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.