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Filling in the All-NBA Team Ballot: The Forwards April 11, 2006

Posted by benj in NBA.
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dirk nowitzkilebronelton brandpau gasol

Last season's race for the Maurice Podoloff trophy proved to be one of the most unexpected outcomes in recent sports history. Though Shaquille O'Neal was billed to be a possible Most Valuable Player candidate even before the season started following his messy falling out with the Los Angeles Lakers, the player who came in third – Dirk Nowitzki — and the eventual winner, Steve Nash were picks no one could've seen coming.

 

 

With long-time sidekick Steve Nash leaving the Dallas Mavericks to join the Phoenix Suns, much was expected from 7-foot German. Though he has been regarded as one of the best forwards in the game for the past five years, he has always played under the shadows of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan. It seemed as if Nowitzki was not to get any good look into the All-NBA First Team roster given his rivals' dominance. The 2004-2005 season showed otherwise. Dirk stepped up his game and led his team to the playoffs as KG wallowed in disappointment after a miserable regular season. In the end, Nowitzki supplanted Garnett from his vise-like grip on the All-NBA First Team slot to earn the first of his career.

 

Steve Nash's run for the trophy was reminiscent of Jason Kidd's campaign from a few years back. The underachieving Suns suddenly became instant title contenders thanks mainly to Amare Stoudemire's leap to the next level, Mike D'Antoni's avant-garde basketball philosophy and Nash's quarterbacking. It all came together in the end when the Canadian point guard found himself being cited as being the league's Most Valuable Player.

 

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Last year, a center, a point guard and an outside-shooting power forward were the rivals for the awards. This season, the race is a lot more wide-open. Aside from Nowitzki and Nash, this year's Podoloff trophy could end up in fireplace mantles owned by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. A lot of other names continue to get thrown into the mix (Chauncey Billups, Elton Brand and Tony Parker), but while they may have their individual cases to merit MVP consideration, it is a lot smarter to assume that this year's MVP will be coming from the aforementioned group of five.

This season displayed the decline of some of the league's best big men. Four seasons ago, it was the NBA's giants who were dominating the league statistically and gathering individual acolades. Jermaine O'Neal, two-time MVP Tim Duncan, 2001 MVP Shaquille O'Neal and 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett used to be the toast of the league. But no thanks to nagging injuries (O'Neal and Duncan) and poor team performance (Garnett), they are nowhere near to landing a few seconds' worth of MVP priming

Tim Duncan (18.6 ppg 11.1rpg) is averaging career-lows for both points and rebounds. Unless he musters up a highly unlikely 42.0 ppg over his last five games, Duncan will finish below the 20 points per game mark for the first time in his nine-year career. To add to this, The Big Fundamental is also struggling with his field goal shooting (career-low .484) and shotblocking (career-low 2.0 bpg). His only consolation is that his buddy Tony Parker has taken more than his share of the scoring load and his San Antonio Spurs team is looking more and more like the number one team in West as the regular season draws to a close.

Jermaine O'Neal is not as fortunate. Though coming off a strong 2004-2005 season despite suspensions and a shoulder injury, the ten-year Indiana Pacers forward has seen his scoring average dip by almost five points per game (19.8 ppg – lowest in four years). He's certainly not the healthiest player in the roster having missed more than thirty games due to injury this season. The Pacers are currently on the tail end of the Eastern Conference playoffs bracket and are still in danger of falling off the pace.

Kevin Garnett used to seem like the indominable warrior who could do anything and everything that needed to be done on the court. He was the MVP in 2004 via a balloting that was among the most lop-sided in league history.

It all came crashing down from that point on.

After the devastating fallout of the vaunted Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell back court, Minnesota was once again left with their initial problem – the lack of roster talent to support The Big Ticket's all-around game. The quick fix to trade shooter Wally Szczerbiak for notorious headcase Ricky Davis failed to turn the Wolves' season around. For the second time in a row, Garnett is heading off to an early vacation despite compiling impressive stats across the board ( 21.8 ppg 12.7 rpg .526 FG% ).

Time seem to have finally caught up with Shaquille O'Neal this season, finally significantly slowing down the once-efficient Diesel. His averages are nothing to scoff at ( 20.3 ppg 9.2 rpg .599 FG% ), but his overall effect on the game has great been diminished. Shaq is logging in less minutes this season and has tallied career-lows in total rebounds, offensive rebounds and free throw attempts. He's not exactly done, but it's highly unlikely that you'll hear him in any MVP speculation from here on. Shaq will probably retire with just one MVP trophy to his name.

Fortunately, the trend among the aforementioned four did not apply to all of the league's big men for this season.

Duke alumnus Elton Brand has had a quietly effective ( a steady 19-10 performer all through since his 1999 rookie season) but unheralded career. There was no doubt that Brand had the talent and the work ethic to be among the league's best players, but for some reason, his team always seemed to have had a chronic fixation for losing games. The 2005-2006 season proved to be the year wherein Brand finally crosses to the other side to knock on the doors of post season pantheon. The last time the Los Angeles Clippers were in the playoffs, they were led by the amazing tandem of Loy Vaught and Lamond Murray. That same team got swept by Western top seed eventual finalist Utah Jazz during the 1996-97 conference quarterfinals.

 

Also making the big leap this year is Spaniard Pau Gasol of the playoffs-bound Memphis Grizzlies. The 7-foot forward-center is posting career-bests in scoring (20.5 ppg), rebounding (8.9 rpg) and has doubled his assists average (4.6 apg). But more importantly, Gasol seems to be poised to be the leader of a franchise that will be a permanent fixture in post seasons to come.

The likely rival for Gasol and the Grizzlies is Carmelo Anthony and the rest of the Denver Nuggets. Though still being regarded to be in a lower strata compared to Class of 2003 members LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Melo is slowly gaining ground. The star of the 2003 NCAA Champions Syracuse has upped his scoring by a whopping six points to average 26.8 points per game this season. To add to this, Anthony shot a robust .481 clip from the field to steer the Nuggets to clinching their first Division title in 18 years.

Speaking of division champions, the Amare-less Phoenix Suns have also seen great basketball from athletic forward Shawn Marion. Despite his height of 6-7, The Matrix is among the leaders in rebouding (12.1 rpg). In Stoudemire's absence, Marion has put together a stat line reminiscent of past MVPs (21.4 ppg 12.1 rpg 2.0 spg 1.7 bpg). If it weren't for Steve Nash, Marion would have been among the top names for the MVP race by now.

Chinese 7-6 behemoth Yao Ming has just wrapped up his best season as a pro after breaking his foot against the Utah Jazz. Despite being hounded by injuries all season long, Yao has managed to post career-highs in scoring (almost five points up – 22.3 ppg), rebounding (double figures for the first time in his career – 10.4) and free throw attempts (7.0 attempts per game). It hasn't been a particularly successful season for the hapless Houston Rockets, but if Yao can assert his will again with McGrady in the line-up, they may be favored to make next year's playoffs.

 

 

There are nine slots available for the All-NBA Teams – three for centers and the remaining six for the forwards. The dying position that is the "five" slot continues its tedious demise as once again, almost none save for a few of the league's pure centers deliver an All-NBA Team-worthy effort.

Clearly, Dirk Nowitzki, Elton Brand, LeBron James (31.7 ppg 7.1 rpg 6.7 apg) and Shawn Marion deserve should be considered for inclusion into the All-NBA First Team. With close scrutiny though, the fairest arrangement one could make is as follows:

C – Vacant (Shaquille O'Neal or Elton Brand)

F – Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks

F – LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

 

Both Nowitzki and LeBron have had seasons too good to be supplanted by Shawn Marion or Elton Brand. But as far as the debate for the center slot goes, I'm more partial towards Elton Brand. Statistically, the first pick of the 1999 Draft is far more impressive and he has taken his game to the next highest level as opposed to Shaq whose game is on the decline.

So that settle's the All-NBA First Team front line.

 

elton brandlebron jamesdirk nowitzki

 

That being done, we drop Shawn Marion and Shaquille O'Neal into the next All-NBA Team and see where the pieces fall. Players with a fighting chance to be named into the team include Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol, Vince Carter, Tim Duncan and Yao Ming.

C – Vacant (Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan or Yao Ming)

F – Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns

F – Vacant (Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Vince Carter or Pau Gasol)

Due to inferior team performance and games missed due to injuries, Yao Ming is the first logical elimination from the list of players being considered. The comparison between Duncan and Shaq though is quite perplexing. Both of them are in the worst season of their respective careers. Statistically, they are not that disparate, so it really boils down to how each player contributes to the team. Despite Duncan's relative anemic numbers, he is still very close to being the team's number one scorer and is still a considerable defensive asset to the Spurs. He has been injured several times this season, but he has hardly missed any games. Due to these reasons, I deem it necessary to award the center slot to Duncan. Before writing this piece, I had doubts if Duncan deserved to be in any of the teams, but given the numbers and the results, I deem Duncan more deserving than Shaq.

 

This is where it gets tricky. We have to compare who deserves to be in the All-NBA Second Team more – Melo, Pau, Duncan, VC or Shaq. Clearly, Anthony and Gasol has had breakthrough seasons this year and have eclipsed Duncan's tangible performance so there's no way that Duncan would get a forward slot instead of a center slot. This effectively eliminiates Shaquille from contention – and probably locks him up as the All-NBA Third Team center. Vince Carter on the other hand is actually performing worse than his last stint at the Meadowlands – though he is the best player for the New Jersey Nets this season. This dip in performance is enough to eliminate VC from contention, I think.

But based on statistics and overall team success, Carmelo may have edged out Gasol on this.

C – Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

F – Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns

F – Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets

 

But wait, isn't Gasol an FC? That being said, justice would be better served if the All-NBA Second Team frontline looked something like this:

pau gasolcarmelo anthonyshawn marion

 

Sorry Timmy.

 

So with six blanks already filled in, we're left with the final three slots for the most exclusive step of the voting process. Since we've already deemed Diesel a more apt choice than Yao, the Houston Rockets center is the first high-profile candidate eliminated from contention. There is no question as well that Shaquille O'Neal is having a far better season than Detroit Pistons center Ben Wallace, so his lock on the center slot stays.

For the last two slots though, we have interesting candidates. Last-minute Second Team excludee Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Vince Carter. Tim Duncan, despite his woes on the court, is still the most important piece of the San Antonio Spurs puzzle and as manifested by their 60+ win pace, The Big Fundamental clearly deserves a slot in the top 15.

So it boils down to Carter versus Garnett. Save for the stats, it's definitely going against Garnett. Carter is playing for a division champion while Garnett will be only playing in the playoffs in some simulated season on NBA Live 2006 this post season.

So the last three spots will be filled in as follows:

shaquille o'nealvince cartertim duncan

 

So there you have it.

 

 

Next: Filling out the All-NBA Teams Backcourt

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