Print and Go Back ESPN.com: TrueHoop [Print without images]

Monday, May 7, 2007
Who's Going to Pick Against This Guy?


Baron DavisWe watched, slack-jawed, as Golden State humiliated the purported best team in the NBA.

Now, we have to decide what to take from that.

Of course, nobody freakin' has any idea, which became clear as I was collecting picks from the statistical experts in the 2007 TrueHoop Stat Geek Smackdown.

The stat experts are split down the middle: three for Golden State and three for Utah. Two say Utah in five, one says Utah in seven, three say Golden State in six. (My mom is the tie-breaker, choosing Golden State in six in large part because, she says, a guy she works with "lives, eats and breathes Utah, and I never side with him.")

For the record, betting lines favor Utah somewhat in the series.

But ... is Golden State awesome? Have they proved that? By some arithmetic, is Golden State like 20% better than Dallas and therefore right in the hunt for the NBA title?

Maybe.

ESPN's John Hollinger just published an Insider story that examines team strength over the last part of the season and the playoffs. Based on that, Golden State is the second-best team left standing -- after San Antonio.

On the other hand, I can't shake the feeling that there's wisdom in the "playoffs as rock-paper-scissors" school of thinking, emailed from TrueHoop reader Shourin:

Now there is more differentiation in the way teams play; with the rule changes allowing zone defenses and the influence of the non-American playing styles. The match-up zone makes Don Nelson that much more Don Nelson. Dirk, as an example of a the neo non-American big men, makes Dallas' style an even harsher contrast to that of the Rockets, who use a classic big man.

There have always been teams that play fast and play slow, but I can't remember a time when there has been this level of variation.

What results is that the playoffs (like boxing) have become a question primarily of matchups, not "better" team. Dallas would probably be this year's champion if the Spurs had played Golden State in the first round. And, in the East, there's a reasonable chance of New Jersey winning the conference championship. The Bulls match up well with Miami and Detroit (despite the recent blowout), and get a regular beat-down by the Nets. The changes over the last ten years have altered what it means to be a "good" team. It's not just a question of parity.

By that analysis, Dallas might have been an excellent team -- as we all knew -- but Golden State was that style's particular kryptonite. Might another team -- like Utah -- be the corresponding kryptonite for Golden State? Maybe.

Or, to put it another way, if Dallas played Golden State a hundred times, might they have eventually learned a new technique to beat Golden State consistently? Could be! (ESPN's David Thorpe told me several things that he thought Dallas was not doing well -- like not taking advantage of the massive mid-range gap in Golden State's zone, not maximizing Nowitzki's potential as a screener to either spring a guard free or earn Dirk single coverage, and perhaps most importantly not employing a former college coach who is a veteran of zone-busting.)

I believe that, healthy, Phoenix and San Antonio are the two remaining teams that are just a little better. Especially San Antonio, which is why they have long been my pick as this year's champion.

Beyond those two, I could picture almost any of the remaining teams moving on. I'm souring, big-time, on making playoff predictions (my first round was mired in mediocrity: I missed on Miami, Dallas, and Houston) in part because I found they were a big distraction from much more important stuff. I made the picks because that's something people do. What I'm much more interested in than seeing my picks do well is seeing great games, no matter where they come from.

And the only team I'm really rooting for at this point is Phoenix, because they are so fun to watch, and for the same reason Golden State a little too. (I pray those two square off in the Western Conference Finals.)

All of this is a fancy way of delaying making my own pick in this series, which is, after much agonizing ... Utah.

The main reason for that is Carlos Boozer, who is quick, strong, and knows how to get himself good looks against speedy defenders. Another reason is Deron Williams, who gives Utah a lot of options in late-game situations: he can find the open hot hand, or he can make the shot himself. The x factor, for me, is that it seems like just maybe Andrei Kirilenko is getting his mojo back. He always had the length and speed to hang with the likes of Golden State, but if he's hitting that outside jumper with confidence like he was at the end of the Houston series, then I think Utah has the edge -- especially as Baron Davis and/or Matt Barnes may be entering the series banged up.

(Photo: Getty Images)

UPDATE: Kevin Pelton who is one of our stat experts and works for the SuperSonics' website loves the rock-paper-scissors school of thought and adds:

San Antonio beats Phoenix (strongest), Dallas beats San Antonio (last year, at least), Phoenix beats Dallas (with Amaré, that is). For the record: San Antonio beat Phoenix 2-1 in the regular season, but lost 3-1 to Dallas. Dallas and Phoenix split 2-2 and had the two classics.