Five debates stirring NBA waters
Kobe Bryant's defense has made him better than LeBron James in eyes of some
Magic are 48-1 this season when leading with five minutes left in fourth quarter
Nate Robinson's antics at Knicks games have made and lost fans in equal numbers
We are a country of debaters. Or is it arguers? However you define it, nothing pleases American sports fans more than a lively discussion. There has been no shortage of topics in the NBA this season. Let's examine the five best.
Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James
Do you prefer overwhelming athleticism or unparalleled skill? Do you enjoy an overpowering first step or a Swiss Army knife of moves around the basket? Choosing between Bryant and James is like favoring the Beatles or U2 -- you can't go wrong with either. But that doesn't stop the debate from raging on.
LeBron appears to be on track to claim his first MVP award this season, with his numbers (28.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game) putting him in Oscar Robertson's category. But to many observers, Bryant remains the more complete player.
Consider: Bryant has mastered two skills that James is still developing -- defense and an unstoppable back-to-the-basket game. James' defense has improved significantly this season. He's more aggressive, his footwork is better and he has, according to scouts, picked up a few tricks of the trade, like how to bump a jump shooter just enough to influence a shot without getting called for a foul. Where did James learn these skills? At the Olympics, where practices were often defensive clinics put on by Bryant and Jason Kidd. Bryant's defense is overshadowed by his offense, but you won't find a coach in the NBA who won't put Bryant in his top five on-ball defenders.
Offensively, James is lethal off the dribble and his court vision is nearly unrivaled. However, James frequently uses his superior athleticism to score while Bryant (who still possesses pretty good athleticism himself) gets his points with a wide variety of jump shots and fadeaways and is an expert at scoring in seemingly impossible situations. Witness Bryant's feathery, scrape-the-ceiling fourth-quarter shot with LeBron draped all over him in February. That's a weapon James has yet to develop.
Stan Van Gundy vs. Erik Spoelstra
It's mentor vs. mentee, the young prodigy handed a golden opportunity versus the sage veteran who had to claw his way for one. The NBA Coach of the Year race could come down to the two Florida franchises -- and it doesn't hurt that Van Gundy, a one-time Pat Riley protégé, was shoved out of Miami in 2006 and replaced by Riley's newest acolyte, Spoelstra, less than two years later.
Van Gundy has done a remarkable job in Orlando. He has weathered a season-ending shoulder injury to Jameer Nelson and incorporated a completely different style of point guard (see below) to lead the Magic to their second straight 50-win season. He has created a new formula for small ball and made Rashard Lewis an All-Star power forward in the process. And he has taught a young team how to close games: The Magic are an NBA-best 48-1 when leading with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Spoelstra, 38, the NBA's youngest coach, quickly erased any thoughts that this would be a rebuilding season in Miami. The Heat limped into the lottery last season but are on the verge of becoming just the second team in NBA history to win 15 or fewer games one season and make the playoffs the following year. Certainly he has been aided by a rejuvenated and healthy Dwyane Wade, who has been running away with the NBA scoring title. But Spoelstra has managed an undersized frontcourt, a talented-but-maddening rookie in Michael Beasley and a rookie point guard (Mario Chalmers) to position the Heat as a competitive playoff team. That's no small feat.
Carlos Boozer vs. Paul Millsap
Who is the better investment? Is it Boozer, the 27-year-old veteran with the diverse offensive game and a cranky body to go with it? Or is it Millsap, the 24-year-old who is a beast on the boards but who may never develop Boozer's offensive touch? With free agency beckoning for both players (Boozer has an opt-out clause after the season while Millsap will be a restricted free agent), that's a question asked a lot in Utah these days.
There are strong arguments to be made both ways. Boozer's bum knee opened the door for Millsap, who bulldozed his way through it. In the 39 games he played in Boozer's absence, Millsap averaged 15.8 points and 10.1 rebounds. He rattled off 19 straight double-doubles between November and January and was a huge reason the Jazz were able to stay in playoff contention. He also will command a much smaller salary than Boozer will if Boozer elects to opt out of his contract.
But be careful what you wish for. Millsap's body of work as a starter is less than half a season; Boozer's is seven years. Boozer is a polished perimeter threat and is still a vacuum on the glass (10.6 per game). Millsap's fan club will probably grow in the offseason, especially if Detroit offers Boozer an annual salary of $12 to $14 million. But Boozer is a proven commodity and, paired with Deron Williams, gives the Jazz a terrific pick-and-roll combination. Can they really risk walking away from that?
Nate Robinson vs. No Nate Robinson
There are two camps on Robinson, both equally represented. One loves him. It points to Krypto-Nate's electrifying scoring ability. It says he's one of only a few players capable of putting up 30 points off the bench. It points to the 25 20-point performances, eight 30-point efforts and two 20/10 games this season. It praises him for becoming the first NBA player since Magic Johnson in 1981 to record at least 30 points, 15 assists, nine rebounds and five steals in the same game (Robinson had 33 points, 15 assists, nine rebounds and five steals against the Clippers).
And that camp is right.
The other camp hates him. It cringes every time he commits a foolish foul (which happens a lot) or launches a heavily contested shot (which happens even more). It groans at his trash talking, muscle flexing, Will Ferrell-high-fiving antics and hopes one day that his maturity matches his game.
And that camp is right, too.
The Knicks' strategy with Robinson, who will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, has become a hot topic in Manhattan. Do the Knicks cut into their precious 2010 cap space by giving Robinson a multiyear contract worth $4 million or so per season? Or do they run the risk that a team like Oklahoma City or Memphis might be willing to overpay for the crowd-pleasing Robinson and lose him for nothing?
Jameer Nelson vs. Rafer Alston
This debate is irrelevant until the offseason, but that hasn't slowed the speculation. Before going down for the season with a shoulder injury in February, Nelson was having a career season, averaging 16.7 points and 5.4 assists. After spending the first four years of his career trying to emulate Steve Nash and Chris Paul, Nelson had finally embraced what he was: a scoring point guard who could create opportunities for his teammates off of his own offense.
But after Alston was brought in at the trade deadline, the Magic have been able to maintain their position among the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. Alston is a different player than Nelson, a pass-first facilitator who looks to get his teammates involved on every possession.
Alston says he is fine returning next season as a backup, but having two starting-caliber point guards competing for minutes at one spot doesn't seem feasible. Alston, who has one year and $5.3 million remaining on his contract, is the more tradable of the two. But what happens if the Magic make a prolonged postseason run? What happens if they knock off Boston or Cleveland with Alston at the helm? What happens if they (gulp) makes the NBA Finals? Could they really take the starting gig away from Alston after that?
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