matchup is that each team has two scorers and in both cases, Houston's are more versatile and talented, albeit less reliable. In the playoffs, reliability can be worth more than talent, but in this case I think the difference is just too much. Also, Bowen is getting too old to handle a guy like McGrady, as evidenced by his getting lit up by the aforementioned 13 in 33.
Dallas was probably the favorite in the West before Phoenix caught fire, and I think that makes sense. They are 1-1 against the Rockets. Their first loss was a thirty point blowup where Yao had 37, and their win was in a game where McGrady had 45. Interesting, no?
The reason (besides Yao's broken leg) they won that second game was Devean George, who came in and went 4-5 from behind the arc, starkly contrasting Luther Head's 2-10 performance. The other big problem for Houston was that they couldn't rebound - the margin was 44-32 in favor of Dallas, with Dallas getting 15 offensive rebounds to Houston's 8.
I can't see the same thing happening with Yao, and though Tracy McGrady won't score 45 again, it won't matter because Yao will have at least 20. Dallas's weakness is its garbage center, Eric Dampier. He is a good rebounder but he can't defend without picking up fouls. Also, Josh Howard will have his hands full with McGrady, evidenced by his getting torched for 45. The flip side of this is that I don't think that McGrady can cover Howard very well either, but I doubt that will matter.
I think Terry will have a hard time with Rafer, which was the case in both matchups. (He averaged 5.5 points per game and was largely ineffective.) This doesn't make sense considering their histories, but like I said, Rafer's coming along with that defense.
Nowitzki may get his points, but he will have a hard time outscoring McGrady, and if Houston can use an effective zone to guard Nowitzki with Snyder or McGrady on top and Howard or Yao or Mutombo down low, this may minimize his damage. There is no similar solution Dallas can use to stop either Yao or McGrady, as they both inevitably create open shots for others, while Nowitzki does not.
One other big problem I can see for Houston is Devin Harris, who was good in last year's playoffs and could smoke whomever covers him at point or shooting guard. However, I think Jeff Van Gundy is too smart for this and will put in a guy like Kirk Snyder to keep him in place. Whether this will work is up for debate, but if anybody could think of anything, it would be Mr. Van Gundy. Also, Harris will have the same problem as Tony Parker; he is quick and he can't shoot, and he'll be running into Yao or Dikembe. (A final thought is that this is a matchup of defensive coaches with good offensive weapons. I don't see how anyone could outfox Van Gundy in this situation.)
Utah presents an interesting problem in that they match up well. Okur can force Yao outside, Boozer can bang inside, Deron Williams is probably better than Rafer, and Kirilenko will make things hard for McGrady on many levels.
There are two sore spots for Utah: Okur cannot defend Yao in any way, and if Boozer does, he'll be sitting down with foul trouble. Also, Utah will have a real problem if Kirilenko can't control McGrady; they have no one else that can even come close to defending him. (Also, Houston beat Utah this year, decisively, without Yao. Utah couldn't outrebound them because other than Boozer [who had 17 in that game] they have a lot of physically weak or small players.)
I think Utah has the best chance and they are equally well-coached and disciplined by the master of disaster, Jerry Sloan. He's probably the only guy Van Gundy doesn't have a leg up on who has personnel to match Houston's. The problem for the Jazz is that they don't match up well with other teams (like Dallas and Phoenix) and I'm hoping that they get bounced before this matchup ever takes place.
The team with the best personnel in the NBA is Phoenix, and everybody knows it. Houston is 0-2 against them, with McGrady and Yao each no shows for the second loss and with both present for the first.
Here's the thing about Phoenix: I know they can't defend, so the issue is whether Houston can stop them. In their games, the Suns scored 100 and 102, and shot 42.9% and 46.8%. Neither of those are great performances, and both performances had one thing in common: Houston got outrebounded. In the first loss, they lost the battle 55-36, and in the second 47-39.
Where am I going with this? If Houston had outrebounded Phoenix, they would have held them under 100 in two out of two meetings, and might have won both games.
I don't think it's possible to make the case that individual player matchups favor Houston, but the sum of Houston's parts present a problem for Phoenix. They can't do anything about Yao, and Rafer Alston and McGrady will be driving and kicking to Battier and Head, who should both be open. Furthermore, I think Battier can do a good job shutting down Shawn Marion, and I don't think anyone can stop Yao, who can also kick out if people come down to double-team him.
I just can't take a bad defensive team beating a team with two top-tier scoerers. As far as I know, it's never happened. The last finals proves that even a mediocre defensive team can't handle that. And the bottom line is I think that Houston can outrebound Phoenix and hold their ground enough to win.
I'm going to lump Miami and Detroit together because I don't think they're really worthy of much mention. Detroit doesn't play good defense anymore because Flip Saunders is not a good coach. They also don't have a center.
Miami could be a threat, but Yao has been stronger than Shaq in their most recent matchups, and Battier can give Wade a good challenge. There's no one on the Heat qualified to defend Tracy McGrady, and Miami is like his home court. Miami would have a chance if Riley returns and pulls off a coaching miracle, but I don't think it's in the cards.
As always, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by Jimmy at 8:17 AM