“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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.
At this point there are really only 17 teams at play in the field of sixteen playoff positions up for grabs in the NBA. Nine reside in the eastern conference and the other eight in the western conference, an uneven mix made interesting by several surprise turns from some teams over the course of the season thus far. Others have come as advertised and with some you just don’t know what’s up. As the last leg of the season gets underway, here is your NBA sweet 16 – and (dis?)honorable mention – in predicted order of finish.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
There Will Be Blood
I can almost picture LeBron James going ape-shit with a pickaxe on a mission to mine black gold from the mother earth ala Daniel Day Lewis. It’s not unlike what he has been doing in the NBA for the past seven years, rocking the boat between genius and on-court insanity, doing everything but win a championship for long-suffering Cleveland sports fans. How serious were the Cavaliers about helping him accomplish this feat and thus, keep him in Cleveland for the now? They went out and got the “Big Common Denominator” Shaquille O’Neal who has appeared in five NBA Finals over the last decade. Despite a rocky start O’Neal showed enough chemistry with James – before going down with a thumb injury for the remainder of the regular season – to know that come the postseason he will be the anchor and worthy sidekick. In the meantime the Cavs went out and traded for the vastly underrated Antawn Jamison who will allow the team to continue their roll to regular season supremacy while keeping their eye on the prize.
2. Orlando Magic
The Magic don’t miss Hedo Turkoglu no matter what you have heard, though that won’t be fully determined until the end game result in the playoffs, where it’s championship or bust after last year’s Final appearance. Is Vince Carter the guy to put them over the top? The Magic never thought Hedo was worth the $56M five-year deal the Toronto Raptors eventually gave him and judging by the way Turkoglu has played this season they were right. The Magic are happy with V.C. as his replacement but it’s the addition of Matt Barnes that has given them a grit on both ends of the floor than they have never before possessed. With Dwight Howard and Carter as your main identity, that is a must. The Magic may never be as mean as they need to be but they got to the Final in 2009 with less and if it spreads, watch out. The second overall seed in the east looks like a lock.
3. Boston Celtics
The Harder They Come
Nothing less than a championship will do, realistically, in about four NBA cities and Beantown is one of them. Alas, the doubters are many with injuries continuing to rattle the C’s. Kevin Garnett has clearly lost some general influence, but is he good for one last postseason push? The one where his knees fall apart in the process? Dings to Paul Pierce and a slide in scoring from Ray Allen has left point guard Rajon Rondo as the most important player on the team, and with the above-mentioned trio we’re not quite sure what that means. Despite his subtle impact Rasheed Wallace will come to play in the postseason and at something resembling full health these Celtics are still Michael Jackson dangerous. Jury’s still out on whether trading for Nate Robinson was more Marbury than good, but snagging Finley was cool in a “screw-it-let’s-just-get-downright-old” kind of way. Another division title, another home court seeding… that’s about all that’s assured for the Celtics.
4. Atlanta Hawks
Fast and Furious
The Hawks can be a blur at times, with all five of their starters possessing the ability to run like guards. Al Horford is a freak center and Josh Smith has refined his game, which means less stat-stuffing and loads of impact. Don’t look now but Joe Johnson could be the franchise player with the most promise surrounding him. With Marvin Williams on the up and off-season addition Jamaal Crawford vying for Sixth Man of the Year honors, nobody wants to see them come playoff time. Until then the Hawks will make a push for Boston’s third overall seed in an effort to delay their possible playoff meeting with the Cavaliers until the conference final. It would also help them avoid the hot Milwaukee Bucks. The Hawks play the Cleveland Cavaliers twice more in April as well as position battling teams like Charlotte, Milwaukee and Toronto while Boston Celtics play out the string against five sub .500 teams thrown around two important games against the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s a little late in the season for the C’s to be making statements, but with all the doubts hovering around their elite status, bashing the Bucks and “unfearing the deer” would send the right kind of message. The Hawks will need to make one of their own.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
When people starting referring to the Bucks as a team of average players our collective minds boggled, trying hard to see how either Brandon Jennings or Andrew Bogut fit that bill. As a rookie Jennings has shown tremendous upside and has carried the team at times this season, admirably if you consider the season-ending injury to Michael Redd. Bogut meanwhile has become one of the best centers in the league, a steady performer with nice hands and timely defense that have him next to Dwight Howard as Defensive Player of the Year. Both have led the Bucks to a surprising fifth seed position that looks to be all theirs. A three-game set against Boston, Atlanta then Boston again on the road should prove to be a good playoff warm up to finish the season. Numbers-wise maybe the Bucks as a roster don’t match up but, since we prefer to look at digits in the win/loss column versus the stat sheet, let the record show that the Bucks have been one of the hottest teams since the all-star break, winning 16 of 21 games since February 17 with victims including Cleveland, Boston, Denver, Atlanta and Utah. Nothing average about that.
6. Charlotte Bobcats
Bad New Bears
OK, so bears aren’t bobcats, but our point is that it feels like the ‘Cats have just brawled their way into playoff contention, making up for a truly abysmal 11-26 road record with solid defense and timely crunch time plays, particularly at home. If they can continue a recent trend of picking up a few road games the ‘Cats will be a tough out in the first round against any of the big three… their defence is that good. Stephen Jackson has been on his best for head coach Larry Brown and the remodeling that began last summer by trading away Emeka Okafor for Tyson Chandler ended this past February with the trade for athletic prowler Tyrus Thomas. They should catch Miami for the sixth seed and in doing so avoid Cleveland and Orlando for starters. Brown seems headed for another successful makeover, which usually means he is ready to move on. With the Bobcats on the verge of their first-ever postseason appearance nobody will boo him if he bolts.
7. Miami Heat
Bird on a Wire
When Udonis Haslem talked to SWAY Sports earlier this season he went off on how all the people who doubted the Heat’s supporting cast were going to eat their words. And while Dwayne Wade’s soldiers haven’t exactly been mind-blowing, they’ve been more than what was expected. So why does it feel like their always a loss away from spiraling? Along with the Raptors, Bobcats, Bulls and Bucks right? Shouldn’t we know better by now, so fooled were we by Wade’s “off” season of a few years ago? Their 17-point comeback win over the Raptors on March 28 showed heart, reinforcing the simple fact that Wade, no matter who surrounds him in the black and red, will not allow the Heat to lose. This will mark the second straight season they’ve reached the playoffs after nearly every preseason publication predicted they wouldn’t. And how much will what they manage to do when they get there, if they get there, impacts what Wade does about his impending free agency? Not as much as you’d think but more than what Miami fans are hoping considering their tenuous hold on a spot.
8. Chicago Bulls
Who would have thought that Joakim Noah meant so much to the bumbling Bulls? Indeed, the borderline all-star only recently returned after missing 18 and in his absence the Bulls went from playoff surety to outside-looking-in status. Upon his return they have put themselves back in the hunt with the Toronto Raptors and the eighth seed in their sights. Trading away John Salmons did more good for the Bucks than for the Bulls and if it weren’t for the Raps taking a near-fatal nosedive of their own Chi-town’s finest might have been too far-gone. Instead they find themselves with a fighting chance, a scary franchise guy in Derrick Rose (who recently returned from an injury of his own) and a defending rebounder in Noah that makes an impact. If their back-to-back wins against Philadelphia and Houston after a 10-game losing streak are a sign of encouragement what does having four sets of back-to-backs remaining on the schedule (three which have the second game on the road) suggest? All will have equal importance to their chances down the stretch and at the very least they’ll make it interesting for the Raptors. In fact we’ve pegged them to straight up steal the spot on the last day of the season. How’s that for balls?
MENTION: Toronto Raptors
Live and Let Die
After seven years of Chris Bosh the Raptors still don’t know who they are. Most would identify them as an offensive force but it’s when they play defense that they win big. Inconsistency on that end along with spotty performances from Hedo Turkoglu, Andrea Bargnani and injuries to Bosh, Reggie Evans and Jose Calderon have sapped some of the fun out of their midseason party, back when they looked like a threat in the eastern conference. Now they are hanging on to the eighth and final playoff spot and part of a five-team race for the four available bottom seeds. With the way they have been playing of late the bigger surprise will be if they make it in than if they don’t. Head coach Jay Triano has already replaced Jarrett Jack in the starting line-up with former starter Calderon and Turkoglu was recently bench for skipping the teams March 26 loss to Denver with the flu, only to be spotted eating out. Not exactly the kind of dedication expected from somebody who made it all the way to the NBA Final last season. Five of their final 13 games are against plus .500 playoff teams including two sets of back-to-backs featuring Miami, Charlotte, Cleveland and Boston with three of those matches on the road. Add that the Raptors have the second worst road record amongst all current playoff teams and you get wins coming at a premium and a once-promising season fading slowly.
1. L.A. Lakers
The Usual Suspects
Remember last season when everybody from Kenny “The Jet” Smith to the Pope was saying that the Lakers were walking around with a sense of entitlement? Too sure of a championship? Too cocky for their own good? All they did was go out and win the damn thing and then oust Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest, which absolutely amounts to defensive overkill. Not that it has been blatant all season – the Lake show suffered their first three game losing streaking in over a zillion games – and all the LeBron James and Kevin Durant MVP talk has kept Kobe Bryant off the map a little bit. He is still a clear number two candidate from this view and Bryant will play like the number one come playoff time. That hard fact, along with the magnificent Pau Gasol, is the biggest reason why the Lakers are the favorites to hoist the hardware again this season, no matter what LeBron is doing in Cleveland.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks feel like they are going a million miles an hour to nowhere, even with Dirk Nowitzki shining brightly beside Jason Kidd, who has moved into full blown mode as team leader. Disco Dirk is still the man but Kidd makes the Mavs go. The big trade that brought in Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood was solid and paid immediate dividends in the form of a 13-game game winning streak. Since that elongated honeymoon ended the Mavs have dropped embarrassments to both the New York Knicks and New Orleans Hornets. Haywood in particular will be a nice piece to throw up against the beefy frontlines of the Lakers, Nuggets… even the Cavaliers and Magic out east. Still, those teams appear to have more resolve, not to mention better franchise players and supporting casts. Familiarity plays and big part with the Lakers and Nuggets, who remain more or less unchanged from last season, save for a Ron Artest. The Mavs will be a handful for any first round opponent, particularly with the emergence of rookie guard Rodrigue Beaubois and the continued brilliance from Jason Terry off the pine. Alas, they seem to have bugs to work out of the new collective and ironing out the wrinkles during the regular season is a whole lot different that trying that crap in the playoffs.
3. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are facing a big wave of psychological warfare… with themselves. As if the loss of Kenyon Martin – in the midst of one of his best pro seasons – wasn’t tough, the biggest health concern – perhaps in all of sports – is the battle with cancer head coach George Karl undergoing. The odds aren’t good that Karl returns for the playoffs (though with Karl nothing is out of the question) so the Nuggets will be without their bench boss and their grittiest frontcourt performer. When we talked to Nuggets players they all seemed determined to move forward but with unknown return dates for both that’s easier said than done. Extra pressure will be on forwards Nene and Chris Anderson to make up for the grit they lose with Martin out. They started to slip mid-March and it took a Carmelo Anthony buzzer-beating jumper against the Toronto Raptors to snap a three-game losing streak on March 26. With Anthony’s prowess, Chauncey Billups’ steady hand and J.R. Smith’s spectacularly erratic game the Nuggets will still challenge for the second seed in the western conference, thus giving them the second “easiest” road to the conference Final. However the absences of Martin and possibly Karl will hurt both efforts.
4. Utah Jazz
The Jazz’s ability to surprisingly win on the road this season has come at a price, most notably to their home record or, should we say, some mathematical equation that measures their home wins against those of other teams. How about Denver? The Nuggets have the most home wins in the Northeast division and the Jazz rank third overall in the western conference in that department – fourth overall in the NBA. As silly as it sounds, it may mean that the Jazz are finally getting a consistent effort no matter where the ball is tossed, though a .500 road record is good not great. Seven of their final 11 games are on the road, including two three game road trips, so there are tune-up opportunities there. With all the distractions that could have stemmed from the Carlos Boozer free agency drama but didn’t the team has moved through the season admirably. There isn’t enough there to be title contenders but the Jazz are the next best thing.
5. Phoenix Suns
The Postman Always Rings Twice
In Steve Nash’s case the mailman rings, like, 10 times. Nash will never die. At 36 he is doing things on the fly, with a pass or shot that still boggles the mind. You thought back-to-back MVP awards was the pinnacle? Nash is averaging even more points and assists than he did last season while maintaining stellar field goal percentages from the floor to the free throw line. This is in the first season of a new contract everybody thought he was crazy for signing because of the rocky previous season and the impending free agency of forward Amar’e Stoudemire. All Nash did was turn them into a dark horse contender for the crown. Don’t sleep on the Suns. Like their Jazz rivals they have been able to stay focused on the task and with forwards Channing Frye cemented as one of the key off-season signings in the league, Jared Dudley a spark off the bench and Robin Lopez coming into his own the Suns have a great mix of youth to go with elders Nash, Grant Hill and Jason Richardson. The Suns have won eight of 10 games so far in March including five in a row. Considering that they finish the month with dates against softies New York, Minnesota, Chicago and New Jersey the Suns have a real shot at reaching up and stealing a seed from one of Utah, Dallas or Denver.
6. Oklahoma Thunder
Even with Kevin Durant’s mug plastered on video game boxes worldwide nobody saw his Thunder team coming. What head coach Scottie Brooks has been able to do with this ultra-young squad in such a short time is phenomenal because you can see a teacher’s imprint. The focus the Thunder has as a collective is impressive, whether they are up big or in a dogfight. Game-changer Jeff Green and the growing Russell Westbrook provide excellent speed and defense while guard Thabo Sefolosha is a stopper that might be more bargain than Matt Barnes. Sure there have been lapses. Losses to the Sacramento Kings and L.A. Clippers early in the season were concerning but after November the Thunder haven’t lost to a plus .500 team but five or six times. Five of their final 13 games are against sub-.500 opponents and seven of those contests are at home where they are 22-12. Perhaps most impressive about this band of young bloods is their 20-15 road record, which has kept them in the mix for the fourth seed overall. It also makes them a dangerous first round opponent no matter where they land. In fact, if the Thunder is not a home-seeded team we’re already semi-prepared to call a first-round upset. Their remaining schedule includes dates against four of the six division leaders and how the kiddies ball out the string will play a large part in predicting their fate come the second season.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Cloak & Dagger
Each season you want to say that the Spurs are getting old, but they’re not. The core of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan is still in tact and should be primal but the trio has become injury prone early. Head coach Gregg Popovich tried to pre-empt the trend by resting his main Spurs heavily at the start of the season but it hasn’t been as much help as it has in seasons past. Oddly, it’s the supporting cast that seems faded with Matt Bonner, Roger Mason Jr. and George Hill not quite the raucous reserves there were in 2009. Oh, and Richard Jefferson has been a bust as a Spur and since the team made no effort to fix the problem don’t expect a big turnaround. They’ll wrap up the 6th or 7th seed but we thought the Spurs would have one more dogfight left in them this season after their unceremonious dumping last spring. We were wrong.
8. Portland Trailblazers
What can you say? The Trailblazers only lost front men Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla for the season and major injuries to Travis Outlaw (before he was traded) and Rudy Fernandez. They traded for Marcus Camby to fill the void up front was a solid move by the team. They also endured a point guard controversy, which eventually led to the trading of one-time starter Steve Blake, a move that helped improve role definition. Starting Nicolas Batum has paid off recently too and the ability to make these moves and adapt to his ever-changing roster is what has kept head coach Nate McMillan’s name near the top of the Coach of the Year conversation. The Blazers have been on fire in the month of March and have maintained a healthy road record despite the bumpy ride. Good thing. Six of their final 11 games are on the road with stops in Oklahoma, Denver and L.A. to play the Lakers. Their home dates aren’t much better with two match-ups against Dallas and another versus Oklahoma on April 12. The Memphis Grizzlies play seven of their final 11 games on the road, six of those against playoff teams. That helps the Blazers hold off the all-but-dead Grizz as much as anything.
The return of Chris Bosh was supposed to set things right for a team that had become passive in his absence. Yet in his comeback story against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers Bosh came out slow and, not surprisingly, the rest of his team followed accordingly in a 114-101 loss at the Air Canada Centre. Neither squad took over the game but the 76ers started just well enough and finished just strong enough to seal the deal and send the Raptors to a costly loss, one that kick-started their current three-game slide. The team is now just 3-7 in their last 10 contests and as a collective has shown decidedly less spark of late.
“I guess we felt we had an easy game,” said forward Antoine Wright following the loss against Philadelphia. “You can’t expect to win games just coming into them like that. We have to do a better job of getting our minds ready for the games.”
Reading between the lines one might conclude that an air of over-confidence may have gripped the team. When February began nearly the entire team saw it as a soft spot in the schedule. Their most recent loss to the Kings had all the makings of a sure win, before the squad unwound drastically in the third quarter after building a first half lead. It was a bad sign out of the halftime recharge and uninspired defense allowed the Kings easy buckets in transition. The result
“We have to do everything different,” said center Andrea Bargnani before leaving on the western journey. “Every single thing.”
In the midst of a four-game west coast road trip that takes them through California to face the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and Golden State Warriors and then into Portland to face the Trailblazers, the Toronto Raptors – at 10-21 on the road – will need to rediscover their edge. The have already lost the first two games of the swing – a heartbreaking, last second loss to the Lakers and a horrific stomping at the hands of the Kings. Take a look at the contenders for the fifth through eighth seeds and the Raptors’ timing for a lapse could not have been, well, more untimely. Easy? Focus? Uninspired? Change everything? Not things a team wants to hear (or admit) during the last quarter of their schedule with a playoff berth at stake.
The Charlotte Bobcats have won five straight games and have gone from ninth seed to sixth in the span of a week. The Milwaukee Bucks have also won five in a row to claim the fifth seed once thought to be a lock for Toronto. The Miami Heat have dipped in and out of the postseason picture for the past two weeks but have now won two straight matches to place themselves back in the mix, leaving the Raptors hanging on to the eighth seed. While just 2.5 games separates all of the above-mentioned the ninth place Chicago Bulls, despite having lost seven straight games, are only two games behind the Raptors and the final playoff position. Expect the musical chairs to continue until the final day of the campaign, a scramble Raptors did not believe they would be a part of three weeks ago.
With two games remaining on their current tour – a date with the dandy Golden State Warriors and resilient Portland Trailblazers – and a follow-up mini home stand against the Atlanta Hawks and Oklahoma Thunder looming – the circumstances leave little room for error. Missed opportunities to create space in February and early March, particularly with the Bulls in a terrible slump, place them in a reality that demands a quick turnaround.
A case can be made for this team to slide either way.
The Raptors’ two big stars, Bosh and off-season addition Hedo Turkoglu, have been disappointing of late. In the three games since returning from a seven game, injury-induced absence Bosh is averaging just 16 points on 19 of 52 shooting from the floor. His rebounding numbers have also fallen to just eight per night and he has visted the charity stripe just nine times total. With Turkoglu continuing a season-long funk the supporting cast has been put through the grinder. Covering reasonably well for early-season injuries to forward Reggie Evans and, to a lesser extent, Wright seems to be catching up. Reserves Sonny Weems and Amir Johnson have been good but they cannot save this team. The slow progression of Turkoglu’s impact has also been costly. The pine crew have been unable to fill the holes as of late with their big names struggling, so much so that talk of a line up change has been whispered and could happen before the team returns to the ACC on Wednesday for their game versus the Hawks.
So the watch on the Stephen Jackson trade front was first brought into full swing after his courtside blow-up with head coach Don Nelson during the second week of the preseason. The drama involved Nelson keeping a foul-heavy Jackson in a preseason game versus the Los Angeles Lakers and Nellie and his staff as a whole not backing up Jackson’s pleas to the referees who he believed were calling him too tight on Kobe Bryant. Jackson and Nellie get into it hard until Jackson was asked to leave the bench and finish his night under the cool of the locker room shower. For the record Jackson was in the right… but he should have known the “treatment” was coming. For guard Monta Ellis the same may be on the horizon.
Now Jackson is gone and it isn’t his fault.
It won’t be Monta Ellis’ fault when his time comes either. Count the same for young and promising forward Anthony Randolph. Hell, the same could be said for anybody on the current Warriors roster. With Nelson at the helm, nothing seems safe.
With the way the Golden State Warriors have been operating over the past two seasons should it come as a surprise that Nelson is having these kinds of headaches? Self-inflicted shots to the head? Nellie has alienated, upset or traded away every star player on his roster since their spirited 2007 playoff run in his bid to… well, we aren’t sure yet. Baron Davis, Al Harrington, Monta Ellis, Anthony Randolph and now Jackson. Davis and Harrington (and the rarely mentioned Jason Richardson) and now Jackson have been jettisoned and Ellis looks like he may be lining the Warriors up for another blow, especially since he still harbors feelings about the massive fine and suspension the Warriors laid on him last season for violating the terms of his $60M contract. Adding guard Stephon Curry to the mix didn’t help the Ellis issue, especially with Nellie waxing on about how good the kid is.
Last season – before and after firing agent B.J. Armstrong – Randolph’s camp was making noise about playing time and role definition, which didn’t sit well with the organization. The cries for his freedom haven’t slowed. What could be going on in Oakland that a one-year player has the ‘nads to start making demands for playing time through his agent and family? Nellie’s structure has always been loose but for that system to flourish long-term the right players have to be in place. Depending on whom you talk to Nelson was the biggest reason Chris Mullin was ousted from his position as vice-president. Nelson has the ear of ownership representative Robert Rowell whose basketball I.Q. seems fully dependant on Nelson’s point of view, giving Nelson lots of empty space in Rowell’s brain to fill with his version of basketball and hoops culture. He has aligned himself with ownership despite a history of mistrust and legal disputes with that party, which makes for a strange environment and helped lead to the Mullin exit. Mullin was mistreated by ownership and fellow management in his final months, essentially becoming so distant from the club that he was a far-away front to the background of chaos with Nelson being accused of stabbing his old friend and former charge in the back. Maybe the friction and cleaning out has something to do with Nellie re-appropriating his environment but seeing as how he pulled the trigger to acquire most of these players in the first place, his judgment can be reasonably questioned.
Jackson’s judgment should not be. His timing? Perhaps. The Warriors say they were blindsided when Jackson went off about a trade during a promotional stop in New York this past summer. After affirming his stance to media since why were there still some Warriors acting miffed when Jackson stated over and over again that his position had not changed? That dismantling perhaps the best team in Warriors history might not have been in keeping with the win-now philosophy he thought he was living under. Weird.
The coaches checked out on him because they believe he checked out on them by demanding that trade, which eventually landed him in Charlotte with the Bobcats. Before that the Warriors played him despite handing him a two-game suspension for “conduct detrimental” because they knew it was their best bet to get something approaching full value (though stripping him of his captaincy as they did spoke volumes).
In typical Nelson fashion – the side of him that views players and coaches at odds in the same war – he has allowed the situation in Oakland to get well out of hand. Only after Jackson’s agent upped the ante by performing a media sound off after a month of inactivity (despite Cleveland, Miami and Portland showing interest in the swingman) did the Warriors make real moves towards concluding the drama. As if the pressure of winning in Golden State (or lack thereof) wasn’t enough the team is teetering on the precipice of a mutiny. Most recently Ellis and Nelson got into a significant altercation following an early November practice. Ellis apparently feels like he shoulders too much of the blame for the team’s lack of success, Nelson doesn’t think so at all. At issue is the out-in-the-open undressing Nelson has given Ellis at times, but Ellis has prior beef with the organization as well and Nelson has become a bigger part of the off-court stuff. In 2007 Ellis wasn’t forthcoming about violating his brand new $66M contract by crashing a mo-ped and injuring his ankle, a setback that caused him to miss all but 25 games last year. The team penalized him $3M in docked pay by suspending him for 30 games and were criticized by Ellis’ camp for the severity of the punishment.
It is a player’s league and while you must never give the impression of cow towing, going to the opposite extreme of taking on all challengers with a fist cocked gets messy. Remember that Nelson also sued his former Dallas Mavericks boss Mark Cuban for money owed to him under the previous ownership of Ross Perot. An arbitrator eventually awarded Nelson $6.3M. He was widely accused of poisoning the New York Knicks’ locker room after the divide between himself and some of his players, most notably the great Patrick Ewing, became too great. The rate of descent was blinding and Nelson was just over half a season into his contract when he was fired in March of 1996. And now just three seasons removed from a legendary first round upset over the top-seeded Mavericks the Warriors are a far cry from that promise. Just when they were getting good they got bad and as ugly as it looks now it will be even more repulsive after another month or two or four when the distractions – which includes Nelson himself being placed on and off the chopping block – further decimates the chances of the ultra-young Warriors.
Nelson is approaching Lenny Wilkins for the most coaching wins in NBA history though there is a distinct difference between the two. Unlike Wilkins, Nelson has reached this milestone without an NBA title to show for it. In fact, there isn’t an NBA Finals appearance to offer either. That dynamic of success and failure is rare and gives less credence to Nelson’s coaching prowess and more to his awesome longevity. He has had 11 50-win seasons in over two decades of pacing the sidelines but his ability to adapt and innovate is his signature. As GM and head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks he introduced the ‘point forward’ in the early eighties. While with the Mavericks at the turn of the century he instituted the ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ defense. Even back during his first coaching stint with the Warriors Nelson was a mad scientist, running 6-8 Rod Higgins at center with a three guard/two forward starting line-up. His Run-TMC project (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) was envied and produced wins. It is the same game he has at different times chewed and twisted and plowed through like a freight train.
Nelson’s first go-round with the Warriors ended badly in the year before he joined the Knicks. After a public feud with yet another star player, then a young Chris Webber, Nelson quit. When he joined the New York Knicks Warriors owner Chris Cohan sued. Along with Cohan and Mullin, Higgins – who was part of Mullins’ circle as GM – helped bring Nelson back. No doubt it took a lot of Mullins and Higgins to orchestrate the reunion between Nellie and Cohan but that meant nothing when Nelson began his power plays in Oakland.
The Jackson fiasco is just the latest.
The Ellis issue will be the next.
Young futures like Randolph, Anthony Morrow and C.J. Watson seem destined to follow the same route.
That kind of predictability is dangerous if you are a Warriors fan, held hostage by the increasingly bizarre practices of the club’s handlers with both on and off court business, methodology that is turning the franchise into one of professional sports’ most harebrained acts.
Finally, there is proof that the Los Angeles Clippers just don’t care. About winning that is. The business angle has been relatively fine under notoriously frugal owner Donald Sterling. In the last half decade or so he spent a little more, the increased revenue from the Staples Center had something to do with that, perception being the best sales pitch of them all.
Ah, but you can only mask the lion at the gate for so long before moving onto the real business of sport, which is to win. So here you have the L.A. Clippers, once again the messy laughingstock of the league, just four years removed from all the reason for optimism in the world. A time for but a moment, it operated like the other Los Angeles team, the one that figured out long ago that winning is the second best sales pitch of them all. Fine pedigree is what people by into, want to be next to, and don’t mind spending money on so little Joey can see a winner too. Remember when the Clippers were like the Golden State Warriors of two seasons ago? Hell, now the Warriors aren’t even the Warriors.
Things change fast.
Clippers head coach and now full-time general manager Mike Dunleavy has watched most of it. Some would say he has also helmed most of it, and following the firing of NBA legend and 22-year Clippers executive Elgin Baylor last October the word was that Dunleavy had been authoring the player movement for some time on Baylor’s watch. Regular stuff in sports but the thing is – one mistake does not beget another. And how fast do you move to remedy that mistake if the goal is indeed to win?
In a season where eight NBA coaches were fired, only two of those teams that made in-season coaching changes finished with a worse record than the Clippers – the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings. Since the “breakthrough” season of 2005-06 Dunleavy’s squad has been on a steady decline. After reaching the playoffs that year the club went on to record its first playoff series victory in 29 years before bowing out in the second round. Apparently that small blink of success can buy you a lot of time in Clipperland because it remains the only plausible hook Dunleavy has been able to hang his hat on.
The Clippers’ record has dipped in each of the last four seasons from 47 wins in 2005-06 to their current and most embarrassing 19-63 mark. They have also had a problem retaining key free agents or receiving something sufficient in return, a weakness that flared up to its greatest height when they lost power forward Elton Brand last summer as an outright free agent. Forward Corey Maggette was sent to the Golden State Warriors for point guard Baron Davis. They gave up little to snag defensive center Marcus Camby from the cash-dumping Denver Nuggets and figured he would team with Chris Kaman to form the Cali version of the twin towers. It never had the desired effect and Davis was in and out of the line up with injuries and attitude all season. When Davis did “play”, it wasn’t in all his glory. In Portland Dunleavy was fired in part because he could not control his players and discipline was lax. That hasn’t changed in L.A.
And the bad luck? Maybe it’s just another irony of time, but this dark cloud seemed to really take shape when promising point guard Shaun Livingston suffered a career threatening knee injury two seasons ago that co-sucked the competitive life out of the franchise. After Sam Cassell was done with his last hurrah the Clippers were supposed to belong to Livingston. It was his team for the taking. Now it’s been given to Davis, an aging point guard that wants out.
Alas, none of that represents real proof that the Clippers don’t care. The fact that Dunleavy is still the head coach of this team does. That he was “promoted” to GM to replace Baylor is an even bigger mystery given the state of affairs he has absolutely helped to construct… on more than one side of the ball. Maybe that 47-win season – the second highest win total in franchise history – is more of what passes for currency under Sterling. Perhaps with an office all to himself, Dunleavy can turn things around, but suddenly he has an old roster of underachievers on big money contracts. If he is waiting on the lottery balls to roll his way then it can be supposed that Sterling is simply walking his familiar and beaten path, which almost always leads to losing. He certainly won’t rush to the rescue of a club slowly crawling back into the muck of the NBA jungle. He won’t because it would be the right thing to do. With Clipperland also being known as “Opposite Land” it can only rightfully be expected that the madness will be allowed to continue.
“This summer I worked on my game a lot,” says a still baby-faced Thaddeus Young after a pre-game workout. The Philadelphia 76er ripped it up during exhibition play to start the campaign and it has continued into the early regular season. A product of Georgia Tech, he has been the most impressive player on the roster thus far.
Young came on strong for the 76ers during their furious finish towards the playoffs last season and was a main cog in their surprising post-season performance, battling the mighty Detroit Pistons in their eastern conference opening round series. Yes, the Sixers eventually bowed out in a 23-point blowout Game 6 loss but Young was impressive throughout, averaging 10 points, 4.5 rebounds and 26.3 minutes of burn. That’s a lot of trust to give a rookie but the 6-8 forward spent the year convincing head coach Maurice Cheeks with his play and eventually it landed him a starting job, a move that allowed the Sixers to beef up their up tempo game and get a little stingier on defense in the process. That boost of confidence gave him lots of ammo heading into the off-season and after the disappointing playoff ouster, Young went right back to work.
“Pretty much the whole summer I’ve been working on ball handling, shooting and just trying to stay comfortable within my range,” Young says of his off-season focus.
Early on it seems to have paid off, though the most important development in Young’s game came last year by accepting his place in the pecking order… for now. A lot of rookies struggle with not being “the man” anymore but his humble approach to last season, particularly as the second youngest player in the NBA, helped him absorb some of the finer points of playing in the pros.
“It’s a hard league to stay in,” Young tells SWAY Sports. “This is definitely a hard league to start games in. I just went out there and focused on the things I was good at, which was playing defense and rebounding. I knew coming into this that I wasn’t going to be the main guy anymore. I was used to being the main guy.
“I think I did a great job assuming a role… doing the things that the team needed me to do.”
The show of confidence the organization has showed him isn’t lost on the 20 year-old.
“They knew I was going to evolve to be something,” continues Young. “That’s the reason why they drafted me. It’s just come a little earlier than everybody thought.”
Still, it wasn’t enough to prevent the club from taking a huge gamble on free agent forward Elton Brand who signed an $88M contract with the 76ers in the summer. Young could be the most affected by the move as Brand is guaranteed to start at the power position, the spot Young occupied for much of last season and the one he seems to play best from. Brand’s presence also means a change of pace for the team who will need to slow down in order to maximize his skills (and recovering legs). Early on Young seems to have adjusted to the small forward position and he will have to get comfortable there as long as Brand is around.
That said, before Brand was even a Sixer Young went to work on his three-point shooting. He was just 6 for 19 from beyond the arc a year ago but the shots looked good enough to convince himself and others that he could become a real threat from downtown, at least enough to keep defenders guessing. Now that improvement will be used to give Brand more room to operate in the paint and is another notch in the belt of his building an all-round game. Combined with his athleticism and defensive potential that development is well underway.
“I’ve been working with (assistant) coach (John) Loyer, (assistant) coach (Bernard) Smith and coach Cheeks,” Young explains. “They tell me… keep concentrating and keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you have the wide open shot take it because I tend to pass up shots. Just keep shooting.”
That hesitancy in his game hints at Young’s still developing assertiveness, and who knows what the presence of Brand will do to his confidence and development. For now though, it doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon and if the Sixers can’t adjust – or are not as effective – in a slowed down version then expect Young to see some extra time at the power forward slot when Brand sits. Either way Young looks to be a fixture with the Sixers for the foreseeable future, a team that boasts an impressive mix of young and old with franchise player Andre Iguadala and veteran Andre Miller comprising the back court and veterans Brand and newly minted center Samuel Dalembert making up the front.
In the middle of them all stands Young, a player who is no longer under the radar and one who will be expected to improve on an impressive first season. The Sixers are also being hailed as a squad on the come up. Much of that has to do with Young, as will Philly’s continuing fortunes.