ONE: It’s hard to watch Bogut and the Bucks these days without getting a little frustrated. Frustrated because the Big Aussie is still obviously bothered by that arm injury, and can’t seem to get any consistency back in his game. Frustrated because the Bucks themselves are a shadow of the team that was rampaging through the Eastern Conference late last season. Fear the Deer seems like a distant memory. So I wasn’t surprised when I read this piece yesterday from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which quoted Bogut summing up his mood in exactly the same way: “It’s frustrating. I’ve had a whole summer of dealing with it and I’m still dealing with it. I guess I’m more frustrated than ever.”

Say what you want about his and the Bucks struggles (they’ve only won 3 games all month, against the Raptors, Clippers and T-Wolves), the one thing you can’t deny is his beastly defense. Bogut not only still leads the league in blocks, but he’s accelerating away from the competition. For the month of February Bogut has registered six games of 3 blocks or more. The next best is Duncan, Dwight and Amare all on 4. He averaged 3.1 blocks for the month which is his best month of the season. The Block title is his to lose at this point, and in a season that has seen his offense struggle and the Bucks grossly underperform, salvaging the Block title would at least provide a little consolation for the Bogey man.

Over in Portland, Patty Mills continues to get regular minutes in the rotation and has been an integral part in the Blazers recent (and surprising) surge. Portland has won 7 of their last 8 games. During that stretch Patty has averaged 4.8ppg on a tidy 50% shooting, along with 1.8 assists. His numbers will probably drop a little now that Brandon Roy has returned, but the chemistry on that Blazers squad is so good right now there’s no reason to be whining about Patty’s minutes.

TWO: And how about those Trailblazers! I can’t believe they’re in this position – 6th out West and only a game behind 5th – given how decimated they’ve been with injuries. LaMarcus Aldridge is playing off-the-charts at the moment. Did you know he was 13th in the league in scoring? Did you know that he’s averaging 31.8ppg over his last 7 games on 59% shooting? Did you know that through February he’s lead his team in points, rebounds, blocks AND steals? It’s not like he’s beating up bunnies either. You remember the 42 against Chicago before the All-Star break? How about the 34 on David West and the Hornets last week? How about the 29 and 14 against Gasol and the Laker? (ok so that one was a loss). How about the 24, 14 and 3 blocks against the Denver frontline yesterday? Aldridge is dominating the premier guys at his position and he’s carrying the Blazers in the process. If only Brandon Roy were healthy, this would be a world-beating 1-2 punch.

The Blazers resurgence isn’t just about LaMarcus though. Andre Miller woke up from his coma and is now playing his best ball of the season (8.8apg through February). While not great for Patty Mills’ aspirations of taking over the starting role, it’s hard to deny that Miller can still ball when he wants to. Wesley Matthews seems to be dropping 20 every game, Rudy’s minutes are up and his production up even more, they picked up Gerald Wallace and only lost two first-round picks (plus junk), and now Brandon Roy is starting to get his groove back. His clutch three against Denver yesterday brought a smile to my face, and I’m sure it had the same effect on his teammates. If you watched the Blazers-Nuggets game (which was a mini-classic by the way), go and watch Patty Mills after the final siren in OT. He literally sprints over to Roy and gives him a massive bear hug. Seconds later Roy is swamped by the whole team. That’s the heart and soul of Blazer Nation, right there. With him back and the team clicking, it’s no wonder people like Skip Bayless are picking the Blazers as the 5th best team out West. I wouldn’t bet against them either.

THREE: To say there was a flurry of activity before the trade deadline would be an understatement. We covered the Melo trade in enough detail – undoubtedly the most significant – and I know JT is going to cover the D-Will trade in his next piece, but I wanted to add my 2c on the Boston-OKC trade. In case you hadn’t heard, Boston dealt Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson to OKC for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. I think Hollinger might be spot on with this one. This trade seems to be an admission from Boston that their greatest threat is Miami and San Antonio, rather than Orlando and LA. Which means this deal will make Ainge look like a genius, or a complete idiot, depending on who they face come May/June. If it’s the Heat/Spurs, then they’re now better equipped having an extra wing who isn’t 35 years old, and shedding the excess weight of Perkins (who lets face it might never be the same again). If it’s the Magic/Lakers then the Celtics will be hopelessly undersized, certainly against LA.

Put it simply, there’s just no way I can see the Celtics beating the Lakers now if they meet in the Finals (and for the record I still have LA as my #1 out West). No way. Size, physicality and defense was their edge. That was Boston Celtics basketball for the last three years. The kind of basketball that could have very easily seen them three-peat with a bit of injury luck. To me, Perkins was even more important this season because of the fading KG, and there is no one better – arguably in the entire league – at playing the role of badass defensive bully than Kendrick Perkins. KG needed Perkins to carry that mantle, to be that enforcer, to huff and puff and try to piss off every opposition center as much as possible. Hell, we know that’s the only way to beat guys like Howard and Gasol. Get in their head, get nasty. Make it less about skill and finesse (because they have you beat there) and more about psychological warfare. It’s that intangible quality that made the Celtics such a formidable opponent the last few years. And now it’s gone. Now their identity changes, and I just cannot see how it’s a change for the good. Because even though the Heat and Spurs might be their main threat now, when the Celtics are in the pressure-cooker in May/June, they won’t have that old edge to fall back on. They can’t be the bullies any more. They could try, but I don’t think they pull it off without Perkins.

It’s not all about the Celtics of course. How will the Thunder fare now with a playoff battle-tested center? Marginally better I say. It gives them a big frontline to throw at their Western counterparts and it allows Ibaka to slide to a more natural 4 position. But it does limit their ability to stretch the floor, which Green did so well. Being able to dangle a shooting PF on the perimeter kept the defense very honest and opened up a lot of holes – essential given how brilliant Durant and Westbook are in iso situations. I think they will sorely miss that, but they will adapt, and if it means putting up less points and slowing down the offense, so be it. Whatever the Thunder lost in offense and entertainment-value, they’ve more than made up for in defense and size. And that, apparently, is what wins you championships.

PS – for a good team-by-team summary of the trade period, check out this post at Both Teams Played Hard.

FOUR: Given the All-Star weekend fanfare in LA and the upcoming Oscars, seems like the perfect time to check out the Lakers at the Movies. A fun read over at Forum Blue and Gold.

FIVE: I’ve directed you over to Hoop Speak before. I do so again thanks to a couple of outstanding recent posts, more like lessons actually:

Basketball Culture 101: The Echoes of the Game, by Patrick Hayes

Basketball Culture 101: The Revolution was not televised, by Jared Wade.

Class is now in session. Happy studying.

SIX: So Ray Allen broke the record. We counted down the occasion, celebrated, then went about our normal lives again. Just like Ray. While it may have seemed like somewhat of a race between Reggie and Ray, the reality is when the history books are written, it won’t even be close. Ray Allen will finish his career several hundred threes in front of Reggie Miller, barring a shock retirement anytime soon. Reggie will always be #2 from now on. His countless heroic playoff moments perhaps diminished now that the title of Leading Three-point Shooter of All Time has been stripped from him. It’s all Reggie really had anyway. It’s the only record/accomplishment that he owned, that separated him from his peers. It’s why I’m not overly surprised/upset that Reggie was snubbed from the Hall of Fame ballot this year. And it got me thinking, where does he rank amongst the All-Time great shooting guards? More importantly, where does Ray now rank?

In a poll of NBA experts three years ago, the top 10 shooting guards of all-time were ranked. Unsurprisingly MJ was #1. Kobe was #2, which may have irked some people at the time, but two championships later there’s little debating his worthiness of that spot. Jerry West at #3 is a lock, and then it gets interesting. George Gervin was given the #4 ranking, a phenomenal scorer but pretty lousy at everything else, including winning (Bill Simmons section on Gervin vs Sam Jones is one of the highlights of his book). Iverson was #5, perfectly defensible at the time but seems funny now given how his career crashed and burned, then exploded, burned some more, then completely melted down. At #6 was Clyde which I’m fine with. Reggie comes in at #7 (which seems high), Maravich at #8 (likewise), Earl Monroe at #9 (acceptable) and then Joe Dumars at #10 (whom I would have higher but I’m of course biased).

Here’s the interesting part. The article lists all the other shooting guards who polled votes but didn’t make the Top 10. The lists reads as follows, votes in brackets: Sam Jones (31), Dwyane Wade (23), Hal Greer (19), David Thompson (14), Bill Sharman (9), Dave Bing (6), Tracy McGrady (5), Sidney Moncrief (5), Manu Ginobili (4 and read this), Ray Allen (3), Paul Arizin (2), Vince Carter (2), Dennis Johnson (1), Gail Goodrich (1), Drazen Petrovic (1), Mitch Richmond (1), Jimmy Walker (1).

Did you see Ray in there? Buried behind Manu, and just one vote ahead of Vince Carter? This was less than three years ago folks. This was after Ray had already put in 12 quality seasons, earned 8 All-Star appearances, made two All-NBA teams, and single-handedly carried the Bucks/Sonics for a decade. What I think this shows more than anything, quite strikingly, is not how underappreciated Ray may have been at the time – I actually think his ranking was pretty accurate for early 2008 – but how much his legacy has grown in the past three years. I’ve said this before, but I can’t recall a great player stretching his legacy to even greater heights in the 13th, 14th and 15th seasons of their career. This is not about longevity. Guys like Kobe and Kareem and Malone have Ray beat there. This is about re-writing your place in the history books after the history lesson was supposedly already delivered. Kobe was already a Top 5 SG of All-Time after about 8 seasons. Kareem won 5 MVP awards in his first decade. Malone, despite not winning his MVPs until his 12th and 14th seasons, was already considered one of the greatest power forwards of all time by that stage.

But Ray? He didn’t even crack the Top 20 at his position after 12 seasons (if you trust those rankings). The last few years of his career wasn’t supposed to change much. But a championship and three quality seasons with Boston has changed things. Substantially. Ray has given us more heroics and memorable moments in three years than his entire previous 12 seasons. Not just memorable games, but legendary games. The game-winners against the Bulls in ‘09, the 51 in the same series, the 8 threes in Game 2 of the 2010 Finals. Not just that, but three seasons of sustained quality and character; the perfect teammate, the consummate professional, the ultimate competitor. Ray Allen is everything right about the NBA, on and off the court. A true ambassador. And this isn’t a role bestowed upon him out of courtesy for an aging veteran (i.e. Derek Fisher). This is while Ray continues to completely kick butt on the court. He’s still Ray, still classy and smooth and all that jazz. But he will rip your heart out come playoff time, as well as anyone who’s ever played the game.

Which begs the question. Where does Ray rank now? If those NBA experts were to re-submit their ballot in 2011, where does Ray sit amongst the best shooting guards in NBA history? Does he crack that top 10? Is he higher than Reggie now?

Here’s my take. He absolutely cracks the top 10. He has to be higher than Reggie. I put him only behind MJ, Kobe, Wade, West, Iverson, Sam Jones (only because I’ve read Simmons book) and Drexler. And it was touch-and-go with Clyde. He only gets the nod because he was an extremely well-rounded player (as I elaborated on a few years back) and like Ray, sustained a high-level of play well into his 13th, 14th and 15th seasons (before he then retired).

But after Clyde? It has to be Ray. In 8th position. Then Gervin, then Reggie in 10th. Ray Allen has become one of the Top 10 shooting guards in NBA history. I’m convinced. The only real knock on him, and why you might argue Reggie deserves to be higher, is that Ray never really proved himself as a franchise player. He was a franchise player in the same way Joe Johnson was (and I wrote about that here). The Bucks and Sonics were never taken seriously with Ray as their leader, with the exception of 2000-2001 when Ray’s teammates included Glenn Robinson still churning out 22ppg and Sam Cassell in his prime. That team was close to making the Finals, but would have been embarrassed by Shaq and the Lakers anyway (in the same way Philly was). For the next 7 years of Ray’s prime he never made it past the Conference Semifinals, played on a few sub-500 teams in Seattle, and was largely a forgotten superstar. Contrast that to Reggie Miller who was The Man in Indiana for a long, long time. Lead his team through numerous deep playoff battles, went head-to-head with MJ admirably in 1997-98 (the closest any team was to dethroning the Bulls during their run), and had a whole bunch of clutch moments.

Thing is, Ray has had more clutch moments. Thanks to the last few years in green, Ray has had more meaningful playoff games than Reggie ever did. Ray has been an All-Star 10 times – that’s twice as many as Reggie did. In his prime Ray was pulling down 5+ boards and dishing 5+ assists – Reggie in his prime was doing 3 and 3. So if you think Ray is one-dimensional, Reggie was even more so. Ray helped shutdown Kobe Bryant in the 2008 Finals – I don’t remember Reggie ever doing anything remotely similar to MJ in his prime. And when it comes to scoring, Ray topped 22ppg in 8 seasons, while Reggie only did it twice.

Surely all this matters more than Reggie’s claim to being a “better franchise player”, especially when Reggie wasn’t a particularly good franchise player – he never cracked the top 10 in MVP voting (Ray did it once). So if you’re making that knock on Ray, better think twice before you stand in Miller’s corner.

In my book it’s not even close. Ray was, and is, the better basketball player. If he had played the lone wolf role for his entire career, like Reggie did, then maybe we could make a fairer assessment. Maybe they’d be equal. But Ray was able to reinvent himself late, cleverly navigating the role of second and third banana for a Boston team that won a championship.

He has the ring. He has the three-point record. And in the first year he qualifies for that Hall of Fame ballot, you can bet your smooth ass that Ray won’t be missing out.


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