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Essay: Looking At New Orleans’ Bright Future

December 16, 2011 1 comment

When news first broke that Chris Paul would be traded to the Clippers for Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, and Minnesota’s unprotected first round pick, I tweeted a prediction that was neither bold nor calculated: The New Orleans Hornets will sweep the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round of 2014′s postseason. After a quick loop of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin running thunderous, arena-shaking pick and rolls played in my head, this was the very next thought. The Hornets fleeced a team about as best you can despite parting ways with the greatest player their franchise has ever known. Not bad, Stern. Not bad at all.

As was proven evident by the rash chaos thrown at a wall these last few weeks—by agents, general managers, players, owners, and a commissioner’s office—predicting tomorrow in the NBA might be more futile than deciphering who the government mole is on Homeland (Carrie’s unseasonable speaking confidant/stalker who lives in a sketchy white van is my guess). Transactions that have purpose and seem rational at first, end up twisting and turning through ESPN owned Blackberries and beat reporter tweets, ad infinitum, until there’s nothing left but ink on paper. It’s a convoluted process, and from beginning to end, through the dozens upon dozens of intricate levels, no one person can possibly predict what a team will do. Subtract an owner and the process gets even worse. So while I say the Hornets will defeat the Clippers three years from now, it’s under a complete understanding that a thousand different scenarios exist: Chris Paul could become a free agent and sign with the Knicks, Lakers, or Heat two years from now, Eric Gordon could plateau his aggressiveness and fade out by the time he’s 25, or Minnesota could win the NBA championship this season and leave New Orleans with a crappy draft pick. I don’t care anymore; I’m expecting anything.

What we know:

  • Carl Landry signed a one-year, $9 million contract with the Hornets today. With the expected loss of David West to Indiana official, this was both a smart basketball (filling their role at power forward) and financial move.
  • The Hornets are $2 million under the salary cap, allowing them to place a bid on amnestied players. As of right now, none are too realistic or worthy, but with Jarrett Jack as the team’s starting point guard, bringing Baron Davis in would be interesting. Or not, whatever.
  • Eric Gordon is really good, and should be signed to an extension as soon as possible.

Here’s what the Hornets should do if they played in an alternate universe where expectations were met, ceilings were reached, and the NBA was a predictable entity. Oh yea, they’d also have an owner.

Once the 2011-12 season ends:

  1. Under the expectation that Emeka Okafor has another 10 ppg, 10 rpg, 2 bpg season, either flip him for 75 cents on the dollar to a team in delusional belief that they’re one rim protecting presence away from winning a championship, or amnesty him
  2. Be patient with Chris Kaman’s expiring contract, then let him walk in the offseason. Now you have $24.7 million of salary coming off the books if you also happened to amnesty Okafor.
  3. Take Minnesota’s unprotected draft pick that’s almost surely going to be a top 7 choice, and pair it with your own. In the last lottery, the Cavaliers selected Kyrie Irving with the first overall selection then took Tristan Thompson with the fourth. Now, in a much deeper draft, there’s a good chance New Orleans will be this year’s Cleveland.
  4. Get lucky in the lottery, replace Okafor/Kaman with Anthony Davis and John Henson. Or Andre Drummond and Anthony Davis. Or John Henson and Andre Drummond.
  5. Throw a max contract at a player who deserves a max contract. Like, say, Kevin Love.
  6. Um, Eric Gordon’s resigned, right? What, he’s not?? Pay the man! Okay, now we’re cool.
Look! New Orleans now has the league’s premier front line of the future, one of the scariest go-to shooting guards locked up through his prime, and cap flexibility to surround these two cornerstones with smart, savvy veterans or a big name splash. Maybe Aminu fills out into a quality rotation starter, and you’re able to squeeze every last drop of athleticism and heady play from a newly motivated Trevor Ariza. That’s a pretty cool, pretty competitive basketball team right there.
If you took a poll of every GM across the league, how many of them wouldn’t want their roster to be described that way? Anyway, that’s how I’d play my cards.

Essay: The Game Within The Game

February 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Great individual match-ups in the NBA are a lot like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: plays within a play.  Not often are we blessed with two person battles that nearly separate themselves from the game in which they’re participants.  Some nights it seems the stage is set solely for two special combatants; even though the score reads some large number like 112-108, the only digits fans take away are the impressive lone point totals tallied by two great rivals.  Sometimes the numbers don’t matter, and it’s just a good fight each time down the court. Last night, in the Rockets-Lakers game, with the scoreboard teetering back and forth in the fourth quarter, Kobe Bryant began to abuse Kevin Martin. There was jab step followed by ball fake followed by a pull-up swish right in Martin’s eye, and a baseline blow-by or two that made the Rockets defender look powerless. It didn’t seem fair.  Then a Houston time out was called and Shane Battier was inserted to defend Bryant, who all of a sudden had to work for his two points a whole lot harder than he wanted to.  With the score tied and four seconds remaining in regulation, the Lakers set up a play to free Kobe where he’d come off a Gasol pin down screen, catch a pass from Odom and hit the game winning shot somewhere around the edge of the key.  But Battier bulldozed the pick by Gasol, who crashed into Bryant as he tried to curl the pick, forcing a last second miss from Odom.  Even though this play involved several players, it helps capture the determination one player has in stopping another from completing his job. The individual battle.

Today, most of the great clashes come not at the center, forward, or swingman positions, but at the point. It’s far and away the most backloaded, overflowing-with-talent spot in the league; to be the best, you must beat the best, and if you’re a floor general chances are you’ll have a confidence boosting opportunity every other night. While beautiful point guard play is likely spearheading the game—in its on-court essence—into such a prosperous era, it’s partially responsible for the suffocation of great one on one performances.  In Oklahoma City there’s Westbrook with the ball in his hands more than Durant; Boston has Rondo orchestrating four future Hall of Fame inductees like a conductor; and in Utah and Chicago, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose have their team’s offenses run through them.  Overall, point guard isn’t a position designed to attack an individual opponent. It’s not the job description.  This isn’t to say I’m championing isolation play, but there’s a definite draw in watching two Goliaths pick their spots and blindly collide with each other once in a while. Throughout Sunday’s Heat-Thunder game, it seemed whenever LeBron chose to check Durant, he dominated. Balls were slapped out of Durant’s hands and a rhythm didn’t look to be found. Even though I sat with the majority of viewers rooting for OKC, to watch James certify his status as the game’s best player was great theatre.

But the individual match-up isn’t always for two Goliaths.  Sometimes David sticks his nose into the fray and the drama’s gravitational pull brings you to your seat’s edge just the same.  This brings me to Ariza, the league’s Icarus who has all but disappeared from the public spotlight down in New Orleans. He’s started every game this season, but is putting up the worst rebounding, assists, field goal percentage, and points per 36 minute numbers since his rookie season. (Right now, you could say he’s playing the role of David.) Tonight, on national television, the Hornets face off against Durant’s Thunder. The last time these two squared off, Ariza held Durant to his only scoreless fourth quarter of the season.  As the Oklahoman article suggests, much of the pregame hype will surround point guards Westbrook and Paul, but if you keep your eyes on Ariza each and every time he confronts Durant, there’s a good chance that individual match-up will overshadow the undivided game.

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