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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NBA Mega-column


I had this column all planned out and then, BOOM. Deron Williams—all-world point guard of the Utah Jazz—was traded to the New Jersey Nets Wednesday Morning. Suffice to say I was SHOCKED (for reference, check my twitter feed: http://twitter.com/#!/Owens992). As was everyone else in the NBA sphere; it’s not often in the twenty-first century world of pro sports that anyone is floored by a roster move. Just look at the Carmelo Anthony saga, we followed that one for an excruciating six months. Or how about LeBron James, we prepared ourselves for “The Summer of LeBron” for two years. To look at the ESPN front page and be traumatized by a headline has happened only three times in my life: A giant front page picture of “the helmet catch”, the Randy Moss trade (although I first caught wind of that one on twitter), and this D-Will shocker. So in short, what was supposed to be a 1,500 word dissertation concerning the Knicks trade for Carmelo blossomed into a 3,000 word behemoth ranging from philosophical topics such as superstar’s “right” to control their own destiny to analysis of how the NBA landscape has been irrevocably changed by just a couple of blockbusters.


Let’s begin with some Melo’ talk.

Carmelo Anthony takes a lot of heat. Many prominent basketball writers—Zach Lowe, Henry Abbot, and John Hollinger among them—treat Carmelo like an inefficient heathen unwilling to play the team game, content to shoot contested 18 foot jumpers for the rest of eternity. His many criticisms include: never leading the Denver Nuggets past the second round in the postseason, an inability to make his teammates better, an unwillingness to rebound, and scoring inefficiency—the love child of every basketball sabermetician. Few “in the know” basketball writers treat him as one of the 10 or 12 best basketball players in the world. As you might have surmised, I disagree.

Melo is a scorer, and he has a scorer’s mentality. But he happens to be transcendently gifted at putting the ball through the hoop. Let’s start with the basics: he’s averaging 25.2 points per game this season, down from 28.2 last year. That point per game average is good for fifth in the league. He shoots 45.2 percent from the floor—just a touch above the league average. His true shooting percentage is 54.7%, a touch below the league average, and less than three points below bastions of efficiency such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. His TS% is undoubtedly brought down by his poor three-point shooting: 33% for the year on 2.5 attempts per game.

At the risk of sounding like your STAT 203 professor, let’s delve into how Carmelo shoots from specific areas of the floor.

At the rim: M-4.1, A-7.3, FG%-55.6

<10 Feet: M-0.4, A-1.3, FG%-32.3

10-15 Feet: M-0.7 A-1.7, FG%-37.9

16-23 Feet: M-2.8, A-6.5, FG%-43.0

Among all Small Forwards (SF) Anthony has the worst field goal percentage around the rim at 55.6 percent. But he takes the most at 7.3 (by far, the next closest is LeBron James with 5.8) and makes the most tied with LeBron at 4.1. What does that mean? Anthony doesn’t exactly jack up long jumpers all game, he gets to the rim more than any other small forward in the league. He might not convert them at the percentage you would like to see but he does make more than anyone but LeBron. In terms of league average, Melo gets to the rim more than vaunted inside scorers such as Dwight Howard (6.9), Amare Stoudemire (6.6), and LaMarcus Aldridge (6.7).

Anthony’s numbers from inside ten feet and ten-15 feet are poor, but he rarely shoots from those areas (just three attempts per game). From 16-23 feet, Carmelo is fantastic. He’s better than Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade. He’s also well above the league average of 40.3 percent. He shoots his share of long jumpers, but he’s damn good at making them.

For a guy regarded as an inefficient scorer, he seems to be at or above league average in most categories. And for a player famous for launching jumpers, he sure takes the ball to the hole a lot.

Ok, so we know Carmelo Anthony is an offensive savant along the lines of the Rain Man. But how does he help his team? First allow me a quick rant relating to the basketball statistical revolution. Scoring is good! Efficient scoring is even better, and for how involved Melo’ is offensively he’s pretty damn efficient. By extension his scoring helps his team, a lot! Just because a guy is a scorer first and foremost doesn’t mean he acts as a detriment to his team. Many use Golden State guard Monta Ellis as a prime example for this philosophy, but the fact is his team sucks defensively! Surround him with some quality defenders and the Warriors would soar.

Back to Carmelo. His Player Efficiency Rating (PER) sits at 21.46, 22nd in the league, and only third among small forwards. Only two and a half points separate Melo’ from the eight most efficient basketball player in the league, Russell Westbrook (according to PER, that is).

Another common misconception: Carmelo Anthony doesn’t rebound. You could have definitely made an argument that he didn’t hit the glass hard enough in previous seasons, but this year, he’s having his best rebounding season ever. He’s grabbing 7.6 boards per game (a career best number), and has a rebound rate of 12.5, better than LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki. Among small forwards who play at least 30 minutes per game, he’s got the best total rebound rate in the league. His recent dedication to the glass shows an ability to adapt to team needs, a nice sign for the New York Knicks.

So 970 words later, where are we now? Hopefully not with your head through the wall after trying to understand what the hell PER is, or TRR, or TS%, or WTF (believe me, I was just as confused as you were). The point of this piece was not to anoint Carmelo Anthony the best basketball player in the world (that title rightfully belongs to LeBron James), but rather to demean all those smart ass statisticians who have to interfere with sports. Again, I kid. In all seriousness, Carmelo is one of the ten best basketball players in the NBA…a true offensive savant who has recommitted to rebounding.

All stats thanks to Hoopdata.com 

On to the trades…

Denver Nuggets, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves three-teamer

Denver gets: Raymond Felton (NYK), Wilson Chandler (NYK), Danilo Gallinari (NYK), Timofey Mozgov (NYK), a 2014 first round pick, 2012 and 2013 second-rounders, and cash considerations.

New York gets: Chauncey Billups (DEN), Carmelo Anthony (DEN), Corey Brewer (MINN), Anthony Carter (DEN), Renaldo Balkman (DEN), and Shelden Williams (DEN).

Minnesota gets: Anthony Randolph (NYK) and Eddy Curry (NYK).

DENVER

Trading a top ten talent is never positive, but give Nuggets management credit for procuring a treasure trove of talent and assets in return. They approached Anthony’s impending free agency the right way, realizing there was no way he would resign in Denver, and vigorously shopping him until they got a deal they liked. While Cleveland and Toronto destroyed their respective franchises by foolishly hoping, Denver was proactive, and it paid off.

The Nuggets now have a butt-ton of role-players and quality—if not great—basketball talent. What they lack with the loss of Carmelo is a centerpiece player to run the offense through. Where as many teams draft a franchise player and build around him (like the Thunder and Bulls), Denver is going the opposite direction. Add a Dwyane Wade or a Chris Paul to that team and it’s an instant playoff contender. The struggle now will be to find that franchise caliber player and to resign their impending FA’s in Nene (talk have already begun), Felton, and Chandler.

Things remain murky with this team, and we’ll have a much clearer picture once the trade deadline passes and the offseason arrives. Denver now has a ton of assets but it remains to be seen how they will use them…

NEW YORK

The Knicks didn’t give up quite as much as people believe they did. Wilson Chandler, in the midst of a terrific season, is a restricted free come the summer. Someone will pay him a lot of money for his services, and if the Knicks signed Anthony during the offseason (like some people think they should have) it’s doubtful they could have resigned Chandler.

New York essentially flipped point guard Raymond Felton for Chauncey Billups. Billups, 34, is eight years older than Felton and has reached his peak—he ain’t getting any better. Felton, meanwhile, has a lot more upside and has more experience running the pick-and-roll with Amare Stoudemire. Billups, this season, is certainly an upgrade, packing more experience, a better shooting touch, and leadership. He’s also an expiring contract, which could be a great asset next season, especially if New York puts a package together for Chris Paul in 2012.

New York’s big loss obviously, is Gallinari, a shooting forward getting better every year. Their reluctance to include the swingman in the deal for a long time confirms his value. Rookie forward Landry Fields probably complements the Anthony-Stoudemire duo better though, being the type of impact role player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands.

Whenever you have a chance to get a top ten player you have to do it. Quality role-players are necessary, but franchise players don’t come around very often. The Knicks essentially flipped Gallinari (tremendous upside), Felton (26, but might have reached his peak in the D’antoni offense), a project seven footer, and draft picks for a franchise-altering player and a veteran point guard who has championship experience.

No-brainer…

MINNESOTA

For those counting, that’s Darko, Michael Beasley, Eddy Curry, and Anthony Randolph all on the same team. SOMEONE SAVE KEVIN LOVE.

 Michael Beasley everyone!

Utah Jazz and New Jersey Nets two-teamer

Utah gets: Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, two first-rounders, and cash considerations.

New Jersey gets: Deron Williams

UTAH

First, hall of fame coach Jerry Sloan “resigns” and then All-star point guard Deron Williams is traded. Please, everyone, offer words of encouragement to any Utah friends you might have during these tough times. I can’t remember anything quite like this, where a sure-fire playoff contender loses its coach, best player, and championship aspirations all in the span of two weeks. It’s like vacationing to Universal Studios only having to settle midway through the trip for Hershey Park. Just crushing.

All is not lost though (besides professional basketball in Utah); The Jazz acquire promising big man Derrick Favors, former All-star point guard Devin Harris, and two first rounders—both of which should be lottery level picks. With the talent Utah already has, they are in much the same boat as the Denver Nuggets. Nonetheless, Williams is (very) arguably the best point guard in the league, and losing him will severely hamper Utah’s offense. But they have the assets in tradable contracts; draft picks, and cap flexibility to remain competitive.

NEW JERSEY

I wish I knew a Nets fan, because I’d love to congratulate him as the big Russian might have committed the trade of the decade. Needing a franchise player to build around (trust me, Brook Lopez isn’t it) the Nets did that plus one in grabbing Deron Williams. They also left their cap relatively intact, leaving the possibility of acquiring Dwight Howard in 2012 or another steller free agent in the future. New Jersey, lacking a face of the franchise for, well, its history finally has one.

So that’s the good—the bad? Deron Williams won’t, and can’t be locked up before the CBA negotiations this summer. So that means, unlike the Knicks with Carmelo, the Nets aren’t guaranteed Williams for the long term—making this trade all the more risky.
Regardless, sick, sick trade for the New Jersey Nets. Jay-Z must be happy. Devin Harris is 28, has probably reached his ceiling, and has reportedly been butting heads with Avery Bradley. Derrick Favors is a potential stud big man (I stress the potential part) but hasn’t shown much of anything this season. He’s still young (only 19) but there’s no telling how high ceiling could be. All that and a couple of draft picks for a world-class point guard. YES PLEASE.

 Mutant Mark Cuban!

Come east, young man…

The West has been the deeper conference for the better part of the past decade. For example, every western playoff team last season had at least 50 wins, while four eastern conference teams had below 48. Two non-playoff squads, Memphis and Houston had at least forty wins. Suddenly, that has a chance to change. With Carmelo and Stoudemire going east to the Knicks, Deron being traded to the Nets and Kobe aging the east is gaining the upper hand. Miami and Chicago look poised to contend for the next decade, New York and New Jersey may be on the rise and Orlando is always in contention with Dwight Howard. Six eastern teams are on pace for fifty wins (Boston, Chicago, Orlando, New York, Miami, Atlanta), two up from last year.

In the west only one team looks like it could legitimately contend for the next decade: Oklahoma City. Portland is constantly riddles with injury, Utah has been ravaged, Chris Paul is a serious threat to leave New Orleans, and the Lakers, Spurs, and Mavericks are getting older and older. The Thunder have a young, growing nucleus, and Durant—a 22 year old superstar.

If the west is to stay competitive with the east, the top of the conference needs to reload…

So where do we stand? In two days, two perennial west contenders went from playoff bound to nowhere bound. After watching LeBron and Bosh massacre their franchises, Denver and Utah decided not to suffer the same fate and traded their franchise superstars. Is this what the NBA has come to? General Managers are mere puppets at the whim of their best players? Carmelo wanted to play in the Big Apple, he's now playing in the Big Apple. It's a topic for another column, but rest assured, players won't have close to the same amount of power after the new CBA is negotiated. Is this a good thing? If it means we won't have any more Melo' sagas or "Summer of LeBron's", maybe it is...

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