Monthly Archives: April 2011

No Hard Hats Required*

Now that the Knicks (and Rangers) have gone into their offseason hibernation a little later than usual, the $750-million renovation of Madison Square Garden has begun in earnest.

(And $750M to remake a building — and not build a completely new one — is plenty earnest.)

By the time fans return to MSG at the start of the 2011-12 NBA season (if we get one), gone will be the narrow concourses, a visitor’s locker room so small that owners of even the most cramped studio apartments would sniff at the square footage and bathrooms so cozy that men stand uncomfortably hip-to-hip at the urinals.

(Also gone: cheap seats, which were never really cheap in the first place, but goodness …)

Some say changing MSG could strip the place of its character, but those not chained to sepia-toned nostalgia and haunted by Red Holzman’s ghost know the place, for the reasons listed above, needed to change.

What will mostly remain at MSG, however, is what you last saw of a team swept out of the postseason.

Hardcore Knicks fans may disagree with this and after 39 seasons since their last NBA title, may want more immediate changes and better results. But even bandwagon fans such as myself (though I have lived within three miles of Madison Square Garden for a third of my life), know that in the context of their recent sordid and sad history, the Knicks standing relatively pat should provide something the franchise hasn’t had in a while: stability.

Instead of overhauling the roster as they tried to do, it seemed, on the fly and every six months to please the coterie of frustrated fans, the Knicks will not tear down and renovate the roster this summer. They will tweak, they will seek out a living and breathing center who can defend and rebound for stretches at a time (no need to score, though) and a decent backup point guard to spell the 34-year-old Chauncey Billups.

One of the reasons the Knicks will only do a touch-up is that they don’t have the cap room for an overhaul. On Wednesday, the Knicks announced they would pick up Billups’, $14.2M option for 2011-12. While that seems to be a lot of dough for an aging point guard, the Knicks’ had no alternative. They had to retain Billups. The heady, steady Billups may not be the ideal for Mike D’Antoni’s breakneck offense, but the Knicks have had far worse options (cough, cough Duhon).

(All of which reminds me of a back-and-forth with Denver coach George Karl and Billups after the Nuggets stole him from the Pistons for a washed up Allen Iverson.)

“There are times I’d like Chauncey to play a little faster in the fourth quarter,” Karl said of his point guard, who was playing at an MVP level in the second half of the 2008-09 season.

When told of Karl’s wish, Chauncey smirked and said, “I bet he would.”

After all, coaches may control playing time, but players control the tempo. Whether D’Antoni will push the issue of pushing the ball with Billups remains to be seen. But Mike D. and Billups can make it work. Billups runs the pick-and-roll well, he makes good decisions with the ball and defenders can’t go under screens when he has the ball. D’Antoni, who rides his stars like horses who are put away wet, will need to manage Billups’ minutes and that’s why the Knicks need to find a backup who can hold his own for 20 minutes per.

Finding that guy is a job for this guy — Donnie Walsh. If Knicks are smart — and they haven’t been in the past — they will sign Walsh to a contract extension. He helped lure Amar’e Stoudemire, which in turn helped him to be able to trade for Carmelo Anthony and Billups.

It all could go wrong, though. These are the Knicks and James Dolan is still running the show. You know of Dolan (but who really knows him?). The one who let Isiah Thomas run roughshod over the franchise only to reportedly and repeatedly seek his counsel. At the press conference for the Anthony trade, Dolan tried to Obi-Wan his way through by telling the press, Isiah Thomas was not involved in this deal and he was not the basketball droid the media was looking for.

Of course, no one fell for it. This is why Walsh, according to reports, wants full autonomy. Can you blame him? The Knicks can only move forward if they remove the person from the process who has been holding them back. And if Dolan wants to bring Isiah back, here’s hoping the NBA does what it did the first time: send it into the fourth row. It’d be great if David Stern could step in and appoint someone who loved basketball and who understood what hoops means to the city to run the team in the “best interests of basketball” as Bud Selig did with the L.A. Dodgers.

(Yes, I just suggested David Stern act like Bud Selig, but considering what Donald Sterling — the Donald Trump of the NBA — has been able to get away with, don’t expect the NBA to do anything in New York.)

But more than anything, the Knicks organization outside of Walsh needs to realize it won’t be easy, especially here and especially against emerging teams such as the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. Yet, as winners, they’ll never need to pay for a meal in the town again. Just ask Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who once said, “There’s nothing like winning in New York.”

(True. Few towns back in the ’70s would be able to foment Walt’s transformation into Clyde…)

Still, the Knicks are far from a championship team, and could be for a while. But for the first time in a long time, as the walls of their arena are torn down, the Knicks have at least tried to set the foundation for future success at MSG.

Now, it’s up to them to find all the pieces to make it fit.

* For the team, not for the building

In Defense of Russell Westbrook

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“As for me being a gunslinger, I’ve just got this one granddaddy Paterson Colt and a borrowed belt to stick it in. But I also got an appetite for greater things. I hoped by joining up with you, it’d put me that much closer to getting them.”
-Robert Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James

It’s official: the basketball world has turned against Russell Westbrook.

Honestly, it’s been a long time coming. Westbrook wears his flaws on his sleeve, and his tendency to freeze out the offense while forcing bad shots is understandably alienating. It’s hard to watch Westbrook when he shifts into “hero mode,” as he did in the Thunder’s Game 4 loss — a performance that catalyzed the criticism of his game and his ability to function alongside Kevin Durant over the long term. Among that critical chorus was our own Zach Harper, who laid out his stat-supported case for Westbrook’s negative impact on Durant’s play:

[Westbrook] can win you basketball games. But it comes with a price and that price is the production of Kevin Durant.

Kevin Durant is the best player on the Thunder. Nobody should quibble with this fact. It’s unquibbable (made it up). And yet, you have people wondering if Westbrook might be the Thunder’s best player. The reason people are thinking this is because they fail to see how Westbrook negatively impacts what Kevin Durant does on the court….The reason Durant is less efficient [this season] seems to be that Russell Westbrook might be the most erratic star point guard since the fabled Stephon Marbury-Steve Francis era. You never know what he’s going to do on the court. Is he going to run the offense or is he going to awkwardly pull up on his jumper and show you what it would look like if Andre Miller actually elevated while shooting?

This is where Durant suffers. Yes, KD has issues with getting separation from his defenders, but the bigger problem is that the way he gets the ball is so inconsistent…The reason Durant gets the ball so inconsistently is because Westbrook is still trying to toe the line between point guard and “holy shnikes, I think I can get by everyone and get my own shot.”

That line that Harper describes is very real. We’ve seen Westbrook attempt to run some semblance of a cooperative offense, and we’ve also witnessed his mental shift into a realm where he is a lone gunman. Those two states are blatantly evident in Westbrook’s play, and I wouldn’t dare argue against the fact that he can act as a detriment to his team when at his shot-hunting worst (Game 4 serves as the most recent example, but is only one of many relevant ones).

Still, before we condemn Westbrook too much for his indiscretions against his teammate and the game of basketball, we should all take a deep breath. Westbrook and Durant are both stars, and played as such this season. Both ranked in the top 10 in PER, so being highly critical of their synergy is, to some degree, making a mountain out of the pile of dust that remains after OKC demolishes their opponents. This is the highly successful core of a highly successful team, and while there’s nothing wrong with pondering the influence of one star on another, I think the case against Westbrook isn’t quite as well-supported as one may think.

In Harper’s piece, for example, he cites Durant’s regular season performance when Westbrook was on the court in comparison to when Westbrook was on the bench (courtesy of the invaluable NBA.com StatsCube):

Screen shot 2011-04-28 at 11.29.28 AM

We can see that Durant has significant gains in points, field goal attempts, three-point attempts, free throw attempts, rebounds, assists, and +/- on a per-minute basis with Westbrook on the bench, while maintaining essentially the same shooting percentages.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at a few other examples. First, on how Kobe Bryant plays with Pau Gasol on and off the court:

kobe-pau

Or Paul Pierce, with Kevin Garnett either in the game or on the bench:

pierce-garnett

Or perhaps the most famous pair of stars around, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade:

lebron-wade

We see the same general production trends across the board even on those teams like the Lakers, Celtics, and Heat. Shooting percentages either go up or maintain their previous levels once one star goes to the bench, while shot attempts, points, and other production increase. These are the natural dynamics of star players sharing the court: there are only so many shots, assists, and boards to go around, and playing with another highly productive player naturally curbs some box score stat accumulation. Removing one star from the equation opens the door for more opportunity to produce.

However, there is one substantial difference between those other star duos and the Durant-Westbrook pairing: the Thunder’s plus-minus is a disappointing +2.2 (per 48 minutes) when Westbrook and KD are on the court together, but a tremendous +9.4 (per 48 minutes) when Durant plays while Westbrook sits. On face value, this does seem to support the notion that the two aren’t so compatible after all.

But before we go any further with that thought, we should look at how Westbrook and Durant have performed in the postseason thus far. After Westbrook’s Game 4 meltdown, the plus-minus numbers should be consistent with the eyebrow-raising regular season marks, right?

KD-russ post-game5

It’s a small sample size, but the trend appears to have completely reversed while strengthening in magnitude. In this year’s playoffs, the Thunder are 16.8 points better per 48 minutes with both Westbrook and Durant on the court than they are with Durant playing sans Westbrook. But why are the numbers so radically different between the regular season and the postseason?

Unfortunately, as is usually the case when quantifying what held back the Thunder, the problem seems to be Jeff Green. It’s almost cruel to pick on Green at this point, but his +/- acts as a sufficient sandbag for the otherwise successful performance of Westbrook and Durant as an on-court duo.

The Thunder’s regular season on/off data is greatly affected by the fact that the core of Westbrook, Durant, and Green played a ton of minutes together, while Durant and Eric Maynor (Westbrook’s backup) only played limited minutes with Green in the lineup. If we look at every single Thunder lineup that saw more than 25 minutes* of action this season (via BasketballValue, natch), five of them featured the full trio of Westbrook, Durant and Green, and those lineups played a grand total of 1,116.7 regular season minutes. During that substantial sample, those lineups were collectively 1.6 points worse than their opponents per 100 possessions. Green isn’t a horrible player, but he was a horrible fit. OKC’s former starting lineup was a substantial part of the problem, as the Westbrook – Thabo Sefolosha – Durant – Green – Nenad Krstic combination was 0.9 points worse per 100 possessions than their opponents over a huge, 542-minute sample.

However, if we look at all of the lineups that played more than 25 minutes this season featuring Westbrook and Durant without Green, we see a completely different result. 10 different lineup combinations that fit that criteria totaled 921.6 minutes of playing time over the course of the regular season, and with Green out of the mix, those lineups were collectively 7.8 points better per 100 possessions than their opponents. In contrast to the old starters, the new starting lineup is doing quite well; the Westbrook – Sefolosha – Durant – Serge Ibaka – Kendrick Perkins lineup was 5.8 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions in 271.4 regular season minutes.

The Green Effect holds true even if we replace Westbrook with Maynor; qualified lineups featuring Maynor and Durant without Green were 12.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents in a small, 93.5-minute sample, while the one qualified lineup featuring Maynor, Durant and Green was 12 points worse than their opponents over 100 possessions. The only difference is that Westbrook played more minutes with Green and Durant both (1,116.7) than he did with just Durant (921.6)**, while Maynor played far more minutes with Durant alone (93.5) than he did with Durant and Green at the same time (28).

Westbrook is far from perfect, but he’s also no monster. His positive impact far outweighs his detriment, and if we filter through some of the noise in the lineup data available, we find that he and Durant actually work quite well together, so long as Jeff Green isn’t around. Westbrook doesn’t set up Durant as well as he should and sometimes takes shots even when he shouldn’t, but the Thunder are still performing at an elite level in spite of those hiccups. There are no omens in Westbrook’s errors, only lessons; he’s figuring out the best ways to be effective with every step he takes along the way — even the ones in the wrong direction. He’s learning. He’s adapting. He won’t develop Chris Paul’s court vision, but frankly he doesn’t have to; Westbrook is Westbrook, and while he may not fit neatly into the point guard mold, he and Durant can remain the core that ushers the Thunder to greatness.

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*25 minutes may admittedly be a somewhat arbitrary endpoint, but it’s close enough to BasketballValue’s own 33.4 minute qualifier while also allowing some of the lesser used Maynor lineups to come into play.

**These minute totals reflect only the sum of all lineups that qualified under the 25-minute criteria.

Film Don’t Lie: The Denver Nuggets and “Gattaca”

Teambuilding is merely an exercise in collective eugenics; a geneticist of sorts hand picks desired traits and abilities, and engineers a finished product to incorporate them. The logistical realities of operating with entire human beings rather than sequences of genetic code require more imprecise maneuvers, but the underlying goal is the same: perfection, in all of its pragmatic glory.

There are, however, those teams that come to exist as a matter of random chance rather than designed formula. Their point guards don’t have perfect vision. Their bigs don’t have the ideal height and hops. Their wings have imperfect jumpers. They consist of the same guanine, adenine, cytosine, and thymine that constitutes those perfectly engineered specimens, but the sequence is subtly different. In the world of Gattaca, they are the in-valids, those made — and made imperfect — by nature itself, in stark contrast to the orchestrated makeup of all that surround them.

The Denver Nuggets as we knew them — the wonderful, inspired, and deeply flawed team left in the wake of the Carmelo Anthony trade — were unquestionably in-valid. The limitations ingrained in their very code were supposed to keep them from ever entering Gattaca’s gates; without Anthony and without Chauncey Billups, the collection of supporting pieces in Denver was supposed be rebuffed at the playoff threshold altogether. No team can fully fake their way into a playoff-worthy record, and the players on the Nuggets roster were destined to be something inferior.

The Nuggets found their way in. There were tests of blood and vision and resolve, but none could turn away a capable team that knew it belonged. Obviously Denver would have been better off with a perfect profile, but chance’s creation was good enough to pass as legitimate perfection. They weren’t, however, good enough to win. The fact that the Thunder — a team of two stars, a deliberate model, and all the trappings of a valid contender — took the series and eliminated the Nuggets from the playoffs is no surprise, but then again, it’s also not the point. 

Vincent (voiceover): We used to swim as far out as we dared — it was about who would get scared and turn back first. Of course, it was always me. Anton was by far the stronger swimmer, and he had no excuse to fail.

It should have been expected that the “genetically superior” team would win out in any measure of competitive worth, but those rare exceptions beg for us to look at something beyond mere expectation. In the film, Vincent “always” lost to his biologically perfect brother in their battle of wills. The system was built for him to fail, and fail he did — many times, we’re led to believe.

Yet twice in the film, we see Vincent win in a race against his brother. First as a young adult:

Vincent (voiceover): It was the last time we swam together out into the open sea. Like always knowing each stroke to the horizon was one we’d have to make back to the shore. But something was very different about that day. Every time Anton tried to pull away, he found me right beside him. Until finally, the impossible happened. It was the one moment in our lives when my brother was not as strong as he believed, and I was not as weak. It was the moment that made everything else possible.

And finally, in the analogous representation of Vincent’s journey to the elusive “other side” of the world that had been denied him for so long on the basis of his makeup:

 

The Nuggets, in-valids though they were, haven’t yet won. They failed, just as so many other in-valid playoff teams have failed before them. Anton still swims harder and farther, leaving the Nuggets behind to face their own limitations.

Gattaca may be, in part, a story of the triumph of human spirit, but that resilience is hardly the lesson here. Sure, the Nuggets went hard and believed, but there’s no revelation in the fact that a playoff team trusts in its potential. Instead, it would do us all good to reflect on one of Gattaca‘s other themes: makeup can tell us all kinds of practical information, but internal sequence and structure alone don’t offer sufficient basis to discriminate. Denver didn’t follow the model of other championship contenders, but it wasn’t the oft-diagnosed lack of a star player that damned the Nuggets to their first round exit. It was their struggles to contain Kevin Durant, the failure to create shots against pressure, and the inability to utilize all of their available assets effectively.

Denver would have been better off with a star, but that privilege isn’t the only way to achieve success. Vincent, for example, was able to do brilliant work once given the opportunity, despite all of his flaws:

Director Josef: Godliness. I reviewed your flight plan. Not one error in a million keystrokes. Phenomenal. It’s right that someone like you is taking us to Titan.

It was somehow right that Vincent, with his likelihood for heart failure, his myopic vision, and his various other limitations, was to lead the human race to a brave new world. Just like someday, it will be right for a new breed of championship contender — not at all unlike these Nuggets — to bring home the title, and debunk a generation of critics who claimed that “no team could ever win a title by doing X.” Certain skills and production are mandatory for success in this game and this league, but the formation — the very makeup — of a team is fully flexible. Star power isn’t important, so long as that aforementioned production comes from somewhere on the roster in a reliable fashion.

The Nuggets don’t need one star, nor two; after all, every atom in our bodies was once part of a star, which makes the Nuggets already glow with their own star power. Moving forward, they need a composite fix to either address their team weaknesses or bolster their strengths. In this series, Denver simply failed to break through. That event, whether through these Nuggets or some other in-valid team either known or unknown to us now, is coming. Those teams will swim out together into the open sea time and time again, until finally, inevitably, they experience the kind of moment that makes everything else possible.

Film Don’t Lie: The Oklahoma City Thunder and “The Breakfast Club”

 

Of all the John Hughes films, Breakfast Club is the best. I don’t mean that in that it is the most critically acclaimed, nor the smartest, nor the funniest, nor even the most popular. It is simply that it manages to combine what makes the funniest movies funny (memorable lines and gags), with what makes the most iconic coming-of-age-movies iconic, relate-able feelings (“being a teenager suuuuuuu-uuuucks”),  and the most difficult element to replicate, simply being cool. Christmas Vacation, Uncle Buck, or The Great Outdoors are funnier (sorry, Judd Nelson, but you can’t really compete with Chase, Candy, or Aykroyd), Pretty in Pink, Home Alone, and Sixteen Candles more iconic, and Ferris Bueler’s Day Off way, way cooler. But none combine those elements the way Breakfast Club does. Everyone has a favorite moment from that film, and everyone has a favorite character (though Molly Ringwald’s is never it).

When you watch that movie as a teenager, you inevitably find yourself saying “Yeah, man.” If you don’t, congratulations, you’re somehow even more cynical than the false cynicism of the average teenager. The movie captures too much of the experience, emboldens you too much with the idealistic concepts of staying authentic to what should matter, to getting beyond those stereotypes that seem to weigh you down so much, the ones you realize are utterly useless and outdated the minute your high school days end, just as you realize that your parents’ damage to you is only relative to the damage done to them, and that of the world on you. But in that moment, where you’re first experiencing it, you form a nostalgia for it that carries over. This is what a film about high school should be about.

And the Thunder against the Nuggets, that’s what basketball should be about.

They make mistakes, the ill-temperance of youth tainting what needs to be flawless execution, but the drama shines through. The Nuggets don’t make a fair Mr. Vernon. Which is why Rob will be along shortly to deal with their own version of dystopia. No, what the Thunder were really fighting against was the idea they needed detention. That young teams aren’t ready, that they don’t win. Vernon was tradition, experience, the cynical idea that a team like that simply can’t make it to the next step, that it needs detention.

Even the way the five are brought together is vaguely reminiscent of the Thunder. After all, Westbrook was the star at UCLA. He was the point guard for a UCLA team, never supposed to play second fiddle. Harden was the role player, never supposed to be drafted third, and was the underwhelming gunner prospect who wound up as a vital cog that seems at once worth the pick and not. Ibaka, we don’t know what he is. Thabo, the cast off, the list goes on and on and on. And everything, as we learned in this series, just as we learned when the romance failed between Estevez and Ringwald, leads back to Judd Nelson as the unconquerable Bender, and Kevin Durant as the unfathomable hero.

The translations aren’t pure, and that’s what makes the elements in play so much more fulfilling. Bender’s needling of Vernon to the point where he sucker punches him is Westbrook’s own intemperance. The infamous dance sequence screams loudly of the Game 2 romp, the Thunder’s first real routing of an inferior team in the playoffs, high on their own play. The growling monologue of Bender relating his own disturbing relationship with his father reminds us of Perkins, that he was cast aside by the franchise he loved, the brothers he’d played with, prayed with, because of money and a doubt of his knees. Ally Sheedy’s deceptively shallow Allison (the girl every guy who watches the film falls in love with while hoping Ringwald vanishes) reminds us of Harden. Quirky, confusing, and bizarrely wise. There’s Brooks, trying to keep everyone together as the mild-mannered Brian. Westbrook can’t decide if he’s Bender or Andrew, constantly slipping between both. Durant shares this role in him. Milk and cookies and marijuana and beer, but just on the floor. The two can never sort out who’s in the lead or should be.

The sneak down the hall to get the joint has to be the escape in Game 3, where by all rational sense the jig should have been up, but they narrowly escape thanks to the key contributions. And Westbrook’s gunning in Game 4, right or wrong, speaks of Perkins’ lack of patience.

The movie isn’t really about triumph, you realize that as you get older, it’s about those brief moments in life where you feel like you’ve learned something. It doesn’t matter if you really have. It doesn’t matter that you likely face a superior Spurs team in the second round or barring that, a much superior Lakers team. Nor does it matter that all you’ve really done is win a first-round playoff seed as a favorite seed, which so many forgotten teams have done before. It’s big in your life, at that moment, and that’s what matters, that’s what you hold onto. There’s all the time in the world for you to come to grips with the fact that in many ways, high school is about those simplistic terms, those cliched definitions, because you’re not a real person yet. For the time, you can thrive in that knowledge that you’re different, and that the experiences you have matter. You can hold that defiant fist high as a great song plays to end the flick, and think of the letter.

 

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did *was* wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain…

 

 

 

…and an athlete…

 

 

…and a basket case…

 

 

…a princess…

 

 

…and a criminal…

 

 

Does that answer your question?… Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.

 

Film Don’t Lie: The Sixers, The Heat, And “The Fast and the Furious”


 

Do you realize that during a five-minute sequence to really kick off the action in this film that there’s a solid minute-long sequence where the entire thing is nothing but two neon-colored sports cars racing in blurs? And it’s not facetious in the slightest? This actually happens, along with this quote, after Paul Walker’s character says “Dude, I almost had you.”

“Ask any racer, any real racer. It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile; winning’s winning.”

-Vin Diesel, “The Fast and the Furious.”

Now, this is a bad film. That line above should be proof enough. That line is the same kind of overly simplistic crap you’re going to find on shows where people yell each other or any halftime show not on TNT. It ignores context, relevant elements, and any sort of analysis beyond the results speaking for themselves. It’s also pretty true. Which is why it’s the story of Heat-Sixers. And why The Fast and the Furious (as opposed to 2 Fast, 2 Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, or Fast Five) fits so nicely with the series.

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In this, the most amazing of first rounds, there are going to be bad series. Every single one of them can’t be amazing. God knows the disaster that was Celtics-Knicks wasn’t. But Heat-Sixers was worst of them all. It was so very much the empty action film. Nothing but gunplay, high-speed chases, explosions, women wearing slutty clothes, and behaving sluttily (but some of them are tough so it’s not misogynistic, we promise!), and incredibly fast vehicles. You’re not walking out of this flick thinking about it, you’re not even really going to enjoy it on further watching. It’s just eye candy. It’s like cartoons for adults. Which isn’t to say that’s a bad thing.

When I saw this flick in 2001, it was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I was home at my folks. My friends and I saw the movie, walked out, and without saying anything, drove out to an abandoned strip of road in the backwoods of Arkansas and raced our crappy sedans and beat-up used pickups. That’s what The Fast and the Furious did to you. It made you want to do ridiculously unnecessary things that borderlined on dangerous and flirted with reckless in your own life. The Heat? That’s the ultimate sin they commit. They make you want to watch, by flirting with something that somehow goes beyond Showtime. Don’t get confused. They’re not. Showtime was function through form. The Heat are form trying to be function. And most of the time it makes you shake your head and wonder, “How in God did someone greenlight this?” But there are those moments, like the Race Wars scene in the desert, or when Wade literally just throws the ball as high as he can and James just goes up and gets it, that you want to do that, you want to see that, you want to be a part of it. It’s just f*cking cool.

It dials into some sort of primal, Neanderthal-based instinct to simply exert as much testosterone as possible. That may be the biggest difference. If the Celtics are strength through fury, and Showtimes was art through balance, then the Heat are simply basketball testosterone. It’s indulgence at the highest level. Anyone who’s studied will tell you that real strength is discipline. What the Heat express is not that. It’s just speed, and style, taken to its most ridiculous form. It’s like a Bruckenheimer flick if you took out all the creative energy and just poured in visceral physics.

The Sixers are Paul Walker here, clearly. The cop trying to be the hood, the traditional borderline playoff team trying to be the point-forward driven stretch of positional revolution. The incomplete team trying to be the athletic powerhouse, and finding themselves more and more drawn to playing the Heat’s game. In Game 5, the Sixers actually spent much of the first quarter winning, and then, for reasons unknown, tried to be the Heat. Behind the back passes, alley-oops, the works. They could have simply played their game and maybe it would have worked, maybe it wouldn’t have. But there they were, racing their sedans on a deserted Arkansas backroad, and surprised when the real machine flies by them on the highway.

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The sad reality is that the Heat are just like Vin Diesel. Unable to see what, in any situation that isn’t a testosterone-fueled fantasy, they’ll wind up in jail. My father always said, “You can outrun a cop. You can’t outrun the radio.” The Celtics, naturally, are the radio, in this position. In the second round, the Heat have to somehow prove that blurring lights, car chases, and gunplay can constitute something real, can actually show some sort of insight.

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Do you realize how many shoves are in this flick? Rewatching it, I was just sort of stunned. The level of violence in a movie about dreamboats racing cars is stunning. It’s unnecessary and has no real point to it. It’s just shoving. And the racing? In reality the racing’s just a, pardon this, vehicle. When you look at it, the Asian mob, the heist, the cops, the double-cross, that’s all the real plot. The cars are really just dressing. And in Heat-Sixers, the highlights were really just dressing. The entire thing was about defense. Meeks holding Wade down for two games before Wade adjusted and overcame because, well, he’s Dwyane Wade. The Heat cutting off driving lanes, forcing the jumpers, running off threes, clamping down on positions. That’s the only saving grace of the Heat, that they recognize that it’s defense that can separate them. They’re at their best unleashed, washing over the barriers of the defense in an athletic tidal wave collapsing down on the huts that line the beaches. But what drives them is the ability to garrison the walls, to hold the line and to force teams into strangling themselves. They’ve learned from the Celtics, even if they can’t imitate them.

But at the same point, it’s about the cars. I mean, it’s a movie about car racing.  In the ridiculous monologue Diesel gives Walker when he shows him the Dodge Charger, he says “For those 10 seconds, I feel free.”  That’s the exact same way the Heat are on the break, in those ridiculous highlights. When they get to preen for the crowd after a ridiculous play, they’re doing what they came together to do. The function doesn’t matter, the defense doesn’t matter, the criticism, any of it. They’re alive, and that’s all that matters.

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Walker eventually succumbs to the temptation and becomes just like them, just like the Sixers succumbed and gave into the series. Collins has so much to be proud of for what they’ve accomplished, but the result is that there’s not much to learn from this series. You walk out the same way, with nothing learned nothing experienced. You just want to go race your car into the night.

 

 

Credit to Daniel Rouse on Twitter for this FDL suggestion.

The assassination of Kevin Durant by the budding star Russell Westbrook?

You know what the best part about good, young, exciting teams is?

They’re exciting.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Take a trip back in time with me. From 1996 to 1999, the Minnesota Timberwolves were probably the most exciting young team this league had ever seen. Sounds hyperbolic, but it’s hard to say it wasn’t true for the time. Kevin Garnett was re-breaking the age barrier in the NBA, Tom Gugliotta was flourishing with his third team in five years, and Stephon Marbury was bringing his New York City legend to the Twin Cities.

While Googs was the solid rock of the trio, KG and Marbury were setting the league ablaze. They were the new era of the NBA. They embodied the direction of where the league was headed. They were dubbed the Hip Hop version of Stockton and Malone. They were supposed to take over the world together.

Then something happened. The Minnesota Timberwolves gave Kevin Garnett a 6-year, $126 million contract extension right before the NBA lockout in 1998 (and by right before I mean it totally caused the lockout). And after the lockout hit, Stephon Marbury was forever destined to make less money than KG. That’s where the cookie crumbled. Marbury’s ego would continue to spiral out of control. He had to be the man and he had to do it his way.

Soon after, the Wolves traded Marbury to the New Jersey Nets and destroyed the future in Minnesota. It left KG cold (literally) and alone (figuratively but almost literally) while Steph went on to make the playoffs just three times past the age of 20.

Fast-forward 12 years later, and I’m afraid that this young and exciting Oklahoma City Thunder team is in position to suffer the same fate. Playing the role of Stephon Marbury would be Russell Westbrook, and his stellar play has officially become a potential problem.

It’s not that Westbrook has been bad as an individual player. He’s had a career year across the board. In roughly the same amount of minutes compared to last season, Russ scored 471 more points this year while slightly increasing his assist numbers, shooting better from all over the floor, and becoming remarkably more efficient than he was his previous two seasons.

However, if you ask me, the rise of Westbrook’s individual game is a potential detriment to the Thunder organization and their franchise player Kevin Durant. I see a much bigger problem with the execution of Russell Westbrook rather than the theory of him. My biggest issue with his play and the future of the Thunder comes with his decision-making.

I would imagine there aren’t many players in the NBA as confident as Russ. In fact, you can just see the way he’s played this season that he believes he belongs amongst the elite in this league. With his athleticism, talent and confidence, you’ve got a very dangerous combination for opposing teams to deal with. The problem is that his team also has to deal with it.

Westbrook wants to be the man and show just what he can do on the court. He can dominate. He can put up highlights that will fill your Top 10 reels. He can win you basketball games. But it comes with a price and that price is the production of Kevin Durant.

Kevin Durant is the best player on the Thunder. Nobody should quibble with this fact. It’s unquibbable (made it up). And yet, you have people wondering if Westbrook might be the Thunder’s best player. The reason people are thinking this is because they fail to see how Westbrook negatively impacts what Kevin Durant does on the court.

Kevin Durant’s usage this season is down. It’s not a huge drop-off but falling from 32% to 30.6% is significant enough to show his lowered per game averages. However, what’s puzzling is how his efficiency has also suffered so much.

The reason Durant is less efficient seems to be that Russell Westbrook might be the most erratic star point guard since the fabled Stephon Marbury-Steve Francis era. You never know what he’s going to do on the court. Is he going to run the offense or is he going to awkwardly pull up on his jumper and show you what it would look like if Andre Miller actually elevated while shooting?

This is where Durant suffers. Yes, KD has issues with getting separation from his defenders, but the bigger problem is that the way he gets the ball is so inconsistent. Some guys, no matter how great they are, just need to be in a rhythm on the court. Carmelo Anthony is so inefficient and considered a volume scorer because the flow in which he tries to score is so idiosyncratic (by his own volition of course). The reason Durant gets the ball so inconsistently is because Westbrook is still trying to toe the line between point guard and “holy shnikes, I think I can get by everyone and get my own shot.”

By looking at their on/off court numbers (thanks to Stats Cube), you can see Westbrook is the same no matter what but Durant is MUCH better when he has Eric Maynor in the game.

The fact that Durant’s numbers are SO dramatically different with Westbrook on the bench, rather than with them side-by-side, is pretty staggering. Normally, you could just point to the fact that without a second dominant scorer on the court Durant’s numbers should skyrocket like they do.

Of course, he’s going to score more points, get more shots and probably get to the free throw line more without Russ by his side. Seeing that Westbrook’s scoring numbers are virtually the same when Durant is on the court while KD’s PER, free throw attempts and plus/minus dramatically improve when he’s sans his starting point guard seems like an issue.

Checking out his stats when Eric Maynor is on the court, you see that he works much better with the backup, pass-first point guard.

The loss to Denver in Game 4 Monday night was a perfect example of the rollercoaster that is Russell Westbrook. He varied from pernicious to imposing and back from dribble to dribble. He carried them in the third quarter of that game and kept things from getting out of hand in Denver’s favor. Then the fourth quarter came and he was “feeling it” so much that he took 11 shots while Durant only got five attempts, and the Thunder couldn’t get any consistency to their fourth quarter.

In the Daily Dime Live chat, you had Thunder fans caps locking for Maynor to be subbed in and you had Denver fans caps locking in ecstasy over his decisions on the court. It was like Westbrook was grabbing the wheel of the Titanic because he felt he was the only one who could drive that ship through the fatal iceberg.

So what does all of this mean? Are the Thunder doomed? Do they need to get rid of Westbrook in the name of Durant’s fire-breathing ways? Should Eric Maynor be the future point guard of this team? Will Russell Westbrook add Vaseline to his daily caloric intake?

My overall point is this. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a more dangerous bunch when they’re utilizing Kevin Durant as the consistent focus of the attack. If there is that clichéd ideal of there needing to be an alpha dog, Durant has to be it. Westbrook could eventually find the right mixture of point guarding and getting his to make them an unstoppable force.

However, there could come a day when they have to make a decision of whether or not Russell Westbrook is the right running mate for Kevin Durant, and it probably won’t come down to anything having to do with how good of a basketball player he is. His selfishness isn’t suffocating right now, but the potential is there. When he believes he’s the best option, it’s the riskiest game plan OKC can employ.

He’ll win them plenty of games, but will his defensive decline and confidence to win ball games be the proper team basketball for this young team? More than likely, he comes out tonight and is a big part of closing out the Nuggets. But there could come a time in which Sam Presti has to decide between keeping a young star happy or jettisoning his ego for the greater good of this young and exciting Thunder team.

Hopefully 12 years from now, we’re not left wondering what could have been. The future of this team is too exciting to ruin.

Coping With Powerful Distractions

Photo Courtesy of Nuzz on Flickr

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Clutch performance has been a touchy subject this season. There are the typical statistical arguments, eye-test arguments, and those based on everything imaginable in between. But it is really worth debating the best pressure performers?

The recent end-of-game shots by a pair of the league’s star players have foregrounded this question. Derrick Rose shot 4-of-18 from the field in Game 3 against the Pacers, but he hit a game-winning layup. LeBron James scored 31 points on 55 percent shooting in Game 4 vs. the Sixers but missed a key floater late in an eventual Heat loss.

It’s natural, then, to call Rose the success and LeBron the failure in these cases, as the Bulls won and the Heat did not, consistent with those final shots. Fundamentally, that’s fair. But the full-game execution of these players seems to suggest that the boundary between triumph and futility is maybe not so lucid.

The final minutes of games draw the most attention as they often noticeably influence results, and that is why top players’ execution down the stretch is so frequently subject to scrutiny. With that said, the appeal of these late-game scenarios distracts most viewers from the truth of clutch production: it’s totally overemphasized.

An oft-ignored basic principle of basketball is that the value of shots does not vary with respect to the progress of the game. Two points is two points, whether they come five seconds after the tipoff or find the net with just seconds left to play. The perceived significance of missed shots in the early going is usually negligible, as those flubs are often forgotten by the time of the game at which it is possible to process their negative impact — especially if the consequences of those misses are neutralized by late-game makes. But in many cases, if a player had passed up an ill-advised shot that did not fall in favor of a high-percentage look during a low-pressure moment, the make-up basket in the clutch would not have been necessary.

In other words, if the goal of basketball is to win games, maximizing output and efficiency at the end of games should not be the goal, for in an ideal situation the preceding portion of the game should preclude the necessity of “big” shots. When a particular team plays well in the first 46 minutes of its games, its only task in the final two minutes is to protect a lead rather than to escape a deficit with heroics.

Here’s a rudimentary illustration to demonstrate this.

(Owing to the divisive nature of this topic, bringing up specific names here would only be counterproductive — as loyalty-driven commentary would do nothing more than muddy the dialectic — so it’s wise to deal only in generalities.)

Take two players, X and Y, in two separate games with entirely equivalent final box scores, who each notch 30 points. Player X scores all 30 of his points before the one-minute mark of the fourth quarter, at which point his team is up three points. Player Y, however, only scores 24 of his 30 points before that one-minute mark, at which point his team is down three points. Player X doesn’t shoot in the final minute, but his team still wins by three. Player Y hits two three-pointers, including a tiebreaking buzzer beater, and his team also wins by three.

Player Y is the one you’re going to see in the highlights, the one whose crunch-time accomplishments will be the talk of the NBA community at large for the next day. But Player Y didn’t put his team in the best position to win. It was Player X who hit his shots early, avoiding a predicament that required an “exciting” shot; the situation merely required holding a lead. Maybe Player X is the better winner, then, however counterintuitive that realization is. After all, his performance increased the likelihood of a win for this team compared to Player Y’s, as it’s certainly easier to hold a lead than to recover from trailing.

With all that said, it’s easy to make a claim that is entirely dependent on inference and conjecture. Bolstering the case further, though, is the argument’s practical traction.

Consider the following teams: the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Chicago Bulls, the San Antonio Spurs, the Boston Celtics, and the Orlando Magic. Arguably the six best teams in the NBA this season, right? They were also the top six teams in the league in scoring differential after three quarters (Thanks to @snghoops for pointing this out) at the end of the regular campaign. Meanwhile, those same squads were 12th, 15th, 17th, 5th, 28th, and 14th, respectively, in fourth-quarter output. Put simply, the NBA’s elite teams do their work early on in games such that they can put scoring on the back burner: all they are tasked with late is protecting a lead. Indisputably, taking care of business early in contests has more than just a theoretical association with success.

Of course, any team, irrespective of its performance, will invariably find itself down by a slim margin late in some games. In those cases, someone to hit key shots would, in fact, be valuable given short-term considerations. (In the playoffs, this excellence might take on extra importance in accordance with the greater gravity of each contest.)

But nothing in basketball is free of exception. It’s about swaying the odds as far as possible in one’s favor. No team is going to hold its opponents to 0 percent shooting, but it would much rather have them shooting 40 percent than 50 percent. Similarly, no team will completely avoid scenarios in which it needs a final shot to win, but minimizing that reliance is optimal. The team that performed the best during standard, “non-clutch time” would have a leg up in that regard and simply let clutch situations take care of themselves.

It would be challenging, probably impossible, to find a coach in the NBA that would prefer to win every game on a last-second shot than to win comfortably, especially in the long term — assuming, again, the coach’s principal goal is to win.

So the apparent discrepancy that allows the clutch movement to gain momentum is this: the interest of fans is not always compatible with the most efficient, reliable way to win a basketball game.

Sports ethicist Edwin DeLattre is one that believes there is an inherent need for excitement in successful competition. He writes:

“Whether amidst the soft lights and the sparkling balls against the blaize of a billiard table, on the rolling terrain of a lush fairway or in the violent and crashing pit where linemen struggle, it is the moments when no let-up is possible, when there is virtually no tolerance for error, which make the game. The best and most satisfying contests maximize these moments and minimize respite from pressure. When competition achieves this intensity it frequently renders the outcome of the contest anticlimactic, and it inevitably reduces victory celebration to pallor by contrast … Exclusive emphasis on winning has particularly tended to obscure the importance of the quality of the opposition and the thrill of competition itself” (From William Morgan’s Ethics in Sport, Second Edition).

At their most basic, professional sports are meant to entertain fans, to inspire awe with spectacular athletic feats. For DeLattre, the power and frequency of the entertainment is enough to belittle the end result of the game. As it happens, the plays in close games tend to amplify the greatness of players’ actions, as fans identify with the struggle of their teams. Clutch shots provide a feeling of release that enhances the sports-viewing experience for most. Accordingly, many people find it necessary to dissect particular players’ success in these situations. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch the most dramatic actors in the league?

Just remember this: these clutch performances are great for the league and the viewer, but that’s about it. Tense late-game scenarios certainly aren’t sought out with winning in mind. Before anointing your player of choice the King of Clutch, it might be worth it to revisit how meaningful that title really is and what your view of success in sport really reduces to.

Film Don’t Lie: The Pacers, The Bulls, And “Deep Impact”

 

I always thought the “hope survives” theme in both Deep Impact (and its more successful brother Armageddon) was a bunch of crap. Do you realize how many people die in those flicks? As George Carlin once said regarding the leading cause of death throughout the history of the universe: “MILLIONS OF DEAD MOTHER!@%$ERS!” More people die in the last hour minutes of “Deep Impact” than any movie not based on outright apocalypse. Only zombie flicks kill more human beings.  “Hope survives.” Get out of here with that. Just because Frodo winds up with the girl looking down on what is not a peaceful sea of tranquility residing over the Appalachians but is in fact a gigantic cesspool of dead humans, debris, wildlife, and industrial waste, does not mean that “hope survives.” In reality, the odds of continued human existence in the wake of the impact are pretty low.

So while the popular narrative will be that the Pacers somehow proved something, showed that they’re on the right track and that there’s this continual move towards relevance, in actuality, that’s not how this works in most cases. The Hawks showed they had some life versus the Celtics two years ago, and despite being a perennial playoff team, they are looked at with more disgust than most bottom feeders. There’s a special level of dismissive contempt held for the playoff fringe dwellers. Sure, the Bulls pushed the Celtics two years ago, but there could not be more difference between the two. For starters, the Bulls pushed the Celtics to seven games (without Kevin Garnett, yes, we’re all aware, Celtics fans. Your caveat is duly noted.).  And the Bulls used that series as momentum two years later to revamp their team with free agency, which Indiana will not be able to do, due to the market realities of the NBA.  There is no Carlos-Boozer-Kyle-Korver-Ronnie-Brewer-Kurt-Thomas-Tom-Thibodeau revolution coming for the Pacers. This it. They have to hope for a miracle, that Hibbert develops into an All-Star caliber center, Collison hits the next level, and Granger even becomes more than what he is, a passable combo forward with inconsistently great scoring ability.

Which is pretty much the same as hoping a group of astronauts can deposit a nuclear weapon inside an asteroid hurtling towards the Earth. It’s also equal to what their chances were at beating the Chicago Bulls in a seven-game series.

Deep Impact‘s real themes are about death. It’s got very little to do with survival or hope. The impact is just a big, catastrophic event that is unstoppable and beyond real understanding (If you’re big on literal comparisons, that would be the young Bulls point guard, hallowed be thy name). The real conflict in Deep Impact is between two different lines of approach to death. There’s the frantic scramble for survival embodied by the Biedermans and Leelee Sobieski’s family, and then there’s the calm, collected resignation of Tea Leoni and her father, which, despite it being your usual unnecessary human interest drama set in the literal backdrop of  a 500-foot high tidal wave, actually does ring through with some sincerity. There’s a contrast best represented  by Leoni’s decision to push the mother and her child onto the helicopter despite winning the straw draw (a scene in which, when she grabs the little girl and heads for the roof, I was afraid she had stolen the kid and left the mother to drown, which would have been compelling, but also a really crappy thing to do). It’s a pretty rare thing when a film actually shows an acceptance of death, but it’s cross-lit by the heroism of saving innocent people.

The Pacers knew they were dead. There’s just no way of getting around it. There’s “We did everything right and we almost won that game!” and then there’s “We did everything right and Derrick Rose still landed and wiped out half of our population.” You almost have to think that freed them, though. The Pacers collapsed down the stretch, but it never felt like a choke job except for the near-collapse of Game 4, the only game they actually won. Instead, it felt like the Pacers played well, the Bulls played badly for most of the game, then the Bulls just played better to close. Even in defeat there was something proud about the Pacers, and instead of dismissing them, most in the media, blogs, and fans chose to give the Pacers credit. They were, after all, the 8th seed, supposed to be annihilated by the awesome force of the Bulls. Instead they fought through, likely knowing they were not going to survive.

It’s actually a lot like what the Bhagavad Gita talks about.

The bodily experience has no affect on the eternal soul thus it is spoken of as it is not born nor does it die.

via Bhagavad-Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 20.

That’s in part what makes Deep Impact so surprising. It is, in a lot of ways, a spiritual movie without any overbearing Western philosophical overtones. In much the same way, outside of overdrawn fascination with making even Derrick Rose’s bad games into divinity, the series wasn’t written out as “plucky team can’t win because they suck.” Had the Bulls held the lead for the majority of the series, it would have been written that way, but because the Pacers held leads and then relinquished them — not to a series of terrible decisions but because the Bulls defense is a torture chamber when activated and Rose is the rare accurate analogy of “Hell on Wheels,”  — everyone wins. In Deep Impact, the asteroid/meteor actually obliterates a large part of the world (once again, terrible things happen to Africa, BUT AT LEAST THE WAL-MART IN JOPLIN IS OKAY!), but everyone rebuilds, the hero and the girl survive, thanks to a heroic sacrifice by Robert Duvall, the national security advisor from the later seasons of West Wing and a blinded guy from E.R. That will be the feeling in Indiana, where it’ll seem like this team is just a few pieces away from really going somewhere. But guess what?

In Deep Impact, lots and lots of people still died in a global catastrophe, and the Pacers are still without a legitimate star. It’s fun to watch, but there’s not a real lesson to the tale.

A Body of Truth

Illustration by Russell Cobb

Jrue Holiday is smooth.

It’s the kind of statement that means everything and nothing all at once. It’s a statement that encapsulates his calm demeanor on and off the court, his equalizing poise with the ball in his hands, and the elegant glides to the rim or the effortless release of his constantly improving jump shot.

But it doesn’t elaborate. It can’t explain how Holiday seamlessly switches roles within the game to accommodate the coaching staff and his teammates. How at any given point in the game, he could be setting up a teammate on the weakside, a de-facto shooter on a team devoid of marksmen, or taking the challenge of defending the opponent’s best perimeter player.

It doesn’t fully explain that feeling of right in Holiday’s game — something Bethlehem Shoals alludes to in a playoff chat with David Roth for GQ:

What’s so great about Paul is that, regardless of what numbers he puts up, or even whether the Hornets win, he changes the ecology of the game. It’s not only that the Hornets play a certain style because of him—you really are watching a different vision of the sport when he’s got the ball in his hands. Steve Nash makes us droolers for the same reason, but with Paul, the lack of help makes it all the more glaring. He is the puppet master. Or the cosmos. I get a similar tingle from Jrue Holiday, albeit in nascent form.

Bethlehem Shoals, The Friday NBA Playoff Kibitz, Vol. 1 | GQ.com

Holiday — who has charmed us in this understandably futile run against the Miami Heat — is not Chris Paul, clearly the most imposing player thus far in a spectacular first round. That isn’t the point. Control is the point. Holiday’s poise is more than just an act like you’ve been here before facade. It’s something that — especially given his age — can develop into a team-defining gift.

As it stands now, Holiday’s control over his game is seen mostly through balancing his different roles on the Sixers. The team is still reeling from the false premise of an Andre Iguodala/Elton Brand core, which not only obscures the future, but forces the young players into diversifying their games to best fill the holes in the roster. With a competent playmaker like Iguodala on the team, Holiday’s fluidity in this year’s playoffs hasn’t necessarily been seen through his assist totals, but in his easy transition to being the team’s resident shooter.

Holiday has been the most consistent 3-point threat in this series on either team. He’s attempted exactly five 3-point field goals in all four games played thus far, shooting 55% from range for the series. Holiday has provided a much needed lift in the Sixers’ most glaring offensive deficiency, and has significantly improved his efficiency. According to Synergy Sports Technology, 11 of Holiday’s 20 3-point attempts were in spot-up situations. He’s made 45.5% of his spot-up 3-pointers in this first round series, which is a major improvement from the 33.9% he shot in the regular season.  Four games may be a small sample size, but Holiday is attempting nearly twice as many 3-pointers a game than he did on average in the season. His confidence and efficiency as a shooter has never been greater, and it couldn’t have been more timely.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign of Holiday’s future came at the 1:27 mark of the 4th quarter in Game 4. Holiday catches a pass from Lou Williams on the right baseline. He dives into the paint, drawing four different Heat defenders before making a jump pass to a wide open Evan Turner. With all of the attention Holiday commanded, Mario Chalmers loses sight of his man (Turner), and Bosh is slightly late on the recovery. Turner sinks the floater, and so began the Sixers’ late game push.

Hopefully this type of play isn’t an isolated occurrence. Holiday has the combination of size, strength, and agility to find his way into the paint at will. Mastering the different angles and alleyways from within the paint will be the next step in his accelerated development. Filling in for absent players is a solid gesture, but Holiday will soon have to assert his own strengths for the team’s continued growth. Because the Sixers are still trudging through unstable grounds, and the sooner the team can fall back on a poised young leader, the better.

So yes, Jrue Holiday is smooth. He’s calm, collected, controlled. And if he inexplicably reminds you of someone, he should.  Perception is a powerful tool, and it’s hard not to see shades of players past and present who’ve held a similar clout over their teams. For Holiday, it’s not fully realized, but the flashes are there. More than anything though, Holiday passes the eye and gut test. And really, has that ever led us astray?

My Neighbor’s Nightmare

We all have hopes. We all have dreams. It is likely that your aspirations differ from those of even your closest friends. Honestly, that is what makes life so interesting. Everybody has their own opinions and values that they hold close to their heart and nobody has the authority to tell them that they are wrong. The world of sports is no different. Athletes all have different motivations for playing the sport. Whether it be about money, fame, or the simple desire to win, who are we to say what the correct motive is?

As a society, we cannot help but criticize people that we view as lazy or selfish. From my experiences, this seems particularly prevalent when talking about athletes. There are certain things about certain athletes that make them unlikable. For instance, Vince Carter is perhaps one of the most disliked players by diehard NBA fans. If you ask someone why they don’t like Carter you’ll like get a response regarding his apparent apathy. He just doesn’t seem to care. This is entirely his decision and to be fair, it’s probably not even a conscious choice.

Alternatively, we idolize and love those who play the game “the right way”, whatever that may be. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant come off as two prime examples of what we want in an athlete. They honor the competitive nature of the game and leave everything on the court. They work even harder during the off-season to perfect their craft and place winning ahead of everything else. We love them for this and hate players like Vince because they don’t possess the same mentality.As I said before, different things matter to different people. We dislike Vince because he doesn’t always try his hardest and winning doesn’t seem to be a priority. He was blessed with otherworldly talent and could be going down in history as one of the greatest to ever play if he simply had a better work ethic and attitude. But he doesn’t. That’s his life.

How can we criticize someone for not trying hard enough or having the right attitude when we are merely spectating from our living room? Take time to consider what your major goals in life are. You probably came up with something along the lines of. happiness, family, financial security, etc. Well hasn’t Vince Carter achieved that? He has plenty of money and presumedly enjoys playing the game of basketball. He gets paid to do something enjoyable every night and that might be enough for him. Is he wrong for not ranking winning as the one of the most important goals in life? Some people would say so, but that’s their opinion. In the waning hours of Carter’s career we see him trying even less. It’s a shame to see Vince care so little when a guy like Steve Nash cares so much. I’ve often considered how players react when their body starts to fail them. For someone who had relied so heavily on his natural abilities, it has to be particularly frustrating. Freakish athletes like Carter, Shaq, Iverson, etc. never really had the need to work especially hard. Now as they have all gotten older and lost the explosiveness that made them so special as players, we see them struggle. The desire to reshape their game isn’t there. Therefore, they are destined to fizzle out and have an unremarkable end to their careers. It’s disappointing, but it comes down to the mindset. Some people have it, others don’t.

For the average NBA enthusiast, the priority is winning. However, I am hesitant to condemn anyone who doesn’t share that opinion. During the current NBA playoffs I was reminded of one of the more interesting players in the league. JR Smith of the Denver Nuggets is perhaps one of the most talented players in the league, yet fails to effectively harness that potential. When JR is on, he has the ability to takeover a game. Unfortunately, he’s a total head-case. It’s easy to say that he’s wasting such incredible talent, but what we may see as a waste, may be perfectly satisfying for him. I suppose that we wish he had the same mindset as Kobe or Jordan, but it’s certainly possible that all he wants to do is make crazy highlights, shoot tons of threes, and occasionally dunk all over Gary Neal.

This is only my opinion and I certainly understand the disdain for chronic underachievers, yet I can’t help but try to put myself in their shoes. If I were incredibly, naturally gifted at a sport, how would I use that ability? I know that I am a very competitive person, but just living the life of an NBA player and getting paid to do something I love might be enough for me. I don’t know if I would possess that insatiable thirst for victory. In our minds, we want all players to appreciate their talents and have a great work ethic. You might claim that that is how you would act if you were so supremely athletic. You’d spend countless hours in the gym and have an unyielding commitment to the game. But that’s your dream. And what is your dream, might be someone else’s nightmare.