Watching Paul and West in the Embryo

Published: June 5, 2011

A few months ago, my TiVO served up a gem for me, recording an ESPN Classic game from March 2006 between the Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets, who were then playing in OKC.  I’ve been sitting on that game ever since, waiting for the off-season so I could use it for a post when real games weren’t going on and the long off-season was commencing.

So I finished it today, and I have a pile of things I wanted to talk about.  First, however, I wanted to question ESPN Classic’s sanity.  That game was as classic as the dump I took last night.  Satisfying, but hardly something I’d want to revisit.   32 missed threes.  Lots of turnovers.  A complete and total lack of explosive offense, and unless you want to count Yao’s 22 points, 8 rebounds and 5 turnovers, no individual performances worth a second look.  The finish was anti-climactic and completely lacking in drama.

So why did I enjoy the game so much?  Primarily, Paul and West.  This game was during Paul’s rookie year and West’s breakout season, so seeing them early in their careers was fascinating.  I had also forgotten how much fun Speedy Claxton was, that at one time the Hornets were sporting two promising young wing players, and also got a stark reminder of just how dreadful the second unit was back then.  We think our past few second units have been bad?  Whew.

Chris Paul

First off, seeing the rookie Paul is somewhat jarring.  I won’t go so far as to call him skinny, but the dude is downright thick now.   In the Houston game, he was playing against Rafer Alston, and had no size advantage at all.  Today, Paul would post Alston and push him around with ease.  In fact, Paul looked like someone had taken Kobe, with all his athletic leanness, shortened him, and screwed on Paul’s head, sans scruffy chin hair.  Freakish.

Paul’s game was also much different.  His ball-handling was still there, and there were several of his nifty fake one-handed cross-overs on the way to the hoop.  The rest of his game, however, was predicated more on speed than power and ball-handling.  The team ran much fewer high pick and rolls for him, and when they did, he didn’t try to seal anyone on his back.  Instead, he just went as fast as he could into the paint, hoping to find a seam or rolling teammate.  If none presented himself, he forced a floater that didn’t go down at all in this game.  Today, his forays are slower, but he’s developed three or four dribble feints to clear room for himself.

I am pleased to note, however, that though you saw him yelling at his teammates very rarely, his nasty streak was fully evident.  At one point, he got fouled hard on the head driving for a layup, and retaliated with a backhand slap that he then tried to make look like he was just raising his arms.  Frankly, I’m astonished he didn’t get a T.  And so was Houston.  Jeff Van Gundy practically wet his pants in frustration.

David West

Now, West too was a little smaller than he is now.  He also ran a little faster, but here was the biggest shock.  His mid-range shot was a jumpshot.  He would catch, hop and elevate before releasing.  I’ve been watching him take that one-legged, fading set shot for so long that I would have sworn that David West never took actual jumpers.

The other biggest difference in his game was that his handle simply wasn’t there.  For a while now, the forgotten excellence in David West’s game was his sheer ability to unleash two or three dribble drives to set up his shot and not have it instantly poked away like a lot of other big men.  In this game, he only put the ball on the floor three times.  In all three, he crossed-over his opponent, but not once did it gain him anything.  On one he almost fumbled it out of bounds and had to pick it up and force a leaner.  On the other two, he got cut off by his opponent and ended up with his back to the basket and nothing to do except throw it out to a guard.

It’s actually pretty amazing how different his game is.

Speedy Claxton

I had somewhat forgotten how much I liked Speedy Claxton.  He only spent a season and a half in a Hornets uniform after he came over from Golden State in yet another dump of Baron Davis’s swollen carcass. (Maybe we should start referring to our bowel movements as “Barons”)  However, we forget that the entire impetus of bringing in Jannero Pargo and Bobby Jackson after Claxton went to Atlanta was to try and imitate the success the team had with running Paul and Claxton together in the back-court.  The pair of them would regularly cause havoc, combining to break down defenses and proving to be devastating in the open floor.

It’s a shame that Claxton had so many injury issues.  When healthy, he was entertaining.

JR Smith and Kirk Snyder

First, in this game they both sucked. 5-21 between them for 14 points.  However, I had forgotten just how physically impressive both of them were in their second seasons in the league.  Both guys had all the talent in the world.  They were strong, talented young guards and Smith’s outside shot was complimented impressively by Kirk Snyder’s size and ability to post up smaller guards.  That summer it was hard to swallow when both of them were traded – JR Smith as an unnecessary throw in for Tyson Chandler that Chicago didn’t even want(they traded him away for a 2nd round pick immediately after) – and Kirk Snyder after Byron Scott got angry at him for trying to be the star of the Summer League.  THAT one flabbergasted me.  Of course, based on the eventual tragic decisions he made, there was probably more to it than that, but at the time, it was still painful to have a team go from having two promising, young athletic shooting guards to elevating Rasual Butler to a starter and the eventual signing of Mo Pete and James Posey.  Ugh.

The 2nd Unit

Byron Scott, in his infinite wisdom, rolled with his entire second unit for about 11 minutes in that game.  That stellar group of five consisted of Marc Jackson, Aaron Williams, Linton Johnson, JR Smith and Speedy Claxton.  Other than Smith and his up-and-down game, within two years none of those players would earn an NBA minute, either through injury or sucking their way out of the league.  Not an impressive backup group.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?


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