Friday, November 12, 2010

The Washington Wizards Are Quickly Becoming Our NBA League Pass Favorites

In the course of following the NBA season, we certainly enjoy following the grand narrative of marquee teams like the Lakers and Celtics and Heat and Spurs and Magic in the chase for the championship. That's what it's all about, as they say.

But we appreciate the whole tapestry of the league, and derive joy from watching developing young players and teams, and competitive games and entertaining basketball and spectacular athleticism even if it has absolutely nothing to do with who's going to raise the Larry O'B come June.

Thus, we bring to you the chase to become our favorite 2010-11 NBA League Pass team. We define a "League Pass team" as one which is scheduled for fewer than 10 regular-season games on ABC/ESPN/TNT combined, and whose games must be enjoyed largely via the splendors of the NBA League Pass full-season package, a.k.a. one of our most prized possessions.

17 teams qualify under that condition, and three teams have stood out from the pack for us so far, simply in terms of being the most entertaining to watch:

New Orleans: Remarkably, the Hornets were scheduled for just *one* ABC/ESPN/TNT game this season! They must not have gotten the news that Chris Paul would be back. No surprises here, CP3 remains a sheer joy to watch with the way he can control a game with head, heart & handle. Beyond the spectacular plays which Paul generates directly, New Orleans always seems to be organized and purposeful under Paul's direction. We could watch him play all day and night. Stay healthy, CP3.

Golden State: The Warriors have been a perennial League Pass favorite for us - there's something about West Coast teams, playing after two-thirds of the country has gone to sleep, which lends itself to the secretive, hidden delights of a good League Pass team. The W's have also been, in years past, a perfect example of how a League Pass team merely needs to be entertaining, rather than good.

There were even entertaining last season despite the Nellie train wreck, perhaps even *because of* the Nellie train wreck. Monta Ellis might go for 50 points on 40 shots, Steph Curry might bust out a triple-double as a rookie with an old soul's game, Nellie might play 5 guys under 6-6, he might play 5 D-Leaguers, they might finish the game with 4 players on the floor, the game might get into the 130s with the lack of defense and breakneck pace, and Amar'e Stoudemire might throw down the dunk of the season on someone's head. Anything was possible, and of course, the crowds have consistently, inexplicably been great despite years of being beaten down by front-office incompetence.

Now, this season, Golden State appears to actually be good, while retaining plenty of its entertainment value despite the insertion of sanity on the sidelines and in the owner's box. Monta is playing more efficiently, Steph is developing into a stud, and the Curry/David Lee pick-and-roll duo has promise to be among the league's best. Dorell Wright has been one of the league's top mad bombers early, and there's always the chance that Jeremy Lin might come in and earn a raucous ovation for correctly executing a dribble in 2 minutes of playing time.

We still love the Dubs, but we're accustomed to the late-night delights from Oracle. We're especially enjoying the new blood this year, which is part of the reason why we're picking the Washington Wizards, who are scheduled to be on ABC/ESPN/TNT just three times (and just once after Thanksgiving), as our favorite NBA League Pass team through the first couple weeks of the season. Here's a taste of why:

John Wall: One of the things we're blessed with in the 2010-11 NBA season is three rookies - John Wall, Blake Griffin and Derrick Favors - who are not only talented but also appear to be blessed with nuclear-powered athleticism of some sort. [Note: Griffin's Clippers, with its talented young Erics - Gordon and Bledsoe - in the backcourt to complement the Human Missile, Griffin, up front, narrowly missed making our League Pass short list.]

Ever since we first got a glimpse of Wall at the 2009 Nike Hoop Summit, we've thought he's been underrated as a prospect, if anything, and nothing we've seen in Wall's young career so far changes our opinion.

Wall seems to commonly be compared to Derrick Rose in terms of potential. We're looking forward to seeing the first Wall-Rose matchup on Saturday night, and we love Derrick Rose and the strides he's made this season. Still, we think Wall is significantly ahead of Rose's progress at the same age, and projects to be significantly better. So far, we think John Wall looks like a potential all-time great. Increasingly, with Wall's combination of lightning speed, court vision, handles, finishing ability, defensive potential, and competitiveness (not to mention, noticeably improved shooting form), we think we might be looking at a 6-4 Isiah Thomas.

Here's what Wall's basic numbers look like so far:
    Wall 20 40.3 19.3 10.2 18.6
Here's what the best active point guards did in their rookie seasons
    Paul 20 36.0 16.1 7.8 22.1
    Williams 21 28.8 10.8 4.5 12.4
    Rose 20 37.0 16.8 6.3 16.0
    Rondo 20 23.5 6.4 3.8 13.1
    Nash 22 10.5 3.3 2.1 10.8
    Kidd 21 33.8 11.7 7.7 15.1
And here's how some of the all-time greats stacked up as rookies:
    Big O 22 42.7 30.5 9.7 25.9
    Magic 20 36.3 18.0 7.3 20.6
    Isiah 20 33.8 17.0 7.8 14.5
    Stockton 22 18.2 5.6 5.1 13.3
    Payton 22 27.4 7.2 6.4 13.2
Of course, players develop at different rates, and have all sorts of different circumstances as rookies. These tables are not meant to be definitive. They're just meant to say: man, do you realize how historically good of a start Wall is off to?

You might say, well, he's only played six games, and that's fair. Who knows where the numbers will be after 82. But we'd say that we're shocked he has come out of the gate so strong, flirting with a 20-10 so soon into his career. We could believe it happening in March or April, but we didn't expect it in November of his rookie year. He should get better as the season goes on, not worse. Yes, his turnovers are high at 5 per game, but high turnovers are often a leading indicator that a player has room for improvement - he's making plays, and with experience, he should turn many of those bad plays into good ones.

As much as Wall's tour-de-force games vs. Philly (29 points, 13 assists, 9 steals) and Houston (19-10-13 triple double, plus 6 steals) have been spectacular to watch, the most impressive game might have been Wall's second game, when he led a near-comeback on the road in Atlanta with a 28-5-9, precisely because it was so *unspectacular*. While Wall flashed his speed down the middle in the halfcourt O a couple times, he didn't really produce highlight-reel plays for the most part. Rather, he displayed the poise to take what the defense gave him, knocking down jumpers and even stepping back for the first two threes of his career to keep the Wizards alive late in the fourth.

And now, that said, let's cut the measured coach-ly praise and say that, in general: the dude has been spectacularly exciting to watch on a consistent basis. Some of the plays which have been the most exciting haven't even been successful ones, such as when he went the length of the court in 2.1 seconds at the end of the first half vs. Cleveland, for a dunk that was a fraction of a second too late.

Or there was this stunner in overtime vs. the Sixers. Yes, Wall committed a foul on Andre Iguodala, but it was remarkable not only that Wall was able to catch one of the premier open-court players in the league, but also that he had the strength to deny him at the rim. (And the foul ended up saving a crucial point for Washington.)

(The DC Sports Bog did a great job of rounding up this play and comparing it to Redskins cornerback Darrell Green famously announcing his speed as a rookie by catching Tony Dorsett from behind in the open field.)

I can't believe Wall caught him, and made the challenge. I'm not sure how many other players in the league have the combo of speed & explosiveness to do it.

So much of John Wall's game is exhilarating to watch. His jets in the open floor are off the charts (and thankfully, Flip Saunders is letting him run - Washington is playing at the 7th-fastest pace in the league); he is able to make all kinds of varieties of steals (most spectacularly when he had 6 in a *quarter* vs. Philadelphia), with his superior quickness and length; he's a willing and able passer, already connecting with teammates from all over the floor.

Based on the revelation of John Wall's rookie season alone, the Wizards would be a top League Pass team. But wait, there's more.

JaVale McGee: The JaValevator might be the most underrated player in the league in terms of sheer entertainment value. He combines spectacularly athletic and/or mindless plays routinely, sometimes in the same sequence, like no other. Against Houston, he made an ill-advised lunge for a steal in the backcourt and overran the action the wrong way by about three steps. Even though the Rockets pushed the ball upcourt, there was McGee, racing back from out of the picture to somehow block Brad Miller at the rim (the ball was probably inside the cylinder, which may have actually made the block more improbable).

I swear no one corrals an average rebound higher than McGee, who seems to routinely grab them at about 12' up on the glass. I swear he jumps for every blocked shot like some combination of an Olympic high-jumper and volleyball player, reaching as high as possible and swatting with reckless abandon.

JaVale pulls LOL plays out of thin air, such as when he brought the ball upcourt vs. the Sixers and inexplicably went to a behind-the-back/spin dribble combo when confronted by a defender at half-court.

Against Atlanta, McGee seemed to have 14 blocks and 14 illegal screens. He got a poke steal in the open court then made a great catch on the run for an and-1 finish. Then he tried a behind-the-back pass on the run in the halfcourt, which did not work.

JaVale may have the goofiest collection of post moves I've ever seen. The footwork - i.e. the hard part - is often there, but the easy stuff can be a little off, such as vs. Houston, when he made a move from the left block to the middle with a right-hand dribble.

Every game, McGee seems to execute some of the most ridiculously exciting blocks, and ridiculously obvious goaltends, that you'll ever see.

I've seen JaVale convert runners with the foul. I've seen JaVale throw down monstrous dunks (Hello, Spencer Hawes). I've seen JaVale catch a block vs. Cleveland. I've seen JaVale attempt a follow dunk over Yao Ming's back.

JaVale's elastic facial expressions only add to the entertainment value. JaVale McGee brings joy to my life.

Andray Blatche: Blatche often forms something of a bravura unintentional comedy big-man duo with McGee, with his comically bad shot selection complementing the JaValevator grab bag of athleticism.

One of my favorite Blatche plays this season was against Philly. After taking all sorts of ill-advised shots, Blatche was double-teamed on the left baseline. One defender fell down and a pass fake sent the double-teamer lunging away, leaving Andray wide open from 12 feet and then he... DIDN'T SHOOT.

Blatche strikes me as something of an ABA-style player, gifted with size and skill and length and athleticism, and you never really know what you're going to get. Just when you've written him off as an irredeemable black hole, a mindless chucker, he'll find McGee with a gorgeous touch pass, reminding you, that - oh yeah - he's a 6-11 player who averaged 3.6 assists after the All-Star break last year.

Or he'll bust out a move like he did vs. Houston, a combo of an imagined ABA move and a Dream Shake, showing the ball one way with a long one-armed shot fake, and then spinning back the other for the hoop.

After a broken foot sidelined him for the summer, Blatche is just now rounding into shape. His FG% percentage has plummeted from .478 to .412 as he has become one of the league leaders in FGA from 16-23 feet. He did get 10 attempts at the rim vs. Houston, which is a promising sign.

Hopefully, he can get back to the player who averaged 22.1/8.3/3.6 after the break last season. Blatche does have a nice shooting touch, he just needs to clean up his shot selection while, you know, still taking the occasional completely-ridiculous contested fadeaway 19-footer off a spin move for entertainment purposes only.

All this entertainment value, even though Gilbert Arenas seems to have lost his explosiveness. While Gil has been up-and-down, he's knocked down some key threes, and co-existed well with Wall, such as on their gorgeous alley-oop connection vs. Houston.

Even if Gil can't recapture his past glory, and even if the Wiz aren't terribly good, we still say that - headed by the development of John Wall and the insanity of the JaValevator - the Washington Wizards are still a poop-in-a-shoe entertaining team to watch, our favorite League Pass team early on.


At 1:11 PM, Anonymous Edwin said...

"If [Isiah Thomas] were six inches taller, we're talking about the greatest player in the history of basketball." -- Chuck Daly.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Kevin Chouinard said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Kevin Chouinard said...

Great article! I feel the same way about JaVale -- it is so fun to watch him play and develop. I also love your posts on basketball books.

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Eric Chung said...

Alright dude. My stomach hurts from laughing so hard. I never thought someone could so eloquently express how I feel every time I watch the Ja'Andray BlaGee.

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