Inside the Point Guard Fun House
With the Miami Heat riding a nine-game winning streak, Big Three trios are"Hot" once again after a six-week stint in the "Not" column. Yet for all its cachet as a model, the Heat's star alliance remains mostly unattainable for all but the luckiest of franchises. It takes a lot of work to a clear enough cap room for three max-level deals, and that's with no knowledge of which collective bargaining agreements teams will need to comply with next season.
Only one team seems poised to create a superhero team-up: the New York Knicks, who already have an early-season MVP candidate in Amar'e Stoudemire. With free-agent-to-be Carmelo Anthony anxious to play in a major market and Chris Paul potentially leaving the current ownership vacuum in New Orleans, the Knicks have a chance to put together three stars with powers comparable to the Heat trio. It will require assets, but the Knicks' recent string of wins has made young pieces like Landry Fields and Danilo Gallinari look more attractive than they did in October.
Still, you need assets to pick up two additional stars, and the unfortunate fact of the Knicks' current hot streak is that the team isn't that deep. Unless they're able to steal Melo away from Denver this summer for nothing (either by signing him next summer or dealing Eddy Curry's expiring contract before the deadline), picking up both Anthony and Paul will leave the Knicks with a supporting cast even less impressive than the current cast of wannabes in Miami. The Knicks might only have room for one more star in Madison Square Garden, and they could have to choose between two equally wonderful new toys.
Upon first glance, Paul is the obvious choice: he's the best point guard in the league, rates higher than Anthony in every respectable catch-all advanced metric, and fits Mike D'Antoni's running style extremely well. For all his talent, Anthony doesn't do much other than score, and that's not exactly at a premium in a system designed to get every player on the team tons of open shots as quickly as possible.
But these comparisons don't occur in a vacuum, and the Knicks just happen to have a point guard playing at an All-Star level in Raymond Felton. Don't get me wrong: Paul is clearly the superior player. Yet with a relative lack of assets to work with, can New York afford to get rid of one of their best players (plus lots more) for an important upgrade instead of a sizable one?
The gap between Paul and Felton is probably larger than the one between Melo and the current Knick wing scorer he'd replace (probably Fields or Gallinari), but I'm not sure D'Antoni's system requires an elite player to be successful. This statement might seem like a bunch of poppycock -- Steve Nash was the captain in Phoenix, after all, and he almost got them to the Finals -- but a quick glance at Knicks point guards under D'Antoni suggests that a superstar isn't the solution. Chris Duhon, a marginal player at best, averaged 7.2 assists in 2008-09. Felton, who looked like a solid yet disappointing player in Charlotte, is suddenly playing like one of the best point guards in the league. Why pay for a star when you can create one on your own?
Players like to run because it's relatively easy to score in transition. While there are several elite transition players in the league (see: Monta Ellis, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, to name only three), most NBA players will get a bucket if you give their team numbers against a scrambling defense. What makes the Knicks especially effective on the break is that they work to get more opportunities than other teams, not that they're especially better at scoring on them than anyone else. When Felton runs the break, he's effective. Paul is better, but he's not so fantastic that a running team must have him to be a contender. Quality NBA point guards -- or, in Miami's case, two stars with PG-level handles -- can lead a break just fine.
Paul would be great in New York (or anywhere else) and would team with Stoudemire for an alley-oop combo more potent than any half-court option D'Antoni had with the Suns. But if we're talking straight value over the current starters, Melo might make more sense for the Knicks' system. (EF)
The Myth of the Monolith
Big ideas were built to fall, and yet even as basketball has seen fit to re-invent itself a dozen times over, one remains: that of the franchise player. Calm down, players like Dwight Howard and Deron Williams still deserve this tag. Chris Paul, without whom the New Orleans Hornets might literally cease to exist, has it to a fault. But in most cases, this cliche serves only to poison the waters.
For teams blessed with an abundance of riches, it sets the stage for future unrest. And for those at the other end of the spectrum, it can lead to an over-valuation of what they do have -- and some very faulty assumptions about how to proceed.
Most teams can afford to carry two max players. Generally, there's one who clearly stands out as the team's best talent. When there are internal squabbles, we chalk it up to athlete ego and pettiness. That's the formula, and it allows all of us on the outside to sleep at night. What's missing is an acceptance of the all-too-common "both guys are totally freakin' awesome." Instead, we dig in hard with questions about whose team it is, who takes the last shot, and who the face of the franchise is. All too often, these are problems projected onto the squad, and within the locker room, there's a far more complex -- and even-handed -- apportioning out of leadership roles.
Sometimes, the drama is real; the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant wars that brought down a dynasty didn't need the public to fan any flames. At the same time, look at the Celtics, where no fewer than four players can now claim to be absolutely central to the operation. You can try and stir up controversy there, but it's just not going to work. Everyone knows their place, knows they are respected, and understands what kind of authority he has. On the Thunder, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook complement each other, as players and as personalities. That dirty, rotten, filthy, stinking Heat team, far from being an act of cowardice or a recipe for dysfunction, just might be the best proof yet that basketball players can get along.
On the other hand, there's the whole Carmelo Anthony situation. Can Carmelo carry a team? There are those who feel he should, even if, by common consensus, he's still not multidimensional enough to do so by himself. Look at Denver -- the Nuggets only really took off when Chauncey Billups joined the team. Anthony needs to be paired with another superstar, not out of laziness, but because that's the kind of player he is. Great players can still need other great players.
That was the criticism of Amar'e Stoudemire heading into the summer; he was understood as a max player, but may have had trouble without a top-tier set-up man. As it turned out, these projections were off, and Raymond Felton -- albeit a much-improved Felton -- has been enough for him to uplift the Knicks. I know, neither plays such great defense. But Stoudemire is a consistent force instead, and that wins basketball games.
In Philly, the 76ers might be shopping Andre Iguodala, but then again, they might not be. It all seems to stem from their ongoing inability to figure out what Iggy means to their franchise. One thing he is not is a one-man reclamation project. They tried this, quite explicitly, when Allen Iverson was traded the first time, and Iguodala demurred. Not giving him a max deal would seem to have stated, for all the world to see, that he was but one quality piece on (ideally) a team grooming all sorts of prospects. Maybe he was the most accomplished and fully-formed, but trying to make him The Man would never pay off -- and thusly, he would never be paid that way. And yet now, it's impossible to tell whether the Sixers understand that they might have to part ways with him.
This team needs to change course, and as good as Iguodala is, he's more valuable as a trade chip. Here Philly is, though, wedded to the notion that your best player is always somehow sacred. It's something they've gotten over at the league's upper echelon. Maybe someone should stoop down and spread the good word. (BS)
Blabbin' 'Bout Sterling
Bethlehem Shoals: So I think we can all agree that Donald Sterling did something wrong, if only it's impossible to give him the benefit of the doubt. But what exactly is his sin? Isn't the question whether Sterling is applying something like "tough love" -- showing he cares about his team, if not his players, but with a healthy dollop of indignity?
Eric Freeman: The sin here, as far as I can tell, is at least partially just the fact that he's Donald Sterling. While it's usually the coach's job to yell at a player about effort, I wonder if this would be quite as big a deal if it were someone like Wyc Grousbeck of the Celtics or Peter Holt of the Spurs. I don't think either of these guys would act this way, but their opinions presumably carry more weight than that of a slum lord jerkface. He is paying Baron, right? Shouldn't he expect him to work hard?
BS: Then again, he was being a jerk. Usually owners respect the fact that they don't quite have the same rapport with the players that a coach does, no matter how badly they wish they did. That said, you could see a tough-talkin' coach saying this stuff to Davis, just not during a game. But an owner? From the stands? At that point, it's heckling. What do you call friendly fire when it was intentional?
EF: I don't mean to cast Donald Sterling as a concerned gentleman with reasonable motives. He's cheap and seems to care little about fielding a winning team; I don't think there's any doubt that he could have handled this better. But shouldn't we also at least respect the fact that he finally seems to be showing an interest in the product on the floor? Or is the problem that it seems disingenuous that he would ever care?
BS: I think that's it. A coach would yell at Baron because he wants to win. Sterling is just pissed about that contract. The fact that he called him "fat," and didn't criticize any particular play, suggests that he was just waiting for an excuse to tell off Baron for wasting his money. Heckling is the most socially acceptable form of this, and the kind that would keep him from having to say it to dude's face. He seems to have stumbled into heckling, out of convenience and necessity, with little concern for what a nonsensical act it is.
EF: So Sterling is yelling because he isn't capable of finding fault with his own decision to sign Davis to the contract?
BS: He's yelling because Davis ripped him off. That does raise an interesting question: are contracts contracts, or acquisitions? Is Baron Davis his employee, of whom he can have certain expectations, or a wild, unpredictable force that he has the title for?
EF: Fans have always treated them like contracts -- big-money guys get booed while nobodies who play worse are left alone.
BS: Except those aren't the terms of the contract. So while strictly speaking, asking a player to take responsibility for his actions is what we would think of as figuring into a business arrangement, it's not in sports. Sports contracts allow players to be irresponsible, which in a way ends up making them look worse. Like they're unpredictable and impossible to reason with.
EF: So the contract itself is just "you will be an employee of this team." Then why not make every contract like the Ricky Williams rookie deal negotiated by Master P: performance incentives on top of more incentives. By this reasoning we should never get upset at a player for slacking off. With the salary cap, it's as if teams are handing out portions of a large pizza instead of money. Don't give half the pizza to the 100-pound 20-year-old girl, because she can't eat it all. That's your own fault. (In this analogy, Al-Farouq Aminu is the girl.)
BS: We are concerned about different things here. I'm confused how it's possible that the more power players get, the more they're looked on as erratic commodities, not rational beings, by owners. Oh wait, it's simple. They are in a position where the owner can't intimidate or control them.
EF: Right, what can they take away? If they want to buyout the contract, they're still paying enough to support most American families of four for life. So really Sterling is lashing out against the system itself, not just Baron.
BS: Well, again, he could always have just not signed Baron. Contrary to what some think, there is such a thing as NBA stars who hold themselves accountable.
EF: Plus, some players -- like Rudy Gay this year -- become more responsible when they get a huge contract.
BS: Ha, "responsible" there is a euphemism. Or a technicality. Yes, they do, but in part because it's a means to an end. Actually, it's like players know that this view of what a contract entails -- some sense of duty -- looks good to prospective teams.
EF: So they're selling themselves as if they'll get some kind of video-game power-up after they sign their contracts? "I'm great now, but think of how great I'll be when I'm paid like a leader."
BS: Put like that, it's the biggest con in the world. The career year isn't just stats, it's the suggestion that the player has some added maturity he's keeping under wraps, too, and if it's demanded of him (implicitly) by a big contract, well damn it, he'll break it out. Don't get me wrong. I am pro-player in all of this. Contracts say what they say. Without incentives-based deals, the owners are the morons for reading too much into it.
EF: With young guys it's almost like one of those reality dating shoes. Teams like what they've seen from their up-and-coming players, and they want to try the next step. I suppose it should come as no surprise that most of these relationships flame out, too.
BS: It's also worth noting that it's owners like Sterling who should give us no sympathy whatsoever for the league's ruling class. It only stinks insofar as some good players end up in bad situations because they chase the money. If only Sterling would put his money where his mouth is and really never pay anyone. And that, Eric, is how the Eskimos became babies.
The Real New Yorkers
The Brooklyn Nets may change shape not once, but twice, and end up the Brooklyn New Yorkers. That's cool and all -- the Nets nickname is cursed, and also, I don't think anyone realizes that a "net" is a reference to basketball hoops. Except there's a problem here: there's already a famous thing called "New Yorker." Maybe the magazine of the same name is only for the liberal elite. Unless they're stamped out altogether, though, it will persist, and the team's name will just confuse a lot of people. Is that what Prokhorov, already a stranger in a strange land, needs -- more confusion?
We have to assume this is an unfortunate oversight, and one big mix-up that will go away before Seymour Hersch starts poking around Nets HQ. However, it did give us the opportunity to put together our very own "New Yorker" starting five. On a good day, they just might be able to take on the Nets, if Devin Harris were injured and Brook Lopez threw the game in exchange for a spot in the next Fiction Issue.
PG: David Remnick. The magazine's editor excels as a leader, winning copious awards for his stewardship and putting together compelling articles from various walks of life on a weekly basis. He's a distributor who knows exactly where everyone should be at all times. But like all the best lead guards, Remnick can also create for himself when necessary. His 2010 book The Bridge: The Life and Times of Barack Obama was a bestseller, and he frequently appears on talk shows to build up his own star brand.
SG: David Grann. In his book The Lost City of Z, Grann treks into the the jungle of the Amazon in search of an explorer who disappeared almost eighty years ago. He has headed out into open water in search of the giant squid, and put together a frightening complete story of the Aryan Brotherhood crime syndicate. Grann is fearless, and dogged, but most of all, he's the perfect example of how reporting isn't just the pursuit of facts -- it's a way of illuminating larger human truths. The more complete the picture, the broader the perspective. If this isn't the way of an airtight, methodical two-guard -- maybe a poor man's Kobe Bryant, younger Ray Allen, or the man we all hope Monta Ellis can continue to be -- then I don't believe in basketball one bit.
SF: Kalefa Sanneh. Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant, have all been labeled small forwards because no other position could contain them. As the pop critic for The New York Times, Sanneh shot to the forefront of the "I am way too smart to be writing about music" school. At the New Yorker, his eye for detail and effortless play of concepts turn long-form journalism into a critical pursuit. He writes culture, and like James or Durant, Sanneh surprises us only because we're not yet ready for his approach to be mainstream. Honorable mention: Larisa MacFarquhar, who writes like an idealized SF scoring machine.
PF: Malcolm Gladwell. Although best known for his pop-sociological books, Gladwell covers a wide variety topics for The New Yorker ranging from college admissions to football injuries to girls basketball teams running full-court traps to win championships. Although Gladwell stands under 6-0 (not counting the afro), he was a major factor in the cultural ascension of stat "guru" David Berri when he favorably reviewed the book The Wages of Wins for the magazine in 2006. Berri's system prizes rebounds and ball control, and Gladwell has cultivated his game accordingly to rate highly in these metrics.
C: David Denby. As far as film critics go, Denby writes with a somewhat outdated approach, focusing on character arcs and cohesive plot over visual style. As befits his love of great literature, he often seems to have more in common with literary critics than those at the forefront of film analysis. Nonetheless, he often gets things right anyway, which makes him a great fit to play center. As the position has evolved into the more nebulous role of "big man," the true center has become something of an endangered species. Yet players like Roy Hibbert have remained effective in that spot, showing that a dying breed need not become irrelevant.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who also contributes regularly to Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.