But first, all hail the Miami Heat.
The Works Previews the Miami Heat
The Heat enter this season with more hype than Barack Obama and Stephen Strasburg combined. So good are the Heat on paper that just about everyone in the televised media has revolted against the franchise, unwilling to hitch their apple wagons to this star for fear of careening out of orbit. Yes, a team that has struck the fear of God in even Charles Barkley. A week in the clink couldn't even do that!
Resumé: LeBron James has won two straight MVP awards by landslide margins. He, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have 17 All-Star appearances between them, despite having only played seven seasons apiece. Bosh has averaged 20-10 in three seasons, including the past two. James has one scoring title and a career average of 27.8 points per game, and has not averaged fewer than 27 points a game since his rookie season. Wade has a scoring title and a career scoring average over 25. According to career PER, Wade is the sixth best player of all-time. LeBron is No. 2.
Achilles' Heel: Defending centers. Is there anything LeBron, Wade and Bosh can't do? Defend Dwight Howard had better be your first answer. The position has been transmuted into what we used to consider "power foward" to be, but there are some relics, and Howard is the key considering the Heat and Magic will be fighting over the Southeast Division, the Eastern Conference and the fate of the world. Miami added some depth up front, but will it matter?
According to Synergy, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was one of the best defenders in the post last season, holding opponents to 0.7 points per possession. Joel Anthony was solid, holding opponents to 0.81 points per possession in the post. Jamaal Magloire, in limited action, was top three in the league, holding opponents to 0.58 points per possession. So theoretically, this team can throw some bodies at Dwight, Andrew Bynum and Spencer Hawes, the great centers of the league.
The problems could come on the glass, where Ilgauskas is a below-average defensive rebounder at center as he gets into his mid-30s. Anthony is among the worst rebounding centers in the history of the universe. Magloire can mop up the glass, and Bosh, James and Wade will certainly help in that department. But when Howard goes 20/15? That's mostly offensive glasswork, with putbacks galore. The Heat could certainly have trouble containing that. (TZ)
Coiled to Strike: Second-year pro Mario Chalmers appears to have ceded his very, very incidental hold on the starting PG spot to Carlos Arroyo, the classic too good to leave, too bad for us to care, one. Except at this point with Arroyo, we pretty much know what we get. His role would be a somewhat more chaotic version of what Jason Williams brought to the last Heat powerhouse: protect the ball when everyone else needs to tie his shoes, make the obligatory move to the hoop, and pass it off into the witches' brew that the James-Wade-Bosh engine promises to be on offense.
But what of Chalmers, anyway? At this point, he's not solid like Arroyo (or at least not capable of faking it like Arroyo). Still, he has undeniable skills: long-rage shooting that, with Miller out, could come in handy; fearlessness in taking shots that count, and the ability to make one smart pass then disappear. And, most interestingly, a real knack for steals. Not such a great defender, Chalmers could nevertheless pick off and swat away enough balls to lead the league. That really suits the style Miami is looking to play. By mid-season, Chalmers -- if he improves slightly -- could change the way we think about imperfect point guard solutions on star-laden squads. (BS)
Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down
Do the Heat have the heart, grit and testicular fortitude to win a ring?
Ziller: Thumbs up. LeBron is the most brave player in the league; anyone can stay home and take more money, sticking with the status quo. It takes a real ballbuster to pack up and turn the league on its head. Pat Riley oozes determination and a win-at-all-costs mentality. Bosh is not a lap dog; he's a power forward who knows that power forwards need great guards in this league (unless I happened to miss all those Charles Barkley Finals MVP awards being handed out). And Wade ... well, everyone knows he's soft, a coward and has nothing but opportunism in his chest. Right?
Shoals: You really expect me to go thumbs down? I've been in this business a long time. I started out breaking rocks in half, and today, I own a landing strip and several cattle. How did I get here? By being the best. If you want to be the best, you have to envision victory, and with victory comes sacrifice. All these so-called basketball fans crowing about LeBron not wanting to share the ball with Wade, or the angst over whose team it is anyway ... they're stuck in Stage 1 of self-actualization. They will never be champions in their life, or work. The Big Three have made a bold, but timeless, move in deciding to work together. A super-army is the surest means to conquest. Is it tawdry? Would we prefer the story of an underdog, or a single star earning the right to have an ego? Perhaps. But once they raise that Larry O'Brien high next summer, suddenly all these complaints will sound dainty, effete. Absolute power demands compromise. The great ones knew it: Michael, Nixon, Thomas Jefferson, Pacino. The Heat will bring that message to the masses. Again.
The Works Previews the Lakers
Obviously, that we have saved the Lakers for last in our series of team previews is no accident. They are the champions, twice-over. L.A. responded to being crushed by Boston in 2008 by tightening all screws and winning out in 2009. In 2010, the team added a loose screw (Ron Artest) just to keep things interesting. And hey, the team avenged its previous loss to the Celtics and added another trophy to the mantle. Life is good in L.A.
Except for those usurpers in Miami, who took Boston's Big Three idea, turned it on its head and cranked it up to 11. Teams like the Bulls and Knicks improved in free agency; the Heat ignored that goal and shot straight for outright domination. If you're the team who has been the dominator for two consecutive years, that's a little insulting, right? Riley walked into The French Laundry with his own goat cheese soufflé, basically.
Thomas Keller ... err, the Lakers ain't standing for it. And if we know anything about Kobe by now, it's that he is among the quickest in the league at taking offense and feeling disrespected. (There's no better example than when he trash-talked Doug Collins all during a Thursday night TNT game against Houston because the commentator had the audacity to point out how well Shane Battier defends Bryant.) If his body will allow, Kobe will throw every ounce of anger he's got at the Heat, and he has an uber-talented cast coming along for the ride.
Resumé: Two straight NBA titles. Three straight Western Conference titles. Phil Jackson has 11 championships as a coach. Bryant has five as a player, and has made 12 straight All-Star teams. Since 2002, he has finished in the top five in MVP voting every season except for 2005. He has a shot at breaking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's scoring record in the next 7-8 years, if he continues to play at a high level.
Achilles' Heel: Kobe might actually be wearing down -- he did shoot 6-24 in Game 7 of the Finals, and more generally has seemingly lost a touch of his otherworldly explosiveness. Andrew Bynum is recovering from late knee surgery, and may miss a few weeks of regular season action. The team still relies heavily on Bryant to create; the acquisition of Steve Blake (replacing Jordan Farmar) adds a legit shooter and tough defender but doesn't help get Lakers open shots. Ron Artest has typically gone batty during his second season in a city.
As you can see, there isn't one real item to watch for the Lakers. Just some nagging cracks in the foundation. (TZ)
The Next Generation: Are Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter the secret weapons of the Los Angeles Lakers? By way of establishing credibility, notice that I didn't include lovable big dude Dexter Pittman and dark horse Da'Sean Butler in my assessment of the Heat. Ebanks and Caracter, though, could potentially give the Lakers some valuable minutes. Ebanks has been described as Trevor Ariza-lite, especially on the defensive end; Caracter is a big body on a team whose big bodies are in an increasingly uncertain position. A Lakers team helped by the draft? Wow, a frightful notion indeed. If only this had happened all along, this might have the feel of a real, fear-inducing dynasty. Discuss: Does one more title make them into a dynasty? Well, whatever. On a team playing for the postseason, these youngsters could certainly help carry the weight during the regular season, which in turns hones them for the games that count. (BS)
Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down
Does Kobe have enough left to win another title, this season or ever?
Ziller: Thumbs tenatively up. So long as no one in the West steps up to become a legitimate rival, the Lakers have a fairly easy path to the Finals. Meanwhile, the Celtics, Magic, Heat and maybe Bulls and Hawks will be busy beating up on each other. There's a real value in a clear slate, and the Western teams that could ruin it either need marked internal improvement or a huge trade. That's especially important for Kobe, who is slowing down a tick and whose body might be feeling the pressure of 44,000 max-effort NBA minutes.
Shoals: This team is showing its age, or in the case of Andrew Bynum, its virtual age. The Heat, by contrast, have no key players who thus bear the mark of time. Maybe the Lakers are really planning to pull an extreme Shaq move, and build slowly to the postseason -- or parachute in abruptly and expect to succeed. But without something to shake up this team, it's hard to see them matching the sustained tidal impact of the Heat. The Lakers are very good; the Heat are historic. Never mind the problems with a late-season run (Celtics aside); I just don't see how the Lakers aren't stuck fighting a war on two fronts, with one of them being the aging of players like Kobe, Artest, and Odom. I guess it's time for Pau Gasol to put up that MVP season.
Co-Existing With Numbers
Kevin Pelton was a friend of mine. Still is, as far as I know.
That might strike some of you as strange, since I'm allergic to rational thought, and Pelton is one of the rising stars in basketball's advanced stats movement. He's also the co-author, along with Bradford Doolittle, of the Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11. If you know anything about the website Basketball Prospectus, or the Baseball Prospectus franchise, you have some sense of what this annual -- the second of its kind -- offers the reader.
Don't make the mistake, though, of thinking that it's only for stat-heads. Numbers aside, this book is a smart, funny, and frankly an indispensable overview of the season ahead.
This summer, we were at a bar with some other folks, debating Rajon Rondo's exit from Team USA. I was livid, wondering why Russell Westbrook got to stay; hoping to bolster my argument with some actual evidence, I turned to Kevin for the assist, expecting him to have each players' assist-to-turnover info on the tip of his tongue. He was a little stunned, maybe even annoyed, deadpanning "I'd have to look that up."
It wasn't that he has some principled objection to assist-to-turnover ratio, or somehow thought that Rondo and Westbrook defied the very methods he has staked his career on. More that, like any other rabid NBA fan, Kevin likes to talk (and write) about basketball. Sometimes that involves stats, sometimes it doesn't; the unifying theme of Pro Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 isn't the totalizing power of a new rational science of sport, but the ways in which this work can co-exist neatly alongside other forms of analysis, observation and even humor.
To wit: the signature statistic of PBP is SCHOENE, a metric named for former Sonic Russ Schoene. As Kevin observed the other night, "SCHOENE loves Anthony Randolph" -- catnip for yours truly, a champion of the the Knicks forward since his first days in the league. In fact, according to SCHOENE, Randolph's comparables include Tracy McGrady and Josh Smith, conclusions that hover somewhere between fantastic, shrewd and hilarious. Whether this shows the limitations of the stat, or has latched onto the untapped potential that continues to be Randolph's calling card, remains to be seen. Suffice it say that Pro Basketball Prospectus, with its detailed, player-by-player breakdowns of each team, is the kind of writing that leaves both these possibilities open.
Stats are only part of the story here, and each team is treated as just that: a past that can be poked, prodded, and recalled, and a future that stats can help bring into focus. You can read Pro Basketball Prospectus cover-to-cover without even glancing at the numbers, and still come away refreshed and ready for 2010-11. Or, if you want to be one of the smartest guys in the room, someone whose opinions about the game aren't based solely on conventional wisdom and human fallibility, you can take a crash course in the numbers. They aren't there to contradict or limit your love of the game; if anything, the added clarity, and new pockets of detail, will give you that much more to talk about.
Pro Basketball Prospectus can tell you that someone like Shane Battier is a valuable contributor. That's the drab part, and the image that the stats revolution really doesn't deserve. Bringing to light what an underrated defender Brandon Jennings is? If you saw that coming, well, congratulations. Sometimes, I think that not even the author of PBP did. (BS)
Alternative Contraction Program
David Stern dared mention contraction (shiver!) the other day, sending dolts and dullards to their keyboards to compose dangerously stupid "The First 5 Teams To Go" lists. The NBA isn't contracting, and if it were the union would have no say. This couldn't be any more naked a bargaining ploy if Stern had announced it in a sauna.
But if Stern is being honest when he says that NBA owners collectively lose something like $350 million a year ... then well, cost-cutting measures are needed. Luckily, all these pauvres petits who own basketball teams have other business interests and vanity projects. Consider this The Works' Alternative Contraction Program, where we suggest what owners can give up so that a city doesn't have to give up its team.
Donald Sterling, unfair housing practices. Since 2003, Sterling has paid more than $8 million to settle lawsuits related to discriminatory housing practices in which he allegedly directed staff to block black and Latino applicants from renting his company's units. And he's worried about paying Randy Foye $4 million? Stop trying to revive Jim Crow in L.A. and you'll save some money, Sterling!
Gavin Maloof, Ed Hardy t-shirt collection. The younger Maloof brother (pictured, with Lil' Jon and brother Joe) is 56 years old, yet wears Ed Hardy shirts just about everywhere. Those things aren't cheap, and the department store always runs sales on button-downs before Christmas. We know the Maloofs are budget-conscious -- two years ago, they parked their jet and started flying coach to save cash. Why not extend that fiscal sanity to the clothing budget?
Mickey Arison, the Carnival Dream. The Arison family got rich on cruise ships, with Carnival Cruise Lines cornering the market on the floating amusement park/casino-style buffet experience over the last couple decades. The latest Carnival boat, named the Dream, includes a full-sized water park. On the ocean. We build water parks to bring the joy of water to landbound kids. Now we have built a water park and put it in the ocean. The ship also a two-story miniature golf course. You think having Wade and LeBron means excess? No, sir or madam. Having a two-story miniature golf course on a boat is excess.
Herb Simon, Tecolote Book Shop. Yes, as a matter of fact the owner of the Indiana Pacers does own a used bookstore in the tony Santa Barbara enclave of Montecito. I am a huge fan of literacy and of cheap books, but I propose a new rule for folks on the Forbes 500: If you can't make a lease payment on your beautiful basketball arena, you have to give up the money-sucking used bookstore. Clay Bennett complies; he closed down his bookstore in Aspen last year.
Michael Jordan, alimony payments. I know MJ holds sway over the current player population. But at the bargaining table, how can the union's leadership not crack up when Jordan complains about losing money on his Bobcats investment? Even Kobe won't be able to resist yelling something like, "You gave Juanita $168 million! Are you kidding me?!"
Paul Allen, frivolous patent infringement lawsuits: The Blazers owner is currently suing Apple, Google, Yahoo! and FanHouse parent AOL for patent infringement. Why? Because they supposedly aped Microsoft by producing "news browsers," related content modules and other completely mundane items. I look forward to when Allen sues a random child for wearing unauthorized Seahawk Blue pants. (TZ)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available Tuesday.