Michael Walton II writes about the Chicago Bulls and the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.
Michael is a student, freelance writer and high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.
Alas, the NBA Playoffs are once again upon us.
Unlike most postseasons, there stands a chance that determining a champion this year could be kind of anticlimactic. The 2014-15 NBA season has been without a doubt been one of the most exciting NBA seasons in the past decade… and maybe ever.
The Most Valuable Player race has been fun, as candidates have fluctuated throughout the season. But, over the second half of the year five legitimate contenders made themselves standout with outstanding play — Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis and LeBron James.
And while the MVP race has set a standard for ultra-competition, this writer would be remiss to not mention how EVERY SINGLE NBA award race is wide-open this year. This simply speaks to the increasing parity in the NBA with more talent spread across to more teams and the steadily increasing talent-level of all athletes in the League.
There is no shortage of Chicago Bulls players who should be up for awards. Jimmy Butler has been a revelation at shooting guard, the average basketball fan could see that Butler has been worthy of Defensive Player of the Year discussion for the entirety of his career, but his transformation into a legitimate scoring threat helped him make the leap to all-star in 2015.
Butler has done the unthinkable this year — shooting more and scoring more, but while also becoming more efficient across the board in all shooting percentages. The fourth-year star had early MVP buzz but injuries eventually derailed his chances, he does have a shot at Most Improved Player, but more on that later.
The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom made a memorable joke about Pau Gasol in the offseason, saying that “Pau Gasol” was “Spanish for Carlos Boozer.” Hilarious, yes, but the statement scared me more than anything at the time because Gasol’s defense was a main concern in his transition to Chicago after years in Los Angeles.
Gasol has eased those fears somewhat in his first all-star season with the Bulls. His 15th NBA season overall, Gasol averaged a career high in rebounds (11.8), finished in the top ten in blocks and led the league in double-doubles (54).
However, Gasol still leaves a bit to be desired on the defensive end. Many of his blocks are a product of the Bulls system that works to funnel opposing ball-handlers into Gasol, who is usually lumbering through the paint on D. But when the opposing team’s action calls for Gasol to close out on stretch bigs, the Bulls usually get burned.
It will be interesting to see in the playoffs how Chicago deals with a Milwaukee team that will clearly look to exploit that weakness, but more on that in my next post (which will breakdown the Bulls’ and Bucks’ first-round matchup).
Nik At (Every) Nite
And the final Bull with a legitimate chance to reel in an award this year is rookie sensation Nikola (or Nikoooooooolllllaaaaaaaa) Mirotic. His start was slow, but team injuries opened up coach Tom Thibodeau’s notoriously tight rotation and in the month of March Mirotic went on quite an impressive tear (notice the similarity to Toni Kukoc at 0:24 in the video).
In the month normally known for college basketball excellence, this former EuroLeague star averaged 21 points and eight rebounds in his official welcome party to the NBA. Mirotic’s offense — specifically the spacing he provides teammates — was the main thing that propped the Bulls up during their most injury-riddled stretch. Mirotic has cooled off considerably since then, he’s had to do more to share with the returning Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, but he is still a top Rookie of the Year prospect, more on this later as well.
Now to the meat and potatoes of this thing. My 23 predictions for the second half of the NBA season were bold for sure, looking back on it I took quite a few reaches, but from February till now a lot has changed in the NBA. After taking an initial update on my Bull-specific prognosticating, here I’m going retrace the balance of my predictions step-by-step.
Then: 1. In the three-way war for the last playoffs spot in the Western Conference, the OKC Thunder will prevail (lest Anthony Davis’s body holds up)
Now: Davis missed 14 games this year, four in the first half of the season and 10 in the second half, but he did play in the crucial final 12 games of the season. So if you look at each and every one of my predictions literally, I actually hit this one right on the head.
This year Davis played the most games of his career (68), but a slight edge in durability wasn’t what fueled his once-in-a-lifetime season. What drove Davis’s incredible year was an offseason that saw him improve his jump shot dramatically. He became (noticeably) more efficient on two-point shots from the 16+ foot range. This helped him increase his scoring average by about four points. New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams has got this team playing great defense, and they take smart shots. The re-emergence of Tyreke Evans as a drive-and-kick force also had a lot to do with the Pels success this year, but the race for eighth in the West went to the last day because of the one-man wrecking crew known as Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook finished this season with the second highest usage rate in NBA history. By the way, that isn’t a typo. He finished the season using up a little over 38 percent of OKC’s possessions. It would be easy to be frustrated with his propensity to go one-on-one if he weren’t leading the league in points per game (28.1) and triple-doubles (11).
Back in February I talked about how the Thunder’s mid-season acquisitions would give them a solid foundation, but this was assuming that former MVP Kevin Durant would be healthy. I was (and still am) so confident in Westbrook and Durant as a dynamic duo that I had them as a dark-horse title contender. But with KD sidelined for most of the season, the Pelicans edged out the Thunder for the last spot.
While many people are predicting the Pels to get slammed by the Golden State Warriors in the first round, I think it will be a bit more entertaining than the one-sided affair people are expecting. If you doubt New Orleans, then you might not have seen AD’s ridiculous performance just to get into the playoffs.
Then: 2. The Milwaukee Bucks will play at least six games in the Playoffs
Now: At the initial post’s time of publication, this was one of my safer predictions. In the 14-15’ season, new Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd did the unthinkable feat of changing the culture of a franchise in one year.
SIDEBAR! J-Kidd is one of my favorite NBA players ever, but as a coach he was more famous for his extra-curricular antics than anything. The funniest thing is that throughout his young head coaching career, Kidd has mostly been uber-successful — he has made the postseason in his first two years as a coach and he helped the team with last year’s worst record win 26 more games. Wow.
The Bucks have made their mark this year by taking baby steps, which means focusing on the fundamentals first. They have the second-best defensive efficiency in the league, allowing 99.3 points per 100 possessions, this is mostly due to the Bucks incredible length and recently established habit of contesting all opposition shots.
The mid-season shake up that saw Milwaukee trade away leading scorer Brandon Knight to bring in Michael Carter-Williams has messed with the team’s continuity but by now they have adjusted pretty well to all the new talent.
As far as how the prediction looks now? Brutal. Because Derrick Rose will still be rusty, so it may take a game or two for the Bulls to hit their stride but them being challenged past a sixth game looks to be a stretch.
The Bucks will still be a tough out because they play defense every night and they only take shots they can make but drawing the Bulls in the first round is within their desired comfort zone. Because of this, it isn’t preposterous to think that the Bucks can steal two games from the Bulls. When you factor in the confidence gained by this win, six games is a safe line.
Then: 3. The San Antonio Spurs won’t repeat as NBA Champions
Now: So this prediction was a result of my annual ‘freak-the-f@%k-out-about-the-Spurs-and-Father Time’ panic attacks. The flaws that I pointed out then had some merit, though I’m not sure where my head was when I suggested Gerald Green could help them (if anything, the Spurs would help him). Either way, my main concern was Kawhi Leonard’s health since he is so obviously the most important player to the Spurs’ success right now.
When I last wrote about Leonard he had missed 18 games, since that point of the season he hasn’t missed a game. At 23 years old, Leonard is the rare Spur with the some bounce, a little “pep-in-his-step” if you will. Yet, the entire San Antonio roster has been peaking at the right time, and they went 11-1 in their last 12 games. But with their impending first round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers approaching fast, I can’t help but look back on a specific statement I made with Zen-like focus.
Michael Walton II on February 22nd, 2015: “The other reason I don’t believe in the Spurs surviving the first three rounds of the playoffs is their obvious lack of athleticism.” My friends always love to give me a hard time about my NBA postseason forecasts, they really believed that pointing out a lack of athleticism in the NBA’s most consistently great roster was silly. I hope they have changed their tune now.
While the Spurs are one of the hottest teams in the NBA once again, they will be facing off right away against the second hottest team in the L in the Clips, who have also won eleven of their last twelve. The Clips are led by a legit MVP candidate who leads the league in assists, they also have the league’s leading rebounder in DeAndre Jordan. The up-tempo pace and general speed of the Clips will push the Spurs to the brink. And to be honest, even if the Spurs win this series, I still don’t think they will have enough left in the tank to win three more series and the title.
Then: 4. Andrew Wiggins will win Rookie of the Year, and he will have Tom Thibodeau to thank
Now: Addressed here.
Then: 5. Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau won’t switch up his starting lineup even though it is obvious that he should
Now: Still feel the same as in my first predictions post.
Then: 6. With George Karl leading the way, DeMarcus Cousins will edge out Jimmy Butler for Most Improved Player
Now: At the time I wrote this Cousins was riding a monstrous beginning to the season before getting viral meningitis and cooling off a little bit. Karl didn’t have a major impact on Boogie’s play beyond letting his play-making skills shine more, the first time all-star had back-to-back triple doubles in one stretch, one of which included a career-high 13 assists.
Cousins’ play has been stellar, and he certainly should be in the conversation for an all-NBA spot, but despite all of this I believe Jimmy Butler will now win the Most Improved Player award. Cousins’ stellar play didn’t result in Ws, while Butler (despite missing some games) ultimately was a close to literal driving force in getting the Bulls to 50 wins.
Then: 7. Count on Reggie Jackson to win at least one NBA Player of the Month Award
Now: Ouch, this is the one that hurts the most. I’ll admit that I have some bias when it comes to Reggie Jackson. I genuinely like the guy, so sue me. But this was a prediction I felt strongly about, and I was only slightly off. Jackson was traded to the Detroit Pistons and adjusted well to having a coach with a high basketball-IQ and two big men capable of pulling their own weight.
Post all-star break Jackson averaged 17.6 points and 9.2 assists a game while having some impressive individual games. With the Pistons, he had his first career triple-double and also posted multiple twenty assists games. Personally, I thought Jackson’s raw numbers would be enough to snag him one POM award, but the last two months were owned by LeBron James in the Eastern Conference. Oh, well. If he lands in the right situation, trust Jackson to truly breakout next year.
Then: 8. The Miami Heat will win a playoff series and Pat Riley will win Executive of the Year
Now: This was was a statement that no one can really call me out on. The Heat were expected to have an obvious drop-off after losing the best basketball player in the world, but I still believed they would be able to piece together a squad capable of making the playoffs in the pitiful Eastern Conference. But an unfortunate issue with Chris Bosh’s health derailed Miami’s season.
Back in February, I still believed the Heat would make the playoffs. Wade was having flashback games like this and meanwhile Hassan Whiteside (wait…let me check on that…yeah…H-a-s-s-a-n ….Whiteside) came out of nowhere and pretty much fried my brain with incredible feats nightly. Luol Deng’s career has pretty much plateaued, though he did manage to increase his efficiency from the field. And add in Pat Riley’s impressive trade for Goran Dragic and I thought that would put them over the top. But the team remained playing at one of the league’s slowest paces while not scoring many points. Good defense just wasn’t enough for the Heat this season.
I struck out on this one, but it will be intriguing to see the makeup of this Miami squad next year.
Then: 9. Lou Williams will win Sixth Man of the Year
Now: Short and sweet here folks. Ain’t a dang thing changed in the race for Sixth Man of the Year. As is usual with this season, there are a plethora of deserving candidates, but Louis Williams is a major reason the 49-win Toronto Raptors are top five in points per game (104 pts/gm). Williams’ impact has been obvious and his play this season put him in the top ten for three-pointers made in a single Raptors season. Great season, and for that, Williams should definitely dethrone reigning Sixth Man Jamal Crawford.
Then: 10. The New York Knicks will win the NBA Lottery
Now: I mean…I don’t really need to analyze this one, do I? The New York Knickerbocks suck. But in other news, this article on Carmelo Anthony second guessing his decision to stay in New York is pretty comical (especially if you’re a Bulls fan).
Then: 11. Draymond Green will win Defensive Player of the Year
Now: I’m sticking with this one as well. Green has been the glue that has held together the Golden State defense (more on that here), his ability to guard so many different players helps Steve Kerr’s switch-heavy scheme thrive. There are plenty of special, individual defensive seasons around the league, but Green is a part of something special in Oakland. He deserves the award.
Then; 12. Derrick Rose will be the Chicago Bulls points per game leader by the season’s end
Now: I briefly addressed a second time here, but to touch on it again, I had a feeling that this prediction was wishful thinking. Rose did finish third in points per game behind Butler and Gasol, but he only played in 51 games. So in the end, I was only slightly off. The opportunity is still there for Rose to lead the team in postseason scoring, but the chances of that still look shaky with Rose missing time sporadically in recent contests.
Then: 13. Damian Lillard will firmly establish himself as the “Most Clutch Player in the NBA”
Now: *Sigh*….I’ll keep this one brief as well. Lillard’s clutch reputation was earned last year during the playoffs. He’s again managed to bring his clutch antics to the table this season, but Lillard didn’t improve much (slightly on defense, I suppose). This prediction wasn’t one that can be tangibly measured, only this postseason will show if Lillard really is the most clutch player in the NBA. And a first round series with the Memphis Grizzlies is the perfect stage for “Lillard Time.”
Then: 14. Stan Van Gundy and Andre Drummond bringing playoff basketball back to Detroit will be the story of the season
Now: Drummond did turn out to have the best season of his career, but it wasn’t enough to carry the Pistons into the postseason. The Eastern Conference was a mess, as shown by three teams from the Atlantic Division making the playoffs, so I won’t apologize for incorrectly guessing who would make the postseason in the East. But it was shocking that after such early success that Stan Van Gundy and crew finished with 50 losses. Oh well, as Cubs fans always say, wait until next year.
Then: 15. Ray Allen will not play in the NBA this season
Now: Correctamundo! Three-point king Ray Allen did not play in the NBA this season. I never cared, but it was entertaining watching teams lineup mid-season for the right to sign a 39-year shooter.
Then: 16. Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett will actually help their new (old?) teams
Now: I loved these two separate moves because they were both feel-good stories, but I was completely off. Neither player had a dramatic effect on their team. KG only played in five games with the Minnesota Timberwolves while Prince was at least somewhat useful in helping shore up the small forward position for Detroit.
Kudos to both guys, you tried your best, but (*in best Jalen Rose voice*) keep gettin’ dem checks!
Then: 17. Steve Kerr will slightly edge out Mike Budenholzer in winning NBA Coach of the Year
Now: Budenholzer has lead Atlanta on quite a run, but Kerr’s season with Golden State has been special. This year the Warriors joined the short list of NBA teams to win 67 or more games (10 to be exact). There were rumblings at the beginning of the year about the Dubs having a chance to break the Chicago Bulls legendary 72-win season record, the fact that Kerr’s group ended up five wins away from this legendary mark is truly remarkable. It was a season basketball fans will never forget and Steve Kerr deserves Coach of the Year for putting his mark on it.
Then: 18. Paul George will play this season.
Now: I was right on this one, though I won’t boast because Indiana had always planned for George to play at some point this season. Unfortunately, during the six games where George was trying to get into a rhythm, he suffered another leg injury. Here is to hoping he has a speedy, effective recovery.
Then: 19. Joel Embiid will play this season.
Now: Nothing much to say here. I’m shocked Embiid didn’t play a minute this season. Either the Philadelphia 76ers organization saw no reason to provide the fans with hope, Embiid’s work ethic fell short or some combination of both factors was at work.
Then: 20. The Cleveland Cavaliers will lose in the first round of the playoffs.
Now: I want to take this time to apologize to my bro Patrenzo Kennedy, who reps Cleveland hard, and completely went off on me when I had this statement published. As a die-hard Bulls fan, Cleveland fans (and especially LeBron James) annoy me and I like for them to only have a certain level of optimism.
As great as they’ve been at their best, there were legitimate flaws within the Cavs, and I expected them to be exploited heavily by the right matchup. Well…the Cavs drew the Boston Celtics in the first round. Let me check to see if the Celtics have a winning record. (Wait, I’m still checking….) No, they don’t. So ignore this prediction.
Then: 21. Interior defense will be the downfall of the Atlanta Hawks
Now: I still don’t think the Atlanta Hawks will win the NBA title. Their offense is amazing, and their defense is sharp, but I can’t pinpoint this to too much other than a gut feeling. Atlanta finished the season ranked 28th in rebounds per game, and in the playoffs controlling the boards becomes a lot more important. As of now, I’m rolling with Chicago or Cleveland in a seven game series against the Hawks (P.S. BEWARE OF BROOK LOPEZ IN ROUND 1!).
Then: 22. The Utah Jazz are only a few seasons away from playoff contention.
Now: This is the prediction I am most proud of, as it is close to coming true. The Jazz took an incredible leap this year and Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward both had great seasons, but the story of the year may have been the “French Destroyer” — Rudy Gobert. Gobert was a one-man wrecking crew when protecting the rim this season, and he finished the season in the top five in blocks per game.
By the way, Utah held opponents to 94.9 points per game, good for first overall in the league. As the Jazz continue to add pieces they will only get better. Very encouraging signs for a team that was only seven or eight games out of contention for the last playoff spot in the loaded West.
Then: 23. Anthony Davis will win the Most Valuable Player Award.
Now: (*Sighs one last time*) Any of the five strong candidates mentioned earlier in this post could win MVP this year. And I really think that Davis did enough this year to win MVP, he was extremely efficient, he made the All-Star team, and won his first playoff berth. Davis’s 30.8 Player Efficiency Rating was enough to bring me to tears, but ultimately Stephen Curry “Wit the shot” deserves MVP. Historic season, historic coach, and amazing year for Curry and crew. Reward the guy for goodness sakes.
All in all, what a year. And now, let the playoffs begin (*drops mic*).
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