Essay: What We Learned From Round One
The first round has come and gone, and thanks to a few serious injuries we’re left with an even more unpredictable mess than expected. Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, and Baron Davis splintered themselves in the most agonizing ways possible. Josh Smith, Al Horford, Ray Allen, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joakim Noah, and Caron Butler each missed at least one game, but all returned to action, forced to endure more pain than discomfort. Paul Pierce and Blake Griffin are playing through knee injuries. Chris Paul has a right hip flexor, and yesterday, in Game 1 of the second round, Chris Bosh strained an abdominal muscle, placing his availability in question.
Injuries are just a small part of the game, though. And here at Shaky Ankles, we’re moving away from the depressing, and onto six interesting things we learned over these past two weeks.
1) Andrew Bynum is not a franchise player. When he’s interested in playing the part, Andrew Bynum is one of the league’s most dominating forces. Unfortunately, he’d rather act like a spoiled child. Bynum spent the first round—and some of the regular season—sending a passive aggressive message to his teammates: If they won’t work hard enough to give him the ball, then he’s not attacking the glass or closing out on wide open shooters standing five feet away. That’s the deal.
There’s a zero percent chance this changes before these playoffs are over, and a miniscule chance he changes over the next five years. He’s big, he’s mean, and he’s gifted, but Andrew Bynum isn’t dependable; thus, he isn’t great. It’s now been recognized and identified as apart of who he is, and it makes nothing he does on the court from game to game come as a surprise. Bynum could score 40 points and grab 20 rebounds in Game 1 against the Thunder and it would shock nobody. In Game 2, he could fail to grab a single offensive rebound, attempt a half-court shot midway through the fourth quarter, then punch out Mike Brown, and who would be surprised? Nobody.
Bynum’s physical abilities are obviously there each and every night. His effort, however, is erratic and that trait alone is what separates superstars from good players. He isn’t the best or second best center in the league, nor is he the Lakers best player. When you combine him with Pau Gasol—who tends to drift both mentally and physically when he’s on the basketball court—and no capable backup to pickup the scoring/rebounding load, the result is a team hardly equipped to win an NBA title.
In my season review, I named Bynum as the league’s most enigmatic player, and it’s something I simply can’t stand behind any longer. For him to be an enigma, we’d have to wonder why he acted the way he did, and why he appears to enjoy being the bad guy. Well, there’s no reason to wonder anymore. He’s an immature man-child with a self-worth bordering on fallacy. To analyze him is a waste of time; to figure him out is no longer necessary. We know what he is, and it’s not a superstar.
2) Free agents JaVale McGee and Nick Young are ready to make more money. When the regular season ended, Nick Young and JaVale McGee were two outcasts from Washington heading into the playoffs on teams that weren’t expected to make any serious noise. The two friends were blessed with incredible physical ability, but were traded for having a combined basketball IQ that matches up reasonably well with their collective shoe size.
Now that the first round is over, both guys have set themselves up to make more money than we thought they would ever see. The recently eliminated Nuggets said they were 100% committed to re-signing McGee, and being that he’s a restricted free agent, they could make good on that promise. McGee grabbed 12 more rebounds (four of them offensive), blocked five more shots and contributed to his team outscoring the Lakers by 18 points in the 143 minutes he shared the court with Andrew Bynum during the course of their seven game series. That’s a definite sign of progress for a 24-year-old big man whose limitations lie in his brain and not in his body.
Nick Young BADLY outplayed O.J. Mayo—a fellow shooting guard headed into free agency—and performed with utter fearlessness from the three-point line, shooting a deadly 52.6% on just under three attempts per game. Both were pleasant surprises, and both will get a raise. Especially McGee.
3) Kevin Garnett‘s sustainability might decide the Eastern Conference. The Celtics will only go so far as Kevin Garnett takes them. His plus/minus numbers notwithstanding (he’s second in the playoffs behind LeBron James with a +78), Garnett is shooting 52.3% from the field, which is the highest among all players who’ve attempted at least 95 shots (a list that includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul). Offensively, Boston’s offense relies on converting mid-range jumpers, and here is where Garnett’s been golden. He’s shooting 44.6% on mid-range jumpers, and 52.2% from 20-24 feet.
His defense is something that doesn’t really need to be mentioned, but I will anyway. Garnett destroyed Josh Smith for much of the first round, and in Game 1 against Philadelphia he was a fierce presence defending both the rim and the glass. In four home games, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 21.7 points per 100 possession when Garnett is on the floor, which is astounding, and a testament to his versatile impact as both a stretch-four and one of the league’s most intimidating defenders.
4) Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer are kindred black angels of death. If someone held a knife to your throat and forced you to start a new team with either Amar’e Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer (contracts included), who would you choose? Boozer has three years and $47.1 million left on his deal, and Amar’e has three years (with a $23.4 million player option on the final year) and $65.04 million left on his, including the player option. After the Bulls were eliminated by Philadelphia, Boozer was quoted as basically saying that winning the division and finishing with the best record shows how good they are, and that a championship would just be icing on the cake, while Stoudemire smashed his left hand on some glass after the Knicks fell in Game 2 against the Heat, nearly ending his career. Neither can play defense, and neither comes close to being good enough to carry an offense for even a quarter’s time.
If you’d rather the knife, nobody would blame you.
5) James Harden has no ceiling. James Harden‘s efficiency might be the most impressive individual effort we’re witnessing in these playoffs. In the first round he averaged 18.3 points on exactly 10 shots per game, giving him a too-good-to-be-possible true shooting percentage of 68%, higher than power forward Serge Ibaka (for the record, Harden also grabbed more defensive rebounds than Ibaka). He maximizes every minute on the court and is currently leading the Thunder with a plus/minus of +48.
When Harden was off the floor, the Thunder averaged 94.5 points per 100 possessions, which was the lowest on/off figure for everyone on Oklahoma City’s roster. He knocks down three-pointers with more accuracy than Kevin Durant, gets to the line as effectively as anyone in the league (and makes just about every shot), and no knock on Westbrook, who I believe is one of the four most dangerous point guards in the league right now, but Harden is the best player on his team at visibly making teammates better. He understands how to run a pick and roll, and at 22-years-old, shows the type of patience that assures there’ll be no action until the right decision is available.
Because of his spot on the bench and the fact that he’s left-handed and unorthodox, Harden’s most popular player comparison is Manu Ginobili, a future Hall of Famer. But after watching Harden destroy the defending champions in the first round, his future may be even brighter. What I’m about to say might not be popular, but if he continues on this path, I think Harden could have a better career than Dwyane Wade. Of course, this means Harden will have to be the best player on a champion. He’ll have to be a consistent fourth quarter option, a perennial All-Star, and a top-five two-way player for at least three consecutive years. I understand all these things, and believe them to be possible.
A lot of this depends on what the Thunder choose to do after next season when he becomes a restricted free agent. There’s no doubt he gets a max offer, and if he follows the money outside of Oklahoma City into a less favorable situation, who knows what could happen. The bottom line here is this: Harden’s first round success raises his ceiling even higher than it was before. For Thunder GM Sam Presti, the situation is ironic.
6) Andre Miller is one of the 10 best point guards of all time. Probably not, but ever since Nuggets head coach George Karl declared this as a fact on national television, I’ve been dying to lay out a personal opinion. Here’s what I wrote the morning after Game 6.
As the league continues to further infest itself with more and more dynamic little men each and every year, a semi-important question stares us in the face more and more each day: How do you measure the success of a point guard? What criteria should be used? When we look at the pool today, is the best player the most excellent overall athlete who happens to be stationed at that position, or the one who best represents all the things a point guard is supposed to do (in the following order: get others involved, make an offense hum, control the pace, and catch the defense napping with the occasional easy bucket)? The two are very different things, and how you’d rank Russell Westbrook and Steve Nash depends on which one you prefer to go with.
Karl is a smart, well-respected coach—Shaq deemed him “a legend” on Inside the NBA after Game 6—so when he says something like this it can’t be dismissed. But is it true? And going back to the previous question about how we rank point guards, how do we do it? Kevin Johnson‘s best was better than Miller’s, but Miller is the better “true” point guard. Making a top 10 at this position is unlike any other. Every great center scores, grabs rebounds, and blocks shots. There’s no difficulty measuring them against one another. Shooting guards shoot and score. Point guards rack up assists, but depending on their individual situation, their role could have their team needing them to score more than distribute, (as it is with Westbrook, Tony Parker, and Derrick Rose) making it nearly impossible to rank them.
Right now Miller is 10th all-time in assists, so if that’s the primary metric you’re using then obviously it isn’t crazy to say he’s one of the 10 best to ever do it. But then you look and see that he has a lower career assist percentage than Stephon Marbury, and a lower career assists per game average than Baron Davis (RIP). Those two stats could cripple any argument claiming Miller to be an all-timer, but old school coaches like George Karl don’t seem like the type to overly obsess on the power of statistics. The debate rages on.