Tag Archives: 2013 All-Star Game

2013 All-Star Profiles: Zach Randolph

Photo from bestarns via Flickr

Photo from bestarns via Flickr

It’s not even surprising that Zach Randolph is an all-star at this point.

It’s a weird realization to have, but it’s true. This is only Z-Bo’s second all-star appearance (personally, I keep forgetting that he didn’t make it in 2011), and only the fourth year of his Memphis tenure (before which coaches wouldn’t even go near him for the all-star game), and yet, it feels as if Z-Bo just belongs and that’s that.

There was, perhaps, some discomfort that the “token Grizzlies spot”, if such a thing exists, went to him over Marc Gasol this year. However, such discomfort only survived so long before it was washed away by just how natural a part of today’s NBA it is to see Randolph in the all-star game. Just four years removed from the trade that brought him from Los Angeles to Memphis – an outright salary dump for which the Clippers were commended and the Grizzlies ridiculed – Zach Randolph’s transformation from malcontent to all-star is not just complete, it is so ingrained that we almost forget it ever happened.

Instead, the focus with Z-Bo is on that next level. Watching his rainbow jumper splash again and again on the Spurs and Thunder in the 2011 playoffs, it’s almost impossible not to view Randolph through a superstar prism. For that one spring, Randolph was a rare glimpse of brilliance, a surefire bucket in times of need and an offensive centerpiece rivaled only by an eventual Finals MVP in Dirk Nowitzki. It stands out against his career norms, but since Randolph’s entire time in Memphis stands out against his career norms anyway, expecting him to overachieve is almost part of the game. We were treated to the best, and we expect it back. Whether this is even remotely fair is irrelevant.

The Grizzlies depended on that Randolph to distressing degrees in 2011, asking him to carry an offense just high enough for the defense to get the knockout, and they promise to depend on another transcendent Randolph postseason just as much in a post-Rudy Gay world. As balanced and defensively brilliant as this Memphis team may be, the offense was always over-dependent on the individual abilities of either Randolph or Gay to create. This is partially by design – a confusing, deservedly criticized design – but it is a design that has worked for the Grizzlies in the aggregate, one that could, if subjected to any further tweaks, potentially proving disastrous to a delicate locker room situation.

Is Randolph even capable of replicating such heights? It’s a fair question. We’ve only seldom seen 2011 Randolph ever since those playoffs. This contest stands out as the best example, but it came against your Phoenix Suns, hardly the Thunder or  Spurs. That player may no longer exist.

One can easily make the case that even 2010 Randolph is long gone – the past two seasons have seen Z-Bo post career lows in usage rate and points per minute. Randolph’s game is built around phenomenal hands and a low center of gravity, not so much elite athleticism, but Father Time works in mysterious ways, and Father Time dictates that Randolph is 31 years old and had serious knee issues in the past. It’s possible that this is the last year an all-star selection for Randolph is met by a collective nod of approval.

But Randolph was so good in those playoffs, just two years ago, that he has some leeway with us. This, too, would be unimaginable just a few years ago – Zach Randolph! Leeway! Imagine the odds! – but that just goes to show how deep his transformation has gone. For now, we’ll accept him with open arms, an all-star berth that was basically a coin toss between him and his teammate, and hopes that he can be a short-term superstar once again.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Brook Lopez

Photo by Doug88888 via Flickr

Photo by Doug88888 via Flickr

It’s amazing what desperation can do to a person. It drove me into the giant arms of Brook Lopez. Figuratively, I mean — I’m not sure that Brook would have me, given my seething neutrality with regard to comic books, though that’s really neither here nor there.

After 20-plus years in various desert climates ranging in population density from “sardine can” to “ant farm in a big top circus tent,” I made the cross-country trek to upstate New York in December of 2010. Without a job lined up and few earthly possessions other than my laptop and bed, League Pass wasn’t really an option upon arrival. When it came to my basketball fix, the choice between grainy illicit feeds of Suns games on a 10.5″ netbook, pre-Carmelo Knicks or Nets games voiced by the golden god himself, Ian Eagle was obvious. The Nets would get the majority of my attention, if for no other reason to hear Eagle call a game.

And other than Eagle and a rotating crew of announcers with whom he had a chameleon’s sense of chemistry, The Artists Formerly Known As Phantoms Of Prudential Center didn’t really offer much. The 2010-11 Nets won just 24 games, and quite a few of those victories came by the skin of Avery Johnson’s vocal cords. More than 10% of New Jersey’s games that year went to overtime. Often when a bad team offers up the gift of free basketball, fans are quick to smack the platter right out of their hand. With those Nets, though, the disharmonious collective of the first 47 minutes gave way to a beautiful, elegant simplicity in the waning moments of a close contest.

Give the ball to Brook. Let him create in the post, be it via drawing a double team or winning a one-on-one matchup with a pure hookshot or turnaround jumper. For two or three possessions in this specific setting, Brook channeled his inner Patrick Ewing and went to work where the wild things are. It was pure old school basketball — not for the sake of itself, but to maximize the chance of victory. Brook Lopez was the best option, even if only by default, a garnet in the rough in a toxic landfill.

Yet he wasn’t an All-Star. He wasn’t capable of consistently finding that beast within, of being the throwback to a time of dominant big men around whom entire galactic basketball systems revolved. First of all, Brook wasn’t (and isn’t) nearly the defender the gentlemen of yesteryear were. The more repugnant flaw, according to most, was his sudden inability to grab a damned rebound. While Lopez posted above average pace- and minutes-adjusted rebounding numbers his rookie season (9.6 board/36 minutes, 15.8% total rebound percentage) and continued to be solid on the glass in his second year, that 2010-11 season represented a significant drop in his rebounding, largely due to a bout 0f mononucleosis during the summer before. Regardless of the cause, his offensive capabilities weren’t enough to bolster his weaknesses on the defensive end, including those rebounding woes. Lopez became a punchline, a 7-footer who couldn’t grab a missed shot to save his twin brother’s life. He might have been Patrick Ewing for 30 seconds at a time, but for the other 29.5 minutes he played per game in ’10-11, he was more likely to summon the spirit of an earthbound Spud Webb who couldn’t dribble.

After a lost season due to injury and lockout, those problems are gone. The Brookie Monster (h/t @uuords) is feasting on chocolate chip caroms at the best rate since his inaugural tour. He looks fully energized and active in his pursuit of rebounds, instead of simply planting himself in one spot and hoping that the ball will find its way there. A first time selection to the All-Star team coincides with the best year of his career by far — Lopez is 5th in the league in PER.*

*PER is a stat with its flaws, as many love to point out incessantly like students with a dyslexic English teacher who gives extra credit for correcting the things he writes on the chalkboard. It seems strangely perfect for measuring Brook Lopez, though.

The player who was once his team’s lone bright spot has fortified the most glaring weakness in his game and turned it into a strength. Whether or not he can maintain this rate remains to be seen; for now, though, Brook Lopez is scoring, rebounding and even occasionally defending like an All-Star. He’s a better player, and his team is better for it.

2013 All-Star Profiles: James Harden

Typewriter by etharooni via flickr

Typewriter by etharooni via flickr

After about two weeks into my job as a copywriter, one of my Associate Creative Directors called me into his office. He asked me about my experience in copywriting (minimal) and how much I knew of the history of advertising (even less). He sent me away with a book on copywriting and a few words of advice passed on through generations of copywriters: for your first five years as a copywriter, you have no business doing anything except copying your betters.

The words weren’t his own, at least not entirely. That bit of advice can be traced back to David Ogilvy, widely considered the father of modern advertising.

It’s no bad thing to learn the craft of advertising by copying your elders and betters. Helmut Krone, one of the most innovative of art directors, has said: ‘I asked one of our writers recently what was more important, doing your own thing or making the ad as good as it can be. The answer was “Doing my own thing”. I disagree violently with that. I’d like to propose a new idea for our age: until you’ve got a better answer, you copy. I copied Bob Gage for 5 years, I even copied the leading between his lines of type. And Bob originally copied Paul Rand, and Rand first copied a German typographer named Tschichold.’

I, too, started by copying. Working in a London agency, I used to copy the best American ads. Later, I began to do my own thing.

-Ogilvy on Advertising

Many great writers, be they novelists, playwrights, script writers, or poets, all give similar advice when asked how to become a better writer: copy your betters.

The practice of mimicry extends into the realm of basketball as well. In fact, it’s flat-out rampant on the hardwood. Consider Kobe Bryant, whose turnaround jump shot in the post is a near mirror reflection of Michael Jordan’s signature move later in his career. Every year, we learn of more and more post players making the pilgrimage to the house of Hakeem, in hopes of mastering the Dream’s flawless post moves. ESPN’s David Thorpe writes an annual article about the season’s top rookies and another player’s move or asset that the rookie should seek to incorporate into his own game.

Of course, we don’t refer to it as copying. We veil these practices with narrative colloquialisms such as “improving his game,” “adding to his arsenal,” or “growing as a player.” And while these are all true, it doesn’t change the fact it’s still copying. Which is fine! It’s the sign of a player who isn’t content, who wants to get better. The purpose isn’t to become the player whom they’re mimicking, but rather add that skill to their own unique abilities.

From the moment he was drafted, it was assumed James Harden would be the starting two-guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He oozed star, and at the very least, starter, potential. And yet, for Harden’s first three seasons, it was Thabo Sefolosha, not the bearded wonder, who started for Oklahoma City. Harden was instead relegated to the bench and given the role of sixth man.

Rather than pout about this role, or point out that he was severely more offensively gifted than Sefolosha, Harden took to the role, and did what any young player who strives to be great should do: he copied his betters. More specifically, he copied those who were better at that role. He became Manu Ginobili, using awkward dribbles and pick and rolls to get to the rim at will, making spectacular plays made possible only by his vision. He was Jason Terry, scoring in bunches immediately after entering the game and nailing seemingly every wide open three pointer. He copied them so well, in fact, that he won the Sixth Man Of The Year Award last season.

During that award winning campaign we began to see flashes of the true James Harden. There was his 40-point outburst (on 17 shots) against the Phoenix Suns, and his single-handed decimation of the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of the playoffs. They were performances of a player showing that his time copying was over.

Something starts to happen as we copy: we develop our own voice. It’s impossible to write exactly like another writer and our own voice will inevitably interject itself into the writing. Which is exactly what is supposed to happen. The purpose isn’t to plagiarize, or to become a perfect copycat of one’s favorite writer, but rather to learn. In the case of the writer, learning how Neil Gaiman effortlessly injects the supernatural into every day life, to the point where the readers accept it as a reality, or how Kurt Vonnegut takes the time to develop every character, is invaluable to their own development. The writer, having studied these methods, then takes these lessons and uses them in his or her own writing. Much like lineage, we may be able to see traces of the writers from whom they copied, but ultimately the voice is that of the “new” writer.

In the first of what is sure to be many All-Star campaigns, Harden has become the player we expected, and the star for whom Daryl Morey and Houston had so yearned.

If Harden’s Sixth Man of the Year award recognized his mimicry, his All-Star berth recognizes him finding his voice. The player we see in Houston is the one we’d seen glimpses of in Oklahoma City. Freed from the constraints of the bench, Harden has total control of the offense. Perhaps more importantly, he has complete freedom to be himself. As with the “new” writer, we still see traces of Harden’s predecessors in his game, but every shot, every pass, every drive is his own. This is James Harden, realized.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Joakim Noah

Photo by sushiesque via Flickr

Photo by sushiesque via Flickr

Joakim Noah is here to destroy your narrative — and he brought a tornado with him.

One of the overarching narratives in this era of the NBA is the death of the center position. Fans and pundits alike pine for the days of the dominant big man as if they were forlorn country singers wondering whither went all the cowboys. While the product as a whole is fantastic, there’s a clear chasm in the middle of the floor, particularly on the offensive end. There is no Patrick Ewing, no David Robinson, no Hakeem Olajuwon capable of being the focal point of an offense, backing down lesser opposition for half a shot clock before going over the left shoulder for an unstoppable hook. No one in today’s crop of centers could even fake Olden Polynice out of his jersey with an up-and-under, let alone get a shot off against Dikembe Mutombo.  There’s not even a Rik Smits among this group of flop-haired scoundrels. Hell, even the All-Star Game is complicit in the crime at this point, eliminating the center designation from the fan ballot this year in a much ballyhooed move. If the NBA says the center position is dead, then it must be dead.

Well, that’s bull s—. The center position is alive and well, and it’s being practiced in its highest form by players like Joakim Noah. To bemoan the death of the center position is to willfully ignore the ways in which this beautiful game of ours has changed — titanic, tectonic changes that have drastically altered the most basic approach.

Basketball is, of course, a game, and a game is only as good as its rules. The rules define the game. More than that, they point the way to optimal strategy. Were the 3-point line 40 feet from the basket, for example, the modern emphasis on the long ball would be revolting. The death of  the hand check, allowance of zone defense and institution of the 5-second backdown rule completely changed the way the game is played. The backdown, ball-dominating backdown center died because the climate changed. The mid-90s centers are mastodons in a rain forest.*

*Obligatory disclaimer: Those mastodons would still have destroyed everything in their path. They simply would have done so differently.

Noah is the perfect beast for his environment. Now that the pick and roll is king in a nation where the secondary pass is the difference between prosperity and anarchy, a world class center must be a master of its every facet. What makes Noah so fantastic is his pick and roll duality. He, within one of the game’s greatest defensive schemes, completely disrupts a team’s fundamental offensive principles, scurrying to the precise place he needs to be on almost every play. And on the offensive end, he’s a wonder at catching the ball in the mid- to high-post and understanding the next place the ball needs to go for the easy bucket. He’s not quite on Marc Gasol’s level here, but his ability to function as a playmaker in the middle of an offensive set is one of the reasons Chicago isn’t completely awful on offense without Derrick Rose.

That’s why Noah is an All-Star in my heart and mind, but it wouldn’t be an All-Star Game without placating the eyes, as well. Here, too, Noah is the perfect player. Sunday is an exhibition game where no one plays defense for at least 46 minutes and tries to take the goofiest shot they possibly can. And Joakim Noah takes the goofiest shot he can on every single field goal attempt! His tornado jumper is like an M-80 birthday candle — awesome to watch, potentially destructive to everyone in its vicinity and the whole reason we’re watching.

RTOE: IT’S ALL-STAR WEEKEND, Y’ALL

110312_RTOE_mkiv

ALL-STAR WEEKEND! ALL-STAR WEEKEND! IT’S FINALLY HERE! I know lots of people don’t care about All-Star weekend, but it’s a fun break. Players get to rest their aching muscles and show off against their friends. Writers don’t have to glue their eyeballs to 12 games in a night. And most of all, fans get to revel in the wild novelty of it all. Oh, it also means it’s Roundtable Time! Brian, Derek, Kyle, Noam, Eric, and Andrew: take it away.

1. Complete this sentence and explain: James White’s first dunk will be [blank].

Brian: Successful. He will complete the dunk and thus avoid becoming Chris Andersen.

Derek: YouTube-tastic.

Kyle: “safe.” And this is why:

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

Noam: Flightastic.

Eric: Viradiculous. It will go viral, and it will be ridiculous.

Andrew: Self-fulfilling. If you’re a big enough basketball fan to peruse NBA blogs, then you already know how awesome James White’s dunk repertoire has the potential to be. But I’ve had my fair share of conversations with people who have no idea who he is. If White can resurrect the Dunk Contest that Vince Carter killed and Jason Richardson buried — only to murder it again with some stupefyingly combination of rim-rocking devastation — then those who expected nothing less will be satisfied. In a parallel universe where he somehow peters out, though, “James White who?” will be the answer to its own question.

2. Considering how terribly the Lakers are doing, does that basically confirm that Kobe’s going to play 40 minutes on Sunday night and dominate everyone and everything?

Brian: Kobe has taken at least 20 shots in an All-Star game three times, and he’s taken at least 15 shots in 9 of the 12 games he’s played. He’s going to take 35 on Sunday.

Derek: Just forty minutes? He may not let them take him out. But if there was ever a platform for Kobe to take out his frustrations with this season, the All-Star game would probably be the ideal platform.

Kyle:  Not so fast. While it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case, this feels more like a “passing of the guard” type game. Kobe will get the start, but I expect this to be Durant’s offense to lead. That being said, I like the chances of the ball being in Bryant’s hand should this game come down to the wire. I’ll say Bryant hits a game winner in a send off of sorts, as he is no longer the face of the NBA.

Noam: Not sure what the Lakers doing terribly has to do with it. I do, however, think it assures us that Dwight gets frozen out. Or at the very least, yelled at quite often.

Eric: Kobe’s going to play 40 minutes, take zero shots, and gun for 20 assists all while screaming at LeBron, “DO YOU BUY THAT I’M A DISTRIBUTOR NOW? DO YOU? MAMBA OUT.”

Andrew: Call me insane [Ed. Note: YOU'RE INSAAAAANE], but I have a feeling we might see a more mellow Kobe. I envision a player who is secure in the knowledge that he’s one of the greatest of all-time, has been a major part of five championships teams and is still the measuring stick for a new generation — before they can compare themselves to Jordan, they have to compare themselves to Kobe. He’ll play loose and free, dishing dimes and calling for lobs from players on both sides of the court. And I have a feeling he might be able to convince Kyrie to throw him one.

Then I foresee Kobe hiring a Smush Parker lookalike assassin to make LeBron “disappear.” Forever.

3. #TeamChuck, #TeamShaq, #TeamDrake, or #TeamBreezy?

Brian: #TeamKyrie

Derek: #TeamJames over everything. You already know… #TJOE

Kyle: #TeamShaq. The Diesel stacked up on explosive and shooters. #TeamChuck is going to get every rebound, but is that important in a game like this?

Noam: #TeamPierre

Eric: #TeamShaq because, like Brian, I’m #TeamKyrie.

Andrew: TeamPierre. (This isn’t twitter. I’m not using a hashtag. Heathens.)

4. Create your ideal All-Star Weekend event. Right here, right now.

Brian: A one on one tournament featuring only players who hate to shoot. Just imagine Pablo Prigioni and Rajon Rondo breaking one another down off the dribble then just passing the ball out to each other when they get to the rim. We could also put Andrew Bogut and Roy Hibbert against each other, and watch the apathetic jump hooks clang out for hours and hours. It would be marvelous.

Derek: Well, my ideal event would be actual meaningful basketball, but that’s not going to happen. What I think would be fun, and a blatant rip-off of the NHL, but have the players pick their teams. For some reason that would make things more interesting since we’d get to see who chooses who, and how the best players would build a team. I know that’s not really answering the question, but that’s about where my level of creativity is at.

Kyle: Harlem Globetrotters vs NBA All Stars. The NBA All Stars aren’t the Washington Generals, but the Globetrotters are the essence of basketball entertainment, and that is what this weekend is all about. It would be fun to see the blend of skill and show, as I believe both sides are capable of adapting their styles to fit this format.

Noam: Raymond Felton, Boris Diaw, and all of the cupcakes. Only one man survives.

Eric: Knockout tournament, starting with half court shots, consisting of everyone that is participating in the All-Star Game, Dunk Contest, and 3 Point Shootout. Let’s go full out high school gym class with this thing.

Andrew: Excellent ideas from the rest of the HP crew so far, but the answer is simple — and it involves LARRY SANDERS!

Yep, I’m talking about a shot blocking contest. So many different ways to go about this. Obviously, you need a Slam Dunk Contest-style judging panel to award style points. And as much as I love players who keep their deflections in bounds and treat blocked shots like close-range outlet passes, a blocked shot contest has to reward players for swatting balls back to the Houston airport for an international flight to Botswana.

The real question is a juicy one — who shoots the shots that get blocked? Do you ask an good friend on another team? Do you have a teammate do it? What if Pekovic smashes a ball right back into Ricky Rubio’s precious face? Would Serge Ibaka blocking Russell Westbrook’s layups force Bestbrook to go for a vicious dunk on the Serge Protector?

I WANT THIS SO BADLY.

5. It’s Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday on All-Star Sunday. How do you think the league will commemorate him? What are the odds of him having to shoot a contested jumper over LeBron, like an opening pitch at an important baseball game?

Brian: I anticipate seeing Jordan’s game-tying fadeaway from the 03 All-Star Game approximately 15,000 times this weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if we got a prime passive-aggressive MJ speech at halftime or something.

Derek: I’m thinking “Michael Jordan Dad Jeans Night sponsored by Levi’s.” Who’s with me?

Forget the contested jumper over LeBron– why not just make the GOAT James Harden’s injury replacement? Aside from the blasphemy of him putting on a Western Conference jersey, which wouldn’t be that big of a deal anymore since we still have photographic evidence of him in a Wizards uniform.

Kyle: Maybe Jordan can toss up the ball to start the game? In my fantasy world, His Airness is the first player announced with his trademark introduction music in the background. The old Chicago announcer (Ray Clay) serenades the crowd with the standard “From North Carolina, a 6-6 guard, Mi-chaelllll Jor-dannnnnn.”

Noam: The entire NBA will turn into a baseball league for just under two seasons.

Eric: To coincide with MJ’s 50th birthday, David Stern will make gambling on the NBA legal in all 50 states for Sunday only. A fitting tribute, honestly.

Andrew: The best way the NBA could commemorate Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday? Present him with a cardboard cutout of Hakeem Olajuwon wearing his two championships rings, a time machine and a time-paradox clause that says if he decides to looper Jerry Krause while he’s in in the past, all of his championships will instead be won by Clyde Drexler.

6. Who is one player you’re most excited to see perform this weekend (any player, any event), and why?

Brian: Kenneth Faried. Dunk contest. Nuff said.

Derek: If I didn’t hate All-Star weekend in general I’d just be excited to see LeBron playing next to Kyrie and Durant with Chris Paul. Even if it’s in exhibition for, it’s kind of our fantasies being actualized, so that’s kind of cool. The celebrity game is pretty entertaining to see who can sorta ball and who probably just stepped onto a court for the first time, too.

Kyle: Matt Bonner in the 3 point contest. If he gets hot, the crowd will get behind him. I like the idea of player from San Antonio getting the crowd amped up. All the Spurs do is win games, and nobody wants to notice, but a strong (and lovable) performance from Bonner may be able to change that perception, for one night at least. #GingerJumper

Noam: Eric Bledsoe in the dunk contest. I don’t even know if he’s remotely capable of cool dunks outside of a game setting. But man, do I want to find out.

Eric: James White in the Dunk Contest because he is single handedly capable of making it a watchable event again.

Andrew: Pffft. Matt Bonner. 3-Point Contest. No question. Just sandwiches.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Russell Westbrook

Photo by Telstar Logistics via Flickr

In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man,
Now I’ve reached that age, I’ve tried to do all those things the best I can.
No matter how I try, I find my way into the same old jam.

-          Led Zeppelin, Good Times Bad Times

Coming out of UCLA while still in the days of his youth, Russell Westbrook was told, and taught, very quickly how to be a man. As part of a draft class with Serge Ibaka, Westbrook joined Kevin Durant as the Oklahoma City Thunder laid the blueprint for what would eventually lead to OKC’s emergence as one of the premier franchises in the NBA. Westbrook’s ability to “man up” and play through the rigors of an NBA season has been nothing short of impressive thus far into his career. Much like his high school and college days, Westbrook has yet to miss a game since coming into the NBA. It’s the type of consistency that Oklahoma City has come to both rely and depend upon on a nightly basis.

Now that he has reached the age of 25, Westbrook has tried to do everything possible to be the best that he can. It’s hard to argue that he’s not succeeding. So far this season, Westbrook has racked up 22.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 8.1 assists per 36 minutes. Throw a PER of above 23 into the mix as well, and it’s clear that Westbrook has firmly entrenched himself as a top 10 player in the league not just today, but for the foreseeable future. While Westbrook has not reached the level where you can count on him for a guaranteed highlight every night, he remains one of the few players in the league that always seem on the cusp of doing something that is capable of taking your breath away.

Unfortunately for Westbrook, no matter how hard he tries, he finds himself in the same old jam. Criticism that he still takes too many shots and isn’t a “true” point guard, whatever that means, comes from far and wide. His 42.7% shooting, down a full 3% from last year, isn’t good enough to crack the top 20 in field goal percentage among point guards in the NBA this season. And perhaps most of all, he is prone to behavioral outbursts such as throwing a mini tantrum in the middle of a game in which the Thunder were leading by 18 points…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_wLTGvp5ctU

…or responding to, admittedly, less than intelligent, clichéd questions by reporters…

…but just when you think he couldn’t possibly be any more immature, he goes and does something like this…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF3eEZHabvQ

…AND COMPLETELY REDEEMS HIMSELF.

Despite the extracurricular shenanigans he chooses to engage in during timeouts or off the court, it’s his on-court talent that makes him a perennial All-Star. More importantly, it is going to be his ability to continue to perform at an All-Star level for the duration of the season and throughout the playoffs that will determine whether good times or bad times are ahead for Oklahoma City.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Luol Deng

From Flickr via chrisbastian44

From Flickr via chrisbastian44

Luol Deng is an All-Star. Such a simple sentence, yet one that elicits almost universal mockery. When I first pitched the idea for these All-Star profiles to our illustrious editors, I did it with the intention of writing this post on Luol Deng regardless of whether or not they agreed. This is something I’ve wanted to write for a long time now, much longer than I’ve been writing here at HP for sure. I say this not to toot my own proverbial horn, but to illustrate just how important Deng has become to the basketball portion of my life. For the second year in a row, his selection has been met with a combination of incredulity and outright disgust (or at least as much disgust something as trivial as an All-Star Game can engender). Yet, for the second year in a row, I think he deserves it. Not because he plays for my favorite team, and not because he’s my favorite player. He’s not even my favorite player on my favorite team. He might be fourth. Probably fifth (behind Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson). Not because he’s a better player than he appears to be, and not because he’s more deserving than any of the fine players who didn’t make the Eastern Conference squad. Luol Deng deserves to be an All-Star because, more so than perhaps any other All-Star, he deserves to be recognized for what he is.

As I said before, Luol Deng is of monumental importance to my basketball watching experience. I have seen him play basketball more than I have any other human being, active or retired. He’s only 27 years old, and yet, he’s been a relatively major part of my life for nearly a third of my 23 year existence. He debuted in 2004, two years after I re-established myself as a basketball fan. I have to think that I’m somewhat unique among my fellow Bulls fans my age for becoming a fan of the team after Michael Jordan’s retirement. Since the 2002-2003 season, I’ve missed around 13 Bulls games, pre-season notwithstanding, and Luol Deng has been, without fail, the one constant throughout that period. Through Scott Skiles, Jim Boylan, Vinny Del Negro and now Tom Thibodeau, Deng has been there. In 2006-07, his best season to date, he averaged 18.8 points and 7.1 boards on .517 shooting, despite shooting a career low .143 from 3 (on only seven attempts). He was a slashing combo forward, who managed to use his incredibly long arms to finish around the rim in a variety of ways. Over time, his range expanded, stalling out and making him one of the most prolific shooters of the dreaded long two point shot.

Then, the injuries hit. He last 19 games to an achilles injury in 07-08. He lost nearly 40 games (and all seven games in the playoffs) due to a stress fracture in his left in 08-09. He lost 11 games to a sprained calf in 09-10. Despite this rash of leg injuries (that still plague him to this day), Deng has been among the league leaders in minutes played all three seasons under Tom Thibodeau. Until Thibodeau arrived, Deng’s reputation was as something of a middling bust, a good player who wasn’t worth his contract. The #2 recruit in his high school class (behind some fellow named LeBron James), he was to be relegated to a trivia answer. An afterthought.

And then Thibodeau arrived. He shot 333 three-pointers during Thibodeau’s first season, more than he had shot in his entire career to that point, simply because the coach asked him to. Since then, he’s become a threat from range (if an inefficient one), while rebounding at the same clip and playing generally stupendous defense. Using Deng’s length to his advantage, Coach Thibs has made Deng the linchpin of one of the league’s most consistent defenses. While he’s not the impact player defensively someone like Noah or Gibson are for this Bulls team, I would argue that the scheme doesn’t quite work without Deng defending literally every perimeter player on the planet. Without Derrick Rose, Deng is also the Bulls’ most important offensive player (their record when he scores 15 or more points is 19-8 this season), and one of the few players on the team who consistently attacks the rim. He’s a decent shooter, a good rebounder, a great defender, an underrated passer and above all else, a leader. As an extension of his coach, he unparalleled in this league among non point guards. He doesn’t direct the rotations like Noah, nor does he take the “big” shots like Rose. He simply plays. Through anything. After tearing a ligament in his wrist last season, he decided to opt out of surgery three separate times: once after the injury occurred, once during the summer when he opted to play for his adoptive country during the Olympics (where he was the only legitimate NBA player on the squad) and once more before this current season started. As of now, he’s probably the least healthy “healthy” player I can remember seeing, noticeably hobbled by what is now a litany of tears, bruises and strains and yet, through nearly two months he was averaging nearly 19 points and 7 boards on .498 shooting. His legs didn’t hold up, and his averages dipped to 16.7, 6.8 and 3 assists on .425 shooting he currently averages.

Deng has made more than $10 million per year for the last three seasons, and he’s slated to make $14,275,000 next season, his last before his extension expires. Going by his production, it’s easy to say he’s overpaid, but it’s hard to imagine a professional athlete more deserving of this kind of money from a personal standpoint. Deng’s humanitarian work in his native Sudan rivals anything Manute Bol or Dikembe Mutombo have done (I would like to add that any actual comparison between these wholly unselfish acts inherently demeans them, and I don’t mean to do so), and he’s done them while playing high-level basketball nearly year round without complaining and while maintaining a level of professionalism that should be commended. The fact of the matter is that, despite his reputation, he, more than any other player not named Derrick Rose, has been the face of Bulls basketball for the better part of a decade. In the years between Michael Jordan’s retirement and Luol Deng’s debut in the NBA, the Bulls had a record of 119-341, a .258 winning percentage. They averaged 20 wins per season, with a high of 30 wins in 2002-2003. Since Deng came into the league, the Bulls have a record of 384-298,  a .555 winning percentage, averaging 43 wins per season, with a low of 33 wins in 2007-2008. Luol Deng is the backbone of this team and one of the most indisputably decent people in this league. Luol Deng is an All-Star.

2013 All-Star Profiles: David Lee

Rikomatic (Flickr)

Rikomatic (Flickr)

It’s not the first comparison that will pop into your head when you look at him, but David Lee’s career arc is actually very similar to a fellow all-star and former teammate in Zach Randolph.

They’re both lefties with smooth mid-range shots. Both crash the boards like mad men. Like Z-Bo, David Lee started out as a per-minute wonder who didn’t get enough minutes. Like Z-Bo, Lee broke out as his minutes increased. Like Z-Bo, David Lee got an insane contract and toiled in mediocrity, as the way he grabbed his (impressive) numbers wasn’t necessarily conducive to winning a basketball game. Like Z-Bo, he changed his ways for the better and is now leading a team in the Western Conference’s second tier.

And yet, David Lee’s story isn’t one of redemption, or of learning to play the right way. When Z-Bo traded his malcontent ways for Memphis winnings, celebrations were held around the basketball globe, his name aggrandized as a warrior who won in the impossible battle against his own demons. Zach Randolph was proof that yes, you can change your ways at 28 years old, and no, your reputation as a basketball player is not set in stone. David Lee’s story is a fun one, for sure – his improvement this season has been touted continuously on many a medium – but it wasn’t one of redemption, just of improvement.

Admittedly, Lee was never considered a malcontent. Lee was never angrily shown the door – he has played for two teams his whole career, only moving from one to the other when the 2010 Knicks brought in Amar’e Stoudemire on Lee’s spot. Randolph had burned bridges everywhere he went; Lee’s only crime was not winning. In a sense, there was nothing to be redeemed from, except for that pesky aversion to defense.

There is also a darker, more sinister undercurrent to the Lee/Z-Bo narrative. Lee played four years of college, and is white; Randolph played one year, and is black. Lee was the hardest worker on the team during the lost Knick years; Randolph was part of the Jail Blazers and rode the revolving door of failed star billings during the lost Knick years. Randolph, during his bad years, was probably much more of a detriment to his teams’ success than Lee was, but he also fit the profile much better, which will forever change the coverage. And we expected Randolph to be good; for Lee, even “stats grabber on a bad team” was an overachievement. You can’t get mad at an overachiever, right?

Even so, there is redemption to be told when telling of David Lee. Somewhere between Mike D’Antoni and Golden State, Lee stopped playing 50% of basketball. Yes, he played out of position, and yes, his teams were awful, but there was always something disconcerting about Lee, a player who broke out due to effort and didn’t seem to give the slightest damn about defensive play. He gradually found brilliance on the other end – especially during his final Knicks season, when he worked as a de facto point center for a roster that had no business existing, a showing that gave him a semi-controversial first all-star nod as a David Stern named replacement – but the label stuck.

Watching him ditch those habits for this year’s Warriors team has been a treat. Lee still wouldn’t be your choice defender, but he’s also no longer a liability. His rebounding isn’t back where it was during his New York days, but it’s the best we’ve seen since his move to The Bay and is a huge part in the Warriors’ improvement on the boards. His Synergy numbers on the pick and roll are staggering – he’s ranked 6th in the league (on defense!).

And without the horrible defense to distract him? We can appreciate all of the good again. The backbone he provides for the offense, both as a high post creator and as a pick and roll partner for Stephen Curry, is almost unparalleled among current big men. He’s virtually ambidextrous. He’s an excellent passer.

He’s just really, really good. No more caveats. Good for him.

2013 All-Star Profiles: Tyson Chandler

tyson

Image via bridgetsd via flickr

If Carmelo Anthony is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for the New York Knicks, then Tyson Chandler is the glass containing said drink. Without Tyson around, everything spills all over the place.

New York’s four-out, spread pick-and-roll offensive system simply wouldn’t be possible without Chandler screening and diving his way through the middle of the lane (his 1.4 points per play as a roll man rank second in the NBA this season, per mySynergySports), sucking in help to clear space for what has become one of the most potent three-point attacks in NBA history.

Chandler has limited offensive skill – he has no jumper, zero post moves and even less in the way of an off-the-dribble attack – but that doesn’t stop him from being one of the most devastatingly effective offensive players in the league. He’s again threatening the all time true shooting percentage record (and pacing the field in the stat for the third consecutive season), leading the league in offensive rating by a large margin, drawing the defensive attention of help defenders everywhere and is throwing in a career-high 4.5 offensive rebounds per game (many thanks to his patented Tyson Tip-out, where he simply reaches over the defender in front of him with his giant arms and slaps the ball back toward a teammate outside the arc) for good measure.

While his defense has slipped a bit from his Defensive Player of the Year campaign last season, he’s still one of the very best bigs in the league at defending the post, isolations and both on- and off-ball screens. There may not be a center in the league more capable of guarding a wing or a guard off a switch. It’s Chandler, and maybe Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol. That’s really it.

A team filled with subpar defenders – Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, JR Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Novak all play heavy minute loads – is somehow 15th in the NBA in defensive rating, but it’s not hard to imagine them in the bottom five without Chandler. While he has only intermittently displayed the consistently elite level of defense he kept all of last season, Tyson’s kept the team afloat on that end mostly by his lonesome. New York’s switch-happy scheme has leaks and holes almost everywhere, and more often than not it’s Chandler who’s asked to plug them.

He’s done so for 33 minutes a night, every night, and finally, at long last, he’s been rewarded with an All-Star bid in his 12th season. He’s not having the best season of his career (that would be last year), but it’s certainly his most recognized one. Had the NBA not done away with the traditional center designation on All-Star ballots and replaced it with an extra “front court” spot, Chandler may have even been starting Sunday’s game (depending how the NBA chose to classify Chris Bosh and Kevin Garnett). So the coaches recognized his efforts as a reserve, and indeed it seems that coaches, front office types and writers around the league have come to a mutual understanding about just how valuable he is.

That ending seems abrupt, so I’m adding this video of Tyson doing a cool dunk to wrap things up. Enjoy. 

2013 All-Star Profiles: LaMarcus Aldridge

Illustration by Maddison Bond.

Illustration by Maddison Bond.

LaMarcus Aldridge’s talent has never been truly appreciated, even among the legendarily rabid and territorial Blazers fanbase. When he came into the NBA in 2006, he was overshadowed by Rookie of the Year and future All-Star Brandon Roy. The following year saw the arrival of Greg Oden, the would-be franchise-changing center, and the forming of a Big Three that was supposed to dominate the west for the next decade. Aldridge was always a part of that triumvirate, but he was the definite third wheel—the Chris Bosh to Roy and Oden’s LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. As he blossomed into an elite two-way power forward during the 2010-11 season, his outstanding play was still dwarfed by the endless drama and question marks surrounding Roy’s rapidly deteriorating knees. Now, the Blazers are Damian Lillard’s team. The rookie point guard is the future, the new Great Hope that’s supposed to lift the franchise up from the ruins of a half-decade of injuries and wasted potential. Aldridge has been there the whole time, and since Roy’s 2009 peak, has been the best player on the team, but he’s been constantly marginalized.

This may be because he plays with a consistency and reliability that can come off as boring if you prize narrative and flash over production. As he’s assumed the mantle of franchise player, his excellence has been nothing if not quiet. He’s not a talkative guy, nor does he have an outsized personality for the media to latch onto. He doesn’t even have the Derrick Rose/Kevin Durant “humility as a selling point” thing going on. He just shows up and does his job. And that job, NBA power forward, is something he does better than almost anyone. He’s the 12th-most efficient post scorer in the NBA, and the 34th-best post defender, according to mySynergySports. Terry Stotts’ offense has drawn him out of the post, however, and gotten him stretching defenses with midrange jumpers. These shots were aggravating at the beginning of the season, but as the year has worn on, he’s grown ever more consistent, shooting in the mid-40s from almost everywhere between the paint and the three-point line.

As the Blazers have overachieved this season relative to where many (including myself) thought they’d be, they’ve come to be known throughout certain parts of Twitter as the Chaos Engine. They specialize in blowing up narratives and pulling out games they have no business being in, much less winning. Nothing about this team makes sense. Except, that is, the man at the heart of the machine, operating from his work station in the low post.