The Answer Leaves Denver With More Questions

aistreetclothesThe swap sends Allen Iverson to be part of Detroit Basketball in exchange for Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess, and some nameless center I won’t likely give a crap about in a few weeks. Is it a good addition on paper for both sides? Yes, in a very short term sense: the Pistons needed another offensive mover and shaker, and the Nuggets desperately needed a point guard that plays some type of defense. I love what Iverson brings to the game in terms of hustle and pure ability, but on a team that has no concept of defense whatsoever and too many players looking for shots, he was the likely chip to go, particularly in the last year of his contract.

But in what’s essentially a straight-up trade, Detroit gets the better end with a contract that will be off the books after the season and a chance to make serious runs at free agents from the class next year.  It’s a trade that looks better for the team’s future, no matter how much attachment Pistons fans have to Billups, who has proved his worth as a playoff performer, and now returns to his hometown. (Disclosure: I got to meet Billups in his first go-round with the Nuggets and he just seemed like a super-nice guy.) But the George Washington HS product comes with a hefty contract that makes it look like Joe Dumars fleeced Mark Wankentien here. The Nuggets are going to face even more luxury cap trouble now, which is precisely the reason the gave away Marcus Camby for nothing to the Clippers.

So, for Denver, this trade is a mixed bag — it’s a better chance to make the playoffs, but it may screw them for the future.  In the Pistons’ case, Dumars has lifted a player that could help a team get over the hump to another NBA Finals, if the talent left matches up with the rest of it on that team.

Ill-Advised NBA Western Conference Predictions

1. Los Angeles Lakers* – They should be able to dominate a pathetic Pacific Division for another 50+ win season and do well enough to grab the first seed in the conference. I continue to have an irrational dislike of Vladimir Radmanovic as a starter in this line-up, but Phil Jackson probably knows something I don’t. It was probably a higher priority to keep Sasha Vujacic off the bench than Ronny Turiaf, so that was a safe move.  Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol will be able to do their things, and the crucial bit to see is obviously whether Andrew Bynum can be the missing piece to a championship run.

2. New Orleans Hornets* – The team has figured out that to get anywhere in the playoffs, you’re gonna have to play physical, on the verge of cheap shot, defense.  Adding James Posey to that kind of defensive mix is the kind of thing that will have refs swallowing whistles and getting psychological edges.  Chris Paul will be better and have the season that makes the rest of us swoon.

3. Utah Jazz – One more year of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer in the system of Jerry Sloan should make them a threat throughout the season, particularly at home.  I will still take Williams over Paul if you pushed me on it. Not that I think you could lose either way, but Williams’ size and deft work in such a structured system speak volumes. Imagine if the floor was wide open for him.

4. Houston Rockets – Not jumping on the bandwagon to top the conference, no way, not until Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming make it through a full season without injury. Adding Ron Artest could be really good, especially on the defensive end, but they’re not leaping that far ahead.

5. San Antonio Spurs – Has anyone else noticed this team is getting old? Not having Manu Ginobili until December is going to expose this a bit more, and the bench cast doesn’t do as much for me in the way of brutally efficient as it used to. Tim Duncan is still what he is, and so is Tony Parker, but the odd-numbered title years end here.

6. Portland Trail Blazers – Regardless of what happens to Greg Oden, I think they’re making the jump to a playoff spot. There’s too much talent between Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the other components of that squad to not make some noise.

7. Dallas Mavericks – Does Mark Cuban wish he had that Jason Kidd trade over again? Kidd is still good at what he does, but he’s not the point guard needed for this team right now. Rick Carlisle will be able to get them back to the playoffs, though.

8. Phoenix Suns – By the skin of their teeth. Too many players getting too old. Phoenix fans ought to be furious with ownership for being so luxury-tax conscious that it might have cost them a title shot, along with their lousy defense.

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Ill-Advised NBA Eastern Conference Predictions

Late, yes, but as long as I get these out in the open early on, it’s within the margin of prediction/preview error. Division champs have asterisks by them.

1. Boston Celtics* – Losing James Posey as the defensive intensity/bench guy is a tough thing, but this provides an opportunity for young guys like Leon Powe and maybe even Big Baby Davis to step up and fill that role in intensity (if not in actual position.)  They’ll still top the East because no one has that collection of talent on the team, and I don’t expect Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, or Ray Allen to slack off. Injuries might be a concern again.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers* – Mo Williams is a good add, they probably need to deal for one more scorer to combat the fact that neither of their power forwards (Ben Wallace and Anderson Varejao) do anything offensively, and they’re getting to at least the conference semis with LeBron James. Is this the year the Prince that wants to be King James leads his team back to the Finals, at least? I suspect this is their best shot if they can figure it out offensively. Mike Brown, being of the Gregg Popovich school, is good with getting players to click on the defensive end, but he might need to hire an offensive Tom Thibodeau first.

3. Detroit PIstons – More by default of not necessarily being thrilled about Orlando enough to put them third this year than anything. This team is always solid, but the core of it is getting a year older. The crucial devleopment to watch is how much more of the load Rodney Stuckey will take for Chauncey Billups and whether moving Amir Johnson to the starting line-up pays off — and whether new coach Michael Curry can keep a good bench rotation going.

4. Orlando Magic* – Rashard Lewis paid off for Orlando last year, expanding their O in a way that opened up further opportunities for Dwight Howard down low. After Jameer Nelson, they are very thin at point guard now, and his development (along with Howard’s) isn’t assured. However, it should be good enough to get them back to where they need to be, although they’ll go no further in the playoffs than conference semis.

5. Toronto Raptors – I don’t believe in Jermaine O’Neal’s resurgence — centers don’t get better magically after they are injured repeatedly during their careers, but you can essentially call it a trade of injury for injury by dealing T.J. Ford to Indiana, and it means Jose Calderon will be playing a lot of minutes and starting. I hope O’Neal gets through the season fine and proves me wrong. He deserves a chance to come back.

6. Washington Wizards – The Wizards will play well enough to get a six spot with Gilbert Arenas out until December, but will flake out in the first round, as usual. It’s a shame, because Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison are really, really good together and should be better with Agent Zero, but that isn’t the case because Gilbert has to get his shots. If DeShawn Stevenson can keep growing into an option with Arenas out, and maybe, just maybe, they can figure out how to rotate that ball when Arenas returns, they might be a threat.

7. Philadelphia 76ers – I’m sorry, Philly fans. I want to believe in Elton Brand again, but I’m not sure how you just come back off an Achilles injury, and that acquisition alone isn’t enough to make you an Eastern Conference power.

8. Milwaukee Bucks – I’m actually bullish on this team when probably no one else is.  Luke Ridnour is not really anyone’s idea of a great PG, but having Michael Redd, Richard Jefferson, and Charlie Villanueva there should add up to something that is more than the sum of its parts, although admittedly, more of this pick is about Scott Skiles getting these guys to play defense. If Joe Alexander becomes any sort of help off the bench in his rookie season (rumors are he’s already in Skiles’ doghouse), they could be good down the road. (I’m willing to admit to being completely wrong on this.)

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Above The Rim: We’re Back

I realize there are NBA recaps without previews. I’ll rectify this no later than Friday, but honestly, I’m still shaking out where teams get slotted and baseball and football own my time. One thing I will assure you: I am NOT jumping on the Rockets bandwagon unless Tracy McGrady makes it through a season without injury.

Lakers 96, Blazers 76 – Portland wound up shooting 34 percent from the field for the game, which is never good against a team with serious offensive talent. Kobe Bryant chipped in 23 and 11 boards, Pau Gasol had all of his 15 points in the first half, and Trevor Ariza added 11 off the bench. Bigger concern: Greg Oden leaving with an ankle sprain after playing for less than 13 minutes.

Celtics 90, Cavaliers 85 – Big ring ceremony, big emotional night at home.  27 points for Paul Pierce led the Cees, but remind me not to watch First Take, because I’m sure Skip Bayless will be on LeBron James for missing a late lay-up and two free throws with 11 seconds left.

Bulls 108, Bucks 95 – Six Bulls scored in double figures, led by Luol Deng’s 21, including #1 draft pick Derrick Rose, who added nine dimes yet dealt with four turnovers. Early impressions say former Chicago coach Scott Skiles, returning to the United Center after getting fired mid-season, is going to have a lot of work to do on defense with his Milwaukee team.

Kobe’s Undies Are As Baggy As His Game Shorts

Activision goes all Risky Business parody to promote the newest Guitar Hero. I see no problem with that.

Tony Hawk makes sense — doesn’t Activision also make his Pro Skater games? — and Kobe Bryant is just funny, as is Michael Phelps. But I wonder if Alex Rodriguez had even heard of the game; maybe he has.  He’s the only one I can’t really see as a gamer at all.

In fact, Activision totally whiffed when they decided not to bring the most obvious candidate for an ad for their game in:

Seriously, major missed opportunity to poke some more fun at itself and the game. They DID have to go for people who might actually be able to sell things (although, again, why go for A-Rod? How good a pitchman is he?)

(Photo via Deadspin.)

Hush, Now

I had the accidental good sense to watch the gold medal match between the U.S. and Spain while out on the town; the trying-too-hard-to-be-L.A. club I was in happened to have the live telecast on all three of the flat screens behind the bar, so I watched without commentary and with a Euro-house “untz-untz-untz” in the background that was solely broken up by the DJ spinning M.I.A.’s “Paper Plates,” fitting because no one on the corner had swagger like both teams had in that game.

If you want to see a nightclub tilted towards a large douchebag factor turn their attention to a T.V. set like that, make the game close, it will inspire shouts of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” in seconds. Anyway, it was compelling television — the manic pace, like an All-Star Game that meant something, the sick dunk Rudy Fernandez put on Dwight Howard , the scrambles all over the floor. The end was in doubt until Kobe Bryant hit that three and got fouled — because there wasn’t a whole lot of defense on both ends.  But damn, did I love this:

(Hush, hush. I think I hear you calling my name.)

I’m sure Jacques Rogge will issue a statement before the closing ceremonies admonishing Bryant for not showing the proper amount of sportsmanship with that selfish gesture. (Leave Usain Bolt alone, Jacques!) Meanwhile, in the club, as soon as Bryant whipped that three out, a complete stranger and I just looked at each other and imitated that exact hush (a total sports bar moment in a non-sports bar.)  The squad of ballers just told a long line of fuckwads to shut their mouths:

– They hushed everyone who said NBA players were too “selfish,” too “undisciplined” to play together for all those years after Athens.

Dwyane Wade hushed up anyone who wondered about how good he would be after being hurt for a large part of last year as the team’s sixth man.

Kobe Bryant just hushed up any of the last few people out there who thought he couldn’t play as part of a team concept. By no means was he the leading scorer, but he was an important cog in the mix.

– The team hushed up anyone who thought that the system that foreign players were brought up in was somehow inherently superior and wrote so loudly in print, with overtones of outright racism. (If any game looked like Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less”, it was chunks of this one, and proof the U.S. team can adjust — although Coach K cannot, see more on this later.)

– The gold medal ought to hush up anyone who continues to defend Larry Brown’s coaching effort in 2004. How a college coach (even one with the respected track record of Mike Krzyzewski) could get grown men to play defensively first and yet a supposed defensive coaching genius like Brown could not ought to be worthy of a bit of scrutiny. Yes, different squads, different process, but Brown was more of an Achilles heel in Athens than his players were. He didn’t set a very good rotation, and the most talented players seemed to be in his doghouse for no reason.

To be brutally honest, Coach K didn’t look like he had all the answers in game (Spain goes to zone and no Michael Redd or Tayshaun Prince; no Carlos Boozer when both Chris Bosh and Howard were having issues), but if the philosophy was, “play defense and do everything you want on offense,” then it worked for the first few rounds.

– They hushed me up, because I honestly thought this team needed another big man, but they were able to run circles around teams.

Unfortunately, not all the haters are hushed up — there’s a lot of qualifying “But, but it was a close game” to many of the wrie-ups, as if the entire process was supposed to be easy. The world has gotten better; we are the gold standard again, but it won’t ever be like it was back in the day when the U.S. won by default. That’s a good thing.

I wish the win would hush up —

– Doug Collins, who still isn’t over 1972 and said so in damn near every teelcast. It was nice not to hear him talk for the final.

Jemele Hill, who penned an inexplicable column suggesting the black community was placing an importance on this team winning gold.  I wonder whom she is talking to. As if one gold medal lets up on the stupid stereotypes about black NBA ballers that sportswriters use all the damn time. Call out the writers who use these stupid tropes.

Bill Walton, who appeared on ESPN minutes after the semi-final against Argentina ended to spit trash about how it was the sloppiest game he’d seen on the U.S.’s part, it wasn’t a good game, and the only reason the U.S. won was because Manu Ginobili got hurt. Since I’m on the West Coast, I watched the game on delay an hour later and saw something completely different. Amazing. It wasn’t nearly as apocalyptic as he made it out to be, but then, that’s Walton — anything that isn’t John Wooden-based does not meet his approval.

– Every writer whom, in the next few days, will give Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski all the damn credit for the team. These are the people who pushed the idea of a “Redeem Team”, not only because it sounded good and made good headline copy, but as if it was some damn fault of the players that the U.S. didn’t win everything basketball-related and were solely responsible for a supposed decline in the American hoops game.  No one calls out the minor-leaguers and journeymen we sent to rep the U.S. in baseball when they never win gold; no one is raising a stink over the U.S. losing out on softball gold for the first time since it became an Olympic sport.

Photo: Getty/AFP/Filippo Monteforte

Not Even Near The Bottom Of The Barrel

If David Stern had his way, the sentencing of referee Tim Donaghy to 15 months in prison today would be the end of the talk surrounding suspicion of every NBA official for damn near the better part of the regular season and all of the playoffs.

Trouble is, that ain’t happening.

From the calls Donaghy admitted making to another referee to the discussion that everyone assumed was about the fifth game of the Lakers-Kings series from 2002, there has been more grist boiling under the surface than Stern (or anyone at ESPN or any other telecast partner) would particularly care to acknowledge. It doesn’t solve the problem of a lack of faith in fair officiating in the NBA — especially after the Spurs-Lakers series. And while that had nothing to with Donaghy, it has everything to do with the lack of public transparency the NBA has regarding its officiating.

It has to do with officiating form the likes of Joe Crawford — someone who got in a tiff with Spurs forward Tim Duncan for what appeared to be no apparent reason, and tossed him out the game, got suspended, and was then allowed to come back and officiate that Lakers-Spurs game. (I actually defended that crucial no-call on the shot Brent Barry took, or at least said that if a foul was called on Derek Fisher, it should have been a two-shot foul, not a three-shot one.)

Donaghy’s sentencing doesn’t solve those problems. Maybe he is a rogue actor, ast he league claims, but even if he is, it doesn’t mean the Associations officiating image is clean. If people are evaluating how refs call games for home and away teams regularly to see how that tips the scales, it’s a major issue.

Donaghy may be out of jail in a year. The NBA’s zebra issues will last long after he’s out of the clink and faded out of the public eye.

Photo: AP/Louis Lanzano

Chasing His Hoop Dreams Overseas

Brandon Jennings going to Italy to play pro ball to avoid the NCAA is one thing. A semi-established player like Josh Childress spurning the Atlanta Hawks and the weird land of restricted free agency to sign a three-year, $32 million deal to play for a Greek team is a whole ‘nother can of worms for the NBA.

Before we go any further, one signing obviously does not a trend make, much like Jennings’ jump won’t be judged until next year at the earliest. However, at this point we can safely say that this is a new route opened for guys who are in the middle tier as far as the NBA goes — not superstars, not considered the elite, but guys who make an impact on the game as the glue guys in the starting line-up or valuable sixth men — these guys now have a chance to get more money for shorter contract terms in the prime of their careers, and thus upset the NBA’s status a bit.

It has to frustrate Hawks fans on a very basic level; despite defensive lapses, management had cited re-signing both Childress and fellow RFA Josh Smith as top priorities, yet they apparently did not consider the option that he would leave the country rather than allow ownership to counter any tender sheet he got from another NBA team.

GM Rick Sund had offered $33 million over five years, but in a world where the euro is outdoing the dollar big time and all of Childress’ salary with Olympiakos will be tax-free as far as Greece goes, that’s even more of an economic incentive for the second tier of NBA players.

It may be as revolutionary as we think it could be down the road; it may just be a blip. Regardless, it’s safe to say that we’ll be watching to see how it goes, whether or not Childress will come scurrying back after one year or finish out the whole contract.

Well, There Goes The Pretense Of Playing Defense

Yes, I’m aware that damn near everything in the NBA, in terms of trades and free agent signings, is done with an eye of keeping away from the luxury tax, if the team is not rich enough to avoid it. Still, it’s kind of disheartening — no, make that highly disheartening — to see the Nuggets essentially give away the team’s best defensive player to the Clippers for a conditional 2nd round pick. Nothing guaranteed, just conditional.

Marcus Camby is a former Defensive Player of the Year; the only player who seems to like playing defense in a Nuggets uniform, and getting rid of him is an easier move and the right call?

I’m guessing I simply don’t understand the monetary implications. Also, there’s something to be said for not putting money into an aging center. But it’s not like Carmelo Anthony or J.R. Smith play defense; Allen Iverson tries at times, but he’s not the greatest of defenders.

The Clippers fill the Elton Brand-sized hole on the defensive end of the floor for damn near nothing and turn what appeared to be a disastrous off-season into something salvageable, while I doubt the Nuggets will now seed the 8th seed of the playoffs, only to be swept or knocked out in five games once again.  I’m betting the Clippers may have just stolen that 8th seed from the Nuggets — which will at least be a moral victory for the second franchise in the Staples Center; maybe they’ll be the ones to be swept by the Lakers next season.

Camby shipping out [Denver Post]

Rolling The Tape To Find Signs Flashing

The NFL appears to be very, very concerned about a mostly-media-manufactured image problem (the common figure of athletes actually being arrested is 2.2%) among its athletes, and has taken a step that I’m not sure most of us were made aware of when Lord Roger Goodell’s regime started cracking down: they are now reviewing game tape for celebrations by players that might involve gang signs as hand gestures.

Oddly enough, the hiring of gang experts to go through tapes was not inspired by any particular athlete in its league, but the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce, who got fined $25K last year by David Stern for making what the NBA called “menacing gestures.”

Partly because of that episode, the NFL decided to make the identification of gang signs a point of emphasis this season, and has called on the resources of local and national authorities to learn more about gang culture.

“We were always suspicious that [gang-related hand signals] might be happening,” said Mike Pereira, the NFL’s vice president of officiating. “But the Paul Pierce thing is what brought it to light. When he was fined . . . that’s when we said we need to take a look at it and see if we need to be aware of it.”

NFL game officials will not be responsible for identifying gang signals but will alert league headquarters of anything unusual or suspicious they see. League executives declined to outline what action might be taken against offenders, but Pereira said, “it will be dealt with harshly. The commissioner is not going to stand for gang signals on the field.”

But how can you tell what the difference is between what could be perceived as a gang sign and what’s a signal? As Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Dennis Northcutt pointed out, there are many gangs, each with their own symbols, and people can have hand signs for anything and everything (not that it’s terribly common.)

A league’s image is everything, but there’s something to be said for waiting to fix a problem when it actually exists. I’m not sure this is actually one of the biggest things in terms of off-field matters that the NFL ought to worry about, despite the seemingly good intentions behind it.

Concerned about gang signs, NFL reviews tapes [Los Angeles Times]