Arenas injury spells d-o-o-m for Wizards' playoff hopes

The Eastern Conference's "other big 3" will be down to a mere 2 for quite some time. News came yesterday that Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas will be out of commission for 3 months, leaving Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to carry the Wiz in the nation's capital. Arenas suffered torn cartiledge in his knee (ouch!), which he admitted on his NBA.com blog could be a result of pushing himself a little too hard coming back from last year's somewhat unrelated knee injury. According to Arenas, he didn't give himself enough time to let his muscles heal and put too much pressure on the knee over the summer.
"I’m going to stay positive this time, because feeling sorry for myself didn’t work last time. It just kind of hurt that everything I did this summer really meant nothing, to the point where I’m rehabbing again...Running bleachers, riding bikes and doing all that stuff was just a little too much," wrote Arenas on his blog.
While Agent Zero sits out until February, the Washington Wizards so far have been doing a pretty decent job keeping the ship going in the right direction. After a rather worrisome 0-5 start to the season, Washington has won 6 games in a row and word around town is that Arena's injury, while tough, probably won't be enough to derail the team's playoff hopes. But, while Butler and Jamison are plenty talented, and Brendan Haywood, Darius Songaila and Antonio Daniels have stepped up this season, we're not so sure the Wiz can keep rolling along for long without o'l Gil.

First, their 6-game winning streak is a bit of an abberation. During that streak the Wizards have beaten Atlanta, Indiana, Minnesota, Portland, Philadelphia and Charlotte. Of all those teams, perhaps only the Charlotte Bobcats have a legitimate shot at the playoffs -- and their's a tricky shot to say the least. On paper it looks like the Wiz have picked up the defensive intensity and are staying on track offensively without Gilbert, but in reality the numbers are seriously skewed as a result of poor competition. Combined those squads have a horrendous 23-42 record. The Wizard's 0-5 start, which included losses to teams like Boston, Orlando, New Jersey and Denver, is probably closer to their actual status in the East. And, they are yet to play other Eastern powerhouses like Detroit, Toronto and Cleveland.

The loss of Etan Thomas to injury before the start of the season hurt significantly, as Washington lost a force on the offensive glass and a big body underneath from a front-line that is paper-thin to begin with. Now, the loss of Arenas could put them in a large enough hole in the standings, where a climb back to playoff contention may be too difficult to accomplish. In a perfect world, Arenas would be back before the All-Star game, which would in theory give the Wizards enough remaining games, if they play near-perfect ball, to get back in the mix. But in reality, that seems unlikely. The magic 8-ball says that the prognosis for a playoff run this season is "very doubtful".

The bottom line to all of this of course -- if the Wiz do miss the playoffs -- is that Eddie Jordan's coaching tenure in Washington could be in serious jeopardy. Sure, GM Ernie Grunfeld and Jordan have brought the Wizards franchise, which had been less than mediocre for decades, back to playoff prominence. But, for the last three seasons the team has been been treading water a little bit. It's not just about making the playoffs anymore for this franchise. They need to take the next step, before it's too late. Given that they now possess one of the most explosive scorers in the game in "hibachi", it's high time the Wiz stepped up into the upper echelon, with neighbors like the Celtics, Cavaliers and Pistons.


The future in focus: Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams

Conventional wisdom when drafting in the NBA is “when in doubt go big”. Historically NBA GMs have played it safe and followed that mantra to a tee, even when the results were embarrassing and career jeopardizing – the classic example against this rule of thumb of course is when Portland took Sam Bowie out of Kentucky ahead of some guy named Jordan.

Still, that thinking continues to persist among NBA management and player personnel circles. So, it was no surprise then that during the 2005 draft big men Andrew Bogut and Marvin Williams went 1-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks respectively. While Bogut and Williams have been decent additions to their teams, those two squads passed up on 2 really great point guards. Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz and Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets went 3rd and 4th during that season’s draft, and both will be the dominant players at the point guard position in the NBA for years to come.

While players like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd ride off into the twilight years of their careers, Williams and Paul will be racking up All-Star, All-NBA and perhaps even NBA Championship honors. But, let’s get more specific here. Who’s better? Is it the steady confidence and pin-point passing of Williams? Or, the explosive first step, toughness and playmaking ability of Paul?

Leadership: We went with this category first, because here is where you separate the talented, but unexceptional point guards from the great ones. While Paul is the clear leader on his team, despite the presence of other talented players like Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler and David West, Williams plays second fiddle on the Jazz to at least Carlos Boozer, and perhaps even Mehmet Okur and Andre Kirilenko. Williams also doesn’t have a “take charge and round up the troops” type personality. Paul, on the other hand, took the reigns of the Hornets from Day 1, leading the team to a whopping 20-win increase over the previous season.

Chris Paul: B+
Deron Williams: C+

Advantage: Chris Paul.

Shooting: Chris Paul is shooting 50% from the floor this year on 14.6 shots per game, but for his career Paul is only a 43.9% field goal shooter with most of his shots coming in the lane on driving layups. Williams’ game on the other hand is very much reliant on his silky-smooth outside jumper. Deron is shooting 49.1% this year on 13.9 shots per game, and for his career has shot 44.5%. He is also a better 3-point shooter than Paul, making 42.4% of his 3s this year while taking 2.8 per game. Paul is shooting better on this 3s this year, making 40.9%, but for his career he is a 31.9% shooter from beyond the arc. Williams has also shown, at least to this point, that he is a better clutch shooter than Paul.

Chris Paul: B-
Deron Williams: B+

Advantage: Deron Williams

Passing: This is a really close call. While Chris Paul is better at breaking down the defense with his dribble and creating easy opportunities for the Hornets big men, Williams is a more accurate passer and gets a lot of his assists on pick-and-rolls with Boozer and Okur. This year, Chris Paul’s assists are through the roof at 10.8 per game, and for his career he is dropping 8.5 dimes per. Williams is getting 8.5 assists per this season and for his career he has dished out a relatively paltry 7 assists a game. Coming in this is a category we expected Williams to take. But, while he is a more accurate passer than Paul, he also gets a good chunk of his assists through the Jazz offensive system. Paul, on the other hand, can create assists, and subsequent points, where there aren’t any – creativity wins out.

Chris Paul: B+
Deron Williams: B

Advantage: Chris Paul

Defense: In this case, size makes a difference. Williams at 6’ 3” and 208 pounds is able to body up in the post against some of the bigger point guards in the league and he’s just quick enough to hold his own on the perimeter defensively. Paul, while crafty defensively on the block – see his steals at a whopping 3.2 per game – is somewhat undersized at 6’ and all of 175 pounds. While he is a better lock-down defender on the perimeter, anytime they play against Paul teams will try to make him play defense in the paint. Williams, on the other hand, has no such glaring defensive deficiency that teams can exploit.

Chris Paul: B-
Deron Williams: B

Advantage: Deron Williams

Potential: The thing we like about Chris Paul, more than any thing else, is the way he has improved every season – the result of a lot of hard work in the off-season. Granted, Deron Williams also works incredibly hard and the Jazz coaches have labeled him the biggest “gym rat” on the team, he just hasn’t shown the incremental improvement that Paul has. His scoring, assists, field goal percentage and three-point percentage has improved every year during his first 3 seasons. This season, Paul is averaging an impressive 19.5 points, 10.8 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 3.2 steals per game. He is also shooting 50% from the floor overall, 40% from beyond the arc and 90% from the line – those are All-NBA numbers. Deron Williams has been a bit more up and down. While his scoring has gone up every year he’s been in the league, his assists, for example, are down this year. On the season, Deron is averaging 17.8 points, 8.4 assists, 2.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals per contest. His shot though is solid at 49.1% from the floor, 42.7% from 3 and 78.9% from the free-throw line.

Chris Paul: A-
Deron Williams: B

Advantage: Chris Paul

Really, you probably can’t go wrong with either guard. But, if we were starting a franchise today and had to choose one of the two we’d take Chris Paul. His leadership and ability to take control of a team, potential to improve even more individually and highlight reel, ticket-selling game would put Paul just slightly ahead of Williams.


Lakers trade Brian Cook and Maurice Evans for Orlando's Trevor Ariza

Not sure if this is what Kobe Bryant meant when he demanded new running mates, but the Lakers acquired 6' 8" swingman Trevor Ariza from the Orlando Magic on Tuesday for forward Brian Cook and guard Maurice Evans. While Ariza isn't quite Jermaine O'Neal, he is an upgrade over Cook and Evans. He adds athleticism and lock-down defensive skills to the Lakers small forward spot, elements that were lacking in players like Luke Walton and Vladimir Radmanovic. And Ariza can run the floor, finish at the basket and rebounds well for a small forward.

The Lakers addditionally benefitted by dumping Cook's 3-year $10.5 million and Evans' 1-year $1.5 contracts -- Ariza has only 2 years and $5.6 million on his deal. The trade also creates a roster spot for the Lakers, who could, if they were so inclined, go after a free agent like PJ Brown or Chris Webber. In the end though, this deal has as much to do with salaries as it does with actual basketball talent. GM Mitch Kup-cake has made a lot of bad moves during his tenure, but perhaps this will go down as one of his better ones.

To celebrate the deal, or perhaps just because they can, the Lakers went out and put the beat-down on the Indiana Pacers, beating JO's squad by a score of 134-114.


Where "really great basketball" happens!

The NBA marketing heads got it right, “amazing” really does happen in the L – or at least, it has so far this season. Seasons of recent memory barely register when taking into account what’s been happening so far in 2007. It seems that just about every team has players that we’re excited about watching, and several top ones that have talent that we’d easily pay good money to see. The rookies, from Durant to Belinelli, are fresh, exciting and fun to watch play. The stars are delivering like UPS, putting up crazy numbers. Scoring, in general, is up. Defense is solid. The games are fun again. Perhaps the only thing missing is a lot of last second shots. There were some, but more will come in due time.

The NBA, as it was in the early 80s and early 90s is in a state of bloom. While traditional powerhouses like San Antonio and Detroit continue to roll along like finely assembled Bentleys, new comers like the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Hornets are racing into prime position. It’s an exciting time to be a fan. Every night, there are individual match-ups and team rivalries that demand attention. Perhaps, it’s a good time to pony up for that NBA league pass. But, before we get ahead of ourselves, get too excited and start sounding like the aforementioned NBA marketing department let’s talk about what’s caught our attention during the young NBA season.

As the big time wins pile up, the Kobe trade talks simmer down

Understand that while we watch a lot of NBA basketball, the team that we follow the closest and watch the most is the Los Angeles Lakers, so we’ll start our trip around the NBA at Kobe’s house, Staples Center. Their mark of 6-3 and their current spot as the 8th best team in the Western Conference isn’t overly impressive, but the Lakers have probably been one of the top 3, or 4, most remarkable teams in the young season. Consider the teams they’ve played so far; Phoenix, Utah, New Orleans, Minnesota, Houston (twice), San Antonio, Detroit and Chicago. Take Chicago (2-7) and Minnesota (1-7) out of the equation, and the combined record of the Lakers’ remaining opponents is a whopping 50-24. And, all of those teams, barring serious injury or a miracle, will make the playoffs. That success is even more impressive when you consider that the roster’s average age at 23.8 (even with 33 year old Derek Fisher thrown in) is among the youngest in the league.

But while those numbers are well and good, does this Lakers team have the potential to make serious noise in the playoffs? Or, will it be a one and out yet again? The key to that answer is defense. In Kobe Bryant, LA has one of the most dominant scorers in the game, ever. So, offense shouldn’t be an issue. In fact, the Lakers are putting up 104 points per game this season, good for 5th highest in the league. Such was the case last year too, when they ranked 5th best in scoring, and the year before when they ranked 8th. The Lakers can score – Kobe and a team of trained monkeys could put up at least 100 points. The problem has been on the defensive end. While the Lakers are d-ing up now, can they keep up the intensity throughout the season and, most importantly, during the playoffs? If they can, and if they can also stay healthy, team Kobe has a legit shot at playing well into June. The key will be doing the little things on defense, pressuring the post passer, limiting penetration, being opportunistic with turnovers and just playing hard and smart on defense at all times. Good defense will keep Kobe in a Lakers uniform for a long time to come.

Smoke and mirrors behind Magic in Orlando

Another young team that has made its mark on the young season is the Orlando Magic. A record so far of 9-2 gives them a tie for the second best mark in the league with the New Orleans Hornets, along with a recent win against the best team, record wise, in the league, the new-look Boston Celtics. But, take a close look at the Magic roster and other than newly acquired Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard, and possibly point guard Jameer Nelson, the collection of names isn’t very impressive.

The Magic put up 102.8 points a game and more importantly yield 95.6 points on the defensive end, for a solid differential of 7.2 points per game. The Magic also shoot a ton of threes and a ton of free-throws – they’re 3rd in the league in 3 point attempts and 4th in the league in free-throw attempts. The Denver Nuggets are the only other team with that distinction of being in the top 5 in those 2 categories.

But, those are the only places that the Magic truly excel. Everywhere else, their stats are either pretty mediocre or not quite top 10. So, while the 9-2 record is impressive, other than the win against Boston, every other team that the Magic have beat so far this season, including Washington, Minnesota, Toronto, New York, Seattle, Cleveland and New Jersey, has a record of .500 or lower. While Orlando may not be as good as their gaudy record indicates, the team – with Lewis on the wing and Howard in the post – is probably talented enough to win a lot of games in a weak Eastern Conference. But, their lack of depth and overall talent level from 3-12 could be exposed during the playoffs.

The big 3

This just in, Boston is good! Not sure if Garnett had a little pre-season chat with Tom Brady, but the Celtics so far has been basketball’s version of the New England Patriots. KG, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and the rest is killing people, no prisoners. The numbers bear it out. Boston has the stingiest defense in the league, giving up a paltry 89.4 points per game. They are matching the stellar defense by scoring 102.7 per game for a differential of 13.2 points – by far the highest in the league (the Hornets and the Nuggets are tied for second in differential at 9.1 points per game).

The bottom line is that this revived version of the Celtics is legit and has the talent to get to the NBA finals. Some might argue that their early season schedule has been weak, but there’s no denying the supernova-like presence of the 3 All-Stars. Yes, in a seven game series, given the type of suffocating defense they play, the Cs have the ability to beat teams like the Spurs, Suns, Mavericks, et al.

One man show

Team achievements aside, individual players are also stepping up and impressing so far this season.

Among the rookies, Kevin Durant has possibly wrapped up the rookie of the year trophy earlier than any 1st year player in recent memory (perhaps because of the absense of one Mr. Oden, or perhaps not). Consider this, Durant is averaging close to 20 points per game (19.7 to be exact) and his closest competitor in that category is Yi “I live in Milwaukee, my neighbor is a cow…no really, a real cow” Jianlian. The Chinese sensation is averaging 10.3 points per game – no other rookie this year is even in double figures. You think David Stern isn’t already preparing his intro speech for Durant’s ROY trophy presentation?

But the rookies really only add to an NBA roster that is so incredibly talented right now. Sure you’ve got all-time names like Kobe, LeBron, Duncan, Wade, Nash, Garnett and Nowitzki, but then there is a second tier with amazingly talented guys like T-Mac, Carmelo, D-Howe, Ming, Pierce, Arenas and Iverson and a third tier with Vince Carter, Kevin Martin, Redd, Ginobili, Butler, Rashard, Jesus Shuttlesworth, Chris Paul, Durant and Marion and a fourth tier with Al Jeff, Aldridge, Deng, Barbosa, Gasol, Gerald Wallace -- there’s just so many players in the NBA today that can play, and are fun to watch. We haven’t had this much talent, top to bottom, in the league for a long, long time.

In 2007-2008, NBA action is fantastic! Oh wait, wrong adjective. It’s amazing!