Monthly Archives: May 2011

Jason Kidd And A History Of Ridiculous Awesomeness

There’s plenty not to like about Kidd, much like pretty much, oh, every great player with a few notable exceptions (LIKE DROSE, BECAUSE HE IS PURE AS FALLEN SNOW, DID WE MENTION HE LOVES HIS MOTHER? HOW AWESOME IS THAT? NO ONE ELSE EVER LOVES THEIR MOTHER!). But hey, you gotta admit, A. he has kicked ass “like Jim Kelly” (see first video) B. he rapped. (Totally owned that album.)

Film Don’t Lie: The Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and “Titanic”

 

There is a myriad of ways in which “Titanic” is considerably more awesome than you think it is. Watching “Titanic” is watching a colossal comedy of errors take place. My favorite moment of the entire film is after Jack gets done tapping Ms. Fancy Pants in the back of the car, they rush out and hear the crew talking to the captain and engineer going over where the ship has flooded. Leo pauses, in an all-too Keanu way, and says,

“This is bad.”

I crack up, every single time.

(“Haha, it’s funny because hundreds of people died long enough ago to where it’s not insensitive.” See, now I feel bad.)

What I’m getting at is that it’s a movie about folly. Jack and Rose thinking this is actually going to work out. The Captain thinking it’s totally fine to push ahead through iceberg-infested waters at full-speed. The promoter thinking that he can just jinx anything to that degree. The engineer thinking that his eminently obviously avoidable mistakes won’t come back to hurt him. The Bro thinking he can contain a woman who obviously doesn’t want to be with him. And the Los Angeles Lakers of the film, the Bourgeois wandering around a sinking hunk of steel dropping into icy, unsurvivable waters complaining about luggage, comfort, and a chill.

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The lame passengers are primarily scenery in the flick. Molly Brown stands out in contrast, and they’re used in relation to the plight of the poor (who of course we love much more because they drink and dance and party, even though that cargo hold most likely stank like a hobo’s bad place and those kids were probably getting bartered in dice games). They’re stuck-up, they’re self-entitled, and they’re completely oblivious to the idea of danger.

Yeah, that guy. When Bryant made the “trippin'” line, you knew they were screwed. You have to recognize trouble. Everyone’s so consumed with not panicking, they wind up ignoring danger. It’s disassociating yourself from the reality of the situation to focus on something external. In this case, it was the Lakers disassociating themselves from the reality that the Mavericks were kicking the hell out of them and they had no answers by focusing on the media “overreacting” to said struggles.

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You know who I hate in “Titanic?” The Goddamn quartet. You love them the first, oh, fifty times you see the flick. It’s such a nice, quiet moment when they decide to keep playing. But you know what? You’re not better than everyone else. When the boat rips in half and starts sinking into the ocean, those sons of bitches were beating people out of their way with bows. You think you’re helping with the music? THE GIANT STEEL BOAT IS SINKING INTO THE ATLANTIC OCEAN. YOU ARE NOT HELPING. YOU’RE JUST PROVIDING A POIGNANT SOUNDTRACK TO A FULL SCALE RIOT.

The Lakers’ constant insistence throughout the season that they were fine, that there was nothing to worry about, that they would turn it on? All quartet music. Keep it lively while we half-fill the boats. Keep relying on the fact you’ve done this twice before so naturally you’ll do it a third time without trying. And that’s really what they did. The May disaster was written in January and February. Three-game losing streaks, which shouldn’t be a big deal, but were because they hadn’t happened under Phil. The losing streaks in and of themselves weren’t a problem, the reaction to them was. “Oh, it’s no big deal.” You have to respond to those little embarrassments with vengeance and anger.  You have to become livid at your malaise and react with outrage bordering on violence (as opposed to Game 4’s flagrant-fest, which was violence bordering on outrage). Instead, the Lakers sloughed it off. One member of the organization told me in February, “When you’re contending for a three-peat, and you’re just months removed from the intensity of a Game 7 against your franchise rival, getting yourself mentally “up” for a mid-season game against a small market, no-flash team is tough. They just don’t care enough about these games.”

The problem was that set a precedent. That was the engineer electing to halve the lifeboats. It was “EJ” electing to listen to the promoter and not respond with caution. It was Snooty McSnooterson saying outloud, on a ship he was on, “God himself could not sink this ship.” Had the attitude changed, maybe the Lakers would have gotten the top seed. Maybe they would have been better prepared for Game 1. Maybe they would have responded better in Game 2, or gotten themselves together in Game 3. But at the end of the day, you can only blame the people involved in “Titanic” so much. Because in reality, how were they really supposed to stop what happened. They just ran into a gigantic freaking iceberg.

The Dallas Mavericks.

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It may not have been as simple as “try harder.” There may not have been anything they could do. Sometimes, teams just shoot like that.

In March 2009, I was talking to Graydon Gordian about what if the NBA did have a one-and-done NCAA style tournament, who would win. And both of us said the same thing. “Orlando. Definitely Orlando.” Orlando had been outrageously hot from the perimeter that year. They simply worked so hard to create open 3-pointers, and had such a deep team of shooters, you couldn’t do much. Orlando got hot from the arc, and you could just pencil it in. Boston found the same thing. Yes, Kevin Garnett, blah, blah blah. My point is not that Garnett wouldn’t have been the difference in the series, he likely would have been. My point is that he really didn’t need to be. The Celtics could have beaten the Magic without Garnett, had Orlando not worked so hard to produce quality 3-pointers, and had the personnel to knock them down, and had that collective core been on fire, right up until June 1st.

(Ironically, this season was also what caused the downfall of the Magic. In 2010, they set a record for made three pointers, but only shot 37.5%. That’s 95th best in league history, which is still marginally impressive, but it also reflected a change from the 53rd ranked all-time 2009 team (who shot a whopping .6% better, but bear with me). The 2010 team made 24 more 3-pointers than the 2009 team, but attempted 94 more of them. The Magic stopped working for the best 3-pointer and started just shooting the available 3-pointer. In 2009, the team was made of the kings of the extra pass. In 2010 and 2011, the team resorted to just taking the first open 3 that came their way. The ball rotation wasn’t perfect. It was passable. The shots were makeable, but they weren’t wide freaking open. Personally, I blame Vince Carter, even though it is clearly not his fault.)

The Mavericks had that kind of mojo in the second round. Jason Terry’s barrage in Game 4 was just the icing on the cake. The Mavericks went out in Game 1 and shot the lights out. Then they decided if they had done it once, they could do it again. And again. And again. The Lakers didn’t react or adjust to this, because, let’s face it, Phil Jackson and the mighty Lakers would never deign to adjust to someone else’s gameplan. Lest you forget how Doc Rivers with a worse team than in 2010 completely worked over the Lakers in 2008 by making key adjustments. If the Lakers can’t out-muscle, out-tall, out-talent you, they have no second option. And they get frustrated and cranky, instead of focused and determined. They’re so worried about not panicking, they never respond to the aggression. In years past they had enough talent to overcome eventually. They were bigger, they were taller, they could tip shots in and rely on their talent being better. The Mavericks were talented enough, and meaner, and tougher, and not only wanted it more, but had something none of the other teams that came close to upsetting the Lakers in previous years (your Suns, Nuggets, Rockets, and Thunder): they had the experience to know how to take their foot, place it on the Lakers’ neck, and not squeeze, but stomp the hell out it until it was completely broken.

So in the end, while some Laker fans were pleading for the team to respond, sweating and wringing their hands, many fans, and the team itself, was too busy worrying about its luggage, or how cramped it would be, or if they would be serving tea on the deck. Sure, the Lakers saw the rats running. But they had  no idea what it meant.

 

photo by Santiago García Pimentel on Flickr

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AFTERWORD: The 2010 Lakers were an unstoppable juggernaut, and I continue to believe that even if Kendrick Perkins had not injured his knee, the Lakers would have triumphed. The Celtics played above an already high ceiling that year, and the Lakers were much more in tune with their actual ability. Phil Jackson is the most successful head coach of all time, and walks away considered the greatest head coach of all time by people a lot smarter than I am. This Laker core is not a failure. It has two championships. So don’t consider this piece an indictment of this era (which may not be closed, though, Mike Brown, really?). It’s merely trying to put this particular team’s failures in perspective.

Kobe Bryant’s play in 2009 was the best basketball I’ve ever seen him play. He was flawless. That he moved so far away from that in 2011 to me was an indication of what I’d heard from people in L.A. before the season started. One person close to the organization told me that the trainers had indicated to the coaching staff that Bryant would be unable to deliver his usual production, and that the coaching staff should likely talk to him to make sure he worked in the flow of the team. Bryant’s overall statistical production was far from deficient. But there were more times this season when fans were left flabbergasted at his inability to close a game, or create space, or hit the impossible shot, and some of the smarter fans were even more aghast when he seemingly deliberately responded to these struggles by electing for more difficult, worse shots. Bryant can get healthy and produce another MVP-level season. But the decline has begun, and if no one can stand up to him, his pride will not let him do anything but fail and then shoot for two hours in front of an awe-inspired media and then continue to shoot them out of games. Bryant’s unable to remember past mistakes. He’s too focused on killing whatever is next in his way.

The Lakers organization is clearly moving in different directions, branching away from Phil Jackson’s work within the team. And by “branching away” I mean “putting all the stuff he left into a trashcan and lighting it on fire while drinking scotch from the bottle and singing Semisonic.” Maybe this will work out. After all, it’s always worked out for them. Each time the team has hit a rough patch, it responds with an era of dominance based on its ability to bring in the best talent. Maybe that’s Dwight Howard. Maybe that’s Chris Paul. But this colossal and monumental failure of a Lakers team is only really notable because of the franchise’s historical and consistent superiority. They’ll be back. And maybe next time, they’ll learn the cost of hubris from the 2011 team.

Film Don’t Lie: The Dallas Mavericks and Being John Malkovich

Attempting to explain Being John Malkovich — like attempting to explain this year’s NBA playoffs — would be a farce. Anything resembling a plot summary would be a disservice to one of the strangest movies you’ll ever see. It’s dark — at times, positively horrific. Its most hilarious moments are some of its most twisted, and the most poignant would be downright silly in any other context. It’s constantly shifting, forcing the audience to keep up with right and wrong and every intersection between. It’s about portals and puppetry. It’s about learning who you are through someone else’s perspective. It’s about suspending everything you know about anything for 72 minutes and allowing yourself to embrace the absurdity of a reality far removed from your own — and coming away affected all the same.

Because let’s face it. We didn’t expect the Dallas Mavericks to make it this far. The unbearable monotony of the past three seasons only solidified our perception of the team’s stagnation. How were we to know that this team would be decimating its opponents with an unparalleled veteran savvy on both ends of the floor? We were never afforded the possibility. We applauded the introduction of Tyson Chandler, a defensive fulcrum, and the often beautiful offensive movement. But we are also creatures of habit, writing off a team that our eyes deemed dull and ordinary. Like Craig (played by John Cusack), a failing puppeteer, and Lotte (played by an almost unrecognizable Cameron Diaz), a pet shop owner, the Mavericks were unfortunately shrouded in a veil of anonymity, clouding the artistry and emotion of an unheralded collective.

Dallas’ shocking sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round was the first foray into John Malkovich, an actor that everyone in the movie seemed to recognize, yet none could pinpoint any specific movie roles. Still, for Craig, Lotte, and the lot of other nameless faces in a crowd that wanted 15 minutes away from their existence, Malkovich’s identity was a marked improvement over their own. For the first time since 2007, the Mavericks weren’t an afterthought. It was a moment of triumph, to be sure. But, of course, 15 minutes is never enough time.

The series against the Oklahoma City Thunder would prove to be a lesson in puppetry and mastery. In Dirk Nowitzki’s virtuosic performances throughout the series, we see Craig’s mastery of Malkovich’s body and mind, not only effectively creating the world’s greatest puppet, but also a conduit for the hopes and dreams that never materialized. With the exposure, Craig finds appreciation that wasn’t there before. Malkovich’s influence and celebrity meant the freedom to exhibit a skill that society had prior deemed to be a dying artform. Suddenly with a great playoff run, the labels that clung to Nowitzki’s career became archaic. It’s not that Craig reinvented puppetry, and it’s not that Dirk redefined being ‘soft’. But a larger audience, one without dismissive preconceived notions, helps restructure persona. But most importantly, through Malkovich — err, this Mavericks team, Nowitzki finds himself as close as he’s ever been to being a champion. It’s a dream that’s as close as it’ll ever be to reaching fruition. But he’s not the only one with dreams.

We learn in the movie that there are vessels of immortality. It’s been a long time coming, but the Mavericks vessel has ripened, and those on board know they won’t be long for this league. By mid-March, Dallas’ roster eerily resembled an All-Star team from the mid ’00s, except without the legs. We know the stories. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and Nowitzki have all tasted the NBA Finals before. Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic are relics of earlier offensive revolutions, both millimeters away from tasting the championship round. Significantly older this time around, it’s absolutely stunning that all of these men have played crucial roles in getting the team where it is now. Terry and Stojakovic were lights out in the dismantling of the Lakers, while Marion and Kidd were invaluable defenders against the endlessly athletic Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  They all carry their own baggage when it comes to failed dreams, but they climb aboard this vessel as a unit in hopes of basketball immortality; in hopes that a championship will absolve a decade of struggle, and validate a lifetime of commitment to this wonderful sport.

It’s a dark tunnel to the championship. It’s scary, and probably squishy. For Dallas, entering the mind of Malkovich means knowing what it means to be a champion. Nowitzki, his aging brethren, and the rest of the Mavericks are surely hoping that redemption can be achieved in the time it takes to be sucked in and spit out.

Now It’s Nowitzki

 

The 2007 Mavericks were a great team. I’m not tossing that term out lightly. I’m not convinced to this day that the 2009 Los Angeles Lakers, who won the freaking title, were a great team. (The 2010 team was a great team, as was the 2011 team right up until about the time Chris Paul leaped up and stabbed them in the eye like Kratos.) But the 2007 Mavericks? That was a great team. Top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The only other team to be so was the San Antonio Spurs. The Mavs were second on offense, fifth on defense, the Spurs second on defense, fifth on offense. The Mavericks, believe it or not, were better than the 2006 team that went to the Finals the year prior. They were deep. They were smooth. They were, yes, well coached. They were also fun as hell to watch. To this day, this remains the most fun I’ve ever had watching a game. It was one of those nights, where yes, it’s the regular season, but by God, it felt like May. The two teams were so locked in to beating one another, they were killing themselves trying to win that game. After that double-overtime joy fest, it seemed absolutely certain the Suns and Mavs were going to meet for the Western Conference Championship and the right to thump whatever chump came out of the East (LeBron James, step on down!).

That team was when Jerry Stackhouse was still able to produce, and Josh Howard was still considered a top-flight small forward. Jason Terry was the kind of scorer you trembled in fear at. Devin Harris was the young kid along for the ride and showing now and then why he would be the point guard of the future for Dallas after they won the title. Erick Dampier was a load, and not nearly as slow, still able to take rebounds and give fouls. And Dirk?

Dirk was Dirk. Like he’s never been. 2006 was a superior season in terms of raw production. But that 2007 Dirk was something else. He was still so furious about the Finals loss, and you could see it. Everyone scoffed at his MVP trophy, wanting to give it to Bryant, but Nowtizki dropped a 27.6 PER with a 61% True Shooting Percentage on 28.9% usage while the Mavericks won 67 games. SIX-TY-SEV-EN.

It was a masterful season. They were the best team in the league. Their path was set. Topple the first round opponent, like you do, face either the Jazz (O-VER-RA-TED) or the Rockets in a quality six-game semis, then the big one. Whoever survived out of the San Antonio-Phoenix bloodsport would be so battered and bruised, facing Dallas would be like going into the thresher after a car wreck. Beat the crap out of whatever East team came out (hopefully Miami), and forget 2006 ever happened.

And then…

That Goddamn Warriors team.

Don’t be confused. I pulled for that Warriors team with every ounce in me. I wanted to see the upset, the underdog, the unbelievable moment where the worst playoff team in the West knocked down the Big Bad German. I wanted to see the scrappy underdog overcome all odds and show what “true heart means.” I “believed.”

That series was not only an abject freakazoid, lightning strike four-times in the same spot outlier of logic and production, it was the worst thing that could have happened for both franchises. The Warriors fans got their moment, that shining night where your team did the impossible. That also resulted in another three seasons of Don Nelson boozeballing the team into the ground requiring the sale of the team and a complete overhaul to get the team right, which they’re still working on. It led to the Stephen Jackson contract, Baron Davis thinking he was worth the money to hop on over to Clipperland, Monta, and the rest.

And for the Mavericks? A horrible matchup that they could not have avoided created a perfect storm of conditions. The right crowd, the right team, the right matchups, the right bounces, the right emotional response from Dallas and the right timing. It all came together, and the Mavericks lost. One of the truly great teams of the last ten years is now held in disdain as one of the biggest jokes in NBA history, the classic example of choking. They are the wretched and the years after only provided turmoil, failure, and a gradual decline. That’s how the story was going to end. Dirk goes down with an MVP, underrated by most, talked of in writer’s lunches and on podcasts, always anchored by the collapse in the 2006 Finals and the greatest season that ever ended in disaster.

Until this year.

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Everyone acts like the last few years have seen such an upturn in great teams. But back up a second and consider what Nowitzki and the Mavericks have been fighting against during their ten year 50-win war. Shaq’s Lakers. Duncan’s Spurs. The Pau-trade-created monster team. The only window for the Mavericks? 2006 and 2007. When they lost in the Finals in one of the most contentiously officiated series ever, and in a maelstrom of bad luck. The Clippers win three more games and we’re not talking about this right now. That 2007 Spurs team? Good. Really good. But most Spurs fans will tell you it wouldn’t hold up to the other championship teams, and that’s the season immediately after Dirk beat the Spurs in San Antonio to advance. There were some incredible teams that Nowitzki had to fight tooth and nail with in his prime (I say as he just got through with his best TS% season ever, but we’ll get there).

But still, the teams have gotten better. This was the most loaded NBA season in history. But at the end, it was supposed to be the same story in the West. It was going to be the Lakers. We all knew it. We were positive. I had resigned myself to the inevitability of knowing who is going to celebrate in June before the season. All the rest was just filler. And if for some reason the Lakers didn’t win it, it was going to be the Spurs in the West. The top seed, with one of their best regular seasons ever, the unstoppable offense. And if not them, certainly the Thunder. They added Kendrick Perkins for crying out loud! (Don’t ask me when Kendrick Perkins became the greatest defensive player ever and the guy who makes an entirely inconsistent Thunder defense into an unstoppable juggernaut just by being  mean-looking. I’m still trying to figure it out.) Dallas had been there all season, flirting early with the top seed in the league, just hanging out. A few noticed. I wrote about them a few times, mentioned Nowitzki as an MVP candidate. They were playing exceptionally well. Carlisle, in particular, seemed to have figured out some things about this particular team we hadn’t seen before.

But in the end, they fell off enough that we forgot about them. Another good season, but really. Hornets, Nuggets, and Blazers fans were all begging to get the Mavericks, thinking they were ripe for an upset. Blazer fans really thought they were going to win that series. Instead, it was one Brandon Roy WTF game from being a sweep. And we started to see it. But certainly, no. The Lakers will do what they have always done. Dirk Nowitzki, with no rings, can’t beat Kobe Bryant, with five. Can’t happen.

Then the Mavericks shot the lights out. It was masterful. It could only have been done by Dallas, too. They were the one team with the veteran shooters, experience, skill, speed, and ability to take the approach of “Let’s bury ‘em. And then let’s kick the dirt over on top of  ‘em.” They just kept shooting. Phil Jackson’s going to have peyote hallucinations about Peja and Terry dropping bombs for another five years. And before we could come to terms with what happened, down goes the Lakers. Dead. And you started to get the feeling.

It was supposed to be about Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson getting the three-peat to ride off into the sunset. It was supposed to be about L.A. cementing itself as the greatest again. If not, it was supposed to be about the old Spurs putting in one last ride (even if their defense was a weak-ass miniature pony running into fenceposts). If not, it was surely supposed to be about the Thunder, and the arrival of Kevin Durant with Russell Westbrook his Robin.

No.

Nope.

Nuh-uh.

Now?

Now It’s Nowitzki.

This is the shot. This is the one, with Dirk putting in one of the finest playoff performances we’ve ever seen, being absolutely unstoppable in the biggest moments. Nowitzki isn’t human right now in the fourth. There’s so much confidence it makes you ill. Nick Collison played some of the best defense you’re ever going to see on Dirk (and got away with the most fouls you’re ever going to see on Dirk; seriously, someone tell Nick you gotta buy a girl dinner first), and Nowitzki still took him to school, sat him down, quizzed him, graded him, then beat him up and took his lunch money after school. The stuff we love about sports? Nowitzki was all of it against the Thunder. Heroic, timely, passionate, exciting, aggressive, intelligent, efficient, ballsy, and a little bit nuts. This isn’t the tongue-spitting Dirk. This is the determined “That’s right, MFers, I’mma keep killing you till I can’t move” Dirk. There’s no joy in this, he’s too driven. After Game 5, he didn’t smile, didn’t seem relaxed. He was just irritated that he has to wait six days to start killing whoever else is in his way.

There will not be another chance for Nowitzki. Nash, his old partner, who formed one of the truly lovable teams of the decade with Dirk, probably won’t get a shot. But for Nowitkzi, there’s a chance at redemption. And no, it doesn’t look good. Miami is better, should they advance. Wade got to the line in 2006? James will get to the line in 2011, along with Wade, and Bosh. The Heat can defend where the Thunder could not, and as helter-skelter as the Heat offense can look at times, it’s a might bit better than the crap sandwich Scotty Brooks spooned out onto the floor in the clutch. The Heat have components to stop Dirk like they did in 2006 (Haslem), and weapons to gun with them. The odds are not good.

But the Mavericks don’t care. This team isn’t playing with a “Hey, look where we got to?” flair, they’re not just happy to be here. This is a veteran team that believes that fate or talent or marketability or storyline be damned, this is their ring. It belongs to them. Nowitzki is the centerpiece of that. He will not be denied. He will not be deterred. And he will continue to rain down on you no matter how you guard him.

This season was supposed to be the final chapter of the Laker’s past. Or it was supposed to be about the Thunder’s future.

But now?

Now, It’s Nowitzki.

Have Ball, Will Travel: Serge Ibaka

In this installment of Have Ball, Will Travel, we’ll take at a Serge Ibaka jumper during Game 4 between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks.

Several Mavs on the floor immediately called for a walk on Ibaka’s play, and they appear to be right. While Ibaka’s violation isn’t all that glaring, he clearly lifts his left foot — after establishing it as his pivot — in order to execute a more emphatic fake to his right. He then lifts his right foot in launching to his left, all of which occurs before Ibaka releases the ball for a dribble. It’s a textbook walk, as both feet are moved before the ball ever leaves Ibaka’s hand.

For reference, here is the exact wording of the relevant (and most well-known) portion of the traveling rule:

“In starting a dribble after (1) receiving the ball while standing still, or (2) coming to a legal stop, the ball must be out of the player’s hand before the pivot foot is raised off the floor.”

While officiating the spin move of Dwyane Wade or Blake Griffin presents its own unique challenges (the speed and movement make a proper call incredibly difficult), the veil lifted over the referees’ eyes in this instance is subtlety. Ibaka doesn’t exploit an extra step at the end of his dribble, and thus his travel doesn’t pop out as much against the backdrop of legal basketball play. He makes what could have been a legal move (had it been better executed), but simply slips up on the footwork and commits a traveling violation. Regardless, the violation on this play is cut and dry; the officials may not have seen Ibaka’s slight pivot lift, but it’s certainly there, and allows him to create enough space to fire up an open jumper.

Joakim Noah’s No Kobe Bryant

There’s no quick fix to major issues of social tolerance, and that is why it was no surprise to watch Joakim Noah utter the same disparaging slur Sunday night for which Kobe Bryant was shouted down just a few short weeks ago. Movement is not going to come quickly, and it’s not going to come without a lot of work.

I won’t rehash everything I wrote about Kobe after his incident, but in short, he was wrong, and he should be held accountable. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t mean to imply hateful feelings, and it doesn’t matter that a fan provoked him. He needed to be more mature and contain his emotions. That’s what professional athletes are expected to do.

What’s more interesting this time around, though, is the marked difference between the penalties handed down to Bryant and Noah. Kobe was fined $100,000, while Noah was docked just half that number. Same word, same situation, same penalty, right? Apparently not. The NBA’s explanation for the variation in the totals of the fines was this: Kobe’s outburst involved verbal abuse of a game official, while Noah’s did not.

I just don’t see how that reasoning could be any more bogus.

First of all, there is no assurance that Bennie Adams actually heard what Kobe said to him. In fact, had he heard it, he probably would have given Kobe a T (with good reason). But if the target of the so-called verbal abuse didn’t actually hear the abusive language, is that really abuse after all? If Bryant had said the same word in the privacy of his home, would that be verbal abuse toward Adams? It doesn’t seem so.

The second concern with that explanation is the more meaningful one. By penalizing comments to a game official to a higher degree than comments to a fan, the league is making a fairly clear statement that it doesn’t operate in the full interest of the common people who pony up the money that makes the NBA work. Protecting the experience of the fans should be the principal goal of the league.

Sure, referees are important, too. But Kobe’s comment didn’t impede him from doing his job. He was just fine. Meanwhile, the fan subjected to Noah’s comment might be so turned off that he might not ever spend a dollar on the league again. One isolated fan doesn’t matter, but this sets a bad precedent for the league and its treatment of the most important person in this whole debacle — the consumer.

Nevertheless, I find myself believing that the disparity in the value of the respective fines was actually justified but hardly for the reasons a league official prescribed earlier today. Instead, there is a certain proportionality here that makes the difference defensible.

When I think about what a fine from the NBA really means, it isn’t really an admonitory action. The NBA, like many other organizations, is a business. When someone associated with the league takes an action that is damaging, it is only fair that the league should make that individual pay back money to recoup the reputational consequences suffered.

Accordingly, it seems, the more damage an action does to the league, the greater the penalty should be. And there is no doubt that whatever action Kobe takes will garner much more attention than the same action taken by Noah. There was a media frenzy for Kobe’s incident, and that made sense. The media will play up the big stories (and Kobe is definitely one of those), as that’s what people want to read and hear — there is the most money in the stories centered around the greatest players in the league. While Noah’s actions were wrong, it is simple enough to say that not as many people care about Noah as care about Bryant. Consequently, Noah’s transgression was much less of a blemish on the league than Bryant’s, so it required less reparation.

For those who find that unfair, consider that notoriety is a double-edged sword. Negative actions for notorious actors will have a significant negative portrayal. That said, those same people will receive much greater positive attention when they do something good than the average player. Kobe and the others have to deal with both sides of the attention coin.

To put it bluntly, this is a textbook example of a double standard on the part of the NBA. As it happens, though, this double standard is a rational one.

LeBron James and the artful transition

Photo via HaukeSteinberg.com on Flickr

“The concept of art is located in a historically changing constellation of elements; it refuses definition. Its essence cannot be deduced from its origin as if the first work were a foundation on which everything that followed were constructed and would collapse if shaken. The belief that the first artworks were the highest and purest is warmed-over romanticism; with no less justification it could be claimed that the earliest artistic works are dull and impure in that they are not yet separated from magic…”

- from “Aesthetic Theory” by Theodor W. Adorno

I give Adorno credit. I’ve spent the last seven months struggling to define my new and ever changing perception of LeBron James, trying to aptly express how it’s different watching him play. Why it’s different. Adorno more or less sums it up in less than a paragraph.

Jordan had to face accusations of being a one-man scoring machine incapable of leading a team to a championship. Kobe had to hear the whispers that maybe he couldn’t win it all without Shaq. Luke Skywalker had to lose a hand and face some hard truths about the lineage of his family tree. This isn’t to compare LeBron to any of them, but all have undergone a change, something palpable simply by looking at them.

James of course has undergone a degree of scrutiny never before see in the NBA, some of it his own doing, some of it a product of the time he lives in. But that’s only a part of it.

As a young, dominating member of the Cavaliers, James was something to behold – a force. Daily conversations with friends never boiled down to “Did you see the Cleveland game last night?” so much as it was “Did you see LeBron last night?” I was excited by the possibility of the unknown, the notion that anything could happen. The next play. The next game. The next 10 years. Watching James single-handedly restore a broken franchise to prominence while simultaneously shattering my perceptions of what a man his size was capable of was at once exhilarating and left me even hungrier for more.

Even as his career continued to develop and the expectations grew exponentially, there was some sense of being able to forgive his transgressions (read: inability to win a championship). James’ career arc seemed to be tilted so high that he inevitably would win a handful of rings, cementing his legacy as one of the greatest of all time. He remained the high school prodigy in many ways, still unearthing his talents before our eyes.

The Decision changed all of that.

Part of his allure in those days was his singularity, a one-man wrecking crew, it’s something that even if you weren’t a serious basketball fan, could be appreciated. His role in Miami has morphed, become more sophisticated, less about reckless abandon and more about seamless execution within the confines of a game plan. His love of playing is no longer tangible through my TV screen. Hardened by criticism and the pressure of validating his off-season moving, maybe the Wonder Kid is at the point where he’s no longer willing to make excuses for himself. But like Adorna says about the first works of art, change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

James’ career has no definition right now, a byproduct of its still relatively early stage and the unprecedented turn of events it has undergone. Maybe that’s been the hardest part, seeing what once appeared a readily definable career turn to something much less certain.  Eight years ago I knew LeBron was the most hyped high school basketball player of all time. Three years ago I knew he was destined to win half a dozen MVP awards and lead Cleveland to the Promised Land. Today?

I know James will win titles, the learning curve for Miami has been too steep this season to think the Heat won’t put it all together at some point in the next five years. I know he’ll win more MVP awards, he “quietly” had his most efficient season ever in 2011 and many felt he was deserving of the honor. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the carefree LeBron that was omnipresent in Cleveland, the one who intermittingly danced with teammates while slaying defenses. But maybe to reach the lofty status to which he aspires change does have to happen and childish things do have to be put away.

Following Cleveland’s loss to Boston in the playoffs last year it was said that maybe LeBron was destined to be my generation’s Julius Erving. One of the all-time greats, an individual lauded for their physical dominance over the game, loved by many, but never held in the same regard as the great champions of the sport. No one will ever call Jordan or Kobe fun loving; they were killers in their prime. And therein lies my personal struggle – sometimes what we want, isn’t always what’s best.

James’ legacy is and always was dependent on him developing an otherworldly killer instinct. Maybe it took the perceived role as the villain to fully manifest itself, but the once jovial phenom has grown up. I remain in awe of his physical abilities, talents that I’m still waiting to see reach their limitation, talents that will inevitably leave an indelible mark on the NBA when they are spent. They needed focus and they needed direction. LeBron seems to have found that, maybe it’s time my perceptions do the same.

Dirk Nowitzki: A Softy We Can Get Behind

There’s such a stigma about softness in the NBA. It’s commonplace to idolize those players who embody toughness, who sweat blood, who play through pain, who seek out contact like Eddy Curry seeks out all-you-can-eat buffets, who fear no opponent. Now it’s just as normal to belittle the finesse players — the ones who spare viewers the macho routine, who don’t need to feel dominant to play basketball.

Basketball is a sport of grace, that requires the utmost focus and skill — the greatest player will be a meticulous tactician, a heady player who knows what he’s doing. Basketball is a game of grace and fluidity, but it seems that those qualities can only be appreciated if there’s a ferocity underscoring them.

It’s really not surprising that the embrace of manliness has come to the fore. As the NBA has evolved, the game has become decreasingly physical, metamorphosing from a game primarily defined by bruisers to a game appreciably defined by skill. Many feel a need for sports to be contests of strength and hatred for one’s opponents, so it makes sense that these fans would cling to those aspects of classic basketball and long for more of that style.

In the same way, these same people can’t help but berate those who act counter to their desires. Deviation from that course of aggression and physicality is inherently wrong, and those players who choose that alternate route must be ridiculed relentlessly for their decision. After all, they’re a bunch of sissies, obviously.

Not even getting in to the social concerns with some of these softness labels (words like “woman” and “pussy” come to mind), a trend has developed over the years in which the players coming over from Europe are necessarily soft, for it has to be a product of nationality, not training regiment, amateur-basketball factors, or anything else. (Or maybe it’s just that Americans are intolerant of other cultures and want to flaunt their “superiority.” Either way.) That is why there’s always a slight preoccupation with drafting foreign prospects or giving them a chance on an NBA roster.

It is true that this dubious nature has not just surfaced as a result of neanderthals’ preconceived notions, as European players have not had the greatest track record in the NBA. But the change in the physical nature of the game is only one cause of failure for international prospects. Rule differences, season length, cultural boundaries, and many other adjustments have a hand in the development or lack of development for these players.

Along with the clear division between the tough guys and the “wusses,” let’s say, there’s another duality that develops: the guys who live to hurt and get hurt are the icons of basketball — that is, they’re good. The ninnies? They’re just bad at basketball. There’s no better illustration for this phenomenon than Laker Nation’s treatment of Pau Gasol over the last four seasons.

In 2008, when the Lakers lost, he was a creampuff (an efficient one, at that, but damn me to hell if that matters — they lost!) who was helpless to succeed because he couldn’t handle the grind of the game. In 2009 and 2010, when the Lakers won, he broke free and somehow instantly became tough. This year, they lost again, and Pau was back to playing for the London Silly Nannies.

There’s a statistical correlation between Gasol’s success and the Lakers’ success in those four postseasons, and there’s no way that other factors could’ve possibly had an impact on his vacillating play. There’s no way Bynum’s absence in 2008 hindered him at all. There’s no way the team’s abandonment of the triangle offense limited Gasol’s play in 2011. He’s just too much of a pansy to handle it all.

This is interesting, though: it seems as if choosing whether to call a player soft or not is a matter of convenience. When it helps to excuse a player’s performance as a product of his cotton-candy nature, that’s just fine. When his performance need not be excused, though, his softness is no longer a topic of discussion. So …

What if the NBA had someone who exemplified the qualities of these players that are routinely labeled softies — but managed to use that softness to his advantage to dominate in the NBA? These playoffs have solidified one guy’s nomination for this role. That guy would be Dirk Nowitzki.

When you think soft, Nowitzki isn’t typically someone who comes to mind. After all, he screams, growls at his opponents, and likes to pump up the crowd. But take a look at his game.

This is a guy who has developed his jumper to have a natural fade on it, such that he falls away from opponents when he shoots. He had nine dunks all year. He attempted fewer shots per game at the rim than Tyler Hansbrough. He doesn’t really jump to contest shots. He shoots a lot of free throws, but many of the fouls he takes are slight taps on his arms, not Andrew Bynum-style maulings. You’ll often see him getting knocked off balance by smaller defenders in the post. And you don’t seem him intimidating other teams with hard fouls himself on defense.

You would attribute a lot of those characteristics to the wuss category, so perhaps it’s not the way that these guys play the game that makes people call them soft. Maybe a player has to be bad in order to be considered soft. Maybe we’re willing to look past finesse play so long as it results in wins.

There is no doubt people looked at Dirk in a different light just five years ago, when Dwyane Wade went off in the 2006 Finals, and the Mavericks crumbled after a confidence-building 2-0 lead in the series. Dirk was seen as soft then. The next year, after the Mavericks embarrassingly bowed out to the Warriors in a 1-8 upset in the first round, Dirk was still soft like ice cream. Now, though, no one’s saying that, even while his game has barely changed.

All this talk has surfaced lately about where Nowitzki ranks among all players in the league’s history, with some endeavoring to contend that he belongs in the all-time top 10. Whether or not that’s accurate, it might make some people realize that one of the greatest players to ever touch the hardwood is someone who has been called a weakling.

Maybe Nowitzki is the guy who can make it cool to be soft, who can break that mold of needing to be tough, who can be that graceful tactician without any underlying support of a grizzly nature.

Here’s to changing the culture of basketball for the better, Dirk.

The Fix Isn’t In

As a former journalist, David Kahn knows a good story line when he sees one. But as a current NBA general manager, he should know better.

Moments after the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were represented by owner Dan Gilbert’s son, Nick, won the 2011 NBA Draft Lottery, the Associated Press quoted Kahn:

“This league has a habit, and I am just going to say habit, of producing some pretty incredible story lines. Last year it was Abe Pollin’s widow and this year it was a 14-year-old boy and the only thing we have in common is we have both been bar mitzvahed. We were done. I told Kevin [Love] [O'Connor]: ‘We’re toast.’ This is not happening for us and I was right.”

In black-and-white, Kahn’s words are colder and darker than a mid-January Minneapolis night as his cynicism implies two nefarious things.

One, there’s the implication that the NBA Lottery is fixed. And two, he’s implying the NBA fixed said Lottery, last year for a widow and this year for Nick Gilbert, who happens to have neurofibromatosis, which is a neurological disease that causes tumors to grow in the body at any time. Thankfully, he stopped short of saying the league should capitalize on these storylines by making an NBA Cares PSA out of it.

Of course, Kahn’s quote has caused quite the kerfuffle on the Intertubes: here, here and here. He’s rightfully being smacked around for sounding insensitive, even if, as the video below shows that he may have been joking.

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLzYrfhttT0&feature=player_embedded w=640 h=390]

Maybe he was making light of the fact the Timberwolves luck — always bad — never seems to change. Maybe he was trying to make light of the fact that some good luck charms, such as an ultra-confident and charming 14-year-old in a bow tie and Buddy Holly glasses, work better than others.

But one thing is for certain: Kahn, whatever he meant, chose cruel words.

“The NBA has a habit … of producing some pretty incredible story lines ”

No, Mr. Kahn. The NBA doesn’t. Lotteries do. It doesn’t take Shirley Jackson or an old Bogie movie to know that lotteries spawn great storylines. Lottery stories are compelling for the simple fact that winning a lottery is catching lightning in a bottle. Good story lines will sometimes come from the Lottery not because the NBA wants it to, but because of the randomness of the event itself.

The NBA has its share of problems — allowing a numbskull such as Donald Sterling to own the Clippers, by having Isiah Thomas hang around its edges and having the impending lockout hanging like the sword of Damocles over the 2011-12 season — but “fixing” the Lottery results are not one of them.

Would you like to know why? The simple reason is: THE NBA LOTTERY IS NOT FIXED. It is not fixed. It is not fixed. It. Is. Not. Fixed.

As a former employee of the NBA, I have assigned people to report on it. As a reporter for FanHouse, I have covered it. Henry Abbott can vouch for this. True Hoop’s papa and granddad of the True Hoop network was sitting next to me in 2009, and in 2010 when Washington Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld snuck into in 3A like a student late for class only to see his team’s combination of numbers come up three times in the first four draws.

The implication of lottery fixing is not only absurd because of the amount of work, secrecy and complicity needed to pull it off, but also because it’s not even close to being true. Any NBA GM, many of whom have seen the draw process play out in front their own eyes, should know this is a fact. Any NBA GM not named David Kahn should be incensed with Kahn’s statements that their team may have won or lost the Lottery because of a conspiracy, especially because they know it not to be true. One David — Stern — is more than likely furious. I can imagine a 212 area code popping up on one of Kahn’s phones in the immediate future.

For years, the league has allowed reporters into the Lottery draw room in Secaucus and still it has to deal with knuckleheads who think that it’s not on the up-and-up. It’s the NBA equivalent of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Despite doing producing the evidence, there will always be non-believers. These people, however, shouldn’t come from your own ranks.

For some reason, Kahn’s implication also struck a nerve with me as well, and not only for the fact that he seemed to be making light of Dan Gilbert’s son. In the video, you can see that there was an uneasy jocularity in his tone and that he may not want to go there. But go there he did. And the words … It was as if he was impugning everything we — me, other journalists, team officials, league officials — saw in that room.

Here’s one thing I can tell you: ping-pong balls don’t lie.

Kahn should walk back the words for implying that they do.

UPDATE: Turns out David Kahn the GM does love a good Lottery story line. It’s just that David Kahn, the former journalist, forgot how to tell a story well.

Less than 24 hours after making the comments above, Kahn told the excellent Ken Berger of CBSSports.com that he was joking and wasn’t trying to imply that the lottery was fixed.

“The first questions I was asked last night by the reporters were, did I feel that the Timberwolves were jinxed,” Kahn said. “You know, we have a poor lottery record. And I want to say for the record, I don’t believe in jinxes, curses, hocus pocus, and I don’t believe we’ve been harmed in any way. What I said last night, I do believe in the power of story. And I just felt it was a heck of a lot better story for a 14-year-old to beat out two middle-aged executives standing together on a stage on national TV, and that our league has had its own share of luck in being a part of those stories. That’s it. Anybody ascribing anything else to it is completely doing their own thing.”

Kahn pointed out that his comment Tuesday night “elicited laughter,” and said, “There was no follow-up question. Nobody said, ‘Do you understand what you just said?’ No, because everybody knew context. But I do understand, to your point, just reading it dry, that somebody could infer that. So lesson learned.”

Asked again Wednesday if he was simply reiterating his assertion that the lottery results were rigged to produce a better story, Kahn said, “Absolutely not. I’m just saying that, if you look at sports in general, typically fairy tale stories, Cinderella stories, whatever you want to say, those tend to dominate sports. I just knew when you’re standing there with a 14-year-old kid, logically the 14-year-old kid … it had nothing to do with being nefarious.”