Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kevin Martin to the Rockets

Well, this came out of nowhere. With the Kings seemingly intent to keep their team intact until draft night, and the Rockets all but locked into dealing Tracy McGrady to the Knicks or Bulls, the two teams paired up for this deadlines third major deal. This could still evolve into a three team deal with the Knicks, but this is what we know so far:

The Houston Rockets send Tracy McGrady, Carl Landry and Joey Dorsey to the Sacramento Kings for Kevin Martin, Sergio Rodriguez, Hilton Armstrong and Kenny Thomas.

Some quick, 2 bit analysis, first from Sacramento’s side:

• I feel kind of robbed, from a pure fan perspective, of the Tyreke Evans-Kevin Martin backcourt experience. For all of their “struggles to coexist” this season, Mini-Mart was obviously rusty after returning from injury – his 53.5 TS% is easily the worst of his career (excluding his rather uneventful rookie season). I have no doubt that this pairing could have been devastating to the rest of the league once Martin got his legs back under him, not to mention what they could have done with a decent frontcourt. That being said, Martin was reportedly unhappy with his role, especially after sitting out all but 15 seconds in the 4th quarter of Tuesday game against the Celtics. If that was indeed the case, he had to go. This is Tyreke Evans’ team, and it will be such for a long time.
• A key part in the previous paragraph was “…decent frontcourt”. Saying the Kings were losing big ever since Martin returned from injury is the easy way out, but the truth is Martin’s return just happened to coincide with Jason Thompson completely falling off of the basketball landscape. The regression is astonishing: from 15.3 ppg and 9.6 rpg in November and 16.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg in December, Thompson plummeted to 9.1 and 7.8 in January. His minutes (34.4 in November, 37.3 in December, 27.2 January) and shooting percentage (49.6%, 52.5% and 36.7%) have also dropped dramatically. Add that to Spencer Hawes’ patented inconsistency and a lack of depth, and you get an opponent lay-up line.
• Enter Carl Landry. Emerging as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and a big-time 4th quarter scorer, what Landry does best is what the Kings lack: score in the post. At 16 points per game (on 62% TS) in only 27 minutes, Landry is a ridiculously efficient scorer. Even more importantly, he comes up big in the 4th quarter. Pair him with Tyreke Evans, and you have an inside-outside scoring combo that could be dominant for years to come. Not to mention Landry’s contract should be considered a felony, with a team option for next year worth only 3 million.
• Landry also gives the Kings some much needed toughness for a frontline consisting mostly of softies and the Brock Ness Monster. The venerable Zach Harper described Landry’s toughness in great detail: there’s really nothing to add.
• The only concern regarding Landry is his rebounding, which dropped dramatically in every of his 3 seasons so far. He is now at an 11.6 rebound rate, which is pretty low for a power forward. Still, his 16.5 rebound rate from his rookie season shows that the basic tools are there, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a dramatic spike in his rebounds (currently 5.5 per game) with the Kings.
• Tracy McGrady is washed up. Move along.
• As for the other throw-in for the Kings, Joey Dorsey is an elite rebounder and is also a nasty banger, but with Jon Brockman on the team I doubt he gets any minutes. Every team can use a badass banger with no offensive game whatsoever, but two of them is too much.
• Last, but not least, the Kings free up around 7 million benjamins worth of cap space, bringing them to a projected total somwhere around 16 million this summer. This could be huge: while the Kings are unlikely to lure a big-name free agent, they could use the space to bring in a well-paid vet from a team looking to save money (Andre Igoudala?). The Kings activity this deadline more or less assures a very active draft day in Sacramento as well.
• (The last bullet changes if the Kings swing McGrady’s expiring corpse to the Knicks for anything that includes Jared Jefferies. If that happens, then the Kings lose out big time. If you trade Kevin Martin for Carl Landry and cap space, you’re all right; if you trade Kevin Martin for Carl Landry and future picks, you’re all wrong.)

A look at the Houston side of things:

• As with the Kings, I ultimately like the deal, but I can’t help but feel sad. In the Rockets’ case, the sadness stems from losing Carl Landry. Landry was arguably their best player this season, and is the ultimate Morey-ball player: unheralded 2nd round pick who somehow becomes a legit NBA contributor with nothing but elbow grease and a propensity to lose teeth. I honestly believed Morey and Landry would go together for their entire NBA careers, and to see them break up feels wrong.
• That being said, if you can get Kevin Martin for Carl Landry, you do it. Martin, as well as Landry, is an extremely efficient scorer, only better. Martin will immediately be this teams first option on offense, pushing Trevor Ariza back into his more natural supporting role. Landry will be missed, but Luis Scola, Chuck Hayes and David Anderson are all perfectly capable frontcourt minute soppers. Personally, I’d love to see some small ball, with Ariza/Battier/Chase Budinger at the 4, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
• The only concern with Martin is his health. Martin has been kind of injury-prone in the past few years, as has the entire Rockets organization. Hopefully this doesn’t come back to bite them. Stay tuned.
• Tracy McGrady is washed up. Please continue.
• Rodriguez will probably move ahead to the Knicks if this becomes a 3 team deal, but if not, I like him for this team. Both of Houston’s point guards (Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry) are of the scoring type, while Sergio is a pure passer. Probably won’t matter, but if he stays, I think he could do more than the proverbial throw in.
• What I love most about this deal is that Daryl Morey has finally made this his team. Yao Ming is now the only player on the roster that wasn’t brought in by Morey, and with his contract expiring next year, it is very likely that he leaves as well. So far, Morey has shown an uncanny knack for picking up solid role players for nothing. Martin is his first star pickup. I honestly can’t wait to see if this works out for him as well as his minor deals. History is on his side.
• Tracy McGrady is washed up. Go on with your lives.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Half Man, Half a Bad Pun

As a rule, I try not to draw conclusions from regular season games. In an 82 game season, it’s important to look at overall trends, and not get caught up with singular blemishes, especially since even trends can be misleading as far as playoff success. However, there are certain regular season games that can teach us about the bigger picture. And last night, a seemingly insignificant game, with a seemingly insignificant result, blew open the Eastern playoffs race.

New Orleans 117, Orlando 123

The Magic needed a huge comeback from 17 down to barely beat a borderline playoff team without it’s best (by far) player, it’s starting 2 guard, and it’s starting center (Emeka Okafor played only 9 minutes because of foul trouble). And yet, I feel like this is the game that raised Orlando from “still a contender but need a couple of lucky breaks and/or some serious soul searching to pull anything off” to “STILL A CONTENDER”. Why?

Vince Carter.

I a rare performance usually reserved for players who don’t wear undershirts and aren’t scumbags, Vince went off for 48 points on an array of threes, mid range jumpers, and drives. The type of performance that makes you forget that Vince has been disappointing everything that moves for the past 12 years and say to yourself “man, maybe he can still get it and amount to something?”

There was something else about last night, though. It wasn’t just the 48 points, the 19 for 27 shooting, the inability to miss, or the fact that his shot was so smooth that most of his jumpers didn’t even touch the net on their way down, let alone the rim. Vince always had the ability to explode, even if it was nowhere to be found so far this entire season. But last night’s Vince scored within the flow of the game. He didn’t force shots, give or take a heat check or two: He drove to the rim, he got open looks of double teams and screens, and when it didn’t work he moved the ball. In fact, despite his offensive explosion, his most impressive move, to me, was a beautiful behind the back pass when posting up, finding Matt Barnes for a layup. Which was fitting, because at his best, Vince is an all-around offensive dynamo, and not just a volume scorer.

And perhaps most importantly, his teammates were actually looking for him. And it wasn’t because Stan Van Gundy drew up a play. It wasn’t like the January Boston game, where Vince was the go-to-guy on the last play, but every player on the floor and every single viewer at home knew he was going to mess things up, before J.J. Redick was luckily unable to find him, gave the ball to Rashard Lewis, and Shard sank the game winner. No. They were looking for him because they knew he was going to win the game. And for all the Xs and Os, basketball is a game of instinct, a game of feel. A feel that was missing to this Magic squad since Hedo Turkoglu left the team.

I supported the de facto Vince-for-Hedo move, because Vince is a better player than Hedo. He’s a better scorer, a better defender, a better rebounder, and can be effective on offense without the entire game running through him. Talent wise, this deal was a total wash for the Magic. But with Vince, it was never about talent, it was about the intangibles. It was about fitting in. And the intangibles were terrible. The chemistry was non existent. Vince has shown nothing of the qualities that made him one of the best players in the NBA, instead showing the qualities that denied him from playing any meaningful games in his career. Forcing shots, disrupting team play, showing no effort what-so-ever, and ultimately, underachieving. When January came to an end with Vince averaging 8.7 points per game on 28 percent shooting, I was surprised that Vince was THAT bad, and I knew he couldn’t possibly get any worse, but having watched the games, it made sense. He was just awful.

Well, for 3 of the past 4 games, culminating on Monday, he played like Vince should play. And the Magic need that Vince. With bad Vince, they are not winning the title. No way. With good Vince? Anything can happen. So yes, maybe the regular season doesn’t mean anything. Maybe last night just gives Vince motivation to take even more bad shots, and hog the ball, and make every basketball fan shake with rage whenever he takes the court, before finally shutting down for the season because of a stubbed toe. And history shows that will probably happen. To be completely honest, if I had to place a bet, gun to my head, I'd say that in three months I probably look back at this post in sorrow as Vince struggles to multiple 4-17 nights in the playoffs. But last night shows that it’s possible. Good Vince is in their somewhere. We can only hope he’s alive come May.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Tyreke Evans - Not A Point Guard?

As I’ve probably written here before, I, as many other people, grew up wanting to be a professional basketball player. In fact, as a 4 year old, I had it all figured out: I’d go to college at Kentucky, get drafted by the Bulls, and succeed Michael Jordan, while simultaneously becoming the first Israeli in the NBA. Well, the last part was deemed impossible thanks to Omri Casspi, but as for the rest of my plan, I missed it by about 38 combined inches: 8 off my height, 30 off my vertical leap. Oh well.

What does this have to do with Tyreke Evans? Well, despite failing to fulfill my destiny as the greatest NBA player of the 2000s, basketball is still more or less my favorite thing ever, and as such, I love to analyze it to a pulp. And not just the generic discussions, Wilt or Russell, Magic or Bird, Lebron or Kobe. No, I go way further than that. Who was the better Laker towel boy off the bench, Mark Madsen or Adam Morrison? (Well, technically Adam Morrison sucked as a towel boy, and Mark Madsen is the gold standard by which all towel boys are measured, but I just find it funny that Ammo is so sad). Who is the worst Clipper failure, Yaroslav Korolev or Michael Olowokandi? Which NBA player is more likely to take over the world, Brian Cardinal or Oleksiy Pecherov? (Pecherov. Always Pecherov.)

So I get the need to over-talk things. Really, I do. Hell, that’s my favorite way to waste... um, spend time too. But this media frenzy around an absurdly pointless question – “Is Tyreke Evans a point guard or not?” – is… well… pointless. It’s pointless because there is a very clear answer to that question, and it’s pointless because ultimately, it doesn’t matter.

The very clear answer: of course he’s a point guard. He’s a point guard because he plays point guard for his team, and in today’s game, that’s the only criteria there is to being a point guard. It doesn’t matter how many assists per game he averages (tied for 17th amongst point guards, by the way). It doesn’t matter what position he played in college. A point guard is the player who handles the ball, and runs the offense. And you know what? He’s doing a hell of a job. His handling skills are top notch. He has a phenomenal basketball IQ. He sees passes that few other players in the league can see. I don’t see how players like Jameer Nelson, Tony Parker, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey and Jarrett Jack, all starting at point guard for their respective teams, could be considered as “scoring point guards”, while Evans scores more (20.7 per game) than all of them, has more than/as many assists as all of them (excluding Parker, who is at 5.8 to Evans' 5.0), and is considered “not a point guard”. It makes no sense.

Furthermore, take a look at two the games other exciting young point guards, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. Westbrook went through the exact same discussion last year as Evans is this year – a combo guard in college, being played as a point in the NBA, with mixed results. This year, he is blossoming into one of the league’s best young point guards, becoming a legitimate second option for a playoff contender. The “is he a point guard?” argument hasn’t been seen since June.

Rose, on the other hand, has been widely considered as the next big thing in NBA point guards since day one, at least until John Wall arrives next season. But a quick look at his numbers tells a different story: he scores less than Evans, on more shot attempts (Evans shoots a lower FG%, but makes some threes and gets to the line). He rebounds less. His defense is infinitely worse,. He only leads Evans in assists per game, and his advantage is hardly dominant – 5.8 against 5.0. Yet despite scoring more efficiently and passing almost as well as Rose, Evans is not a point guard, and Rose is. Why? It makes no sense.

Evans is still young. He’s 20 years old. 20 year olds make mistakes, in basketball and in life, whether they play point guard or shooting guard. But Evans gives his team so much, regardless of position. Last night, in the Kings’ loss to the Spurs, Evans submitted one of the most impressive 2 minutes stretches in recent memory, trying to single handedly will his team to a comeback (they ultimately fell short). In the final 1:40 minutes, Evans had no less than 12 points (2 threes, 2 layups and a dunk, no misses), 3 assists and two steals. In 100 seconds! How many players in today’s NBA can do that? Lebron, Kobe, Wade, Chris Paul. Maybe Brandon Roy. That’s it. And again, HE’S TWENTY. Excluding the occasional streak of insanity, he has virtually no outside shot, and despite that, he is unguardable. Even more so when he plays the point, because most point guards just aren’t physical enough to guard him without crashing to the floor on the verge of tears. Why squander that matchup advantage for no reason?

Which brings me to my final point: IT DOESN’T MATTER if Tyreke is a point guard or a shooting guard. It really doesn’t. Because what Tyreke Evans has, in pure, unfiltered basketball skill, transcends position. He has “it”. It might seem premature to say this, 50 games into his career, but you watch him play and you know it. He’s doing things that very very few have ever done. Only 3 players put up a 20-5-5 statline in their rookie year: Oscar, MJ, and Lebron. Tyreke is on the verge of becoming the 4th. That doesn’t just happen. Those aren’t empty stats on a bad team. That’s a 20 year old beating the crap out of 21-35 year olds because he’s just plain better than almost all of them.
The NBA is a superstar’s league. And once you have that superstar, you can leave it to him. He’ll figure it out. Just look at the Cavs: nobody in their right mind would call Lebron James a point guard, and yet he’s been a de facto point guard for their last six games. All wins. Most of them dominant. Now, Tyreke isn’t and won’t be at Lebron’s level at any point of his career, but he is a guy you can build a franchise around. I know that it's early and he's just 20 and blah blah blah, but you look at what this kid is doing, and you see how much he can still improve his game, and you know that you can win a title down the road with him as your alpha dog. That’s that elusive franchise player, the kind of player that teams desperately try to get, knowing that getting him is the hardest part of building a contender. Knowing that getting a supporting cast is all good, but isn’t enough without that one player. And those guys are good enough to play wherever the hell they want. No matter what position they play, they make the mismatch work in their favor, and they dominate.

Is Tyreke better suited to play the 2? Probably. I envision him as a Wade/Kobe/Lebron/Roy type guy, in a perfect situation, he isn’t a point guard, but he handles the ball. But does that mean he can’t play the point under any circumstances? No. He can play it, and he can play it pretty darn good. And on this Sacramento squad, where their second best player is a shooting guard, that’s where he helps them the most. If the Kings find a way to trade Kevin Martin for a big man of his stature, then they should, because that’s what they need. But you don’t trade your second best player for nothing just because somebody said so. You don’t give up on what you already have for what might become something better. You stay the course. You glance sideways, always checking every alternative to see if it’s better. But you don’t just go for it because the grass looks greener on the other side. You bid your time, and you examine every option, and unless it’s a sure thing, you pass. And you work it out.

And it can work out. Because Tyreke Evans can make it work out. Because Tyreke Evans isn’t the type of player who needs to be nourished in the right system, that is built around his strengths, and maximizes his talents. Tyreke Evans is the kind of player that, just by stepping on the court, is poised to destroy you. Point guard, shooting guard, combo guard, lead guard, royal guard - doesn't matter. Destroyed.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Trades That Won’t Happen But Should Because They Are Awesome, take one.

With perhaps the most discussed free agency class of all time coming up in the summer, and an economy that necessitates cutting costs, many predict that the NBA trade deadline, only a few weeks away, will produce an inordinate amount of movement. While we have already been treated to some bombastic trade rumors, though, history shows that deadline deals tend to be a disappointment. Rarely do we get the deals we want, with many teams preferring to take the safe route and stay put, and maybe cut a little salary.

Still, a fan can dream.

Therefore, I hereby announce the debut of everybody’s favorite segment (though nobody knows it yet): Trades That Won’t Happen But Should Because They Are Awesome. In this segment, I will throw out random trade ideas that I like, and will never happen. The criteria: the trades must be somewhat realistic for both teams (no Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown here, though I’m sure the Pistons would love that); the trades can’t be realistic enough to have a chance of happening; and at least one team has to come out of the trade with their roster look totally awesome.

First up, a sweet three team deal with the Jazz, Warriors and Mavericks, and an unnamed cameo to be declared.

Golden State sends Monta Ellis to Dallas, Speedy Claxton and Devean George to Utah, Utah sends Andrei Kirilenko and Kyle Korver to Golden State, Dallas sends Josh Howard to the Utah.

Why this is realistic: The Warriors are reportedly listening to Monta Ellis offers, while contemplating whether he works well with Stephen Curry; the Mavs are one of a select few who are willing to add on long term salary for a chance to contend; the Jazz want to save money in a desperate way.

Why this will never happen: Come on. Just look at the names involved. NBA GMs just don’t have the necessary cojones.

Why Golden State does this: Because Andrei Kirilenko was born to play Nellieball power forward. It’s as simple as that. He has more value to the Warriors than he has to any other team in the league. Also, the Monta Ellis era is going nowhere – he is not a franchise player in any way, and will refuse to be anything less as long as he is on this team. He may be putting up monster numbers this season, but there is just too much bad blood between him and the Warriors for them to keep this charade going. What line-up scares you more, Curry-Ellis-Maggette-Radmanovic-Biedrins, or Curry-Morrow-Maggette-Kirilenko-Biedrens? They also get to add another sweet shooting rotation player for two throw ins with Korver. Not to mention, that with Kirilenko’s contract (16.4 million this year, 17.8 next year) coming off the books in the summer of 2011, the Warriors will either have actual, honest to god cap space in said summer, or a workable trading chip in a huge expiring contract.

Why Utah does this: The Jazz are the tricky part with this deal, since the team is playing some of the leagues best basketball lately, with a rejuvenated Kirilenko playing a big role. Moving Kirilenko to help a fellow borderline contender in Dallas is risky. But how far can this Jazz team actually go? Second round of the playoffs, at best? How can you go into win now mode when you aren’t going to win now? With this deal, the Jazz take a flyer on Josh Howard, a former all-star with an expiring contract, who is playing some terrible basketball. If he finds new life on a new team, he is a better player than Kirilenko, albeit not as well-rounded. If not, they just let him go after the season. With Kirilenko’s contract off the books, the Jazz are only committed to 38 million dollars in payroll, giving them enough cap space to resign Carlos Boozer, or replace him with a near-max free agent. Not to mention the immediate financial help – this deal saves the Jazz 4 million this year, and that’s before including the luxury tax (which they will now be under), and Speedy Claxton’s insurance paid (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) contract. The long term/financial benefits are just to big to ignore here, even if it means going one round less deep in a meaningless playoff run.

Why Dallas does this: Now, this is where I really like this deal. The Mavericks are in full win-now mode, with their top five guys on the wrong side of 30, and two more guys not far behind (Drew Gooden is 28, Howard 29). This deal gives them a young stud in Ellis, who is already a very good player, helping both their immediate plans and their dark, Dirkless future. Furthermore, Dallas is probably the best fit for Ellis in the entire league: they already employ two shot first, defensively inept, shooting-guard-in-a-point-guard’s-body guys in J.J. Barea and Jason Terry. Ellis does the same things as both of these guys, only better. And with a veteran team that doesn’t need him to run the offense, Ellis can go back to being an efficient scorer (20 ppg on 58% true shooting during his breakout 07-08 campaign), and not just a high-volume one (26 ppg on 52% TS this year). It’s a perfect fit. Just plug Ellis into the starting line-up for Barea, and you’re good to go.

This deal has just one clear shortcoming for the Mavs: it leaves them short at the small forward position. As bad as Howard has been this season, Dallas’ other 3s are two tweeners in Shawn Marion and Tim Thomas. Which is where the Mavs now get some assistance from our special guest:

Dallas sends Erick Dampier, Drew Gooden, J.J. Barea and James Singleton to Philadelphia for Andre Igoudala and Samuel Dalembert

“Wait a minute, why would the Sixers do that?!” Because they are going absolutely nowhere. This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems: the Sixers seem willing to move Igoudala if they can get rid of Dalembert’s contract, and reportedly already had discussions with the Houston Rockets involving those two for Tracy McGrady. Well, why not, instead of bringing in a broken down primadona, when you can bring in 3 rotation players that make less money? This deal saves the Sixers 5 million this year, before luxury tax, and then a whopping 24 million next year, with 4 expiring contracts replacing Dalembert and AI2 (technically, Dampier has conditionally unguaranteed contract and not an expiring one, but the effect is the same). It’s obviously a salary dump, but Philly was headed that way anyhow – Igoudala is not a franchise guy, and this team is not a playoff squad. Simple as that. Might as well build round quality youngsters Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Thadeous Young and Marreese Speights, while bottoming out for draft picks.

As for the Mavs, well, this is where these two deals go from “intriguing” to “AWESOME”. Dallas immediately becomes a bonafide contender. Imagine Jason Kidd running the fast break, with Monta Ellis/Andre Igoudala/Jason Terry/Shawn Marion streaking down the court, and Dirk following from behind for the trailer jumper. That’s some mouth watering stuff right there. This team has everything now: defensive stoppers (Iggy and Dalembert are very underrated defenders, Marion can practically guard anyone, and even Quinton Ross can get them some stops off the bench); long range shooting (Ellis and Iggy don’t have great percentages, but they will knock them down if open, Kidd has been lights out since joining the Mavs, Terry is Terry and Dirk is Dirk); a traditional lineup (Sammy, Dirk, Marion/Iggy, Iggy/Ellis/Terry, Kidd/Terry) and a small ball one (Dirk, Marion, Iggy, Terry/Ellis, Kidd). Not to mention, suddenly this team has a long term core, with Igoudala, Ellis, and the Tricolour Turbo, Frenchman Roddy Beaubois. Add another buyout bigman after the deadline, and this team can definitely win a title – not only win it, but win it with some truly amazing basketball.

And there you have your answer to the third criteria. With these deals – deals that won’t happen, but that aren’t utterly preposterous – you get a brighter financial future for Philly and Utah, a better fit for Golden State, and a staggeringly awesome team in Dallas that blows the Western title race wide open. These are trades that will never happen, but should, because they are awesome.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Not Awards Watch

If there is one thing I hate, it is early season award watches. In a regular season that stretches for almost six months, the need to pass the time is understandable. What isn’t understandable is giving out awards two weeks into the season. While there are certain trends early on in the season – no one in their right mind would argue that Lebron James or Kobe Bryant aren’t at or near the top of the MVP race – it’s easy to get carried away with what already happened, forgetting that the last 50 games are just as important as the first 32.

Therefore, you won’t hear about the MVP frontrunners, or the leading Rookie of the Year candidates from me, because it’s simply too early to tell. Too much can change. Whar I can say pretty certainly at this point, is who will not win awards. The reasoning: although there is still a long way to go, all teams have played more than 30 games so far, a decent chunk of the season. The last 50 games can change things at the top of the rankings, but these awards are the results of season long excellence, and the first 30 games count just as much.

So without further ado, here are the players that should not be taking home any hardware come April. There is one catch: to be eligible, a player must be considered in the race. I can guarantee you that DJ Mbenga will not be the MVP, but that isn’t much news. All of these players can, under the right circumstances, garner some underserving votes from talking heads that don’t watch games. Just don’t forget that they shouldn’t. Also, no coach of the yea. Just too many candidates to mess with.

(P.S. It’s absolutely possible that at the end of the day one of these players will deserve to win an award. Just not probable. When one of these guys rips off 40 points per game after the all-star break, don’t blame me for not calling it).

Not MVP: Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

One of the games top scorers has taken that ability to the next level, displaying an ability to score from more or less everywhere and in anyway. Melo started the season on a tear, averaging 31 points per game in October/November, leading his Nuggets to a 12-5 record. Melo was so good to start the season, that he was a popular early-MVP choice, and many-a-columnist wondered out loud if he has entered the “best player in the game” discussion. However, since then Melo has slipped off, his team going for a mediocre 12-9 since the beginning of December. It should be noted that the Nuggets have suffered from injuries – both Anthony and Chauncey Billups missed five games a piece – but when compared to the all around brilliance of Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, the late career blossoming of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, and the statistical dominance of Chris Paul and Chris Bosh, Melo is still not in MVP territory. This could change later in the season, but it would require a dominant record for Denver, and a newfound intensity on defense from Melo that I just don’t see happening.

Also Not Receiving Consideration: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

After an MVP caliber season couldn’t push his team over the top last season, Wade seems to have taken a step back. His stats, though still huge, are down from last year, most notably his shooting percentage (only 44.3% after 49.1% last season), and his team’s record is an unimpressive 18-16. He seems to be pacing himself, which he has every right to do considering his team is going nowhere until this summer, but that’s just not MVP material. Not this year.

Not Rookie of the Year: Jonny Flynn, Minnesota Timberwolves

The number 6 pick in the draft has been given the keys to his team, and has delivered with mixed results: while he’s averaging a handy 14 points (3rd amongst rookies) and 4 assists (4th) per game, and already has his first career game winner ( capping of a 28 point outing against Utah), he has done this on 42.9% shooting and in 29 minutes per game (per 48 minutes, his assists drop to 9th amongst rookies). Also, his team is a dreadful 8-30. It seems a little unfair to penalize Flynn for being thrust into a bad situation and asked to lead, but fellow rookie point guards Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings, who have been put in charge of their respective teams as well, have both been able to produce a jump in the win column, keeping Flynn out of the discussion.

Also Not Receiving Consideration: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

I hate writing this, because it’s just unfair. Cliché or not, injuries truly are a part of the game that nobody wants to see, and I can’t wait to finally see Blake on the court. Unfortunately, this year’s number one pick has missed too much time to be in the running for ROY hardware. The other rookies in a much-stronger-than-expected draft class just have too much ground on him.

Not Most Improved Player: Trevor Ariza, Houston Rockets

After helping the Lakers win the NBA title last season, Ariza is putting up big numbers for the Houston Rockets (15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals). A closer look reveals a different story. His rebounds and steals per minute are down. His assists per minute are up, but his assist ratio is about the same (i.e. the jump in assists is a result of having the ball in his hands more often). And his increased scoring is migitated by his shooting being in the 30s. When looking at Ariza’s stats, all you need to look at is minutes per game: 24.4 last year, 38.1 this year. Ariza the player really hasn’t improved all that much, if at all, he’s just been given the oppurtunity to showcase his skills. For people just looking at points, rebounds, and assists per game, it seems Ariza has skyrocketed, which will probably result in him getting more than a few MIP votes from various talking heads. You can rest assured that they are not deserved.

Also Not Receiving Consideration: Joakim Noah, Chicago

Noah is a lesser case of the Ariza syndrome: while he has improved since last season, his per minute stats indicate a much smaller improvement that his per game stats. With his minutes bumped up from 24 a game to 33, Noah’s rebounds per game skyrocketed from a respectable 7.5 per game to 12.2, trailing only Dwight Howard for the league title. Per minute stats show an improvement in rebounding as well, though not as substantial (from 12.5 per 40 minutes to 14.6). His scoring is up – from 11.1 points per 40 minutes last season to 12.9 – yet much less efficient, with his shooting percentage down from 55.6% to 49.2%. Noah has developed into one of the best defensive big men in the East, and might even get some all-star love, but the biggest thing for him has been finally getting playing time, and not improving his skills.

Not 6th Man of the Year: J.R. Smith, Denver Nuggets

This award is often just given to the highest scoring bench player. As a bonafide scorer coming off the bench, Smith will always be in the discussion by that virtue alone. However, Smith is mainly a chucker: he puts up 14 shots per game, and scores 15 points. For someone that does little else (he’ll throw in over a steal a game, but is hardly a good defender), that’s not good enough. He will throw up the occasional 40 point explosion (one so far this season), overshadowing the much more frequent 3-12/4-13/5-14 stinkers that don’t appear on Sportscenter.

Also Not Receiving Consideration: Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix Suns

The 2007 6th man of the year winner is usually a candidate for this award based on reputation alone, having been a pace changer off the bench for quite a while down in Arizona. This season, though, he has been slowed down by injuries, playing only 19 minutes per game (the lowest since his second season) and shooting a career low 44 percent. With the emergence of Jared Dudley as a 3 point sniper and hustle-play-extrodinaire, the Brazilian Blur might not even be the best bench player on his team. In all fairness to Barbosa, it should be pointed out that pretty much anybody who isn’t named Carl Landry could easily fit in this category. If only the NBA gave out an award for best Lionel Richie cover

Not Defensive Player of the Year: Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks

Josh finally made the mental switch that every basketball fan around the globe has been waiting for, and is putting up ridiculous defensive numbers (2.2 blocks per game, good for 4th in the league, and 1.5 steals per game, 19th in the league). However, he accumalates these numbers by helping off the weak side and playing the passing lanes. While he does those very well, Josh just isn’t much of an on-ball defender. He’s not quick enough to stay in front of small forwards, and not strong enough to bump in the post with big power forwards. Sadly, DPoY usually goes to the player with the best stats, not necessarily to good defenders (see: Camby, Marcus), so Josh will get plenty of love, but I’d much rather have the less glamorous, more effective defenders over the spectacular stat collector.

Also Not Receiving Consideration: Lebron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Lebron was a legitimate DpoY candidate last year, finishing second to Dwight Howard in the final voting. This year, he seems to have taken a step back intensity-wise, entering that Kobe Bryant territory of saving his strength for the offensive end and locking down on defense only in crunch time (see Tyreke Evans and Joe Johnson in their respective 4th quarters against the Cavs). He is still the best defensive player on a top defensive squad, and a great defender when he applies himself, just not consistent enough to be considered.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cleveland 102, Los Angeles 87

This year’s slate of Christmas day games included probably the most hyped up game of the entire season: the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Los Angeles Lakers, Lebron James meets Kobe Bryant. Puppet-a-puppet. While I try to avoid drawing conclusions from single, meaningless regular season games, I was looking forward to this one, since direct games between title contenders tend to come with playoff-like intensity, with both sides trying to pull out a “statement” win. Also, the Cavaliers and Lakers only play each other twice each season, and I wanted to see how the two teams matched up, after last years seemingly dominant Cavaliers team fell to the Magic due to unfavorable matchups. Sadly, the game wasn’t nearly as close as the early predictions suggested, but here are some things I noticed that could be big in the future:

The Cavaliers dominated this game, hounding the Lakers into 36.5% shooting, and getting into their heads. Once a few calls went against the Lakers’ way (my take on that: Shaq probably got away with blocking foul or two, but all in all, the Lakers got calls in the first half, the Cavs in the second, and the officiating as a whole seemed fairly even), the Lakers lost their heads, leading to technicals on Kobe, Fisher, Odom (twice), the bench (not subbing in for Odom after he was ejected), and the fans (throwing foam fingers on the court. I continue to be amazed by the Staples Center crowd. Kudos to them for actually showing emotiong that doesn't revolve around tacos, but throwing foam fingers? Was it "6 year olds get in for free night"?).

For the Cavaliers, this game should push them back into the public’s short list of contenders. I’m not really sure why they weren’t there earlier, but no harm done. After struggling early on this season with adjusting to the big Shaquasition and Delonte West’s personal issues, the Cavs are rolling, with an impressive 3-1 road trip. What impressed me most was the versatility displayed during this trip: after beating the Phoenix Suns with a monsterous 4th quarter behind a small ball line up that Bill Simmons called “poop-in-your-pants-scary" (Lebron at the 4, Anderson Varejao at center), the Cavs beat the Lakers going big, with Shaquille O’neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas playing together extensive minutes despite some pretty bad previous results. The Cavs proved that they can deal with LA’s size, pretty much shutting down Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. Shaq and Z are still pretty terrible at defending the pick and roll, but specifically against LA, which doesn’t run the pick and roll as much, the pairing works. Also, Anthony Parker did a great job on Kobe - forcing tough shots, contesting jumpers, recording 2 blocks and altering several more by my eyes. Parker was brought in to make 3s and take the pressure of Lebron at defending perimeter guys: so far he has done only the former, but defending Kobe well is a great place to start.

As for offense, I know I’m not the first one to say this, but as Mo Williams goes, so does Cleveland. Mo torched Derek Fisher for 28 points on 8 for 13 shooting, combining long range bombs with penetration, and even some posting up. Anthony Parker had a bad shooting night – 1 for 5, missed all 4 of his attempts beyond the arc – but Jamario Moon and Delonte West filled in, each making a 3 and Moon hitting 2 more long range jumpers and finishing with 13 points on 7 shots. The Cavs shot 54% from the floor, with Lebron again proving why he is so great – struggling with his shot (27 points on a decent 9 for 19 shooting night, yet an atrocious 3 for 12 on jumpers from 16 feet and out), he played second fiddle to Williams, finding him for open jumpers doing his damage inside (including two absolutely gorgeous post moves). Seven turnovers for Lebron, but two of them were charges, and one came when the game was over, so while that isn’t a good number by any standards, I wouldn’t.

Truly, a great all-around game for the Cavs, who look downright scary after three impressive wins (the Suns, Kings and Lakers are a combined 37-9 at home this season, with three of those losses coming against the Cavs in the past week). The only downside I could see in this game was how lost J.J. Hickson seemed on defense, posting a team low +/- of -9. He played well in his first few games in the starting line-up, but the momentum caused by the move seems to have passed, and while I do think the Cavs could earn a valuable playoff contributor by giving him minutes, it would be hard to justify keeping him on the floor if he keeps playing like this.

Cut to the Lakers: hard to tell how much credit should be given to the Cavs’ defense and how much to the Lakers’ poor offense, since even against the best of the best, the defending champs should shoot more than 36% from the field. I would credit both: the Cavs did a great job stifling the Laker big men (Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are shooting 57% and 53% shooting, respectively, yet shot a combined 6 for 16), and yet not many nights will you see Kobe Bryant shoot only 11 for 32 from the floor. Bryant, in particular, had a very bad offensive game: despite his impressive box score (35 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists), he forced bad shots, missed many of the midrange jumpers that he usually lives on, and looked to me like he was pretty tired in the second half (more on that later). Kobe supporters would say that he had to take the extra shot attempts, with Bynum and Gasol shooting so poorly, but against a team with weak post defenders (of Cleveland’s four big men, only Shaq can truly defend a strong post presence one-on-one), those two have got to get the ball more. The Lakers can’t win a game with Kobe taking twice as many shots as his starting frontcourt, under any circumstances.

The Lakers as a whole played a pretty bad game offensively – only Ron Artest gave them a good game, with 13 points – but to be honest, except for Kobe’s mid range game, I didn’t really see them miss any shots that they usually make, except maybe Artest’s breakaway layups (then again, he misses those a lot). However, don’t make the mistake of dismissing this as a game that the Lakers just decided to let go – Kobe clearly wanted this game very badly, so much that he was pushing and hounding Lebron on defense late in the 4th quarter, even though the game was pretty much over. Perhaps this was the reason that he played way too much in this game, getting his first rest only midway through the 4th and playing a game high 45 minutes. I get that this is a big game, and that Kobe is a fierce competitor, but he is 31, and those knees aren’t getting any younger. In a December game, he shouldn’t top 40.

Then again, there is a good reason for Kobe’s high minutes: the Laker bench is terrible. This is a major concern going forward. The disparity between L.A.’s starting five (probably best in the league, though Boston and Orlando are in the discussion) and the bench is enourmous: after Lamar Odom, who is averaging a career low 8.5 points per game, the Lakers truly have no help from their second unit. Sasha Vujacic is a shell of the shell he was last year, Luke Walton is injured and wasn’t all that much to begin with, and Josh Powell and DJ Mbenga really aren’t all that. All that remains is the point guard combo of Shannon Brown and Jordan Farmar, but Brown is good mainly for highlight plays and energy spurts, and Farmar clearly doesn’t mesh well with Phil Jackson and should be moved for his own good. L.A.’s main six contributors are good enough to do it alone on most nights, especially in the playoffs when rotations shorten, but seeing how deep other contenders are, the Lakers need to find somebody who can be a spark off the bench.

All in all, this game teaches us more about Cleveland than about the Lakers – mainly, that Shaq works against the big teams, that they can still defend with the best of them, and that Mo can show up for big games after last postseason’s collapse. However, with L.A. now dropping to only 6-5 against teams with a winning record, it should be asked if they aren’t as dominant as we thought. Being the defending champions, they get the benefit of the doubt, but this year’s title is still far from certain for the Lakers – and the road to it, despite everything, still goes through Cleveland.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dancing With The Stars

After Friday night's match between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls, a fair share of media attention was diverted from the final result (Cleveland won) to an off-the-court incident: Chicago's Joakim Noah apparently felt disrespected by Lebron James' dancing to the sweet music of victory, and called him a bitch. A minor incident such as an athlete dancing - not murder, not theft, not even sticking a tongue out at a child spectator - stirred up a media controversy, adding to a list of events that transpired over the past year, and have each helped in portraying Lebron as an arrogant ass. I will now make an honest attempt to ignore my utter disbelief that anyone would find this newsworthy, if only to say this.

So - Freaking - What?

I mean, seriously? Dancing? We're getting pissed off at dancing? You know who dances? Dancers. Are dancers arrogant? Are dancers disrespectful? When was the last time you read a headline about dancers? And among those single-digit-numbered events, how many times did the aforementioned headline make you think "Wow, I really care about what happened over there, tell me more!"

But fine. Let's assume for a second that dancing isn't nice. Let's say that celebrating victories in basketball is a matter to be confined to high-fives only, excluding the occasional chest bump. Not only that, but let's all agree that dancing in front/in proximity to a defeated opponent is arrogant, and that said dancer is obviously a self absorbed prick.

Are you seriously surprised about it?

Lebron James makes millions of dollars a year, just to play basketball. In addition, he probably makes even more money by graciously allowing various companies to print his name over their products. Every time he comes to work at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, he may or may not notice himself covering nearby building(s). He was featured on a magazine as a high schooler. He was dubbed "The Chosen One" and "The King" as a teenager. Hell, the whole New York tri-state area has been obsessing on the sheer possibility of him maybe - or maybe not - moving there in the summer of 2010. That talk has been around since 2007. And now you're complaining that he's self absorbed? How could he not be self absorbed?! He's just trying to focus on what the rest of the world is!

This is not Lebron's problem. This goes way deeper. Every single sports fan - every, f-ing, single, one - wishes they had the physical abilities to have a sports career. Anyone who denies so is a liar. I've been playing basketball since I was 4. I believed I could be an NBA player until I was 12. I am 5'8, and whiter than snow. You can guess how that played out.

But since so many people wish to do what they love for a living - and so little actually do - us less talented ones hitch on for the ride. We find ourselves in those who made it. "Wow, look at Chris Paul! He's almost as short as me! I like that dude!" And since we look up at these people, we wish with all our might that they be look-upable (you're damn right I just made up a word for my angry tirade).

But sometimes - more often than not - they just aren't. Maybe because they were born as assholes - you know who you are - and maybe because they grew up in an environment that just didn't enable them to grow as such. Doesn't matter. Not the point. The point is that some athletes are good people, and some are not. But very few, if at all, are worthy of the adulation we shower them with. Most of us feel under pressure when asked to speak at a family dinner. These people perform in front of millions on a nightly basis - get paid ungraspable amounts to do so - see their names on peoples coats, shirts, shorts, socks, shoes, underwear, hats, wristbands, headbands, and whateverbands - open the paper/news every morning just to see themselves there - and retire at an age when most of us are just getting started, not before being immortalized by memories, history books, jerseys with their names and numbers hanging in arenas, and sometimes even life sized statues. Put yourself in that position. You wouldn't think ever-so-slightly higher of yourself?

Charles Barkley once half-complained, half-explained that he is no role model. Whether he wanted to or not, he was speaking on behalf of the entire athletic community. He is, and they are, not role models. If they were, maybe they would have been teachers, or world leaders, or dead. Doesn't matter. They are not good at setting examples, they are good at being athletes. And as such, we should stop idolizing them, only to declare them dead whenever they do wrong (ahem, Tiger Woods), but accept them for what they are - very, very good athletes, and human beings nonetheless. And if we can't do that, at least lets not waste our time covering pointless things instead of actually watching the beautiful world of sports.

And just so it'd be clear: If I was the best basketball player on the planet, I would be dancing too. And I'd be damned if hurting Joakim Noah's feelings stopped me.