Author Archives: Dylan Murphy

What’s Wrong With Dwight Howard’s Free Throw Stroke?

There isn’t one particular way to shoot free throws. Ray Allen, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry, three of the league’s best from the line, have three distinct motions. There are ways to control shot accuracy and techniques to minimize issues of balance, but you either have a feel for how the ball should travel into the hoop, or you don’t.

Despite averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per game last season, which was a function of both his physicality near the rim and his propensity to miss free throws, Dwight Howard just isn’t a natural free throw shooter. Some teams fouled him to prevent dunks; others intentionally and away from the ball. He shot 39 free throws in a game against Golden State, tying his own NBA record for attempts in a single regular season game.

Mark Price, Ed Palubinskas and Chuck Person have all tried to mend Dwight Howard’s broken free throw mechanics, yet Howard has watched his percentage dip from a 59 percent career average to just under 50 percent in each of the last two seasons. Though each of the coaches have tinkered with his stroke in some way, fundamental flaws in his technique persist. So the question, as it has always been, is what’s wrong with his shot?

The Slingshot Release

To properly appreciate the current state of Dwight Howard’s shooting mechanics, it’s important to understand their evolution over the past few seasons – particularly during the rapid state of decline from 2010-present. In 2010-2011, when Dwight was on the Orlando Magic and a consistently below average 59 percent shooter, he relied on a stunted, slingshot release – which is to say that his shooting elbow was bent back well beyond a 90 degree angle, leading to two separate hitches in his shot.

The problem starts at the point of gather. See here, for instance, as Stephen Curry and Dwight Howard prepare their free throw strokes:

Howard-Curry Gather

Notice the difference in the degrees to which each player’s shooting elbow is already bent: Curry’s is close to 90 degrees, while Dwight Howard is nearly at 45. Therefore, as Curry transfers from preparation to release, his shoulder continues moving fluidly until it’s time thrust forward and shoot the ball. Howard, however, has a hitch: once his upper arm is parallel to the floor, the ball is at his ear. Should he raise his shoulder any farther, the ball would be in an awkward position behind his head. This forces him to freeze his shoulder and only bend forward at the elbow.

Curry-Howard 2

Curry’s unlocked shoulder allows him to angle his upper arm upwards, while Howard’s points straight towards the rim. It’s not difficult to guess, then, which player’s shot will have more arc.

With this in mind, here’s Howard and Curry from gather to the point of release:

Howard is shooting in two mechanical steps: raise the shoulder, unbend the elbow. His entire body moves, comes to a complete stop, and restarts only from the elbow through fingertips on both hands. Curry is smooth all the way through.

It should be mentioned that a severe elbow bend isn’t necessarily an issue: Steve Nash rocks his elbow back nearly as far as Howard, but shoots at a 90% clip. So what is he doing differently?

It’s all about the point of gather: Nash (and Curry) begins his shot sequence with the ball closer to the floor due to less initial elbow bend, and subsequently moves from low to high.

Nash

And now video:

Because Howard’s early elbow bend naturally brings the ball higher at its starting point, his shooting motion is more backwards to forwards and leads to a line drive shot.

Howard Backwards

In slow motion:

But a line drive shot on its own isn’t the worst thing; it’s the other consequences of Howard’s frozen shoulder that prove problematic. Because it has been neutralized, it’s the responsibility of his elbow and wrist to create shot arc, adding further stress to his right arm joints and taking away from shot accuracy. The lack of shoulder height also requires a release point while the elbow is still bent backwards, in order to ensure that the ball has at least a little arc.

Curry, meanwhile, can continue to use his shoulder to create height for his elbow and wrist, therefore limiting the arc and distance burden on those joints. This also leaves little opportunity for either his wrist or elbow to deviate and throw the shot wide left or right because they’re following the path of the shoulder. Notice how Curry’s arm finishes high and straight, whereas Howard’s is both low and bent:

But where Howard’s arm finishes isn’t the true end point of his shot: there’s actually a hitch halfway through his follow-through, as he consciously extends his arm and flicks his wrist after he’s done following through. Curry, however, is smooth from start to finish. It becomes more apparent if we slow the video down:

These two freeze frames, therefore, are the true follow-throughs of Dwight Howard and Stephen Curry:

Howard-Curry Follow-Through

While the hitch is undoubtedly a funny Howard quirk he developed to appease his shooting coaches, what does that mean for his shot as a whole? Howard’s outward arm extension, as opposed to upwards, decreases shot arc, and therefore the ball’s chances of falling into the hoop. But the bent elbow on the follow-through is actually symptomatic of the same problem: by releasing forward instead of high, he’s creating a lot of momentum towards the rim. For a man the size of Dwight Howard, 15 feet isn’t a long shot and doesn’t require much power. The under-extended elbow, then, is a counter. He’s essentially stopping his own momentum in its own tracks in order not to overshoot the ball, and this is why it appears he’s shot-putting/slingshotting the basketball. It also causes extra stress in the shooting arm, particularly in the elbow and wrist, giving them a greater chance of wobbling and throwing off accuracy. Not to mention of course, the inherent shot distance problem created by having to stop your elbow at a specific point, counter to all momentum. If Howard’s release were higher, he could stretch his elbow out fully without worrying about countering his own strength.

Knicks shooting coach and longtime shot-making wizard Dave Hopla specifically advocates the elbow above the eyebrow technique, emphasizing the same high release concept. In the photo above, you can see exactly that with Curry’s elbow. Same here with Steve Nash:

Nash Follow Through

But, again: it all starts before the shot is taken: the height of the gather and due to initial elbow bend.

The Guide Hand

The slingshot release isn’t the only obstacle standing between Dwight Howard and made free throws. Right before the ball leaves his fingertips, take a look at where his guide hand is on two different shots:

Howard Guide Hands

It’s actually blocking the ball’s path from Dwight’s right hand to the rim. Howard, of course, doesn’t shoot it through his own hand. Upon release, he moves the guide hand away to provide a proper path for the ball to travel through. Except in a mechanically proper shot, the guide hand doesn’t move; it keeps everything steady up to and through release. In Howard’s case, it propels sideaways to get out of the way, but in the process stops doing its job. Howard, therefore, is momentarily balancing the ball with one hand in the most crucial moment of shot – which lends itself to extra wrist strain and possible imbalance, possibly leading to poor shot accuracy.

Notice where the guide hands finishes relative to the right hand: they’re well separated, as if Howard has intentionally detached the guide hand from the ball.

Howard Guide Hand Final Position

It’s also properly angled sideways, even though it doesn’t function in the manner its positioning suggests.

Knee Bend

Do free throws require bend at the knee? That’s difficult to say. Nash and Curry, as we saw above, generate power from their lower bodies by transferring weight from low to high. Ray Allen doesn’t bend his knees at all.

The arguments go like this: by bending the knees the shooter creates shot power, which limits the upper body’s burden and allows it to focus on shot accuracy. Or you’ll hear that that a 15-foot shot, particularly for NBA players, doesn’t require much power to begin with. By involving the legs, you’re forcing the upper body to overcompensate for extra shot distance and therefore adversely affecting shot accuracy. Ultimately it’s a matter of comfort and preference – what works for Ray Allen or or Steve Nash or whoever doesn’t work for everyone else.

For most of his career, Dwight Howard has been a knee bender – in all of the Howard free throws above, he bends slightly at the knee, straightens out, brings the ball back, and shoots while straight up and down. He’s really not using his legs whatsoever, because the momentum generated from his lower body is halted before he actually starts guiding the ball forwards.

But in the summer of 2011, Howard hired shooting coach Ed Palubinskas to fix his free throw stroke. As for the particular solutions Palubinskas tried to implement with Howard, we can only rely on observation. But what became readily apparent at the start of the 2011-2012 season was that Howard moved away from the backwards/forwards motion, and instead began his gather at his waist. Finally, he was moving low to high. (We can sort of see this type of instruction in this video interviewk Howard and Palubinskas did.) But there’s more: Howard also scrapped the knee bend and mimicked Allen’s top-heavy approach.

Howard 11-12

And now video:

Except he only hit 28 out of 67 free throws to start the season, and 12 days later on January 6th (the season began on Christmas in the lockout year) he reverted back to his old knee-bending ways.

Why? At least in part due to Mark Price, a career 90.4 percent free throw shooter in 12 NBA seasons and the man hired by the Orlando Magic before the season began to fix Howard’s free throw woes.

Here’s how he planned on attacking the Howard free throw problem:

“For example, Price now has Howard starting his shooting form higher rather than lower, reducing the margin of error when he brings the ball to its release point. He wants Howard to use the same stroke repeatedly. He wants Howard using his legs more.”

While Price’s fix was conceptually sound, it didn’t address the severe Howard elbow bend that he naturally recedes towards – whether that’s on Price or Howard, we’ll never know. But just a day after he brought back the knee bend, Howard brought back his backwards/forwards release.

Howard 2011

And that, as you might have guessed, looked eerily similar to his 2010-2011 free throw technique – post-release hitch included.

(2010-2011 on the left, 2011-2012 on the right)

Save for one clear difference: in 2011-2012, Price helped Howard ditch the two-step process of his free throw. The transition from gather to release point is one smooth motion, and his knees bend in tandem with the upper body process. Though the release is still too low and hitched, the entire mechanism is, at the very least, smooth.

From that January 6th, 2012, until February 8th, 2012, against Miami, Howard used the Price method and made 112 of 225 free throws – good for just a shade under 50 percent. But then came another switch, this time back to the technique he used to start the season: no knee bend, low gather point, low and stunted release (Palubinskas, I presume). Still, no improvement: 135-270 on his free throws for the rest of the season for another 50 percent mark.

2012-2013

New team, new shooting coach, new technique. This time Chuck Person, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach. Via the Los Angeles Times:

“Person has already changed two things.

Howard used to set up at the line with the ball at his waist. Now he starts a bit below his chin. Person also worked to change Howard’s unorthodox release.

‘He would start low and come up and stop the ball in front of his eyes. He only had one eye on the ball so he would move his head to the left, which would make his right elbow come out,’ Person said. “He was basically shooting sideways. He would put his thumb on the ball so his rotation was improper every time.”

Sounds like a problem.

‘We lifted the ball straight up, his elbow just below his eye level, so now he clearly has both eyes on the rim,’ Person said. ‘It relaxes his upper body.'”

TV camera angles make it difficult to see Howard’s head lean, but here’s one screenshot that illuminates the problem he’s discussing.

Howard Ball Placement

It’s difficult to see, but Howard’s release point does sneak above his forehead, freeing up his right eye. Still, some shooting coaches actually advocate the one-eyed shot. The argument is this: the elbow naturally slides inwards because shooting the ball lined up straight is awkward. (Think Matt Bonner’s release.) This is why JJ Redick, among others, actually lines up his right foot six inches to the right of the center of the free throw line – he’s properly lining up his shoulder and accounting for the natural elbow flare.

Anyway: here’s the new and Chuck Person-improved Howard:

Howard Lakers

What Person’s two changes accomplished was creating a viable technique to manufacture shot arc, something Howard had previously lacked throughout his entire free throw shooting career.

But as the photo on the right shows, two fundamental problem persist: Howard’s release is still low and hitched because his elbow starts in that severely bent position, and his guide hand still blocks the ball. And, by bringing the ball closer to Howard’s chin, Person re-created the same problem that plagued Howard in Orlando: the backwards/forwards motion as opposed to up and down. Though it’s slightly better here because Howard’s arms are above his head, it’s not ideal.

That first game of the season against the Mavericks, Howard shot 3-14 from the line. As the season wore on and the Lakers found themselves in turmoil, Howard’s free throw issues became a national story. And with that intensified focus came Howard slowly devolving his form. Ethan Sherwood Strauss sniffed out this release problem in a piece written early last season, but it’s important to realize that this is a recurring Howard problem that has its roots in Howard’s most intrinsic free throw instinct: the over-bent elbow.

There are lots of portions of the free throw that are immune to TV analysis: foot placement, finger technique on release, (Palubinsksas prefers to center the ball on the index finger), and ball placement on the hand. Was the ball flat in Howard’s palm all the time instead of on his fingertips?

SafariScreenSnapz012

But the notion that Howard hasn’t worked on free throws is false. The real problem is that he hasn’t normalized the techniques, or at least hasn’t stuck with them long enough for them to truly sink in. You don’t re-learn how to shoot a basketball in a few months. By the end of this past season, Howard was once again slowly cutting out the knee bend and lowering his release point. But if he really wants to fix this problem, he can’t keep relying on tweaks and minor changes: he has to throw out everything he’s ever been taught about shooting a basketball and start from scratch.

2013 NBA Draft Live Blog

And, it’s almost time to start. I’ll be here with you the whole night, along with the Nets cheerleaders and free clothing, which has people going apeshit. We’re about to get started in a few minutes.

7:33: David Stern is here, and trolling at his best, thanking the booing crowd for their warm welcome. I cannot hear a word he is saying.

7:35: I literally cannot hear a single thing David Stern is saying. The crowd is booing too loudly. Cody Zeller looks lonely.

7:37: I am actively avoiding Adrian Wojnarowski’s Twitter feed because he will ruin all the picks. I suggest you do the same.

7:40: Tom Sunnergren of Hoop76 is here next to me, and we are equally baffled by what the Cavs will do with the first pick. I suggest a panda. He says Nerlens Noel.

7:40: David Stern soaks up the moment Anthony Bennett is taken first overall, because David Stern. Also: Anthony Bennett? Yeah, whatever. /says something about wingspan

7:45 Actual exchange between myself and New York Post photographer:

Guy: What’s his name?

Me: Anthony Bennett

Guy: Anthony?

Me: Yeah

Guy: Okay, I don’t have a roster.

Me: [chuckles]

7:52: Waiting between picks is a lot less fun when you don’t have studio analysts to re-hash points for you.

David Stern loves this whole booing thing too much. He’s pretty much Tyrion Lannister.

7:55: Alex Len is looking at the ground and shaking his head often.

7:58: NBA teams are the leakiest faucets out there. Everyone knows the picks ahead of time.

David Stern is 4-4 on smiles-in-response-to-boos.

8:00 Tyler Zeller’s hair is poking out the back like a little kid – that, or he didn’t shower before coming here. Either one.

8:05:You know the giant big board behind David Stern that enters the draft picks as they’re announced. I am disappointed that it is electronic. Kind of wish Stern had to climb a step ladder to insert plastic name cards into the appropriate slots.

8:09: Alex Len’s girlfriend is apparently the center on the Maryland women’s team. She’s 6-7. Great wingspan. Good hug-ethic.

8:13: The cameras behind press row went off the most for Noel, which is weird-but-not-actually-that-surprising.

8:17 Ben McLemore looks particularly shiny.

8:20: Your cheerleaders-throwing-out-free-shit-interlude.

8:24: Tom Sunnergren is typing so fast right now, it’s kind of hilarious. Also, he likes the Jrue Holiday trade. Loves it, in fact.

8:28:Photo of LeBron James in a Cleveland hat on the jumbotron. Mixed reaction from the crowd. This is what we’re reduced to between picks.

8:36: C.J. McCollum’s pants are super tight.

8:40: The families of the draft picks don’t go anywhere after their guy is selected. You’d think that would want to head on out of here, or something. Grab a beer, celebrate. Instead they’re just chillin’ in their hats.

8:46: Not sure what to do with these interview transcripts being handed out. Paper airplane?

8:48 Barclays Center is showing highlights of plays throughout the season. The crowd keeps erupting – which is to say that the NBA Draft is kinda boring, mostly, between picks.

8:51 Barely any cheer for Steven Adams to OKC. He and Shane Battier are now standing in completely silence waiting for the interview to start.

9:00 Families still in the green room. Kind of hoping some draft picks bought tickets and are in the stands. Kenneth Faried did that, and when he was picked a cohort of about 20 people, including a baby, stood up and cheered. Top that, someone.

9:11 The worst part about being at the Draft is that I can’t hear the commentary. Apparently the ESPN crew is doing a great job.

On another note: Atlanta now has the 16th, 17th, and 18th pick, which is an awesome NBA 2K13 move. Granted they probably dealt one of those picks to acquire No. 16, but let’s hope not.

9:18: Best moment of the Draft: the Brazilian dude’s hat not fitting on his head. He gave it at least five attempts.

Like A (Defensive) Bosh

This defensive Chris Bosh, he’s not shiny and new. He’s been chugging along in the periphery this entire series, and season for that matter. But sometimes it takes a thumbs up box score performance to redirect the spotlight, and Game 4 was that game. Was Bosh particularly more brilliant last night? Absolutely. But you don’t anchor one of the league’s best defenses by mishandling bigger and stronger centers for an entire season.

Anyway: what did Chris Bosh do, exactly? There were blocks and rim protections and other highlight-ish defending, but Bosh’s performance was grounded in flashy-less techniquing. Not ironically, that’s exactly why San Antonio’s defense had been killing Miami’s offense: they were thwarting Miami’s primary action before it could even develop. Led by Chris Bosh last night, Miami flipped the script.

Out-Positioning Tim Duncan

For much of Game 4, Bosh resorted to completely fronting Tim Duncan. But the danger in the full front is the perfect lob entry pass. Without a backside help defender cheating in to discourage the lob over top, it can lead to an easy two points. A secondary danger is a weak side seal. Should the poster spin his body towards the middle of the paint, he can completely pin his defender beneath the basket. One weak side ball rotation and the seal will lead to a dunk.

1) Here we have Bosh with the full front on Duncan, solidly denying an entry pass. Clearly Tony Parker wants to throw the lob, but it’s a tough pass to complete. Remember that Bosh is 6-11 and athletic, and can easily spring up to grab the ball should Parker short the pass. And because of the angle, he’d have to throw it more towards the sideline instead of the hoop, starting Duncan’s post-up 15 feet from the rim.

Bosh Duncan Front Double Photo

So Parker readjusts. If he can change the angle of the pass by dribbling towards the corner, Duncan can spin and seal Bosh towards the three-point line. Except when Parker moves, so does Bosh. He changes the angle of his front to match Parker’s dribble, once again forcing a lob. By this time, Ray Allen has sauntered over to discourage that pass.

Then Parker rotates the ball to the top of the key. Duncan, technically sound big man that he is, spins to seal Bosh. But once again, Bosh recovers. He fights over Duncan to deny the seal. The only option, again, is the lob. Except Duncan is too close to the hoop and Ray Allen is still loitering.

Bosh Duncan Photo Two

The result is nine seconds on the shot clock wasted and a mostly wasted possession that ends in a Duncan contested jumper.

2) Once again, Parker looks to enter the ball into the post to Duncan. Bosh, this time, hits him with the 3/4 front. There’s no angle for a lob, and any bounce pass entry is at risk of being intercepted by Bosh. So Parker, once again, tries to change the angle of entry. Still, nothing. He decides to kick the ball back out to Boris Diaw at the top.

Bosh Duncan Front 3

But, bam: Duncan spins middle as the ball rotates. So what does Bosh do? He fights over Duncan – who, by the way, is significantly bigger and stronger – to front instead of allowing himself to get pinned towards the sideline. It’s lob or nothing, and Mike Miller is cutting that off from the weak side.

Bosh Duncan Front 4

Therefore the entry pass never comes, and the Spurs burn half the shot clock, again, trying to initiate an action that never happens. Seconds later, Diaw (who couldn’t find a lane to squeeze a pass into Duncan) turns the ball over.


Pick-And-Roll Coverage

If there was any place to find fault in Bosh’s defense before Game 4, it was in the pick-and-roll. Though he wasn’t the only culprit, Miami was trapping far less aggressively, often switching and creating confusion with a style of defense to which they were not accustomed. But Game 4 saw a complete reversal of this trend. Bosh in particular was at his athletic best, trapping and recovering masterfully.

1) On this high screen-and-roll from the first quarter, we can see that Bosh attacks Parker and cuts him off before he can turn the corner. Mario Chalmers supports from behind, cutting off the pocket pass. But its Bosh initial pressure that forces Parker to retreat, ultimately resulting in a harmless cross-court pass to Danny Green.

Bosh P&R Coverage 1

What’s more, here, is the secondary action: not only does Bosh blow up the pick-and-roll, but he scrambles to front Duncan before he can seal him. Remember that Duncan has already rolled while Bosh is trapping, and is in prime position to cut him off. But Bosh works his tail off to slide back into position, and ultimately out-positioning Duncan with a multiple seconds head start.

Bosh P&R Coverage 2a2b

And it even goes a step further, when Danny Green drives to the hole: Bosh steps him in front of him, forcing the cross-court pass (pictured above and right). In the span of a few seconds, Bosh thwarts a pick-and-roll, foils an easy seal, and cuts off a driving lane.

The result is a contested/isolation Gary Neal three-pointer, which he does in fact make. But it’s the type of shot Miami will certainly be happy to concede throughout the game.

2) One set that Miami has had trouble defending is the dribble handoff pick-and-roll. Due to its proximity to the hoop and immense and immediate pressure it puts on the defending big, there’s usually a pocket pass to be had or lane to drive. Here, Bosh manages to cut both off beautifully.

Duncan hits Norris Cole with some force, knocking him off his spot. There isn’t an opportunity to trap, and Duncan has faded, as opposed to a pure roll, to create separation for a passing lane. This puts extra pressure on Bosh because of the giant gap between himself and Cole. But here’s what I love about this play: look at Bosh’s left hand. Instead of sticking it up in the air to bother Parker’s vision, it’s low and extended.

Bosh P&R Coverage 3

This pocket pass has been a killer for Parker throughout the series; whether it’s been Splitter or Duncan, San Antonio has sliced up Miami’s P&R defense with pocket passes a plenty. This Bosh play, then, is an impressive adjustment. By widening his stance and limbs, he forces Parker to look elsewhere with a pass.

If you look closely on the video, you can see Parker’s arms hesitate and his head spin around. He wants that pocket pass, but Bosh won’t give it to him. The result is Parker prematurely picking up his dribble and hitting Danny Green, who drives the lane (read: not his strength). He misses, and Miami wins the possession. Oh, and Bosh helps deny the layup.


Weak Side Help/Rim Protection

Where Bosh shined, at least aesthetically, was in his defense of the paint from the weak side. He picked up two highlight reel blocks, and successfully challenged drivers as they attacked the rim. And while these plays are more noticeable and statistically friendly, it’s also important to note his savvy positioning.

1) In the second quarter, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker ran a run-of-the-mill pick-and-roll. Dwyane Wade, however – he of the poor defense – doesn’t step up to trap. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, as he does manage to keep Parker relatively at bay. But when Cole recovers and expects Wade’s help on his right, he’s nowhere to be found. Parker, quite easily, glides towards the paint.

Rim Protection 1a1b

But here comes Bosh. What’s particularly smart – besides staying completely vertical – is that he doesn’t rotate all the way over. Noticing Wade’s attempt on the block from behind, Bosh cuts off the front and back sides of the rim. Parker is particularly adept at slicing to the lane using the rim to ward off shot blockers – whether he finishes at the front, or with the reverse. Here, Bosh stays on the opposite side of the rim to force Parker to finish left. And that’s rather difficult, what with a much bigger Wade crashing over top.

Rim Protection 2

The result is an awkward finish: Parker can’t quite contort his body towards the other side of the rim because Bosh is in the way, and he throws the ball off the underside of the rim.

1) This one’s more clear cut. After Ginobili blows by Ray Allen, it’s Bosh and Manu at the rim, one-on-one. Ginobili edges left. Bosh, waiting until Ginobili has left his feet, raises up straight as well. Except it’s more than that: notice that Bosh throws up his right hand – his off-hand – instead of his left.

Rim Protection 3

This is an important distinction, because it means he doesn’t have to reach over and possibly chop down on Ginobili. He can remain vertical, and make Manu’s shot as difficult as possible without fouling. The result is a miss and a transition opportunity the other way.

Game 4 Chris Bosh was outstanding. But reviewing the tape on the rest of the series reveals much of the same work on the defensive end. It just so happens that the rest of the Heat picked up the slack, allowing the point total to reflect the defensive performance as a whole. But if Bosh is able to mostly neutralize Duncan and those Parker-Duncan pick-and-rolls as he did in Game 4, San Antonio will be in a lot of trouble.

Dwyane Wade, Lost Defensive Puppy

It’s always easier to pinpoint a cause, whether it be armchair psycho-babble or an injury or whatever singular else, to explain a decline. Dwyane Wade is not Dwyane Wade, or at least the Dwyane Wade his career reputation has established. His points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage are all down, some significantly so. His acrobatics don’t quite seem that acrobatic. All of which falls under the immense and growing shadow of LeBron James, and the quick trigger typecast of The Cleveland Years. Chris Bosh has always been a half, and now an overstretched four terrified of the paint.

Miami-San Antonio will always be viewed in Miami terms, as with anything else Miami Heat. The successes and failures are theirs, the Spurs mere consequence of five other players needing to be on the court to make this series regulation. And so Dwyane Wade, and his poor performance thus far, have come under particular fire. ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, looking at lineup numbers, even suggests that flip-flopping Wade and Allen, from starter to bench and bench to starter, might be the right fix. Other pundits have smothered the dialogue with less insightful coachspeak, most of which boils down to phrases like “aggression” and “get going” and “fire.” Again, the Spurs have nothing to do with this.

But what’s more pressing than Dwyane Wade’s point total is his defense. Outside of a dominant 35-9 run spanning the end of Game 2 that felt eerily similar to the Knicks’ blip of dominance against a clearly superior Pacers team, San Antonio has mostly been able to generate shots it likes: corner threes, Tim Duncan post-ups and Tony Parker tear drops and floaters and scoops and pull-ups and other out-quicking shot types. A part of that is certainly Parker residue – a Chalmers-Cole combo that can’t quite stay with him, forcing over-help and opening up shooters – but another part of it is mental lapse, to which Dwyane Wade has been particularly susceptible.


Help Defense

Miami traps the pick-and-roll or switches outright. This we know, and have seen throughout these playoffs and this series in particular. It’s just that San Antonio’s ball handlers – Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili – are more than adept at making the right and awesome pass that forces Miami to scramble. What’s worse, though, is Miami guards, and Wade in particular, are losing track of shooters in poor attempts to help deny penetration.

1) Here we have a Wade semi-help in Game 1, with Tony Parker initially blowing by Mario Chalmers (a problem throughout this series in its own right).

Help Defense 1a

Because of some screening confusion under the basket, both LeBron James and Chris Bosh are available to clog the lane on help. Yet Dwyane Wade saunters over towards the paint as well, even though this is most clearly not his help to give. Danny Green, as any disciplined perimeter shooter is likely to do, fades towards the corner to create a passing lane for Tony Parker. Parker hits him; Wade, who doesn’t even play help defense on his ill-advised help defense, spins around only to find Green wide open.

Help Defense 1b

Green misses the shot, and Miami skates away unscathed.

But Wade’s ineffective semi-help is doubly harmful because:

A) He doesn’t cut off Parker’s drive in any way.

B) He loses sight of Danny Green.

If you’re going to overcommit, or incorrectly commit on defense, commit. Wade’s aimless meandering is the worst possible decision.

2) And again, this time in Game 3, though of a different kind. Gary Neal drives on Shane Battier, as Wade helps off Danny Green in the strong side corner. There’s no need for Wade to abandon Green here. Neal hasn’t completely blown by Shane Battier, and Chris Bosh is stationed under the hoop at the ready.

Help Defense 2

If Gary Neal wants to launch a contested 8-foot floater, fine. That’s a shot Miami wants for San Antonio. What they don’t want is Wade to decisively over-help and leave Danny Green open in the corner. What’s worse is the strong side portion of all this: the pass is extremely short, and the time Wade will need to pivot and recover is far too long to contest any sort of catch-and-shoot. And that’s what happens here, except this time Green makes Wade pay by hitting the shot.

3) Finally, this Wade semi-help. As Parker drives middle, Wade sinks in. Except he’s meandered into a middling nowhere, halfway between a real help position and sticking with shooters. To make matters worse, he guess-jumps as Parker throws him an in-air fake. The extra second it takes for Wade to land and recover gives Kawhi Leonard enough time to nail an open three.

The right play, here, is simply sticking with Leonard: though it would have left Green open in the corner, LeBron is already starting to recover. At the very least, it limits Parker’s options and telegraphs his next move. Though clearly the real problem is Parker’s penetration in the first place, Wade’s weak side defensive action doesn’t help matters.

This type of over-help is actually worse than not helping at all. At the very least, leaving the ballhandler one-on-one narrows his options to shoot, or, well, shoot – there simply aren’t shooters to whom he can kick the ball out. The semi-help opens up a shooter while hardly discouraging further penetration, and is especially dangerous against a lethal shooting team (read: San Antonio). Through the first three games of the series, I counted 10 help misreads by Wade.


Court Awareness

More simply, there’s the matter of being court aware. See ball and man, they say. Or more precisely, see ball and man relative to floor spacing and defensive assignment.

A common weak side pick-and-roll action for any three-point shooting offense is a back screen for a corner shooter. In an ideal scenario, the back screen will pick off a recovering guard: because he’s pinched in and has his eyes peeled on the ball, he’ll rotate and scramble right into a 250+ pound body instead of his man.

1) This play from the second quarter of Game 1 is particularly numbskullish, as Wade is caught ball-watching, only to turn around and be served with a face full of Tim Duncan’s chest.

As Tony Parker backs out after Miami switches the pick and roll, Dwyane Wade never recovers to Danny Green. His initial help rotation was fine, but once Parker resets the play, it’s Wade’s responsibility to find his way back to his man. Instead, Wade loiters. Tim Duncan using all his veteran savvy, slips in behind Wade for the back screen. When Parker swings the ball to Green and Wade scrambles to recover, he literally bounces off Duncan.

Court Awareness A

By this time, it’s too late; the pass is on time and in rhythm, and Danny Green makes Wade pay.

2) Here’s another variation from Game 2. Wade, once again, is ball-watching. And, once again, its Green who capitalizes, darting from one corner to the other as Wade stares at Tony Parker. Nevermind that Wade, in the far weak side corner, is arguably the least valuable help defender: Ray Allen, Chris Bosh, and LeBron James are much better suited, position-wise, to step up should Parker blow by Chalmers.

Court Awareness No. 2a

Parker, as per usual, does exactly that. Wade, however, gets dragged into the paint scrum because he’s late following Green across the court, and decides to contest Parker. But Parker is able to find Green – who Wade has now completely abandoned – in the corner uncontested.

Court Awareness No. 2b

Had he simply shadowed Green appropriately, Parker would have been jumping into a three-man defensive black hole with no outlet options. But because Wade is late following Green, he gets unintentionally mixed up in the paint and Green is wide open.


Other Wade-induced Facepalms

And then there are the miscellaneous facepalms that lend themselves to trouble.

1) Such as this play in transition, when Dwyane Wade runs parallel to Kawhi Leonard as he pushes the ball up the floor. Leonard, by no means, is a ballhandler. Cut him off vertically and he’s picking up his dribble to find Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili or any other capable guard. But Wade allows significant Leonard penetration, forcing Bosh to rotate off Tiago Splitter and Udonis Haslem off Tim Duncan (onto Splitter). All Leonard does, then is stop, pivot, and hit Duncan for the elbow jumper.

This is simple, simple stuff. Just cut him off early and force the Spurs to reset.

2) It’s not always a matter of effort, in so much as it’s often the exact opposite: over-aggression, over-help. Here, Kawhi Leonard cuts backdoor on LeBron James as Tim Duncan posts up. LeBron reacts slightly late, but there’s hardly room to thread a pass. Still, Dwyane Wade lurches towards the paint to cover for his running mate and sets off an unfortuante chain reaction:

1) Duncan hits Ginobili, whom Wade has left wide open at the top of the key.

2) Wade scrambles to close out, essentially handing Manu an easy blow by.

3) Chris Bosh rotates to help, but he’s a bit late: Ginobili finishes at the rim.

All of this is mostly not about injury or other physical limitation; this is about defensive mental aptitude, which Wade has wholly lacked in this series. And that’s utterly surprising, as he’s usually one of the more cerebral defenders on the floor. If anything, an injury would catalyze efficiency of movement, and force Wade to pick his spots. Instead, physical limitation is leaking into the mental. If there’s anything good here, it’s that a large portion of his mistakes can be easily remedied.

But he’s not the only one. All of Miami’s guards are having trouble keeping track of shooters and avoiding over/semi-help. The looming threat of Tony Parker in the paint is generating all kinds of paint terror, to the point that Miami is over-corralling his scoring. And the result is a passing Tony Parker, and four other players on the floor dunking the ball and jacking wide open threes. As we’ve seen through three games, this type of San Antonio Spurs team is undoubtedly the most dangerous.

My Finals Memory: When Dwyane Wade Was Dwyane Wade

It’s not often that an NBA title is anything other than an apex. Dirk Nowitzki shook off various career-poisoning labels when his Mavericks outmatched the Heat in 2011; LeBron James did the same in 2012. The NBA Finals is a giant hump and stars spend careers trying to get over it. Some never quite make it – Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, famously – and for others it doesn’t really matter. Allen Iverson will never be judged in championship terms.

For Dwyane Wade, the 2006 Miami Heat NBA title, or more directly his performance in those six games, was a harbinger. Earlier in the season, gel-lathered hardwood kingpin Pat Riley swooped down from his tiny glass box to kick aside Stan Van Gundy, a high-pitched and portly but undoubtedly talented coach in his own right, to reroute the ship and save the season. An aging Shaq willfully handed over the reins to Dwyane Wade. Udonis Haslem was presumably being the heart of the team, just as he’s been credited in these 2013 NBA Playoffs. Gary Payton was still playing basketball and he wasn’t just padding his Hall of Fame resume, even if he definitely was.

But Dwyane Wade was only a third-year player then. He averaged nearly 35 points per game in the series and lived at the free throw line. Though his supporting cast was hardly dynastic – championship infrastructure doesn’t typically include Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, James Posey and post-peak Alonzo Mourning – it was reflective of a certain truth about the brimming star himself, that he was exactly that. It’s just that his coming out party so happened to coincide with and end in the Larry O’Brien trophy. In the narrative-laden NBA, when championships supposedly pay the toll of multiple failures and near broken egos and various and trying adversity, Wade had skipped a few steps. There was a rookie in a loaded draft class and an outstanding second season and a championship. He was 24 years old.

Then there were injuries and first round losses and years lost. Pat Riley slunk back into his emotionless and franchise-looming shadow. Dwyane Wade, as with the rest of the league, folded into LeBron James, second class among first class basketball citizens. Expectation, it seemed, had been fulfilled. What was once promise was shelved memory. Meanwhile Riley began to puppeteer the great coup of the 2010 offseason, parking lot handshakes and basement deals and all those slicked-back, mafia hair transactions. By the end of it, a handful of fan bases were emotionally spent and LeBron James and Chris Bosh were on their way to South Beach. Dwyane Wade’s career, as it was in an individual sense, was effectively over at the age of 28.

And that’s what’s here, in 2013, with these Finals. 2006 was the last time Dwyane Wade was ever Dwyane Wade on a national stage. I don’t remember anything particular about those Finals, other than lots of foul calls and years-later relief that Twitter was not around for what would have been inevitable real-time conspiracy baiting. But it’s the last time any of us saw Dwyane Wade play the game of basketball as dictated by his promise, and that’s mildly depressing.

We Were There: The NBA Draft Lottery

I didn’t even get to see the ping pong balls. No one did. The NBA did end up releasing footage of the balls pinging and ponging, capturing the moment before the moment of Cleveland’s second No. 1 overall pick in three years, but the NBA Draft Lottery isn’t about ping pong balls; it’s about logo’d envelopes and commercials and pageantry and aestheticizing the dregs of the NBA. The timing seems a bit curious, with interest in the League nearing its peak, but teams need ample opportunity to fret and leak rumors and waffle, apparently. Statistical wizard and former Nuggets front office man Dean Oliver, who randomly plops down at my pre-Lottery dinner table, mentions that it’s about this time that teams start falling in love with certain players, inflexible in their own neurosis.

That’s where I am, for a while. Dan Feldman of Pistons Powered, fellow HPer (and Fear The Sword editor) Conrad Kaczmarek, and Oliver, eating and talking, but mostly listening. Oliver’s an open book. The Billups-Iverson trade becomes a point of conversation, and at some point I ask him whether fleecing a fellow GM in a trade can backfire, in that he won’t want to deal with you anymore. Absolutely, Oliver says. There are only so many GMs, and people with power are apparently still people. Feldman quietly asks me who that huge dude in the sling is, clearly distressed and mildly embarrassed that he can’t identify an NBA player. I calm him by admitting just the same: I’m clueless, too.

Around us there are league sponsors and pressed suits and lots of handshaking. Everyone’s staring at each other’s mid-sections, where the various credentials hang. Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis – representing their Lottery teams – talk to each other a few feet away from us. Someone’s talking to Bradley Beal, who seems more than mildly disinterested in the conversation. Then Davis walks behind him, taps him on the left shoulder and walks to the right. It’s 6:30 p.m., still a few hours away from any substantial action. Everyone’s kind of bored.

Oliver asks if we’d be happy taking Kenneth Faried as the No. 5 pick overall in any draft year. Yes, we mostly agree. Larry Sanders? Sure. DeMar DeRozan? Blank stares. You can’t be afraid to draft the guy you want, Oliver insists, not that he particularly wants DeRozan. More of these questions, and general NBA discussion. David Stern is on the television at his pre-Lottery press conference. We’re supposed to be there, probably. Whatever. The steak is really good. Time for seconds.

By 8:00 p.m., it’s nearing Draft Lottery time – which, for the overwhelming majority of media members, means cramming into a classroom-like hotel conference room with rowed tables and two televisions. And that’s where we’re stashed, across the street from the actual Draft Lottery, to watch the Draft Lottery. We’re all credentialed for a hotel, pretty much, while the action – if we can even call it that – happens elsewhere. Still, there’s the quiet hum of fingers on keyboards as people find things to type about. What that is, well I’m not really sure. Nothing has happened yet. But there’s an air of Serious Journalism floating around; important things are being typed about ping pong balls. Do Not Disturb. Someone laughs at the Dan Gilbert-Machine Gun Kelly pairing as it flashes across the televisions. Others join in. Everyone is relieved that the collective silence bubble has been punctured. This whole thing is ridiculous, anyway. The arm sling guy then appears on screen with Heather Cox, and she calls him Anthony Bennett – one of the top prospects in this year’s NBA Draft. I turn around and Dan Feldman is looking right at me, laughing. Whoops.

The Lottery is supposed to start at 8:30 p.m., but it doesn’t. More commercials and Lottery representative interviews and then a commercial, again. And then, finally: envelopes are torn open. The Washington Wizards sneak into the top three. Commercial. And it’s in that time, the brief interlude between two minutes of relevance and thirty more seconds of relevance, that every media member not invited to spend the Draft Lottery at the Draft Lottery is shuffled out of the Serious Work Space, down the stairs and across the street. We’re going to the Draft Lottery! But, wait: not quite. Commercials aren’t that long, and Serious People don’t run. They walk, briskly. We’re herded into another room, about 50 of us, some with giant cameras and others with microphones and still others with tape recorders, but everyone staring up at one television. We’re afforded a glimpse of the end of the Lottery on a television before we’re finally guided into The Room – with its loose wires and grungy, basement-like feel and most clearly made-for-telelvison-appearance – with all the players and the celebrating Cleveland contingent and the ESPN television crew. It requires the majority of my will power not to idle behind Jay Bilas and Mark Jones and tweet about sort of being on television. My back, anyway.

There’s a huge media scrum around Nick Gilbert, Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert’s 16-year-old son, an old Draft Lottery pro whose camera savvy is either an impressive poise or a depressing consequence. He’s acting like he’s been there before because, well, he (un)fortunately has been. Michael Carter-Williams stands by himself while Kevin Love attacts plenty of attention. Machine Gun Kelly has a Cavs’ jersey slung over his shoulder and is walking around doing whatever it is that Machine Gun Kelly does. Local broadcasting teams post up at their team’s lottery podium and stretch a three-second announcement into minutes-long segments. The room is really crowded, and kind of hot, and I’m mildly terrified that sweat stains will begin to show through my blue shirt. They don’t.

The cluster of interviewers vastly outnumbers the handful of interviewees; Flip Saunders has never been so popular. I’m tempted to speak with Heather Cox, whose capacity for smiling has always intrigued me, but she’s off in her own conversation. The players, who have been milling around the Lottery room for more than an hour, seem more than ready to slip out. Conrad does his Cleveland thing, balancing credentialed journalist with occasional fist-pumping, and huddles around the Gilbert contingent. After a good deal of prodding, I convince him to let me snap a picture of him at the Cavs’ podium.

The room begins to clear out once the athletes and team presidents and league executives saunter away, and so it’s over. Jay Bilas and Mark Jones are furiously wiping makeup off their faces, sweating hard under the lights and clearly relieved. I head back to the Serious Work Space where people are presumably typing up a draft order and engaging in speculative rumor-mongering. That’s the only way to feed the machine in the massive post-Lottery, pre-draft in-between, these days. The Grizzlies and Spurs are tied at 15 (!) in the second quarter. Time to find a place to watch the game.

The Kings Are Staying!

In their almost final moment of relevance, the Sacramento Kings were overshadowed by bigger news. Seven league owners on the relocation committee voted to leave them be; Jason Collins is gay. Many and smart people wrote many and smart things about Jason Collins. Kevin Johnson pumped his Twitter fist about Sacramento.

This isn’t to say that Sacramento’s non-relocation deserves more of you than Jason Collins. There are issues of equality, human being issues, and then there’s a city haggling over a team they might not be able to haggle over anymore. But as basketball fans – from Sacramento or wherever – we should probably acknowledge that something (or nothing, really) happened. The Sacramento Kings aren’t changing cities, their uniform will stay the same, and they won’t be exchanging their current set of talking heads for a fresh batch. They’ll still have DeMarcus Cousins and an impressive dysfunction and all else that’s going on, basketball-wise. The reality of the Sacramento Kings continuing to be the Sacramento Kings will set in, again.

But that reality, for a certain subset of Californians, is better than the demoralizing alternative of the Kings packing their bags for Seattle. The Maloofs beat Sacramento fans to the resignation-tendering punch; you couldn’t leave the Kings because they were leaving you. If sports fans can leverage any ounce of control over their teams, it’s just that: being there, in the arena or at the television, or not being there. The rest of it, the various forms of backseat coaching, whether from the couch or on the internet, doesn’t really matter in practical terms. Not to the people who matter, anyway. There’s a small and huddled group of people doing this for every basketball franchise, with varying degrees of laptops and Harvard graduates involved, and they’re not listening us (save for John Hollinger and Sebastian Pruiti).

And that’s fine; a basketball front office isn’t a state and its fans are not its citizens. Pure democracy has its place elsewhere. But when it comes to the entire franchise just up and leaving, that’s when that sense of helplessness really grabs hold. Even though Kevin Johnson dashed to collect rich people and councils voted on arena-related things, the vast majority of Kings fans could only stand by and watch. Maybe they held signs or gathered on Facebook, but they weren’t really gaming anyone. They were exerting the only type of pressure they could, which was nonetheless admirable. We would, given the circumstances, do the same.

But it was always about arenas. David Stern even admitted as such:

“They decided as strong as the Seattle bid was,” Stern said, “and it was very strong, there’s some benefit that should be given to a city that has supported us for so long and has stepped up to contribute to build a new building as well.”

The city of Sacramento committed $258 million in taxpayer money to a building a brand spankin’ new one, and there it is. Even if there’s a part of the league that doesn’t want the chaos of teams up and relocating at the first sign of financial trouble, there’s always this: the league as business before the league as sport. That’s a thing you hear people, and especially players, say a lot. “It’s a business.” Which, yes, in the technical sense of people paying money and people getting paid, it is. There’s a service, related and overpriced products, and consumers. In terms of the Kings as commodity, much has been made of this – that the entire spectacle only served to hustle Sacramento into less leisurely arena-seeking. The threat of hostile takeover repurposed Sacramento’s financial priorities. The NBA bullied them, and it worked.

Fine. But Sacramento also stayed. Put aside the league bending an entire city’s financial will, for a second. Put aside their unrestrained arena lust. They wanted Sacramento to stay. They wanted the Kings to still be the Kings. If there’s anything good to come out of David Stern’s image conscious legacy – besides glasses without lenses – it’s that the fans, on some dusty basement level, count for something. That our loyalty counts for something. It isn’t about Sacramento as a great basketball town or that their city deserves a team. It’s that there’s already a team there and people are going to the arena and Doug Christie is an important part of many people’s lives. Consistency is a good thing.

Never Down And Never Out

It’s the summer of 2011 and the Boston Celtics are at IKEA. Marquis Daniels is futzing with the coffee maker. Greg Stiemsma just set a hard screen on the Parisian floor lamp. Paul Pierce isn’t shaving over by the mirror. Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers look at their spare parts assemblage. “Here,” Ainge says. “I just bought these guys for next year. Put it together, okay? Make sure it doesn’t collapse on Red’s legacy.” These Boston Celtics somehow snuck into the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and nearly the NBA Finals. But this is the franchise’s mythic ethos – it’s not just the ratty championship banners. That, no matter how scattered and disjointed things appeared to be for them, you know they could win. It’s the looming threat of your pending victimization.

These 2012-2013 Boston Celtics are either fiercely loyal or brutally overmatched. Either way they’re lurking, and it’s making everyone uncomfortable. No one wants to face Boston. Even as the No. 7 seed, even without Rajon Rondo, even without Ray Allen. Even though they’ve been scotch-taped and paper-clipped and patched up to hide rusting edges. Every player to leave the team means another layer of crazy glue. Because more than that one championship in 2008 and a bunch of near misses in the ensuing seasons, the Big Three era Boston Celtics are a mentality that any team can be out-basketballed with just the right parts coaching and will and scheme and chest-puffing. It isn’t so much that you can’t count them out so much as you can always count them in. Striking range has no boundary.

As the playoffs roll in, it will be impossible to accommodate any kind of Celtics basketball discussion without at least mentioning Monday’s horrifying events and somewhat veering into a dialogue of sports’ place in the grander scheme of things. They’re somewhere – this, we know, and probably agree upon. But it ends there. There are jersey-wearing people yelling in bars and tattoos and dolts and indifference and other and varying levels of hysteria. Sports mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people and it’s always and definitely impossible to cramp these perspectives under a single banner. But if only to serve as a reprieve from the Marathon explosions, the Boston Celtics can and probably should be a symbol for falling into something bigger and happier. Not that the Larry O’Brien trophy is either doctor or therapist; Paul Pierce squirming towards the paint in slow motion won’t erase the devastation. But there’s something to be said for re-gathering and momentarily walking into distraction.

It’s impossible and unfair for me to speculate on the recovery mechanisms for Bostonians; I’m a New Yorker and only absorbed the horror through news-breaking tweets and solemn television broadcasters and graphic photos on the internet. But I’ll dare to say that most of us will heal, and probably quicker than we’d like to think. When the Celtics play the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs, moments of silence won’t stop Kevin Garnett and Carmelo Anthony from beefing and spewing pointed and not safe for work words. Someone’s going to foul someone else a bit too hard. Gesturing won’t be sympathetic. And this is a good thing. Any tempered or cautious tip-toeing around the basketball will only cheapen however you might choose to purpose it. Playoff basketball is only playoff basketball if it’s playoff basketball.

Still, when it comes to the Celtics, we’re left with scattered basketball pieces grafted onto two minutes-limited veterans. The Boston Celtics, as a whole, are not that good at basketball, or at least as good as they once were. And so despite their impending status as an escapist or redemptive beacon, this team is exactly that already. A first round series victory over New York will be nothing short of miraculous. A spot in the conference finals will pretty much send the entire internet into a riotous frenzy of told-you-so’s and crying LeBron James GIFs. Someone might as well light a match to Twitter should they win the NBA title. Yet no matter how longshot the Celtics appear to be, they’re never that. They’re a shot. A maybe. They’re the but (though, this season, sometimes butt) of every playoff conversation.

You Are Kobe Bryant’s Torn Achilles

Kobe Bryant isn’t like most athletes in that he wants you to know Kobe Bryant. His public persona isn’t pre-packaged; he doesn’t smile just to smile or offer up basketball platitudes about repurposing adversity or generally adhere to any cohesive exterior. He’s always and decisively Kobe Bryant, and Kobe Bryant is a psychosis-bordering narcissist – a trait which, by the way, he has quietly gamed as an idealized narrative of a basketball player and even made you feel a twinge of guilt for not caring about anything as much as he cares about his sport. Kobe Bryant wants to remind you that Kobe Bryant is better than you as he rhapsodizes from an elevated podium.

And that’s why Kobe’s torn left Achilles isn’t just a basketball injury – he won’t let it be. On his Facebook page, he has shamelessly pivoted the focus towards himself and away from his team, more or less whining and yelling at the internet “Why me?” Kobe’s gesturing towards your more basic human instincts of sympathy, and it’s only natural for a player who has never really suffered a severe injury to cry out this way. But he’s 34 years old now. He’s been in the league for 17 years and has seen plenty of tears and snaps and breaks and whatevers to players good and bad and great. For the large majority, their poorly-timed injury didn’t come after five championships and 17 seasons and 220 out of 223 played playoff games. He’s lucky, given his insane minutes mileage, that it didn’t happen sooner.

Basketball is better when Kobe Bryant is playing. If not just because he’s one of the greatest all time, too – there are so many things about his career arc that are truly vexing. How many championships were truly his own? How many years was he actually the league’s best player? Is he selfish or keenly aware and accordingly adaptive? Is he a referendum on self-motivating stardom or a corruptive ideologue undermining how to play The Right Way? Is he just a second-class Michael Jordan?

No matter the prism through which you view Kobe Bryant – The Great Player or the egomaniac, or both – he sniffed out an anti-traditional narrative we could hate-watch and begrudgingly respect. But it’s more than that with Kobe because there’s a further genius: he’s carved out a place in future memory. Grandparents will tell grandchildren about Kobe Bryant one day. Game-winning shots. 81 points. They won’t talk about Tim Duncan the same way, at least not as fondly. No one will wistfully mythologize his 15-foot bank shot or technically sound left block drop step.

Kobe Bryant isn’t so different from most NBA players. All of them dreamed of becoming the NBA’s best at some point, and somewhere down the line a coach told them to focus on corner threes or rebounding or perimeter defense or killer screen-setting. It’s part of the natural order of basketball for coaches to biospy players and establish them in various divisions of labor. There can only be so many best players, after all. Except Kobe Bryant was always good enough to override any stratified repurposing and just kept chugging along his way. But what’s more impressive is the directional force of the eventual adaptation. Kobe Bryant didn’t change to assimilate into basketball culture; the gradual osmosis went the other way, until Kobe had broken down our more brainy defense against his unrelenting egoism and won our hearts instead.

It all comes down to hero ball, basically. Kobe Bryant may not have started the movement but he most certainly owns it now. While the numbers cast a less than approving eye on the practice, with hero ball, most simply, comes heroes. Kobe most certainly fancies himself as such, and so it seems even more appropriate that he would, in fact, be its most inefficient proprietor. Of course he’ll never be remembered that way. The pure volume of hero-reasoned shots have given way, naturally, to plenty of heroic moments. Most recently, his three three-pointers against the Toronto Raptors, all of which were seemingly more difficult than the last. There’s no way to watch those shots and not feel an electric jolt. And that’s what watching Kobe Bryant is – it’s the anticipation of momentary greatness despite conscious thought to the contrary, the mere thought that turning away from the television could be a grave mistake. Watching Kobe is watching Twitter prattle along quietly until a barrage of exclamation points and yelling and curses and caps lock and sirens and fire trucks and mayhem.

And that’s it, right there. Kobe likes that you don’t like liking him for being Kobe Bryant. He likes that you just can’t help it. And, really, you can’t. Sometimes dropping your jaw and making weird noises and fist-pumping is your only capability. For Christ’s sake, one of his most signature shots is a long, two-point, contested baseline or elbow fadeaway that pretty much flies in the face of every conventional basketball thought ever. His torn Achilles is only an extension of that persona, then. It’s Kobe soaking up the attention and demanding your sympathy and watching as you slowly succumb to the narrative he has already enveloped you with. You don’t want to feel bad. You want to know that Kobe Bryant has been lucky, injury-wise, and has only suffered a not-so-poorly timed setback. But you do, and you don’t know. Part of this current Lakers mystique isn’t just that they’re abjectly hopeless and a nod to the chemistry over talent narrative; it’s that they could, just maybe, with a bit of luck, come back. Kobe Bryant could do something; he could will them to win. Toronto could happen again. His torn Achilles is your torn hope. It sliced off that last bit of prayer. And so all he had to do was parade himself in front of reporters for a few minutes, just so you could take a look at the pain that was yours, too. Kobe Bryant owns you and he knows it.

Update!: After re-reading and hearing all of you yell at me in various internet locales, I’ve decided to take out the paragraph on Kobe’s postgame interview. Yes, that may not be journalism, and yes, stand by your words (!) and all that, but I think the whole thing reads better that way, at least for what I was trying to say. It was an unfair slant on his interview, in retrospect. And sometimes it takes extra perspectives to elucidate problem areas of a piece. Hopefully you don’t hate me too much, still.

Vinny Del Negro Sucks, Probably, Maybe, Right? Right.

Vinny Del Negro never stood a chance. Not ever. He sucked before he coached his first NBA game. He kept sucking after his Chicago tenure. He keeps sucking in Los Angeles. As for what he sucks at: well, whatever. He just kind of sucks, you know? And that’s it, exactly: Vinny Del Negro is irrevocably couched in suck because that’s the way it’s always been. This is neither a defense of his coaching merits nor a grabby lede for some puffy, anti-establishment feature; whether or not Vinny Del Negro sucks just doesn’t matter anymore. Asked and answered.

Part of it is bad luck – he wasn’t Mike D’Antoni or Doug Collins, Chicago’s preferred choices back in 2008, and then he was handpicked by Donald Sterling, its own kind of wormy infestation. The Clippers’ failings aren’t so much their own as they’re Sterling’s. And so Del Negro wasn’t just a recycled failure, but pre-impaled by Sterling’s pat on the back, too. But the other part of it is that Vinny Del Negro probably does suck anyway. He’s gone so far as to admit as such, that his first, second and third down offense is an I-formation, up-the-middle handoff to Chris Paul with Blake Griffin lead blocking through the hole. Maybe an occasional play action deep – Lob City, they call it – but mostly just Chris Paul quarterbacking the game without an offensive coordinator. X’s and O’s just aren’t VDN’s thing.

(By extension, then, Daryl Morey sucks. Houston’s offense is equally uncreative in its James Harden-centricity and underwhelming schematics – yet Daryl Morey’s reductionism is revered in certain analytics circles. He’s an innovative mastermind. Vinny Del Negro is an idiot and simpleton, even though the Clippers jack plenty of threes, too.)

VDN is neither symbol nor martyr. He’s one in a long list of coaches who were hired and reproached and slandered and discarded and soon-to-be tossed into some dusty corner of Basketball-Reference. But his archetype is emblematic of our tendency to overgeneralize, especially when it comes to coaches. Nobody really knows what coaches are like, as coaches. Sure, there are open practices and games for 20-20 analysis, but there’s a necessarily windowless part of every team that will always remain privatized. It’s why ESPN or TNT or whatever broadcasting network can only show cliched splices of coachspeak in huddles (Get back on defense! Rebound! Hustle! One possession at time!), or why Gregg Popovich is openly hostile towards Craig Sager. Teams need secrecy for team secrets to work.

I’ll take it one step further and theorize that coaching success is only a matter of circumstantial luck. The right players developing at just the right pace, an owner with a forgiving leash, a complacent fan base and media. There was a a Cleveland Bill Belichick, fired Bill Belichick, a non-Brady Bill Belichick, before there was Bill Belichick. Hell, Doc Rivers teetered on Vinny Del Negro’s precipice as a twice fired coach (because, let’s be honest, it can’t end any other way for VDN) before the NBA All-Star team decided to assemble on his roster. Phil Jackson, in all his Zen mastery, is the luckiest of them all: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant. At worst, he wins a few championships just for kicks. The overwhelming majority of coaches with mythologized reputations are welded to core players, and not the other way around.

At best Vinny Del Negro is a stepping stone, a bridge for the Clippers’ NBA relevance. At worst he’s a crutch, an infection. It will take a coaching change to push the team over the top; the Clippers are winning in spite of VDN. The latter Del Negro bled over any notion of the former until he became a hapless punching bag. And it’s all made worse because Vinny Del Negro doesn’t punch back – at least not until it’s too late, anyway. There’s nothing to grip with him. There’s no us-against-the-world counter-narrative, but instead a coach and a few star players and an eventual playoff exit. And with that comes multiple and separate narratives, parsing individuals for singular blame, even if untangling various social and functional team webs is a ridiculous prospect. Fire VDN.

That’s why Del Negro hacks to pieces the notion that basketball is a results-based business, or even business at all. When he left Chicago, there was petty egoism and juvenile media barbs and a physical altercation – all of which boiled until the situation was no longer sustainable in the longterm. You remember that epic seven-game series against Boston, the back-to-back 41-41 seasons before Derrick Rose became Derrick Rose. Those rosters were poorly cobbled together and resembled nothing more than a cluster of ill-fitting pieces wearing the same jerseys. So he coached an average team to an average record and an above average playoff performance. His career record as a coach is 205-184. Since Chris Paul, it’s 91-52. There was a 17-game winning streak in there.

Loyalty isn’t paid forward; it’s paid in wistful appreciation and a red carpet on the way out. Coaches are crowd sourced, falling in and out of vogue with regularity. Mike D’Antoni was an adaptive virtuoso; now he’s a rigid brute with zero flexibility. But the deeper subtext of Del Negro’s career as a coach is that he was buried alive and has been constantly digging his way out; Mike D’Antoni dug his own grave. It’s comforting to believe that every coach is given a chance – that there’s an American dream-ness to their career. But coaches aren’t just good or bad. They’re hard asses or players’ coaches. They’re Xs and Os savants or motivators. Every hire swings the pendulum, at least perceptively. Offense to defense. Rebounding to fast-breaking. Yelling to hugging. And maybe that’s what went wrong here. Del Negro doesn’t ostensibly do one thing or another, and so he does nothing. He just sucks.