Friday, August 29, 2008

The Best in the NBA: Nos. 40-31

To fill the void in the world of basketball right now, I have decided to follow in SLAMonline's footsteps (somewhat) in counting down the best basketball players in the League today. I remind you to leave your opinions in the comments section since I would like to hear what you think. I'll probably roll out a new part of this blog once every couple weeks so stay tuned. Please note that injuries have no effect on a player's ranking.

#40- Monta Ellis, Golden State Warriors. Even though he's out for the season, we can't forget how great of a year Monta had with averages of 20 points, five rebounds, and four assists. He was essential in leading the Warriors to 48 regular season wins and was a playmaker on both ends of the floor with an average of 1.5 steals per game.

#39- Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies. The only bright spot on the team (after the Grizz "gave" Pau away) was a 20-point scorer in only his second NBA season and started in all the games he played in (81). Because Gay is so good at getting to the hoop, people forget how good of a shooter he is, too. Few realize that he shoots a solid 35% from three-point range.

#38- Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Indiana Pacers. Some may be scratching their heads at this one, but he is fully deserving of the #38 spot, if not higher. I recently wrote an article on making a case as to why Dunleavy is the most underrated player in the entire league with averages of 19 points, five rebounds, and four assists last year.

#37- Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks. The big man for the best young team in the East had quite a season last year with his team almost pulling off the miracle upset against the eventual-champion Boston Celtics. In that series, Horford averaged 12 points, ten rebounds, and four assists against the best defensive team in the NBA.

#36- Emeka Okafor, Charlotte Bobcats. The force in the middle for the Cats is one of the few reasons they win as many games as they do (which doesn't say a whole lot, but still). His averages of 14 points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks per game are nothing to scoff at, while his 54% shooting from the field is decent as well.

#35- David West, New Orleans Hornets. The second half of one of the most lethal pick-and-roll combos in the League puts up 21 points, nine rebounds, and three assists per game. He is a solid shooter from both the line and the field and, when left open, can knock down the three. He was undoubtedly the second-best player on the second-best regular season team out West last season.

#34- Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers. The new AI in the City of Brotherly Love is one of the most versatile players in the NBA and has a large array of moves in his repertoire. In only his fourth year in the League, Iguodala put up 20 points, five rebounds, five assists, and two steals. He was the catalyst behind the late-season surge of the Sixers and definitely deserves some love as a top forty player in the L.

#33- Carlos Boozer, Utah Jazz. Some were unhappy with Boozer's inclusion on Team USA when the roster was announced; many more were unhappy with his being on the team as the Olympics went on, saying how he was a non-factor for the gold medalists. Whether he contributed much or not, he is extremely important to the defending Northwest Division champs on both offense and defense. Boozer averaged a double-double in both the regular season and playoffs this past season.

#32- Richard Hamilton, Detroit Pistons. Arguably the best conditioned athlete in the NBA is "Rip" Hamilton. He routinely plays forty minutes a game and never stops running his defender off screens the entire time. His averages of 17 points, four assists, and three rebounds does not accurately portray how vital he is to the Pistons team though. His shooting is even somewhat underrated in my opinion since he is known as only a "mid-range shooter". However, he shot 44% from deep last season.

#31- Joe Johnson, Atlanta Hawks. The second Hawk on my list is a guard, not a big man like the last. Johnson was the scoring presence for Atlanta all season long (22 ppg) and was a very good shooter (38% from deep). His rebounding is actually pretty good for a combo guard, too, with an average of four per game.

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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Team USA 87, Australia 76

The best test Team USA would face during their exhibition schedule would come in the final game. The Aussies held them to the fewest points of any team so far playing without their star big man, Andrew Bogut, who was out with an ankle injury. The Americans shot an abysmal 16.7% from deep while Australia made 40% of their attempts from three-point range.

The Achilles' heel of USA has to be their free throw shooting, which could hurt them in the Olympics against good teams such as Spain. They shot only 60.6% from the line today and Dwight Howard alone went 0-for-6 from the free throw line.

Team USA was also turnover-prone at times especially when the backcourt group of Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade entered the game simultaneously. Two passes were thrown away and then another inbounds pass was almost picked off by the Aussies. Most of USA's 11 turnovers for the game, however, happened in their halfcourt offense. They were struggling to score because of Australia's packing their defense in the key and cutting down on USA's one-on-one isolation play opportunities, which are much harder to come by in international play than in the NBA.

For the Aussies, five players scored in double figures and all shared the scoring load, which made them tougher to defend. Their team featured a few Division I college players who were certainly not backing down to the Americans. In the second quarter, there was actually an exchanging of words that featured some pushing and shoving that broke out between some of the players. Personally, it was good for USA to experience something like that before they head to Beijing to begin Olympic play.

For Team USA, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James led the way with 22 and 16 points, respectively. LeBron also added four assists, five steals, and three blocks to his impressive stat line. Chris Paul had a game-high five assists while his teammate, Deron Williams, had zero assists and three turnovers.

As usual, USA had a few defensive lapses that gave the other team easy baskets. On one particular play, they doubled the post and left the weak side vulnerable. It was Carmelo's job to drop into the key but he decided to stay out on the perimeter and attempt to make a steal. An Aussie cut the middle, got the ball, and made a wide-open layup. Little things like that simply cannot happen if Coach K's team wishes to win gold.

I also think it was ludicrous for Carmelo and LeBron to guarantee gold and then for Wade to go out and announce that he has a gold medal tour planned already. They are just adding pressure to themselves when they really aren't so good as many people are believing and hoping they will be. If they play Spain like they did today, they will lose. Mike Krzyzewski and his coaching staff definitely have to make some adjustments such as working on their halfcourt offensive execution and their pick-and-roll defense. It wouldn't hurt to work on their defensive rotations either.

This game against Australia was another win for USA, but other teams like Greece and Spain and Argentina are watching these games and learning how to beat Team USA. It's no coincidence that their two toughest games were the two final friendlies on their exhibition schedule. As of right now, I don't see the Americans winning it all. Nevertheless, they most certainly have the potential and ability to do so.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Team USA vs. Turkey Recap

In what appeared to be USA's first real international test, the Americans put on quite a show. The alley-oops and ferocious dunks were there as usual, but the offensive cohesiveness was something that was missing from the 2004 team. Kobe Bryant, the reigning NBA MVP, only scored nine points but dished out a game-high seven assists. LeBron James, in his first game back from an ankle injury, put up a impressive stat line of 20 points, five rebounds, and four assists.

Dwyane Wade was extremely aggressive on both the offensive and defensive ends yet a tad overaggressive at times, being called for a couple reaching fouls and an offensive foul in the lane. Nonetheless, he finished the game with 13 points and 3 assists on 6-for-9 shooting. The game ended with a final score of 114-82, the expected annihilation of the Turkish squad that was without Hedo Turkoglu (Orlando Magic) and Mehmet Okur (Utah Jazz). However, the game was much closer than the score indicated. The Turks took the lead from USA midway through the first quarter, which ended with Team USA leading by only one point.

Carmelo Anthony, arguably the best international player in the entire world as Fran Fraschilla said, scored 11 first-quarter points but only six in the remaining three periods. Akyol, a Turkish guard, finished with a game-high 22 points which included 3-for-8 shooting from deep.

From the beginning, Turkey was trying to pound the ball inside. On the defensive end, they were sending double-teams at Dwight Howard in the post. This soon ended when Carmelo went on a little scoring run of his very own, which forced Turkey to lay off Howard and focus more on Anthony. Semih Erden, the big man who was just drafted by the Boston Celtics, played very physically inside and left me somewhat impressed. With his size though, he could have been much more assertive with his rebounding.

The biggest problems I saw for Team USA were simple: team defense and rebounding. Although the Americans out-rebounded their opponents 28-25, the Turks had more than half their rebounds on the offensive end. They got a lot of second-chance points because of either bad positioning or no boxing out. At times, USA would have only one guy crashing for the rebound.

Another minor concern was the fact that Team USA was maybe having too much fun at times. Seeing Kobe at the free throw line going through his routine while he was laughing and carrying on was ridiculous and out-of-place. They should have fun but still remain focused and intense. Finally, Coach K should address some of the defensive lapses that occur. Leaving guys wide-open and being so overaggressive that a good shooter gets an open three are things that can't happen if they want to win gold.

All in all though, I was very impressed with everyone's play (even though I didn't get to see any spectacular shooting from Michael Redd) and the USA coaches should be happy with their team's performance. It wasn't easy to bring all these big-name players together but they seemed to have done it very well. I just hope they don't get too overconfident and arrogant about their play. These international teams are serious about winning gold and beating the Americans. If a team like Spain succeeds in taking us down, it's going to be a long road before USA Basketball gets back on track to win gold medals.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Team USA, Jennings, and Some Summer Basketball

After a month-long blogging hiatus, I am back to give you the news from the sport I cover best: basketball. We have seen many players moving around this summer which has sent Baron Davis and Marcus Camby to LA, Elton Brand to Philly, and Maggette to Golden State to name only a few. However, all of these events pale in comparison to Team USA. Coach Krzyzewski's team has had more pressure put on them than ever before with some even claiming that if we fail this year, we'll never win another one.

Nonetheless, I simply cannot see our boys losing over in China. Jason Kidd and a team-oriented Kobe Bryant are the veterans on a team that has been playing and practicing together since two summers ago.

LeBron James has even gone ahead and guaranteed a win which, as most of us already know, is not always a smart thing to do in sports. If you've read my past blogs, you already know my stance on guarantees. They are extremely dumb and only put more pressure on the guarantor's team.

I would be even more skeptical of James's statement had Team USA not dominated last year at the FIBA Americas Championship, which included an impressive 91-76 victory of Argentina in the final.

The keys for Team USA will be the same as they were last summer. The main one is to play as a team out on the court and not try to do everything one-on-one. Another is to get up and down the court (the way Coach K has been preaching to them about). After all, they usually have the five most athletic players on the court. Finally, they need to play team defense and that goes for everyone, including Carmelo.

Speaking of basketball on a worldly stage, Brandon Jennings, an Arizona commit, has recently decided to forgo college all together and spend his one year out of high school playing over in Europe. Frankly, I think it's for the best. The NBA is becoming more and more European in the way they play the game of basketball which is why a year over there for Jennings can do nothing but good for him. Besides, he was going to be a one-and-done anyway.

In Las Vegas, meanwhile, rookies Jerryd Bayless and Donte Greene were busy lighting up their opponents, averaging 30 and 23 points respectively. Some other rookies that made an impact were Anthony Randolph (21 ppg, 8 rpg), Kevin Love (18 ppg, 14 rpg), and Marreese Speights (18 ppg, 10 rpg). Non-rookies, such as Quincy Douby (22 ppg) and Ramon Sessions (15 ppg, 7 apg, 5 rpg), also made an impact.

At the Orlando Pro Summer League, Michael Beasley put on a show with 28 points and 9 rebounds in his first professional basketball game. However, the man who was taken ahead of Beasley, Derrick Rose, has had a rough start. He sat out of the past two games due to injuries and has averaged 5 turnovers per game.

Also in Orlando, Russell Westbrook has had a decent summer league so far, proving the doubters wrong. For people like me though, he has just reassured us that a ROY award isn't an impossible feat next season.

After all this, you must still keep in mind that a summer league is a summer league and that great numbers in July don't translate to good number in the regular season. They provide only an inkling of what the player is capable of doing at the pro level. Besides, many of these players (especially those playing for postseason contenders) won't even get significant playing time this season.

So there you have it. That's the summer news for professional basketball right now. Be sure to tune in tomorrow night to watch Team USA take on Canada in an exhibition game. It will, hopefully, not be much of a game, but it will still be fun to watch America's best basketball team play. Here's a cool video for you:

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Poll Results: Every voter agreed that Kobe Bryant will go down in NBA history as a top ten player to ever play, but no one thinks he's good enough to be top 5.