Essay: The First Round’s All-Disappointment Team
In the NBA playoffs, basketball heroes are given brand new birth certificates. It’s a two month period where lives change: Money is earned or lost, reputations are rearranged or firmly etched in stone, and legacies become real, almost tangible things. It’s where games matter. Where rookies like Paul George and Gary Neal can poke their heads through the soil, take a look around, and realize they belong. Where those who thought they were in the league’s mythical Supreme Court of lifetime membership are first humbled, then relegated. In the playoffs, great players don’t always come through with special performances; big shots are missed—or worse, passed up—and perceptions take 180 degree turns on a night to night basis. Here’s a group of guys from the first round who most likely wish they had a redo.
Point Guard—Russell Westbrook: His performances in the series final two games shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise to those familiar with Westbrook’s game. He’s as athletic as the league’s ever seen, but decision making isn’t exactly his strong point. Westbrook’s notorious Game 4 performance, where 30 shots were attempted for just the second time this season, was placed on a crucifix and criticized by his coach, the media, and the team’s best player/league’s most unstoppable scorer, Kevin Durant. Westbrook’s attempted fewer than 10 shots just four times all season long so it’s sort of silly for those within the organization to play with fire all year and then cry when it burns them. He’s going to shoot, and as the team’s only other reliable scoring option, you don’t want him shying away from it. But still, Westbrook plays the point guard position and he doesn’t do it all that well. Of everybody in the playoffs he’s second in total turnovers with 20, and has fewer assists than Andre Iguodala. If the Thunder want to advance all the way to the crown, they need Westbrook to supply a healthy balance of scoring (preferably on aggressive drives to the basket), getting his teammates/Durant going (Westbrook was 20% from the field during crunch time in round 1), and accepting that as good as he may be, as long as Kevin Durant’s on the same team he’ll never be the dependable star. Which is perfectly fine as long as Russell knows it.
Shooting Guard—Kobe Bryant: There have been worse performances by two guards in this postseason (Landry Fields, Rudy Fernandez, JJ Redick) but based on expectation and urgency, Kobe’s the biggest fish with the heaviest crown. His numbers weren’t awful but they weren’t otherworldly either; when discussing Kobe Bryant with the intense reverence he demands, shouldn’t they at least come close? In Game 1 Kobe took 26 shots for 34 points in a loss. With the game still somewhat in reach in the final few minutes, he unsuccessfully attempted to take on four defenders on more than one occasion. In Game 2 he went 3-10 from the field, including 0-2 from downtown, on his way to 11 points and two assists in a Laker win. Game 3 he went 10-20 with four three-pointers, six rebounds, and three steals in a commanding Laker victory. In a Game 4 loss he went 5-18 and made Willie Green look like Allen Iverson. Game 5 came with two highlight reel dunks accounting for four of his 19 points in a win, and in last night’s Game 6 series clinching romp, Kobe went 6-16 from the field. Apart from Game 5′s second quarter where Bryant proved himself to be an egomaniacal fabricator of the truth, and Game 3 as a whole (his only complete, retro Kobe performance), Kobe was disappointing on both ends of the court. Facing old teammate Trevor Ariza had surprisingly posed more of a struggle for Bryant, and the fact that he was unable to will his team on either end of the floor to making mince meat of the David West-less New Orleans Hornets creates some doubt about the defending champs ability to, well, defend anything. According to NBA’s Statscube, when Ariza and Kobe were both on the court for the series’ first four games, Bryant averaged just 21.9 points per 36 minutes on 43% shooting. Facing New Orleans in the regular season, Bryant averaged 28 points per 36 on a much more efficient 57% shooting. On the defensive end, Kobe made a valiant effort at guarding Chris Paul but failed, and his man, Trevor Ariza, shot above average from every spot on the floor except the corner three. We all know Kobe is getting up there in age, and that’s all well and fine, but for a player who was named a first team defender last year—undeservedly—New Orleans should be the final resting place for the belief that Kobe Bryant is an above average perimeter defender. Onto Dallas and a much more versatile opponent.
Small Forward—Hedo Turkoglu: It’s tough to be disappointing when a majority of fans don’t expect you to drink a cup of Gatorade without dribbling three quarters of it down your chin, but after averaging 35 minutes a game and nine points on 29% shooting, it’s safe to say Hedo Turkoglu somehow managed to let people down. Someone had to be handpicked from the Magic; they literally escorted Dwight Howard out of Orlando. Hedo’s playoff PER, three-point and true shooting percentages were a career low. Last night, when Ernie Johnson sarcastically said, “look who’s gonna hit a three” while watching a Hedo shot doing the Hawks/Magic Game 6 highlights—as if he were hyping the trailer for a new Nicholas Cage movie with an actual coherent plot—it sealed Turkoglu as the guiltiest party in Stan Van’s crew.
Power Forward—Zach Randolph…just kidding! That’d be Carlos Boozer: When I was 13-years-old, Duke’s backup center, Matt Christensen, was a guest speaker at my basketball camp. The speeches were always scheduled right before lunch which meant this guy, who could barely crack my least favorite college team’s lineup as a senior, was standing between me and seven slices of pizza. My focus waned for the first 30 minutes as he yapped on and on, repeating the “if you want to be great, eat, sleep, and drink basketball” advice that had already grown cliche to my middle school aged mind. But then, just as my stomach began to consume some spare muscle tissue, the tall man standing before me uttered words that to this day I’ve never forgotten. Here’s a paraphrasing: “Carlos was always nervous in big spots and he forgets the fundamentals. Look for his stock to drop in next week’s draft.” The statement was based on the 2002 NCAA Regional Semifinals between Indiana and Duke, which had gone down just a few months prior. It’s the game where Boozer botched a would be game winning put back on a missed Jay Williams last second free throw. (You can see it at the 12:14 mark of this clip.) Before that day I didn’t liked Boozer; something about his persona told me there was no way he’d be a great player. Nine years and two All-Star appearances later it’s impossible to say Boozer was a bust, but after watching his role of secondary scorer be usurped by Kyle Korver in the Bulls first round series against Indiana, one thing has been validated: Carlos Boozer is not someone you want to go to war with. Right now he’s averaging career playoff lows in minutes, points, rebounds, and assists. His field goal percentage clings to 36%. His stats may not be as impressive, but if you were to ask a neutral bystander watching his first NBA game who he’d rather take on his team, Tyler Hansbrough or Carlos Boozer, Hansbrough would be the logical—and MUCH cheaper—answer. If these aren’t good enough reasons, Scottie Pippen’s tired of it, too. So there.
Center—There’s no real starting center that hasn’t met his expectations or exceeded them: Dwight Howard’s averaged 78 and 56; Atlanta’s big men allowed single coverage on the perimeter (completely contrasting statement with the previous one yet both were true); Jermaine O’Neal played like he was 25, solidifying Tim Grover’s status as a god among mere mortal trainers; Kendrick Perkins played his usual solid, intimidating style of defense while assuming a role as experienced leader of a sexy champion pick (he also did a great job keeping Nene off the boards); Marc Gasol is forcing Tim Duncan into retirement; and everyone else (Spencer Hawes, Big Z, Emeka Okafor, Andrew Bynum, Ronny Turiaf, etc.) has done just about what was expected of them. My only option here is to pick on a backup, and the player most in question comes from a team that’s been utterly dominated on the inside. The culprit? DeJuan Blair. He’s on the court just 12.5 minutes a game, and his rebounding numbers are noticeably down across the board. (His defensive rebound rate, for example, is 8.7% in the playoffs, down from 23.2% in the regular season.) It’s tough to say on which end he’s caused Popovich more dismay. Offensively he’s yet to score a basket from outside the restricted area while shooting a subpar 33%. Blair’s an undersized center and there’s no doubt his spunky play has been especially integral to the Spurs successful tromp through the regular season, but against Gasol and Randolph he looks like a stump in a forest of tall trees. On defense his play has been so-so, but his playing time was handed off to the taller rookie, Tiago Splitter. I like Blair—both as a player and committed loser of unnecessary weight—but if he played up to his potential in this series the Spurs wouldn’t be staring down the barrel of one of the rarest upsets in playoff basketball.
First Guy Off The Bench—Wilson Chandler: After the Carmelo Anthony trade, the Denver Nuggets mutated into a team built on depth and balance, a contradictory unit from what they were before it. As the designer of a defensive game plan, you didn’t know from which side the attack would present itself, making your life a living hell. This was how the Nuggets beat teams: With eight guys (pretty much their entire rotation) averaging double figures they went at you from different angles and never stopped the onslaught. In their first round loss to Oklahoma City only five guys lived up to that offensive consistency we saw during the regular season, and there was no way this shopping cart could get by Kevin Durant with a defective wheel or two. That most glaring wheel was Wilson Chandler. After averaging just over 15 points since becoming a Nugget, Chandler made only eight baskets in the entire series, resorting mostly to midrange jumpers. He shot a dismal 28% and while he isn’t a star, Chandler is a versatile 23-year-old playing for a secure future. His disappearing act in the series won’t make general managers line up around the block to match his qualifying offer, and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds as a likely Nugget (or Knick?) next season.
Honorable Mention—Tony Parker: Expectations are high on Parker—among international players he’s the second highest playoff scorer of all time—so when he wanders through the first few games of a playoff series with a minor identity crisis, it’s no coincidence that the Spurs are in trouble. Before Game 5, his effective shooting percentage was the lowest its been since he was 20, his turnover percentage rested at 20% (a career high…or low depending on how you’d like to look at it), and he was only averaging 4.5 assists a game. Despite the human walls that are Gasol and Randolph, he still shot a moderately respectable 53% from the paint, but his jumper’s been way off. Of the 12 midrange shots Parker’s attempted in the first four games, only two went in. This series has been a very close one, with each game coming down to the final few plays apart from Game 4′s blowout win by Memphis; Parker hasn’t exactly been superman in these situations. In the final five minutes, with the game’s score within five points for both sides, Parker is shooting a healthily awkward 17%. Now, what you just read was written before his stellar Game 5 performance. But I can’t change everything just because Gary Neal hit the biggest shot of his life enabling Parker to flourish for an extra five minutes; for the bulk of this series Parker’s played beneath his fantastic ability. And once this gets published he’ll probably eviscerate Memphis with a 43 point bomb. You’ve gotta love playoff redemption.