Thoughts About “The Decision”

As one of the millions spurned by the false advances of LeBron James, I know that it’s easy to get involved in the emotional aspect of “The Decision.” But now that some time has passed perhaps some of the passion has subsided, it’s time to look at the move from a more even headed perspective. (And if your anger hasn’t subsided, then here’s a great way to let everyone know how you feel.)

Naturally people are resistant to change, and LeBron’s choice shocked the public. At the surface was his egocentric media circus. There’s no doubt that James turned some people off based on how he handled this decision. Stringing along a few million fans, having a prime time show in his honor, hand picking the host, then proclaiming “South Beach” in front of children from the North East showed a disconnect from the common person. Had he made his decision humbly, profusely thanked the people of Ohio, and didn’t celebrate with a Heat jersey in July like he won an NBA championship then LeBron’s image might have survived the move largely in tact.

“The Decision” seemed unfathomable; it was a radical departure from history. Last year, the New York Times’ Howard Beck wrote:

[A team signing a free agent superstar] is probably doomed to fail because of one immutable, rarely acknowledged truth: superstar free agency barely exists in the N.B.A.

It has been almost 13 years since Shaquille O’Neal jilted the Orlando Magic and altered the N.B.A. landscape by signing with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a modern anomaly, not a precedent. Few superstars have made free-agent moves since then.

It is not an accident.

“It’s built right into the system,” said Lon Babby, an agent whose client list includes Tim Duncan, Grant Hill and Ray Allen. “They don’t want guys to leave.”

By “they,” Babby means N.B.A. officials, whose quest for parity and cost control has created a market that rewards superstars for staying put and punishes them for leaving.

Combine financial self-interest with the N.B.A.’s complex salary-cap rules, and a result is a market in which superstars have little incentive to move.

“This succession of agreements has resulted in a hard salary cap,” said Arn Tellem, one of the N.B.A.’s most influential agents, “and has really, I think, eliminated for the most part free agency for the high-end players.”

The most critical element at work is the cap on individual salaries. Those limits did not exist in 1996, when the Lakers outbid the Magic and signed O’Neal to a $121 million contract.

Today, no team can be outbid for its own free agent unless it wants to be.

The best example is Nash, who in 2004 left Dallas to sign a five-year, $60 million deal with Phoenix. The Mavericks could have matched or exceeded the offer, but they were worried about Nash’s age (he was 30), health and breakneck style.

If the system is a burden to elite players, it is a boon for the league, which prizes franchise stability, and for fans, who almost never have to say goodbye to their heroes.

The choice of James has taken common wisdom and stood it on its ear. It was such a departure from the established definition of “a great player” that even former NBA stars came out against LeBron. Michael Jordan said he would never have called up Bird and Magic in a quest to win a championship. Charles Barkley noted that James tarnished his legacy by going to “Wade’s team.” While Knick great Walt Frazier succinctly stated that LeBron “took the easy way out.”

James’ choice was an affront to the sense of competitive balance. The average fan saw the trio of James, Wade, and Bosh as the playground equivalent of putting the three biggest kids on the same team so they can run the court all day long. For children, there’s no fun in stacking the odds to beat up on the weak. But playground ethics goes against the professional athletes’ rule of winning at all costs. Players are lauded for whatever will bring their team victory, including bending the rules. Fans often enjoy the hometown player who gets away with a fistful of jersey. Players are valued for wins the team earns and on a more granular level the number of rings they own. Jordan validated this theory when he pronounced Kobe to be superior to James, even though Bryant’s only real edge is better teammates.

The problem is that championships are a function of team, but they are often applied as measuring sticks for an individual. In some ways the public has themselves to blame for irrationally setting such odd standards. Jordan didn’t win a championship until he was teamed with Pippen (and Phil Jackson). Frazier played alongside a gaggle of Hall of Famers en route to his two championships (Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Monroe, and Lucas). Barkley chased a championship in Phoenix, and later as a third fiddle in Houston. The rules are clear: players are expected to do everything they can to win, and championships define players. Since good teammates win championships, then the most logical conclusion for an athlete is to find the best teammates possible in order to maintain their individual legacy. LeBron’s choice is simply the next logical step based on the criteria by which he will be judged.

But can the hatred last? True Hoop’s Henry Abbott likens LeBron’s case to Kevin Garnett who languished in Minnesota before teaming up in Boston with Allen and Pierce.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself what your end goal is: To win the individual sport of being the man, or the team sport of basketball? They usually go together. There’s a reason Bryant and Jordan have all those championship rings.

But sometimes the best thing for basketball is to not put everything on your shoulders, and instead get some help.

Think about Kevin Garnett. There are several different really smart analyses to show that when he was in Minnesota losing all those games he was literally the best player in the NBA (the same analysis, over the last two years, would say James is that player now). If you use some kind of smart objective metrics, Garnett’s is the name that comes up most from those years. But Garnett had no help! After he grew distraught with the team’s endless rebuilding, the Timberwolves found him a home in Boston with some serious help in the form of Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. Even though Garnett did not play his best basketball in Boston, he did his best winning there, and the result has been a profound transformation of both how the world sees Garnett and how the city of Boston feels about basketball in the 2000s. It’s a model anyone would want to copy — a new home with talented teammates became a story of pure, unrestrained basketball joy for all involved who aren’t Timberwolves fans.

Although at the time, much of the vitriol was aimed above Garnett’s at Minnesota GM and former Celtic player Kevin McHale for handing his former team another trophy. Nevertheless today the Boston trio is no more or less hated than expected. In fact as Henry asserts, Garnett is viewed more positively for his role on a championship team.

Baseball’s Curt Flood, a pioneer of free agency for athletes, was vilified by his actions not just by the public, but with fellow players as well. Flood once returned to his locker to find a funeral wreath on it. In fact there are parallels between Flood and James. Both players simply sought the ability to go where they wished, and the public recoiled because they felt that decision would ruin the game. And although there will be many people who resent LeBron no matter what he does (mostly in Cleveland, New York, Chicago, and whatever cities he defeats on the way to a championship), there will be others who after he wins a title will view him in a positive light. Because as the old saying goes, everybody loves a winner.

More important than how this decision affects LeBron, is how it affects the choices athletes will make. Free agency in a capped league, like the amateur draft, is meant to help the weaker teams become more competitive. Teams with superstars should already be near the cap, and those without should be far enough below to sign them. However reality paints a different picture. Star players bypass the cities they wish to avoid and instead force their way onto a preferred franchise. Kareem did it to the Bucks in the 70s, Shaq did it twice, and Kobe did it before he was even drafted. As a result, the rest of the league usually ends up overpaying for the non-super stars.

Already with the ability to chose their destination (within reason) players have an upper hand in a game considered to be run by front offices. It would be like Karpov and Kasparov sitting down to play, but Karpov’s queen decides it would be easier to win if she decided to play alongside Kasparov’s queen. LeBron, Wade, and Bosh’s choice could start a trend in the league. The Heat were in no shortage of finding talented players with which to surround Miami Thrice. Other superstars like Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have been rumored to wish to team up in order to create their own super team. In a few years, building teams with multiple superstars could be the norm around the NBA. In other terms what is going to stop Karpov’s rooks, knights, and bishops from all seeing better odds by going elsewhere, leaving a bunch of pawns and a defenseless king?

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic on the course laid out in the future. Change usually brings the negative out in people, and I’m sure there were fans that thought the worst of every change, whether it be racial integration, the three point line, or instant replay. The end of the reserve clause in baseball was supposed to be the death of sports, but just about every league has survived post free agency.

Maybe the NBA can thrive under these new conditions. It didn’t seem that the league was hurt by the dynasties of the Celtics, Lakers, or Bulls in the 80s & 90s. Nor did the rivalry between the Spurs, Lakers, Mavs, and Suns bore fans in the 00s. Perhaps franchises will aim for loads of cap space instead of overpaying for marginal talent. A handful of super teams would make the latter rounds of the playoffs much more interesting. Furthermore any Cinderella team, one without a group of superstars, would instantly become a sweetheart to all cities without playoff representation.

By creating a super team, LeBron has changed the rules of the game. Potentially he ushered a new era in sports where the best athletes choose their team and teammates. Although by doing so, LeBron has unintentionally recast himself as the league’s villain. However if this trend of creating teams of multiple All Stars pioneered by James becomes established as the norm, then history might view him in a more kind light.

2010 Report Card: Tracy McGrady

When a change occurs it always takes the mainstream a bit of time to adjust to the new idea. I recall watching a Knick game near the end of the year with the announcers talking about whether or not McGrady would be coming back next year. One of them (not sure who it was) said that McGrady would have to accept being a second star on a team.

At this time, I’ll chose to reveal McGrady’s similarity scores before I continue.

Similarity Scores:

z-Sum FLName Year Tm PER TS eFG PTS ORB TRB AST STL BLK TOV
.000 Tracy McGrady 2010 TOT 12.2 46.6 42.1 13.1 1.2 5.0 5.3 0.8 0.7 2.4
.090 Travis Best 2003 MIA 11.2 47.3 42.7 12.0 0.5 2.9 5.1 0.9 0.1 2.1
.099 Henry Bibby 1980 PHI 11.1 49.1 41.0 13.1 1.1 3.7 5.4 1.1 0.1 2.6
.110 Troy Hudson 2007 MIN 10.8 48.3 45.1 13.1 0.5 3.1 4.7 0.9 0.1 2.6
.158 Bimbo Coles 1999 GSW 14.8 49.6 44.9 12.9 0.6 3.3 6.3 1.3 0.3 2.3
.162 Bob Sura 2004 TOT 16.2 51.0 43.8 12.9 2.2 7.1 5.0 1.3 0.3 2.3
.166 John Johnson 1978 TOT 11.9 45.3 41.5 16.1 2.0 6.1 4.2 0.8 0.4 3.3
.171 Damon Stoudamire 2004 POR 14.8 50.8 47.7 12.7 0.6 3.6 5.8 1.1 0.1 2.1
.174 Brad Miller 2007 SAC 13.5 50.8 45.9 11.5 1.6 8.1 4.5 0.8 0.8 2.2
.174 Doug Overton 2000 BOS 10.5 46.6 42.9 12.7 1.2 2.7 4.4 0.8 0.0 1.7
.176 Jim McMillian 1979 POR 11.9 49.9 44.6 10.7 2.1 5.1 4.3 1.3 0.4 2.1

I know it takes a little time for perception to catch up with reality, but does that look like a list of players that should be questioning whether or not they are the second star of a team? To me that group should be worrying if they can keep their job as second string point guards. It’s been a long time since McGrady has been a top tier player, but there’s no doubt that he fell off Sandy Alomar Cliff years ago. Below is a list of his comparables by age, which reminds me of one those don’t use drugs posters.

Age z-Sum FLName Year Tm PER TS eFG PTS ORB TRB AST STL BLK TOV
19 .244 Kevin Garnett 1996 MIN 15.8 52.2 49.7 13.1 2.7 7.9 2.3 1.4 2.1 1.7
20 .121 Kevin Garnett 1997 MIN 18.2 53.7 50.2 15.7 2.3 7.4 2.8 1.3 2.0 2.1
21 .098 Kobe Bryant 2000 LAL 21.7 54.6 48.8 21.2 1.5 5.9 4.6 1.5 0.9 2.6
22 .072 LeBron James 2007 CLE 24.5 55.2 50.7 24.1 0.9 5.9 5.3 1.4 0.6 2.8
23 .145 LeBron James 2008 CLE 29.1 56.8 51.8 26.8 1.6 7.0 6.4 1.6 1.0 3.0
24 .121 Kobe Bryant 2003 LAL 26.2 55.0 48.3 26.0 1.1 6.0 5.1 1.9 0.7 3.0
25 .053 Kobe Bryant 2004 LAL 23.7 55.1 46.8 22.9 1.5 5.3 4.9 1.6 0.4 2.5
26 .114 Paul Pierce 2004 BOS 19.4 51.7 44.1 21.3 0.8 6.1 4.8 1.5 0.6 3.5
27 .175 Grant Hill 2000 DET 24.5 56.5 50.1 24.7 1.3 6.4 5.0 1.3 0.6 3.1
28 .083 Jamal Mashburn 2001 CHH 17.5 49.3 45.0 18.4 1.1 6.9 5.0 1.0 0.2 2.5
29 .088 Derek Anderson 2004 POR 15.1 49.9 44.0 13.8 0.5 3.6 4.5 1.3 0.1 1.8
30 .090 Travis Best 2003 MIA 11.2 47.3 42.7 12.0 0.5 2.9 5.1 0.9 0.1 2.1

You might note that at age 27 his most similar player is Grant Hill, but a score of .175 means they’re not very close. Actually McGrady rates close to these players because of his high usage. From ages 21-28 he averaged more than 21.1 pts/36, however his efficiency has been dropping since age 23. Usually guys with TS% south of 52% don’t get to take enough shots to average 20pts/36, but McGrady has managed that feat 3 times in his career (2006-2008). Speaking of his shooting efficiency…

McGrady-TS%

I added the red line, since the league average for TS% is around 54%. T-Mac had a very promising career, capping with a TS% of 56.4% as a 23 year old. A player’s career usually arcs up, levels off, then descends. But McGrady’s drops sharply and early at the peak, giving it the appearance of a mountain not the typical bell curve. If you looked at his career graph at age 23 and applied the normal career path, you’d think he’d be a perennial All Star. But as you can see that’s season was the exception, not the norm. It’s a shame, because McGrady is an exceptional passer and a capable rebounder. And he’s always been able to get to the line. Poor shot selection and an inconsistent three point shot (he’s been over 34% only once in the last 7 seasons) has kept him from achieving true greatness.

I had hoped that McGrady would benefit from a reduction in shot attempts upon arriving in New York. But even when he cut his FGA/36 to 12.6, T-Mac put up the lowest TS% of his career (46.6%). You know your career is over when you’re a former All Star trying to beat out Chris Duhon for a starting job, and you fail. Probably some team will sign him to a minor contract this year, I just hope it isn’t New York.

Report Card (5 point scale):
Offense: 1
Defense: 2
Teamwork: 3
Rootability: 2
Performance/Expectations: 1

Final Grade: F

Refs Partly To Blame For Garnett Suspension

I watched the Game 1 of the Celtics-Heat series at my local bar, and happened to catch Garnett’s elbow live. At the time I turned to my wife and mentioned that he’ll be suspended for the next game. I also had to explain to her who Quentin Richardson was, how important Garnett was to the Celtics, and how the league will review the tape to issue the suspension. Today the league has announced that Garnett won’t be allowed to play in Game 2, which really isn’t much of a surprise to anyone. However there is one other thing that I noted to my wife. Garnett’s suspension is partially the fault of the referees.

I’m not saying that I condone K.G.’s actions, and I think the league did the (obviously) right thing. However, I think should the front offices rewind the tape a little further, they’ll find something that contributed to the melee. Watch this clip, that shows the action on the court right before the melee began. Pierce and Garnett execute the pick & roll while the Heat switch and Udonis Haslem is responsible for guarding Pierce. Haslem’s defensive technique is perfect… for an NFL cornerback bumping a WR off the line of scrimmage. The Heat defender gets his hands into Pierce’s midsection and gives him a hip check altering Pierce’s trajectory.

Haslem’s actions are a clear foul in the NBA, yet the referees failed to make the call. The NBA’s philosophy seems to be to allow the players, not the officials, decide the outcome of the game. By allowing the zebras to swallow their whistles in the most critical moments, the refs actually alter the course of the game much more than if they called it uniformly. In this case allowing for such rough play directly led to Pierce lying prone off the floor. Had the refs made the correct decision and called the foul at the proper moment, Pierce doesn’t end up on the sidelines and Garnett doesn’t throw a frustrated elbow at Richardson.

Physical contact is a part of the game, and getting a foul called on the opponent vindicates the players’ action and allows for them to, for lack of a better term, vent some steam. You can see this by viewing how angry some players get when they feel they were fouled and no call was made. The league did the proper thing by suspending Garnett, but they still have some unfinished business. Referees should be blind to regards of score, location, player, or time. Games should be officiated using the same criteria whether it be the first minute or the last.

GOTME (Part V): Power Forward

The Greatest PF Of the Modern Era: Tim Duncan

Player Top PER 5 Best PER Career #1 PER # of top 10 PER
Duncan 27.1 26.8 25.1 0 12
Barkley 28.9 27.3 24.6 0 14
Malone 28.9 27.5 23.9 1 13
Garnett 29.4 27.3 23.7 2 9
Dirk 28.1 26.4 23.8 2 8

Is it fair for us to use Championships, a team statistic, when measuring the greatness of an individual player? If we do, then we would have to conclude that of the five great power forwards of the modern era, Tim Duncan is the Greatest with a capital G. He sports four rings on his hand, to a combined one of the other three. And true, he’s done it with or without Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson on his side, but he’s also accomplished it without having to face Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan entered the league as a rookie the same year Jordan would clinch his second three-peat and leave it. So to make the case for Duncan, I’d like to put aside championships. Unlike Barkley and Malone who had to suffer inglorious defeats at the dunks of His Airness, Duncan’s hand he was dealt suddenly came from a fair deck—and what a hand he was dealt.

The Big Fundamental does it with defense. Until his Spurs stumbled in this past season to the 5th best defense, as measured by Defensive Efficiency, Duncan’s team finished in the top three for his first eleven seasons. His personal defensive efficiency metrics bore this out—he’s led the league three times (2005, 2006, 2007) and been in the top four in every season but last, when he fell all the way to sixth. He does it with both blocks and rebounds. Even though it is intrinsically a conflict of interest to both go after the block and set yourself in position for a rebound, Duncan is a regular league leader in both categories (18.4%, career rebounding rate; 2.3 blocks per 36 min). With those endlessly long arms and huge hands, he rotates to help in the lane, stands as straight as possible and lets the ball hit him in the hands. This doesn’t sound sexy, and it isn’t. But it works.

While his defense helps prevent the easiest buckets from being scored against his team, Duncan sets himself up in the low post and helps score them for his team. He’s never set the league on fire with his offense, but with a healthy True-Shooting Percentage (55.3%), a high Usage rate (28.2), and a low turnover ratio for his position (12.5%), Duncan is the strong base for an offense that has finished in the top ten half of his seasons.

Reserves: Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone

If Duncan is the #1 greatest of his time, then Garnett is more of #1A than a #2. Despite my earlier moratorium on judging them in the context of their teams, imagine if we could go back in time and swap their careers. It’s easy to imagine that Garnett would have accomplished everything Duncan did with the Spurs—and Duncan may have floundered with early first round exits, just as surely as Garnett did playing alongside such NBA luminaries as Trent Hudson, Michael Olowandi, and Wally Szcerbiak.

Garnett’s numbers have been just as good as Duncan’s at every stage of his career. He’s just as good a rebounder (17.1%, career), though he blocks less shots (1.6 per 36 min), but just as tough a defensive presence, as his Boston Celtics team proved. He’s a better passer (20.5% career assist ratio), with a comparable TS% (54.7%) to Duncan, and he’s led the league in PER twice (29.4 in 2004, 28.2 in 2005) —a feat Duncan never pulled off. I am at least refreshed to see Garnett earn his championship before the intensity of his game finally does away with his knees.

Unlike Duncan who is a center masquerading as a power forward, Malone perfectly fit the archetype of a Power forward. The prototypical bruiser, The Mailman hip-checked the competition right out of the way on his forays to the basket. Gliding lay-up after gliding lay-up, healthy dollops of free throws, and an understated proclivity for the open court, long the games most physically fit player was for a few years its second-best—that pesky Jordan again. He did lead the league in PER (28.9) in his first winning MVP season at the evergreen age of 33. That figure did drop to 25.4 for his second league MVP in the strike-shortened season.

To “round” out the top four, we turn to the offensive powerhouse and true mouth of the South, Charles Barkley. Sir Charles ranks sixth all-time in TS% (61.2%) , a feat he accomplished by out-“muscling” everyone under the basket, cleaning up the offensive glass, and throwing down bone-jarring dunk after dunk. What makes his rebounding dominance so impressive (24.4 on the defensive glass, and a world-breaking 12.5% on the offensive), is he had two things going against him: height and skill. The height should have held him back pulling in opponent misses. It didn’t. And most offensive rebound leaders are otherwise unskilled rotation staples, who are left uncovered on defensive rotations. Not Barkley. He was the best player on his team, everyone was geared to stop him, and he grabbed his misses anyway.

On defense, Sir Charles wasn’t exactly the sieve some make him out to be, but then again, with nary a defensive rating under 100, he wasn’t exactly shutting down the opposition either. Despite his so-called physical limitations, Barkley proved to be an effective player well into his mid-30’s, serving as a perfect example of Bill James maxim that unique players—and in Sir Charles’s case, we do mean unique—tend to age better.

Honorable Mention: Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk is probably the most skilled seven footer ever to play the game—he shoots like a guard, rebounds like a center—and even added a D to his name in recent years. We don’t think of Dirk as a reliable defender, nor do we remember Kevin McHale as a bit of a softie, but the big German actually has better Defensive Rating numbers than the Celtic stalwart. Nowitzki led the league in PER twice (28.1 in 2006, 27.6 in 2007). He does this by hitting every kind of shot he takes (47.2% FG, 37.8% on three-point attempts, and 87.2% on FTs), adding up to a robust TS % (58.1%). He just doesn’t stand and wait for the ball either. He uses 26.8% of his team’s possessions and gives the ball away a paltry 9.0%. But that being said, he’s already hit 30, and you can’t help but fear that his best years are now officially behind him. Has his opportunity for a championship passed him by, or will his career push out into his twilight years? After all, you don’t forget to shoot and he’s not getting any shorter.

I Want To Draft Like It’s 1999

An NBA draft where the #1 overall consensus is a power forward, and a ton of guards are to be had including an intriguing foreign guard? No I’m not talking about this Thursday’s NBA draft where Blake Griffin is likely to go #1, there is a lot of depth at guard, and everyone is wondering where Rickey Rubio will land. I’m talking about the 1999 draft where Elton Brand went first, guards were taken in 7 of the next 10 picks, and Manu Ginobili quietly landed to the Spurs in the second round.

Of the top 10 picks, 9 of them had solid to spectacular careers, but only one of those stayed long enough to be seen as a success for the team that drafted him: Shawn Marion. A lot of these players were traded to other teams before they could really help the team that drafted them like Brand, Francis (a draft day holdout), Odom, Hamilton, Andre Miller, and Jason Terry. Number 5 pick Jonathan Bender never lived up to his potential due to injury. Wally Szczerbiak stayed with Minnesota, but was taken too high at #6. Baron Davis stayed with the Hornets for 5 and a half seasons, but was traded midyear to Golden State where he engineered one of the biggest first round upsets in history.

Although there was plenty of value at the top 10, the next 10 was filled with busts. Only Ron Artest (#16), Corey Maggette (#13) and James Posey (#18) were worth noting. As for the rest of the draft, there were two European superstars taken late in Kirilenko (#24) and Manu Ginobili (#57), and a few fillers (Jeff Foster #21, Kenny Thomas #22, Devean George #23, and Gordon Giricek #40).

Knick fans remember this draft for grabbing Frederic Weis one pick before Ron Artest, but that may not have been the biggest bust of the draft. As I previously mentioned the top 10 all netted solid players except for Bender. If you want to excuse him for injury, then nearly every pick 11-14 (except for Maggette) could be seen as failures as well. Trajan Langdon at #11 is a candidate, although he’s had a good career overseas. Aleksandar Radojevic (from the powerhouse Barton County Community College) was taken 3 picks prior to Weis. And the Timberwolves struck out the pick before New York’s with Duke’s William Avery.

So how might this draft have turned out? Here’s my re-draft, not necessarily in order of how they should have been taken. But rather in how one alternate earth might have been for the first 16 picks.

#1 Chicago – Elton Brand
The Bulls made the right pick. Actually in our reality they made 2 right picks with Artest at #15. The problem was that they gave up on that team too early. Chicago could have been a mid-west powerhouse with Brand, Artest, and Brad Miller with a supporting cast of Jamal Crawford, Fred Hoiberg and Jake Voskuhl. The problem was the team was still young & surrounded with little else. Marcus Fizer? Khalid El-Amin? Corey Benjamin? Bryce Drew? Michael Ruffin? Dragan Tarlac? Dalibor Bagaric? No wonder they won 15 games in 2001.

#2 Vancouver – Lamar Odom
Vancouver didn’t deserve Steve Francis, but they didn’t really need him either. They had grabbed Mike Bibby in the draft before, and as New Yorkers learned Francis didn’t play well with other point guards. Instead they should have grabbed Odom. The Grizzlies had an awful team, but Bibby, Odom, and Shareef Abdur-Rahem would have been a respectable threesome. Looking at their history, they were doomed to failure by their poor drafts Reeves #6, Abdur Rahim #3, and Antonio Daniels #4 is hardly the core you want to build a franchise on.

#3 Charlotte – Baron Davis
Davis was the right pick here.

#4 Los Angeles Clippers – Steve Francis
Now these two deserved each other.

#5 Toronto – Ron Artest (traded to Indiana)
The Raptors originally drafted Bender and traded him for Antonio Davis. Why would Toronto do such a thing? They have Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Doug Christie. So there goes the shooting guards and small forwards. They could use a point guard, but that isn’t a priority with Carter & McGrady taking up a big share of the offense. They need a big man, but there really aren’t any in this draft (Jeff Foster?). I see why they traded this pick, they had two dynamic scorers and needed some front court depth (past Charles Oakley). So I have the Raptors trading this pick still, and Indiana selecting Ron Artest instead. The Pacers would end up with Ron after a few seasons later anyway. The Pacers would have Artest to defend Allan Houston in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals (which Indana won) but they could also use him to shut down Kobe Bryant in the Finals (which they lost in 6).

#6 Minnesota – Manu Ginobili
I’m going to go out on a limb here. Before Garnett went to Boston and won a title, people argued how the league would have been if he had swapped teams with Tim Duncan. That the two were equally good, and Duncan won those championships because of his supporting cast. So let’s see how Garnett would have done with the Argentine at his side. Also in this Bizzaro universe Kevin McHale would be a genius.

#7 Washington – Rip Hamilton
Washington really sucked. It doesn’t matter who they draft here. The guy is going to be gone by the time Jordan arrives. Might as well be Rip so that the Pistons improbable championship still occurs.

#8 Cleveland – Shawn Marion
Cleveland took who they thought was the best guy on the board, Andre Miller. And normally I agree with such a signing, except the Cavs had two young (but undersized) guards on their roster already: Brevin Knight and Earl Boykins. Miller’s arrival meant that both would be gone within a year. Cleveland let Boykins go, but traded Brevin Knight for Jimmy Jackson, Anthony Johnson and Larry Robinson. All three would be off Cleveland’s roster by the next season. I hate it when a team overloads at one position and fails to net anything substantial from trades. If we’re not taking Andre Miller here, then you can have an up-tempo team with Knight/Boykins. So I think Shawn Marion is the right fit here.

#9 Phoenix – Corey Maggette
The Suns are probably crushed that they didn’t get Marion. They have Jason Kidd, and are about to offer Anfernee Hardaway to a huge contract. Maggette’s scoring and rebounding would be adequate in lieu of Marion’s energy game.

#10 Atlanta – Trajan Langdon
The Hawks have Mutombo and Rider and are in dire need of a point guard. So with Andre Miller on the board, they’re going to draft Trajan Langdon. This way by 2005 they’ll have learned their lesson and take Deron Williams or Chris Paul with the #2 pick instead of Marvin Williams.

#11 Cleveland – Jason Terry
With the Cavs comitting to an up-tempo offense with their #8 pick, they should take Terry here. Knight, Terry, Marion, and Donyell Marshall are undersized, but should make for a laser fast offense. With Zydrunas healthy in 2011, that’s not such a bad team.

#12 Toronto – Aleksandar Radojevic
As I said earlier, the Raptors really need front court depth, so this is why they reached for the 7-3 Euro. And this is why you don’t draft for need.

#13 Seattle – Wally Szczerbiak (traded to Orlando)
The Magic who acquire this pick in a trade have Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, and Ben Wallace. They need someone who can score, and don’t care about defense. Wally fits the bill here.

#14 Minnesota – James Posey
In this world, McHale is a genius, and the best player on the board is Andrei Kirilenko. But taking Kirilenko after reaching for an unknown in Ginobili would get him fired. Also having Kirilenko and Garnett on the court at the same time would be too weird. That’s like 60 combined feet of skinny arms & legs. Terrell Brandon, Manu Ginobili, James Posey, Kevin Garnett, and Rasho Nesterovic – that’s a nice team for 2000.

#15 New York – Andrei Kirilenko
Ahhh to dream. The Knicks dared to take a European, but clearly the wrong one. In 2000, Kirilenko would have fit in well with that Knicks team giving them so much depth. The starters would have been Ward, Houston, Sprewell, LJ and Ewing with Camby, Kurt Thomas, Childs and Kirilenko off the bench. That’s one scary team defensively. Additionally AK-47’s arrival might have prevented the team from trading Ewing for Glenn Rice, keeping the franchise from self destruction via salary cap. Perhaps the 2001 Knicks with Camby starting, Ewing coming off the bench, the addition of Mark Jackson, and Kirlenko instead of Rice could have given the team another title run.

#16 Chicago – Andre Miller
Here are your early aughts Bulls: Andre Miller, Jamal Crawford, Toni Kukoc, Elton Brand, and Brad Miller. Not a bad rebuild post-Jordan. Try not to break that team up this time.

LeBron Championship Unlikely To Affect Free Agency Destination

With their 8th straight losing season on the books for the New York Knicks, many of their fans are looking towards 2010 when a host of free agents could break that streak. While it’s possible that the Knicks could reach 41 wins next year, the quickest route to become a serious playoff contender will be finding a top notch free agent next summer. Of course at the head of the class is LeBron James who on his own would make New York an instant playoff team. Although James has shown an affinity for the Big Apple, I wonder how a championship could affect his 2010 address. There usually seems to be two circumstances where a great player chooses to leave his team still near his prime. Either the superstar feels his current team won’t be able to deliver a championship within a few years, or he is tired of his current situation and is looking for a new city.

Examples of the former include Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, and Kevin Garnett. Nearing his prime, Barkley’s Sixers were 35-47 and far removed from the 58 win team from Sir Charles’ rookie season. Barkley forced a trade to Phoenix where he propelled the team all the way to the NBA Finals. Similarly Drexler’s Trailblazers were two and a half seasons removed from their best teams. Portland had reached the Finals in 2 out of 3 years from 1990 to 1992, but had suffered a couple of first round exits since. Drexler was traded during the 1995 season to the Rockets and teamed with Olajuwon for a title. Kevin Garnett was stuck with perennial loser Minnesota until McHale decided to help out his alma mater Boston, and the Big Ticket won a championship in his first year in Green.

On the other hand, there are examples of superstars leaving winning teams. Shaq’s first time was with a 60 win Orlando team that had lost to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Houston in the Finals the year prior. O’Neal left for an average Laker squad who wouldn’t get back to the Finals for 4 seasons. Eight years later, Shaq would leave his 56 win Lakers for a 42 win Miami team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s tenure in Milwaukee was mostly successful. In his 6 seasons, the Bucks averaged 57 wins and Abdul-Jabbar won a championship in 1971 with the team. His final season in Milwaukee was a losing one (where Kareem only appeared in 65 games), but that wasn’t why Kareem was moved. He requested to be traded to New York or Los Angeles to fit his cultural needs.

Unfortunately for Knick fans, LeBron’s chances of leaving are lessened due to Cleveland’s strong play. If the Cavs had a wretched crew around James, he might seek to leave for greener pastures like Barkley, Drexler, or Garnett. While Cleveland does have an aging front court in Ilgauskas (33 yrs), Ben Wallace (34), and Joe Smith (33), most of their roster is under 30. Of their top minute getters Williams, Varejao, Gibson, and West are all under 27 years of age. Barring an unforeseen disaster, Cleveland will stay in title contention until 2010.

So if LeBron leaves Cleveland, he’ll fit in the latter category of athlete looking to expand his horizons. In the cases of Shaq and Kareem, the superstar left because they preferred not to be in their current locale. Shaq’s first exodus was due to a desire to be in the bright lights of Los Angeles, while his second was to distance himself from a contentious teammate. For Abdul-Jabbar, he wanted a more heterogeneous environment than his midwestern municipality could offer. In these cases it didn’t matter if a player had won a title in that city, because their motivation was based on their personal life. New York’s best chance for a happy summer of 2010 rests on LeBron’s wanderlust. If James’ desire to become a man of the world compels him to leave for a bigger locale, then there’s little the Buckeye State could do to contain him. In this situation, a championship will have little bearing on his destination.

East Missed Out On Lee

Henry Abbott and Kevin Pelton made an interesting note about yesterday’s All Star game.

Had a chance to trade emails with Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus during the live blog of the All-Star Game. Kevin rightfully pointed out that naming Mo Williams to replace Chris Bosh was the primary reason the East got mauled inside.

The choice of Williams meant the East entered the game with only two legitimate bigs — Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett, both of whom were starters. As a result, Rashard Lewis was forced to assume the center spot for long stretches of the game. Lewis has always been a bit challenged defending the post at the PF position, and he certainly doesn’t have the strength or the ability to absorb a beating against opposing 5s. But that’s exactly what he was charged with doing as the backup center on the Eastern squad, and the results were disastrous for the East.

Points in the Paint? West 96, East 58.

Glass? West 51, East 38.

Shaquille O’Neal: 17 points, 8-9 FGs in 11 minutes.

Watching the game I felt the same. It seemed as if the West had free reign in the paint and on the boards. While the East had an edge in aggregate offensive rebounds 13 to 12, the number is skewed by the fact that the East had more opportunities. The East had 59 chances for an offensive rebound, and the West only had 49.

A few weeks ago I advocated for David Lee on the All Star team, but outside of this site I was a minority. When Chris Bosh was injured, he was replaced by Maurice Williams. This substitution was justified from a political standpoint, as Williams is a top performer on one of the league’s best teams.

However from a tactical standpoint, this was a mistake. The East was left with only two players who were capable of playing center: Howard and Garnett. In All Star Games coaches tend to go deep into their benches, meaning that teams need to have plentiful reserves to field a normal five. Without a third center, the West dominated the inside and laughed their way to an easy victory. The knock against Lee is that he was a product of D’Antoni’s system, and excels only because of the style the Knicks play: a fast paced, no defense, guard emphasized game. Of course this is same environment as the All Star Game, so it makes sense that Lee would have excelled there as well. One only has to look back at the 2007 Rookies-Sophomore game for proof.

In the end it doesn’t really matter if the East won or lost. And no one will look back and call Williams’ selection over Lee as the NBA’s worst All Star crime this year (Iverson voted in as a starter was). Ultimately the important thing to learn from this is that players shouldn’t be judged in a vacuum. Different players will have different value depending on the environment. Perhaps in a general sense, Maurice Williams or Rashard Lewis are more deserving of an All Star berth than David Lee. But in last night’s context Lee would have been a better fit.