Category Archives: Commentary

The Little Things

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Any storyline you could possibly want could be transposed onto this series. LeBron battled the memories of the 2007 Finals sweep by killing the Spurs with his midrange jumper. Dwyane Wade powered through his injury and willed the team to victory. The Spurs are too old to compete.  The Spurs are a hardworking and disciplined team, sometimes to their detriment. The Heat bought their championship. The Spurs choked away Games 6 and 7. Vogel shouldn’t have sat Roy Hibbert. T-Mac is an albatross. Birdman! And so on.

We’ve assumed since the end of last season that the Heat were going to repeat as champions after mopping the floor with the Thunder after five games. They’re the best, and we’ve known they’re the best, however frustrating that may have been or continues to be. But just because we had that assumption doesn’t mean that it played out like we thought it would. We thought that the Heat thought that they were entitled to a title. But they played great basketball in two back-to-back seven-game series. It wasn’t easy for them. They had to earn it, even if we thought they’d get it anyway.

But I guess there has been one narrative rolling around in my head that I want to get out. The Heat were assumed to be invincible. And even though they eventually won the title, we saw that they’re not. There are real questions about their long-term success that are based mostly in Wade’s health and Bosh’s ability to contribute consistently without being taken out of a game. They’re not invincible, and they’re title window is finite. But those questions can come later. Now we should celebrate the fact that we just witnessed one of the best-played series in NBA history; I mean, it’s certainly the best series I’ve watched.

To me, last night’s game wasn’t about battling demons or defining legacies. No one choked, and no one willed themselves above anyone else. Thirty players and two coaches were ready to go last night–as they have been for the past two weeks and seven preceding months–and they went at it. Shots were made because passes were crisp. Shots were missed because defensive rotations were on point. Turnovers happened because sometimes your hands get super sweaty when you’re sapping all of the adrenaline in your body. And the game of basketball was played by two teams that can really play basketball. This quote from Shane Battier before Game 7 about this series at Eye on Basketball (H/T: PAPA BEAR) says it all:

“It’s gone back to the little things,” Battier said. “It’s gone back to the little things. It’s about transition defense. It’s about ball-you-man basketball. It’s about boxing out. As crazy as it is with the chess pieces being moved all over the board, the things that are deciding this game are the things you learn playing kiddie ball at the YMCA. That’s what makes it exciting for the basketball purists. As sophisticated as it is, it’s really about basketball plays.”

I mean, yes. Exactly. That’s exactly what happened. Great execution? Check. Great defense? Check. Even (though at times unpredictable) refereeing? Check. Lack of hard fouls that are clearly the byproduct of frustration? Check. Commitment to the system that got you to this high a level? Check. A possibly different winner had this been a shorter or longer series? Check.

A few weeks ago I wrote, “I just wish basketball could be about basketball.” After watching last night’s game and this series over the past two weeks, my wish definitely came true.

The Difficulty of Letting Go

Say the person you’ve been seeing and living with for the last seven years decides that she no longer wants to be together, but lucky for you, she still wants to keep you around as a friend as you both continue to live out your lease. However, considering how much history you have together, she lays down some ground rules. Of course, no more sharing a bed and things like that. Furthermore, she says she’s going to start dating soon and let’s you know ahead of time she’s going to be bringing her dates over for dinner from time-to-time, and you’re going to need to be able to deal with this if you wish to continue living together.

Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with you. I mean, first you’re asked to take a diminished role in her life, and now she wants to act like the last seven years never happened? Yeah, things had gotten stale over the last few years of the relationship but you two used to have a lot of great times together, and that has to count for something. Up until this point you probably told your friends that you’re just going through a rough patch and things will be fine. And maybe you really believe this because if she was really over you, she would’ve just thrown you on your ass instead of keeping you around, right?

Now what are you supposed to do? Bring your own dates over to the apartment you’re still sharing with your ex-girlfriend of seven years? Yeah, that’s not weird at all. Good luck with convincing any new dating prospects otherwise. It’s really  not fair to you, either. You still believe that you deserve that larger role in someone’s life, but by still staying with your Ex in a minimized role isn’t going to get you back to where you want to be. Which of course is strange because you still feel like you have a lot to offer, she begs to differ, but still you remain living with her in a situation that will keeping you from being where you want. To be honest, if you were both seeing things clearly you would realize that you both need to break ties and start over.

Now imagine you’re the Toronto Raptors and the former general manager Bryan Colangelo, who accepted a reduced role on Tuesday, is your significant other.

While things got off to a promising start early in their relationship with back-to-back playoff appearances and even an Executive of the Year award for Colangelo in year one, things certainly have stagnated in Toronto. It’s been five years since the Raptors have last made the playoffs, and even though they lost Chris Bosh in 2010, other teams that have lost superstars are further along in their rebuild than they are. Thanks to Colangelo they won 34 games with the league’s 20th largest payroll, while teams like Indiana, Memphis and Milwaukee were able to build playoff teams with smaller payrolls. To make matters worse, next season the Raptors will owe Rudy Gay $17m, Andreas Bargnani $11m, and nearly $10m between Lienas Klieza and Landry Fields as DeMar DeRozan’s $9m extension kicks in. And if you count Kyle Lowry’s $6m salary for next season, that amounts to a combined $53 for a team without a first round pick and that will probably not win even win 40 games next season.

Yeah, it was time for change in Toronto, but they only went halfway on implementing that change.

As for the Raptors as an organization, keeping around their failed GM does not present a good look to the rest of the league and any potential players considering Toronto in free agency. Players know that they haven’t made the playoffs in five years and are still going to be able to see that the man responsible for putting them in the predicament they are in is still working in their front office, albeit in a diminished capacity. See, winning is important to players, and players are more likely to accept things like having to go through customs every time they cross the Canadian border if they believe they are going to a place where they can be successful. However, one look at the Raptors situation, and that does not show that they are looking to do that.

Take the Timberwolves for example. David Kahn had been had his decision-making power marginalized in the last two years of his time in Minnesota, but the Timberwolves, coupled with Rick Adelman on the bench, give off the impression of an organization committed to moving forward completely. Perhaps it’s because they already learned the hard way with Kevin McHale that it doesn’t work to keep the old guy while trying to bring in someone new to do his job, and that decision has worked out better for the team and McHale.

As for the Raptors, it sounds like they have a weird living arrangement-of-sorts. Raptors owner Tim Lieweke said yesterday in a press conference that, “Bryan is going to have to occasionally take a deep breath and understand that a GM is going to have final say in basketball decisions and he’s going to have to live with that. Because if he can’t, I’m fairly certain we’re not going to fire the Toronto Raptors,” which sounds a lot like the ex-girlfriend in our scenario at the top telling her Ex that if he can’t deal with it she’s going to throw him out.

But what’s more, as HP Alum Holly McKenzie laid out yesterday, Lieweke went on to say that the two of them will report directly to him, which seems weirder yet. Oh, so not only are you going to have to live with your ex-girlfriend and have to deal with her having movie nights with her dates, your going to have to sit and watch the movie with them. It also seems like a lot of channels to go through to make a decision, but maybe that’s not atypical. Hey, maybe it’s weird at first before getting used to it, but NBA people, especially those who have stayed around as long as Colangelo, have egos and need one to survive in this business. Having an ego can be a good thing, but at the same time it may make it tough for Colangelo to deal with as he watches someone else do his job with the team he’s run for the last seven years. Put him in the same role with another team, and it’s not as weird since Colangelo and the Raptors have so much history together.

What about the new guy, how is he supposed to feel? After all he has to report to the guy whose job he’s took with the assurance from his boss that, “No, it’s fine; he understands his role.” Personally, that aspect seems weird and doesn’t sounds like it breeds a functional organization. Also, who are you going to get being able to offer half of the responsibilities to? General managers like to be able to have full-power and finding a good one who will want the minimized role will be challenging. Colangelo also spoke about being able to voice his opinion when asked for it and being able to discuss basketball moves with the new decision-maker, but that may be easier said than done, if not weird for the new guy.

The Raptors could use what the couple in our scenario at the top: a friend that is a neutral third-party to be the voice of reason. You can’t move on and fully embrace change while you’re still living in the past. As for the Raptors, Lieweke acknowledged the work that Colangelo has done for Canadian basketball and also how he wants to improve the team’s image, but retaining Colangelo in any capacity does not accomplish this since he’s the one responsible for the team’s current perception. In a perfect world, Colangelo and the new GM will work together in perfect rhythm to bring the Raptors back to relevance, while proving to be the exception to the rule. But I suppose we should see how their first movie night together goes first.

The Maharaja of the 2011 Playoffs

The playoffs are this weekend, and if you are taking the time out of your day to read a post on a blog called Hardwood Paroxysm, you–like me–are excited for the second season to start.

The epic moments that come out of the playoffs always leave lasting memories that makes the anticipation for the start; it’s almost unbearable at times. But we are now only days away, which has got me thinking a lot about past playoffs and some of my most memorable playoff moments.

I will always remember watching Larry Johnson’s four point play in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals.

I will always remember watching Dwyane Wade as a rookie, hitting a game winner over Baron Davis in the First Round of the 2004 NBA Playoffs.

I will always remember being extremely disappointed that Gilbert Arenas missed two free throws in the closing moments of Game Six of the First Round of the 2006 NBA Playoffs which lead to Damon Jones (remember him?) nailing a game and series winning 3-pointer on the other end as the Cavs knocked off the Wizards.

I will always remember moving to Boston and watching the Celtics win the Finals in 2008.

Perhaps the most memorable playoff moment for me, is the First Round of the 2011 Playoffs. That round will always hold a special place in my heart as that was when my father passed away.

***

With my wife in Austin, Texas, visiting a friend, my only plan for that first weekend of the playoffs was to do nothing but watch every game. Don’t judge, do you remember the start of the 2011 playoffs?

Derrick Rose was Derrick Rose and the playoffs were starting with his Bulls taking on the Indiana Pacers. Even though it was not billed as one of the marquee series, I remember being basically giddy to watch playoff-Derrick Rose.

Besides D. Rose, the Knicks were back in the playoffs lead by the mid-season acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. The Memphis Grizzlies and Zach Randolph were also there, and of course this was the first post season run for the Miami Heat’s Big 3.

So many story lines and so much anticipation, what could go wrong?

***

For some reason, I used to turn off my phone before going to bed on Friday nights. Not sure why I really did it because only once in a blue moon would I get a drunk text or call from one of my buddies. So on April 15th, I turned off my phone and went to bed; I slept in and woke up around 11 AM and after brushing my teeth, I took my dogs on a long walk by the Charles River which I live near.

I didn’t bring my phone or turn it on yet.

Back from the walk, I fed my dogs and began to make myself breakfast/lunch. I turned on the TV to watch the pre-game show while I ate. Multitasking, I turned on my phone and was shocked that it wouldn’t stop alerting me of missed phone calls, messages, and texts. Before I could even check anything, my phone rang and my wife was calling me trying to figure out where I had been and letting me know that something happened to my Dad.

Like you, this was literally one of my worst nightmares.

I called my mom and found out that my dad was in critical condition after basically suffering a stroke.

I couldn’t believe it. The playoffs now seemed so inconsequential as I made plans to head to Maryland to be with my family.

***

You couldn’t call my father a sports fan but he encouraged my brother and I to participate in sports while we were growing up. He was the one who installed a basketball hoop in our driveway. He was the one who paid for my SLAM magazine subscription. He bought me a pair of the Nike Air Super CBs, Charles Barkley’s signature shoe because Barkley is my favorite player. Looking back, this was pretty admirable of him to do since he had an almost actual disinterest in the game only watching NBA games when I would force him to. But he appreciated the game and although he played an almost passive role, I would not be such a big basketball fan if it were not for my father.

My father ended up being on life support and his condition worsened over the course of four days. While in his hospital room, the only thing I could really do, to not slip into any type of depression was watch the playoffs. So I did, with my dad.

I watched Chris Paul basically single-handedly beat the Lakers in Game 1 sitting in the hospital room with my dad.

Sitting next to my dad’s bed, I watched Zach Randolph score 25 points and grab 14 rebounds, becoming the Zach Randolph we all knew he could be, as his 8th seeded Grizzlies upset the Spurs in Game 1.

I watched Derrick Rose follow up his 39 point Game 1 performance with 36 points in Game 2, upset that my father couldn’t be awake to witness Rose’s brilliance.

After learning that we had to pull the plug on my father, I will always remember watching with tears in my eyes, Carmelo Anthony launch an one-man attack on the Boston Celtics scoring 42 points in a loss in Game 2.

***

Tragedy can affect us in a myriad number of ways and often having something to distract us from it can help the healing process. I found solace in the 2011 NBA playoffs after my father passed and was rewarded by watching an unbelievable run by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.

It is somewhat surreal that one of my favorite times of the year also marks the passing of my father. Is it a cruel joke for my devotion to the sport? I don’t know if there is an answer to that but I do know that I will never forget the start of the 2011 playoffs.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this

The first thing I thought when I heard Kobe had (probably) torn his Achilles tendon was, “Of course that’s the only part of his body that could take him down.”

Actually, I lied. The real first thing I thought was “HOLY SHIT! WHAT?” Then, I thought about his Achilles tendon.

***

In the Greek epic The Iliad, the poet Homer details the lead-up to, the action during, and the fallout after the Trojan War. The War itself could be boiled down to “Hey, she’s my girl!” and hundreds of thousands of soldiers dying trying to get Helen back to Greece. But the whole Iliad recants the personalities and actions of dozens of characters in Greek tragedy. And one of those characters is Achilles.

Achilles–unlike other gods/demigods/etc like Zeus, Heracles or the Oracles at Delphi–doesn’t permeate other stories as much. He’s arguably not even one of the most important characters in The Iliad (despite being played by Brad Pitt on the big screen). In the story (ANCIENT HISTORY SPOILER ALERT), Achilles is described as a fierce and nearly-perfect warrior who can pretty much do anything thanks to his battle prowess and a bit of a rage problem. But when he hears the news of his best friend Patroclus’s death by hands of the great Trojan warrior Hector, Achilles fires up the ol’ internal-rage-machine and pretty much goes nuts. He chases down Hector, and when they finally battle, Achilles destroys him. But before Hector falls, he tells Achilles two things: he asks him to take care of his body after his death, and he tells Achilles how he himself will die.

Achilles, still in the midst of a rage blackout, ignores everything, and kills Hector. After he kills him, he desecrates his body by dragging it around the outer walls of the city. That pretty much angers all of the gods (body desecration was a big no-no, even back then), and Hector’s prophecy of Achilles’s fate comes true; Paris–another Trojan warrior–shoots him dead with an arrow.

Oh, did I mention the only place Achilles was vulnerable on his whole body was the tendon area attaching his leg to his heel?

***

This entire season, we’ve been watching the Lakers in a way we never have before. Usually, we wait to see who they’re going to dominate on any given night and by how much. Each time they didn’t reach that expectation, it was viewed as a treat. A depraved treat.

This season, the wins were only supposed to become more frequent and more dominant. I mean, remember this? But they didn’t become more dominant. Their wheels were falling off all over the place. Their once-assumed inevitable championship season was now viewed through schadenfreude-colored lenses by most of the basketball-viewing public, and it was the first time that this team was expected to be bad–even though it had been expected to be great. The only thing that was keeping them afloat, while also probably sinking them a bit, was Kobe.

We deride coaches like Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau for playing players 40+ minutes per night. Kobe seems like he’d have it no other way. He doesn’t want the fate of the Lakers to be left up to chance. He wants to control it, and he has to be on the floor as much as possible to do that. Kobe’s jaw, indicative of both his inflated sense of self and his basketball-rage, has been a permanent fixture on his face all year. There’s no letting up for him; there is only full-throttle. Once the Lakers get to the playoffs, he can catch his breath. Then, he needs to prepare for the push through the playoffs to title aspirations.

But all that changed last night. His rage turned into tears of sadness, and all of what he was trying to control slipped out of his grasp.

***

Classical scholars know that the Achilles Heel story doesn’t come out of the same story as the Trojan War.  The legend of Achilles was derived separately, but the whole story of his life is something that has come to be meshed together in our collective consciousness. He was born, and his mother loved him. She loved him so much, that she dipped him into a river that made everything it touched impervious to injury. The only thing on his body it didn’t touch was his heel. He died later in life from a combination of hubris (caused by his assumption of complete invulnerability) and from excessive bleeding to his heel.

Sounds like shit luck.

***

Back when we all thought it was a reality that the Lakers might not make the playoffs, we figured it was because none of these giant pieces could fit well together. We wanted this grand experiment to fail on its hubris and execution. We didn’t want inhibiting factors to be a part of it; that just takes out all the fun. No, we wanted the Lakers to be bad because they were bad. We didn’t want to predict their downfall by injuries. We just wanted them to not be good. We certainly didn’t want Kobe to face the potential end of his career in a moment like this.

Where’s the fun in that? That just sounds terrible.

***

“Kobe” is a word of Japanese origin which supposedly means “supporters of the Shinto shrine.” Shintoism is a spiritual way of life in Japan that encourages deliberate intent in everyday actions to tie oneself to his/her cultural past. “Achilles” derives from ancient Greek  to mean an “embodiment of the grief of the people.”

Everything Kobe did this season was deliberate with the intent of winning the game, making the playoffs, and competing for a championship. Sure, his hubris and unrealistic expectations got in the way of these goals numerous times, but he never did anything that wasn’t for the purpose of winning–whether or not it was for his own legacy or the team’s doesn’t really matter.

Whatever happens for these last few games of the season and into the playoffs, not having Kobe around is going to feel unnatural and unfair. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It wasn’t his time. It wasn’t his time because it wasn’t on his terms. Kobe is more than just the arrogant bastard we’ve been following for 17 years. He’s our arrogant bastard, and he’s been a staple of the NBA for too long for us to just have him taken away from us like this.

I will be sad to not see him in the playoffs, sadder than if his team didn’t get there and if he was fine. Because it wasn’t supposed to be like this. No, not like this.

Birdman: An Appreciation

There has been no shortage of things written about the Miami Heat’s 23-game win streak. Most of the focus is, as it should be, on LeBron’s slow, inevitable march to immortality. But if you put aside the clinical but visceral thrill of watching the best player of the past 15 years find new ways to mutilate opponents every night, there’s been something else about the Heat’s dominant seven weeks that’s been just as enjoyable for me, if not more so. However you feel about the Heat, there is no downside to Chris “Birdman” Andersen being back in our lives in a major way, and the fact that he is legitimately helping a title contender in 2013 is one of the unlikeliest but coolest codas to one of the most unusual careers in recent memory.

Birdman is a pioneer in a lot of ways. He was the first player ever to be called up from the D-League to the NBA in 2001. He was the first to be reinstated to the league after receiving a lifetime ban for violating drug policy. He is possibly the most tattooed player in NBA history, no small feat. The most important thing to remember about him, however, is that he is responsible for the hands-down greatest performance in NBA dunk-contest history, from 2005:

If you can get past the jarring sight of an uninked Birdman, the genius of this performance is apparent. He brought out a crowd of people to stand on the court, the most pointless of all possible props (and I’m generally someone who thinks all props are evil), and then missed the same dunk eight times in a row. It was a brilliant commentary on the overcommercialization of the dunk contest, and considering how awful the last two have been, it now feels as ahead of its time as The Velvet Underground & Nico. In addition to featuring a Birdman that had yet to discover the tattoo parlor, it also included a cameo from then-rookie J.R. Smith. It’s impossible to imagine Smith existing in a world without Twitter (which wouldn’t launch until 2006), but one has to think that he simply asked girls if they were trying to get the pipe via T-Mail on his Sidekick. But I digress.

Birdman’s personal life took a turn for the worse around that time, which led to his much-publicized substance-abuse problems (he has steadfastly refused to say which drugs he used, but the NBA’s “drugs of abuse” list includes cocaine, heroin, and methamphatamine). His 2006 ban from the NBA was overturned in 2008, and he played out the season in New Orleans before signing with the Nuggets the following summer. He is synonymous with the 2008-09 Nuggets, one of the most enjoyable teams of the past few years. They’re primarily known as the only team Carmelo Anthony has ever led out of the first round of the playoffs, but that team also featured a still-in-his-prime Chauncey Billups, Andersen’s former Hornets teammate J.R. Smith (who, along with Kenyon Martin, formed undoubtedly the greatest trio of bad tattoo decisions in the history of professional sports), noted villain Dahntay Jones, and apparently Johan Petro, although I have no recollection of him being on that team. Birdman was the rebounding and shot-blocking force behind that team’s Conference Finals run. Think Kenneth Faried if you cut off his dreads and turned each individual hair into an ink-needle line. His story of addiction and recovery made him a fan favorite as well.

Birdman’s career in Denver never reached those heights again, unfortunately. Injuries and declining play eventually pushed him out of the Nuggets’ rotation, and he was waived last summer under the amnesty clause. Earlier this season, during one of those “Are the Heat in trouble?” periods of the news cycle that always seem to conveniently ignore that the Heat have LeBron James and every other team in the league doesn’t, Miami signed Birdman to a 10-day contract to shore up their rebounding. It was the kind of signing that is usually mocked for taking up a roster spot for someone past their prime that could have been used on a D-Leaguer. But in this case, it worked. Birdman is currently third on the team in total rebounding percentage, including second in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Andersen played his first game with the Heat on January 25, about a week before they began the win streak. Before then, the team’s total rebounding percentage was 48.5. Since Birdman entered the rotation, that number has jumped to 49.7. He’s only playing 13.1 minutes per game, but he’s pulling down 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes and providing a much-needed defensive spark.

More importantly, he starred in the only “Harlem Shake” video I ever have or ever will watch:

There’s something comforting about one of the oddest players in the league settling into the “veteran leadership” stage of his career after a career that’s included so many missed dunks, drugs, and playoff teams that have fallen short. There’s a pretty good chance that Birdman will get a ring this June, and maybe more if the Heat choose to re-sign him. And that seems sort of right.

We’ll Always Have Linsanity: An Excerpt

As you may or may not have already heard, I co-authored a book about the 2011-12 New York Knicks called We’ll Always Have Linsanity: Strange Takes on the Strangest Season in Knicks History along with Jim Cavan, Mike Kurylo, and Robert Silverman from Knickerblogger and Off The Dribble; Seth Rosenthal from Posting and Toasting; Dan Litvin from The Knicks FanBlog; Jason Concepcion a.k.a @netw3rk ; Jake Appleman from everywhere; and Jamie O’Grady, formerly of the LoHud Knicks BlogWill Leitch of New York Magazine wrote our foreword and Norman Hathaway did our illustrations. Below is an excerpt from from the book, which was officially released in its digital form this morning. Enjoy. 

Franchise Movement Deja Vu

Image via T.M. Photography on Flickr

Image via T.M. Photography on Flickr

No one saw it coming, even though everyone kind of did.  Adrian Wojnarowski broke the story–as he is wont to do–that the Sacramento Kings were finalizing their sale to an ownership group in Seattle. While this “Will they or won’t they” Kings saga seems to be reaching a long-drawn-out conclusion (although nothing has been agreed upon), one can’t help but think that this situation is eerily similar to one that took place in the mid-1990s. Well, one could help it, but this one happens to have grown up in Cleveland in the 1990s and knows this story all too well.

In 1996, the Cleveland Browns ceased to exist. The ownership moved the team to Baltimore. Baltimore was thrilled to have a team–after all, its own original team was relocated to Indianapolis in 1983. I wasn’t the only person who couldn’t get this out of my head, so I turned to another Cleveland-Raised-Basketball-Writer-in-Exile, Eric Maroun, for his thoughts.

Amin: Recognizing that the Kings were the only major sports team in Sacramento, how does you feel this move–and the relationship between the fanbase and the ownership–compares to what transpired with the Browns in 1995?

Eric: First of all, the fact that the Kings are the only professional sports team in Sacramento makes this slightly different from the Cleveland situation. At the time of the Browns move, the Indians were coming off their first World Series appearance in 41 years a month prior to the announcement so as painful as the Browns move was, Cleveland fans at least had the Tribe to fall back on every April-October. Sacramento has…the San Francisco Giants, I guess? That’s akin to Cleveland fans cheering for Ohio State. As far as the relationship between the fans and owners go, it’s too bad that the SAT did away with the analogies section years ago because Art Modell:Cleveland as The Maloofs:Sacramento would be a perfect fit. Both fan bases are incredibly passionate, and my heart aches for the people of Sacramento who don’t deserve to be jerked around by these idiots. It’ll be interesting to see how the vitriol among Kings fans compares to Browns fans in 1995 as Cleveland set the standard of hanging Modell in effigy, removing bleacher seats by hand, and bringing saws to Cleveland Municipal Stadium to cut out seats for personal keepsakes. In Cleveland’s last home game, both the Bengals and Browns had to go toward the same end zone in the fourth quarter because fans in the Dawg Pound were literally throwing bleacher benches on to the field. Can you imagine the Clippers-Kings game on April 17 turning into a 5 on 5 half-court game?

Amin: A lot of people are happy to see Seattle get a team back. The Ravens fanbase in and around Baltimore is extremely passionate. The OKC Thunder sure as hell know how to draw a crowd, and the Indianapolis Colts have a long, storied history. But… does any of that matter to Kings fans? Does it matter to anyone?

Eric: In the immediate future, none of that matters. Assuming I’m a Kings fan and the deal goes through, I’m reading that and thinking, “Well all of those cities have teams and we don’t. That’s all well and good for them, but I don’t care what they do. I just want a team in my city.” It’s great to be passionate; that’s one of the best parts about being a sports fan. But at some point, you have to realize that all the passion in the world sometimes cannot overcome business decisions that are made by those in charge. Hell, ONE day after Art Modell announced he was moving the team to Baltimore, the Cleveland voters passed an issue on the ballot that would have provided $175 million in tax revenue to be put toward renovating the Browns stadium. The run down condition that the stadium was in was cited by Modell as one of the reasons for the move, and even the promise of $175 mil couldn’t stop it from happening. Passion is good, but at the end of the day, money talks.

Amin: The Browns “came back” to Cleveland in 1999 after a 3 season deactivation. Seattle gets to do the same thing with their franchise. The Kings legacy is (for now) getting washed away. Do you foresee Sacramento ever getting a sports team back? Do you foresee the Kings ever coming back (they were in Cincinnati and Kansas City before Sacramento)? Do you think Sacramento and the Kings will be reunited?

Eric: Do I think that they’ll get a team in the next three years? Unfortunately, no. I do believe that eventually they’ll land another franchise. After all, the city has a lot going for it. It’s a top 30 city population wise in the United States. There’s a history of basketball there. And there is a fan base and mayor who clearly will do whatever it takes to bring a sports team of any kind to the city, particularly an NBA team. I see this being much more similar in timeline to Baltimore losing the Colts and gaining the Ravens (13 years) than the Browns brief hiatus from Cleveland. If and when they do return, I see no reason why they wouldn’t be called the Kings just as I would expect Seattle to bring back the SuperSonics name as well.

Amin: After the Browns moved to Baltimore, they became–oh, what’s the word?–good. In fact, they won a Superbowl in 2000, something the Browns were never able to do in Cleveland. Once the Sonics left Seattle, their success skyrocketed in just a few years, and fans and front offices across the country applauded “The Oklahoma City Model” as the best way to rebuild a franchise. As of now, the Thunder are defending Western Conference champions, and they’re one of the favorites to win the title this year. Do you think the Kings will get tremendously better after relocation? How much will it hurt if they do get better after relocation?

Eric: Quick history lesson. Thanks to The Move torpedoing the Browns season, they finished 5-11 in 1995 resulting in them getting the #4 draft pick in the 1996 NFL Draft. Additionally, the Browns had traded the 10th pick in the 1995 Draft to the San Francisco 49ers for, among other picks, the 49ers 1996 first round selection. In the Ravens first draft as a franchise, they selected Jonathan Ogden, an eleven time Pro Bowler, with the fourth pick and a linebacker from Miami by the name of Ray Lewis with the 49ers pick in the 26 slot. Together, Ogden and Lewis anchored the Ravens franchise on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball for over a decade. While the conventional wisdom says that the Browns would have won a Super Bowl in Cleveland had they stayed there, I’m not sure I buy that line of thinking. If The Move doesn’t happen, and therefore no distractions off the field of that magnitude are caused, the Browns most likely win more than five games, thereby not getting Ogden with the fourth pick in the draft. Is there an Ogden and/or Ray Lewis in the 2013 Draft? That’s tough to say at this point since this year’s draft is largely regarded as a “weak” class. At least Seattle had Durant prior to moving to OKC; there is no Durant-esque player on the Kings roster currently so it’s unlikely that we will see them improved dramatically in the short term. If they do hit the jackpot though? I’m not going to lie to you; it’s awful. Watching Art Modell hoist the Lombardi Trophy is still one of the low points of my, and most Cleveland sports fans’, life. All you do is wish for failure year after year after year. It was one thing to see LeBron win a title last year, but that was just one individual who went to a team where he had 11 new teammates. To watch an entire franchise get uprooted and go on to win a title outside your city? Brutal.

Amin: As our resident Misery Expert (as a Wizards and Cavs fan, I just consider myself the Disappointment Expert), do you have any advice for Kings fans?

Eric: Understand that this is not over yet. As Kings fans, you should know by now not to trust the Maloofs about anything so even if they say that they have a deal in place, until it becomes official, there’s a chance. You saved the franchise before, so why not again? Sign the petition. Pledge your commitment to the franchise through the Here We Buy site. Demonstrate to the NBA that you are a force to be reckoned with and that you deserve to have a team in Sacramento. And if worse comes to worse and they do leave? Get cracking on the campaign to bring an expansion team to your area because if there’s one thing you don’t want to be, it’s to become that city that steals another franchise. You really don’t want to be THAT city, do you? *Stares directly at Seattle*

The Also-Ran Juggernaut

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Somewhere in the middle of the third quarter of their blowout loss to the Thunder on Friday night, the Lakers stopped being interesting. This is something that’s never happened in my basketball-watching lifetime, which began sometime around the start of the Shaq-Kobe era. As polarizing as this franchise is, as obnoxiously entitled as a lot of their fans act on Twitter and in comment sections, as eminently hateable as they’ve been for all non-fans, they’ve always at least been compelling. The early-‘00s dynasty was awe-inspiring, because it featured one of the five best centers in history at the absolute height of his powers trampling over the rest of the league recklessly. The year they brought in Karl Malone and Gary Payton was a fascinating juxtaposition of a team being broken apart by a feud between its two best players and one that two past-their-prime superstars tried to hold together to give themselves one final shot at a championship ring. The immediate post-Shaq years were worthwhile because they allowed Kobe to cement himself as the second-greatest shooting guard of all time. The trade for Pau Gasol birthed a new superpower, and their title run coincided with the rise of advanced stats, which threw Kobe’s legacy into a new, sometimes less-than-flattering light. That was all worthwhile, even if you hated them.

But this? This is just depressing. There’s nobody left to blame for the way one of the most loaded rosters in NBA history is falling apart. Purported savior Mike D’Antoni hasn’t been any more successful than the coach he replaced earlier in the season. At least that saga had the will-he-or-won’t-he Phil Jackson courtship to keep it interesting. The return of Steve Nash improved the offense somewhat (because, you know, it wasn’t being run by Chris Duhon and Darius Morris anymore), but did nothing to help their atrocious defense or nonexistent depth. Perpetual whipping boy Pau Gasol hasn’t clicked with D’Antoni, and is currently battling a litany of injuries and trade rumors. Dwight Howard is clearly not healthy. Kobe is having his best offensive season in years, but with the rest of their stars out, the team on which he’s accumulating those numbers is just as bad as any that featured Smush Parker.

All of this stuff was interesting to a point. Now it’s just an annoyance. Every day, the Lakers suffer another loss or other setback, and we’re supposed to care and have an opinion about it because they’re the Lakers. But there’s nothing left to dissect. Jordan Hill’s season-ending hip surgery is probably the final nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes. There’s just too much ground to make up, and too many question marks surrounding their primary talent. If they played in the Eastern Conference, they’d probably be able to sneak in if they got their act together. The west is way too deep for that to be realistic. Seven teams (the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Warriors, Grizzlies, Nuggets, and Rockets) are basically locked into playoff spots, barring a catastrophic injury. The eighth seed is a three-team race between the Jazz, Blazers, and Timberwolves. Two of those teams will fall out of the picture, but it’s hard to picture the Lakers getting in at the expense of all three. If you move them out of Los Angeles and remove their team history and legacy, they’re no different than this year’s Suns or Kings. It just so happens that they’re The Los Angeles Lakers, so their futility is constantly in the spotlight.

The Lakers are somewhat unique among American sports superpowers, in that they’ve never had an extended period of irrelevance. The Dallas Cowboys, the self-proclaimed “America’s Team,” haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since winning their last Super Bowl in 1995, and have missed the playoffs ten times in that stretch alone. The New York Yankees, the most successful and most hated team in American sports history and winner of 27 World Series, was completely irrelevant from the mid-1960s through the mid-‘70s, and didn’t make the playoffs once between 1982 and 1994. The Boston Celtics, the only team with more NBA titles than the Lakers, missed the playoffs eight times between Larry Bird’s retirement and the formation of the Garnett-Allen-Pierce big three. The Lakers have had no such stretch of futility. They have existed as an NBA franchise, either in Minneapolis or LA, for 65 years, and have missed the playoffs exactly five times.

Their good luck over the course of their existence has been pretty astounding, going from Wilt-Baylor-West to Kareem-Magic in just a few steps, and having Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant land in their laps in the same offseason almost immediately after Magic’s career was cut tragically short by his HIV diagnosis. After that dynasty fell apart, the Grizzlies gift-wrapped them Gasol, and they racked up two more championship banners. And then they traded for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard in the same offseason, giving up only Andrew Bynum (who has yet to play for the Sixers) and a few draft picks they’ll never use. All of these moves have combined to create an attitude amongst both their fans and their haters that stuff just always works out for them. It’s already starting to seem inevitable that they respond to Kobe’s retirement by retooling in 2015 with LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving in the fold, probably only giving up Devin Ebanks in the process. Because that’s what the Lakers do.

This is the first time in years that Lakers adversity has been met with genuine concern as opposed to “Oh, they’ll be fine.” As this year’s sure-thing superteam continues to crash and burn, the can’t-look-away soap opera has grown tedious, and started to bring up a few important questions. Namely: can’t the Lakers just suck sometimes without dominating the news cycle? Is that so bad? The contemporary NBA has no shortage of stars and compelling teams. If you removed the Lakers entirely from this season and kept everything else the same, would the league’s overall entertainment value even suffer at all? As the losses keep piling up, they aren’t even fun to mock anymore. Right now, the Lakers are just another team that isn’t that good. It doesn’t need to have a bigger meaning ascribed to it.

The New Normal: LeBron James in 2013

A little over a month ago, Grantland posted an endlessly fascinating video compilation of every major narrative of LeBron James’ 10-year career as a public figure, filtered through the lens of ESPN’s iconic Pardon the Interruption. Over the course of 15 minutes, the conversation went from “Is is wrong for ESPN to show a high-school kid’s games?” to “Who should be the #1 pick: LeBron, Darko, or Melo?” to “Does he have what it takes to lead a team to multiple championships like Michael Jordan?” to “Does his performance against the Celtics in the 2010 Eastern Semifinals prove he isn’t among the all-time greats?” to “He would never leave Cleveland” to “He was never going to stay in Cleveland anyway” to “How many championships do the Heat have to win to not be considered a massive failure?” to “Does the loss to Dallas in the 2011 Finals prove he can’t perform in the clutch?” to “Now that LeBron has a ring, how many more will he get before his career is over?” That’s pretty much been his entire career to this point. What’s harder to get a grasp on is what LeBron is now.

As much as someone can when they’re the reigning regular-season and Finals MVP and universally regarded best player in the world, LeBron has sort of flown under the radar this season. We as a sports-watching public have pulled a complete 180 since the Miami Heat’s Finals win in June, going from relentlessly and obsessively picking apart everything he does and doesn’t do to taking his superhuman performances for granted. Nothing he does on the basketball court can surprise us anymore. Until the Heat won their first title, his detractors still had the questions about his crunch-time performance as a semi-valid reason to deny his superiority. But after his dominant performance in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics and in the Finals against the Thunder, that doubt is gone. He has nothing left to prove to doubters and thus, his defenders have nobody left to convince. LeBron’s supremacy is a universal truth.

However you feel personally about programs like SportsCenter or PTI, the stories that get airtime on those shows can generally be viewed as an accurate reflection of the public’s interests. The biggest overarching narratives from this season have been (and I think I’m getting everything): that the Lakers are imploding despite acquiring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard; that the Thunder haven’t lost a step since trading James Harden; the Clippers’ emergence as a legitimate title contender in the west; the new, more effective Carmelo Anthony; Kevin Love’s perceived unhappiness in Minnesota; whatever the hell is going on with DeMarcus Cousins; whatever the hell is going on with Royce White; and whether Deron Williams is evil and to blame for getting Avery Johnson fired. These narratives all have one thing in common: none of them involve LeBron James or the Miami Heat, who are just sort of buzzing along unnoticed, with the best record in the Eastern Conference and no real drama to go along with it.

Which is sort of crazy, since LeBron is having an even better year than he did last year. His PER is right in line with where it was in 2011-12. He’s rebounding better than he ever has. He’s never been more efficient. Most impressively, he’s shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range, a full four points higher than his previous season best. He’s still playing all-world defense and averaging 6.8 assists per game. He won’t win the MVP again, because voters will want to give it to a more narrative-friendly (albeit deserving) candidate like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, or Chris Paul. But just because LeBron’s dominance is so matter-of-fact and has so few built-in narrative angles attached to it doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted the way it has been. We’re witnessing something historic.

The case for LeBron’s fourth MVP award rests on how self-evident his greatness is when discussing specific games involving the Heat. No matter the opponent, no matter the circumstances surrounding either team, he’s the conversation ender. Any point that can be made about how well one team or another matches up with the Heat on a position-by-position basis can be refuted with six words: “But the Heat have LeBron James.” It’s never not valid, and he’s the only player in the league for whom this is true. He’s unguardable and he can guard all five positions at an elite level. He’s the most unselfish superstar of my lifetime. And at this point, we all just accept this. His box scores are routinely eye-popping, and the reaction to his routine near-triple-doubles is never “Wait, LeBron did WHAT?!?” It’s more of a shrugging “Of course he did.” When witnessing this type of greatness becomes as much a part of our daily routines as eating lunch, to the point where it’s almost an afterthought, it’s worth marveling at.

The Long Game

Photo from bhalash via Flickr

Photo from bhalash via Flickr

Lance Stephenson’s season has been a quiet success. Two years ago, this would have been an impossibility.

Stephenson’s amateur career is packed with accolades. He is New York’s all-time leading scorer at the high school level. Playing at Lincoln High School, he sought to obliterate the milestones set by past alumni Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair and did. He was the king of New York. That title came with bragging rights, and the type of collective zeal that would spawn a nickname like “Born Ready.”  But the preordainment as New York’s basketball savior created some dissonance on the court once he stepped outside of familiar turf. Shot selection was for the mortal, or at least that’s how it seemed to Stephenson when he could have a dreadful night and still have an icy look of detachment that broadcasted superiority. New York is a hub for basketball and a global pillar, but it is still a small world with real boundaries. And when Stephenson took a step beyond, the demeanor, the erratic play, and the legal issues all became clearer without the clout of New York’s hype machine obscuring the view.

It’s a tough task to redefine reputations and revise expectations once they’ve been given time to solidify. This season has had its fair share of road bumps from players living up to their high risk, high reward branding between DeMarcus Cousins’ third –annual implosion detrimental to the team and Royce White’s well-intentioned, but misguided, crusade for righteousness putting his NBA career in jeopardy—one that hasn’t even started. For Cousins, success is measured by his offensive dominance and how his temperament can serve as an amplifier, not an impediment. For White, the idea that basketball can and should overshadow his loftier pursuits is itself a moral defeat.  The routes and circumstances are always different. But hope, as it always does, resides in the same place for all young, wayward athletes—in the potential for change.

And that capacity for change sets up the wager. It’s a gamble. It’s an investment both financial and personal. Every GM would love to live life as though it were a loop of the last quarter of Coldplay’s “Fix You”—overblown triumph in the face of serious doubt. But we know it hardly ever works that way. It takes guts and patience to take on a new project because of the dual nature of potential.

It’s hard to watch Lance Stephenson without seeing specters of Isaiah Rider. The sturdy frame, the confidence, the lingering questions that preface every conversation. He is an impressive athlete, though not nearly as skybound as Rider, which isn’t necessarily a slight—Rider’s flightiness on and off the court was hardly something worth championing.

Even with all of his red flags, I couldn’t help but root for Stephenson and marvel at his first Summer League game in 2010 thinking it was the beginning of some kind of revolution, allowing myself to forget the fact that Summer League is the rabbit hole that Expectation and Reality plunge into, never to return the same again. That’s the thing about young phenoms, prodigies, etc. Their promise is a promise. Suspending truths and beliefs come natural when observing their growth. To even imagine the level of specialization required to reach the professional level calls for such suspension. But it’s a strange hurt when success doesn’t materialize in the way it was once envisioned. Promises aren’t meant to be broken as much as they’re meant to gauge the strength of one’s conviction, which inherently has an expiration date.

Year after year, some of the best stories of the season come from players thriving from new opportunities. Though he was impressive enough in the 2012 Summer League to warrant playing time, there is no way Stephenson has as much of an effect on the team as he has now without Danny Granger’s glaring absence. The Pacers are still a low-key team, even after their signature second round series against the Miami Heat last season. Paul George has been impressive, but he’s (characteristically) gliding toward apparent stardom, not crashing into it. Again, Lance Stephenson’s season has been a quiet success, inside and out. Jared Wade at Eight Points, Nine Seconds wrote an extensive breakdown of Stephenson’s impact on the team last week. But, wait, this is a Lance Stephenson that is shooting a team-high 48 percent from the field, and a team-high 39.7 percent from 3 as a key contributor.

What the hell changed?

Well, for starters, he changed his jersey number from No. 6 to No. 1. Perhaps the calm of backcourt mate George Hill has rubbed off on him, or maybe it’s in part due to his ongoing relationship with Larry Bird, the man who rolled the dice by drafting him. Whatever it is, this Lance Stephenson is worlds away from who he was. Per-36 minutes, he’s never shot less (probably ever in his life), but, and this might not be coincidence, he’s probably as efficient now as he’s ever been. It has a lot to do with shot selection. What used to be anything and everything is now streamlined—70.6 percent of Stephenson’s shots come around the rim or from the 3-point line.  While Stephenson having the highest shooting percentage on the team says quite a bit about the Pacers offense, it says even more about how much smarter Stephenson has gotten with his approach to the game.

I suppose it’s fairly obvious what happened with Stephenson. He’s grown up—on the court, at least–but there’s always room for more, especially at 22. The glory of high school jockdom and the “Born Ready” adulation is what got him to this level, but the superlatives eventually wear away once you break away from the small insulated world of your youth. It’s a performance-based, numbers-driven world thereafter. It’s about playing the long game and being willing to sacrifice a portion of your old self to keep from sacrificing everything. He isn’t expected to be a supernova on offense anymore, but he’s still given opportunities to flash his creativity in setting teammates up and in transition finishes. Stephenson is making a solid impact on a playoff team with pedestrian individual numbers. It’s not everything, but it’s enough. And there is a litany of alternative scenarios that aren’t as appealing.

Stephenson may never be a legend outside of his city, but the player he’s become is a player that can survive in this league. That’s what changed.