No One-Man Gang
Back then, L.A. depended on Bryant to have any chance to win. He missed two games that season, and the Lakers lost both of them; when he took an on-court DNP in the second half of Game 7 in Phoenix, the Suns outscored the Lakers by 16 points. For that season, opponents outscored the Lakers by 5.2 points per 100 possessions with Bryant off the court.
How will top Euro prospects do in NBA?
In the past couple days I've rated both the best perimeter prospects and the best frontcourt prospects coming out of college.
That leaves out one important participant in Thursday's draft festivities: Italian forward Danilo Gallinari.
Fortunately, I have a system for converting Euroleague performance to NBA performance, one that's been uncanny in its accuracy in previous seasons. For instance, a year ago I projected a PER of 7.36 for Marco Belinelli, 15.16 for Juan Carlos Navarro and 16.27 for Luis Scola. The actual numbers were 8.23, 11.90 and 16.18, with only Navarro deviating from his projection. Previous seasons have shown similar accuracy.
The reason this works is that there's a predictable relationship between a player's stats in the Euroleague -- the highest level of European basketball -- and what they'll be in the NBA. Crossing the Atlantic does the following to a player's results:
• Scoring rate decreases 25 percent
• Rebound rate increases by 18 percent (there are more missed shots in NBA play)
• Assist rate increases by 31 percent (Euro scorers are tightwads with assists)
• Shooting percentage drops by 12 percent
• Overall, PER drops by 30 percent.
In the case of Danilo Gallinari, he projects to a PER of 13.21 -- pretty darn good for a 20-year-old. The caveat is that he did this in just 11 games for a bad team, AJ Milano, that won only three games. As a result he shot more than he would normally at the pro level, and likely a worse percentage. His projected numbers from Europe are 14.5 points per 40 minutes and 37.0 percent shooting; I'd expect the points to be lower and the percentage to be higher unless he's picked by a truly awful team (in a related story, the Clippers pick seventh).
This is a "Year 1" projection, as opposed to the "Year 3" projections I used for the college prospects, and once you factor in his age and growth potential you'd have to presume he'd be up around 15 or 16 by Year 3. If so, it would make Gallinari one of the top prospects in this year's draft, and his status as a likely selection between six and 10 seems reasonable.
If I had to slot him into my board, I'd rate him sixth -- combining my numbers with some subjective opinion, I have Michael Beasley and Kevin Love as the two best players, followed by Derrick Rose, Joe Alexander and Darrell Arthur. Gallinari, Jerryd Bayless, Marreese Speights, Brook Lopez and D.J. Augustin round out my top 10, with Mario Chalmers and Roy Hibbert the next two names on the board. Since there's only about 12 guys in any draft who can play, those are the 12 I'm putting my money on.
Actually, there are two other foreign players that I think might be better than Gallinari, and both are in this draft. Unfortunately, contracts may get in the way of either ever coming to the NBA.
The first is Omer Asik, a Turkish center who played for Fenerbahce Ulker in Istanbul this past season. In 279 Euroleague minutes -- granted, a smallish sample -- his performance projects to 12.2 points and 13.5 boards per 40 minutes, with 52.3 percent shooting and a 15.23 PER. He blocks shots, too, setting a Euroleague Round of 16 record for rejections this year.
He's 22, 7-feet tall with a decent frame and relatively new to the game and still improving. So what's the hang-up? Apparently he signed a five-year deal to stay in Turkey with no buyout, meaning he might not play in the NBA for a long time. That would be a shame. I have little doubt that Asik should be a lottery pick, but the contract issue may leave him as a mid-second rounder.
The second is Nikola Pekovic, a 22-year-old Montenegrin with a similar contract problem. Pekovic was little-known 12 months ago but absolutely dominated in the Euroleague this year.
My numbers from 2008 suggest he could start for most NBA teams tomorrow -- 18.3 points and 12.0 boards per 40 minutes, with 51.4 percent shooting and a 17.09 PER. I take this with a bit of a grain of salt, because his numbers from 2007 were terrible, but only a bit -- if it weren't for contracts I'd have him rated third on my board. Yes, third.
Unfortunately, you won't be hearing his name until much later. Pekovic signed a big-money deal with Panathinaikos in Athens -- reportedly for 4.5 million euros, which at the current exchange rate is about 300 billion dollars -- making it all but impossible for an NBA team to sign him under the rookie salary scale. As a result, he seems pegged for the early part of the second round. Nonetheless, if I'm the Timberwolves I take this guy at No. 31 before Adam Silver gets to the podium.
As far as the other prominent Europeans go, the forecast isn't nearly as positive. For starters, Ante Tomic and Alexis Ajinca didn't compete in Euroleague, so I can't tell you about them. Same goes for Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez, incidentally, although both put up strong 2007 numbers.
One guy I can tell you about is Nicolas Batum. Teams are apparently worried about drafting Batum because of a possible heart ailment. I'd recommend avoiding him for other reasons -- like the fact that he can't play, for instance.
His numbers project to 9.6 points per 40 minutes, 39.8 percent shooting and an 8.89 PER. It's not like this was an off-year either -- his 2007 numbers are nearly identical. I understand that he's only 19, so perhaps there's some value in using a late second-round pick on him and stashing him in Europe to see if he grows, but that's about as strong a recommendation as I can muster.
Several other European second-round prospects project somewhere between bad and awful. Semih Erden, Goran Dragic, Mantas Kalnietis, Novica Velickovic and Uros Tripkovic all project to single-digit PERs, and not necessarily high single digits either. Each appears to be a waste of time even as a second-round pick.
Also, a few players over there whose rights are owned by NBA teams could be coming over soon -- though of late, most of the movement has been the other way given the strength of the euro.
Sadly for Spurs fans, Tiago Splitter is one example of the dollar's weakness keeping a prized player on the other side of the Atlantic. His projected NBA numbers are outstanding -- 18.5 points and 10.3 boards, 54.4 percent shooting, 18.11 PER -- and it's unfortunate that such a wise draft choice has to be wasted because of a silly thing like currency fluctuations.
Houston owns the rights to Lior Eliyahu, who again played sparingly for Maccabi Tel Aviv. His numbers this year aren't nearly as strong as the ones from a year ago (11.0/8.8/5.6 per 40 minutes, 11.84 PER), but combined with last year's, the numbers suggest he'd be a decent role player.
The Hawks still own David Andersen's rights, and his new deal with CSKA Moscow would allow him to bolt after this season. Andersen's numbers again were solid -- 16.5/11.8 with a 15.0 PER -- but he's 28, so time's a-wasting.
Finally, there's Reyshawn Terry -- a second-round pick of Dallas a year ago who was persuaded to spend a year in Europe. He put up decent role-player numbers over there (13.1/10.6 but 37.2 percent shooting, 11.99 PER). For the Mavs, he'd likely play outside more but see the rock less, so those point and rebound numbers should go down but the percentage should go up.
C's set winning course in September
BOSTON -- OK, this is getting a little freaky.
In 2005, ESPN.com sent me to Miami for the first day of training camp. The Heat had just made a huge offseason trade to get Antoine Walker and Jason Williams, came into media singing "Kumbaya" against the doubts of the vast majority of the media, and ending up winning the title.
In 2006, I caught the Spurs training camp in Lyon, France, in the middle of a European vacation. They were unworried about Tim Duncan's foot problems the year before, or Manu Ginobili's summer spent playing in the World Championship, or the hubbub over Tony Parker's celebrity wedding. They were right, of course, as they won the title, too.
Nonetheless, when I got my assignment last fall I figured the streak would end at two. The first team I saw in training camp was Boston, at their media day on Sept. 28. The Celtics had a nice team, certainly, after acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but few pundits thought the supporting cast was championship-worthy -- myself included.
What we couldn't have anticipated was the same thing that carried Miami and San Antonio the previous two seasons -- an unusually strong esprit de corps that made the Celtics vastly more than the sum of their parts.
That spirit was evident right from media day, when Boston's three stars took the podium together -- there would be no energy wasted fighting over alpha dog status here. Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce had all been that guy, but they were here for something much bigger this time.
So the big three spent that whole press conference complimenting each other, and their excitement at playing with each other was so over the top that Garnett even mentioned how pleasant Boston's weather was. Seriously.
That excitement, ultimately, was what won this title for Boston. We can talk X's and O's and numbers all day, and certainly the Celtics had some impressive ones. But it all that goes back to the example that the three stars set for this team back in late September.
The Celtics would defend because their stars defended -- Garnett was the Defensive Player of the Year and Allen and Pierce took turns frustrating Kobe Bryant throughout the Finals. The Celtics would hustle because their stars hustled. And ultimately, the Celtics would win the title even though other teams appeared to have more talent.
Their excitement spilled over into the fan base, too. Walking to the arena Tuesday, lines outside bars stretched more than 100 people deep -- every last one of them clad in green. The crowd tonight was the loudest I've heard in these playoffs; one-tenth of them would have been noisier than the L.A. crowd.
As a result, I've got a rare three-peat. And come autumn, we'll see if the Hollinger training camp magic can carry over for another year.
NBA Finals series are mirror images
LOS ANGELES -- With all the hype over the Lakers-Celtics re-enacting their great rivalries of the '60s and '80s, it surprising that nobody has pointed out yet how similar this series is to the last time to these two teams met in the Finals, in 1987.
Perhaps that's because the two sides have switched roles.
In '87, it was the Lakers who won the first two games at home -- including a 141-122 runaway blowout in Game 2. This year, of course, it was the Celtics who did the same, although the Game 2 blowout wasn't quite as severe thanks to the Lakers' too-little, too-late rally in the fourth quarter.
In '87, it was the Celtics who rallied to win a tight Game 3 when the series returned to their home court; this time, of course, it was the Lakers who won in similar fashion.
The most eerie similarity, though, comes with Game 4. In '87, it was the Celtics kicking away a 16-point lead at home to lose on Magic Johnson's hook shot; in '08 it was L.A. who punted a big advantage (24 points) en route to a shocking home defeat that put them down 3-1.
Fittingly for a game played in the land of Hollywood, Sunday night's Game 5 followed the script as well. Back then, Boston staved off elimination in '87 by playing its best game of the series, a 123-108 win that sent the series back to the other coast for Game 6.
Ditto for 2008, L.A. played its best game of the Finals to stay alive and send the series back to Boston.
If you're looking for omens for Game 6, this isn't a good one for the Lakers. Back in '87, Boston dropped the sixth game 106-93 to make the Lakers the champs in front of their home crowd. So if this series follows the '87 script one more time, Boston will be the champs.
If so, it would be a poetic justice for the Celtics -- an exact reversal from their defeat the last time they reached the Finals, and against the some opponent to boot. And if they win 106-93 -- the score the Lakers won Game 6 by 21 years ago -- it would be downright freaky.
Of course, maybe they could win by a 114-97 score instead -- like they did in winning Game 6 at home against the Rockets in 1986, the last time the Celtics won the title.
Yes, this series is following the course of that year's Finals rather nicely as well. Like this year's series, '86 featured the two home wins with a Game 2 blowout, the narrow squeaker of a loss on the road in Game 3, the great escape in Game 4 to go up 3-1, and the defeat in Game 5 in the opponents' best effort of the Finals.
Obviously, there are differences too -- nobody fought in Game 5 in this series, for instance, as opposed to the Ralph Sampson-Jerry Sichting brouhaha we had in '86. And unlike in '87, it's the team with home-court advantage that comes in with all the injures -- 21 years ago it was Boston limping back to L.A. with a wounded Kevin McHale and backed by a paper-thin bench.
Either way, though, Boston fans have to hope the similarities to '86 and '87 outweigh the differences ... and more importantly, that they can last one more game. If so, few will remember Sunday night's setback for long.
Suns taking chance on Porter
Obviously, Steve Kerr thinks so, and certainly it's great to see Porter get a plum job after his bizarre, two-months-after-the-season firing from Milwaukee in 2005.
But as far as his track record is concerned, the results are a mixed bag. Porter's two seasons at the helm of the Bucks are his entire body of work thus far, and let's just say they're open to interpretation.
Certainly it was impressive that he made the playoffs and took a game off eventual champion Detroit in the first round in his first year on the job, given that he had a pretty mediocre cast to work with. However, in his second season Milwaukee faltered to 30 wins, which is why the Bucks decided to change directions once they'd had a few weeks to sleep on it.
Common to both seasons was Milwaukee's inability to defend. The Bucks ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency in his first season and 28th in his second, which isn't quite the track record you want from a coach who's supposed to improve the defense.
But if you compare his results to those of Milwaukee's other coaches, a different picture emerges. The Bucks were 28th in defensive efficiency the year before he arrived and 23rd the year after he left -- in other words, his results weren't worse than anyone else's with this gang. Milwaukee has been trying to improve the defense since the George Karl era and have burned through four coaches in search of a solution.
It's a gutsy move by Kerr considering proven commodities like Avery Johnson and Flip Saunders were available. In a few months we'll start learning if it was the right one.
Why I'm spurning the Spurs
SOMEWHERE IN THE AIRSPACE BETWEEN NEW ORLEANS AND ATLANTA -- With the flight gods blowing up my usual chat schedule, I thought I'd address a couple topics that have come up repeatedly in my mailbag and, presumably, would in the chat as well.
For starters, I've been swamped with email from Spurs supporters questioning my motives. Inevitably, fans of some teams come to feel that I (or other writers) have some kind of vendetta against their favored club. Since emotions run highest at the start of the year and at the end, this is when those sentiments tend to be strongest.
Anyway, Spurs fans think that since I picked them to lose in the first two rounds that I must harbor some vast reservoir of ill will toward the team. Or perhaps they just feel betrayed, since I picked San Antonio last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.
As much respect as I have for what the Spurs have done and continue to do, I saw the Phoenix and New Orleans series as essentially 50-50 propositions with a slight edge going to San Antonio's opponents. Obviously, it didn't work out that way. As I noted at the beginning of the Western Conference playoffs, this was a year in which it was going to be easy to be wrong a lot, and actually I'm pleased to get out of Dodge with those two as my only blemishes in the West thus far.
On a similar note, Spurs fans seemed to think my writing two columns on the Hornets from Monday's Game 7 was the result of my Spur-blindness. Actually, it was my assignment -- Marc Stein handled the San Antonio side of things.
Oh, and there's one other thing that has Spurs fans upset
Lakers in 5?
The hardest part of picking a series isn't the winner but the games. Essentially, there are two different questions at play -- one is what the average expectation is, and the other is what the most likely outcome is. Those two questions often don't produce identical answers.
For example, in a series where the better team also has home-court advantage, the most likely outcome is that they'll win in 5 -- taking three at home and one on the road. Having three of the first five at home makes this outcome very possible even in scenarios where you wouldn't normally think one team would win 80 percent of the games.
That said, it's not much more likely than the home team winning in six or seven, and the cumulative probability of those two outcomes is much greater -- it really depends on whether they can get a split out of Games 3 and 4.
We saw this twice in the earlier rounds with series that seemed fairly evenly matched -- San Antonio-Phoenix and Detroit-Orlando -- just as we did last year with both Utah-Golden State and San Antonio-Utah. In each case, once the favorite got a split on the road it was over faster than anyone expected.
As a result, it's much easier for a series to end in five games than most believe. So if you're trying to predict the most likely outcome, L.A. in five makes sense. That's what I was gunning for.
But if you're picking along a continuum from "Lakers in four" to "Spurs in four" and looking for the median outcome, L.A. in five is laughable -- it's skewed way too far to the L.A. side. Lakers in six or even seven makes a lot more sense in that event. If you allow that there's some percentage chance of San Antonio winning outright, and just a very small chance of a Laker sweep, than even if there's a large chance of L.A. winning in five, it wouldn't be enough to make it the "average" outcome of the series.
Alas, in the spirit of the Stat Geek Smackdown, I'm trying to peg the games exactly. And my chance of doing that is better if I go five games, even if I don't think the disparity between the teams is as large as that prediction suggest.
So why do I hate the Spurs?
I don't. Really. But as to why I'm off the Spur bandwagon in the first place, the answer is the same reason I was on it the past three years -- point differential.
San Antonio's average scoring margin this year was much worse than in previous season at +4.8 points per game; by comparison, the Lakers were +7.3. That's proven to be a better indicator of future success than win-loss record. The Spurs' margin was similar to the Hornets' (+5.3) and Suns' (+5.0) in the first two rounds, which is what made those series toss-ups in my estimation. In the case of L.A., it's not. And if you only include the 36 regular season and playoff games in which L.A. had Pau Gasol, their margin balloons to an impressive +10.3 (and their record an equally impressive 30-6).
The playoffs have given us similar results. San Antonio was +0.0 against the Hornets and +0.8 against the Suns, while the Lakers were +13.3 against the Nuggets and +3.0 against the Jazz. Since Utah was, in my estimation, the strongest threat besides L.A. to win the conference, (and had the West's second-best regular-season victory margin at +6.9), the latter number is especially impressive.
So that's how I ended up with L.A. in five. It could just as easily be six or seven. But I do expect the Lakers to win.
CP3 for MVP?
Interestingly, Laker fans are also convinced I hate their team (which makes for an interesting dilemma in the conference finals -- how will I root against both sides?)
In this case, it was the first time I've ever been flooded with emails about a player I didn't mention in a story. When I nominated Chris Paul as MVP of the playoffs last week, the Kobe fan club was furious. How could I overlook his 33.3-6.8-6.3 averages?
In this case, it was just that Paul had been so unbelievably good in his first 10 playoff games. And he did against better defenses -- Dallas and San Antonio were eighth and third, respectively, in defensive efficiency during the regular season, while Denver and Utah were only ninth and 12th.
Obviously, what happened since I wrote the story tilts the scales towards Kobe, and if I were writing the story today he'd be the choice. But at the time, Paul's case was the strongest. If Lakers fans weren't watching the Hornets-Mavs series, that ain't my problem.
On the 0-21 (uh, make that 1-22) mark
Based on the emails, several fans seemed confused by I stat I brought up last week mentioning that teams which lost the first two on the road, won the next two at home, and had a negative scoring margin through four games were 0-21 since the NBA-ABA merger. Folks wrote in talking about Utah-Houston a year ago or the Lakers-Spurs series in 2004, where teams came back from 0-2 down to win.
However, those series weren't part of the 0-21 -- the key qualifier was that the team without home court had to have been outscored over the first four games. The teams who did manage to outscore their opponent had a much better mark, winning nearly 40 percent of their series -- including the 2007 Jazz and the 2004 Lakers (and, on the losing side, the Cavaliers this week).
At any rate, it's now 1-22. Utah fell to Los Angeles, as the rule predicted, but San Antonio defied the odds by outlasting the Hornets Monday night. Inevitably, somebody was going to break the rule, just as it's inevitable that somebody will eventually come back from 0-3 down. It's a credit to the Spurs' resilience and adjustments that they were first.
Incidentally, San Antonio is now the seventh team to come back from a 2-0 deficit in the past five years after it only happened seven times in the previous history of the NBA. Much like the question of home-team dominance in the second round, one wonders if there's an underlying cause.
Certainly having so many more best-of-sevens is a factor -- stretching out the first round in 2002 more than doubled the number of seven-game series each year from 7 to 15. The fact we're in an era of relative parity may be another -- there's no Jordan or Russell, or even a Bird-Magic duopoly, lording it over the league at the moment. At any rate, it appears being down 2-0 isn't quite the death sentence it used to be.
Celtics in 7?
Finally, I've been told there's a playoff series going on in the East as well. This was a tough one to predict. Before the playoffs I would have said the Celtics and not thought twice about it, but Boston's struggles in the second round against Cleveland obviously are worrisome.
The Celtics were outscored on the series and in truth were lucky to survive; they squeaked by in three of their four home games and absorbed a 108-84 beating in Game 3. That this happened against a team with a fairly unimpressive resume -- Cleveland was itself outscored on the season and didn't exactly dominate its first-round match-up against Washington -- makes you wonder if the Celtics are leveling off at the worst time.
For now, I'll stick with Boston. A lot of the evaluation depends on how much of that series you think was the Celtics playing worse, how much you think was the Cavs playing better, and how much you think was random noise.
My instinct is that it was more a case of Cleveland playing better, as the assorted pieces of the midseason blockbuster trade finally gelled and the Cavs could take advantage of being able to play LeBron nearly the entire game. So my thinking is the Celtics can use the home-court edge to outlast one more opponent and win the conference -- though I'm guessing they'll need a road win this time.
But if I'm wrong and it was a case of Boston declining, then the Celtics are toast.