Author Archives: Michael Pina

To Have One’s Cake and Eat It Too

Michael Pina is a contributing writer for Hardwood Paroxysm. Here’s his voice joining the chorus of disgust towards LeBron. My own manifesto about James is still percolating and should be ready for publication right when the timeliness has past us by -Ed.

A few nights ago, after the most egomaniacal, self-centered, inconsiderate hour of television ESPN has ever aired mercifully ended, pundits, analysts, and professional journalists (or so they say) spent hours exploring the semi-shocking decision Lebron James had made to leave his hometown team for more silicone prevalent pastures in Miami.  James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh were each hailed by the network for sacrificing their respective financial incomes to accommodate one another as future teammates.  The three were treated as selfless heroes; as if they’d renounced all their material possessions for the rightful cause of winning a championship.

James, unsurprisingly, received the most praise.  By signing a six-year, $110 million contract (Wade’s contract is six-years for $107 million) Lebron will be leaving roughly $15 million dollars on the table.  $15 million that he could have earned had he re-inked with Cleveland, but lets not be naïve.  James has endorsement deals with McDonalds, Nike, Glaceau (makers of Vitamin Water), Sprite, and State Farm (to name a few).  Five years ago he had earned approximately $135 million from endorsements alone and as of 2008, his worth was speculated to be at least $270 million.  In 2007 he was named number one on Forbes’ 20 under 25 list, beating out movie stars and other athletes alike.

He’s previously stated in interviews that his focus is 80 percent on basketball and 20 percent on business, and with his financial income from endorsements upstaging his NBA contract, a loss of $15 million dollars over six years isn’t the end of his world for him, the most popular athlete on the planet.

Now that financial matters have been covered (consider that point this column’s dead horse), lets now move onto basketball related concerns.

His decision to spend at least five years in Miami is groundbreaking (Wade, Bosh, and James each have player options on the final year of their respective deals).  Looking at the public persona James and his team of managers and agents have created, could anything else really be expected? By replicating what Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen did in the latter stages of their career in the prime of his, James has made the most grandiose move imaginable, all the while looking like championships are the central source of his motivation, when in fact, his move seems to be most predicated on fear.  By moving onto Miami, a team that already boasts one of the game’s most consistent scorers in Dwyane Wade, James won’t be the only one on the hook should they disappoint in the postseason. The blame will ultimately be shouldered by both Wade and James (Chris Bosh will never have to worry).  Had he gone to Chicago or New York, within two years’ time his team would be one of, if not the best team in basketball.  That’s how talented he is.  But by choosing to join forces with a rival as opposed to salivating over the chance at going head to head against him, James revealed to the world that he simply doesn’t have that inner aura about him to lead a team to a championship.

No superstar has made a move like this, in his prime, for a reason.  It’s selfish, risky, and to be frank, not worth it.  Today James stands alone as the most hated man in his sport. (Somewhere, most likely all by his lonesome, Kobe Bryant is cackling.) He’s trailblazing a path no once-in-a-generation talent should take because it not only demolishes his chances to be the greatest player to ever live, but it does a disservice to the game of basketball.   The titles will come, but not this year.  With the Celtics, Lakers, and Magic all molded, experienced units familiar with each others idiosyncrasies, chances of winning a title are slimmer than Vegas seems to think. (Odds in Vegas have the Heat prohibitive favorites at 9-5.)  But two or three years down the road, when Wade, James, and Bosh are cocooned by a solid, savvy bench, what does the league have to look forward to? The Miami Heat are clear cut favorites to dominate basketball for years to come. Unless, of course, Oklahoma City can play the good guy.

Now that the move was made and this inconceivable team was created, the respect level for Lebron James goes straight to the cellar in the eyes of former players and basketball purists.

Kevin McHale called it a reality show, Charles Barkley questioned why at 25 Lebron didn’t want to be the man, and Reggie Miller accurately speculated that one ring in Cleveland would symbolically equate with two or three in Miami.  It’s almost as if those greats were saying to themselves, “Wait a second. I could have jumped ship, burned bridges, sacrificed millions of fans, and thrown loyalty in the garbage all for a ring, but thank goodness I didn’t.” (As was the case with Reggie Miller.)  Not to take anything away from Steve Kerr or John Paxon, but Michael Jordan wasn’t feeding Miller in crunch time. They went against each other.  It’s the fundamental element that makes the league so wildly popular and intriguing.  Competition.  What do you do when your league’s best player isn’t interested in going to Chicago, where rebounds aren’t an issue and the point guard is an all-star? Instead of facing off against Wade and Bosh with his own troops, Lebron chose the easiest, least stressful alternative.

From a legacy perspective, James is pitiable. In the end, he figuratively can’t win.  Should the Heat go on a dynastic tear over the next four or five seasons (impossible to say with their current makeup) and win ring after ring, doubters will always point to his admittance of help as proof of him being a third-rate competitor.  Isn’t it the role of a superstar to start the party instead of jumping on board like a mercenary once the dust has settled?  Is Lebron not a great player?  That question, to anyone who’s ever watched him play, is obviously hilarious.  Lebron James is going to the Hall of Fame.  But by moving onto Miami with not a single finals victory under his belt, Lebron can never be as great as he’s had us believe these past 10  years.  Truly a shame, because physically there’s no question he has it all for the taking. But mentally something is clearly missing.

Loading image

Click anywhere to cancel

Image unavailable

Loading image

Click anywhere to cancel

Image unavailable

That Dream Where I’m in the NBA and Steal Someone’s Skills

When I watch players who are infinitely more athletic than I am play the game of basketball, sometimes I close my eyes and wonder what it’d be like, if just for a day, I had their ability.  I don’t imagine myself incarnating Kobe Bryant or Lebron James like the 12-year-old Josh Baskin once did Tom Hanks.  Instead, I wish their skill sets would inhabit my 5’ 10”, 165 pound body. Give me the first step of Dwyane Wade or Tony Parker’s incredible ability to finish at the rim and to keep me from playing, you’d have to peel me from the blacktop.

There’s one player who sits near the top of my wish list who probably doesn’t belong with the rest. He’s no household name, has no sneaker deal and was likely never asked to appear in a Gatorade commercial. He’s not a superstar, has never been named to an all-star game or even averaged 13 points per game.  Forget about guessing who it is.  Not only does he come off the bench, but his name won’t be listed by any credentialed beat writer as a serious sixth man candidate. The player?  Give up? The one…the only…Delonte West!

I view and admire his skills on a regular basis as having the complete game I’d like to show off in a Rec League. The way he attacks the basket with a rare, ferocious toughness.  The way he never backs down on defense and single handedly (pardons to Paul Pierce) seems to be revitalizing the mid-range jump shot.

Right now his usage percentage is the highest its ever been as a Cavalier.  He upped his numbers in points, rebounds and assists from the regular season to the playoffs last year and despite a sad, ongoing struggle with a bi-polar disorder, is widely regarded by those who play and travel with him as an amiable character.

So what else is to like? First off he’s left-handed. Depending on what your take is on south paws, whether you think their awkward looking or seamlessly smooth, I’ve always found it harder to guard a quick lefty.  He’s both instant offense and rugged defensively. His range stretches to the three-point line—crucial on a team that possesses Lebron—but he seems to prefer pulling up off the dribble, for that lethal yet dieing art form.

In the first sentence of West’s 2010 Basketball Prospectus profile, the former St. Joseph’s standout is said to be lacking at greatness in any one particular skill, “but good, or at least average, in virtually every facet of the game”.  It’s an incredibly apt description for an underdog who’s been able to carve a personal niche among the best players in the world.  His handle is superb, able to direct the ball between his legs in a way that isn’t flashy, but useful and with purpose.

According to HoopData.com, West is one of three players on Cleveland who have a higher field goal percentage from 16-23 feet than the percentage assisted on those attempts, meaning he’s more than capable of scoring and creating offensive opportunities on his own from the perimeter.  The other two are Lebron James and Mo Williams.  Between 10-15 feet, only Shaq has a lower percentage on assisted field goals.

He’s self-effacing on one of the leagues most flamboyant teams and lacks any sort of off the court need for attention all the while being loved by his teammates.  Earlier this season, Lebron said West was the funniest guy in Cleveland’s locker room (on a Shaquille O’Neal team none the less).

Delonte West plays the same position as Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Brandon Roy and Joe Johnson.  At barely 6’ 3” and 180 pounds, when he goes up against those guys it’s like he’s entering the Indy 500 with a lawnmower.

I first caught him when he was in college, but was far more impressed with Jameer Nelson to pay any real attention.  Then he was drafted by my Boston Celtics and became a member of a franchise that stood mired in decrepit disappointment.  If he wasn’t the answer, then he was apart of the problem, and thus I ignored his abilities.

Now, irony is biting my behind.  West is in Cleveland and should face off against the Celtics in what will surely be a hard fought, no love lost,  seven-game battle in the second round. He’s someone who plays the game with passion, skill and a fearless demeanor no true fan could afford to disparage.

Tim Duncan’s Free Fall

Tim Duncan’s brilliant career went parallel with my formative years.  My first pimple, my first shave, my junior and senior prom, the day my family brought home our Bichon Frise.  I  grew up with Tim, and even though he’s led a life hidden from the starlight he deserves, I feel like I knew him.

Duncan was the first, truly great player in my life whose entire career I was able to monitor. The Gillete shaving cream commercials with David Robinson, and the Inside Stuff “Twin Towers” magazine cover.  He was supposed to be the savior of my Boston Celtics; the great franchise’s next dominant icon.  Instead he went to a Spurs team that already boasted a hall-of-fame center. I knew, at the age of 9, that San Antonio’s acquisition of Tim Duncan was borderline unethical, but with his ceiling no stronger than a spider’s web, the situation intrigued me.

Not only was he unstoppable on the block, but he was able to directly make his teammates better as a brilliant passer from the high post. All of a sudden, San Antonio, Texas became a hotbed for serviceable, but aging players looking to set sail on their careers with a championship ring. Guys like Steve Smith, Steve Kerr, Danny Ferry, Robert Horry, Glenn Robinson and Michael Finley were coming far and wide to play with Tim Duncan.

Once Jordan retired it was his league.  The NBA was just beginning to enter an era of individual importance filled with eight and nine figure contracts, attention seeking rap albums, movie deals and overwhelming body art.  Duncan defied all of that while standing out as basketball’s best player, making his teammates better, banking shot after shot off the left side of the backboard.

Like most people who play the game of basketball—whether it be on a black top where a foul requires blood shed as evidence or in an old man rec league—the way they play reflects who they are inside. This in no way is a discussion involving skill level, instead it’s all about diving on the floor or blocking out a teammate’s man who managed to get loose. President Obama wasn’t allowed a second date with Michelle until he showed her brother Craig what kind of man he was. The two didn’t cavort over dinner or gab over 18 at a nearby public coarse. They played basketball.  A wordless game, aside from groans, grunts, and the occasional obscenity, that can tell one all he needs to know about an opponent or teammate. Tim Duncan epitomizes this philosophy.  He was quiet.  He was methodical.  He did what he wanted, when he wanted and his game literally talked for him. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I’d bet a good sum that despite all the money he makes, Duncan doesn’t live a lavish lifestyle. Why have 17 cars when one or two will do the job?  Why spin and fade-away when a simple shot off the glass counts for just as many points?

With 14 seconds remaining and the Spurs up by 2 in a recent contest against Oklahoma City, Duncan set a high pick for Ginobli who drove left towards the basket. Duncan simultaneously rolled to the hoop, caught a pass from Manu about four feet from the basket.  Instead of taking two steps and setting himself up for a game clinching dunk, Duncan flipped a finger roll at the front of the rim.  Thunder center Serge Ibaka thanked Tim for the gift, then ceremoniously slammed the basketball off the backboard.  The Thunder recovered with a chance to win the game.

To watch Duncan play right now is heartbreaking. It’s (almost) like staring at an old picture of a polio stricken Roosevelt, curbed to his wheelchair. Or, for a more athletically appropriate analogy: Willie Mays batting .211 in 66 games as a 42-year-old New York Met, Michael Jordan overshooting the rim on a dunk attempt while in Washington or Pedro Martinez donning a Phillies cap for one last hurrah in Yankees Stadium.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, “Tim Duncan made only 2 of 11 field goals, 18 percent, in the Spurs loss on March 24. It’s the third time in his last 19 games that Duncan had made less than 20 percent of his shots from the floor, something he did only six times in 947 games to that point in his career.”

Not one to overreact with a small sampling of statistics, but when those stats disparage a player who’s great claim to fame has been remarkable consistency, then it’s at the very least worth noting.

If this is the end for Tim, I just want to say thank you.  Throughout your career you personified a style of play that can only be described as professional perfection and in doing so, served as a role-model for thousands of young basketball players striving for success. You’re a first-ballot hall-of-famer and could go down as the greatest power forward to ever play (even if center was always a more suitable label). Thanks to outstanding defensive play, your career, more likely than not, should last at least four more seasons barring injury.  But the Tim Duncan who could throw a team on his back is gone forever, and it’s truly a sad thing to see.

Backboard’s Shadow: Andray Blatche

Before the trade deadline, before the term starter was placed in front of his name and before Mike Wilbon said he was playing like the next Kevin Garnett, Andray Blatche was on notice as a literary subject for Backboard’s Shadow. (Not to toot my own horn.)  He’s always had the skill set to be a difference maker, but as Celtics broadcaster Mike Gorman stated Sunday night before Washington blew a winnable game in Boston, Blatche has the type of talent that’ll keep both teams in the game.  He takes bad shots; tends to loaf around the court and sulk when things aren’t going just so.  But since the all-star break, he’s been showcasing himself as a seriously skilled big man, one who’s certainly going to be in the Wizards future plans.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In a year that was supposed to be a healthy bounce back from last season’s embarrassing, injury riddled campaign, the Washington Wizards have been in the headlines this season for all the wrong reasons. A sketchy incident involving several firearms and immature inner-locker room quarrels cast a dark shadow over the franchise.  The aftermath was the franchise player’s season coming to an abrupt end and the other two mainstays getting shipped far, far away to teams that have an actual shot at playing meaningful basketball in the spring.

Blatche has decided in his fifth season at just 23 years old, that this was the time to breakout.

Throughout his career he’s shown brief indications of a prodigious gift.  He’s 6’ 11”  with outside touch, something that makes professional scouts drool.  A little over a week ago he scored a career high 36 points to go along with 15 rebounds against the New Jersey Nets.  A week before that he went on an offensive barrage versus the Timberwolves, netting 33 points with 13 boards .  In between those two notable performances was 26 points and 18 rebounds in an overtime loss to the Knicks.  In that game he let it all pour out.  51 minutes of hustle when the next highest contributor was Randy Foye who logged 40 minutes.  It was the type of performance an all-star gives his team on a nightly basis and is indicative of what Blatche is capable of.

Since replacing Jamison and Haywood as a centerpiece in Washington’s front court, Blatche has been sublime.  Upon returning from the all-star break, he’s started in all 10 games on the schedule, averaging 24 points, just over 10 rebounds and three assists per game.  Not only is his 18-footer gaining respect around the league, but his entire offensive game is on the cusp of something special.  He’s so young and so talented with skills and dimensions that could have him replacing Arenas as Washington’s go-to scorer (should the franchise man return next year).  It seems like nothing can stop him.  Nothing, except of course, but himself.

Before this season began, Blatche embodied a major reason why the NBA changed its high school entry rules for the draft.  The Kwame Browns, the Eddy Currys, the Jonathan Benders of the basketball world were bogging down the overall level of play with immaturity and unfulfilled promise.  They lacked fundamentals, they lacked any sort of on-court IQ and they lacked a responsibility to perform for the franchises signing the million dollar checks.

As a 21-year-old, three-year veteran, Blatche was a thoughtless millionaire.  Right after signing his contract extension, he tried to solicit sex from an undercover police officer. He was later arrested on June 4, 2008 in Virginia on charges of reckless driving and driving on a suspended license for the third time.

After a heartbreaking loss in Boston on Sunday night that saw Washington helplessly watch the Celtics go on a 20-4 run to close out the game, Flip Saunders called out Blatche for jawing back and forth with Kevin Garnett in the fourth quarter.  Blatche ended up with 23 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and performed at a nearly unguardable level for long stretches throughout, but it was his waking of a sleeping giant and the casual, unconcerned post-game explanation that make him such a puzzling player.

He has the physical tools to be LaMarcus Aldridge with court vision, but his drive to succeed and his need to dominate are too blasé.  It’s what’s in between his ears that could either hold him back or push him towards excellence and a max contract in a few years.   It’s one of the more intriguing plot lines basketball fans in D.C. have to follow now that the Wizards are officially starting from scratch.

Backboard’s Shadow: Thabo Sefolosha

Thabo Sefolosha is a 25-year-old elder statesman.  He speaks three languages, has played professional basketball in four countries and is the George Washington of Swiss born NBA players.  Playing on the Oklahoma City Thunder, hands down the most likable team in the league, Sefolosha has comfortably nestled himself beside Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook as a fragment of the team’s burgeoning success.

On this young, charismatic group his job isn’t to tally points.  He doesn’t have plays called for him or have his teammates look to him when the shot clock is winding down. He scores less than the other four starters and rookie sixth man James Harden, he’s smart and like all effective role players knows his limitations. But he’s also loaded with talent and after signing an extremely organizational friendly contract extension at the beginning of the season, is an tremendously underrated piece of the Thunder’s future.

Players like Sefolosha are always needed by championship contenders.  Players who are trusted by their superstar teammate to do what their job is on a nightly basis. That glue guy who goes virtually unnoticed outside of his home city until the spring when they make three or four huge plays in a nationally televised playoff game.  Last season for the Lakers it was Trevor Ariza and in 2008 the Celtics had James Posey.  The Spurs had Bruce Bowen in Duncan’s shadow and Michael Jordan had Paxson during his first title reign.

In his 30 minutes of playing time a night, Sefolosha is a guardian.  A 6’ 7” guard who is paid to make his teammate’s lives easier (Thabo literally means “one who brings joy”) by not only assuming responsibility for the opponent’s most dynamic scorer but on the nights where that isn’t possible, he serves obediently as an effective help defender.  Durant says he’s one of the top three defenders in the game, but don’t take his word for it.

Traded from the Bulls for a first round draft pick at last year’s trade deadline, since coming aboard the Thunder’s team defense has been on the incline (or decline depending on how you look at it).  Last year their defensive rating was 20th out of 30, right now they’re currently 3rd. They were 23rd in opposing points per game, now they’re 7th. Defensive improvements like this can never be attributed to a single player, but his presence certainly helped.  He sticks superstars so his own doesn’t have to.  The Dwyane Wade’s, the Kobe Bryant’s, the Joe Johnson’s.  They are all his duty while Durant, Green and Westbrook are able to focus on putting the ball in the basket.

Sefolosha’s usage percentage is at a career low 11.1% and his scoring average is the lowest its been since he was a rookie.  That is to say when Oklahoma City is in possession of the basketball, Thabo Sefolosha isn’t asked to do much.  As a matter of fact he probably couldn’t comply if called upon.  His accuracy from deep has uncharacteristically fallen since entering the league. This might be due to the executive voices whispering in his ear that defense is what they pay him to play while jacking up shots will first send him to the bench and then out of town.  Kevin Durant is there to shoot and score.  It’s what he does exceptionally well; it’s his trademark.  Thabo Sefolosha’s is defense.

As far as American professional athletes go, Thabo is a rare breed. He puts his team ahead of himself and is aware of his spot on Oklahoma’s totem pole. He signed an exceptionally generous five year, 15.5 million dollar contract that shows loyalty and sacrifice.  Not to say he would’ve been granted Lebron money, but Sefolosha most likely took a pay cut when deciding to stay with Oklahoma City for such a long period of time. Sefolosha fits splendidly with the Thunder and in two or three years, when they’re knocking on the doors of a championship, expect him to make those three or four crucial plays to help knock that door over.

Backboard’s Shadow: Rodrigue Beaubois

Every night he finds his usual place on the tip of the bench.  As a nightly back up for two point guards, one who happens to be an all-time great, Mavericks rookie Rodrigue Beaubois is stewing.  As of late his highlight reel abilities have been relegated to garbage time minutes in double digit wins or rare blowout losses and it’s only a matter of time before Beaubois makes his mark.

He’s gleamed with splotches of excellence here and though. Most notably in a mid-November game against Milwaukee just two nights after Brandon Jennings dropped his internationally renowned 55 points on Golden State. Going up against a Dallas squad which was playing on the second night of a back to back, the Bucks rookie went on a tear late in the game, scoring 13 in the fourth and forcing overtime.

Dallas looked sluggish.  They looked, scratch that, they were unable to contain Milwaukee’s point guard.  That was until Rick Carlisle uplifted Beaubois off the bench and told him to stick Jennings.  The Frenchman made it his mission, holding him to just two points the rest of the way as Dallas went on to win.  That defensive performance caused Brandon to tag a label on his fellow rookie that most television analysts and writers have been reserving for himself. Rodrigue Beaubois is the future of the Dallas Mavericks.

When Josh Howard was injured early in the season Roddy got some burn as the starting shooting guard; it allowed him to strictly focus on scoring and concentrate on his own personal production, but that’s not quite what the Mavericks had in mind when they traded their 24th overall selection—seven-foot Byron Mullens—to Oklahoma City for Beaubois’ rights.

Once it’s time for Jason Kidd’s September song to be sung, it will be Beaubois who carries Mark Cuban’s club in the next decade.  Will he ever develop into a franchise point guard able to make decent players around him good and good ones great? Time will tell on that, but in the near future watch him slowly pick up everyone else’s slack.  Jason Terry is just one of many Mavericks who understand how worthy their rookie can be not only in making a deep playoff run this year, but possibly winning a championship a couple years down the road.

He’s 6’ 2” with a 6’10” wingspan giving him a body destined to roam the perimeters of a basketball court. Athletically speaking, apart from Rondo, there might not be a point guard in the game who can touch him.  The comparisons to Boston’s #9 don’t stop there. Beaubois is in literally a perfect situation that should only get better as he enters the opening few years of his NBA career. Instead of being thrown into a disheartening losing atmosphere, he’s able to bide his time and study with one of the greatest point guards who has ever lived in Jason Kidd.  The two of them watch reportedly watch film daily together, boning up on such important things like how to defend and run a crisp pick and roll and how to see the entire court and be patient enough to let the right option develop in front of you.

If there’s any career path he’d aspire to follow it’d be Rondo’s.  Feed the top dogs for a few years before allowing your natural athletic ability to blossom.  Four years from now, Rodrigue Beaubois could be that breakout all-star. (When asked how he thought his game compared to Rondo, Beaubois responded he was just as good only a better shooter.)

Right now his team has an immediate need for his defensive services and his coach knows it. (In the past couple of weeks point guards have been torching the Mavs with ease.  Most notably Andre Miller’s 52-point performance and Monta Ellis dropping a career best 46.)

On a roster that includes an aging yet still able-bodied Shawn Marion, Rick Carlisle has been quoted as saying, “[Beaubois] brings an element to the game with his body type that we really don’t have anywhere else on our roster.” It’s impressive praise for a player who should be seeing more and more minutes as the season progresses.

Whenever Kidd chooses to hurl his kicks over the proverbial telephone wire, Beaubois will likely have come into his own. A young, quick, unguardable point guard who finds himself complimented by two or three seriously skilled players while also understanding it is he who is most valuable for the team.  All things run through him and he runs all things.

Backboard’s Shadow: Craig Smith

Michael Pina is a contributing writer to the Huffington Post and Hoop Doctors.His Backboard’s Shadow column runs weekly here at Hardwood Paroxysm.

Here at Backboard’s Shadow the main purpose is to shine a light on those who deserve it.  Sometimes the spotlight is triggered by a hot stretch of impressive play, sometimes it’s to point out a player whom I believe will make an impact in the future (Trevor Ariza circa January 2009 would fit this criteria perfectly) and sometimes it’s to pull the curtain back on a player who people have been sleeping on for far too long. Today the focus is Craig Smith, a player who snugly fits into the last description.

Growing up down the street from Conte Forum, watching the Boston College product rip the ACC to shreds for four years was more than enjoyable.  He recklessly crashed the boards, tenaciously attacked the rim and with the ball in his hands wouldn’t accept no for an answer like an old man trying to send soup back at a deli.

Even though it was just five years ago, it feels like a decade and unfortunately it seems like people have forgotten what made Smith such a dominating college player.  Say his name to a casual fan and you’ll most likely meet the following response:

He’s that undersized, burly guy who used to be in Minnesota’s front court right?  Wasn’t he traded to the Clippers along with about 47 other players this summer in the Quentin Richardson merry go round?

Yes, yes he was.

Does he get minutes? He was pretty good in college.

Yes, yes he does.

Without further ado it’s time to educate.  Craig Smith is the most offensively gifted reserve forward in the league (apologies to Carl Landry who plays nearly twice as much). His collection of scoring tactics are a grocery list that would make William Perry jealous.  When the ball is in his hands and the basket is within 10 feet, there is nobody who one on one can shut him down.

It’s funny how the draft works though.  For a player to carve his own niche in the NBA it seems like he’s got to dig through a brick wall with a plastic spoon.  Despite what he displayed in college, players with weaker resumes like Tyrus Thomas and Josh Boone were taken above him strictly based on what they might grow to become.

The other players who were selected before Smith simply because he was projected to be too small for the four and too slow for the three is rather astounding.  He’s played in more games than LaMarcus Aldridge and Andrea Bargnani, has scored more points than J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison combined and has the number one field goal percentage in his entire draft class.

Four years later he’s now a 26-year-old in a contract year.  Whichever club decides to court him for the next three or four years will not be disappointed.  Sure defensively he can be taken advantage of if the other team’s got multiple giants, but on the whole he’s talented enough to tip the scales in a contender’s favor.

This past week against the Celtics and the league’s deepest, most devastating defensive front line, Smith beamed his game back to 2003 and treated his opponents like they were the Clemson Tigers.   He single-handedly kept the other L.A. team in the game with 10 straight points in the fourth quarter. Elusive up and unders, head fakes, ball fakes, shoulder dropping brute force aggressiveness, all were on display as the former Eagle did as he pleased.

Did Craig Smith take over a basketball game that featured a laundry list of all-star and hall-of-fame talent? Yes, yes he did.

Backboard’s Shadow: Jeff Pendergraph

Injuries and professional basketball go hand in hand like problems and opportunity.  It’s only natural that important players will eventually get hurt and wear down every season; in the process seriously affecting the way history will remember a certain team, player or coach.  If the timing is terrible, as it recently was with Kevin Garnett, Jameer Nelson and Andrew Bynum, a year of hard work can quickly go down the drain.

This is why in the end general managers are truly judged on the depth they’re able to create.  Anybody can draft Lebron James or Dwight Howard, it’s the duty of finding those “just-in-case” guys  who can step in and reincarnate the energy, statistics and intangibles that the fallen starter would have provided that separate the dependable decision makers from Ernie Grunfeld.

90042440SF018_76ERS_BLAZERS

With the exciting label of young and talented team on the come up, Portland has seen more debilitating injuries this season than most could weather. Greg Oden, who’s favorite childhood hobby was cracking mirrors, and his fellow seven foot tag-team partner Joel Pryzbilla both had season ending leg injuries.  When the two went down, Portland’s playoff run slowed to a speed walk.  Their once powerful front line was relegated to the defensively liable LaMarcus Aldridge, 68-year-old Juwan Howard and a second round draft pick who had off season hip surgery.

That rookie? His name’s Jeff Pendergraph and he’s quickly becoming Portland’s heart and soul.  Had Pryzbilla and Oden been born with stronger appendages in their lower half Pendergraph would have likely seen less action than Stephon Marbury, but they weren’t and he’s stepped it up.

What makes Pendergraph so interesting is the role he’s been thrust into for one of the league’s more competitive teams. After a disappointing first round exit courtesy of the Houston Rockets last year, Brandon Roy said the one thing his team needed was toughness. At a chiseled 240 pounds, Pendergraph fits like a glove.

What he does when in a game is very routine.  Very unexciting.  Very secreted.  Very important. On offense his literal existence revolves around  using his wide frame to set picks for the Trailblazers’ many scorers.  Having the ball in his hands is a rarity he’s accepted and canoodled with.

At just 6’ 9” he’s playing undersized at center, but still doing the gritty things on defense that gets him under his opponent’s skin. He takes charges and prohibits lay-ups by doling out hard fouls all the while supplying unprecedented rookie energy.

Since entering the regular rotation, Pendergraph has become the center of attention during pre-game introductions.  His teammates crowd around him, like the bad boys used to do with Sheed, and pandemonium ensues.  Tagged the Pendergraph pre-game pow-wow by the Oregonian, the rookie has become a motivational pawn.  The players love him, the fans love him, his head coach (who’s son was Pendergraph’s teammate at Arizona State) loves him.

While the more reserved Oden and Pryzbilla wouldn’t likely be caught dead as a monkey in the middle center of interest, Pendergraph has embraced it, hopping, shrieking and waving his arms every which way.  Now his teammates embrace him.

Has it been mentioned he’s only a rookie? Not that Pendergraph is the second coming of Moses Malone or, heaven forbid, Kenyon Martin, but his actual game will certainly improve; with his fearless, free spirited attitude surely creating a long and productive career.

It’s a timeless situation not just in sports, but in life.  Where there’s a major problem, opportunity isn’t far behind.  Jeff Pendergraph is a testament to it.

Backboard’s Shadow: Roy Hibbert

Roy Hibbert

Standing at seven feet two inches above concrete in the game of basketball is always, no matter who, what or where you are, a good thing.  Offensively where the objective is putting the ball in a circular iron ten feet from your shoe strings, having arms that would make Rapunzel’s man jealous are rarely frowned upon.  On the other end, sending attempted floaters back into a shooter’s forehead with the same ease it takes to strike a moth will make one coach smile and the other shudder.

Indiana’s second year big man Roy Hibbert, whom they acquired from Toronto before he’d ever played a game, is slowly but surely making good of his 7’ 2” frame.

In the four years I’ve watched the 23-year-old play basketball, the one word I’d most easily identify with him would be timid. Timid on the block laying the ball in instead of smashing it through the rim which he is more than capable of.  Naturally you’d expect him to be a larger Marlo, hanging on the block, but thanks to the Princeton offense that was instituted at Georgetown, Hibbert spent most of his time in the high post where he became a pretty good passer and was able to develop a surprisingly respectable shot.

Now that he’s in the league you can’t be mad at the range he’s garnered, but the nervous, even cowardly play around the basket had to stop.  Throughout December he’d been showing flashes of improvement and less of the anxiousness he’d become known for in his brief spotlight time.

There was the 20 points dropped on Brook Lopez and then a week later 20 and six blocks against Tim Duncan. A few days ago we had a season-high 27 points against New Orleans.

A new founded toughness that could and would make others fear him instead of vice versa is starting to take fold and no moment paints the portrait better than his last trip to Orlando couple of weeks ago.

Trying to fight through a pick set by Hibbert, journeyman Matt Barnes grew frustrated and forcefully knocked him to the ground.  If reading that you question how the spindly Matt Barnes could knock anyone over, albeit a giant like Roy Hibbert, the Magic guard would agree, as a look of disgust formed on his face.  Looking down at the fallen Pacer who he’d suspected of flopping, Barnes did an Iverson/Tyronne Lue step over and began to walk in the direction of his basket.

Using his high quality Georgetown education, Hibbert noticed the embarrassingly blatant disrespect, jumped up and crowded the suddenly sheepish Barnes. This moment was more important than any other in the game and possibly Hibbert’s entire career.

Forget about the game high 35 minutes logged, the game high 26 points against Dwight Howard (who fouled out in 28 minutes and made two baskets), or the fact that this all came on the road against one of the NBA’s better teams.

At 7’2” there’s no doubting his serious physical advantage over nearly everybody (he’s three inches taller than Orlando’s Superman), but with a guy like Hibbert it’s what’s beating in his chest that matters the most. Hibbert stood up for himself as a man in a man’s league. If this was a turning point for the youngster it’s a scary revelation for every other coach in the league.

Especially when you consider how tall he is.