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For Nash, a chance to cement his legacy

Steve Nash is one of the the finest competitors the NBA has ever seen.

There isn’t much Steve Nash can’t do.

The Phoenix Suns point guard is a wizard with the basketball, eliciting more “ooh”s and “ah”s on a nightly basis than one might expect from a 36-year-old hailing from Canada. Nevertheless, his gift for the game is palpable. And like so few others before him, Nash has managed to seamlessly integrate individual skills with the success of his team in the absence of even slight egotism or entitlement.

His passing ability is immaculate. Nash currently resides in eighth among the list of all-time assist leaders, and one more healthy season could allow him to supplant Gary Payton and Isiah Thomas on that leader board. But the sheer number of dimes doesn’t tell the whole story. His assortment of behind-the-back, no-look, through-the-legs, side-winding, and alley-oop dishes has made him the envy of even the staunchest critics and transformed his Suns team into the best squad in the league to watch for six seasons and counting.

His pick-and-roll game is delightful. It is no less certain that Nash will thread the ball to a diving Amar’e Stoudemire after a well-set pick than it is that Rasheed Wallace will be whistled for a technical foul during the season, but that is what makes Nash’s talent so admirable. Despite the benefit of expectation, any defense will be burned by that play. Nash is so in tune with every move his power forward will make that the pass is simply unstoppable. He is so adept, that he ranks as possibly the greatest executor of this scheme, with the exception of John Stockton, maybe. But that’s not bad company, to be sure.

Nash’s dominance, though, stems not from just his exceptional distribution; instead, it is his collective dynamism and versatility that pave the way for his excellence. A key facet of that protean nature is his deadly yet gorgeous shooting stroke. Most of his long jumpers come off the dribble; give him an open catch-and-shoot look, and it is probably going in. Nash is so good shooting the ball, in fact, that ESPN’s John Hollinger went so far as to rank him the NBA’s best of all-time — above the greats like Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, and Larry Bird, who were much more renowned for their accuracy.

And that assertion was certainly grounded in stats, as all Hollinger’s analyses are. Nash is a four-time member of the 50-40-90 club (50 percent shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting, 90 percent free-throw shooting) and would have accomplished that feat a fifth time with another tenth of a percentage point on his free-throw average in 2006-2007. The other members of the club? Bird, Miller, Mark Price, Dirk Nowitzki, and Jose Calderon — and the only one of them to achieve it even twice was Bird.

Nash already overcame one barrier in dispatching the Spurs. Is this the year he comes away with a championship?

His free-throw stroke is one of the most admired in the sport. He calmly steps to the line, politely denies the ball from the referee, takes two empty-handed simulated attempts, then drills the actual ones 90 percent of the time.

All that said, passing and shooting do not complete Nash’s offensive game, as his intangible skills are just as pivotal to his success as his ball handling. Nash is so focused on the game that he never misses a beat. He is constantly aware of the position on the floor of each of his four teammates and each of his five defenders. He knows exactly where to put the ball at any given time, when to put the team on his back and control the offense, and how much time is on the clock — that all comes second nature to Nash.

More crucial than all of that, though, is his unremitting desire to win. That is represented well in his willingness to play hurt (with a gushing nose or swollen eye), his willingness to take the last shot, and his overall stoic demeanor on the court.

So where has all this gotten Nash as an individual? He, of course, boasts two league MVP awards, from 2005 and 2006, and fell just short of securing a third straight in falling to his former teammate Nowitzki. He is also hailed as one of the greatest point guards of all time.

Nonetheless, as he and the Suns prepare to square off against the Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tonight, there is a conspicuous scarlet letter that continues to brand Nash.

He has never won an NBA championship.

In fact, he has amassed the most career playoff games (112) of any NBA player without even making it into the NBA Finals. Amid all the talented players in the league right now, there is no honor more important to a player’s patrimony than the number of titles he secures for himself. As LeBron James and Kobe Bryant continue to wrestle for the crown of league’s best player, the one fault of LeBron than holdouts accentuate is his lingering failure to come away on top when it counts.

When Nash and his crew take the floor Monday night, the hunger for a win will be more evident. Clear underdogs against the juggernaut Lakers, the Suns will have to play flawless basketball to dethrone the defending champs, and Nash will have to play a prominent role.

In a recent interview with Michael Wilbon, Nash downplayed the importance of individual regalia.

“At this stage of my career, the only goals worth chasing are team goals. To win a championship is still the greatest thing to play for and the greatest motivator. So it’s a fantastic situation right now, where this team that wasn’t expected to get here is here and we got a real chance,” he said.

If Nash and the Suns can come out on top, the fruit will be that much sweeter. After all, they are coming off an improbable series sweep over the San Antonio Spurs, who had previously plagued the Suns in the postseason this decade.

Ousting the Lakers, knocking the championship monkey off his back, and finally enshrining himself in the peak tier of NBA greats in the process?

That’s an accomplishment worth being selfish about.

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NBA Today: May 17

  • As if they’d ever admit it, the Bulls are reportedly not discussing an arrangement that would bring both LeBron James and John Calipari to the Windy City.
  • The Golden State Warriors will begin the sale process in earnest Monday, when they will begin taking bids for the team.
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Redemption, thy name is Wallace

How quickly the Boston Celtics have gone from league laughingstock to Eastern Conference superpower in their oft-doubted pursuit of an 18th career NBA title.

In impressive yet shaky fashion, the Beantown Green disposed of the Orlando Magic, previously undefeated in the playoffs and winners of every game in the last month. That’s a hell of a way to show what they are still capable of.

Rasheed Wallace was a factor in Boston's win? Really?

Not getting nearly enough credit for their series win over the coddled Cleveland Cavaliers, the Celtics are showing fans, pundits, and, most importantly, opposing teams that they can still make a successful run.

To be fair, though, the outcome was looking bleak. After middling performances during the regular season, Boston sidled up on everyone by blowing out the Miami Heat — a feat that not many perceived as very impressive. Accordingly, everyone was expecting LeBron and his pals to deliver a swift kick to the Celtics’ bum and oust them from the playoffs.

Not so fast. While the Celtics have seen dips in offensive output and field-goal percentage since the regular season, they have simultaneously rediscovered the defensive prowess that propelled them to a championship just two years ago.

During the regular campaign, Boston surrendered 95.6 points per game to their opponents, ranking them a solid fifth in the league in that category. Since the playoffs started, though, they’ve completely shut down opposing teams, giving up only 91.7 points per contest in their first two series. That ranks second to only the Orlando Magic, who did, well, magical things on defense against the Bobcats and Hawks.

Accompanying that defensive improvement for the Celtics is a drop in opponent three-point field-goal percentage and a noticeable rise in turnovers forced on defense. That successful effort on the long ball is exactly what the team needs to contend with the Magic; it is no secret Orlando shoots the triple with unmatched abundance, so if Boston can be effective in its close-outs and perimeter defense, it can hinder Orlando’s production severely.

Why do I mention all this defensive jargon about the Celtics? Well, they excelled on that end of the ball on Sunday, and that was the primary justification for the Game 1 victory.

First of all, Boston was superb in containing Dwight Howard on the inside. And that is due in large part to the play of Rasheed Wallace off the bench. Since Doc Rivers publicly criticized his play following Game 1 of the series with Cleveland, Wallace has come back with much more inspired basketball. While it hasn’t always translated into success on the offensive end (he only scored five points in Games 3, 4, and 5 of that set), he has shown a greater commitment to defense and a more evident passion to win overall.

If you watched the game Sunday, you could see how frustrating Wallace was to Howard on defense. He denied the entry pass, pushed and shoved aggressively, and forced him into turnovers and errant shots. Giving up quite a bit of weight to Superman, ‘Sheed used his length perfectly to shut down one of the league’s most dominant interior forces.

Kendrick Perkins isn’t half bad on the inside either, but he is often in foul trouble. Rivers will call upon Wallace to play key minutes on the defensive end, so if he can duplicate his Game 1 showing, he will put the Celtics in great position to advances to the NBA Finals.

On display, too, was the Celtics’ containment of the other half of Orlando’s offense — the three-point ball. After every kick out or skip pass to the open shooter there was a Boston defender already en route to close out. When they start to miss from deep, they begin to take more threes off the dribble and in traffic, which causes problems. That commitment and effort translated into a paltry 23 percent from long range for Orlando. The Magic will never win a game if Howard can’t score and they can’t hit their three-point attempts.

The one concern for Boston following the Game 1 win is Orlando’s back-court production. Jameer Nelson and Vince Carter combined for 43 points on 17-36 shooting, as both were aggressive and rewarded in driving the lane. Kevin Garnett looked more vulnerable than ever in the pick-and-roll game on defense, which is a primary reason Nelson and Carter were so successful going to the rack. That said, their scoring is a small price to pay for the fine defense on Howard and the three-point shooters.

After a month of smooth sailing, Orlando is now the team on the hot seat. With that decisive win, you have to consider Boston the favorite from here on out. The Magic will need to respond in kind by forcing the issue on the inside with Howard. If he can wreak any significant havoc near the rim, shots will start to open on the perimeter. As long as they take easy three-pointers, they will eventually fall, and that’s what they need to emerge victorious.

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What does Shaq have left to offer?

Is it a good idea for Shaq to return for a 20th season?

Nearly immediately after his Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs, Shaquille O’Neal straightforwardly dispelled any rumors that he might retire this year, saying, “I still have 3.7 years left.”

As he prepares to play in his 20th NBA season, is it still worth it for Shaq to put forth that effort for half the year? After all, over the last few seasons, his production has seen a fairly steady decline from his glory days in Los Angeles to his injury-hampered campaign with Cleveland in 2009-2010.

That said, he’s still a capable defender: the Cavaliers were going to look to him as their primary defender for Dwight Howard in the conference finals before their unfortunate exit. Furthermore, despite worsening numbers, he is rather impressive from an efficiency standpoint. His PER was eight hundredths of a point shy of 18 (three above average), and his field-goal percentage (56.5 percent) and per-40-minute lines (20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists) were not half bad.

Notwithstanding the fairly productive minutes, he is a liability to the teams he plays for. First of all, he demanded the ball way too much for someone with questionable importance to his team’s offensive scheme. His usage rate of 22.8 was over a point higher than that of Brook Lopez, the focal point of a bad Nets offense.

Moreover, he simply doesn’t play enough minutes or games to be a factor, especially as a starter. The Diesel averaged only 23.4 minutes a game with the Cavaliers this year, a six-and-a-half point decrease from the previous year in Phoenix. Furthermore, excluding the anomaly that was 2008-2009, Shaq hasn’t played 60 games in a year since his first season in Miami. By basically promising his team that he is going to miss over 20 games, he puts the franchise in a bad situation when they need to struggle to find effective minutes at the center position.

Aside from his play on the court, though, Shaq will expect to cash in on a lucrative contract based on his past accolades and not what he can offer to his team at present. While he will surely not get a deal resembling anything like his five-year, $100 million contract he signed with Miami, he will be the beneficiary of a higher rate than younger centers at his level of production.

Lingering still is the question of whether he will start for his next team or come off the bench. His current level of health and fitness are better suited for the latter option, as he won’t be expected to put up big minutes on the floor. But how many teams are going to be willing to pay Shaq’s price for a backup center? In addition, this is a guy who has started all his life. In 1170 career regular-season games, the Big Cactus has only come off the bench in 10 of them. Will he be able to cope with a diminished role and importance to his roster, or will he break down like Allen Iverson did when he was faced with that dilemma? If there’s one thing we know about Shaq, it is that his ego is as large as his 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame. I doubt he’ll be able to handle the second-string role.

So Shaq can play for three or more years if he wants to, but he should probably cut his losses. He has already accomplished way more than anyone could hope to in the NBA, so it is best for him to call it quits now before he further tarnishes his sterling résumé.

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What does Shaq have left to offer?

Is it a good idea for Shaq to return for a 20th season?

Nearly immediately after his Cavaliers were eliminated from the playoffs, Shaquille O’Neal straightforwardly dispelled any rumors that he might retire this year, saying, “I still have 3.7 years left.”

As he prepares to play in his 20th NBA season, is it still worth it for Shaq to put forth that effort for half the year? After all, over the last few seasons, his production has seen a fairly steady decline from his glory days in Los Angeles to his injury-hampered campaign with Cleveland in 2009-2010.

That said, he’s still a capable defender: the Cavaliers were going to look to him as their primary defender for Dwight Howard in the conference finals before their unfortunate exit. Furthermore, despite worsening numbers, he is rather impressive from an efficiency standpoint. His PER was eight hundredths of a point shy of 18 (three above average), and his field-goal percentage (56.5 percent) and per-40-minute lines (20.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.6 assists) were not half bad.

Notwithstanding the fairly productive minutes, he is a liability to the teams he plays for. First of all, he demanded the ball way too much for someone with questionable importance to his team’s offensive scheme. His usage rate of 22.8 was over a point higher than that of Brook Lopez, the focal point of a bad Nets offense.

Moreover, he simply doesn’t play enough minutes or games to be a factor, especially as a starter. The Diesel averaged only 23.4 minutes a game with the Cavaliers this year, a six-and-a-half point decrease from the previous year in Phoenix. Furthermore, excluding the anomaly that was 2008-2009, Shaq hasn’t played 60 games in a year since his first season in Miami. By basically promising his team that he is going to miss over 20 games, he puts the franchise in a bad situation when they need to struggle to find effective minutes at the center position.

Aside from his play on the court, though, Shaq will expect to cash in on a lucrative contract based on his past accolades and not what he can offer to his team at present. While he will surely not get a deal resembling anything like his five-year, $100 million contract he signed with Miami, he will be the beneficiary of a higher rate than younger centers at his level of production.

Lingering still is the question of whether he will start for his next team or come off the bench. His current level of health and fitness are better suited for the latter option, as he won’t be expected to put up big minutes on the floor. But how many teams are going to be willing to pay Shaq’s price for a backup center? In addition, this is a guy who has started all his life. In 1170 career regular-season games, the Big Cactus has only come off the bench in 10 of them. Will he be able to cope with a diminished role and importance to his roster, or will he break down like Allen Iverson did when he was faced with that dilemma? If there’s one thing we know about Shaq, it is that his ego is as large as his 7-foot-1, 325-pound frame. I doubt he’ll be able to handle the second-string role.

So Shaq can play for three or more years if he wants to, but he should probably cut his losses. He has already accomplished way more than anyone could hope to in the NBA, so it is best for him to call it quits now before he further tarnishes his sterling résumé.

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A fool-proof guide to landing LeBron this July

As we begin to cope with yet another NBA Finals without the Cavaliers, the frenzy now begins over where LeBron will play next season. In fact, never since the search for Osama Bin Laden have we been so concerned with where somebody’s going; it’s that intense. It’s all ESPN can talk or write about today, and they’ve gone so far as to build a “LeBron Tracker,” which counts down the 47-plus days remaining until free agency begins.

What I don’t understand, though, is why it has ramped up so much right now. While it is sure to piss him off that Cleveland bowed out of the playoffs once more this season, many experts thought that winning a title would actually increase his chances of dipping from Cleveland — that championship would give him a sense of accomplishment enabling him to spring with a good conscience. Now, the thoughts that he will stay have dissipated so quickly, it’s hard to believe they were ever there at all.

Most likely it is because of the simply embarrassing nature of the defeat. No one expected these Cavs to lose to the likes of the old farts from Boston. Fans were thinking to themselves: Well, a loss in seven games in the finals won’t be so bad. Now that everything has crashed and burned in a pit of fiery disappointment, fans are now thinking: We actually made the playoffs?

Regardless, the suggestions, predictions, and guesses as to where LeBron will play next season run rampant. The contenders have begun to settle a little bit, and right now it looks like this (ranked in order of perceived likelihood): Cleveland, Chicago, Miami, New York, and to a lesser extent, New Jersey and the Los Angeles Clippers. All of these teams have their various selling points, and James will have a tough decision to make if he decides to leave his home state after all.

With that said, let me run down my guide to landing the league’s two-time MVP and clearly best player.

Step 1: Make him a legend

LeBron’s obviously going to want money. Most simply, he’ll want a max. contract. And let’s be honest. It is more likely that Rasheed Wallace won’t take a single 3-pointer next year than it is that LeBron won’t get a max. deal. So first of all, any potential suitor will have to resign itself to giving him that. But the money expenditures required to reel in LeBron do not stop there. First of all, he’ll need a major marketing campaign. This guy’s a global icon, so any team that signs him will need to spend the money to make him seem like one. Promotional giveaways, banners, and a pregame show to completely flaunt him to the crowd are just some of the things a team will need to provide to make him happy.

Step 2: Give him as much control as you can

LeBron is bigger than one basketball player. LeBron is bigger than one team. Give him a say as to who your new coaches will be. Hell, let him craft the rotation, too. He’s certainly worth it. James has endured enough failure in his seven seasons in the league that he now deserves a chance to craft his own program. Truth is, he can probably do a lot better than many of the executives out there.

Step 3: Spoil him with a roster of riches

Bringing in LeBron requires a commitment from the team that it will break both its legs, its arms, and maybe its neck to satisfy the guy. Accordingly, any team hoping to sign him needs to do everything in its power to bring in the best talent. That said, it should be wary of not making the same mistakes Cleveland did in bringing in aging stars and overpaying role players. That’s a schematic for disaster. Instead, try to make a splash in the draft, and don’t rush the race to a championship like the Cavaliers did. LeBron will speed it enough that you don’t need to go out and make it into a one-year-or-bust kind of deal.

Step 4: Pray

No matter what these teams do, there will be no guarantee that LeBron leaves Cleveland or that he signs with a specific team. A lot of waiting will be involved in the next month and a half. James has been so adept at concealing even the slightest indication that he has made up his mind, and he most likely hasn’t. No one will be able to make the decision for him, so it is partly out of anyone else’s control. However, a strategic preparation for the infamous Summer of 2010 is still necessary. Any slight misstep could send LeBron running — along with the future of the franchise.

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A disappointing day in Cleveland

I have no personal connection to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy after their season-ending Game 6 defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics.

Considering the Cavs’ strong play over the course of the entire season, and the occasionally mediocre play of the Boston Cetics, this series result is obviously shocking. These guys were widely considered locks to make the NBA Finals this season, but they’ll have to no fewer than one more season to make a championship a reality.

Outshining the team’s loss, however, is the status of LeBron’s future with the team; Thursday’s Game 6 may have been his last game ever as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

On the one hand, it looks as if this roster is simply incapable of bringing home the hardware in June. Many of the players are on the back end of their careers (Antawn Jamison, Shaquille O’Neal, Anthony Parker, Zydrunas Ilgauskas), and next year they’ll all just be another year older. It might be time for LeBron to hop town and get a new start somewhere else. He has to cut his losses some time.

On the other hand, he would be leaving on an incredibly sour note. While his post-game exit was much more cordial than last year’s debacle, he will abandon this Cleveland team and fan base, both of which have been his biggest supporters since his first campaign in the league back in 2003. In addition, he may feel the job isn’t done until he brings back a title for home state of Ohio.

So it’s not yet clear what he’s going to do, to be sure, but he’ll have a lot of thinking to do. This 4-2 series loss to the Celtics is just another knot on the string of heartbreaking defeats Cleveland has experienced over the years — not only in the NBA but also in the MLB and NFL. Perhaps this city is just destined for troubling losses.

Taking a backseat to LeBron’s situation, though, is the fact that the Boston Celtics are actually moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will face the Orlando Magic in a rematch of the 2009 second round. Everyone assumed they were chopped liver, but the road gets no easier from here on out. Orlando hasn’t lost a game in the 2010 postseason yet, and they’ll be gunning for the Celtics to get a shot at swiping a title from the Lakers (or Suns).

Kevin Garnett will play against the Magic this year after sitting out the series in 2009. Height matchups were a problem for the Celtics last year, so Garnett’s presence will help in that regard.

At any rate, the one second-round set to go more than four games was less exhilarating than expected, and has so many broad implications. We, as NBA fans, can only hope that the next two rounds deliver on the promise of greatness established so far.

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