Sunday, October 31, 2010

Free *insert player name*!

Freedom. The word can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but like money, stress and happiness it's all relative. For some NBA players, freedom is getting a chance to show their talents, when they are stuck in a bad situation by a team. Now, being from Australia I don't have a geographical attachment to any particular team, so I support teams with players I like, and being a player's fan this sort of misuse of talented individuals frustrates me to no end. So let's take a look at some players who are trapped (on the bench in most cases), and a few success stories who made it out.

  • Marcin Gortat:
    I'll start off with a situation that has received a bit of publicity lately, with our large Polish friend demanding more minutes and an increased role in Orlando. He copped a bit of criticism because he's playing behind Dwight Howard, but Gortat tried to escape to Dallas as a restricted free agent and Orlando kept him here. Which quite frankly, sucks. He's young, versatile, can run the floor and could help a number of teams in need of a C. Ideal fits for Gortat would be Atlanta or Oklahoma City. The Hawks have Horford playing out of position at the 5 and Gortat would solve that problem. As far as OKC is concerned, Green is a great player, but is really a SF, and Gortat is better than any of the Cs currently on their roster. This would also allow Ibaka to slide over to the PF spot. A trade of Green for Gortat would actually help both players.
  • Xavier Henry:
    Playing behind OJ Mayo and Rudy Gay in Memphis for the forseeable future, Henry isn't going to be getting a starting nod anytime soon. He was impressive in pre-season and while it is only his rookie year he is good enough to be a starting 2-guard in the L. A few teams that could use a player like Henry are Charlotte, Washington, Sacramento. He would serve under Stephen Jackson for a few years and get the starting nod afterwards. A core of Augustine, Henry, Wallace and Thomas could make noise in a few years. Henry, Cousins, Casspi, Landry and of course Evans would be a force to be reckoned with if given time to develop. For the Wizards, Henry could serve as the long-term replacement for Gilbert Arenas and given how injury prone Hibachi is would get plenty of playing time in the short term.
  • Rudy Fernandez:
    I couldn't write an article on underused players and not mention Fernandez. His much publicized plea for freedom was denied by Portland, who instead traded Bayless to free up more playing time. While that was a nice gesture, it isn't enough for a player of Rudy's caliber. He could easily start in plenty of teams in the L, but in Portland he's playing behind one of the L's best starting back-courts in Miller and Roy. Like Henry, Fernandez would be the ideal replacement for an ageing Stephen Jackson in Charlotte, or a sharpshooting running mate for Tyreke Evans in Sactown. That said, the place most suited for Fernandez is Chicago. Fernandez would provide a ranged threat, a playmaker to let Rose be more of a scoring threat and could also back him up at the point. They are starting Keith Bogans for god's sake! While the Bulls have a shooter in Korver, he is somewhat one-dimensional, whereas Rudy is a versatile player who is also a great crunch time player. Thus far this season Rudy has been great when motivated, but all the playing time in the world won't be enough for him if it's off the bench.
All this talk of trapped players is depressing, so now might be a good time to look at some success stories. These are the players who persevered and were rewarded.

  • Carl Landry:
    Is there a better feel-good story than Landry's? Stuck playing behind Scola in a crowded Houston frontcourt he gets shipped over to Sacramento and is rewarded with the starting spot and a chance to show off his refined post skills. He strikes me as a similar player to David West; goes under the radar but is consistently productive. The good news is Sactown don't have anyone who can push him for the starting nod for the foreseeable future, so he has plenty of time to get comfortable and serve as a veteran leader on this Kings team for the next three years at least (when he hits the dreaded 30).
  • Darren Collison:
    The four year UCLA point guard was given an opportunity to shine when this generation's point god Chris Paul went down with a near season-ending injury and he impressed so much that Indiana traded their starting power forward to acquire him in a four-way deal. He has been given the reins of the team and along with a much improved Roy Hibbert and one-time All-Star Danny Granger has the Pacers sitting at 3rd in the East with a 2-1 record. Indiana is a dark horse to make the playoffs and Collison is in the perfect situation as the floor general of a young, improving team with a bright future.
  • Martell Webster/Travis Outlaw:
    It's tough being a SF in Portland. The higher-ups are set on Batum as their starting 3 and Coach McMillan uses 3s as spot up shooters and not much else. Both of these players are young, talented and just escaped their bench situations. Outlaw was signed to a multi-year deal and is starting at the small forward for the Nets. Webster was traded to Minnesota and is currently injured, but will play his way into the starting shooting guard spot by season's end as a leader on a very young Timberwolves unit.
So there you have it, a few players who were or are being underused and how they can get out. Here's hoping some of those players in the latter situation get out sooner rather than later.

Any readers (I know there are a few) who've made it this far, if there's a player somewhere in the L you think should be starting or 6th man then drop a comment and tell me about it.

Cheers, Mark.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Give Me(lo) a break!

Blame it on Scottie Pippen. Before Pippen came along Dominique Wilkins was arguably the prototypical small forward; a tremendous scoring machine, able to dunk, drive or shoot. Then Pippen and Jordan started winning championships with Pippen playing what was called the "point-forward" position. All of a sudden, we had a new definition of a great SF. He not only had to score, but he had to defend tenaciously, and carry some of the ball-handling load as well. Sounds like a good thing right? So what are we blaming Pippen for exactly...

Well, we are blaming Pippen for the disrespect given to Carmelo Anthony simply because he's more Wilkins than Pippen. It's a known fact that Melo isn't the greatest defender, and his playmaking abilities aren't anything to write home about; which would be a big deal if he was a guard. But see here's the thing, contrary to latest trends, it's still acceptable for a small forward to simply be a scoring machine who can do other things, but doesn't excel at them. I'm not just talking about solid starters, I'm talking superstars. Which despite his recent off court dramas, is still a category Melo belongs to. Superstar, franchise player, whatever you want to call it, he's it.

Now, a recent article on SLAMonline waxed lyrical about how Melo wasn't in fact a franchise player because he wouldn't be able to lead a team to a championship in the current NBA. Before I go on, I should probably mention the other reason why Melo doesn't get the respect he deserves; he has always been in the shadow of Lebron James, who is almost Pippen 2.0; he scores, he defends and he is considered one of the best passers in the game by many (myself excluded). Now, if Lebron is the embodiment of the Pippen-inspired point-forward, he is a franchise player who could lead a team to a championship on his own back right? He has none of Carmelo's shortcomings and matches or surpasses Melo in strengths.

But wait. He didn't win that championship ring did he? In seven years he got to the Finals once in what can only be called a down year for the NBA if that Cavaliers team made it so far. Now, since that Finals appearance Lebron's team had the best record in the NBA twice in a row. Is this what it means to be a franchise player? Not according to the aforementioned SLAMonline article, because he didn't win a championship. Yet somehow, Lebron is in that class and Melo isn't. Now, this isn't a personal attack on Myles Brown, just an examination of the thought process that puts Lebron in a class where championships are the key to being a franchise player and leaves Melo out in the cold. This isn't just the thinking of Myles, many people would call Lebron a player who could lead you to a championship and say Melo doesn't have that franchise quality.

However, Melo has just hit his prime in the past couple of seasons, and finally got the running mate he needed in Chauncey Billups. In the 08-09 season he took the Nuggets to the WCF and the Lakers to Game 6. That's one more game than the Eastern Conference champs Orlando managed to squeeze out of the eventual NBA champions. The same Orlando Magic who upset the Cavaliers the year they had home court advantage and the best record in the League. It says a little something about the difference in strength between the two conferences; now pause and remember Melo has been playing there his whole career. Yes, he never made it to the Finals, but in his path have been the great Spurs teams of the 00s, the Lakers of the past couple of years and a myriad of other tough outs. Now consider what Melo did last year; he and his squad struggled with injuries, and they were up against a tough Jazz team who were extremely well coached without George Karl, the mastermind behind that WCF appearance in 08-09, who was battling cancer at the time. In those circumstances is it any surprise that Melo took a step back? Losing your head coach is no small thing, especially midway through the season. However, a lot of people have written off both Carmelo Anthony as a championship caliber first option and the Nuggets as contenders - including, it seems, Carmelo himself. Look at James' performance in the playoffs, his Cavaliers dropped a game to the severely overmatched Chicago Bulls, and when Boston got their juices flowing he couldn't dominate the game the way a franchise player is expected to. We all know what happened since then; Lebron bailed and teamed up with one of only two of the five "franchise players" to have actually won a championship. So tell me then, why is it that Lebron is still considered a franchise player, when he clearly couldn't lead a team to a championship, yet Melo, who has had similar achievements and been held back by things beyond his control (injuries to teammates, cancer) is all of a sudden out of the franchise player loop?

Here is a list of players who to my mind are without question franchise players even though they may not have won championships;

Dominique Wilkins
Patrick Ewing
Charles Barkley
Allen Iverson
Elgin Baylor

Just look at that list; we are talking first-ballot Hall of Famers here, yet none of them reached the very top. So why is it then that they can be called franchise players without winning the championship? Because here's the thing; there's only one trophy each year, and there are going to be other franchise players to beat out, every year. So when you think about who can be considered a franchise player, don't just think about who has actually won a championship, but who can get you within reach; taking the 08-09 LA Lakers to six games in the WCF is good enough for me, especially when they had the League's ultimate franchise player Kobe Bryant on their team.

So why, in spite of all this is Melo discriminated against really? Blame it on Pippen. Melo is discriminated against because like Wilkins, he is happy to leave the point to the guards.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The big one... MVP

So as it turns out, pre-season predictions just aren't as fun to write as ranting about any idea that pops into my head. So let's just get the last one I'm going to do before resuming your regularly scheduled randomness.

Before I get into specifics I'll talk about how I view the MVP award. Winning it takes more than being the best player in the League when all is said and done; you need to play enough games, you need the ball in your hands enough, you need to be part of a winning team and you need to be the unquestioned best player on your own team. There are other factors like dominating both ends, but those are just bonuses really (see Steve Nash). So here I go, trying to explain why these seven players meet these criteria and could be in with a shot to win the coveted award - that's right, even the honourable mentions get an explanation!

Honourable mention: Lebron James
Now, a lot of you will probably stop reading right now and never view this little site again. By all means, go ahead, but if you stick around I might just give you something to think about. Rather than list why Lebron could win it, I'll try to explain why he drops this low. There are a number of reasons, chief amongst them is the dramatic shift in freedom from what he enjoyed in Cleveland; he will have to share the ball with Dwyane Wade at least half the time and Chris Bosh is going to want the rock a little too. But of course, that's obvious; less ball-dominance means lower stats.

Another reason is responsibility; with the Cavs, he was clearly their go-to guy, but Wade remains the guy who should be taking the shots in the closing minutes and will have the greatest influence on the outcome of close games. However, I'll talk more about this when I get to Wade.

The final reason Lebron drops this low is a combination of fatigue and scrutiny; he's already won it twice, and it can be tough to remain at the top for so long without people getting a little resentful and wanting a change of pace. It doesn't help when you've made a decision many people think will destroy the game. Which leads to increased scrutiny; the shine is off the apple and people will be picking apart the weakness in his game, and believe me, they are there; his jump-shot remains inconsistent and he doesn't play particularly well off the ball, which is something he'll have to get used to.

When you put these three things together you have a player who will take a backward step in production, combined with increased scrutiny and add learning a new system to top it all off, it really isn't such a stretch to make him an honourable mention. I hate having to write so much on Lebron, but alas, it had to be done.

Honourable Mention: Brandon Roy
Roy has always been a personal favourite of mine; hard-working player wins ROY and proves the doubters wrong by being an All-Star every season since - that's special by any definition. However, he's almost criminally underrated as a legit MVP candidate. The thing holding him back is his body, if he could just stay on the court a whole season he would make a better case. That said, if he can play 70+ games this year, he could be a real dark-horse to win it. With Dwyane Wade and Lebron James teaming up, the incumbent winner's chances have taken a big hit and we know Kobe doesn't dominate the regular season anymore.

However, I don't want to sell Roy short by making this a circumstantial season; he has an offensive game with really no weakness and is also a gifted playmaker with a reputation for excelling in crunch time. After a nightmare year last season for Portland, the Blazers are looking to bounce back in a big way. They have a real shot at a second or third seed in the West if they are healthy and Roy is a big part of that. Now take a look back at the criteria I gave at the start of this post and see how many boxes Roy checks... you'll find Roy checks all the boxes.

5. Kobe Bryant
Now, I just said that Kobe doesn't tend to dominate the regular season, but after finally getting the surgery he needed to fix lingering injuries, a fresh Kobe Byrant could be the regular season terror of old. We all know how good he is, and with a potential meeting with the Miami Heat in the Finals waiting, the Lakers should be trying to get homecourt advantage which only adds to Kobe's chances of winning the award. He won't need to dominate statistically, but if he can be in the top five in scoring and the Lakers win the West, this could be Kobe's chance to get a second award.

If not? He'll just settle for another ring and Finals MVP.

4. Chris Paul
Having just undergone six months recovery from an injury I know firsthand how much that can motivate and fuel you to make a statement when you return. In the long hours of rehab work and watching your team struggle and ultimately fail from the sidelines, you realise how much you love the game, just what it means to you. Now, imagine you also have to endure your draft class rival taking the crown of world's best point guard while you're away. Factor in the drama surrounding his toast to Carmelo this summer and his subsequent recommitment to the city which birthed his NBA career and you'll have a healthy, incredibly talented Chris Paul playing with a chip on his shoulder.

However, team success is important too, which is probably the only thing holding him back. That said, the Hornets made some good acquisitions in Trevor Ariza and Belinelli. With a new coach and a fresh outlook, the 2010-11 season could and should see big things for Paul and the Hornets. A top six seed in the West with a squad like this gives Paul a real shot at winning his first MVP.

3. Dwyane Wade
Yeah, you read correctly. Contrary to popular belief, having James on his team will help, not hinder, his chances of being regular season MVP. Last season, Wade had to take a step back in the regular season to give his teammates a chance to shine but with number 1 and 6 in a Heat uniform Wade will be free from such concerns, rather, he'll be looking to put his stamp on the team and emphatically deny any attempts by the media or others to call it Lebron's team.

Wade is an unstoppable offensive force, one of the most dynamic slashers since the guy who supplies his shoes was in the League. He's no slouch on D either, and should relish the chance to exert more energy on the defensive end without such a heavy offensive burden. As far as getting the record is concerned, I don't think that is going to be a concern.

Ever since Lebron made his decision, there has been a lot of talk about their being Jordan and Pippen 2.0. The comparison is a good one, but people are confused about who is who. If Wade can stay healthy, I predict by season's end people will realise that Wade is the Jordan of this partnership and he will remind the world why he was 2006 Finals MVP and the only member of the Miami 3 with a ring.

2. Carmelo Anthony
Last season, Melo started off on fire, but an early injury slowed him down. If he can avoid a similar fate this season he will earn this high a ranking in the MVP rankings. Already considered a better clutch player and scorer than Lebron, he is in a contract year and don't underestimate the importance of Coach Karl being back on the sidelines. Expect Melo to use basketball as his release from the off-court drama surrounding possible trades and whatever else is bugging him. I believe he'll stick around in Denver for the season and simply leave in free agency; if it weren't for injuries and illness striking Karl the Nuggets were good enough to be at least 3rd seed in the West last season, and nothing has changed except that Billups has just won a world championship and will be hunting for that same feeling again.

This season is both Melo's chance to put himself back in the conversation as Lebron's rival and also one big audition for the many teams eagerly pursuing his services.

1. Kevin Durant
You all saw it coming, and with good reason. Lebron is sharing the limelight finally, Kobe is a year older and Durant just won a world championship with Team USA. The Thunder have an impressive young core and should only improve on last year's surprise 50-win season.

But let's focus on Durant; the kid is already amongst the best shooters in the L and is a physical freak with a 7'5" wingspan and the handle of a guard. With the confidence he gained in the WC, he should improve on his fourth quarter play, having realised how important it is for a team to have a designated go-to guy.

However, despite his success he remains humble and is as hard-working as they come. That's a potent mix for a player who still hasn't reached his peak.

Unless something goes drastically wrong, Durant will be the regular season MVP. Book it.

So there you have it, a wrap up of all the pre-season predictions. Thank Christ. Just realised I wrote the most on Lebron, which is lame, but ultimately necessary. Ah well.

This will be my last post until the regular season starts. See you all then!