Thursday, May 13, 2010

Milk It For Everything

There will still be a massive bidding war over Lebron James. He's unquestionably the best basketball player in the world... when he feels like it. Free Agency sweepstakes, here we come.

Of course, the buyer should probably be watching this Game 6 with furor. If LBJ doesn't come through tonight, it sets a precedent. He's already shown some red flags this series, notably the comment about 'spoiling people with [his] play' and the relatively lackluster showing against the aged (albeit resurging) Celtics.

Take this all with a grain of salt, though. Lebron is selfless on the court and is averaging in the neighborhood of 30/8/7, probably the only player in the NBA not named Dwyane Wade who can keep that up for an entire post season.

If I'm Donnie Walsh, I'm terrified, though. I want Lebron motivated with a ring and a burning desire to succeed. If he folds up like a lawn chair in this game (or worse, the next), I have to deal with a primadonna who can't or won't get it done on the big stage. While Lebron has a lot going for him, he still has a lot that he can work on to push him that much further. If he doesn't have that desire, though, then none of that will happen. For all of the accolades, Lebron James' defense is vastly overrated. Highlight reel blocks are nice and all, but he's not a game changer on that end. His assignments don't exactly have to take the night off on that end, but he certainly could improve himself there.

However, Lebron does not sound like a player who wants to improve. He simply doesn't feel the need to. His questionable J and athleticism give him about 30 ppg on 50% FG. That's fantastic. However, it's coasting. He has few low post moves, and his shot selection could be improved (honing the three, not settling for 20 footers). He's putting up 30 a night on 50% shooting and he hasn't even reached his ceiling. That's absurd to think about.

But Lebron knows that's enough for his off-the-court goals. And maybe he's right to accept that. When he says he could win the scoring title any time that he wanted, I absolutely believe him. In fact, I think he could be the first person since Michael Jordan to break the 3,000 point barrier.

That's a three person club.

However, Lebron is not a basketball player. Lebron is a corporation. Lebron is a business. Lebron is a marketing company. Making absolutely no adjustments to his game and assuming similar production throughout his career, Lebron is on track to average in the neighborhood of 24/5/7 and have what would most would probably term one of the top ten careers of all time (provided he wins a ring, which will happen, even if he has to hitch a ride on a contender in the twilight of his career). That is enough for Lebron James the Business. He is blessed with the gifts to be the greatest of all time, but only if he wants to be. If he doesn't push himself and make it to the Finals this season, he'll probably sign with another team, where he will chronically underachieve in the playoffs and either end up stumbling into a ring in a diluted league or playing until he's burnt out, leading the league in jerseys sold and teams gutted by his presence. Marketing mogul, legendary player, regular season champion, choker in the clutch.

Or not. You never know with this sort of thing. He could turn in a legendary performance tonight and for the rest of the playoffs, grab that first ring (or not) and then set the league on fire for the next 8 years, while gracefully fading into a comfortable career that may or may not have (more) championship rings in it.

Or this may be a stumbling block onto a greater career. This could be the last misstep of an otherwise flawless career, a brief reminder that even great ones can have not so great moments.

Taking that all into account, Lebron James' legacy is entirely in the hands of Lebron James. All we can do is bear witness.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Cause and Effect

It will be a never-ending source of mystery to me.

Why did Carlisle pull Butler and Beaubois? Aside from Dirk in the second half, those were the two most effective weapons at Carlisle's disposal. More importantly, he left them out in favor of giving Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd more minutes, despite the fact that they had proven ineffective.

The Spurs had no answer to Caron. I was surprised to see him sitting on the bench at all. A night after dropping 35, Caron doesn't crack 40 minutes after scoring 25 points on 9-18 shooting (perfect 6-6 from the line). Were you saving him for the next round? Marion, Terry, and Kidd combined for a whopping 11 points in 89 combined minutes of play. That's ridiculous. More than that, Rodrigue Beaubois and Erick Dampier played the exact same number of minutes, yet Beaubois produced just as many rebounds and assists (5 and 1, respectively) while outscoring him by 16.

I mean, I get that Carlisle won 55 games with his rotations and he hasn't missed the playoffs as head coach yet, but there is something fundamentally wrong with the way he distributed minutes down the stretch. Coaching is not an exact science, but at the same time, keeping the same players on the floor and hoping for them all to simultaneously pop out of a shooting funk isn't patient; it's just stupid.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

When they fall in, they fall in from the roof

The playoffs are not a difficult thing to discern. First team to win 16 games wins, and if the same team beats you four times, you're out. 7 games a series for 4 series. Easy.

Home court advantage for the team with the higher seed (4 of the 7 are played in the higher seed's home court).

Let's assume that all of the teams are of a fairly high caliber (I.E., this year's Western Conference does not contain a playoff team with less than 50 wins).

From the high seed's perspective, the playoffs are like this:

2 at home, 2 away, then 1-1-1 for the last three. (Except in the Finals, where it's 2-3-2, if I'm not mistaken). Assuming each team is good enough to win at home on a consistent basis, every series should go to the higher seed, with every series going about 7 games.

Naturally, this does not happen. The playoffs don't necessarily weed out the best team, because such measures are subjective and nigh impossible to prove with any level of definitiveness. What the playoffs really measure is the ability to win on the road.

Series in which the lower seed advances or the higher seed advances in less than 7 (which is to say, most series) feature at least one road win. They're not easy, but they happen. When a lower seed does this, it's said to nullify the 'home-court advantage.' From there, if they lose every other game on the road and win at home, they win the series. Simple as that. If the high seed does this, they only have to win 3 out of 4 of their home games, taking enormous pressure off of them. The more you win on the road, the less you have to play, the more likely you are to win the series, and it generally fills the winning team with confidence, which is absolutely key to any playoff victory.

So, if playoff dominance is dependent on being able to win away from home, why not host the games at a neutral site? The higher seeds already have an advantage by virtue of being 'better' or at least having more wins. Why crush the underdog further?

To compensate for this, the NBA could incorporate the D-League's playoff method of allowing the highest seeds pick their opponents. I think that the two put together would foster even more intense competition than what is currently on display in the NBA.

Or, it could horrifically cripple lower seeds by forcing teams to deal with matchup problems in a completely foreign basketball arena. That is also possible.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Different People at the Very Same Job

Russell Westbrook will not go down very easily to the Lakers. Kevin Durant has to deal with Ron Artest.

It seems pretty simple, and it is.

Let Westbrook go to work. Thabo will give Kobe headaches on defense, Westbrook will force him to help out Fish or Farmar, at which point he can kick it out to whoever is open.

Green is good, but not on the same level as Westbrook or Durant. Thabo is a great defender, but he's not a must-defend threat. This is a good thing, as it means defenses will play off of them.

If they insist on doubling up on Durant, use your other players. The Jordan Rules stopped working after a while. If you put Sefolosha, Green, and Westbrook together, that's like having one Scottie Pippen. So use them.

In somewhat unrelated news, Brandon Jennings did Brandon Jennings things for the Bucks. Dynamite in the first game, and picked up the slack because Bogut wasn't there. Significant if only because it's a knock on the door of everyone who said the Bucks were only a breakout team because of Bogut's rise to prominence. While there is some truth to this notion, one cannot forget that Brandon Jennings did lay a double nickel on the NBA, and even if this was a fluke performance, the explosiveness is there, and it also means that Jennings can carry a good portion of the load on his back. Bogut and Jennings is a good combination, and though it's doubtful that the Bucks will make it into the next round, there's a lot to look forward to. I wouldn't go to sleep on Brandon Jennings. He's not the Rookie of the Year, but he has a higher ceiling than the two front-runners. So I make myself clear:

I think that Brandon Jennings will be a better pro (both in terms of ability and team success) than either Tyreke Evans or Stephen Curry. They may post better individual stats, because of the systems that they'll be in or because of their usage percentages, but I think, ultimately, Brandon Jennings will be remembered as a better player than either of them...

...unless the Bucks ship him off somewhere OR if they don't get him some decent help.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Pay the Man(u)

So, I was excited to hear the Spurs reupped Manu Ginobili. One, because he's the only player whose jersey I own; two, because he's a valuable and respected member of the Spurs organization who's been underpaid for his career (though overpaying him might not have been the best response); and three, because it's doubtful that the Spurs could find anyone of equivalent value at that price in free agency.

It's no secret that San Antonio (and virtually every other small market team) has difficulty attracting free agents. Virtually all of their marquee players have come through the draft, and this is what allows them to field a competitive team while (normally) staying out of the luxury tax. Their other major assets have come through trades, though unlike (for example) the Bucks or the Thunder, San Antonio usually trades for role players. This is the case for most small market teams. To illustrate, I'll show the three best players from teams that would be considered 'small market':

Three 'best' (in my opinion) players from each team:

San Antonio-
Tim Duncan (Draft)
Manu Ginobili (Draft)
Tony Parker (Draft)

Milwaukee-
Andrew Bogut (Draft)
Brandon Jennings (Draft)
John Salmons (Trade)

Thunder-
Kevin Durant (Draft)
Jeff Green (Trade)
Russell Westbrook (Draft)

Charlotte-
Stephen Jackson (Trade)
Gerald Wallace (Expansion Draft)
Tyrus Thomas/Raymond Felton (I feel it's tied) (Trade/Draft)

The Thunder haven't picked up a big name free agent since they were the Sonics, nobody wants to sign with Charlotte or Milwaukee, and aside from Richard Jefferson, the last major name that the Spurs pulled in was Michael Finley, back when that meant something.

The closest a small market team came to nailing a big time free agent was when Jason Kidd came within one Joumana of signing to the Spurs back in July of 2003. It signified that even a team coming off of a championship with all of the major players coming back could not sign a top free agent, even if it made basketball sense.

Small markets aren't enticing for those who are interested in marketing themselves beyond basketball. I sincerely doubt that Lebron ever considered the Bucks or the Thunder as serious options, despite the playing opportunities that they could offer him. It will never just be about basketball. In the eyes of a casual fan, Kevin Durant is a guy who kind of looks like Jamie Foxx who might be better than Lebron at scoring a basketball. They see him occasionally dunk on Sportscenter. He may as well be playing Division III ball. He is the great white whale of the casual fan. Few second-tier free agents would want to be stuck in that position.

In the NFL, this is a non-issue. If you win, you'll be on TV. Football is huge enough in this country that every team has some following, and every team will get press. Resting on its own mythology, the NFL perpetuates itself, and this allows players to go anywhere, to establish themselves against the existing myth of the next Barry Sanders or the next Johnny Unitas.

This is also a result of players in the NFL largely being famous enough (due to broader national exposure) to bring the cameras with them. Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, Terrell Owens (less so now), Randy Moss, and players of their ilk shine in the spotlight enough to where they can choose where they want to play and the money will follow them.

I think the old axiom of, "There are no small parts, only small actors" holds true. In this case, there are no small markets, only small stars. If Lebron James chose to play in a small market, the cameras would follow him. Cleveland wasn't exactly a huge draw before 2003. He's enough of a star on and off the court to thrust a team into the national spotlight just by playing with them.

I believe that Kevin Durant's star will continue to rise and the Thunder will start attracting national attention with their (presumably brief) playoff run and Kevin Durant's imminent scoring title. Of course, if he doesn't win the scoring title, he doesn't get noticed, simply because no one cares about the second place finisher. BUT, if the pieces fall into place, he'll put Oklahoma City on the map.

If the team has great chemistry, you can win a championship. But if the team has one guy putting up monster stats, you'll get noticed. It's all about priorities.

Manu Ginobili is a box office draw and a vital cog in the Spurs plans for the future. He could have been resigned for less than the maximum, but I'm supposing that the front office wanted to show loyalty and possibly put Manu up to signing for somewhat less than the maximum.

Not that anyone will notice.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Out the Damn Loop

As is an unfortunate consequence of being a sociable human being, it is impossible to watch basketball every single night of basketball season. That's not even counting the holidays.

So, as someone who watches an ungodly amount of basketball, loves the game with all of its flaws, and would probably neglect a child in pursuit of basketball (just kidding), I tend to dwell on it a bit when I miss a game. It's not that I never want to go out at night and just hang out with my friends, as the young people do (I'll try not to sound 50 years older than I am, here), but ultimately, I don't mind being left to my own devices for a night, taking in a solid 4-5 hours of basketball. I've never really had a switch in my brain that says, "This is too much of a good thing," so League Pass has made sure that there is always something to do on any given night.

Of course, when I miss my course of 2 to 13 games a night, I try not to obsessively look at the score on ESPN Scorecenter. I don't manically check my twitter feed (@bluesforaredsun , if you're feeling so inclined). I just relax and try to enjoy whatever it is I'm doing, because basketball, and sports in general, does not constitute the whole of my life. Living and dying on every single fast break, three pointer, rebound, swat, dunk, turnover, PER score, and salary cap adjustment is not how I want to spend my time away from basketball.

That said, I wasn't too upset about missing two games last night, especially not from looking at the final scores. Neither one was very close (decided by double digits) and in both cases, the better team/higher seed (Orlando and Denver) won in the end.

When I'm watching it, I'm very locked in to all of these things, and when I'm reading about it, I'm hyperconscious of all of these things. For better or for worse, from 7-12, I become a savant. I am not aware of the names of the planets, or the historical significance of Utopia, or what my birthday is. I can tell you who set the assist record (Scott Skiles, 30, 1990, winner of Most Improved Player, 1990-91, current coach of Milaukee Bucks, former coach of Phoenix and Chicago...), who led the Association in scoring during the 80's (Alex English), who had the most points in a single season in ABA history (Dan Issel), etc. I'm a fountain of knowledge.

Aside from the occasional basketball metaphor or geeking out with my girlfriend, I don't talk about basketball outside of that. It's one of those quiet things that I didn't tell people I was into until about a year ago, and it's not something I discuss. I own a single jersey, a knockoff Ginobili with stiff letters. I care about it deeply and passionately, but it's not something I choose to express outwardly. It's one of the most important things in my life at least 5 nights a week, and yet I casually walk away from it to go do 'normal' things. I'm not sure where that places me. It may be more a personal thing than a basketball thing.

That said, when I look at the scores now, I feel desperately and hopelessly confused. I'm not sure what happened, and the box score can only reflect so much. I feel a minor amount of panic. "Did I miss an epic struggle that turned into a blowout? Was Orlando wire-to-wire?" It's all a purely academic exercise, though. I've been locked out by my own decision, and I'm two games behind the rest of the basketball world. If this were my job, I could justifiably shut off the rest of the world, but it's not. There seems to be two worlds: my basketball world, that series of interconnected statistics that unite me with people I've never met, and the regular world, in which I'm a regular guy of an average height who is unimpressed by what the world has to offer. The worlds rarely intermingle. I have friends who enjoy basketball and will discuss it with me, but only on a fairly superficial level. Basketball and everything associated with it is a passion, but ultimately, it's a private one. It could be that I fear no one will understand, or that I simply want a part of myself to myself, but I will never be the guy that rouses his friends on to see a basketball game.

So I look at the box scores and try to figure it out, because I can't really ask anyone else. In some respects, people like Matt Moore, John Hollinger, Zach Harper, and Tom Ziller get to know more about me than my own friends and family do. I'm a mystery for five hours, and it'll probably stay that way.