Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2011-12 Eastern Conference "Preview"

Would it be a Hardwood Hype “preview” if its completion arrived before the season’s second week?

In my defense, the last eight days have consisted of four airports, three cities (one being Las Vegas) and roughly three dozen friends and relatives. Please cut me some slack. Thanks.

In keeping with the theme of last week’s Western Conference preview, in which my predictions were made relative to the gaming market’s expectations for each team’s performance in the coming season, I have, mentally at least, headed back East. Despite the belated arrival of this post, be assured that none of what you are about to read benefits from hindsight, as each over-under call was made no later than December 22 and has not been altered.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2011-12 Western Conference Preview

In the days leading up to a typical NBA season, in addition to the standard curriculum, I turn to the dark arts, comparing my opinions on each team to the prevailing betting line for regular season wins. This allows me to organize my disparate thoughts and “assess the market’s assessment” of a given team heading into the new campaign.

We are currently on the eve of yet another new NBA season, one cobbled together after a harrowing glimpse into a narrowly averted abyss that is simultaneously etched permanently into the forefront of our collective memory and fading rapidly in the rearview. The absence of a traditional offseason- summertime free agency, summer league and month-long training camps- has stuffed five months of preparation and hot-stoving into 16 days (12 down…).

As a result, hoops junkies, no less opinionated than before, but now comically short on prep time, have sprung into action, assessing the potential impact of every signing and trade that was (or was not), forecasting the NBA-readiness of incoming rookies and projecting the development of young players already in the league. I (like you, presumably) have spent the past two weeks immersed in this crash course, reading along- I’ve particularly enjoyed the previews from Ball Don’t Lie; and for great team-specific analysis, check out any of the sites here- learning the whos, whats and wheres, allowing the hows and whys to crystallize

Longer-time readers of the site may recognize this format from last year. However, given a lack of lead time, thanks both to the NBA and my personal commitments, rather than devoting an entire post to each team, the 2011-12 installment, like the NBA regular season itself, has been condensed.

First up, the Western Conference: 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On David Stern And Bad Influences

An obscenely intelligent and forward-thinking man, there was a time when David Stern was, above all else, the one of the greatest commissioners in professional sports. These days, however, that title seems a distant memory, with his role as CEO of a multi-billion dollar corporation trumping all that pertains to the actual game he oversees. He no longer chooses to consort with longtime, team-first owners, the Jerry Busses and Jerry Reinsdorfs of the world, preferring instead to align himself with captains of industry, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, buyout king, and whatever Robert Sarver is- individuals well-versed not only in the science of running large enterprisesat a profit, but also the art of finding new and creative ways to squeeze cash out of them.

With the most successful of front offices traditionally keeping closer tabs on standings than income statements, NBA teams have not historically been paragons of financial efficiency. However, despite presenting challenges for those in search of consistent profitability, team ownership has long been seen as an avenue to massive long-term financial gain and apparently- as we learned in the months preceding and encompassing the lockout- a means to further other ventures and a safe haven for technically-legal financial chicanery.

As has been the case with countless inefficient markets comprised of valuable assets, the NBA is now a playground for financial engineers. What’s resulted is fascinating, if simultaneously infuriating. Always seen as the most stage-managed of the sports’ insular old boys clubs, the NBA is now a near-perfect microcosm of the world's corrupt oligopolies. There is the appearance of a general rule of law, and economic and human rights rules are followed sufficiently to justify continued relations, but, from the manner in which the Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder, to disputed claims of financial distress that led to, and prolonged the lockout, to the inexplicable veto of an agreed-upon trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, it's clear that business-as-usual is pretty shady.

David, these people are not your real friends.

Hopefully enough of these increasingly public moments of scorn and shame, and, more importantly to individuals unaccustomed to prying eyes examining the means by which they accumulate their immense wealth, the realization that nothing truly happens behind closed doors anymore will affect some change.

Most importantly, however, the NBA’s ultimate saving grace, if there is to be one, from the cold world of the mercenary financier, will be, ironically, the financial ruin of some of its teams. Barring the unforeseen, the mirage of an NBA team as a market-beating investment will soon begin to fade. It’s tough to envision an environment in which NBA franchises will justify their recent sale prices, let alone continue to appreciate at a better-than-market rate. Consider for a moment the figures associated with the July 2010 sale of the Golden State Warriors:

Bought by Chris Cohan in January 1995 for $119 million, the Warriors- and their monopoly on Bay Area NBA hoops- were sold to Joe Lacob, a managing partner at Kleiner Perkins (early investors in Google, plus 150+ companies that have gone public), and Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Entertainment, in July 2010 for a record sum of $450 million. Pretty good, right? Well…

Yes, Cohan did nearly quadruple his investment in just over a decade and a half, but his money compounded at just 8.67%, or roughly .75% more than the risk-free return on a 30-year U.S. Treasury bond purchased at the start of 1995. Should the value of the team (ignoring the probability that it has already dipped below purchase price) continue to compound at the same rate for the next 10 years as it did for the aforementioned 16, Lacob and Gruber would be able to unload the Warriors for $1.03 billion.

Let’s be real. I don’t care how great the fan base is, nothing less than hyperinflation makes the Warriors a billion-dollar business within a decade. Do these guys seriously believe that within a decade, the Warriors, the one playoff appearance and more wins than only the Clippers in 17 years Golden State freaking Warriors are going to be worth over a billion dollars?

As I have pointed out in the past, such returns simply will not fly in the world of illiquid investments- in which the return demanded by investors seldom dips below 20%, and commonly approaches 30%. Additionally, the strong-arm tactics likely to be employed by owners whose teeth were cut in the brutal world of private equity will alienate customers in an emotional, fan-driven business, causing returns to dwindle further.

If this scenario plays out, it’s a safe bet that the value of non-marquee teams will drop, triggering if not panic sales, at least second thoughts from these top-of-market buyers. As with any market, asking prices will need to fall to the point of equilibrium or (and?) the number (supply) of teams must fall to the point where scarcity justifies purchase price (demand), driving buyers that targeted teams strictly as investment vehicles from the market, in search of greener pastures.

And it will be for the best.

Because, in the midst of this rambling mess, I came to a sad realization- back in the day, I think this Stern would have told Red Auerbach to fuck off.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Blockbuster That Wasn't

From time to time, events in the world of pro hoops (I’m sure it happens in all other walks too) conspire to trigger a deluge of response for which the internet was seemingly created. Yesterday epitomized this.

During my lunch hour, rumors of the Knicks Dolin’ out near-max money for Tyson Chandler in hopes of luring Chris Paul to Manhattan dominated the conversation. In the early evening, as I prepared to go out to dinner, I was struck by the euphoric jolt of “Chris Paul to the Lakers.” Dinner, at a local all-you-can-eat/drink sushi spot, was when the bubble burst, as first my brother in law, and then Twitter, informed me that a well-past-his-prime dictator, with the prodding of a whiny narcissist whose considerable fortune was paid for (at least in part) with the sweat of foreclosed one-time homeowners, had blocked the deal. Suffice it to say, my wife was NOT happy about this hijacking of our meal, as I continued to consume copious amounts of sake, though no longer in a celebratory mood.

At about 1:00 am, fueled by prepaid booze and the collective rage of the NBA masses, and moments from finding myself in central booking at “Twitter jail,” I elected to throw caution to the wind and pump out a sake-soaked tirade. Upon recognizing that I’d be unable to do so without veering wildly into the “dark place,” I shelved the idea. Fortunately, at that point fellow Laker fan and Twitterer J. Dana Teague (@teaguejd) mentioned that the events of the evening had compelled him to put some thoughts on paper. I invited him to share them here:



Last night the Lakers traded for Chris Paul. That's what should have happened. A 3-team deal was agreed upon by the Rockets, Lakers, and Hornets. The Lakers gave up Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol in return for Chris Paul and either Emeka Okafor or a TPE. The Hornets got Odom, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic from Houston, and draft picks, which isn't at all a bad haul, and can be traded to other teams for young talent/more picks. The Rockets got Gasol, dropped $3.5 million below the salary cap and were in position to make a play for Nene.

Was it the best deal the Hornets could have gotten? No. A trade with the Clippers, Warriors or Magic would have made more sense. Was it a fleece job on the scale of the Miami sign-and-trade for Chris Bosh or (at the time) the Lakers' 2008 trade for Gasol? Not in the slightest. Chris Paul wasn't necessarily the best fit in LA, and it would have gutted the Lakers roster. I'd rather they trade for Dwight Howard, or flip Gasol for a similar package to the one the Rockets were sending to New Orleans.

Plus, the Lakers gave up their only useful power forwards (both very good), and effectively stripped themselves of their greatest strength, their vaunted front court. They tied their fate to 3 players who have problematic knees, during a compressed season. Gambling on Andrew Bynum, Kobe Bryant, and Chris Paul to play effectively through a schedule as brutal as this season’s is a HUGE risk, and was no guarantee of a title. It was a ballsy move, similar to the one Otis Smith made last season by trading for Gilbert Arenas. One last swing for the fences. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Toronto Raptors

On Tuesday night, podcast pioneers and renowned Toronto Raptors fans, The Basketball Jones made it to New York City for the latest stop on their now month-old No Season Required tour. In addition to attracting an excellent crowd of hoops junkies and putting on a great show, The Jones’ visit got me thinking about Raptors highlights. It's time to give this series some Nothern exposure.

Fans of the Toronto Raptors have a fascinating relationship with the spectacular. With the possible exception of their counterparts from Cleveland, no NBA fan base has been privy to more jawdropping, out-of-your-seat “holy shit!” moments from which they’d now like to distance themselves.

Long before LeBron’s public flogging of Cleveland, Vince Carter, in his own special way, was doing a number on Raptor fans. If “The Decision” was a bomb that rocked Northeast Ohio, Vince was a slow-burning chemical fire. From an untimely commitment to educational milestones in 2001, to "Wince" Carter's frustratingly long spells in street clothes, to the adoption of a step-back, fadeaway 3-pointer (lest the greatest dunker of all time be known as such), to the admitted tanking of the 2004-05 season in a (successful) attempt to orchestrate a pennies-on-the-dollar move south of the border, Vince did an incredible job of bastardizing as spectacular a body of work as has ever been seen in the NBA. By the time he’d closed the book on his days at the Air Canada Centre, it’s fairly safe to say that neither side was particularly interested in reliving the era in which he assembled his staggering dunk catalogue.

Thing is, in spite of Vince’s douchebaggery and the broken hearts left in his wake in Toronto, no comprehensive review of the greatest highlights in NBA history, let alone Raptors history, is possible without a dusting of…

Monday, November 28, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Phoenix Suns

I imagine the first thought that crossed my mind upon waking up this morning is similar to that of many NBAers. Actually, that’s probably not true. I did not bound out of bed singing “thank God the Bentley’s not getting repo’d.” I am confident, however, that my first thought mirrored the second one of many pro ballers: only four weeks until opening day? Damn, gotta get to work!

I started a series highlighting the five (sometimes more) greatest highlights in each franchise’s history out of a stubborn refusal to write about the lockout and- fearing we’d not have an NBA season to enjoy- a desire to keep front and center that which drew us all to the Association in the first place. I now encounter the greatest of all possible obstacles, however, out of respect to the most fun project I’ve ever undertaken, this show will go on. The timetable will be less than certain as the upcoming season will take priority, but that’s just fine. These types of memories have a serious shelf life.

Alright, let’s get back to work, this time with the Phoenix Suns.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the Suns is fun, exciting ball. Walter Davis, Paul Westphal, Dennis Johnson. The talented lead guard quartet of Kevin Johnson, first alongside Tom Chambers, then Charles Barkley, followed by Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury and two-time MVP Steve Nash in Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds or Less” offense, it’s impossible to think of an era in which the Suns were not both loaded with talent and a fun watch.

As you read on, you’ll notice one notable name missing from the list above and the highlights below.

Brooklyn-born, Rucker-trained and the first face of the Suns franchise, Connie Hawkins is deserving of a far more prominent place among the greats of his era. After starring in basketball’s urban cathedral, he accepted a scholarship to the University of Iowa. With great size, athleticism and a skill set rarely seen in a man his size, he was surely destined for the pinnacle of pro hoops.

Sadly, however, during his freshman year, he was wrongly implicated in a point-shaving scandal that was traced back to New York. “Hawk” maintained his innocence and never admitted to any wrongdoing, but was expelled from Iowa, unable to secure another scholarship (where’s Jerry Tarkanian when you need him?) and blacklisted from professional basketball.

Rather than parlaying his inevitable college dominance into NBA stardom, Hawkins, though dominant at the various stops on his journey, became something of a basketball vagabond. Following the scandal, he spent one season with the ABL’s Pittsburgh Rens, with whom he averaged 27.5 points and 13.5 rebounds, and won league MVP. Following the ABL’s demise, he spent three years with the Harlem Globetrotters, during which he filed a lawsuit against the NBA for unfairly banning him, before joining a new pro basketball startup- the ABA.

A member of the Pittsburgh Pipers in the ABA’s inaugural season (1967-68), Hawk had one of the best seasons in league history, averaging a league-best 26.8 points, with 13.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists, earning an All-Star selection, league MVP and- after averaging 30-13 in the playoffs- leading the Pipers to the ABA title and capturing the playoff MVP in the process. After the season, the Pipers moved to Minnesota, where Hawkins averaged a fantastic 30 and 11 in an injury-plagued 1968-69 season, after which his suit with the NBA was settled and, at age 27, his rights were assigned to the NBA’s latest expansion team, the Phoenix Suns.

Though he’s synonymous with franchise, Hawkins spent just four seasons with the Suns- one great (24.6, 10.4 and 4.8 assists in 1969-70), two near great and one solid. He was named an All-Star four times, All-NBA First Team once and was a part of the first playoff team in franchise history.

Had the league itself not robbed him of his best years, the Hawk would occupy a far more prominent place in NBA history. Unfortunately, we are thus left with patchy recollections and a collection of highlights devoid of context. What these clips, limited though, do not lack is a window into a graceful dominance- one reminiscent of today's elite big men- that made Connie Hawkins one of the sport’s great icons that never truly was.



Saturday, November 26, 2011

Raindrops on Roses...

A portion of last night was spent searching- idly I feared- for video evidence of Sam Cassell's "baila cojones grandes." In those dark moments, we were faced with a life devoid of both NBA basketball and Sam I Am's peace de resistance. Shortly before going to bed, around 2am I think, I unearthed the following, a momentary respite from the specter that the result of the NBA's latest marathon negotiating session would turn nuclear winter into armageddon:


GIFSoup

Treating a bullet wound with a Vicoden tab? Maybe, but what else did we have?

I went to bed hopeful and optimistic, as I have been all along (because, really, there's not much point in the alternative), that if nothing else, the two sides would at least agree to continue chatting into the weekend.

This morning, I awoke, sluggish, unmotivated and frankly somewhat grumpy, not mentally rebooted to the point where I knew to check for lockout news. I grabbed my phone, as I do every day within 90 seconds of getting out of bed, and was greeted with this.

If you are here now, I probably don't need to tell you what happened next. Fist pumps, uncontrollable grins and the shedding of digital tears of joy on Twitter. We've mocked the "don't care" crowd, created fantasy leagues, wondered aloud if we'll get discounts on League Pass (we won't, but who cares?!) and generally rejoiced. A lot of love to all the folks that gutted this thing out together, and an incredible amount of gratitude to the guys and gals that hung out in hotel lobbies at ungodly hours in the hopes of passing along the ever-so-rare nugget of good news. We made it, everyone!

This is going to be a whirlwind month (and season, really), but for the time being... go crazy, folks! GO CRAZY!!!



Lookin like a season. How u?

These Are The Moments... The Los Angeles Clippers


I hate that some people act as though the Clippers didn’t exist prior to Halloween 2010.

I mean, come on! There was the Clippers before there was Blake Griffin.

I should know. While I am a Laker fan, I am also an L.A.-raised NBA junkie. Since the mid-80s, if the Clippers were on (and the Lakers were not), I was watching.

I remember Michael Cage, Loy Vaught, Danny Manning, Mark Jackson and Ron Harper, but also remember Ken Norman, Quintin Dailey, Tom Garrick, Joe Wolf and Terry Dehere. I remember the Clips’ early 90s ascent past the post-Magic Lakers, their return to the NBA basement and the turn-of-the-century accumulation of young talent (still have a bootleg L.O.-Elton-D. Miles-Q-Richt-shirt from Figueroa).

I moved East almost seven years ago, at which point Clipper games (and, with Chick Hearn now gone, Ralph Lawler’s calls) took on added significance. I was watching, lump in my throat, when Shaun Livingston suffered the most devastating injury I’ve ever seen. I won a tidy sum riding the Clippers in Sam Cassell’s early weeks with the team. I loved the 2006 run to within a game of the Western Conference Finals.

So, yeah, when some jackass boils down the entirety of Clipper history to one magical season of the Blake Show, it gets on my nerves.

(Seriously, NO idea what came over me with that embarrassing, mailed-in question. Thanks to Charlie Widdoes, Tim Severson and Greg Wissinger for dishing out a collective wake-up call. And while I'm thanking the academy, a shout out to @KJ_NBA for the picture above)

 Ok, now that that's taken care of, let's do this, shall we?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Boston Celtics

In 13 years, Bill Russell was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times- the first ever to win three in a row- and, with help from the likes of Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and John Havlicek, hung 11 banners in the Boston Garden rafters. Russell’s the unrivaled record of winning, combined with his contributions to the growth and evolution of the game itself- the cerebral transformation of defense and rebounding into art forms, the unprecedented versatility as a big man to work as an offensive facilitator- have, by all objective measures, forever secured his place atop the Celtic pantheon.

Except one.

As expertly as Russell capitalized on his incredible arsenal of talents, particularly on the game’s biggest stage, another Boston icon sits atop Mount “Holy shit!”

The greatest Celtic of the last four decades, Larry Bird built a resume that rivaling that of any of his legendary, emerald-clad predecessors. In 14 years, Bird earned three rings of his own, a dozen trips to the All-Star game and, in 1986, became the last player to capture a third consecutive MVP award. More than any achievement, however, Bird’s lasting legacy will be one of intangible greatness. As fascinated as I am with the increasingly prominent role played by statistics in NBA analysis, this is still the primary prism through which I view the game.

Say what you will about the efficacy of terms like “assassin” and “clutch,” there is something innate, a hoops genius that allows the very greatest of the great to treat the game like a game. It is an ability to not only understand the game, but to feel its pulse. It is this almost supernatural sense of the moment that allows a truly special player to not only throw a pass where he cannot see or to play most of an NBA game with his off hand, but to do so on command, successfully and without wavering for a moment in the focus on extinguishing an opponent.

Friday, November 18, 2011

These Are The Moments... The New Jersey Nets


In terms of achievement, the story of the New Jersey Nets is anything but storied. With the notable exceptions of the Jason Kidd era that saw the team rise from the depths of mediocrity and irrelevance to represent the Eastern Conference in consecutive NBA Finals, there’s not been a great deal to write home about.

Aesthetically, however, thanks to the playmaking of Kidd, Kenyon Martin and the final days of the artist now known as Vintage Vince, signature moments have not been in short supply the past dozen years. More on this momentarily.

Some will point out, rightfully, that Nets’ highlight history began a quarter century before Kidd’s arrival and peaked three decades before VC hit the turnpike. This, of course, is in reference to the franchise’s days on Long Island, when a young Julius Erving, one of the game’s early skywalkers, starred for the ABA’s New York Nets. Erving’s place in Nets’ history is beyond reproach- he was named league MVP each of his three seasons with the team, never averaging worse than 27.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5 assists, and led the Nets to a pair of ABA championships.

Unfortunately, due to a paucity of identifiable highlights (hell, whatever there is of Dr. J’s ABA highlights, ID’able or not, doesn’t measure up to the accounts of his greatness) the Doctor is absent from the body of this retrospective.

There- no elephants in this room.

Now, without further ado, to the swampland!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Houston Rockets

The stories of most successful NBA franchises are profoundly influenced by stellar play in the middle. This is true of no franchise more than it is of the Houston Rockets, whose legacy of big men ranks among the NBA’s very best. What sets this group apart, however, from history’s other great big man dynasties is aesthetics.

From a man as close to eight feet tall as he is to seven with a feathery touch to 18 feet, to one that made offensive rebounding a spectator sport, to a pair that exhibited more guardlike agility and skill while still dominating in the frontcourt- top to bottom, no collection of NBA bigs has been more enjoyable to watch over the past 30 years.

Heading this group is one of NBA history’s five greatest centers, and my pick for the most enjoyable to watch, Hakeem Olajuwon. This is man with whom virtually all discussion of Rockets’ history begins and ends. In the interest of staying true to the theme of this series, I’ll keep the words to minimum, but I must say this- in terms of sheer skill and the ability to command the game while simultaneously transforming it into a work of artistry, Hakeem sits at the head of the class.

Monday, November 14, 2011

These Are The Moments... The Miami Heat

Recently on Twitter I declared that in terms of both on court brilliance and general persona, Dwyane Wade is the coolest NBAer I’ve ever seen. He not only makes jawdropping plays on a regular basis, but seldom, if ever, looks like a douche in his reactions and celebrations. Though not particularly relevant in any tangible sense, when one sets about identifying the greatest highlights in NBA history, it places Wade atop the list. This, along with Wade’s status as one of few old-school, one-team superstars (haven’t thought it all the way through, but I love Hakeem Olajuwon as a comp- and no, I haven’t forgotten Dream's brief stint in Toronto), distinguishes him from most NBA players, including a certain teammate with whom he is inextricably linked.

LeBron James is the superior basketball player, as spectacular a highlight factory as there is and hardly the recipient of a cold reception upon his arrival in Miami. With that said, the relationship that Dwyane Wade shares with the city and pre-Decision Heat fans is a special one, one possible only through time and a shared journey- apologies in advance for trotting out this exhausted storyline- one precisely like that left behind in Cleveland by LeBron James.

Not making value judgments, just stating what’s so. These are Dwyane Wade’s people. And like D-Wade’s unflappable coolness, this doesn’t manifest itself in the form of wins and losses, but if you need a highlight kicked up from spectacular to sublime…

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Blissful Denial- Complete NBA Blogger Season Previews


Whether the 2011-12 NBA season takes place at all, and what form it will take if it does, remain to be seen. Given some unfortunate developments in recent days, optimism has never been in shorter supply. As you look for coping mechanisms in these trying times, allow me to offer up a suggestion- drinking and denial.

Season or not, thanks to the efforts of CelticsBlog's Jeff Clark and a host of extremely talented writers from all corners of the NBA blogosphere (and me), we have 2011-12 previews for every NBA team.

Wipe away the tears, pour yourself a couple fingers of bourbon and enjoy:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The These Are The Moments... The Sacramento Kings

I love the Sacramento Kings.

Though I’ve never set foot in the building, I feel like I know every crevice of (if you think I’m calling it Power Balance Pavilion, you’re outta your damn mind) Arco Arena. I love the way the local cowbell-toters not only packed the place, but transformed it into a cauldron on par with any in NBA history. I love the early work of C-Webb and Slim Shady (always thought “White Chocolate” was lame) and developed an illicit mancrush on Mike Bibby in the spring of 2002. Hell, even Doug Christie… nah, even I can’t sap it up that much. Fuck that guy.

Strange words from a Laker diehard, I know, and for years the diametric opposite was true, but looking back, I, we, needed the raw emotion that the Kings inspired in the Lakers’ otherwise businesslike Lightswitch Dynasty. Plus, it’s important to understand that few franchises figured more prominently in the NBA experience of my generation of Laker Nation.

From the baby blue-clad lean years of the 1980s- when the league consisted of 23 teams, nationally televised games were rarer and League Pass not even a fantasy, and much of what you got were division matchups- to the electrifying dawn of the Webber era, the epic 2002 Western Conference Finals, ‘Reke (a Hype favorite) and #herewestay, it’s been a long and winding road whose apex, while brief, was as intense and traumatic as any I’ve experienced. Emotions run hot here.

Have these emotions and experiences biased my selection of the top highlights in Kings’ history? Probably. And I’m totally cool with that:

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

These Are The Moments... First Up, The Seattle Supersonics

The journey may be more important than the destination, but what makes it memorable are individual moments of which it’s comprised.

Between the lockout providing an impromptu crash course in labor law, ever-increasing sophistication in statistical metrics and heightened, coach-like awareness of tactical nuances, NBA writers and fans are more informed today than at any time in history. The net effect of the advancements in fan intellect is decidedly positive (and NO, they do not take the fun out of fandom), but the thing is, for the incredible value they add to our understanding of the game, advanced stats and subtle nuances seldom leave you laughing out loud in an empty room.

Solid defensive rotations, proper spacing on a post entry pass and Usage Rates are fascinating in their own right- and you don’t need me to tell you about how talk of BRI splits and “system issues” gets a party started- but love affairs are sparked by visceral, “HOLY SHIT” moments. I (and probably you as well) am all about these moments. Be it one that sums up perfectly its author, or the matchup in which it took place, or one that defies all logic, the most memorable moment in sports is one in which even the most solid and painstakingly crafted gameplan is torn asunder by the spontaneity of athletic brilliance, and maybe a bit of luck.

Thanks to a mild depression and a case of lockout fatigue that’s left me nearly catatonic, I have taken immense comfort in the warm embrace of the past. Anyone familiar with my work knows that this is hardly my first excursion into the rabbit hole of NBA history. This time, however, I’m embarking on a project that, rather than simply supplementing knowledge of statistics and storylines from years past, allows for a look back, if only momentarily, at the game’s greatest moments, hopefully (we’ll see) through the same prism as the fan bases that actually lived and died with them.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sigh

So… this is real, huh?

We've past the point where I can keep ignoring the NBA lockout.

Out of blind faith that a deal would get done, I've refrained from writing about the NBA lockout, both in the months leading up to July 1, and the 16 weeks since. I naively held out hope that a collection of fabulously wealthy individuals (and the Maloofs), many of whom accumulated said wealth through not only hard work, but dedication to, and respect for, customer and employee alike, would take pause for a least a moment before cynically alienating the two groups on whom they are reliant for their profits.

On Thursday, nearly four months after it began, and after more than two years of speculation and a DiMaggio-esque three consecutive days of negotiation, superstar mediator George Cohen, a man that has brokered labor peace in the Metropolitan Opera, the FAA, the NFL, the MLS and the American Red Cross, informed us that "no useful purpose would be served by requesting the parties to continue the mediation process at this time."

I’m not going to delve into the minutiae of the conflict. I understand the issues at hand and have kept abreast of developments in the battle, but so many in the NBA blogosphere have already done such stellar work on the topic. Plus, I simply don’t want to. However, to briefly summarize my admittedly imperfect and deeply biased perspective on the matter (feel free to torch me if I am way off on any of this): the owners collectively suck at the negotiating table and are not above denigrating their own product and unabashedly urinating on the ideas of “bargaining in good faith” to keep from getting publicly fleeced again.

Thanks to a shortsighted television contract they signed in 2007, the NBA’s owners have deemed the league’s current operating environment- the one that management has employed multiple lockouts to secure- unsustainable. But don’t ask them to actually verify that with, y’know, numbers. Trust your gut.

Sure, locking in $930 million of TV revenue ($31 million per team) for the next eight years seemed like a great insurance policy against the collapse of Western capitalism in the darkest days of 2008 and 2009. However, in 2011, on the heels of the most compelling NBA season in recent memory, it represents the selling of one’s wares at a discount to market price.

Anyway…

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hidden in Plain Sight- Byron Scott With the Showtime Lakers



Byron Scott should be wildly overrated.

Does it bother you that Robert Horry, a completely average player (7 points, 4.8 rebounds per game, 13.4 career PER) when he was not saving dynasties across the Western Conference (to the tune of seven rings), will garner Hall of Fame votes (he won’t get in, but still) in the coming years, while Byron Scott will forever be looking up at the likes of Mo Williams and Jamaal Magloire on the list of career All-Star appearances? It should.

Scott was a central figure- one of the youngest and most exciting at that- in perhaps the most electrifying dynasty in NBA history. In an era in which maybe half a dozen teams received national attention, every meaningful game he ever played was for the big market, TV-friendly Lakers. For all intents and purposes, he was the backcourt partner of the greatest point guard the game has ever seen.

HOWEVAH…

Though beloved in Lakerland, nationally Scott is remembered more as a role player, fortunate for the circumstance in which he found himself, than as one of the best offensive guards of the 1980s.

The 9,053 points he scored in his first seven NBA seasons (1983-84- 1989-90) qualified Scott as one of the NBA’s ten most prolific backcourt scorers during that stretch. Of that group, only four players- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Rolando Blackman and Scott- shot better than 50% from the field. In terms of True Shooting Percentage, only the aforementioned trio, along with Dale Ellis, equaled Scott’s 56.2% mark.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The NBA's Class of 1993- So Far, So Good

In the weeks preceding the start of the 1993-94 season, along with the anticipation that accompanies the start of each new campaign, the NBA was hit with as big a shockwave as one could envision. On October 6, 1993, on the heels of his third straight championship and at the peak of otherworldly powers, citing waning motivation stemming from a lack of fresh challenges (I don’t know what actually happened, but doesn’t this sound crazier the further we get from it?), Michael Jordan, announced his retirement. This marked the second time in 23 months (the first being Magic Johnson’s November 1991 retirement due to HIV) that one of the NBA history’s most transcendent players had unexpectedly called it quits on the eve of a new season.

With the possible exception of the late 1970s, at no other point in its almost 50-year history had the NBA been in more dire need of young superstars. It was against this backdrop that the members of the Class of ’93, now flush with NBA cash, tipped off their respective careers.

As expected, the can’t-miss duo at the head of the class, Chris Webber and Penny Hardaway, hit the NBA floor running. In his first nine games, Webber averaged 17 points and more than 11 rebounds per game, with six double-doubles (the Warriors were 4-2 in these games, 0-3 otherwise), and, in just his fourth outing, announced his arrival on the NBA scene, taking on one of the game’s all-time greats, with, shall we say, favorable results:



Hardaway, meanwhile, joined the Orlando Magic as the perfect complement to the perimeter duo of Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott, the pick-and-roll prowess of Horace Grant and the force of nature that was a young Shaquille O’Neal. Though he began his NBA career as a two/combo guard (Scott Skiles started for the first half of the season, before being replaced by Dennis Scott), Penny toyed with a triple-double twice in his first seven games, putting up 12- 8- 8 in his pro debut (a blowout win in Miami) and 12- 9- 9 (only fair to mention the six fouls as well) in a six-point loss in Detroit 12 days later.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What Lockout? Previewing The 2011-12 Los Angeles Lakers



Team Name: Los Angeles Lakers

Last Year’s Record: 57-25

Key Free Agents: Shannon Brown, Joe Smith, Theo Ratliff

Team Needs: Starting point guard; Frontcourt depth; Young, NBA-caliber talent


1. What are your team's biggest needs this offseason? What a difference a year makes.

A Lakers roster that a year ago seemed unfair in its depth and versatility is now woefully thin in some key areas and aging rather quickly (Andrew Bynum is the only guy with a guaranteed spot in the rotation that will be under 31 by mid-November) from top to bottom. In addition to some well-chronicled point guard issues (more on this momentarily), the Lakers are severely undermanned in the paint- I mean, just look at “key” free agents #2 and 3.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

1993: The Worst Great Draft in NBA History



I like to think that in some alternate universe, the head of the NBA’s Class of 1993 ranks among the greatest of all time. Though faced with chronic injury, late blooming and disciplinary issues- and there was of plenty of each to go around with this crew- there was not a true bust among the top five. For all of their unfulfilled potential, every one of the first five players selected- to say nothing of Vin Baker (#8), Allan Houston (#11), Sam Cassell (#24) and Nick Van Exel (#37), among others- made significant contributions for at least the better part of a decade, giving us the “worst great draft” of the lottery era.

Headed by a 20 year-old manchild poised to redefine the power forward position, a Magic Johnson-Scottie Pippen hybrid, prototype scoring machines at both the 2 and the 3 and a seven-and-a-half footer with actual basketball skills, there literally was not a need that could not be addressed with a top-five pick.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Looters In A Riot

“Clutch.”

“Raises his game when it counts.”

“Knows how to win.”

There is no shortage of platitudes employed in the assessment of NBA players. Some of these adages have been debunked through statistical analysis, while others are labeled intellectually lazy. It is probably true that these phenomena are myths and optical illusions and can often be filed under luck, randomness or some other term connoting factors beyond a payer’s control. With that said, however, it never fails to amaze me the way that success, be it the result of luck or innate skill, tends not to stray very far from certain players.

Conversely, throughout the decades, the NBA has seen no shortage of truly gifted individual players for whom success did not extend beyond the box score. On the NBA on TNT’s fantastic studio show, Kenny “the Jet” Smith has frequently spoken of such players, referring to them as “looters in a riot.” These are players whose gaudy numbers never translate into success for their teams, but “you don’t know because of the chaos.”

Plenty of time and many pixilated column inches are dedicate to analyzing the greats that either cemented their legend on the ultimate stage, or fell just short. What about the best “looters in a riot?”

Glad you asked! Here are 12:

World B. Free- A textbook case. After spending his first three seasons as a role player with Dr. J’s spectacular 76ers teams of the mid-70s, Free spend eight of his next 10 seasons as a top-two guy on an NBA team. Those teams were the San Diego Clippers, Golden State Warriors and late-Stepien era Cleveland Cavaliers. In each of these seasons he scored at least 22.5 points per game (28+ twice), with a Usage Rate in the immediate vicinity of 30%.

Only two Free-led teams posted a .500+ record, and just one, the 36-46 1985-86 Cavaliers, who finished 23 games out of first place in their division, made the playoffs. It’s worth noting that despite the awful regular season mark, those Cavs registered a playoff victory (with Free averaging 26.3 and 7.8 assists) and scored as many points in four games (449) as one of the great Celtics teams of all time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Early Thoughts On The Lakers 2011-12 Schedule

On Tuesday afternoon I joined a handful of NBA bloggers on Forum Blue & Gold to opine on matchups on the newly-released the Lakers’ 2011-12 regular season schedule that we found particularly intriguing. Here is my contribution to that piece:

The NBA released its schedule for the 2011-12 season. As usual, as far as the Lakers are concerned, there is no shortage of intriguing, high profile matchups. While I’ll be tuned in for every game against the Mavericks, Heat, Thunder, Bulls, Celtics and Spurs, another matchup caught my eye as I was spending some quality time with the schedule. As innocuous as it appears roughly a quarter of the way down the 82-game list, the Lakers’ December 9 visit to Charlotte encapsulates virtually every bugaboo of the past decade.

Beyond the baggage this team will drag into every arena in the coming season- new coach/system, advancing age, concerns about depth, an indifference to many games that is nothing short of uncanny- the Lakers have won just twice in seven tries at the Time Warner Cable Arena, one of those by a single point against the Bobs’ 2004-05 expansion squad. And while the 2011-12 Bobcats squad is hardly a contender, the roster is not short on legitimate NBA-caliber talent. Toss in the fact that the game will be the Lakers’ fifth in eight nights, with four of those on the road, and takes place the night after their lone visit of the regular season to South Beach, and that Friday in North Carolina begins to look especially treacherous.

Even when winning championships, this is exactly the type of game that Laker teams of the recent past have made a habit of losing. Given the humiliating end to last season and the clear fact that this will be a Laker team at a crossroads, this win would be hugely encouraging.

Click here to see the piece in its entirety, as it appears on Forum Blue & Gold.

Also featured in the piece:

Phillip Barnett of Forum Blue & Gold (@imsohideous on Twitter)
Daniel Buerge of LakersNation (@danielbuerge_LA)
J.D. Hastings (@j_d_hastings)
Nick Flynt of Clipper Blog (@nickflynt)
Conrad Kaczmarek of Fear the Sword (@lookitsckaz)
Eddie Maisonet from Ed The Sports Fan (@edthesportsfan)
Bryan Crawford of SLAM's From The Go (@_BryanCrawford)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Efficiency Experts


If you’re anything more than a casual fan, you are likely aware of the ongoing debate between proponents and detractors of the use of so-called advanced metrics in NBA analysis. Art vs. Science. Hell, sometimes it feels like Science v. Religion.

In one corner we have the willfully ignorant old guard, entrenched in the position that sports have long had all the statistics necessary to facilitate effective analysis. This camp will argue that the proliferation of advanced statistics “takes the fun out of the game” and that no amount of numerical data can take the place of actually watching the action. Keep all open flames away from those straw men, fellas.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

20 Questions From The Association - Still Locked In

Is it just me, or…

Would defeating the veteran-laden squad that prematurely ended his last two postseasons, knocking off an MVP-led 62-win team en route to coming within two wins (I know he was awful in the Finals) of a championship be viewed as perseverance and “party of the championship journey” had they been done by any 26 year-old not named “LeBron James?”

Would it be hilarious and kinda awesome if “the worst draft in recent memory” yielded multiple Hall of Famers?

For a team that did not have a pick before #41 and added a pair of guys that will likely be on the opening night roster, are the Lakers catching an awful lot of flack for their showing on draft night?

Might the already PG-laden Cavaliers have done better to spend the draft's top selection on a strong athletic wing scorer who improved immensely in his one college season, rather than a potentially solid lead guard with 11 NCAA games under his belt?

Does any praise for the Dallas Mavericks “stealing Rudy Fernandez for the 26th pick” overlook the fact that a) while he’s shown flashes, Rudy has given no indication that he’s anything more than mediocre role player in the NBA and b) they gave up a 20 year-old perimeter scorer with size in order to acquire him?

Did the Charlotte Bobcats do more to build a successful franchise between 8:12 and 8:23 on Thursday night than they had in the previous seven years?

With the addition of Johnny Flynn and another tweener up front, have the Houston Rockets definitively established themselves as the NBA’s Island of Moderately Talented Misfit Toys?

After trying to turn Tony Parker into a lottery pick, is the acquisition of a top-10 talent (in a weak draft, but whatever) in exchange for Parker’s good-but-not-great backup the epitome of the Spurs being the Spurs?

Is it incredible how, even while falling flat on his face, LeBron James manages feats that haven’t been duplicated by any other player of the last 20 years?

Does it seem at this point like the Knicks’ primary objective with every first round pick is maximum confusion among the fan base, more so than solid roster construction?

Despite all of the professional contrarians and agitators that feature prominently in today’s sports media, is the “Jimmer Fredette will be a total bust” bandwagon (yep, that’s me at the wheel) still a pretty lonely place?

In a draft in which quality rotation guys are expected to be at a major premium, is it baffling that 17 players were deemed more desirable than Chris Singleton, an athletic, NBA-ready (6’9”; 230) defender?

Given the scrutiny and day-to-day reexamination of his value that he’s subjected to, should Russell Westbrook take a page from Ron Artest’s book and henceforth be known as “Blogosphere?”

Despite his shooting just 42.2% and averaging 3 assists per game as a freshman at Texas, is the fact that the San Antonio Spurs deemed Cory Joseph worthy of a first-round pick all we need to know about him?

Must the sight of Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Mark Cuban rubbing up against the Larry O’Brien Trophy resulted in Steve Nash a) binge drinking, b) vomiting, or c) both?

(Maybe just Laker fans on this one) Does it feel eerily like whatever the Lakers choose to do with Andrew Bynum- whether it be trading his $15M expiring deal or making him the franchise’s cornerstone for the future- will be wrong?

Is it a hell of a lot more fun to ignore the albatross contract and re-embrace “Fun Gil?”

Is Isaiah Thomas (#60 to the Sacramento Kings) a pretty solid bet to be the best last pick in the history of the NBA draft?

Have you unequivocally won Draft Night when this is your back story and you’re drafted in the first round while at Chuck E. Cheese with your little brother?

In light of David West opting out of his contract, is the next year and a half for the New Orleans Hornets too depressing to even contemplate?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Silence Broken- Introspection, Change and the New Laker Fandom


Roughly seven weeks have passed since the Dallas Mavericks, powered by a three-point barrage the likes of which the NBA postseason has never seen, brought the Los Angeles Lakers 2011 playoff run to an ignominious end. Approximately the same amount of time has elapsed (three days more, actually) since my well-timed arrival aboardthe Dirk Nowitzki bandwagon. Due to a variety of personal and professional commitments, not to mention a mental backdrop that might one day serve as the set of a “Hoarders” episode- I have been absent from the Association’s realm of the written word.
In life as in sport, nothing is more tragic than the betrayal of one’s passion. It’s possible for one’s shortcomings to stem from the undertaking of a task that based on talent or “ceiling,” is simply a bridge too far. However, more often than not, people do not exert themselves to the point at which they are exploring the limits of their abilities, at which any unfinished task is truly insurmountable. Rather than explore the limits of the abilities about which he is most passionate, it is often the interested party that fails his own ability.
No one among us is totally devoid of talent. Some are gifted in multitudinous ways, while the savant-like are almost supernaturally gifted in a specific area, often to the detriment of other, more practical aspects of life. The talents of some are immediately evident and irrepressible, while those of others must be unearthed and coaxed out, sometimes against the subconscious will of the individual himself.
Whatever the case, why then, even after having discovered an aptitude and a passion (there’s that word again) for a given endeavor do people take these things for granted and refuse, almost with disdain, to explore their outermost boundaries? Is it a crippling fear of failure? Perhaps it’s our old clich├ęd friend, the fear of success. Having given the matter considerable thought, I feel it’s reasonable to assume that the “betrayal of passion” stems not from a fear of any specific outcome (success or failure), but from the transformation of one’s passion, from a gift, begging to be unlocked, explored and shared, to a weighty burden. It’s been said that at their best, talent and passion are not things to be possessed, but rather phenomena that possess those whom they deem worthy.
Far too often, however, rather than immersing ourselves in those pursuits for which our minds and/or bodies were seemingly created, we transform these gems with which we’ve been entrusted into burdens, crosses to bear. Rather than draw strength from past successes and enjoy each new journey, we run.
Boy, that escalated quickly!
Now that you’ve cleaned the blood and guts from your browser, let’s take to the hardwood. One could make the case that since the emergence of the sports blogosphere as a viable outlet for quality writing, no writer, regardless of sport or season, has gone radio silent at a more inopportune time. And one would probably be right. In the weeks since I tossed my hat into the ring at the Dirkus Circus, the ranks of an NBA postseason for the ages shrank- from eight, to four, to two- until a lone champion, led by the aforementioned German, remained. One legend publicly aired some grievances, while another sought out Stage Left. Dynasty-In-A-Box worked beautifully, until it didn’t, while another, with actual jewelry to its name, seemingly drew to a close…
A lot of time and energy is expended worrying about, and trying to prepare for unforeseen, cataclysmic events. Sometimes, however, while we are attempting to identify the black swans of tomorrow, we neglect to notice constants that we’ve long taken for granted ceasing to function as they always have. This is a far scarier scenario.
For more than a decade (minus a brief hiatus)- fans (myself among them) and the media have clung dogmatically to the notion that the Lakers could take little more than a mild interest in much of the regular season before “flipping the switch” when the stakes were sufficiently heightened. That the 2010-11 incarnation proved not as deep as initially thought, was deeply flawed in more areas than championship teams of years past and at times appeared totally disinterested in the task at hand was irrelevant. These were battle-tested champions. Genius savants. Whatever. Either way, these guys knew what they were doing.
I watched the Lakers’ Game 3 loss in Dallas before embarking on a nine-day trip abroad. In addition to the stomach punch that accompanies watching one’s team run up an insurmountable deficit less than three hours before having to be at the airport for an early-morning, six-hour flight, in light of the Mavs’ backbreaking 32-20 victory in the most important fourth quarter of the Lakers’ season- on the heels of the team’s inability to preserve a 16-point second half lead at home in the series opener- I left the country in the throes of a painful realization. The sun was setting. This time around, the cavalry would not be thundering over the horizon to restore order in Lakerland.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Dirk Nowitzki- Prime, Interrupted

Dirk Nowitzki is an exquisite basketball player. He’s drawn comparisons to both the greatest shooters and the most versatile big men in history, but in reality Dirk is a one-off prototype. A seven-footer that’s not only comfortable putting up a one-legged 24-foot fadeaway, in his hands that shot is a legitimate weapon. He can also get out on the break and is as good as any player ever at his size at putting the ball on the floor.

I should probably admit that the creation of this article was fueled by a somewhat selfish need to make amends. Not only have I never taken the time to write an article whose sole purpose is to sing the praises of Dirk Nowitzki, the first thought that comes to mind on the subject of writing about Dirk is my evisceration of the man following the Mavericks’ 2007 first round loss at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. In the aftermath of that defeat, which arrived on the heels of a devastating collapse in the 2006 Finals, I referred to the Mavs as “damaged goods,” boldly proclaimed that Dirk would never be a “true superstar” and (I swear this made more sense at the time! C’mon, you remember!) described the gap between Dirk and Mehmet Okur as negligible
.

While he was already the best player in franchise history and a likely Hall of Famer on May 15, 2007, when he accepted his trophy at the second-most awkward MVP ceremony of my lifetime- I still give a slight nod to David Robinson accepting the award mere minutes before being smeared on the bottom of Hakeem Olajuwon’s shoe- there seemed to be a cloud of inevitable disappointment hanging over Dirk. That he was an absolute nightmare matchup and perhaps the most offensively versatile seven-footer of all time was undeniable, but equally undeniable was the perception that fate was conspiring against him, and that history was more likely to group him with the likes of Alex English than with Karl Malone and Larry Bird.

Now, to be fair, I’ve not dogmatically maintained that same position for the past four years. Dirk’s evolved since those back-to-back debacles, and my assessment of his career has done the same- and we’ve come a long way. Dirk, whose legacy I (and I was not alone) massacred and left for dead in May 2007, has managed to navigate the minefield of 2006-07, while maintaining a level of statistical excellence that’s allowed him to mount an assault on the upper echelon of the NBA record books:

- His 22,792 points are good for 28th all-time (ABA/NBA combined) and fourth among active players (he trails Shaq and Kobe by ~5,000 and is 529 behind Kevin Garnett). With another three 78-game (his career average) seasons averaging 22 points per game (21.8 is his worst over the last 11 years), he’d be the ninth-most prolific scorer in history.

- According to Basketball Reference, he’s posted a PER of at least 22.5 in each of the last 11 seasons, including four seasons of 25+ (that matches the career totals of Magic and Bird, and tops those of Kobe Bryant, Moses Malone and Elgin Baylor).

- His career PER of 23.7 ranks 15th on the NBA’s all-time list, and is good for sixth among active players. Immediately behind him on the all-time list? Hakeem Olajuwon, Julius Erving, Kobe Bryant, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett and Oscar Robertson.

- Only 11 times in NBA history has a player shot at least 50% from the field, 40% from 3 and 90% from the free throw line. Four of those seasons belong to Steve Nash, two to Larry Bird and one each to Dirk, Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Jose Calderon and Steve Kerr. Of the 11, only three came in a season in which the player posted a PER of 24 or better- both of Bird’s (27.8 in 1987-88, and 26.4 in 1986-87), with Dirk’s 27.6 in 2006-07 in between.

- Over his first 13 NBA seasons, Dirk has made 47.6% of his field goals attempts, 38.1% of his 3s and 87.7% of his free throws. Five other players 
in history- Nash, Price, Miller, Calderon and Jeff Hornacek- can make the same claim. Not only is frontcourt representation missing from this crew, not one of Dirk’s fellow sharpshooters has a career rebounding average that’s within five of his career mark of 8.4 per game.

- Wondering about other guys with 
at least 22,000 points and 8,000 rebounds? That a solid lot too.

Although Dirk is 32 years of age and wrapping up his 13th NBA season, his exceptional conditioning and easy-on-the-knees style suggest he’ll tack on quite a few miles to his odometer before calling it a career. As genuinely great as he’s been, and for all accolades he’s received, it seems as though he’s still under-recognized for having a resume as impressive as that of all but a select few in history. When Dirk Nowitzki retires, he will likely do so as one of the 15 or 20 greatest players in NBA history.

As great as he’s been by the numbers- and those are some pretty sweet stats- what’s striking about Dirk’s game is how, four years after the heartbreaks of 2006 and 2007, it’s simultaneously undergone significant change, while remaining nearly identical. In terms of simple visuals, little has changed with the experience of watching him play. If, for all these years, Dirk had been forced to play in a shower cap (the hair would be a tipoff), it’d be tough to pinpoint the period in his career from which a given highlight originated. This isn’t Michael or Kobe becoming more ground-bound as they entered their 30s, or Magic quietly becoming more postup threat than king of the fast break, or Patrick Ewing becoming almost exclusively a perimeter threat in the second half of his career.

And statistically, while he’s receded from his peak production of 2006, Dirk is every bit the player he’s been throughout his career. While his rebounding average has dropped from its peak (it’s worth noting that while his rebound rates are down as well, they still compare favorably to his career averages), he’s shot the ball more effectively across the board, and based on his Usage Rates, has actually managed to assume an even larger role in the Mavs’ offense.




Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Wait Is Over For The Miami Heat

This is what we have all been craving since July. Even before the Celtics’ blowout-turned-nailbiter on opening night, this is what we wanted. The Miami Heat are finally about to play some meaningful ball.

Make no mistake. Despite finishing the season at a less-than-overwhelming 41-41, Doug Collins’ crew deserved to be here. In light of an atrocious start to the season, the seventh seed in the East, along with a playoff win is probably more than Collins would have dared hope for on Thanksgiving. After posting a 3-13 record through 16 games, the Sixers proceeded to win 38 of their final 62 to earn their way into the postseason.

With that said, and with all due respect to the 76ers, after a summer and regular season in which the Heat have had to overcome scrutiny and schadenfreude on a scale seldom, if ever, seen before in the NBA, no first round opponent would have felt like anything more than mini crab cake at a mildly-non-unpleasant after-work office cocktail party (I’m ditching LeBron’s breakfast analogy- I’ve had some hard-to-finish breakfasts). The closest Miami could have come to a prime time Round 1 matchup would have the New York Knicks. Even if they’d drawn the Knicks, it’s unlikely the resulting series would have been much more competitive than either of the ones in which the teams actually partook. However, with the added star power on the floor, along with a dozen year-old rivalry spawned by the franchises’ shared disdain for aesthetically pleasing basketball in 1990s, the series, short-lived though it may have been, would have at least felt relevant.

All season long, the Heat have been targeted by not only their on-court opposition, but by a legions of hoops-loving armchair shrinks- not pointing fingers, I did it too. And all season long, those same people- enraged by a) the unfairness of two of the league’s five best players (and three of the ~top-25) colluding (no proof that this actually happened, but it did seem to have been in place for a while) to join forces and b) the Superfriends’ victory celebration the night after “The Decision,” as premature a “happy ending” as one could bestow upon oneself- spent countless hours posing questions and constructing narratives, all aimed at building the same case- why the Miami Heat cannot triumph in June. (Note: I didn't do this part)

However, despite the occasional bout with regular season inconsistency and a less-than-dominant disposal of the spirited, but overmatched Sixers, barring injury- in Wade’s case, further injury- none of this matters anymore. They boast a top two that’s better than any other in basketball, one that is poised to attack the paint with vengeance. That duo, along with Bosh, and frankly not a whole lot else, carried this team to 57 regular season wins (including 28 on the road, tied for tops in the league with the Mavericks) and the distinction of being the only 2010-11 NBA squad ranked in the top-ten in efficiency at both ends of the floor.

Now, with the nuisance of the initial 82 behind them, and with Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams in the rearview, it’s finally time for the Heat to get down to business. At 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, in front of about 4,700 (give or take) “white hot” fans at the American Airlines Arena, the Heat and the Boston Celtics will fire the opening salvos in the most compelling matchup in what could be the most compelling conference semifinal round in NBA history. The storylines abound- the Eastern Conference's proud, old guard, and the team that has flummoxed LeBron James on multiple occasions in the postseason, and the team that eliminated him and Wade in consecutive rounds of last spring's playoffs, squaring off against the Association's "test tube superpower," one formed

A quick side note on Miami’s supporting cast: For all that’s been made of the lack of depth and talent on the Heat bench, through one postseason series, it has outperformed its opposite number from Boston. Whatever your thoughts on +/- statistics, these numbers, passed along by Danny Martinez (@DannyMartinez4 on Twitter) of HotHotHoops.com, an excellent Heat blog, will likely surprise you. In Miami’s opening round series (5 games), Joel Anthony recorded a fantastic +72, while Mario Chalmers and James Jones posted +57 and +28, respectively. The trio hardly set the world on fire from the field against Philly, making just 30 of 75 shots (40%), but shot a comparable 18-for-46 (39%) from beyond the arc.

I decided to then take a look at the guys off of the Celtics’ bench that received the most floor time in Round 1 (I'll take Shaq into accoutn when I actually see him in uniform). In four games against the defenseless Knicks, Delonte West (+/- of -23), Nenad Krstic (-4), Jeff Green (-19) and Big Baby (-9) combined to hit just 25 of their 65 field goal attempts (38%), including just one of 11 3-pointers.

So, that's maybe something to think about. Anyway, moving on...

As for concerns about the Heat's collective reaction to "postseason intensity" and playing in a hostile climate (this is always a fun one to speculate about), consider that a) neither LeBron nor Wade is a stranger to either the NBA postseason, or the spotlight in general and b) these guys have basically been playing road playoff games since October. If anything, the Heat are probably better prepared for hostile surroundings and increased scrutiny than any team other than the Lakers. Throw in a tighter playoff rotation, with fewer minutes for subpar bench guys, along with a steady stream of potentially the deadliest play in basketball, the Wade-LeBron pick-and-roll (which was far more prevalent in the regular season’s final weeks), and there’s suddenly plenty of cause for optimism in South Florida.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Forget The Ankle And Enjoy Some Vintage Kobe

Whatever your reason for tuning in- escapist entertainment, civic pride, gambling interests, whatever- the greatest moments in the sports-viewing life of any fan are those that unfold when the spectacular and the unexpected converge. Last night in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant, author of countless such moments, made his latest deposit into our memory bank.

Having relied less on athleticism this season than in any of the previous 14, and playing on a left ankle that he'd sprained exactly six weeks prior in Dallas and rolled again in the Lakers' Game 4 loss in New Orleans, Kobe was not expected to conjure up images of a mini-fro and a #8 jersey on Tuesday night. It's a good thing no one bothered to inform Kobe.

With a little under four minutes remaining in the first half and the Lakers trailing 44-40, the ball went inside to Pau Gasol. After a couple of dribbles, he was double-teamed by Trevor Ariza, who left Kobe at the top of the 3-point arc to do so. Pau quickly kicked the ball out to Kobe, with Ariza stuck in defensive No Man's Land. After catching the pass, Kobe blew past a trying-to-recover Ariza and attacked the paint with a fury. Elevating from just inside the dotted line, Kobe ignored the presence of Hornets' big man Emeka Okafor and simply took flight. Despite the best efforts of Okafor, a very good shot-blocker and interior defender, Kobe reared back and delivered a more-than-welcome dose of 2006, throwing down a vicious right-handed tomahawk dunk.

In case you missed it, here's a clip of Kobe's destruction of Okafor:



And lest you think Kobe emptied the tank elevating over Okafor, early in the second half he treated fans at the other end of Staples Center to closeup of Vintage Kobe, again beating Ariza off the dribble, this time to emphatically throw down a lefty jam over Carl Landry.



Regardless of physical state, we've not been seeing a whole lot of Kobe Bryant taking to the skies of late- hell, some idiot even wrote close to 1500 words on the beginning of the Mamba's twilight- so whatever your take on the severity of his injury, Tuesday night's performance delivered to us two jolts that are only available at the greatest address in sports- the intersection of Spectacular and Unexpected.

As an added bonus, via Lakers.com, a frame-by-frame look at Kobe's posterization of Emeka Okafor.

Friday, April 22, 2011

On Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Long Goodbyes

I find it extremely difficult to write about the Lakers, particularly Kobe Bryant. I realize this sounds disingenuous coming from a lifelong, diehard fan that's seldom short on opinion, but it’s true. It’s not for a lack of experience with, or knowledge of, the franchise and its history, or a shortage of opinions on the state of the team, but rather a personal policy of trying to steer clear of a) unabashed homerism and b) the all-too-common “my relationship with my team is personal, and you wouldn’t understand” shtick that seldom wins people over.

With all of that said, I recently came to a realization that warrants further exploration. Plus, it’s time I get the fuck over myself.

In the aftermath of the Lakers’ playoff-opening loss on Sunday, a game perhaps best known for Chris Paul exerting a control over time and space not seen since the days of Magic, Michael and Larry, I lost my shit. I managed to keep from coming totally unhinged publicly, though not before hopping onto Twitter to stick a fork in the latest era of the most successful and dynastic franchise of the past three decades, and the first sports team I ever loved. In the hours and days following my mini-meltdown, I concluded that a) knee-jerk, angry tweeting may get me into trouble one day, b) CP’s evisceration of the Lakers was more emblematic of his greatness than of fatal flaw in Kobe & Co. (though it’s worth noting that I have NO recollection of the Lakers ever having the ability to guard smaller, quick point guards- especially one with Paul’s transcendent skill set) and c) whether or not Game 1 itself had an “end of an era vibe” to it, this has subtly been the overarching theme of the 2010-11 Lakers’ season.

Phil Jackson, who joined the Lakers prior to the 1999-2000 season and has won five of the last 11 NBA titles with the franchise, has no more than 26 games left on the Lakers’ sideline. Only three players remain from the 1999-2000 title team- the first of the post-Magic era- and one of them (Brian Shaw) is now an assistant coach. Derek Fisher, one of just two guys to collect all five rings from the current Laker dynasty as a player, is also still very much in the picture. Never an offensive juggernaut, Fisher, now 36 years old and clearly on his last NBA legs, remains the emotional anchor of this team and beloved figure across Laker Nation, though his on-court effectiveness is now almost entirely dependent on experience and guile.

Which brings us to the subject of one, Kobe Bean Bryant. Like Fisher, Kobe’s in his 15th NBA season, and boasts an identical five-ring collection. Over the past decade and a half, he’s taken Laker fans on an incredible journey, running the gamut of emotions
.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

20 Questions From The Association - Best. Weekend. EVER.*

Is it just me, or…

Is having the phenomenal weekend of playoff ball we just saw be followed immediately by Tax Deadline Day equivalent to waking up from a weekend of the greatest sex ever, to chlamydia?

Based on Chris Paul’s Game 1 performance against the Lakers- which, ignoring stakes (Finals, elimination game, etc) compares favorably with anything we’ve ever seen from Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan- should we retire the “value to his team” argument from all future MVP discussions?

After the way he closed out the Bulls’ two playoff opening scares (22 points on 60%+ FG in the 4th quarters) against the Pacers- complete with defense and passing in Game 1- averaging 37.5- 7- 6 and making 31 of 34 free throws along the way, does the “Derrick Rose is not the MVP and the stats say so” argument seem a bit less relevant?

Was Boston’s alley-oop to Kevin Garnett with 37 second remaining the epitome of a “chess vs. checkers” coaching moment?

For all the talk of how Pau Gasol disappeared in the Lakers’ Game 1 loss, should the team be thrilled with, and encouraged by, the effective, efficient performance (16 points on 4-8 FG, 2-3 3s and 6-6 FT, 11 rebounds and a team-best +/- of +3) turned in by Ron Artest?

Between hitting the decisive 3-pointer in a road playoff game against a top-seeded opponent and later welcoming a new baby girl into the world, did Shane Battier have the greatest day of his life on Sunday?

With Manu Ginobili in street clothes, are the Spurs the eighth scariest team in the Western Conference?

As well as the Pacers played on Saturday afternoon, are they going to need more than one player (Roy Hibbert with 8) to outrebound Derrick Rose (6) if they’re ever going to get that close to stealing a game again?

On the heels of Amar’e Stoudemire hitting six straight shots in six minutes and 
emasculating the Celtics’ front line, might Mike D’Antoni want to instruct his players to look for the team’s best player in the final three minutes of a nailbiter?

Is it staggering to think that the only double-digit Game 1 winner, the Atlanta Hawks, managed the feat while grabbing just one more offensive rebound as a team (5) than Jameer Nelson did by himself?

For all the abuse he endures when things are not going well, is Chris Bosh (23 points, 11.5 rebounds, 56.7% FG, 2 turnovers total) owed a little bit of love for being the Heat’s best performer to open the postseason?

Is Chauncey Billups’ early exit not exactly the worst thing that could have happened to the Knicks’ postseason run?

Did Dwight Howard’s eight turnovers and lone blocked shot (spectacular as it was) against the Hawks remove a lot of the luster from what should have been an epic 46 (16-23 FG, 14-22 FT) and 19 (13 offensive rebounds!)?

As the Spurs-Grizzlies series progresses, will we increasingly Mike Conley “out-Tony Parkering” Tony Parker?

Should the Denver Nuggets have more confidence than ever, since it took them shooting 25% from beyond the arc, J.R. Smith and Ty Lawson combining for just 19 points, 72 points from Durant and Westbrook and an embarrassing no-call on a blatant offensive basket interference for the Thunder to top them by a whopping four points?

Is it beyond inexcusable for Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, Quentin Richardson, Brandon Bass and Ryan Anderson- who were paid ~$60 million in 2010-11- to combine for 20 points in 157 minutes on the floor?

Could you have won a lot of money this summer betting that Mike Miller would suit up in the Heat’s first two playoff games, but play just six minutes and be outscored by Juwan Howard (3-0)?

Whether you hate KG or really hate KG, was his intentional trip, err, screen, of Toney Douglas- masterfully executed?

Should the Mavs be less than thrilled that it took 24 points (6-10 on 3s) from a guy that is now the offensive equivalent of Derek Fisher and a combined 12 points, on 6-of-23 from the field, from Gerald Wallace, Brandon Roy and Wesley Matthews to secure an eight-point win in their home playoff opener?

Are
irrational, knee-jerk reactions the best part of playoff Game 1’s?


* Assumes the Lakers' playoff-opening loss was an anomaly.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hardwood Hype's Twitter-Friendly Round 1 Predictions

It’s showtime.

With the most intriguing regular season of the post-Jordan era behind us, the playoffs are upon us. The NBA postseason tips off at 1:00 Saturday afternoon, with the Indiana Pacers’ stepping into the gallows of Chicago’s United Center, against the presumptive league MVP and the top-seeded Bulls. Not only does the arrival of the 2011 postseason (mercifully) drop the curtain on a fascinating and contentious (but at the same time tired and increasingly redundant) MVP debate, the arrival of the Association’s spring tournament- which, top to bottom, promises to be as compelling as any we’ve seen in several years- brings to the forefront the season’s overarching storylines.

Regrettably, due to the unfortunate timing of a number of professional and academic responsibilities, I’ve been unable to do the desired amount of prep work in order to produce an exhaustive playoff preview. However, that’s not to say that I’m short on opinions. In the interest of going on the record, wanted to toss out these Twitter-friendly (more or less) predictions for each of the eight first-round playoff series:

Bulls- Pacers- Upset alert! Nope, not picking the Pacers to advance, but they will avert a sweep. Indy's got the horses to pull out one home win. Bulls in 5.

Heat-76ers- Miami's been waiting for this. Look for them to dominate early and often. Even with Lou Williams & Elton Brand healthy, this probably wouldn't go past 5 games. Heat in 4.

Celtics-Knicks- Not crazy about the Knicks, but even less enthralled with the C's. Look for NY to hold court at MSG after stealing one in Boston. Knicks in 6.

Magic-Hawks- Thank goodness for counter-programming! No interest in this one. Orlando’s DEEPLY flawed, but the Hawks can always be counted on to not show up. Magic in 5.


Spurs-Grizzlies- Yep, I did it! Manu is dinged & Duncan has slipped at both ends. As good as Parker is, that leaves no one for Memphis' D to fear. Grizzlies in 6.

Lakers-Hornets- Out of respect for CP3, I'd like to predict anything but a sweep, but the Hornets couldn't beat L.A. in 4 tries with David West. Lakers in 4.

Mavericks-Trailblazers- If you believe (as I do) that Dirk & LaMarcus will cancel each other out, Portland's size & athleticism win in a landslide. Dallas will regret not trading Caron Butler. Blazers in 6.

Thunder-Nuggets- Can't wait for this one. Love this Nuggets team, and they've got a shot, but it's tough to overcome the series' two best players being on the other team. Thunder in 6.


I imagine a few of you may have some thoughts on either these predictions, or my takes on the individual teams above. Love my gutsy calls! Praise me in the comments! Think I come from a gene pool shallower than a puddle? Let me have it! Finally, if your sensibilities have been offended to the point that you'll never again visit this hallowed slice of digital real estate, a couple of parting gifts: Hardwood Paroxysm's Rob Mahoney comes to the rescue, with an epic NBA playoff preview video.

It's winnin' time! Enjoy everyone!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Blake Griffin- There's Only One First Time

There can only be one first time.

For the entire 2010-11 regular season, Blake Griffin has been a fixture in both my live television viewing schedule, as well as on my DVR. Of the 81 meaningful games he’s played thus far in his career, I’ve tuned in for roughly 70, almost every time with a childlike enthusiasm that I’d have sworn had been jaded out of me.

The last NBA newcomer to have this profound an effect on me was young Kobe, who in the late 1990s- before he began collecting jewelry and cementing his place in the NBA’s pantheon- achieved a similar must-see status, though few people outside of Southern California has the pleasure of following his exploits on a nightly basis. Given the singularity of his talent, the electricity with which he deployed it, and the fact that I’d certainly be quite a bit older the next time I saw his athletic peer, I wondered if I’d ever watch another player from such a youthful perspective, with such visceral excitement.

In the intervening years, thanks to the likes of (among others) LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, the NBA has seen an influx of young superstars rivaling that of any decade in league history. While rookie year Chris Paul was very close for me personally, I don’t remember any of these transcendent talents capturing the collective imagination of the NBA fan base the way that Blake Griffin did in 2010-11.


From arguably the
greatest 90-second opening to a career, on October 27 against Portland, to his public baptism of Timofey Mozgov (True story: I’ve been to Vegas 50+ times in my life, and have never seen so many people in a sports book so jacked up for something in which they had no financial interest) three weeks later, to a highlight-laden 30-12.5 and 61.5% FG in December victories over the then-15-2 Spurs (at home) and the Bulls (in Chicago), to a combative 24-14 in a home win over the Heat, to 47 (on just 24 shots) and 14 rebounds against the Pacers on MLK Day, Blake strung together as spectacular a three-month stretch as you’re ever going to see. He established himself as not only the most electrifying player in the league, but in a world equipped with a seemingly endless catalog of entertainment options, he turned the Clippers- the lowly, comically inept, racist slumlord-owned, possibly cursed Clippers- into appointment viewing, made Ralph Lawler a household name across NBA Nation and nearly melted in the internet in the process.

It felt fleeting even as it was happening. During that 10-12-week stretch, it wasn’t enough to simply marvel at his jaw-dropping highlights and fantastic stat lines the morning after- there seemed to be intrinsic value in witnessing the shock waves in real time. For hardcore NBA fans with both League Pass and Twitter, as much as any television event of the past year, the first ~55 games of the Blake Griffin era epitomized the communal experience. From Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day, Griffin owned more of Twitter than Kleiner Perkins and Union Square Ventures combined.

In a sense, Blake walked into the perfect storm for universal adulation. A personable young guy that lost the entirety of what would have been his rookie season to a broken kneecap, and entered the season with lowered expectations. Then, once he hit the league, he did so like a force of nature, a hybrid of LeBron James and Dwight Howard, only one that we could enjoy with a certain innocence, free from post-Decision backlash or an unshakable, increasingly mind-numbing MVP debate. Thanks to a blatant disregard for his physical well-being, Griffin immediately established himself as one of the NBA's most physically dominant players, and ran circles around both this season's rookie class and the sophomore class with whom he was drafted. Finally, since all of this took place on a team that never made the smallest pretense of contending for a postseason berth, his success posed no real threat to the aspirations of anyone else's favorite team. Our initial demands of him were extremely low, and he was giving us more than we'd ever dream of asking for
.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Hall of Fame Case for Bernard King

In the aftermath of Monday afternoon's announcement of the Basketball Hall of Fame's 2011 class- during which we learned that Chris Mullin, Dennis Rodman and (finally!) Artis Gilmore, among others, would be enshrined in Springfield- once I'd telepathically conveyed congratulations to the dozen honorees, my thoughts shifted to the subject of players not in the Hall.

Unless you count the curious decision not to even include Reggie Miller (25,279 points, five All-Star selections) among the candidates up for consideration, there wasn't a particularly egregious snub among 2011's first-year hopefuls. I began rummaging through childhood memories and historical numbers, in search of transcendent performers and statistical standouts that have thus far been deemed unworthy. Soon after, on Twitter, the digital barbershop at which the individuals behind the NBA blogosphere congregate daily, the conversation turned to one of the the most mythologized players of his era, Bernard King.

As is often the case when discussing King's career, sentiment was on his side, but quickly gave way to pragmatism. It's almost unanimously agreed upon that a) at his peak King played Hall of Fame-quality ball, but that b) he was robbed of too much floor time (he essentially missed four full seasons) by knee injuries to be a top-tier candidate. I loved King as a player and have rooted for him as a Hall of Fame candidate for as long as he's been eligible. However, without looking closely at the numbers from his entire career, I'd lazily accepted the conventional wisdom about his career to be true. Yesterday, after yet another "yeah, but..." assessment of his legacy, it became clear that as a fan and an amateur NBA historian, a closer look at the matter was needed.

Upon closer inspection, I'm pleased to report that a) not only is Bernard King deserving of enshrinement, b) he's kind of a no-brainer and c) the notion that he was healthy for no more than a few seasons is something of a misnomer. Let's deal with this last point first. King's career spanned 16 years, during which he played 12 seasons- ACL injuries cost him two full seasons and limited him to just six games in 1986-87. Sure he was prone to injury- and serious injury at that- but his is as much a story of perseverance as it is fragility and susceptibility to injury. With his explosiveness no longer at an elite level, the Knicks released him at the end of the 1986-87 season. In the face of this adversity, he recovered and authored an excellent four-year comeback with the Washington Bullets, during which he improved his scoring average each year he was with the team (17.2 in 1987-88, to 20.7, 22.4 and 28.4 in 1990-91) and earned the fourth All-Star selection of his career 1990-91.

The fact is that he was actually on the floor a lot more than he was off of it. In the 12 NBA seasons in which he played, dude took the floor in 64+ games ten times, and had seven seasons in which he suited up for at least 77 games. His career total of 874 games played trump the tallies of no-brainer Hall of Famers like Sam Jones (871), Bob McAdoo (852), Elgin Baylor (846), Jerry Lucas (829) and Walt Frazier (825).