Shaquille O'Neal Trade Overshadows DraftSeveral trades overshadowed Thursday's NBA Draft, with the biggest move--literally and figuratively--sending Shaquille O'Neal from Phoenix to Cleveland in exchange for Ben Wallace, Sasha Pavlovic, a conditional second round 2010 draft pick and cash.
It is fascinating that for years we have been told how much Steve Nash makes his teammates better, yet despite being surrounded by multiple All-Stars he has yet to take the team to the NBA Finals even once, while in the past two years Kobe Bryant led the L.A. Lakers to two Western Conference titles and one NBA championship while being paired with just one All-Star. The Suns have clearly acknowledged that Nash will never lead them to a championship, so now they are slashing costs as a prelude to completely rebuilding the team.
There is no question that the Cavs have upgraded themselves from a talent standpoint. O'Neal is not nearly the player he once was but he made the All-NBA Third Team last season--the same honor accorded to the Lakers' Pau Gasol and 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker--and O'Neal shared All-Star Game MVP honors with Kobe Bryant. The Cavs won an NBA-best 66 games last season and now have added O'Neal without giving up a core member of their rotation; Wallace ranked seventh on the team in regular season mpg (23.5) but only played in 56 regular season games, while Pavlovic ranked 10th on the team in regular season mpg (16.0) while playing in 66 regular season games--and both players had their minutes slashed in the playoffs (12.6 mpg for Wallace, 8.3 mpg for Pavlovic). The Cavs are clearly committed to trying to win a championship this season and believe that O'Neal will help them to match up with Orlando's All-NBA First Team center Dwight Howard, who dropped a playoff career-high 40 points on the Cavs as the Magic beat the Cavs in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. However, there are some risks and downsides associated with bringing O'Neal into the fold, as I noted in my season overview article about the Cavs:
While O’Neal is certainly a big body who can pose a potential challenge to Howard at both ends of the court, he is also a 37 year old who has a disturbing recent history of injury problems, though he was relatively healthy last season. O’Neal has never been fully committed to exerting himself at the defensive end of the court, particularly on pick and roll plays--a staple of Orlando’s offense. The Suns acquired O’Neal two seasons ago to match up with their big man nemesis, San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, but while O’Neal helped the Suns to win a couple regular season games versus the Spurs when push came to shove in the 2008 playoffs the Spurs once again prevailed.
O’Neal said that he would accept a lesser offensive role in order to facilitate Amare Stoudemire’s development but it did not take long for him to undermine new coach Terry Porter (who has since been fired) and not so subtly demand more touches. This year the Suns did not even make the playoffs. O’Neal’s tenures in Orlando, L.A. and Miami all ended acrimoniously and he seems to have worn out his welcome in Phoenix very quickly. Even if the Cavs can acquire O’Neal without giving up core players--the Suns are likely more interested in dumping salary than trying to obtain equal value for O’Neal--I am not convinced that this would be a good move; the Suns brought in O’Neal out of desperation because their championship window was rapidly closing and their Steve Nash-led nucleus had never even made it to the Finals but LeBron James has already been to the Finals once and his championship window is certainly much more wide open than Nash’s, meaning that it is less necessary for the Cavs to make high risk moves.
It is worth emphasizing that every time that O'Neal has left a team--Orlando Magic, L.A. Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns--the parting has been acrimonious to some degree and that two of those teams did not win championships to offset the turmoil wrought by O'Neal. Furthermore, the Cavs did not acquire the player who won three straight NBA Finals MVPs from 2000-02; O'Neal has won just one playoff game since the 2005-06 season. Although O'Neal has often spoken of being "the general" who simply follows the orders of the "president" (head coach), the truth is that the only coaches he really listened to or respected were Hall of Famers Phil Jackson and Pat Riley--and O'Neal has even taken public verbal shots at both of them. O'Neal did not pay much attention to his other coaches, including Brian Hill, Del Harris, Stan Van Gundy and Terry Porter. Cleveland's Mike Brown is an excellent coach, particularly at the defensive end of the court, and like Harris and Van Gundy he took a team to the Finals without O'Neal but will O'Neal truly respect Brown and do what Brown asks? If O'Neal does not fall in line, what effect will that have in the locker room?
Instead of trying to position the Cavs as a team that can contend for multiple titles, Danny Ferry has rolled the dice in an attempt to win the 2010 championship; whether or not the Cavs achieve that goal, they obviously will have to make significant retooling moves very soon as O'Neal gets older and then retires. Supposedly the O'Neal trade will influence LeBron James to stay in Cleveland when he becomes a free agent but that thinking could backfire in two different ways: (1) if the Cavs win a championship in 2010, James could figure that he has maximized what he can achieve in Cleveland and decide to seek greener pastures with a team that has a younger nucleus; (2) if the Cavs do not win a championship in 2010, James could similarly decide that he has a better chance to win a championship elsewhere. I think that the best way to keep James in the fold is to surround him with a team that can contend for years to come, instead of making the 2010 season a "championship or bust" year for the franchise; the Cavs should have tried to make their nucleus younger and more athletic instead of older. The Cavs must try to supplement the O'Neal trade by adding some youth/athleticism to the roster, not just to improve their prospects for the 2010 season but also with an eye to the future.
Although the O'Neal trade will understandably grab most of the headlines, Orlando--the reigning Eastern Conference champions--added an eight-time All-Star who is a lot closer to his prime than O'Neal is: Vince Carter averaged 20.8 ppg in 80 games last season for the Nets and, despite the negative reputation the media has tagged him with, he has played in at least 76 games each of the past five seasons and has averaged at least 20.6 ppg every year since 1999-00, his second NBA season. Carter--who Orlando acquired from the Nets with Ryan Anderson in exchange for Courtney Lee, Rafer Alston and Tony Battie--provides the Magic with another player who can make three pointers but he also can create a shot for himself and others even better than Hedo Turkoglu, who has been Orlando's point forward in recent seasons. Even if the Magic ultimately do not re-sign Turkoglu they are in good shape, because Carter is clearly an upgrade over Turkoglu as both a scorer and playmaker, but if the Magic keep Turkoglu then they could be the first team to start five All-Star caliber players--Howard, Carter, Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson--since the Detroit Pistons had Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince, a quintet that won the 2004 championship and made it to the 2005 NBA Finals.
It is just as well that all of this trade activity overshadowed the draft, because--as I explained last year around this time--I have never been a big "draftnik." I have always been much more interested in evaluating players once they actually make it to the league and play against NBA caliber competition. A few days ago, Jay Bilas made a very interesting point: NFL teams have the opportunity to look at their draft prospects for four years and they still frequently make mistakes, while NBA teams often only get to see a prospect during one year of college before they have do decide when/if to draft him. Figuring out how collegiate/foreign players will perform in the NBA is an inexact science at best, in no small part because these players play with and against players of wildly disparate skill sets; that makes it tough to know just how meaningful a player's statistics are.
One of the best things about last year's draft was that ESPN relegated Stephen A. Smith to the "kiddie table" instead of having him sitting next to the actual experts pretending that he knows what he is talking about in terms of analyzing the NBA game; this year, Smith did not participate in the telecast at all (ESPN did not renew his contract), with Mark Jones taking Smith's place at the "kiddie table" interviewing the draftees. Stuart Scott hosted the coverage and, despite his inexplicable insistence on dispensing obscure facts that have no meaning or relevance and his ill-fated attempts at humor, he did a solid job. Mark Jackson provided a former NBA player's perspective, Jeff Van Gundy offered insights as a former NBA coach, Jay Bilas lent his expertise as a former collegiate player who now works college games as a broadcaster, Dick Vitale made a few cameo appearances and Fran Fraschilla served as the resident expert on the international game.
Bilas is a knowledgeable analyst but one aspect of his commentaries distracted me; I lost track of how many times Bilas described a player as "super-athletic" but I find it difficult to believe that there are so many "super-athletic" players in the draft. By definition, there can only be a few people who are "super" at anything at any given point in time. LeBron James is "super-athletic." Dwyane Wade is "super-athletic." Josh Smith is "super-athletic." Kobe Bryant has a flawless skill set and is one of the best conditioned players in the league but I'm not even sure that he is "super-athletic" at this stage of his career. There just aren't that many "super-athletic" players, period. We'll see how many of the 2009 draftees truly turn out to be "super-athletic" once they start facing NBA competition on a night in, night out basis 82 times a season.
Vitale had the line of the night when he said that "Mr. Po" (potential) gets coaches fired. Vitale made a couple clip and save predictions: Stephen Curry will win the Rookie of the Year award and the Cavs will face the Spurs in the 2010 NBA Finals.
Fraschilla had a relatively light workload early in the evening, as only two international players were selected in the first 21 picks, Ricky Rubio (fifth, by Minnesota) and Brandon Jennings (10th, by Milwaukee)--and Jennings obviously is an American player who simply played in Europe for one season due to the NBA rule that prohibits players from jumping straight to the league from high school. Scott incorrectly said that Jennings "circumvented" the rule; in fact, Jennings simply followed its provisions, as opposed to finding a loophole or challenging the rule in court: the rule is specifically designed to enable NBA teams to observe a player for one year after high school, whether that player spends the year in college, the Developmental League or Europe, so Jennings did not "circumvent" anything.
Fraschilla called Rubio's court vision "Gretzky-like" and said that Rubio is "one of the best passers I've ever seen." Fraschilla added that Rubio must get stronger and improve his shot. It is a bit unfortunate for Rubio that he bears such a strong physical resemblance to Pete Maravich, because it will be extremely difficult for Rubio to ever become even close to being as great a player as Maravich was; if Rubio did not look so much like Maravich perhaps people would be able to more objectively look at his skills. I have no idea how good of an NBA player he will become but I do not think that his basketball impact will approximate what Gretzky did in the NHL, nor do I think that Rubio is even close to being as good as Maravich was at a comparable age. Maravich set collegiate scoring records that will never be broken and his passing skills were at least a decade ahead of his time; Maravich was derided as a "hot dog" for doing the things that Magic Johnson later popularized as "Showtime." Rubio is certainly a gifted passer but he is not a decade ahead of his time; he is simply imitating moves that Maravich, Magic, Isiah Thomas and others perfected decades ago. I expect Rubio to struggle for at least one year and maybe two before he gets acclimated enough to the NBA game for it even to be possible to ascertain if he can truly become a great player.
For a while, Minnesota seemed intent on cornering the market on point guards--and small ones at that. Then they made some trades but after the dust settled they still had both Rubio and Jonny Flynn, who they took with the sixth overall pick. Minnesota's new GM David Kahn insists that Rubio and Flynn can play together but that seems improbable at best; Rubio is listed at 6-5, 180, while Flynn is listed at 6-1, 196, but Rubio may be lighter than that and Flynn is almost certainly shorter, so that is just not going to cut it for a starting backcourt in the NBA. I believe in giving GMs the benefit of the doubt but I have no idea what Minnesota's real plan is; offhand, this looks a lot like the Detroit Lions stockpiling wide receivers while the rest of their roster went to pot but maybe Kahn has some more moves up his sleeve. Of course, one of those moves has to be hiring a coach--Kahn let Kevin McHale go, even though McHale was very popular with the players and was a good tutor for big men Al Jefferson and Kevin Love--and it will be interesting to see how many coaches line up to take the job with Rubio and Flynn as the prospective starting guards. Bilas said that he considered Minnesota to be one of the winners of the draft, an opinion that right now may only be shared by Kahn.
Mark Jackson listed two winners--the L.A. Clippers, who took Blake Griffin with the first overall pick, and the Orlando Magic, who did not draft anyone but who upgraded their roster by acquiring Vince Carter. Everyone calls Griffin a "can't miss" prospect but that is hyperbole; there have been players more talented than he is who did not become big stars, whether due to injuries or other factors. Griffin certainly looks like he will be a very good NBA player but no one is a "can't miss" player--particularly someone who will be starting his career in the NBA black hole known as the L.A. Clippers.
Van Gundy said that the Spurs are the big winners, because a few days ago they traded Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas to bring in Richard Jefferson. That indicates just how nondescript this draft seems to be: the winners may be teams that brought in veteran help, as opposed to teams that picked young players.
It is interesting to note that while both Jackson and Van Gundy wholeheartedly praised the Carter deal for Orlando, neither Van Gundy nor Jackson think that the O'Neal trade alone made the Cavs any better; Van Gundy rightly pointed out that the Cavs were already a championship team before making that deal and that with O'Neal clogging up the middle not only on defense but also on offense the Cavs must acquire a power forward who can spread the court by making jump shots. LeBron James likes to run pick and pop plays with Zydrunas Ilgauskas or pick and roll plays with Anderson Varejao, but Ilgauskas' minutes will obviously be slashed and Varejao will have less room to roll if O'Neal is planted in the low post demanding the ball.
For the record, here are some highlights from my previous four years of draft night coverage:
First Impressions of the 2008 NBA Draft
What I said in 2008: "Van Gundy said that the Sonics now face a 'critical decision' regarding which positions Durant and Westbrook will play. Durant played shooting guard last year. Will Westbrook take over that spot, moving Durant to small forward, or will Westbrook play point guard? I'm not sure what Westbrook's best position is but I never agreed with putting Durant in the backcourt; he needs to bulk up a bit, toughen up on the boards and play small forward, because he does not belong on the outside chasing 6-5 shooting guards around screens."
What I think now: Westbrook came on strong in the second half of the season for the Oklahoma City Thunder--the Sonics' new name--as he started all 29 games after the All-Star break. Overall, he played in all 82 games--starting 65 of them--and averaged 15.3 ppg, 5.3 apg and 4.9 rpg while playing point guard. More importantly, the Thunder fired Coach P.J. Carlesimo and his replacement Scott Brooks immediately moved Durant to small forward, producing instant dividends as Durant's scoring average (25.3 ppg) and field goal percentage (.476) both increased markedly from his rookie year numbers (20.3 and .430 respectively). The Thunder went 20-62 in 2008 and 1-12 in 2009 under Carlesimo with Durant at shooting guard and then went 22-47 the rest of the 2009 season under Brooks with Durant playing his natural small forward position.
First Impressions of the 2007 NBA Draft, Soon to be Renamed the "Paul Allen Buys Every Draft Pick Show"
What I said in 2007: "Nothing lends itself more to overanalysis and wild hyperbole than the draft (any draft, not just the NBA's). None of the draft picks has played one second of basketball at the NBA level, let alone 82 regular season games over a period of many months, so the dramatic, overblown statements and projections that are offered up by 'experts' are just that: dramatic and overblown."
What I think now: Those two sentences should be the preamble to every single article that is written right after any draft.
Thoughts on the NBA Draft (2006)
What I said in 2006: "There were so many trades going on throughout the draft that I kept waiting for Monty Hall to come out of the audience and take the microphone away from Dan Patrick. Greg Anthony was so befuddled at one point that he said, 'No comment,' as if he were being deposed under oath. Stephen A. Smith completely ripped the Portland Trail Blazers but I don't understand why he did not ask a direct question of Blazers President Steve Patterson when Patterson appeared on the telecast via satellite. Portland has clearly made some questionable moves in the past, but they got rid of undersized point guard Sebastian Telfair and obtained LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy, either of whom conceivably could turn out to be the best player in this year's draft. Portland also acquired Raef LaFrentz and Dan Dickau while shipping away Theo Ratliff and Victor Khryapa. It seems unfair and misguided for Smith to criticize these deals three seconds after they have transpired when there is a decent chance that these moves actually helped Portland. Ratliff is a quality shotblocker but Portland hardly gave up the house to get Aldridge and Roy. Smith's verbal broadsides against Portland came across as the proverbial 'shoot, ready, aim' style of analysis. Just because ESPN made a movie about Telfair does not mean that he will be a great NBA player."
What I think now: Portland fans are happy that Stephen A. Smith is not running their team; NBA fans are happy Smith is no longer a paricipant in ESPN's NBA Draft coverage.
Thoughts on the NBA Draft (2005)
What I said in 2005: "Utah...acquired the third pick from Portland and selected Illinois' Deron Williams, a poor man's Jason Kidd who seems to be the perfect fit for Jerry Sloan's system. He won't make anyone forget John Stockton (who could?) but Utah expects him to man the point guard spot for the next 10 years or so."
What I think now: I was right to praise the Williams pick and to pan the Clippers' choice of Yaroslav Korolev with the 12th pick. On the other hand, I did not even mention Chris Paul and he has turned out to be the best player from that draft so far. Atlanta's choice of Marvin Williams over Paul and Deron Williams will only haunt the Hawks for the next decade or so.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:06 AM