I typically don’t watch much preseason basketball. I might peep a game if there’s particular rookie I’m checking for or a player returning from injury or a new look squad with a revamped roster, but preseason Suns-Spurs has about .009834 percent of the meaning of a regular season Suns-Spurs. I have 82 games and six months to check for that kind of minutia and the more important things like whether Terry Porter’s new philosophy is working well in Phoenix. Instead of wasting my time watching these meaningless games (that is, unless I’m attending them live for work), I spend October mulling over questions, possible trends and bubbling-issues. Here are some things on my mind this preseason…
The New Era of Big Men: If/when Greg Oden or Andrew Bynum are on television this preseason, I’ll definitely carve out some time to watch them. Their careers are important, given that the center position has been relatively dormant (besides and, honestly, because of Shaq) for the past 10 years. I’m not going to use this as another occasion to slam Dwight Howard. I like Dwight, even think he’s a force to be reckoned with. But he’s like a glorified Kendrick Perkins — a specimen and presence, but not a ball-player. Oden and Bynum are ball-players. They play with a young intellect, heft and skill of the Duncans, Ewings, Olajuwons and Robinson before them.
One thing that doesn’t get nearly enough mention is the fact that Oden virtually learned how to play the full game of basketball with his off-hand, while injured at Ohio State. When he finally stepped on the court as a frosh, homeboy was shooting free throws left-handed, shot a surprisingly reliable left-handed jump-hook and had even rewired his defensive reaction to block shots left-handed, something that is considerably more difficult than it sounds, since it requires a number of physical adjustments. So you know he was working on something last season. He might be able to shoot 25-foot bank-shots now. There’s an intuitiveness about his game — mixed with that even-keeled demeanor — that’s so Tim Duncan, to me.
And then we have Bynum. I’ve read several news stories where the author questions Bynum’s offensive repertoire. This floors me. Have you seen his footwork? His touch around the basket? His innate ability to feel and roll off his defenders? This stuff was even apparent in his brief floor-stints as a rookie. Now homeboy is sporting an imposing physique to go with, not only, a slick set of skills, but a subtle mean-streak. Remember when he was a rookie and got frisky with Shaq? It was that first Kobe-Shaq Christmas Day matchup. The hype was bananas and Young Bynum was feeling himself, so after a nifty move on The Diesel, he purposely bumped Big Shaq while they were going up the court. Now, sure, Shaq laid him out the next time he got the rock, but that was a telling moment. Bynum was beyond presumptuous and disrespectful to try and punk Shaq (this was when Shaq was still the kingpin, even telling me weeks earlier that he was the Shogun and kats like Young Dwight and Amare were just ninjas), but, once a player comes of age, that’s the kinda hubris and swagger that I dig. Ten years from now, these two kats will have championship rings, MVPs and gold medals and I’m predicting that they’ll start down that road this season.
Who Will Be the 2009 Chris Paul?: Last season, Khalid wrote a column touting Chris Paul as the Most Improved Player. I echoed those sentiments in one of my First Take segments and (naturally) received a lot of feedback from puzzled readers and viewers. This was a lost story in the midst of Paul’s historic season (yes, historic). He went from a “great young point guard” to playing, perhaps, the best season of point guard for anyone not named Magic. That is not only a leap of play, but significance. This doesn’t happen every season and I don’t think it will happen in 2009. I don’t see any player on the cusp of true ‘greatness’.
I do suspect, however, that Josh Smith is going to make his own kind of Leap. He quietly put together one of the most productive and unique statistical seasons in recent memory, last season. Here was his stat-line in nice round numbers: 17 ppg, 8 rpg, 3 apg, 3 bpg, 2 spg. That’s bonkers. Call me a buffoon, but I think we can realistically expect a 20/10/4/3/3 season from Josh, which would make him, in a way, the second coming of KG. I also expect the Hawks to win around 44-47 games and be in 4th seed contention, which means Josh will be berserk-balling for a Playoff-squad all season…which means his play will “mean” more. By season’s end, Josh could be considered one of the eight to ten most impactful “forces” in the game.
How Much Will Steve Nash and J-Kidd Decline?: Mutoni linked to some news story about Nash possibly looking to Toronto in 2010 and the first thing I thought was, “You mean in the front office?” I’m pretty sure Kerr and the Suns will pick up Nash’s option for next season, leaving him as a free agent in the summer of 2010. In what league will a 36-year-old Nash be able to ball at an efficient level (forget high-level)? Not the NBA. We saw what happened to Kidd toward the end of this past season, having just turned 35. And Kidd was far more athletic and durable than Nash ever was. I fear that both of these kats will have Shaq 2008 seasons this year, except it’ll be worse, since no position is as deep with ridiculous talent as point guard.
Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Baron Davis, Tony Parker — not to mention Allen Iverson and Monta Ellis in their hybrid roles — and that’s just the West. Unlike Shaq, who spent most of his games going toe-to-toe with bums like the Collins Brothers or marginal kats like Brendan Haywood or Samuel Dalembert, at least a quarter of Kidd and Nash’s games as aging greats will come against significantly younger and, in many cases, better guards. It won’t be pretty. We could witness startling images like Kidd getting pressed in the backcourt, dropping to the floor and curling up with the ball in a fetal position, calling a timeout; Nash, against the Nets, so frustrated with Devin Harris’ defense that he just picks up the rock and runs to the hoop, like he’s Merrill Hodge; Kidd tripping guards as they routinely race by him; Nash getting posted up by Nate Robinson. It might look like the Apocalypse out there, for them.
It’s Time to Show-N-Prove: I don’t have a lot of patience when it comes to player’s reaching potential (which is why I find Mitch Kupchak’s stewardship of the Lakers so impressive). Each June, I latch on to some draftees and eagerly follow their first few years, expecting them to make me proud. Inevitably, two or three years later, I’m dumping ’em. Or, sometimes it’s a player I never liked, but got sledgehammered over the head with media/scout/fan accolades and, two or three years later, they’re sucking just like I thought they would. In both cases, there are a few players that need to either man-up or meekly slink into permanent ‘rotation-guy’ status — maybe even scrub or bust-status. Rashard McCants, Randy Foye, Andre Blatche, Sean May, Emeka Okafor, Adam Morisson, Charlie Villanueva — you’re on the clock.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.