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Thursday, December 11, 2008

NBA Potpourri: Phoenix' Big Trade, Melo's Big Night, Big Ben's Impact, Agent Zero's Lament, New York's Addition by Subtraction

Here are some quick takes on several notable NBA topics:

1) Suns' President Steve Kerr is certainly not risk-averse; since taking over the reins last year, he has acquired Shaquille O'Neal, let successful coach Mike D'Antoni walk and now he has traded two of the key rotation players who contributed significantly to Phoenix being one of the West's best teams the past several years. Kerr shipped out 2006 Most Improved Player Boris Diaw and two-time All-Defensive Team member Raja Bell, plus rookie point guard Sean Singletary, in exchange for Charlotte's Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley.

Bell and two-time MVP Steve Nash are best friends but Bell clearly was not happy with Coach Terry Porter's new program in the Valley of the Sun. As for giving up the versatile--but recently underachieving--Diaw, Kerr said, "Boris' contract just didn't fit into our salary structure. I feel much better paying Jason Richardson to play 35-40 minutes a night as a starter than to pay Boris to come off the bench and play a limited role."

There are several ways to look at trades. Nowadays, salary structure is a major consideration but in this case the Suns only obtained moderate salary cap relief. Another thing to consider is which team received the best player overall. Clearly, Richardson--a career 18.8 ppg scorer who has averaged more than 20 ppg three times and is shooting .458 from three point range this season--is the best player in this transaction. The Suns' have acquired an athletic wing scorer who will fit in perfectly when they want to run and who can make three point shots in the half court set when they slow the game down and give the ball to Shaquille O'Neal in the post. Charlotte was not going anywhere this season, so going to a Western Conference playoff team is like a get out of jail free card for Richardson.

Diaw has never been the same player since he got a big contract, while Bell's best days are probably behind him. Charlotte Coach Larry Brown gave Bell his first shot in the NBA in 2000-01 in Philadelphia and Brown is surely hoping that adding two veterans from a winning program will set a good example for the young players on his team. That said, it is hard to discern any semblance of a coherent building plan when looking at the roster moves and draft selections that the Bobcats have made in the past few years. Michael Jordan seems to be treating being a team executive as a part-time hobby as opposed to a full-time job; he never would have achieved the success he did as a player with the kind of attitude he has displayed while running the Charlotte franchise.

The acquisition of O'Neal last year cured the Suns' size problems in the paint and gave them at least the theoretical possibility of beating the Spurs in a playoff series. I don't really expect the Suns to win the West but if their players stop whining and start playing defense then they could be a tough out come playoff time. They certainly have enough talent on their roster to make some noise but Amare Stoudemire needs to stop talking about being the man and start grabbing more rebounds and playing defense, while Steve Nash needs to stop talking wistfully about the good old days with Mike D'Antoni (when the Suns never once made it to the NBA Finals) and he needs to show that he really can, in fact, make players better by finding ways to bring out the best in Stoudemire, O'Neal, Grant Hill, Leandro Barbosa and Jason Richardson. Do you think that Kobe Bryant or LeBron James would complain if they had that nucleus? I'm not saying that the Suns have more talent than the Lakers or Cavs--and they certainly don't have as much overall depth--but the Suns have more than enough talent in their seven-eight man rotation to get the job done.

2) Carmelo Anthony tied the NBA record for points in a quarter by dropping 33 on Minnesota en route to 45 total points in a 116-105 Denver victory. Some people tried to diminish Kobe Bryant's 81 point game because it happened versus Toronto but that is nonsense; Bryant's outburst played a crucial role in the Lakers winning that game and the same is true of Anthony's performance, which helped the Nuggets overcome a 12 point deficit. Anthony now shares the record with George Gervin, who scored his 33 points in a 63 point performance on the last day of the 1978 season to clinch the scoring title; Gervin's Spurs lost that game and they were clearly going out of their way to force feed him right from the start so, if anything, Bryant and Anthony's efforts are more meaningful. Anthony shot 12-15 from the field, including 4-5 from three point range, in the third quarter and he shot 16-29 overall while also grabbing 11 rebounds, dishing off for three assists and getting four steals.

3) Cleveland improved to 19-3 with a 101-93 victory at Philadelphia. The Cavs have now won 10 games in a row. Their starting power forward is Ben Wallace, who was the starting center for the Detroit Pistons when they won the 2004 NBA championship and lost in seven games in the 2005 NBA Finals. When the Pistons let him go to Chicago I said that they would have a hard time replacing his paint presence and would not likely make it back to the Finals, a prediction that has been correct so far. Wallace, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, is not the same player that he was when he played for the Pistons but it is interesting to look at the kind of production that he is giving Cleveland in just over 23 mpg (he played 34-39 mpg in his six years as a Piston): Wallace is averaging more offensive rebounds per minute for Cleveland than he ever did in Detroit and his overall rebounds per minute average is only about 10% lower than it was during Detroit's championship season. He, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao are almost evenly dividing the center/power forward minutes for Cleveland and that frontcourt trio is a major reason that the Cavs rank first in the NBA in rebounding differential, first in scoring differential and first in defensive field goal percentage. This season, Detroit ranks 17th in rebounding differential, 16th in scoring differential and 21st in defensive field goal percentage. Allen Iverson is a favorite whipping boy for a lot of "stats gurus" and media members alike but if you want to look for transactions that hurt the Pistons, start with losing Coach Larry Brown and then look at the departure of Ben Wallace. Wallace may not be a 34-39 mpg bellwether performer now but three years after he left Detroit he is still good enough to be the starting power forward on a team that is on pace to win 70 games.

4) The Washington Wizards have the worst record in the East but are only five games out of the eighth playoff spot with three fourths of the season remaining. Considering that they have two All-Star forwards and are supposed to get All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas back for the second half of the season, one would think that a team that only a few months ago talked smack about beating Cleveland in the playoffs would be confident about earning a playoff berth and then making some noise. Instead, Arenas said that it would not be a bad thing if Washington misses the playoffs altogether--and he made that remark not long after the season started, when the Wizards had more than 70 games remaining on their schedule! Quoting Agent Zero, "That's what happened to San Antonio and that's how they got Tim Duncan. If that happens with us, it's for the better." Tim Duncan is obviously a franchise player, arguably the most significant and accomplished player of the post-Michael Jordan era--but the Wizards just signed Arenas to a six year, $111 million dollar contract, meaning that he is supposed to be their franchise player. Arenas already has two All-Star sidekicks but by acknowledging that even with their help he still needs a true franchise player to lead Washington anywhere he is basically admitting that what I have said all along about him is true: the Wizards (or any other team) will never go past the second round of the playoffs with Arenas as the featured player.

5) Even with a roster in flux and having to make the adjustment to a new coach, the New York Knicks are just a half game out of the last playoff spot in the East. The best move that they have made is the one that I have been advocating for years: banishing Stephon Marbury. Just by removing his presence from the court and from the locker room they have become a more cohesive and less selfish team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:30 AM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Thursday, December 11, 2008 8:05:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

What's with Jason Richardson? He looks like a very good player to me, but two franchises basically gave up on him in just one year, trading him out on a discount. Could it be the knee?

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 8:16:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

When the Warriors got rid of him he did seem to be hampered by the knee problem but last year he played in all 82 games for Charlotte, averaging a career-high 38.4 mpg and exceeding his career averages in field goal percentage, three point percentage and free throw percentage. He has played well this year, too, so I think that he still has a lot left in the tank, although he has missed a few games due to lingering effects from a recent arthroscope on his knee; the procedure did not reveal any structural damage to the joint.

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

Honestly, the Bobcats should just fold and stop wasting everyone's time. MJ is quickly establishing himself as the Kwame Brown of GMs (although this trade just screams 'Larry Brown').

Steve Kerr makes out like a bandit here. Best player in the trade (Richardson)? Check. Removal of an apparently divisive locker-room presence (Bell)? Check. Dumping of a bad contract (Diaw)? Check. And just for good measure, Charlotte throws in a solid young player in Dudley and a second round pick. Brilliant.

Nash and Co. need to stop whining and try to make this thing work. Richardson should thrive as a second or third option, and his athleticism and outside shooting make the Suns more dangerous both in the half-court and on the break. There is still enough talent here to win 50 games and a series or two.

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 10:06:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

I like the trade from Phoenix's standpoint. Not quite sure was Charlotte is doing. Too bad D'Antoni is not around anymore since Richardson is like a Joe Johnson clone. Now the Suns have a starting 5 who don't play defense.

As for Big Ben, are his contributions worth $60 million dollars though?

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 1:53:00 PM, Anonymous Allen said...

I know it's a long season, but even Lakers fans are starting to pile on Kobe because of his poor defensive effort against the Suns last night.

He gambled constantly and was beaten by the likes of Grant Hill and Matt Barnes.

I'd like to see Kobe return to playing his man straight up instead of roaming so much on defense.

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 4:08:00 PM, Blogger SamiA said...

I agree about Diaw. I thought his remarks were funny.

Very good read, Keep up the good work.

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 7:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Allen:

Granted, that was not one of Kobe's better games but down the stretch with the outcome up for grabs he had seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter. As Mark Jackson and others noted, the primary problems with the Lakers' defense recently stem from not controlling dribble penetration (Fisher, Farmar) and the bigs not providing proper help (Bynum, which is part of the reason that he has been sitting out down the stretch in several games).

Kobe made a bad gamble versus Hill that ended up with Hill being fouled and shooting free throws but Kobe also had some deflections on other gambles; that is just the way that he plays. He was matched up with several different players, so I would not say that he was primarily responsible for Barnes' output because he was not guarding Barnes throughout the entire game.

When other players are not scoring, Kobe has a tendency to shoot more often. As Phil Jackson calls it, Kobe fills the vacuum. I think that he tries to do something similar on defense; if the Lakers are being burned by dribble penetration, then Kobe will gamble more to try to get steals. I'm not saying that this is right or wrong but simply that when other players are not doing their jobs Kobe tends to try to do more to compensate for this. This is not selfishness; it is competitiveness. We have seen that when other players have it going that Kobe is quite content to pass them the ball; he's had quarters this year in which he has hardly taken any shots. However, when the ship is sinking offensively or defensively, Kobe is not just going to idly watch.

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 7:40:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Steve:

You can't just look at one player's contract; the roster that Ferry has assembled is a bona fide championship contender and Wallace's contributions are a major part of that. They swapped Hughes' contract for Wallace's and then managed to acquire Mo and West, guards who complement LeBron better than Hughes did. From that standpoint, Wallace is "worth it." As I indicated, Detroit sure could have used him over the past few years.

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 7:42:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I completely agree on all counts.

After the Suns acquired Shaq last year, I said that they could be a dangerous playoff team, while many other analysts said that they would not even make the playoffs. The Suns beat the Spurs twice in the regular season and had them on the ropes in game one of the playoffs. The problem with the Suns is that they are soft mentally. They blew game one and then collapsed in the rest of the series even though they had proven that they had the personnel to match up with the Spurs.

If the Suns stop whining and start playing hard they could still be a dangerous playoff team this year.

 
At Thursday, December 11, 2008 8:02:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

I think any guard would complement Lebron better than Hughes did. I kid, I kid, but Larry Hughes was just that bad.

Anyways, what does Wallace play? Like 23 mpg? And he’ s the highest paid player on the team too? I’m not saying he’s not good, I’m saying that Detroit would have loved to have him back, but they felt he wasn’t worth $60 million. He’s an undersized center (who was already declining in 2006 at age 32) who’s game depends largely on athleticism. And the Pistons couldn’t sign him, or they would have risked losing Billups. I believe Detroit offered $45 million, which is more than generous. And that’s too bad because it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he stayed. And Ben was there with Detroit…..when they lost to Miami in 2006.

 
At Friday, December 12, 2008 12:08:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Steve:

Hughes actually complemented LeBron pretty well when Hughes was healthy enough to play but Hughes was (and is) very injury prone and the Cavs were also forced to play him out of position at point guard due to their roster composition at the time. They did make the Finals with Hughes as pg most of that season and their record with Hughes was better than their record without Hughes. That said, the current roster mix is clearly both more talented and deeper than the mix that Cleveland had in '07 and, as I alluded to above, the composition is better because players are not playing out of position.

As for Wallace, he, Z and Varejao are each playing 23-25 mpg, so that is a great frontcourt rotation of bigs. None of them have to worry about fatigue or foul trouble and they are all very productive. Think about how much better the Pistons would be if they had Wallace taking up 23 or so mpg instead of Kwame Brown, etc.

Wallace is not the player that he was in his prime but, as I noted in the post, on a per minute basis this season his productivity is at least in striking distance of his productivity during his prime.

The two biggest mistakes that the Pistons made are losing Larry Brown and losing Ben Wallace. Brown was the brains and Wallace was the heart/soul of their championship team. They still had a talented team even without those guys but they went from being the "Defenders" (as it said on the cover of their playoff media guide)--a tough, gritty team--to being a team that acted as if they are entitled to go to the Finals every year. They lost a lot of their desire and work ethic without Brown and Wallace and they have never replaced those elements.

I think that sometimes people get too fixated on salary figures. You could argue that all athletes are overpaid relative to what doctors, policemen, teachers and firefighters make. You could argue that player x is overpaid compared to player y. The reality is that the marketplace dictates contract value; it all depends on who is available when a player becomes a free agent and how many teams are bidding for a player's services. If you are trying to build or maintain a championship team it might be necessary to "overpay" to keep a crucial player in the fold. If Detroit's primary goal was to win another championship then they had to keep Wallace around, because they obviously have never found a way to replace what he provided. The fact that he is a starter and crucial rotation player on a team that is ahead of the Pistons in their division/conference only accentuates that point.

Wallace has been the primary defender against Shaq in three of the last four playoff series that Shaq lost: '04 Finals, '05 Eastern Conference Finals, '07 Eastern Conference First Round.

 
At Friday, December 12, 2008 1:30:00 PM, Anonymous Allen said...

David - I agree, it's not selfishness, but as you say yourself, it's not clear whether it's "right or wrong" regarding the manner in which Kobe tries to compensate for his teammates' deficiencies.

 

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