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Fightin’ For That #1 Spot: The Pretenders

"Also, MJ might call you Crumbs."

Being a GM in the NBA has GOT to be one of the most thankless jobs ever. The personnel maneuvers, the salary dumps, worrying about the PR, the athlete’s egos, and the fans’ roarin’-rabid certainty that YOU SUCK at your job, cashing those 6 figure checks. All of the pretty talk about salary caps and “remaining competitive” are hogwash- the one and only successful team is the one left holding the Larry O’Brien trophy and giving Obama a bro hug on the White House lawn sometime in June or July.

There are 30 teams in the NBA, meaning there are 30 different ideas about how to build that winner. Slow, patient building of talent through the draft and shrewd free agency? Sounds good- organically growing a team builds a passionate fan base, is cost effective: look at OKC, it’s GOTTA work, right? The Trailblazers are the other side of that coin. They were the the ’07 OKC, stockpiling young talent (Brandon Roy! LaMarcus Aldridge! Martell Webster! Um…Sergio Rodriguez?), winning with grit, teamwork, exuberance. Then the injuries. Oh, the injuries. We won’t recap the horror, but Nate McMillan deserves a medal for keeping the Blazers competitive; last year they had all 21 feet and $21,000,000 of center on the shelf for long stretches, and 2 of the 2 franchise cornerstones have no knees to speak of. (Note to Oklahoma City- STRIKE while the iron is hot, get a big and swing for the fences!). The point is, being a true contender is a lot harder than just being competitive. How many teams can truly say “We have a serious chance of winning this year”? Looking at the last 20 years of champions, I see there is a basic structure to the recipe with a couple of variations:

1. Not just ONE superstar/high level star, but at LEAST another star quality player-

This is why it’s maddening to hear the “LeBron couldn’t do it alone” argument: NO star can. Kobe had Pau and Shaq, Michael Jordan had Pippen, Tim Duncan had David Robinson, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili- that’s 15 titles in the last 20 years right there. Add in the Celtics (no superstar, as described here, but 3 high level stars and a burgeoning star in Rajon  Rondo), and we see the “Star carrying a band of rag tag teammates” scenario simply isn’t a real thing. Hakeem Olajuwon’s 2(!) championships are the exception to the rule- Hakeem’s rockets were in a perfect storm of a) sudden Michael Jordan baseball fever and b) NBA rules tailor-made for their physical D and Orlando 1.0 “1 In 4 Out” offense. Also, Hakeem was absolutely, phenomenally off-the-charts then. The ’04 Pistons were also somewhat of an anomaly, but they actually laid the blueprint for the ’08 Celtics. Rip Hamilton, Chauncy Billups, and Rasheed Wallace were below-the-radar stars, Ben Wallace was an ultra-elite, mobile post defender, and they were a case of 2+3 = 7, just a special unique blend.

2. Veteran Presence-

"Ewing. Stop it."

Hakeem was a vet aided by oldie-but-goodie Mario Elie and old head Otis Thorpe in his 2 ‘ship seasons. Tim Duncan doesn’t win without Robinson and Avery “Cricket” Johnson to show the way. The Lakers’ threepeat in 2000 was guided by the vet know-how of Rick Fox and Robert Horry. Boston was a collection of grizzled pros. All the talent in the world won’t matter if you have no idea what to do under duress.

3. At Least 1 Elite X-Factor Athlete Somewhere in the Main Rotation-

 I know, NBA players are in the upper 0.001% of athletes in the world. But we all agree MJ and Pippen were 2 freakishly athletic stars. Young Kobe changed the game with his dynamic playmaking running with Shaq, and the (comparative) athleticism of Rondo was huge for the Celts during their run to the ‘ship, while the Lakers countered with the uber-athlete Trevor Ariza, then Shannon Brown as their x-factor for the last 2 years. The Spurs in the 2000s were “boring”, but no one can deny that Manu Ginobili’s unorthodox soccer player-like speediness was a difference maker. Even Hakeem’s 2 ‘ships were won in large part because of the surprise performance of rookie Rob Horry (yeah. Watch the tape. Dude was an athletic 3 back in the day).

This brings us to the scrum of our current season. The Lakers looked primed to steamroll early- then Pau got stuck in quicksand. The Utah Jazz and the Naw’lins Hornets have looked both exquisite and piteously atrocious in their quest. So who’s really in the running for the big stage in June?

1st the Pretenders-

Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Have the 1st one down. A bonafide superstar in Kevin Durant. He scores in bunches (witness his 47 point eruption from last night, including the scintillating step-back he splashed in Cory Brewer and Lead Foot Love’s mug to close out scoring) and is looking to build on his domination of international competition last summer. Add to the mix the lightning powered bowling ball that is Russell Westbrook, a newly minted top 5 PG in the league, as both the dynamite #2 needed and the athletic trump card. The human jumping jack Serge Ibaka and sneaky-athlete James Harden cement the number 2 criteria.
  • NEED-a veteran presence, SOMEWHERE. You can literally watch this team unravel before our eyes sometimes in tight game situations; be it Durant over-dribbling, or Westbrook thinking he has to be the hero. OKC is ONE big and one respected vet away from being ready for prime time.
  • DREAM SCENARIO- Anderson Varejao or LaMarcus Aldridge?

 

Utah Jazz

  • Their recent 6 (!) game losing streak non-withstanding, the Jazz were who we thought they were; the on-court embodiment of Coach Jerry Sloan. Deron Williams might be the love-child of Stockton and Malone (try getting THAT visual out of your head): tough, runs the point like an orchestra conductor, shoots lights out, but can bull over and through opposing points for tough buckets.

    "RAISE THE RO-" "Shut up."

  • 2 issues that eliminate the Jazz from contender status- as good as Al Jefferson is, he’s just not a true star wingman. The numbers (17 ppg and 8 rpg) look good, but…crazy to say this, he’s no Boozer. As a 3rd option he’s perfect, but to put it on him to shoulder the load as he Star # 2 is too much. And while CJ Miles surprises with flashes, and Andrei Kirilenko provides some of the vet presence, his crazy athletics seems to have dried up- he’s still an above average defender, but no one on the Jazz(outside of D Will) is uncontrollably sportive enough to be a game changer.
  • Need- another ++ level player to complement D Will, a Wes Matthew (D’OH!) like player to mix it up.
  • DREAM SCENARIO – Carmelo Anthony, hell, even Dorrell Wright.

 Dallas Mavericks-

  •  Dallas fans will be up in arms, but look at the facts. Dirk Nowitzki is a legit top 10 player; he beats you from the post, with the J, and can take over games. He’s spent his career toeing the line of superstar status, and has shed the “soft” label pasted on him after the Golden State playoff fiasco. Tyson Chandler is giving the Mavs excellent production at the center spot, his alley-oopitosity and defense have unexpectedly invigorated the team. J-Kidd is the consummate vet to run the squad, Jason “2nd Jet” Terry provides a nice scoring pop.
  • But where’s that definitive 2nd option? Even when Caron Butler was healthy, was his 15 ppg, 4 rbs, less than 2 dimes really supposed to do it? Terry gives up 1.5 buckets for every J he makes. Shawn Marion? Nope.
  • NEED - a 2nd high level player to power the Mavs to the finals
  • DREAM SCENARIO -Deron/CP3, Joe Johnson

 Atlanta Hawks-

  •  Where to begin…Sure, Al Horford is a star-in-the-making, Mr. Hard-to-Handle behind D Howard and Pau Gasol from the center spot. And Josh Smith shows off the jaw dropping hops and improving smarts every day. Jamal Crawford is like Jason Terry East, with a doper handle and more insanity.
  • Say it with me though: Joe Johnson is NOT a superstar. This is just a strange collection of talent; Mike Bibby is a vet who starred on some extraordinary Kings teams- too bad he left the talent back in Sacramento and Memphis. Joe Johnson desperately wants to be seen as an LBJ/Wade type player, even as a Carmelo/Amare’ type, but he’s just a step below. After watching Orlando eviscerate ATL in a 4 game shellacking last season, I’m positive that the Hawks made a huge mistake shoveling cash at Joe Johnson like they did in the off-season.
  • NEED- A real franchise player. Horford may growing into that role. Too bad they shackled themselves to Joe Johnson for the next 6 FREAKIN’ YEARS.
  • DREAM SCENARIO - elite PG like Steve Nash (*ahem* couldhavehadCP3orDWill*ahem*)

 Chicago Bulls

  • Derrick Rose is a superstar, plain and simple. Unstoppable going to the hole, takes contac and finishes, improving on D and shooting the midrange, even the 3, with confidence. Carlos Boozer is a legit 20/10 threat, scoring from the box and with the deadly jumper. Joachim Noah is a rock on D and a terror on the boards. Luol Deng is a high quality 3 who scores and is a glue guy. Kurt Thomas is a tough-as-nails old school power forward who’s a steadying presence on the floor and in the locjker room.
  • So what’s next? As good as Booze is, we saw what quality D does to him when the LA bigs emasculated him last year, and it’s a fair bet Boston’s bigs will treat him the same way. Rose is a next-level live body, but no one else on that team is going to really jump over anyone. 
  • NEED - a dynamic 2 in the back-court with Rose to truly contend. As it is, if Rose continues to develop in leaps and bounds, maybe we’re watching this same group winning it all in 2 or 3 years.
  • DREAM SCENARIO – C’MON, OJ Mayo!!!!!

 Orlando Magic-

  • This one’s shocking to me- this is supposedly an upgrade to the team that went to the Finals just 2 years ago. Dwight Howard has taken his already considerable talents to another level offensively and he continues to wreak havoc defensively. Otis Smith pled mea culpa and brought back the x-factor, Hedo “Too Tall” Turkoglu at small forward. Jameerkat Nelson has ice water in his veins. They pull off 2 of the 3 parts of the recipe- 7 years in, Howard and Nelson have been through the fires of adversity, and Hedo is the big shot king. And maaaaybe the collection of good-not-great talent is enough to get them deep into the playoffs, but until they put a legitimate #2 star in Orlando with Dwight (or until KG, Pierce, and Kobe retire), Dwight stays ring-less in Orlando.
  • NEED – Like Rose, Dwight Howard needs a straight up beast of a running-mate. VC would have been great…in 2003.
  • DREAM SCENARIO – VC and a time machine? If not that, Melo would be perfect here.

New Orlean Hornets-

  • "Face."

    Ohhhhh, soclose. CP3 is an absolute monster; the debate of Derrick Rose vs Chris Paul vs Deron Williams will rage on for years. Chris Paul is your superstar, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, and are your cagey vets, and Marcus Thorton does a fantastic job as the pace changing scorer off of the bench. AND, David West is your second star, right? Right?!?

  • Wrong. David West is like a more mobile, less rebounding Al Jefferson. He’s very, very good, but his flaw, though not his fault (undersized) is exposed against quality size.
  • NEED – A higher caliber running mate for Chris Paul
  • DREAM SCENARIO – An Eric Gordon type

I’m sure there are other teams that THINK they’re contenders, but let’s be realistic. Portland is too battle damaged. Phoenix is too Nashcentric. Houston is too non-Yao. So who are we left with, the Heavy Hitters? Tune in tomorrow for the Contenders Rundown…

Hardwood Paroxysm