(Before I begin this column, I'd just like to mention that I'm sorry for my lack of posting. I assure you, my excellent and knowledgeable readers, that such laziness only occurred because things are ALL FUCKED UP at work lately. Sorry...Again.)
Nothing against Dermot Mulroony, but I would suggest that these pasty-faced city boys are not the most impressive Western fellows around. They fall under the long shadows of the John Waynes and Clint Eastwoods of the world, in my humble opinion. My personal preference, aside, though, there remains something more intriguing in the West: Day Two of Young Guys Who Don't Ever Give Up.
That's right, folks and fans, it's time to switch conferences from the unpleasant East to the luxurious West, home of talented players, plush arenas, billionaire owners and thousands of miles of open space without one Knickerbocker employee in sight.
The West is chock full of young talent, despite the fact that its teams have been in worse draft position than their Eastern counterparts for a few years. The reason Western teams are better is pretty simple [in my opinion]: most Western franchises(excepting the Lakers and perhaps the Rockets) don't have huge fan bases that will buy tickets and merchandise through thick and thin. In the East, teams like the Sixers, Celtics and Knicks don't really have to pay a penalty for sucking. In the West, one bad year, and you can kiss those full houses and Gasol jersey sales goodbye.
The result? Aggressive, open-minded, forward-thinking management. Western teams are the ones who take advantage of new markets like Germany, France, Argentina and China, and often the athletes from smaller schools (like Devean George, who is not that good, but still better than a lot of players drafted ahead of him). Western teams are also more willing to take risks (witness the radical personnel changes the Mavs, Blazers, and Suns have made) while Eastern teams tend to sit around (Miami and Detroit, the only legit Eastern teams, have sat around unless a deal fell in their laps). Sometimes Western teams even pass on giving marginal players max deals. (Sometimes.)
The bottom line is that there's no reason one conference should be noticeably worse than another for a number of years the way the East has. That's what you get when you concentrate a bunch of fancy, old-line yuppies in one place, I guess.
Here we go
Dallas: I really don't know what to say here. Josh Howard, who is somewhat young, is the best player in the league without an effective jump shot (a backhanded compliment, yes, but also something noteworthy). Devin Harris is pretty solid and a great defender, but I don't really like his distributions skills. He doesn't seem like a real point guard. There's no one I can really lock on to as a young player because of Howard's age, but I personally think he is almost as valuable to that team as Nowitzki, which might have been an interesting comment two years ago when the whole world didn't already know that. Sorry.
Houston: Jimmy V's favorite team just got Yao back and got spanked by the Cavs, but don't fear; this is the best time of the year to go on a cold streak (and the worst time to get hot). Houston has one good young player that a lot of people don't talk about: Chuck Hayes.
Hayes is your standard too-short forward. I don't think he'll be Barkley, but he has the potential to be Clarence Weatherspoon if he doesn't foul too much. A lot of people might think this is a slight but there was a time when 'Spoon was a solid player (18, 10, 1 and 1). Anyway, Hayes has a nose for the boards (6.1 in only 20.6 minutes) and he doesn't seem to be too disadvantaged by his height. He's only 23 always gets floor time. He's no great athlete but can score reasonably effectively and shoots for a high percentage. I just like the guy. He might not become anything but I think he's got a chance.
Memphis: You know it's coming....Alexander Johnson is my favorite rookie below-the-radar prospect. Part of the reason is because he's so far below the radar, I'm not even sure he's off the ground. There are a lot of problems with AJ. For instance, he only gets 14 minutes on the floor for the worst team in the league. Another problem is that he just got sent to the d-league. Like I said, a lot of problems...
However, he's stuck a team with a ton of "young guys with potential" who are "intriguing athletic" types fit for that crappy interim coach's "do whatever the hell you want" offense. Alex is just straight muscle, and he needs to find his way on to a team coached by someone named Van Gundy, Riley, or Sloan. I actually like his going to the d-league. He'll get the opportunity to play, and when he's gotten the opportunity to play, he has produced consistently; He had 23 and 10 in only 25 minutes of action in November, a couple of tidy double-doubles, and almost always gets a block or two. Again, this is a tough one, but someone's gotta believe in these guys, right? Lord knows they never give up.
New Orleans: This isn't the biggest secret in the world or anything, but I have a funny feeling Tyson Chandler might do something crazy next year. He is probably the best rebounder in the league, he's a great defender, he's only going to get stronger, and he's insanely athletic. This is a list of consecutive games, with points on the left columns and rebounds in the right, that he has had in the last month:
That is dominance-level, period. I think it will only precede a ridiculous season next year (the average of all those numbers is about 14 points, 16 boards, and he adds about 2 blocks as well). This guy could be incredible. The last time he had less than 10 boards was January 24. Ever since him and West and Paul have been playing together, they have gone 16-10. Big things are in store. How Chicago could let him get away and sign Ben Wallace is beyond me. Could turn out worse than the trade that brought David Cone to the Mets.
San Antonio: The closest thing this team has to an interesting young player is Francisco Elson. I'm giving him one sentence for every good game he's had this year.
Denver Nuggets: As much as I'd like to jump on Steve Blake's bandwagon, I really thought he'd play better than he did when he got back on this team. Everyone already knows JR Smith is great, and I don't think there's any reason to think he won't continue to be. I'd rather spotlight my favorite young guy here, who many people think is older than he is (24). That's right, it's Nene time!
He had a terrible start, but was back to his old tricks last month, and has been playing well, getting to the line all the time, fouling people, looking mean, and scoring around 17 and 7 (in February) on a team where he gets almost no shots. I'm think he is putting his career back on track and will earn his pay and I think that when the Nuggets get in the playoffs, he will turn it on, Camby will play well, and everyone will be like, "how did we forget that this is the best starting five in the NBA?"
Minnesota: Craig Smith and Randy Foye could both be good players (especially Foye), but I've got to be honest, I don't really see them being special or notable. Sucks to lose draft picks four years in a row.
Blazers: I see no reason why anyone in this rookie class will be better than Brandon Roy. 15, 4.1, and 4 his rookie year? He's built to be the next Joe Johnson. I think someone on this team who may be a little more interesting, though, is Travis Outlaw, who has had trouble getting minutes since his injury spell in January but who made the most of his time earlier this year. Also worth noting is Jarrett Jack, who many are high on but whom I think is not special. If this team got rid of Zach Randolph, they would have a ton of good young players that could form chemistry while they learned what the hell they were doing, and Outlaw could get more floor time. (By the way, I think Zach Randolph is very good at basketball, but not a good fit for that team.) Regardless, this will be an interesting team to watch as a whole over the next few years.
Sonics: If your name is Wilkins, you will be good at basketball. It's a shame Damien's stuck on a team where he can't have a shot at the starting job, because there's a lot of teams that could use his services. I think he's the Jarrett Jack of shooting guards, though...decent numbers, young and intriguing but still...not special.
Utah Jazz: There's a lot to like here, with Deron Williams changing everyone's perception of him by the game. I wonder what he'll be like in the playoffs. I'm actually kind of low on Deron, for some reason. I've only seen him play twice, and I want to think he's good, but I couldn't stand him in college and can't really grasp that he's an excellent professional point guard. I'll believe in him if he keeps it up, though.
(CJ Miles is interesting because he came out of high school and Jerry Sloan seemed to have some faith in him early in the season, but he has been nailed to the bench lately and it seems like even if he has the foundation, he's got a lot of building to do.)
Golden State: Here's a typical weird Don Nelson team with a lot of similar players, almost all of whom are streak shooters, and not a whole hell of a lot to talk about. I think Biedrins is wildly overrated because of his fantasy-friendly numbers, I think Monta Ellis is a cool player who is stuck on a team with a ton of shooting/combo guards, and I think Matt Barnes was a flash in the toilet.
One guy who has made considerable improvement this year is Michael Pietrus. The pride of Guadalupe is averaging 12.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, .8 steals and .8 blocks a night in just under thirty minutes of work. He shoots for a high percentage (48%), makes a lot of threes (67-190, for 35%), and is one of those nice roll players who can do a little bit of everything (like Josh Childress). It could be a coincidence, but whenever I see him play it seems like he does everything right. His only weakness is passing, which he is terrible at (.9 assists). He is the kind of guy who is often on championship teams.
(Honorable Mention: Kelenna Azubuike)
LA Clippers: Ain't no full Clip here since Shaun Livingston went down. Doesn't really matter since I'd be repeating everything Bill Simmons has already said.
LA Lakers: It kills me to say this, but Luke Walton is a good young player who could fit in with any team. I can't stand the guy, but the numbers speak for themselves: 11.7 points, 4.9 boards, 4.2 assists, 48% from the field, 40% from three point range. If he was anybody but the Son of Bill I would like him a lot; he's a good passer, a good shooter, can run the floor, doesn't hog the ball, got drafted in the second round, and plays hard. I'm going to give him the respect he deserves (and I won't even mention his ridiculous tattoos or flowing locks).
Also noteworthy on the Lakers is Maurice Evans, who has tons of great tools but lacks control. I really like to watch him play when he's in, because he's always seconds away from jacking up a three or barreling into the lane and attempting to dunk on two people. Compared to him, other players are just standing around. I don't know why no one seems to keep him around, since he's an ideal sixth man and could spot-start on a team that didn't need scoring from its shooting guard position. I hope he puts it together before he stops hustling, because he'll be really fun to watch if he can get some more quality playing time.
Phoenix Suns: Amare Stoudamire is only 24 (just like Barbosa). He could have been a Knick.
Sacramento Kings: Lots of old guys populate a team that has been shedding its youth since it was good. They could use guys like Gerald Wallace these days, who they let go for virtually nothing. (Unrelated thought: Am I the only person who thinks Gerald Wallace is exactly like Eddie Robinson? Does anyone even remember Eddie Robinson?)
Fortunately for the Kings, Kevin Martin is resurrecting the ghost of Mitch Ritchmond, gunning away and scoring lots of points for a crappy Kings team (which is only made respectable by Ron Artest's presence). Martin isn't terribly flashy, but he gets it done to the tune of 21.4, 4.2, and 2.2 on 50% shooting and 40% from behind the line. He's a superlative foul shooter and he can really do a little bit of everything.
There's something weird about Kevin Martin that I think is partly responsible for his under-publicized season. He's a quite pale and it makes him seem diminutive, somewhat like Doug Christie; as an NBA player, he just doesn't quite look the part. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but sometimes in the NBA, that's just not true, and I'm going to stick to my guns and say that I don't know if Martin will be able to keep this up on a team where he's not option number one. Even so, he's one of the last of a dying breed of shooting guard, and there is something pleasing about seeing him succeed.
That's all the young guys. I will improve my posting habits soon, I promise.
As always, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org