Seven days ago, fresh off a scintillating first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I used this space to call out the NBA Snobs who like to dismiss college hoops as a waste of time, or entirely inferior to the NBA. And while I stand by everything I wrote last week—mostly, a response to the pretentious attitudes of a vocal minority—it's also time to shift back to the NBA.
As great as the NCAA Tournament's been, this year's Final Four rings a bit hollow. Quick analysis:
With Butler and Duke, we're basically talking about tryouts for the All White Hoops League, and among the other two teams, the only player that's moderately intriguing for the next level is Da'Sean Butler (reminds me a little bit of Caron Butler, actually.) Gordon Hayward's good, too, but really. The only suspense is whether Jim Nantz finds a way to work his personal butler into the broadcast, thus bringing our total number of unrelated Butlers to four (Da'Sean, Caron, Butler the team, and Jim Nantz's cheeky manservant).
The two week break from the NBA was nice, but let's get back to the best players in the world.
(Also, apologies for not following through on my promise of a "basketball movies" post. After starting that piece, I quickly realized it'd be better suited to the summer, when there's not actual basketball drama to discuss, and we'll all be looking for any reason to ignore the ultimate exercise in tedium, baseball. For now, real hoops.)
1. THE CHRIS BOSH CONUNDRUM
Last week, I got into an argument about Chris Bosh. Not because of Bosh, really, because his game has left very little to interpretation this year. He's a very good player. But because nearly everyone these days talking about the Summer of 2010 as a race for the "Big Three." LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. And again, I like Bosh...
But putting him in the same category as James and Wade borders on blasphemy.
They're not in the same stratosphere. He's talented and can occasionally be dominant, but there are also very real questions about his game that make him a gamble as a max free agent. Can he score in crunch time? Can he sell out our stadium every night? Will he make his new team a premier NBA franchise? Can he take a team past the first round of the playoffs? With Bosh, it's all debatable.
With LeBron and Wade, those are not questions.
That's why it's so ridiculous when people talk about this summer's "Big Three." Just for the record, this summer hinges on the decisions of two players: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh is a part of the Amare-Joe Johnson subset, where their decisions will have a big role in shaping the landscape of the league, but it won't be the sort of tectonic shift that shakes up the basketball world as we know it.
I mention this not for the sake of 2010 semantics, but because the Bosh discussion centers on one of the eternal mysteries in the NBA, especially in the Salary Cap era. What makes a franchise player in the NBA? Who are the real superstars out there? The guys that any team would kill for, and the people who can pick up checks for $23 million and call it "fair compensation."
And given the cap restrictions in the modern NBA, it's a bigger gamble than ever before to commit big money to a superstar. If you're betting a max salary on a guy, the implication is that he's someone you build a championship team around, or at least a contender. But it's still just a guessing game, and you'd be amazed at how many GMs get it wrong.
In general, identifying franchise players boils down to personal perspective, borrowing from the Supreme Court's "You know it when you see it" judgment on pornography. But then... Here are the top 10 highest paid players in the NBA. Clearly, NBA GMs are easily aroused:
10. Michael Redd—$17,040,000
9. Rashard Lewis—$18,876,000
8. Ray Allen—$19,766,860
7. Paul Pierce—$19,795,712
6. Dirk Nowitzki—$19,795,714
5. Shaquille O’Neal—$20,000,000
4. Tim Duncan—$22,183,218
3. Jermaine O’Neal—$22,995,000
2. Kobe Bryant—$23,034,375
1. Tracy McGrady—$23,329,561
So, yeah. The "You Know It When You See It" approach has its drawbacks. It's tough to tell the difference between fools' gold and the real thing. Call it the Chris Bosh Conundrum.
But in hopes of clearing things up a little bit, let's rundown a handful of borderline franchise guys. Again, it's all done on a case-by-case basis and it's subjective. Hindsight's the ultimate hallmark in all of this. Until then, we've only got our instincts. Here are mine:
CHRIS BOSH: As much as Chris Bosh has progressed this year, he's still a power forward that plays like a small forward. That's problem number one. It would be one thing if he were just a 6'10 small forward, but he's not. Bosh is a very skilled power forward, and while that makes him a matchup nightmare for teams, it also means that he's settling for jumpshots in crunch time. Not because he's some dead-eye jump shooter, but that's all he can do. He's a finesse player that relies on jumpshots, and in crunch time against tough defense, he's not driving past anyone.
Paired with a great pick-and-roll guard (like say, Derrick Rose in Chicago?) he's more dangerous, but even so. Unless you're the Lakers, Mavericks, Knicks, or any other team that's willing to disregard the luxury tax, a jump-shooting power forward isn't worth $100 million. Then there's his defense. He's not terrible, and in fairness, he's playing with teammates that are egregiously awful on that end. Calling Hedo Turkoglu and Jose Calderon "liabilities" is like saying Vince Carter lacks "toughness." Understatements of the century.
But even with Turkoglu and Calderon and Andrea Bargnani mitigating Toronto's defensive failures, it's still Bosh's team. Bosh may blame his teammates and talk about wanting to go somewhere else to win, but come on. His entire time in Toronto, the Raptors have been a finesse team, overly-reliant on jumpshots, and easily bullied on the defensive end. Who does that sound like? Hmm...
Chris Bosh could be looked at as a franchise player, but if you sign him to a max deal, you'd better be able to afford a max deal for someone like Derrick Rose. Otherwise, if Bosh is the franchise player, your franchise will look suspiciously like the Toronto Raptors the past few years. And that's not a good thing.
CHRIS PAUL: How long has it been since a team won a championship with a point guard as its leading superstar?
If you guessed 20 years, then you're right!
Not since Isiah Thomas in 1990 has a superstar point guard won an NBA Title for his team, so it's tough to justify giving any point guard a max salary. Except that, if you asked me to compare Chris Paul to anyone in NBA history, the first name that pops up, and ultimately the most apt comparison, is Zeke. Isiah Thomas players was great because of a hyper-competitive demeanor, the ability to make teammates better, and the ability to look for his scoring at exactly the right moments. That's Chris Paul.
Paul may not be a lock to ever play in the NBA Finals, let alone win one. But you can at least say this much: with Chris Paul running a team, you will be competitive night-to-night, and the players around them will always look about 25% better than they actually are. Hell, before he got hurt this year, he had a TERRIBLE Hornets team hovering above .500 in the West. Is that worth a max contract? I think so. Not every franchise can win the NBA Title, but with Paul and even an average supporting cast, you'll always be in the conversation.
Plus, there's a decent chance he could pull an Isaiah Thomas under the right circumstances...
BRANDON ROY AND DERON WILLIAMS: Brandon Roy doesn't get nearly enough credit for carrying Portland the past few years. Through injuries to himself and teammates, Roy's remained shockingly consistent over the course of his career, and always has Portland in the thick of the playoff hunt. For that alone, he's probably worth the max deal that Portland gave him last summer. Not just because he's very good, but because in that particular city, it's important to have a good team every year. Brandon Roy gives them that.
Deron Williams, for his part, does a lot of the same things for Utah. He's been the catalyst for them since he entered the league, keeping the Jazz in the hunt for the Western Conference. What's more, while the rest of the roster's been wildly inconsistent over his time there, Deron Williams has been a rock for Utah. Like Roy, this quality alone means that he's probably worth a max deal. Someone you can build your team around, and count on to give you good teams year-in and year-out.
Will Roy and Williams give their teams anything more? Maybe not. Roy, Paul, and Deron Williams and entered the league at about the same time, and they've all been spectacular from the start. But the difference between Chris Paul and the other two is that at the end of the day, Brandon Roy and Deron Williams are human.
Brandon Roy's a great teammate with a great attitude, and will likely be an All-Star for the better part of the next decade. Same goes for Deron Williams. But they're never going to look like Chris Paul did for the first month of this season. Just an alien, playing on a different level than everyone else. Paul has an extra gear that just doesn't exist for Roy and Williams. So does that mean they're not max players? Again, it's subjective.
For Portland, overpaying to keep Roy made sense, and it'll make sense for Utah to keep Williams, too. Both teams have rabid fanbases that love these guys, and even if they never win a title, keeping them around ensures future playoffs berths, great home crowds, and a slew of quality teams. For some teams, that's enough. For most teams, even.
But for the teams looking to pluck up a "franchise player" in free agency, Roy and Williams don't quite fit the bill. They're both good and you can win with 'em. But can you win a title with 'em?
JOE JOHNSON: Ladies and gentleman, meet the posterchild for what's wrong with NBA Free Agency! He's a lock to get overpaid this summer. Everybody knows it, everybody jokes about it, and it's going to happen anyway. It's really kind of unbelievable. Where Amazing Happens, etc.
To be fair, the Hawks have built a team around Joe Johnson, and it's actually been pretty successful. But that's thanks in large part to Josh Smith and Al Horford. Make no mistake: Joe Johnson's a been great foundational piece for the Hawks, but the reason Atlanta's better this year is because Josh Smith stopped shooting threes, and Al Horford started kicking ass. So when the biggest difference-maker on "a team built around Joe Johnson" is someone other than Joe Johnson, what does that say about his values as franchise player?
Brandon Roy and Deron Williams are tougher calls, because you never know whether one of them might just dominate for a season and lead their teams to a title. Joe Johnson? Not gonna happen. He's a very good player, but we can be fairly certain in assuming that a team with max salary committed to Joe Johnson will never win an NBA Title. There are just too many good players that can do what he does for the half the price.
It's a shame that to keep together a great nucleus in Atlanta, the Hawks might get held hostage by an insane market and have to choose between giving him a max contract, or basically pulling the plug on the team they've built. For teams like Chicago, New York, Miami, etc, going over the luxury tax for Joe Johnson—as a supporting player—makes sense. For Atlanta to make him their highest paid player for the next six years, it'd be much harder to swallow.
Like I said, "the posterchild for what's wrong with NBA Free Agency."
AMARE STOUDEMIRE: Finally, there's Amare Stoudemire. He's been an animal since the All-Star Break, as detailed here, by SB Nation's excellent Suns' blog, Bright Side of the Sun. Visual evidence from Bright Side:
That's really all you need to see. Amare's been awesome, casting doubts on the notion that he's not a franchise player, or somebody worthy of a max salary. And good for him. When he plays like this, he's absolutely in the class of the players above. But then... You have to ask yourself.
If you had rundown the list of candidates for the "Tim Thomas Award," otherwise known as "NBA Player That Looks 50% Better In A Contract Year," wouldn't Amare be number one? People don't necessarily see it—because he's so talented, in general—but Amare is Tim Thomas, and Erick Dampier, the 2002-2003 Clippers, and every other player that's ever killed themselves for one season, or even half a season, just before a contract year.
For years, Amare's had the potential to dominate like this. He's always been plagued by attitude issues, injuries, attitude issues, and attitude issues. Now he suddenly he puts it together? What a coincidence!
He's played well enough so that Phoenix might even re-sign him to a max deal. And maybe it's just me, but five years from now, I see Amare hobbling around on one good knee, with about forty extra pounds, making a good $23 million dollars on a terrible Phoenix Suns team. It's called Karma, Robert Saver. Karma.
2. THE CRAZIEST STORY YOU WILL READ ALL WEEK
One of my favorite prospects from this year's tournament was Washington's Quincy Pondexter. Not necessarily because he'll be a star one day, but because he's exactly the sort of guy that'll get overlooked in three months at the NBA Draft. He's long, athletic, and can defend. He led Washington in scoring and rebounding, and improved his game dramatically over the course of his four years in Seattle. He's also got great pedigree, with a father that played pro basketball:
Pondexter made his name playing basketball. In those days, he was known as the Machine. His state scoring record of 2,228 points, set while he played at San Joaquin Memorial High, still stands. He was a high school all-American, and after he graduated in 1971, he was recruited by Jerry Tarkanian at Long Beach State. Drafted in the third round by the Boston Celtics. He wound up signing with the American Basketball Association, and after that league went under, played for ten years in Europe and South America.
But, um, that's not all. Rosce Pondexter was also a brutal prison guard nicknamed the Bonecrusher:
The guards have formed a gantlet. They might punch you hard with their gloved fists, take full cuts with their batons at the backs of your legs, kick you with steel-toed boots. At the end of the line, you meet Roscoe Pondexter. The Sharks have taken to calling him Bonecrusher.
With his huge mitts, Bonecrusher snatches you in a chin hold. He growls at you with that voice. "Look skyward!" he commands. You're all about complying; this guy is so intimidating, you keep your mouth shut and look up at the bleached sky. "Welcome to Corcoran SHU!" Pondexter bellows. And then, quietly into your ear, intimately, "This is a hands-on institution." And you feel his hands gripping your throat, cutting off your breath until you are about to suffocate. You are being deep-sixed, friend, by the expert. He lifts you off your feet, holds you like a puppet, then yet another guard grabs you by the balls again and pulls hard. The guards learned to focus on the balls at Corcoran. It's a hands-on institution.
Bonecrusher's face is in your face.
"Don't go passing out on me, you hear? Punk ass, you in our house now!" he yells as he squeezes your neck a little harder. Blood vessels begin to burst in your eyes. His powerful hands now compress your trachea, which causes unbearable pain, and his thumbs actually begin to crush your larynx. You won't be able to speak very well for several weeks.
Bonecrusher delights in the skill it takes to leave a scumbag just enough breath to remain conscious enough to hear his words.
"Whatever your life in prison was before, it's over! Welcome to hell!"
This is all from a pretty captivating Esquire article that you should go read immediately. Roscoe Pondexter's since reformed and expressed deep contrition about his times as a guard at the Corcoran, California prison, but still. NBA teams trying to decide between Quincy Pondexter and some other borderline pro... Just remember: He came from that. Something tells me he's going to be tough enough to make it as a pro.
3. HAPPY BIRTHDAY WALT FRAZIER
By all accounts, Walt "Clyde" Frazier's one of the truly "good" people associated with the game of basketball. And even though I wasn't lucky enough to experience the Clyde Frazier era as it was happening, hearing him as an announcer has to be almost as good. Since today, March 29th is his 65th birthday, I had to include this shirt, put together by SB Nation's Knicks blog, Posting and Toasting. One, giant tribute to Walt Frazier.
And at just $17.65? I think you have the cap space for that... Buy it here.
4. MIKHAIL PROKHOROV: SOON-TO-BE THE COOLEST OWNER IN SPORTS
Future Nets' owner Mikhail Prokhorov's already made waves for his interview with sixty minutes last night, so I'll just add a few notes. First of all, as nice as it was to learn that Prokhorov speaks fluent English, I still wish the interview was in Russian. Because the interview was conducted in a second language, Prokhorov seemed occasionally unsure and hesitant to speak, when, as we know, this is not a man that's unsure or hesitant about anything. He once married a girl to fulfill a bet and then divorced her a week later.
Also, while I'm sure this is the first of many profiles of this real-life International Man of Mystery, it was pretty inexcusable for 60 Minutes to just gloss over the criticism of Prokhorov the way they did. He apparently achieved success "without blood on his hands" and... Well, that's the extent of the any dark side that CBS touched on. They mentioned that he'd recieved favorable treatment from the Kremlin, but quoted a Russian business writer saying "That's to be expected." ... It is?
Don't get me wrong: I love Prokhorov, and don't necessarily want to see him dragged through the mud. But this is Russia we're talking about. Kind of like Mexico. Everybody that's fabulously wealthy, you can safely assume has a shady history, or rose to prominence through some sketchy circumstances. It's not even a bad thing. It's just how it works there, I think. But can we get the whole story on Prokhorov please?
Finally, this remains my favorite scene from the whole interview:
Interviewer: Is this your boat?
Prokhorov: It is my small yacht.
(pans to model of a 200-foot yacht)
Interviewer: Where is it now?
Prokhorov: I really... I don’t know.
(cut to a shot of Prokhorov cocking an AK-47)
Ladies and gentleman, the newest member of the NBA Ownership Family!
5. SONG OF THE WEEK
In honor of Mikhail Prokhorov, a tribute to ballin, courtesy of Mikhail's new co-owner...
Jay-Z, "Maybach Music"
Shawn Corey, real rap. The Maybach is bananas, peel back. 'Till next week...