Tag Archives: NBA

What the hell happened Saturday? – Pt. 1: The Slam Dunk Competition and other takeaways from NBA All-Star weekend

This thinkpiece1 is part one of a tryptic of posts trying to wrap my head around what happened Saturday. Quick recap: The night started out with a GOP Debate that was clearly written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. During this time, the greatest NBA Slam Dunk competition in the history of ever happened (and by extension, the best overall mini-games day of All-Star Weekend in recent memory). Then, Chance the Rapper killed Saturday Night Live—like I-was-transported-to-an-otherworldly-church killed—presaging the release of Kanye West’s latest album, which is singularly the most erratic, momentarily brilliant filament of platinum I’ve consumed in a long time. Needless to say, I stayed up late trying to make sense of it all. I’m still digesting.

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“Man, did you hear what Drake just said? He said this is the game with the 24 best players in the world. You’re one of those guys. Embrace it all, because you never would have thought that when you were at Michigan State, and I never would have thought that when I was coaching Division II, but we’re here.” –Coach Gregg Popovich [to Draymond Green pre-tipoff]

“I’m not a role model…just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.” –Sir Charles Barkley

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But who’ll raise the kids dunking basketballs?

If the world ever figures out how to put a gif on a tombstone, let it be known at this time in this place, this is the one for me:

Quick breakdown: You’re watching fingers-crossed-heir-apparent Andrew Wiggins’s brain melt into the same fluorescent color as his metallic jacket, while the rest of his body perfects the platonic form of the hold-me-back-but-prop-me-up-DAYUMMMM-I’ve-just-been-struck-by-the-spirit pose. Karl Anthony-Towns’ look of absolute disbelief then sudden and extreme joy reminds me too much of my son when I pretend to take his sister’s nose. Demarcus Cousins has to help his Kentucky running mate John Wall, whose legs have apparently lost the ability to perform a routine standing up maneuver. Thank god for DeMarre Carroll who actually blinked during the dunk in question, but looks so damn fly it doesn’t even matter.

The dunk contest might well have been worth it for giving us this gif alone. Alas, there were some jaw-dropping, dope dunks to go along with it. 2

Aaron Gordon’s mission was to give us four dunks we’d never seen before. He did that, and in the service of originality, he helped uplift this withering event to new heights, recast a banal event into must-see television, and reframed the very limits of what is humanly possible on a basketball court.

Dunk 1

Dunk 2

Dunk 3

Dunk 4

Dunk 5

Dunk 6

For years, basketball fans have been lamenting the absence of marquee names—a departure from decades-previous competitions that featured Michael, ‘Nique, Clyde, Kemp, Kersey, Vince and Tracy. Zach Lavine did well enough last year to abate that criticism, and with Gordon’s help this year, slayed the detractors.

Dunk 1

Dunk 2

Dunk 3

Dunk 4

Dunk 5

Dunk 6

The value of the slam dunk competition has been historically misregarded. Conventional wisdom says you need the biggest and best superstars to restore the Slam Dunk competition to its former glory, but the truth is: we never needed star power; we just needed great, mind-bending dunks.

The slam dunk competition, after all, is about awe, wonder, and capturing the child-like imagination.3 It distills, in its most potent form, what is humanly possible on a basketball court and acts as the perfect metaphor for the “I believe I can fly” narrative. It’s actually better that the dunk contest be stocked with young guys that casual fans have barely heard of; the relative anonymity of the dunkers only makes their rise more unlikely, dramatic, and, in some ways, relatable. It breathes life into this kid’s hoop dreams and dusted off my own, which I’d shelved years ago.

Unless it’s still unclear, Zach Lavine and Aaron Gordon gave us the. Greatest. Dunking. Duel. Ever. Reminiscent of Travolta-Cage or Westley-Inigo or Iago-Othello or Travolta-Slater, Lavine and Gordon went at it old school mano y mano in double dunk-off, but in the freshest, most post-millennial way possible.

We used to worship human highlight reels, but this peerless duo gave us YOLO Snapchat dunks that’ll live forever on Vine in the era of we’ve seen it all already on seven different streaming services. Lavine and Gordon demolished the idols of old and did it rudely. They didn’t leave a farewell note or even bother to look back at the mess.

Seriously these guys are both 20.4 Meaning they can’t even legally drink and also that they don’t remember Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady in 2000, which means they don’t remember that dunk contest being compared to the all-time greatest faceoff between Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins in 1988. So perhaps they don’t fully realize the magnitude of their place in slam dunk history, but hey, they broke Twitter.5

Zach Lavine’s airy hangtime made human flight seem possible, and Aaron Gordon’s carved-from-marble strength made you think you were witnessing a previously undiscovered force of nature.

Everyone forgot pretty exciting Skills and Three-point Shooting Competitions

Karl-Anthony Towns, rookie and owner of the absolute disbelief mug above, won the Skills Competition! Not only is he talented. He’s tall, really tall—like seven feet tall. In fact, he’s the tallest dude to ever win the Skills Competition. To match the hype and the height, KAT snatched the title from the smallest competitor Isaiah Thomas in final-round-of-48, first-one-to-hit-a-three-wins-the-game dramatic fashion. Bullyish ball, baby.

Klay Thompson beat out Stephen Curry and Devin Booker to take home the three-point shooting title. Thompson is the best pure shooter in the NBA and deserves it. He had to sink just two corner threes on the final rack to win, and he drilled every. Single. One. Of. Them.6

Mama, there goes that man.

Now the Splash Brothers have matching shooting titles and that silly moniker is for reals something to be feared across the league. They’re adorable. The whole damn Warriors phenomena is adorable.7

Speaking of adorable. Devin Booker was included in a conversation with Steph Curry and Klay, and he’s like super adorable. I mean:

devin booker 1

C’mon man.

devin booker 2

Devin, you have to stop.

devin booker 3

Studs.

His inclusion in this conversation of best three-point shooters in the NBA is further testament to a surprisingly deep draft class. This baby face assassin was taken 13th overall and is barely 19 years old. I can’t wait to see him develop into a faster, stronger Ray Allen, as well as star on ABC’s The Bachelor season 23.

Drake’s hosts and posts some sartorial game

It’s well documented that that NBA players wear some ridiculous outfits off the court. 2016 All-Star MVP Russel Westbrook leads the pack in this regard. As de facto Toronto ambassador to everything and host of this year’s festivities, Drake took the opportunity to get in on the action.

Do Right And Kill Everything:

Drake coach

Noted Kentucky fan Drake channeled his inner Coach Calipari as he led Team Canada to victory in the celebrity game.

drake pink vest

Noted Furby fan that he is, Drake channeled every millennial’s favorite elementary school toy as he watched Zach Lavine and Aaron Gordon defy the laws of physics in this cool pink fluffy vest that says, “Go on, pet it. You know you want to.”

drake mamba

Noted Kobe fan Drake dons a Farewell Mamba jacket from a 90s-style sweatshop that zapped Kobe of his killer instinct. What possible other reason did he go 4 of 11?

All-star game sets a record for points

The West scored 196 points and the East scored 173 points in regulation making the 2016 All-Star Game the most All-Star Gamiest—setting records for individual team and overall points scored in an ASG.

Five free throws were attempted, two blocks recorded on 286 field goals attempted 8 and exactly zero defense played—even when Lebron squared up against Kobe and slapped the floor Michael Jordan-style.9

Yes, it was a record, and yes, it was tons o’ fun.

I only wish Kobe had completed his triple double so he could have been in serious consideration for ASGMVP. Kobe deserves everything, and if you don’t think so, you’re ignoring the fact that the NBA—and basketball and ball-like objects getting thrown at hoop-like objects in general10—is better because of his career.11

Lebron James changes up his free throw routine

Lebron James, perhaps the most scrutinized athlete in the world, changed up his free throw routine last week and no one noticed! To be fair, Lebron didn’t shoot any free throws this weekend on the biggest stage, etc.,12 so I suppose we can forgive the basketball media elite for this oversight.

Top Luckswing researcher Phi Phan,13 however, noted James’ new routine during the February 10th Cavs-Lakers game. In a thoroughly filed report Phan noted, “He now steps back with his left foot while spinning the ball in his left hand.14 More importantly, James has also added a right shoulder shimmy a la Kevin Durant before he squares up for the release.”

The sample size is small, but since incorporating this new routine, James has gone 40% on 2 of 5 free throw attempts. Sources close to the situation say, we’re about to have a crisis on our hands.

This isn’t the first time he’s changed his routine or his mechanics at the charity stripe. It was noted twice last year and in 2013 when he was with the Miami Heat. Which begs the question: where are the pundits?15 Where’s the outrage? Who’ll be the first to cry, “THUG!”? Why aren’t the media heads spinning in the back with their grinning gun slinging god fearing swinging blinging top of the ninth inning bringing winning outrage machinery-ing?

Even NBA Reddit is quiet on this, which is like your drunk racist uncle downing a fifth of Knob Creek at Thanksgiving then proceeding to not have an opinion on the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s weird.

My only hope is, everyone’s noticed but is choosing to remain silent because there are more important things in sports to cover.16 In which case, I’m the only asshole writing about it.17

2015 NBA Playoff Preview: Eastern Conference, Round 1

Listen. Listen. Listen. That’s how I’ve been taught to get people’s attention—just repeating the word listen. Are you listening?

It’s been a while since I’ve written basketball things, but, like, it’s NBA basketball season 2.0, the never-ending, highlight-manufacturing, circus show that ends the never-ending, highlight-manufacturing, circus show that is the NBA season in a burning blaze of glory. And I should have plenty in the tank so to speak, since I haven’t exactly availed of the aforementioned idiomatic tank in a veritable long ass time.

Atlanta Hawks (1) v. Brooklyn Nets (8)

Alright, so Kyle Korver narrowly missed being the only dude ever to make the 90-50-50 club (with a paltry 89.8 FT%, 49.2 3PT%, 48.7 FG%), but let’s be honest and admit that back in November, this was what we, the basketball elite, and Hawks fans from Macedonia to Decatur were positive was going to be the most memorable thing the Hawks did this year.

Yet somehow Coach Mike Budenholzer has orchestrated a magical season, turning a watery (pretty muddy water at that) lineup into a fine, 60-win vintage with notes of juniper berry that finish with savory, peppery undertones (read: Coach Bud is Jesus, which makes Greg Popovich God). Four of the starters made the All-Star game, only the seventh time in the history of the NBA. Collectively, they balance the 10th best offense that assists the second highest total in the NBA with the 5th best defense—all without anyone averaging more than 17 points or 33 minutes per game (both: Paul Millsap).

The Hawks have given us shades of the Spurs-East, and at times have been the most entertaining team to watch in the NBA (sorry I’m not sorry, Steve Kerr). This has been in large part due to the revelation Al Horford has been, putting up numbers not unlike The Big Fundamental Tim Duncan, himself.

               Player A: 18.0p, 8.4r, 3.8a, 1.5b, 53.8fg%, 21.4 PER, 8.7 WS

               Player B: 17.3p, 11.4r, 3.7a, 2.4b, 51.2fg%, 22.6 PER, 9.6 WS

Hold the suspense. Horford is Player A. Let’s keep in mind, Horford played only 29 games last season and 11 games two seasons before that.

Lastly, in your NBA playoff bacchanalia that I’ve been assured other people do as well and is a perfectly normal ass thing to do in celebration of the greatest sports event ever, don’t’ forget to pour one out for Thabo.

PREDICTION: Give me the broom. Give me the broom. *sung to Biggie’s “Give Me the Loot.” Hawks sweep.

Toronto Raptors (4) v. Washington Wizards (5)

This will be the second most intriguing matchup in the East. 2 things to watch out for besides the backcourt battle:

  1. Toronto GM Masai Ujiri launching another f-bomb in a pre-playoff game hype train spinning off a geopolitical beef with Paul Pierce that may or may not include POTUS, launch codes, and chants of Buck the FlueJays till infinite.
  2. What banal and innocuous hygiene tool will DRAKE! turn into one of the most brilliant marketing schemes of the year? What could possibly be better than lint rollers? Floss? Toenail clippers (wait, Steve Ballmer, did we just stumble into something together?!)? Hair curlers? Those tiny paper cups that fancy people keep in a dispenser for rinsing mouthwash? Indentured servants? Lest we forget, since DRAKE! officially partnered with the Raptors organization as “Trill Ass Global Skrilla Ambassador” or T.A.G.S.A., they have gone from a 34-win team that hadn’t made the playoffs in 5 years to one of the best teams in the shitty Eastern Conference to get bounced in the first round.

PREDICTION: Toronto will make it to the second round for the first time since 2001 and for only their second time in franchise history. It will take all 7 games, a whole goddamn country’s sheer force of will, and a Jimmy Brooks type effort.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers (2) v. Boston Celtics (7)

Kyrie Irving has never played in a playoff game before. Neither has Kevin Love. The Celtics are surging. Brad Stevens is a wiz. All true statements. There’s also this:

Oof, harumph, and bazinga. Lebron James in the playoffs has averaged 28.0p, 6.4a, 8.4r on a crazy 48.2 fg% in an inhuman 42.7 playoff minutes per game. 2013 Finals, Game 6:

2008 First Round, Game 1 (LBJ first career playoff game):

2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 7:

2013 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 1:

2009 Eastern Conference Finals, Game 2:

2014 Finals:

He may just eat your babies:

PREDICTION: Cavs in 5.

 

Chicago Bulls (3) v. Milwaukee Bucks (6)

This matchup is super duper fun times for basketball wonks. The Bulls find themselves in a rare position where they’re facing a statistically superior defense come playoff time (although marginally so)—97.4 pts Bucks allowed per game v. 97.8 Bulls allow. Oddly, the Bucks score precisely the amount of points the Bulls allow—97.8. Jason Kidd has turned this band of long-armed avatars into the 8th best defense in the league with the most steals per game (9.6), all while sharing the ball at the 7th best clip with 23.6 assists per game. Unfortunately, the hustle J Kidd has inculcated into his young shapeshifters come at the cost of rebounds. They rank 24th in the rebounds while the Bulls tally the 3rd best rebounding rate in the NBA. Have I mentioned the Bucks height yet though? The starters come in averaging 6’9”, of which they’ll need every inch to corral Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler, while staving off a deep and talented Bulls front court. The major storyline for the Bulls: emergence and resurgence.

Pau Gasol playing like it’s 2005, bumping Lil Wayne on his 512 GB iPod Shuffle on the way to a cool 18.5p on an alarming 49.5 fg% and even more alarming 46.2 3pt%—oh yeah, and there’s the career high in rebounding (11.8).

Nikola Mirotic making the case for Rookie of the Year and James (Harden) Beard Award honors averaging 20.8p, 7.6r on 44.1 fg% in just 30.8 mpg in March.

Jimmy Butler emerging as a go to offensive player in addition to the nightly guard-the-best-perimiter-player role he’s so dutifully filled the last few years; in addition to resurging this past month, following a few weeks of a bona fide injury scare.

Taj Gibson also coming back from injury in the last month to put up solid double-double-esque numbers.

Joakim Noah finally moving the floor like the 20something he is, running the floor, getting those assist numbers up from 3.5 in January to 7.2 in March.

Derrick Rose suiting up at all.

PREDICTION: Jason Kidd will find a way to get fined sans spilling drinks (though he’ll undoubtedly think about it), and it’ll be the most entertaining defensive slugfest you’ve ever seen. Bulls in 6

 

Doodads and Knickknacks

 

MVP for Lebron

Lebron James is a phenomenal basketball player and deserves the MVP award.

From a statistical standpoint, he scores more than Steph Curry but less than Harden. He assists more than Harden, but less than Curry. He outrebounds them all. He has the highest field goal percentage on the highest attempts. He is without a doubt the best defender of the group.

Then there’s the how-valuable-is-he-to-the-team wrinkle that gives blowhards like Colin Cowherd the leeway to say stupid shit on airwaves like Russell Westbrook is the second coming of Shaft and White Jesus.

But ultimately, I think it comes down to this: the Cavs we’re looking at now didn’t exist 12 months ago. The coach is new. Two of the three best players are new, and only four players remain from last season’s roster. Whereas the Golden State Warriors are effectively the same team. Even the Houston Rockets’ continued core brain trust of Kevin McHale, James Harden, Dwight Howard and those three other dudes that were also on the roster last season positively impacted this season’s record. If continuity establishes trust, which is the bedrock of the game within the game, the turnover and new environments must be considered. That James could perform comparably to Curry and Harden in brand new (old) conditions, points to his deservingness.

I tried to start this section with something like “Stephen Curry and James Harden have had prodigious years…” I really did try, and they totally have. But fuck that. I get it. Nobody likes to see the same person win everything for forever. But the shear amount of articles I get bombarded with about the closeness of this MVP race that don’t actually go into the argument for Lebron James is an insult. We only get Lebron for like another 5 years. Maybe. He deserves all of it. Everything.

Pitchforks for Michael Jordan

I had the good fortune of stumbling onto the below beauty of a quote from the G.O.A.T., His Royal Airness Michael Jordan. In a 2010 interview with CNBC, Jordan prophesized, “Ultimately, if you can say that I’m a bad owner and we’re winning championships, I can live with that. But if we’re not making the playoffs and we’re spending and losing money, then I have to look in the mirror and say maybe I’m not taking the necessary steps to doing what it takes to run an organization.” If by some miracle, MJ ever happened upon this paragraph (he won’t), I want to maintain a semblance of respect and dignity (a first), so I won’t say the thing I really want to say (also a first). I wouldn’t venture to say eat crow, but maybe the lackluster performance as owner is having disastrous effects on the legacy of MJ? Pish posh and thimbles and stuff. We love you anyway, you gambling, self-aggrandizing, conceited, arrogant, bald, beautiful old-ladykiller, you.

Bitterness and Glee Reign, Man

Last night, Shawn Kemp hosted a party in celebration of the Thunder missing the playoffs. It was amazing. Or at least, I think it was. I have kids and was building a bunk bed from IKEA while everyone was getting turnt at Neumos. Thank god for Twitter:

The US B-squad: Nationalism v. Not Playing and Other Takeaways from this Weekend’s Friendly with Brazil

Basketball is back! Basketball is back! Basketball is back!

Well sort of.

This weekend’s matchup of Team USA v. Brazil marked the first international competition leading into this year’s FIBA World Cup.

20 years ago, the generation that produced the Dream Team understood the greatness of the US in the context of having achieved that greatness. Charles Barkley, David Robinson, MJ, Magic, Larry and the lot lived, at bare minimum, through the conclusion of the Cold War—Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf.

On the other hand, we 20somethings—including the 16 on the US Men’s Basketball roster—have spent our entire lives being the best goddamn country in the world. At least that’s what our leaders have told us for our entire recollection. Living in a country that uses that same line to score cheap political points as often as American politicians do, it’s no wonder that generation at large has acquiesced into a quiet, unexamined cynicism of anything that comes close to resembling nationalism.

I am sympathetic to this point of view, but I unequivocally reject it.

I was born in the Philippines and came to America by way of Jordan. I’m not saying my life was particularly harder than the next immigrant’s. It wasn’t. I was tremendously lucky in many ways. But as I begin the work of assembling, to the best of my abilities, the modern American Dream—providing a comfortable home, plenty of food and quality education for my kids and wife—I am struck by how many people take these things for granted, as if it were a birthright. They’re not. And it takes a uniquely special place to allow the “Dream” to become possible through the sheer force of will alone.

What does this mean against the backdrop of basketball?

Well it’s easy to fixate on the negatives, easier still if the negatives of the country you live in become the predominant narrative. Who wants to play for a country with an intractably divided government? Who wants to represent a country with hackneyed foreign policy that more resembles Settlers of Catan than responsible world leadership? Who wants to be the face of a country whose caricature of itself in the world community is goofy, glutinous and rude?

These aren’t at all the reasons so many NBA stars aren’t competing in this year’s FIBA World Cup. But that they are all true, make the decision that much easier. The disastrous injury of Paul George provides the perfect out. With loudmouths like Steven A. Smith in their corner, it’s almost a wonder that Rudy Gay even answered Jerry Colangelo’s call.

That said, I appreciate Gay not just because off his healthy dose of Nationalism, but because he understands at some level, for pure, selfish basketball reasons, this is how you get better: by competing with the best in the world against the best in the world.

Anthony Davis as the go to guy

With 20 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocks in 26 minutes, Davis was clearly the go guy for Team USA. The blocks and alley-oops were to be expected. But the insistence—and more telling, the allowance—of the 15-foot jumpers that rimmed off early on speak volumes to where Davis lies in the totem pole of the team.

Early in the fourth quarter, Davis’ dive into the second row to save a ball sparked a 10-0 run. Three of the next few plays featured Davis blocking a shot only to retrieve the ball while falling out of bounds, finishing an alley-oop out of nowhere and a textbook 25-foot jumper that netted nothing but, well, net.

With all the talk of him being “next,” the heir apparent to Lebron James and Kevin Durant, it’s easy to forget Davis is only 21. Of course he’s faded in and out throughout his first two seasons in the NBA. He couldn’t even drink! But this weekend, he was bodying Tiago Splitter with little remorse. Asserting himself more fiercely than the boy-king has been given the opportunity to show. With Monty Williams on the US Basketball coaching staff, this only helps to make Davis less boy and more king.

The Great White Hopes

I know Coach K is of Duke. He loves white dudes, especially white dudes who think they can rap. But seriously, remaining on the US roster:

  • Kyle Korver
  • Gordan Hayward
  • Chandler Parsons
  • Mason Plumlee
  • Klay Thompson

Ok, so Thompson is half Bahamian, but he doesn’t try nearly as hard as his Splash Brother at being Black. Of greater concern: what are Gordon Hayward and Mason Plumlee still doing here? At one point the announcers mistook a lob for Parsons as one for Plumlee.

It was weird.

The Manimal Mannihilates

Keneths Faried’s development had been interesting to track all last season. As Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson and every other offensive asset for the Nuggets fell to injury, Faried turned his balls-out effort game into an unorthodox offensive game replete with funky jumpers, twisting hooks and the occasional, surprising guard-like spurt.

Early in the first quarter, Faried scraped the potential of what he could become though. With the ball 20 feet out near the elbow, Faried put the ball on the floor, splitting defenders. As he got close to the  basket, he drew Davis’ defender at which point Faried flips a nifty one handed, hook-ish pass to an open Davis for an easy bucket.

Then early in the third, on the other end of the floor, Faried knocks the ball loose on an entry pass and winds up with the steal. Instead of hanging back and letting an “All-Star” finish the play after his outlet pass, Faried runs the floor anyway—literally the only other team USA player in the picture.

11 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists. Classic Manimal.

If Faried continues this play into the NBA season and “takes the next step,” the Nuggets could be fun to watch. More intriguingly, he can transform from the exemplar of hardwork into a titillating trade chip.

James Harden might be a selfish dude…

Which is a strange thing to admit considering that just three years ago, he was the best sixth man on the planet (I still love you Jamaal. Don’t ever leave me!)—a position that necessarily requires astute self-awareness, honest evaluation and a coming to terms with collective success outweighing personal glory.

This offseason, Harden’s seemed to turn his on-court game of give-me-the-ball-I’ll-mash-turbo-into-the-lane-and-I’ll-probably-get-fouled-and-get-mine-while-you-just-stand-out-there-wide-open-and-I’ll-pass-it-to-you-some-day-maybe-I-promise-I’ll-probably-think-about-it into the perfect metaphor for the way he lives his every day, non-basketball life. Even if Donatas Motiejunas was misquoted and Dwight Howard, D-Mo and Harden all rendezvoused nightly to McGangbang Double QPC’s like they were racing to a heart attack, the Chandler Parson’s saga does not instill confidence in Harden’s leadership ability (to be parenthetically fair, almost everything involving Chandler Parsons or Chandler Parsons’ hair is, to some varying degree, a saga. I mean have you seen his perfume commercials? Epic pretty man, pretty girl saga).

Upon Parsons signing with the Dallas Mavericks, Harden said:

Dwight (Howard) and I are the cornerstones of the Rockets. The rest of the guys are role players or pieces that complete our team. We’ve lost some pieces and added some pieces. I think we’ll be fine next season.

Harden’s defense remains that he wasn’t specifically talking about Chandler Parsons. Two things here:

1)      Even if you weren’t talking about Parsons, there are still 10-12 other dudes on your roster. If my Masters in NBA Management from the University of 2K has taught me anything, there are three other Starters and one Sixth Man in addition to the two to four Role Players and remaining Bench Warmers. The four dudes not in Role Player role do not like it when you downgrade them like that—especially in public. That demonstrates cloudy thinking at best and an egomaniacal philosophy of basketball at worst.

2)       Harden was clearly talking about Chandler Parsons!

Apparently, Harden and Parsons have squashed the beef. But even in the way he talked about the reconciliation, he can’t seem to remove himself:

No matter what, if the Rockets are playing good, Dwight and James get the praise. If we’re doing bad, Dwight and James gets the bulk of criticism.

I’m still waiting for Parsons to trip Harden or snip his beard or something as he finds a spot to sit.

Lastly (I could probably round up three or four more obscure supporting points, but because I’ve withered away too many neurons on this point already), when asked about Paul George’s tremendously unfortunate injury, Harden still couldn’t remove himself. The first words out of his mouth:

I gotta amp up my game. I’m not just a scorer, I’m a playmaker as well.

YOUR EXPERIENCE IS NOT THE DEFINING NARRATIVE, JAMES!!! That said, I’m probably still picking Harden in the first round once fantasy basketball season rolls around.

Have you heard yet? Derrick Rose is back.

Reading the reports on US Basketball PPGI (Pre-Paul George Injury), one would think Derrick Rose is the only player on the team. After watching a game, it makes sense.

With 4.6 seconds left in the first half, Coach K put Rose back in (after getting cut on the face). Rose said his instructions were to run the floor and get a good shot. Rose did. Like a flash of lightning, he drove right by an impending trap, leaving two Brazilians stunned in disbelief. Sprinting the full 94 feet, letting a floater bank off the glass, he masterfully executed with such contradictory force, I have to believe he could run for public office one day.

There was also the ridiculous cross over near the end of the third, where he went right to blow by his defender only to change hands in mid air, only kind off avoid a big, finishing with the left.

I can’t wait for new D. Rose .gifs…

Rose ended the game with only those two fieldgoals (7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 turnovers), but more impressive than the actual plays were the ferocity of his demeanor. He was the fastest, hardest dude on the floor the whole game. He had some missed floaters and even a missed dunk, but that he was convincingly there for those is a reassuring sight for sore, sore, Chicago eyes.

This game featured more words than I’d ever heard Rose speak at once—sans his MVP acceptance speech (but to be fair I started bawling as soon as he talked about his mama, so I really didn’t hear half of it). My immediate reaction: it seems like Rose is more comfortable being vocal. This is fantastic news for the Bulls who need an assertive Rose to reclaim MVP form.  Rose has always strictly been a “let my play speak for me” kind of player. He was in the right situation for that. No one ever criticized Rose for it because his play was exceptional. The combination of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer let him lead in deed and not in word. It’ll be fun to watch Rose become the guy again on and off the court.

70 days. Does my breath smell bated?

 

The Enlightened One: Lebron James Going Home (Part 1)

“What if I were a kid who looked up to an athlete, and that athlete made me want to do better in my own life, and then he left? How would I react?”

-Lebron James, “I’m Coming Home”

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] L [/dropcap] ebron James has been “The Chosen One” since he was in utero. It’s a good moniker, no doubt. But his style of play—his insistence of team, his vision, his willingness to defer in the right situation—has repeatedly shown that more than anything, James is “The Enlightened One.”

With his essay published on Sports Illustrated website announcing his move back to Cleveland, James is perhaps (hopefully) elevating his off-court persona to match his on-court game.

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] I [/dropcap]  was saddened when James made his decision to leave Cleveland for Miami. In the months between his announcement and the 2010  season, the sadness of “The Decision” fixated on its showiness of it–excacerbated by SportCenter and every other sports media outlet, it festered into full-blown animosity.

I didn’t burn jerseys, publicly try to humiliate James (or myself in the process) or really anything beyond bear an unfounded resentment for the guy. Still, to Lebron James and his family:

I am profoundly sorry for the intensity, acrimony and utter absurdity of the feelings I felt.

[There are many things wrong with the preceding statement. I know that. It brings up lots of questions about the rights I have as a fan to place expectations on an athlete, where the ownership of performance/achievement lies and the inequitable selfishness inherent in a fan-celebrity athlete relationship. In practical terms, this apology serves nothing insofar as no one, I repeat no one, in the James clan will ever read this, so it doesn’t really matter except that it matters to me that this is written somewhere, recorded somehow and declared publicly. Something tells me James would appreciate this latter notion.]

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] W [/dropcap] hat I love most about James’ recent decision is that he wrote an essay. He didn’t tweet it. He didn’t have a lackey leak it (although Rich Paul might have). He didn’t even play coy with the media.

The greatest player in the world publishes a humble and revealing missive on the sports equivalent of the Washington Post.

In the essay, James writes about and gives us all-too-short meditations on family, the idea of home and the realistic expectations of winning and playing in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform again with the team as it is presently constituted.

If anything, the essay demonstrates that for James, Miami clearly was “like college for other kids.” Shown for all to see is a deliberate maturity that, in prowess, matches only his physical gifts and basketball talents, and perhaps more pointedly, it’s a maturity that just wasn’t there four years ago.

There is no greater metaphor for that than the fact his essay exists.

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] L [/dropcap] ebron James is the best basketball player in the world. It’s been well-documented, and he’s earned his stripes and accolades and then some. But hidden in his essay is James’ basketball philosophy, the one we’ve been guessing at since we saw More Than A Game.

“I get a thrill out of bringing a group together and helping them reach a place they didn’t know they could go. I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys.”

James gets it: the game above the game.  He understands roles, spacing, teammates’ abilities, opponent’s tendencies and can calculate his next move in less time than it takes us to say “Erik Spoelstra is the luckiest coach on the planet!” James is a basketball genius, and his aim is to conduct, facilitate and generally be the embodiment of a higher state—the vipassana, if you will—of basketball. He plays basketball; his aim is Basketball. There is no real measure of this, no data point we can boast or visual we can capture. The Heat’s 27 game win streak in the 2012-13 season is probably the closest thing. James knows that better than anyone.

“I’m not promising a championship.”

James also knows how hard championship trophies are to earn. And he’ll spend the next few years ply his young, new teammates with the genius-wisdom it takes to achieve the highest state of basketball ever conceived.

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] “I [/dropcap] feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously…I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile.”

And with a nod towards himself, the preeminent figure in all of basketball returning to Ohio, James is returning home to lead by example:

“Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”

When James bounced to Miami, it was in the midst of the recession. Ohio did not take it well. Just before “The Decision,” Forbes listed five Northeast Ohio cities (Cleveland, Toledo, Youngstown, Akron, Canton) among the 20 most miserable in the US—including James hometown.

With downtown revival and having recently earned the bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, Cleveland seems to be on the rise (there’s a joke to be made about the RNC here, but low-hanging fruit and all).

James return not only signals that resurgence but bolsters it. How many things can you put Lebron James face on and the phrases “I’m coming home” or “#OH” or “I’m baaaaack”? There are millions of dollars of revenue returning to NE OH with Lebron.

“I started thinking about what it would be like to raise my family in my hometown.”

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] “I [/dropcap] ’m doing this essay because I want an opportunity to explain myself uninterrupted.”

Lebron James wrote this essay. Sure Lee Jenkins helped—probably cleaned up the language and focused the ideas—and it could very well be that what’s on SI is dramatically different from what James started with. But I have to believe—ardently and fully in my own made-up narrative of the man—that after James made his decision to go to Cleveland and made the subsequent decision to publish his personal, written decision, he sat down at a computer and hammered on a keyboard until it all made sense.

The essay reveals so much about James’ rationale and where his heart lies. It was measured and thoughtful. But nothing is more revealing than his choice to write the essay in the first place.

I can’t wait till he writes the next Life on the Run and runs for office.

 

Melo le Bro, Mellow Lebron: The Rise of Player Power

“Being able to have flexibility as a professional, anyone, that’s what we all would like.” –Lebron James

“The grass isn’t always greener.” –Carmelo Anthony

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] T [/dropcap] he stage is set for The Decision 2.0. And you can’t throw a cat a sports blog without it digging its claws into a juicy cramping Lebron calf—which is to say, it’s been covered.

In this free agency, everyone seems bizarrely prepared for any outcome. The shock of James leaving Cleveland in 2010 so thoroughly rocked the sports-voyeurism world that, at this point, everyone is prepared for any possible narrative: betrayal, redemption, a new chapter, the second coming, locusts.

Since James’ agent announced his intention to opt out of his contract with the Miami Heat, Bleacher Report has posted 81 click-baiting click-stravagant click-shows ranging from the 24 Hair Styles Pat Riley Wore That Reveals Everything Was Not Fine In Heatlandia to the 17 Instagram Posts From Miami Strippers Promising Lebron Will Return To South Beach (only one of those is made up).

On the flip side of the same coin, suddenly half the NBA teams seem like they’re in position to court the King, and GMs the league over are logging 17 hours a day on ESPN’s trade machine, discussing with Ray Donovan their options for disposing of Emeka Okafor/Roy Hibbert/Kris Humphries’ dead bodies.

Needless to say, free agency has changed. At the very least, it is at an inflection point. It has gone from desperate clamor to full on frenzy.

James bailing on the Cleveland Cavaliers was among the greatest things to happen to NBA players (I never thought I would write that sentence seriously). Such a public display from the best baller in the world—while causing much pain for some—put the power squarely in the hands of players: a striking divergence from the long, sordid history of rich white NBA owners and David Stern! getting richer, older and whiter at the expense of players getting blacker, younger and (markedly less) richer.

Whilst in the shadows of the last throes (he said, hopefully) of owners self-inflating their resources into magnanimity—or worse, benevolence (read: Donald “But I love Coloreds!” Sterling)—the emergence of player power seems be making its strongest case ever.

Don’t get me wrong. Steve Ballmer and Mark Cuban aren’t suddenly making way for players at their super-secret ultra-exclusive billionaire masquerade sex balls or even the pantheon of Forbes lists they find themselves on the top of. But the money bags are no longer the greatest determinant of the basketball landscape (never thought I would see that sentence outside of the Luckswing #BREAKING section).

The two biggest influencers of the NBA’s immediate landscape are James and Anthony.

That’s a good thing.

Self-aware players are a good thing. Self-awareness leads to self-determination. Marquee players are the tent poles of the NBA, and so long as they make these self-aware decisions in relation to that, the NBA’s future is truly in their hands. Ever conscious of their role in the NBA—and, to a grander extent, popular culture—players are untethering from the traditional moors of money, big markets and money. Hopefully.

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] A [/dropcap] s Carmelo Anthony earned his comeuppance in the NBA, he was often labeled selfish.  A criticism he fought to shake in New York.

By all accounts, ‘Melo is ready to win now, to sacrifice pay and stats, to, in short, kick it with the bros. If he signs with a team outside the Knicks, he leaves $39 million on the table and an extra year of job security (a premium considering he’ll be 34 at the time).

Unfortunately, at his peak this last season, he had the least amount of help. Tyson Chandler got hurt, then old. Raymond Felton thought he was Gilbert Arenas—and then carried guns places. Iman Shumpert’s plateaued. The Andrea Bargnani experiment was a colossus of a failure.  J.R. Smith kept doing J.R. Smith things. Rasheed Wallace, Steve Novak and Jared Jeffries weren’t there to save New York (this sentence, I was prepared for).

Couple that with never having been a true free agent before and of course Melo’s gone on the biggest, baddest wine and dine tour outside of American electoral politics.

Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement born of the 2011 NBA lockout, teams have more money and player contract longevity has decreased. Technically, this is called “player sharing,” but for 2K addicts, this is Fantasy Draft activated in Association mode.

Among the frontrunners, here are the teams he should go to, the one he won’t and the one he will:

The Dallas Mavericks

Rick Carlisle: one of only a handful of coaches that move the needle/maybe the second best coach in the NBA.

Dirk Nowitzki: one of the greatest power forwards of all time.

Monta Ellis: Monta ball can be made to succeed, anything can be made to succeed.

Tyson Chandler: buddy.

Texas: big hats, no state taxes.

Mark Cuban: you’ll be set for life.

Vince Carter’s Knees: a path to follow as ‘Melo ages.

No state taxes.

The Chicago Bulls

Tom Thibodeau pushes his players to the brink. He labors his stars with so many minutes that they miss multiple seasons, allowing them to casually get injured while running routine plays.

Sorry, Chicago, that I’m not sorry.

Joakim Noah not-so-jokingly told his coach he’d hate him if they weren’t winning. ‘Melo is north of 30 now. Being a Bull would shorten his career by three years.

The New York Knicks

New York is home. And there is something to be said about being the hometown hero, and being the guy championship teams are built around. It sounds silly, but can you imagine what it’s like to score 62 in Madison Square Garden? (you don’t because no one has ever done it) Drag a subpar team to the playoffs in the city you grew up in? Be the best player on the first team in NBA history in the state that made you a college basketball god?

Sure. These are pie-in-the-sky aspirational narratives, at best. Seeing this things to fruition requires tremendous risk and work. But Phil Jackson is a persuasive man, and he’s hellbent on doing the Pat Riley thing—but, like, with Zen.

Also (and I hate to admit this), Melo kind of fits the mold of the great players that have never won. George Gervin, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins make way on the Mt. Rushmore of Losers!

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[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #9b9b9b;”] L [/dropcap] ebron James is staying with Miami. I want to indulge in the circus display of what he ate today, but not really.

The Heat are a second playmaker and a combination of serviceable point guard/center away from pushing the Spurs to seven—if not winning it all.

It’s hard for me to admit. I want more than anything for James to accept the role of mercenary. There has never been an all-time great mercenary. Imagine, for a moment, a universe wherein LBJ took six teams to the NBA Finals, winning eight Larry O’Brien trophies only to recuperate his image spending the last three years of his career in Cleveland as an elder statesman of basketball.

I called my psychic, and Cleopatra told me that James is waiting on the Heat to sign someone who moves the needle. Tops on the list, Lance Stephenson.

Ya. That guy. Stephenson would be a perfect fit for the Heat. He’d effectively be Dwyane Wade’s replacement, with better defense and passing.

Kyle Lowry, Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons, Steve Blake, Jerryd Bayless, DJ Augustin, Patty Mills, Greg Monroe, Jodie Meeks, Luke Ridnour, Chris Kaman, Xavier Henry, Brian Roberts, Spencer Hawes, Nate Robinson, Channing Frye, Pau Gasol, Greivis Vasquez, Mo Williams, Shaun Livingston, Emeka Okafor are all viable options across the pay scales. Adding any two of these guys would make the Heat that much more dangerous.

#BREAKING: Buffalo Wild Wings has designed a series of A/C units designed to break upon command

Inspired by the clever use of machines that did nothing during the 1st game of the most recent NBA finals, Buffalo Wild Wings, in their noble tradition of influencing games for the sake of their clientele, felt encouraged to have a stake in what they expect to be a burgeoning industry.

“The media attention the San Antonio Spurs developed with that first auto-breaking A/C unit was incredible. For a moment, our customers were actually talking about the Spurs, rather than simply bemoaning their boredom with the team while opining as to the number of hands Lebron would need surgically implanted into his chest in order to accommodate his 30-40 rings. Any press is good press.”

The company, noted for their willingness to intervene in sporting events like an Old Testament deity saturated in ranch dressing, noted that while the Spurs pioneered the invention of the not-working industrial A/C unit—they had only scratched the surface of the device’s ultimate potential.

“As a company, our intervention in human history is intended to work for the benefit of the greater good, assuming that greater good is the prolonging of an already lengthy sporting event for the sake of increased beer sales and the added strain and deterioration of marital relationships founded on anything other than a mutual respect of sports and bleu cheese. That is why our A/C units will reactivate upon command, our sleeper cell agents functioning to keep the temperature in the building at whatever state of limbo is deemed most profitable, while frequently pausing the action in order to get the thing up and running again, which, unlike the breaking portion, will actually be a pretty lengthy and tiresome process.”

Buffalo Wild Wings concluded by hinting that they were already through the 3rd stage of testing for titanium incisors modeled after Luis Suarez’ teeth, coated in a layer of rust.

“We’re hoping this next product of ours will push average stoppage time in international soccer matches to roughly the 10-15 minute range. Just enough time to order another basket of boneless honey BBQ wings, or melt a celery stick with nothing but human saliva.”

Why We Play: NBA Finals Coverage Pt. 2

“There is another world, but it is inside this one.” –W.B. Yeats

“It makes last year okay.” –Tim Duncan

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The pinnacle of basketball achievement. The crown of buckets. The chef-d’œuvre of the hardwood. The Pink Panther diamond for the Inspector Clouseaus of the NBA world. The highest holiness of hoops.

Last night capped a thrilling—if somewhat surprising—2014 NBA Finals.

For the casual observer, Tim Duncan hoisting his fifth Larry O’Brien trophy and the youngest player ever to win the Bill Russell Finals MVP was just another cool thing that happened in the landscape of the ever-cool NBA. And it was. Cool. Really, really, really cool.

But it was also more than that.

From the moment the NBA Finals ended last year, the San Antonio Spurs have diligently, unwaveringly been working to craft all of what this past season would be about for them (if this sounds familiar, read: crush a narrative, little narrative, roll a narrative, take a narrative). Like a mantra or a basketball bouncing in an empty gym, you could hear it reverberating with every pass, every swish, every bank: Run it back.

Since June 20th, 2013: run it back. After watching the Heat celebrate on their court: run it back. For 361 consecutive days: run it back. From the start of training camp: run it back. For every practice: run it back. To every reporter’s question: run it back. The 20 regular season games they lost: wait till we run it back.

Last night the Spurs finally paid off that promise uttered countless times on pick up courts the world over.

As the simple three word phrase flatly implies, “run it back” is a statement of ego. A dare, a provocation, a challenge to the opposing player, the opposing team to score on me, win it all—again.

Anyone with half a brain, who has seen any Spurs games over any period of time in the last 12 months could see in the way they played, they were “Run it back” mode.  And until Tim Duncan’s post-game sideline interview with Doris Burke, I never gave much thought to the Spurs’ reaction—other than the almost obligatory, “This team is ridonkulous. They’ll probably get what exactly what they want and make the Finals again.”

But in Tim Duncan’s disarming quietness, in his unflinching and somehow original expression of trite sports clichés in the face of an aspirationally awkward first question, he unearthed something deeper than ego, truer to the condition of humanity, necessary to the human psyche.

          Burke: How does your team climb the mountain back to NBA Champion?

          Duncan: Great coaching. Persistence. Drive. Love for the game. We remembered what happened last year and how it felt in that locker room. And we used it and built on it and got back here, and it’s amazing. It makes last year okay.

Did you hear that? It makes last year okay. He hesitates, then lets it spill. It makes last year okay.

Up until that moment, I had never thought forgiveness (true forgiveness, not the good-sportsmanship-I’ll-help-you-out-after-that-flagrant-foul-slash-flop-city forgiveness) had a place in the world of sports—professional or amateur.

In the testosterone driven, ultra-competitive sporting arena, it’s no surprise we use the metaphors of war: our athletes are warriors and we expect them to battle. Yet Duncan—demonstrating true bravery and more than any other professional athlete today—stands as a vanguard for the kind, the loving, the sensitive—the warrior with feelings. He has always been a great teammate. The way he holds Tony after a victory, or goes forehead-to-forehead with Manu speaks volumes on Duncan’s passion and reliability.

What makes this particular confession from Duncan so startlingly profound though is the subject of his forgiveness: himself and his team (but mostly himself).

If forgiveness is “the release of all hope for a better past,” then that moment, that hesitation was the release. And without the past driving his actions, Duncan was finally able to  (perhaps for the first time all season) be present, live and experience that moment of joy.

Even in that definitive moment of triumph, wherein he had all the right to say some shit about We The Champs or Being King of the World (read: Kevin Garnett), Duncan—as he has consistently, and more so as of late—acquiesces into an apparently honest expression, letting slip the profound humanity of basketball.

Basketball is the most team of sports (I’m pretty sure I’ve written that a dozen times now), and within these lines, positions and roles, there is and always has been another game happening (the most important one). That game within the game relies, fundamentally and absolutely, on the relationships and understanding built from the players involved.

It should come as no surprise that feelings, aspirations, being sensitive to others needs and desires play a critical role in the formulation of a basketball team. After all, they mean a lot to our day-to-day lives and the narrative we impose on them. They—along with ego, forgiveness, joy, heartbreak and the like—are a necessary part of navigating the world, and being, you know, human.

Yet yesterday, thanks to Tim Duncan, I discovered—maybe re-remembered—yet another layer of this sport that I have loved for so long. Every facet of humanity has a place and, more importantly, belongs out there on the court—even forgiveness, self-forgiveness.

And so it was with an ambivalent heart that I celebrated a San Antonio victory last night.

Despite my fanatical impulses, I still feel like I managed to take this NBA season for granted—as if I hadn’t milked every possible triumph and tragedy, small or large, out of it. I had expected the Finals series to last at least six, probably seven games—I would milk another couple blog posts and few more thousand words out it.

But that wasn’t the case, and as giddy as the season began, it ended.

Here are the five things from the five games worth remembering in five years:

The Spurs Were Better Than the Heat

It seems so obvious. But all too often in our headline-driven sports world, the biggest characters dominate the narrative—even if they don’t deserve it (see: Johnny Manziel, Jimmer Fredette). Maybe this time will be different (it won’t) but I hold out for the 2014 Finals being remembered as one of the greatest demonstrations of excellence exhibited by any team ever, not the Finals were Lebron cramped, Wade showed his age, or the last run of Miami’s big three.

In the last three games, the Spurs played the kind of basketball that makes coaches wet themselves. Ball movement, team defense, ball movement, excellent shot selection, ball movement, off-ball screens, ball movement, fantastic shooting, ball movement.

They passed so much, it made heads spin. In last night’s stupor, I did manage one coherent thought: I will not spend the off-season disparaging the Miami Heat for their generally crappy play.

They lost their losses badly—by the margins of 15, 19, 21 and 17. Their only victory came by one possession.

In a twist of fate architected by the forces responsible for Benjamin Button, the Heat looked older, slower, and unfocused down the stretch.

Pretty much the exact opposite of Brad Pitt:

Lebron seemed to the only player who was trying—until Michael Beasley came in. Thank God for Michael Beasley, I remembered thinking.

(WHAT THE HELL! AT ONE POINT, I ACTUALLY FOUND MYSELF WONDERING IF MICHAEL BEASLEY IS THE ANSWER TO ALL THE HEAT’S PROBLEMS. THAT’S HOW BAD IT GOT, THAT WE’RE WRITING SENTENCES LIKE THAT!!)

No. The Spurs played a brand of basketball barely conceivable by a single human mind. They made honest yet another trite sports cliché: that a true team of solid players can beat one truly great player. This off-season shall remain a celebration of San Antonio.

The Duncan Shot

I’ve already waxed poetic on Tim Duncan. I could almost certainly continue for another thousand words, but instead:

(How many words are gif worth?)

Duncan was among the first to criticize his missed “bunny” shot in last year’s Finals that would have sealed the deal. Given the weight of the last eleven months, this prevails as the only Duncan shot in the Finals that matters.

The Karowning of Kawhi

At the start of the month, Greg Popovich told everyone, Kawhi Leonard was the “future of the Spurs.” Pop failed mention, however, that “the future” meant two weeks from now.

Heralded now and for the rest of his life as the youngest NBA Finals MVP ever, Kawhi took over games four, five and six. No doubt, Kawhi led the Spurs team, and he did it entirely in deed, averaging 23.6 points, 7 rebounds and 2 steals on a ridiculous 69% shooting over the least three games. In that stretch he also lead the team in both minutes played (112) and +/1 (+59)—an incredibly difficult feat.

More impressive than Leonard’s obvious statistical effort was his abrupt lack of deference. It was as if he suddenly flipped the switch for a well-spring of confidence. On two-on-ones (which he earned fairly often post-steals), instead of passing the rock up, or worse, hesitating, Kawhi would determinedly put his head down around the free throw line and take it to whoever happened to be in his way—if there was anyone there at all:

His hand checking defense is almost as fun to watch:

Then there was this…

I was holding my six month old son when Sugar K Leonard happened all over that put-back. It may have been the metric ton of baby food he just ate, but he literally shit his pants.

Another angle (including Duncan’s reaction—only adding to the list of reasons he’d be fun to play with):

Ultimately, the question with Kawhi going forward will be what kind of leader will he become?

In his first two NBA seasons, even in his last three games, he didn’t have to be the vocal leader. With the triumvirate of mentors and Pop at the helm, he only had to bring the passion, meet their words with play (which is, alone, an incredible feat for anyone, much less a 22 year old).

Sugar K clearly has the skill set, but the person he chooses to be on the basketball court will most likely be the biggest self-determinant to his hoops success. Will he continue the tradition of the quiet and sensitive Duncan? Will something snap in the depths of his psyche that turns him into Gary Payton? What happens if, somehow beyond reason, Kawhi changes teams, changes coaches?

Fortunately with Pop on the side line, K’s got quiet the safety net to experiment with.

Old man got game, not old man game

I’ve written a lot about old man game. I have a special affinity for old man game. That’s because I have never played near the rim, much less above it, so I only know how to play with old man game.

My fault in talking about NBA practitioners of Old Man Game is that I often cheer on their methods, forgetting entirely that those players didn’t come into the NBA ancient. Fortunately, a couple almost-40-somethings wore their Marty McFlies and reminded the world that the 90s were not that long ago. I swear.

First there was Ray #Jesussaves Allen:

Then Manu turning back the clock—clearly inspired by fellow Argentine Lionel Messi’s goal earlier that day:

Then again there’s Duncan. He’s 38. And I’ve already written a novella about him in the last month.

Zero to hero: A Spurs Rite of Passage

In the 2013 Finals before the Heat went nuts, I thought the Spurs had found the future big three in Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, and Danny Green. Silly me.

Neal parlayed a pretty okay playoff run into a $3.25 million check signed the Milwaukee Bucks. Green returned to Earth and saw his production and minutes decrease (which is sort of a non-sequitur for the Spurs).

Entering the off-season as a free agent, Mills is poised to follow in Neal’s footsteps.

  2013 Finals Neal: 9.4 p, 0.9 a, 2.4 r, 47% 3pt, 41% fg

          2014 Finals Mills: 10.2 p, 1.6 a, 1.4 r, 57% 3pt, 54% fg

Make it rain, Patty. Make it rain.

Since Tony Parker was sidelined for 14 games and Mills stepped into the starting lineup, all he did was play out of his mind.

In a blind player comparison for these Finals:*

Player A: 24.2 p, 3.8 a, 3.3 r, 57% 3pt, 54% fg

Player B: 15.9 p, 2.7 a, 4 r, 34% 3pt, 44% fg

Player C: 18.4 p, 4.7 a, 0.4 r, 42% 3pt, 48% fg

Player D: 18.1 p, 5.5 a, 3.8 r, 42% 3pt, 50% fg

*per 36 minutes

Can you guess which one is Patty Mills? In order: Patty, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

By all accounts, Mills seems to be a pretty funny Aussie, too, so he’ll probably end up sticking with the Spurs. Let’s hope so.

 

#BREAKING: ADAM SILVER FIXES GAME ONE OF NBA FINALS, INDUCES CRAMPGATE

Sources working in the Samsung Galaxy S5 maintenance department of the AT&T Center recently revealed that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was single-handedly responsible for the suspiciously high temperature on court for game one of the NBA Finals.

The conditions resulted in Lebron James’ inability to finish the game due to cramps, and the subsequent stupid people party on Twitter (as per the norm). #crampgate

Widely lauded for his recent swift and decisive action against raging racist team owners, an apparently half-naked Silver was found in one of the facility’s air vents in possession of a monkey wrench and “an unnatural look in his eye.”

Reportedly, Silver was only discovered after he had banged away the entire bass line to Katy Perry and Juicy J’s “Dark Horse.”

Upon being discovered, Silver screamed “Gotcha motherfuckers!” and sprinted off muttering something about cocktails with Bill Belichick and the Chinese Minister of Sports…

Basketball Geometry: Does it really matter?

After a thoroughly riveting first two rounds in the NBA Playoffs, the Conference Finals gave us what we thought was going to happen 10 months ago. For the last week, the one-two matchups in both conferences have each been exactly what you’d expect. Until last night.

The Miami Heat and the Spurs have been on cruise control for weeks. Even with the Indiana Pacers’ surprising burst in game one (read: the juries back, the Indiana Pacers aren’t that good), the Heat smoldered onward.

With the San Antonio Spurs crushing Portland and charging out the gates in the Western Finals, almost everyone would have concurred 2 hours ago, we’re getting a Finals rematch.

Then Russell Westbrook decided to do Russell Westbrook things. Kevin Durant sneezed a 31-5-5. And Serge Ibaka built a 25-foot wall, a moat and draw bridge around the paint.

Enter intrigue.

Gregg Popovich has spent the last weeks fine-tuning his Spurs, yet for all the carefully laid out scheming, the unfolding geometry and beautiful cuts and rolls he’s been orchestrating, the Oklahoma City thunderous Supersonics, like a scorned child high on cotton candy and pixie stix, came in and kicked, squashed, spat and generally disrespected every facet of the Pop code.

Geometry is critical to basketball execution. Spacing, movement, passes, threes and layups all have their place. In any given basketball scenario, there is a right time for any one of them.

OKC doesn’t care about that.

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Like most hoop fanatics that don’t have a membership to a gym with hoops, that live to recreate their glory days, I’ve picked up a rhythm of pick-up games around town—an elementary school on Sundays, a church on Tuesdays, another church on Thursdays and any hoop (Fisher-Price or fiberglass) any time in between.

Usually, guys are clamoring to play indoors. Shielded from the inconsistencies of inclement weather, 17 people to two hoops is not uncommon. For die-hards 100 minutes in a gym for 20 minutes on the court is part of the game. If anything, it adds to the incentive to win. The more you win, the more you play.

Last night only six people showed up at the local church gym, and only two of us had ever played organized ball. It was some of the best ball I’ve played in months.

My squad was clearly the less talented one. I was the primary ball-handler, and that’s never been good for any team I’ve ever been on. Along with my out-of-shape midrange game, we had a nine-year old, four-foot, shoot-first point guard with penchant for bad decisions and a 6’4” 300 pound center who never strayed beyond 10 feet.

We faced the two most athletic dudes on the court. They came in together and had an obvious rapport.

We won every game.

Going into the game, we had no idea how special our play was going to be. As the only guy who could match up athletically, I knew that I was going to have to work harder than usual, helping out on defense and carrying the offense. If my teammates were as tepid as I was, they didn’t show it. On the other hand, the other team felt great about their chances, and didn’t hide it.

On the first possessions, I sent an entry pass to our big on the left low block. He gave up five feet on the catch, but got most of it back backing his guy down. Having used up most of his energy though, he couldn’t figure out how to finish, so he sent it back out to me.

pickup 1

I drove into the lane away from the bigs, drawing the little guy’s defender to me. Sensing the collapse, our nine-year old sidled back over to the  top of the arc for a wide open three.

pickup 2

 

He heaved every ounce of his 85-pound body into the ball, launching it 28 feet. pickup 3As I tracked the ball in the air for what felt like forever, I knew that the whole night and, subsequently, how I felt about myself and the people around me for the immediate future would be determined by our little guy’s ability to sink exactly this kind of shot.

He drained it.

Betraying the beautiful absurdity of sport, that single fabulous little man jumper lifted up the spirits of over 525 pounds and five decades worth of teammates. We were floating on cloud 9-year old all night long.

On the next possession, we ran almost exactly the same play. Swish.

That’s when I knew it was over. The rest of the night, we played what Bill Bradley and other philosophers of the game call “pure basketball.” Nearly every basket came off an assist. One-on-one plays never took our team out of rhythm. We played inside and outside. When the shot was taken away, we drove. When the drive was taken away, we shot. And we always passed.

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Among the array of things basketball is, basketball is a language. Like all languages, it has rules, permutations and its share of quirks. Due to its inherent physicality, however, communication happens quickly, and with the right chemistry almost instantaneously.

Our unlikely trio had never played together before. Hell, we’d never said more than three words to each other before we started. We may have said three words during play. Maybe. Yet we seemed to gel almost instantaneously. Part of it was the kid sank his first two shots, we took a 4-0 lead (which in pick-up can seem an unsurmountable lead).

Most of it was that we identified each other’s roles early on and allowed that to dictate our spacing. Our big was the biggest, stayed close to the rim. Our shooter shot the best, floated beyond the arc. Our skill sets were so limited that we never over extended ourselves, trespassed onto each other’s territory.

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The Oklahoma City Supersonics trespassed all over the Spurs last night.

The Sonics didn’t just exact revenge, they crushed the Spurs, left them rattling, and for the first time in weeks, looking vulnerable.

The reason San Antonio’s loss is so jarring, was because there was no game planning around OKC. The aberration of OKC’s game when it’s on (like it was last night) is supernatural. Their formula is a simple: 1) you take the best pure scorer ever, the most ferocious two-way point guard in the NBA and the most intimidating shot blocker with simultaneously intimidating range, and 2) you let them all loose on the same court at the same time (Scott Brooks occasionally points them in the right direction).

Last night, KD and Westbrook combined for 71 points. Ibaka blocked more shots in his two games back (7) than his whole team did without him in games one and two (6). Ibaka’s defense is somehow more reliable than both Westbrook and KD going off simultaneously like that again. When those points are coming off leaping steals and 38-foot threes, it’s enthralling, a wonder, unbelievable, but impossible to sustain for four games against the one the most prolific teams in recent history coached by the most prolific coach in recent history.

The Western Conference Finals has been an exercise in supreme strategy v. prodigious freeplay.

Will the Spurs be ready for game 5? Of course they will. That’s a question for lesser teams—like the Pacers. Confidence is on OKC’s side. They just held the Spurs to under 100 points two games in a row; San Antonio has only been held under 100 in three games prior this playoffs. Of more pressing concern: the next three games will be a referendum on Scott Brooks.

 

The Dharma of Steve Kerr

“Ultimately, it was agonizing to say no to Phil because of what I think of him and what he’s done for my career. When Phil Jackson asks you to coach the Knicks, how do you say no? I think they’re going to turn it around, but going to be a big undertaking and it’s going to take time. The idea of doing that 3,000 miles from home, it just didn’t feel right.”

-Steve Kerr (via NBA.com)

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Steve Kerr has always been a pretty savvy dude.

Aware of his limitations as a basketball player, Kerr found a way to turn that sharp-shooting white guy game into the bedrock of a surprisingly healthy, lengthy five-championship (FIVE MORE THAN JOHN STOCKTON! AND CHARLES BARKLEY!!) career (including the post-season, Kerr played less than 50 games in only two of his 14 seasons in the NBA, and one of those was a 26-game rookie season behind the newly-minted Kevin Johnson-Jeff Hornacek backcourt of Phoenix glory).

Whether positioning himself intentionally or not, Kerr found himself coveted—again. Between TNT, the New York Knicks and the Golden State Warriors, he seemed to be as critical an off-seaason target to front offices as Kevin Love and Lance Stephenson.

So how does a three-shooting-only point guard, a dozen years removed from playing, four years removed from his only three years of experience managing a team (to middling results), who averaged 6 points and 1.8 assists on 45.4% three-point shooting finagle himself a $25 million five-year coaching contract with the Golden State Warriors?

Well winning three championships with the Zen of Phil Jackson, and two with the Wile of Gregg Popovich helps a great deal. But how much is that worth? And what are you really get for your investment? What is Truth Coach Kerr will anchor his team to? What is the team order he implements? And virtues and behaviors will it drive? WHAT IS THE DHARMA OF STEVE KERR?

There’s no salary cap for coaches. And for the handful that really move the needle for their teams, they probably don’t get paid enough, relatively (Thiago Splitter is making $10 million dollars this season. Gregg Poppovich is making $6 million. Is Splitter really that much more important to the Spurs success than Poppovich?).

Paying Kerr five sixths of Poppovich’s salary seems hasty, for a guy who has zero NBA coaching history.

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Kerr’s resume from his playing days is as impressive as any Hall of Famer (maybe not first-tier). His post-playing career (both after playing and on the low block) in the NBA has been less successful.

He spent three years as the Phoenix Suns General Manager from the summers of 2007 to 2010.of

Draft results:

2007: 24. Rudy Fernandez (draft-day trade to Portland, no longer in the NBA), 29. Alondo Tucker (no longer in the NBA), 59. D.J. Strawberry (no longer in the NBA)

2008: 15. Robin Lopez* (played 4 years in Phoenix, now starting in Portland), 45. Goran Dragic (still with the Suns, All-Star snub), 48. Malik Hairston (no longer in the NBA)

2009: 14. Earl Clark* (currently unsigned, last played with New York Knicks), 48. Taylor Griffin (no longer in the NBA), 57. Emir Preldzic (no longer in the NBA)

2010: 46. Gani  Lawal (no longer in the NBA), 60. Dwayne Jones (no longer in the NBA)

 *Players still available: Roy Hibbert, Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum in 2008. Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, Jeff Teague, Taj Gibson in 2009.

From back court to front office, drafting is among the trickiest NBA things to do in all of the NBA. Player development is critical, but a team has to be able to evaluate that player realistically and effectively in order to extrapolate those expectations into a player development plan. The Suns under Kerr’s day did not do that.

In 11 opportunities over four drafts, including two top-15 picks, Kerr managed to conjure merely two current starters in the NBA. That is a terrible track record. You could reproduce similar results using a Ouija board as your Scout. In fact, extensive research on both basketball-reference.com and hoopshype.com has not produced evidence to deny that Steve Kerr didn’t in fact use a Ouija board. He might as well have.

Free Agents: Grant Hill, Richie Frahm, Brian Skinner, Gordana Giricek, Linton Johnson, Matt Barnes, Louis Amudson, Dee Brown, Stromile Swift, Channing Frye

Kerr signed 10 players in his three years. Only three names move the needle—and even then, only nominally.

As Kerr’s first free agent signing, seven-time All-Star Grant Hill brought some hype, but more importantly another crafty wing player for the Nash-mobile. Matt Barnes and Channing Frye are quality starters that are still (or currently, in Frye’s case) playing to their potential.

Trades

Kerr spent his three years at the helm of the Phoenix Suns, essentially stripping Steve Nash’s pristine formula one for parts.

Within a month Kerr started up the welding torch, sending away James Jones (8 pts, 38 3pt%, 3.5 3s/gm and important floor spacer for Nash) along with newly drafted sharpshooter Fernandez.

Kerr’s first major move came when he shipped Kurt Thomas. Ok, Kurt Thomas wasn’t exactly an essential component of the Nash-mobile. But at 34, he was an important reserve that solidified their front court averaging an efficient 4.6 points, 5.7 rebounds on 18 min per game in his last season with the Suns. The true silliness of the trade is what was included in the package. Kerr sent with Thomas two first round picks (which would become Serge Ibaka and Quincy Pondexter) and a stripper in exchange for 2009 second round pick and a shovel.

Admittedly, the move allowed the Suns to pursue bigger fish and in 2008, Kerr went all-in with a $30 million* Project Shaqtus, trading away an truly integral player in the Suns’ formula and their premier defensive mind Shawn Marion and backup point guard Marcus Banks for a 35-year old belly-dancing Shaquille O’Neal.

Kerr continued carving up Maestro Mike D’Antoni’s former Phoenix Symphony by trading off starters Raja Bell and Boris Diaw in 2008 to the Charolotte Bobcats—essentially banning them to the Forgotten Realms of the NBA—while the Suns got back scoring punch and kept perimeter shooting, acquiring Jason Richardson and Jared Dudley.

In a cosmic twist that could only be happen in the Big Aristotle’s victory lap, Kerr traded Shaq to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2009  for Sasha Pavlovic, Ben Wallace, half a million in cash a second round draft pick. A continuation of Kerr’s sudden act of frugality, the Suns bought out Wallace’s $14 million in order to save $8 million.

*Shaq’s $20 million in 2007-08 (split between Miami and Phoenix) and $21 million in 2008-09’s almost doubled Nash’s ($11.4M in 2007-08 and $12.25M in 2007-09) and represented almost 36% of the teams salary cap.

Caveats & Lessons          

Suns GM in the summer of 2007. Helped former current Robert Sarver buy the Suns in 2004, and Kerr still owns less than 1% of the Suns franchise (which he’ll have to sell before he officially signs with Golden State).

Kerr’s three seasons with the Suns marks a tumultuous time for the Phoenix. Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less teams found tremendous success, revolutionized small ball and boasted blistering 177-69 (.720) over the three seasons prior to Kerr taking over. Unable to get past the second round of the playoffs though, the patently entertaining style came under fire.

Whether he was brought into the organization with a mandate or he acted on his own opinions, Kerr’s imperative seemed to be to traditionalize the Suns. After requesting defense and getting nada, Kerr fired D’Antoni. He brought in Terry Porter to slow down the team, which Porter did. He slowed them all the way down to a 28-23 start, at which point Kerr fired Porter and elevated Alvin Gentry* to head coach.

Gentry fared better (sort of). Finishing the 2008-09 season 18-13, the Suns missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004. But he led the Suns 54-game-win season, in large part due to Nash’s engine. They finally beat the San Antonio Spurs the second round of the playoffs with a stunning sweep, but fell short to eventual champions Los Angeles Lakers.

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Steve Kerr led personnel and acquisition decisions for the Phoenix Suns during a three-season-long transition that achieved middling success.  And Inside the NBA has won five Sports Emmys—I guess Steve Kerr is a part of that?

Essentializing Kerr’s career to those two points unfair: He’s clearly has an astute basketball mind, understands what it takes to win, has grown in the shadows of two giants—Phil Jackson, armed with his triangle offense and ability to speak to players on their terms, and Gregg Popvich, master of the motion offense and demanding sycophant-like devotion to his system. But there are still plenty of questions, and rightfully so, surrounding what more Kerr can do with an already successful team.

What does Coach Kerr look like? Will he continue the interpersonal player-centric strain of coaching Mark Jackson began and found success with? Or will he flee to analytics, X’s and O’s and become system-driven? Will Kerr use his skilled bigs to anchor the Triangle? Or run Steph Curry and Klay Thompson careening on head turning screens? WHAT ARE HIS DRUTHERS???

Are the Golden State Warriors really betting $25 million and five years on Steve Kerr being the love child of Phil and Pop?

I’d love nothing more for Coach Kerr to be the incredible amalgam of Zen and Wile*, to imagine and implement in Golden State new and beautiful triangle-motion schemes we’d forever call the “Kerr offense,” to become finely attuned at driving his team to success, balancing player personalities with team accountability.

But the fact is Kerr is untested, and the Golden State Warriors just made him among the top five highest paid coaches in the NBA. Clearly Golden State’s front office wasn’t in communication with the coaching staff this past year and produced bizarre states of disarray. Kerr’s personal reason’s for selecting Golden State (over the Knicks) aside, will he be walking into a scenario that allows him to flourish?

For better or worse, only the forthcoming basketball season can answer those questions.

*#TRADEMARKED: Can you imagine Phil Jackson and Gregg Poppovich starring in a buddy comedy called Zen and Wile about two retired coaches struggling to come to terms with a world that doesn’t fit their neatly designed systems? Light yet dark. Meditative yet silly. Screenplay forthcoming.