Marc Stein’s trade talk: Amare, Tyson, Richard Jefferson and more

The trade deadline is Thursday, and trade talk is really heating up. Marc Stein gives us the latest.

Two rival executives we spoke with Sunday night immediately wondered whether the Suns’ decision to replace Terry Porter with Alvin Gentry would convince Phoenix to “tap the brakes,” as one put it, on its Stoudemire talks. If the Suns are going to try to recapture a semblance of what they had under Mike D’Antoni, with the only holdover from D’Antoni’s staff taking over, you can understand why Gentry would prefer to have Stoudemire for the rest of the season to help the cause.

Stoudemire is still under contract for another season, so it wouldn’t hurt the Suns if they wanted to see what Gentry could do with this group before moving their star player over the summer. I’d say that the Porter firing makes it more likely that Stoudemire stays put, though I’d still put the chances at better than 50/50 that Amare is moved before the trade deadline.

Read the rest after the jump...

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Luke Ridnour finding a home in Milwaukee

By far the most surprising score from Tuesday’s NBA action is the Bucks 100-98 win over the Spurs in San Antonio. Michael Redd led the Bucks with 25 points and 10 boards, while Andrew Bogut held down the middle with 20 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots. More importantly, he limited Tim Duncan to 7 of 20 shooting from the field, which helped the Bucks spring the upset.

But point guard Luke Ridnour might have been the difference in the game. He posted 21 points (on 9 of 15 shooting), six assists, five rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal, and if he didn’t outplay Tony Parker (19 points, 10 assists), then he sure negated him.

Ridnour joined the Bucks as part of the three-team trade that sent Mo Williams to the Cavs in the offseason. He’s 27, and prior to joining the Bucks, he had spent his entire career in Seattle. At the beginning of the season, new head coach Scott Skiles immediately inserted him into the starting lineup and he has responded with solid play, especially recently.

Take a look at Ridnour’s numbers from November and December:

Nov: 10.6 ppg, 4.9 apg, 38.8% FG%, 0.93 spg
Dec: 11.7 ppg, 6.2 apg, 47.7% FG%, 2.08 spg

That jump in field goal percentage is key. He cut back on the number of three pointers he’s taking (from 2.9 to 1.7) and is taking more open mid-range jumpers created off of pick-and-rolls with Bogut.

For much of November, I thought that Ramon Sessions (who is having a great year in his own right) would soon take over as the starter, but with Ridnour’s December play, I’m not so sure. Skiles is a former point guard, and he has two good, underrated options at the position. The key for Ridnour is to keep up that FG%; everyone knows that he can pass the ball.

Sessions is a free agent after the season, and on a per-minute basis he’s still way ahead of Ridnour in terms of production (PER: 16.48 vs. 13.75). Ridnour has another year on his contract. It will be interesting to see how the team handles these two players. I wouldn’t be surprised if Skiles continues to play Ridnour heavy minutes so that he can keep a lid on Sessions’ league-wide profile until the Bucks can lock him up in a long-term deal at a discount. If that’s the case, he has to be careful not to alienate Sessions so much that a rift is created between the player and the head coach. It’s a bad, bad thing when a point guard and his coach aren’t on the same page.

Early-season NBA awards

The NBA season is less than a month old, but that’s not going to stop me from handing out some early-season awards…

The most outstanding rookie award goes to…Rudy Fernandez.
Derrick Rose is probably the front-runner for the ROY award, but Rudy has been better thus far. His PER is an eye-popping 23.89 (Rose’s is 17.78), which is second-best amongst all shooting guards, and it seems like night after night he’s making a highlight-reel play. Fernandez is averaging 15.4 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists, while shooting 48% from the field and 46% from long range. To top it off, he’s nailing 93% of his free throws and is registering 1.3 steals per game. His fine play is allowing the Blazers to be patient with Jerryd Bayless by running Brandon Roy at he point and Fernandez at off guard. Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Jason Thompson and Kevin Love deserve honorable mention.

The league MVP goes to…LeBron James.
Cleveland is 6-2 and that projects to a 62-win season. If the Cavs can accomplish that, LeBron is going to run away with the MVP award. He’s averaging 29.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists, and is shooting 49% from the field and 78% from the free throw line (which would be a career-high). A case could be made for Kobe Bryant, but he has a much better supporting cast and LeBron’s numbers are better across the board. (Besides, I don’t think voters would want to give Kobe back-to-back MVP awards.) Paul Pierce is a possibility, but he’s only shooting 41% from the field this season. Chris Paul is having an even better year than last season’s remarkable jump, but the Hornets are just 4-3 thus far. Atlanta’s Joe Johnson might be LeBron’s biggest challenger early in the season, but King James has him beat in virtually every statistical category. LeBron it is.

The “I’m the real reason the Bucks traded away Mo Williams” award goes to…Ramon Sessions.
Even though he’s playing fewer minutes (barely) than starter Luke Ridnour, Sessions is averaging more points (15.6 to 10.6), steals (1.1 to 0.9), has a better assist-to-turnover ratio (2.7 to 1.9), a better FG% (48% to 34%) and a better 3PT% (40% to 27%). I don’t think the Bucks are going to be too heartbroken when Ridnour’s contract is up after next season because it looks like Sessions, the former second-round pick, is Milwaukee’s point guard of the future. He’s in the final year of his rookie deal, so it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets next summer.

The “maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come to L.A.” award goes to…Baron Davis.
First, he thinks he’s going to get to play with Elton Brand, but Brand bolts for Philly. Now the Clippers are 1-7 and are losing games by a league-worst 13.4 points per game. Their defense is bad, but their offense is worse. They have scored the second-fewest points per game (88.3) and have the second-worst field goal percentage (41%). For his part, Davis hasn’t done much to help the cause. He’s shooting 37% from the field and just 26% from long range. If this keeps up, the Clippers will be out of the playoff race by Christmas.

The “boy, Devin Harris and those two first round picks are looking really good right now” award goes to…Mark Cuban.
Last year, when the Dallas owner pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Devin Harris and two first round picks to the Nets for a 34 year-old Jason Kidd, I was very skeptical. It was a longshot that the trade would pan out, as it was debatable at the time of the trade whether or not Kidd was even better than Harris. Certainly, Harris had a lot more upside, and his stint in New Jersey has allowed him to flourish. The first of the two picks was used on Ryan Anderson, and he is playing pretty well in limited minutes this season. The second pick is an unprotected first rounder in 2010, which could be a lottery pick if the Mavs can’t get things straightened out. They are 2-5 and their top four players – Kidd (35), Dirk Nowitzki (30), Jason Terry (31) and Josh Howard (28) – are all at least 28 years-old. Barring an injury to one of these guys, the Mavs will probably be fighting for a playoff spot in April, but that’s not exactly what Cuban had in mind.

Four emerging NBA storylines

It’s early in the NBA season, but these four things have jumped out at me during the first week of action.

1. The Lakers are dominating, but Lamar Odom isn’t thriving off the bench.
The Los Angeles Lakers are 4-0 and have won those four games by an average of 20.8 points. Granted, they’ve already played the Clippers twice, but the Nuggets gave them a test in Denver. The Lakers are doing it with defense, holding opponents to just 39.3% shooting and 85.0 points per game. (The Lakers are second in the league in both categories.) The team is off to a quick start despite so-so play from Andrew Bynum (8.3 points and 9.3 rebounds) and Lamar Odom (10.0 points and 6.5 rebounds), who isn’t exactly tearing it up off the bench. His numbers are boosted by a pretty nice 15-point, nine-rebound effort against the Clippers last night. Those are kind of numbers that Odom should be posting on a regular basis. The Lakers are getting nice play from Trevor Ariza, who has produced 9.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in just 20.5 minutes of play. If he continues his deft shooting from long range (71%), it won’t be long before he cracks the starting lineup. One of the underlying strategies heading into the season was to cut back on Kobe’s minutes, and thus far the plan has worked. He averaged 38.9 last season and is only playing 33.3 this season. His minutes are likely to rise as the Lakers play in more close games, but right now Phil Jackson has to be feeling pretty good about how his team has started.

2. The Bucks are finally playing some defense.
Last season, Milwaukee was last in the league in defensive field goal percentage (48.0%), but through five games, they’re holding opponents to 44.2% shooting, which is #14 in the league. New head coach Scott Skiles demands a lot from his players on that end of the court and so far the Bucks are responding with increased effort. The addition of Richard Jefferson certainly helps defensively, but he’s also getting it done on the other end of the court. RJ is averaging 18.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, even though he’s only shooting 41% from the field. Without Michael Redd in the lineup, Jefferson had a great 32-point, nine-assist effort in a 112-104 overtime win against the Wizards Wednesday night. The Bucks are also getting great play from a couple of unexpected sources. Second-year point guard Ramon Sessions turned a few heads last year when he averaged 12.9 points and 12.4 assists (including a franchise record 24 dimes against the Bulls) over the last eight games of the season. The Mo Williams trade that brought Luke Ridnour to team looked more like a salary dump than a personnel move, but maybe the Bucks decided they had their point guard of the future in Sessions, who is averaging 17.3 points and 8.3 assists on the year. Second round pick Luc Mbah a Moute has outplayed first round pick Joe Alexander thus far. Skiles likes Mbah a Moute’s great defense and toughness, which he learned playing in Ben Howland’s system at UCLA for three years. He’s playing 25.2 minutes and is averaging 8.6 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. The Bucks are 3-2, but have a rough eight-game stretch ahead of them that features the Celtics (twice), Suns, Cavs, Spurs, Nuggets and Jazz. If they can come through that gauntlet close to .500, we’ll know that the Bucks’ improvement is for real.

3. The Spurs were thisclose to starting 0-4.
If not for last night’s 55-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound effort by Tony Parker that helped the Spurs survive a double-overtime scare against the Timberwolves, San Antonio would be looking at an 0-4 start. They lost to the Suns at home by five and to the Blazers by one in Portland, but it was the 98-81 loss to the Mavs at home that was really surprising. The Spurs’ problem is two-fold. Collectively, they’re getting older and they miss Manu Ginobili. Parker (33.3 points, 7.3 assists) and Tim Duncan (27.0 points, 11.8 rebounds) are doing all they can to keep the Spurs in games, but they aren’t getting much help from their supporting cast, specifically Michael Finley (33% FG%) and Kurt Thomas (14% FG%). The Spurs are getting good play from fifth-year guard Roger Mason, who is averaging 15.8 points per game on 60.5% shooting. He’s been extremely hot from downtown, knocking down 64% of this three-point shots. Right now, it’s a three-man show and that’s it; no other Spur is averaging more than 7.5 points per game. The schedule gets a little easier over the next two weeks, with winnable games against the Heat, Knicks, Bucks, Kings and Clippers. San Antonio should be back above .500 before too long.

In my 2008 NBA Preview, I had the Hawks ranked #20 to start the season. After a 3-0 start, they should definitely be in the top half, maybe even in the top ten. I thought the loss of Josh Childress and the steady decline of Mike Bibby would outweigh whatever improvements this young team could make, but they have proven me wrong. The Hawks’ three wins are impressive. They beat Orlando by 14 points on the road, beat Philly at home by seven and then beat the Hornets in New Orleans by eight. Joe Johnson has led the team in scoring in all three games, and is averaging 28.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists on the year. Even more impressive, the Hawks have won despite poor shooting from Josh Smith (42%), Mike Bibby (34%) and Marvin Williams (39%). If Johnson is able to keep up this level of play, the Hawks shouldn’t have a problem making the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Long-term, I like the direction this franchise is headed, but they still need to find their point guard of the future. Mike Bibby is on the decline and Acie Law hasn’t done much in his young career to indicate that he’s the guy they should lean on. The Hawks will have plenty of cap space over the next couple of seasons, so they should be planning to find a point guard that can complement Johnson and forward/center Al Horford.

2008 NBA Preview: #18 Milwaukee Bucks

Offseason Movement: New GM John Hammond was busy this summer wheeling and dealing. Two starters from last season are gone. The Bucks traded Mo Williams to Cleveland in a three-way deal that brought Luke Ridnour from Seattle/OKC. Williams was more of a scorer, while Ridnour is definitely a pass-first point guard. The team also traded Yi Jianlian (and Bobby Simmons) to the Nets for Richard Jefferson. This move implies that the team is in “win now” mode, which makes sense given the roster.
Keep Your Eye On: Charlie Villanueva
Everyone thought that Charlie V would be one of the first Bucks to go once Hammond took over, but the team dealt Yi instead and they’re expecting V to take over at power forward. In the 31 games he started last season, he averaged 15/8, so if he can play enough defense to make new coach Scott Skiles happy, he could be in for a big year. The Bucks sure need him to break out, and there’s a good bet that he will, especially if he takes the ball to the hole more.
The Big Question: Can Scott Skiles whip this team into shape?
For the last several years, the Bucks have lacked a defensive mindset and toughness. There’s definitely enough talent to compete; a starting five of Ridnour, Michael Redd, Jefferson, Villanueva and Bogut makes for a good young core of skilled offensive players. If Skiles can get them to increase their effort on defense, the team should make a jump in the standings. It’s no sure thing that all the players will buy in; it’s just as likely that the Bucks will be looking at a losing record two months in and Skiles will have a revolt on his hands.
Outlook: Encouraging. The addition of Jefferson is a huge upgrade at small forward, which has been a weak spot for the last two seasons. The loss of Yi is a loss of potential only, as Villanueva should be able to produce better numbers from that position. Assuming good play from Redd and continued growth from Bogut, the Bucks are one of the darkhorses in the East. If Ridnour helps the team meld into a single cohesive unit offensively and Skiles can get them into the middle of the pack defensively, then the Bucks will be in business.

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