Saturday, January 31, 2009

Warriors Best of NBA's Worst

Friday night on ESPN, you may have witnessed the Golden State Warriors, with a record of a mere 14 wins versus 32 losses, beat the Hornets, 28 and 14 and one of the best teams in the Western Conference, in New Orleans. This may have seemed like a freak occurrence, but in actuality, it was not.

The recent return of guard Monta Ellis to the G-State lineup has spurred the Warriors to action; while he hasn't played particularly well, his very presence on the court and in uniform seems to have galvanized the team. You can see it in their play. Hey, their best player is back.

If it hadn't been for Bronzino doing his best Black Cat impersonation against them at the Oracle last Saturday, they would have succeeded in shooting down arguably the best team in basketball. And now let's take a look at this squad: there's Monta, there's Crawford, there's Jack, there's Maggette, there's Auzubike. All of these guys can score, meaning they will only naturally thrive playing Nellieball (as anyone reasonable gifted offensive player would).

Right now, they are the best of the NBA's bad teams. And assuming they don't trade Jack (and they may or may not), going forward, they're going to win some basketball games. They'll beat up on most of the really terrible teams, and every now and then they'll sneak up and take out one of the contenders.

So, in what has been a very difficult season to be a Warriors fan, at least they have a solid second half of the season to look forward to, as their team pulls off some upsets and potentially plays spoiler in April. It's not like I think they could beat any really good team in a seven-game series, but the point is, on any given night, the Warriors are good enough that they could defeat anybody and it shouldn't be that shocking.

Better than being a Wizards fan.

A brief glimpse at the outlook of some other poor teams:

Sacramento (10-38): At least they have Jason Thompson, the rookie steal who for some reason reminds me of a taller Shareef Abdur-Rahim. This probably means that the Kings won't win many games during the Jason Thompson Era, but at least they made a good draft pick.

L.A. Clippers (10-37): Love Eric Gordon. Great shooter, and he can absolutely play the two because despite being 6-3, he's strong as hell and a really good athlete. Even better, he's competitive as hell - you can tell that he hates losing. He wears it on his face and you can see it in his body language.

Memphis (11-35): Well, I'm a strong advocate of O.J. Mayo, whom I think is a future franchise guy, but he seems to have marginalized Rudy Gay a bit (hasn't gotten any better this year). I like Marc Gasol, a beefier, more physical, less skilled version of his brother, Pau. And I think it's good that new head coach Lionel Hollins has made Mike Conley the starter at the point - I still think he's going to be very good, he's just one of those one's that has a longer learning curve. Not everyone is Derrick Rose.

Minnesota (16-29): I love Big Al, but he's not a center - Andrew Bynum dominated him on both ends Friday night when they were both in the game. It's not Al's fault; he's only 6-9. Bynum is 7-1. Problem is, Love isn't any taller than Jefferson, meaning they're going to be playing two power forwards and will always be undersized against teams with true centers. Love will rebound with anybody, but he's not guarding any five's.

And Roy for Foye is beginning to look like the underrated one-sided draft day trade of the past 15 years. Plus, Brewer is hurt and was looking like a bust last year.

At least they've finally found a good coach.

Oklahoma City (11-36): Durant is a STAR, but he doesn't make his team any better. I don't want to hear that he's only 20, or that he was only 19 as a rookie. LeBron and Carmelo came into the league under similar circumstances - teenaged saviors of horrifically bad teams - and both of them made their teams better immediately, and kept them that way. Durant is an awesome talent, but he needs to help his team win more games.

Other than that, I must say that I absolutely love Russell Westbrook. I don't even know who he reminds me of. The guy he's most compared to is Monta Ellis, but Westbrook is stronger, better defensively, and more of a true point. The guy's a future All-Star, he's made a believer out of me.

Washington (10-37): Put it this way: Even if Agent Zero were playing, they'd still suck. Totally screwed up.

And now I gotta thank God that it looks like Andrew Bynum is going to be okay.

Enjoy the Super Bowl. I got 'Zona. Feels like destiny.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

You're An All-Star In My Book, Baby!

I like for all of my articles to have a good opening paragraph. This particular column will not feature one. A single man's take on the reserves for the 2009 NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix, announced Thursday on TNT:

Western Conference

F Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs - An easy selection: 26 points and 8 boards nightly, on 47/37/92 shooting percentages.

F Pau Gasol, Lakers - The NBA's latest, greatest super supporting player - he's like James Worthy, only 7-0 and Spanish with a scraggly beard. Oh, and somebody needs to send him some goggles and a knee pad, pronto. Consistent as all hell, Gasol gives you an 17 and 9 with 3 assists on 55 percent from the floor.

G Tony Parker, Spurs - Maybe a bit underrated at this point.

G Brandon Roy, Blazers - Joe Johnson West, with a surprisingly blistering first step.

C Shaquille O'Neal, Suns - He's found that fountain - he hasn't been this good since Miami won the whole damn 'chip. Who was expecting an 18 and 9 from Shaq this year? Even been logging about 34 minutes per for the past month and a half.

G Chauncey Billups, Nuggets - The man can run a basketball team. With Billups and Mike Bibby around, Sam Cassell's "steady, stabilizing veteran point guard" is in good hands.

F David West, Hornets - Now it gets tricky.

When it was announced that the "19-foot Assassin" would be making his second consecutive appearance (and he was the last Western player to be revealed), I immediately said "I know I can find some forward that's more deserving than David West." Turns out I could only come up with one forward - Big Al Jefferson, the league's most gifted young low post scorer, currently throwing up a 23-11 on a 16-28 Minny squadron.

As I wrote earlier this week, I don't have a problem with a couple of guys from bad teams playing in the All-Star Game. And that's especially the case if there's a spot that's clearly wide open.

I think this was one of those cases. The other six reserve picks were no-brainers; so I felt that the last one was a toss-up between Jefferson (who's probably a better player than West), and if not him than Deron Williams, if only because Williams is so underrated it's frustrating and he should have made it to the team the past two seasons but didn't. You have to admit, it's pretty ridiculous that Deron Williams has never been an All-Star before. Everyone agrees that he's the second best point guard in the world, but he still doesn't get nearly the recognition he deserves. It's confusing.

Now if you'll allow me a second...

I don't really know how to explain this, but the Shaq, Kobe, Phil reunion that is now officially going to be taking place next month is going to make for the most awkward and disappointing and slightly depressing moments of my career as a sports fan.

What am I to do if Kobe happens to feed Shaq on one of their patented "wrap-around-the-defender's-back-drop-off-and-jam" hookups?

Or if they relive "the Shaq!" which Bob Costas immortalized during Game 7 of the 2000 Western Finals against Portland?

Or if the three conspire to win the game at the end?

They clearly had unfinished business. This is an unfitting end. I am not looking forward to this.

Eastern Conference

F Paul Pierce, Celtics - Easy choice - 19 points, 6 boards, 4 assists, strong D - he's the second best small forward in the NBA. One of my favorite players in the league.

"C" Chris Bosh, Raptors - Because there was no East center that really and truly deserved this spot, I guess the coaches decided that they would just vote Bosh in as a center, even though he's not. I guess it was the best thing to do, though it does smell a little like a cop out.

Make no mistake; Bosh deserves to make the team. I think some players deserve to make the roster as long as they're healthy, and Bosh has reached that point, in my book.

David Lee is probably having the best year of all East centers - 16 points and 12 boards nightly, on 57 percent from the field. Ilgauskus has been hurt, and Lee has been simply been better than Okafor and Bogut. He's also on a 20-25 team, and the East squad already has three members on teams under .500 - which matters to me, but not the coaches, apparently.

But I like to go with a "feel" test in a situation like this - I don't like to give guys their first All-Star berth for their first arguable All-Star season, unless it's inherently obvious that they are All-Stars. Does David Lee feel like an All-Star to you? Me, neither.

G Joe Johnson, Hawks - Great player, definite All-Star...but blah.

Devin Harris, Nets - He's cooled off since a scorching start. He's been awarded an All-Star berth for the scorching start.

G Jameer Nelson, Magic - We'll get back to him.

F Danny Granger, Pacers - Love this guy. Keeps getting better. Definitely one of the five best small forwards in the league, and of all the guys on poor teams that garnered All-Star consideration, he was the most worthy.

F Rashard Lewis, Magic - We'll get to him right now.

First of all, Mo Williams has got to be an All-Star. Orlando has three All-Stars, Boston has two All-Stars, Cleveland Jameer Nelson does more for the Magic than Williams does for the Cavs? Other than LeBron taking a step forward and establishing himself as the best player since MJ, Mo Williams has been the ultimate reason Cleveland has gone from a one-man team that could beat anybody in a seven-game series because of that one man, to a true team that could potentially win 65 games.

I actually think Jameer should be in - he's been more important to Orlando's rise to prominence than Rashard, who, no disrespect meant at all, I would have left out in favor of Mo.

But that's just me.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Few Things On My Mind

After more than three weeks off, I'm back (not that you ever noticed I was gone). A few rather unconnected (except no.'s 1 and 6) NBA topics that have caught hold of my brain, but I couldn't concoct single articles out of.

1. Kevin Durant's Meaningless Brilliance

The aspect of Durant's game that, while a focus point of praise for him since his days at Texas I still feel is somewhat underrated, is his unbelievable versatility. At UT, Durant got his points pretty much the same way he does now - skilled attacking from the perimeter, with a smooth jump shot. But aside from that, there has been very little carry over. In college, Durant jumped the opening tip and played near the basket on defense, blocked nearly two shots per game, and controlled the defensive glass (11 boards per; he also averaged nearly two steals). He didn't have much ballhandling responsibility, and didn't even bother passing the ball. I'm not saying he was selfish; he was just performing his role, and passing the ball was not one of his responsibilities.

That's why last year, while watching him in an early season tilt against the Clips in LA, when P.J. Carlisemo had him manning the two-spot, I was startled by his very legitimate guard skills: there was one play where he casually dribbled the ball upcourt and initiated the offense, and it didn't seem unnatural at all. And he proved to be a pretty decent passer, and of course he guarded other shooting guards - I'm not saying he did a good job, but all that matters is that he did it. So although as a whole I would say that his rookie year was underwhelming (he didn't have a game with double-digit rebounds once all of last season), it was still inherently amazing to me.

This year he's only gotten better - late last season he cut back on his three-point attempts, which has continued into this year, only he's shooting them much more efficiently. And P.J.'s ousting and his subsequent move to the froncourt has boosted his rebounding.

But here's the point: How many guys do you know that could go from playing what basically equated to some kind of virtuoso center in college (like Dirk on the 2004 Mavs) to a full-time two/three in the pros? How many? Seriously?

Of course, he doesn't make his team any better, so he's still kind of overrated. Yet highly impressive at the same time.

2. Mayo v. Love

You know who O.J. Mayo reminds me of? A miniature version of the neophyte Kobe Bryant. No. 1, he's fearless. No. 2, he's a ballhog. No. 3, he's a fierce competitor. And No. 4, he's obsessed with the game of basketball. Like Mamba, his entire life revolved around one day making it to this point, where he would make it to the NBA and be a superstar at the highest level of hoop. Like Young Kobe, Mayo has, ostensibly, a single-minded approach to the game right now - he's still in that phase where his main objective is becoming the best basketball player he can become, and that does come at the expense of his teammates. But he'll continue to get better and mature, just like Kobe did - and the kid's got superstar written all over him.

His quick jump out the gate has cast a negative shadow over Kevin Durant, the man for whom he was traded for on draft night. Pundits see Love as paling in comparison, and he has fallen under some scrutiny.

But while Love may never develop into a franchise player, like Mayo seems destined to become, we must also realize that this isn't the second coming of Roy for Foye. Love is an extremely gifted rebounder (8.3 per in only 22.7 minutes a night through Saturday), and once he improves the other parts of his game and starts playing more minutes and becomes more experienced, he will average an easy double-double for the next 15 years - I'm talking something like 15 and 13 - and he's going to help a good team win basketball games one day.

I'd take Kevin Love and his future any day of the week.

3. LeBron v. Kobe

Has LeBron James surpassed Kobe Bryant for title of Best Basketball Player in the World? In a word, yes, and I'm from Los Angeles. LeBron has added some Kobe to his game this year - he's diversified his offensive portfolio, implementing an improved mid-range jump shot and some pretty slick one-on-one moves to the greatest power game any wing player has ever had. And he's become an absolutely devastating man defender, having on several occasions already this season taken elite opposing small forwards completely out of the game offensively.

To wit:

12/5 v. Indiana: Granger 2/7 FG, 4 Pts
12/19 v. Denver: Melo 5/14 FG, 13 Pts
1/09 v. Boston: Pierce 4/15 FG, 11 Pts
1/13 v. Memphis: Gay 5/18 FG, 10 Pts

Put more simply, Kobe Bryant has never dominated basketball games on both ends of the court, for 48 minutes, on a consistent basis, like LeBron is doing this season.

Of course, this is no knock on Mamba. We all knew that LeBron would one day catch and then pass Kobe as the game's top player. It was inevitable. But Kobe is more dangerous than ever. He doesn't have the same bounce he once had, but he's crafty as hell and I think he's the second best shooter in the game, behind Dirk. What other NBA player is better shooting from all over the floor, with a hand in their face? Think about it for a second. No one. And as the great Mark Heisler once noted, there's nothing more important in basketball than the ability to shoot. When MJ came back for the first time, no longer an acrobat at 32, he was, as Heisler called it, a "Larry Bird-level shotmaker," which made him better than ever. Think of Kobe the same way.

Furthermore, the man is so lethal at the end of games that it's almost spooky, even scarier than it was before. We're lucky he always wanted to play basketball; if he weren't in the NBA, his famed "killer's instinct" might be manifesting itself in the form of actual murder. By far, he's still the guy you'd want at the end of a game.

4. Pau Gasol

I've been thinking about this one.

Doug Collins wondered during TNT's MLK day broadcast of the Lakers and Cavs, "Is there a more skilled big man than Pau Gasol?" Immediately, I considered Duncan, whom I think is better with his back to the basket because he's stronger and can always get the position he wants. Gasol can't; he's not strong enough or physical enough. But then again, you could make the argument that that has nothing to do with skill.

And so Gasol may be the game's most skilled big. He's an almost automatic mid-range and faceup jump shooter - even better than TD, believe it or not. And he's just got a ton of finesse moves: a spin move, hook shots, short turnarounds, fakes, you name it. He can finish around the hoop with either hand and is one hell of a passer. So, yeah. Pau Gasol. Might be the game's most skilled big.

5. Greg Oden

Not to infringe on Simmons' territory here, but I watched the 2007 NCAA Championship game with my dad, and we both marveled at Mr. Oden's body and athleticism, which reminded both of us of a young David Robinson. He shredded Florida's big man threesome of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Chris Richard (about as mighty a trio of college big men as you'll see on one team) to the tune of 25 points and 12 rebounds in a truly awesome performance (even though they lost). That night, I became convinced that Oden was the next great NBA center.

But then he hurt his knee, and not only has it created serious doubts that he'll ever stay healthy as a pro, but, at least so far, it seems to have robbed him of the explosiveness that once made him such a freak of nature (which microfracture surgery is known to do, of course). Dude's a monster - a legit 7-1 (I'm not sure if he's grown any since college, but it looks like he has), and he's bulked up since his one season at OSU: he was ripped as a Buckeye, now he's just big. So he's still a man amongst boys around the basket. But I've yet to see any flashes of a young D-Rob from him this season; he just doesn't have the same turbulence . Maybe it's gone for good, maybe he'll get some of it back, like Amare has. Suffice it to say I'm disappointed by the whole ordeal.

Furthermore, he can't stay on the court even when he's able - he's always in foul trouble. He and Andrew Bynum have a lot in common. I know he's only a rookie and I know he hadn't played organized ball in a year, but even with that being said, is it too much to expect a 15-9-2 from a guy who was compared to Bill Russell, no excuses and no questions asked?

He's averaging 14.9 points and 11.2 rebounds in games that he played more than 30 minutes, so we know he can play, but he's only played in nine such games out of 37. He's got to do better. 9 points and 7 rebounds a game is not cutting it.

I know the previous four paragraphs have been rather negative, but I sincerely hope, I sincerely want for this guy to pan out. I know it's unrealistic, but I want every NBA player to realize his potential, especially one that once looked the future centerpiece of five NBA championship teams.

6. How much should winning matter when you're determining All-Stars?

Inspired by this past Thursday's edition of the NBA on TNT (featuring an Emmy-worthy guest appearing from "The Glove" himself, Gary Payton). So, just how much should team success factor into this individual honor? Personally, I think to try and argue that record is irrelevant in the matter is absurd. It's okay to have a couple guys from poor teams fill out the All-Star rosters, but there should never be more than a couple, and they should never start.

For example, GP thinks Al Jefferson should start at forward for the West (over Tim Duncan, for the love of God). One huge problem here: even after winning nine of their last eleven, Big Al's T'Wolves are still only 15-27. If Jefferson were really the kind of guy that should be starting in the All-Star game, would his team be 15-27? Of course not. Remember KG in Minny, T-Mac in Orlando, and AI in Philly? All of those guys took below average teams and, by virtue of their skill and will, made them at least average. And in the years that those players were on teams that were well below .500 at the break (like McGrady in 2004), guess what? They didn't deserve to start. Period.

So sorry Big Al, sorry Danny Granger, sorry Chris Bosh (having something of a fluke year because he's a franchise player), and last but definitely not least, sorry GP. I never meant to hurt you.