By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted May 19 2009 11:19AM
Even if Anderson Varejao had his same Sideshow Bob cut and flopped his way from here to Santa Teresa and back again, he'd barely be anything other than a moderately irritating import had it not been for the Cavs' 2007 Playoffs run. That's where he made his name, established a rep -- even built a brand. He knee-burned, sneaky-elbowed and RAZZIE-acted his way onto the sports world's radar because he was performing on the grand stage of the postseason.
When the stakes are raised, performances and players count for more. Because we see them on national television day-after-day for weeks, role players become household names, stars become superstars, superstars become legends ... you get it. And, oh, vice-versa happens, too. Stars turn to goats, flaws are scrutinized, legacies are tarnished. This all happens between April and June.
Take the first two rounds. Aaron Brooks hits up L.A. for 34 in that Game 4 upset, rocks the cherry red blazer and, boom, he's now an NBA B-lister. His teammate, Ron-Ron Artest, took the stage and furthered the long and arduous task of repairing his rep as a ballplayer and human being. The postgame press conferences, where he was able to show a little bit of newfound maturity and finally showcase the league's quirkiest personality, gave Artest a newer, better rep. He returns next season as the quotable, facilitating screwball, more so than the punch-throwing thug.
Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo played their ways into the "best PGs on the planet" convo. Ray Allen cemented and, if anyone needed proving, legitimized a Hall of Fame career with his ice-cube jumpers against Chicago and Orlando. What about Ben Gordon? Did he play himself into the contract he was gunning for (no pun) all along? Joe Johnson probably played his way OUT of the Real Franchise Player strata, coming up smaller than we all wanted when it counted most. This stuff is only possible in the spring.
Now we have four squads left, with a fluid marquee looking to add and subtract names. Besides that ultimate goal of a 'ship, there are a lot of players with a lot at stake. We know that THE debate of the past couple years -- "Kobe or LeBron" -- is just waiting to get settled in June. But that's not the only compelling story arc that can/will come out of the last three Playoffs series of the '09 postseason.
Remember 2003? That March/April, Carmelo Anthony capped off the greatest and most captivating freshman season since Kenny Anderson took the NCAA by storm in 1990. Syracuse won the title, on the coattails of some truly great all-around play from 'Melo (he was a rebounder and a distributor back then, too) and so it began: "LeBron and 'Melo." That was supposed to be the new milleny's "Bird and Magic." Except LeBron went on his Metroid odyssey and 'Melo always seemed like he was sprinting in a pool. LeBron collected All-NBAs and All-Star MVPs and hoisted the dreadful '07 Cavs to the Finals, while 'Melo was getting ousted in the first round and caught with weed in airports.
But now he's arrived in the conference finals, playing with as legitimate of a contender as there is ... and it's all happening while he's gone berserk on defenses. Everyone is now seeing what was getting lost in behavioral mishaps and postseason disappointments. 'Melo is as good and complete of a scorer as we've seen in years. (I'm not new to this bandwagon, either; and I got archives to prove it.)
If 'Melo continues his effortless 30-point binges through a competitive conference finals and, perhaps, NBA Finals, then we mention him with Kobe, LeBron and DWade from now on. If he scrubs out, then he either gets blamed for the Nuggs' loss or Billups continues to get the lion's share of Denver's credit and 'Melo stays on the second-tier of stars, the Afterthought Stars, the "oh, yeah, 'Melo and Joe Johnson and Chris Bosh -- yeah, they're dope, too, but they ain't Kobe/Bron/DWade" stars.
Why did it take, like, 85 players getting injured before Mo Williams was invited to the All-Star game? No respect, that's why. If you talked to anyone in the Cavs organization, Mo was given almost as much credit as LeBron for Cleveland's success. Yet, he is EASILY the most ignored "second-best player" on a 66-win team that I can remember. Part of that has to do with LeBron's brilliance and our fascination/fixation with his all-encompassing impact. But a lot has to do with the blinders. The Cavs -- and Mo -- are going to benefit from having their first competitive series of the Playoffs. (There's no way Cleveland is sweeping Orlando.)
This is Mo's chance to either prove that he's a viable second-option worthy of an inclusive "The Big Two" tag or, through a series of lackluster, non-descript and/or dependent-play performances, Williams can reinforce his rep as merely a complimentary piece. I need to see Mo (as I've seen many times this season) take over stretches of the game -- especially when LeBron is getting rest (you know, those times where's he's on the sidelines, waving a towel and doing the "stanky leg") -- and showcase some undeniable Second Banana skills when it really matters. Then, I'd assume, he won't have to wait for Jose Calderon to sprain his ankle next season to get an All-Star berth.
Pau Gasol will either man-up against Denver's big man trio of basketball renegades or he'll get his skirt pulled up again, but I'm paying special attention to Trevor Ariza. Even though L.A. is on national television about 300 times a year and Lakers Nation is overbearing and loud, Ariza is still somewhat of an unknown commodity. This is really his first year as a rotation-player for any squad. Too young with the Knicks, injured with the Magic -- this whole season has been his coming out party.
'Melo will be his assignment in the conference finals. What if he gives 'Melo fits? And what if it's Ariza that seems like the only Laker, other than Kobe, able and willing to match the Nuggs' athleticism and intensity? What if he's L.A.'s third- or second-best player, the Lakers advance and then he puts on an encore against the Cavs or Magic? Think about how that would bolster his rep (and even Q rating, living in L.A.). Then think about how this is his contract year, too. The future $$ at stake here is crazy.
If Ariza struggles throughout the series, clangs his treys, commits dumb fouls (which is not a rarity for him), loses his playing-time to Luke Walton and stumbles, it could cost him tens of millions of dollars -- especially in this economy. If he shines, he could be looking at a six-year, $42 - $50M contract. Now that's high stakes.
And then there's Dwight Howard. I want Howard to be great. Not really good. Great. Because he's such a nice dude and an engaging personality, my man gets too many passes. Folks seem to be cool with him being just really good. But how -- when Dwight was calling for the ball, through the press, after a Game 5 loss to Boston -- could folks not point out the abundantly clear fact that dumping it down to Howard in the post only results in awkward, ugly jump-bricks or 50/50 missed free throws?
You know why he got 16 shots in Game 6 as opposed to 10 in Game 5? Because he grabbed nine offensive rebounds in Game 6. Howard is the NBA's supreme rebounder and one of its best shot blockers. He controls the paint on defense more than any other player in the league. I dig that. But, at the end of the day, his offensive flaws and liabilities relegate him to much more of a Franchise Role Player than an actual Real Franchise Player. If Howard struggles with foul trouble and can't get his normal put-backs and alley-oops against the Cavs' deep and physical frontcourt, it might finally pull back his curtain.
Or ... he can Young Shaq his way to a dominating series where he makes Ben Wallace and Big Z look old and Varejao look like a baig-hair, um, clown. He can either prove that, yeah, he's limited and not what we want him to be or he can give us a new version of dominance. Only in the Playoffs.
You can either go the 1996 Nick Anderson or 1994 Sam Cassell route. Shrink back or step up. Make or soil your name and game. It's springtime.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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