Clap Clap ClapClapClap: The 33 (Other) Most Intriguing People of the 2009-10 NBA Season
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on October 27, 2009
It’s a little weird, I know. I’m currently a Philadelphian living in New York, which means that as a sports fan of just about any degree, my thoughts, viewing schedule, and life in general should be absolutely dominated by baseball–what with the Yankees and Phillies about to play in the World Series and all–these next few weeks. But while I’m pretty ridiculously excited for that, it’s the upcoming start of the NBA season that I can’t get off of my mind. Even with my team probably heading into a year of maddening inconsistency and the ceiling of a third-straight first-round playoff exit, I still found myself just as excited to watch the Sixers’ pre-season games as I was to see the Phillies in the divisional and league playoffs. What can I say? It’s been a long, basketball-less summer. I need dunks, three-pointers, “Sirius” and Jeff Van Gundy back in my life.
With the return of the NBA season invariably comes the return of epic Bill Simmons basketball preview columns–which, in itself, is one of the best things about basketball being back. His column for this year was of the 33 most intriguing people of the upcoming season–the players, coaches, and executives that would provide the most interest subplots over the course of the next 82 games. Some minor quibbles aside–Tim Duncan at #2 is way too high, and Shaq probably should’ve been #1B next to LeBron–it’s an excellent list, and one which I would be ill-advised to try to better. But I feel like writing a lot of words about the NBA, and since any basketball column I write would probably end up ripping off Simmons anyway, I figure it’d be slightly more righteous to instead just piggy-back off him–with my list of the next 33 (or as they’re presented here, #66 – #34), the ones that Bill excluded.
In any event, you should read his column before (and arguably instead of) mine, as it’s far better and (basically by definition) much more relevant. But if you’re like me, and you just can’t wait for the season to fucking get here already, hopefully mine help tide you over a little while longer too.
66. Omri Casspi
I’m thinking that the Kings could end up being a kind of sneaky-fun team to watch in the West this year–that is, if you get the NBA package or live in the greater Sacramento area, since they certainly won’t be televised nationally anytime soon. The team undoubtedly hit the necessary kind of Rock Bottom last year, with the bright spot of the entire 17-65 season being the emotional retiring of former franchise player Chris Webber’s jersey before a game that they almost won against the Jazz (really, it was close!) But with some of their flotsam jettisoned or just prescribed to the bench, and a decent young trio now of Kevin Martin, Jason Thompson, and rookie point-guard/physical-freak Tyreke Evans leading the way, I think they could be kind of exciting.
Really though, I’ll be watching for Omri Casspi, the Kings’ other ’09 first-rounder, and (likely) the first-ever Israeli-born baller to play in the NBA. M.O.T.s come up so rarely in the NBA, and much as I love the Lakers’ Jordan Farmar, he just doesn’t have the inclination or the opportunity to rep as much as we’d like. Casspi should certainly get his shot with a team as talent-barren as the Kings, and he’s put up some pretty decent numbers in the pre-season, so here’s hoping. An Israeli bball stud would likely do wonders for our people, politically and socially–more than Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way, even.
#65. Darko Milicic
After a half-decade of being basketball’s walking, dribbling and perimeter-drifting punchline, Milicic finally gets to fulfill what seems to be the destiny of all positionally ambiguous European-born basketball players–to play in Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo, largely position-devoid Seven Seconds or Less system. A shot-blocker and a potential inside-outside threat on a team that badly needs both of those player types, I think it’s fairly safe to say that it’s now or never for the one-time #2 pick of the 2003 draft. He’ll never be mentioned in the same sentence as LeBron, Melo and D-Wade in anything outside of that ’03 context, but it might not be too late just yet to distance himself from Michael Sweetney, Marcus Banks and Zarko Cabarkapa either.
#64. John Kuester
I find it somewhat fascinating that the little-experienced Kuester was given the keys to a fucked-up Piston team and essentially told (in my impression, anyway), “Hey, we’re handing you to the keys to this team right now because it’s too fucked up and we’re too economically strapped to hire a real coach, so try not to fuck it up any worse than it already is and we’ll see if we can’t find someone better in a year or two.” Talking with my Piston fan co-worker recently, though, he was able to convince me that maybe this team isn’t quite as royally screwed as you’d think coming out of that disastrous late-season / playoff-run–that unburdened by the Iverson mess and by Sheed’s negative energy, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince will come back motivated, and Rodney Stuckey will emerge into one of the East’s dominant point guards. (He also had me thinking that Charlie Villanueva was the cost-effective signing of the off-season and that Ben Wallace and Kwame Brown can somehow add up to a passable starting center). I don’t know if any of it’s true, but it made me think Kuester might not be in the worst position after all.
Were Charlie V and Ben Gordon the answer to the team’s problems? Probably not. Does the team have a shot at competing with the conference elite? Not really Is Kuester’s job about as secure as the PlaySkool safe I used to keep my loose change and little-used pot paraphernalia in (Hint: The combination is “1”)? I would guess so. But given the opportunity, it’ll be interesting to see what Kuester can do in one of the NBA’s most toxic jobs, given a roster that, on paper at least, can still be pretty competitive.
#63. Brandon Jennings
With a strong start to his career in Milwaukee, this guy could make waves that end up being pretty far-reaching. The first American player to forego playing college ball to get pro experience overseas, Jennings could set a precedent for unsentimental high school kids who decide that preachy coaches, meaningless conference rivalries and “One Shining Moment” don’t hold as much sway for them as the prospect of getting legit pro experience, and making millions in the process. And really, when you think about it in its most basic, logical components, what do you think prepares people to hold down a job as an adult–a year of frat-parties and non-stop inside-the-bubble adulation, or a year spent as an outsider in an occasionally hostile culture, where for likely the first time in your life, you’re not such hot shit? Personally speaking, if you’d dropped me in Italy as a college Freshman and told me to learn how to make a living working with professionals, it would’ve grown me up right quick.
Of course, it won’t matter so much if Jennings busts, and he might even turn into a cautionary tale akin to preps-to-pros busts like Kwame Brown and Darius Miles. But like Casspi, the Bucks are going to be so devoid of legitimate players this season (the one man to beat for Jennings at the point position is Luke Ridnour–’nuff said) that he’s almost guaranteed to get a fair deal of laying time, and like Casspi, he’s made some noise in the pre-season. He’s worth checking in on from time-to-time, they could be making a 30 for 30 (60 for 60?) special about this kid one day.
#62. Carlos Boozer / Paul Millsap
Or, the NBA’s attempt to answer the scientific conundrum, “Can two objects occupy the same space at the same time?” I have no clue what the Jazz were trying to accomplish this off-season, but I guess they got their man/men–they matched Portland’s offer for Millsap, and they failed to move Boozer, so there’ll certainly be no shortage of double-double-racking in Utah this season. Seeing which of them ultimately wins out the battle for power-forward supremacy–and what will end up happening to the loser–might end up being the only interesting thing about the Jazz this season, one of the most (appropriately, I suppose) vanilla teams in the NBA.
#61. Trevor Ariza
The best thing about Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview issue came in the Houston Rockets section, where Shane Battier–the team’s offensively-limited but defensively-tenacious forward–talks about how weird it is to be the last player introduced in the Rockets’ pre-game routine, an honor usually reserved for the team’s star player. Needless to say, with Yao Ming out for the season and Tracy McGrady temporarily sidelined (more on him later), the Rock Boys are relatively devoid of star power, and a guy like Battier–who defines the team’s general ethos, even if he doesn’t move all that many jerseys–is the closest thing to a franchise player. That is, unless the team’s hot new signing in the off-season can step up to be that go-to-guy–ex-Laker swingman Trevor Ariza.
This is weird for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that just a year ago, barely anyone (including Lakers fans) had any clue who Ariza was. A second-round pick out of UCLA who was shooed out of New York and Orlando (the irony of the latter not being lost on many in last year’s finals) before landing in LA, and who spent his first year on the West Coast out with foot injuries, Ariza slowly made a name for himself over the course of last season with his versatility, his perimeter defense and his much improved three-point shooting. Still, he mostly flew under the radar, and I even remember hoping the Sixers would be able to land him in the off-season for a relatively reasonable price. But a title does funny things to people’s reps, and when the Lakers took home top honors in the off-season, Ariza got much of the credit (and rightfully so). Hence, he was able to get a mid-level contract from the Rockets in the off-season–roughly the same amount, strangely, that ex-Rocket Ron Artest took to take his place in Los Angeles, essentially working out to just a straight swap between the teams–and by ’09 Houston standards, that basically makes him an instant superstar down south.
Can Ariza make that next leap as a player, going from virtual unknown to fringe-All-Star in just two seasons’ time? I always liked him, so I hope so. It will no doubt be a fascinating experiment in Houston regardless, as we see if the Rockets’ solid infrastucture, market-manipulating dealings and core values of smart team play and hard-nosed defense is good enough to make up for the lack of personnel. Basketball is one of the only pro sports where the organizational philosophy can even threaten to supersede the means of the players, and the Rockets this season should be a pretty good focus group on just how far that concept can be stretched.
#60. Greg Oden
The honeymoon–and the ESPN The Magazine commercials–are definitely in the past with this guy. I never watched him in college, so it’s getting to be a little confusing to me why a guy who still can’t convincingly overtake Joel Przybilla for starting center on the perpetually up-and-coming Blazers was ever going to be a hot prospect, let alone draftable over that skinny guy that Seattle ended up taking. In his article the Sports Guy has the Blazers falling to 41-41 next season, and though I’m not sure if they’ll fall quite that far, I do think they take a step back this season–that is, unless their allgedly-dominant center actually starts to come into his own. He was such a disappointment last year that you almost forget he’s even on the team now, but you have to keep in mind that if Nate McMillan can get just about anything out of him, they could pretty easily catapult from regressors to contenders. He’s supposedly coming back leaner and meaner (a little mean would certainly go a long for this guy), so it’ll be interesting to see if he can leave the Vanilla Gorilla in the dust once and for all.
(Side note: Let’s say Oden never really pans out the way people hoped. We had a stretch in the middle of this decade where Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani and Grampy Oden were consecutively picked as #1 in the draft. I mean…really? Granted, they weren’t the strongest draft classes to begin with, but during that stretch, Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams, Danny Granger and Rajon Rondo were all taken with lower picks…and the best we could do on top were three slightly above-average big ‘uns? You have to go back to the 70s to find even two straight #1 picks who never made an all-star team, and right now at least, it’s looking like we very easily could have a three-fer. An unfortunate blemish on pro ball in the 00s.)
59. Lawrence Frank
Frank’s job will certainly interesting this season, with the Nets ownership in flux and the team in full-on rebuilding more. But more on that later. What I’m really interested about with regards to Frank is just how much longer he can hold on to his job. When he took over from Byron Scott as coach of the Nets, it was January 27, 2004–OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” was the #1 single in the country, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King had just been announced as the most heavily-nominated movie at the Academy Awards, with eleven nods. OK, so maybe it doesn’t quite feel like half a lifetime ago, but it was long enough in the past to make him the longest-tenured coach in the revolving-door Eastern Conference. Lawrence Frank! The guy still looks like he’s an interim manager–like he’s just biding his time on the sideline, trying not to piss off the front office (whoever that may be) or the star players (whichever of those are left). He’s like Commissioner Burrell from The Wire–a guy just competent and well-liked enough to consistently maintain the status quo as everything goes to shit around him. Will he be able to survive a possible 25-win season, though? Better start politicking now, Lawrence.
#58. Stephen Jackson
The ridiculous thing is that it wasn’t even a year ago that Captain Jack signed a three-year extension with the Warriors. Now he wants out? I mean, fair enough…but how long did it take him to realize that he didn’t want to play for a backwards organization and a vindictive, absentee coach in a guard-heavy, overstuffed offense-only lineup? Did he wake up in a cold sweat sometime in April and say to himself “Oh shit…I’m signed on for three years with the Golden State Warriors!” We’ve seen this movie before with malcontents in the Bay Area, and it seems pretty likely that the Captain will be up for grabs before the trading deadline. That’s a good thing–no point in one of the league’s most lovable characters languishing in glorified babysitting duty in Golden State, when plenty of contenders could use a smart, skilled swingman with championship cred late in the season. The Cavs, the Celtics, a second tour with the Spurs…it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility, and it’ll make the post-season that much spicier.
#57. Adam Morrison & J.J. Redick
It seemed like kismet, or the kinship of all living things, that these two guys should meet in the NBA finals last season. Never mind that J.J. only played 16 minutes a game and shot just 40% from the field, or that Adam didn’t even dress for the series. Maybe the best article on the NBA I read all last season was one that focused on these two guys–before Morrison got traded to the Lakers, I think–and their struggles to make a living in the pros, while forgetting about how they used to be the two most electric college players in the country, not having to worry about anything but scoring and playing XBox (“I haven’t played Halo in years” said Redick, in the piece’s most heartbreaking line). It was nice to see these guys at least being able to mime playing as the stars under the world’s biggest stage again. And with Redick still in the Magic rotation, and Morrison lighting it up in the Summer League this off-season, who knows? There’s a possibility–however slight–these guys could be showing down one-on-one for real in the finals next year.
#56. Dwight Howard
There’s a lot to look for about D-12’s game this year–whether he can take the step from franchise player to face of the league, whether he can keep Vince Carter in check and not get threatened by his go-to status in late-game situations, and most importantly, whether he can keep LeBron James from showing him up in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest. But what I really want to know is this: Can the dude learn to shoot free throws? Lest we forget, the Magic were up three with about fifteen seconds to go, and only one Howard free-throw away from clinching game four of the finals last year, but Howard bricked both, and Derek Fisher hit a game-tying three to send the game into overtime, where the Lakers eventually won. For a team historically haunted by poor free-throw-shooting, it was one of the worst (and most gnawingly predictable) ways to lose a big game, and one which basically guaranteed that the Lakers would be going home with top honors.
I’m fascinated by players like Dwight and Shaq’s inability to earn points at the charity stripe, for this simple reason–I’m pretty sure that when I was in sixth grade, I could reliably hit three out of five free throws, and these guys just can’t do that with any regularity (D-12 went just 21-43 from the line in the finals). Now, it’s not a totally fair comparison–the strength and huge hands of these physical weirdos make the physics much harder to control, and the pressure of drilling these shots in such high-leverage situations is obviously slightly more than I experienced in my middle school gym class. But this guy is considered one of the five greatest basketball players in the known universe. It’s just weird that there’s something on the court that I could do as an eleven-year-old that he still can’t. (Yet, anyway–I’m sure there’s an entire scientific brain trust operating underneath Disney World currently devoted to the sole purpose of figuring out a way to get Howard’s FT% up to 65%).
#55. Jonny Flynn
No pressure, rook. With two draft picks in the top six, a once-again-healthy core that went on a surprisingly promising run when at its peak last winter, and new management on the way, it looked like the Timberwolves might have been a team to watch in the West this year. But all the optimism was quickly undercut with new GM David Kahn’s inexplicable move to draft back-to-back point guards with their top two picks, upsetting both and thoroughly alienating the first, Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio, who ended up deciding to avoid the drama altogether by sticking around overseas for the next couple seasons. Now big man Kevin Love is injured as well, and suddenly a lot of eyes are going to be on Flynn to do something to justify the entire mess and keep the season from being a complete wash. He’ll get some help down low from Al Jefferson, but he still has to prove his play-making potential, and with newly-signed backup Ramon Sessions nipping at his heels, he’ll have to do it somewhat expeditiously as well. I’m pulling for you, Jonny–that Syracuse team last year was a whole lot of fun.
#54. Devin Harris & Brook Lopez
I’m also thinking that the Nets could end up being a kind of sneaky-fun team to watch in the East this year–that is, if you get the NBA package or live in the greater New Jersey area, since they certainly won’t be televised nationally anytime soon. (Maybe you really shouldn’t listen to me about these things, though–I also thought the Nationals and the Pirates were going to be .500 teams this MLB season. I have a soft spot for thoroughly, unapologetically terrible and talent-less teams, I guess). In any event, they do have some nice young players now–Courtney Lee, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Terrence Williams all look to be somewhat undervalued pieces now, and they’ll have time to grow together without having to sing backup to any established vets in the process. The leaders of this ragtag bunch, though, will undoubtedly be point guard Devin Harris and post-man Brook Lopez, who need to grow as scoring threats and floor leaders if the Nets want to be more than a 20-win team this year.
Harris and Lopez have–or, should have, anyway–two loftier goals in mind with with their performance this season, though. The first will be proving that there’s enough of a talented, high-ceiling young core already in place with the Nets for LeBron James to consider the team as a viable landing place for him in the off-season. The more I think about it, the more logical the idea of LeBron joining the Nets seems to me. I see the Shaq experiment ending very badly in Cleveland (like, “Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame Shaq for Driving The King Out of Cleveland” bad), I don’t think the Knicks have enough of a future in New York for LeBron to consider spending the next phase of his career there, and as fun as it would be to have Kobe and LeBron in the same city, the Clippers…I just don’t see it. But if the Nets do end up moving to Brooklyn, then LeBron can live out his Big Apple fantasies (with Jay-Z at his side, no less) without necessarily sacrificing the next three or four years of his career to rebuilding. Besides, playing for the newfound Brooklyn Nets in Year Zero, LeBron would absolutely get to define the franchise for all-time, and even maybe achieve the street cred that’s sort of eluded him in his career thusfar. And with an eccentric Russian billionaire writing the checks…c’mon, tell me you can’t see it.
Oh, and the second thing? Convincing me that if and when this team does come to Brooklyn, that I’ll need to shell out the money and sacrifice what little social life I have left to attend 30-40 home games a season. I imagine I won’t need all that much of a push.
#53. Jamal Crawford
A whole decade–573 games in all–without once making the playoffs, in a league where more than half the teams make the damn playoffs, is tragic enough to begin with. But considering that Jamal Crawford spent most of those years not only on teams with little to no playoff aspirations, but in three of the most fucked-up NBA situations of all the 00s (the Bulls in the post-Jordan era, the Knicks under Isiah Thomas, the Warriors after Nelly mentally checked out)–it has to bring a little bit of a smile of your face to see him traded to what should be a good situation and surefire playoff team for once. Brought to the Hawks in an off-season trade, Jamal will likely be coming off the bench behind Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson, but while most twenty-a-game scorers would take that as an affront, you have to think that the guy will be so grateful to be on a team likely to win more than 33 games (his previous ceiling) that he’d be willing to spend the entire season squeegeeing the Phillips Center floor and demonstrating how to take charges in practice if that’s what it took.
#52. DeJuan Blair
You gotta love it in the NBA when a decision is made that even at the time everyone else seems to know is incredibly stupid, and which turns out to be just that stupid in reality. How DeJuan Blair ended up getting picked with the #37 pick in the ’09 draft–behind such can’t-miss future-superstars as DeMarre Carroll, Christian Eyenga and Sergio Llull–is utterly mind-boggling to me, and it appeared to be just as stupifying to anyone who wrote half a sentence about the draft this year. Blair looked like an absolute monster in just about every game of his sophomore season, and played with an alpha-male fury that made me think he sort of resembled Gerard Butler in 300 (you can kinda see it…maybe if you squint). The knocks on him coming to the pro game were obvious–at 6’7″, he was short for a conventional power forward, and after repeated knee surgeries, he had no more ACLs–which could maybe explain why he fell out of the lottery. But his upside, for however long he could stay on the court…how could you possibly let this guy slip to the second round?
Of course, there are too many smart teams in this league for everyone to stay stupid forever, and the Spurs gobbled him up at #37 with the surprised enthusiasm I usually display when nobody else wants the last dumpling at Chinese dinner. In the pre-season he put up cartoon numbers, going for 14 points, eight rebounds and two steals a game–in only 18 minutes a game. He’s sure to get a spot in the Spurs’ rotation this season, and I’m enamored enough with the guy to consider rooting for the team I’ve spent more energy in the last few years seething against than any other sports team just because he’ll be there. And I will never forgive the teams with the #21 – #36 picks in the draft for forcing me to contemplate this.
#51. Chris Paul
By all rights, the Hornets should be terrible this year. They took a major step back last year, they got absolutely humiliated in the playoffs, they have no starting two-guard and a one-man bench, and they appear to be intent on giving their coach the cold shoulder for the rest of his tenure. I want to write them off going into the season, but I can’t do that, and there’s only one even semi-logical reason why–Chris Paul. In a recent Yahoo! Sports chat, one of the guys was asked who the most underrated player in the NBA is, and Paul was his answer. On the surface, this answer should have been ridiculous–Paul is one of the league’s most beloved players, a two-time all-star universally renowned as the league’s best point guard, who finished second only to Kobe Bryant in league MVP voting two seasons ago. But I thought about it for a second, and just kind of shrugged, like “yeah, fair enough.” Dude is that good, maybe the third-most valuable player in the league right now, and any team that he’s on absolutely has to be taken seriously–even if that team is planning on starting Morris Peterson and Julian Wright on a regular basis. I know, right?
#50. Jameer Nelson
Some people, namely the Sports Guy himself, pointed out that the Lakers’ title last year had less to do with the Lakers making any great strides as a team (or Kobe making any great strides as a team player), and more to do with a bunch of weird, fluky circumstances that all worked out in their favor. KG got hurt, Manu Ginobili never got healthy, the Cavs never made the mid-season move they’d been long-threatening and then proved oddly flummoxed by the Magic in the conference finals. But the luckiest of all had to be the injury that fell Magic point guard Jameer Nelson–he who had absolutely shredded the Lakers in their regular-season meetings that year, and would doubtless have continued to do so in the finals. Nelson returned to play the Lakers, but in an extremely limited backup capacity, and I believe that had Nelson been right for the matchup, it would’ve swung at least one or two of the games, and possibly the entire series. Nelson getting back to his All-Star form from last season, I think, makes the Magic the likely title favorites going into the season.
(By the way–the good thing about there being three obviously great teams in the East this year (the Cavs, Celtics and Magic, all of which are arguable as the conference’s best team) is that it should provide for some good late-season excitement, because the three of them will all really be pulling for that #1 seed. Not just because they want home court status throughout–which is important but slightly overrated–but because the two teams that end up in the #2 or #3 seeds will have to play two of the other elite teams, while the #1 seed will likely get something close to a second-round-bye against the Hawks or Wizards or Heat before they have to take on a real challenge. It’s enough of a motivation that if things are close between two of the teams at the end of the season, shit could get real epic for the last couple games. Nobody likes to see coasting in the pros.)
#49. Bryan Colangelo
I have no clue whatsoever what to expect from the Raptors this coming season, but at the very least, I greatly admire Raps GM Bryan Colangelo for adhering to a relatively cohesive blueprint in what should undoubtedly be the weirdest fucking team in the NBA this season. Their starting lineup alone this season contains a Spaniard (Jose Calderon), an Italian (Andrea Bargnani), a Turk (Hedo Turkoglu) and an Alien (Chris Bosh). None of them play fixed positions (with the possible exception of Calderon), and none of them play defense (with the possible exception of no one). My best guess is that they’ll end up looking like a Babblefish-translated version of Suns North, but whether that translates to 50 or 20 wins this season is just about anybody’s guess. I do think it’s only appropriate, however, that the only non-US based team in the NBA should be doing their damnedest to make themselves seem as foreign (in just about every definition) to the regular stateside game as possible. Marco Belinelli is pretty grateful too, I bet.
#48. David Lee & Nate Robinson
Offered one-year extensions by the Knicks after the rest of the league couldn’t make heads or tails of their worth in the off-season, David Lee and Nate Robinson have one more year to prove their worth to…well, somebody. The two of them are really all the Knicks have in terms of genuine, NBA-ready young talent, but despite the former’s endless stream of double-doubles and the latter’s slam dunk prowess, neither is really anywhere close to the kind of player you want to build a franchise around, even in part. Not yet, anyway–there’s still a chance that Nate can prove that he’s more than just a benchwarming sideshow, and that David can finally start to hit that eighteen-foot jumper that separates good power forwards from dominant power forwards (and really, watching Lee struggle hopelessly with that shot is the primary reason to still be watching Knicks games in this day and age, costing himself about one or two thousand bucks with each brick). But the next off-season, with both as unrestricted free agents, will be ultimate decision time, as both get legit deals from teams that actually want them or just resign themselves to being Knicks role players for the rest of their careers.
While we’re on the subject of the rebuilding Knicks, by the way–when does the new administration start to draw heat for wasting their last two top-ten picks? Sure, it’s extremely early to close the books on either of these guys, with Danilo Gallinari playing just 26 injury-stricken games last season and Jordan Hill yet to play a second in an official NBA game. But in what I’ve seen of both, Gallinari looks like a solid bench player at best, whereas Hill has just looked dreadful in each of the half-dozen or so pre-season/Summer League games I’ve seen him in–he looks miserably out of his depth going up against JaVale McGee and Yi Jianlian, God help him when he has to struggle with Kevin Garnett and Elton Brand. In a period when they need to stockpile as much young, cheap talent as humanly possible to attract the Big Free-Agent they’ve been dangling in front of their fans since the end of the Isiah Thomas era, it might prove extremely consequential if they end up having whiffed on both of these–especially considering that they’ve already traded away their pick in the ’10 draft. Yikes.
#47. Hasheem Thabeet
Thabeet is kind of a reverse DeJuan Blair, in that everyone seemed to know that drafting this guy with the #2 pick was way too high even as it was happening. Ironically, the game that defined both players in college may have been the one they played against each other, when Blair positively abused Thabeet in the low post for all 40 minutes of a late-season UConn/Pitt contest–or at least, for all of the 40 minutes that he was on the court, as he got in foul trouble early and had to ride the bench for much of the game. Taken #2 by the Grizzlies, he was supposed to be an offensive project but a defensive stalwart, and now people are questioning if he even has the smarts to play good NBA defense. Thabeet’s status bottomed out with his 57 rating in NBA 2K10, a rating that ranks him lower than a bunch of second-rounders, and now he’s earned the rare status of being deemed a bust before he even sets foot on the court in a regular-season pro game. The fact that he’s going to have to fight Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol on the most damned franchise in the league…it appears we might be a few years away from omnipresent “YOU CAN’T STOP THABEET” posters at the FedEx center.
#46. Ernie Grunfeld
The Wizards GM did a very noble thing for the NBA in the off-season–he kept the middle-class alive in the Eastern Conference. Everyone this off-season has bemoaned and/or celebrated the fact that in the NBA, the rich have gotten richer while the poor got poorer. And indeed, after the Wizards’ uber-disastrous 19-win 2008 season, Grunfeld would have been fairly justified in following the leads of countless other teams in ripping it up (trading what pieces he could, though some of his contracts were largely unmovable) and starting again (rebuilding around the team’s young players and their upcoming No. 5 draft pick). Instead, he held on to his stars and turned the No. 5 pick into Randy Foye and Mike Miller, two above-average role-players to flesh out the Wizards’ thin bench. With starters Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood returning from injury, the Wizards could turn out to be a 50-win team this season–albeit not one who provides that much of a threat to the troika at the top of the conference.
This is more important than people probably realize. The Wizards are one of the decade’s best second-tier teams–a fun, swaggery bunch that can hang around just long enough to put a scare into a legit contender and get people fired up for a possible upset, but not long enough to actually put together a championship run. Wizards fans seem to acknowledge this, and to their credit, they seem mostly OK with it–they (hopfully) realize that it can be just as much fun to root for a scrappy, entertaining second-round team as it is to root for a more composed, professional one who plays deep into the spring. When the Wizards undoubtedly end up playing the Cavs in the playoffs for like the seventh time this decade, I’ll root for them like they were my own team–even though I know perfectly well they barely have a shot. It’s the kind of stuff that really gives the league character, and it’s absolutely necessary.
45. Tyson Chandler & Emeka Okafor
The two participants in the most stupifyingly pointless deal of the off-season. When two players with relatively similar positions, skill sets, and contracts get swapped for each other like Chandler and Okafor, all I can think about is how pissed off I would be if I was one of those players. I mean, I’m currently trying to move from one New York borough to another, and the task seems so monumentally large that I can barely even begin to think about it before I decide to watch Adult Swim re-runs instead. To have to pick up and move from Charlotte to New Orleans, or vice versa, for no particularly pressing reason (a couple extra years on one contract? Injury concerns? The difference between a 13 and 10 statline and a 12 and 11?)–I’d be fucking livid. The good news here is for Okafor, I suppose, who a) upgrades from Raymond Felton to Chris Paul, and who really knows how many points a game that’s worth, and b) goes from being primarily associated throughout his career with Dwight Howard (with whom he was taken back-to-back in the ’04 draft, and whom he somehow beat out for the ’05 Rookie of the Year) to now being associated with Chandler, by any criteria a much more flattering comparison.
44. Andre Iguodala
Little personal bias here, perhaps, but I don’t see how you can deny what a big year this is going to be for Mr. Iguodala. Whether you saw it or not (or cared), ‘Dre turned a major corner in last year’s playoffs–or more specifically, in games one and three of the series, where he was about as smart, electric and clutch as just about anyone else in the post-season. And now with Andre Miller gone to Portland, and Elton Brand just wanting to prove that he’s still a half-decent player in this league, the Sixers are now unquestionably Iguodala’s team–not to mention that with coach Eddie Jordan’s newly installed Princeton Offense, and without a proper point guard, ‘Dre’s probably going to have to shoulder even more of the team’s load this year (after already leading the league in minutes played last season). I don’t know if he’s up to the task, but us Sixers fans (the hundred or so of us left) had better fucking hope so, because without Iggy raising his game to an unquestionable All-Star level, the team doesn’t have much of a prayer to make the playoffs this season.
#43. Luol Deng
After his shockingly inconspicuous absence from the Greatest Post-Season Series of All-Time–I don’t think I heard his name mentioned once in all of Bulls-Celtics, until Paul Pierce mentioned that they’d be even more dangerous next season with Luol Deng healthy (although he referred to him just as “Lu,” which kind of blew my mind). I’ve already written in great detail about just how weird it is that a guy who was not that long ago seen as the Bulls’ franchise player–and signed to a contract to match–sat out the franchise’s most pivotal series since the Jordan era, and nobody even seemed to notice. But now back and with a team that seems like the most plausible to be a threat The Powers That Be in the East–and one which, sans Ben Gordon, once again has a defined place for him in the lineup–he’ll certainly get his shot at proving why people should give a shit about whether he’s with the team or not. Another 14 and six season, though, and the guy’s officially yesterday’s news, on a team which has plenty of other players capable of taking over the spotlight.
#42. Tracy McGrady
Aside from Elton Brand–who was arguably never quite on T-Mac’s level to begin with, despite winning more playoff sereis (currently a 1-0 tally)–you’d be hard to find a player currently in the league who went from elite to worthless in a shorter time than Tracy McGrady. Injuries, too many games logged at too young an age, the weight of an astounding seven career first-round-playoff exits…hard to say what happened, exactly. All I know is that if I was McGrady, I’d have found it damn hard to cheer my teammates along as they rocketed to a brilliant second half of the season and even won the franchise’s first playoff series in over a decade–while I watched from the sidelines with a gimpy left knee and saw my status as an NBA player gradually depreciate from “All-Star” to “Chemistry distraction” to “Injury-prone expiring contract.” Now when people talk about the Rockets’ prospects in the upcoming season, they don’t even mention that T-Mac might be coming back not that late into the season, like they weren’t sure if his return will even be considerable as a positive for the Rockets’ mid-late-season prospects.
All that said, I think McGrady could make things more eventful in the second half of the season than people think. Either he comes back to a much stronger and NBA-tested Rockets core and provides them a scoring first-option that they’re just not going to have with Trevor Ariza, Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola getting most of the touches, or he comes back to a team and organization that’s already so mentally past the Tracy McGrady era that they’re willing to give away his expiring contract for just about whatever they can get in return, possibly swinging the mid-season fates of two franchises in the process. Whichever ends up happening, I don’t think he can be discounted–the guy’s still only 30, and even if he’s not as explosive as he once was, I can’t believe that there aren’t a sizeable number of teams out there that couldn’t use his playmaking and outside-shooting services. Unless, of course, his knees are so shot from the surgeries that he just stays on the sidelines until his free agency next season, which would just suck. The NBA’s still a more interesting place with Tracy McGrady playing in it.
#41. Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar & Shannon Brown
Maybe the most incredible thing about the Lakers’ 2009 title was that they got it with essentially zero production from the point guard position. Starting floor general Derek Fisher shot a paltry 38% from the field, and a stunningly low 28% from beyond the arc, where he’s a career 41% shooter in the playoffs. Backup Jordan Farmar wasn’t much better, and third-stringer Shannon Brown ended up being the most reliable of the bunch, despite only playing about 13 minutes a game. Fish saved himself a very, very long off-season by performing well in the finals against the Magic after being outright dreadful throughout the Conference playoffs, most notably hitting two extremely key threes in Game Four which basically erased public memories of how useless he had been up until that point. He probably would have had it anyway, but those two shots cemented his status as the Lakers’ starting pointman going into the ’09-’10 season.
They can’t stick with Fisher forever, though. The dude’s already 35, and that has become especially apparent on defense, where younger, quicker point guards like Aaron Brooks and Jameer Nelson have abused him remorselessly. Farmar is the more athletic, more conventionally play-making backup plan, but he proved to still be a little green last year, and Shannon Brown was lucky just to get into the rotation, a mere throw-in in the Radmanovic-Morrison deal that ended up being one of the team’s key reserve players late in the season, showing toughness and shot-making potential far beyond anyone likely dreamed. We know who’s going to start the season at the one in Los Angeles, but who’s going to finish it there? Seems almost an even money proposition between the three to me.
40. Shawn Marion
I know it can be a little dangerous to judge anything from the pre-season, but I saw Shawn Marion play once with the Mavs, and I’ve become completely convinced that he’ll end up being the best signing of the off-season. It just makes sense–Dallas so badly needed just one more guy another smart, athletic player who could hit the offensive glass, run the break, and (hopefully) not just chuck up three-pointers whenever he touched the ball in the half court. Marion’s statistics have been so underwhelming since he left Phoenix that you forget that he can still do a lot of little things for a team, especially on defense, where he remains one of the league’s most versatile guys. His days as a #2 or a #1 scoring option on a playoff team are likely over, but as a #3 or 4 guy on Dallas, I think he could make a world of difference–especially during the inevitable 20-25 game period where Josh Howard is out with in an injury and/or suspended for his stupidity. With The Matrix–and other good new pieces in Drew Gooden and undervalued rookie Rod Beaubois–I like Dallas as the #3 team in the West this year, and maybe the only one who can threaten the supremacy of Los Angeles and San Antonio.
This is all predicated, however, on the idea that Marion is finally and officially done with sulking over getting less attention in Phoenix than Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, and ready to do the “I just want what’s best for the team” thing for the final half of his career. This can’t really be assumed or taken for granted with a guy like Marion, and if it isn’t, it could make a huge difference. But I hope he’s gotten past that, because I think this Mavs team is gonna be mad fun when firing on all cylinders.
#39. Don Nelson
If Don Nelson used to be a Mad Professor type, now he’s one who’s been given tenure, so he feels no further need to cover up how zany he really is. It’s hard to say what will be more fascinating next season–watching how Nelly tries to split minutes between Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry without pissing off both, or watching his already disheveled hair start to approach full-on Albert Einstein territory. Nelson’s an unmotivated coach on an undisciplined team, and the combination of that has the ’09 Warriors with pretty decent odds of rivaling the Jail Blazers and the Isiah Knicks as the ultimate Lunatics Taking Over the Asylum team of the decade. Amazingly, it doesn’t seem like crowds at Oracle Arena seem to mind their transformation from playoff busters to traveling circus all that much. And that is why I need to move to Oakland but badly.
#38. Tyler Hansbrough
On one level, getting drafted by Indiana was one of the best things that could’ve happened to Tyler Hansbrough–a young, positionally-flexible team without a set rotation that plays the kind of up-tempo style he’s used to and is overseen by a basketball legend, in a city that no doubt appreciates a certain amount of everyman scrappiness. On another level, though, it was one of the worst things that could have happened to him, since it served to draw unnecessary attention to the fact that he was, well, an extremely white dude, now playing for a franchise that was starting to take a little bit of heat for overvaluing some of its white players. In a way, Tyler will be able to blend in on the Pacers in a way he couldn’t have done on say, the Wizards or the Pistons, but in another way, he’s going to stick out more than ever.
Of course, race is far from the only point of interest with regards to Tyler Hansbrough in this off-season. For a guy who’s gone from being overrated to underrated and back about a dozen times since his Junior year at UNC–everyone has an opinion about Ty, ranging from him being an eminent star in this league to him being lucky to end up a journeyman–he’s invariably going to end up proving somebody very right about something, whether it be someone preaching the value of gutsiness and floor intelligence above all else, or someone ranting about the unrealistic expectations placed on college stars whose skill sets simply do not translate to the pro level. I’m hoping it’s the former, personally–I’ve been in love with the guy ever since I saw his unforgettably awkward victory celebration in the 2008 ACC tournament. I’ll probably buy a jersey if I ever set foot in Indiana.
#37. Carmelo Anthony
I saw a clip of the “Stop Snitchin” segment recently with Carmelo hanging out in the background, looking vaguely embarrassed, and it reminded me just how far he’s come. After a somewhat disappointing regular season–he missed the All-Star team last year, if you remember–Melo put it in another gear during the playoffs, looking every bit the peer of LeBron, Kobe and D-Wade the first couple rounds. For a guy who always seemed to have the talent–even last year had the historic bright spot of Melo scoring 33 in a single quarter, breaking the NBA record–but maybe lacking the smarts or the proper drive, it was heart-warming to see him finally reaching something close to his birthright in the post-season as an immaculate scoring machine. He tapered off, though, in the last few games of the conerence finals against the Lakers–I think he might have been sick or something–and lost the deciding game on his 25th birthday. “It was a terrible birthday present,” said Anthony, “But I can get used to playing on my birthday.”
Can he, though? Like many, I’m not sold on the Nuggets getting back to the #2 seed or the conference finals in the West–it just seemed like too many things went right for them last year, and that some injury or off-court incident or just simple regression to the mean will occur with them in ’09-’10. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case, though, if Anthony can string together an entire season on the levvel of his ’09 post-season. With a matured, smartened and motivated Melo, the Nuggets can be just as dangerous as any team in the West. It’s just that one thing going wrong could spiral into a season-long wreck, and the Nuggets seem to have too many combustible parts to go another 82 games without that happening. Still, the proposition is tantalizing, and at the very least, I’d prefer Carmelo as the third-party alternative to the Kobe/LeBron debate to Dwyane Wade any day of the week.
#36. Delonte West
Consider this a study in the difference between small and big media markets. On the surface, at least, I’d argue that Delonte West’s off-season gun-toting incident–which saw the bipolar two-guard caught strapped with firepower on a motorcycle, including one gun in a guitar case, a la Desperado (presumably)–was far more noteworthy than some idiot wide receiver shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub. Yet, the Burress hooplah was like the second coming of the OJ trial, and the West coverage lasted for about one afternoon before being swept under the rug entirely. OK, so there might be a few differences between the scenarios–Burress’s crime was far more public, and he was a much more popular player than West. But lest we forget, Delonte West has now been the Cavs’ second-best and second-toughest player in the Cavs’ last two post-season runs, the only member of the team who didn’t look completely out of his depth during the Orlando series. If West comes back a mess, or if he doesn’t come back at all, it’s going to be a much bigger blow to the Cavs this season than people seem to realize, and might ultimately be of even greater consequence than whatever does happen with the Shaq experiment. Yet it barely even gets a passing mention in most Cavs season previews. Bizarre.
35. Steve Nash
By now, just about everyone seems to realize that the window has closed on the Suns–they came close a couple times, but due to a confluence of circumstances, this team, as currently constructed, is never going to win a title. No one seems to be more acutely aware of this fact than the team’s signature player (and one of the league’s most lovable figures), Steve Nash, who in general seems much sadder than he used to–no doubted the result of a half-decade’s worth of frustration over owner Robert Sarver’s penny-pinching, over the continuous and often inexplicable playoff losses to the Spurs, over the pouting of some teammates (Marion), the selfishness of others (Stoudemire) and the arguable betrayal of yet others (O’Neal). It’s clear that he still loves playing, loves his coach, his teammates, his fans. But Steve Nash is not going to win a championship in Phoenix, and he knows it. And for anyone who has followed basketball for any part of the last five years, you know what an existential Shame that is.
With that in mind, it should seem odd that Nash decided to sign an extension in Phoenix, that he willingly signed on for another two years of cost-cutting and half-hearted rebuilding, another two years of distracting trade rumors and shifts in coaching strategy, with no glimpse of the Larry O’Brien trophy in sight. Couldn’t he have sought out the Blazers, an exciting and talented young team with a magnanimous, basketball-loving owner, badly in need of a veteran point guard and experienced leader? Couldn’t he have signed as a backup on a loaded title contender like the Magic or Celtics, just to feel the camaraderie and excitement of a championship run? Hell, couldn’t he have signed on with old coach Mike D’Antoni in New York, in the hopes of attracting another big-name guy for a legit run the next couple of seasons? Couldn’t he have done anything else but doom himself to that sinking ship of a franchise?
But with some time to think about it, I’m glad that Nash made the decision he made. Too much emphasis these days is placed on titles–that you can measure your worth and your legacy by how many you’ve won, despite the fact that generally speaking, only a handful of different teams will win a title throughout the average player’s career. What Nash did was weigh the importance of going after a title–which as he should know better than anyone else, is never guaranteed, no matter who you’re playing for–and measured it against the other things that make up the totality of a basketball player’s existence–the money, the fans, the teammates, the community, the medical staff. Ultimately, he decided that he’d rather spend the twilight years of his career in comfort among friends and family in Phoenix than chasing rainbows out in Portland or New York or wherever–and can you blame him? Though it’s certainly sad and more than a little disappointing, it’s also kind of touching, too. There’s more to basketball than championships, you know.
Of course, with all this said, it’ll be interesting to see how this newfound perspective on NBA life translates for Steve Nash this season. Does he still try to give it his all, knowing how dire the situation will be? Does he sit out a dozen or so games this year? If the team does squeak into the playoffs, will he go all kamikaze for a few weeks in the hopes of one last run why the hell not? Can he keep Amar’e focused and motivated–and on the team at all? Is he still going to be one of the most electric players in the league? Nash giving up on titles is one thing, but Nash giving up on basketball would be something entirely different, and much more profoundly disturbing. Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.
34. Kobe Bryant
Really, as long as #24 is still playing, I can’t imagine there’ll be too many seasons going in where he isn’t considered the most intriguing person of the season–or at least in the top two. So as you’ve probably heard by now, Kobe won a title last summer, and he did it without some fat seven-footer that can’t shoot free throws to help him. So, uh, what now? As you’d know if you read the Sports Guy’s article and the rest of my own, you’ll know that Kobe’s going to have some interesting shit going on with his teammates this year–a battle for minutes and supremacy at point guard, a perpetually-one-step-away superstar at center, a crazy person who may or may not be a lockdown defender at small forward, and a newly minted reality TV husband as a sixth man. As the team’s unquestioned leader–hey, he always wanted it this way, and you better believe that now he’s got it–it’ll fall more on Kobe than on anyone else, including Phil “I Can Only Show You the Door, You’re the One Who Has to Walk Through It” Jackson, to keep everyone in line and make sure the team doesn’t crumble under its own overexposure and weirdness.
But Kobe’s got someone else he needs to keep in check, too–himself. (I know, cue dramatic music). Seriously, though–after seven years of Wanting It So Bad, what does Mr. Bryant do now that he’s finally proven he can win a title without Shaq? Does he keep pushing himself and his teammates to the limit, going after the magic MJ number of six rings? Or does he consider point proven, give up on trying to keep Ron Artest from climbing to the hotel roof in his underwear to look for UFOs, and revert to mid-decade Kobe, just going for numbers and seeing how far he can go? Like most people, I’m hoping its the former. But then again, I’m also kinda hoping it’s the latter–Mixed-Up, Volatile, Narcissistic Kobe was always a much easier sell than Upstanding Citizen Kobe, and it would be just a little sad to think that MUVNK was lost to the NBA for all-time. Then again, some people–not the least of all, the Lakers themselves–think LA can push for 70 wins this season. No matter what happens, you’d have to be somewhat crazy not to consider the Lakers the most fascinating team of the upcoming season.
And with all this, you’d have to be completely nuts to not be ridiculously excited for this upcoming season in general.