The Wandering Beard

As Thunder GM Sam Presti was watching his former sixth man run circles around the Pistons, I suspect he had a moment of recoil. At least he should have.

Keep in mind that as the Lakers struggle to 0-10 (including preseason) much like the Heat struggled a couple of years ago, NBA analysts around the country emphasize that a team needs time to “gel”. And while I don’t doubt the acumen or insider expertise of any of these former players and coaches, I did just watch James Harden turn into “Big Game” James and drop a LeBron James like stat line without ever having played with any of the current Rockets.

James Harden came off the bench last year and regularly sparked the Thunder to victories. He was a burst of energy that the other team rarely saw coming, and often had no answer for. Standing 6’5” and 230lbs, Harden has prototypical size for his position and is one of the best athletes in the NBA. If he had LeBron’s size I could make a case for him possibly growing into the best in the game. He drives the ball with raw power and swift feet. He shoots the ball with a silky release and a confident follow-through. He’s already one of the most intelligent players with the ball in his hands. And he is COLD BLOODED.

Now, none of this is news to Sam Presti. So why get rid of him? Money, money, money. He saw Harden was in line for the type of deal he got from Houston and simply could not fit that into the Thunder’s current budget. The key word there being “current”. Durant, Westbrook and Perkins are all locked up to big deals and Harden’s deal would have meant another $30 mil in luxury tax.

I get that, but here’s the thing: Would you rather have Westbrook or Harden signed to a max deal?

Russell Westbrook is one of the best talents in the NBA and there is absolutely no disputing that. But he is a little behind the curve from the neck up. He fires wild, wayward passes; often turning the ball over more than 7 or 8 times in a game. Most possessions that begin with the ball in his hands end that way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him dribble the ball up, then just pull up from 15 feet. That’s great when you make 70% of them, but that seems to be happening less and less. Meanwhile, the best scorer in the game goes possession after possession without touching the rock. My biggest problem with him is he clearly thinks he’s a better player than Durant. That’s not a strategy conducive to winning.

Presti could have, and in my opinion should have dumped Westbrook on a team for a good young point guard who is years away from a big payday or a veteran who can be an extension of Scott Brooks on the floor. Even Harden himself would have been an excellent solution at point guard.

But c’est la vie, Presti decided to hold on to one of the more volatile personalities in the NBA and dumped his 23-year-old Sixth Man of the Year.

My second problem here is the haul he got for Harden. Presti brings in Kevin Martin, who was a good scorer in Houston, but who else was going to score for them? Martin is a solid talent, moves off the ball well and has a good, albeit funky-looking jumper, but he has been apathetic to coaching in the past.

My big problem is after that they landed Jeremy Lamb and three draft picks. Picking in the NBA draft can truly be a lottery experience. The Thunder have drafted well, yes, but there is also a lot of luck involved in that. They could have easily ended up with Greg Oden, OJ Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet (who is ironically on the team this year) in the drafts that netted them Durant, Westbrook and Harden.

Obviously, only Presti knows what other offers were out there, but I can’t believe he got all he could for a man on the verge of becoming one of the best shooting guards in the NBA. If anyone had to go, Westbrook should have been the guy here. Only time will tell of course, but I seriously doubt any of the other teams in the West are sad to see Durant and Harden split up. They could have been a new generation Jordan-Pippen.

I’m afraid in the next five years Durant will have to endure some serious frustration with Westbrook and that this could end in tragedy for OKC.

Catching Up With Paul George

Paul George talked with me about how the team has grown over the past two seasons, how a tough loss to the Miami Heat helped the team grow, expectations for this season and how his game is going to improve.

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Click here to download the MP3 of this interview.

Preseason Promise And Questions For Utah

We’ve all heard it over and over: The preseason doesn’t mean anything. But is that really true? With the 2012-13 NBA regular season set to start, is there anything that we’ve learned about the Utah Jazz from their preseason performance? I think there’s plenty.

For starters, the offseason move the Jazz made to acquire Mo Williams, Marvin Williams and Randy Foye will pay dividends.

With Mo Williams at the point, Utah was consistently able to push the ball up the floor quickly, allowing for more easy transition baskets. Also, his 3-point shooting should give the Jazz a potent option on offense in the halfcourt that they just didn’t have last season.

Marvin Williams gives Utah plenty of athleticism on the wing, and he’ll have the opportunity to do things with Utah he never had with Atlanta.

Foye’s shooting came on later in preseason, and Jazz coach Ty Corbin was able to use Foye and sophomore guard Alec Burks in a combo-guard backcourt in reserve that showed some interesting results and could prove quite handy while reserve point guard Earl Watson continues his rehab.

Also, the work Enes Kanter put in during the summer was for real. My concern with Kanter ever since he was drafted was whether or not he was worth a No. 3 overall pick over Toronto rookie center Jonas Valanciunas, and Kanter’s rookie season didn’t fill me with confidence. I also thought Kanter should’ve join Turkey’s national team for Eurobasket qualifying. But the workouts he did to get in shape for the season and the skills he picked up working with NBA legend Kiki Vandeweghe really showed during preseason. He averaged nearly a double-double in Utah’s eight preseason games, playing hard in all of them, and showed improvements in defense, rebounding and offense, particularly with his mid-range jumper. Now my biggest worry about Kanter is whether or not Corbin will play him 20 minutes per game in the regular season like he did in preseason.

Fellow big man Derrick Favors had a slower start to preseason than Kanter did, but he defended well throughout, and by the last few games of exhibition, his offense looked more ready for the start of the season as well. Again, with veterans Al Jefferson, Utah’s best and most consistent player last season, and Paul Millsap both looking to take a major share of minutes in the frontcourt, playing time for Favors may also be a challenge.

While the start of the regular season brings promise, it also brings questions. With regards to Jefferson and Millsap, both will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. With their contracts, among others, coming off the books, the Jazz will be looking at a lot of salary cap space next summer. But Jefferson and Millsap will also be among the top free agents available on the market, and Utah may not be able to retain both players.

A trade during the season for either player is a real possibility in order to ensure getting value in return, and it’s a situation that will bear watching between now and February.

Also, Utah is going to need to get more from third-year swingman Gordon Hayward this season. Hayward has shown incredible potential, and his defense is particularly underrated. But just as it was with C.J. Miles, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, consistency will be Hayward’s challenge. He has the ability, but he needs to be assertive with his role on the court, and performing well consistently, particularly on offense, will help him define that role with this team.

On Wednesday, when Utah opens the regular season agains the Dallas Mavericks, we’ll see what carries over from preseason and what questions start to get answered — and what new questions might emerge.

Boom Or Bust Season For 76ers

The revamped Philadelphia 76ers are an intriguing enigma for those compiling their preseason previews and power-rankings. No team seems to have a higher ceiling—some have predicted that they’ll win the Atlantic division—or a lower floor, as others predict that they’ll fall out of the playoff picture altogether.

Many people, myself included, while wanting to believe that the 76ers are going to be a major contender, see a team with the potential to self-destruct.

The reasons for believing that the 76ers are going to be a major player in the East are clear—and they begin and end with Andrew Bynum. Bynum, the NBA’s second best centre, is now the best centre in the Eastern Conference—it’s not even close. With Dwight Howard shipped off to the West, there is no one that opposing big-men, and coaches, should fear more.

Last season, an injury-free Bynum showed what he could do at both ends of the floor. His footwork and low-post game was the best it’s ever been, while his play down the stretch in games was extremely impressive—check out his percentages in the final minutes of close games.

Recently there’s been talk of teams like the Miami Heat opting for small-ball lineups—not needing to play a genuine centre— but Bynum’s presence on the 76ers may put a wrench in that idea. I love that LeBron James can guard all 5 positions, and sure, he may be able to guard makeshift centres like Kevin Garnett, but he isn’t guarding Bynum down low. No chance.

As well as the potential 25-12 monster that is Bynum, the 76ers should also be better at the point-guard position this year. Jrue Holiday had somewhat of a coming-out party last season, particularly against the Celtics in the playoffs. He should continue that upward trajectory this year.

And then there’s Evan Turner. The uber-talented former 2nd overall pick showed flashes of brilliance last season, and he presents numerous match-up problems at the 2-spot, with his size, quickness, and rebounding abilities. Doug Collins will be hoping that he takes his game to the next level this season.

Given the factors just listed, it’s entirely logical to assume that Philadelphia are a solid playoff team, however, there are an equal number of reasons why they might also unravel. Although the signing of Bynum undoubtedly improves them in the frontcourt, the loss of Andre Iguodala in that same trade makes the 76ers substantially weaker on the perimeter. Having just praised the attributes of Turner, it’s worth mentioning that at this stage of his career, he’s no Iguodala when it comes to perimeter defense.

Iguodala was a huge part of Philadelphia’s highly ranked defense last season, and his loss means that much of the onus will be placed on Turner. Turner’s expected to play minutes at the 3-spot this year; mitigating much of the match-up problems he poses playing at the 2. At the same time, new additions Jason Richardson and Nick Young, while adding an outside shooting presence for Philadelphia, aren’t exactly shutdown defenders—Young being a particular liability at that end of the floor.

Then there’s the issue of locker-room cohesion and harmony. Fairly or unfairly, Turner has a reputation for being a difficult player to deal with, while we all know about Nick Young’s history as a member of a Washington Wizard’s team that took dysfunction to a whole new level. But the biggest problem could be Bynum’s tendency to act like a petulant child.

Bynum may have put up monster stat-lines last year in L.A., but he was also a monster pain in the behind. Just ask Mike Brown. He sulked his way through games, refused to sit with teammates during timeouts, got ejected from games, and of course, jacked up that ill-advised three that resulted in his benching. With all that baggage, Doug Collins, a highly-strung individual, with a tendency to self-destruct when pushed by a volatile superstar, might not be the ideal coach for Bynum. Just read about Collins’ checkered history with Michael Jordan for a potential precedent.

Of course, there’s also the small issue that Bynum hasn’t even suited up for the 76ers yet in preseason. It might be hard to clash with Collins if he doesn’t even get on the court. Remember, last year was also unique in that Bynum managed to play a full season—something rare in his injury-riddled career. Bynum has struggled with knee problems all summer and underwent a platelet enrichment procedure in Germany. I would be a little nervous if I was a fan in Philly.

That the 76ers are talented is not in doubt. They have enough potential scoring in Bynum, Holiday, Turner, and Thaddeus Young, while also possessing a top-15 NBA player, in the aforementioned Bynum. But there are big question marks on defense, as well as major injury and personality concerns with their star big man.

If everything comes together, you’re looking at a genuine threat in the Eastern Conference, but if the 76ers’ weaknesses on and off the court are exposed, the wheels could come off this team very quickly.

Podcast: 2012-13 NBA Season Preview

Mark and McNeill recorded a podcast to preview the 2012-13 NBA season. We talked about what teams we’re excited to watch on League Pass, the sleeper teams in each conference, what teams are overrated and what storylines we’re going to watch closely.

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Click here to download the MP3.

Toronto Steals Lowry From Houston

It took Bryan Colangelo less than 24 hours to regroup from losing Steve Nash.

In a move that won’t have the same flash or sizzle of adding Nash, Colangelo made a bold move by stealing Kyle Lowry from the Houston Rockets for a heavily protected first round pick.

It may not be the sexy move, but it was probably a better move than adding Nash.

Lowry finished last season averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 assist and 4.5 rebounds. Keep in mind for a stretch of the season Lowry flirted with 20 points and 10 assists per game. During the month of January he averaged 15.0 points, 7.1 assists and 6.7 rebounds while playing gritty defense.

It’s not like Lowry is the only possible target for Colangelo. There was talk leading up to the NBA Draft that Andre Igoudala and Rudy Gay might be headed to Toronto. While new management in Memphis has quieted the rumours of Gay being dealt, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see Igoudala dealt this summer.

Igoudala only averaged 12.9 points and 5.7 rebounds while having a player efficiency of 13.77. Hardly the stuff to excite fans in Toronto. But, due to the playing style of Doug Collins, the Sixers’ leading scorer last season was sixth man Lou Williams.

There are a lot of people in the NBA who feel that if Igoudala was playing in a system where he was featured it would allow him to average close to 18 points like he averaged a couple seasons back.

Plus, a huge bonus for Toronto is that Igoudala is a small forward known for being a gritty defender.

Here’s to hoping that Philly would be willing to take on some young pieces like Ed Davis or DeMar DeRozan while taking some expiring contracts like Linas Kleiza or Jose Calderon in the process.

While none of these moves have the luster of inking Nash trading for a valuable piece or two may turn out better.

Orlando Took Dwight Howard For Granted

The Dwight Howard saga appears nearing an end. The Magic franchise appears ready to part ways with their superstar center and are exploring their trade options to get some type of value in return for him. That was always something Orlando was determined to do, but the hope of having Howard sign an extension has waned.

The reports this weekend appear to have put a nail in that coffin. A divorce seems inevitable.

Why did this have to happen? What went so wrong in Orlando for Howard that he had to engineer his exit in such an embittered, secretive and senseless way? What brought the frustration level with the franchise so high that this was the way Howard had to go?

These are complex questions that do not have easy answers. Far from them.

In each of Howard’s statements he professes a love for the city of Orlando and a request fans stay patient with him and believe in him. But at the same time, he has avoided the truth that seems undeniable at this point: he does not want to play in Orlando anymore. His relationship with the Magic franchise has soured beyond the point of repair and he is trying (emphasis on trying) to secure an exit while maximizing his earning potential.

It has created an ugly divorce with the fans stuck in the middle.

Those same fans who have followed Dwight Howard the past eight years know this is not who Dwight Howard is. That is why hope that he would ultimately re-sign in Orlando remained — and why some fans I have talked to still believe Howard will stay if the team can gather the right pieces (bless those optimists, seriously).

Howard is a fun-loving, smiling center who plays hard and works hard. There is not a single reason to hate Dwight Howard the player. This is why fans attached to him and these Magic teams so much, creating a buzz around the team that was felt only once before in the franchise history (with a similarly gregarious center).

The Dwight Howard the Magic and Magic fans saw in 2012 did not seem to enjoy the game as much. He was serious and guarded, with every word carefully measured for some ulterior motive. Not the Howard that Magic fans grew to love in seven years.

This marriage did not seem destined for divorce. Not after the 2009 Finals trip. Not even after the Magic fell in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. The fate may have been sealed in December 2010 when the Magic boxed themselves in with two horrific trades.

And then with the landscape completely changed from one of hope and promise to one of mediocrity in the matter of a year and a half, the Magic began to ask the question of Howard — how long do you want to commit to this franchise? It is easy to see from that lens why you might hesitate to say yes and exert your leverage and power a little bit more.

Getting up to 2009 was a painstaking process of clearing some bad contracts — most notably, Steve Francis and Grant Hill’s expiring deal — and creating an atmosphere where the team could succeed. Stan Van Gundy pulled the right strings in getting Rashard Lewis, Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu to play their best basketball surrounding Howard.

But after 2009, Orlando succumbed to short-sighted moves to fling the window open, hoping it would not come crashing down on the franchise.

A lot of the moves made in the summer of 2009 proved to be the correct ones for the 2010 season alone. Vince Carter replaced Turkoglu’s production (although he did not improve on it) and Orlando had a deep and versatile bench to call on for the Playoffs.

But there was one underlying assumption in how that summer-long rebuild was executed — Dwight Howard would fix everything.

It is a testament both to Van Gundy’s schemes and Howard’s excellence that the 2010 team tied for the top defensive rating in the league. After all, no one considers Jameer Nelson, Vince Carter or Rashard Lewis elite perimeter defenders. Howard’s shadow cast all over the paint and he put together impressive defensive performances all by himself.

So when Otis Smith saw the wheels coming off his team in December 2010, this assumption still rested in the back of his mind. A quick fix could work because Dwight Howard can fix a whole bunch of holes.

And for a good chunk of the 2011 season, he did. Howard posted a career-best 26.0 PER and 7.7 defensive win shares. He was an absolute monster and carried his team to become third in the league in defensive rating. This was a team, mind you, that featured Nelson, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu as defenders in front of Howard.

The chance for a title was slipping though. Orlando struggled when teams could single cover Howard and no one else on the perimeter seemed able to step up in a six-game, first-round exit to the Hawks.

If you look at things through this prism, it is easy to see why Howard was frustrated by his waning voice within the franchise and his lack of help on it. Howard had to do everything. And moves and transactions were seemingly made with the assumption that Dwight Howard can make everything work on his own. He is so gifted and talented that, for a long time, he did make it all work by himself.

But that is not how he is going to win championships. That is not how you build a championship team.

And so, with his ability to exercise his leverage at its maximum, Howard asked out. Orlando had run out of time to build him a championship team and boxed itself in, unable to get him help. The Magic as a franchise, simply took Howard’s good nature and talent for granted, souring him away from the team’s plans.

This does not in any way excuse the bungled way Howard has handled his exit. It has been ugly and confusing. A fan base that appreciates and supports a superstar the way Orlando did with Howard deserves a straight answer from the player himself — the December 2011 press conference he held would have been fine if he let it stay at that. They certainly do not deserve the winding road and drama the franchise has endured.

The way Howard continually professes his love for Orlando makes you believe things really could have worked out if the Magic remained perpetual contenders and he had no reason to be discontent. But it is clear from the way things were run, Howard had plenty of reasons to be off put by the Magic’s next attempt to placate him.

It all started with the franchise and its personnel not living up to its potential and bungling move after move at a time when it could not. Howard played the good teammate and did everything he could. The problem was, too many mistakes around him were made. It seems like it made him feel like he was taken for granted and ignored.

Howard was no longer a good soldier. He wanted a larger say if he was going to expend the effort and energy to (literally) carry a team through the postseason. Orlando did not give it to him.

And so here we are, ready to divorce much more bitterly than it had to be. A relationship broken that did not have to be.

Podcast: 2012 NBA Free Agency Preview

Mark and McNeill broke down what might happen this weekend when free agency starts. Some of the topics we covered included Kevin Garnett’s new deal to stay a Celtic, where Deron Williams might land, why Memphis could be a great team for Ray Allen, some creative ways for Steve Nash to land with Toronto or Miami and what teams are poised to be big players this summer.

Also, at the end of the podcast, McNeill had an exclusive interview with DeMar DeRozan where they talked about DeRozan’s plans for this summer.

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Here’s the link to download this podcast.

Steve Nash Will Have Plenty Of Options

Despite have a wonky back and being one of the oldest free agents in the NBA, Steve Nash will have plenty of options this summer.

And why not? Nash finished second in the NBA in assists last season and he has lead the league in assists five times over the past nine seasons.

Despite only averaging 12.7 points per game last season, he was effective shooting the ball as he made 53.7% from the field and 38.9% from three.

Nash clearly still has a lot of juice left in his tank.

Granted, his minutes will start to decrease over the next few seasons, but Nash still has the ability to put fans in the seats, and, more importantly for an NBA point guard, he still makes his teammates better.

His current team, the Phoenix Suns, have claimed they want to re-sign their legendary player. But, if talks break down and Nash wants to play elsewhere, there appears to be an agreement between the two parties that they will work together on a sign-and-trade that will benefit everyone involved.

But it isn’t the lock many assume it is that Nash will bolt the desert. People are quick to forget the Suns have more cap space than any other team this offseason and love having Nash as the face of their franchise. ESPN’s Larry Coon reported that the team will have $26 million to play with this summer without using the amnesty on anyone.

Clearly Nash has a bond with the fans in Phoenix and the training staff have done wonders preserving his body.

“It was amazing to get that type of reception and support,” Nash told The Republic after his last home game in Phoenix. “It’s very special because it’s not something I asked for or imagined. To get that kind of reaction means it’s authentic, the relationship I thought we had. It really feels special. The fans have been phenomenal and it’s meant a lot to me to play in a city like this as long as I have and to feel important to the fans and community. I just feel like a very lucky guy.”

Despite being 38 on opening night next season, the list of teams that covet Nash is long and there’s no doubt somebody will provide him with the three-year deal that he wants. Some NBA team will give Nash a huge contract despite his bad back and the fact he will be 42 when the deal expires.

One of the intriguing teams rumored to be chasing Nash is the Portland TrailBlazers. It would provide Nash with the chance to play closer to where he grew up and where most of his family still lives. They have an elite power forward in LaMarcus Aldridge, same talented player on the wings, and two draft picks in the lottery.

Plus, with just under $35 million in committed salary going into next season, they will have enough cap room to both re-sign Nicolas Batum and offer Nash considerably more than the mid-level exception.

The Toronto Raptors, a team many analysts feel is one of the front runners for Nash, doesn’t have nearly the same splashy roster, but they would provide Nash the chance to finish off his career in Canada.

With his new role as General Manager of Canada Basketball, that may also sway Nash’s decision towards Toronto.

The New York Knicks were long thought of as the ideal situation for Nash, but with the strong play of Jeremy Lin this season, the resignation of Mike D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony dominating the ball, it no longer seems like Nash to Gotham is the slam dunk that many felt it would be. In fact, now it appears to be a long shot.

Another team that many people thought might intrigue Nash is the Miami Heat.

Not so fast, according to Nash.

“Of course I want to win a ring,” Nash told The National Post nearly a year ago. “But at the same time I’m like, ‘I don’t want to win it with those guys. Those guys have been the enemy for X amount of years.’ So I’m not quite in that camp yet — ‘I don’t care, put me on the best team and I’m going to try to win a ring.’ I still feel like kids from my neighbourhood want to beat the kids from that neighbourhood, like (when) we were growing up. I’m not ready to concede, ‘Well, they’re better than us, I’ll join them.’ I’m just not there yet. Maybe I’ll get there.”

It appears that time has softened his stance at least a little bit.

“I’d listen,” Steve Nash told Dan Patrick back in March. “I love what they’re doing there. A lot of people don’t like them because they put all that talent together. They’re professional, they play hard, they play together. Their coaching staff has done a great job. So, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them, and I would definitely listen.”

A dark horse to win the Nash sweepstakes are the Los Angeles Lakers. For the past few seasons they have lacked a legitimate, all-star point guard to run their offense. After coming close to trading for Chris Paul last winter, look for the Lakers to try and woo Nash to Los Angeles this summer.

The tricky part is creating a contract offer that would entice Nash. Even if Ramon Sessions declines his player option and his salary comes off the books, the Lakers would still enter the 2012-13 season with nearly $79 million in committed salary, leaving only the taxpayer mid-level exception ($3.09 million) for Nash. Nash can make a lot more money from other teams considering he made $11.6 million last season and teams like Toronto and Portland will be willing to pay close to that.

The Chicago Bulls, Knicks, Heat and Lakers will all be both over the cap and over the tax next season so the chance of them being able to add Nash appear to be slim to none. Sure, it makes great headlines, but the reality is Nash would need to leave a team he loves (Phoenix) or leave big money on the table from teams like Toronto or Portland.

Due to the new CBA, teams over the luxury tax can only offer the mini-MLE which probably won’t enough to lure Nash to their team. Plus, some of teams will need to start shedding contracts in order to avoid the massive new tax bill coming in 2013-14 season so Nash would end up with less money and talent around him.

Regardless of who Nash signs with, he should get a three-year contract and he will land with a team he feels will be competitive night in and night out.

Not bad for an old man with a bad back.

2012 NBA Mock Draft

Things are starting to round into shape, but there will still be a lot of movement leading up to the draft in a couple of days.

Here’s how I see things falling into place on Thursday:

1. New Orleans – Anthony Davis – 6’10” PF Kentucky
2. Charlotte – Harrison Barnes – 6’8″ SF North Carolina
3. Washington – Bradley Beal – 6’4″ SG Florida
4. Cleveland – Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – 6’7″ SF Kentucky
5. Sacramento – Thomas Robinson – 6’9″ PF Kansas
6. Portland – Damian Lillard – 6’2″ PG Weber State
7. Golden State – Andre Drummond – 6’10” PF Connecticut
8. Toronto – Austin Rivers – 6’4″ PG Duke
9. Detroit – John Henson – 6’10” PF North Carolina
10. New Orleans – Kendall Marshall – 6’4″ PG North Carolina
11. Portland – Dion Waiters SG – 6’4″ Syracuse
12. Milwaukee – Perry Jones III – 6’11” SF Baylor
13. Phoenix – Jeremy Lamb – 6’5″ SG Connecticut
14. Houston – Tyler Zeller – 6’11” PF North Carolina
15. Philadelphia – Meyers Leonard – 6’11” C Illinois
16. Houston – Arnett Moultrie PF/C – 6′ 11″ Mississippi St.
17. Dallas – Terrence Jones – 6’9″ SF Kentucky
18. Minnesota – Moe Harkless SF – 6’8″ SF St. John’s
19. Orlando – Terrence Ross – 6’6″ SG Washington
20. Denver – Jeff Taylor – 6’7″ SG Vanderbilt
21. Boston – Fab Melo C – 7’0″ Syracuse
22. Boston – Royce White PF – 6’8″ SF Iowa State
23. Atlanta – Andrew Nicholson – 6’9″ SF St Bonaventure
24. Cleveland – Jared Sullinger – 6’9″ PF Ohio State
25. Memphis – Tony Wroten – 6’5″ PG Washington
26. Indiana – Will Barton – 6’6″ SG/SF Memphis
27. Miami – Marquis Teague PG – 6’2″ Kentucky
28. Oklahoma City – Evan Fournier SG/SF – 6′ 7″ Poitiers
29. Chicago – Draymond Green – 6’6″ SF Michigan State
30. Golden State – Quincy Miller – 6’8″ SF Baylor

Game 4 Won’t Silence Westbrook’s Critics

As all the cool kids like to say nowadays, haters gonna’ hate.

It seems that during the NBA Finals it became fashionable to pick on Russell Westbrook. Not just for his horrible fashion choices, but because he was shooting more in the NBA Finals that he did during the regular season.

Hopefully Westbrook’s play in Game 4 of the NBA Finals will silence his critics and all the haters.

Westbrook started the game 3-3 from the field and scored six of Oklahoma City’s first 13 points of the game while dishing out an assist. His strong play helped the Thunder roll to a 13-3 lead and forced Miami to call a timeout to stop the bleeding.

Yes, Westbrook got a little shot happy midway through the first quarter, but for the most part he was the player who gave Oklahoma City a chance to secure a much-needed win for Oklahoma City in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

One of the things that swung this game in favor of Oklahoma City early in the game was Miami’s inability to rotate or switch when a pick was set for Westbrook. Throughout the first quarter Westbrook was able to burst by a stunned Miami defender who had been blindsided by a pick and shoot uncontested 17-footers that easily found the bottom of the net.

Westbrook set up shop at the elbow and made jumper after jumper over the course of the game. Then, when Miami’s defense started to collapse on him, he used his speed to get to the rim for easy buckets.

Miami fought back from some early adversity and rallied from a 17 point deficit in the second quarter. How did OKC stop the rally? Westbrook fed Durant for a bucket and on the next possession he fed Harden for a big three while Dwyane Wade was crumpled on the court.

Westbrook then hit a big jumper near the two minute mark of the second quarter to push OKC’s lead to 45-42. He had 16 points at that points while going an efficient 8-14 from the field.

“Russell (Westbrook) is one of the best point guards in the NBA,” Scott Brooks raved to ABC after the first quarter. “He attacks the basket. He’s a winner. He plays the right way and I’m proud of the way he started this game.”

Just when Miami appeared to be running away with the game in the fourth quarter, Westbrook scored 13 straight points for Oklahoma City and tie the game at 90 with six minutes remaining.

Westbrook played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter while scoring 17 points. The best part is he went 7-9 from the field during the final quarter.

Throughout the game it seemed as if whenever Oklahoma City was making positive things happen it was Westbrook who had his hand in his teams strong play.

All this to finish with a game-high 43 points.

Sure, there’s a learning curve that Westbrook is currently going through, but he’s one heck of a young point guard who is just learning how to play the position. Fans just need to be patient through the growing pains he is sure to go through at times.

“It’s not deserving at all because without him we wouldn’t be here at this point, and people don’t recognize that,” Durant explained to the media this weekend when he was asked about the criticism being directed at Westbrook. “Everybody thinks he should be a traditional point guard like a Stockton or a Mo Cheeks. There’s a lot of people that cannot be like Russ, either.”

Westbrook’s teammates fully support him so it’s not like he’s going to change the way he plays. Nor should he.

Granted, Westbrook had his share of mental mistakes in Game 4 and he had nearly twice as many field goal attempts as Durant, but the positives far outweighed the negatives.

Hopefully his strong play in Game 4 will force fans to stop drinking the Haterade when it comes to assessing Westbrook and how he plays.

The Flawed Pre-Draft Workout Process

“I’m from Oakland. Gary Payton was that kind of person, really competitive. Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw. I feel I have to bring that same thing to the table as an Oakland point guard. I want to compete and I feel I still have to prove myself playing against higher lever guys and I’m happy to have the opportunity.”

This was Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, explaining his decision to run through drills last weekend in Chicago despite being given the option to skip them altogether.

Less than a week later, in a private workout with the Toronto Raptors, who own the No. 8 over-all selection in the NBA Draft, Lillard was literally peerless – that is, he showcased his skills absent of any draft-eligible potential rivals.

So, was this a case of empty, meaningless words from a guy shying away from the same competition he supposedly embraces? Quite the contrary – this was one of the many league-wide examples of the power of NBA agents (in this case, Goodwin Sports Management CEO Aaron Goodwin).

As the logic goes, agents want to avoid exposing their clients to potential direct comparisons that could negatively impact their draft stock and, thus, cost them money. While mitigating risk is sound, sensible business, the flip side is problematic: instead of proving themselves through one-on-one competition, players are limited in what they can showcase and team personnel is limited in what they can learn.

Ed Stefanski, the Raptors’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, has been around the game too long to get too worked up over league business that falls outside of his control, but you can sense his inherent frustration as he struggles to evaluate prospects like Lillard.

“It’s a lot more difficult when the player goes one-on-none, not having any competition against him,” admits Stefanski. “[...] We bring him in, we interview him, we get to talk to him, we get to see the kid, we have a meal or two with him, so that’s probably the main reason we bring him in.”

Two days later, following a solo workout with UNC’s Harrison Barnes (whose agent, Jeff Wechsler, represents former one-on-none’er Kyrie Irving), Stefanski was more direct.

“One on zero is very hard to make any assessment,” says the former Nets and Sixers GM, before acknowledging that the club has seen much of Barnes during his two-year career at Chapel Hill.

For their part, even if the draft prospects understand the intentions of their representatives, it’s not as though they enjoy going at it alone.

Lillard’s decision to opt into the Chicago drills came on account of Goodwin giving him the option. The 22-year-old’s decision to participate looks like a good one in hindsight, as he left a positive impression about his character and work ethic, as well as answering some questions about whether putting up big stats in a weak Big Sky Conference inflated his value.

As ESPN Insider Chad Ford put it on Monday, “Weber State’s Damian Lillard was the real star of the draft combine. He was the best player to agree to do the drills and it paid off for him. Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had only seen him only a handful of times. Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in the drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams.”

For Barnes, the lack of competition in his workout with Toronto was actually an obstacle to be overcome.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to work out by yourself – your legs are going to go a little bit quicker that you expect them to,” says the Tar Heels standout. “You’ve got to continue to stay positive, continue to grind it out, continue to work hard.”

To summarize, draft prospects are being protected in a counter-intuitive manner that isn’t preferred by team executives or even by the players, themselves (unless, of course, they are paying lip service to their desire for competition in a bid to appear tougher). At a defining time when many clubs are setting a course for the future of their organization, it’s the agents who call the shots.

Durant Snatches The Torch From Durant

Game 1 of the NBA Finals didn’t really teach us much. Mostly it reconfirmed everything we’ve known for days, weeks, even years. Kevin Durant can take over any game, having recently developed the “edge.” LeBron James has a tendency to become less than the most talented athlete on the planet during the fourth quarter of Finals games. Dwyane Wade still looks hurt. And Russell Westbrook is the Tasmanian Devil.

By way of what we might have learned from this one game, it was a relatively placid affair—as should probably be the case for singular events.  However, it did signify the passing of the torch.

For first time in the last 14 years, neither Dirk Nowitzki nor Kobe Bryant nor Tim Duncan is representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. And, in an apparent alignment of the basketball cosmos, the Thunder rolled past the Nowitzki’s Mavericks, Bryant’s Lakers and Duncan’s Spurs on their way to this year’s championship round.

This means something.

Suddenly, Bryant doesn’t seem so interesting. He is on the cusp of being pressed out of the narrative of NBA champions, resigned to pushing for the all-time scoring crown. Duncan and Nowitzki may have playoff runs left in them, but their chances look increasingly unlikely as the Thunder grow more impressive with every game.

A generation of players and teams, long dominant, is giving way.

“Precocious” has become the word of the month in NBA circles, and for good reason. Durant and Westbrook are each 23, not yet close to their primes. James Harden and Serge Ibaka, each 22, have become stars in their own right. Reggie Jackson was born in the 90’s. The 90’s!

The Heat, led by James (27) and Wade (30), look like fogies by comparison.

We haven’t seen this sort of shift since the late-90’s with Michael Jordan’s (second) retirement, and the quick decline of a decade’s worth of dominant big men in Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. The turnover of superstars is good for the league, surely, but it’s no less a strange sight.

We are quickly reminded that our heroes age, and we with them.

Fortunately, Durant and Westbrook are no Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury circa 1998. They are no Chris Webber, no Antoine Walker, and there are no “back in my day” complaints to be made of the Thunder. There is only basketball—good basketball—to take in, and a fresh age of superstars to watch grow into a dynasty.

As LeBron James might say, “We are all witnesses.”

Flopping Has Tainted The NBA’s Postseason

When the casual NBA viewer picks my brain about this lockout-shortened season, we have a lot to discuss: Lower scoring across the board, playoff teams with losing records, and a plethora of extensive injuries, just to name a few.

When that same viewer narrows the discussion to the post-season, one topic seems to rise above the others: The flop.

Last week, I talked about the issues surrounding the current applications of the foul call, and the consequences thereof. Essentially, it weakens the game as a whole when fouls are called too often. The same effect is found when players flop.

While it is difficult to escape this topic, even for the most casual enthusiast, I do want to start with a brief overview of what a flop is. To begin, please understand that not all contact is a foul. Essentially, a personal foul is a limitation or control of movement. If a defensive player makes contact, but it does not affect the offensive player, there’s no call.

In the case of a flop, the offending player exaggerates the effect of the contact in an attempt to persuade the officials to call a foul. Slimy, right? NBA commissioner David Stern even admitted in an interview that he should be handing out Oscars, not MVP awards.

The effect is much the same as drawing the foul, only without actually taking the hit. Drawing the foul is frustrating enough, but watching a supposed superstar sprawl on the ground for no reason, then stare down the official in anticipation of a call… Well, that’s almost unbearable.

From a coach’s perspective, I can’t imagine that a flopping player is gaining much respect from the bench. I appreciate good, solid, smart players more than players who fall to the ground at the drop of a hat. There’s more sportsmanship involved when a player truly earns their points, stops and steals, rather than relying on manipulating the referees to get ahead.

Honestly though, don’t these players look a little silly, reacting the way they do to what is obviously minimal contact? Do we not expect more from them, athletically? You’d think that, given the feats they pull off on the offensive end, they’d be too proud to play this type of game.

And let’s look at the trickle down effects of flopping: Each player can only commit five fouls a game. On the sixth, they’re ejected. So at the worst, it would lead to inflating a player’s number of fouls, which could lead to them being ejected from the game. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James fouled out in overtime, and Miami lost. Easy enough to see the correlation.

A more extended fallout is if the flopping starts early in a game, leading a player to have four fouls by the end of the first half, which in turn results in them being benched for an extended period of time, which could affect the final score of the game.

And what about the flopping player? It’s understandable that they would become “the boy who cried wolf,” and would then be less likely to actually get a legitimate call later on. And when they don’t get a call on a flop? If they’re on defence, imagine what would happen while they’re swimming around on the floor, whining for an unnecessary call. There goes their player, off to the races for an easy layup.

And with all of the (entirely justified) fuss over injuries in professional sports, why do players willingly risk their bodies unnecessarily? Doc Rivers recently admitted that he wouldn’t be half as sore now if he hadn’t flopped so much as a player. Please note how few Boston Celtics are accused of flopping. Kobe Bryant won’t even take a legitimate charge, much less start throwing himself to the ground for no reason, and look at how effective and impressive he still is.

What about the effect flopping has on the game as a whole?

Back to last week’s topic, it all comes down to accountability. Players who flop are perceived as being unreliable, cowardly, and overall less impressive than their non-flopping counterparts. In one of the early games of the Western Conference Finals, Manu Ginobili and James Harden, both fantastic and entertaining players, bumped into each other. Both flopped. Ginobili got the call, and both were criticized pretty thoroughly.

In the last game of the Spurs/Thunder series, in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter, with San Antonio on the brink of elimination, Ginobili hits a three point shot. Harden flops. The three is waved off, and the Spurs lose. While the series was a testament to just how great basketball is, how unfortunate is it that it’s as a result of a flop that the winner was decided? Granted, we can’t tell exactly what would have happened if Ginobili’s shot had counted, but many point to that call as the moment when the tide turned definitively in Oklahoma City’s favour.

So, much the same as with the problem of over-fouling, flopping weakens the game. Of course, a huge part of any sport is mental: There’s strategy, psychological warfare, knowing your opponents weaknesses and taking advantage. We would be remiss if we asked to remove any planning at all from the game. But it seems that more and more coaches and players are relying too much on loopholes, flaws in the system, and manipulation to get ahead, rather than trusting the team to do what they’re meant to do: Put the ball in the basket.

Stern has already made it clear that this topic will be up for discussion in the off-season, but what could possibly be done about it? It really is a subjective call made by whichever officials are on the floor at any given moment, officials who really are trying to do their best to keep the game controlled and safe for players.

Are we calling their judgement into question? No. The blame should definitely be placed squarely at the feet of the offending players.

But how? For the moment, they only have to withstand mockery and criticism from the people inside or outside the league.

Calling an offensive foul wouldn’t be the correct answer, as it truly doesn’t fit the criteria, (the player doesn’t gain any advantage due to illegal contact, rather, a lack thereof) but how about a technical foul? Giving the opposing team a free throw and possession of the ball might be enough of a deterrent for most players, granted that the rule were applied on a consistent basis.

And what of repeat offenders? For the moment, I can only imagine that the same situation would arise as with repeat foulers: Suspensions, fines, etc. We can only hope that the problem would resolve itself before it got to the point, as it seems a little extreme to remove players who aren’t actually hurting anyone, only disrupting the development of the sport and irritating spectators.

Flopping truly has become a serious issue within the league, causing officials to call into question every perceived foul and creating negative effects on both individual games and the sport in general. I, for one, am excited to see what, if anything, is done about it next season, as nary a game goes by now when flopping isn’t pointed out and commented on, distracting everyone from the real athleticism shown.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see a good, tough player over a whiny one, any day of the week.