Author Archives: Zach Harper

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

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

They’re exciting.

Sounds simple enough, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macho should be a balance… not a dominance

Being a guy is a weird thing.

You are almost playing a part in how you’re supposed to act in life. Be tougher than the hurt. Never back down from anything. Don’t show people you’re scared.

Our existence is almost built out of acting the part of a superhero, and if you don’t then you’re probably going to be labeled as effeminate or a coward.

Being a guy in sports is even a weirder thing. If you’re a professional basketball player, your physical and mental machismo is already in the top percentile. You’re more man than just about everybody. You’re bigger, faster, strong, meaner, and more of a “killer” than your average male.

But is being the most macho player in the league going to make you the most successful?

At the MIT Sloan Conference, Henry Abbott discussed how “bad decisions in sports skew macho.” And it many ways, he’s correct.

The famous example, especially when discussing Henry Abbott dealings, is Kobe Bryant during crunch time. Whether you agree with the assertion that Kobe is a clutch player or not, I think we can all agree that he often takes unnecessarily tough shots during these moments. Maybe they’re not tough for him. Maybe he’s practiced these so many times that they’re almost second nature to him.

But shooting a fadeaway jumper over two players doesn’t seem like the best decision to make. It’s a macho decision. It’s a selfish decision. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the wrong decision, but if you’re not as skilled as Kobe Byrant then it’s going to be difficult to be successful making those macho decisions.

During his presentation, Henry offers up seven examples of how skewing away from macho tendencies in the NBA could actually lead to more success. He runs the gamut by discussing granny-style free throw shooting, meditation, crunch time decisions, selflessness, physical contact amongst teammates, skinny players and female leaders.

Shaq never made concessions with his free throw shooting because he didn’t want to look silly by shooting like Rick Barry. It’s possible he could have had a more successful career if he was willing to make such a concession. Kobe Bryant has seemingly rarely made these concessions at the end of games. Yes, he wins games but if he was more willing to pass up the difficult shot for the “correct shot” where would his final résumé be even more impressive than it is?

Making concessions is probably the hardest thing to ask athletes to do. The best players will often want to leave their mark on the game their way. It’s a way of being macho and asserting yourself as the best. It’s a way of showing that you’re tough.

Being tough isn’t always a necessary thing, but if you’re conscious of your image in the NBA then you’re probably afraid of being labeled as a fake tough guy. Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett have seen a big hit in their public image because of labels like this. If they’re comfortable with their role and who they are then it won’t affect their respective games. But how many people are going to be unwilling to take that bait?

As we move into a more analytical era of viewing, judging and executing the NBA game, we see more examples of how sacrificing the image of machismo can be a successful venture. Looking at how Chris Paul runs the Hornets’ offense at the end of games shows that selflessness and not having to prove you’re the man (even when you’re often the most talented player on the court) is a perfect example of how unnecessary being macho is in the NBA.

Teams can’t just identify grabbing the 12 best players onto a team as a legitimate strategy. If you build a team like it’s a fantasy basketball roster, you’re going to a philosophical discord between teammates when it comes to deciding who fills certain roles of the team. You need players who want to comfortably fit into their roles. You want guys that are willing to sacrifice personal glory for the greater good of the team.

Basically, you want the San Antonio Spurs of the last 12 years. And even though it sounds weird to say, you want the Lakers of the last decade as well. Both of those teams had their stars. And even though those Lakers teams had the two biggest stars with the two biggest egos, they had role players intent on doing their designated jobs with an offense that was designed to promote selflessness.

Both of these teams showed that there is a definitive balance needed between having a sense of being macho and knowing when to sacrifice for the team.

Henry left this discussion with a line that I found as poignant as anything in the NBA. He said, “macho can be very important; it’s just not everything.”

Finding that balance can be a very weird thing.

An exercise in scouting

Basketball analysis is a funny thing.

You read blogs much like this and many others in order to hopefully glean some information, theory or insight about the world of the NBA and the sport of basketball. We’re all supposed to be experts. I mean that’s why you read us, right?

Supposedly, I have a good enough understanding of the sport that it causes you to at least devote your time and attention to skim over what I have to say and see if my “expertise” plays nicely with your thoughts on the subject. If they do, then we’re best Internet friends and I’m a genius to you. If they don’t then I’m a hater and you hope unspeakable things happen to my family.

That’s generally how this Internet thing works.

How do I garner my opinion on the subjects in which I choose to delve into? First, I watch a crap ton of basketball. It’s definitely an unhealthy amount that will eventually lead to me basking in my own senility as I try to convince my grandkids just how special Ryan Gomes was capable of being from the corner 3. Secondly, I pour over advanced stats to look for ways to confirm or deny what I feel I learn from watching all this basketball.

For the most part, I do a decent job of not making myself look like an idiot when I’m discussing basketball from this process. But ultimately, it’s hard to know just how much of it is real and how much of it is me pretending it’s real.

Look at Harrison Barnes coming from high school to the hallowed institution of University of North Carolina. He’s supposed to be a pure scorer that creates infinite problems for opposing defenses. He’s supposed to be prepping his one-year college résumé to legitimize his candidacy for the number one draft selection in the 2011 NBA prospect harvest.

But an interesting thing happened on the way to March Madness – I found out he’s not that good. I’ve been able to briefly converse with several NCAA basketball players over the past year. Some of them could be considered middling players just looking to finish off their free education, and some of them are projected to go in the first round of the next draft. Whenever Harrison Barnes’ name came up, I got a resounding waft of players not being that impressed.

No matter what players I talked to, the sentiment about Harrison Barnes was he didn’t live up to the hype. So far through his freshman season, that player-led analysis of Barnes has been validated.

It makes you wonder if our analysis means much of anything when players clearly see things we have a hard time figuring out.

By all archaic measurements of defense we have, Derrick Rose is now a very improved/good defender. He’s 28th in the NBA in points per possession given up. He’s 39th in isolation defense and 41st in defending the pick-and-roll. I think it’s safe to say that Derrick Rose can flat-out defend now.

Or is it?

After the Blazers win over the Bulls Monday night, Nicolas Batum told this to reporters after the game (via – Joe Freeman):

“We know that Derrick Rose is a good offensive player,” Batum said. “But you have to play defense, too. He can’t guard Dre. You gotta play defense. He can’t play defense, so that’s why we put Dre inside and try to attack him. He did a great job. Had 25 (points) and 11 (assists) tonight.”

Uh… what?

All we’ve been spoon-fed and ocularly inebriated with is Derrick Rose’s new and learned defensive prowess. But if the French Prime Minister of Defense is saying he’s not a good defender, what are we supposed to believe?

I know I’ve seen Rose play defense and play it fairly well this season. In fact, it’s helped me somewhat catch up to the fanboys who have despised me for the past 8 months while I try to explain to them why he isn’t pissing rainbows and crapping Shar-Pei puppies. But if the reputation around the league is that an 80-year old point guard with a set shot and slow feet can just attack Derrick Rose, then what the hell have I been watching?

The point of this isn’t to argue the merits of what Nicolas Batum is saying. It doesn’t really matter if Rose is actually good on defense or bad. It doesn’t matter if Batum is a “hater” or a prophet.

The point is that maybe I/we really don’t know what we’re talking about. Maybe everything we’re doing is just guessing. The players are the ones that have to go out there and play. If they know they can attack a young guy that all of us think has improved, maybe last year’s scouting report is the same as this year’s scouting report.

The player’s opinion is definitely more important than our analysis. It’s generally going to be biased and arrogant, but that doesn’t make it wrong if they’re out there physically proving it’s correct.

It doesn’t mean we’re always going to be wrong, either. I would assume the majority of the top-notch blogging (Dwyer, Ziller, Mahoney, etc.) is going to be correct in its assessments. The advanced stats and League Pass replays will show us many things that will find common ground with how the players feel about the game.

However, sometimes those stats and opinions won’t mean anything. It will simply come down to the players feeling they have an advantage, no matter what the numbers profess, and showing that it’s still a matter of one man’s ability trying to outdo another man’s ability. The notion that Derrick Rose simply can’t play defense against Andre Miller will spit into the face of perceived progress and tell it to kick rocks.

It can just be that simple.

Basketball analysis is funny that way.

Blake Griffin: Redemption for the reluctant

Probably my favorite show of all time is The Shield.

The Shield was a drama on FX for seven seasons in which Vic Mackey ran a special team of detectives who weren’t always on their oath-sworn side of the law. They dealt drugs, harbored fugitives, started gang wars, killed countless people and were always trying to create their own 401k of skimmed money and whatever pile of cash they could illegally get their hands on. Vic Mackey, the most crooked cop of the team and moral compass defacer, headed up the team.

Throughout the seven seasons of the show, the theme of redemption and the idea of making things right seemed to saturate the main characters. They always had a chance to steer to the right side of the law, clean up the streets in a legal way and stop pissing on the line they constantly stepped over. Sometimes the characters showed great contrition in the deeds they had done. And other times, Vic Mackey and his partners were beyond recalcitrant for the sake of being difficult as they figured out how to climb out of the latest hole they had dug for themselves.

Redemption presented itself constantly, and you often hoped they would stop breaking the law they were supposed to protect.

Blake Griffin is redemption.

Blake Griffin has taken over the NBA in a way we really haven’t seen since Vince Carter in 1999. Sure, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony were being dubbed as the new Magic-Bird rivalry in 2003 and we’ve all seen the early hype from young stars like Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and Andrea Bargnani (just checking to see if you’re still paying attention). But when’s the last time a player was wowing us every time down the floor?

When was the last time we truly gave a damn about the Clippers? Have we ever truly given a damn about the Clippers? They’ve been the punch line to many NBA and owners hating brown people jokes over the years. And yet now they have people considering a playoff berth despite the fact the team started this season 5-21.

We haven’t seen this kind of star kick down the door for a little breaking and entering into America’s households since Vince Carter. Vince was the next big thing. Maybe we forced that title upon him when he was unwilling to embrace it, but regardless of his acceptance of where we wanted him in the history of the NBA folklore, it was his to own.

He played along early on in his career because it was probably pretty fun. He got the veteran versions of his peers who had seen it all before to drop their jaws to the floor and grab their ankles. He did spectacular feats we never knew were possible. He was THE reason to watch SportsCenter every night. He didn’t invent YouTube but he might as well have.

And yet, as his stardom grew to insane heights, his reluctance built itself into a nice little cocoon of discomfort. We begged him to be what we needed to fill Michael Jordan’s void. He grew complacent in his ability to care about what we needed him to care about. Time after time, Vince Carter was given a second, third, or eighth chance to be what we asked of him. Time after time, Vince Carter proved to hate trying to be what we desired.

Over a decade later, Vince Carter is being given his redemption by a locomotive from Dante’s Inferno.

Blake Griffin is an Absinthe hallucination.

Nothing he does is real. It’s all created in our minds and hearts through some inebriated state of fandom. He is the wet dream of Nielsen Ratings. If you were to create a player in NBA 2K11, you’d GameShark your way to an infinite amount of skill points and build the 250 lbs propulsion device that is Blake Griffin.

It’s not that he’s inventing the art of dunking or the concept of the highlight play. That was down decades ago. It’s that he’s doing these things with a ferocity that is both sexually gratifying and completely animalistic in its nature. He’s relentlessly violent in the way he attacks the rim. Cut him off from the dunk and he’ll just hang in the air until he finds the right angle for his shot.

Talking about his motor would often be as cliché as asking him to take things one game at a time and give 110%. But the guy works himself into complete exhaustion in a way that makes the Energizer Bunny want to throw down the drum set, put his feet up on the ottoman, and see if Lamar Odom is going to have an awkward conversation with whatever it is we’re calling “Bruce Jenner” on the newest Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

At 6’10” he has the handle of a mid-level exception earning combo guard. We’ve seen his jumper extend comfortably out to the 3-point line on occasion and his touch off the glass from 2 feet or 16 feet makes you all tingly inside. If LeBron James is what it would be like if Karl Malone was a point guard, then Blake Griffin is what it would be like if LeBron James decided to swallow his pride and become the power forward some of us have hoped he’ll want to be.

We’re getting to the point in which the absurd is becoming routine and each new stat line and performance is becoming preposterous. An oversized Adonis dribbling into the lane, spinning off his defender and gathering himself for a tomahawk dunk that would be a felony in 13 states is only mildly entertaining because I’m still thinking back to the time he checked Timofey Mozgov for lice before he literally threw the ball into the basket from up above.

It’s not all limericks and fuzzy navels with Blake. His defensive awareness is alarmingly out of touch and you’re always going to be afraid he’s one big fall from snapping into his knee ligaments like a Slim Jim. But don’t we worry about that with every budding high-flyer?

The Los Angeles Clippers finally have clout for the first time in their franchise’s history. There have been moments and seasons of becoming a breakthrough performer with this organization before but for the most part, they managed to ruin it for themselves in the most embarrassing of ways. Now, Blake Griffin is putting together one of the most impressive athletic ventures in the history of competition – making the Clippers a winner.

The exciting thing with Griffin is he has so much room to grow. I think he’ll become a good defender and shore up his game with more succinct, efficient ways of dominating all around the floor. But there is no guarantee he’ll ever be better than what he is now. The fun part is going to see him go from just getting by on raw instinct to letting his understanding of the league shape the next wave of highlights that crash over us.

Blake Griffin is not just becoming the most exciting part of an NBA that has a restored Lakers-Celtics rivalry adding to the history books and the conglomeration of superstars forming in groups of three to try to overtake them. He’s letting the disappointing and reluctant stars of NBA’s past off the hook for not living up to our expectations. He’s absolving the sins of those who haven’t met our anticipations.

Who knows where Blake Griffin takes us next.

I’m just excited I found a new favorite show.

Say hello to the bad guy and other movie villain clichés

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

That was the famous quote from “The Dark Knight” when the film made its one last philosophical push to wrap things up. It’s the idea that you will be loved if you die early so nobody can get tired of you always being around – throwing your talents in everybody’s face.

Basically, you’re better off being Kurt Cobain than LeBron James.

Except that quote is sort of a load of guano.

You know who tried to die a hero? Kevin Garnett. You know who got vilified anyway? Kevin Garnett.

Now, LeBron is embracing his villainous stature like he gets nourishment from eating babies, stomping on puppies and masturbating to I Hate Orphans Quarterly. We see the change right before our very eyes. It didn’t start with The Decision or whatever the hell he was doing during the 2010 playoffs against the Celtics. It began the night he went to Cleveland and tried to put out the inferno by using Chevron With Techron.

THAT was the moment in which we saw LeBron James decide to be the villain we’re seeing evolve in front of us on a nightly basis. I honestly believe he didn’t know what was going to happen the night he returned to Cleveland. I don’t think he knew he was going to destroy them until he stepped onto the court. Going back to the proverbial scene of the crime (I guess technically the Boys and Girls Club in Connecticut is the scene but you know what I mean here) had to have been intimidating on many levels.

What if someone took things too seriously and tried to do him bodily harm? Stick and stones may break my bones but I’m going to drop jumpers on you until you feel bad for burning my jersey. Once he stepped to the court and did his chalk toss in front of angry fans and an unimpressed Wally Szczerbiak, it was back to the normal routine. It brought out the killer in him.

Since then, LeBron has a more devious look in his eyes when he and the Heat are steamrolling teams. Wade feeds off of it a bit and Joel Anthony would too if he could catch it. But the growing malevolence emanating from him reminds me of the Evil from “The Fifth Element.” The more you attacked it; the stronger it got. And that’s been LeBron since he tore down the Q in Cleveland.

He’s enjoying the blowouts a bit more and there’s a mischievous aura around him while he’s doing it. Look at the way he won the game in Portland the other night:

For all ostensive purposes James’ bucket sealed Miami’s come-from-behind, 107-100 victory. Nonetheless, Blazer coach Nate McMillan called timeout.

But instead of following his team to the huddle, James walked to the other side of the court, his arms in the air beckoning and chiding the Portland fans who booed him on every touch since introductions. “You want to boo me?” James’ gestures seemed to say. “Well go right ahead and kiss my ass.”

In the postgame comments, he says, “I’ve kind of accepted this little villain role everyone has placed on me, and I’m okay with it.”

For once, the preening seems to be headed somewhere. It’s not him acting as we all accused him of doing for years. I always thought he was an entertainer first, and this so-called killer second. He wanted to make a gorillion dollars more than he wanted to win, or at least that’s what I assumed. But now, it appears as if he’s happy with where he is in society’s view and looking to be the bad guy. If the boos truly fuel him, then we’re headed for a transcendent era of basketball.

Nobody is more hated than LeBron James right now. People seem to have forgotten their contempt for Kobe and couldn’t care less if Mike Vick went all “Shocker” on a room full of Corgis. LeBron James broke up with his girlfriend on national television for the hot girl with implants and is now flaunting her in front of every camera that broadcasts back home.

I sort of love the fact that he slammed the Cavs during their darkest hour on Tuesday night.

Why shouldn’t he? Why should the villain be the mature one here? When did you ever see The Joker, Hans Gruber or the Jonas Brothers be the bigger person in a situation? Villains disturb people and they laugh at the misfortune of others. They enjoy the pain of others because that’s just some villainous type of shit to do.

LeBron didn’t live long enough to see himself become the villain. He just flat-out decided to do it. He embodied it like Heath Ledger’s version of the evil clown gone madder.

I wouldn’t be shocked if the Miami Heat’s way of bringing in veterans to round out the roster this summer was LeBron bringing them into a room, snapping a cue stick in half and telling them it was their audition for the team with just one spot to fill. I want to see this from LeBron.

Somewhere along the line, sports became so personal and everyone forgot it was just entertainment. It was an escape into a competitive world that quenched our ancestral thirst for gladiator blood. I want the best player in the world to turn heel and give us a sideshow of epic proportions.

Thank you, LeBron, for becoming this character. Whether it will end up working in your favor or not is beside the point. I don’t really care if you win. I’m just happy you’re doing it.

Forget being the hero. Look into your next victim’s eyes and ask them, “Why so serious?”

It makes for a better story.

UPDATE: LeBron has backtracked on this tweet:

@TheAkronHammer: LeBron on “The Tweet”: “It was someone who sent it to me and I sent it out.”

Way to make yourself look like a wuss again, LeBron. I guess you’re still about image over being a “killer.”

Wide open spaces

There’s an old saying that states, “A cluttered house is a sign of a cluttered mind.”

It makes sense too. You can be suffocated by the lack of space around you or by all of your possessions. If you’re able to roam freely physically, then you’re probably able to be completely aware of the space around you. Instead of worrying about moving around objects, your mind is left open for better awareness in many aspects of your life.

A perfect sports example of this is the early success of Kurt Warner when he took over the Fastest Show on Turf in St. Louis. Before he was the greatest undrafted player in NFL history, Kurt Warner was tearing up the Arena Football League as a speed-junky type of surgeon, picking apart defenses in a very compact environment.

The Arena Football League’s field is extremely small compared to the NFL dimensions. The AFL field is 85 feet wide and 200 feet long. It’s essentially the size of a hockey rink (thanks, Wikipedia!). To be a great quarterback in such close quarters is pretty impressive because you would assume the defense is everywhere at all time. When Warner finally got his real chance at the NFL, he was now looking at a field that is 160 feet wide and 320 feet long.

It wasn’t so much that Warner had a longer field to work with in throwing the ball; he now had so much room from side-to-side to operate. A wider field meant incredible freedom in how he approached the passing game. You could wait a little longer on crossing routes. Swing passes out of the backfield were now much more fruitful. The defense wasn’t making him so claustrophobic.

Opening the field of play visually for someone with the instincts of Kurt Warner is just like playing off of Rajon Rondo because he’s a bad shooter. The playing off Rondo strategy drives me insane. People (Derrick Rose fans) want to discount Rajon Rondo’s production because he’s playing with Hall of Famers and personally, I think that’s a crock of excrement.

Want to know why Rajon Rondo is putting up impressive assist numbers over the last two seasons? Because teams are giving him an NFL field to work with on the NBA court. Everybody knows Rajon Rondo is a poor outside shooter. Sure, you can point out that it’s improved and he once hit a bunch of 3s in a H-O-R-S-E competition and when the sun isn’t in his eyes he’s actually pretty good as long as the wind isn’t blowing. Let’s face reality though; in an NBA game, Rajon Rondo can’t shoot.

You know who else knows that Rajon isn’t a good shooter? Rajon Rondo. He knows it’s a low percentage shot for him to just take the bait and pull up for a jumper. If he does that to bail the defense out instead of attacking and setting up his teammates than he’s failed as a point guard. If Rondo needed to be a scorer, he could do it. He could take jumpers in games until he was comfortable enough with it. He could drive to the basket with ease and get the ball to the backboard instead of looking for a cutter or spot-up shooter.

Instead, Rondo shows patience out there and instead of trying to show how much of a man he is by shooting the ball, he’s point guarding the hell out of the defense by using the space given to him as a head start.

Normally, playing off of someone helps you protect against the drive. But with athletic aberrations like Rajon, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, you’re giving the quickest players in the world a head start to attack you. By the time they’ve made up the six feet you’re giving them, they’re at full speed and you’re backpedaling awkwardly as a defender.

Not only do you give Rondo a head start by playing so far off of him but you’re also giving him all the passing angles he could ever want. You’re not going to prevent him from driving by playing up on him. He’s very good with the ball and probably quicker than you. But by playing up on Rondo, you’d be making him turn his body to protect the ball and cut down a lot of his vision on the court.

Unfortunately for the Celtics opponents, they’d much rather play lazy conventional basketball wisdom instead of adjusting to the new age of players and abilities. Rondo never has to look out of the corner of his eye to find an open teammate. He gets to stand squared up to the basket, keeping his dribble and patience alive while waiting for the play to develop. Meanwhile, his opponent is too far away to actually affect a pass unless it’s coming right at him.

When you see Chris Paul get a bunch of steals, do you see him picking off passes a couple yards away from his defensive assignment or do you see him pestering his opponent a couple inches away and reading the guy’s eyes? He’s picking off passes right off the passer’s hand instead of trying to guess correctly on playing the passing lane. Why wouldn’t teams attempt this with Rondo?

Instead, Rajon is being allowed to do his Kurt Warner impersonation. He has a gigantic field in front of him to work with, while he out-waits you. His crossing patterns get extended. His swing passes are unmolested. The defense is nowhere to be found bothering him.

The only thing cluttering up Rajon Rondo’s mind right now are his increasingly astounding assists numbers. And it’s all due to the fact he doesn’t have a house cluttered with defensive pressure in front of him.

One left in the chamber; how will it be used?

Zombie movies.

I often find them more entertaining than terrifying because for most of my life I’ve seen the undead moseying around malls, gun stores and the barren streets of Anytown, USA like Baron Davis strolls through off-season conditioning programs. The idea that you could power walk past of group of zombies never occurs to anybody in these movies. Instead, they just trap themselves in a room with no exit plan and hope the army will be there to rescue them as soon as the CB radio starts working.

But over the last decade or so, we’ve seen a lot more zombies doing their Derrick Rose impersonations in movies. Lifeless, expressionless faces that get wind of some blood to feast on and start moving at a relentless breakneck speed to devour their opponents. Zombie movies have gone from gory relics to gory adventures that specialize in the surprise moment that makes you pee a little.

The one constant in nearly every zombie movie is the one tough guy that has to get left behind. Maybe he broke his leg and is slowing the group down. Maybe he’s been bitten and wants one final standoff before he un-dies. But the movies always leave one guy with enough ammunition to (re)kill some zombies before putting the last bullet in his own head to avoid being eaten alive by his soon-to-be brethren.

This always seems to be the way to go too. Kill as many as you can before taking your own life. Die on your terms so that you don’t succumb to being a zombie and wandering the Earth looking for a brain soufflé to snack on.

And this is where we find Kobe Bryant right now, isn’t it? He’s had a ridiculously successful career. Regardless of who you think was responsible for the first three championship rings of his career, he’s now in the Top 10 in all-time scoring and he’s a five-time champion. By the time his career is over, he’s going to have arguably the most impressive résumé in NBA history.

However, as we watch this current Lakers squad struggle through seemingly meaningless regular season games and wait for them to turn it on in the playoffs, we no longer see the same Kobe Bryant would used to put up more of a fight than (Eagle, Colorado joke redacted). Now, it seems like Kobe Bryant is hell-bent on proving he’s still got it instead of just still having it.

What’s the difference?

For some reason, there was always this fear that you didn’t want to piss Kobe Bryant off. I believed it at times and at times I thought it was complete poppycock. When Raja Bell clotheslined Kobe in the 2006 playoffs, I feared for Raja Bell’s career. The Lakers were up 3-1 in the series, but down double digits to the Phoenix Suns in Game 5. Kobe had been picking the Suns apart in that series with smart play and timely scoring.

Then Raja Bell took a huge gamble. After feeling was elbowed time after time without repercussions against Kobe, Raja decided to send a message. Raja went Hacksaw Jim Duggan on Bryant, showing he wasn’t going to be bullied or cheap-shotted by any player. This was supposed to be pouring vinegar into the volcano experiment at the school science fair. We were supposed to see an eruption. Kobe was supposed to put the Lakers on his back again, erase the double-digit deficit and end the series in that game.

Instead, the Suns extended the lead and won comfortably. The next game, Kobe went off for 50 against a Raja-less Suns squad and it meant nothing because Phoenix pulled out the victory. In the final game of the series, Kobe was a strange and virtual no-show. Sure, he had a nice game numbers-wise and played 43 minutes in a 31-point drubbing by the Suns, but it seemed like he was unable to do what we assumed would be done – make Raja sorry for challenging him.

Since that moment, we’ve seen plenty of teams challenge Kobe and almost dare him to do it on his own. Sometimes it has backfired and sometimes it has worked. But it’s always almost been like clockwork. Get Kobe feeling like you don’t think he’s good enough and he’s going to take the bait. He’ll go into hero mode and either shoot his team out of contention or shoot them to the top of the world. Regardless of the result, the storyline of how that result comes to fruition is the same.

Fadeaway jumpers that you’d only pretend to be able to make. Rocking the defender back and forth before shooting the jumper in his face. Taking the double and triple teams as if Troy Hudson were on you and firing a ridiculously hard jumper over everybody. Start taking 3-pointers like you’re Dana Barros.

These are the things you could trick Kobe into doing nearly every time. When Pau Gasol came over to the Lakers, Kobe curtailed that mode he loved to take over and bought deeply into the team concept. Let your teammates take much more responsibility, pick your spots and drive the dagger into your opponents at the end. It’s what Phil Jackson always wanted Kobe to be.

But that can only go on for so long with a guy like Kobe Bryant. Eventually, you start getting that itch. Maybe it’s when there are opinions that Pau Gasol was the real MVP of the 2010 Finals. Perhaps, it’s when people are giving Pau the brunt of the credit for the Lakers fast start to begin their latest 3-peat quest. Whatever it is, something has triggered Kobe Bryant to start doing more on his own.

The problem is nobody is really THAT scared of him at this point. I’m sure the respect is still there for many players. I bet if you polled the league, the majority of the guys would say Kobe is the best player in the NBA. It’s just that looking at Kobe Bryant trying to figure out how to dominate without having his elite athleticism anymore shows a huge chink in the armor.

It’s not that he can’t do it either. He has plenty of games this year in which he looks just as good as he was last season. However, every team he faces would love for him to try to take over the games. He’s not going to beat you by attacking the basket anymore. He’s just rolling the dice with getting jumpers on his creaky knees and arthritic trigger finger.

The smart thing to do would be to rest up for the playoffs (he’s partially able to do that with only 32 minutes per game), let Pau and Odom and Bynum (whenever he’s available and good again) to do the dirty work. Then have Kobe come in and save the day when he needs to close. Unfortunately, that’s just not how Kobe is wired. He doesn’t have to be the man because of his ego. He has to be the man because he thinks he can still do it.

Some nights he can.

But many nights lately, there are just too many inconsistent performances that leave you wondering what is wrong with the Lakers. Why are they playing so incoherently? Why won’t they do the simple and smart things that always lead them to wins?

I try not to overreact to the malaise of the Lakers right now because I think they’ll turn it on and be heads and shoulders above the rest in the Western Conference playoffs. But what if they don’t?

What if this is the beginning of the fall of the Lakers civilization? What if the Spurs, Mavs, and Thunder are storming the cities and beginning to devour? What if the undead of the Western Conference are no longer sauntering through the paths and have began to adapt and run at a breakneck speed the Lakers simply aren’t equipped to handle?

The noble thing to do would be for Kobe to stay behind, let his teammates prosper ahead and go down with some fight. He’d leave one in the chamber for himself and go out on his terms (in the classical sense).

I just don’t think Kobe’s terms are the same terms we see in those zombie movies. I think Kobe’s terms are keeping the group together, taking the lead and using everybody’s guns and ammunition for them. You’re going to have hoards of Raja Bells challenging the Lakers and trying to destroy Kobe’s brain.

Will Kobe sacrifice himself and his glory for the good of the organization? Or will he be the guy that uses up all of the ammunition and lets the masses of opposition tear him apart while still fighting tooth and nail?

I’m not sure how this movie will end, but I do know it’s going to be gory.

HP Big Man Eulogy #2: Yao Ming a threat no more

Why do we always have to meet this way?

Yao Ming has a stress fracture in his ankle. That means he’s out for the month/year/career/millennium/Willennium/whatever.

And another absurdly talented and young big man goes down. Yao Ming is a veteran by NBA standards but he’s only 30 years old. Even though 30 is when you start getting up there in NBA years, it’s still young enough to matter on a grand scale in the NBA – especially when you’re 7’6” with one of the best touches around the basket these eyes have seen.

We all thought he was going to be a stiff. He was a slow, lumbering, Chinese freak coming into a league of quicker, more athletic American born players that were going to eat him alive. Charles Barkley was going to kiss Kenny Smith’s donkey (still amazing Kenny Smith has a donkey, even if only for a studio show stunt) if he ever scored 19 points in a game. He did and Chuck did.

In fact, over the first five years of Yao’s career, he improved in a way none of us really expected. I never thought he was going to be bad, but I also never thought he was going to be a guy I thought could lead his team to a title. But as he turned 26 years old and showed so much improvement in every aspect of his game, I was convinced that he and Tracy McGrady could get it done in some way. But injuries happened to T-Mac and even worse happened to Yao too.

In the first three seasons of Yao’s stay in the NBA, he played two full seasons and missed just two games in the other season. The next three seasons Yao missed 86 of the 246 regular season games. And so his career went.

Tons of potential. Immeasurable skill that could dominate basketball games. Brittle extremities that kept him from being truly great.

He’s not the only one. I gushed and eulogized over Greg Oden over the last two years. Zyndrunas Ilgauskas had similar problems. Danny Manning’s body failed him constantly. Sam Bowie became a running joke. Ralph Sampson never got to be Ralph Sampson. Bill Walton is a fused together, walking tragedy of basketball proportions. This happens to big men. It happens to everyone really. Injuries are a part of sports. Sometimes the great ones can’t stay on the court and get a chance to prove just how great they are.

But Yao sort of teased us too. That’s the really hard thing about his story. Greg Oden just hasn’t been able to stay on the court. He had a couple of nice glimpses in which he showed a world of potential. Yao Ming showed us glimpses of substance, then was too injured to stay on the court, then came back for (in retrospect) one last hurrah.

In the 2008-09 season, he played 77 games. And it wasn’t like the experiment of this season in which they limited his minutes and shut him down on back-to-backs. He played 77 games and averaged 33.6 minutes per game that season. And he posed as a big threat to the Lakers’ big title hopes in the second round.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you the Rockets win that second round series against the Lakers if Yao his healthy for seven games instead of just the three he played. The series went seven because the Lakers could coast and still come out the victor. But the threat was there and most god-fearing, non-Kobe slurping Laker fans over the age of 17 know this to be true.

Unfortunately, that’s all Yao has ever been: a threat. He threatened to be a force in this league. He threatened to be a franchise player. He threatened to be the best center in the NBA.

Now he’s out for the rest of probably this year, next year and the rest of the years. He hasn’t necessarily moved on. He’s just in another holding pattern we’re all used to seeing with him. He’s been neutralized by his bad wheels once again.

In his own words, “I haven’t died. Right now I’m drinking a beer and eating fried chicken. What were you expecting, a funeral?”

Let’s hope he can be a threat to NBA frontcourts again, instead of just a threat to Buffalo Wild Wings.

Greg Oden: Basketball Tragedy

Tragedies happen in basketball that transcend the sport.

I’m not talking about the passing of Maurice Lucas or Hank Gathers collapsing on the court or Len Bias overdosing on cocaine.

Those aren’t basketball tragedies. They’re real life tragedies that happen to be related to basketball in some way. While it was cruel for Reggie Lewis to be taken away from us at an early age or for Bobby Phills to have died while racing his car or for Malik Sealy to have been killed by a drunk driver, they have very little to do with tragedies in basketball and everything to do with life just not going the way you thought it should.

However, horrific and career-altering injuries are true basketball tragedies. When Shaun Livingston’s knee has an out of body experience or Danny Manning just can’t seem to All The King’s Men his health back together again in order to be the league-changing talent he’s supposed to be, those are real basketball tragedies. And the rancor of basketball tragedies has once again befallen its favorite victim – Greg Oden.

Microfracture surgery again for Greg Oden.

Those words mean so much pain and suffering in the relative basketball sense. Yes, there has been pain and suffering in basketball past. The Kings getting bested by the Los Angeles Lakers was extremely frustrating for Kings fans. John Stockton and Karl Malone getting out-legacy’d by Michael Jordan in back-to-back NBA Finals was its own form of suffering. Kevin Garnett not being able to take overmatched team after overmatched team out of the first round was a crappy basketball experience for eight years.

But there is a huge difference in what happened in those situations and what is happening with Greg Oden and Portland Trailblazers fans. Those chances for greatness or legend or some type of validation were thwarted time after time over the past decade and a half. Hopes rose up into the air and then got smashed back down by the hammer of shoulda-woulda-coulda. Greg Oden, on the other hand, never got a chance to get off the ground.

He’s been a punch line for years now. It’s been customary and downright cliché to make fun of his age by throwing out the name Benjamin Button, or make a veiled/blatant comparison to the ghost of Sam Bowie’s past, or talk about the time it appeared he was doing telemarketing through text message while trying to push this product (NSFW). After this latest blow to the start of his career, I find it hard to believe any decent person could find any humor or lighthearted nature to his latest setback.

Greg Oden is going to miss this entire season. It will be his second entire season in four years that he misses. And just to be realistic, let’s assume he’s not going to be around for the 2011-2012 NBA season because he’ll be rehabbing and taking another cautious approach to coming back at full strength. That just sucks.

When I was gathering my thoughts for trying to bring myself to write this piece, I just kept getting more and more depressed about what is supposed to be of his career. John Krolik and I briefly GChatted about this Wednesday night and remembered that Dwight Howard was supposed to bridge the gap from the last great center, Shaquille O’Neal, until Greg Oden was ready to take over. THAT’S supposed to be Greg’s legacy. He was the next big thing.

So many of us were so sure about it too. Greg had all of the makings of the stuff legends were sculpted from. He had an impossibly big frame that moved amongst the trees like the Predator big game hunting California’s future gubernatorial punch line. He was the protective device behind the emergency glass you were supposed to break on defense if someone dared to approach the basket. Now, he’s getting unfunny Mr. Glass references thrown his way. Nobody should ever be subjected to M. Night Shyamalan movie references.

This hits a sore spot with me because I’ve been waiting with bated breath for the birth of the next great big man. That big man was supposed to be Greg Oden. Like many Blazers fans, I’ve been sitting here in the refuse of injury after injury with him, just anticipating the day when he was going to prove us all right and take his place amongst the dominating forces in the NBA. I attempted to wax poetically about him a long time ago and try to make the case (poorly I might add) that either I was a freaking genius about what he would become or just plain insane. Turns out I was naïve and insane.

What’s that old joke? How do you keep an idiot in suspense? The punch line used to be that you just waited in silence after stating the question and the person waiting for the answer that was strategically not going to come was the idiot. Now the answer is to get that person to believe Greg Oden can still be something someday and watch as I take spoonful after spoonful of this pipe dream.

You can make the case that if you give up on Greg Oden then you might as well give up on Andrew Bynum because he too is injured and unaware of when a comeback might happen. He too is sitting on a volcano of untapped potential and leaving us all wondering when it’s finally going to erupt. So if you’re going to write off one 22-year old wannabe phenom in Oden, shouldn’t you write off the other 22-year old phenom center who is battling knee ailment after knee ailment?

But Bynum isn’t exactly there with Oden right now. He’s not out for another two seasons. He’s in knee injury purgatory while Greg has been shipped right back down to patella hell.

When I was gathering my thoughts for this piece earlier like I mentioned above, I decided to go for a run and throw on the music in my iPhone. I didn’t care that it was nearly midnight. I strapped on my knee band, put a brace over my ankle, threw on a hoodie and took off for a little 40-block excursion. I decided to push myself a bit, despite not stretching at all, because I wanted to feel like I was working. Maybe in a way I was trying to empathize with what Greg was going to go through AGAIN. There’s no doubt in my mind Greg Oden will have the surgery, get back in the rehab process and try again. He’ll work his tail off one more time, and try to get back to a position in which he can be a functioning member of the NBA society.

Where will that leave him? What’s the best-case scenario for Greg, his psyche and his potential for making something out of his career? He works his ass off, gets the benefit of a lockout shortening next season so it doesn’t seem like he missed so much time? The NBA resorts to another 50-game season and by the time the next full regular season is upon us in the fall of 2012, he is back with a tryout as a free agent somewhere? Doesn’t that just suck?

When I was running through darkness and the light fog tonight, attempting to make sense of such a cruel joke being played on one of the kinder, gentler giants of my generation, I threw on some Biggie Smalls to try to get my head in the right frame of mind. Somehow, I accidentally hit the “Genius” button on my phone and it created a playlist of allegedly related songs. Randomly, “Many Men” by 50 Cent came on as I hit my full stride. This part of the first verse stuck out for me:

“Now these p**** n***** putting money on my head
Go on and get your refund motherf*****, I ain’t dead
I’m the diamond in the dirt, that ain’t been found
I’m the underground king and I ain’t been crowned”

Doesn’t that kind of sum up Greg Oden completely right now? It feels like the basketball Grim Reaper has put a contract out on him. But he’s still not dead. At least, I’m hoping he’s not. In my mind, he’s always been this diamond in the dirt since the knee injuries started to pile up and I claimed I had found him last year. Except he still hasn’t been found. In my mind, he was always the underground king, waiting to sit atop his big man throne, but he hasn’t been capable of taking his crown yet.

Greg Oden has become the answer to a trivia question, instead of the answer to Portland’s prayers. It turns out I was dead wrong about him. Maybe he is good when he’s healthy, but that idea/argument has been vaporized. It doesn’t matter what he’s done when he was healthy because health isn’t a luxury you get when describing the situation of Greg Oden. I’ll still hold out hope that he can come back and matter in the NBA because I’m just stubborn like that.

It’s not about not wanting to be wrong. I am/was wrong about Greg Oden. A lot of us were.

It’s about holding out hope that at some point this guy can catch a freaking break. That Blazers fans can finally enjoy watching this guy game after game. That the NBA die-hards can rejoice in watching him master the art of protection.

Some guys never get that break though.

Some guys are just destined to be basketball tragedies.

Get well, Greg.