Kill the Headlights and Put It in Neutral

Whenever a star gets traded, any fan of a team not receiving him feels some sense of disappointment, if only because a superstar was available and the team failed to pick him up. Such is the case with Kevin Garnett, except this time it’s even worse because everyone has to listen to insufferable Celtics fans yapping about the inevitable resurgence of the greatest franchise in the history of organized basketball. (I kid, sorta. Like Billups said earlier today, the Celtics are now about three aging stars trying to win, not some return of the shillelagh.)

For a few teams, though, this trade stings more than for others. The Suns, Warriors, Lakers, and Bulls all had better-than-awful chances to deal for Garnett, but circumstances left them on the sidelines. Where do they go from here? Can they take any consolation in what transpired?

Phoenix Suns
I already submitted my thoughts on Phoenix’s offseason last week: they’ve only gotten worse, but this trade should make it even more clear that the Suns have had a dismal summer. Right around draft night, the Suns were close to landing KG in a three-team deal, with Amare as the main piece. That deal fell through due to numerous factors (including the Hawks deciding they didn’t want an All-NBA player), and after the draft the Suns quickly fell off the list of strong contenders for Garnett. After taking Amare off the table, it looked tough for Phoenix to get a third party involved.

Yet KG seemed to doom Boston’s hopes of landing him during the week of the draft, and he still ended up in green. Things clearly changed when Ainge acquired Ray Allen, but the Celtics still had to convince Garnett that he would enjoy being a Celtic. Where was that kind of perseverance from the Suns? Amare and Shawn Marion are tradeable pieces in spite of their big contracts, and it was Steve Kerr’s job to get creative and swing a deal. I realize that Sarver restricts Kerr’s ability to take on contracts, but he must have signed off on KG at some point if Kerr tried to get him in late June. I love Amare to death, but Garnett would have come as close to guaranteeing them a championship in the next two years as any trade could have. You have to make that leap.

This situation would probably be easier to take for Suns fans if Sarver ever gave any indication that he cared about winning a championship. When the news broke on Sunday night, though, I’m sure he was sleeping on a pile of money with many beautiful ladies.

Will the Suns do anything else of substance this summer? Of course not, because that would cost money.

Golden State Warriors
If we take Tim Kawakami’s sources at their words, the Warriors were a miscommunication between McHale and MJ away from getting Garnett for Monta, Richardson, and Al Harrington. That wouldn’t have been a bad trade; the KG/Andris combo inside would have stood toe-to-toe with any frontcourt in the league. But, alas, the geography major at UNC didn’t teach His Airness how to make phone calls, so no luck there. All evidence shows that Mullin tried to work something out with McHale after the trade. In the end, no Warriors package other than Andris, Monta, Harrington, and a lot more cap filler would have surpassed the quality of the Boston package, and I’ve never been a fan of putting Monta and Andris in the same deal.

GSW currently has the same major hole at power forward that they did at the beginning of the summer. Options approaching KG’s caliber are basically nonexistent now; fast power forwards who can rebound and defend don’t stay on the market for long. AK47 would be a tremendous fit, but I don’t see a wing on the roster who fits what Jerry Sloan wants to do.

Drew Gooden’s name has been mentioned in rumors, and he’s a strong enough rebounder to make him a decent option in spite of the fact that he doesn’t play much defense. The major issue with that trade involves money: the trade exception could be used on Gooden for this year, but the following year his salary would put the Warriors over the luxury tax should management do the right thing and reup Monta/Andris. At any rate, Gooden probably wouldn’t make a big difference in a playoff series. I’ve resigned myself to the Warriors not making another big move this offseason, which would be tougher to handle if I didn’t like every player on the team not named O’Bryant.

Los Angeles Lakers
I doubt the Lakers were ever serious contenders for Garnett; McHale never seemed to like the Bynum/Odom package much, and in today's press conference KG said he wasn't interested in the Lakers because of the uncertainty surrounding Kobe. The Lakers are on this list almost exclusively for what the trade does for Kobe’s emotional state. Logically, this thing would upset him, but I believe more and more everyday that Kobe is insane, so who knows what he’s thinking. It’s entirely possible that he’s devoting himself to finding rare Hakeem tapes for Andrew Bynum.

Here's the thing: Kobe’s desires shouldn’t affect the Lakers at all in this case, because he’s the best player in the NBA and anyone with a half a brain should do his best to give the best player in the NBA some help. The Lakers have no direction, though, so too bad for Mamba.

I adore Odom (so misused on this team) and sorta like Bynum (not as a perennial all-star like some Lakers fans seem to think, but he’ll be solid for years), but someone like Jermaine O’Neal would do wonders for this team. Carter (and most Lakers fans, it seems) thinks that it's not worth it if Odom has to be part of the deal. I disagree, citing Odom's poor fit on the roster and the two-star/role player game plan. Additionally, Carter often tells me how the Lakers don’t need to do anything except surround Kobe with decent role players if they want to be a middle seed. I think that’s right, but screw being a four seed. Get another star and challenge for a championship; that system works. The last name won’t fool anyone into thinking that Jermaine is Shaq, but at least LA will be real again. The front office needs to stop making this whole Kobe thing harder than it actually is.

Chicago Bulls
For my money, the biggest losers here. They have the most tradeable pieces on their roster, so enough players would have still been around to make them a legitimate contender in either conference. Adding to that point, all those players are young enough to make them attractive to the Minnesota rebuilding process. KG also played his high school ball in Chicago, so the geographical ties are there. Bill Simmons claims that Paxson rolling over PJ Brown’s contract one more year would have made it a sure thing; I’m not convinced they couldn’t have worked something out this summer anyway with some creative trading. Now KG’s playing for one of their traditional conference rivals. Oops.

The Bulls still need a reliable post scorer if they want to take the next step, and Pau Gasol seems like the best big-time option. Again, they have the pieces needed to make a deal, although it’s very possible that Memphis doesn’t want to trade Gasol now that they have the makings of a pretty solid team.

The best case scenario for Chicago would probably involve Kobe flipping out on the Lakers again and demanding a trade. The Bulls are the most obvious destination for him, so it would once again come down to Paxson having to pull the trigger. I wouldn’t hold my breath.


I'm a Man You Don't Meet Every Day

After months of speculation and insanity, it looks like KG will end up in Boston in exchange for Al Jefferson, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff and his expiring contract, and Sebastian Telfair. (All comments here work off the assumption that this deal will go through soon. Judging by my recent luck, though, I fully expect to wake up tomorrow morning and hear that it all fell through.) At first glance, this deal seems to make the Celtics a strong contender for the East title and the sort of squad that could at the very least put a mighty scare into the West champions. On the other hand, Ainge better be sure this team will contend for a title in the next few years. Without much help aboard for Garnett, Pierce, and Ray Allen, there won’t be much of a window, so I’m not confident this deal will result in another Larry O’Brien for Boston. However, I admire it for their willingness to go all out for one of the best players in the league, even if it meant giving up one of the best young post players in the NBA. At a time when too many teams seem unwilling to do what it takes to get to the next level, at least Ainge appears to want his team to win.

Let me begin with the obvious: the Celtics now have Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. Basketball is obviously won by having more than three really good players, but that trio’s nothing to sneeze at. With Pierce and Allen on the perimeter, Boston has two legitimate shot takers in crunch time, and Garnett’s versatile enough to be a great option in those cases, too. It’ll be virtually impossible for teams to key on any one of those guys at the risk of letting the other two go off. I suppose it’ll be possible for opponents to focus on two players, but that still leaves one of the triplets open. It’ll be a “pick your poison” situation in every Celtics game this season.

That foolish-sounding double double-team strategy, though, is only worth mentioning because the Celtics now have just a few role players who actually deserve major NBA minutes. Rajon Rondo can play the point, but he can’t shoot jumpers at all, which is all he’d really need to do for this team. Ryan Gomes is one step closer to carrying out Billups’s recent suggestion and changing his position to “I SET FUCKING PICKS. IT’S ABOUT AS FUN AS IT SOUNDS.” Uh...who’s after that? Leon Powe? Big Baby Davis? Brian Scalabrine? Maybe Doc Rivers should suit up. Does anyone seriously think those guys can be major contributors on a title team? (Particulars of the deal are still open to change—perhaps Rondo subs in for Green and Bassy—but my point remains the same no matter who gets added.)

Putting the present aside for a second, Ainge just completely sold out the Celtics’ future. Jefferson’s only 22, so his best days are ahead. Ditto Gerald Green, although who knows how good his best days will be. Boston also won’t be getting many quality draft picks for the next few years because of their likely solid record, so they shouldn’t expect a seamless transition once Allen, Pierce, and Garnett leave.

Where does that leave the Celtics? A championship is unlikely and future pain is all but assured: this would appear to be a bad trade. For a moment, though, I’d like to take off my objective analyst’s skirt and put on my ass-masking NBA fan pantsuit.

As I lamented last week, too many teams (SUNS!!!) are unwilling to do what it takes to win championships. The league employs too many full weak-ass general managers who don’t want to break up their limited successes out of fear that they’ll lose their jobs. The best example of this sort of general manager is John Paxson of the Bulls, who refuses to pull the trigger on trades for legitimate stars (Gasol, Garnett, et al.) because he has some nice young talent running around the United Center. Of course, these Bulls probably won’t ever make it past the conference finals. I'm sure Paxson's drowning out the Garnett news with his favorite Rick Astley song as we speak.

I imagine that Danny Ainge realized that the post-draft Celtics were not much better than a four-seed in the East—not exactly worldbeaters. Picking up Garnett probably vaults them into a top-two-or-three seed, which, while not spectacular, at least puts the Celtics in a realistic position to get to the NBA Finals. Last week, the Celtics were going nowhere with contradictory team identities of aging, productive all-stars and young kids—now they have a clear look with three legitimate stars. I’m not sure how much I actually agree with Ainge’s move in strict basketball terms, but I love that he’s going balls out with this one. It’s even more impressive when you remember he’s Mormon.

Simply put, you can’t get better by standing around, but you can make things better by being proactive. Things can also get terrible, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Phrases don’t become clich├ęs by accident.

Oh yeah, the Timberwolves are involved in this one, too. It should be clear that they’re going to be terrible next season. McHale better spend a lot of time watching Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, and OJ Mayo next year.


I Miss You When You're Around

The Smush Parker Experience continues to be in full effect! Hat tip to anonymous commenter on FB&G who somehow got this news long before being broken by the Miami Herald this morning. At the time of the comment a google search of "Smush" and "Miami" returned only a handful of links consisting mainly of Lakers message boards snickering at the fact that Smush's name was included with Francis, Pargo, and Knight as PGs that the Heat were interested in. But it now appears to be legit.

Way back when in my very first post for this site I said, "Smush's two-year career in Purple and Gold might merit its own post sometime this summer when we're running low on topics." Now that Smush has found a new home, this would seem to be as good a time as any for that promised discussion. So before looking at the implications of this signing for Wade and co., allow me a moment to reminisce fondly at the frustratingly rewarding headache that was Smush Parker, starting Laker point guard.

My first thought when I heard the Lakers had signed undrafted 24-year-old journeyman Smush Parker was not, as one might expect, "Smush who?" so much as,"Holy shit! There's a dude named Smush!?" (it wouldn't be until months later that I learned this was actually a nickname). I still remember excitedly checking his box scores from a different hemisphere to see him score 20 in 3 of his first 4 appearances as a Laker. I was completely convinced that we had uncovered a hidden gem on the scale of Manu Ginobli before I ever had a chance to watch him play. When I did finally return stateside in time for the last half of the season, I was encouraged by his flashes, forgiving of his flaws, and thrilled by most everything about him. I saw him becoming the next great folk hero for the Lakers, filling the void left by Fisher as the lovable underdog who defies the odds and comes through big when you least expect.

Then the postseason came and I repeatedly had to resist the urge to chuck my remote through the screen each time he got lost on the pick-and-roll. Granted Nash has a tendency to make even quality defenders look foolish, but Smush's decision-making on the offensive end was even more mind-blowingly atrocious. Other than a decent performance in a Kobe-off-night during Game 3, we were treated to what would soon become all-too-typical FGM-A lines of 5-13, 2-12, 1-7, 0-5, and 4-13. For the series Smusher went 3 of 30 from outside. How he had the greenlight to hoist up 6 threes in game 7 will remain a far bigger mystery to me than Kobe's much discussed second-half disappearing act. To round out one of the worst post-season performances I've ever witnessed, he managed to collect 11 assists, 12 turnovers, and 24 fouls across the seven games. I hold him personally accountable for the Lakers blowing that series.

Now I realize I said at the beginning of this post I said I wanted this to be a fond look back, and I did intend it that way initially, but the frustration from revisiting those box scores was too hard to contain. So let me take a step back and explain that I truly am grateful for what he contributed and that I will miss him just a little bit. Despite the constant headaches, what is often lost in the Smush discussion is that the Lakers asked a guy making less than $800,000 who had averaged 3 points-per-game the previous season to be the starting PG and acted upset when he underperformed. For most of the 06-07 season, 4 guards all making more than him (combining for more than 6m in salary: McKie, Shammond, Farmar, and Sasha) sat behind him on the depth chart. Sasha freaking Vujacic was out-earning him and we were surprised that he developed an inferiority complex? As 82games points out, for the 05-06 season Smush was about the best bargain any team could possibly hope for, making about 5 million less than he was apparently worth. Statistically that year he was the Lakers third most important player (not saying much on that roster) and the only player outside of Kobe and Odom to play more than 50% of the season's minutes. Now, I'm not saying I'm sad to see him go, or that his presence on the court come playoff time didn't make me want to pull my hair out, but I do think the derision aimed at him by Lakers fans often overlooks the contributions he did make and that the vast majority of the blame lies with management for putting him in that position.

Now that I've long-windedly tried to express the love-hate relationship that Smush provoked, how do I feel about the Heat's signing? While the Heat haven't yet revealed all the terms, last night's anon reported the deal as 2-years at 5 mil. If true, the length is good, the size obviously is not. Some fans (such as Kurt of FB&G) believe he could become "an effective backup coming in behind a star PG in a more open system." Clearly the Jason Williams-led Heat are not such a situation. I personally question his ability to ever become a decent role-player. I don't know if it's because of his playground days in Coney Island, but he unquestionably has the mindset of a star trapped with the skills of a journeyman, a problematic combination. If he could consistently play near the level he showed he was capable of during his peaks while playing in small doses he'd be a terrific backup for sure. But while playing in spells, Smush is far too prone to lose either his focus, his intensity, his desire, his confidence, or some combination thereof. He has the athleticism of an NBA player, and has at times showed the ability to become a decent streak shooter, but his problems appear to be overwhelmingly mental. While he'll be sulky if you don't rely on him, he'll fall apart if you rely on him too much. If Phil couldn't navigate that personality, I have no reason to think that Riley could. I do wish him the best and would be thrilled to see him beat out White Chocolate for minutes, but I don't see his stay with the Heat being very different than his tenure with the Lakers.

Riley's quote that "He brings size, shooting and defense to our backcourt" is 1/3 true: he does bring size. But the Herald's assertion that he's "considered a strong on-the-ball defender and three-point shooter" is definitely news to me. Riley continues that "He has been improving every year, and we feel that this could be his best year yet." Translation: "Muthafuck Milwaukee." The GM's line,"Smush has been the starting point guard of a playoff team the past two seasons," is a similarly pathetic attempt at looking on the bright side. While it's technically true that he did start for a team that went to the playoffs, it's hard to forget that he lost that starting job to a rookie two games before said playoffs. Then again, who knew this fascinating factoid: "Parker is one of four players with at least 110 steals and 110 3-point field goals in each of the past two seasons. Gilbert Arenas, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd are the others." Without the bitter, the sweet ain't as sweet.


The French Inhaler

For the second time in two weeks, one of my posts has become mildly irrelevant just hours after I posted it. Tim Kawakami has reported that Mickael Pietrus will be back for either one or two years at something around $3.4 million a year (the qualifying offer extended at the beginning of the summer), making my call to look at James White somewhat inconsequential. My immediate reaction: good deal, largely because of its short length.

Kawakami does an excellent job of outlining the reasons why this is a smart move by Mullin, but I'll expand on some of them. As I said above, the best part of this contract is that it seems to only be for one year. Pietrus just isn't good enough to warrant a multiyear contract. Mullin played the negotiation correctly. At the same time, his rebounding and defense are worth something, so picking him up for another year -- particularly when there isn't anyone obvious available -- seems like a good idea.

(Update: Looks like Kawakami may have spoken too soon: the Pietrus camp says he has other options. Might be agentspeak, might be true. Only time will tell if I've written another instantly irrelevant post. Stay tuned.)

In the same post, Kawakami says that the Warriors will probably give Toby Bailey a camp invite based on his excellent shooting during summer league. As an ex-UCLA fan, I can get behind that move. Wouldn't expect it too pay many dividends, but it's worth a shot.

So what do the Warriors do the next? As a qualifying offer, it's my understanding that Pietrus's deal does not count against the mid-level exception, meaning that they can go after Matt Barnes with a portion of it. As I've said before, at this point in the summer I think he's the best option out there.

As for White, I still think it's worth giving him a look. If they can get away with just a camp invite (which seems fairly likely), I think it'd be a phenomenal move. He has far too many intriguing qualities not to get a look. Like I said in my last post, though, I really just hope he gets a chance with someone who lets him play his kind of game.

On an unrelated note, I wanted to pass along my condolensces to the family and friends of Skip Prosser and everyone at Wake Forest. Prosser died of a heart attack this morning while jogging.

Create the Definition Within

I’ve made it pretty clear that I’m not a fan of the Warriors bringing back Mickael Pietrus for anything close to his asking price. He’s simply not that productive a player relative to that kind of money, and there are many players in the NBA who can play decent defense and not make threes. Of course, that means that Mullin and Nelson have to sign one of those players. With that in mind, I think they should take a long look at James White.

White is far from a sure thing, though, so the GSW brain trust would probably need to pick up another wing; it’s not best to place too much confidence in a guy who just got cut by the Spurs before training camp. But White also has a reputation as a solid defender and one of the best dunkers ever, so it’s not as if he’s chopped liver. During his last season at the University of Cincinnati, White was definitely considered one of the best wing defenders in the nation. (He originally attended Florida, where he was supposed to be everything Corey Brewer became—plus a lot more.) I’d assume that the Spurs gave him a shot at the end of last season mostly because of his potential to turn into a lockdown defender. White did score a bit in his six-game stint with San Antonio, though, turning in 8.3 ppg in 22.8 minutes of play.

Yet it’s unclear how much we can take from White’s time with the Spurs. In that offense, wings aren’t really asked to do much more than make open threes and play defense. White only took seven threes last season, so who knows if his .286% shooting from beyond the arc is worth using as a predictor of things to come. In a somewhat recent post for TrueHoop, Henry Abbott makes an observation that White played “only OK defense” in Vegas. While you would expect someone fighting for his job to try his best, I’m not sure anyone goes all out on the defensive end during summer league. All that adds up to a situation in which a supremely athletic wing with a high-major college basketball pedigree played no better than decently for an NBA team that didn’t allow him to play to his strengths.

Regardless of his production, White can be a good fit for the Warriors; lord knows Nellie loves athleticism. White might still be too raw to get immediate playing time, but Pietrus still hasn’t learned how to dribble and found a way to earn some legitimate burn. White can likely be had for a meager contract, so why not take a chance?

With the Warriors angle covered, I’d like to return to the issue of White’s time with the Spurs, because I think it gets at one of the major reasons I dislike the organization. Before I start criticizing them, I should make a few points clear. My opinion on the use of assembly-line, part-for-part systems in the NBA differs greatly from my opinion on their importance to college teams. I’ve already fired the opening shot in my argument that the system path is perhaps the only way to go in the NCAA, mostly because it’s almost the only way to foster continuity within the program. I would think I'll have a lot more to say on that topic in coming months.

More importantly for this topic, I don’t disagree with the fact that the San Antonio system works incredibly well; no one can really blame them for doing what they do. As I said in my Suns post yesterday, there’s no point in not trying for championships, and the Spurs always do their best to win.

However, they do so in a way that often keeps players from utilizing their strengths, which in turn makes the Spurs an exceedingly boring team to watch. That does not mean that San Antonio does not have exciting players; Parker and Manu can do things that only a few players in the league can replicate. But try to imagine what those two would be like if they played in more open styles. For one thing, they would regularly hurl their bodies into the lane and finish impossible plays in traffic. They still do that now, but I always get the sensation that both players exist as bastardized versions of what could have been.

Parker and Manu are best case scenarios for non-Spurs fans. They can still be successful in the Spurs system because they’re excellent players, and both maintain massive portions of their individual games. But in the case of someone like James White, who isn’t yet good enough to fit in any system, PopBall (or, perhaps more accurately, DuncanBall) limits his ability to succeed in its relative refusal to adjust to the skills of the player. In a TrueHoop article from Tuesday, Abbott claims that White “didn’t look like a Spur,” which would seem to jive with his earlier comments on how White was “calling for the ball all the time” and “shaking his head every time a teammate fails to send him an alley-oop lob.” I’m not sure Abbott meant for it to come out this way, but those remarks make it seem like there’s something wrong with White, when in reality it’s perfectly reasonable for an amazing dunker to get upset that his teammates aren’t letting him do his thing in a glorified pickup game. Otherwise, Abbott’s right: this is an issue of a player not fitting with a particular team. White never looked like a Spur, but that’s only because it’s categorically not his brand of basketball.

For these reasons, I’m actually quite glad that San Antonio cut him. Even if the Warriors don’t end up signing him, I’m excited that he’ll get an opportunity with a team that wants him to be James White. I don't expect him to be a solid player immediately -- he's just not that good. The guy has a long way to go before he’ll be a legitimate NBA role player, but teams need to let him be the sort of role player that his skills allow him to be.


What Are Your Overheads?

Last week, the Suns traded Kurt Thomas and two future first-round draft picks to the Sonics for a conditional second-round pick. The trade is obviously a cap-related move for the Suns, and it does in fact put them out of the luxury tax bracket. But it’s also an awful move on virtually every other level. It puts them in a worse position next year, in future years, and arguably in a long-term financial sense, as well. Unless a trade for a major post presence pops up in the next few months, this team did nothing to improve itself heading into next season.

These issues have been covered on other sites. Brian McCormick points out that keeping rookies actually helps the salary cap long-term, which makes the Suns decisions to sign guys like Diaw to huge contracts questionable. Why keep Marcus Banks when you can sign Rudy Fernandez; he could even stay in Spain for a year or two to limit the cap hit. McCormick also observes that it doesn’t make sense to sign Sean Marks when you can get a rookie who sits on the bench just as well for fewer dollars. Additionally, PAR of the Ltd. Hoops Blog says that this will leave Phoenix at a disadvantage when it comes to defending the Duncans, Garnetts, and Boozers of the West next year; Thomas was the Suns’ best post defender…and it’s a big step down to Amare.

At the same time, it’s not like the Suns won’t be competitive. They’ve played with Marion, Diaw, and Amare as their main big guys before. Remember, for instance, that the 04-05 team ran Amare and Marion at the four and five every game and did just fine. That team was also much more exciting than any of the franchise’s last few incarnations, so this recommitment to threes and dunks could make for some damn watchable basketball.

But if that’s the direction they wanted to head in, why not commit to it fully? The Thomas trade also renders the other moves of the Suns’ offseason questionable. The drafting of Alando Tucker didn’t make much sense at the time considering that Tucker doesn’t consistently make threes, but it makes even less sense now that they have to play shooters who can run. Why not take Morris Almond or Derrick Byars instead?

The sale of this year’s draft pick to Portland doesn’t make a great deal of sense to begin with for the reasons outlined by McCormick, but why include James Jones, a shooter, when they could have thrown in a less necessary piece?

I wasn’t a huge fan of the Grant Hill signing at the time because of his age, bad legs, and lack of outside shooting, but it makes even less sense now. It’s nice that they got him for cheap, I guess, although cheap doesn’t matter much when they need shooters. If you’re going to try to save money, at least do it with an eye towards the team identity. Pairing Hill with Thomas in a slow-it-down lineup at least made some sense.

That leaves Nash, Barbosa, Marion, and Raja to chuck as many threes as they can next season. An impressive group, to be sure, but nothing close to the Joe Johnson, Q Richardson, Leandro, Nash, Marion, Jim Jackson, and even motherflippin’ Casey Jacobsen group from 04-05. So let’s not assume we’re getting a repeat. I guess Kerr could add another shooter, but I don’t know how that’s possible when Sarver et al. are so scared of the luxury tax.

For that matter, why the hell are they terrified of the luxury tax in the first place? This team was two bad David Stern suspension decisions (no unfounded Donaghy blame here) from a likely championship this year. I realize the luxury tax is a bummer, but winning an O'Brien brings extra revenue from playoff ticket sales, merchandise sales (I realize offsite merchandising gets split among every team, but I think they would have made plenty), and general “team of the league” wonderfulness (not technically a revenue stream).

I think it comes down to the organization having no concept of their window. This team is built around Steve Nash, who has no more than three prime years left (and likely fewer). Unless the Hawks have another awful year (very possible), it’s unlikely the Suns will get a point with that pick with the potential to match Nash at any point in his career. Even then, the only guy who fits that bill is Derrick Rose. Additionally, the Suns without Nash will still have cap problems because of the Marion/Amare/Diaw contracts, so it’s not as if they’re heading for calm rebuilding waters.

So why not go for broke now? There’s nothing to lose except a few million. It’s the same reason they should have gone full bore for KG (and maybe they still are, although I’m not sure how it’d work) and not thought twice about dangling Amare. You only get so many chances. Carpe diem that shit.

We Watch the Fireworks That Frighten Babies

I realize that Donaghy is by far the story of the offseason so far and as a basketball blog we're probably legally required to weigh in on it in some way, but the truth is we mostly share Jones's and Shoals's indifference. We'll probably join the fray once the league's reaction necessitates it, but for now a ref making extra cash by calling some games a little tighter just isn't that interesting as a basketball fan. As someone fascinated by corruption and seediness, this story intrigues me a little, but only in ways tangentially related to the sport (at least until it's revealed that Uncle Wes is involved). What interests us much more for now is Team USA's fairly meaningless summer scrimmage. Here are some of our observations:

While it could have devolved into a less-watched All-Star Game, the fact that roster spots are up for grabs made Sunday's game significantly less like an exhibition game. Sure the play was sloppy at times and defense never seemed like that big a deal, but it never became the failed ally-oop fiesta we're used to seeing each February. Kidd agrees that league's finest managed to kick it up a notch for the event.

The biggest story of the game for me was definitely Durant. Playing with the best talents in the game, he didn’t look out of place at all. His offensive moves look entirely too polished for a guy that's not even really a rookie yet. His follow-up dunk made a joke out of anyone worried about the effect of his bench press on his offensive game. The footwork (and everything else) on his fastbreak spin move/baby hook was unreal (0:58 on the highlights). Luckily for the Sonics, who are otherwise bereft of scorers, he should have no trouble scoring immediately. He might have to average in the mid-20s out of pure necessity. We're growing increasingly annoyed by the Green pick; Yi would have fit much better with Durant. On D, Durant's length and speed should cause problems right away. Rebounding is the one area where his lack of strength will really hurt him early on, but he will definitely improve with time.

At this point Kobe's will to win is just absurd. Because I don't want to seem like any more of a Laker-homer than I have to, I'll quote my L.A.-hating colleague Ty: "He's clearly the best player in the NBA." I do believe his intensity and inability to ease up even in friendly scrimmages will be one of the key differences for this national team. He's one of the few guys who takes All-Star games completely seriously simply because he doesn't know any other way to play. He should have a field day from the international 3, and when he commits to being the best on-ball defender out there, he absolutely can be. I will say that off-ball on both ends of the court he generally looked sloppy and disinterested. If he’s guarding a 3-pt specialist like Mike Miller he can’t get lazy and sag. Similarly, on offense he continues to look way too prone to just stand around when the ball's not in his hands.

If Kobe's desire isn't enough to make the difference between this team and previous years, Kidd's presence could. He’s the perfect guy to unselfishly set up all the athletic youngsters for tremendous plays and keep all the egos happy. It'll be interesting to see if they carry three point guards. Kidd and Deron or Kidd and Paul could probably handle things just fine, but it'd be tough to narrow it down to two. Chauncey has no business here. If they want a combo guard, Arenas is really the only option.

Other random thoughts on rounding out the roster: After witnessing JJ Redick "perform," Colangelo should have informed Coach K that he has lost all roster-related decision-making power. And you thought Laettner was out of place in 92. . . . Should be interesting to see if they end up taking Michael Redd or Mike Miller as the three-point specialist. Miller played better yesterday, and I'm not sure he wouldn't be a better choice anyway because he's less likely to think himself a star. (Note: That point's entirely related to Redd making max money and has nothing to do with race.) . . . Chris Bosh needs to play a lot; his athleticism and skill set bring a combination that no one can match up with. Toronto will be in heavy rotation on the Plissken League Pass next winter. . . . Tyson Chandler is perfect for this team; they need to keep him on board for sure as the only guy who seems truly committed to rebounding.

How perfect Chandler is for this team brings us to our final point: how unnecessary LeBron is on this roster. Between Kidd's passing, Wade's slashing, Kobe and Melo's everything else, his skill set is pretty well represented already. His inability to consistently hit jumpers makes him a liability against zones, and with Kobe owning the first-option title he loses a lot of his value. His athletic ability is still unbelievable, but when every NBA wing can outrun and outjump every foreign wing, we don't see his edge there being that significant. There's no way Colangelo would ever have the guts to cut America's Chosen One, but this roster needs more guys like Chandler and Miller who can be effective without dominating the possession.

In the end, this scrimmage doesn't say a ton about the team's ability to win on the international stage. They didn't play a ton of zone, and when they did it wasn't exactly inspired. It's going to take a close game against foreign competition to see what this team's made of.

At least everyone knows who'll take the last shot.


Myths of the Near Future

I’m currently burnt out on the NBA after fabricating trades and dealing with unsubstantiated rumors, so it’s back to the college beat for me. Specifically, I’d like to tackle this recent column by The Sporting News’s Mike Decourcy in which he reaches the “unavoidable” conclusion that that the college recruiting “class of 2008 stinks.” Decourcy states that after watching seven of the top eight players in the class in a few AAU camps, (as ranked by rivals.com and scout.com, the two biggest recruiting services) “each [player] has some sort of design flaw.” He also makes the claim that this class could end up even worse than the 2003 and 2005 classes, which are supposedly the down years of this decade. (Before I start, I want to make it clear that I usually like Decourcy’s work. If it sounds like I’m continually knocking him here, it’s only because his name is the one currently at hand. This is primarily a post about a way of thinking, not a particular writer.)

To put it lightly, I think Decourcy’s unnecessarily hating on this class, but his comments say a lot about how we tend to judge recruits and what might have to change in the future.

Let me start with AAU tournaments themselves. It seems silly to boil this topic down to a few paragraphs, but consider this more of a shot across the nose than anything else. Forgetting for a minute that Decourcy wrote this column after only watching two camps (adidas It Takes 5ive Classic and Nike’s LeBron James Skills Academy), the AAU setting itself thrives on individual talent in a freeflowing environment—how many AAU coaches run a Princeton offense?—but the college game is one of systems. Players obviously still have to be good, but saying that a class has a lack of star power (does that mean no one on the level of Oden or Durant?) shows a lack of consideration for how many college stars get created in the first place.

Additionally, the AAU game most closely resembles the NBA style of play, with isolations taking up a decent portion of the possessions. (I commend Decourcy for not turning this article into a “right way” diatribe against the lack of team play in today’s game; at least he keeps his analysis confined to the ’08 class. That argument doesn't make sense given that the '06 class proved to be so polished.) It shouldn’t be much of a surprise, then, that an increased focus on AAU ball ran concurrently with the greater presence of high school players in the NBA Draft. If a player impressed on the AAU circuit, he became not only a great college prospect but a bona fide NBA first rounder, an option that has now closed with the institution of the age limit. I doubt that AAU play will become any less of a yardstick to measure high school talent, but it’s arguable that the quality most necessary for an NBA player (athleticism) should take on less significance now that the circuit is back to being more of a showcase for the college game. (Note: AAU ball will always primarily serve as a way for shoe companies to advertise themselves to the Stars of Tomorrow.)

The draft rule changes also point to an issue with Decourcy’s criticism of the other poor classes in this decade. In 2003, LeBron (#1 at scout.com), Ndudi Ebi (#3), Dorell Wright (#16), and James Lang (#12) all skipped college to go to the draft. Not a huge number given some of the other recent classes, but a sizeable chunk nonetheless. No one doubts that LeBron would have torn up college for as long as he’d chosen to stay; DeCourcy says as much when he asserts that the best “10 players this year combined won't have [his] kind of impact.” But imagine last year’s freshman class without Kevin Durant. Would they have seemed nearly as impressive, even with players like Greg Oden and Brandan Wright laying waste to their respective conferences? Of course not, and the ’06 class has been considered one of the best ever for quite some time now. Durant would still be thought of as a member of the class, but he’d be evaluated on a completely different set of criteria than everyone else. Mild success in the NBA is impressive, but pantheon dominance in college looks like something entirely different. Decourcy judges the ’03 class poorly based on only having two players make First or Second Team All-American in their careers, but that’s beside the point when so many guys leave early.

Trying to imagine LeBron in college is a pleasant diversion, but players like Ebi, Wright, and Lang are the ones I’m most interested in. All three have hit scores of roadblocks on their assumed paths to NBA stardom, of course, yet what would have happened if they’d attended college? Recruits rarely match their rankings right off the bat, but Ebi was rated above both Leon Powe (collegiate wrecking ball) and Charlie Villanueva (generally considered an underachiever at UConn, productive in the NBA) at his position, so he would likely have done something right. Maybe that wouldn’t have translated into becoming a lottery pick right out of college, although I have a hard time believing that he wouldn’t have made strides and ultimately been more prepared for the association. Justly or not, high school early entry candidates unfairly skew the way we look back on old classes.

The ’05 group suffers from the same problem. A sizeable portion of the Top 100 has crapped out; this is a fact. Looking at the Top 10, though, an astounding seven (Monta Ellis, Gerald Green, Andray Blatche, Louis Williams, Martell Webster, Andrew Bynum, and CJ Miles—Amir Johnson was #13) of those players went straight to the draft. Do you think that might have had some effect on the class’s performance in the NCAA? The lack of depth in the class suggests that some of those guys would have busted in college, but every one of them has shown some serious flashes in the NBA, so why couldn’t several have terrorized college, too?

If the ’03 and ’05 classes are actually better than they initially appear, then why can’t the ’08 group do the same? The players that would have bolted for the NBA will stay, which should strengthen the overall depth of the class.

The main issue here for me here, though, is how Decourcy rates these players in the first place. As I’ve said previously, he uses both the All-American teams and the vaguely defined category of “star power” (e.g. the LeBron comparison he makes to this class’s Top 10). These methods are problematic, though, in that they’re two completely different ways of rating players. As I said in my first college post on Plissken, there are two types of stars in the NCAA: the NBA-bound one, for whom the college game is a stepping stone, and the college star, for whom college is the climax before the epilogue (although sometimes long-running—let us not forget that epilogues cover many years) of the pro career.

The star power system applies exclusively to those headed to the NBA, the ones for whom college only adds to the greater narrative. The All-American system, though, can apply to both. The college star can eclipse the NBA-bound star within the college ranks; it is, after all, his home turf. Yet the college star cannot be judged solely by All-American teams, because his place is largely within the system, which may or may not maximize the statistics that catch the eyes of the A-A voters. (When you get right down to it, All-Conference teams are probably a better method of rating classes.) Decourcy makes several concessions to the unique situation of this sort of player, specifically the underrecruited and perfect-fit-at-UCLA Darren Collison, but the point is that these guys aren’t exceptions. We cannot make blanket statements about entire classes when the players within them cannot be judged on the same criteria. Collison will likely turn his success in Westwood into a first-round contract in next June’s draft, but he is a college star—NBA stardom will be a sequel, not the first climax.

NBA success is only consequential to college programs insofar as it helps them recruit. The supposed lack of star power in the '08 class will not matter so long as the players fit their programs. The NBA doesn't care when a group of players comes into college; they care when they come out. So let's stop evaluating each high school class on the criteria of a level the players won't reach for several years, if ever.

Before I go, I want to make one quick point about Decourcy’s claim that every player in the Top 10 has a “design flaw” that keeps him from being a true star. These guys are rising seniors in high school. Before Kevin Durant’s senior year of high school, scouts said he needed to “develop more nastiness” and really learn to go for the throat of his opponents. That sounds silly now. For that matter, LeBron and Dwyane still don’t have consistent jumpers. Let’s give these guys some time. I’m sure they’ll turn out fine.


And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

Well, so much for my stealth KG trade idea. Wolves owner Glen Taylor announced today in an interview with the Pioneer Press that Garnett "expressed a preference to remain in Minnesota" for the coming season. So no KG in Oakland, Monta and Andris both probably stick around, and the Warriors still have a hole at the four next year.

This move makes a ton of sense for Garnett. Every trade scenario involving him took a substantial hit out of the team he was moving to, so it's unclear if his presence alone would shift the balance of power in the West. Now he can wait a year and sign with a contender at a reduced rate, virtually ensuring himself of a championship at some point in the next few years.

Not sure where the Warriors go from here. The lack of activity in the free agent game now appears to be nothing more than a lack of activity. A few trade options probably exist, but I'm not convinced if it's worth moving one of the young studs for an aging player who won't make much of a difference.

One familiar name will keep popping up in Golden State trade rumors: Yi Jianlian. With the announcement today that the Guangdong Tigers (Jianlian's Chinese club) will block any deal with Milwaukee, his trade value will only get lower. Trouble is, I don't think he's better than Brandan Wright, and I imagine it would take at least him to pick up EEE. I also don't believe he adds anything to the team that isn't already here. I was for the J-Rich trade at the time, but I don't want to see it turn into someone who's so hit or miss. You could make the same criticism of Wright, but at least that's a more known unknown. Yi's problems could come from anywhere.

A fair NBA comparison (not a ceiling) for Jianlian seems to be Al Harrington, and I guess I wouldn't mind a straight up trade there. It would dump salary, and the potential-soaked combo of Wright and EEE would be pretty damn exciting. But I highly doubt Milwaukee would go for that right now; they'll likely try to convince themselves that Yi will decide Milwaukee is truly "The Good Land."

Short of waiting out the Bucks until they have to make a terrible trade, I'm not sure the best idea isn't just to largely stay put and hope to make a big splash next offseason. It seems counterintuitive to go with a youth movement the year after finally making the playoffs, but I'm not convinced this team can't make it again. Next offseason will be a busy one anyway (Baron, Monta, Biedrins all up for new contracts), so it might be worth betting everything on next summer.

Yeah, That's the Ticket!

In my last post, I briefly mentioned the possibility of a Warriors/Timberwolves deal for Kevin Garnett already in place that could not be consummated because of collective bargaining rules. Since the time of the post, I’ve thought about that idea some more, and the more I think about it the more it seems possible.

Before jumping into the possible reasons for the stealth trade, I should note that I’m far from the only one to consider this possibility. I’ve seen quite a few mentions of the idea over at Golden State of Mind over the last few weeks, and just today Warriors play-by-play announcer (and, for those who remember him since his first years in broadcasting, the best sports radio call-in host ever) Bob Fitzgerald strongly hinted at the possibility (although it was unclear if he had inside information) on his KNBR radio show (they only archive interviews, unfortunately, but it was on Monday around 1:30 pm) this afternoon. I’m also sure the Merc’s Tim Kawakami wrote something of the sort in one of his 46732 articles/posts on Garnett this summer, although I did not dig through his archives for confirmation.

Now, enough of my yappin! Let’s boogie:

Brandan Wright signed earlier than most rookies. Players cannot be traded within 30 days of signing new contracts, so to get a deal done featuring Wright (a likely prospect given his potential) in the next month or so, he would have had to sign relatively early, which in his case happened to be July 6th. The timing of this deal seems particularly odd given that the Warriors made no clear effort to sign fellow first-rounder and longtime Plissken Hero Marco Belinelli, who just signed Monday, at the same time. One possible hole in this piece of evidence is that Utah Jazz rookie Morris Almond signed on the same day as Wright, and no one has been arguing that Almond’s going to be traded soon.

Brandan Wright didn’t play in Vegas. Reports surfaced on the Friday before summer league that Wright would be held out of the games in Vegas with a strained hip flexor. Apparently he sustained the injury in April while working out with UNC teammates, but he still followed through with workouts, which makes some sense given that he was trying to get drafted in the Top 5. If there’s already a deal in place, the reasoning goes that (1) the Wolves and Warriors would want him to stay out of action so he wouldn’t get hurt badly and (2) the Warriors would want him to stay out of action so as to not show that he actually stinks. The first reason makes sense; the second is largely garbage because it’s summer league and everyone realizes that it’s hard to get a read on players. (Does anyone honestly believe that Oden will foul out of every game?)

I’m inclined to believe that injuries are real because of the consequences of assuming they’re not, but it bears noting that in this Jay Bilas article (ESPN Insider, unfortunately) from before the draft, he mentions nothing of Wright seeming hurt. Of course, this is Bilas we’re talking about, so it could just be that he was really excited to be in a position of authority—no matter that the event was orchestrated by EA Sports and therefore promotional in nature—and therefore didn’t pay much attention to Wright outside of his incredible length. Conspiracy theorists should also note that the announcement of Wright’s injury came on the same day he signed his contract.

The Warriors haven’t done much of anything after the Richardson trade. After the draft night deal, Golden State seemed in prime position to make a big-time move with the trade exception and new long-term cap flexibility, but, as I said in my last post, they haven’t seemed to actively pursue several players that would seem to fit. (They did contact both Darko and Gerald, but the subsequent lack of discussion makes those calls seem perfunctory.) The idea could be that Mullin has a deal worked out for KG and thus can’t do any more fiddling until he has pieces to fiddle with.

This possibility actually hints at what the secret deal could be. The Warriors haven’t been running after many big men, so Andris Biedrins likely wouldn’t involved. But, then again, the Warriors haven’t really done anything other than resign Kelenna Azubuike, so should that lead us to assume that Monta Ellis wouldn’t be traded either? Seems unlikely.

Kevin McHale went fishing. Several reports have stated that McHale went on a long fishing trip recently, suggesting that he has no more work to do until a presumed Garnett deal goes through. I think this piece of evidence is pretty silly, so let me start with the most obvious rebuttal: Kevin McHale is an awful general manager. What makes you think he wouldn’t go away and choose not to be in close proximity to his most trusted advisors when the face of the franchise is on the market? We’re talking about the guy who paid JOE SMITH a gargantuan deal under the table!

While I would question any decision to leave Minneapolis during that time, we should also remember that we live in a digital world. It’s not as if McHale can’t communicate with the rest of the front office by way of cellular telephone (he may even have a landline in his cabin!) or the internet online. Unless, of course, he’s in one of those ice fishing huts on a still-frozen lake somewhere. I wouldn’t rule that out.

Baron Davis has been very quiet. One would assume that Baron would have something incendiary to say about the J-Rich trade given that they’re good friends and ostensible running mates. A gift-wrapped KG would obviously shut him up some. But maybe Baron realizes that Nelson is one coach he can’t drive out of town, and the situation he has in Oakland is something he probably shouldn’t try to screw up.

There’s also the fact that Baron’s been going to weddings in France with Jessica Alba, so who really gives a shit if J-Rich got traded.

In the end, I’m not really sure this evidence adds up to a likely stealth deal, but I’m also not ready to dismiss it. When the draft dust settled, the Warriors seemed to be ready to pounce on something big this offseason, and the period of silence does not seem to jive with that feeling. Or maybe we’re all just trying to explain away our disappointment that no big deals have been announced. Either way, I’m marking off the days. By my count, we’ve got until August 5th for Wright’s 30 days to run out.


Building Steam with a Grain of Salt

The Warriors have resigned Kelenna Azubuike to a two-year deal worth approximately $1.5 million, a move I expected them to make and one that you can’t really argue with. He was a particularly good garbage time contributor last season, and when he got the chance to play meaningful minutes he had a few stellar games. While Azubuike has the chance to take on a bigger role this season, this signing also has implications for the rest of the Warriors’ summer, most notably in the cases of resigning Mickael Pietrus and Matt Barnes, as likely now only one of the two will be back.

The D-League’s leading scorer when he was called up in January, Azubuike immediately showed that he could score at the NBA level. He hit double figures in four of his first six games, proving that he can hit threes and also drive rather effectively. All four of those games were Warriors losses, though, and three weren’t very close at all, suggesting that Kelenna was better suited for mop-up duty at that early stage. Things stayed that way for most of the season, although he did log some significant minutes in games against the Clippers (28 in 48 minutes), Nuggets (23 in 38 minutes), and Bulls (23 in 30 minutes). At the very least, Azubuike is an exceptional garbage time player, and those guys are necessary over the course of an 82-game season.

This summer league, Azubuike looked like he’d taken it upon himself to show everyone that he belongs on an NBA roster for a long time. He forced the issue throughout each game, attacking players he knew he was better than and scoring regularly. Now, these opponents didn’t play much defense and the refs were calling things that don’t get whistled in normal NBA games, but the simple fact that Azubuike wanted to show people he was a real NBA player says something about him. He looks ready to step up from garbage time player to real contributor, and at that salary I think he’s a real bargain.

Assuming that the front office thinks he’s ready to make that leap as well, it seems like either Mickael Pietrus or Matt Barnes will not be back. The team doesn’t seem to have much interest in resigning Pietrus, who was given a qualifying offer and not much else. MP can does some things well on the court, like defending and finishing, but his weaknesses make him a bad fit for Nellieball. Simply put, the man can’t take anyone off the dribble and he isn’t a particularly good outside shooter, meaning that he cannot actively participate in the team-wide one-on-one and drive-and-kick clinics that typified the Warriors in the last few months of the season. He can help someone, but he’s not worth anything close to the mid-level exception for Golden State given their impending cap problems.

Barnes presents a trickier case. No one expected him to contribute like he did when he came to camp last fall, but his season really had two clear peaks: the December/January scoring explosion when people figured out he learned how to hit threes and the late-season/playoffs exhibition of a well-rounded game. Barnes gave Warriors fans many things to be happy about last year, but I wonder how his dry spells would have been received had he been making money close to the mid-level exception.

The MLE is the big question regarding Barnes this offseason. If he can regularly play like he did throughout the playoffs, he’s probably worth something close to it; his play in those games made him a great fit for Nelson’s style and he obviously has the balls necessary to step up in the clutch. If Barnes continues playing like he did for the entirety of last season, though, the MLE is too much. The fact that he hasn’t signed a contract yet suggests that no one has offered him that kind of money, likely due to other teams not being sure if he’s a great fit for their more conventional systems.

But who else can the Warriors hope to pick up in this offseason? The free agent market has dried up, with Gerald Wallace and Darko Milicic, the two best fits on the market for Golden State, signing contracts last week. KG rumors continue to swirl, although it’s hard to tell how close both sides are to a deal that works for both parties. It’s possible there’s a stealth trade lurking somewhere (or even a readymade Garnett deal that can't yet be announced), but that’s just wishful thinking until something tangible pops up.

That leaves Barnes as the best option on the table, and at this point I can’t really blame Mullin for pulling the trigger soon. The length of the contract probably shouldn’t exceed two years (maybe three if it involves a discount) due to the questions surrounding Barnes’s ability to replicate his success, but after the J-Rich trade this team needs guys who can hit shots. With no other talent readily available, Barnes looks like the best fit.

That move wouldn’t be quite the splash I hoped to see shortly after the Richardson trade, but the KG possibility still remains. I just hope this long period of radio silence isn’t evidence of Mullin and Nelson focusing solely on Garnett when there were other options worth exploring.


In the Land of Make Believe

I’ve been leaning towards this conclusion for most of the summer, but the Darko signing on Wednesday made it official: Memphis will be the most exciting basketball city in the country next year. With Marc Iavaroni running Suns Southeast for the Grizz and Calipari assembling far and away the most athletic team (including a potential gamebreaker freshman in Derrick Rose) in college, Memphis will house two of the most watchable teams at any level. The college outfit will almost certainly have more success than the pro club next season, both squads have their own merits. Combined, though, no combination of college/pro teams in the same metro can approach the Memphises in terms of pure enjoyment derived from the viewing experience, and for someone who follows the NBA and NCAA with nearly equal interest it’s really not very close.

The Grizz are a somewhat surprising member of that tandem, if only because they were so egregiously awful for most of last year. But with those awful games, a few things became clear. Most importantly, they have some guys that can run a little, especially Rudy Gay and Hakim Warrick, two athletic forwards that can finish pretty much anything around the rim. Mike Miller still has one of the prettiest jumpers in the league, and Pau Gasol, though hurt for much of last season, remains an All-Star caliber big man.

The hiring of Iavaroni continued to push this team in the right direction; not only was he one of the best assistants in the league, but his offensive interests suit the talent already in Memphis quite well. Of course, to run a Phoenix offense you need a pretty damn good point guard, which the front office tried to address by picking up Mike Conley in the draft. At the time, I said he’ll be “perfect for this team, although it [whatever vaguely defined thing I decided "it" was at the time] won’t happen for a year or two,” and I stick by that point. Conley will be a very good player at some point in his career, but he’s still a freshman point guard -- and when was the last time a freshman point guard did extremely well his first season? -- playing for a team that had the worst record in the NBA.

Conley will do his best to beat out Kyle Lowry, one of my favorite college players of the last few years, for the starting point spot. Lowry only played in ten games as a rookie due to a broken wrist, but reports suggest that he’s ready to show off the unique game that made him such a terror at Villanova. Playing in a four-guard lineup for the Wildcats, Lowry regularly grabbed rebounds over power forwards in the Big East, the toughest (as in “having the most toughness,” although it was also probably the best that year) conference in the country that season. He’s also an astonishingly fearless driver; there’s no one he won’t try to beat. His tenacity will make the Grizz watchable in even the worst blowouts, although that might be the best time to watch Lowry next year.

Memphis was going to be plenty exciting before they signed Darko, but this deal makes them even more of a reason to order League Pass. While Darko certainly has a lot of work to do, his abilities to defend the post, hit 18-footers, and, most crucially, run make him a great fit for Iavaroni’s system. If Gasol stays in town, they will have a legitimate frontcourt in a conference loaded with legitimate frontcourts, and if Gasol leaves the Grizzlies will still have a young post player to build off while also acquiring players to match their style (for the love of god, get them Tyrus Thomas!). Either way, Iavaroni will give Darko the chance to show what he can do in a system that suits his game; we should know if the “bust” tag is anything close to appropriate within two months (if that).

Ultimately, this will probably be a transitional year for the team, but the feeling of forward momentum makes this operation more than just a fast-paced novelty act. Yesterday on TrueHoop, Kelly Dwyer said that he's "not convinced that [Iavaroni]'ll approximate D'Antoni's out and out offensive blitzkrieg," which is probably true in terms of its precision engineering and beauty, but the Grizzlies are a much rawer entity, and over time their attack could become Sunsian. Phoenix became what they are extremely quickly; Nash turned them into a fastbreak machine right when he signed his contract. Memphis, then, will give us an opportunity to see that sort of team grow together, and the process of watching a young team slowly find their own identity as a running team could end up more interesting.

As excited as I am about the NBA team in Memphis, I’m giddy over the prospect of watching my first Memphis Tigers game of the year. One of the frontrunners for the national championship, the Tigers return almost everyone from their Elite Eight roster from last season and add one of the two most exciting recruits in the country in point guard Derrick Rose. Memphis has stood well above every other C-USA program since the Big East’s rape and pillage of the conference a few years ago, but this year’s Memphis games will resemble Viking strikes of their own; it’s entirely possible they won’t lose a conference game by fewer than 30 points.

For the last two years under John Calipari, Memphis has been an athletic bulldozer, beating teams on insane athleticism at the college level and enough skill to turn the athleticism advantage into regular blowouts. Still, they haven’t made it to a Final Four, usually because they run into a team that came close to matching Memphis’s athleticism while holding edges in offensive execution and defense. The Tigers had an extremely exciting team the last two years; to name just two players, Chris Douglas-Roberts is one of the best scoring guards in the nation and frontline beast Joey Dorsey could probably play tight end for a long time in the NFL if he wanted to. There have been several high profile games during which Memphis has made some really, really good college players seem hopelessly unathletic and doomed to careers in Europe or the D-League, even though common wisdom at the time suggested that these college stars would stick in the NBA. I'll never forget what they did to Nick Fazekas in last year's tournament.

Despite all that success, though, Memphis has the chance to move up to a new level of awesomeness in 07-08 when point guard Derrick Rose comes to school. Along with OJ Mayo, Rose is one of the two best guard prospects in the class, with nbadraft.net listing him as the best overall player for the 2008 Draft. I confess to never having seen Rose outside of YouTubes and the McDonald’s All-American game, but everything I’ve seen there and heard from scouting reports suggests that he’ll soon be one of my favorite players.

Nbadraft lists his player comparisons as Dwyane and Gary Payton due to his amazing finishing ability and lockdown defender skills, but Rose has an unchained, freelance feel to his offensive game that Wade will probably never have as long as he depends on his assembly-line (Jumpman brand, of course) circus shots. To make a mildly obscure comparison, Rose reminds me of Baron Davis before his first ACL injury, which happened in the last game of his freshman year at UCLA (a 2nd round tournament game against Michigan). Before that injury, Baron consistenly assaulted opponents with his unreal leaping and speed, with all of it seeming spontaneous and necessary, like his current self but several times more vicious. I can only pray that Rose does not have a lifetime of nagging and serious injuries like Baron has, because he has the chance to become an even more special player with some seasoning and continued improvement in his point guard skills.

Rose is perfect for Calipari’s style, and his talents exemplify all that will be great about the Grizzlies and Tigers next year: youth, athleticism, depth, and the overpowering feeling that much better things lie ahead.


Trees Are Dancing Drunk with Nectar

A post by Shoals over at FreeDarko yesterday got me thinking about why I care to watch summer league. The games really tell nothing about player development, there’s some pretty awful basketball, and especially poor or great performances don’t accurately predict futures. I mean, Skita was twice a summer league phenomenon, and Pierre Pierce is scoring in bunches by pulling the kind of ballhog antics that he’ll never get to try if he finds his way onto an NBA roster.

Yet I’ve still found myself drawn to the games anyway, so there has to be something bringing me there outside of the fact that it’s basketball and it’s on tv (baseball usually fills my summer sports fix just fine).

The most obvious reason for my interest is that this year is the first time I’ve really been able to watch the summer league, so the novelty factor is pretty strong. They’re not quite NBA games, but there’s something interesting about watching NBA-type talents (and in particular the rookies) play in half-empty volleyball gyms. It’s like finding a feed of an exceedingly good pickup game, except there are coaches and people pretend to run plays.

There’s also the thrill of watching former college stars try to make the league even though it’s clear that their careers should have ended after their senior seasons. This is cool on a psychological level, but I’m having more fun watching guys like Toby Bailey for the sake of seeing what they’re up to now. Bailey looks more like Morris Day than anyone ever should without trying (or maybe he is trying!), and it’s incredible.

As a Warriors fan, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I watch their summer games with intense excitement over the impending takeover of Marco Belinelli, someone Carter and I love to death and have talked about in almost every post for the last three weeks. At the same time, though, I’m getting less excitement than I expected out of watching Kevin Durant and Greg Oden go through the motions. Despite the fact that Bellinelli’s a member of my favorite team, there’s no clear reason why I should want to watch him more than Durant or Oden; those guys are objectively better. Likewise, while there’s certainly a strong desire inside me to watch Marco play in the non-YouTube world, it’s not like these games are going to tell us anything incredibly significant that won’t show up in three months when the real games start. Intense curiosity is definitely worth a lot, but there has to be something else.

In his post, Shoals writes that “the purpose of college ball is to deliver players into the league with some nascent version of how their complete game might look,” but I think it also gives us a chance start formulating a greater narrative for each player’s career, so that the eventual NBA success or failure makes sense in the context of his basketball career. We’ve all heard about or seen Oden and Durant enough for seven players’ worth of background info. Marco is something else entirely, a man who exists only in YouTube highlights, debatably relevant Euro stats, and breathless comments about his hot girlfriend. Watching him play in these games gives us some picture of what he might become, but it also provides us with a first plot point to apply to his greater narrative. At the end of his career we can say “He came to America and immediately kicked everyone’s ass, showing us that his success was never in question” or “He came to America and immediately kicked ass, giving false hope to those expecting him to help push the Warriors into the first tier of the NBA.” That might not amount to much in ten years, but right now it seems mandatory if I want to watch Marco and Yi (and Rodney Stuckey, if I ever get around to watching the Detroit game I taped) in the way I enjoy watching everyone else.

Some random notes:
- Couldn’t be happier about the Marco Explosion. I definitely don’t expect him to do anything close to this as a rookie, but it seems like he’ll contribute if only becomes he moves exceptionally well without the ball and can hit open jumpers.

- Looks like Greg Oden will miss the rest of summer league with tonsillitis, and it’s just as well given all the uproar over two meaningless games featuring refs that call everything. This particular injury, though, adds to the mounting evidence that Oden is the biggest dork (not geek, that would be Duncan) to ever be the #1 overall pick. For extra fun, check out the opening paragraph of the AP article: “Portland-area hospitals may wish to stock up on ice cream for the arrival of a very big patient.” Gotta love AP writers feeling the need to compensate for not always getting a byline.

- The salary cap has been set at $55.63 million, with the luxury tax threshold at $67.865 million. I don’t want to do the math to figure out what that means for any number of teams, but putting it up here makes me feel legit. (The following video is long, but it will reward you.)

- Stronger chance EEE will end up playing for the Bucks than originally thought. All the coolest things that could have happened this summer (Kobe trade, KG trade, EEE starting WW3) are starting to seem less possible by the day. These guys really need to stop teasing us so often.