by Hayden Alfano*
Special to iVoryTowerz
The cable network TNT’s slogan for its National Basketball Association (NBA) playoff coverage is “40 Games in 40 Nights.” Casual observers and even diehard basketball fans criticize the league for stretching the postseason out over two months, but this year, consider the playoffs “must-see TV.”
Three themes define the 2007-2008 regular season, one of the best in NBA history:
A four-headed Most Valuable Player race. Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant, Cleveland’s LeBron James, New Orleans’ Chris Paul, and Boston’s Kevin Garnett have been making their cases on the hardwood all season long. Everyone has an opinion as to who is most deserving, but no one’s going to argue that the eventual winner didn’t earn it.
An ultra-competitive Western Conference. The NBA is divided into two conferences, East and West, and eight teams from each conference make the playoffs. That means the Golden State Warriors – a team that last year became the first eight-seed to beat a one-seed in a seven-game series – are on the outside looking in this postseason, despite a 48-34 record. That’s the most wins for a team that missed the playoffs since the league expanded the field to 16 teams in 1984. (For comparison’s sake, Atlanta, the eight-seed in the Eastern Conference, finished with a 37-45 record).
All eight Western playoff teams won at least 50 games, and the first six seeds weren’t decided until the final day of the season. Los Angeles edged New Orleans for the top seed, and was rewarded handsomely. Not only do the Lakers have home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs, they have comparatively unproven opponents in the first (Denver) and second (either Houston or Utah) rounds. The Hornets must find their way past Dallas (winners of 67 games a year ago) in the first round, and if they pass that test, the defending champs, the San Antonio Spurs, potentially await them in the second round.
Unprecedented movement of star players before and during the season. Boston started this party in the offseason by trading for Seattle’s Ray Allen on draft night, then adding Garnett. Along with Celtics mainstay Paul Pierce, Garnett and Allen led the team to wins in 29 of the team's first 32 games, engineering the single largest year-over-year improvement in NBA history. The Celtics convinced the rest of the league that if a team wanted a shot at the title, it needed to get better.
-Los Angeles was the first to respond. In desperate need of a center after young breakout star Andrew Bynum went down with a knee injury, the Lakers somehow convinced Memphis to give them Pau Gasol for far less than market value. Bynum won’t be back until the second round, if at all. If he does come back, one hiccup might be re-assimilating him into an offense that now already has a low-post scoring threat.
-LA’s addition of Gasol sparked Phoenix to ship athletic forward Shawn Marion to Miami in exchange for iconic center Shaquille O’Neal, despite Shaq’s ongoing health problems and a concern that he wouldn’t fit in with the Suns’ uptempo offense. O’Neal’s numbers with Phoenix aren’t spectactular (12.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game in 28 games), but his presence has freed up Amare Stoudemire to dominate smaller defenders. Stoudemire has averaged nearly 29 points per game playing alongside Shaq, nearly four points better than his season average.
-Dallas got in on the action late, trading a group that included promising young point guard Devin Harris and backup center DeSagana Diop to New Jersey for veteran Jason Kidd. This trade hasn’t worked out as well as the others; the Mavericks, 35-18 before Kidd arrived, went just 16-13 down the stretch, including a 3-9 mark against Western playoff teams.
Other franchises made smaller moves; Cleveland added four players, highlighted by Ben Wallace; Utah addressed its only real weakness, three-point shooting, by nabbing Philadelphia’s Kyle Korver; San Antonio got bigger by getting veteran Kurt Thomas from Seattle; New Orleans and Houston swapped role players; and Atlanta filled a big need by snagging point guard Mike Bibby from Sacramento. But no season immediately comes to mind as one that had more significant player movement than this.
All that trading means that there will be better teams on the hardwood for the next two months than is typical. Don’t be surprised the team that wins the rings looks a lot different than it did last year – or even two months ago.
Championship Prediction: Boston over Los Angeles (in seven games).
Editor's Note: The NBA playoffs start Saturday, April 19, with four games. The tip-off of the contest between the Washington Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers begins the action at 12:30 p.m. EDT.
*Hayden Alfano is the author of the blog 19'9" which is mostly about college basketball.
Los Angeles Lakers
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by Hayden Alfano*