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What’s next for Amar’e Stoudemire?

Phoenix Suns forward Amar’e Stoudemire announced today that he will, too, join the free-agent powwow with the other megastars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Joe Johnson.

After his team bowed out of the Western Conference playoffs despite a valiant effort against the Los Angeles Lakers, one has to wonder — what’s on the docket for STAT next season?

A few months ago, it was a foregone conclusion Stoudemire would depart Phoenix this summer. The last two seasons, his name was rumored wildly at the trade deadline, too. Thanks to the team’s overcoming a midseason lull and the aforementioned run through the postseason, no one’s so sure anymore.

That said, Stoudemire’s destination next season will largely depend on whether he can command a maximum salary from any given team. Will the Suns, clinging to the coattails of Steve Nash’s remarkable career, pony up and pay Amare the maximum? It remains a question.

Stoudemire will be an offensive force no matter where he plays. His explosiveness and athleticism paired with a solid shooting touch out to 18 feet make him a dynamic threat. Not withstanding his exceptional ability, there are questions about his character (his work ethic, in particular), his rebounding, his defense, and, most importantly …

The status of his knees. Stoudemire has played very good basketball in the wake of his microfracture knee surgery, a procedure that can be damning to the success of NBA players. Amar’e has dealt with it swimmingly so far, but as he gets older, it may become a much larger issue.

If Stoudemire decides to leave Phoenix, it would be a big blow to the long-term future of the franchise. While Nash plays through his final years, he’ll struggle to continue to lead a team without a true companion like Stoudemire — someone who pairs perfectly with the point guard in the pick-and-roll game. They’ll be confined to the lottery for years to come and will have to begin a lengthy rebuilding process.

On the contrary, the team that brings him on board will be in for quite a bonus. But if he wants to play on a true contender, that team will have to be solid on the defensive end already. The problems against the Lakers front court was evident, and unless Amar’e plays alongside a true defensive paint presence, it will be more of the same for that new team.

Assuming everything goes well for STAT in terms of his health and the condition of his knees, the future is bright for him. He still about eight or nine years left in his career, and for most of that, he will be an offensive dynamo. His decision this summer has a much larger impact on the Suns and any team he might join than it does on himself.

Maybe the other big stars have some advice for him.

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Another Celtics-Lakers NBA finals

There’s not much that’s more heart-wrenching than a post-game embrace shared by Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry and a teary-eyed Steve Nash. It was an inspired effort from the 36-year-old point guard for a team that wasn’t supposed to go anywhere but almost managed to uproot last year’s champions.

You have to give the Lakers some credit, though. They beat the Suns in six games after finally managing to figure out the Suns’ somehow-befuddling zone, and Phil Jackson even managed to get Sasha Vujacic some minutes in the process.

Little did one of the best coaches of all-time know that his Slovenian bench rider would nearly blow the clinching game for the Lakers after elbowing his national companion in the face, invigorating a slumping Suns team in the fourth quarter.

At any rate, the Lakers will be in the finals for the third consecutive season against the Boston Celtics, who surprised everyone so much that experts began to question whether the players dogged it during the regular season before turning it on during the playoffs.

It won’t be such an easy matchup for the defending champs. After looking foolish against a rag-tag zone defense in the Western Conference Finals, in which Pau Gasol’s numbers were down and Andrew Bynum was a nonfactor, they won’t get off so easy. Boston boasts one of the most ferocious powerful front lines in the NBA, going four deep in the post.

The same quartet that stymied Dwight Howard’s offense in the Eastern Conference finals will be motivated to stop the Lakers and may very well do an excellent job. The most evident concern in that regard is the status of Kendrick Perkins, Boston’s starting center. In Game 5 against the Magic, Perkins incurred two technical fouls, running his total to seven for the playoffs. After the game, one was rescinded, so his sum stands at six going into the finals. That said, if he does pick up a seventh, he will be suspended a game. His absence takes a lot of toughness out of the front court for the Celtics.

Moving to the perimeter, it’s basically a one-man show for the Lakers. Derek Fisher and Ron Artest have their moments, but they also have their moments (e.g., Artest’s constant wide-open bricks from three-point range). Kobe Bryant, if his jump shot is on, will run rampant. Ray Allen can’t guard him. Paul Pierce can’t guard him. The only perimeter player who really can is Tony Allen, and he doesn’t play that many minutes, especially against opponents’ first units.

On the other side, Allen will drain Kobe’s energy as he scrambles around looking for the open three-point shot. Pierce’s low-post game will be largely negated by Artest’s strength and post defense, so he will continue to rely on his improved three-point shooting in this series.

Then there’s Rajon Rondo. If we say that Fisher had no chance to guard Nash, his chances of guarding Rondo are, well, negative. Rondo is much too quick for Fisher to keep up with him, so he has to be active on the offensive end at the Lakers’ weak point.

Each team has its respective wildcard in this series. For the Celtics, it’s definitely Nate Robinson. Now in Doc Rivers’s good graces after some solid play against Orlando, he will make his way into the rotation in relief of Rondo. His perimeter shooting is always a threat, and his athleticism will be a factor on the defensive end.

For the Lakers, it’s Lamar Odom. He’ll see his share of minutes against the Celtics’ second unit in the post of Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis. Most of the time, he should draw Davis as the assignment. Fortunately for Odom, he has the mobility, height, and shooting advantage over the Ticket Stub. He needs to take advantage of that and put up some points while Gasol is on the bench.

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Revisiting the acquisition of Ron Artest

When the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Ron Artest this offseason in a de facto trade with the Houston Rockets, who received budding forward Trevor Ariza, there were mixed feelings about the move.

The Lakers were still somewhat fresh off their 15th NBA title in June — a title that Ariza was instrumental in securing. As the old adage goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t exactly apply in Laker Land.

Nevertheless, while the team lauded the move as an instant upgrade, there were many doubts about Artest. Can he provide enough offense to be a starter for this team? Is he defense as solid as it ever was? Most importantly, will his volatile and, at times, vicious personality muck up something great in Los Angeles?

Those were all fair questions. And during the regular season, he didn’t exactly perform as the Lakers expected him to. Artest averaged a career low for scoring in 2009-2010, putting up only 11 points a game. He also took over five fewer shots than during the previous season in Houston, while increasing his field-goal percentage by only one point.

Meanwhile, Artest noticeably regressed on the defensive end, as he simply did not resemble the monster that he used to be. There was no evidence that this guy was a former defensive player of the year.

To give Artest some credit the depression of his offensive game was to be expected as he went from the second or third scoring option on the Rockets to the fourth or fifth on the Lakers. With Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom, there was no pressing need for him to score.

The defensive decline was more troubling. Ariza was always competitive for the Lakers, making big plays at both ends to sway games. Artest didn’t seem to have that same competitiveness and energy, and the fans noticed.

Meanwhile, the Lakers didn’t play as well as many expected them to. In fact, they really only played average ball on the road, but they were still solid at the Staples Center. Obviously, Artest’s manifest lack of production was one of the primary perceived culprits for the struggles.

Still, the Lakers secured the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and coach Phil Jackson never altered course in keeping Artest in the starting lineup. In the playoffs, that’s where Artest’s contributions really surfaced.

It happened on an incremental basis. The Lakers drew the dangerous Thunder in Round 1, and Artest drew the equally dangerous Kevin Durant on defense. Despite giving up several inches and much quickness to the Oklahoma City forward, Artest admirably contained Durant, especially at home, making sure that the Lakers did not fall in the first round.

Against Utah in the Western Conference semifinals, it was his shooting that caught the eye of observers. While he wasn’t terribly accurate, his series was highlighted by a strong Game 3 performance in which he scored 20 points, including 4-7 shooting from long range. His offensive contributions were not to be ignored.

Then came the Western Conference semifinals against the crafty Phoenix Suns. It was Game 5, and the Suns had previously won two straight to square up the series. With some 30 seconds left, Artest fired up a wide-open three-pointer that couldn’t have been any more regrettable; of course, it didn’t drop. But then, at the end of regulation, Bryant fired up a potentially game-winning heave from 25 feet which came up short. There was Artest to grab the rebound, spin, and drop it in high off the glass for the win.

It was quite the polar situation: going from the most hated guy in the building to the most loved in a span of some 30 seconds. Artest played the role of closer, something Ariza never managed to do.

So even though Ron Ron is possibly the worst wide-open three-point shooter anyone has ever seen, he’s playing a role — and a big one, too.

Nobody even remembers Ariza’s key steal in the NBA finals last year anymore.

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Nate the Great

There hasn’t been much for Nate Robinson to be excited about over the course of his five-year career. He put up some decent numbers with the New York Knicks — but nothing earth-shattering — and he has a few Dunk Contest titles under his belt.

Other than that, Robinson’s stint in the NBA has been largely unspectacular. He has shown flashes of greatness with his solid three-point shooting, inhuman athleticism (especially considering his tiny 5-foot-9 frame), and unflappable fearlessness. But he’s had many problems.

His unpredictable emotions have been just as much a deterrent as they have been a bonus. Robinson has negotiated many issues with coaches, referees, and teammates. In fact, earlier this season, he got in to a tiff with Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, who subsequently confined Robinson to a bench role on one of the worst teams in basketball — and not because he lacked talent.

Then Robinson caught a lucky break. Shortly before this year’s trade deadline, the Boston Celtics sprung Robinson from his negligible role in New York, giving him a new opportunity to play in New England on a team headed for the playoffs. Then again, at that time, the Celtics looked like they were limping to a first-round exit against whomever they drew.

During the regular season, Robinson’s playing time with Boston was, once again, fairly limited, as he served as the backup to blossoming star Rajon Rondo. He managed only 14.1 minutes per game and was relegated to basically a spot-up shooting role, taking over half his field-goal attempts from three-point range with only 2 assists per contest. It wasn’t much of an improvement from his days playing in MSG.

Nevertheless, he got his first shot at the playoffs. Apparently out of the rotation for the Celtics, Robinson was a nonfactor in the team’s first two series against the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Doc Rivers remained confident that his midseason acquistion would play some sort of role in a run to the championships.

“There will be a game where we’re flat, and we’re going to need somebody to come in and make something happen … He’s going to win us a playoff game,” he said.

Then, in this current series against the Magic that time when they were flat arrived. In Game 5, the Celtics were struggling with many injuries, and Robinson got some time toward the end of the game. While his contributions were, for the most part, pedestrian, he clearly showed Rivers something with a nice three-pointer and some athletic blocks against the Orlando bigs.

So when Rondo hit the floor in the first half of Game 6 and had to sit down, Robinson got the call. In limited action in the first half, Robinson was magnificent: he contributed 13 of the team’s 55 points at the break. He completely reversed the negative sentiment amid the crowd after Rondo went down hurt, and his emotion energized everyone in the building.

So Robinson may not have been in the rotation at the beginning of the playoffs, but as Rivers predicted, he is helping the Celtics win this potentially deciding Game 6. Not only that, he has shown he can play when it matters, so he could be a factor in the NBA finals.

How’s that for a guy who was riding the pine for the Knicks just a few months ago?

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NBA Today: May 28

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NBA Summit 2010

On Thursday, impending free agent Dwyane Wade announced that before he makes any decision about where he’s going to play next season, he’s going to consult his partners in crime (Yeah, it’s a crime how much they’re going to yank from their teams next year) LeBron James, Joe Johnson, and Chris Bosh.

The nature of this conference is, and will remain, largely confidential, for the most part, but let’s call this what it is: a conspiracy to take all the power away from the GMs and reserve it for themselves.

They’re going to say that they will debate the merits and drawbacks of each team (the prospects of winning, the market, etc.), but the purpose of this meeting — and, more accurately, the announcement of this meeting — is to stir the pot, develop baseless “conditions” for signing one of these stars, and give the notion that there’s some semblance of a super team under construction.

Hey, maybe we’ll even hear that one of them will be willing to sign for one dollar under the maximum!

This whole deal stinks of corruption and misplaced sense of power. The closest comparison I can draw is Elaine, George, and Kramer’s collective demand for $1 million per episode for Seinfeld’s final season. Unfortunately, this is a lot more fishy.

The NBA has all kinds of strict rules about when and how teams can engage and discuss potential free agents in anticipation that a wheeling-and-dealing GM might secure a top player before anyone else has a chance. In effect, it is to protect the players.

Why, then, is this sort of meeting acceptable? Sure, you can say it’s simply freedom of speech for them to talk to one another, but if the league is going to go out of its way to ensure protection of the players, shouldn’t it do the same for the teams? The free agents have a lot more impact on this offseason frenzy than a lot of people would expect, so why the league allow them to wield even more in this de facto manipulation of teams in pursuit?

To put it simply, the league shouldn’t. But they’ll never change anything. This process has become way too much of a publicity stunt, and the NBA doesn’t want to see that dissolve.

Already we have the mere speculation that LeBron might leave, and its headlines dominate the press landscape on a daily basis. Hello? There are two competitive playoff series going on right now, and all most people care about is where “The Chosen One” will land next season. Granted, it could have implications far greater than one NBA title, but let’s save the analysis for when things are little more concrete, huh?

This meeting is going to boil down to just this: “Hey, guys. How can we get these teams to sweat a bit more and brighten the spotlight on us? I don’t even care about winning, just give me the fame!”

Well, that’s just great.

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