By Ben Golliver
The 2012-13 NBA season is a week old now. Which early season developments will stick going forward? We examined the Western Conference yesterday, and we tackle the East today.
Fact: Kyrie Irving is firmly in the discussion for best point guard in the East
The Cavaliers' exhilarating 108-101 road win against the Clippers on Monday night prompted lots of chatter about Cleveland's "backcourt of the future," Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. That label is fine to use for Waiters, who finished with 28 points, including seven three-pointers, the first time in his young career that he's topped 20 points. The 2012 class's out-of-nowhere pick still has plenty to prove. With Irving, though, it's time that the discussion catches up: it's time to can the "future" talk; his level of play in the present demands it.
Declaring that any player, even a No. 1 overall pick, has "arrived" at the age of 20 is a proposition fraught with downside. So many things can go wrong and so many outside influences can impact a career's trajectory. But when Irving, who went one-and-done at Duke, finally turns 21 next month, he should toast himself because he is awesome. So awesome, in fact, that he's got a legitimate claim to the title of best point guard in the Eastern Conference, at least until the Bulls' Derrick Rose returns to form from his knee injury.
Too much, too soon? Hardly. A survey of Irving's numbers and a quick process of elimination places Irving easily into a top-five discussion. Last season, Irving averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.1 steals, shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 39.9 percent from three. He's off to an even better start this year, averaging 23.8 points, 6.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.0 steal and shooting 46.1 percent overall and 41.2 percent from deep. Thanks in large part to his stellar shooting numbers, Irving finished his rookie season ranked No. 5 among qualified point guards in Player Efficiency Rating and top-10 at his position in both Value Added and Estimated Wins Added, metrics that track his play relative to an average replacement. His colleagues near the top of these charts include all the perennial All-Star usual suspects: Rose, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Deron Williams among them.
That Rookie of the Year campaign was more than enough to distance Irving from his fellow youngsters -- Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, John Wall, George Hill, Jeff Teague and Jrue Holiday -- and also give him a leg up on many of the East's mid-tier (or worse) veterans like Raymond Felton, Mario Chalmers, Jameer Nelson and Kirk Hinrich. The differentiating factors here are shooting and poise. To boil it down, Irving shoots its better than the East's other up-and-comers and he's a more dynamic all-around guy than the older hands. Irving has drawn comparisons to Paul because he has all five point guard tools: he can shoot, he can make plays off the dribble, he can distribute, he can play defense and he's a leader. Monday's win was the latest reminder of the power of that combined skillset. Down the stretch, dueling with Paul, Irving worked a smooth two-man perimeter game with Waiters, effectively used Cavaliers big man Anderson Varejao in pick-and-roll situations and, most memorably, didn't flinch in knocking down the dagger three that sent the Clippers packing. Pick your favorite phrase -- ice water in his veins, cool as a cucumber, etc. -- Irving's night was a deja-vu inducer for Cavaliers coach Byron Scott, who coached Paul for four-plus seasons with the Hornets.
With the East's weaker options weeded out, there are only four players left with Irving in the best point guard in the East discussion: Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Kyle Lowry, Brandon Jennings. The first two should be no surprise; the latter two might be less obvious.
Williams has the best overall case. He's bigger and stronger than Irving, he's a three-time All-Star and four-time playoff participant, his numbers are excellent (21.0 points, 8.7 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 40.7 percent shooting last season) and his advanced stats have long been among the league's best (he ranked No. 6 among point guards in PER last season). The book is out on Rondo, too. His offensive game compensates for a weak jumper with elite play-making and basketball intelligence, his ability to raise the level of his play in big moments is well-known and, at 26, he has three All-Star game appearances, 92 (!) playoff games and a title to his name.
Lowry and Jennings both still have work to do, but they've made great strides so far this season. Captain of his own ship with the Raptors, Lowry is off to an explosive start: 23.7 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists through three games. He will cool off, but he's unlikely to fall too far off given the mediocre personnel surrounding him. Jennings, meanwhile, finds himself in a contract year after not receiving an extension. He's embraced that opportunity, hitting a game-winner to down Irving's Cavaliers over the weekend and averaging 17.0 points and 13.0 assists per game through two games. Jennings' limited range and streakiness will come back to haunt him at some point, but it's his development as a decision-maker and table-setter that will decide his NBA fate. He was briefly on the fringes of last year's All-Star discussion and should be again this season if he continues to wrack up big assist numbers and the Bucks stay in the playoff picture.
As pleasant as the early play of Lowry and Jennings has been, the big picture arguments favor Irving over both. Lowry has had run-ins with Kevin McHale in Houston and a female referee in Las Vegas, and a mysterious illness sidelined him for a good chunk of last season. Jennings has expressed frustration with his teammates at various times in Milwaukee and has refused to address the consistency of his jumper, one of his biggest weaknesses. Irving, meanwhile, just aces the "trust" tests: his personality, maturity and steadiness combine to make him an ideal face of the franchise and the guy who you want to have the ball, regardless of time, score or situation.
It's probably most fair to slot Irving in at the No. 3 slot in the East point guard hierarchy, behind Williams and Rondo. But he's coming for them fast and fearless, just like he went at Paul's Clippers.
Fiction: Joe Dumars knows what he is doing and it will all work out
It's now been nine years since Detroit won the 2004 NBA Finals, and this season marks at least the fourth time in that span in which Pistons president Joe Dumars's decision-making, especially in valuing players, has looked helpless. My biggest preseason concern for the Pistons was that their veterans would accidentally win too many games, compromising their odds in the NBA draft lottery. Through three games, all losses, that concern appears to be unfounded.
Where to begin with the laundry list of concerns here? Let's start with the last remaining vestige of the title team: Tayshaun Prince. At 32, he makes no sense for a team looking to rebuild around the Greg Monroe/Brandon Knight/Andre Drummond core. Through three games, he's averaging 13 points on 11 shots and putting up the lowest PER since his rookie season. Whether he can get back to the all-around production that made him so valuable is irrelevant. Dumars is paying him nearly $7 million ... through 2014-15! He's drastically underperforming on his current deal and he's only in year two of four. Everyone, save Dumars, saw this coming.
Then there's Charlie Villanueva shuffling through the fourth year of a ridiculous five-year contract that, again, was widely panned when it happened. Villanueva's numbers have been in freefall throughout his time in Detroit; credit goes to Pistons coach Lawrence Frank for playing Villanuneva less than 14 minutes a night despite his $8 million per year contract figure. As soon as the ink dried on the new collective bargaining agreement, the first words out of Dumars' mouth should have been, "The Detroit Pistons will use the amnesty clause on Charlie Villanueva." But moving on from an inefficient shooter and poor defender with conditioning issues and attitude questions made too much sense.
Paying Rodney Stuckey $8.5 million this season and at least $4 million guaranteed next season looks pretty bad right now, given Stuckey's 4.3 percent field goal shooting this week. Yes, that's four-point-three. There's no real reason to kick Stuckey -- who has been a remarkably consistent producer through the last three seasons of turmoil -- when he's down. This problem is way bigger than Stuckey, who is being paired next to Brandon Knight in the starting lineup in a combination that isn't very complementary. This is a management issue: The Pistons need to realize that a player being paid $8.5 million to shoot 4.3 percent is only the fourth worst contract decision on the books! Prince and Villanueva are jockeying for one and two while Corey Maggette, who hasn't played yet due to injury, is being paid $10.9 million. The good news is that he's an expiring contract; the bad news is that he doesn't fit a roster need for the Pistons and he cost Dumars a pick when he dumped Ben Gordon's future salary. If you're still here, that's $31 million this season and at least $27 million in future salary to four players who don't make sense for the franchise, either now or in the future. And this is after Dumars has spent the last season or two trying to dig out of things.
The decisions going forward aren't that difficult: let Maggette expire this summer, shop Stuckey hard at the deadline, amnesty Prince if he can't be traded (who would take on that contract?) and then buy out or trade Villanueva as an expiring deal once he enters the final year of his deal next summer. Bringing Stuckey back next season isn't the end of the world, but it's way past time to move on from the other deals. The roster crater that would result would be painful to watch, for sure, but no more painful than what lies ahead for Pistons fans over the next six months. If there's a season to tank, it's next year. The 2013 free agency class is relatively weak while the 2014 draft class is shaping up to be very strong, especially at the top. There's just no good way to half-step through a rebuild -- other than pulling multiple aces in the draft -- and Dumars' band-air approach has run its course.