Friday, June 27, 2008

New WhatifSports Column

I've thrown myself headlong back into the mix over at my former home,, and will be posting blog entries for their new Playbook feature.

The first post, detailing why Carmelo Anthony is in the wrong place, at the wrong time, is up now.

Initial Draft Recap

I'm sure I will have more detailed opinions in the days to come, but I wanted to be sure to slam out some initial thoughts on the 2008 NBA Draft. Considering the relative lack of strength at the top of the draft, but the depth throughout, I thought there would be several teams making great showings tonight. Instead, there were just a handful of really effective drafts and a whole lot of mysteries. Here were the highlights and lowlights:

The Big Winners

Portland - What a shocker. Kevin Pritchard is just mopping the floor with the rest of the GM's in the league. I personally was even more excited when it looked like they had Bayless and Arthur in the fold with a chance to add Chalmers and CDR as well, but then I realized that they already have too many players on the roster. A "boil down" trade was inevitable. I have no idea what to make of this Batum fellow, but the word is that he could have been a lottery pick had he avoided the cloud of medical uncertainty in the weeks leading up to the draft (I found it ironic that Portland drafted one guy with medical questions - Arthur - and then traded him for the other guy with medical questions). And as I'm fond of pointing out, there is a real lack of quality young small forwards in the NBA pipeline these days, so even if the odds are long that Batum works out and becomes a Rudy Gay type, you probably have to take that chance.

Besides, this isn't about Batum anyway, or even the 413 future picks they stockpiled. This is about landing the guy that in my mind is the third best player in this draft and the ideal running mate for Brandon Roy. Seriously, how in the world did KP land Jerryd Bayless? He has good size, can stretch the floor with his shooting, take the pressure of off Roy, guard quicker point guards, and do everything else Portland needs at the position. He gets dinged for being a combo guard, but I find that hypocritical, since people love combo guards these days. And as I've mentioned repeatedly in regard to Mario Chalmers, the Blazers don't need a pure point since Roy has so many playmaking skills. Bayless is absolutely perfect. Plus, he's just a really good player. I'm on record predicting that Bayless will join the Paul Pierce, Caron Butler, and Danny Granger group of college studs that were projected as top-five picks only to inexplicably slide down to double digits. Another fantastic draft for Portland.

Grade: A

Miami - The other team that just killed it tonight was Miami. They resisted the urge to trade the #2 pick and wound up with a 20-10 machine in Michael Beasley. He will be able to play the 4 and allow Marion to run the floor at the 3, or they can go small and play them at the 5 and 4, respectively. I could never understand the rumors suggesting that Miami wanted to avoid Beasley - the guy is 19 years old and coming off a 26 and 12 season as a college freshman. Yikes.

That said, Beasley wasn't even my favorite pick for Miami. I know this comes as no surprise to any of you, but I thought the trade for Chalmers was brilliant. I'm just absolutely sure that Chalmers is going to wind up being one of the top 10 players in this draft, so to get him for two future second rounders is insane. Not only that, but all the things I said about Super Mario being perfect for Portland apply to Miami. Just as the Blazers run their offense through Roy, the Heat obviously do the same with D Wade. Miami needs a guy who can alleviate ball pressure, hit threes, add speed to the lineup, and guard opposing point guards. Check, check, check, check. I was so dismayed for Chalmers when he slipped out of the first round and felt even worse when he wound up in Minnesota backing up OJ Mayo (you know, back when OJ Mayo was on the Wolves, for all of three hours). The Miami trade was sweet redemption. And now the Heat have 4/5 of a legit starting lineup and are right back in the mix in the East. Oh, and they also grabbed another rotation guy in the wildly underrated Darnell Jackson.

(By the way, isn't it weird that so many underrated draft steals came from Kansas, winner of the national title? You would think the exposure would send the needle the other way, but I suppose their balanced attack suppressed the stats enough to generate a bunch of great value picks. Kind of odd.)

Grade: A

Other Winners

Nets - I didn't love the Jefferson trade earlier in the day, but I thought they had a really good draft. Brook Lopez doesn't strike me as a world beater, but anyone who can go for 20 a night as a center in the Pac-10 is probably good enough to take at #10 in a draft thin on stars. The Ryan Anderson pick at #21 was puzzling considering that Darrell Arthur was on the board, but New Jersey more than made up for that when they snagged Chris Douglas-Roberts at #40. That's right, 4-0. What on earth? I've seen some slights in my day, but this was bizarre. CDR can score, defend, play multiple positions, run the break, handle the ball ... I mean, what more do teams want? I promise you that he will be better than at least 25 of the guys drafted before him.

Grade: B+ B

Rockets - Brilliant work by Houston to grab Nicolas Batum at #25, knowing that they could hold the Spurs or Blazers ransom. They wound up extracting both Darrell Arthur (only the steal of the draft) and Joey Dorsey (really the perfect guy to add to the Rockets mix) when they started with just the 25th pick in a sketchy draft. Impressive. Arthur was already a top 7-8 type player in this draft by my estimation and now I think he will be a man possessed to make the whole world pay for this weird kidney rumor that cost him a whole lot of money. The Scola-Landry duo was effective at power forward last year for Houston, but those guys better have their hard hats on if they are going to hold off the super talented and now highly motivated Arthur.

[Update: It turns out that the Rockets moved Darrell Arthur to Memphis for Donte Greene. I still liked that they manufactured the #33 pick - Dorsey, who should help - by snatching a player desired by the Blazers and Spurs at #25, but I was a much bigger fan of Arthur than Greene.]

Grade: B+

Bulls - It would have been an A had they taken CDR instead of Sonny Weems at #39 (and I even like Weems), but as it stands, they get high marks just for taking Derrick Rose, who may wind up being a transcendent player.

Grade: B+

The Mysteries

The Late Trade - I'm still trying to wrap my head around the Memphis-Minnesota trade. Let me state first that if we are confused about this one, it probably shouldn't come as any surprise. I mean, it's Kevin McHale and Chris Wallace here. And I guess that is the only explanation. Because seriously ... what the hell?

Minny had the chance to draft Love at #3 but clearly thought it was a better idea to take Mayo as a bargaining chip. But all they used that for was to bring in Mike Miller and the horrible Brian Cardinal contract. But that's beside the point - my biggest complaint with this trade for the Wolves is that they now are building their team around a below-the-rim lowpost duo of Love and Al Jefferson. They are going to give up 110 points a game.

As for the Grizzlies, they are truly hopeless. Who knows, maybe they are trying to arm themselves for a run at Beasley or another cost-cutting fiasco, but as it currently stands, they have about 19 guards on their roster. Seriously, the solution to the Conley-Lowry-Crittenden logjam at point guard is to bring in OJ Mayo (and Marco Jaric)? Nice. The good news is that they used the #28 pick to take Donte Green, who can now sit behind Rudy Gay and Hakim Warrick. This team is a complete train wreck.

I know people think this was a blockbuster trade and I guess it was, but when you consider that these two squads are going to win about 35 games combined next year, I just have a hard time getting too worked up about the whole thing. In fact, I'm really just bummed that Mike Miller won't be going to a contender in exchange for cap relief and a sack of used Kleenex.

[Update: Somehow, the Arthur acquisition made things so much better for me. Now they at least have a guy to play at every position on the floor - PG Conley/Lowry, SG Mayo, SF Gay, PF Arthur, C Marc Gasol. They have still made a flurry of terrible moves, but if they can turn Conley into a legit big and let Lowry play the Chalmers/Bayless role next to a playmaking 2, they might be on to something. Perhaps a post on this is in order.]

The Bucks - So let me get this straight ... they trade for Richard Jefferson and then go ahead and take a small forward with the #8 pick? What are these people doing? There were so many guys who could help Milwaukee in this draft but instead they took a guy who has to ride pine behind RJ. Why? The good news though is that they drafted the crappy Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at #37. Oh wait, he's a small forward as well. John Hammond really is a genius.

The Bobcats - If I understand things correctly, the plan for Charlotte was to somehow land a center so they could move Okafor to the 4, Wallace to the 3, Richardson to the 2, and roll with Felton at the 1. So when Brook Lopez fell to them at #9, what did they do? Take 5' 11" DJ Augustin, of course! Then, at #20, they used Denver's pick to snag workout wonder (and certain bust) Alexis Ajinca. Bravo. They could have had Lopez and Chalmers and instead ... well, you know what they got. Of course, as a Blazer fan, I loved the Bobcats tonight. They kept snagging all the rumored guys I didn't want Portland to draft. Thanks, MJ!

The Pacers - It's like the Pacers didn't know how to take advantage of their good fortune after the Jermaine O'Neal trade. They stumbled into Bayless at #11, but quickly traded away a potential All-Star for a nice, but limited role player in Brandon Rush. This might have been okay except that Rush will hardly ever see the floor behind Danny Granger and Mike Dunleavy. And then they looked the Darrell Arthur gift horse in the mouth and decided to snag the plodding Roy Hibbert instead. In a draft like this, with dozens of intriguing guys, Indiana should have been able to make a real killing. I'm not feeling it.

The Sonics - Seattle had six picks, including the #4 overall, and when they roll out their new roster next year they will probably feature just Russell Westbrook as their first guard off the bench and D.J. White as the 9th man. Not exactly a haul. I'm starting to wonder if maybe Sam Presti is a lot better at acquiring picks than he is at making them. Look, I'm not saying that the fourth spot was one I would have enjoyed, but I think you have to do better than the poor man's Mario Chalmers. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

The Wizards - I guess Washington thinks they are closer to the promise land than the rest of us, because they found a way to turn the #18 and Bill Walker into project center JaVale McGee and some money. What's the plan here?

Random Picks I Really Liked

Marreese Speights - This was a quiet but terrific pick by the Sixers. I don't know what people were watching last year, but this guy can play. He's got great hands and can run the floor. I expect him to play right away for the Sixers.

J.J. Hickson - I have no idea why, but I have a good feeling about this one for the Cavs.

Courtney Lee - I thought the Magic did a good job of keeping their focus. With all kinds of players dropping to them it would have been easy to abandon the game plan, but they wanted Lee and they got their man. He is an immediate upgrade over Mo Evans and just has the appearance of a legit NBA player. I can't put my finger on why, but he just looks right.

Kyle Weaver - He's similar enough to Tayshaun Prince that I can see Larry Brown loving this guy and giving him run late in the season despite the fact that Weaver is A) a rookie and B) stuck behind Gerald Wallace and Jared Dudley at small forward.

Bill Walker - Boston is going to rue the day they passed on CDR at the end of the first round (for all-world knucklehead J.R. Giddens), but they helped ease the pain by stealing Walker away from Washington for a bag of cash. He has the versatility to spell Ray Allen some next year and also replace a bit of what Posey did should the latter leave via free agency.

Malik Hairston - My only worry with Hairston is that he's not terribly fast, but I guess that's okay because the Suns are trying to become as slow as humanly possible. There's nothing more depressing than what Steve Kerr is doing to that franchise, but I do think Hairston can give them what they were hoping Alando Tucker could provide last year.

The Bold Predictions

Some of these have already been hinted at if not spelled out completely, but here we go:

1. Mario Chalmers will join the likes of Gilbert Arenas, Monta Ellis, and Carlos Boozer as a second round pick that gets paid lottery pick dollars. His skill set is so perfect for both the modern NBA and for the Heat that I can't imagine him failing. Prediction 1A: Chalmers will be a better NBA player than Russell Westbrook, who went a mere 30 picks higher.

2. Darrell Arthur and CDR will combine to score 30 ppg by their second year in the league.

3. The best forward Golden State drafted tonight will wind up being Richard Hendrix (#49 overall) and not lottery pick Anthony Randolph.

4. Jerryd Bayless will make at least two All-Star games despite playing on a loaded Portland team.

5. Courtney Lee will be the starting shooting guard for the 2009 Eastern Conference champions.

6. Michael Beasley will average at least 22 and 10 next year and win the Rookie of the Year award. (And I'm not ruling out an MVP for Wade.)

7. Malik Hairston will play more minutes for Phoenix next year than uber stiff Robin Lopez.

8. Alexis Ajinca will never play in the NBA.

9. Marreese Speights will make the All-Rookie team.

10. The Bucks will start the first-ever All Small Forward Team.

Click to read the rest

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Blazers: Gunning For the Wrong Guy?

I just read a report that the Blazers are trying to swap picks with the Nets in order to draft a potential franchise point guard.

This is fantastic news. I'm a big proponent of moving expendable assets - Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez (is he still considered an asset?), Channing Frye, and, yes, even Travis Outlaw - in order to boil all that quantity into higher quality. And adding a young, inexpensive point guard with tailored skills to the current nucleus is the definition of quality.

The only problem? I think they might be targeting the wrong guy.

According to the Yahoo report, Portland is making a play for Texas' D.J. Augustin. Make no mistake, I'm sure Augustin will be fine as a pro. He has an innate ability to keep his dribble alive ala Steve Nash and he plays a pretty fearless-yet-intelligent brand of basketball. He's also a potent spot-up shooter from distance. Unfortunately, that last trait is the only one likely to help the Blazers a great deal, due to the fact that Brandon Roy and even Rudy Fernandez are going to be doing so much of the playmaking for this team.

In fact, here is my personal checklist for the ideal point guard to team with Roy in the Portland backcourt:

1. Young and cheap (in other words, a rookie fits the bill perfectly)
2. Fantastic defensively (so that Roy never has to even think about guarding Chris Paul)
3. A good spot-up shooter with range
4. Strong character
5. Fast

To me, Augustin's letter grades for each checklist item look like this:

1. A
2. C-
3. B+
4. A (as far as I know)
5. B

Not the worst report card imaginable, but a little spotty.

Now compare that to fellow Big 12 guard prospect Mario Chalmers. My boy Chalmers has been shooting up draft boards everywhere but should definitely be available at #10. Here's his report card:

1. A
2. A (best defensive guard in the draft)
3. A (ridiculous 47% from three last year)
4. A
5. A

You will note that "ball handling," "leadership," and "playmaking" were not on my checklist. Some might call it cherry picking for Chalmers, but the truth is, the Blazers aren't in any great need of those traits. Again, they need a guy who can play off their current players and do a handful of things really, really well.

Chalmers strikes me as not only the most underrated player in this draft, but also an ideal fit for this group. He has the attitude, the pedigree, and some Rondo-like defensive traits that pair perfectly with his more "off the ball" style of point guard play. If the former Jayhawk has one weakness it is that he's a straight line player with a limited handle. If I'm being honest, I have to admit that he's probably not a pure point guard.

But that's the beauty of this whole thing ... the Blazers don't need a pure point guard! They just need someone who can guard pure point guards while helping to push tempo and knock down threes. That's it. Easy game.

Take Chalmers, KP. Do it!

Click to read the rest

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Favorite Prospects

I usually do a more advanced NBA Draft preview, but I've been so bad at predicting the draft and am so tired of trying to come up with unique things to say about all these overanalyzed and nitpicked kids that I'm resorting to a simple list. Simple, but effective, I say!

So here are my 25 favorite players in this year's draft, complete with a comment about each guy. Sorry folks, this is the most energy I could muster, although I won't rule out a few trade ideas and Blazer-related comments in the days to come.

1. Derrick Rose, Memphis - A highly original top pick, I know, but I happen to think that Rose will be 90% as good as Deron Williams offensively and 100% as good as a young Jason Kidd defensively. No brainer for Chicago.

2. Michael Beasley, Kansas State - I'm still concerned about the Derrick Coleman comparisons, but D.C. went for 12 and 9 per game as a frosh at Syracuse and was already 23 years old when he entered the league, while Beasley is coming off 26.5 and 12.5 and is only 19. Plus, Coleman made just 16 threes in his four-year career at Syracuse while Beasley drained 36 in just one season.

3. Jerryd Bayless, Arizona - Being labled a "combo guard" used to be the kiss of death; now combo guards are starting to rule the NBA. Bayless is like Monta Ellis with better point guard skills. I know he can't fight through a screen to save his life, but I'll take my chances.

4. Joe Alexander, West Virginia - He looked great every time I saw him play last year, he is said to have plenty of room to grow as a player, and the word is that his intensity and work ethic is off the charts. Throw in the dearth of quality small forwards in the NBA right now (the most under-reported story out there) and I think he's definitely a top 6 pick in this draft.

5. Kevin Love, UCLA - This is how I know what a weak draft this is; I consider Love to be closer to the next Sean May than the next Bill Walton, yet here he is, at #5.

6. Darrell Arthur, Kansas - His numbers were suppressed in Kansas' balanced offense, but this guy has skills and room to improve.

7. Marreese Speights, Florida - I'm not sure why Speights is projected so low. He reminds me of Elton Brand and did a terrific amount of damage in relatively few minutes during his sophomore year in Gator country.

8. Mario Chalmers, Kansas - That's right. It's my boy Chalmers, at #8. Look, I'm not trying to predict the actual draft or impress anyone with how closely I can read mock draft boards. These are the guys that I think will be the best players.

9. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis - I'm showing some real title game bias here, but CDR has all the tools and is a proven winner. He has size, athleticism, scoring ability, defensive awareness, confidence ... I have no idea how this guy could slip out of the lottery in a weak draft.

10. D.J. Augustin, Texas - The Memphis game in the Elite Eight is still all too visible in my mind's eye, but I think Augustin can be an effective NBA point guard. Maybe a rich man's version of Jameer Nelson.

11. O.J. Mayo, USC - To me, he projects pretty poorly as an offensive playmaker, but the good news is that he looks like a defensive force in the making.

12. Richard Hendrix, Alabama - The most likely winner of this draft's "Carlos Boozer Award" for the productive, visible, power conference big man that somehow gets completely ignored and taken in the second round, only to go on and have a great career.

13. Ryan Anderson, Cal - Another guy that has serious skills (deep shooting) that are in serious demand in the current NBA climate. I know Anderson wouldn't have been ideal in 1996, but guess what? It's not 1996. What team couldn't use a 6'10" forward with umlimited range on his J? Am I missing something?

14. Brook Lopez, Stanford - I think he's a stiff, but he's good enough to go #14 in this draft, so I'll end the Lopez embargo.

15. Danilo Gallinari, International - I've never seen the guy play, I know nothing about him, so I'm sticking him here. (It was either that or leave him out altogether.)

16. Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky - Lee can create his shot and then make said shot. Better than 40% of the current NBA shooting guards.

17. Russell Westbrook, UCLA - Once upon a time I was really high on Westbrook, but he suddenly has "bust" written all over him. I'm concerned.

18. DeAndre Jordan, Texas A&M - Everyone seems to loathe Jordan these days, but I still remember the play I saw back in December when he ran the floor at top speed, hauled in a lob pass, and dunked it on the other side of the basket ... with authority. Considering all the hype about Andrew Bynum this year, I'm kind of shocked that teams would be so down on a big man with athleticism and unpolished skill. I mean, isn't that the Bynum blueprint?

19. Bill Walker, Kansas State - Every year in my fantasy drafts I try to snag a guy with a minor injury because I know I'm getting a steal. I think the same thing is about to happen in real life with Walker.

20. Brandon Rush, Kansas - He looks like he could be a James Posey type, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

21. Donte Greene, Syracuse - In fairness to Greene, I only saw him play once this year and it wasn't a very impressive performance. I might have him too low.

22. George Hill, IUPUI - He looked smooth and legit back before his injury least year and I'm hearing that he played great at the pre-draft camp. I have a hunch he will be a valuable rotation player in the NBA before too long.

23. Eric Gordon, Indiana - This is probably too low, but I just don't see what the big deal is about an undersized shooting guard with no discernable point guard abilities.

24. Kyle Weaver, Washington State - In fact, I'd probably rather have Weaver than Gordon.

25. Darnell Jackson, Kansas - He has "productive 12-year NBA career" written all over him.

Click to read the rest

The Long Awaited Rondo Post

Way back on June 18 I promised Rajon Rondo his own post after a magnificent Game Six performance in the NBA Finals. But then later that day I posted a Boston Celtics 2007-08 retrospective and it was so chalk full of Rondo that I started to worry that maybe I looked a little weird.

But, lo and behold, people seem to want the Rondo post. Unfortunately, in the time since I made my claim, the rest of the world has finally caught up to all things Rondo and recognized what an amazing game he had. So it does little good to talk about his boatload of steals, his aggressive tone-setting play, or even his refreshing post-game humility while his teammates carried on like they'd just landed on Mars. No, the focus of this post is on Rondo's future and how we can use the 2008 Finals as a yardstick.

The list of point guards under the age of 23 that started for an NBA Champion is not a long one. In fact, there are two that come to mind: Magic Johnson and Tony Parker. And while it is always nice to be mentioned in the company of the Magic Man, I think we can all agree that Parker is the more apt comparison.

So what did those 2003 NBA Finals look like for the 21 year old Parker? Like Rondo, Parker was in his second year in the league and found himself in position to lead a veteran team toward a title. The Spurs won 60 games that year and shared the best record in the NBA with the Mavericks. Tim Duncan was at the height of his powers and the Spurs featured weapons such as Stephen Jackson (who turned in one of the more underrated playoff performances of this decade), Manu Ginobil (just getting going), David Robinson (in his last season), and more. Parker was actually a star on that team, more so than Rondo, as he ranked second on the squad in minutes played (33.8 per game) and points per game (15.5). However, once the playoffs started, Parker's play got a little spotty. Like Rondo, he was incredibly effective one minute and then shaky the next. Like Rondo, he couldn't hit the broadside of a barn with his jumper. Like Rondo, he spent several key stretches of big games watching his backup (Speedy Claxton, in this case) run the team. And, like Rondo, Parker wound up making enough plays and bringing enough speed to the table to help take his team to a title.

Now? Parker is a beast. He can drill open jumpers all day and his ability to attack the rim is almost unparalleled in the NBA. He isn't and never will be the defensive terror that Rondo already is, but Parker is San Antonio's one-man fast break and does a lot of the same damage with his speed that Rajon does to Boston's opponents. So I'd say that the future bodes well for Rondo.

Of course, people rarely remember things as they were. Parker's offensive game is so lethal now that he is rarely remembered for being such a liability on that end of the court that San Antonio tried to bring Jason Kidd to town even after winning a title. No one recalls the fact that Parker shot just 40.3% from the field, 26.8% from three, and 71.3% from the line during that Finals run. (Compare that to Rondo's eerily similar 40.7%, 25.0%, and 69.1%). Or that Parker played just 13 minutes in the Game Six Western Conference Finals against Dallas (going 0-for-5) and 24 minutes in the Finals clincher against New Jersey (2-for-6). It's almost crazy how similar Parker's voyage was to Rondo's.

In fact, you could argue that Rondo actually played better than Parker. Consider:

Games Played - Parker played 24 games, Rondo 26
Minutes per game - Parker 33.5, Rondo 31.9
Points - Parker 352, Rondo 266
Assists - Parker 85, Rondo 172
Rebounds - Parker 66, Rondo 107
Steals - Parker 22, Rondo 45
Blocks - Parker 3, Rondo 8
Turnovers - Parker 47, Rondo 47

Even if you allow for Rondo's games played advantage, he still has the superior line of 10.2 ppg, 6.6 apg, 4.1 rpg, 1.7 spg, 1.8 tpg compared to Parker's 14.7/3.6/2.8/0.9/2.0.

Again, I'm not trying to denigrate Parker retroactively. Rather, my goal is to remind everyone that Parker was very much a 21 year old, second-year point guard that season. And how he's insanely good. All of which is good news for Boston fans. When you factor in that Rondo is already one of the best defensive guards in the NBA and it seems like the future is very bright indeed.

Click to read the rest

Wish List: McGrady to Detroit

I'm not a Rockets fan and I'm not from Detroit, so I probably like both Tracy McGrady and the Pistons more than I should. To me, the former has been underappreciated for his evolution as a player simply because the winning part hasn't fallen into place, while the latter has been unfairly critized for not winning more (if you told any NBA team entering the 2003 season that they could go to six straight Conference Finals, two NBA Finals, and win a ring, I'm pretty sure they would have taken it). So, of course, I think we should pair them up. Maybe McGrady gets the ever deserving Joe Dumars another ring and maybe the Pistons can be the franchise that rids McGrady's 800-pound playoff gorilla forever.

Oh, and it makes sense from a basketball standpoint as well. Consider the following deal:

Houston sends Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis to Detroit for Rip Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace.

For the Rockets, they could solve their most overlooked problem - which is that they have two small forwards in the starting lineup - by playing Hamilton at his natural 2 position and keeping Battier at the three. Meanwhile, they could add Sheed to the starting lineup at power forward and provide the perfect (and I mean perfect) compilment to Yao in the middle. Seriously, can you think of a better option than Wallace in a contract year? If any team actually needs his strange brand of intensity, it is Houston. And his inside-outside game, shot blocking, and athleticism are the exact things the Rockets need to buttress Yao with in the frontcourt. The Rockets could make a full scale assault on a title next year with Alston, Hamilton, Battier, Sheed, and Yao in the starting lineup. Seriously, that group can win the whole thing.

As for the Pistons, this is the chance to finally bring a guy who can create his own offense when things get stagnant and introduce a supremely talented passer into the mix. Detroit has featured good ball movement over their six-year run, but they've been able to get by without putting a single dominant passer on the floor. On the other hand, McGrady is arguably the most underrated passer in the league and a guy with very unique skills for his position. Plus, he's due, right?

Things aren't as simple on the Pistons side of this trade, because McGrady would join Tayshaun Prince as natural small forwards on the roster. However, since both players are so versatile, Detroit would have some options. They could go small (Billups, Stuckey, McGrady, Prince, and McDyess), big (Billups, McGrady, Prince, McDyess, and Maxiell), or make another move (Tayshaun has quite a bit of value) to fetch a big man.

Yes, yes. I like this trade. Let's make it happen, people.

Click to read the rest

People are Coming Around on Chalmers!

Over two months ago, I made my case for Mario Chalmers as a first round pick and was met with some skepticism.

Now my boy Chalmers is on fire, at least over at ESPN, as John Hollinger rates him as the third best perimeter player in the draft and Chad Ford is saying that he might even sneak into the lottery. If that happens, someone is going to look really, really smart.

Oh, and a GM will probably make out pretty well also.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Section F Recap: Boston Celtics

Sometimes it is fun to go back and review how a team came together and emerged over the course of the season and it is even better when you can get it all through one lens. In case any of you out there feel like taking that journey Section F style, here are all of my posts about Boston over the past year, with annotations. Enjoy.

June 29, 2007 - Loving the draft-day trade for Ray Allen and wondering why more people weren't in my corner. I'm sure most pundits would deny this now, but that trade got crushed. Excuse me while I pat myself on the back, toot my own horn, and gloat, all at once.

July 30, 2007 - Pushing for the KG trade, predicting almost the exact lineup they rolled out in the Finals, and even promising a Finals trip out of the deal. I was kind of on a roll last summer, I have to say.

August 1, 2007 - Looking at Boston's roster needs right after the KG deal. This is a good reminder that nobody had any confidence whatsoever in the Celtics' bench. Also, it is a good reminder that Posey was just about left for dead before coming to Boston.

August 2, 2007 - Some serious praise for Rajon Rondo. This is one of my favorite columns in the blog's history. Mainly because I love Rondo in a way that is probably unhealthy. And because I was right.

October 29, 2007 - Ignore most of my predictions, but note that I had the C's winning it all. Insert feather in cap.

November 14, 2007 - My first look at the C's in 2007-08. Let's just say I was impressed.

December 30, 2007 - I got very excited after Boston notched road wins at Utah and L.A. to close out 2007.

Jaunary 31, 2008 - More Rondo love. Get used to it.

April 18, 2008 - I guess I got tired of Boston for a few months, but when it came time to pick a champ at the beginning of the playoffs, I stuck with the Celts.

April 24, 2008 - My love for Rondo grew to the point where I was writing about him after watching Phoenix games.

May 15, 2008 - More Rondo!

The rest of the stuff comes from the Finals and can be found in the June archives.

Game Six Thoughts

It's not everyday that you see an NBA team clinch a title by rolling to a 39-point blowout win. I mean, you have to have a real perfect storm of events - amazing play by the winning team and horrendous performances from the losers chief among them. A dash of indifference from the defeated head coach is helpful, as is a boisterous home crowd. All in all, it was just an absolute shellacking that the Celtics put on the Lakers in a 131-92 victory. And there was so much to discuss, so much to soak up, that I had to abandon any semblance of a theme and just bullet out all the analysis. So here goes, in order of my personal preference (because hey, that's what blogging is all about!):

1. The return of Rondo. Actually, this one needs its own post. More on this tomorrow, but I'm just so happy for my favorite Celtic. The way that Rondo shook off the injury, the struggles, and the detractors to throw up a massive 21-8-7-6 line was incredible. I sure hope that playoff fantasy leagues exist and that somebody had Rondo on his team tonight. What a box score. And the crazy thing is that the stats barely scratch the surface of Rondo's impact. It is worth noting that both Doc Rivers and Phil Jackson singled Rondo out (apropos of nothing) as the key player in the game. I'll stop there since I'll be penning a 14,000 word (estimated) Rondo post tomorrow, but for me, the little guy's magnificent return was the biggest story of this contest.

2. The love fest. Is it possible that we will wind up remembering this team more for the hilariously epic victory celebration than for the victory itself? I think these guys wrestled the title of "most excessive celebration" away from the cast of Chicago (at the 2003 Oscars). At certain points, it was downright uncomfortable. Now, I don't want to be seen as the guy raining on the parade, but you have to acknowledge that it was all a bit much. Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce were understandably emotional, given the state of all things Celtics about a year ago, but their protracted hugs, near-kisses, rib taps (Doc gave him about 45 light taps to the midsection during one embrace), and face presses were the pinnacle of comedy. Big Baby Davis was inserting himself into the middle of every celebration and picture, even cradling the trophy on several occasions. Sam Cassell looked like an extra on Friday Night Lights. Leon Powe nearly made me fall off my couch when he yelled "I got you, I got you!" to KG during one particularly rambunctious outburst. And how can we forget the two most out of control aspects of all: 1) the Gatorade pour, and 2) the Garnett interview. The former was just idiotic. I know Pierce wanted to replicate other championship moments, but I think he forgot that they play football games on a field, not a court. Who willingly dumps liquid all over a hardwood floor when there is still time left on the clock? That was just insane.

Oh wait, I forgot to reserve the word "insane" for KG. One day I will have to tell the tales of Kevin Garnett's wild week on the Pepperdine campus in Malibu during the summer of 2003, but for now, I'll say only that he showed some flashes at that time that curbed my surprise tonight when he lost all control of his emotions during the ill-fated interview with Michelle Tafoya. The interview started with a question and was followed by ... silence. No answer from Garnett for a good five seconds (although it felt like five minutes). Then he came back with something fairly indecipherable, which was followed by a blurred mixture of crying, screaming, back-arching, and a profanity-laced bellow. At this point, the good people of ABC needed to find another player to interview. Like, oh I don't know, Paul Pierce, maybe? After all, he's been the go-to interview the entire series and was set to be named the MVP of the Finals. Plus, he's the longest tenured Celtic. But no, ABC had to have the KG interview, because they thought it would be emotional. It was emotional all right. It was the most uncomfortable and awkward sports-related interview since Joe Namath tried to make his move on Suzy Kolber. After the crew decided to stay with KG, he started to rally back and credit his teammates, but quickly dissolved into a location-driven shoutout session that sounded a lot like the bridge of a bad early 90's rap song. He finished it all off by saying "I'm certified. I'm certified." Obviously, this meant that he finally had the NBA title that would validate his career, but as my wife put it, "He should have said, 'I'm certifiable.'" I've always accused Kobe Bryant of being contrived and watching too many Michael Jordan videos (mainly the Flu Game), so I would be remiss if I didn't throw out the possibility that Garnett is just a little too familiar with Jordan's crying jag following the 1991 Finals. But hey, the first cut is the deepest as Cat Stevens once sang, so I'm sure that KG had a good reason for coming completely unhinged on national television.

3. Phil embarrassing Kobe. I have to believe that Phil Jackson was absolutely loving the fact that he had the power to make Kobe play all but three minutes of the fourth quarter. There was no other reason to keep Bryant on the floor after about the five minute mark, yet there he was, running around and trying not to let the horror of being asked to play in a 39-point blowout show on his face. To his credit, Kobe kept playing and even taking a few shots (in stark contrast to the way he completely quit on his team against Phoenix in 2006), but it was obvious that he didn't want to be on the floor. And I don't think any other coach of any other star player would have kept his guy out there as long as Phil did. You can agree or disagree with my opinion on this, but the bottom line is that I don't think the old wounds have healed. Jackson is coaching this team because he gets paid a ton of money to chase a tenth ring and to help mold young people with his interesting blend of coaching and teaching. The fact that Kobe is around is probably a nuisance at best and a travesty at worst. Again, this is all conjecture. But it seemed to come through loud and clear tonight when he embarrassed his star player by making him play out the string alongside the likes of Vujacic, Farmar, Eddie House, and Big Baby.

4. Ray Allen. I spent a great deal of time detailing Ray Allen's career-defining Game Four, but it is worth noting again how huge this guy was in the NBA Finals and how amazing that fact is considering the way he started the postseason. Allen drained a Finals record 7 threes in tonight's game [atually, I think he tied the record] and a Finals record 22 threes in the series and was right there with Paul Pierce as Boston's rock. He had 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting (including 7-of-9 from deep) and added four boards and three steals in less than 32 minutes. And all this while dealing with a family crisis involving the health of his son and after being poked in the eye and missing almost a quarter of the game. I can't stress enough what a transformative series this was for Ray Allen. He's a lock now for the Hall of Fame and pretty much automatically jumps over 4-5 shooting guards on that particular all-time list. Amazing stuff.

5. Paul Pierce. The other guy - besides Allen - that did the most for his legacy (KG comes in third since he was pretty spotty during Games 2-5 ... Kobe comes in 913th), Pierce was just a fascinating guy to watch during the postseason. On the one hand, he had some of the worst offensive performances I've ever seen (Game One against Cleveland and Game Three of the Finals, when he went 2-for-14 in each with 4 and 6 points, respectively). On the other, he had two of the great postseason games in Boston history in Game Seven against Cleveland (the duel with LeBron) and Game Five of the Finals. He completely outplayed Kobe Bryant ... yet he did it while looking like he had a deadly virus the entire time. Pierce had the famous (or infamous) knee injury and subsequent return, which will be one of the most indelible memories from the 2008 Finals. He completed the transformation from "scorer" and "slight head case" to "complete player" and "team captain." His evolution defensively was mind-boggling and was capped off with one-on-one defense on both LeBron James and Kobe Bryant that rivaled any effort that has ever been made against either superstar. The guy should probably just retire right this minute, because he will never reach a higher plane as an athlete. In fact, I half expect him to finally get an MRI that reveals the fact that Pierce played the entire series on a torn MCL. Nothing is out of the question at this point.

6. P.J. Brown is no Mitch Richmond. Not sure if you remember the way Mitch Richmond glommed on to the 2000 Lakers in order to "get a ring," but I'm happy to say that P.J. Brown did no such thing. He got up off the couch and signed with Boston late in the season with the hopes that he would finally reach an NBA Finals at age 38. I'm sure he expected to play a handful of shaky minutes and try to impart some knowledge in the locker room. Instead, he wound up saving Boston's season in Game Seven of the Cleveland series, going something like 6-for-6 from the field in the fourth quarter. Plus, he played huge minutes during the Finals and helped Boston absorb everything from foul trouble to injuries to Doc Rivers' love-hate relationship with Leon Powe. Plus, he got to be part of a Celtics team that scored as many points in tonight's game as his old Heat teams used to score in a series (slight exaggeration). Good for P.J.

7. LeBron is good. Not to move too far off the main point here, but with all the references to the Cleveland series, it is worth mentioning that the Cavs could have, should have, would have won that second round series were it not for Rajon Rondo in Game Five (9-for-15 from the field, 20 points, 13 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and a pair of massive threes in the second quarter that erased an early Cleveland lead) and the aforementioned P.J. Brown performance in Game Seven. And that's before you even mention Pierce going for 41 in the clincher. You can talk about the Hawks taking Boston to seven games, but that was kind of a fluke if you ask me. Atlanta had the perfect blend of youthful exuberance, extreme athleticism, and naively excited home crowd to give a team with expectations a lot of trouble. But when it came right down to it, Boston throttled the Hawks by 34 points in the clincher. (In fact, Boston's point differential in the series was +94.) The Detroit series can be blamed on Flip or Sheed or Billups being banged up or whatever, but the bottom line is that Boston handled the Pistons in that one. And they pretty much put it on the Lakers as well. It's crazy to say this, but the Cavs gave Boston the toughest series of anyone. And sure, I know that matchups are a big factor and that Ray Allen hit the skids at that time, but the fact remains that Cleveland came within a handful of possessions of beating the team that eventually emerged as the clear champs of the NBA. And considering how putrid most of that Cavaliers roster is, what does that say about LeBron James? More specifically, how impressive do we have to deem his 112-20-17 over the final three games (when his team scored a grand total of 255 points)? Whereas Kobe wore down over the course of the series and found the going consistently tougher against the vaunted Boston defense, King James figured things out on the fly and gained strength, shaking off a brutal start to that series to close with the aforementioned flourish. I know we are an out-of-sight, out-of-mind culture, but there is a pretty scary takeaway here and it has everything to do with the summer of 2010. If a legitimately good team clears enough cap space to take a run at LeBron, we could have a next generation version of Shaq signing with L.A.

8. Kobe's no MJ. This one is so painfully obvious that it doesn't seem to warrant inclusion, especially since all the irrational Lakers fans out there will flip out upon reading a few negative words about their hero. But there were just way too many Jordan comparisons being thrown around before the NBA Finals, and I believe that every person alive who cares about basketball and has access to a keyboard owes it to society to smash that theory to pieces. There was no basis for such a comparison before this series and there's certainly no way to make that claim now. Bryant shed the good teammate image the moment things went bad and went on a gripe session in Game Two that is quickly becoming legendary in NBA circles. He treated his coach with disrespect bordering on disdain. He failed to rise to the challenge that Paul Pierce brought to the court. He would try to deflect blame after bad passes by screaming at the intended target (it called to mind the old jokes that my Dad used to tell me after an overthrow - "Grow taller!"). Then there are the cold, hard numbers - 53-for-131 from the field (good for 40%, including just one game with over 50% shooting) and 23 turnovers. There was the 24-point lead relinquished and the 39-point waxing in the clincher. None of this suggests Jordan, unless we're talking MJ's last year with the Wizards or maybe his stint with the Birmingham Barons. So people need to stop suggesting that Kobe is in the same echelon as Jordan. Period.

(Of course, even though everyone is nodding and agreeing with this now - well, except for those Lakers crazies - the tune will change yet again if things start going well for the Lakers next year. Remember, less than a year ago Kobe was demanding a trade, throwing his franchise and teammates under the bus, and supposedly tarnishing his legacy forever. Eight months later he was the MVP and a wonderful teammate and an inspiration to impoverished nations everywhere. So I'm not holding out much hope for collective long-term memory on this one. Pencil in the Jordan comparisons for May 2009. Wait, even more likely - this August when he's D'ing up some uncoordinated Lithuanian point guard at the Beijing Games.)

9. How can Portland acquire James Posey? If there is a more ideal "last piece to the puzzle" guy in the NBA right now than James Posey, I'd like to know who it is. Twice in three years - first with Miami in 2006 and now with Boston - Posey has given a contending team the lift it needed to get over the hump. He's a physical player with a propensity for "finishing guys off after the whistle" (as Jeff Van Gundy put it). He's afraid of absolutely no one (more on this in a minute). He drills enormous threes with regularity. He's a smart player who knows how to get the ball to guys where they like it. He even has a nasty habit of delivering cheap shots in testy situations. Come to think of it, I think he took the "small forward who does all the things I just mentioned" baton from Robert Horry a few years ago and never looked back. I don't know if the edgy style of play would go over on the feel-good Blazers, but I promise you that giving Posey 25 minutes a night at the 3 would accelerate that team's timeline by at least a year. I doubt Boston will part with him, but teams everywhere should be trying to get their hands on him to get over the top. Utah, Portland, Denver, Phoenix, Cleveland, Orlando, and New Orleans are all teams that come immediately to mind.

10. The Fearless Trio. I mentioned Posey's neglect for fear above, but there is more to the story. Specifically, Posey is not afraid of Kobe Bryant, which puts him in select company. I never hear people talk about this, but one of the keys to Boston's defense on Bryant in the series is that they had three guys they could throw at Kobe who quite simply were not afraid of him. This probably sounds like common sense crossed with a bad cliché, but it is actually a very important point. I couldn't give you an exact number, but I would wager that the number of NBA players that do not fear Kobe Bryant could be counted on two hands. And maybe "fear" is too strong of a word, but the large majority of NBA players would just rather not mix it up with him. The biggest factor is that they don't want to be embarrassed. Players have a lot of pride and aren't fond of looking like a fool in front of 20,000 fans and on national television. And since Bryant is known to eschew the team game in favor of destroying an individual opponent, the threat of being exposed is very real. For all of my problems with Kobe, I readily admit that he can abuse nearly anyone in uniform. So what it takes to approach Kobe Bryant unafraid is not a specific skill set, but rather a willingness to absorb personal embarrassment if necessary, so that you can guard him as hard as possible, drive on him as hard as possible, and play him physically tough all game. Again, it sounds simple, but watch closely next year and note how many players actually do this. Hint: not many.

Anyway, here are the guys that I believe have the ability, willingness, or whatever it is that is necessary to take Kobe head on with no fear:

[Update - we're getting some great additions via email and in the comments section, so maybe we can grow this list of "players that don't fear Kobe."]
LeBron James
Shane Battier
Bruce Bowen
Tayshaun Prince
Ruben Patterson
Paul Pierce
James Posey
Ray Allen
Brandon Roy
[Raja Bell]

Honestly, I can't really think of anyone else. Bowen has lost a step and so no amount of courage can save him now. I don't even think Patterson is in the league. So that leaves seven guys - and a whopping three of them play for the Celtics. The fact that Posey, Pierce, and Allen (due to his strange feud with Bryant) could all care less about offending Kobe, raising his ire, or otherwise putting themselves in harm's way gave Boston a truly rare weapon against Bryant; the Celtics had a rotation of solid athletes willing to take the challenge. That's half the battle.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Post on Hoops Addict

Here's the latest over on HA.

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Career-Defining Game Four

Pretty vague title, no? After all, that could be referring to any number of people involved in Boston's epic comeback on Thursday night. We've got Paul Pierce, with his newfound defense, clutch sensibilities, Inglewood roots, controversial knee injury, and Boston tenure. We've got KG who plays the game with intensity bordering on madness, a love for 20-foot jumpers, and the world's biggest monkey on his back. We've got Kobe Bryant, who is in danger of seeing the dream season - an MVP, the top seed, and an improved reputation - slip away, along with his chance at a first non-Shaq title. Heck, even James Posey has some pre-cheap shot artist Robert Horry fame he can grab a hold of. To put it simply - there are an inordinate number of people involved in this NBA Finals who have careers on the line. And that's before we even deal with Phil Jackson's attempt at a record 10th ring or David Stern's latest attempt to bully and belittle and patronize his way out of a mess that is largely his own doing.

For all of that though, I thought Ray Allen turned in the most career-defining performance in Game Four.

Allen played a fantastic basketball game and, in my opinion, was the reason that Boston won the game. In fact, he's probably the biggest reason they are up 3-1 in this series. He's on the verge of completely altering the way people will remember his career. And let me tell you, the transformation is stunning.

For starters, it was just a few weeks ago that Allen appeared to be done. As in, maybe he'll retire after the season. He couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with his patented jumper. He couldn't elevate and finish near the rim (never his strong suit anyway). He got torched by Joe Johnson. He was getting benched in favor of Posey pretty routinely. Even Boston fans and columnists got in on the act, mocking Allen by referring to the Celtics' as the "Big Two and a Half." There was very little indication that he could even get the better of Wally Z, let alone carry Boston to huge playoff wins.

But sometime during the Detroit series, he started to turn the tide. Actually, not "sometime." It was Game Five of those Eastern Conference Finals. With the Celtics desperate to win at home in order to take a 3-2 series lead, Allen shook off a combined 7-for-24 shooting performance from the previous two games in Detroit to go 9-for-15, including 5-for-6 from downtown. He scored 29 points, hit an enormous three on an out-of-bounds play that might have saved the season (Boston was reeling from a big Pistons comeback), and then iced the game with his typical deadly free throw shooting. From that point on, Allen has been looking more like the Ray Allen we all know so well - running guys off screens, hitting threes, making smart plays. In the first three games of the Finals, he was able to give the Lakers' backcourt fits with his constant movement and seemed to have an extra bounce in his step as he tallied 20.3 points per game while shooting over 50% from the field and from three.

So by the time Ray Allen stepped onto the floor for Game Four, it was no longer surprising that he was playing well. And if you told me before the game that he would be a primary reason for a Boston victory, that wouldn't have been all that surprising either.

What was surprising - and what will forever alter the way I remember Ray Allen - is the way that he played well. It was the way he became a primary reason for Boston's comeback victory. Because, quite honestly, this wasn't vintage Ray Allen. And I mean that as a compliment. Consider the following:

1. He played defense. If given 100 adjectives phrases [wow, somebody needs a grammar refresher] to describe Ray Allen, would you ever use "defensive stopper"? Doubtful. Yet, for some reason, the man guards Kobe Bryant like the fate of the free world is at stake. Whatever Bryant did to him once upon a time, it has staying power, because Allen has been applying a slow bun to every matchup with Kobe - whether in the preseason or the Finals - for nearly a decade. A byproduct of that was some really solid defense in Games 1-3, even when Kobe played well. But tonight, I thought Allen really turned it up a notch. Everyone is jumping on the Paul Pierce train tonight (and sure, rightfully so) for his willingness and ability to guard Bryant so tough in the second half of Game Four. But that ignores the unbelievable defense that Allen played over the first 24 minutes. Nobody noticed, since the Lakers were raining threes from all over the court (Trevor Ariza!) and playing fantastic, but the D was there. Allen held Bryant to 0-for-4 shooting in the first half and did a fantastic job of denying the ball and forcing Bryant to pass. This played a major role in Kobe struggling to find the range later in the game. Not only that, but Allen didn't stop playing defense just because he got switched off of his nemesis. He just spent the second half putting the clamps on Sasha Vujacic instead, running the Game Three hero off of his favorite shots, challenging everything, crashing the glass, and getting into the passing lanes to force steals. Did Ray Allen somehow morph into Shane Battier for the evening?

2. He played all 48 minutes. I won't necessarily say this was out of character, because Allen isn't exactly a guy that gets winded easily. But he's also not exactly young. Not does he exactly have perfect ankles. I know that guys can get more rest in the Finals due to the long commercial breaks, but still, 48 minutes is a haul. It takes a toll both physically and mentally, yet despite all that, Allen constantly looked like the freshest and most focused player on the court. More than anything, he gave Boston a constant on the court with all the new looks and weird lineups. Kind of like Penny and Desmond in Lost. (Okay, nothing like that.)

3. He handled the ball. I thought Rondo gave Boston some okay minutes - especially when they made their underrated little run in the first half to get the score down to 12, which helped them regain focus and confidence - on his bum ankle. (Although to hear Jeff Van Gundy tell it, Rondo not only was the worst player in NBA history tonight, but he also is responsible for all that ails modern society. I thought Beetlejuice's commentary tonight was one-note, unprofessional, annoying, and - as Simon Cowell somewhat famously uttered on American Idol this year - "borderline disrespectful." But maybe it's just me.) But there's no denying that the combination of Phil's defensive strategy and Rondo only being "89.555 percent" forced Doc's hand. And while Rivers kind of botched things in the first half when he gave Sam Cassell half a quarter to heave up bricks, he got it right in the second stanza by turning things over to Eddie House. The problem with playing House at point guard, of course, is that he can't dribble. Seriously, he can hardly bounce the ball more than three times in a row. This meant that Ray Allen and Paul Pierce had to do the bulk of the ball-handling. Pierce carried the load late in the game, but I would venture to say that Allen brought the ball up the floor 75% of the time in the second half. And he did most of that at a fast clip in order to get Boston into transition and early offense. So the fact that he had just one turnover was amazing.

4. He filled up the box score. Can you name the last time that Ray Allen had at least 9 boards and 3 steals in the same game? I'll tell you - November 20, 2006. That's like 170 games ago. So this was not normal. It was also not a luxury. If Allen hadn't been so active pinning down on the glass and getting into the passing lanes, the Celtics could not have won the game. Period. Plus, he had two boards in particular where he was absolutely skying (including a key offensive rebound late). Where did that come from?

5. He finished at the rim. Allen had several terrific plays at the basket in this game, but he saved his best for last with two really impressive forays to the rim late in the contest. First he had the uber-athletic reverse layup along the baseline and then he sealed the deal with the isolation on Vujacic that ended in a little finger roll off the glass. Again, where did that come from? Allen looked more like Kobe Bryant than Kobe Bryant in the fourth quarter.

All told, we got to sit back and watch an aging jump shooter dig down deep, completely vanquish his demons from early in this postseason, and lead his team to one of the most dramatic comeback victories of all time ... and he did it while playing the full 48 minutes and completely redefining himself, on the fly, on the biggest possible stage.


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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Radmanovich Mystery

Game Three was a turbulent affair filled with shanked free throws, horrific performances from star players (namely Pierce, Gasol, KG, and Odom), and, of course, a Donaghy taint that permeated everything. (Although from where I'm sitting, we didn't need a District Court brief to tell us that the Kings-Lakers game in 2002 was the most unfairly officiated game in modern sports history.) Plus, there was the bizarre way that Doc Rivers used (or, more to the point, didn't use) Rajon Rondo, as well as the dramatic return of "Good Kobe." Lots to talk about.

But the thing that left me scratching my head long after the game was over was the ongoing mystery that is Vlade Radmanovich, Starter.

Does anyone have any clue why Phil Jackson is still starting this guy? I mean, I get that Radman can stretch a defense with his streaky three-point stroke. And I am willing to admit that he looks like a vampire, which is kind of awesome. But what else does this dude bring to the table? He can't play defense, he fouls like it's his job, he has no other dimension to his offensive game beyond catch-and-shoot, and he has a pretty bad attitude on top of everything else. Way back in round two, my brother stated that Vlade was the worst starter in the playoffs and that it wasn't even close. While the likes of Mo Evans and DeShawn Stevenson might take offense at that statement, I have to believe my brother was on the money with his assessment.

The craziest thing about Radman's deficiencies is that he has a backup that is FAR superior. It would be one thing if, like the Wizards and Magic, the backups were equally crappy. This is, after all, the modern NBA, where expansion has diluted talent to the point where even the good teams can have horrible players getting big minutes (paging Fabricio Oberto). But in the case of the Lakers, they have a really good player sitting on the bench in Sasha Vujacic. He's come a long, long way during the last three years and has developed into a really good NBA player. He didn't wind up being the tall point guard that L.A. originally hoped for, but I'd wager that he's actually a better basketball player than even Phil Jackson could have dreamed. The Machine (I absolutely love that he gave himself the nickname, and I'm even more excited about the outfit I saw him wearing at Starbucks a few weeks ago - pink pants tucked into mismatched paisley socks) drills open threes, can put the ball on the floor to create space for his jumper, knows how to move without the ball and work off of screens, plays with emotion, gets under the skin of opponents, and works his butt off on the defensive end. That's not a bad option to play on the wing.

So, I go back to the original mystery: why is Radman starting over The Machine? Vujacic shoots just as well, if not better. He seems to work better with Kobe Bryant. He is a far superior defensive player. He has more tools on the offensive end. He plays with more spirit and emotion. He's just better. I realize that you could probably engineer a stat that says otherwise, but I'd rather trust my eyes on this one.

That said, if someone could give me some insight into what Phil Jackson knows that I don't, I would be forever grateful. This is a mystery that might just keep me up at night.

(Next up on Mystery Finals Theatre - Why Doc Rivers decided to capitalize on Rajon Rondo's breakout 16-assist performance in Game Two by refusing to let his young point guard create on offense and then playing him for just 4 minutes in the entire second half of Game Three.)

Monday, June 09, 2008

Rondo's 16 Assists

I want to take just a few seconds to recognize the performance of Rajon Rondo in Game Two of the NBA Finals. Granted, I often conduct myself on this blog as if I were Rondo's best friend, older brother, and agent all wrapped into one, but that is in large part due to the fact that no one else seems to give this guy as much credit as he deserves.

No doubt by the time you read this, there will be dozens of takes on Game Two and I am willing to wager that few of them focus on Rondo. That's because there was the Lakers' near miracle comeback (the flip side of which is, of course, the near choke on Boston's part), the ongoing Pierce knee saga, the free throw shooting disparity (38-10 - are you serious?), the Lakers' ongoing refusal to pass the ball to the unstoppable Pau Gasol, and a variety of other tantalizing subjects to focus on from tonight's game.

So I'll be the guy singing Rondo's praises.

Specifically, I want to make sure everyone understands just how impressive it is that the second-year guard with the incredibly long fingers dished out 16 assists in a Finals game. Yes, his six boards, lack of turnovers, two steals, and an impressive block of a Radman three were all key as well, but those dimes really caught my eye.

First, the nature of the passes. He had a few flashy drives and dishes (specifically the fast break oop to Powe and the fake-behind-the-back dish to Powe underneath), a truly sensational baseline drive and left-handed kick out to Pierce (had that been Nash, the ABC announcing booth would have discussed the pass for 10 minutes instead of ignoring it completely), a pretty cool looking windup and pitch to a cutting Pierce, and a handful of other nifty plays. But what really stood out to me was the way that Rondo put the ball in the shooting pocket of his wing players. He was often moving at high speed and avoiding defenders while finding shooters, so to put the ball on that right shoulder every time was quite an achievement. There's a reason that Pierce was 4-for-4, Allen 3-for-6, and Posey 2-for-3 from behind the arc ... Rondo was giving them the ball in prime position for a catch-and-shoot. (Note: When he wasn't catching Rondo's deft passes, Pierce was throwing some beauties of his own.) It is so rare for any player - young or old - to hit the shooting pocket these days that I feel this was the most impressive aspect of Rondo's performance. It was a joy to watch a point guard push the ball, create passing angles, and then hit his guys in stride.

Of course, the sheer number of assists that Rondo piled up was mighty impressive as well. I'm sure he got a couple of generous calls from the official scorer, but that's a mountain of AST's. In fact, if we weren't so spoiled from the gaudy numbers that Chris Paul threw up all postseason, we'd probably appreciate the figure a little more.

Maybe this will help: Rondo's 16 assists are the most in an NBA Finals game since 1991.

If you are like me and sometimes forget that it's not still the late 90's, that's seventeen years. In the last four NBA Finals prior to this throwback clash, only LeBron James (10 in 2007) managed to even clock double-figures. The last time someone recorded more than 14 assists in a Finals game was Magic Johnson in Game Five of the 1991 Finals, when he dropped 20 dimes on the Bulls in a losing effort.

In the years since, guys by the name of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Penny Hardaway, Mark Jackson, Gary Payton, and Jason Kidd have played in the Finals and not one of them was able to rack up the 16 assists that Rondo had tonight. Now are you impressed? This kid's no joke, people.

Oh, and for you history buffs and stat geeks out there, I decided to go ahead and compile a list of all the double-digit assist performances in the Finals from 1992 on:

16 - Rajon Rondo, Boston, 2008
14 - Penny Hardaway, Orlando, 1995
13 - John Stockton, Utah, 1998
12 - Scottie Pippen, Chicago, 1993
12 - John Stockton, Utah, 1997 (three times)
12 - John Stockton, Utah, 1998
12 - Eric Snow, Philadelphia, 2001
12 - Jason Kidd, New Jersey, 2002
11 - Michael Jordan, Chicago, 1992
11 - Gary Payton, Seattle, 1996
11 - Scottie Pippen, Chicago, 1998
11 - Marc Jackson, Indiana, 2000
11 - Jason Kidd, New Jersey, 2003
10 - Scottie Pippen, Chicago, 1992 (twice)
10 - Scottie Pippen, Chicago, 1993
10 - Michael Jordan, Chicago, 1992
10 - Kevin Johnson, Phoenix, 1993
10 - Charles Barkley, Phoenix, 1993
10 - Derek Harper, New York, 1994
10 - Avery Johnson, San Antonio, 1999
10 - Derek Fisher, Los Angeles, 2000
10 - Jason Kidd, New Jersey, 2002 (twice)
10 - Tim Duncan, San Antonio, 2003
10 - Jason Kidd, New Jersey, 2003
10 - LeBron James, Cleveland, 2007

(One more fun fact - In Game Two of the 1999 Finals, the New York Knicks recorded a grand total of eight assists as a team.)

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Poor Phoenix

The Rudy Fernandez news today served as yet another sobering reminder of what could have been in Phoenix. Rajon Rondo is excelling in the Finals (unless you believe Jeff Van Gundy, in which case Rondo's mere existence is a national tragedy), Shawn Marion is about to become a key player in free agency this summer, Mike D'Antoni is the new savior in New York, and now Rudy is joining the young, loaded Blazers ... simply because Robert Sarver either can't or won't pay the luxury tax.

As good as this Lakers-Celtics matchup is, I still feel ripped off as a fan that we never got to see the True Suns in the NBA Finals.

New Portland Trade Idea

I spent a good part of the past two days talking shop with a Pistons fan in my office and I am more convinced than ever that Portland and Detroit could get together and make a deal that helps both teams.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that my Blazers trade suggestions below were rather misguided. The Bulls are trying to trade the #1 pick for Dwyane Wade, so I doubt that LaMarcus Aldridge would be enough to fetch the right to draft Derrick Rose. And, as people pointed out, the Suns will have every resource and incentive to keep Amare if (more like when) he opts out in 2010.

So I'm taking a mulligan ... and offering up another risky proposed deal.

This time, I think Chauncey Billups is the guy the Blazers should deal for. His market value is probably as low as it can go after he struggled with nagging injuries in the playoffs and was sort of put on the block by Joe Dumars. I think he can be had, especially when you consider that Rodney Stuckey offers great replacement value at the position for Detroit.

At first, I thought the Blazers would have to give up LaMarcus Aldridge to get Billups - a prospect I could live with as a Blazers fan (again, because of the influx of power forwards coming on the market in the next two years), but the more I look at this, the less necessary that seems. Could a package of Travis Outlaw (would give Detroit a tremendous weapon off the bench and a guy who would back up Prince at the 3 while also logging big minutes at the 4), Joel Przybilla (would have more value starting in Detroit than backing up Oden in Portland), and the #13 pick be enough? Maybe.

The Pistons could then look to move Rasheed Wallace as a second move and - even before acquiring assets in that trade, using draft picks, or spending the midlevel - be able to retool on the fly with a lineup of:

PG - Rodney Stuckey
SG - Rip Hamilton
SF - Tayshaun Prince
PF - Antonio McDyess
C - Joel Przybilla
6th - Travis Outlaw
B - Jason Maxiell
B - Jarvis Hayes
B - Amir Johnson
B - Lindsay Hunter

That's still a top 3-4 team in the East before loading up with all that extra talent.

Meanwhile, the Blazers would add a veteran point guard to their young mix and become more competitive more quickly. With the news that Rudy Fernandez is indeed coming over next year (and seems to have been promised a certain amount of playing time), the Blazers timeline is officially starting. I know Billups seemed a little run down this year, but I suspect he has at least 3-4 good years left and at $10 million a year, he isn't going to break the bank. I'd make a move for him now, try to sign more guy next summer with the cap space, and then just start extending everybody in sight on the way to a $100 million roster. The Blazers would have a lineup of:

PG - Chauncey Billups
SG - Brandon Roy
SF - Martell Webster
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge
C - Greg Oden
6th - Rudy Fernandez
B - Steve Blake
B - James Jones
B - Channing Frye
B - Jarrett Jack

I like the Billups trade for Portland because I just honestly believe that good point guards won't be available very often in the next few years and that if they don't get one, they are going to have a fatal flaw. Also, I think he is a perfect compliment to Roy in that he's more of a finishing point guard than a playmaker, but can share in those duties and give them a post-up heavy backcourt that will be murder on mismatches.

So what do you say ... is this a better idea than the last round of trade offerings, or have I officially lost my mind?

Friday, June 06, 2008

One Bullet Dodged

Derrick Rose dodged a rather big bullet today when it was reported that Doug Collins would not, in fact, accept the Bulls' head coaching position. It seems increasingly likely (well, at least if you read Chad Ford) that Chicago will take the home-grown point guard with the first pick. The problem was that Collins' teams have always played a grueling pace, which would have put the brakes on Rose's electric potential. Now, the search is back on and I've already heard the name Chuck Person thrown out there. I have no idea how Person coaches, but it has to be more free-wheeling than Collins.

The other name I think we'll see surface? Avery Johnson. And if Devin Harris is a proxy for Rose, that isn't very good news either. Avery is a terrific guy and - I think - a fantastic coach, but he's not exactly a young point guard's best friends. I believe the expression is "control freak."

Anyway, it will be exciting to watch the most important story that virtually no one is talking about continue to unfold.

The Paul Pierce Dilemma

It's been made very clear that Paul Pierce grew up in L.A. hating the Celtics and now he's a Celtic trying to beat L.A. Nice contrast.

But one thing that hasn't been widely reported is the possibility that L.A. residents are torn about whether to root for Pierce or the Lakers. I know at least three people who consider Pierce their favorite player because he is from their city, their neighborhood, and their high school. The allegiance to The Truth is almost off the charts.

These people are also huge Lakers fans.

So who do they root for now? The favorite player or the favorite team? On the one hand, a team is a larger entity and is more rooted in ongoing fandom. On the other hand, a team is made up of interchangeable people and parts and - as Jerry Seinfeld famously joked - is basically just a set of laundry that we root for or against. Pierce, on the other hand, is the native son. That might make for a pretty tough call.

Consider it one of the many interesting subplots and riveting conflicts that make this series so unique.

The Hidden Effect of Paul Pierce's Dramatic Comeback

Kobe Bryant is a weird dude. We all know this. For most of his career, he has been too contrived to fully realize his abilities - too conscious of how he is perceived and too eager to prove people wrong. When he's criticized for shooting too much, he refuses to shoot. The opposite is true when he's nailed for being too passive. I've never been a big fan, but even I'll admit that there were times when he couldn't win.

But then again, he proved during the second half of this season that he has had the ability to play authentic ball within him all along. From the time the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol to the time they vanquished the Spurs, you didn't hear a negative word about Bryant's decision-making. The last three months have been a coronation, capped off with the top seed, the MVP, a dominant run through the Western Conference, and a spot in the NBA Finals.

Then ... bam. He gets to the Finals and seemingly reverts back to the old Kobe. The one who seems to formulate a plan during timeouts, that often completely ignores how the defense is playing him, and appears to decide what course of action to take long before he gets the ball. The fourth quarter saw him jacking up terrible shots, dribbling out the shot clock while facing big deficits, and generally trying to single-handedly beat triple-teams despite having Pau Gasol on his roster. It was bizarre.

The question is: what brought this on? I suppose it was just the bright lights of the Finals that scrambled his brain waves. Or maybe he was frustrated by the Boston defense that is clearly geared to turn him into a contested jump shooter. Maybe it was that old flash of Kobe anger when a teammate seems to be playing in quicksand (paging Luke Walton). Those are all valid theories. (I should add here that another valid theory is that Kobe didn't actually "revert back" at all, but simply didn't have much energy tonight. I noticed on several occasions that he just didn't seem to be playing with much emotion.)

I have another theory and I'll admit that it's not the most flattering - I think Kobe Bryant was jealous of Paul Pierce.

Look, even though Bryant was struggling through the first 29 minutes of the game, it was largely due to his jumper not falling. He was getting good looks in the flow of the offense and I don't think anyone could complain that he was forcing things one way or the other. In fact, just before Pierce went down like a sack of potatoes, Kobe had thrown down a ridiculous alley-oop where he hung in the air long enough to fetch a late pass from Derek Fisher.

[Update - he also had his finest play of the game at the 8:10 mark of the third quarter, when he knifed into the lane, drew a double, and lobbed up a beautiful pass to Gasol.]

But when Pierce proceeded to live out Kobe Bryant's dream scenario - suffering a legitimately scary injury, being carried to the locker room, courageously (or over-dramatically, depending on which team you are rooting for) returning to the court to a standing ovation, and then burying consecutive monster threes - Bryant just couldn't take it.

You see, there is only one thing that Bryant has always seemed to want more than rings - and that is glory. It's why he milked that ankle injury and Shaq foul-out against the Pacers back in the day and why he had the appetite to score 81 in a game. This guy wants to be remembered and worshiped the way Jordan was. Going into these finals, he has been compared favorably (and inappropriately, I might add) to MJ himself, and I think it all went to Kobe's head. He stepped on the floor tonight assuming that he would have a patented Jordan Finals game, and even when he got off to the sluggish start, he didn't mind, because that just fit into the "he gets his teammates going and only then takes over the game!" script.

But Paul Pierce just had to steal his thunder. Pierce already had a "legendary" game in these playoffs when he outdueled LeBron James in Game Seven of the Eastern Conference semis. And there has been a lot of hype about Pierce being the hardest guy for the Lakers to guard and a former L.A. kid and the longest tenured Celtics and the straw that stirs the drink and a whole lot of other things that probably had to irk Kobe just a little bit. I mean, if I was Kobe I would probably have a "Paul Pierce? Are you kidding me that he's getting similar pub?" approach to things as well.

The problem is that when you elevate glory to the top spot on your list of priorities, it can cloud the objective. Pierce had his day in the sun, his "one shining moment" ... and Kobe flipped out. For the rest of the game, he overplayed people on defense and put himself out of position. He took bad, contested shots - often with no rebounding. He held the ball and let the shot clock wind down. In short, he did all the "Bad Bryant" things that we thought were history.

If that game is in L.A., the Lakers win. If Paul Pierce stays in the locker room, the Lakers win (that one is pretty obvious, I imagine). If Pierce never gets hurt at all, the Lakers win. I'm absolutely convinced of that.

Because if anything had been different tonight, Piece wouldn't have become an instant hero, Kobe's glory-meter wouldn't have gone into the red, and he would have calmly and coolly executed Boston just like he did the Spurs.

But, it wasn't different. And now the Lakers have a new, old fear to contend with.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Blazer Blueprint

In the midst of Lakers-Celtics mania, I can't stop thinking about ... the Blazers!

Okay, in all seriousness, it has more to do with the 19-day layoff between the conference finals and the duel for the grand prize, but either way, my mind has wandered back to my favorite team and what they should do next.

Without diving into all the nuanced information regarding salary structures and player availability, I believe I have stumbled onto a blueprint for my hometown team. Consider:

Move #1 - Trade blogging All-Star Channing Frye, Jarrett Jack, Sergio Rodriguez, and Josh McRoberts to Miami for Udonis Haslem. All the fodder is required to make the numbers work, but the deal is excellent for both teams. Portland can clear some roster sports for Rudy Fernandez and their upcoming draft picks and get a veteran big man to add to the rotation for next year in the process. Haslem is a hard worker, a solid rebounder, and can knock down the 15-footer, which means he's perfect to play between Roy and Oden. As for the Heat, they would get a young big man to throw in their frontcourt mix with Michael Beasely and could add Jack to the backcourt with Wade.

Move #2 - (This one's a stretch) Trade LaMarcus Aldridge and the #13 pick for the rights to the #1 pick (and whoever has to be thrown in to make the numbers work). With this pick, the Blazers could select Derrick Rose ... and be set for the next decade. Chicago should be uneasy about drafting the hometown hero when they so badly need a post presence and are about to play sloooooooooooow ball under Doug Collins. Adding Aldridge to their young roster makes all the sense in the world and still gives them the #13 pick to play with. As for Blazers fans who would argue against dealing Aldridge, let me just say that the power forward pool is a lot deeper in the next two free agent classes. Plus, Rose is insanely good.

Move #3 - (Another stretch) Trade Travis Outlaw and Joel Przybilla for Tayshaun Prince. We are already starting to hear the whispers in Detroit that change is coming. Prince has the most years left on his deal and is coming off a career-worst series against Boston that maybe, just maybe, gives Portland a shot to snatch him up. Prince is the ideal guy to play the 3 for the Blazers, while Detroit could start turning the reins over to Rodney Stucky, Outlaw, Jason Maxiell, and Amir Johnson, with Billups, Sheed, and Rip still on board to give them one more shot at a title next year. I know this one is unlikely, but it is also the least necessary.

Move #4 - Make a play for Boozer in '09 or Amare in '10. Two massive free agent classes are on the horizon and both are loaded with power forwards. Part of my rationale for moving Aldridge is that you don't want to have a logjam at the position when a franchise free agent becomes available. Portland is set to have plenty of cap space in either of those two summers (a loose estimate puts them about $22 million under in 2009, before loading up the young guys with extensions - even with Prince's $8.5 million). I don't know if Portland can preserve that cap space until 2010, but if they can, Amare could be ripe for the picking. He has an opt-out year that summer and is not being paid the max. Plus, the Suns will be on the way down (way down) by then while the Blazers are jousting with the Lakers for Western Conference supremacy. I feel it in my bones - Amare in Portland!

Okay, maybe not. Which is why Carlos Boozer could be such a nice prize next summer. He's also making less than the max and has an opt-out year, so he could be on the move. I suspect the Jazz will get him paid up, but you never know - they seem pretty down on him these days. In Portland, Boozer wouldn't be asked to man the block (on either end of the floor) - just rebound and hit 15-footers.


The net effect of these moves is the following:

PG - Derrick Rose
SG - Brandon Roy
SF - Tayshaun Prince (or Outlaw)
PF - Udonis Haslem
C - Greg Oden
6th - Rudy Fernandez
B - Steve Blake
B - Martell Webster
B - James Jones
B - Big Man TBD (2nd round pick - or Prezbo)

PG - Rose
SG - Roy
SF - Prince (or Outlaw)
PF - Carlos Boozer/Amare Stoudemire
C - Oden
6th - Rudy
B - Blake
B - Webster
B - TBD (or Prezbo)

How does that team NOT win a title?

(If you answered either "The Lakers" or "Those deals would never happen in a million years," well, shut up.)