Monday, September 29, 2008

As the NFL Turns: Life Without Brady

Is it just me, or does the NFL kind of suck without Tom Brady?

The Golden Boy went down eight minutes into the regular season, and three weeks of football have since passed. Storylines are emerging, as they always do. The ageless wonder that is Brett Favre has been let loose by the Mangenius and partied like it was 1995 against the Cardinals on Sunday, tossing a career-high six touchdowns. T.O. may be on the verge of turning on Tony Romo. The Bills are 4-0 and so are the Titans, led by the great Jeff Fisher. But none of these subplots seem as important as they usually would. Tom Brady is the best player on the league's flagship team, and in the opinion of this writer, his absence is undermining the relevance of the league at large. The games are still hard-fought and spirited and exciting, but overall, this early portion of the '08 season hasn't been as fun. And I think it will remain that way for the duration of the year. To me, the NFL isn't as interesting as it usually is. You can call it the Brady Effect.

It has been a looooooooong time since a team athlete as indispensable to his team and his league as Tom Brady went down for such an extended period of time due to injury. In my sports fandom career (admittedly relatively brief), I can't think of anything that compares. Imagine Kobe breaking his leg in the Lakers' season opener a little over a month from now (actually, don't imagine that - forget I even told you to). Last year Brady threw 50 touchdowns versus only eight interceptions, on a team that came 35 seconds and one miracle play involving Eli "Houdini" Manning and David Tyree's helmet from going a perfect nineteen-and-oh. Already a lock for future "best quarterback ever" roundtable's after winning three Super Bowls while throwing to only slightly above-average receivers, Thomas was handed Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth in '07 and proceeded to level the discussion. Joe Montana, the one-time king, won one more Super Bowl, but he never threw for more than 31 touchdowns in a single season, despite being blessed with Jerry Rice. Brady has four more rings than Dan Marino and three more than Peyton Manning. He is unflappable and technically flawless, and with him under center, the Patriots are the team to beat.

They are also the league's most hated squadron. If the Cowboys are "America's Team," the Pats are the exact opposite. Everyone outside of Boston despises the Patriots, for much the same reason everyone outside of Durham, North Carolina hates the Bluedevils: They win at a startling pace, and nobody wants to see any team have a monopoly on winning. They're also kind of rogue: Their coach is a jerk, they've been called classless, and last year they got caught cheating (although that entire controversy was probably overrated) and then ran up the score against helpless opponents when people questioned the veracity of their dynasty. Through almost all of this, Brady has worn a satisfied smirk as he knocked up actresses and bagged supermodels and dissected defenses. He's the NFL's version of Derek Jeter pumping his fist and incarnating the New York playboy life as jealous fans rail against the Yankees for having an infinite amount of money to spend on acquiring the best players. So when he goes down, everyone rejoices.

Not me.

I don't understand how anyone, from any region of the country, could be happy about not getting to see Tom Brady play football in his prime. Maybe it's because I see things from a different perspective, a nonpartisan position. I live in Los Angeles and have no real diehard rooting interest. I follow the Saints because of Reggie Bush, but while I root for him to do well I could honestly care less if they win or lose. I thought I loved the Patriots, until I realized on Sunday that I didn't care that they got blown out at home against the Dolphins with Matt Cassell at the helm. It turns out that I only like the Pats when they are dominant and unstoppable. Which means that I only like the Patriots when Brady is standing tall and nonchalant in the pocket, lofting long touchdowns to Moss in the most breathtakingly perfect QB-to-receiver combination ever, and carving teams up with stoic, machine-like efficiency in crunch-time. And when that's happening, everything else that's going on around the league takes on more meaning. But when the league is deprived of that, everything else seems a little cheap. The NFL revolves around the Patriots; when they're just an ordinary team, the NFL seems almost like just an ordinary league.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Belly of the Upset

It always hits hard.

The No. 1 ranked USC Trojans lost on the road to the Oregon State Beavers by a score of 27-21 Thursday night, two weeks after dismantling Ohio State so thoroughly that it seemed almost unfathomable that they could actually be beaten in a college football game. Pundits said that this was Pete Carroll's best team and that they would run the table to Miami. Deadspin mocked the Beavers' chances at victory and on PTI the only question was whether or not the Trojans would top 50 points (Tony said no, Le Batard said yes). The game seemed like such a mere formality that I forgot it was on until it suddenly hit me and I flicked to ESPN about mid-way through the second quarter. I guess you can imagine my surprise when I realized that THE TROJANS WERE DOWN 14-0!

OSU scored again right before the half TO GO UP 21-0! The Trojans fought back, of course, and still had a chance to win the game when they lined up for an onside kick with a little over a minute to play. The onside kick was not recovered by Southern Cal, and my whole night was officially ruined. But while I'm definitely disappointed that my city's amateur-professional football team lost, I can't find it in myself to really criticize them. How do you explain the nature of the upset in college fooball?

Four of USC's last five losses have come to teams that they, in theory, should never have lost to: last night; two years ago against this same Oregon State program in the same setting and against UCLA at the Rose Bowl (to lose their spot in the BCS Championship Game); and last year at home to Stanford. Since they typically annihilate the really good teams that they play, these losses to such lesser teams seem inexplicable and inexcusable. But the reasons for these defeats are impalpable. How much of it has to do with the idea that the Trojans overlooked an inferior opponent, and were both underprepared and lacking the proper fire? How much of it had to do with the thought that the USC players didn't know how to respond to having the underdog take the fight right at them, the proverbial schoolyard bully stunned at having the little guy walk up one day and slug him in the face?

And how much of it had to do with the fact that, on any given day or night, anybody can beat anybody, in any sport? That last truth, mixed with USC's undeniable success over the last seven years, makes it impossible for me to rip them.

But it still makes me feel down when they lose. Poor Carroll, a great football coach and even better man, becomes so humble and despondent after every (rare) defeat. Witnessing Carroll talk to reporters after last night's game was like watching a sad little four-year-old give an interview after he just spilled his milk and cookies. Furthermore, the USC campus is about 20 minutes from my house. It's about 20 minutes away from everybody in L.A.'s house. It's smack dab in the inner-city, in the "hood," as they say. Unless you attend/used to attend UCLA, how can you live in Los Angeles and not root for SC? The Bruins suck and we don't have an NFL team; the Trojans are our football heroes.

Oh, and just one more thing: Is it really "just a game?" I don't just mean college football, but team sports in general. Technically speaking, it is, but as fans we tend to watch these contests as if their outcomes will determine life and death. This is especially true in NCAA gridiron action, where each and every game is crucial. If it really were "just a game," I would have had a much happier ending to my Thursday night.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Teams: USC Thrashes Ohio State

The result was not surprising. Before the game, I actually thought Los Angeles' beloved USC Trojans Football Team might be in trouble, although for reasons more psychological than physical. Bill Simmons often writes in his columns about sports teams playing the world-renowned "Nobody believed in us" card, regardless of whether anyone really did believe in them or not, and using it as a motivational tool to prove the world wrong. Well, nobody believed in Ohio State's prospects of hanging with the Trojans Saturday night at the Coliseum, and rightfully so: There was no reasonable explanation, at least pertaining to football, as to why the Buckeyes' would be able to stay with USC. Big 10 teams struggle versus teams with speed (i.e. teams from the SEC and Pac-10 - don't ask me why teams from those two conferences are able to recruit speed, and teams from the Big 10 are not; the answer escapes me), and despite their dominance otherwise, OSU is not an exception. They lost the last two BCS title games to LSU and Florida, by a combined score of 79 to 38. On top of that, they were missing their best offensive player, preseason Heisman hopeful Beanie Wells.

But they were still a top-5 team, and a red flag should always be raised whenever a relatively worthy team becomes too much of an underdog in a big game. Not necessarily in terms of a point spread, but in terms of the number of people who are picking you to win the game. Ohio State is a very good football team, and I figured they might take the lack of respect as a slight, and summon up the proper emotional savagery and pride to negate enough of the gap in talent and athleticism to make the game much more competitive than people expected. And maybe, just maybe, pull off the upset no one saw coming.

Instead, they just their asses kicked. I couldn't have been further off. Final Score: Trojans 35, Buckeyes 3.

USC was simply too fast and wily with possession of the ball and too quick without it for Ohio State, and ironically it was the Trojans who played with the ferocity of the disrespected underdog. The Best Defense in College Football allowed only 207 total yards, forced three turnovers, and garnered five sacks. Countless times Buckeye plays were completely destroyed by a gang of swarming thugs (and I mean "thugs" in the most complimentary way possible) who converged on the football like a pride of hungry lions trying to bring down an elephant in an African safari. On the gridiron, the ballcarrier is prey to the Trojan defense, something that it must consume to ensure it's survival. It's inspiring to watch.

Against teams with top-flight athletes, however, the Buckeyes are not. Before long, Saturday night's game succumbed to its predictability, and by the end, it was embarrassing. And so for the third time in their last four losses, Ohio State has been completely outclassed on a national stage. What are we to make of them? Obviously, Jim Tressel is a very good football coach, and he runs a fine football program. He won a national title in 2002 and his team dominates the storied Big 10 conference. But are they a true powerhouse? It's one thing to come up short against the Louisiana State's and Southern California's of the world; it's another thing altogether to be incapable of making the game competitive. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson like to say "One time is an accident, twice is a trend, three times is evidence." Is this most recent loss enough evidence to suggest that Tressel's program is O-VER-RAT-ED? I think so.

USC, however, is beyond reproach in that regard. They play in either the best or second best conference in America, there are no creampuffs on their schedule, and even in the rare event that they lose, they barely lose. Since 2002, also known as Year II of the Pete Carroll Era, the Trojans are 70-8; they have not lost any of those games by more than seven points (and in the entire Carroll era, they have lost only one game by more than a touchdown). Only once in those eight defeats did they lose to a team that was clearly better than them (last year on the road against Oregon). During this span they have produced three Heisman Trophy winners and won three Rose Bowls. They won consecutive national championships in 2003 and 2004, and in 2005 they came just 19 seconds away from becoming the first team in college football history to three-peat. They are a powerhouse, a machine, a dynasty. And this is the best team they've had in three years.

The defense may be as good as it's been under Carroll, but the key is the offense. The last two seasons, the offense was efficient but never spectacular. Now, it is dynamic again. John David Booty was a very good quarterback; Mark Sanchez looks like a superstar. He may not be the pure passer Matt Leinart was, but he is damned good throwing from the pocket, and very mobile. Tailbacks Joe McKnight (who had 105 yards on only twelve carries against the Buckeyes and is so much like Reggie Bush it's disturbing), Stafon Johnson (a future 1,000 yard NFL rusher), and C.J. Gable (singled out as the most complete back of the bunch by Kirk Herbstreit during the telecast) give USC it's best running attack since Bush and Lendale White ran between the tackles at the Coliseum. The receivers aren't great, but they're better than they were last year, thanks in large part to the addition of Arkansas transfer Damian Williams, who caught two touchdowns on Saturday. Helluva football team.

And in praising these Trojans, I think the most damning thing I can say about the Buckeyes is that they were not a true barometer for USC to measure themselves by. They were a walkover, everyone predicted they would be, and it didn't galvanize them at all. Sure, they didn't have Beanie, but Beanie wouldn't have made that much of a difference. USC is phenomenal; Ohio State is beginning to look increasingly like an illusion, in more ways than one.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Is the Patriots dynasty over?

Nothing has been confirmed yet, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady scheduled to undergo an MRI Monday to determine the severity of the left knee injury he suffered during New England's season opener against the Chiefs in Foxborough on Sunday, but there is a rumor going around that the Golden Boy has a torn ACL and will miss the remainder of the season.

Brady was hit in the left knee by Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard on a pass to Randy Moss in the first quarter, and it appears that New England's dreams of another shot at the Super Bowl have been shredded along with the ligament in their quarterback's knee.

Brady's injury is devastating to the Patriots; he is one of the best signal-callers to ever play the game, and along with Peyton Manning, the most indispensable player to his team in the NFL today.

He is the Patriots, basically.

But more than just dealing with what this particular injury means to this year's Patriots, I'm starting to seriously wonder what a defeat that happened two years meant (emblematically) to the New England dynasty as a whole.

The Patriots lost the 2006 AFC Championship game to the Colts, but it's starting to look like more than just a loss that happened in a big game.

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about the Pats. While the piece was positive ("Pats will be back in '08"), the whole time I had a much more negative thought in my head. I just needed more evidence before I would write about it.

Remember Buster Olney's book, "The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty"? In it, Olney chronicles Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, or, as he calls it, the last night of the Yankees dynasty. I've always agreed with Olney's sentiment, albeit for totally different reasons (this isn't a book review, so if you want to know Olney's reasons, you need to go buy the book - or read a book review).

The D'backs got to Mariano Rivera that night, at a time when Rivera would be, at least theoretically, his most frightening; to face Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning, in the seventh game of the World Series, is like going to a hypnotist appointment and seeing Freddy Kruger sitting there waiting for you.

Well, they beat him, anyway, and while it wasn't the first time Rivera had blown a save in the postseason, it was the first time since 1997, when the Joe Torre Yanks had won only one World Series title and before Rivera had become "Sandman."

As it turns out, the Yankees haven't come that close to winning a World Series since. The loss was symbolic. Of what? Nothing concrete. Rivera didn't fall off the face of the earth after that, obviously; instead, he has gone on to further cement himself as the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball.

But the point is that something unusual happened that night, and ever since then, nothing has really gone the Yankees' way.

Well, in 2006, the Pats lost the AFC Championship Game to a player and a team that they had previously tormented in the playoffs, Peyton Manning and the Colts, after blowing a 21-3 lead. This was unusual. This was not supposed to happen.

Then, last year, after starting the season 18-0, standing on the doorstep of ultimate immortality, they lost again, this time to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

And now, after the falling of this most recent domino, I feel that the "Olney Theory" must now be considered in the case of these Patriots.

Because sometimes in sports, you lose a game and it's more than just a loss. It can never be proven that the Yankees dynasty ended that night, or that the Patriots dynasty ended the night that they lost that game to the Colts (if that proves to be true).

But if you give weight to this kind of symbolism, you have to give it contemplation. And I am giving it serious thought. I think there is a very good chance that the Patriots dynasty has been over for two years, and most people just don't realize it yet. Brady will have surgery and then rehab, and when he comes back, he will still be Tom Brady, or something like it. He threw 50 touchdowns last year, versus only 8 interceptions, on a team that went 16-0 during the regular season. Think about that for a second. He has three Super Bowl rings, and two Super Bowl MVP's. The man is an athletic God, so even if when he returns he's not quite as good as he was before, he'll still be better than everybody else.

And once Brady does return, the Patriots will likely compete at a very high level, like they always do.

But be the team that lifts the Lombardi? Something tells me those days are already done.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The 25 Best Players in the NBA Today

Well, the NBA season's been over for about two-and-a-half months, but we're still about a month away from the start of training camp for '08-09 - let's make a list! Just seemed like the right thing to do. Obviously, these things are never easy, and they're far from definitive - I realized even before I was done that I had probably already made some mistakes, that there were going to be some rankings I myself would regret, some guys I left off that I would wish I had put on...and accepted it. I wasn't going to torture myself. Overall, though, I think it's a very solid list - you (or I, tomorrow or a week from now or a month from now) may look at it and think, "This guy should be ahead of that guy," or "That guy should be ahead of this guy," or "Where is this guy?," or whatever. But I believe I have everybody in the very close proximity of where they belong; I'm not way off with any player. Anyway, enjoy. And obviously, argue amongst yourselves and talk about how stupid I am.

P.S. I had already started the rough draft for my list before SLAMonline kicked off their Top 50 with Kevin Durant. So whatever mean names you call me, please don't call me a jocker. You can call me anything except a jocker (and late for dinner).

P.S.S If this list feels only half-done, I'm sorry. But I couldn't find the inspiration to make a Top 50 all by myself. I guess I'm not made of the same stuff Stan McNeal is.

1. Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers - Even after a disappointing showing in the Finals, Mamba still stands as the most complete basketball player in the world. Flawless fundamentals, historic scoring ability, best all-around perimeter defender since Scottie F. Pippen. He's the best. Although...

2. LeBron James, F, Cavaliers - ...this guy is gaining fast, and it's only a matter of time before he takes the no. 1 spot. His progress feels inevitable, but it's still fun to watch. There's never been another like LeBron: at 6-9 and 260 pounds (from his own mouth) of chiseled bulk, LeBron is like a brawnier, faster, more agile version of the '96 Shawn Kemp - only if Kemp was a perimeter player who ran the offense from the top and seamlessly balanced scoring and passing. LeBron is able to simultaneously assume the roles of scorer and facilitator: he's constantly looking for his teammates and keeping them involved, while still putting up 30 a game. He's also a rapidly improving defender who plays with a nightly (quiet) competitiveness and intensity equaled by few in the game. And no one - NO ONE - has ever done more with such a mediocre team. His unselfish style of play lifts the performances of his very below-average teammates, and has allowed Cleveland to compete neck-and-neck with the far more talented powerhouses of the Eastern Conference the past three seasons (they went to Game 7 against a 64-win Detroit team in 2006, beat them in 2007 to make the Finals, and then went to another Game 7 against 66-win eventual champion Boston this season).

By simply adding good-but-not-great point guard Mo Williams this offseason, the Cavs should now be considered the favorites to win the East again next year - and as a Lakers fan, I want no part of LeBron James in a seven-game series. You could even say I rue the day.

He turns 24 on the last day of the year.

3. Chris Paul, G, Hornets - One of the things that amazes me so much about the great young players in the NBA is just how good they are at such young ages. They're not just great players, they are superstars, amongst the best in the game with very little experience. Take Paul, for example. He was 22 for the entire '07-08 regular season. Yet he was so in control of the game at all times, so thoroughly dominant - other than throw Deron Williams and that boulder-sized chip that sits on his shoulder (from being unfairly cast in Paul's shadow) on him, what can you do to slow down Chris Paul? Nothing, right? He does whatever he wants to do. He's not perfect, get the point.

4. Tim Duncan, F/C, Spurs - For no athlete is immune to Father Time, even the great Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental showed signs of definite slippage in the playoffs last year. Against the Hornets in the second round, Duncan had significant trouble with the long arms and athleticism of Tyson Chandler(a good but not great defender who probably would've been no trouble to Duncan four years ago). Timmy can't get the same seperation on his faceup drives anymore - I seemed to notice him shooting more and more of those awkward, one-legged fallaways against Chandler in that series. Sure, Duncan will still have his way with big men who can't defend (like Pau Gasol in the following series against the Lakers) or guys who don't have the physical tools to make him take difficult shots, but guys like Chandler will likely give him trouble from here on out.

With that being said, of course, Duncan is still an exceptionally smart player, a great defender and passer with stellar court awareness on both ends of the floor, not to mention the man with the deepest array of low-post moves in the game. So he's still a top-5 player. For now.

5. Kevin Garnett, F, Celtics - Kevin won his first championship last year, and while as a Los Angelino I was very disappointed that my team lost, I still felt happy for him. By all accounts, Kevin Garnett is a good man - loyal, hardworking, and as real as they come. We need more athletes like him.

On the court, Garnett has never been a truly dominant scorer - he simply lacks the proper mindset and will to take over games. But he is still skilled at putting the ball in the basket - he has range out to twenty feet and has a deadly turnaround jump shot along the baseline that is one of the game's signature moves. His rebounding slipped last year - from 13 boards per 40 minutes in '06-07 to about 11 last year - but he is still very strong in that area. He is also the very best defensive player in the league, and one of the best passing big men ever. At 32 he's no longer the freakish athlete he once was, but his smarts and experience more than make up for it.

6. Dwight Howard, C, Magic - The best rebounder in the league topped 20 points a game for the first time last year. He is also an emerging defensive force - he averaged more than two blocks last year, and with his ridiculous leaping ability there is no shot he cannot get to. Howard is an amazingly athletic big man with a body made for basketball - he's like a more powerful David Robinson. And as good as he is, at 22, he will only get better.

7. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Mavericks - Dirk played more like Dirk after the new year, and was the only Maverick who showed up in Dallas' first round series loss to the Hornets. He's back. Perhaps the most unique 7-0 in league history (think about it), Dirk is the best shooting big man ever. He doesn't rebound enough and is only an average (at best) defender, but he has become a pretty decent passer in addition to his special scoring ability. His hair is long again, and I look forward to a career year from the 30-year old Nowitzki next year.

8. Deron Williams, G, Jazz - Surely some of you will argue that No. 8 is too high for D-Will - not surprisingly, as Williams is the most underrated player in the league. Big and burly with an improving outside shot (39.5 percent from three last year) and splendid passing skills, Williams is the pure point guards pure point guard: he thinks pass first, but he also knows when to take over the game. 19 points and 11 assists per on 51 percent shooting last year. CP3 is better overall, but not by very much.

9. Steve Nash, G, Suns - He turns 35 next year, but last we checked, he was still Steve Nash: 17 points and 11 assists on 50, 47, and 91 percent last year.

10. Amare Stoudemire, F/C, Suns - Sure, he's one dimensional - he doesn't rebound enough, doesn't play defense, doesn't pass. But when your one dimension (scoring) is so good that it makes you the most unstoppable big man in the game,'re one of the 10 best players in the league.

11. Dwyane Wade, G, Heat - You don't know how hard it was for me to leave him out of the top 10. But he's missed 31 games in each of the last two seasons. Fair or not, I put him here because of how good he is when he's healthy (top-3). And consider his performance in Beijing a warning to the NBA.

12. Carmelo Anthony, F, Nuggets - The second best pure scorer in the league behind Bean - just a natural at putting the ball in the hoop. Inside and outside, facing up and back-to-the-basket, quick and strong - once he starts hitting threes consistently, I don't know what's going to happen. Also averaged a career 7.4 boards a game last year, and he's made strides as a passer. The second most underrated player in the league. He's 24.

13. Paul Pierce, G/F, Celtics - You never know how good a player is until you get to watch him night in, night out in a seven-game series. And after watching Pierce slice up the the Lakers in the Finals, let me tell ya, I had no idea Paul Pierce was that good. Great defender, very good ballhandler and passer - did you know Paul Pierce had that kind of floor game - great scorer. I love Pierce's game offensively - unlike McGrady and Kobe, who are totally fluid and skilled and make it look like basketball just comes natural to them, Pierce is kind of rough around the edges. He kinda stumbles around sometimes, he doesn't have the easiest handle, he's a good but not great athlete, etc. But it's the untidiness of his game, the fact that it doesn't look pretty or effortless, that makes it so beautiful to me.

Did that last paragraph sound simpish?

14. Tracy McGrady, G/F, Rockets - Now 29, he's not as good as he was at 23 (when he peaked as a player) - chronic back problems have relegated him to mostly jump shots (hence the low shooting percentages) and caused a dip in his rebounding numbers. But he's a smart player, an exceptional passer, and when he's feeling it he's as unstoppable as ever. Also a great teammate.

15. Chris Bosh, F/C, Raptors - I almost put him in the top 10 because of his comedic exploits, before coming to my senses. Bosh is big, skilled, and athletic, but he has to start blocking more shots, and statistically, he hasn't gotten any better in three years.

16. Gilbert Arenas, G, Wizards - Top 10 when healthy, I guess - but even when healthy, he's madly inconsistent. Also needs to move to the two, like A.I. did under Larry Brown years back.

17. Yao Ming, C, Rockets - I would never bet on him staying healthy for a full season. He's too big. But when healthy, he's the best big man ever over 7-2.

18. Carlos Boozer, F, Jazz - A walking, breathing 20 and 10 - not much else, but still, a walking, breathing, 20 and 10.

19. Allen Iverson, G, Nuggets - The NBA's biggest anamoly: 26 points, 7 assists, 46 percent from the field, 2 steals a game last year on a 50-win team - at 32. To put that in perspective, Isiah Thomas retired at 32. Then again, doesn't he seem almost irrelevant now.

20. Baron Davis, G, Clippers - Reached his full potential under Nellie. Now to see what he'll do back in a more traditional offense.

21. Manu Ginobili, G, Spurs - When you consider how good he really is, how much of an impact he has on a game, and how important he has been to such a successful team - I'll just come on out and say it: Emanuel David Ginobili is the best sixth man EVER.

Well, other than Havlicek.

22. Tony Parker, G, Spurs - He's not a good defensive player and he 's not really a pure point, but he can get wherever he wants to get on the court at any time, he's the perfect pick-and-roll point guard (one of the main strengths of the team over the years when you consider that Duncan is the perfect pick-and-roll big man), and he's been the starting point guard on three championship teams in the last six years. He runs his damn team, and he runs it well.

23. Pau Gasol, F/C, Lakers - As frustrating as he can be at times (like, the Finals for example), he saved the Lakers season, and other than Duncan, no 7-0 brings more to the table offensively. Big, long, skilled, and smart - if only he didn't let people push him around and could hold on to the ball. Keep your position and hold on to the damn ball, Pau!

24. Ron Artest, F, Rockets - One of the best end-to-end players in the game. Just a beast. Only problem is that he tends to think he's The Man, when really, he's a world-class supporting player. Don't try to carry the offense in Houston, Ron. Just play your part; your team has a chance to be downright scary.

25. Caron Butler, F, Wizards - The poor man's Pierce.