All posts by Michael Pina

If We Lined Up Every NBA Player, Who Would You Take 1st?

A few weeks before Green Bay defeated Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, Fox analyst Troy Aikman made a declaration that somehow stands as both shocking and obvious: If every single professional football player were available and he had the first pick in a real-life draft, he would roll with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Aikman’s rationale was made based on three factors about Rodgers: (1) a proven ability to compete and thrive on the professional level, (2) space for improvement with a limitless ceiling, (3) and age.

It was met with a mixed reaction of sacrilege and revelation.

For nearly a decade, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning were the most widely accepted number-one picks in such a theoretical draft. To most NFL followers, a conservative sport that overwhelmingly values tradition, including anybody else in the discussion was blasphemy.

Yet what Aikman said made sense.

He noticed a young, bright star about to catapult himself into another stratosphere and ventured ever so slightly against the grain to make a logical answer. His hypothetical choice was a bold one.

After the 2011 NBA Finals, and the unprecedented collapse of a player who was recently accepted by everyone in the universe to be the sport’s greatest player, how would Aikman’s proclamation translate to the NBA?

Let’s say a new CBA is agreed upon and calls for a complete overhaul. On September 1, each player is thrown into a league-wide draft with the order conducted at random. In this fictional future, Curt Flood never existed and free agency has yet to form. You pick a player and he is yours until death or retirement — whichever comes first.

In what order would the players go?

Is LeBron James still the first pick? Are Kobe and Amar’e selected in the first round? Does John Wall come off the board before Dirk Nowitzki? Would Chris Wallace drop down on his knees and take Zach Randolph without blinking?

In the aftermath of LeBron’s mental defrost, this vague, otherwise pointless question has become rather interesting. Being 26-years-old and undoubtedly the most athletic, talented and complete player in the game — and still improving — LeBron was the obvious answer. To many he still is. But if the ultimate objective each June is to become that lucky one team out of 30 to win the hardware, handpicking a player who will lead you through a sunny meadow with unparalleled dominance only to cower when the grass thickens turns this once-easy selection into quite the predicament.

Below are my top five.

None of the players on this list are better overall basketball players than LeBron James. For that matter, Derrick Rose isn’t any more adept at running a team than Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin may never rival Pau Gasol’s touch around the basket. But their value, mostly thanks to youth and lofty ceilings, make selecting them over The King less far-fetched as it once was.

5. Russell Westbrook

When he needs to make a quick decision, say, in transition with numbers, Russell Westbrook morphs into a stallion with blinders. In half-court sets he tends to search for seams that simply don’t exist, stubbornly forcing his square body through a round hole.

But what if we look at Westbrook through a different lens? What if we decrease the comparisons to Steve Nash and replace them with Dwyane Wade’s ability to attack the rim, score at will, and get to the free-throw line enough to keep conspiracy theorists up at night?

Comparing Westbrook’s third season (age 22) with Wade’s second (age 23) is telling.

Westbrook: 21.9, 8.2, 4.6 with 1.9 steals per game.
Wade: 24.1, 6.8, 5.2 with 1.6 steals per game.

Their PER and Usage Rate are within two percentage points, and Wade attempted 9.9 free-throws per game to Westbrook’s 8. Wade took 17.1 shots per night. Westbrook? 17. If a changed environment were to alter Westbrook’s role on his basketball team, the results could be more conducive to the style he was born to play.

4. Dwight Howard

Maybe he’s unfairly being compared to the league’s seven-foot ghosts. Maybe it’s that he has no rival. Or maybe the game’s drifted too far away from the big man as a noteworthy puzzle piece. Whatever the reason, Howard might be the most difficult of the five to build a championship-caliber team around.

He has carved out a niche as basketball’s most imposing defender. He’s the best in the league at altering shots and a top three rebounder, but there’s so many things on the other end he still needs to improve — and time’s running out. The 2009 Finals appearance wasn’t a signal of Howard staking a claim so much as it was Kevin Garnett’s faulty knee rewarding him with a free pass. All that being said, he’s twice as talented as the next best at his position. He’s also 25.

3. Blake Griffin

It’s tempting to put Griffin at the top spot. He’s the youngest player on the list, a more athletic Karl Malone, and for the next eight to 10 years should finish top five in scoring, free throw attempts, and rebounds. Off the court, Griffin seems to be a charismatic person; the most relatable 6’10” gravity defying freak of nature who’s ever lived. On the court he mutates into a monstrous brute. (Multiple reports from a slew of anonymous sources say a handful of players are refusing to see Super 8 this summer, due to its summoning of disturbing Blake Griffin related flashbacks.)

Random Fact: In less than 15 minutes of action, he recorded five assists in his first All-Star game. It took Charles Barkley five All-Star weekends to get five assists total.

2. Derrick Rose

He’s a 22-year-old MVP. Cut it, dry it, place it in the freezer.

And just wait until he starts making 40% of his threes.

1. Kevin Durant

Durant already has two playoff series (2010 vs. the Lakers and 2011 vs. the Mavericks) under his belt that, when we look back in a few years, could be the character-shaping events that transformed him from a talented, once-in-a-decade scorer to a grizzled, 25-year-old assassin. The curtain was turned back a few inches after the Dallas series, and what was revealed should scare everyone in the league. Durant’s mental fortitude aligns well with his atypical body, and the result is destined to be historical dominance.

Breaking Down the Back-Up PGs in the Playoffs

This article is a guest post from Michael Pina, creator of the all-everything NBA blog Shaky Ankles. His work has been featured on Hardwood Paroxysm and linked to The Point Forward, Ball Don’t Lie and True Hoop. Follow him on Twitter @ShakyAnkles.

On the New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog today, Rob Mahoney eloquently explained why depth is so important in the NBA playoffs. The triple-overtime Game 4 between Oklahoma City and Memphis showed this. The younger, fresher Thunder prevailed that night and blew out the Grizzlies in Game 5 as players like Zach Randolph, who played 56 minutes on Tuesday, looked a step slow.

And it’s not just fatigue. In a league of stars who sometimes cancel each other out, it is how the bench performs that can be the deciding factor, as Mahoney notes.

The Hawks have struggled in part because Marvin Williams, the eighth man in the rotation, hasn’t been able to provide quality minutes. The Bulls, on the other hand, played Omer Asik, Taj Gibson, and Ronnie Brewer together for the entire fourth quarter in Game 5, during which those reserves (along with Derrick Rose and Luol Deng) outscored the Hawks by 11 in a game the Bulls won by 12.

Along these lines, one of the most critical factors in every team’s in-game consistency is how it performs when its floor general heads to the bench. In a sport that’s played up above, high in the blue, the shortest guys are becoming increasingly vital. They dictate tempo — making basketball’s big men look like statues as they scurry around the court — control the pace and judge the flow. So in the playoffs, it’s the back-up point guards who’re responsible for either building on his team’s advantageous play or turning the ship around and surging a comeback.

Neither is an easy task — both are unglamorous — but these guys are the last backups standing. For the most part, they may not be as talented or physically capable of breaking down defenses as their team’s starter, but they have a commendable mindset not everybody is born with. Nobody wants to be a reserve piece (especially Big Baby). The position is allergic to endorsements, creates little national exposure and reeks of uncomfortable inferiority. But right now, at this time of year, whoever’s able to give his team the most quality minutes will end up with newfound respect, elevating themselves from blanketed aid to crucial puzzle piece.

Here is a breakdown of all the back-up point guards left in this year’s postseason.

Jamal Crawford

Jamal Crawford isn’t your prototypical point guard and back-up floor general isn’t his role. But due to Hinrich’s injury, he’s had more responsibility thrown on his lap. I won’t get into too much detail with Crawford because you’re probably well familiar with his resume and basketball makeup, but he’s Atlanta’s second best scorer and, apologies to Barea, the most capable backcourt bench player when it comes to creating his own opportunities. He likes to shoot a whole bunch, and when Teague’s on the bench the team’s solid cohesion melts. Still he is without a doubt the most talented player of the group — but also the least capable at running the point guard position. It just isn’t in his DNA.

JJ Barea

Apart from Dirk Nowitzki’s overall annihilation of Pau Gasol, an argument can be made that JJ Barea’s dominance of Steve Blake, and the Lakers as a team, was the key difference maker in the series. He penetrated at will, made the pick and roll look like a series of unanswerable questions from a quantum theory exam, and in the end, was the unfortunate victim of an Andrew Bynum forearm.

In a recent SI feature, Bynum was depicted as a person who loves solving mechanical problems from the inside out: Fixing computers, watches, and clocks by taking them apart and then rebuilding the parts from scratch. For four games the troublesome irritant that is Barea was unsolvable, so the Lakers center resorted to resolving things like a frustrated five-year-old, breaking the Mavericks energy source and walking away.

Both J.J. Barea and Blake both played this season alongside two guys  who’ll go down as top 20 all-time players, but Barea was the only one who acted like he’s worthy. He makes the smart decision, doesn’t play scared, and when the moment presents itself he beats it to a bloody pulp.

Barea is tiny—listed at a most charitable six feet—yet attempts most of his shots at the rim., like a less athletic, Puerto Rican Allen Iverson. Watching the unbelievable aspects of his game remind me of an outrageous sequence in a daring action movie. When he drives to the hoop holding neither fear nor hesitation, eyes go wide and thumbs immediately rewind their DVR.

Earlier this season in a game against Boston, Kevin Garnett got into a small skirmish with Barea. There was brief shoving before the two were separated, and after the game Celtics captain Paul Pierce said it wasn’t anything to overreact about; both guys were their team’s inspirational spark plugs. Pierce’s decision to compare Garnett (one of the greatest players of all time) with a Northeastern graduate who averages 20 minutes a game was an attestation to how much respect Barea has around the league. Defensively he’s so in-your-face feisty that opposing guards have no choice but to back him down in the post and take advantage of the sizeable advantage. This is usually combated with an egregious flop, forcing the referee to blow a whistle. Just like that, Barea has the ball back in his hands.

Mario Chalmers

A player best known for making a national championship saving three, Chalmers was likely given a single instruction after the Heat signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh: Work on your shot. Playing alongside a decision maker of James’ ability, Chalmers’ role isn’t that of a normal backup point guard. He doesn’t bring the ball up the floor or initiate the team’s offense, instead hovering around the three-point line and finding open space to catch and release.

In the Heat’s Game 3 loss, Chalmers had perhaps his finest statistical performance, going 7-9 from the floor (including 2-4 from deep) for 17 points. In the series clinching Game 6 win over Philadelphia, he attempted a season-high 12 long balls, making six of them and finishing with 20 points (another high for the year).

As a peripheral member of the most talked about team in basketball, Chalmers comes across as a figurative little sibling who yaps behind a chain fence of older, tougher brothers who’ve been around the block. When Chalmer’s shot isn’t falling he’s useless. When it is, Miami’s very difficult to beat.

Eric Maynor

When I was a student at the University of Delaware, the basketball team was an atrocious sight to see. Nobody cared how they did, knew when/where games were played, or could identify a single coach or player if they were standing behind them in a dining hall; the buzz they created hummed softer than a flickering mosquito zapper. Attention to the team was minimal…unless, of course, VCU’s Eric Maynor was in town.

Apart from the games that I covered for both the school and local paper, the only Fighting Blue Hen basketball games I took in were those memorable Maynor performances. He was the Colonial Athletic Association’s Chris Paul, dicing up opponents, throwing smooth yet innovative passes to teammates who weren’t ready to catch them, and launching his head coach into a higher paying job. Maynor was a sight to see in person, and ever since, I’ve respected and admired the way he runs a basketball team.

After being VCU’s go-to offensive option in college, he’s adjusted in the NBA, taking smart shots within the offense’s flow, rarely making the unnecessary highlight worthy pass, and accepting a role that offers just 15 minutes of action a night. In light of Westbrook’s increasing volatility, those minutes could, and probably should, increase since Maynor is the essentially the Cool Hand Luke yin to Russell Westbrook’s hot tempered, mercurial yang.

Greivis Vasquez

Before we get into Greivis, here’s a hypothetical, somewhat timely, relatable question for you: If you’re Memphis GM Chris Wallace, would you trade Vasquez and Marc Gasol to the Lakers for big brother Pau? Because that’s what that one-sided destructive deal from 2007 has become. Just curious.

On the court, Vasquez is an unafraid rookie who offers a change-of-pace scorer’s mentality whose audaciousness borders on stupidity when compared to Mike Conley’s sometime tentative approach to the position. As Kevin McHale repeats each time he calls a Memphis Grizzlies game, this is both good and bad news for Lionel Hollins. On one hand it’s nice to have a young, athletic player show a willingness to score baskets and create off the dribble, but on the other hand it must be excruciating to watch him play the game at such an unrestrained level in such important spots. Bad decision after bad decision will lower a player’s confidence, and while the big guys down low are Memphis’ clear strength and advantage, Vasquez’s contributions are imperative if the Grizzlies want to advance. (As was put on display during the triple overtime loss.)

So far in this postseason, Vasquez’s points, rebounds, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and assists per 36 minutes have been better than Conley’s. As mentioned earlier he’s 6’6”, which allows him to see the floor a little better than your average point guard. It’s up to Vasquez to take the information his eyes are transmitting to his brain and make the right choice. Memphis might depend on it.


C.J. Watson

By taking the league’s MVP out of the game each time he enters, Watson’s backup role is probably the hardest, and most internally confusing of any in the league. His job is to run the offense, make smart passes, keep his man in front of him, ease the tempo, and, more often than not, hold Chicago’s lead.

But sometimes Watson’s mind gets nostalgic, going back to his days as the D-League’s Derrick Rose when he held gross averages of 26, 5, and 5. Watson comes into each game after watching the real Rose writhe through complex defenses with an ease that would draw the envy of every point guard in the world. There’s no doubt Watson has moments where he asks himself, why not him? Why can’t he do it? And so he scampers away from his role, veers out of his lane, and flails in a desperate attempt to prove himself as a relative Derrick Rose equal. Who wouldn’t? And thanks to Carlos Boozer’s expected disappearing act, Chicago’s relying on Rose even more than they did in the regular season. The result is less time for Watson and less opportunity on the national stage.

When Watson was on the court during the regular season, he would look over towards the bench and through the corner of his eye notice Rose at the scorer’s table. His response a majority of the time would be to take a bad shot—a three-pointer with 18 seconds left on the shot clock or a head-down bull rush to the basket without initiating the offense—knowing he was about to get the hook. Watson’s career has been a constant wave of doubt.

His entrance into the league was a 22-day visit in Charlotte followed by a prompt dismissal. He then clung onto the Golden State Warriors for dear life with two 10-day contracts, playing well enough to stay on board. In his last four games Watson’s played 33 minutes of basketball. As far as normal rotation players go, Watson’s the Whitey Bulger of these playoffs; unseen, a man who’s vanished.

Jeff Green After “The Perkins Deal”

This article is a guest post from Michael Pina, creator of the all-everything NBA blog Shaky Ankles. His work has been featured on Hardwood Paroxysm and linked to The Point Forward, Ball Don’t Lie and True Hoop. Follow him on Twitter @ShakyAnkles.

In the Playoffs, Jeff Green will try to convince the world that Ainge made the right move.

When Jeff Green has the ball, 99 times out of 100, there’s a physical advantage. He’s faster than almost every power forward in the league — allowing his face-up game to exploit lumbering monsters with blow bys off the dribble — and bigger than most threes, opening up post play that creates passing and scoring opportunities for orbiting teammates. Defensively you would guess this to be an adverse dilemma, but you would be wrong. Green has feet that could win a dance-off and an upper body chiseled down from a block of granite.

The trade that ripped Jeff Green from the only professional team he had ever known and dropped him in Boston was the most blindsided hit fans of both teams have taken in years. (For Oklahoma City it had no precedent.) In its aftermath national pundits dubbed it “The Perkins Deal.” Never “The Jeff Green Trade..

Normally when such a transaction is made, in every sport, it’s nicknamed after The Best Player involved. I know it’s difficult and possibly pointless, but throwing context, chemistry, and timing out the window, Jeff Green is that Best Player. He’s more versatile, athletic, and technically skilled than Kendrick Perkins; he has the type of talent to be a Sixth Man of the Year winner on this Boston Celtics team, but thanks to the sheer shock and abruptness of the deadline deal, Perkins is the one who everyone talks about.

It’s all about the big guy down low: the Thunder got tougher, now Ibaka can roam the lane and block shots from the weak side — and he’s better than Green anyway! Boston lost its identity while Oklahoma City found one seems to be the deal’s theme; this shouldn’t just motivate Jeff Green, it should piss him off. Badly. It should eat away at his inner soul, it should bother him like the most insatiable middle-of-the-back itch of his life.

He’s being called soft on Boston’s sports talk radio every 15 minutes and is playing with a pre-2009 Lamar Odom-like mentality; it’s vexing for many: Danny, Doc, Perkins’ old teammates/friends, and Celtics fans. But really, the one who needs to look in the mirror and wonder why such overbearing talent isn’t being put to its natural use is Jeff Green. These games right now are important for everybody, but individually on a financial, respect and reputation/stigma based context, no one needs them more than Jeff Green.

Through his first two Playoff games with Boston, he barely blipped on New York’s radar: 12 total shots taken for 10 points (one free throw converted), three rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, and six fouls. He had a little more of a presence in Game 3, but still missed more shots than he made and picked up 5 fouls.

Green isn’t just playing with the weight of Perkins on his shoulders, he’s a free agent after this season and how he plays right now will dictate how he’s perceived for the next stage of his young career. Green needs a role. Great, we all know that. But maybe it’s a different one than Ainge had in mind. Having him defend Carmelo Anthony for the first few quarters and allowing Paul Pierce to save energy for fourth quarter offense is huge, and there’s no doubt that should both Boston and Miami advance, Green will be assigned LeBron James duty for extended stretches, but on the other end let’s see him run free. Let’s see Jeff Green turn into a 24-year-old Gerald Wallace. Let’s see him bounce around the court, throw his body at the glass, run up and down in transition and get rewarded with beautiful opportunities from Rajon Rondo. That’s the role Green should have.

People compare him with James Posey and the sixth man role he had in Boston during their 2008 title run, but Jeff Green can do so much more; he can be a liberal Posey, knocking down shots but also creating his own offense and responsibly locking down the opposition’s star so his aging teammates needn’t worry. What Posey had that Green lacks, however, is simple: Confidence.

Posey won a ring with Miami before he joined Garnett, Pierce, and Allen in Boston. He had been there done that and understood more than anyone — save Kobe Bryant — what it took to win in that 2008 championship. Green doesn’t have the slightest clue, and that’s fine. Nobody expects it from him, and it isn’t why he was brought over. What he should do, though, is play fearless, and the only thing holding him back right now is himself, which is silly because statistically he’s held his own when given an opportunity.

Danny Granger can attest to the fact that, physically, Green is a load to deal with.

According to Hoopdata.com, since coming to the Celtics, Green has the team’s highest field goal percentage from 16-23 feet with 51%.  He has a lower percentage of shots assisted from 3-9 feet than Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett. (He’s second on the team in attempts per game from that distance, behind only Garnett.) His percentage of shots assisted from 10-15 feet dropped from 62.5% in OKC to 14.3% in Boston, which is very interesting.

The Celtics are a team built on discipline and execution. They rarely go for any isolation plays apart from Paul Pierce at the end of a quarter, Kevin Garnett on the baseline, or Glen Davis on the wing. Apart from that most of their offense is dictated by their defense’s ability to create turnovers and quick points in transition or complicated flex plays carried out by Rajon Rondo’s ingenious decision making. This shows Doc Rivers’ want and need in letting Green create some production on his own.

His usage percentage actually went up since coming to Boston, along with his true shooting percentage. Mostly everything else stayed the same, with rebounding numbers going down a bit, which is probably due to Boston’s defensive style of play that mostly prioritizes backwards retreat over board crashing — although in the playoffs they should rise for Green as he’s used more as a rebounding presence.

As the regular season came to a close and Boston began to rest their starters, Jeff Green stepped his game up. He took 33 shots, shot 43% from the floor, and grabbed 23 rebounds in those last two contests. But nobody remembers February through April once the season is over. It’s what occurs in the playoffs we mount on our mental plaques.

Jeff Green has at least two weeks, but more likely a month or two, to shape his reputation into that of a valuable championship contributor. Whether he does or not is the ultimate scale tipper: Can Green cash in or check out? Will the Celtics overcome age, expectations, and injuries to win their second title in four years? Only then will his name be inscribed in history books as the headlining piece of that maligned deadline deal.

Everyone will finally recognize Jeff Green as The Best Player involved.