Show of Hands is a feature involving you (the loyal reader) and your valuable opinion. From time to time, questions will be raised in an effort to explore the many various topics our beloved NBA has to offer. Don’t be shy; have a look and place a vote.
Here’s Part V of Shaky Ankles’ analysis into the league’s worst contracts—team by team. Read more…
Over the last 30 days, 21 players have averaged at least 20 points per game. Of the 21, 11 failed to make the All-Star team: LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrea Bargnani, Al Jefferson, Kevin Martin, Monta Ellis, Tyreke Evans, Stephen Jackson, Danny Granger, Antawn Jamison, Zach Randolph, and Nick Young. One could make a solid case that none of them are legitimate household names; only three have made All-Star teams in their career. The last player on the list, Nick Young, has had a breakout year of sorts. I say “of sorts” because despite creating the type of acrobatic plays that are regularly making top 10 highlight lists, Nick Young’s name just doesn’t resonate nationally like it could. When Gilbert Arenas was moved to Orlando in mid-December, Young leapt into the starting lineup where he’s averaging 20.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.6 assists. He’s shooting 44 percent from the floor and 43 percent from deep with an ability to score that can’t be denied. Earlier this year, in a win against Sacramento, Young went for 43 points on just 22 shots; off the bench in a December loss against the Lakers, he hit six threes, ending up with 30 points; and he’s scored 38 (on 68 percent shooting) and 30 (58 percent) against the drastically improved Miami Heat defense. He’s had his fair share of fugazi performances, like the 124-117 loss to Oklahoma City where Young took 33 shots, made 13, and finished with 32 points, but who doesn’t?
Players like Nick Young are difficult to analyze. Is their scoring conducive or deterring a winning brand of basketball. Right now Washington is a loathsome 16-46, more an ensemble of young, athletic phenoms than a complementary unit. Is Young a piece of the team’s rebuilding puzzle or a main reason for their struggles? When you’re a one dimensional player, that one dimension is scoring, you aren’t good at anything else, and you play on a poor team, there’s a strong chance you’ll receive a majority of the blame. On the surface, an elite ability to put the ball in the basket has value, but unless you’re doing other things—rebounding, passing, playing dependable defense—you’re worth very little in helping a team win. (Of the 59 games he’s played in this season, Young had four assists or fewer in 57 of them. Yes he’s a shooting guard on a really bad team, but this is dismal.) Much like other offensive Goliaths who dominate the ball, more often than not when it hits his hands the result is a possession ending shot. Young is sixth in the league among those who’ve appeared in over 50 games in shot attempts from 16-23 feet. The only player who’s attempted more with a higher field goal percentage is Dirk Nowitzki.
As has proven evident this year, 20 point scorers are hiding on benches all across the league. Stepping in for an injured Eric Gordon, Randy Foye seemed to slip in seamlessly, scoring 20 or more points nine times—the Clippers went 4-5 in those games—and in the last 14 days he saw his season scoring average jump from 9.8 to 18 points a game. A few nights ago Gordon returned from injury in spectacular fashion, dropping 24 points like he never left. On the very same night Foye registered just two points in 20 minutes of action. So what’s to make of this, if anything? Is the NBA a league absolutely loaded with 20 point scorers waiting in the wings for a turn that ends up never coming for most of them? When Brandon Roy went down, Wesley Matthews came right in (18.2 as starter) and picked up the scoring slack. When Sacramento acquired Marcus Thornton from New Orleans, did they have the slightest idea that he’d completely take over on the offensive end of things? In five games he’s averaging 21.2 points per game, taking over main scoring duties for an injured Tyreke Evans and settling nicely into his role as scorer of the basketball. (That is, until Evans returns.)
Apart from the obvious explanations—high pace leading to more possessions and subpar or really selfless teammates—I suppose the point in knowing there are so many capable 20 point scorers is figuring out why a majority of them play for such bad teams. High volume scorers like Michael Beasley, Young, Bargnani, Granger, Ellis, and Martin have spent their entire careers playing for losing ball clubs. For the most part each of them is a one dimensional scorer, but is that all that differentiates them from the 20 point scorers who’re prominently featured in more successful systems? Is an incapability of making teammates better the difference? If, for example, Danny Granger switched places with someone like Kobe Bryant or Andrea Bargnani with Dirk Nowitzki, how badly would the Lakers/Mavericks title chances take a hit? It’s tough to use Kobe and Nowitzki, two of the greatest players the league has ever seen, as examples in this scenario, but there’s something that separates two 20 point scorers from one another, and I don’t like rationalizing it by saying some guys have “it”: that indefinable characteristic separating talented winners from talented losers. What if Tracy McGrady or Vince Carter played with Shaq instead of Kobe at the turn of the decade, or San Antonio drafted Gilbert Arenas instead of Tony Parker in 2001. Maybe I’m just reading too deep into something that lacks a satisfying answer.
When I was a little kid playing basketball, the golden goal every time I stepped on the court was 20 points. I played point guard, so the shots were never there (especially for a 12-year-old who’s main strength was driving left and finishing with his right hand) but 20 points in a game was the dream. I accomplished it only once. Whenever I’d go home after evening practices or weekend games to watch the NBA, it was the guys who could drop 20 points in their sleep who hogged the highlights and had that rare ability to take over a game. With the rapid progression of statistical metrics used today to analyze who’s effective in what situations; where on the court they’re most useful; and how coaches can squeeze the most value out of every player on their team, is it really worth having more than one 20 point per game scorer on a team? We saw the Boston Celtics win a championship without anybody on their star studded team average 20 per game, and the Lakers like to rely on Kobe. Miami is discovering two or three 20 point scorers on one team is a difficult thing to mix into a winning formula, and with two 20 point scorers onboard, New York find themselves shifting their offensive strategy.
Here’s a list of NBA champions with at least two 20 point per game scorers since 1980: 2006 Miami Heat (Shaq/Wade), 2002 Lakers (Shaq/Kobe), 2001 Lakers (Shaq/Kobe), 2000 Lakers (Shaq/Kobe), 1997 Bulls (Jordan/Pippen), 1995 Rockets (Clyde/Hakeem), 1992 Bulls (Jordan/Pippen), 1986 Celtics (Bird/McHale), 1983 Sixers (Moses Malone/Erving), 1982 Lakers (Kareem/Jamaal Wilkes) 1980 Lakers (Kareem/Wilkes). Apart from Jamaal Wilkes, every player on this list is either already in the Hall of Fame or headed there someday soon (Dwyane Wade a debatable exception). Nine out of the 11 teams listed have a dominant low post presence, a player who can take over games with his back to the basket and complement attacking guards by drawing double teams. The days of that happening from this point forward are bleak. Size is still a crucial element in the game of basketball, but more for rebounding and defensive intimidation. The days of the franchise big man could simultaneously fade to black along with Dwight Howard’s career. This season’s contenders are all well balanced and traditionally constructed (except for Miami) with multiple players capable of scoring 20 points in a game but who instead find themselves sacrificing shots and points in the name of wins. Is this where the league is headed? If the superteam experiment fails, the NBA’s next blueprint to copy will be old fashioned: draft an uber talented player who can score at will but also help out in other ways when his shots aren’t falling, and surround him with skilled, agreeable role players. (See the Bulls, Thunder, Magic, Clippers, and maybe the Wizards somewhere down the line.) As LeBron found out, nobody can do this alone. Last season he infamously boasted he could lead the league in scoring every year of his career if he really wanted, but later admitted it would hurt his chances of winning if he were to do so. Other great scorers couldn’t seem to win even when they had help around them.
Vince Carter is a career 22.4 points per game scorer, but he didn’t excel in any other area. His final chapter of relevance as a Magic starter saw Carter turn into a scared, inconsistent jump shooter, and it’s not like he never had assistance—Jason Kidd is the prototype teammate to enable success—so why couldn’t he win? What about Dominique Wilkins (24.8), Gilbert Arenas (21.5), Tracy McGrady (20.7), Bernard King (22.5), or even George Gervin (25.1)? Were they just the tough luck Phil Mickelson’s of their era? Or was their ability to score as much a curse as it was a gift?
Yesterday morning, I received the February Esquire in the mail (props to Mr. Postman for drudging through our ninth blizzard in the past 72 hours). As the magazine loves to do every so often, this month’s edition had a special, catchy, slightly cliche title to it: The Fresh Start Issue. On page 22, an editor explains what, exactly, this title means, and why he’s chosen this theme as an acceptable one for readers to plunge through as they sit in waiting rooms, Boeing 757’s, or, in my case, on a comfortable chair in a quiet living room.
We tend to think of people and things as being fixed and permanent. As much as we laud reinvention, our instinct is to see things as they are and imagine that they have been and always will be that way. But internally, individually, that’s not the case.
-Esquire Editor in Chief David Granger
This passage, as some general assertions tend to do, brought my mind back to basketball. Players who through the first half of the 2010-11 season have morphed from one thing into another, whether it be for better or for worse, are what make the NBA such an incredibly intriguing league. In sports, expectation is almost always preeminent when discussing performance—if people figured the probability of Mike Vick leading his team to the playoffs, dazzling spectators like he was once again 25, and becoming a respected pocket passer was high, all of his MVP talk would be laughable.
Russell Westbrook’s emergence alongside Kevin Durant; Kevin Love’s transformation into a prodigious rebounding machine; Eric Gordon becoming as talented a scorer as he was at Indiana, Amare Stoudemire putting the city of New York on his back sans Steve Nash; Wesley Matthews making Portland GM Rich Cho look like a mastermind; or Michael Beasley, before his ankle troubles, becoming one of the league’s most effortless scorers. These players are too young for reinvention. What you’re seeing in them was unforeseen by most, but in the end remains a simple case of potential mixed with desire equalling development.
To modify yourself as a basketball player, the most important thing you need is a past. A history, a reputation. Reinvention occur with old-timers who are adjusting to their inevitable fade into the sunset. Tracy McGrady, a player who once did this, is playing a token point guard role for the Pistons in part so Joe Dumars can put Rodney Stuckey on display for the league’s other general managers to analyze. In Boston, there’s a rejuvenated, reanimated, refreshed, and reawakened Shaquille O’Neal—he looked washed up, hidden, and dejected last year in Cleveland—who is now once again popping up all over the public’s radar. However this time around he’s making the league minimum and for the first time in his career will cede his place as a starter to another center. Shaq has taken things in stride this season, been a man about his business and a professional with his role, performing spectacularly in some instances. But not every story is written with as sure an ending as McGrady and Shaq’s seem to be.
The most fascinating individual case of reinvention this season, from Washington to Orlando, is owned by Gilbert Arenas. Over the past 30 days, he’s been relegated to just 20 minutes of play per game (although apparently that isn’t his fault) and it’s looking like a sad, relatively quick downfall could be in the cards.
So how did he get here? In 2008 he had major surgery on his left knee for the third time in two years. Arenas missed quite a chunk of his prime, and it possibly effected him psychologically. Actually, he’s a human being so let’s exchange “possibly” with “definitely”. What I suspect also to have somewhat of a psychosomatic effect on Gilbert was the six-year, $111 million dollar contract extension that Washington gave him that same year.
“It’s a relief. It was a burden at the same time. Your whole city is depending on you,” he told The Washington Times. (This season he’s making more money than LeBron James, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, and new teammate, Dwight Howard.) It wasn’t wise at the time, and looking back it was clearly one of the more foolish decisions any owner has signed off on in the past 10 years—Arenas played in only 56 games for the Wizards after the extension was signed. To be fair, during the 2006-07 season an argument could be made that Gilbert was among the league’s most valuable players, so to say he was a bust wouldn’t be accurate. The money and the injuries indirectly weave themselves towards the locker room firearm drama and lengthy suspension; the stigmatic remnants of which still hang high above his head.
To watch Gilbert—more showman than franchise player—struggle so terribly to mesh within the frame of a contender is both tragic and predictable. Few players needed a change of scenery more than Gilbert Arenas; a few weeks ago, a golden ticket out of town fluttered through his bedroom window and softly landed on his pillow. But instead of capitalizing, Arenas has been unable to alter who he is on the basketball court. Who knows if he’ll be able to recapture the flair that made him one of the sports great entertainers. Right now, he’s backing up a player who will never see the personal success Gilbert witnessed. A player incapable of taking over a game the way Arenas once could just four years ago.
What if the Magic lose seven straight games and SVG decides to transform his starting lineup? What if Gilbert finds the ball in his hands with the clock winding down and his team down two? What if he’s able to taste, if only for a night, the magic touch that’s quickly fleeting from his memory? What if Gilbert Arenas, at just 29 years of age, is able to reinvent himself by becoming what he once was?