Andrew Bynum’s health really, really matters here.
As of a few hours before Game 1, he is scheduled to play — and start — but if he is for some reason unable to play at least close to his normal minutes in this series (because of a recent, small meniscus tear) then Utah might have a shot at knocking off Los Angeles. Otherwise, the Pau Gasol/Bynum/Lamar Odom/Ron Artest front line will just be too big, too long and too punishing for Carlos Boozer, Paul Millsap and the Kyrylo Fesenko/Kosta Koufos two-headed “monster” to handle. There is also talk of Andrei Kirilenko practicing tomorrow, so if he can come back this series and play effectively, that would help.
With all these variables, it’s hard to be certain about anything, but I would expect the Lakers to grind this one out regardless. They play great defense when they want to and this length/size advantage will be even pronounced against the short Jazz front court. Booz and Millsap thrive in space and with all the long arms and legs clogging up the inside, their skills probably won’t be enough to overcome their genetic short-comings.
Deron Williams played out of his mind in the first round — and for most of the past three years. This will continue. The abuse he will give Derek Fisher will be comical and even when Kobe, Artest, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown try to stick him, his quickness off the bounce and historically good crossover (easily the best in the NBA currently) will allow him to get into the paint and clear space for unperturbed pullback jumpers. Much like everything Deron does, it will be great to watch.
But Kobe, being Kobe, will be just as impressive on the other end. So, in short, brilliance counterbalances brilliance.
Given their solid play in the first round, CJ Miles and Wesley Matthews should give the Jazz an overall back court advantage, as LA has little more to offer outside of Fish doing Fish stuff (a few big shots late, spacing, savvy knowledge of the triangle, non-box score reliability). Shannon and Farmar could theoretically score some points, but that seems unlikely given how much of a six-man team Phil’s bunch has become. Throw in at least one hot-shooting night from Kyle Korver, and it seems pretty obvious that, if Utah wins this series, a lot of it will have to do with its guard play. It does seems odd to give a team of Deron and a few other relative nobodies a clear advantage here when going against a team with Mamba, but so it is. And so it shall be. If the Lakers have to play the Spurs, Manu and Tony will, metaphorically, rip LA’s face off.
But as much as I love Booz and Millsap, they’re just not 7-feet tall. And Bynum and Pau are. Gutty, active, skilled rebounders, Booz and ‘Sap will not get destroyed on the glass. But they will get destroyed in the post. If Bynum is healthy enough to hit jump hooks, catch lobs and mop up putbacks, and if the Lakers stay committed to pounding it inside (which they often, for God’s know what reason, do not) then there really isn’t much Jerry Sloan can do to stop the onslaught. Throw in some block work by Kobe and Lamar, and the Lakers should just be able to abuse the Jazz all series long.
Being a total narcissist, I always maintain an affinity for any player that I thought was going to be really good before that opinion became mainstream.
When this happened with dudes like Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Josh Howard, for instance, it was indeed self-affirming and gave me that nice Campbell’s soup, warm-and-fuzzy feeling. But the real crack-level, unwarranted ego boost comes from the pleasure I get from watching the less-heralded players that I thought were gonna be sick like Rajon Rondo, Bruce Bowen, Devin Harris, Trevor Ariza or Roger Mason, Jr. In those cases, it’s like a GM pulling Manu or Gilbert in the second round, so you latch on even more and they sort of forever become “your boys.”
(As a side note, one very convenient aspect of this whole phenomenon is that confirmation bias allows you to feel even more clairvoyant since it’s always easy to forget about didn’t-pan-out guys like John Wallace, Rashad McCants and Tony Allen — although Luol Deng annoying remains an ever-lasting Macbeth red spot who just sits there being mediocre, staring at me with his disapproving eyes of failure. And just for the record, my current low-profile crew is Thaddeus Young, Julian Wright, Brandon Bass, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Linas Kleiza in case you wanna scold me with mockery/send me a congratulatory email in two years.)
But for me, no one has exemplified this concept as much as Paul Millsap is doing right now.
See, I’m a Pacers fan. But for each of the past four seasons, I’ve been forced to sort of “adopt” a second team simply cause following Indy is so infinitely depressing that a dude needs something uplifting to counteract the sadness. It’s not that I’m really rooting for this second team or anything. It’s just that I wind up watching close to half their games and really familiarizing myself with their style.
Last year was CP3 and the Hornets. The year before was Utah. (Been going with the Spurs this year, although the emergence of Danny Granger has lessened the need for a major side project somewhat.)
Even two years ago, it was evident that Millsap was much more than simply a bench specialist. I found myself always wishing Sloan would adapt his philosophy and flip up his lineups a little more so he could run out an AK-47, Millsap, Boozer front line (no dig on Sloan, just saying he’s rigid). Still, even in 18 minutes per game as a rookie, Millsap proved an elite rebounder, an above-solid defender and a capable scorer. Mostly, he was relying on putbacks and dump-offs from Deron Williams’ penetration, but even in those instances he showed that he had some savvy elusiveness and crafty agility that helped him get buckets. The occasional half-hook or or drop-step/seal-off only furthered my interest and sold me on his future.
Anyway, the real point here is that Kevin Pelton has a post today on Basketball Prospectus talking about how Millsap is the quintessential example of a player whose career statistics showed that he was gonna be a beast if simply given the minutes. He’s calling it the Millsap Doctrine, basing it on some discussions/analysis among himself, Tom Ziller of Sactown Royalty and John Hollinger of ESPN, and stating essentially that:
Last year, the Jazz played nearly as well with Millsap at power forward as with Boozer on the floor, the latter holding an advantage of about two points per 100 possessions. Utah scored better with Boozer, but defended better with Millsap.
The Jazz’s differential this season with Millsap in the lineup–+6.2 points per 100 possessions–is very impressive considering the other injuries that have plagued the team. Based on that, it’s hard to argue Utah has suffered any drop-off by moving Millsap into Boozer’s spot.
Obviously, Utah’s injury-plagued 2008-09 season is tough to handicap statistically.
But Pelton also sums up just about everything you need to know about how Millsap is playing this season in one paragraph.
On Saturday night, Paul Millsap did not record a double-double, and its absence was the story. The Utah Jazz forward had a relatively short 22-minute night in his team’s easy 17-point win over the Detroit Pistons. The lack of run snapped a 19-game double-double streak, the longest in the NBA since 2006. In 21 starts in place of All-Star power forward Carlos Boozer–who will miss at least another month after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery last week–Millsap has averaged 18.0 points and 11.5 rebounds, earning some All-Star talk of his own.
Utah’s season is clearly not going as planned with the early season ankle injury that Deron is only now recovering from and, now, the prolonged absence of Boozer. But the team is still 23-15 (and 6-2 in its last eight games) while playing in the League’s second toughest division. How the Jazz fair in the second half of the season will likely hinge on two things: (1) Boozer’s ability to return healthy, and (2) Millsap’s ability to prove he can keep this up now that teams are ready for him.
Whether or not that happens, the Jazz probably will fall short of their preseason Finals hopes. Then, Boozer will opt out of his deal this summer and become a free agent. Rhetorically, he’s prepared to re-sign in Utah for the right price, but with Millsap also being a restricted free agent, many people are starting to think they should just let Boozer and his higher pricetag walk regardless and see what a team of Millsap and Deron can do for the next four to five seasons.
While that seems a fiscally logical position (presuming you can get Millsap at $10 million a year whereas Booz will run more like $15 million per), I’ll just direct you to Andrew Thell at Empty the Bench, who detailed Utah’s Power Forward Conundrum better than I’m prepared to do.
Ordinarily having two power forwards as efficient and productive as Millsap and Boozer is more of a luxury than a problem. And once Boozer returns from arthroscopic knee surgery, it will be a luxury for Jerry Sloan for the remainder of this season. However, with both players slated to become free agents this offseason and with each passing game serving to inflate Millsap’s pending contract, the Jazz may be forced to pick between the two of them.
Boozer will make roughly $11.5 million this season, and although he has a player option for next year at $12.6 million he has made it clear that he intends to opt out. Meanwhile, Millsap is Utah’s cheapest player this year at just under $800,000, but it’s the final year of his extremely affordable rookie contract and he will be a restricted free agent this summer, one who is sure to garner plenty of interest.
Assuming GM Kevin O’Conner and Co. can’t retain both, who should they keep?
Spoiler alert: He picks Paul.
Funny part is that, my Millsap love notwithstanding, I’d probably still pay Carlos if I was Utah. Then again, (1) I’m not a state full of dry Mormons, and (2) this might just be my subconscious holding out hope for a future forward rotation of Granger, Ariza and Millsap in Indianapolis.