In the past 10 days, the Denver Nuggets morphed into one of my favorite teams in the NBA. Their role as a grossly undersized underdog certainly helped make me feel the way I do, but what really captured my attention was the way this team managed to ignore that underdog mentality while facing elimination; turning the pace of Game’s 5 and 6 in their favor and making a supremely talented Lakers squad look as though they’d rather not be playing basketball. It was admirable.
Denver may not have a superstar, but what they lack in dependability, they make up for in unpredictable excitement. When you watch the Nuggets play in the fourth quarter, you have no clue where the offense is coming from. It’s both a gift and a curse, able to turn the life of a defense into a nightmare or a simple duty, depending on whether or not anybody catches fire. I was rooting for this team to win last night, but knew it was unlikely. The Nuggets weren’t the better team in this series, and the better team always wins. They were, however, more deserving. If they manage to continue on their promising path of development, someday soon they’ll be the favorite, and the Game 7′s will fall in their favor.
Pau Gasol vs. Denver. Los Angeles lost 113-96. Gasol’s statistics: 29 minutes, 3 points (1-10 shooting from the field), 3 rebounds, 2 personal fouls, 16.9% usage percentage, plus/minus of -29 (game-low).
Ever since the Lakers were unceremoniously swept from the playoffs by Dallas last season, Pau Gasol has been Los Angeles’ great scapegoat. Unlike Lamar Odom, when Gasol was traded this past December he came back, venturing forth in what retrospectively should go down as one of the most awkward seasons a player has ever had to endure. For the most part, Gasol made it work, deferring to Andrew Bynum in the post and Kobe Bryant everywhere else, allowing his elite mid-range jump shot to turn him into a glorified Brandon Bass, and attempting twice as many three-pointers in this shortened season than in the previous four combined. The public complaints were few and far between, and the result was a Lakers squad, devoid of anything close to a capable bench, winning its division and somehow becoming the league’s premier overachiever. Nobody, including the sportsbook review could’ve foreseen the success.
Now the playoffs are here; games are powerful enough to brush all those that were played over the past five months under a very large rug. This is the time to increase what you did in the regular season; a time when the brains of fans, agents, coaches, scouts, general managers and owners are trained to focus and remember. Barring a never-before-seen iconic performance, nobody who’s normal can recall what a given player did on a random night in February, but spring-time heroics are hard to forget.
Last night the Lakers played their second straight close out game against a Denver Nuggets team that’s equipped with an energetic personnel capable of giving Lakers head coach Mike Brown a migraine every 20 minutes. Calling last night’s game for TNT, one of the first bits of analysis Steve Kerr gave us was this: “It’s very important for the Laker bigs to establish the toughness that they lacked in Game 5.” They didn’t. Instead of helping them survive with their alpha dog Kobe Bryant laboring with a stomach issue, Pau Gasol helped tighten the noose around his team’s neck while Andrew Bynum kicked out the stool.
For this piece, I’d like to shine a bright light on the the worser of these two giants: Mr. Gasol. His “performance” was lackadaisical and confusing. At no time throughout the game did he assert himself in consecutive trips down the floor, and 12 of his 29 minutes came without Bynum by his side—that’s one quarter of the game where Gasol could’ve asserted himself with some sort of presence. Instead he had a lesser impact than Timofey Mozgov. Read more…
After a thorough Game 1 beat down, the sport’s most prolific scorer humbly referred to him as the best power forward in basketball. Apart from the likelihood that these words were used to motivate his own beefier teammates, the statement by Kevin Durant on Zach Randolph still sent minor shockwaves throughout the league. Zach Randolph? The defensively inefficient, often overlooked, weed dealing, gun toting guy who doesn’t know how many minutes make up an NBA game? In his 10th season playing for his fourth team, how is this possible?
I know Derrick Rose is currently basking in a well deserved congratulatory shower from the national media, and he’ll more than likely walk away with the 2011 MVP. But the book on best point guard isn’t settled quite yet. What Chris Paul did today was beautiful, heroic, and miraculous. Every decision he made was the right one—and even when it wasn’t, he still made the shot; it’s a tried and true test of the position. I remember watching him in this year’s All-Star game. Paul not only looked like the most comfortable player in attendance, but he played with a chip on his shoulder. A chip that said, “I’m hurt, people. Believe me. When I’m not, you’ll know.” Chris Paul looked more than fine today.
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?