Sunday, September 28, 2008

Atlantic Division Preview

I am currently in Portugal, and the last days of my otherwise perfect vacation are rainy. Clouds that are keeping the sun from shining during the late days of September are actually getting me excited for the month that is coming up. And we all know what October will bring us: besides the trees that will lose their leaves and the fact that I will lose that tiny little bit of tan that I’ve been building up this week, the start of a new NBA season is finally in sight. That means I can write about something that inevitability will be totally wrong, that will leave people wondering if I have really lost all my remaining sanity after I typed what should be nothing more than one man’s thought about the NBA; we’re talking about the previews for the 2008/2009 season. Last year I thought the Nets could finish above the Celtics, had high hopes for the Bulls and the Nuggets (who didn’t?), and really expected nothing of the Lakers, so I hope I can make a little bit more sense this year. And let’s start off with the Atlantic Division.

1. Boston Celtics: Repeat? Quite possible. Even though they lost James Posey to New Orleans, I think it won’t hurt the Celtics too much. Not that I’m underestimating Posey’s value to the Celtics, but I believe the team has plenty of pieces to make it work to at least make the Finals again. Leon Powe will see a significant increase in his minutes on the court now that Posey is gone, giving them an extra boost off the bench. Garnett, Allen and Pierce now finally have that first championship, and being the players that they are, I can’t imagining them being satisfied with just one. What I really want to know is: how healthy is Bill Walker? If he can come back at 100%, the best team of the NBA might have one of the best guards of this year’s Draft.

2. Philadelphia 76’ers: How much more can Andre Iguodala improve? It would be nice if he became a better shooter, because with Elton Brand now manning the paint, it will create more open shots for him and Andre Miller. Defensively this team is pretty much set too; the guards can gamble every now and then on their man, because behind them is Samuel Dalembert waiting to block anything that might slip through. Couple this with young forward Thaddeus Young, and that’s a great starting five that can play with any other team in the League. Head coach Maurice Cheeks can also choose to go small, giving Louis Williams extended time on the floor. Starting this season, the Sixers have some really nice years ahead of them.

3. Toronto Raptors: I like the signing of Jermaine O’Neal and it will be fun to watch him and Chris Bosh playing off each other. José Calderon is now finally the starting point guard for the Raptors, and will probably share the backcourt with Anthony Parker, and Jamario Moon will be playing the small forward position. But if it’s time to make some substitutions, who will you send in? I’m not too fond of the bench, besides Hassan Adams (yes, Hassan Adams). If Bosh or, more realistically, O’Neal gets injured, which big would be the one replacing them? Andrea Bargnani is more of a small forward, and as a former number one pick, I doubt if he will ever be a star. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he can play, but he’s not a guy who you can build your whole team around. Not yet, anyway. Luckily they still have Bosh, who played quite well on Team U.S.A., and once again has to have a great season to lead the Raptors to the playoffs. But more than that can’t be expected from this team.

4. New Jersey Nets: I actually placed the Nets over the Knicks because of one reason: even though the Nets are obviously in a rebuilding situation, they are doing in a way which will keep them (hopefully) competitive. Not because it’s “my” team which could make me biased, but I actually believe with Devin Harris and the rookies Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ryan Anderson and Brook Lopez, the Nets have a good young nucleus to win some games these next few seasons. I left Yi out on purpose, because I can’t get over the Richard Jefferson trade. I understand Yi has a lot of upside, but he is a player who has yet to prove himself. The plan is to bring him along slowly, and not pressure him too much early on. Josh Boone is someone who averaged a double-double since he became a starter early in the season, so we now have an idea what to expect out of him. What I really hope is that Sean Williams finally “gets it”, and starts using his head more during games. He put up nice numbers when he was a starter for a short while, but on too many occasions he seems to be confused during the plays that they ran. Vince Carter? Well, I’m not the one to bash him. He can be frustrating to watch, but also still can make you go drooling like a toddler scoring when he wants, and showing that he’s a great passer. He needs to be a leader this season, and as a fan it will be interesting to see if he accepts that role. My plea to Lawrence Frank is once again to play the young guys. Lopez will definitely see a lot of minutes, but I really hope that CDR will get off the bench too. I hope he’ll the starting small forward sooner than later, but that might be a tad unrealistic. The Nets probably won’t make the playoffs this season, but there’s enough to get excited about.

5. New York Knicks: Of course Mike D’Antoni will improve their record from last season, and he might get more out of some players than his predecessor, Isiah Thomas. Jamal Crawford might have a great year now with D’Antoni as his coach, and David Lee is always fun to watch because of his work-ethic when it comes to rebounding. In fact, almost the whole team from last season is back for another year (plus Chris Duhon), and that’s the reason I placed them last in the Atlantic Division. Rookie Danilo Gallinari has back problems, so he can’t be counted on as a savior, and recently signed Allan Houston? He probably can still shoot 3’s, so let’s hope the best for him. It’s the “wait-and-see” approach if Eddy Curry, the still-Knick Zach Randolph and the rest can run-and gun in D’Antoni’s offense.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Evolution of the Power Forward

No, I’m not going all the way back in NBA history. However, I will go back in my own NBA history, my memory of the game I’ve been following since the early nineties, and I realize that no position has changed more than the 4-spot.

Some might argue that in the last decade the point guard position went in a different direction, but in reality, that’s not the case. The “classic” point guard was always the guy who had a pass-first mentality, setting up plays and sharing the rock with his teammates. In the mid-nineties you had guys like Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson coming up; small players who were more scorers than the traditional guards. Like nowadays you have Gilbert Arenas at the 1-spot in Washington, but he’s more of a playmaker with the ability to score 40 at any given time. The point guard position has always been divided. In the Knicks’ glory days you had the amazing Walt Frazier who could drop 30 on your ass, but also give 10 assists along the process. Or what about Kevin Johnson, a diminutive but fierce guard who played for the Phoenix Suns who liked to dunk on whatever big log was manning the paint? Nowadays, I think Steve Nash is responsible for letting GM’s realize that you need a floorleader who can rack up dimes and making everyone around him better. I know I might be stating the obvious, but guys like Chris Paul, Andre Miller and Deron Williams are all like that, and it’s a joy to watch them play.

I’m really drifting off here, because I should be talking about the big men in this game, the tall forces who emphasize “power” in power forward. Elbows flying, floor-diving, reaching out there for the rebound, getting some points in the paint, being as wide as you are tall, pushing, shoving, boxing out, tough defense and what not. When I think of them, stuff like this pops into my head like a virus pop-up window when you’re browsing for “Paris Hilton + pics” (not that I know about this from any personal experiences). But today’s power forward seems to be a more versatile, finesse kind of player. Tall guys who can take their defenders off the dribble, some even shoot 3’s if needed, they’re more like taller small forwards. The power forward of the early to mid-nineties would be a center in the modern-day NBA.

The 4-spot in my mind is still occupied by players like Charles Barkley, Horace Grant, Charles Oakley, Buck Williams, Larry Johnson (well, his first 2 two seasons with the Hornets), Karl Malone, Moses Malone, Kevin McHale, Antonio Davis, Dale Davis, Rick Mahorn, Jayson Williams, Otis Thorpe, Anthony Mason, P.J. Brown and even Dennis Rodman (build like a small forward, but could outrebound every damn power forward out there). The ultra-athletic Shawn Kemp might not fit in the mold of the other guys I named here, but if you play with as much force as Kemp, he belongs in this list too, no doubt.

In 1995 Kevin Garnett was drafted. Rail-thin, wiry yet strong enough to hammer it over plenty of other dudes his size. In the years that followed, KG showed that he could do just about everything. He was basically a 6’11 small forward, and when you check the power forwards we have on our current NBA rosters, there are plenty more of those ‘big-small forwards’: Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, Tyrus Thomas, Al Harrington, Lamar Odom, Boris Diaw, and even Rashard Lewis played some power forward for the Orlando Magic (which is insane).

Why am I writing this? To sum it all up: out of frustration. I’m not saying there aren’t any good big men left in the NBA, because there are plenty: Flight Howard, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Tyson Chandler, Mountain Drew Bynum, Mehmet Okur, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Marcus Camby, David West, just to name a few. I even want to mention Udonis Haslem here, because he belongs in the classic power forward category, but the NBA is eliminating my definition of the big man. Sometimes a tall player can’t stay into the game because refs are so quick to blow the whistle; it’s almost painful to watch. When you’re a 7-footer, standing still with your hand up in the air and Dwyane Wade comes at you, you know you’re screwed. You could be like a statue and still you would get a foul. It’s always the same damn thing. Sure, I like high-scoring games too, but one of the most annoying things to me in the new millennium of the NBA is that you can’t play tough defense anymore. Maybe basketball in the nineties wasn’t always the most attractive ball you would see, but at least there was equality for every position.