Nuggets and Cavs helped by trades
The biggest winners in the trades of the past few days are players more so than teams. Yes, the Magic cleared cap space, the Knicks tripled their lead in the all-important payroll and luxury-tax race, and the Cavs and Nuggets made smart trades that could help them win a playoff series or two, though to advance further they’ll need their opponents to have the same kind of bad luck with injuries that they themselves have
The team that did the best in the short term is Denver. It took a while, but their investment in free agent Earl Watson paid off. One of the best backup point guards in the business, Watson helped the Nuggets get hot when George Karl finally gave him some court time. Now he’s helped them again by going to Seattle (where he and Luke Ridnour will make a strong point-guard tandem for years to come) for desperately needed wing and frontcourt help.
Their additions will hopefully prevent Nugget management from making the same mistake it has made in the past: allowing a gung-ho player to return from knee surgery before the knee is ready for the daily NBA grind. That happened with Antonio McDyess, and it may have happened with Kenyon Martin. Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself with Nenê and Eduardo Najera.
If Evans gets 24 minutes a night, he’ll turn the Nuggets current 2-per-game rebounding deficit to plus-2. If the Nuggets are smart, they’ll turn Evans over to assistant coach Tim Grgurich and try to help him develop a mid-range shot. He doesn’t have to be guarded (though he certainly has to be boxed out), which is why his minutes have been limited and why he rarely played down the stretch last season when he was still in the Sonics’ rotation. He’s coordinated and coachable, and with some decent offensive skills he could be the next Paul Silas.
One thing I’ll be watching: The thing I like most about Karl is that he’s a very public critic of flopping. Evans is a notorious flopper, and we’ll see if Karl is willing to denounce or at least reform one of his own.
Speaking of struggling, Damon Jones might also benefit from having another guy who can break down a defense and dish. Then again, Murray might wind up taking Jones’ minutes rather than sharing time with him.
The Cavs aren’t in the same league as the Pistons or even the Heat, but one key injury to either team would give the Cavs a shot at the East title, and injuries often play a huge role in the postseason.
ORLANDO'S FANS WIN BIG
Time will tell if Orlando got better from its trade with Detroit. But the Magic certainly became more interesting and entertaining, which is important for someone – me, for example – who lives within its central Florida TV market.
I’m glad Darko Milicic will finally get a chance to show what he’s got. My hunch, from the few glimpses of Darko in non-garbage time, is that if he develops and reaches his full potential, he’ll be a good player rather than a great one. But a good, young, seemingly skilled center/forward who can play outside and inside would make a nice sidekick for Dwight Howard.
One concern is that the current Magic coaching staff hasn’t distinguished itself in developing big guys (though I like the progress guards Jameer Nelson, DeShawn Stevenson and Keyon Dooling have made). The awesomely gifted Howard is stagnating. He’s had the good left hand since he entered the league, and he can rebound in his sleep. But if the refs aren’t letting him dislodge, as sometimes happens, his low-post game is so-so. Also, he hasn’t shown anything from mid-range, and his falling free-throw percentage is the result of obvious flaws that go undetected and uncorrected. Dwight and Darko need to do more than play. They need to develop.
Playmaker Carlos Arroyo has a chance to be the poor man’s Steve Nash. He’s one of the niftiest passers in the game, and if head coach Brian Hill can resist the urge to micromanage Arroyo and give him the freedom to make some mistakes (and hopefully learn from them), he just might be as effective as he is entertaining. He’s probably a weaker defender than below-average Nash. But the Suns do a nice job of covering up Nash’s shortcomings on defense while exploiting his marvelous gifts on offense. Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have a cow when Nash occasionally dribbles too much, and Hill should follow suit with Arroyo. Maybe every three games or so Hill could sit down with Arroyo and review the tapes, pointing out any glaring examples of ball-monopolizing. Arroyo lost his mojo in Utah because Jerry Sloan frequently yanked him out of games but apparently didn’t make much of an effort to explain exactly what he was doing wrong. It’s hard to play well when you become scared of making a mistake and getting yanked. Regular playing time and occasional constructive criticism could do wonders for Arroyo.
I don’t see Arroyo having a dramatic impact on the win-loss column, as the Magic are in rebuilding mode and will benefit from losing Steve Francis’s salary now and Grant Hill’s after next season. But anyone who remembers the show Arroyo put on in 2004 as the leader of the Puerto Rican Olympic team knows that, in the meantime, he can make his teammates and Magic fans – including a sizeable Spanish-speaking contingent in and around Orlando – very happy.
BIG BREAK FOR FRANCIS
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think a free-wheeling player such as Francis would benefit from going to a control-freak coach. But Larry Brown might be just the guy to resurrect his career. Francis got off to a good start in Orlando in 2004, but he couldn’t sustain it. He’s been even more erratic – on the floor and off – this season. In Brown, Francis will have a stern taskmasker and a stickler for details who will force Francis to shape up his game, which has deteriorated in several respects. His decision-making, shooting and defense have all slipped.
Brown loves to teach. Players, particularly guards (Brown was an All-Star point guard in the ABA), not only improve their strong suits under his tutelage, they become more complete players. Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton are delighted to be playing for Flip Saunders, but you don’t hear them bad-mouthing Brown. That’s because they made great strides under him. Hamilton became more than just a catch-and-shoot maestro (though Brown’s trey phobia delayed Rip’s emergence as a deadly long-distance marksman), and Billups dramatically improved as a quarterback. He continued to shoot lights out, but under Brown he developed a better feel for when to take over and when to focus on distributing. It took a while for each guy to fully grasp what their perfectionist coach wanted, but it paid off in the long run. The same can happen with Francis. Brown’s reputation as a teacher and a player will make it much more easy for a stubborn guy like Francis to do what his coach wants, which hasn’t exactly been his strong suit.
The most common criticism of Francis is that he has, as Kenny Smith delicately puts it, “dribble diarrhea” – that is, he loves to eat up the shot clock bouncing away and figuring out how and when he’ll attack the paint. (George Karl has helped Carmelo Anthony overcome a milder case of the same disease.) That’s the first thing Brown will cure Francis of. He simply won’t play if he keeps it up. Also, he’ll be sharing the backcourt with Stephon Marbury, who’s a much better point guard than Francis.
I actually like what I hear from Brown and Isiah Thomas about wanting “basketball players” who can do everything rather than pigeon-holed 1’s and 2’s with strictly defined roles and limitations. Still, you need a primary quarterback, and that has to be Marbury. Francis will have to learn to move without the ball and, when he gets it, to make quick decisions. Norm Nixon made the transition when Magic Johnson arrived in L.A., and the two won titles in 1980 and 1982, so it can be done. (And no, I am not saying the Knicks backcourt is comparable to that awesome Laker duo.)
The other day Charles Barkley said that Francis hasn’t gotten any better in his seven NBA seasons. Barkley was too kind, for Francis has actually gotten worse. He shot better the first two years of his career – within and especially beyond the arc – than he has the last two, where he has had the benefit inside the arc of the guard-friendly rule changes. His numbers should be going up, not down.
It will be b-ball bootcamp for Francis, and if he works hard and does what the meticulous drill sergeant tells him, the second half of his career could be more fulfilling than the first half. But don’t look for dividends this season. Francis and the Knicks have a very long way to go.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets. Read more of his work at his weblog, http://dennishans.blogspot.com
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