Sunday, December 30, 2007

Big Boston Wins

On Friday night, the Lakers pounded the Jazz into submission, which I found especially interesting, because the very next opponent for both of those teams was the Boston Celtics. And since I had just watched Boston struggle to beat Seattle on tired legs, I was really interested in seeing the C's take on Utah and then L.A. The result? Two more wins, to run their record to 26-3 on the season. The first was a gritty performance against an angry and hungry Utah team and the second was a beatdown of a Lakers squad that was feeling good enough about themselves to come out wearing throwback shorts (not a pretty sight) for the first half.

The pair of victories reaffirmed something I've believed since the day Boston traded for KG - the Celtics are the team to beat in the East and probably the entire NBA.

I understand that now is the time to go the other way - to point out that Boston has padded its win total against an easy schedule, pick at their flaws, and predict that they will be ousted in the playoffs. But I just don't see it that way.

The common belief among hardcore fans and most experts right now is that Detroit is still the team to beat in the East. People believe that not only are the Pistons better, but that they hold the key to beating Boston, which is a physical point guard.

Certainly the Pistons have more experience playing together and more legit depth. When you throw in the Billups-Rondo matchup, I can see why people like Detroit. But not so fast. These two Celtics wins taught me a few things that, at least for me, keeps them at the top of the heap in the East:

1. Tony Allen is getting healthy.. I was really buying into the "big point guard" thing as Boston's Achilles heel (which would make them the Eastern Conference version of Dallas, I suppose) until I watched the last two games and remembered that Tony Allen is on the team and that he's on the road back to full strength. Still playing with a bulky knee brace and the fear of God whenever he goes in for a dunk, Allen isn't nearly back to 100% and perhaps won't be for the remainder of the season. But even at partial strength, he could end up being a key guy in a Celtics title push. He played fantastic filling in for Rondo (hamstring) against L.A., but I was equally impressed with him in the Utah game, because when Allen was on the floor, Deron Williams (read: powerful point guard) transformed from a dominant playmaker to a turnover machine. Allen is physical, athletic, and tenacious on the defensive end and perfectly capable of getting the ball over half court while playing offense. All of which means that there is no reason that Boston should be getting worked by big point guards late in games. If they feel like Rondo is struggling in the post (note: for every basket he gave up to Williams he seemed to counter with a big steal, so don't count Rondo out either), they can simply insert Allen and let Pierce initiate the offense as a point-forward.

2. Boston will be harder to beat than Detroit. This is in regard to every other team in the East. It may be true that the Pistons match up well with the Celtics and can give them real trouble, but since the two teams are heading for the 1 and 2 seeds in the conference, it means they will both need to win two series to bring about such a showdown. And this is where I believe Boston holds an advantage. We know Cleveland can beat this Pistons team because they did it last year. I also think Orlando (who was right there in every game against Detroit last year and is now much improved) could knock off Detroit. Meanwhile, I don't see anybody besides Detroit taking out Boston in the East. You have to get to the Eastern Conference Finals to win the Eastern Conference Finals and since I believe Boston is more likely to get there, I think they are therefore more likely to win there. I know, pretty complex stuff.

3. The three stars compliment each other perfectly. This isn't anything new, but I think people assumed it would take some time for KG, Pierce, and Allen to learn to play together. It's not. It seems like these three All-Stars have been playing together for years because they are working so well as a trio. It doesn't even seem to matter who else Boston throws out there - Rondo, House, T. Allen, Big Baby, Perkins, Posey, etc. - they all thrive next to the Boston Threeparty (or whatever we are calling them). I believe this is due certainly to each player's willingness to submerge ego for the team, but it is due in equal part to the fact that the three stars fit together so well. KG is the defensive anchor who shuts down the best post player, helps everyone all over the court, and inspires his teammates to be better defenders as well. He doesn't need the ball in his hands to be happy and/or effective and yet he keeps them out of droughts with his scoring, whether it comes from put-backs or off of that unstoppable turnaround (he's starting to resemble Hakeem, no?). Because he doesn't need the ball, it allows Pierce to handle the rock a great deal. Pierce is a guy that does need the ball in his hands to be engaged and effective, so this works out great. And then there's Ray Allen, who has always played off the ball, so this is nothing new to him. Pierce is basically allowed to dominate the ball ala LeBron, Kobe, Iverson, et al, except that he has the two perfect veteran stars playing next to him. And everyone else is either a dunker, a spot-up shooter, or Rondo, so he literally has no competition for making plays. I can't emphasize enough how important this is. Pierce is rejuvenated as a person and player and he hasn't had to sacrifice anything he enjoys doing with the possible exception of taking terrible fadeaways.

I have a feeling that this won't be the only column or blog post that you read in response to Boston's most recent wins. They just won four games in five nights, on the road, and looked great in the process. They willed their way to a win over Utah with pure hustle and late-game execution and then annihilated a Lakers team that had the experts hyperventilating (and did it despite missing their starting point guard).

This team is getting better, not worse, and appears to have what it takes to win it all. And while you could say the same exact things about the Pistons, the C's are the leader in the clubhouse, as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Finding Some (Eventual) Favorite Players

As we inch ever closer to turning the calendars to the year 2008, that means just one thing: it is time to start paying attention to college hoops. After all, January just means we're six months away from the '08 NBA Draft. So I decided to take advantage of a big day of college hoops to find a few favorite players. It always makes the NCAA Tournament more fun and is helpful on an NBA blog to start keeping tabs on the stars of tomorrow. Bear in mind that I am thinking purely about the future of each player at the next level when watching and making my evaluations. I was bummed that Arizona's Jerryd Bayless missed the Memphis game with a knee injury, but I still got to see several guys that really stood out. I didn't get to see many of the big name players like O.J. Mayo, Darrell Arthur (or anyone else from Kansas), DJ Augustine, the Louisville big guys, or Eric Gordon, but nobody needs me to point those guys out anyway. So consider the following list more of a mix of sleepers, unknowns, and rising prospects. Here are 10 guys that caught my eye today:

Blake Griffin, Oklahoma. I was very excited to get my first look at a pair of freshman that seems to love - Austin Daye of Gonzaga and Griffin. I was far more impressed with the latter of the two. Daye showed nice range on his jump shot and seems like a pretty smart player, but he's way too thin and passive (he couldn't even get into the post against a small Tennessee team) to be an NBA player anytime soon. Griffin, on the other hand, showed real ability coupled with incredible tenacity. At the 12 minute mark of the Sooners' matchup with West Virginia, Griffin was leaving the game because he'd just finished doing his best contortionist impression going for a rebound. It was a play that landed him a permanent spot on the all "Heart and Hustle" squad and gave him his 13th rebound at that stage in the contest. A few minutes later he dove for a loose ball, dribbled the ball while he got up, then made an incredible floating finger roll on the baseline. Sick! Griffin plays like an undersized power forward just trying to earn a spot on the roster, but he's got legit 6'9"-6'10" size, a really good wingspan, advanced ball-handling skills, and enough explosiveness to play above the rim when necessary. He strikes me as a rich man's Paul Millsap, which is high praise indeed. I'd take him in the top five of this summer's draft, no question.

(By the way, Oklahoma has a guy named Longar Longar that is extremely fun to watch and not just because he has the same first and last name. He tries to dunk everything in sight and is fond of blocking shots into the 15th row. I never thought I'd say this, but this Sooners team is shaping up to me one of my personal favorites for 2007-08. What a difference a coaching change can make.)

Raymar Morgan, Michigan State. Morgan seems destined to be one of those guys that gets overlooked coming out of school and turns out to be a "huge surprise" as a second round pick. He had 24 today for the Spartans but he's really impressed me with his versatility. Morgan is extremely athletic and can finish around the rim, but is also very bright and able to make plays for others. And that doesn't even account for his fantastic work on the defensive end. Nobody talks about him in terms of his NBA future, but I think he'll be a starter for a playoff team sometime down the road. (To be honest, he remind me of Travis Outlaw of the Blazers - scroll down for previous posts and you will see why this is a very high compliment.)

(By the way, the Michigan State backcourt of Kalin Lucas and Travis Walton combined for 20 assists and zero turnovers, which is downright insane. Pencil Michigan State in as one of my early season favorites for the Final Four, along with Tennessee, Texas A&M, and North Carolina.)

Chase Budinger, Arizona. Jerryd Bayless was the real star for Arizona tonight, because in his absence, they really struggled to get decent point guard play. And Jordan Hill is another Wildcat that I think can contribute at the next level, but I really liked what I saw out of Budinger. Everyone knows about this guy and his defense remains an issue, but he has become a deadly shooter in addition to his ballyhooed athleticism and innate ability to move without the ball. He's also a lot better at seeing the floor than I realized. He availed himself very well in a very difficult environment tonight - playing virtually by himself on the road against Memphis. He never lost his cool, never forced the issue, and managed to keep Arizona in the game despite the absence of Bayless.

Robert Dozier, Memphis. Nobody ever talks about Dozier when it comes to the Tigers, but every Memphis game I watch, he winds up being the key guy. All the hype is about Derrick Rose (I've seen him four times and have yet to be blown away), Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey, but Dozier seems like only one who consistently performs in his role. He's got great length and hops, blocks shots, can score in the post, and even hit threes. He reminds me a lot of Hakim Warrick and I think he's really being overlooked in all the talk about his teammates.

Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, Kansas State. Everyone knows about Michael Beasley, who is looking like the frontrunner for both the #1 pick in the '08 Draft and also the Player of the Year award in college hoops this season. But I feel like Walker is a guy getting lose in the shuffle a little bit. He spent his freshman year coming back from a knee injury and the first part of this year learning to play with Beasley as the #2 guy on a team. And while his jumper leaves something to be desired, I'm actually pretty impressed by the guy. He's got good size and is very physical for a perimeter player. Plus, he looks like he's getting his hops back. Because we've known about him forever and he carries a bit of baggage, I see him dropping in the draft (whenever he ultimately comes out) and being a steal for somebody.

Tyler Smith, Tennessee. The Vols are looking very much like a Final Four team with their quickness, depth, and relentless pressure. BJ Prince (cousin of Tayshaun and former Pepperdine star Tommie - go Waves!) is very smooth and Chris Lofton is the most recognizable Tennessee player, but I like Tyler Smith the most at the next level. He needs to add range on his jumper, but he reminds me a lot of Julian Wright in regard to his feel for the game, quick hands, and athleticism. Best case scenario - he's Josh Smith in three years. Worst case scenario - you have a guy that hustles like crazy, plays unselfish basketball, and has a great feel for the game, but just can't make a shot to save his life (in other words, a slightly better version of Ruben Patterson).

K.C. Rivers, Clemson. Nobody talks about this guy at all, but he strikes me as a legit NBA prospect. He scores in very efficient fashion and does a little bit of everything else along the way. He shoots over 40% from behind the arc and is a tremendous rebounder for a swingman. I think he's flying under the radar and will be heard from before its all said and done.

Joe Alexander, West Virginia. I tuned in to the OU-WVU game to watch Griffin, but Alexander showed something as well. He's got a very nice jump shot that he can hit off the catch or off the driblle, works off of screens nicely, and really surprised me with his ability to get into the lane and create shots for himself and others. He also showed some serious stones, hitting a turnaround jumper off of a post-up with 39 seconds left to tie the game. Honestly, I'd never even heard of him until I saw this game, but I came away convinced that he's the most underrated player in the country. (Admittedly, this is based on the fact that I'd never heard of him, which could be more my fault than anything, but whatever.)

DeAndre Jordan, Texas A&M. I've been hearing great things about Jordan, who has vaulted into the top five of most mock drafts, and I finally got a chance to see him play a little bit today. I don't know that he can be a contributer in his first year as a pro, but with the emergence of Andrew Bynum, you'd be crazy not to take a shot at a big, fast, talented 7-footer. Jordan reminds me a lot of Bynum in the way he can run the floor, but I don't know that his hands are as soft or his feet as quick. He disappeared for stretches today and seems to take plays off (unfortunately, this is also a trait he shares with Bynum). The good news is that he jumps more like Dwight Howard (he had one ridiculous alley-oop), so he might actually have more potential on the defensive end. We shall see.

Panic! at the Delta Center

Kyle Korver, the guy that looks like Ashton Kutcher or perhaps the lead singer of an emo band (thus the title of the post), has just been traded.

The Sixers, who are clearly looking to build around Igoudala, Dalembert, Thaddeous Young, and Lou Williams, are no doubt ecstatic to have unloaded Korver and the three years he has left on a contract that pays him almost $5 million per. In return they got the expiring contract of Gordon Giricek and a future first round pick (a conditional pick that will be used sometime between 2009 and 2014). The pick is all well and good, but it is the contract situation that makes this a great trade for Philly, as they now have more than $10 million in cap space for the upcoming summer - and that's before they make the inevitable Andre Miller trade. Suddenly, the Sixers have a nice young core and will be the only major player in a buyer's free agent market that could feature the likes of Elton Brand and Gilbert Arenas. Perhaps the rebuilding effort in Philly will be happening quicker than everyone first imagined.

Meanwhile, this seems like a panic trade by the Jazz. There was a falling out with Giricek, but that doesn't entirely explain why they would move this valuable trade chip (his contract, not his game, obviously) so quickly for Korver. This trade has nothing to do with Giricek being a big baby and everything to do with the fact that Utah is currently out of the playoff picture and coming off an absolute beatdown at the hands of the Lakers last night. Just seven months removed from the Western Conference Finals, the Jazz appear to have been lapped by the Lakers, Hornets, and Blazers, not to mention the Nuggets and Warriors. Considering outside shooting is the major weak spot on the Utah roster, it is easy to see why they would pull the trigger on Korver.

Which means that even if it was a panic trade, it was still probably a good trade. Korver won't play huge minutes but he allows them to space the floor and open things up for Boozer inside and Deron Williams on the attack. Plus, he's a great free throw shooter that will help Utah protect leads.

Korver isn't a great player and he probably isn't worth an expiring contract and a first round pick, but at the same time, this isn't fantasy basketball. The sum is often greater or less than the individual parts. In this case, a panic trade just might be the thing that turns Utah's season around.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Worth The Price of Admission

Normally, when someone refers to a televised game as being worth the price of admission, they follow up with a joke about it being free. But in my case, I'm paying $50 a month for the NBA League Pass, so there actually is a price of admission. Therefore, the title is appropriate in reference to the Nuggets-Warriors game tonight.

For starters, the game was at Oracle, which is always a good time. Warriors home games might be the most consistently exciting events in pro sports right now. Not only that, but I have a certain fondness for the Warriors broadcasters who cover the games for Fox Sports Net. So GSW has been getting top priority for a while now when it comes to my viewing/TiVoing habits. But tonight the intriguing Warriors-Nuggets clash was butting up against my hometown Blazers going for their 12th win in a row. So I toggled as best I could, but ultimately sided with the track meet in Oakland. And what a treat.

First, just to get them out of the way, here were the only things that didn't go well: Monta Ellis had a poor shooting night (bad for my fantasy teams), Carmelo Anthony was in foul trouble, the Warriors didn't find a way to send the game to overtime, and, well, that's about it. Everything else was pure excitement. I mean, the final score was 124 to 120. Can't ask for much more than that. Here were the highlights:

- Stephen Jackson playing like only he can. That phrase embodies so much. The clutch shots, the complete lack of conscience regarding shot selection, the "glue plays" that he's becoming known for, the dogged effort on defense, and everything else. He had a vintage "Stephen Jack!" (as he's known, apparently, in Oak-Town) moment at the end of the third quarter when he was as cold as ice under pressure, catching a pass with two seconds remaining, pump-faking, and then draining a 27-footer at the buzzer. He has to be one of the 20 most entertaining and (gulp) valuable players in the league right now. Unfortunately, he missed the potential game-winning three with 9 seconds left, which left him 5-for-15 from behind the arc for the night and kind of cuts against all the "clutch" stuff above. Plus, it was a bummer because had he made the shot, the place would have gone nuts. That said, he still finished with 32 points, 5 boards, and 4 assists.

- Allen Iverson continuing to defy all logic. Basic reasoning would dictate that AI would have to lose a step at some point. Instead, he seems faster than ever. Golden State has a ton of team speed, yet Iverson made them look like they were playing while wearing body weights ala that old Shawn Marion commercial. He got to the rim, made his usual assortment of ridiculous floaters and leaners, and consistently got his teammates to the line via great passes (he only had 6 assists, but he would have had 7 or 8 more if generating free throws counted as an assist, which it should, especially if the guy makes both, but I digress). Baron Davis is an incredibly quick and powerful defensive point guard (see more on that below), but he just couldn't keep Iverson in front of him for large portions of the second half. That's how fast and how skilled with the ball AI is. And when you throw in both his improved shot selection and shot-making, you get a game-high 39 points on just 21 field goal attempts.

- Baron continued to be a beast. He made the usual Baron Miracle Shots down the stretch and is just playing at such a high level night in and night out. His scoring and playmaking are to be expected at this point and he delivered on that front with 29 points (on 10-for-17 shooting) and 13 assists, but I remain amazed at the havoc he can create on the defensive end. He has to be one of the best shot-blocking point guards in the history of the league, with the ability to fly across the floor and wipe away shots from the weakside. Tonight he had two blocks, which matched the total of league leader Marcus Camby, and made one amazing play when he got switched on to Melo in the post and blocked a turnaround jumper.

- Carmelo Anthony, when not in foul trouble, was incredibly efficient and impossible to guard. Stephen Jackson was doing his best crowd/body/bump/move-the-feet act that he used to such great effect against Dirk in the playoffs last year, but it was to no avail against Melo, who is just too versatile and powerful to be stopped. When you haven't seen Anthony play in a few weeks, it can be jolting to see how powerful and smooth he is. He finished with 30 points in 32 minutes, but could have had 40+ if not for the foul trouble.

- There was this great sequence down the stretch when Baron was going into "Baron Mode" and had just abused Anthony Carter in the post to tie the game with just over a minute to go when Iverson came right back down the court (after deferring to Melo on the previous two fruitless trips) and hit a tough leaner to recapture the lead.

- The Nuggets went an incredible 33-for-37 from the line and got two huge hits from Camby to seal the victory.

I love the Nuggets and count them as one of my favorite teams in the league, but I have to admit that I was pulling for Jackson to hit that three and send Oracle into mass hysteria. Oh well, you can't have it all.

"In a Losing Effort ..."

I have a feeling that we are going to see the phrases "Dwyane Wade," "tremendous performance," and "in a losing effort" strung together in a lot of sentences this season. The Miami Heat just aren't very good, with an aging Shaq, Ricky Ricky, and J-Will making up the bulk of D-Wade's supporting cast. But that doesn't mean Wade is letting off the gas pedal. In fact, because the Heat are so terrible, Wade has been getting his legs underneath him below the radar. He's been a little spotty this year coming back from his myriad injuries and seemed destined to have a down year along with the rest of his team. However, if anyone was under the impression that Wade would be chalking this season up as a lost cause probably isn't thinking that after tonight's game against Orlando.

I didn't plan on watching much of this one because Heat games tend to be incredibly boring, but I had it locked into my rotation of channel surfing because of the Dwight Howard Factor (he's becoming "must see TV" in a hurry) and the SVG Factor (I was looking forward to watching Stan Van Gundy pull the knife out of his back and wield it against Riles), so I saw enough of the first three quarters to know that D-Wade was playing for keeps. Pull-up jumpers, blocked shots, hustle plays, you name it. So I put the game into the #1 slot for the fourth quarter and wound up being treated to some vintage Wade (in addition to some impressive play by Howard, Carlos Arroyo, and Hedo Turkoglu of the Magic). The man who falls down seven times and gets up eight (which, as my friend Jack has pointed out, doesn't even make sense unless he started out on the ground in the first place) went off in the fourth quarter, scoring 20 points in the period and controlling the game at both ends. He made a series of impossible shots and then managed to set up Daequan Cook for an even more impossible game-tying three.

In overtime, Wade used Orlando's over-aggressive defensive against them, bringing defenders and then finding Cook (who needs to be playing 40 minutes a night, ASAP) for some huge shots. In the end, the Magic got too many big shots from Turkoglu in the OT and too many rebounds and big free throws from Howard (he went for 29 and 21 - his 10th career 20/20 game - and shot an impressive 9-for-11 from the line) and wound up pulling off the road win, but Dwyane Wade absolutely made a statement in this game that he won't be tanking or resting or quitting in any way, shape, or form during the 07-08 season (even though getting Michael Beasley and building around Wade, Cook, and Beasley is this team's best chance).

Wade's line for the night pretty much says it all: 48 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 steals, and 16-of-21 shooting from the floor. It was probably the best individual performance I've seen in the NBA this season and yes, it wound up being in a losing effort.

As I said at the top, I'm afraid we're going to be hearing that a lot this season.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Amare: Out for Blood

I guess Amare Stoudemire reads the papers. And the blogs. And the message boards.

There has been a lot of talk in the wake of that Lakers-Suns Christmas Day game about the downfall of this Phoenix team and that they are no longer a true title contender. During the broadcast, Jon Barry said that the Lakers would beat Phoenix in a seven-game series and Marc Jackson took it even further saying that L.A. had more talent by a "landslide." Now, I suspect this might have been a bit of hyperbole and that Jackson was probably caught in the moment of a raucous Staples Center crowd that was - in the words of Bill Walton - "surging toward the court." However, the chatter didn't stop there. Everywhere you looked, there was overt criticism of the Suns. Most of it, almost all of it in fact, centered on their inability to stop Andrew Bynum in the paint. And this led to more of a macro examination of the team and the way Duncan abused them last year and how the Suns generally can't guard big men. This brand of criticism, of course, tends to rest on the shoulders of Amare Stoudemire.

Much of this is for good reason. Amare is very poor at "doing his work early" on defense, which is to say that he rarely battles for position, thwarts his opponent on cuts away from the ball, or does really anything at all before his man catches the basketball. He's adequate as a weakside shotblocker and is a slightly better rebounder than people (read: Charles Barkley) give him credit for, but it is true that his post D is pretty terrible. This is why Kurt Thomas had to guard Duncan all series last year and why Brian Skinner may be the different between another loss to San Antonio and a Phoenix title - because Amare just doesn't have what it takes to lock people down on defense. Again, this is the prevailing opinion and one that I share for the most part.

However, tonight, Amare reminded us that when he's focused and angry, he can torch people. He came out of the gates against the Clippers like he was playing the final game of his career, scoring Phoenix's first 11 points and attacking the rim with ferocity. And then he started destroying Chris Kaman on the defensive end of the court. The Clippers center has the inside track for most improved player this year and has been playing great, but tonight he was the unfortunate sap that got in Amare's way while the embattled Sun was trying to send a message. The results were NOT pretty.

Amare looked like a gazelle on offense, effortlessly racing around and past Kaman on his way to 30 points in just 26 minutes. Amare was 11-for-14 from the field and 8-for-10 from the line and he hardly had to break a sweat to completely dominate on O. But it was at the other end where he really made a statement. No Kaman shot went uncontested. The balding big man was bumped on every cut and challenged for post position and generally harassed whenever he tried to accomplish anything at all. For the night, Kaman finished with 9 points and 9 boards, but even those are inflated numbers, because for some reason he stayed on the floor for nearly the entire blowout victory (no Sun starter played more than 28 minutes and no other Clipper starter logged more than 33, while Kaman played 41). However, in the three quarters that he squared off with Amare, Kaman finished with 5 points, 4 rebounds, and 5 turnovers on 2-for-14 shooting. Yes, you read that correctly ... 2-for-14 shooting. For a center. Meanwhile, Amare snagged 15 rebounds, swatted four shots (most of them Kaman's) and basically controlled the game at both ends, from start to finish.

It was nothing less than a message to the rest of the league: don't count me out. Stoudemire may not be an incredibly smart defensive coordinator/anchor like Tim Duncan or an instinctive rim protector like Josh Smith or even a hard worker like pre-2005 Ben Wallace. But he's still a strong 6'10", can jump like crazy, and has some pride. And guys like that can make a difference on both ends of the court, regardless of how we label them in columns and blogs.

We've all made up our minds that Amare Stoudemire is a gifted player but a terrible defender. Many have taken the leap and decided that he's a liability and must ultimately be traded in order for Phoenix to win a title during the Steve Nash era.

I'm guessing that if we were to ask Chris Kaman tonight, he might feel differently.

Matchmaker: Crawford to the Blazers

If you've read this blog much, you know I'm always in search of a good gimmick. That is because having one just makes it easier to come up with a post that isn't a babbling brook of nonsense. Defining the scope of a blog post is probably the single most important thing one can do in a landscape which includes more sports bloggers than Yao Ming jerseys (okay, that's impossible, but you get the idea). So even though I typically despise gimmicks in everyday life, they can be invaluable on this space. My first attempt - "good and bad" - was lame and lasted one day. This is my second try at coming up with an ongoing gimmick post. We'll see how it works out.

Anyway, the concept is that I play matchmaker and come up with workable pairings between players and teams in the NBA. The intended value of the premise is that I'm looking for odd pairings that you wouldn't immediately expect but that might actually help both teams. I'm not going to give you "Jose Calderon to the Cavs" because A) that is too obvious, B) the Raptors would never trade Calderon, especially now that Ford is in danger of never playing again. And you won't see things like "David Lee to the Suns" either, because even though Isiah is crazy, he's not quite crazy enough to trade his most valuable player. Well maybe he is, but the point I'm making is that we're looking to dig a little deeper here with these pairings.

This is probably pretty evident with my first choice, which is Jamal Crawford to the Portland Trail Blazers. I'm sure that most of my fellow Blazer fans are vomiting in their mouths right now at the thought of Crawford coming into a blossoming mix that is currently riding an 11-game winning streak, but that is only because they are basing their opinions on what I believe is an unfair reputation. Crawford is seen as a selfish guy that can't contribute to a winning team. A look at his track record confirms that he has indeed spent his career playing on losing teams and hoisting more than his share of shots. However, that doesn't mean that those things are entirely his fault, that he couldn't make changes, or that there is no value in what he brings to the table.

For starters, the one glaring hole on this Blazers roster (other than Oden, which isn't happening until next year and experience, which isn't happening until all these guys grow up together) is that they lack a perimeter bench scorer that can create his own shots. Jarrett Jack is the closest thing they have to such a player, but he's pretty limited as an offensive weapon - his Christmas night outburst against Seattle notwithstanding. It was during that very game that my Dad - who is rarely wrong about such things - noted that Portland really needed a "microwave" off the bench. I agree with him, which is why I was pushing so hard for a Blazers-Bulls trade in the offseason that would have sent Zach Randolph to Chicago for Ben Gordon and Andres Nocioni (ironically, the Bulls probably never considered the deal, despite their desperate need for a lowpost scorer, because they feared that Zebo would be incompatible with Scott Skiles ... now, 25 games later, Skiles is gone and Randolph is being wasted alongside Eddy Curry in New York).

While Gordon might still be an option, especially in light of his recent struggles, I doubt Portland is interested in trading for a bench player that just turned down a $50 million extension and is about to become a free agent. Now, Crawford has far from an ideal contract, but it isn't as bad you might expect, what with him being a member of the Knicks and all. In fact, at under $8 million a year, his deal isn't really that terrible. The biggest problem is that he has four years left on it, so if this gamble doesn't pay off, Portland is stuck with him for a while.

That said, there is something that is actually quite helpful about the fact that Crawford makes close to $8 million a year and this is the part that is going to please Blazers fans ... he makes nearly as much as Darius Miles.

Yes, the same Darius Miles that has been seen running and riding the bike and generally getting ready for a comeback. The same Darius Miles that makes Blazers fans loose their breath at the mere mention of his name. Most Portland diehards that I know believe deep down that Miles is singlehandedly going to find a way to ruin all the progress that the franchise has made and I believe they would give just about anything to see him shipped out of town. Now that it doesn't look like Miles will be retiring and coming off the salary cap anytime soon, Portland has to either get rid of him, keep him on ice (at a salary hit of $8.3 million per for the next three seasons), or play him and risk disrupting their truly wonderful chemistry. Obviously, the move is to trade him. But honestly, who would take him?

Clearly, the answer to that question is Isiah Thomas. He's been rumored to have had interest in Miles in the past and his track record for terrible trades speaks for itself, so he's obviously the guy to target. The trick is in getting Thomas to swallow the poison pill that is Miles by making him think he's pulling off a great deal elsewhere. This is like Peter Berg hiding a Middle East message movie in a popcorn thriller like The Kingdom or Jessica Seinfeld churning out a cookbook full of ways to slip vegetables into children's foods like mac and cheese. Same thing. And yes, I'm comparing Isiah Thomas' GM skills to the movie tastes of the American public and the discerning qualities of little kids.

So here's the trade:

Portland sends Jarrett Jack and his sensible contract ($1.2 million per with two years remaining) and Darius Miles and his horrible contract to New York in exchange for Jamal Crawford and his semi-horrible contract.

Automatically, the Knicks win because they finally have a real point guard that will play defense and listen to the coach. (The Miles gambit doesn't even factor in because their cap situation remains unchanged for once, their chemistry is already shot to hell, and they might as well bring him in and hope for the best. After all, they are currently starting Jared Jeffries at small forward.)

And automatically, the Blazers win big because they've eliminated the D Miles Threat and taken the fans down to Defcom 2 on the "What if we go back to the Whitsitt Era?" Meter.

But I think that Portland wins in more ways than one, because I think Crawford could be a really, really good fit on this team.

For starters, even though he's always been on a losing team, I've seen him take and make quite a few big game-winning shots during his career, so he has some level of experience. Additionally, he's got the ability to create shots for himself pretty much anywhere on the court, which, as I described above, is exactly what Portland needs off the bench. Roy can't consistently go 40 minutes a night on those knees and as much as I love James Jones and Travis Outlaw off the bench, the former needs others to make plays for him and the latter is simply not a penetrating guard. Crawford has the ball-handling skills, shot-making ability, and complete lack of conscience necessary to be a "microwave" for this team. Nate can play him 20-25 minutes a night and see what he's got cooking. If Crawford is bricking everything in sight and stifling ball movement, then he gets the Martell Webster treatment (no PT for the final 12-18 minutes). But on those nights when he's just killing people and can't be guarded, he gives Portland another weapon and a key piece of the bench.

Not only that, but while getting rid of Jack is admittedly a bummer, especially on the defensive end, it starts to alleviate the point guard logjam that exists in Portland. They have Steve Blake starting and Jack coming off the pine, which means that Sergio Rodriguez isn't getting enough time (which he needs if he's to be the Portland version of Tony Parker someday) and Taurean Green (who is the Hoff family wild card choice to be Portland's future franchise point guard) is stuck in the minors. Plus, because he's got the severe eyebrows, Jack always looks angry (see: the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine paints eyebrows on Uncle Leo at the doctor's office ... "demeanor?"). I don't think that angry look can be good for the locker room.

So anyway, there you have it. A trade that gets Miles out of Portland, gives the Knicks a real point guard, and possibly solves the Blazers' microwave shortage off the bench. It is an admitted gamble because of Crawford's salary and propensity to hog the ball, but I'd rather have him and his reasonably good attitude (he seems fairly coachable and perhaps could stand to benefit from having a supportive and knowledgeable coach for once - remember, this guy has played for Bill Cartwright, Scott Skiles, Larry Brown, and Isiah Thomas) for four years than Darius Miles for three. And the Jarrett Jack Sacrifice is inevitable, so they might as well play that card now.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Greater St. Helens League Shootout!

I Tivo'd the Clippers-Raptors game tonight and boy am I glad I did. Not because I was treated to thrilling basketball, because I most assuredly was not. Rather, it was because I was treated to the sight of two basketball ghosts of Christmas past.

In their 80-77 loss to the Raptors, the Clippers brought Dan Dickau off the bench for significant minutes at point guard, as they have been doing for the last several weeks. I always take note of this because I knew Dan growing up, played against him in AAU, and used to have to wear the "Red Jersey" and pretend to be Dickau when our JV team would run Prairie High School's offense against the varsity defense. I've always kept tabs on him, which was pretty easy when he played at Gonzaga at the same time I was a student at Pepperdine (back when the Waves were good and a fierce rival of the Zags). It's been harder since he's been in the NBA, because he gets traded every other week, but I've been able to chart his career. (By the way, and this is a story for another time, but Dickau would be ideally situated as Steve Nash's backup in Pheonix.)


The thing that made tonight's game shocking is that another "Red Jersey" guy was playing for the Clippers and was actually in the starting lineup - Richie Frahm, who attended Battle Ground High School. Battle Ground is right down the road from Prairie (also the home of baseball's Richie Sexson, FYI) and as such, was - along with my high school, Mountain View - a fellow member of the Greater St. Helens League. And so I also donned a red jersey and would pretend to be Richie Frahm so that the varsity could practice accordingly. (I think I always got the red jersey duties because I loved to hoist difficult threes - the hoisting mirrored the actions of Dickau and Frahm, it was just the "making" where our games differed.)

I thought it was pretty crazy that the only two guys that I ever pretended to be while wearing a red jersey in practice where both on the court playing significant minutes tonight for the Clippers. Even crazier is the fact that in addition to being high school rivals (those guys had some classic duels), they were college teammates at Gonzaga (although Dickau was sitting out as a transfer during Frahm's senior year).

From sharing the court in Vancouver, Washington in the mid-90s as high school All-State players, to dominating the WCC as fellow Zags in Spokane, Washington in college, to valiantly battling mighty Jose Calderon and the Toronto Raptors in Los Angeles, California as professionals.

The whole thing just seems too ironic.

But it does bring back fond memories of practice sessions when all I had to do was put on a red jersey, run off screens, and jack up fadeway threes from the corner.

Thanks, Dan and Richie.

(Oh, and for the record, both guys played pretty well tonight. Dickau again showed good poise and control while running the Clips offense and finished with 7 points, 6 boards, and 2 assists in 26 minutes. Meanwhile, Frahm did his thing from long range, connecting on three of six triples and finishing with 13 points and five boards in 32 minutes.)

(Also, another weird coincidence is that Phoenix - the very team that I believe should employ Dickau - waived Frahm in the preseason.)

(Last thing - the guy that was released to make room for Frahm? That would be my boy Ruben Patterson, the Nanny Stopper, and subject of a supportive post just a few days ago. Waiter, I'll take another side order of irony, please.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Wild West

Don't look now but the Blazers have won eight games in a row. My love for Travis Outlaw is well documented in this space, but Channing Frye is stepping up in place of LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy is taking this game to the next level. Not only that, but this team is suddenly making it hard for their opponents to score baskets. They are now 10-6 against the West, 10-3 at home, and just won a road/home back-to-back against Denver and New Orleans. That is all pretty legit.

So, will it last? Probably not. After all, hailing from the Northwest, the Blazers are my team, which means that, by the laws of pro sports (and college, for that matter), it won't last. After all, we are just a few months removed from the Mariners going on huge winning streaks and leading the AL Wild Card with six weeks to play in the MLB season. How did that work out? Exactly.

That said, a look at the Western Conference standings right now shows just how wild things are going to be out west this year. San Antonio, Phoenix, and Dallas are the top three teams, which was totally expected. And Denver leading the Northwest isn't breaking news. But after that things get crazy. For starters, the Lakers are much better than expected as Bynum is emerging, Kobe is playing nice, and the addition of Trevor Ariza has transformed their defense. It is hard to see this team missing the playoffs is Bryant is on the roster in the spring. Likewise, it is hard to picture Golden State getting left out, considering they are like 100-3 in Stephen Jackson's last 103 regular season games (slight exaggeration). And you know Utah will turn it around once Okur gets healthy and Sloan makes his team play defense again. So that's seven teams. And there are only eight playoff spots. Which means that the Hornets (would be the third best team in the East), Blazers, and (gulp) Rockets are battling for the last playoff spot. The Rockets? Weren't they supposed to challenge for the Western Conference title?

Seriously, this is crazy.

My guess is that Portland will be the first to fade, since they are just too young and too inconsistent on the road. But can you picture the playoffs without either the Hornets or the Rockets? I can't.

I guess we'll have to wait and see how this all plays out. Should be fun.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Good Times in Oakland

Is there better entertainment value in professional sports right now than Golden State home games? Tonight's comeback victory over the Lakers might be the best Friday night game ESPN gets all year. The crowd was going wild and we got two vintage Baron Davis fadeaway bombs late in the fourth quarter. As a basketball fan, you can't ask for more than that.

I also want to point out that Monta Ellis is the real deal. I know his confidence is an issue at times and he needs to improve his shot selection, but he rebounds amazingly well for a guard, has great timing going for steals, and is an underrated individual defender. He was the difference between a win and a loss tonight for the Warriors.

Oh, and Trevor Ariza is going to wind up being a key pickup for the Lakers when it is all said and done.

That's all for now except for this ... the NBA League Pass is worth it, just so I can watch Warriors games all season.

Friday, December 14, 2007

More Outlaw

I could kiss Travis Outlaw right now.

Okay, probably not literally, but he sure did make my last post look good tonight. In leading the young Blazers to their sixth straight victory (over Utah), Outlaw once again came off the bench and just tore it up. He scored 21 points, grabbed six boards, garnered two steals, blocked a shot, went to the line for 14 free throw attempts, and shot 60% from the field. All in 29 minutes.

Oh, and he had the best +/- of anyone on either team as Portland outscored Utah by 15 points while Outlaw was on the floor.

I'm telling you, this guy is quickly becoming one of my ten favorite players in the league. (One day I'm going to rank them all on that count.)

Signing off,

The One Man Travis Outlaw Fan Club

Making Room for an Outlaw

I know that ever since Kevin Pritchard came on board in Portland, the Blazers have had a plan. I doubt that plan ever included Greg Oden (becuase how could they have imagined getting the top pick?) and I know it didn't include Greg Oden having microfracture surgery. It certainly is built around Brandon Roy and the plan probably expects big things from LaMarcus Aldridge. It was predicated around jettison players from the Jail Blazers era and making character count and bringing the fans back. Whatever the plan was, it was a good one and it is unfolding before our very eyes.

But I can't help wondering ... did Travis Outlaw ever really figure into the plan? He was drafted right out of high school back when the Blazers were still taking shaky guys like Quentel Woods in the draft and trading for dudes like Darius Miles (by the way, the mere sight of Miles getting on an exercise bike or jogging up and down the practice floor sends my Portland-based friends into convulsions). And at the time, he seemed like a perfect fit. As my Dad joked on draft night, "Why wouldn't the Blazers take an Outlaw?"

But the thing is, he's improved every year. Last year he made some big strides on defense, became a better rebounder, improved a bit with his midrange jumper, and really learned how to get to the line.

This year he lost the starting small forward job in camp to Martell Webster (who is also vastly improved, armed with a new attitude and unlimited range on this jumper) but didn't hang his head for a minute. Instead, he's tearing it up off the bench, giving the Blazers energy and scoring punch at both forward spots. Every time I catch part of a Portland game, the Blazers' level of success seems to correspond with Outlaw's minutes.

He's been especially potent in December, where through six games, he is scoring 18 points and grabbing 7 boards a night, shooting over 50% from the field (he finally seems totally comfortable taking the 17-footer, which was always a huge key for him), and averaging over 5 free throw attempts a game. He also blocks a shot a night and seems to make one or two "momentum" plays every fourth quarter. His minutes per game are up from 25 a night in November to 29 per in December, but it is more about what he's doing with those minutes than the increase in playing time.

The bottom line is that for the past six games - a stretch in which the Blazers are 5-1, by the way - Outlaw has been playing the sixth man role at a level just beneath that of such off-the-bench luminaries as Manu Ginobili and Leandro Barbosa. The guy has been good. Really good.

Which brings me back around to my original point. What was the long term plan for Outlaw going into this season? And what is it now? I think Portland always imagined putting a shooter/defender at the three position to stretch the floor for the bigs and for Roy (who can post) and that they probably viewed Outlaw as an ancillary piece of the puzzle.

But I think he's gotta be changing some minds. Maybe he's not a prototypical small forward in terms of his skill set and certainly he won't likely be the starting power forward on a team with Aldridge and Oden, but doesn't he have to get 30 minutes a night for the next five years?

I'll be curious to see how this all plays out, but my gut instinct is that Travis Outlaw is making himself an invaluable piece of this team and that he will be heard from for years to come.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

New Home For Nanny Stopper?

Forget the Mitchell Report, the big news today in sports is that the Clippers have waived Ruben Patterson. It isn't entirely clear from the Yahoo news blurb why this happened - maybe they just want to get rookie Al Thornton more playing time. But it means that once again, Patterson is one the market. I have to believe that a high-energy guy that plays good defense (no, he's not the "Kobe Stopper" he once proclaimed himself to be, but he does a solid job) and shoots a high percentage from the field could help a contender. I've always thought he'd be perfect off the bench for the Celtics, but they chose James Posey for that role instead.

Where else would Patterson be an asset? Phoenix could use him for his toughness and versatility, giving them some additional depth. However, they are so tight-fisted that they probably wouldn't even fork over the veteran minimum. Orlando could use him as a compliment to their more offensively inclined swingmen. That said, the one team that really comes to mind is New Orleans. They are already paper-thin on the wings and are relying on injury-prone guys and a rookie (Julian Wright) to get by and that is a shame, because Chris Paul is playing at an MVP level, David West is emerging as a go-to scorer in the paint and a true 20-10 guy, and Tyson Chandler continues to impress at center. Some added depth, energy, and toughness on the wing is exactly what this team needs (no offense, Morris Peterson).

So that's my vote. Ruben to the Hornets.

Gotta Love Steve Nash

In the playoffs last year we all saw Steve Nash try to play through a nasty gash on the bridge of his nose. The injury didn't even faze him and only the blood kept him off the court. In fact, he was the guy lifting Tony Parker off the ground after the collision. He was like Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard.

So it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he would break off half his tooth, hand it to a trainer, and then go for 29 and 11 while leading Phoenix to a big win over Utah. I know you can't give him the MVP every year, but seriously, is anyone more valuable to their team? To their sport?

In other news, Travis Outlaw is becoming the X Factor in Portland, Sam Dalembert finally played the type of game I knew he could, Stephen Jackson continues to single-handedly determine whether the Warriors win or lose (tonight he sucked, thus they lost), and the answer to Utah's offensive woes (even though they still lost a tough one to Phoenix) is just replacing Mehmet Okur (bad shoulder) with Paul Milsap who went for over 20 and 10 as the starting center.

Not a bad night of NBA action.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Maybe I'm Writing About the Wrong Sport?

The NBA is my first love and as I explained sometime back in the summer months, I decided that with time short and reader attention spans even shorter, I would specialize and make what was previously a "sports blog" and turn it into an "NBA blog."

However, this morning I received an email telling me that I'm an idiot for writing an article about "everyone ignoring LeBron" when that very day there were features about him on every major sports page (he was right - my timing was comically bad; it seems that I wasn't the only one inspired by the big game he had against Boston). In addition to being quite astute, this reader was also fairly kind, as he then said, "Maybe you should write about football instead, because [expletive], you're preseason picks were amazing."

This made me feel good, but also confused. I made NFL picks? Seriously?

Sure enough, it is true. Way back in August, I made one of my many "hey, I know I haven't been writing, but I'm going to!" posts and decided to throw my NFL picks into it. You can read the whole post here, but here are the picks themselves:

AFC Division Winners - New England, Indy, San Diego, and Pittsburgh.
AFC Wild Cards - Cincinnati and Jacksonville
NFC Division Winners - Philly, Seattle, New Orleans, Minnesota
NFC Wild Cards - Dallas and Green Bay

(That's right, I've got the Ravens and Bears sitting at home.)

Super Bowl - Pittsburgh over Dallas
MVP - Tom Brady
DPOY - Champ Bailey
ROY - Adrian Peterson
COY - Brad Childress

Obviously, there were a few misfires. Champ Bailey has been hurt much of the year and Brad Childress won't be winning Coach of the Year anytime soon. And Philly winning the NFL East? Whoops. Same with New Orleans winning the NFC South and Cinci getting a wild card. But other than that, I'm feeling pretty pleased. Minny won't win the NFL North, but they might make the playoffs and All Day Peterson looks like a lock for ROY. Brady for MVP looks like a lock as well. And while I probably should have tabbed New England to win it all, I can't feel too bad about Pittsburgh over Dallas in the Super Bowl. Throw in the Green Bay pick and the exclusion of the Ravens and Bears (you have to trust me on this, or trust your own memories, but this was not a common stance in the preseason), and I feel like these may be my best set of picks ever. In any sport. And I spent five minutes on them with no research.

I'm not sure what to make of all this, but I suspect it's actually not a good thing.


I've hit another slump on the blog (if only I could clone myself!), but I caught the fourth quarter of Portland-Utah last night and was impressed enough with this young Blazers team getting a win that I wanted to quickly comment on the contest.

First, from the standpoint of the losing team, the Jazz should have two primary concerns right now: (1) they aren't playing any defense, and (2), they are becoming a two-man team. The former should be easily solved once Jerry Sloan comes out of his coma and replaces this run-and-gun doppleganger that is currently roaming the sidelines for the Jazz. The latter is a tougher problem to solve, even though it shouldn't be. Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer are a great 1-2 punch, but just a week ago this team had multiple dimensions on offense. Kirilenko was coming on, especially as a passer, Ronnie Brewer was emerging as the slasher they needed, and only Mehmet Okur was really struggling. Now they are all struggling it and it is making Okur's troubles more apparent. Utah desperately needs him to resume his 16-18 ppg productivity and take some pressure of the Big Two. As for Brewer, he needs to get it going again, if only so that Utah can keep Giricek off the floor. That guy is just terrible. (More on that below.)

As for the Blazers, I thought they did a great job of keeping their poise down the stretch, scrapping for loose balls, and just wanting it more. However, there were two plays in particular that really put a smile on my face (as a Blazers fan). The first was when they came down the floor in transition with the rare Webster/Outlaw combo on the floor. Webster caught a pass from Roy and had a wide open look at a three (and we know he's not shy about those), yet opted instead to push it ahead to Outlaw, who was slashing down the baseline. Outlaw then draw all the defenders in the vicinity and popped the ball back to Webster who now had his feet set and - if possible - was even more open than before. Of course, he nailed the three. It seems like whenever teams make the extra pass, baskets are scored. I can't be sure, but that might be the most simple truth in the NBA right now.

The other big play last night was when Portland was nursing a diminishing lead and Utah had just scored a basket. They obviously wanted to run something for Roy, who was being guarded by the woeful Giricek. The problem was GG was doing his usual "I can't guard 'em so I might as well maul them" routine" and making it hard for Roy to catch in the high post. So Roy just ran out toward halfcourt, took a handoff from Steve Blake, faced up on Giricek, and went to work. A feint, a power dribble, a crossover, and a pull-up jumper later and the Blazers had two points and Roy was making Giricek look like he was wearing skates. It was a thing of beauty and the type of play that guys like Kobe and T-Mac make against lowly (but physical and irritating) defenders like Giricek. It had to make Blazers fans happy to see Roy assert himself like that down the stretch.

Anyway. I thought it was a big win for this young team and I really liked what I saw from the Blazers. Utah on the other hand? Yikes.