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Monday, May 14, 2007
One basketball nation, under Duncan


If you want to win a championship, Tim Duncan remains the best player in the league to accomplish that particular goal. We covered most of the reasons in last week's magazine column, but three points couldn't be mentioned because of the 1,200-word limit:

Point No. 1
You might remember my annual "Who has the highest NBA trade value?" gimmick, a column I've been writing once a year since I had my old Web site. (Note: If you want to re-read those columns out, check out my complete subject archive and scroll down to the NBA section for every "trade value" link from 2001 to 2006.) Here were Duncan's finishes in that column: No. 2 (2000), No. 2 (2001), No. 3 (2002), No. 1 (2003), No. 2 (2004), No. 1 (2005), No. 3 (2006). For his entire prime, Duncan has been one of the top-three most untradeable players in the league.

You know why? Because he gives you a fantastic chance to win the championship every year, that's why. Maybe Karl Malone was better in '97 and '98, maybe Shaq exceeded him in '00 and '01, maybe KG matched him in '04 and Nowitzki matched him in '06 ... but overall, Duncan always seems to keep his teams in the hunt.

Here are San Antonio's numbers during his 10-year career: 559-239 during the regular season, 82-49 in the playoffs, three championships. Since the ABA/NBA merger, only four stars have been that consistently successful for a 10-year span: Bird, Magic, MJ and Shaq ... although I hesitate to put Shaq on that level because he's had six different teams get swept over the course of his career. But that's the list. Superstars like Kareem (nine playoff wins TOTAL in the four seasons before Magic arrived), David Robinson (never made a Finals before Duncan arrived), Hakeem Olajuwon (wildly unsuccessful for most of his prime), Patrick Ewing (played in only one Finals in his prime), Charles Barkley (ditto) and Karl Malone (played in four conference finals, never won a title) couldn't match Duncan's winning consistency over a 10-year period.

Point No. 2
In the deadly slow-it-down, grind-it-out, defense-beats-offense era (1999-2004), Duncan won two titles. During the transition period as everyone adjusted to the new rules (2005-06, when the NBA called hand-checking and allowed moving picks), he won a third title. And now that we're firmly entrenched in the drive-and-dish/offense-beats-defense/smallball era, he's more valuable than ever because he's one of the few big guys who's polished enough to punish players in the low post AND talented enough to guard quicker players on the other end. He's simply demolishing the Suns right now, averaging 33 points and 17.5 rebounds in San Antonio's two wins. Phoenix doesn't have an answer for him. Within the next three to seven days, they're going home for the summer because of Tim Duncan.

Point No. 3
I'm breaking out Hubie Brown's second-person routine for the third and biggest point. OK, you're Phoenix. Heading into this summer, you have the best roster situation in the league. You have a superstar (Nash), two All-Stars (Stoudemire and Marion), an emerging star (Barbosa), two valuable role players with fair contracts (Diaw and Bell), a fantastic coach (D'Antoni) and a realistic chance to have three No. 1 picks in a loaded 2007 draft, including a lottery pick if Atlanta doesn't land in the top three. You also have some urgency here because of Steve Nash's age (33) and back troubles, so you need to parlay your assets into two or three more players who can push you to another level. You also know that, until you figure out a way to neutralize Tim Duncan, you will always be entering the playoffs hoping and praying that ...

A. Someone else knocks off the Spurs before you play them,
B. Duncan blows out his knee or suffers a catastrophic household accident, or
C. Duncan's eyeballs actually fly out of his head while he's reacting to a bad call.

(End of the second-person routine.)

So here's my solution: If Phoenix gets bounced this week, don't they HAVE to trade Amare Stoudemire for KG?

Right now, Stoudemire is a base-year compensation player because he's finishing the first year of his contract extension (five years, $73 million). The deal I'm proposing can't work under the cap until mid-July, when Stoudemire's cap figure morphs into the value of his current contract ($13.2 million for next season) and makes him infinitely more easy to trade (for details, check out Larry Coon's NBA salary cap FAQ). But they could still agree on a pre-draft trade that wouldn't become official until a few weeks later.

Assuming Atlanta's pick doesn't land in the top three, here's my proposal: Stoudemire, Atlanta's pick (depending on how the lottery shakes out, it would be as high as No. 4 or as low as No. 6) and Marcus Banks (for cap purposes) to Minnesota for Garnett and Minnesota's pick (as high as No. 7, as low as No. 9).

Here's why both teams should do it:

Minnesota: That's practically 100 cents on the dollar for KG. They're getting a first-team All-NBA big man who's younger than KG, plus they're jumping into the top five of the draft with a chance to add another blue-chip forward (either Brandan Wright or Al Horford). Examine the T-Wolves roster and you'll notice that they don't need a four-for-one deal for KG; they're looking at an immediate future in which the Clippers and Celtics own two of their future first-rounders within the next five years, so it wouldn't make sense for them to bottom out with picks and young players. Stoudemire is the best and most sensible option for them. Period.

Phoenix: KG solves four problems for the Suns. First, they don't have to worry about the debilitating Marion/Stoudemire alpha-dog battle anymore. Second, they don't have to worry about Stoudemire's surgically reconstructed knee anymore. Third, between KG, Nash and Bell, the Suns would have more than enough toughness/intensity/competitiveness to compete every spring (a real issue for them, even this season -- they're just not nasty enough). And fourth, they'd finally have someone who could potentially play Duncan to a draw (or as close as possible). Stoudemire just isn't a good defensive player -- he's prone to foul trouble and gets discouraged easily (as we witnessed while he pouted on the bench in Game 3). As for the age difference between KG and Stoudemire ... do you realize that Amare is only six years younger than KG? Crazy but true. And slipping two to four spots in the draft wouldn't hurt the Suns because they could still take Joakim Noah, an athletic big man who's perfect for them (and could play right away).

Now ...

Let's say the Suns make this deal, package their other two No. 1 picks (No. 24 and No. 29) to move into the mid-teens for Acie Law IV (the most NBA-ready point guard in the draft), then spend their free agent exemption on an athletic swingman like Matt Barnes. Maybe they'd be paying the luxury tax, but screw it -- how many times can you put together a potential 70-win team that's a prohibitive title favorite and the top TV draw in the league?

Check out this nine-man nucleus: KG, Marion, Bell, Barbosa and Nash as the starters, with Noah, Diaw, Law and Barnes coming off the bench. They'd be covered for every conceivable situation (smallball, grind-it-out ball, run-and-gun, you name it) and they'd be led by two desperate superstars (KG and Nash) who'd basically be ready to give 10 years of their lives to win one title.

Would you bet against that team in the 2008 playoffs? Me neither.

One other fun thing about this trade: On paper, it's the biggest NBA deal ever. We've seen superstars traded for multiple players and/or picks (Kareem and Wilt); we've seen superstars given away for 50 cents on the dollar (Shaq, Moses, Maravich and Barkley); we've seen superstars sold for cash (Dr. J); we've seen gigantic deals featuring multiple stars (like the Brandon-Kemp-Baker deal, or the one that sent J-Kidd to Phoenix); one-for-one swaps featuring All-Stars (DJ-Westphal and Marbury-Kidd); and we've seen major deals that became bigger as the years passed (Joe Barry Carroll and Larry Brown for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale). But can you think of another trade featuring as much star power? One of the best forwards of all time getting traded at the tail end of his prime for a first-team All-NBA player? No offense to Billy Paultz, but that's a whopper.

Anyway, watch how the Spurs attack Phoenix tonight with Duncan and tell me that KG wouldn't have helped. Not only should the Suns make a play for him this summer, they have to make a play for him this summer. If only for Nash's sake.

(And if they don't? Get ready to read more boring "Tim Duncan is the best" columns for the rest of the decade.)


Some other scattered NBA thoughts from the weekend ...

• Congratulations to Greg Willard, Tim Donaghy and Eddie F. Rush for giving us the most atrociously officiated game of the playoffs so far: Game 3 of the Suns-Spurs series. Bennett Salvatore, Tom Washington and Violet Palmer must have been outraged that they weren't involved in this mess. Good golly. Most of the calls favored the Spurs, but I don't even think the refs were biased -- they were so incompetent that there was no rhyme or reason to anything that was happening. Other than the latest call in NBA history (a shooting foul for Ginobili whistled three seconds after the play, when everyone was already running in the other direction), my favorite moment happened near the end, when the game was already over and they called a cheap bump on Bruce Bowen against Nash, so the cameras caught Mike D'Antoni (the most entertaining coach in the league if he's not getting calls) screaming sarcastically, "Why start now? Why bother?" What a travesty. Not since the cocaine era from 1978-1986 has the league faced a bigger ongoing issue than crappy officiating.

• Another reason why the officiating stood out in that game: Have you ever seen more players utterly convinced that they've never committed a foul in their lives than the guys from this Spurs-Suns series? What an annoying bunch of whiners; it's like watching the 2006 World Cup with more whistles. If that's what we get for having "the most international NBA playoff series of all time," then screw it -- let's make rules that no team can have more than three foreign players so we don't have to watch these guys bitch and moan for two straight hours. For God's sake, Ginobili is at the point in his life where he could rear-end someone at a stoplight, then hop out of his car with his hands raised blaming the other driver for being in his way. Give it a rest, Manu. We're begging you.

• Three notes from the Jazz-Warriors series: (1) hope everyone noticed that Kirilenko has destroyed Stephen Jackson so far; (2) hope everyone noticed the dramatic upgrade from the Giricek/Harpring/Brewer trio to Derek Fisher; and (3) hope everyone noticed that Jason Richardson has emerged as the make-or-break player of this series.

As weird as this sounds, Richardson has been exposed AND it's been his coming-out party as a player. He's clearly a competitive, skilled, tenacious 2-guard who would be an asset on any playoff team, someone who's as good as Michael Finley in his prime. At the same time, they're paying him franchise money and there isn't a single guy on Utah's roster who can guard him ... but he's not quite talented enough to swing the series in Golden State's favor. He's having good games and putting up good stats, but they needed more from him than that. That makes him a tweener of sorts -- better than a complimentary player, not quite an All-Star talent. When your fate rests in the hands of someone like that, you're not beating a good team in May.

• Heard conflicting reports on the Oakland crowd last night, but just from watching Game 4 on TV, the crowd paled in comparison to the crowds from the Dallas series, which made me wonder if the "renaissance" of Warriors basketball had inevitably caused the stands to be filled by bandwagon fans and rich a-holes who always end up ruining these sorts of things because they don't care who wins or know how to affect the games ... they just want to be there because it's the place to be. I hate when this happens. Anyway, Will from Oakland sent me an interesting e-mail:

"I have been a Warriors fan since age 3 and attended every home playoff game this year at different locations -- Warrior fans in the first round were worthy of the praise bestowed upon them by the media (you included). Last night, I was disgusted to be at the Oracle. The Dallas series was packed with REAL fans, a raucous arena full of people who had really been waiting 15 years. Once we upset the Mavericks though, we became obscenely trendy. Now, rich suburban families who couldn't name half our roster decided it would be fun to take the family to a game, and prices went up to $250 a seat for the lower bowl. Goodbye real fans, hello normal NBA crowd. The arena was subpar in the Game 3 win, but was absolutely SILENT in Game 4. I got in fights with fans around me after screaming at them to make noise. It's a sad day for Bay Area basketball. The fans get credit for the wins, we deserve the blame for this loss."

• Congrats to LeBron for completely mailing in Game 3 in New Jersey. Hell, even Bill Walton called him out. If you want to be considered the best player in the league, then you can't mail in playoff games. Period.

• It's hard to imagine anyone killing their coaching stock quite like Scott Skiles did in this Pistons-Bulls series. Where have Ty Thomas and Chris Duhon been? Why is Ben Wallace playing so much? Why is P.J. Brown playing at all? Completely inexplicable. The Chicago fans are justifiably going crazy right now. If I were a Bulls fan, I'd probably have to be sedated. I'm not kidding.

• From Eric in Michigan: "Why did the NBA hire the director of 'The Blair Witch Project' to shoot the playoffs? It's nauseating to have the camera in constant motion."

Couldn't agree more. Trying to follow the action in Saturday's Spurs-Suns game made me feel like I had just dropped peyote with Tony Soprano. Did I miss the meeting where everyone decided, "Hey, the midcourt camera for NBA games just isn't cutting it anymore, our fans like it and they're used to it ... instead, let's use a really weird camera angle that makes them sick!"

• Another good point from Drew in Tallahassee, Fla.: "In Game 3, the decibel level at the Golden State game hovered around 100 decibels. You know how loud that is? Well, according to ESPN, it's about as loud as a 'large orchestra.' How many dudes (or chicks for that matter) watching the game know how loud a large orchestra is? I need a better comparison. Help me out."

Sorry, I can't. But you're right, why couldn't they use comparisons that the average NBA viewer could understand -- like "it's as loud as that THX Dolby Digital sound effect at the beginning of a movie" or "it's as loud as listening to someone mow their lawn from four feet away?"

• From Jared in Utah: "I was watching 'NBA Shootaround' on ESPN before the Warriors-Jazz game and I thought that Jim Carrey had made a career change. To my surprise it was Rick Carlisle! Why hasn't anyone noticed this yet?"

• Graham in L.A. raised a great point after Game 3: "After Game 1 of the Spurs-Suns series, the sideline reporter asked Tim Duncan, 'In one word describe to me how important today's win was?' Duncan looked very confused as he uttered, 'Very ... important.' What an inane question. I cannot figure out a possible correct response to this question."

Graham, I noticed it as well and actually felt bad for Duncan. This whole debacle with sideline reporters reminds me of a time when I was working for Jimmy Kimmel's show and one of the writers sarcastically screamed at a producer, "Do us a favor, don't show up for work tomorrow, we'll see if the show's any different." It was such a magnificent diss on so many levels ... and I feel like you could say that to any sideline reporter in the playoffs. Seriously, sideline reporters, don't show up for work this week. Let's see if the playoffs are any different.

• Wanted to mention one correction from Friday's mailbag: I totally screwed up the question about tipping with one of my all-time brainfarts. Here's was the section:

"Q: I think you are the man to settle a nationwide dilemma: How much do you tip when you are getting takeout? Can we set a standard on a to-go order please?
--Alex, Bangor, Maine

"SG: Like everyone else who ever worked as a waiter and/or bartender, I always over-tip unless the service was terrible. So I'm probably a bad person to ask because I always give 20 percent for any takeout order (at the very least, you should give 15 percent). But here's a realistic tipping scale for unconventional service people:"

Here was the problem: In that answer, I was referring to delivery -- not takeout -- which was doubly stupid because I missed the entire point of the question. I have no excuse. None. I'm just an idiot. For takeout orders, I never leave more than a buck or two depending on the order. For instance, let's say you're getting two pizzas for $23.75 and they give you back $6.25 in change. You throw a $1.25 in their tip jar and you're good to go. At least that's what I do. If it's a $55 order, maybe you leave a couple of bucks. Anything more than that would be absurd. Anyway, my apologies for that one.

• Finally, I received two follow-up e-mails on Derek Fisher's situation and felt obligated to pass them along for any parents out there:

1. Michael Norwood in North Carolina: "I am a devoted reader of yours and played basketball for UNC from '85-'87. Watching Fisher was very difficult because it was so similar to what my wife and I went through with our daughter. Don't know why I am writing this to you but sometimes these things help. Nell died one month after this article was written."

2. Jason Christie in Maine: "With all of the coverage of Derek Fisher's situation, I thought this was a good opportunity to spread the word. My son was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma at six weeks of age. He is still undergoing chemotherapy and laser treatments. I've noticed that the media coverage has given the name of the disease, but not given the warning signs. My son, myself and other Retinoblastoma sufferers would greatly appreciate if you mentioned what to look for in a line of your blog. I got lucky and noticed something wrong in photos of my son. A major indicator of Retinoblastoma is 'white eye' in photos instead of the normal 'red eye' that we all get. Something as simple as noticing that can mean the difference between losing sight, the disease spreading or worse."