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Sports Guy’s Vault: NBA Trade Value 2010

A few weeks ago, a rumor spread that Minnesota offered Al Jefferson for Indiana’s Danny Granger and got turned down. It didn’t matter if the rumor was true. What mattered was the concept itself. Would you trade Al Jefferson straight up for Danny Granger? This was an old-school basketball trade, almost like two GMs flipping cards in a school yard. Trades are never this simple anymore.

Fast-forward to All-Star Weekend, when the Wizards and Mavericks consummated what passes for a typical NBA trade these days: a seven-player swap in which Dallas acquired two starters (Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood), along with an unsavory salary (DeShawn Stevenson) in return for expiring contracts. Strangely, Butler wasn’t even much of a cap burden, making only $20.3 million through 2011. Washington was so desperate to break up the Arenas Era Wizards that it wasn’t even rational; it would be like NBC dumping Conan, then trading “Saturday Night Live” to prove they were serious about blowing up late night. Um … what?

These trades happen all the time now: Teams making lopsided deals to clear cap space so they can overpay other players. Last season, Detroit gave away Chauncey Billups so it could spend $95 million on two bench players. This season, Washington turned two of its top four and the No. 5 pick of the 2009 draft into a slew of expiring 2010 contracts. Right now, Phoenix is reportedly mulling over a trade in which it would turn Amar’e Stoudemire into J.J. Hickson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ expiring contract and the 30th pick in the 2010 draft, or as Suns fans call it, “The Poop Bouillabaisse.” Every deal is the same: Team A wants to save money; Team B will only take on money if it pillages Team A in the deal. That’s how we knew the Granger-Jefferson rumor was fake. Teams don’t make old-school trades in the National Basketball Association any more.

The threat of a 2011 lockout hangs over everything. It’s inevitable. It pretty much has to happen. The owners need to be saved from themselves; the players need to realize that they failed to deliver on too many mammoth, long-term contracts, and that one or two clunkers can destroy a franchise for half a decade or more. In the spirit of Clemenza, the two sides will have to go to the mattresses to resolve it. Only this time, David Stern has a trump card in his pocket — the memory from the 1999 lockout that so many of these millionaire players, as amazing as this might sound, lived paycheck to paycheck. The owners could survive a lockout. The players? That’s another story. The owners will win. They always do.

Man, I need to be cheered up.

(Thinking.)

You know what could do the trick? The official YouTube clip of America’s favorite running column gimmick: “Who has the highest NBA trade value!” Let’s go to John Tesh playing the old NBA on NBC song while wearing a pirate’s blouse in Catalina.

(Furiously playing the air piano.)

Can you feel it?

Can you feel it????

CAN YOU FEEL IT???????????

NBA Trade Value Rules

1. Salaries matter. Over this season and the next two, would you rather pay Gerald Wallace $29.5 million or Antawn Jamison $40 million?

2. Age matters. Would you rather have Chauncey Billups for the next five seasons or Rajon Rondo for the next 12?

3. Pretend the league passed the following rule: For 24 hours, any player can be traded without cap ramifications but with luxury-tax and every-season-after-this ramifications. If Team A tells Team B, “We’ll trade you Player X for Player Y,” would Team B make the deal?

4. Concentrate on degrees. I don’t think L.A. or Miami would make a Kobe-Wade swap, but L.A. would at least say, “Wow, Wade is a few years younger, same stats, should we have a meeting about it?” while the Heat would say, “There’s no frickin’ way we’re trading Dwyane Wade for a guy with 1200 games on his odometer.” That counts in the big scheme of things.

5. The list runs in reverse order. So if Rajon Rondo comes in at No. 15, players 1 through 14 are all players about whom Boston would say, “We hate giving up Rondo, but we definitely have to consider this deal.” And they wouldn’t trade him straight-up for any player listed between Nos. 16 and 40.

Here’s a list of 2008-09 incumbents who couldn’t crack this season’s list or honorable mention: Hedo Turkoglu (No. 39 last year) roped Bryan Colangelo into a $53 million “if this doesn’t work out, I’m getting fired, anyway” deal … Devin Harris (38) got sprayed by the Nets’ skunk … Andris Biedrins (37) got sprayed by the Warriors’ skunk … Amar’e Stoudemire (36) can grab barely two rebounds per quarter but wants a max deal … LaMarcus Aldridge’s (31) $65 million extension was Reason No. 214 why the owners need to be saved from themselves … Caron Butler (29) got salary dumped … Greg Oden (25) was surpassed in fame by his own penis … Manu Ginobili (16) isn’t overqualified to be a sixth man anymore … and when we start calling Yao Ming (7) “Yao Ming’s Expiring Contract” in five months, I’d like to spell it with Chinese letters.

Our toughest 2010 omissions go from “not so tough” to “agonizingly tough”:

Kevin Garnett (No. 11 last year): And probably untradable this year. Even worse, he drew this e-mail from Noel in Washington: “Is it me or is KG turning into a caricature of himself? Did you see his reaction after the East won the All-Star Game? Breaking out the fist pumps and crazy eyes for a game with no defense? Baffling.” How did we get here?

Andrew Bogut: It’s tough to leave off anyone who bought 100 lower-level seats for every game, created something called Squad 6, then auditioned for fans who would cheer like crazy and set the tone for everyone else in the building. Even better, it works! Only an Australian would come up with that idea. I love Australians.

Danilo Gallinari: Current ceiling: “A poor man’s Dirk Nowitzki, only if Dirk ran like a guy who once had a broken back.” And yet, I like him.

Paul Millsap: Two-time winner of “the best tweener/banger” award, easily edging out Chuck Hayes, Taj Gibson, Glen Davis, Craig “The Rhino” Smith, Brandon Bass and the 283-Pound Guy Who Ate Jason Maxiell. We need a name for tweener/bangers. My vote? “Sliders.” You know how sliders can be better than cheeseburgers sometimes, even though they aren’t the same size? Kinda like Paul Millsap and Carlos Boozer, right? The cheeseburger (Boozer) might be bigger and more expensive, but sometimes the slider (Millsap) hits the spot and you don’t feel as full afterward.

Hasheem Thabeet: Just kidding.

Chris Kaman: Every once in awhile my son will take a marker and start drawing on one of our walls like a graffiti artist. My wife has to use Magic Cleaner to get it off, and while she’s cleaning she makes the same face at my son that Baron Davis makes every time Kaman sails an outlet pass over his head into the third row. So yeah, Kaman is having a solid year. But he still has those magic marker moments and should never, ever, not ever, not in a million years, play in an All-Star Game unless all 12 Western guys come down with food poisoning the night before. I can’t rank him higher than this.

Nene: The most properly paid player in the league. For this season and the next two, he makes $32.4 million total. Perfect.

Monta Ellis: Should we say he’s putting up big stats because he’s playing for a crummy team, or should we be impressed that he’s only 24 and averaging a 26-5-4 right now? Tough call. I trust the collective intuition of Warriors fans as much as any NBA fan base — it’s between Warriors fans, Raptors fans and Knicks fans in any “most realistic about their own players” contest — and even they seem perplexed by Monta. Let’s marinate on him for another year.

(As for the “least realistic about their own players” contest … I think it’s a battle to the death between two fan bases and two fan bases only. They know who they are.)

(Funniest part of that last paragraph: The fans from those two fan bases are going to send me e-mails saying, “Look, I’m the last person to get oversensitive about this stuff, and I think you’re totally wrong, but I know you were talking about us so BLEEP YOU YOU BLEEPING BLEEPFACE!”)

Andrea Bargnani: Memo Okur 2.0, with the added bonus that he started a Miami Vice Beard Club with Jose Calderon. Still, I like my starting centers to grab eight rebounds a game. Hell, I’d settle for seven.

Anthony Randolph: A top-40 lock on nearly any other team. NBA Cares should launch a program rehabbing the mental state of Warriors fans. What an insane team to root for. You shouldn’t have to go online every morning hoping that this wasn’t the day your team stupidly traded a potential 24-10-5 guy who’s 20 years old because your overpaid, mailing-it-in, hoping-to-get-canned-so-he-can-move-back-to-Hawaii curmudgeon of a coach didn’t “like the way he looked at me at practice today.” Find this team a real owner and clean house.

Kevin Martin (30): My favorite possibly available trade piece — great contract, proven scorer, high hoops IQ, someone who’d thrive on a veteran team that protected him defensively and ran plays for him. Right now he’s playing on a glorified pickup team with Tyreke Evans, who thinks “point guard” means “I get to dribble over midcourt.” Not gonna fly. Someone like Martin is a luxury. You pamper him. You set him screens. You hook him up on slash-and-kicks. You go to him after games and say, “Hey, what’s the best place to deliver the ball for you — chest high and a little to the right?” He could absolutely be a contender’s No. 1 scoring option like Reggie Miller or Rip Hamilton once upon a time. Stay tuned.

Brandon Jennings: I remember watching that 55-point game live and thinking, “Crap, I hope this isn’t the worst thing that could have happened to him.” His shooting percentages by the month: 51.6, 42.0, 37.6, 32.4, 30.3. His overall percentage of 37.6 would be fine in the 1950s, but not in 2010. The good news: He’s only 20.

Joakim Noah: The new Laimbeer: Love him if he’s on your team, hate him if he’s playing against you.

Carlos Boozer: Gets a Trade Value DNP because he’s a free agent-to-be. I can’t tell if the Jazz would trade him, or if anyone wants him. You know what else this means? For the first time ever, no Blue Devils in the top 40! Woohoo! Suck it, Duke! This never would have happened if Mike Krzyzewski was still alive.

All right, let’s dive into the top 40 in reverse order.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota TimberwolvesDavid Sherman / Getty Images

Group J: “I Can’t, People Will Know I Have No Clue What I’m Doing”

40. Ricky Rubio
If you have the No. 5 and No. 6 picks in what turned out to be a quality draft, and you turn No. 5 into an asset that can’t be realized for THREE YEARS because your No. 6 pick wasn’t nearly as good as the No. 7 pick and also managed to drive your No. 5 pick to a foreign country, how is that anything other than an abject disaster? Bumbling GM David Kahn told Minnesota fans last week, “I don’t expect to be a playoff team for at least two years.” Great, just in time for the lockout and a new-wave NBA world with lower salaries and shorter contracts that’s going to make Ricky say, “You know what? I think I’ll just stay here for a couple more years and make three times as much money unless you trade me to a big-market team.”

In fact, I thought about making Kahn the following bet: If Ricky Rubio plays even one minute for the Timberwolves, I will drive from Los Angeles to Minnesota for his first game while wearing a T-wolves jersey that says “KAHN” on the front and “No. 1” on the back. (It’s an 1,835-mile trip. I looked it up.) But I don’t want to root for the T-Wolves fans to lose Rubio; they’ve suffered enough. I hope I am wrong. I don’t think I am.

(Follow-up story: Another NBA team sent someone to Spain to watch Rubio play for FC Barcelona a few weeks ago. The individual ran into one of Rubio’s advisers and asked him how many times someone from Minnesota had come to see Rubio this season. The answer? Zero.)

39. Zach Randolph
Round of applause to Z-Bo for his historic vault from last year’s “Worst 25 Contracts” list to No. 39 this year. If you need two points at the end of a tight game, and you could throw it inside to any low-post player, he’s the pick this season. It’s true. Maybe NBA head cases are like difficult Hollywood actors: pure hell in the early part of their careers, seemingly unable to escape their baggage, and then they mature just enough that their talent is allowed to flourish. Z-Bo’s 2010 stats aren’t any different than his 2004 stats, or even his 2009 stats, but HE seems different. More … serene. No different than Rasheed Wallace that first Detroit spring, C-Webb upon arriving in Sacramento, Big Dog on the 2001 Bucks, Hakeem (yes, The Dream was a head case once upon a time) on the 1993 Rockets, Barkley on the 1993 Suns. Eventually, things calm down, they learn from past mistakes and talent wins out for a year or three. You hope. It happened for Z-Bo and Robert Downey Jr.; it didn’t happen for Isaiah Rider and Tom Sizemore. You never know.

38. Tony Parker
Followed a career year with a ho-hum one. Even his Us Weekly stats are down.

(Unrelated: Do you realize we’re one more French guy away from being able to put together an entire team of French guys? Starters: Parker, Mickael Pietrus, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Joakim Noah. Bench: Ronny Turiaf, Rodrigue Beaubois, Yakhouba Diawara, Johan Petro, Alexis Ajinca, Ian Mahinmi. How is this possible? This is the same country that gave us Frederic Weis!!!! This is the same country famous for four things and four things only: wine, cigarettes, cheese and B.O. I don’t get it. Eleven French NBA players? Eleven?)

37. Al Jefferson
About 82.7 percent back from 2009’s knee injury. The bigger issue: Residual damage from a 116-265 stretch (and counting) in Minnesota and Boston. At some point, all that losing can turn you into an actual loser. It’s like a girl who keeps inadvertently dating jerks and eventually loses her self-esteem. By the way, Jefferson has two juicy career what-ifs: “What if the Celts had landed the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in 2007?” (they would have taken Durant in either spot and built around Durant, Jefferson, Rondo, Pierce and a bunch of draft picks and expiring contracts), and “What if Minny hadn’t screwed up this Rubio thing?” Both went against him. Maybe he’s just unlucky like Hugo Hurley.

(FYI: I was referring to the original Hurley, not Alternate Reality Hurley from Season 6 of what’s threatening to become the most confusing and far-fetched show in the history of television. If they change the course of the 2004 baseball playoffs, I’m out. You hear me, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse? I’m out. Don’t go there. Don’t you dare. Don’t even THINK it.)

36. David Lee
A quality offensive player and world-class rebounder who improved from “defensive abomination” to “defensive semi-abomination” this season. I remain confused why Portland or Detroit didn’t throw $40-45 million his way last summer. Regardless, he’s a mortal lock for my Mokeski Trophy, given annually to the best American white guy of the season. Isn’t it magnificent? I want one for my office.

35. Chauncey Billups
Thirty years from now, when the Pistons have finished their 30th straight losing season and officially switched places with the Lions in the Detroit landscape, someone will write a “Curse of Chauncey” book for which Joe Dumars will refuse to be interviewed.

34. Rudy Gay
If you’re my best perimeter guy and can’t make 3s, then you better be dropping 24-26 a night easy, and he can’t do it. He’s headed for Iguodala/Deng/Granger territory — someone who gets paid like a franchise player but isn’t one (a recipe for NBA disaster). If I’m a Knicks fan, my Summer of 2010 Worst-Case Scenario is Amar’e and Rudy. That’s taking me to a 6-seed every spring.

(You know what’s really sad? Every Knicks fan just said, “A 6-seed every spring? I’ll take it!”)

Group H. “Cost-Effective Building Blocks”

33. David West
So woefully underpaid ($9.1 million this season, then dropping to $8.2 million next year and finishing at a paltry $7.5 million for the 2011-12 lockout- er, season) that I actually looked up his agent, Lance Young, to see if the guy had been disbarred. Nope. Somehow he reps Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and … (wait for it) … Rudy Gay! I take back everything in the previous paragraph about Rudy and the Knicks; maybe they can get him for half-price.

32. Stephen Curry
Even more sophisticated offensively than we hoped. Defensively … ugh. But offensively? Wow. His January stats (15 games): 19-4-5, 48 percent FG, 48 percent 3FG, 89.2 percent FT. For the season, assuming he bumps his scoring to 17 PPG post-All-Star break and everything else stays the same, he’d finish with 16 PPG, 120-plus 3s and 42 percent shooting from 3. According to Vincent Masi of ESPN Stats & Information, no rookie came close to hitting those numbers except for Ben Gordon in 2004-05 (15.1 PPG, 134 3s, 40.5 percent). Elias reports that 21 players have done the 16-120-42 thing since 2000-01; only three were younger than 26 (Ray Allen, Leandro Barbosa and Gordon), and none were younger than 23.

(Did I mention that the T-Wolves could have had Rubio AND Curry? I mentioned that, right?)

31. Eric Gordon
30. Russell Westbrook
Our co-MVPs of this year’s Table Team, for the young player who brings the most to the table while also taking a fair share of stuff off it. Gordon’s strengths: He’s a physical finisher with a gorgeous jumper who doubles as a surprisingly effective/fiesty one-on-one defender (as Kobe Bryant found out a few weeks ago). His warts: He’s too streaky of a shooter, has a horrible handle in traffic and suffered through two truly messed-up coaching situations already (Kelvin Sampson at Indiana, followed by two years of the Dumbleavy Era), and if that’s not enough, he plays for the worst franchise in sports. It’s 50/50 he makes it when the odds should be 85/15. This is what happens when your owner doesn’t do enough mitzvahs.

As for Westbrook, he’s running a precociously young playoff team, he’s exciting as hell, he’s capable of the occasional 17-12-14 line, and he seems like a great teammate (like everyone else on the Zombies, actually). These things outweigh his lack of point guard instincts, carelessness with the ball and gawdawful shooting. (On an excellent site called hoopdata.com, they break down shooting by zones and Westbook is shooting 47 percent at the rim, 39 percent from inside 10 feet, 32.7 percent from 10-15 feet, 36 percent from 16-23 feet and 27.3 percent from 3. That’s Lindsey Hunter/Montresor-level bad.) With that said, the Zombies could absolutely win a title some day with Durant as their No. 1 and Westbrook as No. 3. They just need a No. 2. Not to be confused with the No. 2 that Clay Bennett took on Seattle.

29. O.J. Mayo
28. Kevin Love
I never thought Mayo would accept his destiny this early: third scoring option, solid 3-point shooter and quality perimeter defender on a winning team. The over/under was the year 2017 … and I had the over. Still, I’d rather have Love. We’re two to three years away from Love leading the league in rebounding while shooting 40 percent from 3 and dishing out Unseld-esque outlets. One of my favorites. Lock him down for multiple Mokeskis some day.

27. Marc Gasol
A lock for the “2009-10 Most Improved Player” award unless he gets accidentally shot by Jamaal Tinsley outside a strip joint between now and April. This was someone who, as recently as a year ago, was basically Pau Gasol’s fat brother who got thrown into Frank Stallone/Don Swayze/Ozzie Canseco/Roger Clinton jokes. Then he dropped 30 pounds and turned into a legitimate NBA center — to the point that we can’t even call 2008’s Lakers/Grizzlies trade the most one-sided deal of the decade, although it remains reprehensible that Chris Wallace didn’t shop for a better offer up until the deadline. Whatever.

(Note: I was trying to imagine what Frank Stallone could have done in the late ’80s to match Marc Gasol’s improbable career turnaround this year. Maybe it’s this: Us remembering 1988 as the year Frank launched a successful action movie franchise about a crime-fighting lounge singer called “Iron Pipes.” Which, by the way, should have happened unhypothetically. I absolutely would have paid to see “Iron Pipes” with Frank Stallone in 1988. Alas.)

Portland Trail Blazers v Utah JazzMelissa Maj

Group G: “We’ll Discuss Him, But You Can’t Tell ANYONE”

26. Danny Granger
Starting to worry that he’s a classic franchise player who looks great on your fantasy team, but if he’s the No. 1 guy on your real team, you’re going 32-50 and that’s that.

(Cut to the last remaining 3,500 Pacers fans nodding impassively.)

25. Gerald Wallace
One of the season’s craziest revelations: You can become a semi-dangerous Round 1 opponent if your best two players are Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson. Who knew? I’m already having nightmares about a Celts-Bobcats series, with the Bobcats out-toughing the 2008 champs, Wallace and Jackson attacking the rim, Larry Brown treating Doc Rivers like an SEC football game Porta-Potty, KG dragging his leg around like Anton Chigurh but claiming he’s fine, and Rasheed decomposing from the 3-point line but somehow still managing to brick five of them a game. Shoot me.

(PS: I kept Wallace here despite a head-scratching All-Star Weekend in which he followed a uber-lifeless dunk contest performance by winning the coveted Antoine Walker Award for “Worst Showing in the All-Star Game.” It almost looked like he had been roofie’d on Friday night. In fact, I’d advise him to come out and claim that. Like, right now.)

24. Joe Johnson
Our best-case scenario for Rudy Gay’s career. And since he’s fleeing Atlanta this summer, it seems like the perfect time to mention that I’d renew my seats for a Kaman-Griffin-Johnson-Gordon-Baron starting five next season. You know, as long as Isiah Thomas isn’t coaching them.

Group F: “Just Know, He’s Worth More To Us Than To You”

23. Blake Griffin
I still feel guilty.

22. Josh Smith
It’s heartwarming to see a talented player with two fatal flaws — in this case, the inability to get along with others, as well as a terrible jumper that he kept insisting on shooting — suddenly have the epiphany, “Maybe I’ll play a season without doing the two things that drive everyone so crazy about me.”

Semi-related note: This year’s draft is head case-heavy, so it will be fascinating to see whether the recent successes of Smith and Z-Bo remove the “STAY AWAY!!!!” neon signs flashing on the foreheads of the 2010 draft class. Hell, we might even see DeMarcus Cousins get drafted ahead of Evan Turner this June, which should never happen unless it’s a draft for the likelihood of someone uttering the sentence, “Don’t hang up, you’re my only phone call!”

21. Andrew Bynum
20. Al Horford
I’ve been tormenting my Lakers friends that Bynum is the new Joe Barry Carroll, someone who gives you a joyless, businesslike 18-10 with two blocks every game (assuming he’s getting the playing time). There’s a reason Peter Vecsey anointed Carroll “Joe Barely Cares” once upon a time, just like there’s a reason Phil Jackson floated a fake “Bynum-for-Bosh” trade rumor out there last month just to kick Bynum in the butt. I don’t trust him yet. As for Horford, he gives you 95 percent of what Bynum gives you for one-third the price. Did you notice how well he fit in with everyone in the All-Star Game? One of my favorites.

Group E: “Only If They Asked to Leave”

19. Pau Gasol
18. Paul Pierce
This season, L.A. is asking Gasol to be its No. 2 like always, but Boston needs Pierce to be its No. 1. And he can’t get there every night. That’s the difference between the two teams right now. You don’t mind if I pour a drink right now, do you?

17. Steve Nash
Better than ever, which really shouldn’t be the case because, you know, he just turned 36. We invited him to an ESPN dinner at Sundance, and he told us there were three reasons he’s not aging: a no-sugar diet, a sleep journal and a steady supply of undetectable PEDs from the revolutionary Suns training staff. (Fine, I made the last one up.) He said the no-sugar diet made him recover faster after games and especially for back-to-backs. In fact, half the Suns are watching their sugar intake now. Nash brought Jared Dudley with him to dinner; Jared was reading the menu and asking Nash, “Can I have this? What about this?” like he was eating with Harley Pasternak or something. It was high comedy. Not only does Nash make his teammates better, he orders for them. Anyway, I don’t see him going downhill anytime soon.

Group D: “Effectively Untouchable”

16. Rajon Rondo
Seriously entertaining from night to night and always does three things you just don’t typically see in an NBA game. Unfortunately, Rondo is now his team’s best player, only he’s not ready for the responsibility of kicking butt every game — he gives you about two-and-a-half killer quarters and that’s it — and beyond that, he’s afraid to shoot or get fouled in the final four minutes. So every Celtics game against a good team unfolds the same way: The offense grinds to a halt, Rondo disappears, they get terrible 18-footers, they blow the game and Doc Rivers seems absolutely incredulous afterward that it could have happened. It’s the “Groundhog Day” season. I’m on my second drink.

15. Tyreke Evans
The prototypical 0-guard: Someone who handles the ball all the time, looks for his own shot, gets to the rim at will and operates best if his teammates spread the floor to watch him. You can’t call these guys point guards, and they handle the ball too much to be 2-guards. So they’re 0-guards. Ideally, you want to surround 0-guards with spot-up shooters, one rebounder and a pick-and-pop forward who can make 18-footers. Gilbert Arenas created the 0-guard position, for better or worse; Dwyane Wade mastered it; Brandon Roy strikes the best balance between selfish and unselfish; and Evans might have the most raw talent of any of them. I’ve personally seen him turn four or five games into layup lines this season. And yet, would I want to play with him? Right now … not really. Some day … maybe.

(Here’s the part where you say, “You can’t play with him, you’re a 40-year-old washed-up white guy who wasn’t even good to begin with.” Good point.)

14. Brook Lopez
Valiantly chugging along on a 4-47 team with no help and the homeless man’s Vinny Del Negro calling the shots (aka, Kiki Vandeweghe, the first coach in NBA history who wants to be there less than his players do). If Lopez can escape this year unscathed, God bless him.

San Antonio Spurs v Dallas Mavericks, Game 3Glenn James / Getty Images

Group C: “It Makes Us Angry That You’d Even Ask”

13. Tim Duncan
If you watched Lakers-Spurs last week, there was a play when Duncan tried to foil a two-on-one, drew the pass, whirled to block the layup, saw Gasol rising above him for a dunk, thought about challenging it for a split second, then instinctively ducked away, a move I recognized because I remember the exact season when the Bird era Celtics got old and McHale started doing that same duck-away move. It’s the telltale sign. Same for playing 13 minutes in an All-Star Game. Crap. To my utmost chagrin, Duncan falls out of the top four for the first time.

12. Chris Bosh
11. Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk was headed for the finest season of his career until Carl Landry mistakenly tried to eat his right elbow. He hasn’t fully bounced back yet. Neither have the Mavs. As for Bosh, I hate All-Star Games because nobody tries for three quarters and the game rarely reaches even 40 percent of its potential. Still, it’s a must-watch because the cream of the under-30 crop reveals itself in crunch time, and this year, Bosh was the best power forward or center in that game. Period. He has even handled the fact that everyone in America has made the “Wait, he looks like one of the leads in ‘Avatar’!” joke at least once nicely. Still, if Dallas called Toronto and said, “We’ll take Bosh off your hands for Dirk, this way you won’t lose him for nothing this summer,” Toronto grabs that offer in a heartbeat … right?

10. Deron Williams
9. Brandon Roy
8. Derrick Rose
The best “Would you rather … ?” of the column. I’d rather have Rose at one-third the price of Roy or Williams, but that didn’t stop me from mulling it for a few minutes. And Roy edges Williams by a hair because of his fearlessness in crunch time. While we’re here, the “trade value” rankings evolved in one specific way over the past decade: Big guys used to be more valuable than perimeter guys, but now you need a creator and his position ultimately doesn’t matter. He just needs to create offense for himself and/or other players. For whatever reason, we don’t have any big guys who can do this consistently right now, which makes the Roy/Rose types more valuable than they once were. It’s strange to see Roy/Rose/Williams ahead of Bosh/Nowitzki on this list, but that’s the NBA in 2010 for you.

Before we hit the last two groups of players, I have a quick All-Star Weekend story for you …

So it’s 2:45 in the morning on Friday night. All the Dallas bars and parties have either closed down or stopped letting people in. I’m standing on Main Street with a bunch of people, including Worldwide Wes, the renowned NBA power broker who’s really a cross between Confucius, a benevolent uncle and The Wolf in “Pulp Fiction” to assorted NBA superstars and up-and-coming stars. Known as “Uncle Wes” to the players, he carries more weight within the league than basically anybody. Because he keeps such a low profile, I could never figure out why. Which is why I went out of my way to spend some time with him on Friday night.

Back to Main Street: We’re standing with a young player who wants the night to keep going. The young player pushes to find another bar even though the odds are against it. Uncle Wes makes a face. He’s squashing this right now.

“Nothing good can happen at this point,” Wes explains simply. “You can’t chase the night. When the night is over, the night is over. That’s just the way it is. You just gotta wake up tomorrow and hope for a better day.”

Uncle Wes had spoken. I am not exaggerating by saying it’s a strangely profound moment. Within 15 seconds, our group splinters in three directions to look for cabs. I find one with my friend Connor. We climb in. We look at each other.

“I will never be able to properly explain that story to anyone,” Connor said.

Agreed. You can’t chase the night. It was like hearing a human fortune cookie. I went back to my hotel, took my contacts out, crawled into bed and hoped for a better day. These are the things that happen at NBA All-Star Weekend.

Group B: “Lemme Save You Some Time: N-O”

7. Chris Paul
My least favorite trend of the No Benjamins Association era: teams twisting the truth about potentially serious injuries so they don’t hurt ticket sales, or because they know the media won’t challenge their stories and call them out afterward. After seeing Boston string Celtics fans along with KG’s bum knee and the Clippers legitimately lie about Blake Griffin’s knee injury, when I heard the Hornets claim CP3 would miss only “four to six weeks” after “minor” knee surgery, my BS Detector started beeping. Especially since we learned that doctors removed Paul’s torn meniscus ligament rather than repairing it.

Intrigued, I asked Will Carroll (the injury expert for Baseball Prospectus and Basketball Prospectus) for his thoughts. Will pointed me toward a piece he wrote about meniscus removal a few years ago. The key section: “One reason teams are so quick to allow this surgery is that the players come back so quickly, usually in a matter of weeks. But … surgeons don’t repair the meniscus in most cases; they just take it out, either in part or in whole depending on the size of the tearing. That leaves the athlete with no shock. Eventually, with the remaining meniscus overstressed and aging, they end up with the bones grinding together. Yes, that’s as bad as it sounds in a game of running and jumping.”

(Hold on, we have to wait for the Hornets fans to clear out that puke from their mouths. Waiting … waiting … OK, we’re good.)

6. Carmelo Anthony
If you came out of a 10-year coma and watched the 2010 All-Star Game, you would have turned it off thinking that Wade, LeBron and Melo were the three best players alive in some order. And except for Kobe not being included, you would have been right. You can absolutely win a title if Carmelo is your best player. I wouldn’t have said that two years ago.

That reminds me, if Melo, LeBron and Durant average 30 points a game (all three are between 29.6 and 29.9 right now), that’s a bigger deal than it seems. Only nine NBA forwards have ever done it: Elgin Baylor (twice), Rick Barry (twice), Dominique Wilkins (twice), LeBron (twice), Bernard King, Jack Twyman, Bob Pettit, Adrian Dantley and Karl Malone. Quite a list.

Miami Heat v Los Angeles LakersJeff Gross / Getty Images

Group A: “Completely And Utterly Untouchable”

5. Kobe Bryant
My favorite MJ stat of all time: From November 1990 through June 1998, the Bulls never lost three games in a row with Jordan. My second-favorite MJ stat of all time: In his final three Chicago seasons, in a 31-month stretch that started November ’95 and ended June ’98, he played in 310 of a possible 310 games. My third-favorite MJ stat of all time: He averaged 30.1 points in the regular season and 33.4 points in the playoffs. That’s really all you needed to know about the guy. Warrior. Impossibly competitive. Got better when it mattered.

I think that’s how Kobe wants to be remembered, too. Warrior? Definitely. Impossibly competitive? Yes. Got better when it mattered? Occasionally, not consistently. But he has one trump card for a history battle with Jordan: years. Thanks to college, a broken foot and two retirements, Jordan lost nearly eight seasons of games from 18 to 40. Kobe has been banging out seasons since he was 18. Barring injury, Kobe will play 60,000 minutes (regular season plus playoffs), score 35,000 points (the most by any guard ever), play 250-plus playoff games (the record is 244), pass 6,000 playoff points (also a record) and win seven titles (one more than Jordan). If he plays at a high level through his late 30s, he has a real chance to pass Kareem’s 38,387 points.

Do I think he knows all these things? Yes.

Do I think he thinks in terms of, “I can’t miss three weeks of games, that’s 400 points that I’d lose toward chasing Kareem?” Yes.

Do I think this is a bad thing? Actually, no. He should be motivated by those things. Kobe Bryant will never be better than Michael Jordan, but he definitely could have a better career. It’s in play. And he knows it.

4. Dwyane Wade
Just for the hell of it …

Kobe (career) — 25.3 PPG, 45.5% FG, 83.9% FT, 5.3 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1 title as alpha dog
Wade (career) — 25.3 PPG, 48.1% FG, 77.0% FT, 4.9 RPG, 6.6 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1 title as alpha dog

Here’s the point: Has there ever been a better consolation prize in the history of consolation prizes than Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010? He’s rarely mentioned because of the LeBron frenzy and because people assume he’s not leaving Miami … you know, because it’s so much fun to play on a crappy team in a half-filled arena. I look at it the other way: Why would he stay? What am I missing? If I’m Wade, I am fleeing for Chicago or the Clippers. You’re damn right I just said the Clippers! Eric Gordon, sign and trade, boom! Stop laughing at me. Just lemme dream of those three weeks of season tickets for Wade before he vaults the scorer’s table for a loose ball, flies into some trophy girlfriend’s chest, explodes her implants and gets blinded in the ensuing silicone eruption.

3. Kevin Durant
Let’s leave out the historical possibilities this time around. (You know, like the fact that he’s already at 5,000 career points, that no forward has ever averaged 30 points a game three times and he might do it 10 or 12, that he might have a 37 PPG or a 55-45-95 shooting percentage season lurking in him, etc.) Just look at this particular season. How is Durant not our No. 2 choice for MVP?

The young Zombies have quietly climbed to 30-21 and third in the league in defensive field goal percentage. Durant goes into every game knowing two things: (1) There’s a decent chance nobody else on my team will make more than five baskets tonight; and (2) If I suck, we almost definitely will lose. They’re 17-8 in their past 25 games; he has scored at least 25 in every game, racked up 29-plus points in all but three and averaged 32.4 PPG (first in NBA in that span), 7.8 RPG, 52.3 FG percent, 88.6 FT percent (third) and 51.9 3FG percent (first, minimum 50 attempts). His plus/minus in those 25 games is plus-194, second only to LeBron. His team is improbably headed for 48-50 wins in a loaded Western Conference, with a top four that’s 21, 21, 23 and 20 years old, without anyone averaging even 6.4 rebounds or 1.1 blocks a game. And Durant has scored nearly as many points as his best two teammates combined. I could go on and on. Other than LeBron/Cleveland, Durant means more to that team than anyone else means to any other 2010 team. You can’t tell me differently.

2. Dwight Howard
Fact: Howard has played every game this season.

Fact: A whopping 75 players have attempted more field goals than he has, including Jason Thompson, John Salmons, Danilo Gallinari, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Raymond Felton, Andrew Bynum, Jamal Crawford and Kenyon Martin.

Fact: He’s 109th in the league in field goal attempts per game, tied with Ryan Gomes at 9.6. Ryan Gomes!

Fact: Teammates Vince Carter (14.9), Rashard Lewis (11.9) and Jameer Nelson (10.3) all average more field goals attempts than he does.

Fact: He leads the league in free throw attempts (10.4 per game), so realistically, that means Howard is getting about 14-15 scoring touches per game. Not even four a quarter.

My take: He’s too nice of a guy. It’s both the best and worst thing about him. If you ever played basketball, you know there’s one rule with big guys: Make sure they touch the ball enough. If they don’t get enough touches, they get cranky. They stop running the floor. They stop setting good picks. They stop crashing the boards. Big guys are like women — they need affection, they need to be stroked every so often, and if you ignore them, they start to resent you.

In Howard’s case, nobody in Orlando has to worry about keeping him happy. He’s always happy! He’s a good soldier. In a roundabout way, he’s avoiding the responsibility of carrying an offense every night. This is easier. He gets to run around, jump over guys, ram some dunks home, block some shots, flex his muscles, smile to the crowd and concentrate on his strengths. Of course, he will never, ever, ever get better this way, and if you look closely at his stats these past three years, he is what he is: 18-19 points, 13-14 rebounds, 3 blocks, 60 percent shooting. Alpha dog pedigree, sidekick mindset. Too bad.

1. LeBron James
LeBron threw a party at Ghostbar in the W Hotel on Saturday night. The club stretched way back, farther than most people realized, so there was a second bar in the far back that wasn’t too crowded. Next to the bar was a roped-off corner area of sofas and tables with bouncers and bottles ready to go. LeBron’s section. Definitely. My friends and I carved out territory at the back bar partly for the extra room, partly for that moment when LeBron’s crew arrived and it turned into a madhouse. Once upon a time, when Jordan was still the king, I described his entrance at an All-Star Weekend party like a gust of wind. You’d be hanging out and then … whoosh! Just a tornado of people with Jordan at the epicenter. I wanted to see whether LeBron, at this point in his life, would provide the same thing.

An hour passed. We forgot about him. We were drinking and making fun of each other. And then, suddenly … whoooooooooooooooooooooooooooooosh!

The number of people in the room quadrupled. We were hanging onto the bar counter like people holding onto trees and walls in a tidal wave. The people kept coming and coming. You couldn’t hear anything. Everyone was dancing. In the middle of the tornado, we could see LeBron, his head bobbing up and down to the music, the once and future King. You could say he passed the Tornado Test.