It is a common cliché to say that a player makes their statements on the court, but that is exactly what Diana Taurasi did in game one of the playoffs. For the Phoenix Mercury (and Taurasi) the season started in Los Angeles against the Sparks.
That is not a slight on the regular season, but this team was put together with one goal: Win Championships.
Individual accolades come and go for elite like players Taurasi and Candace Parker every year. They are in their own rights MVP's every season for their respective teams just like Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Angel McCoughtry, and every other former MVP candidate of years past. Greatness comes in all shapes and sizes there for it is not defined by a statue or an award, height or length, position, or requisite skill-set.
Earlier in the season Taurasi became the fifth leading scorer in WNBA history and moved up the Top 10 list in assists as well. Her reaction individual accolades was reminiscent of a child who does something great, but in their mind they just did something, but it was great at the end of the day. She hardly knows her greatness, but continues to churn out greatness nightly.
The portfolio continues to grow every game at this point for the now ten year veteran who has either consciously or nonchalantly has become a consensus MVP candidate every year as the masses have become numb to how great she is.
An MVP in some eyes is the best player statistically in the league in any given season. To others it is the most irreplaceable player on a good team. For the rest it is the best story of the season.
That is not something determined in a board room or from behind a laptop. It is determined on the court.
Everyone of those players are the best statistical player on their team. They are the most irreplaceable player on the roster and are a story in their own right.
Taurasi did just that in game one against the Sparks when she came out and set the tone for her teammates, for herself, and the complexity of the series. No player in the history of the WNBA has displayed the balance between scoring and distributing like Taurasi has this season and throughout her career.
Early on she set the tone with three assists in the first quarter making play-after-play-after-play for her team. Her aggressiveness made up for 58% of the Mercury offense in the half and kept them in the game.
In the second half she produced 46% of the team's offense switching gears becoming more of a scorer closing out the game with 20 points in the half.
The game was a statement. Taurasi went out, on the road, and outperformed the actual MVP with an MVP performance of her own closing out another playoff win taking her record in first round playoff games to a remarkable 9-2 overall.
On the court Taurasi makes her mark like a marksman from deep or threading the needle with accuracy on a pass to an open teammate.
Her presence is felt on the court. Her MVP credentials are put on full display every night with her play and how her influence played a major role in turning the Mercury from a 7 win laughing stock to 19 win legitimate contenders in the Western Conference. Other influences played a part in the teams' 12 win turnaround, but none with more value, or impact, than what Taurasi brings every night.
This individual performance was not a metaphorical fist to the chest saying, "look at me, I am the best," but a statement that this team is here to win a Championship. Taurasi is that Championship Engine.
The Mercury were not able to replace the impact of the best guard in the history of the WNBA last year when she was injured. They went from the Western Conference Finals to the No. 1 Overall pick without her. That was not the leagues definition of an MVP this year, but she surely was for the Phoenix Mercury.
Not to slight the regular season, but the Mercury's goal is to win a Championship and Taurasi's goal is to be the MVP of the season that matters. The post-season.
Goran Dragic was drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Suns in 2008 at the tender age of 22 when he was merely a backup point guard for TAU Ceramica (now Caja Laboral). His first two NBA seasons were spent as a backup to former two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash in Phoenix while he concurrently backed up former Euroleague MVP Jaka Lakovic on his Slovenian National Team.
Once dubbed the worst player in the NBA and given the nickname "Goran Tragic" by ESPN columnist John Hollinger (now somehow the Director of Player Personnel for Memphis), Dragic has ascended the NBA and Euro ladders at a rocket-fueled pace in the last three years.
By spring of 2010, his second year in the NBA, Dragic became a serious NBA threat. While he still backed up Steve Nash in Phoenix, logging only 18 minutes a game, Dragic scored 32 in a loss to Utah and then famously blasted San Antonio in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. Suns fans remember Dragic's transformation that year. We remember that opponents began to fear the Suns bench almost as much as the star-studded starting lineup.
At the time, I worried that Dragic had already reached his ceiling. I wrote an article for Bright Side, warning fans not to fall for the national hype over Dragic and wait until he had another season to prove himself.
That fall, Dragic joined Lakovic to lead the Slovenian team to 8th place in the 2010 FIBA World Championships - the highest Slovenia had ever finished on the World Stage. Dragic still shared time with Lakovic at the point, but he otherwise played shooting guard and had become the face of Slovenian basketball, posting 12.7 points, 4.1 assists and 3.3 rebounds for the overachieving squad.
But when he returned to Phoenix, he played (relatively) terribly for the Suns and their new general manager, Lance Blanks, traded him to Houston for a purportedly better player in Aaron Brooks (AND a first round pick). I was in favor of the trade at the time, thinking that Dragic's ceiling was a good backup, rather than a solid starter, while Brooks had proven himself to a starting quality point guard (19 points, 5 assists the year before).
Upon receiving his professional "wake up call", Dragic played much better in Houston than he had in Phoenix. He was still a backup, but the coaching staff loved him from day one and when starter Kyle Lowry for injured, Dragic "killed it" over the final week of the season as starter. Back in Phoenix, Aaron Brooks rubbed everyone wrong and barely made an impact as the Suns sputtered to the finish line.
In the 2011 Eurobasket championships, Dragic led his Slovenian team in points and steals per game, while finishing second in assists to the fading Lakovic. Slovenia fell to 7th place after having taken 4th place in Eurobasket 2009 and 8th in 2010 Worlds.
Over the past 18 months, Dragic has taken much bigger steps than most people anticipated he could ever take back in 2008. Dragic became a full-time NBA starter for Houston (final 28 games of 2012 season) and then signed a huge deal to supplant Steve Nash in Phoenix.
For the first time in his career, Dragic was a full-time starter from day one in Phoenix. He responded by proving to the world he could repeat his high efficiency on double the minutes, posting a wide range of stats that only a few NBA players could match. Only FOUR other players in the entire NBA put up more points, assists and steals than Goran Dragic's 14.7 points, 7.4 assists and 1.6 steals.
Now in Eurobasket 2013, Dragic is carrying his undertalented Slovenian team beyond their means as the undisputed leader. Lakovic is a shadow of his former self and other long-time national team members are missing (Udrih), injured (Erazem Lorbek) or retired.
Dragic is the only NBA-caliber player on the team, yet they have ridden their home crowd to the quarterfinals and a guaranteed World Cup berth in 2014. Slovenia had missed the odd-year Olympics counterpart in 2012, so this will be their first World stage since 2010.
Dragic has posted team and (Euro) career highs of 15.5 points, 4.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds, by far the team leader. But he's only been able to play 23.9 minutes per game and lately looks gassed in the fourth quarter. The emotional toll of his home crowd (Slovenia is hosting the tournament, with 10,000 fans per night) and pressure to play 110% every minute is wearing him down.
How much further can Goran Dragic go with his professional career?
At 27 years old, he still relies almost entirely on his high motor and athleticism to beat the opponent. His shooting mechanics make it difficult to be a consistent shooter, something he will need as his legs fail him in the coming years.
After close to a decade of year-round basketball, how many years can he sustain being the face of his franchise and national team? Probably several. He will be moving part-time to the shooting guard position next season next to Eric Bledsoe, which might ease the pressure on him during games in the NBA.
But the bigger question is: what is Goran Dragic's ceiling?
Can he rise any higher than he already has: a quality NBA starter and national team leader? Can he become an NBA All-Star?
To do so, he must improve his shooting percentages and become a better leader. For Slovenia, he's already there.
"I didn't realize what a tremendous leader he is, by his words and example," [assistant coach Chris] Thomas said to Paul Coro recently. "I marvel at how our guys look up to him on a daily basis. It's impressed me beyond what I can express."
But it's been different in the NBA. Goran is quiet, and not inclined to be a leader and mentor off the court. Maybe that's changing, but he needs to realize how necessary it is in Phoenix with such a young squad. Last year, Dragic got frustrated with his teammates and couldn't get them to play all-out-all-the-time like Slovenia does.
We shall see this upcoming season in Phoenix whether Dragic can take that next step.
Slovenia has one more Eurobasket 2013 game tomorrow, playing Ukraine for the 5th place spot vs. 6th. Neither team will win a medal, but both Ukraine and Slovenia have guaranteed themselves a trip to the FIBA World Cup in 2014.
New Suns player Viacheslav Kravtsov faces off against Dragic before they both return to Phoenix for training camp. Kravtsov had 6 points, 6 rebounds and 6 blocks today against Italy and leads the entire field in blocks for the tournament as a backup C for Mike Fratello's Ukraine team.
An NBA team retiring the jersey of a legendary player is a time honored tradition. More often than not, it's the jersey of a guy who spent years donning that team's colors leading the franchise through numerous playoff battles while racking up the All-Star berths.
But sometimes it's not. And as you might have guessed by the title of this column - I'm here to evaluate the times when it's not.
Obviously, teams have different criteria and processes for retiring a jersey - for purposes of this column I'm not looking to analyze how beloved a fan favorite player was. In fact many of the players on the list are beloved players. I'm simply looking to pick the worst basketball players who have their jerseys retired by an NBA franchise. It's like the guy who finishes last in his med school class - he's still called "doctor" but that doesn't mean he can't be judged. I exist to throw stones, my friends.
As per most of my weird list columns there are a couple conditions which accompany my decisions. They are:
Before I begin I should note that four of the teams in the NBA have yet to honor any player in such a manner - that being the Clippers, Bobcats, Grizzlies, and Raptors. That's only pathetic for the Clippers who have been around since 1970. I'm sure all Bobcats fans anxiously await the day Bismack Biyombo's number "whatever it is" is raised to the rafters.
There are so many deserving people to go on my short list which is why a player as offensively inept as Bruce Bowen actually didn't crack the list. Trust me - as an incredibly biased Suns fan that wasn't easy to do but the litany of All-Defensive Team selections deterred me. Regardless of whether those selections were primarily due to him playing defense with brass knuckles (don't fact check it -- that's how I recall the situation).
I've decided not to number the list since it's sort of unfair but Brad Davis and the majority of the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers are tied for Number One anyway.
Here's the list:
I basically had to single out Portland and make them their own category as the Blazers retired the numbers of what amounts to effectively their entire 1977 rotation.
"I was a decent player on a very good team, and I'm very thankful for that," Twardzik said.