Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Kobe Talk

What a strange couple of days. Kobe has demanded a trade, posted something on his website disclaiming this, then went on the air and demanded a trade (telling Stephen A. Scream, err, Smith that there was no way out), then posted something on his website that was a lot like a goodbye letter, and then went on Dan Patrick's show and said that bringing in Jerry West would help a lot.

Strange stuff. And let me first say that I have no sympathy for Kobe, which I wrote about right after the Suns series.

That aside, there are a lot of things to consider. I am going to start with the most prominent question in my inbox which is "oh please tell me that Portland won't trade for him" and move through some other thoughts. As usual, this will come in the form of a list, that way I'm not held to any standards of coherence.

1. The Blazers won't trade for Kobe.

Is it weird that I'm starting off talking about the Blazers? Maybe, but Portland is the center of the action right now. They have the top pick, they have trade pieces, and they are setting up to be the Next Gen Spurs. And Blazers fans are terrified that the whole thing might be ruined by Kobe Bryant.

They need not fear. The Blazers aren't going to bring in someone disruptive to the culture of the team, they aren't going to bring in a guy who wants/needs to win now when the rest of the roster is on a different time line, and they aren't going to trade the #1 pick, which is probably what would be required (although they shouldn't trade Roy either). Meanwhile, as my buddy Josh Stump points out, the Lakers are just as unlikely to move Bryant within the division or the conference, so this seems to have 0% chance of happening. Rest easy, Portland.

2. Perhaps no one will trade for Kobe.

I got the sense even before the Patrick interview that despite what feels like the End of Days right now, this could blow over and Kobe will wind up staying in L.A. I'm not sure there is a good trade match out there and while he is burning bridges like crazy, I think he's just blowing off steam.

Also, I've got a crazy conspiracy theory that might explain why this is happening (and why there seem to be so many zigs and zags). What if Stern put Buss and Bryant up to this, WWE-style? Interest in the playoffs is flagging, the Draft lottery spurned the Celtics and left all the joy in the Northwest which doesn't help the NBA as much, and the weakest free agent class in recent memory is about to roll off the assembly line, complete with a rapidly depreciating Chauncey Billups at the top of the list. In fact, the ongoing NBA story this summer is set to be "Stern is screwing up his league" or some such angle that connects the dots of the the brutal officiating, the incessant flopping, and the atrocious Amare/Diaw suspensions. He knows he's blowing it by focusing all his energies on overseas expansion and marketing and that he's alienated the U.S. fan base. He may not care THAT much, but if there is a quick fix, he will go for it. This is the same guy that jump started NBA coverage last October by introducing a new, crappy ball for no reason at all. So what if he put the Lakers up to this? This will be THE story until it is resolved and since the media can always be blamed, all parties have an out should they "miraculously" find common ground. I know it is unlikely and that Bryant sounds legitimately angry and ready to burn as many bridges as possible, but I don't want to rule out the possibility that this whole thing is rigged to keep the attention on the NBA while deflecting from all of the league's ineptness. Think about it: all summer we can talk about this, wonder where he might be traded, and then - oh wow! - he's still a Laker and nobody spent months talking about much Stern sucks. (Note: I'm not suggesting that Stern wants Kobe traded, but that he wants this to be the story of the summer with a happy ending.)

3. Teams That Should Trade for Kobe

Utah - Many have already disagreed with this in email, IM, and cell phone conversation, but I believe the Jazz should dangle AK-47, some young guys (Brewer, Millsap), and a future first rounder and hope to get lucky. Williams, Bryant, and Boozer would probably win a title within the next three years. I know Kobe doesn't appear to be a Sloan guy, but both are competitive to the point of being alienating so I actually think it could work. Bryant in Salt Lake City doesn't strike me as a match made in heaven, but whatever. KG lives in Malibu five months out of the year, so team locale is overrated. And lets not paint the Jazz fans as holier than thou, considering they tried to brain Steve Javie the other night. I think they can live with an accused rapist.

New Jersey - The Nets should absolutely try to work out a sign-and-trade with Vince and tack on Kristic and a pick. They might pull off a miracle if the Lakers get desperate and go the "sell tickets" route and Kobe might be intrigued by the prospect of playing with Kidd and moving to Brooklyn.

(My man Stump adds: "True. Maybe the Lakers are that stupid/desperate and they bring out Vince and Kobe gets his wish to play with Kid and the two of them run around high fiving each other in excitement until they realize that none of the rest of the players on their team would start for UNC next year. NJ gets to move to Brooklyn with full houses every night to watch Jay Z playing grab ass with Kobe before the Nets get run out of the building game after game.")

Boston - The Celtics should offer Pierce and all of their overrated young players not named Al Jefferson and see if they can pull something off. I doubt it, but you never know. With Big Al and the #5 pick, Kobe might think he can lead Boston back to respectability in a weaker conference. He's probably wrong, but it would be fun to see him fail. Plus, going from the Lakers to the Celtics would be worse than Finley choosing to play in San Antonio or Johnny Damon going from the Sox to the Yanks. It would reveal him to be a mercenary of Roger Clemens proportions.

Phoenix - If Phoenix can get the Lakers to swallow Marion/Diaw/picks,
they have to do it. If that doesn't work, they can offer Marion/Barbosa/picks and probably get it done. This might be the best offer L.A. gets now that they have the proverbial gun to their head and a weak bargaining position. The Suns with Nash, Bell, Bryant, Amare, Diaw/Barbosa and Whoever would be pretty much unstoppable. Unless Kobe shoots them out of games or he fights to the death with Raja Bell, either of which is entirely possible.

4. Teams that should NOT try to get him.

Portland - Obviously.

Denver - The fans might revolt; plus, how exactly would Iverson and Kobe coexist? (Stump adds: This may send the wrong message to the fans. "If you can't convict 'em, join 'em" isn't much of a slogan for an NBA franchise.")

Washington - I'd take the younger and more likable Arenas any day.

Houston - I know Kobe is more durable and a better "closer" than T-Mac, but McGrady is finally understanding how to lead, how to win, and how to make people better. With a better coach for the Rockets in place and the possibility of some new blood, they have to let T-Mac keep growing with this team. To swap him out for Bryant would be a big mistake and the surest way to stunt Yao's progress forever.

Dallas - The Mavs need to add a small piece or two, not blow up the team. (Although I'm kind of changing my opinion on this.)

Chicago - The Bulls need to save their ammo for a lowpost scorer, which I've been pleading for all year. They need Gasol or KG or even Zach Randolph more than Kobe. Plus, can you imagine him in a Bulls uniform? As if he hasn't been trying to be Jordan hard enough already. I might

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cavs Even Series

I'm sure many will disagree with this for a variety of reasons (including, but not limited to: beauty being in the eye of the beholder, the taint of it being a Leastern Conference game, and the general malaise that has stricken the NBA playoffs post-Suns), but this was actually a pretty entertaining game tonight. Not entertaining enough to write a cohesive column though, so here are 10 random thoughts:

1. Wilbon's Wrong, I'm Right. Sorry, can't resist. But not only did the Cavs NOT need Larry Hughes, I don't think they could have won the game had he played his usual minutes. People just aren't getting this (except for the guys at Yay Sports of course), but Hughes is AWFUL. He's been getting all the credit for Billups' struggles, but as I pointed out in a previous post, there are a lot of factors at work and they don't start or finish with anything specific to Larry Hughes. Without him in the game the Cavs had better shooting, better ballhandling, better help defense, and more basketball intelligence. I routinely crush Mike Brown here, but the Scarecrow (because he doesn't have a brain, but might be in the process of getting one) did the right thing by giving Hughes the final hook after that 8-0 burst to start the second half. That saved Cleveland.

2. Kenny Got His Wish. I promise this won't be all about big media types, but Kenny Smith hit the nail on the head after Game Three when he said that the next step for Daniel Gibson was to add penetration to this game. Gibson did just that, attacking the rim, getting to the line, and becoming more of a playmaker. Speaking of Gibson ...

3. Gibson Steps Up. It shouldn't be terribly surprising that Gibson is coming up big. He's a much better basketball player than Larry Hughes and is playing next to LeBron James, so with minutes will come numbers. Plus, he was once the #1 guy on Chad Ford's prospect board (before he had a rough junior year at Texas) so there is obvious talent here. Sure, he was a second round pick, but so was Gilbert Arenas. So was Monta Ellis. Plenty of talented guys go in the second round. He's a good player. I wish people would stop acting shocked that he's playing well like it is Rudy on the hardcourt.

(Speaking of, I love Marv Albert's surprise that Gibson went 12-for-12 from the line. While it was certainly a particularly good night for Gibson, you can't go off of his 72% mark for the season, because he was getting sporadic attempts. It is why you don't see a lot of pinch hitters slapping up a .360 in baseball. You need more looks to achieve a higher percentage. The best example of this was Lee Humphrey for Florida in the 2006 Tourney. Billy Packer couldn't begin to understand how a Sixty Two Percent Shooter! could knock down a bunch of free throws, completely ignoring the fact that Humphrey had only taken like 26 free throws all season. I guess the lesson is that small sample sizes are not to be trusted.)

4. Does Sheed Have a Gut? I'm sorry, but I'm watching Inside the NBA right now and they just showed Wallace whipping his jersey into some poor dude's face. Lost in the comedy was the fact that Sheed had a little gut hanging over his waistband. I have to admit, this shocks me.

(Along those lines, did you see Maxiell giving Billups a prolonged, sensual massage before the start of the third quarter? What was that all about? It looked like the rubdown that Xerxes gave to Leonidas in the middle of 300.)

5. Kerr Gets Excited. My favorite sequence of this game came when LeBron went behind-the-back to Donyell Marshall for a potential and-one. This play was followed by a great camera shot of Geraldo Rivera going bonkers in the stands. And to top it all off, Steve Kerr then said, "Geraldo loves it!" before cackling like an evil genius. Forget Geraldo, I loved it.

6. Scarecrow Stays with Gooden. Big moment for Mike Brown early in the fourth quarter. Drew Gooden had a Vintage Gooden series in which he fumbled a pass, tried to pivot like eight times, and then tossed up an airball hookshot. Frustrated by his poor play, he tried to chop Sheed's head off on the other end and picked up a tech. Pretty terrible work by Gooden, but not the end of the world either. All he did was give up an extra free throw. But normally, Brown would pull Gooden for that, acting like his power forward had just robbed a bank or something. Tonight Brown left him in and Gooden came through with multiple big shots and boards.

(Another live look-in on TNT's coverage. Sager is trying to grill Billups a little bit, but the only problem is that Chauncey looks completely unperturbed while Sager is beat red and sweating like Johnny Drama going to the Valley for the Aquaman premier. It reminds me of the scene in Seinfeld in which Newman is trying to investigate Jerry for mail fraud, but it is Newman dripping with sweat. "Pretty hot under these lights, eh Seinfeld? Pretty ... (gasping) hot!" And yes, I realize it took two TV show references to convey the point.)

7. Pavlovic Does Best Horry Impersonation. One of the key plays in the game came when the Pistons back-tapped a rebound on the offensive end, yet it was Pavlovic hauling in the long rebound and taking it the length of the court for a hoop. Question: what in the hell was he doing back there? His team is playing defense, battling for the board, and he's on the other side of halfcourt? How does that work? It was a lot like when Robert Horry made his famous shot against the Kings because he was standing 25 feet away from the basket watching his teammates scrap for the rebound. Kind of funny.

8. Gotta Love LeBron. There was once again a lot to get excited about in regard to LeBron's play. The "suck it" he gave to Hamilton on his last two free throws was big and the fadeaway late was insane, but once again, it was a simple pass that impressed me the most. And it didn't even lead to a made basket. At one point, the Cavs were up six, the crowd was surging, and LeBron was turning the corner into the lane. Nearly every other player (except for Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, probably) would have tried to finish at the rim to put a bow on the affair. But James saw a wide open Z and didn't hesitate for a minute, whipping him a perfect pass for an open shot. Big Z shanked the shot, but I just loved the thought process. It doesn't seem to matter if it is for a game-winning shot, a "pile on" moment, or whatever, LeBron is looking to make the right play every time. Passing is hardwired into his DNA and it is great to see. I just really, really hope that the impatient and hypocritical sports media will let this guy develop as he's meant to.

9. The Refs. I can't very well discuss the refs in every game and then fail to discuss them here. There was the usual smattering of missed and blown calls, but two plays stood out. The first was early in the fourth when James drove the lane, got the ball stuck on his hip, and was somehow bailed out when a foul was called on McDyess. Is there such thing as a makeup call two games after the fact? The other was that scrum at midcourt, where Gibson appeared to body check somebody and Eric Snow appeared to trip over a line, yet it was Snow going to the line for two free throws. The officials mostly stayed out of the way in this one, but those were a couple of suspect calls and they both really hurt Detroit.

10. Classic Sheed. As a Blazers fan, I know all the signs when Sheed is melting down and he put them all together in one rapid sequence late in the fourth. There was the headband toss, the T, the four straight borderline illegal picks, and then the horrific airball three ... all in 25 seconds of game time. Sheed is hilarious. The amazing part is that he didn't get thrown out.

The Bob Woodward of Flopping

You've got to check these columns out.

In this day and age, it is all about specialization. We see it in everything from law firms to foreign outsourcing, so why not in sports journalism/blogging? There is so much content out there that perhaps the best way to up the quality quotient is to search for specialization. Anyway, Dennis Hans isn't necessarily doing that (he writes on all things hoops as well as other, more sophisticated topics), but maybe he should. Because nobody is breaking down flopping in the NBA like Dennis. He's been analyzing block/charge calls and the way they have changed (and are going to get someone killed) for years and he's added another great piece over at HoopsHype.

Check it out:

Varejao is Blanche DuBois Defender of the Year

And to show he's not "bashing international hoopsters":

This is America's Fault

Larry Hughes Out

I have to take a moment and disagree with Michael Wilbon of PTI (who is great, by the way). Today on the air he said that he thought what was once a winnable series for Cleveland has been lost due to the fact that Larry Hughes is out of the lineup.

Now, before I ask my next question, I will note that the one thing Hughes does well is press up on Chauncey Billups from end to end. So if Billups breaks out and has a big game tonight (which is absolutely due for, regardless of who is guarding him), Wilbon and others might turn out to be "right."

But that said, has my man been watching the games? I know he's only on location for the Western Conference Finals, but I presume he's still tuning in to the Cavs-Pistons series. If he has, then he should be seeing what I'm seeing: Larry Hughes setting basketball back a couple of decades. I've crushed Hughes in this space and am honestly starting to feel bad about it, but his absence can only be a positive for Cleveland. Daniel Gibson is outplaying him (badly) and even Damon Jones is a better guy to have on the court if only because he can do Larry Hughes' job (stand on the wing and pop jumpers) better than Hughes can, plus he brings the added benefit of not trying to do too much. Hughes kills Cleveland because he thinks he's better than he is. This is the trait of all complimentary players that bring down franchises. The role players who simply suck and stay out of the way never actually lose games, but the sidekicks who think they have great skill wind up taking 20 shots or committing 8 turnovers because they keep doing things they shouldn't be doing and monopolizing the ball. (See: AJ Abrams of the University of Texas last year.)

Anyway. I expect the Pistons to play well tonight, actually, and win the game. But it will have nothing to do with Hughes being out of the lineup. If anything, the Cavs have a much better chance now. MUCH better.

(Update: Well, so much for that. Hughes is out there playing. And Steve Kerr is raving about Hughes' defense on Billups, which is just more reductionist analysis of the situation, as Gibson has been just as good on Chauncey. Billups' struggles are a little bit about pace (he's going faster than he would like), a little bit about strategy (hugging him the length of the floor), and A LOT about Billups just playing like dog crap. I am quite sure he would tell you the same thing. Mr. Big Shot needs to get it cranked up. After all, it is May AND time for a new contract.]

Monday, May 28, 2007

You Want Me To Write About This?

I've been getting a lot of email wondering why I didn't break down Game Three of Spurs-Jazz and since I want to cut those emails off at the pass after Game Four, let me just put it in simple terms: I like basketball, not Greco-Roman wrestling.

The Spurs-Jazz series might as well be played in the Octagon, because this is more mixed martial arts than hoops. Both teams are fouling the living hell out of each other on nearly every play. As Bill Walton has often vented, "Why even have a rulebook?"

Tonight was the worst I've ever seen as guys were getting knocked over like bowling pins with no calls. This went on for both teams until the fourth quarter when the officiating crew suddenly decided to start calling fouls on Utah. I know I have a rep for hating on the Spurs, but if someone wants to honestly tell me that the 25-2 fourth quarter free throw advantage was fair, please feel free to do so. As far as I could tell, it was a joke. Totally aribitrary, like flipping a switch. At BEST, it was guess work.

Anyway, here are the handful of thoughts I can muster: Deron Williams is a beast, Mehmet Okur needs a game face, Kirilenko threw about five passes that were so bad that they qualified as "Larry Hughes-esque," the first tech on Fisher was so bad it was actually hilarious, Manu Ginobili made some big plays, Fabricio Oberto (of all people) might have won the game for the Spurs, the Jazz have been reduced to a two-man team (do Utah fans still think I am "way off" for suggesting they trade AK-47 for Ray Allen?), Mike Breen needs to get off his high horse (it is sad when Mark Jackson has to check him a half-dozen times a game), and watching Manu and Fisher flail at each other is like seeing the Ali-Frazier bout for the sport of flopping.

Bring on the NBA Draft and - gulp - the Eastern Conference at this point. The Western Confernce Finals just suck. Bottom line. Sorry.

(And for the record, with or without Javie's hideous officiating crew, the Spurs would have won the game for the simple reason they didn't have Kirilenko winging the ball into the stands over and over.)

Oden or Durant: Depends on Rashard Lewis?

Despite the fact that LeBron is quitely breathing some life back into the NBA Playoffs and the U.S. Open is coming up in June, the "Oden or Durant?" question just became the most riveting sports angle for the next month. I've enjoyed reading all the comments weighing in on the subject, but there is an X Factor that is laregely being missed in all this and his name is Rashard Lewis.

Most accounts say that Lewis' feelings for Nate McMillan range somewhere between "upmost respect" and "huge man crush." If Seattle is going to get value for him in a sign-and-trade, it would most likely be with Portland. So it would seem that both the Sonics and Blazers have an incentive to get these pieces sorted out properly. Since it is Portland with the #1 pick, they have the upperhand, but I think Seattle will be willing to pay the price to get this ironed out. And to me, "ironed out" means that one team winds up with Oden/Lewis and the other with Randolph/Durant. The pairings of Oden/Randolph or Lewis/Durant don't make nearly as much sense, especially if the former is in Portland (where MY man crush LaMarcus Aldridge roams the paint) and the latter is in Seattle where Ray Allen is already hoisting oh so many threes. It would behoove both teams to sort this out and create the most ideal pairings.

So ...

If it is to be Oden and Lewis in Portland, that means the Blazers can engineer a sign-and-trade that nets them Lewis in exchange for Randolph. It gives Portland a pure center to pair with a pure power forward (I don't share the growing concern that Oden will get in LaMarcus' way or stunt his growth - he is far less likely to do so than Randolph and the best case scenario has these two emerging as a Next Gen Duncan/Robinson) and Roy and Lewis on the wings. For now, Jack can handle the point guard duties until Sergio is ready or they find somebody else or bring back Steve Blake or make a move for Conley or whatever. Meanwhile, the Sonics feel great about getting Durant, move him right in as a better, more versatile, and more tenacious version of Lewis (one of the great draft steals of all time, by the way), and then get something instead of nothing in the form of a premium lowpost scorer.

On the other hand, if it is going to be Durant and Randolph in Portland (and there are certainly strong cases to be made for that duo, along with Aldridge, Roy, etc.), that means Oden is going to Seattle and that the Sonics would be likely to pony up the cash to keep Lewis and certainly Rashard would be more likely to stay if he knew Oden would be roaming the paint. But if you are Portland, there is no need to simply take Durant #1 when you know how much Seattle would love to have Oden. Certainly, the Blazers can exact a handsome reward for simply swapping picks and getting the guy they really want. I'm not sure who Nate would want to reel back in from his old roster, but if it is Ridnour, Watson, Collison, Wilcox, or whoever, I'm sure Portland could have its choice, meaning they could keep Randolph for one more year (or shop him to a team like the Bulls or Mavs), take the guy they want in eventual Uber Star Durant, AND snag a few more assets in the process. Call it the Ridnour Tax for swapping picks.

I just find it so interesting that the two Northwest teams already have the McMillan connection, were already going to be talking trade in regard to Lewis and Randolph, and now have strangely interchangable picks atop an unbelievable draft. The I-5 corridor is about to get pretty busy. It is definitely advantage Pritchard and Portland, but whatever price Seattle has to pay, they are likely to do it because they will come out ahead as well.

Fascinating stuff, I think. And all the more reason why we can't really analyze who the top pick should be without considering the Lewis Factor.

Checking In: Baseball Picks

In the ongoing quest for accountability (totally lacking in today's world of sports media), I'm checking in on my baseball picks. Once the NBA Playoffs wrap, I will go over those picks as well (I'm guessing that won't go well, since I picked the Rockets to win it all).


American League

West - Anaheim
Central - Cleveland
East - Boston
WC - Minnesota

Comments: All the division winner picks are right so far, but it is Detroit and not Minny that is leading the WC chase. Still, I am feeling very good about this set of picks.

MVP: Grady Sizemore
Cy Young: Johan Santana
Rookie of the Year: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Breakout Star: Nick Markaksis
Bust: Gary Sheffield
Manager of the Year: Eric Wedge

Comments: This is not so good. Dice K is probably leading the ROY chase and I'm sure Wedge is looking good, but that is all I have going for me. Sizemore isn't playing poorly as he is over .400 in OBP and is fourth in MLB in steals (16-for-17) and fifth in runs (40) while also providing some pop (8 HR, 24 RBI) at the top of the order, but he is WAY behind Guerrero, Ordonez, A-Rod, and Big Papi. Not to mention some of his teammates. Santana has never been an early starter and I wish his 5-4 record was better, but he's not looking too shabby. His 3.09/1.06 ratios look good and with Beckett on the DL and Lackey's WHIP inflated, it leaves only Danny Haren positioned well in front of him. As for breakout and bust, I was way off. Sheff has been pretty mediocre (.247/.804) but there are guys going worse. Markaksis though has been brutal, while B.J. Upton is running away with the "breakout player" distinction.

National League

West - Los Angeles
Central - Chicago
East - New York
WC - Philadelphia

Comments: Not as good as the AL picks, but not bad, thanks to Philly's recent hot streak. The Dodgers and Mets are winning their divisions, but the Brewers and Padres have the other two spots. Luckily, Milwaukee is coming back to the pack and the Cubs are only five out (and Soriano has yet to heat up), while Philly is just three back in the WC chase. These could be better, but a week ago it was a lot worse when it looked like the Brew Crew and Bravos were going to be world beaters.

MVP: Jose Reyes
Cy Young: Cole Hamels
Rookie of the Year: Homer Bailey
Breakout Star: Rickie Weeks
Bust: Carlos Lee
Manager of the Year: Lou Pinella

Comments: Yikes. Reyes is right in the mix for MVP (even with his recent slump, he's still be my choice today) and Hamels has a shot (improved to 7-1 today, but is way behind Jake Peavy and others), but the others are pretty bad picks. Weeks is still mediocre and adding insult to injury is that either of two teammates - Prince Fielder and JJ Hardy - would have made GREAT picks. Lee has been quite solid for Houston. Pinella is going to need to do a whole lot of work. And Bailey has yet to make a big league appearance this year.

LeBron Critics (and Pistons), Thwarted

Everyone will have to take a day off from beating on LeBron, because you can't quibble with 32-9-9, highlight reel plays, leadership, and the game-winning shot.

Here are other thoughts from the Cavs' 88-82 win in Game Three (sorry about missing Game Three of the Western Conference Finals, but I'm having a hard time remembering that it is happening).

Scarecrow Gets a Brain

I'm not exactly taking back any previous comments about Mike Brown, but at least he figured out tonight that Larry Hughes + Big Minutes = Loss. Playing Hughes sparingly and opting for Daniel Gibson saved Cleveland today. It seems so painfully obvious that Gibson is the better player. He's faster, is a better shooter, plays far better defense, and has more stones. I've said this about a dozen times already, but Hughes looks like a gifted wide receiver that got called out of the stands to play hoops. He can run and jump and has nice hands, but no feel at all for the game. He made three of the worst passes I've ever seen today (an alley-oop attempt for LeBron that nearly broke the backboard, a bounce pass off Z's feet, and a backdoor pass to James that hit him in the ankles) and all three were the product of having no "feel." Plus he can't shoot, doesn't understand the pick-and-roll, never knows when to attack and when to pass, and isn't much of a ballhandler. Throw in the fact that he thinks he is good (and therefore does a whole lot of ill-advised stuff) and he just kills Cleveland. Meanwhile, Gibson isn't just replacement value, but is actually becoming a good player. So good for Mike Brown for finally getting it. Whether it was Hughes' foot injury, a demand from James, or Brown just making the realization on his own, this was a huge development.

Billups the Anti Jerome James

Chauncey made a few shots late, but otherwise had yet another horrific game. His timing is not good as he's about to become a big free agent. I mean, he got benched in the second quarter for Flip Murray. Wow. His price tag is going down faster than my boy Zach Braff's after The Ex opened to $1.4 million last weekend.

Kerr Commits Larceny

How did Doug Collins feel tonight when Kerr stole his favorite bit of analysis? In case you missed it, Kerr attributed LeBron's improved mid-range shooting to "getting an early dunk on the break" which can "make those jumpers come easier." Anyone who watches a lot of hoops on TNT knows this is Collins' jam. He loves to talk about shooters getting to the line and getting dunks to open up the jumper. When Kerr broke this down it was followed by dead silence. No doubt that was stunned, confused silence on Doug's part.

LeBron Goes Off

Duh. You don't need me to point this out. But he really was amazing. Hit some crazy jumpers, dunked on people, made all the right decisions, pushed the ball, attacked the glass, continued to play overlooked defense, and really lead his team. My favorite moment is after he made a ridiculous step-back three, sprinted to the bench on the ensuing Detroit timeout, headed over to get his high gives, and then suddenly turned away to meet Daniel Gibson. I have no idea what he said, but it looked like he was pumping the rookie up, telling him what a great defensive play he had made, and giving Gibson all kinds of confidence. Great stuff. Also, I love that even when LeBron is making shots, getting to the rim, and having his way, he still makes the pass when it is open. He will make the skip pace to a shooter, the no-look to a cutter, or even the simple pseudo handoff to a pick-and-pop target. He's not at all interested in stepping outside what he feels is the right play and I love him for that. When you have teammates this crappy and are still willing to be team-first, that is great for basketball. Someday he is going to have good teammates and we are going to see some magic. Or some Magic. Either way, lets praise this guy for building good habits instead of slipping into the trap that ensnared T-Mac early in his career and gets Kobe into trouble from time to time.

Flip Saunders ... Fire Your Barber

Why on earth is Flip rocking that curly mullet? Normally I would let him off the hook because it is hard to see the back of one's own head, but he can see this on film. What is he thinking?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

LeBron Should Put the Onus on the Refs ... Oh Wait, Nevermind

Just got done watching another horrific Eastern Conference Finals matchup. I only have three thoughts, then it is back to mastering the world of private equity and venture capital (don't ask).

1. If you were one of the 432,000 people criticizing LeBron for not "putting the onus on the officials" in Game One, please step forward now. What, no one will admit it? That's what I figured. It's so great in this day and age. Say something on air and it is forgotten a few hours later. Post something on the Internet and it gets buried the next day. I heard so much garbage about how LeBron should have tried to finish that drive the other day - ignoring the fact that he had yet to earn a single trip to the foul line in that game - and now I promise that no one will admit they were saying that. Why? Because tonight LeBron "put the onus on the officials," got fouled twice by Rip Hamilton, and did not receive a call. Game over. I love Inside the NBA, but the ringleaders of the "put the onus" crew didn't say a single word about it tonight. Solid work, everyone.

2. Mike Brown might be the worst coach in the NBA. He inexplicably forced the ball to Z for the first five minutes of the third quarter, depsite the fact that Ilgauskus looked like Cosmo Kramer in the "Butter Shave" episode of Seinfeld. He couldn't have reeled in a pass if he was Spider Man. Yet there were the Cavs, isolating Z on the block and throwing it to him again and again and again. And poof, a 12-point lead was a one-point defecit. Great job. Not only that, but Brown's rotations were a mess, his decision to hold for the last shot in regulation was a disaster, and his insistence on featuring Larry Hughes AT ALL is puzzling, to say the least. Speaking of ...

3. I know I've hit on this a few times, but Larry Hughes is just awful. He sat for almost 12 minutes straight as Daniel Gibson completely outplayed him (even Damon Jones showed him up) and then managed to get Brown's attention, show him that blackmail material again, and get back on the court. Where he promptly turned it over three straight times, failed to make a single positive play in the final six minutes, and missed an open seven-footer to win the game. I'm not trying to pick on Hughes, because he seems like a nice enough guy, but I just don't think he knows how to play basketball. He's athletic and all, but his feel for the game is nonexistant. Gibson isn't even very good and he's only a rookie, but he is SO much better than Hughes.

(Sorry there aren't any comments on the Pistons, but what am I supposed to say? They scored one field goal in the final five minutes, had Billups and Sheed sleepwalk through the first three quarters, and only stayed in the game because Jason Maxiell isn't too cool for school out there. Forgive me for not being terribly impressed. This is one of those games where someone lost it, rather than someone winning it. So the focus is on the losing team. But that said, I can't wait for some Pistons-Spurs Part II in the Finals! Ugh. The movers are coming to take my TV on June 6 and you know what? Good riddance. What a total, absolute, unmitigated disaster these playoffs are turning out to be. Get ready for a lot more Draft chatter on this space.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Celtic Salvage Operation

What do you do when a dream turns into a nightmare with the bounce of a ping-pong ball? Irrational or not, all of Boston thought they were getting a top two pick and riding off into the sunset. (In fact, it seems that to a man, Boston fans were somehow convinced that they would nab exactly the #2 pick and that it would be Kevin Durant; it was kind of weird how specific it all got.)

Now? They are sitting on a #5 pick that feels like purgatory. Not only is it a letdown, but it doesn't really match value with need in this case. Either Brandan Wright or Al Horford should be there at 5, but those guys play the same position as their best young player, Al Jefferson. Corey Brewer might be around, but plays the same position (pretty much) as Paul Pierce. Yi Jianlin is intriguing, but mainly because he's a mortal lock to be the worst All-Star starter in NBA history next season thanks to China's domination of the fan vote (credit my buddy Josh Stump for leading the way on that observation). Plus, even if he does wind up being good, he's a few years away. Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge absolutely will not be around to experience a "good Yi season," that is for sure. So what on earth should they do?

I will tell you: find the one team in the NBA that thinks the #5 pick is fabulous. This requires a few things. First, that team must have a certain perspective; one that never at any time thought Oden or Durant was a possible outcome. Second, that team must be desperate to move established players for cheap rookies, purely for luxury tax purposes. Third, that team must have a good player they are willing to trade, maybe even for slightly bizarre reasons.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, that team is the Phoenix Suns.

Think about it. Phoenix is obsessed with getting under the luxury tax. There have been reports all season that it is an either/or Armageddon situation with Marion and Amare. And they were making all kinds of plans regarding a potential pick in the 4-7 range, because that is where the Atlanta trade would have landed them. They are probably in love with a guy like Wright and are currently plotting how to get him. They are probably trolling for a way to trade Marion without inciting the entire fan base. The Celtics, in possession of the #5 pick, some young, cheap assets, and a big contract set to expire in 2008, can swoop in and give Phoenix the perfect out.

Here is one way the deal could go down:

Phoenix Gives Up: Shawn Marion, Marcus Banks, and the #29 pick

Boston Gives Up: the #5 pick, Theo Ratliff's expiring $12 million contract (in 2008), Delonte West, Kendrick Perkins, and their first round pick in 2008

[Update: I'm starting to think Boston could get this done without giving up the future first rounder. So feel free to consider it with or without the 2008 pick.]

I know this looks less-than-awesome for Phoenix on paper, but consider everything that it accomplishes. First, it alleviates this supposed logjam with Marion and Amare. If you believe the reports, these guys struggle to coexist, plus they both make a ton of money on a team that has an owner unwilling to pay the tax. Someone has to go, either this year or next. Maybe Phoenix can get a better player for Marion, but it is hard to see them gaining more depth, youth, and financial flexibility. The #5 pick could net them a very exciting young big man, as mentioned above. I happen to believe that Wright and Horford are going to be sweet NBA players and remember, those guys (or Yi or Noah or whoever) presented a very exciting "best case scenario" about 12 hours ago for Phoenix. The Suns also get their precious luxury tax relief 12 months from now. Their financial situation wouldn't change much next year, because in order to trade Marion under the cap rules, they have to bring pretty much equal salary back over. But Ratliff is coming off the books at the end of next season and would bring them well under the luxury tax threshold.

The Ratliff contract does even more than save Robert Sarver money though. It also allows Phoenix to draft a foreign player at #24 and then stash him overseas until the finances allow them to bring him back over. (By the way, let me pause here and say how much I hate the luxury tax. It penalizes a team for getting good players who eventually demand larger paychecks. I hate it with a passion that is a little frightening.) PLUS, it would make Phoenix a big-time player at the trade deadline next year. If Sarver had a change of heart next winter and decided a title would be worth the extra dollars, he could turn Ratliff's contract and his fistful of draft picks into a legit stud at the deadline.

Phoenix would also get some nice pieces back from Boston. Delonte West could spell Steve Nash, hit mid-range jumpers, and play tough defense off the bench, all for just over a million dollars a year. Kendrick Perkins could give them frontcourt depth and some Diop-like defense on Duncan, for the price tag of $4 million per (when his extension kicks in next year). Basically, they would be swapping the worthless Marcus Banks for the potentially valuable Perkins (as a sort of transaction tax on Boston). Plus, they would have Atlanta's and Boston's first round picks next year, which could conservatively project to a top-10 and a top-20.

The net result for Phoenix is that they would have Nash, Amare, Raja Bell, and Barbosa as the core of the team, with Boris Diaw, Kurt Thomas, Brandan Wright (or whoever they take at #5), Delonte West, and Kendrick Perkins rounding out the nine-man rotation. That is still a really great team, with far more depth, versatility, and roster flexibility. (Not to mention a team set up to receive an influx of up to four first rounders - their own, Boston's, Atlanta's, and the foreign guy at #24 this year - at a time whey they can finally dole out some paychecks.)

As for Boston, they would have to bring Marcus Banks back, but that is required to make the deal work. But the Celtics would gain a star in Marion that would help them win right now and allow them to roll out a pretty nice starting lineup of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ryan Gomes, Shawn Marion, and Al Jefferson. You'd have to think that Pierce/Marion/Jefferson would be the best trio in the East. Plus, Boson would be trimming down the rotation, which is a must with Doc Rivers on the bench, AND they would still have the #29 and #32 picks with which to work in a very deep draft (how about Morris Almond and Sean Williams?).

This feels like a no-brainer for Boston and normally, they would never be able to pull off this kind of trade for an all-league type player. But it seems like Phoenix has a perfect storm situation that would actually make this a good deal for them, rather than the mediocre-to-crappy deal it would normally be.

If nothing else, Danny Ainge needs to get on the phone and give it a shot. Danny and Doc didn't get bailed out by the ping-pong balls, but maybe if they play their cards right, they can dig themselves out of this mess.

More Blazers

Three more thoughts on a night that Blazers fans may very well recall as one of the top two in franchise history (along with the 1977 title) when it is all said and done.

1. Boston Hates Portland. Could one team be any more bitter about another team right now? (Well, except for maybe the Suns and the Spurs.) Last year Portland swindled the Celtics by trading Bassy Telfair and a washed up Theo Ratliff for the #7 pick and a washed up Raef LaFrentz. It basically wound up being Telfair for Roy, which might turn out to be one of those trades that ends up on a "Top 10 Most Lopsided Trades" list someday. Now a year later the Blazers have snuck in and grabbed the top two pick that Celtics fans felt was rightfully theirs (although I'm not quite sure why). Those are a couple of beat downs, right there.

2. Stashing Some Good Luck. Nobody remembers this now, but Portland had the worst record last year and lost out on the top overall pick, sliding to #4. And they sure picked a good year to do it! The only guy who seemed to be a lock to be a good-to-great pro player was Roy and they got him with that acquired pick (via a trade with Minnesota). And the guy they nabbed at #4, LaMarcus Aldridge, has a decent shot to be the best player from the 2006 Draft. So I'd say it worked out pretty well. And a year later, they got the opposite result, nabbing the top pick in one of the most crucial drafts in recent memory. Really, they didn't get lucky this year, they got lucky that they were unlucky last year and now everything is balancing out. Or something like that.

3. Pritchard is the Man. Like most NBA fans, GM Bashing is a favorite hobby of mine. That said, there are a few guys that I love as general managers. Bryan Colangelo is obviously quite good. RC Buford has been great in San Antonio. Rod Thorn of the Nets is pretty solid. And I have a growing man crush on what Kevin O'Connor is doing in Utah. Kevin Pritchard definitely needs to be added to that list. By all accounts, he was the crafty wizard that orchestrated Portland's draft day domination last year, which - in light of the GM performances by John Nash and Bob Whitsitt before him - came as such a shock that the ESPN studio guys ripped the Blazers purely out of habit the night of the draft, before coming to their senses (or just being proven wrong, I'm not sure which). Not only that, but I read an interesting interview Pritchard gave to the Draft Express guys, and I loved the fact that he isn't trying to downplay this situation. The guy is embracing the moment and the challenge, and as a fan, that is all you can ask for. I'll leave you with this quote, which he offered when asked to put the pick in perspective:

Huge. Unbelievably huge. Franchise making. I don't know how to make it any bigger than that. That's pretty big, huh? Bigger than the Rose garden, bigger than our organization, bigger than the city of Portland. The whole state and the whole area revolve on the Portland trailblazers. As we go, so does the whole city so to speak. This has a chance to really change our organization and the city. Rip city again, here we come.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lottery Madness!

I have to say, that lottery lived up to the hype. Even with some wooden personalities on hand, a butcher MC job by Mark Jones (including his interview with "Brenden Roy"), and a very short running time, the Draft Lottery special managed to pack a punch. This is because the events that transpired were INSANE.

Here are the highlights:

1. Blazers Get Top Pick. Duh. The Blazers have been doing an amazing job of revamping this team, they fleeced everyone last year, and now they have the top pick with which to work. The assumption is Oden, but Durant would be a perfect fit at the 3. Portland has Roy, Aldridge, and Randolph right now and slotting in Durant would make them an immediate threat to win the division. There has also been some talk that they might move the pick, but that is lunacy. Portland would be better off trading Zach Randolph to a team like Chicago or Dallas, in exchange for something of need or perhaps future picks. I suggested this in a previous post, but a Ben Gordon/Andres Nocioni for Zach Randolph trade would seemingly help both Chicago and Portland. The Blazers with Roy at the point, Gordon at the 2, Nocioni at the 3, Aldridge at the 4, and Oden at the 5 would be a ridiculous squad. Cap friendly, young, skilled, defensively sound (Gordon could guard point guards, Roy could guard 2's), and with great character and work ethic. No matter how you slice it, this was a magical night for the Blazers.

(And I really can't do it justice, but this has been building. The Roy/Aldridge draft last year dramatically altered the course of this franchise. They also saw Randolph come back from microfracture surgery and play well, experienced a great story in Ime Udoku, and then watched their young guys grow up down the stretch last year. Blazers fans were VERY excited for next season. And now this. Portland is back on the NBA scene in a big way and the excitement is palpable; I can feel it coming through my inbox. Plus, it works out nice for me that this is my hometown team. The only bit of bad news for Blazers fans is that any sort of sign-and-trade with Rashard Lewis is probably off the table now that the Sonics got the #2 pick, unless Portland can entice them with Randolph.)

[Update: just talked shop with some big Blazers fans and they all feel that the Sonics getting the #2 was actually great luck. Now Seattle can replace Lewis with Durant at the 3 and move Rashard in a sign and trade, maybe for Randolph. It seems plausible that Portland could roll into camp with Jack, Roy, Lewis, Aldridge, and Oden as their starting lineup. Wow.]

2. Suns Get Shut Out. Lost in the drama surrounding the top pick was Phoenix missing out on the most valuable #4 pick in years. The Suns needed the Hawks to stay out of the top three in order to get a shot at Al Horford or Corey Brewer. Now they have to be content with their pair of late first rounders. Safe to say it has been a tough week for Phoenix.

3. Hawks Roller Coaster. Wild night for Atlanta. They go in assuming they are going to lose their pick, then suddenly see Nique standing up in the top three. Going to commercial break, Hawks fans had to know that they had better odds than either Seattle or Portland and were no doubt thinking, "wait, we are going to get Oden or Durant!" Nope. Even when the Hawks win, they lose. (At least with the #3 and #11 they should be able to add Mike Conley Jr. and a big, or a big and Acie Law IV. So that is good news.)

4. Tankers Get No Love. Other than the Hawks, who clearly tanked down the stretch and yet still managed to sneak into the top three, the big tanking teams all got absolutely punished. The Bucks and Celtics were the most obvious of this group and found themselves in the 6 and 5 spots, respectively. I'm sure Boston fans are going ballistic tonight, considering the way they missed out on Duncan in 1997, but they sort of deserve it for openly rooting for their team to tank games. I admired Portland because they played hard to the very end, with Brandon Roy fighting through injuries to stay on the floor. As for Memphis, they did a more subtle form of tanking, but did it much earlier when they fired Fratello, put in Tony Barone, and basically ran pickup basketball the rest of the year. I don't feel bad at all for the teams that tanked to improve draft position, only to find themselves out of the top three.

5. Seattle Basketball Might Be Saved. What a moment for Seattle fans. Just when it looked like all hope would be lost, they landed a top 2 pick and might have a shot at salvaging this whole thing. The interesting thing is that Portland could probably do just as well to draft Durant, but Seattle desperately needs Oden. Adding KD to Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis is a bit of overkill, whereas Oden would anchor an offense-first team. I wonder if the two Northwest teams might talk trade over the next coupe of weeks. Portland could probably exact a significant payment from Seattle in order to swap picks.

2007-08 Rockets = 2003-04 Pistons?

I'm still kind of shocked that Jeff Van Gundy got fired. Am I alone on this?

The guy took a team with just a handful of good players, no team speed, no power forward, no health, and that played in a brutal conference and got them 50 wins. Yes, they lost in the playoffs, but the Jazz went out in the second round and proved they were no slouch.

I'm sorry, but that is a rough draw.

And the whole thing really reminds of when Joe Dumars and the Pistons gave Rick Carlisle the axe, despite the fact that he lead Detroit to the conference finals in 2003. Then, like now, it was a matter of preference more than performance. The Pistons saw Larry Brown available, thought he was the guy to make all their dreams come true, and then promptly won the NBA title. Of course, that was due in large part to the acquisition of Rasheed Wallace.

Van Gundy and Carlisle are actually pretty similar, with the exception of follicular endowment and previous coaching experience, given their "young genius" starts and defensive mindsets. But their commonalities aren't really the interesting thing here. I'm more interested in what will happen to the Rockets.

Is it possible that Houston could let a Coach of the Year candidate go and then vault to a title? To do so, they will need to bring in a playmaker on the perimeter and a more athletic power forward, but if the Pistons can serve as a proxy, merely changing coaches might help.

In fact, it is the guy Houston is changing to that gives me a weird sense of confidence. I say "weird" because Rick Adelman has never struck me as a real "get us over the top" kind of coach. But nobody really saw Larry Brown as that kind of guy either. Remember, that was Brown's first (and only) title. Like Brown, Adelman was a tough-minded guard as a player, always seems to improve the teams he coaches, and employs a system that he has confidence in.

More than anything, Adelman gives Houston a new look. It seems ownership wanted him so that he would speed up the pace, but it also seems possible that he can discover new tricks for old dogs. For some reason, I have a good feeling about this.

It probably wasn't fair to Van Gundy (actually I know it wasn't fair to Van Gundy), just like it wasn't fair to Carlisle when the Pistons ran him off, but considering how well this worked for Detroit four years ago, the Rockets almost had to make this move.

Now all Houston needs to do is acquire a star power forward at the trade deadline next season.

Monday, May 21, 2007

2007 NBA Playoffs = Day Six of 24

Sports Media Watch reports that Game One of the Western Conference Final drew a nice 3.8 rating share yesterday. In case you aren't a big Nielsen person, I will tell you that is not good. It is down 43% from last year and barely topped Fox's audience from the day before for a regular season baseball game between the Mets and Yankees. Subway Series or not, that is embarrassing. Oh, and it was likely the worst rating ever for a Conference Final game. Good times!

The plight of the NBA this spring reminds a lot of the nose dive that 24 has taken this year and both paragons of entertainment fell for the same reason: an absolute belief that the story trumps the actors.

In addition to being completely obsessed with building the NBA fan base in foreign markets (at great cost to millions of Americans who used to like professional basketball), David Stern seems to have a misplaced confidence that the NBA is a league that people will watch no matter what. He thinks he can take a hard line on an unfair rule and face no repercussions. Or that all the rule changes designed to improve the game can be thrown out the window and ignored in the playoffs with no issues. Wrong.

Stern didn't have to rig anything for the Suns to keep this ship afloat; all he had to do was parse some language (which he did quite favorably for Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen) in the interest of fairness. Instead, he decided to flex his great power, keep the corporate fat cats happy that the "brawl problem" is constantly "being addressed," and send the playoffs into a swan song. Stern's problem isn't that he "wants" the Spurs to win or anything like that, but rather that he exhibited such incredible hubris in believing that the NBA could bone over its most entertaining team in the most unfair, ludicrous, and public way possible and that fans somehow wouldn't mind. (Or even worse, Stern knew this would happen, but doesn't care, because he's too busy sitting around in his Yao jersey counting all that Chinese Television money.) It is funny, because usually sports feature conspiracies based on TV interests, yet the one time we needed a league to use ratings as part of a common sense ruling, they were too arrogant to consider the business ramifications. Oh, the irony!

We've seen similar arrogance on 24, as the show's creators made the fatal mistake of assuming that people loved the show primarily for the ticking clock and story lines, ignoring the value of the characters. The show was lucky - as nearly all good and successful TV shows are - to come up with a great initial cast featuring the noble Tony Almeda, the sinister Nina Myers, and the great David Palmer. Now they are dead, dead, and dead. Not only that, but good replacement characters like Michelle Dessler (dead), Curtis Manning (dead), Chase Edmonds (hand cut off, then moved away), Sherry Palmer (dead), and Charles Logan (likely dead, stabbed in the neck at the very least) were all dispatched with equal glee. They sacrificed one character after another in exchange for story, craving those big water cooler moments that put the show on the map. In killing off all the good characters, they assumed incorrectly that they could just replace them and keep churning along. Now the stories are tired, the format is old, and there aren't any supporting characters to care about.

I realize the two situations aren't exactly similar, but there is something of a power complex that ties them together. This strange hubris that comes from believing that you sit atop an unassailable product; one so fantastic that people will keep tuning in regardless of what drab "actors" you throw at them. Audiences are proving - with authority - that this is not true.

So next time Joel Surnow decides to kill off another character (are there any left?) or David Stern decides to patronize the whole world and show off his power while issuing a completely unfair ruling, they might want to consider just how deep their viewers' loyalties go. (Here's a hint: not nearly as far as they thought.)

Start Your Engines ...

The NBA pundits get to start in on their favorite pastime after tonight's game ... LeBron bashing.

I swear, nobody takes more crap than LeBron when he doesn't play perfectly, and since he played far from perfectly tonight, he's about to get slammed. I expect to hear complaints that he didn't:

- Take the final shot
- Get to the free throw line
- Take over the game
- Snatch every Detroit shot out of midair
- Fly out of the building like Chazz Michael Michaels in Blades of Glory

I watched Jason Kidd play a game earlier this postseason where he remained patient until the very end, shot a terrible percentage against a double-teaming defense geared exclusively to stop him, scrapped and clawed on defense, and continually made passes to get his teammates good shots ... and the media nearly erected a statue on the spot in his honor. Tonight LeBron did pretty much the exact same thing and is about to get ripped to shreds.

Obviously, Kidd and LeBron are not the same player. The Cavs rely more on James as a finisher and need his points. That said, I thought he played pretty well tonight. In fact, I really don't have any complaints. He didn't take the final shot because he got a WIDE OPEN three for Donyell Marshall to win the game. That is exactly what you want in an atrocious road game; a chance to throw one in at the buzzer and get the hell out of there. Marshall had just drained six threes in the previous game and was only in the lineup (and is only in the league, really) because he is supposed to be able to make that shot. As Steve Kerr said, you can't argue with that shot. But that won't stop thousands of people from doing just that.

[Update: I don't think I made myself clear enough here. Obviously, the replays seem to indicate that LeBron had a possible play at the rim, but assuming a dunk or layup ignores two key factors: A) That he would get a call in the event of a foul, and B) that the Cavs would be happy going to OT. Speaking to the former, why on earth would LeBron be confident about getting a call? If anything, he was assuming there were no fouls at that point. Why risk getting mugged with no call when you can get a wide open shot for a teammate? Nevermind that LeBron isn't exactly the most gifted free throw shooter. In regard to the second point, it is an old adage that you play for the tie at home and for the win on the road. If LeBron dunks and ties the game, there is no way Cleveland wins in overtime. He made the right play and I can't be convinced otherwise, unless someone among us is like Desmond from Lost and can see into the future and is therefore positive that James made the basket, got a foul call, AND made the free throw. If someone is sure of all that, then I will concede that he should not have passed.]

As for the free throw shooting, it always cracks me up when that is used as a criticism of a player, as if they have any control over it. LeBron usually gets a lot of calls and that is part of the reason he averages 11 free three attempts per game in the playoffs (as we were told ad nauseam). But tonight he got no calls. He made one bank shot while wearing Rip Hamilton as a wrist band. One one play he pumped Prince into the air and got jumped on with no call. There were two or three drives where he just got hammered. What exactly is he supposed to do about that? The refs were swallowing their whistles tonight on both ends, so James adjusted, drew out the double teams, and tried to open up easy shots for his teammates. I thought he was successful in doing so. 9 assists against 2 turnovers is pretty solid. Plus, that was probably the best defensive game I've seen him play.

If you want to blame someone for the Cleveland loss, blame someone else. Seriously, take your pick. Mike Brown should have had James in the post or slashing on the wing rather than serving as the player/coach at the top of the key. Eric Snow should be better at shooting layups (as well as every other basketball skill). Larry Hughes should stop shaving points. Honestly, this Cleveland teams sucks. Don't blame LeBron for not being able to turn water into wine. He was being guarded by the whole Pistons team on a night when there were no calls to be had. I'd say his options were pretty limited.

Hopefully in between games he will work on his "jump from half court and dunk on the Detroit roster" move or maybe perfect those 75-foot turnarounds from the old Powerade commercials. Because he needs to take over the game, damn it. No excuses.

(By the way, we totally didn't need the Suns, Warriors, or Bulls to stay in the playoffs; the remaining four teams are so fun to watch.)

Robert Horry: Playoff Villain?

As soon as Robert Horry sent Steve Nash flying into the scorer's table at the end of Game Five, I knew it was going to be a big story. The two-time MVP upended on a cheap shot. The Spurs-Suns blood feud escalating. The NBA shooting itself in the foot yet again. And so on.

The one thing I never anticipated was Horry setting himself up to be the uber villain of the NBA Playoffs.

Considering that the Spurs already have Bruce Bowen (and, to a lesser extent, Manu Ginobili - although his Villain Star has fallen since he was at the height of his flopping and whining powers in 2005), the Pistons have Sheed, and the Jazz have a star that stabbed a blind owner in the back once upon a time (although everyone seems to have conveniently forgotten all about that), and it didn't seem like we really needed a new candidate for an evil genius. Heck, we even have an Ivan Drago-like Russian with the nickname AK-47 if we ever started hurting for a bad guy. (Although Kirilenko breaking down and crying at the end of the Game Two against Houston kinds of cuts down on his menace.)

But it seems Horry really wants the title. For years his gravest mistake was throwing a towel in Danny Ainge's face, but as I previously hypothesized, it could just be that Horry had been sent from the future by Celtics fans. Other than that he was A) a guy who made a ton of big threes, B) a dude who looked a whole lot like Will Smith, and C) (according to Bill Walton) one of the greatest post-feeders of all time. Other than running some smack and perfecting the "goaltend through the net" pseudo delay of game move, he never seemed to be a real threat to become the biggest a-hole of an entire postseason.

But now here he is. Blatantly hip-checking a defenseless dribbler into the scorer's table in the waning seconds of a game that had been largely decided. Hiding behind a coach and fan base that appear to be completely disillusioned in their belief that Nash was at fault for "flopping" on the play. Joking about the incident, even though it quite possibly decided who the eventual NBA champ would be. Basking in cheers. Swearing he would do it all over again, and showing no remorse whatsoever.

The whole thing has me reeling. Who does Horry think he's kidding? He's "old school"? Since when? The guy's most famous shot came because he was a power forward standing 30 feet from the basket watching Kobe Bryant and Shaq battle for a rebound. Pretty old school, right there. He is survived for this long in the NBA because is decidedly NOT old school. Old school power forwards don't throw a towel in their coach's face and they sure as heck don't take more threes than twos under any circumstance.

Not only that, but saying you are "hard-nosed" or "old school" is a total cop out in a situation like this, as if such a mind set gives you total immunity from sportsmanship (like Tim Whatley's getting total joke-telling immunity on Seinfeld). As my buddy Dritz pointed out in an email, "'Playing old-school' doesn't mean you foul an old friend intentionally and unnecessarily hard after the outcome of a game has been decided. 'Playing old school' means playing hard on D and if during an attempt to make a play, you accidentally foul someone hard, so be it."

I would add that "old school" can even include "sending a message." But what was the message here? Don't dribble up the sideline again or else! It's not like he was protecting the rim or showing that he wasn't going to take any more moving screens or some other bit of basketball strategy. He was just being an ass.

I said at the time that I didn't think Horry meant for this to be as bad as it was. He was just trying to dish out a little love tap but failed to consider how fast Nash was going, or where they were on the court. So it turned out worse than he anticipated. But as my Mom used to tell me when I had accidentally hurt my little brother, "It doesn't matter whether you meant to do it." For Horry to hide behind "playoff toughness" and "old school" values (for lack of a better word) is embarrassing. At best, he accidentally laid out an opponent on a bush league play and then basically celebrated himself. At worst, he tried to hurt somebody and then bragged about that. Pathetic.

Throw in the embarrassing way the San Antonio fans are hailing Horry as a hero and calling this the "biggest shot yet" for 'Big Shot Rob" and the whole thing is bound to stir up some emotions. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Utah fans shower him with the kind of boos that are normally reserved for a traitorous ex-player, despite the fact that he hasn't really done anything to the Jazz. He just has that villanous aura about him now.

And it's all his own fault because of the way he handled the incident with Nash. Instead of explaining that he didn't intend to do it, aplogizing, and bemoaning the unfortunate way it impacted the series, Horry tried to somehow blame Nash and then brag about it. And he came off looking like the lame grade school kid trying to be a bully.

I've always been indifferent regarding Horry, because I have a longer memory than most. I remembered that he threw that towel and made sure to never assume that Horry was the guy from The Pursuit of Happyness just because he looked like The Fresh Prince. I also never forgot that he went about 1-for-276 in a Western Conference Semifinal against the Spurs back in 2003, and am therefore less interested in hailing him as the greatest clutch shooter of all time. (Which makes me the polar opposite of Mike Breen, who likes to screech "Robert Horry has DONE IT AGAIN!" when Horry makes a wide-open three in the middle of the third quarter.) Not to say that I hated him or anything. I appreciated all the big plays as much as the next guy.

However, now I've gone from neutral to "against." Firmly.

And why not? Everyone postseason needs a villain and Anthony Mason has been retired for quite a while.

[Update: Horry might be making a run at Uber Villain status, but he's never going to catch Bruce Bowen. Henry Abbott over at True Hoop just posted this link, which shows him ONCE AGAIN tripping Amare Stoudemire - he of the surgically repaired knee - on his way to the basket. How can this guy live with himself? What a complete and total bastard. Thanks goodness for YouTube. Now we know he really is the basketball Antichrist.]

Spurs Take Game One

First, consider this the official end of the "nightly wrap-up" format for the NBA Playoffs. It does no good to break things down by the calendar now that we've hit the point where the league is committed to getting a game a day, no matter how ungainly it makes the schedule. This used to be something I complained about, but with everything else that sucks about these playoffs, why bother?

What I really fear is that no one is watching anymore. Literally. I can't wait to see what the ratings looked like for yesterday's Jazz-Spurs matchup.

If people still care, let me know.

Until I get confirmation that people are still watching the playoffs, I'll just hit you with a quick top five observations from Game One of the Western Conference Finals:

1. Derek Fisher might be out-Fishered in this one. Even though he is actually good now and Mr. Clutch and an American hero, his real speciality has always been bodying people, flopping, acting, holding, and all the other things that gritty players do in order to make it in the NBA and then get sizable contracts for being "winners." Usually, D-Fish has the "rugby" edge against any opponent. But now he's going against two guys - Bruce Bowen and Manu Ginobili - who are redefining all his moves. Fisher might have started this horrible flopping trend in the NBA, but Manu took it to the crazy next level. Fisher might have started the whole "clutch, grab, bump, hand check, knee, hold, repeat" style of defense on talented guards, but Bruce Bowen added ninja kicks and ankle shattering stealth techniques and turned it into something altogether more potent. For Fisher, this has to feel a little bit like T3: Rise of the Machines (terrible movie, by the way), when Governor Arnold had to square off with a superior model of terminator. He could recognize the skin-covered alloy frame and hard-wired technology, but the girl terminator was just more evolved. So Fisher is Arnold in that movie, and the Jazz are John Connor, hoping that they don't have to hide in an old army bunker and rely on a mere human to avoid certain devastation.

2. Utah may have gone down 1-0, but they have to feel good about a couple of things that started working late. Deron Williams is going to be a tough guard for the Spurs. He's too fast for Bowen and is strong enough to resist all those little pokes at the ball when he's going by. And if Bowen can't effectively guard Williams, there isn't much use for the guy. Harpring can post him and Fisher and Kirilenko don't really need to be shut down, which means Bowen is just another player out there running around. I don't think he played much more than 7 or 8 minutes in the second half, which means Pop was seeing what I was seeing. The other big plus for the Jazz is that they really got Boozer going late by putting him in pick-and-rolls and allowing him to work 12-15 feet from the basket. Once he stopped forcing it to the rim (where he isn't going to get the same calls he did in the first two rounds) and looked to make jumpers, he was far more effective.

(Note: if Boozer has a few games where he struggles with the jump shot, expect the media to rip him for "settling." Nevermind that trying to force the ball against Duncan and help defense and against refs unwilling to call fouls is like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. No one will bother understanding that in the least. This used to happen to Chris Webber all the time in Sacramento. He would try to drive time and time again, never get any calls, and then eventually say "screw it, I'm just going to drain jumpers" on his way to some big games. The minute he started missing, he got destroyed by the critics. Talk about a Catch-22.)

3. Sometimes I wonder whether Jerry Sloan is watching the game. I have no doubt that the man is tough and can teach a system, but as an X's and O's coach, I think he can be pretty shaky. Yesterday Deron Williams was going bonkers down the stretch and Utah actually had a fighting chance to finish off a remarkable comeback. Instead, they came up short as Michael Finley drained eight straight free throws in the final minutes. My question: why would they foul Finley? I'm sure Pop was designing plays to get Finley the ball, but come on, this is the NBA. Trap him hard and get the ball out of his hands. The other guys on the floor were, as follows:

Tim Duncan - a career 63% free throw shooter in the postseason
Manu Ginobili - 3-for-6 on the day, including several remarkably bad misses late
Tony Parker - 5-for-10 on the day and was clearly aiming the ball in the fourth quarter and just hoping to get rim
Someone Else Who Never Touched The Ball

So I again, I ask: why continue to foul Finley? How does that make any sense?

4. I thought it was pretty cheesy for the San Antonio fans to cheer Robert Horry like he was some kind of hero. Have a little tact, people. Plus, it made it look like Spurs fans knew that Horry saved their season with a cheap shot that somehow getting Amare suspended. Just really cheesy stuff.

5. I know that the whole "quick turnaround" thing is often debated in sports. Does the team playing 48 hours later have a disadvantage because they are tired, or an advantage because they are sharp? We hear the arguments all the time. But I'm starting to wonder why we even debate it. I have no doubt that getting more rest between series is better in the long run for a team, but it seems like the "turnaround" team - the one that just finished a series and is short on rest - almost always wins the game. At the very least, they enjoy the advantage of being "sharp" in the first half. Utah had the quick turnaround after Game Seven in Houston and then jumped all over a Golden State team that was clearly sluggish and rusty. Same thing happened yesterday, except to the Jazz this time. It seems like in the short run, being sharp and maintaining momentum is far more important than a few extra days of rest.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Friday Night, Umm, Saturday Morning Wrap-Up

Like many NBA fans, I felt some trepidation for last night's game, knowing that we all needed the Suns to force a Game Seven in order to wash away the taint of these playoffs, but knowing just as well that the Spurs were going to mighty tough to beat at home in a closeout game. Which is why I decided to watch the games at a loud bar and cloak myself with good friends, mediocre liquor, and horrendous music in order to mask the pain.

It worked quite well.

But as a result, the wrap-up comes a morning late and with little by way of commentary.

Worst Series Ever is Now Over

Other than a surprisingly good Game Two, this New Jersey-Cleveland series was a train wreck. One game featured the Cavs winning on a Sasha block, another watched the Nets live and die on Jason Kidd threes and Mikki Moore jumpers, and yet another featured the Nets scoring six points in the fourth quarter and WINNING. Needless to say, I didn't catch much of last night's game.

I'm impressed that the Cavs closed out the series on the road, but it doesn't restore the luster they lost when they had the chance to win in five at home and get an edge on the Pistons in terms of rest.

The good news is that I didn't need to be watching this game closely to know why the Cavs won. It appears to have been a simple matter of how many field goals each team's "point guard" took. Kidd jacked up 20 shots for the Nets, which is not their recipe for success. Meanwhile, Larry Hughes (who I can't help but crush on this space, time and time again) had just six field goal attempts. There's your 16-point win for Cleveland.

Spurs Advance

Expect about 14,000 u-turns from writers everywhere who will come out with "well, when it was all said and done, the best team advance." Give me a break. Maybe that is true, maybe it isn't. But that is the whole point of a series being "tainted" - we never got to find out what would have happened. The Suns won home court back and then had it taken away by a selective interpretation of a terrible rule. What, San Antonio winning a home game nullifies everything that happened preceding it? Give me a break. Not only that, but it ignores the fact that Phoenix very likely could have won the opener had Nash's face not exploded. So for all the self-righteous writers who plan on coming on with the "best team won" article, save it.

(Again, I'm not saying the best team lost either, I'm saying that we have no idea.)

As for the game, it was nice to say a lot of guys balling. Duncan had the nine blocks, Ginobili was on fire, Amare had a monster game, and Nash closed with a fury. It was amazing to watch him continue fighting, never yielding.


Why did D'Antoni play Nash for 47 minutes in Game Five (not an elimination game) and then give him his usual 5 minutes of rest late in Game Six? That made no sense to me. While Nash was out, a nine-point lead ballooned to 17 or something like that. By the time the torrid comeback began, it was too late.

How much ice does Tony Parker have on his arm today? 27 shots! I didn't know he had it in him.

Why didn't the Suns go to a Hack-A-Duncan? He seemed to be having one of this awful free throw shooting games that have plagued him throughout his career (see: 2005 Finals). They could have lengthened the game and kept the ball out of Manu's hands.

It was great to see Barbosa playing better and attacking. It was bad to see him go 0-for-5 on threes. I'm telling you; he needed to experience this series before he could get to the next level.

Interesting that the Suns battled the Spurs to a draw on the glass (43 each) and in blocks (9 each), which tells me they gave it everything they had. They just made two less field goals, one less three, and three fewer free throws, while committing five more turnovers.

(Meanwhile, the Utah fans' dream that the Suns might spark a fight and get some Spurs' stars suspended never come to fruition. Too bad for the Jazz.)

Friday, May 18, 2007

So Did Tommie ...

Henry Abbott had a splendid piece up on True Hoop today called "Tayshaun Prince Wins Games". It's a must-read, so check it out.

It got me thinking about how Prince wasn't heralded as the NBA type coming out of college, which is why he went rather late (23rd) in the first round. Many pro basketball fans didn't see this guy coming. At all.

But there are two groups of college fans who aren't surprised in the least. The first, obviously, are Kentucky fans. Prince was SEC Player of the Year there and led the Wildcats to a 97-39 record during his career. They saw this guy on a regular basis and are probably nodding their heads in appreciation each time the Pistons come on TV.

The second group, however, is a much smaller contingency, but one I belong to: Pepperdine fans. You see, it is a little known fact that Tayshaun's brother Tommie was a Mighty Wave for a time, and that he was sick.

Now, Tommie didn't have the absurd wingspan of his little brother, nor the speed and athleticism, but the guy was a supreme winner. In 2000 Pepperdine went 25-9 and reached the NCAA Tournament as an at large and gave Bobby Knight a 77-57 smackdown as a going away present in his last game at Indiana (think VCU this spring). That team had a solid lowpost scorer (Kelvin Gibbs, who carved out a nice career in Europe), a decent center (Nick Sheppard, who got some run with several NBA teams), a first-team All-WCC point guard (Tezale Archie, who looked quite a bit like Larenz Tate and who gained some brief exposure on that ESPN show that followed D-Leaguers around), and eventual first round draft pick Brandon Armstrong pouring in points on the wing. But it was Prince that made that team go.

For being 6'6" and built like a power forward (at least by WCC standards), Prince was remarkably agile. He was probably the best passer in the conference that year, and was most certainly the best defensive player in the league - probably on the entire west coast. The Waves employed him as the point of a full court press and his reach, instincts, and vision led to countless steals. He was a Shawn Marion-like player for Pepperdine, taking turns to guard everyone from point guards like A.J. Guyton (held the Hoosiers star to 3 points) to slashing wings like Desmond Mason to interior players like Drew Gooden. For his efforts he was named the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. Which is nice, but it wasn't WCC Winner of the Year, which is the award he really deserved.

Many people who saw Tommie play remember his enormous hands (his favorite post move was the Jordan "palm the ball while surveying the court" number) and even more enormous afro (a style that drew national attention during Pepperdine's tourney run). But mostly we remember what a nuanced player he was. The way he was able to lead despite being uber passive and serenely calm in demeanor. The way he could completely derail a team's offensive game plan. And the way he just won basketball games.

Just like his little brother Tayshaun.

All Aboard: Abolish the Six Foul Limit

(A Special Feature from esteemed Section F contributer Jack Wang)

In light of the criticisms the NBA is taking over its strict leaving the bench rule, I thought I'd pile on by echoing Jack McCallum's sentiments against the six foul limit. He points out that the six foul limit was enacted in a bygone basketball era, at a time when it was not uncommon for people to go entire games without having a foul called on them. Basketball has changed into a much more physical game, and the foul limit has not adjusted. The strategy of trying to foul out the other team's best player, or at least saddle him with foul trouble, has become a part of the game. We have seen this throughout the playoffs with players such as Baron Davis going at Deron Williams and Tim Duncan at Amare Stoudemire. As a result, when a marquee player gets in foul trouble and has to sit down, the game suffers. One team has a huge advantage, and the fans get robbed of seeing the best player play.

I can think of two additional reasons for abolishing the foul limit which McCallum doesn't mention: 1) decreasing the rampant complaining about foul calls, and 2) diminishing the effect of the referees on the game.

Stop the Complaining
The NBA enacted a rule in the beginning of this season that prohibited players from complaining about foul calls (which seems to have been widely disregarded this postseason, as players seem to complain about every call; why this level of leniency couldn't have been applied to Stoudemire and Diaw is beyond me). I believe that the main reason players complain about foul calls is that it directly affects their ability to stay in the game. Because they can foul out, a poor foul call, especially one that gets them in foul trouble, forces the player to play softer defense and/or sit out for an extended amount of time. In other words, the ramifications of a foul on the player who is assessed the foul are vastly disproportionate to the impact on the game. It is not as much that the player thinks that the referee blew the call (though this may be part of it), but it is that the player might have to sit on the bench or play matador defense (although this theory clearly doesn't pertain to J.R. Smith, as those are his only two options anyway).

Players get the most upset at the referees in two situations: when they feel like the refs missed a foul committed on them (an issue of "how else could I have missed that shot" pride), and when they get called for a foul they feel like they didn't commit. Without the fear of fouling out, players would have much less objections to questionable calls, and the emotional complaints that the league wants to discourage would all but disappear. The ramifications of being called for a ticky-tack foul becomes much less important and one of the two reasons players go nuts is minimized. Think about it: rarely will you see a player go crazy when they are called for palming, goaltending, or defensive three seconds, even if those violations also result in a turnover or even a technical free throw.

The Effect on the Referees
This does not mean that teams would suddenly foul at every turn. The team getting fouled still gets two free throws, and the hack-a-shaq rules still apply. Also, this doesn't mean that we couldn't preserve or enhance the incentives to play solid D by enacting additional rules. For example, the fouled team could get one free throw plus possession after the 12th team foul of each quarter. I would also argue that abolishing the foul limit might even decrease fouls, since referees would no longer have to blow the whistle subjectively. In his article, McCallum alluded to the fact that referees will make certain calls in the beginning of a game to set the tone and not call them again the rest of the game, or when they refrain from calling fouls on star players to keep them in the game. It would eliminate the need to strategically call fouls, and the referees can call the game honestly. This could open up the game even more and result in the free-flowing basketball style that the league tried to encourage by stiffening the hand-checking rules.

Having no foul limit would allow the best players on the each team to have more opportunity to decide the outcome of games, as it should be. In light of the recent study that found a racial disparity between fouls called on black players versus white players, and what seems like complaints about officiating every year come playoff time, the league needs to take a serious look at finding ways to minimize the impact that referees have on the outcome of games.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Thursday Night Wrap-Up

Two words can sum up Game Six of the Bulls-Pistons series:

Pau. Gasol.

Kidding, kidding. I'm not going to head down that road again. I think my feelings on that topic have been adequately expressed.

Too Many Minutes for Wallace?

In fact, I think Chicago could have won tonight had Ben Wallace been healthy. He clearly wasn't able to do much of anything with his bad back, which hurt the Bulls dramatically. Not only was he ineffective, but he played far too many minutes (28 doesn't sound like a lot, but trust me, it was). He was out of position, couldn't secure rebounds, and was able to be fouled and shank free throws for far too long on Thursday night. That is the tough thing about a proud veteran being injured: it is hard for a coach to take him out.

That said, Skiles should have had quicker hook (which is ironic, because as any fantasy basketball owners can attest, Skiles has one of the quickest hooks in the biz). Wallace isn't a T-Mac or Jason Kidd type player, that can overcome a tough injury with pure skill. Guys that are the central focus of an offense do their teams a service to gut it out and keep trying. But players that create value through hustle, defense, and rebounding just can't get much done when merely bending over looks like mission impossible. And we all know that Wallace is in the latter group of players, not the former. It seems the Bulls would have been far better off going with Thomas or Brown at the 5 and then playing small (which has been their best tactic all series anyway).

Pistons Get Job Done

That is not to say that Skiles cost his team the series. If anyone on that Chicago bench did, I would argue it was the coach, but the fact is that the Pistons won the game more than the Bulls lost it. In this day and age we are always quick to blame someone (the losing team, the refs, the NBA) rather than credit the other side, and I am as guilty of that as anyone. But here I think we have an example of a veteran team digging down deep and doing what needed to be done. Rasheed Wallace was active and crazy (but mostly the good kind, up until he displayed what Mike Tirico called "a ridiculous lack of self control"), Hamilton was hitting shots, Prince was dominating Deng at both ends, Webber was cleaning glass, and Billups was constantly striking fear into the hearts of the Bulls players and fans. How many NBA players are more terrifying to the opposition than Mr. Big Shot? And that's not just because he looks like Nicodemus from The Secret of Nimh.

Bulls Need Low Post Scorer (Duh)

Anyway. The Bulls will need to go back to the drawing board this summer and find a way to (finally) bring in a low post scorer. I don't blame them for trading Eddy Curry a few years ago and still think they fleeced Isiah, but the fact is that their best low post option since Curry left town was Othella Harrington. Ouch. They never made their move for KG, they left Gasol in the windowsill, and now it is time to pay the piper and round out this team. For all the talk of their "young nucleus," all of those guys are at the three perimeter positions (even Ty Thomas is really a small forward). Their bigs are aging and severally limited offensively (P.J. Brown's 20-point first half notwithstanding). In many ways, this is one of the most poorly balanced team in the league. All of their scoring, youth, and trade value is tied up in 60% of the positions on the court, leaving serious issues throughout the rest of the roster. They would be wise to use cap space and surplus assets (no matter how much it might pain Proud Papa John Paxson to deal the guys he drafted) to balance out this roster.

Is Randolph a Fit?

The problem? It won't be that easy. Even with Brown's contract coming off the books, Chicago will only be $9-10 million under the cap (thank you, Ben Wallace), which doesn't give them that much of an edge over capped out teams that have approximately $6 million to spend on the midlevel. P.J. Brown's expiring deal has far less value for the Bulls than it did for teams they could have traded it to. Not only that, but the free agent class has a serious lack of post scorers. Which means Chicago will have to find a trade partner. It is doubtful they can get back into the Gasol Sweepstakes now that Memphis is going to be good again (as long as the ping-pong balls bounce the right way). I don't see the Pacers trading Jermaine to a team within the division. The Wolves say KG isn't going anywhere. Who is there to deal for? Keep in mind that Chicago needs a stud post scorer, not just a "good big man" (there are about 10 of the former and dozens in the latter category). The only real option seems to be Zach Randolph. The Blazers could really use Nocioni and an upgrade in the backcourt. Would Chicago be willing to give up Nocioni and Gordon? It is a steep price, but one that could put them in the driver's seat in the Eastern Conference. Randolph would be a perfect fit next to Wallace and would be surrounded by Deng, Hinrich, and an emerging Sefalosha. Randolph might not be a "Skiles Guy," but so what? Skiles needs scorers, not boy scouts.

As for Portland, they could turn the interior game over to LaMarcus Aldridge (who will surpass Randolph in two years at the latest, and who, ironically, could have been a member of the Bulls and probably solved all their problems ... whoops) and play Roy, Gordon, Nocioni, and Jack on the perimeter. And rather than feeling like they have to take a small forward in the draft, they could take the best available or even dangle the pick.

Amare's Value

Last night conveyed a lot of things about basketball and the state of the NBA. Some of these things are very specific like "it is hard for a 34-year old guy to play double his usual minutes" and some are more general like "I think maybe the NBA has become irrelevent."

One of the issues on display that fell somewhere in between is how valuable Amare Stoudemire is to the Suns. I was among those basketball fans that started to think he could (and maybe should) be moved this offseason to sooth Marion's ego and switch things up a bit. After watching Game Five, I've changed my mind. Amare has certain fearless quality that makes him extremely valuable to the Suns. There was a great column about this at the AOL Fanhouse yesterday, and I will just urge you to read it, rather than repeat everything.

Everything discussed in that link was evident last night. Without Amare, the Suns looked like plucky underdogs. Like a bunch of scrappers hoping to knock down enough threes to win. They didn't have anyone to finish on the pick-and-roll, to rise up and challenge Duncan, and to block shots at the other end. For all of Stoudemire's deficiencies (namely: on-the-ball defense and staying put on the bench), we saw in Game Four just how much he means to this team. And we saw last night - as Marion followed a brilliant first half with a disappearing act and Kurt Thomas could barely run fast enough to catch Nash's sick bounce passes - how much they miss him when he's not on the floor.

He may be a bit of a nut and a hard guy to have in the locker room and all the other things we hear about Amare Stoudemire, but he doesn't seem poisonous like T.O. and other locker room cancers we've seen ruin teams over the years. And as long as he is willing to be a loyal teammate and work on his game (I hear he is lazy, but considering he came back from two knee surgeries and was armed with a finely-tuned jumper, I would say that is, at the very least, somewhat inaccurate), the Suns have to keep him.

Barbosa's First Taste Has Been Bitter

As I watched Barbosa struggle again tonight (and boy did the Suns need him), I began thinking about a reason why he has regressed so much in this series. And I think the answer is pretty simple: this is his first go round with the Spurs as a key contributor. In 2005, Barbosa was on the Phoenix roster, but he played just 15 total minutes in the five-game series (and that was with Joe Johnson injured for most of it).

Now the Brazilian Blur is being counted on for big minutes and even bigger production. And the poor guy just can't buy a basket. In 159 minutes played, Barbosa is now 22-for-61 in the series after hitting just three of 12 shots tonight in 33 foul-plagued minutes. Yikes.

But when you think about it, this isn't all that surprising, as Barbosa and Diaw are really the only key Suns players that haven't been through this before. Yes, they both were able to shine in last year's playoffs, but they didn't have to play the Spurs. The Lakers, Clippers, and Mavericks weren't exactly challenging shots like San Antonio. And while Kurt Thomas wasn't with Phoenix then, he's been through plenty of battles in his day, including an NBA Finals showdown with the Spurs in 1999. Raja Bell also had some experiencing jousting with the Spurs from back when he was with Dallas (plus, you could argue that his real trial by fire was last year's Lakers series, since guarding Kobe is the hardest thing he has to do in a playoff situation). And Marion, Amare, and Nash obviously already went through this in 2005.

So that leaves Diaw and Leandro as the only guys that haven't really been forged in the San Antonio fire. And Diaw has been out of sorts all year, so Phoenix doesn't even really rely on him any more. Barbosa though has been a huge key. And now he's getting his first taste of a grueling series with the title favorite Spurs.

The results have not been pretty, but it isn't altogether surprising either. Most guys struggle in their first series against the Spurs, just as players back in the late 80's struggled the first time they went against the Pistons. Teams that are extremely tough - and yes, possibly dirty - defensively make it really tough on a young, offensive-minded player during the first go round.

I expect Barbosa to fare far better the next time around. But the "next time around" will mean Nash is at least a year older and that the Marion/Amare situation (not to mention the luxury tax problem) is probably worse, or will have imploded. In other words, Phoenix really could have used the Next Evolution Barbosa in the here and now. In a strange way, Dallas beating the Spurs last year (and preventing Leandro from getting a Spurs matchup "out of his system") might be costing the Suns a title this year. I may be way off on that, but it seems plausible. And if so, how ironic is that?

(I'd just like to note that I had every intention of including an Arrested Development "taste for mammal blood" joke in the title, but couldn't summon the strength. As Norman Mailer once said, there is a toll on a human mind that is awake to see the clock turn 3 a.m. too many times. And it's 2:33, so I'm closing up shop.)