Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Best All-Star Game in Sports

I enjoyed Sunday's NBA All-Star Game. Seems like there's a fair amount of hand-wringing by folks wondering what can be done to make the players play harder. My first reaction is: Geez, it's an All-Star Game, for Jesus Shuttlesworth's sake. It's not going to be playoff intensity in any sport, it's just meant to be, you know, fun.

I really just ask for a good show for the first 40 minutes, and then hopefully it's close and we can get 8 or so good minutes of first-rate basketball.

I thought that that's about what we got. As much as the "entertainment" aspects of the NBA All-Star Game have veered toward ridiculous excess in the past few years, I really enjoyed the player intros with Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty and the Rebirth Brass Band setting a festive Nawlins tone.

Then I settled in and watched as I usually do: followed the opening minutes to catch the starters and see which star of stars might be setting the tone for the ballgame (it was D-12 and LBJ early). Then, as we got into the second and third quarters, my attention started to drift and I was reading a little, still keeping one eye on the game and certainly listening to hear if Marvelous Marv alerted me to a highlight-worthy play.

Then we got the thing that makes it all worth it: a contested ballgame in the fourth quarter. First you had Amare's ferocious dunking display bringing the West back, along with youngster Roy doing the little things and youngster Paul doing everything.

Then you had Walter Ray Allen splashing 3s from everywhere, hitting three in a row, each of which put his team back in the lead. Then you had this:

And don't forget D-Wade coming up with a huge block on Dirk's subsequent three attempt.

I mean, maybe my expectations are low, but that's all I really needed from my all-star game: lots of highlight-reel material in the first three quarters, followed by one quarter of genuinely high-quality basketball, punctuated by a spectacular playoff-worthy crunch-time dunk in traffic that drew an exclamation from me on my couch.

To me, that's what makes the NBA All-Star Game easily the best all-star game in sports. I'm an NFL fan, but I don't know how people can sit through the Pro Bowl (though god bless em, they drew higher TV ratings than the NBA Finals; it is unquestionably the NFL's world - or country, at least).

And I think the disadvantage that baseball's midsummer classic has is that, by the time close games are on the line in the late innings, the superstars of the game have long since hit the showers, and the second- and third-tier All-Stars are the ones on stage.

That's what I love about our game: when it comes down to the wire, it's an alpha dog v. alpha dog battle among the best in the game, and we get to see who steps up. Sure we get some duds sometimes, like last year's blowout in Vegas, but often we get a nice battle down the stretch, like yesterday, and sometimes we get a classic, such as when Iverson, Marbury and Dikembe led the East back from a huge 4th-quarter deficit in 2001, in what was the most ferociously contested All-Star Game in any sport since Pete Rose ran over Ray Fosse.

Other random ASG thoughts:
• Speaking of alpha dog v alpha dog battles - man, how badly did Dirk Nowitzki shrink from the occasion on Sunday??? With the game tied at 125 in the last minute or so, he had a terrible TO followed by the LeBron posterization and then D-Wade snuffed out his three attempt in embarrassing fashion. Following an airball three earlier in the quarter. Just an All-Star Game, I suppose, but that surely was an ugly display when the competition heated up.

Weird lineup, too, in that Byron only made one substitution - Duncan for Boozer - in the entire fourth quarter. Otherwise, Paul, Roy, Dirk and Amare went the whole way.

• I've seen several calls to switch to a U.S. vs World format, and while I grant that the novelty might increase the competition level for a year or two, I just can't support it for this reason: out of the 26 All-Stars this year, only 3 came from outside the U.S. (4 if you count Tim Duncan, and I guess maybe 5 b/c Manu should have been there too).

It would cheapen the accomplishment of being an NBA All-Star - an achievement which defines careers - for some, and be wildly unfair to those are snubbed simply due to geography. When at least half the NBA All-Stars are consistently from outside the U.S., we can talk. Until then, may we suggest actually watching international competition in the summer?

• Man oh man oh man, do I love watching Chris Paul more and more each time I see him. The guy was the clear catalyst for the West in the fourth. In my mind, he has become the best point guard in the NBA because of how he gets it done on both ends of the floor so thoroughly.

But speaking of international play, I think it'll be interesting to see who gets the prime minutes for Team USA at the Olympics this summer. One of my lasting memories of the 2006 loss to Greece is of Paul repeatedly getting picked off while Coach K checked his program to try to figure out which Greek player was which. The addition of Kidd at point guard was widely considered to be a main reason Team USA was perceived to be much better in 2007. But Paul is clearly a better player right now, isn't he? Will be interesting to see if Kidd's experience is ultimately more valuable than Paul's complete skill set. I foresee a lot of zones coming if it's J-Kidd up top.

• Bill Simmons made this point in his All-Star Weekend wrapup:
    As one NBA higher-up whispered to me last weekend, "People still think we have an image problem, I just don't get it. Do they even watch us? Do they see the caliber of the guys we have now?"

    That's the issue gnawing at everyone working for the league right now. The NFL has considerably more thugs, Major League Baseball has a steroids scandal that basically has tainted the past 15 years of games, yet somehow the NBA is still perceived as the league with an image problem?
What I would add is that I'm still surprised that there's so much sentiment that college basketball is better than the pros, such as this post on the Sporting Blog that the Duke-Wake Forest game was "approximately 1,000 times more entertaining than what was going on in NOLA."

I mean, the featured clip shows a hell of a finish on an alley-oop by L.D. Williams. It's not Amare dunking on Dwight Howard's head or LeBron in traffic at crunch time, but it's damn good. And I didn't see this particular game, so I guess can't really comment specifically.

But I will say that I'm still angry that I recorded the Duke-North Carolina game two weeks ago instead of Hornets-Suns, when they were playing at the same time. I have been watching and enjoying Duke-Carolina games for probably 25 years now and I have to say that this year's matchup was absolutely the worst one in terms of sheer talent level that I've ever seen. Horrendous decision-making on both ends, too (though NC was hampered in this regard with PG Ty Lawson out due to injury). Took me about a week to slog through it on the DVR.

Meanwhile, the Hornets beat the Suns 132-130 in 2OT with Paul going for 42 and 9 and Nash going for 32 and 12. That's one of the beauties of the League right now: so much great point-guard play, especially out in the West. And one of my many problems with contemporary college basketball: so much disorganized offense, with so many teams unaware of who should be getting the ball when and where.

Basketball Gods, I vow to never again forsake a Chris Paul vs. Steve Nash matchup to watch a bunch of no-talent Dookies hoist up a bunch of 20-foot threes. Please forgive.

• A friend of mine was in NOLA this weekend and toured the Lower Ninth Ward a little bit. A random fact of life is that the only noticeable rebuilding seems to be due to one of two sources: Habitat for Humanity or Brad Pitt. Which jibes with the Inside the NBA segment where Charles went out into the neighborhood, and residents were praising Mr. Pitt for his work.

As much as that reflects well on Pitt, it also seems to spotlight how completely feckless government has been on all levels, in that with all the resources at their disposal, they've been less effective in rebuilding than a single movie star. I'd highly recommend Dan Baum's story "The Lost Year", from the New Yorker in Aug. 2006 for a chronicle of how the powers that be shamefully seemed to block rebuilding efforts more than encourage them in the first post-Katrina year.

• Finally, just enjoy the Top 10 plays of the game:

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Bewildered By The Suns: What the Shaq?!;
Why Are You Selling Your Draft Picks?!

My initial reaction to the Shaq trade was similar to the "What are the Suns thinking?!" sentiments expressed quite well by John Hollinger and Adrian Wojnarowski and many others around the web.

That is still my prevailing opinion overall. That said, my thoughts about Phoenix acquiring Shaq are similar to what I think about Dallas potentially giving up Devin Harris for Jason Kidd: I definitely think that these are bad deals for the long-term interests of the franchises, and probably not great for the short-term either, but in terms of just 2008 - with everything so completely wide-open - there is at least something in the back of my mind wondering if these Hall of Famers might be able turn back to clock one last time after being revitalized with a fresh start and a chance at being thrust back into championship contention out of nowhere.

As always, I enjoyed listening to Hubie's analysis of the deal during his appearance on the Mike Tirico Show on ESPN Radio. He went through the pros and cons of the deal for Phoenix - pointing out that the biggest question mark will be how Amare is able to match up with 4s in the Western Conference on the defensive end, and also noting that the team may have trouble adjusting to Shaq on offense because they are used to playing with the middle of the floor opened up.

But I thought he captured the potential upside of the deal for Phoenix pretty well right here:
    No one guy can still play Shaq one-on-one, if he's healthy, that's a big if. Because if he's healthy, and you've got to double-team him, OK, this changes everything now. This would be a great move. But the question: can he give you the 28-30 minutes at this pace?
That's the question on offense: has Phoenix acquired a player who can not only draw a double-team from the low post, but also has the ability to skillfully pass out of it to well-spaced shooters, cutters and penetrators?

And on defense, as much as they will miss Marion's versatility, will the addition of Shaq help them shore up their interior D, where they've gotten killed in the playoffs in recent years?

I am especially dubious about the defensive question, curious about the offensive one. In the end, all of the answers about how Phoenix fares during its Shaq years may come down to this one question: How healthy and motivated is Shaq?


In terms of the long-term impact on the Suns, I've touched on this before, but I don't really understand what Phoenix is doing, and think they are fixing to drive themselves off a cliff in the not-too-distant future.

Here are the ages and salaries of their players:
Nash - 33 - $11.4m
Hill - 35 - $1.8m
Shaq - 35 - $20m
Amare - 25 - $13.8m
Diaw - 25 - $9m
Barbosa - 25 - $5.6m
Raja - 31 - $4.8m
Skinner - 31 - $770k
Piatkowski - 37 - $1.2m
Marks - 32 - $770k
Strawberry - 22 - $427k
Tucker - 23 - $932k

It is an exceedingly thin roster, dependent on some guys with some serious injury histories. And a fairly old roster got even older, trading 29-year-old Marion for Shaq, who's about to be 36.

Owner Robert Sarver is committed to keeping his team under the luxury tax. That's fine, lots of teams are operating under that constraint, including the Spurs - hasn't stopped them from winning multiple championships.

I just don't understand why, if this is your m.o., you would want to sell off draft picks as Phoenix has done, instead of actually doing the opposite and maximizing rookie contracts, which are by far and away the best value contracts in the NBA.

It's actually somewhat remarkable to me that Phoenix has been able to stay in championship contention as they've gone into cost-cutting mode and shed guys like Kurt Thomas, their only solid interior defender. They certainly haven't done much to add to the roster, though they were fortunate to sign Grant Hill to a minimum contract.

Below are the guys that they've missed out on having on their roster by selling their recent draft picks. I think that Phoenix would be much better positioned to transition into the future and, although D'Antoni likes to keep his rotation tight, I also think these players could have possibly provided the extra push to get Phoenix over the top in 2008, esp. in terms of providing depth in case of injury.

2005 DRAFT - 21ST PICK ($1.27m in 2007-08)
Picked Nate Robinson, traded to New York
[Note: It gets worse. Commenter Meta points out below that this pick was acquired in a trade that sent the 7th pick in 2004 (Luol Deng) for the 21st in 2005, the 31st pick in 2004 (Jackson Vroman) and Bob Sarver's favorite: cash considerations.]

Take a look at the guys drafted 21-30
21. Nate Robinson
22. Jarrett Jack
23. Francisco Garcia
24. Luther Head
25. Johan Petro
26. Jason Maxiell
27. Linas Kleiza
28. Ian Mahinmi
29. Wayne Simien
30. David Lee

The Suns could have pulled one of these names out of a hat and the odds are they would have gotten a good prospect who fits their system and provided excellent value for the pick.

2006 DRAFT - 21ST ($1.37m), 27TH PICKS ($980k)
Picked Rajon Rondo, traded to Boston
Picked Sergio Rodriguez, traded to Portland

Phoenix has had trouble filling the role of backup point guard with someone who can effectively run the team (allowing Barbosa to stay in his one-man wrecking crew combo guard role), a role which will only get more vital as Steve Nash starts to creep into his late 30s. Marcus Banks was a bust at $4m/yr. and something of a travesty considering how many opportunities they've had to fill this role at ~$1m/yr. via the draft.

First, you had a few guys on the 2005 list above. Then, I'll grant you that Rondo probably doesn't fit with PHX because he's been a poor shooter, but perhaps Sergio would thrive playing for a Euro-minded, fast-breaking coach, with Nash as a mentor.

And beyond that, Marcus Williams (22), Kyle Lowry (24) and Jordan Farmar (26) were all available in this range in 2006 as well.

2007 DRAFT - 24TH, 29TH PICKS
Picked Rudy Fernandez, traded to Portland
Picked Alando Tucker, signed

The 24th pick in 2007 is the one that I think they'll regret more than any other down the road. Rudy Fernandez and Tiago Splitter (drafted 28th by the Spurs) are two international prospects with contract issues that made them not immediately available, and pushed down their draft stock. Both players are lottery talents.

I can't even express how well I think Rudy would fit in with D'Antoni and the Suns. The athletic 6-6 Spaniard loves to get out and run, the guy can fly, and he can shoot, too.

Splitter, a Brazilian playing in Spain, is an athletic big who's an active defender - I thought he was impressive at the FIBA Americas tournament last summer. I really think he'll help give the Spurs some much needed youth and athleticism at the 5 when he comes over, and think he would have been a really nice fit for Phoenix, too - he would have shored up their interior defense, and although he's not a terribly skilled offensive player, he could get out and run with the Suns and clean up with a few buckets on fast breaks and rebounds.

Either one of these guys would have been a nice addition for Phoenix in 2008-09 and into the future.

Of course, Phoenix has already traded its first-rounders in 2008 and 2010 to Seattle, so the beat will go on. Hopefully, for their sake, they'll be able to find more vets like Grant Hill who are willing to take minimum contracts, before Shaq's monstrous contract comes off the books in 2010.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Lakers vs. Celtics? How Did We Get *Here*?

My goodness. How did this happen?
What is Chris Wallace's worst-ever transaction?
Trading Pau Gasol to the Lakers for Kwame Brown, J. Crittenton, M. Gasol, 1st rounder
Trading Kenny Anderson, Joe Forte, V. Potapenko for Vin Baker, his max contract, Shammond Williams
Trading Joe Johnson and 22nd pick for Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk
Drafting Kedrick Brown with Radmanovic, Jefferson, T. Murphy available
Drafting Joe Forte with Tinsley, T. Parker, Arenas available
One note: as lopsided as the Johnson trade looks now, at least take into account that Rogers and Delk did help the C's go to the 2002 conf. finals.

Just think about where we were on June 23:
- The Celtics were heading into the draft with the no. 5 pick after a disastrous Draft Lottery, coming off a 24-58 season, second-worst in the league.

- Kevin Garnett's agent had just been quoted as saying, "The Boston trade isn't happening. If a trade were to happen, that's not a destination that we're interested in pursuing."

- Meanwhile, the bootleg video clip showing Kobe Bryant disparaging Laker management and Andrew Bynum had just surfaced a few days earlier.

- Longtime Kobe-watcher Ric Bucher had just stated on the Bill Simmons podcast that he thought there was a 0% chance of Kobe suiting up for the Lakers in 2007-08, following Kobe's trade request.

- Even with Kobe, the Lakers seemed to have a roster destined for another first-round exit in the stacked West.

And now, barely seven months later, we can all write that there's a distinct possibility of the NBA's dream of all dreams - a Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals - and it's not insane to do so. Amazing.

Beyond the two lopsided blockbusters, it's amazing how Bynum has developed with stunning swiftness this season, to completely change the public perception about whether he should be traded. And certainly, a big reason that the Lakers can now be considered legit contenders is because of their competition's struggles: the Spurs look quite old all of a sudden (always a dangerous thing to say before March, but still), the Mavs certainly don't look as formidable as last year, and the Suns are slowly start to feel the bleeding of the Sarver Administration's budget restraints (they certainly ain't getting better under the new regime).

Mitch Kupchak has been lambasted so often, basically because he's not Jerry West, and it's about time he got some credit.

He now has a roster with 11 genuine potential contributors. Kupchak inherited Kobe Bryant when he took over in 2000. Here's how he acquired the other 10:

Luke Walton (32nd, 2003)
Sasha Vujacic (27th, 2004)
Andrew Bynum (10th, 2005)
Ronny Turiaf (37th, 2005)
Jordan Farmar (26th, 2006)

Incredible value for the pick for each of these guys. A potential superstar with a 10th pick, and four contributors after the 25th pick. Exceptional.

Lamar Odom (acquired for Shaq)
Pau Gasol (acquired for Kwame Brown, J. Crittenton, M. Gasol, pick)
Trevor Ariza (acquired for Brian Cook, Maurice Evans)

The Gasol acquisition erases the one major mistake - Caron for Kwame. And probably the best Kupchak trade was the one he didn't make - withstanding the pressure and temptation to deal Bynum for Jason Kidd.

V. Radmanovic (2006)
Derek Fisher (2007)

OK, so Fisher fell into the Lakers' lap, and the Vlad-Rad signing has been well short of spectacular, but the space cadet is probably still a good value at the mid-level.

As much as anything, though, credit needs to go to Jerry Buss. It sure looks like the high-stakes poker player made the right calls after all. He withstood the pressure to give Shaq a contract extension, and made the unpopular decision to trade the big fella. It was a no-win situation, as Buss had to watch the Diesel earn a ring in South Beach (I still think the title makes the trade worth it for Miami, despite their dismal '07-08), but I don't believe Shaq would have been nearly as motivated to turn back the clock on his career without the trade.

But now, would you rather have Lamar Odom, age 28, and Pau Gasol, age 27, or Shaquille O'Neal, a month away from age 36? It's been an expert job of getting the Lakers back to what appears to be championship contention so quickly, orchestrated by Buss and executed by Kupchak. Go get yourself some more co-ed arm candy, Dr. Jerry, you've earned it!

Please voice your opinion on the topic above....

Memphis GM Chris Wallace must have made his former mentor Rick Pitino proud with Friday's doozy of a deal. I don't really have a lot to add to the commentary that's already out there, other than saying that I'm never really a proponent of trading talent (a 27-year-old seven-footer nonetheless) for cap space, esp. if you're something less than a free-agent hotbed. Though I will say that Marc Gasol looks much more like a decent prospect than he did even a couple years ago. Still....

Friday, February 01, 2008

Kidd Numbers & FIBA Notes

Henry Abbott did a fine job of compiling some numbers which show that Devin Harris may possibly be a more valuable asset than Jason Kidd at this point in time.

I'd like to supplement those stats with some numbers that I put together regarding Nets team defense. I think the conventional wisdom among NBA fans is that Kidd drastically improved New Jersey's offense when he arrived in 2001-02.

In fact, even though Stephon Marbury isn't in the same league as J-Kidd as a floor general, he *did* give the Nets 23.9 pts and 7.6 ast in 2000-01 (yeah, it's true - I double- and triple-checked those numbers to be sure!). Starbury's big edge in PPG and FG% made him relatively comparable to Kidd offensively at the time. Defense is where Kidd was vastly superior, and where NJ showed enormous improvement after the Kidd-Marbury trade.

Take a look at NJ's rankings in offensive and defensive efficiency before and after the trade:
    '99-00 - Off 10th (105.1), Def 22nd (106.3)
    '00-01 - Off 24th (100.0), Def 23rd (105.5)
    ***** Marbury traded for Kidd *****
    '01-02 - Off 17th (104.0), Def 1st (99.5)
    '02-03 - Off 18th (103.8), Def 1st (98.9)
    '03-04 - Off 25th (100.8), Def 4th (98.0)
    '04-05 - Off 26th (101.4), Def 6th (103.1)
    '05-06 - Off 25th (103.9), Def 3rd (102.4)
New Jersey showed a massive improvement on defense, which is what carried them to consecutive Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. Of course, this wasn't all Kidd, as the team underwent a drastic overhaul for 2001-02, adding Richard Jefferson and Todd MacCulloch, in addition to seeing Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn return to health after fighting major injuries. (Though, as a side note, Phoenix did go from 1st in Def Efficiency in 2000-01 with Kidd to 12th in 2001-02 with Marbury, while improving from 22nd to 19th on O.)

Now look what's happened the last two years:
    '06-07 - Off 16th (105.7), Def 15th (106.6)
    '07-08 - Off 25th (101.9), Def 23rd (108.3)
A drastic falloff. Again, I'm not pinning this all on Kidd - there are certainly other issues like the loss of Kenyon Martin and the decline of Jason Collins, which have affected the team defense over time.

Still, the facts are that Jason Kidd used to be an elite defensive guard, and he is no longer one. Devin Harris is a very good and very quick on-ball defender. Considering that Dallas could run into Messrs. Parker, Nash, Paul, et al come May/June, that would be an even greater concern to me from the Mavs' perspective than wondering whether Kidd's .366 FG% and 3.7 TOs are a sign of decline or disenchantment with his current situation.

I do not think I would trade for the 34-year-old Kidd if it meant giving up the 24-year-old Harris. Certainly, the age factor is mitigated by the fact that Dallas is competing for a championship right now. I'm just not sure that Kidd suits the team's needs better than Harris at this point in their respective careers.


And if I were the Lakers, I would not trade for Kidd if it meant giving up Lamar Odom. L.A.'s future looks bright, with Kobe at age 29, Odom at age 28 and Andrew Bynum at 20. To sub Kidd - about to turn 35 - in for Lamar seriously shortens L.A.'s window to develop into a championship contender in my opinion.

Age matters, man. So many folks were aghast that Mitch Kupchak refused to pull the trigger on a Kidd deal last year, because it would have cost him Bynum. How does that decision look now, just one year later? How does Chicago's decision to sign 32-year-old Ben Wallace (met with near universal acclaim) at the expense of 24-year-old Tyson Chandler look now?

A little international basketball news yesterday, as FIBA came out with the draw for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in July in Athens. 12 teams will be competing for the three last spots in the Beijing field.

Here are the four preliminary round groups:
Group A: Brazil, Greece and Lebanon
Group B: Cape Verde, Germany and New Zealand
Group C: Canada, Korea and Slovenia
Group D: Cameroon, Croatia and Puerto Rico

The top two from each group will advance to the quarterfinals, and it's single elimination from there.

We're going to stick with our predictions from last fall for now, and go with these teams to grab the three berths:
- Greece
- Slovenia
- Germany
Greece should be a mortal lock now that the tournament is in Athens, and Slovenia should have a talented roster. Croatia and Brazil should be nipping at Germany's heels.

Perhaps the most interesting story on FIBA.com was Canada coach Leo Rautins saying that Steve Nash has not ruled out a return to Team Canada, for whom he has not played since 2003:
    "You are always hoping [Nash] will play but I’m preparing as if he’s not," Rautins said to FIBA.com.

    "He hasn’t said no, and he’s very optimistic about what we’re doing. But a lot depends on his situation.

    "We are in a position now that if we were fortunate to have Steve play, he wouldn’t have to carry us. He could be a part of us. At that age, [Nash turns 34 on February 7], it’s not an attractive option to be a savior after a long NBA season."
If Nash plays in Athens, Canada becomes a definite contender for that third spot.

Finally, I liked that Johnny Ludden, in claiming that Baron Davis was the no. 1 All-Star snub, said that "Somewhere, Byron Scott is laughing"... and it turns out that, as the SF Chronicle reported, that somewhere was simply Byron's office!