The WNBA Finals and the League’s Plight

The WNBA Finals concluded in a winner-take-all Game Five tonight, with the Minnesota Lynx dominating the Indiana Fever, 69-52. Unfortunately, however tight of a contest the series had been as a whole, it has not been widely recognized.

The WNBA is facing no short list of dilemmas. The league of 12 teams does not garner much attention in the breadth of American sports. It is the NBA’s neglected younger sister, cornered into poorly timed scheduling and devastatingly belittling contract parameters.

Some of these facts should be immediately apparent if you consider the scheduled dates and times for potential series-clinching games. Game Three, on Friday, coincided with opening-night for six NHL franchises, and played at the same time as five teams from integral markets (the Blackhawks, Devils, Islanders, Kings, and Rangers). Game Four coincided with three major sporting events: Sunday Night Football; Game Three of MLB’s American League Division Series; and golf’s Presidents Cup. (Sunday Night Football should hardly be considered an “event,” but TV ratings suggest otherwise.) Playing in primetime on a fall Sunday also meant competing with series premieres and the like. And it didn’t help that Game Five was bumped to ESPN2 in favor of boxing, which draws considerably worse ratings than ESPN proper.

It would make plenty of sense to start the WNBA season earlier in the year so that it does not cross paths with so many obstacles at the back end of their schedule, but that would mean infringing upon the NBA’s season. As more than half of the WNBA teams are owned by people/groups that own NBA counterparts, that poses a couple of problems. First, most teams share their home courts. Overlap would create negative press as the NBA would force the WNBA to accommodate, essentially having owners wound themselves. The second potential issue is that the NBA would not compose the whole of basketball current events. College basketball ends nearly two weeks before the NBA playoffs begin, a comfortable cushion for March Madness’ hysteria to cool. While the WNBA does not draw significant viewership numbers, it still demands press. The WNBA’s active presence during the entire playoffs would certainly not create a massive divide among their audiences, but the NBA is the far more marketed and profitable product, and it would frown upon the WNBA stepping on its feet.

As it stands, a great deal of the WNBA’s advertising attempts to capitalize upon the popularity of the NBA Finals, claiming that summer doesn’t mean the end of the basketball season. This dependence in itself limits any chances of making substantial changes to the WNBA season. However, the WNBA season does not only occupy calendar space left open by the NBA. Making a career as a woman basketball player is not beneficially sustainable without year-round participation.

The WNBA is composed of players involved with other leagues around the world, particularly in China and Russia. Professional sports demonstrate some heinous disparities in compensation along gender lines. The maximum contract that could have been offered in the WNBA this season was $109,500. According to the current collective bargaining agreement, the minimum salary for an NBA player in the upcoming 2015-16 season is $525,093. The salary cap for WNBA teams remains less than $1 million as opposed to the NBA’s $70 million. (These numbers are available through the above links.)

It hasn’t become a problem yet, but the WNBA is at risk of losing players that are actually getting paid greater to not play. Diana Tuarasi of the Phoenix Mercury, who is easily one of the league’s best players, earned approximately $1.5 million as a member of UMMC Ekaterinburg in the Russian Premier League last year. She elected to sit out this season as her club team in Russia paid her more than her WNBA salary to simply rest. At 33, Taurasi essentially has not had an offseason since being drafted first overall in 2004 out of Uconn. The opportunity to take time off without financial concerns had not been available, which is troubling for the future of the WNBA.

The WNBA desperately needs to pay its players better. The league already implements its jerseys as ad space, relegating team logos to a badge on the shoulder, but television money has proven to be the most crucial in sports. The NBA has come upon a windfall in its recent deals with Disney (ESPN/ABC) and Turner (TNT) that are already having a major impact on contracts. The WNBA already renegotiated its television contract with ESPN before the NBA did, partly as a gesture of goodwill between ESPN and the NBA. While the $12 million per year for 30 WNBA games might sound respectable at first blush, plenty of NBA players will make more than that individually due to the NBA’s nine-year, $24 billion deal. The realization that the $12 million is being split amongst 12 teams only makes the contracts all the more depressing.

I hate that I feel obligated to talk about these things and overshadow the actual matters of basketball that should be the focus of the WNBA. These Finals included two consistent contenders with some of the greatest players in the league like Maya Moore and Tamika Catchings, and featured three very close games — one decided by a Moore buzzer-beater that had many reminiscing Michael Jordan. But the fact of the matter is that the WNBA is in a precarious position, trapped by the dominance and financial support backing other sports leagues that diminishes its own potential to develop.

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2015 FIBA Asia Championship and Olympic Ramifications

After EuroBasket was won by one of Europe’s most consistently competitive teams, the last of the automatic bids for the Olympic tournament in Rio de Janeiro next year has been taken by one of Asia’s more dominant teams.

China and the Philippines met Saturday in the FIBA Asia Championship finals in order to determine Asia’s only immediate entry into the Olympics. Led by former NBA lottery pick Jianlian Yi, China reached the finals undefeated. Not to be outdone, the Philippines’ roster boasted its own NBA veteran. Andray Blatche spent nine seasons in the NBA and competes with/against many players on China’s roster as a member of the CBA’s Xinjiang Flying Tigers. If the Philippines were to have any chance, it was expected that Blatche would have to have a big game and neutralize China’s overabundance of bigs.

That, however, proved to be too difficult of a task. Aside from Yi, one of China’s own Flying Tigers, Qi Zhou, had himself a standout performance. The 19-year-old forward/center finished the game with the highest efficiency rating, a reflection of his 16-point, 14-rebound performance. Yi was no slouch either, adding 11 points and 15 rebounds, though he shot 4/14 from the field. Blatche led the Philippines with 17 points, but no other member of Gilas Pilipinas reached double digits. The Philippines struggled from three-point range, making only six of 24 attempts, and never led outside of the first six minutes of the game. It was never necessarily a rout, but China was able to sit on a comfortable lead for much of the game. A pair of Blatche free throws cut the lead to eight points midway through the third quarter, but China quickly reaffirmed their dominance as Team Dragon’s lead ballooned to 16 en route to a 78-67 victory.

This was China’s 16th FIBA Asia Championship gold-winning performance and the Philippines’ second consecutive silver in the tournament. With China’s claim on the last automatic bid for the Olympics, the field is nearly set for the tournament next year in Rio de Janeiro. However, three entries have yet to be named. They will have to earn their places through the World Olympic Qualifying Tournament. As the second, third, and fourth place finishers in the FIBA Asia Championship, the Philippines, Iran, and Japan will be able to compete for the last three slots in the Olympics.

’15-’16 NBA Breakthrough Players

With the NBA preseason tipping off tonight, it’s time we start looking for emerging players throughout the league. It sometimes takes time and/or situational changes for a player to have an opportunity to prove himself in earnest, and those are the players we will be identifying.

Now, understand that the notion of “breakthrough” is subjective. Fandom creates imbalanced opinions and exposure; while I believe Gordon Hayward is in essence a minor star (I think of him as a slightly lesser Paul George, pre-injury), you may not hold him in anywhere near the same regard. Also, designating players to “breakthrough” rather than “breakout” is intended to recognize that most of these players won’t suddenly become stars. That hardly ever happens, anyway. These are players that should prove their worth by increases in playing time, statistics (hopefully standard and advanced), and responsibilities. With that said, let’s get this underway.

Point Guard: Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons

With the ink still drying on his lucrative contract, fans are going to expect Reggie Jackson to prove himself this season. In what should be his first full season running a professional team, Jackson should have plenty of time to establish himself as a top ten point guard in the league.

In his 27 games with Detroit last season, Jackson’s assist numbers soared off the charts. At first glance, his 9.2 assists per game and 2.61 assist-to-turnover ratio are good, but not incredibly overwhelming. The most telling number, however, was his 51.2 assist percentage. He became the whole of the Pistons offense in the last third of the season. During the tail-end of his tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Jackson was splitting time at both guard positions, but Stan Van Gundy has entrusted him with full control of the offense and wants the ball in Jackson’s hands.

Outside observers may presume that the Pistons will face an inevitable drop-off in overall production with the loss of Greg Monroe via free agency, but that may actually prove contrary. As troubling as the Andre Drummond and Monroe pairing already was, the trio of Drummond, Jackson, and Monroe was devastatingly inefficient. In 279 minutes of court time together, the Pistons earned a net efficiency rating of -12.3 points per 100 possessions. However, in the 409 minutes Drummond and Jackson shared the court, without Monroe, the Pistons put up an astounding rating of 15.7.

Embedded image permalink

(Copyright John Schuhmann, via his Twitter account.)

To be fair, those aren’t incredibly large sample sizes, but they demonstrate that the paint was too cramped on offense last season (and that Monroe was a defensive liability). With Ersan Ilyasova presumably inheriting Monroe’s minutes, the floor will be far more spaced out, creating more driving lanes for Jackson.

If Reggie Jackson can duplicate his numbers from the end of last season, he could be among the assist leaders in the league (9.2 would have been fourth last season). The Pistons are still in a transitional mode, but they are now much closer to a signature Van Gundy team than they were to begin last season. Much of their success, however, will depend upon Jackson’s decision-making and continued progress.

Shooting Guard: Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz

The sudden rise of the Utah Jazz after last season’s All-Star Game was often directly attributed to their defensive numbers and Rudy Gobert, but it also coincided with Rodney Hood’s return to the lineup and inclusion in the starting backcourt. The defense’s turnaround was most certainly a major factor in the Jazz competing last season, but they were lacking in offensive firepower until Hood became healthy. His shooting percentage over the whole season, 41.4, is far from impressive, but it increased dramatically due to his shooting 47.8 percent during his 16 starts in the last month of the season. (His shooting percentage was 35.6 before coming on strong at the end of the season.) During that same time, Hood eclipsed 20 points in five games, while taking at most 17 shots in a single game.

Expectations that the Jazz may compete for a playoff spot this season seemed to taper off with Dante Exum’s ACL injury, and while that will likely be a massive blow to their defense, Rodney Hood was an overlooked factor in their late-season emergence. Alec Burks’ return from injury might pose a minor dilemma for coach Quin Snyder, but Burks’ ball handling may be best suited for a bench role now that Trey Burke is likely starting again.

The Jazz’s offense is still within the hands of Gordon Hayward. However much Rodney Hood may progress this season, he is still not the primary option in Salt Lake City. But that is no reason to dismiss his potential to emerge. As an outside scorer, he may be able to take over as the second option, or at least cement himself as the third behind Derrick Favors.

Small Forward: Otto Porter, Washington Wizards

With Paul Pierce having left for the Los Angeles Clippers, the Washington Wizards are going to need Otto Porter to serviceably perform if they hope to have a chance at coming out of the Eastern Conference. Fortunately, after his efforts in the playoffs last season, it would appear that he is prepared to emerge as a reliable starting small forward.

Porter did not provide overwhelming numbers during the playoffs, but his presence on the court was nonetheless positive. He netted positive tallies in advanced projections of both offensive and defensive box plus/minus. What that essentially means is that Porter was an above-average player during last season’s playoffs. His eight rebounds per game undoubtedly helped in that assessment.

Frankly speaking, the Washington Wizards don’t need Otto Porter to become a ball-dominant super star. They have John Wall. What they need is another stable wing. Porter is not an incredibly efficient shooter, but he isn’t a liability either. And even though it’ll be hard to live down a particularly bone-headed play from last season while guarding Chicago’s Tony Snell, Porter is an improving and lanky perimeter defender. If he can provide consistent effort and earn the starting position over Jared Dudley, the Washington Wizards may be a legitimate competitor.

Power Forward: Mason Plumlee, Portland Trail Blazers

Mason Plumlee is more suited to playing center, but knowing what the Portland Trail Blazers have on their roster, it would make sense for Plumlee to get plenty of time at either power position. At the very least, he is poised to see a lot more usage than he ever did with the Brooklyn Nets.

The Trail Blazers are in full-on rebuilding mode. They have to assess what assets they have on their current roster to know where they can go from here. Damian Lillard is obviously cemented into their future plans, but many of their players are either unproven or nearing the end of their contracts. This should be a season of development and experimentation.

If contract numbers are any indication, Ed Davis will likely be a staple in Portland’s rotation this season. But they will be well-served to allot playing time for Plumlee next to Chris Kaman as well. Based on what Portland currently has under contract for next season, Plumlee should be getting groomed to take over as the starting center next year, but the way the league is trending, he will most certainly benefit from extending himself to defending the elbows and corners more regularly while Portland can still afford to play someone else at center.

Mason Plumlee is already a solid, albeit forgotten, player. His rebounding percentages are already far greater than the man he backed up on the Nets, Brook Lopez. Part of the problem in Brooklyn, however, was that he played with what were supposed to be prolific scorers. In Portland, the ball will almost definitely stay in Lillard’s hands for the most part, but the role of second option is entirely up for grabs this season. Don’t be surprised if Plumlee proves himself a trustworthy part of Portland’s future.

Center: John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks

This may appear as a strange selection as John Henson is the only one of these players likely at risk of entering the season in a lesser role this season. But seeing as the Milwaukee Bucks have reportedly just resigned him, it’s fairly safe to say that they expect him to remain a vital part of the team.

With Greg Monroe entering the fold, Henson will be reserved for providing the defense that Monroe lacks. The Bucks certainly needed help on offense, and Monroe should give them a new dimension with his play on the block, but the Bucks made their way into the playoffs almost entirely due to their defense. Jason Kidd’s stifling defense is heavily dependent upon length and shifting positional responsibilities, which suits Henson very well. Realistically, it’s hard to see Kidd wanting to give Monroe more minutes than Henson simply because of Henson’s defensive versatility.

If it can ultimately be worked out, Henson and Monroe should complement one another. If/when paired together, Henson’s career 6.1 block percentage should lead to many missed shots and Monroe rebounds (his defensive strong-suit).

The “breaking through” of other players on this list is based upon new opportunities. John Henson is on here, however, because he should be allowed to concentrate more pointedly on what he’s already known for doing well. If all goes well in that regard, the breakthrough will come not simply for Henson, but for the Bucks.

Honorable Mention

Point Guard: Elfrid Payton, Orlando Magic
Scott Skiles prioritizes defense, and Payton and Victor Oladipo may become a phenomenal backcourt duo in that regard under his tutelage.

Shooting Guard: Kent Bazemore, Atlanta Hawks
Bazemore will likely be part of a platoon effort to replace DeMarre Carroll and is the most versatile of he, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Thabo Sefolosha.

Small Forward: Al-Farouq Aminu, Portland Trail Blazers
Again, someone has to step up this season as the second option in Portland. Aminu was strong in the playoffs last season and during his time playing for gold-winning Nigeria in AfroBasket this summer, and is certain to get more of a chance to shine this year than ever before.

Power Forward: Kyle O’Quinn, New York Knicks
The Knicks will need someone to play defense. O’Quinn will likely earn his opportunities as the only big currently on the roster with a track record of any defensive presence.

Center: Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets
If he reduces his fouls, he should be able to earn more minutes. Not exceptionally gifted offensively, Nurkic can emerge as a menace on defense, particularly on the boards.

Star players don’t emerge every day. Players take time to develop, and sometimes require a new opportunity to prove themselves. The players above probably won’t be taking the league by storm, but they’ll hopefully prove the depth of the league’s talent pool and become part of their teams’ successes next season.

2015 EuroBasket Championship and Olympic Ramifications

The brief run of first-time FIBA champions ended with Spain’s emphatic 80-63 win over Lithuania in EuroBasket 2015 Sunday.

In what was expected to be a down year, perennial powerhouse Spain still managed to stuff their roster with plenty of NBA-worthy talent and international experience. While players like José Calderón, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka*, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Ricky Rubio sat out for this tournament, Chicago Bulls teammates Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotić were still surrounded with talent like Rudy Fernández, Sergio Llull, and Sergio Rodríguez. (*Ibaka was once on the roster as a naturalized citizen. FIBA rules allow for one such player on a roster; Mirotić filled that role for this tournament.)

Even with such a stacked roster, Spain struggled in the group phase. They lost their first game of the tournament to Serbia, and a second to Italy. After squeaking past Germany in the last game of their group play and Greece in the quarterfinals, Spain was set to meet the tournament host and favorite, France, for a spot in the finals.

The matchup would prove to be one of the most exciting games of the tournament, and also cemented Pau Gasol’s legacy as one of the greatest European players to date. France led almost the whole way, and pushed their lead to 11 points in the third quarter. Nikolas Batum and Tony Parker shot poorly, but were among the five players to score in double digits for France. Spain, however, was entirely dependent upon Gasol’s efforts. Gasol’s ten fourth-quarter points fueled Spain to a late 66-63 lead, which was erased on a fadeaway corner-three by Batum with 14 seconds left in regulation. A Rudy Gobert block of a Gasol lay-up virtually sent the game to overtime, where Gasol would not be denied again. Gasol had the last eight points of the game to secure Spain’s 80-75 victory, and finished the game with 40 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks in an utterly dominant performance.

Gasol continued to prove himself as a force as Spain rolled past Lithuania in the finals. His 25 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks were more than enough as Spain took an early lead and never looked back. Spain surged to a 15-4 lead in the first five minutes, aided by Lithuania’s ball security issues. Lithuania turned the ball over seven times in the first quarter and struggled to stop Spain’s pick-and-rolls from the tip. Lithuania made a short run late in the second quarter that cut the lead to eight, but opened the second half with renewed turnover problems. Ultimately, Spain’s early lead was never threatened as they took EuroBasket’s gold with the 80-63 win, and Gasol clinched his third FIBA MVP (two in EuroBasket and one in the 2006 World Cup).

However disappointing the finals may have been for Lithuania, they can take solace in having secured their place in Rio de Janeiro. Like the FIBA Americas tournament, the first and second place finishers in EuroBasket are guaranteed a spot in the Olympics. Unlike any of the other FIBA tournaments, five European teams advance to the World Olympic Qualifying Tournament. France, Serbia, Greece, Italy, and the Czech Republic, who finished third through seventh, respectively, will have another chance to receive their Olympic bids next July.

2015 FIBA Americas Championship and Olympic Ramifications

It’s too early to call it a trend, but Nigeria is no longer the only country to net their first FIBA tournament gold this year. Reaching the semifinal stage with a 4-4 record, Venezuela leaned upon their stifling defense to upset both Canada and Argentina this weekend.

Going by the dated standings of the FIBA Men’s World Rankings, Venezuela’s victory over Canada was not actually much of an upset. After last year’s World Cup, Canada ranked 25th with Venezuela close behind at 27th. However, those standings are by no means a reflection of the rosters the countries fielded for this tournament. Canada enjoyed a wealth of elite talent with nine NBA players — two of which were first overall selections in the NBA Draft (Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins) — occupying their 12-man squad, whereas Venezuela was without their one NBA player, point guard Greivis Vasquez, for this tournament. After losing their first game of the championship, Canada had won seven straight games going into the semifinals, which included a 20-point win over Venezuela in the Preliminary Round, and was poised for their own first FIBA gold.

However talented Canada was, its players are almost all new to international play and relatively inexperienced. Venezuela played aggressive defense in their meetings to impede Canada’s transition offense, and the results showed both times. Though Canada seemingly dominated the first game, they turned the ball over 22 times, as opposed to Venezuela’s nine. Canada made up for it though by outrebounding Venezuela 52-33, while also holding them to 31.1% shooting from the field and 24.1% from three (7/29). In the second meeting, however, Venezuela continued to disrupt Canada’s offense to the tune of 17 turnovers, and were able to capitalize much more frequently, shooting 40.3% from the field and 35.7% (10/28) from beyond the arc. (Those aren’t great numbers, but definitely an indication of improvement.)

(**The game’s final moments are a bit controversial in that the game essentially ended on a pair of free throws that were questionably awarded to Gregory Vargas, but Canada played markedly worse than their earlier meeting and its players and coaches concede that they were outplayed.**)

Winning over Canada may have been enough of an accolade, but beating Argentina in the FIBA Americas Championship game is certainly a triumph. Argentina is ranked third in the FIBA World Rankings and were first as recently as 2010. That being said, they are a veteran group supported by a healthy dose of NBA talent. Andrés Nocioni has played for Argentina’s national team since 1999 and played in the NBA for eight seasons. Luis Scola began playing for Argentina’s national team as a junior in 1995 and senior in 1999, while being named the MVP in four previous FIBA tournaments. Add in the fact that Scola will soon be entering into his ninth NBA season (with the Toronto Raptors) and it’s clear that Argentina was by no means a pushover.

After a slow start which allowed Argentina to momentarily enjoy a 20-8 lead, Venezuela’s defense eventually started causing excessive turnovers. Argentina’s 19 turnovers (including 10 Venezuelan steals) would be of little note if not for Venezuela making certain to take care of the ball; Venezuela only coughed it up nine times.

Outside of Argentina jumping out to an early 12-point lead, the game was mostly played within a five-point margin. It wasn’t until the last six minutes that Venezuela was able to seize control of the lead on a John Cox basket in the paint. The turnovers were a major difference in the game, but only because they supported another major disparity. Venezuela was able to attempt 18 more shots than Argentina, which resulted in a 54-30 points in the paint advantage. As much as Venezuela tried to rely upon outside shooting earlier in the game, they didn’t make a single three in the fourth quarter (they shot 3/21 for the game and only attempted two in the fourth), but were able to pull away because of how they dominated the paint. Despite Scola earning his fifth FIBA MVP for his efforts throughout the tournament, Venezuela beat him at his own short-range game in the finals by the score 76-71.

Unlike the AfroBasket Championship, the Americas tournament Finals is not a must-win for an Olympic berth. Both Argentina and Venezuela are guaranteed their spots in Rio de Janeiro next year. Canada, however, will join Mexico and Puerto Rico as the Americas’ bids into the World Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

The New NBA Playoff Seeding System: Does it Really Matter?

In a move that many feel was required, the NBA Board of Governors unanimously approved a change to the playoff seeding structure that will be immediately implemented. Division winners will no longer automatically be placed within the top four seeds. Instead, playoff positioning in both conferences will be determined solely upon their records. As for tiebreakers, head-to-head results are now the first determinant, making the winning of a division a secondary tiebreaker.

At first blush, these changes seem necessary. Divisional rivalries are not essential to the NBA of today. Unlike the NFL, divisional games do not bear a substantial impact upon the whole of a team’s schedule and record. Less than 20% of an NBA team’s schedule is comprised of divisional matchups. (For reference, an NFL team’s schedule is 37.5% divisional games, and teams out-of-division will never meet more than once in the regular season.) And the perceived advantage of a guaranteed four-seed for division winners is mostly superficial; if the five-seed has a better record, they will retain home-court advantage in the first round series against the four-seed.

The problem, however, was that the guaranteed seeding threatened to destabilize competitive balance and reward less-successful teams ahead of others. Allowing the five-seed to have home-court advantage against an inferior four-seed resolved the potential unfairness in that particular pairing, but the greater issue was that additional seedings may have needed to be adjusted in order to allot a division winner the four-seed.

This became a greater concern due to the seedings for last season’s playoffs. The Portland Trail Blazers won four less games than both the Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs, but were awarded the four-seed, pushing Memphis to the five and San Antonio to the six. While this does not inherently seem like a dramatic fall, Memphis and San Antonio ended the season only one game behind the two- and three-seeds (the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively). In fact, San Antonio was in position to be the two-seed going into their last game of the regular season against the New Orleans Pelicans. Yes, the loss in that game certainly assured a precipitous fall in the cluttered standings, but without the four-seed being given to Portland, Memphis and San Antonio would have met in the playoffs, and Portland would have played the Clippers.

To suggest such changes would have had a significant impact on the way the postseason played out would be impractical and a matter of pure speculation without an ounce of substance. San Antonio fans are wont to claim that they unfairly had to play the Clippers right away, whereas Clipper fans blame their second-round exhaustion on exerting too much effort against San Antonio when they felt they had earned the right to play Portland. Ultimately, neither team even earned the right to play against the future champion Golden State Warriors, so it’s difficult to give much merit to such thoughts.

Nevertheless, the new rule amends such trifles. While I certainly see how guaranteeing a division winner at least the four-seed can be problematic, the reality is that the previous system has not been excessively troublesome. Over the last ten seasons, a division-winner has been awarded an unearned seed five times. Of those five occasions, three were essentially a swap of the “four-seed” and “five-seed” title — an entirely superficial and pointless exchange. The “five-seed” in those instances still had home-court advantage in their matchups, so the shift had no effect whatsoever on the playoff landscape.

Aside from last season, a division winner’s jump to the four-seed has only had a major impact on the playoffs once in the last ten seasons. In the 2007-08 season, the Utah Jazz won the Northwest and climbed ahead of the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns, who were both one game behind the two- and three-seeds just like the situation that occurred last season. Unlike last season, however, we can claim that the postseason would have effectively played out differently had the new ruling already been in place. Houston and Phoenix would have met in the first round of the playoffs as the four- and five-seeds, respectively, which would have guaranteed that one of the two teams advance to the next round. However, neither team escaped the first round as Utah beat Houston and San Antonio beat Phoenix in matchups that would not have happened under the new structure. Again, there’s certainly no way to say that such differences would have truly changed much of anything, but the 2007-08 postseason was obscured much more so than last season’s due to the division winner jumping seeds.

On the surface, the new rule about NBA playoff seeding makes perfect sense, and as some would argue, needed to be implemented. In truth, it has not had as great of an impact as we may have been made to believe.

Still, this was a swift and decisive move to change something potentially troublesome, and we should applaud the NBA for taking action as was seen fit instead of getting tangled in concerns of tradition and sentimentality.

2015 AfroBasket Championship and Olympic Ramifications

The FIBA tournaments that determine qualification for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics may not have much appeal in the United States, but at least one country is surely reveling in their Olympic berth. Sunday was the final match of 2015 AfroBasket, which featured Angola and Nigeria playing for the automatic bid into the Olympics. What made this matchup interesting was that their histories and current rosters may have created a slightly strange David-and-Goliath narrative.

Angola entered the tournament as the reigning and 11-time champion of the tournament. In fact, that dominance is all the more impressive considering that those 11 championships were won within the previous 13 tournaments. However, their roster is not especially imposing in that it lacks NBA talent. Yanick Moreira went undrafted this year out of SMU, but has signed a partially guaranteed contract with the Los Angeles Clippers. Other than that, there is no hint of NBA skill or experience. Nevertheless, Angola makes up for the presumed deficiency with consistency and, undoubtedly, chemistry. Six of the twelve players on their national roster play for the same club in Angola, Primeiro de Agosto. And they are even further rooted as veterans of international play; only one player (Bráulio Morais) was new to the national team and team captain Eduardo Mingas has competed for Angola in international tournaments since 2002.

Nigeria’s national team cannot boast about its successes in international tournaments in equal measure against Angola, only holding three silvers and three bronzes from previous FIBA Africa tournaments. However, Nigeria can claim that it sports NBA talent. Well, sort of. The most notable name on the team is the new Portland Trail Blazer Al-Farouq Aminu as he is the only player currently in the NBA. Other players on Nigeria’s roster with NBA experience include Ike Diogu, Olumide Oyedeji, and Ben Uzoh. Aminu and Diogu were even lottery picks! (It must be noted that neither really played up to the expectations of such picks, though Aminu can still be solid in spurts; look at what he did in the Mavericks-Rockets playoff series last year for evidence).

In essence, the 2015 AfroBasket Championship seemingly boiled down to an odd pair of contrasting elements: Angola’s established team with plenty of accolades from previous FIBA Africa tournaments, but distinctly lacking in elite talent against Nigeria’s assortment of players not wholly familiar with one another, yet pieced together out of NBA talent.

From a nationalized viewpoint, the results certainly fit the David-and-Goliath narrative; Nigeria overpowered Angola 74-65 as a result of dominating the glass (Nigeria: 60 total (24 offensive) rebounds; Angola: 37 total (10 offensive)) and getting to the free throw line (Nigeria: 33/47; Angola: 8/16). However much it could be argued that the game was a match between experience and talent, it really came down to fundamental basketball and knowing how to size up when rebounding. Nigeria’s roster had a slight size advantage over Angola, but that can’t be the whole story as Nigeria’s two smallest players, Michael Umeh and Ben Uzoh, each pulled down three rebounds. Angola had three players at center (Ambrósio is a power forward/center) collect eight total rebounds; Nigeria had three individual players grab at least eight.

Nigeria’s first gold in AfroBasket has assured them of their place in Rio de Janeiro next August, while Angola will have to try and earn its own bid through the Final Olympic Qualifying Tournament held next July. Tunisia and Senegal (led by Gorgui Dieng’s standout performances) will also be moving on to the qualifying tournament having placed third and fourth, respectively, during AfroBasket.