We were all so much more innocent back on April 13th, 2016. A historic NBA season was coming to a close with dual games competing for the main stage of national TV hoop audiences: In one corner, the final game of Kobe Bryant’s illustrious 20-year-career. In the other, Kobe’s antithesis, the record-setting, fun-loving, three-point-chucking Warriors of Golden State questing for their record-setting 73rd win. That sweet night back in spring may have been the end of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, but it was just the beginning of a 90-day stretch that has laid waste to forward and backward views of the NBA and culminated on July 11th with Tim Duncan’s retirement acting as an appropriate bookend to what Kobe started back in April.
It’s not a knock on Golden State that Kobe stole the show on that Wednesday night. The Warriors hosted a short-handed Memphis team they’d already whooped up on three times. The Grizz were without Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, etc. The game was a formality, a 48-minute procession that lead to crowning the Warriors as the greatest regular season team of all time. It was anti-climactic, but not without massive historical significance.
If Golden State embodied audacity in their pursuit of 73 wins, Kobe’s been radiating his own stubborn brand of nerve dating back to the first references to him in the history books as a competitive savant of sorts playing against grown men in Italy. That brashness is why people tuned in, hoping to get one last memory from Kobe – either something to solidify their notion of his greatness, reaffirm that he’s a ball hogging diva, or just say goodbye to an icon. In his most polarizing approach, he delivered to everyone.
In 25 years of watching basketball, Bryant’s final game with 60 points on 50 shots and 21 three point attempts; with his 37-year-old body gasping for air, visibly fatigued, committed to squeezing in as many shots as possible will always sit near the top of my memories. It was by turns hilarious and awe inspiring, predictable and incomprehensible. I don’t imagine I’ll ever see a player drop 60 in his last game, deliver what felt like a pre-planned speech, and un-ironically wrap it up with, “Mamba out,” but that’s what happened and it should’ve been a reminder to us all that this game, in all its beautiful bouncing and human fragility, is unpredictable.
A few weeks the collective NBA world had shifted focus to the Western Conference Finals. Some people expected Oklahoma City to beat Golden State and maybe the events of May 24th aligned with their thoughts, but I think most of us were surprised to see OKC run the Warriors off the floor in game four: 118-94 to go up 3-1. OKC was faster, stronger, longer, more confident, tougher, better. Something like 10 teams had come back from 3-1 deficits, but OKC had just won back-to-back games by a combined 52 points.
If Kobe’s last game is a shiny performance that demands a place in memory, Klay Thompson’s game six against OKC was probably more impressive given the context. Down eight heading into the fourth, a historic season on the line in a hostile environment, the future of rival Kevin Durant at stake, and Klay comes out gunning with three threes and all nine of GSW’s points to open the period. He would end up scoring 19 in the quarter, 41 for the game. These weren’t just spot up threes or blown defensive assignments, but hair trigger releases against great defense and bombs from 30 feet.
Despite Klay’s classic game, it’s fair to look back at the game six and the subsequent GSW win in game seven as critical dominoes in the Durant sweepstakes. It’s not likely anyone will ever know what KD would’ve decided had OKC won the west, but they didn’t and before game summary stories had been filed, the KD exodus rumors were already trickling out.
About a week-and-a-half after GSW had given Durant an up-close look at what he was missing out on, they took their own 3-1 lead over the Cavs in the Finals.
I don’t know if it’s the omnipresence of connected media and the Twittersphere or the sheer improbability of it all that etched it in my mind so clearly, but the Cavs comeback feels like something that’s been drilled into my memories: the Draymo suspension, Bron/Kryie going batshit crazy in game five, Bron going HAM in game six, and the unceasing rising tension of the 89-89 tie punctured and punctuated by a cascade of hugely historic moments: the block, Kevin Love’s defense on Steph, Kyrie’s shot, Bron trying to jackhammer home the final nail in GSW’s coffin by dunking on Draymo but getting fouled and maybe, possibly hurting his wrist. It’s all there, so clear and incredible, so historic and memorable, but so so foreboding as evidenced by GSW’s owner Joe Lacob’s, “All I can say is I will be very aggressive (in the off-season)” post-game comment.
When Cleveland was down 3-1 after having been trounced in game five at home, a comeback felt so out of reach and improbable. The odds were less than GSW’s comeback over OKC. After all, we’d seen the Warriors break teams and were just a couple weeks removed from Klay and Steph’s bombs away act finishing off OKC. Trading Kevin Love was inevitable, and at times Kyrie looked like a great individual talent that just didn’t comprehend the level of effort required at this level. Obituaries were drafted, LeBron’s window slammed shut, Warrior pressers were jokey events offset by obligatory “the series isn’t over” statements. A comeback wasn’t possible until it was and a month later my mind is still blown by it.
Of all these moments, maybe the most seismic was Durant’s July 4th announcement on the Player’s Tribune that he’d be joining Golden State – joining Steph, Klay, Draymo, Iggy. But what, but how? The stories and the analyses flowed out: if OKC beats GSW then he doesn’t leave, if GSW beats the Cavs then he can’t go. It’s what-if conjecture that can’t be solved any better than generational NBA debates.
In our reality, it happened the way it did and now the 6’11”, jump shooting, all-position defending, long-limbed 27-year-old from DC is joining one of the greatest teams of all-time. All the pieces had to fall just right to even allow it and when I write allow, I mean the cap, OKC losing, GSW losing, the conditions being created that made it rational and acceptable to Durant to leave OKC and join its greatest rival. Amid all this great on-court achievement and drama, the possibility that Durant brings to GSW is what makes it the greatest plot twist of all. Who’s the real Keyser Soze here?
So if Durant-to-the-Warriors is the climactic event, it’s Duncan low-key retirement on July 11th that acts as a coda for this dramatic 90 days that shook the NBA. The turnover is radical; from Kobe going out like a roman candle to Duncan fading into the cold quiet darkness of Spurs space. Two all-timers who played with their franchises for the entirety of their careers retiring against the backdrop of one of the most historic Finals and Finals performances, and all while Durant trades in the blue and orange of the Thunder for the blue and gold of the Bay.
How did we get here and where do we go? Our familiar faces are changing places or leaving us altogether. I don’t have a clue what this new NBA looks like, with the exception of a divisive CBA negotiation next summer. It feels like we’re coming out of an exhausting whirlwind, and entering what? I never could’ve expected a 90-day span like what happened from April 13th to July 11th and I don’t know what I expect the ramifications to be. But where I originally tuned in for a game played between lines drawn on a 94×50 hardwood court, I stick around as much now for the drama that unfolds off the court; in its history and operations, in the shaping of histories and futures by actors who are owners, front office officers, coaches, and self-determining players.
On December 7th, 1973, the Los Angeles Lakers hosted a Bill Russell-coached Seattle Supersonics team in Los Angeles. The game was and should be mostly lost to history with the emphasis of post-game narratives on the Sonics finally catching a win in LA.
As Gil Lyons of the Seattle Times wrote:
The Sonics scrambled and clawed to a 115-111 success, ending a string of 20 frustrating appearances in Jack Kent Cooke’s sports palace. The win also snapped a 13-game Laker domination of Seattle and ended the Sonics’ own six-game string of losses.
For me the game would’ve remained resigned to the minutia of NBA history, a single pixel in an infinitely-sized NBA logo were it not for today’s sport page. Tucked away on the back page beneath the WHL standings and next to the upcoming NFL lines was the “This date in sports history” feature: On December 7th, 1973 Jerry West recorded a then-NBA record 10 steals against the Sonics. If it would’ve been Alvin Robertson setting the record in 1987, I would’ve batted an eyelash but nothing more.
On the night of all those steals back in December of 1973, Jerry West, whose silhouette would eventually be immortalized as the NBA’s logo, was a 35-year-old combo guard in the final season his illustrious career. He only appeared in 31 games that season due to a groin injury, but still averaged over 20ppg, 6apg, and nearly 4rpg. Most interesting in his stat line though was the 2.6 steals he averaged.
It’s fair to assume the 35-year-old West had lost a step by 1973. While still a quality guard with good play left in the tank, his averages and efficiency were down across the board. He appeared in a career-low minutes and games while averaging the lowest points since his rookie season – and still put up 20/game. His combined playoff and regular season minutes were nearly 43,000 and it’s clear to point to age as a contributing factor to his season-limiting injury.
This is where I reveal my ignorance in that I haven’t watched West’s clips nearly as much as I wish I had. I have his autobiography, West by West, sitting on a bookshelf, unread and while I can rattle off West anecdotes, I’ve never gone deep on his defensive capabilities. The league started awarding All-Defensive honors in 1968-69 when West was nearing the end of his prime. In the six years he was eligible for defensive awards, he made the second team once and the first team four times – all past the age of 30. While his nickname was Mr. Clutch and damn near any highlight you’ll find of him will be of a steady downpour of jumpers, he had a reputation for being strong defender and reportedly had an 81-inch wingspan which is the same as Rajon Rondo. All this mixed with the hard evidence of 2.6 steals/game as a 35-year-old and anecdotal evidence of his intense approach to defense point a player who should be considered one of the greatest back court defenders in league history.
That game 42 years ago could act as a microcosm for the tortured dissatisfaction that plagued much of West’s life and pro basketball career. The Lakers turned the ball over 30 times and four of their players fouled out. West was masterful in defeat though with 27 points on 15 shots, five rebounds, five assists and of course 10 steals. That’s a line that’s been achieved just four other times in league history. And not to belabor the point, but West was 35 when he did it. West knew he was a great player, but did it give him any measure of satisfaction? I have no idea, but tracing his defensive prowess beyond the threshold of a 10-steal game 42 years ago has given me an even greater sense of appreciation for the Logo.
It’s another Monday morning which means the NBA Power Rankings are rolling out in a state of infinite arbitrariness, but deep down in the western corner of the country, Kobe-colored confetti is raining from the skies celebrating the Lakers fourth win in 17 games this year. We’re about 20% of the way through the 2014-15 season and the Lakers are probably near the bottom of the aforementioned power rankings, but we don’t care because this post is celebrating the weird accomplishment of Kobe last night. No, it’s not becoming the first player in NBA history with 30,000 points and 6,000 assists, although that’s mostly an incomprehensible achievement that speaks to the highly irregular elite play which he’s sustained for so long. But instead of looking at macro-Kobe, we’re going micro-Kobe and exploring his individual performance against power ranking darlings, the Toronto Raptors.
In 42 minutes, Kobe triple doubled with 31 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and repeatedly finding good looks for his teammates while tallying 12 assists – a Lakers individual high this season. If we want to get semi-nitty gritty, Bryant had just two turnovers and attempted only one three while putting up his highest game score of the season at 27. It was a gem of a throwback game from a player putting up one of the best individual seasons we’ve ever seen from a 36-year-old.
[It’s taking a thorough amount of self-restraint to not go full on research mode and dig into that Larry Bird game from 1992 when a 35-year-old Larry Legend executed a 49-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist game on Portland, but we’ll save that for a rainy day.]
In what otherwise feels like a lost season without meaning for LA’s first basketball franchise, Kobe and his MASH unit continue to find ways to make games interesting and add meaning through effort. Kobe’s me-first game and me-first personality have a polarizing effect on fans and people who don’t know diddly about basketball, but all the same, a 36-year-old Bryant is still revealing himself as a professional fully committed winning every night – even if those wins are coming at the most infrequent pace of his career. Sunday night while languishing at the bottom of power rankings, Kobe’s game came together and he willed the Lakers to a victory over a shorthanded, but superior Raptors team. It took a herculean effort from Kobe and quality performances from his mates, but in a season without spoils, even the scraps are easy to savor.
In a vacuum, I think all of us can agree that what Kobe Bryant’s doing in his 17th NBA season is mostly ridiculous. With a handful of games remaining this season, Bryant has amassed 1,456 games (playoffs and regular season) and spent 53,897 minutes on the court. To list off his accomplishments, both statistical and of the award variety, would be like reading through a ledger that includes every sin any of us committed. It would go on and on and we’d fall asleep out of monotonous exhaustion and boredom and then we’d wake up and the voice would still be droning on.
For me, and I assume, for many of us, one of the most impressive aspects of Kobe’s long, long run has been remarkable consistency of it. So many games and years later and the man is still performing at a level that exceeds his career averages (his career averages are admittedly tipped by his first three years in the league). His game is as identifiable as any player’s in the league. Just when we think he’s lost a step and is on the decline (2011 appeared this way), he bounces back with Orthonkine therapy and back-to-back 27ppg, +20PER seasons—at ages 33 and 34.
Being the lightning rod he is, Kobe’s accomplishments come hand-in-hand with overreaction from the pro-Kobe and con-Kobe camps which are both bolstered by millions of basketball fans who sit at computers or on smartphones pounding away at the keys and venting through Kobe-based superlative arguments. The objective or indifferent fans marvel at Kobe’s resilience and shot-making ability while shaking their heads at the head-scratchingly bad shots or lackluster defense that we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing.
But as I started this post, I’ll reiterate: In a vacuum … I’m not interested in opening up or hashing out or re-hashing debates that have no ending. After Kobe’s game yesterday, a 14-point loss to the Clippers that gave them a 4-0 sweep in the Battle for Los Angeles; a game in which Kobe played 47 minutes (Mike D’Antoni’s never been shy about running guys into the ground and most elite athletes need someone to force them to rest, so the Kobe/D’Antoni combination is mostly a poor match when it comes to the long-term consideration of Kobe’s physical health), I found myself asking: Who does this? Who plays 47 minutes at 34-years-old? Who’s 34 and putting up 25 points and 10 assists? So I did what I do, I had to answer this question for myself and the answer was interesting enough to share it with you:
I took Kobe’s season-to-date stats (as of 4/8/12) and plugged them into Basketball-Refrerence.com and took a look at how this season compares historically at a couple different levels. First off, I just focused on players who have averaged at least 38 minutes/game at age 34 or older. I don’t know what my hunch was going into this, but as I think more about it, it makes sense that only a few times in league history has circumstance demanded a player of this age pour so much of himself into the game and only so many times has the player actually been able to hold up to the rigorous demands of an NBA schedule for so many minutes every night:
It’s an interesting list. Of the 15 seasons included there, only three players went on to win titles (Jordan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in 1972). With the exception of Lenny Wilkins’ Cavs in 1973 and Anthony Mason’s Bucks in 2002, each player did make the playoffs, although it’s worth noting that several teams were low-seeded playoff teams that needed every ounce of production available from their best players—similar to the Lakers dependency on Bryant this year.
To take it a step further in terms of production at age 34 or older with 38 minutes or more played each night, I layered in points, PER and Usage%. Only a single other player compares favorably to Kobe in these measures:
MJ edged Kobe in PER (25.2 vs. 22.7) and usage rates (33.7% vs. 31.8%), but in both cases, these teams relied on these shooting guards for so so much production. The results were drastically different and the purpose of this post isn’t to delve into that aspect of these post-34 seasons, but to explore the rarity of what an aging Kobe Bryant’s doing this season which is about as rarefied company as you can come across. As an aside, these explorations often reveal some unexpected random piece of information and in this case it’s Karl Malone’s 2001-02 season where he averaged 38mpg as 38-year-old power forward and had a usage rate of 28.8%. For perspective, that 28.8 would rank 8th overall this season and place him ahead of James Harden—and he was 38.
Someday we’ll say goodbye to Kobe, but it appears it’ll be a lot later than a whole gang of people thought…
Back in September, the odds makers in Vegas or Jersey City or Macau or wherever it is they reside set the odds of a Lakers championship at 9-4. For the sake of comparison, the defending champion Miami Heat also had 9-4 odds; which makes the Heat and the Lakers the odds-on-favorite to win the NBA crown … as of September. As I sat down to write this, the Lakers were 9-12 and a full two games outside of playoffs in the Western Conference. They were in the middle of a strange slap fight in Cleveland against the Cavs—a team that no doubt scraps and scrapes, but in terms of today’s talent, they’re many rungs lower than the Lakers on any imaginary talent ladder.
But for multiple reasons, I enjoy watching this Lakers team and it’s not because of any hatred I harbor for Kobe or the Lakers because I don’t hate the Lakers or Kobe. It’s not even the smoldering dislike I have for Dwight Howard—which I do have. It’s because there’s something beautiful in the struggle and I don’t mean beautiful struggle the way disenfranchised people struggle to find justice and equality in a prejudiced world. I mean it in the sense that there’s an awesome collection of talent on this Lakers team and, to some debatable degree, they’re trying to learn how to successfully coexist with each other. And in that struggle, I find them more intriguing than the team that won over 70% of their games the past five seasons because there are so many strange things going on with this team and their least interesting player is somehow Metta World Peace. And since I think lists are kind of gimmicky, but my brain moves in bullet points, I decided to lay out my feelings and views on the 2012-13 Lakers, an old team that could be hopeless or hopeful … or both:
The Lakers as imagined by a European soccer owner: The Lakers have always loved to make a big splash and collect talent and in that regard, they’re similar to those mega-spending Euro soccer clubs that build football foundations on cash and bricks of gold and hope that’s enough for success. Sometimes it works like Manchester City’s EPL title last year, but other times it ends up like Chelsea or Real Madrid—a pair of accomplished clubs that seem to be influx for perpetuity. Chelsea’s been through eight managers since 2008 and Real Madrid’s backups could compete for a UEFA crown on their own. It’s talent for days, but what’s that matter when it’s assembled without any sense of compatibility, cohesion, personality or style? Sound familiar?
Lakers fans and their strange celebratory customs.
Will Steve Nash even help this team? Mike D’Antoni loves to run the pick and roll, but how’s that going to work with Dwight and Kobe out there? How’s Nash feeling sitting on the bench and witnessing this avalanche of ineptitude? He looks sharp, has a nice new Tom Cruise-approved LA haircut and can be counted on to be a good soldier, but on the insides of the walls of his mind, in places we can’t penetrate; it’s likely a tumor filled with doubt and regret is growing.
Speaking of Steve Nash … how great is the Phoenix training staff? Anyone who follows the NBA is aware of the Suns’ magical powers of resuscitation and now we have the final proof, the absolute truth: Steve Nash and Grant Hill. Each of these aging (by NBA standards) players experienced mostly clean bills of health during their stays in Phoenix, but now that they’ve relocated to opposite ends of the Staples Center, they’ve appeared in a combined two of 42 games this season. Phoenix, we salute you.
How bad does it hurt to let your team down? Hack-a-Shaq has evolved into a hack-a-Dwight and Howard has predictably failed at the free throw line where he’s shooting a career-worst 48%. Too much pressure in LA? Too much pressure having to look Kobe in the eye after you miss another freebie? Eh, I’m not too concerned that Dwight’s missing these shots, but I’m curious about the psychological impact it has on him. Shaq couldn’t shoot throws to save his life and Wilt Chamberlain was worse than Shaq and Dwight. Each of these dominant giants has masked any insecurity they may have with blinding and deafening personas that divert and distract from pain, but somewhere deep in those psyches, behind the conquests, jokes and accomplishments lays shame and embarrassment at having stand in front of the world, naked and vulnerable, and be judged.
I alluded to this a bit in the second paragraph above, but part of the reason I want to keep watching this team is because something is going to happen. If the Lakers keep up like this, then the finger pointing, the blame game, the inability to trust … all of it is going to get to worse and while I don’t wish harm or anguish on these guys, it makes for an entertaining season and future and after all, sports exist for entertainment. The other reason, the preferable reason (depending on your allegiances) is the belief that the Lakers will figure things out, that Nash will come back, Pau will thrive in D’Antoni’s system, Dwight will get his legs and his back healthy and dominate defensively and of course Kobe will have the opportunity to explore the non-scoring facets of his game. This is the hope, but we have to find out if our basketball prayers (for better or worse) are answered.
Is this the longest winter of Mike D’Antoni’s life? That’s kind of tongue in cheek since the experiences life delivers us far exceed the game of basketball, but in professional terms, this has to be painful. And it leads to another question: Can Mike D’Antoni coach at this level? While the Seven Seconds Suns were delightfully pleasing to the eye and the box score, D’Antoni hasn’t proven capable of improving or innovating from that original style. Many fans and analysts saw his apparent disregard of defense as a cardinal sin he could never overcome and sadly he’s done nothing to prove otherwise. Instead, he’s bounced across the country in high profile jobs with his maverick mustache, laid back approach and lukewarm results. I have to give him leeway with this Lakers team that was strangely constructed and the short timeframe he’s had to turn things around, but if the struggles continue, Mike D’s head’s going to be on the chop block (figuratively speaking … I hope).
Phil Jackson can coach. It’s a natural segue from the previous questions about D’Antoni. I’m not saying the Lakers should’ve caved to the allegedly ridiculous demands made by the Zen Master, but to all the fans and anti-Phillipians out there who love to accuse Phil of riding the coattails of Jordan and Kobe, look at the nightly confusion that is the today’s Lakers and tell me that shit would fly with Phil sitting on the bench in that crazy special-made chair he had.
Was a curse attached to this trade and if so, did Rob Hennigan cast the spell? When I first read about the Dwight-Bynum-Iguodala trade this summer, I was least impressed with Orlando’s inability to get back any worthwhile assets (except for Aaron Afflalo, we all appreciate his contributions). But in the true, humbling nature of the universe, everyone in this deal appears to be struggling with their new acquisitions—except Orlando. Andrew Bynum’s combination of knee injuries and hairstyles has resulted in Moses Malone reconsidering his retirement (“for the good of Philadelphia,” he says). I thought Iguodala would blend in brilliantly in George Karl’s intense defensive approach to the game, but instead he’s playing about as poorly as he ever has as a pro. We’ve already discussed a few of the Lakers woes above. And that leaves Orlando; limping along at 8-12, but doing two things extremely well: Playing hard and playing together. And they’re facing some of the same challenges as the Lakers—new coach and new teammates. It’s a relative comparison since the Lakers are living below lofty expectations while the Magic are playing above the lowest expectations (they tied Charlotte with the worst odds to win the title: 1,000 to 1).
Dwightmare revisited? Of the possible dastardly outcomes of a Lakers collapse, the potential for a return of the Dwightmare is most concerning. Nothing gets the media’s attention like a juicy, sensational rumor; especially one that involves one of the league’s best players and signature franchises. And if the Lakers continue the current backslide, only time will stand between us and a litany of quotes from “unnamed sources.”
There’s a reason the sports books in Las Vegas are still accepting sports bets and haven’t gone out of business yet: They know more than we do. And they missed this early-season Lakers conflagration by a country mile and then some … just like the rest of us did. To say there’s anything certain attached to this Lakers team (other than them playing 82 games this season) is to actively participate in self-deception. So when your friends or your favorite bloggers or handicappers approach you with their foolproof theories and analysis of why this Lakers team will either sink into the abyss or triumph over the uncertainty of the day, kindly remind them, like the universe occasionally has to remind us, that we’re all walking through the darkness of today toward the light at the end of the tunnel of a tomorrow we’ll never reach.
The saga, the nightmare, the Dwightmare, the annoying story that mercilessly dominated NBA headlines for over a year, the Jason Voorhees of NBA rumors … it’s finally over; for now at least. The deal was consummated a week ago. Dwight Howard ends up in Los Angeles, Andre Iguodala in Denver, Andrew Bynum in Philly and Orlando gets a whole lot of spokes, but no axels. Us? We get much-deserved respite.
But all this hype and distraction got me wondering: How did we get here? And to answer that question, I went back to Wednesday, June 26th, 1996. I was nothing but 15-years-old, likely surviving a hot Midwest summer in Des Moines. Impossible-to-predict twists and decisions led me from that summer day to a couch in Seattle where I sit writing this now. Equally strange turns have led to the Lakers building a squad that on June 26th, 1996 was impossible to imagine:
Kobe Bryant: After witnessing Kobe chew up Laker vets Michael Cooper and Larry Drew, Lakers GM Jerry West went all in (by “all in,” I’m referring to his effort not Vlade Divac; who he traded to get Kobe’s rights) to get the young Jedi master. The rest is basketball history. Like any 16-year relationship, there have been bumps along the road and breakup talk (do you even love me anymore?), but even if the spark burned out long ago, the marriage still makes too much sense. And so it is that Kobe has spent the duration of his 16 years with the same team and the majority of that time as the face of franchise. His journey to the current incarnation of the Lakers is less interesting than the rest of his teammates. The most interesting aspect of Kobe-to-the-Lakers is how agent Arn Tellem and Jerry West strong-armed the rest of the league out of drafting him—looking at you John Calipari.
Steve Nash: Two picks after Charlotte scooped up Kobe for Los Angeles, the Suns drafted a Canadian point guard who developed a knack for clutch play at Santa Clara University. The rookie Nash was not the swashbuckling, age-defying Canadian icon we know him as today. It took him several years, a visionary coach and a return to his second home in Phoenix to become the Nash so many people have fallen in love with: shaggy-haired, fearless competitor, ultimate giver and sympathetic superstar. Whether it’s the media, his opponents or fans, it seems like we all love Steve Nash. His resistance to bailing from a fading Suns franchise did nothing but endear him to us: “He’s so loyal!” Nash is no Jesus, but if he turned water to wine, I think people would just look at each other and say things like, “Well, it is Steve Nash,” then nod and move on to Anderson Cooper and dinner plans. Religious comparisons aside; after the Lakers-Suns battles of yore, the Lakers seem like the last team Nash would want anything to do with. But then, like thieves in the night, the Lakers, Suns owner Robert Sarver and Nash himself came to an agreement that had something to do with family and the pursuit of immortality. I don’t know if oaths were made or signatures signed in blood, but all of a sudden the two most-decorated members from the decorated class of ’96 were teaming up for what appears to be a final run at glory (potential book title there).
Dwight Howard: This guy. I’ve always had personal issues with how Dwight handles himself and it’s obvious that it’s my issue and not his. But this giant goofball, this part-time impersonator, this wannabe Shaq, this bane of Twitter’s existence somehow ended up on the Lakers last week. Dwight was just ten-years-old when Kobe joined the Lakers; a burgeoning athlete, he was just starting out on a path that would lead to him joining forces with Kobe and Steve Nash 16 years later. In the interim, he’s grown from that little boy with hoop dreams to a massive physical specimen; capable of lifting cars, dunking on 12-foot-hoops and a potpourri of other feats of athleticism and strength. When he finally became the Dwight we know today (this occurred at some point during his stay in Orlando), he revealed himself to be a playful joker who craves attention and pleasing people around him. This might be speculation, but over the past year where’s continually elbowed and sound-bit his way into the spotlight, we’ve learned a lot about the NBA’s best big man and it’s not all good. He made it clear he didn’t want to be in Orlando, then rescinded and professed loyalty, then demanded departure again. His love-affair with Brooklyn bordered on juvenile (“It’s my Brooklyn and I want it now!”) and exposed Dwight’s inability to understand NBA salary cap rules. It was always Brooklyn or bust for the big man and now that he’s landed on bust, it’ll be interesting to see how he settles in to his new town with his new friends. Kobe and Nash are a long way from Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson.
Antawn Jamison: Oh sweet Antawn. When I think about Antawn Jamison, I picture those thick eyebrows lying above dark focused eyes, a head that was made to be cleanly shaven and game that consists of equal parts talent and equal parts hard hat mentality. I recall his Tar Heel partnership with the young Vince Carter and how he came out of nowhere (although this is mostly impossible given that he was on UNC’s squad) and dominated the ACC when it was the best college basketball conference in the world. As a productive non-superstar, he’s enjoyed (hopefully) being a sought-after commodity—the last piece on teams looking to get over the hump. And now he’s settling into what could be the final act of his oak solid career as the 6th Man on the Los Angeles Lakers. Back in ’96 when Kobe and Nash were being drafted, it was obvious he would end up in the league one day; it’s just tough to have envisioned him in this role at this time with these guys.
Metta World Peace, aka Ron Artest: Ron Ron was just 16-years-old when Kobe arrived in Lakerland. Based on the interviews he’s given and the backstory we know, he was conceivably roaming around Queensbridge ducking and dodging the scenes straight out of Mobb Deep and Nas. He made it out though and has had the most colorful voyage of all the current Lakers: Name changes, suspensions, therapists, elbows, brawls, rap albums and so much more shit that most of us probably can’t digest. That MWP made it to the Lakers actually seems more like a foot note than its own chapter in what’s just another pit stop on the unorthodox road of his biography.
Pau Gasol: Kobe’s longest-standing sidekick (unless you consider Mitch Kupchak as a Kobe-sidekick); Pau has been something of a whipping boy since he arrived in Los Angeles back in 2008. Whether it was KG and Perkins in the Finals or Kobe’s overused ice cold stares of disgust after Gasol failed (yet again!) to read Kobe’s mind; someone’s always got beef with Gasol’s heart and soul. It doesn’t matter that he was traded for his brother and a future murderer (allegedly). What matters is that Gasol is, and always has been, underappreciated. His name was kicked around in trade rumors like a deflated soccer ball and he was even traded to Houston in that bizarre Chris Paul deal (we still remember, Stern). But now that Bynum’s gone, it looks like Gasol can finally get the restful sleep and peaceful life he deserves.
I’ve always thought it begins and ends with Kobe, but Dwight changes all that. The future only ends darkly and you have to wonder how smoothly any Dwight Howard ascendance happens. Will Kobe pass the torch along with a smile and a sixth ring or will a triumvirate of Jim Buss, Mike Brown and Dwight pry it out of his arthritic fingers while simultaneously kicking him to foreign shores to wrap up his basketballing career? Or will the misery of all miseries come crashing down around us in waves of Dwight Howard free agent rumors? Pray for us all …
Alright, today’s post is a consolidation of madnesses from Sunday and Monday; and make no mistake it has been mad; at least someone’s mad. We’ve witnessed referee’s being loosely assaulted, Caron Butler breaking his hand, an impossible 27-point comeback and Amar’s Stoudemire punching out a pane of glass and in the process shredding his hand. If you’re not getting kicked out of games or getting hurt, you’re not doing your part.
Utah at San Antonio, game one, Spurs won 106-91, lead 1-0: Tony Parker did that Tony Parker thing he does where he uses speed and timing to invade the opposition’s defense at will. That the Spurs now play to his strengths instead of Duncan’s is impressive and a credit to all parties involved. The Jazz took one of four games against the Spurs in the regular season and will be fortunate to do better in the playoffs.
Random fact: Gordon Hayward attempted a career-high twelve free throws in game one and hit all twelve.
Denver at Lakers, game one, Lakers won 103-88, lead 1-0: Andrew Bynum is big, tall, long, talented, occasionally immature and more. To the Nuggets, he was the boogeyman in the paint, a giant protecting his lair. Ten blocks in the playoffs? Tied Hakeem Olajuwon and Mark Eaton for most blocks in playoff game history? Yep, that’s Andy. While Dwight’s temporarily crippled by a herniated disc, Bynum looks like an invincible force doing battle with children.
Boston at Atlanta, game one, Hawks won 83-74, lead 1-0: It was yet another battle in years’ worth of battles for these two franchises. The Hawks overcame a historically dismal shooting performance from Joe Johnson (see random fact below) to control this game and hang on for the win. The story that ruled the day was Rajon Rondo’s little chest bump into the ref. The timing and reaction were both overboard and could result in Boston dropping into a 0-2 hole. With Ray Allen’s health in question, the momentum Boston had built in March and April is vanishing in acts of immaturity and inevitability.
Random fact: Joe Johnson joined three other players in playoff history in three-point shooting ignominy with his 0-9 performance. His fellow culprits: John Starks, Rashard Lewis and Derrick Rose.
Clippers at Memphis, game one, Clippers won 99-98, lead 1-0: Watching this game was like watching a movie where you expect one thing to happen, but then the director/writer throws a knuckleball that leaves you disoriented and questioning the events of the previous two hours. Did it add up? Was it believable? Did I enjoy being befuddled or did the director just play a joke on me? There wasn’t a script to Sunday night’s game unless the big director in the sky is a Nick Young fan. What happens from here is anyone’s guess, but I can confidently say the Memphis Collective (players, coaches, fans, employees) looked helplessly nauseous in that fourth quarter.
Random fact(s): Reggie Evans’s 13 rebounds in 21 minutes put him in rare company with five other prolific playoff rebounders who’ve grabbed at least 13 boards in 21 minutes or less: Danny Schayes (14 in 21), Kurt Rambis (14 in 21), Scot Pollard (14 in 21), Jeff Foster (13 in 21), Maurice Lucas (14 in 19).
New York at Miami, game two, Heat won 104-94, lead 2-0: Once again, anger steals the headlines. Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t take too well to the Knicks’ second straight loss in Miami and took it out on a pane of glass covering a fire extinguisher. David Aldridge proceeded to take the event far too seriously, treating it more like Stoudemire had severed his femoral artery and was at risk of bleeding out instead of addressing it for the loss of control that it was. All this really does it take away the focus from what was another strong Miami performance and further reinforced the fact that the Knicks are simply overmatched the way blind Chinese dissidents are powerless against their government … oh, wait.
Orlando at Indiana, game two, Pacers won 93-78, tied 1-1: This game is being relegated to the NBA TV slot which essentially makes it the least interesting series in the playoffs. Ratings considerations aside, Monday night’s game was the familiar storyline of a tale of two halves. After falling behind by two at the half and being firmly bullied, the Pacers responded appropriately with a 30-13 third quarter. I wish things were different, but I struggle to find intrigue in this series.
Random fact: The Pacers are 33-2 on the season when leading after three quarters.
Dallas at OKC, game two, OKC won 102-99, up 2-0: Combined score after two games 201 – 197. The Mavs have had their chances, but unlike last season when they couldn’t miss in crunch time, Dirk and Jason Terry have come up short two games in a row and are dangerously close to seeing their title defense end early. Being pushed to the brink is nothing new for this Dallas crew, but in small spaces of their group consciousness, questions are being asked. Notable observations:
I’m not a Brendan Haywood fan, but the more I see him, the more I feel Shaq was justified in referring to him as “Brenda.”
Does Billy Hunter watch NBA games and if so, does he openly cheer against Derek Fisher? If the answer to either of those questions is yes, last night had to be particularly bitter for him.
Random fact: Miniscule sample size for sure, but through two playoff games, Kevin Durant is shooting 34% from the field compared to 52% for Russell Westbrook.
And that concludes three days of playoff basketball. We’ve had anger, controversy, pain and loss. Negativity is the overwhelming theme and I look forward to exploring the more affirmative aspects of these games in the coming days.
I kicked around the idea and got excited about it like it was some kind of realization unique to me, but I have my doubts. I mean, if Greg Anthony and those cats are talking about it, I’m far from original, but I figured since I thought of it independent of Greg Anthony, but possibly in dependence (would agreement be more appropriate, cahoots?) with Jim Buss (oh, the skin crawls just thinking I might agree with this Buss), it was worthy of a developed post here. And so I bring you the question: Is Andrew Bynum on par with Dwight Howard?
Before anyone goes all Stephen A. Smith on me and covers their keyboard with spittle or coffee or whatever’s in your mouth, I request the opportunity to define the terms of the question and answer.
I arrived at this question way back last week and would’ve asked it on the spot, but DeMarcus Cousins got the best of my limited attention span, so I had to wait until now. After serving his four-game suspension for flattening the smallest man in a Mavs uniform in last year’s playoffs (wrong place, wrong time, JJ), Andy B. returned to the court for the Lakers on New Year’s Eve and imposed his knees and arms all over the faces of the Denver Nuggets. Bynum is listed as a mere 7’0” tall, but I can’t help but second guess this listing as my TV projects the man to be mammothly large and possessed of limbs that stretch and stretch up beyond the heights of your everyday, average NBA seven-footer. It’s these same limbs that make anyone who watches Laker games cringe when he jumps or stretches for a loose ball for a couple reasons: First: His injury history precedes him (over his six-year career, he’s averaged 55 games/season … he misses, on average a third of his team’s games every season) and second: Those legs, as much as they’ve developed in terms of strength and balance, still conjure up images of Bambi or some other four-legged creature with legs that are far too structurally weak for the physique that sits atop. This haunting fear that Andy’s legs aren’t ready for his body may be a thing of the past, but old fears die slow … or they get medicated. Back to New Year’s Eve, the new introduction for Andrew Bynum, his first game being coached by new Laker Coach, Mike Brown. His first night out he shot 13-18 from the field, grabbed 13 rebounds and finished the game with 29 points. Welcome aboard, why yes, the Lakers have plenty of minutes available for a man who can do these things on a regular basis, but therein lies the variation between Dwight and Andy: Can Andy do it every night? Will he stop parking in handicapped spots and cramming his still-growing frame in Porsche 911s and just focus on his core—in the Billy Blanks sense, not the Jabbar sense.
Whatever Andy does off the court is just an expression of sorts, but it’s in part who he thinks he is, who he thinks people want him to be and who he thinks he should be. It’s all a juggling act and sometimes the groceries fall down and big, tall Andy Bynum, a world champion has to reach down in the grocery store and pick up his own vegetables when really, we’d all like to see him focused on the task at hand which is health and consistency as a Los Angeles Laker. So the first game was nice, but let’s see what followed and what we can see ahead, maybe to the future if they’ll even accept our probing inquisitions.
We don’t need the Hubbell telescope to see these stars, we have basketball -reference.com instead, an aggregator of all things black, white and numerical that have occurred in the NBA. Just know how to ask. Well, I asked and it turns out Andy’s first game against those Nuggets of Denver wasn’t no fluke (not no fluke I said). His performances on the young season:
15.7rpg – that’s where it’s at
And over 50% from the field.
He’s less efficient than he has been in the past, but increased opportunities are going to lead to declines in efficiency.
Among the nights that made up the averages you see above was a masterful, fan-fueled evening at the Statples Center where Mr. B achieved his career-first 20-20 game. It was done against Houston on Wednesday night and it has to be noted that the Rockets’ front court isn’t quite mediocre. It’s not from a lack of effort. They tried for trades, but ran into David Stern’s heavy handed gavel. Don’t you think Pau Gasol for Houston would’ve made it more difficult for Andy to achieve 20-20 than Pau Gasol for Los Angeles? Houston couldn’t hold down the 7’2” Bynum and so it was on NBA TV, I believe, I began chewing the fat that not only are the Lakers maybe better with Bynum than Howard, but maybe Bynum’s just better than Dwight.
Better and different are words that walk a fine line and when they’re used together like that it’s usually to dispel a given notion or just to engage in a deeper dissection about Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum.
On that same night when NBA TV was flashing graphics and stats like they’re tuned into the mainframe of NBA statistical databases and can present these informations with just a glance at huge HD screens, that’s when the topic came to Greg Anthony and his partners (Kenny? Webber? Both?). Anyhow, they big upped Andy’s accomplishment and then showed how many 20-20 games Dwight has had in his career (playoffs included): 39. Damn.
This disparity between 20-20 games really got me thinking and slicing the argument in different ways because as great as 20-20 is, you can hide a basket of fundamental flaws beneath the weight of those robust numbers that have the power to shape the ideas and contracts of American sports team owners which clearly isn’t our intent here because we’re just asking a few innocent questions.
Since I like boxing, I felt necessary to introduce the Tail of the Tape to this strange conversation that lost its way a while ago and continues to falter as we take our little steps forward.
Only family members and people who are paid by Dwight or the Orlando Magic should be forced to count his awards. The lists are redundant and bleed into the same award after 15 seconds.
If this were boxing, we’d all be enamored with the physical advantages held by the younger man. We’ be applauding lesser usage and predicting years of Dwight jumping up and down on pogo stick legs would eventually give out in a way that not even WD40 can resolve, but instead we’re looking at two very different basketball players who play the same position but do it so differently and do so for so many reasons.
Beyond the futuristic athleticism that was bestowed on Dwight by a combination of the Gods up on basketball Olympus and the genetic engineers over at Georgia Tech, the man has the Russellian/Rodmandian ability to dominate a game without having to shoot the ball. Whether he realizes it or not, this is a gift. He’s athletic enough to divert oppositions from painted areas out of fear that he’ll take their precious ball and give it to one of his own teammates if he so chooses. Or perhaps he’ll swat it away, into the hands of a paying customer, excited to be part of the game, amazed at the freakish shoulders of the man in front of him.
But beyond this rare gift is a counter-balance that seems contrived which makes it even worse. Dwight wants the ball. He wants to score it, dunk it, make passes to his friends so they too can feel what it’s like to be part of the big moment. It’s odd that this selfish part of his personality (however real it is) demands the ball for points. It’s really just an extension of his desire to be the center of attention and we all know scorers get the most attention. Dwight’s not a natural scorer though. Does he score and score efficiently? Yes, but for all his private workouts with Hakeem, his offense is still in development stages eight years into the league. And to make matters worse, I don’t think Dwight would give two spits about points if it didn’t mean more attention or if it didn’t mean he’d be more accepted by his peers. Dwight gets his fair share of plays drawn up these days, but he’s still at his best when he’s catching lobs or cleaning up the offensive glass. He uses his indomitable physical strength to outwork or outmaneuver the opposition, his presence alone opening up driving lanes and looks from beyond the arc for a supporting cast that’s been built to complement his skills—occupying the paint. Dwight shouldn’t be the focal point of an offense because it’s not best-suited for his game. If he were ever to come to this conclusion, he’d realize that imposing his will in the Russell fashion allows him to shape the outcome of games in ways that he only occasionally realizes. To be completely fair, Dwight’s only led his team in FGAs/game once his career—last season. His willingness to (mostly) accept the role Stan Van Gundy has carved out for him is commendable, but acceptance and embracing are different things altogether.
Then there’s big Andy who fits the traditional center character-type. He’s comfortable with his back to the basket, posting up and creating his own shots out of the post. His high shoulders and aforementioned long limbs allow him to get his shots off with ease and he’s developed a touch that the more-experienced Howard is still fine tuning. He’s able to reach over the opposition for rebounds without actually going over the back; a bizarre skill that few players possess. Removing injuries from the discussion, there’s an unknown that’s accompanied Bynum his entire career: Kobe Bryant. Bynum is paid like the superstar Jim Buss has always seen him as ($31million over next two seasons), but he’s never had the opportunity to explore the ceilings of his talents because he can’t stay on the court and even when he’s there, he’s the second or third option to Kobe and Gasol. This young season is the first time we’ve seen Bynum on the court for extended periods (34mpg is 4 more than his previous career high and his usage rate is 27% compared to his previous career-best of 20.8%) and the early returns are staggeringly better than anything we’ve ever seen from him. Plateaus aren’t part of the Bynum vocabulary today and until he levels off, the statistical possibilities and in-game impacts will be nothing but speculation.
In Andy’s 330+ game career, we’ve seen snippets of his 2011-12 performance, but it’s never been sustainable. Whether Gasol, Kobe or Phil Jackson impeded his progress, injuries got in the way or he just wasn’t ready for the increased role, he’s never been capable of persistent dominance. And it’d be an act of blind faith to believe the injuries are a thing of the past, but for the first time, it’s not a stretch to give Jim Buss the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge he may be onto something with this big kid. Does that mean Andrew Bynum is better than Dwight Howard? Absolutely not. I’m excited about Bynum going for 18 and 15 over a six-game stretch. Dwight’s been doing this regularly for well over 400 straight games and has the individual honors to prove it. Add in Howard’s commitment to fitness and reliability (he’s missed seven of a possible 583 games) and he’s one of the most consistent and productive players in the past 20 years whereas we’re still praying for an injury-free season from Andy.
Given Bynum’s age and the waves of potential flowing from his massive frame, we can at least hit the pause button on the “big man is dead” statements that have been so popular over the past few years. Andrew Bynum is giving hope to the great Pete Newell and seven footers around the world: You too can play with your back to the basket. He’s not on Dwight’s level yet and may never find that regularity, but in the infant stages of a new season, Bynum is injecting his name into conversations reserved for all-stars and future of famers. The immense ability coupled with the always-present questions about durability make Bynum’s career nerve racking. If I have anxieties and worry about Bynum’s injuries as a basketball fan, I can’t imagine the fears lying in the depths of the minds of Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak. Bynum’s own feelings about his injuries remain a mystery.