The Fantastic Four

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So, how would you like Juwan Howard’s job? Sure, you get to hang out with T-Mac and Yao, but check out how Juwan spent his February. After easing into the month against the Sixers, Howard had to guard the league’s reigning MVP in Kevin Garnett before tangling with the unique skills of Lamar Odom. After an “easy” matchup with Antonio Davis, he faced, in succession, Jermaine O’Neal, Zach Randolph and Antawn Jamison. After a rest against Seattle’s Reggie Evans, it was on to the big fundamental, Tim Duncan, before finishing the month up with the bruising Carlos Boozer. But this was an easy month for Juwan; he didn’t have to face matchup nightmares Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitski or Shawn Marion. All of which illustrates how the power forward position has become the premiere position in the NBA.

The NBA, more than any of the other big 3 1/2 sports (can you really count hockey any more?), is defined by it’s stars. After the Magic-Bird epoch, we had the Jordan era, and are now in the last stages of the Shaq regime. (And though we dream of a Ming dynasty in Houston, the future surely belongs to King James). But while Shaq and Kobe have been the face of this era, no position has the across-the-board quality of the four spot. Tim Duncan will retire as the best ever at the position, and Garnett will likely be his closest competition. However, he may not hold the title for long if superfreak Amare Stoudamire continues to develop and moves back to the four, which seems to be his natural position. Then there’s Dirk Nowitski, the 7-footer that shoots like Bird and might be the best four in the league if he played any defense. And what of Webber, or Rasheed Wallace, or Jermaine O’Neal, who would have likely dominated the position in most eras, but are in the second-tier of power forwards in this one? Or unique talents like Lamar Odom and Antoine Walker? Elton Brand? Zach Randolph? Antawn Jamison?

So why has this become the glamor position in the league, if not for highlights, then at least for effectiveness? Here are some guesses:

How slow can you go?For those that remember the eighties, it was a time of freewheeling, high-flying, ne’er-play defense basketball. Teams averaged well over 100 points, the greatest dynasty of the time was called showtime, and the game was played in transition rather than the half-court set. The stars of the game were predictably transition players — 3’s like Bird, Dr. J, and Dominique, and guards like Magic, Isiah and the young Michael. There were great power forwards as well, but, other than McHale, most of them played more like 3’s; Worthy and the young Barkley and Malone were more well-known for running the floor than posting up. Then came the triangle offense, which dominated the game in the Jordan and Shaq eras, and forced coaches to focus on defense and running precise offensive sets to increase the odds of scoring every time down. As a result, scoring has plummeted in recent years, and the emphasis on half-court offense means that your most valuable player is one you can feed on the low blocks, i.e. centers and power forwards. This slower game has created an arena in which power forwards can thrive.The Shaq effect

Another factor is the 300-pound gorilla (more like 340-pound gorilla) , Shaquille O’Neal, who has dominated the league like no other man in its history. The slower pace favors him more than anyone else, and his presence in the league may have lead to some true centers playing the four spot. Think about it; if you matchup with Shaq, you’re nearly guaranteed to foul out, you’ll be physically punished all night, and you’re likely to expend so much energy on defense it throws off your offensive game. Not that guarding Duncan and Garnett is fun, but they don’t pound a sledgehammer into your chest all night the way Shaq does. It simply benefits a team more to have its skilled post player in a position where he can stay out of foul trouble (and thus in the game) and save his energy for the offensive end.

The freak factorThis era features some of the most uniquely-gifted players the NBA has ever seen. Kevin Garnett has the skill and size to play any position on the floor. Dirk Nowitski has the body of a center and the shooting touch of a Reggie Miller. Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber and Antoine Walker are also superior shooters, though not in Nowitski’s class. Amare Stoudamire may have more sheer athleticism than any post player in history. Webber, Walker, and Lamar Odom are all gifted passers with the post moves to play the four. Unusual talents like this have no real “natural” position, so where do you play them to maximize their effectiveness? The four position seems to be the best answer, to take advantage of their size and rebounding on defense, while still giving them the chance to run the floor on occasion, or trail the break like Nowitski to hit the three. It also presents matchup problems for teams not blessed with a freakish four; how can you guard a big man whose range can stretch to the three-point line? Most times, you don’t. The futureScoring is up this year, thanks in large part to the razzle-dazzle Suns who moved their great four, Amare Stoudamire, to the center position, and replaced him with their great small forward, Shawn Marion. Is this a sign of things to come? One can only hope, though the Suns may have to prove their formula works in the playoffs before other teams buy in. However, the momentum seems be trending to a more wide-open game that will favor the wing positions more. The stars who will carry the game in the future, LeBron and Dwyane Wade (along with Stoudamire), may lead us to a game that looks more like the 80’s than the late 90’s. However, before they do, we should take a moment to realize the incredible power forwards we’ve gotten to watch these last several years.Quick takesNBA — how good is LeBron James? I think he’ll average a triple-double one year before he retires, joining Oscar Robertson as the only man to do so. Just remember, he’s 20! How good is Carmelo Anthony? I’m not convinced he’s a franchise player. I get a real Jim Jackson vibe from him. College Hoops — Who’s the best shooter in College basketball? Before you say J.J. Redick, check out these numbers: Salim’s Stoudamire’s shooting 53.4% from 3-point range to Redick’s 41.2%, and his range is just as lewd as Redick’s. Of course, he doesn’t play for Dook, so you won’t hear Dicky V screaming about him nearly as much. MLB — Can anyone challenge the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL? Keep your eye on the Indians. They have as much good young hitting as anyone and their rotation features four studs — Sabathia, Millwood, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. They should win the Central and be very scary heading into October. NFL — Matt Jones ran a WHAT? 6’6″ white boys are supposed to run 4.39 in the forty. Somebody has to take a chance on this guy in the first round. If he can be taught to run a pass route at all, he’ll be devastating. NHL — can you spell MLS?

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5 Responses to “The Fantastic Four”

  1. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Great stuff, Andy!!!

    Did you see KG’s interview with John Thompson before the All-Star Game where he cried about how his team is performing this year? I thought that was cool – he wasn’t like most selfish superstars; he seemed to truly care less about self and more about team. It sucks that he plays in Minnesota and that being league MVP still doesn’t give him the credit he deserves.

    Matt Jones: Is there a creative coach in the NFL that could take a freak of nature like him and create a never-seen-before position that would change the game? That’s been my deal with him – where should he play? I think some creative guy could create a tight end/wingback type position that would screw up everything.

  2. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Sounds like a job for Bill Belichik, Al. Of course, Jones would have to play both sides of the ball.

    Excellent article, coolhand, and I don’t even watch the NBA.

  3. guru junior Says:

    That cool hand is gold pure gold I tell ya

  4. Gary Says:

    Nice article.
    I’m looking forward to your baseball reports.

  5. Michael Lasley Says:

    I’m with Juvenal here, Andy, in that I don’t watch the NBA, but this post has me thinking I should check out a few games (or at least read some articles). And, as a student at Syracuse, I have to stand up for Melo. Granted, he’s not as gifted as James, but I think he’s going to be a special player. But I know that’s just me being sentimental.

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