How Ya Like Me Now?
It was the Dunk Heard 'Round the World. Well, maybe not quite that, but so far, Blake Griffin's one-handed alley-oop over three Utah defenders has been the highlight of the preseason.
The preseason is a frustrating kind of creature. The real thing is so close, yet so far away; if the summer leagues have the benefit of being the only thing resembling NBA action in the midst of a dry spell, and embracing its own guard-based absurdity, it also offers the novelty of prized rookies slapping on pro jerseys for the first time. With the exception of the Heat's debut, which lasted mere moments, preseason is about rotation tweaking, veiled work on schemes, and other sweetbreads of basketball knowledge that, frankly, just aren't my thing.
I want all this to stop and give way to next Tuesday. Practice is for coaches.
That's what made Griffin's dunk so freakin' loud. Not only was it the kind of highlight that begs repeated watching, even if you're a lifetime opponent of the cult of SportsCenter -- men that big just aren't supposed to get up like that. It was a stark reminder of what Blake Griffin will do to the NBA next season, as a rookie who time forgot. Even more so than the Heat's six minutes of glory, it was a revelation -- summer league's abject thrill of discovery spiked with substance.
What did we learn? That sleeping on Blake Griffin simply isn't an option anymore.
Here is said dunk, in case you haven't already seen it:
A funny thing happened to Blake on the way to his rookie season. Yes, in case you've forgotten, the Oklahoma product has yet to play a single regular-season NBA game. Vegas action this July and last confirmed that in college, he often relied on strength and height, downplaying his athleticism. That was the right call at the time, but it may have kept us from grasping just what an Amar'e-like wrecking ball he could be. Plus now, size alone can no longer carry the day. And with that, signs of staidness and orthodoxy start to fall away.
As Griffin was reconfiguring his scouting report, the big guy who went consensus No. 1 over sexier picks like that feisty Ricky Rubio had already started to fade. No thanks to Rubio, who has yet to make it to American shores. It was the 2009's glut of other guards, like Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings, who started to define that class and make it stand out as one of the more intriguing in recent memories. Griffin ended up on the shelf, and the little rooks inherited that season.
Blake was the proverbial Goliath, even if -- like Wilt, the man who crafted and then bore that peculiar cross of rhetoric -- he was every bit as dynamic as his smaller peers. Without the chance to prove this, as late first-rounders like Ty Lawson and Rodrigue Beaubois left an indelible imprint on their new teams (and the imagination of serious fans), Griffin gathered dust. The league was going small; he was big. His draft was full of guards making waves; he was a safe pick who hadn't even made it out onto the court.
This wasn't quite Greg Oden redux, and no one's calling Evans the next Kevin Durant. Plus, Rubio, once the prime mover and shaker in that draft's class of guards, has also taken his sweet time making his way to North American shores. Yet when he does, the hype will be there. Griffin has every stereotype working against him, as well as a league-wide vogue for small line-ups and point guards anchoring teams like big men once did. Tragically, he was in no position to contest.
That's what made the dunk so big. Blake Griffin told us, in one fell catch-and-swoop, that he was not who we thought he was. Griffin is no less new to us than John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins; if he appears more seasoned, maybe it's because of some added time in the pro machine. But he's never taken the floor in a game. When he does for the first time, we don't know what will happen. If this is it, then Griffin's rookie season deferred could also be something of a vindication.
What if, in the end, the most exciting player from the 2009 wasn't some hot-shot guard, but the no-brainer large-size pick at the top of the draft? We equate size with staid, but Griffin reminded us that it doesn't have to be that way. It's a trick played on us by easy associations and the tyranny of the firing synapses that watching guards produces. Cousins is less athletic, and more of an unknown. But at least he isn't misunderstood.
I keep thinking back to David Robinson. He had to wait before starting his career. In that case, though, the Navy stint turned his last college game into a cliffhanger; we couldn't wait to see this phenomenal seven-footer start his life in the NBA. It build suspense, rather than burying Robinson. That's because Robinson, all along, was understood as a different kind of big man. Greg Oden? When he started a year late, there was significantly less fanfare. He was the big guy who wasn't Kevin Durant -- who at that point had secured his place as the space-alien hovering in the light from above with the future in his hands.
Griffin is far more David Robinson than he is Greg Oden. He's the kind of big man who removes the stigma of that increasingly vague slot on the positional map. What's more, unlike Oden, he doesn't come across as a vet before his time, even if he is tall, and a year behind. If anything, this just ramps up the exuberance and need to prove that, really, we should have been lamenting his lay-off. Not using it as a way to rewrite history and spit on his reputation.
Blake Griffin won't do this on every play, even in every game. He will grab a bunch of rebounds, and a la Dwight Howard, clank plenty of free throws. But most importantly, he will make you notice him. Power forwards are the opposite of glamor -- that is, unless they're the rightful heir to Amar'e Stoudemire. (BS)
NBA Mid-Majors: Atlanta Hawks + Phoenix Suns
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.
When you step back and look at the big picture, the Hawks have been on a wonderfully solid, unbroken rise. Here's the team's win totals over the last decade.
That's just not the progression of a team you'd predict will fall apart and die. So why do we think, at least in relative terms, that the Hawks are going to fall apart and die? ESPN's John Hollinger predicts the Hawks will finish sixth in the East a year after winning the No. 3 seed. ESPN's Marc Stein echoes the sentiment. SBNation.com's Mike Prada drops them to 45-37, eight wins fewer than last season.
This is a team, mind you, that lost no players of significance. Joe Johnson, the team's big free agent, stayed (as if anyone could forget) after signing a six-year max deal that many (reasonably) conclude will torch the franchise in the end. The team also fired its most successful coach of the decade, Mike Woodson, after a fairly embarrassing flame-out against the Magic. And finally, the Hawks picked up Jordan Crawford, a decent scorer, in the draft.
Johnson just turned 29, Josh Smith isn't yet 25, Marvin Williams just 24, and Al Horford -- perhaps the best of them all -- is 24. Mike Bibby is on his way down and out, but Jeff Teague waits in the wings, and if that doesn't work, there's always that magnificently ulcer-inducing J.J/Jamal Crawford backcourt that looks like Gil/Hughes on horse tranquilizer.
I'm sorry, but again -- this is a team about to fall apart? Was Woodson that good?
What Needs to Happen for Them to Win: Dwight Howard just slaughtered the Hawks in the second round. He had 21/12/5 in 29 minutes in Game 1, 29/17 in Game 2 and 21/16 in Game 3, and, well, that just about broke Atlanta's spirit (as if a surprisingly long series against the Bogut-less Bucks hadn't already). Size is a problem. Horford is a beast, but he's also 6-9 or 6-10. You can't defend Howard with someone 6-9 and 6-10, no matter how spirited or skilled the defender is. Much of the anti-Hawks sentiment stemmed from the team's devotion to locking up J.J. at the expense of chasing a decent defensive center; Erick Dampier as a third big over Zaza Pachulia would make a world of sense here.
The team also might need to pace itself a bit during the regular season, not unlike the Finals-bound Celtics did. Boston's old where Atlanta's young, but J.J., Horford and Smith each played more than 2,800 regular season minutes. Only two other teams (Memphis, Oklahoma City) had three players over that threshold.
Point guard is clearly Atlanta's weak spot; if Jeff Teague can be the sort of point guard last year's numbers showed Eno Sarris of HoopData.com he can be, well, that's good news. Bibby's been devastating (in a bad way) on defense since 2005. Atlanta finished middle-of-the-pack in defense last season, despite Horford and Smith. Bibby's a big enough reason.
Worst Case Scenario: Injury, of course, to any of the major cogs would be devastating; this team needs to be running peak to contend with the other elites in the East (and even with the top risers like the Bucks and Bulls). Outside of that obvious statement, a lack of progress with Teague and forward reliance on Bibby would be to the detriment of the team, and it remains to be seen whether the team will perform under Larry Drew. Dropping a first-time coach on a purported-to-be contending team is like dropping your last match into a bucket of Jell-O. It might come out dry, but it might not. It's better to keep the last match away from the bucket of Jell-O. (TZ)
The Suns certainly aren't alone in the club of teams that lost major stars. Cleveland, Toronto and Utah are in there as well, and arguably (in the case of the Jazz, at least) lost better players. (I'll accept arguments Amar'e Stoudemire meant more to Phoenix than Boozer meant to Utah.) In some way, every team addressed the loss. Toronto took the opportunity to re-sign Amir Johnson, a still-promising if tick-tocking livewire who could be the one-man defensive protection system Andrea Bargnani needs. The Raptors also drafted North Carolina's promising Ed Davis, a projected long-term starter at power forward.
The Jazz, of course, swindled a Northwest rival whose name I cannot speak for Al Jefferson, who is basically a younger Boozer. The Cavaliers still haven't realized what happened, it appears, and have responded to the loss of LeBron James with a mixture of hurt and anger. And, one would assume, with heavy doses of Jamario Moon. (As Chris Webber would say if he spoke French, bonne chance.) How did Phoenix respond to the loss of Amar'e, who left No. 6 on the franchise's all-time scoring list?
The team re-signed Channing Frye, apparently to continue to play the stretch-5 behind Robin Lopez. The team signed Hakim Warrick to a small deal to play some power forward. The team traded for Hedo Turkoglu, and has him playing the four. The team drafted Gani Lawal in the second round, and could use him at power forward; Earl Clark, 2009's first-rounder, could play there as well.
Yes, the Suns replaced Amar'e Freaking Stoudemire with that crew.
With a presumptive starting frontcourt of Lopez-Turkoglu-Grant Hill, Steve Nash and Jason Richardson might end up duking it out for the NBA scoring title. (Heck, maybe the rebounding title too.) Phoenix has for nearly a decade been home to offbeat lineups, but this is just ... worrisome and a little sad. Stoudemire had his flaws and represented, due to injury, a huge risk. No one blames the Suns for passing on a max five-year deal. But this charade that suggests the Suns think they can contend by replacing Amar'e with that group? It's almost insulting.
What Needs to Happen for Them to Win: If Lopez can develop well and provide a reliable inside option, or at least a reliable pick-and-roll weapon for Nash to hit, things will be better. If there's anyone that can facilitate that leap, it's Nash. A rejuventated Turkoglu, hitting both open shots and the open man, would help tremendously. Josh Childress is seriously slept on, and could be just the chameleon Phoenix's bench has needed.
Really, it comes down to Nash and how much he can boost the production of the underwhelming frontcourt. If ever the debate over the so-called Nash Inflation Rate were to be settled, this is the time. If Nash is really all he's said to be, he can make this team win a lot of games.
Worst Case Scenario: Nash can't make this team win a lot of games. The team gets out-rebounded every night, and Nash and Richardson are forced to shoot 20 times a piece. Frye hits a prolonged cold streak; Hedo eats too many cold steaks; Lopez can't get the footwork down and struggles to handle Nash's deliveries cleanly. Clark remains invisible. Leandro Barbosa Appreciation Night feels like a wake. (TZ)
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.