The Three-Pointer: Boston C Party
Housekeeping prelude: Skip down to Point 1 if you're not interested. My apologies for this tardy trey pointer after not posting after the San Antonio tilt. From now on, beginning after Wednesday night's game, I will set up this site to receive your feedback after every game, whether I have been able to post my complete thoughts on the game or not.
(I can always go back and add mine later.) This is done in acknowledgment of and appreciation for the smart, passionate contributors to this space. That said, I'll still play God if I have to. Some of the posts in the last thread began to creep toward those dreaded, intimate pissing matches. I (and hopefully most of you) are not interested in opinions only, but informed opinions that go broader than one-on-one arguments. Don't post what you think without giving evidence why you think it. Keep the pejorative, smart-alecky stuff to a minimum. Stuff like Brauer's salary cap explainers, Levi's popcorn link and analysis, and Weinhold's contrarian but well-considered broadsides are just three of dozens of elements contained in your feedback that get me excited to read my own blog. (Beyond hanging on my own every word, that is.)
Last but not least: No running commentary while the games are in process and no dashed-off one-liners or retorts. I'll just doink them. And eat your peas before they get cold!
1. Jets at the point
Kevin McHale looked smart five or six different ways during last night's 25-point thrashing of the Boston Celtics, but the play of point guard Marcus Banks was the largest eye-opener. When McHale's new sidekick Rex Chapman referred to Banks as "the key" to the seven-player, three draft-pick swap with the Celtics last week, it seemed like primping, if not pimping. More than two years (180 games) into his career, Banks' shooting percentage is a doleful 40.4, and his assist to turnover ratio is a fairly wretched 2-to-1.26. Yeah, the rep was that his D was strong, but that made him sound like a younger Anthony Carter. Why was he the Celts *3rd* string point guard? For that matter, why were the Wolves adding a 4th point guard to their roster? When the post-trade rumor mill had Banks merely pivoting in Minnesota and heading to Seattle for another swap, involving Reggie Evans and/or Flip Murray, it made sense.
But in a scant 21:21 of playing time, Banks capsized any pat assumptions people had for his future. Credit McHale and Chapman for admiring and then acquiring his jitterbug quickness, but not even the guy's biggest boosters could have anticipated him going off for 20 points on only eight shots from the field (he added 7-9 from the free throw line), and six assists. At once cool and jubilant, he tromped on the throttle with zipped downcourt shovel passes off the dribble that would have been called for two-line offsides in hockey. And once in the half-court, he had his defenders bobble-heading their entire bodies in response to his deft hesitation dribbles, downshifts presaging his peeled rubber toward the hoop or his sudden, and on this night deadly, rise up for a jumper. Hell, defense was the worst part of his game.
We'll know in the next three weeks (trading deadline is February 23) whether the Wolves really do regard Banks as a keeper or bait for bigger fish. When I asked coach Dwane Casey after the game about the glut in the backcourt (nine of the 15 players on the current roster are listed as guards), he acknowledged that it was "out of balance." As of last night if not before, Banks and his relatively puny ($1.7 million) salary, which expires this year, was the most tradeable among Minnesota's quartet at the point--and he matches up with Evans and Murray (a combined $2 million, also expiring this year).
On the basis of one game, the idea of trading Banks is idiotic...almost as idiotic as making the decision based on one game. Now that Michael Olowokandi has taken his tortured rationalizations for underachievement to another town, Troy Hudson is the presiding albatross on the roster, and if McHale can coax another squad into eating the $25 million or so that Huddy is still owed between now and 2010, the Big Gopher's Lazarus-like renaissance will trend toward the miraculous. Marko Jaric is more intriguing all the way around--even at $33 million through 2011, his unique skill set makes it so perhaps he could be moved. But Banks needs another handful of quality outings before such a notion should be seriously entertained.
Bottom line, Banks had fans and media alike buzzing on Monday. In the locker, after it was noted how Ricky Davis and Mark Blount complement his game and relieve some of the pressure on his multi-tasking, Kevin Garnett himself cited Banks as another positive, and commented on his "explosiveness" saying that the ability of his point guard to "drive and drop it off" (imagine that) makes me a lot more fresh" at the end of games. Here's hoping that the squat (no way he's 6-2; try 6-1 or six feet even), muscular kid out of UNLV is indeed the steal of this deal.
I honestly don't begrudge McHale a single endorphin of the satisfaction he must feel from rebutting people like me, who called him a Lame Duck a couple weeks ago, or Sid Hartman, who railed against swapping his beloved Szczerbiak for "four ordinary players" and dubbed the Boston deal the worst trade in history.
Because even if this deal turns sour in a hurry, and even if it was set up with a couple of nasty kickers on the back end--Blount's contract, which costs about $30 million between now and 2010, when Blount will be 34; and the apparently ritual sacrifice of another first-round draft pick--the players the Wolves acquired have already demonstrated why McHale liked them in the first place.
Calling Ricky Davis a good defensive player was one of the few false bills of goods McHale peddled when justifying this swap, but almost everything else about Davis thus far makes him a better fit, if not exactly or always a better player, than Szczerbiak for this ballclub. The ability to create his own shot even against a quality defender is the most obvious upgrade, but what has pleased me most is Davis's court instincts and vision. Given his fairly gaudy scoring average (a hair under 20 points per game) and his misguided lust for that triple-double a few years back (he tried to rig a rebound off his own shot at his own basket, a classless dabble in infamy), I figured the guy would be just a bit of a ball hog. But where Szczerbiak's assists were as deliberately rendered as a schoolboy learning penmanship, Davis seems intuitively aware of the flow and pitch of the game, and heeds that physical intelligence when dishing the ball. Against the Celts on Monday, he had three assists so smooth and subtle that Hudson should have been taking notes. He's a gamer--getting 26 about 24 hours after the trade, and playing through a nasty forearm from ex-teammate Kendrick Perkins on Monday are exhibits A and B of that. He wants to be here. And whatever baggage he carries (the triple-double embarrassment is probably the worst of it) is a tote bag compared to the overblown KG-versus-Wally soap opera generated by one scuffle and one ESPN the Magazine article that a lazy national media neglects to update in order to retain their stereotype of Szczerbiak.
Casey is already giving Justin Reed Ronnie Dupree's minutes, those hopefully-brief moments when you need some jacked-up athleticism as a finger in the dike while your stars get a blow. An added bonus is that Reed is an enforcer, willing to punish penetrators in the paint with hard fouls, taking to the role better than anyone on the Wolves since Tom Hammonds decided to fold his 6-9 built-like-a-brick-outhouse frame behind the wheel of a racing car. And unlike Dupree, he can hit a jump shot once every three or four tries.
We've already gushed about Banks. That leaves Mark Blount, the seven-footer whose best trait is nailing 16-foot jumpers. When your teammate is Kevin Garnett, that's not such a bad thing. Not since way back at the beginning of last season when Eddie Griffin was sinking three-pointers, has a big man compelled opponents to think twice about double-teaming Garnett in the low block. "We'll see how the different defensive schemes change up," KG said in the locker room Monday night, in reference to how opponents deal with Blount and him in the high-low post sets. "Because if they don't [change the way they're doing it now], he's going to get 18 every night."
The old Szczerbiak Rule should apply to Blount--don't, under any circumstances, dribble the ball!--and his copious blocks against his old squad Monday didn't impress me nearly as much as Stromile Swift making him look slow and confused down in Houston. But then again, I'm prejudiced against Blount, because I fear he'll take precious developmental minutes away from Eddie Griffin, a player to whom Casey doles out less love per valuable service rendered than anyone on the team.
Perhaps Casey would call it tough love. How else to describe making Blount the first man off the bench Monday, despite the fact that Griffin, in the wake of a 1-for-14 brick-tossing in the previous two games, had gone 5-for-6 from the field, and was leading the Wolves in points, rebounds, and blocks at the time en route to the team's 23-19 advantage? For that he earned a whopping 7:47 seconds of play and the first starter's slot on the pine. Yes, Blount came in a racked up 10 points, four rebounds, and three blocks his own damn self in the first half, and, yes, perhaps there are enough minutes to go around. It bears repeating, however, that in less than two years Griffin will have the option of whether to leave or stay, much as Chauncey Billups did a few years back. As much as we can bemoan his lack of consistency, consider that he is younger than Marcus Banks, younger than Justin Reed, less than 18 months older than Rashad McCants, and more than six years younger than Mark Blount.
Before we stray too far from the point: All four of the players McHale acquired from Boston have demonstrated their value, and complementary value at that, to the composition of this team. Monday night's blow-out gave everyone permission to get giddy for a minute. But now for the perspective: Before the trade, the Wolves figured to have to scrap to earn a playoff berth. Even if the trade continues to pay such high dividends, that will still be the situation between now and the end of April. Davis, Blount, Banks, and Reed are not going to propel this squad into the first echelon of the Western Conference. But they do seem to enhance the chance to bag a seventh or eighth seed (thereby forfeiting our first round pick to the Clippers as a contingency of the Jaric trade), and almost inevitably suffer a first-round loss in the playoffs. Depending upon your perspective, it's a no-win or a no-lose situation.
3. Hit and run observations
*The first priority of any Minnesota Timberwolves trade should be, How does Kevin Garnett feel about it? And Kevin Garnett likes this trade.
* Amid all the hoopla over the new guys, Trenton Hassell continues to bedevil Paul Pierce at both ends of the court, limiting Pierce to 7-of-23 from the field while going 6-of-9 himself, with most of his baskets coming from backing Pierce down in the left block and then lofting short turnaround jumpers a la Garnett.
* Marko Jaric chose a bad night to open the second half with a couple of unforced turnovers and register no points and no assists in eight third quarter minutes. For me, Jaric is the great uniter--I agree (and disagree) with almost every positive and negative thing said about him. How does one of the least reliable performers lead the team in plus/minus points scored during the time he is on the court?
* My lonely campaign to point out that Ricky Davis can't guard strong small forwards or shooting guards was borne out by his matchup with Szczerbiak, who would have had 30 points if he'd had his usual shooting eye. (Small stressors like a trade and the birth of his daughter and second child earlier that day probably contributed to Wally's lack of concentration and rhythm.) Granted, Boston is one of the few teams with two potent swingmen who play together. But there are others. For instance, who does Hassell guard on Wednesday night--Hamilton or Prince (or maybe even Billups)? The other will give Davis fits.
* I rip on Troy Hudson all the time--nothing personal, I just don't like his game that much. But in all the uproar about the arrival of the Beantown crew, Huddy has been relentlessly upbeat, even after Banks's performance (and Blount's and Davis's performances before it) likely doomed him to mucho pine time in the coming days and perhaps weeks. Along with Anthony Carter, T-Hud's lack of complaint over his diminished role is classy.