Thursday, April 16, 2015

Domino and Theoharides 2014-2015 NBA Season Recap and Playoff Predictions, Part One

Alex Theoharides and Matt Domino reunite to rehash the 2014-2015 NBA Regular Season.

Editor's Note: Each year myself and Alex Theoharides have conducted NBA discussions and contributed NBA related writing to this blog and other websites. This year, neither of us was as productive as we wanted to be in that area of our lives. So, to make up for it, we decided to have a long conversation looking back on the 2014-2015 NBA Regular Season and to look forward to the Playoffs.

DOMINO: Well, Alex, its April. The Northeast is finally thawing out from our brutal (it wasn’t THAT bad) winter, but people are scarred. So much so that I was jogging on a recently VERY mild evening and overheard a woman saying, “ Yeah, it was like over 60 degrees today...supposedly!” No one believes the seasons are actually changing.

But what this all really means is that the NBA Playoffs are staring us in the face. This 2014-2015 season was the first time since 2008 where I didn’t do a lick of basketball writing. Why? Because I’ve kind of reached a crossroads in my writing life/regular life where I have to decide what exactly I need to devote my time to. As much as I love writing about sports, writing about basketball specifically, and writing about things I love—great albums, terrible albums, television, movies (yeah right, I never wrote about movies)—what I actually love most is creating stories. So, when I’m not spending my 50+ hours at my day job each week or writing about food and drink for The Manual (they pay me!), I’ve devoted all my time to making sure my novel, From Here to the Last Mound of Dirt, is as good of a book as possible. I even stooped so low as to hire an editor (don’t worry, not from Craigslist!) to help me ask the questions of my story, my prose and myself that I was no longer to able to ask. I’m not some gun-shy genius fussing over a gem in the dark; I’m getting feedback from agents, but the book isn’t there yet—I want it to be there and that deserves all the time I can give it.

And to lighten all that seriousness, I’ve been writing and performing with my sketch group 301 Views (don’t sleep on our jokes) and practicing with an improv group that will hopefully gel into something substantial over the next few months. I’m tired of tormenting my friends at social functions; so I’m trying to put my inclination to make jokes, act out characters and proclivity towards being an annoying S.O.B to good use. It could all be a waste of time or yet another delusion of an egomaniac, but its the one area in my life where I don’t have ANY expectations other than to try my best to be funny and contribute with some people I’m getting to know and like. That’s gotta count for something.

Basically, what all this means is that life is changing. I need to close some doors in order to keep others as wide open as I want them to. I love the NBA and would love to write about basketball everyday, but, when I lay my head upon my pillow, I feel a whole lot shittier when I don’t write at least 500 words of fiction than I do when I haven’t written about the ongoing chronicles of LeBron James, Steph Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel (!), The Milwaukee Bucks, and the upstart, they might be fools gold, they might actually have a legitimate future as an NBA contender with some of the most exciting players in the game and I wish I had just made the effort to see them when they game to play the Knicks or Nets; that’s right, I’m talking about your MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES!!

But we’ll get to your thoughts on the Wolves, the best stories and underrated players from this season as well as our Playoff picks. Why don’t you fill me on where life has led you, you married man and homeowner.

THEO: It’s a big question. Where has life led me?  

Mainly, I’m devoted to taking my rightful place on the list of All American married, homeowning, tax-paying, basketball-watching, literary buffoons. I write when I can, as much as I can, but not nearly enough to satisfy my writing itch. Like you, I’ve had to make a decision about where to allocate my creative time. My basketball blog has fallen to the wayside, largely because I found that writing incessantly about basketball was ruining my love for the game. Instead of celebrating individual and team achievement, I was focused on interpreting “advanced” stats and I found myself increasingly entrenched in meaningless arguments about why Player X should be playing more minutes as a stretch forward or why Coach Y needed to change the way his team dealt with the pick and roll. I know it’s taboo to complain about advanced stats in the NBA writing community and I do understand their value—particularly for team management—but I’m at the point where I don’t want to care more about understanding the game than I did about enjoying the game. The best basketball writers —Zach Lowe, Jonathan Abrams, Steve McPherson—are able to synthesize the metrics of the game with the human interest stories. However, I’m not sure I have the time, talent, or energy to match their success. I want to write about a million things; I want to love basketball.

I’m impressed by your sticktoitiveness with your novel. Man, the hardest part of writing for me is finishing what I start. I’ve always been fascinated by anecdotes from the lives of successful writers. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael Chabon, who spent over five years working on his follow up to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, only to make the ultimate decision that his second novel was going nowhere and he had to abandon it. These types of decisions terrify me as a writer. I have a tendency to get trapped by ideas, to keep beginning the same story, without ever letting it reach its logical conclusion. One of my goals for the next “era” of my writing life is to be open to new ideas, but also to finish the ideas I start.

Beyond writing and basketball, it is spring in Minneapolis, I’m in the process (read: nightmare) of trying to install a basketball backboard on my garage with only my English degree from Skidmore for guidance (Creative Thought Matters unless you’re trying to stand on a ladder with a drill in one hand and a basketball hoop in the other), and all is right with the world.

DOMINO: I feel like we’re on the same page when it comes to sports writing. This is going to kind of sound pathetic, but I was (and still am) exhausted with keeping up with the world of NBA Twitter with all of the ongoing sportswriter narratives, beefs and pet peeves. And that is probably stupid of me and a bit shortsighted, but it truly does take a little bit of enjoyment out of watching the game.

This isn’t a Barkleyian knock against analytics or anything like that. There is so much excellent basketball related CONTENT available on an hourly basis that it is impossible to not learn something new about the game—whether about a specific player, team, position, shot, or type of screen—multiple times a day. But the tone, the incessant snark and “know-it-all-ness” of so many (so many!) of those voices becomes a bit irritating. Sure, its their job and, sure, I should take it all a bit more lightly, but that’s just the way I feel right now. I’m sure it’ll probably pass.

But, we’ve veered away from catching up toward my own vague technology therapy session. Let’s talk about some NBA!

First, let’s rehash about some of our favorite storylines from this year. As a Wolves fan, the development of Andrew Wiggins has got to be #1, right?

THEO: “As a Wolves fan” is an excellent way to preface everything I say in this space.

Basically, I spent the winter watching every single game the Wolves played this year. Why? Because Wiggins is a beast who is just scratching the surface of his potential. At the beginning of the season, his offense was limited to jump shots and awkward post-ups. Now he’s destroying veteran defenders in the post, driving to the rim against defenses geared to stop his penetration, and getting to the foul line at a proficient rate. All of that while playing in an offense run by a 20 year old point guard in Zach LaVine, who hasn’t played point guard since middle school.

Teams tend to take on the personalities of their best players. Last season, the Wolves felt like they had the proverbial weight of the world on their shoulders because Kevin Love basically refused to look any reporters in the eye (like, seriously, ever), was moody to the ball boys, grumbled to the trainers, and was just a real treat to be around by all accounts.

This season? When they weren’t trying to win, and even sometimes when they were trying to win, the Wolves were awful. But then there would be moments when Wiggins would hold his own against LeBron James. Times when he would shut down James Harden on one end and score on him on the other. When he would dunk all over the Stifle Tower, not once, but twice.  

Most impressively, he never seems to get rattled by the moment or by any of the stories swirling around him. Just look at what happened to him over the past year: from March to June, talking heads picked apart his faults and debated whether he or Jabari Parker should be selected No. 1 in the draft; from June through August, he had to pretend to be a Cav even though EVERYONE knew he was being traded to the Wolves for Kevin Love, from August up until today, he’s been the face of the Wolves and the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year. Despite all of that, he’s played the second most minutes in the league (behind only MVP candidate James Harden) and hasn’t publicly complained once.

The Wolves took on the calm demeanor of their 20-year-old star all season and it was surprisingly fun to watch.

Obviously, Wiggins is my pick (and he should be everyone’s pick) for Rookie of the Year. But I know you’re a Philly sports guy. How do you feel about their young talent? Noel do anything for you? Any other true rookies (Mirotic doesn’t count) you were impressed by this year?

DOMINO: I definitely have the Wolves as one of my must-watch teams for next year (to be honest, they were even kind of must watch for me this year as well; and when I couldn’t watch, I ALWAYS checked their box scores and day after highlights).

Philly is definitely in an interesting spot. As Bill Simmons pointed out last week, in fifty years, we are going to either look back on Sam Hinkie’s grand scheme as either genius or one of the biggest gaffes in the history of professional sports—though, the latter would certainly fit right in with the sporting history of the city of Philadelphia.

I love Noel’s potential, though. After sitting out a year to recover from injury (with plenty of people wondering about his thin frame and durability as a pro), he’s going to end up playing 75+ games. He really came on in March, where he averaged 14.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game in 33 minutes a game. He’s tailed off in April, but that’s not too bad for a rookie; although you do have to take it with a slight grain of salt seeing as the Sixers are terrible and have no one else on their team who is a reliable scorer—unless you love yourself some Isaiah Canaan, Robert Covington or fleeting glimpses of the ghost of Jason Richardson. But...ON THE OTHER HAND...there’s no one else on the team capable of handling the ball and running a reliable pick and roll with rim runs were Noel can viciously put the ball away with his insane wingspan.

Noel certainly looks like a keeper. He is a modern NBA big man: a guy who is mobile, has insanely quick hands, can anchor a defense and is capable of sucking space by making effective dives to the rim off the pick and roll. Plus, it appears that he has a slight face up game that he will most likely develop over the summer. That would most certainly add to his effectiveness on the offensive end next season.

I honestly don’t know where this Sixers experiment is going, but I love it for the same reason that I loved the Big Three coming together in Miami—its basketball as science. Will Hinkie’s complete “asset” based approach to building team actually work? I’m along for the ride. Plus, it has resulted in some spirited writing over at Liberty Ballers.

But for me, here is how I’d rank my favorite storylines of the season so far.

1. Golden State’s Dominance - They really are one of the most likeable juggernauts in recent memory. I mean, between Kerr’s wit and self-deprecation as a head coach to Curry’s inventiveness and innovation at the point guard (not seen since Playoff Rondo circa 2010-2012), to Klay’s explosiveness, Draymond Green’s swag and hustle, Iguodala’s channeling of Scottie Pippen from 1997-1998, Shawn Livingston’s continued revival, to Marrese Speights existence and Harrison Barnes’ aesthetic of looking like the perfect basketball player (though not playing like it), this team has a little bit of everything. Oh, and how could I forget Bogut, his scraggly beard and his poor man’s 1977-1978 Bill Walton impression?

THEO: Slow clap for the Marrese Speights existence. He is truly one of my favorite random dudes in the NBA.

DOMINO: 2. Wiggins - He was dubbed overhyped and overrated, went through that weird offseason with the Cavaliers before being traded to Minnesota, and then looked completely lost in the first three months of the season. But watching him blossom over the first four months of 2015 has been phenomenal. He’s going to do things next year that amaze us—and he’s already amazed us quite a bit this year. Although, Zach Lowe’s recent breakdown has kind of tempered my optimism just a little bit.

THEO: My Timberwolves-loving heart just blushed at all that praise for one of our* players. I’m not sure we’re ready for nice things yet.

* Despite rumors to the contrary, the Timberwolves would like me to clarify that I’m not actually a member of the team.

DOMINO: 3.  The Youth Movement - This is definitely a transition year in the NBA. And I think next year the league landscape is going to be even more interesting. New Orleans (aka Anthony Davis) should be a year better and (hopefully) one terrible head coach lighter. Utah is brimming with young talent between Hayward, Favors, Gobert, Burks, and Exum (I think he’s going to have a great summer and come back next year with more confidence and comfort). Orlando is basically Utah East, but maybe a year or so behind. I mean—Payton, Oladipo, Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and a 2015 Top 10 pick? Sign me up! Plus who knows how this summer is going to shake out for the Sixers, Wolves and Celtics.

4. The Knicks Drama - I really just don’t get it. The Knicks make terrible shortsighted moves for more than a decade and everyone rightly ridicules them.  Then when they try to tear the whole team down in favor of some more progressive thinking and team building, they get ripped for it. Jesus Christ, just let one offseason pass before you get pissed at Phil. They’re trying a new approach; that alone should be heartening.

THEO: Count me in on the rip everything and anything the Knicks do bandwagon. As a kid, I LOVED the Knicks. But the decisions they’ve made since the JVG, one-legged Ewing, Camby-man Can, Spree, LJ and Houston team made it to the Finals have been as awful as a smorgasbord of lutefisk, pearl onions and live music by JJ & The Straight Shot.

I hope I’m wrong. My dad (still a die-harder) deserves the Knicks to be good again, but I have a sneaking suspicion they’re going to pull a Cavs and package their top-3 pick/whoever they select for a middle-tier veteran player to play alongside Melo. I mean, Chris Childs isn’t walking through that door anytime soon Knicks. Enough is enough.

DOMINO: 5. Kawhi  - He’s becoming a terrifying, emotionless robot (although, since he was the MVP of the 2014 Finals, he kind of already was). It’s really impossible not to like everything he does. If the Spurs held a creative management camp, I swear to God I would sign up in like a second.

THEO:  One week with the Spurs and you’d be writing a novel a month, while hosting your own comedy hour on HBO, and finding a way to turn Harry Nilsson Week into a national holiday. Frankly, I’m terrified of Spurs Robot Matt Domino.

DOMINO: 6.  The MVP Race - This year’s race is the most wide open it’s been in years, which has opened up all kinds of circular arguments. In fact, GQ ran a great one just last weekend. The best thing about this year’s MVP race is that it perfectly exhibits the depth and nuance with which basketball is now discussed. I mean, even four years ago, when Rose stole the MVP from LeBron, we weren’t haven’t these kinds of widespread conversations. The leap in information and knowledge in the game of basketball from 2011 to 2015 has been astonishing.

7.  The Rise of Anthony Davis - He’s a freak of nature. He’s set to run roughshod over the league for the next ten years. But (and I don’t want to be a downer here) he’s really got to stay on the court. I’m just saying: he’s been in the league for three years and hasn’t played 70 games in a season yet. It’s nitpicky—since they’re heading to the Playoffs—bit its true.

THEO: For that matter, he also hasn’t plucked a single eyebrow yet. Direct relationship? I’ll let history be the judge.

DOMINO: 8. The Bucks! - OK, so they should technically be part of #3; and, yes, they have trailed off over the last half of the season, but this is my #1 Must Watch Team for 2015-2016. The Greek Freak, Jabari, MCW (still not sure if he’s good), Henson, Middleton. This team is comprised of freakish athletes. I’m VERY interested in what they do in the Playoffs.

9. Hassan Whatside? - Yeah, that’s right, I’m a Heat fan as long as Dwayne Wade is on the Heat. Whiteside coming out of left field this season was a true delight. I mean his season ranged from awful on-court antics to Bob Cousy comparing him to Bill Russell! In the last few games, his low post moves have looked fluid and legitimate. If he can buy in to the Heat and the way of the Miami Mafia, the Heat could be dangerous next season. Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh, Whiteside, 2015 Lottery Pick, McRoberts and Chalmers. That’s not a bad top 8.

THEO: I’m 97% certain Hassan Whatside has appeared in a short-lived role in at least one of the awful NBA-themed novels I’ve written in the past three years. But yes, the Heat are primed to be the 3-seed in the East next season IF Wade and Bosh can stay healthy and Whiteside doesn’t decide to quit basketball to pursue his dream of moving to Paris and becoming the world’s tallest mime (I told you it was an awful novel).  

10. The Atlanta Hawks  - They would have been higher, but it appears that their streak of good luck is running out—no thanks to the NYPD.

The Hawks played beautiful, smart, selfless basketball for much of the year. Their reliance on a system as well as taking three pointers and high-efficiency shots both displayed why the NBA is great right now and also why it is in danger of becoming homogenized. I’m not saying that homogenization is bad when that means teams are constantly moving the ball, looking for the open man and taking smart shots—its just something I’m keeping an eye on.

300. The Cavaliers - A lot of unnecessary drama. A lot of LeBron exhibiting his worst characteristics. And now it looks like they are getting just the right amount of luck that any NBA Champion needs on their road the title. Ugh.

THEO: Not to blow sunshine up your ass but that was a great list. Especially, since it ended with the Cavs. At least when LeBron went to Miami it created, as you said, a basketball science experiment. Meanwhile, this year’s Cavs team seems content to bring basketball back to the 1-on-1, your turn, my turn, basketball of the early 2000s. At his best, LeBron is one of the most creative, dominant players in NBA history. At his worst, he’s asking waiters to cut his steak for him and quitting on his team for two weeks so he can “rest” in Miami.

Plus, there’s the issue of the A$$hole Formerly Known As Kevin Love. What do you make of his situation? Agree with the popular sentiment that he stays if they win it all, leaves if they don’t?

DOMINO: I honestly don’t know what to make of Kevin Love. This was a bad season for him from a PR perspective. He came off as overly sensitive and moody when complemented against LeBron. LeBron likes to position himself as getting along with everyone, but it has become clear that he and Love certainly don’t jive.

Yet, on the other hand, you kind of have to give Love the benefit of the doubt. Cleveland has not been using him correctly. Even Miami allowed Bosh to be more active in the post and at the elbows. Love has been relegated to a spot up shooter, which is certainly good for spacing in many respects, but is that really how you want to alter the playing style of a guy who was one of the Top 10 players in the league last year? By turning him into a specialist, rather than asking him to make certain sacrifices, but still finding moments and ways to play to his strengths?

I think if the Cavaliers win the title, he stays. I think if they lose in the Conference Finals or Finals with him prominently involved in all aspects of the series, he stays. If they lose and he underperforms or seems uninvolved, then he’s heading to Los Angeles.

To be continued in Part Two where we give our picks for the End of Season Awards and Playoff predictions.

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