Friday, February 13, 2009

Smell Like Billy Madison Just Left A Burning Bag On Your Porch? That's Amar'e

With the Phoenix Suns making Amar’e Stoudemire available everywhere but Craigslist, it begs the question: why are they willing, let alone eager, to unload a 26 year old big just entering his prime? It’s not often, though not without precedent (Chris Webber, anyone?), that a 6’10”, 250 lb, 4-time All-Star is on the block when he quite possibly has his best basketball in front of him. Does this say more about the state of the Suns, who are 28-23 and struggling to hang on to a playoff spot out West (currently a game behind Utah, who might pair a healthy Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer for the first time this season after the break), or Stoudemire, who is averaging 21 and 8 in a down year? What teams should be interested in the services of Amar’e?

Let’s start with Phoenix. Every fan of the NBA (outside of San Antonio) knows that the Suns got screwed in the 2007 playoffs. Had the Suns not been shorthanded in game 5 they might have gone on to win that series and been fortunate enough to face, and manhandle, a clearly overmatched Cleveland Cavaliers squad.

Ah, revisionist history. The Suns did have to play game 5 without Stoudemire and Diaw and they lost the series, setting the stage for their franchise-altering 2008 season, which included a trade to bring in Shaq, suddenly decide that defense was helpful in a quest to win a championship, and that Seven Seconds Or Less (SSOL forevermore) was not helping the defense or aiding in winning (of course your defense gets worse when you trade your best defender, Shawn Marion, for a guy who probably moves more in his sleep than while he’s defending the pick and roll, but I digress).

Mike D’Antoni is forced out; enter Terry Porter. This transformation, and identity crisis, was furthered earlier this season when Phoenix shipped Bell and Diaw to the Bobcats for Jason Richardson. Didn’t Porter want his team to play defense? Good idea sending away Bell, your best remaining defender, for a guy known as a scorer, but not for doing the little things that add up to wins.

Sorry to repeat what you already know, but I guess that makes it easier to see why the Suns would be so desperate now. Steve Kerr has decided that the only player who isn’t going anywhere is Steve Nash, meaning their window is nearly closed. This is not a roster that can compete for a title this year, and Kerr knows it. Nobody wants Shaq and his $20M/year salary for this year and next. The only piece they have with value is Stoudemire, and it’s said that they want a talented young player (preferably a forward), expiring contracts, and draft picks in exchange for him. Apparently, this would somehow make them championship contenders while Steve Nash can still keep his drool in his mouth.

I will quickly record here my thoughts on Amar’e Stoudemire.

The Good: He is an elite talent who, despite multiple knee injuries (microfracture surgeries are harder to come back from in basketball than Tommy John surgeries in baseball), appears to have fully recovered and can be an All-Star caliber player for 4-6 more years, perhaps even longer. He is difficult, if not impossible, to defend on the pick and roll or the fast break. He has the ability to regularly hit midrange jumpers spotting up or off the dribble. His ability to knock down free throws is a plus, especially considering his physical offensive play and propensity for drawing fouls.

The Bad: He wants to be “the man.” Typically, this is a good thing in your most talented player, as it shows a desire for greatness and success. In Stoudemire’s case, however, it just means he wants to make the most money on the team and get the most shots. When I think of someone being “the man” on their respective team, I think of someone you can go to on the offensive end in clutch situations (in addition to their consistent production throughout the course of a game and season), can defend his position at an elite level, is a leader with a good attitude, and makes his teammates better. Stoudemire is not interested in playing defense, does not appear to have leadership qualities, and may or may not make the game easier for his teammates.

So where should he go? Miami? Detroit? Dallas? New Jersey? Portland? Chicago? There aren’t a lot of teams in the league that couldn’t use a player like Stoudemire. It would be foolish for the Heat to include Beasley, however, and impossible to get Amar’e otherwise. I don’t think Kerr is interested in obtaining Rasheed Wallace (especially as a rental). I doubt very much that Dallas or New Jersey can make a deal happen, unless Kerr likes someone on one of those rosters more than I think he does.

That leaves Portland and Chicago as the most fitting destinations (not necessarily the most likely). The Blazers’ offer might include LaMarcus Aldridge, Jerryd Bayless, and Raef LeFrentz’s $12.7 million expiring contract. This trade makes sense for both teams, in my opinion. The Blazers would be getting someone to take the scoring load off of Brandon Roy, divert pressure from Greg Oden in his basketball maturation, and Oden could in turn take defensive pressure off of Stoudemire. A team that is already winning games would potentially take the next step from good to great – the hardest step for any NBA franchise to make. Phoenix wouldn’t be losers in this deal either, as they would acquire a PF with a team concept, a young and explosive ball handler to take some pressure away from Nash and play a little defense at the point, and an expiring contract – everything they hoped for. The Suns wouldn’t be contenders this year, but another good year from Shaq and Nash along with the development of Bayless and Aldridge could bode well for 2010.

What about my Bulls? As you probably guessed in reading my rudimentary scouting report on Amar’e, I’m less than thrilled by the prospect of having him in the windy city. If the Bulls trade away Tyrus Thomas or Noah with Gooden and a first they become a playoff team with Stoudemire. Unfortunately, they would be a low seed in the playoffs with minimal chance of winning a series and the possibility that Amar’e will be gone after just over a year (and if he isn’t it would be because the Bulls overpaid him). If Chicago has to give up Thomas and Noah then the trade would only be marginally helpful even in the short-term, and potentially devastating to the franchise long-term. The possibility of a Rose-Stoudemire-Deng triumvirate is only mildly exciting as a Bulls fan, as I think only Rose is capable of holding his own against elite players of his respective position. This isn’t to say that Tyrus Thomas or Joakim Noah will ever be stars in this league, far from it (especially in Noah’s case), but having Thomas and Noah wouldn’t preclude the Bulls from acquiring other talent, whereas the presence of Stoudemire (with the contract he wants) would.

In most scenarios I am completely behind the Bulls making a trade. They are a team with no identity outside of Rose and no hope of being very good as currently constructed. I would love to see them get rid of Hughes, Gooden, or both and maybe even get a basketball player in return (addition by subtraction is acceptable). What I don’t want, however, is to sacrifice an unwritten future for a present that has MEDIOCRITY stamped all over it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And... Switzerland

Ok, let me explain why I'm here. I'm a very big sports fan but I will admit right now that my first love is not basketball. It is actually baseball, but I am also a big fan of basketball. Here's a list of my favorite teams so it is no secret to anyone where I'm coming from when I rip on teams and/or people.

NBA- New Orleans Hornets
NCAAB- North Carolina Tar Heels
MLB- Boston Red Sox
NHL- Calgary Flames
NCAAF- Michigan Wolverines

NFL- Jacksonville Jaguars

Anyone can see that I am in no way geographically loyal when it comes to sports nor have I ever put a lot of weight in tradition as is evident by my NBA and NFL fandom. I will probably be posting my thoughts on each of these teams at some point but because this is a basketball focused blog I will try as much as possible to keep my posts about basketball or at least something that somewhat has to do with basketball.
I am going to rip into my own favorite teams as well, in fact my next post is going to be about the New Orleans Hornets and their numerous problems.

To finish up here's a quick question: Does anyone else think that we may have been looking at a 30 point blowout if North Carolina didn't stop playing defense for the last 12 minutes of the first half against Duke last night?

P.S. - I am on a really big "Dexter" kick right now so at times I may quote the television show or use it for other purposes such as the title of this post. Also, read the first post if you want to know what this blog is all about because I could not have possibly said it any better nor would I ever try.

Monday, February 9, 2009

How the West Will Be Won

After yesterday’s highly anticipated games, I will say again what I have said for weeks or months now: the 2009 NBA Finals will be a rematch, with the losing team’s star player - and the league’s best - out to atone for the previous result. And I don’t think Kobe Bryant and the Lakers will end the season wearing rings. Nope, this year’s championship round will be a repeat of 2007, only this time LeBron James, fresh off his first MVP award, will lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

For this post, however, I will focus solely on the Western Conference.

I know a lot of people are picking the Lakers to win the title. Even with Andrew Bynum out, the Lakers look incredible right now, with recent wins over the Celtics and the Cavs on the road – not to mention Kobe’s 61 at MSG. The Knicks don't count for much, but the last two wins are important because this team’s fundamental flaw is a lack of “toughness” on the interior, and paramount to those victories was getting some contested rebounds and finishing with contact, as well as defending the post with physicality – in short, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom both looked very good. Those guys play well and Kobe hits some big shots and they don’t lose, right? What if Andrew Bynum comes back and picks up where he left off? True - in those scenarios, the Lakers are nearly impossible to beat (though I wouldn’t count on Bynum getting them over the hump in May).

The Lakers are a force in large part because Kobe Bryant is a winner who fearlessly makes plays in clutch situations. Even I will admit that he does this better than anyone in the game today. Kobe Bryant is LA’s Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger – capable of extreme calm and heroic action under even the most strenuous of circumstances.

The reason that I don’t think the Lakers will represent the Western Conference in the Finals again is because too often he has to do those things; too often he has to be great down the stretch and in the clutch. It is what is expected of him, and it is what he expects of himself. All indications right now are that you don’t want to bet against KB24 in any situation, not the way he is playing. Not after a week where he scored the most points ever at MSG, beat the defending champs in Boston, and ended Cleveland's home domination at 23-0. The problem here is that these are the first three games they have played without Bynum and already they’ve needed Bryant’s heroics. If he’s asked to do more and more during the regular season, how much will he have in the tank in May and June?

Kobe is getting more adept at scoring without taking his teammates out of the game and picking his spots, and I think that he can carry a winning team doing this, at least for stretches. What I don’t think he can do is beat other elite teams this way on a consistent basis, and this is because the better he plays the less help he gets – his genius is not structured and therefore difficult to sync with.

Conversely, San Antonio follows the lead of a different pair of stoic gentleman: Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan. These two robots go about their business, game in and game out, seemingly without thought, feeling, or expectation. The team has a system, a way of doing things, which takes all conscious effort and emotion out of the game of basketball. People hate this about the Spurs. They hate it because it makes them “boring” and “hard to watch.” Really, they hate it because it allows them to beat their favorite teams.

Take yesterday’s win over the Celtics, for example. It was a game that Boston appeared to be on their way to winning after a third quarter in which they held the Spurs to 14 points. Clinging to a one-point lead with under 30 seconds to play, the Celtics needed one more stop to secure a win. When Tim Duncan set a screen at the top of the key for Roger Mason, I’m sure Kevin Garnett and company were most worried about Duncan rolling to the basket, or popping out for a 15-foot bankshot, and rightly so – Timmy will hit either shot 80% of the time or more, taking the situation into account (I have no stats to back this up - if you don’t believe me, do your own research and post a comment). This isn’t to say Boston wasn’t concerned with Mason, just that they probably didn’t know he would be so quick on the trigger. They probably assumed he would look for Duncan before unleashing a shot himself with nearly 20 seconds remaining on the shot clock.

Roger Mason’s stats this year aren’t that surprising, given what he did last year in Washington and considering he is playing more minutes on a more talented team this season. What can be shocking is his willingness to take game-winning shots. The Spurs system is his auto-tune and, like T.I. and Lil Wayne, Mason is showing some swag.

Is Roger Mason’s ascendance as the neo-Horry the reason I’m picking San Antonio to upend the Lakers? Not exactly. What I’m trying to say is that Spurs basketball is best in the playoffs, as evidenced by their number of titles with Tim Duncan, and the pieces in place now are just as good as any they’ve had in championship seasons since the Admiral retired. Kobe Bryant can hit big shots, and Derek Fisher is a rock, but nobody can match Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, Roger Mason, etc. at the end of games, or the fourth quarter as a whole. The fact of the matter is it almost doesn’t matter who Pop rolls out there – even Michael Finley and Matt Bonner have some big jump shots in them, as long as that’s all you ask them to do. Not even one Kobe Bryant can match the Spurs team performance. He might get a lot of help in a game or two, and he might win a game or two almost by himself, but I don’t think he'll accomplish both of those things and it will not be enough to win 4 out of 7.

After all that gushing how can I possibly pick Cleveland to beat this juggernaut? My next post will explain why the same logic does not hold true for a Cavs-Spurs matchup for the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Derrick Rose is my Barack Obama

And you thought this blog would only be about sports.

Just kidding - I imagine the picture alone is clear indication that I have no intention of talking politics.. just trying to capitalize on Barack Obama as a symbol of hope.

In case it wasn't obvious from my worship of all things Michael Jordan, my two favorite basketball teams are the Chicago Bulls and North Carolina Tar Heels. I will talk about both of those teams frequently, I'm sure, but this post is only about Chicago.

Back to Obama. Unfortunately, there are many similarities between our downtrodden economy/struggling nation and the woebegone Chicago Bulls. Both recently are experiencing new leadership from a (relatively) young man who came out of virtual obscurity (Rose was not the most highly touted prospect coming out of HS, or the early front runner for the #1 overall pick, and Obama wasn't a serious Presidential candidate until at least the 2004 DNC). The nation, especially the economy, and the Bulls both will likely get worse before they get any better. Whether or not you think Obama can lead this country to prosperity largely depends on your political leanings, and I won't disclose mine here, but there is little doubt that the Chicago Bulls will be better because of Rose's presence.

As of this post, the Bulls are 22-29 following a 115-114 OT loss against the Dallas Mavericks, leaving them 2 games out of the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference, having just gone 4-3 in their seven-game "ice show" road trip.. but you aren't here for facts.

First, a step back.

When the Bulls won the 2008 NBA draft lottery I was ecstatic because that meant they would either have the rudder to steer their sinking ship or a prodigious post scorer to take pressure off of everyody else. With the rule changes a few years ago favoring perimeter players, and seeing what guys like Chris Paul and Deron Williams did for their franchises, I hoped that John Paxson would end his streak of stupidity and take Derrick over Mr. Beasley. I loved what I saw out of Rose in the NCAA tournament, at least when I wasn't worried about a potential championship game matchup in which he would dismantle Ty Lawson. In the Elite 8 against Texas there was no doubt who won the Augustine-Rose matchup, or who had more NBA potential, and it was easy to see the unselfishness and committment to winning and getting better that every coach, GM, and fan wants on their side. Besides, the only thing Chicago knows to do with talented forwards is trade them before their prime for nothing (see: Brand, Elton; Artest, Ron; Chandler, Tyson; Miller, Brad; Aldridge, LaMarcus; it hurts too much to continue.. but at least we don't have Eddy Curry hahahahaha).

Back to the present.

Nearly everything I have seen from the Bulls this season has made me want to vomit (my only hope for Vinny Del Negro is that he doesn't go down as the worst coach in NBA history), but Rose has been nothing but encouraging. The unselfishness, committment to winning, and desire to improve is more evident than ever, given that he's played more NBA games than college games already. There is really nothing more important than that, but what has me giddy is that despite Rose's biggest shortcoming, his lack of a consistent jump shot, he is shooting 47% from the floor. He is being given space and dared to shoot it, yet he gets to the rim seemingly whenever he wants.. and with such grace! When he can consistently burn people for giving him that space by hitting jumpers, which won't take longer than one or two offseasons, he will be unguardable. He could be a bigger, stronger Chris Paul - which nearly makes me orgasm. Even if he never gets that good, he will undoubtedly be some kind of amalgamation of Rajon Rondo and Tony Parker, which isn't a bad consolation.

The Bulls are serious contenders to get bounced in the first round by Boston or Cleveland as the 7 or 8 seed this season, almost entirely because of Rose. I don't want to bet against my team, and now that Milwaukee is depleted it's easier not to, but I honestly don't see it happening. I don't believe in the Knicks, as a general rule, but Mike D'Antoni will get that bunch of bums into the playoffs before the Bulls somehow, and New Jersey has a stud (Devin Harris) and Clark Kent (Vince Carter: he could have been Superman, but never doffed his suit to show the S on his chest - with the notable exception being the Sydney Olympics in general and the below Frederic Weis dunk specifically) to pair with an emerging Brook Lopez, which adds up to more wins than what the Bulls will finish the season with.

Once Chicago can unload 75% or more of its horrendous roster and get players who don't just want to shoot 25 times to score 20 points.. and spurn over-generous contract offers for tales of sugar plums dancing in his pea-brained head (I'm looking at you, Ben Gordon)...

Sorry, what was I saying? Right, right - once the Bulls rid themselves of flea-ridden dogs (like Ben Gordon) and have basketball players, Derrick Rose will be exactly the kind of leader that I want running the team, and giving LeBron James a run in his quest to match or exceed MJ's title total.

That was quite a bit more than I intended to post, so I will quit while I'm making some semblance of sense.. maybe? More on LBJ's quest for championships later.

P.S. If it seems like my ripping of Ben Gordon is excessive, then you are not a Bulls fan. I only have such disdain for him because of the promise that he once showed, and the fact that it is his attitude and not talent that prevents him from helping the team reach its goals.

Humble Beginnings

Basketball is a beautiful sport. While I enjoy most, if not all sports, it is basketball that has always been my game of choice. Even if you don't know what ESPN stands for, chances are you have seen somebody do something with a basketball that made your jaw drop. For that, I love basketball. The athletes are some of the most incredible in the world, and there are ways NBA players find to put the ball in the basket that a mere mortal like myself could never even dream of and are truly awe-inspiring.

For that, I love basketball.

My favorite thing about basketball, however, is the dynamics of the sport itself. In my opinion, no sport better encapsulates the coexistence of individual and team struggles, and the balance that must be achieved between the two to find success (sorry, Kobe). There is so much joy, and sorrow, to be had watching your favorite player or team fight to win a game and strive for the ultimate goal - a championship. The same could be said for any sport, but what separates the NBA is the way one player can influence the outcome of a game/series/season (the only thing comparable is a goalie in the NHL). As a result, players in the league become deified and marketed as Superstars the way that only quarterbacks can be in the NFL (with a few notable exceptions - LT, for example).

This can lead to very strong opinions about individual players, making them a Rorschach test of sorts (hence the title). This blog will contain various, extremely important peoples' opinions about their favorite players and teams, games that they watch, or.. just about anything they want.

Oh, I should probably disclose now that Michael Jordan is the GOAT (greatest of all-time, but you already knew that). The proof is in the picture (I realize Russell has more rings, and I would love to argue with anyone who has a case for Bill or any other player in the comments section).