Archive for June, 2008

Samuraisaurus

Jermaine O’Neal might not fit the bill for some people who were looking for that 20 ppg scorer on the wings. But he can certainly score that much himself from in close. Of course that will require him returning to an earlier form: over the last couple of seasons he has looked like he has lost something with too many games lost to injury. He didn’t need to be double-teamed all that much anymore, and the offense of the Pacers often suffered considerably when he had the ball in the post. For the most part though, the guy was playing on one leg. So let’s hope he can show that he’s fully recovered from his meniscus injury, and ready to show that he does still need to be doubled down low.

But that’s not where we should be looking to find a rational for why this was the trade that worked best in Colangelo’s mind. We should look at what JO can bring to the defensive end. Even on one leg the guy was leading the league in blocked shots for a good deal of last season. That is the end of the floor where he tried to contribute the most, and he did manage to make an impact there. Again the bad wheel came into play, particularly when guarding guys like Bosh late in games. You could just see him fading near the end of third quarters. Playing on one leg will do that. And not having much help defensively will do that as well.

The Raptors need to make use of his defensive abilities to shore up the gains they made defensively last year, and further their efforts where they were still weak. Early offense off transition was something this team couldn’t stop last season. Once the defense was set they showed they could get stops. But they were too reliant on help and when it came to speedy guards penetrating right away, the help didn’t just react, it over-reacted, and easy baskets ensued. With a guy like JO in there, they ought to have a greater level of trust in their last line of defense. Bosh and JO together should not need the kind of help that we have seen in the past. And together those two should not need to over-extend themselves and be as prone to injuries as they have been of late while all on their own. They could form a solid presence that will bring a lot more hesitancy to opposing guards looking to create early off the dribble, and allow guys like Calderon, Moon and Kapono to confidently contain guys off of penetration and stop the ball as a unit in spite of lacking in defensive prowess as individuals. My greatest fears of the upcoming season was seeing a flurry of blow-bys, and too many comfortable threes coming from the guys wearing the wrong colored jerseys. Now with the last line of defense strengthened considerably, the weaker defenders on the perimeter can do a better job of working together without an eye to helping all the way inside at some point, and thereby over-reacting all too often.

I was watching Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai the other night (now that could make for a hell of a rotation - no?). The wise elder Samurai explained why he left an opening on one side of the fort they had built to protect villagers from marauding thugs by surmising that if they simply defend they will eventually lose, but if they let attackers enter singly before closing off the opening with a rush of spears, then the foes can be worn down one at a time until they are nothing. It worked well enough for Hollywood to turn it into a cowboy tale. And it can work for slow-footed dinosaurs as well. And some of those guys (Kapono certainly comes to mind) might be able to stay on the floor without being a liability, and score somewhere close to twenty points on quite a few occasions themselves.

So as long as they start with an emphasis on defense, and use O’Neal’s abilities to bring everyone else along that much further on that end, and build upon a mindset of scoring off of defense, and winning through strong defensive play, I can’t fault this move or Colangelo’s overall intent. It might even mark a watershed in Colangelo’s career, and with much thanks to Sam Mitchell’s influence, show that he realizes just what it takes to put a team together for bigtime success. And if it doesn’t pan out then it won’t be due to recklessness, and he gets another kick at the can when that big contract expires.

This article courtesy of •LX•.

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Leading up to Draft Day

Naturally, leading up to draft day, there is a lot of speculation on deals that could be made, but there is even more speculation that usual for the Raptors this year. It’s no secret that the Raptors are trying to make a deal to get TJ out of town (or get more agile and versatile as the execs would probably put it) and anybody who watched a single Raptors game last season knows what the Raptors are lacking: rebounding and the ability to get to the net…the exact same things they were lacking the year before.

So with all of the names being thrown around, what are the pros and cons? Who would fit? Who wouldn’t? Here are a few names that have come up and a few comments on each guy. Forget the actual deals, because then we start getting into picks and packages, I’m not interested in that. Let’s just take a look at some of the names.

    Jermaine O’Neal

I actually hate myself for saying this, because I actually like Jermaine O’Neal, but there are a lot of things about him that make me have visions of Whince Carter. The first is that he has had a lot of injury problems, mostly with his knee. Now, given, Jermaine’s injuries have been legit and we haven’t seen him writhing on the floor, asking anybody around to find the sniper in the building, but time away from the court is time away from the court. In the past four seasons, O’Neal has averaged 51.5 games played per season, not exactly the kind of thing that makes you think bargain for a guy who has $44 million coming his way over the next two years. That’s Yogi money.

I also have some reservations about Jermaine’s drive. Okay, I know that he has been asking to get out of Indiana for a while now and given what that organization has turned into, you can see where he is coming from, but just because you don’t want to be somewhere, you don’t quit playing. The Raptors had a guy who did that already: VC. If there’s one thing this team, this CITY hates, it’s a quitter. That’s why this city loved guys like JYD and Oak (well, Oak was love/hate). We all knew that they weren’t the best players on the court, but we damn well knew that they weren’t going to take a night off. If Jermaine comes over to the Raptors, he will probably be rejuvenated, having an opportunity to play with Bosh and a pass-first guard in Jose. He will like playing in a building that is pretty much full on most nights. But what happens if the Raptors falter? Does he start to sulk? Does he start walking the court? Do his injuries mysteriously start to appear again? Who knows?

As far as his actual abilities go, Jermaine definitely has talent. When he’s healthy and he feels like playing, he can be a serious force attacking the basket and on the defensive end. Raptor fans might remember back in the 2002-2003 season when he slapped 10 blocks down on the Raps. He has always had a good shot, but if he is going to be serious about attacking the basket, he needs to get that free throw percentage higher than the career 70.5% he’s sitting at.

    Boris Diaw

Well, as long as we are talking about guys who mysteriously disappear, step forward Mr. Diaw…which is actually what the Suns have been asking him to do for a few years now. Boris Diaw is about as inconsistent player as there is in the league. His points per game have decreased in each of the last three years, but that’s also associated with his playing time, which has also decreased. But guess why his playing time has decreased? Because the dude is inconsistent. You never know which guy you are going to get.

Diaw is going to get you some rebounds, but his aggression needs to go way up if he is going to be a serious presence on the boards. Too many times we see him either get muscled out of the way or simply fade into the background when the ball’s up in the air. Am I calling him soft? No, I don’t think he’s soft, but I think he could be a little tougher on the court. I guess his style of play has allowed him to be very resilient as far as not missing many games. There’s the trade-off vs. O’Neal. Jermaine has more talent and can score and play more D, but Diaw is probably going to play in more games. Some of the “soft” notion may also be attributed to the kind of guy he is. By all accounts, Diaw is a down to Earth type of guy, a good teammate. Sometimes you have to learn to leave that nice guy image in the locker room and come out and be a bad ass on the court.

    Gerald Wallace

Is there a player who has been more talked about in Toronto over the past few seasons than Gerald Wallace? We’ve heard about his athleticism, how he can attack the basket and take over games when he needs to. We’ve heard how he can be the slasher the Raptors need, how a Wallace-Bosh tandem would be near unstoppable. But once again, here’s another guy who has had some injury problems. In the past four seasons, he has averaged almost 65 games per year, which isn’t all that bad, but his injuries have been of the nagging variety, the type that might just show up season after season. The groin injury at the end of last season is a prime example. Groin injuries are possibly the worst injury to have in basketball, because it doesn’t let you have any power to leap, make cuts or get speed. It essentially renders you useless.

You also have to watch out for guys who have any sort of history of concussions. The next knock on a guy’s head could be the one that puts him out for half of the season. Take that along with his foot/leg/calf injuries, shoulder problems…sounds like he is getting ready to fall apart…and we don’t want that happening on Toronto’s dime.

You have to think that a guy who is playing in Charlotte (although he opted to stay there) has to want to play somewhere where he is going to be able to compete each night. You want to show up to the arena thinking that you have a chance to win on any given night. You also like to know that you have some legit talent around you, guys who are going to be able to pick up the slack on nights when you might not have your best stuff. Gerald might also thrive in the Raptors system because he will know that he is going to get a lot of touches, but that they are probably going to be when he has more of an opening. Give credit to Jose, he can find guys in traffic and knowing that he has a legit slasher with him on the floor, he will be looking to get Gerald the ball early and often.

    Corey Maggette

We’ve said it before. Corey Maggette has never seen a shot he didn’t like. Off-balance, fadeaway, turnaround, hook, baby hook, jump hook, long range, mid-range, left-handed, right-handed, hell, underhanded, the guy likes to shoot. Shoot first, shoot second and clap for the ball when other guys are shooting. Okay, maybe he’s not THAT shot happy, but it just seems that his shots come at the most inopportune time. But here’s what I love about Maggette: he also likes to attack the basket. He’s right up near the top of the league in trips to the free-throw line and if there’s one thing I harp about here all the time, it’s how guys need to score points with the clock still. What I also like is that not only is he getting to the line, he’s following it up by shooting about 82% from the line for his career. Those are points the Raptors need to win close games. The points you are able to score at the start of the game from the line take away the ones you need at the end of the game and if you find yourself on the line at the end of the game, you have to be able to seal the deal.

Maggette is a decent rebounder, but you’re not bringing him into the fold to bring down boards. Make no mistake, if you’re bringing in Maggette, you’re bringing him in to score, to attack, to get guys into foul trouble trying to handle his athleticism. The one constant criticism about Maggette is that he takes some mini-vacations when it’s time to get on the defensive end. The Raptors were actually stronger last year on D than people give them credit for, so Sam would have to be all over Corey to make sure that he is working on both ends of the court. This is the kind of player where when he first puts on your uniform, you make sure he knows the rules and you make sure early. If he misses assignments on D, you sit his ass down and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Lay down the law early.

Anyway, there are a few other names floating around right now, but those are the main ones. Let’s see what happens within the next couple of days and await Thursday night.

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Some Post Post-Season Thoughts

So at the beginning of the season, I was referring to the Boston Celtics as the NBA Champion Boston Celtics, not because I believed they were going to win the championship, but because just about every media outlet had them as the champion before the season had even started. Needless to say, I proved once again why I don’t work at any of those major media outlets as a sports writer, but that being said, I still believe that if the Pistons had been healthy (Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups), they would have taken the Celtics. Anyway, I’m not upset that the Celtics won, I’m always happy when the champ comes from the East, I’m just still not completely convinced that they were the best team this year. It doesn’t really matter, because they are the team holding the trophy (which could be the ugliest trophy in sports).

One of the things that I hope will FINALLY be put to bed is all of the Kobe-Jordan comparisons. The Celtics shut Kobe down a lot easier than I thought was possible, to the point where you didn’t even notice when Kobe was on the floor. It didn’t matter who was on him, he got shut down repeatedly. Even when he started to look like he was going to put things together, Doc Rivers made the appropriate switches to shut him back down. The thing about Jordan was that he had a good supporting cast, but when his teammates weren’t pulling their weight, he would simply take things over by himself. When Phil Jackson was interviewed during one halftime, he was asked about Kobe’s performance and he said that they were going to need Kobe to carry them in the second half. We just didn’t see that. Now whether that it completely attributed to the Celtics D is up for debate, but whether it was the D, Kobe just having some bad games or a combination of both, Kobe just didn’t do what he was supposed to do: lead his team. Maybe Shaq was right, Kobe can’t win without him.

As far as coaching goes, we saw Doc go between using his D to fight through pick and rolls and subsequently switch on them, we saw his team get rough with Kobe when they had to and we saw them just simply outmuscle guys (hello? Gasol) inside. Through the sounds of the NBA, we were able to listen to Doc give talks during timeouts that were more inspirational than strategic, while others were completely X’s and O’s. You have to love the fact that when the Celtics were being routed early in games, Doc used his timeouts wisely, not so much to stop the bleeding, but to keep his team’s focus.

So with all of the talk that we always hear from various media outlets about Phil Jackson being a genius, I have to be the soundboard for the collective WTF? How do you blow those kinds of leads in the NBA Finals? THE FINALS! I mean, those blown leads were Raptoresque. Even Sam Mitchell was sitting back in his chair saying, “Wow, that guy should be fired.” Why were the Lakers jacking the ball up so much when they had those big leads? Why were they not using the clock? Why didn’t Phil call some timeouts and ask his team what they were doing shooting early in the clock? Why in God’s name could he not see that Radmanovic was being outplayed on both ends of the court on a consistent basis? I mean, sure, Radmanovic is known as one of those players who can win the game for either team, but in the series, he was only killing the Lakers. His consistent playing time was mind boggling.

On a final note, I have to say that I was hoping that anybody other than Paul Pierce was going to win the MVP. His exit and subsequent return from his life-threatening knee injury was embarrassing. This was on the “drunk uncle singing at the wedding” level. Seeing him carried off and then come back in a few minutes was so brutal, I thought he should have played the rest of the game in a Del Piero jersey (go Spain!). To then see him running up and down the court, hitting threes and jumping up and down on the sidelines made me sick. Somewhere Tim Donaghy was saying, “What has the NBA come to?”

Oh well, now on to the draft season. Raptors should be busy…

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Ugliness Never Dies

OK. So I’m watching game four of the Finals. Actually I’m watching the opening graphics and admiring the beautifully rendered golden lettering, and trying hard to make my brain not pay attention to the grammatical error that it represents (Finals is plural but there is only one single final series which is being referenced). Who needs to speak english properly when you’re looking at the big imprinted stamp of greatness that happens as “the Finals” rolls off the tongue and shines so brilliantly in hi-def? And so I’m allowing myself to be hypnotized in order to feel a sense of expectation.

Still - the league’s image seems tarnished to me. I mean ok it’s wonderful that people are sitting down to watch this renewal of big-time franchises. But I fear that the interest-level only masks what might be deteriorating below the surface.

First of all the league seems oblivious to the need of putting the best product on the court. They wait about a week to get “the Finals” finally started towards true finality, with the Thursday night TV slot given the utmost precedence. Then they get two days off before the next best TV night. And then they get a single off-day to travel through three time zones and be ready for game three! Thanks so much NBA, for allowing me to watch Kobe and Gasol clanking on a dozen freethrows. D’Ya think maybe they had some tired legs? That excuse works pretty good for the Celtics level of play in general. You’ve got the latest American Idol singing the Anthem while looking like he’s already sporting a bad combover, which makes the combover a hip trend rather than just a sad necessity I suppose, but I’m not buying into it, and I can’t stomach the D-League game that followed and have it defined as in any way glamorous, even if it happens right there among the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant. That game was as tired as another Hulk movie, and still with no good way to explain how he keeps his pants from bursting their stitches and shredding just like the shirt. Why not just make the Hulk transform properly into one huge green naked figure, while keeping his private bits teeny and completely inoffensive? It works with the whole backstory - not only did the radiation make him volatile, but it also shrunk his most precious of organs as if it were a tumor. And there you have another opportunity to increase the dude’s incredible rage - the sheer invisibility of his raging hard-ons. But no - the pants somehow stretch out to cover more than Larry Bird’s short shorts ever did. We will have to just look past the stupidity of that. And of course no - the scheduling of “the Finals” will continue to serve TV execs instead of fans of the game.

Then you have to look at how these are just not great teams. Great historic franchises, undoubtedly. But the gap between these teams and the Raptors is not large enough to inspire awe. Maybe that’s a good thing for the prospects of Raptor success. Maybe they can improve from within like the Lakers did, and then add a good Gasol-like piece to take them to the top. And maybe that climb to the top is not so far off with the West clearly falling back some, and the East not really looking overwhelming yet (if the Hawks get the chance to erase only one embarrassing loss and somehow make it a win, Beantown gets burned to the ground after the first round instead of after winning “the Finals”). But I can’t be all that happy about it. At this time of year I want to see at least one team that can claim true greatness. This series doesn’t measure up to almost every Western Conference final series of the past decade. And sure the East-West matchups following all of those stunk, but at least it was due to greatness if only with one team. Is it better that this one has all the buzz, maybe precisely because neither team can claim greatness? This year I’ll say ok, sure, but don’t let it be the start of a pattern.

Then again, can any team arrive at greatness when the style of play really bought into by everyone, is all about mucking things up, packing the paint and letting out-of-rhythm shots fly in bulk? There simply is no place for greatness. I can’t imagine Kareem being able to find enough space to unleash his impossible-to-defend skyhook with the crowds of defenders that gather in the paint now. Shots from the elbow are the new high-percentage alternative to points-in-the-paint. Doc Rivers was lamenting the missed layups that lead to disastrous results in the first quarter last night. It wasn’t the misses that were such an obvious problem. It was the attempts in the first place. Unless they come in transition layups are no longer gimmes, and both of these teams are here at the top, because they can defend in transition, so mostly forget those layups of the gimme variety altogether. They are usually rushed in cramped quarters. Low percentage plays. The Celtics needed to start hitting some of those longer range shots that they were going to be able to get. That’s been the story of the entire playoffs. Look at all the 20-point leads, and the many 20-point swings to even the score. It’s all been about just hitting shots. We all hate it when Sam Mitchell says it, but it’s true. They gotta hit shots. Any team in the league. Then they might be able to find enough room to drive through three defenders with a player like a Kobe or Pierce, and the low percentage plays around the rim might become trips to the line. And sure enough it happens last night - they hit a few shots - and though it doesn’t come about in a great way, it does take place in historic fashion, and the Lakers lost. The Lakers lost! A great coach like the zen-man allowed that to happen. Actually the nature of the game in 2008 allowed that to happen. So how can I really complain?

The Hulk is still wearing pants isn’t he? “The Finals” is still not english. So I will complain in spite of my joy. I just want the kids who were able to stay up all night to witness that comeback and fall in love with the game, to carry an image of the league in their heads that is worth it lasting a few more decades. Can you build on this Mr. Stern and somehow allow for a few great plays to transpire during the greatest of the games that the league can lay claim to? Can you make the idiots at GM feel embarassed for using “the Finals” as a means of trying to sell those mammoths-on-wheels to poor bastards facing 5 bucks-a-gallon? I mean can the games be that good that they deserve at least girls in bikinis rubbing their bodies all over Yukon Denali’s?

We all need to move forward together into a new age. The league needs a new image like GM needs cars that run on carbon dioxide. All the hype on Kobe is not enough. The split screen promo with Magic and Larry, while nice in a nostalgic way, is not enough. Mr. Stern is not going to be able to get these two teams in “the Finals” that many more times, I hope. And if he does then he should at least be honest and have split screens with Jerry West and Kevin McHale fumbling through their script. “Rivalries never die. Only cities where nobody wants to watch a game die. They slowly wither and die.” Or give us the ultimate split screen with Donaghy and Bavetta. “Rivalries never die - thanks to us - and a few mobsters.” You might as well Mr. Stern, because eventually all the ugliness is going to show through.

This article courtesy of •LX•.

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