The Three-Pointer: 48 Minutes to Euthanasia
1. Debating Banks
Coach Dwane Casey remarked how it was a tale of two halves today, and, firmly in accentuate the positive mode, chose to talk about how the Wolves were much more aggressive and less in awe of San Antonio in the second half.
Well, that's one way to put it. Another way would be to point out that Tony Parker didn't play the entire second half, and that Tim Duncan logged a grand 2:57. The Spurs could rest their two stars because they led, 56-35, at the break, having outrebounded Minnesota 29-11, putting up a 13-2 edge in fast break points, 28-18 on points in the paint, and 54%-39% in field goal percentage. The Spurs are a quality team that is playing for home court advantage throughout the Western Conference Playoffs. The Wolves are a scuffed and disheveled team playing to lose enough games to hold on to their draft pick in the lottery.
Personally, I was most interested in seeing Marcus Banks matched up with Parker, one of the very few point guards as fast as Banks in the NBA. How would Banks respond when his signal virtue was negated? It was obviously an incomplete sample, given the early blowout, but what is clear is that Banks can get his own shot off pretty much when he wants to, be it moving behind screens or penetrating the lane. His final line--25 points, 11 free throw attempts (he sank all but one) five rebounds, four assists, four steals and zero turnovres--looks mighty gaudy indeed against one of the better defenses in the league. But at the half, in his extended matchup with Parker, he had 9 points (4-9 FG), zero free throws, two rebounds, one assist and two steals in 20:14. In the second half, he got to the foul line by simply being too fast for Parker's backup, Beno Udrih, to contain. Udrih fouled him three times, and backup big man Fabricio Oberto fouled him three times, and Robert Horry hacked up on a drive to set up a three point play. In the first half versus Parker, he sank three outside jumpers and one layup; in the second half, one j, two layups, and lots of free throws off penetration. Toss in that 4/0 A/TO ratio and it is a very good game's work, even against the scrubs.
But there are two knocks on Marcus Banks, only one of which he quieted today. That would be that he doesn't have good point guard instincts, frequently acts without a plan, gets caught in mid-air and can be outguessed by cunning opponents who like to poach the lanes, etc. Zero turnovers in 40:50 against the Spurs.
The other one--let's call it the dreaded green blotch of the ex-Celtics--is that he doesn't defend worth a damn. And so, Tony Parker went 5-7 from the floor in the first half and Beno Udrih led the Spurs in scoring for probably the first time in his life with 15 points, and the 25 put up Banks is negated by the 26 he ceded, not even counting Nick Van Exel's 9 when San Antone was running a small lineup.
Keeping Banks is a worthy debate to have, because there are compelling arguments on both sides and now is precisely the time to have it. Of all the players Casey needed to get a look at, Banks is the guy whose minutes matter right now, far more than McCants or Reed or Bracey Wright, fer cryin' out loud. Why? Because McCants is a lock to play big minutes for this team next year, and at best Reed and Wright will get about the same amount of love they got this year, provided either or both are still around. But Banks? He could be a starter for years to come, or gone like the wind. The bargaining table will be open and the stakes will be some or all of the Wolves midlevel exception, up to $6 million per year.
Ironically, it was Stephon Marbury who famously said that point guards are a creation of God, born instead of made--this was back when Steph didn't know about apostasy and the wrath of God for excessive immodesty about the gifts He provides--and if you agree with him, you are very skeptical of Marcus Banks. Because Banks is not a "natural" point, he's a tweener who further complicated matters by rebutting two-thirds of the predominant character traits he was known for in Boston--good defender, lousy shooter, can't set up others. He shot very well, set up others unevenly but with some success, but locks down his man on D about as well as Ricky Davis and Mark Blount, which is to say not at all.
For some reason, I have faith that Banks will be okay running the offense, so long as he runs things through Garnett instead of Davis. And when he does have the rock in his hands, I'd be far more interested in Casey running half-court sets with lots of ball movement and plenty of spacing, so that Banks can not only drive and scoop to the big man down low, but drive and kick to the baseline or back to the top of the key...the way the Spurs were playing all day today in roasting Minnesota's indifferent rotations on defense. Banks has proven to be good enough shooting from outside to play the high pick-and-roll effectively with KG, and certainly can penetrate. Better spacing would allow him to dish with clearer vision, sans traffic. And sometimes--like at least half the time, please--he can dump it to KG in the low or high block and then either dive for the hoop or scoot to the three point arc and let the superstar find him or some other open man. If this happens, Banks's play in the past month or so has convinced me that he can be a decent floor general, and perhaps a good one in a year or two. In that regard, I'm higher on him that most of the media that cover this team, in part because I think getting a banger is a bigger priority.
But the defense, well.... Rashad McCants returned from his sprained ankle today, and was frequently paired with Banks in what is obviously anticipated, or at least being rehearsed, as the backcourt of the 2006-07 season. And McCants's defense is not any better than Banks's, plus both are small. So I asked Casey after the game if this team can play the kind of defense he wants with those two in the backcourt and he essentially said not yet but they will somebody soon. I doubt it. And when he said one of the notions is to run a three-guard set next year with Davis, McCants, and Banks, all I could think of is what a horrible, horrible, defensive unit that would be, requiring a Ben Wallace or a Kirilenko alongside KG to handle the overflow of open opponents running around and through the Tres Matadores out on the perimeter.
So I asked Casey how big of a priority retaining Banks was, given how much time they had invested in him since the trade, compared to other needs such as a big man and a long-range gunner (the Wolves are near the bottom in three-point shooting this year). Without ordering the priorities, the coach replied that keeping Banks was very important, definitely a priority, but added that the team was hoping for a "hometown discount" in the contract negotiations. I repeated that to Banks in the locker room and he sort of smiled a smile that said--"who are you kidding?!"--then made his mouth do all the right things about how he's leaving it up to his agent, etc. So I said, well, how important is familiarity and playing time--will they be as important as money for you during the off-season? And he responded, "I'd love to play for a winner and I'd love to play a lot of minutes. Like I've said, this is a business and you never know--some guys get both of those things and some guys get all three" (meaning money, minutes, and wins).
The caliber of that smile when I said "hometown discount" and the introduction of the notion of playing for a winner indicated to me that Banks is gone if he gets a great offer. As I've said before, I'd give him what Griffin got last year--about $9 million for three years, and hope that's enough. But if you blow out the entire midlevel exception on resigning Banks, that draft pick--provided the ping pong balls in the lottery don't push the Wolves past 10th by moving up teams currently behind them in lottery line--had better be NBA-ready to go a la Andrew Bogut, minimum. And how many college kids coming out fit that bill?
2. Davis vs. Szczerbiak
Since Davis is done for the year, and since the trade with Boston happened almost exactly at mid-season, the numbers for Davis and Wally Szczerbiak in a Wolves uniform are pretty comparable. Davis played 1460 minutes for this team, or just 95 minutes less than Wally logged (1555) before being shipped east. Despite that (albeit slightly) lesser time, Davis had already jacked up 595 shots, compared to Wally's 590, and despite the fact that Wally took a higher percentage of threes, he still shot 49.5%, compared to Ricky's 42.9%. Remember the mantra about Davis being more adept at getting to the line? Not by that much, as Szczerbiak shot one more FT (very slightly fewer per-minute) than Davis, 182-181, and made 17 more, 163-146. As might be expected, Szczerbiak had a slight advantage in rebounds 190-164, and Davis a pretty large edge in assists 173-112, albeit with more turnovers. The clincher for me is that the Wolves ceded more than five addtional points per game on defense after acquiring Davis, while adding less than two points of offense, which is why they were 19-21 before the trade and 14-27 after it.
3. Clear as mud
That's the best way to describe the quality of Eddie Griffin's future in the NBA. Is he a shot-blocking stud who merely needs to endure the slow, hard learning process of banging in the paint and will eventually blossom. Or does he love blocks as much as Kobe likes to shoot, to the point that his pursuit corrodes team D? At this point, I have no clue, and I'm guessing no one else does either. I do know that he suddenly began knocking down shots against Indiana the other night, including a couple of treys, en route to his best offensive performance since the last time he played the Pacers.
For the record, I wasn't agitating or grumbling about him not having laser surgery in the off-season; I was grumbling about how this has become an all-purpose excuse for either not playing EG or allowing him to play badly when he is out there. The keys to Eddie Griffin are first, in his head; second, in his heart; and third, in his eyes.