In The Works today, we break down our first two NBA Mid-Majors and delve into the unconscious of Rudy Fernandez.
But first, a brief history of Amar'e Stoudmire at center.
It turns out that New York's amazing power forward acquisition -- maxed out Amar'e Stoudemire -- might be New York's amazing center acquisition after all. The entire preseason, coach Mike D'Antoni has played Stoudemire at PF next to one of the roster's two true centers: Ronny Turiaf or Timofey Mozgov. It hasn't worked, because Howard Beck of the New York Times reports Amar'e could very well line up in the middle come opening night, with Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari (two true small forwards) with him in the frontcourt and Raymond Felton and Roger Mason in the backcourt.
Sound familiar? It shouldn't, because D'Antoni never had a regular lineup that meek in Phoenix. There are two central issues at play here, at least in the context of this lineup experimentation happening in New York, where David Lee manned the middle in recent years.
The first is the difference between Stoudemire and Lee, and how the team's identity changes with what is essentially a one-for-one swap of the two. But perhaps more importantly, given that it's D'Antoni at the wheel and Amar'e in the front seat, the question of comparison between Chandler and mid-decade Shawn Marion looms largely.
According to 82games.com, about 96 percent of Lee's minutes last season came at the center spot. In 2008-09, Lee spent 94 percent of the time at center. Lee is a great rebounder, comparable to all but the most elite enters on the defensive glass. Still, the Knicks finished 27th in the league on the defensive glass last season and 20th the season prior. Stoudemire is decidedly not a great rebounder. Amar'e typically collects 18-20 percent of opponent misses; Lee has been around 27-28 percent. That's a massive difference, and New York's (already bad) defense will suffer from the Lee-Stoudemire swap based just on the impact of defensive rebounding.
That is unless tinkering at power forward, should Amar'e become the starting center, reverses course. Unfortunately, Chandler's not the right fit as far as this category is concerned. To this point in his career, Chandler has played plenty of shooting guard and small forward, the latter when Danilo Gallinari, the team's obvious SF-of-today-tomorrow-and-always, isn't. It's unsurprising, then, that Chandler rebounds like a big two-guard, despite his superior length.
D'Antoni likes Chandler at power forward, and Beck mentions Marion as D'Antoni's successful undersized power forward in a previous life. But Chandler is nothing like Marion on paper or on the court. Before D'Antoni ever took over in Phoenix, Marion, a more natural SF, was already rebounding and defending like a power forward. In 2002-03, before D'Antoni became the head coach, Marion averaged 2.3 steals and 1.2 blocks a game. After D'Antoni took over, Marion's averages stayed about the same: about two steals and a block per game.
To this point, Chandler earns a steal about half as frequently and lags a bit in the blocks department. Add in the inferior (by far) rebounding and more volatile shooting clip (Chandler is .308 from three for his career; Marion had seasons at .393 and .387 before Steve Nash arrived), and ... what's there to love about this situation?
Stoudemire survived at center in Phoenix because of Marion. The Matrix rebounded as well as Amar'e (despite the size difference); instead of a center-power forward tandem, the Suns essentially played two power forwards. That left some deficit on defense and the glass, but the otherworldly offense, led by Nash and Stoudemire, outweighed the bad year after year.
But there's a reason Alvin Gentry stuck Amar'e at power forward last year in Phoenix: there's no Marion any more. Without the versatile hole-filler, Amar'e just becomes an overmatched center with a high points-per-game average. A key tenet of the positional revolution is that the key to a team's positionality comes from the player who makes up for what his teammates lack. Marion is the poster child for that theory -- that he could allow Amar'e to survive as a center allowed D'Antoni and Nash to run a completely free-wheeling, impulsive offense. If Marion didn't help with that, well, the Suns would have just been the Bosh-Bargnani Raptors or D'Antoni would have been forced to find a true center in order to compete. D'Antoni doesn't have a Marion in Chandler, so this Knicks team needs to find a true center (like Turiaf or Mozgov, perhaps) or it's destined to be the Bosh-Bargnani Raptors.
Unless, of course, Chandler's just a Trojan Horse to get Anthony Randolph, the true heir to Marion, into the starting five with Amar'e. (You'll notice that in our Knicks line-up suggestions from a recent Works, Stoudemire only appears as a center once, in Satan's Army, and that Randolph is his power forward.) We can dream, right? (TZ)
NBA Mid-Majors: Portland Trail Blazers + Utah Jazz
It's not just that the Heat, Lakers, and Celtics are the favorites to win a championship. Try and picture any other team hoisting up the Larry O'Brien; unless your homer-ism runs so deep and wide that you deny the existence of any national media, it's a feat that requires no small amount of imagination. In any other season, we would figure these teams had an outside shot at a title. With parity going out the window, they're effectively demoted to a second tier. Good, but not great; formidable, but not dominant. This league has its very own bourgeoisie -- or, since this is sports, mid-majors.
Of course, the tragedy is that each represents a really, really solid model for building up, and generally, sustaining, a winning basketball team. Each one has a program, an ideal, that they have used to get to where they are. Can they respond to this season's hostile environment by bringing it harder than ever before? Or does each come crashing up against the limitations of their own pet thinking? For the next couple of days, The Works will survey the NBA's mid-majors, breaking down what they stand for and what hope, if any, there is of them going even further next season.
Portland Trail Blazers
Up until the time Kevin Pritchard was let go -- or maybe it was when Kevin Durant became an international sensation -- the Blazers were thought to have discovered the yellow brick road for roster regeneration. Methodically clear out bad contracts and troubled assets, then stake your fortunes on a core of young stars. Fill it out with an ever-developing cast of draft-day sleepers and inexpensive veterans. It's a blueprint that made them the league's hottest young team on the rise, until Oklahoma City came along -- using a similar formula and a player who could have been a Blazer.
Those are the abstractions. The problem for Portland has been in the specifics. The notion of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Greg Oden as the core of a championship team is seeming less and less tenable these days. Roy is one of the top guards in the league. Got it? He's the focal point of a half-court offense, and even before his recent remarks -- admittedly, made in the context of the Blazers's shaky preseason -- wanted the ball in his hands. How does that work if Oden comes into his own and emerges as a force down low?
Aldridge has become both inseparable from "The Plan" and Roy. Their mammoth extensions came the same summer, and while Roy's was a no brainer, Aldridge's was in many ways an indication that things were still on track -- not a reflection on the player he's so far turned out to be. The Greg Oden Story doesn't need to be repeated here. Suffice it to say that, if anyone still thinks Pritchard made the right pick, it's because they swear by size, or didn't notice that traditional positions are on the way out.
What Needs to Happen for Them to Win: Pretty simple here: Greg Oden needs to get on the floor, stay on the floor, and develop as a pro. Aldridge also could stand to take that long-rumored leap forward, or at least convince us that what he brings to the table -- smooth mid-range game, solid offensive rebounding -- are such a perfect fit for this team, they warrant the hefty price. Wes Matthews seems more like a pick Pritchard would have gleefully made, rather than a free agent the team would have paid top dollar for. We know new GM Rich Cho likes a good deal, but does he have Pritchard's acumen?
Pritchard discovery Nicolas Batum is still around, and fast becoming one of the most dangerous young players in the league. Let's hope McMillan, and Roy, and the rigid thinking that has allowed the Blazers to get this far, see how much he's grown and let him get his licks in. Roy's comments about the offense were about the preseason chaos, but he'll need to exist harmoniously with Andre Miller, who is the quintessential Blazers vet.
Worst Case Scenario: If Oden either stays hurt, gets hurt again, or doesn't progress, Aldridge stands pat, and Roy wants the ball more and more out of frustration, Rip City could suddenly have a new, if more mild, era of dysfunction on its hands. Portland has a good chance of treading water, but at the same time, bad chemistry and bad luck would have us looking at them like a team that may need to rethink its master plan. (BS)
The Jazz lost two starters and a valuable bench contributor during the offseason, and might actually be no worse for the wear. Granted, one of the starters was Wesley Matthews, a three-and-D, role-playing two-guard the aforediscussed Blazers paid out the wormhole to come off the bench. No offense to Matthews, but Utah's veteran free agent acquisition Raja Bell can do much of the same for a much-smaller financial commitment. The bench contributor was Kyle Korver, who last season set the NBA record for three-point percentage in a season (.536 on 110 attempts, knocking off Steve Kerr '95 at .524). But the big deduction is one Carlos Boozer, a two-time All-Star who went to Chicago in a sign-and-trade.
Boozer led the Jazz in scoring in four of his six seasons in Utah. While Paul Millsap is fantastic, he's simply not that type of scorer, even in starter minutes. But Al Jefferson is, and Utah was able to pick up the power forward for almost nothing. (Thanks be to Kahn.) Bell, again, isn't quite up to Matthews' standard, and the Jazz will miss Korver's shooting touch. But Boozer was the big loss, and Jefferson steps right in. If you account for the fact that Jefferson is now two years on from his torn ACL (that's the sweet spot) and that he's only played with a decent point guard once in his career (Rondo, 2006-07), this could actually be a slight upgrade in coming years, as Boozer is nearly 29 and Big Al just 25.
What Needs to Happen for Them to Win: Well, Jefferson has to step right in, find a rhythm with Deron Williams and excel. Mehmet Okur needs to come back strong around Christmas, because his shooting has become vital with the losses of Matthews and Korver. A top defensive season from Andrei Kirilenko and some energy from Bell's aging bones will also help, but the key is with Williams and Jefferson, who can only hope to become known as Williams-to-Jefferson in short order.
Worst Case Scenario: Jefferson veers toward the Black Hole career path fellow travelers Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Zach Randolph took. Okur's return is delayed, and none of the role players can add enough shooting to keep defenses from jumping the pick-and-roll and collapsing on Jefferson and Millsap. C.J. Miles joins a steel drum band, sending Jerry Sloan into a murderous rage. Cutting Dee Brown comes back to haunt them. (TZ)
Catharsis with Rudy
I've never been the biggest Rudy Fernandez fan. His entire reputation is based on a single dunk in international competition, and it always weirded me out that he got the loudest applause of anyone at the Rose Garden. It was, to a degree, vindicating to see him meltdown this month, behaving in a way that no amount of fan favoritism could redeem. Fernandez still got plenty of crowd love when I attended the Blazers intra-squad scrimmage at Seattle's Garfield High last week. But presumably, he was already past the point of no return. His conduct in camp wasn't simply unreasonable -- it was absurd, unrealistic, and entitled.
Turns out, a funny thing has happened since then. Here's Jason Quick, writing for The Oregonian:
Rudy is just generally acting like the good soldier that, a week or two ago, seemed to be totally beneath him. Maybe it's a put on to restore his good name; a trade elsewhere is still preferable to sticking around Portland, and as of now, his value is at rock-bottom. Or, just maybe, Fernandez said what he had to say, got his innermost feelings off of his chest, and is now willing -- at least for time being -- to roll with the punches.[Team] members say he has become much more engaged with the team, as players have reached out and supported him. He has always played hard in practices and games, but his body language also let it be known how he felt. That sulking is no longer evident in practices, giving teammates and coaches the hope that he will be an effective teammate in the regular season.
Catharsis and confession are certainly nothing new to Western culture. Both Catholicism and psychoanalysis precede from the assumption that saying stuff out loud helps. Get it off your chest, and it might not seem so heavy anymore. You might feel at peace and unburdened, maybe even forgiven. Or you'll realize you never really meant it that strongly. Or, if you believe in the difference between what we think about wanting and what we actually want to follow through on in life, then Rudy's fantasy of going back to Spain was quite different than a real ultimatum to the team.
Only time will tell exactly what we're to make of his now-infamous, and fairly unexpected, personal monologue on media day. Sometimes, though, a disgruntled athlete isn't a bum trying to get out of town and turn his back on his teammates. He's a mixed-up, confused twenty-something in a foreign country who needs to act out before he can get back to what got him here in the first place. (BS)
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.