SONOFAGUN: Future of the East is Heat vs. Knicks

May 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Features, Son of a Gun

“This is the series everybody wanted,” said Miami Heat forward LeBron James when it was determined that his team would be facing the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Not so fast prince.

Nobody was secretly wishing for a Heat versus New York Knicks match up? Is that like asking who farted?

Everybody who eye-rolled, bad-mouthed or straight up goddamned the various ways that James, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony chose to abandon the cities of Cleveland, Toronto and Denver respectively over the past year were suspiciously quiet on the matter during the first round. It wasn’t because the stories were old (that won’t happen until the Miami Heat or New York Knicks win a championship) or because people had forgiven them (that won’t happen until NEVER). They were quiet because what could have possibly happened in the second round of this year’s NBA playoffs is exactly what the basketball God might have had on her conniving mind when she ordered the hands of fate to deliver James and Bosh to South Beach and Anthony to the Big Apple.

I suspect that quietly, under many safe predictions, a Heat/Knicks series might have possibly been the most anticipated guilty pleasure second round match-up of the last decade. It would have also rekindled one of the most vicious rivalries in the history of the league, a classic 1990’s period piece that saw Patrick Ewing’s Knicks wage war against Alonzo Mourning’s Heat, which left each team just bloody enough to eventually stumble and fall short of championship bids. That war was made more personal with ex-Knicks coach Pat Riley working the Miami sidelines as demonically as he does the Heat’s front offices now. As he did when putting James and Bosh alongside superstar Dwyane Wade. The Knicks are copying the blueprint and while owner James Dolan and President Donnie Walsh haven’t yet completed their project (Chris Paul is still highest on their list of additions) Anthony and underrated big man Amar’e Stoudemire were enough to get the Knicks back into the playoffs, already a victory of many sorts in Gotham. If fans were delighted at the renewed vows of hate between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics over the past few years they would have loved this. While the Celtics/Lakers history is storied and cinematic the book on the Heat versus Knicks is short and nasty and translates just as well.

NBA commissioner David Stern, who wisely stood on the sidelines while charges of collusion and tampering flung forth from the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors up and down the eastern seaboard all summer and season, was no doubt rubbing his hands with glee along with the rest of his brass at a possible Heat-Knicks head-to-head. That it might have happened in the very first year of their respective star-studded alignments was too good to be true and as much as hoop fans across the globe recoiled at James’ televised execution of hope in Cleveland, boiled at Bosh’s flippant social media toying and free agent feigning and were soiled by the drawn out and unecessary ‘Melo drama (a fault equally shared by both Anthony and the Nuggets) this is the closest thing they were and are ever going to get to payback – some good, maybe even great, players playing great basketball in great cities with more subplots than a day in the life of Charlie Sheen is good product.

It really is about winning and everybody but the Celtics would have found a happy place here. Groan about the commercialism of it all but it absolutely adds to the home viewing experience. With the most marquee of names involved on the court the scene would have played like a mini Superbowl production and here’s to betting that the commercials would have been just as entertaining as that pigskin classic. So would the going rate for 30 second spots next year after review of that series’ numbers and projections. Halftime features getting Avatar hype, post game pressers a wonderful mess of hollywood script caliber quotables by everybody not named Eric Spoelstra, Air Jordan product placement grotesquely pushed and in all probability Spike Lee spontaneously combusting. Ratings would soar. Dwight Howard would have been forced further to seriously contemplate leaving the Orlando Magic – a Cavaliers franchise clone if there ever was one – to team up with billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov along with the dazzling Deron Williams in hard and cold New Jersey or Brooklyn to ball with the Nets. Oh yes, the series would have had that kind of ripple effect. Turns out the Magic’s six game first round ouster at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks took care of that.

Poof!

The NBA, already riding high from a compelling and competitive first round of the postseason, would have seen a boost in interest. Knicks fans are worldwide, the world loves New York. In many ways New York is the centre of the world. This much star power and, more importantly, population power in the postseason playing for high stakes is the best-case scenario for any sports league’s playoff roll. The attendance list boxes of the top NBA stars are all checked. Yao Ming no longer counts, Andrea Bargnani might not ever, Blake Griffin is going to be – but not yet. Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose? Present! We would have gladly subbed Danny Granger and the Pacers for Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks for excitement. Maybe Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns for the starless Denver Nuggets if the Nugs hadn’t been such tormented survivors.

Alas, it was a fleeting and clearly selfish dream to see the subjects of everybody’s discontent try to kill each other on the court. It would have been like a battle for public opinion and perception, one I don’t think the Heat could win no matter what the outcome. Apparently though, Celtics versus Heat is the series to watch, with both having made quick work of the Knicks and Pacers respectively. The Heat’s surprising 4-1 series victory over the Celtics was fun but fleeting. Rajon Rondo’s one-armed Larry Bird moment almost outdid Bird and in Beantown it will play like a Bird concussion story (check the replay of his unnaturally bent left limb and his return shortly after and try to question his legend). Subplots were thick there too, but none were of the magnitude to match and amalgamate the events of the past year like Heat vs. Knicks would have, when three of the league’s biggest stars angled their way to what they hoped to be stacked and sacrificing star unions designed to superpower their way to glory.Yes, James finally defeated the Celtics, something he was never able to do in Cleveland and a factor in his move to Miami. If Shaquille O’Neal could have returned to some sort of form it would have been against his old Heat club, the one he helped guide to a 2006 championship on a team that included Mourning. Didn’t happen. O’Neal, old teammate of James during that ill-fated final campaign for the prince. O’Neal versus Chris Bosh? The man he once dubbed the RuPaul of NBA big men? Bosh’s deer-in-the-lights performance in Game 3? Didn’t even register.

The most intriguing plot line was Boston’s old big three versus Miami’s new big three, which James admitted prompted initial talk of Miami’s unholy union. The old big three is responsible for creating the new big three, like how fire inspired the fire extinguisher. Fortunately for the Celtics their old big three has since evolved into a big four. That fourth is Rondo who the Heat snuffed out for two of three games in the series, which was enough to turn the tide. So there’s that I suppose.

For now, true fate will have to wait. But for how long? With the C’s aging core propping up the window of opportunity on bended knee, the Magic on the verge of blowing up and Prokhorov ready to spend, spend, spend to build around Williams things are definitely on the change in the eastern conference. The Knicks, on a mission to snag Paul, Williams or any other golden third wheel, will be spending and reconfiguring as well and are at the forefront of that change. After all, we’re living in a time where the Bulls are arguably the best team in the east, the Knicks and Pacers are in the playoffs, Shaq is still a relevant topic and the possibility of a lockout looms over the NBA.

Yep. Tomorrow will have to wait.

CHEAP SEAT: Perkins Worth as Celtic Overblown

February 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Columns, The Cheap Seat

Did the trade that sent big man Kendrick Perkins and guard Nate Robinson to the Oklahoma Thunder for bigs Nenad Krstic and Jeff Green make the Boston Celtics better? Probably not. Did it make them worse? Probably not. Though Celtics nation is up in arms over the surprise dealing of their best and grimiest front court defender this was a move based on a lot more on the future than the present. Nobody likes to hear that when a championship is in sight, particularly when it is being viewed through a shrinking window.

Remember that few gave the Celtics a hope in hell of getting back to the NBA Final last year before they started a dominant run through the eastern conference playoffs, even with a fully healthy Perkins anchoring the defensive middle. They eventually blew a 14-point lead in an epic Game 7 battle versus the Los Angeles Lakers, a game they played without Perkins after he sustained a serious knee injury that kept him out of action for 43 games to start this season. In his absence the Celtics beat the Miami Heat (twice), Chicago Bulls (2-1), San Antonio Spurs and his new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Impressive, But that’s not what prompted them to ship out the eight-year Celtics veteran.

While acquiring oldies but goodies in Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal in the offseason to make up for the loss of Perkins in the early going was sound insurance, it wasn’t just a policy plotted to buoy the front court while he rehabbed, it was also to keep some beef in the bucket in case Perkins didn’t fully recover in time to be his old self. With the O’Neals hobbled all season following various injuries Perkins’ January 25th return was essential to the Celtics current success just as the impending return of the O’Neals will be to their playoff ride. Beefing up their front line with a more than servicable Krstic and young, underrated stud in Green is nothing to sneeze at but that wasn’t what prompted this swap either.

Wax all you want about the value of sports loyalty but its roots are most often found curled around a large cheque. The bighest bidder. That wasn’t likely to be the Celtics. After all, they reportedly offered Perkins a $22M deal, about $8M less than the 26-year was apparently seeking. If he had performed at an even higher degree than he has for the last three seasons during the Celtics’ big run he could have demanded even more. He priced himself out of Boston at $30M. Was general manager Danny Ainge supposed to watch that number inflate to the point of getting nothing for his defensive star at season’s end?

Like Denver and Utah the Celtics were not prepared to be left empty-handed as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors essentially were last summer when LeBron James and Chris Bosh flamboyantly left for Miami, leaving their former teams to recover in a “what happened?”, drunk-tank kind of way. Perkins is no James or Bosh or Carmelo Anthony or Deron Williams but with the O’Neals looking more like the one-year rentals they were expected to be and Kevin Garnett valiantly playing in the twilight of his career, Green represents a present and a future more stable than one with Perkins may have started to look like. Lost in the tears being shed for (and by) Perkins is the fact that he shunned a reasonable extension while injured – fully in his right to do – and then took it hard when the Celtics, who are paying Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo a combined $51M this season (and another $56M in 2011-12) balked at his suspected price tag.

Also lost in all the huffing and puffing about Perkins is the potential of the incoming Green, a younger building block forward who scored twice as many points but clocked three less rebounds than Perkins in 11 more minutes a game. His 43.7% shooting mark is concerning but he’ll be forced to be more efficient in less opportunities playing among the Celtics’ top four. Green’s player efficiency rating (PER) was a +14.5 to Perkins’ +11.4 at the time of the trade and with no falloff in quality support in Boston a drastic change in impact is unlikely. Not so fast for the Thunder though, who announced that Perkins would be missing three weeks due to an injury to his other knee. That was followed with his untimely comments that Oklahoma was one of the situations he was really pushing his agent to explore when the season ended and his free agency tour began.

“God works in mysterious ways,” was Perkins’ cliche summary of the trade. So the Celtics actually did him a favour? Spin or spiritual? Bewildered Celtics fans, don’t cry too much for your beloveds. Cry not for the departed. Cry maybe for Green, who could have said something like, “I was looking forward to leaving everything we built on and off the court in Oklahoma and the joy of playing alongside two of the leagues top 10 players. I was telling my agent that whenever I become a free agent, I want the Celtics to be first on my list.” but didn’t. For a man considered to be the worse end of the deal – and the dispensable part of the Thunder’s big three behind Kevin Durant and the emergence of Russell Westbrook – Green will still be expected to be a big contributor on a real contender. How he responds could spin this trade further.

The truth is, with durability issues in the front court the Celtics will only go so far as Rondo, Allen and Pierce take them. The trio will be pushed harder in the playoffs without Robinson on board and rookie Avery Bradley having a low-impact first season. Guard Delonte West, out since November with a broken right wrist, is still in rehab for the injury and is without a firm return date. On the other end front court fragility now has solid support in the Glen Davis, Green and Krstic combination. Perkins was known for being able to check Dwight Howard but the Celtics are less concerned about the Orlando Magic this season than they are the Miami Heat and at full health they still possess a deeper well of quality big men than any contender in the eastern conference and perhaps second only to the Bulls in collective talent.

At worst the Celtics gave up 50 extra pounds of handy beef, the weight difference between Green and Perkins. That weight allowed Perkins to do some very impressive things to opponents in a very muscular way. The straight outta high school rock will ultimately do the same for the Thunder and if he can return to full health they should be considered legitimate contenders to the western conference crown. Can you honestly say that they Celtics don’t still hold that rank in the east?

SONOFAGUN: Allen Making Mark with Grizzlies

January 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Columns, NBA, Son of a Gun

“DeMar who?” was the response Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen gave at his visitor’s locker when asked about the defensive effort versus DeMar DeRozan’s low-impact 25 points in the Grizzlies 100-98 win over the Toronto Raptors on Monday.

“He got off, he did his thing,” Allen continued. “DeRozan did his thing for however many minutes I wasn’t in the game. Whenever Tony Allen wasn’t in that’s when DeRozan got off. I mean, all we wanted to do was make his shots tough anyway.”

The talk is part of the package with Allen. His antics – like tongue wagging the Raptors during an early game breakaway lay up or barking at Jerryd Bayless from the bench – are notorious. So is his ability to be a force off the bench, a two-way threat capable of locking guys down while adding spurt scoring. His contributions have helped create an odd but effective backcourt rotation that includes starter Mike Conley along with big minute sixth man O.J. Mayo and Allen backing their play. With young blood like Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez also battling for burn things can be cutthroat in Memphis and have only added to the belief that turmoil exists among some on the Grizzlies roster.

One of the early season sources of trouble was Mayo’s demotion to the bench, a move he did not take well by his own admission. With Conley signing a surprising five-year $45 contract over the summer and rumours of his being on the trading block sitting heavily in the air, the bench assignment caused Mayo to question his role with the team.

“I’m cool now,” said Mayo. “At first I was kind of upset and felt unappreciated and stuff. Now I think it was just better for our team. It definately gives us a chance to be more of a full team. It makes us more competitive out in the west.”

Allen doesn’t just use his mouth to taunt the opposition. His voice was in Mayo’s ear during the transition from potential franchise player to high-powered reserve.

“I always tell O.J. “the Juice” that (he’s) a scorer,” said Allen. “Come in the game and be a scorer. However the game goes, I’m pretty much going to come in as a defensive player anyway. I just told him don’t leave nothing in the chamber and make plays. All scorers can make plays because they be too worried about his shot going in. I just told him to make plays, he embraced that role and that just shows the professionalism in him.”

Mayo (12.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.9 APG) is still settling into his reserve role but the signs are encouraging, as is his more attention to detail on both ends of the floor. The Grizzlies have ranked in the top half of the league in defence for most of the season and are first in steals per game. They also force the most turnovers per game in the NBA.

“O.J.’s done a great job sacrificing for the team and coming off the bench,” said Conley. “He’s played well especially the last couple of weeks and (he’s) starting to know the role a little bit better. It makes us that much more dynamic having him come off the bench.”

With the Grizzlies wins/losses hovering around .500 and just a few games out of the eighth playoff seed halfway through the season, any potential break-up seems to have been put off in favour of the make-up. With a 20 and 10 guy roaming the front court in Zach Randolph and a proven clutch scorer in flourishing forward Rudy Gay the franchise arguably has never had so many pieces in place at one time. Conley (13.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG) has proven his worth all season as the unsuspecting quarterback despite harsh widespread criticism directed at the Grizzlies brass for awarding him such a lucrative off-season pact. A smile grows across his face when asked about the worth of Allen to the development of the new-fangled backcourt.

“Our defensive intensity has really picked up,” said Conley. “Especially with Tony Allen coming into the game. He really helps change momentum because he’s getting steals, he’s getting into people, he’s talking and being loud and I think everybody kind of builds off of that. He’s done a great job and I really want to credit him with the way our defence is playing right now.”

Mayo agrees and like Conley, shows his teeth when talking about the veteran.

“He’s energy,” said Mayo when describing Allen. “Anytime you call his name he’s ready to play. Even when he’s not playing he’s like he’s in a game. He’s always standing up, can’t sit still and just ready to play. Just a a good player that you want to go to war with.”

“He’s the guy that gets everybody going,” Conley added. “When I’m tired and I feel like I can’t guard somebody because my legs hurt he’s like “C’mon, Mike!” I’m picked up and ready to go and I’m all in. That’s the kind of guy he is and he’s really helped us all the way around.

“He talks all day, man. You don’t get a rest.”

The personality that comes with the prowess is the battery for Allen’s efforts. Like most focussed defenders he understands the value of a good mind bend. A head ring. A mind game or two. How about just plain dismissive like he was with DeRozan and as Allen often is when asked about the enemy? His six seasons in Boston are a clear part of his make up and he inquires often about his old mates and checks on their progress. He cites lessons learned in Beantown when assessing his first season with the Grizzlies, despite his suggestion that he was somehow “overshadowed” by Boston’s big three.

Allen (6 PPG, 1.54 SPG, 14.7 MPG) also speaks glowingly of Mayo despite accusations that the two were involved in a mid-flight fight during their way back from Los Angeles earlier this month. Admittedly, it is hard to tell if egos have been soothed since or if the kind words strung back and forth from each other are simply “good soldier” quotes. Word on the street remains that while the Grizzlies will be given a chance to win as-is there isn’t a lot of faith in the current backcourt set up long-term. It is a belief that stands in contrast to what the Conley/Mayo/Allen combo has started to show on the court but and understandable one given the team’s historical perch on the fringe of the postseason picture. It isn’t written anywhere that everybody has to like each other to win and with Allen, there are times you may not have the luxury of having it any other way. Allen attracts the heat – even welcomes it – and then fights fire with fire for better or worse.

“That’s been me,” said Allen of his reputation as a trash-talking, grind-it-out specialist. “Shout out to Doc Rivers who instilled that in me. I just come in and approach every game with a defensive mindset.”

Depleted Raptors No Match for Hurting Bulls

December 16, 2010 by  
Filed under Columns

Centre Joakim Noah didn’t want to talk about his right thumb injury before his Chicago Bulls faced the Toronto Raptors Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre. The right hand injury has been the subject of much speculation over the past two days as Noah and the Bulls swing back and forth on whether to put the damaged digit under the knife for correction or tough it out as the Bulls enjoy their best stretch of the season.

“I don’t want to talk about the injury,” said Noah at his locker before the game.

With that he disappeared into the back room for the therapy and preparation that would allow him to go out and drop 11 points and 11 rebounds – his 15th double-double of the season – on the Raptors for a 110-93 victory for the Bulls’ ninth straight win. Halfway through the contest it was announced he would indeed go ahead with the surgery following the game, a weird call considering he was on the court playing balls out as usual at the time. It simply got to the point where the pain and the inability to practice would not allow him to make the kind of impact he is expected to provide. He spoke with reporters at length once the announcement was made.

“I’ve had a little time to think whether I was going to get the surgery or not,” said Noah on what led to the decision. “I think it’s the right thing to do. I spoke to my family and decided it’s the best thing to do right now. I’ve got a lot of support from my teammates and coaching staff.

“We have a lot of potential and we have a team that in the long run can be something special.”

The Raptors themselves were a shell of a roster on this night and are a bit farther off from the goal of being “special” than the Bulls. With centre Andrea Bargnani a late scratch due to a sore left knee and point guard Jose Calderon missing his third straight contest with a foot injury the Bulls were facing a wounded Raptors squad, cornered and desperate. Add that rebounder Reggie Evans and three-point specialist Peja Stojakovic have been out with leg injuries for an extended period and the Bulls were also staring down a very young Raptors squad.

“It’s tough,” said Triano. “We knew that going into the game.

“This is a part of what we’re trying to do is keep these guys going, develop them and make them better basketball players. You get a test when you go up against some of the better teams, this is one of the better teams in the East.”

Noah – despite the dark cloud hanging over his head – got off early by snagging six rebounds in the opening frame to go with two blocked shots. He logged the entire 12 minutes too, helping to set the table for his front court mate power forward Carlos Boozer. Boozer went ballistic in the second quarter dropping 12 points and four rebounds while manhandling the Raptors interior defence. He and Noah combined for 17 first half rebounds and the Bulls held a wicked 28-11 advantage on the glass at the half. They also had the Raptors beat in the paint with a 38-20 leg up going into the break, helping them to a 63-44 lead. The Raptors were too small on paper and played like it.

“It was kind of expected that they were going at our young guys inside,” said Triano. “It was the primary focus of their offence, get the ball to Boozer down low and let him go to work.”

Noah started off the second half much like the first with a quick bucket to get his team rolling. Boozer continued to kick his dirt as well adding another eight points by the halfway point of the third quarter with Amir Johnson picking up his third foul early just trying to keep him off the block.

“We knew they had a mismatch problem with me so they just kept giving it to me,” said Boozer who finished with 34 points and 12 rebounds. “I just kept trying to be aggressive all night long. Just trying to be aggressive and make shots and play good defence. I thought we did a great job on defence until the fourth quarter but that helps us. Our defence helps us play offence.”

Meanwhile point man Jerryd Bayless, who continues to start in place of Calderon, put up 14 points on 7 of 11 shooting by the 5:42 mark of the frame. He finished the game with 20 points and four assists. Rookie forward Ed Davis seemed comfortable in his first NBA start and kept pace with the Bulls’ bigs on the boards with 10 rebounds to go with 10 points on the night. Still, those bright spots were dimmed by the overwhelming power of the Bulls inside, who increased their points in the paint lead to 58-36 at the end of the period to ride a 91-64 lead into the final 12 minutes of play.

“It was efficient,” said Bulls guard Derrick Rose, who finished with 6 points and 11 assists while playing through a wrist injury. “We ran a lot of pick-n-rolls., making sure to attack and making sure somebody comes to me, bringing the big out so Carlos can have some room to work.”

The Bulls starters, save for six minutes of forward Luol Deng, rested in the fourth quarter but it was more of the same for Toronto against the impressive Bulls bench. They lived up to their never say stop reputation and continued to pound Toronto’s depleted line up. The Raptors managed to cut the deficit to 15 midway through the quarter behind some fast breakage and improved rebounding but the numbers were too far gone to make up the difference. Guard Leandro Barbosa was particularly active with a blurring 10 points in the fourth to total 21 in 31 minutes off the pine. Alas, the Raptors could muster no more and the Bulls walked off quietly into the bowels of the ACC to worry about more important things, like planning for life without their most dangerous big man for the next 8-10 weeks.

The Raptors, after being exposed in the middle without Bargnani, were no doubt wondering something along similar lines.

SONOFAGUN: Biedrins Finds New Hope in Golden State

December 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Columns, NBA, Son of a Gun

I first met Andris Biedrins six years ago as a teenager fresh off his 11th overall selection by the Golden State Warriors at the 2004 NBA draft. We were at Club Deep in New York City and the youngster was hanging out with one of his little Latvian buddies, scurrying around the hip hop venue like the discoverer of a new world. I remember thinking, as I watched him double-dutch his way into the culture, that the kid might not be long for the NBA.

That Biedrins had skills was evident but they were extremely raw and back then the transition from European and North American wasn’t as well-travelled, especially for a teenager. The Warriors themselves were a running NBA joke and I figured the seven-footer would bounce from that franchise after a season or two and Darko Milicic his way through the rest of his rookie contract, possibly journeyman his way through a short NBA career, then head back to Europe for bigger pay for play and a respectable Latvian legacy. Seven years later Biedrins is still in the NBA and still with the Warriors, standing as the only constant in the stop and go progress of a franchise that has slowly started to shed the image of being an unsalvagable loser.

“It’s been a long, long time and a lot of good times and a lot of bad times,” Biedrins recently told SWAY Sports. “I‘m just happy I’m still here. I love this team and the team loves me.”

Biedrins is referring to the young core that suddenly surrounds him in Oakland. With Monta Ellis and Stephon Curry making up one of the deadliest backcourts in the NBA and newly acquired power forward David Lee adding all-star potential to the front court the Warriors are on the come up. A 6-2 start to this season surprised many considering the amount of change the franchise has undergone since last season. The purchase of the team for an estimated $450M by new owners Joe Lacob and Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber promises a better building plan than that of the wildly unpredictable and drama-filled roller-coaster of the Chris Cohan regime and the sale also signalled the end of the Don Nelson era.

Nelson’s second go-round with the team (after being previously fired by Cohan in the mid 1990’s, whom he also sued) was pock-marked with inconsistencies, peaking with the team’s historical first round upset of the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in 2007. That series victory was supposed to be the start of a successful run for the Warriors but the next year the team narrowly missed the playoffs and slid back into the dark and off the map. Nelson clashed with his charges at an alarming rate, eventually jettisoning most of the players that had toppled Dallas. Biedrins survived and continued to improve his game amid the chaos.

“I had to hang in there and like you said, good things happen,” said Biedrins. “After something bad, good things will come. I think this is it and so we are ready for this.”

Over the first five years of his career Biedrins’ numbers improved steadily in both points and rebounds, topping in 2008-09 with 11.9 points and 11.2 rebounds per game. He is also a career 60% shooter from the field, an impressive number thrown into doubt by many who consider it a safe statistic from a player who has been unable to develop an offence away from the paint.

Then last season he appeared in just 33 games due to a lower back injury and his contributions nose-dived. So did his confidence and assertion. His absence wasn’t the only reason the Warriors went 26-56 on the season but the dependability Biedrins has typically brought to the table is notable. He talked openly to the Latvian media about the possibility of moving on from the Warriors – frustrated by the team’s lack of chemistry and his insistence that they didn’t look out for his best interests after his back went out. He was also convinced that Nelson did not respect his game. With Nelson now gone and a new energy surrounding the team, Biedrins prefers to focus on the positives.

“I had a long summer as you know,” said Biedrins, whose rebounding and points per game have returned to more becoming numbers. “I was doing my rehab and preparing for the season and it went really well. We have new team, new coaches new owner… a lot of things changed but everything is looking really well. All the guys are happy to be here and play together and I think that’s a big part of why we had (that) big start so we just need to keep it up.”

They haven’t. At the time of this writing the Warriors were 8-15 on the season and in the midst of a conference worst six-game slide but unlike years past there isn’t the finger pointing and coach/player flare ups that derailed previous campaigns. New head coach Keith Smart points quickly to the reason why.

“They all came into town very early,” said Smart. “First time we had that many guys – 13 guys in town no later than the 12th when we got ready for September. Then you saw how they developed chemistry along the way.

“The good teams do that, they bond first before the coaches get a hold of them and that’s what we kind of established with our guys. As preseason moved on I kept the starting five together all the way through preseason. I wasn’t trying to look for a guy to plug into the rotation, I stayed with our starting lineup because I knew I needed to develop that chemistry fast, I had to get it going right away and then sort out who would be the guys coming off the bench. Surprising yes, but not uncommon when you look at all the good teams and what they try to do early on.”

One of those new players was Lee whose addition was unanimously approved by the Warriors’ returning core. For Biedrins it was a move long overdue.

“First couple of practices I realized that it’s real easy to play with him,” said Biedrins, the Warriors’ longest tenured player. “Now we’re playing together really well. it’s feeling like we’ve played many years together. It’s really easy to communicate, he’s always a willing helper like I am and it’s easy to help each other. He always has my back and I always have his back. It’s just great to have him here. I’ve been waiting for a guy like that for a long time.”

The Warriors guards love it too.

“When you have that frontline behind us we kind of rely on them to kind of protect the rim and everybody gang rebounds and we’re off to the races,” said second-year pro Curry. “That’s when we’re at our best. It is nice to have a tough lineup out there (that’s) tall and athletic. David controls the glass when he’s in there and so does Dre (Andris) when he’s healthy so it’s a good look.”

Lee is a veteran of losing teams having played with the previously sour New York Knicks. They traded him to the Warriors in the off season to pave the way for Amar’e Stoudemire as the new power forward, even though Lee played out of position at the centre spot during much of his Knicks tenure. With Biedrins entrenched in the middle he doesn’t have to do that for the Warriors and his arrival has helped further define roles for the roster. He hopes it will also help to define the future.

“We needed to get off to a good start for the confidence of this franchise because there has been a lot of losing here,” said Lee who was sideline for eight games in late November after a laceration in his left arm got infected and needed to be drained. The Warriors went just 1-7 while he was away and need him to regain their early season form, something that is still a work in progress. “From the start that’s what I tried to do, just try to bring a positive attitude and hopefully make us realize that we’ve got a lot of new faces and so the losing that’s happened in the past doesn’t have to happen again.”

With Lee barely into the first year of his new 6-year, $80M deal and Biedrins’ $62M contract not due to expire until the 2013-14 season there will be more time to fuse and at 27 and 24 years of age respectively, the prime years are clearly ahead of this duo. It’s early but so far Smart has liked what he has seen.

“One thing they have done with each other is both have gone to the glass to rebound so when one may have been a little light rebounding the other one has picked up slack,” noted Smart, co-signing on Curry’s observation. “Thats a luxury to have to guys that can still function offensively as well but also can help you defensively to get the glass.”

It’s been a long journey for Biedrins and he’s come a long way from that dark and crowded groupie-love disco that served as one of his first forays into North American life. He may not have become the out-of-nowhere all-star type the Warriors were hoping for when they picked him up all as a teenager but he is still young enough to make a run at a new era, old enough to appreciate the art of starting over and veteran enough to recognize the improved talent that now surrounds him. In any case, he’s far from the one and done NBAer I thought he might become when I sat in that New York city club all those years ago and couldn’t make heads or tails of the kid. He smiles with bemusement at the pessimistic recollections of a mistaken journalist.

“I still feel young but it’s my seventh season now and the time is running by so fast and young guys are coming in,” explains Biedrins. “It’s so weird that so many guys on the team are younger than me. It’s pretty cool. It’s good that I can give them so much advice like I had in my first three years like the veterans were to me so I’m willing to help. Just talk to them and help them out.”

NCAA: Cadougan Rides “Cutting Edge” Comeback

November 30, 2010 by  
Filed under Hoops Talk

Before the much-heralded Cory Joseph, Kevin Pangos and Myck Kabongo – the three most talked about Canadian guards since Steve Nash – there was Junior Cadougan, 2009’s top Canadian point guard prospect and Marquette Golden Eagles recruit. Cadougan, a sick-with-it passer and closer, received major praise for his game down south just as he did in his hometown of Toronto, and the hard work behind the reputation paid off. How else would he have got to play with (and help pioneer) the heralded Christian Life Center Academy way down in Humble, Texas? How else could his skills work him into a scholarship to Marquette University to star for the Golden Eagles? They were the same skills that had him relocate to the U.S.A. years earlier for his high school tutelage, forging a south side path Joseph, Kabongo and others would later follow. The same work ethic that had the Golden Eagles faithful hungrily anticipating his arrival in Milwaukee. It was all good until fate flipped the script and the path, which took a sharp and sudden turn for Cadougan just when it was all about to go next level.

“It was crazy because my dream was to go to a high major program and start right away,” Cadougan told SWAY Sports from his North Toronto base. “On September 18 (2009) I had an individual workout and I just took off from the line and my Achilles popped. It was a freak injury and I didn’t know what to do at the time. I had to make my mind up and have that mindset that my career’s not over and I’m still young and I still had the opportunity to get to the highest pro level I could get to.”

For a freshman that kind of injury can be a confidence shaker but Cadougan made the most of his time away from the spotlight. His rehabilitation routine was intense and draining and required the 20 year-old to achieve a level of discipline and stick-to-itiveness he had never before explored. That said, his hometown family offered strong support and his basketball travels under the tutelage of mentors like Christian Life coach Ro Russell, Canada Basketball coach Roy Rana and Marquette head coach Buzz Williams helped to prepare him for the challenge. The tall order of making a full recovery has its own pressures but he talks like he was ready to face them long before he even stepped onto the floor of the Bradley Center. Before that Achilles went pop. Before the answers turned to questions.

“Once I got this injury I couldn’t worry about pain,” said the 6-1, 200 pound Cadougan abut his right Achilles rupture. “If I worried about pain I couldn’t get past the steps. Now I’m just fearless on the court (and) in the classroom.”

In most ways Cadougan was very much on his own with his comeback process. When he wasn’t killing himself in rehab with team trainer Ernest Eugene he was spending more of his free time in the study hall after class. In fact, the focus he exhibited in those intense rehab sessions also translated in his approach to school and the way the two could – and should – feed each other.

“This injury had me doing extra hours in study hall and more focus on the classroom than the ball court,” said Cadougan. “It was kind of bad for me but kind of good because it was a learning experience for me on and off the court for academics and basketball. It just built up my confidence in every way.”

It was that confidence and hard work that put Cadougan way ahead of schedule for a return from an injury most predicted would wash away his freshman year. The idea of him redshirting the season to preserve his full four years of college eligibility was the logical step most observers agreed, but the kid had other plans.

On January 23, 2010 – just over four months after the Achilles fail Junior Cadougan put his improvements to the test when coach Buzz called his number in a game against the Syracuse Orange. It was a return to the court that raised the collective eyebrow of college basketball. He sat on the bench for two games prior to that anxiously waiting to debut and when he finally got in on the action his first ever collegiate shot was an air ball three-pointer. Over 12 games as a reserve he played sparingly and put up numbers that had critics quickly doubting his comeback. What they didn’t see then was the method to his madness.

*****************

“It was a hard decision (not to redshirt),” said Cadougan. His voice lets out a sigh as if to recall the difficulty of his decision. “But it’s the big east and not every freshman can come to the Big East and dominate. I just wanted to get a feel. I wasn’t going to get to the highest pro level after my freshman year in the Big East so I just wanted to get the feel of the game, get the flow of practice, the flow of the offence so that the next year coming up I wouldn’t be shocked on the floor, so I wouldn’t be a freshman again. My main goal was not to be a freshman my second year. I worked real hard to see where I could get at and it got me back on the floor.”

Cadougan and Eugene – a former assistant athletic trainer for the Washington Wizards – barely knew each other when they began the recovery process and Eugene didn’t know much more about being the lead on an Achilles rehabilitation. It was his first. The two began quickly and met often and it wasn’t long before Eugene was impressed with Cadougan’s willingness to push the limits. A trainer’s dream.

“With Junior, because of our extensive research, we were on the cutting edge,” Eugene told Strength & Conditioning Magazine in October. It may have been groundbreaking stuff at the time but neither could be sure until the results were in. Until then, Cadougan had to put his total trust in Eugene but he had no idea that the payoff would come so quickly.

“”I was rehabbing and every time I’d go to the doctor, the things that he would tell me to do in rehab we had already done it a week before,” recounted Cadougan. “That just built up my confidence, like I can do anything because I came back from that Achilles injury. That’s one of the worst injuries you can have.”

The long road began with simple standing and sitting routines followed by pick ups (basically moving things around with your toes) designed to reacquaint Cadougan’s muscles with movement. Once the muscles in his right foot were strong again the real work began. Weeks of resistance exercises came next followed by the confidence building balancing and muscle control exercises that were painful, unrelenting and demanding. In between Cadougan kept to his books, got his rest and even found time to pull a radio stint for 540 ESPN as a guest analyst for Marquette games (“I think you could see me doing a little commentating one day,” he says). An AlterG (gravity altering treadmill) was brought in for low impact running, which provided a big step forward as a weight bearing activity. By December Cadougan had ended his radio gig and was running drills on a basketball court. By January he was back with the Golden Eagles at practice. In four months he had gone from freshman write-off to comeback story.

“I’m actually better than I was before I got injured,” said Cadougan. “My speed, my lane agility, my vertical went up. Everything went up so all the hard work has paid off.”

Along with the strength and conditioning that continued as he played out the season in bits and bites, Cadougan was also getting a view of basketball he hadn’t seen in a very long time. Ask him to self-assess his 12-game season and the answer doesn’t come in some statistical roll.

“I haven’t experienced sitting on the bench before,” Cadougan said of his biggest adjustment. “Once I experienced that it helped me learn to be humble. Anything can happen. I saw things on the bench that I can’t really see playing so it was a learning experience for me.”

*****************

As the college season awakes Cadougan has been anxious to put his body back to work at full speed. In the first game of the 2010-11 season he registered two points and five assists in 13 minutes in a win over Prairie View A & M. On November 22 against the defending champion Duke Blue Devils Cadougan dropped seven assists with five points in 22 minutes. Despite the close 82-77 loss his performance was enough of a flare for coach Buzz to place him into the starting line up for the following contest. On November 27 Cadougan finally achieved his dream of starting at a high major school when he was on the floor with the Golden Eagles for the opening tip against Milwaukee. His 2 of 4 shooting from the floor to go with a couple of steals and assists was cool but better was logging a season-high 30 minutes of burn. His training hasn’t slowed since his unexpected late-season return last year or when the pain from his heel finally stopped in the spring. The process of rehabbing and fighting to return to the court reminded him of the value of determination, the work that supports it and the little time to spare it allows. However, there are still questions to be answered.

“Coming in as a big recruit that’s known for winning I just have to prove that I can win and that I can lead my team and try to make something happen.” Cadougan’s voice raises slightly for the next delivery. “The big statement is ‘Can he win? Can he win Marquette basketball games? Can he lead the team?’ That’s what I’m focused on right now.”

Marquette went 22-12 last season with a 11-7 record versus Big East competition and were first round losers to Washington in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. They expect to improve on that this season with Cadougan in the mix full time. He has obviously kept in close contact with Buzz and his coaching staff throughout the process and knows exactly where he stands.

“I talk to Buzz a lot,” said Cadougan “He just tells me to keep on working. Buzz doesn’t really give to you; he really wants you to earn it. He doesn’t really tell you that you’re going to be this or going to be that. He doesn’t care who you are or what status you have, he’s just going to play the five toughest guys on the team.”

Cadougan’s amazing recovery puts some more stock in that category and if he can attack the hardwood like he did his injury, coach Buzz will carry one of college basketball’s toughest competitors. He is aware of his place there too, that he is also part of a much-heralded Canadian contingent making noise across the U.S. collegiate scene.

“My era with Cory and Devoe (Joseph) and Myck and Tristan (Thompson)… we’re bringing something new to the game and to Canada basketball,” says Cadougan. “We’re showing the world that we can compete at the highest level so it’s special for us as the upcoming kids.”

And Cadougan is still one of them, a worker with loads of potential finally back on familiar ground. He may also be the strongest of the new school after clearing this major setback in fine fashion. More time will have to pass to be sure – and this may be one stage of many – but Cadougan remains ahead of the curve, sure again of his footing and finally back to what he’s always been – ready.

“My mom and my brother,” responded Cadougan when asked about his support group that helped him through his darkest hoop days. “I just have a core of people, I don’t have a lot of people that I socialize with. A lot of people from North York and the people that really know me have my back but I left Canada six years now. People done forgot about me.”

It isn’t just the northern dwellers either. All of college basketball is wondering what happened to Toronto’s next hope. Marquette’s big chip. That ill point guard with the handles and crazy end game that went down south and disappeared. In the world of what have you done for me lately just about everybody has forgotten.

Cadougan appears primed to work that out too. Smart enough to know that the hard road back may be is his testament but that ultimately, his game will be the reminder.

SONOFAGUN: Calderon Slipping in New NBA Landscape

November 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Son of a Gun, Toronto Raptors

After a summer of worrying about just how they were going to replace departed all-star power forward Chris Bosh the Toronto Raptors are struggling at the other end of the line up with their guard play, in particular at the point position. While they wait for DeMar DeRozan to answer their questions (and prayers) at the shooting guard spot neither Jose Calderon nor Jarrett Jack appear to be enough of an answer as a starting point guard.

The fault doesn’t lie squarely on one or the other but in most conversations the two are considered to be back up point guards in the NBA, capable of running a team but not in regular extended minutes throughout an 82-game NBA schedule. In some ways the blame lies at the feet of Calderon, whose spotty play and injuries after signing a 5-year, $45M deal in July of 2008 have served to help push Jack into a starter’s role. Not that Jack didn’t fight for it. He had previously beat out more highly favored players for starts while hooping for the Portland Trailblazers and more recently he displaced ex-Raptor T.J. Ford as the full-time starter while playing for the Indiana Pacers two seasons ago. Now it appears Jack has accomplished the same feat with Calderon in Toronto. That said he appeared to have done the same last year only to relinquish the starting duties to Calderon late in the season. Upon his return on January 6, 2010 after missing a month of action due to a hip injury the Raptors were 17-18 and winners of six of their previous seven games. Calderon was used as a reserve and played well to help them to a 14-6 record over the next 20 games but when the team chased that with a 1-9 slide he replaced Jack in the starting line up. At that point the team was sinking and could only manage an 8-11 record the rest of the way, just good enough to finish out of the playoffs. The point guards aren’t to blame for that collapse (Bosh’s late season injury all but sealed the Raptors’ fate) but they didn’t make a difference.

And that’s the thing.

The fact that both Jack and Calderon have been bounced from reserve to starter and back for their entire careers is proof that no regime of any franchise has been sold on either as a full-timer. There are those who dismiss the controversy of who starts as irrelevant but then talk about the importance of the good first quarters teams need to set tones and earn wins. Players have been known to talk in the same way but only the ones who either know their place or avoid ruffling feathers. Foolish talk. Remember that during their time together Calderon dismissed any starting controversy with Ford only to tell his the media in Spain something different. In today’s NBA that position needs to be solid and firm. The point guard as general is in many ways the extension of the coaching staff on the floor, making it the very worst position to attempt to run by platoon or committee. If it didn’t work with Calderon and Ford four seasons ago – a problem Raptors general manager Bryan Colangelo was quick to clean up in 2008 – what makes anybody believe it will work now?

What makes the problem stand out even more is that 2010 might be the first year in what could turn out to be the decade of the point guard. Currently the NBA scoring lead is help by Monta Ellis of the Golden State Warriors with 30 points per game ( and 6 assists per game) followed by Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose with 26.8 (10 APG) and both are the clear-cut starting point guards for their teams. Further to that, eight guards (four point guards) or backcourt players register in the top 20 on the scoring list with four in the top 10. Five small forwards are included on that list with the remaining seven to be found in the frontcourt. In order to compete the Raptors must add some dynamicism to their backcourt and no, it isn’t all about scoring… but it helps.

It also wouldn’t be fair to compare Calderon and Jack statistically when it comes to assists because neither will impress numerically while splitting time at the position. Obviously numbers have much to do with minutes and the quality of teammates in the fold. Calderon was a dynamo during the Sam Mitchell era of robotic, paint-by-numbers game plans. With head coach Jay Triano’s desire to increase the frenetics Calderon has struggled to adapt. The exceptional way he takes care of the ball, makes free throws and drives the lane don’t seem as impressive without the punch it seems injury may have robbed him of. He had to pull out of the FIBA world championships in Turkey this past summer because of another serious leg injury while playing warm up games for Spain and took over a month to recover. Numbers never tell the whole story but good point guards can either make guys better or at least make it look that way. When you look at the last five years of Calderon has he ever flat out just made somebody better?

Look around the league and it isn’t hard to tell what the top teams all have in common and that is all-star caliber play in the backcourt. Leaving the champs and the best guard in the league Kobe Bryant out of it, the real contenders for the crown – the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic – all possess it. The Raptors hover around the bottom third of the league when it comes to production at the point and when you consider the upside to Oklahoma’s Russell Westbrook, Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday, Washington’s John Wall, Indiana’s Darren Collison, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans and Memphis’ Mike Conley the future just isn’t there yet in Toronto. All of the above-mentioned names have become or are becoming integral parts of the future core of their teams and some are already the center of attention. All with the exception of Conley have star power.

On the other end Boston’s Rajon Rondo, Utah’s Deron Williams, New Orleans’ Chris Paul, New Jersey’s Devin Harris and Orlando’s Jameer Nelson are class leaders, young all-stars with many more all-star years to give. Then there is the third corner with Dallas’ Jason Kidd, Phoenix’s Steve Nash and Denver’s Chauncey Billups as hard-to-kill veterans who still threaten to steal all-star selections from the mouths of babes. Calderon stands out here too, again, through no serious fault of his own. He isn’t young enough to posses the quickness to keep up with the next generation – or even his own – and not old enough to fool the competition with his smarts. His physicality doesn’t allow him to overpower opponents and defensively he has always been average at best. He isn’t a bit of all of it like San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker. Even his contract sits in the middle ground of the NBA market; not quite an albatross but far from friendly as failed attempts to move him will support. In that sense the best-case scenario for the Raptors and Calderon is if he just plays better but it would mean reversing an alarming spiral.

Starting at the 2006-06 season Calderon enjoyed a steady climb statistically speaking, peaking at 12.8 PPG and 8.9 APG in 2008-09. In four games as a reserve this season he is averaging a career low 4.8 PPG after finishing with a 10.3 PPG average last tour. It should be noted that he has maintained a respectable 5.5 APG, ranking him fifth in the NBA per 48 minutes played. His 21 minutes a game ties a career low and his 28% field goal shooting and 25% mark from three-point range is eye-popping. Jack’s stats (not shooting) have followed a similar trajectory but his decline has not been as dramatic. He’s moving at a 9.4 PPG clip so far this season after recording 11.4 PPG last and 13.1 PPG in 2008-09 while with the Pacers.

Durability is an issue as well with Calderon dealing with severe hamstring and hip injuries that have limited him to 68 games played in each of the last two seasons. His only 82 games-played season came in 2007-08 and he made just 39 starts in 2009-10. By contrast Jack is coming off his third straight 82 games-played season following two 79 games-played efforts to start his career in Portland. He made the other 43 starts for the Raptors in 2009-10, which actually gives him 14 more career starts than Calderon and comparable lifetime numbers at half the price.

This isn’t a slam on Calderon as much as it is a reflection on the sudden shift and evolution of a game that seems to be awkwardly passing him by. One thing that is missing is the youthful, almost boyish glee he took in playing both for Spain’s national team and his early days as a Raptor. He is still a go to guy in the locker room but other voices have emerged and he seems more inward both on and off the court. Calderon has shown that he can be an impact player in the NBA but returning to form and catching up with the league’s best will be difficult. At 29 years of age Calderon should be entering his prime but speed and creativity are difficult add-ons and near impossible to develop significantly at this stage. In the same way both he and Jack have been demoted to reserves at various times throughout their careers both have clawed back, which is its own kind of testament. If that bark wasn’t there, if two equally talented point guards aren’t fighting and competing for burn, there would be even more concern. That would call into light their heart and spirit, which has never been in question with this duo. The hunger and the competition that ensues for that number one spot is healthy but isn’t meant to rage eternal. At some point somebody’s got to take the lead and be anointed as such.

New addition Leandro Barbosa is sure to steal some time at the point guard position because of his much-needed speed. Two-guard cornerstone candidate DeRozan is young and it is way too early to make the call on the USC product. The key with D-Ro will be patience and playing time and he has shown enough to warrant the consideration. He might even be good enough in a year or two to help mask some of the limitations currently facing his backcourt partners because with players like Calderon and Jack you get the feeling that you’ve got as much as you are ever going to get, and that’s not a bad thing. They are good and on most night’s they play like it, but in today’s NBA that just isn’t enough.

Andy’s World: Rautins on Hectic Pace

August 23, 2010 by  
Filed under Hoops Talk

New York Knicks guard Andy Rautins is having the year of his life. From college team to national program to NBA club, SWAY Sports catches up with the young gunner happily hurting in the middle of it all.

“I’m still a little groggy,” said Andy Rautins at his stall in the Toronto Raptors locker room at the Air Canada Center. Basketball Canada had taken it over for a back-to-back set in the middle of August to play host to Team France as part of their warm up in preparation for the FIBA world championships in Turkey, August 28. French forward and former Seattle Supersonic Mikael Gelabale caught Rautins with an errant elbow in the second half of the first game, chipping a tooth and sending him into a fog.

On the second night Rautins checked himself out of the game in the third quarter after catching an errant knee to his left leg. He grinned through the charley horse with the media afterwards when answering a question about setting tones and physical play. The road to Turkey was just three exhibition games old and already Rautins had his war wounds on display. It’s one of the traits that the undersized and young Canadians will have to play on if they are to make an underdog’s growl at the worlds. There is an edge to players like Joel Anthony, Jermaine Anderson, Denham Brown, Robert Sacre and Rautins that collectively has never been present on a Team Canada roster. A particular nastiness that isn’t incrementally taught, but rather inherency polished over time.

“It feels good to hear them say that we’re a physical team,” said Rautins. “A lot of people are doubting our assertiveness and if we can bring it every night. That’s the type of team we are.”

One the second night of the back-to-back tilt versus the French Rautins reclaimed his touch, registering his best shooting night since turning pro. A 19-point show on an efficient 6 of 12 shooting (3 of 6 three-pointers) to go with three rebounds was more than enough to lead his squad over the struggling Frenchmen 85-63. The team still had its lapses, particularly in the third quarter when the aggressive and sure footing they displayed in a first half route began to fade. All part of the process as the club continues to gel at a rapid pace given the time crunch of the schedule.

“We’ve just got to come out more fired up in the second (half),” said Rautins following that contest before the team boarded a flight to Greece for more exhibition play. “Team’s over there (in Turkey) will take advantage of that. We’ve got a lot of work to do and that’s the good thing, winning by 20 points and knowing you can get a lot better. That’s where out focus is, to just come out and play a complete game.”

For Rautins the schedule has been unrelenting in 2010 and few rookies will have gone through as much of a summer tour come October. First it was a grueling NCAA season with Syracuse University and the mayhem of March Madness before going on to the workouts and hype surrounding the NBA Draft and his 38th overall selection to the New York Knicks. Then there was his summer league play in Las Vegas that saw him shoot poorly but impress defensively. He has been in training camp with the Canadian national team since the end of that stint, signed on to play a crammed schedule of a dozen or so games over another three weeks including the worlds. Finally, after all of that grind, it will be back home to New York and into to his first NBA training camp where he will try to make the roster of the rebuilding Knicks. The physical tax of his whirlwind summer will substantial but it is the mental aspect that is the real bend with that kind of itinerary.

“Especially going from a zone type of system at Syracuse to playing in a three-on-three man-to-man type of atmosphere at NBA tryouts,” said Rautins pointing out one of many adjustments. “You’ve go to be versatile and you’ve got to do what’s asked of you so I don’t think it’s too much of transition. The way we play, our defense is similar to the style of the Knicks as well as coach D’Antoni’s system of get out and run.”

And there are the doubters; the ones who say the 6-4 Rautins may not have what it takes to translate his shooting game to the NBA. His passion though, is undeniable and matches a noted work ethic that has honed his skill as a scorer. If there is a commitment to defense as well Rautins will turn some heads. He carries a chip, his relentless barking on the court got under many a skin while he was in college. Last season he was punched in the groin by fellow Canadian and St. Bonaventure center Andrew Nicholson when the Bonnies grew tired of Rautins’ swag (and penchant for talking on the court), but it was his back-to-back three-pointers moments earlier to help stave off a comeback in that 85-72 December victory that was the last straw. Nine months later the French, clearly irritated during their Toronto visit, punished him physically. Similar poundings have helped add grit to his reputation as a premier shooter in the NCAA over the last two seasons and of this past NBA draft. It would seem a Mike D’Antoni led, light-it-up Knicks offense would be right up his alley, but with heavy competition for jobs to be won and training camp six weeks away the critics fire away.

“You look at my career at Syracuse and I’ve improved every year,” offered Rautins. “I almost doubled my assists from last year. I work my tail off and a lot of people don’t know that. When I get there my job is to knock down shots and be consistent from the three. I think a lot of people underestimate my ability to make plays.

“I was drafted for a reason. The coaching staff sees that and they like me. To almost go first rounds says something about me so I’m looking forward to making a name for myself and proving all the doubters wrong.”

Rautins, who officially announced his signing with the Knicks on August 12th, is excited at the possibilities that exist in the Big Apple and on the floor at Madison Square Gardens.

“It’s on the up and up in New York,” said Rautins. “Look at the signing of Amar’e (Stoudemire), that’s a big piece for our team – the $100M man. There is talk of Chris Paul and they got Anthony Randolph who is a great up-and-coming star. The team is making moves and I think that sky’s the limit for us.

“I talked to coach (D’Antoni) and he said my role was going to be to get out there and shoot the ball, get out there and fill the lanes and spread the floor out. Especially now since I’ve got Amar’e, the inside-out game will be great.”

Just another addition to the growing list of things that have made Andy’s world a beautiful/crazy place to live, and it gets more so. That leg tweak that he suffered in the second game against France may have caught up with the team in Greece where they continued to prepare with exhibition play. Rautins was held out by the coaching staff over the entire European schedule of tune-up games and practices and with the WBC’s at the doorstep, a healthy and ready to go Rautins vital to success. Right now that presence is in some doubt, with national team head coach Leo Rautins expressing concern (”We just don’t know,” said coach Rautins when assessing the likelihood of son Andy rejoining the team on the court). No doubt the Knicks are keeping a close eye as well. To many basketball observers Rautins was a risky pick and both he and the organization are anxious to prove them wrong.

But before he dons the orange and blue Rautins will wear the red and white colors of Canada. He has faced the underdog label for much of his basketball life and his national team will attempt to overcome a similar tag with him co-piloting the effort. He’ll have to be every bit the hot shooting, grinding, yapping, meddling and pestering presence of a guard the young nationals need him to be.

“There’s got to be a great deal of focus,” said Rautins. “It’s the world stage. We’re looking to go out there and do some damage playing against the world’s best.”

SONOFAGUN: Carmelo Made for New York

August 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Son of a Gun

Around SWAY Sports headquarters we’ve been saying it for a year, based mostly on vibrations from Carmelo Anthony’s camp and then more recently from some trusted media brethren who now seem convinced that the forecast is right; Anthony wants out of Denver.

Check the archives, it’s been said right in this tagged corner on many an occasions that Anthony would and should be New York bound. He’s tough enough to take the hard crowds, crushing media and constant demand. Of the 2003 draft class that has dominated NBA headlines for over half a decade Anthony has been the steadiest (seven straight playoff appearances) if not the most spectacular or decorated. He may not have made as smooth an NBA landing as James and Wade but he’s almost there and up until this summer had taken more character and basketball punches than both along the way. Approaching his prime years and showing growth and maturity with each passing season, Anthony seems ready to blow. Blowing off Denver may be necessary if he wants to do it on the level of his peers.

The New Jersey Nets is another strong possibility and the more likely one if Anthony decides to sign the Nuggets’ recently tendered extension. By committing himself to the organization for another three years the end of his contract would roughly coincide with the Nets’ planned moved to Brooklyn and its new billion-dollar arena and borough rebuild. New owner Mikhail Prokhorov is fast becoming a Mark Cuban like name in the industry and has buckets of money to use to surround Anthony with marquee talent. With point guard Devin Harris and frontcourt demon Brook Lopez on board there are foundation pieces already in place. Armed with a massive and impressive development plan the Nets figure to be something of a sports industry darling in a few years and having Anthony on board would make them a beast. Add the name power and cultural connections of rap star and entrepreneur Jay-Z and the new Brooklyn Nets could be a package too sexy to pass on. After striking out on every major free agent on the market this summer the Nets and new general manager Billy King are in countdown mode to have a contender in place by the time the team relocates to the BK.

Blame the “Miami Thrice” if you want to but Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics preceded the LBJ/Wade/Bosh power teaming. There are many examples of fantastic trios throughout NBA history but none quite put together like those two groups. Even the Los Angeles Lakers’ pairing of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Ron Artest/Lamar Odom doesn’t seem as contrived because they were put together over time and not out of nowhere. However, because of this recent history should a potential Anthony/Paul/Stoudemire teaming really come as a surprise? Nah, son. We should all see it coming (and so will the collective bargaining negotiations).

Looking across the new NBA landscape, that is quite simply what it’s going to take. Going into battle for a championship with less than three all-star caliber players is a lightening-in-a-bottle philosophy these days, and a franchise guy can flirt with team success for a decade or join forces and rule the day. For all the folks screaming bloody murder over the audacity of the Miami signings a head check is in order. See, what they are really mad about is the fact that these guys did it at such a young age. Isn’t that the real difference between Barkley, Pippen and Hakeem Olajuwon teaming up for the Houston Rockets? Clyde Drexler crapped out on his quest for a ring as the franchise player for the Portland Trailblazers before joining Olajuwon pre-Barkley to win a championship. Former All-Stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in 2003-04 for an ill-fated stab at the Larry O’Brien trophy. The examples are many but none include stars of this stature in their prime. Folks aren’t mad at the decision, they’re mad at the young twenty-something punks who got to make it.

While Anthony’s wedding reception is being held as the turning point in the publification of his possible desire to leave the Denver Nuggets, the team that drafted him seven years ago sits and waits on his decision to sign their 3-year $65M offer that’s been on the table for six weeks. Newly minted New York Knick Amar’e Stoudemire has been in his ear and Chris Paul reportedly made some pointed remarks at the formal dinner about a possible union up north, remarks that were not taken kindly by owner Stan Kroenke who was also in attendance.

Anthony will be the next to wield the power currently afforded to the brightest of that 2003 class. He has already done so subtly, neither confirming nor denying reports having to do with his basketball intentions. Both James and Bosh cruelly practiced that art against their respectively ditched cities of Cleveland and Toronto. Bosh went so far as to admit he purposely toyed with the emotions of his fans. By pushing the $65M pact into a corner Anthony is covertly doing the same thing – especially if a trade request follows – but he has choices…

First he can be clear and up front with the team, tell them he no longer wants to be a Nugget and in doing so formally request a trade. That most likely means Anthony would be in another uniform before the season starts or shortly thereafter and the Nuggets have made it clear they are not afraid to trade away their top gun before he becomes a free agent in 2011. Without him the Nuggets have a massive rebuilding project on their hands, as Anthony’s exit would signal the end of an era. Old bodies like Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin would most likely follow within the year. The second option would be for Anthony to sign the contract, which would not preclude him from professing his desire to leave in the future. If Paul has two years remaining on his contract and was ready to push for a trade in July, what’s to stop Anthony? What has ever stopped anybody? However, Anthony signing the contract would give the Nuggets time do a couple of things like make one last run at a title and put together the best deal possible for their superstar should it still come to that. The third would be to play out the 2010-11 season of his current contract and opt-out at the end of the campaign. Essentially that would be sending the same message to the organization as the first option and it makes a trade more difficult when a player is in the final year of his contract and remains non-committal on resigning with one particular team or another. It limits trade partners and no club wants to give up what it will take to land Anthony only to have him bolt in sixth months and leave them with no return. Any club taking on Anthony would insist upon on him signing his extension (or another variation) as a prerequisite to a deal. In the end though the Nuggets bosses will try their hardest to avoid a Bosh/James situation and be left spending next summer scrambling with major franchise decisions.

But for the Knicks, this is where they can find redemption after a summer of mostly strikeouts and second or third place finishes in the free agent race. The Stoudemire acquisition was solid; though his $100M price tag is hefty and signing Ray Felton to play the point was okay, perhaps. Neither will carry the franchise, which is where Anthony fits in, of course. Maybe he always has.

If the collusion of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh to band in Miami was so heavily rumored in both media and front offices alike for so long, did anybody outside of Cleveland and Miami not have a plan B? It isn’t a stretch to suggest that ‘Melo was the plan B because somewhere along the line he definitely became plan A, even before James’ monumental decision. That event just cemented it. Settling for Stoudemire necessitated it. Anthony suits New York more than any other current, impending or recently-signed-with-the-Miami-Heat free agent out there. With Stoudemire the Knicks are back on the map and with Paul having already requested a trade from the New Orleans Hornets and Anthony stalling on the Nuggets contract offer the dominoes appear ready to drop.

Which will be the first to fall is anyone’s guess.

Brown’s Return Right on Time

August 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Columns, SWAY Sportswire

For many, the timing of Denham Brown’s return to Canada Basketball’s senior men’s national team is suspect. After failing to show up at the team’s training camp in 2008 before the Olympic qualifying tournament Brown became mostly unreachable, charting his own hoops career path that apparently no longer included the national program.

“I just think it was a dual interest,” said Brown following a team workout at the Air Canada Centre last week. “It was in my interest to come back and also Canada Basketball and the organization wanted me to come back. Me and Leo spoke over the phone about a month before camp started and pretty much spoke and cleared everything up. I have an understanding now towards team concepts and stuff like that, being more mature. And being a leader on this team. That’s pretty much what I need to do right now.”

The West Hill Collegiate star and NCAA champion with the University of Connecticut had earned a reputation in some circles as a me-first player with little patience for the lesser talents around him. It wasn’t an image defining reputation but the knock didn’t sit well with Brown who decided to end his silence and put in a call to head coach Leo Rautins and managing director Maurizio Gherardini. Rautins did most of the listening in that conversation and let Brown know he could afford no distractions along their underdog journey to the FIBA world championship set to tip off August 28 in Turkey. Brown in turn assured him that his intentions were to show and prove and according to the coaching staff he has done exactly that. Rautins has called him “fantastic” and was quick to recognize him as one of the best players in camp. Brown – a solid scorer with strong body tactics – knows he will be called on to step out of the collective at times when the team needs a veteran push of life. He also knows that he isn’t alone. NBAers Joel Anthony and Andy Rautins along with point guard Jermaine Anderson are also guys who will need to shine.

“Andy just getting drafted, Joel solidified himself as an NBA player…” Brown is naming reasons why there is so much confidence in the program right now. Why there is a palpable buzz long missing from hoops culture in this under-populated country. “You’ve got up-and-coming guys, guys who are three to four years overseas and you’ve got myself returning. This is the most talented team that I’ve seen compete for team Canada.”

That is where some suspicion has set in for some observers who have questioned Brown’s motivation. In the past year he was released by his Venezuelan team, blew up the NBDL with some stellar play and then put in a short tour in the Philippines with the Barangay Ginebra Kings. Not all roses, and returning home in time to play in the biggest professional basketball tournament in the world puts him under a spotlight that should reintroduce him to the basketball world. With a huge influx of recognizable Canadian basketball players the national program arguable has more star power up front and in the wings than ever before. Being associated with that has its privileges too.

Still for all the critics who seem ready to tear down Brown’s motivations there is a history that speaks louder than those cries. The 6-5 Toronto native represented with the SMNT from 2003-07 and was always a main contributor on the court. He is a NCAA champion, a former NBA draft pick, a local high school legend and professional baller. Quite simply, he has never needed the national team program to stand out and in turn, the program had continued on without him in fine form. Now, with both having grown immensely over the past two years, on the eve of one of the most important times in the program’s history, now more than ever they need each other. While a good performance under the watchful eyes of the world will help his professional prospects for next season there appears to be a more prideful, patriotic reasoning behind Brown’s return.

“Canada has built a foundation around the guys who are helping to build basketball,” said Brown. “We need all the support we can get. You’ve got a lot of big names such as myself, Andy Rautins, Joel Anthony and Jermaine Anderson. People now know us personally and as basketball players. We’re all young guys with 27 being the oldest so we’re going to make a big push for the worlds. By the time the Olympics come around we’ll be a strong competitor.”

Without a clear-cut star coach Rautins has always been forced to employ an equal-opportunity approach. It’s an “any given Sunday” philosophy that demands a little of everything from everybody and a trust that the more capable performers can recognize when to explode without playing out of the team concept. The Canadians are not talented enough to recover from straying too far from the game plan and having strong, assured minds on the court to steer the ship when the deviations threaten is vital in the crunch. The word leadership is used a lot when Denham speaks about his new role.

“It’s needed ASAP,” says Brown. “I’ve played with the development team and coming into this team its pretty much the same aspect of playing a leadership role. I have no problem with doing that. Guys staying positive are going to help build the characteristics of our team. It can’t be just one guy leading or one guy talking all of the time. We may have six guys. As long as we are picking each other up and feeling positive we’ll be alright.”

With Anderson’s personal mantra of “shock the world” fast becoming the hook for Canada’s hopefuls Brown appears to have bought in. Along with his considerable skills and big game experience comes a new frame of mind, which bodes well for the national team and the man himself.

“Eliminate all the non-factors,” advises Brown on what it will take for him and his mates to make good on Anderson’s proclamation. “Everything going on outside of the team – guys need to eliminate that. I’ve really slowed down right now. I’m staying at the hotel, staying with the team and focusing on what we need to do.”

Nothing suspicious about that.

Next Page »