April 19, 2015

2015 NBA Playoffs - Expert's Bracket Challenge - Round 1

Since my friends and I are sitting here and typing on our computers - instead of being at a pre-game shootaround at an NBA playoffs game - you can probably infer that none of our hoop dreams have (yet) come true. But hey, who said that only NBA players can have the fun of competition during the playoffs? For the next few months, as the NBA Playoffs progress to give us the 2015 champions, I have joined ranks with fellow fans and experts of the NBA in India - Akshay Manwani (@AkshayManwani) and Kaushik Lakshman (@_kaushik7) - to have a little competition of our own. Let me introduce to you the 2015 NBA Playoffs Bracket Challenge, where Akshay, Kaushik, and I unleash our inner prophets to predict each series of each round in the playoffs.

The rules, as suggested by Akshay: Each of us will get +2 for getting the series result correct. Additionally, if we get the scoreline right, we get a bonus of +1. I will publish the results of the first round predictions as a separate blog at the end of the first round. Then there will be a new blog post for our predictions for the Conference semi-finals and so on. So keep yourselves updated and feel free to give us your own predictions in the comments section at the end of this post.

(Akshay, Kaushik, and I recorded our thoughts on the NBA season and the growth and popularity of the league in India on Episode 2 of our Hoopdarshan podcast a few weeks ago. Check it out!).

So without further ado, here are our bold predictions for the first round:

Eastern Conference:

Atlanta (1) v Brooklyn (8):

Akshay’s pick: Brooklyn had a good run to end the season, going 17-13 since the All-Star break to make it into the playoffs. But the Hawks just have too much firepower even without Thabo Sefolosha. They blanked the Nets 4-0 during the reason and I expect things to be no different in the playoffs. Hawks win 4-0.

Karan’s pick: Atlanta finished the season 60-22 at the top of the Eastern Conference, while the Nets (38-44) only sneaked into the playoffs on the last day of the season. But Brooklyn can take heart in the fact that they have actually been in better form than the Hawks in the final stretch of the season. Ultimately, Atlanta’s system, team-play, and shooting should be good enough for a series win. Hawks win 4-2

Kaushik’s pick: This is probably the easiest pick to make. Brooklyn Nets apart from a late season run headed by Brook Lopez, have been a truly horrible team and are in the playoffs only because of the (L)eastern conference. Hawks have tailed off a bit compared to how they dominated January, but will still have too much to handle for the Nets. Hawks win 4-0.

Cleveland (2) v Boston (7):

Akshay’s pick: The season series scoreline, surprisingly, went 2-2 between these two teams, but don’t read too much into that as Kyrie Irving didn’t play in both the Cavs’ defeats while LeBron and Kevin Love also didn’t figure in the last loss. However, the Celtics may still infuriate the Cavs by playing small ball, but eventually Cleveland will come through. Cavaliers win 4-0.

Karan’s pick: I’ll give Boston and their exceptional coach Brad Stevens some credit here, but ultimately, the Cavs won’t have to sweat too much to win this series. Beyond LeBron, they are relatively playoff inexperienced (including Coach Blatt), so this series will be important for them to learn the pace of the game for tougher post-season battles ahead. Cavaliers win 4-1.

Kaushik’s pick: The Celtics have been a nice feel good story in the last month or so. They are a team so devoid of stars and are only here because of exceptional coaching and super effort from the players. Unfortunately NBA doesn’t have very many Cinderella stories. The Cavs are a freight train right now and will be too good for the young Celtics. Cavaliers win 4-0.

Chicago (3) v Milwaukee (6)

Akshay’s pick: Milwaukee have done well this season despite the season ending injury to rookie Jabari Parker in December 2014. They also are the second best defensive team in the league behind Golden State. But the Bulls are buoyed by the return of Derrick Rose and have too much firepower in their arsenal to lose this series. Bulls win 4-1.

Karan’s pick: The Bucks have shocked everyone in the league by finishing at .500 even without Jabari Parker. Unfortunately, their youth and inexperience will play against them against the deep Bulls. Chicago is loaded with multiple weapons from top to bottom of their roster and won’t even have to over-work Derrick Rose too much to win this series. Bulls win 4-1.

Kaushik’s pick: Great turnaround from Milwaukee from where they finished last season and Kidd has done a great job with this young team, but this team is still a couple of years away from peaking. Chicago on the other hand is a loaded monster. With Rose back, and their team deeper than ever, it feels like they’re built like a team meant for the playoffs. Bulls win 4-1.

Toronto (4) v Washington (5)

Akshay’s pick: Easily the best first-round matchup in the East as a top-5 offensive team (Toronto) takes on a top-5 defensive team (Washington). Both teams also have near identical records post All-star break, with Toronto going 13-16 and Washington going 13-15. The key for me is Paul Pierce. His experience and Washington’s big men – Nene and Gortat - give the Wizards the edge. Wizards win 4-3.

Karan’s pick: Both teams are the dictionary definition of mediocrity, of playing good but not great basketball and being too inconsistent to truly be contenders. I think that the series will go the full seven games, and will see some heroic individual performances by both the talented backcourts (Lowry and DeRozan, Wall and Beal). Ultimately, ‘The North’ should win their first playoffs series since 2000. (!!!!) Raptors win 4-3.

Kaushik’s pick: It doesn’t speak much about the conference that this is the best matchup of the first round. Both these teams, so similar in storylines, have dragged themselves to the end of the season and neither is really a force for later on in the post-season. However, I think Toronto still has a little more fire and experience from losing last post-season and will nick this one in a close series. Raptors win 4-3.

Western Conference:

Golden State (1) v New Orleans (8):

Akshay’s pick: Anthony Davis has been a star for the Pelicans all season long and the team will look to him to carry their fortunes. But in Golden State, they have an opponent, which is the best team in the league by some distance, with All-Star players and a deep bench. Warriors win 4-0.

Karan’s pick: The Warriors have been a historically good squad this season, and will continue to play at the highest level on both ends of the floor. All signs may point to a Warriors' whitewash, but the Pelicans will have the best player in the series - Anthony Davis - and I think he will be able to lead them to at least one win. Warriors win 4-1.

Kaushik’s pick: This is going to be such a fun series. I don’t think the Pelicans will actually win, but Anthony Davis. That’s all that needs to be said really. Davis is a beast, and has the perfect tools of a big man that can trouble Warriors’ small ball front court. There will be a couple of close matches, but Warriors ultimately are too good and too deep for the Pelicans. Warriors win 4-1.

Houston (2) v Dallas (7):

Akshay’s pick: This could be interesting if Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis can make things work for Dallas in the backcourt. Also, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle is known to spring a surprise or two with his strategies in the playoffs. The Rockets are also missing the underrated Donatas Motiejunas and Patrick Beverley. But in the end, James Harden and Dwight Howard should do the job for the Rockets. Rockets win 4-2.

Karan’s pick: I have faith that the brilliant Coach Rick Carlisle will find a way to make Rondo, Monta Ellis, Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler, and former Rocket Chandler Parsons work out for a huge upset. Houston are struggling with various injuries and will be exposed for having no offensive direction beyond what James Harden. As the series progresses, I think Dallas will contain Harden, negate Houston’s other options, and score an upset. Mavericks win 4-2

Kaushik’s pick: Houston Rockets or Harden Rockets? My MVP pick for the season has single handedly carried the Rockets to the second seed! This team may not look deep but Harden is having a career season and the Mavericks don’t have enough in my opinion to stop him. Rondo isn’t a good fit, Dirk doesn’t seem like Dirk and they’re not as deep as they have been in prior runs. Rockets win 4-1.

LA Clippers (3) v San Antonio (6)

Akshay’s pick: The best matchup in the first round across conferences, vindicated by the 2-2 season series scoreline. The Clippers have players in their prime, but the Spurs have experience and a terrific young player in Kawhi Leonard. The Clippers are lacking in bench strength but have home-court to make up for it. My head says Spurs, but for once I will go with my heart. Clippers win 4-3.

Karan’s pick: I expect Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to play the series of their lives to finally win a playoff series; unfortunately, the Spurs have more than enough experience in thwarting star-driven teams that break down without multiple options and depth. The Spurs have been in scorching hot form primed for another deep post-season run. This will be a tough series for them, but ultimately, I think they will pull out an upset and advance. Spurs win 4-2

Kaushik’s pick: OMG! Why is this match up so early in the playoffs?! Both teams are ON FIRE at the moment and are meeting only because of another dumb NBA rule. Paul is balling right now and the Clippers starting unit is one of the best there is. Spurs too look great led by the monster that is Leonard. This will be a close series, but I pick Spurs because of their experience and depth. Spurs win 4-2.

Portland (4) v Memphis (5)

Akshay’s pick: This could have been a terrific series had Portland been completely healthy. Right now they are just too banged up, with the season ending injury to Wesley Matthews being the biggest handicap for the Trail Blazers. Memphis has also won all four regular season meetings. Grizzlies win 4-1.

Karan’s pick: Portland seems to be snake-bitten with all the injuries they have suffered in the lead up to the playoffs. Memphis have been out of form slightly in recent weeks too, but they are a team built to capitalize on slowing down in the post-season, and they should be able to get through to the second round. Grizzlies win 4-2

Kaushik’s pick: Portland were my dark horse pick for the title had they been fully fit but Mathews’ injury is just so tough that I can’t see them going too far. Memphis themselves haven’t been very impressive in the past couple of months but I think they’ll have too much grit and grind that will help overcome the beaten down and seemingly cursed Blazers. Grizzlies win 4-2.

  • Akshay Manwani: 0
  • Karan Madhok: 0
  • Kaushik Lakshman: 0

April 18, 2015

Hoopdarshan Episode 3 - Vishesh Bhriguvanshi and the lifestyle of Indian basketball stars

On Episode 3 of Hoopdarshan - the first-ever Indian basketball podcast - hosts Kaushik Lakshman and Karan Madhok catch up with Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, one of the most talented and experienced players of India's national team and a dominant force for India at the domestic stage. Bhriguvanshi reveals the worldview of being a top basketball player in India, discussing why he chose basketball as a profession, his greatest national and international experiences, and his love for good ol' dal-chawal.

Bhriguvanshi (26), from Varanasi, is one of the most accomplished players in Indian basketball today. He has been a key component for India's national Sr. Men's team for nine years,holding the role of captain for the majority of his time. He has played in three FIBA Asia Championships, two Asian Games, and was one of India's top players in the squad that defeated China at the FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan last year. Bhriguvanshi has also won gold and silver awards at several FIBA Asia 3x3 events for India. Domestically, he has won five of the last seven Senior National Championships with Railways and with ONGC, his current employers.

Hoopdarshan aims to be the true voice of Indian basketball, and since we're such hopeless fans of the game, it will become the voice of everything basketball related we love, from the NBA to international hoops, too. On every episode of Hoopdarshan, we will be inviting a special guest to interview or chat to about a variety of topics. With expert insight from some of the brightest and most-involved people in the world of Indian basketball, we hope to bring this conversation to a many more interested fans, players, and followers of the game.

Make sure to follow Hoopdarshan on Soundcloud or search for 'Hoopdarshan' on the iTunes Store! Auto-sync Hoopdarshan to your preferred podcast app NOW!

Hoopdarshan can be found on...

April 17, 2015

Sim Bhullar - NBA's first Indian-origin player - will visit India next month

Several years ago, the Bhullars of Canada took another trip home to their land of origin, Punjab. Like they usually did for every trip back to India, the Bhullars took along their children, too. Two of those teenage children - Sim and Tanveer Bhullar - had now grown into mammoth seven-footers, both with a promising future in basketball ahead for them. Even though few knew of the Bhullar family in India back then, Sim and Tanveer still managed to receive their fair share of attention when they visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Being a pair of seven-footers would do that.

"I was last back in India about five years ago and it was pretty crazy, it was different, and I really enjoyed it!" Sim told me in an interview last year, "I remember going to Golden Temple, which was huge and really crowded. I remember that we were swarmed by a huge crowd of people who took photos – and they didn’t even know who we were!

A half dozen years have passed since then. Sim Bhullar is set to return to India, and for the first time, will be recognized for being more than just a really big guy.

10 days ago, Bhullar, who had spent most of the last few months playing for the NBDL's Reno Bighorns, entered an NBA game for the Sacramento Kings, and thus became the first-ever player of Indian-descent in the NBA. It wasn't an earth-shattering performance, and his NBA contract lasted just 10 days, three game appearances, two points, and a rebound. But in his small way, the big man was able to break the barriers for the people of Indian community around the world, and also give birth to Mahatma Grande.

Bhullar's contract with the Kings has now expired and the team - owned by Indian-born tech mogul Vivek Ranadive - finished far from qualifying for the 2015 NBA playoffs. It is now being reported that Bhullar will be spending a part of his extended vacation back in his parent's birth-land: India.

Via Duane Fonseca for The Pune Mirror:

Sim Bhullar, the first and only Indian-origin player ever to debut in the National Basketball Association (NBA), will visit India early next month. Bhullar is expected to travel to the country with his sister and is due to touch down on May 2 or a day later.

The 22-year-old has a packed schedule during his week-long India sojourn. And apart from spending time at promotional events in Mumbai, his itinerary includes visits mainly to Delhi and Amritsar to see the Golden Temple.
In Mumbai, Bhullar will do promotional work for the Reliance Foundation, who have a multi-year tie-up with the NBA to promote the sport at the grassroots. He is expected to conduct a clinic for school kids in the city and is also expected to put in an appearance at an Indian Premier League (IPL) game either here or in Delhi. The dates of events he will attend are yet to be finalised.

The NBA has long been interested in capitalizing on Bhullar's racial heritage as the first desi to play basketball at a high level, and even though he's a true-blood Canadian in every sense (he represented Canada's U18 national team at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in 2010), the league as well as the Sacramento Kings have emphasized on his Indian roots a lot more. Like it or not, that is just part of the business, and in the long run, it may help to inspire a large potential audience in India to show more interest in Bhullar, the Kings, and the NBA.

From the report above, it seems that Bhullar will take part in both public and private events. The Reliance Foundation have a deal both with the NBA in India and with IMG in sponsorship of the Basketball Federation of India (BFI), and it won't be surprising if they promote him as the first Indian face in the world's best basketball league. Despite being a 7-foot-5 giant, Bhullar was a sort of an underdog in his journey up to the professional level. Not all of us are blessed with his size, but hopefully during his trip, Bhullar is able to connect with young Indians and inspire them to turn their dreams into reality, too. I also hope that this trip is just the beginning of Bhullar's connection with both the NBA and with India: if he is able to continue improving and secure a longer NBA career, there may be many more promotional visits to come in the future.

It seems like Bhullar will be returning to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, too. You can be damn sure that he will be crowded by curious onlookers again; but this time, I'm hoping that a handful in that crowd show up in 'Bhullar 32' Kings jerseys!

April 16, 2015

Upset Watch 2015: My NBA playoffs first-round preview

We have entered the zone of straight-up best-of-seven knockout series. And beyond the single game edge that every ‘home’ team will have in each series, nothing from the past will matter anymore. Like every year, I present a preview in terms of percentage probabilities; as in, the probability of an underdog (away team) to upset the favourite in every series (home team) in the First Round. It’s an inexact science, occasionally wrong, but I promise you, thoroughly entertaining. Here – in ascending order of least probably upset to most – is my preview of all the series in the First Round.

Click here for full feature on SportsKeeda.

April 10, 2015

More wins, less hype: The consistent dominance of LaMarcus Aldridge

He may not get the hype that is showered on many of his peers, but LaMarcus Aldridge has long been one of the most dominant bigs in the league and his consistency has helped keep the ship steady for the contending Trail Blazers this season. Ultimately, like other players with greater ambitions, Aldridge will eventually be judged and remembered for what he does in the post-season: if he can lead his team to greater, consistent playoff success, casual fans are going to get to know him a whole lot better, too.

Click here to read full feature.

April 9, 2015

The Birth of Mahatma Grande

After years of climbing up the ranks, from High School to College to the D-League, 7-5 Canadian giant Sim Bhullar finally saw his NBA dream becoming a reality: he was signed to a 10-day contract by the Sacramento Kings last week and made his first appearance in 16.1 seconds of action against the Timberwolves last night. It was a nice moment that a only a handful of basketball players ever get to experience: the feeling of putting on an NBA jersey, stepping on an NBA court, and finding his name permanently enshrined in the box scores of NBA history.

But of course, you know the story by now, and you know why Bhullar's 16.1 seconds were more significant than most others. With one small step on court, Bhullar took a giant leap for desis worldwide, becoming the first player of Indian-origin to ever play in the NBA. Unlike the usual hungama and tamasha that we Indians like to associate with most of our accomplishments, Bhullar's appearance was largely subdued. His entire debut was only a shade longer than the maximum length of an Instagram video. He touched the ball just once (inbounding it to a teammate), and finished with a box-score of ducks 0-0-0-0-0. A day later, Bhullar scored his first two points in one and half minutes of action in the Kings loss to Utah. And with these humble beginnings, another NBA barrier was broken and a giant was born.

Bhullar's status has soared in recent days, too, with strong performances in the D-League to provide him his foundation and the Kings' contract taking his popularity through the roof. Basketball-loving Indians from India, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and in every nation on every continent on the globe who have long dreamt of the day that one of their own – a desi – would achieve the highest benchmark of the hoop dream and play in the NBA, and in Bhullar, they finally saw that dream achieve reality.

Of course, there is a shade of cynicism amid the optimism, too. The Kings are owned by the NBA's only Indian-born owner, Vivek Ranadive, and thus it has no surprise that the franchise chased him after the draft, assigned him to their affiliate D-League team, and signed him for the NBA (after their own playoff hopes were finished) just in time for the annual Sikh Community Appreciate Night. There have also been voices, such as the excellent Amar on SLC Dunk, who say that the NBA has overstated Bhullar's Indian connection to reach out to the billion-strong population in India instead of focusing on his Canadian basketball roots. It will be up to him to prove that he can be a useful NBA contributor and more than just a publicity stunt - and I believe that he has the skill-set and potential to continue proving his doubters wrong.

Nothing can take away Bhullar's achievements, as he gave his blood, sweat, and tears to the game and made the most of his combination of talent and size to realize his individual hoop dream. The son of Punjabi immigrants to Canada has now played and scored in the NBA. Many more players of Indian-descent - and hopefully of Indian citizenship - will do it after him, but he will always be the first. That first moment on court lasted just 16 seconds, but that's 16 seconds more than you, me, or any other player with some Indian in his blood-stream has ever played.

So let's celebrate the big man's milestone and feast on some butter chicken (like I ever needed an excuse to do that!). Let's get down with the Sikh-Ness! Let's celebrate the birth of Mahatma Grande, the greatest nickname that the giant Canadian-Indian could have possibly asked for (word to @scottostler). Sim Bhullar has finally broken the desi-NBA barrier; hopefully he can inspire many more to follow in his footsteps and bring a lot more masala to our favourite basketball association.

April 8, 2015

Jonathan Rego becomes India's first FIBA agent

Basketball is becoming more and more an international sport, not just in terms of the spread of the game to different countries, but also in the manner of how there are no borders anymore for basketball professionals on the globe. As opportunities grow, players from across the world are crossing international boundaries to ship their talents to leagues in the Americas, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and of course, Asia, too. But global basketball transactions are a complicated process, and FIBA - the world's governing body of basketball - have employed the use of player's agents to handle the business of the game between players, teams, leagues, and nations.

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Rego became the first Indian to be certified as a FIBA agent, after passing the necessary qualifications at the FIBA House of Basketball in Mies, Switzerland.

Originally from Mangalore and raised in Abu Dhabi, Rego (32) now works in Mumbai as the senior manager of operations of the ISL's Mumbai City FC. He is also working on a few sports exchange programmes with international universities, where he says he is starting with a basketball programme to test the waters before moving on to other sports. Additionally, he is looking to put together a team with the hopes of managing a franchise in the future Indian professional basketball league.

Rego previously worked for CAA KWAN and GLOBOSPORT. During this time, he managed and executed nearly every NBA India event 2008-2013, working at both grassroots and mainstream events across the country. Rego also covered the NBA All Star Weekend for NBA India in Houston in 2013.

"I hope to give Indian basketball players the opportunity to make a living playing professionally," Rego said after receiving his FIBA agent credential, "Thus, encouraging parents to allow and encourage their kids to pursue basketball seriously, leading to the proliferation of basketball in India, and eventually making it a global basketball superpower."

India doesn't have its own professional league yet, but we definitely have a number of talented players who deserve to play at the professional level. Playing abroad may be the only option for many at this point, and it will only be with the help of FIBA agents like Rego that our best players can wade through the complicated process of finding teams and conducting transactions to make that option into a reality. Hopefully, as basketball talent grows to make India a stronger hoop-playing nation, the business side of the game continues to evolve and mature as well to provide a backbone that helps the players succeed at the highest levels.