Monday, February 28, 2005

Oklahoma State at Kansas: Player Ratings

If Kansas hadn't lost three straight games, I could have described this as a game neither team deserved to lose and really meant it. I can say without qualification that this was the best college basketball game I've seen so far this year. The Kansas-Texas Tech game would have rivaled it had the quality of the officiating matched the quality of play (not a complaint about the traveling call, the officiating was poor and wildly inconsistent throughout the game). The quality of the officiating might be a bigger surprise than the quality of the offensive play. The former, sadly, is rare in Big 12 play. The latter, in a meeting between the fifth (Kansas) and ninth (Oklahoma State) best defenses in the country wherein they allow 67 eFG% (Kansas) and 70 eFG% (Oklahoma State) is a testament to the players and coaches for both teams. Nobody had a bad game, not even defensively.

Player comments and ratings (1-low, 5-average, 10-high):

Joey Graham, 7.5: There's no player in the country I enjoy watching on the offensive end of the court than Joey Graham. He's never off balance and his ability to score inside, outside, and in the mid-range puts defenders at his mercy. Christian Moody had no chance of guarding Graham successfully. Graham could have been more aggressive going to the basket (he didn't attempt a free throw), perhaps putting Moody or Simien in the minor foul trouble that forced Graham to the bench briefly in the second half.

Ivan McFarlin, 5: McFarlin has been a solid, useful player for four years. Any team in the country would be better for having him on the court. But he's simply not as good as Wayne Simien and it showed on Sunday. McFarlin did good things (6-6 from the free throw line, five rebounds, three assists, two blocks) but couldn't keep Simien off the boards or away from the free throw line.

John Lucas, 9.5: He made his first nine shots and played every second of the game. Unfortunately, the two shots he missed in the last ninety seconds will diminish the perception of his performance overall. His attempted game-winner typified the game. Oklahoma State ran a good play, Kansas defended it well, Lucas still got himself open enough to take a difficult, makeable shot.

Daniel Bobik, 4: Bobik and Giddens were near-equal non-factors in the game. Neither contributed much to their teams but they didn't hurt them either. Both shooters were well-guarded and neutralized. It took the more diversified offensive skills of Joey Graham, Lucas, Curry, Miles, Simien, and Langford to break down the defenses.

JamesOn Curry, 7: Curry is a really good offensive player. Like most good freshman, his defensive effort appears to be a little ahead of defensive skills at this point. If he stays at Oklahoma State long enough for his skills to meet his effort, he'll be the best player in the league. Curry will likely be the key to Oklahoma State's tournament chances. No team can successfully guard three players as good as Joey Graham, Lucas, and Curry (when he's good). Curry hasn't really put together back-to-back good games yet this season. Few freshman do.

Stephen Graham, 6: I think that had Stephen Graham attended a school with slightly less talent he could put up about 90% of his brother's numbers. He's having an excellent year.

Terrence Crawford, 4: Basically the same player as Christian Moody, Oklahoma State's superior frontline talent allows Crawford to play a more limited role. Unqualified to guard Wayne Simien successfully, Crawford still managed to be Oklahoma State's most active rebounder during his time on the court.

Wayne Simien, 10: Simien's performance has forced me to re-think my first-team All-American choices. He may sneak past Ike Diogu yet. Simien combined a vintage Raef LaFrentz (college edition) offensive performance with a relentless Nick Collison impression on the glass. Simien grabbed 29% of the potential rebounds in only 34 minutes. He only had one assist, but continued to show his improved passing skills, finding Moody near the basket when double-teamed.

Christian Moody, 6: Moody looked a little tight on a couple of second half possessions that ended with turnovers. Otherwise his performance was flawless. Neither Iowa State nor Oklahoma pretended to guard Kaun or Giles, surrendering the occasional layup in favor playing 5-on-4 every single possession. Moody, though his skills are limited, has more organized basketball experience than the three freshman big men combined and take better advantage of being unguarded. The one downside of this game for Kansas is that, having shredded Eddie Sutton coached man-to-man defense, they won't see anything but zone the rest of the year from scrupulous, well-coached teams. Missouri will probably just try to re-infect Moody's knee.

Keith Langford, 7: Langford looked much healthier shooting the ball, he defended reasonably well, and handled the ball well. His two awfully memorable turnovers occurred in succession but were more than made for by his five assists.

Aaron Miles, 8.5: Kansas lost three straight games they could have won with a couple more made jump shots by Giddens, made free throws by Langford, touches for Simien, or, shockingly, fewer Aaron Miles turnovers. Miles was credited with a single turnover Sunday, and that occurred on a good pass that Moody failed to meet. Furthermore, Miles nearly matched Lucas shot-for-shot. Miles had to, as he (too frequently for my taste) left Lucas open to help defend dribble-penetration.

JR Giddens, 3: Giddens has been raked over the coals for his performance the last two weeks. I think this is unfair. He hasn't shot the ball well and that's what he does best. However, he's taken only a few bad shots during that time and he's worked to improve his defense, rebounding, and ball-handling. He's still not great in any of those areas, but I don't understand the severity of the criticism. A cold streak is not a character flaw.

Michael Lee, 6.5: Michael Lee has been Kansas's worst player this season. He had an excellent game Sunday. He even played solid defense. Yes, Curry beat him on a couple of cross-overs, but he's a lot better than Lee, that's going to happen. Lee's inspired performance reminded of the March 5, 1995 Oklahoma State-Kansas game (ticket stub still in my wallet), a true conference championship decider. Remembered primarily for Randy Rutherford's amazing performance and Ostertag holding Bryant Reeves scoreless, Greg Gurley's final home game was unexpectedly terrific. Gurley, limited by injury throughout his career, came off the bench and made five three-pointers. This was Lee's next-to-last home game and the team has to take care of business twice more to win the league, but with his time in the Fieldhouse growing short, Lee acquitted himself honorably.

Jeff Hawkins, 4.5: Hawkins is playing some decent defense off the bench and provides good spacing and competent ball-handling offensively.

Darnell Jackson, 4: Jackson plays with the same sort of abandon that made Jarod Haase so annoying. Jackson's youth makes it endearing provided he figures out what he's supposed to be doing as he matures. Haase didn't until his senior year. Jackson will have opportunity to do so next season.

Sasha Kaun, 2: It says in the box score that Kaun played five minutes. It didn't seem like he was out there that long. His play lacked impact for either team.

Friday, February 25, 2005

NBA Trade Deadline Recap

Atlanta: Gary Payton, Tom Gugliotta, Yogi Stewart, and a 1st-round pick for Antoine Walker

The Hawks have spared those fans willing to come out and see Josh Smith the aesthetically unpleasant game of the NBA's oldest 28-year-old. Payton and Stewart are expected to be bought out as early as today. Gugliotta won't see the floor and shouldn't limit the Hawks' cap flexibility going into the summer.

The pick came to Celtics via the Lakers in the Payton deal and is lottery protected.

Boston: Antoine Walker for Payton, Gugliotta, Yogi Stewart, and 1st-round pick; 1st-Round pick for Jiri Welsch

Assuming Walker takes Mark Blount's minutes with LaFrentz moving to center, the deal with the Hawks is risk-free for the Celtics; especially if Payton re-signs with Boston after his buyout. Miami is a rumored Payton destination but I doubt he can take many minutes away from Dwyane Wade, Eddie Jones, and Damon Jones at this point in his career. He should go back to Boston for the rest of the year if he wants to play. If he wants a ring, however...

Jiri Welsch got beat out by Tony Allen and had no future with Celtics barring someone getting hurt.

The Celtics gave up the 2005 1st-Round pick they got from the Lakers (lottery protected) and received Cleveland's 2007 1st-Round pick (top ten protected)

Charlotte: Malik Allen and cash for Steve Smith

Malik Allen is a serviceable backup power forward. Cash can be used in exchange for goods and services.

Cleveland: Jiri Welsch for 1st-round pick

Welsch will join Luke Jackson and Sasha Pavlovic as part of the Cavaliers' cavalcade of Plan B shooters. If all goes according to plan for Jim Paxson, one of those three will become a Milwaukee Buck this summer. If they fail to acquire Redd, Welsch would appear to have the inside track on the job Lucious Harris couldn't hold this year.

The pick is for 2007 (top ten protected).

Dallas: Keith Van Horn for Alan Henderson and Calvin Booth

It's amazing Henderson got himself physically able to play basketball again. Henderson rebounded a significant rate of his own team's misses this year, but his impact on wins and losses shouldn't be confused with, say, Danny Fortson’s in Seattle.

Van Horn is still a man without a position, but Nellie has always sort of considered that to be a good thing. I think Van Horn's gotten a bad rap. His weaknesses as an NBA player have been perceived as character flaws. He guards small forwards fairly well, making good use of his length to overcome his relative lack of quickness, but power forwards destroy him in the post. He can take opposing power forwards outside and create room to get his shot off successfully, but opposing small forwards get up underneath him and force him into difficult shots. I don't see how that conundrum will be solved by playing alongside Nowitzki. Maybe Van Horn can steal a couple of extra minutes a night backing Dirk up and keeping the franchise fresh for the playoffs.

Denver: Eduardo Najera, Luis Flores, and 1st-Round pick for Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Rodney White

Najera's really only useful on a good team. He was hustling in a vacuum in Oakland. Luis Flores should get enough chances in the next five years to succeed or fail as a backup on his merits. Cold comfort for the next few months; he'll sit and watch Andre Miller and Earl Boykins.

I don't know of an NBA coach that Rodney White could play for, but George Karl seems the least likely. I have even less idea what Kiki was thinking when he drafted Tskitishvili ahead of Chris Wilcox, Amare Stoudemire, and Caron Butler in 2002. He's Chris Mullin's problem now.
The pick is Dallas's 2007 1st-Rounder that accompanied Najera to Oakland in the first place.

Golden State: Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Rodney White for Najera, Flores, and 1st-round pick; Baron Davis for Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis

This won't help. Either Baron Davis (hurt/sulking) or Mike Montgomery (fired) will be gone by Thanksgiving and the team will still be terrible. I guess Tskitishvili will make Mikey Dunleavy look not-so-bad in comparison. Rodney White might well be more talented than either (and Pietrus, too) but I doubt he'll ever earn himself playing time.

Houston: Mike James and Zendon Hamilton for Reece Gaines and 2 2nd-round picks; Moochie Norris, Vin Baker, and a 2nd-Round pick for Mo Taylor

Mike James further solidifies the guard situation in Houston. He's a nice fit with McGrady and Sura. His contributions were key and underrated during the Pistons' title run last year. That they didn't have to give up anything of value to get him is a bonus.

Taylor's contract (and his limited ability) is now Isiah's problem. It runs one year longer than do Baker's and Moochie's contracts.

Miami: Steve Smith for Malik Allen and cash

Steve Smith could help win a playoff game for the Heat. He's a more useful spare part than Gary Payton would be.

Milwaukee: Alan Henderson and Calvin Booth for Van Horn; Reece Gaines and 2 2nd-round picks for Mike James

The Bucks cleared cap space in an attempt to re-sign Michael Redd. Unfortunately, I don't see why he'd turn down the Cavaliers to stay with the team clever/lucky enough to draft him.

None of the players acquired have any on-court use for the Bucks. They'll fit in immediately with their teammates (apologies to Desmond Mason). This is a bad, boring team. They better hope to find two more players of Redd's caliber with those future second round picks.

New Orleans: Speedy Claxton and Dale Davis for Baron Davis; Glenn Robinson for Rodney Rogers and Jamal Mashburn

They got rid of their unhappy star. They got rid of their permanently injured ex-star. They’ll have some cap room this off-season, but no one in their right mind will sign with them. Speedy Claxton will likely curtail the brief, glorious Dan Dickau era. I knew Dickau could play downhill in the NBA. My fears that he couldn't guard anybody have also proved true. There are worse jobs than career back-up point guard, however.

New York: Mo Taylor for Moochie Norris, Vin Baker, and a 2nd-Round pick; Malik Rose and 2 1st-Round picks for Nazr Mohammed

I would hope these moves at least get Sweetney on the court more even if it is at center.

Isiah draws ever closer to his ideal roster made up entirely of shooting guards, undersized power forwards, and a point guard who shoots too much. That he's upgraded his ideal version of the last element from Damon Stoudamire to Marbury is the only evidence that he’s learned anything from his disastrous management career. The Knicks take on contracts and create a more redundant roster at the same time. They are bad and they will get worse in the coming years.

The first round picks are only deceptively beneficial. It’s unlikely they get much from the first-rounders: the Suns' 2005 pick and the Spurs' 2006 pick.

Philadelphia: Rodney Rogers and Jamal Mashburn for Glenn Robinson; Chris Webber, Michael Bradley, and Matt Barnes for Kenny Thomas, Corliss Williamson, and Brian Skinner

The Allen Iverson era is going to end suddenly and badly for the Sixers. Billy King is clearly attempting to build a team that can make a run to the Finals in 2006.

Webber should (barring injury, natch) insure a playoff spot this year and make the team more attractive to free agents in the off-season. If King adds the right piece this summer they’re only a Shaq injury and a Pound-for-Pound retirement away from being favorites in the East.

Matt Barnes will be a nice addition to the young, cheap, and talented 2/3 rotation. Rodney Rogers can effectively replace Kenny Thomas and Corliss Williamson in the short term, with Dalembert getting more minutes and solidifying the interior defense.

San Antonio: Nazr Mohammed and Jamison Brewer for Malik Rose and 2 1st-Round picks

I've always liked Nazr Mohammed. He'll complete a very solid three man rotation on the interior for the Spurs, possibly beating out Rasho Nesterovic.

Jamison Brewer has shown flashes of being a decent backup point guard, but won't see the court with a team that already has Tony Parker and Beno Udrih. If Brewer's not cut outright, he'll challenge Mike Wilks for the 12th spot on the active roster. If he is cut, he'll catch on somewhere else.

The traded picks likely won't haunt the Spurs. Popovich might have selected a hidden gem that late in the first round. I doubt Isiah will do the same. He'll probably draft Sean Banks or Ryan Gomes this year and JJ Redick or Eric Williams in 2006.

Sacramento: Kenny Thomas, Corliss Williamson, and Brian Skinner for Chris Webber, Michael Bradley, and Matt Barnes

I think Songaila, Williamson, Skinner, and Thomas can adquately replace Webber once you factor in the freedom Webber's absence will grant Peja, Brad Miller, Mobley, and Bibby. It's awkward when injuries make the franchise player no longer the team's best player. Every time the team accomdates him, they diminish their total ability. The on-court pecking order will now be determined strictly by performance.

Barnes is a minor short-term loss, but in the long-term I doubt that he and Kevin Martin will be significantly different players.

Monday, February 21, 2005

State of the Jayhawks

Keith Langford says that the Kansas Jayhawks control their own destiny with respect to the Big 12 Championship race. That’s true but it fails to fill me with an overriding sense of confidence. This Jayhawk team has shown only an intermittent ability to take control of basketball games. I don’t attribute this to any lack of character. Rather, the Jayhawks have some obvious weaknesses that have existed since the start of the season which they have struggled to overcome.

Last year’s team, which suffered far more from injuries than has this year’s team, didn’t begin to play good basketball until this time of the year. Should this year’s team make a similar leap forward, they’d be in excellent position to win a national championship assuming somebody else knocks off Illinois with whom Kansas matches up horribly. More likely, the team we see now is the team that will be around in March: a tough out that will give almost any team a chance to beat them.

I don’t think I’m overreacting to two overtime losses in six days by a total of three points. I’ve been realistic about this team all year. Some of the more pessimistic things I’ve written I’ve refrained from publishing in an attempt to favor analysis over passion. The results of the past week are simply the flipside result of playing so many games decided in the last five minutes. Kansas won more than their share earlier. They appear to better than average on important possessions. If they could bring the same sort of intensity and commitment to execution to more possessions they’d face fewer game-changing moments.

Despite Ron Franklin and Fran Fraschilla’s entreaties I have my doubts about how brilliantly intelligent Curtis Stinson is as a basketball player. He’s good (unquestionably the best player on the court Saturday or at least the best player whose teammates let touch the ball) and unfettered by doubt. In contrast, the Jayhawks seem again to be in full possession of conscience and perspective, two things Dan Quisenberry always thought threatened to hold him back as an athlete. Quisenberry, unquestionably the smartest man in any bullpen (not to slight relief pitchers, Quisenberry was bright) envied his teammates for their ability to focus on the task at hand irrespective of the larger picture of the game, season, career, life. I cast my lot with the Jayhawk fans who thought this state of being had been created by the former head coach. Perhaps it’s instead endemic to the culture of Kansas basketball.

The Jayhawks, in the first five minutes of Saturday’s game, against the same matchup zone that threatened hold them under 50 points at home, executed better in the halfcourt than they had all year. Crisp ball movement combined with excellent spacing created eight open shots. Kansas made the first three shots. They missed the next five. Those five misses made them visibly tentative. They stopped attacking the zone and began to pass the ball languidly around the perimeter, occasionally penetrating the zone but rarely getting the ball to a dangerous position in the paint. Shots were taken out of desperation rather than desire and usually from distance. Wayne Simien played 41 minutes and attempted only seven shots. He (as in the Texas Tech game) hardly touched the ball in overtime even after the officials gifted the Jayhawks by calling a phantom fifth foul on Jared Homan.

At the other end of the court, Stinson got into the lane at will. If college basketball were a more ruthless game, he would have had the ball in his hands every time Michael Lee matched up against him. Had Iowa State taken full advantage of that mismatch their missed free throws would have merely thrown the margin of victory rather than the result into doubt. Stinson took advantage of the same weakness that Villanova exploited last month; a weakness so obvious that Quin Snyder managed to take advantage of it for a while before Bill Self forswore pride for results and flummoxed Missouri with the most basic zone defense in organized basketball.

Bill Self’s greatest accomplishment this year has been molding a solid defensive team despite the fact that each of his players struggles as an individual defender. To be fair, Aaron Miles is an above-average on-the-ball defender, but his teammates’ struggles often force him to guard bigger, stronger guards in key situations who, though he keeps them away from the rim, can get into the paint and shoot over him. Russell Robinson and CJ Giles project to be good defenders but have not been able to stay on the court enough to develop those skills in the short term.

Furthermore, the solid team defense holds only until the opposition is forced into a difficult shot. Spoiled by the recent frontline tandems of LaFrentz and Pollard and Gooden and Collison, Kansas fans overstate this team’s rebounding struggles. This is not a horrible rebounding team (okay, maybe they are when Galindo’s on the floor) but they are decidedly mediocre. Granted, it would be difficult to mold this collection of players into a good rebounding team. Most often, the Jayhawks play five players six-eight or shorter, occasionally cycling through their two skinny, raw seven footers.

It’s difficult for any team’s fans to come to terms with their weaknesses. Kansas isn’t, nor should they have been expected to be, a good rebounding team. The three freshman big men, none of whom had more than three years of organized basketball experience, have struggled to contribute. All three look promising, though, and could form a solid core for the program in the future.

Skeptical at the time of his hire, I have become an admirer of Bill Self. As much as I appreciate his calm (the ride our former coach pleaded with us to enjoy was too often of the emotional roller-coaster variety), his finest attribute appears to be his willingness to adjust tactics in order to win. He doesn’t seem the sort of coach who would have played Eric Chenowith rather than Drew Gooden or Nick Collison because Chenowith was a senior. I hope Self proves me right by making such a sound basketball decision regarding Michael Lee. Lee, unlike Chenowith, obviously plays hard and cares about winning, but more often that not his play makes winning more difficult for the Jayhawks. After Saturday’s game, Jeff Hawkins and Russell Robinson should be competing to be the fourth rather than the fifth guard. Neither is an ideal option, but neither can consistently be beaten with the slightest of jab steps or the most rudimentary of cross-overs. Hawkins especially plays like Lee did in his good, useful sophomore season. He values the ball, takes wide-open, spot-up jumpers, and plays hard on the defensive end.

A week ago, I figured a 4-2 finish in conference play and a decent performance in the Big 12 Tournament would lock up a number one seed. Though I didn’t expect an 0-2 start to the final six games, I think the above prediction holds true. As to how many games they will win here on out, I have no idea. Outside of Illinois, Kansas have demonstrated as much ability to play good basketball as anyone in the country. Such demonstrations have been infrequent and I don’t expect that they will suddenly become the norm. I do expect opposing teams to score about 60 points a game and Miles, Simien, Langford, and Giddens to create enough opportunities to score a few more for a tight, ugly win. Last week, for the first times this year, they didn’t take advantage of those opportunities. I hope they refrain from overreacting. Off the court, conscience and perspective can help mediate the highs and lows of competition by giving an accurate account of one’s strengths and weaknesses.