NBA 2008-09 Regular Season Wrap Up
Well, another NBA regular season has come to an end and thus I must make a few comments on it. I will focus on three things: 1) a look at the Mavs; 2) my thoughts on the MVP; and 3) a brief preview of the post-season.
As much as I've talked about how much I hated the trade that brought Jason Kidd back to Dallas, I have to give props to the Mavericks for their galvanization at the end of the season and Kidd was a key contributor to that. After becoming the last Western Conference team to clinch a playoff berth, the team continued to play strongly and was able to move up to the sixth seed. That's significant because it means that they will be playing the Spurs in the first round. When it comes down to it, none of the Western Conference playoff teams are significantly better than any of the others (with the obvious exception of the Lakers) so I don't really think any of the teams were looking for a particular matchup. However, getting the Spurs right now is important.
The team from the Alamo City looks more vulnerable than it has since the 1997 draft. Manu Ginobili is out for the entire playoffs and it is woefully apparent that Tim Duncan is not close to being 100%. Add to that the traditional rivalry between the two teams and this is the best motivation that my boys from Dallas could possibly hope for. While I do not think it will be easy, I do expect them to win the first round series. Actually, I think the Mavericks could make it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. If they can beat San Antonio, then they will face the winner of Portland/Houston, both of whom they can beat in 7-game series (even without home court advantage). I'd be particularly happy to see them meet the Trailblazers since the Mavericks swept the season series. Plus, as talented as that team is (and the Blazers have got some serious talent), it is still young and has not yet learned how to play post-season basketball.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter because no one in the West will unseat the Lakers (barring an injury). The team from Hollywood has dominated the conference from start to finish. However, I'd really like to see the Mavericks build on something here. And I am really interested in seeing what happens in the off-season. Mark Cuban has gone on record as saying that he wants to be aggressive this off-season because the Mavs are one of only a handful of teams that are in a financial situation that will allow them to make moves. The craziest rumor has him targeting Chris Paul. Of course, that has almost no chance of happening but I like the fact that he wants to make that big a splash.
This was an interesting year for the MVP race. In some ways this was the antithesis to the 2006-07 season. That year no one player actually did much to deserve the award so it was given to the player that came closest to meeting the criteria that has been established for MVPs over the years. This year we have so many players that are worthy, yet one player put on such a phenomenal season that there's no way that he should not receive it. But let's take a look at the candidates.
First, there's a group of honorable mentions. These guys deserve to be mentioned but ultimately cannot measure up to the top tier talent. Guys like Chauncey Billups, who proved his value not only in how he moved Denver into second place in the West but also how Detroit collapsed after he was traded. Then there is Brandon Roy. Early in the season I was watching a Portland home game. Roy was having a great game and the crowd starting the "MVP!!!" chant. I scoffed and tweeted that such chants should be saved for "actual" MVP candidates. I was wrong. Brandon Roy is not only a fantastic NBA player but he is becoming one of the game's great clutch players. With their youth, and him as their leader, the Blazers should be a scary team for a long time. There is one other player who is almost (but not quite) ready to graduate from honorable mention status to bonafied MVP candidate. That is the man-beast in Orlando named Dwight Howard. He has already established himself as the best center in the game (sorry, Rockets' fans) and he's doing it strictly on talent. He still hasn't really learned how to play the game yet. When he is able to add skills to his already formidable talents, there is no reason why who should not go down as one of the Greatest Of All Time.
And that brings us to the four guys who deserve the most MVP love. I'll discuss them in ascending order of worthiness.
4) Kobe Bryant
Throughout the course of the season I thought that Kobe Bryant was, at worst, tied for co-MVP status. And if this were a regular NBA season, he would absolutely have kept that status, if not being the clear cut winner. There were three reasons why that was not enough this season.
One, his season was just great. The three guys ahead of him all had seasons that can among some of the best of all time. Two, you have to consider the Gasol factor. I hate punishing guys because their GM/coach was smart enough to put more talent around their star but I think that in this instance, it's less a case of punishing Kobe and more a case of showcasing just how great the seasons of the other three players actually were. None of them had a teammate capable of putting up 19 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while shooting almost 57% from the field. Finally, I think that Kobe was pacing himself for the playoffs. He won his MVP last year and I don't think he cares about that anymore. He wants to be the clear cut leader of a championship team. That should scare the rest of the league.
3) Chris Paul
I don't think most fans have taken enough time to really appreciate how great a season we just got from Chris Paul (my choice to win the MVP last year). He led the league in steals (2.8) and assists (11.1) per game. He also managed to average almost 23 points per game while shooting over 50% from the field. Those numbers by themselves are amazing. They are Magic Johnson type stats. But then you have to factor in that he plays in a much slower paced era than Magic did. THEN you have to take into account that he is only six feet tall. That is unheard of. Fun fact: before CP3, only one player in NBA history has EVER averaged over 20 points and 11 assists per game while also making more than half his shots. That is the aforementioned 6'9 point guard who led the Showtime fast break in Los Angles during the 80s. Over the course of his 12 full seasons in the NBA, Magic Johnson did it twice. The first time was in his eighth NBA season. Chris Paul just did it in his fourth season (and was just a few field goal percentage points from having done it LAST season). And have I mentioned that he is nine inches shorter than Magic? When you factor in his ability to grab steals on the defensive end, it is no exaggeration to say that Paul has the ability to go down in history as the single greatest point guard of all time.
Despite this, I cannot justifiably rank him any higher. One, just like Kobe has Gasol, Paul has David West. There is also the fact that his team underachieved compared to last year. That is certainly no fault of CP3 but it still has to be taken into account.
2) Dwyane Wade
Anyone who knows me knows that I do not root for Dwyane Wade. I don't dislike the guy, he seems like a nice enough fellow and he plays hard every time he is on the court. But I will never get out of my mind the way the refs coddled him in the 2006 Finals against my Mavericks (and yes, I fully acknowledge that the Mavs imploded). But despite those misgivings, I will still recognize excellence when I see it. And "excellent" is the only way to describe the season that Wade just had.
All he did was lead the league in scoring...while also finishing in the top 10 in assists and steals...while leading his team in blocked shots (which might be the first time in history that has been done by a guard)...while making just under 50% of his shots. Simply put, this was the best season by a shooting guard in the post-Jordan era of the NBA. Yes, even better than Kobe in 2005-06 (and I *still* think that Kobe deserved MVP that season). While it is true that Kobe put on one of the greatest scoring seasons ever, he did so to the detriment of the rest of his game. He was rebounding and passing less while fouling more. Not so with Wade. He elevated every aspect of his game, setting career highs in scoring, assists, steals, blocks and 3-point field goal percentage while minimizing his fouls and turnover (more fodder for stat geeks: John Hollinger's PER system also says that Wade in 2008-09 was better than Kobe in 2005-06). And he carried his team into the playoffs. With Wade returning to form after being injury plagued last season, the Heat improved by 28 wins and a fifth-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
1) LeBron James
I just spent a few hundred words discussing the historic seasons of both Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade. Yet both of them still have to rank behind LeBron James' year. He has the numbers to justify the MVP. He finished second to Wade in scoring and--like Wade--was in the top 10 in both assists and steals (for the record, he and Wade are the only non-point guards to finish in the top 16 in assists). He also led his team in virtually every statistic. If that's not enough, he guided the Cavaliers to the best record in the NBA (and the second best home record in NBA history). Anyone who said that the saw that coming at the beginning of the season is flat out lying.
Even with these accomplishments though, some people are making the argument that Wade is more worthy. After all, they say, Wade has a weaker supporting cast. Even without LeBron, the Cavs would still make the playoffs, they claim. I have already mentioned that it is unfair to dock one player for his accomplishments because he has a better supporting cast. But that point is not even necessary here. LeBron has a better supporting cast? Really? Think about this for a minute: how far would a team go if Mo Williams was its best player? Oh, wait...this doesn't have to be hypothetical because we already know the answer. See the Milwaukee Bucks of the past few seasons (yes, Michael Redd led the team in scoring but he is little more than a catch and shoot jump shooter). See, that is where LeBron really separates himself from Wade. Wade makes his *team* better. LeBron makes his *teammates* better.
A year ago, I made the observation that LeBron James is the most talented player the NBA has ever seen. We are now in the midst of seeing what that means when he can put it all together. The scary part is that he STILL has room for growth. What happens when he gets a more reliable jump shot? What happens when he develops a post game? What happens when he (woe be to the rest of the NBA) when he finds an unstoppable weapon like Jordan's turnaround? I don't think he will ever win as many rings as Jordan or Magic because we are fully in the era of NBA free agency. Dynasties cannot be built the way they were in the past (even the San Antonio Spurs, who have been the most consistent team of the past decade, have never successfully defended a championship). So if that is how we measure greatness, 'Bron will probably not get his due credit. But if we look at talent as the measure, I cannot see how he won't be at the top.
These playoffs are somewhat intriguing but ultimately, I think most people can see where this is headed. The West is the Lakers' for the taking. The only intrigue there is which team will meet them in the conference finals. Teams 2-8 are so evenly matched it's ridiculous. Any of them could meet the Lakers and none would be a surprise. Typically, I would give the edge to the team with the best player. In this case that would be the Hornets with Chris Paul. But since they fell to the 7th seed, they have an uphill climb. They will not have home court in any round. Still, the longer we can watch CP3 play, the better it is for the league. Portland may have the most talent of any non-Laker team in the West but none of their best players have any playoff experience. They'll have to wait a year or two. This morning on Colin Cowherd's radio program, TNT studio host Ernie Johnson said that he thinks the Mavericks are the team that no one is paying attention to; he believes that they will surprise a lot of people. I obviously hope that is the case. I would love to see my boys make a run to the Conference Finals and then retool in the off-season as one of the few teams that will have the financial flexibility to do so.
In terms of intrigue, the East pretty much became a mirror once the Boston Celtics announced that Kevin Garnett would miss at least a significant portion of the playoffs. Without a 100% healthy KG, there is no team in the East that can challenge the Cavs. The Orlando Magic are the Eastern Conference version of the Blazers in that they have the talent but not the experience to make a stronger push. And no other team has even that. That said, it is nice to see that the NBA has become more balanced after so many years of the West being by far the better conference.
So it looks like we are on a collision course of Lakers vs Cavaliers. David Stern HAS to be praying to Jehovah that this happens. One year after pitting the league's two marquee franchises against one another, he would get a Finals that has the league's two best players. It would be the 21st century version of the 1991 Finals when Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan met for all the marbles. I really don't know who I would pick if this happens. I think the Lakers are a better team but Cleveland would have home court, where they have been virtually unbeatable. Of course, the Lakers were the one team that was able to beat them at home while they were at full strength. So while I can't yet say who I'd pick to win, you can bet that I will certainly be watching.
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