Dwight Howard Trade Reaction

Hey! By now you probably know that some man who formerly played center for the Orlando Magic is going to play center for the Los Angeles Lakers next season.  Obviously this topic has been dissected on various horrible radio and television programs across the country, but that doesn’t mean you should skip this article!  Where else will you find blatant homerism for the Denver Nuggets in a Dwight Howard trade column?  That’s what I thought.

So, Dwight Howard, LA Laker…but what does it mean?

Los Angeles Lakers:

It’s no secret, so let’s just get this over with first.  The Lakers immediately go from a has-been team to the favorites to win the title this season.  Their starting lineup ranks among the greatest ever assembled and provides perfect balance to each of their stars’ talents.  So many options for them, here are just a few of the possibilities: Nash/Dwight pick-and-rolls, Nash/Gasol pick-and-rolls, Nash being able to dump to Gasol or Dwight after penetrating the lane, Nash throwing alley-oops to Gasol or Dwight, and did I mention they have Kobe Bryant?  Yikes. 

In addition to this, Dwight provides the perfect balance to Nash and Kobe’s deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball.  By being able to protect the rim after they get beat, the back court will be able to conserve all their energy towards offense.  It’s also perfect because Dwight never was comfortable being the go-to guy on offense.  He’s more than capable on the offensive end, but he just doesn’t possess the offensive skills of a guy like Shaq or Hakeem.  So long as he doesn’t pull an Andrew Bynum and demand to take 20-30 shots a game, they could conceivably win three or four more titles before Kobe retires.

The Lakers deserve considerable credit for pulling this off while retaining Gasol.  Simply amazing.  It’s worth mentioning the unlikely chain of events that led to this happening:

-Lakers trade Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom in three-team deal for Chris Paul

-David Stern pulls a Vince McMahon and vetoes the trade

-Lamar Odom feels the Lakers disrespected him, demands trade

-Lakers trade Lamar Odom to Mavericks for a trade exception

-Lakers refuse to budge on Magic’s demand for both Gasol and Bynum during the season

-Dwight panics at the deadline and refuses to execute his early termination option, sabotaging his free agency chance this summer where he would have signed with Brooklyn

-Ramon Sessions agent convinces him not to execute his player option to stay with the Lakers, ends up getting less money to play for the last-place Bobcats

-Lakers convince division rival Suns to give them Steve Nash using trade exception from Lamar Odom trade and cap space from Sessions’ departure

-Brooklyn panics about opening arena without a superstar, overpays Brook Lopez, sabotages their chances at trading for Dwight

-Magic panic and take what on paper seems like the worst offer that the public is aware of, trading their second consecutive franchise center to the Lakers

This is your sad reminder that this could only happen to the Los Angeles Lakers.  I will now slam my head against the monitor for the next two hours.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philly hit a home run.  They dumped their two biggest salaries from last season by amnestying Brand and then trading Iguodala.  Iguodala is a great player who fits a very specific need (more on him later), but he doesn’t justify his superstar salary and never wanted to be “the guy” on his team.  In addition to that they gain the second best center in the league and a player who is desperate for a shot at being “the guy.”  Jason Richardson is also a great fit with franchise centers, as the last couple years in Orlando have proven.  While Bynum has a lot of maturity issues, there are several reasons to believe this is going to work out really well for them. 

First, Bynum is from New Jersey and thus an east coast guy.  The move back east should please him, given that he will be closer to family.  Second, Doug Collins is a great, great coach with a ton of experience at getting immature players to buy into his system, most especially on defense.  Finally, Philly has one of the best young rosters in the game right now which is perfectly constructed to take advantage of his skill set.  They’ll be a salty team for the second consecutive year.

Philly isn’t going to win a title, but there’s no reason to think they can’t assume Atlanta’s old role as the team that you can count on to lose in the second round of the playoffs.

Orlando Magic

Most writers are (rightfully) bashing the way Orlando handled this Dwight trade.  By every account, they accepted the worst possible deal. Houston was willing to give up every asset they had and take on every bad Magic contract simply for the chance to rent Dwight for a season.  Sadly, even the Nets paltry offer would have made more sense. The Magic arguably got the three worst players in this deal with Afflalo, Harrington, and Vucevic and their haul of draft picks is in no way impressive. 

The recipe on trading away franchise players has always been to dump salary, get young players, and receive a nice collection of draft picks in return. Somehow, in a trade in which they gave up the best player, they made out the worst of the four teams involved.  This could only happen in the NBA.

However, I’ll offer one brief defense for their new GM,  Rob Hennigan.  The only proven way to win a championship in the NBA is to have a top ten talent.  There are only two ways to acquire a top ten talent.  Either you have to draft one and hold onto him as long as possible or you have to be one of the fortunate teams in a big market city who are able to sway free agents into signing there.  Orlando is not a big market city.

As much success as the Nuggets have had since the Carmelo trade, perfecting the blueprint for how to successfully trade away your franchise superstar, they will never win a title.  Sure they’ll compete and maybe even make a conference championship, but a title is out of the question. It makes sense that a team would rather risk futility for the chance at being great again rather than remain in the trap of mediocrity for the next ten years.

The only way Orlando can win a title is to go into absolute Charlotte Bobcats tank mode and hope that they’re fortunate enough to draft the next Dwight Howard.  It’s a frustrating business model that makes absolutely no sense, but that’s the modern day NBA.  A small market team needs to literally and figuratively win the lottery so that they can get the next Kevin Durant or Dwight Howard.

Denver Nuggets

I still have no idea how Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri pulled this off, but it’s worth mentioning that I memorized how to spell his name because of how impressed I am.  Every move he’s made since taking over the team has worked out in the Nuggets favor, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he should now be considered one of the five best GMs in the sport.  Consider: the Nuggets dumped two large and undesirable contracts and somehow got a superior player in return. That just doesn’t happen in professional basketball, well not since Isiah Thomas retired from the front office.

The best part is that Iguodala perfectly fits into the Nuggets system.  As Kelly Dwyer remarked on Ball Don’t Lie this morning, “Andre Iguodala is just about the most Denver Nuggets player in the NBA.” PERFECT.  There is no better way of explaining it.  Iguodala is an elite transition player, among the five best finishers in basketball according to the advanced stats.  It just so happens that the Nuggets love to push the ball in the open court.  Get used to seeing Lawson to Iguodala fast break highlights this year. George Karl has to be smirking somewhere right now imagining the possibilities.

In addition to his elite transition game, Iguodala also brings in a much desired defensive presence that the Nuggets lacked last year.  He’s one of the five best isolation defenders in the NBA and is the perfect candidate to match up with division foe Kevin Durant.  Denver just didn’t have a lock down defender that they could throw on the other team’s “guy” last year and there is perhaps no one better suited for that task than Iguodala.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that LeBron James might be the only better defender in the game.

It’s a great fit for team and player and Iguodala was always more content with being the number two or three option.  It’s no secret that Ty Lawson wants this to be his team and with Iguodala and Gallinari running the wings, the Nuggets will be a tough out for any team in the playoffs next year, assuming they stay healthy.  What’s disappointing though is that they’ll still fail to crack the West’s elite with the static top three of LA, OKC, and San Antonio.  None of those teams will want to face Denver though.

Nuggets fans can’t help but hope that this trade for AI from Philly works out better than the last one.  There is a lot of optimism to believe it will.

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On NBA Free Agency

The disaster and chaos that is the NBA off season began in the last week or so.  ESPN decided a long time ago that its coverage of this period would consist of an endless barrage of tweets, whispers, and rumors from around the league.  This works not only because there’s only baseball to watch on television during the summer but also because sports fans no longer care about facts and information.  They would rather concern themselves with an infinite number of what-if conversations to fill the time between now and when football is back.  Trying to track it all can lead an individual into Ron Artest levels of insanity as it is seemingly impossible to tell where Free Agent X is going to land thanks to fans having to deal with the Insiders at ESPN leaking any and every rumor from their sources as well as the countless supply of fake twitter accounts popping up on the internet. 

This next part is difficult because no individual is any guiltier of the above crimes than any of the other dozens of writers leaking rumors on Twitter all day.  However, Chris Broussard is the best example of why this coverage is all kinds of tainted.  Broussard is known as ESPN’s go-to guy when it comes to NBA rumors, most especially when it comes to the big names in the sport.  His role has evolved well beyond the reporter role though as he was seen on ESPN’s studio show throughout the playoffs.  There he opined on the teams and players he objectively reports on behind the scenes.  This is somewhat of a conflict of interest.  But it gets better.

Yesterday after breaking details about the Joe Johnson trade, Broussard wrote the following,

Nets, of course, would’ve preferred to get Dwight, but Magic refused to engage in trade talks. Source: ‘They didn’t want to dance with us.’ 

He then followed right after by saying,

Source on Nets moving on from possibility of getting Dwight: “Dwight blew it in March” when he waived opt-out clause. 

One could infer that Broussard obviously has a well-placed source in the Brooklyn organization.  Nothing to see here, right?  Wrong.

This morning Broussard started a whole day’s worth of pointless conversations when he tweeted the following nugget,

Sources: The Nets & Magic are discussing a trade that would send Dwight Howard to Brooklyn for Briik Lopez [sic], Kris Humphies [sic], Marshon Brooks…

And then he wrote,

con’t) and the Nets’ first-round picks in 2012, 2014, 2016 & 2018….move would give Nets Big 3 of D-Will, Dwight & Joe Johnson.

This led Mike and Mike to immediately get him on the phone where they debated the topic of Dwight going to New Jersey despite the fact that Broussard, only six hours earlier, had said the Nets were extremely aware that they didn’t have enough assets to land Dwight Howard in a trade. 

While this source was likely an Orlando executive trying to let the market place know that Orlando was open for business, it was insulting for Broussard to waste everyone’s time with all of this rumor spreading when Dwight will NEVER land in New Jersey through a trade.  One expert on the CBA calculated that the Nets would need to figure out six separate sign-and-trade deals to make it possible for a Howard deal to go through which would easily be the most ever.  The possibility of this happening is worse than the Nets signing Chris Broussard as their point guard next year.

The whole extravaganza is bothersome.  For one, ESPN seemingly invents imaginary stories by allowing their reporters to be used as mediums for any rumor that a GM or agent feels like spreading that day.  The scary extension of this is the way they use their various platforms to then discuss and debate said rumors throughout the day, despite being aware of the fact that they’re being used by various organizations and agencies.  There is no doubt that it increases traffic to their website and television networks, but at what cost?  They are blatantly making money off of fake news. 

It’s no wonder that any number of fake twitter accounts now populate the internet spreading rumors under cleverly named accounts that mimic the actual reporters.  Several times in the past couple of weeks fans have been duped by links from people pretending to be Adrian Wojnarowski, Chris Broussard, and the rest of them.  While many are quick to realize the fabrications, is it really any different than what the actual reporters do on a day-to-day basis?

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NBA Finals Game Five Recap

“It’s about damn time” -LeBron James

LeBron James couldn’t contain his happiness. Pulled from the game with three minutes remaining and the victory well in hand, James began his championship celebration on the bench. It’s hard to remember a Finals MVP who was that visibly happy, that willing to let the world get a glimpse inside. So many times a star player will collapse in exhaustion or cry like a baby, unable to speak to anyone. That’s not LeBron James, never has been. As he admitted after the game to Stuart Scott, he plays the game of basketball to be happy. He was never meant to play the game with the anger that drove people like Jordan. At long last, the King has a crown. LeBron James is a three-time MVP, a Finals MVP, and most importantly, he’s a champion. And I’ll be damned if he doesn’t deserve it.

To think how far LeBron James has come is to take a journey. Who can forget the immaturity, the overconfidence, and the failures that have plagued his career? There was the early promise, the game against the Pistons, the way he consistently carried the worst rosters in the NBA to the cusp of greatness. Then there was the failure of Cleveland management to find him a reliable teammate, the fourth quarter let downs, and the ugly way he seemingly quit on his teammates in the playoffs. And finally there was The Decision, the premature championship celebration/introduction, the douchey way he reminded the rest of America last year that they were not LeBron James. Some how, through all of that mess, LeBron James grew up and became the best damn basketball player since Michael Jordan. And now, he has the first of what will surely be many rings to go with the reputation.

If only all the games had been as easy as this one.

It was apparent from the opening whistle that something was off in this game. Both teams came out in sloppy fashion. They failed to take care of the basketball and it was made all the worse that the refs were calling the softest of fouls. Fans were hard pressed to tell whether Oklahoma City was ready to begin the most legendary of NBA Finals comebacks or if the Heat were going to shut the door on their last hopes.

It didn’t become clear until a graduate of the University of Florida by the name of Mike Miller made the most of what might be his last opportunity to play professional basketball. It’s been rumored throughout the playoffs that he might be forced to retire because of injuries after this season ended. Miller, who was pegged as the fourth wheel during the summer of the Big Three’s construction, has largely been viewed as a disappointment up until this game. Many around the league feel that the Heat devoted way too much money to him when that salary cap room might have been better spent on a serviceable big man. It doesn’t help that he also seems to have been injured his entire two years in South Beach. But after this performance, it all seems worth it.

To put it simply, Mike Miller did not miss.

He finished the game with 23 points on 7-of-8 shooting from three. LeBron James may have slowly eroded the spirit of the Thunder over time, but Miller appeared in a Mariano Rivera fashion to absolutely suck the life out of the Heat’s opponent. The way he so effortlessly drained those seven long-range shots completely closed out any chance the Thunder had of winning the basketball game and forcing the series back to Oklahoma City. It’s impossible to overstate just how profound an impact they had on the Thunder’s confidence. It was the sign of a player giving absolutely everything he had. He left it all out on the floor.

From there, it was simply a matter of time till the Heat got back to doing what they do best under LeBron James–having fun. The lead exploded in the third quarter when Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier got in on the festival of three-pointers that Miller started. It’s important to point out that all of this long-range shooting was possible because of the surgical manner with which LeBron James picked apart the Thunder’s defensive game plan.

For how many years now have LeBron’s critics wondered what was possible, if only he would embrace the low-post game? James finally bought into the style of play and it completely decided the series. The Thunder had no player who could match him in isolation and James punished them for it, scoring at will. When they brought help on a double team, he simply kicked it out to the above three-point shooters who found themselves more than wide-open on almost every single attempt.

He was so effective during these Finals that it was hard not to make comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki last year or, dare I say it, Larry Bird. What’s terrifying is that LeBron brings even more things to the table than either of those guys. He’s a better defender, he’s far more athletic, he’s way stronger, and he can play every position on the floor. It’s as if LeBron James is a perfect athletic hybrid of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, with a little of Karl Malone’s freakish body mixed in for good measure.

By the time all of those threes swished through the nets it was over, and the Heat’s style of play reflected it. LeBron and Wade began throwing risky passes that belong more in ESPN’s Top Ten than the NBA Finals. Alley oops started going down. The team began to have that funny problem where they actually overpass because they want each other to succeed so badly. And most of all, they were visibly having fun. Wade and Bosh joined LeBron in being unable to contain their smiles.

It’s hard not to be happy for them. The great fear when LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach was that the Heat would cheapen the value of championships in professional sports. What was the point of tuning in anymore if all the star players were just going to end up on the same team one day and hold a monopoly on all the titles? America feared that it would lose the romantic aspects of winning such as grit, toughness, the value of team play, defense, and the special way in which a player and a city can be completely defined by each other. If you asked the Heat players now, that probably was the original plan.

They found that it wasn’t that easy though. Dallas exposed them last year simply because they wanted it more. The Mavericks used the timing of having a perfectly constructed roster and the desperation of veterans late in their careers to steal a title that by all rights should have belonged to the far more talented Heat. It revealed something and it nearly happened again this year with a Boston Celtics team that simply wasn’t ready to give up despite being in the fifth year of a three-year plan.

And that’s how basketball works. There is nothing lost in this championship, no shame in any of it. Great basketball teams and great basketball players don’t break through until their elders teach them just exactly what it takes to win a championship. It’s the circle of life of the NBA and it still holds true to this day. Where would Chris Bosh be without Kevin Garnett taunting him mercilessly the last two years? Where would LeBron James be without the likes of DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, and Paul Pierce? The cycle repeated itself once again and all is right in the NBA.

Like any good cliffhanger at the end of an action movie, it’s worth mentioning that four of the Thunder’s stars are less than 23-years old. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a free agent head coach available by the name of Phil Jackson who would like nothing more in this world than to wipe the smug look off of Pat Riley’s face, his only living peer. And finally, it’s worth mentioning that the final shot of Kevin Durant completely losing control of his emotions in the arms of his parents is one of the biggest tell-tale signs of great things to come in basketball. Durant has now tasted disappointment. He’s currently in that darkest of dark place that so often inspires so much greatness. The first fight went to LeBron sure, but Durant will be back and as any good fight fan knows, the greatest rivalries always come in threes.

Congratulations to the Miami Heat, your 2012 NBA Champions.

The real work starts now.

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NBA Finals Game Four Recap

LeBron James sat and watched from the bench as his Miami teammates put the Heat within one win of an NBA title. He wasn’t in foul trouble, he wasn’t having a bad game, nor was he shrouded in shame. No, ill-timed leg cramps prevented the Heat’s MVP from playing the final minute of an outstanding Game 4 battle with the Thunder which was easily the best game of these NBA Finals. How fitting for James, after all these years of carrying awful lineups deep into the NBA playoffs, that it was his teammates who stepped up and carried him, both literally and figuratively to victory.

And what a game it was.

The Thunder exploded out of the opening whistle for by far their best first quarter of the Finals. They hit a barrage of jump shots from all over the court, led by Russell Westbrook. The talented Thunder guard had 8 points in the first 3:45 of the game, sending a message to the Heat that no one could change the style of his game, or stop it for that matter. Before the Heat knew what hit them they were down 10 in a shocking role reversal for the script that the first quarters have followed thus far.

Miami would cut the lead to five, but again the Thunder responded with terrific play. In a surprising break, the Thunder actually had a ton of success when Serge Ibaka left the floor with two quick fouls. It forced the Thunder into a small ball lineup featuring Nick Collison at center. This was the exact lineup Scott Brook’s critics had been begging for all series. You’re never going to believe this, but it worked! It worked so damn well that the Thunder rode Collison to a 14-point lead after one, which could have been 17 if not for a near buzzer beater.

As this series has taught NBA fans though, no big lead is safe. These teams are so talented, so quick to convert lazy passes into fast break layups, so good at finding the open man. By the second quarter Miami realized that LeBron James would have to resort back to the distributor role that fans are so used to seeing him in rather than the rebounding force of nature fans have witnessed thus far. Oklahoma City had made the decision to force the other Heat players to beat them, doubling LeBron any time he tried to get the ball in the post.

In the past these were the type of moments that frustrated James. He has the best passing vision of his generation and yet so many times his open teammates would let him down. When Mario Chalmers struggled to hit much of anything in the first quarter, many wondered whether it was all happening again. And then something funny happened. A rookie out of Cleveland State named Norris Cole hit a pair of threes, one to close the first, one to open the second, and suddenly Miami found its groove.

They cut the lead to a single point within four minutes and it would take the Thunder almost that same amount of time before they scored their first point of the quarter. From there a sort of hesitant back-and-forth ensued between the two teams. Miami would seem to be seizing the momentum of the game only to see Westbrook drive with ease to the hoop and hush the crowd. Punch. Counterpunch. The Heat would never get the lead before halftime but they trailed by only three at the break.

So many fans and analysts are currently attempting to hijack the NBA Finals and turning it into a narrative of dubious officiating and the ethics of the block/charge conundrum. These myopic fools are missing the best Finals since Michael Jordan retired from basketball. The third quarter proved it.

The great signature of a legendary Finals matchup is when two teams begin executing at such a high level that it leaves the fans wondering which team will miss first. One stretch in the third quarter saw seven straight possessions end with points, six of which were field goals. It’s the type of back-and-forth that can only be described by using language out of boxing. First Chris Bosh hit the Thunder with a driving and-one layup. Serge Ibaka countered with a fadeaway around the free throw line. Dwyane Wade crossed the Thunder with a jumper of his own. Thabo Sefolosha then counterpunched with a jumper fed by Kevin Durant. LeBron James then got inside and hit them with a layup. Russell Westbrook then bobbed and weaved to one of his patented two-pointers . It seemed no one would break. And finally Dwyane Wade slipped his way to the foul line while the basketball world could only stand and catch its breath. Wow.

And there was still a quarter to play.

LeBron James came within a single rebound of a triple-double, finishing with a 26-9-12 line. Dwyane Wade contributed a very solid 25-5-3. Mario Chalmers came back from the dead and chipped in a much-needed 25 points. And yet for all of those remarkable contributions, this game should have been remembered as the Russell Westbrook game.

How to explain a player that is so uniquely talented, yet so unanimously criticized by the mainstream media? Westbrook certainly exorcised many, if not all of the demons unfairly thrown upon him by the talking heads on this night. He was easily the most dominant player on the floor, and if not for his heroics, the Thunder probably would have faced an embarrassing loss that could have haunted them for years down the road. To measure his impact, consider that Westbrook scored THIRTEEN straight points for the Thunder during a five minute stretch to begin the fourth quarter to tie the game at 90-90.

The physical nature with which he was getting his baskets was something the Finals hasn’t seen since the days of Shaquille O’Neal being simply unguardable in the low post. Westbrook is light years faster than every single player in the arena, even LeBron James is helpless to attempt staying in front of him. His violent attacks to the basket paired with his silky touch on mid-range jumpers is a set of skills that no other player in the league can lay claim to at the moment. He finished with 43 of the bravest points of the season but sadly, it was not enough.

For all of Westbrook’s gallantry, Oklahoma City’s two goats stole the show. James Harden failed to crack the double digit mark in points for the third time, finishing with a nightmarish 2/10 shooting line. One shot in particular gave fans insight into just how far he’s fallen. Harden found himself wide open with about two minutes left and the Thunder trailing by five, needing a bucket to stay in the game. He was so wide open that he had time to catch, hesitate, scan all four of his teammate’s positions on the court, and then fire off a shot before the Heat defense got around to covering him. It was the mark of a player afraid to pull the trigger, the biggest sign of a lack of confidence. This game should be the symbolic passing of the torch from Westbrook to Harden as the go-to player on which radio hosts can place their blame. And for once I don’t pity the player, not after rumors floated around on Twitter all week that Harden has been seen partying late into the night before these big games.

And finally there was Scott Brooks, he of the stubborn devotion and loyalty to his veterans. As awful as Harden has been, if the Oklahoma City Thunder do go on to lose the NBA Finals, Brooks needs to accept the overwhelming majority of the criticism. How else to explain the Kendrick Perkins lineups in spite of visual evidence that the Thunder play excellent small ball? How else to explain his decision tonight to leave Derek Fisher in late into the fourth quarter when the Thunder so desperately needed Thabo Sefolosha on LeBron James? And finally, how else to explain Brook’s ultimate brain fart, the lack of coaching he provided to his players following the bizarre jump ball sequence that decided the game.

On the play in the final minute of the game, the Thunder trailed by three and forced a jump ball with less than a second remaining on the shot clock in Miami’s possession. NBA rules state that the shot clock is to be set at five in that situation, but none of the Thunder players on the court were aware of this as it is such a rare situation. Brooks should have been screaming this at the top of his lungs to his players. Instead, Miami won the tip, and Russell Westbrook committed a cringe-inducing foul that was straight out of the Chris Webber playbook on dumb plays in clutch moments. But again, this was the fault of the head coach, not of the player. For all the talk of Phil Jackson coaching rumors, one can’t help but think he’s a potential candidate to land with this team after the awful performance of Brooks.

It’s worth mentioning that no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals to win the title. It seems a foregone conclusion that by the end of the week we will be living in a world in which we say LeBron James, NBA Finals MVP or LeBron James, NBA Champion. His biggest critics will laugh that he was on the bench while his team sealed the deal, but there was something poetic about it all. For once, James could let someone else shoulder the burden.  For once, he wasn’t on his own.

Finally, he has a real team.

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NBA Finals Game Two Recap

A Game 2 win by the Miami Heat was ever so close to going up in flames. The Heat, holding the lead the entire game, were up five and coasting to an inevitable victory when they came out of a timeout with 48 seconds to go. Dwyane Wade received the inbounds pass and attempted to glide past Thabo Sefolosha and Derek Fisher. The aging veteran Fisher, like he’s done so many times in his career, came up with a huge play in a big moment and forced a turnover.

Scrambling in transition, Kevin Durant knocked down a three to net his 26th point of the second half and set up a very nervous moment with the lead now cut to two. When LeBron James missed a poorly selected three of his own on the ensuing play, the whole world seemed to know what was happening next. Surely Durant would add to his legend and convert the game-winner. Surely the Heat would lose game two in devastating fashion for the second consecutive year. Surely LeBron James would be scapegoated again for a bad Miami loss.

Not on this night.

Durant caught a quick pass from Fisher out of the timeout because James wasn’t ready for play to resume. Unfortunately for the Thunder, he received it in an awkward position on the court and forced a leaning shot that missed. The replay clearly showed that he was fouled by James on the play, but like the gentlemen in stripes had done so many times on this night, they missed the call. And that really was the theme of game two. Poor officiating put a black eye on what was otherwise a very exciting game.

Kevin Durant picked up his second foul fairly early in the first quarter and was forced to take a seat. He eventually would earn his fifth foul with about 10:30 to go in the fourth. Credit should be given to the Heat for making a concerted effort to get LeBron James in the paint with a clear intent of achieving just that outcome. In the NBA Finals though, fans and analysts alike expect Durant to be given more leeway than he was. The officials hit him with a number of cheapies and the Thunder struggled mightily. If not for the first half heroics of James Harden (17 first half points), the Thunder may have been down by an insurmountable margin instead of the 12 they trailed at the break.

Unlike Game 1 when the Thunder took over in the second half, Miami refused to relinquish control of their double digit lead. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James continued with their first half mission of pounding the ball inside and there seemed to be little Oklahoma City could do to stop the elite Miami slashers. The LeBron James America has dreamed about for years finally arrived and schooled Durant with an emerging low-post game. And give all the credit in the world to Wade. Rumors circulated on Twitter all afternoon that he put in an extremely hard workout today on his mid-range shooting after a poor performance in the opener. It showed as Wade unleashed a number of difficult baskets that silenced the aggressive Thunder crowd on various occasions. The Heat needed someone else to step up and Wade answered the call. He finished with a 24-6-5.

And let us not forget Chris Bosh either. Though rather quiet in the second half, Bosh had a double-double before halftime with ten points and rebounds apiece. It was crucial for the Heat because six of the first-half rebounds came on the offensive glass. Answering Coach Erik Spoelstra’s call to the starting lineup, Bosh was a difference maker on this night and finished with a valuable 16-15 line. No doubt Spoelstra will continue to give him all the minutes he can handle as the Thunder have yet to counter the small ball lineups that have been so effective for the Heat.

Speaking of small ball, it’s necessary to point out that Scott Brooks deserves a lot of criticism for his insistence on playing Kendrick Perkins when he so clearly has a negative impact for the Thunder. Everyone knows Perkins was brought in to counter Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, not LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He’s too slow on rotations, too useless on the offensive side of the ball. Though a flawed stat, Perkins finished with a game-low -16 plus/minus rating. It is not hyperbole to say he’d been the worst and most ineffective player thus far and that he should see minimal, if any playing time the rest of the series. His replacement Nick Collison had an immediate positive impact on the game every time he hit the floor and fits better into the style of the series.

So many times in the NBA Finals, it is the role players making big plays that we remember. Bill Simmons calls them irrational confidence guys. We remember them all by their nicknames. Big Shot Bob, The Jet, and soon we might have to add the no-stats all star. For those unfamiliar with the moniker, Shane Battier made a reputation early in his career for being the first player highlighted by the advanced stats movement in basketball. He was a cult hero for years in the sports dork circles although never breaking through in the playoffs.

Through two games in these finals, he might be the Heat’s team MVP. Battier finished Game 2 with 17 points on 6/8 shooting that included an astounding 5/7 from deep. One three in particular, a rushed banking heave to beat the shot clock with 5:07 to go in the fourth, stymied yet another Thunder comeback attempt. He’s now hit four or more three-pointers in his last three playoff games going back to game seven against Boston. It’s the first time he’s achieved that feat in his entire career. Talk about great timing.

The tone of the game overall had a much different feeling than Game 1. Neither team was able to get comfortable. Again, blame the officials. The Thunder in particular had to completely adjust their offensive philosophy as a result. So successful in game one using the pick-and-roll, the Thunder largely had to abandon their main offensive weapon because of Durant’s foul trouble. They simply could not risk him getting nailed for his sixth foul while setting up Westbrook on their go-to play. James Harden and Russell Westbrook were forced into driving, but only Westbrook was able to find any success in the second half. Harden would finish with only 21 points after scoring 17 in the first two periods.

There is no doubt that the game was a wake up call for the Thunder. Too many times in these playoffs they’ve gotten away with poor starts in the first half of games only to pull out a great comeback in the second half. The Mavericks, Lakers, and Spurs all witnessed this happen. It’s a great sign that the Thunder never feel like they’re out of a game, but it’s simply not the calling card of a mature team. They have to do a better job of not putting themselves out of games early because these Heat actually have the ability to punish them for their poor play, as evidenced tonight.

Going forward, look for a number of things. First is the Perkins issue. It can’t be reiterated enough how little he should play in the coming games. Second is whether Wade and Bosh can continue to answer the call for the Heat. They’ll have to at least match their great play tonight if the Heat want to have a legitimate shot at actually winning this thing. Third, James Harden has to do a better job of showing up for the entire game. He no showed in Game 1 and only had an impact in one half of Game 2. For a guy that is rumored to be worth max money, he has to live up to that reputation. Finally, the Heat have to continue to embrace their offensive philosophy of getting the ball down low once the fourth quarters start. In both games they’ve found success for three quarters before going into an isolation-heavy offense in the final quarter. They got away with it tonight, but let’s just say it’s not exactly efficient.

This will never make national headlines, but on this night LeBron James out-clutched Kevin Durant. It was LeBron who hit the clutch free throws that iced the game after Durant’s missed a potential game-tying shot. This series has more than lived up to expectations thus far. The only way it could possibly get better is if we are blessed with an overtime game or two in our future. There is no doubt the series will go at least six games. At the end, one great player will have his first NBA title.

It’s still unclear if it’s Heat or Thunder in the forecast though.

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NBA Finals Game One Recap

A game billed as a battle of big threes turned out to be two versus one. LeBron James simply did not have enough to defeat the combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in game one of the NBA Finals. Coming off a tiring seven game series against a physical Boston Celtics team, the Miami Heat very much looked like a team lacking the necessary energy it will take to win the title while the Thunder very much lived up to their reputation as a team that never tires.

The first half was interesting. The Thunder came out very apprehensive and seemed unable to score on a tight Miami defense. Whereas the Spurs could not defend against Russell Westbrook coming off pick-and-rolls, the Heat seemed to find a way to disrupt the talented Thunder guard, trapping him with a double team every time he tried to use the play. The strategy worked and caused the Thunder to turn over the ball eight times in the first half. Compared to Miami’s four this was the primary factor in the Heat’s seven point lead at the halfway point.

Miami also looked to exploit the Thunder’s decision to leave Kendrick Perkins in the game for fifteen minutes in the first half despite any hint of a post presence for the Heat. The sluggish Thunder big man struggled to defend against the Heat’s speed and ability to stretch the floor which led to a flurry of Miami three-pointers from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers. No one doubts Perkins’ heart, but he seems a relic from a different era of basketball. It is no secret that the NBA made the turn into a more European style years ago, what with power forwards who consistently can knock down threes and supremely athletic guards who drive to the basket using their athleticism. Luckily for Perkins, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to not show up for game one.

Bosh and Wade combined to go 6/14 in the first half but were bailed out by the sensational shooting of the Heat role players. When that faucet ran dry in the second half, the poor play of the other two Heat superstars became the narrative of the game. They simply let LeBron James down, finishing a disappointing 11/30 between them.

For all the talk of Dwyane Wade turning the team over to LeBron James, there were several hints that he still believes himself to be the Heat’s best player. On numerous occasions he looked to isolate against the Thunder defense and came up empty time after time. The dirty secret of the NBA playoffs is how little Wade trusts his jump-shot right now and yet Wade continued to shoot ill-advised jumpers, desperately waving his pump fake at Thunder defenders who knew better than to fall for the aging player’s go-to move. It took him 19 shots to score 19 points. On a night when the Thunder struggled to guard LeBron James’ drives, it was especially frustrating to watch Wade sabotage the Heat’s efforts to steal game one on the road.

And don’t let columnists out there turn this into another failure of LeBron James. The three-time MVP was brilliant on this night, finishing with a 30-9-4 line in arguably his best ever Finals game. There was one moment in particular in the third quarter around the 9:00 mark when LeBron looked like he might be slipping back into the funk that has plagued his playoff reputation. The Thunder had just erased a seven-point halftime deficit to take their first lead and James was doing that thing where he hangs around the three-point line looking detached from the moment. He then proved that this is not your 2011 version of LeBron James by converting three consecutive drives to the basket that hushed a boisterous Thunder crowd.

Despite James’ brilliance though, Kevin Durant was even better.

The Thunder superstar finished with 36-8-4 line that included 12/20 shooting along with a highly efficient 4-8 from deep. The Heat had no answer for him in the second half as Durant used several ball screens from Russell Westbrook to take advantage of a number of mismatches. The cold truth is that if LeBron James isn’t guarding Durant every second he’s on the court, the Heat cannot stop him.

Durant comes across as a juggernaut in fourth quarters now. He shot 6/10 from the floor and added a perfect 4/4 from the free throw line to close out the game in the final period. He even did that Kevin Durant thing where he seemed to let his teammates take all of the shots in the first half before eventually throwing them on his back to win the game late.

Watching the Thunder’s play recently, it feels as though he never misses anymore when the game is on the line. The Heat will have to counter by doubling, even tripling Durant and forcing the Thunder’s other players to beat them. It doesn’t help them the Russell Westbrook is shutting up the Skip Baylesses of the world with his great play. He so clearly outplayed his counterpart Wade and was easily the best guard on the floor. He’d finish with an otherworldly 27-8-11 line to contribute to the game one victory.

Nick Collison also added to his reputation as one of the best role players in the NBA by finishing with ten rebounds, five of which came on the offensive glass. When he wasn’t pulling down the boards he was keeping possessions alive with several tips to his teammates and shooting 4/5 from the field.

If game one is any indication, this is going to be a great series. Despite the loss, Miami has to know that this Thunder team is very beatable. They exploited the Thunder’s reliance on pick-and-rolls in the first half by doubling the ball handler nearly every possession. This threw the Thunder’s rhythm off and disrupted the flow of the offense. Serge Ibaka found some success by realizing he could beat this by going to the rim unguarded, but for the most part Miami won that battle. However the Heat, for whatever reason, neglected to use this strategy in the second half and instead began to switch on every screen. The results were disastrous.

Dwyane Wade and/or Chris Bosh need to step their games up in the coming games. James can create so many shots for them, Bosh in particular, that need to be knocked down. The telling plays of the game happened with 1:15 to go in the fourth. Clinging to a five-point lead, Kevin Durant drove to the basket facing a Miami defense that collapsed around him. He fed Collison with a beautiful bounce pass that led to a wide-open dunk. On the ensuing possession, LeBron James did the exact same thing to find Chris Bosh wide-open for a three that would have cut the deficit to four. Bosh bricked the attempt and the Heat’s chances at a comeback disappeared.

Also look for James Harden to play better after he was only able to muster five points. He survives any backlash (for now) due to the win and the monster games out of the other two thirds of the Thunder’s big three.

The coming days will hopefully yield a new level of appreciation for the NBA. So rare is it that fans get to see the two best players in the sport facing off against each other in the Finals. That the title will be either LeBron James or Kevin Durant’s first makes it all the more special an event.

Although one of them has to lose, we all win.

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Brief Thoughts On A Weekend Filled With Great Sports

Hey bet you didn’t realize how awesome this upcoming sports weekend is. Fear not! We have you covered ranked on every event, starting with the worst:

The Belmont Stakes: We had a chance at a Triple Crown but in case you didn’t hear yet, I’ll Have Another was forced into retirement this afternoon with a bum leg.  By all accounts this was one of the shadiest runs by a horse ever so this really isn’t a loss for sports fans.

Stanley Cup Finals, Game Five: The Kings are undefeated on the road during the playoffs and we don’t expect that to change.  Los Angeles will bring home the greatest trophy in all of sports for the first time in franchise history.  We really feel bad for hockey.  A great start to the playoffs was sabotaged by a lack of superstars in the later rounds as well as the NBA’s success.

NCAA Baseball Super Regionals: We’re a bit biased, admittedly, being graduates from TCU and all.  There’s a great rematch though between TCU and number two overall seed UCLA.  It stems from their battle two years ago in the semifinal of the College World Series.  While lacking any “star” the Frogs have a deep pitching staff to go with a suddenly sizzling lineup whose bats woke up after an opening loss to Ole Miss in the first game of the College Station regional.  Since then the Frogs have rattled off 50 runs in five games. 

Prometheus Opening: Indulge your inner sci-fi nerd.

French Open Final Featuring Djokovic/Nadal: This match is a BIG DEAL based on everything that’s happened in the last 12 months and speaks to what a great weekend it is that it’s only number three on this list.  Last year Federer upset the Djokster in the semis so we were robbed of a clay court meeting between him and Nadal which sucked because Djokovic so thoroughly dominated the rest of the calendar.  This will be the most fascinating meeting of their recent rivalry, given that it is by far Nadal’s best surface.  If ever Nadal was going to end Djokovic’s astonishing run, it will happen in the French.  Also: if the epic Australian Open final was any indication, this is going to be a very special match.  A must-watch for any true sports fan.

Euro 2012 Opening Weekend: This by rights should be number one on the list.  It’s by far the best international soccer competition, World Cup included.  The talent in Europe is at an all-time high right now and there will be no shortage of great games, most especially from the the group of death that features four teams in the top ten of the world rankings (Denmark, Portugal, Germany, and Netherlands).  There are three must-watch games this weekend (Netherlands vs Denmark, German vs Portugal, and Spain vs Italy).  The tournament is made more fascinating by the fact that should Spain win, they’ll go down as the best dynasty in any sport, having won consecutive European tournaments and the World Cup in a span of five years.  The two favorites to knock them are off Germany and Netherlands.  Your sleepers are France, Croatia, and Russia.  Several of the teams feature recognizable stars as well if that’s what you’re looking for (England with Rooney, Sweden with Ibrahimovic, and Portugal with the best player in the world right now Cristiano Ronaldo).  Our pick is the Netherlands to spoil Spain’s dream run.

NBA Eastern Conference Finals, Game Seven: It has to be pretty big circumstances to unseat a major soccer event like the Euros, but that’s exactly what’s at stake in this game seven.  The future of the NBA for the next five years very well may be decided, what with the rumors of a potential Heat breakup if they don’t advance.  We’re looking to LeBron to repeat his game six masterpiece and for the Heat to move on to face an exciting OKC team that has no care in the world who they face.  It also has potential ramifications on the Boston side as well.  Could a devastating loss spell the end of the big three era sending either KG or Ray Allen into retirement?  Would Doc Rivers walk away from the team in order to spend more time with his family?  There are lots of “what if” questions that will be resolved based on the result of this game.  It will affect the sports world in a big way during the next 12 months and is the can’t-miss sporting event of the weekend.

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Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Russell Westbrook

Of all the possible story lines left in the NBA playoffs, none fascinates me more than that of Russell Westbrook.  Westbrook is the controversial point guard of the Oklahoma City Thunder, now leading the San Antonio Spurs 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals.  On a game-to-game basis, only LeBron James faces more criticism.  This makes no sense.  Never in the history of the NBA has the second best player on a team been so unfairly burdened with expectations.  It’s even more depressing because Russell Westbrook is the most entertaining player in basketball. 

There is no sport that sucks the fun out of a conversation in this country quite like basketball.  For whatever reason, America takes basketball way too seriously.  No sport draws more snap judgements and polarizing opinions.  Football strikes a passionate chord.  Baseball hits on a more romantic nostalgia.  But basketball, and in particular the NBA playoffs, turn sports fans into grumps.  Too many people exist that defend the “integrity” of the game and remind everyone who the best teams really are.

I have a feeling this problem originated in some weird racial dynamic whereby a largely white viewing audience struggled to identify with a sport largely dominated by African-Americas, but that’s neither here nor there.  What’s important is that it exists.  There are grown men in office buildings all across this country who fail to watch a single NBA game during the year but can argue for hours at a time that LeBron James isn’t clutch, that the Spurs are the definition of team basketball, and that Russell Westbrook needs to start deferring to Kevin Durant if he ever wants to win a championship.  But you already know this.

I pray that if you’re reading this column, you don’t fall into that category of basketball curmudgeons.  If so, it’s time to make the conversion to liberated fandom whereby wins and losses yield to the tenants of style and individuality (copyright: FreeDarko).  What’s beautiful about the theory it is that championships are still possible, encouraged in fact.  The idea is that you don’t live and die by the end result but rather enjoy the ride, in particular those players that make the game the most interesting.  Russell Westbrook makes the game more than interesting.

There is a largely held belief in basketball that the point guard is the most important position on the floor. He is the floor general, charged with being the head coach’s eyes and ears on the court.  The view also states that he should primarily look to create open shots for his teammates while also having the ability to take over the game offensively at any time, if the moment calls for it.  I ask you: if you were going to construct the perfect point guard, what would he look like?  What skills would you gift him?

Now don’t go off and say you’d make him like Chris Paul.  By all accounts Paul is only 5’10” in person and you can’t bring up Paul without bringing up those knees.  Derrick Rose was originally in the conversation, but he went and got himself a case of the problematic knees too.  Rondo is interesting, but those big hands seem to prevent him from having a semblance of a normal jump shot, despite allowing him to exploit angles and passing lanes that science was quite positive did not exist.  Parker and Nash can’t defend.  Rubio and Wall don’t seem big enough.  Deron Williams has that Dwight Howard attitude problem (no seriously, you don’t just get shipped by the franchise that drafted you, two years before your contract is up). 

I believe there is no point guard in the NBA with the whole package quite like Russell Westbrook.

He’s easily the most athletic of the bunch.  He runs faster and jumps higher than all of them.  He has that scary kind of super strength that makes him come off on television as being the most powerful player on the floor, despite facing players up to nine inches taller than him.  He’s an excellent defender as well as an elite scoring talent.  He’s a triple double threat every time he takes the floor.  Tell me again, what’s not to like?

And don’t you dare say that Russell Westbrook “doesn’t get it!”  That’s the biggest cop out argument in the history of sports.  It screams ignorance.  If ever you meet someone who actually believes this opinion, I urge you to slap them in the face.  Reasons it’s ridiculous: none of us have ever met Russell Westbrook, none of us have any idea what role his coach and fellow players urged him to play all season, and none of us are omniscient demi-gods that have the ability to read a player’s thoughts during a basketball game. 

The only thing we can say for certain about Russell Westbrook is that he has a remarkable ability to leap towards the hoop while converting baskets in traffic, that he’s deadly at hitting off-balance jumpers immediately after receiving a screen, and that he’s absolutely sublime to behold on a fast break.  I concede he has an odd taste in clothing though. 

Take a minute and watch him play from a purely aesthetic perspective in the rest of this series with the Spurs (and likely the NBA finals).  What that man accomplishes on a basketball court is living art work.  We should be urging the Metropolitan Museum of Art to wrap him up and preserve him forever, so that other generations might get the pleasure of viewing his basketball talents.  There is nothing like him right now.

Whereas Kevin Durant is a traditional superhero in the Captain America mold, Westbrook more closely resembles a guy like Spider-Man, a hero who is largely persecuted by those he swears to protect.  The extension reaches into so many elements of Westbrook’s game that I could devote an entire column towards the comparisons.  The one worth emphasizing is that he agonizes over the way the public suspects that he has ulterior motives, despite all the good that he achieves.  He even has the nerdy post game outfits that symbolizes the transformation from Spider-Man back to Peter Parker.

I beg you to not miss out on his career because Colin Cowherd and Skip bayless think he’s immature.  He possesses all of the super powers of his more highly regarded teammate with the added elements of flare and unpredictability that create far more attractive highlights.  It’s really quite thrilling to root for him knowing the rest of the country hates his guts as well.  I’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty and delight in the many moments of jaw-dropping greatness.  Combined with the steady doses of the all too predictable (and, quite frankly, boring) Durant, it makes for one of the best yin and yang partnerships in all of sports.

If these last three games are any indication, the Thunder are on their way to winning their first championship and, who knows?  Maybe one day history will regard Westbrook in a kinder manner than they did these past two seasons.  Winning heals all, as they say.  But do you honestly want to look back one day and know deep down in your heart that you jumped on Westbrook’s bandwagon only after he got a ring?  Hell no! 

Join me, before it’s too late.

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The Paradox Of NBA Fandom

Conspiracy!  That’s the prevailing theme of the the media today in regards to David Stern’s National Basketball Association.  If you follow the NBA in any capacity, you’re no stranger to this idea.  It basically says that David Stern fixes the NBA draft to best serve his own needs and also that he tells the referees what teams he wants to win so as to drive the ratings of the NBA as a consumable television product.

No doubt if you watched last night’s fantastic overtime thriller between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat, you probably felt like the Heat, and in particular LeBron James, seemed to be getting more calls than the Celtics.  Surely David Stern wants LeBron and Wade in the Finals only because they’re “superstars” and because they’ll fill the ratings more than the ragged old Boston Celtics. Surely he fixed the NBA draft earlier to ensure that the league-owned New Orleans Hornets won the rights to Anthony Davis a year after they were forced to ditch Chris Paul.  Conspiracy!  Right? 

Not a conspiracy.

I don’t know at what point this transformation took place, although I’m willing to guess that Michael Jordan’s Bulls are responsible, but there’s a unique dynamic towards being a NBA fan that no other sport can claim.  The dynamic is overrun with the idea that the team with the biggest “superstar” will always prevail in a playoff series, so much so that many a NBA fan willingly equates the integrity of the sport to professional wrestling.

What makes the dynamic even more fascinating is this prevailing notion that the sport lacks any semblance of fairness somehow causes the sport to be more popular.  Logic would seem to indicate that a normal person would actually be more prone to decline the opportunity to watch a sport in which they felt the outcome was already a foregone conclusion.  The NBA exists in a parallel universe where the rules say the opposite. 

It’s as if every NBA fan tunes in to have their suspicions justified rather than enjoy the product itself.  The entertainment comes not from the game but from the feeling of helplessness.  Basketball isn’t what America consumes when they watch the NBA.  They consume the confirmation of every doubt they’ve ever had about the sport and its integrity.  It’s the Illuminati of the American sports landscape.

Where this feeling of distrust evolved from is another conversation entirely, but I can’t help but find it interesting that the refrain of the NBA chorus is that the Celtics got robbed last night and that Stern ordered the refs to let Miami win.  While those doubts filled a majority of Americans’ mind they missed the best god damn game of the NBA playoffs.  That game was spectacular.  From the comebacks by both teams, Ray Allen knocking down a clutch game-tying three, LeBron trying and failing to be a hero, and Rajon Rondo’s heroics, last night’s game was awesome.

The Celtics are deserving of absolutely zero pity whatsoever, oh by the way.  Any fan of a team not named the Boston Celtics can tell you how they’ve been on the receiving end of the Celtics getting superstar treatment in the last five years.  When KG and Perkins manned the front court, the duo got away with dirtiest most bush league style of play in the Association.  But that’s just “good defense,” so long as it has the ESPN & Bill Simmons stamp of approval.

Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky had it right yesterday when he wrote that no matter who wins, the NBA is fixed.  If Boston wins last night, Heat defenders would have claimed an ESPN/Boston bias.  If the Nets would have won the lottery last night, it would mean Stern wants New York basketball to drive ratings.  If the Thunder beat the Spurs tonight, it’s because Stern doesn’t appreciate team basketball and instead wants that selfish Russell Westbrook to win because he’s a superstar and Tim Duncan’s too humble.  Oh the humanity!  The NBA loses, no matter the outcome.

It’s time to make a decision in regards to basketball fandom. 

Either quit the NBA like a bad habit or come to the table to consume the basketball.  Superstars win basketball games because they’re better players, not because David Stern sent them to the foul line.  LeBron James doesn’t get fouls called on him because he’s the most gifted basketball player ever.  It makes no sense to continue to regularly watch basketball games when you believe that the outcome has already been decided in the back offices of NBA headquarters in Manhattan.  Think about how insane that idea is.

The NBA is blessed with the largest collection of talent in the history of the league and some fans would choose to  remember it as the era when David Stern played the role of Vince McMahon.  America should open its eyes to the beauty of the sport in front of them and I promise they’ll learn to love the game in the way they currently worship the NFL. 

Basketball is the best, but only if you let it be.

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A Sports Dork’s Nirvana

Something special happened last night. The San Antonio Spurs achieved a feat that we get the pleasure of witnessing no more than five times a year in the sports world. It happens so rarely that at time fans and athletes alike forget that it even exists in sports.  Coaches preach of its virtues and try their damnedest to instruct their teams in the way of attaining it.  Most fail.  Last night, during the third quarter of a playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder,  the San Antonio Spurs achieved athletic perfection.  Watch (scroll to the 1:46 mark of the video, if it doesn’t start there automatically):

It began around the 11:06 mark in the third quarter and lasted until about the 5:15 mark.  During that span, the Spurs were a breath-taking juggernaut, scoring 25 points on 9/11 shooting including a startling 5/5 mark from the three-point line.  The spacing, cutting, and ball movement among the Spurs players was something that led many a NBA analyst remarking that he had never witnessed passing at such an elite level.  And what’s remarkable about the passing is not only each player’s ability to read the defense and make the correct play, but also that the passes arrive in exactly the spot that a shooter needs it in order to take a good shot.  Remember that a half second can mean the difference between a wide-open three and having your shot blocked on a close out, given the speed of NBA players (think: Westbrook). 

Every Spurs read and subsequent pass was perfect during this stretch.  It all culminated in that excellent behind-the-back pass from Manu Ginobli to Tony Parker in which the Thunder’s transition defense was so taken aback by the wide-openness of Parker that they let him take the three without a single player running out to challenge the shot.  Parker took his time, squared his feet, and knocked it down.  Of course he did.

The three readers of this site know by now that my favorite sports article of all-time is a David Foster Wallace’s “Federer As Religous Experience.”  At its most simplistic level, the piece details Wallace’s fascination with the greatest tennis player in the world at the peak of his powers.  Better than perhaps any individual who ever attempted to do so, Wallace is able to describe what it is that makes witnessing Federer so powerful to a sports fan.  He discusses the impossibility of his shot-making and the brilliance of his decision-making.  The genius of the piece, to me, eventually defines what’s appealing about watching competitive sports played at a level like that, to which Wallace writes:

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.  The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

What Wallace describes is athletic perfection.  We’re attracted to it because it happens so rarely.  We delight in it because of the sheer impossibility of it all.  For about six minutes last night the Spurs were able to achieve that.  To be honest, I could not even tell you the last time I witnessed it on a basketball court.  I’ve seen it happen in soccer multiple times in the last three years with Barcelona and Lionel Messi.  The St. Louis Cardinals found a little bit of it in their World Series run last year.  Eli Manning seems to find it once every five years or so, but only when his team is trailing late in the fourth quarter of a Super Bowl to the Patriots.

To a sport dork like myself, it’s why I devote so much time to consuming sports content every day.  Although I admit that I do take a sicker, darker pleasure in seeing my home-town teams succeed, there is nothing purer as a fan of sports than witnessing something like that.  I’m reduced to being a fan of the game itself which is really what it should be all about in the first place.  It’s also far easier to reconcile the countless hours spent watching, reading, and studying.  For most people a championship every decade or so suffices.  For me it’s these sporadic glimpses of greatness.

I guess what I really want to say is that if you’re any kind of a fan of basketball or sports in general, you should be tuning in right now to watch the San Antonio Spurs to see how long this lasts.  They have a legitimate shot at sweeping the entire playoffs, a feat which has never been accomplished.  More importantly for you though, you might get to witness a breath-taking stretch like occurred last night.  When you finally are able to let go of living and dying with your team and enjoy the purity of rooting for great sports, you’ll learn to love the games in ways that are infinitely more rewarding.

Trust me, I’m a sports dork.

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Repercussions Of An NBA Champion

This is a new experiment where I try to imagine a world in which each of the remaining NBA playoff teams goes on to win the NBA title this year.  Apologies to all Sixers and Pacers fans, you have no chance and are therefore excluded from my four fantasy worlds.  Without further or do, take a trip into my beautiful dark twisted fantasy.

[time traveling one month ahead]

San Antonio Spurs

And thus begins a summer where one of the biggest decisions in NBA history will be made.  Will Tim Duncan choose to come back and play for the Spurs after winning his fifth NBA title on an expiring contract?  The Spurs have the potential to go on another dynasty run.  The championship squad loses only Danny Green and Boris Diaw to free agency, both of whom would likely re-sign at discounted prices.  The rest of the team is signed for a title defense and the scary part is they could add even more pieces if Duncan took any kind of a reduction from the $21 million he earned this past season.  Is it worth it though?  Duncan would have the rare opportunity to walk off while on top of his sport all while winning his fourth Finals MVP.  This puts him easily in the conversation for the best seven players ever to play the game.  It’s no secret his body is breaking down and he struggles to recover from the long NBA schedule.  The question will ultimately come down to how badly Tim Duncan wants to continue playing basketball and if he wants to edge into the conversation for top three players ever.  No seriously, he could likely get to six, maybe seven titles before his body completely goes.  [checks notes]  Mark it down people, Tim Duncan just signed on for another three years and disrupted the championship aspirations of every young buck in the NBA.  LeBron James cries himself to sleep somewhere.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Kevin Durant finally fulfilled his destiny and became everything America wanted LeBron James to be.  The media and the bandwagon NBA fans can’t create enough cliches to describe how “clutch” Kevin Durant is and how he “gets it.”  At times it’s hard to argue with the logic though as Durant hit a game-winner in game two and iced the game from the free throw line in games four and six.  The final freebies in game six eventually sealed the deal on the Thunder’s first title and broke the hearts of Sonics fans everywhere.  The Thunder are poised to become the next alpha dogs of the NBA after unseating the Mavericks, Lakers, Spurs, and Celtics in consecutive series, all of whom represented the last stand of the old guard in the NBA.  There seems to be no reason the Thunder can’t vie for the next two NBA titles and contend for the first three-peat since the Shaq/Kobe Lakers.  Their success directly led to Ray Allen’s decision to leave Boston in free agency as well as force Kevin Garnett’s retirement.  Beyond this it gets questionable for the Thunder as a franchise though.  Can they afford to keep both Ibaka and Harden?  Harden surely could convince a team to pay him max money.  Will they convince him to go the Manu Ginobli route instead of the Maurice Lucas on guys who should play second fiddle on a contender but could earn alpha dog money on a pretender?  Will the infamous “Disease Of More” grab hold of this team and eventually cause Russell Westbrook to demand a trade?  Lots of interesting questions surrounding these young Thunder and head coach Scott Brooks.  For now, we pause to celebrate their remarkable accomplishment.  No seriously, Kevin Durant is only 23 years old and already has a Finals MVP!

Boston Celtics

They did it again.  They fooled us all into believing this was really their last shot and now they have us all wondering if Kobe wasn’t the only aging NBA star to go receive secret knee treatments in Germany.  Can you believe the nerve of this team?  We now have to consider them as an actual force that changed the history of the NBA rather than a squad that put together one random championship.  Selfish!  As the famous Bob Ryan quipped, “they were in a year five of a three-year plan,” and now they go off and win the freaking NBA title, defeating no less than LeBron James and Kevin Durant in the process.  There’s just something about this damn team where everybody knows when it’s their turn to carry the load and responds accordingly.  Who can forget the Ray Allen explosion to steal game one for 33 points, on the road no less?  After dropping game two, Kevin Garnett gave a vintage KG 25-15 performance to help the Celtics win game three.  Rajon Rondo did the Rondo thing to win game four with a staggering 20-15-13 line that made us all question who the best point guard in the NBA really is.  Who else could it be if the young Celtic has two rings and Rose/Paul/Williams/Westbrook have zero combined?  And then, of course, Paul Pierce shut it down in game six to give the Celtics the most improbable of NBA Championships.  In related news, Bill Simmons broke the record for longest sustained erection and we all have to spend the summer reading his tribute columns to his latest favorite Celtics squad ever.  No seriously, consider all that happened to make this possible: Derrick Rose got hurt, Dwight Howard got hurt, Chris Bosh got hurt, Dwyane Wade played on one knee, Manu Ginobli went down with an ankle injury, and Kendrick Perkins fell victim AGAIN with a knee injury in the finals.  How badly did the basketball gods want this to happen?  And why can’t things go like this for the Nuggets for once?  With a salary reduction in order for KG after an expiring contract, are they now an outside contender to land Dwight Howard?  I hate everything.

Miami Heat

Oh my.  Did we just witness the beginning of something special?  Did LeBron James really just average a triple double in the NBA finals against a Duncan/Popovich Spurs squad?  Are we sure that’s legal?  It may have been the single most dominant NBA Finals by a single player ever, with LeBron finally proving to all his critics that he really did only need one more marquee player to win that elusive title.  As Chris Bosh sat on the sidelines, LeBron and Dwyane Wade embarked on the greatest conquest by a talented duo since Jordan and Pippen simply refused to lose NBA titles to the far more talented Utah Jazz teams.  And I have to admit, I find it quite poetic.  For some reason it just feels right that they did it without Bosh to finally break through for the first title in the era of the super teams.  There are long term ramifications for this championship.  The first consequence is that every franchise in the NBA is now going to try to replicate the formula and it will likely lead to even more restrictions on player movement when the owners opt out of the CBA early, and bet the family mortgage that this happens.  Another long-term implication is that the other players in the NBA are scared.  Really scared.  Everything these players, coaches, GMs, and owners have been taught and witnessed their whole lives led them to believe that you needed a true team in order to win a title.  If two gentlemen can pair up, independent of the wishes of GMs and owners, and win the NBA title by themselves, what chance do the others have?  It would be like Barack Obama getting elected back in the 1960s.  Heads are spinning everywhere and no one is sure how to react.  If there is anything to be thankful for it’s this.  We no longer have to listen to all the LeBron banter about his unclutchness or how he has no rings.  The only debate now is how many will he win in a row.  Damn.  How are they going to stop him if he continues to play like that????

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NBA Playoff Column Part I

Don’t be fooled by the false narratives of the NBA playoffs.  This is not the year of the lockout.  It shouldn’t be remembered as the year that was tainted by injuries and worn-down bodies either.  No, this year’s NBA playoffs should be remembered as a turning point in the history of the league.  It is time for the next generation of NBA talent to finally seize control and unseat the Duncans, Kobes, and Garnetts of the world.  That’s what should happen.  What’s beautiful is that we have no idea if it will.

In the past few weeks we’ve witnessed an assortment of players losing their cool whether through Metta World Peace going all Ron Artest on James Harden’s dome, Rondo chest-bumping a referee, or Amar’e Stoudemire losing a chunk of his hand to the fire extinguisher glass panel.  There’s a reason for it.  This is the most wide-open playoffs in recent memory and every team believes they have a legitimate shot of stealing the title.

Some of those illusions are more realistic than others (apologies to Sixers, Nuggets, Clippers, Jazz, Knicks, Magic, Bulls, and Hawks fan…this isn’t your year).  Let’s try and evaluate where we’re at right now and predict the outcomes of some of these series.

Jazz vs Spurs (SA leads 1-0):

Not much to say here unless Parker or Ginobli gets hurt.  San Antonio should advance in four or five games.  I’ll be interested to see if the Spurs have enough on their front line to get past a team like the Grizzlies or the Lakers or both in order to make the Finals.  The Jazz played them surprisingly hard in game one and if they had any depth on the wing they might have been able to pull the improbable upset.

Prediction: Spurs in five 

Sixers vs Bulls (tied 1-1)

At this point it doesn’t really matter if the Bulls lose, because they have absolutely no chance of getting by Miami.  Philly came out strong last night, but I doubt they’ll be able to sustain their unrealistic shooting percentages once Thibodeau reigns in the Bulls defense.  Who knows how much heart Chicago will exhibit though?  A round one upset and a dream run to the conference finals are all possible.  I say they go out in round two.

Prediction: Bulls in six

Clippers vs Grizzlies (LAC leads 1-0)

A lot was made of the Clippers all-time comeback, many even speculating that Memphis would simply be unable to overcome the emotional shock associated with the loss.  I’m going in a completely opposite direction.  I think the Grizzlies realize if they had just thrown the ball into the paint in that fourth they could have won by 40.  Look for the Grizzlies to come out angry and embarrass a Clippers squad that is not even close to being ready for a legitimate playoff run.  Memphis is better than the Clippers in every aspect except point guard, but not even CP3 will be enough.

Prediction: Grizz in six

Celtics vs Hawks

Had Josh Smith not gotten injured, we were seriously going to have to consider a world with Atlanta in the conference finals.  I’m sorry but it was happening.  Now that we don’t have to live with that ugly reality, I expect Rajon Rondo to come out with a serious eff you edge the rest of the playoffs.  The first obvious reason is to apologize to his teammates, but the second is one you may not know about.  Rondo has a serious rivalry with Derrick Rose and feels deep offense to the idea that Rose is a better PG than him.  With D-Rose out of the playoffs, Rondo will realize this rare opportunity to prove himself.  Translation: expect the triple doubles and the W’s to start racking up in the next few weeks.

Prediction: Celtics in six

Nuggets vs Lakers (LAL lead 2-0)

It’s not easy being a Nuggets fan these days.  Despite the immense amount of pride I felt in Denver earning the six seed, there’s still a certain disappointment that goes along with it all.  Yes, what the front office managed to accomplish in light of the last twelve months is nothing short of remarkable, but what’s the point if the result is the same?  Losing in the first round of the playoffs for a decade straight sucks.  The Lakers just do everything better in this series: they take care of the ball better (cough, FARIED late turnover, cough) , they execute better (cough, AFFLALO can’t knock down an open jumper, cough), and they have star players.  What’s disappointing though is that I’m not sure the talent gap between the two teams as a whole is all that much.  A couple of lineup tweaks or open shots knocked down and this series could very well be tied going back to Denver.  I don’t want to start having the George Karl job conversation yet, but the thoughts are creeping into my head.

Prediction: Lakers in four

Magic vs Pacers (tied 1-1)

Give the Magic a ton of credit for gutting out that victory in game number one.  My issue with them is that they barely won that game and Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson somehow both managed to put on Dwight’s Superman cape.  That won’t continue to happen as Indiana makes adjustments and uses their depth.  Good for the Pacers at organically building a new team in the aftermath of the Malice at the Palace.

Prediction: Pacers in five

Mavericks vs Thunder (OKC leads 2-0)

What’s sad for Dallas is that they actually should be winning this series by two games right now.  The Thunder are executing poorly, Durant is shooting at an awful cut, and it’s taken Derek “bleeping” Fisher to bail them out from two embarrassing losses at home.  And can we finally start having the conversation about how badly Durant has played?  Why is their no internet outrage about Durant while Westbrook puts this team on his shoulders?  I hate it.  I I hate it all.  Westbrook is playing at an MVP level and he gets zero attention for it.  I repeat this way too often on the site, but the NBA playoffs are all about execution, most especially if you’re going to beat a team like the Heat.  The Thunder have been awful at execution thus far in this series.  It will need to improve if they want to finally make the leap to a title.  Hint: it won’t.

Prediction: Thunder in 5

Heat vs Knicks

It’s so frustrating that this Knicks team can’t figure out what it needs to do.  They’re so perfectly constructed for a long playoff run that it actually makes me angry as a basketball fan that they continue to achieve mediocrity, which might actually be far too generous a description.  I understand Stoudemire’s frustration and don’t fault him for the moment of weakness.  He gave everything to that franchise only to see it hand over everything to Carmelo and take away his role.  He knows they should be better and he took it out on that glass as a result.  Sucks for us, and him.  The Heat are my prediction as your 2012 NBA champion though.  The playoffs are shaping up perfectly for them.  Think about it.  They’re going to sweep the Knicks, they’ll polish off the Pacers in at most five games, and then they’ll be plenty rested to face either the Celtics or Bulls in the East Finals.  Without having to expend very much energy, they should easily advance to the NBA Finals where they’ll again have the edge over a foe who likely used everything they had in the tank to make it out of a far more difficult bracket in the West.  This is LeBron’s moment.  He’s the best player on the best team that is best set up to win the NBA playoffs.  There is literally no excuse if it doesn’t happen this time around, and yet I’m still nervous as hell putting my reputation on the line with that pick!

Prediction: Heat in 4

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I Explain Why Every Team Won’t Win The NBA Title

If you’ve read this site over the years you know that we’re huge fans of the National Basketball Association.  On multiple occasions we’ve openly declared it our favorite sport and tried to persuade you to join us on that side of the argument.  It’s with that in mind that I know have a stunning confession to make.  I’ve been cheating on the NBA all year with the National Hockey League, and (!) I haven’t regretted it for a second.

The impulsive decision to partake in this act of sports adultery paid large dividends these past two weeks when the NHL came out firing with the most entertaining first round of playoffs in recent memory.  By my count there have already been 13 first round games that went into overtime.  This included the remarkable Chicago Blackhawks Phoenix Coyotes series that came within last night’s game six of having every single contest go to the extra period.  In addition to that, both Vancouver and Pittsburgh lost in the first round despite being the Vegas favorites to reach the Stanley Cup Finals.  What I’m really trying to say is that the NHL playoffs essentially morphed into a professional sports version of March Madness.  No one has any idea what is going to happen, and like the thrill of attending Mike Tyson’s show in Vegas, it’s fantastic for just that reason.  If the one-two punch of Vancouver/Pittsburgh ever occurred in the NBA, it would be ratings suicide (the equivalent of this would roughly be the Bulls and Thunder both going out in round one).  Instead it’s been a ratings bonanza for Gary Bettman, with the uptick in big hits and fights aiding in hockey’s ratings ascent.

I bring this up because as unpredictable as the NHL playoffs have been thus far, the NBA playoffs are exponentially more difficult to decipher.  It’s the sports version of Lindsay Lohan signing on to play Elizabeth Taylor in the upcoming movie based on the deceased star’s life.  This could be a defining moment for the NBA and Lohan, but nobody has any idea what the final product will look like.  Both are just as liable to pull a John Carter-like flop as they are to produce something iconic.

Consider that LeBron James is about to win his third MVP and has the potential to create an entire new class of NBA underachievement.  Seven people in NBA history have won three or more MVPs.  Every single one of them won at least one NBA title (MJ, Magic, Bird, Moses, Kareem, Wilt, and Russell).  LeBron could become the only person ever to win the award a third time without securing an NBA title and, (gulp), have you seen the Heat play lately?  Not exactly inspiring confidence.

And yet he’s BY FAR the best player in the sport right now.  This is his moment to seize control of the league for the next five years.  There are a number of aging teams that look to be past their championship prime (Mavericks, Lakers, Celtics, and Spurs), a couple of teams that are too young to pull it off just yet (Clippers and Bulls), and a real title contender that just lost maybe it’s most important player to a Ron Artest elbow (Thunder).  The Heat should conceivably have no problem winning.  After all, LeBron’s in the middle of one of the best NBA seasons ever by a player and yet we’re still waffling on his MVP candidacy.  The NBA in 2012, everybody!

It’s with this in mind that I present Gen Y’s official Hater’s Guide to the 2012 NBA Playoffs in which I tell you exactly why each team isn’t going to win the NBA title.  I’ve taken the liberty of ranking them in descending order from the percentage surety we have that the team won’t win it this year.

17. Phoenix Suns

Stereotype: Without Steve Nash, this team would be battling the Bobcats for the rights to the unibrow!

Telling stat: 71.68% defensive rebound rate, by far the worst of any playoff team.  It means just what it says. The Suns don’t rebound well and give opponents way too many second chances on offense.

Why they won’t win: Seriously, the Suns would be nowhere without the Herculean efforts of Nash this year, who deserves a top five spot in the MVP vote if they make the playoffs.

16. Philadelphia 76ers

Stereotype: No star player, no primary scorer!

Telling stat: 51% true shooting percentage, easily the worst of any playoff team.  Their first round opponent will be either Chicago or Miami, the two toughest defenses in the league.

Why they won’t win: Look, the Sixers just won’t be able to score enough points to win a playoff series.  There’s a lot of hope and promise in Philly right now, what with Doug Collins teaching the importance of team play and defense to his young guys, but a historic upset you will not see.

15. Utah Jazz

Stereotype: They still have professional basketball in Utah??!?

Telling stat: 66.6% Field Goal Percentage at the rim, good for second best in the NBA.  The problem? Those points disappear in the playoffs when defenses ratchet up and protect the basket and the referees refuse to give them calls. 

Why they won’t win: While the Jazz do have the potential for a first round upset of the Spurs (they’re curiously built in much the same way the Grizzlies were last year when they upset San Antonio), there is no way they could get past the second round.  Also: they’re not getting past the first either. 

14. Atlanta Hawks

Stereotype: Exactly where you don’t want to be as a franchise!

Telling stat: 0-2, their record this year against first-round opponent Boston when any of the following gentlemen recorded a single minute of playing time: Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett.

Why they won’t win: Something just doesn’t add up with this team and they’re not going to suddenly figure out the equation against the Celtics. This is a team that should have been blown up a long time ago.

13. Orlando Magic

Stereotype: Absolute train wreck!

Telling stat: Magic players not active for this year’s playoffs = Dwight Howard.

Why they won’t win: There is some incredible Ewing Theory potential with Orlando now that Dwight put the finishing touches on one of the all-time worst PR moves by any athlete in the history of sports.  While the possibility does exist that the Magic “upset” the Pacers in round one, Miami will promptly sweep them in round two.

12. Denver Nuggets

Stereotype: All offense, no defense!

Telling stat: 101.5 opponent’s points per game, by far the worst of any playoff team.

Why they won’t win: The Nuggets can’t get a stop to save their lives.  Throw in the added curse of having no players with a “reputation” as a good NBA defender and it leads to a disaster in the NBA playoffs when the referees look for any excuse whatsoever to whistle teams out of games.  The Nuggets win the award as the by far the most entertaining team of the year, but the best they can hope for is to advance to the second round.  That’s entirely possible though, oh by the way.

11. Dallas Mavericks

Stereotype: They won the title last year!

Telling stat: 95.2 points per game average.  So the Mavericks play slow, no big deal in the playoffs, right? Wrong.  Likely first round opponent OKC averages about 103.1 per contest.

Why they won’t win: We all know this was an intentionally planned off-year by Cuban and the Mavs.  They’re going to try to get Deron or Dwight or both.  I’ve seen the Mavs twice in person this year and the only take I can offer is that they execute horribly, which was their biggest strength in last year’s playoffs (and the key to beating the Heat, hint hint hint).

10. Indiana Pacers

Stereotype: They’re getting overlooked!  They’re total sleepers!

Telling stat: 32.4 free throw rate, good for third best in the league.  Indiana gets to the line, a lot, which is great.  Except when it’s not.  The Pacers are not going to get the calls they’ll need to defeat Miami, Chicago, or Boston in a 7-game series.  They’re just not.  When their primary scoring option is taken away like that, they’ll struggle to execute for points from the field.

Why they won’t win: In the last 20 years, the only NBA team to win a championship without at least one sure thing hall of fame player on the roster was the 2004 Detroit Pistons (and Chauncey & Rasheed are borderline HOFers).  The Pacers have a lot of good players, but no great ones.

9. LA Clippers

Stereotype: Lob City!

Telling stat: 52.2% free throw percentage for Blake Griffin this season.

Why they won’t win: The Clippers have little chance at bringing home the title.  They’re still too immature, rely too heavily on Paul, and have Vinny Del Negro as their head coach.  Look for teams to employ a hack-a-Blake strategy during the playoffs which is going to fluster the young dunker and disrupt the flow of their offense.

8. New York Knicks

Stereotype: This is Amare’s, Jeremy Lin’s, Carmelo’s team!

Telling stat: 16-6, the Knicks record since Mike D’Antoni resigned as head coach

Why they won’t win: Despite boasting one of the best rotations of any playoff team, the Knicks would have to likely defeat Chicago, Boston, and Miami in succession to reach the finals.  As good as Carmelo Anthony is in isolation, as confident as he is against the game’s best, he still has failed to make it out of the first round in all but one year in his career.  Beating three of the NBA’s five best teams to make the finals is about as likely as Jesse Jackson coming out in defense of George Zimmerman.

7. LA Lakers

Stereotype: Kobe shoots too much!

Telling stat: All of Pau Gasol’s declining shooting stats.  There are too many to list here in this space but suffice it to say, Gasol is becoming less and less of a threat with the ball in his hands and he’s moving further and further away from the basket as a shooter.  This could indicate any number of things such as: his shot is now flat, he’s definitively the number three option in Mike Brown’s eyes, his decline is happening faster than we think, etc.

Why they won’t win: When you watch the Lakers play, does it look like Kobe Bryant trusts any one of his teammates enough to defer the necessary amount it will take for LA to win the title?  No way.  Bynum, despite having his best-ever season still has nagging immaturity issues.  With Gasol’s rapid decline, the Lakers could be prime for a first-round upset to the Nuggets.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

Stereotype: The Grizzlies are so sexy!

Telling stat: 16.15 opponents turnover rate, which led the NBA.  On the surface this seems like a great stat to the lead the NBA in, but what it tells me is that the Grizzlies defense relies heavily on a lot of risk-taking.  I’m the first to admit that this can be effective, but in the playoffs all it will take is a whistle-prone ref to ruin the strategy and send this team into foul trouble.

Why they won’t win: Definitely in the battle for best overall rotation in the NBA.  But, do you really think David Stern is going to let a team from Memphis, Tennessee win the NBA title?  Me either.

5. Chicago Bulls

Stereotype: Derrick Rose is great!

Telling stat: 72.2% team free throw percentage, the worst of any playoff team that didn’t have Blake Griffin (52.2%) or Dwight Howard (49.1%) on the roster this season.

Why they won’t win: Proven themes on championship teams: superstars, great defense, and great execution.  The Bulls have those first two ideas down, but I still don’t trust the supporting cast enough to get past a Miami.  Do we even know who their crunch-time five are yet?  I trust Carlos Boozer in the playoffs the way I trust Kim Kardashian to to avoid publicity.  I’m a huge Derrick Rose supporter and adore his approach to the game, it’s all the others that worry me.

4. Boston Celtics

Stereotype: The Celtics keep defying all their critics!

Telling stat: 98.6 points per 100 possessions, the worst offensive efficiency of any playoff team.

Why they won’t win: It’s no secret that the Celtics rely heavily on their all-universe defense.  Count me among the critics who believe that they just don’t have the talent to hang with Miami or Chicago when they’re clicking.  In order for Boston to prove everyone wrong again, it’s going to take some minor miracles like when LeBron quit on his team in Cleveland (entire possibly, by the way).  For the sake of not having to listen to ESPN felate the Celtics all postseason, pray the Celtics go out quietly in the second round.

3. OKC Thunder

Stereotype: The anti-Heat!

Telling stat: Official medical status for James Harden’s head = “Uncertain”

Why they won’t win:  Look, Kevin Durant is the best player on the Thunder, but no player may have been more important to them than James Harden.  He plays a role similar to the one Lamar Odom used to do with the Lakers in that he’s talented enough to facilitate the offense while the stars rested and comfortable enough with his role not to ruin team chemistry.  The comparisons to Manu Ginobli are also spot on.  Harden is an advanced stats freak and one of the best executors of offense in the league.  His injury cannot be overstated.  The Thunder would be number one on this list if that hadn’t happened.

2. San Antonio Spurs

Stereotype: This is the last chance at a title for the Spurs big three!

Telling stat: 90%, chance that Tony Parker or Manu Ginobli gets hurt, again sabotaging a Spurs playoff run.

Why they won’t win:  The Spurs completed yet another remarkable season in which they finished with the number one seed in the Western Conference, despite every writer ever deciding they were past their prime.  To win the NBA title though they’re going to have to get past Memphis in the second round which everyone seems to agree is the only team in the NBA that can beat them in a seven game series.  All of this while somehow going the entire playoffs without the glass bodies of Parker and Ginobli getting hurt.  But if they somehow avoid all that, they’ll be fine!  No really.

1. Miami Heat

Stereotype: LeBron can’t win the big one! The Heat don’t have a go-to guy in crunch time!

Telling stat: 0, the number of NBA championship rings LeBron James owns.

Why they won’t win: The burden of winning this elusive title might just break LeBron James.  He did nothing to inspire us to believe that he’s suddenly going to put it together in close games (the NBA All-Star Game pass off comes to mind).  As much praise as we can heap on him, he has to win the NBA title this year, but he won’t.  The Heat’s rotation is somehow playing worse than last year and that’s horrible news when you don’t roll very deep beyond the big three.  Look for LeBron’s teammates to let him down and look for the Heat to head home disappointed…again.

Happy trolling, you guys.

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I Spent Ten Minutes With Jeremy Lin

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend the Knicks/Mavericks game at the American Airlines Center with my fiancee.  This is intriguing not because of the actual basketball game (which was equal parts terrible, exciting, and bizarre), but because we were able to hang out with one Jeremy Lin after the game was over.  Yes, Jeremy Lin, he of the international fame, Harvard basketball pedigree, and claim to the title of most famous athlete on planet earth right now.

It was a bizarre and very fortuitous set of circumstances that led me to those briefest of moments spent in the underbelly of the American Airlines Center on a random Tuesday evening, and we’ll get to all that in a second.  Before going any further though, I want to disclose that I’m not going to reveal anything he said to us personally because I consider it all off the record as I didn’t identify myself as a writer/blogger.  This is more about the experience of having the great fortune to meet an individual as famous as Jeremy is at the moment and the reactions and thoughts that went through my head because of it.  It’s not going to tell you any kind of secrets I may or may not have learned about the Knicks and Mavs.  I’ll also fail to reveal any private details he shared with us.  If you’re looking for that, I suggest you search elsewhere.

Anyways, you’re probably wondering how this all happened.  Here’s how it went down.  My fiancee Brittney is from California and she just so happened to go to Palo Alto High School.  Jeremy went to “Paly” as well and it was there that he first blew up on the national basketball radar by orchestrating a shocking upset of heavily favored Mater Dei in the California State Championship game their senior year.  It is extremely important that I mention Brittney’s dad predicted way back then that Jeremy was going to make it to the big time and has an autograph from those days stored in his desk back home to prove it.  Forget about delivery guys in Oregon or the GMs of Golden State and Houston, my future father-in-law was the first person to “discover” Jeremy Lin! 

As coincidental as going to high school with Jeremy was, that still wasn’t the reason we got to hang out with him and the rest of the Knicks.  In another unique twist, one of Jeremy’s best friends from high school recently graduated and moved to work in Dallas and got back in touch with Brittney when he heard she lived here.  They were friends back then as well and usually get together during holidays.  It was he who reached out to Lin and arranged “the hookup.”

Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever had the chance to get a post game pass for a sporting event, but it is a one-of-a-kind opportunity and I highly recommend that you all try to experience it once in your lifetime.  I’m blessed enough to have done it once before, meaning I was the “expert” in charge of delivering our party of four to the correct part of the arena after the game.  I’d also like to note that if you move quickly enough after a game is over, you can actually get down without having your passes checked by security. 

What occurs is that you sit in the section immediately next to the tunnel that the opposing team comes out of for the game.  It’s a small crowd (50-100 people, tops) consisting of three unique groups of people: family, friends, and groupies.  Obviously after the game the team meets, changes, showers, etc so there is a bit of waiting around involved.  It doubles as the best people watching, ever.

In this case the experience was highlighted by a large family behind me of whom I never discovered their relation to any of the players. They were joined by a man I presumed to be a grandfather.  They provided entertainment by coaxing him into meeting and taking pictures with every possible celebrity-looking person in the vicinity.  In a normal situation this might be fairly harmless, but not on this night!  I have no idea why exactly (honestly, I thought he may have been on the Knicks coaching staff, but a quick search proves that theory wrong), but Spud Webb was in the building last night.  Being the fearless adventurer that he was, grandpa promptly got a picture with him.  This normally would be enough star power for one evening, but that would be neglecting a certain former Knicks point guard turned Knicks announcer. 

None other than Walt “Clyde” Frazier was standing about twenty feet away from us.  Grandpa got a picture with him too.

Words and description can never to justice to the presence of Frazier in person.  On this night he donned a flamingo pink three-button suit and held court with two gentlemen that were eating up each word he was so graceful to bless them with.  Confidence, swagger, and poise sort of begin to illustrate what he’s like.  Of any human being I’ve ever seen in person, Walt Frazier is the person who came off as being the most comfortable in his own skin.  It’s remarkable to experience.  For years I’ve heard stories about the way he used to own the city of New York and after seeing him briefly in person I totally get it.  My biggest regret of the whole evening was not getting a picture with him.  How to approach a man that reduces grown men to tears though?

But on to more important things…

Players quickly started leaking out of the locker room.  Landry Fields was first and quickly met up with some friends sitting behind us.  Steve Novak was next and he promptly sat down with three females about my age.  I’m pretty sure I saw J.R. Smith after that, but I can’t be sure because that gentleman’s hood was blocking his face.  And finally, there he was.

Jeremy Lin.

He moved quickly because he’s obviously starting to get used to people  tracking his every move.  He passed the section we sat in and motioned for two younger guys about fifteen feet away to come down and join him.  They turned out to be friends of his from Harvard, one of whom played on the basketball team with him and one guy who played football.  He then hurried back down and scanned the crowd again, presumably for us, or so I hoped.  Did I mention that this whole time a photographer was following his every step from a distance no further than three feet while flashing pictures?  Did I mention that almost everybody in the stands stood up and started to mob him the second he emerged from the tunnel?  I feared this wasn’t going to end well for us.

Sensing the crowd coming and unable to find us, Jeremy simply turned to everyone and yelled “Jake.”  Jake is the guy who hooked up the passes for us.  Jake was sitting two chairs away from me.  I told Jake, who was extremely nervous and reluctant to go down to Jeremy, that we better get our asses down there or else I was going to fight him, out of principle.  Okay I made up the fighting comment, but please understand that there was simply no way this wasn’t happening for us.  We grabbed our stuff and rushed down where Jeremy quickly arranged for us to get past security and come hang out in the tunnel.  I was a real VIP for only the second time in my life.  The rest of the crowd would have to wait outside and try to steal glances while we chilled with the most talked about NBA player alive right now.

And just like that I was being introduced to Jeremy Lin.  We shook hands.  We met his buddies from Harvard, and then old friends got to talking.  It was like they were still in high school.  Nothing had changed even though so much had changed.  Being the outsider, I couldn’t help but stare and do my best to avoid ruining the moment.  This was the same guy who had somehow surpassed the hype and coverage of Tim Tebow.  This was the guy who is just weeks removed from dropping 38 points on none other than Kobe Bryant.  And he stood right next to me in the circle.  And he was, well, he was normal!

The details of that conversation will remain private but just know that during that time I was also introduced to Landry Fields and Iman Shumpert while getting the chance to say hey to Amar’e Stoudemire.  Another quick aside, Stoudemire is the most uniquely put together human being I’ve ever seen in person.  First of all, he’s jacked.  He’s just sculpted of muscle and fine marble.  Second, I’d wager to say he has about a 28 waist which is a couple sizes smaller than me, except that I’m 6-feet and he’s 7-feet tall.  He is a remarkable specimen.  Please try to see him in person.  Also, he’s extremely well-dressed, a part of the persona I’ve heard he picked up when he agreed to sign with the Knicks last year.  My jaw dropped to the floor as I muttered hey which probably sounded more like huhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhuhay than hey.  Janitors were quickly called in to clean up my drool off the floor.

We were then asked to move further into the bowels of the arena because they were preparing the ice for hockey.  We were no more than a few steps away from the locker room and players were everywhere.

And just as quickly as it started, the moment was over and Jeremy had to get on the team bus to catch their plane.  They were headed to San Antonio for a game with the Spurs this very evening.  We said our goodbyes and kind of stumbled out of the stadium in a state of drunken happiness.

Did that really just happen?

My fiancee and I said maybe ten words to each other the entire ride home, which took nearly half an hour to complete.  It was one of those kind of moments.  You just savor the once-in-a-lifetimeness of it all and nothing else need be talked about.  All of that silence led to a bunch of thinking though. 

Sports dork alert!

In anticipation of last night, I had gone through what my dream scenario was at least 1,000 times.  It somehow started with him wanting to talk only to me, finding out I was a blogger, and agreeing to a one-on-one exclusive where I wrote the definitive Jeremy Lin piece of our times.  Selfish and immature, I know.  If things didn’t go like that, I also knew exactly the one question I wanted to ask him, if given the opportunity (why don’t the Knicks run more pick-and-rolls between Carmelo and Amar’e on the weak side?).  I also made sure to heavily analyze the in-game stats to let him know what I thought went wrong, should he ask (the Knicks were awful from the free throw line and the Mavs got more foul calls, all the other stats were eerily similar).  These are the kind of perverted thoughts of a person who is way too obsessed with basketball.  I apologize if I offended you.

Obviously none of that went down when it played out in real life though. I have nothing to offer you in the way of proof that any of this all actually happened either.  That is unless you want to see a grainy iPhone picture of our passes.  But it happened. 

Three friends from high school following completely different paths in life met in one place last night.  Jake will likely head back to school next year for bigger and better things.  My fiancee is getting married to me this September.  Jeremy, well, who knows with Jeremy.  His potential seems limitless at this point.  He very well could go down as the most marketed athlete of all-time due to his appeal to the basketball-crazy Asian countries.  I got to meet him at an incredibly unique point of time.  He’s just famous enough to have left me completely dumbstruck, but he’s not quite removed enough from his humble beginnings to have taken it all in yet.  It seemed to me like he was still exhausted from learning to deal with taking it all in.

That will change though.  Inevitably I think every celebrity/athlete learns to deal with the constant attention at some point in his life.  It comes with the territory.  At some point he’ll be able to walk through 10,000 people without thinking twice about it.  But on this night he was still just plain Jeremy who just so happened to be the starting point guard of the New York Knicks.

For those ten minutes the roads of those indivudals crossed and I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the beauty of it.  What are the odds that those set of events ever take place again?  I found myself trying to imagine what it must like to fly to a different city every night to play basketball at the highest level.  I wondered what it would be like to have your every move dissected, analyzed, and criticized by the sporting public.  I tried to picture what it would be like to have meet new faces in every town, all of whom are likely attempting to get something from you.  It would be thrilling sure, but at some point it would have to wear on you.

And this naturally progressed to a reflection of my own life.  I’ll likely tell everyone I meet in the next ten years about the time I met Jeremy Lin and hung out with him at American Airlines Center.  He will probably forget it ever happened.  I’m getting married this year.  I plan to start a family soon.  I will face many other life-altering decisions in the very near future as well. Jeremy will probably sign long-term with the Knicks this off season.  Jeremy will probably then go to the playoffs where the Knicks have the potential to upset the Heat or Bulls.  Jeremy will then likely head to China for a barnstorming tour the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Beatles first came to America.

I really don’t know if it’s possible to follow where I’m going with all of this anymore, so I’ll end it with the following thought.  Life is a beautiful, funny, crazy thing.  My life intersected with the life of a very famous individual last night and then it was over.  For one party it was extremely memorable, for another it was inconsequential.  And I guess what I really mean to say is that I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Examining The Best Possible Dwight Howard Trades

Obviously some of these are far-fetched, but desperate times call for desperate measures!  Dwight has made it clear he’s had enough with the cougars who prowl the stands during Orlando’s games.  Orlando needs to act fast to complete a deal or else risk becoming the next Cleveland or Toronto.  And don’t even try to woo us with your fancy pants reasoning that it might be better for Orlando to actually let him walk, because of the new ramifications of the CBA and salary cap.  A no fun zone, this is not! 

For this column we examined trades for every single team in the NBA.  Don’t worry, we won’t waste your time by showing you how a potential deal between the Bobcats and Magic would break down.  We’ve instead narrowed it to teams that Dwight would actually re-sign with or those who would likely risk trading away everything for the potential to convince him to stay in the next three months.  One last note: all trades are 100% verified in the ESPN trade machine which we’ve linked individually to show you (note, they’ll show you how the trades would affect each team’s projected win total as well).

From least interesting to most interesting, we present this year’s candidates on the NBA’s version of the Bachelor…

Potential Suitor: Boston Celtics

The Trade: Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Jermaine O’Neal, Brandon Bass, and JaJuan Johnson

Analysis: This isn’t very likely to happen, but because of ESPN and Bill Simmons’ obsession of pretending like the Celtics are always in the mix for every player ever, we included it anyway.  Rondo and Allen are definitely serviceable assets that any team would be more than happy to land.  The reason this trade doesn’t happen though is that Dwight would never sign an extension here, given that the only potential remaining teammates left that are worth a damn would be Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.  But they have like 114 years on this earth between the two of them.

Potential Suitor: LA Lakers

The Trade: Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Jameer Nelson for Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Troy Murphy, and Andrew Goudelock

Analysis: Before breaking it down any further, you’re going to notice a trend among these trades in that the Magic are going to try to pair Turkoglu and his horrific contract if they do decide to ditch Dwight.  It makes a ton of sense, especially paired with their demand for expiring contracts, young talent, and stars in return.  On paper, this trade works for both teams.  The Lakers get the reincarnation of Shaq as well as a serviceable point guard who isn’t an AIG-sized liability every time he steps on the floor.  The Magic get a ton of talent in return that can’t leave in the next couple years, as well as an expiring deal in Murphy and some young talent in Goudelock.  Everybody wins.  Of course this won’t happen because Jim Buss has a man-crush on Andrew Bynum that would leave Vinne and Pauly D jealous.  Organizational success be damned.

Potential Suitor: Golden State Warriors

The Trade: Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Glen Davis for David Lee, Monta Ellis, Kwame Brown, Ekpe Udoh, and Brandon Rush

Analysis: If the Magic do decide to move Howard, this might be the only deal among all of these that actually gets offered.  They’d be getting the whole package of dumping bad contracts, getting pseudo stars with reasonable contracts, acquiring young talent, as well as taking on expiring deals.  I have no idea why Golden State is willing to risk their next five years for the chance to sell Dwight in just three month’s time, but hey, I guess we could always entertain the idea that they’re masking a tank job and praying for Anthony Davis in the lottery this summer.

Potential Suitor: New Jersey Nets (Soon To Be Brooklyn)

The trade: Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Mehmet Okur, Kris Humphries, Anthony Morrow, Brook Lopez, and MarShon Brooks

Analysis: This trade is only interesting in that it pairs Dwight with Deron Williams combined with the move to Brooklyn next year.  While the prospect of Jay-Z dropping lyrics about Dwight/Deron alley-oops is a little appealing, I really don’t feel like the Nets have enough to offer.

Potential Suitor: Houston Rockets

The Trade: Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Jordan Hill, Courtney Lee, and Goran Dragic

Analysis: I never, never, never discount Houston GM Daryl Morey when it comes to the opportunity to trade for a franchise superstar.  He knows better than any other executive that it takes a top-ten player to win titles in this league and has basically assembled an organization that allows him to quickly execute a trade at any time.  Houston is the basketball stat nerd’s wet dream.  They win with a ton of under-valued, forgotten players and they’re of course all signed for next-to-nothing money.  Watch out for the Rockets to sweep in quietly and steal Howard.

Potential Suitor: Miami Heat

The Trade: Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Dexter Pitman and Norris Cole

Analysis: The numbers actually work on this one, just saying…

Potential Suitor: Chicago Bulls

The Trade: Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Glen Davis for Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, and either Omer Asik or Taj Gibson

Analysis: Of all the teams that have the potential to make a trade for Dwight work, Chicago should be the one begging hardest to make it happen.  They also just so happen to have more than enough assets to leave Orlando satisfied.  They’d still retain either Asik or Gibson to run alongside Dwight in the front court.  And, oh yeah, they’d freaking ease the burden of Derrick Rose who appears like he might only have two or three years left in his body if he continues at this rate.  This deal has been rumored to potentially get nixed because Dwight and Rose are both Adidas clients and the shoe company has let them both know they can’t maximize revenues playing in the same market.  We say: that’s f—-ing weak.  Make this happen, please.

Potential Suitor: OKC Thunder

The Trade: Dwight Howard for Kendrick Perkins, Russell Westbrook, and Thabo Sefolosha

Analysis: I could spend hours trying to convince you why this makes way too much sense.  Obviously Orlando gets a true superstar in return as well as some useful players.  But the big bonus is OKC gets rid of the constant criticism surrounding KD and Westbrook in the fourth quarter.  They also can then throw out this lineup in crunch time: Eric Maynor, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Dwight Howard.  That’s game over, folks.

Potential Suitor: New York Knicks

The Trade: Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu for Carmelo Anthony and either Tyson Chandler or Amare Stoudemire

This would be an Antarica-sized ice cold move by the Knicks.  After being organizationally irrelevant for the past decade or so, would they really turn their back on two of the three players who begged to come make them matter again?  Of course!  This team is run by James Dolan, after all, only the single worst NBA owner not named Donald Sterling.  I cannot imagine the chaos this would create on the internet and ESPN HQ in Bristol.  But the great thing is, it actually does make sense, when you think about it.  You can go to war with Jeremy Lin/Amare or Tyson/Dwight.  Also: Jeremy Lin and Dwight would probably go down as the first or second best pick-and-roll combination of all-time, if only because of the amount of hype they’d produce by invading the market in Asia.  I’d also sadly take some sort of sick satisfaction in Carmelo having to go in exile in Orlando for the next four years after the mess he put Denver through last year.  I’m not proud to admit that, but it’s entirely true.  For anyone who would eventually like to witness the internet explode, this is the trade to root for.

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