With the 2012 NBA Finals underway, 4 members of the SDS staff break down the series, the players, and the possible outcomes.
1. To feed the media fire: If you had to start a team with either Kevin Durant or LeBron James, whom would you choose?
Daniel Christian (Co-Editor/ Lead Blogger): LeBron James and it’s not really all that close. James is better in literally every single aspect of the game besides shooting. His ability to dominate defensively is something else that truly sets him apart from Durant. KD is an improving defender and playmaker, but he has a ways to go before he gets to James’ level. LeBron will never be the pure shooter that KD is, but that really doesn’t matter when he attacks the basket with reckless abandon, has a higher field goal percentage (higher eFG% too), smothers the opposition’s best player defensively, rebounds and passes more and better than any wing player (PGs, SGs, and SFs) in the league, and has the athleticism of Pegasus on steroids. His ability to completely dominate the game on both sides of the floor is remarkable, and while Durant is 4 years younger, I’d start a team with LeBron every day of the week. You can talk about leadership and intangibles all you want, but lets not forget that those perspectives are often a product of media coverage. It was only 3 short years ago in 2009 that 6 out of 7 NBA ESPN analysts said James was a better leader on the court than Kobe Bryant. It’s funny how one little decision (pun!) can change everyone’s view (in an unjustified manner). The bottom line is this: people can spew on this intangibles and clutch gene nonsense all they want, but LeBron James is far and away a better basketball player than Kevin Durant.
David Menze (Co-Editor/ Lead Blogger): LeBron James. KD might be a better pure scorer/shooter than LBJ, but LeBron is the most complete basketball player in the world. He can defend any position on the court, knows how to assert himself on the defensive glass, and is one of the better help-side shot blockers in the league; he has a very high basketball IQ, does a great job of facilitating, makes his teammates better, and is a threat to drop 40 points on any given night — there is nothing King James can’t do.
Brad Rowland (Staff Writer): LeBron James. Frankly, the only real argument here is that LeBron is 4 years older than Durant (27 to 23), but I don’t think that is enough to overcome everything else. First, let me say that I am a HUGE Durant fan from top-to-bottom. He can score in more ways than anyone in the league with his long 6’9 frame and unlimited range, his rebounding rate (11.8%) ranks among the top 10 of all the league’s small forwards, and he led the entire league among SF’s in true shooting percentage. Basically, he’s in the discussion for the best offensive player on the planet, he’s increased his rebounding, bettered his defense, and he’s only 23. That said, LeBron is still the best PLAYER on the planet, and I think it’s by a wide margin. He’s 2nd in TS% among 3’s (behind Durant), led the league in PER by nearly 4 points, is an absolutely elite defensive player, and posted a better rebound rate than Durant coupled with nearly double his assist rate. The defensive difference is the biggest thing for me, and athletically, LeBron is on another planet. Give me the monster.
Wesley Morton (Staff Writer): With no hesitation, it’s LeBron James because of how he affects the game positively in so many ways. He has three MVP trophies and is only 27 with many years left in his prime. Everyone cites Durant as being such a great shooter and that it separates him from James, but compare both of their respective field goal percentages in the 2011-12 season and you see LeBron James’ line (.605 TS%, .554 eFG%) is eerily similar to Durant’s (.610 TS%, .547 eFG%). Also, LeBron’s PER dwarfed Durant’s this season (30.7 to 26.2). LeBron also had a significant advantage in assist, rebound, and steal percentages (although Durant has the edge in block percentage, which is frankly surprising). Finally, the prowess LeBron displays on the defensive end with the ability to guard the 1 through 5 positions at an elite level is unparalleled. Durant is undoubtedly the second-best player in the league and is 4 years younger, which has a lot of value, but I question his ability to become a dominant player in all facets of the game like LeBron is now in the coming years.
2. What is the biggest X-factor in this series for the Thunder? For the Heat?
Christian: The biggest X-factor for the Thunder has to be their often offensively challenged bigs, who are still much more efficient than the Heat’s even more offensively challenged bigs. If OKC can get serious production from Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, and the king of +/-, Nick Collison, then there is a legitimate chance that Miami has no shot. While Ibaka, Perkins, and Collison aren’t offensive studs by any stretch of the imagination, they have to capitalize when opportunities arise. Aside from Perkins, who has hands made of sandwiches (still better than Joel Anthony’s hands!), Collison and Ibaka have an opportunity to really punch a hole in Miami’s defense. With Westbrook, Durant, and Harden attacking at every possible opportunity, the Miami bigs will happily rotate to help, leaving their man open. That’s when Ibaka and Collison will get their shots, layups and 15-footers, and they’ll have to make them. For Miami, the X-factor is simply the play of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. You know, at this point, that LeBron is bringing it every night. You don’t know, however, if Bosh (coming back from injury) or Wade (all basketball talents stolen by the Monstars (if you don’t know who the Monstars are, go watch Space Jam right now)) will show up. Wade has to stop settling for jumpers and attack the hoop on isolations, or more importantly, capitalize on post-up opportunities. Bosh has to be more aggressive attacking the rim, because Miami can’t win with nothing but a hobbled spot-up shooter.
Menze: Thunder’s X-factor = home court advantage … Heat’s X-factor = failure.
The Thunder are a lot younger, and as a result, also less experienced than the Heat when it comes to the big stage. OKC’s arena is by far the toughest venue in the NBA for any opposing team to play in (8-0 at home in the playoffs), and when the Thunder’s youth and inexperience rears its ugly head, their rabid fans will be there to help lift the spirits and level of play from their players and help them overcome any adversity. For the Heat, I believe the biggest X-Factor for them is the thought of failure. The Miami Heat can absolutely NOT lose this series — LeBron and the Heat are easily already the most scrutinized player/team in the history of the NBA – if they do lose, LeBron will NEVER be able to live it down. In this series, James has to be great; he has to be clutch; he has to win.
Rowland: For the Thunder, I think it’s Serge Ibaka. A lot of his game in this series will have to do with how he’s deployed by Scott Brooks, but Ibaka’s jump shooting and rim protection are absolutely crucial to OKC’s success. Miami attacks the pick-n-roll with aggressive traps; leaving them open to be beaten up by a good jump shooter in the screener, and Ibaka has shown himself capable of knocking down 15-footers with regularity. That shot will be there, and if he’s given it, I’d expect that he knocks it down. On the defensive end, Ibaka could be matched up with Bosh, which would limit his ability to contest Wade/James at the rim, but if Brooks can find a way to keep him at the cup, he’ll be crucial defensively. On Miami’s side, I think the key is Dwyane Wade. If we forget the offensive end of things (we’ll come back to it), Wade’s transition defense was laughable in the Boston series, and his effort in the half-court wasn’t much better. I would expect Miami to hide him on Sefolosha or Fisher defensively as much as possible, but if OKC deploys the Westbrook/Harden/Durant with 2 bigs lineup in crunch time, Wade would need to guard Harden or Westbrook, and that’s a big edge for OKC. Offensively, Wade has played hero-ball at times in the playoffs, and although it’s clear to most everyone that Miami’s offense flows better through Lebron James, someone needs to remind Erik Spoelstra from time to time.
Morton: Most of the attention is being deservedly thrown at both teams’ respective Big 3’s, but I think the deciding factor will be the play of guys like Mario Chalmers, Derek Fisher, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, and possibly Daequan Cook in their ability to knock down a clutch three late in the game. Many of these finals games have ended with a team double or triple teaming the guy with the ball, forcing them to kick it out to the corner to a wide open shooter. For example, Derek Fisher has hit those clutch shots in the past, but who knows who will step up this postseason?
3. What match-up are you looking forward to most? Who has the advantage in that matchup?
Christian: I think there are several interesting one-on-one matchups, and obviously with this level of star power you’ll get those. You have LeBron and KD, Wade and Westbrook, and Bosh and “Pump Fake And I’m Jumping No Matter What” Ibaka. Having said that, the matchup I’m most looking forward to is the best offensive team against arguably the best defensive team. I feel as if Miami, defensively, can match up against Oklahoma City very well. You put Battier on Durant for the 2nd and 3rd quarters (give KD to LeBron in 1st and 4th, Battier takes Harden 1st and 4th while LeBron takes Harden 2nd and 3rd), you have Wade on Westbrook, and then let the good defensive bigs rotate guarding the awful offensive bigs (it goes both ways in this series). It doesn’t work so much the other way around, though. KD can’t guard LeBron, Ibaka can’t guard Bosh, but I do think they’ll be able to put the clamps on Wade with the combination of Sefolosha and Westbrook. Having said all of that, the Thunder offense is so long (mainly just Durant and Ibaka) and so quick that I fear they’ll pounce on Miami’s inability to get back in transition that was put on full display in the Boston series. I want to see how a jump-shooting team matches up with a team like Miami that closes out every little flick of the wrist. I think it will be interesting, but I think Miami has a marked advantage there.
Menze: The obvious answer here is LBJ vs. KD, but I doubt the Thunder will put Durant on James — they’ll most likely give Thabo Sefolosha the tough assignment of guarding the King. The two match-up’s I’m most excited about is Wade vs. Westbrook & Bosh vs. Ibaka. Wade is a crafty scorer who knows how to get to the hoop, and Westbrook is an energizer bunny with elite athleticism. Westbrook can handle Wade, but it’s going to be very tough for Wade to contain Westbrook. I give Westbrook the slight advantage. Chris Bosh vs. Serge Ibaka is also very intriguing. Bosh’s mid-range shooting game is going to be crucial in this series — if he can knock down the 17-footer consistently, it will help Miami stretch the floor and draw the swat-master Serge I-blocka out of the middle, which gives Wade and James more room to operate and penetrate the lane for easy scores. If Bosh struggles to hit the mid-range jumper, Ibaka will be able to float around the basket and make it a nightmare for any penetrating Miami player. I’ll give the sweet lefty stroke of Bosh the edge though over Dr. Nasty’s big time blocking ability.
Rowland: Other than the obvious Durant-James matchup, my eyes are on Ibaka vs. Bosh. We discussed Ibaka earlier, but the winner of this matchup has a big leg up in the series. Both guys will likely be presented with a myriad of open 15-footers, and the guy who makes more, while holding his own on the glass, will give his team an edge. Also, I’d keep a close eye on the fringe role players of both sides, and their ability to make threes. Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher on the OKC side, against Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Mike Miller on the Miami side could be very important. Normally, role players perform better at home, so I’m interested to see what kind of big shots can be converted by these guys in the opposing team’s building.
Morton: I’m going with an often overlooked aspect of the game in answering Scott Brooks and Erik Spoelstra as the matchup to watch. I give the slight edge to Scott Brooks because he was recently able to outduel the de facto best coach in the league, Gregg Popovich, and has experience winning championships as a player with the Houston Rockets in the mid-90s, so he knows the situation the players are in. Will the Heat be able to go with small lineups like they were in the Boston series? How will the Thunder defend the slashing ability of the Heat, with immediate double teams or quick slides from the post? Is Zone an option for the Thunder? Who defends the Big 3 for OKC other than LeBron and Wade? These are questions that will be answered by the men in suits and the credit or blame will fall squarely on them depending on the results of the series.
4. Who wins the Series and in how many games?
Christian: This is really a tough one. I want to say Thunder in 6 because they are so much more balanced than Miami, but I can’t shake the notion that if Wade gets his talent back from Lil Bow Wow, then Miami suddenly has the most powerful 1-2 scoring punch in the league, and you just can’t overrule that. I’m going to say Miami in 6, only because I don’t think they could win Game 7 in Oklahoma City. They’ll have to capitalize on their first chance at eliminating the Thunder, because if they don’t, it’s all too likely that Durant and Westbrook will explode and win this whole thing.
Menze: Heat win in 7.
Rowland: I’m taking OKC in 7 games. I’ve gone back and forth on this, examining the gauntlet that is OKC’s offense against the high-level defense and all-court brilliance of LeBron and the Heat, but I’ve settled on OKC. I think they have too many weapons offensively, and with Durant penciling in 30 a night, the Westbrook/Harden combo will make enough plays on the perimeter while Ibaka can somewhat thwart the Wade/James combo at the rim. It’s tough to pick against the best player in the league, and I’ll make it a point here to say that if the Heat lose this series, I’d be shocked if it was on LeBron James. I know the track record indicates some spotty play by LeBron in big spots, but he’s been tremendous throughout the playoffs, and took it to a new level in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He’ll average 34/8/8 or something along those lines in the series, but I think the advantage with depth of talent and the better coach lies with OKC, and that’s enough to pick them. Should be a great series.
Morton: Heat in 6. This is not a knock on Kevin Durant and the Thunder crew in any way. Oklahoma City will be a force to be reckoned with for many more years. They just happen to be an extremely young team right now that, with the exception of Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins, has not been this far before. LeBron has been showered with criticism, unwarranted or not, for all that’s happened in his career, and he knows the feeling of an offseason under that scrutiny. There’s no way he goes through that again.