The clock's ticking on the NBA playoff scene, but who's still standing, and why? Check in with Basketball Prospectus' Kevin Pelton to find out.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Hey, NBA fans and anyone else wandering in. It's time for another weekly chat as we've reached two games apiece in semifinal matchups. Cleveland looks certain to advance and Denver is well on its way to the Western Conference Finals, but we've got two series that look very competitive so far. We'll chat about anything that's on your mind, including the early rumblings of the offseason for teams who have already been eliminated.
Fred (Houston): I hope the referees aren't overzealous in their efforts to control the physical play tonight. Would you agree that extra whistles would benefit the Lakers due to their depth up front? I think the Rockets need to keep Yao on the floor and get him into an offensive rythm to prevent the Lakers from getting out in transition tonight.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): No, I don't think I necessarily agree with that. The Lakers seemed to have a harder time adjusting to the way the referees were calling the fourth quarter of Game 2, allowing Houston to get in the bonus early. Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol aren't as vulnerable to foul trouble as the Rockets' bigs, but once they go out there's not a lot behind them with Andrew Bynum clearly (and now by his own admission) nowhere near 100 percent.
Getting Yao involved offensively naturally has a myriad number of benefits. I think the Rockets need to focus on the re-post when the double-team comes initially. That was very successful at times against Portland.
Rajon Rondo (Boston): Why haven't I been suspended or fined yet?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Only Stu Jackson can answer that question.
You know what I'd kind of like to see? I know this is crazy, but what if the NBA could suspend players for portions of games? Naturally, the league is reluctant to take players out of a game entirely. Being able to suspend someone for a quarter or a half might give them more flexibility for borderline plays.
OK, that was crazy. Disregard it entirely.
Kendrick Perkins (Beastland): Your All-Defensive Team (centers): Howard, Duncan, Camby, Okafor, Pryzbilla. Would you like to reconsider?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Yeah, Perkins has earned his way into that group with his play this postseason. Give him a lot of credit. I'm not sure which of those guys I would knock out. Probably Camby or Okafor.
Norsktroll (Land of Dirk Nowitzki): What do the Mavericks have to change to still have a chance to beat the Nuggets after losing both away games clearly?
P.S.: No jokes about how ugly Dirk's weird fiance is, please.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): That's the question ESPN Insider wants me to answer for tomorrow, so look for that there and on Basketball Prospectus. Suffice it to say avoiding turnovers is a major, major key. That's easier said than done, of course.
Norsktroll (Blazerland): Your idea of suspensions for parts of a game is not that crazy. See ice hockey, handball.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Alright, maybe I'll take credit for it. And at the team level, at least in college sports, you see guys suspended for a quarter or a half all the time.
Nick (Boston): What would David Stern most like as a Finals matchup? Any chance the NBA lets Cleveland not make it to the Finals or will the league back off and just let whatever happen happen? Not saying it's rigged at all, but I think those Piston - Spurs matchups really unnerved the NBA.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): I don't see Lakers-Cleveland as all that much better from the league's perspective than Lakers-Celtics. Boston is the bigger market, and there's more history there. Naturally the Kobe-LeBron matchup is most compelling to casual fans.
Kevin Garnett (Injury Pergatory): I may not pull down bushels of rebounds and I don't stand next to the basket waiting to make SportsCenter by swatting a floater into the upper deck. I also may not be a total lockdown one-on-one defender, but c'mon, what I do as a team defender communicating, orchestrating, helping, showing, rotating, defending the lane AND contesting the perimeter, I do more than just lockdown my opposing player; I make entire defensive units elite. That makes me the best defensive player in the league, no? Just look at what the historically great D from last year has been without me.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): When healthy, yes. That's the key statement there. Although I think I know some Timberwolves fans who, much as they love Garnett, might dispute him making entire defensive units elite given how Minnesota played on defense his last couple of years.
Yao (Houston, TX): Kevin, why is is that in my 7th season, my team still (when they're not feeding me the ball after I get great post position) doesn't have a scheme to combat teams' fronting me in the post? Is there some way around this (lobs over the top, backdoor cuts, etc)?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): With most guys the answer to fronting the post is the lob. That's tough for Yao because he doesn't get far off the ground. People who follow the Rockets didn't really know why the Blazers were bringing a second defender (almost always LaMarcus Aldridge) to cover up the backside on that play because it's not a major threat.
The way Houston has found around this in the series with the Lakers is taking advantage of all the defensive attention to get into the lane unmolested. That's what helped Aaron Brooks have such an excellent Game 1.
Rajon Rondo (Boston): Why should I be suspended? In the first case, I'm a slender PG trying to make a hard foul in a desperate end-of-game situation against a 7'1" 290 lb center going hard at the basket. Yeah it was a hard foul and yes I ended up hitting his head, but I wasn't going after his head. And with Hinrich, the guy had me locked up while my counterpart Rose was already half way up the court on a fast break and I was trying to get back on D. Kirk was grappling me and the only way I could shed him was to toss him.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): For the 18 millionth time, INTENT DOES NOT MATTER. If you make a reckless play and hit someone in the head, it's irrelevant whether you were trying to or not. That being said, I don't think the foul on Miller was worth a suspension. At worst, it was a Flagrant 1 by the rulebook. The play with Hinrich is much more of a borderline call, and I'm sure Hinrich brought things upon himself. However, the notion that the only way to get free was to toss Hinrich into the scorer's table is laughable at best.
Sky (Reston, VA): Who are the best members of the basketball media for intelligent *qualitative* analysis? I'm a baseball guy who loves the numbers, but would like to understand what's effective in the NBA game from a more intuitive perspective.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Good question. Hubie Brown, in terms of analysts. I like Doug Collins a lot more than a lot of my peers. He comes up with some brilliant stuff, but is also prone to sticking with silly conventional wisdom.
As far as writers, David Thorpe of ESPN Insider is excellent. Kelly Dwyer and John Hollinger rely a lot on the numbers, but bring good qualitative analysis as well.
krissbeth (watertown, ma): What does Rondo need to do to improve his game to take it to the next level?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Consistent midrange jumper, number one. If he gambled a little less on defense, that might help. Actually, my number one thing is free-throw shooting. As he goes to the line more, he's got to make more than 70 percent of his attempts.
Trieu (Cambridge, MA): Intent doesn't matter? Doesn't that mean Dwight Howard should have been suspended another game for taking out Courtney Lee? And if you're not judging intent, then how do you define reckless?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Reckless is a play that has a chance of going wrong and injuring someone. When Dick Cheney shoots his hunting buddy, he doesn't *intend* to do it, but that doesn't mean it isn't reckless.
Alex (Miami): What's the likelihood of Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo getting into a fight this series... and only Howard getting punished by the league? I'll say 80-90%?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): If Rondo and Dwight Howard get into a serious fight, I think suspension will not be foremost amongst Rondo's concerns. As noted, Howard took out his own teammate for four games without any desire to do so.
Boston fan (Boston): Any particular non-star player or non-highlight type play get you more excited than most? For me, it's the ball on the way to Eddie House. If it looks like he's going to have an opening at all, just the pass on the way to him, I'm already out of my seat anticipating catch, release (often it seems simultaneous) and splash.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Well, Birdman and J.R. Smith in these playoffs. House is another good example.
There's nothing better than the sound of the anticipation in an arena when a great shooter gets an open look.
Trieu (Cambridge, MA): Any rebound where you're coming down with your elbows is reckless, then. That happens dozens of times a game.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): C'mon. You understand what I'm saying. And for the record, I am 100 percent against legislating intent. There is no way to get inside Rajon Rondo's head at the moment he goes up to try to foul Brad Miller.
(Well, unless he's posting in this chat, that is. I feel like I've made it as a chatter now that I've got people posting under players' names.)
Tommy (Philadelphia, PA): I like Collins more than most as well, but it'd be nice for him to drop his "points per shot" obsession and maybe *gasp* throw in a 'points per possession' reference. Anyway, do you see any parallels between Miami 2006 and Denver 2009? Your pre-playoff comps column had Miami as one of Denver's most comparable teams. And much like Detroit in 2006, the Lakers may be a dominant regular season team that struggled mightily in the second round before losing in the conference finals to an under-the-radar 2nd seed who played magnificently down the stretch (Heat were 29-11 from games 41-80 that year, Nuggets have won 20 of last 23 games).
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Yes, this is true about points per shot. It still beats the folks who think when Bryant scores 32 points on 30 shots it's a good game, so ...
Two big differences between those teams: The Heat was obviously very star-based, while Denver has won with depth and bench play in the postseason, and Miami was a game away from the Finals the year before while the Nuggets haven't gotten this far in more than a decade.
I must say overall I'm still not sure what to make of Denver. Over the course of the regular season, they were fourth in the West in point differential, behind not only the Lakers and the Rockets but also Portland. It would be relatively unprecedented for a team like that, even having finished the regular season well, to advance to the NBA Finals. At the same time, it's impossible to deny how well the Nuggets have played in the postseason.
Justin Singer (Miami, FL): What does the Heat have to do this offseason to improve? Replacing the O'Neal/Magloire/Anthony problem up front seems like a possible solution, as well as finding a reliable #2 scorer. What players in particular do you believe the Heat should focus on acquiring? Do you think T-Mac could fit well on the Heat?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Heat fans are going to have to be patient. Miami has no first-round pick this year and won't spend any money that will tie up cap space for 2010, when Jermaine O'Neal comes off the books. As disappointing as O'Neal was, he's a far better option than any potential replacement. The best hope for next year is improvement from within from Beasley, Chalmers and Cook.
2010 is the time when the Heat will get aggressive in remaking the roster.
Doc (Boston): When we have Rondo driving, players and ball moving, our offense works really well. Why then, in end-of-game situations, do I let four guys stand around while Paul Pierce (as good as he is) wastes 20 seconds and then shoots a step-back, contested elbow jumper? How does that make sense?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): You and 29 other coaches in the league do that, so ...
Kevin (LA): Trevor Ariza's playing time has been so inconsistent during these playoffs. He jacks up threes. He obviously wants to seem like a "spread the floor" option and get paid this summer. Wouldn't you agree he would be more effective slashing to the basket and hitting the offensive boards, in addition to his stellar defense?
Could he reasonably improve his marksmanship from downtown at his age?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): I don't think Ariza is shooting threes because he wants to show he can. It's what he has to do within the Lakers offense. If he's spending his time in the paint, the floor is not appropriately spread. As for improving his shooting, he already has to a great deal. I'm more cynical than most about improvement, but it's certainly not impossible.
Reed (Des Moines, Iowa): Non-basketball question time. What do you like most about living in Seattle?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Well, it's certainly not the fact that it's been raining all week. And it's not great for being an NBA die-hard. Why do I love this city again? When it is nice -- both months -- there's nowhere more beautiful. Also, the winters are very mild. I can stomach the rain, but I don't do well with cold and snow at all.
Trieu (Cambridge, MA): To what degree was Kobe's Game 2 performance about tough shots happening to fall in? I kept thinking after the first quarter that it wouldn't continue but, after a dip, it did. (Also, the whole "He can't guard me" thing was rather childish.)
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Bryant can sustain it for entire games, just not entire series. Did he think Battier couldn't guard him in Game 1? That's the thing about Bryant at this stage of his career -- he has to work much harder to get his shots than guys like Wade and James. This perplexes people who want to judge players on how impressive they look or the degree of difficulty. To me, slicing through the D for a layup is far more impressive.
bbarnwell (boston, ma): It was cute to root for fellow NU grad Jose Juan Barea when he was the 13th man on the Mavericks ... but now he's actually getting significant burn. What happened? Is this a real breakout?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Hey, Bill. Everybody go read Football Outsiders after the chat (when you've checked Basketball Prospectus, that is). Barea is one of the finds Dallas used to get pretty regularly, and a case where they stuck him on the bench and let him develop and got a pretty good player out of it. Because his skillset is so limited, Barea is always going to work better in certain matchups. He was invaluable against San Antonio, but this series has been much more difficult for him.
Pietaster07 (Miami): Next year's MVP? Lebron again or does Dwyane Wade get the recognition he deserves? Will Kobe ever get old?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): Wade finished third, which is about right. He should have been ahead of Bryant, but it's Chris Paul (who finished fifth) that has a right to complain.
I think it's reasonable at this point to pencil in James as the MVP for the next half-decade or so, at least until voters get tired of picking him a la Jordan in the '90s.
Stan Van Gundy (Orlando): It's not like Alston was exactly shutting down Rondo, but now I have to start Johnson. Seems like Rondo would eat him up, but if I switched Lee (who knows how he'll play with the time off and the mask?) on to Rondo and put AJ on Ray, well then Ray should go off. There's no good answer. What do you think our best defensive line-up is for Game 3?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): I could see Johnson doing a pretty good job on Allen, because defending him is not so much about quickness and more about diligence. I think that lineup makes a lot of sense. We'll see how ready Lee is to go after more than a week off.
Norsktroll (Blazerland): Is evaluating individual players based on statistics derived from team performance in a flowing sport like basketball where team dynamics are important ultimately futile? Or at least just as subjective interpretation as arguing about two players without using numbers that claim to bring objectivity to a debate?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): It's an art, not a science. But we can isolate skills fairly decently, and that helps add a lot to a debate.
krissbeth (watertown, ma): What do you make of Andre Miller skipping the final team meeting this year? Where's he going to go? Where's the best fit at? What happens to the 76ers if he leaves?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): I think his agent was probably furious. Given the financial climate, Miller's not going to have a lot of other teams with the ability and the desire to pay him the kind of money he wants (and deserves). Staying in Philadelphia is likely his best option from that standpoint, so not a good idea to try to burn those bridges. Look at the teams who are going to have money -- Detroit, Memphis, Oklahoma City. They either have their point guard of the future or no interest in one in his 30s. Portland is about the only team that makes sense in that regard, though Miller hardly solves the Blazers' need for a quality defender at the point.
The Sixers badly need Miller back too. Louis Williams had a disappointing year and is better as a combo guard than a pure point. So maybe the two sides will find a way to patch things up, depending on what happens with Tony DiLeo.
Paul (Cleveland, OH): Kevin, if there's one thing that we should learn from the Cavs' (and to a lesser extent, the Rockets') success this year is that our whole system of judging "talent" is kinda wrong..being able to play great defense is a talent, and having a roster where every guy has a defined role in which they excel is also maximizing talent. Talent isn't solely measured by offensive efficiency (though Cleveland has this as well, I'm speaking specifically about the Lakers). Thoughts?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): ...
Tom (Orange Park, FL): Kevin, I keep hearing about how the Lakers are the most talented team in the playoffs. But to me, I don't see talent as being solely based on offensive skill and athleticism..there's a lot more to the game. Shane Battier is talented because of his basketball IQ and ability to make his team better (+/-, adjusted +/-, etc.) whenever he's on the court. Perhaps the whole paradigm/conception of judging "talent" needs to be rethought, especially in light of the problems the Rockets are causing for LA?
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): I find it interesting that I got two questions that are very similar. Systems need to be taken into account as well. Regardless of the players you give them, certain coaches are going to establish above-average defenses. Cleveland and Houston both fall into this category. So there's talent and then there's system. Talent doesn't perfectly translate into team performance, and it never will.
There's also the paradigm you talk about with guys like Battier. I think that is starting to shift, thanks in part to stats and the attention with Michael Lewis and everything. So we'll see. I do think the Lakers are the most talented team, and I think at their best no one in the league can beat them. But obviously Houston has made them work more than I expected, so ... I guess there's no tidy conclusion here. We're all still learning.
Kevin Pelton (Basketball): On that note, thanks everyone for chatting today. We'll look to set something up for next week as the NBA Playoffs continue. See you then, and be sure to check out BasketballProspectus.com for daily Playoff Prospectus recaps.