Friday, August 17, 2007

Players to keep an eye on (Part 1)

As we inch ever closer to training camp and prepare to call to completion yet another offseason, I thought we'd look into the future to identify some players that the Grizzlies should keep an eye on. These players will fall into 2 groups: players who can be traded for this season, players who will be free agents in 2008, 2009 and 2010. If we've come to understand anything about NBA transactions so far, it is that you have to keep one eye on the present, one eye on the future and both hands on the wheel. That means that you cannot get too caught up in what occurs every day on the practice court and in games, and subsequently lose sight of the bigger picture. By the same token, you cannot mortgage your team's future for the sake of "one big chance" at a title unless that risk gives you a shot at winning a title over a 3 year period. Winning titles is the goal, just in case anyone has forgotten. With that in mind, here are the players that I think could upgrade the talent level of the Grizzlies or provide them with more cap space to pursue free agents over the next two offseasons.

Players available in a trade this season
We know that the Grizzlies would likely have little to no problem with parting ways with Damon Stoudamire or Stromile Swift at some point this season. Those two players provide the basis for whom I will be looking at and evaluating, as there are a few teams looking for help at PG and in the frontcourt. Without taking a horrendous contract in return, there is no way to move Brian Cardinal, so don't even bother suggesting it in the Comments.

Walter Herrmann (F - Charlotte Bobcats) -- The Bobcats have one real PG under contract (Raymond Felton) after letting Brevin Knight sign with the Clippers. They could use a player like Damon Stoudamire (with a future 2nd round pick added if necessary) to allow Felton a breather each game, and possibly a night off here and there. Herrmann proved to be a valuable player last season, showing a surprising ability to score after Gerald Wallace suffered a season-ending injury, allowing the Argentine to move into the starting lineup for the final 12 games of the season and post the following stats in that span: 19.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, .585 FG%, .483 3PT%, .789 FT% in 37 MPG. The BETcats went 7-5 in the games he started. Charlotte might be willing to part with him, given the amount of frontcourt talent they have and the dearth of help they have at the PG position.

Donyell Marshall (F - Cleveland Cavaliers) -- The Cavs have a similar issue at PG, but are also reportedly looking to add interior help, so either Damon or Stro could potentially land this versatile forward who has seen his minutes dwindle despite relatively steady production. He's always been a 3-point threat and has grabbed double-digit rebounds in two of his 13 seasons, the most recent being 2003/04. He's a capable performer off the bench and has two years remaining on his contract, during which time he would likely be of more value that Damon.

Eduardo Najera (F - Denver Nuggets) -- A dirty player? Only if he's playing for the other team. He's a gritty hustle player, which the Grizz have been missing since Shane Battier was traded away and Brian Cardinal forgot to bring his knee ligaments with him to the arena. The Nuggets allowed Steve Blake to leave in free agency, leaving them with Allen Iverson, Chucky Atkins and the relic that used to be Anthony Carter manning the point. Don't be surprised if they start looking for some insurance at that position by mid-season, giving Memphis the opportunity to send Damon their way. Najera's contract expires at the end of the season, making it a win-win situation no matter how well he plays.

Kwame Brown (FC - L.A. Lakers) -- Yeah, he's a bust, but you're missing the point here: $9,075,000 of expiring contract. That's very close to the combined salaries of Damon and Stro ($10.15 million). The Lakers are another team with a potential lack of PG's, with Jordan Farmar and Derek Fisher (who has always played like a SG) the only guys on the roster that don't have that "R for Rookie" designation by their names. I know that this is true for the Grizzlies as well, with Conley, Lowry and Navarro all being rookies for all intents and purposes, but I'd be willing to roll the dice to get rid of those two contracts in exhange for cap space next offseason. Another player like Maurice Evans might be included to make the salaries work. Who knows, they might throw in Marc Gasol to make the deal work......just kidding.

Ricky Davis.......or maybe not. I wouldn't mind taking the "Grizzly Killer" off the market and then have him become the towel boy, but that's about the only way I'd want to trade for him.

Other players I considered, but didn't deem realistic acquisitions: John Salmons, Josh Childress, Jeff Foster, Francisco Elson, and Mouhamed Sene.

That left me with four players that I can see being legitimately moved this season that our two veterans could potentially land. I'll tackle the upcoming free agent markets in my next post.

Position Battles - Point Guards

This may be a bit too early to really discuss. After all Pau Gasol hasn't made it thru the summer FIBA exhibition games yet much less the actual tournament in September and this season we have Darko, Navarro and Miller all competing in FIBA events as well.

However this year appears to be shaping up to be the most competitive camp in team history. Not since Billy Knight and Sydney Lowe had rookies Shane Battier and Pau Gasol in camp with newcomers Jason Williams and Lorenzen Wright have their been so many new faces with opportunities to start entering training camp. Looking at the positional breakdowns in a different light than the simplistic PG, SG, SF, PF and C battles reveals a myraid of optional lineups that could and most likely will start at different points of the season.

Marc Iavaroni believes in running positions as two areas of focus: Interior players and wing players. I will be looking at positional battles over the next few weeks in this manner except the Point Guard position which will be broken out seperately. I will also overlap certain players into different groups. This is done to fully cover the possibilities.

So here they are...

Point Guards

Outside of Damon Stoudamire the Grizzlies 3 other point guards have a total of 10 games of NBA experience and Damon Stoudamire while essentially the returning starter probably won't be competing for the starting role this season. With Kyle Lowry healed from his broken wrist, top draft pick Mike Conley, Jr and Pau's best friend Juan Carlos Navarro all available to play the point and the oldest of these players being 6 years younger than Damon there doesn't appear to be much chance the veteran will be on the court after November and only a slim chance before then. Damon came to Memphis to replace JWill and provide leadership and experience to the point. He can still do that now but instead of leading on the court, he will need to lead in practice. Damon will have to help the young guns to learn the NBA game fast if the Grizzlies are going to have a successful season.

The real battle appears on paper to be Kyle Lowry vs Mike Conley.

Lowry has the quicker hands and more physical style that will frustrate oppenents attempting to drive into the lane against the Grizzlies. He also has a great nose for the ball and no fear in attacking to get it. His 3.1 rpg and 1.4 spg last season can attest to that. However that was accomplished in limited minutes and in limited games. If Kyle Lowry played 48 minutes a night he would average 8.5 rpg. Of course he would only last about 9 games that way before dying from exhaustion as well. Kyle's biggest weakness is his outside shot which was terrible last year (36.8% from the floor).

Mike Conley is faster, a better playmaker and can jump higher than Lowry but he has no outside shot either, is to thin to be a physical player and two years ago was preparing for his senior season in high school. Conley appears to have the tools to be an excellent point guard but you have to wonder how prepared he is for life in the NBA. Rookie point guards have a history of struggling in the NBA and those who have succeeded were more experienced and polished entering the league. Conley's main drawback outside of his age is his lack of an outside shot but that is somewhat mitigated by his speed with the ball. That extra speed should allow him to get past his initial defender and into the paint where his passing and rainbow shot are more effective.

The wild card is La Bomba, Juan Carlos Navarro. Navarro is spoken of as more of a shooting guard than a point guard but he does have a nice passing game for a shooter and should be able to fill the role in emergency situations. He is the only potential PG who actually could create fear at the 3 pt line also. Previous Iavaroni coached teams had Steve Nash, Mark Price and Tim Hardaway at the point so he can appreciate the impact a shooter can have on a team from the outside. Navarro could struggle learning the NBA game after establishing himself in the Spanish and European leagues but having Pau Gasol and Damon Stoudamire around could soften the blow somewhat.

So what will happen?

I previously thought that Damon would be the starter because of his experience. After watching the summer league games I became convinced that Mike Conley was the man with his superior ability to get others involved. Wait until after the FIBA Europe tournament and I may be singing Navarro's praise. In other words this competition is honestly wide open. Damon has to have the inside track as his knee should be fully recovered from his patella tendon injury and while old and slow he is still the only experienced point guard on the team and opening night is against Tony Parker, the reigning NBA Finals MVP. Somehow I don't see Iavaroni starting the matchup with a rookie.

Next review will be Wing Players

Monday, August 13, 2007

Conceding Conference Championship to the Celtics? Not so fast.

I've seen it said on several websites, blogs and message boards that the Celtics are all but guaranteed to win the Eastern Conference, if not the NBA Championship. While they have accumulated an enormous amount of talent with their own "Big Three", I'm not quite prepared to just hand the Larry O'Brien to them just yet. I'm fully aware that they aren't done making moves and signing players, but since it is their Triumverate that has everyone so excited, let's take a look at how the Big Three really stack up against the rest of the East and break things down, shall we?

Detroit Pistons - Perhaps the best team in the East over the past 5 years, although they only have one title to show for it. Known for their defensive prowess, they proved it last season by holding Garnett to 16.5 PPG on .354 FG% (two games) and Allen to a .292 FG% in their only meeting. It should also be noted that the Celtics have no one to stop the offensive exploits of Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton. Star power or not, I have to give the edge in this matchup to the Pistons.

Chicago Bulls - Another fine defensive team, they held Pierce to 13.3 PPG on .318 FG% (3 games), Allen to .321 FG% (one game) and Garnett to .395 FG% (two games) last season. The common refrain I've heard is that each of these players were the only "serious threat" on their teams, making it easier to key in on them. Well, that may have been the case last year, but with Hinrich, Nocioni, Deng and Big Ben manning the fort, I doubt they will find the prospect of facing the denizens of the Windy City any more welcoming. Hyperactive jumping beans Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah are sure to grab most of the loose balls within the zip code, limiting KG's dominance of the boards, as well. Plus, their defensive deficiencies will show up as a glaring weakness when Ben Gordon comes off the bench to light up the scoreboard. Edge: Bulls.

Toronto Raptors - With their uptempo pace and decided advantage in the youth/fresh legs department, it is hard not to like the chances of the Raptors vs. the aging Celtics. They managed to hold Garnett to .341 FG% last season in two meetings (both wins over the T'Wolves). The frontcourt of Bosh, Bargnani, Garbajosa and Nesterovic frustrated KG to no end, which is no great surprise since Bosh has developed into a younger, left-handed version of "The Big Ticket". The Raptors have had difficulty covering Pierce and Allen, but I think that this could prove to be a very close playoff series, were it to occur next May/June.

New Jersey Nets - Vince Carter vs. Ray Allen = Draw. Richard Jefferson vs. Paul Pierce = Draw. Kevin Garnett vs. Nenad Krstic/Jamaal Magloire/Josh Boone = KG. Jason Kidd vs. Anybody on the roster or that they might sign = Huge edge to Kidd. The Point Guard position is something that cannot be ignored, especially when you consider that the Celtics have Rajon Rondo and virtually no one else capable of playing that spot. Kidd's leadership and playmaking could turn this potential playoff series.

Miami Heat - Who's gonna stop Dwyane Wade? Who can contend with the Diesel...even at half-speed? Their PG situation is still shaky, but against the Celtics that's not a huge concern, now is it? If they can avoid the injury bug that torpedoed their season last year, then they could be right back in the thick of a title hunt as Shaq, Zo, Penny and GP look to ride off into the sunset. This is a tough matchup for the top teams in the West, so it goes without saying that the Celtics would have their hands full in a series with the former champs.

Cleveland Cavaliers - You didn't think that I'd forgotten about the defending conference champs, did you? While I don't believe that they'll be able to repeat last year's success, I think we've all seen that LeBron James has proven capable of being a one-man wrecking crew in the playoffs -- even against the best defensive teams in the East. The Celtics are not going to be a great defensive team, so it would surprise no one if LBJ reprises the role he played so masterfully in leading the Cavs to the NBA Finals.

That makes six teams that I believe are capable of beating the Celtics in a 7 game series in the postseason. Their defensive inadequacies and gaping hole at PG are going to be a huge roadblock for their title aspirations. I didn't even broach the subject of Head Coach Doc Rivers -- but it wouldn't surprise me to see Danny Ainge pull a Pat Riley and take over on the bench at some point this season. Of course, I could be wrong and the Celtics could be returned to their former status as one of the premier teams in the NBA by winning a title (or two). As they say, that's why they play the games.