April 28, 2016

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Round 1

The first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs is over, with Game 7 of the last series occurring on the same night as Game 1 of the 2nd Round.  Odd, that.

Anyway, here were my first round picks:

Stars in 5, Blackhawks in 6, Ducks in 5, Kings in 6
Panthers in 6, Lightning in 7, Capitals in 5, Rangers in 6 

Here's what actually happened:

Stars in 6, Blues in 7, Predators in 7, Sharks in 5
Islanders in 6, Lightning in 5, Capitals in 6, Penguins in 5

That didn't go as expected.  With 3-of-8 matchups picked correctly, I was way off from what happened, and I stunk compared to last season.  What can I say, I was a year early on the Blues and Islanders.

We learned quite a bit from the 1st round.  In the West, there is complete and total anarchy, as the defending champions are out, as are the Kings.  It's hard to pick a favorite, because these teams all have glaring issues and share a sense of playoff futility as none of them have had sustained success in the playoffs in years.  For example, the Stars have no #1 goaltender.  Lehtonen and Niemi are both inconsistent.  The Stars can score a ton, which is helpful because they'll have to keep scoring when their goaltenders are as bad as they are. The Blues are in strange new territory, while the Predators have inexperience and a somewhat shaky goaltender in Rinne.  The Sharks have an excellent top line and a solid goaltender in Martin Jones, though their depth showed up in the 1st round it could be considered questionable as the other three forward lines got out-shot and outscored routinely in the regular season.

In the East, we have more familiar faces.  Though the Islanders made the 2nd round for the first time since 1993, the other three teams are more experienced.  The Lightning are down a couple of key players, yet thanks to Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Jonathan Drouin, aren't really missing the injured guys.  The Capitals took six games to beat the Flyers and thus look overrated, as if they weren't massively overrated coming in.  Washington is known for choking hard in the playoffs and I expect them to lose to Pittsburgh. Speaking of the Penguins, they looked a lot better against the Rangers this year than they did last year.  I guess having a full complement of defensemen is important.

How will the 2nd Round go?  Well, based on the 1st Round, I have no clue.  That said, here are my picks:

Stars in 6, Sharks in 6
Lightning in 6, Penguins in 5

No matter who wins, though, I expect a compelling 2nd Round.  So far, the Islanders put up four goals on Ben Bishop and won Game 1 5-3.  Given that Bishop is a finalist for the Vezina trophy, he'll play better.  Though, really, he can't get much worse.

Enjoy the 2nd Round, everyone!

2015-2016 Houston Rockets: They Stunk, The End

TL; DR: this team stunk.

The season began on 10-28-2015 in Houston against the Denver Nuggets.  An improved team, but not one expected to contend as the Rockets were. The previous season's playoff success was much-referenced and was probably an albatross hanging from the team's necks.

That first loss was a bit of a surprise.  Along with it came what Rockets fans would come to rue as the recurring theme that will define this era of basketball for the team: a lack of effort, especially defensively.

Perhaps I and others overrated the ability or potential of the team to play defense at a high level.  After all, with Dwight Howard injured for various parts of the 2014-2015 season, the team won with defense, transition offense, and the general brilliance of James Harden.  With Howard and Harden healthy in 2015-2016, the results and the effort were not there.

Looking back at this season, there were very few games where the Rockets flat-out dominated the other team.  The big one that sticks out is when they played an undermatched Memphis team late.  Other than that, the Rockets rarely hit that gear where they played excellent team basketball.  They usually looked like they were a couple baskets away from getting blown out on many nights and took horrible losses to moribund teams like Brooklyn on multiple occasions.

And then we come to the main difficulty the Rockets had, which was sticking with the teams at the top of the conference.  Though they split with the Thunder, they went 1-3 against the Spurs (bad) and 0-4 against the Warriors (worse).  The Warriors really are a special case for the Rockets.  Much like previous incarnations of the Rockets had trouble beating certain Western Conference opponents (e.g. Seattle during the 90's, Phoenix in the mid-00's, the Lakers and Spurs in general) this team just seems to be snakebit against the Warriors and have yet to be constructed in a way to give them a challenge.

In the last two seasons combined (including playoffs), the Rockets are 2-15 against the Warriors.  Both wins occurred in the playoffs and were basically flukes.  The Rockets don't belong on the same court with the Warriors, a fact that is particularly frustrating because their styles of play aren't all that dissimilar.  The Warriors just do it a lot better.

Stylistically, the Rockets seem to be ill-matched when it comes to personnel and philosophy.  They want to restrict shots taken to 3-pointers and anything in the paint.  It doesn't work, because the team shoots inefficiently.  It doesn't matter if the shot itself is "more efficient" than a midrange jumper (which the team, ironically, shoots better than the long-distance shots) if the chance of it going in the basket are so low.  The Rockets have lacked consistent 3-point shooting and are generally reduced to gunning three-point shots by opposing teams who realize that if the inside game is cut off, that's all the Rockets can do.  The Rockets limit themselves on offense and usually don't move the ball or themselves in order to get better shots.

The selfishness of the team is concentrated in its two "stars", Harden and Howard.  While Harden is a legitimate NBA player and probably top 10 in terms of offense, he leaves a lot to be desired on defense.  I wonder whether the Rockets can build around him and be successful.  This season really leaves me thinking that it is not possible.

Howard, on the other hand, despite everyone in the media and on the team saying he needed the ball more, was basically an afterthought.  His personal success often had little or nothing to do with the team's success.  Sure, he could put up double-doubles (10 or more points and rebounds in one game) with just about anybody, but the stats were ultimately meaningless in the face of the teams winning percentage.  Since he is a free agent to-be, it seems likely that he'll be on the move again, in search of that elusive team that fits him to his lofty specifications.  To the team that signs him, all I can say is good luck.

The rest of the team left a lot to be desired too, for the most part.  I will single out Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley as guys who got minutes and did valuable things with them.  They were a couple of guys who played hard and put in the requisite effort pretty much every night.  I'm not sure what the team has in recent draft pick Sam Dekker, but if he can shoot and put in a solid effort on defense, he should be an important piece of next year's team.  The same goes for Montrezl Harrell; though I don't expect any heroics from long-range, I think his constant effort will be something the team should utilize more often than it did this season.  For whatever reason, Harrell didn't get on the floor a whole lot in situations that actually mattered, and the team suffered for it because he was one of a precious few that seemed to give a damn.  I hope Jason Terry comes back, but he deserves better, really.

The great hope I have for next year is Clint Capela.  Actually, you could add Donatas Motiejunas to that as well.  Assuming that both are healthy, I think both should develop into good NBA players.

While this season was disappointing, the team is not without talent.  Whoever coaches the team next season, I hope they better utilize Harrell and keep Capela and Motiejunas in the rotation.  With any luck, Dekker will be healthy and able to contribute on a nightly basis.  And maybe Harden will be better on defense while he torches other teams on the offensive end.

There's still hope to be had, but any success in 2016-2017 will be dependent on consistent effort on both ends.  If that doesn't happen, another season like this one will be on offer, and I'm not particularly interested in reruns.