Evaluating teams in the NBA D-League normally offers more than enough of a challenge thanks simply to the high level of player movement occurring throughout the season. But the events of the last week have managed – in the best way possible – to take that to a whole new level as we head into the D-League’s second season. An emigration of productive bigs out of the top half of the bracket may throw a monkey wrench into the playoff picture.
Earl Barron started 47 games in the middle for the Iowa Energy this season, gave the team better than 16 points and 10 rebounds a game and anchored the top-ranked defense (102.2 points allowed per 100 possessions as of last week) of the league’s best regular season team. On Friday, Barron got the call to join the New York Knicks on their West Coast trip. Congratulations, Earl!
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Dwayne Jones dominated the glass this season in Austin, posting 16 rebounds to go with his 17 points per game (on nearly 60 percent shooting from the field) in 48 starts in the pivot for third-seeded Toros. That this team ranked second in offensive rebound rate this season is largely a testament to Jones’ work. After a couple of close-but-no-cigar situations with NBA teams earlier this season, Jones finally got his well-deserved call-up on Monday to Phoenix. Congratulations, Dwayne!
Alexander Johnson made just 22 appearances for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, but his presence had plenty do with the team’s 16-6 record in those games and the Sioux Falls’ sizzling stretch run. He dominated the paint at the power forward spot, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds and getting to the foul line with astonishing regularity: Despite taking only 268 field goal attempts, Johnson took 264 free throws. For the season, exactly nine players in the D-League took more total free throws than Johnson. Not average per game. Total. Their games played totals: 48, 42, 49, 50, 33, 50, 36, 50, 47. The man knows how to draw contact. On Monday night, ESPN.com‘s Marc Stein reported that Johnson will try out with the Houston Rockets sometime this week, and the team is expected to sign him thereafter. While we’ll hold off the congratulations here in the name of some good old-fashioned jinx avoidance, this certainly sounds like a step in the right direction for Johnson.
All of this is terrific news for three of the finest members of the D-League’s 2009-10 crop. Let there be no doubt: The D-League’s primary role is to get players ready for the next level, and those players’ ultimate goal is getting the call from the NBA. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of that.
But, of course, for those of us (scribes included!) remaining focused on the D-League, the question remains: Where does all this leave us for the best-of-three first round of the 2010 D-League playoffs? Click through the jump for my analysis of the first-round matchups as well as picks from the Digest staff with the caveat that our all-star weekend projections didn’t pan out quite as we had planned.
(1) Iowa Energy vs. (7) Utah Flash
As mentioned above, the top-seeded Energy will play without starting center Earl Barron. That said, Energy coach Nick Nurse has done a fine job of adjusting for call-ups throughout the season, dealing successfully with the back-and-forth movement of currently departed Othyus Jeffers and Cartier Martin as well as assignments and recalls of the Suns’ Taylor Griffin. While Barron’s loss may prove the biggest challenge yet, Nurse’s team has been committed to defense all year regardless of who took the floor (again, their defensive rating of 102.2 led the league). The Energy also have the series’ best player in do-it-all point guard Curtis Stinson, who despite his own high turnover volume leads an offense that did a terrific job of taking care of the ball this season: The Energy gave the ball away on just 15.2 percent of their possessions, best in the league.
The Flash finished the season winners of five of their last six, and Orien Greene exceeded my expectations for him this season. Always good to see a D-League team with a couple of former Celtics on it (Gabe Pruitt is back, too!). We know Andre Ingram can really shoot it as well. But with Dontell Jefferson long gone due to injury, I don’t know that this team has the firepower or difference-makers to take down the league’s top seed.
Weinman: Energy in three
Hubert: Energy in two (I agree with Steve that the injury to Jefferson hurts Utah a lot. The loss of Earl Barron will hurt the Energy, but I don’t think it will cost them in the first round. Curtis Stinson has his detractors, but he’s been the man running point guard for the team with the best record in the league all year and putting up solid numbers along the way. I think Iowa finds a way to steal game one on the road before closing it out in two.)
Kolsky: Flash in three (Tweeted this earlier and I’ll stick by it, even though all the points made by Steve and Matt #1 are valid. Orien Greene impressed me thoroughly in person – he plays like a guy with NBA experience, and I think it settles his team. Stinson is great, but I like all the three-point shooting for Utah and I think the loss of Barron is a bit too much to overcome.)
(2) Rio Grande Valley Vipers vs. (6) Reno Bighorns
The underdog Bighorns roar into the playoffs with seven straight wins. Rod Benson had a terrific second half. Also, as Scott Schroeder notes, RU favorite Des Farmer is playing well, and Richie Frahm is shooting the ball with all kinds of accuracy (47.2 percent on threes in 16 appearances). But beware the soft schedule! Prior to beating Tulsa in the season’s final game – which was played after the playoff field was set – Reno swept a trio of two-game sets: on the road against Los Angeles (the D-Fenders finished with the West’s worst record), at home against Maine (the Claws fell into a bizarre tailspin, losing six straight and nine of their last 13 to miss the playoffs on the season’s final weekend) and at home against Albuquerque (the T-Birds finished the season 1-16 after Carlos Powell departed overseas).
Further, in addition to the fact that RGV was, you know, really, really good all season, Scott has put a good scare into me with his theorizing that the Rockets may assign either former Vipers beast Mike Harris or potentially Alexander Johnson (if the team does sign him) back to Rio Grande Valley during the playoffs (UPDATE: Voice of the Vipers (and head of basketball ops) Alex Del Barrio reminds us that Johnson wouldn’t be eligible for assignment of called up). With Antonio Anderson and Will Conroy still doin’ work at the guard spots, this team (and its top-ranked offense) is dangerous enough to take the series as is. Adding one of those two forwards would really tip the scales.
Weinman: Vipers in three
Hubert: Vipers in three (The Bighorns are riding the league’s longest winning streak at seven games, and it may even continue in game one in Reno. But something tells me the Vipers may have help on the way from their close-knit affiliate in Houston. Even if they don’t get an assignment between now and the time this series tips off, I think RGV’s backcourt of Antonio Anderson and Will Conroy will make the difference for the Vipers to advance.)
Kolsky: Vipers in two (I saw RGV enough and with enough different lineups that I know this team runs, scores big and defends hard no matter who is there. Even if neither Mike Harris nor Alexander Johnson end up on the squad, they will run the Bighorns to death and should be able to handle them. Reno closed strong, but the Vipers were the better team all year long [3-1 head to head] and I see no reason that will change now.)
(3) Austin Toros vs. (5) Dakota Wizards
Not sure what to make of this one at all. Dakota finished well, but the Wiz also had their share of bottom-feeders to beat up on during the latter portion of the schedule. I like Mo Baker’s game, but I don’t like his team’s offense quite as much without the departed (and efficient) Romel Beck. But for as well-managed as Austin is, we really haven’t seen much of the Toros without Jones this season, and their (read: Jones’) ability to create second chances played a big role in the team’s ranking at second in offensive efficiency. With Jones out and Scott wondering if Curtis Jerrells will at least temporarily be a Spur with George Hill hurt (not exactly a far-fetched idea), I’m not sold on the Toros here.
When they met last month in Dakota, the two teams split a two-game set, with the Wiz winning a blowout by 18 and then dropping a one-point nail-biter. The Wizards are 21-4 at home this season, and I like them to take that first game and sneak out with one of two in Austin.
Weinman: Wizards in three
Hubert: Toros in three (This was probably the toughest call for me. The call-up of Dwayne Jones definitely swayed my feelings away from Austin a bit. However, I think Romel Beck’s departure impacts the Wizards just as much. The Spurs point guard situation is in flux with Hill getting injured but Tony Parker returning, so I don’t know where Curtis Jerrells will be. Let’s say he’ll be with Austin and the Toros will move on in a tough series.)
Kolsky: Toros in three (I think Matt #1 said it all – assuming Jerrells is there, Austin should be able to get it done. The loss of Jones hurts Austin a little more than losing Beck hurts Dakota, but the Toros are another team that has done a great job of maintaining an identity and success with a number of different versions of their roster.
(4) Sioux Falls Skyforce vs. (8) Tulsa 66ers
Of course, so much here depends on what goes on with Johnson over the next couple of days. That said, the fact that the series opens with a back-to-back on Thursday and Friday can’t be encouraging for Skyforce fans. Regardless of how the tryout goes with Houston, it’s hard to imagine him being back in time to play in Thursday’s afternoon matinee, and I don’t know that Friday would be any guarantee either. As good as Sioux Falls is with Johnson in the lineup, as much as I enjoy watching some of their other bigs (Greg Stiemsma and Raymond Sykes especially) and as much as the recent addition of guard Kirk Penney may help (yes, he did really go for a total of 71 points in back-to-back games recently), Tulsa will be a tough out without Johnson. Mustafa Shakur has done a terrific job at the point all season, and this team has its own share of size, courtesy of assignee Byron Mullens as well as DeVon Hardin and Latavious Williams (not to mention that DJ White could be back on assignment at any time). As a sign of my faith in Johnson’s ability to earn himself a spot at the NBA level, I’m picking against his D-League mates here.
Weinman: 66ers in three
Hubert: 66ers in three (They may technically be the eighth seed, but as long as Tulsa still has Mustafa Shakur and Byron Mullens on their roster, two NBA talents, I think they will oust the red-hot Skyforce. Sioux Falls won’t be the same if Alexander Johnson is called up as expected.)
Kolsky: Skyforce in three (This is the toughest call for me, because of the reasons Steve & Matt #1 mention – Tulsa is great for an 8 seed, which is why Sioux Falls got stuck playing them, and Johnson is a beast who probably will be on the Rockets. That said, I watched the Skyforce without Johnson win two in Bakersfield to end the season and their little cult of Wisconsin grads [Penney, Stiemsma and Joe Krabbenhoft] really plays well together and is good for 50+ points between them. I’m also a huge fan of PG David Bailey, who is one of the few players in the D-League who consistently looks to pass the ball as his first option and I think really does a great job of keeping the rock moving. Shakur, Williams & Co. should make it a tough three-gamer, but I’ll take Sioux Falls.)
Feel free to agree or disagree with us below and post your own picks in the comments section!