Author Archives: Danny Savitzky

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.

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.

Coping With Powerful Distractions

Photo Courtesy of Nuzz on Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a rudimentary illustration to demonstrate this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revealing An Iceberg

My initial reaction to Kobe Bryant’s comments during last night’s game were ones of anger, considerable anger. I didn’t react that way because I’m a “Kobe hater,” or because I wish ill on the Lakers. I was angry at the nature of the comments, the insensitivity for which Bryant happened to be responsible.

Kobe Bryant is an icon in the NBA, a figure who transcends basketball and stands for leadership, perseverance, and plenty of other values. To see him use derogatory language was disappointing, as he should know better. The normative question as to whether athletes should be considered role models is a loaded one, and one that will probably remain insoluble. With that said, it is irrelevant in this case. What matters is that Bryant is seen as a role model, whether he likes it or not, and he has to act accordingly. What he said was not compatible with his role-model persona.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bryant issued some haphazard comments to get out in front of the story:

“My actions were out of frustration during the heat of the game, period,” he said. “The words expressed do not reflect my feelings towards the gay and lesbian communities and were not meant to offend anyone.”

In the wake of the situation, Bryant made the right decision to respond right away. The problem, though, is that these remarks aren’t very meaningful. He didn’t really apologize for himself, only for the misfortune of the situation. He’s a very proud man, and it’s understandable that he had a problem with admitting guilt for harm he didn’t intend. In this instance, though, intent is irrelevant.

There’s no contention that Bryant was complimenting Bennie Adams when he uttered the regrettable slur in his direction. It was a negative comment. That’s undeniable. By expressing his disgust with those words in a negative connotation, he necessarily implied discriminatory feelings toward the homosexual community.

But the real tragedy of the situation isn’t that Kobe used this phrase. It’s used quite frequently, probably among the NBA community, and he was just the guy to get caught on national TV (For those who think this bad luck excuses his behavior, though, that’s bogus. It was the same luck in the genetic lottery that got Bryant to the NBA.). The real tragedy is that Bryant is only a notorious representative of a pervasive toxin plaguing our entire society. It is, for whatever reason, still socially tolerated and commonplace to discriminate against the homosexual community in casual conversation, and Bryant was an eye-opening reminder of that societal glitch.

There’s a discrepancy between the reception of words like the one Bryant used and that of racial, religious, or gender-based slurs. If a white NBA player were to use the N-word in a derogatory context to or about another black player, that would be egregious and met with duly severe castigation. Why, then, is society lagging behind in attaching the same stigma to homosexual slurs? Until those words are just as socially taboo, a problem needs solving.

When the NBA levied its $100,000 fine on Bryant later in the afternoon, it was a step in the right direction. That’s chump change for Bryant, honestly, but it sends a message that the league is not going to tolerate this type of insensitivity from its players. Still, this should be just the first step in a series of moves to push reforms for the league.

In everyday society, there is no way to discourage people from committing these acts of discrimination. They’re protected by the freedom of speech and driven by personal insecurities. The NBA has no such problem. As a private, controlled body, the league has the power to forbid this type of behavior by its players. In that way, the NBA has the potential to be a major agent of social change by setting an example, serving as a pioneer of social justice in the spotlight.

So here’s what David Stern should do: outlaw a specific list of slurs. When a player uses a word, fine him. Or suspend him. Or institute mandatory sensitivity training for that violator. Considering all the no-tolerance policies already in place with regard to performance-enhancing drugs, apparel, social media, or anything else, this shouldn’t be that much of a step up. It’s an easy solution to an ignored problem.

Consider this Tweet from Matt Moore:

If our priorities are so messed up that we chide one player for standard conduct and shrug off another player for being socially despicable, there needs to be improvement. And it needs to come soon.

Kobe Bryant might have been caught at the wrong place at the wrong time. But he’s a figurehead of a society with a flaw. And that figurehead has to be held accountable. Fortunately for him, there’s a chance something great comes out of all this.

Curbing Volatile Tendencies

There is an interesting dichotomy characterizing this year’s MVP race. There’s an assumed winner in Derrick Rose, but there are several worthy candidates. Nobody’s really a clear-cut winner. The reality of it, though, is that all the popular choices are clear-cut options.

Mike Wilbon’s clear-cut winner is Rose. John Hollinger’s clear-cut winner is Dwight Howard. Ethan Sherwood Strauss’ clear-cut winner is LeBron James. The thing is, none of them is wrong. When there are no fewer than three arguable candidates, that might be a problem. This year’s MVP race is kind of like a multiple-choice question that has no right answer — you answer it because that’s the nature of the thing, but later on you’re told that there wasn’t a correct answer, so you should have abstained.

If the MVP voting process for the NBA is at that point, a change is necessary. Right now, the MVP vote has no definition. There are no official qualities inherent to the award. Without some directional guidance, it’s useless to elect a winner. The voting is based entirely on speculation, personal opinion, and newsworthiness. That seems a bit off.

As Matt Moore was quick to point out, that’s probably the way the league wants it. The openness of the award facilitates discourse, which generates popularity for the relevant players, their teams, and the league as a whole. The more candidates there are, the more fan bases start to rally and promote the NBA, however indirectly.

That’s all fine and dandy to a degree, but what happens if things get worse? The MVP is a media-driven award, and the landscape and scope of the media is ever evolving. As the generation gap continues to widen between the traditional print writers and the up-and-coming bloggers, it’s within the realm of possibility that candidacies could get ridiculous. The example I used last night was this: what happens if we start voting Ryan Gomes MVP for best mohawk? Or Kyle Lowry for best internet meme? It seems absurd now, but down the line it could be feasible.

The NBA is supposed to be fun for the viewers. Entertainment creates good business, which circles back to fun. It’s a mutually beneficial cycle. What’s ignored, though, is that the greatness of the NBA isn’t just based on fun. There’s a necessary factor of legitimacy. The Harlem Globetrotters are fun, but they aren’t very successful. Slam Ball was fun, but it wasn’t successful. When Golden State Warriors fans herald Monta Ellis at their MVP at Oracle Arena, that’s a rather tame violation of the legitimacy of the award and the NBA, but it’s still outrageous.

Better yet, take a look at the All-Star Game. Every year, one or more undeserving players get voted in to the starting lineup because of personal allegiances or Lifetime Achievement Awards (Yao Ming and Allen Iverson have fit those categories, respectively, in recent years). Without a doubt, the game has taken a hit in relevance of late, and the joke of the voting process is no small factor. The MVP’s on the same track.

I don’t mean to suggest that there should be a list of robotic criteria for a player to be voted MVP in a process that takes all the life out of things. But marginal reform would be the best thing at this point. The Rookie of the Year Award is a good model. It has a controversial condition that players are eligible for the award even if they are playing in a year other than their first. The pertinent example? Blake Griffin, who garnered every first-place ROY vote from the contingent of ESPN writers. If that weren’t the case, every one of those writers would have to reconsider his or her vote.

Getting a push in the right direction from the NBA wouldn’t be a detriment to fun, and it would help to avoid the pitfalls of illegitimacy — a balance of which even this year’s MVP race could be jealous.

Keeping Up Appearances

Brace yourselves, for the Lakers are engulfed in another slump. On the heels of a wholly impressive stretch coming out of the All-Star break in which the two-time defending champions went 17-1, they have hit a snag, dropping their last five contests — one of the recent blunders was Friday’s loss at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers, who won with unexpected ease, 93-86.

This is, at minimum, the third time the Lakers have found themselves in a losing streak that’s troubling to some, impertinent to others during the season. Invariably, these spates of difficulty spark an unnavigable divide between those who consider any discernible losing streak as the ultimate apocalypse and those who could care less; after all, the playoffs haven’t started yet.

No matter one’s bent on the gravity of the Lakers’ regular-season losses, a trend has emerged this season through which one explanation is sufficient to pinpoint why they were defeated in any instance: they didn’t try hard enough.

No game demonstrated this trend better than Friday’s drubbing by the Blazers. As Phil Jackson said after the game, “These guys just don’t want to play hard right now.”

(And comments like those are not a one-time thing, for those who view this as an aberration. Looking back to the Lakers’ loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day, here’s what Kobe Bryant notoriously had to say postgame: “It’s like these games mean more to our opponents than they do to us,” Bryant said. “I think we need to get that straight — play with more focus, put more [emphasis] on these games. I don’t like it. … We know what we’re capable of doing, and that’s part of the problem.”)

In this Blazers game, how much did lack of effort really play in to the defeat? The knee-jerk response is obvious: the Lakers are agreeably better than the Trail Blazers, so they had to have phoned in the game to have lost. Yes, the Lakers shot a despicable 39.5 percent, but couldn’t that just have been the result of great Blazers defense?

Bryant shot just 10-of-25 from the field, due in large part to lockdown D from Wesley Matthews, who has emerged as one of the top Kobe stoppers this season. Factor in LaMarcus Aldridge’s containment of Pau Gasol, and it doesn’t seem all that ridiculous that the Lakers could have scored only 86 points.

Meanwhile, the Lakers won the battle of rebounding, a stat that many classify as an effort number, 52-41.

On Wednesday, the Lakers lost to the Golden State Warriors, 95-87, for the first time in 14 matchups. It was largely a poor showing for L.A., but Pau Gasol (18 points on 7-of-11 shooting) and Andrew Bynum (13 points on 5-of-5 shooting, 17 rebounds) were a pair of bright spots. If the problem was effort, care to explain why Pau Gasol only played 27 minutes throughout the game and not at all down the stretch? Presumably Jackson would want the guy in who was actually playing well. Furthermore, Bynum probably would have taken more than five shots if he were playing so effectively and no one else gave a hoot.

It appears, then, that the “effort” argument doesn’t really have much practical traction. More simply, the explanation is probably just that the Lakers get outplayed on occasion. It’s not a huge surprise that the Lakers and their fans would want to remain blind to that argument, though. Considering they have won the last two NBA titles, maybe that’s their prerogative.

Still, there is a disconcerting problem with the duality that the NBA community at large perceives of Lakers’ losses as lack of effort and losses of every other team as nonperformance — more simply, other teams “suck” when they lose. Such was the case Thursday when the Celtics fell to the Bulls in a fairly embarrassing manner. But it wouldn’t be right to say that the Celtics were disinterested in playing hard against the Bulls (after all, they soiled the proverbial bed and were undoubtedly outplayed). So why is it permissible to excuse the Lakers’ poor play that way?

Well, frankly, the Lakers have won a lot over the years. A lot. They have won so much that there’s a culture of win-or-die subordinate only to the delusion that the Yankees and their fans share. With that culture as a basis, the Lakers have done a masterful job of crafting a narrative in which their team bows down to no mortal — in the eyes of the Lakers, they are never underdogs and should never lose.

Consequently, accentuating the accomplishments of another team has a stigma of inner weakness attached to it. Acknowledging that the Blazers’ defense might have shut them down would have been tantamount to saying that the O’Brien Trophy was open for the taking, at least from their perspective. This is why you’ll never, ever see a Lakers player help up an opponent during the game or cry in the locker room after the final buzzer. They vigorously defend their image of toughness.

Phil Jackson didn’t win 11 titles by being an idiot, and it’s evident from his aforementioned comment that he’s aware perception is reality. He’s basically the only coach that will say anything legitimate to the media, and he uses that candidness to, well, construct an effective facade: the Lakers do try, and the appearance of apathy is just a cover for ineluctable vulnerability.

It might sound bunk, but there’s a psychological hurdle to beating the Lakers that is absent for other teams, most notably the Heat. And so long as the Lakers keep winning when it counts, it will remain impenetrable. That might not be right for the game, but it is most definitely right for the Purple and Gold.

The MVP, LeBron, and Media Oppression

The MVP race is all but sewn up. Derrick Rose is the apparent beneficiary of the media’s consensus, overcoming concerns he doesn’t merit the award. Without question, Rose is putting together an impressive season by any standards, but there’s a case to be made for players like Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James.

That said, despite his league-leading PER, his highest career field-goal percentage, and the stature of the Miami Heat at the top of the league, James can’t seem to get within sniffing distance of the crown. It’s not worth debating to whom the award should go at the end of the season, but the point here is that James is getting jobbed of due consideration.

Doubters will point to a couple of main reasons for writing off James: (1) The Heat would be fine without him (even though, as of a week ago, the Heat were about 10.5 points per 100 possessions worse without James and the Bulls just 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse without Rose); and (2) He doesn’t deserve a threepeat in MVP voting (this is just an irrational appeal to tradition in the sport).

It’s clear, however, that the reason that James isn’t getting any credit in the voting process — driven by journalists — is that the media hates him. James garnered plenty of hatred this summer with The Decision, and to be fair to LeBron, that disdain isn’t warranted.

When LeBron James came into this league (in fact, even a year before he came into the NBA), the community at large (hereafter referred to as “we”) had very egotistical representations of him. We constructed a narrative in which he became the “Chosen One.” He was supposed to come into the league and be the absolute savior for whatever franchise drafted him. After the Cavaliers selected him, no one cared about that team. Everyone cared only about LeBron.

And he was very selfish about it, solidifying his role as an icon and not merely a basketball player. We were all completely okay with it back then. This summer, LeBron exercised a right that Curt Flood and others mercilessly fought for in the 1970s to separate athletes from effective indentured servants. He went to Miami. Suddenly we had a problem with LeBron.

But most people will claim that the move itself was not what they had an issue with — it was the circumstances of the move that irked them. They viewed The Decision as an overblown, self-interested way to announce a change of team.

Even ignoring the charitable consequences of The Decision, how was LeBron’s egoism this past summer at all different from the rest of his career? We loved him for being an individualist when he came into the league, and we loathed him for not being a collectivist when he went to Miami. Isn’t that a double standard?

For now, however, assume instead that the contempt that NBA observers have held for LeBron is rational and justifiable. Why should that rule him out of the MVP race? The award is about achievement and excellence on the basketball court, not about selflessness and altruism. Isn’t it a problem that members of the media, who are supposed to be fierce protectors of objectivity and fairness, are playing favorites and taking sides?

To hope for pure objectivity in sports media is a useless exercise. That is, the sports world will never see a day in which every team and player benefits from the same amount of unbiased coverage. The logistics of markets and the nature of fan bases demand more coverage for the bigger teams.

Nevertheless, it’s quite reasonable to not only hope but also expect that the media approach any and all coverage with an open mind unpolluted by preconceived notions and uninhibited by personal grudges. The media bears the burden of honoring the trust that the public places in it. When influential figures start to lead the masses astray based on extraneous factors legitimized by subjective attitudes, that’s a notable issue.

LeBron took a divisive course of action last summer, but it is important for viewers and fans to decide on their own how they want to view him as a result. Instead, the media is peddling a dominating narrative that more or less makes the choice for the masses. Anyone interested in someone else for MVP either is a devout supporter of a particular player regardless of the race or has done the research to find the rare commentary that challenges the Rose testimony.

Rose might very well be the right selection for the MVP this season, however one really defines the award. It’s no crime against LeBron should he fall short of the award, but everyone deserves a fair shake regardless of his history. There’s no reason The Decision should be James’ scarlet letter.

The media gets to decide the MVP. If they’re going to have that kind of responsibility in determining a winner based on basketball achievements, they should at least try to be objective about it. Failing that, there are serious questions about the integrity of sports journalism.