Tuesday, December 30, 2008

LeBron's Not a Lock to Leave Cleveland

Not that anyone in New York City wants to hear this, but it’s hardly a given that LeBron James will jump on the opportunity to trade Cleveland for the Big Apple- or anywhere else for hat matter. Despite wearing a Yankees’ hat to a Cleveland Indians playoff game and his admitted love of New York City, the only basketball related statement that LeBron’s made repeatedly is that he’s looking to play for a perennial title contender, and start a collection of championship rings. And from the looks of it, he’s already there.

With the Cleveland Cavaliers sporting a 26-4 record, an unreal +12.6 average point differential (101.7 ppg, 89.1 ppg allowed), and a 16-0 home record, it’s difficult to imagine that LeBron has his eyes set on the exit. This is a sentiment that James himself expressed on December 20, while in Denver to play the Nuggets, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he’ll consider signing a contract extension with the Cavaliers this summer, thus bypassing the highly-anticipated “Summer of 2010”, and saying of the team "The direction we are headed is everything I expected and more."

What to make of this? Hard to say. Maybe he’s just posturing, but the fact that he doesn’t have a track record of being disingenuous has earned LeBron the courtesy of being taken at his word. Besides, LeBron’s not a dumb guy- he probably realizes that both on and off the court, Cleveland’s not a bad spot for him:

This team was built around him- and they’re really good! There’s currently just one NBA team built specifically to complement the talents of LeBron James- and he’s on it. This Cavs team presents LeBron with the best opportunity to compete for a championship. While other teams have been deconstructing their rosters and cutting long-term salary commitments, the Cavs have assembled a custom-built, seemingly championship caliber supporting cast for King James- a collection of team-focused guys who’ve never been “the man” in the NBA, thus avoiding any ambiguity as to whose team it is. Their only other pure scorer, Mo Williams, definitely knows his role, but isn’t afraid to look for his own shot, and seems to have earned LeBron trust to do so.

The Cavs have outstanding chemistry. Watching them interact with one another, there’s an unmistakable camaraderie among the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’ve previously observed this, particularly LeBron’s interaction with each of his teammates before taking the floor, but recently, a couple of other things jumped out at me. First, Ben Wallace, the only member of this team who’s won a ring, has a genuine respect for LeBron James, interacting with him much like he did with the title-winning crew in Detroit. This respect never emerged during his time in Chicago, but in Cleveland Wallace is back to being a monster on defense and on the glass.

Also, these guys really pull for one another. On December 28, in an already-decided game (Cleveland led Miami 91-86 with just three seconds remaining), Anderson Varejao and Wallace fought tooth-and-nail to rebound a missed free throw, which Varejao ultimately tipped in after three or four taps, extending the Cavs lead from five points to seven. As he erupted emotionally, so did LeBron, joining Varejao in celebrating a seemingly meaningless bucket in a relatively mundane win as though it was a game-winning shot. LeBron’s really enjoying himself on a great team- he’s on board with this crew.

There’s no such thing as a “small market” anymore. In the era before the Internet, 24-hour news and hundreds of cable channels, playing in a larger media market, typically New York or Los Angeles, was vital to a player establishing himself as a superstar. This is no longer the case. In the era of dedicated sports cable channels, NBA League Pass, Internet coverage and blogs, very little in sports now goes overlooked. While playing in a major market might help an otherwise good player receive additional media coverage, a superstar the likes of LeBron will thrive in any market. Being in Cleveland hasn’t hindered his career so far, right? LeBron James is a force of nature- the media will come to him.

Additionally, LeBron James’ legacy would actually be greater if he stays put. By bolting for New York, LeBron would be just the latest athlete to run to New York, a superstar city that’s always filled with superstars. And as much as he’ll be adored in New York, it’s a city that’s seen the greats come and go. However, by staying in Cleveland and guiding the Cavaliers to the top of the NBA and continuing his work in the community, LeBron would become not only the greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland, but one of the most revered figures in the city’s history.

He’s home. As we all know, LeBron is from Ohio. He grew up in Akron, about half an hour south of Cleveland. And he’s extremely proud of that. He’s said in the past that he loves Akron, and that he loves being close to family and friends. Throw in the fact that the Cavaliers can offer more him money than any other team, and relocating to NYC to play for an inferior team doesn’t seem like such a sweet proposition. Plus, if this was going to be (or is? not sure if it's been completed yet) your house, wouldn’t you want to be home more often than every offseason?

Is it possible that LeBron James will become a free agent in the summer of 2010? Absolutely. Could he elect to leave Cleveland and sign with the New York Knicks? Sure. Would this be the best move for James to make? Not neccessarily. I'm just saying, as things stand right now, it's pretty good to be King James.

Friday, December 19, 2008

This Could Be Ugly

For reasons other than the 5”-6” of snow that have pelted the New York City area today, this could be a rough night in Jersey.

Tonight, Jason Kidd will square off against the New Jersey Nets for the second time, the first in New Jersey, since being traded to the Dallas Mavericks last February. He should get a fairly warm reception from the local fans, seeing as he was the catalyst for the Nets’ rise to respectability earlier in the decade, leading the franchise to consecutive NBA Finals appearances. It might be fair to say that Jason Kidd is the greatest player in New Jersey Nets’ history.

However, that may not be the only reason J-Kidd receives a standing ovation this evening. If his arrival was a breath of fresh air for the Nets, then his departure may have been CPR. Whether Kidd really wanted to be traded or not depends on who you ask, but his outstanding play (11.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 10.4 apg) in 51 games for the Nets last season allowed the Mavs to not only justify taking on his $20+ million per year contract, but to offer up Devin Harris and 2008 & 2010 1st round draft picks for the privilege of doing so. J-Kidd, the Nets really owe you one!

About a month ago, I wrote about how the Kidd-for-Harris swap already looked like a debacle for the Mavericks and was unlikely to get much better. And that was BEFORE the Nets won five of their next seven games, with Harris dropping 30+ three times in two weeks, including his ridiculous 47-point, 7-rebound, 8-assist destruction of the Phoenix Suns! The Nets have come back to Earth in December, winning only three of eight games thus far, but at 12-12, they’ve already got as many wins as many (myself included) thought they’d have by the All-Star break- not to mention the fact that the Nets’ record would have them just one game behind Dallas.

So, as Jason Kidd makes his return to East Rutherford to take on the Nets, all eyes will be on the point guard matchup, with rising star Devin Harris, one of the NBA’s fastest players, averaging nearly 24 points (on 46.9% from the field) and more than 6 assists per game, taking on fading star J-Kidd, whose 9.3 ppg scoring average is the worst of his career and 8.2 apg top only his rookie season. To be fair, Kidd is averaging an impressive 2.4 steals this season, but it’s impossible to make a case that Harris will one of his victims. Devin Harris may, for all intents and purposes, slam the door on the Jason Kidd era tonight.

If Harris’ youth and the obvious gulf in speed and quickness weren’t enough, it’s probably safe to assume that given the opportunity to show Dallas what it’s missing, he’ll be playing with quite a large chip on shoulder tonight. Look for something in the order of 35 points and 10 assists, and maybe an extra little burst of speed, from Harris tonight.

Most Important Rookie

At the conclusion of the regular season, the NBA will hand out its Rookie of the Year award. Unlike the league’s Most Valuable Player, the award is not necessarily predicated on team success, but on a combination of outstanding statistics and the player’s impact, both on his team as well as on the league. The field for this season’s ROY award has already been narrowed dramatically- with the Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose and O.J. Mayo of the Memphis Grizzlies leading the race, and Michael Beasley of the Miami Heat also with a chance.

However, in any given year, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year is not necessarily the league’s Most Important Rookie. Very rarely does a ROY winner play for a title contender; often times, the ROY doesn’t even make the playoffs. Most important Rookie is an interesting concept to consider, as statistics, while still somewhat important, take a backseat to these criteria:

Team outlook- What is the team playing for? If even making the playoffs is a pipe dream, the significance of a rookie’s contribution is diminished, as the team would have been lottery-bound with or without him (sorry O.J.!). Any rookie making vital contributions to a playoff run earns big MIR points; big bonus for any rookie that contributes to a title contender.

Playing time- In addition to the obvious measure of average minutes per game, late-game minutes are particularly significant. It’s noteworthy any time a rookie on a quality team is trusted by his coach to be on the floor in the game’s vital moments. Production in these situations is especially key.

Significance on the depth chart- Even if a rookie earns significant minutes on a quality team, there is generally at least one veteran that can be relied upon if needed. A rookie that fills an important role for team with little or no veteran insurance behind, be it because of injury or the implicit trust of his coach, must be considered an MIR candidate.

Based on this criteria, a group of this year’s rookies must be considered for Most Important Rookie. Here is a ranking of the NBA’s top 5 Most Important Rookies, along with a pair of rookies that didn’t make the list, but are certainly deserving of honorable mentions:

Greg Oden (C, Portland Trailblazers)- He is starting for likely playoff team, but Greg Oden is still getting his NBA bearings. While he’s put up decent numbers (8 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 51% FG), he has yet to consistently avoid foul trouble and earn the big minutes that will make him an impact player. Looking at Oden’s minutes, he often not on the floor at the end of the Blazers’ games, either due to foul trouble or ineffectiveness, with Joel Przybilla usually getting the nod. Oden’s had more games in December (4) with under 20 minutes played than he has with 30+ (3). With all of that said, Oden’s already a solid big man, and he’s developing. Expect him to climb when this list is revisited later in the season.

Courtney Lee (SG, Orlando Magic)- Very quietly, the Magic have posted a 20-6 record to start the season, and find themselves just four games behind the white-hot Boston Celtics and a game-and-a-half behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Magic are two-deep at the point guard and have Superman in the middle, but have far less room for error at the “2” and “3” positions, with Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus, Keith Bogans and Lee holding down the fort. With Pietrus, Orlando’s starting SG, sidelined for the past 10 games with a thumb injury, Lee has seen his role, and his value on the depth chart, grow. In December, his minutes have nearly doubled (23.7 v. 12 in November), his scoring has quadrupled (9.6 v. 2.4), and Lee is averaging just one turnover a game, while averaging 1.4 steals (2+ in 5 of the last 9 games).

#5 Brook Lopez (C, New Jersey Nets)- On the surprising Nets, Lopez has been a very pleasant surprise. Less than two months into his pro career, Lopez has established himself as the Nets’ top big man. In 24 games, he’s averaged 9.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg (2.6 orpg) and 1.9 bpg, in 27.3 minutes; those numbers climb to 12 ppg, 8.5 rpg (3.3 orpg) and 2.3 bpg in 31 minutes in the 16 games he's started. The Nets do have a couple of other options at the center position (Josh Boone, Sean Wlliams), but neither has been nearly as effective as Lopez. If the Nets, who at 12-12 are tied with Miami for #6 in the Eastern Conference, can keep up this level of play, Lopez will have the chance to play a big role in a playoff race, which would bump him up on this list.

#4 Rudy Fernandez (SG, Portland Trailblazers)- Fernandez is not only one of the NBA’s most popular rookies, he’s been the offensive spark for the Blazers’ second unit all season, and is the only true backup to Brandon Roy. Rudy has scored in double figures in 18 of Portland’s 27 games, and is averaging 10.9 ppg on just 8.2 field goal attempts a night, thanks large part to making 40.1% of his 3-pointers and 93% of his free throws. Fernandez promises to be a consistent double-digit scorer all season, and is also capable of putting up 25-30 points on any given night. With the Trailblazers likely to be fighting for a division title and a top-3 seed in West, Rudy will be asked to play a big role.

#3 Mario Chalmers (PG, Miami Heat)- Chalmers has been Miami’s starting point guard, playing alongside Dwyane Wade, from Day 1, and has yet to play fewer than 24 minutes in a pro game. In 24 NBA games, Chalmers is averaging 10.1 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2 spg (44.4% FG; 37.4% 3-pt) for the Heat, who at 12-12 are currently tied New Jersey for #6 in the East and figure to contend for a playoff spot at season’s end. As he gets more NBA reps, Chalmers should develop into an excellent lead guard- he’s already well on his way. A durable, experienced PG, with a championship track record in college- on a better team, Chalmers would easily be #2, and receive strong consideration for #1.

#2 George Hill (PG, San Antonio Spurs)- Simply put, Hill is San Antonio’s best option at the point behind Tony Parker, and he’s already shown what he can do. Hill was called into action in just his fifth pro game, when Tony Parker was injured in Miami. Hill had only seen the floor in two of his first four games, for 26 total minutes. Hill stepped up big over the next 12 games, averaging 26 minutes, 11.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.5 apg and just 1.4 TO/g, as the Spurs won eight of twelve to close out the month of November, with Tim Duncan the only healthy member of their “Big Three”. In the Spurs’ 15 victories, Hill has averaged 10.9 ppg (v. 6.6 in losses), 3.8 rpg (v. 1.6), 3.7 apg (v. 1.4) and just 1.1 TO/g. As one might predict, with Parker back healthy, Hill’s numbers have dropped off, but he’s only an injury away from being called back into action.

#1 Derrick Rose (PG, Chicago Bulls)- Not only is Derrick Rose the Bulls’ best rookie, he is the best player, period. Frankly, Rose, who’s started every game for Chicago this season, doesn’t really seem like a rookie. Rose has the Chris Paul-like quality of being able to play the game at a speed that no one can match, but doing so with control. Rose’s stats aren’t too shabby either- he’s averaging 17.6 ppg (4.8 in the 4th quarter), 3.8 rpg and 6.4 apg in nearly 40 minutes a night! In the Bulls’ 12 victories, Rose’s numbers have been even better, as he’s averaged 19.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 7 apg, 1.5 spg and just 2 TO/g, shot better than 51% from the field. With the Bulls (12-13) currently #8, a logjam forming for the final three playoff spots in the East, and the injury to Kirk Hinrich, the point guard position, and the fate of his team’s season, will depend entirely on Rose.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Huge Win for the Hornets

In a playoff rematch last night in New Orleans, the Hornets knocked off the Spurs, behind an impressive fourth quarter comeback fueled by Chris Paul, David West and James Posey. Though their 14-7 start should hardly have been cause for concern, massive preseason expectations had created a somewhat nervous atmosphere for New Orleans Hornets. This is a win that could breathe fresh life into the Hornets’ season, as they were playing the back-at-full-strength San Antonio Spurs in the second of back-to-back games, and were without Peja Stojakovic.

The Hornets were down for most of the second half, trailing by as many as nine points, and down seven with just five minutes left in the fourth quarter. As the Spurs went cold in the closing minutes, the Hornets came to life, as David West hit a pair of 3-points, just his 4th and 5th of the season, to bring New Orleans to within a single point. A pair of Tyson Chandler free throws with 2:13 remaining put the Hornets up by a point, and they would never look back. With 1:47 remaining in the game, james Posey missed a fast break layup, which was followed by Rasual Butler, extending the lead to three point. The knockout punch appeared to come with just over a minute left on the clock when, after Chris Paul’s second rebound of the quarter, he found Posey on the left wing for a deep three, which he knocked down, putting the Hornets up, 85-79.

After a Tony Parker runner cut the lead to four points and gave the Spurs new hope, the game got its signature moment. With just 24 seconds remaining, Paul and Manu Ginobili scrambled for a loose ball at the Hornets’ end, and a jump ball was called. The Spurs had a chance to regain possession and put together a miraculous last-minute comeback, but Paul was having none of it! With a 6-inch height advantage, Ginobili should have had little trouble controlling the tap, but an impeccably-timed, picture-perfect leap from Chris Paul (his hand was at least three inches above Manu’s!), controlled by Butler, slammed the door shut on San Antonio, who had to start fouling, and ultimately fell, 90-83.

For Paul, it was a quietly dominating performance, particularly in the fourth quarter, when he scored just five points, two of them coming on free throws after the game had been decided. Paul ended with an “average” stat line of 19 points, 6 rebounds, 12 assists, 3 steals and a blocked shot, but it was the way in which he dictated the tempo of the game’s final minutes and protected possession for the Hornets that stood out. In classic Chris Paul fashion, he never made a mental error and constantly found his teammates in threatening positions.

On a side note, congratulations to Chris Paul, who recorded a steal in his 106th consecutive game, breaking then-Spur Alvin Robertson’s 22-year record. An amazing accomplishment, and given the way that Paul plays the game, the streak is unlikely to end any time soon.

Though the Hornets were already off to an outstanding start, lofty expectations were obscuring their accomplishments. This win should go a long toward answering any questions hanging around the team, as Paul, as always a huge contributor, did not have to carry the entire team to the win. For a quality team like New Orleans, a short-handed, comeback victory like this could provide the spark needed to cement themselves among the NBA’s elite.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The D'Antoni Effect

With Mike D’Antoni’s first trip with the New York Knicks to Phoenix, much was made of his spectacular 4-year run with the Phoenix Suns. That squad, led by Steve Nash, with Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion at his side, sparked the resurgence of fun in the NBA, always looking to run, off of turnovers, missed shots and made baskets, shooting without conscience as they worked to get a clean look in “seven seconds or less”. Nash & Co were the “Showtime” Lakers on fast-forward, snapping off 15-point runs in 3-4 minutes and consistently dropping 120 points, which made them the NBA’s best team to watch, and the easiest team for neutrals to root for. However, the D’Antoni era in Phoenix came to abrupt an end without the Suns ever winning a championship, despite two trips to the Western Conference finals- truly a shame, but not a coincidence, given D’Antoni’s reluctance to make the same commitment to defense that he did to offense.

One of the hallmarks of D’Antoni’s offense is its ability to make quality contributors out of previously disappointing or unheralded players, and to elevate quality players to an All-Star level. It was in D’Antoni’s system that Steve Nash made the leap from “All-Star point guard” to “superstar” and 2-time MVP. Nash was a very good player to begin with, but it’s highly unlikely that any other situation in the NBA would have landed him the hardware that his seasons with D’Antoni did. However, there is a host of other players, some very talented, others merely serviceable, that have reached the high-water marks of their respective NBA careers in Mike D’Antoni’s system.

Of all the Suns’ recent standouts, Shawn Marion is unmistakably the poster child for the D’Antoni Effect. In Phoenix, Marion was James Worthy to Steve Nash’s Magic Johnson, filling the lane better than anyone at his position. Sadly, Marion came to overestimate his impact on the Suns, and he craved limelight, leading to the trade which sent him to the Miami Heat in exchange for Shaquille O’Neal, and effectively resolved any debate as to whether he could carry an NBA team. Marion never averaged less that 17.5 ppg, and never shot below 47% from the field, or 33% from 3-point range in any full season under D’Antoni. In 37 games (16 in 2007-08, 21 thus far in 2008-09) since joining Miami, Marion’s numbers have dipped (13.2 ppg, 1.6 spg, shooting under 44% from the field, and just under 25% from beyond the arc), and though Marion is still an athletic, almost-double-double guy, it’s probably safe to say that his $17.8 million salary (I really hope D’Antoni got more of this than Marion’s agent did!) does not represent a bargain.

But Shawn Marion is not alone…

Following a pair of solid seasons with the Utah Jazz, his third team in five years, Raja Bell joined the Suns in 2005-06, and quickly became Steve Nash’s favorite perimeter target on the break. A 40%+ 3-point shooter, D’Antoni’s system was tailor-made for Bell who, in his 3 full seasons in Phoenix, took more than 50% of his field goal attempts (52.5%; 1,381 of 2,633) from behind the 3-point line; this figure had never previously exceeded 24.1%. In 2005-06, Bell set career-highs in scoring (14.7 ppg), FG% (45.7%), 3-point% (44.2%) and assists (2.6), and followed it up with two similar seasons. It’s little wonder that the recently-traded Bell is the most outspoken critic of the Suns’ coaching change. His numbers have began to slip this season, his scoring falling into single-digits, for the first time since 2002-03; he’s averaged about 20 minutes and just 2 ppg in his first week with the Charlotte Bobcats

Boris Diaw was initially in the running for D’Antoni Effect Poster Child, but was omitted for this reason- ever since he received a $9 million per year contract in 2006, Diaw’s has been terribly inconsistent and often seems unmotivated. Diaw was also outspoken in his support for D’Antoni and his system, and I don’t question that Diaw genuinely enjoyed playing for Mike D’Antoni, but it’s unclear how much of Boris Diaw’s success is a product of the D’Antoni Effect, and how much can be attributed to his being a talented player who plays to get paid and will always be at his best in “contract years”, regardless of what system he’s in.

Tim Thomas is one of the most vivid examples of the D’Antoni Effect. A talented, career underachiever, Thomas started the 2005-06 season with the Chicago Bulls, but played just three early-season games before being banished for being a distraction to the team, and was ultimately waived before being pulled off the NBA scrap heap by D’Antoni and the Suns. In his Phoenix debut, after three and a half months off the floor, Thomas came out of nowhere to score 20 points in 20 minutes, hitting five 3-pointers. Thomas averaged over 10 ppg in 23 minutes over the season’s last 26 games, and was vital in the playoffs, highlighted by his clutch 3-pointer to send game 6 of the Suns’ first-round series against the Lakers into overtime. Thomas averaged more than 15 points in 20 postseason games as the Suns fell just two wins shy of the NBA Finals. This performance earned him a new, 4-year, $24 million contract from the Los Angeles Clippers. Not bad, considering Thomas’ season began with his being excommunicated from his team former team and paid to go away.

Before being traded to the Suns in 2005, James Jones’ career consisted of an unremarkable 81-game stretch with the Indiana Pacers, where he averaged just under 5 points. In two seasons under D’Antoni, Jones averaged 8.7 ppg, including a career-high 9.3 ppg in 2005-06, and made a respectable 38.2% of his 3-point attempts. Like Raja Bell, Jones’ game is predicated on lots of 3-point attempts (3’s have accounting for at least 49% of his field goal attempts in each of the past 4 seasons), making Phoenix the perfect spot for him. Jones was traded to Portland in 2007, and turned in a decent season for the Blazers, before opting out of his contract and receiving (potentially) 5-years and $23.2 million from the Miami Heat (First two years guaranteed, final three are options held by both parties), for whom he has yet to play a game. Thanks, Coach!

In signing with the New York Knicks, D’Antoni stepped into what was arguably the best situation in the NBA- the debacle that was Isiah Thomas lowered the expectations of Knicks’ fans to lows seldom seen in NBA history, so D’Antoni has nowhere to go but up. Though he may have left Phoenix, the Mike D’Antoni era is by no means over, as the Knicks roster offers a new crop of likely beneficiaries. Tomorrow, a quick rundown of the candidates set to capitalize on the D’Antoni Effect in New York.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Boozer May Be Expendable in Utah

Thanks in part to Paul Millsap, Carlos Boozer may not finish this season with the Utah Jazz. Since Boozer, who hasn’t played since November 19, went down with a quadriceps injury, Millsap has stepped in more that admirably, averaging 17.1 ppg and just over 10 rpg. In his past 12 games (omitting a pair of 8 point, 4 rebound games), he’s averaged 19.3 ppg and 11.7 rpg, while shooting about 55% from the field. Most recently Millsap was Utah’s standout performer in Boston, dropping 32 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and adding a pair of steals and a pair of blocks. In the 14 games the Jazz have played without Boozer, Millsap has scored 17 or more points in 8 of those games and grabbed ten or more rebound twelve times (the last 12 games consecutively). It’s not certain that Millsap can completely fill Carlos Boozer’s shoes, but he’s certainly playing as though he can. And though Millsap will be a free agent after this season, he will likely be available for $7-$9 million a year, rather than the $13-$17 million that Boozer will be looking for. Remember, Deron Williams will also be looking for a new contract soon.

As for Boozer, he's under contract for the remainder of this season and holds a player option for 2009-10, though it’s assumed he’ll opt out after this season, as he’s likely to command an annual salary of at least the $12.6 million he would receive in his optional year, and for at least 5 years. Also, by becoming a free-agent after this season, Boozer won’t have to compete with the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade & Co in the now-famed “Summer of 2010”. Finally, by acquiring Boozer, not only would any competitive team improve its on-the-court product this season, but would become a much more attractive destination for a 2010 free agent.

With that said, why would the Jazz, outside contenders for a title now, look to trade a guy who’s good for 20 point and 10 rebounds, year-in and year-out? Well, rather than wait until the off-season and look to cobble together a sign-and-trade deal, trading Boozer between now and February’s trade deadline would allow the Jazz to leverage other teams’ urgency to make in-season improvements, and maximize the value of the assets they receive in exchange.

Consider the following win-win (and in one case, win-win-win) deals involving Carlos Boozer:

By trading Boozer (and some salary filler) to Miami (his most likely destination as a free agent), in exchange for Shawn Marion, Daequan Cook and Jamaal Magloire (by the way, check out these guys' NBA.com photos!), the Miami Heat would have the guy they covet (and would probably make D-Wade happy), and all they’d really be giving up is a “system guy” stuck in the wrong system with a big expiring contract, a young role player who can score some points, a big body to come off the bench. As for Utah, in their system Marion can get out and run and would fill the lane beautifully for D-Will, Cook would be a solid #8 or #9 man in the rotation and Magloire could spell Millsap for 12-14 minutes a night. OR...

Utah could go three-way and get another team involved, trading Boozer to Miami, with Marion heading to the Detroit Pistons, and the Piston shipping Rasheed Wallace to Utah, with each team adding some salary filler. In this scenario, Utah would add Wallace would be strong veteran presence, with championship experience, who is an excellent one-on-one defender and can play both inside and out (kinda like Boozer, but with 3-point range). Plus, ‘Sheed is another big expiring contract (~$13.5 million), and he may may open the door to for the Jazz to move Mehmet Okur (also has a Boozer-like opt-out clause). Boozer would still wind up in Miami, and Detroit would likely get much more out of Shawn Marion than Miami has, with his rebounding and scoring the open floor giving Detroit and new, more effective look. Plus, Detroit could let both Marion and Allen Iverson’s contracts expire, clearing roughly $38 million off of their payroll at season’s end. Another possibility...

The Jazz could send Boozer to the Dallas Mavericks (another competitive team than could pay Boozer what he’s looking for), in exchange for Josh Howard and DeSagana Diop. Howard would give Utah a unique weapon for their system- a combination slasher/mid-range “3”, who would really benefit from the space created on the floor by D-Will, Okur, Millsap and Kyle Korver’s outside shot. And in Diop, Utah could add a serviceable big body on defense, who rebounds and doesn’t need shots; Diop could also take some of the rebounding pressure off of Millsap and others. And the Mavericks would be able to retool on-the-fly, adding a quality inside scorer to their core, setting up a potentially deadly Dirk Nowitzki- Carlos Boozer-Jason Terry attack, and possibly returning to the Western Conference elite.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Statement Game in the A-T-L

On Saturday night in Atlanta, the Hawks put together a fantastic 48-minute effort to beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, 97-92 putting an end to the Cavs’ franchise-record tying 11-game winning streak. I’d made a point of DVR’ing the game in part because of the Atlanta Hawks- they're a solid team with quality young players, and lots of fun to watch. But, feeling as though I hadn’t seen enough of them during their dominating run, I was really tuning to watch the Cavaliers. I wanted to see LeBron hit his nightly average of three jaw-dropping dunks and to check out his much-improved supporting cast- but there was a change of plans. Instead, Saturday night turned out to be a prime example of why the Hawks, while maybe not title contenders, should be mentioned as one of the NBA’s better teams. As I watched the game, a few thoughts occurred to me:

The Cleveland Cavaliers pregame body language is fantastic. These guys really seem to like each other. Before what was frankly a non-descript mid-December road game, watching the Cavs in the moments leading up to the opening tip confirmed my belief that they'll represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. The flurry of hugs, chest bumps and choreographed handshakes and fist bumps among every member of the team must be a beautiful sight for any Cavs fan. Also, LeBron James made a point of engaging every one of his teammates before taking the floor- a great show of solidarity.

Dominique Wilkins is an outstanding commentator. In a world full of knowledgeable, TV-friendly basketball people, the number of subpar commentators on local NBA broadcasts is staggering. Even among those with an engaging television presence, there’s generally a ridiculous level of unabashed homerism. I realize local announcers are paid by the team, and that they have a greater familiarity with, and affinity for, “their guys”, but it’s almost impossible to find a local telecast that isn’t sports’ equivalent of Fox News.

With that said, ‘Nique was great! Wilkins was engaging, and provided thoughtful, balanced commentary, based on experiences from a brilliant 15-year career. Also, ‘Nique didn’t feel the need to obnoxiously remind us every few minutes that he played once, an ailment that plagues many players-turned-commentators.

Speaking of Dominique’s career…enjoy!

I’m not really sure what to make of Marvin Williams. The #2 overall pick of the 2005 draft, Williams has developed into a nice young player (at just 22), averaging 14 ppg and 5.6 rpg since becoming a starter at the start of the 2006 season. As Marvin approaches the end of his first pro contract, though solid, I’m having a tough time figuring out his niche. On the plus side, he’s athletic, versatile, and seemingly a great teammate. With these qualities, Williams should be on his way to a long NBA career.

However, struggles with consistency, evidenced by his statistical drop-off in December (particularly the last 10 days), along with what appears to be a plateau in his improvement raise some questions. I can't figure out if this is a pause on Marvin Williams’ rise to stardom, or if he’s “just a solid team guy” and won’t develop into much more.

I can’t really settle on a superlative to describe Al Horford. As good as Horford was in college, his game has evolved beautifully since his arrival in the NBA. He’s extended the range on his offensive game and developed a smooth shooting stroke, to go along with his surprising speed and ballhandling, and his intensity in pursuing rebounds and loose balls. This was fully on display during an otherwise irrelevant second quarter stretch- Horford fought for a defensive rebound at one end, dribbled the length of the floor, as fast with the ball as most guys were without it, and was ultimately set up for a 17-foot baseline jumper, which may not have fallen, but was obviously well within his range. At the other end of the floor, Horford was switched onto LeBron James on the perimeter- and when LeBron decided to drive, Horford closed down on him beautifully, forcing him back to the perimiter. The great D on LeBron came just seconds before Horford hit the deck in pursuit of a loose ball- which of course he came up with!

In addition to his undeniable talent, Al Horford’s desire and toughness make him a catalyst for much of the Hawks’ success. Clearly, the Hawks’ sophomore star sets the tone for this team.

In Wins

In Losses



















Down the stretch against Cleveland, Atlanta made the plays that winning teams make. It’s becoming evident that last year was NO fluke- the Hawks are tough, talented and heady. In the final minutes of Saturday night’s game, the Hawks made four plays that clearly showed that this team knows how to win close games against top competition.

With 2:30 remaining and the Cavs up 90-89, Mike Bibby got the ball on the left wing, 5-6 feet behind the 3-point line. In a classic gutsy Bibby move, he simply drilled a 28-footer, without hesitation; 92-90 Hawks. The next trip down the floor, Joe Johnson, again from the left wing, took LeBron James off the dribble, getting to the left baseline and hitting a soft fadeaway; 94-90 Hawks. Later, with just 45 seconds left and the Hawks up 2, Delonte West had a clean look at a 3-pointer from the corner that could have put the Cavs in front, but Josh Smith closed on him in a flash and easily swatted the shot out of bounds. Finally, with just 20 seconds remaining and the Hawks up 94-92, Bibby missed a jumper that resulted in a long rebound that looked like it would go to Cleveland, but Al Horford jumped into the fray and tipped the ball out to the top of the key where Marvin Williams recovered it, and was intentionally fouled.

At four vital moments in the game's closing minutes, the Hawks had the opportunity to make a play- and each time they capitalized. These are the types of plays that quality teams make, and Saturday night’s home win over the red-hot Cavaliers is the signature win of the Hawks’ early season, and could really spark this team to new heights.

Note: The Celtics roll into Atlanta on Wednesday night; this is ESPN's 7:00pm game and will be an absolute must-see!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Charlotte Would Probably Like a Do-Over

What the hell are the Charlotte Bobcats doing?

This week’s indefensible trade is only the latest boneheaded move by an “NBA franchise” whose history is woefully short on good decisions. To offset the benefit of clearing Jason Richardson and the $40 million he’s owed between now and 2011 off the books, the Bobs agreed to take on more $46 million worth of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw- particularly Diaw, who’s still guaranteed $36 million over the last four years of his deal.

So, lemme make sure I’ve got this right: Charlotte traded away a legitimate 20-point scorer who while hardly a bargain, does not have a cap-killing contract, and a potentially solid young forward with a cap-friendly deal, in exchange for Bell, a 32-year old defensive stopper who is clearly on the downside of his career and Diaw, an inconsistent frontcourt guy whose remaining guaranteed money is 90% of Richardson’s ($36 million v. $40 million) and annual salary is 67% of Richardson’s ($9 million v. 13.3 million average for J-Rich)?

Really? What’s the defense here?

Charlotte didn’t get any younger, as Diaw, who will turn 27 in April 2009, is just 15 months younger than Richardson (I though he was older!). And throw in the fact that within a month, coach Larry Brown, Mr. “Play the right way”, will want absolutely nothing to do with Diaw, whose issues with consistency and motivation are likely to get him publicly called out and possibly buried on the bench.

Looking at Charlotte’s post-trade roster, other than DJ Augustin, who is an absolute stud and looks destined for great things, it’s extremely difficult to summon up any optimism. The top five players on the Bobs payroll (Emeka Okafor, Diaw, Gerald Wallace, Nazr Mohammed and Matt Carroll) are guaranteed a total of $183.4 million ($198.4 million if Wallace and Carroll exercise player options), with only Nazr Mohammed’s $6.9 million due to come off the books before the end of 2012. Of that crew, only Gerald Wallace, who with 5 years and $49.3 million left on his contract is not exactly a bargain, would look attractive to someone in a trade. Really? Okafor, Diaw, Wallace and Carroll at $32 million per year though 2012?

Sadly, the Charlotte Bobcats have not fared much better in the draft, and that’s quite a shame for a team that’s never won more than 33 games in a season, averaged just 27.3 wins in their 4 seasons in existence. The Bobs have had 8 first-round draft picks since entering the NBA in 2004:

2004- Emeka Okafor (#2 overall)

2005- Raymond Felton (#5), Sean May (#13)

2006- Adam Morrison (#3)

2007- Brandan Wright (#8), Jared Dudley (#22)

2008- DJ Augustin (#9), Alexis Ajinca (#20)

Of these eight players, only Okafor (14 ppg, 10.8 rpg), when healthy, and DJ Augustin (based on a VERY small sample) look like they are lottery-pick worthy- though it should be noted that Okafor was the incorrect #1 pick in 2004, when Charlotte went the “safe” route with the top pick, leaving Dwight Howard on the board for the Orlando Magic to grab at #2. Of the remaining six, Raymond Felton is potentially a solid point guard (though likely to be pushed out by Augustin), Sean May “may never” be in NBA game shape, Adam Morrison (aka “Kwame 2.0”) is a complete disaster, and Alexis Ajinca may one day be a decent NBA player, but there is little evidence of it thus far. That leaves just Brandan Wright and Jared Dudley, who were effectively traded for Diaw and Bell, since Wright’s draft rights were traded to the Golden State Warriors to acquire Jason Richardson on draft day in 2007.

Considering the money they’ve spent and committed to spending, along with the quality draft picks they’ve had, it’s inconceivable that the Charlotte would still be this bad, with no clear direction or identity, and little hope for dramatic improvement.

Despite the dream of every sports fan to be a professional GM, even in this economy, would anyone really want Rod “Tossed under the bus by Michael Jordan” Higgins’ job? By the way, check out the best/worst transactions- hilarious!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Cuttino Mobley- Consummate Pro

Earlier today, Cuttino Mobley of the New York Knicks announced his retirement from the NBA due to a pre-existing heart condition. Mobley was traded from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Knicks, along with Tim Thomas, on November 21. Knicks doctors examined Mobley after the trade and refused to clear him for NBA action as a result of a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (enlarged hear), the same condition that claimed the lives of former Celtic Reggie Lewis and former Loyola Marymount standout Hank Gathers, leaving him little choice but to announce his retirement. It's unfortunate but it's for the best.

Being a lifelong NBA fan and having lived in Los Angeles during Mobley's time with the Clippers, I am deeply saddened to learn of his health problems, but am please to hear about his decision. At just 33 years of age, Cuttino Mobley still has most of his life ahead of him.

At the tail end of a solid 11-year career with the Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers, "Cat" scored 11,964 points (16 ppg), grab near 3,000 rebounds and dish out more than 2,000 assists in 747 games, this is the correct decision. There is no need for Mobley to risk his life to log another season or two.

He may not have been a superstar, but he was a damn good NBA player and a true professional. In the past decade, never was his name linked to any story that did not pertain to basketball. Cuttino Mobley showed up for work and pulled his weight every game. He didn't run afoul of the law and never threw his teammates under the bus. Cuttino Mobely was a solid pro.

Cat, Congratulations on a fantastic NBA career. You've done the right thing. As you close this chapter of your life, I'd like to wish you nothing but the best.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

20 Questions from the Association

Is it just me, or…

Is Devin Harris developing into as devastating an offensive force as a young Allen Iverson?

In their frantic rush to clear 2010 cap space (which they’ve done), have the Knicks actually… improved?

Had you also forgotten that Dwyane Wade is not just great, but "from another planet" great?

Has LaMarcus Aldridge become completely unguardable on the pick and roll- especially when he pops to the baseline?

Are the Houston Rockets poised to be this year’s big first-round playoff upset victim?

Is the idea that Detroit Pistons, as presently constructed, are serious title contenders slightly absurd?

Is LeBron James as good as any player has been, at any point in NBA history?

Has Brandon Roy quietly established him self as a top-8 player in the NBA, not to mention taking the title of “most trustworthy with the ball”?

With the effect he’s had on the Denver Nuggets since his arrival (and his effect on the Pistons since his departure), has Chauncey Billups re-established himself as a top-5 point guard?

Is the “Race for the Summer of 2010” becoming a bigger distraction that any off-court NBA story in years?

Will the February 4 Chris Paul-Derrick Rose match-up in New Orleans make us forget the Chris Paul-Deron Williams debate?

Despite their terrible record, are the Washington Wizards not exactly counting the seconds until Gilbert Arenas’ return?

By developing into a solid, versatile big man, is Spencer Hawes ready to laugh in the face of his tremendous BWS (Big White Stiff) potential?

Do the Philadelphia 76ers really wish they could trade Elton Brand and get their cap space back?

Is it kind of sad watching people pretending the Dallas Mavericks are still contenders in the West?

Were the Charlotte Bobcats actually a better franchise in days leading up to their expansion draft?

Does it look not only possible, but likely, that the Atlanta Hawks will finish the regular season with a better record than the Detroit Pistons?

Is it really sad that Danny Granger probably won’t be on a decent team until he’s 30 years-old?

Is Kevin Durant coming eerily close to becoming the next Shareef Adbur-Rahim?

Does Brandon Roy seem like he’s as good as he’s ever going to be? But he’ll be this good for the next 12 years?