Monday, July 27, 2009

The 50 Most Valuable Players in the NBA: 25-11

Part 3 of 4 in my ranking of the most valuable players in the league.

25. Pau Gasol (7-0/227; PF/C; 18.9 ppg 9.6 rpg 56.7% FG)
He enjoyed arguably his best season yet in 2008-09, acheiving career highs in rebounds and field goal percentage, and even improving upon his numbers in the playoffs. He might have the best post moves in the league and is a tireless competitor, and all that prevents him from being ranked even higher is his lackadisical nature on the defensive end, i.e., a Rockets team minus Yao and T-Mac should not score 40 points in the paint in a playoff game going up against the Lakers and their bigs. I think a fair characterization of Gasol would be to call him the best player in the league who doesn't dominates games.

24. Andrew Bynum (7-0/285; C; 14.3 ppg 8 rpg 56% FG)
He's the second most erratic player in the league, after teammate Lamar Odom, of course, but more understandably so, as he has the proclivity to pick up fouls, gets flustered easily and is still barely old enough to drink. But when Andrew Bynum's on, he is truly unstoppable. Bynum is able to score at will (58.5% FG over the past three seasons), is a great rebounder (8.0 rpg in only 26.5 mpg over that same three year period), and an even better defender (1.8 bpg in that span). When you consider the rate at which he's improving, and the fact that he's still just 21 years old, he has to be ranked among the game's best building blocks.

23. Blake Griffin (6-10/248; PF; Rookie)
One of the filthiest players to enter the league this decade (in case you've been hibernating for the past 10 months, Blake averaged 22.7-14.4 as a sophomore and shot 65.4% from the field - not the line, the field - en route to winning player of the year), Griffin is NBA-ready, and though he might not average 20 and 10 a rookie (still, don't count it out), figure that its a virtual certainty that he'll be posting such numbers by age 22. Motivated and ferocious on the block, he would make a perfect centerpiece for a team starting from the ground up.

22. Danny Granger (6-8/228; SF/PF; 25.8 ppg 5.1 rpg; 4 seasons)
I love Danny Granger, and I've never seen him play. I love that people were so high on him out New Mexico State, though they'd probably never seen him play, and I love that he became everything scouts hoped and more. I love that he's probably - no, definitely - the only player in history to improve his scoring average by at least 5 ppg his first four seasons in the league (would have been 6 ppg had he not only improved from 13.9 ppg to 19.6 ppg between his second and third seasons. Slacker!) But there are still so many question marks surrounding him. Is he the player that finishes in the top 10 in scoring every year but never makes the playoffs? In his career he has 2 more assists (553) than turnovers (551) - is that who he is? Does he make the players around him better? At 6-8, can't he average more than 5 or 6 rpg? For now, I think it would be best to push those concerns to the back burner as the 25-year old continues to mature, and give him the benefit of the doubt.

21.Brook Lopez (7-0/260; C; 13 ppg 8.1 rpg 1.8 bpg; 1 season)
What do the Heat, Grizzlies, Thunder, Timberwolves, Clippers and Bobcats have in common? They all made excellent selections with their top 10 pick in the 2008 draft, and they'll all still be haunted to the grave for passing up on Brook Lopez. After one season in the league, Lopez appears not only to be a great pro, but a future fixture of All-NBA teams, as played all 82 games (started 75), averaged 13.1 and 8.1, blocked nearly two shots a night (good for 4th in the league), and was remarkably efficient, shooting 53.1% from the floor and 79.3% from the line. He's already proven to have terrific chemistry with PG Devin Harris, as 45% of Harris points came off pick and rolls, almost all of which were run through Brook. Here's a guy you can build around.

20. Amare Stoudemire (6-10/249; PF/C; 21.4 ppg 8.1 rpg; 7 seasons)
Injuries may have slowed him down, but they haven't deminished his talent. Not only is Amare still the bounciest player in the league, he's also one of the best around the basket, shooting a sensational 56.8% over the past three seasons, and averaging over 20 ppg every year since his rookie campaign save for one, the 2005-06 season, in which he played 3 games. A superior defender capable of guarding three positions, Amare is simply a basketball machine when healthy, the type of player that's impossible to plan around. He's still a special talent, and at 26, he still has room to grow.

19. Chris Bosh (6-10/230; PF; 22.7 ppg 10 rpg; 6 seasons)
After the 2006-07 season, when the Raptors won 47 games and coach Sam Mitchell won Coach of the Year, star Chris Bosh looked to finally join the company of LeBron, DWade and Carmelo, fellow top 5 picks in the already legendary 2003 draft class, as a legitimate superstar, only to see the team collapse in on itself like a supernova in the following years. Not only is he one of the league's best power forwards, he's the most frighteningly consistent scorer in the game, averaging between 22.3 and 22.7 ppg in each of the past four seasons, and is still constantly improving, averaging 10 rpg for the second time in his career this past year. And he still has awesome potential. After all, he's been the best PF in the East for four years now - and he's only 25.

18. Kevin Garnett (6-11/253; PF/C; 15.8 ppg 8.5 rpg; 14 seasons)
Garnett's numbers in 2006-07/2008-09: ppg - 22.4/15.8; rpg: 12.8/8.5; apg: 4.1/2.5; bpg: 1.7/1.2. Can those steep declines be attributed to his accepting a less demanding role in Boston? Of course. He's still, with 14 seasons under his belt, a player I'd start my team with, though he's no longer one of the top ten players in the league and is aging fast. Still an all-world defender and capable of averaging 20 and 10 when healthy, you can arguably learn as much from him as from any player in the league. A champion and an MVP, he'll always be the Big Ticket.

17. Chauncey Billups (6-3/202; PG; 17.9 ppg 6.4 spg; 12 seasons)
One of only five players to play in seven consecutive conference finals - and the only one to do it with two teams - Billups is arguably the best winner in the game today. Mr. Big Shot is in many ways the perfect point guard, finishing among the leaders in A/TO ratio every year (leading the league in 2005-06, avering 8.6 apg to just 2 TO), shooting an inhuman 88.9% from the line for his career, and scoring when he's called upon to do so, averaging 17.1 ppg since 2002-03, when he finally settled down with the Pistons after playing with four teams in his first five years in the league. Most indicative of Billups' winningness is his being traded three games into the season to the Nuggets for Allen Iverson, who most everyone would say is a superior player, and subsequently leading them to a 54-win season and a conference finals appearance after they had lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the past six seasons; the Pistons, conversely, not only did not make the conf. finals for the first time in 7 years, but finished the season a paltry 39-43. He's still got a lot left in the tank, and if I was fielding a team for just one season, he would likely be my point guard.

16. Devin Harris (6-3/185; PG; 21.3 PPG 6.9 APG 1.6 SPG; 6 seasons)
Expectation has followed Harris everywhere, from being handed the key to Wisconsin basketball as a freshman, to being the 5th pick overall and traded for All-Star Antawn Jamison on draft day, to be being traded for future hall of famer Jason Kidd, who had led the Nets to the NBA Finals twice without having won a single division title in their history before his arrival. And Harris has conquered every expectation with equal poise. Last season Harris was the second highest-scoring point guard, averaging 21.3 ppg (a 6.5 ppg improvement from the prior year), while averaging 6.9 apg and shooting 82% from the line. Also a top-notch defender (1.7 spg, ) the 26-year old Harris is improving more rapidly than any player in the game, and has solidified his standing as one of the top point guards in the league while having just tapped his tremendous potential.

15. Tony Parker (6-2/180; PG; 22 ppg 6.9 apg 50.4% FG; 8 seasons)
He might not be the most underrated player in the league, but he hardly gets the respect a future first-ballot hall of famer deserves. A three-time champion and MVP of the 2007 Finals, Parker has transitioned from a game manager to one of the game's most dominant weapons, this past year setting not just a career high in scoring (22 ppg), but also in assists (6.9 apg). He's also exceedinly efficient, finishing as high as third in the league in FG% in 2005-06. He never quite averages as many assists as he should though, which is all that prevents him from being top 10.

14. Steve Nash (6-3/178; PG; 15.7 ppg 9.7 apg 93.3% FT; 13 seasons)
The greatest point guard never to have played in an NBA Finals game, Nash is still the best passer and facilitator in the league. Having shot over 50% from the field in each of the last four seasons, a whopping 43.2% from three and 90% from the line for his career while averaging 17.1 ppg since becoming a Sun, he's much more adept offensive than he's often credited, which only re-inforces the common assertion that he's still the most dangerous player in the league with the ball in his hands. At 35, its hard to make an argument for him as the centerpiece for a budding franchise, but considering all thats he has experienced (102 playoff games) and accomplished (two MVP trophies), and the fact that he still averages 10 apg, you have to include him among the players who could permanently turn a franchise around.

13. Al Jefferson (6-10/266; PF/C; 23.1 ppg 11 rpg; 5 seasons)
When he was selected 15th overall by the Celtics in 2005, few people could have expected the big and burly high school prospect so similar to Eddy Curry to be averaging 20 and 10 by age 22, the same age at which Kevin Garnett acheived that feat (the oversized high school prodigies both went to the Farragut Academy in Chicago, and were traded for one another in 2007). Big Al is the rare young big man who resolved to harness his incredible talent early on, and the results have been explosive. Never having played with any real talent has certainly made his development rough, but he's accepted the go-to role like a veteran, averaging 22.1 and 11.1 as a Timberwolf, and steadily improving his defense, averaging a healthy 1.7 bpg this past season, a career high. Don't let his team's record deceive you - he's one of the absolute most dominant players in the league, which would be much more evident if he had some semblance of talent surrounding him.

12. Carmelo Anthony (6-8/230; SF; 22.8 ppg 6.8 rpg; 6 seasons)
Prior to the 2008-09 season, he wouldn't have been ranked so highly - probably closer to Danny Granger. In posting his lowest scoring average in four years, Melo became the player that O.J. Mayo can only aspire to become - a gifted scorer who puts his team first. The 6-8 forward, who's averaged 20 ppg every year of his career, was a different player when Chauncey Billups arrived, but most noticeably in the postseason, when he went toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant, not just in the box score, but by jostling with him on defense, going for every loose ball and getting under his skin. We hadn't seen Melo the Competitor since college, when he led Syracuse to the title in his one and only season, and now that he's back, the LeBron's, Kobe's and Wade's of this world have another superstar to reckon with.

11. Dirk Nowitzki (7-0/245; PF; 25.9 ppg 8.4 rpg; 11 seasons)
An MVP who was this close to winning a championship, Dirk, a young 31, is still playing at the top of his game. No player makes more - maybe as much as, but not more - of an effort to win ball games, and he's probably hit the most game-deciding shots of any 7-footer in history. You could also make an argument for Nowitzki as the most durable player in the league - the fact that the mobile 7-footer who essentially plays the swing position has played at least 76 games in each of the past 10 seasons is as absolutely mind-boggling. In many ways a flawless player, Nowitzki rebounds his size (8.6 rpg career average), is one of the best free throw shooters in the game (87.2%) and rarely turns the ball over (1.9 TO). All that prevents him from being in the realm of the league's immortals is his defense.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The 50 Most Valuable Players in the NBA: 40-26

This a continuation of my ranking of the 50 most valuable players in the league: For numbers 50-41, please go here:

40. Caron Butler (6-7/228; SF; 20.8 ppg 6.2 rpg 4.3 apg; 7 seasons)
Everything you could want in a SF, from size, to toughness, to a dynamic offensive repetoire. His averages of 20 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 4.3 apg, and 2 apg over the past three seasons put him in elite company, and he's just entering his prime. The only cause for concern surrounding Butler is the Wizards' dismal performance last season.

39. Carlos Boozer (6-9/266; PF; 16.2 ppg 10.4 rpg; 7 seasons)
The classic example of an extremely productive college player taken late in the draft due to concerns about his physicality, Boozer proved his worth immediately as a rookie, averaging 10 ppg and 7.5 rpg. He's since become a human double-double, averaging 19.4 and 10.8 over the past three seasons, while shooting 53.3% from the field. All that's holding him back from becoming a superstar are his mentality on the defensive end and nagging injuries.

38. Paul Millsap (6-8/250; PF; 13.5 ppg 8.6 rpg 53.4% FG; 3 seasons)
When you become the first player to lead the NCAA in rebounding three times - and leave college after your junior season - and that's not enough to warrant being picked in the top 45, well, there's something seriously wrong with that. Millsap set out to prove everyone wrong, and has since developed a reputation as one of the hardest-working players in the league. Wondering why he's ranked higher than Boozer? Well, last season he ripped off the longest double-double streak of any player in the league (16 games) and the Jazz were considerably better when Millsap was in the lineup in Boozer's absence. At 24, Millsap, who three years ago many expected never to see the floor, looks to become one of the game's elite power forwards.

37. Emeka Okafor (6-10/255; PF/C; 13.2 ppg 10.1 rpg 1.7 bpg 56.1% FG; 5 seasons)
Possibly the most underrated player in the league. Yes, he plays in Charlotte, and he struggled with injuries early in his career, but how many guys do you know that averaged a double-double their first five seasons in the league? Probably not more than two or three in the last 15 years. Also one of the league's top five post defenders, Okafor boasts a career average of 1.9 bpg, and is healthier than ever, missing not one game in the last two years. He won't put up numbers as gaudy as Dwight Howard's, but really, what more could you ask for?

36. Ben Gordon (6-3/200; SG; 20.7 ppg 45.5% FG; 5 seasons)
For a while, BG was the K-Rod of the NBA. He wouldn't start, but would come off the bench and light it up, especially in crunch time. Minute for minute one of the best scorers in the league, the 26-year old Gordon has an 18.5 ppg career scoring average despite starting in just 51% of his 602 career games. No player in the league - not DWade, not LeBron, not Agent Zero - is more fearless when it comes to shooting in seemingly impossible situations, and he has the ability to change a game unlike any other player in the league. Remember when I noted that Ray Allen's shot over 40% from three just two times in the past seven years? Well Ben Gordon's done it five years straight - every year of his career.

35. Monta Ellis (6-3/180; Combo Guard; 19 ppg 4.3 rpg; 4 seasons)
Injury and character issues overwhelmed talk of Ellis' tremendous talent last season, but barring any future motorcycle accidents, we can expect the firey combo guard who imossibly shot 53.1% from the floor, despite routinely taking some of the hardest shots imaginable, en route to averaging 20.2 ppg in 2007-08. Still just 23, and already one of the league's most feared scorers, Ellis just has to prove he can run a team to be considered among the game's elite guards.

34. Greg Oden (7-0/285; C; 8.9 ppg 7 rpg 56.4% FG; 1 season)
Still plagued by the injury that cancelled his rookie season, Oden, still only 21, is locked and loaded for the 2009-10 season, in the best shape of his life. While he wasn't a dominant force on the offensive end, Oden lived up to his billing as a defender, averaging 7 rpg and 1 block in only 21.5 minutes a night (11.6 rpg and 1.9 bpg per 36 minutes), while shooting 56.4% from the floor. He's still every bit as talented as he was when he entered the league, and expect him to make good on his being selected first overall in '07 as he anchors a Trailblazers team that may soon be atop the West.

33. Paul Pierce (6-7/235; SF; 20.5 ppg 5.6 rpg; 11 seasons)
The Celtic depended on to win games, Pierce relishes the spotlight like none other and still plays twice as hard as anyone on the opposing team. He's lost a step and perhaps relies too much on his size and strength to score, but he's still as gutsy, clutch - and productive, of course - as they make 'em. Pierce continues to define veteran leadership, and he didn't need that Finals MVP trophy to validate it.

32. Rudy Gay (6-8/222; SF; 18.9 ppg 5.5 rpg; 3 seasons)
Deemed something of a dissapointment at UConn after being touted as the #1 college recruit and failing to beat George Mason in the tournament, little was expected of Gay when he slipped to the Rockets late in the lottery - they thought so little of him, in fact, that they traded him to Memphis for Shane Battier, who the previous year had averaged 10.1 ppg. Lacking a jump shot and motivation, Gay's shocked almost everyone by becoming a prolific scorer, averaging 19.5 ppg over the past two seasons, due to added muscle and hustle, evidence of his becoming increasingly motivated. He hasn't yet found success with the Grizzlies, but he's done a great job in leading a very young team and demonstrating why he's one of the absolute most talented players in the game. With two college seasons and three NBA seasons under his belt, Gay is still somehow just 22, projecting that he might one day become the superstar he seemed destined to be out of high school.

31. Andre Iguodala (6-6/207; SG/SF; 18.8 ppg 5.7 rpg 5.3 apg; 5 seasons)
At 24, Igu, who's played two years of college ball but might as well have come out of high school according to his age, is one of the rare prospects drafted in the lottery solely due to his athleticism and potential that actually panned out. The second-most durable player in the league since he came in (teammate Andre Miller is first), Iguodala has played in 404 out of a possible 410 games, playing all 82 every year but one, and blossomed into one of the most well-rounded players in the league, averaging 19 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.7 apg, and 1.9 spg over the last three seasons. And he's still just 24.

30. Rajon Rondo (6-1/171; PG; 11.9 ppg 8.2 apg 5.2 1.9 spg 3 seasons)
When a 23-year old point guard averages 16.9-9.8-9.7 in the playoffs, and his GM is doing everything within his power to try to trade him, you know something's wrong. Word is that Rondo's insane - uncoachable, stubborn, selfish - but unlike, say, Zach Randolph and Stephon Marbury, about whom similar things are said, Rondo produces across the board and flat out wins games. The numbers he compiled in the post-season, in which the Celtics were one game away from the conference finals despite playing the entire playoffs without their best player, are simply staggering, the sutff legends are made of. An outstanding defender and top-notch game manager, Rondo is still weak offensively and many argue that he is a product of his environment. That said, he's still very, very young, and what he's accomplished in his first couple years is at least enough to offset claims about his mental state.

29. Jose Calderon (6-3/210; PG; 12.9 ppg 8.9 apg 98.1% FT)
I love point guards, and Calderon, to me, is almost perfect. The numbers he's posted over the past couple seasons, since taking over the starting role, are just bananas. In 2007-08, he averaged 8.3 apg and 1.5 TO, an A/TO ratio of 5.53:1, the greatest of all-time; Last season he averaged 8.9 apg to a mere 2.1 TO, good enough to lead the league again. What's more, he shot 98.1% from the charity stripe, another all-time record. How many records does he need to set before he gets some respect around here?? At 27, Calderon is just entering his prime, and having started for just one entire season, appears to just be scratching the surface of his potential.

28. Gilbert Arenas (6-4/215; Combo Guard; 8 seasons)
During the beginning of his tenure as a Wizard everybody was obsessed with trying out figure out who Agent Zero really is, with his wacky off-court persona and fittingly untraditional game. But now, people are wondering who Gilbert Arenas is, and they're not kidding around. After a couple seasons among the league's scoring leaders, Arenas has played 15 games in the past two seasons; Penny Hardaway never missed so many games over a two-year span. Gilbert is capable - or was capable - of putting up 30, 40, 50, even 60 points on any given night, but hasn't acheived an A/TO ratio over 2:1 in any year, most times not even coming close, including one year in which he averaged 5.0 apg and 4.1 TO. That's unacceptable for a PG. But despite all this, he can be as valuable as they come, as witnessed by Washington's complete and utter collapse without him last season. He may well be one of the game's best players, but he has more to prove than anyone else in the NBA.

27. LaMarcus Aldridge (6-11/240; PF/C; 18.1 ppg 7.5 rpg; 3 seasons)
A most deserving companion to Brandon Roy, the former 2nd-overall pick has fully lived up to his billing as a supremely agile big man with a mature offensive game. He doesn't quite rebound or block shots like he should - yet - but he's become an incredibly efficient player (78.4% FT, only 1.5 TO), and should start averaging over 20 ppg in the next couple seasons. The truth is, players with Aldridge's size and skill level, at his age, aren't totally uncommon, and the best part of Aldridge's game is the way he utilizes all his tools on every possession and exercises his potential to the max.

26. Joe Johnson (6-7/240; SG/SF; 21.4 ppg 5.8 apg; 8 seasons)
A silent assassin, Johnson came to the Hawks with the expectation of improving upon the numbers he posted in Phoenix, but nobody could have thought he would have turned the entire franchise around so quickly. He's simply been one of the best players in the league since he arrived in Atlanta, averaging 22.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg and 4.3 rpg over that four year span, leading his exceptionally young squad to 26 wins, 30 wins, 37 wins, and 47 wins in his tenure. He's not the flashiest star, but he's on his way to becoming one of the most accomplished.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The 50 Most Valuable Players in the NBA: 50-41

This is not a list of the best players in the NBA.

Rather, this is a ranking of the most valuable and coveted talents in the league, the fifty players who would be of most worth to a team starting from scratch, say, if the league recycled its rosters and instituted a fantasy draft in which every player in the league was included. Would the team on the clock go for immediate rewards or long-term potential?

I find that more great arguments and statements can arise from a ranking such as this. It begs the question, would you rather start a team with the 36-year old Shaquille O'Neal, who averaged 17 and 8 this past season, or the 21-year old Greg Oden, who averaged 8 and 7? How about Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum? Carlos Boozer or Paul Millsap? Kevin Garnett or Blake Griffin?

After all, that question is more applicable to the NBA's organization than whether a player in simply better than another. The most obvious example of this is free agency, as teams weigh a player's potential value over a number of seasons - Andre Miller is the best fit now, but do we want to commit $30 over 3 years to a 33-year old point guard? Would we be better off signing the younger Ramon Sessions? - more than anything else. Trades, and even draft picks, where just about everyone is between 18 and 22 years old, abide by this principle.

So many factors went into constructing this list, but I think you'll find its pretty succinct. Don't expect to agree with everything, but please, by all means, comment on how you feel about it.

Some technical notes: all statistics, including measurements, are from or, two invaluable sources of basketball info. Because the first posting comes with this long intro, the first article will be players ranked 50-41. On Thursday, I will post 40-26, on the following Monday, 25-11, and on Thursday, 10-1. I refrained from including Yao due to his medical issues and the concern surrounding his ever playing again. This article is dedicated to him.

50. Lamar Odom (6-10/230; SF/PF; 11.3 ppg 8.2 rpg; 10 seasons)
He's the most enigmatic talent in the league, one moment jogging down the court on a fast break, the next knocking down a fade-away three without a moment's hesitation. He doesn't produce like he used to, though he's still a tremendous rebounder (9.9 rpg per 36 minutes), exceedingly unselfish (4.2 apg, not bad for a forward coming off the bench), and can play any one of four positions with ease.

49. David West (6-9/240; PF; 21 ppg 8.5 rpg; 7 seasons)
Relatively unheralded coming out of Xavier, West has slowly but surely morphed into one of the league's most venerable power forwards. I suppose he's been playing under the radar his whole career - in the Atlantic 10 in college, drafted outside the lottery in that historic 2003 class, numbers always second to CP3 - and I guess that suits him fine. But here's one fact about the 2-time All-Star that may unfortunately go unnoticed as well - he's an 84.1% career free throw shooter.

48. Josh Smith (6-8/240; SF; 15.6 ppg 7.2 rpg 1.6 bpg; 5 seasons)
Just 23 and with five seasons under his belt, Smith is one of the main reasons for the Hawks emergence from the basement of the league. Drafted out of high school, Smith made his mark on the league faster than anyone could have expected, rapdily refining what was thought to be a raw offensive game to average 13.8 ppg for his career, including a 17.2 ppg in 2007-08 campaign. Where Smith really shines, though, is on the defensive end, posting career averages of 2.4 bpg and 1.2 spg, validating his standing as one of the game's last great stat-stuffers.

47. Hedo Turkoglu (6-10/220; SF/PF; 16.8 ppg 5.3 rpg; 9 seasons)
Formerly known primarily as a scorer, Turkoglu shed that image in the 2009 Playoffs by leading the Magic to the finals not with his jump shot, but his great playmaking ability. The 6-10 point forward had the ball in his hands every possession down the stretch, and used his size to see over opposing defenses and spread the floor. Still a threat to drop 25-30 on any given night, Turkoglu is the glue guy that turns talented teams into winning teams.

46. Vince Carter (6-6/220; SG; 20.8 ppg 5.1 rpg 4.7 apg; 11 seasons)
As his scoring has declined, his other numbers have jumped. In 2007-08, when he averaged 21.3 ppg (compared to 27.5 ppg with NJ in '04-05, 24.2 in '05-06, and 25.2 in '06-07), he also posted career highs in rpg (6.0) and apg (5.5). Now as well-rounded as he's ever been, Carter has only to prove that he can win.

45. Anthony Morrow (6-5/210; SG; 10.1 ppg 46.7% 3PT; 1 season) and Anthony Randolph (6-10/210; 7.9 ppg 5.8 rpg 1.2 bpg; 1 season)
For all the hype surrounding the 2008 draft, many slept on two of the absolute brightest prospects in the Warriors' sophomore Anthony's, Morrow and Ranolph, whose accomplishments and potential surely rank them among the game's finest young talents. Morrow, one of the two or three best shooters in the league, scored 37 points in his NBA debut, a record for an undrafted rookie, led the league in three point field goal percentage - as a rookie - and just recently set a summer league record with 47 points against the Hornets. Randolph, who many expected to be a bust after just one year at LSU, put up terrific numbers for a rookie buried in Don Nelson's depth chart, averaging 15.1 ppg and 10.6 rpg in the final month of the season - not bad for the youngest player in the entire league. The two have a great rivalry going, as Morrow, who apparently hit 90 out of 102 three pointers in a shooting drill and 98 out of 114 in another, reportedly beat Randolph in H-O-R-S-E left-handed (he's a righty). Randolph responded by tying the summer league record with a 42 point outburst against the Bulls, and earning a Team USA invite as a result, but Morrow one-upped him once more, shattering the mark just a couple days later. Once this rivalry extends into the rest of the Association, every contest might just appear another summer league game to these gifted and motivated young guns.

44. Ray Allen (6-5/205; SG; 18.2 ppg 40.9% 3PT; 13 seasons)
Accepting a reduced role has done wonders for Allen's game, as he set new career marks in field goal percentage (48%) and free throw percentage (95.2%) in 2008-09, while shooting above 40% from three for just the second time in seven years. Even if you think he wouldn't be able to drop 25 a game if he was the #1 option again, he's still - and will be until he retires - the best shooter in the league.

43. Kevin Martin (6-7/185; SG; 24.6 ppg 3.6 rpg; 5 seasons)
The 26-year old Martin is an enigma, the type of player who could outscore Kobe in a seven-game series or never make the playoffs for lack of improving the players around him. All we have to go on now is the fact that Martin is one of the league's top scorers, averaging 22.8 ppg over the past three seasons, while consistently shooting over 40% from three. One can't help but notice, though, that Martin's had more turnovers than assists in each of the past couple seasons, and his team has struggled to compete - he's also very injury prone. For a young guard saddled with the responsibility of out-scoring his opponent night in and night out, he's still an elite talent.

42. David Lee (6-9/240; PF; 16 ppg 11.7 rpg 54.9% FG)
There really isn't a more efficient big man in the game today. From the 2007 T-Mobile Rookie Challenge, when Lee scored 30 points on 14-14 shooting - no, that's not a typo - to the 2008-09 season, his fourth, in which he led the NBA in double-doubles, Lee has proven again and again that he is, quite simply, an animal. At 26, Lee's scoring has improved every season, and his career low shooting season came in 2008-09, when he shot a mere 54.9% from the floor. He might not be able to carry a team, but there are few players I'd rather have on mine.

41. Shaquille O'Neal (7-0/325; C; 17.8 ppg 8.4 rpg; 17 seasons)
Along with Kevin Garnett, he's the toughest player to rank. At 36, and boasting an average of 58 games of the past four seasons, he's not exactly the type of player one aim's to build around...but he's still Shaq, the dominant, ultra-competitive center who averages near 20 points and 10 rebounds per game when healthy and shoots around 60% from the floor. Would you rather start a team with Shaq, the three-time Finals MVP hurtling towards retirement, than any of the guys have ranked closely to him? That's a debate worth having.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Son of a Pritch!

Ridding Portland of the 'Jailblazers' moniker was no easy task. No quality of coaching, resources or fan loyalty could cleanse the Blazers of the sex offenders, dog fighters, drug addicts, and plain knuckleheads (as for fan loyalty: Bonzi Wells famously stated in a 2002 interview interview, "They [fans] really don't matter to us. They can boo us every day, but they're still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street.") The front office had failed for years to move the likes of Qyntel Woods, Ruben Patterson, Bonzi Wells and Zach Randolph, among others, which resulted in a string of losing seasons almost immediately following the years in which they contended with the Lakers and Kings atop the Western Conference. Then Kevin Pritchard took hold of the reigns.

For all the awesome debates raging among NBA fans today - who's better, Kobe or Lebron, who's a better coach, Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson, etc., - there's one assertion concerning 'the best' that is exceedingly hard to refute: Kevin Pritchard has been the best GM in the league over the past few seasons. Upon inheriting a 21-61 team with virtually no valuable pieces aside from mental case Randolph, Pritchard did everything within his power to transform them from league doormat to Western Conference power. Three years into his tenure, they're a 54-win team, and the average starter on the 2008-09 squad was about 25 years old.

Which makes Pritchard's decisions over the past few months so alarming.

Pritchard's first uncharacterisic action was his pressuring the league's other 29 teams not to sign Darius Miles, the former Blazers swingman who typically did nothing to warrant his ludicrous salary while in the black and red. Miles had in 2006 suffered a potentially career-ending injury, and few expected him to ever play again. Doctors ruled that the injury was severe enough for the Blazers to be relieved of having to pay the $18 million remaning on his contract, so it came as quite a shock to them when they realized Miles was healthy enough to suit up, and they would therefore not be granted that precious cap relief. The Blazers immediately sent out an email warning teams not to sign the 27-year old, but no one budged, and Pritchard was criticized for his attempting to bully the other organizations. Many wrote it off as overblown due to Pritchard's squeaky clean record, only for it to seem like a legitimate omen to just about everybody eight months on.

The 2009 off-season has thus far been similarly beguiling, the first blunder being the mishandling of free agent Hedo Turkoglu. I don't necessarily hold Portland's losing him, after apparently signing him, as a great failure on Pritchard's part, though it certainly wasn't a positive. The Blazers need a veteran small forward like Marbury needs his entourage, seeing how Portland needs someone with experience to bolster exceptionally young big men Alrdridge and Greg Oden, a player to take pressure of Brandon Roy and step up in the clutch. Turkoglu is all that and more. His playing there may never have truly been a possibility, if we are to believe his decision to play in Toronto was motivated by his wife wanting to live in a more European city, but still, with him in their clutches, losing Hedo might mean losing out on a trip to the Finals in the next couple seasons.

That was semi-understandable. Now, it gets personal.

As a Utah Jazz fan, I'm incensed by their pursuit of power forward Paul Millsap, a player who by all accounts they don't need, and who is not worth, to them at least the $36+ million they're offering him. $36 million for a backup power forward? Are you crazy? A 24-year power forward to back up a 23-year old power forward? Yes, the Blazers have $9 million in cap space and yes, they are a little slim down low, but wouldn't they rather save that money for 2010, when they'll be able to get most every free agent on the phone and lock down someone who's actually a semi-decent fit? Why didn't they pursue Brandon Bass or Glen Davis, talented young power forwards similar to Millsap and half as expensive? Just because they have salary cap room does not mean they have to spend it. They would save $9 million, key in this economy, I'd assume, and could next year find someone who's more compatible with their squad.

This is just wrong in so many ways. The Blazers are scurrying to improve, as any team should, but are overreacting like the Yankees when Boston signs a fifth reliever. The truth is, they don't need to go out and get anyone - in fact, signing a big free agent might only make things worse. Keep in mind, this is a team that's improved it's win total by 11 (21-61 to 32-50), 9 (41-41), and 13 (54-28) games over the past three seasons, solely through the development of their young players. And they managed 54 wins last season, a monster accomplishment in the West, despite suffering a number of setbacks: Martell Webster, who averaged a career high 10.7 ppg in 2007-08 missed 81 games, Greg Oden missed 21 and was developing the whole year, and Steve Blake missed 13. Does Pritchard not think they would be able to improve if Webster was healthy the whole season and Oden improved the slightest bit? Pritchard got to this point by honing talent he acquired in the Draft - why try to fix what ain't broke?

One of the most puzzling aspects of all this is why they're so gung-ho on Millsap when they're biggst needs are at point guard and small forward, where they're trying to upgrade. Why not pursue proven veterans Andre Miller or Kirk Hinrich, both of whom are on the block? And, most mind-boggling of all, where is Lamar Odom in all this? The versatile Odom would be the perfect complement to Roy, Aldridge and Odom, and they could have him for the same price as Millsap, who they would have backup Aldridge, who plays 37 minutes a game. Not only has Pritchard not pursued Odom - they haven't mentioned him once.

The sad thing is, despite being a die hard Jazz fan, I secretly root for the Blazers a bit. I love how they've altered their image, how they approach the NBA draft like its an expansion draft, and I think Brandon Roy is one of the five best players in the league. None of these misteps of his may prove to be cataclysmic, but we've come to expect more from the newly minted golden boy of the the managerial scene.

Friday, July 10, 2009

NBA Summer League '09 Preview

Some guys just can't handle Vegas. Believe it or not, that saying can apply as easily to pro basketball as it can to hangovers. Every year, player's hearts are broken, dreams are shattered...or lit anew in the UNLV arena, with as many scouts and team officials on hand as fans as they watch their, and their opponents, prized talents and go head to head, plenty of them for the first time in an NBA uniform.

I think every fan has an idea sports getaway, usually a week-long Super Bowl excursion or taste of Fenway Park, but for me, watching the league's best, mostly uncultivated talent ferociously compete for playing time and a roster spot over 10 days in Vegas is my grail. I believe $200 gets you a pass to every game, and I plan on going next year. For now, I'll have to rely on the reported stats and other coverage. While we're going about our days at home, here's what will be going down in the desert.

Anthony Morrow will have opponents begging for mercy
Having averaged 10 ppg as a rookie and led the league in three point field goal percentage (46.7%) - as a rookie - it came as quite as a surprise to me to see Morrow on the Warriors summer league roster. Not only is Morrow one of the 2 or 3 best shooters in the league - the righty has reportedly been beating teammates in H-O-R-S-E left-handed, and in one drill hit 90 out of 102 threes he attempted - he's also a tremendous and well-rounded scorer, famously dropping 37 (15-20 FG) in his first career start. At the summer league, I expect him to be the player who, were he in high school, would be having opposing coaches asking to see his birth certificate.

The Minnesota Timberwolves soap opera premieres July 12
There have to be more awesome storylines associated with this team than with any other summer leagues squad in the history of the event. Were it a soap opera, the ads might communicate something of this sort:

Spanish prodigy and T-Wolves top pick Ricky Rubio nowhere to be found!
Bobcats rookie Gerald Henderson, the #12 pick in the draft, playing for Minny!
Johnny Flynn and Paul Harris, teammates in high school and at Syracuse, reuinited!
First-round pick Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderon, teammates in high school but rivals at UNC and Duke...Reunited!!
Mid-major wonder Ben Woodside, who scored 60 points in a game and 37 against Kansas in the tournament, on the roster!

Yes, it will be awesomely exciting, especially considering they have Corey Brewer, still looking to prove he can play, as well as the talented Bobby Brown and Oleksiy Pecherov, a first-round pick three years ago, on board as well. Indeed, no NBA fan will want to miss an episode.

The Kings could go undefeated
In many ways, the perfect team for this event. Down low they have the summer league equivalent of the Twin Towers in talented and proven big men Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson, who both averaged 11 and 7 last year, and are just 21 and 23 years old, respectively, and at the swing position Donte Green, who memorably averaged a whopping 22.6 ppg in the summer league last year, including 40 points in his debut. And if that weren't enough, they've also got #4 pick Tyreke Evans at guard and fellow first-round pick Omri Casspi in the lineup as well. If they can develop some chemistry, they're almost unbeatable.

The Cavaliers will suprise a lot of people
Looking at the Cavs roster you would probably think they just aren't trying, and really, they're not - but the players damn sure will be. With virtually no room on the roster for anyone besides current, but practically anonymous benchwarmers Tarence Kinsey and Jawad Williams, and maybe Christian Eyenga, who still might not join the team next year, the Cavs fielded a team of just 9 players, or, half as many as the Mavericks. Expect them to play their hearts, out, though, and steal a few games from some heavily favored opponents. They're very balanced, with a couple big, physical point guards (Jamont Gordon and Maureece Rice), athletic and dynamic swingmen (Eyenga, Danny Green), versatile forwards (Jawad Williams, Leo Lyons), and a great amount of NBA experience in Kinsey and center David Harrison. They won't run the table, but don't expect them to be run out of the gym, either.

The Knicks, as only the Knicks would, aim to mentor Jordan Hill with the biggest washouts of the decade
What's the best way to prepare your top draft pick, an extremely talented young big man, for success in the NBA? Prepare him with a few of the biggest busts ever at his position, of course! The Knicks roster boasts the unique talents of Nikoloz Tskitishvili (5th pick in 2002 draft), Yaroslav Korolev (12 pick in 2005 draft) and Mouhamed Sene (10th pick in 2006 draft), all of whom stand at least 6-10, and none of whom ever averaged more than 3.9 ppg in a season. These three supposedly talented big man stand for everything that's wrong with talent evaluation in the league, and are arguably the three least productive draft picks of the last ten years. Are these the guys they want to first surround Jordan Hill with? Best of all, only one of them (Sene) was on the Knicks roster last season, and the others haven't been in the league for two full years, meaning they actually made an effort to go get these guys.

The Nuggets are short but sweet
Like Cleveland, the Nuggets are coming off a conference finals appearance and have little room on their roster, so their team is comprised of just 9 players, including the best group of guards in the summer league. Among them are first-round pick and NCAA champion Ty Lawson, the resilient Coby Karl, fresh off leading the Celtics in scoring in the Orlando Summer League, Arkansas product Sonny Weems, who averaged a crazy 20.5 ppg in only 28.3 mpg in the D-League this past season, and six-year veteran Kareem Rush, who's averaged 6.5 ppg in career. If former lottery pick Cedric Simmons and C.J. Giles can hold it down the fort on the block, they're a dangerous squad.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Grading the Moves, Part I: Major Trades

Phoenix traded center Shaquille O'Neal to Cleveland for center Ben Wallace, guard-forward Sasha Pavlovic, a 2010 second-round draft pick and cash.

-- Cleveland did just about as much as it could to sate LeBron James' demands for another weapon, as Shaq will do wonders for this team which struggled to score in the paint all season, not to mention he brings 4 championship rings and a slew of NBA and Finals MVP's along with him. Its almost impossible to fault this deal, especially since the Cavs gave up nothing to get him.
Cavs Grade: A
-- You have to wonder what Steve Nash is thinking right now. I could see trading away 16-year veteran Shaq for a couple expiring contracts if that team was planning on totally rebuilding, but the Suns are not, and have thus essentially given away Shawn Marion and Shaq over the course of the year, all but dismantling a perennial 60-win team. The move will give them some salary cap flexibility in 2010, but by then, it might be too late for Nash, Hill & Co.
Suns Grade: C-

New Jersey traded guard Vince Carter and forward Ryan Anderson to Orlando for guards Rafer Alston and Courtney Lee and center Tony Battie.

-- The Nets gave up any chance they had of winning next year, though it could turn out to be a great move. Consider that last year they were almost totally healthy, and managed just 34 wins, and that Carter's scoring has dropped off considerably. I think that justifies a change. Acquiring Courtney Lee, probably the most accomplished rookie to be traded after one season in my memory, forms with Devin Harris and Brook Lopez arguably the best core of young stars in the East, and shedding Carter's contract means that in 2010-11 they will improbably have only $15.6 million tied up in contracts, which has to be the lowest potential payroll in the league. If in '010 they can get any one of Carlos Boozer, Chris Bosh, Mehmet Okur, Jermaine O'Neal or another PF to team with Lopez down low, they're a contender again.
Nets Grade: B+
-- **THIS WAS WRITTEN WITH HEDO TURKOGLU'S LEAVING DUE TO SALARY CAP CONSTRAINTS A VIRUAL CERTAINTY** Acquiring Vince Carter made the Magic the most talented team in the league, but will it work? Getting Carter likely means letting go of Hedo Turkoglu, and that could prove to be very risky. Hedo was the player that made this group of stars gel, with his terrific passing ability, poise, and ability to play 4 positions. Carter may average five more points per game than Hedo, but how will this hurt the Magic's chemistry? Do they think they could not have won if Jameer Nelson was at full strength? I'm a little reluctant to praise the Magic for letting go of arguably their playoff MVP immediately after making it to the Finals. Also, we must consider the fact that the Nets regressed from Eastern Conference power to bubble playoff team when Carter arrived, and he never did win in Toronto. So what does he really bring to the table? The Magic certainly don't need shooting (they also acquired Ryan Anderson, who had a very impressive rookie campaign and whose game is all about the 3 ball), and now Rashard Lewis may actually be forced to play the PF position, as Hedo's size made things much easier for them on defense. Still, their lineup is the most talent-laden in all the league, and we have to think Steve Van Gundy will make it work.
Magic Grade: B

Minnesota traded guards Randy Foye and Mike Miller to Washington for the 2009 No. 5 draft pick, forwards Etan Thomas, Darius Songaila, Oleksiy Pecherov.

-- I can understand why Minnesota made this deal - they knew they were going nowhere. But they gave away Foye (16.3 ppg) and Miller (1,173 career 3-PT FG) and accepted two or three of the worst contracts in the league to draft a player who might never play for them?? The initial logic was sensible, putting themselves in a position to draft two potential franchise guards with the 5th and 6th picks to complement Al Jefferson and Kevin Low down low, but with only one guard presumably on the way, this might turn out to be a disaster.
Timberwolves Grade: C-
-- Just like the T-Wolves, the Wizards logic in making the deal was sound - upset with receiving the 5th pick rather than the second, they acquire immediate help and rid a couple nagging contracts in the process - but when the dust settled on the 2009 NBA Draft, they were riddled with regret. The fact is this: the Wizards could have had Ricky Rubio. They could have had Rubio, apparently a Wizard with the ball who's unselfish to a fault, dishing to elite-level scorers Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. It would have been a perfect fit for both. Will the Wizards be better next year with Foye and Miller than they would have been with Rubio? Most likely. But consider this: the Wizards traded away the #5 pick, a point guard for veteran talent (Jamison) before. That point guard became Devin Harris.
Wizards Grade: C+

San Antoniotraded forwards Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas and center Fabricio Oberto to Milwaukee for forward Richard Jefferson.

-- Rising from the dead and encouraging discssion of a veto rule to dissallow trades such as these that makes the best teams better at the expense of worse teams' money woes (ok, maybe I'm the only that's upset about trades like this, and Kwame Brown and Jarvis Crittenden for Pau Gasol...), the Spurs, coming off their worst season since Tim Duncan joined the team in 1997, are primed to contend for the title once again. San Antonio didn't give away anyone of real value to them, and in returned nabbed a swingman who routinely averages 18-22 ppg and is entering his prime, healthier than ever. The franchise appeared doomed after dropping 4-1 to the 6th-seeded Mavs in the first round, but with this move - coupled with the Lakers apparent refusal to re-sign both Odom and Ariza to the deals they desire - are arguably the team to beat in the West once again.
Spurs Grade: A
-- Almost over night the Bucks went from a potential 45-win team with an extremely solid lineup consisting of Ramon Sessions, Michael Redd, Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villanueva and Andrew Bogut to league doormat. The move was apparently made to free up cap space for Sessions and Villanueva, but now the latter is gone and the former is fielding serious offers from four or five teams. Even if they keep Sessions, we're looking at the least talented team of the league, one that also sadly struggles with injuries and tons more bad luck. And no, Brandon Jennings is not the answer. The only hope for this team is to nab one or two impact free agents in '010, and that will still be hard as they'll have a hefty $42 million locked up. Really, its just sad, but its hard to pity them, seeing as they essentially gave an All-Star to a team that's won three championships in the last seven seasons for nothing at all.
Bucks Grade: D+

New York traded guard Quentin Richardson and cash to Memphis for center Darko Milicic.

-- When a team acquires Darko Milicic, you can't say "that was smart move." You're not allowed, unless you're being sarcastic...but in this case, and I never thought I'd say this, the Knicks were right to deal QRich for him. Richardson seriously underperformed in every season as a Knick, and keeping him would only serve to hinder budding star Wilson Chandler's development. If Milicic ever capitalizes on his potential it will be under the guise of a coach like D'Antoni, who honed his style in the Europe, which works to the athletic Milicic's advantage, and he won't start, meaning less responsibility and downside. Plus, he's off the books after next year, so there's minimal risk involved. Yeah, he's sucked thus far, but I have a feeling D'Antoni could make a real impact on him.
Knicks Grade: B-
-- Memphis dealt Richardson to the Clippers for Zach Randolph days later, so this grade gets an incomplete for now. More on that trade when it becomes official.

Golden State traded guard Jamal Crawford to Atlanta for guards Acie Law and Speedy Claxton.

-- FACT: Jamal Crawford has played for three different teams. The average improvement in a team's first year without Jamal Crawford is a 16-win increase. He has the lowest winning percentage of any player in the league, struggles to shoot 40% from the field (he's shot below 40% in three different seasons), and does not play defense. Did I mention teams improve by an average of 16 games after getting rid of him?
Warriors Grade: A
-- FACT: Jamal Crawford has played for three different teams. A team's average first season with Jamal Crawford is a 9-win regression, most notably the Warriors going 48-34 in 2007-08, acquiring Crawford in the off-season, then going 29-53 the following year. The Hawks were 47-35 last year. They can expect a similar fate.
Hawks Grade: F