Monthly Archives: September 2012

#NBArank and Michael Jordan’s Wizards Comeback

Photo by mikecogh on Flickr.

I was one of the voters for ESPN’s just-wrapped #NBArank project, but I had almost no emotional investment in the results as they played out. My formative years as a music writer made me wary of getting too attached to the outcome of any list, even one I helped create. The discussion the project spawned, mainly on Twitter, could be broken up into two types: analysis of the process and reaction to the results. The former is infinitely interesting and worthwhile, and has the ability to expose telling differences in how people evaluate players. The latter is no different than caring about the Grammys.

Still, though, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the reaction from both sides when Kobe Bryant landed sixth on the list. While it’s hardly groundbreaking to point out that Kobe is the most polarizing player in modern NBA history, occasions like #NBArank only make exceptionally clear the divide between his detractors and defenders. Of the 500 players on this list, none have accomplished as much as he has over the course of his career (only the 27th-ranked Tim Duncan comes close). However, just as uncontroversial is the fact that he is not the caliber of player he was in 2006. There are strong cases to be made that, at the very least, the three players ranked directly behind Bryant (Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, and Russell Westbrook) are more valuable in 2012.

I rated Kobe an 8 out of 10 on my ballot. The only players I gave 10s were LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul, with the Love/Westbrook tier getting 9s. Honestly, I probably should have rated Kobe a 7, as a 34-year-old coming off a season in which his efficiency decreased in nearly every shooting category even as he posted the second-highest usage rate of his career. The bump up to 8 was probably some subconscious, highly regrettable #CountThaRingzzz-ing on my part. I can’t have been the only voter who did this. Kobe was ranked higher than he probably should have been because of his importance, influence, and career accomplishments. Which led me to wonder this:

Had #NBArank been conducted in 2002, following the first season of Michael Jordan’s ill-advised comeback as a Washington Wizard, where would he have placed?

Jordan played only 60 games that season, missing time due to various injuries. He didn’t play in enough games to qualify for most statistical leaderboards, but his 22.9 points per game would have ranked ninth, behind Dirk Nowitzki and ahead of Karl Malone. He shot an underwhelming 41.6 percent from the field, by some distance the worst shooting performance of his career. On a terrible Wizards team, he posted a usage rate of 36 while ranking 17th in the league in PER. By almost any metric, it was the worst season he had ever had. Yet I can’t help but speculate that, had a project like #NBArank existed at the time, a lot of voters would have seen the name “Jordan, Michael” on the form and been unable to justify giving the greatest player of all time anything below a 10, even at that far-from-memorable phase in his career. I would probably have been among them, even though I should know better.

Michael Leahy summed up the perception of Jordan following that offseason perfectly in his terrific 2004 book When Nothing Else Matters, which chronicled MJ’s two seasons with the Wizards:

Like an aging Hollywood leading man who acknowledges the inevitable and segues from being an action hero to a venerable character actor, Jordan had already become a niche player—cast in that least flamboyant of basketball roles, the jump shooter. There was no markedly diminished stature in this: He would forever have top billing on a marquee. Only there would be no opportunities left to be swashbuckling and dunk down the throats of seven-footers. There would be far fewer chances to be heroic, for being a jump shooter is a finicky thing. Once in a while his touch would be very good, even great. But on most nights, it would be just so-so, and on a few nights very bad—which mirrored a mortal’s life and is the way it goes for even highly skilled jump shooters. There would be the pedestrian cant to describe it—good numbers, solid output, valued performance and pride, to go along with a certain All-Star selection for a cherished legend. Certainly, he would not embarrass himself if he came back [for a second season]. Even working under his new limitations, he would remain one of the best 20 to 25 players in the league, someone capable of abusing a highly touted youngster once in a while and holding his own against all but the game’s greatest. He just would be nothing close to the player remembered.

Kobe Bryant is a considerably better player today than Jordan was during his Washington stint, but the latter part of his career is seeing him make many of the same adjustments. He’s shooting more jumpers now, attacking the rim with less frequency than he did a few years ago. His defense, once excellent, has declined noticeably in recent years. But he still has those games, like his stretch of four consecutive 40-point performances this January, in which it’s impossible not to think of the Kobe of 2006. It’s those moments which justify his spot on #NBArank, and it’s not hard to imagine the flashes of the old greatness doing the same for Jordan. The top of a 2001-02 #NBArank list would rightfully be occupied by the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, and of those, only Shaq would have likely had the star power at the time to edge out an aging MJ who was still the biggest name in the league.

All of this is assuming that conducting the survey in 2002 would have meant no Twitter or blogs to power the reaction, and statistical analysis that wasn’t nearly as evolved or prevalent as it is today. What would be even more fascinating would be an alternate universe in which a 10-years-younger Jordan had the exact same career with the Bulls as he did, winning the same number of championships with Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, setting the same records, winning the same MVP awards, achieving the same stature as the consensus greatest player ever to play the game. In this scenario, his dominance began in the mid-1990s, ended around 2008, and the first season of his comeback with the Wizards would have just ended. With today’s methods of statistical analysis showing more plainly than ever that Jordan wasn’t close to the best player in the league, would a top-five finish in #NBArank have garnered a similar reaction to last week’s Kobe fallout?

Yes and no. I wrote several months ago that a large part of the reason why Kobe is both so ardently defended and scrutinized is his status as an icon with the most loathed but successful franchise in basketball, the de facto New York Yankees of the NBA. A lot of that seems to be in play with the reaction to Kobe’s rank. Every time an article is published breaking down his less-than-stellar crunch-time numbers, his fans come out in full force with accusations of anti-Laker bias in the media. We saw a lot of that on Wednesday, with tweet after tweet on the #NBArank hashtag accusing ESPN of purposely keeping him out of the top five because of some greater agenda, which is pretty absurd. On the other side, Kobe’s placement above players like Love and Westbrook prompted more outrage in the blogging community than anything else on the list.

Even though part of why the reaction to Kobe’s placement was so strong was because of the sheer amount of social-media platforms that exist for his fans to make their voices heard, I don’t think the backlash to #NBArank overrating the Wizards-era Jordan would be at this level. Part of this is because Jordan’s image was amazingly well-managed and he was always more beloved even than Kobe. But Jordan’s name was also synonymous with greatness on the basketball court in a way that no other player’s was before or likely will ever be. Which would make it harder for the same bloggers who disagreed with Kobe’s rating to vote MJ down in the first place.

Rooting for Royce White

Inspiration by h.koppdelaney via Flickr

Often, the players we cheer for the most, not necessarily our favorite players, are the ones to whom we feel a certain connection. Maybe they went to our school, or grew up in our neighborhood, or they said “hi” to us once in a restaurant. A sense of pride swells within us when we see that player score or block a shot, as if the connection we feel allows us to live vicariously through them. They may not even be particularly good players, but because of that connection, however small, we find ourselves cheering for that player’s success.

I was a latecomer to NBA fandom. I didn’t have a favorite player; neither Kobe Bryant nor Shaquille O’Neal posters adorned my bedroom walls. There was, however, one player whom I rooted for endlessly as soon as he entered the league: Kareem Rush.

Rush went to my high school (though I was in grade school at that time), dated a good family friend for a while, and drove me to Sunday school once or twice. He and his brother JaRon were nothing short of dominant on the court together, and though their state championships were stripped and their very existence wiped from the pages of Pembroke Hill history as a result of a booster scandal, every one still remembers the Rush brothers. He once scared the crap out of me at a Movie Gallery, as, after hearing his girlfriend call my name, I turned around only to find his 6’6 frame towering over my eight-year old self. I played him in a game of two-on-one, first to eleven, with a ten point cushion. I lost. These stories aren’t meant to boast. In fact, I’m sure Kareem doesn’t even remember me. Still, that connection was enough for me to check the box score after every one of his games, from his rookie year with the Lakers to his briefer stints with the Pacers and 76ers.

I’ve never met Royce White. He didn’t grow up in Kansas City, I didn’t go to Iowa State. And yet, with the start of NBA training camps less than a week away, marking the unofficial start of basketball season, there is no player who I will cheer for more than White.

The connection I feel with White may not be one born from an acquaintanceship, but that doesn’t make it any less real. White and I, along with countless others, suffer from anxiety disorder. There’s a certain, instant kinship formed between those who suffer from depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Though many have tried to describe what an anxiety/panic attack feels like, it unfortunately can only be understood from first-hand experience. Those that have struggled through the crippling attacks are thus able to empathize with fellow sufferers on a completely different level than those who haven’t. Of course, that lack of understanding can easily lead to misconceptions, or even fear. That fear reared its head on draft night as White, despite his candor about his condition, saw his stock slide, due mainly to concerns about his ability to handle the rigors of the NBA life. According to the fantastic Grantland “Hockumentary,” which detailed White’s draft night, had Houston not selected White when they did, he could have potentially slid out of the first round. Luckily, Kevin McHale, White’s lone advocate in the Houston war room, won out and selected White with the 16th pick.

That could have been the last we heard of White’s anxiety. Though he’d come to be an inspiration, even a folk hero of sorts, to those who battle with anxiety, he had no obligation to continue wearing that mantle. His future now stable, no longer having to worry about pre-draft interviews or intense scrutiny, he could have closed off that part of his life from the public eye. Instead, White has become as much of an advocate as he is an inspiration. A perusal through his twitter mentions reveals hundreds of messages thanking him for being a model of what one can accomplish in spite of their mental illness, naming him as the onus for their taking charge of life and renewed dedication to fighting anxiety. It may seem ironic to most that someone whose affliction has been so well documented would assume the role of an advocate, and on such a large scale. And yet, when you consider how candid White has been about his issues, it really shouldn’t surprise us at all.

Now comes the hard part for Royce White: succeeding. Not hard because he doesn’t have the skill, as he certainly isn’t lacking in that area, but rather because every mistake  he makes will be met with an extra dose of skepticism. Did his anxiety cause him to turn the ball over? Is he missing foul shots because he’s having an anxiety attack? For any other rookie, those mistakes would be chalked up to nothing more than growing pains, not so for White. But this isn’t foreign territory for the bruising and versatile forward. These are the same questions he faced at Iowa State, and the same ones posed to him countless times during the draft process. His play silenced those questions in college, and there’s no reason to expect anything different now that he’s in the NBA.

Connections formed from mutual suffering are often the strongest.  I may never meet Royce White, but I know the battles he’s fought and the victories he’s won all too well. Is it any wonder that I cheer for him?

Synergy Sessions: Debut Edition

A relatively new tool in the world of advanced statistics, mySynergySports offers much in the way of furthering the conversation, as chronicled in HP’s Understanding Advanced Stats series. Author’s note: Please excuse the funky symbols occasionally encountered in older posts — they’re simply HTML leftovers from the Malaysian assault suffered earlier this year. The relevant content is still all there. One day I’ll get around to fixing up my previous posts, but for now my bucket is pretty full.

Synergy is unique in the stats world in it’s approach, giving researchers stats and annual ranks on players by the possession, specifically Points Per Possession (heretofore referred to as “PPP”), as well as logging and categorizing every possession by every player in every game in video logs on offense and defense. The defensive part is especially helpful since defense can often be difficult to quantify by straight numbers. Used in conjunction with other defensive stats we can now get a clearer picture of which players are truly having an impact on the D end of the floor.

However, Synergy is a subscription service with a finite number of ‘scripts available, so much of the basketball world doesn’t have access to these particular metrics. Never fear, we’re here to help!

First up, expounding on the #NBArank conversation on Carmelo Anthony, I got into an interesting exchange with a couple of New York Knicks fans and a Utah Jazz writer wherein I intimated that Melo has been basically the same player his entire career.

Aside from Melo and Big Al’s BasketballReference advanced stats, let’s see what we can find from Synergy, specifically in regards to passing and defense, two of the main points of contention in the convo. Both players posted career highs in AST% last season — Melo by a little, Al by a little more — but when it comes to Synergy, we don’t yet have specifics for the assist stat aside from being the Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler. Nevertheless, we can still learn something about how these players play offense by looking at the types of offensive plays they do post at Synergy. For instance, an isolation play is exactly what it says it is, and not assisted by a pass from a teammate.

As one would expect, Melo is primarily an Iso player, going to it 35.4% of the time, scoring a relatively meager 0.84 PPP on a mere 37.4% field goals, good for only 59th-best in the NBA. By contract, Al goes Iso only 6.3% of the time, scoring 0.83 PPP, 65th-best. Synergy has only been around for three seasons, but Melo went to the Iso about 37% of the time when with the Nuggets.

Jefferson’s go-to move on offense is obviously the Post-up, nearly half the time at 48.2%, scoring 0.96 PPP on 47.5% FGs, 18th-best in the NBA. The Post-up is Melo’s second-most common O play at 13% of the time where he lands 0.95 PPP on 44.3% FGs, good for the 21st ranking in the category. Melo should clearly be posting up more and going iso less. In Al Jefferson’s last year with the Minnesota Timberwolves he went to the Post-up an astonishing 57% of the time. His first year with the Jazz that dropped to 38% of the time. Clearly, once on a team known for passing Jefferson’s game met with adjustments.

Both players post their best PPP in the halfcourt offense on Cuts, a play made by slipping a defender, moving to the basket without the ball, then being found by a teammate. This would be Al’s second-most-used offensive play, 13.9% of the time, where he lands an astounding 1.27 PPP on 63.4% FGs. His last year in Minnesota Al Cut a paltry 6.8% of the time. He’s benefited greatly from the improved offensive system in Utah as compared to that in Minny. Melo goes to the Cut only 4.3% of the time, but he’s very successful when he does, posting 1.21 PPP on 61.1% FGs.

As for defense, in 2009-10 on Minny, Jefferson was overall ranked 299th giving up 0.93 PPP. In 2010-11, his first year in Utah, he leaped all the way up to 70th giving up 38.5% FGs on 0.82 PPP and only 0.74 PPP on 35.5% FGs on Post-Up defensive plays, which was 49% of the time. Surprisingly, his best D-ranking came this year on PnR defense, ranked 36th-best while giving up 0.83 PPP, his being the target of opposing PnRs about 10% of the time. 2011-12 saw some regression on defense, Jefferson falling back to 199th overall, giving up 0.84 PPP. His Post-up D remained solid giving up 0.77 PPP, and while he was targeted on PnRs less, 9.3% of the time, he gave up a not-so-hot 0.91 PPP. Clearly there’s work to be done here on Al’s part. It may worth noting here that Al Jefferson is one the top three clutch-time shot-blockers, so we know he’s capable of a better effort when the chips are down. Utah was in a lot of late-game situations last year.

2009-10 Carmelo saw him ranked a lowly 398th overall on defense, giving up 1.03 PPP in Iso situations, 0.98 in Post-Up, and 1.01 on Spot-ups, his three most common defensive stances. Remember, there’s only about 400-450 active NBA players at a given time, so that’s really bad. 2010-11 saw a moderate improvement to 331st overall, but he was still giving up nearly 1.00 PPP in most defensive situations. As noted by both Knicks fans and Clark, Melo improved — for him — fairly dramatically on defense last season for New York, giving up 0.84 PPP overall, good for a 240 ranking. His Post-up defense was an incredible 0.52 PPP, good for 2nd in the NBA, although he is quite a bit bigger than much of his competition at the 3-spot. He showed little interest for chasing his man, however, posting a dismal 1.13 PPP on D in Spot-up situations, ranked 344th. It’s pretty clear Melo still only plays D when it suits him, and I’d bet without looking that he leaks out in transition often on said Spot-ups.

RAY’S SO FLUFFY I’M GONNA DIE!

With his third team in just over a year’s time, and before we bounce to PDX, it should be noted that Felton wasn’t even close to the same player in NY as in Denver, where he was a cog in the Carmelo force-out trade. Obviously, he is primarily a P&R Ball Handler, an average of 42% of the time for an average 0.81 PPP, but his role changed dramatically in Iso and Spot-up between the two locales.

In New York he rarely went Iso, only 7.8% of the time, good for 0.80 PPP. Once traded to Denver Iso became more prevalent, 10.9% of the time, but good for only a measly 0.59 PPP on 28% FGs. This negative effect was counteracted, though, by the most stark contrast to be found, in the Spot-up game. With the Knicks, Felton took Spot-ups only 8% of the time, whereas once in the Mile High City it skyrocketed to 19.8% of the time, 1.25 PPP on almost 48% FG shooting. Where Felton scores best seems to be in Hand Off situations. There were far more of these in New York where it was 9.4% of his offensive game, good for 0.95 PPP. In Denver he only did so 2.7% of the time, but hit on 1.44 PPG, on 66.7% shooting.

On defense he was again two different players between the Knicks and Nugs. As the PnR Ball Handler on D he went from giving up 0.88 PPP in NY to 0.71 in Denver. In Spot-ups he went from giving up 1.24 PPP to 1.04 PPP. But these gains were negated Off Screens where in NY he gave up only 0.64, to Denver where he failed to fight over or through screens properly giving up 1.26 PPP.

Once in Portland Felton played Ball Handler less often, 39.6% of the time where he scored poorly at 0.70 PPP, only ranked 116 on 40% FG shooting. The Spot-up trend obtained with the Nuggets continued where he did well 17.8% of the time for 0.99 PPP, but shot only 37.8%. Isolation, never a strength, was seen nealry 10% of the time, but he scored only 0.74 PPP and 33.8% FGs. The Trailblazers were a bad fit. But that’s not news to you.

Felton wasn’t awful defensively for Portland, defending the PnR Handler 45.9% of the time and holding him to 0.79 PPP, but that’s where the D highlights end. In Iso, Spot-up, and Off Screens he gave up at least 0.90 PPP, and was particularly susceptible to opposing Post-ups, giving back 0.97 PPP.

It will be interesting to see what Mike Woodson does with Felton now back in New York once again, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. Hey, at least he’s reportedly less fluffy.


In case you haven’t yet been apprised of how Enes Kanter spent his summer, he spent it in a way that would make Vince McMahon proud.

Kanter posted up 112 times, 30.2% of the time he was on the floor on offense, but scored only 0.79 PPP on his man. Yes, he had trouble getting above the rim. Billed as a rebound beast coming in, he certainly lived up to that end of the deal where he’s extremely fundamentally sound, going glass 25.6% of the time, scoring 0.97 PPP on Offensive Rebounds, a massive proportion of percentage on O. He was most successful on Cuts, 17.5% of the time for 1.14 PPP. A pretty clear pattern emerges here for the Jazz, that being ball and player movement, where their big men can get easy looks.

On defense Kanter still has some work to do where he gave up 1.05 PPP in Post-ups. He showed some promise on PnR defense, but didn’t defend it enough to qualify for a ranking, and often lost his man in the screen switch.

It’s exciting to see a player work so hard to buff up in the offseason. I just hope he worked on his basketball skills just as hard.

If I didn’t get to your Synergy Session question this time keep ‘em coming, I’ll be sure to fit you in in future posts.

Send mySynergySports questions to @Clintonite33 on Twitter, hastag #SynergySession

The Lowdown “Expansion All-Stars”: Jerry Sloan

(Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images)

Pre- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1966): 5.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, .415 FG%, .705% FT, 16.1 MPG

“Expansion All-Star” Season (1967): 17.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, .432 FG%, .796 FT%, 36.8 MPG

Post- “Expansion All-Star” Seasons (1968 – 1976): 14.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.7 APG, .426 FG%, .711 FT%, 35.5 MPG

Last week’s Expansion All-Star was Bob “Slick” Leonard of the Chicago Packers. Well, in an unsurprising development, the next Expansion All-Star also suits up for an expansion teams based in Chicago. The Windy City was a graveyard for major league professional basketball. The Chicago Gears of the NBL, the Chicago Stags of the BAA and the Chicago Packers of the NBA had all failed to survive in the city over the previous twenty years when the Chicago Bulls became the next best hope for pro basketball. Given the history, the Bulls surprisingly succeeded and it’s in no small part thanks to Jerry Sloan.

Sloan’s NBA career began, ironically, with the Baltimore Bullets. This is ironic because the Chicago Packers had packed up their bags and left Chicago in 1964 to become the Baltimore Bullets. The Maryland franchise acquired Sloan in the 1965 NBA Draft with the fourth overall pick ahead of such luminaries as the Van Arsdale twins, Billy Cunningham, Flynn Robinson and future Bulls teammates Bob Weiss and Bob Love.

That Sloan spent only one season as a Bullet and was available in the expansion draft the very next year was revealing of the terrible management involved with Baltimore at the time. Yes, Sloan had not put up amazing stats in his rookie year, but the promise of greatness was certainly there:

“…the Baltimore Bullets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, 119-113, in other Wednesday night action…

Rookie Jerry Sloan’s 15-foot jump shot with 15 seconds left was the big play for the Bullets, who trailed by a point with 48 seconds to go. Gus Johnson’s 28 points led the Bullets and Jerry West’s 33 paced the Lakers.”

Nonetheless, the 4th overall pick was put on the expansion draft chopping block and the Chicago Bulls snapped up Sloan. The key to this was that one of Sloan’s Baltimore teammates had retired and taken over as coach of the Bulls. Johnny “Red” Kerr, a venerable presence in the NBA for over a decade, was the man at the helm of the Bulls and Sloan years later acknowledged Kerr’s help in giving him a chance to shine:

“Red was really the reason for me being in Chicago because of the expansion draft. Johnny helped me get an opportunity to play.”

Sloan’s playing time rose from a scant 16 minutes to 37 minutes a game that expansion season and his other stats predictably rose: the scoring reaching 17.5 points a game and the boards topping off at a career-high 9 a game. The averages were nice but so were individual moments throughout that season. In early March of 1967, Sloan and center Erwin Mueller spearheaded the defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers:

“Mueller scored 20 points and held Wilt Chamberlain to 20 as the Bulls pulled away to a 95-84 third-period margin and never were threatened thereafter. Jerry Sloan had 22 points and 15 rebounds for the Bulls.”

Any victory is nice but the expansion Bulls had just handed the 76ers one of their only 13 losses that season. Just a couple of weeks later, Sloan struck again to keep alive Chicago’s playoff hopes against the Detroit Pistons, the very team they were competing with for the final playoff spot:

“The Bulls whipped the Detroit Pistons on the road Wednesday night 98-91 and moved into fourth place in the Western Division a half-game ahead of the now last-place Pistons. The Bulls have two games left to play in the regular season ending Sunday, the Pistons three.

Jerry Sloan threw in 32 points to lead a second half Chicago rally that erased a 69-62 Detroit lead.”

The Bulls would indeed sew up that final playoff spot thanks to the young Sloan and veterans Bob Boozer and Guy Rodgers. The always superb St. Louis Hawks, however, would thrash Chicago in the postseason in a three-game opening round sweep. Not the sweetest of endings, but for an expansion team, that was quite successful to be bounced in the playoffs no matter what the fashion.

For Sloan this would just be the beginning of a long and lengthy career as “Mr. Bull”. In his 1st year as a Bull, Sloan was selected as an All-Star and would garner one more selection to that event in 1969. Even more importantly, though, Sloan’s reputation as a hellish defender would become well justified and cemented over the ensuing years. Making 6 All-Defensive teams, Sloan was the nightmare of any wing player who came his way, especially when he teamed with the demonic Norm Van Lier in the 1970s. Sloan’s 6’5″ strongly wiry and lanky frame made him perfect to harass the perimeter. Sadly, words are the only thing to really do Sloan’s defense  justice since steals weren’t logged until 1974, at which point a 31-year old Sloan still captured 2.1 per game.

But the words, nonetheless, do Sloan’s defense adequate justice. Just search the Google news archives for “Jerry Sloan defense” and you’ll get a treasure trove of articles glowingly speaking of Sloan’s inspired, cagey and tireless defense. Although that defense never brought Chicago a title, it did lead the Bulls to a Golden Era of success in the early and mid 1970s with Van Lier, Bob Love, Bob Weiss, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle. The Bulls would secure four straight 50-win seasons and two trips to the Western Conference Finals.

As for Sloan, he’d retire in the mid-1970s ranking 3rd in assists and 2nd in points for the Bulls franchise. Meanwhile he led the Bulls in categories typical for him: games played, minutes played, and, of course, personal fouls. Since then, only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen have passed Sloan in those categories. On top of all this, he was the 1st Bull to have his number retired. All of the success, all of the defense, all of the tirades began with Sloan’s expansion outburst in 1966.

You really did need to hold Sloan back, the man was a loose cannon.

(as always, statistical information retrieved from basketball-reference.com)

I Got 5 On It

Hoopsworld NBA Analyst and all-around good dude Tommy Beer posed the question, and I’ll answer it below. But not only will I create a five-man squad for the Atlantic Division, I’ll do so for the other five divisions as well. Why? Because it’s September, I’m bored and it will be more fun than whatever else I was going to do today. That’s why. (NOTE: I’m assuming full health for all players involved and am listing one-through-five by position – and taking liberties with some positions – rather than the order I’d pick them. And just to be clear, this isn’t “best player at each position.” I’m taking into account how each five would work as a unit.) 

Team Atlantic

Deron Williams – Avery Bradley – Carmelo Anthony – Kevin Garnett – Tyson Chandler

Yes, I left off the best shooting guard in the divison (Iman Shumpert Joe Johnson), as well as the East’s best offensive center (Andrew Bynum). But I have reasons, I swear.  

First of all, this team is an absolute defensive powerhouse, even despite the presence of noted defensive turnstyle Carmelo Anthony. Just try to score within 10 feet of the basket with KG and Chandler lurking in the lane and smothering pick-and-rolls. I dare you. The interior prowess of two of the three best defensive bigs in the league combined with Bradley’s ball-hawking perimeter defense make it extremely tough for an opposing offense to score. The occasional small forward would have a big night, but I’d trust KG and Chandler to back up Melo, wouldn’t you? Deron more than holds his own on defense too.

On the other end, Deron runs the show. I trust him to divy up opportunties to Melo on the wing or the block, KG on pick-and-pops or in the post, Chandler on pick-and-roll dives to the hoop, and Bradley cutting and lurking in the corners. Garnett’s ability to hit deep mid-range jumpers spaces the floor around Williams-Chandler pick-and-rolls. Melo would just destroy people on the weakside, provided he’s cool with Deron getting him the ball. He seemed okay with this arrangement in the Olympics, so I’m just going to assume he’d be okay with it here too. Shouldn’t be any problem at all, right? RIGHT? Anyway, he should get plenty of spot-up opportunities in this offense, and he’ll get his fair share of drives to the basket by throwing pump-fakes at closeout defenders. Tyson’s one of the best finishers in the league, and Bradley made himself an extremely valuable offensive contributor on the Celtics last season by simply cutting to open space and lurking for corner jumpers.

Team Central

Kyrie Irving – Derrick Rose – Luol Deng – Joakim Noah – Roy Hibbert

I’m playing it fast and loose here by taking both Rose and Irving, but I’m betting that Irving’s outside shooting can open up the floor for Rose’s slash-to-the-rim style. Having two ball-dominant guards means I need guys who can maximize their touches surrounding them, which is exactly what Deng, Noah and Hibbert bring to the table. Hibbsy can throw some hook shots, Noah can facilitate offense from the high post with his excellent passing, Deng can capitalize on catch-and-shoot opportunities and cut into open spaces.

Defensively, Deng and Noah are the heart of the operation. Deng is one of the very best wing defenders in the league, while Noah can thwart pick-and-rolls with the best of them. Rose, while not great individually, is a solid team defender. Hibbert is quite good below the free throw line, even if he struggles if he tries to extend out farther than that. Having Noah along the front line with him certainly helps. Irving and Rose both have good enough size to handle shooting guards if need be.

Team Southeast

John Wall – Dwyane Wade - Arron Afflalo - LeBron James – Chris Bosh

Holy positional versatility, Batman. This team will absolutely run you off the floor. Wall’s court vision and instincts in the open court combined with the finishing abilities of LeBron and Wade on the break would be damn near unstoppable. In the half-court, run things through LeBron in the post, just as the Heat did in the second half of their playoff run. Afflalo is spotting up, running the baseline from corner to corner and waiting for an open 3-point opportunity. Wade is weakside, lurking, waiting for a sliver of space to do his thing. Wall’s at the top of the key, ready for a kickout pass to go right into a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop with Bosh or Bron. Giving him some real pick-and-roll partners for essentially the first time would open up some huge driving lanes for him.

Defensively, this squad plays just like the Heat do too. Trapping everything, manically rotating and recovering before any slight space that opens up becomes big enough the opposition to get a shot off. LeBron’s the lynchpin here as well, able to cover anybody at any given time. Bosh proved himself to be one of the better space-defenders in the league over the past two seasons, Wade showed he’s still no slouch by shutting down James Harden in the finals, and both Afflalo and Wall excel at ball-pressure defense. With his offensive responsibilities lessened and made much easier than in his normal NBA life, Wall would be freed up to be as disruptive defensively as he was at Kentucky. Afflalo and Wade could trade off taking the opposition’s best perimeter scorer, and if it’s a bigger guy LeBron could take a turn. The only thing this team would be susceptible to is a twin-towers-esque lineup, but you know any NBA big is going to struggle to guard LeBron on the other end just as much.

Team Pacific

Chris Paul – Kobe Bryant – Jared Dudley – Pau Gasol – Dwight Howard

This is like the new Lakers lineup on steroids. Paul brings all the same things to a team as Nash – otherworldly court vision, pace, shooting, deadly pick-and-roll execution – and is a better defender. Kobe is Kobe. Dudley is the glue guy, spacing the floor on offense and taking the tougher defensive assignment on the wing away from Kobe to give his body a break. With Pau and Dwight, there are two different kinds of pick-and-roll partners Paul and Bryant have to choose from. Pau’s a pick-and-pop extraordinaire, and his deft passing touch from the high post or off the catch as a roll man will help facilitate the flow of the offense. Dwight might just be the best pick-and-roll big in the whole league, and if he’s not, he’s damn closed. He’s also a beast in the post, as are Bryant and Gasol. CP3 can pick and choose where he wants to go on any given possession. Spacing wouldn’t be much of a problem, seeing as how Dudley has turned himself into a good 3-point shooter and Pau can pull bigs away from the basket with his 15-18 foot range.

Dwight is a defense all to himself. No one in the league is better at disrupting plays from the 3-point line all the way to the rim. Pau is solid. Paul is susceptiple to spot-up shooters because of his height, but he’s an expert at playing passing lanes and picking people’s pockets. Kobe’s slipped from the All-Defensive height of his powers, but he can still hold his own. Dudley can handle guarding both shooting guards and small forwards, and can easily interchange with Kobe if one of them doesn’t have their best game on defense on any given night.

Team Southwest

Tony Parker – Tony Allen – Kawhi Leonard – Dirk Nowitzki – Tim Duncan

I came extremely close to going with a “Spurs-and-Dirk” lineup and taking Manu Ginobili over Twitter superstar Tony Allen, but the potential of an Allen-Leonard-Duncan defensive core eventually won out. Allen and Leonard would smother the wings, while Duncan patroled things from the inside. Parker and Dirk aren’t horrible defenders, but they aren’t great either, so having a troika like that would be a big boost on that end.

On offense, it’s Parker-Dirk or Parker-Duncan pick-and-rolls all night, and the defense can pick their poison… and die slowly. Tony has become a master of making the right decision on these kind of plays, and giving him a new toy to play with in Nowitzki would just be unfair to defenses. Allen’s only role on offense would be to cut into the open spaces created by the constant doubles drawn by Parker, Dirk and Timmy. Leonard showed himself to be a corner 3-point specialist with the Spurs last year, and his and Dirk’s outside touch would provide plenty of spacing. For a chance of pace, Duncan or Dirk could take guys in the post, with Parker lurking weakside waiting for a kickout and driving opportunity. Leonard and Allen would be in constant motion finding creases in the defense.

Team Northwest

Russell Westbrook – Andre Iguodala – Kevin Durant – Kevin Love – LaMarcus Aldridge

This team has a little bit of everything. It would be a nightmare to deal with Westbrook, Iggy and KD in the open court, especially with Love trailing the break for a transition 3-pointer, and Aldridge coming down for pick-and-rolls as a secondary break option. Durant and Love can hit with proficiency from outside, and Aldridge has range out to about 20 feet or so. Westbrook is a mid-range killer now, and can essentially get to the basket at will. What would defenses do to defend a Durant-Love pick-and-roll? Is it even possible? KD-LMA ain’t a bad option either. And you can also run either of those guys in screen-rolls with Westbrook. That’d be fun for the defense. And I haven’t even mentioned Iguodala’s skill at cutting, spotting up or playing a point forward role in the half-court yet.

With so much talent on the offensive end, Westbrook would be freed up to play the kind of defense he did at UCLA and again the in Olympics this summer. Crazy mad-man ball-pressure type of defense. Iggy might be the best lockdown wing defender in the NBA, Durant and Love both made major strides on defense last season, and though he doesn’t much like playing center, Aldridge is a solid defender at that position.

_______________________________

See? I told you that would be fun. Feel free to try to come up with better squads than mine in the comments, or don’t, and just yell at me about how mine suck because I didn’t pick [player from your favorite team] instead.

Player Capsules (Plus): The Flickering Candle of Stephen John Nash

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? The thieving tendrils of age, the noble escape thereof, and the elusive arts of Stephen John Nash.

My grandfather came over one day. Early 2000s. Said hello, dropped off some coupons. Shared some deals he’d seen at Walgreens. Small talk. He didn’t come upstairs — he hated climbing the staircase — and I was busy working on a high-school essay, so I simply yelled out my greetings and love from upstairs in my room. He yelled back, we exchanged our regular jokes, and he went his merry way. It was as any other day, and I assigned no added value to it. I had no way of knowing, really.

That week, he fell and broke his hip. Not one week later, he was gone.

There was a lot of confusion, when he passed. Scattered, broken feelings of guilt and depression. Should’ve come down to see him. Should’ve said hi in person. Quite a few tears. It’s true, in retrospect, I had no real way to know that the visit would be the last time I’d have a chance to see him alive — by his request, if I recall, other than my mom and my grandma, nobody visited him in the hospital. He didn’t want his grandchildren to see him enfeebled. I do remember asking my mom if I could go and see him — she said no, and that was the end of it. I figured he’d recover. Broken bones are awful things, but I’d never really had firsthand experience with the torment they exact on the elderly. I just knew that a kid in my cub scout camp had broken his wrist and come back fine not one month later. “Wrists are more complex than hips. Grandpa will be fine. We’ll be okay.”

I was wrong, so very wrong. There was a lesson there, one I will never take lightly. It’s rather simple. Many wonderful things come with age — wisdom, experience, understanding. But age doesn’t bear its gifts unconditionally. It’s tricky. Age steals, too. We lose the wonder at everyday life we exhibit in youth. We lose our thirst for the new and different, replaced with a humdrum acceptance of the rote toil of everyday life. But most importantly, we lose our vitality. Age steals it away, furrowing the remnants into photographs and record tapes. We watch in vain as the strength and vigor of youth fades into a natural fragility and exhaustion of old age. A slow attrition of our former glory. We take our greatest efforts to stop it. We try to counteract the disease with fitness and exercise, wrinkle cream and penny dreadfuls. We pour funds into the illusory concept of perpetual youth. We try to lash the sickness from our bones. But age will always take it back, someday. Virility never lasts forever.

• • •

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

• • •

When I watched Steve Nash play, late last season, I felt that something was a tad bit off. It wasn’t that the general average of Nash’s play was altogether different than it used to be, it was that the distribution of his play had completely changed. Sure, Steve Nash had bad games before the 2012 season — many, in fact. But in earlier seasons, it was a remarkably rare event that Nash would have non-factor games. In 2012, there was a subtle sea-change in the way Nash produced for his team. His PER was roughly in the range it has been for the last 10 years — low 20s, or thereabouts. His per-minute win shares were the second lowest in that time period, but not wholly out of order. Shooting percentages seemed intact, his passing was still brilliant, and he still had those games that made you wonder whether he wasn’t still Chris Paul’s better, even now. He was still Steve Nash, by most appearances.

But in the big picture, something changed. To put it simply — the variance went up. A whole lot. There’s this one metric — it’s called Game Score. It’s very simplistic, essentially just a weighted average of what the box score gives. You can find the equation here. For this exercise, where I’m measuring volatility in his box score performances, that’s pretty much what we need. Over time, a player’s game score is relatively consistent. If you adjust game score by playing time (to ensure the same base minutes), Steve Nash averaged per-36 game scores of 17.1 in 2008, 15.4 in 2009, 17.1 in 2010, 16.2 in 2011, and 14.4 in 2012. All very good totals. A small dip in 2012, even when you adjust for his lesser minutes played, but he was still a quality player. However, we’re measuring volatility — we need the standard deviation. That, in this case, measures the standard “distance” from the mean for a Steve Nash game in a given year. Basically, Steve Nash’s game score would generally stay within one to two standard deviations of the mean. If his standard deviation was 0, that would mean he had the exact same game score for every game. If it was 5, that would mean the vast majority of Nash’s production would be found within 5 to 10 units of his mean value, in both directions. So on and so forth. Here are the standard deviations that go with the aforementioned means. In 2008, Steve Nash registered a standard deviation of 6.9 on his per-36 game score. In 2009, 7.2. In 2010, 6.5. In 2011, 6.8. And 2012?

A standard deviation of 8.84.

This is a pretty big shift — that’s a 4 point boost to the confidence interval, in a metric where individual points really mean something. What this means is that Nash’s production, as he gets older, is beginning to lose consistency. A touch. He isn’t giving you the same box score with the same consistency he would as a younger man — when Nash has an off night, the night is VERY off. When he has an on night? VERY on. In the last 5 years, as measured by game score, Steve Nash’s best two games and worst two games came during the 2012 season. Not kidding. It’s sort of beautiful to consider that he’s having his best games of the last half-decade at the age of 38. But it’s also, given the context he’s about to be thrown into, a somewhat scary proposition. Consider that the Lakers are taking the backup point guard situation he worked with in Phoenix this year and actively worsening it. Sebastien Telfair had a relatively good swan song this last season, and even Shannon Brown is better than the refuse the Lakers have dug up to play point guard behind Nash. If Nash is off, the entire complexion of this Laker team changes. It becomes mortal, if only just.

Now. Let’s dial this back a bit, and note the obvious. When Nash has good games, the Lakers should be quite literally unbeatable. I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say that. Imagining a fully-functioning Nash-Howard pick and roll with Gasol and Kobe as weakside options is absolutely sublime. The wealth of top-flight talent on this team, combined with a fully-active Nash, could manifest as one of the greatest teams to ever take the court. It could be — and may be — just that simple. If Nash is healthy, his good days will more than make up for his bad days. But that’s the thing. While we can envision this to the high heavens and assert the Lakers to be the new title favorites, that isn’t how age works. Once you get into the weeds of extremely old NBA age — which, make no mistake, is exactly where Nash is headed — you start to get into unprecedented territory. The only really distinctive, all-encompassing fact is that players who stay in the league at Nash’s age tend to see an increased volatility in their contributions. One night they’ll be classic — or even better. A shining example of everything they always were. One night later they’ll have no lift, no instincts, no shot. So on, so forth. Variance inflates, and merely assessing the “average” game becomes more and more misleading.

For the 2012 Lakers to match their potential and become the unbeatable teeth-gnashing beast we’ve imagined, they require much of Steve Nash. At least considering that Artest is virtually gone, Howard’s back is balking, and the Gasol-Bryant dynamo is aging as we look the other way. They don’t simply require some certain set of averages, a dismal checklist of mean production. They require Steve Nash’s guile to remain intact. The creativity to sustain. They require Nash’s candle to flicker at just the right time. There can be no letdown game, no nagging injuries, no disappearing act behind the velour curtain. Part of the great conceit of this roster is the concept that they must be better than the sum of their parts. That Nash’s brilliance will salve the cuts and soothe the wrinkles away. That Pau Gasol, in Nash’s presence, will return to his 2010 form. That Bryant will become more efficient without having to carry such a heavy load. That Howard’s offensive game will emerge from the fire’s of Mordor even better than before, and pole-vault Bynum’s production. On Nash’s good nights, none of this will be a problem. It should be rudimentary, in fact. And on Nash’s bad nights? It could be troubling.

In a lot of ways, the frequency of those bad nights decides the fate of the Lakers’ season.

• • •

The great thing about old age in basketball is that it simply doesn’t have the same implications it does in real life. Players who were basketball-level old in the 70s are still alive today. Steve Nash’s creeping fragility doesn’t mean that Steve Nash the person is on the verge of death, it simply means that he’s losing some of the gifts and glory that make him entertain millions on national television. It’s a pity, but life will go on. For us and for him. And thank God for that. Nash is one of the funniest people in the league. He’ll find ways to keep the ball rolling after he retires from the game. And even if he doesn’t — we’ll always have Paris, Steve. I mean, videotapes. We’ll always have the highlight reels, the commercials, the streams of interviews and grainy rookie grins.

The real key now is whether he can win an NBA title, and find validation for a career that in large part doesn’t need it. At least in my view. Nash brought to the hardwood a tincture of joy to every stride. A grin to every face that ever rooted for him, a better appreciation for the beauty of a wonderful game. Nash made those around him better, and I don’t simply mean the players. His fans were made better for his presence in their lives. His coaches, his handlers, the league as a whole — Nash’s legacy is best measured outside of the stats, in the grins and smiles that spread across faces across the entire nation. The love he gave and the love he took. The unfettered abandon. The speed, the hours in the gym, the incredible holistic work-ethic he applied to all aspects of his game and life. These are the metrics that you must measure to really understand Steve Nash’s mortal legacy as an NBA superstar. But all that said, he’s in Los Angeles now, and he wants to win a title. He’s accomplished everything he could in his youth, become a global phenomenon more than a man.

From a purely basketball perspective, as age saps his abilities and takes away the outlets for his creativity, he’s become evermore mortal — he’s reflecting the fragility of age, the realization that he simply doesn’t have much of a chance left. He can’t spend years frittering away with the Suns anymore — if he does, he’ll be gone before he knows it. He can’t go retire in his home country, adored by the populace, playing for a low-tier Eastern playoff unit. He can’t sip scotch at a villa on a hill with his best friend Dirk, an expanse of promise before them. Those days are gone, replaced with a new age, replete with dreams of a dominance he’s never tasted. A bubbly he’s never supped. A roster that’s on-paper better than any he’s ever played on. Pieces new and foreign, ripe for molding, that in his youth he could have molded into a whirling dervish monster unlike any ever seen by man. He’s older now, and his capabilities lesser. He can’t do that every night. But he can do it some nights, and he can work as hard as he’s ever worked before, and he can try to stave off the clutching tendrils of age a tad bit longer. He can hold it off, if only the Lakers help him. And he shall as captain set the sounding furrows and sail anew, a voyage wrought with peril, in search of one last thrill before age concludes its fateful, dreadful hunt.

One day, age will catch up to him, and complete its petty thievery. But surely, it hasn’t happened yet.

• • •

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

For more Laker capsules, check the Los Angeles Lakers page in the Player Capsule Directory.

Portland vs. Minnesota: Grudge Match!

Photo by lbsterling of Flickr.

The Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves crossed paths several times this summer. Between the two Northwest Division rivals’ long, drawn-out, all-too-public tug-of-war with the heart of Nicolas Batum and the Wolves’ signing of the most popular Blazer of the past 10 years, Brandon Roy, this is shaping up to be one of the more intriguing rivalries in the Western Conference for the next few years. Steve McPherson and I, of course, decided this was a good excuse to email each other a bunch of times about our two hometown teams.

Steve: I’m going to start with a story: Back when Portlandia debuted on IFC, my wife and I watched it to great hilarity. Having visited Portland the year before, we were, of course, blown away by how well it nailed the culture there, from “The Dream of the ’90s” to “Did You Read?” But while we were watching—and also while we were in Portland—we were also struck by how much Portland lined up with our experiences of the Twin Cities. There were the same kinds of hipster bars, independent bands, bike culture, and ironic sports leagues. And personally, I’ve always counted the Trail Blazers among the top tier of non-Timberwolves teams I pull for in the league. I mean, I had a Blazers snapback hat when I was in high school (the one with “PORTLAND” in sans serif and “Trail Blazers” in that brush script).

So how come you hate us so much? Is it just because we stole your title as the nation’s best biking city for one year? You sure seemed hyped up to get that title back.

Sean: So funny story about that: I don’t actually hate the Wolves or Minnesota at all. In fact, I plan on moving out of the northwest in the next year or so, and Minneapolis is very high on my list of possible destinations. Everything I’ve heard about the culture and the makeup of the city tells me that it’s the kind of place a Portland kid could adapt to very easily. And I’m a huge fan of the current incarnation of the Timberwolves. Ricky Rubio (once he’s healthy) and Kevin Love are one of the most exciting point guard/big man tandems in the league, I love the Andrei Kirilenko signing, and I’m still pretty high on Derrick Williams despite a relatively disappointing rookie year.

The only bad blood between these two teams is between Paul Allen and David Kahn, a pick-your-poison battle of eccentrics to side with if there ever was one. The hilarious part of their beef is that it’s over, of all things, Martell Webster.

Steve: Martell Webster?! He of the dreadhawk and the clutch dunk when the Wolves needed a 3-pointer? It’s hard to believe anyone beefing over him. I mean, I know the Wolves got him for Ryan Gomes and that guy who won you all a bunch of chalupas. And Paul Allen’s pissed about that? This has to do with the Blazers’ medical staff, doesn’t it?

But also, explain to me this: Paul Allen owns the team, while David Kahn is the general manager of the Wolves. Something doesn’t seem to line up there. Is this like when it gets heated at a bar between some dude and some other dude’s girlfriend and then it’s up to the first dude’s girlfriend and the other dude to squash that beef? And then are Neil Olshey and Glen Taylor the girlfriend and the other dude? I know this: Kahn used to be part of the media in Portland when he wrote for The Oregonian in the ’80s. Maybe this goes back further than Webster. I bet Paul Allen likes the Voodoo Doughnut across from Sandy Hut and Kahn always liked the one on Burnside. Also, it’s just hilarious that a man as rich as Paul Allen seems to be ragingly, apoplectically pissed at someone like Kahn.

Photo by Marshall Alsup of Flickr.

Sean: For the record, I’m definitely #TeamSandyBlvdVoodoo. All day. No question.

I don’t know the extent of their beef, but from everything I’ve heard from various people, Olshey was open to negotiating a sign-and-trade but Paul shot it down and said there was no way he was letting Minnesota get Batum. It might also have something to do with the Wolves signing Brandon Roy, and thus potentially making the Blazers look dumb for giving up on him if he has a science-defying season. Speaking of which, what are your expectations for Roy as a Wolves fan? How much do you think they’ll get out of him?

Steve: Well, no matter what happens with Roy this season, I will fully admit the Blazers got screwed by him coming back. If this story from Ric Bucher is correct, then Roy’s return to playing means insurance will no longer cover his salary, leaving the Blazers on the hook for something like $17 million over the next two years for a player on a division rival. And, jeez, didn’t the same thing happen with Darius Miles a couple years back? This is really on some Breaking BadMike-letting-Lydia-live-and-her-coming-back-and-screwing-him-over business.

But enough about vengeance. What can the Wolves expect from Roy? It’s tough, because this is a place where stats and predictive measures largely fail us, I think. Neither Roy’s dizzying heights or dismal lows as a player seem like reliable harbingers of what this season will hold and so all we’re left with is our sense of how these kind of narratives play out. We can either envision a Roy Hobbsian return to glory or a Jason Street-esque pipe dream that falls completely apart. While we can understand that the reality will likely fall somewhere in the middle, it’s hard for us to feel that storyline, largely because stories ill-prepare us for the rocky, uneven quality that life usually ends up having.

And this is where I have to show my hand because I so badly want Brandon Roy Hobbes. Although I’d been a fan of the Wolves since 2000 or so, my serious involvement with them began when I moved to the Twin Cities in 2004. And as much as picking Flynn over Curry or Jennings or trading the pick of Lawson away to Denver hurt, missing out on Roy when the Wolves traded him for Randy Foye was that first Draft Night wound for me. For years, I would always run a Wolves franchise in NBA2K where I traded him back to the Wolves. I loved his game, loved how smart it was, how it wasn’t predicated on being fast but rather on change of pace, built not on hops but on floaters or other deft little moves. As someone who grew up loving the flash of basketball—the dunks, the crossovers—liking Roy’s game made me feel a little like I’d grown up a bit. Watching his rise and fall with the Blazers, I felt maybe a little like Mac’s biological mother in that episode of Veronica Mars where Mac finds out she was switched at birth, seeing what could have been from afar and knowing you can never genuinely experience it the way it should have been. And clearly, I filled the gaping hole in my heart by watching a lot of serial TV dramas.

So for me, this is that chance to reclaim what could have been. I get a little giddy every time I see Roy in his Wolves uni, or wearing a “Minnesota Basketball” warmup shirt. And yet, like any good Wolves fan, I expect and fear crushing disappointment. I have thus had to basically abstain from letting myself make a prediction about what will happen with him, instead focusing on Alexey Shved as the shooting guard of the future and trying to figure out what he’s all about.

But enough about the Wolves. Let’s talk about how the hits just keep on coming for the Blazers in the industry department. Since your last email, the Blazers announced that Elliot Williams tore his Achilles in a workout. I guess we’ll be seeing a lot more of Will Barton, who—amazingly—was a big favorite of plenty of Timberwolves fans before the draft. Oh and get this: Barton was picked 40th, a pick the Blazers got from the Rockets who got it from … the Timberwolves as part of the deal that brought Brad Miller to the Wolves. This is starting to get bananas.

Sean: Because it’s Portland, the Elliot Williams injury has been met with a hail of “… and the Rip City injury curse rolls on” reactions. I hate this stuff because it unnecessarily brings up the Oden-Durant thing for the millionth time, which leads to Roy, which leads to Darius Miles, which leads to Sam Bowie, which leads to the way the Bill Walton era ended, which leads to me wishing a relatively insignificant backup shooting guard getting injured could be treated as just that, like it would on any other team. Really, this just sucks for Elliot, who missed his entire rookie season in 2010-11 after surgery on both knees, and somehow lost none of his dazzling athleticism following the procedure, showing legitimate promise in his limited minutes last year, only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury just as the team was blown up, opening significant minutes up for the young guns, and THEN tearing his Achilles in a voluntary pre-training camp workout session this week. It doesn’t really get more unlucky, unless you’re Greg Oden. And I’m not ready to talk about that yet.

As for Will Barton, he’s as skinny as I am, which is a liability for someone trying to play professional basketball. I can see, though, why Wolves fans may have been high on him pre-draft. When I watched him in Summer League, he was one of the players who seemed to get better every game, going from one of those guys that made you say “Man, that Will Barton is relentless…if only he’d learn to play basketball” at the beginning of the week to a confident, do-it-all wing who could score, pass, rebound, and play defense by the end of it. He’d fit well in Minnesota. He strikes me as the kind of guy without one elite skill but capable of doing many things well when needed. Of course, this is Summer League, which means less than nothing in the grand scheme of things. But the Williams injury means we’ll get to see a lot of him this season, whether he’s ready or not.

Let’s talk about the Wolves’ biggest injury hurdle a little. Rubio was one of my (and everyone else’s) favorite players to watch last season. A couple of poor seasons in Spain led to a calming of the insane draft-day hype, which made it all the more thrilling when he arrived in the NBA fully formed, not just the elite passer we were promised but a better-than-expected scorer and defender as well. And then, of course, he blew out his ACL, because our teams aren’t allowed to have nice things. I keep reading that he’s ahead of schedule in his rehab, as if anyone other than Oden has ever been publicly announced as behind schedule. How much are you realistically expecting from him?

Steve: Well, as Zach Harper has often noted, there is no schedule for rehabbing until one actually begins doing things like running and putting stress on it with game drills and such. There could, of course, be no greater Christmas gift than the return of the Spanish Unicorn and the sweet scent of puppy breath and cinnamon to the Target Center to face the Thunder on December 20—a game that will be on TNT, no less. It would be too perfect. And thus, it won’t happen, of course.

All that said, when he does come back, I think I have a bevy of reasons, both scientific and emotional that point to him being very good upon his return. Kevin Pelton from Basketball Prospectus looked into how players return from ACL tears and found that age plays a big role. This means that Rubio (who’s 21) is expected to decline in production only by about 2% in the season after his tear. Science!

My less scientific reasoning has to do with the way Rubio plays the game. He is not as dependent on sheer speed or change of direction as Derrick Rose is. His game is predicated largely on two things, both offensively and defensively: vision and length. The way he sees the court is what makes him great both as a passer/playmaker and as a defender and his length is what allows him to make some of those passes and harass other players both on-ball and in the passing lanes. Now, most likely his speed will take a hit and that could be problematic in terms of keeping up with people on defense and limit him some in fast breaks. But looking at his whole career, what he really needs to do is develop shooting consistency, not worry about losing athleticism. If he can become a shooting threat, I can see his career being a long one like Nash’s. Nash depends on many of the same skills, including change of pace, but has that great shot.

So in essence, I’m expecting him to be fine once he’s back. The team is a better team and good players will make him look better. But here’s where it gets emotional, because I have to believe he’s going to come back strong if I want the Wolves to have any hope of getting into the playoffs which is about the only way I can see them even beginning to make the case to Kevin Love that he needs to stay in Minnesota. Which is interesting with regards to the Blazers since you had your sweet-shooting big man come out and say, “You don’t reach your prime until you’re about 28 or 29. I’m 26 so I got a few more years until then. If we bring in the right guys, we’ll be very good down the road.” Whereas we have a 24 year old with one foot out the door already. Do you think Aldridge is really that patient? Is he just saying the right things? I feel like he’s handling it better than Love is right now, but is he also maybe hurting himself by being so understanding?

Sean: It’s difficult to get a read on where LaMarcus’ head is at. I may be looking at things through rose-colored lenses, but even if he does secretly want out, I don’t get the impression that he’s wired to hold his team hostage like Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony did. But at the same time, the essence of that quote isn’t all that different from what Kevin Love has said recently—it’s just framed differently. Love spent a few weeks in Team USA camp as the only guy on his team who had never been to the playoffs (some guys had even won championships and made multiple deep runs to the conference finals, etc.) and said, essentially, that he wants to stay in Minnesota, but only if they can become a contender. Aldridge likewise put the pressure on the Blazers with his comments, more or less giving them a deadline of his truly reaching his prime to turn things around before he thinks about wanting out. If Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard pan out, Nic Batum keeps improving, and Portland becomes a playoff team again, he’s good. Otherwise, I don’t think he’ll want to sign up to waste the rest of his prime on a bunch of middle-of-the-lottery teams, and I can’t exactly blame him for that.

Fortunately, I think Lillard and Leonard have the kind of skillsets that will mesh well with Aldridge. Lillard is a quick, athletic scoring point guard who runs the pick-and-roll well and can hit shots from pretty much anywhere, which will take some pressure off Aldridge when he draws a double-team. And Leonard, while a little more of a work in progress, is a true seven-footer with the mobility of a guard, which will be a nice change of pace for LMA to share a frontcourt with after years of either being forced to slide over to center or play with aging Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. So I’m optimistic about the future of this core, even though I’m not expecting them to do much this year. Still, and I’ve written about this recently, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be in the Blazers’ better interests to trade Aldridge sooner than later and avoid a potential CP3/Dwight situation. His trade value will probably never be higher than it is now, coming off his first All-Star appearance and with three years left on his contract.

Do you have the same thoughts about Love, or are you optimistic that they can build a winner around him and Rubio quickly enough to convince him to stick around? Also, explain the thinking behind only giving him a four-year extension with a three-year out when he was willing to commit to five. I’ve never understood that.

Steve: No one has ever understood that move. Oh sure: there have been plenty of ideas floated about keeping that five-year contract for Rubio or whatever, but basically, the logic behind it falls in line with decisions like trying to avoid getting drunk by doing all your drinking at home before you go out or dropping out of school because your grades aren’t good enough. Or, say, tweeting as if you’re re-tweeting yourself. I’m not much for the whole “disrespected” storyline that a lot of players and teams try to use to motivate themselves, but if anybody has the right to that, it’s Kevin Love, and this is part of that. In spite of everything he does, things like this 3-year contract with a player option for the fourth seem to speak to a sense, even within the organization itself, that how good he is is an illusion, which is flat-out ridiculous. Instead, they’re gambling on Rubio becoming something even better than Love, which—while not impossible—is hardly less illusory than Love’s very real abilities right now. If the Wolves keep doing him like this, I wouldn’t blame him for leaving to go somewhere that understands how truly good he is.

But as far as whether they can build around Rubio/Love, a lot will depend on this season. And I mean A LOT. While I like the improvements the team has made in the offseason (in summary, the average WS/48 of all the players they’ve added is DOUBLE the average WS/48 of the players who have left), I still feel like this iteration of the team is a transitional one. Players like Kirilenko and Roy are not long-term solutions. Even if Roy gives this team a lot, I can’t see him holding up for another three seasons and Kirilenko is already 31. I see them more as demonstrating what this team could be if they get younger players who can do some of the same stuff. Last season they had solid work from three spots in the lineup and atrocious work from two. If they can make the playoffs this year with even neutral work from SG and SF, I think they hope that’s enough enticement to sell a free agent like Harden or someone else on coming to Minnesota.

You said you’re not expecting the Blazers to do much this year. So what are you expecting from them this season?

Sean: I have to qualify that statement: When I said I wasn’t expecting much from the Blazers this season, they had yet to sign Adam Morrison. I had an answer to your question all worked up about how I expect them to win somewhere between 25 and 30 games and make a return trip to the lottery, but all of that is irrelevant now. With the addition of “The Stache,” I’m expecting nothing less than home-court advantage in the playoffs, based on his veteran championship-level experience. One thing you can’t deny is that he knows how to win. Count the rings.

Pacers Poised To Steal The Central Behind Kevin Pritchard

Before Larry Legend walked away on top for the third time in his NBA career — Bird being the only man to have won MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year — feeling the franchise was on the right track, he made a couple of solid moves, the first being to remove the interim tag from Frank Vogel’s name tag after Vogel vaulted the Indiana Pacers up in the Eastern Conference standings last season.

Bird then turned the roster reigns over to a man frankly long overdue to once again try and guide a franchise to the next level, Kevin Pritchard, promoting him to GM. Pritchard was the first victim in a recent long general management unemployment line drawn in Portland under the bizarre direction of the eccentric Paul Allen, even after guiding them back to the playoffs from a five-year absence.

Sure, Pritchard laid a couple of eggs like Greg Oden, and landed an eventual lemon in Brandon Roy, but they were well calculated risks going in that few teams would have passed on given circumstances, and even really good GMs drop a few pebbles from time to time. All in all, at a glance, Pritchard has a better overall record than the Chicago Bulls’ Gar Forman, who seems to have a penchant for a little luck and a propensity to fill holes with puzzling  lower-end free agents.

Our buddy Jared Wade took a good look inside some of the early maneuverings from Pritchard, who wasted no time jumping right into his role with the confidence of a man who knows what he wants, what he needs. Ironically, Pritchard had to pony up to one of his old tricks from his former franchise to hang onto Roy Hibbert.

On Portland giving Hibbert a max offer right out the gate: “If you look at the history of the league, usually in the first week of free agency, big guys get the biggest offers and the quickest offers. So we were pretty prepared.”

Pritchard knew he needed more size-wise than the barely serviceable, if admirable, Lou Amundson and Tyler Hansbrough.

On rationale behind acquiring Ian Mahinmi: “When you go against the top teams — specifically in the East — you better have rim defenders. And we needed another rim defender. We felt like when Roy went out of the game, we didn’t have as much size. So we really needed some size.”

-Eight Points, Nine Seconds, Kevin Pritchard Discusses the Pacers’ Offseason

He followed that up by inviting the former Utah Ute, Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, Luke Nevill, to training camp. Even if the Aussie press is unimpressed with the move, damning Nevill to “effectively be the third-fiddle centre,” that means the Pacers have three 7-footers in training camp this fall, four if you count the 6′ 11.75″-in shoes Miles Plumlee, who has a 7’1″ wingspan.

Pritchard has proven his savvy by drawing the ire of Utah Jazz fans repeatedly. While at Portland Pritchard treated the Jazz like his own personal farm system, first front-loading a contract for Paul Millsap the Jazz felt they had to match, limiting Utah’s upcoming options in free agency, then stealing gem in the rough Wesley Matthews the following year, a move many fans still feel was a low note in Jazz history.

Heads up, Gar. If Kevin can’t beat you on the court, he’ll try like hell to beat you off it every off-season.

Wade continues:

On the logic behind trading Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones for Mahinmi prior to signing DJ Augustin and Gerald Green:  ”We had to do that to meet certain restrictions in using our cap space. We did it a little bit differently in that we had a pretty good feeling we were going to get a good point guard in DJ Augustin … We had been in contact with his agent. He was [a restricted free agent] but, just the way it shook out, we had a good feeling that we were going to be able to bring him in. So it looked backwards the way it was reported when in actuality it wasn’t like that.”

My take on that last part: It seems as though this was all one big mega-deal in the mind of the Pacers front office.

While on paper this may feel like something of a lateral move at point guard, Collison has been a bad fit for the Pacers, his numbers steadily declining, with Collison dishing a career low assists last season, at 4.8, and a mere 24.9 AST%, very low for a point. On the other hand, Augustin was poised for a breakout season before nagging, minor injuries were blamed for a prolonged shooting slump. Nevertheless, Augustin managed to continue distributing at a career rate with new highs in assists, 6.4, and AST%, 38.9, a prospect likely to suit both his role and the Pacers’ plan more smoothly, and overall, Augustin in four years has shot .374 from 3 to Collison’s .363 in three years.

Oddly enough, I feel like David West should benefit more from Augustin than he did with Collison, despite former team ties on the New Orleans Hornets. “Hey, look! We don’t need Chris Paul after all!” was fun in 2010 and all, but the snickers were quickly turning to groans in Indiana.

The Pacers’ roster just feels right now. Balanced.

Pritchard on that: “There are all kinds of studies out there in the last four or five years that say one of the most important things is keeping your core together — allowing them to grow, allowing them to learn each other. And we feel like we accomplished that.”

West will again play offensive anchor while Hibbert, George, and Augustin find their NBA footing on the next level, while behind the scenes Pritchard will continue to quietly upgrade and plug holes, fill needs. He was a perfect fit for this franchise. Many others will be sorry they passed on him for so long.

Few may be talking about the Pacers as contenders for the East, perplexing to me on some level after last year — they didn’t get worse — but if you sleep on Kevin Pritchard he’ll sneak right up and steal your thunder.

Player Capsules (Plus): Defining a Hero with Andre Miller

Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here from Gothic Ginobili. At GG, I’m currently doing a 370 part series profiling almost every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, I’ll be posting massively extended capsules once every few weeks — essentially, when a capsule goes extremely long, I’ll post the extended version of the capsule on Hardwood Paroxysm. Sometimes they’ll go long with statistics, sometimes they’ll go long with legacy, and sometimes they’ll go long with philosophy. Today? Andre Miller, John Marston, and what makes a man a hero.

The other day, I finished Red Dead Redemption. Amazing, amazing game. Such a complex world for the player to tinker with, and so many little mechanics that made the playing experience brilliant. Above all, though, it had a story I could really respect and heroes I could relate to. Which is in and of itself a pretty amazing accomplishment, actually. Consider that the game is set in the early 1900s — I’ve known exactly two people in my life who were alive during that time, and they were children then! Between then and now, there have been many broad-scale shifts in the way the world works and operates, and the general way that human beings view the world. General morality is a bit different. Quasi-solipsist views of life have taken a legitimate foothold in our society. So many things in the game are different and foreign, even if the setting is similar in-scenery-only to the place I grew up in.

Despite all these differences, the time barrier, and the fact that the game actually comes across as a brilliant representation of its period? I still felt I could distinctly relate to most of the characters in the game. One of the things I love so much about classical Russian literature is the tendency of Russian authors to distill their characters down to the things that make them human. They feature their humanity (or lack thereof) in a timeless character-centric manner that makes their characters outlast the situations of the stories and the epoch of the work. Prince Andrei would hardly be my favorite character ever if I couldn’t relate to him. Raskolnikov would hardly be interesting if we could simply blow him off as a product of his time. Would we care about the sufferings of Ivan Denisovich if we didn’t relate? And so on and so forth. The game really succeeds on this front, and it allowed me to relate with people who (all things considered) should be virtually impossible to relate to. It distilled them down to their human core. You can’t do that all the time, really. Or even very often.

When it comes to the NBA, though? You can with Andre Miller.

• • •

When I consider the world Andre Miller came from compared to the one I grew up in, I wonder how I feel such camaraderie with the man. After all. He was born in Compton — I was born in Los Angeles too, but more around the Mission Hills area, and in significantly less daily danger. The biggest tragedy I experienced in my youth was my grandfather’s death early in my high school years — his brother died when he was 12, completely changing the family dynamic in the Miller household. Via one of the best pieces Blazersedge ever published, Andre Miller recalls that as having been one of the huge things in his life that shaped everything. Trying to get past the loss of his brother meant that he couldn’t really stay a kid for long. His mother became super-protective of Miller, and the protectiveness maintained through Miller’s college years. While she supported his basketball exploits, basketball always came second to academics, chores, and family in the Miller household. This led to several amusing anecdotes about Miller being constantly late to practice after chores ran long or skipping practice entirely. Not to drink or run rampant on the streets, but to study for a test the next day. Insane academic focus for a would-be NBA player, seriously. But Miller’s singular focus on his studies is actually reflective of a sad truth in the basketball community.

As a kid,  I used to wonder how in the world anyone failed tests like the ACT or the SAT. I always thought I was really bad at them (and relative to the kids in Honors classes with me, even in public schools, I absolutely was), but I got decent scores and the question was less “will you pass” and more “how close to a perfect score can you get”.  But as I get older I start to gain a greater appreciation for how much of a ridiculous privilege it is to not have to concern oneself about that — I grew up in a solid public school system that had great graduation rates and that developed an excellent SAT-friendly curriculum from an absurdly young age. They taught you how to think like a test-taker, in some ways, from grade two onwards. But not everyone has that! Despite getting on the honor roll and working incredibly hard, Miller failed the ACT. Given how intelligently he plays, and how well he had done on the backs of hard work at his schools growing up, I’d consider the failure less a problem on his end and more a problem of development. It’s not his fault, really! He had excellent grades, and worked incredibly hard to get those grades by all accounts. If you get good grades you should be able to pass a standardized test, theoretically. If you can’t that’s less a failure on your end and more a failure in how the school is teaching you and how their curriculum prepares you. Which is really, really sad. So many basketball players come from these depressingly scant backgrounds, with poor preparation for both the real world and any further academic work. If a player works hard enough to excel in their school and still can’t pass a standardized test, I’ve never quite understood how we can vilify the player. That’s on the system, and the broader disparity in the quality of schooling between even comparably well-endowed school systems. In a lot of ways, it’s luck of the draw.

Still. The Andre Miller story doesn’t really end there — due to Proposition 48, due to his failure on the standardized test, he wouldn’t be able to suit up for a college team until he’d accumulated one year in good academic standing. Predictably, this dried up almost every scholarship offer Miller had received. He went from having his pick of schools to having doubts he’d get a solid scholarship from anyone at all. Which, by the way, puts something of a damper on the idiotic criticisms people throw at Derrick Rose for cheating on the SAT. What was his realistic alternative? He couldn’t possibly pay for college, his family needed the NBA money, and if he failed the SAT again he would’ve been in Miller’s position. No scholarships, no ability to go to college, no hope. Of course he cheated on it. Check your privilege — in that situation (one that’s hard to imagine for most people reading this, but consider it deeply), you would too. Anyway. Luckily for Miller, a single college chose to not rescind their scholarship — the University of Utah, wholly used to losing players for a year or two at a time on missions. So Miller packed his bags, going straight out of Compton and into the Mormon-built catacombs of the flagship Utah university. Which there aren’t nearly enough stories about — Miller said once that he went to school with “the first white people I ever went to school with” in Utah, and as neither him nor his mom were Mormon, there HAS to be a bunch of funny stories about his time at Utah. Few are published, unfortunately. But they have to exist, right?

Anyway. Miller excelled at Utah, both academically (interviews with teammates indicate that Miller leveraged every single tutoring option available at the university, and sometimes did assignments twice if he felt he didn’t fully understand them) and in a basketball sense (working his way into shape and eventually becoming an obvious NBA lottery pick). He was drafted right after graduating — he worked hard enough that he was able to graduate on-time (with a legitimate degree in criminology and sociology) without jeopardizing his basketball career or his academic standing. Seriously great accomplishment for someone who’d failed the ACT not five years earlier. His NBA career has been one of constant rotation of teams, friends, and coaches — he hasn’t once in his career stayed with the same team for more than 3 seasons straight and he’s been a key contributor despite the turmoil. He virtually never gets injured (or, when he does, he plays through the injuries). He comes in, puts his head down, and does his job quietly and with a silent strength that in a less-storied form reminds me a lot of Tim Duncan (my favorite player). And although he’s somehow evaded a national, global recognition of his talents and abilities (and in my view is the OBVIOUS choice as the greatest player to never make an all-star game), he has a handful of loyal fans from every team he blessed with his work.

For obvious reasons, I find Miller’s story compelling. But that’s only half the picture. When it comes to the people I think of as my basketball heroes, there has to be something in their game that really draws me in. Some aspect that makes me think “wow, that’s impressive.” For Miller, that particular thing is simply the way he runs the offense, and the older-era feelings he endows in it. It’s weird — Miller’s designed offenses aren’t exactly the best offenses on the face of the earth, nor are they viscerally stunning like a Nash offense or a Paul offense. But there’s this classical flavor to it, one that I can’t help but love. Part of it is Miller’s personal offense, as the man can’t can a jump shot to save his life. He shoots a flat-footed 70s-era jumpshot that feels like it was born of a world without form trainers or the three point shot. But part of it is the way he passes — it’s not that he’s necessarily 5-6 steps ahead of everyone else, but he simply fakes out guys with enough gusto and manages everyone’s expectations down to the point that his passes and circulation surprise even the seasoned vets. It reminds me, in a way, of Manu Ginobili’s beautiful game. So much of Andre’s value is rooted in his ability to fake out and misdirect his man, and in a broader sense, the entire opposing offense.

So much of his efficacy comes from the plays where Miller’s machinations serve to con the defense into a story about the upcoming play that simply wasn’t going to happen. About overrotating and leaving a man with all the time in the world under the rim, or faking everyone out and taking his own flat footed shot when everyone could’ve sworn he was going to pass out for three. Some players make their bread on simply living up to the talent they were born with. Andre is talented, yes — don’t get me wrong. But for a player who looks like he’s barely an NBA guy, and a player who tends to show up to camp a tad bit out of shape, and a player who’s had an old man’s game from the day he entered the league? He’s not simply coasting on talent, or if he is, he’s the hardest-working talent coaster in the world. Andre is constantly dealing with incredibly low expectations, whether in the form of opposing players who see him on the calendar and salivate at how old and out of shape he looks or defenses who couldn’t imagine he’d have the balls to take the final shot himself. And he doesn’t complain about it — he simply manages to it and games them to his advantage. I find that significantly more interesting than yet another talented player making good on his talent, and it’s part of why I love watching Andre Miller’s game so much.

• • •

The main character of Red Dead Redemption — John Marston — is a man that most people in the modern era couldn’t directly relate to. Sure, the broader theme of redemption for one’s sins is relatively universal. But the sins themselves (murder and robbery of all sorts) are so far beyond anything in my frame of reference, and the general way Marston handles himself is so different from anything I’ve experienced before that I don’t think it’s naturally easy to relate to him. At least, in theory. Because in practice, the way the game was built makes it the easiest thing in the world. They unveil his story gradually, never giving you more than you absolutely need to know. They leave him something of an impressionable mystery, allowing you to see for yourself what makes him a good man and what makes him a bad man. They never quite prescribe “hey, feel this way” or push you into a certain opinion. They open the doors and let you decide how you personally relate to him.

Ironically, Andre Miller doesn’t really do that. At least personally. Every article I’ve read about him seems to be written with the unstated maxim that Miller doesn’t (and won’t) open up about himself. He seems to feel that every word that needs to be written has been spilled about his game. That he’s said his piece, people didn’t really listen, and he’s good with what he’s got. Every once in a while you’ll get an amazing piece that drives home why everyone should listen to Andre’s wisdom more — case in point, this excellent piece by the Oregonian’s Jason Quick. Miller is hilariously down to earth. He doesn’t even own a summer home, in fact — this is an NBA player who’s made millions and millions of dollars. What does he do during the offseason? He goes home and stays with his mom in Compton. You can’t make up a story that awesome. He’s made his peace with his background, his past, his roughscrabble roots.

Outstanding heroes transcend how you SHOULD feel and recontextualize how you DO feel. I have virtually no common ground with either John Marston, Andre Miller, or most of my favorite literary figures. But it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes a story is so compelling, a figure so refreshingly real, it becomes impossible not to appreciate and feel for them if you learn enough about them. Life’s tricky that way. For me, Andre Miller does that. And unfortunately, he’s almost gone. My recommendation to you? Take the time to watch some Andre Miller games this season. If Andre Miller has a big highlight performance, make it a point to catch a replay. Watch as he — even falling off, even in old age — redesigns the Denver offense and keeps fooling every team stupid enough to underestimate him. Watch the greatest player to never make an all-star game spin his craft and trick the competition with the finesse of a master magician. Appreciate what he brought the game, appreciate what he brings the world, and enjoy one of the greatest hidden treasures the league can offer.

Skipping To The End

Photo via markdodds on Flickr

I haven’t written about Steve Nash often in the last few years, but in the few times I have, it’s disturbing how often the pieces read like eulogies. Fair or not, in discussing Nash’s legacy amid the decay of the once-peerless Phoenix Suns offense, and in writing about Consigliere, Nash’s venture in marketing consultancy, I’ve effectively been laying out pillows and cardboard for the inevitable fall.  I’ve subconsciously been anticipating the death of his NBA playing career mainly because I couldn’t imagine how distraught I’d be if I allowed that kind of reality to catch me by surprise.

Though Nash’s retirement may not be an immediate concern, in this stint with the Los Angeles Lakers, we are almost assuredly witnessing the death of the Steve Nash we’ve known for the past decade. And no matter how many times I attempt to coax myself with “He deserves to play on a contender” and “Playing with the Lakers could extend his NBA longevity”, there aren’t enough pillows to cushion this blow.

I found out about the trade sitting next to the pool at my brother’s July 4 party evacuating the imprisoned flesh of sea snails from their shells with a safety pin. The act is laborious; the toothsome morsels are so small the mind barely recognizes them as food, and because of their size, there is so little room for error digging the meat out, keeping it skewered onto the pin while dipping it into a sauce before finally bringing it toward your mouth. It’s not too stressful of a process until you realize you’ll have to do it at least another 30 times to whet your appetite. It’s tasty (if you’re into that kind of eating), but by the end of it, you’re only half enjoying it. The other half is wondering if there’s a market for sea snail eating as a sport.

My brother’s house had become a site of life-changing news seemingly delivered as to not make a sound. Exactly one year before, my brother proposed to his longtime girlfriend under a sky of fireworks. Had he waited a few minutes, maybe we all would’ve known. Instead, he chose to do it at the climax of the fireworks display (his backyard has a clear and unobstructed view of the city’s annual show). Both sets of parents were present, but her side of the family had no idea what had gone on. He had to walk over and inform them a few minutes after. Not that it mattered much. It was a formality – a semicolon preparing for what has seemed like a half-century in the making. This weekend’s ceremony will deliver the long-awaited period. Then a new sentence, a new paragraph, a new chapter.

I wonder now just as I wondered in July and two Julys ago: What will change?

Steve Nash was traded to the freaking Lakers and I had no connection to the internet, no exposure to the outrage that was surely overflowing Twitter and other outlets at the time. My source was one of my brother’s friends, whom I overheard while flipping the carne asada.  There was joyous tableside discussion from the Lakers fans at the table (all of them) claiming this was just the beginning – obviously referring to Dwight Howard’s imminent arrival. How right they would be. I wanted to chime in and offer my thoughts on what just happened. I suppose I did. I rattled off all the words you’d expect to hear in Steve Nash discussions: “pick and roll”, “shooting”, “infinitely better than Ramon Sessions, even if Nash came into training camp with half of his body paralyzed”.

But it didn’t fully register at the time. Hell, it won’t fully register until he plays the first exhibition game in those downright alien yellow jerseys. My favorite player of all time is playing for the team and the fans I’ve spent my entire life defending myself against.

I’m happy for Steve. I’m worried.

For the second consecutive year, Erik Spoelstra wants the Miami Heat to play faster. It all stemmed from Spoelstra piecing together some tactics from the Oregon Ducks’ college football playbook into his own. And if it played any role in last year’s championship, then it’d be wise to amp it up (Though, if one were to compare the two teams’ most magnetic stars, who would win in an efficiency contest: LeBron James or De’Anthony Thomas?).  With the additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis mirroring the Suns’ acquisitions of Raja Bell and Tim Thomas – two players integral to the Suns’ 2005-06 Western Conference Finals berth  – the Heat can take Run ‘N Fun to the heights it was supposed to reach in Nash’s time. Of course, the difference is Miami having the sense to know when to slow all the way down, and having a truly elite defense to do so.

Perhaps playing with the Flying Death Machine would’ve been an apt way to go out. There was surely no shortage of rumors suggesting such. It would’ve been a gesture to sign the prophet, the uptempo revivalist of the new millennium, but an unnecessary one. For Spoelstra, blitzkrieg is just something in the toolbox. For Nash, it was a way of life he fought to maintain. The Heat may be committed to the run, but it’s a strategy, not a backbone. Nash’s ability and conviction made the uptempo attack a lifegiving entity.

Los Angeles is a far more unlikely situation for Nash, given the prior history and the systems in place. But part of the allure in ring chasing for past superstars is the challenge of adaptation — to learn new tricks as an old dog, or at least perform the old ones in a slightly different order. Any team with Nash figures to feature the pick and roll prominently, especially with one of the best finishers in the league. In that sense, some things regarding Nash won’t change. But percentages, at least in terms of possession splits, will.

The drastic change will come in Nash not getting the ball back if nothing is in place. With four dominant offensive options, the control that has come to define Nash’s game will diminish. He may initiate the offense, but if opportunity collapses and the offense resets, he most likely won’t be the one pressing the button. Mike Brown calls Nash the quarterback leading a new system, and it’s true. Yet, even that sounds like a demotion when he’s been his own system for the past seven years.

It’s difficult to expect anything less than improvement with Nash on the Lakers. Barring injury, the worst case scenario would be similar to Gary Payton’s one-year stint with the Lakers in 2003-04, a suitable precedent to Nash’s situation. Still, all things considered, Payton had a pretty decent year considering his strengths weren’t completely aligned with the team’s needs. Nash comes in essentially as a miracle elixir, curing much of the team’s woes in one fell swoop. He is immediately the team’s best shooter and facilitator, and a leader capable of standing up to Kobe’s gruffness. While his ceiling is lowered somewhat because of the system and other limiting factors (the miracle of Nash isn’t going to cure Bryant’s insatiable appetite for isolation jumpers), his floor is much higher than Payton’s. At worst, he is a spot-up shooting cog in a championship-caliber machine. Even then, it’s an enviable position.

Even then, it’s crushing.

In a few days I’ll be standing awkwardly along with the other groomsmen watching my brother formally enter a new stage in life, wondering where the years have gone. In a month or so, it’ll happen all over again as I watch Nash run the offense alongside honest-to-goodness all-stars again. I should join in the celebration; I should mourn the passing of an era. I don’t know what I should do, and I just wish I knew the precise moment in life when feelings started getting so convoluted all the time.

This is more of a beginning than an end, and I’m excited to see the impact Steve Nash has on this Lakers offense. But the excitement I have isn’t as pure as the first day of sixth grade when I told my English teacher that my name was Danny Chau and Steve Nash was my favorite basketball player because he’s smart and an amazing shooter. The joy that I had back then didn’t make me anxious. And it didn’t come with the foresight of knowing he won’t be in the league for much longer.

This is all a psych-out, a way to preempt the shock of: 1) Steve Nash in a Lakers jersey. 2) Any significant signs of decay in his physical abilities. 3) Nash potentially hoisting the trophy over his head as a Laker, effectively rewriting his legacy and belittling the impact of his days as a Phoenix Sun.  Somewhere in this coil of conflicting thoughts and fears is something pure; something I’ve always believed. No other player has had such a grip on my imagination. If the next three years serve as the final chapter, all I can do is heave a sigh and wish him the best.