By Jason Wojciechowski on May 17, 2008 at 4:32 AM
As a "just 'cause", here's my assessment of the eight teams that made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Cleveland is better than people think. Some people got overexcited about the big trade they made, and then people kind of went into backlash, and now I think they're underrated. We've seen how they're playing Boston, who are supposed to be a very good team (more on them later). Cleveland has four quality bigs, which not everyone can say. Ilgauskas can score, rebound, and block shots, and he knows how to use his body in the defensive post, although he doesn't move his feet well anymore. Varejao is a tremendous defender who moves his feet really well, allowing him to stay in front of almost anybody: he's really been hanging with Kevin Garnett, and he can even block the occasional shot as a help defender. Varejao is also a surprisingly good shooter with decent touch around the rim. Joe Smith is a savvy defender who gets out well on screens and can hit the little short-mid jumper. And there's Ben Wallace, who's seriously declined, because he's lost a lot of his athleticism, but he can still get a rebound for you. They've got three lights-out shooters, with Wally, Pavlovic, and Boobie Gibson. They've got LeBron, the second-best player in the universe. What are they missing? A point guard. Delonte West isn't cutting it, and Boobie Gibson reminds me a lot of Jannero Pargo, a guy who's so small that he's miscast as a point. Or like Eddie House. Eventually people always realize that these guys aren't point guards and just let them stand around and shoot. The other thing this team doesn't have is a second all-around player. LeBron does it all, of course, and even his defense has improved as he's learned to harness his strength and quickness on the defensive end. But who else is there? Everyone else is a role player: they are often excellent at that role (in particular the shooters), but none of them are really threats to do anything else. When's the last time Boobie Gibson took anyone off the dribble? Ilgauskas used to be nearly that second banana, but he's not that guy anymore, I think starting this year. The team is also surprisingly old. The problem with building a team the way they have, or the way Boston has, is that your window is tiny. With Cleveland, though, this is appropriate, because they've only got LeBron until June of 2010.
Boston is built the same way as Cleveland, except they have three #2 guys, no #1, and then a bunch of role players. I haven't yet decided which team construction I like better. Also, Mike Brown gets derided for his coaching, but Doc Rivers really doesn't seem very good. His substitutions often seem bizarre, and he's hung with Sam Cassell long after it's become obvious that he's any good. Eddie House, a good shooter, has been buried. So those are bad. But there's also plenty of good. Garnett is a tremendous defender and a good offensive player, though he's complementary on that end, not a #1 guy. Allen is still a great shooter, and can get his shot with a guy on him, with a hand in his face, whatever. He'll still take people off the dribble as a change-up, but it's not that effective anymore. He's not quite Wally yet, though. Finally, Pierce can get his own shot, but he's the only guy who can do so. He also isn't an at-will scorer the way LeBron or Kobe or Iverson are. He's in the next group. People have been asking all year, "Who takes the last shot?", but they've been asking it the wrong way. The question isn't, "Which of the three stars takes the shot?", it's "Who can actually get a shot at the end?" I'm not sure anyone can. You guard Garnett, guard Allen, keep an eye on Rondo, and double Pierce with Powe's or Perkins's or whoever's man. Anyway, Boston's role players are similar to Cleveland's, except that they don't have any shooters. Or at least none that play (again, Eddie House). Sam Cassell is a backup point who isn't worth playing. Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe are nice energy guys, guys who can focus on their defense and rebounding and be valuable that way, though they aren't necessarily outstanding at those jobs. James Posey is a nice piece, a pretty good shooter and defender who isn't truly dangerous at either job. Rondo is a very nice defender who can shoot a little and run the offense without going nuts. It's the defense that makes this team, and in that sense the roster is a good fit for Doc Rivers, because there's little offensive talent here. They're good, but they went to seven against Atlanta, a clearly inferior team, they're not blowing out Cleveland, and Detroit is probably better. People will think of them as a disappointment after their tremendous regular season, but the reality is probably that they overachieved before the playoffs, and then played down to their true level in the playoffs. Oh, hey, Big Baby is also pretty useful.
Detroit is tremendous. They lose Chauncey Billups and don't even miss a beat because Rodney Stuckey, while he's still learning, is pretty damn good. Jason Maxiell is one of those annoying "angry" players, but he's good at what he does, which is run around and knock balls around and grab rebounds. Chauncey, if he's healthy, isn't Mr. Big Shot, but he's still a very good big point who knows how to use his size on both ends of the floor. Rasheed Wallace is always dangerous, even if he settles too much. Antonio McDyess will hit that little pop shot and play good D and rebound. A quality big, in other words. Rip Hamilton is still Rip Hamilton, although he looks like he may have lost a step. He also plays excellent annoying D if the refs are letting him get away with it, which is something that can easily be forgotten given the other excellent defensive players on the team, as well as his own excellent offense. But Tayshaun Prince is, in some ways, what makes this team go. Incredible defensive player with quick feet and Kirilenko-style freakish arms. He never gives up on plays, which is why he has more "blocked layup from behind" highlights than anyone in the history of the league. He's turned into a good jump shooter, even if it's unorthodox, and he can get to the bucket and use his length to put the ball up, or pass the ball on the interior or kick it out. He's the best player on the team, and he's showing exactly why I was really hoping the Lakers could get him in the draft years ago. Detroit, in short, is dangerous, and it looks like they might have the pieces to keep being dangerous for years to come, with Tayshaun at the core.
Orlando is a fantasy roster team. They've got good players, but where's the defense? Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson, Keith Bogans, Carlos Arroyo -- they're all accomplished or useful offensive players, but none of them really plays plus defense. There are only so many problems that Dwight Howard's athleticism can patch over, especially as his offensive game continues to improve and he's using more and more energy on that end of the floor. It's a nice core of talent, but they have to build around it with players that fit (a defensive-minded power forward, allowing you to move Turkoglu or Lewis to the 2-guard spot) to rise to the elite teams in the East. They're not at the level of the top three, but they're a lot closer than Atlanta, for instance. (Mike Bibby? Done!)
In the West, let's start with New Orleans. I haven't figured out how David West gets his numbers every night, but he does it. You watch and you watch, and he just doesn't jump out at you. Then you start to realize that he shoots that mid-range jumper at a tremendous percentage, and that he can also put the ball on the floor and get to the hole if you close out on him too hard or try to play up in his face. He has the strength to grab rebounds and finish at the hole, even if he looks a little short. Perhaps most importantly, he's a mean bastard who doesn't back down. This makes me dislike him, but it also means he's got the juices going the entire game. Chris Paul is really good. You can exploit him on defense, but there aren't so many guards on good teams with the size to bother him: Deron Williams and Chauncey Billups are all that come to mind. Tyson Chandler will always be linked with the great Ben Wallace mistake; but he's a very good player in his own right. He can't score, but he can finish a lob as well as anyone, and he's a very good rebounder and help defender. He gets a little out of control with his emotions at times, as much of this team does, but it also feeds them at times. Peja is still a lights-out shooter, and with his size, he can surprise you by getting to the rack at times. Julian Wright is a great energy guy off the bench, Jannero Pargo is wicked fast, even if he doesn't bring much else to the game. Melvin Ely is ... well, he's big. Really, this sentence shows New Orleans' weakness: no bench. If Chandler gets in foul trouble, there are no bigs to back him up worth mentioning. There's no real scoring off the bench, unless you count Bonzi Wells, which I don't. There's no real backup point. If you can get any of their main players in foul trouble, they're screwed.
San Antonio just keeps coming back. They haven't reloaded in forever, unlike Detroit, but Tim Duncan + Manu Ginobli keeps equalling winning, at least for this year, and maybe one more after that. Tony Parker is good at what he does, which is be quick and shoot his floater, Tim Duncan is probably the third-best player in the game, and Manu Ginobli is a ridiculously good offensive player. Yes, they're a team of floppers, with Duncan, Ginobli, Parker, Horry, Oberto, and Bowen falling down at a moment's notice. But until the rules change and they start red-carding these guys, it'll keep working. Bowen, I want to note, has really slipped. He's not nearly as quick as he used to be, so he gets beat off the dribble with regularity. Popovich has tried him on Chris Paul a few times, but he just can't handle that assignment the way he used to, which means he's stuck guarding two-guards and small forwards, which is a less useful skill than being able to swap over to shut down a point guard from time to time. With Deron Williams and Chris Paul in the conference, that'd be an important skill. The front-court defense, though, with Oberto, Duncan, Horry, and Kurt Thomas, is top-notch, if ancient. It's the kind of defense that can guard the Shaqs and Dwight Howards and Pau Gasols of the world, though, not the David Wests, Carlos Boozers, and Mehmet Okurs. So you've got front-court defense, you've got backcourt scoring, you've got some shooting (Michael Finley, Brent Barry, Manu), you've got a coach who knows what the hell he's doing, ... no wonder this is a good team.
Finally, Utah is an odd team. Carlos Boozer is overrated, because he's either all-in with unstoppable mid-range jumpers and some inside moves, with rebounding to boot, or else he's disappeared completely from the flow of the game. Mehmet Okur is great if his shot is on, because that opens up his dribble-drive game and seems to energize him to rebound and play a little defense. But if his shot is off, forget about it. Granted, his shot is probably on two games out of three. Deron Williams is obviously tremendous, although he has a tendency to fall in love with his quick three point shot, and it's not clear that he plays defense on anyone but Chris Paul. Ronnie Brewer is energy, but it'd be more useful if he were actually a shutdown defender instead of just masquerading as one. Kirilenko's prime as an awesome force of defense who can hurt you with the shot, the drive, and the ridiculous court vision has been wasted. Really, it's the most tragic thing since Reggie Lewis died. Have you seen the passes he makes? He knows where the offense is going, and he's got the size and armspan to implement it. And his help defense, flying out of everywhere to block anybody's shot he wants. And Kyle Korver has added a seriously dangerous dimension to the team while playing the kind of obnoxious defense that Manu Ginobli and Sasha Vujacic specialize in, except with the kind of size and length that Ginboli can only dream about. Paul Millsap may have reached the overrated category by virtue of everyone talking about how overlooked he is: he's basically a decent rebounder who can dunk. If he adds a midrange jumper, watch out, because then he's basically Antonio McDyess. And somehow Matt Harpring is still hanging around, bitching his way into fouls and hitting the occasional jumper. Isn't he just a Jerry Sloan assistant coach in the making? It's like Greg Paulos or Steve Wojciechowski at Duke. You just know Coach K is grooming these guys.
I won't talk about the Lakers. I'll just gush for hundreds of words and then bitch for hundreds more. I've done it before and I'll do it again. I don't need to do it here.