HoopsHabit – New York Knicks: Jason Kidd’s Historically Bad Playoffs Highlights Knicks’ Problems

Here’s a HoopsHabit piece I wrote on Jason Kidd’s historically bad playoff stretch, how it affected the Knicks in the postseason and why we shouldn’t focus too much on his struggles after such a magnificent career.

Eastern Conference First Round Predictions

Now that we’ve taken a look at the Western Conference, it’s time to take a look at the all-but-determined Eastern Conference. Nobody is predicting anyone but Miami coming out of the East, but I wouldn’t be so sure if the Knicks reach the conference finals. LeBron is on another level right now, but the Knicks are stubborn enough to believe they can win and if they reach that stage, a week or two of hot shooting could unseat the defending champs if they don’t stay motivated.

(1) Miami Heat vs. (8) Milwaukee Bucks:

Despite Brandon Jennings’ super-inspiring prediction that the Bucks will beat Miami in six games, I’m going to err on the side of realism here and not-so-boldly predict that Milwaukee is in for a quick first-round exit. Even though they’ve been resting their starters for a while now, which raises concerns about rust, the Miami Heat are a clear favorite in this series and the East in general. Rust or not, LeBron James is on top of his game and Milwaukee has no one that can even remotely slow him down. Dwyane Wade’s health is an area of concern, but as long as he can play, the Bucks have their own lingering injuries to worry about. As much as I love Jennings’ confidence, I’d be surprised if this series lasts longer than five games.

Keys to the series: Injuries and taking care of business. The only thing that can stop the Miami Heat from dominating the East is the Miami Heat or injuries. If the Heat get complacent or Dwyane Wade goes down again, this matchup may be more competitive. But as long as they stay healthy and keep the goal in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an incredibly boring sweep here. Jennings hasn’t played well in over a month, Monta Ellis is not good enough to beat Miami’s defense by himself and Jennings, Ersan Ilyasova and Larry Sanders may not even be fully healthy. Tune in if you want to watch LeBron James be LeBron James, or if you’re interested in Brandon Jennings’ trying to advertise himself to teams looking to pick him up in the offseason. But other than that, this series should be over quickly.

Prediction: Miami Heat in 4 games

(2) New York Knicks vs. (7) Boston Celtics:

The Knicks are simultaneously being pegged as the only resistance the Miami Heat will face in the East and a potential first round upset. So which is it? I believe it’s the former, but a matchup with the Boston Celtics certainly isn’t favorable. The Knicks rely primarily on Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith’s new-found efficiency and 3-point shooting to win games. At least two of those three things aren’t guaranteed with the playoffs rolling around, especially against Boston’s lockdown defense and veteran savvy. The Celtics are known for making unexpected playoff runs on the shoulders of defense, experience and Doc Rivers’ superior coaching. And with the recent tragedies in Boston this past week, it’s impossible to deny that the Celtics are playing for something greater now. This kind of unity makes them a very dangerous squad that is very capable of pushing the Knicks to the brink, especially for the games in Boston if Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aren’t hobbled. However, I still think New York is the better team and that unless Jeff Green goes beserk on both ends of the floor, Carmelo Anthony and Smith will be too much for the Celtics to handle.

Keys to the series: Kevin Garnett, Carmelo Anthony and Jeff Green. We start with KG, who is essential to the Celtics’ hopes of a first round upset. Garnett anchors Boston’s defense and provides the leadership and experience needed for this team to pull it off. But he hasn’t played 30 minutes since March 10 and has dealt with lingering injuries over the past month. Can he really log playoff minutes and perform late in games after missing so much time? Garnett’s ability to perform while dealing with fatigue down the stretch in close games will be a factor here. Then we have Carmelo Anthony. As long as Melo continues to score at will as he has for the past month, the Knicks should take care of business. Even though TD Garden is already a tough place to play without the entire city having something to rally behind, I don’t know that the Celtics can stop New York’s ball movement that starts with Melo’s superb passing out of double teams. Finally, there’s Jeff Green, who must have a big series. He will be responsible for trying to slow Melo down and has to contribute points on the other end as well. Although New York appears like they are primed for the upset, I don’t think Melo’s lack of playoff wins will be a factor anymore.

Prediction: New York Knicks in 7 games

(3) Indiana Pacers vs. (6) Atlanta Hawks:

This Pacers-Hawks series joins the Nets-Bulls matchup in a tie for “most boring and ultimately meaningless first round playoff series.” Nothing against the Pacers and their stifling defense, but even if they do advance past the Hawks and the Knicks/Celtics in the following round, I don’t believe they have it in them to take out Miami without Danny Granger. Paul George has started to truly develop into a star this season, but Indiana would need him to shoot the lights out in a series against the Heat. I still believe New York is the only team built to contend with Miami and a lot of that is due to Roy Hibbert’s offensive woes and Indiana’s overall inconsistencies on that end. The Hawks are athletic and Josh Smith and Al Horford make up a formidable frontcourt, but Atlanta always hits their ceiling too early and aren’t built to make a playoff run. Roy Hibbert and David West should be able to limit Smith and Horford to some capacity, meaning Indiana’s advantage in the backcourt will give them an edge. The Hawks are too inconsistent to upset the Pacers and I expect this series to be a drawn out victory for Indiana.

Keys to the series: Backcourt production. As I’ve said already, Josh Smith and Al Horford will get theirs on the offensive end. But Roy Hibbert and David West make up a frightening interior defense and will limit them from taking over games and really hurting the Pacers in a seven-game series. So where else will the Hawks get production? Can we really expect Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris to score the points the Hawks need to contend in this series? Or is it reasonable to believe that George Hill, Lance Stephenson and Paul George make up a superior backcourt? Unless Horford and Smith torch the Pacers’ defense (which won’t happen), the Hawks will be going home early once again.

Prediction: Indiana Pacers in 6 games

(4) Brooklyn Nets vs. (5) Chicago Bulls):

All year long we’ve had to hear about how good the Brooklyn Nets are. We’ve put up with the hype of a new team, the new logo, the new colors, the new arena, Jay-Z’s presence and the Brooklyn-New York rivalry. We’ve had to hear about how good a defender Gerald Wallace is, how Deron Williams is a great point guard and how popular the Nets are with their own television series. Well, enough is enough. Brook Lopez deserved an All-Star spot and Reggie Evans is a rebounding machine, but other than that, the Nets are one of the most overrated teams in the NBA. Deron Williams has only recently revived one of the worst seasons in his career. Joe Johnson has always been overpaid in my book. And Gerald Wallace’s numbers have deteriorated every year for the last four years. Nothing against Brooklyn, but the Bulls are fully capable of knocking this team out in the first round. There are some key factors that will ultimately decide whether they can pull it off, however.

Keys to the series: Joakim Noah, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose. People are desperate for Derrick Rose’s return and rightfully so. But I think that realistically, Joakim Noah’s return is much more important at this point. Noah is the anchor of Chicago’s interior defense and without him, the Bulls will have a hard time slowing down Brook Lopez in the scoring column or Reggie Evans in the rebounding column. If Noah can play in this series, I expect the Bulls to advance since they won the season series convincingly (3-1). The second major key to this series is whether or not the Bulls can slow down Deron Williams. This former All-Star was having one of his worst years until he revived his season after the All-Star break. But if Chicago’s perimeter defense of Kirk Hinrich and Jimmy Butler can slow him and Joe Johnson down, the Nets won’t beat Chicago with Lopez alone. Finally, it has to be said: If Derrick Rose returns, interest in this offensively crippled series will be instantly revived. The odds are that he won’t return, but if he does, Chicago has a huge advantage on the offensive end. There are a LOT of “ifs” in this series, but for now I’m going with the defensive squad that will be a tough and scrappy team to face either way.

Prediction: Chicago Bulls in 7 games

LA’s Disappointing Debut

The Lakers opened their promising 2012-13 season up on a pretty underwhelming note: with a loss to a Dallas Mavericks squad without Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Kobe Bryant played through some foot pain, Dwight Howard played after having back surgery this summer and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol were both perfectly healthy. So what went wrong? And how worried should Laker fans be about such a disappointing and downright bad first game at home?

To sum it up quickly, not very worried at all. Yes, it’s true the Lakers went 0-8 in the preseason. And yes, there were a lot of evident problems on the floor that Dallas was able to take advantage of. But there wasn’t anything that can’t be fixed by the time April rolls around. But for the sake of being thorough, let’s walk through why the Lakers looked so terrible tonight.

  1. Coaching – I’ve defended Mike Brown in the past for his focus on defense, but his implementation of the Princeton offense for a team with Steve Nash is just plain stupid. Nash is a point guard who needs to get out and run on the fast break. The pace of the offense needs to be up. The Lakers should be shooting with 10-12 seconds on the shot clock and dominate the tempo with fast plays. The Princeton offense is slow and dull. Slowing down the speed of the game completely negates Nash’s impact as an effective point guard, rendering him useless. Nash only had seven points and four assists. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an appalling statline for Nash. Steve Blake had more assists for crying out loud. It also hurts the impact Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol could be having: both big men are efficient at running the floor and Howard in a half-court offense allows teams to foul him and send him to the line, where his dismal free throw shooting (3-for-14 last night) hurts the team. This team’s entire starting five is comprised of superstars who have all been the best player on a team at some point in their careers. Not being able to get a win at home with Howard, Nash and Kobe against an injury-depleted Mavs team goes beyond a lack of team chemistry; that’s just poor coaching and management of your personnel.

    The next problem? The Lakers’ health. Howard had a nice statline, but he clearly looked rusty in his LA debut.

  2. Health – Mike Brown certainly has to change a lot of things to get the most out of his star-studded lineup, but he can only do so much while two of the Lakers’ biggest pieces are still healing. Although Kobe and Howard both played in LA’s opener, you could tell they were either rusty or still ailing. Kobe didn’t play as many minutes as we’re used to, although he still finished with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting. Meanwhile, Howard looked like he was completely out of rhythm. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but his appalling free throw shooting and a few easy missed shots show he’s not quite back in his groove. Credit Brandan Wright, Elton Brand and Eddy Curry for their defense, but Howard still has to get back into the flow.
  3. Chemistry – Even if they were healthy and had proper coaching for their star-studded personnel, the Lakers need time to develop their chemistry. Steve Nash has to find his place in the offense and free up looks for his teammates. Howard has to figure out what his role on offense is. The offensive pace has to speed up. Kobe has to relinquish some ball control to his All-Star point guard. Pau Gasol was really the only one last night who needs to duplicate his performance every night (23 points, 13 rebounds, six assists).

So all in all, it makes a lot of sense for LA fans to be upset. That was an ugly loss to a team that’s not very good and it wasn’t pretty to watch (no offense Maverick fans, but if you think a Dallas team without Dirk or Kaman will beat LA a few months down the road, you’re dreaming). But as frustrated as fans must be with such an anticlimactic opening night,  it was still only game one. There are bound to be some speed bumps before this superstar cast finds its groove. There’s still a long season to go and Laker haters are kidding themselves if they think this is the LA team we’ll see all year. However, one stat is pretty telling and it’s one that the Lakers may not be able to help down the road: Darren Collison had 17 points for the Mavs tonight. Now Mavs fans were very excited for this acquisition, but I never really was. Here was a guy who was a scrub behind George Hill in Indiana. So if Steve Nash, an eternal defensive liability, is giving up 17 points to Darren Collison, what’s going to happen in the playoffs when the Lakers meet up with Russell Westbrook or Ty Lawson? Just something to think about.

If Nash is getting his ankles broken now, what’ll happen when he faces an elite point guard?

2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 16

For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!

NBA Free Agency Roundup – 7/4/12

Another day, another hundred rumors and moves of NBA free agency. Here’s everything that went down today to keep you up to speed heading into Independence Day:

Deron Williams Staying With Nets:

Deron Williams came to his ultimate decision today, choosing to stay in Brooklyn over leaving for his hometown of Dallas to play for the Mavericks. Williams’ contract is a five-year, $98 million deal that will team him up with Joe Johnson for the time being. Williams coming back is great news for the Nets, but for now, he is just a piece of the puzzle that is still missing Dwight Howard.

D-Will decided to stay in Brooklyn in the hopes the Nets continue to brighten their future.

Trade Could Still Bring Dwight Howard to Brooklyn:

According to league sources, the trade for Joe Johnson didn’t quite put the Nets out of contention for Orlando superstar Dwight Howard. A possible trade that would send Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, and first-round picks in 2013, 2015 and 2017 to Orlando in exchange for D-12 is being discussed although nothing is set in stone. The Nets are looking for a third party to facilitate the trade, but the Magic are also looking into possible trades with the Lakers, Hawks and Rockets. The Mavericks are also in the running to get Howard, but only if he waits to explore free agency next year. If the Nets were able to swing Howard down to Brooklyn, they would be giving up a lot, but they’d be looking at a potential nucleus of Howard, Deron Williams and Johnson as well as Gerald Wallace, who signed a four-year extension for $40 million, according to league sources.

Is this still a possibility for the on-the-rise Brooklyn Nets?

Eric Gordon Wants to be a Sun:

The Suns have offered Eric Gordon a four-year deal for $58 million and after visiting Phoxenix, New Orleans’ star point guard feels that it is the place for him. The Hornets can easily match the offer as they have been saying they would if Gordon received any max offers, but Gordon’s comments about wanting to play in Phoenix might mean that New Orleans chooses to let him go. Gordon was supposed to form a solid nucleus with rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, but it remains to be seen what the Hornets’ plan of action will be.

The Hornets could match Phoenix’s offer, but will they do it now that Eric Gordon made his desire to be a Sun clear?

Jason Terry Agrees to Three-Year Deal with Celtics:

Jason Terry and the Celtics reached an agreement to a three-year deal worth $5 million annually. Although the deal certainly strengthened the bench with a wily veteran sixth man, Boston remains adamant about their desire to resign Ray Allen and Brandon Bass. The Mavericks can match Boston’s offer, but might not do so if they continue to look into point guards and the possibility of Dwight Howard next year.

Unless the Mavericks match the Celtics’ offer, the Jet will be landing in Boston.

Ray Allen to Visit Miami, LA Clippers:

Boston free agent Ray Allen will be visiting the Miami Heat this week as he continues to take his time with his options. The Celtics are committed to resigning their 3-point shooting veteran and can offer him a two-year, $12 million deal. However, the lure of winning another championship is certainly going Miami’s way after LeBron James and the Heat defeated Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals before winning the title. Allen will also visit Los Angeles this week to hear offers from the Clippers, who view him as a starter. A few other teams are also still pursuing Allen, including the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Timberwolves and Hawks.

Ray Allen is still exploring his options between Boston, Miami and Los Angeles.

Jeremy Lin to Visit Houston Rockets:

A few weeks ago, it was very likely that Jeremy Lin would be returning to the New York Knicks. Now, the breakout star point guard is heading to Houston for a visit. The Knicks are certainly looking to resign Lin, but were unsure they’d be able to match other teams’ high offers and said they planned on playing it by ear. Other teams interested in Lin include the Raptors, Nets and Mavericks, although he is seen as a backup for each of these teams.

Jeremy Lin and the Knicks want to stay together, but Lin is still checking into his options.

More Point Guard Activity:

Now that the Mavericks failed to get their hands on Deron Williams, Dallas is looking for quality point guards, turning their sights on Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin. The Mavericks still haven’t made up their minds about Goran Dragic, who is reportedly having problems working out a contract with the Rockets and visited the Phoenix Suns Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers have also taken an interest in Nash, while free agent Jason Kidd has narrowed his decision down to either Dallas or the New York Knicks.

Goran Dragic and Steve Nash are still on the market as point guards for multiple teams.

Raptors Offer Landry Fields Three-Year Deal:

The Toronto Raptors have verbally agreed with Knicks’ guard Landry Fields to a three-year deal for nearly $20 million. Fields cannot sign a new contract until July 11 (when all free agents can sign new contracts), but the Knicks can still hold on to him if they match Toronto’s offer. It remains to be seen whether or not New York would spend that kind of money on a role player with Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith all potentially coming back, however.

The signing of Landry Fields in Toronto may be a play to get Steve Nash to join the Raptors as well.

Pacers Agree to Five-Year Deal with George Hill:

Indiana point guard George Hill signed a five-year extension to stay with the Pacers, though details of the deal were not disclosed. The Pacers will also be looking to keep Roy Hibbert, who was offered $58 million in a four-year deal with the Blazers. Indiana will have to match that offer to retain their All-Star center. However, if they don’t match, league sources say the Pacers will pursue Denver’s JaVale McGee and New Orleans’ Chris Kaman.

George Hill signed an extension with the Indiana Pacers, ruling out any possibility they had for Nash or Dragic

Nets Add Bosnian Forward Teletovic and Reggie Evans:

The Nets have verbally agreed to a three-year deal with Mirza Teletovic worth just under $16 million. Teletovic, a Bosnian forward at 6’9″, averaged 22 ppg and six rpg in the Euroleague this season. Since the Nets gave away almost their entire bench to get Joe Johnson and would have to give up even more for Dwight Howard, this signing could prove to be a very helpful addition if his game can translate decently into the NBA. The Nets also acquired the Clippers’ Reggie Evans from the Clippers in exchange for a future second-round pick. Evans was signed to a three-year, $5 million deal.

The Nets added LAC’s Reggie Evans and the Bosnian Mirza Teletovic.

Free Agency News: 7/3/12 Roundup

As is the case with free agency every year, it’s been a busy week filled with headlines for numerous stars and the smaller pieces that might go unnoticed. Here’s a quick recap of the major deals and rumors that have gone down in the past week.

Hawks Trade Joe Johnson to Brooklyn Nets:

I already covered this one earlier today, but the Hawks sent their All-Star guard and his not-so-All-Star contract to Brooklyn in exchange for the majority of the Nets’ bench and a future first round pick. Atlanta finally accepted Johnson and Josh Smith weren’t working out and the overpaid Johnson left for Brooklyn in exchange for Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, Jordan Williams and DeStawn Stevenson. The Hawks are looking like they’ll struggle during the 2012-13 season, but their next acquisition might help a little bit.

The Nets didn’t get the All-Star they wanted (Dwight Howard), but got Joe Johnson instead. Now they need to hope Deron Wiliams stays on.

Hawks Acquire Devin Harris from Utah Jazz Trade:

Don’t get too excited, Atlanta. You’re still going to be sorry next season, but at least the acquisition of Devin Harris from Utah will ease the incredible burden that’s been placed on Josh Smith’s shoulders. The Hawks sent Marvin Williams to the Jazz in exchange for Utah’s inconsistent point guard as Atlanta’s new GM Danny Ferry has wasted no time making his intentions clear: getting rid of the the organization’s two peskiest (and overpriced) contracts in Johnson and Williams. With so much money being cleared out, the Hawks are clearly trying to make room to make big moves, possibly for Dwight Howard or Chris Paul should he not resign with the Clippers. Whether high-caliber moves such as these happen this offseason or the next remains to be seen, but Ferry has done an excellent job with these two moves to ensure the Hawks see long term growth. Plus, Harris isn’t a shabby point guard and can certainly help a team out with 3-point shooting when his shot is on. His streaky shooting and overall inconsistent play makes him a bit of a gamble from week to week, but the Hawks need a revival and certainly got the upper hand of this trade with Utah. The move is particularly curious for the Jazz, who gain little from shopping their starting point guard for a former number two draft pick who hasn’t ever lived up to expectations.

The Hawks certainly improved by trading Marvin Williams for Utah’s Devin Harris.

Deron Williams Still Undecided:

At first, Brooklyn’s trade with Atlanta for Joe Johnson was contingent upon whether or not Williams resigned with the Nets. However, the deal went through anyway, leaving the Nets in limbo waiting for their All-Star point guard to decide between resigning or heading to his hometown of Dallas to play with Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavericks. Williams is likely to make his decision known within the next one or two days, either liberating Brooklyn from the ever-growing concern they might only be left with Joe Johnson’s ridiculous contract or turning Dallas into a much more dangerous force in the West. We’ve already been over what the Nets would look like in the backcourt with Johnson and D-Will, but if the Mavericks get their hands on Brooklyn’s star point guard, the combination of Williams and Dirk could get interesting.

Will D-Will stay with Joe Johnson in Brooklyn? Or will he join Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas?

Lamar Odom Goes To Clippers:

A few days ago, the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks worked out a deal that sends Lamar Odom back to his former team in exchange for Mo Williams. As part of a four-team trade, Odom will try to restart his career where it began in Los Angeles as Williams moves on to the Utah Jazz. I don’t see the move as a good one for the Clippers for the time being, but if Odom can play more like the Sixth Man of the Year that he once was, it could prove to be beneficial in the long run. The acquisition of Williams for the Jazz meant they had an extra guard, which might help explain why Devin Harris was shopped for Marvin Williams.

Lamar will get to revitalize his career where it all began in Los Angeles.

Bulls Looking for Veteran Guards:

With Derrick Rose likely missing a significant chunk of the next NBA season, it’s no surprise the Bulls are looking for veteran guards who won’t eat up too much money and can step in to take over while their star point guard recuperates. The Bulls have already reached out to Derek Fisher and Brandon Roy and while there are no solid deals to report on yet, keep your eye on this one. Fisher is also being pursued by the Thunder, Heat and Mavericks while Roy is fielding offers from several teams as well.

With Derrick Rose recovering on the sidelines, the Bulls will need to add another point guard.

Celtics Hoping to Resign Allen, Bass, Green:

Despite the popular opinion that Ray Allen will be in a Miami Heat uniform next season, Danny Ainge has said that the Celtics are making resigning Allen a priority, along with Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, who may be able to return to Boston as a free agent. While the possibility of resigning all three of these Boston regulars may be difficult, I wouldn’t doubt that they get their hands on at least two of those three. Allen has been offered deals with Miami and the Memphis Grizzlies, but would make the most money if he stayed in Boston. It will come down to whether or not he believes he can win with Miami and whether or not he’d be willing to take a pay cut to do so, but for the time being, nothing has been decided regarding Allen, Bass or Green yet.

Will Ray Allen choose the Celtics and more money over the lure of a championship in Miami?

Dwight Howard Drama Continues:

Dwight Howard came out and said there’s only one team on his list earlier this week, and although he wouldn’t say outright that it was the Nets, no one else seemed capable of being that team if not Brooklyn. Until yesterday, that is, when the Nets basically took their names out of the Howard sweepstakes with an ill-advised trade for Johnson, who will take up a considerable chunk of cap space. The Mavericks and Hawks are both clearing room for big offseason acquisitions, so Howard might want to think about adding more teams to his stubbornly short list. Howard said if he doesn’t get traded to the one team on his list, he would play the season out and then explore free agency, although the choice is not his to make if the Magic decide to shop him.

Dwight Howard continues to ruin his legacy by running his mouth about his trade demands.

Steve Nash’s Future Still Unclear:

The Toronto Raptors made Nash a 3-year offer, which Phoenix seems unwilling to do at this point. The Suns are leaning toward a 2-year deal if their All-Star point guard stays, but with the drafting of Kendall Marshall, they seem to be preparing for the worst. Nash says he is keeping his options open, which is a smart decision considering his large number of suitors, which includes the Knicks, Mavericks, Raptors and Suns. At this point it seems more and more unlikely Nash will stay in Phoenix, but to leave one non-contender for another doesn’t seem like something an aging veteran in search of his first title would do (ruling out Toronto).

Nash’s future in Phoenix seems unlikely, but no one else has put a great offer on the table yet.

Roy Hibbert Offered Deal by Portland:

The Portland Trail Blazers are looking to strengthen their frontcourt even further after offering All-Star center Roy Hibbert a four-year deal for $58 million. The Blazers went through a major upheaval last season and had a disappointing year but adding Hibbert to LaMarcus Aldridge would form a formidable team in the paint, especially with rookie Meyers Leonard likely coming off the bench. However, if Hibbert is smart (and not motivated primarily by money), he’ll stay in Indiana. After such a disappointing playoff performance with the Pacers, Hibbert definitely has something to prove to his team, a squad that can actually contend in the East if they continue to mature.

Hibbert has unfinished business in Indiana. It’d be a shame for him to leave for the weaker Blazers just for the money.

That’s all for now, but keep checking back for the latest free agency news and analysis.

2012 NBA Draft Recap

In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:

Winners: New Orleans Hornets

No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.

Anthony Davis was taken first in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

Winners: Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.

Here’s a look at the young talent that the Houston Rockets brought in this year.

Winners: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.

The face of Portland’s new point guard: Damian Lillard

Winners: Golden State Warriors

Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.

Harrison Barnes joins Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green in Golden State.

Winners: Milwaukee Bucks

With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.

The Bucks needed a shot-blocking big man and they certainly got one in John Henson.

Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder

They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.

Perry Jones III may have been the steal of the draft, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 28th pick.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.

Was he really worth not getting any new talent in the 2012 NBA Draft?

Losers: Phoenix Suns

It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.

The Suns swear the Kendall Marshall pick wasn’t influenced by free agency coming up, but why else would they take a passing point guard unless they were worried Steve Nash might leave?

Losers: Los Angeles Lakers

I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.

Robert Sacre is heading to LA, but he won’t be able to replace Pau Gasol is he’s traded away.

Losers: Charlotte Bobcats

Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.

The Bobcats got Kidd-Gilchrist, but then spent their second pick on the similar Jeff Taylor.

Question Marks: Boston Celtics

There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?

The Celtics picked up two quality big men, but both are major projects for Boston to work on.

Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks

After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.

I still need to see how these draft picks play in to acquiring Williams before I pass judgment.

Question Mark: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.

You’re looking at the face of a coach who doesn’t have much to be excited about after the draft.

Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves

With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.

The Wolves have a promising future, but needed to do more in the 2012 draft.

Question Mark: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.

I don’t see any Kenneth Farieds in the Denver’s 2012 draft selections.

Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.

I can’t help but think the Cleveland Cavaliers could’ve done better with their picks in the draft.

In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:

  1. Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
  2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
  3. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
  4. Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
  5. Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
  6. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
  8. Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
  9. Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
  10. Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
  11. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
  12. Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
  13. Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
  14. John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
  15. Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
  16. Royce White – Houston Rockets
  17. Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
  18. Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
  19. Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
  20. Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
  21. Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
  22. Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
  23. John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
  24. Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  25. Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
  26. Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
  27. Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
  28. Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
  29. Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
  30. Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
  31. Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
  32. Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
  33. Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  34. Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  35. Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
  36. Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
  37. Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
  38. Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
  39. Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
  40. Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
  41. Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  42. Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
  43. Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
  44. Kim English – Detroit Pistons
  45. Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
  46. Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
  47. Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
  48. Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
  49. Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
  50. Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
  51. Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
  52. Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
  53. Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
  54. Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  55. Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
  56. Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
  57. Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
  58. Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
  59. Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
  60. Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Finals Series Recap

When the Miami Heat finished off Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, every basketball fan’s eyes lit up. Because unlike years past, that vast majority’s dream matchup in the Finals was going to happen: the young, athletic and resilient Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take on LeBron James and the Miami Heat for a chance to win an NBA championship. You really couldn’t script a better matchup: the two best superstars in the game, LeBron and Kevin Durant, were going to engage in a high-powered matchup for the ultimate bragging rights of 2012. Star point guards were going to clash in Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook. And complementary stars like Chris Bosh and James Harden were going to back up this star-studded matchup as another interesting factor to take into account. The two best teams were about to meet at center stage, and we were all going to be treated to an epic showdown between two seemingly unstoppable forces.

The Thunder, despite being so incredibly young, swept the defending champion Mavericks, throttled the Los Angeles Lakers in five and regrouped from a 2-0 deficit against the unstoppable San Antonio Spurs to win the Western Conference Finals. They showed great poise, couldn’t be stopped on the offensive end, and were unbeaten at home. Role players like Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Nick Collison were stepping up on both ends of the floor and the big three of Durant, Westbrook and Harden were the highest-scoring trio in the league. Simply put, their inexperience hadn’t shown one bit.

How could any true basketball fan NOT be excited about this NBA Finals matchup?

The Heat on the other hand, had plenty of problems to deal with. Miami easily advanced past the Knicks in five games in the first round and LeBron played like a man possessed throughout Miami’s postseason round, but the Heat had some trouble getting by the Indiana Pacers once Bosh went down with an abdominal tear. Fortunately, Wade woke up and LeBron carried his Bosh-less team past the Celtics with a transcendent Game 6 performance in Boston. That game extended the series to Game 7, which the Heat won at home, but there were still a lot of questions surrounding this team and its ability to win a championship. Was Bosh going to be 100 percent for the Finals after looking a step slower against the Celts? Was Wade going to disappear as he had a few times in the postseason, or would he rise to the occasion and backup LeBron? And most important of all, would the King play at the same high level under the exact same pressure he’d fallen to twice in his career? Could LeBron really keep playing at such an elite level in the Finals against a quality fourth quarter team like the Thunder that would force him to either be clutch or face the wrath of the media and public again? Heading into the Finals, the Thunder had home-court “advantage” (I hate the 2-3-2 Finals format) and it seemed like if they played the way they had on their trip to the Finals, even LeBron wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

So how did Miami come out on top, and in such convincing fashion? There were many factors to take into account. The truth is, in this series, the Miami Heat were the better team. There’s no questioning that. But it’s also true the Thunder didn’t make things any easier for themselves. I would go as far to say that if the Thunder hadn’t been rattled at playing on the big stage with zero experience, this series would have been extended to at least six games. Because there’s no denying the Thunder were playing superior team basketball heading into the NBA Finals. But on the big stage, only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook consistently showed up for OKC, with Durant averaging 30 ppg on nearly 55 percent shooting to go with 6 rpg. Russell Westbrook had an incredible Game 4, but it still resulted in a loss and the rest of the series, Westbrook took too many shots and missed a good deal of them. Oklahoma City’s “point guard” catches a lot of criticism for his reckless style of play and his tendency to take more shots than he should, and I’ve always defended him, because you get a mixed bag with Westbrook; one night he’s missing shots and playing with reckless abandon, but for the majority of the season, Westbrook was a huge part of why the Thunder looked so unstoppable. Unfortunately, it continued to be a combination, despite averaging 27 points, six rebounds and six assists per game. He scored a decent amount of points and racked up rebounds and assists, but it still wasn’t good enough on this stage. Because although Durant and Westbrook played at an acceptable level, the first major problem for the Thunder was that no one joined them. The Thunder’s supporting cast in general was severely lacking after stepping up in the Western Conference Finals. Ibaka, Fisher, Sefolosha, Perkins and Collison all struggled to put points on the board consistently. These role players were monumental in Oklahoma City’s dominant run to the Finals and without them stepping up like Miami’s reserves, it’s surprising the games were as close as they were.

Kevin Durant was still a scoring machine, but Miami’s depth was too much when everyone else in a Thunder jersey disappeared.

The second major problem for the Thunder was 3-point shooting, an area where they usually excelled. Oklahoma City couldn’t knock down the 3-pointers they were so accustomed to sinking, shooting just 30 percent from beyond the arc (30-for-105). The Heat on the other hand, shot an astounding 42-for-98 from downtown (43 percent). When a good 3-point shooting team makes ten less threes than the opposition over the course of a series, you can tell things aren’t going well.

The third huge problem for the Thunder was coaching. Scott Brooks was completely out-coached by Erik Spoelstra, who opted to go with smaller lineups so Ibaka and Perkins wouldn’t have a field day in the paint. Only able to play one big man at a time for extended period of time, Brooks had to go small as well and the Hear were able to spread OKC’s defense thin with perimeter shooters as Brooks stubbornly tried double-teaming LeBron despite the fact that his superior passing freed up wide-open shots for his teammates. Brooks also couldn’t find anyone capable of slowing down LeBron James. Granted, LeBron was a man on a mission, but Brooks’ lineups drew a lot of questions. Sefolosha started off just fine on him, but either got in foul trouble or was subbed out because of his lack of offensive contribution. James Harden was too small and was struggling on the offensive end anyway. And Kevin Durant, the biggest driving force behind OKC’s offense, got in immediate foul trouble as LeBron exposed his advantage in both size and speed while revealing how average a defender he is. Brooks never even tried putting the bigger Ibaka on LeBron as a way to prevent him from attacking the basket, which is exactly where the King killed OKC’s defense. Ibaka would have forced LeBron to settle for jumpers, or at least make him think twice about driving in the paint. But instead, Brooks continued his double team schemes that left open red-hot perimeter shooters like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller while letting Nick Collison sit on the bench for way too long.

But the biggest problem was that the magical beard of James Harden, OKC’s Sixth Man of the Year, seemed to lose its power on the big stage. No one was more disappointing than Harden, who failed to have any significant impact other than a prolific first half in Game 2, which still resulted in a loss. Harden averaged only 12 ppg on 37 percent shooting in the Finals, failing to reach double digits in three of five games. Without a third scorer to back up Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder’s once mighty offense had problems reaching triple digits.

Harden’s disappearing act was regrettable, especially after he and his beard had such a stellar season for the young Oklahoma City Thunder.

But give credit to the Heat; a lot of the problems I just described were caused by stifling defense and LeBron’s indomitable will. OKC would have greatly benefitted from switching Ibaka to LeBron, but eventually the King’s desire to win would still have been to much for the slower Thunder power forward to handle. Kudos are deserved for Miami’s role players, who were apparently bluffing for the entire regular season so they could unleash an unprecedented barrage of threes on the unsuspecting Thunder. Shane Battier had a huge offensive impact throughout the series and Chalmers and Miller each had their own breakout game that proved to be too much for a Thunder defense that was already spread thin trying to handle LeBron, Wade AND Bosh. Making that many more 3-pointers than a prolific long-range team tipped the scale in Miami’s favor and the role players stepping up provided a huge advantage for Miami. Before the series, I predicted the Thunder’s strong supporting cast would give the Thunder a lot of leverage because up until that point, Miami’s reserves hadn’t done much. But it was the exact opposite; guys like Battier, Chalmers and Miller took turns being the third scorer that the Thunder never had because of Harden’s disappearing act.

Wade didn’t have the most impressive series of his career, but his numbers were nothing to scoff at (22 ppg, 6 rpg, 5 apg). But then again, he really didn’t need to take over with LeBron at the helm. But Bosh was actually a big part of the reason why the Heat came out on top, even if his contributions didn’t translate on the stat sheet. Bosh clogged up the middle defensively in a way that Udonis Haslem hadn’t. When Durant finally did get around LeBron or Battier’s defense of the perimeter, he had to rush his shot to avoid the double team or attack the basket through three guys, which resulted in quite a few charges for Miami. Bosh’s contributions on the offensive end were big as well, providing more help in the paint that the Thunder didn’t get out of Ibaka or Perkins. And with the Heat’s role players on point, all LeBron had to do was finish the job, which he did with a vengeance.

A lot was made about the quality of officiating during this series. There were definitely times were every 50-50 call seemed to go against the Thunder and they were grossly out-shot from the free throw line in Games 3 and 4. But in Games 1 and 5, the refs were fairly consistent and although that questionable no-call at the end of the Heat’s big Game 2 road win may have swung momentum in Miami’s favor, the officiating gripe wasn’t substantial enough to say it had a dramatic effect on the outcome of the series. When it came down to it, this was LeBron James’ championship and he earned every bit of it. Experience played a much bigger factor in the series than I ever anticipated, and combine that with the annoying 2-3-2 format, it’s no wonder the Heat walked away with rings in five games. The Thunder will be back and they now have the Finals experience and pain of losing that will make them tough to stop. But for now, the team to beat will be Miami until somebody finds away to slow the King down.

LeBron was magnificent and finally lived up to being called “The King” by winning his first NBA crown, sealing Game 5 with a triple-double.

NBA Finals Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Miami Heat

The NBA Finals matchup that many predicted and nearly everyone looked forward to at the start of the playoffs has finally been realized: the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat will square off in Game 1 on Tuesday in a highly anticipated series that features big names and the best teams in basketball right now. The league MVP and scoring leader will get the chance to state their case for the best player in the NBA, star point guards will have a chance to redeem themselves for recent lackluster performances and key role players will have an opportunity to make a huge impact in a matchup that features little inside presence for either side. With two NBA juggernauts advancing the to Finals, we’re sure to be treated to one hell of a series.

Leading the charge for the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the league’s scoring leader, Kevin Durant. Durant put together four masterful performances to get his team out of a 2-0 hole against the offensively powered San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, as OKC won four straight to advance to the Finals. The Thunder great into a legitimate contender in front of our eyes in that series, because even though Russell Westbrook wasn’t playing his best basketball, OKC’s role players stepped up in big ways to help down a San Antonio team that was known for its depth. Leading the charge for the Thunder bench was the final member of Oklahoma City’s big three, James Harden, whose 3-point shooting, attack-the-rim mentality and formidable beard has thrust him into the spotlight over the course of the season, making him a fan favorite and clear choice for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Durant, Westbrook and Harden were the highest-scoring trio in the NBA this year and haven’t disappointed as this young team has made its remarkable run through the playoffs, sweeping Dallas in the first round, besting the Lakers in five in the second and pulling off an incredible comeback against the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. In fact, the Thunder downed the three teams that have accounted for the last 13 Western Conference champions on their path to the Finals. With guys like Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins locking down the paint in addition to Thabo Sefolosha’s tremendous defense, OKC has developed a number of lineups that can defend and still put the ball in the hole. Sefolosha, Ibaka, Perkins, veteran Derek Fisher and even Nick Collison have grown into valuable assets because of their ability to chip in points for this high-scoring squad.

James Harden can have a huge impact on this series if he outplays Chris Bosh.

Meanwhile, the Heat will be powered by LeBron James, who is coming off his third MVP award and a prolific Eastern Conference Finals against a Celtics team that pushed Miami to a decisive Game 7. LeBron dominated the last two games of the series and is averaging almost 31 ppg in the postseason this year. Backing him up will be Dwyane Wade, who, like Westbrook, is coming off a subpar series and hopes to score much more efficiently in the Finals. Wade all but disappeared in the first half of numerous games against the Celtics and will need to find ways to score if the Heat want to contend with this young and athletic Oklahoma City team; because unlike the last series, LeBron James will not be able to carry the Heat past the Thunder. However, the Heat will receive a big boost from the return of Chris Bosh, who knocked down key shots in Game 7 and looked to be back to normal. If Bosh is 100 percent, the Heat have a much better chance of contending for a title in their second consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

The Heat had a much easier path to the Finals than the Thunder, knocking out the New York Knicks in five games in the first round, followed by the Indiana Pacers in six in the second before finishing off Boston in seven. However, the Heat were also playing without Chris Bosh for almost all of the last two rounds and probably would have advanced much sooner with their third member of the big three on the court. However, as dangerous as LeBron, Wade and Bosh can be, Miami’s role players will really need to step up to contend in this series. Guys like Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier can’t disappear and have to be ready to step up by knocking down open looks. However, despite the fact that Miami has little offensive presence in the paint and even though Miami’s role players have been completely absent at times, the Heat have a slight advantage because they’ve been in this position before.

Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade are both coming off mediocre series. Who will turn it around in the Finals and give their superstar the biggest boost?

In the end, I anticipate this series will be largely decided by each team’s big three. Durant vs. LeBron. Westbrook vs. Wade. Harden vs. Bosh. Whichever side gets the bigger advantage in these matchups will have a much better chance of winning games, but the Finals will also come down to role players. Neither side has much of an inside threat, but if Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins can have a few decent offensive nights, the Thunder will be hard-pressed to lose this series. The Heat’s shooters need to knock down open looks, which is something Miami has struggled with in the postseason this year. Miami may be able to swing one or two games in their favor if LeBron or Wade go off, but don’t forget that Durant, Westbrook and Harden are all more than capable of doing the same. The Thunder are also undefeated at home during the 2012 NBA Playoffs, and with home-court advantage, Miami can’t shy away from the spotlight in the fourth quarter if they want to get road wins in an environment that makes that a real challenge. The Thunder, despite being young, have impressed the world with their ability to take over games in the fourth quarter, which is the exact opposite of what LeBron and the Heat are known for. LeBron can’t defer to Wade down the stretch anymore, because Durant, Westbrook and Harden all show the maturity of a veteran team and can be deadly under pressure.

In the end, I think the Thunder’s home-court advantage, role players and ability to take games over in the fourth will give them the franchise’s first NBA title since 1979 (as the Seattle Supersonics). In two meetings this year, the teams split, with the Thunder winning the first by a large margin and losing the second in a close game. I anticipate this series will give the audience some great moments from big players and that it will be extremely competitive, but the Thunder have looked too impressive on their run to the Finals and are playing the best basketball out of anyone right now. This is a new experience for OKC, but with their talent and the experience of veterans like Fisher and Perkins who have won titles before, I think the Thunder will be able to just focus on playing basketball. And unless they shy away from the spotlight and can’t cope with the pressure of playing in their first NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder should be hoisting the trophy this year.

Prediction: Oklahoma City over Miami in 6 games

The battle of the NBA’s two best players and two best teams is about to begin. Will LeBron finally win a ring? Or will Durant finish off OKC’s impressive run?