Thursday, March 12, 2009

Almost There!

On Saturday night, I tuned in to watch the Indiana Pacers take on the Clippers in Los Angeles (Wow, now that I see it in writing, that’s a pretty pathetic sentence!), something jumped out at me. The Pacers’ backup shooting guard, Brandon Rush, saw some quality time on the floor, playing 24 minutes in the 106-105 win. At first glance, Rush looked fairly impressive on offense, driving hard into the paint and showing a picture perfect shooting stroke. However, as good as he initially looks, the more you watch Brandon Rush, the more you realize that he’s almost- but not quite- good.

It’s not that Rush is a bad player, it’s just that an awful lot of his plays begin so much more promisingly than they end. In college, as a member of a perennial top-5 program at Kansas, as well as in the Association, Rush initially convinces you that he’s one of the best players on the floor. Whether by effortlessly getting into the paint or by finding an ideal location on the perimeter to spot up, Brandon Rush’s game draws you in... That is, of course, until he caps off a Dwyane Wade-esque drive with a blown layup, or his perfect form ends in an open jump shot clanging off the front of the rim (actual events from a 2-minute span on Saturday night), and you realize that he’s, well, almost good.

We’ve all seen players whose combination of on-court presence, impressive physical stature and skills with the ball creates the perception that they’re fantastic players, masking the fact that, despite the close calls and promising plays, they are almost, but not quite, what you’d call “good”. These guys are NOT (necessarily) draft busts, overpaid, overrated or terrible players- they’re below-average-to-above-average players who aren’t as good as they might look. This designation isn’t about stats, but about players whose game has an aesthetic quality that is out of line with the ultimate results. An “Almost Good All-Star” is the NBA equivalent of a baseball pitcher with amazing stuff who just can’t seem to consistently find the strike zone.

To be fair, Brandon Rush is hardly the lone member of the “Almost Good All-Stars”.

Shane Battier- The NBA’s Moneyball Mascot, famously dubbed the “No Stats All-Star” by Michael Lewis, Battier’s perceived value is as a “character guy”, defensive stalwart, and contributor of the “little things” that “don’t show up in the box score”. Yeah, Battier’s solid on defense and he certainly hustles, but the sad reality is that he’s not a very productive player- at all. Battier’s a 30 year-old swingman without great athleticism, shooting under 38%, and… for all the talk of his intangibles, you’d think five consecutive playoff appearances would have yielded more than five total victories. Looks like T-Mac’s not the only one on the Rockets who’s allergic to the second round.

Nicolas Batum- On occasion, watching Batum, with his incredible length and fluidity on the floor, not to mention his outstanding perimeter defense, is reminiscent of watching Scottie Pippen. And then he just doesn’t finish. Whether he’s filling the wing on the break or is found in the corner for an open 3-pointer (this happens quite a bit), the last two seconds of any Nicolas Batum-focused possession almost invariably disappoint when compared to the buildup. At just 20 years-old, he’ll probably make me eat these words, but for now, Nicolas Batum is only “almost good”.

Jason Maxiell- At a solid, 6’7”, 260 lbs, and with an affinity for hard-nosed play, Maxiell has the potential to be one of the NBA’s top young power forwards. Seemingly kept out of the starting lineup by the Pistons depth and experience in the frontcourt, it’s been generally accepted that given the opportunity, he’d be a breakout star. And watching him play, it’s very easy to believe that, but this should have been that year. With the Pistons aging up front, seemingly in decline and shrouded in uncertainty, the door has been open for Maxiell to step in and make the “4” spot his. However, for all the praise he’s received for his potential, other than some banging in the paint and the occasional powerful dunk, Maxiell’s failed to translate his tools into serious production, scoring in double-figures just seven times since November 28 and grabbing more than ten rebounds just once all season- not exactly capitalizing on the opportunity. He’s like the bizarro Paul Millsap.

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