NBA Syracuse Orange vs. NBA Arizona Wildcats

Size versus speed. Our next match represents a classic stylistic battle. One team starts a traditional lineup with a seven-footer, flanked by a massive power forward and a “small” forward who weighs 240 pounds. The other team starts no traditional power players, substituting shooting ability and lineup flexibility for size and strength. Which team will enforce their will upon the other? The battle between the NBA Syracuse Orange vs. NBA Arizona Wildcats represents a clash of basketball philosophies.

NBA Syracuse Orange vs. NBA Arizona Wildcats

Key Matchups

Richard Jefferson and Sean Elliott vs. Derrick Coleman – This series may hinge on which team’s forwards adapt better defensively. Arizona will go key stretches of each game hoping to survive with Richard Jefferson guarding Derrick Coleman. Conversely, Coleman will have to get comfortable guarding the perimeter and switching defensively on to smaller, quicker players. How badly will Coleman punish the smaller Wildcats on the block? Can Arizona expose DC on the perimeter and force Syracuse to downsize? Coleman may be better served defensively playing as the five in the series, since…

Rony Seikaly vs. perimeter shooting – …this matchup isn’t going to work out defensively for Syracuse. Seikaly is ill-equipped to extend his defense out to the perimeter, and would be toast when Arizona runs pick and pop with one of their perimeter options and Channing Frye. Syracuse can counter by posting Seikaly up and trying to get Frye into foul trouble, so Arizona can bring in more traditional big men off the bench. This adjustment may also have to occur if and when Syracuse punishes Arizona on the glass, as detailed below.

Two-point field goals vs. Three-point field goals – The game of basketball has evolved to the point that one team is currently averaging over 40 three-point field goal attempts per game in the 2016-17 season (Houston). The three point shot has become the most important weapon in the sport. Expect Arizona to run wild from behind the arc, while Syracuse will try to keep pace with a more traditional offensive attack.

Biggest Mismatches

Syracuse’s rebounding advantage – Arizona is dead in the water in any game where their threes aren’t falling, because Syracuse should own them on the offensive and defensive boards. Seikaly and Coleman were excellent rebounders, which can’t be said for anybody in Arizona’s starting lineup. Arizona has two options to stop the bleeding on the glass: Jordan Hill, a tenacious rebounder with a limited offensive and defensive skill set, and Bison Dele, a less tenacious rebounder who was very skilled offensively and could make the Syracuse big men work defensively. Both players will see a lot of time, but Dele will be particularly busy as Arizona’s sole threatening post-up option. Unless they play together, Syracuse will see plenty of second and third shot opportunities on offense, and will limit Arizona’s attempts on the other end of the court.

Arizona’s three-point advantage – Each team has a clear path to victory. If Syracuse can slow the pace and make this a half-court battle, Dave Bing, Carmelo Anthony, and their superior rebounders should make them victorious. Arizona will play uptempo, and bomb from long-range with Jason Terry, Mike Bibby, Channing Frye, Gilbert Arenas, Sean Elliott, Damon Stoudamire, and the NBA’s all-time leader in three-point field goal percentage Steve Kerr leading the charge. If several of these players are knocking down their shots, Syracuse will have a difficult time keeping up.

Arizona’s depth – Arizona has quality depth throughout their bench, and will use a variety of options each game. Several of their bench players, such as Mike Bibby and Sean Elliott, are as good as the players who start above them, and they’ll utilize a hot-hand approach throughout the matchup. Syracuse has a clear drop off whenever they turn to their inferior second unit. Expect Danny Schayes and Billy Owens to earn the bulk of their bench minutes, with the other players mixing in as needed, but Syracuse’s starting lineup will carry a heavy burden in each game.

X-Factor

Evolution of NBA basketball – One key aspect of this tournament is that modern-day rules are in effect. This should be a huge advantage for Arizona, who will benefit from less hand-checking on the perimeter on offense, and more creative ways to guard post players on defense. Non-traditional, smaller lineups are also in vogue, though certain teams, including the incomparable Spurs, manage to thrive with traditional, bigger lineups.

Results

Throughout their history, Syracuse Orange alums have been sporadically successful in the NBA, and have underachieved relative to their success in college. While the school has produced two hall-of-fame players (Bing and Anthony), the rest of their roster is littered with underachievers and players who are not necessarily suited for the modern game. Arizona, led by the defensive mastery of Andre Iguodala, and an overabundance of three-point firepower, moves on to the second round.

Wildcats win, four games to two.

Next Round

Arizona faces the NBA UCLA Bruins.

NBA Syracuse Orange

NBA Syracuse Orange

Our next school has produced a volatile mix of NBA talent. While they’ve produced two Hall-of-Fame caliber players, a high percentage of their draftees have not reached the heights they were originally projected for. While their long-standing coach, Jim Boeheim, is a college basketball titan, his track record of preparing players for the NBA has been spotty. Overall, the NBA Syracuse Orange team is flawed, but their Hall-of-Fame duo gives them a fighting chance to advance in our tournament.

Sherman Douglas, the starting point guard, had a solid 12-year career as a floor general for a string of also-rans in the 1990s. However, he was undersized for his position (6’0”), and did not have three-point shooting range, which limits his value to this team. His backcourt mate, Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing, could do it all on the offensive end of the court. He played both guard positions, and led the league in total points in his second season, which started a four-year stretch where he averaged 25.2 PPG and 6.1 APG. An eye injury limited his availability in the 1972 season, and he was never quite the same scorer afterwards, but his playmaking skills were sharp as ever, leading to him averaging 7.4 APG over the next three seasons. Ideally, his drive and kick ability would be complemented by a great shooter, but this team is lacking in that department. Michael Carter-Williams, the backup point guard, has been a woeful outside shooter throughout his short career, which has unfortunately overshadowed his many positive attributes. His length is an asset on the defensive end of the court, another area where this team may struggle, which should create a prominent role for him in the rotation. Dion Waiters is the team’s most prolific three-point threat, but he has yet to find any consistency over his five-year career.

The starting forwards, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Coleman, are two of the more talented players at their positions. Anthony is one of the great scorers in the modern game, and can toggle between both forward positions. He’s been burdened by his lack of playoff success, but he’ll serve as this team’s go-to option down the stretch of games, where he’s thrived throughout his career. Coleman, the first overall pick in the 1990 draft, had a solid if unspectacular career, in spite of his immense talent. He had every skill you could possibly want from a big man, but never put it all together on a consistent basis. He did make two all-NBA teams (in 1993 and 1994), and could punish smaller players in the post when motivated. Off the bench, Billy Owens was a versatile wing who had his best seasons early in his career. While largely regarded as a draft bust, he averaged 15.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, and 3.4 APG on 51.3% shooting in the first three seasons of his career, before having limited success thereafter. Louis Orr and Hakim Warrick were limited forwards who don’t move the needle for this team.

While Syracuse will go long stretches with Coleman at center and Anthony at power forward, they will start each game off with Rony Seikaly manning the middle next to this duo. Seikaly was a voracious rebounder who doubled as a solid scorer in his prime. He’s backed up by Danny Schayes, who had an interminable career mainly as a solid backup. He experienced his best years with Denver from 1988 to 1990, where he toggled between power forward and center and accumulated impressive advanced statistics, including a 62.7% three-year true shooting percentage and .172 win shares per 48 minutes. Etan Thomas will serve as the emergency third center when the others get into foul trouble.

One may expect the NBA Syracuse Orange to be better based on their college success. While they have a large number of players who haven’t panned out in the NBA, they have several stalwarts who will have to assume a large burden for them to get by their first round opponent.

All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

On the surface, our second semifinal is a mismatch. One franchise has the greatest collection of individual talent in NBA history, while the other is known more for its championship-team ensembles than for the excellence of its star players. However, the past three decades of Pistons basketball have shown that team play can prevail in such matchups. Specifically, the 1988, 1989, and 2004 NBA Finals between these two franchises illustrated the effectiveness of team defense, rebounding, and hustle against high end individual talent. While the battle between the All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons seems lopsided, the complementary nature of Detroit’s roster, and the relentlessness of their stars, will create many issues for L.A.

All-Time Los Angeles Lakers vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Key Matchups

Best frenemies – Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, the best point guards of their generation, face off in a classic battle. However, don’t expect them to play each other on defense; Detroit will use a combination of Grant Hill, Dennis Rodman, Chauncey Billups, and Joe Dumars on Magic, while L.A. will primarily utilize Jerry West on Thomas. Hill and Rodman have the size to neutralize Johnson, and Rodman had great success guarding him in the past. West, whose freakishly long arms helped make him an elite defender and one of the top thieves in NBA history, should capitalize on Thomas’s penchant for turnovers. Both teams will look to harass these primary ballhandlers, and attack them on defense.

Rebounding mavens – Statistically, Los Angeles features four of the top 25 rebounders in NBA history (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, and Elgin Baylor). Detroit, however, has a chance to win the battle of the boards, thanks to Dennis Rodman, the league’s all-time leader in offensive and total rebounding percentage (since the 1970-71 season, the first year this statistic was tracked). Detroit also has Ben Wallace, who ranks 11th all-time on the total rebounding percentage list, and Bob Lanier and Bill Laimbeer, who will be tasked with guarding the Lakers’ centers. If Lanier, Laimbeer, and Wallace can hold their own, Rodman and Bailey Howell should wreak havoc against the Lakers’ forwards, and create second and third chance point opportunities.

Detroit’s defense vs. Showtime – The Lakers have the greatest collection of skill players ever assembled. Their offense is led by arguably the greatest passer in NBA history, and features many of the league’s greatest scorers. There’s no way Detroit can compete offensively with this group. The Pistons will counter with a slew of excellent defenders who will make life difficult for the Lakers’ scorers. In addition to his rebounding prowess, Rodman was one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history, and should expect to spend time on Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, and the Lakers’ hall-of-fame centers at different points in the series. Wallace won four Defensive Player of the Year awards with the Pistons, and keyed their 2004 title run against Bryant and O’Neal. Dumars was a five-time selection to the All-Defensive team. Billups and Hill were known as solid defenders throughout their careers. If they need a stop, Detroit can play a lineup featuring these five, though the Wallace-Rodman combination would be perilous on offense. Expect Check Daly to utilize his versatile personnel to throw off L.A.’s offensive machine.

Biggest Mismatches

The Lakers scoring punch – With that being said…this Lakers team can really score. Magic Johnson has an almost unfair amount of weaponry at his disposal. They should be able to get hard baskets by throwing the ball into Abdul-Jabbar or O’Neal, leaning on West and Gail Goodrich to space the floor, and allowing Baylor and Bryant to operate from mid-range. The Pistons scorers (specifically Thomas, Dave Bing, and George Yardley) are going to have to have the series of their lives to compete.

The Lakers’ size – Los Angeles features superheavyweights O’Neal, Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar, three of the biggest and baddest men in league history. They also have George Mikan, the league’s first dominant center, and Magic Johnson, the biggest point guard in our tournament. If Detroit plays the three behemoth centers one-on-one, they’ll get destroyed, but double-teaming them will lead to the other Laker Hall-of-Famers going off. Detroit’s players do not present the same matchup issues for L.A.

Detroit’s Toughness – Calling this a mismatch is inaccurate, since the Lakers have some tough hombres on their team, but expect the Pistons to live up to their ‘Bad Boy’ moniker in an attempt to unnerve their Hollywood counterparts. Rodman, Wallace, Howell, and Laimbeer will have a green light to make this series as physical as possible and rough up the Lakers’ stars. While this may work on some players, it’s hard to believe these tactics will affect the Herculean tandem coming off L.A.’s bench (O’Neal and Chamberlain).

X-Factor

Will the referees let them play? – You hate to bring up a topic like this in a fantasy tournament, but basketball history is littered with examples of referees impacting important series. If the refs call the games tight, Detroit has no chance to compete. However, if they allow some physicality, and aren’t too stringent with the rules, that works to the Pistons’ advantage. Expect Rodman and Laimbeer to test the limits, and see what they can get away with.

Can Detroit’s physicality unnerve Kobe and the Lakers?
Copyright © Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com

Results

As mentioned above, Detroit has thrived in the underdog role against the mighty Lakers in the past quarter century. They have enough unique pieces and big-game performers to make the All-Time Lakers team sweat over the course of a seven-game series. However, the Lakers high-end talent is too much for the scrappy Bad Boys to overcome. Even though the referees swallow their whistles, which allows Rodman to avoid major foul trouble, Los Angeles punches their ticket to the finals in six hard-fought games.

Los Angeles wins, four games to two.

Next Round

The Lakers face the All-Time Celtics in the NBA Franchise Tournament Finals.

All-Time Chicago Bulls vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Our next match features two of the greatest rivals in NBA history. They met in four straight playoffs from 1988 to 1991, with three of those matches occurring in the Eastern Conference Finals. They represented the East in six straight NBA finals from 1988 to 1993, winning five championships between them. They also feature two of the biggest names from a golden age of NBA basketball – Michael Jordan, the most marketable athlete in NBA history, and Isiah Thomas, the baby-faced assassin who was Jordan’s chief adversary in his early career. The battle between the All-Time Chicago Bulls vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons is steeped in tradition, and features a number of players who harbor ill will from this contemptuous rivalry.

All-Time Chicago Bulls vs. All-Time Detroit Pistons

Key Matchups

Isiah Thomas vs. Chicago’s backcourt: Coach Phil Jackson values length in his starting backcourt, and earlier in the tournament, he eschewed starting a traditional point guard in favor of having Scottie Pippen serve as his primary ballhandler. While Pippen and Jordan make up the best defensive backcourt combination in the tournament, they are vulnerable to lightning-quick smaller guards who can penetrate. How will Jackson guard Isiah Thomas? He can stick with his starting lineup, and have Jordan chase around Thomas, or he can play the matchups and start Norm Van Lier, an eight-time all-NBA defensive selection who had the same listed height as Thomas (6’1”). If he starts Van Lier, Pippen would move to his natural small forward slot, and Chet Walker would slide into the sixth man role. This would create a bigger rebounding burden on the Bulls frontcourt, however, where they are already over matched, as described below.

Dominant defenses: These are two of the best defensive teams in the tournament. Combined, their players made 56 all-NBA defensive teams, and earned eight Defensive Player of the Year awards. Despite the plethora of scoring threats on each side, this series could feature a surprisingly high number of low-scoring games.

Advanced statistics vs. The Eye Test: Although Detroit features a slew of Hall-of-Famers, the advanced statistics of their superstars are not overwhelming, particularly Thomas, as described here. Despite this, their team members should complement each other well, with a nice mix of penetrators (Thomas and Dave Bing), shooters (George Yardley, Chauncey Billups, Joe Dumars, and even Bill Laimbeer), all-around dynamos (Grant Hill), low post scorers/rebounders (Bob Lanier, Bailey Howell, and Larry Foust), and dominant rebounders/defenders (Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace). Chicago, meanwhile, features Michael Jordan, who is not only regarded by experts as one of the greatest players of all time, but who is the GOAT of advanced statistics, standing as the all-time leader in PER and WS/48. He’s surrounded by a mix of Hall-of-Fame and all-star level competitors, who don’t appear to fit as well with one another as the Detroit club. The Bulls lack outside shooting, which will make it easier for Detroit to employ a modified version of The Jordan Rules. Artis Gilmore, their best center, will also have a difficult time, since he will have to find a way to avoid clogging the lane for Chicago’s penetrators while working as their best low-post scoring option.

Biggest Mismatches

Chicago’s perimeter length: The long arms of Jordan and Pippen will loom large in this series, particularly when they share backcourt duties. Jerry Sloan and Luol Deng provide additional perimeter options who can use their length for defensive and rebounding advantages. Detroit’s perimeter options are not as long or athletic as Chicago’s (outside of Grant Hill, who will match up with Pippen frequently), which will help the Bulls make up for their lack of dominant frontcourt rebounding. Speaking of which…

Detroit’s rebounding advantage: Detroit should control the glass in this series. They feature four players who led the league in total rebounds for at least one year as a Piston (Foust, Laimbeer, Rodman, and Wallace), and two others who averaged in double figures in their time in Detroit (Howell and Lanier). While Chicago’s wings will try to help mitigate this advantage, Rodman, in particular, could go off in this series. The Bulls may again have to adjust their starting lineup for matchup purposes, with Horace Grant taking the place of Bob Love. However, benching Love and Chet Walker in favor of Grant and Norm Van Lier will put a much greater scoring burden on Jordan, and Chicago’s offense may stall without multiple shot creators against Detroit’s dominant defense.

X-Factor

Chicago’s spacing: The Bulls face several lineup dilemmas, as outlined above. If Phil Jackson starts Van Lier, Jordan, Pippen, Grant, and Gilmore, Detroit will pack the paint and force Chicago’s mediocre shooters to beat them from long-range. Chicago doesn’t have much shooting coming off the bench, either. Deng and Toni Kukoc were pedestrian three point shooters during their times in Chicago (shooting 33.1 percent and 32.7 percent, respectively), while Derrick Rose was below average, particularly for a guard. Phil Jackson’s triangle offense will help to create space for the Bulls scorers, but Detroit features a number of smart defenders who will try to cut off Chicago’s strengths.

"Go to hell." "You too!" Copyright © Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com
“Go to hell.”
“You too!”
Copyright © Lipofsky Basketballphoto.com

Results

Recently, the good folks at the Over & Back Podcast asked what the third greatest rivalry in NBA history was, conceding that the first two were Wilt vs. Russell and Magic vs. Bird. A good argument could be made for Isiah vs. Jordan, especially considering how impactful their teams were to the championship chase in the late 80s and early 90s. Neither of these stone-cold competitors would want to lose this historic matchup, which should be closely contested. Despite Jordan’s brilliance, the flaws of the Bulls roster are too much for him to overcome, and he suffers another heartbreaking defeat to his nemesis.

Detroit wins, four games to three.

Next Round

Detroit faces the All-Time Lakers.

All-Time Detroit Pistons Team

All-Time Detroit Pistons Team Infographic

Deeeeeeeetroit Baaaaaaaasketbaaaaaall! Our next franchise has made five NBA Finals appearances since 1988, with two selfless teams that suffocated opponents on the defensive end, and epitomized team play on offense. Prior to 1988, they only had two 50 win seasons in their history (which dates back to 1949), though they did make back-to-back Finals appearances in 1955 and 1956, when they operated out of Fort Wayne. As we’ve seen before, when you’ve been around so long, you’re likely to have had many great players in your history, in spite of the inevitable rough patches. The All-Time Detroit Pistons team is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, featuring a mix of great players from different eras of NBA history.

Isiah Thomas is the leader of this team, and is the easy choice for starting point guard. Thomas was one of the greatest clutch players of all time, averaging 20.4 PPG and 8.9 APG in 111 playoff games, and he was responsible for some of the most memorable moments in playoff history (including this, which may have been the best performance in NBA Finals history). Surprisingly, Thomas’s advanced statistics are not too impressive, but his leadership role on two championship teams, his clutch play, and his scoring and passing ability made him one of the greatest point guards ever. Fellow Hall-of-Famer Dave Bing joins Thomas in the starting backcourt. Bing was another primary ballhandler who excelled at the drive and kick game, but both guards have the scoring and shooting acumen to play well off of each other. Off the bench, “Mr. Big Shot” Chauncey Billups was an excellent all-around player who spaced the floor and played elite defense from the point guard position. Hall-of-Famer Joe Dumars, another great all-around option, will play well off of the three other guards, and provides them with another terrific defensive option.

For six seasons in Detroit, starting small forward Grant Hill was one of the best players in the NBA. A prolific point forward, Hill could run an offense to perfection, and fill the lane in transition. In the 1997 season, Hill finished third in the MVP voting, averaging 21.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, and 7.3 APG (the entire list of people who’ve been able to reach those marks can be seen here). The starting power forward, Dennis Rodman, is one of the handful of greatest defensive players in NBA history. When he focused on rebounding, he became arguably the greatest ever at that skill, and led the league in his last two seasons in Detroit. Off the bench, Hall-of-Famer George Yardley will help to space the floor with his deadly jump shot. The first player in NBA history to score 2,000 points in one season, he was also a tremendous athlete, whose game should translate well across eras. Bailey Howell, a double-double machine who twice led the league in true shooting percentage (once in Detroit), provides another prolific scoring and rebounding option off the bench.

Bob Lanier, the starting center, was one of the more underrated centers in NBA history. He never made an All-NBA team despite averaging over 20 PPG and 10 RPG for seven straight years as a Piston, and he’ll anchor this team’s offense with his low-post play. Ben Wallace, who played both power forward and center, won four Defensive Player of the Year awards in a five year period. He also won two rebounding titles as a Piston, and was a key cog in their unlikely title run in 2004. Larry Foust helped lead the team to the aforementioned Finals appearances in 1955 and 1956, when he led the league in win shares per 48 minutes in both seasons. The notorious Bill Laimbeer, who, along with Thomas, was the leader of the infamous Bad Boy championship teams, adds rebounding, toughness, and outside shooting from the backup center position.

This team is deep, tremendously versatile, and features two of the greatest defenders in recent NBA history. When they need a defensive stop, they can trot out a lineup with Rodman, Wallace, Dumars, and Billups, which will cause nightmares for opposing offenses. The number six seed in our tournament, they have a first-round match up with the All-Time Charlotte Hornets.

Coach: Chuck Daly

All-Time Franchise Winning Percentage (through 2014-15): .487