Monday, December 06, 2004

5 on Five 12/6-12/12

5 on Five

Week of 12/6-12/12
By Paul Benedict

5 Faces to Watch

Theme: 5 Flourishing Free Agents-to-be

1. Ray Allen, SG, Seattle–Unrestricted
-Allen is not only having the most statistically impressive season (24.1 PPG, 4.3 APG, 48 3PTM, 44% 3PT%) of his career, but he’s also led the Sonics to a mind-boggling 15-3 start and almost certainly ensured himself of a maximum contract offer from Seattle. It’s no wonder that all the trade rumors circulating around Allen have been dormant since October.

2. Larry Hughes, SG, Washington–Unrestricted
-Needing a stellar season to solidify himself as a prized free agent target this coming summer, Hughes (19.4 PPG, 5.9RPG, 4.9 APG, 3.4SPG) has played with an intensity and a will-to-win that that had been missing throughout his career. Now with Washington off to their best start in 30 years (10-5) and Hughes being a main catalyst in their early season run, the SG will likely see a raise from the $5 million/year he's making now and he could very well end up with another team.

3. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, C, Cleveland–Unrestricted
-Big Z might have been the only happy camper in the Cleveland organization after Carlos Boozer bounced to Utah--now there's simply no way Jim Paxson lets his only consistent post-threat skip town and so Ilgauskas should receive an offfer from the Cavs that will keep him plenty happy in Cleveland. To top that off, Z is quietly having his best season ever (17.7 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.6 BPG) and slamming the door shut on questions concerning his motivation and ability to stay healthy. Look for Z to land a contract for around 4 years at the tune of $10 million per.

4. Jeff McInnis, PG, Cleveland, Unrestricted
-The 'other' free agent on Cleveland's roster, McInnis is benefitting from LeBron's presence as much as anyone and having easily his best season to date (15.4 PPG, 5.2 APG, 47.6 FG%, 44.4 3PT%). At 30 years old, McInnis would like to sign a long-term deal with a team, preferably Cleveland, after having switched teams four times throughout his career. McInnis will likely attempt to use the long-term contract Quentin Richardson (6 years, $45 million) recieved this summer as a barometer of his value, and if Derek Fisher's similar contract (6 years, $38 million) was any indication this summer, the PG will likely find a team willing to pay him this much.

5. Bobby Simmons, SF, Clippers, Unrestricted
-No free agent has seen his stock rise as quickly as Simmons since the beginning of the season. After the Clips let Q Rich sign with Phoenix, GM Elgin Baylor went ahead and traded for Kerry Kittles to fill the void left in the starting lineup by Q's departure. But Kittles had knee surgery and was to miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season, so Mike Dunleavy asked Simmons to step in and start for the team. It's been pretty much gravy since then, with Simmons not only playing the role of defensive stopper brilliantly, but also raising eyebrows with a revamped offensive game (16.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.4 APG, 55.3 FG%, 52.9 3PT%, 91.4 FT%). There's no question the the 24-year old has been stringent in the Clips surprising start (10-7) and besides locking down a starting spot even with Kittles due back soon, has likely demanded a huge pay raise when he becomes a free agent this summer.

5 Fascinating Factoids

1. In the 1st quarter of Thursday’s game against the Mavericks, Houston took the lead for the first time in a game in an outrageous span of 137 minutes, 37 seconds. It has been an ugly start for the Rockets (7-11, 3-5 at home) after high expectations were bestowed upon them with the acquisition of Tracy McGrady. While many expected the meshing of TMac and Yao to take some time, nobody thought the team would play such consistently poor basketball. I still expect the Rockets to get their act together at some point, and with 11 of their next 14 at home (including just 5 of the 14 against teams with +.500 records), now seems like a reasonable time to get on the right track.

2. Instead of waiting to find a team that is willing to give them adequate talent for the services of Vince Carter and Jalen Rose, maybe the Raptors should just trade these two bums away for a candy bar and a pack of gum. Check this statistic out--Carter has the 2nd worst +/- rating (behind..drum roll please...Antoine Walker!) in the entire NBA (-23.3) and teammate Rose isn't far behind at -16.6. Meanwhile, the duo's primary backups, Lamond Murray and Morris Peterson, rank 8th (+22.3) and 32nd best (+13.7) respectively. Now if Sam Mitchell doesn't have the toughest coaching job in the NBA this season, then please tell me who does.

3. The Lakers have played just 6 of their 17 games against teams with winning records (2-4 against) and the combined records of the teams that they have beaten is just 39-87 (and this only counts the records of their two wins against New Orleans and Milwaukee once). So at this point, it's difficult to tell if the Lakers are a playoff-bound team out West, but perhaps a brutal stretch of 6-straight against winning teams beginning Wednesday against Phoenix will help to clue us in.

4. The six teams that are averaging to score over 100 PPG have a combined winning percentage of .737, while the six teams that are giving up under 92 PPG have a combined winning percentage of .525. A season ago, the six teams averaging to score the most points per game had a combined winning percentage of .577 while the six teams giving up the least points per game had a winning percentage of .604. Now recall that David Stern was outspoken in his desire to increase the scoring in the league this season, so much that he was calling on officials to call a tighter game in an effort to rid the league of the physical, suffocating defenses that seem to be popping up in the Finals each season. Last year, just three teams in the entire league were attempting over 27 free throws per game; this year--13. Keep this all in mind when you keep telling yourself that the Magic (4th in scoring, 3rd in FTA) and the Wizards (2nd in scoring, 2nd in FTA) are mere mirages posing no real threat in the East while the Pistons (22nd in PPG, 17th in FTA) will surely reclaim their throne.

5. A major reason as to why the Spurs have been able to continually dominate the NBA over the last 7-odd years has been their ability to find quality, team-first talent for cheap. Jaren Jackson, Malik Rose, Mario Elie, Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson, Tony Parker, Emanuel Ginobili, and Speedy Claxton have all made significant contributions to a foundation built around Tim Duncan, but needing talented role players to really make the system work. This year there's a new face to add to the crowd of celebrated role-playing contributors for the Spurs and he goes by Devin Brown. The former NBDL Rookie of the Year and MVP (in the same season) has been simply magnificent for the Spurs over the past 5 games, averaging 14.4 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, and 1.4 SPG, while shooting 57.8% from the floor and hitting 7-12 from 3 in just 24.4 MPG. The 6-5 SG is not only making a case for a heftier role on the squad, but he's also making the Spurs' big off-season acquisition of Brent Barry seem negligent.

5 Fretful Thoughts

1. Many critics thought that Philadelphia GM Billy King's decision not to extend Samuel Dalembert's contract before the season started was a major mistake, however, King is beginning to look pretty smart given the problems Dalembert has had continuing his stellar play from the end of last season into this year. His production (4.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 0.9 BPG) this year is far off pace of the beast-like numbers he posted last April (12.3 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 4.4 BPG), and the big man from Haiti may be playing himself out of a monster contract offer this summer.

2. Continuing my fretful thoughts pertaining to the Sixers, what about this team as a whole? At 6-10 and losers of 7 of 8 away from Philadelphia, the young Sixers are failing to live up to the playoff aspirations most experts anticipated of them. Ranking 26th in the NBA in FG% (.419) and 27th in turnovers per game (16.1), it's become quite clear that Allen Iverson, a sloppy player himself (38.5 FG%, 27.8 3PT%, 3.7 TOPG), cannot lead a mediocre cast (Kyle Korver ranks 3rd on the team in scoring) of inexperienced players by himself. Now in his 9th NBA season, A.I. has to be questioning whether he belongs in Philly, where the team sits at least 2 or 3 years away from having a chance at making a run towards a title. The only thing that might speed the process up for the Sixers is if King is willing to package some of his younger assets (Dalembert, Kyle Korver, Andre Iguodala, Willie Green, John Salmons) for a bonafied 2nd-tier star (Vince Carter, Michael Redd, Shareef Abdur-Rahim) and even such a move would still likely leave the Sixers trailing the league's best.

Q: What's worse than having Kyle Korver as your 3rd-leading scorer?
A: Having Lee Nailon as your go-to guy.

3. As the New Orleans Hornets continue to stumble out of the gate (1-14), the prospects of resurrecting a season already lost seem rather unlikely. Last week I predicted that the team wouldn't score 90 points until Baron Davis returned, now a week later GM Allan Bristow has traded Darrell Armstong away, discovered that George Lynch has been playing with excruciating foot pain, and watched as propsering PF David West went down with a knee injury. And now there's reports coming out of New Orleans that Darrell Armstrong was traded to Dallas to free up a permanent starting role for Junior Harrington, not a backup role as many figured, because Baron Davis is considering having season-ending back surgery. Remember how many people were predicting that the Bobcats would end up with the worst record in NBA history? If Baron Davis calls it quits on the season, I can guarantee you New Orleans makes a serious run at the mark.

4. Things got even uglier in Toronto after Rafer Alston publicly contemplated quitting the team and maybe the NBA altogether after being benched Friday night. Sam Mitchell has not been shy about sitting his starters when he feels they aren't earning their playing team (see Vince Carter) and is certainly contributing to the internal strife in Toronto himself. GM Rob Babcock has got to shake up this roster, and fast--before the season really begins to slip away. Vince Carter simply has to go; his lack of desire to be with the team is causing his play to suffer and the trade discussion surrounding his name is unquestionably creating problems for the team both on and off the court. Once Carter (and Rose presumably) is shipped off, the Raptors can then re-evaluate what they have and go from there. It seems that Alston, though still troubled by something, is willing to play through his problems and should be fine given a change in the atmosphere for the Raptors, and Chris Bosh appears ready to take on a larger role for the team, and only by trading Carter can the Raptors appease the needs of their two most important players.

5. Though most of the coaching-change rumors have surfaced around Jeff Bdzelik and Scott Skiles, it appears that Jeff Van Gundy may indeed be the coach on the thinnest line right now. Big things were expected out of Houston upon the acquisition of Tracy McGrady, but the Rockets are just 7-11 and haven't come close to resembling the Western contender that many hopefuls were aiming for. And truth be told, Van Gundy is the main cause for this slow start; his offensive scheme just isn't suited for the roster he has. On paper, his halfcourt system should work with two dominating assets in Yao and TMac, but with defenses collapsing on Yao and forcing him to take tough shots, and TMac having to consistently create his own shot with the lack of a playmaker, the Rockets are finding themselves being beaten at their own game. It's time for Van Gundy to open the floor more and get his stars more open looks. TMac is still arguably the most unstoppable offensive force in transition and Yao has shown that he can run the floor and is a solid finisher on the break. Now if Bob Sura can show Van Gundy that he can effectively run the transition game, then perhaps a more up-tempo game is on the horizon, if not, I'd be surprised if Van Gundy lasts the year with the way this team is underachieving.

5 Fantastic Matchups

1. Seattle at San Antonio, Wednesday @ 8:30
-The teams with the two best records in the NBA square off at the SBC Center where the Spurs will be looking for some revenge after being embarassed in Seattle (113-94) the time these teams first met a month ago. San Antonio has ripped off 7 straight wins in convincing fashion (by an average of 19.4 points) and right now appear to be far and away the best team in the NBA, and though Seattle continues to quiet its doubters, they could use a monumental win in San Antonio (8-0 at home) to earn the respect they believe they've earned.

2. Sacramento at Minnesota, Friday @ 8:00
-Minnesota is suddenly emerging in the West as the contender they were expected to be, having won 5 in a row including a win in Sac town last Sunday, giving the Kings their only loss in 12 games. The emotions (and the score) are always high when these two Western powers collide, so expect an entertaining contest.

3. Dallas at Houston, Saturday @ 8:30
-On Thursday, Dirk Nowiztki and Tracy McGrady participated in one of the most memorable duels in NBA history as Dirk went off for a career-high 53 points and TMac nearly matched by posting 48 in the Rockets' overtime loss in Dallas. The duo will be hard-pressed to repeat such extraordinary performances, but it'll be worth watching to see if a new player rivalry is emerging out West.

4. Cleveland at San Antonio, Saturday @ 8:30
-There's a better-than-good chance that these teams roll into this game with the best records in their respective conferences, and a surprisingly legitmate possibility that this could well be a preview of the 2005 NBA Finals. Okay, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself just a bit, but if LeBron and the Cavs can somehow pull out a win in San Antone, then I think we have to take Cleveland very seriously as an Eastern Conference title contender.

5. Orlando at Lakers, Sunday @ 9:30
-This will be the 4th game of a brutal 6-game, 10 day west coast trip for the Magic who will be desperately needing a victory with bouts against the Spurs and the Suns coming in the next 3 following days. Meanwhile, the Lakers will be in the midst of their 6-game stretch against winning teams with trips to Seattle and Sacramento following this one. Orlando took down the Lake Show 122-113 on November 12 with four Magic players going off for 20+ (Hill, Francis, Garrity, Turkoglu) so the Lakers are going to have to do a better job defending if they're to split the season series.

5 Fearless Forecasts

1. Jason Kidd returns to the New Jersey lineup Monday night and will undoubtedly spark the Nets, however, the star PG will still bear a different uniform by the February trade deadline. At a lowly 4-12, the Nets are still playing solid defensively (6th in opponents PPG, 7th in opponents FG%), but having major problems scoring points (83.4 PPG--last in the NBA). Kidd's return should benefit everyone on the Nets (namely Richard Jefferson (41.5 FG%, 4.7 TOPG)who's been asked to do more than he's capable of handling (41.5 FG%, 4.7 TOPG) and the Nets offense should begin to see improvement immediately, even without the services of the departed Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles. Though New Jersey could creep back up to .500 in due time, they simply aren't talented enough to compete for a title this year or in the near future, and Kidd will surely demand he be dealt before the trade deadline.

2. Detroit has struggled immensely without the services of Ben Wallace this season (3-5), finding it quite difficult to keep teams away from the basket without the 2-time Defensive Player of the Year. In Big Ben's second game back after the suspension, he scored a career-high 22 points as the Pistons routed the Horneys in New Orleans 92-69. Detroit now plays just 5 of its next 18 games against teams with winning records, and doesn't have to stay on the road for more than 2 games at a time until the very end of February. The Pistons are about to get hot and will catch Cleveland in the standings by New Year's Day.

3. The Nuggets are no better than a middle-of-the-pack team in the Western Conference that seems destined to challenge for the 7th or 8th playoff spot. Carmelo Anthony and Andre Miller do not appear to have improved at all after leading the Nuggets into the playoffs last season and the team is really struggling to put points on the board (91.3 down from 97.2 a season ago) without a consistent perimeter threat. GM Kiki Vandeweghe did not revamp this roster to settle for mediocrity so expect the Nuggets to pull off a blockbuster deal this season if this team doesn't show significant improvement soon. Kiki would love to bring Jason Kidd in to Denver and a package of Andre Miller and Nene Hilario would be extremely difficult for the Nets to turn down.

4. Vlade Divac will remain a reserve for the rest of this season–his last in the NBA. The consensus was, even after Chris Mihm's hot start, that Vlade would work himself back into the starting lineup within a week or two, but Divac, now 36, is still hampered by back problems and has told Coach Rudy T that he can play just 12-15 minutes a night. I'd expect that Vlade limits himself to no more than 20-25 minutes even when he is feeling healthier, and with Rudy liking the energy Mihm gives them with the first unit, expect Divac to settle into his reserve role. Though Vlade signed a 2-year deal with the Lakers this summer, I just can't see him lasting another full season playing with back problems. Expect the Lakers to settle with him and offer him either a front office or assistant coaching position, and mark my words here, Vlade Divac will become the first foreign-born player to become a head coach in the NBA.

5. Anfernee Hardaway is going to completely lose his spot in the Knicks’ rotation. Penny sat out Saturday's game against the Bobcats with a hamstring injury that is likely to land him on the injured list. With Allan Houston now practicing and slated to return sometime soon, it's expected that he will take all of Penny's minutes while he's on the IL and likely eat into some of Tim Thomas' minutes as well. The Knicks could use another perimeter threat to complement Jamal Crawford, and Houston can certainly fill the role that Penny has so painfully failed to stake a claim on (23.7 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 38.4 FG%, 27.3 3PT%). If Houston can provide the kind of shooting Lenny Wilkens is expecting out of him, and Tim Thomas can continue to settle down after a rugged start, Penny may find himself fighting rookie Trevor Ariza for garbage-time minutes upon his return.


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