Mailbag: Talent gap widens with Gay joining West
The Raptors cleared money and moved toward rebuilding in the draft, and Sacramento improved its starting lineup while inserting Gay as its second-best player. Both teams addressed their needs with the trade, David, so the best way to answer your question is to look at the bigger picture. When you ask who made out worse, the answer has to be: the Eastern Conference.
Good players are escaping the East at an alarming rate. Over the last year the transfers have included Gay, Monta Ellis, Jrue Holiday, J.J. Redick and Jose Calderon. Eastern teams have also been weakened by injuries to Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Bradley Beal, Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire, a handful of Nets and others.
The West keeps growing and the East keeps shrinking. I've noticed the difference between the two conferences while picking my All-Star teams over the last few years, and in the coming weeks that trend will continue: It is going to be far more difficult to decide which stars to leave off the ballot in the West because there is so much more talent in that conference than in the East.
The Raptors are seeking to contend for a high lottery pick while the Kings are hoping to reach the playoffs. But the Kings may be able to have it both ways: Even with Gay in their rotation, they're probably going to fall short of the playoffs -- and by playing a majority of their games in the stronger conference they'll be rewarded with a lottery pick that may put them in the same draft neighborhood as the Raptors. They've improved their team and they'll still receive a good pick.
It looks as if a majority of the high lottery teams will be coming out of the East; of the nine worst records in the NBA today, seven belong to teams in the weaker conference. But will those draft picks provide enough talent to change the disparity between the two conferences in the future? Or will a team like Sacramento benefit both now and in future?
All that can be said for sure is that the West is 70-34 against the East this season. There are 13 teams in the West with records that would qualify for the playoffs in the East if the season ended today. And Gay's move from Toronto to Sacramento widened that disparity a litle bit further.
Toronto has the financial means and market size to become an NBA power someday. But for this season at least, the Raptors are contributing to a conference of teams that -- apart from the Heat and Pacers -- cannot compete with their rivals to the West.
How far will the Houston Rockets make it in the playoffs?
Good question. I can't answer it because the Rockets will have a different roster after the trade deadline, pending the likely trade of Omer Asik. Maybe Dwight Howard will have made an impact on them defensively; maybe no overwhelming favorite will have emerged in the deep West and Houston will be able to make a deep playoff run. Predicting an Eastern final of Miami vs. Indiana could not be more obvious; the West is far more difficult to forecast.
Is LaMarcus Aldridge the best power forward in the NBA right now?
-- Dan, Seattle
Aldridge is making the biggest impact right now, Dan: The Blazers are the NBA's surprise team because of his production and leadership. If we agree that he's the best power forward at this moment, then we should also acknowledge it as an honor that doesn't mean a lot -- and I would think that Aldridge would agree. He has never won a playoff series, he openly admits that winning in the playoffs is all that matters to him, and in the meantime we're comparing him to champions like Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. The real test for Aldridge will be played out over the remainder of the season and postseason. He knows that better than anyone.
The Grizzlies were dealing with the financial realities of the new collective bargaining agreement when they unloaded the salaries of Gay and other players. I thought they were going to miss coach Lionel Hollins much more than they thought they would, but now the injuries to Pondexter and Marc Gasol have lessened the pressure they might have felt for their controversial decision to not re-sign Hollins. If the Grizzlies go on to miss the playoffs, they'll be able to blame their downfall on injuries rather than on the coaching change.
Just wondering if you could compile a list of "all-time contract-year performers who actually lived up to the hype of their contract-year numbers and delivered on their new, improved contacts. There seems to be a lot of focus on guys not delivering. Please give us the positive stories.
-- Thomas B., Copenhagen, Denmark
That's an easy one, Thomas. All of the great NBA players live up to the terms of their contracts: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Duncan, Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and on and on the list goes. These players demand and deserve the most money, but they don't enable the money to weaken their commitment to the game.
Of course Anthony Bennett was a mistake as the No. 1 pick. There are players already showing greater developed skills, while others exhibit greater potential. Always take a talented big, when available. They do not always work out, but when they do your team becomes competitive for the length of their careers. Bennett at best is a very good player, but he will never dominate. Then again, what many fans don't realize, nor do writers, is that a draft always contains an element of risk. After all, it is the "umeasurables" that separate good from great.
-- R. Pahlavi, Princeton, N.J.
Can you name me a player in this draft who will dominate? Right now I can't. And don't you think the Grizzlies wish they had not followed your advice to "always take a talented big when available" when they picked Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 ahead of James Harden in 2009?
It's a good question with an obvious answer, Jordan. Of course Bryant won't like Young's decisionmaking. But he may also respect Young's fearlessness. For the time being, however, Kobe will be preocuppied with working himself back into shape. When he's back on top of his own game, then I'm guessing he'll focus more on Nick Young.
"Failures in New York prove you can't buy success in the NBA?" You can't? Heat? Lakers?
-- Rand C. Minneapolis
The Heat and Lakers assembled their teams before the new CBA, Rand. I wish the headline had been phrased differently, because nothing has been "proved" by the miserable play of the Nets and Knicks. But the records of the teams with the most expensive payrolls demonstrate that a lot of the richest teams aren't getting what they've paid for this season.
Your recent article about Carmelo Anthony not being to blame for the Knicks' woes bothered me, but I didn't have the ammunition to respond. Now I do: The Knicks have won two straight blowouts, with Anthony taking fewer than half his usual number of shots and making more than twice the usual assists. He said he "wanted to try something new, since scoring 30 a game wasn't working." Yes, the new approach needs to be confirmed in more games against tougher opponents. But the results have been striking -- and not surprising. You said it was ludicrous to blame someone who was scoring 26 a game and grabbing 9.5 rebounds. Yes, he's a good rebounder. But it's ludicrous to consider his scoring average without considering his efficiency. I saw a statistic that Anthony has the lowest ratio of ball possession time to assists in the entire league! And that doesn't even consider his roughly 40 percent shooting (before the past two games); that doesn't help teams win. You also claimed that Anthony had to shoot so much because his teammates couldn't score. But suddenly they ARE scoring, because they're not just standing around waiting for Anthony to shoot, and because he's getting them involved. Team ball wins in the NBA and stars who play selfishly do not, no matter how talented they are. The results of Anthony's deliberate experiment could not prove that idea more conclusively. I'd love to hear what you think now.
-- Ron B., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Ron sent this before Sunday, when Anthony shot 5-of-15 and his Knicks suffered a league-worst 41-point loss to the Celtics. Is Anthony a perfect player? No. Can he be the best player of a championship team? I don't think so. Can he be the No. 2 player of an NBA champion? I believe he can, because he is the most versatile scorer in basketball, and I believe that if paired with a superior talent, then Anthony would defer to that talent, in the same way that he has deferred on the Olympic teams.
At this time last year, people in New York were praising Anthony as an MVP candidate. Is there a big difference between his style of play this year vs. last year? I don't think there is. The difference is that he had a better team around him last year.
I agree that team ball wins; I also believe that talent wins. Anthony is talented. His team is not.