Pope’s Pick: February 23

February 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Gary Neal, San Antonio Spurs

In a crucial third quarter, Neal – a 26 year-old rookie who has spent time playing both overseas and in the D-league – was instrumental to the Spurs keeping the re-energized Thunder at bay. San Antonio began the fourth quarter with an eight point advantage due in large part to Neal’s superb effort off the bench, and held off a Thunder rally to win 109-105.

Considered one of the NBA’s best spot-up shooters, Neal cemented that reputation and showed off the other aspects of his game in an awesome five-minute burst. He scored nine points, dished out two assists via driving the lane and was key cog in the Spurs’ five minute mini run to close out the quarter.

For the game, Neal totaled 19 points, three assists and shot an efficient 6-9 from the field. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker make the Spurs go, but the young legs of Neal will no doubt prove very valuable as San Antonio tries to protect the NBA’s best record in the season’s final months.


RTR (2/23): Thunder and Spurs in Western Shootout

February 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

After a thrilling, competitive, up and down first half, the San Antonio Spurs lead the Oklahoma City Thunder 64-53 at intermission. The home Spurs closed the second quarter on a 17-2 run to take a double-digit lead, as OKC went stale on offense and struggled defending against SA’s vaunted ball movement.

Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker are staging a classic battle at PG, as the former’s speed and power against the latter’s grace and quickness is yielding a very exciting matchup. Each has been the driving force behind their team’s offensive success thus far.

Watching these teams on offense is a fascinating study in contrast. Predictably, San Antonio has relied on perfect execution in the half-court while the Thunder have had great success getting out in transition and isolations with Westbrook, Durant and James Harden.

There was a brief flare up late in the second quarter, as Parker was taken down by Nick Collison on a foray to the paint. Pushing and shoving ensued, and after a lengthy debate by the officials, a flagrant one was assessed to Collison and technicals to apparent peace-makers Duncan and Durant. This was a clear case of referees overreacting to minor disagreement between players, and such was evident to even Greg Popovich and Scott Brooks, as the two laughed on the sideline as verdicts were dispersed.

OKC has lost five in a row to SA, and needs to improve closing out on shooters and defending pick and rolls if they want that streak to end tonight.

Daily Doctrine (2/23): New York State Of Denial? Williams Better Fit for Knicks than Anthony

February 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

On Monday night, New York Knicks fans collectively rejoiced.  After months of conjecture, posturing and incessant media speculation, Carmelo Anthony finally got his wish and was traded to Gotham.  Years of front-office ineptitude (thanks, Isaiah) and an underwhelming haul of summer 2010 free agents was forgotten, as Anthony joined Amare Stoudemire to form a potent “1-1A” offensive punch.  League history has shown a team needs at least two (but three, preferably) stars to compete for a title, and the Knicks finally had them.  Finally, an exciting, contender-worthy show would take place at Madison Square Garden, the world’s foremost basketball stage.  Aesthetically, at least, order was restored.

Well, after today’s shocking trade developments, even the most biased and die-hard Knicks supporters should be feeling a little blue.

Elite Utah Jazz PG Deron Williams was unexpectedly dealt to cross-town rival and former Carmelo suitor the New Jersey Nets.  Why should New York care? A closer look the players and pieces involved in each respective deal reveals Knicks owner James Dolan and company were had.  Big time.

In exchange for Anthony, former All-Star PG Chauncey Billups, and career backups Anthony Carter, Renaldo Balkman Shelden Williams, the Knicks sent prolific young wings Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, rejuvenated PG Raymond Felton, raw seven-footer Timofey Mozgov, a future first round pick and cash to Denver.

After months of insisting that only one of Gallinari or Chandler be included in the deal, New York bit.  Whether or not doing so was the smart decision is up for debate, but there’s no doubting the Knicks increased their chances of a playoff run this season and next in acquiring a player of Anthony’s caliber.

To surprisingly snag Williams, New Jersey surrendered promising rookie PF Derrick Favors,  PG Devin Harris and two first round picks (one of which is Golden State’s next year, acquired in a side deal).

New Jersey had been a player in the Carmelo sweepstakes since the former Nugget elected not to sign an off-season contract extension.  The proposed deal that would have landed him is essentially the same one that the Nets swung for Williams.  Favors, a raw, athletic and huge youngster, is the major coup for Utah.  Harris, once considered one the league’s best young lead guards, is a surefire starter and each draft pick could be in the lottery.

Assessing the two deals, it appears New York surrendered more assets.  Both Gallinari and Chandler are enjoying career seasons, and the former especially is far from a finish product.  Each is good enough to start for most NBA teams and among the league’s small contingent of tall, athletic wing scorers with deep range on his jumper.  Felton, signed as a free agent before the season, has been a driving force behind New York’s turnaround.  He, too, is a potential starter wherever he ends up.  The spare part, Mozgov, is the lone bench player in the deal that has true value at present and any chance at developing farther.  At the very least, he’s a big body capable taking up space and finishing inside.  The future pick is relatively inconsequential, as NY figures to be one of the league’s best teams, far from selecting among the draft’s elite pool of prospects.

New Jersey mortgaged a potentially dominant frontcourt in giving up Favors, “potential” being the key word here.  The 19 year-old, while immensely gifted, is extremely raw.  He could be the rare 20 point, 10 rebound, three block post player or a slightly more effective Chris Wilcox.  Essentially, Favors is so early in his development that his acquisition is tantamount to that of a top five draft pick.  Harris is just two years removed from averaging 21 points and eight assists, though his game has clearly regressed since that breakout season.  He’s a solid option at PG for many teams, though no longer one of the NBA’s brightest young quarterbacks.  Though both NJ and GS are on the rise, both the 2011 and 2012 first rounders are presumptive top 15 selections.

Though not overwhelmingly so, the Knicks gave up more than the Nets: two surefire starters with potential (Gallo and Chandler), an above-average PG (Felton), a true, developing young C (Mozgov) and a pick compared to an unproven, natural tool-laden PF prospect (Favors), an above-average PG (Harris) and two high picks.

The reason the Knicks and their fans should be concerned is not that they gave up slightly more, though.  Rather, it’s that they did so and acquired the deal’s inferior cog in terms of ability, fit and worth to D’Antoni’s system.  Even Spike Lee would have to admit dealing for Williams instead of Anthony would have made New York’s prospects as title contenders better both in the present and future.  Did owner James Dolan and President Donnie Walsh know Williams was available at the trade deadline? Presumptively not, because the trade came so far out of left field.  But, for the sake of the team’s direction and fan base’s sanity, they better have been positive he wasn’t on the block.

Think of it this way: would New York be better off rolling out a starting five of Williams, Fields, Chandler, Stoudemire and Ronny Turiaf with capable bench players? Or a quintet of Billups, Fields, Anthony, Stoudemire and Ronnie Turiaf with one of the league’s thinnest corps of reserves? Anyone that understands the brilliance of Williams and the intricacies that make D’Antoni’s system so effective would undoubtedly prefer the fantastical scenario rather than the realistic one.

Obviously, Williams was available for the right price.  A combination like Gallinari, Felton, picks and cash is comparable to the one centered around Favors that ultimately landed the former Jazz star in New Jersey.  Considering the overall superiority of Williams to Anthony in every subjective and objective measure, plus the undeniable fact that New York gave up more than the Nets to get less, and anyone considering the 2011 trade season a success for the Knicks has it wrong.  Way wrong.

Pope’s Pick: February 16

February 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ramon Sessions, Cleveland Cavaliers

The Los Angeles Lakers, two-time defending NBA champions, are heading into the All-Star break losers of three straight games. Latest to knock off Kobe and company? The Cleveland Cavaliers, who recently endured the longest losing streak in NBA history and avenged a 55 point January thrashing at the hands of LA with a shocking 104-99 win tonight at the Q.

Backup guard Ramon Sessions came off the bench and ignited the lowly Cavs, scoring a game high 32 points, hitting 13-14 from the free throw line and doling out eight assists. The fourth year pro has played by far his best ball of the season this month, and a showing like this one will only give coach Byron Scott more reason to increase Sessions’ role as 2010-2011 wears on.

In what’s been a dreadful year for Cleveland in the first of the post-LeBron era, Sessions has been a lone bright spot. On a team that has made nearly every player available as the trade deadline approaches, he’s given management reason to believe he should be a part of the Cavs’ plans going forward.

Daily Doctrine (2/16): Kansas Jayhawks’ Tyshawn Taylor Missing the Point

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

After watching Kansas State dismantle newly-minted top ranked Kansas on Monday night, Roundball Refuge got to thinking.  Yes, the Jayhawks were without super-sub Thomas Robinson and ballyhooed freshman Josh Selby was hobbled, but KU was totally outclassed by their disappointing in-state rivals.  The chief reason? A downright miserable performance from third-year starting PG Tyshawn Taylor.

Taylor, considered a viable NBA prospect since 2009, has been up and down for the Jayhawks during the 2010-2011 season.  It’s seemed that every seven assist, 11 point, one turnover Taylor performance is followed by a game marred by careless turnovers, poor shot selection and a general look of discontent on the junior’s face.  Still, Monday night was undoubtedly the year’s low point for Taylor.

Challenged recently by coach Bill Self to step up defensively, Taylor drew the assignment of chasing and harassing preseason All-American Jacob Pullen around the floor.  Putting it lightly, Pullen flat-out dominated him, scoring every way imaginable on his way to a career high 38 points on 9-17 shooting from the field, 5-6 from three-point range and 15-19 from the line.  Even worse than Taylor’s defensive effort, though? His play on the other end.

Playing in front of a hostile and angry Octagon of Doom crowd, the Jayhawks needed a calm, poised and effective offensive night from their lead man.  What they got was anything but.  Taylor finished with 8 points, one assist and six mind-boggling turnovers, seemingly every one coming as Kansas tried to mount a valiant comeback effort.  He was scared, intimidated and nervous all night long, and it showed in his on-floor effort.  Frankly, it appeared as though Taylor was playing his first high-profile road game rather than the 31st such contest of his discordant three-year career.

Is it possible Monday’s game was an aberration, and Taylor could get back on track as Kansas enters postseason play? Sure.  But the mere possibility that he is capable of such an epic face-plant has Jayhawk Nation in a worried frenzy, and has to give even coach Self – Taylor’s staunchest supporter – second thoughts as March approaches.

KU has enough versatile talent in the starting lineup and on the bench to make a drastic change to the perimeter rotation by limiting Taylor’s minutes.  Brady Morningstar is a fantastic passer and reliable ballhandler, Elijah Johnson has loads of natural talent, Travis Releford offers size and athleticism other Jayhawk smalls don’t and Selby was one of the nation’s top PG recruits.  Obviously, Self has options.  History indicates, though, that he won’t use them in fear of ruffling feathers this late in the season.  Such stubborn rotations and unwillingness to adapt has become a staple of Self’s coaching in recent years, though its tough to argue with his incredible and consistent success since taking over at Kansas.  Such is the dilemma for fans when a coach is in the midst of the most successful run in Kansas basketball history.

With changes to playing time unlikely, Taylor must embrace the role he never has by accepting his fate as a role player.  Let the Morris Twins, Selby and Robinson star while simply running the offense and making his mark defensively.  Pay no attention to NBA scouts and outside influences who believe he has elite ability as a scorer.  Pick his spots with open jumpers and clear forays to the rim by capitalizing on the opposition’s attention to KU’s best players.

If he doesn’t, the Jayhawks could be in for another unnecessary exit in the NCAA Tournament, a prospect that would surely – and hopefully – disgust Taylor more than playing a diminished role and sacrificing some limelight.

Pope’s Pick: February 15

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade made sure the NBA world forgot about his dismal Sunday performance against the Celtics in the Heat’s 110-103
win over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday.  Wade poured in 41 points on 16-29 from the floor, grabbed 12 rebounds and completed a full-court, overhand lob (first highlight in video) to LeBron James that belongs in the historical NBA lexicon of all-time greatest assists.

As the game wore on Wade got considerable help from James and Chris Bosh, as Miami’s Big Three combined for 90 points, their second highest total of the season.  The Heat built their huge early lead, though, almost solely on the broad shoulders of Wade.  In a virtuoso first 24 minutes, he scored 31 points via fadeaway jumpers, acrobatic layups and powerful dunks.  More impressive than Wade’s robust point total, though? The nearly 90 foot pass towards the end of the first quarter to a streaking James for an easy layup.  Not a bad night.

Daily Doctrine (2/15): MVP Lectures – God of Thunder’s Candidacy Viewed Unfairly

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Before examining the merits of Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant’s MVP chances, Roundball Refuge deems it necessary to point out what should be obvious: Thunder PG Russell Westbrook – for all his natural talent, competitive drive and undeniable will to improve – isn’t a legitimate candidate for The League’s top individual honor.  The case for Durant as NBA MVP certainly has its holes; none of which, though, are related to the media-hyped phenomenon of the two elite youngsters “splitting votes.”  Despite a steadily growing sentiment to the contrary, OKC does have a real pecking order, and “KD” is clearly at the top of the food chain.  With that out of the way, let’s get to Durant.

Before the tipoff of the 2010-2011 season, ESPN polled its stable of NBA experts on predictions for the coming year.  The runaway favorite among those at the Worldwide Leader to take home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy? Durant, OKC’s 22 year-old dynamo, fresh off leading the NBA in scoring and taking home MVP honors at the FIBA World Basketball Championships.  His amazing play on multiple venues in 2010 coupled with the youth of he and his Oklahoma City squad made Durant a viable, realistic, even safe preseason pick for the award.  Well, that, combined with reigning two-time winner LeBron James‘ departure from Cleveland to Miami to team up with annual candidate Dwyane Wade.

Despite that, though, there was a rising feeling among fans, players and coaches alike that Durant would stake his claim as the world’s best player and lead the young Thunder to new heights.  So, with the All-Star break approaching this weekend, has Durant backed up the meteoric rise of his reputation in the 2010-2011 season? Yes and no.  Let’s explain.

KD has been far from a disappointment this year, just his fourth in the NBA.  He leads the league in points per game, is ranked seventh in PER, and is in the top 10 in win shares, value added and estimated wins added (Hollinger).  By most every available metric, Durant has been one of the best players in The League this season, and OKC’s stellar 34-19 record offers more evidence supporting that fact.  The problem with his MVP candidacy, then? The basketball world was expecting even more.

Durant’s per game numbers this season are virtually identical to those he posted during his proverbial “breakout” year of 2009-2010.  He averages one point (29.1 to 30.1) and half a rebound (7.1 to 7.6) fewer than he did as a third year man, his shooting percentages have minimally declined and his PER has dropped nearly two full points.  For any other established superstar, such small statistical descent would register barely a blip on the radar of NBA followers.  Durant, at 22, is different.  Given his age and dominance over the summer, he was expected to ascend to an even greater level this season.  Grab more rebounds.  Develop better playmaking skills.  Approach 50% from the field.  Become a lockdown defender.  Lift his team to a top two seed in the West.  Durant just hasn’t done those things thus far this season.

All this begs a vexing question: Should a player’s MVP candidacy be punished because he didn’t live up to extraordinary preseason hype? It shouldn’t, but RR thinks voters may feel differently.  They’re the ones, after all, who anointed Durant as the NBA’s newest poster-boy, the humble and unassuming hero to LeBron’s cocky and pampered villain.  He didn’t ask for any of it.  In fact, indications are he tries to hide from the media.

Here’s another interesting query: If KD’s evolution was just a little slower, if he took a smaller step last year to top 15 player instead of top six, would he be this season’s MVP frontrunner?

For the record, this isn’t an endorsement for Durant’s case as MVP.  Closer to the opposite is true.  In a season where every year candidates have maintained their play and new contenders have emerged, RR has Durant among a small group of players rightfully just outside the top tier of MVP-worthy guys.  Is that a view solely based on his play this season, taking his amazing play of summer 2010 and seemingly stalled 2011 progression out of the equation? Its tough to be sure.  One thing is, though – it’s unfair to Durant that questions like this need to be asked.