It’s that time of the month folks, when I chime in with 10 observations from the previous month’s action. Let’s get straight into it.

1.         Quotes Of The Month

“I don’t like Pau Gasol or Phil Jackson. Phil is arrogant. Pau is soft. Kobe tries to bring out his toughness, but he’s still soft.”
- Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins

Don’t hold back Perk, tell us how you really feel.

“I was just standing there, and I hoped he wasn’t going to crush my face.”
- Phoenix center Marcin Gortat, on the receiving end of a Blake Griffin monster jam (that was ruled an offensive foul)

Full marks for honesty.

“This is the system David Stern and his minions like. So that’s the system you have … I certainly can’t have an opinion because David Stern, like a lot of leaders we’ve seen in this world lately, don’t really tolerate other people’s opinion or free speech or anything. So I’m not really allowed to have an opinion.”
- Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy on Dwight Howard’s one-game suspension for exceeding the technical foul limit.

I am surprised that Stan still has two healthy knee caps after making this statement.

“I know I can score 20 or 30 points anytime I want. But I’m not that kind of a guy. I want to win. I want to play the right way.
- New Jersey’s Sasha Vujacic

Ok, so he made this statement in February, but I couldn’t resist. It seems like ‘The Machine’ has a few bolts loose.

2.         What Did We Do To Deserve Kevin?

So TNT is letting Kevin McHale commentate games now? Who’s next, Kenny Smith (please no)? Having to listen to McHale stumble and bumble his way through a broadcast (whilst repeating himself ad nauseum) is not a pleasant experience. And someone needs to tell him that laughing at your own ‘jokes’ is not a good look.

He’s terrible on TV and he was a lousy GM, so how he continues to cut a check in this league mystifies me.

3.         The 2011 NBA Draft Is Going To Be A Stinker

I am not a fan of the college game, for mine its D-grade basketball. Guard play dominates and three-point shooting is the extent of most team’s offense. And don’t get me started on the hypocrisy of college sports. But for the sake of scouting the NBA prospects I usually tune in. In terms of the quality on offer this year, its slim pickings. If you thought last years draft was weak, wait until this one plays out.

The best player in college basketball is Jared Sullinger, but he’s not coming out this year. Duke’s Kyrie Irving has enormous potential, but having missed so many games he’s behind the eight ball in terms of full-time experience at the point. And durability is a genuine concern.

The highly touted Harrison Barnes is ultra talented, but he can’t handle the ball and he’s already fallen in love with his jump shot. Derrick Williams has been impressive in the tournament and looks the goods, but he’s a tweener. And all the hype on this Perry Jones, don’t buy it, he’s ‘Brandon Wright’ type-raw and at least 3-4 years away from making a meaningful contribution (thus the perfect candidate to be drafted by the Warriors).

It’s not a good year to be expecting greatness out of the draft. Sorry Cleveland. And if I was in possession of a mid-to-late first round pick, I would be trying to avoid it like the plague.

4.         ‘No Haslem, No Title’ Revisited

In November’s edition I proposed the notion that without Udonis Haslem the Miami Heat would come up short in their championship run. I still believe this to be true, however, if in fact Haslem does return for the postseason (likely) and captures his pre-injury form (unknown), then it would be foolish to write this team off.

Their struggles against superior competition are well documented, and it’s clear the team we’ve watched this month is not championship calibre. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get there. This thing’s evolving and I suspect we are going to see a very different team come late April and May.

Why? Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. People seem to have forgotten what they’re capable of. In the 2006 NBA Finals against Dallas, Dwayne Wade single-handedly won that championship for Miami. He was Jordan-esque and if you think I am exaggerating then go to the tape.

And LeBron; if you’ve bought into the hype about him supposedly fading in the pressure moment, then you’re ignoring the bulk of the evidence. Granted, last year is the exception. He either checked out mentally because he knew he was leaving Cleveland (who can blame him), or the story about his mum had legs and it took its toll. Regardless, he was surrounded by role players and has-beens, so they weren’t going to win it all anyway.

But prior to that, the facts are indisputable. In 2007 as a 23 year old, he dragged a horrible Cavs team past the Detroit Pistons (remember his Game 5 48-point performance, and game-winning lay-up with 2 seconds left) and into the NBA Finals, where they had no business being. In 2008 he put on a Herculean effort against the Celtics, but they were beaten in the second round by the eventual champs in seven games (in Game 7 he scored 45 points). In 2009 they were topped by Orlando in the Eastern Conference Finals, but LeBron averaged an insane 39 points for the series. And I know I don’t need to remind you about his Game 2 buzzer beater (over Turkoglu) with 1 second left. He achieved all this with subpar team-mates.

This resume is not the work of a ‘choker’. Save that label for someone who actually deserves it, like ‘Wince’ Carter or Joe Johnson.

And don’t confuse me for a ‘LeBron-lover’. He’s certainly not among my favourite players and there are some aspects of his game that leave you wanting. He believes he’s a good shooter (he’s not) and his ineptitude in the post are flaws that he must improve upon. But you can’t deny what he’s accomplished, unless you have a very short memory (which obviously many people do).

I say, forget these facts at your peril. Wade and James have proven to be big game players and to count them out in February and March is pretty naive (especially with Boston being weakened from the Perkins trade).

People are pointing to the supporting cast, but for mine it’s passable (assuming they get Haslem back). Are you telling me that these guys are less talented than a Jud Buechler, Steve Kerr, Randy Brown, Luc Longley, Bill Wennington, Will Perdue etc. that surrounded Jordan and Pippen through their six titles? I don’t buy that.

I am not categorically predicting a title for the Heat this year. In fact, if I had to put money on it now it would be the Lakers. I am just saying that if Haslem can return to near full strength (he’s a crucial element), and they can sort out their end-of-game strategy during the playoffs (being the better pure scorer Wade must be the first option for a final shot), then they are more than capable of winning it all. Don’t be so quick to write them off.

5.         Q-Rich Must Play A Role for Orlando

Let’s not sugarcoat it, apart from Dwight Howard this teams as soft as butter. They’re crying out for a bit of nasty and it’s sitting on their bench in the form of Quentin Richardson.

Stan Van Gundy’s an excellent coach, but he seems slow to recognise what his team is lacking. In last year’s playoffs against Boston it was clear that Howard needed some help down low, but when he finally gave Bass a chance the series was over. And now this year they’ve got no perimeter defense, while Q-Rich looks on helplessly from the bench.

Richardson’s a hard nut who’s more than willing to ruffle a few feathers, and the guy can play. He can drain the open three and he even has a post game. He must be a part of the regular rotation if Orlando is going to do anything (apart from beating those sad-sacks in Atlanta) this postseason.

6.         Messing It Up In Milwaukee

Like I said in the preseason, they were sitting pretty with a Jennings/Bogut duo but then they went and stuffed it up with some atrocious decision making. They had two young cornerstones at point guard and center and cap space on the horizon, but with a few bad moves they’ve now locked themselves in to a mediocre future.

$102 million: that’s how much they took on when acquiring John Salmons, Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette. Clearly, they are not aware of one of the most well known rules in the NBA; don’t overpay for marginal talent (especially if you’re a small market bottom-feeder). These moves were reprehensible.

Had they stood pat in the offseason they’d probably be where they are now in terms of winning percentage. But they’d be in a much better position financially and their young guys would have had more floor time to develop. They made a smart (and cheap) acquisition in the off-season with CDR, and he replicates what Salmons or Maggette offer (very little apart from ‘volume’ shooting). And Larry Sanders is a nice prospect, so giving him more playing time would have been far more beneficial than throwing Drew Gooden out there. And unlike Gooden, at least Sanders knows his limitations as a player and doesn’t think he’s Karl Malone.

In short, the Bucks will remain the Bucks for the foreseeable future. And it may end up costing them Brandon Jennings down the line.

7.         Frye And Gortat Are Positives For The Suns

If you’re a Phoenix fan you’ve got to love the production you’re getting out of Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat. I’ve canned Frye in the past for being a one-trick pony and playing non-existent post defense, but you’ve got to hand it to the guy. He’s expanded his offensive game (he still gets a bit shot-happy from three) and improved his rebounding (although his D is still ordinary). And he’s quickly developing a reputation as a clutch performer.

With a consistent role the ‘Polish Hammer’ (otherwise known as the ‘Krakow Cruncher’) has proven to be a legit starting center in this league. And he should be starting ahead of that stiff Robin Lopez. Since the trade his averages of 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds in only 29.0 minutes, are impressive.

That being said, unless the Suns wise up and get creative here, you’re looking at a sinking ship.

8.         Give Them A Chance

Do you ever see a player rotting away on the bench, or not being used properly, and think to yourself ‘in the right situation this guy could really play’? Charlotte’s Gerald Henderson is the most recent example. The poor guy was exiled under Larry Brown, barely seeing a minute of action. But now, with Brown gone, he’s their starting two-guard and showing loads of potential.

In a situation like this it’s usually the result of a control freak coach who can’t let go of the reins. They focus solely on what the player can’t do, as opposed to valuing what he can do (and utilising that strength).

Other players that have been in a similar situation: Beasley in Miami, Bass in his first year in Orlando, Collison and Thornton early in their rookie year in New Orleans (under Byron Scott), Aaron Afflalo in Detroit and Tyler Hansbrough under O’Brien in Indiana.

I see Omri Casspi and Jason Thompson following the same path. For mine, on the right team both guys have starter potential and the chance to become very good NBA players. But they’re being used inconsistently in Sacramento so I can’t see it happening there. Another player that is yet to find his groove is OJ Mayo. When/if he finds the right fit, he has the potential to be a high level player in this league (Chicago would have been perfect).

Not enough is said about players being in the right place at the right time. It can make or break a career.

9.         Do The Lakers Miss Farmar And Vujacic?

I’ve listened with amusement lately as some people have suggested that the Lakers must be missing Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic. Are you kidding me? Just because they’ve got the green light on a bad team and are putting up numbers, doesn’t mean they’re any good.

Over the last few years they were given ample opportunity to prove their worth on a contending team, but they weren’t up to snuff. Farmar showed an inability to conform to the triangle and was regularly abused by opposing point guards. And Vujacic’s averages of 2.8 points and 1.2 rebounds last season were pathetic. They were dead weight and the Lakers are better off without them. Let’s not forget, the bench was their only weakness the last few years and these two guys were at the heart of that.

Steve Blake and Matt Barnes are a significant upgrade over these two. As is the case with Ron Artest, due to the physical nature of their games the playoffs is when their true value will be felt. And I guarantee you Steve Blake will hit some big shots in the postseason.

10.       Playoffs Here I Come

I am off to the States. Thanks to NBAMate I may have the opportunity to attend a few games in New York and Chicago during the first round of the playoffs. I still can’t believe that I’ll be there; the reality of it probably won’t hit until I walk into the stadium.

I’ll bash out a few articles in the weeks after my trip. I’ll take you through the experience of being there as a member of the media, and all that goes with it. It should be an eye-opener, that’s for sure.

Playoff basketball with a ‘backstage’ pass, and the opportunity to see Kim Kardashian in the flesh (ok, I am stretching it here); someone slap me.

Adios.

To read more of JT’s stuff, check out his blog at NBAozblog


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