Dancing With Noah

Just messing around, getting triple doubles

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Three Year Anniversary: the State of Dancing with Noah

It was three years ago on this date that Dancing with Noah (DWN) snuck in through the backdoor of the basketball blogging world while everyone else was asleep — or just doing their own thing. Three years ago I wrote this about the Spurs vs. Grizzlies opening round series – sounding a death knoll for the Spurs that was never heard, and probably only somewhat read.

Now in 2014, the Spurs are still winning 60+ games, still struggling in the first round, and I’m still writing about basketball without any end game in mind. The circularity of it is a coincidence and probably not some sort of narrative completion. If there was any narrative arc to this blog it’d be punctuated by typical human highs and human lows, but there aren’t any discernible mile markers that stand out. My life has changed since 2011, the game has slightly changed, but as it pertains to this blog, the posts keep spinning in slow motion like Curly Neal spinning a ball on his finger at the bottom of the ocean.

In case you didn’t know, in addition to DWN, I write regularly at The Diss, occasionally at Hickory-High, and a couple times at Hoop76. Over the past three years, my engagement with the basketball blog world has created both feelings of great accomplishment and powerful self-doubt and frustration. One hopes and assumes they’re not alone in these feelings, but at times, it certainly seems that we are alone – or perhaps that’s just the mind playing its little assumptive tricks. It was around this time last year when I was ready to throw in the blogging towel and leave an untethered DWN out there as one more dusty archive in an infinite internet library of stories. My frustrations at my own motivations (retweets, page views, appearances on the 10-Man Rotation or Court Vision – really) rose to self-defeating levels and I took a blogging sabbatical (yeah right) this past summer before the inevitability of a desire to write and communicate resurfaced.

So I made the decision to return without any real clues about my purpose or goals. The fall and winter, DWN struggled to find a place in my routine or any consistency. Halfway pieces and ideas made their way into the ether … biographical sketches acted as an exploratory outlet while The Diss’s weekly Diss Guy Miss Guy feature offered a structured routine and format I didn’t realize I’d been missing.

Curiously, in the three years I’ve been writing DWN, there had never been any cadence to posting. I posted what I wanted when I wanted. Probably partially out of laziness, partially out of intent, but whatever the purpose, it led to a floating of sorts. Floating ideas, floating motivations, passing work. Writing DGMG for The Diss has only helped DWN in the sense that I’m better able to structure a weekly feature, Sunday to Monday Thoughts on Basketball, while also tapping into a format friendly to my strengths and which I enjoy writing. At this point, I can’t help but shrug my shoulders at the stubborn resistance to routine, but I know enough to know we learn what we learn when we learn it and not before.

As I thought about the direction of this one-man parade, this somewhat solitary endeavor that is DWN, I was compelled to explore the state of this blog – as much for myself as for my occasional and sporadic readers. While more people have read and commented in the past, I’m at a more sustainable place with DWN today, and as a writer, than I was 12-18 months ago. I absolutely still get frustrated as a writer. It’s a demoralizing feeling to push through a piece in which you take pride and then get no response meanwhile a flippant tweet you offhandedly posted gets a round of applause. But where this frustration acted as a law officer applying a paralyzing taser to my ego a year ago, today it’s merely a detour.

For DWN, concepts of goals and purpose are asides that may make it into the footnotes, but only at the subservience to the exploratory nature of basketball history and prose, goofy stats and personal essays. It’s fitting I suppose because while we likely do play to win the game, it’s never been a premise of this blog. The path of the game, of a writer is constantly moving – oftentimes in unknown directions (but meet me there, by all means). So three years in, we’re still here, still writing, still grinding, still (occasionally) hating (Dwight, Hibbert, etc), still learning, and uncovering half-truths, but definitely here.

NBA Biographical Sketch #5: Dan Majerle

Dan Majerle was a 6’6” shooting guard with model good looks, a square jaw, a full head of brown hair, and a tan of Hasselhoffian proportions. “Thunder Dan” as he was known bombed threes before it became en vogue. In that sense, one could say he was ahead of his time. Sandwiched between a career spent in sunny Phoenix and on the sandy beaches of Miami was an out of context year in Cleveland which signaled the onset of his deterioration in which he possibly could’ve been referred to as “Cloudy Dan” by someone with a poor sense of humor. Majerle will forever be remembered for his role on the Barkley-led Suns teams and for being an object of the great Michael Jordan’s disdain in the 1993 Finals.

A three-time all-star, Majerle could oddly be considered a beiger, more pleasant version of Arron Afflalo or even a darker, more muscularly violent (in play only) version of Brent Barry.

In the commercial below, “Thunder Dan” can be heard asking for a stat that quantifies hustle (again, ahead of his time). While this may have been one of his calling cards, it’s not one with which I’m deeply familiar. If someone was bored, they could easily sub in Shane Battier footage with Majerle’s commentary.

Late Nights with Steph

Don’t get it twisted, this isn’t my foray into a new genre of basketball erotica and I am wearing (sweat) pants while I write this. It’s about me accepting the aesthetic of Stephen Curry’s game: a sweet, sensual convergence of college fundamentals with the boldness of Marvin Gaye on his classic I Want You.

I live on the west coast, so I get the great pleasure of watching west coast teams play at a reasonable time—at least reasonable based on my 32-year-old/married standards. The straight up west coast options we have: Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Blazers, Suns and Warriors. The Lakers are a comedy of errors, a team without a collective identity even though they have players with well-defined identities. The Kings have really disappointed; particularly because of their decision not to re-sign Terrence Williams. I don’t care for the Blazers, but I do like some Nicolas Batum and Young Mr. Damian Lillard is pure joy—regardless of how you feel about point guards. The Suns are another laughable comedy routine on a nightly basis. Shannon Brown as your get buckets guy? It takes a rare NBA roster architect to devise that scenario. Then there are the Clippers and the Warriors, a couple of teams that are entertaining for entirely different reasons. The Clippers are potential-in-the-process-of-being-realized and this kind of maturation is so magnetic because we’re eagerly anticipating their ongoing improvement. Once the ceiling is reached, we can get bored because we’re simple people with short spans of attention living in a world full of attention grabbing experts. As a group, the Clippers are more fun than Golden State and yes, Chris Paul is the PG archetype, but there’s nothing human about Paul single-handedly demoralizing and discouraging defenses or Jamal Crawford heat checks or Blake Griffin or even Los Angeles for that matter. But up in Oakland? Oh, up north it doesn’t get much more human than Bogutian tragedy, the erosion of Andris Biedrins’ confidence, Brandon Rush’s torn ACL, David Lee’s around-the-basket intuitiveness (it’s still underrated) or Steph Curry’s nightly flirtations with basketball death, a dreaded Grant Hill career arc.

The crowd in Oakland pleads a great case for watching the Warriors, but Lee’s interior aptitude and the development of Harrison Barnes are entertaining too. The primary reason to watch, the main event … that’s Curry.  There’s a reason he’s still the (baby) face of the Warriors despite missing nearly 25% of his team’s games through his first three seasons (of course, part of that reason is that they were never able to find a trade partner willing to take on those papier-mâché ankles). They’re still going to war every night with Curry as their lead guard because the kid (he’s still just 24) is disruptively good and can get better.

I’m not positive if the NCAA’s and ESPN’s and Dick Vitale’s infatuations with Curry during his Davidson days soured me on him or if I was too distracted following the explosions of Monta Ellis (fiery spectacle one night, snap pops the next), but I only studied Curry from afar for his first few years. His ankle(s—was it both?) turned last season into one long, depressing sputter. And if it was frustrating for fans, imagine how Curry felt riding that physical and emotional roller coaster: special shoes, protective boots, ice bags on ice bags in ice baths, multiple doctors, fear that something’s wrong, that maybe it’s somehow his fault … failure; letting down your teammates, fans, the people who pay you huge checks to be on the court performing. So when he rolled his ankle (again!) in the pre-season, I think there was a part of me that lightly erased Curry from the NBA panorama. He wasn’t a ghost yet, but he was fading.

This is a terribly unfair thing to do, particularly given the steadily impressive performances of Curry’s first two seasons in the league which compare better than favorably with Derrick Rose’s and Russell Westbrook’s:

Advanced stats on top, per game on bottom

Advanced stats on top, per game on bottom

Not too many people put Curry in the same echelon as Rose and Westbrook and there are a couple of obvious reasons why:

  • The Third Season: While Curry spent his third season on crutches, in walking boots and enduring a bombardment of tests on his ankle(s), Westbrook and Rose made a motherfucking leap in theirs. Remember how similar these three guys were through their first two seasons? The third seasons created a massive chasm:
Per game stats

Per game stats

  • Playoff Appearances: Rose was a black NBA version of Rocky Balboa as a rookie when he led the 8th seed Bulls to a memorable seven-game series against the defending champion Boston Celtics in the opening round. Westbrook made a name more violently for his volatility—eruptions of athleticism versus decision making follies and the unique ability to forget Kevin Durant was on his team (and in the damn game!). Where Russell made the playoffs three of four years and has Rose has advanced to the postseason every year, the ill-fated Curry is still awaiting his first appearance.

I didn’t set out to write a story about how Steph Curry does or doesn’t compare favorably to two of the best young point guards in the game, it just organically occurred this way and I’m happy with that. Beyond the inconclusive stats we have above, the Curry I’ve seen this year is a smooth ball handler with great court awareness, passing ability and a hyper fast shot release. His handle is so much better than I realized, but it looks like he’s still figuring out how to fully utilize this skill. You see Rose and Westbrook combine their ball handling with raw speed and quickness: Rose more lateral quickness with the ball in-hand and Westbrook more straight ahead speed. Steph’s handle is so often used on the perimeter to keep defenders at bay instead of attacking with it. If and when he improves that part of his game, he’ll be able to create more space and get to the rim more frequently than he already does which would make him close to indefensible. Of course, the more he penetrates, I feel like the odds of rolling an ankle increase (is that true?).

So while the rest of you east coast and Midwest fans are sleeping away the nights or blowing rails just to stay up for the west coast games, your brothers and sisters on the left are settling in on couches and recliners from San Diego to Blaine with beers and green teas while our spouses and partners and roommates flit in and out, oblivious to our fascinations with a guy named Steph…and even more oblivious the fingers we have discretely crossed under a pillow or blanket, vainly hoping those tender ankles hold up.

Leave the Mess, they should see this

If my head and all the gooey contents inside it happen to spontaneously explode and splatter across the white walls of my apartment or the dual monitors of my cubicle, I ask my friends, family and colleagues to please leave the remnants as a reminder/tribute/warning sign to an accelerated NBA free agency period.

As a Junky, it’s in my genes to shoot up free agent gossip with a great big syringe. The machine’s already been kicked into gear by people who move in the shadows and go by names like “unnamed sources” and apparently Chris Broussard knows a lot of these people. It’s impossible to tell if this will be a good or bad experience for NBA teams. I see two possibilities (although other outcomes are likely):

  1. Good for the teams! Hooray! Instead of signing players in July, general managers get five full months to plan on white boards and balance sheets! How could this be bad? NBA teams typically start negotiating with players on July 1st and following a week-long moratorium, are able to sign players on or around July 8th. From there, the market shakes out LeBron James signing first and the rest of the league following suit. Of course, players and teams have likely been flirting behind the scenes (moving in shadows and shit) so it’s not like July is speed dating for players and teams. That being said, the first ten days of July are when the action goes down. One could infer that teams having an extra few months to consider the vast combinations of players and contracts would be more than a good thing; it’d be a great thing. A big part of the new CBA was helping the owners and management help themselves. The amnesty clause is the poster child of the league, owners and players acknowledging the need for the occasional do over. Of course, not all (likely) amnesty casualties are the result of owners and management making bad decisions, but it provides teams a one-time out and is GMs admitting, “Hey man, sometimes we fuck up too.” While the negotiations haven’t been allowed until now, front offices and coaching staffs had to have been discussing potential free agents …. right?
  2. The second possibility? Well, if front offices have consistently made shitty decisions when they haven’t been under the gun or navigating through a brand new set of contracts and rules, then how well do you expect them to perform under duress? Sure, they may have had a few more months to try and put the puzzle together, but without contact with agents or players, how well could it possibly have gone; especially when you consider no one knew what kind of salary cap structure to expect. I don’t believe that NBA GMs have an easy job. It’s not easy to assess how human beings are going to perform in new surroundings in a new system with new co-workers and a new boss. Shit can and does go wrong; that’s life in my office, your office and theirs. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a huge, stinking bagful of excruciatingly shitty decisions to be made over the next three weeks.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with question marks. We’ve got to rely on guys like Broussard and Danny Ainge to provide us with information we can trust, but we can’t trust them so we’ve got to speculate and that leads to rumors and bad information. We’re already struggling beneath the weight of Dwight Howard and Chris Paul rumors—and they’re not even free agents; but I guess that’s what happens when the top free agents are Nene, David West and Tyson Chandler.

No, my head probably won’t explode, but with a new CBA set to change the way teams do business (supposedly), an amped up free agency period and a shortened season, we’re slap dab in the middle of an NBA transformation and only God (if he’s watching) and Henry Abbott really know what’s going to happen.

Lost between Truth & Madness

Oh, happy day

“In the final analysis, the truth always evolves from the state of total madness.” – C.R. Stecyk III

The quote above wasn’t written with the NBA labor negotiations in mind and I don’t even know if it’s applicable, but I read it the other day and started thinking about any truths that have emerged from the madness of the NBA lockout. We’ve got a lot of facts, but I’m not sure we’ll ever be privy to the truth. The truth I’m most interested in is the non-factual variety like what Stern the man/attorney honestly thought was a fair deal.

We (tentatively) have an NBA season awaiting us and I can’t lie; I was excited when I woke up at 6:30am on Saturday to text messages informing me of the good news. I was excited, despite my ongoing disgust with David Stern’s smugness and the hardline owners’ insistence on publically giving players the shaft.

In 2011 we’re blessed with insights that 1999’s lockout couldn’t deliver: Real-time updates via Twitter or NBA TV. I was able to watch post-negotiation press conferences with sleepy eyed Sterns and Billy Hunters spinning responses to questions from drowsy reporters who I’d been following on Twitter for the previous two hours. So the truth and madness I mention above fall somewhere in these marathon negotiations and the updates and interpretations that accompanied them. With unprecedented access, we heard from unidentified “veteran players” and “owner sources” in real time and because we’re a refresh culture, we consumed it and waited for the next update. Truth was somewhere in there, but with all the unnamed sources and agendas on the table, it was impossible to determine truth from maybe-kinda-true.

I have to concede defeat on finding truth in some things—like if a 36-year-old Michael Jordan would’ve called out the 2011 version of himself the same way he called out Abe Pollin—but now we can get back to rediscovering and reconstructing new truths out of the product the NBA players produce on the court. Before that though, there’s an element of resolution to the process. I’ve never been one to hold a grudge, but during the negotiations, when the owners threatened the “reset offer” of a 53-47 BRI split in their own favor, I was disgusted. I don’t have a background in negotiating for pro sports franchises, I’m not an attorney and I was just starting college when the last lockout was going down. I also don’t have the aforementioned access to the owners’ real motivations so I don’t how real the threat was, but I do know it was public and there were a band of rogue owners who potentially preferred to lose the entire season instead of stopping at gaining a 50-50 BRI (BRI was previously 57-43, players) split which results in three billion dollars in basketball-related income to shift from the player side to the owner side over the 10-year duration of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

The whole operation left more than a shitty taste in my mouth and I had to question whether or not I wanted to support a league with owners hell-bent on driving a bus full of other owners, players, coaches and fans off a cliff into a one-year chasm of basketball purgatory instead of accepting what was already a winning deal. For me, that would primarily mean no NBA League Pass since Clay Bennett and Stern already drove the Sonics out of town and left the city NBA-less until further notice.

But is my bitterness enough to keep me away? Are my pro-labor (I don’t care about the amount of money or perks the players get, they’re still the labor in this case) values strong enough to turn me away from the disgustingness of the past five months? I knew the answer was no all along.

Since the lockout kicked in, I’ve followed the digital circus from the comforts of my laptop: the optimistic press conferences, the crushing letdowns, the gossip, which NBA players are taking their talents overseas, the Jordan (de)evolution, and all the other tidbits that basketball writers and fans have had to search out to fill in for the hole left by the NBA. Because I never blamed Rashard Lewis for taking Orlando’s money, I never held a grudge against the players. Why would I? Because they had a nice deal in 1999? Because they make millions and want to protect some of it? Because owners and the front offices they hire continue to dole big contracts on small-time players? I don’t hold any of that against the players. Could they have negotiated more effectively? I’m guessing, yes. Could they have done more to resolve this earlier? Probably. The players gave and gave and gave and the owners still demanded more.

This isn’t to say the owners are all bad or even that they’re bad at all. It’s to say that fans tune in and turn on to watch the league’s roughly 450 players do what only a handful (relatively speaking) of people on the entire planet can do. I was bitter watching the owners do what they do because negotiations (particularly billion-dollar negotiations played out in the media) can and do get ugly. As a culture, we’re perfectly happy to watch petty spats and infighting, but not when there’s a cost attached to it and in this case the cost was nearly two months without the NBA. All things must pass (tentatively) and if everything goes accordingly, we won’t have to see or hear much from these owners for the next ten years.

Without digressing too much here, I want to acknowledge some of these my way or the no way owners embody traits I do respect. The willingness to stand up for what you believe is right in the face of all criticism is admirable. There are always going to be fine lines, but I believe some of these owners believe the only way they could be successful or break even was to have a 53-47 split in their favor. And if that’s what Stern was willing to voice to the public, then a handful of this bunch probably wanted to go even further. Fortunately, cooler heads must’ve owned the day.

As I mentioned above, like the great George Harrison album of the same name: All things must pass. We missed out on two months of NBA basketball and what will end up being 16 games. The season will be odd ballish and it’s likely we’ll see a higher rate of injuries; particularly among older players. Different isn’t always good, but with an 82-game season, monotony can and does creep in. Cramming 66 games will create an environment no one’s used to. It’ll be like basketball vagabonds barnstorming their regions for inter-conference battles on little sleep or rest. At times, it’ll be sloppy, but out of chaos flourishes creativity—from the coaching architects and the players on the floor. That might be happily blind or naïve, but we already know the abbreviated free agency period is going to pace like a speed addict. Just think if LeBron would’ve been a free agent this year instead of last…

There’s nothing to be sad about anymore. Now is the time for handshakes, hugs (or “black bro hugs” if you speak Shaq’s language) and toasts (to who? Billy Hunter and Stern? C’mon, we can do better than that, right? Right? Moving on … ). Let’s toast to rediscovering truth through our own eyes rather than second and third hand accounts and speculations about what went on behind the doors and across the tables of esteemed New York City meeting rooms where we’ll never cross the threshold and hear the likes of Jeffrey Kessler battle with Stern and Adam Silver (are these our great debates?). Let’s toast to JR Smith, the Mahoney of the NBA. He’s stuck in China and no matter how much of a brat he tries to be, it sounds like he’s stuck there until March. How about a raised glass to the rookies who (no matter what words their agents have forced into their mouths) had to be wondering, “What the fuck did I leave college for?” And a nod to what could be the last hurrah for this version of the Celtics and Spurs; a pair of veteran teams who wore the crown well.

With any luck, we’ll pick up where we left off with last year’s unpredictable playoffs. Yep, Dirk and Mark Cuban are defending champions. Kobe’s still motivated by something otherworldly (underworldly?). LeBron and Dwyane have probably fine-tuned their on-the-court symbiosis in all these all-star and charity games they played in this summer. And while we’re hoping; maybe Russell Westbrook’s had a summer of epiphanies after re-watching the game tape from May.

Finally, if sadness has to exist just to provide balance in the greater cosmos, then let’s hang our heads in silence for the honorary three-second count reserved for the NBA big men who said goodbye to us this past summer: Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming. We haven’t been this devoid of quality back-to-the-basket bigs (not sure we can even put Yao in that group) since I’ve been alive and probably not before that either.

It’s been a long two months, but we made it. We’re (almost) here:

Ghosts on Video

We’re well past the point of finding out about basketball feats of greatness or folly via word of mouth. If it happened on a court, no matter how grainy or shaky, someone’s recording it and posting it on Youtube.

Unless it’s a Powerade commercial, video’s indisputable and sheds sunlight on performances where eye-witness accounts either fall short or overexaggerate. And fortunately, there’s great video evidence of Kevin Durant‘s 66-point performance at the Rucker League last night–a mid-summer reminder of why we keep watching this game.

From the New York Post’s Joseph Staszewski

Kevin Durant’s performance created an evening for the ages at Rucker Park. The Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star shook off a slow start and poured in an astounding 66 points to lead DC Power to a 99-93 win over the Sean Bell All-Stars in front of a standing-room only crowd at the Entertainers Basketball Classic on Monday night at streetball’s most famous park. Durant, who led the NBA in scoring last season, connected on 9-of-11 3-pointers, including five straight from well beyond NBA range, early in the fourth quarter. The 6-foot-9 forward was mobbed on the court by fans standing along the sidelines after a fifth straight trey.“I always wanted to play in Rucker Park all my life,” Durant said in a postgame interview with park emcee Hannibal.

 True to the culture, there are reams of video clips from this performance; including a variety of angles, points of view, various video lengths, etc. The video below captures the temperature from the ground floor:

It’s one thing to read Staszewski’s account, but the video goes a step further and communicates the raw emotion and energy on the court and in the crowd; as well as communicating Durant’s frightening height advantage over his opponents.

I think we all prefer to at least have the option to see what’s really happening instead of reading or hearing about it second-hand from a friend who’s prone to embellishment. In the process of using video to document every notable event, we lose some of the mystique and fairytale elements that draw us to sports. A perfect example is the often-discussed, but (conveniently) never-seen scrimmage among the members of the 1992 USA Dream Team. Magic vs. Michael, accompanied by the greatest supporting casts in the history of the basketball playing world. Anyone who saw this scrimmage or even heard about it believes it was one of the greatest basketball games ever played, but only a handful of eyeballs were privileged to witness it. There’s a divine and mythical quality to it that verifiable performances like Durant’s 66 at Rucker or LeBron’s 4th quarter evisceration of the Pistons in the 2007 playoffs are lacking.

This isn’t the death of storytelling or personal experience and I’m not an advocate of personal interpretation over truth. It’s sad that we’re running out of these unseen moments, but our need to see and share every event is overwhelming and I’m far from one to impede obvious progress in favor of nostalgia. The dark flipside to this is the infamous, uncatchable Twitter hacker and the trend of athlete junk floating around the internets, but that’s another sad story for another slow day.

JC of the Day

Aside from the petty, but intriguing Marcin Gortat/Robin Lopez flap, it’s a slow day in the world of hoop. Fortunately, Youtube is a repository for Jamal Crawford clips that will dazzle all summer long, beginning with this gem (stay tuned for a feature-length post on the big JC):

I’d Never Leave in Summer

Unlike the NBA, I’m back. Finally. After weeks of traversing the middle west of America, then returning home only to host the lost and wandering spirits of my friends and family, I’ve come back to this neglected blog with warmth and caring. I don’t want to care, but I can’t even help it at this point.

What the fuck’s happened in the past month? We lost Yao Ming (did the Chinese government take any responsibility for this prolonged assassination or was his destiny to be that of many young, bright, shining stars? To leave us too soon? If he had retired at 27, conspiracy theorists would’ve had a heyday.), we found out that Zbo extended his checks and is essentially lockout proof (there’s clearly a lot we don’t know about Zach Randolph or NBA salary options for that matter), Kobe, D. Rose and Durant made $400k each for a pair of exhibition games in the Phillipines (Sam Amick @ SI), NBA TV foolishly spoils every single game in its “Greatest Games” series not only by telling us who won in the cable description of each game (who writes these descriptions?), but even going as far as rubbing the outcome in our basketball-starved faces (see the picture); it doesn’t matter that we probably know the outcome already. It matters that the slightest bit of suspense, the little shred of unknowing is obliterated and I can’t help but imagine David Stern somehow takes pleasure in this. He doesn’t, but he’s in a bad position and an easy target at the moment. Who thought Stern would put himself in a position to be the guy with the bag in his hand?

A lot is happening, but we have no results. Each story or blog that pulls the curtain back and shows us a little bit more of the NBA’s behind the scenes revenues (great post by Ken Berger) reveals a league that feels like it’s trying to deceive. Each blurb or rumor about players mulling over international options to become lords of Chinese provinces, basketball playing Czars of Russia or creating the Turkish version of the Super Friends at Besiktas is a tiny win in a global battle. Yes, I’d love to see the owners collapse under of mountain of paper cuts.

I’m with the players on this one and it’s not even up for debate. The NBA made its bed by paying guys like Rashard Lewis nearly $20MM/year (karma for having to sit in the green room so long on draft night?) and giving Joe Johnson Floyd Mayweather money when he’s more like an aging Shane Mosley without the gentlemanly qualities. But it’s not Joe’s fault or Rashard’s fault (somehow it could be Mayweather’s fault). It’s not their agents’ faults. Even these two guys, symbols of obese salaries, of players taking payrolls hostage; even these salaries aren’t the real problem if you believe the numbers that keep pouring out of the sky like July rain in Seattle. For every report and fact we hear about how much money the league has made, the NBA and NBPA will have a different slant and spin. The truth is likely residing somewhere in the middle covered under a pile of steaming bullshit that Stern and Adam Silver (with a little help from Billy Hunter) shoveled there. I don’t know the truth and can’t even claim to because the amount of psychological warfare playing out in the media has me confused into believing Sepp Blatter is preventing Kobe from signing with Besiktas and David Stern has actually buried bodies somewhere (under some futuristic, revenue-generating arena no doubt). As of today, it’s the NBA and its owners that feel inflexible and deceptive. The owners and GMs sign the contracts just like the players and anyone who knows anything knows that Rashard Lewis was never worth the kind of money Orlando splashed on him. I can only imagine Shard and his agent booked the fuck out of the Orlando front office before the ink even dried. “Don’t look back, just go!”

I don’t want to care about this in the middle of summer. I want to eat hotdogs, watch Sounders games and sleep in the sun at Volunteer Park while people ride by on unicycles. Instead, I watch old games I already know the outcome of on NBA TV and see the NFL doing it right on ESPN. I prefer the cold comforts of apathy, but I’ve invested too much time into a league that gives me and owes me very little.

Our Time

I guess there’s a lot to take away from the draft and at some point during the dog days of summer’s labor discussions, perhaps I’ll try to organize my thoughts on it. But today’s just about a trade that occurred during the draft that for some reason rankled me.

The Nuggets gave up Raymond Felton for Andre Miller and the 26th pick, Jordan Hamilton. Head-to-head, it’s a fair trade for both teams as Felton’s still priming while Miller’s getting older and grouchier. Denver’s getting a few younger pieces almost for free. They’re cool with the deal because Miller’s willing to do what Felton wasn’t (and shouldn’t have been): Back-up and mentor the young Ty Lawson. It’s likely the Nuggets were never going to keep Felton. Lawson’s their guy and has been steady proving he can take the car out for a spin without papa (Chauncey Billups) or big bro (Felton) sitting shot gun.

So what’s wrong with a teacher, especially a willing teacher? Absolutely nothing. Maybe my gripe here has to do with a few things: The teacher is being paid $7.8 million this year. The teacher/back-up is going to eat into young Lawson’s minutes which on a per 36-minute basis produced 16pts, 6.5 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting over 50%. Even if Lawson/Miller share the backcourt for stretches of games, it’s going to take away from Lawson’s leadership and point guard opportunities.

From Denver’s perspective, the benefits are easy to identify: Andre Miller’s been around the block (in Denver once already and four other NBA cities) and has a clear understanding of his role on any team. This is part of the reason George Karl went after the former Nugget (Karl coached him during his last season in Denver). So far, everything’s peachy in Denver with Miller reportedly amenable to coming off the bench. He can continue the tutelage that Billups started and further Lawson along in his NBA PG studies while providing starter-quality production off the bench. This fits in with the depth the Nuggets have been cultivating—other than Melo, no Nugget played more than 33 minutes/game last year. Nine players saw at least 20 minutes/night and it’s hard to argue with Denver’s post-Melo success. Additionally, it relieves Lawson of carrying all the duties that come with being the court general. Over 82 games, that weight can burden any man.

The numbers also support the move. In 31 games Lawson started in 2010-11, the Nuggets won 22 and lost 9—winning 70% of their games. In 27 games where Lawson played more than 30 minutes, Denver was 16-11 (59%). In 10 games he played 35 minutes or more, Denver was 6-4. For the season, the Nuggets were 50-32 (~61%), so the biggest place the Lawson lift was visible was in games where he started. Everything out of Denver is pointing to him being the Nuggets starter in 2011-12—the same role he took over after the Melo/Billups trade. He started the final 25 games with the new faces from New York so it’s not fair to credit him with the team’s late season turnaround, but his availability and improvement made it that much easier for Karl to fill in the hole that Billups left.

So why is my gut reaction to less Lawson opportunities automatically anti-Andre, anti-time share? Philosophically, I’m open to anything that stands apart from convention. Don Nelson never reached the Promised Land with his small-ball, run and gun style, but I was on board anyway. Doug Moe and Mike D’Antoni had partial success, but were both thwarted by convention. Teams have tried small ball, big ball, gimmicks, wacky and wild game plans and I love and respect them for it. I’ve defended the Suns version of D’Antoni for years and for what? Because I love the break from NBA norms—which is exactly what George Karl’s doing in Denver. Unless you count the delicate Danillo Gallinari, Denver has no go-to guy—huge NBA no no. Instead of a standard 7-8 man rotation, they roll deep with anywhere from nine to eleven players getting heavy minutes. And lastly, most egregiously, instead of giving Ty Lawson the freedom to run around for 35-40 minutes, they’re stifling him with the presence of old, crotchety Andre Miller and it clearly upsets me or else I wouldn’t be writing over 700 words about it.

Karl’s going against the NBA grain here and I’m staying stuck in a world where a good, young starting point guard should get 35-40 minutes a night. My motivations for being anti-timeshare come from the same place that NFL running back-by-committees grind my gears. In most timeshares, one of the players is better and gets a few more reps; whether it’s a change of pace thing or just getting guys an extra breather. For running backs and Ty Lawsons, the split is the ultimate in team sacrifice. The individual gives up opportunities for the immediate benefit of the team and potentially for the longer-term development of the individual. The fans get more Miller and less Lawson.

As I was always aware, my beef with Denver’s approach to the point guard position was associated with my own inability to open my mind to the possibilities unlocked from sharing. I’m still not sure what Karl’s ultimate motivations are, but I’m willing to go into this open-minded and not pass judgment until we’ve arrived with both feet (or all four feet?) firmly rooted on solid ground.

Reflection Eternal

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where to begin on this summer night in June? The NBA’s gone on its annual break and we don’t know if or when it will return. I’ve spent a decent part of the last few days reading through a mix of spiteful venom and corny fourth quarter jokes directed at LeBron James. I spent some more time seeing pictures of Dallas’s post-game celebration in the South Beach Miami clubs. This is our league now: The joys are documented on cell phone cameras and DeShawn Stevenson t-shirts while the lows go underground and are speculated against and attacked.

As I texted my buddy Hamilton earlier, we have the summer (and maybe beyond) for endless speculation and reflection. So I’ll start reflecting now before my memories fade into the abyss of an online archive.

I never, ever thought this Dallas team would win the title. Way, way back in April when we found out the playoff matchups, I saw Dallas vs. Portland and immediately circled it as an upset win for the Blazers. I didn’t do it just because I thought the Mavs were pussy soft—which I did think. I did it because as late as April 6th, the Mavs had gotten caught up in a four-game losing streak; two of those losses coming to the far-from-physical Golden State Warriors and their future first round opponent, Portland. A four-game losing streak is no microcosm of an 82-game season, but that losing streak at that time of year when Dallas was battling for a number-two seed was just one last bit of 2011 confirmation that this team didn’t play defense and couldn’t win when it mattered. The stats told a different story about their defense, but I’ll get to that shortly.

On top of the bad timing and my poorly constructed idea of this Dallas team’s identity, was their opponent: Portland. Despite the bad karma from the Darius Miles situation, these guys came together when Brandon Roy went down. On the increasingly large shoulders of LaMarcus Aldridge, the spiteful wiliness of Andre Miller, the stretchability of Marcus Camby and the late season sneak job addition of Gerald Wallace, the Blazers looked and felt like a team cresting into April. The way the Blazers consistently challenge the Lakers, there was a genuine sense of relief amongst Laker fans when Dallas won the series.

But goddamn, I was wrong and so were any Lakers fans who embraced a Mavs matchup in the second round. Dallas introduced us all to a cold steel resolution, that mettle you can’t buy at the store or even pray for (it wasn’t your time, right, LeBron?). Beneath the flesh of that Portland series, Dallas revealed what turned out to be their leader’s calling card: All-out assault. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it blitzkrieg in a 7-seconds or Less, Phoenix Suns style, but this team was unprejudiced Terminator-style attack. Portland, Los Angeles, OKC and Miami got it the same. After Portland though, it all came together—or maybe it was there all along and I missed it; overlooked, because I had already written it off because it looked like the same group Dallas trotted out every year—Dirk, Terry and Kidd. Dismissed it because if anything, the NBA is predictable and we don’t get late-career titles unless there’s a drastic shakeup. Look at the last thirty years of NBA champs and you won’t see anything that resembles Dirk or Dallas. Veteran teams that won titles did so with a major addition or by becoming new teams (Celtics becoming the Big 3, Lakers adding Gasol, Hakeem needing MJ to retire, the Admiral needing Duncan, the introduction of Magic and Bird, the unification of Shaq and Wade) or they went the wait-my-turn route (MJ, Isiah). (Side note—the only other non-traditional title team was the 2004 Detroit Pistons.) In the playoffs, the Mavs completed a pilgrimage they started way back in 2008 when they hired Rick Carlisle.

I’m not trying to say we should’ve expected this out of Dallas. In three of the last five years, this Mavs team lost in the first round (two times were to lower-seeded teams). When I was in Vegas a couple weeks ago, watching Miami plow through a shell-shocked Bulls team and seeing the Mavs fortifying themselves against a trial and error OKC squad, I kept insisting that you can’t change your identity over the course of a few series’. To some extent, we all are who we are and I was confident that Dallas would show that baby soft face soon enough. All previous evidence of this team and the league as a whole indicated they weren’t a championship team. I don’t think my primary point was wrong: the Mavs playoff team played exactly to their identity. I was wrong about that identity though—drastically wrong. Looking back at the stats over the course of the past season, it starts to make more sense that Dallas had been coming together. They finished 8th in the league in defensive rating (points allowed/hundred possessions) and 9th in opponent’s effective FG%. The improving defense (this was their best defensive rating since the 67-win team of 2006-07 and their best defense under Rick Carlisle) no doubt helped them rip off the following streaks during the regular season: 12 games, 10 games and 8 games. More than half of their wins were part of a streak. This team had stretches of 18-1 and 16-2—with no overlap. Aside from those two streaks where the Mavs combined to go 34-3, their record was 23-22.

They caught another streak in April and went 16-5 in the playoffs. Counting the four-game win streak to end the regular season, they finished 20-5. I was wrongfully defiant all the way to the end, expecting Miami’s cream to rise to the top, but in all ways Dallas was the dictator and forced the game on their terms whether it was in Miami or Dallas.

I mentioned above that Dallas looked the same—Jet, Dirk and Kidd. While their counterparts were given names pre-ordained for the lights—Bron, Wade and Bosh—they weren’t given the pieces Mark Cuban gave the Mavs. It took the whole crew, from Brian Cardinal’s pasty American impression of the Euro-flop to Tyson Chandler’s infectious positive enthusiasm to JJ Barea’s inconceivable drives to DeShawn’s Dirk-bolstered swag. Beyond the “it takes a village” vibe of the Mavs, the main components understood the utilization process. Trust, camaraderie, accountability, morale—all that awkward junko speak that corporations try to force—were embodied by this Dallas team and the result was the attainment of eternity.

Winning an NBA Championship (unless you do it in a strike-shortened season, Pop) is the only way to reach forever in the NBA. It might be some bullshit, but every black and white stat, every subjective award, every label, performance and reputation is up for debate and attack. Someone’s always trying to take a dump on Wilt scoring 100 points or averaging 50 points/game for an entire season. Someone else is disputing MVP awards (incredulously asking how Steve Nash has the same amount of MVPs as Shaq and Kobe) and there are even intelligent people claiming MJ wasn’t the greatest. It’s all fair game and there’s even a loophole to attacking players with rings. Jason Kidd’s ring with Dallas doesn’t carry the same luster as a title with the Nets would’ve carried. But for Dirk, oh the lovable, likable, indisputable grass roots feel-good story of the 2011 playoffs; for Dirk’s place in the history of the league, it’s the ultimate in accomplishments. It’s free from any asterisk, any qualifier, and any but. It’s free from dispute, completely pure and that’s rare in a sport and league where its followers are almost trained to argue and challenge every little thing with zest of religious scholars and interpreters.

Nothing else this season exists in the absolute world that Dirk Nowitzki’s and Dallas’s playoff performance does. They’re all alone as the eternal truth of the 2010-11 season.

 

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