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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

NBA Coast to Coast Crew Hands Out First Half Awards

The NBA Coast to Coast crew discussed a wide range of topics on Tuesday's two and a half hour marathon edition. Chris Broussard, Greg Anthony and Tim Legler offered their takes on the Wizards' success without Gilbert Arenas and whether or not the team is better off without Agent Zero. Predictably, all three said that the Wizards are not better off without Arenas--and yet even some of their own answers offered evidence that contradicted that assessment. Broussard asserted that the Wizards miss Arenas' talent but that they don't miss his antics, which he correctly described as a distraction to the rest of the team. Broussard said that Arenas can play well despite his quirkiness but that it throws other players off of their games. The problem with Broussard's reasoning is that you have to accept the whole package with Arenas--along with the obvious talent you also get a lot of extracurricular nonsense. Actually, I'm not even sure that the antics are the biggest problem with Arenas; it is just as significant that he is not coachable and that he is an indifferent defender at best. Without Arenas the Wizards are minus one talented player but seemingly everyone else on the roster is playing better; that is not a bad trade. Great players are supposed to make things easier for their teammates, not more difficult.

Greg Anthony declared that the Wizards are not even doing that well this season, noting that they are just the sixth seed in the East (after Tuesday's games they are actually tied for fourth). This season has provided plenty of evidence about how quickly the standings can change, so I still don't understand why the fact that the Wizards were the top seed in the East for about a minute and a half last season instantly turned Arenas into some kind of legend. The Wizards were 39-33 before losing first Caron Butler and then Gilbert Arenas to season ending injuries last year. They were a slightly above average team, just as they have been for most of Arenas' tenure in the nation's capital. Looking at this year's results, Butler's injury may have been more damaging to the team last season than Arenas' injury. In any case, the Wizards went 3-5 this season with Arenas and have gone 21-14 since he shut things down. Arenas may very well be the most talented player on the Wizards' roster but the team certainly has been no worse off without him so far--and their success this season is rooted in good, solid fundamental basketball, not hoping and praying for Arenas' bad shots to bail out the team. Last year, Washington's good record at this time was based in part on Arenas having some scoring performances that he is very unlikely to ever duplicate; this year's Wizards are winning by sharing the ball and playing good defense, a much better recipe for long term success.

Tim Legler said that the Wizards need Arenas because his special talents give Washington a chance to beat elite teams on a given night. That is interesting--I guess Legler missed that Washington has beaten Boston twice this season and just recently routed Dallas. Legler added that this year's Wizards are much better defensively because Antonio Daniels is a better, more physical defender than Arenas and that Daniels puts more pressure on opposing point guards than Arenas did. Daniels is obviously not a big time scorer but that is not a bad thing; he shoots a good percentage, gets the ball into the hands of his team's scorers and plays good defense. In other words, Daniels plays like a point guard. With Arenas, it was all about the show--the Agent Zero show. Daniels is about winning games and nothing else. It will simply be fascinating to watch the dynamics on this team once Arenas returns to the mix.

On Thursday, the NBA will announce who the All-Star reserves are. Legler and Anthony weighed in with their opinions. In the West, they each chose Brandon Roy, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Carlos Boozer, Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire. Legler's other selection was David West, while Anthony went with Josh Howard. As I mentioned a few days ago, I would select Nash, Paul, Roy, Nowitzki, Boozer and Stoudemire without hesitation. That seventh spot is tricky because there are several deserving candidates. I would pick Baron Davis but Howard and West are two of the players who I think merit serious consideration and it would not bother me one bit if either of them got the nod. Nash, Paul and Roy seem to be on everyone's list, so it will be quite a shock if the coaches don't vote for them. I would be surprised if Nowitzki and Stoudemire are left off of the team but I'm not sure if Boozer is a lock even though Anthony, Legler, Kenny Smith and I would pick him.

In the East, Anthony and Legler only agreed about four players: Richard Hamilton, Chris Bosh, Caron Butler and Paul Pierce. Legler also had Chauncey Billups, Antawn Jamison and Zydrunas Ilgauskas on his list, while Anthony chose Ray Allen, Hedo Turkoglu and Rasheed Wallace. Bosh, Billups, Butler and Pierce are obvious choices. I would go with Ilgauskas at center; Wallace is not even a true center, he just plays there because the Pistons got rid of Ben Wallace and their other plans (Nazr Mohammed, Chris Webber) fell through. Wallace does not play hard every night and neither shoots nor rebounds as well as Ilgauskas. Hamilton and Jamison complete my ballot. Allen is having one of the worst seasons of his career and I need to see more than just the first half of this season to really buy that Turkoglu is an All-Star. Anthony and Legler also mentioned three players who are putting up All-Star numbers but who probably won't make the squad due to their teams' records: Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson and Michael Redd.

Marc Stein's much ballyhooed power rankings really did not do that much for me. Anthony mentioned how much work Stein puts in to this but it seems to me that Stein basically looked at which teams have the best records and then ranked them in order of who has played the best in the past 10 games or so. There is nothing wrong with that but it hardly strikes me as Earth-shattering analysis, either. In contrast to this paint by numbers approach, I've been saying since before the season began that the Cavaliers will be a tough out in the playoffs and I explained exactly why (LeBron James' brilliance, superior team defense and rebounding). I stuck to my guns even when the Cavs went through some rough patches and now all of a sudden I've seen some commentators take notice of Cleveland for the first time. Analysis means figuring out why things are happening and then using that information to predict what will happen in the future. Is it that hard to figure out that New Orleans, currently riding a league-best nine game winning streak, is the best team in the NBA right now, particularly with Boston treading water a bit recently? The only thing worth discussing about New Orleans is whether or not the Hornets can actually beat teams like the Spurs, Mavs, Suns and Jazz in a seven game series. We know that New Orleans has beaten some good teams during the regular season but the postseason is a whole different story. I'll say right now that the Hornets will not beat the Spurs in a seven game series if Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are healthy. I also have serious doubts that the Hornets would beat any of those other teams in a playoff series. The Hornets' key players do not have much playoff experience and they will find out that beating a team once or twice during a long, arduous regular season is not quite the same as beating a team four times in seven games when there is more rest between games and the opposing coaching staff is focused entirely on your weaknesses without having to prepare for any other games.

Anthony, Legler and Jalen Rose handed out some first half awards. For best first half performance, Anthony chose Portland, Legler picked New Orleans and Rose took Boston. It seems to me that they answered three different questions. Portland is the most surprising team, not the best one. New Orleans is the best team in the West (for right now, anyway) but Boston clearly had the best first half performance of any team.

For best coaching performance, the panelists again offered three different answers: Boston's Doc Rivers (Anthony), Washington's Eddie Jordan (Legler) and New Orleans' Byron Scott (Rose). The Coach of the Year award usually goes to the coach who does the most with the least (otherwise, Phil Jackson would have won a boatload of them instead of just one); I don't necessarily agree with that reasoning, but that definitely has been the pattern. Jordan, Rivers and Scott have all done terrific jobs but I would vote for Portland's Nate McMillan.

The panelists also disagreed about the first half's best breakthrough performance, choosing Andrew Bynum (Anthony), Brandon Roy (Legler) and Caron Butler (Rose). Those players have all performed well but Roy won the Rookie of the Year last season and Butler was an All-Star. We had every reason to expect them to play well this season. Bynum went from being a guy who was fighting for playing time with career journeymen like Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Ronny Turiaf to perhaps being the second best player on the Lakers. He is the landslide winner in this category.

Anthony, Legler, Rose and the rest of the basketball fans in America could all agree on one thing: the Miami Heat have authored the worst performance. Anthony minced no words on this subject, calling the Heat "the most embarrassing team in professional sports in America." That about sums it up. The only thing that I can add is that we need about a five year moratorium on anyone trying to even suggest that Dwyane Wade is as good as Kobe Bryant. I understand that Wade is battling some injuries but so is Bryant and every other top player in the league; Wade is healthy enough to play over 38 mpg and score 25 ppg, so his physical condition is not the primary problem in Miami. Last year, some people questioned the significance of Kobe Bryant's string of 40 and 50 point games that carried the Lakers into the playoffs, saying that he put up numbers against bad teams and that the Lakers still did not finish with a great record. Wade and Miami are showing just how hard it is to carry a team singlehandedly the way that Bryant did. I can't picture a Kobe Bryant team losing 15 games in a row. In the 2005-06 season, Bryant outscored Dallas--the eventual Western Conference champions--62-61 in the first three quarters of a blowout Lakers victory. We all know that Kobe dropped 81 on Toronto a couple years ago, carrying the Lakers from a double digit deficit to a double digit win. Wade has had three 40 point games this year, all losses. It is not easy to put up big scoring nights with a shaky supporting cast and it is even more difficult to lead your team to wins. Wade did well when he had Shaquille O'Neal drawing double coverage in the 2006 NBA Finals but this season is providing an excellent opportunity for people to understand the difference between Bryant and the other top shooting guards in the NBA; there is a gap between Bryant and the rest of the pack and it is not particularly close (small forward LeBron James is the second best player in the league right now and he has closed the gap on Bryant this season).

Cue up the old eight tracks of Peaches and Herb: Chris Webber and Don Nelson are reunited but will it feel so good? The pundits offered differing initial takes. Legler, a former teammate of Webber's, likes the move, calling it low risk and potentially high reward. Anthony, who mentioned about 100 times that he means no disrespect to Webber--which of course always means that the next spoken words will be disrespectful--thinks that Webber will be a bad fit in Golden State because he is not as good of an offensive rebounder as Andris Biedrins is. Anthony said that playing Webber 20 mpg will disrupt the team's chemistry. Over on NBA TV, Rick Mahorn noted that injuries slowed Webber down last season and that he will have to adapt to the Warriors' fast paced game but he thinks that Webber will do well. Fred Carter praised Webber's basketball IQ and rebounding ability, adding that he can pass the ball and "make plays." When Ahmad Rashad suggested that Webber "fits to a T" in Golden State, Carter and Mahorn both agreed, adding that he will not take away shots from the other players but will in fact help them get easier shots because of his passing ability.

The last time Webber was a 20-10 player was 2002-03, though he narrowly missed in 2005-06. His numbers have been steadily declining since 2001, when he averaged 27.1 ppg and 11.1 rpg, earning his only All-NBA First Team selection. Even if he is in shape and healthy, the best that can reasonably expected from Webber at this point is about 11 ppg and 7 rpg. His passing could indeed be an asset but he will hardly add anything to Golden State's already subpar defense. The natural tendency for commentators is to either call a deal a slam dunk or an air ball but my initial impression is that the Webber signing won't make that big of a difference one way or the other. The Warriors are in a dog fight for the last playoff spot in the West. Prior to the season, I predicted that Golden State would finish sixth and lose in the first round. New Orleans and Portland are two teams that I did not expect to see in the playoff mix and if they stay in the hunt then a couple teams from last year will not make it--and Golden State could easily fall into that category, though I suspect that Portland may have already peaked and that the Warriors can do well enough to return to the playoffs.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:50 AM

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