Friday, February 29, 2008

The Dawn of the Devin Harris Era

You had to know it was coming ... yes, it's a post celebrating Devin Harris' triumphant debut as a member of the New Jersey Nets.

Despite not getting the start (and how long will Lawrence Frank stubbornly keep Marcus Williams in as the starter?), Harris turned in a beauty last night. He came off the bench in a tie game and promptly rattled of a 10-1 run to close the quarter and when he left in the second, the Nets were up 15.

He scored 21 points, hit three jumpers from downtown, threw down a massive dunk in traffic, consistently split the double team, got his team playing at a fast pace, and, well, basically did all the things he's always done and received so little credit for. It was impressive enough that the Nets fans started chanting "Dev-in Har-ris!" during the last few minutes of the game. Oh, and New Jersey scored a season-high (by far) 120 points in a victory over Milwaukee.

If you are tired of hearing me rave about Devin Harris, then I have good news and bad. The bad is that I'm not going to stop. The good is that for the remainder of this post, at least, I'm going to expand those raves to his entire team. That's right, folks, I'm about to heap praise on the New Jersey Nets. Buckle your seat belts.

Actually, a better request would be to hear me out. I know the Nets have come to epitomize mediocrity in the past few years and that the mere sight of them popping up on TNT in April is enough to make a grown man cry. But if you want to get out ahead of the next hip NBA bandwagon, you might want to purchase a Dr. J throwback and a Nets hat.

Lets start with the obvious: LeBron is going to be playing in Brooklyn in 2010. Look, there's no stopping it. The Nets are going to BK and Jay-Z is going to get his hands on the best player in basketball. The Cavs are an aging team with a mediocre coach in a city known as "The Mistake by the Lake." I don't care if he's from Ohio, there's no way LBJ is staying.

Beyond that, a James' free agent signing in June of '08 means that Vince Carter, by default, is no longer there (or else they wouldn't have the cap room). So we've got addition by subtraction going as well.

Enter LeBron for Carter, merge him with the current roster, fast forward through the next two years of maturation for the young players and suddenly, you have an Eastern Conference power. Even if they don't acquire a single good rotation player from this point forward (impossible considering all the draft picks, Rod Thorn's solid track record, and the fact that players will be lining up to take a paycut in order to play with LeBron in Brooklyn), they will still have the following nine-man rotation when the 2010 season kicks off:

PG - Devin Harris, 27
SG - Richard Jefferson, 30
SF - LeBron James, 26
PF - Nenad Kristic, 27
C - DeSagana Diop, 28
B - Josh Boone, 26
B - Sean Williams, 24
B - Marcus Williams, 25
B - Mo Ager, 26

You could swap Boone and Williams for Kristic and Diop, depending on how everyone develops, but look at the ages on that roster! The average age of the top nine guys will be 27, which is the average player's prime. But at the same time, every single guy (with the possible exception of Ager) will have at least three years of legit experience. Boone can play, Sean Williams could be a stud, and nobody properly values Diop as a lowpost defender and rebounder. If Kristic can ever get back to 100%, they will have a fantastic interior foursome to go with LeBron, Jefferson, and Harris on the perimeter. And that's before the inevitable upgrades (some of them significant) that will occur with about half of the roster spots.

Mark it down now. The Nets and Blazers are going to be battling in the Finals in June of 2011. And it all started last night with the dawn of the Devin Harris Era.

You've Got to be Kidd-ing Me

Like that title? The NBA is pun-tastic!

I've been debating whether to post this (especially because my next post is going to be about how awesome Devin Harris is), because it will just lead to people calling me a Jason Kidd hater or other such nonsense. Just because I was, am, and will always be against the Harris-Kidd trade doesn't mean that I hate Jason Kidd. In fact, Kidd has been responsible for bringing me great joy in many instances. Here are just a few:

1. Watching him lead Cal to an upset over Duke in the second round of the 1993 NCAA Tournament (one of my five favorite tourney games of all time).

2. Listening to "People Wanna Know What the Kidd Did" by Kidd himself on B-Ball's Finest, a transcendent album that paired NBA ballers with rappers.

3. Seeing him breath life into Team USA last summer.

So I've got nothing against Kidd. Sure, he has more than his fair share of domestic squabbles and his free throw routine is incredibly annoying, but the good outweighs the bad, I think.

Anyway, disclaimers aside, this post isn't even really about Kidd. Nor is it about Crazy Avery Johnson. Or Harris. It's about Kevin Harlen and Doug Collins the TNT duo that single-handedly ruined last night's telecast of the Spurs and Mavs.

How did they ruin it? Simply by crediting every single good Dallas play to Kidd, even when he wasn't involved. A simple handoff from Kidd to Josh Howard was followed by a sweet, twisting layup by Howard. The call from Harlen: "Jason Kidd does it again!" Dirk gets an iso in the high post and finds a cutter (as he's done thousands of times). The call from Collins: "Jason Kidd is just so infectious. Passing has become contagious on this team." Brandon Bass pump fakes, drives, and throws down on Tim Duncan (by the way, Bass is going to be a handful for Duncan if these times meet in the postseason). The call from Harlen: "Bass with the dunk! Oh my, this team is playing at such a fast pace thanks to Kidd."

I mean, it was ridiculous. Kidd played okay in the contest, dishing out 10 assists and executing a nice steal and layup in the third quarter, but he was about the 7th most impressive player on the floor. Dirk was a beast getting to the foul line, Bass was terrific, Howard looked really good, Manu has his moments, Finley (once again) turned on the Time Machine, and Duncan was fantastic. Why are we getting so excited about Kidd?

I understand this is how the media rolls. They get all worked up whenever there is a trade or a player coming back from injury and they ascribe everything that happens to said player. But this was beyond anything I've ever seen, probably because Kidd's value has always been based, at least in part, on intangibles, which gave them liberty to credit Kidd with everything from a teammate's good pass to the consistency of the butter on the popcorn. They had no constraints.

Anyway, the whole thing made the game unbearable. And if it keeps up, then I'm skipping all Mavs games until the playoffs.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Atlanta Hawks: Going as Far as Josh Smith Can Take Them

I know it is rather uncool to discuss the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff race, but the bottom line is that if you make the postseason, anything can happen (see: Nuggets over Sonics in 1994 or Warriors over Mavericks last spring). And while the East seems to have a pretty clear hierarchy in place with Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, and (to some extent) Orlando out ahead of the pack, there are a few dangerous teams lurking in the bottom of the bracket. The Wizards could be potent if they ever get Arenas back to pair with their improved defense. The Nets are going to be more dangerous once Devin Harris gets healthy. I even like the Bulls now that they are rolling out a young lineup of Hinrich, Sefalosha, Deng, Thomas, and Noah. As long as they keep Larry Hughes off the floor, they could be a tricky 8th seed. (And believe that the Pistons don't want to see them.)

The team that really intrigues me in that also ran grouping is the Atlanta Hawks. They are playing better defense this year, they pass the ball well for a young team, and they have the speed and athleticism to get up and down the floor. They seem like the kind of squad that could give a wobbly top seed (say, Orlando) trouble in an opening round. And if they do, it will be Josh Smith leading the way.

The Hawks depend a great deal on Joe Johnson's physical playmaking ability and are deeply indebted to Al Horford for shoring up their interior defense, but if this squad is going to make the playoffs and be competitive, it will be because Smith has undergone his usual second half metamorphosis.

Put simply, Smith has crazy splits:

Pre All-Star Break
2004-05 - 8/5/2, 1.8 blocks
2005-06 - 9/6/1, 2.3 blocks
2006-07 - 15/8/3, 2.7 blocks

Post All-Star Break
2004-05 - 12/8/2, 2.2 blocks
2005-06 - 15/8/4, 3.1 blocks
2006-07 - 19/9/4, 3.1 blocks

Put another way, here were the improvements each year, from the first half to the second half:

2004-05 - 4/3/0, 0.4 blocks
2005-06 - 6/2/3, 0.8 blocks
2006-07 - 4/1/1, 0.4 blocks

I know those numbers don't look enormous, but those are significant upgrades. And while the bump in his rookie year makes sense, the other two increases can't be tied to specific career benchmarks. In fact, it is strange to see a good player go up, then down, then up, then down, then back up again. It seems to indicate that he really is a "second half player."

Of course, as soon as I decided to highlight these trends, Smith came out of the break sluggish, posting three straight subpar games. However, on Saturday night he went for 30 and 12 with a pair of blocks and steals. Was it just a particularly good game or the sign of things to come? This leads to another question: were Smith's past improvements based more on truly great second half play or was it simply because he was so inconsistent during the first half of the year?

This season, for the first time ever, Smith has been playing at a high level from opening night. In fact, his first half splits for 2007-08 present an even starker contrast to his old first half splits than do his second half numbers. Compare his first half numbers from this season to any of his prior first half splits:

2004-05 - 8/5/2, 1.8 blocks
2005-06 - 9/6/1, 2.3 blocks
2006-07 - 15/8/3, 2.7 blocks
2007-08 - 18/8/4, 3.2 blocks

Based on the previous three years, Smith could reasonably expect to boost his scoring by over 4 points a game, his rebounding by 2, and his assists by just over 1 per. He'll even block another .5 shots per contest. And if you add those increases to his current numbers, he suddenly looks like this for the second half:

2008 (projected second half) - 22/10/5, 3.7 blocks

Yikes. If he really does hike those numbers up, he becomes an absolute monster. Those are KG-in-his-MVP-year stats with even more blocks.

This is why Josh Smith is one of the true players to watch in the East. If there are real reasons for his previous improvements - increased focus, exceptional stamina that allows him to play at the same level while others wear down, film studies that iron out bad habits, coaching, and so on - then it seems entirely possible that Smith will once again see a sizable uptick in his production. If he does so, and arrives at Garnett production levels, the Hawks would have to be seen as a dangerous playoff team.

If, on the other hand, Smith has just finally rectified first half problems of the past - and is already at his 2007-08 ceiling - than there probably won't be reason to get too worked up about Atlanta (in other words, it will be like every other year).

Stay tuned.

Friday, February 22, 2008

If All Else Fails ...

Nobody is quite sure how the Shaq trade is going to work out in the Land of the Sun, but one thing is for sure ... the Diesel's presence in Phoenix is making things interesting.

After his debut against the Lakers on Wednesday, nobody could tell for sure whether he's going to be able to keep up (looks a little bleak), whether he can turn Amare Stoudemire into a solid defensive player (looks really bleak), or even whether he can make Phoenix better. But one thing is for sure, Shaq is interesting.

Whether it was diving on the floor for a loose ball or trying to pull the rim down on a dunk, he got our attention. Arriving at work the next morning (Veritas Prep, in Malibu, California - gotta represent!), it didn't matter if you were a former employee of the Detroit Pistons, a guy that only watches the Suns, or even someone who hates the NBA (we have all three), people wanted to talk about Shaq.

The co-owner of our business (as well as a successful film producer), Chad Troutwine, led a rousing discussion on the Suns-Lakers game, one that lasted quite a bit longer than our usual sidebars. And this afternoon, we're probably going to chat a little bit about the upcoming Suns-Celtics game.

So even if this thing goes south, it has people talking. That counts for something.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

One Simple Trade Request

With all of the trades that have happened and the promise of more to come, it probably seems greedy to ask for yet another deal. But that's what I'm doing right now, because there is one remaining trade that would ensure even more excitement in May and June ... Mike Miller and Kyle Lowry to the Cavs.

Chad Ford mentioned this possibility in his column on possible trades today and I admit that it made my heart race a little bit.

I've long been a Mike Miller fan in spite of his poor defense and egregious hair stylings. I think he's an underrated passer and athlete and obviously a fantastic shooter, so he's got value to any team (notably Denver). But he couldn't possibly more better anywhere else than he'd be in Cleveland. Put him on the wing and let him shoot threes all day, courtesy of LeBron. It's genius!

I suspect that Miller would be the focus of such a deal, but to me, the secret weapon for the Cavs is Lowry. He's fast, tough, and tenacious and would be a massive upgrade at the point over Larry Hughes (Boobie would still get his 25-30 mpg as a combo guard) and would in fact allow Hughes to go the wing where he's had more success this year. Check out how the Cavs' lineup would look in a few months:

G - Kyle Lowry
G - Mike Miller
F - LeBron James
F - Drew Gooden
C - Big Z (giving my spell checker a rest)
6th - Larry Hughes
B - Daniel Gibson
B - Anderson Verajon
B - Sasha Pavlovic

Now that's a solid nine-man rotation. Gibson can play with Hughes and Lowry with Miller, which always gives Cleveland an attacking guard on one side of LeBron and a shooter on the other (so long as they ban Hughes from taking jumpers). Which means that the Cavs would be right back in the mix in the East and would add another contender in that depleted conference.

Anything that keeps the East more interesting and keeps LeBron in the playoffs longer counts as a good idea in my book.

Now all we need is for Memphis to do something idiotic ... which is the easy part.

Monday, February 18, 2008

All-Star Thoughts

Now that the hoopla surrounding All-Star Weekend is subsiding, it feels like a good time to post my thoughts. Why? Because I never let an NBA story die!

Actually, I've just been busy. But here were my favorite things about Saturday and Sunday. (For my thoughts on the Rookie Challenge, see the previous post.)

1. Dwight Howard gets all the love. Fame and adoration are fickle things in professional sports, here today and gone the next. Even more mysterious are the origins of certain legends. Why do some players turn into instant starts and others struggle to get the hype? In some cases, we'll never know. But will never be a problem with Dwight Howard. He's been on a steady rise in NBA circles since miseason last year when he threw down that crazy, last second alley-oop on Tim Duncan's head. He followed that seminal moment up with the "sticker dunk" and "kiss the rim dunk" at last year's dunk contest (when he was robbed by horrendous judging on the part of Michael Jordan) and then a monster second half to the season. This year he broke out with a big first month and then stayed in the news when Stan Van Gundy called him out for not rebounding ... which he followed with a 24-rebound performance in the last game before the break.

Now he's become a bonafide star, showing off his comic chops as well as his electric skill and athleticism. He stole the show during the dunk contest, displaying such grace and creativity that even Gerald Green's classic "birthday cake dunk" was relegated to second billing. Granted, Howard didn't even really dunk the ball on his "Superman dunk" (many are saying that it meets the technical definition of a dunk because it was "thrown downward into the basket" but as my buddy Stump put it, "It failed the 'I know it when I see it' test"), but his tip dunk was insane, and the behind the backboard throwdown was a nice twist on Andre Igoudala's classic (leaving his head on the other side of the backboard was pretty cool). Plus, he conducted himself in the joyful fashion of a kindergartener on recess. Then, to top it all off, he went for 16 and 9 during the game on Sunday and even threw an alley-oop to LeBron. Needless to say, he became a "star of stars" on this weekend.

2. Chris Paul is incredible. Once the East pulled away at the end of the game, it was clear that Paul wouldn't be receiving the MVP award, which is a shame because he was the most dynamic player in the contest and he nearly led an amazing comeback on his home floor. 16 and 14 is nothing to sneeze at, and that's before you consider all the steals or the crazy ballhandling stunts. The move that he made late in the third quarter, when he faked a bounce pass by spinning back into a dribble was absolutely incredible (and pretty much completely ignored by the announcing crew). The great thing about Paul is that he can play his normal style of basketball and be electric, without infringing on the "ridiculously unselfish, no blatant attempts to show anyone up" style of an All-Star game. Everything Paul does is exciting because of his speed, but ultimately pretty subtle. If you watch any Hornets game, he will do all the same things he did on Sunday: throw ridiculous passes, lull people into submission with his sick handles, drop key threes and floaters, and pick people's pockets. None of that comes off as "trying too hard" (an All-Star no-no), yet it is all entertaining AND helps his team win. Which leads us to ...

3. Brandon Roy makes a great debut. I've tabbed Roy "The Perimeter Duncan" for his cerebral, steady play, instinctual ability to lead, and preference for playing the game the right way. Therefore, I kind of assumed that he would disappear into the landscape, much like the real Duncan. I am pleased that I was so wrong. Wages of Wins had Roy as the best player on the floor on Sunday, Byron Scott played him for all the big minutes, and his line of 18-9-5 was downright sparkling. Like Paul, he played with a perfect blend of passion and unselfishness. His only downfall was when he tried to throw down on an alleyoop that was beyond his realm - a mistake he rectified late in the game when he opted to take a lob and lay it in rather than risk a miss. As always, Roy played with a poise well beyond his years.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Rookie-Sophomore Game

Another All-Star Weekend, another Rookie Challenge. I don't know how many more 35-point blowouts we have to suffer through before they blend the teams, but whatever. Tonight's game featured all the usual components of this event: terrible defense, lots of dunks, a handful of surprising performances, and a bunch of screaming kids. To the latter point, let me say that I think it is great that they let the kids come to these games, but is there something that can be done about the mics? Two years in a row now, you can't even here the announcers over the wailing coming from the crowd. It shounds like people riding on a rollercoaster or being hung off a balcony.


Here is a quick 1-through-18 breakdown of the players involved in this game. It isn't a list of the who played the best, but rather who made the strongest impression (although, granted, those are sort of the same things):

1. Jordan Farmar. The Sophomores "let Boobie spin" (see my Eastern Conference Finals posts from last May for more information) to the tune of 11 threes tonight, but I thought Farmar was the guy that really impressed. He went for 17 and 12 with 3 steals while shooting a terrific percentage, playing good defense (!), and running the team. All in 21 minutes.

2. Boobie Gibson. Speaking of 21 minutes, that is how long it took Gibson to drain a Challenge record 11 threes and score 33 points en route to the MVP award. I thought Farmar played even better, but man, Boobie was raining jumpers from all angles. His 5-of-6 stretch to break the game open in the first have was mighty impressive. Lost in all the hoopla was his usual fantastic body control and instintive ability to track down loose balls.

3. Rudy Gay. Gay's jump shot is one of the prettiest in the game and his athleticism is out of this world. Tonight he barely had to break a sweat on his way to 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting.

4. Al Horford. He would be even higher, but for some reason he only played 21 minutes in the contest. Horford was a beast while he was out there though, going for 19 and 7 on 8-of-10 shooting. If only Kevin Durant and Jeff Green were interested in passing, he might have had 30. Horford looked even faster and more agile than normal tonight and probably helped his Rookie of the Year campaign by outplaying Durant.

5. Brandon Roy. I'm sure Nate and the rest of the Portland staff/front office is thrilled by Roy's 25 minutes, with more to come on Sunday. While he didn't play quite as well as the guys ahead of him on this list, Roy certainly didn't disappoint. He got others involved with 7 assists and managed to score 17 points of his own while also throwing down a sick dunk early in the contest. He looked every bit like the most accomplished NBA player on the floor.

6. Sean Williams. I've seen him play a lot this year so I wasn't terribly surprised to see Williams perform well. That said, I had no idea he was that fast or could handle the ball that well. The play where he grabbed a rebound, went through his legs to gather it, travelled the length of the court, and then threw it off the glass to himself with the highlight of the night. He had 17 and 10 in just 18 minutes and looked like a tremendous prospect. Why are the Nets playing Josh Boone and Nenad Kristic over him, again?

7. Rajon Rondo. I'm a Rondo homer, but he quitely had a really nice night for the Sophs. He had six assists to go with his usual three steals and was a catalyst in turning the contest into a running game. The Rookies had 24 turnovers (against only 9 for the Sophomores), which was due in large part to Rondo's defense.

8. LaMarcus Aldridge. He spent much of the game looking a little skittish and playing a step behind, but he really found his range in the second half and used his speed and height to crash the glass and get out in transition. He went for 18 and 9 with 4 assists, 3 steals, and no turnovers while logging 34 minutes.

9. Jamario Moon. He actually defended the rim on ocassion while also attacking the basket on offense and even hitting a three. Nothing amazing, but a solid performance.

10. Kevin Durant. Durant really disappointed me. He finished with a very nice stat line of 23 points (on 10-for-19 shooting), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals, but he also had 5 turnovers and more terrible shots than I could count. Plus, he was really the only guy on the floor that totally stopped the ball when it came to him, choosing to dribble around for upward of 10 seconds before hoisting a fadeaway off of one leg. I know he's going to be amazing at some point, but the light bulb still needs to come on for him.

11. Ronnie Brewer. He used his athleticism to make some plays on the glass and at the rim, but was mostly pretty quiet.

12. Juan Carlos Navarro. Wound up with pretty nice stats and some sweet jumpers, but literally did all his damage in the last five minues during garbage time.

13. Mike Conley. Great speed and unselfishness which led to 8 dimes, but also committed five turnovers and seemed to be a bit out of control at times.

14. Yi Jianlin. Not his kind of game at all, but that step back jumper he had was pure in the third quarter. That play alone keeps him out of the bottom four.

15. Paul Millsap. Didn't do much of anything out there but the Sophs made some big runs while he was on the court.

16. Luis Scola. Same story, different team. He didn't do much at all, but had the best +/- of anyone on the Rookies team.

17. Andrea Bargnani. I'm just not impressed by his three-point jacking ways.

18. Jeff Green. How he made this team over Al Thornton is a mystery. How he played a whopping 34 minutes is utterly perplexing, when you consider that he was probably the least effective player on the court. Even with a 7-point flurry in just under a minute, he still finished 4-of-12 against no defense with 3 turnovers and 3 fouls.

Friday, February 15, 2008

LeBron James: Potentially Loving Jerry Stackhouse

ESPN is reporting that the NBA might have reason to scrap Jerry Stackhouse from the Jason Kidd trade (which is on hold anyway thanks to Devean George) due to comments he made indicating that he was staying in Dallas. His confidence in a New Jersey buyout and return to Dallas make it pretty clear that he had conversations with Mark Cuban, which violate league rules.

If the NBA does get involved and pull Stackhouse from the deal, it will force Dallas to either go back to the drawing board and make a worse deal (likely including Keith Van Horn, which would create a luxury tax nightmare) or abandon the trade. Ironically, I believe this would be best for the Mavs, as Devin Harris is undervalued in the present and certainly going to provide more than Kidd going forward. That said, Dallas will probably find a way to cram this thing through, if only because their fans are expecting it.

But if they don't? Suddenly Kidd is back on the market, with the trade deadline looming, and tons of anger in his heart. You think New Jersey would keep him if that happened? They can't! Which means that the Cavs could be right back in the mix. Granted, Cleveland still doesn't have anything that the Nets would want, but if Rod Thorn were desperate enough, he might just go for something terrible, rather than deal with Captain Headache the rest of the season.

And if the Cavs were able to somehow come away with Jason Kidd and turn LeBron's James increasingly fierce frown upside down, they would probably have to find a way to give Jerry Stackhouse some sort of award, or at least a thank you note.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"Let's Play Through the All-Star Break!"

Perfect quote from Beetlejuice (see: item #1 in glossary of terms) during tonight's Warriors-Suns game. With just over two minutes to play in the thrilling 120-118 Golden State victory, JVG gushed, "I don't want this game to end. Let's play through the All-Star break!"

Amen to that.

Lost in all the hype surrounding the Shaq trade (not to mention that Gasol deal and the rumored/blocked Kidd trade) is that the Suns have now played two of the most exciting games of the season and lost both in the closing seconds - at home against the Hornets when Peja hit a game-winner in double overtime, and tonight at Oracle.

There was so much to observe and analyze from tonight's game that any attempt to lasso it all into a coherent post would be ill-fated. So here are a bunch of random thoughts:

Grant Hill = Shawn Marion?. My biggest complaint about the Shaq trade when discussing it with friends is that the Suns were failing to consider Marion's true value to their roster. Frankly, I'm tired of hearing about Marion's defensive versatility, because while it is largely true, it is also becoming a massive exaggeration. Yes, he can guard point guards and power forwards alike, but it's not like he shuts them down. I've heard at least five people mention Marion's ability to guard "Tony Parker one minute and Tim Duncan the next." What? He couldn't guard either of those guys! Duncan destroyed him in the rare instances in which the Suns dared to put the Matrix on him, while Parker routinely lit up Marion. That said, Marion's plug-and-play ability was helpful (if overstated), particularly in light of his active hands, which made him a strong help defender. But to me, Marion's real value was on offense, where his speed advantage at the power forward position is what made the Suns the Suns. No 4 could keep up with him in transition and few could track him on those back cuts that often resulted in quick dunks near the rim.

I strongly believe that Steve Kerr made this trade under the assumption that Shaq would be a bonus on the court - that O'Neal's locker room presence alone would allow the Suns to become a better team. Part of this is based on the leadership qualities that Shaq brings to the table. He's smart, funny, and respected, and he's basically a player-coach at this point. It's not unlike adding Greg Maddux to your pitching staff. However, the other part of such an approach would have to include the belief that the Suns can be just as good without Marion as they were with him.

This is where I was having some problems. As I mentioned above, Marion was the guy keeping the Suns ahead of the curve in the increasingly speedy NBA and I personally didn't think that they could simply give his minutes to Boris Diaw and be okay. And a look at their record post-Marion indicates that they probably aren't quite as good. However, I watched every minute of that Hornets game and the game tonight and I can tell you that they don't look a whole lot different. They don't protect the rim well, but that is nothing new. They run like crazy, which is an old story as well. In fact, they could very well be 4-0 if it weren't for monster games from Chris Paul last Wednesday and Monta Ellis tonight (more on that below).

Furthermore, to watch Grant Hill tonight was a revelation. Short of slamming home a couple of dunks that Marion could have performed blind-folded, Hill did everything the Matrix used to do and more. He leaked out on the break and finished plays 1991 Final Four-style (see #2). He pounded the glass with 15 boards (!), including six on the offensive end. And, most importantly, he guarded everyone from Baron to Crazy Glue (see #3) and did an admirable job in the process. In fact, I would argue that his intelligence, experience, and complete unselfishness made him more effective in the "guard everyone" role than Marion. It got to the point where the Warriors just went to the hot hand who wasn't being guarded by Hill. Grant's on Baron? Let Ellis torch Nash or Jackson work Barbosa in the post. Hill switches to one of those guys? Baron goes to work. For all of the Suns' issues on defense, they really didn't miss Marion in this one. Grant Hill did the job.

As for Diaw ...

Boris Diaw can't find the magic. Against the Hornets a few weeks ago, Diaw was operating in the paint and looking like his 2006 self again. But then he kind of broke down in the closing minutes and now appears to have regressed completely. What is with this guy? In a previous post I linked to an old column about Devin Harris that moonlighted as a Boris Diaw column about halfway through and it was shocking to re-read. Diaw was destroying people back then, milking those guard switches for all they were worth on the way to monster games (such as the 34-point outburst that came complete with a game-winning shot against Dallas in the Western Conference Finals). I don't know if the game was just too fast tonight or Baron is too strong to exploit on a switch or what, but Diaw just couldn't do anything out there. This is the part where the Suns might have misfired. I suspect that they thought Diaw just needed minutes and touches - which weren't coming with Marion out there - and he would be fine. He's not.

Oh, Amare. For all of Amare Stoudemire's brilliance, the guy can't seem to put it all together. When he's amassing huge numbers, he's getting kicked around for his defense. When he plays good D, he gets called for highly dubious fouls. And tonight, when he makes his 36th straight free throw, he misses one with 3.5 seconds left. Brutal. This is the second time in two weeks (the other against San Antonio) that Amare has missed from the line in a potential game-tying situation. But it's not like he's shanking them or getting nervous. The stroke tonight was pure, the ball just circled the drain and rimmed out. What are you going to do? It just seems like Stoudemire is cursed a little bit. Against GSW he was making incredible plays at the rim, abusing Crazy Glue in a way that Dirk never could (poor "Captain Jack" draws some of the worst defensive assignments), and playing with real passion. Yet he still got screwed on multiple foul calls and had a game-tying free throw rim out when it mattered most. Hopefully he can stop walking under ladders, because despite Nash's brilliance, Barbosa's speed, Hill's (reborn) versatility, or Shaq's arrival, this team is only going to the Finals if Amare Stoudemire carries them there. I'm sorry, but there it is.

Enough Phoenix. Already over a thousand words in and nothing about the winning team. The Warriors continue to be, in my opinion, the most exciting team in the NBA. I had lunch with a couple of fellow NBA junkies yesterday and I told them that when it comes to making TiVo choices off of NBA League Pass, I pretty much just go with the Warriors whenever they are at home. Anything at Oracle is Must See TV at this point. GSW might still leg an egg on the road, but they never quit on their home floor and with that frothing crowd, you just aren't getting a more exciting NBA experience in the middle of February.

Tonight, the specific Warriors highlights included: Baron Davis overcoming yet another slow start and Hill's pesky defense to elevate his playmaking skills and make some huge shots down the stretch. Stephen Jackson hitting some monster threes in that deliberate way that only he can make work. Monta Ellis making me feel really good about my post from two days ago by destroying Phoenix to the tune of 37 points (on 18-of-27 from the floor), 9 boards, and 5 assists, while playing all 48 minutes (I'm not quite finished raving about Ellis). Plus, Baron Davis bringing his usual brand of comedy to the post-game interview by jokingly blaming Ellis for letting Barbosa get loose for a potential game-winning three.

More Monta. I might have a new favorite player, folks. Ellis is just so much fun to watch and aside from his lack of deep range and the occasional defensive lapse, is pretty much doing everything perfectly right now. His pull-up jumper is absolutely unstoppable and as JVG said during tonight's telecast, "It's pretty much a layup at this point." Speaking of layups, Ellis is quickly becoming one of the best finishers in the NBA. He has the speed of Tony Parker, the handles of Allen Iverson, the leaping ability of Dwayne Wade, and the body control of Devin Harris (got my boy in there!). I'm not sure anybody can leave the floor and then slide by defenders the way this guy does. He almost never gets called for charging even though he routinely takes off from outside the circle and he possesses tremendous concentration that allows him to finish while simultaneously dodging defenders. He's also a great rebounder for his size and is really developing as a passer, which makes him even more dangerous off the dribble. To top it all off, he showcases an emotional maturity far beyond his years. People have always said that Tim Duncan is unflappable and that his demeanor never changes, but that isn't true. Duncan complains more than virtually any other player in the league. He's just not real demonstrative in a reactionary sense. Ellis, on the other hand, truly seems to be wearing a mask while on the court. He's like a cyborg! Personally, I don't mind if a guy sneers a bit or slams the ball down, but I can also appreciate when a player has such control over his emotions while still playing hard. He's an extremely impressive player and I feel like we're seeing him come of age right now, but that very few people are taking notice. Perhaps that will change after the big game on national TV tonight, but with all the trades going down and the All-Star game bearing down on us, less attention is being paid to the actual games. Hopefully folks aren't missing the birth of Monta Ellis: NBA Superstar. Because it's happening.


1. Beetlejuice - Jeff Van Gundy, former NBA head coach and current ESPN analyst. Known for witty comments in the booth, hard-nosed defensive schemes as a coach, and for riding Alonzo Mourning's leg like a mechanical bull during the 1999 Playoffs.

2. 1991 Final Four Style - This describes the ridiculous dunk that Grant Hill threw down on virtually the entire Kansas team back in, yes, 1991. And no, Hill wasn't jumping quite like tonight and his finishes were more of the finger roll variety, but you get the idea.

3. Crazy Glue - Stephen Jackson, both certifiably crazy and the glue of this Warriors team. I'm still not sure which entity has seen the bigger resurgence since the Pacers-Warriors trade last year, Jackson or the city of Oakland.

The Mavs (and Blazers) Will Rue The Day ...

Jason Kidd has been traded to the Mavericks, according to ESPN's Marc Stein. Or, as I believe it will eventually be remembered, Devin Harris has been traded to the Nets.

Look, there is no denying the fact that I'm probably the biggest Devin Harris believer on the World Wide Web. This became clear several weeks back when those three-team trade rumors were flying around and I jumped out of my skin in excitement over the prospect of Portland acquiring Harris in the deal. You can read all about it here and here. (And if you really want to go crazy, you can read my first ever column about Devin Harris here.

My problem with Dallas' dealings here is comprised of two issues: 1) Kidd is being overvalued and 2) Harris is being undervalued. I'll dispense with the first issue by simply pointing you to John Hollinger's column and letting you soak up the gory details for yourself - the 36.7% shooting, the booming turnover stats, the miniscule scoring numbers, and all the rest. Just know that triple-doubles don't equate to wins, as Hollinger accurately points out.

The Harris thing is what really confuses me. Despite torching the Suns in the 2006 playoffs and evolving into a legit top-10 point guard this year at the age of 24, Harris can't seem to get any respect whatsoever from pundits or fans alike. If you watch games consistently, you will observe that Harris is unbelievably quick, has tremendous reach, can get to the rim at will, plays great defense, and has an ever-improving jump shot. Before being sidelined with an ankle injury, Harris was destroying people and prompting Avery Johnson to say that Harris will be an All-Star in the near future. Seriously, folks, people have a very difficult time guarding this man. And if you don't trust your eyes, just take a look at the numbers. As Hollinger pointed out today, Harris' value becomes clear when you start looking at +/- numbers and Dallas' record when he doesn't play.

I think Dallas is going to really regret making this trade and I think Portland is going to rue the fact that they didn't take advantage of the Mavericks' panic in order to secure a franchise point guard. That said, none of this really surprises me. It doesn't surprise me that the Blazers are overvaluing their own players (after the last two weeks does anyone still think that Travis Outlaw is better than Harris?) and it certainly doesn't surprise me that Dallas has responded in this fashion. After all, this is the same team that rolled out a small ball lineup in last year's playoffs in order to counter the roster of an eighth seeded Warriors team - this, after winning 67 regular season games. So it hardly comes as a shock that they would freak out after the Lakers made their move for Gasol. Nevermind that Dallas is the team that went to the Finals in '06 and had the best record in the league last year. Nevermind that the Mavs looked every bit like a title contender when Harris and Stackhouse were healthy. No, it is better to let a team beneath you in the standings dictate your decisions. Unwise, in my opinion.

Of course, I'm on record already predicting Dallas-Boston in the Finals, so I'm kind of covered either way. If Kidd turns the Mavs into NBA champs, I'll just point to my picks. If he runs them into the ground while breaking all their backboards (with jumpers, not dunks), then I'll show you this post instead. Genius!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Monta Ellis Doesn't Miss Much

I watch a lot of Warriors games and the guy that has impressed me the most of late is Monta Ellis. Stephen Jackson still does a lot of great things and Baron Davis can dominate at any moment, but Ellis is the guy keeping Golden State in the playoff hunt. His speed on the perimeter helps the Warriors play at such a fast pace despite the fact that Baron is often playing through injuries and Jackson looks like he's running on stilts at times. Ellis' rebounding is exceptional for a guard. He's becoming better and better at the drive-and-dish game and his D is picking up as well. Plus, last year's Most Improved Player is starting to become far more consistent.

All of that said, Ellis is so valuable to the Warriors primarily because he makes most of his shots. In an era of NBA hoops when guards can miss sixty percent of their shots and still get max deals, Ellis is an aberration. He is shooting almost 53% for the season (fourth among all players averaging at least 13 FGA's, behind only Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, and Kevin Garnett, and third among all guards, behind Ronnie Brewer and Jose Calderon) and doing it in every way imaginable. He's a fantastic finisher near the rim and excels at getting out in transition, but he's also become a deadly mid-range shooter - able to knock down jumpers off the catch or pulling up off the dribble. He might, in fact, have the best pull-up jumper in the league right now from 18 feet. Equally important is that he recognizes his strengths and eschews the three point shot. This is remarkable given both the culture of the modern game as well as the influence that his trigger-happy teammates have on him. Ellis' refusal to hoist threes (he's taken just 34 all year and two in 2008) has resulted in him getting better looks and (surprise, surprise) making far more of them.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ellis' shooting touch is that it keeps improving. He started the year slowly, struggling to play without Jackson early and then dealing with some confidence issues. However, he shot 52% in December and since January 1st is shooting a whopping 58% from the field, which is Amare Stoudemire territory. And over the last three games he's gone a ridiculous 30-for-37, tallying 80 points on those field goal attempts. When's the last time you saw somebody do that?

Nobody is talking about Monta Ellis, but they should be. He's combining the speed and finishing ability of Tony Parker with the midrange game of Rip Hamilton and evolving into one of the game's premier offensive weapons. Over his last eight games Ellis is averaging 23 points on an incredible 64% shooting.

Don't let the playoffs sneak up on you before you take note of this rising young star.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The List of Isiah Haters Gets Longer

You can add all Western Conference playoff contenders to that particular roster, as the Knicks blew the chance at a shocking home win over the defending champs tonight. Up 88-85 with just seconds remaining, the Idiotbockers somehow failed to foul and prevent a game-tying three. Instead, they watched as Graybeard Finley dropped a three with 0.4 seconds left to knot the game and send it in to overtime. Thoroughly depressed, the Knicks then went on to lose on overtime.

Roy for MVP?

If there was any doubt as to Brandon Roy's value in Portland, it was put to rest tonight as the Blazsers were pounded into submission by the Pistons with Roy out of the lineup. The "Absence Factor" played a big role in Steve Nash winning his first MVP (when the Suns went 1-4 on a road trip with him out of the lineup), so maybe this will spark some chatter for Roy. Doubtful, but you never know. I mean, Portland was horrendous without him and it wasn't just on the scoreboard. Nobody could get open shots and the guys that depend on Roy for their jumpers (namely Blake, Webster, and Outlaw) were a combined 7-for-26 when I finally gave up and turned off the game.

Portland will be better able to withstand Roy's absence next year with Oden and Rudy Fernandez on the roster and a trade for Devin Harris would help on that front as well, but for now, they live and die with their All-Star.

Lakers D: Maybe a Problem After All

Amidst all of the Paul Gasol hoopla, a few people have wondered how this will affect the Lakers defensively, especially when Bynum gets back. After all, Gasol isn't a great defender and his insertion into the lineup will create a few matchup problems with Pau chasing around athletic power forwards (like Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, LaMarcus Aldridge, Al Harrington, David West, and others) and Lamar Odom being forced to guard small forwards. Plus, it takes Trevor Ariza off the floor, who is L.A.'s premier defensive specialist.

Anyway, I mention this because I just got done watching the Orlando Magic hang 44 points on L.A. in the first quarter of tonight's game. They did it without making a free throw or garnering a steal. It was just drive and kick and feeding the post to the tune of 18-for-24 shooting (including 8-of-11 on mostly wide open threes) and 14 assists.


[Update: L.A. shook off that rough first quarter and wound up winning 117-113 behind 36 from Kobe and 30 from Gasol. The only issue I really saw was the inability to close out on shooters (Fisher is short, Kobe prefers to leak out, Odom is a step delayed) and an imbalance in FGA's. Kobe was 11-for-26 while Gasol was 12-for-15 and Odom 5-for-5. When your two bigs are 17-for-20, you'd like to see them get more shots. I guess Kobe was in full "prove to everyone what I can do" mode after the twin sub-double digit performances. I will probably be accused of being a Kobe Hater for saying this, but the Lakers' Achilles Heel is Kobe's insistance on playing a contrived brand of basketball. He and Gilbert Arenas both fall victim to a unique brand of self awareness that leads them to respond to the media in a premeditated and unnatural way. They just need to play basketball.]

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Game of the Year (So Far)

New Orleans' 132-130 double overtime victory at Phoenix tonight was an absolutely incredible game. Probably the best of the year. In fact, it was such a wild, rollercoaster ride that it is nearly impossible to come up with a cohesive angle when writing about it. One minute I was ready for a "Chris Paul: Don't Write His MVP Eulogy Just Yet" title and the next I had "Phoenix Suns: Not Missing Marion" queued up. The game went back and forth and then back again more times than I could count. Considering that the Hornets and Suns engaged in this battle on a day when the Shaq-Marion tradewinds were swirling, the day after LeBron helped the Cavs edge the Celtics in a thrilling affair, and just a few days after the big Gasol trade, you could argue that this has been the most exciting first week of February in recent NBA history.

Since I can't come up with one specific angle on the 2OT contest, here are a bunch of random thoughts:

Boris Diaw almost pulled it off. Despite Shawn Marion's reported grumpiness issues, I was among the many who thought trading him was still a bad idea. Tonight, Boris Diaw almost wiped that all away. For 45 minutes he was running the floor, abusing guards in the post (on the screen-and-roll switches that the Lakers remember all too well from the 2006 Playoffs), finishing in the lane, and even rattling off jumpers. Then, in crunch time, he reverted back to old, passive Diaw that overpasses and commits turnovers in key spots. For the Suns to remain near the top of the Western Conference without the Matrix, they are going to need the aggressive Diaw at all times. Tonight he was "this" close to coming through on that front. Speaking of filling Marion's shoes ...

Grant Hill just became Phoenix's most important defender. Raja Bell is still the Suns' best defensive player and many basketball people are under the delusion that Shaq is a "rim protecter" (even though he can barely jump over a phone book), but Grant Hill holds the key to Phoenix's defense from here on out due to his versatility and smarts. If he can give the Suns a fraction of Marion's interchangeable defensive abilities, they just might be okay.

Chris Paul is incredible ... and possibly an a-hole. On a night when the Hornets didn't have their "bona fide ... well, should have been All-Star in my mind" (hilarious quote from Suns' broadcaster Eddie Johnson) center Tyson Chandler and when David West struggled mightily from the field, New Orleans became virtually a two-man team. One of those men was Peja Stojakovic, who has decided to join Hedo Turkaglu in a plot to inflict emotional damage on all Sacramento Kings fans by making ridiculous game-winning shots. However, while Peja's buzzer beater will be all over SportsCenter, it was Paul that got them the win. He scored 42 points and did it almost entirely on deep threes, pull-up jumpers, and floaters from 10 feet, rarely getting all the way to the rim for easy baskets. He also dished out nine assists despite the Suns playing for the pass and garnered a ridiculous eight steals. Many of those steals came while guarding Steve Nash and a few them were steals of Nash passes while Paul was guarding the two-time MVP. Do you know how rare it is to steal a pass when the man you are guarding is the one throwing it? Paul did it like four times tonight and forced Nash into a 10-turnover game in the process.

However, for all of that basketball dominance, I am starting to suspect that Paul isn't the most well-liked guy around. His demeanor on the court ranges from arrogant to petulant (although it settles on "poker face" the majority of the time) and he has the infamous nut-punching incident on his resume. What tipped me off though is when Barbosa hit him hard tonight on a breakaway and then just left Paul laying on the ground. Barbosa appears to be one of the nicest players in the league, yet he ran away from the prone Paul like his counterpart had the virus from Outbreak. It's just a hunch, but it won't surprise me if we come to find out that Paul is a bit of a jerk. But whatever. For now, man can that guy handle the ball.

Steve Nash is one proud man. Despite getting pretty severely thrashed by Paul for three and a half quarters, Nash showed why he has multiple MVP trophies to his credit. He made numerous huge plays down the stretch and sent the game into the first overtime when he drained a three with just seconds left. Nobody in basketball hits the full-speed pull-up three in transition like Nash and few NBA players bring it like he does night in and night out. Watching him rally against the young upstart was downright inspirational.

Amare rising. Nobody seems to want to give Amare Stoudemire any credit these days but he certainly showed something tonight. He went 20-20 and did his usual thing on the pick-and-roll, but it was his defense that really caught my eye. Maybe he's fired up by the thought of playing with Shaq (he's in for a rude awakening when he realizes that it is the 36-year old version coming to town), but whatever it was, Amare was transformed tonight. He blocked four shots, changed several others, and had a thrilling sequence in the fourth quarter where he thwarted David West on three consecutive trips. A really strong showing by The Mohawk tonight.

Paxson is looking great. Remember a year ago when I was kicking Bulls GM John Paxson around for treating Luol Deng like he was Scottie Pippen, blowing the Chandler/Ben Wallace decision, and refusing to acquire Pau Gasol? I was a lone wolf then, fighting off rabid Paxson supporters on all sides. Now? You can't throw a rock without hitting a Paxson critic. The guy has made an absolute mess of things in the Windy City by playing all the wrong cards, wasting expiring contracts, and getting caught between winning now and building for the future. On top of all the stuff we remember him screwing up, he also managed to let Jannero Pargo get away. Pargo is lighting it up off the bench for the Hornets, proving to be an unstoppable microwave scorer and almost single-handedly carrying a thin second unit in New Orleans. Meanwhile the Bulls are routinately scoring in the 80s and can't make any deals because Gordon and Nocioni represent the only scoring punch they have. Great work!

Maybe Golden State is on to something. Going back to a previous point, isn't it amazing to see Turkaglu and Stojakovic playing like this? Hedo has always underperformed as an NBA player while Peja is known for being a bit of a choker as well as a china doll. Now both guys are playing great and are cogs on top three teams in their respective conferences. Kings fans have to be just bitter. Plus, Bobby Jackson is still alive and making shots - who knew? It all makes me think that Webber is going to be great in Oakland. And Bibby will regain his old form in his next city (maybe Cleveland). Heck, maybe someone should bring Vlade out of retirement. Doug Christie, anyone? (Note: I don't think this will apply to Artest if he gets moved because he's not part of the "Near Miss Kings" from the early part of this decade.

Head Still Spinning

The inbox is starting to fill up with emails asking for my response to the rumored Shaq-Marion trade.

Sorry, but I don't have one yet. I'm still trying to wake up from what has to be a dream.

Seriously ... what the hell?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Josh Smith: Best Shot-Blocking Swingman Ever?

I'm watching the Hawks battle the Sixers right now and feel compelled to ask the question. It is currently halftime and Smith already has eight blocks in the first 24 minutes. Not only that, there wasn't a cheep one in the bunch. He continues to amaze me with his ability to block shots in every fashion imaginable. He gets off the ground with amazing quickness, which allows him to block his own man's shot (a pretty rare skill), he chases guys down the break better than anyone in the league (yes, better than Tayshaun Prince), and of course he can swat shots from the weak side as a help defender.

Before Smith I probably would have said Dr. J or maybe Larry Natz (if you could call him a "perimeter" player), but I think the 6'9" freak of nature is in the process of settling this debate. I never, ever thought I would see a guy that can play shooting guard and still block 4 shots a game. Amazing.

[Update: Smith finished with just one more block in the game, as the Sixers treated him like a shutdown NFL corner and just tried to stay away from him for the remainder of the contest. Nevertheless, Smith finished the game with 9 blocks to go with 9 assists. Any researchers out there know the last time that happened?]

[Double Update: Thanks to Bloughchi, who gave us the answer to the research question:

"The only other times 9 or more blocks and 9 or more assists have been recorded in the same game:

3/3/1990 by Hakeem Olajuwon in a quadruple double.

3/29/1990 by Hakeem Olajuwon in another quadruple double

2/17/1994 by David Robinson in, you guessed it, another quadruple double.

That's quite some company if you ask me."]

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Blazers-Knicks (and More on Devin Harris)

I watched every second of the Blazers 94-88 overtime win against the Knicks tonight, in part because I love the Blazers but also because I'm trying to talk myself out of the feeling that this Devin Harris trade has to happen.

On one hand, I guess tonight's game was proof that Portland shouldn't engage in such a drastic trade as the victory underscored the team's ability to win by playing hard and as a group. The Knicks are a sorry basketball team, no doubt, but they were getting after it at the Rose Garden and weren't an easy squad to put away. Plus, the young Blazers were coming off that heart-wrenching loss at the hands of LeBron the other day. Travis Outlaw (rumored to be part of the Harris deal) made a bunch of big plays and Jarrett Jack even came through in the OT. So it was admittedly harder to push for the trade while watching these young guys work like crazy for a come-from-behind win.

On the other hand, this game could be seen another way entirely. Sure, they won, but it was a home game against New York. Should the Blazers really need to struggle to win that type of contest? They had serious problems in three areas tonight: containing quick guards, getting out in transition, and securing defensive rebounds. These are the three biggest issues with this team in general, as well. The rebounding issue was blatant tonight as former Blazer Zach Randolph hit the glass (13 boards) and the Knicks energizer bunny duo of David Lee and Renaldo Balkman combined for a whopping 13 offensive rebounds (four more than the entire Blazers team). However, that problem is the one most likely to be solved in the long run as Greg Oden should provide a terrific presence on the boards.

(By the way, I'd like to note here that Isiah Thomas is a moron for not playing Balkman and Lee 35 minutes a night together at the two forward spots. He's busy carving out minutes for Eddy Curry and Quentin Richardson and the whole time he's got these two whirling dervishes on his bench. Lee and Balkman finally got some run together - 74 minutes - and combined for 25 points and 10-of-16 shooting, 25 rebounds, and 3 blocks. With shoot-first Randolph in the post and shoot first guards Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford on the perimeter, Lee and Balkman are the perfect guys to slot in at the forward spots. I guess it just makes too much sense for Thomas.)

The other two problems - handling quick guards and getting out in transition - are not going away for the Blazers, even after Oden arrives with his shot-blocking ability. Portland had very few transition chances against a poor transition defense and Nate Robinson was able to get to the rim at will in the first half and make several key plays down the stretch simply because he was faster than anyone Portland had to put on him.

These two issues are why I feel so strongly that the Blazers need to make this Devin Harris trade happen. He is lightening fast, long, and underrated defensively. If he's on the court tonight, he completely negates Robinson, helps get the Blazers into transition, and likely helps to blow New York right off the court. (Plus, Brandon Bass would have been a nice answer on the glass.)

I mentioned in a previous post that the Blazers might be able to convince the Nets to take less in exchange for Kidd. If they could swap Webster and Sergio for Outlaw (giving up Jack, Webster, Frye, and Rodriguez), that would be ideal. And while at first glance it seems unlikely that the Nets would consent to that, remember that their primary motivation is the financial flexibility that comes from getting out from under Kidd's contract. As we saw with Memphis today, the talent coming back in a trade is secondary to the dollar issues.

Were such a trade to go through, it would leave the Blazers with the following players, in order of value:

1. Brandon Roy - Oden or no Oden, this guy is the franchise right now.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge - I know most would consider Oden to be the more valuable big man, but the fact is we don't know exactly what Oden is going to do at the pro level, nor do we know how healthy he will be. Aldridge is already showing serious skills and is following the Chris Bosh Instructional Video to the letter. I've said it before, but this team will likely go as far as Aldridge can take them.

3. Greg Oden - Not bad when a franchise center is only the third-most valuable guy on the team.

4. Devin Harris - A top flight defender, one of the fastest guys in the NBA, and a top 10 point guard based on PER ... all at age 24. This guy is a keeper and the answer to title obstacles now (Tony Parker) and later (Chris Paul).

5. Travis Outlaw - He convinced me tonight that he can be this team's starting small forward down the road, which means he's not such a danger to Aldridge's minutes/development. I understand why Portland fans are on the fence about trading him for Harris, but if push came to shove, I think Harris has more value (as you can see).

6. Rudy Fernandez - It is appropriate to slot him here, since he's going to wind up being a Manu-esque 6th Man for the Blazers. His size, handles, athleticism, and playmaking are going to be a godsend next year for a team in need of fast break players. He might actually be more valuable than Outlaw, but I'll go with the known commodity for now.

7. Steve Blake - He's become a deadly shooter this year, which has to frustrate George Karl (if Blake made threes like this last April, the Spurs would have been watching the second round of the playoffs from home). Regardless, he's a gritty player who can spread the floor and would be an ideal guy to back up Harris and even play alongside him when Portland wants to go to that three-guard lineup.

8. Joel Przybilla - Prezbo will make for a very nice backup center.

9. James Jones - He is struggling mightily right now, but he has proved throughout the season that he can be more than three-point specialist ... as long as his shot is falling he tends to come alive in other areas.

10. Brandon Bass - He would have more value this year, plugging the hole left by Frye, but could still help out down the road, even after Oden returns.

11. Taurean Green - I'm not convinced that this guy won't be a legit NBA point guard at some point (sorry for the double negative).

12. Josh McRoberts - Ditto, but substitute the word "forward" in place of "point guard."

Others - Raef LaFrentz (he always be a Portland hero just for being part of the deal that netted Brandon Roy), Darius Miles (I speak for all Blazers fans when I say, please, get rid of him soon), Petteri Koponen, and Joel Freeland.

The best thing about this team is that they would have all the pieces in place and at similar ages, meaning that there would be no need to make moves via free agency. Which is good, because by the time they lock everybody up to long-term deals, the salary cap will be about $110 million. Good thing Paul Allen is rich!

But I think they need speed at the point guard position. They need Harris. Hopefully they can throw the aforementioned group of players and maybe a few draft picks at New Jersey (and hopefully Dallas will panic after the Gasol trade) and get this done while still keeping Outlaw. Hopefully.

Forward Thinking

It has been a while since I've used a cheesy play-on-words title, but it seemed appropriate tonight in light of all the unheralded forwards stepping up and making big contributions. In fact, I can't remember the last time I saw so many guys come out of nowhere and play well at one position. Here were a few of the guys that caught my eye:

Carl Landry, Houston. The rookie out of Purdue has only played in 13 games this year for the Rockets, but he's now appeared in 10 straight and is starting to look like a real player. He's undersized at 6'7" but I remember seeing him play against Arizona in the 2007 NCAA Tournament and being impressed by his ability to score in the post despite being a "tweener." He kind of reminds me of Sam Perkins with his long arms and lefty release and he has nice range on his jumper to go with really good rebounding instincts. Houston has struggled to find a power forward who can score and rebound while bracketing Yao with some athleticism (Stro Swift, Juwan Howard, Chuck Hayes, and Luis Scola all lack at least one of those three things), so the mere possibility that Landry could help fill the void has to be exciting. Tonight he really put on a show, scoring 14 fourth quarter points and taking over a road game at Indy. He finished 9-of-11 from the floor and tallied 22 points, 7 rebounds, a steal, and a block in just 20 minutes of action. Terrific performance.

Shawne Williams, Indiana. I've always liked this former Memphis forward and tonight he had a really nice game off the bench for the Pacers. His range improves all the time and in this one he made all three of his attempts from deep on the way to 17 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go with 3 assists, a block, and a steal. Indiana needs players to put around Danny Granger and I think they would be better off seeing what this youngster can do than they are with Troy Murphy plodding around.

Thaddeus Young, Philly. He's been coming on strong lately, but tonight Young looked exceptional for stretches against the Magic in a 108-106 loss. His numbers were fairly modest - 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal - but his athleticism and effort were remarkable. It helps that he is left handed, because for some reason that stool fools about 60% of NBA defenders. I think the Sixers have a real keeper in Young and should consider themselves lucky that he fell to them at the bottom of the lottery last summer.

Craig Smith, Minnesota. I expected Smith to be a nice sleeper this year, but he's having a tricky time coexisting with fellow banger Al Jefferson. Tonight he was able to maul the Clippers undersized front line to the tune of 21 points and 7 boards on 9-of-11 shooting. I think Smith is the type of guy who would contribute even more to a good team and really shine as a role player in that type of setting. In fact, he would look really good bolstering Phoenix's front line, giving them muscle, rebounding, and even some post scoring. Plus, he only makes $700K, so the Suns can actually afford him. Maybe a future first round pick would get it done?

Andray Blatche, Washington. I've always been high on Blatche, dating back to when the Wizards nabbed him with a second round pick in the 2005 Draft. And despite being shot last year, he is really coming around. It's to the point where Blatche typically produces when given minutes. But tonight he looked particularly good, crashing the glass, protecting the rim, and - a big one for a young guy - learning on the fly. He was swatted by Utah's Andrei Kirilenko numerous times in the first half while trying to flip in shots after offensive rebounds. Early in the fourth quarter he took a feed on the fast break and dunked on AK47's head with two hands. You have to see a young big man evolve during a game and made key adjustments. You also have to love the following stat line: 19 points, 13 boards, 3 steals, and 4 blocks. Yikes. Granted, it remains to be seen if he can keep up the solid play when Caron Butler returns, but if nothing else, Blatche is proving he can get the job done when given the chance to start. (Also: he's another guy that would really help the Suns.)

(I should note that I tuned in to this game to see Al Thornton, but unfortunately, my man went 1-for-15 from the field. Ouch.)

Renaldo Balkman, New York. Together with David Lee, Balkman brought energy, poise, and tenacious rebounding in a near upset at Portland. More on this in the next post.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Fire up the Trade Machines!

With news of the Gasol trade still reverberating throughout the NBA, it seems highly likely that the Western Conference is going to resemble a 1980's junk bond trading floor on Wall Street. With so many quality teams closely bunched, who can afford to stand pat when one squad makes a big splash?

And lest we forget, the Warriors tried to address their lack of experience and stagnant half court passing by bringing in Old Man Webber, while the Spurs have tried once again to pull the old "Randy Moss" act by getting a cranky veteran to change his stripes (the Damon Stoudamire signing). The Gasol deal is the blockbuster, but that makes three teams in the West that have tried to improve in the span of three days.

Who might follow suit?

I expect the Suns to try to get their miserly hands on a backup point guard (Dan Dickau, anyone?), the Nuggets to parlay Linas Kleiza into an experienced swingman (namely Ron Artest or Mike Miller), and for the Hornets to take a long look at their shooting guard situation.

Personally, however, I think this puts the greatest pressure on the Mavs and Blazers to complete the rumored three-way trade involving Jason Kidd and Devin Harris.

The Lakers have vaulted toward the top of the heap in the West, but Dallas is still a very credible threat to win it all. That said, the problems that plagued them against the Warriors last year - team speed, inability to defend big point guards, and lack of vocal leadership - are even bigger issues now that another team can match them from a talent standpoint. A few days ago I didn't like the Kidd trade for them, but now I think they have to take a shot. Dirk and Josh Howard aren't exactly old, but Terry has quite a few miles on him and there just isn't a long shelf life for core groups with emotional baggage. Adding Kidd will give this team a new mental makeup and perhaps sprinkle the roster with a dose of confidence. Plus, he can be paired with Terry in a backcourt better suited to defend big guards. I'm just not sure Dallas can afford to stand pat, knowing that they've blown better opportunities.

As for Portland, I remain convinced that Devin Harris is prized acquisition and that they would be crazy not to snatch him up. That said, I'm starting to think that perhaps they can give up less and get more in such a deal. I know the salaries are complex in this transaction, but there are already rumors of Sergio going out and Brandon Bass coming back in the exchange. This already makes it a better deal for Portland. And if they could get New Jersey to take Martell Webster - instead of Travis Outlaw - along with Jack, Frye, and Sergio, I think they have to make the deal. Even if the Nets insist on Outlaw, I in favor of it the move. (For the record, Webster and Rodriguez make nearly $4 million between them, which is Outlaw's salary, so I think this could work under the financial constraints.)

It should be interested to see what happens. Because the Lakers have made themselves a lot better in one move and should remain good for several years. Now is not the time to sit on a flawed roster.

Lakers Get Gasol

ESPN is reporting that the Lakers and Grizzlies have agreed to a deal that sends Pau Gasol to L.A. in exchange for Kwame Brown (and his expiring contract), rookie Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie's corpse - whoops, sorry - contract, the rights to Marc Gasol (kind of weird), and future first round picks in 2008 and 2010.

I'm not sure what is more interesting here - the fact that this trade happened or that Henry Abbott over at True Hoop floated this very idea this morning. I've had some good predictions in my day (have I mentioned that I predicted Roy would make this year's All-Star team? Just making sure ...), but this is the Mount Everest of predictions. In fact, this almost goes beyond predictions. Did the Memphis and L.A. front office read Henry's post and think, "Wow, that's a good idea"? Just a fascinating turn of events.

As for the trade itself, I think it was fantastic for the Lakers. Not so much for Memphis.

Let me start with the "losers." In exchange for one of the 10 best post players in the league, Memphis gets back Kwame Brown for half a season, cap space, yet another young point guard, and two first round picks. Here's the problem with all of this. Cap space is never as good as it seems in this day and age. I know Gasol wasn't really working out under Ivaroni, but are they really going to get someone better with that money? They'll probably wind up pulling an Orlando Magic and signing a guy like Rashard Lewis for $120 million. I know Elton Brand and others are in this class, but I'm telling you, playing the free agency card rarely works out well. Just go back to the time Chicago had to splurge on Ron Mercer if you don't believe me.

If Memphis doesn't parlay Brown's contract into a stud like Brand, this deal doesn't have much else to it. Yes, there are two future first round picks, but what are those going to be worth? The Lakers are loaded now and won't be picking earlier than 20th anytime soon. Drafting in the 20's is so unpredictable that it might as well be the second round, just with more salary obligations. (Heck, I'd rather have the second round pick.) And Crittenton? The only way he adds value is if another trade is on the way. Maybe they like a bigger guy to back up Conley and think they can get something good for Kyle Lowry (they would probably be right about that), but everything I hear is that Memphis loves Lowry and won't trade him. (I don't really blame them, because as one reader pointed out last summer, Conley and Lowry gives them a "Mike Lowry" Bad Boys backcourt.) Do they think Crittenton is going to be a major chip in a trade?

I believe the Grizzlies would have been better off sucking up their pride and using the next few weeks to boost Gasol's trade value. That means no plays for Rudy Gay, 20 FGA's every night for Gasol, and other ways to get his stats and profile up. That said, maybe this is the best they could do. Doesn't mean they aren't the loser of the deal.

As for the Lakers, this is a monster trade. For starters, it drives the final nail into the "Kobe wants out" coffin. Between the evolution of Farmar and Bynum, the acquisition of Fisher, and now this, Kobe couldn't possibly have any complaints. In fact, the only issue he could really take with management at this point would be fuming over that old Caron Butler trade ... except that even that horrible deal has now netted Gasol! Mitch Kupchak is pulling off one of the great comeback stories in front office history.

In addition to keeping Bryant happy, the deal also gives the Lakers a legit shot at winning a title. As in now. Gasol should be able to keep the team afloat while Bynum is out, which is hugely important. The West is so loaded this year that the line separating "title contender" from "10th" is razor thin. Even without Gasol, the Lakers are a team that no one wants to see in the playoffs. But with Bynum out for at least another month, would they even get there? They just lost the first contest of a nine-game road trip and were they to hit the skids for a couple of weeks, they'd find themselves looking up at the rest of the conference. You can't win the playoffs unless you actually make the playoffs. Bringing in Gasol virtually assures that.

Additionally, Gasol makes them a better playoff team. He's proven to perform best when the chips are down (for the Spanish national team and even when his overmatched Grizzlies team made the playoffs) and now gives the Lakers a whopping three players who routinely command double teams (joining Kobe and Bynum). How are teams going to match up with this Lakers squad? Furthermore, it gives L.A. all kinds of flexibility. They can go huge with Bynum, Gasol, and Odom on the frontline. They can pull the plug on the Odom Era (he looks like a shell of himself) and bring in someone more suited to play small forward next to the two bigs. They can explore moving him for a point guard. They can put a fantastic transition team on the floor when Bynum is out or resting, by loading up with Gasol, Odom, Ariza, Bryant, and Farmar. Short of the Suns or Warriors (sans Webber), who can keep up with that lineup?

I know that I've always been particularly high on Gasol (much like Devin Harris), but even the people who think he is overrated (or soft or any of the other criticisms that have surfaced over the years) have to admit that this is a huge acquisition for the Lakers.

This year, in the Western Conference, there appears to be no such thing as a favorite. But if there was, the Lakers might now be the team wearing that crown.

What a trade.