The Give and Go
From: Charlie Zegers
To: Justin Phan
Sent: Mon, November 23, 2009 7:58:10 AM
Subject: Getting Old
The most remarkable thing about the Knicks/Celtics game on Sunday wasn't that 3-9 New York - playing the second game of a back-to-back - took Boston to overtime. And it wasn't Kevin Garnett's buzzer-beater that ended the contest. It wasn't even the fact that Mark Wahlberg - of the Boston Wahlbergs - was sitting courtside decked out in Knicks gear.
No, the most remarkable thing was that New York left KG open for that final shot... and leaving Garnett open was the right play.
Garnett was 4-of-15 on the day - didn't even reach double-figures until the extra period. And he clearly struggled to elevate for rebounds or stay in front of Al Harrington (30 points) on defense. Meanwhile, Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace combined to go 1-for-9 from three-point range; 'Sheed is now shooting .272 from three for the season.
Is it my imagination, or do the Celtics look old?
The C's aren't the only squad looking prematurely grey this season. The Spurs have been dropping like flies - even Tony Parker (27) has been missing time with nagging injuries. The addition of some key veterans seemed to improve both teams this offseason - but it's hard to call either squad a title contender based on what we've seen of late.
Meanwhile... as I write, the Atlanta Hawks are 11-3 and tied with Orlando and Phoenix for the best record in the league. (Phoenix' presence at the top of the standings is almost as surprising as Atlanta's.) Is it too early to start making revisions to our preseason list of contenders?
Of course, with Garnett - and several other players - the problem might be injury, not age. Maybe his recovery from last season's surgery is simply taking a little longer than anticipated. You buying or selling Garnett as "the old KG" down the stretch this season? What about Gilbert Arenas? Need him to shoot better than 39% from the floor if he's going to be considered an elite fantasy player again.
Then there's our old pal Elton Brand - who we discussed in some detail last week. As you predicted, he's been close to a 20-and-10 average with over 3.5 blocks and 2.5 steals in his last three games. You're on record as saying it won't last - seen anything that's changed you mind?
A couple of notes for my own "mea culpa" department... last week I was talking up the possibility of Allen Iverson going to the Knicks, but ol' Jimmy Dolan apparently put the kibosh on that. As a fan I'm not disappointed, but as a fantasy player I still think AI at MSG would be worth a look. I'm having trouble thinking of another scenario where I'd want to give him a roster spot. One rumor that keeps coming up is Miami - and the Heat really could use a penetrator to complement all their jump-shooters and keep defenses from just trapping D-Wade every time he gets near the ball... but Iverson and Wade both need the ball in their hands to be effective; doesn't feel like a good fit. And I was also talking up the possibility of a play for Tracy McGrady - but the latest news is that his "go or no go" exam has been postponed due to back trouble. I think I'll let someone else take a flyer on him at this point.
From: Justin Phan
Sent: Tuesday, November 24, 2009 7:34 AM
To: Charlie Zegers
Subject: Re: Getting Old
The right play would have actually been for Wilson Chandler to foul Pierce before he had the chance to dish it to Garnett (the Knicks had a foul to give), but that's another story.
The Celtics look old because ... well, they are. They feature a nine-man rotation with a median age of 31 years old -- Rondo (23), Perkins (25), Shelden Williams (26), Marquis Daniels (28), House (31), Pierce (32), KG (33), Ray Allen (34), and Rasheed Wallace (35).
Despite having to take the Knicks into overtime to pull out a win and the early shooting woes of Sheed, the Celtics are still in excellent shape at the moment. They currently lead the league in average scoring margin (+8.79) and defensive efficiency (94.4). And most importantly, their core group of players are all healthy. It's important to look at a team's full body of work in the hoops realm and not extrapolate too much from one game because you'll see some crazy swings in team performance from game-to-game that will leave you scratching your head -- like the Clippers pulling off a big upset against the Nuggets (8-3) on Friday then struggling to fend off the T'Wolves (1-12) in their next game.
While I am fairly impressed by the Celtics' early-season performance (albeit a pedestrian .465 SOS), I am much more concerned with the current state of affairs in San Antonio. Since the '97-'98 season up until last season, a 12-year stretch, the Spurs have been fifth AT WORST in defensive efficiency. They currently sit at a distant 19th through 12 games having allowed their opponents to average 97.5 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting. The Spurs defensive unit has been noticably deficient in forcing turnovers (their opponents are averaging a league-low 10.6 turnovers).
I've looked at what the Spurs' opponents have done during that 12-game span and can tell you that there aren't any real outliers that stick out, which leads me to believe that this is a legitimate cause for concern moving forward. Opponents have shot the ball at a clip of 44.6 percent (31.4 from three) with a below-average assist rate (16.79) and average defensive rebound rate (74.63). Then there is the whole health issue.
Coming into the year I had the Spurs as the clear-cut No. 2 team in the West behind the Lakers. If I was to re-rank the teams out West at this point in time, I'd probably bump them down to third between Denver and Portland. Where do you have them right now?
By the way, no mention of Will Ferrell? He was sitting right next to Wahlberg at the Knicks game. I don't know how to put this but he's kind of a big deal. People know him. He's very important. He has many leather-bound books and his apartment smells of rich mahogany.
I'm sure our readers don't want to be reading about crusty old veterans for the duration of this article so let's flip the script and talk about some young up-and-coming squads. Portland, Atlanta, Houston, and Oklahoma City are the ones that come immediately to mind. Thoughts on these teams?
From: Charlie Zegers
To: Justin Phan
Sent: Tue, November 24, 2009 6:35:15 AM
Subject: RE: Getting Old
Ferrell's a big deal, but Ferrell at the Garden wasn't nearly as surprising as seeing Marky Mark in a Gallinari jersey. One of last season's dumber controversies erupted when Nate Robinson started bumping fists with Ferrell after every made basket during a game at MSG. (What was the big deal, exactly? Nate scored 41 that night and led the Knicks to a rare win. It's not like he took shots at the wrong basket... )
You're right that the Spurs have looked worse than the Celtics - but San Antonio has lost a lot more man/games than Boston to this point. And I think it was reasonable to expect the Spurs' defense to lose some of its bite, at least initially. NBA defense is, in large part, about cohesion, and the Spurs are in the process of integrating several new players this season. Plus, they swapped Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas for Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair. If they get healthy, I have faith that they'll come around. I wouldn't drop them behind Portland, but I would call the Spurs and the Nuggets my 2a and 2b teams in the West. Neither team seems good enough to compete with the Lakers right now.
I don't really know what to make of the Trail Blazers yet. They've lost a couple of key subs, the pace of Greg Oden's development seems exceedingly slow, and I don't get the sense that Nate McMillan knows how to use Brandon Roy, Steve Blake and Andre Miller in the same rotation. But they'll be 13-5 by the weekend; their next two are home games against winless New Jersey and Memphis. They did look great last night, blasting the Bulls by 24 - and Oden scored 24 points.
I find Atlanta's success almost as surprising as Milwaukee's. I more or less wrote them off when they started talking about Jamal Crawford as a factor in the point guard rotation. Crawford is, perhaps, my least-favorite player in the league. With the ball in his hands, he can be an electric scorer - but he makes so many boneheaded decisions on both ends of the court, he strikes me as a net negative. But to some degree, I think Atlanta is succeeding because their lineup is unique - there aren't many teams that can match up with the athleticism of Josh Smith and Marvin Williams at the forward spots.
It will be interesting to see how they do in Mike Bibby's absence. Weather that storm, and they could put a scare into Orlando.
You can't be an NBA fan and not love what the Rockets have done this season. They have about $175 million in salary sitting on the bench and a lineup of mostly unheralded players, but they won't be out-worked. I love Aaron Brooks. I'd love Trevor Ariza more if he was shooting better -- .388 from the floor isn't going to cut it. And I suspect the lineup Houston is running today will be very different by February - McGrady's massive expiring contract is too good an asset not to trade, and McGrady's behavior is too much of a distraction not to trade.
The Thunder are about where I expected they'd be - one of the better bad teams in the West. They have the scorers to beat any team on a given night... but their youth and inexperience will cost them a lot of games. I'd pencil them as just outside the playoff picture when this season ends, and primed to make a run at something better next year.
From: Justin Phan
Sent: Wednesday, November 25, 2009 4:35 PM
To: Charlie Zegers
Subject: Re: Getting Old
Yeah I'll admit that I was premature to throw praise Portland's way, because after looking at their schedule I don't see how they can be considered any better than the fourth best team in the Western Conference. They have a +8.19 average scoring margin through 16 games, good for second in the league, but a whopping +74 of their total +131 have come in three games against the 1-13 T'Wolves. Take out those three games and their average scoring margin goes from second (+8.19) to ninth (+4.38). Nate McMillan needs to put an end to that three-guard experiment as the team's increased offensive efficiency (+5) has not been worth the drop in defensive efficiency (-15). The Blazers are 6-5 with a Blake/Miller/Roy lineup and 6-0 with Blake/Roy/Webster on the floor.
Gotta love the way Atlanta has started off the season. It's not like they've played a soft schedule either -- they've got quality wins against Portland (2), Denver, Boston, and Houston. A big part of the Hawks' success has been tied to improved shot selection on the offensive end, mainly from Josh Smith. He's attempted just one three-pointer this season (an end-of-half heave against Miami) which has done wonders for the team's offensive efficiency considering Smoove is a career 26.9 percent shooter from deep. It got so bad last year that fans were booing him every time he put up a three. In addition to the improved decision-making on his shots, Smoove has reverted back to his elite shot-blocking levels, is crashing the boards harder than ever, and is dishing out dimes at a higher rate than ever. The onus is on him to pave the way for his teammates and if he sustains his early-season levels then the Hawks have a shot at winning the Eastern Conference.
I'm with you on the Rockets. Hard not to love a team comprised of role players playing their hearts out without their two biggest superstars. Although their 8-6 record may not reflect it, they've played extremely well so far. They have played the third toughest schedule to date (.579) and have had some very close, heart-breaking losses (102-103 OT loss to the Lakers and 103-105 loss to the Hawks). I'd put them fifth in the West behind LA, Denver, San Antonio, and Portland right now. Dallas and Phoenix look more like early-season aberrations than anything.
Article first appeared on 11/27/09