Prior to awards, Smith looks at the season's biggest disappointments
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.
The NBA sent out its annual awards ballots late last week. So you’ll begin to see various media members making their selections in the next week or so as the ballots are due the last day of the regular season, April 26.
I’ll offer my picks next week, though in some of the early reports I think it’s pretty clear LeBron James will win MVP. ESPN has long been on the James train. But I found it interesting that all seven Sports Illustrated writers selected James to win the MVP, the only category their vote was unanimous. You’d think if there was one category there would be a unanimous winner it would be Kyrie Irving for Rookie of the Year. But there was a first place vote for Ricky Rubio.
James certainly has had a great statistical season. But watching the Heat you see James run away from big moments all the time, miss key late free throws constantly and often defer to Dwyane Wade. He’s a great player and talent, for sure, but unanimous league MVP? Not even a debate? I don’t even have him in the top two. Could I be wrong?
Anyway, before I offer my debate next week, it’s time to take a look at this season’s Least Valuable, Least Improved and Littlest Men, the players who have been the biggest disappointments this season. There are always players who don’t do well. But this is more a look at the players who were expected to do much better.
Lamar Odom: The formerly best sixth man and matchup nightmare was a nightmare for the Mavericks, who, to their credit, gave him every chance and defense before basically cutting him. No one had a bigger statistical drop. Or emotional meltdown as he demanded a trade after being insulted he was included in the initial Chris Paul deal and then came up with a season’s worth of excuses to explain his giving up.
Stephen Jackson: Although he hasn’t been the distraction expected with the trade to Milwaukee, he seems to have lost his lift and shot. His scoring average is his lowest in 10 years while he’s shooting 36 percent and 29 percent on threes. Of course, he also asked for an extension earlier in the season. Well, maybe he was a bit of a distraction.
Andray Blatche: The Wizards sent him home almost a month ago under the guise of conditioning, though just to get him away from the other players. Here was the most dysfunctional team in the league with guys like JaVale McGee and Nick Young acting out and Rashard Lewis taking the season off and they had to get him out of there. He did play 26 games with a scoring average about half of what he averaged last season and 38 percent shooting for an interior seven footer.
Wes Johnson: He’s looking like one of the biggest disappoints of the 2010 draft at No. 4 and with all the opportunity in the world with Minnesota improving yet having so many injuries. He’s averaging 6.1 points, a drop of about a third from his unimpressive rookie season, even with so many opportunities as guys have gone out and shooting below 40 percent overall and below 30 percent on threes.
Tyrus Thomas: He’s basically fallen out of the rotation for maybe the worst ever NBA team. His scoring and rebounding numbers are the lowest since his rookie season and his shooting at about 36 percent is by far the lowest in his career. His basketball IQ, if possible, seems even lower than when he came to the Bulls and barely knew which was the basket he was to shoot for. The amazing thing is his tremendous talent making him perhaps the most unmotivated player ever.
Jamal Crawford/Ray Felton/Wes Matthews: All are having career or next to career low scoring and shooting seasons, which basically explained why Nate McMillan didn’t finish the season. As for Jamal, he never was a great shooter. But his overall average is his lowest since his rookie year and his threes are lowest ever for him at 31 percent. His overall scoring average is his lowest in 10 years.
Carl Landry: One of my favorite players who was on the verge of a Paul Millsap like breakthrough a few years ago, he’s suffered with the trades back and forth with the Hornets. His scoring average is at his career level, but his hustling impact has been missing, though perhaps since no one watches the Hornets maybe we didn’t notice. Still, even on a team like that we should have heard more from him.
Devin Harris: He’s come back a bit in recent weeks. But this was a guy who was an All-Star a few years back, almost unstoppable in the pick and roll. But he’s become a mostly indifferent players averaging his fewest points in six years and having little impact as the team changes around him and lists perhaps its biggest need a point guard.
Andris Biedrins: It’s shocking how far he’s regressed in a Tyrus-esque fall. Once regarded as a hustling, defensive oriented big man like Joakim Noah it seems a free throw shooting mental block from a few seasons ago has overcome him to the point he almost cannot play, sort of a basketball version of Steve Blass, Steve Sax and Dontrelle Willis. He is one of nine on free throws this season.
Shane Battier: Miami’s big offseason addition has been a bust and teetering on not even being a major post season factor. His scoring and shooting are at career lows and his defense is poor like Sunday when Carmelo Anthony torched him, as most players do now. But he remains very likeable.
Ben Gordon/Charie Villanueva: Perhaps it’s part lack of play, but to watch Gordon at times you cannot be surprised. He seems to have lost his zest for the game with the turmoil in Detroit. Once perhaps the game’s most feared late shooter, he often isn’t even on the floor in such situations. He’s averaging about what he did last season, both by far career lows. Villanueva, for some reason, rarely, if ever plays after the duo was the Pistons big free agent acquisitions two years ago as Detroit passed on Carlos Boozer for them.
Trevor Ariza: One of those terminal bad decisions when he was insulted the Lakers didn’t give him a raise and only offered him about $40 million, so he went in a pout to New Orleans. Sort of like Shelley Long leaving Cheers. He’s now fallen out of a bad rotation with poor shooting and little impact.
Jason Richardson: He’s having his poorest shooting and scoring season. Perhaps it’s because of all the Dwight Howard distractions, but he’s practically invisible on a team that was looking for just one guy to step up and do something. Partners in indifference include Glen Davis and Jameer Nelson.
Chuck Hayes: One of those players who was way underrated until he became way overrated. Pretty much back to being the non factor he was early in his career in Houston as a 6-5 guy whom no one said could play inside until he did, and now he can’t again. Though a bad team sinks many boats.
Austin Daye: He seemed like he had the skills to be something of an Odom sort of matchup problem guy. Perhaps it’s the losing and confusion with the Pistons. But he can’t shoot anymore, about 20 percent on threes and 32 percent overall, and is lost in the bench shuffle for a team that needs young talent to do something.
Vince Carter: Not sure what we were expecting, but there wasn’t much. He’s at career lows in scoring — half his rookie season — and shooting and rebounding. Minutes, too, though with 25 a game there’s still not much impact. Though after what we saw in Phoenix last season maybe it was too much to ask for much.
Caron Butler: Maybe it’s too much to ask after coming off last season’s major surgery. But he seemed OK and signed a big contract. But the pop just isn’t there anymore with eight year lows in scoring and shooting. As well as impact, which you should have more of playing with Chris Paul.
NBA's D-League coming up BIG
-- There’s the Cavs down two to the Pacers last week with seconds left and drawing up a play to Lester Hudson to tie the game at the end of regulation. Hudson scores. There’s the Bulls needing a big shot to send their game with Miami Thursday into overtime and C.J. Watson hits the big three while playing for Derrick Rose. There’s the Nets pulling off a pair of unlikely wins last week over the Cavs and 76ers thanks to Gerald Green with 32 against Cleveland and 23 over the 76ers. What they all have in common is one of the biggest, though subtle stories in the NBA this season, the role of the D-league. There are more than 100 players on NBA rosters this season.
Regarded a decade ago when it started as a low level, embarrassing stopover for NBA washouts, the D-League now is looking more like a Major League baseball type AAA feeder system. And it’s likely to become even more significant in coming years. There are nine NBA teams that either own D-league teams or have so called hybrid relationships where they control basketball operations.
The rules haven’t changed in that all D-league players are free agents except those on NBA rosters who go to the D-league. But with economic issues in Europe and thus fewer jobs and money available and with NBA teams sending fewer scouts to Europe because of economic reasons, players are now finding it easier to get back to the NBA through the D-league. And even get paid, which doesn’t always happen overseas. Plus, the new NBA labor agreement is raising the penalties on luxury tax. As a result, many teams are having to complete their rosters with lower paid D-league players because they have to many high salaried so called stars. Plus, the new labor deal allows teams to send any player in the first three years of his rookie deal to the D-league while any veteran player can go to the D-league with his consent.
One of the biggest stories in the NBA this season was Jeremy Lin, who came out of the D-league. There are key players starting or playing major roles on rosters of top teams from the D-league like Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley, Lou Williams, Gary Forbes, Gary Neal and Steve Novak. The Bulls have three with Watson, John Lucas and Mike James again.
“If you’re still trying to get into the NBA and you don’t go to camp with a team and if you go to Europe its out of sight out of mind, so if you still believe you’re an NBA player your option is to go to the D-league,” said James, a 36-year-old veteran of 10 NBA years. “You have to put your pride to the side but also understand the D-league is no longer just a young man’s league but anyone’s league who is trying to make it back into the NBA. Now that’s the farm system to get back to the NBA.
“When I first came up I heard so many nightmares about the CBA and the D-league I said, ‘I’ll never play there,’” said James. “But then I wound up playing in the CBA for Stacey King in Rockford. I understood I probably would never have made it to the NBA if I didn’t play in the CBA, and now it’s the same way with the D-league. You can make money in Europe, but the question is whether you still have an NBA dream. If you can play and there is something inside of you, someone is going to see you in the D-league.”
D-league vice president Chris Alpert notes that the D-league is also the NBA’s referee training ground with half the current refs having come through the D-league. It’s also a training ground for coaches with players like former Bull Donyell Marshall coaching there and several former D-league coached currently on NBA staffs. And there's health insurance, no small thing anymore.
Vincent sets the record straight
-- The Bulls are in Charlotte this week to face what is becoming one of the worst seasons ever. The worst ever season was the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers are 9-73, a percentage of .110. The Bobcats are 7-52 for .118, and if they lose out, which is quite possible the way they have been blown out for the last few weeks, they’ll be 7-59 and a winning percentage of slightly less than those infamous 76ers. Plus, it would be a 23-game losing streak to end the season. The symmetry has been painfully obvious in being Michael Jordan’s number, and there’s been debate of late about Jordan’s competency as an executive. Former Bobcats coach Sam Vincent got caught up in it with a Washington Post story quoted questioning Jordan’s work ethic. I caught up with Vincent, who now is a chapter director for the retired players’ association, and he was a bit embarrassed. He said he was misunderstood in his comments and they really didn’t reflect his opinions regarding Jordan and the Bobcats. Actually, Vincent said if the context were better he would have explained he thinks Jordan is actually doing things the right way now and he believes there are big things ahead for the Bobcats.
“I’d like to set the record straight and admit I didn’t do the best job expressing myself,” said Vincent. “I don’t know if there was an agenda regarding Michael, but I feel my answers were used out of context. Yes, there were times Michael was criticized for not being involved.
“But I will tell you this,” Vincent continued, “There is going to be a very fortunate man coaching the Bobcats soon. I love what Michael is doing and the patience he is showing in building what I think will be a winner. I will always appreciate the experience I gained while working with the Bobcats organization and the insights MJ shared with me during my season as head coach. He was always there when I had a question or concern.
“The route MJ is taking isn’t popular, but it’s the right thing,” said Vincent. “He had a team built around good, but not great players in Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace, and had a ceiling of just making the playoffs. That’s nice for an ongoing story during the season, but it’s dishonest with your fans. MJ is about winning and winning big. He’s been adding talented, young players through the draft and is in position to land a high level player in a good draft this season. He hasn’t been impatient and gone recklessly into free agency for a quick fix player and he has a nice management team in place now. He’s positioned himself well under the salary cap and players will want to play in Charlotte.
“I know people like to beat up Michael about some of his picks,” said Vincent. “But a big part of being a great executive is being lucky, and Michael hasn’t been. They say he picked Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison. OK, look at those drafts. After Kwame was Tyson Chandler, who took before four or five teams to get it. Then Pau Gasol, who was good, but then Eddy Curry. And how about when he picked Morrison. Andrea Bargnani was No. 1, and then the Bulls could have had LaMarcus Aldridge but traded him for Tyrus Thomas. What about right after Michael the Hawks picking Shelden Williams? Would Oklahoma City have Durant if they were No. 1. Or Greg Oden? Should the Bulls have Derrick Rose with the ninth best odds in the lottery? What about the Spurs and Tim Duncan? Where would they be if the Celtics, who had the best odds, got Duncan and where would Rick Pitino be if he got Duncan instead of Chauncey Billups? So Michael is hardly alone in not being fortunate. But I think he’s due. I loved living in Charlotte. It’s a great sports town and a great basketball area. I think we will look back some day and wonder why we questioned what Michael could do. Though we did before as a player and I think he showed us pretty well. After all, when we played in the McDonald’s game, it was me who was the star and he was the guy we were wondering how good he could be.”
NBA news and notes
-- The Grizzlies are the West team to watch for the playoffs with what’s looking like a heck of a first round matchup with the Clippers or Lakers. Coach Lionel Hollins has cleverly meshed the lineup with Zach Randolph coming off the bench, and it’s that bench, like the Bulls’ having a big impact as O.J. Mayo had 17 in the fourth quarter in Saturday’s comeback win over the Jazz. Mayo is averaging almost 14 off the bench since the All-Star break. Which should make him an interesting restricted free agent ... Doc Rivers’ insertion of Avery Bradley into the starting lineup as an excellent on ball defender has played a big part in the Celtics post All-Star run from 15-17. But it’s been the center play of Kevin Garnett, averaging 17.3 on 51 percent shooting since the break, that’s been the surprise. And perhaps Ray Allen, now coming off the bench, put it best to Boston reporters: “You kind of reinvent yourself. People see this, and they appreciate what he does for this team in this part of his career. It shows other people you’re doing different things. Athleticism changes. Your lift isn’t that great. But you show people how efficient you are in other ways. People who are purists appreciate the little things, and they almost love a player more when he gets older because they play in a fashion you love watching, and make their teammates better.” When Bradley and Garnett play together, Boston gives up 88.8 points per 100 possessions, which is about 15 points better than the league average. Boston also allows 38.8 percent shooting and forces nearly one turnover for every assist when both are on the court ... I have to say I couldn’t imagine a Broadway play about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. But when the Bulls were in New York last week I went to see it at the Longacre Theatre and it was a performance. Even though I knew the story very well. It’s about their off court friendship and on court rivalry from the 1979 NCAAA title game to their inclusion in the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics. The play is by the producing team which previously did “Lombardi.” You know the Metta World Peace Dance Revue has to be next.
-- I’ve never been much of a fan of Danny Granger, but the Pacers’ small forward is averaging more than 22 the last 12 games with another lead scoring effort of 21 in a big road win over the Bucks Saturday. Granger’s shot selection has been much better and he’s been moving the ball. The Pacers will be a tough opponent for someone. The Pacers have pretty much locked up third in the East, which means if the Bulls get through the first round they’ll likely see the Celtics in the second round. The Bucks, meanwhile, are just about out of it three losses behind both the Knicks and 76ers ... Tough times in Orlando for a tough competitor, Chris Duhon. The former Bulls second round pick who refused the team’s advances to go to Europe and made the team anyway in 2004 has clashed with coach Stan Van Gundy, was replaced by Ish Smith and missed shootaround last week and was suspended. The Orlando Sentinel quoted it as “ongoing personal issues.” You hope some friends help him as he’s always been a serious competitor and good teammate ... So Dwight Howard maybe has a herniated disk? Now the question may be whether the Magic want him back. How big a contract can you give a guy with a serious back problem? Yes, probably $100 million if you are the desperate Nets. Though if you are Howard maybe you take that extension from the Magic as soon as you can and get some money in your bank account before having surgery. That’s right, nothing is guaranteed in this world. And maybe locking up a big contract when you can isn’t always an insulting idea ... The Knicks’ Jared Jeffries went on local radio to say the Knicks prefer the potential matchup with the Bulls because they believe Derrick Rose may be injured worse than the Bulls are saying. But the 76ers have the tougher close with six of their last seven on the road, where they are 12-15. The home game is against Indiana ... This season would have been different, at least if not for the injuries. But the Timberwolves still have not won a game in April in thee years, since April 8, 2009 ... It’s been a tough close for the 76ers, who likely will make the playoffs. There were some media reports of coach Doug Collins so called losing the locker room, which was reported also about Vinny Del Negro, who then proceeded to win 11 of their next 13. These things are always possible with teams. But the 76ers with basically the same team that was 27-55 before Collins took over will have back to back playoffs. Andre Iguodala made the All-Star team thanks to Collins’ work lobbying fellow coaches and putting Iguodala in position to be a top defender. Thaddeus Young got a $43 million contract after he’d barely been considered a mid level player and Lou Williams became a perennial Sixth Man contender. They should be holding a banquet for what Collins did for them.
-- There’s those races to get into the playoffs, and those for positioning for Anthony Davis. The Kentucky center is the likely No. 1 pick and perhaps one of those franchise changing players. Not that the Cavs injuries aren’t legitimate, but they’ve been in a free fall with a league high seven D-leagers on the roster and currently with the fifth poorest record. How great would likely Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving look with Davis? How about Davis with DeMarcus Cousins, averaging 18.9 points and 10.7 rebounds since the All-Star break? With Eric Gordon for the Hornets? That would be the conspiracy theorists’ one since the league made about $20 million on its sale. Something thrown in? With Nene in Washington to save the Wizards in the memory of Abe Pollin, one of David Stern’s closest friends? That’s where the real excitement is ... The Bobcats may have some things going in the future, but one issue that’s gotten them where they are is they have four players on the roster — Corey Maggette, Tyrus Thomas, DaSagana Diop and Matt Carrol — under consideration for amnesty ... Paul Silas may not be doing his son, Stephen, any favors having him take over as head coach for certain games as the Bobcats have suffered some major blowouts with Stephen substituting, including by 28 to the lowly Wizards ... Without Kobe, the Lakers are brutal trying to close games with virtually no organization or plan (Mike Brown apparently calling a defensive formation) both at the end of regulation and the end of the overtime, though the Lakers did win ... The Mavs are tied for seventh in the West in the loss column, two fewer that ninth place Phoenix and missing the playoffs. The defending champion Mavs close with three of their last five on the road with Saturday’s game in Chicago perhaps figuring big in their playoff fate ... Though the Wizards have been awful, John Wall’s numbers are about the same as his rookie season with one huge shocker. Wall is shooting eight percent on threes, three of 38. Wall remains in consideration to become one if the worst shooting guards in NBA history. Notorious poor shooter Rajon Rondo is shooting 22 percent on threes ... Tough start to the day last Monday when Zach Randolph in his Dodge Challenger was rear ended. It does help to be an NBA player. Randolph went home and got his Rolls Royce to drive to the game ... After being run out of the playoffs last season by Memphis, the Spurs are 4-0 over the Grizzlies this season. The fourth win was a retro 28 and 12 from Tim Duncan ... Mavs owner Mark Cuban admitted “We have derailed ourselves” with the acquisition of Lamar Odom, whom they sent home last week after Cuban challenged Odom to play and Odom apparently declined. It’s been a tough season for the supposed ideal owner. Coach Rick Carlisle is in his lame duck season without a new deal even after winning a championship and Cuban broke up a championship team that’s fighting to make the playoffs by failing to resign Tyson Chandler. Too bad he didn’t get the Cubs, eh? The Lakers also get the Mavs first round pick from the Odom deal and the Mavs will have to pay Odom a $2.4 million buyout after this season to get rid of him ... It’s probably not fair, but it does matter if you cooperate with the media. Thunder players were celebrating after a win over the Kings last week Russell Westbrook’s dunk, which many said it was the best they’d ever seen. While reporters spoke with the engaging Kevin Durant, Westbrook tried to sneak out of the locker room before reporters turned toward him ... The Thunder is 7-0 on Sundays.
-- Andrew Bynum hasn’t exactly had a carefree season, but it continues to be impressive on the court, at least inside the three point line. Bynum is averaging 21.3 points and 11.4 rebounds since the All-Star break and shooting 58.4 percent. The Lakers currently are lined up with a first round series with the Mavs, who swept them out of the playoffs last season on Dallas’ way to the title. With Sunday's win, the Lakers swept the Mavs this season ... Tough, if expected, Suns loss Saturday in San Antonio in their eighth game in eight cities in 12 days. The Bulls dealt with those early in the season. But the Suns get five of their last six at home for their shot to pass Houston or Denver for the final playoff spot. Their only road game is in Utah as the Jazz is also trying to push pass those same teams for the final playoff spot ... In the Suns Saturday loss, Steve Nash played briefly after tweaking his back. He’ll pass Oscar Robertson for fifth all time in assists as Nash at 38 battles Rajon Rondo for the assist lead. Plus, Nash may be the league’s best shooter at 54 percent overall, the only guard in the league shooting over 50 percent and seventh overall. This, by the way, eight years after Mark Cuban refused to give Nash a five year contract because he said Nash wouldn’t last that long in the league and let him go as a free agent ... The Kings haven’t seen much of John Salmons since they moved Tyreke Evans to small forward. Salmons has been out with a sore right hip since March 26 ... The Kings, offspring of the Cincinnati Royals, will honor Robertson Friday for the 50th anniversary of his triple double season, the only one in NBA history ... The Warriors were officially eliminated from the playoffs last week for the 18th time in the last 19 seasons. Is that really possible? Even the Clippers never had a run like that.