Tuesday, November 18, 2008

It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time...

That the Dallas Mavericks will come to regret trading Devin Harris and a pair of 1st round picks (2008 & 2010) to the New Jersey Nets in exchange for Jason Kidd is a given, but consider the following for some added perspective:
  • Kidd has produced pretty similar rebound and assist numbers in Dallas’ 3 wins (7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 8.7 apg), and their 7 losses (11.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 8 apg), but did you know that he’s shot less than 40% (8-27 total) in each of the Mavs’ wins, and at least 50% in each of their losses? I have no idea what to do with that information, but I though it was interesting.
  • New Jersey is 4-2 and averaging 102 points per game with Devin Harris in the lineup, and 0-3, averaging 87 a night without him. In the team’s four wins, Harris is averaging 28.5 ppg and 13.5 FTA/g (88.6% FT% this season); those numbers jump to 33.7 ppg and in the 17.3 FTA/g (45-for-50) in Harris’ last three games, all Nets victories.
  • By trading Harris for Kidd, the Mavs thought they were acquiring a superstar point guard to help them make one more run at the title they fumbled away in 2006, and to then provide over $20 million worth of cap relief after this season. Instead, they are looking more and more like a lottery team (without a first-rounder in 2008 or 2010), have alienated one of their veteran leaders (Jerry Stackhouse) and have an owner who’s been indicted by the Feds, none of which are likely to work in their favor when Dirk Nowitzki opts out following the 2009-10 season.
  • Sadly, the Mavs may not even be able to enjoy the cap space freed up by J-Kidd’s expiring contract. Mark Cuban’s indictment promises to be a pretty big distraction for some time- not an attractive selling point for top-flight free-agents. Plus, if this thing leads to an actual trial, and the Feds don’t like to indict people without some sort of a case, you can bet the David Stern and the NBA’s old-guard will demand that Cuban sell the Mavericks. Given the current economic climate, not only would Cuban be forced to accept a fire-sale price for the team, but the lack of available credit will dramatically hurt any potential buyer, unless they are EXTREMELY well-funded.

This really is turning into a catastrophic situation. From a basketball perspective, the Mavs overestimated their contender status, and miscalculated the impact of Jason Kidd- leaving them a worse team in search of a player just like the one they traded away, with two fewer draft picks to use to get him. This season, they were looking like a team in decline, but with a passionate owner with very deep pockets who would make every effort to return them to the top of the league within a few seasons. Mark Cuban’s legal problems, combined with the current economic crisis, have the potential to destroy the Dallas Mavericks, sending this team to bottom of the NBA for a decade or more.

The Truth Takes "The Leap"

Man, being an NBA champion and finals hero sure does seem to agree with Paul Pierce.

Until this past June, Pierce had been a very good NBA player for a decade- a top 30 guy every year, but never a superstar. He was one of the better players of his era, but by no means a Hall-of-Famer. But then, a funny thing happened to Paul Pierce on his way to being a really good player- he made “the leap”.

This is by no means intended to insinuate that Pierce was not a good player prior to last June- far from it. At more than 23 points and 6 rebounds a night, not to mention numerous clutch performances over his decade-long career, Pierce had definitely shown that he had top-shelf talent. He was poised to be the best Celtic of the post-Larry Bird era. But somewhere between June and November 2008, Paul Pierce became “special”.

I also want to avoid suggesting that winning the NBA championship somehow facilitated Pierce “leap”. The ring completed his resume and may have stamped his ticket to the Hall, but it was the way that Pierce played in the Finals, and the new swagger he’s brought to the 2008-09 season that’s made the loudest statement. It’s not that he helped lead the Boston Celtics to title in June, it’s that he was the toughest and most clutch player on the floor in the series. Kevin Garnett was expected to be the C's best player, and may have been their emotional leader, but it was Pierce whose game reached new heights; he took the title from the Lakers. As for a carryover effect? Well, Pierce may have been clutch before, but he’s become a 4th quarter force of nature! Fourth quarter scoring? Check. Buzzer beaters? You bet! (Love the scream after the shot!) But more than anything else, it that extra sprinkle of arrogance in Paul Pierce’s games that has taken him from “very good” to “great”, and made him one of the league’s must-watch stars. Pierce now carries himself like a true superstar- and deservedly so!

Looking at how Paul Pierce has elevated his game, and redefined his legacy, an interesting observation can be made- that a player with Pierce’s ability has made “the leap” is not difficult to believe- but the fact that he spent 10 years being “good”, before breaking out as "great" is particularly interesting.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lakers' "Ghost" Haunting the NBA

Almost a year ago, after tours in New York and Orlando, Trevor Ariza returned to Southern California, where he’d played his high school ball, winning a state championship, and played his lone year (2003-04) of NCAA basketball at UCLA. Ariza, a second-round pick (43rd overall) of the Knicks in 2004, spent 3+ seasons with the Knicks and Magic, playing sparingly, putting up nothing-special numbers on series of nothing-special (a generous assessment) teams. There was never any doubt about his athleticism, but not many predicted that Ariza would emerge as the second-coming of Michael Cooper.

The November 20, 2007 deal that saw the Lakers sent a package of Brian Cook, a seven-footer with a good outside shot (but not good enough to justify his lack of improvement in any other area) and another athletic defender, Maurice Evans, to the Orlando Magic, in exchange for Trevor Ariza, hardly had the look of an impact move. While the Lakers were getting younger by acquiring Ariza, then just 22 years of age, Evans (29 at the time) had been playing very well in a similar role as the team had run out to an unexpectedly strong start. Why rock the boat? As it turns out, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak (to whom I owe several apologies!), knew exactly what he was doing! Ariza was not a younger, more athletic version of Mo Evans, the departure of Cook freed up floor time, which was well-spent, as it was during these minutes that the emergence of Andrew Bynum took place.

Despite losing much of 2007-08 to a broken foot, Ariza brought a level of speed, athleticism and defensive intensity to the 2/3 position that is matched by only one other Laker- Kobe Bryant. It is exactly this that has made Trevor Ariza so valuable; while Kobe Bryant can match Ariza in terms of both physical tools and defensive prowess, he is also counted on to be the Lakers’ most dominant offensive player. Trevor Ariza makes it possible for Kobe to not have to guard the opposition’s best offensive player, protecting him from foul trouble as well as fatigue from having to play the most challenging role at both ends of the floor.

But as good an on-the-ball defender as Ariza is, it is his ability to find the ball and make plays coming off the weak side that truly set him apart. It's this talent that has led Lakers' coach Phil Jackson to call Ariza "the Ghost", saying that "Sort of a stealth player. Just all of a sudden he shows ... and he's gone. He's a blip and he's away." Not only is Ariza as good as there is in the NBA at coming from a ballhandler’s blind side (2.2 spg), he's an excellent rebounder (5.2 rpg; ~10.6 reb/48 minutes) as well. Also, he’s proven to be a solid, and ever-improving, offensive player as well, averaging 10 points a game, while shooting better than 50% from both the field (51.2%) AND 3-point range (54.5%), and not giving away possessions (.7 TO/g).

Following a trade that turned very few heads at the time, Trevor Ariza has turned out to be an outstanding find for the Lakers, contributing defensive intensity and incredible athleticism to what may already be the NBA’s deepest and best team- all while flying under the radar.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Early Thoughts On The Association

The Los Angeles Lakers are absolutely deadly. This team is a nightmare combo for the rest of the league: the best, most competitive player in the NBA, surrounded by loads of talent, a deep roster (Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar, Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic, Sasha Vujacic, Luke Walton- that’s a legitimate 10-deep rotation!), driven by the memory of last summer’s humiliation in the Finals. The Lakers are demoralizing their early-season opponents, winning by an average score of 107-84, holding opponents to just 39% from the field, and outrebounding them 51-39. To be sure, this level of devastating dominance can’t last for an entire season, but this team is on a mission. A back-to-back on the road this week (with the second game in New Orleans), followed by the Pistons at home, will definitely be a test, but it’s going to take an great effort at both eonds of the floor to beat this team right now.

More than at any point in recent memory, the NBA has a legion of genuinely clutch star-quality players. I don’t just mean buzzer-beaters, I’m talking about the guys who not only make plays with the game on the line, but completely dominate the last few minutes of a game, and make you feel safe when they the ball’s in their hands. Think about it- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Brandon Roy (more than anyone right now), Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Paul Pierce, Chauncey Billups, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Derrick Rose (believe it!)- if any one of these guys has the ball for your team in the final seconds of a close game, don’t you have to feel good? I mean, you may not win every single time, but it feels good to know that your star is not going to shrink in a clutch moment. And, man, is it ever fun to watch!

Every one of us could use some more Rudy Fernandez in our lives. If you’ve actually seen this guy play, and he’s not climbing your list of favorite players, you just might be nuts! The numbers (13.7 ppg in ~28 mpg; 46.4% FG, 42.4% 3PT, 94.1% FT) are flattering, but hardly spectacular. Fernandez is a 6’6” two-guard who can handle the ball, runs the floor and has amazing range on his jump shot. That still doesn’t do him justice! You know what make Rudy Fernandez one of the best players in the NBA to watch? He plays with balls!!! Seriously, who does THIS to Dwight Howard???

The Hawks are no fluke! Whether or not the Atlanta Hawks wind up contending for the Eastern Conference title remains to be seen, but these guys are legitimately winning games. The Hawks are holding their opponents to under 86 points a night, on just over 40% from the field and under 30% from 3-point range. Also, the Hawks are outrebounding the opposition by 3.2/night, forcing two more turnovers than they commit, and averaging 8.6 steals per game. Finally, the only member of the Hawks averaging more than 15 shot attempts a night is Joe Johnson, who is shooting 50.5% from the field (44% 3PT) and averaging over 25 ppg on just 19 field goals attempts a night. That’s winning ball! The coming weeks without Josh Smith are sure to be challenging, but the Hawks could really use it to their advantage. They’ve been spotted a 5-0 start and have an opportunity to gauge the quality of their defense, minus their top defender. Plus, if they thrive with Smith out of the lineup, the added confidence will help this team take a giant leap when they’re back at full strength.

I never thought I would say this, but it really looks like the New Jersey Nets got the better of the Draft Day trade with the Milwaukee Bucks that brought them Yi Jianlian. Yi’s numbers (9.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, just 36% FG) won't blow you away, but this guy can really play! Watching him in person on Election Night against the Phoenix Suns, there is a fluidity to his game that Yi doesn’t receive nearly enough credit for- at close to 7’, Yi is able to comfortably put the ball on the floor, can spot up on the perimeter and has a beautiful stoke on his jump shot. Seriously, this guy can play! It won’t be too long before he’s the NBA’s top Chinese-born player.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Better Late Than Never!

In the midst of my most enjoyable period of writing (not necessarily as enjoyable in other aspects), “life happens”, taking a majority of my attention and energy with it, leading to, for one reason or another, a self-imposed sabbatical from my favorite pastime. Why did I bail? I ask myself all the time. My disappearance from the amateur sportswriting scene was as inconspicuous as my entrance, but it was not the lack of a “fan base” that drove me away. Frankly, I never wanted to leave, but the longer I was away, the harder it became to return. Lack of “inspiration”? Kind of (and this gets worse with each passing day!); Intimidated by the perceived need to “make up for lost time”? For sure. Embarrassed? Maybe a bit; The reality is that I tripped over all three of these psychological stumbling blocks.

Now, the itch is back. I’ve done the introspection thing, and it’s time to come back! Seriously, many individuals I love to write about have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and fought their way back onto the floor. I may not have millions of dollars at stake, but this is what I do! This is how I love to spend my time! It’s too early to drop the MJ “I’m back” proclamation, but I’m at least back in the game! I want that feeling back! The feeling of staring at a blank sheet, and envisioning the possibilities, putting my thoughts together and making it into so much more! I have derived so much pleasure from the NBA (and the Lakers), and have devoted so much of myself to them through the years, that I would be cheating myself if I didn’t dig a little bit deeper. Sure, the timing is awkward. I would really have preferred to kick off my comeback with previews written before the season actually began, and post my idle thoughts from the first week. So that didn’t play out, but I’m here now. Following a self-imposed early-season suspension, I kick off my season. There will be rust, just as there will be moments when it’ll flow like it did at the best of times. My goal? Just like the guys on the floor, to eliminate the first, and maximize the second.

There it is! I hate writing about myself, and promise (to both you as well as myself), not to make a habit of it. You’re not here for a play-by-play of my life, and me, well, I already lived it- no sense coming back for reruns!

All right, break’s over! Time to tip this thing off…