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Free Agency Profiles: Dirk Nowitzki

Now that the draft has passed, it is time to focus on attention to the event that NBA fans have been anticipating for literally years. On Saving the Skyhook, I’ll do a review a day of each of the major players who figure to command the most attention come July 1 — in no particular order. Today features Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks.

Apr. 23, 2010 - San Antonio, TEXAS, UNITED STATES - epa02129865 Dallas Mavericks player Dirk Nowitzki from Germany goes to the basket against the San Antonio Spurs in the second half of their Western Conference first round playoff game at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas USA, 23 April 2010. The San Antonio Spurs won 94-90 to take a 2-1 game lead in the series.

Source: Yardbarker.com

Dirk Nowitzki surprised a lot of people last month when he announced that he would opt out of his contract with the Dallas Mavericks and test the free-agent waters in the summer of 2010 — especially his companions in the Lonestar State. While most still see it as a long shot that he’ll sign a deal with a team other than the one that has been his home for his entire career, stranger things have certainly happened. One thing’s for sure, though. Whatever team manages to pick up Dirk will acquire one of the best-scoring seven footers in the history of the game.

On the offensive end, Nowitzki is an absolute assassin shooting the ball. While his around-the-basket game is serviceable at best, his silky-smooth jump shot more than makes up for any deficiencies near the rim. With a fade on his shot that comes naturally, Nowitzki has the advantage of being able to get a shot over nearly anyone for a clean look, especially since he’s seven feet tall. As a result, Nowitzki is virtually a lock to score more than 23 points per game in a season, making him an offensive force to be reckoned with.

The strange thing about Nowitzki’s game is how many low-percentage shots he manages to drain. Nowitzki vastly outdistanced anyone else in the league in taking 8.3 16- to 23-foot shots per game, which are the least efficient on the floor. But he converted an unfathomable 46 percent of them, tops in the league for big men who took more than two per contest. Nowitzki also has good range on his jumper, and he knocked down 42 percent of his three-point heaves in 2009-2010, but he’s taking fewer and fewer threes as his career progresses.

Nowitzki can also handle the load at crunch time, and he scored 47 points per 48 clutch minutes this season. That ranked him third behind only Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

As a rebounder, Nowitzki brings in his fair share, but considering his height, his skills are lacking. In fact, that part of his game is so poor, that he ranked only 53rd in overall rebound rate among power forwards in the league. To say the least, he does not like to bang around in the paint.

Then there’s the main question mark about Nowitzki’s game: his defense. For all the greatness he provides on offense, he’s nearly as much of a liability on the defensive side. While his height allows him to reel in some blocks, he has long has a reputation as a complete softy, and opposing big men treat him as such. Nowitzki is routinely bullied in the paint, and he pays the price in how many points he allows. Furthermore, he is not very athletic and he has no lateral quickness, so he struggles to contain guards on pick-and-roll switches and more agile big men.

While Dirk will get max. money no matter which team he signs with, at this point in his career, it’s a tough call. He’s 32 now, and while jump shooting big men typically experience far greater longevity than their counterparts, he has played an inordinately high number of minutes in his career. So the question is: will his past ability to elude the injury bug follow him through the final years of his career? It will, in all likelihood, at least for a few more seasons. But Nowitzki is going to get a five- or six-year deal. So while a contract will pay off in the short run, the final seasons could end up coming back to haunt the team that inks this German giant.

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Gasol is not the League’s Best Big Man

June 10, 2010 - Boston, MASSACHUSETTS, UNITED STATES - epa02196015 Boston Celtics player Rasheed Wallace (R) fouls against Los Angeles Lakers player Pau Gasol (L) from Spain during the first half of game four of the NBA Finals at TD Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 10 June 2010. The Lakers lead the series over the Celtics 2-1.

Source: Yardbarker.com

Over the course of the playoffs, a case has begun to surface that the Los Angeles Lakers’ Pau Gasol is the best offensive big man in the game. Some even go as far as to say he’s the best big man overall. I will concede this: Gasol’s play has been markedly great over the course of this postseason, and the suggestions of 2008 that he’s soft are long gone — the Lakers would not be close to where they are without his constant support.

Accordingly, it makes sense that people are crowning him the best right now, when he’s playing at his best. Unfortunately, a few playoff series make up too small a sample size to serve as a significant basis for the argument at hand. Let’s look at the comparison between Gasol’s postseason and regular-season numbers.

During the regular campaign, Gasol was solid on both ends of the ball. Injuries limited him to only 65 games, but he still gathered averages of 18.3 points and 11.3 rebounds while shooting 54 percent from the field and 79 percent from the stripe. On defense, his length proved a solid deterrent to opposing power forwards, and he registered 1.7 blocks per contest.

In the playoffs, Gasol has been closer to inhuman. In the second round and the conference finals, Gasol dazzled spectators with a wide array of post moves, tip-ins, and an automatic mid-range jumpshot. During the first three rounds, Gasol could have made an argument for the best big man in the league, at least on offense. But take a look at Gasol’s matchups in those three rounds and some questions begin to arise.

In the first round against Oklahoma City, it was Jeff Green. Against Utah, it was Carlos Boozer. And against Phoenix, it was Amar’e Stoudemire. What do those three guys have in common? They’re all 6-foot-9, and Gasol has a three-inch height advantage on all of them. No wonder he was so dominant. He had a significant length advantage on all his defenders. It puts a damper on any nomination that he’s the best big man.

So when Boston came around, Gasol did hold his own in the first two games in Los Angeles. But when the series shifted to Boston, it was a different story. In Games 3, 4, 5, Gasol averaged only 15.6 points and 9 rebounds while shooting a measly 44 percent. It goes to show what effect a good defender can have on the supposed best big man.

But just looking at Gasol’s numbers doesn’t decide this. There needs to be some comparison. On the defensive end, the discussion starts and stops with Dwight Howard. He’s the best defender in the game; there’s no question. He blocks so many shots, but that doesn’t do him justice. The number of shots he effects or discourages has a profound impact on Orlando’s defensive game. Think of it like a big slugging hitter chasing a home-run record. If Barry Bonds didn’t get walked all the time, he could hit a lot more home runs. If opposing players took shots indiscriminately without considering Howard’s swat, he’d rack up a lot more blocks.

On the offensive end, you have to look at both Chris Bosh and Stoudemire. Bosh averaged six more points per game this year than Gasol. He’s much more athletic, his post moves are just as good, and his perimeter game’s even better. Some may argue that Gasol’s a better passer, and he is, but to whom is Bosh going to pass the ball? Sonny Weems? C’mon. As for Stoudemire, he may not have a back-to-the-basket game, but his face-up skill set is fantastic. He’s significantly more explosive than any top-tier big in the league not named Howard, and he has a better shooting touch than Gasol does.

So Gasol is clearly not the league’s best big man. And NBA fans shouldn’t let a few solid playoff games misguide them into thinking he is.

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Rajon Rondo’s inconsistency

Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett (L) celebrates a basket with Rajon Rondo (2nd L) during play against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 of the 2010 NBA Finals basketball series in Boston, Massachusetts June 8, 2010.  REUTERS/Adam Hunger (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Source: Yardbarker.com

The Boston Celtics now improbably lead the 2010 NBA Finals 3-2 over their perpetual rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers. They can attribute their series lead primarily to a tenacious defensive effort, an energetic bench that features Shrek and Donkey, and to a lesser degree, the generally aging starting lineup.

In the various games, Boston has welcomed outstanding efforts from Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and, of course, Rajon Rondo.

Rondo has been a true magician for this team, bobbing in weaving in between opposing seven footers, making crisp pick-and-roll and alley-oop passes, and providing the pesky defense we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from the Kentucky alumnus.

One of the most important parts of Rondo’s game is his ability to run the break. It seems like in every game of the series, right out of the gate Rondo is charging down the floor in transition. He snags the long rebound, sprints down the floor, and finds one of his teammates for the easy layup or dunk.

But he makes it look much prettier than it is sometimes. On occassion, he’ll come charging down the floor and try to get too creative — he’ll thread a pass between defenders that has no chance, applying too much english, thereby making Ray Allen reach for the ball and miss catching in clearly; there goes the space for an open jumper.

This hasn’t happened just once. He has been a repeat offender over the course of the five games. In fact, in Sunday’s Game 5, Rondo had only eight assists but seven turnovers, most of which came on the break.

This poor decision making on the fast break shows two things about Rondo: first, that he’s trying to take his game to the next level by making more dangerous passes and (2) that he’s still young — he doesn’t yet have the discipline or the recognition to know when to hold off on that pass. In the coming years, that will come for Rondo.

Overall, it’s a good sign that he’s making this development because it looks an awful lot like what Steve Nash does. And Nash isn’t exactly careful with the ball, but he minimizes his mistakes while still taking risks. Clearly, Rondo is trying to imitate the master. And should he take the next step, he’s going to be very dangerous.

With the series’ shifting back to Los Angeles for the final two contests, Rondo needs to be careful. The Celtics’ winning is certainly no sure thing. And seven turnovers on fast breaks can be extremely catastrophic, considering the high field-goal percentage of transition attempts.

Rondo needs to contain his anxiousness and not blow those opportunities for his team. He needs to take his time and decide whether or not it is best to let go of that pass. If he can manage, he’ll have his second championship in only three years starting in the league.

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The NBA Draft Lottery

The Draft Lottery is always a suspenseful night for me. This year, it is even more so, as the Nets have the highest chance of coming away with the top pick this June.

If you’d like to see my take on what each lottery team needs going into the draft, take a look at this article I wrote for thehoopsreport.com. It lays out the top-five options for each and every lottery club.

http://thehoopsreport.com/article.aspx?id=499

Draft lottery reactions and a response to Lakers-Suns Game 1 after the lottery. In the meantime, I’ll be nervously jittering.

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NBA Today: May 13

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the greatest scorer in the history of the league and the inspiration for this blog, believes the NBA should have an age minimum of 21 years old.
  • The Celtics, understandably, are playing tonight’s Game 6 like it’s an elimination game — for them.
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LeBron is fading under pressure

As I’m busy with moving out today at college, today’s post is a guest feature from fellow USC student Alejandro Madrid. Check out his daily blog about the San Francisco Giants and USC sports, Protecting the Pandoval, at http://waldoplodder.wordpress.com.

Has LeBron played his last game at home as a Cavalier?

Last night, LeBron James wilted under the spotlight, as the Boston Celtics routed his team to take a 3-2 series lead. Throughout the game, he seemed lackadaisical and tried to be a distributor instead of the two-time MVP. At the end of the game, the Cavaliers fans booed James in what might have been his final home game in Cleveland.

Superstars are bound to have off-nights over the course of their careers. After all, they are human beings. That said, if LeBron wants to cement his legacy as one of the greatest in history, he can’t perform poorly in crucial playoff games. Shooting 3-14 from the floor and scoring fifteen points is not going to draw comparisons to Michael Jordan.

Not only did James fail on the court, he also failed miserably when addressing the media. During his press conference, LeBron told he reporters he wasn’t the kind of player that makes excuse for his play. However, in his very next sentence, James remarked that he had spoiled America with his play and that it is easy to criticize him for having three bad games in his seven-year career.

Let’s pretend for a second that LeBron only has three poor performances in his career. Even so, two of those performances have come in this postseason. In his final year before free agency, LeBron has yet to fulfill his promise of delivering a championship to Cleveland. He needs to take the criticism in stride and show up for Game 6 with unmatched focus and intensity. Instead, he is whining and complaining about fair questions from the media. The greats shine under the lights and the pressure.

LeBron’s immaturity poked through last night, and the world has now seen a side of his personality not quite out in the open yet except in his storming off the court after losing to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals last year. Given this new side, it stands to reason that maybe a source of Cleveland’s failures has been neglected. Previously, pundits blamed the team’s ownership for not surrounding LeBron with enough talent and Mike Brown for not being an elite coach. But perhaps America has been blind to a third piece of the puzzle: James for his lack of strong leadership.

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Overreacting to Cleveland’s Game 2 loss

LeBron and the rest of the Cavs have nothing to worry about.

The Cavaliers were overwhelming favorites to defeat the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals before the series began.

After an expected Game 1 victory, Cleveland fell in what was not a close game in Cleveland on Monday night. Now, everyone is pointing out problems with the Cavs and all of a sudden doubting their talent.

But is the criticism warranted?

Sure, they lost the home-court advantage in an embarrassing game. But just because the Celtics play a great contest with unexpected bench production from Rasheed Wallace doesn’t mean they are prepared to knock Cleveland out of the playoffs.

In Game 2, the Cavaliers shot only 40 percent from the field. They shot a horrid 19 percent from long range. Cleveland was second in the league in three-point shooting during the regular season, shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc. So the shooting will almost assuredly rebound for the remainder of the series.

Moreover, the Celtics’ shooting percentages were exceptionally high: they connected on 51 percent of their field goals and 49 percent of their long balls. Cleveland tied for third in the league at just above 44 percent shooting allowed, so it was an anomaly on the defensive end, as well.

Lastly, the doubters underestimate the impact LeBron will have on the remaining games this round. In Game 2, he was all over the box score with 24 points, 7 boards, 4 assists, 3 steals, and two blocks, but those numbers aren’t even that incredible by LeBron’s standards.

If he sees his team is struggling, he’s going to give his best effort to propel his team to a win. So far in Game 1, James already has 16points with over two minutes of the first quarter remaining.

Boston’s win in Game 2 was certainly an impressive feat, but it really shouldn’t be much cause for concern for Cavaliers fans. Given the oddity of the statistics for both teams in that game, it is almost definitely an isolated incident.

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Riding the stars: Dwyane Wade’s Game 3 show

Miami's Dwyane Wade is one of the best crunch-time players in the NBA.

The Miami Heat defeated the Boston Celtics Sunday in what will likely to amount to a meaningless showing of pride for the boys from South Beach. Boston now leads the series 3-1, and it would take downright magic for Miami to advance to the second round.

Paul Pierce subdued a hopeful Miami crowd in Game 3, sinking a buzzer-beating jump shot to give the puzzling Celtics a stranglehold on the series.

Not to be outdone, Dwyane Wade did his best MJ impression in torching the Mean Green for 46 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists on 66 percent shooting Sunday afternoon.

And it is that not-to-be-outdone spirit that separates the truly elite players from the great ones in the league. Many remember Wade’s earth-shattering Finals performance against the Dallas Mavericks (over 30 points a game, including no fewer than 36 in the last four), and those displays are a testament to what Wade really can do.

There’s no underestimating the star.

There’s no expecting a star to fall. The star can be off all night and knock down a contested three-pointer to tie up the game in overtime. The star could be blistering hot and put his team on his back and carry it to victory with no support whatsoever.

So when Wade goes out and lights up the Celtics like that, he’s making a statement.

“My teammates might not be ready to play in the postseason, but I certainly am.”

And even if the Heat lose in Game 5, a Celtics victory won’t come without a superb effort from No. 3. Wade’s hungry, and the only way to satisfy him is to give him the W.

That said, Wade has more to play for than just an off-chance at an NBA Title. Wade is showcasing himself to the variety of talent that will bless the free-agent market this summer. He wants to let LeBron and Bosh and Amar’e know that, at his side, there’s no limit to a team’s greatness.

To be honest, I thought Miami would win this series. I thought Wade’s excellence would vastly outshine the skills of the aging Celtics. But Boston showed resurgence, and it took a Wade outburst to quell the uprising.

Hopefully, the Heat won’t go quietly and we, the fans, will get more greatness from the series. Why do we watch? Mr. Dwyane Wade.

These stars are so good for the game: They sell tickets, they sell merchandise, and they swell TV ratings. There’s no predicting what Wade or LeBron or Kobe is going to do next, and it’s that anticipation that makes the game so great.

So, Dwyane, even if you fall to the Celtics, don’t fret. Wherever you go, great things will follow. You’re just that talented. And Game 3 reminded us all that Boston actually has a problem on its hands.

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Examining Orlando’s Play

Dwight Howard and Vince Carter need to step up if the Magic hope to make the NBA finals again.

The No. 2 Orlando Magic took a 3-0 series advantage over the No. 7 Charlotte Bobcats, narrowly besting Larry Brown’s team 90-86 Sunday.

It seems that the Magic will have no problem dispatching the Bobcats and may very well do so in four games. If Orlando wins, it will face the winner of the series between the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks, and completing the first-round sweep will award them with some valuable extended rest before the conference semifinals.

In this first round, Orlando has played very well. While the Magic arguably have much more talent than the Bobcats do, Orlando won Game 3 in Charlotte, where the Bobcats lost only nine teams throughout the entire regular season.

One of the big stories for Orlando has been the play of Jameer Nelson. In the three games so far, Nelson has averaged 22.5 points (including 26 points in only 22 first-game minutes), including 52 percent three-point shooting and 92 percent from the charity stripe. Raymond Felton and the others have been totally unable to defend him, and Stan Van Gundy has taken notice.

Nelson missed most of last year’s playoffs because of injury, deferring to Rafer Alston to start at the 1-guard. Nelson did return for the Finals against L.A., but he didn’t start.

Could Nelson’s healthy play in the postseason be the key to Orlando’s winning a championship? It very well could be.

All that said, the Magic have had their problems this postseason. Those issues most clearly manifest themselves through the play of Dwight Howard and Vince Carter, the primary and secondary scores for Orlando, respectively.

Carter is shooting just 32.5 percent from the field against the Bobcats and, in 12 attempts, hasn’t hit a triple. With only 13.7 points per game, he needs to step up his play if he aspires to help the team defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers and whomever else they face.

Howard has been an absolute menace on the defensive end of the ball. In three games, he has 18 blocks and 24 rebounds in only 27.7 minutes per contest.

That’s a problem, though. He has not yet eclipsed the 30-minute mark this postseason. He had five personal fouls in the first two games and fouled out after just 26 minutes in Game 3. He needs to refine his defense to stay on the floor and help his team win.

Furthermore, his offensive output has been lacking. Taking only seven shots a game, Howard has scored 11 points per contest. He is also struggling mightily from the line, shooting 11-28 on free throws.

Sure, the Magic are winning. They’re beating a respectable Bobcats team with relative ease. But unless they get their two biggest stars on track, they shouldn’t even think about winning the 2010 NBA title.

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Game of the Day: April 14

Phoenix Suns at Utah Jazz — 10:30 PM eastern, telecast on ESPN

Well, it’s my final Game of the Day preview for the 2009 – 2010 season. But the action is far from concluded with over two months of postseason war to wage.

And with one day to play in the regular season, things still aren’t completely settled. In fact, these two teams are tied at 53-28.

The Suns come in to Utah for their second game in as many days after a 123-101 whipping of the Denver Nuggets Tuesday, and that win assured Phoenix home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

The Jazz, too, arrive off a win Tuesday. Theirs came over the Golden State Warriors 103-94. They, too, will have first-round home-court advantage regardless of the result of their tilt with the Suns Wednesday.

In terms of seeding, this game is pretty interesting, though. Whoever loses moves into a fourth-place tie with the Nuggets. If Dallas wins, the winner will get third seed no matter what. If Dallas loses and Utah wins, Utah will claim the second seed in the conference, as it holds the tiebreaker over Dallas. If Dallas loses and Phoenix wins, Dallas will keep the second seed, and Phoenix will get the three seed.

If Utah loses, it will get the fifth seed, as Denver holds the tiebreaker (having won three of its four games against Utah). If Phoenix loses, it will get the fourth seed, as Phoenix holds the tiebreaker over Denver with a 3-1 series advantage on the season.

Either way, the team that loses this game will play Denver in the first round of the postseason. The opponent of the winner of this game depends on Portland and San Antonio’s (both 50-31) final contests. If only one of those teams wins Wednesday, that team will get the sixth seed. If both teams win or lose, Portland will get the sixth seed and San Antonio the seventh seed, as the Blazers hold the series advantage and tiebreaker.

Confusing enough for you?

Anyway, this game should be exciting, as it features the Nash-Amare vs. Williams-Boozer clash everyone loves. I give the nod to Phoenix, however, as it’s scorching hot recently and has a better supporting cast. Stay tuned for the defined playoff matchups tomorrow.

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