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Hold Them or Fold Them: The Van Halen/Guns n’ Roses Franchise Player Decision Matrix

Amidst the thunder of the playoffs (which, incidentally, sorry, Oklahoma City), there’s another storm brewing for several teams. As far as weather events go, it’s the kind of thing that rain-starved teams like Charlotte, New Orleans or Detroit would kill for, and it goes something like this: How long do you hold on to your franchise player?

I know, right? Fans of small market teams would KILL to have this problem, but it’s a very real one for teams like the Celtics and the Lakers. How do you wind down one era while spooling up for another? Rumblings have been issuing from Boston this week that Paul Pierce expects to either be traded or released, and the resolution of that situation will definitely have a bearing on what happens with Kevin Garnett. The team that was assembled to win a championship and did in 2008 seemed, at the time, to have a short shelf life, but has instead lasted far longer than anyone anticipated.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and the $30.4 million of cap space room he takes up looms large over the Lakers. While fans and the media sometimes toss around amnesty as an option for Kobe, it doesn’t seem likely when Bryant has been the face of the franchise for over a decade.

But as it is with Pierce, many of the things that argue against moves like trade or amnesty are not strictly basketball decisions, but instead reside in the squishier, more sentimental side of the game. They involve questions of legacy, loyalty, the core cultural values of a team. Neither Pierce nor Bryant has ever played for another team. Pierce was the guy who got stabbed ELEVEN TIMES just a little over a month before the 2001 season and yet went on to be the only Celtic to start all 82 games that year. And as far as Bryant goes, it’s safe to say that are a lot of Laker “fans” out there who can’t name another player on the team.

There are plenty of examples to draw on from the NBA of teams that either quit on their stars too early or hung on to them too long. But that’s not very much fun. As I see it, teams like the Lakers and Celtics essentially have two models to draw on: the Van Halen model or the Guns n’ Roses model.

The Van Halen model says that it’s fine to get rid of the face of the franchise. When Van Halen fired David Lee Roth following the massive success of their album 1984, they’d already been a band for over a decade. Nobody was getting along, everyone was doing a lot of drugs, and Eddie Van Halen wanted to push their music in more complex directions while Roth was content to drop solo tracks like his covers of “California Girls” and “Just A Gigolo” and play the cad. The Van Halen dynasty as represented by their early success had—at least according to Eddie Van Halen—run its course, and rather than soldier through a rocky decline they opted to rebuild with Sammy Hagar.

And it sucked, right? Everyone knows that the original Van Halen is the GOOD Van Halen. Except people didn’t really react that way at the time. Yes, Van Halen with Sammy Hagar was not as much fun, but their next four albums (5150, OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance) all went to #1 on Billboard—despite having some incredibly dreadful names. That song “Right Now” was EVERYWHERE from Crystal Pepsi to sporting events (where it still haunts the PA). It has to be the most uplifting song to ever come from an album with an expanded-curse-word-as-acronym title.

Sadly, in spite of this success, it seem like few people look on Hagar’s days with the band as the halcyon ones. Music fans are no less attached to ideas of authenticity than are sports fans, and there will always be something about the idea of the ORIGINAL lineup of a band that strikes a chord with us.

And so maybe Kobe and Pierce aren’t—technically—part of the original lineups of their respective teams. But for a generation of fans, those players are part of the emotional origin of those teams for those fans. More than production, more than efficiency, more even than the possibility of future rings, this emotional attachment is why even if these players are soon gone the future looks dimmer for fans.

But it’s not all bread and roses on the other side of the coin. In fact, it’s Guns n’ Roses. After what amounts to back-to-back championship with Use Your Illusion I and II in 1991, Guns n’ Roses were on top of the world. Their gritty, greasy hard rock had evolved into something cinematic and sometimes orchestral while retaining their hard edge and lawless image. It was like nothing could possiblye go wrong.

But instead of going wrong, it just sort of went nowhere. Never the most stable of bands—having gone through a drummer and a rhythm guitarist on the way to the mid-’90s—their lineup grew increasingly hazy over the next decade as the flow of music dwindled to a covers album, a few singles, and then nothing.

In the dystopian future that Guns n’ Roses is now living in, the face of the franchise has well overstayed his welcome. In attempting to fulfill his own vision of a band of which so many young fans felt themselves to be co-owners (which also happens in sports), Axl Rose has employed a guy with a bucket on his head and a guitarist who took his nickname from a bacterial infection. (An especially awesome sidenote: In 2010 this guy released a 15th Anniversary Edition of an album he recorded in his “parents’ basement” with a 200 page book of guitar transcriptions. This guy is absolutely the Sasha Vujacic of G’n’R.)

What Rose and his “band” show is how holding onto something doesn’t keep it from changing, nor does it keep the memories fresh or vivid. It just lets you watch as that thing rots away to nothing. Yes, that’s cold and no, Kobe Bryant—for example—isn’t done for, not even with a devastating Achilles injury to return from. But someday he will be. Do you just hope that day comes conveniently between seasons? Do you hope he knows when that happens? Michael Jordan certainly didn’t. It would be terrific if these ultra-competitive athletes could somehow blow past their own limitations right up until the exact moment when their bodies tell them enough is enough, but that’s sadly not usually how it happens.

It’s one thing for teams facing the prospect of building more or less from scratch, or even recovering from modest success. But it’s another thing entirely to shepherd a franchise from the heights of one or more championships and a roster with an all-time great player to whatever comes next.

The evolution of advanced stats may help teams develop better ways to understand player development and decline, but they can’t tell us anything about how to make this transition when it comes to the cultural, emotional and historical part of the game. How these teams handle these changes sends a message to their fanbase, other teams and the league’s players about who they are as organizations. To cop a line from The Terminator, the Lakers and Celtics are looking into the distance at dark clouds while a young Mexican boy says something in Spanish. Mitch Kupchak leans over and asks the gas station attendant, “What did he just say?” And the attendant says, “He said there’s a storm coming in.”

Danny Ainge sighs.

“I know.”

Time To Make The Sausage

There aren’t many certainties in today’s NBA, but beginning the month of May with MVP controversy is one thing you can always count on. There are no standardized qualifications for becoming the league’s official Most Valuable Player, and that creates a huge amount of inherent wiggle room, allowing voters to weigh different criteria in whatever way they see fit. That loose flexibility was shoved into the spotlight yesterday when Boston Globe columnist, Gary Washburn, revealed himself to be the lone voter who didn’t put LeBron James at the top of his ballot. Washburn went with Carmelo Anthony, and made his case public as part of yesterday’s announcement.

LeBron had an absolutely dominant season and it’s nigh impossible to find any reliable statistical metric by which he wasn’t the most productive player in the league this season. Washburn actually seemed to agree, and his argument was that although Anthony may not have been the better player, he was more important to his team. I’m not here to argue the merits of Washburn’s argument. But I would like to point out that this is an extreme example of separation between decision-making based on the power of statistics and the power of narrative. LeBron’s season presents some incredibly compelling storylines as well, but while there’s little space to argue against his statistical case, there’s plenty of room to argue about stories.

I don’t mean to imply that Washburn’s choice is somehow immature or incorrect because he gave more weight to the narrative elements of Anthony’s case. Stories are part of basketball; how we watch it, understand it, talk about it, and certainly how the media covers it. Stories are important and have always been a part of how the MVP award is decided. My own experiences as a basketball fan and amateur analyst are a constant balancing act between the narrative and the numeric. It’s an indelicate art and the line between the two moves constantly. One of the questions that the whole Washburn rigamarole raised for me was, exactly where that line falls for MVP voters in the aggregate. How much of MVP voting is based on statistics, literal or implied, and how much is based on a compelling story?

Narrative is an extremely complex idea to measure, but tracking the statistical case for MVP candidates is a little more straightforward. I began at Basketball-Reference’s Award Page, looking at the players who have received MVP votes over the last 10 seasons. Basketball-Reference is nice enough to include a limited statistical profile right alongside each player. The listed categories are age, games played, minutes per game, points per game, rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, blocks per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, Win Shares and win shares per 48 minutes. My intuition is that any MVP voter who does include statistics in their decision making probably doesn’t look much further than these categories, and so they seemed like a reasonable place to start.

The one category which is conspicuously absent from a voting perspective is team win percentage, which I added. The other changes I made were dropping total Win Shares, keeping just the per 48 minute version, and converting total games played to percentage of games played, adjusting for the lockout shortened season. I then regressed those categories onto the share of total possible points that each player received from the voters. The result was an R^2 value of 0.516, which means just over half the variation in MVP voting can be explained by players’ performance in those categories I mentioned above.

While that explains a significant block of variability, it still leaves nearly half of the story untold. That 0.484 is where the narrative comes in. The results of the regression analysis also include an equation by which you can project the share of possible MVP voting points a player should have received, based on those numbers. I did that for each of the top five vote-getters from those 10 seasons and put them in to this Tableau Visualization, along with the actual share of MVP vote they received.

[iframe]<iframe src=”http://public.tableausoftware.com/views/NBAsMostValuablePlayerResults/MVPVotingDashboard?:embed=y&:display_count=no” style=”border:0px #FFFFFF none;” name=”MVP Voting” scrolling=”no” frameborder=”1″ marginheight=”0px” marginwidth=”0px” height=”663px” width=”663px”></iframe>[/iframe]

You can play around and sort by year, looking at how each race shook out. The higher a player is on the vertical axis the more compelling their statistical case was. I’m making an assumption here, but the implication is that the difference between a player’s projected share and their actual share represents the power of their narrative. Player’s who fall low on the vertical axis, but far to the right on the horizontal axis would appear to be the ones with the most compelling narratives.

I put this visualization together for you to draw your own conclusions, but I’ll share I few seasons I found particularly interesting.

2013

2013 MVP

This was a year where the narrative component of the MVP voting went hand-in-hand with the statistical rationale. LeBron and Durant had big statistical edges and it was clearly reflected in the results. But those numbers also fell in with the storyline of two dominant stars elevating their games and leading their teams to a new level. I also thought it was interesting how much of a difference narrative made in the case of Carmelo Anthony. We already discussed how his story swayed Gary Washburn, but he apparently wasn’t the only one. Anthony finished third in this year’s voting despite a weaker statistical component to his case than either LeBron, Durant, Kobe Bryant or Chris Paul.

_____

2011

2011

This was one of the most memorable MVP votes for me and really exemplified the divide between analytic-minded decision makers, who advocated for Dwight Howard, and those drawn to the compelling one-against-the-world narrative of Derrick Rose’s season. In the end the award went to Rose, by a healthy margin. Amazingly, the regression equation seems to indicate that LeBron had a much stronger statistical case than either Rose or Howard, despite finishing third. This is a case where the negative narrative of the Heat’s ‘front-running’ and the ‘post-Decision’ backlash probably kept LeBron out of the top two spots.

_____

2008

2008

2008 was another fascinating year in terms of balancing narrative and production. There was a lot of push for Chris Paul who jumped several levels in production, leading the New Orleans Hornets’ to the second-best record in the Western Conference, along with building the most compelling statistical resume of the candidates. In the end he lost out to Kobe Bryant, who trumped Paul’s narrative with a career of dominance, that had at that point been unrecognized with an MVP award. Kevin Garnett finished third for his work in coalescing the Big Three in Boston and leading the Celtics to the best record in the league. LeBron James finished fourth, with the second-most compelling statistical resume but no enticing story to attach it to.

_____

2006

2006

This is another infamous award season. It was Nash’s second consecutive MVP, despite being the worst for the Nash-D’Antoni Suns, both in terms of wins and offensive efficiency. But it was a remarkable and, at the time, almost unbelievable duplication of what they had done in their first season together. This was especially true when you consider that Amare Stoudemire played just three games all season long. That the ‘Seven Seconds or Less’ philosophy was able to sustain into a second season and prove a viable offensive strategy that wouldn’t dissipate once it was “figured out” by NBA defenses was the narrative that drove Nash to this award. LeBron finished second in the voting, but he was one of three players, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Chauncey Billups who had a more compelling statistical case.

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People on both sides of the narrative-numerical divide often seem to get their hackles up around the MVP Award, depending on which side prevails in a given year. While middle ground we currently walk always leaves someone frustrated, it’s by far preferable to the alternative. There is a place for logic and reason in the NBA and no one would be satisfied by a world where postseason awards were handed willy-nilly with no verifiable, objective reasoning to support those decisions. At the same time, making decisions with a formula only denies our human instinct to create, tell and consume stories. It may be a bumpy ride, but you can enjoy the MVP award both for what it is and for what it is not.

Maybe We’ll Be OK

It’s 2013, or so the calendar tells us. Yet when we read news of North Korea’s supposedly impending nuclear attack, the turtle-paced recovery of the economy, the continued legislation of love, or even racially segregated proms, it feels like we’re either stuck in the 1940’s or thrust forward to the end of days. The negative always seems to outweigh the positive.  Our faith in humanity slowly diminishes. It’s always darkest before the dawn, but it’s been dark for so long we wonder if dawn is really a thing of myth.  

Then there are days, moments, even, that let the light of dawn peek through, showing us we’re perhaps not as doomed as we’ve been told. Moments like today.

Jason Collins, in a piece published in Sports Illustrated, announced he was gay, becoming the first active male professional athlete in a major sport in the United States to do so.  A thorough string of qualifiers, to be sure, but ones that enhance, rather than diminish, the magnitude of Collins’ announcement. No, announcement isn’t the right word. Collins and his agent didn’t organize a press conference wherein he read from a statement then took questions from the media. He wrote a frank, honest, and beautiful article, describing his struggle with hiding his true self for so long and his decision to no longer do so. To do such a thing, in such a prominent publication, transcends bravery or courage.

For basketball, and sports overall, this announcement was a long time coming. Other athletes who came out, such as John Amaechi, Robbie Rogers, even as far back as Martina Navratilova helped paved the road for Collins. So too did straight athletes like Brendon Ayanbandejo and Chris Kluwe, outspoken proponents of both gay marriage and acceptance of homosexuals in professional sports. Collins now becomes the first active athlete to come out, and becomes perhaps the biggest fissure in the wall of intolerance in sports.

Further piercing that shroud of despair was the groundswell of support from Collins’ peers following the publication of Collins’ article. Statements from Doc Rivers, David Stern, or even Bill Clinton were encouraging, of course, but their support was never in question, nor was it the most important. The reaction of players, former and current, would be a telling sign as to whether Collins’ world was and is ready for such an announcement. And, in one of those too-rare moments, our faith in humanity was restored just a bit.

Some, such as Kobe Bryant and Baron Davis, praised Collins for his bravery.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 10.52.33 AM

Others, like Kevin Durant, though not effusive in his praise, nonetheless supported Collins, citing the brotherhood of basketball and (at least to Durant) the acceptance that comes with the inclusion in said brotherhood.

“Nobody has any right to judge. He’s his own man. Makes his own decisions. As NBA players, it’s like a big group of guys, kind of like a brotherhood. I know I support him. Like I said, I don’t really know him, so whatever decision he makes is something he really thought was good for him. Nothing nobody else can about him. As long as he’s happy, it’s cool.”

 

Overall, the majority of player’s reactions showed that the world of sports is slowly starting to catch up to society. Maybe it will be some time before another player, a more prominent player comes out, but at least Collins has laid the groundwork for that day.

Unfortunately, though predictably, the day was not without hatred. Intolerance, ignorance and animosity all reared their heads after the story was published. And yet, despite the pure hideousness of these comments, they are, in a way, a necessity.

Screenwriter Stewart Stern, in a letter to James Dean’s parents after the actor’s death, wrote, “Ecstasy is only recognizable when one has experienced pain. Beauty only exists when set against ugliness. Peace is not appreciated without war ahead of it. How we wish that life could support only the good. But it vanishes when its opposite no longer exists as a setting.”

Life cannot exist without Death, and Love cannot exist without Hate. That does not mean, however, that the two are equal. So while the ignorant filth will continue to comment, tweet and spew venomous hatred, they are closer to being drowned out than ever before. And though they do still cause us to shake our heads and bemoan the stupidity of some, those hateful words have value, in that they allow us to better appreciate those of love and support.

 

You Are Kobe Bryant’s Torn Achilles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Kobe Bryant

All too often, sports discourse navigates its way to the concept of legacy. Nearly every playoffs, legacies are built up or torn down at each other’s expenses: LeBron James fixed his legacy last year, but not before Dirk Nowitzki temporarily destroyed it by cementing his own legacy that was forever tarnished by Dwyane Wade (whose legacy was aided by Shaq who also aided Kobe’s legacy until Kobe legacied his own legacy for himself) and Baron Davis (whose legacy should have been a different legacy if only he cared enough about his legacy to legacify it). Much like this paragraph, the discussion means well, but can hardly stay out of its own way as it eventually crumbles into a convoluted mess of phrases and names.

Despite all this, the concept of legacy has a very important place in sports discourse. The way the phrase is used isn’t misplaced – rather, it is premature. A legacy, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” It is impossible to receive said transmission when the ancestor is standing next to us. Legacy is dependent on time itself before it can take shape or form.

As such, discussions of legacy always strike me as overeager and impatient. Who are we to proclaim how Player X will be remembered in 20 years? How can we so boldly state that another decade of play from him and another decade of digestion from us will do nothing to change the opinions that were formed over the span of a two week playoff series? Where do we draw the line between friendly conjuncture, curious projections, and bone-headed stubbornness that the immediate shall sustain because the immediate is where we are most comfortable?

Against my better instincts, however, Kobe Bryant’s presumed torn Achilles turned my attention from the increasingly rare phenomenon of a fantastic April basketball game to thoughts of his legacy. In defense of my own hypocrisy, I do believe it is somewhat less presumptuous to hold these discussions as a player nears the end of his career, when we have historical perspective on most of his resume. Sure, there are final kinks to be sorted out, but a player’s crowning achievements don’t usually come near retirement. Even if they do, rarely do they change our perceptions of them. I’d offer the examples of Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, both hall of famers who only finally broke the title barrier at age 37, as proof.

Similarly, Kobe’s crowning achievements have, to the best of our knowledge, come and gone. Even if preseason hopes of a sixth title had borne fruit, the significance of that ring would have been more numerological, in the MJ-tying sense, than validating. We know Kobe Bryant is an all-time great, and we have seen him at his best; a final ascension of the Everest could not change that.

And yet, there has been something mythical to Bryant’s 17th season, something that, even if not directly transmitted to his ancestors, was magnified upon reception nonetheless. Because at some point in the past few years, Bryant had stopped being a basketball player and transformed into a character, the lead of a one-man autobiographic fiction.

His interviews had lost all sense of professionalism, as clichés and political correctness became profanity-laced outpour of self-confidence. In the 2011 playoffs, down 3-0 to the Mavericks, when Kobe implored us to “call me crazy, I still think we can win this,” or last week, when Kobe shrugged off a controversial no-call on a desperation Ricky Rubio heave by saying “We would have gone into overtime and won the game. It’s as simple as that.” Such quotes would have sent other players to the PR dungeons; when Kobe says them, we chuckle.

He had played through injuries in his finger, wrist, legs – a who’s who of body parts that most functioning humans would typically need to walk all the way to the bathroom, let alone play a sport for a living. In the Golden State game itself, Bryant had fallen badly twice before the Achilles tear, getting back up and staying in the game both times. Even after his injury, he still took the two ensuing free throws, leaving open the option of a return, and option that still, somehow, exists in the back of my brain, even as “6 to 9 months” decorates headers and flashes across tickers.

The twisting, contested 30 footers, the bold defiance of presumed chronological and physiological truths, the constant reminders by both him and those around him that his will is indomitable – they were at once both true and surreal. Bryant had taken human traits and stretched them to their limits. Not just in the sense that his physical accomplishments were cyborg-esque, but like a character in a skit who repeats his well-versed punchline often enough to entertain but just scarcely enough to sell us the illusion that what we’re watching is real. The effortless forays into double-digit assists when Steve Nash injured his hamstring, the 47 point game against Portland, even the two non-chalant threes to tie the game against the Warriors before he left for good – all of these toed the line between basketball genius and character actualization. This is Kobe Bryant, watch him do Kobe Bryant. Cue Laughtrack.

By the time it was decided, by either Kobe or Mike D’Antoni, that Bryant would hereby play all 48 minutes of every single game, it was no longer clear to me that Bryant’s legacy is, indeed, cemented. His truly magnificent prime was enough to decree that this would not be the best basketball Bryant we’ve seen, regardless of accomplishments, but truly magnificent primes aren’t necessarily what we remember. Kobe Bryant had become so much of a Kobe Bryant that sheer personality had become too tall to be overshadowed by such petty things as 5 titles and 30,000 points.

In the “rank your best players of all-time” game, Bryant will no longer move up. His team has objectively and subjectively failed this season, in which he has a part by default. But in the fickle game of human memory, a 34 year old pounding his way through the falling debris and the ensuing rubble can register louder than a 22 year old dominating in tandem with a behemoth, or a 28 year old scoring at will and making faces at Smush Parker, or a 31 year old raising his arms to the sky. This Kobe Bryant may not have been the best Kobe Bryant, but he was the most Kobe Bryant.

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.

Statistical Anomaly: Timberwolves @ Rockets

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Rockets 108-100 victory over the visiting Timberwolves.

Omer Asik continues to grab rebounds, but his offensive game is as limited as ever. For the third time in four games Asik recorded 0 FTM, 10+ rebounds, and single digit points. Prior to this run, Asik only had one such game in the calendar year. A consistent presence on the offensive end would be nice, but Asik gives Houston exactly what they need. With their high scoring back-court, Asik provides toughness and grit on the interior, a reason why no team wants to see Houston in the first round. They don’t match up well with Oklahoma City, but if they can move up to the six seed and play Memphis, Asik’s role would be a key factor in their potential success.

For the second time in three games, James Harden attempted 10+ three pointers and 10+ free throws, something he hadn’t done once in his career prior to this stretch. Is it possible that Harden is the most complete (not the best but the most complete) scorer in the NBA? He’s more consistent from distance than LeBron and he attacks the basket better than Durant. At 23 years old, Kobe Bryant averaged a similar number of points (25.2 as compared to Harden’s 26.2), but he shot 25% from distance. Harden’s ability to get to the rim is highlighted by his 10 FTA per game and the fact that no player averages more FTM+3PM (11.0).

Harden

The Timberwolves have lost 41 games this season, but heading into action Friday, they had a better winning percentage when scoring 100+ points (.733) than the Denver Nuggets (.712). The stat line from James Harden (37 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds that all came on the defensive end) was eerily similar to the stat line Russell Westbrook produced on January 22nd (37 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds that all came on the defensive end). The last time the Timberwolves scored 100+ points in a losing effort. Minnesota’s success when scoring 100+ points comes from their successful offense inspiring solid defense, but without a true star player (healthy), they lose high scoring games when they can’t match the scoring abilities of the opponent’s best player.

Oddly enough, JJ Barea has been at his best from inside the arc in those games that Minnesota losses despite eclipsing the century mark. He has had just three games since the beginning of February in which he has made at least two two point field goals and shot better than 50% on two pointers, with the Timberwolves losing all three contests while scoring 100+ points. With Barea being an undersized, yet aggressive, point guard, it makes sense that when he is on the floor, the scoring picks up. He has an uncanny ability to get into the paint and thus get Minnesota good looks at the basket, but he also has a very difficult time matching up with bigger guards on the defensive end. That is why Barea is pigeonholed as a valuable piece off the bench as opposed to a starting PG in the NBA.

Ricky Rubio continued his run of well rounded games, notching seven rebounds to go along with his seven assists and 14 points. Over his last 13 games, Rubio is averaging 13.8 points, 9.4 assists, and 6.9 rebounds. For reference, Chris Paul’s greatest season AR (assist + rebound) average was 16.5. Rubio’s seven dimes against Houston was the most predictable stat of the entire game due to the 10 assists he handed out on Wednesday. If you break the Timberwolves point guard March into consecutive two game segments, you’ll notice that in all four instances, he has tallied exactly 17 assists. It is clear that Rubio is getting comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, a dangerous thought for the rest of the league when Kevin Love is on the active roster. “Testigo” (“witness” in Spanish) is still only 22 years of age, the same age Steve Nash entered the NBA at. In a league where explosive point guards are becoming the norm, Rubio is a throwback floor general who makes everyone around him better. He may not be a player to build a winner around, but he is certainly the type of PG that will maximize the talent of the pieces on the floor.

The Rockets improved in a big way seemingly overnight by acquiring Harden and Lin this off season, and the Timberwolves could be the 2013-2014 version. With a solid back-court, a healthy Kevin Love, and a top 10 pick (Shabazz Muhammad would be a nice fit), things are headed in the right direction for Minnesota. When it comes to the rockets, they score enough to keep up with anybody. That being said, they need to commit to the defensive end of the floor if they want any chance in a series format. They have lost as many games this year when scoring 100+ points as the Timberwolves have scored 100+ points, not the ideal formula to win in June. James Harden has proved himself a championship level player and the Rockets have a nice core of young players to support him. Their arrow is pointing up, but their improvement in the win column next season will be directly correlated to their defensive intensity. Offense sells tickets, but defensive still plays a vital role in winning titles.

 

 

Statistical Anomaly: Jazz @ Thunder

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Thunder’s blowout win over the Jazz.

Oklahoma City is the highest scoring second quarter team in the NBA (27.8 points per game) and are typically even better at home (28.8). Utah managed to hold the Thunder to a mere 21 points, but lost the quarter (12) by more points than the lost the other 36 minutes by (11).

There is no doubt that Kevin Durant is an elite talent in this league, but his 23 turnovers and 22 assists over the last week (5 games) is a bit concerning. When you consider that KD is shooting 50.5% from the field, his 4.6 turnovers per game over the week is costing the Thunder an average of roughly five points. It didn’t matter (OKC has outscored its opponents by 52 points) this week, but the playoffs are played in a much tighter window. Interestingly enough, Durant has excelled more than normal at the free throw line when he is plagued with the turnover bug. Over his last ten 3+ turnover games, Durant has made 101/108 (including 44/46 in his last four such games) free throws. This shows the maturation in the game of the three time scoring champion, as he understands when he is struggling and finds a way to positively impact the game.

Serge Ibaka managed only three rebounds and one blocked shot against the big front line of the Jazz. One would assume that rebound total and blocked shot total would be directly correlated, indicating a dominating force in the paint. However, entering this game, Ibaka was averaging 4.3 blocked shots in games in which he grabbed three or fewer rebounds. He isn’t your prototypical center of the past, but his style of play very well could be the new norm in our increasingly athletic league. Here’s a look at how many rebounds Ibaka averages this season based on number of shots blocked.

Serge1

Everybody tends to focus on the shot count when it comes to comparing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, but why not look at shot location instead? The Thunder beat the Jazz with Westbrook not making a single three pointer, something they have done on a regular basis over the last two regular seasons. In fact, OKC has a higher winning percentage in games in which Westbrook doesn’t make a three (0.767) than when he does (0.705). The Thunder will peak as a team when Westbrook plays his game (attacking the rim and pulling up for midrange jumpers) and lets Durant take care of the outside shooting.

Each Jazz starter totaled at least 18 minutes of action, combining to shoot 25.7% from the field and score 26 points. Utah’s four bench players who played 18+ minutes shot 45.7% and scored 51 points. With Paul Milsap and Al Jefferson both playing at less than 100%, the Jazz are frantically searching for ways to make the playoffs. You have to wonder, though, would they be better off missing the playoffs? Qualifying for the eight seed isn’t really as much of a selling point to their free agent eligible paint protectors as a young and promising floor general they could acquire in the draft. With Derrick Favors playing well, is that far of a stretch to say that the Jazz (as currently constructed) are a top 10 PG away from being a similar team to Memphis?

Silver lining time for Jazz fans. Enes Kanter nailed all six of his free throws and has now converted on 90.9% of his freebies dating back to February 2nd. Kobe Bryant (83.4%) is considerably behind the 20 year old while the league’s leading FT shooter (Kevin Durant) is just slightly ahead (91.1%). If the Jazz lose one or both of their big men this summer, Kanter has showed promise as an interior presence (55.6% from the field and nearly 14 rebounds per 48 minutes) and seems to be developing an outside game thanks to the tandem of Jefferson and Milsap.

The Jazz seem to be in free fall, but the Lakers lost Kobe Bryant to the dreaded “severe ankle sprain”. Utah, when healthy, can dominate the paint on both sides of the floor, which gives them a chance in most games. Can they take advantage of the Bryant injury? If they do qualify for postseason play, can they ugly their way to a win or two? I realize they may lose most of their scoring/rebounding this offseason, but they do have some nice pieces, and may be closer than you think to being a legitimate playoff team who can win a series.

Statiscal Anomaly: Mavericks @ Pistons

Statistical Anomaly is a series where we explore all the mathematical nuances you may not have noticed watching the game the first time. Today, Kyle waxes Euclidian on the Mavericks win over the Pistons.

 

Jae Crowder matched a career high by handing out five assists as he is possibly carving a niche for himself as more of a big guard than a small forward. Already in March Crowder has two zero rebound games, something he didn’t do once in all of February. He has also had four consecutive games in which his assist total at least matches his rebound total, setting a career high for such games in a month. His playing time figures to fluctuate as the Mavericks have been outscored when he is on the court in three of their last four wins (including a -16 point difference against Detroit).

OJ Mayo is generally thought of a pure scorer, but until last night, his best scoring nights included a handful of assists. By scoring 20+ points and dishing out only three assists, Mayo ruined a nearly three month long streak of handing out more than three assists in every game in which he scored 20+ points. The explosive shooting guard has already recorded a season high in assists (268), but he is also scoring at the most efficient rate of his career. At 25 years old, the free-agent to be has got to be enticing to teams with franchise point guards who are looking for a back-court mate (76ers, Cavaliers, and to some extent the Wizards). Here’s a look at Mayo’s improvement in terms of shooting percentage and points per shot (PPS).

HP1

HP2

Vince Carter managed to tally seven rebounds against the Pistons without recording a single assist. He had gone 144 straight regular season games sense the last time he had as many as seven rebounds with no assists. It has been 536 regular season games sense he had more than seven rebounds but no assists. The rebounds these days are grabbed below the rim, but Carter has shown to be graceful when it comes to aging. He is 36 years old, but unlike some great players, he has adapted his game to his physical limitations, making him capable of helping a playoff team for the next season or two.

Jose Calderon may have changed jerseys this year, but his game has not transformed a bit. He registered his seventh game this season with at least seven assists and no turnovers, and has done so in 21.9% of his last 32 games. That is more often than LeBron James drops double digits dimes (18.3%) or Kevin Durant takes 22+ shots from the field (21.0%). His ability to create for his teammates has allowed Brandon Knight to establish himself as a scoring two guard that can pass when needed as opposed to an offense initiating point guard who was asked to keep his teammates involved. The Pistons are full of youth and potential, making Calderon the perfect man to run the show.

Kevin Garnett had choice words for Charlie Villanueva back in the day, and while I trust KG’s basketball intelligence, I highly doubt he used the word “marksman” when describing the Pistons big man. But the eighth year pro out of UConn has earned that title this year, connecting on multiple trey’s in 45.3% of his games this year despite averaging only 16.9 minutes. Kobe Bryant, who averages nearly 11 more points than Villanueva does minutes this season, makes two or more three pointers every other game. Villanueva is currently averaging about three more points per 48 minutes than another 6’11” shooter that played for Detroit (Rasheed Wallace) who always got considerably more press. He’s got one season left on his current deal and he should find himself on a contender before long.

Will Bynum plays on the same team as Calderon, but that is about the only comparison to be drawn. Bynum passed the ball to the wrong team four more times, giving him 54 turnovers in 44 days (not 44 games, 44 days) despite playing only 20.4 minutes per game. For reference, Ty Lawson has turned the ball over 43 times in that same time frame while averaging 36.9 minutes. On a team full of young guards (three that are 26 years of age or younger), Bynum may very well find himself looking for work in the near future.

In a game featuring two teams that will combine for 93-100 losses, I find it interesting that they have pieces that would be of interest to contending teams. Role players are difficult to find, and I believe both of these teams have assets that could be dealt in order to help them accelerate their rebuilding phrase. That being said, f the Mavericks think they can get another few solid years from Nowitzki, would it be unreasonable for them to bring in Calderon next season? They don’t seem to have a ton of faith in Darren Collison, and if Dallas is working in a small frame in trying to build a winner around Nowitzki, Calderon’s age shouldn’t be an issue. Neither one of these teams is headed to the playoffs this season, but who do you like to make a playoff run first: the very young Pistons or the aging Mavericks? Tweet me @unSOPable23 your responses, I’m curious what the public thinks.

Imaginary Numbers: Kobe Bryant

Ed. Note: Imaginary Numbers is a recurring series from the artistic NBA Combine of Maddison Bond’s mind. You may have seen his work elsewhere around the interwebs, including The Classical and in our own HP 2012-13 Season Preview Guide. You can scope out (and buy!) Maddison’s work here. And don’t forget to check out Ananth’s In the Paint feature with Maddison.
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