Tag Archives: LeBron

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.

The LeBron James/Magic Johnson Parallel

Despite the triple double LeBron James notched last night in Miami’s Game 5 loss in the NBA Finals, many people are (justifiably) crucifying him for his play throughout the series. In my eyes, he played well, if not amazingly (for him) through the first three games before looking absolutely awful (for him) throughout Game 4. He just failed to assert his physical dominance and force the Mavs to stop him off the dribble in a game during which he scored only 8 points and too-willingly swung the ball around the perimeter.

Even he knows he played like trash.

“Eight points is definitely inexcusable to me. I hold myself to a higher standard than that,” James told reporters at a team press conference, according to the Palm Beach Post. “I didn’t play well. I know that. I was hard on myself all last night.”

Game 5 was somewhat of a different story.

He played better, putting up the aforementioned triple double and generally being more aggressive with the ball while playing excellent defense at times. This was by no means LeBron at his best, or perhaps even his typical (and he got inexcusably SMOKED by Jason Terry on perhaps the biggest play of the game … which came one possession after LeBron missed a long three). But it wasn’t the “no show” that so many people were calling his Game 4 display. He shot poorly but played fine overall. Not great, but fine. And you can’t validly tell me a player was “passive” throughout crunch time when he committed a powerful offensive foul at the rim with 150 seconds to play and took three other shots in the games’ final three minutes.

Although more active, he remained atypically unproductive late again, however — which continues his trend throughout this NBA Finals. And now, if Miami can’t win two in a row at home to come back and win the title, LeBron will be undoubtedly be hit with a tsunami of criticism larger than I can remember any athlete ever facing for his on-court failings.

That’s what I was thinking last night anyway.

Then, this morning, @bandwagonknick posted something that made me, not change that opinion, but reconsider it slightly. Apparently, back when I was in kindergarten, Magic Johnson was similarly ripped apart by the press for coming up short when the sport was supposed to matter the most.

Whatever hurt Johnson felt [when LA lost to Boston in the 1984 NBA Finals] was only to intensify as the summer went on. He was stunned at the way he was carved up by the press that had once doted on him. He was particularly wounded by the suggestions that, with the championship at stake, he had choked. “I sat back when it was over,” Johnson says, “and I thought, ‘Man, did we just lose one of the great playoff series of all time, or didn’t we?’ This was one of the greatest in history. Yet all you read was how bad I was.”

It’s funny how history and time (and, ya know, winning three of the next four NBA titles) changes things. Magic is now the beloved, happy-go-lucky, HIV-surviving, bafflingly uninsightful guy on my TV who most everyone believes could do no wrong on the basketball court. He and Larry Bird “saved the NBA” that Michael Jordan would soon own. He was Showtime. He is a fantastic citizen.

He couldn’t have ever been the guy the media would “carve up.”

But he was.

And we are about to see something similar — on hyperdrive given today’s media landscape — for the next (at least) 12 months if the Heat don’t win two more games this year. It will be an annoying thing to see play out, but unlike the scorn thrown at him last Summer for The Decision, this time, there will be a lot more legitimacy to it.

He is earning this.

LeBron hasn’t played well in the Finals.

For him.

Post-script … Oddly, I was listening to a mixtape by the hip hop super-group Slaugherhouse this morning and, right as I was reading the Magic story that @bandwagonknick tweeted, the Joe Budden diss track “Pain in His Life” came on. (It’s hard to keep track of Budden’s rap feuds but this joint is about Saigon. The two MCs later made up and recorded a track together that features Sai spitting one of the illest verses I’ve heard in years.)

The opening lyrics of that song are eerily descriptive of stuff you could say about LeBron right now:

“It’s like a lose/lose, already my rep ruined
How I beat dude we know will accept losing?
Under Achiever was a underachiever
Almost thought you would come with the Ether

Rep ruined? Check.

Dude we know will accept losing? Check.

Underachiever? Check.

Almost thought he would come with the Ether (in Game 5)? All the checks.

At Long Last, It’s Miami vs. Boston

Finally, it has come to this. Those pesky Bulls had to crash the party, had to make this series take place one round early, but never mind them. While Chicago sweeps the Hawks, all eyes will be on this.

Heat vs. Celtics, Evil vs.Good, free agency vs. the trading market, tampering vs. a little help from your friends, individual Rucker Park basketball vs. championship-level synergy.

Sunday afternoon, it begins — and all we have to do is sit back and watch, pens drawn, narratives abound.

That said, those of us who want to watch a basketball series and not the ultimate battle of clashing basketball philosophies that don’t clash at all are in for a treat as well. Seven All-Stars will take the court Sunday for the start of a four-to-seven-game series. At least 6 future Hall of Famers will play. And if we’re lucky, Hubie Brown will be in the announcing booth, pointing out every important thing we’re watching.

But what exactly do we need to be watching when they tip-off?

I’m glad you asked.

Who’s Guarding Lebron James?

I’ll let Tom Haberstroh take this one, because he’s much smarter than you, me, and everybody.

According to Newmann and Oliver, Pierce checked LeBron 69 percent of the time, with Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and Marquis Daniels (no longer with the team) filling in the rest. But against Pierce, LeBron shot just 43 percent from the field and his efficiency plummeted to depths rarely seen from him. In fact, LeBron scored 75 points per 100 possessions with Pierce covering him, down from his 93 points per 100 possessions when guarded by all other Celtics defenders.

We’ve seen this going on in previous Lebron vs. Boston series. Though Boston guards Lebron in a team-wide manner, having Pierce spearhead the defensive effort is key – more than ever when the defensive monstrosity that is Jeff Green is the primary second option. Boston needs Pierce in prime shape, hoping that working on Lebron won’t take the same toll it has taken on his offensive game in the past.

Where’s Dwyane Wade?

In four games against Boston this year, Dwyane Wade is shooting 28% from the field. His true shooting percentage isn’t much better, at a disturbingly low 38%. He registered 21 turnovers to 21 assists, and got to the line only 5.8 times a game (after averaging 8.6 for the year). The narrative dictates that Wade is clutch and Lebron is not, that Wade shows up for the playoffs and that Lebron does not, and that Wade is a good person and Lebron is not, but with Lebron’s averages against Boston on par with his season numbers (29, 6.5, 6.5 on 56.2 TS%, albeit 5 turnovers), the onus to show up will be on the former Finals MVP.

Will Rajon Be Rajon?

In three wins against the Heat, Rajon Rondo had 43 assists. In one loss, he had 5. This is obviously a very cut-and-dry way to look at things, with millions of other factors going in to every one of those 4 regular season games, but the difference is simultaneously astonishing and extremely logical. When Rondo is at the top of his game, penetrating at will and finding his teammates, this Boston offense is a completely different beast. When Rondo is not well, the offense boggles down to a 9-7 March or a 4-4 April.

Who Plays Center?

Joel Anthony has risen from national punchline to cult hero, and with good reason. The handless +/- monster has had a strong effect during the regular season series between these two teams, playing fantastic defense on Kevin Garnett in Miami’s blowout April win. In fact, the Celtics have only scored 89.7 points per 100 possessions with Joel on the court, compared to 99.6 when Zydrunas Ilguaskas is out there.

The picture flips on offense. By replacing Joel’s dunk air-balling goodness with Z’s pick-and-pop acumen, the Heat’s offense vs. Boston jumps a staggering 14 points per 100 possessions. Balancing the two centers (perhaps occasionally playing centerless when Boston trots Garnett out to the pivot) will be key for the Heat.

(Just for kicks, in case one of you still thinks Erick Dampier is a valid NBA center: Miami has scored 54.4 points per 100 possessions against Boston with Damp on the floor. It should be noted that this took place for only 6 minutes all season, but hey, why take notice of sample sizes when making fun of Erick Dampier?)

The center position is just as important from Boston’s side as well, if only because of the increasingly unlikely scenario that Shaquille O’neal ever takes the court again. Shaq was a key part of Boston’s torrid start to the season, which included two closer-than-the-score-indicates wins over these same Heat. Miami has no one on it’s roster who can handle Shaq.

Sadly, it seems as if 39 years of humongousness have finally done the Diesel in.

The Supporting Casts

Miami is the big 3 and nobody else, while Boston is a TEAM. Right? Anybody?

This line of thinking should probably go down the drain at this point. Beyond Boston’s 4 all stars, the team has been absolutely atrocious. Adding on to the Jeff Green outlash is just plain cruel at this point, but Glen Davis hasn’t looked much better, and Jermaine O’neal looks about as creaky as the frequent and generic punchlines make him out to be. Delonte West is shooting 27% in these playoffs so far, and while this probably improves considerably, he’s hardly been the model of consistency these past few years. Boston’s fifth  best player might be Nenad Krstic at this point, which says a lot.

Meanwhile, Joel Anthony has been fantastic defensively, and the James Jones/Mario Chalmers combo are shooting a combined 39% from three. Hardly spectacular, but with rest between games and enabling Lebron, Wade and Bosh to play upwards of 40 minutes a game, the Heat don’t really need spectacular. All they need is to drag Boston’s supporting cast down with their’s, which at the moment, seems very plausible.

Who Shows Up?

A simplistic question, without much analytical standing.

Yet, this will decide the series.

Miami has shown a disturbing lack of urgency throughout this season. The reasons as to why now become completely irrelevant – from here on out, Miami runs the risk of it’s season ending. The urgency should accompany that prospect.

Similarly, we have no idea which Boston arrives. The Celtics aren’t as bad as their post all-star play indicates, but expecting them to flip the switch all the way back up, even if they did it last year, is an extreme leap of faith. And as impressive as they looked in the final 2 games against the Knicks, they were also very close to losing twice on their home floor, to the Knicks.

Prediction, Just Because It Has To Be Done

The Heat are not going to blow the Celtics out. Boston is too proud, the defense is too good, and Miami still lacks the cohesion to pull it off. And Boston is not going to blow Miami out, because Miami has the two best players in the series, in a sport where this sort of thing matters. (Don’t give me the “New York had the two best players in the series too!” bit, because we know better.) It will be a close series, with low scoring and high drama. But this Boston team needs too many things to go just right, and unlike last season, when everything did go just right, I don’t think Lebron skips Game 5.

Heat in 7.

The Miami Heat: If Ya Aint Runnin’ With It, Run From It

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

I’m on record as being very pro-NBA Voltron. I really wanted to see LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh play on the same team. Not because I want them to succeed — or even care if they do — but just because I wanted to enjoy watching the moments of greatness that would be achieved by a team featuring two of the three best players in the world. Will they win a bunch of titles? It’s hard to believe they won’t take home a few based on skill alone, but I’m not even talking about that type of season-long, seven-game-series winning greatness. I just simply wanted to see several-minute-long stretches of amazing basketball being played.

My desire to see LeBron and Wade play together comes from purely selfish reasons. I love watching amazing basketball, and these two guys play it very often. Simple as that. Throw in Bosh and things could get historic at times. We might see some random, throwaway quarters and halves of basketball in December or February that rank among the best that have ever been played.

Never is this possibility more apparent than when these guys get out in the open court. LeBron on the break is the equivalent of Karl Malone times Latrell Sprewell with Shawn Kemp’s ability to finish. Dwyane is nearly as ruthless with the ball in the open court — just ask Anderson Varejao. Combine the two and the outcome can get just downright silly.

Well guess what? They are starting to run.

Looking at the data, the Heat stepped on the gas in Dallas after a series of sleepy games peppered with stagnant half court offense. Their transition rate (percentage of transition plays as part of their overall offense) over their last seven games has been above their seasonal average of 13.4 percent.

Thanks to their acceleration lately, the Heat now rank 12th in the NBA in transition rate which is still below where many think they should be. But if we believe their recent transition game is a permanent switch, then their 16.5 percent average over the past seven games would rank head and shoulders above the entire NBA; the Pacers and Bulls currently lead the league with 14.7 percent of their possessions in transition.

The writer of this piece, the excellent Tom Haberstroh, notes that as the run more, they are also improving at it. LeBron started out the season sloppy, turning the ball over too often on the break. “Maybe he was pressing in his new digs and trying to do too much for the fans,” writes Haberstroh. Perhaps. But whatever it is that made him turn the ball over a staggering 18 times in transition in Miami’s first 19 games seems to have been solved — he only has one giveaway in the open court in his last four outings.

And the players are starting to embrace the break. Look at the video below. A 2-on-1 break by LeBron and Wade after a made basket leads to an easy score.

That’s nuts.

Buckle your seat belts.