This will go down as the In-N-Out Burger of ankle shattering moves. (Ray Felton supporters: I promise that’s not a fat joke! Well, actually, it kinda is. Sorry!)
We’ve poked (lol) fun at his weight and overall suckyness for the past 18 months, but Ray Felton has actually been playing REALLY well for the first place/still undefeated New York Knicks. Leave it to Tony Parker to pull us all back to reality.
The loss of five Nuggets a couple weeks ago was met with several different reactions: Carmelo Anthony (knife in the back), Chauncey Billups (insult to injury), Renaldo Balkman (happy face), Anthony Carter (…), and Shelden Williams (multiple backflips on a trampoline). A couple weeks ago when the Denver Nuggets pulled off the type of franchise revamping trade that can cause mass revolt, people were upset. Their GM said they got “killed” in the deal, and instead of waiting, calling Anthony’s bluff, and hoping he’d sign a three-year extension for the only professional team he’s every known, Denver shipped Carmelo to New York for some really young, really interesting players. The results for both team so for have been telling. New York is 3-2, with legitimate wins over Miami and New Orleans, but a loss to Cleveland; Denver is 5-1 with their only defeat coming at the hands of a Brandon Roy miracle three-pointer. So what gives? How can the Nuggets keep rolling people over without a true “superstar”?
This quote by Nuggets coach George Karl in an interview on the The Dan Patrick Show:
“You guys must think I’m crazy but I think we’re good. I had one practice with them, and I’m going ‘whoa!’ What always kind of mystifies me about this world of basketball is there’s so many brilliant minds in basketball; there’s so many guys that believe in the zone or believe in the triangle-and-two, or believe in the slow-down offense, or believe in the fast passing game offense — there’s so many ways to build a philosophy and win. But it seems like in the NBA you can only win with super stars. And I don’t believe that. I’ve always coached kind of doing what everybody else does, I do different. When I went to Seattle, nobody trapped and nobody did anything, so we fronted the post, and we double-teamed post-ups, and we doubled 40 or 50 percent of possessions a game and that worked. I just think why can’t you build a team where you don’t have a top-five player, but maybe a top-20 player at every position. That’s kind of what I’m thinking we’re going to be. We might not have an All Star, but at every position and maybe even have a bench that has more versatility and explosiveness than anybody else. So you have six or seven weapons, you might not have a superstar weapon, but you have good weapons. And then play hard, play defense, and be the most unselfish basketball team that you can be, because team wins more often than talent in this league anyways.”
What I really like about this team is their point guard play. With no Carmelo Anthony serving as the team’s offensive focal point, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton are able to play together and really force the issue in transition. In the very first game after becoming a permanent starter, Lawson scored 21 points to go along with five rebounds, seven assists, and six (!) steals. His only two 10 assist games of the year have come in the past two weeks, and brighter things look to be on the horizon.
National pundits are salivating over Denver. At first I figured it to be some manifestation of pity, but after watching the team’s hidden, talented bench pieces (Arron Afflalo) step up and compete alongside the young, more than serviceable newcomers (Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler) I was convinced. This trade didn’t make the Denver Nuggets a motionless fringe playoff team, it propelled them in a positive direction. And now, despite having no consistent 20 point scorer and no person on the roster who can close out tight games in the final seconds, the Nuggets are dangerous, unpredictable, and a squad able to run the table in a wide open Western Conference.
As you are likely well aware, the New York Knicks now have Carmelo Anthony in their possession. In bigger and more meaningful news, Isiah Thomas is once again their general manager. What does this all mean? For the Knicks? For the league? For Donnie Walsh’s health insurance?
Let’s start with the obvious: New York received one of the 10 best players in the league. How much they gave up in order to get him has unflatteringly been compared to Minnesota’s Herschel Walker deal. While that may be a slight exaggeration, the Knicks decision to give up two quality NBA players, a 22-year-old wild card who could someday be an All-Star, three draft picks, Anthony Randolph, three million dollars, and Timofey Mozgov (I guess we’ll throw in Eddy Curry’s expiring contract/dead body for technical reasons) for Carmelo, Corey Brewer, a one-legged Chauncey Billups, and three dead bodies is damn near highway robbery.
What else do we know? That whole thing about no team in recent memory winning a title with their best two players masquerading as defensive underachievers should ring a bell. While I personally don’t believe Carmelo deserves the amount of slack he receives for his lack of defensive ability and effort, Amar’e Stoudemire is a completely different beast. When you factor in his knees being one unlucky landing away from certain death, the Knicks aren’t quite ready to battle for a championship. And without Chris Paul or Deron Williams, it isn’t likely they could ever get past Miami, Chicago, or Boston in the next five years. See, the CBA’s future is a tricky thing. Right now nobody knows if there will be franchise tags (think angry NFL stars), the mid-level exception (the general manager’s best friend), if the salary cap could turn hard or how low it’ll drop. Isiah might think he has it figured out, but he doesn’t. As Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated’s Point Forward points out, working Carmelo, Amar’e, and a top three point guard into New York could be a financial impossibility:
With about $40 million tied up annually in just two players (Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire), the Knicks have taken themselves out of the Howard/Paul/Williams 2012 free-agent derby.
Perhaps that’s true. We don’t know what the salary cap will be in 2012 (though it figures to be lower), and we don’t know what the sign-and-trade possibilities will be for New York in July 2012 — or whether trade rules will be broadened so that incoming and outgoing salaries won’t have to match quite as closely. The Knicks have certainly made the pursuit of those players more difficult today, but who knows what the CBA will look like in a year or whether any of those players will want to come to New York.
More input on the Knicks getting hosed and their tragic managerial situation, by way of New York Magazine’s Will Leitch:
But the Knicks never needed to trade Gallinari, or Mozgov. If the Knicks would have held their ground, would Chandler/Felton/first-rounder/Curry for Carmelo/Billups worked? (With some salary cap flotsam here or there.) At first blush, you’d say, “Oh, the Nuggets wouldn’t go for that,” but why? What choice did they have? The only reason the Knicks offer looked uncompetitive was because the Nets—knowing Anthony likely would never agree to an extension to make the trade happen—could “offer” to give away Derrick Favors and Devin Harris and four (four!) first-round picks for Carmelo. The Knicks’ side of the trade only looks meager compared to the Nets’ imaginary scenarios. Compared to what teams usually get when their backs are against the wall, when they have to trade a superstar or risk receiving nothing at all, that initial Knicks haul seems low, but not shockingly so. Maybe Walsh blinks and gives up Mozgov then, as a final “Okay, let’s make it happen.” But Gallinari was never supposed to be in this in the first place. It wasn’t Walsh who made Gallinari a part of this: It was Dolan. When you don’t know how to negotiate, you lose ground you never realized you were ceding. When you toss out Gallinari when you absolutely do not have to, it’s just a tiny step to, “Well, you’re not gonna let Mozgov stand in the way of this trade, are you?” At that point, you’ve already lost.
And on the other end of the spectrum, the Denver Nuggets are the ones who find themselves with fixed financial flexibility and optimism: Chris Broussard recently tweeted this about some possible Gallinari movement, and Raymond Felton’s arrival in Denver looks to be a mysterious one, but they got something for nothing; that’s what matters. This from “All Things Nuggets”, The Denver Post’s NBA blog:
In mid-January, Nuggets coach George Karl opened up about Lawson’s growth: “Ty is doing a good job, but Ty’s got to mature too. He has a laid-back mentality that drives me a little crazy at times. My big belief and approach to leadership is that you lead by example, you lead by attitude and you lead by approach. You don’t lead by words. And his laid-back attitude probably stops him from being the leader I’d personally like him to be right now. But I think we can change that.”
And privately, Karl is pretty excited about his point guard situation. Karl is a proud North Carolina alum – he even went back to Chapel Hill during the all-star break – and both Lawson and Felton are Tar Heel point guards. In fact, both won the national title.
“Ray was my tour guide when I visited there,” Lawson said. “He took me around the city, showed me a good time. It will be a little weird being on the same NBA team.”
The ripples of this deal will be known in hindsight, but based on snap judgments, New York remains slightly above average and still won’t get past the first round, and the Nuggets are bunkering down into a smart rebuilding strategy. Time will tell how this one turns out. Maybe, in an ultimate turn of irony, Deron Williams chooses Denver and Chris Paul goes to Phoenix. Wouldn’t that be something.
This is good Raymond Felton. The gross handle, the smart decision, the resulting two points for his team. Bad Raymond would’ve either pulled up before the pick came, over-penetrate into the lane and lose control, or create some variant of this. I applaud the good Felton, the one who still leads New York in minutes, not the one who’s taking more threes than every other Knick while registering the worst percentage on the team. Bad Raymond.
Of North America’s four major sport leagues, no All-Star game is more widely anticipated, talked about, attended, or, frankly, marvelous than basketball’s. With the dunk contest’s reemergence as something worth a decent conversation, this year’s megaton bomb of a location (star studded Los Angeles for the first time since 2004), and, if I had a final decision, the overall level of talent level would boast at least eight living, breathing first ballot Hall of Fame inductees.
Tonight at 7 pm on TNT, the NBA’s 2010-11 All-Star starters will be revealed. Unfortunately, thanks to fan voting updates, there isn’t any suspense, much less speculation, about which 10 players will be on the court for Feb. 20′s inaugural tip. But on Feb. 3, TNT will fill out each side’s lineup with 14 players who the league’s coaches have decided are most worthy. This is the one worth watching. It’s centralized league discussion for months and will be analyzed this way and dissected another. How will the Western Conference deal with their backload of talented and deserving forwards? Will Kevin Love make it, appeasing high school basketball coaches and the pro-fundamental crowd? Will Blake Griffin make it, appeasing everyone else? How about LaMarcus Aldridge and his under wraps MVP worthy first half? Will Tim Duncan make it lucky number 13? And for that matter, how many players on the league’s best team (record wise) will receive the due honors that come with winning the most basketball games? Can five Boston Celtics fill out the Eastern Conference’s seven bench spots? (It’s technically possible.) Does Raymond Felton make the Most Improved Player award discussion a bit more lively by putting a first nod on his resume? Will all the centers be ignored?
These questions are answerless, but they capture in a nutshell why everything that surrounds the All-Star game is more fun than the actual contest. All the hoopla and hype, the incessant debates in barbershops, bars, and sidelines of a pickup game, all the talk is what makes All-Star weekend, in my opinion, the most special exhibition event in the world. So without further ado, today I’ll be writing who I think should round out the Eastern Conference’s squad. Tomorrow I’ll do the West.
First let’s get the likely starters out of the way. These 10 players, with the exception of the West’s center, are the current fan vote leaders.
East: PG-Derrick Rose, SG-Dwyane Wade, SF-LeBron James, PF-Amare Stoudemire, C-Dwight Howard
West: PG-Chris Paul, SG-Kobe Bryant, SF-Carmelo Anthony, PF-Kevin Durant, C-Tim Duncan (Replacing the injured Yao Ming)
There should be no real beef with anything selected here—besides Rose starting over Rondo, which defines nitpicking, but in an All-Star atmosphere, the league’s best passer might make for a more entertaining floor general. Regardless, 60 percent of these starters will end up in the Hall someday; three of the 10 being first ballots even if they e-mailed their retirement papers today. Now finally, onto the backups…
First Guard: Rajon Rondo. In full disclosure, he’s my favorite player. So far this season he’s cut the head off of the chicken or egg argument about whether it’s Rondo who makes the Big Three go or the Big Three who make Rondo’s crazy assist numbers look easy. It’s clear he’s lengthening the other four starter’s careers (especially Shaq and Pierce) with impeccable vision, an uncanny ability to handle the ball and control the game’s offensive and defensive tempo, and more raw athleticm than any point guard in the league. Rondo’s attitude on the court is one that screams “I’m the greatest!” and his league leading 12.9 assists per game proves it. Also, despite the general public continuing to believe Rondo can’t shoot, he can. I’m serious. From 16-23 feet, he’s 46 percent from the field. Same as Deron Williams and Steve Nash, who surprisingly attempt just 0.3 more shots from that distance per game than Rondo. No mention of free throws here! It’s all love!
Second Guard: Ray Allen. The chapter of Ray Allen’s career where he’s able to create his own shots and get where he wants dribbling the basketball are over. Finito. But at 36, he’s arguably shooting the ball better than ever before. Allen’s true shooting percentage (63), field goal percentage (51), and three-point percentage (45) are all career highs (by the time All-Star weekend rolls around, he’ll have passed Reggie Miller as the NBA’s all-time leader in three pointers made) and after watching him run circles around guys 10 years younger, 36 minutes a night through 44 games—he’s yet to sit one out—it’s astonishing to think how much longer Ray Allen can play professional basketball at such a high level.
First Forward: Kevin Garnett. In a late January regular season loss to Orlando last season, then Magic starter Rashard Lewis took an inbound from the wing to the basket, making Kevin Garnett look like a rusty screen door, laying in the winning bucket with 1.3 seconds left. It was like watching a Roman gladiator refuse to leave the battfield even though his right leg is dangling from his hip by a thread. But imagine if that Roman gladiator had access to the finest in modern medicine, arthroscopic surgery, and months of mental and physical rehabilitation to avenge the most painful loss of his life (Game 7). This is roughly what that would translate to:
He’s playing the same fiery defense he put on display in 2007-08 while continuing on as one of the best shooting forwards in the game. Kevin Garnett is an indisputable lock at this spot.
Second Forward: Paul Pierce. Noticing a pattern? The Boston Celtics are the Eastern Conference’s best team and they’ve been playing without their starting center. While the previous three players are irreplaceable in what they do to make Boston’s system thrive, Paul Pierce is arguably the most important piece. I won’t go into too much detail right now because (SPOILER ALERT!!) I’m putting a little mid-season MVP list together, but speaking as someone who has watched a vast majority of games Paul Pierce has played in, this season has to be one of his most impressive. He still has an ability to average 25-28 points per game—if he really wanted to ruin Boston’s flow—and at 33, he remains near the top in terms of players who can’t be guarded one on one. His name still gets lost in the national stage’s shuffle, but he’s right there with the best of them at getting the shot he wants when the clock’s winding down.
Center: Shaqu—just joking!—Al Horford. The definition of a key asset. He’s the best mid-range shooting center in the game and it’s not even close (including Bargnani) and even though he plays undersized at the five every night, Horford is a solid low post defender and has notched 22 doubles, nine of them with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. He also plays through injury and at only 24 is one of the league’s more determined competitors. Now, here are two hypotheticals for you. If Horford and former Gator teammate Joakim Noah were to switch teams at the beginning of the season, would that have changed LeBron’s mind about joining Rose in Chicago? I don’t think it would, but it’s an interesting question. And number two, would the Bulls pull the plug or the trigger on a deal involving Carmelo if they had Horford to give up instead of Noah? Here, I think they would’ve made the deal.
First Wild Card: Chris Bosh. After one of the best seasons of his career, Chris Bosh is statistically having one of his worst, but that was to be expected—did you know he’s playing with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade now?!? He’s posted 15 double doubles in 42 starts compared to 49 in 70 last season. Bosh’s rebounds, points, and minutes are slightly down, but surprisingly, he’s only taking two fewer shots per game. I’ve never been a Chris Bosh guy. Maybe it’s his physical ineptitude on defense (in exactly half of his games this season, Bosh has logged either one or two fouls) or just the overall flair to what could be a more imposing post presence. Or maybe this is why. Either way, he’s averaging 19 and eight and plays for the most talked about team in the league, so he’s in.
Second Wild Card: Raymond Felton. While people talk about what a great job Felton’s done making Amare forget about Steve Nashty, I say look at what a poor job Charlotte did giving this guy an opportunity to run a successful team. Grabbing Amare Stoudemire isn’t exactly picking up Oreos from the supermarket, but Felton only had two 20 point per game scorers during his five years in Charlotte: Jason Richardson in 2007-08 and Stephen Jackson last year. Statistics aside, because we all know the inflation that comes with the system he’s in, Raymond’s been steady for the Knicks, with a few cold streaks mixed into some dreamy performances (the 20 point, 12 assist, five steal Christmas Day showdown against Derrick Rose comes to mind). He’s shooting the ball more, and better, than he ever has in his career, all while serving as his team’s number two offensive option. Felton hasn’t been spectacular this year, but he’s been overachieving under the bright lights. Sometimes that’s enough to get your first All-Star invite.
And with that, tomorrow comes the West.