The Hoops 101 Exam: April 2016
Section I: NBA Regular Season End
1. With this season's Golden State Warriors eclipsing the 95-96 Chicago Bulls for the best record ever in NBA regular season history (73-9), there's been one question everyone has been asking: who would win a 7-game series between the two legendary teams? So, what's the MOST LIKELY outcome if these two teams matched up?
A. Very competitive series: 6 or 7 games - Warriors win
B. Very competitive series: 6 or 7 games - Bulls win
C. Bulls sweep Warriors
D. Warriors sweep Bulls
A: B. 6 or 7 games – Bulls win. You’ve seen countless sports programs throughout the year debate this question as the Warriors run at the best ever regular season record became more of a reality. What you may have heard some say is how similar these teams are in terms of overall personnel. Each have a superstar perimeter player with amazing offensive talents (Bulls: MJ | Warriors: Steph). Both have a complement to that superstar to provide a one-two scoring punch and alleviate the burden of putting up points (Bulls: Scottie | Warriors: Klay). There’s also an undersized eccentric scrapper who brings energy, toughness, great rebounding and defense (Bulls: Dennis |Warriors: Draymond). Further, both teams have tremendous supporting casts that help bolster their defenses and provide other valuable scoring options (Bulls: Ron Harber, Toni Kukoc, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington | Warriors: Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights).
With those similarities, each team does have one particular glaring edge over the other. For the 95-96 Bulls, it’s their perimeter defense. Between Pippen, Jordan and Harper, the Bulls gave star guards and small forwards fits. You’ve heard him getting more credit over the past year because of how much that Bulls team has been in the national conversation, but we can’t emphasize enough how great of a defender Scottie Pippen was. Listed at 6’7”, Scottie was more like 6’8” or 6’9” with great lateral movement, a long wingspan and superb intensity. And let’s remember with Ron at the point, the Bulls starting perimeter lineup stood 6’6”, 6’6”, and 6’8” from the 1 to the 3, respectively. Even though by the 96 playoffs, Scottie, Ron, and Michael were ages 30, 32, and 33, they were still among the most tenacious defenders in the game. Being physical with and putting the defensive clamps on the Warriors' star guards and Harrison Barnes would be the Bulls' key to victory. We’ve seen how scrappy defenses have slowed the Warriors, particularly in the Spurs win against them this season on March 19. We also saw this when the Cavaliers stifled the Warriors in the opening games of the 2015 NBA Finals.
For the Warriors, the edge lies obviously in their incredible three-point shooting. It’s been the team’s calling card during this unreal run and they’ve had the ability to use that weapon like no other squad in NBA history (see Steph Curry). Over the last two years of watching the Warriors, we’ve all witnessed that no lead by the opposing team is safe while Steph and Klay are on the floor. They’ve hit incredible pressure shots that have surpassed the imagination and almost nothing is outside of Steph’s range. We’ve seen many games where defensive pressure has stifled Steph in the first half but after hitting a shot or two in the second half, the bell rings and it’s on from there.
So, the question is, with each team bringing a strong advantage to the table, who comes out on top? Well, let’s first dispel the recent comment from Scottie Pippen that the Bulls would sweep the Warriors. With all due respect to the great Scottie Pippen, the Bulls never swept a team in the NBA Finals, not even in their record setting 95-96 season (won 4-2 in the Finals against Shaw Kemp and Gary Payton’s Seattle Sonics). They did sweep Shaq and Penny’s Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals that year. However, using the eye test, the Warriors offensive potency and veteran leadership surpasses what a team like Orlando brought to the table in 1996.
Settling on an answer has our heart battling it out with our head. Our HEAD tells us that the way Golden State has shot three-pointers over the past two years is unlike anything we’ve ever seen and has defied the notion that jump shooting teams can’t win championships. Our head tells us that like the 2015 NBA Finals, Steph may have a poor shooting game or two, but he won’t be held down for an entire series. Our head tells us that Scottie and Michael are some of the greatest perimeter defenders in the history of the league but we’re not sure they could keep up with the quickness and ball handling ability of Steph Curry.
Our HEART tells us that the Bulls of 1995-96 had Michael Jordan. Our heart tells us that we witnessed how the ultra-competitive nature and sheer determination of Michael Jordan helped elevate the Bulls over just about every obstacle on the way to 6 championships in 6 1/2 years (counting the ½ year Michael played in 1994-95). Our heart tells us that if an undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers team (without two of three of its all-stars), playing with extreme grit, heart, and defensive tenacity could push the Warriors to 6 games in the 2015 Finals, then a completely healthy Chicago Bulls team with the greatest and most competitive player to ever lace em' up would take the Warriors in 6 or 7 games.
Friends, we’re going with our HEART over our HEAD. Bulls win.
True or False
2. The Lakers are happy to see Kobe Bryant retire this year. T F
A: True. First of all, let’s give all honor and respect due to Kobe Bean Bryant on an amazing 20-year career in the NBA and an unbelievable final game on Wednesday to close out his storybook run. Finishing his two decades in the league on a 60-point performance where he scored the go-ahead basket with 31 seconds left to play was so emblematic of his career and certainly one of the greatest career walk-offs in sports history. Whether you loved him or hated him, no one can take away the impact that man has had on the game nor deny that he is one of the all-time greats. Having said all that, if we look at the Lakers’ trials over the last few years, it’s not absurd to say that part of the blame for where the team is now can be put on Kobe.
We’ve heard various commentators over the last few weeks say that Lakers’ management (Jim Buss, Mitch Kupchak & co.) is the reason for LA not having better talent during this run of disappointing seasons. We’re willing to agree with that blame in one instance: the way the Lakers handled their courting of LaMarcus Aldridge last summer. Reports were that Aldridge was unimpressed by the Lakers’ pitch and presentation to him as it was more focused on the LA lifestyle rather than the team’s actual basketball program.
However, have we forgotten that every off-season (from the turn of the decade to around the time Kobe’s body started breaking down) featuring superstar free agents has had a very similar narrative for the Lakers. Whether it was Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony, the prevailing thought seemed to be the same. No matter what superstar the Lakers could potentially bring in, Kobe wasn’t going to defer and wasn't willing to reduce his role for anyone. As long as he was still able, he would be leading the team offensively and wasn’t going to take a backseat to a younger superstar. That was Kobe’s reputation and for a lot of us on the outside looking in, that’s probably part of the reason why some of these superstars with initial interest in coming to (or in Dwight Howard's case, staying with) LA shied away from making that leap. We're sure some thought to themselves: “how could I co-exist with Kobe when he doesn’t appear ready or willing to pass that baton?...to fall back a little so I can take the reins a bit?" Playing in Los Angeles is an automatic draw for a lot of players but we think some of the more high-profile players turned that enticing possibility down because of Kobe. With superstars rebuking the opportunity to play for the Lakers year after year, lesser stars and supporting players also declined the offer. This left Los Angeles to build their team for the past few seasons with castoffs and young talent from the draft. And with each unimpressive season, other potentially interested superstar free agents who came along in 2014 and 2015, like Dwyane Wade and Kevin Love, also decided against making LA their basketball home.
Another thing to consider: we’re not going to blame a guy for getting his money but Kobe’s contract over the last 5 years, where he’s made more than 25 million dollars for 4 out of 5 seasons, hasn’t helped give Lakers management flexibility in the free agent market. So, as much as we want to give Kobe the credit he deserves as one of the greatest to every play, we also have to be fair in saying that perhaps his inflexible alpha-dog personality scared some other major building blocks from coming to Los Angeles. That plus his huge contract have been part of the reason for the Lakers deficient on talent the past few years. But wait! We can’t heap all the blame on Kobe. If former commissioner David Stern hadn’t vetoed the trade that would have sent Chris Paul from New Orleans to the Lakers, the Lake Show may have looked a lot different over the last 5 years.
Section II: NBA Playoffs
3. What's the most likely first round upset of this year's playoffs?
A. #6 Charlotte over #3 Miami (East)
B. #6 Dallas over #3 OKC (West)
C. #7 Indiana over #2 Toronto (East)
D. #8 Detroit over #1 Cleveland (East)
A: C. Indiana over Toronto. Seeds 3 – 6 in the East (Miami, Atlanta, Boston, and Charlotte) all finished with the same regular season record of 48-34. With that said, you can’t really call a 6 over a 3 or a 5 over a 4 in the conference an upset. Dallas is 7-3 in their last 10 games leading into the post-season, playing some good basketball, whereas OKC has been a little uneven. So, there’s potential for the Mavs to give OKC issues in the first round but we don’t foresee them slowing KD and Russell Westbrook to the point of an upset.
Detroit actually won the season series over the Cavs 3-1 (though many of the regular cast from each team didn’t play in the last game; a Pistons victory) but as long as Cleveland’s big three is healthy, we’ve got to believe that LeBron and the Cavs will take care of business and move on. Since the Brooklyn Nets (led by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, and Deron Williams) swept the "Big Three" Miami Heat, 4 - 0, in the 2013-14 regular season but lost to the Heat, 4 - 1, in that year's playoffs, we haven’t read too much into regular season series.
This year, Toronto has a lot to prove to the basketball world and to themselves as well. They were the higher seed that was swept by the Washington Wizards in the 2015 first round and were also taken out by the Brooklyn Nets in round 1 of 2014. Stakes are high and the pressure is on to avoid another early playoff exit. If this resilient Pacers team, who went 6-1 in April to close out the regular season, can steal game 1 or 2 (or both) on Toronto’s home floor, they’ll completely shake the Raptors’ confidence. Paul George has been brilliant this year, coming back from the devastating injury to his right leg during USA basketball prep that sidelined him for almost an entire season.
With the Pacers letting go of much of the core group (including Roy Hibbert, David West, and Lance Stephenson) that helped them get to the conference finals two years in a row (2013 and 2014), their future was in doubt. But they exceeded expectations this year, finishing just 3 games behind the aforementioned four Eastern Conference teams that finished 48-34. Along with George, the additions of Monta Ellis and Miles Turner have helped elevate this team, not to mention the contributions of C.J. Miles in his second year with the Pacers. They have the ability to play the Raptors tough and if Toronto can't firmly establish a hold on the series in the opening games, the “oh no, not again” feeling is going to creep in their heads.