Monthly Archives: August 2011

Drifting Back

Photo from Odalaigh via Flickr

After the 6-foot-5 shooting guard committed to play for Kansas, coach Roy Williams called him his most gifted recruit ever.

via Stevenson follows dad’s dream to NBA | Associated Press (7/22/00)

DeShawn Stevenson was highly regarded (to put it lightly) coming out of high school. Knowing what we know now, it’s a bit of a farce. But back then, he had the defensive mindset, he had the jaw-dropping athleticism. He had an NBA-ready body, and looked every bit the part of a star. Today, he’s a champion, but the role he played on the Dallas Mavericks is far removed from the notions we had of him as a prospect. He’s a defensive specialist, and an improved spot-up shooter. But what turns an athletic dynamo destined for stardom into a yeoman-esque opportunist?

Well, DeShawn Stevenson can’t dribble very well. And when you can’t take the ball where you want it to go, you’re not going anywhere as a headlining scorer. But DeShawn isn’t the only one. There have been plenty of incredible athletes in this league that eventually drift off into the perimeter — or into oblivion — because of their lack of handles.

I’m not using plenty lightly. Mickael Pietrus, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Rodney Carney, Donte Greene, Al Thornton, Sonny Weems, Joey and Stephen Graham, and Jamario Moon are just a few of the names. If you were to combine the ball-handling ability of every player listed, it wouldn’t amount to a single Allen Iverson crossover.

What I wanted to find out was whether the root of the problem (and by extension, the solution) is a systemic issue, or an individual one. In search of wisdom, I had a discussion with Anthony Macri, Player Development Consultant for Coach David Thorpe’s Pro Training Center, and NBA/NCAA Analyst for Hoopsworld.com.

My initial thoughts gravitated towards the individual. For someone like Stevenson, it’s been more than a decade since he’s been in the league. I figured the problem had to lie in Stevenson’s lack of creativity. (Which, by the way, sums up how I view basketball perfectly.)  

Macri’s first thoughts were on the other end of the spectrum. “I think NBA teams have a very specific (in some ways myopic) view of developing players,” he said. “So the desire is to to take a decent athletic wing who can play D and get out in transition, and instead of asking him to work on his game and become more of an individual scoring threat, they think about how they can ask him to make the most of their current system.”

The process of developing a player’s ball-handling ability is an exhaustive process which requires a large commitment to the player from the coaches and trainers. On the other hand, teaching a player how to spot-up is a much less tasking process, and as Macri states, “it is small investment for a more guaranteed payoff.” While spot-up shooting is mostly a product of repetition and confidence, to grow into a more creative offensive weapon, a player would have to learn how to read angles, and develop instincts that the player may not inherently possess. Time is money, and sometimes there isn’t enough of either for that kind of development.

But dribbling is still an improvable skill. Unfortunately, Macri feels players aren’t working on “game-applicable” techniques. Videos showing players dribbling two balls with each hand may be an entertaining, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to a better handle in the game. “It’s great for confidence and coordination,” Macri says, “but it really doesn’t make you that much better in a game.”

Advanced ball-handling doesn’t have to resemble an And-1 Mixtape Tour. In creating space, more isn’t necessarily better. Macri stresses that one or two techniques executed very well is infinitely more important than having an arsenal of less effective/flashier maneuvers. In an excellent article on Hoopsworld, he details the key points of ball-handling when it comes to shooting guard development:

Younger players may be looking for the next amazing move they can pull off in a pick-up game, but our focus is on what is effective (on what works).  The best dribble moves a player can have do not involve a wicked Tim Hardaway double tap crossover, or Jay Williams-esque ability to bounce the ball off a body part to keep it alive.  Instead, our guys would be taught and drilled about the importance of changing speed, status, and direction.

via Coach: Developing a Shooting Guard | Anthony Macri, Hoopsworld.com

A player’s development can’t be seen in black or white. Team need and individual ability both account for growth and regression in certain areas. There is a reason why there’s a dearth in offensive stars at the wing positions. The combination of innate basketball sense and ability has to be packaged with a team willing to develop them further. And it’s really rare. For DeShawn Stevenson, star-power might not have been present, but an unteachable relentlessness on defense was. Looking at his stints in Utah, Orlando, Washington, and Dallas, Stevenson played behind superior offensive options each step of the way. Each step reinforced the importance of his role as a stopper, and more recently, as a floor spacer.

It’d be fun to imagine how these players would be with better handles, but it’s not always in their control. …But it’s not always not, either. 

-

Special thanks to HoopSpeak‘s Beckley Mason for setting me up with Coach Macri. 

The Lost Season: Richard Dumas, 92-93

Photo from pinaryoldas via Flickr

With the threat of a shortened or even cancelled season upon us, there is very little we can do to restore a shred of basketball into our lives. What we can do, though, is reminisce over other lost seasons. Seasons which saw players or teams achieve extraordinary things that go beyond titles or awards, only to fade back into the background one year later. Here we will bring the tale of these lost seasons, the ones that touched us on a personal level, the ones we will never forget, though history itself might.

Previously on The Lost Season: Boris Diaw, 05-06Bobby Simmons, 04-05Seattle Supersonics, 04-05Spencer Haywood, 69-70, and Tracy McGrady, 02-03.

This edition is about Richard Dumas. 

The amygdala

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure within the brain. Researchers have observed its role in processing and storing memory of emotional reactions. The amygdalae influence how resonant a memory will be depending on the event’s emotional impact.

So when our eyes light up as we discuss the moments when basketball made us believe in love and magic, that’s the right amygdala lighting up, rediscovering every detail of the event as though it were the first time. But it won’t be the first time. It’ll be the hundredth, maybe thousandth time. Some memories we’ll never let go of.

As fans, it’s the gift that lays the foundation for our zeal.

For Richard Dumas, it was the demon he couldn’t outrun and couldn’t confront alone. It was the demon that chased him out of a potentially dominant career in basketball.

The right amygdala is important. Keep this in mind.

Perhaps Richard Dumas needs a reintroduction.

It’s been more than 18 years since his immortal Game 5 performance in the 1993 NBA Finals. In the game’s defining play, Michael Jordan drives left and runs into traffic. As he attempts to get his shot off over an outstretched Oliver Miller, Dumas swipes at the ball, knocking it out of Jordan’s hands and into Danny Majerle’s. He pushes the ball up court and throws a chest pass to a furiously sprinting Dumas for an uncontested, game-clinching dunk. For one series — and it was a great series to choose — Richard Dumas became one of the Phoenix Suns’ most valuable players.

His own words:

“My greatest moment in basketball? That’s easy. Game 5 of the Finals,” Dumas recalls. “I blocked Michael Jordan’s shot and then took it to the other end and got a dunk. Jordan said I fouled him. There was no foul.”

via Reflections of ‘the best’ | Bill Haisten, Tulsa World (8/18/03)

Along with Wayman Tisdale and Blake Griffin, he is considered to be one of the best (if not the best) basketball talents the state of Oklahoma has produced. Then why is the utterance of his name always followed by a “what happened to that guy?”

The answer lies in one simple and terribly complicated word — Drugs.

“From junior high on, I don’t think Richard ever played a game when he wasn’t under the influence of something,” said Suns coach Paul Westphal. “He thought playing high made him better, and that he couldn’t play unless he used something.”

via Suns’ Dumas drug-free and looking unstoppable | Terry Pluto, Knight-Ridder (3/1/93)

When substance abuse plays just as large of a role as basketball in your adolescent development, you’re asking for a future duel between a love and an uncontrollable compulsion. And when you’re forced to face it alone at such a young age, the compulsions will always win.

A unique compromise

Several of SI’s panelists answered this week’s question — who is this season’s most surprising rookie? — with a question of their own: “That Richard Dumas guy,” they asked. “Is he a rookie?”

via Inside the NBA | Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated (3/8/93)

Dumas wasn’t a typical rookie. He was old for his class, left college early (on drug violations) and fled to Israel to play basketball professionally. He was drafted in the second round in 1991 not for a lack of talent, but because there were already serious doubts about his sobriety. Typical rookies, whether they play or not, find their way onto the team’s bench. Dumas was suspended for the entire 91-92 season for failure to pass a mandatory drug test.

But when he was able to step foot on court as a Sun for the first time in December of ’92, his transition to higher level basketball was seamless. Among peers and superiors, he fit right in.

Watching old game footage, it struck me how Dumas had the skill set of a perfect “stretch-4″ in today’s game. He had the body of a prototypical wing — 6’8″ with a 7’2″wingspan, with long legs and fantastic explosiveness off one or two feet, but the power and mannerisms of a modern power forward. If a current-day NBA comparison had to be made, it’d be a rich man’s (and we’re talking in the billions here) Hakim Warrick. But Warrick could only dream of having Dumas’ hands and basketball IQ.

And yet, it would be criminal to label Dumas a “tweener.”  He was incredibly agile; quick enough to guard either wing position. His complete lack of a three-point shot might’ve been a worry for any other team, but the Suns had an interesting dynamic with Charles Barkley and Dumas, essentially running two power forwards in the starting lineup. Dumas’ allergies behind the arc were masked by Chuck’s growing fascination with the line. That isn’t to say Dumas had no perimeter skills. His jumper from 20 feet and in was accurate in spot up and standstill positions (his jumper off the dribble was still a work in progress). Watching Dumas play is like entering one of Derrick Williams’ dream sequences — a dream where Williams is fast enough to keep up with point guards, let alone opposing small forwards; where possessing the skills of multiple positions isn’t considered a stigma. Williams will face questions about his position for as long as he’s in Minnesota. Dumas, due to talent and a bit of luck landing in the perfect situation, was able to thrive in his rookie season as a true hybrid forward.

“You don’t know what I’m going to do. Because I don’t.”

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25qWrha3crU&t=5m39s]

If the play at 5:39 looks familiar, maybe it should. Track the motion, the gait, the strides. The play itself is nothing too impressive, though I found myself watching it repeatedly. Dumas catches the ball at the top of the key, puts his head down, and takes a few dribbles before going up for a layup. This isn’t a good example of his athleticism (he is a far more powerful leaper than the clip indicates), or his ball handling skills. Watch it again at the 5:39 mark. There is patience in his movements, as if he’s finding the perfect angle of attack. The move — it’s Amar’e Stoudemire, isn’t it? There’s are shades of Kevin Garnett in the move’s deceptive power in both stride and elevation (or maybe it’s the lank), as he makes Scottie Pippen look like a fool. That would become a motif during the entire ’93 Finals.

Richard Dumas is bemused when he hears the description of himself as Julius Erving with a jump shot. “I really don’t think about it,” the Phoenix Suns’ rookie forward said. “It’s nice to have people think of my ability that way. But I just go out there. I have my own style of play. It’s the type of style where you don’t know what I’m going to do. Because I don’t.”

via NOTEBOOK; Suns Rookie Dumas Turns It Up and Around | David Aldridge, Washington Post (6/11/93)

It was John Lucas II, Dumas’ former mentor and rehabilitation coach, that called him “Dr. J with a jump shot.” Lucas wasn’t shy with handing out superlatives, but he wasn’t the only one voicing positive sentiments. After Dumas dropped 20 points in Game 1 of the ’93 Finals, Pippen noted that Dumas’ talent had surprised him. High praise from one of the best defenders in NBA history.

Dumas mentions his offensive unpredictability, and to a degree, it’s true. Watching a game, it’s clear that most of Dumas’ skills were at rudimentary levels. In the post, where he was extremely effective against Pippen, it wasn’t the footwork or the spin moves that edged his opponent, it was the crafty angles of his floaters and hooks. He was a basketball natural, but not in the same vein as someone like Tracy McGrady. He wasn’t impossibly graceful, nor did he possess a refined offensive game. But he knew how to score, and he knew how to score decisively in spite of his still-fledgling skills. There wasn’t an area on the court that Dumas favored over another, which forced defenders to guard him honestly.

But if there was anything that that proved exceptional right from the beginning, it’s his hands. Oh my. His hands. They’re enormous, and they simply did not fail him. Playing with Barkley and Kevin Johnson meant not operating with the ball in your hands, but it also meant having to anticipate some ridiculous passes when you’re open. Dumas was excellent on cuts, and in the sparingly-run pick and roll. In an offense that featured him more prominently, Dumas would’ve been a consistent weapon in the two man game.

When you’re able to catch anything that comes your way, scoring is essentially a given as long as you know where to be. Dumas knew the game, and he knew his team. And he gladly racked up the opportunities that laid hidden behind the more impressive sum on the roster.

Unfinished work kept in the cellar

Dumas wasn’t without weakness. He wasn’t a good defender, especially when guarding the wings. A proper defensive stance was neglected for the most part, so most side-steps eluded him. Gambling on defense was an all-too-common occurrence given Dumas’ superior length and size. And while it was effective for the most part (he averaged 1.8 steals a game), it wasn’t a stretch to call him a liability against more experienced scorers.

It didn’t happen often, but Dumas struggled when he was asked to create his own shot. His jump shot’s stylistic doppelganger today would be Udonis Haslem’s — not exactly someone you think of when you think of shooting off the dribble. Both have an extremely high release point, but there is a slight stagger before and during the release, which not only slows down the shot, but makes it fairly inconsistent under duress.

Dumas also didn’t show much in terms of advanced ball-handling or passing ability, though both made cameos in transition plays. In his one real season as an NBA player, Dumas seemed fixed on offering just a glimpse of his real abilities as a player. Almost two decades later, those who remember his game are still smitten.

When Dumas throws a no-look pass to a trailing Ainge on the break, what does that mean? When he escapes the clutches of his defender by going behind the back, was just a spur-of-the-moment type of maneuver? Or was it an assertion of better times ahead?

Who was Richard Dumas, the player?

And how does one cope knowing that the questions one has will never be answered?

Where risk and reward converge

[flash http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IURqTyBHAwY]

The past is never too far behind.

[John] Lucas knows that one slip-up can be a disaster, how being a recovering addict means every moment is like leading by one, the other team with the ball.

via Lucas and the Separation of Life, Basketball | Michael Wilbon, Washington Post (5/20/93)

Three months after Dumas’ incredible Finals performance, he once again found himself suspended from the league for failure to comply with his rehabilitation guidelines. Current Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo (and president/part-owner at the time) saw his patience wear out completely. For Colangelo, it was a failed experiment — it was grounds for severance.

Harvey Araton of the New York Times rebuked Colangelo’s stance on the matter, implicating substance abuse as a serious affliction:

To embrace Colangelo’s thinking is to define Dumas’s setback as nothing more than capricious binging. It is to reduce a human being to a bottom-line investment turned sour, and to dismiss a painful struggle that often moved Dumas to telephone his counselors in Houston last season at all hours from hotels and cities laden with what Lucas calls “triggers.”

via Sports of The Times; Getting In Touch With Reality | Harvey Araton, New York Times (9/28/93)

There is no perfect cure for drug addiction. Rehab tapers a patient off the substance and provides a positive environment that keeps the body in a state that can best ward off relapse, but it isn’t the end.

Remember the right amygdala? Here’s where it comes into view. The triggers that John Lucas II mention in Araton’s article could’ve been the sight of others using drugs at clubs, or even overhearing a conversation about drugs. Such events can induce a “euphoric recall,” resurfacing the notion of getting high. That’s when the amygdala (which, as you can recall, stores emotionally resonant memories) is activated. The craving returns, and the uphill battle — even after months of rehab — continues. In an instant, positive progress can dissipate completely. All of this can happen, and the scary thing is the drug doesn’t even have to be physically present.

Scientists have linked the amygdala to fear, and the use of rewards as motivation. From the Hannah Storm interview video above, it’s clear that by the time Dumas recognized his future in basketball, drugs became the ultimate motivator and the answer that would assuage his fears. Upon entering the NBA in ’92, Dumas was withdrawn. Dumas isolated himself from much of the team, blocking off a support system that could’ve been there during a time of need. Unfortunately, this would serve as the death knell to any prosperity that might have come in the NBA.

From a retrospective interview with Dumas on Suns.com:

Suns.com: Did you have people that you could go to after that season that could help you?

Dumas: The only people I ever knew was my family back home, so I wasn’t with anybody in Phoenix but Oliver Miller. Me and him hung out sometimes. Other than that, I never really messed with anybody. I think it was a lack of maturity. I took care of myself all that time and trying so hard to get there that I felt like I was on top of the world. I think it was lack of maturity.

via Richard Dumas on 93 | Suns.com (6/13/03)

After his season-long suspension in 93-94, Dumas went on to play 15 games for the Suns as a late-season injury replacement in 94-95. The following year, he joined the Philadelphia 76ers and reunited with Lucas, who served as the head coach at the time. But he only played 39 games before trouble reared its head once more. That was the final strike. He was 26, and he never stepped foot in an NBA game again.

Coda

Suns.com: At this point in your life, do you believe all of your demons are behind you?

Dumas: It’s going good, but I keep all that to myself. It’s easier showing people than trying to tell them. That’s what I’m trying to do right now.

via Richard Dumas on 93 | Suns.com (6/13/03)

Dumas could’ve been an all-star. He could’ve been rich beyond belief. He could’ve. But none of it was thrown away. Addiction is too horrifying, too complicated, too powerful to use such an offhanded statement. Entering drug rehab is admitting a lack of control, but leaving rehab doesn’t mean regaining control forever. Life after rehab is resuming life as a “recovering addict.” That title remains for the rest of a lifetime.

Dumas’ NBA career may not have materialized how it could have, but the struggle for a championship seems irrelevant in the face of a greater struggle over one’s life. Dumas may have taken the long route in recovery and he may have burned a few bridges in the process, but he’s found stability in his life as a father and an aspiring youth basketball coach. The stories published in the 10-year anniversary of his Finals performance reflect the same hope and perspective he had in the Hannah Storm interview in 1993. So much can happen in 10 years, and yet so little can change. In this case, that’s a positive.

We recall the 71 total games of Dumas’ 92-93 season because it’s the closest we’ll ever get to Richard Dumas, the actualized player. We may never know Richard personally, but in that one season, the person and the player weren’t so far apart. Seeing as Dumas spent most of his life struggling to hold onto his self, 71 games of purity is all we can reasonably ask for.

All non-hyperlinked sources were retrived from subscription-based news databases.

Brandon Jennings’ Immigration Policy

Photo from alshepmcr via Flickr

These comments from Jennings are both understandable and a little silly. On one hand, he grew up in the Drew League culture and knows that it represents the LA basketball scene in its purest form. However, appearances by Kobe and other stars help increase its profile, thereby boosting its popular and bringing some attention to the local, non-NBA legends who participate.

Purity tests are usually bad news for organizations, whether they’re political parties or sports leagues. Openness and acceptance tend to be virtues. But in the case of the Drew League, the NBA’s lost summer could in fact lead to some unintended negative consequences. It’s a league that exists to boost basketball in Los Angeles. What’s it like when new players come in and treat it as a side-project instead of an organization with a legitimate goal?

If Bryant doesn’t understand the goals of the Drew League, then it might make sense for him not to play. But if he wants to, it’s on local stars like Jennings to teach him about it, not to say he’s not allowed. There’s room for everyone here, but the success of such a partnership depends on all parties respecting the needs of each other. Deciding who’s invited and barred isn’t going to help anyone.

via Brandon Jennings says Kobe Bryant shouldn’t play in the Drew League – Ball Don’t Lie – NBA Blog – Yahoo! Sports.

I still want blood.

Don’t get me wrong; camaraderie and community are important and fundamental parts of basketball – both of the game itself and the shared experience of taking in what happens on the court. Right now, though, we’re being deprived of that, save for small doses like the action taking place in Baltimore tonight or the Goodman/Drew League showdown.

If these exhibitions are all we’re going to get, then I say we maximize our enjoyment in any way possible. I want NBA players to call each other out, to talk trash, and to insist that their opponents don’t belong in their league – literally and figuratively. Heck, I want those leagues to be at each other’s throats like the WWF and WCW during the heyday of the Monday Night Wars. Competition – then and now – among rival organizations fighting for the same entertainment dollars and the same audience is a good thing. It spurs creativity and the members of the organization to do their very damnedest to put on the best show they can. These exhibitions can’t create the same tension and sense of the moment as real NBA games with more than just pride on the line*. There is little else at stake, so I cheer anything, even a bit of playful joshing, that brings us a little bit closer toward meaningful basketball.

*Though the pride of these players is not to be questioned. As Austin Daye told SI.com’s Sam Amick, “No one wants to be shown up by an NBA player, and no NBA player wants to be shown up by someone who’s not in the NBA. So when I get the ball, when I get a possession, I make it a point to show that’s why I’m in the NBA.” One would assume that desire not to be shown up extends to NBA-on-NBA match-ups as well.

As much as I like to pretend that I’m Dr. Phil, I don’t really know how these players think. I’m hopeful, however, that a little slight here and there might get under someone’s skin and ignite a powderkeg of Archduke Ferdinandian proportions. Free of the measured leash of NBA contracts and team fealty and able to choose sides as they wish, NBA players looking to choose sides don’t need a peacemaker. They need a devil on their shoulder willing to push the envelope and, in turn, the pace of play. Let us encourage them to form Triple Ententes, not entreat them to play nice in the sandbox. Fend off the invasion, Brandon Jennings. Don’t extend an olive branch to the encroaching army.*

*Also, don’t blame me if you get absolutely roasted by Kobe for the remainder of your career – in the NBA, in summer exhibitions, while out to dinner with your family at a nice restaurant. Kobe will find you. He will hurt you (well, your ego, mostly). And he will make you regret your jingoism. 

Liberté, égalité, fraternité” might work for the French when they’re trying to unite a country, but get that garbage out of here when it comes to lockout basketball. And if they don’t want you in LA, Kobe, then we’ll gladly see you next month in Las Vegas.

Centers Of Initiation, Or How To Handle Your Big Man

If his commanding performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs showed us anything, it’s that Paul is the game’s most complete point guard. His fundamentals are impeccable, and he’s capable of effectively running any set in any style of offense. With arguably the best handle in the NBA, it’s virtually impossible to deny him access to any path to the rim or spot on the floor. His combination of yo-yo-like ball control, speed and split-second decision-making make him the best pick-and-roll point guard in a pick-and-roll league. He rarely makes the wrong decision after the pick, and no one is better at throwing the lob to the rolling big.

via Chris Paul leads Top 5 NBA point guards – ESPN.

There’s a unique feeling for NBA fans when their team settles into the half-court offense. As the ball makes its way to the top of the key, the gears are set in motion and the keys to this precision vehicle are handed over to the man for whom this machine was manufactured:

Robin Lopez.

Yep, it makes about this much sense. (Photo from raindog via Flickr)

Did you feel that? That mixture of disgust and confusion? At the end of a long season for a team falling further and further out of the playoff hunt, weird things happen. During the few games that Steve Nash missed with injury this year (or, as Suns fans refer to them, “The Dying Times”), ROBIN LOPEZ RUNNING THE PHOENIX SUNS’ OFFENSE happened. Only one thing about that scene made sense – Lopez’s hair was the succinct expression of bewilderment and nonsense in that perfectly disharmonious moment.

Unfortunately for several other fan bases, it seemed Lopez was a member of a new, super-secret fraternity of big men intent on handling the ball 25 feet from the rim. In the span of only a couple weeks, Kris Humphries and Kendrick Perkins* both took their turn at running the show. Humphries apparently wasn’t content with stealing rebounds from Brook Lopez – he had to demonstrate that he and Robin were in this totally kick-ass organization of bigs with handles and there were no Brookie Monsters allowed.

Perk? Listen, I’m not going to ask Perk what he was trying to do. Perk does what he wants. If you want to question the modern-day Charles Oakley, go right ahead. Last I heard, he’s still in his hotel room, in shock about his trade away from the 24-hour room service that is Avery Bradley and away from his good friend, Rajon Rondo. The two are so close that Perk is the bread to Rondo’s Turnover Rate sandwich*.

*Because of their ball-handling duties, point guards tend to have the highest turnover rates in the league - 14 of the 20 highest TORs for players averaging more than 25 minutes per game last year belonged to point guards. Rondo had the highest TOR of all of those point guards (second-highest overall), balanced out by the third-highest Assist Rate.

Perk had the highest and third-highest TOR in the league, counting his stints in Boston and Oklahoma City as separate “seasons”. This wasn’t a fluke brought on by his lack of games played, either – his TOR has been over 20% every year he’s been in the league. There are many things to appreciate about Perk’s skillset. His offensive handle is not one of them.

In the end, these were flukes of execution. I can’t even tell you the result of each play. But I think those flashes of insanity were more than just a communication breakdown – they were a voice crying out for attention and for love.

“Big men have handles, too! I’m more than just my hair! STOP CALLING ME SIDESHOW BOB!!”

“I can steal rebounds OR conjure up a hilarious pick-and-roll with ‘C is for Center, that good enough for me!’ Please stop using me to get to my wife!”

“KjRSDHpaLAPVNMC PERK SMASH.”

I beg you, NBA fans. The next time you stop to fawn over a guard’s sick handle and his ability to break defenses and ankles, think of the big guys and their handle, too. Commend them on their presence of mind to keep the ball up high, away from the gnats doing their best J.J. Barea impressions. Take your eyes off of the ball and watch the footwork so many of the pivots spend years perfecting. Marvel in the fact that these miracles of flesh, these skeletal skyscrapers, possess the control – and yes, the handle – to do the things they do with limbs that stretch for miles.

Appreciate Dirk, of course, but don’t forget LMA and his ability to run an offense from the high-post. Re-read a recent article on the beauty and the poise of Arvydas Sabonis. Love the Brookie Monster and the fact that the Nets have a go-to option in the clutch because of his skills with the basketball around the basket.

Please. If you don’t, Kendrick Perkins is going to run the offense again.

Shammgod help us all.

The Lockout Has No Winners, Only Lies And Sadness

 

Photo from kchbrown via Flickr

 

Almost 2 months in, the NBA lockout is still upon us, making everybody very sad. Those who have taken an interest beyond just hoping it ends, though, are even sadder. This is because they are burdened with the painful knowledge that not only is the lockout not over – it’s more or less at the starting point. Be it refusal to bend, a lack of urgency, or just plain apathy, the NBA Players Association and the league’s 29 owners have yet to truly begin negotiating, leaving fans of the game stuck in a pond with a bus driver who’s asleep.

So when NBAPA Vice President Maurice Evans tells Sam Amick that the players and the owners are 7.6 billion dollars apart, the number is daunting, but inconsequential. Sure, 7.6 billion dollars is a huge amount of money, but this is the same gap that has existed during every other point in the summer. This is just a different way of representing it.

“But wait”, you say, “Different ways of representing a certain amount of money? Isn’t that just what the owners have been accused of doing?”

If indeed this sequence of logical conclusions took stumbled into your lockout-starved brain, congratulations: you have engaged in the same thought process of Tim Donahue. In a must-read piece over at 8 points, 9 seconds, Tim wonders why we as fans – supposed impartial outsiders just waiting for this whole ordeal to end – spend so much time and energy accusing the owners of contorting the truth to their own benefit, while offering the players a free pass on any factually ambiguous slip-ups of their own:

“The numbers used by Evans and the NBPA are based on a reality that doesn’t exist, but are presented earnestly and with righteous indignation. They’re based on rolling the current system, or something very much like it, forward for the next decade. However, that system and that reality ended — died — at midnight on June 30. These two sides are negotiating fighting over what the new system and the new reality will be.

Evans and the players frame the $7.6 billion as money that is already theirs that the owners are trying to take from them. Strictly speaking, the $7.6 billion is actually the difference between what the owners want to pay the players and what the players want to be paid. Neither is “real.” They are simply stakes set in the ground by the two sides.

Evans’ statement is a regurgitation of talking points, playing on a broadly accepted narrative that is mostly incorrect. Stern’s statement is spin based on narrowly defined facts that don’t hide anything, per se, but that require the listener have a certain level of understanding to grasp the total impact. Both are “untrue,” yet one is accepted and the other rejected.”

via The NBA CBA: a Function of Power and Not Truth.

I have been very critical of David Stern over the past two months, and I stand by it. Both in his now-infamous appearance on the B.S. report and in other public statements, Stern has done a much better job feigning martyrdom and crying poverty on behalf of the billionaires that employ him than offering an honest and transparent look into negotiations. But while the NBA blogosphere has been fairly consistent in its anti-Stern, pro-player approach, it has also done a fairly poor job at pointing out the rhetorical fibs from the other side.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why it’s easier to take the players’ side than the owners’. We don’t watch basketball for the rare privilege of Mark Cuban prancing the sidelines – we do it to watch 5 of the 15-ish tall dudes he gives money to. The owners are a necessity: each team has a majority owner/an ownership group of sorts, and these owners come and go on a gigantic conveyor belt of way too much money. The players, while similarly entering and leaving the league in a revolving door of sorts, are much more important to defining how the NBA looks like in a given era. The league’s golden years saw Bird and Magic, later Jordan and whoever. At no point was an entire nation captivated by the rivalry of Jerry Buss and Harry T. Mangurian, Jr., whose name appears here only via the marvels of Wikipedia.

Perhaps most importantly, in this tedious battle between the very rich and the extremely rich, NBA players are closer to our price range. Although they make more money on a monthly basis than we will in a lifetime, they do so by playing a game that we love, not through cold, calculated business moves amongst other suits. Sure, they lead lifestyles that most of us can’t relate to at the slightest; but we all hate our bosses, and none of us wants sudden pay cuts. Seeing them struggle with such “everyday” issues makes us feel closer to them than to a group of billionaires that get to play with the sports teams our lives revolve around.

However, us preferring the players’ side does nothing to change the fact that they are just as responsible as the owners for the fortunes of arena vendors, assistant video coordinators, ticket salesmen, or thousands of other NBA employees who do so away from the bright lights, the insane athleticism, and the large amounts of cash. As morally revolting as it is to see contracts signed in good faith ignored by the side responsible for paying, the players will be set either way. Perhaps just slightly less so than right now, but every single one of us would take their position, no questions asked.

Yet again, everybody tries to prove they are right, while everybody is wrong. Sigh. See you at Eurobasket.

Full Court Framework: Sorry, Dirk

Photo by Manesero from Flickr

Admitting you were wrong is not something that comes easily to most of us. As fans and as people, we like to believe our opinions and viewpoints have merit, that our way of viewing things is both informed and correct. Despite the inherent issues with this line of thinking, subjectivity is what makes analyzing, discussing, and arguing about basketball fun and interesting. It allows us to form and re-form opinions, defend players we love, and re-examine our pre-conceived notions about the game of basketball. Sometimes it also forces us to confront the biases and misconceptions that contribute to a flawed understanding of certain players, coaches, or teams. Over the last year or so, after his incredible playoff run, and eventual Finals MVP, I have reached that point with Dirk Nowitzki.

For as long as I can remember I’ve hated Dirk Nowitzki. I hated that he played for the Mavericks. I hated that he couldn’t get to the rim (ask Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem about the accuracy of that last opinion.). I hated what I perceived as a completely unnecessary amount of fade on his jump shot. I hated his hair. I hated that he wore a mouth guard. I hated that his team kept bouncing Tracy McGrady out of the first round. I thought he was soft and a team constructed around Dirk would never win a championship. My selective basketball memory chose to characterize the failure against the Warriors and Heat as the epitome of his entire career. I willingly ignored his numerous, dominant performances in other series, while also refusing to recognize the context that dictated many of his team’s frustrating losses.

Dirk’s game so heavily conflicted with my conceptualization of “winning basketball”, that I failed to see how a 7-footer who attempted so few shots at the rim could be effective. I fell victim to the old adage that a series of important games could not be won with mid-range jump shots. I was blind to his uncanny ability to get to the free throw line, dismissive of his unrivaled ability to convert contested jumpers (52% from 16-23 feet – seriously, that shouldn’t be possible), and oblivious to his impressive passing acumen. Instead of appreciating Dirk’s unique skill set and recognizing the many and varied advantages it provided himself and his teammates, I ridiculed and mocked it.

Then came this year’s playoffs. Every night, Dirk was gutting out wins for the Mavericks – converting fall-aways on one foot, sideways floaters, and backbreaking three pointers, pump faking and driving by frustrated defenders, defenders whose will was wilting with every well-defended shot that found the net. His offensive dominance always ranging at the edge of impossibility.

Even if Dirk’s jumper was off-target early, he kept attacking, kept probing, eventually finding a rhythm. His ability to convert difficult shots proved invaluable in the 4th quarter. He never faltered, eventually willing his team to a title. Every clutch bucket, every dominant offensive performance, every gritty 4th quarter comeback; he was re-writing his legacy on the fly. Dirk forced all of us to realize that ‘06 and ‘07 were not going to define him. He eventually achieved the ultimate triumph over his well-documented demons. My perceived understanding of Dirk’s career forever changed.

The idea that “perception is reality” is woven into the fabric of societal discourse. However, our perceptions often twist and contort reality into something that is acceptable to our sensibilities. Previous experience, pedagogy, and intellectual as well as emotional prejudices prevent us from attaining objectivity; no matter how hard we try we will never completely rid ourselves of bias. Still, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t at least try. Confronting, challenging, and questioning our conception of reality can only further enhance our knowledge and understanding of the world around us.

With Dirk, I allowed myself to believe that my perception was the truth. I used my own distorted notion of Dirk as a player to discredit his accomplishments. For that I’d like to say: Dirk, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you for the incredible player you were. I’m sorry I thought you were a choker. I’m sorry I blamed the 2007 loss to the Warriors entirely on you. I’m sorry I let your failures dictate how I viewed your career. I’m sorry I couldn’t allow myself to see the beauty in your complete mastery of the midrange. I’m sorry I failed to extend to you the same understanding and empathy I gave to other players in the NBA.  I’m sorry that I dismissed you, that I called you soft, that I proclaimed, “You’ll never win a title with Dirk Nowitzki”. Clearly, I was wrong.

Here’s A Commercial From 2003 With Paul Pierce And Baron Davis


It’s looking less and less like we’ll see a new “The NBA is Back” commercial anytime soon, so let’s close out Paul Pierce week with this gem from 2003. There’s plenty of greatness here, from the crushing irony of Baron Davis telling the group pigeons to hustle to his longing look at the donut before he tosses it down (that type of restraint would likely elude 2011 Baron). For his part, Pierce displays a surprising capacity for comedy. He’s not a scowling curmudgeon like former teammate Kendrick Perkins, but he’s never had the reputation of a hardwood funnyman like Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, or Shaquille O’Neal, either. The wedding cake puts it over the top.

The Lowdown: Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones, 6’9″ second-year man out of North Carolina. Best defensive forward in basketball. Shot 60.5% last year (only man other than Wilt Chamberlain ever over 60). Leading league again this season at 59% despite worst form and shortest range in history of mankind. Just never takes bad shot. Great leaper. Denver MVP, easy. Thrifty, devoted, straight arrow. Brown says that during pregame talks, while other players scratch, read, go to bathroom, Jones “stares at me and actually listens. He’s scary.” Bob Goldsholl, Nets TV announcer, says Jones is so clean that when he went to the movie Story of O, he walked out when he discovered it was not the life of Oscar Robertson.

Via “They Run And They Gun-and They’re A Mile High” by Curry Kirkpatrick

Years Active: 1975 – 1986

Career Stats: 12.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.7 apg, 1.4 bpg, 1.5 spg, 55.8% FG, 76.6% FT

Accolades: NBA Sixth Man of the Year (1983), ABA All-Star (1976), 4x NBA All-Star (1977-78, 1981-82), All-ABA 2nd Team (1976), 2x ABA All-Defensive 1st Team (1975-76), 8x NBA All-Defensive 1st Team (1977-84), NBA All-Defensive 2nd Team (1985), All-ABA Rookie 1st Team (1975), 1983 NBA Champion (Sixers)

Bobby Jones: an average name for maybe the best defensive small forward of all-time. The only real competition for the honor is Scottie Pippen and Tom “Satch” Sanders. But during Jones’s playing days, he was certainly the best. Possessing a wiry, yet toned 6’9″ frame, Jones had the perfect height, length, speed and, above all, desire to frustrate and dominate his opponents.

He was near-perfect at every conceivable defensive measure: ball denial, man-to-man defense, weakside help, steals, blocks, interceptions, miraculous saves. Jones did all of this dirty grunt work with an air of nobility: “If I have to play defense by holding on, that’s when I quit. If I have to use an elbow to get position, then I’m going to have to settle for another position.”

Although he shined brightest on defense, Jones was a complete basketball player. A smart passer, he could quickly ignite a fastbreak with an outlet pass after one of his rebounds, blocks or steals. His jumper was taken straight out of the set shot 50s, but it worked. Most excitingly, he could jump out of the gym. It’s what made him such a skilled shot blocker, but it also allowed Bobby to finish on offense what he started on defense via a thunderous slam.

Drafted by the NBA’s Houston Rockets and the ABA’s Denver Nuggets, Jones opted for the ABA after graduating from the University of North Carolina. A man who was almost always at peace with himself, Jones rarely attempted a shot out of haste or to satisfy a selfish trigger finger. He took prudent, needed shots. Leading the ABA in FG% in his first two seasons (at 60% and 57%) testifies to that. His stat lines from those early days are the stuff of fantasy basketball dreams. Over his 1st four seasons (all with Denver split between the ABA and NBA), Jones averaged 15 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks and 58% shooting from the field.

Nuggets coach Larry Brown, yes that Larry Brown, deemed Jones “the best defensive player in the world” by his 2nd season. Teamed with Dan Issel and David Thompson in a high-octane frontcourt, the Nuggets reached the ABA Finals in 1976 where Jones was tasked with stopping Julius Erving, who was playing for the opposing Nets. Jones would be absolutely torched by the Doctor who averaged 37 points and 14 rebounds as the Nets won in 6 games. Sometimes great offense trumps great defense.

Jones and Erving would go from legendary ABA opponents to successful NBA teammates two years later as the Philadelphia 76ers traded superfluous scoring and turnover machine George McGinnis to Denver for Bobby. It was a much needed injection of positivity for Philly in the wake of the failed McGinnis-Erving pairing. Charles Barkley in 1986 noted the good vibes exuded by Jones: “If everyone in the world was like Bobby Jones, the world wouldn’t have any problems.”

The trade didn’t just change Bobby’s playing venue, it changed his role. Gone were his days of 30+ minutes and starting, he was now slotted as the 6th man behind Dr. J, Doug Collins, and, later, Andrew Toney. Jones’ demeanor and skills made him the perfect man for the job. Instead of griping about lost minutes, Jones decided to give a more intense performance in his slashed minutes. Unsurprisingly, he continued his stellar play as one of the NBA’s most clutch players. Hitting game-winners wasn’t his brand of clutch, though. Disrupting and denying the opposition a chance at doing that to Philly was his crunch time hallmark. And there were certainly many clutch, crunch and otherwise Maalox moments for Philadelphia during this era playing in 3 NBA Finals and 2 more Eastern Conference Finals.

The lone championship for the Sixers came in 1983 when Moses Malone arrived to lead Jones, Toney, Erving, and Maurice Cheeks to the Promised Land. For Jones though, 1983 wasn’t just the pinnacle of team success, he was recognized for his stellar bench play by winning the inaugural Sixth Man of the Year Award. Fitting for a Sixer. However, for the first time in his career he averaged less than 10 points and 25 minutes a game as Moses, rightfully, demanded a larger portion of the offense and Jones himself hit 31 years of age. Father Time would beckon Jones into retirement three years later in 1986.

Bobby’s streak of All-Defensive 1st Teams is unparalleled with 10 straight selections starting in his rookie season. He managed another All-Defensive 2nd Team appearance in 1985, before finally missing out in his last season. Despite his lofty total, Jones is the only one of 11 players with at least 6 All-Defensive 1st Team appearances who is either not in the Hall of Fame or soon-to-be (Duncan, Garnett, Kobe, and Gary Payton). On top of this, Jones averaged 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks for his career. Only teammate Julius Erving along with Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson have done that.

To consistently be in the company of Hall of Famers and yet not be one must be a frustrating feeling for anyone except, probably, Bobby Jones. The man’s devout Christianity has given him peace for decades so it’s unimaginable he would let this slight bother him much: “When I’m in there, I just play as hard as I can. In the Bible, it says we’re supposed to give 100 percent in whatever it is we do and that’s what I do.” Yep, sounds like a man who’s probably off somewhere focusing on some new endeavor instead of seething at slights.

Do Call It A Comeback

Tortoise Hare

Photo by peretzpup from Flickr

Paul Pierce’s teammates mobbed him at center court until he broke free and jumped atop the scorer’s table. Coach Jim O’Brien’s ever-present poker face disappeared, the most stoic of NBA coaches pumping his fist to the crowd and walking triumphantly off the court… “It was purgatory, it might have been closer to Hell for three quarters, but that last one was Eden. Damn, that was great,” [Jim] O’Brien said.

Via “Colossal Collapse” by the Associated Press

Some readers may be too young and others too senile to remember that Paul Pierce nearly a decade ago enjoyed perhaps his finest individual moment as a Celtic. It occurred during a surprise trip to the Eastern Conference Finals against New Jersey in 2002. Splitting the 1st two games, Game 3 at first seemed to be the possible unraveling of Pierce as a legit go-to player in this league but by the time it was over, the Celtics had pulled off the largest 4th quarter comeback in playoff history thanks to Pierce.

I witnessed this historic game back on May 25, 2002, in beautiful San Antonio, Texas. Visiting my great-grandmother in a nursing home, my brother and I found comfort from the specter of debilitating old age by watching the Nets and C’s duke it out on the TV.

Actually, it wasn’t much of a fight. New Jersey quickly opened the flood gates swishing jumpers and fastbreaking Boston into oblivion. The Celtics had their fair share of easy shots within a few feet of the rim, but only Eric Williams was of any use as Boston fell behind by 15 points. Pierce was abysmal going 0-5. Boston showed some fight with a 13-4 run to cut the lead to 6 in the 2nd, but like Sebastian Shaw absorbs blows and hurls energy back at enemies, New Jersey swelled its lead to 20 points by the half. Pierce was now an abysmal 1-9.

As the 3rd Quarter gets underway, the Boston crowd is restless. Boos rain down, Celtics players look discombobulated, and New Jersey continues the assault pushing the lead up to 25 points at times. Toward the quarter’s end Pierce finally shows signs of life beyond that of an amoeba. He and Kidd receive a double technical for jawing at each other. However, the truth is that Paul is still turning in a putrid performance with 9 points on 2-14 shooting. Amoebas everywhere are ashamed as the quarter comes to a close.

With this break in the action, we leave the bedside of my ailing great-grandmother and head over to my grandmother’s house just 10 minutes away. When we arrive, my grandpa a basketball guru (and devout Lakers fan) is watching the game and in an excited tone tells us of the rally taking place. Boston has gone on a tear and severed New Jersey’s lead by 10 points or so.

Re-watching the game later, I learn that Antoine Walker may just have provided the spark for this comeback as he castigated his team for showing so little heart and urged them to step it up. On this day Walker had cause to speak. He was the only Celtic showing any (productive) gusto to this point in the game. The spark tossed by Walker apparently ignited Pierce’s fuse and blew off the shackles because the Truth was set free.

Pierce’s array of moves is astounding. Out near the 3-point line, Paul drives right by his man all the way to the hoop for a layup. He takes on a triple team and banks in a two handed runner. He worms his way around a defender and shovels in a basket. On the break, Pierce completes an up-and-under-and-1 layup. The most beautiful of all is a spin move to split a double team, which ends with Paul gently finger rolling the ball into the hoop. Most surprising for viewers of today, Pierce doesn’t attempt any stepback elbow jumpers. It’s all action going at the rim.

New Jersey is clearly on the ropes with Pierce turning into a wrecking ball, Kenny Anderson making 5 straight shots and Walker continuing his solid play. The Nets’ only hope is Aaron Williams who scored 11 of NJ’s 16 4th quarter points and Tony Delk’s erratic and genuinely dumb play. Tony makes a good block on defense and then manages to try a tough double-clutch layup over two Nets on the other end. Of course he misses. Another stellar decision occurs on the very next play, another transition opportunity he ruins, this time with a pull up three that clanks hard.

As time is winding down, Pierce has slowed a bit but is still finding his way to the rim, getting hammered and then sinking the FTs. With 42 seconds left and down 90-89, Pierce drives on Kidd who blatantly flops and drags Pierce down to create the illusion of a charge. The refs don’t take the bait. Pierce makes both FTs and Boston has its first lead since 1-0. It’s at this point that the Fleet Center explodes in euphoria having already been on the verge for the whole quarter. Boston makes 3 more FTs to seal the game 94-90.

In the end Boston, scored 41 points to NJ’s 16 in the fourth. Pierce single-handedly outscored the Nets with 19 points. Perhaps the Celtics celebrated this victory too hard. They would lose the series 4-2 and begin a regression that by the mid part of the decade would find the franchise meandering in a malaise akin to the late 90s and would have people wondering whether Pierce was just a good player able to pad his stats into greatness. Winning the 2008 Finals MVP has put that all to rest, but don’t forget that Pierce was truly great before the arrival of Kevin and Ray.

Iffy Judgment

Justice

Photo by dbking from Flickr

 

If the Minnesota Timberwolves can land Rick Adelman, the summer of David Kahn will be complete, and it will have been glorious.

Via “The New Age of Kahn” by Tom Ziller

Nary have more unbelievable words been written. David Kahn having a summer of glory reeks of insanity, but it actually is not far removed from being truth as Ziller notes in his article. For that truth to reach fruition, however, many “ifs” must come to favorably pass.

If Kevin Love maintains his historic rebounding, remains outstanding on offense and improves on defense. If Michael Beasley reverts to his early 2010-11 form. If Ricky Rubio can find a level success and production yet displayed in his professional hoops tenure in Spain. If Kahn can, indeed, land Rick Adelman as coach.

All these “ifs” reveal the limitations of an NBA GM’s power. Seemingly disastrous trades can eventually work out quite well (Memphis’s Paul Gasol trade). Seemingly great or merely adequate trades can prove to be an unforeseen swindle (Memphis’ trade of Kevin Love). Clearly, rushing to judge a GM can be a haphazard ordeal. Sure Isiah Thomas can be safely declared terrible, but Memphis’s Chris Wallace was once maligned and is now generally believed to be respectable, although still with moments of recklessness like the overpriced extension given to Mike Conley. However, if we had just cut off Wallace’s tenure as GM after the Pau Gasol trade, he would remain in the “maligned” category.

This fickle judgment isn’t relegated to the realm of sports either. In early August 1864, Abraham Lincoln was thoroughly convinced that he’d go down in defeat in the upcoming November election because the Civil War wasn’t going well enough for the public’s liking. However, a string of spectacular victories in the fall allowed Lincoln to win (even then, 45% voted against Lincoln. You can’t please everybody). Of course, Father Abraham had installed those commanders who gained victory, but their tactics and decisions on the battlefield were out of his hands and all he could do was hope for success.

If William T. Sherman could make good on his radical idea to march without a supply line through rebel territory. If David Farragut could “damn the torpedoes” and shell the Confederate batteries into submission. If Philip Sheridan could gallop at break neck speed for ten miles to rally his soldiers from defeat to victory.

If Lincoln’s presidency ended in August of 1864, it’d be a mixed-bag at best. Cut Wallace off in the early months of 2008 and he’d still be a laughing stock. Cut Kahn off now and he’d be KAAAHHHHNNNN!!!!  The weirdest part of all this is that triumph doesn’t change the virtue of the man. Success can add a glossy veneer, failure a smudgy smear. But the character’s substance would remain unchanged. Lincoln would still be humble yet determined. Kahn would still be crude, callous. And Chris Wallace would remain fair, balanced.