November 24, 2009

Four writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the NBA each week. (All stats and records are through Nov. 23.)

1. Gilbert Arenas recently criticized his teammates by saying he is the only player on the Wizards to sacrifice something for the good of the team this season. Is Arenas the sort of player around which a title team can be built?

Ian Thomsen: The answer at the moment is no. He's an All-NBA point guard who has made it past the opening round of the playoffs once in his career. I'm on record as believing he has it in him to go far -- I picked the Wizards to earn first-round home-court advantage in the East this year -- but it's entirely up to Arenas. He wants to be a franchise player, and he has been surrounded by an excellent coach and a lot of talented players. Now he needs to pull it all together constructively.

Jack McCallum: The short answer is no, but more because of who he is as a player. For the most part, you don't get to the Finals behind me-first gunners who are weak on defense, don't love to pass and are loose cannons in the locker room. (I say "for the most part" since Allen Iverson got the 76ers to the championship series in 2001.) But I sort of like Arenas' brazenness (then again, I don't have to coach him), and would take him over, say, Tracy McGrady (see below).

Chris Mannix: There aren't many franchise players out there -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard are a few -- so it's no knock on Arenas to say he's not on that list. While Agent Zero is a terrific scorer with that eye-popping ability to drop 50 on you every night, he's not a complete player, and if you look at the aforementioned list, those are complete players. Can Arenas be a No. 1 guy? No. Can he be 1A, a Scottie Pippen to someone's Michael Jordan? Possibly.

Arash Markazi: Considering Arenas played in a grand total of 15 games the past two seasons heading into this year, I'm not sure he's the best person to be criticizing his teammates for not sacrificing. Arenas is a great talent and one of the best pure scorers in basketball, but I don't think he's the sort of player who would be the centerpiece for a championship team. If I were casting a potential Academy Award-winning movie, Arenas would be the quirky sidekick who stole every scene he was in but wouldn't be the headlined on the marquee.


2. Tracy McGrady appears to be the latest superstar butting heads with his team. Would he be of more help to the Rockets when he finally returns or to another team? If another club, which one?

Thomsen: The Rockets are doing fine without him, and it's not like his return would transform them into championship contenders. His value to them is based on his expiring contract, whether the Rockets trade his $22.5 million salary for talent or let it expire to leave them potentially $10 million or more under the cap next summer. Coming off knee surgeries the last two years, McGrady needs to showcase himself in order to earn a new contract next summer. But he needs to be careful about coming back too soon, because if his athleticism hasn't improved since last year, then he'll have no takers. And his market will decline even further if his return has a negative impact on the Rockets.

In the meantime, his high-maintenance dramatics aren't improving his woeful reputation among GMs around the league. If this turns into one of those Stephon Marbury situations, with the Rockets paying McGrady his salary and refusing to play him all year, that would murder his career. He needs to work with his team in a constructive way. And if that means a deal to another team, he could provide short-term relief to the Knicks or 76ers, but New York has nothing to trade (the Rockets have no need for David Lee), and Philadelphia isn't likely to dangle Andre Iguodala.

McCallum: Man, you just tossed this one up and asked me to knock it out of the park, didn't you? T-Mac is one of the biggest squanderers of talent in the history of the NBA. The Rockets without him are a nice surprise. They play hard, they play defense and they will stay in the playoff hunt, albeit the bottom of the hunt. I doubt if they will be worse, but they won't be any better when he comes back. McGrady is not the kind of blend-in player to help a playoff team -- he would have to go to a bad team where he would at least draw some fans, whom he will torture with spurts of brilliance amid long periods of ineffectiveness.

Mannix: As tense a situation as it is in Houston, the Rockets will welcome McGrady back when -- I repeat, when -- he is healthy. Let's remember, this isn't a guy who is a great judge of his own health. He chose to battle through a knee injury last season when rest was probably more appropriate. And he's motivated to play by his pending free agency. When his body is right, he should come back -- and he should come back to Houston.

Markazi: If McGrady can play like the seven-time All-Star he was before he got hurt, he would be a huge boost to the Rockets. But that's not the player they'll be getting this season. There's no doubt coach Rick Adelman and general manager Daryl Morey would have him playing this week if he looked like his old self, but they know he's nowhere close to returning. McGrady, whenever he does return, will no doubt disrupt the chemistry of a team beginning to find itself and ranks sixth in the league in scoring (103.7 ppg). As much as I don't see McGrady helping the Rockets this season, I also don't see him going anywhere else after not playing in nearly a year following microfracture surgery.


3. The Hawks have charged from the gate to grab a share of the best record in the league. Does Atlanta have the pieces to make the East a four-team race?

Thomsen: Do the title contenders respect the Hawks? Absolutely. Around Joe Johnson they've developed a terrific blend of depth, youth and experience. But think ahead to the playoffs on the assumption that Boston, Cleveland and Orlando are healthy and therefore among the league leaders in defense, as all three were last year when they were the top three teams in defensive field-goal percentage. The Hawks ranked a so-so 11th in that category last year, and they're No. 18 right now.

They have it going offensively, but what they need more than anything is defensive leadership from Josh Smith, who could be a younger version of Kevin Garnett at that end of the floor. Smith has the length, athleticism and knack for shot-blocking to be one of the league's most influential defenders, and if he ever becomes one of those hyperactive big men who dominates that end of the floor in a disciplined way while creating a defensive standard for his teammates to emulate, then all of a sudden the Hawks will frighten everybody. Here's another way of saying the same thing: The Hawks need to develop a second star, and Smith is the player to become just that at the defensive end.

McCallum: I have to say no because if I say yes, I'm already going back on a preseason prediction. Here is what I wrote in answer to a question about coaches on the hot seat: "[The Hawks are] a talented but not-quite-cohesive team in a conference where he [coach Mike Woodson] has absolutely no chance of finishing higher than fourth and might fall to fifth or sixth." Let me make it until at least December before I start rewriting myself. But I have been impressed -- and surprised -- by their hot start.

Mannix: Absolutely. The Hawks have been a confident (cocky?) bunch since they extended the Celtics to seven games during Boston's championship season in 2008. Since then, they have shown no fear of playing any of the Eastern Conference powers. If you think about it, Cleveland is really the only team with whom they struggle to match up. They have athletic wings to defend Orlando on the perimeter and they have already shown this season that they can go into Boston and win.

Markazi: I've always felt the East was a four-team race, but now the Hawks are making me rethink the pecking order. They beat the Celtics in Boston by 11, beat the Nuggets by 25 and are undefeated at home. They're the first team in six years to improve on its previous record four straight seasons and they look like they're ready to make another jump this season. Joe Johnson (10th in the NBA in scoring with 22.6 points) has long been one of the league's best players and now Atlanta's young front line of Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams has finally come into its own on both ends of the court. They're also getting solid contributions from the bench in Jamal Crawford, who is second on the team in scoring with 16.7 points and has adapted to his new sixth-man role perfectly.


4. Dwight Howard recently asked Magic coach Stan Van Gundy to ease up on the negativity. Good idea or a recipe for undermining Van Gundy's effectiveness as a coach?

Thomsen: Great idea. It's another example of Howard taking ownership of the team, and they've been playing well ever since he did it.

McCallum: Neither. They're a semi-unscripted sitcom, something like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Howard plays the role of the irrepressible, carefree kid, who's a cross between Beaver Cleaver and Eddie Haskell. Van Gundy slides into the character of the slightly out-of-it dad who sometimes dispenses sage advice and sometimes says, "Hey, maybe the youngster has a point." It's mostly harmless and kind of entertaining. But just remember that anything less than another trip to the Finals for the Magic will be a disappointment, and then we'll see if this sitcom gets canceled.

Mannix: What, and take away those classic Van Gundy press conferences? Look, I can see where Howard is coming from: one bad loss and suddenly the Magic are the worst team in the history of hoops. But you have to look at the big picture: Van Gundy and his style helped the Magic win a Game 7 in Boston last year and helped them get past Cleveland in the conference finals. Howard may not like it, but the system works.

Markazi: This actually isn't as crazy as it sounds. Michael Strahan and some Giants players asked Tom Coughlin to ease up on his strict demands and rules the year they won a Super Bowl. So it can work if a coach is willing to listen and his players are willing to buy in.

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