Thursday, July 23, 2009

USA Basketball: Musings on 2010-12

USA Basketball began the long road to London with the opening of the Men's National Team mini-camp in Las Vegas on Thursday. The first stop will be the 2010 World Championships in Turkey - an event the U.S. hopes to win for the first time since 1994 - before Team USA arrives in England for the 2012 Olympics to attempt to defend its gold medal (we're going to go out on a limb and assume they'll qualify...).

Here are some of our thoughts as a new USA Basketball quadrennium commences.

First off, FIBA has made some key rules changes which will go into effect after the World Championships, such as these:

- Three-point line moved back from 6.25m (20' 6.25") to 6.75m (22' 1.75").
- Free-throw lane changed from trapezoid to rectangle of NBA dimensions.
- "No-charge" semicircle in front of the basket, as in the NBA.

All of these changes should be advantageous to the Americans:
1. Moving the arc back reduces the odds of a team having a "shooter's chance" of pulling off an upset with a barrage of threes. It's an exceedingly welcome change to us - 20' 6" is way too much of a chip shot for adults.
2. The trapezoidal lane pushes big men out from the basket, and thus puts a premium on skill over sheer size and athleticism - the Team USA bigs often have an edge in the latter and a deficit in the former. It's also been a disadvantage to U.S. players simply because they have not been used to operating from the trapezoid. We're a little bummed to see the trapezoid go - we've always liked it exactly because it does favor skill - but standardization is probably a good thing.
3. The no-charge semi-circle offers a very small advantage, as less athletic players are more likely to take charges than block shots, and I have seen several teams profit by taking charges vs. Team USA right at the goal over the years. And again, it's always better for the guys to play with something close to NBA rules, since they are more instinctively used to that game. I've always thought this was a good rule for basketball - defenses should not be rewarded for allowing the offense to penetrate all the way to the basket, and then just stand there and take the hit.

My first thought about the potential Team USA rosters for 2010-12 is this: man, this is going to be one tough team to make. The core of the stellar 2008 team was young enough that as many as 8 players may be back for another go-around: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Deron Williams, and Carmelo Anthony all seem open to giving it another go following their exceedingly positive experience with the National Team program from 2006-08, a testament to the work done by Jerry Colangelo and Coach K.

The only problem is that there is a richly talented generation of even-younger players emerging, already nipping at the heels of the Redeem Team. There's going to be a huge amount of competition if there are only 4 spots available, as there is a surplus of worthy players. Of course, things happen - injuries and other unforeseen events may well drop a couple guys from the ranks of the "Great Eight". If the number were to hold, though, it would easily be the largest roster carryover for Team USA from one Olympics to another in the NBA era. Take a look:

1992 --> 1996: 5 players (Barkley, Stockton, Malone, Pippen, Robinson)
1996 --> 2000: 1 player (Payton)
2000 --> 2004: 0 players
2004 --> 2008: 3 players (James, Wade, Anthony)
2008 --> 2012: 8 players???

I wonder if Jerry Colangelo could have dreamed that his concept of bringing continuity to the national team would become so wildly successful. Again, you absolutely cannot give that man enough credit for how he rebuilt the USA Basketball Senior Men's National Team program.

Here are the four players who will be replaced, according to the consensus, and the roles they played:
- Third Point Guard/Team Leader (along with James/Bryant): Jason Kidd
- Designated Shooter: Michael Redd
- 12th Man/Defensive Stopper: Tayshaun Prince
- Backup Big Man: Carlos Boozer

We're going to look into the crystal ball here a little bit and suggest the four players who we think should be top contenders to fill these roles (roughly, that is - the roles won't be exact matches) in 2010. The first two are no-brainers:

1. Third Point Guard/Team Leader: Brandon Roy
First of all, the need for another team leader will not be necessary from 2010-12, given that the "Great Eight" will all be solid veterans; Kidd's leadership was deemed to be necessary in 2007-08 because of the team's youth.

And no, Brandon Roy's not a point guard, either. But the team certainly has enough players who can initiate offense (including Roy, if added) that it won't be necessary to add a true point guard, so you just can't ignore a guy who is this damn good.

He is just 25 years old (as of Thursday - happy b'day, B), yet he has already become arguably the 7th-best player in basketball. Seemingly a 10-year vet when he walked into the league, Roy plays within himself to an extent that there's very little ego that will need to be left at the door, and he would represent the program with class off the court.

Roy has withdrawn from the mini-camp, however, apparently because of the strange delay in the negotiation of his contract extension with the Blazers. He will be the most prominent of several players with legitimate designs on a roster spot to skip the camp - it'll be interesting to see how that affects the standing of these players in the eyes of Mssrs. Colangelo and K.

Other Contenders
The addition of Roy seems like it would make it difficult for Derrick Rose to make the team, just because of positional needs (see below). However, Rose is attending the mini-camp, and Colangelo was brilliant in 2006 in having a sharp eye for emerging guys like CP3 and Dwight Howard who would be superstars by 2008. It'll be interesting to how Rose is handled with the national team, given that he seems like he'll be elite by 2012, if he isn't already, and it'd seem they'd want to get a point guard groomed for 2014-16 - it's just hard to find room.

Rajon Rondo is missing the camp because he is in Kendrick Perkins's wedding, which can't help his cause for a spot. Rondo and Rose could both stand to improve their shooting to help their causes, of course, although the venerable Sam Smith tweeted today that "Drose didnt miss a j in drills. said taking 700 a day."

We'll also throw John Wall into the mix, as we think he has the potential to be better than Rose or Rondo. He should enter the league for 2010-11, though, so he'd be pretty green for London, and still needs to prove his mental game over the long haul.

Devin Harris will likely be on the outside looking in, and Monta Ellis will not be at mini-camp (I cannot find any information about whether he declined an invite, or was not invited).

2. Designated Shooter: Kevin Durant
Designated shooter, designated scorer, designated baller. Whatever you want, this guy is it. Given the way Durant played in the Team USA intrasquad scrimmage back in 2007, we thought he should have made the team over Redd then.

But c'mon - dude averaged 25 ppg with .422 3PT% at age 20. He's only going to get better, perhaps scarily so, and seems to have a good head on his shoulders. If it's his role to sit the bench and wait his turn 2010-12, I believe Durant will accept it... and then be ready to help run the show from 2014-16.

Kevin Durant figures to challenge for championships and MVP awards in the latter part of the 2010s. Nothing more to discuss here. Next.

Other Contenders
None, really. Do you see any other young rising superstar swingmen on Durant's level? Didn't think so. And don't say O.J. Mayo - I said "superstar." Same sentiments for his Grizz teammate Rudy Gay. Quite frankly, I think Mike Beasley's pure scoring ability (25th in points-per-minute as a rook) makes him a more impressive candidate than either of the Grizz, but of course, B-Easy needs to prove he's got the right stuff mentally, and he was not even invited to the mini-camp. Also surprised that Kevin Martin didn't get a courtesy call to mini-camp ahead of the likes of Kyle Korver.

3. 12th Man/Defensive Stopper: Danny Granger
So, you see, with B-Roy and KD, we're really down to just two open spots, with loads of candidates, and this one is an excruciatingly tough choice. It basically comes down to two guys for us: Danny Granger (26) and Andre Iguodala (25). They have different strengths and weaknesses, and we have gone back and forth, and back and forth again, before settling on Granger, for now.

Granger is the better scorer and a much better shooter (40%-31% edge over AI), and while he's not really a defensive stopper, he's solid on D. The decisive factor in Granger's favor may be that he has better size and can guard 3s and 4s, which fills a need (more on this later) more than AI, who guards 2s and 3s.

Iguodala is pretty close to the most underrated player in basketball, in no small part because he is emerging as a true lockdown defender. He's also a much better assist man than Granger (5.3 vs. 2.7). AI also has an advantage in that he played for the USA Select Team which scrimmaged against the National Team in both 2007 and 2008.

Tough, tough choice and I could really go either way. Let's see how 2009-10 plays out. Granger says he wants to become a defensive stopper, so we'll see. Both players are at mini-camp, though Granger is not playing, in order to rest his knee.

Other contenders
Anthony Randolph's freak-show set of gifts make him intriguing, and his superstar turn in the Vegas Summer League earned him a trip to Team USA mini-camp, but the Olympics are a long way from summer league. Prove it in Oakland this winter, kid, and then we'll give you a look.

Frankly, for other contenders, I might re-consider Tayshaun Prince and Shane Battier despite their relatively advanced ages (29 and 30) because they were so perfect for the national-team "glue-guy" role in 2008 and 2006, respectively.

4. Backup Big Man: Greg Oden
OK, this one's also really, really tough right now - a lot of candidates and a lot of variables. This is the one spot that's really up for grabs based on who emerges the most in 2009-10. We tend to think that USA Basketball would be wise to go with younger players who can gain experience in order to become team leaders in the 2014-16 period, which would give our inside track to 21-year-olds Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum, if they show development, which is really the one major "if" of the NBA's 2010s beyond "Where will LeBron go?," so it's far from a lock.

We're going to go out on a limb and say that Oden will finally begin emerge as a defensive force this season. The words of Raptors coach Jay Triano, who is running the mini-camp, after practice today had to warm the hearts of Blazermaniacs far and wide: "Oden was the surprise of the practice. He shut down everything inside."

That's why the Blazers drafted him, and we think that, if he indeed develops in '09-10, his combo of being younger and more defensively-oriented would give him an edge over the rest of the field.

Other contenders
There is no shortage. If Colangelo and Coach K want to go with defense, we'd say that Bynum, Tyson Chandler (26) and Kendrick Perkins (24) should all be in the mix. And I suppose you can't discount Emeka Okafor (26), he who did not score a point in Athens, due to his stalwart work at the back of an improved Bobcats D.

None of those players are at mini-camp, though (while Oden is there), with Bynum focused on getting his knee to 100% and Perk getting married.

If the brain trust is looking for a more offensive-minded player, there are probably two main options: Al Jefferson (24) and Amare Stoudemire (26). Jefferson is possibly the best low-post scorer in basketball right now, but he might be a better option for 2012, to work in the NBA lane he's used to. Stoudemire's ability to score in a variety of ways probably fits better in '10, but his detached retina is a scary injury; we're concerned about how long it's going to take him to get all the way back.

Both players are rehabbing injuries this summer. Jefferson was on the Select Team in '07 but not '08. Stoudemire was on the National Team in '07 but not '08.

Other bigs in the mix include camp attendees Kevin Love, Brook Lopez, and Paul Millsap, as well as guys who withdrew from camp for contract/injury issues in Blake Griffin, David Lee, and LaMarcus Aldridge. We should note that we see Griffin as an All-Star-type player, but not a Hall-of-Fame-type player, as J.A. Adande seemed to suggest recently. We certainly think he can contend for a spot in time, but don't think he's a shoo-in by any means.

One last name we'll throw in is Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors, who could be the no. 1 pick in the 2010 draft. Like Wall, he's probably too inexperienced for this go-around, but could contend sooner than you think.


All right, circling back, these are the four we've got:
- Third Point Guard: Brandon Roy
- Designated Shooter: Kevin Durant
- 12th Man/Defensive Stopper: Danny Granger
- Backup Big Man: Greg Oden

Of course, there is room for flexibility here - it's not as if these roles needed to be filled exactly the same way. In terms of roles, it seems like the main wild card is that 12th Man/Defensive Stopper.

Do you go with another point guard instead, to get a guy like Rose in there who can help form a nucleus for 2014-16?

Do you go with another big? Take a look at the "Great Eight" lineup again: just two bigs, Howard and Bosh, and CB4 is not exactly a bruiser. There was a little talk going into Beijing about whether having just 3 bigs would be a fatal flaw for Team USA, and whether a guy like Tyson Chandler would be better for the team than Prince.

Turns out Prince gave some huge minutes in the gold-medal game when Kobe and LeBron got in early foul trouble, but it still seems like a valid question, perhaps especially so in 2012 once the lane reduces to NBA dimensions?

Coach K seems to favor 3 bigs, though. The 2006 team had 5 bigs (if you include Brad Miller, who was largely a wasted roster spot), and then in 2007, the U.S. went with just 3 bigs like it did in Beijing.

A quote from Coach K on Thursday seemed to tip his hand in the direction of a 3/4 like Granger:
    "A big thing is versatility. In the international game what we’ve learned is the more versatile team you have, especially at the three and four, when they can do both, that adds a lot because so many fours in international ball play away from the basket and are really perimeter players so it’s a little different context that you deal in."
Still, it'll be interesting to see if the FIBA game changes with the lane, and if something like Jefferson's low-post game might be more effective in 2012, and more useful than another 3/4.

[July 26 update: Above, we wrote our early thoughts largely focused on who should make the team. The reporting from Vegas seems to indicate that the USA Basketball brass favors a third true point, which really puts Derrick Rose in the driver's seat. Kevin Durant appears to be a lock. Colangelo and Coach K also seem set to go with 3 bigs again.

So, the questions for the 2010 roster now seem to be:
- Who will emerge in '09-10 to take that last big-man spot?
- Who will grab the last spot, which seems reserved for a wing player, with Brandon Roy, Andre Iguodala, Danny Granger and Rudy Gay seeming to be contenders. Roy is the best player but has skipped 2 straight camps, Iggy is the best stopper and also has played with USA Basketball for three straight summers, Granger can knock down 3's and guard 4's, and Gay emerged with a 27-point performance in Saturday's intrasquad scrimmage.]

Mike Krzyzewski did a superlative job of creating and building a sense of team for the USA Basketball National Team, which was an essential need in the 2006-08 period, and the culture he built along with Jerry Colangelo seems stronger than ever, poised to live on into the future. As we've said before, you can't give enough credit to both men for that.

With that culture in place, we'd have to say we would have preferred to see a pro coach get the USA nod this time around, because we think Coach K's in-game adjustment skills were just as shaky against Spain in '08 as they were against Greece in '06 - this time he happened to have better players.

Remember that the U.S. came very close to losing to a Spain team playing through a key injury, to Jose Calderon, with a 17-year-old manning the point in his stead, no less. And it was the manner in which the game was played that would have made it an unacceptable loss: Team USA gave up 107 points (the equivalent of 128 in an NBA game) while never trying to throw hard double-teams at Pau Gasol, who was potent but turnover-prone in the Games, and struggling to adjust to Juan Carlos Navarro as he repeatedly drove the lane for floaters.

In-game adjustments are an area of coaching which is just more advanced for pro coaches. His work at Duke is unassailable, but Coach K just makes us nervous on the sidelines of a pro game, and we'd rather see a top NBA guy over there.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Midsummer Transactional Tidbits

The summer signing period has been officially under way for a few weeks now and rosters are rounding into shape. It seems the same teams that contended last year have been just getting stronger. The Cavs, Magic, Celtics, Spurs, and Lakers (if Odom stays) all look to be deeper than they were last year.

By now, we're getting a pretty strong idea what to expect from most teams in '09-'10 with Lamar Odom, Andre Miller, & Allen Iverson (if he accepts a reduced role) being the only available impact players in free agency. Drew Gooden & Rasho Nesterovic are the best bigs left in the unrestricted pool, and could help certain teams.

Below we take a quick analysis of a handful of playoff-caliber teams summer happenings.

ORLANDO: The Magic might be having the most productive off-season of any team. They project to be the deepest team in the NBA, but they will be paying a hefty bill for their bounty.

A combined $10 million dollars/year is a lot of coin just for your reserve frontcourt of Gortat & Bass. Could be overpaying a bit for Gortat's services since he has no future as a starter in Orlando and heavy minutes could be scarce. Hard to see where Gortat gets more than 15 minutes a game.

One thing is, for sure, Stan Van Gundy will have a wealth of 5-man unit options. Probably will go with a Nelson-Carter-Pietrus-Lewis-Howard starting five. Lewis can obviously swing to the 3-spot, and might have to a little more often this year with Redick as the only wing reserve currently. Pietrus & Carter can play both wing positions. Gortat & Howard can play together for short stretches.

I can even envision an ultra big lineup of Carter at the point, Pietrus at the 2, Lewis at 3, Bass or Gortat at 4, & Dwight at 5. Carter can handle the point for limited minutes, and Pietrus could defend the opposing point.

And with the rumors that Matt Barnes is prepared to sign with Orlando, another versatile option will be at Stan's disposal. But this additional move does amplify the precarious management of minutes that Van Gundy has to deal with. Though, I would imagine that's a problem not too many coaches would complain too much about.

HOUSTON: Daryl Morey made an underrated move by trading for the rights of FC Barcelona's David Andersen. The 6-11 29-year-old is a solid athlete who has excelled at top levels of European basketball last few years. Second time Morey has done a great job acquiring the rights of a Euro post player in the last few years (Luis Scola being the other).

Andersen is probably better-suited as a back-up 4/5 in the NBA, but Yao's injury should force Andersen into the starting five. The other advantage of this transaction is that Andersen is mobile enough to play some minutes at the 4. He could compliment Yao nicely with his ability to draw opposing PFs 20 feet out.

Andersen's sweet-shooting touch is his biggest weapon. Can comfortably float out to 20 feet (though not sure he has NBA 3pt. range on the jumper). Great in pick/pop situations. Should work well in Adelman's schemes with the bigs up high. Would float out to the perimeter often in Barcelona's offense. Uses his touch effectively when posting on the low blocks--nice turnaround jumpers going over either shoulder.

The drawback with Andersen's game is he doesn't hold position real well when defending the low box. Can be pushed around a little, likely will be somewhat of a defensive liability in the NBA. Won't nearly be the interior presence at the rim that Yao or Mutombo were.

Considering how weak the free-agent market was for centers this summer--Gortat might have been the only better option than Andersen--Morey made another savvy move at a reasonable financial rate (roughly $2.5 mil/year).

DALLAS: Since the Magic raided their potential frontline options, the Mavs need to pursue a big to back-up Nowitzki. Two guys Cuban should be focusing on with the full MLE intact are Drew Gooden and Leon Powe.

Going after Powe is a little risky because of his bum knees, but we wouldn't hesitate giving a good chunk of MLE to Gooden, who has shown he can be a solid starter in the NBA. Gooden ain't much defensively and he can flake out sometimes, but has proven he can get you around 10-12 ppg & 7-8 rpg thru his career. Gooden can even slide to the center for short doses, which could be needed with only Ryan Hollins (expected to re-sign) behind Dampier.

Also see: Plays of the 2009 Playoffs

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Plays of the NBA Playoffs, Vol. 2 (Nos. 12-1)

Hello again, folks. Yesterday, we posted Volume 1 of our favorite plays of the 2009 NBA Playoffs, as we counted down from 25-13. Today, we offer our Top 12, and once again, we're using that "Top 12" term loosely, as we've packed in another 20+ clips into this one - there were just too many plays we loved!

We can't deny it: we absolutely love this page. Loved putting it together, love watching the clips over and over. Damn near the full variety of why we love the Playoffs so much is expressed below. Hope you enjoy and have fun with it.

Once again, we'll note that we're partial to little guys who take it to big guys, big guys who display some skills, high degree-of-difficulty assists and game-changing/deciding plays. Once again, here we go:

12. Kobe Spins One to Pau
Here's the situation: Orlando leads 87-82 with the clock winding down to half a minute in Game 4, the Magic poised to tie the Finals at 2-2. Then the Lakers get out on the break, Kobe attacks the lane, spins, and drops a behind-the-head assist to Pau to cut the lead to 3 and set up a couple decisive plays that you just might be seeing a little later. Really, assists don't get much better than this: smart, clutch, creative, gorgeous, with excellent court vision.

11. The Josh Smith Experience
We feel like Josh Smith's performance in Game 1 of the Hawks-Heat series went a little under the radar. Dude delivered no less than five mammoth dunks that you can see in the clip below. You had a little bit of everything: halfcourt alley-oop, reverse finish on the halfcourt alley-oop, a huge rebound follow, and a hammer dunk out on the break. All of them seemingly with his head at the rim and arms reaching up to the top of the square. Crazy.

Only thing that was missing in Game 1 was throwing one right in somebody's mug, so we can't resist adding this one from Game 5 over Jermaine O'Neal. We're going to refrain from including the comedic value of the between-the-legs miss later in Game 5 - you can go to YouTube for that gem.

10. Celtics-Bulls: Epic Clutch
Much like we could probably find 25 LeBron plays, we could probably also find 25 plays from the Celtics-Bulls series. Here are four great clutch shots from that all-time great first-round series.

Game 2: Ray Allen knocks down the game-winning three over Noah (:02)

Game 4: Ben Gordon ties it with a tough three and gives the modified Cassell Dance (:04.5, OT)

Game 5: Paul Pierce calmly knocks down the game-winning pull-up (:03.4, OT)

Game 6: Ray Allen sends it to a third OT with a three, part of a 51-point game (:07.6, 2OT)

9. Behind-the-Back-taculars
This is one of those plays that's kind of forgotten/under-the-radar, but we absolutely love. LeBron delivers the behind-the-back pass to Varejao from the low post. We have no idea how LeBron saw the passing lane, and we marvel at the precision of the delivery - he had to throw that thing hard, behind-the-back, with a bounce... and he pinpointed it. Unreal. This is the single best pass of the postseason to us.

We also throw in a similar play from Kenyon Martin, who delivers a no-look, behind-the back assist to the Birdman while on the move in the lane, in Game 3 vs. the Lakers.

8. Dahntay Jones Scales Mt. Dampier, + Windmill
This is our choice for the single best dunk of the Playoffs: Dahntay Jones takes it right at, and over, Erick Dampier in Game 3 of the Nuggets-Mavs series. Look out below.

For good measure, we also give you the completely entertaining, completely unnecessary windmill dunk from the first quarter of Game 4 of the Lakers series. And, you know, we respect Mike Breen as a true pro as a broadcaster, but this clip demonstrates a pet peeve we have. If Marv had called this one, it would have been: "Jones on the break... WITH THE WINDMILL!", and then he would have offered a wry aside to question the wisdom of the play. In other words, he would have captured the full scope of the play: that might not have been a very smart play, but man, it sure was fun to watch.

Breen's call? "Here's Jones ahead of the pack. Should be an easy one.... Makes it a little more difficult, but it stills counts as two." It's just a tad schoolmarmish and joyless for our tastes. A play can be both ill-advised and awesome, and it's OK to acknowledge as such.

7. Artest-Brooks Alley
It's another rule of Plays of the Playoffs: if you're under 6-feet and you convert the oop end of an alley-oop off an inbounds pass from half-court, you make the list. Ron Artest hits Aaron Brooks at the halftime buzzer of Game 4 vs. L.A. Nice D, Lakers.

6. The Birdman vs. The Candyman
Please forgive us for saying this, T-Ziller, but if you don't like this sequence, you don't like NBA basketball. A 6-10 man with skill goes right at a 6-10 man with athleticism. In the first play, Chris Andersen serves up the best block of the Playoffs, denying a Lamar Odom dunk right at the rim in the first quarter of Game 5 - about as perfect a block as you'll ever see.

However, in the fourth quarter, Lamar came right back at the Birdman, dunking over him impressively and drawing the foul, a key play with the Lakers' season possibly in danger.

5. Iggy's Tough Game-Winner
2009 was a damn good year for last-second clutch shots in the NBA Playoffs. We've already featured four from Celtics-Bulls, we've got a couple more here, and there are still a few more to come. And we didn't even include stuff like Thaddeus Young and Hedo Turkoglu hitting game-winners in back-to-back games of the Magic-Sixers series, or Deron Williams beating the Lakers in the final seconds.

As a representative of playoff clutch, we're going with Andre Iguodala's game-winner at the end of Game 1 vs. Orlando, mainly for the insane degree-of-difficulty: he crosses over and steps back, drives and steps back again, and still has Turkoglu draped all over him as he shoots. Crazy tough shot.

We're feeling guilty about not showing the Magic enough love, so we're also going to include another high degree-of-difficulty clutch shot, from Rashard Lewis in Game 4 vs. Cleveland. Trailing 98-97 in the final seconds, Raw Lew catches while running away from the basket, yet still gathers and turns to his left for the fluid three with 4.1 seconds left. The Cavs sent the game to OT on LeBron FTs, but Orlando prevailed in OT to take a commanding 3-1 lead.

[Ed note: As pointed out in the comments, other late game-winners included Big Baby vs. the Magic, Carmelo (controversially) vs. the Mavs, and Rashard in Game 1 vs. the Cavs. All worthy.

I will point out that we included 9 last-minute, game-deciding shots among this list, and have listed 6 others, including the ones in this blurb/ed. note. That's 15 worthy last-minute shots, plus probably a few more that could've been included. Sorting through all those shots was easily the most difficult aspect of this exercise. In retrospect, we probably should have titled this one Game-Winners Galore, and just used AI/Rashard's shots as reps of all these, as listed the others, since the story here is the volume of last-minute shots in '09.]

4. Kobe With the Spectacular Shot
This is another play that I sure hope doesn't get forgotten. I really think that MJ's spectacular move has nothing on this one from Kobe.

It's Game 5 of the NBA Finals and the Lakers are trying to hold off a 3rd-quarter push by the Magic to keep their season alive. Kobe gets into the lane, elevates, shows the ball to Dwight Howard on one side of his body, then gathers and shoots around the other side of Superman while on his way down. A classic display of Bryant's supreme set of varied skills. Possibly more impressive than MJ because Kobe has to evade a huge Defensive Player of the Year. Given the magnitude of the moment, it's nothing less than one of the very best plays of the Hall of Famer's career, and deserves to be remembered as such.

3. Joakim Noah Goes to Coast-to-Coast
You didn't think we were going to put Celtics-Bulls to bed without this one, did you? Remember how we said we liked big guys displaying their skills? Well, there's no better example than this one. 7-footer Joakim Noah makes the steal and drives the length of the court before finishing with an emphatic dunk that draws a 6th foul on Paul Pierce late in the 3rd OT of the classic Celtics-Bulls Game 6.

2. Derek Fisher Delivers in the Clutch Again... And Again
He's synonymous with ".4" for Lakers fans, and he hit a ton of clutch shots in the Lakers' '00-02 three-peat, and Derek Fisher did it again in the decisive Game 4 of the NBA Finals. First he hit the game-tying three with 4.6 seconds left in regulation.

Then, Fish sealed the ballgame - and, effectively, the championship - for L.A. with a three that put the Lakers ahead for good at 94-91 with 31.3 left in OT.

1. LeBron at the Buzzer
LeBron gets the nod narrowly over Fish for our favorite play of the playoffs. Didn't affect the outcome of the series, we know, but we give it the edge because of the high degree of difficulty on the shot, plus the fact that he only had one second to shoot and it turned defeat into victory right at the buzzer. Tough call, but we're sticking with LBJ. Great shot (and a great call by Marv, who immediately and succinctly conveyed every relevant piece of information).

Thanks for playing. As a reminder, you can also watch clips 25-13 (and then some) in Volume 1 of our Plays of the Playoffs. And don't fret, opening night is closer than you think.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Plays of the NBA Playoffs, Vol. 1 (Nos. 25-13)

Also see: Plays of the 2009 NBA Playoffs, Vol. 2 (12-1)

We think the NBA Playoffs are the greatest sporting event on Earth. It's the best basketball in the world, there's the drama surrounding storylines for teams and players which develop not only over the course of a series but over multiple years, and not least, there is the sheer volume of spectacular plays which display why NBA players are the world's greatest athletes.

The last point is exactly what we are here to display today, a look back at our favorite plays from the 2009 NBA Playoffs. Our Top "25" actually contains about 40 plays total, we couldn't help ourselves. The countdown runs from 25-13 today, and we'll be back for the Top 12 tomorrow.

We don't claim these are the "best", they're just our favorites. We'll note that we dig little guys who dunk on big guys, big guys who display some skills, high degree-of-difficulty assists and game-changing/deciding plays. Here we go:

25. Gortat, Boozer Drop the Lefty Hammers
Let's get things going with Marcin Gortat dropping a full mid-level exception Polish Hammer on the head of Sammy Dalembert, in his coming out party in Game 6 vs. Philly, with Dwight Howard suspended.

For good measure, here's Carlos Boozer, in perhaps his last great play as a Jazzman, wheeling around Pau Gasol for a strong lefty dunk to give Utah the lead in the final minute of its only playoff win, vs. L.A. in Game 3.

24. Brad Miller Jai Alais the Assist
Perhaps inspired by the quality work of the Dos Equis 'Most Interesting Man in the World' in the fronton, Brad Miller turns his arm into a xistera to deliver the slingshot assist to Joakim Noah in Game 5 of the epic Celtics-Bulls series. Have to see this one in slow motion to fully appreciate it.

23. Superman Brings Down the Shot Clock
It's a rule of Plays of the Playoffs: if you bring down the shot clock with a dunk, as Dwight Howard did vs. the Cavs in Game 1, you make the list.

One more from D-12, for whom it was actually surprisingly tough to find list-worthy plays. For a slam-dunk champion, Howard's in-game dunks have a surprising lack of style. He tends to go up incredibly high and bring it down incredibly hard, over and over again. It's awe-inspiring and thoroughly impressive, for sure, but it just doesn't quite capture our imagination. Still, out of respect for his postseason of dominance, here's a Howard smash on the head of Theo Ratliff in Game 3 vs. Philly.

22. Kobe Blocks Yao
With the Lakers-Rockets series tied 1-1, L.A. came out of the locker room at halftime of Game 3 clinging to a two-point lead on the road. They broke the game open with a 24-14 edge in the third that was sparked in part by two Kobe Bryant blocked shots against Yao Ming. Here is the better of the two, gorgeously timed by Bryant against a man a foot taller.

21. Shannon Brown Tattoos The Birdman
Game 5 of the Lakers-Nuggets was among the most fertile ground for spectacular plays in this year's playoffs - this is the first of several from that pivotal game to make the cut. This one was yet another key play in the Lakers season. With the series tied at 2-2 and the Lakers down 5 late in the third, Shannon Brown finishes the fast break by pounding one on Chris Andersen. Don't sleep on Pau Gasol's role in this one - he makes the steal, leads the break, and finishes with the assist. Dude's ability to make plays on the break at 7-0 is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of his richly skilled game.

20. Billups With the Self-Assist Off Kobe's Back
In Tom Friend's outstanding E-Ticket profile of Chauncey Billups, he relayed a story about how "Smooth" Chauncey inbounded an assist to himself off an opponent's back in the 1994 Colorado state championship game. Well, 15 years later, at the end of the first half of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Billups did it again, this time off of Kobe Bryant. Didn't finish with a dunk this time, not sure if he apologized to Grandma.

19. LBJ Sampler Platter
One of the challenges of this list was trying to narrow down the most spectacular plays of LeBron's playoffs - dude could probably have a whole Top 25 to himself. Here, we give it a try with a sampling of four dunks. Oh, there's more to come.

Game 3 vs. ORL: LeBron goes up high for the alley-oop from Mo.

Game 1 vs. ORL: LeBron goes up even higher to finish the fast break with authority.

Game 2 vs. ATL: LeBron down the lane for the violent reverse in the halfcourt O. Goodness. Hubie with the understatement of the list: "Now that was an explosion off the crossover."

Game 4 vs. DET: Windmill! LeBron turns out the lights at the Palace.

18. D-Wade Zigs, Zags and Zazas
After his outstanding 2008-09 season, Dwyane Wade deserved a spot on the list, and he earned it in Game 6 vs. ATL, weaving down the lane and dropping it on Zaza Pachulia's head while being fouled.

17. Kobe Reaches Back for the Alley-Oop
Another key play from Game 5 of the Lakers-Nuggets series. Early in the second half, Kobe calls on some old-school hops to get up and gather in the alley-oop from Derek Fisher and ignite the Staples Center crowd.

16. Rondo Dunks on Orlando, Two Times
Like we said at the top, we love little men who challenge big guys at the rim. Rajon Rondo did so twice in the Orlando series, with this dunk in Game 2 ("HERE'S RONDO WITH THE STUFF!" - man, we love Marv.)...

...and then again as one of the lone Boston bright spots in Game 7, kinda sorta vs. Superman.

15. Trevor Ariza Makes Him Some Money
Free-agent Trevor Ariza was of course one of the breakout players of this year's playoffs, and he turned in one of the prettiest dunks of the postseason, driving, twisting and reaching for the goal against Denver in Game 2.

As a bonus, we're also giving you Ariza's elegant reverse jam over Boozer to finish the break in Game 1 vs. the Jazz.

14. Derrick Rose Block Party
For a guy not known for his defense, Bulls rookie Derrick Rose turned in some of the most notable blocked shots of the playoffs. This was probably the best one, a perfectly-timed chasedown to thwart a Brian Scalabrine dunk in Game 7.

This was the most important one, the full extension against Rajon Rondo to secure Game 6 at the end of the third OT.

This one may have been our favorite, because it coupled an incredible save which ignited a Bulls fast break along with a denial of Paul Pierce. Couldn't find video, so we have to roll animated gif style:

13. C. Lee v. LeBron
Orlando rookie Courtney Lee proved many times that he was not intimidated by the big stage of the NBA Playoffs, perhaps most emphatically when he challenged LeBron James at the goal - here Lee dunks on LeBron in Game 1 (and we have the video to prove it!).

LeBron responded with a trademark chasedown against Lee in the break in Game 3.

Undaunted, Courtney learned his lesson and came back strong later in Game 3, slamming through the fast-break finish before LeBron can get there.

All right, there you have it, we're halfway done and hopefully Nike won't confiscate this post after the dunks in no. 13! See you tomorrow with the Top 12 (plus a few extras). What will be no. 1?

Also see: Plays of the 2009 NBA Playoffs, Vol. 2 (12-1)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Start of Summer Transaction Season

Rasheed & Villanueva Sweepstakes:
With the summer transaction season starting tonite, I'm most intrigued with what the top-tier teams will accomplish. Not much separates teams like the Cavs, Celts, Magic, Spurs, & the Lakers. All these teams look very formidable for '09-'10, but all these squads still have holes, particularly on the frontlines. (Though the defending champs can take care business by re-signing Odom & Ariza).

Cavs, Magic, and Spurs should be gunning hard for either Rasheed or Chuck Villanueva. A floor-spreading 4-man (or a Four-Spreader) is exactly what these teams need. Still think Sheed gives you more on the defensive end than Charlie, and since these teams are ready to win now, Sheed could be a better gamble for a 2-3 year deal. Acquiring Sheed or Villanueva could be the nudge each of these contenders need to separate from the pack.

Sheed or Charlie is exactly what the Cavs need to insert between Shaq & LeBron on their frontline. Varejao is now an unrestricted free agent, and even if Varejao is retained, the Cavs still need a face-up 4 to clear space.

Spurs need to add depth upfront. Imagine a finishing five of Parker, Manu, Jefferson, Sheed, & Timmy. Not just dangerous on offense, but pairing Sheed with Duncan defensively is a scary thought.

Boston has been rumored as another possible destination with Garnett pushing for Sheed. The Celts need more length on the backline and could be losing Leon Powe. But Sheed would have to be willing to come off the bench because K. Perkins has established himself as a quality starter.

With Hedo likely leaving Orlando, Rashard Lewis could be moved back to the 3 and Sheed/Villa inserted into the 4-spot. Thus, keeping the 4 out/1 in offensive set-up intact in Orlando, and their interior defense could possibly be more imposing.

Though the major issue with chasing after Sheed is: can you deal with extra-curricular crap he brings to the table?

I could see Sheed on the Cavs, Spurs, & Celts, but not so much in Orlando. Think he could be kept in check with Shaq & Bron around. Think he would respect Popovich & Duncan. Boston has KG to monitor Sheed. But keeping Sheed in line in Orlando is a big question mark. Just not feeling the pairing of Sheed with Stan Van Gundy.

Sheed's former teammate, Antonio McDyess could be a secondary option these title-contending clubs, as well. McDyess doesn't quite have the range of Sheed & Chuckie V, but is reliable from 17 feet, and a better rebounder than both of them.

Pistons & Ben Gordon:
Can't quite understand the rumors of Detroit's hot pursuit of Ben Gordon. Currently, Detroit has no starting quality bigs on their roster while their backcourt situation ain't that bad.

And where is Gordon gonna fit? You shouldn't throw around $10 mil per at Gordon to be a sixth man. You recently extended the contract of Hamilton and I don't think moving Rip to the bench is the answer. Rip made no secret about his displeasure of reserve duty earlier this year. Not understanding the logic behind this rumor unless Dumars is in the process of dealing Hamilton.

If I'm Dumars, my main focus would be on Paul Millsap before Gordon. With the news of Boozer & Okur staying put, Utah will be hard-pressed to retain Millsap. Millsap would give you a young starting-caliber 4, what's not to like. Also, check out if Marcin Gortat wants to fill out the gaping hole at center.

Detroit could have some competition for Millsap. Have to imagine Memphis will go hard at Millsap, especially if Villaneuva is scooped up by the Cavs. The Grizzlies' biggest need is an athletic power forward.

Orlando's frontcourt contingency plan:
If Orlando loses Gortat (which looks highly likely) and can't get their hands on Sheed or Villaneuva, they should try encouraging Spain's Fran Vazquez (Euroleague #1 shot-blocker) to come to the States.

Not positive of Vazquez's current contract situation, but if a reasonable buyout can be reached, Vazquez is an underrated option for Orlando. Like Gortat, Vazquez is a good athlete who's a good rebounder & defender. Like Gortat. Vazquez's offense is pretty much limited to finishing well off rolls or cuts. Though, Vazquez might have trouble guarding some centers because he does not have the heft of Gortat. Vazquez could come close to replacing Gortat's production at a cheaper rate.