We’ve got two special guests on board today, Tom Read and Benyam Kidane from the excellent blog Believe The Hype. Be sure to follow the lads during All-Star Weekend because they’ll be there (lucky bastards!) covering all the action – both on and off the court – as only they can.

1) True or false – the Lakers are screwed?

Robd: I don’t think they’re “screwed”, because they only need to put together a 6 or 8 game winning streak and they’ll be back in the hunt (I’m sure that will happen at some point). But I still chuckle to myself when I consider the very real possibility they miss the playoffs. Also, if it gets to late Feb and the Lakers are still struggling, don’t be surprised if they shut down some/all of their Big 4 to rest and rehab for the following season.

JT: True. Even if they reach the playoffs (a stretch) the best they can hope for is probably the 8th seed in the west. And you know what that means, right? Their path to the title would go something like this – OKC in the first round, the Grizz in the second, Clippers in the WCF and then Miami in the Finals. So for this season I think we can safely say that they’re done. And that’s hilarious!

And I’ll preface this by saying that I am not traditionally a ‘Kobe hater’ so that’s not where this is coming from, but I blame Kobe for the lousy chemistry and I can’t believe that he’s getting a free pass here. Yes, he’s putting up some great numbers, his efficiency is off the charts and he’s hit some incredible shots late in games, but he’s sacrificed NOTHING to try and make this thing work; it appears he still wants ‘to get his’ and that’s happening at the expense of everyone else. (We have plenty of evidence now – ex. the Boston Big Three and the Miami Heat – for a ‘superteam’ to succeed each star player in the group must either sacrifice or adapt their game – and clearly, Kobe has done neither). He’s leading the league in usage and that’s just nuts on a team with Howard, Gasol and Nash. “But he’s getting no help” has been the common refrain. And to that, I say BS. How can these guys get into the flow of the game (fourth quarter specifically) when Kobe’s dominating the play? The poor buggers don’t have a chance.

Tom: Yes. At time of writing this, The Lakers are sitting (not so) pretty at 15-20 in a very competitive Western Conference. In 2010/11, the last full 82 game season, the Memphis Grizzlies grabbed the 8th seed with a 46-36 record (561). Last season, Utah grabbed the 8th seed with a 36-30 record (.545) & currently Denver have the 8th best record in the West at 20-16 (.556) That means that the Lakers would have to go around 31-16 in their remaining games just to make the playoffs!

To make this feat even harder, the Lakers 2nd half of the season is traditionally back-ended with road trips including the Grammy Roadtrip in February where they play 7 straight road games. In February & March, 18 of their 28 games are away from Staples Center. 11 of those games are against teams who are well within the playoff race.

So purely looking at the schedule, the Lakers are really up against it. That’s not even talking about their main on court & team issues of chemistry, defence, coaching & injuries.

It will take a complete 180 for the Lakers to be able to turn this season around just to make the playoffs. For them to do this, with how the team is currently set up, we’ll have to see big minutes every night from Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol & Dwight Howard when he returns. With the first 3 players mentioned having a combined age of 104, it’s a safe bet that the fatigue from the extra minutes on their old legs would mean a swift playoff exit in the first round at the hands of the Thunder or worse, the Clippers.

Benyam: In short, true! The Lakers are looking worse for wear and as the season continues they are quickly running out of time to work out their identity as a team.

As things stand, the Lakers are trying (and failing) to force a square peg in a round hole, with an offence driven coach in Mike D’Antoni and a slow, aging roster who is not committed to playing defence in the halfcourt or on fast breaks. With the Western Conference the way that it is, there are so many competitive teams around the .500 mark and none of these teams fear the Lakers based on their reputation anymore.

If all of this wasn’t bad enough, the Lakers are also battling to get their best players on the court consistently to try and build some momentum and chemistry. With Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol all spending varying amounts of time on the sidelines, the Lakers are quickly slipping away from the rest of the teams in the West.

Myself and many others have maintained that the Lakers are more of a playoff team than a regular season team, which is something they may have been able to get away with in seasons gone, but now the task of making the playoffs is looking harder than ever.

Shaun: True, but I’m not surprised. Kobe is again showing that he’s still one of the league’s elite scorers, but to achieve this he needs the ball in his hands, and unfortunately that affects Dwight. As good as he is defensively if Dwight isn’t scoring his confidence seems to dip, and that’s been clear this season. I also believe that Dwight’s back injury is a lot worse than what was first reported. But it’s clear; he’s just not the same player.

Nash is a fantastic point guard but he’s 38 (soon to be 39) years old and I’m not sure he has enough left in the tank to be able to run a team like the Lakers for 82 games plus playoffs, especially coming off the fractured leg. Then you’ve got the bench, one of the least productive in the NBA this season. They don’t have a player like a Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Jamal Crawford type that can come in, shoot the lights out and give them some punch on the perimeter. I think the less said about their bench the better.

2) The Los Angeles Clippers – are they for real or will they get exposed against elite competition in the playoffs?

Robd: Oh, they’re real. They are elite, and they can win the title. And with some of their vets still to come back, they will get stronger. Right now they’re probably second behind the Heat as my title favorites, with OKC third. A deep team, very good defensively, and with an MVP candidate in CP3. They are the three ingredients you need to win a title.

JT: They’re a very good team but I don’t think they’re cable of winning the championship. In a pressure packed seven game series when the game slows down and defenses tighten up, the poor free-throw shooting of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is going to be a problem, as will their interior defense, front court depth and lack of a high quality wing defender. And finally, as we saw in the Laker vs. Clipper game last week, when things bog down in crunch time who else other than Chris Paul is going to consistently create plays and score? And please don’t say Jamal Crawford (if you think that then you haven’t been watching the guy play his inefficient brand of basketball for the last 10 years). I can’t see them getting past OKC.

Tom: The Los Angeles Clippers have a great regular season team. No doubt about it. They have a deep rotation, play an up-tempo, high flying, highlight fuelled offense with really no substance. They deserve to be in the position where they are currently, sitting pretty with the best record in the NBA.

However, the real test for the Clippers is how they will adapt to the playoffs when the offense slows down, defence picks up, the rotation gets smaller & every possession means something. No longer are risky alley-oops or contested 3pt shots considered takeable looks & in some instances, not even possible as teams don’t allow others to run a high-tempo game.

We’ve seen teams who approach their games in this way suffer during the playoffs. Notably the mid 2000’s Phoenix Suns & the 1991-92 Golden State Warriors. Also, to a certain extent, the 2010-11 Miami Heat who’s game was found out to not have a lot of substance by the Dallas Mavericks who slowed the game down & didn’t allow the Heat to play their natural game.

The Heat were able to adapt their offense & came back to win the NBA Championship the next season. But can the Clippers? By what we’ve seen from this team to date, my answer is no. But there is time for them to prove me wrong.

If you look at their game against the Lakers last week, which they won, the one thing that worried me was how they played in the clutch; it seemed like their only move was isolation plays by Chris Paul. This isn’t new. They are blowing out teams, but in close games towards the end they don’t play the percentage game to close them out. Which really surprises me considering Chris Paul statistically is the best player in crunch time.

Furthermore, Vinny Del Negro needs to play more of Blake Griffin & DeAndre Jordan in late game situations. The West has some very talented big-men & in crunch time during the Playoffs, the Clippers small-ball lineup could be exposed by the likes of Memphis’ Zach Randolph & Marc Gasol, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan & Tiago Splitter, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka & Golden State’s Andrew Bogut & David Lee.

Ultimately, right now I don’t consider them legitimate contenders, however in saying this they still have some time to make some adaptations to their game so that they can hang with the big-boys in the Playoffs. They definitely have the personnel to do so.

Benyam: The Clippers are indeed an unreal regular season team as they are probably the best in the league at getting energy buckets from their very deep bench, getting buckets from hustle plays on defence and generally outrunning teams.

Once the playoffs come around this style of play will be very difficult to maintain as the defensive sets are more structured, the play is more centred around the halfcourt and the game is slowed right down. From what we have seen so far from the Clippers they have had success against elite teams in the NBA, but have been relying on their run and gun style of play to get them there. The real issue in the playoffs is that the Clippers strengths will ultimately become their weakness in the playoffs.

Against the elite teams in the Western Conference, the Clippers will struggle to get their running machines in Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe going, meaning a lot more responsibility will fall on the likes of Chris Paul, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler late in games to hit big shots.

Although we have seen this from Chris Paul time and time again, how many times he can pull the Clippers out of games, especially against the likes of San Antonio, Memphis and OKC.

The Clippers have also struggled in patches when they have found it difficult to get Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into games, and as a result the Clippers have looked stagnant and ineffective. This will be something the coaching staff will have to be wary of, as you need your best players on the floor to win, but if Blake and DeAndre are struggling in the halfcourt, the bigger Western Conference teams will run all over the Clips.

Having said that there is every chance the Clippers can put together a dream run and consistently win playoff games with entertaining up and down the floor basketball, and I’m sure that’s what every fan is hoping, myself included.

Shaun: I actually think they are for real, believe it or not. The addition of Jamal Crawford has given them added fire power off the bench, Matt Barnes is showing why he was so highly rated as a youngster, and the return of Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill will definitely help come the post season. Chris Paul has been the best PG to date this season, Blake Griffin is establishing himself as one of the most dominating and exciting power forwards in the league, and Caron Butler is giving them veteran leadership and production. The only weakness that I can see is in the big man department; if Griffin or Jordan were to go down their whole season could be derailed.

3) With the recent turmoil, what’s the outlook for the Brooklyn Nets for the rest of this season and beyond?

Robd: Don’t give up on the Nets. I still think they will go Top 4 in the East. They just need to get settled, make sure D Will is happy (talk about being high maintenance), and keep playing really good defense. That is their key strength at the moment. Defense. They play better defense than Miami, New York and even Boston. Don’t underestimate how much this counts.

JT: They’re beating up on bad teams at the moment, so don’t be fooled by that. I’ve said it since the preseason – they’ve got a flawed roster that’s essentially locked in for the next 3-4 years, so expect disappointment (in terms of playoff, or lack thereof, success). Add in some unrealistic expectations and I think it’s going to get damn ugly here over the next few years.

You know that saying about putting lipstick on a pig? Well, that applies here. There’s just no substance.

Tom: The Brooklyn Nets aren’t an amazing team. NBA fans seemed to get blinded by the fact that they had a glitzy move to Brooklyn & marketing upgrade, but in fact there isn’t too much difference this year from previous incarnations of their line-up.

At the start of the season I predicted that the Nets would miss the playoffs. I don’t believe that this would happen anymore because the bottom half of the East is just so bad. But as it stands, they won’t go through the first round. Deron Williams isn’t the player that he was back in Utah, Brook Lopez still needs to prove he can play a full season, Joe Johnson isn’t looking like the 2nd option that he needs to be & Kris Humphries is just playing some pretty ordinary basketball & probably deserved to fall out of favour in the rotation like Avery Johnson had done.

Firing Avery Johnson wasn’t the best idea by Mikhail Prokhorov. He just proved what everyone already knew, he’s a brash owner who lives in the now & doesn’t necessarily look at the bigger picture. Johnson was the perfect coach for this team & for Williams. Williams made a bad mistake for tuning Johnson out towards the end of his tenure, crying to Prokhorov & ultimately playing a hand in getting him fired.

They are in a good place to improve though. They have some very tradeable pieces in Lopez, C.J Watson, MarShon Brooks & have become a destination that can attract high profile free agents. They are in the centre of the basketball universe in New York City & lets be honest, who wouldn’t want to play for Jay-Z & a Russian billionaire who often has parties on his boat with hordes of Eastern European models?

Benyam: On paper the Brooklyn Nets are a 6th – 8th seed team in the East and at the beginning of the season hid behind their flashy marketing campaign, which definitely won me over. But reality set in at the end of December when the Nets crashed back down to earth and panic spread through the organisation as things weren’t going as planned.

Deron Williams is arguably playing the worst basketball of his career, both through a lack of scoring and not making anyone else on the team play better (see Chris Paul). Brook Lopez is still too inconsistent and the bench really isn’t offering that much. Still though I don’t think any of this was Avery Johnson’s fault, he was doing exactly what was expected of the Nets, to have them around the .500 mark and still in the playoff hunt.

On the plus side for the Nets, the glitz and glamour of playing in New York, playing for Jay-Z’s team and being part of something new is very attractive for prospective free agents. Once they sort out their coaching situation and are given a bit more time to gel as a team, the Nets definitely have it in them to make the second round of the playoffs and establish themselves as a legitimate team in the East.

Shaun: I think they’re a playoff team but not deep enough to contend for a title just yet. I didn’t agree with the firing of Avery Johnson, and although they have turned things around since then I believe it will hurt them in the long run. Blatche has been a great addition coming off the bench and almost averaging a double-double, and Joe Johnson is starting to find his feet. I’m not sure what’s up with Deron Williams and it will be interesting to see if he can recapture his All-Star form as the season goes along. Gerald Wallace has been disappointing from a production standpoint. Perhaps Jay Z could suit up and show us what he can do? He kills it in NBA 2k13.

4) Despite the absence of Andrew Bogut the Golden State Warriors have been playing superb basketball this season. When the big man comes back, how far can they go?

Robd: Wish I had selected the Warriors as my Surprise Team of 2012-13. They’re already a real shot for Top 4 out West (although I do expect them to drop off and have a bad month, probably in March), but here’s the thing… throwing Bogut into that mix doesn’t necessarily equate to more wins. He will make them better, in the long run, but I feel like they’ve developed a system that is working really well with the personnel they have now. With Bogut back, how does this affect David Lee? How many less shots does Curry get, and will that be a good thing given how ridiculously well he is shooting right now? What does it mean for Landry coming off the bench? (one of the best 6th men in the league right now). So yeah, lots of questions and I’m not sure they’ll solve them all quickly.

JT: Bogut won’t be operating at 100% this season so I’d assume they’d go out in the first round; just too much inexperience there and the competition to fierce in the west. But in the years to come, as their impressive youngsters develop, they could be nasty.

Tom: They could. Go. All. The. Way!!! Actually, probably not… I just really wanted to say that. With Andrew Bogut back on the court & being the defensive centrepiece of this team, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Warriors have a deep playoff run. Steph Curry & David Lee are playing some great basketball & are getting amazing production from their young swingmen Klay Thompson & Harrison Barnes.

Bogut is one of the best defensive Centers & shot blockers in the NBA when he’s on the court & having him back would ease the burden on the defensive end for David Lee, especially on the rebounding front. His size also allows the Warriors to matchup well against teams like the Grizzlies & Thunder.

Furthermore, Bogut is also a great at reading the floor & has elite passing skills for his position. Having him as a distributor on the low block allows the Warriors to play a game that spreads the floor & creates potential pick & roll opportunities for one of the best PG’s in the game at it in Curry.

Benyam: Honestly, the way the Warriors look right now, they could beat anybody. Inside and out, all the way to the bench, everyone is performing at a high level, all without their big man, Andrew Bogut. So making it to the Western Conference finals might not be the most outrageous storyline of the season. Bogut can provide the defensive presence in the paint that will allow the vast array of shooters to spread the floor and knock down open shots. Right now it seems like Steph Curry, Jarret Jack and Klay Thompson can’t miss a shot. Not to mention the uncapped potential Bogut and Lee have as an intelligent, mobile frontcourt.

Speaking of Curry, he is showing the form of player he was earmarked to be, David Lee is playing out of his skin and the young brigade of Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli are all contributing on any given night.

I picked the Warriors to make the playoffs this season, but at the rate things are going, that is going to look like a very conservative estimate.

Shaun: I’m loving what they are doing this season. Who would have thought that without Bogut and after trading Ellis away, they would be having this kind of success? They’re 23 – 12, sitting 5th in the Western conference, with the 7th best record in the league. David Lee has been FANTASTIC, as has Curry in his natural role of point guard, and at this stage his ankles have held up. Harrison Barnes has been pretty solid in his rookie season and was a bargain for the Warriors at pick 7, and their bench has been surprisingly productive led by Landry and Jack. They’re definitely a sleeper if the big fella comes back fit.

5) Name a non-big name player who deserves to be an All-Star lock this year?

Robd: Already mentioned him. Steph Curry.

JT: Tyson Chandler. Warriors duo David Lee and Steph Curry also deserve the nod.

Tom: I spoke about both of them before but with the Warriors sitting pretty at 5th in the West with a 23-12 record, there has to be a spot available for at least one or even both of their inspirational leaders Steph Curry & David Lee.

Steph Curry’s rapid rise to become one of the NBA’s elite point guards has been great to watch. This year he’s averaging 20.2 ppg & 6 apg. Curry’s been great in the clutch has had limited turnovers & his speed makes him a matchup nightmare for anyone in the NBA not named Russell Westbrook. He’s got a high basketball IQ & is one of those rare players who makes everyone around him better.

David Lee’s name has been in the conversation for the All Star Game ever since his emergence as a rebounding machine & unorthodox stretch-four in New York. However, it’s this season that we have seen him at his absolute best as he’s a double double machine averaging 19.7 ppg, 10.9 rpg. & a career high PER of 20.2.

With Andrew Bogut sidelined, Lee has been able to successfully ensure that the Warriors weren’t going to lose a step against the size & power in a Conference that features a number of talented low post players that demand attention on the offensive end & will punish you if you step a foot wrong on offense in Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge, Serge Ibaka & co.

I’ll petition that the NBA should cancel the festivities in Houston if neither of these guys are at the Toyota Center on the 17th February 2013.

Benyam: There are alot of guys hovering around the ‘nearly and all star’ mark, but the one that has stood out for me has to be Joakhim Noah. On a Chicago Bulls team that is still succeeding despite the absence of Derrick Rose, Noah has taken his game to the next level this year and is the cornerstone of the Bulls hard work ethic. Noah is averaging 12.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2 blocks a game including 16 double-doubles on the season and 14 games with five-plus assists, not to mention his free throw percentage has climbed from 72% up to 81%.

Noah is statistically up there with the better big men in the Eastern Conference such as Tyson Chandler, Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh, but what pushes him over the edge for me is that Noah is a bit of an NBA funboy and the All Star weekend is the perfect arena for Noah to showcase some of his fun filled gimmicks. With the Bulls winning record to back him up, Noah is a legit contender to be on the East team, however the elimination of the centre position could very well work against him.

Shaun: It HAS to be David Lee; what he’s done for the Warriors has been nothing short of brilliant. We all knew that Lee could ball, but 19.9 points and 10.9 rebounds, with an efficiency of +25.03? And what makes it even more impressive is that he’s done it without Bogut in the line-up, who you would figure could help him out on the front line. So who knows, maybe Lee’s numbers could even get better when the big fella comes back.

6) Gripe about something.

Robd: Well obviously that would be my Pistons and their amazing inconsistency. I had high hopes for them this season. Ok, so “high” is a relative term. But I was majorly pissed after their 0-8 start which pretty much ruled out the playoffs straight away. Now, they’re coming off a streak where they won 6 of 8, and believe it or not, they’re just 5 and a half games out of the playoffs! In all seriousness, Coach Frank is starting to get a better feel for the roster and how the minutes should be split. Drummond is getting more burn (and secretly, he has a better PER than Monroe) and all things point towards a much better second half of the season. Do I expect them to make the playoffs? No, but it would be great for their confidence to know they only missed out by a few games. And that would make it a wortwhile season for this Pistons fan.

JT: I’ve got three:
1) There’s too many timeouts; watching the final minutes of a close game (even a good one) can be torturous. It’s why I prefer to watch games on replay.
2) There’s too much bitching going on towards the refs. In what other sport can a player/coach continually badger the referee? It’s not a good look. I’d love to see them treat it like the new flopping rules and just fine (and then suspend) the biggest cry-babies.
3) LeBron James needs to get his ass in the post (like he vowed to do in the offseason) and stop taking three pointers. To me, it’s the most perplexing thing in basketball. LeBron in the post is the single most unstoppable play in the NBA, as evidenced in the Finals last season, and yet they seem to have gone away from it. I don’t know, maybe they’re saving it for the playoffs? I can’t stand watching Miami at the moment cause this just pisses me off.

Tom: Dear person reading this who plays fantasy basketball… I don’t care about your team. I don’t “feel your pain” that you drafted Andrew Bynum with your top pick. It doesn’t really affect me or interest me in the slightest that Carlos Delfino’s 3pt shooting efforts last night means that you are “killing it” in this week’s matchup. Really, think about it… It’s not real, it’s make-believe. I don’t even care about my own fantasy team enough (which I stopped looking at 2 weeks into the season just like 93% of people who actually sign up to any fantasy sports) so why would I want to hear every morning about yours?

Cool, you love fantasy sports, no problems with that. Virtual high-five bro. They are really popular & can be quite fun if you’re into that. But they are something personal & not something that you bring up in conversation with everyone you know.

As far as I know, LeBron James plays for the Miami Heat, not the “Metta World of Warcrafts”.

I’m happy to talk to you about the NBA, any day of the week… let’s chat, even grab a beer if you’re into that… But if you tell me that you just picked up Alexey Shved off the waiver wire or that you just “trade-r*ped” someone for Kemba Walker, I’m leaving.

Benyam: Flopping, flopping, flopping. An issue which the NBA has taken greater measures to police this season, but ultimately the players are the ones who need to own this one.

In a sport with some of the biggest, fastest and strongest athletes in the world, watching a 6’8 man mountain flailing arms in the air (you know who you are Reggie Evans) with only the slightest contact is for the most part annoying.

With the fines they have put in place for flopping, players have six chances before they are suspended which really isn’t doing that much to stop the problem; fining a millionaire between $5,000 and $30,000 isn’t that much of a sting.

If they really want to get rid of flopping more in game punishments need to be handed out; perhaps a couple of free throws here and there could go some ways to putting an end to the nonsense.

Shaun: My Washington Wizards (yeah yeah) and that dope Ernie Grunfeld. How does this guy still have a job as a GM? Surely this season was meant to be his last chance after burning our cap space on Okafor and Ariza. How many times does this team need to rebuild? The questions could go on and on and I simply do not have an answer to all of them. Beal in my opinion is going to be a beast, and it is still yet to be seen if John Wall can be the franchise player the Wizards expect him to be. Although there is definitely upside and promise there, the Wizards will only reach their potential if Ernie Grunfeld is fired.

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