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Ragnar
03-29-2004, 05:11 PM
Pietrus, Daniels making late charges

By Chad Ford
Monday, March 29

Of all the amazing things that have happened this season, nothing has been quite as special as the rookie class of 2003.

From LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony to less-heralded rookies like Dwyane Wade, Kirk Hinrich and Chris Bosh, this year's rookie class is arguably the best since 1999, when Elton Brand, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Lamar Odom, Wally Szczerbiak, Richard Hamilton, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry and Ron Artest all posted impressive rookie seasons.

This year's class has been just as deep. In addition to All-Star caliber performances from James and Anthony and stellar debuts by Wade, Hinrich and Bosh, this year's class has had its share of less-heralded, but just as effective, support players.

T.J. Ford has been special in Milwaukee. I don't think any of us realized how good he really was until he went down with a spinal cord injury, and the Bucks promptly went into the tank.

Washington's Jarvis Hayes has been inconsistent, but when he's hot, he can really light it up.

The Mavs' Josh Howard has proved to be the steal of the first round. Taken with the last pick in the round, he's turned in a lottery-caliber rookie season. Don't let his so-so stats fool you. Howard is putting up 8.6 ppg and 5.6 rpg on one of the deepest teams in the league. Had he been drafted by a "normal" lottery team, I expect his scoring numbers would be probably double what they are.

Clippers center Chris Kaman has proved that he could turn into a decent center in the league. Big men usually progress much more slowly than guards, but Kaman's solid rebounding numbers and his ability to score in the post should pay off in the long run for L.A.

Players like the Suns' Leandro Barbosa, the Jazz's Aleksandar Pavlovic, the Heat's Udonis Haslem and the Wizards' Steve Blake also have shown real promise at times this year.

Now, in the last month of the season, several more rookies are making late runs at greatness. Here are five more guys, all having a great March, whom you need to keep an eye on.

Mickael Pietrus, SG, Warriors: Coach Eric Musselman already is calling Pietrus the best defender in the league. That's high praise for a rookie, but it's quickly becoming deserved. Pietrus plays with the same physical intensity of Ron Artest. The difference is Pietrus is more athletic and possesses greater lateral quickness. That's allowed Musselman to sic Pietrus on opposing teams' point guards.

It isn't a coincidence the Warriors went on a seven-game winning streak when Musselman decided to play Pietrus more than 20 minutes a game. It's also not a coincidence the Warriors, one of the worst defensive teams in the league, have held opponents under 90 ppg during the streak. In those games he hounded Steve Francis into 6-for-16 shooting and seven turnovers, and he held Tracy McGrady to 18 points on 5-for-14 shooting.

To top it off, Pietrus also is beginning to find his stroke offensively. Pietrus has struggled with his perimeter shooting most of the season, but lately he's been on fire, shooting 62 percent from 3-point range (13-for-21) over the last seven games. He dropped 20 points on the Rockets, 18 on the Bucks and 17 on the Clippers in that stretch. At this rate, he's quickly making Jason Richardson expendable at the two next season.

Marquis Daniels, PG, Mavericks: Howard may have been the steal of the first round, but Daniels has to be the steal of the draft -- sort of. Daniels (amazingly) went undrafted last June despite playing well in workouts and at the Chicago pre-draft camp. Just hours after the draft, the Mavericks, who traded their second-round pick to Denver, talked Daniels into playing on their summer league team. They loved him and signed him to deal before the summer was over. It was the smartest move they made all summer.

Daniels has been a revelation. He's a big guard with a good enough handle to step in and take over the point when Steve Nash needs a rest. Lately, he's been the best player on the team, period. Friday, Daniels had 31 points, nine boards and four assists against the Heat while shooting a sizzling 15-for-23 from the field. He followed that on Sunday with a 20-point, seven-assist, five-rebound performance against the Magic. In the five games Daniels has started, he's averaging 14.2 ppg.

Willie Green, SG, 76ers: He's been great replacing Allen Iverson at two guard. Like Iverson, Green is an undersized two who gives his team instant offense. He's averaging 16.3 ppg when he plays 20 or more minutes for the Sixers, who have been much better without Iverson and Glenn Robinson in the lineup. Green and second-year guard John Salmons have been a big part of that.

Mike Sweetney, PF, Knicks: Sweetney sat on the bench for most of the season, but with the Knicks suffering a myriad of injuries, the No. 9 pick in the draft finally is getting minutes, and he's making the most of it. While Sweetney isn't really scoring at a great clip, he is averaging 6.6 rpg in just 17 mpg in March. That's one of the top rebounding rates in the league. While it's doubtful Sweetney will ever turn into an all-star, he's showing he can be a big-time rebounder in the league.

Maciej Lampe, C, Suns: He's still not playing big minutes, but when Lampe does get into the game, good things usually happen. Suns sources claim a fight with Amare Stoudemire in practice has changed the season for Lampe. The kid is cocky and has never met a shot he doesn't like, but the Suns are starting to see a few returns from the first pick in the second round.

He had 12 points and six boards in 29 minutes at San Antonio on Sunday. He played 26 minutes against the Bucks and scored 17 points and grabbed seven boards. He played 18 minutes recently against the Clippers and scored eight points on 4-for-5 shooting. Those numbers aren't blowing anyone away, but for an 18-year-old big man? The Suns will take it.

Around the League

Big Improvements: Six teams already have surpassed their win totals from last season. The most impressive has been the Nuggets, who went from a league-worst 17 wins last season to 38 wins this year. The 21-win difference is due, in large part, to the influence of Carmelo Anthony and the offseason additions of Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and a healthy Marcus Camby. In the rough and tumble Western Conference, that's pretty impressive.

The Cavs aren't too far behind. The addition of LeBron has given them 14 more wins that last year's 17-win team.

The most surprising upsurge? The Memphis Grizzlies. The team won just 28 games last season. This year, the Grizzlies already have won 47 and are on pace to win 52. That would give them plus-24 wins for the season, one of the most impressive turnarounds in NBA history.

What's amazing about the Grizzlies is they've made the improvement without adding a superstar or getting one back from injury.

The team with the biggest improvement in history, the 1997-98 Spurs, improved by 36 wins over their previous season. But that team added the first pick in the draft, Tim Duncan, and their starting center, David Robinson, who had missed the previous season with an injury.

The Grizzlies' biggest additions? James Posey, Bo Outlaw, Bonzi Wells and Jake Tsakalidis.

Shouldn't that be enough to get either Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown and/or their team president Jerry West a postseason award?

While the sentiment all season for coach of the year has been with the Jazz's Jerry Sloan (who's done an amazing job in Utah), Brown's ability to turn a bad lottery team into an elite team (not just a playoff team) in a short time span is unbelievable.

And though West didn't make a big deal or hit a home run for the draft, he did something last summer that only the best executives know how to do. He supported his coach by giving Hubie the pieces he needed to play his style of basketball. Brown's 10-man rotation has forced players to play Brown's way or sit at the end of the bench. Without credible replacements for everyone in the starting five, Brown's threats would've rung hollow. West's ability to give Brown a legit alternative at every position has everyone on the same page.

Yao for MVP? If people are going to seriously argue that LeBron James, the first pick in the 2003 draft, should be in the mix for the league's MVP Award this year . . . I've got someone who should be ahead of him in line -- Yao Ming. Like LeBron, Yao has taken a lottery team on his back and turned it into a playoff team this year. Unlike LeBron, Yao has done it without the benefit of having the ball in his hands every time down the stretch.

Yao has been amazing for the Rockets down the stretch. He's averaging 21.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg and 2.5 bpg on 52 percent shooting in March and seems to be heating up with each and every game. Yao has been the key to the Rockets' success all season. When the Rockets lose, Yao is averaging just 10.9 shots a game. When they win? Yao gets 13.5 shots per game. Those 2.6 shots per game make a big difference. The inverse is true for the Rockets' second best player, Steve Francis. In wins he's averaging 1.1 more apg and 1.5 fewer shots a game.

With that said, there's no question, to me, that Kevin Garnett should win MVP this year. Second in my book is the Kings' Peja Stojakovic. Third is Tim Duncan. Fourth is Jermaine O'Neal. Fifth? Split it between Yao and Shaq.

Most Improved? While we're on the subject of postseason awards, the Most Improved Award is the closest race in recent history. I can make a credible case for 10 players . . . with none having a huge edge over the other.

I've always hated to vote for a guy in his second year in the league. Players are supposed to improve from year one to year two so . . . I'm going to disqualify two guys -- Yao Ming (who should be the favorite) and Carlos Boozer -- from the get go. I'm putting Philly's Samuel Dalembert in this group as well, considering that this is the first year he's gotten any playing time.

I'm also going to disqualify a player who just so happens to be having a career year during a contract year. What Erick Dampier has done for the Warriors this year has been impressive, but I think we all know the reason behind the big improvement. While I'm disqualifying, I'm also going to kick out Ron Artest. Artest is having a great year, a career year, but really he'd be getting this award for behaving off the court. I don't think that's why you win it.

That leaves six credible candidates for the award: Michael Redd, Andrei Kirilenko, Zach Randolph, Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson and Mark Blount. All six are deserving. Of the six, I'm leaning toward Redd right now. He's had the biggest improvement and the biggest impact on a winning team. I also like the fact that he was a second-round pick who clearly had to work on his flawed game to get him to the level of all-star this season.

Randolph, statistically, has put up the best numbers. Blount has been the biggest surprise of the group. He's come out of nowhere to be legit center in the league. Kirilenko, Jefferson and Johnson have been great . . . but I'm not sure their improvements have been dramatically better. If you ask me, Kirilenko and Jefferson were just underrated last season. We should've seen this coming. Johnson didn't start putting up those numbers until Phoenix gutted their backcourt.

Kegboy
03-29-2004, 10:29 PM
Pietrus plays with the same physical intensity of Ron Artest. The difference is Pietrus is more athletic and possesses greater lateral quickness.

:o

kerosene
03-29-2004, 11:58 PM
The Good, the Bad, the Kitchen Sink

Terry Brown
Monday, March 29
Updated: March 29
12:30 PM ET

With a little more than two weeks to go, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs are two wins away from possibly winning their division and three losses from possibly facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round as the sixth seed in the West.

The Good
Ron Artest, Indiana Pacers
Week's work: 4-0 record, 22 ppg, 8 rpg, 4.5 apg, 4.5 spg, 1.2 bpg, 36.6% shooting

Artest
Go ahead. Stare at that shooting percentage and realize that this is the one Pacer player who can win ugly. He started Sunday night's win over the streaking Heat with a left hand heavily bandaged because of a busted thumb. He finished it with a one-way ticket to the doctor's office with a busted nose. In between, he shot 3-for-16 in a game that featured 49 fouls, four technicals and two flagrants. Oh yeah, he also had 18 points, 12 boards and six steals in 41 minutes.

Stromile Swift, Memphis Grizzlies
Week's work: 4-0 record, 18 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 0.2 apg, 1.7 spg, 1.7 bpg, 54.9% shooting
You aren't going to lose many games when you're getting this kind of production from the guy with the 10th-most minutes on your team. In fact, the Grizzlies are 15-3 when Stro scores 14 or more points in a contest and 12-4 when he grabs seven or more rebounds.

Ray Allen, Seattle SuperSonics
Week's work: 2-1 record, 28.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1 spg, 10 triples, 57.8% shooting
If Hey Zeus goes 6-for-8 from 3-point range and the Sonics still lose to halt a seven-game win streak, then there wasn't much that anyone could have done.

Lamar Odom, Miami Heat
Week's work: 2-1 record, 18 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 2 apg, 1 spg, 1.3 bpg, 57.1% shooting
This whole Heat streak started when Odom tallied 46 points, 26 rebounds and 20 assists against the Bucks and Kings within 36 hours of each other in early March. The 10-2 run ended when his knee swelled to twice its size midway through Sunday night's game against the Pacers. In between, the Heat passed up the Sixers, Celtics, Raptors, Cavs, Boston and Knicks and are within one game of having the right to not have to play the Pacers, Nets or Pistons in the first round of the playoffs.

The Bad
Brad Miller, Sacramento Kings
Weak work: 1-2 record, 6.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.6 bpg, 41.1% shooting

Miller
Let's make this as simple as possible. The Kings are paying him $9.7 million a year for the next seven seasons for one reason. Help stop Shaq. Not stop him by himself. Not score against him by himself. Just get in the way here and there while popping a few jumpers to pull Shaq out of the key followed by a few nifty passes. Six extra fouls, right? Well, the last time he played the Lakers, Brad tallied two points on 1-for-5 shooting while helping hold Shaq to 16 rebounds (while he, Vlade Divac and Chris Webber combined for 13), to boost his season averages against Los Angeles to 5.5 points per game on 27 percent shooting in 68 minutes. So does it really matter what he does against the rest of the league?

Elton Brand, Los Angeles Clippers
Weak work: 0-5 record, 15.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1 spg, 1 bpg, 39.6% shooting
In the Clippers' only two wins this month, Brand put up 48 points, 23 rebounds and six blocks on 52 percent shooting. It looks like he'll have to repeat that performance in one night for the Clippers to get win No. 3.

Donyell Marshall, Toronto Raptors
Weak work: 0-4 record, 11.2 ppg, 11 rpg, 0.7 apg, 1.7 spg, 0.7 bpg, 39% shooting
For his career, he's shot two 3-pointers per game. On the season, he's taken 3.8 3-pointers per game. While with the Raptors, he's gone off for 4.3 3-pointers per game. Well, last week it caught up with him, and the normally reliable power forward who needs very few plays run for him to remain effective took an uncalled for 22 triples in four games and made only five. Worse even is the fact that when not launching from long range, he went 14-for-26 from the field for 53.8 percent.

Eddy Curry, Chicago Bulls
Weak work: 0-4 record, 8.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1 apg, 0 spg, 1.2 bpg, 28.2% shooting
Now, he's blaming the fact that during the offseason, a buddy of his threw a pager at him that whacked him in the eye and hampered his training regimen. But he promises to do better next time. No, really, he does.

The Ugly
In the first half of a must-win game between the Denver Nuggets and the Utah Jazz, Carmelo Anthony scored 20 points. The rest of the starters scored a grand total of five points as the Nuggets went on to lose, 85-83, on a last-second shot to drop them from eighth to 10th place in the Western Conference.

Let me repeat that. Five points. That's Andre Miller shooting 0-for-6, Jon Barry going 0-for-3, Marcus Camby 0-for-3 and Nene Hilario 1-for-4. In all, that's 1-for-16 for 6.2 percent.

The Kitchen Sink
FAB CAV
In November, Carlos Boozer averaged 12 points per game. By December, he was up to 13.9. In January, he boosted that number to 16 and then 17.2 in February. Now, it is March and the 6-foot-9 power forward of the Cleveland Cavaliers is averaging 17.5 points per game. April? May? You almost hope the Cavs squeeze into the playoffs just to see how good this guy can get this year.


Carlos Boozer
Power Forward
Cleveland Cavaliers
Profile


2003-2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM PPG RPG APG FG% FT%
65 15.4 11.5 2.0 .521 .771

And don't think for a second it's just because he's getting more minutes. Head coach Paul Silas played this guy for 37.5 minutes a game in December. He averaged 36.5 in February and is now at 35.2 for the year. Even more amazing is the fact in December, he took 170 shots and made 88 of them for 51.8 percent. So far in March, he's also taken 170 shots and made 92 of them for 54.1 percent. On the season, he's shooting 52.1 percent for seventh best in the league while also averaging 11.5 rebounds per game bolstered by his 12.4 this month.

Need more proof?

On the NBA Web site, they have this efficiency formula that is supposed to measure a player's overall performance. Based on a 48-minute basis, Boozer is the sixth-highest ranked player in the league behind only Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Elton Brand and Yao Ming and ahead of Kobe Bryant.

THE BIG BOARD
The Los Angeles Lakers are 15-0 when Shaquille O'Neal grabs 15 or more rebounds in a game this season and 20-2 when he grabs 14 or more boards. On the season, he is averaging 11.6 per game. On the Lakers' current eight-game win streak, Shaq is averaging 16.6.

THE SIXTH MAVERICK
Antoine Walker leads the Mavericks in rebounding and is second in assists. But he's also shooting a miserable 42 percent from the field as a power forward, 26 percent from long range as a 3-point specialist and a career-low 54 percent from the free-throw line.

And, as of last Friday, he became the fifth-leading scorer on the Dallas Mavericks at a career-low 14.2 per game after a March in which he put up only 9.5 points per game as the Mavs have gone 7-8 and fallen to sixth in the Western Conference playoff race. He was passed by Antawn Jamison, who is now averaging 14.5 off the bench. In fact, in 2,123 minutes so far this season, Jamison has scored 1,055 points on 52 percent shooting from the field and 73 percent from the line. Walker, on the other hand, has played 2,578 minutes and scored 1,040 points as the starter.

Jamison could very well finish with the Sixthman of the Year Award but only because if the two offseason acquisitions swapped places, Walker would be doing even worse. On the season, when Walker plays less than 29 minutes per game (the amount that Jamison has averaged on the season), he's averaged only 8.6 points per game.

THE QUESTION
Believe it or not, the Sixers are 19-29 with Allen Iverson in the lineup and 12-14 without him. Stretch those percentages out and Philadelphia, at a 46.1 winning percentage, would be the seventh-seeded team in the East now.

JASON RETURNS
After averaging 2.81 turnovers per game in five NBA seasons, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Jason Williams is down to 1.84 this year and 1.5 this month. Meanwhile, his assist per game, 6.7 on the year and seven on his career, and minutes per game, 29.5 this year and 32.4 over his career, haven't changed much. And as a whole, the Grizzlies are committing only 14.9 turnovers per game to their opponents' 17.2. Last year, they committed 15.4 to their opponent's 14.8.

HITTING THE GREAT WALL
Yao Ming is currently fifth in the league in field goal percentage at 53 percent, but he's showing signs of fatigue. During the month of January, the 7-foot-6 center shot 57 percent from the field. In February, he was down to 53 percent. This month, he's at 52 percent, and in his last six games, including Sunday night's, he's fallen to 45.5 percent from the field. Now, that isn't too bad at all except when you consider that in the Rockets' 42 wins this year, he's shot 55 percent, and in their 30 losses, he's shot 49 percent.

ATLANTIC WOES
The Washington Wizards may play in the absolute worst division in the NBA, but that hasn't helped them the least bit. Despite the fact that there is only one team in the seven-team Atlantic Division with a winning record, the Wizards have gone 1-19 against those teams. A 10-10 record against those teams would put them at 32-41 and a single game out of the playoffs. Instead, they are 23-50 and four games from having the worst record in the NBA.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE
Nikiloz Tskitishvili, No. 5 pick of 2002 draft by Denver Nuggets
This year: 2.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.1 spg, 0.2 bpg, 33% shooting in 7.5 mpg

Darko Milicic, No. 2 pick of 2003 draft by Detroit Pistons
This year: 1.3 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 0.2 apg, 0.2 spg, 0.4 bpg, 25% shooting in 4.4 mpg

FINAL FOUR SPECIAL
Indiana Pacers (54-19) versus Detroit Pistons (47-27)
Sunday, April 4 at the Palace at Auburn Hills at 1 p.m. EST on ABC

San Antonio Spurs (48-25) versus Los Angeles Lakers (50-23)
Sunday, April 4 at the Staples Center at 3:30 p.m. EST on ABC

With apologies to the Kings and Timberwolves, we bring you the best the NBA has to offer in between the NCAA Final Four and Championship games featuring Jermaine O'Neal, Ben Wallace, Kobe Bryant and four of the Spurs' top 5 scorers (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Hedo Turkoglu and Rasho Nesterovic), none of whom ever played Division I ball.

The End
"Stu Jackson is running the NBA rules committee the same way he ran the Knicks and the Grizzlies, inconsistently."

Shaq insulting New York, Memphis and Vancouver fans everywhere.