Indeed it is still early in the NBA playoffs, but it is never too early to bring more hoops opinion to the masses. They deserve it. In fact, if you have been watching close enough it isn’t anything you couldn’t have figured out for yourself. Each season playoff basketball reveals something new – good or bad – about the players and the league they play in. Here are five things we’ve noticed so far…
1. NATE MACMILLAN deserved the coach of the year award, but you won’t get any hate for Scottie Brooks from us. The OKC Thunder’s 27-game turnaround was bananas, particularly since it was led by the same cast of rookie-contracts that he was developing in 2008/09. Still, Much like Rick Adelman’s snuffing in recent years, MacMillan seems to have gotten muted respect for the job he did in raising the wounded Portland Trailblazers to playoff heights. Say what you want, but loving to play for and trusting your coach plays a big part when a player requests to be activated just eight days after surgery. That’s exactly what Brandon Roy did last week in order to salvage something from an injury-depleted Blazers season. Greg Oden, Joel Przybilla, Nicolas Batum and Roy all suffered through extended absences and guiding that punctured Portland vessel through 311 man-games lost and 50 wins is remarkable. Guiding them through a neck and neck series versus the Phoenix Suns is even more impressive.
2. To elaborate on the above-mentioned point, BRANDON ROY is a soldier. Yes, many have criticized him and the Blazers organization for having the franchise player on the court just eight days after the arthroscopic right knee surgery that was supposed to have ended his season. While it is doubtful that team doctors would allow him to play if he was risking serious damage, how many other players in the NBA would even think about it, let alone do it? Roy is a rare breed of player who signed his contract and is intent on earning it. It is also another notch for MacMillan, who is doing something right when a player is willing to go down with his ship and captain despite having every excuse not to. His Game 3 return resulted in a win thanks in part to a late game three-pointer he hit to turn the tide. They may not be long for the playoffs but tone setting and bar raising are the responsibilities accepted by great leaders and who has done it better than Roy over the last week? Quite simply, he is everything you want in a franchise player.
3. JOAKIM NOAH is a star, Cleveland taunts most definitely included. Noah gets the game – both on the court and in front of the camera – and could very well be the Charles Barkley of this generation. His scoring numbers may never be as high and dependable as the Round Mound but his defense, rebounding, passing and hustle are on par and is a big reason his Chicago Bulls were able to sneak into the playoffs on the last day of the season. When Noah missed 10 games with plantar faciitis in early March the Bulls went on a 10-game losing streak. ‘Nuff said. In their first round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers Noah not only riled the entire city of Cleveland by opining its bland city life but he backed up his talk with ridiculous numbers. Through a chorus of deafening boos in Game 2 Noah dropped 25 points and 13 rebounds. In Game 3 back in Chicago he registered 15 rebounds, 10 points and five assists in a big 108-106 victory. Although the team took a 121-98 beating in a Game 4 loss that put them down 3-1 in the series Noah dropped a wowing 21 points and 20 rebounds while shooting 7 for 8 from the free throw line. After the Bulls took the Boston Celtics to seven games in their first round series last year it was dubbed Noah’s coming out party. Nah, son. This is it.
4. DIRK NOWITZKI is NOT a franchise player. I just can’t see it. That Jason Kidd was able to go into Dallas and basically taking over the locker room speaks volumes. Still, nothing is louder than the cry Nowitzki let out four seasons ago when his Mavericks started losing their grip on an NBA Final series they ended up losing to the Miami Heat. His post-game pressers were filled with doubt and fear and all kinds of other stuff you don’t want in your “franchise” guy. Those statements still ring loudly. Now they look like a first-round victim to a team everybody thought was toast, this after winning the highly sought after second seed in the playoffs. In 2007 the Mavs were upset by the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors and this year they are falling to the seventh seeded San Antonio Spurs, who have absolutely out-toughed the Mavs. Nowitzki and reserve guard Jason Terry are the only remaining parts of the core that lost to the Warriors on the roster and since their Finals appearance in 2006 the Mavericks have been first-round ousters in 3 of the last 4 seasons … including this one.
5. KEVIN DURANT is the second best player in the western conference. Not only is he an unstoppable scorer who was in the running for both the MVP and Most Improved Player of the year awards but his defense is sound as well. So is his leadership. It wasn’t just Scottie Brooks that led this unlikely band of youngsters to 50 wins, not with Durant’s astonishing maturation as the leash on the dog. He notched 30.1 points per game this season to become the youngest scoring champion ever and in the playoffs where it is harder to score Durant is averaging 26.8 points a night over his FIRST four postseason contests. Yes, his 38.4% shooting from the floor is horrid but his 9.3 rebounds per game is an improvement of nearly two over his regular season number and his 1.75 blocks is a nice bump too. Oh, and the wins. Both at home to tie up their first round series with the Los Angeles Lakers nobody, including us, thought they would be in. In pivotal Game 3 the Thunder draped Durant across Kobe Bryant’s game down the stretch to great effect with Bryant struggling under K.D.’s defense in the turning point match. The Thunder won 23 road games this year (tied with the Lakers) and over the entire 41 game road schedule (Durant played in all 82 games this season. Durable.) Durant’s averages were pretty much the same as they were at home in OKC. Aside from a couple of scoring points and a 45% shooting dip (his home percentage in 50.2%) his numbers remained static across the board. Consistency. Why does it matter? Because the Thunder will have to win on the road to have a chance of stealing the series and with Durant having shook the shadow of Ron Artest for the moment, who knows? We think we do by saying the Lakers will take this series but it won’t diminish the powerful statement Durant and his Thunder have made.
1. POISON IVEY?
Allen Iverson’s collision course with Philadelphia – again – was the one nobody saw coming – again. Now the only thing anybody knows is that this stay will be decidedly shorter. Just long enough to make the city of Philadelphia forget about what a bust Elton Brand has been and how this team, despite the presence of the serviceable Lou Williams, misses the days of Andre Miller already. Did they miss Iverson as much? All said, the obvious ploy here is the same as it was with the Memphis Grizzlies… A.I. is being brought in to sell tickets to the dwindling spectator numbers showing up to 76ers games. O.K., now that we are only the 43rd outlet to point out that fact we can move on to the other part of the equation which is that the 76ers, much like the Grizz, are not a very good team. The difference of course is that Philly still has a shot at being somewhat relevant in the eastern conference whereas Memphis looks to be on their annual course of becoming irrelevant in the west by December 15th. Don’t discount that as a big part of the reason Iverson never bothered to fulfill his obligations to the Grizz – it is much easier to come off the bench for a team with a predictor’s chance (don’t tell that to Detroit) than one synonymous with losing. Besides, the Grizzlies have their own version of A.I. in O.J. Mayo while the other A.I – as in Andre Iguadala – hasn’t exactly panned out in the franchise player department. Either has the power forward Iverson never had in Brand, who was already considered an off-center addition to the Sixers. Throw in Iverson and it’s a bag of tricks, one with no discernable payoff, unless you are including the bean counters in Philly who will be the biggest winners of this deal. Maybe Iverson wins too, able to avoid a Marbury-like fate and cherry-top it by bowing out in the town where it all started, the one where he is most loved. He played in 38 minutes in his Sixers debut after a month away from the game. Philly is the one place where he will always be given a hero’s welcome. That parade was supposed to come when he retired, when he entered the Hall of Fame as a Sixer or returned, through some other twist of fate, as a champion. Instead it comes at the tail end of a career that could only be prolonged by the city that made him famous. The real question is will they love the new Iverson in return? The proof will be in the ticket sales for a team that has relegated itself to second tier status on the big four sports scene in Philadelphia. Iverson may or may not be too involved in calling his own shots to truly see the motives of the organization but the most beautiful thing about him and, even with some of his speed and agility gone and some pride that is late in doing the same, what always shone through was his desire and ability to play basketball like it was life and death and especially when everything else seemed so uncertain.
2. BROWN DOING IT AGAIN
Don’t look now but the Charlotte Bobcats, in just their second season under project king Larry Brown, are for real. To those who follow L.B. his trademark is tackling nose-diving teams or those struggling to get to the next level. He is your over-the-top guy but his way comes with a lot of head banging and expectation. Check! Now for the result… The Bobcats currently sit in the seventh seed in the eastern conference, a position they are mostly unfamiliar with even in December. While they are one of the lowest scoring teams in the league with an equally abysmal field goal percentage to boot, they only allow the opposition to score 90.6 a night, good for second best in the league. Their 43.7 field goal percentage allowed is good for fourth best in the L. They also outrebound opponents by 2.75 boards a contest, the fifth best differential among the 30 teams. Numbers don’t tell the whole story but for the Bobcats it represents entry into the next tier of competition after languishing at the bottom of the standings since their inception. The addition of Stephen Jackson adds another big playmaker to the distribution core of Raymond Felton, D.J. Augustin and Boris Diaw. With Jackson, Diaw, Gerald Wallace and Tyson Chandler together there is serious stopping power in Charlotte, and it is the biggest reason to believe that Brown is well on his way to pulling off another successful renovation. Add Flip Murray and suddenly the young bobbers are a group of seasoned veterans, and that’s half the battle isn’t it?
3. THE JENNINGS EFFECT
So now that Brandon Jennings has successfully circumvented the NBA’s ban on drafting players straight out of high school, will his chosen path be hailed as a viable alternative or the exception to the massive risk he took? Maybe it wasn’t a risk at all. Maybe Jennings just knew he was ready and bided his time in Europe and got paid and gained man-league experience that helped him make a seamless transition into the NBA. Maybe, no, be assured there will be others. And why not? While completely understanding the NBA’s stand on too-cool-for-school drafting – in which mostly unprepared teens are tempted early by the riches by the media, family, friends, agents, coaches, scouts, etc… when the reality is that 85 percent of them would be better off with some college burn – we are also down with anybody positioning themselves career-wise at any age to enter any job they are qualified to perform (dare we say that there are some among us better suited to entering the workforce than an institute of higher learning?). Basketball is a job and the straight-outta-high-school hopefuls are more aware of that fact than you probably think. That said, count on their being a healthy exodus of high school grads to Italy and Spain and Argentina and anywhere else that is less discriminatory than the NBA in regards to age. There will be pressure stifle it; with colleges just beginning to get back some talent after the NBA ended high school eligibility. The NBA itself won’t like to feel as though it’s been back-doored and the growing relationship between North American and European basketball bodies could be scarred in the process should the overseas leagues, desperate to bolster their product, promote and encourage the defections of America’s young basketball prodigies. Virtus Roma of the Italian League and its head coach Jasmin Repesa share credit in developing the explosive lefty guard and Jennings’ people were comfortable with the professional tutelage is there to be had in Europe. Tapping into that resource is now on every agent’s option list and it softens the blow to any teenager bent on bypassing college or going undrafted out of school. Does this re-inflate the balloon of dilution, miseducation and underdevelopment the NBA cited as justification to implement the age restriction in the first place? How could they ever justify penalizing straight-outta-high-school players for putting in their one-and-done work overseas instead and getting real paper for it? Jennings worked a deal that gave him a cool $1M over three years with a player out option after each season. The kid even signed an endorsement deal with Under Armour while he was there, putting himself on the radar as a talent to market. In a world shrinking under the network of an ever-expanding communication jungle, professional North American players begun their slow-trickle of a journey to overseas options long ago. Now that the door has been swung wide open for the kids, Jennings and his dealmaker Sonny Vaccaro can be charged with seriously changing the game.
4. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO…?
When Rodney Rogers, the respectable ex-Denver Nugget, was paralyzed in a dirt bike accident last winter there was an outpouring of affection and prayers and shock. There is an extra kick when an athlete takes a hit like this, a robbery of many of the faculties that make them famous and rich and adored by faithful fans of sport and culture. Rogers was harder to forget because even being financially set he continued to work in North Carolina for the public works department, simply because he loved to operate the heavy machinery. In fact, many of his co-workers didn’t even know just how well off Rogers was, or that he worked simply because it was his in his upbringing to contribute. To not stand still. Now at 37 he is paralyzed from the shoulders down after breaking his neck in the fall. The diagnosis of paralysis isn’t final and Rogers holds out hope that he will walk again and while there are many part of him that remain broke, his spirit isn’t one of them. Rogers played for seven NBA teams over 12 years after being drafted out of Wake Forest (where he was ACC player of the year) and captured a Sixth Man of the Year award in 2000.
5.THE ODEN DAYS
Greg Oden’s season-ending knee injury is a tragedy. Going down (or up) hard versus the Houston Rockets last week sealed it and all the players – Blazers and Rockets alike – stood up as he was wheeled away on a stretcher. Both teams shouted encouraging words, touches on the shoulders and bowed heads in remorse. Such was the impact of seeing one of the nicest kids in the NBA continue the only streak he’s managed to put together in the NBA; absences. Word up. Or down. Or across. From the day Oden appeared on basketball radars all across America much was made of his most obvious trait – his size. A man-child at 6-9 then 6-10 then 7 feet… his density, his rawness, his awkwardness, his limp, his back misalignment, his knees… You see that? The talk eventually got (and always gets) around to Oden’s physicality and its possible limitations, Oden even looks aged beyond his years, face hardened like an experienced cowboy, only he is just 21. He has been compared as much to Dwight Howard as he has to Benjamin Button. None of it ever stopped the Portland Trailblazer from dominating high school and college and it seemed this year, in his second official pro season, Oden was finally taking steps to doing the same in the NBA. Then another knee injury, another surgery, another season-ending nightmare. Alas, the only thing that has been able to stop Oden is a body that continues to betray him. In his lone season at Ohio State he suffered a s wrist injury that bit into his effectiveness, though he was still the Blazers’ first overall pick the following draft. Before playing a single game for the organization he blew out his knee and missed the entire 2007-08 schedule. His return in 2008 was watched by the basketball world with great anticipation. While Oden did good in averaging 8.9 points and seven rebounds over 61 games in helping lead the Blazers back to the playoffs, it was clear his development had been stalled, especially since he missed an additional 21 games that season. And now just a quarter way through the 2009-10 campaign Oden is out again with a broken kneecap and he will not be back for an entire year. Another 300 days or so until he might possibly be NBA fit when we will witness the third reset on a career that shows less promise with each restart. Not only does he follow in a long line of Blazers injury riddled including centers like Bill Walton and Sam Bowie, he has also come to live out what many unreasonably predicted at the outset of his NBA journey. Oden may not be built to last after all and given the glimpses of defensive prowess and commanding big man presence we’ve seen, the entire basketball nation is at a loss.
1. OUT WEST: Is the Delonte West mess in Cleveland going to be a distraction as the Cavaliers head into their all or nothing season? With Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon brought in to go championship or bust the concern is real. West was one of the Cavs’ best players in the regular season and playoffs last year when he registered career-high numbers. After getting pinched with a guitar case of guns strapped to his back while riding his motorbike El Mariachi was an unexcused no-show during the first few days of training camp, returned and since then has taken yet another absence from the team. Not good.
West’s’ mood issues are well documented but he always seemed able to separate his off-court troubles from his on-court performance. The Cavaliers want to make sure that focus is still there and seem to be taking a kid gloves approach to the situation. West is a two-way player who handled the shooting guard spot nicely as the Cavs reached the 2009 NBA Final. In the summer the team brought in Parker, a savvy veteran guard with who could fill in for West as a starter if that’s what it comes to but if that happens, things will have gone wrong. As e showed in Toronto with the Raptors last season, Parker is no longer a big minute starter and was meant to be more of a compliment to West and a leader off the bench.
Officials expect West to rejoin the team with enough time to practice and open the season but nothing is for sure. With two years and nearly $9M remaining on his contract West could either become the sound investment he played like last season or a long-term albatross for a Cavaliers team as desperate to retain LeBron James beyond next summer as it is to win a championship, maybe more. It is unlikely the West situation drastically impacts the James mission but O’Neal and Ilgauskas are both likely gone next season, especially if the Cavs quest for a ring ends in disappointment. That means a forthcoming frontcourt overhaul that must be done well enough to compete with quality eastern frontcourts like the ones in Orlando, Boston, Toronto and even Chicago in the immediate future.
So every little bit counts in Cleveland, and while West has a legit health issue that he needs to deal with in his own unique way, basketball-wise the team will either be bolstered or blasted by the distraction. With James at the helm, don’t bet on the team being bristled and the added leadership of Shaq-Fu to help reserves like Parker, Moon and Anderson Varejao squeeze out an extra mile. Parker might have to as the coaching staff is reportedly pondering a move that would see West move to the bench and become a break-in-case-of-emergency starter should Parker not fill the bill.
2. YOU TWITS!: It isn’t like we didn’t see it coming. The new guidelines and restrictions regarding social networking sites and media for players in the NBA also extend to team officials and yes, your treasured media. We can still get at you during the games and in and around practice but our methods won’t be much different than they were before. The one thing these social media devices do well enough is make you accountable. Time stamps and proof-is-in-the-pudding real-time publishing means every word you say and when you say it is recorded, so really, the escape from accountability routes are the same as they have ever been for media with access. That is to say, there are none.
So the NBA dropped it like this. Players are banned from using cell phones, PDA’s and the like from 45 minutes before game time (when their time with the media ends) until 45 minutes after the game (usually when their time with the media is done). Teams like the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat are among the more proactive in enforcing their own additional rules regarding the social networking ban and many are expected to follow suit as the wall of communication between players and the public becomes thinner with each passing season. Toronto general manager Bryan Colangelo was seen leaving his team’s practice court to use his blackberry this week (players and media must leave as well) and across the league personnel associated with NBA teams had to adjust to league and team guidelines.
So while we can still get at you with our latest and greatest there will be no more halftime tweets from Charlie Villanueva, who recently tweeted that he is in total agreement with the rules and that things had “gotten out of control”. No more immediate post-game updates from a player’s locker when the local media is at its busiest (which threatened to rob us from giving you the scoop first. Did you care?) but they are still able to interact through the Internet during the less-active pre-game media access period, so there is balance. That’s more forgiving than the recent NFL rule which puts a ban on social networking 90 minutes before game time until the end of media access following the game.
So what does it all mean? Not much, except to say that we “traditional” media have become just a little more relevant… again. That was fast!
3. LAST MEN STANDING: So you know like when the players on the bench stand up after a good play from a teammate out on the floor? Or when they stand until their team scores their first bucket of the game? Or even when they just take their time sitting down, talking to teammates, jawing referees or scoping pretty babes in the stands? Turns out the cats paying $1000 a pop for their 3-D courtside/bench side seats lodged enough complaints to the NBA that the natural reactions and habits of professional athletes was interfering with their game experience was enough to warrant a ban on excessive standing. Do you remember the days when fans weren’t allowed anywhere near the bench, let alone upside the huddle? Is there a ban on that fan to stay off of twitter lest he tweet the play coming out of the timeout?
Alas, at your friendly neighborhood NBA fans actually do have a say, well at least the ones spending $3000 for a night out at one of their venues. If they are ever again violated the offending player/stander can be fined. The main rule is no standing while the ball is in play, though there are minor exceptions. Players are permitted to stand to approach the scorer’s table and in reaction to a play on court but both actions must be followed by immediate declension into a seat of some sort. If there isn’t one immediately at hand the floor will do. No space? Here’s to hoping one bright player finds a seat on the lap of a big-spending courtside complainer. Including the spilled beer, it’ll be well worth the $1030 and then what’s there to complain about?
4. NO REFS(pect): The replacements officials in the NBA haven’t been getting a lot of love during the preseason and with talking heads and radio shows acting like they have a gag order on criticizing the officiating, it may seem like more of a non-issue to the casual eye. But these trained ones can tell you it didn’t take a lot of training to see that while the replacements have been good they are not great like their striking seniors. The proof is in the details and I’m should there are a thousand sites out there trying to offer up calculations and statistics comparing this preseason to last, to an average NBA game and so forth… not here. It doesn’t matter. The difference is palpable.
The NBA had the good sense to reserve a courtside seat for officials from the referee’s association to aid the scabs and act as a soundboard for questioning coaches. If Wednesday’s affair at the Air Canada Center was any indication, those courtside referees will have a busy time. Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano and Philadelphia 76ers bench boss Eddie Jordan constantly consulted with league director of officials Ronnie Nunn, who answered questions and concerns throughout the preseason match up. One referee was visibly upset at one point that the coaches had taken to reserving their questions of great concern to Nunn.
For whatever it is worth Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban loves the replacements, citing the welcomed absence of a star-system in relation to foul calling, a long-standing criticism of the NBA and its “Jordan-rules” stigma.
As long as the strike continues the coaches and players and referees will find a balance, and while most of these replacement situations usually yield one or two zebras that catch the eye and get promoted to the big leagues after the drama, in almost every other way the real professionals are missed. It’s been said here before and in many corners criticized, but you DO NOT want referees to call every game by the exact letter of the law. It sounds nice in theory but who wants a free throw contest to the finish line?
5. MISSING: MARBURY: Raise your hand if you miss Stephon Marbury? If you’ve even thought of him since his youtube meltdown this past summer when he declared that he was done with the NBA? We are curious as to what the show of hands would be for either/or in a 500-person room of diehard basketball fans.
By the end of this season the answer might be none. Zilch. Zero. Doughnut. Blanks. Because maybe the Boston Celtics get back to the NBA Final plus a healthy Kevin Garnett and less a reserve guard no longer sure of his place in the spotlight and struggling to relent his impressive but dusty high-powered game to something more subdued. Maybe the New York Knicks get back to the playoffs in Mike D’Antoni‘s second season as head coach. The same coach that pre-empted further Marbury drama by essentially banning the player from the team until he could be moved out of town. In fact, all of Marbury’s former teams are better off now than when he left them, save for the Minnesota Timberwolves and only because when Marbury left they still had Garnett and were poised for a long string of playoff appearances. If it means anything, the T’Wolves are probably a season away from doing it again. New Jersey and Phoenix? Both better without Marbury.
So is the NBA better without Marbury? Is it the same thing?
Remember that the beloved Allen Iverson nearly suffered the same fate this past summer, with little interest coming his way despite his special abilities to score the ball and defend. Make no mistake; he settled for the Memphis Grizzlies, which is more of a choice than Marbury ever had. Blackballed may be too strong of a word to describe Marbury’s status in the NBA but we dare you to find a GM willing to take a chance on the 32 year old from Coney Island. We couldn’t, even when reminding them how masterful Marbury’s science once was on the hardwood. How not too long ago, before the New York disaster took its toll on him, people were still speaking of him in terms of how good he could be if only…
In the end there were just too many ifs, and the kid who once said he would die for the game has gone out in a way he probably never imagined. As so often is the case with Marbury’s kind of genius, there is a thin line between riding the edge and spilling over into a deep, dark place. Hard to say where Marbury finds himself this morning… on the happy side of “freedom” or the sad side of remembering what was and could have been? There are five NBA teams over the last decade that have had to dig deep and ask themselves that very question in regards to Marbury. Now it’s his turn to ask himself.
1. NO RIGHT ANSWER: So the Allen Iverson experiment ended as most predicted it would in Detroit – the Pistons finally relenting and admitting that in their system A.I. was a bench player, perhaps the most expensive in the league. His first foray from the pine resulted in him questioning his role and openly suggesting that he would rather retire than end his career as a bencher. By the time he had returned from a back injury last week Richard Hamilton was already re-inserted as the permanent starting two guard. Iverson had lost his job. The countdown to a blow-up between he and the Pistons’ coaching staff was on. But something happened that was both surprising yet not unexpected… all at once. The team pre-empted that potential attack by announcing that A.I. would not be returning this season due to lingering back aches, a smokescreen if there ever was one. Want to make a bet that A.I. won’t be on the bench come playoff time, you know, in support of his teammates? There are a handful of teams in the NBA whose make-up fits Iverson’s ball-hungry hands style of player but the Pistons were never one of them. They simply aren’t built that way and never will be as long as Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Hamilton are the core (which may not last beyond this season). Think Charlotte Bobcats, Los Angeles Clippers or even Houston where a) there isn’t a dominant collection of scorers making up for the lack of a true superstar or b) scoring fast and furiously is still a coveted trait. In the end though, if he ever wants a crack at the championship ring that has eluded him for his entire career he’ll have to swallow the franchise player tag and take a back seat to somebody. It wasn’t that Iverson couldn’t handle being a reserve in Detroit; it was that whether as a starter or reserve he could not defer enough to the other resident stars to make it work. His ability to do just that, wherever he lands next season, will go a long way in determining whether The Answer, in his final years in the NBA, becomes more of a problem than his famous moniker suggests…
2. BIRDMAN FOR 6th MAN: Who’s with me? Chris Anderson for 6th Man of the Year? Laughing? Well before you get into full belly roll mode remember that it was just last January that Anderson was reinstated by the NBA Players Association after completing a two-year suspension having to do with positive drug tests. He came back with the New Orleans Hornets at that point last season and this season returned to the Denver Nuggets, his first NBA team back in 2001-02. In a mere 20 minutes per game he is second only to 35 minute-a-night center Dwight Howard in blocks with 2.39 swats per game to Howard’s 2.95. Of the top 10 shot-blockers this season those minutes represent the fewest of any. The Nuggets are also better than the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz, which feature Sixth Man candidates Jason Terry and Paul Millsap respectively. And while there is a better chance of an A.C. Green sighting at the Playboy Mansion than there is of Anderson actually winning this award, there is no denying the impact he has had on the Nuggets’ fortunes this season. He also snags 6.5 points on a selective 55% field goal shooting to go with six rebounds. Not blow-your-mind numbers by any stretch but they are career-highs across the board and very often what Anderson brings to the table cannot be measured in statistics. Too bad that is exactly how the 6th Man Award (and most others) is measured. But hear this: If the Nuggets finally get over the hump and get out of the first round of the playoffs for the first time in the Carmelo Anthony era, Anderson will have lots to do with it.
3. WHOSE HOUSE?: Yao’s House! And if you’ve been listening to this corner over the past two seasons you would know that it has always been the stance around here. Simply put, Yao Ming is too steady, too good and too damn big to take a backseat to anybody; especially a no-first-round winning All-Star who reached his peak three years ago and has never led any of his teams anywhere. Yes, that is the common knock on Tracy McGrady and yes, big men like Yao rarely reach the promised land on their own without big time guard play, but… the Houston Rockets have shown over the last two seasons that they can be a better team without McGrady than with him. In fact, the only difference between Iverson in Detroit and McGrady in Houston is that T-Mac has history in H-town and therefore, it becomes a bit more of a game to demote him. He also has another year (and $23M) left on his now-bloated contract and with his injury history I’m not convinced enough teams will bite were he to be dangled in a trade, not for what GM Daryl Morey would want. Like Iverson, his franchise player days are numbered and on a team as deep as the Rockets his value looks worse. Like Iverson, he may have become more important to somebody’s cap situation than their floor plan, you dig? On the other hand, Yao’s value is high and every guard and dynamic scorer wants to play with a dominant big man. There is no downside and Yao is the selling point. With micro-fracture surgery on the horizon for McGrady, and a likely end to his once-blistering moves, the switch to make Yao the face of the Rockets has been hastened. His 19.6 PPG, 9.9 RPG and nearly two blocks per game helps and his impact cannot be denied. He’s kept the Rockets in the top four of the Western Conference this season with or without McGrady, and that might be enough to get Rick Adelman Coach of the Year, something T-Mac has never been able to do for anybody.
4. ROSE VS. MAYO: Despite what you heard this isn’t the two-horse race everybody thought it was going to be. In fact, this may turn out to be one of the best rookie classes ever after all the “experts” pegged it as weak prior to last June’s draft. Yes, Clippers’ guard Eric Gordon had some big outings that briefly put him into the conversation and count the NBA TAKE FIVE crew as believers in the Brook Lopez era in New Jersey, but this Rookie of the Year race is a three player competition now and for the first time in a while winning may actually have something to do with it. How else can you separate the pack of Oklahoma’s Russell Westbrook, Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Memphis’ O.J. Mayo? Westbrook made a strong case in the second half of the season that has put him near the finish line with Rose and Mayo. Here’s your statistical breakdown.
ROSE: 16.7 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.9 RPG
MAYO: 16.6 PPG, 6.2 APG, 3.9 RPG
WESTBROOK: 15.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 5.1 APG
Crude, we know. And way too close to call based on that. So consider strongly that Rose is the only one out of the top ten rated rookies not named Michael Beasley to have his team in the playoff picture. He has also become Chicago’s best player. At the same time I can’t help but think of how good Westbrook is for the NBA and how beautiful the music he and Kevin Durant will make for many years together for the Thunder will be. Westbrook leads all three with eight double-doubles but Rose leads all with a 16.7 player efficiency rating, second only to the Nets’ Lopez. He also has the lowest turnover rate of the three but falls far behind them in steals and defensively in general. Still, Westbrook, like Mayo, plays on a terrible team long gone from postseason talks. Not that Chicago’s record is impressive (they’ll be one of only two teams in the playoffs with a sub-.500 record) but the influence of a playoff appearance could give Rose a big leap over his draft mates on the NBA learning curve. All three will be stars and for now the only thing really separating them is W’s. Rose it is.
5. UP OR DOWN?: Not that there is a whole lot of blame-laying going on in Toronto, the entire NBA knows there are too many nice guys in the locker room for that drama. Then again, that’s exactly why they the top contender as the most disappointing team in the league. No killers… and the question on if franchise player Chris Bosh will become one is legit. Even with a six-game winning streak that bridged March to April when Bosh finally put together a string of clutch performances, not to mention some impressive first quarter performances that led to a couple of blowout wins, the question hasn’t fully been answered. The Raptors have more than enough young and impressive building blocks (Bosh, Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani), the required three-point specialist in Jason Kapono and a GM in Bryan Colangelo that was supposed to fix some early season problems. Thing is, none of them were on top of their game this season, except for maybe Bargnani who rebounded from a terrible second year and seems back on track development-wise. And even though Colangelo basically undid all of his moves from last summer, most notably trading away center Jermaine O’Neal (whom he acquired from Indiana for T.J. Ford last off-season) to Miami for Shawn Marion, it came way too late for a serious turnaround to happen. Considering that Sam Mitchell was fired all the way back at the start of December and the Marion trade wasn’t completed until after the All-Star break, that type of inaction is inexcusable for a GM who spent the year preaching a commitment to making the postseason, and started the year by saying this was the best team he had ever assembled in Toronto. Instead the Raptors will miss the playoffs for the first time in three years and interim head coach Jay Triano has to wear it. Not sure if the tease of a six-game winning streak will be enough to keep Marion around, but the impending free agent has proved invaluable as a source of energy and rebounding and was the biggest reason Toronto gelled late. If he doesn’t stick or Colangelo can’t resign him, the $17M coming off the books when his salary expires at seasons end (along with more savings from four other ending contracts) will be substantial enough to add some firepower and depth. But given the Raptors lack of veteran star power they might be better of trying to retain the former All-Star. With six other free agents to-be on the roster, and two others under threat of team options for next season, the Raptors have mad space to fill, money to spend and exactly zero excuses heading into next season.