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Dreaming of a Larry Bird Kicker…

April 20, 2012 Leave a comment

If you were playing a poker game with the modern U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team members as the cards, would you rather flip over LeBron or a Magic? A Stockton or a Paul? A Kobe or a Jordan?

Last month, in a pair of BS Reports, Grantland Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons asked Chris Mullin and Magic Johnson what would happen if the famed 1992 team was sucked up into a time portal vacuum and deposited into the modern day to play this year’s U.S. Olympic team – think of it like Terra Nova, but with actual viewers.

Bill felt that despite the Dream Team being, uhm… well, the Dream Team, they would fall at the hands of the modern squad. He lays the foundation for this on two principles:

  1. That despite their gaudy names, Bird and Magic weren’t exactly Bird and Magic.
  2. That Derrick Rose and Chris Paul and the rest of their cohorts would create match-up problems that the Dream Team couldn’t overcome.

Frankly, that sounds logical. Bird’s body was older than Moses, and Magic was barely beyond the Announcement. And there is no denying that this year’s Olympic squad is going to be otherworldly. By my count, there are 14 locks for a 12 man roster:

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard*, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Deron Williams, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, and Russell Westbrook.

That is an obscene collection of basketball talent, and I can see how it might induce one into thinking that this is an unbeatable team, but is that really the case? Could the 2012 team defeat even the vaunted Dream Team as Bill suggests, or would the Dream Team prevail as Magic Johnson contends?

*This was written before the news broke yesterday that Howard will miss the Olympics, so for the purposes of this piece, we’ll pretend he isn’t a whining, coach sabotaging, quitting on the team” super” star injured.

As Bill points out, the Dream Team wasn’t really a full 12 man roster: they had a crippled Larry Bird and an overmatched Christian Laettner. There is no doubt that by 1992 Bird’s body was being held together with bobby pins and scotch tape. In 1990-91 he played in 60 games and in 1991-92 he managed a barely standing 45; the 1992 Olympics were his swan song. So, ostensibly he’s not really on the roster, at least not as LARRY BIRD, Basketball Jesus. But, there is a place for him and we’ll get to that in a couple thousand words.

For reasons unknown, or at least for reasons I don’t give a crap about, the Dream Team brass decided to hand a free trip to Barcelona to a token college player; selecting Christian Laettner to serve as the team’s gopher and lame duck whipping boy. Obviously if the Olympic committee had been selecting the most talented collegiate player, they would have picked a sprightly young giant by the name of Shaquille O’Neal, but they instead paid tribute to then assistant coach – and current head coach – Mike Kryzyzzzzzzzzzzyzski by taking his best player.

While it’s obviously an absurd decision in hindsight, Laettner was the star player on the two time defending champs and he was the collegiate player of the year. In the context of the era – and of wanting a collegiate player – it’s defensible; in hindsight it’s as dubious as making Ozzie Guillen the face of your franchise, but here’s the thing: if the 1992 Dream Team was playing a serious 7 game series, there’s no point when coach Chuck Daly would look down the bench and call upon the 12th man. Nope, Chuck would go ten deep and even then, only for brief spurts.

With the 11th and 12th men out of our way, lets get to the meat of the debate, by breaking down the starters. Other than Michael Jordan, no player started every Olympic game for the Dream Team, but if they were transported to today and forced to play in a barbaric Hunger Games style death match, I think we can safely say, that this would be their starting five:

PG – Magic Johnson

SG – Michael Jorden

SF – Scottie Pippen

PF – Charles Barkley

C – David Robinson.

In contrast, we can reasonably assume that the 2012 team will start:

PG – Derrick Rose

SG – Kobe Bryant

SF – Kevin Durant

PF – Lebron James

C – Dwight Howard.

There is no denying that the 2012 team is a monster, but better than the Dream Team?

One of the pieces that makes the 2012 team seem so unstoppable, is that other than Kobe, those starters are all at the peak of their powers, but guess what? So were the Dream Teamers. Sure, Magic was 32 (a year younger than Kobe), but Robinson and Scottie were 26, while Barkley and Jordan were 28.

Lets start with a pair of obvious match-ups: center and shooting guard. Dwight Howard is the no-brainer, go-to best center in the NBA, but how great is he historically? Doesn’t his standing as the preeminent center have a little more to do with the paucity of quality pivots? Really, look at the landscape of the league, guard play is out of control, but I’m starting to believe that my Grandma could make the Eastern All Stars as a center, and she’s a 4’11” Scottish lady.

As dominant as Howard is, is he appreciably better than a pre-glomerulonephritis (and yes, I copy and pasted that) Alonzo Mourning? In Zo’s last season with a fully functioning liver, he averaged 21.7/9.5/1.9 on 55% shooting, with 3.7 blocks and a 25.8 PER. In contrast, last year old wishy wash Dwight’s line was 22.9, 14.1, 1.4 on 61% shooting, with a 26.0 PER and 2.4 blocks per game. Both men won Defensive Players of the Year awards, Howard was obviously a far superior rebounder, but Zo was the better shot blocker. Overall, the numbers are pretty close. And, here’s the rub: as good as Zo was, he resides on a tier well below the peak of 1990s centers.

It was just a different era. Throughout his career, offensively, Robinson had to score against preeminent defensive centers like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Mark Eaton, and Mourning. Defensively he had to battle the Dream, Patrick Ewing, Brad Daugherty, and that precocious young kid, Shaq. In contrast, Howard has made a name for himself defending such offensive luminaries as Brook Lopez, Al Horford, and Andrew Bynum. As good as Bynum has been, I don’t think he’s a threat to drop 71 as the Admiral did to win the 1993-94 scoring title. On the other end of the floor, Howard’s had to throw down on defensive stalwarts like Kendrick Perkins, Joakim Noah, and Tyson Chandler. We all love Chandler’s tenacity and Noah’s pluck, but nobody’s confusing those two for Mount Mutombo or the Dream.

As ESPNs John Hollinger continually points out, one of the reasons that Orlando has had so many problems with Atlanta in the playoffs the past few seasons is the presence of the big bodied Jason Collins. Let me repeat that for effect: JASON FREAKIN’ COLLINS. If Howard can’t lead his team past the Atlanta Hawks because Jason Collins is thwarting him, what the heck is he going to do against David Robinson?

Howard’s great, obviously, but his offensive game has all the elegance of a Republican debate: big slams and one way spins. Robinson spent his days dealing with Hakeem’s myriad shimmies, spins, twists, floaters, and, of course, his Dream Shake. After Olajuwon, Robinson could guard Howard with one hand, while saluting the flag with the other.

At shooting guard you have Michael Jordan against Kobe Bryant. And to that, all I can say is… DAMN. The greatest player of all time against the modern incarnation of his game is worth the price of admission all on its own. Kobe’s awesome. He’s a five time champion, an MVP, a two-time finals MVP, a 2 time scoring leader, a nine time All-NBA Defensive 1st Team selection, and a better 3pt shooter than Jordan, but Michael’s a six time champion, a five time MVP, six times Finals MVP, a ten time scoring champion, a nine time ALL-NBA first team selection, and a defensive player of the year winner. And, sure, Kobe was a better three point shooter, but ask Clyde Drexler how well Jordan was shooting the 3 in 1992.

Kobe’s a career 45% shooter (who is currently shooting 43%), Jordan’s a career 50% shooter (who shot 51% in 1992). You know the old song, “anything you can do I can do better?” Well, Michael would just be walking up and down the court singing that to Kobe, while dropping 37 on him on one end and forcing him into a 6 for 24 on the other. Seriously, Kobe’s a top ten player all time, but Jordan’s a top ONE player all time. Plus, we’re talking about 1992 Jordan (28) against 2012 Kobe (33). It’s a no brainer, so lets put this one to bed.

Now it gets interesting: at power forward, you have LeBron James who is the best basketball player alive. But, lets be honest, despite being the best basketball player alive, LeBron has demonstrated a flaw or two. Namely, he shrinks in the moment and despite being the biggest boy in the playground, he can get bullied into taking crappy jump shots. So, who does the Dream Team have to cover him? Well, if Jordan wasn’t on Kobe duty, that might be an interesting challenge for Mr Air, and Scottie Pippen is probably the greatest perimeter defender of all time, so he’d get some run, but the man to shut down LeBron is none other than Charles “After losing 70lbs I can finally wear color again” Barkley.

This is where living in the moment does us a disservice. Today, April 12, 2012, LeBron is the best player in the NBA and Barkley is the goofy, opinionated, still overweight, SNL hosting, tortured golf swing having, TV pundit. We think of him as a small whale, or large seal, racing a 97 year old referee. We forget that before LeBron was a once in a generation athletic marvel, there was Charles Barkley.

Sure, he wasn’t as big as LeBron, but Chuck was a bulldog. Conservatively 6’6″, Barkley was one of the leading rebounders during an era of dominant big men. He fought for balls, his tenacity around the hoop and dogged determination evidenced by his grabbing 2600 offensive rebounds in his first 8 seasons (or, about 400 more than Dwight Howard has grabbed over the same time span). And Sir Charles could score; known as the Round Mound of Rebound, Charles was an athletic freak. Sure, he wasn’t on LeBron’s level, nobody is, but in the five seasons leading up to the 1992 Olympics, Charles averaged 26 points per game, on 58% shooting. His PER ranged from 24.5 to 28.9 and he led the league in True Shooting Percentage in four of those years. Charles was a beast.

And here’s the thing, was Barkley as good as LeBron? No, but he sure as hell would annoy the crap out of the King. This is the first year that LeBron has taken advantage of smaller defenders and shown some semblance of a post game, but do you think he’s backing down Charles Barkley? Really? No, I didn’t think you were that foolish. He’s going to have to drive past him and at some point in the first game, as LeBron went past Charles, he’d end up with an “unintentional” mouthful of knuckles, and in the same way that Jason Veritek emasculated ARod in July of 2004, LeBron would spend the rest of the game settling for 18 footers; shots that will fall in quarters 1-3 and then roll out in the 4th. If I were doing advantages, this is a win for the 2012 team, but not an overwhelming one.

When Bill was talking to Mullin and Magic, he guessed that against Derrick Rose, the Dream Team would have to hide Magic on D. He mused that the Chuck Daly would play Scottie on Rose and Magic on Kevin Durant. This would make sense (as would using Jordan on Rose, and Magic on Kobe – who’s by far the least athletic member of the modern Olympic squad), but I don’t think you have match up that way the whole game. Rose is awesome, no doubt, but he’s still not a lights out shooter. And at 6’9″ Magic TOWERS over him. Looking at the 2012 squad, Kevin Durant’s their scariest scorer and I’d rather force Rose to beat me. I’d put Scottie on Durant (which would be an awesome battle, the game’s best current scorer against its greatest defender) and have Magic sag off Rose, daring him to shoot. Even sagging off of Rose, is Magic going to get beat sometimes? Sure, but this is where the presence of David Robinson and the 4.5 blocks a game he averaged in 1992 come into play.

With Scottie and Jordan locking down Kobe and Durant, with Barkley annoying LeBron, and with Robinson negating Howard, you’re left with Rose attacking Magic, and that’s fine, because it’s a two way street. Assuming that Kobe covers Jordan and Durant covers Scottie, the 2012 team has to decide between LeBron guarding Magic and Rose being ABUSED by Barkley, or LeBron shutting down Barkley and Rose having to cover the six inch taller Magic.

Now, you could argue that a recently HIV diagnosed Magic wasn’t Magic, but go back and watch the 1992 all-star game, or find tapes of the Dream Team games. Magic was just fine. As the man himself said to Bill, “sure, we’d have problems with Rose, but we’d just come right back at them on the other end.”

Both starting lineups are awesome and the match-ups are drool inducing, but ultimately, this battle becomes about who’s going to flinch first. And who are you picking to flinch? The starting five that has five rings (all from Kobe), or the starting five that has 19 rings? (admittedly, they only had 11 in 1992, but still). A starting five where the no-brainer best player is Michael Jeffrey Jordan?  Or a starting five where the best player is LeBron “2011 NBA Finals 4th Q LVP” James? A starting five where LeBron, Dwight, and Durant have all shown themselves to be a little too interested in pre-game photos, capes, and post-game backpacks, or a starting five where Magic, Scottie, and Michael cared only about demoralizing you as they drove their foot into your ass?

Seriously, who you got? Yeah, I thought so.

With the starters out of the way, lets take a quick look at the pine. The second unit of the 2012 team will look something like:

Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and Tyson Chandler.

The most obvious edge for the 2012 squad is at the two guard spot, where Wade would be going against Clyde the Glide Drexler, but we’ll get to this one in a minute.

At the point, it’s Paul against John Stockton, which would have been a solid “W” for the 2012 team three years ago; yet as great as Paul remains, he’s playing on a knee and a half, and there’s no disputing that he’s lost a step. Stockton’s a five time ALL-NBA 2nd team defender, who throughout his career covered Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway, Mark Price, Gary Payton, and Allen Iverson.

Is Paul a harder match-up than Hardaway or the Glove, let alone Thomas? Don’t be fooled by the fact that he looks like a choir boy in short-shorts, Stockton was tough as snot. He wouldn’t shut Paul down, but he’d make Paul work. Besides, Paul would also have to stop Stockton and here’s the thing about the Dream Team:

Stockton to Malone is COMING OFF THE BENCH! D-Wade might be the greatest sixth man ever, but that’s in large part negated by the Dream Team just having a two man, automatic, punch the clock, two point machine on their bench.

Karl Malone might be overrated, gaining a career boost by outlasting the golden age of players (ie. the Dream Teamers and their ilk) and dominating the late 90s “Me-Stars”, and he obviously wasn’t clutch, but for 20 minutes a game? You’re telling me that with 3 minutes remaining in the first and third quarters and for the first half of the second and fourth, you couldn’t bring in Stockton and Malone and run that pick and roll until the 2012 team is dizzy? Malone, coming off a season in which he averaged 28 and 11, wouldn’t have to be clutch, because when the game gets tight and late, he’d come out and Jordan, Magic, Scottie and the rest would take over. He could just roll to the basket, take the easy pass from Stockton, throw some elbows and count the bucket.

Kevin Love is awesome and what he did before getting hurt, with a 51-14 and 30-20 in the same weekend, is straight up stupid, but he has yet to play on a team that finished .500 in a season and he’s not exactly known for his lockdown D. Are Paul and Love stopping the Stockton to Malone pick and roll? No, I didn’t think so.

Even if the Mailman is waylaid, Stockton has other options. Ewing is being guarded by Tyson Chandler (PUH’lease), Chris Mullin is out on the wing to drain open threes, and if they need someone to create a basket, Clyde could get into the lane.

Defensively, this isn’t a lights out unit, but Ewing, Malone, and Stockton were above average defenders, and while Mullin was a turnstile, so is the man guarding him: Carmelo Anthony (and wouldn’t that just be another delectable match up). Sure Anthony might drop 40 on Mullin, but as Mullin showed against Magic in the 1991 playoffs, he’ll just come right back with 40 of his own.

So, as I said above, the only spot in the second unit that the 2012 team has a clear advantage is at the two, but a) The Olympic pay scale might preclude Wade from even showing up; b) Clyde’s probably a little underrated because he played in Jordan’s shadow; and c) if push comes to shove and this spot’s killing his team, do you think Chuck Daly’s really leaving Jordan on the pine? No. He’s going to bring in Jordan (or even Pippen) to neutralize Wade.

In a tight game, the starters are going to play the lion’s share of minutes. A coach will really only go eight, maybe nine deep. So, assuming that Jordan’s going to play 38 or 39 minutes and that Scottie might take a couple minutes covering Wade, Clyde’s only going to play 8ish minutes. Same thing really for Mullin. So the Dream Team can survive the Wade mismatch without Daly losing any sleep.

All of which brings me back to the 11th man on the bench: Larry Joe Bird. Sure, he was a broken down version of himself. His prodigious talent betrayed by a decaying back, but… on this team, even to win a seven game series over the 2012 team, Larry wouldn’t have to play meaningful minutes. He’d be a veteran presence on the pine, a co-captain, and source of the Basketball Son of God like wisdom. But… if the game was tight and the Dream Team needed a basket, a floor spacing shooter, or a decoy, you’re telling me that there’s someone better than the Legend?

Honestly, lets put the question to the man who started this whole thing: Bill, in the closing minutes of the game, with one team needing a basket and Coach K or Chuck Daly looking down the bench for the 11th man to drive a dagger into the hearts of the opponent, who’d you rather have, a barely standing Larry Legend, or Chris “I’m Getting a 115 million to be an inferior version of Horace Grant” Bosh?

Yeah, I thought so.

A seven game series between the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and the Dream Team would be epic and the 2012 team has perhaps the best chance to beat the 1992 squad as any other collection of basketball talent in history, but in the game of trumps, there’s just no getting around the fact that whoever you flip over in 2012, the Dream Team can always come back with a little Magic, a lot of Michael and a Larry Bird kicker.

Greg Oden’s Knee to the Groin…

November 18, 2010 2 comments

It is such a sad tale. The story of number one pick Greg Oden, perpetually compared to superstar Kevin Durant, perpetually injured. A classy young man, Oden has suffered through his fair share of disappointment in a four year NBA career that has been nothing short of horrendous. With the news yesterday that Oden is once again going to undergo microfracture surgery, he will now miss his second full season. That means that in the first four years of his career, Greg Oden will have played 82 games out of a potential 328.

Three and a half years ago Kevin Pritchard was being hailed as one of the great young GMs in basketball. He had cleared away the flotsam of the Jailblazers era; shedding deadbeats and deadwood, while compiling young assets and draft picks. His team had jumped from 21 wins in 2006, to 32 in 2007 and looked poised to take another step forward the following year. They had rookie of the year Brandon Roy, 21 year old future all-star LaMarcus Aldridge, 10,000 acquired draft picks, and precocious youngsters like Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster. Things in the Rose Garden were looking, well, rosy. All they needed was that final star piece. The piece they ostensibly received on May 22nd, when their 5.3% odds of winning the NBA draft lottery were cashed and they landed the first pick in the draft. Everything seemed set for Portland to have a decade long run of success.

Only, sport is cruel. Everyone now knows that the Blazers selected Greg Oden, while Kevin Durant went 2nd to the Seattle Supersonics. It was a good day for Northwest basketball. Two undeniable top flight talents were coming to the rainy coast. Of course, Durant was only here a year before the Sonics were transplanted to some place called Oklahoma. And Oden? Well, that story isn’t finished writing itself, but right now it looks like the day Pritchard selected him is the day that Portland’s magical run took an irreversible detour.

While Blazer management did their due diligence on Kevin Durant, they, like most (although not all) pundits, believed that Oden was the cornerstone of a future dynasty. He was the next in a long line of distinguished centers who changed the game with their defense: Russell, Kareem, Hakeem, Ewing, Robinson, Mourning. Put him on the floor with Roy and Aldridge and you had the three pieces you needed to compete for a title, for many titles. With those three, all you needed was to flush the roster out with role players and shooters.

It was all set.

Only instead of following in the footsteps of those esteemed centers, Oden is following the path carved by a different breed of center: Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson, Brad Daugherty, and Yao Ming. A group of men who were larger than life and unfortunately, larger than their bodies could handle. You can blame Pritchard for not selecting Durant, but the voices in 2007 who said that Durant was the right pick were few. Plus, when Oden has been on the court, he has shown signs of being that game changing defensive presence. Unfortunately, those moments have become lost in time, like tears in rain.

Four years on, the Blazers remain a solid squad, but that decade of dominance is just a rumor of what might have been had they selected Durant. Pritchard was muscled out, Roy’s knee is grinding bone on bone, and Oden has probably played his final game in The City of Roses. The momentum built in the middle of the decade has been swallowed up by a litany of what ifs: what if the Blazers had picked Chris Paul in 2005, what if they’d bought Phoenix’s 21st pick in 2006 (Rajon Rondo) instead of their 27th pick (Sergio Rodriguez), what if they’d picked Durant…

It is the fickle nature of sport. With Oden now out for another whole season, his career has bottomed out. It’s not over for the big guy, Zydrunas Ilgauskas on the verge or retiring with feet that couldn’t hold his body up, but he managed to convalesce and put together six or seven prosperous years, good years. Still, Ilgauskas’s career is a far cry from the career that could reasonably have been expected of Oden when he was picked first four years ago.

Kevin Pritchard is an excellent executive, who made smart decision after smart decision. One decision went wrong and what he’d been building has crumbled. Kevin Pritchard deserved better. Greg Oden is a solid young man, who has persevered through repeated disappointment with only the slightest trace of truculence. He has been humble, he has worked hard, he has kept out of trouble off the court. Greg Oden deserved better. Portland is a fabulous city, with one of the best fan bases in the NBA. Since their championship in 1977 they have watched as one big man after another couldn’t stay healthy. They watched the greatest basketball player of the late 70s crumble before their eyes. They watched their franchise take another brittle big (Sam Bowie) over the greatest player of all time (Come on?). They watched Arvydas Sabonis toil away in Europe while his skills could have made the difference for a championship-level squad in the early 90s. They watched all the talent of Rasheed Wallace, Bonzi Wells, and Zach Randolph go up in smoke. And they watched their team pick Oden over Kevin Durant. Those Portland fans deserved better. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works.

Instead, Pritchard got a pink slip, Oden got another arduous knee surgery, and those Portland fans got one more knee to the groin.

NBA What Ifs…

November 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Well, a week into the season, the NBA is chugging along without any great surprises.  After their opening night stinker, the Heat have looked good, the Lakers are destroying people, and the Suns couldn’t defend a chair.  So, there’s not much really to talk about, except… some what ifs!

1) What if the Miami Heat had drafted OJ Mayo instead of Michael Beasley with the number 2 overal pick in the 2007 draft.

This summer the Miami Heat gave away the number two pick in the 2007 draft and 3 million in cash for a 2011 second round pick.  Think about that for a second, the Heat selected a player two years ago with the second pick who was so irrelevant to their future that they paid Minnesota to take him.  Pat Riley is going to win executive of the year for this season and deservedly so, but that’s a colossal waste of a high pick.  What makes it particularly galling, is that Riley knew it was a bad pick at the time.  He did everything he could to trade out of that pick and kept threatening to pick OJ Mayo… So, what if he had picked Mayo?  At the time, the problem with Mayo for the Heat, was that he was too similar to Dwayne Wade (albeit nowhere near as good), now however that’s exactly the player the Heat need.  With LeBron James acting as the de-facto point guard, the Heat don’t need a traditional point guard, they need someone who can defend and shoot.  Carlos Arroyo has been manning the position, but… come on.  Mayo’s a good defender and a great shooter.  In his two years in the league he has comfortably averaged 18 points a game on 45% shooting from the floor, with 38% three point shooting.  Of course, by dumping Beasley’s contract, the Heat were able to squeeze out enough money to offer Mike Miller his deal, but a) with Mayo they wouldn’t have needed him and b) if they really still wanted the long haired sharp shooter, I’m sure they could have found a way to make it work.  Now, the Heat are going to win 64+ games anyhow, so at some point it’s just an embarrassment of riches, but Mayo is exactly the kind of guard that the Heat want starting next to Wade and James.

2) What if the Knicks had not traded Jared Jeffries and Jordan Hill to the Rockets last February?

Desperate to get Jeffries contract off their books in hopes of landing LeBron, the Knicks gave Hill (meh), money, and draft picks in 2011 (swap) and 2012 for Tracy McGrady.  The move did allow them to clear enough salary cap space to grab a second max free agent, but when Joe Johnson re-upped with Atlanta, Bosh (made irrelevant by Amare’s signing) and Wade joined in Miami, all the Knicks’ eggs were in the James basket… We all know how that ended and for all their efforts, the Knicks ended up Raymond Felton as their second banana…  Making matters worse, Hill and those picks are exactly what the Knicks need as they desperately pursue Carmelo Anthony.  If the Knicks had not made that deal, then they could offer up a package to Denver that involved their 2012 pick, Jeffries and Curry’s expiring deal (which would allow Denver to shed a onerous contract along with Carmelo) and a couple of young prospects out of A. Randolph, J. Hill, D. Gallinari, and K. Azubuike.  At this point, when Denver knows that Carmelo’s gone and nobody really wants to offer them much for him, that looks like enough to bring him to MSG (where he might need a hard hat, but that’s another topic for another day…).  Instead, the Knicks will have to hope that the Nuggets get desperate as the trade deadline approaches, because as it stands they don’t have the pieces to pull a Carmelo trade off.

3) What if the Zombie Sonics had drafted Joakim Noah and Steph Curry?

I sort of touched on this in my NBA Preview blurb on the Zombies, but I think I’m going to elaborate a little more and toss Curry in as well.  As I said then, I think that Sam Presti is easily one of the five best GMs in basketball, but there are two glaring examples of mistakes he made in the draft, that are holding back what could be a dominant franchise.  First, in 2007 he took Jeff Green fifth instead of Noah.  As I said two weeks ago, Green’s a nice player, but Noah’s the sort of hustle, rebounding, defense, unselfish player that helps teams win championships.  People are always talking about the Scottie Pippen to somebody’s Jordan, well Noah’s would have been the Dennis Rodman to Kevin Durant’s Jordan.  Only, you know, without the wedding dress, tattoos, and tantrums.

On top of that, the Zombies could have picked Steph Curry to pair in the backcourt with Russell Westbrook.  Look, I think it’s too early to throw James Harden under the bus, he’s only 21 and may still develop into a solid NBA player, but looking at him right now his ceiling seems more dependable rotation player than perennial all star.  Curry on the other hand is the sort of incredibly gifted, incredibly intelligent player who would pair perfectly with both Durant and Westbrook.  As John Hollinger points out in today’s PER Diem (Insider, sorry), the Thunder have underperformed people’s expectations this season in large part because nobody besides Durant can shoot.  Curry came out of the womb knocking down threes and he would help cure what ails the Zombies.  I know that Russell likes being a point guard and that’s fine, because with him, Curry would just slide into being the shooting guard (and what’s in a name anyway?); a position from which he would bomb threes hand out dimes, and make opponents pay for doubling Durant.  It would be awesome to behold and they’re all so young that it would just be a really fun decade of hoops in Seattle (what, if I’m changing their picks, I’m dam sure changing Howard Schultz selling them to an ownership group that was obviously moving them to Oklahoma.  Shame on you Howard, shame…).

The Zombies’ lineup (or, in this case, should I say the Sonics’ lineup) would be:

PG – R. Westbrook

SG – S. Curry

SF – K. Durant

PF – N. Collison

C – J. Noah

Bench: N. Krstic, S. Ibaka, T. Sefolosha, D. Cook, E. Maynor, C. Aldrich

Solid.  Too bad Presti missed out on those picks (and Shultz sold to Bennet and company), because that is a squad I really would have enjoyed watching…

The Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF…

October 10, 2010 2 comments

A couple of weeks ago a work colleague who knows that I’m a masochist, er… sorry, a Jays fan, asked me what I thought it would take for the Jays to compete again. I thought about it for almost a whole second before postulating, “a new division.”

That is, of course, something of a cop out. Divisional realignment isn’t likely to happen, at least not until MLB expands again (and trust me, MLB will eventually expand, but not while Bud’s still in charge). So, while I dream of playing in the AL Central against the Twins, White Sox, and Tigers, the Jays’ reality is that each and every year they have to compete with the combined 380 million salaries of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Sure, it’d be great if the Jays could have a budget south of 150 million, but that’s just not realistic for a team that is (at best) the second sport franchise in a moderately sized market. Now, having said that, all is not lost. The Rays have shown that it is possible for a low budget team to compete with the bullys in the East, but it takes an exceptionally well run organization.

So what could the Jays have done to make the playoffs this year? They would have to run an organization as well as the Rays are run. That doesn’t mean that you can’t make mistakes (the Rays blew it big time by picking Tim Beckham two years ago over Buster Posey), but it means that you have to get most of your decisions right. You have to draft and develop better than the Yanks and Sox; you have to spend you money wisely; and you have to evaluate your own players well, so that you know when to cut ties with players before they disintegrate (cough-scottkazmir-cough). Basically, you have to run a perfect organization.

For instance:

The single best thing that the Jays can do to compete year in and year out is to be better than the Yanks and Sox when it comes to minor league palyer development. Why are the Rays so good? Because over the last five years their minor leagues have graduated:

Evan Longoria
BJ Upton
Reid Brignac
Daivd Price
Jeff Niemann
Wade Davis

Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson also made brief “hello, we’re the future, mind if we hang out for a bit” appearances with the big club this year. Plus, that list doesn’t even include Delmon Young who was dealt to the Twins for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. So, for a team on a budget, the single most important factor to prolonged success is drafting well and then developing those draftees into legitimate major league players.

Look, I’ve done the “I wish the Jays had drafted him in this round” thing and obviously with that mythical 20/20 hindsight you could assemble an all star roster for any franchise, but in 2005 the Jays had the sixth pick in the draft. The overwhelming best player on the board at that spot was Troy Tulowitzki; instead they picked Ricky Romero. Now, over the last two years Romero has developed into a very good pitcher and thus made me stop wanting to bash my head against a wall every time the ’05 draft is brought up (and since that draft produced Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman, Garza, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jay Bruce, and Andrew McCutcheon, it’s brought up a lot), but Romero’s probably not amongst the thirty best pitchers in baseball and Tulo could make a very real argument as the best shortstop in babseball. So, yeah, that one I’m going to have to flag. The Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… they had made the smart move and drafted Tulo.

Now, because I just cannot help myself, I will make one “wish pick” from that same draft. In the third round of ’05, the Jays selected Brian Pettway with the 86th pick. Twenty-three picks later the Yankees selected Brett Gardner. This isn’t like the Cardinals getting Albert Pujols in the 13th round, or the Dodgers using the 1390th pick on Mike Piazza. This is using a late draft pick to get a solid contributer, a guy who will give you a 2-4 WAR for four or five years. Now, Tony LaCava and the rest of the Jays’ scouting department have done a remarkable job finding solid young arms in later draft rounds, but they haven’t had that same success with position players. The Jays would be in the playoff right now IF… they had found a few gems like Brett Gardner.

Obviously the single biggest mistake this franchise made in the last, uhmmm… ever(?) was signing Vernon Wells to that obnoxious seven year, 126 million contract (you know, the one that only paid him like 20 dollars for the first three years and then cripples the franchise for the next eighty years). The worst is that it was a contract that Wells never should have been offfered. Even coming off his career year, he wasn’t a twenty million a year guy, but even if he was, the Jays shoudn’t be spending that much money on one player.

Look, for all the hoopla over what the Yanks are going to pay Derek Jeter this offseason, the reality is… who cares. They can pay him 25 million a year, because with what amounts to an unlimited payroll, it just doesn’t matter. On the other hand, when you have an 80 million payroll and you’re giving 20 million to ONE guy, well you’re going to have problems. Even if that one guy is Babe Ruth you’re going to have problems, but in Wells’ best season he had a WAR of 5.1. That’s basically your normal all star season. Good, maybe even very good, but not great (Most MVP years are around 8.0, when Bonds was at the peak of his “powers” he topped out at 13.0). The bigger issue with Wells is that he’s never been consistent. Look at his WARs beginning in his first full season:

1.5
3.7
3.8
3.2
5.7
1.5
1.5
0.0 (and that’s not because he was injured, Wells had 684 at bats last year)
4.0

What is consistent about that is how often Wells is merely an average baseball player. That was true in 2006 and it’s true today. This isn’t me opining with the hindsight of 20/20, this was obvious to competent observers back in 2006, but the hardest thing for professional franchises to evaluate is their own talent. You see it in basketball, like when the Atlanta Hawks gave Joe Johnson 126 million or the Memphis Grizzlies gave Rudy Gay 83 million. If either of those guys are even the second best player on a championship squad, I’d be shocked. Of course, in basketball if you give that type of money to LeBron James, you’ll probably have a good chance of winning 60 games.

The same is just not true in baseball. When the Rangers gave Alex Rodriguez 25 million a year, he was worth roughly that much, but they still finished last in each of his three seasons with the club. You simply cannot tie a quarter of your budget to one player (and don’t tell me that when they gave Wells that contract Rogers was promising the Jays a budget around 100 million, a fifth of your roster for one guy is not really better). So, the Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… they had been smart enough to let Wells reach his walk year and then replaced him with a player from their farm system (say someone like Gardner).

Back in 2007 the winter before Tim Lincecum went fromm being a freak to being The Freak, Jays GM JP Ricciardi and San Francisco GM Brian Sabean discussed a deal that would have sent the spindly flamethrower to Toronto for underachieving slugger Alex Rios. The Giants needed offense and the Jays needed to trade Rios before he started telling fans to f*** off. It seemed like a match made in heaven. Only, as the rumor goes, JP turned it down, or he was unwilling to include a prospect like Curtis Thigpen (excuse me, I just have to vomit for a minute… Ok, lets get going again) to seal the deal. Since then, Lincecum has won two Cy Youngs, while Rios was so bad last year that the Jays literally gave him away to the Chicago White Sox. So, the Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… they had been savvy and tenacious enough to complete a trade for Tim Lincecum.

In a similar vein, in 2006 former Rays number one pick Josh Hamilton was selected by the Cubs in the rule 5 draft. Had they wanted him, the Jays could have acquired Hamilton. How do I know this? Because the Cubs eventually sold Hamilton to Cincinnati for cash considerations. Think about that for a second, the AL MVP favourite was acquired in 2006 for CASH. Obviously Hamilton was considered toxic because of his drug and alcohol addiction, but the 100,000 cash that Cincinnati spent on the former number one pick was a drop of water in a baseball team’s operations budget. Hamilton deserves a world of credit for salvaging his career, and obviously most teams were scared off by his demons, but given their financial restraints, the Jays need to be taking chances on talented players whose star has been tainted for some reason. Thus, the Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… they had taken a chance on Josh Hamilton when they could have had him.

The Jays also need to be on the cutting edge of sabermetrics, using them to learn things that don’t seem obvious to the naked eye. For instance, to most observers, Adrian Beltre was a complete bust during his time with Mariners. Coming off an MVP caliber year in 2004 Beltre signed a five year 64 million contract with Seattle. During his five years with the M’s, Beltre never came near the 48 home runs he had in 2004. He never hit above .280, or drove in a 100 runs. Sure he played great defense, but come on, do chicks dig the diving pick and cannon thrown, or do chicks dig the long ball? So, Beltre was a giant disappointment.

Only, Fangraphs‘ player value page estimated that over those five years, Beltre was worth 68 million dollars. So, while he wasn’t a blinding success, he was still a very valuable player who justified his contract. Thus, the Red Sox (a very sabermetrically minded organization) gave Beltre a one year 10 million deal last offseason. Beltre rewarded them with a massive year, valued at 28.3 million. This is the kind of player that the Jays need to be identifying. Guys who the market has devalued for some reason, but who the numbers show are better than their reputation. The Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… they had signed Beltre to a 12 million one year deal last winter.

Now, even when you assemble all this talent, it’s important that the guys perform to their abilities. It’s even more important that if they’re going to have “career years,” they all – or mostly all – have them in the same year. So, Jose Bautista had what could reasonably be dubbed a career year this season, but the Jays never really sniffed the playoffs, because two of their best players from last year fell off the face of the earth. Look at the lines of Aaron Hill and Adam Lind from last year to this year:

A. Hill
Last Year – .286 (Avg), .330 (OBP), .499 (SLG), 36 (HR), 3.9 (WAR)
This Year – .205, .271, .394, 26, 1.1

A. Lind
Last Year – .305, .370, .562, 35, 3.5
This Year – .237, .287, .425, 23, -0.2

So, Bautista’s phenomenal season was undermined by the sh*t seasons of Lind and Hill. For the Jays to make a playoff run, they need their guys to have great seasons at the same time. Thus, the Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… their players perform to their abilities.

Finally, it should go without saying, that if the Jays had assmebled this squad together, there’s no reason for Roy Halladay to consider leaving town and covnersely, there’s no chance that the Jays would have traded the Doctor. Thus, the Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… they still had Doc.

All told, those moves roughly give them a roster this year that looks like this:

C – J. Buck (r), J. Molina
1B – J. Bautista (r), L. Overbay (l)
2B – A. Hill (r)
SS – T. Tulowitzki (r), J. McDonald (r)
3B – A. Beltre (r), E. Encarnacion (r)
RF – T. Snider (l)
CF – B. Gardner (l)
LF – J. Hamilton (l),
DH – A. Lind (l)

SP – R. Halladay (rh)
SP – T. Lincecum (lh)
SP – S. Marcum (rh)
SP – B. Cecil (lh)
SP – B. Morrow (rh)

CL – K. Gregg (rh)
RP – S. Camp (rh)
RP – S. Downs (lh)
RP – C. Jansen (rh)
RP – J. Fraser (rh)
RP – D. Purcey (lh)
RP – B. Tallet (lh)

That is a playoff team. A solid lineup with a blend of right handers and lefthanders. Guys who milk at bats and guys, guys who get on base and guys who mash the ball. Two dominant pitchers at the top of the rotation, followed by depth and guys who throw hard. As I said, a playoff team. All of those moves were within the realm of possibility, they could have been made by Toronto. Of course, doing so would make them the best run organisation in baseball. Which I guess brings me back to my colleague’s original question about what it would take for the Jays to be in the playoffs right now. Simply put, the Jays would be in the playoffs right now IF… they were the best run organization in baseball. They aren’t, which is why instead of cheering on the Jays, I’m watching the Rays play the Rangers right now…

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The Summer of LeBron…

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

This is a column that Cleveland Cavalier fans will hate and, frankly, I can’t blame them. For the better part of two years, they have had to deal with every Tom, Dick, and Nancy postulating about where their superstar will land this summer. Column after column, question after question to broadcasters, the barrage of “LeBron is leaving” commentary has been enough to make most Clevelanders yearn for the safe quaint days of the Drew Carrey Show. And yet, the hits just keep coming, for while there have been engaging storylines in the NBA over the last two years, none of them have had the staying power or importance of the Summer of LeBron.

Look Cleveland, I understand, really I do. When the Jays started taking offers for Roy Halladay last summer I spent a solid week vomiting into my mouth. It was awful then, it was awful this winter when the talk resumed, and it was awful when they finally moved him. After reading the package that they received for Doc, I spent another solid week hitting my head against anything hard in hopes of numbing the pain. So yes, believe me Cleveland, I get it, I really do, and while I love Doc with an unholy masculine passion, even I acknowledge that there’s two differences between that situation and Cleveland’s.

First, LeBron leaving Cleveland would be a ‘NBC adjusting its late night schedule’ level disaster for the Cavs, while the Jays trading Doc was probably the best thing for both him and the team. Second, while Doc’s arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now, LeBron might soon be the best player in basketball, well… ever (calm down, calm down, I’m not saying he is, or will be, better than MJ, I’m merely saying it’s possible). So, I understand how this is a thousand times worse for Clevelanders, with the situation only exacerbated by the fact that LeBron’s a local boy.

Unfortunately, all that empathy and five dollars will get you a frothy, whip cream covered, burnt coffee drink from Starbucks, because it doesn’t change the fact that in four plus months LeBron James will be a free agent. Unlike any other great player in the history of the game, LeBron will have the opportunity to control his destiny at the age of 25. Imagine that, the chance to sign the best player in the game before he enters his prime. That’s what makes this the single most important story line in the NBA.

Of course, it’s not just LeBron, there’s also Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer (and potentially Dirk Nowitzki, although he’d have to leave 21 million on the table – it’s more likely that he’ll sign an extension with Dallas), but the piece teams are angling for, the piece New York fans have been enduring two years of Larry Hughes and Al Harrinton in anticipation of, is LeBron James.

That’s why this is the Summer of LeBron and that’s why this column is a breakdown of his potential landing spots. Remember that the percentages attached to these destinations have been carefully determined by me after hundreds of hours in conversation with LeBron himself… and by LeBron himself I mean some serious smelling salts and his puppet from those Nike ads… and by his puppet from those Nike ads, I really mean an old sock of mine that I sowed some buttons on… Too much information? Ahhhh… Uhhmmm… lets just move on.

These cities know that they have no chance:

Memphis, Toronto (right now I’d peg the Raptors’ chances at 40% that they keep their own superstar), Sacramento, Milwaukee, Indiana, Minnesota, Golden State (How poorly run are the Warriors? They are in one of the most beautiful regions in the U.S., they have one of the largest markets, and, well, even the Clippers got themselves half a percent, know what I’m saying?), Denver, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington (if they’d actually been able to void Gilbert’s contract and traded the rest of their roster for cap space, they might have been an intriguing option for the James Gang), Charlotte, Atlanta, Utah.

These cities might have been a destination for LeBron, but they just don’t have the money or assets to make it happen:

Boston, Phoenix (how great would Nash running with LeBron be?), San Antonio (probably never an option, but it’s a testament to the Spurs success that I list them here), Portland, Orlando, New Orleans (again, might be too small of a market, but there’s Chris Paul and the Post-Katrina hero factor).

The Not Bloody Likely:

0.25% – The Zombie Sonics – they have the cap space to sign him (or depending on the exact cap number, could easily get the space), they have a player whom I believe will be second only to LeBron over the next decade, and a solid looking core of Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green, and James Hardin. So why only a quarter of a percent? Did I mention that the team is located in Oklahoma?

0.5% – LA Clippers – As Bill Simmons has noted in the past, the Clippers are almost the perfect location for LeBron. Obviously Los Angeles is a choice market and despite their history of ineptitude, the Clippers have a core of young guys (Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin), a savvy veteran to take some of the pressure of leading off the King (Baron Davis), and a caveman (Chris Kaman). The problem? How about Donald Sterling and the Clipper curse? Sterling’s been so bad that there’s really no chance that LeBron chooses LA’s alternate team.

So, why half a percent? Well it’s possible that after another season of ineptitude, a deranged Clippers fan will end up murdering Sterling in the middle of the team’s home finale. In that case, the NBA would be forced to take immediate action by auctioning off the team. It would be purchased by some cavalier young billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg, who would hire Simmons as GM. Simmons would immediately start changing the culture of the team by renaming them to the Los Angeles LeBroners, giving them new uniforms with a picture of LeBron’s outline, and, well… you get the picture.

1.00% – Houston Rockets – It’s really unlikely, but can’t be discounted because Houston is a big market and they’ve shown themselves to be a savvy organization who would be committed to winning. Plus, if LeBron is looking for global domination, you can’t discount the Yao factor.

2.5% – New Jersey Nets – At one time the Nets were considered a legitimate dark horse in the LeBron-stakes, but their move to Brooklyn is still in a state of flux, their owner is probably, possibly(?) an unknown Russian billionaire, and their current roster is setting an all time pace of ineptitude. So, while they have bundles of cap space, there’s not much drawing LeBron to New Jersey except maybe the chance to hang out with Jay Z’s wife.

2.75% – Dallas Mavericks – The Mavs can’t be completely discounted, because Mark Cuban is such a dynamic, popular owner that Dallas has become a popular free-agent destination. While they wont have any cap space, the Mavs do have assets that they could offer Cleveland in a sign and trade were LeBron determined to leave.

4.5% – LA Lakers – Some have floated the possibility of the Lakers acquiring LeBron in a sign and trade in which Kobe goes the other way. That’s NEVER happening. You might be able to identify the warts in Kobe’s game, and I can definitely identify the warts in Kobe’s game, but Lakers fans? They would riot if he were swapped, even for LeBron. But, I have to give it 4.5 percent, because if James decided that he wanted to pair with Kobe, then the Lakers could make a reasonable sign and trade package that starts with Andrew Bynum. Unlikely, but possible.

The Contenders:

14% – New York Knicks – If the Knicks are able to drop Jared Jeffries’ contract in the next two days, I would bump this up considerably. As things stand now though, the Knicks will have trouble adding LeBron and forming any sort of strong team around him. They have the space for him, but even if David Lee re-ups, who plays the point? Who plays center? Who plays shooting guard? LeBron will always attract talented aging vets hunting a ring, and thus willing to sign for the veteran minimum, but that’s a lot of starters, let alone bench pieces. Now, if they clear the space for a significant running mate, then get back to me.

14.5% – Miami Heat – The trendy pick right now, and it’s possible, but… I don’t know, I just don’t see it. The problem is that if James goes there, it will always be Wade’s team. I don’t mean that like I don’t think the two of them would be phenomenal teammates, I do. It’s just that I think for that to occur, they’d have to join forces in a neutral site (see below). Otherwise, why would James want to join a mediocre fan base in a marginal sports city. Yes, players love visiting Miami, but it doesn’t do much to push LeBron’s global image, especially if he’s Wade’s running mate, as opposed to the other way around.

19.9% – Chicago Bulls – It has been a bleak decade for the Bulls post-MJ, but suddenly there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Chicago has the money to add a significant piece this offseason and if they can move Kirk Hinrich’s nine million salary this week, then they’ll have enough money to add two pieces. Some have speculated that LeBron wouldn’t want to follow in Jordan’s footsteps, but I think the statute of limitations on the reign of number 23 ended with the decade. If you look at the pieces that the Bulls already have in place (Derrick Rose, Joachim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson), and if they’re able to finagle the space to sign a major second piece (local boy Wade, Bosh, Joe Johnson, heck even Amare or Boozer would be insane) then you can see how this could become an exceedingly enticing place for James to choose.

Just for the sake of argument, lets assume that Boston gets desperate in the next two days and makes a rash trade with Chicago of Ray Allen and Glen Davis for Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich (for the record, I doubt Boston takes on that much money, but teams get desperate as the deadline approaches). If they then decline the qualifying offer to Tyrus Thomas and renounce their other free agents (Brad Miller, Jerome James, Lindsay Hunter, do you want to get rid of them? Gee, let me think, uhmmm… sure), then this summer they will have close to 40 million in cap room. If LeBron, Wade, and Bosh really do want to team up together (and they seemed to pair pretty naturally in Sunday’s allstar game), then this is their best situation. They would each have to take slightly less than the maximum contract (risky given that max contracts could drastically decline with the next bargaining agreement), but if they intend to join forces, that would be the case anywhere. After these unlikely, but feasible, moves Chicago has a roster that looks like this:

PG – D. Rose,
SG – D. Wade, J. Salmons
SF – L. James, J. Johnson
PF – C. Bosh, T. Gibson
C – J. Noah, G. Davis

I know what you’re saying, that’s only nine guys, how can you have a team with only nine guys? But, of course, if you have Rose, Wade, LeBron, and Bosh you’d find the other three guys on veteran minimum contracts P… D… F… (say, Luke Ridnour to back up the point, Adonal Foyle as some bench beef, and Kyle Korver for late game shooting… or maybe Ray Allen is ready to play out the string as the veteran presence on this team). Really, all that team needs is phenomenal offensive coach who can manipulate all this talent into an all-time combination. Oh, I don’t know, perhaps a coach like the one pulling his hair out in New York… Actually, who am I kidding, a banana wearing a top hat and a tie could “coach” this team to 70 wins.

The Champ:

40.1% – Cleveland Cavaliers – Relax Cav fans, I actually think you might be better than fifty percent, but either way you are prohibitive favorites. Why? Well, in the age of globalization and prolific information, it really doesn’t much matter what size of market you’re in. What’s holding LeBron back at this point is that small portion of the public that wont anoint him the best until he wins a title. So, I think he’s less likely to leave Cleveland for a bigger market, than for a better opportunity for championships. And where exactly can offer him that? Oklahoma and the Clippers. Yeah, ‘nough said. So, the Cavs have to watch out for the Bulls, but I think the other options out there don’t bring enough talent to the table.

Plus, there are solid odds that LeBron wins a title for Cleveland this year and if he does, I think the percentage that he re-signs with them jumps to over 80%. So, don’t pound your head into hard objects yet Clevelanders. Remember, it’s not over until the fat guy in glasses starts signing… and he’s still busy asking strangers to guess the price of consumer products.

Lament of the Phoenix Part Two…

January 27, 2010 2 comments

(I got a bit wordsy and had to split my last post in two. If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here, or you could just scroll down, down again, just a little further, a touch more, you’re almost there…)

All of which brings us to the Big Kahuna. For Garnett, Minnesota’s former GM Kevin McHale took a package of Al Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Sebation Telfair, the expiring deals of Theo Ratliff and Grant Green, and two draft picks. Would a package of Rajon Rondo, Leandro Barbosa, Shawn Marion, the Rudy Fernandez pick and a future number one have been a more enticing offer for McHale? I’d have to think so. The talent in the latter package is a lot better.

Remember that we are talking about things back in 2007, when Barbosa was still thought of as a potential game changing sixth man, and Marion’s (Nashless) offensive shortcomings had yet to be made clear. It would not have offered the immediate cap relief, but Minnesota isn’t a free agent destination, so the cap space is less important than the talent.

I don’t know if McHale takes that deal… I mean, it’s Kevin “I think trading Sam Cassell for Marko Jaric is a good deal, but I’d better sweeten the offer with a draft pick” McHale, who the heck knows what he does. Predicting that is like trying to predict whether Ron Artest is going to be wearing pants today. It’s possible that he would have done the deal without Fernandez, but who knows. So, lets just assume that they do it as is. Why? well, it just makes the rest of my post easier.

Had Suns management utilised those draft picks, they could have still given Raja Bell the midlevel exception, they could have re-signed Eddie House, Grant Hill would still have signed for the veteran minimum. Obviously we aren’t going near Marcus Banks, the Gordan Giricek trade isn’t particularly likely, and the Big Cactus would never have sprouted, but if Phoenix had walked this path, here’s what their roster would have looked like for the 2007/08 season, versus what it looked like when the 2008 playoffs began:

Starters                         Starters
PG – S. Nash              PG – S. Nash
SG – R. Bell                 SG – R. Bell
SF – J. Johnson        SF – G. Hill
PF – K. Garnett          PF – A. Stoudemire
C – A. Stoudemire      C – S. O’Neal
Bench                            Bench
G – E. House               G – L. Barbosa
G – S. Rodriguez        S – D.J. Strawberry
S – G. Hill                    S – G. Giricek
S – J. Jones                 S – L. Johnnson
B – B. Skinner             B – B. Skinner
B – B. Diaw                  B – B. Diaw
B – M. Gortat               B – S. Marks

Is that a championship difference? I think so, the starting five is awesome. Bell, Johnson, and Garnett are all plus defenders who could help cover for Nash and Amare’s shortcomings. In 2007, Garnett over Shaq is a massive upgrade. The Diesel was running like an ’82 Volvo, while KG was at the height of his powers that season. His commanding presence and defensive energy were the biggest factors in Boston’s revival. Would he have had the same effect on the Suns? It think he would have. He basically does everything Marion did for the Suns, but better. Well, he doesn’t shoot threes quite as well, but then he doesn’t really shoot them and since Marion never shot threes quite as well as he thought, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Johnson replacing Hill in the starting lineup, and thus Giricek overall, is also obviously a massive upgrade. Johnson is the perfect basketball player for the D’Antoni system. He’s a strong defender, he passes almost as well as a point guard, and, most importantly, he shoots the rock.

The bench is also stronger. Mike D’Antoni only ever goes three deep on his bench and House did yeoman’s work off the bench for the Celtics that year. So, a Hill, House, Diaw bench would have offered a change of pace guy, a savvy and smart swingman, and a guy who likes French food. What? Sure Diaw has spent most of his career a little on the soft side, but I’m the last guy who’s going to criticize a Frenchman for knowing the importance of butter…

If the team needed to bang, then they could have thrown Gortat out there, if they needed a shooter off the bench they’d have had Jones, if they’d needed an overwhelmed rookie to buy donuts, they’d have had Rodriguez. Really, they had everything they needed. I honestly think that that squad wins the title that year and quite possibly another last year.

Instead, only two years latter, as the Suns look to move Amare Stoudemire for ten cents on the dollar, we are left singing,

Great God! is this our certain doom?
And are we still secure?
Still walking downward to our tomb,
And yet prepare no more?

The Suns are doomed and the right move probably is trading Amare, so let us mourn the death of the Suns… but what are the chances of the franchise writing that “eulogy” and moving Nash somewhere better?

Lament of the Phoenix Part One…

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

The Suns lost another road game last night. It was their sixth loss in their last eight games and it dropped their road record to 9-15. The loss means the Suns currently sit in seventh place, with Memphis half a game behind, and another three teams a single game out of that final playoff spot. Granted, the Suns are also just a game away from being in fourth place in the conference, such is the nature of the Western Cofnerence this year, but they’re moving in the wrong direction.

After the outlandish expectations that accompanied the Suns’ 14-3 start, it would appear that the playoffs are a rapidly fading dream. Worse, the prospect that the Suns will miss the playoffs, or at best be a first round patsy, and then lose Amare Stoudemire this summer is making the team antsy to move their mercurial forward.

We all know that the “seven seconds or less” era is dead. The Suns still play open, offensive basketball, only they don’t race up court the way that they used to, and the championship potential they had from 2004-2007 is gone, but… moving Stoudemire would be like the signing of “Hark! From The Tombs A Doleful Sound,” with only the eulogy (Steve Nash’s departure) left in the Suns’ funeral.

It’s popular to blame Suns owner Robert Sarver for the demise of the Suns and frankly, it’s also accurate. Sarver’s cheapness boggles my mind. I mean, why own a franchise, if you’re just going to let the most exciting team since the late eighties shrivel and die by selling draft picks and watching costs closer than Victoria Beckham watches calories.

Still, Sarver isn’t the only one to blame in this tragic demise. There’s also the men who make the actual basketball decisions. Sure, Sarver was strict in his demand to keep the payroll around 65 million, but that doesn’t excuse the signing of Marcus Banks, and it doesn’t excuse allowing Eddie House to leave after a season in which he averaged 9.8 points in only 17 minutes of action. Worst of all, it doesn’t excuse Brian Colangelo and his successor, Steve Kerr, from selling all of those draft picks.

Yes, the owner wanted to save money, but young players are cost effective and the job of the GM is to explain to an irrational owner why keeping Luol Deng, Rajon Rondo, and Rudy Fernandez made fiscal sense. For instance, in the summer that the Suns drafted Rondo and Sergio Rodriguez, they sold both, to Boston and Portland respectively, for approximately five million and then used those savings to sign Marcus Banks to an absurd 5 year 21.3 million contract. A year later, when he was playing a paltry ten minutes a game, they couldn’t get give Banks away and eventually used him as salary filler in the Shawn Marion-Shaq trade.

This is a full list of the draft picks that the Suns traded away during the last five seasons:

Luol Deng (7th), 2004 to the Bulls for a future draft pick (21st pick the following season).

Nate Robinson (21st), 2005 to the Knicks as a throw in of the Quentin Richardson – Kurt Thomas deal.

Marcin Gortat (57th), 2005 to the Magic for future considerations (or, in other words, nothing).

Rajon Rondo (21st), 2006 to the Celtics along with Brian Grant’s contract for cash considerations and Cleveland’s future 1st rounder.

Sergio Rodriguez (27th), 2006 to Portland for cash considerations.

Rudy Fernandez (24th), 2007 to Portland along with James Jones for… wait for it… cash considerations.

Serge Ibaka ((24th), 2008 to The Zombie Sonics for Kurt Thomas.

Unknown (?), 2010 to The Zombie Sonics for Kurt Thomas.

Now, those seven players aren’t winning you a championship (and the 2010 pick is probably not going to be John Wall), but Rondo’s a budding allstar, Deng’s a solid starter, Fernandez is a preeminent sixth man, and the others are solid to decent bench pieces. And, more importantly, each is an asset that could have been used during Phoenix’s protracted attempts to acquire Kevin Garnett.

Before we get too far, it should be made clear that many of those picks were the Suns’, because they’d previously traded a pick, so they couldn’t have had all of those guys, but with a few simple moves they could have done this:

Don’t trade Deng, well at least not for the Chicago pick. Not trading Deng would have meant the Suns wouldn’t have had the cap space to sign Quentin Richardson, which means they never trade Richardson and the Bulls’ pick to New York for Kurt Thomas (although I think Thomas was a worthy warrior, just not a 9 million a year warrior). Thus, they never have to trade two picks to the Seattle Zombie Sonics for taking Thomas off their payroll.

Now, after Deng’s rookie year, his stock was high. He looked like a superstar. After that year, if the Suns had committed to Joe Johnson, as they should have, they could have moved Deng to Atlanta for Boris Diaw and the Lakers’ pick, which Atlanta owned from a previous deal, they might have even been able to get more, but for the sake of argument we’ll just go with that deal. That pick became the 21st in the 2006 draft, which the Suns used on Rajon Rondo. Now, trading Rondo to Boston was perhaps the worst move the Suns made during this entire process, so we just aren’t going to do that.

Instead, because the Suns don’t trade Rondo to Boston, they wouldn’t have had the 24th pick in the 2007 draft, but they could have swapped their 29th choice for the 24th, a second rounder, and some other small piece (cash, future picks, whatever). Why would we do this? Because the 24th pick was Rudy Fernandez and the 29th was Alando Tucker. Just saying…

(This post was really frickin’ long, so I broke it in two…)

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