Patient X, I don’t know your name … I just know you as the person who got everyone sick at the Super Bowl in Dallas. Thanks to you, I’ve been sick for 10 solid days and counting. It started out as bronchitis, morphed into a sinus infection, and now I just sit around coughing up oysters and mixing medications like Walter White. Am I the first person who ever made a cup of daytime Theraflu, sprinkled Sudafed in it, then chugged it down with two Mucinex? I sure hope so.
Normally, I don’t care about being sick when it’s an excuse to skip work, stay in bed and watch bad TV. But this month? I cared. I hadn’t written my annual “Who has the highest NBA trade value?” column yet. Time was running out with the trade deadline looming next week. Sources say that sources tell me that sources say that according to sources, sources say Carmelo Anthony may or may not get traded soon. I had to get this sucker up before it happened. Patient X, I wouldn’t let you defeat me. I fought through the pain. I fought through the hacking, the orange pee, the pounding headache, the wheezing, the drug-fueled haze … it couldn’t stop me.
You know what the key moment was? On Tuesday, I was watching John Tesh’s “Roundball Rock” performance at Catalina Island (the official video of the Trade Value column) to get fired up when it struck me that Tesh might be the only person who has a bigger head than me. I have a huge noggin, but Tesh’s head is like Sputnik. And as I was staring at it, I started imagining my head on Tesh’s body. That led me to e-mail a YouTube guru called The Sports Gifter, who made enjoyable Scarface/LeBron and Griffin/Mozgov videos last year, to ask if he’d remake the “Roundball Rock” video with my head on Tesh’s body. The Gifter graciously agreed. A few hours later, I had my own video and enough energy to finish this monstrosity of a column. I always wanted to know what it would be like to wear a pirate’s blouse while playing “Roundball Rock.” Thank you, Gifter.
NBA Trade Value Rules
Here’s the list of 2009-10 incumbents who couldn’t crack this year’s list or even earn an honorable mention: Ricky Rubio(No. 40 last year) could end up being our most overrated international import since “Skins” … Al Jefferson (37) is basically a DH … David Lee(36) could have been bitten by a zombie and fared better than he did with Wilson Chandler … the aging Chauncey Billups (35) can still crank those 3s (44 percent this season), and if the Lakers steal him for the stretch run somehow, I am killing everybody … O.J. Mayo (29) lost his starting job, got beaten up by a teammate during an airplane card game, got arrested for running a cockfighting ring and tested positive for a steroid masker (I made only one of those up) … Gerald Wallace(25) is available if you’re interested in trading for him (if so, call the Charlotte Country Club between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. and ask for “MJ”) …Joe Johnson (24) can always say he made more money than anyone else during the Summer of LeBron … and I can’t believe that Brandon Roy(9) made this paragraph.
Our toughest 2011 omissions going from “not so tough” to “very tough”:
Andrea Bargnani: The center for the Empty Calorie All-Stars: averages 21.5 points but gives you little else (5.5 rebounds, 5.0 free throw attempts, 1.7 assists, 0.8 blocks). Semi-related: If you had to do over the 2006 draft, LaMarcus Aldridge (picked fourth) and Rajon Rondo (21st) would be 1-2 in some order, then Rudy Gay (eighth), Paul Millsap (47th) and Bargnani (first). The sixth pick? Let’s see … Randy Foye? J.J. Redick? Kyle Lowry? Brandon Roy playing bone-on-bone? Yikes. That could have been the immortal bad NBA draft if not for a 2000 Draftastrophe that yielded three total All-Star appearances.
Michael Beasley: Tailed off pretty dramatically in 2011: 16 games, 15.3 PPG, 43 percent shooting. I’d say the league figured him out, but how can you figure out someone who has conversations on the court with himself as other players walk by him, glance around and say, “Wait … is he talking to me? He’s talking to himself, right?”
Kendrick Perkins, Big Baby Davis, Marc Gasol, Roy Hibbert (tie): Cheap (and competent) frontcourt labor. Special kudos to Hibbert for keeping me on my toes: Since Thanksgiving, I had him off the top 50, on the top 50, out of the column completely and now he’s honorable mention after my boy Frank Vogel revived his career. Even Christina Aguilera’s past 10 weeks were more stable — and she mangled a Super Bowl national anthem, nearly face-planted at the Grammys and turned into bleached-blonde Snooki.
Aaron Brooks: You just get the feeling he drives around in a 2005 Range Rover with bad shocks and a dent in the back muttering to himself, “Memphis gives Mike Conley $45 million and I can’t even get an extension? Really?”
DeAndre Jordan: You will laugh. I don’t care. I go to Clippers games. On the right contender, Jordan would thrive as a rebounder/shot-blocker. Mark my words. By the way, he’s a great example of a lousy pre-draft reputation being completely undeserved: One of the league’s best teammates, he somehow knows every player on every other team and would win “Mr. Popularity” if they made an NBA yearbook. (Which really, they should — if only so we could see everyone’s yearbook quotes.) If you attend a Clippers game, watch Jordan in the pregame warm-ups — he will dole out 20-plus different handshakes, hugs and handshake/hug combos and always seems like he’s telling someone on the other team “All right, I’ll see you next week!” He’s also smartly positioned himself as Blake Griffin’s best friend and go-to chest-bumper. There’s just a lot to like. Danny Ainge owes the entire Celtics fan base an apology for taking J.R. Giddens over him.
Arron Afflalo: I wake up every morning paralyzed by fear that Chicago pried him away from Denver for a future No. 1 pick and $3 million.
Nicolas Batum: Dirt-cheap contract, elite defender, efficient offensively, brazenly called out Derrick Rose’s shoddy defense recently, only 22 years old … for once, the Portland Soccer Moms overrated a Blazer and then had the rating inadvertently turn out to be the right rating. (Just kidding, Portland. Jokes! Come on! Loosen up! No, don’t start the 150-post thread killing me on Blazers Edge! Just stop it … jokes! NOOOOOOOOOOOO!)
Tyson Chandler: Where can I place my “Mark Cuban will reward Chandler’s career year by overpaying him with a $72 million extension, then Chandler will miss 200 games over the next five years” wager?
Darren Collison, D.J. Augustin, Jrue Holiday: Love the price for all three, but really, it’s not life-altering to get 14-15 points, 5-6 assists and 35-36 percent shooting from a point guard. There’s never been a deeper crew of point guards — we go something like 20 strong, and that’s not even counting the Ridnour/Blake/Udrih types. Remember the days when there were so few decent point guards that Eric Snow and Howard Eisley signed $40 million deals? No more. Long gone.
Paul George: I’m playing my annual “I Just Like Him” immunity idol. Don’t ask why he’s here. Don’t question it. Just move on.
DeMar DeRozan: Can’t tell if he’s a potential All-Star or a future member of the Shareef Abdur-Rahim All-Stars (for guys best equipped to put up good stats for bad teams). It’s also unclear whether he knows he can pass to his teammates — that rule may not have been explained to him yet. One thing’s for sure: The dude has a fantastic name that sounds like it came right off the “Blue Chips” IMDb page. Couldn’t you see DeMar DeRozan rooming with Neon Boudreau?
Ryan Anderson: Submitted a rock-solid impersonation of 2009 Rashard Lewis (sans any steroid masking agents) after Orlando’s big December shakeup. He’s made at least one 3 in his past 29 games (42 percent shooting), 13 ppg and 6 rpg playing just 25 minutes a night. He’s the darling of the statistical community right now — if we bring him to Dorkapalooza next month, there might be a per-minute riot.
Ty Lawson: I always get the definition of “irony” wrong, like most people, which makes me think that we should just change the meaning of the word to account for all the people who misuse it. So forgive me in advance. But doesn’t it seem ironic in the traditionally wrong application of the definition that Ty Lawson — the third point guard Minnesota drafted in 2009 (and immediately traded away) — is better than the guys the Wolves drafted No. 5 and No. 6? That’s totally what I think ironic means, even though it doesn’t.
Evan Turner: Instead of mentioning Mount Bustmore (Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, Hasheem Thabeet and Adam Morrison) every time we wonder if a high lottery pick might be a draft bust, I thought it would be easier to rename those four guys Kwarko Beetison, who absolutely sounds like someone Chris Wallace would have drafted. Anyway, Turner’s Kwarko potential has dwindled to zero: He’s contributing to an overachieving playoff team, he’s had a few “I AM NOT UNAFRAID OF THIS MOMENT!” games, and he’s the only draft pick since 2007 capable of submitting one of those wacky, Rondo-esque 12-17-15 box-score lines someday. Go on eBay, steal some of his rookie cards and thank me later.
Brandon Jennings: Our toughest omission. In person, he’ll have two or three moments that make you think “Love child of Allen Iverson and Tiny Archibald!!!” But his numbers (particularly his 38 percent shooting and paltry 50 percent accuracy on shots at the rim) don’t back up what we think we’re seeing. He might just be a lightning-fast streak shooter who can’t guard anyone and can’t quite get to the rim. Stay tuned.
And now, the top 50 …
GROUP L: “Cost-Effective Building Blocks”
50. DeJuan Blair
The league’s best undersized power forward for the price: less than $3 million total through 2012-13, which seems insane for someone who routinely throws up double-doubles on a title contender. I couldn’t leave him off even though his knees are apparently made of Sepp Blatter’s backbone.
49. Derrick Favors, Brook Lopez (tie)
It’s all about Favors having an “NBA body” right now; we’re not allowed to rush to a final judgment even though a 19-year-old lottery pick is forgettable night after night after night in a Kwame-ish way. I caught him twice in person: He bombed the “If I’m Seeing You Live, No Matter How Young You Are, I Shouldn’t Be Able to Zone Out And Forget That You’re Allegedly Doing Your Specialty In Front Of Me” test. (Important note: Same goes for Broadway actors, musicians, belly dancers, comedians, politicians and chefs at those Japanese restaurants at which they cook for 10-12 people at a time.) It’s not like he’s any younger than DeMarcus Cousins. Shouldn’t Favors be showing something by now?
As for Lopez, he stopped rebounding (8.1 as a rookie, 8.7 in Year 2, 5.7 this season), stopped attacking the rim (6.6 shots at the rim last season, 4.3 this season) and plays with the enthusiasm of someone who just got dumped by his girlfriend and wants the game to end as soon as possible so he can go home and fill a pink iPod with sappy love songs for her. I would have bounced him off the list entirely, but there’s a small chance Avery Johnson’s voice is affecting him the same way Mary Hart’s voice affected Kramer.
47. Greg Monroe
Remember when I said in October, “You wait, in four months, Greg Monroe and Tracy McGrady will be CARRYING the Pistons!” Oh wait, nobody said that.
46. DeMarcus Cousins
So rarely in sports does someone live up to the hype. We thought Notorious D.M.C. could be a dominant scorer/rebounder AND a once-in-a-generation head case who immediately polarized fans and media members … yes and yes! In the past three weeks alone, he dropped a 27-10 on the Lakers, a 25-14 on Utah, a 19-15 on Dallas and a few punches on teammate Donte Greene’s head, then subsequently got banned from a team plane and suspended. I want the opposite of a full refund for the DMC Experience. I’d like to pay twice. Let’s run it back. And by the way? If I were a GM, I’d be calling Sacramento every day trying to get him. Repeat: Everyday. You just never know when you might catch Geoff Petrie in a moment of weakness. It’s coming.
GROUP K: “We’ll Discuss Him, But You Can’t Tell ANYONE”
45. Paul Millsap
44. Danny Granger
43. Kevin Martin
41. Luis Scola
40. Andrew Bogut
These guys are like quality character actors: You want them in your movie or TV show as long as they’re not the ones you’re putting on the poster. Millsap, Scola and Martin: hard-working, efficient scorers who wound their teams defensively. Granger: a streak shooter who doesn’t seem interested in being much more than that; it wasn’t a coincidence that Coach K buried him on Team USA. Nene: a totally solid center who holds his own but can’t carry his team for stretches at a time. Bogut: an expensive lottery center who gets you a double-double with three blocks but can’t crack 50 percent from the field OR the charity stripe. Ask these guys to be anything more than your No. 3 or No. 4 guy and you won’t be playing in June.
The best comparison: Have you seen “Shameless” on Showtime? It totally has “Six Feet Under” potential, but there’s a problem — they built too much of the show around Bill Macy, who’s in a perpetual overacting frenzy as the lead character, an abusive alcoholic father who can’t stop screwing up the lives of his kids. With the right actor, it’s a 60-win show and a possible 1-seed. With Macy, it’s an 8-seed. He’s awful in it. I don’t blame Macy as much as Showtime for building the show around him — they were hoping he had a Bryan Cranston gear in him, but he doesn’t. And that goes for the last six guys, too. You want them in your indie movie, you want them as the No. 3 or No. 4 lead in your blockbuster … you don’t want them on your poster.
(Last thought: The Rockets had Yao and T-Mac for their poster, couldn’t replace them after they broke down, then had no choice but to build around character actors — a move that worked for the 2004 Pistons during the Great Talent Abyss of the mid-2000s but can’t work in 2011 because the league is too loaded. Maybe the Rockets can’t win a playoff series, but they could do some serious damage at Sundance.)
GROUP J: “The Young Guns”
39. Tyreke Evans
This year’s winner of the Sidney Wicks Memorial “I Know He’s Putting Up Stats, And I Know He’s Talented, But Man, It Seems Like His Teammates Hate Playing With Him” Award. I continue to believe “24/7: The 2010-11 Sacramento Kings” could have been the greatest HBO show of all time. Even better than “The Sopranos” and “G-String Divas.” Coming up next time on “24/7”: A friendly Monopoly game between DeMarcus and Tyreke’s high school buddies goes horribly wrong …
38. Andrew Bynum
A list of the most memorable centers and power forwards of the past 35 years organized by their first six regular seasons for “games played,” “games missed” and “number of seasons in which they played 90 percent of the games.”
Dwight Howard: 489 — 3 — 6
Karl Malone: 489 — 3 — 6
Tim Duncan: 451 — 9 — 5
David Robinson: 475 — 17 — 5
Kevin McHale: 475 — 17 — 5
Charles Barkley: 472 — 20 — 6
Dikembe Mutombo: 471 –21 — 5
Robert Parish: 469 — 23 — 5
Hakeem Olajuwon: 468 — 24 — 5
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 467 — 25 — 5
Dirk Nowitzki: 444 — 48 — 5
Kevin Garnett: 442 — 50 — 5
Patrick Ewing: 438 — 54 — 4
Moses Malone: 428 — 66 — 4
Alonzo Mourning: 409 — 83 — 2
Shaquille O’Neal: 408 — 84 — 2
Yao Ming: 404 — 88 — 3
Ralph Sampson: 395 — 97 — 3
Chris Webber: 329 — 131 — 1
Andrew Bynum: 309 — 169 — 1
Bill Walton: 223 — 269 — 0
Sam Bowie: 207 — 285 — 1
Greg Oden: 82 — 266 — 0
What jumps out? First, the durable guys remained durable throughout their careers, with just one exception: McHale, who ruined the second half of his career by bravely (and some would say foolishly) playing on a broken foot in the 1987 playoffs. Second, anyone who missed more than 80 games and couldn’t play in 90 percent of the games in at least four of their first six seasons went on to have injury-plagued careers. (That includes Shaq, who played more than 68 games in a season just six times and missed an average of 18 games per season.) And third, if you can’t stay on the court at your youngest/healthiest/freshest/most energetic, it’s a pretty safe bet that things won’t change as you get older. It’s straight DNA: Some dudes are structurally built for 82-game NBA seasons, others aren’t. So if you make the argument “If Bynum can stay healthy, he’s a franchise center,” just make sure you also mention that we have 35 years of evidence that there’s a tipping point when “If he can stay healthy …” becomes “… he’s not going to stay healthy.” We’re there with Andrew Bynum. He’s not going to stay healthy. If I were the Lakers, I would trade him right now.
(Actually, what am I saying? They should definitely keep him! The guy is built like solid oak!)
37. Serge Ibaka
Think how much better he’s gotten just in the past 12 months … then think about the fact that he’s only 21 … then remember that, by the time he turned 20, he had already survived a violent civil war in the Congo, been separated from his 18 siblings, survived on his own in Spain and Oklahoma City, learned his third and fourth languages and morphed into a playoff contender’s key shot-blocker/rebounder despite the fact that he started playing organized basketball only five years ago. I’m not betting against Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka.
GROUP I: “We Need To Trade Him, But Unfortunately, You Know This”
36. Zach Randolph
After he destroyed Oklahoma City two weeks ago, I briefly had him cracking the top 30 until my buddy House and I had this exchange.
–Me: I’m promoting Z-Bo to the top-30. F*** it. He’s unstoppable. He would swing the 2011 title if the right team got him.
–House: I agree. Plus, he’d the first top-30 guy falsely accused of funding a drug ring during that same year.
35. Hasheem Thabeet
35. Steve Nash
Possible conversation between Robert Sarver and a buddy last June …
–Sarver: I’ll bet you that I can push Steve Kerr out, let Amare Stoudemire go, pay $80 million to Channing Frye, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick … and Nash still won’t ask for a trade.
–Sarver: OK, same bet … except I’ll also give up the two best players in a four-player deal that lands me Vince Carter.
–Buddy: You’re on.
(Note: I could only see Nash pushing for a trade if Sacramento, Charlotte or New Orleans relocates to his hometown of Vancouver, a city that David Stern gleefully mentioned, unsolicited, as a possible NBA home on my podcast this week, followed by a Globe and Mail story two days later confirming Vancouver’s interest in the Hornets. If Vancouver landed an NBA team AND Nash, I say Obama should make Canada the following “Godfather” offer: Maine, Buffalo, North Dakota, the top half of Minnesota, two future No. 1 picks and $3 million for Vancouver so we could own the entire Pacific Northwest. It even works on the Continental Trade Machine; I checked. Speaking of trades …)
34. Carmelo Anthony
From Marshall in Portland: “Is Carmelo Anthony’s six-month-long impression of a vacillating, manipulative 13-year-old girl starting to make The Decision look like a good idea? I know that’s impossible, but still … at least The Decision had direction and backbone, right?” Yup. Pretty much.
(My prediction for an outcome to this excruciating Melo saga, which should be repackaged as “MELO: DAY 189” the same way “Nightline” rebranded the Iran hostage crisis: a three-teamerin which the Knicks get Melo but take back Billups and the Al Harrington Trade Tax; Denver gets Ray Felton, Wilson Chandler, Corey Brewer and expirings, sheds $11 million in 2011 payroll, gets a future No. 1 and an extra $3 million in cash from New York and reinvents itself cap-wise going forward; and Minnesota gets a chance to break the “Most Crazy Facial Expressions Ever” record with Anthony Randolph and Beasley.)
GROUP H: “Cost-Effective Winners”
33. David West
Welcome to the rich man’s version of Group K: elite character actors who can carry a chunk of a quality movie if need be. West completed the “Everyone spends so much time saying he’s underrated that now he’s overrated for being underrated” cycle two years ago. Now he’s totally underrated again. Love when that happens. This year’s overrated-for-being-underrated guy? Ryan Anderson. Lock it down. Hasn’t totally manifested itself yet, but it’s coming.
32. Tony Parker
Am I the only one who stares at Tony’s picture on his ESPN.com profile page and makes up fake quotes for it in a French accent?
No, no, you should stay here, I’ll give your wife a ride home, I insist.
Your daughter is very beautiful. How old is she?
Have another glass of wine, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
Tomorrow, while your husband is skiing, why don’t I show you around town?
31. Lamar Odom
We always hear about athletes screwing up career decisions; we never hear about someone like Odom, who passed up a much more lucrative 2009 offer from Portland knowing he loved playing for Phil Jackson, being a Laker and living on the beach. The extra money wasn’t worth it to him. So he stayed. Now he’s playing the best basketball of his career, he has a second ring, he’s getting his own reality show and he’s related to Bruce Jenner and Scott Disick. What could be better? Oh, wait, I know! Phil Jackson gave him a copy of my book for Christmas!!! How many people can say they wrote a book that potentially sat on a nightstand right next to a bed in which a Kardashian was hooking up? I couldn’t be prouder.
Nathaniel S. Butler / Getty Images
GROUP G: “Paying By The Pound”
30. Chris Bosh
29. Carlos Boozer
28. Kevin Garnett
Garnett gets the edge because he’s the best defender (by far); because he has the most palatable contract ($40 million total this year and next, compared to $70 million through 2014 for Boozer and $109 million for Bosh); because he never once had an affair with someone who eventually won the unofficial “lunatic of the year award” on “The Bachelor” (like Boozer did with Michelle Money, this season’s villain and someone my wife described as “someone who may have killed before, and definitely may kill again”); because he’s played in more than 13 career NBA playoff games and a couple of NIT games (unlike Bosh); because he’s the only one with a ring; and because he’s the heart and soul of the Celtics (neither Bosh or Boozer can say the same about their respective teams).
Of course, you can’t mention Kevin Garnett in a sports column anymore without mentioning how much everyone hates Kevin Garnett. Since joining the Celtics, he’s slowly morphed into the least-liked superstar in the league, this generation’s version of Rick Barry or Isiah Thomas. That’s been devastating for me for two reasons: He plays for my favorite team, and more importantly, that Barry/Isiah spot was supposed to go to Kobe. How did this thing flip so fast? Every day, I get at least one e-mail from a reader wondering, “How can you root for Kevin Garnett?”
My answer: He’s on my team. That’s how. I would have loved Bill Laimbeer if he played for the Celtics. I would have loved Thurman Munson had he switched teams with Carlton Fisk in 1971. I would have loved Peyton Manning if he had been switched with Tom Brady in 2002. Your guys are your guys — as long as they’re on your team, they become family the same way your annoying aunt, blowhard uncle or black-sheep cousin is family. I don’t think KG called Charlie Villanueva a cancer patient, just a “f—— cancer.” I don’t think KG intentionally punched Channing Frye in the nuts, and even if he did, who cares? It’s Channing Frye! I just know that Garnett plays for my team, always tries hard, cares about his teammates, doesn’t care about his own stats, and if he happens to be a crazy person, then so be it. Remember, we live in a world in which Lakers fans cheered Sasha Vujacic and his hairnet … for years.
Besides, Garnett never changed … his circumstances changed. You knew him for years and years as the tortured soul stuck with lousy teammates in a small market watching his prime waste away, so you felt bad for him, and you either overlooked some of the crap he pulled (like when he punched out a scrub teammate named Rick Rickert) or didn’t even know about it. Now he’s in Year 4 starring for a signature contender, constantly appearing on national TV and being immersed in 24/7 sports coverage in which every foible is dissected Zapruder-style. Anyone who followed basketball could see this coming. The same thing that makes Garnett great (his intensity) also leads to casualties (everything else). Just know that if he played for your team, you would love this bald, blathering maniac just as much as Boston fans do. You would.
GROUP F: “Borderline Franchise Guys”
27. Eric Gordon
Yet another young guy who plays hard. I don’t know whether it’s the rookie salary scale (so guys don’t get overpaid too soon), the league’s emphasis on player conduct, smarter agents, the veterans leading by example, the lessons learned from all the idiots before them, or all of the above, but we’ve never had more young stars playing their asses off. The best thing about Clippers games — as opposed to, say, a Nets game featuring Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman in 1993 — is that everyone walks into the Staples Center knowing that Gordon and Blake Griffin will give a crap about that night’s events. It’s a nice feeling. A feeling that quickly dissipates when you see Donald Sterling sitting courtside with a big, oily smile on his face, but still.
26. Rudy Gay
25. Josh Smith
The original J-Woww gets the nod because of his contract ($37.5 million through 2013 for Smith, $80 million through 2015 for Gay) and because, after five straight years as the captain of the “No, Seriously, Why The Hell Are You Shooting 3s?” All-Stars (missing 351 of 478 3s in all), Smith jumped to 34.8 percent this season and doesn’t make you want to throw things at your television anymore. (Note: We’re handing his title to Dwyane Wade, a career 29 percent shooter who somehow has attempted 991 3-pointers. You know what the other team says every time Wade shoots a 3? “Good!”) Regardless, both Gay and Smith were guys that made us wonder if they’d ever get it, and now they get it, so that’s always fun.
Quick tangent: My daughter lost her first tooth the other day, so of course I spent the past few days thinking about how fast she’s growing up. My favorite time I ever spent with her was right now — the past four months, right after she turned 5½ — because, like Rudy Gay and Josh Smith, she just got it. Suddenly, she listened. She told stories that made sense. She made jokes that were actually funny. She stopped crying to get her way. She started looking out for her brother more. One day when we were driving home from school, she was telling me a story that was rich with detail, and at some point, I remember thinking to myself, Wait, when did she become a real person? Even though I always knew it would happen, I didn’t expect it to happen. I bet Memphis fans and Atlanta fans know what I mean.
24. Monta Ellis
23. Stephen Curry
Curry gets the edge because (A) he’s still on a rookie contract; (B) he’s an offensive savant; and (C), again, he’s an offensive savant. Conventional wisdom says Golden State can’t keep them both because Ellis, an explosive scorer who logs big minutes, is just as bad defensively as Curry. Why not? I’m sorry, is Golden State close to winning the title or something? Why not play fun basketball for a year or two, win some shootouts, entertain your fans and see where it goes? Why does every situation have to be solved right away? And so what if this exact same argument was used by Hosni Mubarak’s and Charlie Sheen’s supporters?
22. Al Horford
21. Joakim Noah
I can’t believe we’re not in the top 20 yet. Did you see the past seven guys we rolled off? By the way, every writer with an MVP ballot who thought Chicago should trade Noah and Luol Deng for Carmelo Anthony should have that ballot taken away. Promptly. Like, right now.
GROUP E: “It Infuriates Us That You’d Even Ask”
20. Amare Stoudemire
I’d like to introduce a fake character called “Generic NBA Guy Who Knows Things,” a distorted compilation of everyone in NBA circles who talks to me off the record. Here’s GNGWNT on Amare these past four months:
October: “Amare is gonna have a big year. Huge, huge year. He likes the spotlight. New York will be good for him. He’s dumb enough to think he’s as big a star as LeBron or Wade. You need that attitude to succeed in New York.”
November: “I told you!”
December: “D’Antoni is running Amare into the ground. His knees won’t hold up. You don’t write about coaches putting themselves above their players nearly enough, Simmons. D’Antoni is coaching for his next job; he doesn’t care about Amare’s availability in 2014. Did you see the Detroit game? Amare played 54 minutes in double-OT, then averaged 41 the next 10 games. And when his knees go, everyone will blame Dolan and Donnie for spending too much money on him.”
January: “You see Amare’s numbers this month? D’Antoni finally cut his minutes but it was too late — his game went in the tank; 45 percent shooting? He hasn’t been under 50 percent for an entire month since he was in junior high.
February: “I feel bad for Carmelo. He killed his legacy in Denver to get to the Knicks, and by the time he gets there, Amare will be cheering him on in $5,000 suits every night while D’Antoni is working for you guys on Friday nights arguing with Jon Barry. Mark my words, the MVP of the 2013 Knicks is going to be either Mozgov or Amare’s tailor.”
(And that concludes this week’s episode of “Turd In The Knicks Fan Punch Bowl!” Don’t blame me, blame Mike D’Antoni — the guy who apparently forgot that Stoudemire’s knees are so bad that the Knicks couldn’t get his contract insured, then played him 576 minutes in 14 games over a four-week span. He hasn’t been quite the same since. It’s true.)
19. Manu Ginobili
18. Tim Duncan
17. Paul Pierce
Three guys who will unquestionably retire with their respective teams. Kinda ruins the point of the column. Quick Manu tangent: If San Antonio wins 68-70 games and captures the title, he’d become the single toughest active player to assess from a historical standpoint. Phenomenal big-game player, one of the best international players ever, a key member of multiple title teams … yet he was never one of the league’s best five guards at any point in his career. Is he a potential Hall of Famer? Does he need one more title to get there? Is it fair to compare him to unsung guards like Joe Dumars and Dennis Johnson, when their best years were much better than Manu’s best years? Or do we just cop out and say he’s the best Euro/South American guard ever, then be done with it? To be continued.
GROUP D: “Effectively Untouchable”
16. John Wall
If you created an Athletic Freak Scale and rated NBA players based on how violently you said “My God, that guy is a FREAK” as you watched them in person, LeBron would be a 10.0. Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin would be 9.0s. Russell Westbrook would be an 8.5. Sergeballu LaMu Sayonga Loom Walahas Jonas Hugo Ibaka would be an 8.0. Wall would be somewhere between 8.0 and 9.0. And Luke Harangody would a 0.0.
15. LaMarcus Aldridge
When I watch Aldridge this year, I think to myself, He’s different. He’s playing like a center. He’s going down low. He’s rebounding more. He’s becoming a player I never imagined he could be. Conventional metrics tell us he’s playing better and getting more shots, something backed up by his usage-rate numbers (22.9 percent last year, 26.3 percent this year).
2009-10: 17.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 0.6 BPG, 49.5% FG, 76% FT, 15.0 FGA, 3.9 FTA, 37.3 MPG
2010-11: 22.3 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 49.7% FG, 79% FT, 17.7 FGA, 5.9 FTA, 39.4 MPG
Still, those numbers don’t totally tell me HOW he’s playing. That’s why you have to love hoopdata.com, a site that breaks down scoring by zones. Last season, Aldridge attempted only 3.9 shots at the rim, 2.6 shots within 10 feet, 3.1 shots from 10-15 feet, 5.2 shots from 16-23 feet and 0.2 3s … so basically, 57 percent of his shots were long jumpers or 3s. This season, those numbers magically shifted: 6.7 shots at the rim, 3.9 within 10 feet and 7.0 shots from beyond 10 feet, meaning 60 percent of his shots now come from close range. I don’t like basketball metrics that pit players against one another, but I like when they help me confirm (or in some cases, refute) what I think I’m seeing. Aldridge changed his game, started playing more like a center, grabbed a bigger piece of the offense and now he’s on a whole other level. It’s really that simple.
(Note to Rip City: I wanted to vault Aldridge into the next group, but he’s been kicking butt for only two months — I can’t tell if it’s a hot streak or something more. Had to play it safe considering he has a $70 million contract. Just know that I put a ton of thought into it; I appreciate how he’s carrying your banged-up team right now; I don’t eat poop; I’m not an idiot; and I don’t want to have sex with myself. Wait, don’t start another scathing message board thread — NOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
14. Kevin Love
When you were watching Season 6 of “The Sopranos” and A.J. grew his thinly trimmed beard, did you ever think to yourself, A few years from now, his lookalike power forward will be averaging a 20-15, draining 3s like Laimbeer 2.0, getting thrown into complicated historical rebounding stats that compare him and Moses Malone, getting “Best White Guy Since Stockton” buzz and shattering the record for “most interviews done on TV, radio or a podcast in one season?”
GROUP C: “Lemme Save You Some Time: N-O.”
13. Rajon Rondo
12. Russell Westbrook
Westbrook gets the edge only because he’s still playing on his rookie contract ($9 million through next year). Meanwhile, Rondo may have replaced Gary Payton as the all-time Table Test guy: Has anyone in basketball history ever brought more things to the table and taken more stuff off the table? In Sunday’s Miami win alone, he finished with a triple-double, demanded to cover LeBron and disrupted him for a couple of quarters … and in the last few minutes, Miami played 40 feet off him and dared him to win the game. In close games, Celtics fans are an emotional mess: We want Rondo to shoot, we don’t want him to shoot, we don’t know what the hell we want.
The enduring Rondo question: Does he get enough done in those first 44 minutes (routinely spectacular, consistently excellent) to offset the last four minutes (when his outside shooting, porous free throw shooting and fear of getting fouled become such major liabilities) and the strategic conundrums he inadvertently creates (like when smart teams leave Rondo alone and use his defender as a double-teamer/extra rebounder)? I honestly don’t know the answer. I just know that, when he shoots the ball in a big spot, I want him to shoot it … but I’m always surprised when it goes in. That’s why I couldn’t nudge him past Westbrook or these next two guys.
11. Deron Williams
I dropped him a spot because he’s still covered in Jerry Sloan’s blood. Deron, you might want to take a bath in tomato juice to get it off. And use a dish scrubber.
(By the way, Williams winning a power struggle with Sloan wasn’t even the most dramatic moment of Utah’s season! I’ll let Bryce in Montana explain: “At the Jazz-Bulls game (last week), there was an incredibly awkward moment in the first half when Kyle Korver and Gordon Hayward entered the game at the same time. The crowd reacted kind of like a woman dating two men who just found out about each other and were ready to fight it out, and she wasn’t sure which one to cheer for. The crowd (especially the women) went crazy, but they all had a distressed expression. It was a great moment that you surely would have loved if you were watching.” Throw in Sloan and Williams nearly brawling at halftime, Carlos Boozer’s return and the decent possibility of Michelle Money being there and I’m calling that the most dramatic game of the year.)
10. Chris Paul
Even playing on one leg (will he ever admit that something’s wrong?), the man still runs a basketball team better than anyone. Have you SEEN New Orleans this season? How is this team headed for 47 wins? Speaking of the Hornets, it’s only a slim chance the NBA would contract them as a bargaining tactic this summer — a scenario that Stern freely admitted had been discussed during our podcast this week — but if it happened, can you imagine the Chris Paul Dispersal Draft? How would it happen? Would every team be eligible? Would only lottery teams be eligible? Would it be televised? Would ESPN.com create a Dispersal Draft Machine? Would this be the event that finally exploded Chad Ford’s head? And how funny would it be if the Knicks somehow won the Chris Paul Lottery?
9. Pau Gasol
A few weeks ago, Kobe explained Gasol’s latest funk like this: “Even when [Pau] was in Memphis and he was the go-to guy, he was always very nice. Very white swan. I need him to be black swan.”
I thought this was funny for a variety of reasons, mainly that Kobe thought it was a good idea to compare his best teammate to a psychological ballet thriller that features an explicit lesbian sex scene, but also because you could tie it to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan.” Taleb considered a “black swan event” an impact event that came by surprise, but that after it happened, everyone tried to rationalize that they knew it was coming (or that they should have known it was coming) by going backward and reexamining the available signs. Taleb believes most major events in history are unexpected, but humans can’t accept that: We can’t control random events, and when things are out of our control, we get nervous. We’d rather think wecould control them. You know, kind of like Kobe and Jackson with Gasol. They think they can control his funks by lighting a fire under him, questioning his energy, pushing for MORE from him … and invariably, they’re right. He’s averaging a 21-9 and shooting 60 percent this month. There is nothing random about Pau Gasol: He averages an 18-10 and shoots 52 percent year after year, and at least once a season he needs to be kicked in the butt. He’s neither a black swan nor a black swan event. By the way, don’t mix Red Bull and Zithromax.
GROUP B: “Only If They Asked To Leave”
8. Dirk Nowitzki
7. Dwyane Wade
6. Kobe Bryant
Our first three untradable guys. I covered the extended primes of Kobe and Nowitzki in a column three weeks ago, which generated a ton of e-mails like this one from Dave in Atlanta:
“Ten years from now, what are the chances we look back on your ‘Defying the Odds’ column the same way we look back at some of the McGwire/Sosa/Clemens columns from the late-’90s? When we pull back the curtain to find Rashard Lewis and O.J. Mayo traveling on the PED Bus, isn’t it very possible that we’re all being extremely naïve when it comes to NBA players and their advancements in the career longevity department?”
The only thing I’d disagree with is the phrase “extremely naïve.” Sports fans in 2011 are prepared for the worst at all times; that’s just how we’re wired now. I didn’t mention PEDs in that piece because the extended primes of Nash/Kobe/Pierce/Nowitzki/Bryant were reasonable; they maintained their previous level of success for legitimate reasons, without a Bondsian jump in numbers that would have raised a red flag. The NBA also tests for this stuff; until 2005, baseball didn’t test for anything even as some of its best players were growing second foreheads.
My only concern: why fans don’t make a bigger stink when there has been evidence that something might be up, like when Lewis played the best basketball of his career during the 2009 playoffs, tested positive for elevated testosterone that same spring (the results didn’t come out until four months later) … and his career quickly went into the tank. If that had been a baseball pitcher who pitched lights-out during the 2009 playoffs, tested positive and fell off a cliff shortly after, what would we say? Why don’t we care? Why do we think blood doping and HGH would infect cycling, baseball, football and track and field, but not a sport in which over-competitive guys run around and bang bodies for two and a half hours 80-100 times per year? OK, now I’m getting depressed …
Layne Murdoch / Getty Images
GROUP A: “Completely And Utterly Untouchable”
5. Blake Griffin
And now, I am no longer depressed! I want to self-plagiarize a point I made on a podcast recently: However Blake’s career plays out, we’ll remember him as the first sports hero of the MultiTasker Generation. When Blake had a monster dunk, not only did you know about it right away, you practically saw it right away. Usually within 8-10 minutes. Like Jordan came to personify the mid-’80s — crisply directed commercials, snazzy posters, trend-setting sneakers, highlights perfectly edited for the “SportsCenter” generation — Blake personifies what’s happening right now. You can watch every Clippers game on DirecTV or your laptop if you want. You can tweet during games with your buddies waiting for something to happen. If you want to skip the game and wait to be alerted that something magical happened, followed by your Twitter account exploding and the inevitable YouTube link getting forwarded around, you can do that, too. Either way, it’s 2011 and you can consume Blake Griffin any way you want.
4. Derrick Rose
I still have him as the MVP. If you disagree, go look at the standings, try to find me 10 games in which Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah played together, then watch Keith Bogans play for 10 minutes. Derrick Rose did more for that team through the first 50 games than anyone else did for their team; doesn’t make him the best player, just the most valuable. At least so far. Of course, we can’t sleep on this scenario, courtesy of Tim in Troy:
“I think we could have a Hakeem Olajuwon/David Robinson situation brewing with the 2011 MVP: What if Rose gets presented with the trophy in front of LeBron before a Bulls-Heat Round 2 playoff game? I picture a standard LeBron Eff You game (40, 10 and 10, five mean dunks, sits for the fourth quarter) making Hakeem’s shakedown of The Admiral look like a birthday present.”
Great call. Yet here’s the difference between Rose and Robinson: Rose would get ticked off by the Eff You performance, try to match it … and then it would be on like Donkey Kong. Have I mentioned how excited I am for the 2011 playoffs? I’ve mentioned that, right? We’re definitely getting Boston-Chicago, Boston-Miami or Chicago-Miami in Round 2. Round 2!!!! Any one of those three matchups will be old-school, ’80s-style, no-handshaking bloodbaths. I can’t wait for the refs to get overprotective and screw it up.
3. Kevin Durant
With LeBron splitting shots with the other MoHeatos, it’s hard to foresee a situation in which KD’s 30 a game wouldn’t take the scoring title year after year after year until he got bored … and that’s assuming 30 is his ceiling, when actually — if Oklahoma City added a low-post threat and Durant bumped up his 3-point shooting (34 percent right now) — he could climb to 33-34 pretty soon. (The record: MJ and Wilt both won seven straight scoring titles.) So worst-case scenario, barring injury, he’ll be a rich man’s George Gervin.
And with that said …
Remember this past September. Turkey? The Baster Game? Why did so many Team USA guys make a leap afterward (Rose, Westbrook, Gay, Love, Chandler, Odom, etc.) and Durant went sideways? Am I picking nits? Were my expectations too high? Are his teammates worse than we realize? Did he already HAVE his leap, and that’s as far as we’re going? You’d think Westbrook’s leap would have facilitated a second mini-leap from Durant, right? And further–
(Oh, that’s right … he’s 22. I forgot.)
2. Dwight Howard
A good test case for one of my favorite games (inspired by Chuck Klosterman): “Overrated, underrated or properly rated?” In the Internet era, we spend so much time dissecting things that it’s hard to find something that’s properly rated — we either think someone’s getting a little too much credit or not quite enough. Right now, there are only a few properly rated things: “The Social Network,” Albert Pujols, Rihanna, Aaron Rodgers, Jennifer Lopez in HD, “24/7,” Chik-Fil-A, Jim Gray, Dr. James Andrews, TNT’s “Inside the NBA” show, prison … it’s not a long list. In basketball, we could go through every name on my top 50 list and I could tell you why they’re overrated or underrated, whether it’s slight or substantial.
But Dwight Howard? Properly rated. Nobody has ever said the words, “I got into a big argument about Dwight Howard last night” or “I read this great piece about Dwight Howard today.” He’s one of the best players in the league, but you’d never make the case that he’s the best. He’s one of the most valuable players in the league, but you’d never say he’s most valuable. We don’t take him for granted, and we don’t think he’s overrated. He’s Dwight Howard: the best center since Shaq, a franchise player for a fringe contender, someone who’s very very very very very very good but not quite great. And that’s why he’s properly rated.
But the next guy …?
1. LeBron James
Underrated. Even as we’re constantly overrating him. And I swear, that made sense when I wrote it.