Power Ranking Week 2: Optimism vs. Pessimism
I liked the whole “optimism vs. pessimism” idea so much in the inaugural Power Ranking that I’ve decided to stick with it this week.
Top 8 Cases of Optimism:
8) Jodie Meeks. When people talk about Philadelphia, they rarely discuss any individual parts, which is super strange for an NBA team. Right now Meeks is one of their five starters, excelling at a skill shooting guards need to be good at (knocking down 40% of his threes). He is a mature 24-year-old who’s already found his role (75% of his shots come from behind the three-point line), doesn’t turn the ball over, and is helping his team to 1.07 PPP when he’s on the floor. If the Sixers begin to shake once the Eastern Conference’s mighty winds blow out of Chicago, Miami, and possibly Boston, there’s a great chance Meeks won’t be the reason why.
7) Ivan Johnson. Is he Al Horford? Nope. Does he get to the line a respectable amount, play alright defense, and hustle like hell? Yes. Is he mildly insane? Probably. Should he be on medication? Definitely. Do black people named Ivan hold a special place in my heart? From time to time, they do.
6) Rudy Gay’s All-Star chances. Here are some likely contenders to play forward in the 2012 All-Star game: LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Kevin Durant. Five of them are power forwards, with Durant the lone man at the three. After that where do you go? Gerald Wallace? I don’t think so. Rudy Gay is the second best player at his position in his conference right now, gaining steam as the season progresses. Over his last four games he’s averaging 21.3 points, 5 rebounds, just under 2 steals, and approximately 18 dunks a night. According to CBS Sportsline’s Dunk-O-Meter, he’s slammed the ball through the rim more times than DeAndre Jordan, Andrew Bynum, and LeBron James (Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee are the only ones with more). Gay is exciting, dynamic, and fun; All-Star games were made for legs like his.
5) Kyle Lowry’s stock. Today, as I write this, Kyle Lowry is the second best point guard in the Western Conference. The way he’s active on both ends of the court, running fast breaks with brilliant decision-making, knocking down 40% of his threes (and what feels like 90% from 26 feet), leading all point guards in rebounds and convincing television viewers he’s duplicated his own image with a futuristic hologram, he’s Rajon Rondo with a deadly shot. In my life as a basketball viewer, I can’t recall a player improving his game each and every year, so late in his career, as Lowry has been doing since he joined the Rockets. He’s doubled his scoring, rebounds, and assists per game in two years. That’s incomprehensible. Right now he’s averaging more assists than Chris Paul and Deron Williams, and he’s shadowing opposing point guards every night with two steals per game of unreal consistency. For a Rockets team that’s been cultivating its homegrown talent in search of dealing a small package for one superstar, they may already have something brewing beneath their nose. If his game continues to escalate on its current track, by the time he’s 30 Lowry will average 30 points, 16 assists, and 12 rebounds a game. Can’t wait.
4) Chris Paul’s impact on the pick and roll. When the Clippers run a pick and roll and have their ball handler finish the play, they’re averaging .94 PPP, which is good for first in the league. Last year they were 17th in the league with .81 PPP. They utilize the pick and roll 13% of the time this year and 13% last year. The only question is, why aren’t they doing it more? The answer might come from Chauncey Billups’ continued persistence to shoot terrible three-pointers early in the shot clock, but once that settles itself down the Clippers should continue on having Chris Paul run circles around opposing defenses, forcing them to pick a poison.
3) Daryl Morey’s skill as an evaluator for second round talent. The Houston Rockets have been able to pluck diamonds from second round sewage as well as anyone these last few seasons. First it was Chase Budinger, an uber-athletic beach boy from the University of Arizona, and the latest miracle work has been this year’s Chandler Parsons, another high flying, versatile, murderer of lazy box-outs. Where most other management teams see pointless meandering after their first round pick, Morey and his staff set their collective vision into the future and pluck pieces with intentions of making them cheap parts of their rotation. It’s an incredible skill nobody else has been able to replicate. That, or it’s all just a bunch of luck.
2) John Wall awakens from his slumber. The man we’re all waiting to see eclipse even our wildest expectations is finally beginning to set the wheels in motion. Over his last four games, John Wall is averaging 23.8 points, 8.8 assists, and 7.8 rebounds. Against Houston on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he was a breathtaking marvel of blurriness, going up and down the court, picking pockets, finishing at the rim, knocking down jumpers, and for the first time all season looking like a leader who took winning seriously. It was the type of performance where one player truly looked unstoppable; hopefully there are many more before this season’s over.
1) LeBron winning his third MVP award. Before exploding against the Spurs on Tuesday night, then obliterating Los Angeles on Thursday, Tom Haberstroh of the Heat Index tweeted that LeBron’s PER without Dwyane Wade in the lineup has been 38.3 this season. For reference, the highest PER for a season in NBA history is Wilt Chamberlain’s 31.84 in 1963. So yea, LeBron is basically defying all the laws of life we once thought to be fact. With Wade out for the foreseeable future, LeBron is playing with more freedom (hat tip to Tim Legler’s thoughts from last week’s NBA Today podcast), not worrying about pleasing Wade or allowing him the necessary shots he’s used to taking. Judging who LeBron James is as a ticking human being off the court is trivial for 99.99% of the people who do it. Judging who he is as a basketball player is not. Simply put, he’s the best.
Top 8 Cases of Pessimism:
8) The Dwight Howard for Blake Griffin trade rumors. If the Los Angeles Clippers trade Blake Griffin—a marketable superstar with unimaginable upside, likeability, and talent—they deserve whatever awful happens to them. The whole philosophy around this type of trade stinks, and I almost feel as if a rule should be put in place to stop it from happening, not that it will. No. 1 overall picks who play up to their potential aren’t meant to be leveraged for greener grass that’s only going to die sooner. Griffin’s flaws are many, but so are his gifts, and for the Clippers to throw their team-building strategy out the window just to sell their soul for a different superstar would be ludicrous. Is Howard better than Griffin? Undoubtedly, yes. No question about it. But nobody likes watching the rich get richer. Swinging a deal like this would turn the Clippers into the Western Conference’s Miami Heat, and turn DeAndre Jordan’s contract into a monstrous anchor.
7) The Celtics trading Paul Pierce. Forget about loyalty and tradition for a moment. There are too many reasons why this makes no sense from a pure basketball related viewpoint. Why would Boston deal Pierce? Because they’ve given up on this season, not even a third of the way in? Because they want to expedite the team’s Big 3 age to the era of Rondo and another superstar? No and no. The Celtics future is as unclear as any team in basketball. Right now they’re banking on luscious cap space, multiple draft picks, and the rapid development of their own young players to, for lack of a better word, organically bridge this great team with one of the future; in all probability there will be a big step back before a leap towards 2008-10-like success can occur. Unless the Boston Celtics are presented with a young shot creator who promises to reach multiple All-Star games down the line of his promising career, and some high draft picks, there is no chance they deal Paul Pierce.
6) JaVale McGee’s career. Basically, JaVale McGee is a waste. A waste of once-in-a-generation physical gifts. A waste of incomparable defensive potential. Before long, if not already, he’ll be seen as a waste of a draft pick. A waste of a starter’s spot. After talking all offseason about working on his inside game and turning no discernible offensive weaponry into one or two go-to moves, this season he’s shooting 38.6% in the post. When he’s down there, McGee is three times as likely to turn the ball over as he is to draw a shooting foul, according to Synergy. That’s exactly what you don’t want to see from your 24-year-old franchise center. McGee has the longest arms, the greatest leaping ability, and the smallest brain. If the Wizards have any intention of keeping John Wall around for the majority of his career, they best not make a bad situation worse by extending McGee’s contract or resigning him in the offseason. Letting someone who has no limitations walk would be a tough pill to swallow, but keep him around and you may choke to death.
5) Offering max contracts to the class of 2008. I’m not sure this belongs in the pessimism category so much as it’s its own nebulous entity. Right now several debates are raging as to which players should be given max deals and which should not. Earlier this week, Russell Westbrook signed a five-year, $80 million deal. Rumors are swirling around what Minnesota will do with Kevin Love. The Nuggets, Nets, Pacers, Hornets, and Wizards all have HUGE decisions to make as to whether they want to lock up their important young pieces or roll the dice and let them hit restricted free agency. Bidding against oneself is never fun unless you have a sure thing on your hands, and with all these guys being so young, barely scraping the ceilings of their potential, it’s a risky move to max one of them out and basically bet the farm that one day he’ll lead you to the promise land. There’s no concrete formula a general manager can follow because there’s so much to evaluate with each and every player. If you’re Minnesota, a small market team with multiple young pieces in their early stages of development, do you throw as much money as you can at Love, an exceptional rebounding talent who lacks the physical ability to ever be a stout post-defender? Or do you offer him less, knowing that as a small market team you’ll still need room in your salary cap to keep Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams around once they blossom? If you’re David Khan this isn’t an enviable position.
4) Derrick Rose’s injury. As these words are being typed, Derrick Rose is wearing a walking boot. He’s feeling regret about playing through the type of toe injury that doesn’t just disappear overnight. This season the Bulls are averaging about 6 fewer points per 100 possessions when Rose isn’t on the floor, and unlike the Heat’s situation with Dwyane Wade, he’s the only scoring option the team has when they absolutely need a basket. Rose’s injury presents myriad of problems for the Bulls need of home court throughout the playoffs, and it’ll be interesting to see if any pressure is added to get him back before he’s ready one too many times.
3) Dwyane Wade’s ankle. For two weeks in a row, the same player remains hobbled in the league’s valley of pessimism. Wade’s ankle sprain—which looked like the type that could linger for weeks—is a HUGE blow for the value of a player who relies on slashing ability as his greatest strength. I’m not ready to say Miami could not win a championship without Wade this season because we’ve seen LeBron James do miraculous things in the past when surrounded with a who’s who of coattail riders, but it doesn’t make anything easier. Wade’s injury hurts this team in the long term. If his explosive abilities are stripped, and there’s no more lift at the rim (on both ends) then what good is he? Wade isn’t paid to facilitate offense, take charges, or knock down threes. He’s there to create his own shot when Miami’s offense grows stale, to single-handedly take away an opposing team’s first or second offensive option and contest shots at the rim. If the Heat are forced to adjust their up-tempo style to fit Wade’s injury fueled regression, the whole Miami experiment will go up in flames.
2) Kobe Bryant’s 40 point outbursts. Kobe is averaging 9.7 shots from 16-23 feet per game and hitting 48% of them. Some of his biggest games this season came against Raja Bell and Grant Hill. Those might be the only players in the league older than him. Instead of incorporating the two Lakers which give his team their true matchup advantage, Bryant chooses to be his stubborn self, riding an unsustainable wave of good fortune. His usage rate is at an ungodly 40% right now, making his coach uncomfortable and his offense a soggy bowl of oatmeal when the shot isn’t falling. Defenses will happily continue to allow Kobe Bryant his space to shoot jumpers with hopes that he won’t make every one. All these scoring outbursts mean is Bynum and Gasol aren’t getting the touches they should; the three-headed monster is a more difficult one to kill. But this is something Kobe Bryant will never understand.
1) Kevin Garnett. Watching one of the 20 greatest basketball players in NBA history plummet like a 12-6 curveball in super slow motion is not fun. It’s painful. Garnett’s mantra for his career has been insanely intense defense, and this season it’s nowhere to be found. He’s giving up .92 PPP, good for 242nd in the league, according to Synergy. Opponents are shooting 64.3% on him in isolation, and 47.1% in the post. For Celtics fans, this is like watching a different version of The Sandlot, where in the end, Hercules rips each boy’s throat out one by one and they never get Denis Leary’s ball back. There’s no happiness, just a sad finality. Kevin Garnett says he wants to play beyond this season, and who’s to say he can’t? But seeing him start for a desperate loser or come off the bench on a borderline contender would be too much to bear. Beyond knocking down mid-range jumpers and possessing unquenchable desire that will eventually force his body to shriek in pain long after he’s retired, the Kevin Garnett we’ve come to know is gone forever.