Monthly Archives: March 2011

It’s What We Know

I had no idea who Andrew Bynum was on the night of June 28, 2005.

This is a big deal to me to this day. I was 13 and absolutely obsessed with the NBA Draft. I immersed myself in a world of potential, upside, and the litany of metrics used to determine draft stock. It’s fascinating. To be able to say you’ve seen a player at every step of his NBA journey. To hope that in some way, there is a connection between your life and theirs; that their growth and development will somehow coincide with your own.

So by the time the Los Angeles Lakers were placed in foreign territory and asked to make the the 10th pick in the 2005 Draft, I was fully expecting a player like Gerald Green or Danny Granger, my favorite prospect at the time. Of course, at 13, my knowledge went only as far as mock draft websites took me. And they evidently didn’t take me far enough to anticipate what would follow:

“With the 10th pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers select Andrew Bynum of St. Joseph’s High School in Metuchen, New Jersey.”

“…What?”

I didn’t know the guy. I still don’t really know the guy. For someone consistently considered one of the rising stars in the NBA, there is a stunning lack of provocative backstory that seems to arise as soon as fame and productivity sets in. But we know what we know, and after six years watching Bynum develop, we’ve seen distinct sides of a player at the center of our discontent, our horror, and our optimism. Who do we know, exactly?

The kid. On a Sunday afternoon before a much anticipated matchup between the Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs, ABC cameras cut to Bynum in the visiting locker room, fiddling around with his iPad. Twitter went ablaze with Angry Birds jokes and other quizzical observations about Bynum. All of this from a few seconds of footage. There’s something that has us gravitating towards him. It’s hard to miss the lilt in his voice during interviews. His eyes widen, and suddenly he’s that doe-eyed 17 year old kid just happy to be in the league. Youth is held at such a premium in the NBA. To think Bynum still possesses plenty of it six years into his career…it’s kind of unfair.

Then there are the stories that inevitably come every summer. Bynum taking weeks off to vacation thousand upon thousands of miles away from home and from basketball. By all accounts, Bynum is a bright guy. And a thirst for culture and knowledge isn’t something that can be ignored. Not every player has the luxury of going through Kobe Bryant’s childhood: living and thriving in a different environment, learning multiple languages and growing up with a broader perspective. Bynum is satisfying his curiosity with the resources he has. He’s doing what we all dreamt of doing as kids. Call it a lack of focus, or a lack of dedication. Or call it a growing exercise.

The victim. We know the story. We’ve heard it many times before. Bynum’s career has been a long trail of inconsistency, though it’s hard to fault him for the injuries that have curtailed incredible stretches of basketball.
It’s hard to go out there and give it your all when you’re fully aware of history. You hate history. Because history says around this time, you’re going to crumble right when you hit your stride. You might be able to return and help your team sometime during the postseason push, but you won’t be anywhere near where you were. Better luck next year.

Perhaps what hurts the most as a fan is how Bynum’s injuries have created a systems of highs or lows with no real middle ground. There is Bynum playing well, Bynum not playing at all, and the recovery period in between. Without a reliable mean, we’re left to wonder about potential and health without ever having a clear view of what’s in front of us.

But victims must to rise from the underground eventually. Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register has a must-read article about Bynum’s relationship with sports psychologist George Mumford, and how Mumford has helped Bynum break from his spell:

Those who dismiss Jackson’s mind games as mumbo jumbo can feel free to believe it’s all about the cartilage in Bynum’s right knee being more firmly reattached, his conditioning having improved or maybe even his nutritionist’s lean protein and brown rice.

But only Bynum knows how much easier it is for him to sense which way a ball is going to bounce if he’s really looking at it. He describes the high-speed, loud-arena NBA action now as “quiet” until the whistle blows to stop play.

Andrew Bynum’s breakthrough: how, why, and with whom | Orange County Register 3/30/11

That inner focus — away from thoughts of pain, and anything else for that matter — has helped Bynum not only overcome the mental hurdles of injury, but also regain the fearless commitment to the team that was so vital in last year’s playoffs. Victims can’t stay oppressed forever.

The star/ the winner. It’s in him. Of that, there is little doubt. All of those formative years with Kareem haven’t been forgotten. Bynum’s still capable of being the offensive menace he was in previous years. His understanding of positioning has taken another step up this season, as he is becoming more and more comfortable using his body as leverage. While he’s taking fewer shots, he’s as efficient as he’s ever been offensively.

If anything has solidified his star potential, it’s his work on the defensive end. In less minutes a game than the past two seasons, Bynum is pulling down more rebounds and blocking more shots a game. He’s shown his impact on both ends of the floor. Now he’s just waiting for the keys to the car.

A year or two ago, Bynum’s light was uncontrollable. Scoring 20 points a game was never the issue, it was in balancing his duties with the team. It was in aligning himself in a favorable position with three other super-talents. Now, it’s different. “I’m just trying to rebound and defend, man.” Bynum knows how to win. He knows how to succeed. He plays with the most bloodthirsty basketball player we’ve seen in more than a decade. He plays with one of the most skilled post players of this era. He knows where he falls in place. Bynum’s been given a rare opportunity to learn what it means to be a champion before the pressures of stardom have a chance at cracking him first. Because we all know stardom is much easier pill to swallow when you’re winning.

Maybe last summer’s trip to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup wasn’t such a bad idea. Bynum experienced first-hand the roars of fans who’ve waited their entire lives to support their country, and watched some of the best (soccer) players in the world support one another on the same team, under the same flag. Everyone has a role, and success isn’t actualized until harmony is achieved. Playing with the world’s most talented basketball players is no death knell, it’s a blessing. It’s a learning experience. There will come a day when Bynum will be that superstar he’s always envisioned himself being. As of now though, he a cog in the immaculate championship generating machine that is the Los Angeles Lakers.

After six years, this is what we know of Andrew Bynum. This season has been a culmination of the innocence, tragedy, hope, and perspective that has laid the foundation to Bynum’s rise. With so much uncertainty in this year’s championship race, Bynum stands as the Lakers’ most vital asset. The playoffs are just around the corner, and Bynum has a chance to play at a much higher level than he has in past years. There’s still much he has to learn about himself and his place in Lakers lore. But he’s learning. We’re learning too.

Lamar Odom’s Prison

Photo via David Locke 1 of Flickr

Years from now we may look back on Lamar Odom as the tragic figure of the 2010-2011 NBA season, locked in a perpetual grey area of explanation. Defining the nature of the 31-year-old Laker veteran is akin to defining the role with which he is most often associated – 6th man. It’s a position that has evolved with time but still remains vague in characterization, existing only within the context of “player has come off the bench more times than he has started” nomenclature. Odom has reached a point in his ever changing career where his talent and production levels seemingly eclipse what we consider to be the boundaries of a so-called “role player” and in doing so has subsequently left himself suspended in basketball purgatory.

The easy and immediate argument for those opposed to the awarding of 6th Man of the Year to a player of Odom’s status and ability is the simple fact that he is on pace to start more games than any previous recipient. He so closely toes the line for that hard cutoff of playing time that many are inclined to simply push him over the edge into full fledged starter. Yet, it is the fact that Odom, as a result of his timely and elite level of play, shatters our preconceptions of what a player off the bench can be. This – not the number of starts – is truly the decisive factor in the publics’ decisive opinion.

Consider the other leading candidates: Jamal Crawford, Glen Davis, Ty Lawson, George Hill and James Harden. Do any of these names hold a candle to Odom for sheer force of person? Not even a vital component off the bench for a championship contender like Davis is for the Celtics, can match the Lakers x-factor for perception of performance. It isn’t just that we know Odom is good, it’s that we know he can be and often is great. He exists as one of the few players in the NBA where the general consensus is that his worth is far beyond his numbers (though 14.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg and 19.8 PER hardly scream unnoticed), and that just doesn’t fit the archetype for a 6th man.

Of course, the tragic and somewhat ironic twist of Odom’s 12-year career is his inability to break through the stereotype that he is at best a supporting cast member. He has reached a level of production where he is considered beyond the scope of receiving an award for being an elite contributor off the bench, yet when considering the best players in the game is still typecast in this mold. His public perception has outgrown one classification, but he hasn’t yet been handed the keys to the next – how else do you explain a complete absence of any recognition of individual achievement in his career?

Perhaps the only archetype for bridging this gap in recent memory has just completed that transition himself, this being Manu Ginobili. The star power of Tim Duncan overshadowed the Argentinean early in his career and it was only when the Spurs franchise player began to digress as he aged, that the true worth of Ginobili became apparent. Much as was the case when Scottie Pippen emerged from Michael Jordan’s shadow in that 1994 season, perhaps Odom won’t truly evolve into a publicly perceived star until Kobe Bryant’s ultimate demise begins.

That of course brings us back to the 6th Man Award. Does Odom winning the award this season exonerate him as a perceived “starter” and rightfully establish him as the game’s greatest bench option? Or does it further condemn him to a career of being underrated, viewed through the lens of good but not great? Or is it both?

Perhaps Odom is at once victimized and elevated by his circumstances. On a team devoid of such star power isn’t it conceivable that the multi-talented forward’s career would run parallel to that of Shawn Marion? The former Sun played on some strong teams in Phoenix to be sure, but not to the degree that Odom has in Los Angeles and yet for the lack of a lasting legacy, Marion is a four-time All-Star. Yet for the absence of plaques and awards, it is the championship banners he has helped hang that will elevate Odom’s historical legacy.

Do these lengthy tangents have any place in the debate of Odom’s classification as it stands? Again, like the vague conceptualization of his role within the framework of his own team, the answer is both clear, yet intangible. As he stretches the boundaries for what we perceive a 6th man to be, perhaps he will one day be viewed as the prototype for the future of this role in the game.

A Series of Questions

As kids, we’re always waiting for the day we become grown ups, as though one magical day will come and change everything we’ve ever known. We dream of those arbitrary flags stuck in the sand. At 18, we’re allotted certain freedoms. At 21, we’re given a few more for good measure, which last for the rest of our lifetimes. Of course, they don’t mean much.

For his 21st birthday, my friend got an unusual set of gifts from his girlfriend. No alcohol, no alcohol-related paraphernalia, none of that. In a box was a 2-gun NERF set and Monopoly, with a note that read, “You’re never too old to be a kid.”

But we grow up. We grow up fast, and the perks of childhood invisible to us as children become unattainable treasures as adults. If there’s a finite window of opportunity to tap into our youth, are there signs that tell us when? Is there a point of no return?

11 months ago, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose spearheaded young teams clinging to the eighth seed in the playoffs. Six months ago in Turkey, Durant and Rose established themselves as objects of idolatry on the world’s stage. Now, both teams have attained elite status among fans, coaches, and peers. They have become the new standard for the NBA superstar, as both mask their inconceivable gifts with mild mannered confidence, and a gluttony for hard work. It’s mentioned repeatedly, but it still doesn’t make sense that both players are only 22, with Durant only five days older than Rose.

Alas, the ascension of both Durant and Rose (and their respective teams) comes with a set of demands. It comes with the assumption that both the Thunder and the Bulls can make it past the first round, a feat neither player has achieved before. Of course, most of us assume they will, because making it past the first round isn’t exactly the golden prize in sight here. Uneasiness begins to fester in the second round, the Conference Finals, and the Finals — where expectations skyrocket, where the first signs of “weakness” are uncovered and scrutinized and where legacies are built up and torn down.

Durant and Rose are extolled for what they’ve done to bring their respective teams to a contending level, but this is hardly unmarked territory. If there is any precedent, it lies in 2007. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James scored 48 points (and 29 of the last 30 points for the Cleveland Cavaliers) in a momentum-shifting victory against the defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons. James’ performance was one of the most astonishing playoff outings in recent memory. Every shot in that sequence of events, from the fourth quarter through double overtime, was an affirmation of James’ unflappable desire to win. And in just his third season in the league, he made it to the NBA Finals. He was only 22. The rest of the story does not bear repeating. It’s still unfolding before us.

The similarities between James and Rose are clear and distinct. Rose has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate in his third year, largely due to the introduction of Coach Tom Thibodeau, the defensive mastermind setting the Bulls’ greatest strength in motion. In Chicago’s middling offense, Rose is the primary, secondary, and tertiary options, which somehow aligns itself well with the team’s overall commitment to defense. If images of Mike Brown’s second year and the soloistic performances of a young LeBron James come to mind, it’s only natural. But if Rose is indeed on James’ path, what could it mean for his future?

For Durant, it’s different. So much has been done to portray Durant as the anti-LeBron. This isn’t to say that there is any ill will between the two, but Durant has cultivated an image based on a wholesome personality and a dedication to the team aspect of the sport. It just happens to be the opposite of our current projection of James. We swoon over Durant’s talent and he hardly ever disappoints. But in the end, if Durant isn’t able to make it through in the clutch, our perception can easily shift in the future, pulling Durant closer and closer to the current image of James.

Durant and Rose will learn, just as James did, that reaching that top plateau means any step backward will spark doubt and backlash. We’re told to expect greatness, and there’s nothing wrong with expectation. But what happens if neither the Thunder nor the Bulls make the Conference Finals in the next two years? How long do Durant and Rose have before they are tossed to the wolves? Or will the wolves come at all?

Four years ago, on the last night of May, LeBron James created a legend at the Palace in Auburn Hills. For one night, he was everything anyone could ever wanted. James is still every bit the spectacle he was back then, but his image as a winner has been tarnished. A winless NBA Finals series and a few close-but-no-cigar moments against the Boston Celtics and the Orlando Magic can do that to a player. A lot can change in four years. Kids are forced to be men. Of course, things are different — and the change is accelerated — when you were expected to be a man from day one.

Keynote speakers tell us that in youth, mistakes can be made and that failure is an option. But Rose doesn’t buy any of that, and have you seen Durant after a loss? In Rose’s “movie trailer”, he makes rash declarations and disregards conventional wisdom, basically summing up the process of adolescence. Holly MacKenzie wrote about Rose’s unguarded candor, a quality quite possibly behind his years:

Open and forthcoming, if you ask a question, he will answer it without ever thinking about how his answer might affect him afterward. A lot of players say they don’t read the newspapers and blogs and a lot of players lie. You get the feeling that Rose isn’t when he says that he keeps his focus to basketball.

Derrick Rose: Sidestepping the spotlight, by Holly MacKenzie | The Basketball Jones

While Rose’s insular focus is surely to be commended, how would his lack of periphery affect him if he doesn’t meet our expectations? Rose is a hometown hero. He’s been a star from the beginning, and has grown as a player with the adoration of a rabid fanbase behind him. Will his focus shield him from the hate? Or will a dismissal be too damning, too real?

Durant and Rose are playing “Grown-Up” in a sandbox, and unlike some of their peers, they’re doing a damned good impression. But adults are tough to fool, and youth won’t always make up for inexperience. What’ll happen when they step into the “real world”? In the spotlight of the playoffs, we’ve seen the unlikely occur. We’ve seen great teams crumble before their time. If the improbable happens, can Durant and Rose still cling to their youth? Or does perception and expectation strip them of what’s left?

There are no definitive answers to these questions, now or in the future. But it’s a primer for what might be in store, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t so.

The Alternate Path To Establishment

Photo via Genseric 455 on Flickr

I’m a sports anchor/reporter by trade. The sports television world is an exciting, fast paced industry, one that I had longed to be a part of for most of my childhood, so having been lucky enough to land a job not long after college was a dream come true.

The one part of the profession that I find both frustrating and exciting is the lack of an archetype for the blueprint of success. Talk to 20 successful reporters and you’re apt to hear 20 vastly different stories for how they got to where they are. To be sure, most professions have a degree of variance between starting point and the journey to ultimate end point, but the wiggle room for differences is slight compared to the media world.

Lawyers attend Law School and work their way up at their firm, hoping to one day make partner. Doctors attend medical school, complete their residency and work their way up in either private practice or a larger organization. I’ve met reporters who started in radio, been newspaper reporters, spent time in the public relations world, I even ran across one who started as a secretary on a political campaign. In the TV world, the ends justify the means.

Similarly, the NBA is hardly a bastion of concrete paths to establishing oneself, be it as a star, role player or career-long bench warmer. Careers and roles are fluid, for most they are in a constant state of flux. This lack of a yellow brick road to firm ground is what makes the League simultaneously thrilling and frustrating as we watch players rise and fall, overachieve and bust before our eyes. Even within the context of the unknown, the lack of sturdiness to both reality and our perceptions of it, the series of events that have led up to Tyler Hansbrough’s blistering March are unique.

Perhaps no college star in recent memory has at once reaped the benefits and seen the damning effects of college stardom as the former North Carolina standout has.  A household name seemingly by the end of his freshman season, few players in the last decade have spent so much time in the spotlight so as to be simultaneously revered by college fans and opponents, but equally dissected by pro fans.

Even Adam Morrison – riddled with deficiencies that we could all see would manifest them at the pro level eventually – was given a fighting chance in the beginning. Hansbrough, quite possibly the best college player of his decade (from a career accomplishment standpoint) was written off as an NBA player the second his career at Carolina ended with a national championship. The stigma of his physical limitations was enough to overshadow a four-year run of consistent production that has rarely been seen in arguably the college games most storied conference.

Shortly after being drafted by the Indiana Pacers – he simply vanished from national awareness. Plagued by a prolonged bout with vertigo and failing to click on any level with then head coach Jim O’Brien, Hansbrough went the way so many predicted for him, disappearing into obscurity, the fact that it was matters beyond his control didn’t matter.

In late January, O’Brien was fired and interim head coach Frank Vogel immediately pledged increased playing time for a now healthy Hansbrough who has averaged 27 minutes a night over the last two months. But all we want to talk about is March, the time when the second-year pro used to take center stage at Chapel Hill, a titanic force amidst the college game. Now he is doing it for the Pacers, posting averages of better than 20 points and 8 rebounds over his last 10 games, numbers that scream breakthrough, finally getting it, establishing himself, arriving on the scene.

At the risk of creating an uprising in Tar Heel Nation, we know this degree of production is unlikely to last. Hansbrough, for all of the improvements he is making in his game, is simply capitalizing on scenarios where defenses aren’t paying him the level of attention afforded a player producing his kind of stat line. If and when this does happen, his numbers will likely return to the much more believable line of 15 and 6, his averages since Vogel took over the reins in Indiana. But this isn’t about whether or not Hansbrough will continue his ascent to become a full fledged star or regress to his likely mean and operate as a solid starter for the next decade in the Hoosier State. This is about how he arrived at being the focal point of this conversation.

We live in an age where players develop before our eyes, each step of the way analyzed and assessed. Somehow, Hansbrough has managed to avoid this scrutiny, his growth as a player executed behind the scenes during his exile on the bench. Yet, this may be exactly why he has managed to emerge as a viable option for the Pacers since his reemergence. Had he been treated in the same manner as his equals at the college level – the Durant’s and Beasley’s of the world – he undoubtedly would have been set up for failure under the heat of the spotlight. At the same time, rare has been the player so accomplished in college, who has the bar set so incredibly low. Maybe that’s why this sudden explosion over the last couple of weeks has the NBA buzzing.

At this point Hansbrough’s extended test run with big minutes is akin to seeing a movie where expectations are low, but the finished product is above average so the reviews are great – isn’t it? The only problem is his career happens to be a film we’ve already seen, but has just been redone slightly better a few years later. The forward has already spent so much time in the limelight that by the time his NBA career began his strengths and weaknesses were widely known and his ceiling as a player appeared to be reached, he’s just adapted.

Maybe it’s appropriate that Hansbrough’s path to emergence in the NBA is unconventional as most fans would likely agree that it mirrors his role as an unconventional player. While most college stars develop in the spotlight and further their growth or fade away as the light grows brighter, Hansbrough instead departed into the shadows before returning to outdo initial expectations. For a player who has built himself on a tireless work ethic and hustle this trajectory only stands to further entrench him as the archetype for the heralded college star turned forgotten commodity in the NBA.

Tidal Patterns

Screen shot 2011-03-22 at 12.37.17 PM

The Knicks’ second-half breakdown in Monday night’s game against the Celtics was at once both predictable and startling. New York is, by style, a team incapable of enduring runs; unless their offense is operating at a high level at all times, the Knicks are vulnerable to flurries of points and stops from more effective teams. When the consistent scoring goes, so too does the game. The Celtics, on the other hand, are the picture of in-game and in-season fortitude. No loss is back-breaking and no quarter damning. Boston simply hovers, cool and confident, waiting for the moment when the shots finally do start falling. Their defense allows them that much, and though the Celtics’ poor execution during the first 24 minutes of Monday’s game imbued them with a 14-point halftime deficit, their recovery was imminent.

Imminent and yet shocking, still. There’s an awesome quality in seeing an offensive outfit as capable as the Knicks – who put up 51 points in the first half despite playing in a pretty slow game – be completely shut down, even if it falls right in line with the expected narrative structure. Boston’s defense is just so completely smothering when it’s on point, and on Monday New York looked absolutely impotent by comparison. It wasn’t just Boston’s D vs. New York’s O; the offense-defense distinction too often creates an artificial separation that doesn’t actually exist. Defense feeds into offense and vice versa, and the Celtics thoroughly dominated both ends of the court by using each as a conduit to the other. Every made bucket allowed the defense an opportunity to get set, and every stop provided an offensive opportunity.

The Knicks, on the other hand, seemed incapable of grasping the concept that basketball is a transitional game. Oddly enough, New York rarely pushed the pace in the second half (particularly in the fourth quarter), and in the instances when they did make an attempt to do so, Boston was in position to defend. The results weren’t pretty, as the Knicks’ offense completely stopped functioning in a half-court setting during the final frame. Shot selection was a huge issue, as each of New York’s stars took turns committing offensive blunders down the stretch:

Worse yet: the Knicks haven’t quite grasped getting back on defense as an imperative. The scene was particularly heinous in the fourth quarter, as a 23-2 Celtics run fueled by fast break points destroyed what was left of the Knicks’ advantage and propelled the better team toward a convincing win:

As far as the Knicks have come in the last year, there’s still a gulf separating them from the league’s elite. It’s the defense. It’s the offense. It’s the poor attention to detail and a conceptual disregard for the system in place. Every squad will have their losses and letdowns, but New York shows their relative worth in a loss like this one.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Dwyane Wade (III)

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take a closer look at Dwyane Wade’s soul-crushing dunk on Kendrick Perkins from Wednesday night’s game between the Heat and Thunder.

Wade’s slam could very well be the play of the year, but unfortunately it’s something less than legal according to NBA rules. There’s a reason why Wade has been featured in more videos for this series than any other player: he simply has a way of navigating space that tests the limits of what we perceive as a travel. In some cases Wade’s footwork is merely unique, and in others his maneuvers inspire a mere raised eyebrow when they should warrant a quick whistle.

Regardless, this incredible highlight is in violation of two separate clauses in the traveling rule, much like Blake Griffin’s transition spin-move/dunk against the Knicks earlier in the season. At the crux of Wade’s misstep is the spin move; like far too many NBA players, Wade’s spin doesn’t use a pivot foot as its anchor, but actually utilizes two separate steps as the foundation of its advantage. By sneaking in an extra step (or really, by subtly lifting his pivot and then replanting it), Wade is able to cover a lot of ground on his path to the basket, but in doing so he hops consecutively on the same foot — an easy travel call. For reference, here is the exact wording of this particular part of the traveling rule:

“Upon ending his dribble or gaining control of the ball, a player may not touch the floor consecutively with the same foot (hop).”

Also, Wade takes a total of three steps following his gather: the re-setting of his spin pivot and each of his plants immediately prior to his jump. Again, here’s the relevant passage from the NBA rulebook, in case you hadn’t committed it to memory:

“A player who receives the ball…upon completion of a dribble, may take two steps in coming to a stop, passing or shooting the ball.”

With his speed, body control, sneaky footwork, driving ability, and tendency to exaggerate contact, Wade may be the toughest player to officiate in today’s NBA. I’m sure this isn’t the last time we’ll see Wade as the subject in this series, and even more certain that this isn’t the last time he’ll dupe NBA officials.

Hat tip to Royce Young for the play selection.

The Fight Against Stagnation

Alarm clock.

Shut up, alarm clock.

Alarm clock again.

Sigh.

Bathroom, brush teeth, shave, in some order. Well, sometimes shave.

2 hour commute. Work. Lunch. Work. Somewhere within that sequence, fall asleep twice. Somewhere within those twice, drink coffee. Somewhere within that coffee, think– “this coffee would taste much better if I were awake enough to get the coffee-to-sugar-to-water-to-milk ratio right instead of just throwing the four of them into a cup and hoping for best. What am I, coffee’s Don Nelson?”

2 hour commute back. Dinner. Enjoy family’s presence at dinner. Unless they’re feeling noisy. They always feel noisy.

Some kind of screen. Maybe a book, if the attention span allows it. Postpone sleep for the mind-numbing killing of brain cells. Brain cells dead, postponing over. Sleep.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

It doesn’t sound like much. But it’s the way I run my life. And, give or take some details – maybe you work closer to home, or are able to discipline yourself into reading more often, or have a quiet family, or just have a full-time beard – that’s probably how you live too.

Should I find it sad that my life is so easy to describe in a 130 word fashion that intentionally includes very little adjectives and a disproportionally long shot at Don Nelson? No. For between those lines there is so much to enjoy. Incredible depths of detail, like just how fun it is to eat dinner with my family when they aren’t noisy, or just how good my work environment is when I don’t fall asleep, or just how fascinating those books and/or mind numbing screens are. And I haven’t even mentioned basketball.

No, the oddly placed introduction you just slugged through has nothing to do with sad or happy. Words such as those don’t belong there. It’s void of emotion, opinion or interpretation in either which way. It’s merely a template, the backbone of my every day life, upon which other, more significant pieces can be placed.

And in that is great virtue. Structure is a necessity for any fully functioning organism or society, a life saver whenever on faces adversity. We like to tell ourselves that when the going gets tough the tough get going, but once we get past the cliché, we see that when the going gets tough, the tough manage to stay afloat. It’s why clutch shooting numbers are so vastly inferior to their equivalents during any other portion of the game. It’s why usually, even the best players perform just up to their regular standards during the playoffs, with only a select few actually upping their production for those crucial weeks of spring.

The problem, though, is when life refuses to assist in filling that frame with other pieces. Life shows very little regard to what we need at a given time, sometimes forcing us to choose between making lemonade out of some papaya or just chillaxing with a papaya. Even worse, life may not throw us pieces at all, giving us the full freedom we seemingly desire, the power to define the narrative that twists around our eventless spine. For when we are given the power to act, we are also given the power to do nothing. To sink into the comfort of our routine, go through the motions, and live out a dull shade of gray.

This is where our comfort with structure goes one step too far, where that sense of security prevents us from fulfilling our full potential. And once that goes on for too long, we may find ourselves incapable of rediscovering the abilities we once had, staring at those once available heights through a back mirror without the lift we once had. It is at this point that we cry and yell for help, that we demand to leave our self-imposed prison. But inertia is a wily foe, and of those who have challenged it, only a select few have managed to change their fortunes. Such is a routine, both a buoy and an anvil tied to ones foot.

For LaMarcus Aldridge, routine had been an anvil, fortunes looking very different as late as this November. And just as yet another teammate went down, just as opponents gained the ability to focus solely on LMA, when we expected his routine to become a buoy – it disappeared. For the better.

The first 4 years of the LaMarcus Aldridge in the NBA experience were solid, if unspectacular. And what two words, other than “LaMarcus” and “Aldridge”, are better for describing the 2006-2010 version of LaMarcus Aldridge?

Picked 2nd in the 2006 draft, sandwiched between two inferior players at the same position and one outright bust, Aldridge was a steal. Then again, the best players in the draft were all picked behind him. Brandon Roy went 6th, depriving Aldridge even of “best Blazer” status; Rudy Gay went 8th, shared LMA’s frustrating stagnation, and broke through in separate circumstances this year; and Rajon Rondo, picked 21st overall, has benefited from a championship in his 2nd season and far more exposure, thus placing him far ahead of the curve, however unfairly.

And so, off went Aldridge. Always impressive, never in the mind blowing sense of the word. The designated 3rdstring in the Oden-Roy dynasty. Stuck behind too many strong Western forwards for all-star recognition, and too many exciting youngsters in general. And while 18 and 8 in one’s second season is far from feeble, especially for your slow-to-develop big men, every season that passes without that statline jumping upwards is fair game as far as disappointment labels.

With the tip off of the 2010-2011 season, nothing seemed different. As December came along, Aldridge was firmly entrenched in his matter-of-factly averages of 18.3 and 8.3, to go with a field goal percentage inferior to that of years past, and this in more minutes than ever before. Same old, same old.

Until Oden was, once again, out for the year. And then the depths of Roy’s cartilage-less knees were revealed. And all of a sudden, LMA was fresh of a 5 year, 65 million extension, the best player on his team, and still very solid yet unspectacular. A franchise with a tantalizing future was suddenly stuck with a Roy-ed out cap and a new franchise guy who didn’t seem to be cut out for such a huge burden.

When finally, it happened. “Oh boy, I like that Aldridge kid, he might be a star someday” became “Holy crap, did you SEE LaMarcus Aldridge?”. No more settling for mid-range jumpers just because his length makes him unblockable, but using that unblockability to get closer to the basket and make shot after shot. A well refined post game, seasoned with perfect execution on alley-oop after alley-oop. Multiple 40 point games. A well deserved all-star campaign ending in a felonious all-star snub. A franchise that may not be going as far as it once hoped, but at least has it’s building block again.

There are many kinds of  breakthroughs in the NBA. Many of them follow the path of natural ascension. Kevin Durant last year, or Derrick Rose this year – not a superstar coming out of nowhere, but prospects flying upwards on an unbelievably steep learning curve. Some break through because they finally got their chance. Kevin Love is posting some of the best rebounding numbers ever we’ve seen in this modern era because Kurt Rambis finally stopped gleefully gluing him to the bench for your Anthony Tollivers. Sometimes a former headcase will just “get it”, posting up similar stats with a magnified effect on his team, like Zach Randolph or Josh Smith. And sometimes, if you’re extra patient, you get a Blake Griffin, a player who is just something we’ve never seen before from the get-go, who captivates our hearts and our minds.

But so rare is the player who seemingly plateaus, only to re-establish his once flatlined career arc. That Aldridge’s screeching halt came so early in his career makes no difference. This is a player who’s immense potential somehow simmered away into our subconsciousness as he has settled into a well define role within basketball folklore, only to burst out in glorious fashion right when it was needed the most.

LaMarcus Aldridge probably won’t win Most Improved Player this year. I’m not even willing to go as far as saying he deserves it. There are too many deserving candidates, and despite his progress, I find it hard to say that LMA has improved the “most”. But it’s the nature of his improvement – the situation from which he has risen, how very rare it is to see players slowly lose their best-case-scenario tags only to regain them –  that makes his improvement stick with me the most. Given how ridiculous award voting has become in the 24/7 media world, perhaps that’s all that matters.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Goran Dragic

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take a closer look at a sequence from Saturday night’s game between the Rockets and Spurs, in which Goran Dragic was whistled for a travel.

Dragic has incredibly unique footwork, but in this case his creativity gets the best of him. Rather than use a basic maneuver to create a bit of space for his layup attempt, he ends up taking two consecutive steps off the same foot, which any Have Ball, Will Travel veteran should easily identify as a no-no. Here’s the relevant passage from the NBA’s video rulebook:

“An offensive player with the ball may not hop consecutively on the same foot upon ending his dribble.”

We’ve seen Andray Blatche called for a walk on a similar sequence in the past, and sadly seen this rule invalidate one of Blake Griffin’s highlight-reel slams. Good on the officiating crew for spotting this one: Dragic’s play is otherwise legal, but the fact that he hops on his left foot for his gather step and the first step in his two-step count makes this one an obvious travel.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Devin Harris

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take a closer look at Devin Harris’ dribble-drive on the last possession of Wednesday night’s game between the Jazz and Raptors. Harris ultimately misses the shot, but the legality of this play has definite import; had Harris been called for a walk (he wasn’t), then Al Jefferson’s ensuing game-winning tip-in wouldn’t have counted. Take a look:

At full speed, there’s definitely something fishy about Harris’ footwork. However, as mentioned in the dissection of a potential Deron Williams travel, there are some who see taking another step out of a pivot as a legal play. I still don’t agree, and if we were only looking at that specific action, I’d still call it a walk.

That’s all moot. In his efforts to free up space for a shot prior to his step-through move, Harris ends up establishing his left foot as his pivot foot, lifting that pivot, and then re-planting it only to leave it again. That is a travel, and there should be no point in debate. At the 41-second mark in the video, it was a bit unclear exactly how much Harris had moved or shifted his pivot, so I included a picture-in-picture clip from another angle that shows him lift his pivot off the floor completely.

For the sake of consistency, here’s the relevant section of the traveling rule from the NBA rulebook:

“If a player, with the ball in his possession, raises his pivot foot off the floor, he must pass or shoot before his pivot foot returns to the floor.”

Case closed.

The Miami Heat: A Study In Perceived Extremes

Photo courtesy of Saschagrafie on Flickr

Hindsight being what it is, when the Miami Heat ultimately fall in the playoffs, a wave of columns (blog posts, Facebook status’, tweets) will materialize proclaiming the first super team a failure. We’ll hear about how the dynamic of two alpha dogs was doomed from the start. How the supporting cast was lacking in depth and talent. We’ll hear about how all those who predicted instant success for Miami Thrice were off their rocker from the beginning. Yet, the irony will be as soon as the first circus ends another will begin.

Of all the benefits that 24/7 sports coverage has provided, it has fostered a culture that is quickly moving towards the point of completely lacking any semblance of patience. Much like rabid fans live and die with every play, it seems as though teams and players write and rewrite their legacies on a week to week basis. Blake Griffin had barely established himself as a rising superstar when talk of him one day leaving the Clippers for another franchise began. The Lakers had some eyebrow raising loses prior to the All-Star break and suddenly their title hopes are collapsing. These examples pale in the face of what the Heat have wrought.

It wasn’t all that long ago we were content to watch teams and players develop over time. The ones destined for greatness were given leeway, the ends justified the means. When the Houston Rockets followed up their 1994 NBA Championship with a third place finish in their division it wasn’t as if anarchy had taken hold of southeast Texas. I was a kid then, but I followed the game intently enough to know that the sky wasn’t falling in Rockets land. There was a sense about things then – get to the playoffs, then the real games begin. It’s been the motto for the Spurs for the last decade and suffice it to say, they’ve done OK for themselves.

But the Heat? They’ve been anointed, torn down, left for dead, buried then dug up only to restart the process again from the beginning. Consider the following:

Miami’s Dwayne Wade Not Yet Holding Up His End Of The Bargain – Miami Herald, November 28th

Miami Heat’s Power Trip Continues – Miami Herald, January 8th

More Misery: Miami Heat Loses Fifth Game In A Row – Miami Herald, March 8th

It certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, but gives a timeline to the peaks and valleys of life in Miami this season.

With the Heat it’s an endless stream of extreme practices in perception. Lebron and Co. are either a juggernaut or a massive disappointment, there is no middle ground. They’ve run hot and cold to be sure, proving equally thrilling and frustrating when operating at optimal and subpar levels, but somewhere along the way the big picture has been lost when evaluating Miami.

History isn’t going to judge this team based on a nearly flawless month of December or meltdowns in March against Chicago and San Antonio. The Heat will be remembered as all potentially great teams are, by what they do in the playoffs. Few remember the way some of the Spurs championship teams meandered through the regular season, only that they were the last one standing when the season’s final buzzer sounded. The Celtics were close to being written off last season, the window having closed on their aging team, before pushing the Lakers to a decisive seventh game. The opposite is true for the back-to-back 60-win teams that Lebron led in Cleveland, years from now they will ultimately fade into obscurity as do so many teams that come up short.

No, there’s never been a situation like Miami’s before. The Heat entered the season with more hype than any team in NBA history, but that hype has manifested itself into a microscopic viewpoint of the franchise and its development. Every homestand is a test of cohesiveness, every road trip a postseason preview. The concept of judging a team on the merit of its final product has been lost in the blinding spotlight of South Beach.

Perhaps this is the future of the NBA. In a universe where players are seemingly constructing their own teams there isn’t room for patience and development – only results. How soon until we view the Knicks through the same lens of extremities? If the Nets buy themselves into contention will they be subjected to the same criteria?

There are certainly more questions than answers, an infinite number of divergent paths that ultimately lead us to one inevitable truth: the Heat may be perceived as operating at any number of extremes throughout the season, but they will be judged universally by what lies ahead.