Sunday, August 26, 2012

What the seasons change

Hi all, not a permanent return from the off-season hiatus, but an idea occurred to me and I had to put it out there.

The NBA landscape is incredibly fluid, from season-to-season massive changes invariably occur, whether across the whole League, or within specific teams. Take the recent acquisitions of Howard and Nash by the Lakers - which has suddenly cast a pall over the entire Western Conference as a force to be reckoned with. This is just one example of the number of changes that take place in any given off-season. 

However, change can take many forms, and while things like free agent signings or a new head coach are considered external change and are fairly obvious, within individual franchises there can be more subtle, internal changes.

The specific change I'm talking about in this case is the shift in perception within the Sacramento Kings regarding Tyreke Evans. Just two seasons ago Tyreke was the hope for the future, a bright light in an otherwise dark reality for Kings fans as Evans went on to become the fourth ever rookie to average at least 20ppg, 5rpg and 5apg on his way to the Rookie of the Year award. However, a lacklustre sophomore year in which Tyreke was hindered by nagging injuries and a seeming lack of a position has lead to the Kings putting their eggs in a different basket. This basket goes by the name of DeMarcus Cousins and is a rare combination of size, skill and mobility.

Over the course of the last two seasons, the Kings have drafted a point guard in the lottery to play the spot Tyreke excelled at in his first season, traded for a shooting guard and then re-signed him to a long-term contract, and decided to give Tyreke's starting PG spot to the 60th pick in the NBA draft, Isaiah Thomas. Furthermore, the head coach Keith Smart decided to go small with his lineup and played Tyreke at the SF. No matter how talented a player is, switching positions from PG, to SG, to SF (and being undersized at the last to boot) is going to be a struggle. Clearly, the Kings are not putting Tyreke in a position to succeed when they decide that they give Mr Irrelevant (as the 60th pick is commonly known) the nod to play your position.

Although this is all speculation and Tyreke could bounce back to reclaim his place as face of the franchise, all signs point to Tyreke making an exit sometime in the near future while he still has trade value. So where should he go? Let's put that question aside for now and take a look at another franchise.

This franchise is as different from the Kings as night is from day. I'm talking about the Indiana Pacers - not only do they have a clear direction with their play style, an excellent front office and the undying support of the state in which they play (Sacramento has to compete with both LA teams and Golden State in California), they are also lacking a potential franchise player while the Kings seemingly have an excess.

While the Pacers are a young, talented team, they just don't have that real star who can avert disaster when a coach's well-laid plans go awry. If you take a look at their roster, they've got three current or former All-Stars (Hibbert, Granger and West), and a few great young talents (George, Hill) but none of them fit the mould of what a franchise player should be. Hibbert for example, was unable to capitalise on a Bosh-less Miami Heat team when he was the only obvious positional advantage the Pacers had. Although Hibbert was just rewarded with a fat new contract, that's more a testament to the shallow pool of talent at the 5 in the current NBA than any special ability Hibbert possesses. David West is no longer the force he used to be, and as age catches up with him, he'll be  increasingly considered a liability as his ability to play inside effectively without relying on athleticism is hindered because he's undersized for his position. Oh, and let's not forget how he whiffed against the Heat either. George Hill is very steady, versatile and heady at the PG position, but those same qualities prevent him ever being the guy to carry the sort of load expected of a franchise player. He has too much common-sense to shoot himself out of a slump like Kobe or Rose might, he's just too safe. Now Paul George is a physical marvel, standing somewhere between 6'8 and 6'10 who possesses elite perimeter defensive abilities and a smooth stroke on the wing. However, while he's currently playing the SG position for the Pacers and carving out a niche as a defensive stopper, he simply doesn't have the handle for it, and like Durant (who struggled at the 2 in his rookie year), he's much better suited to playing the SF. However, unlike Durant, George appears to have limited upside offensively, seemingly lacking the killer instinct and scoring touch you want from a first option.

That leaves Danny Granger. The de facto franchise player for the Indiana Pacers, a guy who just a few years back was being talked about as a possible heir-apparent for Reggie Miller's title as best player in Pacers history. However, while Danny can fill it up the stat-sheet and has amazing size and strength for his position, along with a willingness to take tough shots and put a team on his back, he is lacking the intangibles that make a franchise player. For starters, he's a lazy defender most of the time, and that sort of inconsistency from your leader is contagious. Secondly, he is deathly afraid of Lebron James, and everyone knows it; Granger might put on a tough face and talk trash about Lebron to the media, but when they are sharing a court, Danny is clearly unsettled by the attentions of Lebron on the defensive end. He misses shots he'd normally make, he passes up shots he'd normally take, and just generally tries to pass the buck whenever he plays against Lebron. Granger's play against Lebron is a prime example of Billy Hoyle's assessment of black basketball players - he'd rather look good and lose than look bad and win. This last point is crucial, because at the end of the day, your team's franchise player needs to believe that he can be the best player on the court every night, and be prepared to take risks for his team-mates, to leave it all on the court and not shrink from the moment.

As with Tyreke Evans, Granger's time in Indiana might also be coming to an end. He's occupying the ideal position of their best young player in George, is too established within the franchise to become a role-player, and will expect to be paid very well when his contract expires in a the next few years.

However, there's a simple solution for this problem. Trade Tyreke Evans for Danny Granger. Obviously a few extra pieces would have to be thrown in to make the salaries match, but the cornerstones would remain Evans and Granger. Both of these players have their flaws; Granger is a volume shooter who shrinks in the post-season, Evans is a ball-dominant 2-guard who can't shoot and isn't a pure enough passer to play the point. That said, each of them would fit in perfectly in their new destinations.

The Pacers are a team full of jump-shooters and rely on toughness, ball-movement and a deep roster to succeed. While this works in the regular season, when it comes time for the playoffs, you need a guy who can elevate his game and bear the burden of success. A guy who you can give the ball to in a scoring drought and count on to score in isolation or find an open team-mate. That guy is Tyreke Evans. Tyreke's uncanny ability to beat his man off the dribble (with his ludicrously good handles) and force the D to collapse on him is wasted in Sacramento, where he lacks capable outside shooters to punish the D, and Cousins is always camped in the paint. In Indiana though, there is no shortage of shooters at every position, from 1 through 5, and defensively, Tyreke's quick hands and feet would form an imposing first line of defence when teamed with George Hill and Paul George at the 1 and 3, respectively. Tyreke's current backcourt partner is Marcus Thornton - who has never seen a shot he doesn't like, is an average defender at best and understanding of team basketball can only be called limited. George Hill on the other hand has been tutored by Pop and the rest of the training staff in San Antonio, has spent time at the 1 and 2 during his stay there, is a capable outside shooter and outstanding defender. Hill's mature, team-first philosophy gels well with Tyreke's flashy, aggressive nature. Oh, and the cherry on top is that Tyreke and Hibbert would be amazing in the pick and roll, with Hibbert's money jumper and mobility. 

I think I've established that Tyreke would work well in Indiana, but Granger still has to be a good for for this to make any sense. Looking at the Kings current roster, they have an adequate PG rotation with Brooks, Jimmer Fredette and Isaiah Thomas, Thornton firmly ensconced as the designated isolation scorer, a hard-working hustle guy in rookie Thomas Robinson, and a low-post banger at the 5 in Cousins. Notice anything missing? That's right, a small forward. As bad as Tyreke was at the 3, he was still a better choice than the other players they had available; John Salmons, Francisco Garcia or Donte Greene. Enter Danny Granger. The Kings want out of the lottery, and Granger gives them a proven scorer, an outside shooter, veteran leadership (sort of), fills a team need, and would be ready to contribute right away. Granger solves their outside shooting problems, would clear the logjam at the guard positions, and help the Kings try to win now, in the hopes that Cousins will stick around when his rookie deal expires. Most importantly though, Granger wouldn't be under pressure to be the franchise player and could comfortable settle in as a second or third option with the new team.

So there you have it folks, my solution to the dilemmas facing two former franchise players who are each on the verge of being dumped by their teams in favour of younger models and a new direction. Granger gets to relax, and Tyreke gets to star. Everybody wins.

Monday, August 20, 2012

I'll be coming back.

Hey guys, I know you haven't heard from me in a while, but the off-season has been very eventful, so I'm going to wait closer to the start of the season before getting into previews and roster breakdowns this time. Hope you'll all stick around that long.

May your ankles never be broken,