Tuesday, November 16, 2004

5 on Five

5 on Five

Week of 11/15-11/21
By Paul Benedict

5 Faces to Watch
Theme: Newly Acquired Role Players

1. Brent Barry, G, San Antonio Spurs
-Many observers predicted that San Antonio's signing of the sharpshooting guard would be a major factor in leading the Spurs to the top of the Western Conference. Having allowed Hedo Turkoglu to sign on long-term with Orlando, GM R.C. Buford targeted Barry to provide a deadly presence from the perimeter, capable playmaking skills in the backcourt, and an experienced veteran voice in the locker room. Thru 6 games, Barry is scoing 10.5 PPG, hitting 2 3's a game, and dishing out 3 APG in just 25 MPG off the bench. The explosion of Manu Ginobili has shadowed Barry's involvment thus far, but there's no question he is going to play an important role on the NBA's best team throughout the season.

2. Stephen Jackson, SG, Indiana Pacers
-The Pacers acquired the experienced, clutch Jackson in a trade with the Hawks for Al Harrington during the summer. Expected to flourish in the 6th Man Role left by the departed Harrington, Jackson was pushed into the starting lineup when Reggie Miller broke a finger in the preseason. With the way Jackson's settled in with the Pacers, it looks doubtful that Miller will assume his starting role when he returns in December. While playing over 40 MPG, Jackson is scoring at the tune of 16.6 per game, and ranks 8th in the league in 3PM (14) and 13th in Steals (11). Like Barry, Jackson's presence will likely be felt more and more over the course of the season as Carlisle will look to Jackson's impressive big game experience to be a major factor for the Pacers in their quest to reach the Finals.

3. Brian Cardinal, SF, Memphis Grizzlies
-Nicknamed "The Janitor" for his ability to wipe the floor clean after his patented head-first dives for loose balls, Cardinal was a highly sought-after free agent this summer after breaking out last season in a backup role with Golden State (9.6 PPG, 4.2 RPG in just 21 MPG; also lead the league in knee scrapes, sweat exuded, and lost hair). Jerry West decided he'd be the perfect fit in Hubie Brown's energetic system, and signed Cardinal to a 6-year deal. The Purdue alum has responded by making key contributions in each of Memphis' wins and becoming a fitting complement to the defensive intensity Brown looks for in his players.

4. Steve Smith, G, Charlotte Bobcats
-Charlotte GM and Coach Bernie Bickerstaff was looking to sign a seasoned veteran to bring aboard and help mentor the young Bobcats; Steve Smith was the perfect fit. Always regarded as much for his charity and gamesmanship as his ability on the court, Smith has settled in admirably for the 'Cats and has been the driving force behind the hardworking and passionate basketball they have played thus far. Though he has not averaged double digits in 2 seasons, the 35-year old Smith is dropping in 12.0 PPG and has hit 8-17 on 3s. Look for Smith to continue to be a positive influence on the expansion Bobcats until his retirement and then be sought after by NBA teams as a coach.

5. Hedo Turkoglu, G/F, Orlando Magic
-Pried away from the Spurs after offering Turkoglu a 6-year deal worth $39 million that San Antonio wasn't willing to match, GM John Weisbrod saw the Turkish vet as an underrated talent that could be brought off the bench to shred opposing defenses, and as quality insurance in case Grant Hill were to go down once again. Turkoglu has taken the role offered to him and just ran with it, lighting up defenses to the tune of 16.0 PPG on 49% shooting and being a key contributor down the stretch in 3 of the Magic's victories. Hedo finally seems ready to take the 'leap' that many have expected of the 25-year old for some time, and the Magic must be happy with what's looking like the best bargain signing of the summer.

5 Fascinating Factoids

1. Who said a perimeter-oriented team had no chance of success in the West? Well, to be honest, I was one of the major doubters of the Sonics prior to the season, but when you lead the NBA in 3PM per contest (8.7), are second in 3PT% (40.4), 9th in FG% (45.0), and 4th in PPG (101.2), it seems quite possible to keep up with the best of the west. After being embarassed in their season opening loss to the lowly Clippers by 30 points, the Sonics have stormed back to win their last 5 games including crushing defeats over 2004 Playoff Teams, the Spurs, Nuggets, and Kings by an average of 23 points. Though it seems improbable to believe that the Sonics can keep up this torrid pace, a combination of a healthy Ray Allen (24.7 PPG, 61.1 3PT%) and a blossoming Rashard Lewis (22.3 PPG, 46.9 FG%) may continue to surprise. Perhaps a 6-game road trip beginning this Wednesday in Philadelphia will be telling.

2. Despite there not being any significant rule changes this season that would increase the declining scoring output by teams in recent years, scoring is actually up significantly so far this season. Last year, only 6 teams averaged more than 97 PPG, but this year, and keep in mind scoring is usually down to begin the season due to adjustments with personnel change, sloppy play, etc., 16 teams are averaging more than 97 PPG with only 2 of the 16 (Kings, Mavs) seeing a decrease in their scoring output. Though David Stern has reportedly been making an effort to rid the NBA of rough, foul-prone play and so officiating has tightened up defenses with whistles going off every minute, a major reason for the increase in scoring has to be the positive results teams are getting from off-season player movement. As talent spread throughout the NBA this summer (specifically the West), the likelihood of two quality teams playing each other in high-scoring, high-heated battles has seen an increase and the frequency of lame-duck teams facing off in sloppy 70 point debacles has decreased. And what's the significance of this? Just ask any NBA fan, who's thoroughly enjoying this throwback to the glory days of 124-119 games. Let's hope it lasts.

3. Dwight Howard is the first rookie since Shaquille O'Neal to record double digit rebounds in his first seven games, and is one of three players this season to perform such a feat. The other two? Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, aka the only players in the NBA who can claim MVP trophies in the past 3 seasons. Howard ranks 4th in the NBA in rebounding (11.7) while playing under 30 minutes a game (29.7); outstanding for a kid that many thought would struggle initially with the physical play in the NBA due to the undersized competition he faced last year at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. Furthermore, Howard is the catalyst on the boards for a team that ranks #1 in the league in rebounding, up from 23rd a season ago. Though Howard isn't quite a scoring threat just yet (7.9 PPG), he's doing everything Coach Johnny Davis has asked of him: to play tough defense (2.0 BPG) and to be "a vacuum cleaner on the glass". So far, sooooooo good.

4. In case you weren't watching Thursday night on TNT, Earl "The munchkin" Boykins went off for 32 points against Detroit, becoming the shortest player to ever put up 30 in a game. Since Voshon Lenard went down with a torn achilles tendon in the season opener, Denver Coach Jeff Bdzelik has called on Boykins to play a larger role for the team. Though the 2-5 Nuggets continue to struggle, Boykins has elevated his game since Lenard's injury to the tune of 15.2 PPG and 6.0 APG, up from 10.2 PPG and 3.6 APG a year ago. There's no question that Denver is a better team with Boykins running the point and Andre Miller slipping over to the 2, but in order for Denver to get their act together, the team is going to need more than just Boykins to step up their game.

5. Since the volatile Ron Artest began his first full season with Indiana in 2002, the Pacers are 7-8 (.467 W%) when he's been either suspended or benched for disciplinary reasons; 107-49 (.686 W%) when he has not been. In games that the reigning 'Defensive Player of the Year' has missed due to suspension or a benching, the Pacers give up 96.2 PPG; in contests when Artest is not serving time for violating team or league policies, the Pacers allow just 89.2 PPG. There's simply no denying the importance of Ron Artest to the Pacers, and last week's episode has to have some within the organization concerned. Simply put, Indiana can certainly be considered a championship-caliber club with Artest behaving, without him, they're just a middle-of-the-pack playoff team.

5 Fretful Thoughts

1. This thought really goes beyond fretful, heck, it's just damn horrifying. On July 1, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the players and the owners runs out, meaning that if the players union and the owners dont come to terms on a new CBA, then the NBA may as well read N-H-L. Recall that the last time a CBA was agreed upon was in 1998, after the owners had locked out the players for months. Though both sides are clearly on better terms this time around, Commissioner David Stern and Union President Billy Hunter have still not made any significant progress on a new deal and there are plenty of issues on the table that are going to take concentrated effort and determination from both sides in order to avoid a lockout. Among the topics to be discussed, expect the shortening of contract lengths, decreases in players' annual raises, and a lowering of the luxury tax to be major blockades in the two sides coming to an agreement. Let's hope both sides can get this thing done; a lockout just wouldn't be good for anyone.

2. There are two teams still yet to win a game: the Bulls and the Hornets. Now the Bulls' struggles don't come off as a major surprise, but New Orleans has to have some people scratching their heads. It was expected that the switch to the Western Conference would be rather unwelcoming for the Hornets, most likely resulting in them missing the playoffs for the first time in 6 years. But starting the season with 6 consecutive losses (including 4 at home and 3 by a combined 5 points against the 3 Eastern teams they've played) was not what anyone anticipated and now with Baron Davis shelved for 1-2 weeks with a sore back (uh-oh), the buzz around the Hornets is beginning to stink.

3. The Golden State Warriors are off to a wretched 1-7 start and it's not looking any better---for the next few years. When former Warriors great Chris Mullin was hired as Executive Vice President (essentially calling all the shots) in the Spring, most everyone figured that Mullin would be the guy to get this organization back where it was in the late 80's and early 90's when they were a perennial playoff team featuring the exciting Run TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and Mullin). However, it's beginning to look like Mullin is pulling out his best Rick Pitino impression and setting the franchise back years. Let's take a look at Mullin's questionable moves since taking control of the front office in April...

-Fired Eric Musselman, who had the most success as coach of the Warriors (75-89, .457 W%) since Don Nelson left in 1994.
-Hired Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery despite the recent trend of disasters caused by college coaches being hired with no NBA coaching experience. (See Leonard Hamilton, Lon Kruger, Tim Floyd).
-Refused to re-sign Erick Dampier to a long-term deal, instead deciding to hand over $41 million over five years to oft-injured backup, Adonal Foyle.
-Spent entire mid-level exception on Derek Fisher (6 years, $37 million) despite already having developing, but steady point guard Speedy Claxton signed for 2 more years.
-Signed Jason Richardson to a 6-year deal worth $71 million and Troy Murphy to a 6-year, $60 million contract the day before the season began this year, therefore using up all of Golden State's cap space.

It's still early in the season, and may be a little quick to judge Mullin's moves, but so far Montgomery's transition has been a struggle and the return in production from the four players he invested heavily in have been iffy: Murphy has been solid (12.8 PPG, 9.3 RPG), but Foyle has already lost his starting spot to the ancient Cliff Robinson, Fisher is splitting minutes with Claxton, and Richardson has been shooting poorly and failing to step up in the clutch as the team's go-to-guy. With no cap space to work with in the near future, Mullin is either going to have to hope that his young players can develop into dependable producers rather quickly, or use his tradeable assets (Draft picks, Biedrins, Pietrus, Claxton) to acquire talent good enough to keep up with the talented West.

4. Alonzo Mourning and Grant Hill have both been outstanding in their triumphant returns to the court this season prompting some to plead with the NBA offices to issue an award for 'Comeback Player of the Year'. Mourning has been the force in the middle that the Nets were hoping they had last year when they signed the big man to a 4 year deal (11.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.7 BPG), while Hill is the main cause of the Magic's resurgence after a dismal season a year ago (18.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.9 SPG). It might be wise for Nets coach Lawrence Frank and Orlando coach Johnny Davis to be a little more wary about how much and how often to play these guys. Mourning, who is not even a year removed from a kidney transplant and unable to take pain medications due to his condition, is averaging 26 MPG, but played 37 and 40 minutes in back-to-back nights last week. Hill has suited up for a combined 47 games in the past 4 seasons, largely due to the extensive minutes played on his surgically-repaired ankle (32 MPG), and this year is seeing an average of 34 MPG. While both Hill and Mourning play with a lot of pride and sometimes refuse to come out of games, it might be wise for both players and their respective coaches to consider that limited action now will serve their teams better in the long run.

5. Jeff Bdzelik has done a respectable job as coach of the Denver Nuggets in two seasons. In 2002-2003, he had his team playing hard every single night and came away with some quality victories despite having far and away the least talented roster in the NBA. Last season, Bdzelik led an amazing turnaround as he guided a team tied for the worst record in the NBA the previous season into the playoffs. However, GM Kiki Vandeweghe did not give Bdzelik a vote of confidence in the off-season, refusing to extend his contract beyond this season. Kiki loaded the roster with energetic, explosive players capable of running the floor and is reportedly not in favor of Bdzelik's defense first, half-court style of basketball. With the Nuggets stumbling out of the gate with a 2-5 record, it seems inevitable that Kiki will fire Bdzelik if the Nuggets can't get their season headed in the right direction soon.

5 Fantastic Matchups

1. Miami at Minnesota, Tuesday @ 8:00.
-The Heat continue to be tested by the Western Powers, facing their third such foe in 5 days against the Timberwolves. Though they dropped the first two to Dallas and San Antonio, Dwayne Wade is expected to be back for this one and the Wolves might not have an answer to the budding star.

2. Phoenix at Dallas, Tuesday @ 8:30.
-The return of Steve Nash to Dallas will likely be an emotional one, but so far, you'd have to say that the move to Phoenix has resulted in nothing but positives for both Nash and the Mavericks. Fueling the hi-octance Suns, Nash leads the NBA with 9.7 APG and has his team scoring 107.7 PPG, higher than any other team by almost 5 points. Meanwhile, the Mavs boast the NBA's best record at 6-1 and are giving up an astounding 9.4 less points per game than last season. Should be a doozy.

3. Utah at Orlando, Wednesday @ 7:00.
-Gordon Giricek makes his much anticipated return to Orlando in this collosal clash. Yeah, sure. But seriously, two teams reaping the benefits from stellar offseasons hook up in what should be a very entertaining matchup.

4. Indiana at Detroit, Friday @ 8:00.
-Last year's Eastern Conference Finalists meet for the first of four games this season at The Palace. Unfortunately, there's virtually no hope that these two powers can hook up again in the East Finals since they were placed in the same division. We'll have to settle for #1 seed Indiana/Detroit playing #4 seed Indiana/Detroit in the semifinals due to David Stern's decision not to reseed teams based on regular season records after the first round.

5. New York at Dallas, Friday @ 8:30.
-The Knicks conclude a brutal 4-game road trip at American Airlines Arena, likely hoping they can squeak out one win after making stops in Indiana, San Antonio, and Houston. Luckily for Stephon Marbury and co., they follow this game with five straight against non- Eastern Conference playoff teams from a season ago.

5 Fearless Forecasts

1. Yao Ming will have a MONSTER week. The Rockets have 5 games this coming week, 3 against teams that don't play defense (Atl, NYK, LAC), and 4 against teams with significantly undersized centers (Atl, NYK, LAC, Por). After getting off to a sluggish start, Yao has scored 25+ in 3 of his last 4 games and seems poised to take his numbers to another level this season.

2. Tough luck for Mike James because Maurice Williams will not relinquish the starting point guard spot in Milwaukee. Though he can't shoot for his life (35.5 FG% and has not even attempted a 3-pointer), Mo has settled in admirably for the Bucks as a playmaker (8.8 APG) and is proving to be a real steal after being signed away from Utah late this summer for just $5.5 million over 3 years. Though James (also a free agent acquisition for Milwaukee) should still see significant playing time upon his return, he may have to become more adept at the 2 guard as Williams is quickly making people forget about the injured T.J. Ford and beginning to inherit the coveted label of "point guard of the future".

3. The New Orleans Hornets will beat the New York Knicks for their first win of the season--on December 8. Ouch. At 0-6, yet having played every game competitively since their opening loss to the Mavs, it would seem that Byron Scott's crew would be do for a win. Not so fast; check out the remaining November schedule. They play just two games this week, both at home, but against Phoenix and Minnesota. The Hornets then travel to to the West Coast for 8 days to play 5 games against the Jazz, Warriors, Suns, Lakers, and Nuggets. It actually doesn't get much easier to begin December, where the Hornets will once again play 5 games in 8 games, this time all against playoff teams from a year ago. Oh, and to remind you-- Baron Davis is out with a back injury (uh-oh).

4. The Chicago Bulls will beat the Philadelphia 76ers for their first win of the season--on December 10. Double ouch. In the past five seasons, the Bulls have gone 0-32 in their early season road trip. On Tuesday, the winless Bulls kick off a 7-game road swing in Sacramento with stops in Golden State, Denver, Los Angeles (Lakers), Phoenix, Utah, and Cleveland before returning home for 2 games against the Lakers and Heat.

5. Manu Ginobili will be on the West All Star Team. After leading Argentina to the Gold Medal at the Olympics in Athens this summer, many expected Ginobili to break out this season despite the signing of Brent Barry who was expected to cut into Manu's minutes. And Barry has taken away some of Ginobili's playing time (30 MPG), but it hasn't made a difference from a production standpoint as Manu's numbers are otherworldly (20.5 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 5.0 APG, 3.0 SPG, 54.2 FG%, 50.0 3PT%). Despite the presence of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Ray Allen as surefire All Stars at SG in the West, it will be virtually impossible to leave Ginobili off the squad if he continues to play close to the level he's producing at right now.


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