The top 10 first round steals of the last 10 years

Everyone loves to focus on the lottery, but there are good players to be had in the late first round as well. A while back, I put together a list of the top second round picks of the modern era, so now I’m going to focus on those players that were drafted between pick #21 and pick #30 in the first round. (Note: If a player was drafted in the second round, even if they were taken with the #29 or #30 pick overall, they are ineligible to make the list. Sorry, Gilbert.) Since there are more star-quality players available in the 20’s, I’m limiting this list to the last ten drafts (i.e. 1999 through 2008).

It is sometimes tough to rank older players with newer players, but even if a younger player holds more trade value right now, I am going to take into account each player’s entire career. For the young guys, I have to project a little bit, so keep that in mind as you read and react. I feel great about the top eight guys, but there are a few players that missed the list that are pretty interchangeable with #9 and #10.

On with the list…

10. Aaron Brooks, Rockets
26th pick in 2007
I had to decide between Brooks and Nate Robinson here and went with Brooks given his fine performance in the playoffs this season (16.8 ppg, 3.4 apg, 42% from 3PT) and how Robinson’s numbers are a little inflated playing for Mike D’Antoni. Brooks is not a natural point guard, but his sharpshooting is a good fit given Houston’s inside-out attack. He’s small, but he’s quick and is able to score at the rim when given some daylight. The Rockets feel good enough about Brooks to trade Rafer Alston away midseason, so you have to like his upside.

9. Kendrick Perkins, Celtics
27th pick in 2003 (drafted by the Grizzlies)
In the world of “big” guys, I also considered Boris Diaw here, but it’s tough to pass on a 6’10” 24-year-old who averaged 8.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game on a team loaded with vets. Without Kevin Garnett in the playoffs, the C’s needed Perkins to step up his game and he responded with 11.9 points, 11.6 boards and 2.6 blocks per contest. He also did a pretty good job on Dwight Howard, who had his worst numbers of the playoffs against the Celtics.

8. David Lee, Knicks
30th pick in 2005
Isiah Thomas couldn’t make a good trade to save his life, but he could spot talent in the draft. Lee has turned out to be a steal with the last pick in the 2005 draft. He’s an athletic lefty whose best traits are his hustle and smarts. In just his fourth season, Lee averaged 16.0 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, which made him one of the most consistent double-double guys in the league. His stock is so high right now that the Knicks might be able to use him as trade bait in order to land Chris Bosh or Amare Stoudemire. Maybe they’d be better off sticking with Lee…

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The NBA’s 68 worst contracts

The economy is really starting to take its toll on professional sports, and the NBA is no different. Bad contracts are bad even when the economy is pumping, but they really stand out in tough times like these. So I decided to look through the payrolls team-by-team to try to identify the worst contracts in the NBA. I expected to list 15-20 names, but I ended up scribbling down 68. That’s right, there are no fewer than 68 bad contracts in the NBA.

I didn’t include any of the players that are in the final year of their contracts because…well, what’s the point? They’ll be off the books in a few months anyway. Instead, I wanted to focus on those contracts that are going to haunt teams for years to come, so to be eligible, players have to have at least a year left on their current deals.

It’s tough to compare someone making superstar money to an average, everyday role player, so I split these 68 contracts up into three groups: the Overpaid Role Players, the Not-So-Super Stars and the Injury-Prones. I will rank them from least-worst to most-worst with the thinking that I wouldn’t trade the player for anyone further down the list but I would trade him for anyone previously mentioned. So, for example, if a guy is listed #7 within a particular group, I’m not trading him for anyone ranked #6-#1, but I would think seriously about moving him for a guy that is ranked #8+.

So let’s start with the role players and go from there…

(Note: In most cases, I don’t blame the player himself for his outrageous contract. The fault lies with the general manager that inked the guy to the deal. However, this rule goes out the window if the player has a history of only producing in his contract year – I’m looking at you, Tim Thomas.)

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David West drops 40 to help upend Lakers

Check out the 1-2 punch of Chris Paul and David West last night against the Lakers: 72 points (25-47 from the field), 15 assists (all by Paul) and 14 rebounds. West was unstoppable for much of the second half; he drained 18-footers like they were layups and the Lakers simply didn’t have an answer for him defensively. He finished with 40 points and 11 rebounds, while Paul posted 32 points, 15 assists and three steals en route to an impressive 116-105 win. It’s tough to beat a team when two of their players post numbers like that.

For his part, Kobe Bryant kept the Lakers in it through much of the third quarter, scoring 20 of his 39 points in the period. But he only managed two points in the fourth quarter on 1 of 6 shooting from the field. Meanwhile, the Lamar Odom Watch continues. LO only got 12 minutes, but managed 12 points, three assists and a rebound in that limited run.

The Hornets have won 16 of their last 21 games. After kind of a shaky start, it’s good to see one of the premier teams in the West actually playing like title contenders. However, I just don’t know how far that Paul and West can take them. Peja Stojakovic (12.9 ppg, 40% FG%) and Morris Peterson (6.3 ppg) are shells of their former selves , and other than James Posey (10.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg), the Hornets don’t have many other scoring options. I really thought after his fine play last season that Julian Wright would make a big jump this year, but he’s been struggling with a sore ankle and has only appeared in limited minutes in 16 games thus far.

What happened to the Hornets?

New Orleans was one of the best teams in the league last season. Chris Paul played at a MVP level and David West blossomed into a bona fide All-Star. Tyson Chandler turned into one of the best defensive centers in the league and the team got solid play from Peja Stojakovic and Morris Peterson. Over the second half of the season (and the playoffs) it looked like Julian Wright was turning into a starter-quality player right before our eyes.

Fast forward a few months, and after adding NBA Finals hero James Posey, the Hornets have lost five of their last seven games and are sitting at 5-5. It gets worse: they lost to Charlotte two weeks ago and lost last night, at home, to a Sacramento Kings team that was without Kevin Martin.

But Posey certainly is not the one to blame. His PER of 14.18 is actually the second-highest of his career. The only disadvantage I can see to the Posey signing is that it has taken valuable minutes away from Julian Wright.

No, the problem in New Orleans is not Posey, Paul, West or Chandler. They’re all posting the same numbers as last season. The problem is Peja Stojakovic. The team is paying him $13 million this season (and owe him another $29.5 million over the next two seasons) for the privilege of having him shoot 37% from the field and 38% from long range. Stojakovic is a poor defender, so if he’s not knocking down shots, he’s hurting the Hornets on both ends of the court. And right now he’s not knocking down shots.

I didn’t like the Stojakovic trade when it happened, and I really don’t like it now. I’d like to see the Hornets move him and give more minutes to Posey and Wright. But it’s going to be tough to find a team that wants to trade for a 31 year-old shooter who has two years left on a bloated contract and hasn’t shot better than 44% since the 2004-05 season. Stojakovic helped the team last year because he shot 44% from long range. Unfortunately, that was a career-high, and he’s not likely to match it this season.

2008 NBA Preview: #3 New Orleans Hornets

Offseason Movement: The Hornets #1 job this offseason was to lock up Chris Paul, and they managed to sign the superstar point guard to a deal that runs through 2013. GM Jeff Bower poached James Posey from the Celtics in a move that will bolster the team’s bench. He also signed Devin Brown to give the team some depth at guard.
Keep Your Eye On: The Hornets’ wings
In Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler, New Orleans has three of the top players in the league at their respective positions. (Chandler isn’t an offensive force, but he’s a terrific shot blocker and rebounder and his contract is a bargain at the center position.) The key to the Hornets success might be the play at off guard and small forward, which are currently manned by Morris Peterson and Peja Stojakovic, respectively. Both players are 31 and have shown signs of decline. Neither player is a defensive force, so if their shots aren’t falling, there’s really no reason for them to be on the floor. Julian Wright is an up-and-coming small forward who played very well in limited minutes last season and James Posey was signed for his championship experience, tough defense and clutch shooting. Devin Brown will also play a factor.
The Big Question: Can the Paul/West combo lead these Hornets to the Finals?
Both Paul (23) and West (28) are in their primes so the championship window is wide open. They nearly upended the Spurs in last year’s playoffs and have added a valuable piece (Posey) to their championship puzzle. The Hornets need good shooting from their wings to give Paul and West the space to operate. Whomever is on the floor in crunch time needs to be able to knock down shots because inevitably the Hornets’ season will depend on it.
Outlook: With Paul locked up for five years and West locked up for the next three, the Hornets are clearly in their championship sweet spot. But it seems like the team is one player away from being a serious title contender. Stojakovic was supposed to be that guy, but his defensive limitations and suspect shooting in the clutch may make the Hornets regret signing that huge contract two summers ago (if they aren’t already regretting it). Don’t be surprised if Posey gets a lot of crunch time minutes. If he can perform like he did with the Celtics last season, the Hornets have a good shot of getting out of the West.

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