Friday December 21st, 2007

Also in this column: KG deal making more sense for Minny Are Wizards better without Arenas? Contenders for '08 draft's No. 1 pick

As one cable network after another fills air time with horrid compilations of everything we already knew and were hoping to forget about 2007, now seems a good time to look at a bright side of the past. The All-Reggie Miller Team celebrates the most endangered species of NBA players who will be 35 or older during this regular season. A thorough review of league rosters Thursday turned up 20 of them, including a league-leading four Spurs (but not including Minnesota's Theo Ratliff, who will be 35 the day after the season ends).

One of them was lost Wednesday when 37-year-old Heat center Alonzo Mourning suffered a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. "It's over, it's over,'' he told teammate Udonis Haslem, before Mourning refused a stretcher in preference to limping off the court in Atlanta. "It's disappointing to even think my career will end this way,'' Mourning told reporters later.

When Miller was 35, he played 81 games and averaged 18.9 points (an improvement over his previous two seasons) in 39.3 minutes for Indiana in '00-01. In that spirit, the five survivors on this list should be celebrated for what they are still managing to do in an era when rules have been adapted to liberate and empower a younger generation of unprecedented athletic ability. In the right setting, each of these old men is still capable of helping a contender to the championship.

In each case, I'll also nominate a comparable player 23 or younger who has a chance to excel in his late 30s more than a decade from now.

5. Shaquille O'Neal, C, turns 36 in March

O'Neal routinely gets hammered for what he doesn't do, but put him in context of what he's still accomplishing as the league's oldest starting center in his 16th NBA season. He's still hard to defend one-on-one, he can still dominate for stretches, and if Miami had the wherewithal to surround him with scorers, then he surely could be a difference-maker when the games really matter in the spring.

The injury to Mourning is a big loss for O'Neal, who will feel an ever greater burden to carry his position. His numbers are down -- career lows of 14.4 points and 27.9 minutes through Thursday -- but O'Neal has been showing signs of feistiness. When I spoke with him last month, he was snapping back at accusations that he can't stay on the floor.

"We've got to do a better job of playing defense,'' he said. "I've been getting in foul trouble -- but I haven't fouled my man yet.''

While opponents used to complain that Shaq wasn't whistled enough, now in his old age the meter has swung the other way. He is routinely called for fouls that used to be ignored as incidental contact. He needs better players around him to create the kind of space that he can no longer make for himself between the limits of his age and the edicts of officials.

I'm not the only one who isn't ready to write off O'Neal.

"Look, I won three championships with the guy,'' Kobe Bryant said. "You can't win three championships [plus a fourth with Miami in 2005-06] if you don't have the heart of a lion.''

Heir Apparent: Dwight Howard, 22. Orlando's dynamic center has the physical presence to dominate deep into his 30s, with low-post skills that are bound to continue improving as he ages.

4. Kurt Thomas, F/C, turns 36 in October

Thomas missed nine early-season games for Seattle with a sore hamstring, but he's been a catalyst since his Nov. 23 return. The otherwise youthful Sonics are 6-7 when he starts and 1-12 when he doesn't.

The 6-foot-9 Thomas has averaged 9.7 rebounds in his last 11 games, including a win against Indiana in which he secured 18 boards. Thomas has taken the high road even though his team objectives plummeted from title hopeful Phoenix (which was forced to trade his salary for luxury-tax reasons) to rebuilding Seattle.

"To go from a team competing for a championship to a team at the other end of the spectrum, that's not what he would have on top of his wish list,'' Sonics coach P.J. Carlesimo acknowledged. "But he's been great. We told him since the first day we were very confident of how good he'd be for us, and also that it could be good for him given he's in the last year of his contract and he would like to play some more. The thing we could offer that Phoenix couldn't was minutes. He's somebody we could play for 20 to 25 minutes and make us a better team because of all the things he does. You can't pick a better guy to show the young guys this is how you're supposed to play.''

Once upon a time, Thomas, as a senior at TCU in 1994-95, was the third player in NCAA history to lead the nation in points (28.9) and rebounds (14.6). But ankle injuries sabotaged his early career, morphing him into a blue-collar rebounder and defender with a reliable mid-range jump shot. Now he is creating opportunities for rookie Kevin Durant (19.6 points) to become the star Thomas might have been.

"We're just so much better when he's on the floor,'' Carlesimo said. "He is undersized whether you call him a center or power forward, but he plays post people as well as anybody in the league because you can't move him, he's so strong. I remember telling Kevin in summer league one night after Kevin got knocked down in one of the games, 'One of the things about Kurt Thomas, when something like this happens, you're going to appreciate what he's doing at the other end of the court. Because the guy who knocks you down is going to wind up getting knocked down by Kurt next time down the floor, or he'll be laying down holding his arms. Kurt's from the old school. He is going to have your back.' "

Heir Apparent: Al Jefferson, F/C, 22. The key acquisition by Minnesota in the Kevin Garnett trade with Boston, the 6-10 Jefferson (20.4 points, 12.0 rebounds) looks capable of rebounding and scoring around the basket for as long as he wants the paycheck.

3. Grant Hill, F, turns 36 in October

A six-time All-Star (and unofficial nominee to become The Next Michael Jordan), the 6-8 Hill has survived a seven-year plague of injuries to become a complementary playmaker -- an older frontcourt version of Steve Nash. Since leaving Orlando as a free agent, Hill is the Suns' fifth-leading scorer at 15.7 points and ranks second on the team with 3.6 assists.

"The easiest thing to say is he's a great player,'' Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Whenever he's been healthy -- which was a long time ago -- it was not far-fetched to say he's been one of the top players in the league. Though he is 35, his body isn't worn out and he's healthy. So that makes him an All-Star-caliber player we added to our team.''

The Suns hope Hill will put them over the top in their rivalry with San Antonio. This week he came up big with 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists and three blocks in a 100-95 win at San Antonio (though the Spurs were without Tony Parker). Hill has started all 26 games for Phoenix, his best opening-season stretch since his final year with Detroit as a 27-year-old All-NBA star.

How does a player of Hill's age and medical history remain relevant against the league's most explosive perimeter athletes?

"I don't know if it was because he had those seven years [in Orlando] where his body didn't take the pounding, but he still has a lot of spring,'' D'Antoni said. "He's fast, shifty and he has that bounce in his step. He hasn't lost it, and he works extremely hard at getting ready every night in the weight room, the training room and on the floor.''

There isn't a smarter player in the league than Hill, who is able to envision shortcuts on the court to compensate for his age. To fit in with the Suns, he has spent the last four months extending his range to the three-point line (21-of-60 this season), where he has already taken more shots than he attempted over the previous seven years.

Heir Apparent: Luol Deng, F, 22. The Bulls' fourth-year veteran is the same age Hill was as a rookie -- and Deng is smart and hard-working enough to develop a similar feel for the game that can carry him deep into this 30s.

2. Bruce Bowen, F, turns 37 in June

Though Bowen is listed as a forward offensively, at the other end of the court he is the league's top defensive swingman at 6-7 and 200 pounds, a stopper of guards and forwards alike for San Antonio.

Of all the players in his 1993 draft class -- including Chris Webber, Penny Hardaway, Allan Houston and Nick Van Exel -- no one would have forecast that Bowen would join Detroit's Lindsey Hunter as the only NBA survivors. That's because Bowen went undrafted and had to spend most of his first three years as a pro playing in France and the CBA. He was waived twice in the NBA before arriving in San Antonio as a 30-year-old in 2001. Since February 2002, he has started every night, extending his consecutive games streak to a league-leading 461 and winning three NBA championships along the way. Over the last decade, only four players -- Tim Duncan, Robert Horry, Nash and Rasheed Wallace -- have contributed to more regular-season wins than Bowen has.

Offensively, Bowen turned himself into a three-point specialist, enabling him to help space the floor around Duncan. At game-day shootarounds, you can find Bowen spending extra time practicing his jump shot after the rest of his teammates have gone home. He led the league in three-point shooting (44.1 percent) in 2002-03, has never shot worse than 36.3 percent from beyond the arc in any season with the Spurs, and is currently hitting 46.3 percent (seventh best in the NBA).

"Bruce would be in at 9 a.m. virtually every day, whether there was a game the night before or we were just back from a trip,'' recalled Carlesimo, a Spurs assistant coach the previous five years. "When you walked into the facility and heard the ball bouncing, you knew it was Bruce out there shooting with [assistant coach] Brett Brown. He's fanatical about the way he eats, takes care of himself and works out.''

Bowen has been on the All-Defensive team each of the last seven seasons, and I always imagined that he must study film of opponents religiously like an NFL quarterback.

"No, I fall asleep studying film,'' he said. "I get tired of it; I don't see how the coaches do it.'' Instead, he watches just enough video to develop an intuitive feel for the opponent.

Bowen rarely tires in the postseason, and despite his age, the Spurs recently extended his contract through 2009-10 (though the last year isn't fully guaranteed).

"He totally deserves everything he gets because of the commitment he makes,'' Carlesimo said. "He figured out what it took to be in the league, to get 10-day contracts or get invited to camps. He goes from that to being an integral starter on a three-time NBA champion.''

Heir Apparent: Renaldo Balkman, F, 23. The Knicks' stopper already guards multiple positions, but can he -- like Bowen -- develop the offensive niche that will extend his career?

1. Jason Kidd, PG, turns 35 in March

Not only is he the second-oldest starting point guard in the league (behind 38-year-old Sam Cassell, currently sidelined by a strained calf), but Kidd is also the second best at his position (behind two-time MVP Nash). To see Kidd push the ball down the throats of younger, more athletic defenses is akin to watching Nolan Ryan throw a no-hitter at age 44.

"Everybody says I've lost a step,'' Kidd said, "and with that I try to use my knowledge of the game to understand my teammates and then also to understand my opponents and their tendencies.''

Note the stubbornness that keeps driving Kidd along. He takes it personally when people say he's lost speed.

"When people say, 'He's older, he's lost a step,' I've always thought that that's to my benefit, that a lot of people are reading that and maybe they think I've lost a step,'' he said. "But if I've lost a step, I've been smarter to use my speed in the right places.''

The point being that he really doesn't think he's any slower.

"I still feel I can run with the best of them,'' Kidd said. "When they always mention the quickest guys with the ball, they never mention my name. But that's something that drives me. At the same time, maybe it is to my advantage if I have slowed down, because I can see things a little bit clearer now.''

It's no secret that Kidd wants to be dealt to a contender, and the Nets are expected to move him by the Feb. 21 deadline. He is averaging a remarkable 11.5 points, 10.3 assists and 8.7 rebounds in 37 minutes, which is far more than should be expected of a 34-year-old who underwent microfracture knee surgery in 2004. But the ambition producing those numbers is the same drive that prevents him from accepting the mediocrity of the Nets' status. If he were happy to remain with a 10-15 team, then he probably wouldn't be so determined to succeed at 34.

The key to remaining an up-tempo guard at Kidd's age is knowing when and how to apply his speed. He doesn't run all-out as he did in the beginning of his career at Dallas.

"I can remember when my coaches were telling me to slow down, to let things develop because I was always in a hurry to go,'' he said. "I didn't quite understand what they meant because I always felt the faster you are, the faster you got to where you want to go. In this league, that tends to be a mistake, but it was hard for me to understand that. Once I got to Phoenix [in 1996] and got to watch Kevin Johnson run a pick-and-roll, then I started to understand what people were saying. Drop it a gear and you're still fast enough to get to where you want to go.''

Kidd is hoping to play into his late 30s, and he draws inspiration from older players who preceded him.

"You take away the controversy with Barry Bonds, and he still was producing as he got older,'' Kidd said. "You look at [John] Stockton, he still produced all the way to 41 and he could have kept on playing. You look at the guys who took care of themselves, understood how to play the game, how to think the game, and they all had the advantage over the most athletic guy out there.

"The guy who I really was studying was Chris Mullin. Because when I played [summer ball] against Chris when I was in high school [and Mullin was an All-Star at Golden State], Chris never went fast. He was under control, so he always felt that he could outthink his opponent. I always felt he had that knowledge, he understood the game, he always found the open guy, he knew how to use the screen -- and I would be saying, 'I'm faster than everybody here, but why is Chris always getting open?' He had great hands, he could make that tip pass, and he knew who was open before they were open. And even though he wasn't that fast, on defense he always knew how to spike the ball from behind, and that's where I picked that up from.''

The Suns' D'Antoni notes that both Kidd and 33-year-old Nash are able to continuously push tempo because they can make the correct decision in an instant.

"Sure, other point guards are a lot faster than those two, but Jason and Steve come at you all the time,'' D'Antoni said. "And they're in incredible condition so they don't get tired. That's almost like ability that they have, to be able to keep running and running.''

Kidd was rejuvenated by playing with the league's best young Americans for USA Basketball last summer.

"OK, they tease me about being old,'' Kidd said. "But I also want to be an old guy who can play. And that's the highest respect that you can get from a Deron Williams or a LeBron or Kobe, the respect of them saying, 'We had a great time playing with you because you make the game so easy.' And then they never mention my age. That's the thrill for me.''

While the Nets are playing at a slower tempo, Kidd denies that his age is the reason.

"Let's get out and run,'' he said. "I sometimes get disappointed when I get taken out of the game. I know it's a long season, but if I take care of myself and do all the right things, I still feel that I can play 40 minutes. As much as my agent or other people might say, 'We need to rest him for the end of the season,' I think I can find time to rest on my own.''

Heir Apparent: Deron Williams, 23. The Jazz point guard has the intimidating size (6-3, 205 pounds) and shooting depth to continue dominating long after he begins to slow down.

4. The Up-With-People Trail Blazers. A feel-good story of young players and their uncompromising coach trying to make them into winners. How many times have we seen this genre (An Officer and a Gentleman, Remember the Titans, The Karate Kid)? But the fans in Portland have lost all cynicism while watching this team win nine in a row without Greg Oden (and LaMarcus Aldridge missed five games during the streak with a heel injury).

3. The Straddling Sonics. The voters and pols won't give the Sonics a new arena, and the courts may not allow them to move to Oklahoma City. The delightful Kevin Durant knows he'll be Rookie of the Year by May but he can't say where he'll be playing in '09. Owner Clay Bennett hasn't had much of a chance to enjoy his new team. An agonizing confluence of events that would make for gripping television if only we were privy.

2. The Blockbuster Nuggets. I would pay good money to watch unadulterated behind-the-scenes footage of Denver's practices, team meetings and airplane rides. It's as if an A-list ensemble of actors (George Karl, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby) is attempting to film a big-budget, high-risk Hollywood action movie. Some days the egos clash (a 77-38 halftime deficit at Boston), though more often they appear to advance the project. But is there a meaningful plot driving their mission, or will it all be done with by early May again?

1. The Big Brother Knicks. This entire franchise is like one self-contained reality show -- except nobody is filming it (so far as we know) and none of the contestants ever gets eliminated. Between the benching of Stephon Marbury, his reported threat to Isiah Thomas and his ensuing reinstatement despite reports of the team's unanimous vote that he not return; the public testimony of the sexual harassment trial and the resulting $11.5 million settlement that has afforded the moral high ground to the Knicks' many critics; the death of Marbury's father without his being told until the game was finished; the innate selfishness of many of their players; the hollow Steinbrenner-esque behavior of owner James Dolan, who wants to be feared but is merely ridiculed; the security guard supposedly trailing beat writer Frank Isola of the New York Daily News; and, of course, the lightning-rod eminence of Isiah, who has become to New Yorkers what Donald Rumsfeld became to Democrats, the only time the Knicks fail to entertain is when they are on the court playing.

3. Now I know since you're in Boston you want to put a good spin on the Boston trade (and you did a good job), but to say that this was the best trade offer for Kevin Garnett is ridiculous. The Timberwolves got Al Jefferson (a good post player, but is putting up numbers playing almost 39 minutes a game); Gerald Green (getting no minutes and soon to be cut); Sebastian Telfair (mediocre player); and Ryan Gomes (a solid No. 8-9 bench player). Plus they got Theo Ratliff's expiring contract and two first-round picks.

Of that bunch, the only player who will make any impact will be Jefferson. All teams were willing to include a plethora of draft choices. You would choose this over a Lakers package of 20-year-old center Andrew Bynum, either Jordan Farmar or Javaris Crittenton, Lamar Odom (I'm not even sure you need to include Odom for the Lakers' trade to be better, but you have to for cap reasons), plus draft choices that will be higher than Boston's as the Lakers play in a tougher Western Conference? So while I'm happy to have Garnett locally and it's great that the Celtics are back, to even argue that this was the best deal (I won't even go into the reported offers from Chicago) is the local angle trying to put a good spin on it. -- Al Taylor of Boston

This would be a fine question ... except that I have never written, said or thought that Boston's package was the best offer available to Minnesota.

What I've been saying all along is that Boston's package was the most attractive from Minnesota's point of view. There is a big difference.

You're arguing that other teams could have offered a package of superior players for Garnett, and you surely are correct. But very few trades are made on that basis. In most cases, like this one, an overriding dynamic is money.

The Timberwolves didn't want a big longer-term contract like Odom's, because Minnesota owner Glen Taylor had spent the last several years overpaying for an underperforming team (Odom is owed $14.1 million next season in the last year of his deal). If the Timberwolves were going to rebuild after trading Garnett, then Taylor wanted to reduce the salary load commensurate to the talent on the floor. So from Minnesota's view -- not mine and not yours -- the big expiring contract of Theo Ratliff made him more attractive than Odom, even though Odom is the superior talent.

After going nowhere with one of the league's highest payrolls the last three years, it makes sense that Taylor would want to cut back and start over from scratch. If they couldn't win with Garnett, then they weren't going to win with Odom or Amaré Stoudemire either. From that perspective, the most attractive option was to rebuild with cheap, young players. You'll see the Timberwolves continue to unload their roster in order to rebuild with draft picks and cap space around the 22-year-old Jefferson, who in the preseason signed a reasonable five-year, $65 million extension.

I never imagined that the Celtics would be able to land Garnett in exchange for Jefferson and little else of proven value. When I mentioned this in September to Celtics director of basketball operations Danny Ainge, he said, "Neither did I.''

But I need to amend that now. Almost two months into the season, the trade is making more sense for Minnesota -- because Jefferson is looking more and more like the real thing. He is going to be a star.

2. The Heat have one of the game's premier wing players. They have a center whom their opponents still talk up as a big factor. They have a nice role-playing power forward, some other OK pieces and a Hall of Fame coach. So why are they this bad? I don't expect them to be the Celtics, but this team is an embarrassment right now. What gives? -- J. Greene of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

They lack scoring, and it's even harder to win when your No. 2 scorer is Ricky Davis. But an opposing team's advance scout who has been watching the Heat thinks Dwyane Wade (2-of-14 from the three-point line this season) is not yet his old self. The Heat have gone 6-13 since his Nov. 14 return from shoulder and knee surgeries.

"I don't think Wade is in game shape,'' the scout said. "You know how he used to hit tough shots all the time? He isn't knocking them down anymore, and he isn't getting the easy open shots anymore either. He's still getting to the basket, but his in-between game and perimeter game are not up to where they were two years ago. It's not like it's left him; it's still there somewhere. But there is a lot of pressure on him to pick them up and carry them, and he came back weeks faster than I thought he would.''

1. What do you make of the Wizards' success without Gilbert Arenas? Is it too small of a sample, or is there something there that makes you think they'd be OK if Arenas didn't re-sign with them after the season? -- Phil Johnson of Baltimore

The other day I mentioned to a league executive that people will soon be saying that the Wizards are better off without Arenas.

"Those are the same people who flunk drug tests,'' he answered.

Since Arenas began missing games (Nov. 16 was his last game), the Wizards have gone 10-6. Caron Butler (22.4 ppg) is improving on last season's All-Star numbers, Antawn Jamison has come up with 17 double-doubles and Brendan Haywood is averaging a career-high 10.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. DeShawn Stevenson has gone 17-for-37 from the three-point line over his last four games, and Roger Mason has averaged 11.6 points on 49.3 percent shooting in December.

But crucial to their last month is that most of the wins have come against struggling teams like Miami, Minnesota and New Jersey, to name three recent victims. If the Wizards can remain above .500 before Arenas' anticipated March 1 return, they'll be positioned a late-season run.

The NBA scout who provided these opinions believes Indiana freshman guard Eric Gordon could make it a three-man race.

2. Michael Beasley, 6-9, 235 lbs., freshman forward, Kansas State (25.8 points, 14.8 rebounds)

"He's a monster, especially when you consider there are so many fewer shots in a 40-minute college game and he's still getting 14 rebounds a night. He has a great basketball IQ, and in time he's going to be a really good shooter because he has a good stroke and he steps into his shot. You want him around the basket, but you should be able to play pick-and-pop with him in a couple of years. He's a very good passer, and he doesn't take every shot even though he's a man-child.

"Athletically, he's not Shawn Kemp, but he's very good as an 18-year-old. So you get him with a strength and conditioning coach who tells him, 'You're very strong now, but we're going to turn you into a piece of wire, get you cut,' and that will help with his strength and endurance. There are so many stories out there that he's a knucklehead, he's a coach-killer. So you watch for it. Sure, he'll give some looks to his teammates -- and he should when they make some bonehead plays. But I think he gives those looks because he's about winning.

"So what's his NBA position? He has great hands, good footwork, he's relentless and he plays bigger than 6-9. When you're getting 14 rebounds a night, you'd better keep your ass around the basket. I think he needs to be a power forward, even though a lot of guys his age will think being a small forward is more sexy. But I think he understands where he can make his money, because the first college game of his life (Nov. 9 against Sacramento State) he got 24 rebounds. So he'll be a mobile power forward with the ability to step out to the perimeter.''

1. Derrick Rose, 6-4, 195 lbs., freshman point guard, Memphis (15.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists)

"I'm a believer in point guards; you win with points and centers, and since there are no centers, I'm going with a point. Rose has been up and down as a freshman, but he's normal person and that alone is refreshing in this day and age. When you watch him play, he's not a chest-bumper; he just plays. Yet he's a ridiculous, insane athlete, and he has great size. He's a similar player -- though this is an unfair comparison for sure -- to Jason Kidd, but Rose is the better athlete. He will rebound, he loves to defend and he's faster than Kidd, and he jumps higher and he's stronger. I mean, at this stage in their careers, Kidd was never as strong as a 19-year-old as this kid is now. He's a limited shooter, which is also similar to Kidd, and he's a great winner. He's going to get better and better and better.

"He's always gotten by because he was the best athlete on the floor -- I can't imagine in high school that he ever had to shoot because he could just dunk on everybody. But when you're that talented, you'll learn the nuances of the game and improve your shooting. A couple of years from now his shooting will improve, because this is the kind of guy who will get in a gym and take 500 shots to get better.

"As a player, he's not selfish at all. One thing that is rare among young players is that he's willing to pass the ball ahead on the break. Most guys want to dribble to show what they can do in the open floor, but it struck me that he's not like that. Sometimes he's a straight-line player because he's so fast to the basket, but as the defenses becomes more sophisticated, he won't be able to do that. That's where he'll sit down with an NBA assistant coach and watch tape and be told that when you get this deep into the lane, you start looking for kick-out passes. And he'll say, 'OK, I get it.'

"He hasn't had any of those 12-assist nights, but that's because he plays on the worst-shooting team in America -- they can't make a shot, and their best play is to go and get the offensive rebound. But he has a very high basketball IQ and with his personality, I think he can be taught anything. He's such a ridiculous athlete, winner and defender that it's hard today not to see him becoming the first pick.''

"What do I think of Alonzo Mourning? I can imagine the joy he felt while he was winning the NBA championship after surviving the kidney disease that might have killed him. It is easy for me to relate to that achievement. What I cannot envision is the life beyond basketball that is still to come for him. That is a gift beyond my imagination.''

-- Maurice Stokes, 1933-1970

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