Let me begin by saying, in full disclosure, that I dislike Kobe Bryant. I’ve never enjoyed his on and off the court ego driven antics, admired the way he treats people, or thought this was cool. What is indisputable about the man, however, is his uncanny offensive ability. Kobe Bryant will go down as either the greatest or second greatest player of the past decade. The evolvement of his game is comparable to Jordan, in the way he’s made us think transforming your offensive strategy to accommodate your body’s limitations is easy, is beyond impressive. He’s a tireless worker, top 10 all-time competitor, and virtually complete scoring talent, but does his offensive monopolization really help? One significant criticism that’s followed him throughout his career (specifically the post-Shaq, pre-Gasol years) is the way he holds onto the ball with a black hole level of self-seeking dominance. A microcosm of how spectacular and mind blowing his skills are can be encapsulated on January 22, 2006, when Bryant dropped an unforgettable 81 points on Toronto.
Equally astounding about this performance is the two assist tally. Two. Assists. In his 48 starts this season he’s recorded four or fewer assists 26 times, including yesterday’s 0 assist, 41 point performance in a loss to Boston. While nobody in Laker purple dared chastise Bryant publicly after the game for his blatant lack of recognizing he has four teammates on the court with him at all times, don’t let the game’s basic principles fall on deaf ears. Basketball is a team game that values passing as much as shooting. Comparing Bryant’s performance to Paul Pierce (who finished with 32 points on 11 fewer shots), one’s brilliance came naturally within the flow of the game while the other’s looked like a chunk of metal being forced down a garbage disposal. Pierce got his looks several different ways: back cutting Luke Walton for an easy layup, playing the inside outside game with Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett for wide open three pointers, and when isolated with Ron Artest, making quick one or two dribble moves before getting his shot off. To contrast, Kobe would bring the ball up the court, drive into the teeth of Boston’s defense on an isolation play, and either make an extremely difficult shot look easy, or make an extremely difficult shot look extremely difficult. There was never involvement of any teammates (Kobe once took 15 straight shots during a late game stretch) and as the Celtics started to pull away, all Bryant could do was go one on five while every other Laker stood by, out of rhythm, and incapable of contributing.
Here, courtesy of Rob Mahoney at Off The Dribble, is a clip of what I’m talking about:
Here’s J.A. Adande’s take:
The new standard the Celtics have established that the Lakers haven’t reached is in the decidedly less physical but more aesthetically pleasing category of teamwork.
“When we play together as a team,” said Paul Pierce, who led the Celtics with 32 points, “we’re tough to beat.”
There was none of that from the Lakers, with Kobe Bryant taking as many shots as the Lakers’ entire starting frontcourt. Even though Bryant was more efficient than usual — he made 11 of his first 18 shots and 16 of 29 on his way to 41 points — the Lakers still couldn’t hang with Boston. Bryant’s offensive outburst caused his teammates to check out and stop participating in their sets.
On one first-half play, Lamar Odom remained in the corner while Bryant brought the ball upcourt, Odom not bothering to prepare for a pass he knew would never come (it didn’t). On a second-half set, with Bryant on the wing and a low-post spot there for the taking, neither Odom nor Pau Gasol bothered to occupy it, as they both stood near the top of the key.
While this performance isn’t a surprise to anybody who’s followed Kobe’s career, it still never seises to amaze how someone so unstoppable can be a detriment to their team’s chances of victory. This isn’t to say something ridiculous like L.A. is better without him, or to completely overreact at yesterday’s 0 assist game (Kobe’s first of the year), but to watch a player who can do whatever he wants on a basketball court decide passing the ball isn’t necessary—in one of the season’s biggest games—is perplexing.
In honor of today’s much anticipated (possible) NBA finals preview, here’s one of the most memorable blow bys in championship history. Not defense’s finest moment.
In honor of yesterday’s Mr. Ellis All-Star selection by Shaky Ankles, today we have him embarrassing Lamar Odom on many a different level.
If you saw last night’s special on TNT, you witnessed an all-time intense All-Star debate between Kenny Smith and Chris Webber. The subject, more or less, was this: Much like the annual MVP debate—what specific criteria makes one player more valuable than another—it seems people are having a difficult time describing what constitutes an All-Star. Smith is on the side of rewarding good players who contribute on winning teams, while Webber and Charles Barkley believe All-Star games are made to showcase the best players, and the best way to gauge that is by looking at individual statistics. Neither side is right nor wrong. All-Star invitations should be made on a case by case, player by player basis; when you surround an argument with hypothetical points you’re going to run in circles more times than not. ”Does Lamar Odom deserve to make the team because he’s the third best player on a championship contender?” is a debatable question. “Would Odom lead the league in double doubles if he played for a losing team like Minnesota?” is not. Yes, it’s true that players on poor teams have more opportunities to dabble with impressive statistics than those who compete within the framework of teamwork and sacrifice, but as goes the case by case, player by player motto, just look at Kevin Love’s numbers! You’d have to be crazy not to vote for him. I’m talking John Malkovich “In the Line of Fire” crazy. It just seems incomprehensible how someone who dominates one of the most important aspects of his sport can’t be an All-Star. Now without further ado, here’s who I believe are the Western Conference All-Star reserves.
First Guard: Manu Ginobili. At 39-7, the Spurs have not only paced the entire league through their first 46 games, but their rejuvenated, up tempo offensive philosophy (up to third in offensive rating from last season’s ninth) has been the biggest surprise. And the number one reason for it is a healthy Manu Ginobili. He leads the team in points (18.7), three pointers (just over two a game—he also leads the league in attempts with 280), free throw attempts (just under six), and steals (just under two). If there were a section in the Hall of Fame devoted to the craftiest players in league history, Ginobili’s bust would greet visitors at the door. The way he maneuvers into the lane with such ease is almost cheating, like a caged mouse who somehow got his hands on the maze’s blueprint. Ginobili is a perfect example of a player whose stats could be borderline astronomical if he were a dim light on a crummy team, but instead he understands the importance of the extra pass. After all this time, and all the mileage on his thought to be busted ankles, Manu Ginobili is averaging more minutes per game than he ever has in his career. That’s why he’s worthy.
Second Guard: Deron Williams. Utah is falling apart. It’s clear, it’s obvious, it’s sad. A recent article by John Hollinger cites their point guard as being far from why. Williams is slowly becoming one of those players who fans take for granted, yet right now he’s on pace to average career highs in points, minutes played, and shots taken. Thanks to Al Jefferson’s fitting into Utah’s offense like Keith Olbermann at a Tea Party rally, Williams has had more responsibility placed on his shoulders than ever before. (He’s led his team in scoring just once in his career, two years ago when Carlos Boozer only played in 37 games due to injury; this year will be the second.) Or, to make an open and shut case, you can just say Williams is averaging 22 points and nine assists per game.
First Forward: Dirk Nowitzki. Before he had that awkward leg injury, Dirk was the hands down leading MVP candidate—the team is 28-8 in games he’s played in. Nowitzki is a high volume jump shooter who is shooting a ridiculous 51 percent from the field, which happens to be a career best. I’ve never been a huge Nowitzki fan, but I will admit his career has either been transcendental or one in a billion. Those are both meant as compliments. I don’t know what else to say except he’s been an All-Star every season since 2002, and right now he’s shooting as well as ever.
Second Forward: Kevin Love. We covered him a little bit at the top. For whatever reason he’s one of the most controversial All-Star choices in recent memory. No offense to NBA fans across the country, but how on earth did Luis Scola get more votes than this guy? He leads the NBA in offensive, defensive, and total rebounds (15.7 per game!). He’s averaging 45 percent from beyond the arc while making exactly three a game. He’s had eight games with 20 or more rebounds and 29 of his 45 starts have resulted in at least 15. He already has 40 double doubles and is a 20 point per game scorer. Yes, his team has 10 wins but no, Love isn’t to blame—he’s fourth in the entire league in win shares, which estimates the number of wins contributed by a player. I’ve been a little back and forth on this over the past several weeks, but as of now my opinion is etched in cement: If Love isn’t an All-Star, nobody is.
Center: Pau Gasol. He’s placed here despite being listed as a forward on the ballot because every other option at center (besides maybe Nene) is a complete and utter joke. At the age of 30 and in his prime, Gasol is having a typical season for him: 19 points, 11 boards, two blocks. And with a 33-13 record and league leading offensive rating, so are the Lakers. Gasol is second in the league in win shares; he leads L.A. in blocks per game, minutes (37), and rebounds. With the incredible options we have at the forward position out west this year, Gasol fitting in at center will help assuage a few of the arguments.
First Wild Card: Blake Griffin. If you had to say, as a casual basketball fan, who the most exciting player in the NBA was, a highlight reel of Blake Griffin elevating over the New York Knicks in an earth shattering 44 point performance would pop into your head. Hands down, man down. Griffin is averaging 23 points (on 52 percent shooting) and 13 rebounds a night, while registering a jaw dropping 392 free throw attempts through the first 45 games of his career. That’s more than LeBron and Wade. The league didn’t have time to put Griffin on their radar; from day one they were in his bomb shelter. As long as he stays healthy, the guaranteed Rookie of the Year will see the All-Star game his entire career.
Second Wild Card: Monta Ellis. Without a doubt the most vexing choice I’ve made so far, but hear it out. Monta Ellis has played over 40 minutes 29 times this season (he leads the league in minutes), and in his 45 starts—with more bumps and bruises than the average prolific scorer—he’s posted at least 20 points 35 times. If being an All-Star is all about individual success, how can a case be made against Ellis? He’s tied with LeBron James at 25.8 points per game for third in the league (more than Dwyane Wade), he’s made 32 more shots than Kobe Bryant, and he’s third in steals while defending a bigger two guard each and every night. On top of all these numbers, the 6’3″ Ellis is one of the most effortless scorers in the league. He gets into the lane with an uncanny ease—he attempts five shots at the rim per game, tied for second among shooting guards—and to top it all off, Ellis is really fun to watch. Doesn’t that count for something?
Here’s Mr. Pierce for the second straight day. As tough a man as he is, Paul had to leave the game in Portland last night with a bruised right knee, but in all likelihood he won’t miss any action.
Of North America’s four major sport leagues, no All-Star game is more widely anticipated, talked about, attended, or, frankly, marvelous than basketball’s. With the dunk contest’s reemergence as something worth a decent conversation, this year’s megaton bomb of a location (star studded Los Angeles for the first time since 2004), and, if I had a final decision, the overall level of talent level would boast at least eight living, breathing first ballot Hall of Fame inductees.
Tonight at 7 pm on TNT, the NBA’s 2010-11 All-Star starters will be revealed. Unfortunately, thanks to fan voting updates, there isn’t any suspense, much less speculation, about which 10 players will be on the court for Feb. 20′s inaugural tip. But on Feb. 3, TNT will fill out each side’s lineup with 14 players who the league’s coaches have decided are most worthy. This is the one worth watching. It’s centralized league discussion for months and will be analyzed this way and dissected another. How will the Western Conference deal with their backload of talented and deserving forwards? Will Kevin Love make it, appeasing high school basketball coaches and the pro-fundamental crowd? Will Blake Griffin make it, appeasing everyone else? How about LaMarcus Aldridge and his under wraps MVP worthy first half? Will Tim Duncan make it lucky number 13? And for that matter, how many players on the league’s best team (record wise) will receive the due honors that come with winning the most basketball games? Can five Boston Celtics fill out the Eastern Conference’s seven bench spots? (It’s technically possible.) Does Raymond Felton make the Most Improved Player award discussion a bit more lively by putting a first nod on his resume? Will all the centers be ignored?
These questions are answerless, but they capture in a nutshell why everything that surrounds the All-Star game is more fun than the actual contest. All the hoopla and hype, the incessant debates in barbershops, bars, and sidelines of a pickup game, all the talk is what makes All-Star weekend, in my opinion, the most special exhibition event in the world. So without further ado, today I’ll be writing who I think should round out the Eastern Conference’s squad. Tomorrow I’ll do the West.
First let’s get the likely starters out of the way. These 10 players, with the exception of the West’s center, are the current fan vote leaders.
East: PG-Derrick Rose, SG-Dwyane Wade, SF-LeBron James, PF-Amare Stoudemire, C-Dwight Howard
West: PG-Chris Paul, SG-Kobe Bryant, SF-Carmelo Anthony, PF-Kevin Durant, C-Tim Duncan (Replacing the injured Yao Ming)
There should be no real beef with anything selected here—besides Rose starting over Rondo, which defines nitpicking, but in an All-Star atmosphere, the league’s best passer might make for a more entertaining floor general. Regardless, 60 percent of these starters will end up in the Hall someday; three of the 10 being first ballots even if they e-mailed their retirement papers today. Now finally, onto the backups…
First Guard: Rajon Rondo. In full disclosure, he’s my favorite player. So far this season he’s cut the head off of the chicken or egg argument about whether it’s Rondo who makes the Big Three go or the Big Three who make Rondo’s crazy assist numbers look easy. It’s clear he’s lengthening the other four starter’s careers (especially Shaq and Pierce) with impeccable vision, an uncanny ability to handle the ball and control the game’s offensive and defensive tempo, and more raw athleticm than any point guard in the league. Rondo’s attitude on the court is one that screams “I’m the greatest!” and his league leading 12.9 assists per game proves it. Also, despite the general public continuing to believe Rondo can’t shoot, he can. I’m serious. From 16-23 feet, he’s 46 percent from the field. Same as Deron Williams and Steve Nash, who surprisingly attempt just 0.3 more shots from that distance per game than Rondo. No mention of free throws here! It’s all love!
Second Guard: Ray Allen. The chapter of Ray Allen’s career where he’s able to create his own shots and get where he wants dribbling the basketball are over. Finito. But at 36, he’s arguably shooting the ball better than ever before. Allen’s true shooting percentage (63), field goal percentage (51), and three-point percentage (45) are all career highs (by the time All-Star weekend rolls around, he’ll have passed Reggie Miller as the NBA’s all-time leader in three pointers made) and after watching him run circles around guys 10 years younger, 36 minutes a night through 44 games—he’s yet to sit one out—it’s astonishing to think how much longer Ray Allen can play professional basketball at such a high level.
First Forward: Kevin Garnett. In a late January regular season loss to Orlando last season, then Magic starter Rashard Lewis took an inbound from the wing to the basket, making Kevin Garnett look like a rusty screen door, laying in the winning bucket with 1.3 seconds left. It was like watching a Roman gladiator refuse to leave the battfield even though his right leg is dangling from his hip by a thread. But imagine if that Roman gladiator had access to the finest in modern medicine, arthroscopic surgery, and months of mental and physical rehabilitation to avenge the most painful loss of his life (Game 7). This is roughly what that would translate to:
He’s playing the same fiery defense he put on display in 2007-08 while continuing on as one of the best shooting forwards in the game. Kevin Garnett is an indisputable lock at this spot.
Second Forward: Paul Pierce. Noticing a pattern? The Boston Celtics are the Eastern Conference’s best team and they’ve been playing without their starting center. While the previous three players are irreplaceable in what they do to make Boston’s system thrive, Paul Pierce is arguably the most important piece. I won’t go into too much detail right now because (SPOILER ALERT!!) I’m putting a little mid-season MVP list together, but speaking as someone who has watched a vast majority of games Paul Pierce has played in, this season has to be one of his most impressive. He still has an ability to average 25-28 points per game—if he really wanted to ruin Boston’s flow—and at 33, he remains near the top in terms of players who can’t be guarded one on one. His name still gets lost in the national stage’s shuffle, but he’s right there with the best of them at getting the shot he wants when the clock’s winding down.
Center: Shaqu—just joking!—Al Horford. The definition of a key asset. He’s the best mid-range shooting center in the game and it’s not even close (including Bargnani) and even though he plays undersized at the five every night, Horford is a solid low post defender and has notched 22 doubles, nine of them with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. He also plays through injury and at only 24 is one of the league’s more determined competitors. Now, here are two hypotheticals for you. If Horford and former Gator teammate Joakim Noah were to switch teams at the beginning of the season, would that have changed LeBron’s mind about joining Rose in Chicago? I don’t think it would, but it’s an interesting question. And number two, would the Bulls pull the plug or the trigger on a deal involving Carmelo if they had Horford to give up instead of Noah? Here, I think they would’ve made the deal.
First Wild Card: Chris Bosh. After one of the best seasons of his career, Chris Bosh is statistically having one of his worst, but that was to be expected—did you know he’s playing with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade now?!? He’s posted 15 double doubles in 42 starts compared to 49 in 70 last season. Bosh’s rebounds, points, and minutes are slightly down, but surprisingly, he’s only taking two fewer shots per game. I’ve never been a Chris Bosh guy. Maybe it’s his physical ineptitude on defense (in exactly half of his games this season, Bosh has logged either one or two fouls) or just the overall flair to what could be a more imposing post presence. Or maybe this is why. Either way, he’s averaging 19 and eight and plays for the most talked about team in the league, so he’s in.
Second Wild Card: Raymond Felton. While people talk about what a great job Felton’s done making Amare forget about Steve Nashty, I say look at what a poor job Charlotte did giving this guy an opportunity to run a successful team. Grabbing Amare Stoudemire isn’t exactly picking up Oreos from the supermarket, but Felton only had two 20 point per game scorers during his five years in Charlotte: Jason Richardson in 2007-08 and Stephen Jackson last year. Statistics aside, because we all know the inflation that comes with the system he’s in, Raymond’s been steady for the Knicks, with a few cold streaks mixed into some dreamy performances (the 20 point, 12 assist, five steal Christmas Day showdown against Derrick Rose comes to mind). He’s shooting the ball more, and better, than he ever has in his career, all while serving as his team’s number two offensive option. Felton hasn’t been spectacular this year, but he’s been overachieving under the bright lights. Sometimes that’s enough to get your first All-Star invite.
And with that, tomorrow comes the West.
In preparation for Sunday’s NBA Finals rematch, here’s Paul Pierce imposing his will on no ordinary defender. This is Ron Artest we’re talking about. The mystical, impenetrable defensive beast in the flesh! Or something like that.
In today’s San Jose Mercury News, Warriors beat man Tim Kawakami continues to push a shrewd trade possibility involving Steph Curry. However inane it might be, the move has now been discussed in such detail as to catch the attention of Curry himself.
How serious is the Stephen Curry trade chatter, really? Is moving him for Nene or Chris Kaman or Tyson Chandler, as crazy as it sounds? I realize there’s new ownership in place, but trading a young, dexterous, possible franchise talent like Curry for a borderline All-Star big man—when last year, Amare Stoudemire was rumored to be in your grasp at the same price—would probably cause riots in the Bay Area.
Last night the Utah Jazz were scheduled to play basketball at the Staples Center. Whether or not what went down from 10:30-1 am in that building can be constituted as that is still up for debate, but what we do know, after the Laker lead ballooned to 587 points midway through the third quarter, is that Salt Lake City’s only professional sports team is depressing. The Jazz are currently on a five game losing streak that includes losses at Washington, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. Embarrassing. (Their other two losses were the previously mentioned beat down in Los Angeles and an equally brutal shellacking by the Boston Celtics.) Utah has tried reshaping their starting lineup by moving Gordon Hayward, C.J. Miles, and Andrei Kirilenko in and out of the starting lineup, and despite having only three of their losses before this recent streak come at the hands of sub-.500 teams, they look panicked, impotent, and deplorable.
I’m not one to overreact after a few regular season losses, especially when they occur before February, but this team has a defeated aura surrounding them. Their best player, Deron Williams, is playing each game as if it’s a blind date with his teammates; a frustrated look on his face like he can’t understand why his friend would keep setting him up with such hideous women. He isn’t playing poorly and rarely does—in the last 14 days Williams is averaging 20 points and 10 assists per game—but Williams has politely declined converting himself into the leader of this redesigned Utah team, something he absolutely needs to do in order to win. Out went Carlos Boozer, in came Al Jefferson (and Paul Millsap as a full-time starter). Out went Wesley Matthews, in came Gordon Hayward. Through 45 games the Jazz are the least motivated 27-18 team in recent memory—under Jerry Sloan, nonetheless—with a roster that’s isn’t working towards any semblance of cohesive teamwork.
Williams looks unhappy. Inside he appears to be dissatisfied and cranky and furious; if the Jazz are eliminated in the first round or fail to make the playoffs, Deron Williams will follow in the footsteps of fellow superstars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul in making slightly indistinct trade demands for an extended period of time. (And in the process give Utah’s beloved fan base chronic heart palpitations.) Charles Barkley, among others, has publicly stated that after two or three years of holding down the top point guard throne, Williams has been supplanted by young guns like Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. It can’t make him feel good.
So, if you’re a basketball superstar, what’s the chic thing to do when you’re unhappy and have a modestly manageable contract situation? Publicly spout that you’ve given the city all you’ve got, that no matter what your management does—short of trading for two fellow superstars and holding the franchise’s future for ransom—winning just isn’t in the cards and it isn’t your fault. Then, when nobody’s looking, demand a trade! Deron Williams has the right to pass up $17.7 million and opt out of Utah after next season. Should he choose to do this, Williams could join Dwight Howard and Chris Paul should those two choose to opt out of their contracts as well. Utah is George Costanza picking up a dinner tab when it comes to signing big money free agents, so from where it stands their chances of keeping him are unlikely. I don’t picture him being the 2011-12 Carmelo Anthony, dominating headlines with perpetual nonsense, but then again that’s the nature of the beast. The national media on trade rumors can often have the same effect as a hungry bear on an unguarded camp site. Irrational and out of control when staring at a slab of raw meat.
All in all, the Utah Jazz can still turn their season around, but unfortunately they can’t win a championship, and won’t be built for one, through the rest of Deron Williams’ contract. This stretch the Jazz are going through right now will be the period people retrospectively look back on as the end of an era. Super sad.
While I was very tempted to go with Youtube’s “Stephon Marbury eats vaseline” search suggestion, this vintage cross up of Kobe is too good to pass on.